Photo Friday 7/52 & 8/52

I was derailed from my posts but for good reason. Last Photo Friday, I was hanging out with my sweet friends, Jen and Ash. I want to keep up with my posts but never at the expense of enjoying real life.

So tonight you’re getting a mega Photo Friday.

1604643_10151917447902233_916864272_nThis image from Valentine’s Day 2014, shows what happened when I tried to replace Mr. McB’s wiper blades. Those stubborn things just didn’t want to budge. With persistence, I managed to replace all three of his blades. Next year, I’ll just get a heart-shaped steak instead.

1604717_10151917671192233_1993584928_nThis week’s photo was taken on Sunday during our trip to Biltmore. It was a great day of exploring the grand estate with wonderful friends. It all makes a girl realize just how lucky she is.



Traveling Thursday – Potty Break

The toilets in Sochi are creating quite a buzz on social media. I have to wonder how much traveling these outraged journalists have done. Toilets in the US are different from those that you’ll find in other countries. The twin commodes and loos that trap their users are an anomaly but it isn’t unusual to see signs asking you not to flush toilet paper. In some locations there simply isn’t enough pressure to take away your waste and the paper.  I’ve encountered this in my travels including in a nice restaurant in Rome. It’s not ideal but it’s also not a sign that you’re in a third-world country.

If you’ve never traveled outside the US, there are some potty peculiarities that you should be prepared for.

#1 Don’t be surprised if there is a fee to pee.
Paid toilets are the norm in many countries. Some people are tempted to cheat the system and hold the door for the person behind them. Do this at your own risk. Some of the European toilets are self-cleaning. A cycle starts when the proper change is deposited. After you conduct your business, use the sink and exit, the cleaning cycle begins. The toilet will not accept another “fare” until the cycle is complete. If you cheat the system, the cleaning cycle will still begin when the door shuts only now instead of spraying an empty bathroom, the system will shower  blue bathroom chemicals on the cheapskate who tried to avoid paying.

If you are using the restroom in a restaurant or cafe, you should be prepared to buy something for the privy privilege.

#2 Flummoxing flushers
Toilets flush in all sorts of fun ways. Some will use a foot pedal (the same is true for sinks), others will have a pull-chain, and some will have a button on top of the toilet.

#3 Whatchamacallit Having trouble finding a sign for the restroom? In many countries, you are looking for the WC or water closet.  Here are some tips for asking for the bathroom in other countries.

#4 New experiences
You might encounter a “squat toilet” when traveling. This can be a hole in the floor or some slightly glorified version of the same. If you’ve really got to go, you’ll make it happen. You may also find unisex restrooms. These generally have individual stalls and no urinals. The genders only mingle at the sinks.

#5 Bring your own
I always travel with a pocket pack of tissues. You never know when it will be your only source of TP. When traveling on a group tour in Jordan, we were warned about a lack of paper in public restrooms. We took several rolls of paper from the bathrooms in our hotel and everyone loaded their pockets on the bus before setting out to explore Petra.

#6 Calm down
First, no one is asking you to empty the wastebasket containing the used paper. Does that put things into perspective?

Using the bathroom is a very personal act. We all have certain needs when it comes to comfort and privacy. It’s important to understand that you may have to compromise if you want to see the world.

Want more bathroom talk? Read what Rick Steves has to say on the subject.

The Grand Journey – Touring Tuscany

My cruise posts aren’t over yet. Editing photos and writing up these posts is time consuming and I’ve been too busy to keep up.

So we’re going way back to Sunday, Nov. 17 and our stop in Livorno, Italy. The most popular excursions from this port go to Florence. We really wrestled with our decision on this one but chose to go to Tuscany. As I thought about it, I was only really considering Florence because I felt an obligation to go since other people said I should. I may give in to that in real life but not on vacation.

san gimignano in the distance

Our tour started in the medieval town of San Gimignano or St. Jimmy-John’s if you’re asking Mr. McB. It is that collection of distant towers in the photo above.

tuscitywallSan Gimignano’s trade came from wine, cloth, and saffron. During the middle ages, there were 10,000-12,000 residents; there are 1,400 now.

San Gimignano is known for its tower houses. In its heyday, there were more than 70 within the city walls. These were constructed with one room stacked on top of another. Workshops were located on the ground floor and living areas were on the the floors above. The levels were connected by moveable ladders instead of stairs for security purposes. The kitchen was located on the highest floor making it easier to escape in case of fire.

tustower1As with modern skyscrapers, the height of your tower was a direct indication of the size of your bank account. The highest tower was said to be about 50 meters or 164 feet tall.

tustwintowersWhen the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, was constructed, there was a rule stating that no tower could be taller than the town’s tower. Officials removed parts of some structures to ensure that the rule was obeyed. The powerful Salvucci family got inventive and decided to create twin towers. Neither tower was taller than the town hall, yet their combined height would dwarf the municipal building.

tustower2San Gimignano was a popular stop for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena between Canterbury, England and Rome. The city was very prosperous between 1199 and 1353 but then it fell to the Florentines. In a show of power, they destroyed many of the towers and only 14 remain today.

