Travel Theme: Golden

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? is “golden”. Groovy! I don’t have much time to be chatty today, so let’s get to it, shall we?

First stop: close to home. Beautiful Lewisburg, PA, where the trees put on quite the seasonal display and turn a stunning shade of gold in autumn.

It's kind of spectacular here in the fall.

It’s kind of spectacular here in the fall.

These Italian fig bundles look like little golden dessert ravioli. Stuffed with figs. They’re like a dream come true.

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Bask in their golden aura!

 

And speaking of Italy…here’s a cozy little street in Florence that turns golden once the sun starts to set and the lights come on.

I want to live here. That is all.

I want to live here. That is all.

Relax during the holidays! Be like Buddha, in perfect tranquility in a lotus flower. As seen at the MFA in Boston.

I feel all zen and groovy.

I feel all zen and groovy.

And finally…here is a sunrise that’s about as golden as it gets. Taken at North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s one heck of a way to start the day.

Nature is so effortlessly beautiful.

Nature is so effortlessly beautiful.

This was a great challenge for me to do. It’s been an opaque gray here for about a week; I’ve been starved of brightness. (No, wait. There was one notable hour of sunlight; we were all so happy to see it we made sure our friends and neighbors checked out that strange fiery sky orb, but I digress.) I hope you enjoyed the photos! Or, of course, you’d be more than welcome to participate. See you ’round the internets.

XOXO

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Travel Theme: Distance

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? asks us to look at distance, into the distance, from a distance.  For the record, the word “distance” literally means “standing apart”, from the Latin “dis” (apart) and “stare” (stand, of course).

See, kids?  Latin is fun!

Anyway.

Pictures.

This first shot was taken this spring at Milton State Park, which is probably about three miles away from my home.  If you walk down toward the southern tip of the park, which juts out into the Susquehanna River, you’ll soon find yourself…well, still in the park and on the other side of the river, but directly facing the smokestacks of the plant one Ettore “Hector” Boiardi opened in 1938 in support of his canned pasta business.

The Chef's plant, looming in the distance.

The Chef’s plant, looming in the distance.

Yes, Chef Boyardee was a real man and no, he wasn’t just some fabrication of ConAgra, which now owns the plant.  I haven’t eaten canned ravioli in years but nevertheless, I’m delighted his iconic smokestack remains.

Next we go to Little River in beautiful South Carolina.  My brother has a boat docked there, but I’m pretty sure he’s selling it (or possibly has sold it by now), so I don’t know if what once was his boat is still there.  Anyway.  I digress.  This photo was taken while looking out toward the bow of the boat (and beyond, natch!) from the hatch that opens out from the cabin.  That thin line of land is the spit that separates the Little River Inlet from the big ol’ Atlantic Ocean.

Ahoy!  Shiver me timbers! Avast, ye scurvy dogs!

Ahoy! Shiver me timbers! Avast, ye scurvy dogs!  And other piratey things to say, as well!

Next, we go to my beloved Boston and the gorgeous Park Plaza Hotel.  Often, when I stay in hotels, I will choose to take back stairways instead of the elevator.  I’ve always had a penchant for wandering the halls of any hotel I stay in (which can sound a little creepy but I swear, I don’t peek where I ought not) because I like to go where most people ignore.  And most people?  Don’t take the stairs and see this, spinning upwards into infinity.

Here's looking up yer old staircase.

Here’s looking up yer old staircase.

And now we head to Baltimore.  This picture was taken this summer at Artscape, a mega-art-music-comedy-groovy jewelry outdoor feast for the eyes, ears and wallet.  It stretches for blocks and blocks.  I could have spent a ton of money there (especially in some of the jewelry stands; I’ll take one of everything, please) but kept it under control.  I did, however, take a trillion pictures.  This was near a railroad crossing.  It was a beautiful, bright, sunny day and all of Baltimore (including the iconic Howard Street bridge) stretched out before us.

Presenting: Baltimore.

Presenting: Baltimore.

Please note that there’s a mirror in the photo–almost dead center–so you can see what’s in the distance behind.  Kind of a yin-yang of Baltimore industrial architectural photography.  Dig it.

