Baby Bear Gets His Call Up At Seneca Valley Horse Trials

GRC Photo

GRC Photo

Since I scratched Oh So from Seneca due to his SI pain, my coach Lisa suggested I enter Bear in the beginner novice in his place so I didn’t lose my money. I was a little hesitant because he just did his first three-phase the week before, but we’ve been jumping beginner novice height at home in the ring, so I nervously agreed.

I had planned on having another couple of cross-country schools over solid beginner novice height jumps, but since the opportunity presented itself, Lisa and I went into Seneca with the idea of schooling.

GRC Photo

GRC Photo

We ended up parked right by the cross-country warm up, which I thought would be terrible, but Bear just hung out and watched people go by all day while eating out of his hay net, which was a nice surprise.

The dressage was a bit of a walk and he got a little nervous as we approached the warm up ring. I hadn’t competed at Seneca since they moved the dressage rings and I like where they are now, very isolated from the jumping. There were four rings, but there was enough space so it wasn’t too crazy. He was quite tight and up for the first 10 minutes or so and then he settled and decided to get behind my leg!

I moved him over to a more isolated spot as our time approached in an effort to diffuse any separation anxiety. He did one neigh and a hop, but then settled. The ground was so hard and this was his first time doing dressage on grass, so I think he was a little short in his stride throughout the test.

I stupidly didn’t look over my test one last time before dressage so I ended up with two errors, which I’ve never done in my life, in the simplest test known to man!

Besides my dumb errors, he was just a bit behind my leg. It didn’t look so bad on the video, but he did seem a bit uneven in the contact and his push from behind.

GRC Photo

GRC Photo

We had four hours to wait until show jumping, and I actually kept myself quite calm!

The show jumping course, also on grass, looked pretty doable for us. The cross-country definitely looked a bit bigger though.

He did not like the hard ground in show jumping and felt a little four-beat and stiff around some of the turns, but he was jumping well. We’ll need to work more on bending through our turns in the coming weeks.

I asked for one long one, which he actually obliged, and a short one that he tapped but it stayed up, and the rest were pretty spot on. He was swapping leads a bit and swishing his tail (I think due to my spurs), so it wasn’t the smoothest round in between the jumps, but he was clearly seeking the fences.

Lisa took my spurs off for cross-country, we did a warmup roll top and it was off to the start box! I’ve definitely missed the countdown and the butterflies as the starter says “go!”

The first jump was a cabin and he met that nicely but got the wrong lead to number 2, which was a pretty big roll top with brush on top.

I think it caused some issues for others and he definitely hesitated on takeoff and in the air, but once we landed, he seemed to be happy to canter away to the next jump.

The next several jumps were good and I just worked on keeping my leg forward and my upper body back in case he did anything silly. I need to be conscious of my upper body because we weren’t getting the correct lead most of the time because he follows my weight.

GRC Photo

GRC Photo

I flubbed a couple of them and got him too close, but I now have a better feel of when he gets long and strung out in his canter, so hopefully I can correct that next time.

We got over the first 11 fences well and then came the water…he stopped dead, which I expected he might, and after three step backs, we were eliminated.

The jump judge kindly let Lisa lead him in and then we trotted back in once more so we could end on a good note. There was only a ditch and two jumps left, so while I’m bummed we didn’t complete, it wasn’t totally unexpected. He still needs some time to get in the water and when they flag it at the beginning like that, you’re SOL if they take a few tries to get in.

So, on paper, it looks bad, but I think it turned out to be a great schooling opportunity. If I had to do it differently, I would have taken him in another water before, but there was no water on our elementary course at Loch Moy.

He showed me that he seems to be enjoying his job and he definitely has the scope and gallop to go higher, and I got to head out of the start box at a recognized event for the first time in over a year. What more could I ask for?

I’m hoping to do Waredaca and maybe VA Horse Trials in October after we get a bit more

GRC Photo

GRC Photo

cross-country schooling in.

Oh So is starting his work back a few days early today because he’s been a jerk in the barn and needs a job. I walked him and trotted a bit and he felt a little uneven, but I’m hoping that goes away as he works more.

