Aplscruf's Music Blog

European Holiday 2016

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Let’s take a break from music for just a moment and fly across The Pond, shall we?

Eight years ago, we took a vacation to the UK and Europe and I posted my journal here. We spent three nights in London and surrounding areas and visited family. We then spent a dozen days in Italy, stopping in Venice, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, and Rome.We took our son, then twelve years old, and our two best friends, M and J. We vowed to return soon, but life got in the way.

We finally started getting serious about returning again last summer. We met with M & J last fall and sketched out a plan for April 2016, this trip not involving our son, who is now in college. That did not go over so well, but he understood.

After some brief meetings with our friends M&J who were to accompany us on our first week in Italy, Pat arranged most of the hotels and flights and coordinated with M&J, who would fly in on their own to Venice a day after we arrived. We worked together to figure out what we would do in each city, but for the most part, we left it open-ended. If we felt like it, we’d take a tour. If the weather cooperated, we’d go. We weren’t so booked up that our days were stressful.

One of the most helpful websites we use is from a local travel guru named Rick Steves. He’s had a travel show on public TV for a couple of decades, and publishes guidebooks on Europe. His practical guidebooks and videos give a wealth of information on transportation, lodging, food, culture, history, and tourist tips for hundreds of European cities.

So April 1, we boarded a plane at Sea-Tac Airport and didn’t come back until April 15.Wow, what a trip. All life’s regular worries were left at home. We weathered seven plane rides, a dozen trains, a few ferries, tour boats, and cars. Two weeks, totally smooth, for the most part. Yes, there was increased security at the airports, big deal. Expected. Yes, I got searched a few times. Pat laughed. I blame the 30+ lb. backpack I was lugging. Yes, we got lost temporarily looking for hotels–but no meltdowns, no hurt feelings. Everything else just fell into place. We made all our connections on time, by plane, train or otherwise.

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Venice, at Rialto Bridge Vaporetto stop

Pat and I arrived in Venice and it seemed quick, considering it took most of a day to get there. We walked down to the boat dock from the airport and got on the Orange (Arancia) Alilaguna boat that slowly made its way through the long passage in choppy waters, over to the Rialto Bridge. It took just about an hour to arrive at our dock. After some confusion as to the location of our B&B hotel, Ca’Delle Acque,  we wandered right past it and backtracked to the front door, tucked away in a narrow alley.

Our host, “Mr. Richard” at Ca’ Delle Acque, has his “office” behind a curtain, under the stairs by the front door. Sweet man, looks more Croatian than Italian, with his round, shaved head and big green eyes, buff arms in a polo shirt with the collar up. Shows up each morning from behind the curtain with a tray full of breakfast goodies, including proscuitto, cheese, croissants, and just-poured cappuccino. He quietly walks up to our room and sets the tray down, backs out of the room and closes the door with a bowed head, like he was  our personal valet and we were movie stars at the poshest hotel in L.A .

We checked in to our little place and enjoyed our first glass of vino in a little trattoria called  Trattoria Al Gazzettino  located just a few steps from our B&B (see pic below–our B&B has the green shutters just past the sign). It’s tiny, and fills up every night. We were starving Americans and went for an early 4:00 dinner, and were the only ones in the place. They treated us right, and the food was delicious. The owner or manager was sweet and very funny, once he realized we were so grateful to eat early and savored every delicious dish.

“You want to make reservation for 9 pm?”

“No, how ’bout now?

We had two kinds of salad. One had fresh tuna, arugula, fresh mozzarella, and ripe tomatoes, and corn; one was a citrus chicken. They brought bread sticks and rolls, too. We passed on dessert, but they brought us lemoncello with tiny lemon cookies, and a sweet, iced, fizzy wine that tasted like grape juice. At the end of the meal, they gave us a bag of dried pasta! We weren’t exactly sure where we could pack that, but we took it anyway. They even brought out a big scrapbook where you can write a review, sign your name, and tape a business card, or tape a small bill or coin from your country. It was fun to read all the signatures and notes from all over the world.

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Our first meal in Venice: Trattoria Al Gazzettino, next door to our green-shuttered B&B Ca’ Delle Acque

Although we were tired, adrenaline and sheer willpower forced us to stay up until we could get our internal clocks turned around. We wandered San Marco square and felt at home again. There’s something about Venice–I feel so comfortable there.

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Venice – A crumbling, sinking beauty. There is a beauty there that I cannot explain. It’s gritty, dirty, unkempt. Odors of urine, sewer, salt water arise from its surface. But I also smell the beautiful aromas of coffee, wine, basil, garlic, tomatoes, meats, and fish wafting from the multitude of trattorias, osterias, cafes, cantinas, and markets throughout the back alleys and piazzas.

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Cicchetti behind the glass counter at Cantina do Mori, circa 1462

Cantina do Mori, one of the oldest cantinas around, pre-Columbus. Great for ciccetti and a glass of wine.