And finally, we end today’s blog in Italy, because Italy, that’s why.  This picture was taken while visiting a church on one of the hills overlooking Florence, just across the Arno River.  The Ponte Vecchio–which literally means “old bridge”–is that crazy, awesome structure in the middle of the shot.  This bridge, and the shops that are built hanging off the sides, has survived floods, Nazis, and nearly 700 years worth of weather (it would be nearly 800 years worth of weather, but it did have to be rebuilt in 1345).

Damn.

Distance: physical, temporal, historical.  Achieved.

Distance: physical, temporal, historical. Achieved.

I mean…I’m happy if I get a DVD player that lasts more than a few years, you know?  I hate that we’ve come to accept planned obsolescence.

Anyway.

Again, I digress.

Enjoy Ailsa’s theme!  Maybe you could find a little somethin’ somethin’ to post and play along yourself.  😉  Please enjoy some Dixie Chicks for your listening pleasure.

Travel Theme: Simplicity

This week at Where’s My Backpack? Ailsa asks us to celebrate simplicity.  Which, ironically, can be difficult, since we often try to cram as much as possible into a photograph to make it more “interesting”.  Though sometimes, just a “thing”, being or doing its thing, is enough.

Like these new pine cones that emerged with spring.

Spring was (literally) in the air.

Spring was (literally) in the air.

One fine morning I noticed the sunlight coming through the blinds was having its way with my boyfriend’s guitar pick.

Leave me alone in a room with a sunbeam and a guitar pick, and who knows what could happen.

Leave me alone in a room with a sunbeam and a guitar pick, and who knows what could happen.

When you’re out wandering in a nearby field, one ought to pay attention to the picturesque nature of the local fence-postery.

Just another day in Lewisburg.

Just another day in central PA.

Even the simplest way to dry laundry has beauty and charm.  It helps when that laundry is drying outside a building in Florence, but…

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I often imagine what this family would say if they saw me take this picture. “Mom…there’s a lady photographing our underwear…”.

And finally, we have the groovy serenity of a backyard, sunset, and fog rolling in off the nearby creek.  Why did this one tree stand out?  No idea.  I’m just glad it did.

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Seriously, I love my back yard.

That’s it for today.  Once again, a million thanks to Ailsa for the photo challenge!

Travel Theme: Contrast

This week at Where’s My Backpack?, Ailsa’s theme is “contrast”.  My photos are all about the visual contrast of the silhouette, which I love.

The view from my room at Belhurst Castle.  Yes, that’s a boat dock looking out over Seneca Lake.  And yes, I was literally (and I don’t mean that figuratively) hanging out my hotel room window so I could get this photo.

Not too shabby!

Not too shabby!

This photo was taken in Cleveland. It’s the War Memorial Fountain, formally known as the “Fountain of Eternal Life”, which symbolizes mankind rising victorious from the ashes of war.

I love that the brightest light makes for the darkest shadow.

I love that the brightest light makes for the darkest shadow.

Next: Paris.  Which is in my heart forever.  This is at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, and the contrast helps illuminate the complicated and gorgeous metalwork.

Must. Go. Back.

Must. Go. Back.

I saw this tree at the Elizabethan Gardens in the Outer Banks.  I adore the multi-level contrast of this.  Light/dark, and the tree itself stands in total opposition to what tree trunks are supposed to do.

No idea how or why this happened.  But cool!

No idea how or why this happened. But cool!

And finally, this picture was taken at sunset from the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, looking out across the Arno.  Because Florence, that’s why.

Does this need further explanation?

Does this need further explanation?

Join Ailsa and play along!  Hope you enjoyed the show.

Travel Theme: Benches

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? is a surprisingly thought-provoking one–benches.  Some people (like, apparently, Ailsa) find them intriguing and somewhat romantic.  I tend to overlook them.  Important life lesson to be had here: pay at-bloody-tention.

Belhurst Castle, Geneva NY.  The vast lawn behind the castle is full of greenery and planters and carefully appointed koi ponds.  And exactly one lone bench, facing eastward to meet the sunrise.

Good morning!

Good morning!

Meanwhile, at the Old City Hall in my beloved Boston, George fails to recognize the looming menace of a statue of a brass donkey as he sits on the cleared stone bench outside the landmark building.