Here’s the video of Bear at Seneca. I edited it to get rid of my mistakes in the dressage and my mom had a camera issue, so she only got one jump on cross-country :(

Book Review: Schooling For Success With William Fox-Pitt

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The basics of horse training never go out of style, and with bringing along a baby this year who’s learning everything for the first time, I was inspired to pick up William Fox Pitt’s 2004 book, Schooling For Success recently.

William needs no introduction, but the book does a good job with one about how he got started in eventing and features a first-hand account written by him about some of his top horses and some of their quirks.

It’s obviously not up to date at this point, but I remember many of the horses he writes about–Moon Man, Tamarillo, Chaka–all horses I watched on my Badminton and Burghley DVDs years ago.

I’m a big visual learner, and considering I take photos for a living, I’m really interested in studying a rider’s and horse’s form at each pivotal moment. William’s book relies heavily on unique photo sequences and examples of correct and incorrect form.

He starts with a primer on the rider’s position, the paces and pole work. In fact, these sections are the most photo heavy of the book. William notes that the most important thing for any horse is to establish forwardness and freedom in every pace. He likes to use long and low exercises in his warm up before collecting more.

Sadly the pole work section is only one page. I would love to know more about what exercises he uses, especially with his youngsters.

In the jumping section, William uses about two pages on average to touch on things like grid work, introducing spooky jumps, angles and accuracy and riding a course. Throughout the entire book, he has handy tidbit boxes to summarize the main points of the text and to offer other useful pointers.

After watching William teach a clinic last fall, it was clear to me that he values a systematic training process when bringing along young horses and that comes across in his book. He notes that he uses a gradual and thorough teaching process, views a refusal as a sin to be avoided, introduces young horses to new concepts with a lead, and that a horse should associate going cross-country with having fun.

In the cross-country section, he goes over each kind of fence you might encounter, from basic banks to trakehners and ditches. Most of the photos feature photos of riders going over huge fences, which can be inspiring, but not always useful to the lower level rider that the book appears aimed at, so that would be my only real criticism.

Towards the end of the book, William offers troubleshooting tips for each phase, as well as a quick look into his daily life with his novice level horses.

Schooling For Success offers common sense training tips, explained clearly that will benefit visual learners best. Ten years on, I think it’s time for an updated version, perhaps with a bit more text!

Bear’s Eventing Debut! (and a setback for Oh So)

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It’s been over a year, but I finally got to head out of the start box, even if it was to jump 2’3″ fences!

Bear stood nicely for his first braid job (only 11 instead of the 16 or 17 that Oh So requires!) and my dad and I headed up to Loch Moy for their fall starter trials.

He was great to hang out while I walked my courses, even though the atmosphere was quite big–think 4 dressage rings, 2 show jumping rings, 2 cross-country courses going at once and a trade fair area.

He didn’t seem too overwhelmed when I went into the expansive warm up ring for dressage. He was a little distracted, which was to be expected, but for the most part he put his head down and went to work.

I trotted around the ring a few times and let him take a peak at the trade fair area at the C end of the ring and he didn’t seem to mind too much. We started off the test well, did our centerline, trot circle and change of rein on the diagonal, and as we came around to do our left trot circle, he must have heard a horse that sounded like someone he knew, because he neighed, bucked and then carried on as best he could.

Warming up over an intro fence. Nice knees! GRC Photo.

Warming up over an intro fence. Nice knees! GRC Photo.

I was definitely not expecting the buck! I tried to settle him for the canter work, and it wasn’t pretty, but we got it done. I should have kept him on the bit and round in the free walk, but I let the reins go for some reason and he caught wind of the horse again and kept screaming. The final centerline was a little rough and he wouldn’t stop neighing while the judge tried to talk to us (she did that for everyone). She was sympathetic to my cause and just said to make sure to ride every step when he acts like that.

The ride back to the trailer featured more screaming and a rear and spin, and it took awhile for him to stop screaming back at the trailer. But he was just neighing, not being fidgety, dancy or silly.

Oh well…he is four and he decided to choose his dressage test to act that way. I guess I’d rather it be there than during the jumping.

He neighed a bit during his jumping warmup, but once we actually started jumping, he was fine. He did one neigh as we went into the ring, but then settled in to his job. The jumps were so small that he kind of puked over a couple, but as Lisa said, it was all about going through the motions that day.