The town is more than just towers though. It is full of many lovely sites including the quaint Piazza della Cisterna. The well is made of travertine. It was originally installed in 1273 and enlarged in 1346. Guccio dei Malavolti, the craftsman who enlarged the well, left his insignia on the side. See the ladder in the picture below?

tuswhellSan Gimignano is also the site of the Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta.
This duomo is rather modest from the outside but we heard the inside is very striking and features black-and-white marble arches and vaults. There are also a number of impressive frescoes. It was Sunday, so we could not go in. We could see the procession of tractors and other farm implements that were going to be part of the harvest blessing at the church.

tustractorThis was shot as we walked into town.

tustractorblessingThis one was in front of the church. It was nice to get a glimpse into the traditions of this little town.

While the paintings inside the church were off-limits, we were able to see some frescoes in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale.

tusmural2Painted in 1507 by Giovanni Sodoma, this is St. Ives Administering Justice. On the right side, the rich folks are trying to offer bribes but virtuous St. Ives has barred the door. He is interested in handing out real justice not being a puppet of the powerful.

tusmural1This is another mural in the courtyard. This one was painted in 1370. You can see San Gimignano in the hands of the figure on the left side.

We also did a little shopping. Our niece asked us to bring back a jewelry box. This seemed like a simple request but we were disappointed with the choices up to that point. Thankfully, San Gimignano came through for us in a big way and we found the perfect box. It was made from Carrara marble from a nearby mountain. It was a very elegant (and heavy) piece.

tusdoorwayBuilding in San Gimignano

gate in san gimignanoAnother shot of the gate

tuswarmemorialThis is a memorial to soldiers from WWI.

We were soon back on the bus. On our way to Siena, the driver stopped to allow us to take some landscape photos and check out some of the olive trees that were almost ready for harvest.

tusvineyardtusolivetuscanySiena is yet another medieval town. Today, the city is known for its horse race called the Palio. While the Palio’s roots stretch back to the 6th century, some will recognize it as the horse race in Quantum of Solace.

tuscsquareThis is the Piazza del Campo where the race takes place twice each year. The spectators are in the middle and the horses race around the on the black stones.

tuscbalconyThe buildings in the square also have little balconies that are very popular during the race.

The race is an opportunity for Siena’s various districts known as Contrade to compete for civic pride. The city has 17 Contrade that are represented by animals or other natural symbols. These are difficult to miss as you walk around the city.

tuspalhorseThis is found on a building in the Contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram). Traditionally, the inhabitants of this neighborhood were tailors.

tusctwocontradaThis is the intersection of Aquila (eagle, one of the four noble Contrade) and Selva

            We saw the goose, the symbol of the Oca Contrada, everywhere.

tuscgoosecontradaThis is another noble Contrada. It was also one of the two Contrade that won a Palio in 2013. As winners, they are eligible to hang and burn the celebratory lights you’ll see below.

tuscgooselamp The residents of Selva just celebrated their big feast so they were also allowed to hang their celebratory lanterns though only for a few days. If you look carefully, you can see the differences between the lamps. The ones below are decorated as branches with leaves. Selva is the forest so this is very logical.

tuscfeastlampsVisit for more on the Contrade. Click “English” beside each link for translations.

Siena is also known for its duomo built between 1215 and 1263. Much of the decorative facade was added later. The mosaics came in the 19th century.

tuscsienacathedraltusccath2tuscsienacathcloseThe marble church is a fantastic representation of Italian Gothic style. It is almost too much to take in at once. There are so many decorative elements. I’ve seen it before and it was just as stunning the second time around. I wish we could have gone inside to see the black-and-white pillars and ornate decorations. As it was, there was still more of the church to see from the outside.

tuscathedralsideThis is the cathedral’s bell tower or campanile. It was added in the early 1300’s and matches the rest of the church very well. The black-and-white color combination is popular in the city and is said to represent the horses of its legendary co-founders Senius and Aschius.

As majestic and large as the church is today, there were plans to make the duomo larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Due to missteps in the construction followed quickly by the Black Plaque, the expansion never occurred. Visitors can still see some of the remnants of the attempt.

tuscwalltuscbuckleIf you look closely, you will see that the top part of the column juts out a bit and there is some buckling due to the weight of the roof.

Our tour of the city also included a stop to see San Domenico, a church devoted to Saint Catherine. Our guide said that the color of the church is the inspiration for the “Burnt Sienna” Crayola crayon.

tuscstcatherineCatherine is credited for bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, France. One of 22 children, she lived a very interesting life. You can read more here and here. Her skull is displayed in a reliquary inside the church. While I feel sad about missing the interior of the other churches we visited that day, missing the skull didn’t bother me.

Walking away from austerity and vows of poverty, we made our way to Palazzo Tantucci which is held by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world.

tuscoldesbankThis is just one of the three palazzi belonging to the bank.tuscbankdoorIt’s a bit more elegant than my local branch of BB&T, that’s for sure.