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There is beauty everywhere, down every street, if you know what to look for. From our little room, perched a floor up from a shopping alley, we could open the green shutters and hear the chatter of the people walking around. Late at night, groups of men and women, heels clacking on the stone walkways, wandered home from the bars. The clanging of the tower bell echoed throughout the neighborhood. I love that sound most of all.

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The bello Gondoliers, in their striped uniforms and straw hats entertain us from their watery perch. Uniforms and gondolas all slightly different, like snowflakes, representing their family’s line. “Gondola-gondola-gondola!” they shout from the bridges and their gondolas, checking out potential passengers.

Waiters in tuxedos standing in front of their restaurants, beg you to stop by for a drink or a bite. “Buon Giorno! Would you like a glass of wine? Please, come in! Hungry for dinner?” or in the evening, “Buona Sera!”

Seven-year-old boys heavily involved in a game of football(soccer) against the side of a church wall in the adjacent square, arguing over a play. Hands on hips, yelling in Italian in squeaky, high voices.

Loading docks, garbage barges with strong, dirty men collecting bags off the sides of the canals; water spigots with animal faces spewing cold, clean water from The Alps; sculptures and gargoyles on even the simplest of buildings; door knockers with grotesque faces. All beauty to me.

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San Marco Basilica, rising from the water and the flooded piazza (it floods every year–not this trip–but they still had the raised platforms stacked up, ready for the next one) like a crazy quilt of religious, architectural and artistic delights for the senses. Golden mosaics, spires to the sky, marble, and copper.

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What I loved most, though (and you can purchase a separate ticket for 5 Euro) is inside the Basilica museum, located up a steep set of stairs inside and to the right of the main entrance. It’s small, but inside are my favorite Quadriga–Four Horses, maybe 2,000 years old, larger than life, made of 98% copper. Snorting, neighing, stomping their feet, ready for battle. Or a race. How many men touched them and encased them in crates and hauled them away from their homeland? Where is home anyway? Constantinople? No one seems to know, exactly from where they came.When we visited 8 years ago, I couldn’t stop crying when I saw them.Good god, all those Jesuses and Marys, Michelangelos and Leonardos, and I cry over four horses! Same thing this time, too. I don’t know what it is about them. I think there’s a word for having an emotional reaction to a piece of art, but I never remember it. I promised them I’d be back yet again. (The horses on top of San Marco shown below are replicas. They brought in the original Quadriga in the 1980’s to protect them from pollution and placed them in the museum–no pictures allowed)

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Replicas of The Quadriga on top of San Marco Basilica

Outside the Basilica, on the Piazza, small tables and chairs line the square ready for the cafe fresco diners and drinkers, but the weather is chilly. Most chairs stay empty this time of year. Waves of people come and go, a sign a cruise ship has landed.

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An Italian Navy officer in fatigues strutted around the square with two other gentlemen in dress blues. For our protection, but also for gawking. The man in fatigues, head shaved close, black beret, is stunning. Face with 5 o’clock shadow, hard jaw jutting forward, tall, hard build. I wanted his picture, but I know they do not need distractions during these times of uncertainty. Let him do his job. There has been some horrible acts of violence on innocents this year and last. But as my mom says, “If we wait for world peace, we’d never go anywhere!” Take a chance and Get Out.

We also went to Harry’s Bar, where Papa Hemingway used to hang, just left of San Marco. Super expensive, but a fun experience.

Click on individual pics below for a closer view…

Burano and Murano, islands worth visiting. So different than the main island. Colorful, quiet, compact, full of artists’ wares, from lace, linen, glass, and sculptures.

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Island of Burano, Venice

 

Click on individual pictures for a better view.

After three lovely nights in Venice (I really could spend two weeks there and explore the entire island by foot and boat), we headed South to Sorrento by high-speed train. Traffic is nuts here. It spills over from Napoli and surrounding cities along the coast. You’ll notice most all of the cars have large gashes on the sides or dented bumpers. It’s pretty much lawless on the streets! We hired a driver Domenico, aka Mimmo, from smiletravecarsorrento.com.  who picked us up at the station in Napoli. Worth the euro, that’s for sure, and saved us from schlepping our bags on to another train and wandering the town to find our hotel. He was humorous, informative, and was born in Sorrento. He knows his way around the city. Mimmo’s quotes: “Traffic signs are just a suggestion!” and “People in Napoli don’t park their cars, they abandon them!”

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There is a main square in Sorrento called Piazza Tasso. Fauno Bar sits right in the middle. Grab a glass of wine and they’ll serve lots of extra snacks. We had fun people-watching outside under the massive umbrellas. A fun, touristy experience was at Taverna Allegra, located down an alley close to Fauno Bar.

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The owners are kind and friendly, and when we were there, they serenaded us with a guitarist. The food was excellent, too. They had a large assortment of fresh fish on display. We tried a couple of local Sorrentine red wines. Best we had on the trip for 16 Euro–for the whole bottle.

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We also hit a meat market/salumeria type place that also had great food and dried meats for picnics, takeaways, etc. It was called La Cantinaccia del Popolo. Ask for Pepe. You can’t miss him.

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On our second day, we took a boat ride to Capri. Go EARLY. The lines queue up.