We were the last ones to go cross-country for our division and the starter let us pop over a couple warmup jumps by using the intro level ones, then we were off!

He really didn’t back off anything over our little 10 jump course. It was tough to get in a rhythm, since it was just a loop basically and I took my leg off and got him close to a couple of them, but he wasn’t going to stop or runout.C RWN14-0737508

We ended up with a 38 in dressage for 6th place. Yay! We survived and now it’s time to move on to beginner novice. He’s jumping bigger at home so now we need to take those skills to the real world.

Oh So has been doing well…until this week. I’ve learned that every time I mention a show these days, he comes up lame. We had planned on doing a schooling show at CDCTA this Thursday to run through a couple of dressage tests, then do Seneca novice on Sunday.

I had a great jumping lesson on Saturday with Lisa. We set the jumps up to solid training and maybe a bit bigger and I really felt that we were back in sync. It was fun! He had a day off Sunday, then Monday he just didn’t feel quite right from behind, so now I’ve scratched from both shows.

The vet came out on Thursday and did complete flexions with no real issues, but when she palpated his SI joint on the right side, he kept in the air and nearly kicked her teeth out!

She recommended an injection, so he went down to the clinic on Friday and got a little chiropractic adjustment too.

To say I’m discouraged is an understatement. We’ve been very careful bringing him back slowly, and while I’m relieved it’s not a front leg or the same tendon he injured, I was so close to being able to compete that I could taste it! We were ready, but now I wonder if maybe the increase in intensity of jumping and galloping (although just novice XC fences and training show jumps) was too much? Or maybe he did something in the field? Or it could be a combination of both.

Ever since he’s come back into work, we’ve been working on strengthening his hind end, but maybe he’s saying he needs more hill work, which is a pain to do, but I’ve always tried to make the time to do it. I’ve also felt that he’s starting to feel “old” since he’s come back. I know he’s 14, but before his injury last year, he’d hardly taken a lame step in his life and always acted like a 5 year old. Maybe the time off has accelerated his aging, or maybe he really does just need more time to get his hind end back.

Either way, the idea of a fall season, even just the three events I’d planned at novice and training, is looking unlikely. I’ve scratched Morven and now with a week off, then slowly coming back into work for the next two weeks after that, we’ll be lucky if we make it to one event.

Less Is More

Seneca prelim last year.

Seneca prelim last year.

I’ve been grappling with the idea of “less is more” as Oh So has come back into work after his injury.

As he’s gotten older, it’s definitely a realization that I’ve been coming to, but since his injury, I’ve had to be careful about how much jumping I do and where I do it.

It’s been a year since I’ve jumped even novice height, and over the last few months as I’ve bumped the jumps up to training height (and eventually prelim), I find myself wanting to jump a line or a single big fence more than I might have in the past so I can “catch up” or get my feel back and work on my position.

But because I want to save him for as many years to come, I have to be satisfied with fewer jumping efforts.

My perfectionist nature leaves me always wanting to jump through a gymnastic or line several times to fix things, but I’ve not always been able to do that because Oh So tends to build as we keep jumping the same thing over and over, resulting in pulling or just jumping in bad form. Jumping fewer fences leaves me feeling like I didn’t quite master something, but it’s often necessary so things don’t spiral out of control. Over the years, Lisa and I have tried jumping the same thing several times in a row to get him to “give it up”, but we learned that strategy just doesn’t work.

In a jumping session at home last week, I set up a few bigger exercises but had no one to help me. I usually like to build up a gymnastic line, but this time out, I trotted my warmup fence four times, then kept my canter going and did a bounce to a one stride over a big double X.

Going straight into a gymnastic exercise cold seems to get his attention, and even if I was worried about screwing it up, he jumped it very well the first time. I couldn’t help myself, so I did it a second time and it was fine–he was listening to me and the double X really made him use himself.

I kept my canter going and did a training-height wide oxer, which surprised him at first, so he didn’t use his head and neck as well as he could have. I came around again and it was better, kept my canter and did a one stride vertical to square oxer nicely.

I let him walk, then picked up my canter and had a beautiful jump over the single oxer and almost kept going to the one stride again, but ultimately decided to end on a good note before he got too wound up. What would be the point other than for me to practice? He knows how to jump a training level one stride.