Hey, pal. One of us was here first, and it wasn't you.

Hey, pal. One of us was here first, and it wasn’t you.

In Rome (or, you know, cities in general), anything can serve as a series of benches, depending on the mood of the crowd.  A view from the top of the Spanish Steps.

Because all those people need to sit *somewhere*.

Because all those people need to sit *somewhere*.

And in Florence, simple wooden benches serve as pews in the Chiesa de San Salvatore al Monte, a beautiful 15-th century church overlooking the Arno.  San Salvatore is largely overshadowed by its flashier neighbor, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, but it is no less lovely.  And since more people go to San Miniato, San Salvatore is much, much quieter, which can be an incredible luxury.

If you're looking for a place to sit and be self-reflective...

If you’re looking for a place to sit and be self-reflective…

Annnnnd…there is a gem of an amusement park close to my home.  Knoebel’s has been operating as an amusement park (albeit on a smaller scale) since 1926, and it is still family owned and offers free admission.  And?  It is awesome.  They have a Sky Ride that glides its riders up the side of a mountain and back down again; these are the bench seats from the top of the Sky Ride, deserted after an afternoon rain.

Welcome to Knoebel's in all its sylvan splendor.

Welcome to Knoebel’s in all its sylvan splendor.

Happy bench hunting!  Enjoy the travel theme.

Travel: The Food In Florence

I’d been meaning and meaning and meaning to blog about the food in Italy, but I simply hadn’t gotten around to it yet. It’s as though fate (or something) intended for me to wait for Ailsa’s travel food theme and now that it’s here, I am more than happy to oblige.

Let me preface my paean to the Florentine menu by saying: I don’t think I had a bad meal in Italy. I did have a few meals that were kind of sort of vaguely meh but for the most part? The food was a big win. There’s an approach in Italy we need to adopt in the US; if you’re going to take the time to eat food it should be the best food it can be. Even the fast food-esque, perfunctory pasta we got at the little cafe across from our hotel in Rome was delicious. It was basic, no frills food, but way better than what we’d expect here from a tiny corner store with a small kitchen. Rome, mainly, was touristy, we only had three days there, I’d never been there before and didn’t know my way around and it is such a giant city that I found it difficult to find really good local food, save for a few places. I got my best meal in Rome on the less-crowded main drag of the Jewish ghetto (if you’re there in season, get the carciofi alla giudia–Jewish-style artichokes–and revel in your very good fortune).

Carciofi alla Giudia–so, soooo good.

Though I do confess that I was close to tears when I walked into a Roman farmer’s market.  I could move there for the produce.

And Venice…ahh, Venice…though I love you love you love you, much of the Venetian cuisine is seafood oriented (not a surprise, as it is one big lagoon on the Adriatic), and I have a shellfish allergy. While I could have gotten risotto ai frutti di mare just about anywhere, and it looked lovely, to order it would be to order a plate of death.  What can I say?  I stuck with the chicken.  I do remember having a particularly tasty, fresh tiramisu soaked in Frangelico, which I should go about trying to re-create here for my own benefit and edification.  Mostly benefit.

But…Florence.

*sigh*

When we got to Florence it was probably 1:30 or so in the afternoon and by the time we brought our stuff up to our hotel room and had a moment to relax, it was almost 2:00.  We needed to get some food before the restaurants closed after lunch, as they so often do.  The desk clerk at our hotel directed us to a small pizza place right down the street, which he assured us was still open though he cautioned us, almost apologetically, that the food was, “Ummm…eh…is OK.”  So, not great but not poisony, and it’s sure to be open?  That’s fine, we’ll deal with it, we thought.

Oh. Migod.

For the record, it was awesome.

Pizza with white beans, pine nuts and potatoes may sound like a carb-laden nightmare but it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  And that square bowl sitting behind it?  Held a fresh fava bean soup with plenty of garlic that neither of us could resist tearing into, as much as one can “tear into” soup. We topped it off with a local wine and thought, if this restaurant gets a “is OK” from the locals, then what other sort of delights were there in store?