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The view of the marina from our lovely Grand Royal Hotel. Catch the boat to Capri there.

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Capri Marina

Capri and Anacapri – A quick boat ride and a crowded marina. But wait, open-air taxis? Let’s take a chance! Twenty-five bucks? For all of us? YES. Perfect. A narrow, winding road takes us up and over the island, with breathtaking views of the hillside and sea.

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The houses are different here, mostly white stucco, following the look of the Greeks. On to Anacapri! The village was practically deserted! The tourists went to Capri first. We were one of the first to show up. We were okay with that. It was so beautiful. We wandered through linen and ceramic shops, promising to be back through after our walk.

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We got lost in a neighborhood with tight streets and alleys, barely wide enough for the little tuk-tuk style, three-wheeled delivery trucks. It was interesting walking through these working family homes. They were obviously much better off here than many places we visited in Italy. Small apartments and larger homes, beautifully cared for, clean. Quiet. Everyone was at work, I’m sure.

I was getting hungry. A little pathway led to a restaurant called La Trattoria Il Solitario where we had the best linguini in lemon sauce. It was like dessert! And they bottle their own wine. Excellent white wine.Our young waiter, Nello, probably the son of the owners, carefully peeled off the label for us for a souvenir. Lemon trees grew around the garden where we sat, under an umbrella outside. So lovely. We also had bruschetta with those ripe red tomatoes we looked so forward to.

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Back to Capri – the taxi driver dropped us off at the top of the hill, and we wandered around through more shops. Crowds were heavier here. We decided to walk down to the marina, a downhill path behind houses, down alleys, and with scenic shots of the hillside all around. It was shaded and fun to get a different perspective of the island. People walking up, exhausted. “Are we almost to the top?” No, you have a long way to go. Ha

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We stopped for gelato before heading to the marina, where there was a large painting on canvas of a sweet retriever and a huge lemon. I named it, “Dog Humping Lemon”. I need to send that pic to our son, in remembrance of “Boy Humping Eagle” sculpture at Pitti Palace gardens from our wanderings in Florence so many years ago.

Pomeii the next day – We took the Circumvesuviana train, which stops right at the entrance to Pompeii. On the way north, there is a slum–ancient, dirty gray apartments strewn with trash and hanging laundry that we passed by on the train. How do they get by day-to-day? Scrappy, young teenage boys entered the train, at the next stop down from the slums, smack talkin’ in Italian, roughing each other up, getting one kid in a headlock. Fight? Nah, just playin’ like boys do.

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There were four of us, but we chose to do a self-guided tour using one of the hand-held devices and a set of ear buds. We thought we could put it on speakerphone, but it would not do that, so we’d have to pass the thing around and try to coordinate where we were with a very difficult-to-follow numbered map. We’d probably go with a tour guide next time (you can hire one right at the entrance or through our hotel), if we ever go back. We were there four hours, and still missed a big section.

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We did see an intact amphitheatre, a bath house, and a strip mall where they served hot food at counters in big clay pots. Fascinating. And Vesuvius always looms above as you walk around. A bit spooky! The most treasured artifacts are in the Napoli museum, though. They have a few on display in a structure in the middle of the amphitheatre, and we missed the small museum at the entrance. Four hours and we were spent. We ate at an outdoor dining area outside the main entrance. Lots of good food and great service. They even gave us two loaves of bread to take home with our leftovers.

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A big amphitheatre, fully intact, was quite a sight. Hard to imagine what it looked like full of people, with slaves fighting beasts, etc.

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I need to get a book that shows pics of what it most likely looked like intact as a true city. The intricate details I enjoyed the most: tiny white and gray tiles in geometric patterns carefully laid on a floor of a rich person’s home.

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Frescoes that looked like they were from the 1600’s, not the 00’s. Red and gold paint.

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Still life paintings of simple things like a bird with a piece of fruit or more erotic paintings in brothels–somehow, we missed those rooms.

I think we were tired, and decided to forego a whole section of buildings. The layout of the city was enormous, much bigger than imagined. Pompeii, with Vesuvius looming, ever-present always watching. After four hours, it just all started looking like a big pile of rocks.

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The next day, we took a cheap hop-on-hop-off tour bus (10 euro) http://www.sorrento.city-sightseeing.it/eng/ to Amalfi and Positano.

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It’s the best way to get there, unless you hire a skilled driver. We caught the bus at the Circumvesuviana train station right in Sorrento, just a couple blocks off the main square. They give you ear buds and a recorded tour as you drive around the steep cliffs into the villages. We took it all the way to Amalfi first–took about 1.5 hours. More twists and turns, and narrow streets. The bus’ mirror just barely scrapes by oncoming traffic. Lonely castles and villas cut into the rocks. Closer to Positano, more homes built into the hillsides, merging closer together within the two towns, several miles apart. We visited St. Andrews church, browsed the shops, had cappuccino and cookies, chilled. Took a boat back to Positano, where we did the same thing before catching another bus at the top of the steep hill.