Did I want to jump more? Absolutely! Did he want to jump more? Yes! But I exercised restraint on my part and trusted myself and him that we could get the job done in fewer fences.

I tend not to have a lot of self confidence, in my real life or my riding life, which is why I think I feel the need to “get it perfect” with more jumps. When I’m on a role during the competition season, I tend to do better. Trusting in both of our skills is difficult for me.

We had a similar experience two weeks ago during his first cross-country school back with Lisa. We jumped a bit in the arena, then went out to the course. She picked a few fences for us to do, we did them, and that was that. He was raring to go, I wanted to do more, but we just stopped. We know we can both do it.

With Bear, I’m more apt to repeat things so he understands and can practice. In our lesson last weekend, we did a few good size beginner novice fences in the ring, about once time each, then went out to school cross-country. We decided to try a few bigger fences and he was a little surprised at a bench/rolltop jump that was solid BN. He ran out, not badly, and I re-presented. He had a slightly awkward jump with his hind end, but did it, then we did it a third time nearly perfect.

Lisa was pleased with how he handled himself the second time. She said that shows a lot about his character that he was willing to try again.

This lesson did not start on time, but Bear learned a lot about patience!

This lesson did not start on time, but Bear learned a lot about patience!

I’ve had some good flat lessons with both boys recently. With Oh So, I’m working on keeping him a bit deeper than I might like in our warmup in hopes of keeping his neck soft throughout our ride.

With Bear, I’ve been working on halts, centerlines and general test riding in preparation for his official eventing debut this weekend at the Maryland Starter Trials. We’re doing baby novice/2’3″ for the first time out, especially considering how he reacted when we did some bigger fences on cross-country last weekend. He needs them small enough that he can trot them and not get into trouble since there will be so much more going on that he’ll probably be focused on!

He has really turned into a “real horse” this summer with solid muscling and a bit of a growth spurt. His canter is coming along nicely and his trot just keeps getting better. And all with no tension! It’s just a very different ride going from Oh So to him every day.

I took Oh So to the Loudoun Hunt HT schooling day on Monday with Lisa and we had our first serious schooling. He thought the novice jumps were silly, but I needed to do them to get my feel back a bit. I started out a bit tentative and looking for a spot, but by the end, I felt back in the groove with him and he put up with me thankfully!

His first event back will be novice at Seneca next weekend. I’m excited to be back out and I hope the footing holds up–I’d rather it be a bit firm. But first, we’ll do a couple of first level tests at CDCTA next week for practice.

Lamplight

Lamplight

I was in Chicago two weekends ago to cover the USEF Developing Horse Championships for COTH. It was super hot and humid, but the Lamplight Equestrian Center was very pretty and I saw a lot of very nice young horses. Check out my coverage here – http://www.chronofhorse.com/content/2014-developing-horse-championships

A Last Minute Switch At CDCTA Dressage Show

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Bear at the show.

I was excited to get Oh So out for his first dressage show back since his injury (I’m not counting our failed attempt at Morningside in July) at the Warrenton Horse Show grounds, ironically on the exact date of his diagnosis a year ago.

That is, until he was holding his right front foot off the ground in the stall that day! Why oh why did it have to be the right front, and on such an important day?

We had a very good lesson the night before and I was feeling prepared and confident, but his shoe was barely holding on that morning, so I had to get the farrier out on the day of the show. He went ahead and did all four feet since he was due and less than an hour after he left, my mom noticed Oh So was holding his right front off the ground and resting his toe. He would put weight on all four feet, but then he’d rest the right front again.

He seemed a little short walking back out of the stall but looked great on the lunge. I frantically called the farrier, who turned around and came back to test all the nails. He had no reaction anywhere on the foot, which made me worry even more. What if he’d done something to the tendon again?

By dinner time, he appeared to have stopped resting the foot, but I didn’t want to take the risk and decided to take Bear to the show at the last minute.

Oh So was sound yesterday under saddle and had a great jump school/cross-country school today, so I think maybe the shoe felt “tight” on his foot? Or, as my farrier said, he just didn’t want to go to a dressage show! I’m hoping it’s behind us now, but he’s never been sensitive after getting his feet done, so it was a bit alarming.