There were plenty of delights, to be sure.  Sometimes, I didn’t take pictures because it’s just as important to me to engage in the experience at hand rather than look at it from behind a camera. The food would still be there when the camera was gone, sure, but the moment to sit down, hold hands, look over a wine list and have an intimate dinner that doesn’t include your camera as a third party would be lost. Trust me on a few things you can learn without the benefit of photographs: when you’re in Florence, go to the Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi (the Trattoria of the 13 Hunchbacks) and hope to God you can get the fried zucchini flowers.  Try the baked cannelloni or the rigatoni.  It’s all good.  When you’re done and looking for dessert, find a gelateria that advertises its gelato as “produzione artiginale” or “produzione propria“, as that means it is made on-site and not shipped in from a factory.

With that being said…back to the picture show.

Where to begin?

Florence is jam-packed with restaurants, and from the few I’ve sampled, they’re all good.  Seriously.  They want to provide quality food  that’s traditionally prepared and if it’s not good, people won’t go, because there are so many other quality places nearby.  The thing about Florentine food is, they tend to make the most of whatever ingredients they can get their hands on.  So we went to Francesco Vini and enjoyed the crazy-rich dish they concocted with the wild boar roaming the Tuscan hills…

Pappardelle al ragu di cinghiale (Pappardelle with wild boar).

…and how fat they made their raviolis, which they sauteed in sage and butter.

Ravioli al burro e salvia.

One night we stopped at Giannino in S. Lorenzo, a lovely little trattoria with a super-cozy atmosphere.  I sort of bullied George into going, I admit, and it was simply because they advertised ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al tartufo nero–spinach and ricotta ravioli in black truffle sauce.

Sold.

I don’t even remember what George got here; I think it was the savory crepes, but I can’t be positive. I was too busy digging this…

Ravioli di ricotta e spinaci al tartufo nero.

…to concern myself with much of anything else.  Truffles?  The answer is yes; what’s your question?

One of our most memorable lunches, though, was when we went to the Tavernetta Della Signoria and feasted on local dishes.  The meal started out oddly; we were walking past what we realized later was their back door, that a cook left open when he took out some garbage (no, we didn’t walk into a kitchen, just a back dining room…I think we would have figured out the kitchen was a wrong turn, much earlier).  It smelled so good, though, we couldn’t resist, followed our noses, and got a beautiful table right on the street so we could eat and people watch at the same time.  We started with world’s biggest salad and some Tuscan white beans (which are a delight–simple food that they cook to godliness)

Salad with grilled vegetables and pecorino cheese; a/k/a the “Cinque”.

Fagioli lessi. One of the best things ever.

George had the gnocchi with gorgonzola, arugula and walnuts

Gnocchi al gorgonzola, rucola e noci.

…while I had the peposo, a traditional regional beef stew that consists of braising an incredibly tough cut of meat for hours in red wine, garlic and a ton of pepper, until it is tender and toe-curlingly delicious.

Peposo.

While all of Italy was tremendous, each part holds something special for me.  In Rome, I got to–literally–walk the same stones that Cleopatra walked in the Roman Forum.  In Venice, I had a cocktail with the ghosts of literary giants at Harry’s.  In Florence, I was given a chance to understand the beauty of good food cooked simply but with pride.  Sure, you can go to Florence for the shopping, but make sure you stay for the food.

Travel: OMG I’m in Florence!

Florence.  Firenze!  Ahhh, Tuscany.

About a thousand years ago I watched the movie Hannibal.  By “watched” I mean, I went on a date and saw it in the theater.  Really!  At least he paid for the tickets.  Suffice to say, for the most part I wasn’t impressed (D’oh! The date was OK; I mean about the movie), not even with the “Ray Liotta eats his own brain” scene, re-enacted here though the clever manipulation of Legos.

However.  The ONE thing I thought through that entire movie, its ONE saving grace and the only positive I took from this movie?  Is that it is largely set in Florence, and holy cow (I thought)!  Florence is a gorgeous place, and I knew that I needed to see it some day.