We had a little bit of time to wander around on our own before it was time to meet back up in the Piazza del Campo.

tuscsinstreetI spotted these fuzzy Christmas decorations,
tuscchristmasthis statue,
tuscsculptureand this one.
tuscmamaShe looks forlorn. Can you blame her with all those kids and all that bird poop?

We made it back to the square just as the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. It was still overcast but there is no rain obscuring my photo of the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. Visitors can go to the top of the tower but we didn’t make it during our visit. It’s a reason to go back, right?

tusstowertuscfountainIt took eight years for workers to bring water to Piazza del Campo. This accomplishment was celebrated with the creation of the Fonte Gaia which is loosely translated to mean joyful fountain. The figures were created by Jacopo della Quercia.

tuscsienatuscmichaelMr. McB and I pondered the day in our own way.

tuscangelasitting My grandfather was a brick mason. He loved looking at the way things were constructed and could often tell you about the weather and other conditions when the work was done. I thought of him many times during our visit to the Colosseum and our time in Tuscany. There are so many bricks. He would love to see all of this architecture. Some how just sitting there and literally soaking up the heat from the bricks, I felt close to him.

It was a great day in Tuscany. Next time we’ll do Florence, Pisa, or maybe both.


One and done

Mr. McB and I had many regular breakfast spots before moving to Greenville. There is just something nice about starting your day by having someone else take care of you.

We’ve tried a few places since moving to South Carolina but haven’t found our spot. Southern Thymes Cafe’s Living Social special seemed like a perfect opportunity to give them a try. We were so hopeful that they could be our breakfast nook.

We arrived in the Greer restaurant around 11:15 on Saturday morning. Immediately we experienced that “does someone seat us/do we seat ourselves” conundrum that plagues many small restaurants. We spotted an empty booth and decided to seat ourselves. The server was over with menus almost as soon as we sat down. It surprised me that she was so quick since I was getting a cagey vibe from the other diners.

Within five minutes we had placed our order and were sipping our on beverages. Just as I noticed some schmutz on the outside of my water glass, a little bit of a kerfuffle broke out with some of the other folks who were tired of waiting for their meals. I just pushed the dirty glass to the side of the table. I didn’t want to deal with asking for a new cup.

We were entertained during our wait. There were kitchen mix-ups, another loud discussion between patrons, and a couple who left without ordering.

I thought there might be some backup because of added traffic from the Living Social deal but I was not prepared to wait a little more than 30 minutes to get our breakfast. There were no systems in place. People who came after us received their food at least five minutes before our meals arrived. Their dishes seemed more complex than ours. It made no sense. There were moments when meals would come to the pass and a slew of servers would have to discuss the items to determine who they belonged to. It was very poorly organized.

By time the food arrived around 11:55, we were starving. I ordered French toast and a side portion of ham. Mr. McB got toast and an omelet with cheese and bacon. I like a little crusty crunch to my French toast but this was just limp. It tasted like batter. The ham was good and plentiful. Mr. McB’s toast was good. His omelet was filled with what he described as “hard” bacon and shredded cheese that was not melted. He said that bacon wasn’t crispy, it was just like having potato chips in your omelet.

We will not be returning to Southern Thymes. I saw a lot of other people leaving food on their plates. Since we were all waiting a long time on our meals, that says a lot. The servers really tried but it was a bad situation for everyone.

Our disappointment continued later in the day when we had an early supper at the Chipotle near Haywood Mall. This location is new and a bit of a disaster. We hoped things would be better since our visit in early January but they were not. We had to wait on white rice but when it arrived, it was gummy and completely without flavor. The pinto beans were like little pink pebbles in my bowl. McB’s chicken was burnt. Until someone tells me that this location has it together, I’ll brave Woodruff Road if I get a Chipotle craving.



Traveling Thursday – UNESCO?

Many travel companies and tourism boards love to highlight their “UNESCO World Heritage” sites but what does that even mean and why should you care?

UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This group encourages the preservation of sites considered to be of “outstanding value to humanity.” Yeah, that’s pretty subjective. In addition to having “outstanding universal value,” the sites must meet at least one selection criteria. These sometimes lofty criteria include representing a masterpiece of human creative genius, being a structure or landscape that represents a historically significant period and containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty. Like I said, it’s “lofty” and the kind of list that was put together by one committee and tweaked by several others. You can view the full list here.

By now you are getting the idea that these sites are pretty important and they are. There is also controversy about the selection process, that’s not a surprise is it?

So, should you pick trip A over trip B because it includes more UNESCO sites? Honestly, it really depends on what you want to see. The UNESCO sites are fabulous but there are many wonderful sites that don’t meet the selection criteria or simply haven’t been included yet. In the US, there are only 21 UNESCO sites but that doesn’t mean these are the only sites worth seeing here. You should understand that the same is true all around the world.

Curious about the location of these sites? Take a look at the interactive map.