Oh So was looking good in his lesson this week.

Oh So was looking good in his lesson this week.

So, I memorized Training Test 1 and 2 really fast and put Bear on the trailer. He was good about taking everything in. The ring is near a busy road and there were tents set up for a future show, a grandstand and a park behind some hedges that he could hear noises from, but could’t see.

I decided to shorten his warm up to about 35 minutes and that seemed fine. He was a bit distracted, understandably, at first but settled into his work.

The first test he was a little distracted and I wasn’t completely accurate in my figures, but we got it done! I tried to push out his free walk, but he lifted his head and jigged. We haven’t practiced the stretchy circle diligently at home, so he has an idea about it, but I wasn’t expecting it in the ring.

His halts and trot-walk transitions are still a bit abrupt because when I start sitting, he thinks it means stop. We scored a 62% on that test with mostly 6’s and 6.5s and a few 7s and an 8. Our collective marks were 6s and 6.5s with a 7 on “harmony between horse and rider.”

The second test was a bit more accurate with a few more 8s and 7s. I was kicking a bit by then, so my rider score suffered, as did the impulsion score. The judge suggested spurs, which I will definitely use next time. He’s been a pretty forward at home recently but I do wear spurs most days. He’s been kicking out a bit at them in canter if my leg isn’t totally quiet, so I wanted to keep things quiet at the show, but now I know better!

We scored a 65.89% on that test. I’m not sure where we ended up in the class, but I was just happy we made it through! I’m a planner, so last minute changes are not my thing, but I’m proud of us both for getting it done.

I’m going to try to enter Oh So in the September show before his first event, which will be Seneca Valley!

Morningside CT recap

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Bear schooling at home.

It’s been about two months since Bear was last out at a show due to his foot bruise, my travels and just getting him legged up again, but we made it to Morningside on Sunday for a combined test.

We decided to do baby novice one more time and he was pretty good. I don’t think he’s going to be one to need a lot of dressage warmup, which is nice, because it’s exhausting riding him compared to Oh So! He’s still learning to get off my leg but I decided against spurs since he’s been ultra sensitive to them at home lately, and I really could have used them by the time I trotted down centerline.

As a result, in our first canter transition, I freaked out a bit and chased him, so we got a 5 for that. His downwards transition was also rough as he swung his hindquarters in. Those are hard to do on the long side!

After the free walk, the test was steadier and we picked up a few 7s and 8s to finish with a 32.0. It was probably a little generous, but hey, it made me feel good!

He cantered easily around the baby novice course, but I was throwing my upper body left a little on landing so we didn’t get every lead. I’m not sure why I do it to the left on him but to the right on Oh So.

They had quite a few people sign up for baby novice and beginner novice jumping rounds, so after warming up on the track for our beginner novice round, which is awful because you can’t get into a rhythm, we had to sit around and wait for probably 40 minutes. He was fine with it, but I think I should have done a couple of jumps before we went in since I work best off the momentum of a few rhythmic jumps.

They put in the panels and fillers for the beginner novice division and in hindsight, I should have let him have a peek at some of them. He started off ok over the first fence, but then I asked for a long one to the second and he popped in an extra stride, while I stupidly jumped ahead for a pretty ugly effort.

We regained our composure quickly for the next two jumps, but I did the same stupid thing again to a vertical with a stone wall, and pretty much almost fell off! We regained our composure again and finished a lot better than we started!

So, moral of the story- I’m still figuring out my balance on him compared to Oh So. We’ve only recently started putting the jumps up to serious beginner novice height, and while Oh So made them seem tiny when I started him, Bear is smaller and I have less in front of me. His neck comes out of his shoulders at less of an upwards angle and I don’t have huge withers and a long neck to “catch me” should I jump ahead.

Oh So also finds long spots quite fun, so I’ve been able to get away with jumping ahead with my upper body. He’s rarely chipped in in the years I’ve had him.

So, Bear will teach me not to jump ahead I hope, because otherwise I’ll end up on the ground! He’s also been so saintly, quiet and almost bored jumping at home and in our lessons that I think I’ve trusted that too much. He was slightly surprised by the fillers at Morningside, so he added a stride instead of taking off long. Thankfully he doesn’t seem to mind as I right myself after the jump. A true amateurs horse, even at 4 years old!