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Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea – Amalfi

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Back to our beautiful Royal Grand Hotel on the cliffs of Sorrento, waiters in cream-colored tuxes serve us breakfast and cappuccino, away from reality for four days. From the dining area, the floor-to-ceiling windows don’t show quite all of the coast line.

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Terrace window – Vesuvius ever-present

You can see the beautiful palms and garden, with the smell of wisteria and gardenia and jasmine looming above in trellises and shrubs and orange and lemon trees.

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Little pathways take you to a tiled patio that stretches for yards left and right. Walk to the iron railing and be swept away from the view of the sea, the marina, and Mount Vesuvius in the distance. It’s a view like no other.

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Our room was on the other side, facing a busy street, but had lovely views of the surrounding hillsides. Unfortunately at night, the orchardists burn their sticks and compost, creating a smoky layer that turned our room into a campfire. We awoke sneezing and coughing from the smoky air. The street was noisy, too, but it was kind of interesting to lie there and listen to the crowd noise.

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Lemon grove below our hotel window. Lemons are a specialty here, and even small, backyard gardens grow them commercially.

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The beauty here is different than Venice, a warmer more California environment. More decadent and upscale–and heavy with traffic. Palm trees, succulents, flowering shrubs. Beautiful gardens and parks. And traffic. I didn’t expect that. Thought it would be more like Cinque Terre, isolated from the rest of the population. No, it’s like Napoli just continues around the coast and into the hillside, even though there are many towns between here and there. They’re all connected. But step to the other side of the hotel–the cliffside of the Grand Hotel Royal for an amazing cliffside view. Vesuvius reigns in the distance. The boat marina is miniature, with toy ferries coming in and out of the harbor, taking the tiny people away to Capri and Amalfi.

It was hard to leave the stunning beauty of Sorrento. I could have used a couple more days to rest and explore.

But we had to catch a train to Rome. A crazy day. Driver Mimmo gave us all hugs when he left us, sweet man, at the Napoli train station. From there, we had to train into Rome, and catch a connecting train to the airport. We flew from Rome to London. Mimmo asked, “Why do you not just fly from Napoli?” Good friggin’ question. No one remembered. Air miles, perhaps??

We dropped our bags at our hotel in Heathrow and headed out to London (about 40 minutes by taxi), to The Monkey Puzzle pub for proper fish n chips. The manager didn’t realize a) we were American, and b) that we’d just arrived from Italy, and c) we only came out from Heathrow to go to his pub! He followed us out the door, so grateful for our visit. He did call us a taxi and it was only 30 pounds for our return. That day was pretty much shot.

M & J left the next day for home. We continued on to Wokingham, a sleepy little town in the middle of sheep pastures, is now the current place of residence for dear relations on my father’s side. My uncle picked us up and drove us to their home. That afternoon, we made a road trip to Oxford. They had a doctor appointment, so we tooled around and hoped some of the smart people around us would rub off. We had tea and scones, went to a pub for lunch and ale, and generally just wandered. We didn’t make it back to our Pheasant Inn until almost 8 pm. Fun fact: establishments close around 6 on Sundays, by Law. We noticed many eateries closed early in Oxford, too. We had to order Domino’s Pizza for dinner!

The next day turned stormy, but we drove with my relations to Winchester, another long drive in bad weather. In Winchester (after crying over Jane Austen’s grave), we toured the Cathedral, which was breathtaking. Massive. And visiting Dear Jane Austen was definitely a highlight. I had chills from head to toe as the tears ran down my face. I was a shaky, emotional wreck. More “Sensibility” than “Sense”.

Back to my music side. A musical fantasy of mine would be to go to Europe and hit some music festivals. We planned too far in advance this time (had to buy airline tickets when the price was right and use our air miles) to know who was playing where. Of course, as the date drew near, we realized we were missing several acts in various locations, including Winchester, London, and Amsterdam by two or three days, and the big Kilkenny Roots Festival by two weeks.

I did do my homework before we left and met up with Oliver Gray, a music promoter and author near Winchester. We had tea and lunch, talked about music, local bands, and mutual friends.  We then “toured” Swiss Cottage, which has a seating capacity of 30 people (40 with standing room), and played a mean round of ping-pong. So much fun. He walked us through the beautiful village to the train station and threatened to come visit us in Seattle in the next few years.

Back to Winnersh station, close to our Pheasant Inn – tough boys, kicking and swearing at each other, again, just playin’, scrappy English-style this time. Leather jackets and swagger. One more  flick of a finger before jumping off the train, just as doors close and the train pulls from the station.

The next day, we said our goodbyes to our English relations and headed back to Heathrow in the afternoon after having a lovely lunch in an old establishment called The Bull Inn at Bisham.

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London to Amsterdam, our last stop for two quick, beautiful nights. Amsterdam has it going on. Organized, clean, easy transportation system, beautiful long-legged women on bicycles, a city in motion.Thousands and thousands of bicycles. Delicious food. Our host at Barangay B&B says, “You don’t need to tip more than about 5%. We pay our waiters a Living Wage.”  Pot smoke wafting from coffeeshops, restaurants in any international flavor, Heineken signs, a few red lights (low-rent–we skipped The District), Sexmuseum, canal boat tour–canals only seem to be used for tours now.