I’ve had that day.  Or rather I’ve had three of them, to be exact, and it is, indeed, gorgeous.  Snugly nestled in the Arno River valley, Florence became a major center of trade and finance starting in something like the year 1100.  Florin, have you heard of the florin?  Said florin is not just the town Buttercup is from in The Princess Bride, it was the Florentine unit of money that was the money of choice for almost all European large trade transactions (like the Hundred-Years War).  Florence is so important and lovely and culturally jam-packed that in 1982 the entire city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why.  Oddly, I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I did from when I was in Rome.  Not that it didn’t warrant picture-taking, but A) we went to places (like the Uffizi) that forbade picture-taking, and (B), it can get wearying.  You have to negotiate the space between engaging in your own vacation and experiencing it from behind a camera.  Sometimes, you just have to put the camera down and walk off without it.

And besides, I spent a good chunk of my time shopping.  Who needs pictures of me shopping?  (Ladies…shooooooooooes…and purrrrrrrrrses…and shoooooooooooes…and purrrrrrrrrrrses…. Every.  Single.  Place.  You look.  A little pre-planning will ensure good times; once you know you’re going to Italy, start a stash and grow yourself a shoes-n-swag fund.  You’ll thank me for it.)

Anyway, back to Florence.  I am still committed to not driving in any of the major Italian cities, though Florence is far less insane than Rome.  Easily managed–we took a train.  A word about Italian train stations: they are a hotbed of thievery.  I don’t normally complain about the underground economy in large cities; it’s going to go on around me whether I like it or not, and the best I can do is try to make myself not-a-target.  I’m pretty good at giving the “don’t mess with me” vibe, and I do things like carry purses that sling across my body so they can’t be easily lifted, and I don’t wave around money.  But when we got to the train station in Rome, we must have had “American” written all over us because we were targeted by like three different people who kept trying to separate us from each other and then from who knows what.  We were at a disadvantage because we didn’t know when or how our train would post, so we were sort of lost for a little while–were we in the right place?  Was there some OTHER station we should be at?  Was the train reassigned, and how would we know that?  You know, it was the usual sort of paranoia one feels when in a strange surrounding and not everything is spelled out immediately to your most elementary liking.  So.  I tell you now, relax.  The track a train leaves on only posts maybe fifteen minutes before departure time (though it could be more like ten), so if you walk in twenty minutes before your train is supposed to leave and you look at the departure board and don’t see train # 1472 to Florence, it’s OK.  Get a coffee and keep your hands on your stuff and watch the departure board.  Just be there on time, because the train will leave without you.  The nice part is, the trains are clean and fast, and our ride from Rome to Florence was entirely uneventful.  And then, hooray!  We were in Florence!

For starters, our room here was much more airy and pretty.

Surprise picture time! Heed my warning: vacation with me can be fraught with photo-op peril.

Check out the swanky headboard!  And the giant window!  And the mod flooring!  The staff was most accommodating, though perhaps not quite as helpful as one would hope if you were to hypothetically leave clothing behind and ask to have it shipped home *cough, cough*…but it all worked out in the end, so I can’t (hypothetically) complain.

Florence is much smaller and easier to navigate than Rome, and I’m not just talking about the driving.  It just makes sense; Rome has a population of about 2.7 million, while Florence’s population lingers somewhere around 350,000.  That’s a lot less streets you need for houses for people to live in.  From our hotel it was an easy walk to the center of town, no cab or metro required, and the center of town in Florence is absolutely dominated by the Duomo.

Jaw, meet ground. Ground, this is jaw.

This confection of a cathedral, formally known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, kind of reminds me of one of those super-mega wedding cakes, the kind that are multi-tiered and swirly and heavily constructed and covered in fondant, only the basilica is made out of stone.  Hence it can be left out in the rain.  They started building this little beauty in 1296 and completed it in 1436 (which is also, coincidentally, the same year the printing press was invented, and we all know what kind of impact that had on Church coffers); its dome is still the largest one in the world made from brick and mortar.

I confess, I didn’t go in the church.  At this point in the trip I was sort of overloaded on the interior of frilly churches, and also couldn’t deal with the thought of going up and down another set of a bazillion stairs.  My ecclesiastical malaise faded quickly and in no time I was back in churches looking at astonishing constructions and other various works of art, you’ll see, but I just…couldn’t.  I know, I’m sure there are those of you out there in the blogosphere who can’t believe my decision to not go up the dome and think I’m barking mad, and that’s fine, I get it.  But I couldn’t do it.  And now, I have something to look forward to the next time I go back.  Because I will.  Go back.