For now we’ll just work on getting comfortable jumping at the height. I’ve done a ton of prelims but beginner novice feels big on him to me. He doesn’t seem to care, but I need to get brave now!

I included the second half of our BN round here since it was much better than the first!

 

An Italian Adventure

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I’m not sure why it always takes me weeks to get the motivation to write about my trips, but here goes. Better late than never!

I honestly didn’t know much about Italy when I decided to book a trip last year, but I knew I liked the food and Roman history, so why not?

I took a COSMOS bus trip again like I’ve done in the past, just because I like having everything taken care of and I don’t want to travel a foreign country totally alone. These kinds of trips definitely cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but I like that you get a good feel for a country with a little taste of certain sites so you can come back again and be at least somewhat familiar.

2014-06-23 07.50.39-1The bad thing is that if you really enjoy a city, there’s often not a ton of time to explore things like museums or historical sites, especially considering Italy had the longest lines and the most tourists I’ve ever seen!

The tour I chose was about 10 days, with really more like 8 days of actual sight-seeing. The flight over was fairly uneventful. I had a layover in Paris and got to the hotel in Rome about noon where they wouldn’t let me into my room until 3, so I had a quick bite and almost fell asleep in the lobby (I don’t sleep well on planes).

Had I known how to get downtown easily, I might have explored Rome, but COSMOS usually books hotels a bit outside the center of a city to keep costs down, so we were located several miles away.

Day 1

The first real day of the tour started on Monday.

As we drove through the suburbs outside the ancient city center, our guide pointed out some of the wealthier areas. “Really?” I thought. Buildings were covered in graffiti and everything just looked a little “dirty”. It was a stark contrast to other European cities I’ve been to.

We went straight to Vatican City and were able to beat the lines, another perk of being

The Vatican

The Vatican

with a tour group. Even so, there were thousands of people there–we were all shoulder to shoulder as we were shuffled into the gardens with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica as an impressive backdrop.

After getting an explanation of the Sistine Chapel’s major features, we walked to St. Peter’s and entered the basilica. I’ve seen some impressive cathedrals in Spain, but this one was even more massive. It was tough to get a good photo because of all the people, but it was breathtaking.

We had a quick lunch and hopped on the bus to go to the Colosseum. Because of my interest in historical dramas (i.e. watching lots of Rome and Spartacus), I had a pretty good idea of what the Colosseum would look like. It was pretty cool to walk inside and be able to see underneath the floor where the animals and gladiators would have stayed. It would have been a dark, dank place, but with the floor gone, sunlight illuminated the narrow aisles and rooms.

There was a bizarre cooling effect when you stood in the aisles. The sun beat down on the circular paths around the Collosseum, but step into a short alley and a brisk breeze cooled you down quickly.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

We took a walk to Palatine Hill and looked down over more ruins. I wish we’d had more time to walk down and look at things more closely, but it was fun to see a wide-angle view of what a typical Roman town center looked like.

After a quick break at the hotel, we took a guided walk through some of Rome’s squares. We walked to the Pantheon past the Trevi Fountain (which was under construction with scaffolding). It was my first glimpse into real Roman life. It was bustling, hot and crowded, but invigorating.I really enjoyed sitting at the fountain in Piazza Navona and people watching for a bit, gelato in hand!

We finished the evening with a traditional Italian dinner, complete with a male and female opera singer to give us some atmosphere.

Day 2

On Day 2, we hopped on the Ring Road, sort of like the Capital Beltway, but with less traffic, and headed north to Orvieto, a beautiful hill town.

Driving towards it, it reminded me of some of the Spanish hill towns I’ve visited. Built upon rocky cliffs, it seems impossible that civilization thrives there, but once we hopped on a

Orvieto Cathedral

Orvieto Cathedral

nearly vertical tram and arrived at the top, we were treated to really spectacular views.

In college, I was fascinated by the Etruscan culture that I learned about in my art history class, so to see Orvieto, with it’s rich Etruscan history, was pretty neat. I wish I’d had time to visit their museum and see the artifacts, but I was too busy in the few hours we had there wandering the quaint streets and admiring the beautiful cathedral.