We also received a room upgrade from our nice hosts to a studio apartment, complete with living room, kitchen and dining area. It was so nice, and decorated in a tropical style. We even had a little courtyard with plants that let in some light and breeze. The building was from 1777, and was well cared for, like most of the buildings here.

The first night, although we planned to go see Brian Fallon at Melkweg (Milky Way) on the other side of town, we just decided to wander. We were tired from our long day traveling. We did do a canal boat tour that afternoon (P fell asleep) and later had delicious Rijsttafel (rice table) at Long Pura Indonesian Restaurant.

The next day, we went to the Sexmuseum on a dare from my cousin. Interesting, disturbing, hilarious.

We later took a tram (easy to catch one just outside the train station) across town to check out where Melkweg sat, just to see the neighborhood. We walked in to Eat at Jo’s Cafe, located inside Melkweg. Although we’d missed the show last night, we had a blast chatting with the owners, and even received a short tour of the venue. Great food, great beer selection, too.

That evening, we strolled the town and had Spanish Tappas for dinner as we watched the sun set over the canal.

Overall, a wonderful, memorable vacation.

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I guess what I wouldn’t do again is take 7 airplane rides in two weeks. That was a bit excessive, and we spent lots of hours in airports and train stations getting to the airports. The payoff was, P was able to use his air miles and get the two major flights from the US to Amsterdam and back for less than $150. How can you beat that?? But it meant flying Seattle-to-Portland-to-Amsterdam-to-Venice the first day!? I think if I could at all afford it, I would also go Business Class and get the comfy lie-down seats. It’s just so uncomfortable to be squished into such a tiny space for 10 hours. A huge expense, though, to fly first class without air miles.

I also wouldn’t take a backpack unless it had a convertible wheel base (with the new four-wheel system) and handle. I had too much trouble, first of all, with security; secondly, I did not have a comfortable enough waist strap to keep the weight on my hips. When we had to walk several hundred yards through an airport, I would be exhausted by the time we reached the gate. Having the option to be hands-free, though, is crucial for getting on/off trains and walking through tiny aisles or on cobblestone streets.

I’d also love to plan a trip around a music festival. That would be dreamy. I never feel like we stay long enough in one place, either. Hotels are cheap in April, and the tourist crush doesn’t come for another month or two. We lucked out on weather at each stop. Winchester was the only place where it rained hard, but it cleared up by the late afternoon.

Next time, next time…I’d better start saving now!

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May 7, 2016 Posted by | Amsterdam Travel, Italy Travel, Travel, UK Travel | , , , | 4 Comments

Randomville via Margaritaville, Huntsville and Nashville

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH ALABAMA AND TENNESSEE

I recently had an opportunity to take a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee.  Struggling in Seattle where we’ve had nothing but rain and gray weather for almost nine months, I was ready for some 90 degree heat and humidity and a chance to see some live music along the way.  My husband’s home office is in Madison, Alabama near Huntsville and the Tennessee border.  He was already there on business, so my son and I joined him later in the month.  I also had a chance to report on the music scene for Randomville.  

PART I:  GULF SHORES, ALABAMA

Alabama

Day 1:  Seattle to Atlanta, GA, then West to Smith Lake, AL

My son and I were up and out of the house by 6:25, and headed to my parents’ house.  Dad drove us to the airport without incident.  Traffic was easy.  I’d printed out my airline tix the night before, so we went right to the short security line.

I let the boy lead the way through the line, making sure I took off my shoes and had my little clear baggie of liquids (sun screen, shampoo, lotion, etc.) ready for the X-ray machine.  I looked up to see my 15 1/2 year old boy getting a pat-down.  WTF.  Then the TSA agents asked me to step inside the big blue X-ray box.  WTF again?!  I then entered the pat-down area.  A short woman, probably in her early twenties, told me she was going to pat me down.  “Do you feel comfortable with my patting you down?”

I could feel my eyes narrow, as I sarcastically said, “Uhh, sure.”

She paused.  “Would you prefer we go into a private location for the pat-down?”

“No, just get ‘er done.”

Did I really just say that??  Anyway, I let her pat me down there in front of god and everyone.

“I’m now touching your sensitive area…”  A quick swipe with the fingers around my bra.  I was wearing a tight t-shirt and  jeans.  I don’t know what I possibly could have been hiding in either location.

I was pretty pissed, but decided to stay calm so we could make our flight on time.  I had to choose my battles, and right now, I wanted to get to our gate.  End of story.

A young man outside the screening area  thought he was being singled out and profiled because of his his tattoos.  I told him both my son and I were patted down, too.

The boy and I got some great bagels and found our gate with about 1/2 hour to spare.  We called P and told him about our pat-down and X-ray adventure.  He laughed because after all his flying this past year, he’s never been subjected to that humiliation…Fer Freedom.  Yeah, right.