Much of what we did the first night was walk around.

Snug little street with happy, welcoming lights.

The bell tower, with the moon on its shoulder.

The Arno at sunset, with the Pitti Palace on the left.

The next day we took off first thing in the morning for the Uffizi.  The Uffizi is a ridiculously famous gallery, sort of small-ish, but so crammed full of paintings and sculpture that it can take hours and hours to get through.  You can take a virtual tour here, but I absolutely recommend both going there and, for God’s sake, buying your tickets ahead of time.  There are about a million different online vendors, so shop around until you find the best deal (we didn’t, and we paid probably way more than we should have) for the tickets.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait behind this:

Not kidding.

And to add insult to injury, depending on how many people are on line vs. the amount of pre-paid ticket holders, you can wait in that line and then not get in anyway.  Oh, the indignity.  We were in and looking at crazy-awesome works of art in a matter of minutes.  But no pictures!  You’ll just have to go online elsewhere to feast your eyes on Venus on the Halfshell.

Oh, all right.

Here she is, served fresh.

In all seriousness, I have never felt quite so exposed to art and culture in my life.  And it was awesome.

Eventually, we trekked across the river to see what we could see, starting at the Piazzale Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was born in Florence and is revered as a favorite son.  The Piazzale was laid out in 1860, with a bronze reproduction of Michelangelo’s David placed at center stage, so all could revere its beauty.

Even David is better with a pigeon on his head.

Yes, it is magnificent.  Yes, it is an astonishing study in sculpture.  But…is it me…or does he have giant hands?  Like, seriously, the guy’s got bear paws or something.  My mom (true story) said, “Now, honey, nobody is looking at his hands,” (family, just let that sink in for a minute) and maybe she’s right.  Apparently there’s some discussion that David was supposed to be placed on a roofline, so Michelangelo made certain features larger than others (the menacing meathook could have been a warning to Rome, the experts say).  But he’s not on a rooftop now, and I find this funny.

Moving on.

A short and easy walk up the hill from the Piazzale sit two churches.  The first you come to, the church of San Salvatore al Monte, is completely cool and quiet–it was the first time I’d heard total silence since we’d gotten to Italy.  In retrospect this doesn’t surprise me even a little, since I had to exercise every ounce of interwebs ingenuity I could muster to figure out what the church is called.  Nobody seems to go there much, and I could have stayed in there for hours.

A candle for a friend.

A nice, calm interior.

The second one, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, is way more of an attraction. It’s all rose-and-green like the Duomo, but slightly older.  Its construction began in 1013, on the very spot were St. Minas fell after he was beheaded by the Emperor Decius.  Of course, he was beheaded on the other side of the river, so he had to pick up his head, cross the Arno, climb the hill and then fall, but who am I to argue with legend?

Hello, Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. I am over my non-churchy ennui.

The ceiling. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would make things with gum wrappers.

Lurking just outside this door, unbeknownst to us, was a class trip of something like thirty students, just waiting to get inside. Ack!

But the best things about going up the hill weren’t the churches or seeing how people lived the good life, Florentine-style

Dear person who lives here: I hate you. Nothing personal.

…but rather, that you get to feast your eyes on amazing views of Florence.

Ponte Vecchio. The only bridge in Florence that remained intact after World War II, supposedly on direct orders from Hitler.

The bell tower at the Duomo, as seen from San Miniato.

Looking out over the Arno.

Florence is both grand (see above) and really, really rustic.

What's the Italian equivalent of "Huffy"?

It’s both the hub of cutting edge fashion and charming, somewhat anachronistic sensibilities.  Example: I saw a bunch of kids break-dancing (which seems to be having a bit of a renaissance, no pun intended) in one of the town squares.  But they were breaking to Archie Bell and the Drell’s “Tighten Up“.  A friend teasingly said to me, “Awww, girl, you had to go a couple of thousand miles to get ole skooled?”  And yeah, I did.  Because I can’t think of a better place to do it.

For more pictures of Florence, please feel free to take a look here.

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