The colorful, striped facade really surprised me. I guess I was expecting plain, like English cathedrals, but this was more like ones I’ve seen in Spain.

After plenty of photos, I wandered through the streets just off the beaten, touristy path and had the most surreal experience, like you’d imagine in the movies. I passed a small courtyard and peaked in when I heard a lovely lady singing in Italian. It was a music school and from what I could hear, she was teaching a class. It really provided a nice backdrop to my walk through the town.

There were hints of horses.

There were hints of horses.

I stopped at a cute pizza place with a couple from Australia in our group and had a nice lunch. The pizza was so light, with not a ton of toppings and the crust was quite flaky. Yum!

I wandered around some medieval gardens before we headed back down the mountain. Orvieto has a really cool well that you can do down in, but there was just no time!

We headed to Siena next and went straight to the main town square, Piazza Del Campo. They have an insane horse race in the square twice a year, where people stand in the bottom of the bowl shaped plaza and horses and riders race around in circles. For that day though, there were just lazy tourists lounging around and locals sitting outside at bars, waiting for the Italy vs. Uruguay World Cup match.

We had a couple of hours to wander before dinner, so I hiked through the hilly streets to the cathedral, which featured another beautiful facade, and back to the restaurant for another huge, multi-course meal, which would become the norm for the rest of the trip!

After dinner, about 8pm, the streets of Siena were almost totally bare. Peaking in all the

Siena's main square

Siena’s main square

shops and bars, every local was glued to their TV or computer watching the game. Our guide commented that it was the quietest she’d ever seen the streets!

When Italy lost, there was a collective groan across the city that we could hear as we walked back to the bus.

Day 3

We trekked to another hill town on Day 3, the walled medieval city of San Gimignano in the Tuscan region. The drive to and from was just like the movies, lots of houses built into the hillsides or perched atop a hill overlooking grape vines. This was serious wine country!

San Gimignano was fairly touristy in its main square, so I got a gelato and headed up the hill to a nice view at the top. There were a handful of towers left over from medieval times that gave the town a unique look, but I was disappointed by the touristy nature of most of the shops.

I did have my first experience paying and going through a turnstile to use the public restrooms though!

We spent a few hours in the afternoon at a local winery with a guide who showed us how

The view from San Gimignano

The view from San Gimignano

they make and store wine. I’m not a big wine drinker, but it was fun to do a tasting at the end to have an authentic experience. When in Rome! (or Tuscany rather…)

That night, we went to a local farm that made their own wine, olive oil and other items. We sat as a group and had a fabulous meal with so many courses! I was happy to see some grilled meat and some really good french fries, but we also had traditional pasta dishes, way too many bottles of wine, and the ever-present tiramisu. We washed it down with a shot of grappa, which burned!

Day 4

We spent the a whole day in Florence, which was still not enough. We started the morning touring a leather shop and then had a walking tour with a local guide through the crowded streets. And I thought Rome was bad!

Duomo in Florence

Duomo in Florence

As we rounded the turn and saw the Duomo in front of us, I was taken aback. It’s so huge, I could barely fit it in my photo frame! It truly is a masterpiece and along with the Baptistry, which was undergoing renovations, touring wasn’t really possible since the lines were so long and I didn’t want to waste any time.

I also wanted to go to the Uffiza Art Gallery, but again, lines. I had lunch with a small group during a thunderstorm, the only time it rained while I was in Italy, then wandered the shops on my own for awhile.

I bought several leather items, making sure to find authentic places. There were so many handbags everywhere it was hard to tell which were real. I splurged on a small one for about 45 euros, which is so much more than I would ever spend at home, but now I have one that says “Made In Firenze”.

I also found an awesome local Italian makeup store called Kiko Cosmetics, which was like a U.S. high-end drugstore brand, but set up like a Sephora. I bought a bunch of items to try like eye shadows and lip glosses.

I left Florence having spent too much money, but I’m glad I took the time to explore!

Day 5

We continued our drive through Tuscany and on to Pisa on Day 5 for a quick stop. Talk about even more touristy! People just stop here for a photo op with the Leaning Tower, but

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

it was definitely less crowded than other sites. The road leading up the main square was so packed with rip-off tourist merchandise, it was just excessive!