Our plane was very full.  We pulled out of the gate a little early, though, and made our way to the runway, and waited for 3 other planes to take off.  We were almost to the runway, when an interior ceiling panel came loose and drooped into the aisleway!  The flight attendant tried to quickly push it back, but then had to call ahead and ask a mechanic to meet them back at the gate.  We had to turn around!  Aargh.  Everyone groaned, then got out their cameras and phones and snapped pictures.  The lady next to me had it posted on her Facebook within two minutes!

Ceiling Panel of 737

Two mechanics and 45 minutes later, they got it fixed, which amounted to tucking the panel back in around the lip of the frame (a kid yelled, “I coulda done that!) and we were on our way again.  Because they had to go back to the gate, the flight attendants were required by law to run through the exit/seatbelt/oxygen routine all over again.  How stupid.  Sometimes one just needs to use the Common Sense Law.  Gawd.

After a smooth flight and no further incidents, we landed in Atlanta.  P was there to pick us up in the work van and we headed west to Smith Lake, Alabama to spend a quick night before our long drive to the Gulf.  Smith Lake is a beautiful, tree-lined lake that sprawls out with hundreds of miles of shoreline.  We were invited to stay in the company president’s home in a gesture of true Southern hospitality.  The home was beautiful with lake views from each window, large decks and screened porch, and patio areas suited for giant parties.  We had the whole place to ourselves that night, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  The loud chirping and hissing of cicadas were replaced with bird songs in the early morning.  I stepped out on the deck and felt the moist air hit my skin.  I felt like I’d just stepped out of the shower.  Steam was rising from the lake.  It was going to be hot, humid day today.

Smith Lake

Day 2:  Smith Lake to Gulf Shores

We cleared out about 9:00 and stopped in the small town of Jasper for a quick breakfast.  We stepped in a little local diner called Gabby’s.  We were looked up and down as we timidly took our seats at a small booth.  It was so obvious we were not locals.  P, who has been traveling back in forth to Alabama for the last 10 months, knew how to order.  How Y’All Doin?  Sweet or unsweet tea, or half-n-half.  Turnip greens and chicken-fried steak.  I stuck to an iceberg lettuce salad with sweet tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese and a thin turkey sandwich.  The boy had his first taste of southern BBQ.  He loved his smoky, chopped BBQ pork sandwich.

Alabama Interstate

The rural road that led from Jasper to the Interstate was gorgeous.  We passed through corridors of 50 foot green trees of different varieties; the most recognizable being the beautiful pines.  Little farms and distant houses dotted the horizon.  Cemeteries were laden with a rainbow of flowers, which P pointed out are made of silk or plastic.  Each cemetery we saw was full of color.

Once we got to the Intestate, there were more small towns and churches lining each side of the highway.  The boy couldn’t believe how many churches there were and wondered why.  I didn’t really have an answer to that.  It’s just how it is in the South–the Bible Belt.  Many highways, bridges and side streets and buildings were all named after some famous and not-so-famous dead people: James K. Polk Memorial Highway, etc.

The buildings had a Roman/colonial look, down to the smallest farm house, with white columns, a triangular entry way over the door, brick facade.  Red clay was prominent in Alabama, so it was no wonder why so many buildings and homes were made of brick.  The highway had a reddish tint in parts.

We drove for hours, south to Gulf Shores.  It seemed to make a decent recovery from the horrible oil spill last year, although the spring tornado damage all along the interstate was enough to take my breath away.  People seem to move slowly forward here, though; some businesses re-opened, and damaged areas were getting cleaned up.  The devastation was phenomenal, and not just located in Tuscaloosa; we found pockets of damage all over the state.  I really don’t know how families fully recover, if at all, from such sudden and violent destruction.  We could only hope we helped out the economy a little by paying a visit to the local restaurants, gas stations and shops along the way.

Tornado Damage in Tuscaloosa

Gulf Shores and its sister town Orange Beach, are family-friendly, laid-back vacation havens.  This is not the place to be if you want to have a jet-set high-class experience in swanky nightclubs and posh restaurants.  You can head for Malibu or Miami for that.  We  stayed in a little hotel suite in Gulf Shores.  Most condos and hotels we noticed were pretty much the same, with hotels being a bit better deal because of the small living room, kitchen, and no added condo fees.

Gulf Shores View from Balcony

We arrived late in the afternoon and hauled a vanload of crap up to the ninth floor.  I immediately opened our sliding door to check out the spectacular view from our deck.  It was so warm and perfect.  I could hear the waves hit the beach and terns call each other.  Pelicans flew right by our window.  Little blue umbrellas and lounge chairs were set up in perfect rows.  The sand was white and went on for miles in each direction.

We were hungry, and it was already getting dark, so we thought we’d grab a bite before hitting the beach.  We crossed the street to Tequila West, located inside a hotel.  Although the atmosphere outside on the patio wasn’t so pleasant (smokers and lots of little kids running around and crying, cars driving by) the food was delicious, and the margaritas and tequila sunrises were strong.

We took a walk in the soft sand and stuck our toes in the warm Gulf water before heading to our room to finish unpacking.  Not a hint of a chill in the water.

Day 3-5:  At the Beach

After a restless sleep, we woke ourselves up with strong coffee, pancakes and ham cooked in our little kitchen.  We ate out on the deck and took in the humid, salt air.  We let the boy sleep in and finally hit the beach around 10:30.  We rented a couple of lounge chairs and umbrella from the quietly friendly beach attendant.  He informed us we’d get the use of them all day.

Lounging at The Gulf

We played in the calm gulf surf for hours.  It took a long time for me to even get a little bit chilled.  I would simply step out of the surf and hang out on the lounge for a few minutes before jumping back in the green-blue water.  Little finger-length fish swam around our legs, larger foot-long fish wove their way through the small groups of people.  We saw dolphins earlier in the morning.  Kids were playing with hermit crabs and a dad caught a jelly fish in a bucket.  Life was returning to The Gulf.

Hangin’ Out with The Boy

In the afternoon, we showered, had a light lunch and decided to take a drive along the long spit that paralleled The Gulf, from Pensacola, Florida to the east to Fort Morgan to the west.  We went east to say we made it to Pensacola.  Hotels lined the roadway, with a few public beaches in between.

We started back through Orange Beach toward Gulf Shores.

Forest Fire Near Orange Beach

A big fire started in the pine trees of a state park near Orange Beach that created a huge cloud of smoke over the town.  Luckily for us, the wind blew it away from Gulf Shores. We could see the cloud throughout our drive, and later found out the fire had burned over 500 acres before being contained and doused.

We were back in Gulf Shores and were starting to get hungry again.  We decided to check out Lulu’s, Jimmy Buffett’s “Crazy Sistah’s” restaurant.  It sits back on the canal in Gulf Shores, next to Homeport Marina.  It has open-air seating, live music, a couple of bars, and a sand lot for the kids.  There are also original arts and crafts booths and a souvenir shop.  The food was great.  We ordered an appetizer of smoked tuna and crackers, then had blackened fish sandwiches, oysters and shrimp.  We listened to a nice Jamaican steel drum band while we ate.

Lulu’s at Homeport Marina

The next morning, we went back to Orange Beach and checked out a really nice Italian restaurant called Villaggio Grille.  Although the air had a smoky smell from the fire, we were so glad we decided to eat here.  It was Sunday Brunch, and the waiters were so happy to see us.  I’m pretty sure the smoke caused a lot of people to drive elsewhere that weekend.   The staff bent over backwards to serve us, and the food was out of this world.  There was a bakery next door, and Villaggio coordinated with it for biscuits and desserts.  These biscuits were my favorite of the trip.  They were small, but flaky, buttery and sweet.  We then settled in for some amazing brunch food:  The boy had mussels (the waiter kept asking him questions to make sure he knew what he was getting!  We informed him that the boy knows how to eat, and is pretty much an omnivore!), giant shrimp, perfectly cooked and resting on a bed of homemade flat pasta.  I had eggs Benedict with sweet potato hash, country style, in big chunks.  OMG.  It also came with a blueberry muffin, that I saved for later.  P had seared Ahi tuna, and it was perfectly done.  We also shared a nice spring mix salad and two crab cakes–a feast!  We savored every bite.  We will definitely go back here someday, and I felt a little sad when we left, knowing that we wouldn’t be back on this trip.

Fort Morgan

We then drove west to Fort Morgan and toured the old Civil War-era fort.  It was  interesting, and reminded us the local forts on the Washington coast.  The boy enjoyed the tunnels and exploring the little brick alcoves.  It was really hot that day, though, probably close to 98 degrees.  We then drove around the neighboring village and saw some beautiful pastel vacation houses.

Quiet Living on The Gulf

I assume Spring Breakers were at Gulf Shores earlier in the year; but when we were there in late June, most of the visitors were young families.  Although most of the activities offered were for young kids (putt-putt golf, small amusement parks and zoo), we managed to find some quality entertainment for us and our teenage son.

The best venue in Gulf Shores is The Hangout, located right on the beach.  Over Memorial Day weekend, the place gets hopping, and the stage and crowds move to the beach for a big music festival hosting a variety of artists like Foo Fighters, Widespread Panic, Paul Simon, Grace Potter, My Morning Jacket and Cee Lo Green.

The Hangout includes an indoor dining area with large bay doors that open up to the beach.  A small stage on the premises hosts cover bands nightly.  There are a couple of outside bars, and a giant bar next to the dining area.  Kids are allowed to sit at the bar with their adults.  That’s how they roll in The South!

When we were there, we ended up going to The Hangout three out of the four nights we were at The Gulf.  It was enjoyable for us and our son had a great time.  There was a different band playing every night, and they played everything from Johnny Cash to Gnarls Barkley.  The Hangout keeps the youngsters occupied while waiting for their meals by participating in YMCA sing-alongs, massive foam parties, and pirates galore.  They announced people’s birthdays and anniversaries and made the birthday kids (and adults) dance for the rest of the audience.