The other buildings on site were impressive and you could pay 16 euros to go up the Leaning Tower, but I wasn’t keen on that, so I wandered around inside the cathedral from free and people watched a bit.

We headed towards Venice next, and after taking a break at our hotel which was about 20 minutes outside the city, we hopped on a boat to get to the main island.

I’d read that Venice was touristy because of the fact that so many cruise ships dock there for day trips, and that much of the local population is leaving due to the inconvenience of living there (flooding, tourists, etc.), but I was still really charmed with the place.

Beautiful art at every turn.

Beautiful art at every turn.

We had dinner at a nice restaurant and spent a bit of time in St. Mark’s Square people watching. The cathedral had scaffolding all over the front, so no good photos there, but I enjoyed wandering around watching dueling bands play to patrons and onlookers and people just taking it all in.

Day 6

We spent all day in Venice and started the day with a tour of a Murano glass shop. They had some gorgeous pieces, but all but the smallest things were out of my price range!

We hopped on a gondola ride next. I’m not a huge small boat fan, so the rocking from side to side made me nervous, but once we got off the main drag and into the canals, the ride settled considerably. We had an authentic singer as well, who gave us some romantic ambiance as we went through the canals.

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Venice

After that, we had lots of free time, but again, I didn’t want to wait in lines to go in the Palace or up to Tower, so with no map in hand, I wandered the narrow streets, over bridges and canals. I made my way to the Rialto Bridge, which had shops up and down the steps and a great view of the Grand Canal. I found my way back just following signs to St. Marks–no map needed, which surprised me!

I stopped into several Venetian Glass shops searching for the perfect, affordable but authentic pieces and found a nice horse and lots of jewelry! It’s overwhelming how much there is and now I’m obsessed and will be searching out more authentic pieces online!

After lunch, we took a guided tour on a boat through the lagoon. There are hundreds of islands, many of them sinking, in Venice and we saw a few with some old structures on them that had been abandoned.

We passed Murano, where they make glass and got off at Burano, a tiny miniature Venice

Burano

Burano

with few tourists and very colorful houses. Burano’s speciality is lacemaking, so I picked up a couple of small pieces and wandered the dead-quiet backstreets to see a bit of authentic local living.

After checking out their leaning tower, I sat with the group and enjoyed the view before we headed back for dinner at the hotel.

It was a long, hot day, but I was able to find relief by just stepping into a shaded alley, where the breezes flowed! I wish I’d had more time, but I feel like I got the gist of Venice and I really enjoyed it. It was unlike any city I’ve ever been to.

Day 7

On our last day, we had a lot of driving to do on the way back to Rome, but we stopped in Assisi, a town in Umbria that’s home to the St. Francis Basilica.

We hiked up the steep streets to a beautiful wide, open piazza that sat in the shadow of

Assisi

Assisi

St. Francis. I saw what must have been a riding tour group walking their horses, who were slipping and sliding down the hill, and that was about the only horse sighting I had on my trip!

The basilica was massive and beautifully decorated inside, like most I saw, but no photos allowed!

After touring the basilica, I had a really amazing slice of crispy pizza on the sidewalk and some gelato and did a little souvenir shopping.

I wish I’d had time to see some of the Roman ruins, but we had a seriously long drive ahead of us.

That night, a small group of about 15 of us decided to walk from our suburban Rome hotel to the metro and head back into the city to check out a few more sights and get dinner. The metro was pretty easy to figure out and seemed clean and safe. We got off near the Spanish Steps, which were packed with people, and walked to the top so we could have a good view of the city. We wandered through a park, past several monuments and squares, and found a nice restaurant where we all agreed we had the best meal of the trip because we got to decide what we wanted (and no tiramisu!).

Assisi in the distance

Assisi in the distance

Overall, it was a pretty amazing trip and eye opening as usual. I’m really lucky I’m able to save some money and travel–it’s a really important thing to me to be able to experience new cultures, history and people and I pride myself on my adventurous spirit!

I wish I’d had the vacation time to take a longer trip and go to the South, especially Pompeii, but it didn’t work out this time. I feel like a Southern Italy trip is calling my name, but first I think I want to try some of the smaller countries next year like Sweden, Switzerland, etc.