After four days of sun and sugar-soft sand, we packed up the van and drove our sun-kissed, dark-white bodies north, with a brief overnight stop in Huntsville.  We then continued on to Nashville for a two night stay.

Tennessee

PART II:  NASHVILLE, TN
Loveless Cafe

Nashville, Day 1

First, a stop at the Loveless Cafe, just outside the city of Nashville.  We settled in for some authentic Southern food, complete with biscuits, home-made preserves, country ham and gravy.  Not only does this famous cafe fill up the stomach and the soul, they also host Music City Roots concert and radio show in the Loveless barn every Wednesday.  We were there for an early lunch, so we weren’t able to stay for the show.  At $10 a ticket, it would be worth a trip back.

Nashville

I was excited and admittedly a little anxious about this leg of the journey.  I had so much to see and so little time.  Although Nashville, known as “Music City,” is home to The Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium,

Ryman Auditorium
I didn’t feel like seeing a Patsy Cline tribute or any mainstream auto-tuned country acts on this trip.  I feel like some of those mainstream stars have lost some heart and soul by the time they get to that uber-famous level.  I wanted to see the musicians and singer/songwriters who played in the little clubs and divey bars.  The hard-working ones who still play gigs in town and drive to gigs all over the country.  Most of my favorite shows I’ve seen over the years have been lesser known artists playing in smaller venues.
Will Kimbrough
One artist I wanted to see if he happened to be in town was Nashville resident Will Kimbrough.  I’ve had the honor of meeting and chatting with him over the last few years, so I was hoping we could catch him at a gig in town.  He’s constantly touring, so it was a long shot.
I first heard of Will while listening to Radio Margaritaville several years ago.  Will plays and writes with Jimmy Buffett, so Jimmy in turn plays some of Will’s solo work on his online radio station.  Will is not only a very talented singer/songwriter with a list of solo albums, but he has also produced albums for various artists.  He was “Will” in Will and the Bushmen, the late 80’s alt-pop group, and he currently shares the spotlight with Tommy Womack in Daddy. Will has also played sideman for Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, and most recently, Emmylou Harris.  He has been nominated and has won “Instrumentalist of the Year” from the Americana Music Association.  He is a self-proclaimed workaholic musician.  Will is so humble; I forget how great he is sometimes.
Will was indeed in town and would be playing guitar for Marshall Chapman at The Station InnMinton Sparks would open the show.
The Station Inn
The Station Inn reminded me of Seattle’s gritty, divey Tractor Tavern, only smaller.  The Station only holds about 100 people and has been around for about 30 years.  It is located in “The Gulch” district, a newly renovated area a few blocks off the main strip, where swanky, expensive restaurants and condos tower over the little brick tavern.  We walked into The Station, though, and felt right at home.
We found a nice old cushioned pew with a small table near the side of the stage and settled in.  We joined Will  for a brief chat before the show began.  We exchanged a beer-bottle toast and he welcomed us to NashVegas.  He said The Station Inn is the Bluegrass Capitol of the World, although this night would be a little different, as we were soon to find out.
Minton Sparks
The opening act, Minton Sparks, is a spoken-word poet and musician–a speaker-songwriter, she calls herself.  She was  dressed like a Southern Belle church lady, down to her little white patent leather purse and matching shoes.  Ms. Sparks had that Southern drawl where the words tend to linger on her lips before being gently released.  She could weave a story so well, and pull us into each character’s life.  A few times I had to pull back and remember where I was; I became mesmerized by each vignette.  Some were a little dirty, some were hysterically funny, and a couple almost made me cry.  Titles and words seemed so simple, but would twist and turn into something completely dark or more complex as the story progressed.  Some of my favorites were “Vicky Pickles’ Mama,” about a bikini-clad middle-aged neighbor;  “Suburban Snake Handler,” which was as dirty as the title implies;  and a yarn about meeting and talking to Minnie Pearl and spilling her soul to her.   Minton brought along John Jackson who played acoustic guitar and followed and adjusted his volume and tempo to match her characters’ mannerisms and quirks and jerks.

Marshall Chapman is a very busy singer/songwriter, author of two books, and recently simultaneously released a new album, Big Lonesome and nonfiction book, They Came To Nashville.

Marshall Chapman

She recently played the road manager to Gweneth Paltrow’s character in the movie Country Strong.
Ms. Chapman greeted us wearing black UnderArmour basketball shorts, an oversized black t-shirt, and bare feet.  Her gray hair was loosely pinned up into a crazy bird’s nest.  I liked her already, and she hadn’t sung a note.  She peered out into the audience and exclaimed, “Not bad for a Wednesday night in Nashville!”

Marshall’s latest songs are mostly folk/Americana, but her roots go back to rock ‘n’ roll.  Her songs, like Minton Sparks’ words, tell a story.  Some were more personal than others, such as “Tim Revisited,” and “Down to Mexico,” both written about Tim Krekel, her deceased friend and music partner.  She said sometimes the songs write her.
A few times in between songs, she would break out her latest book, They Came To Nashville, and read passages.  I enjoyed her story about asking Willie Nelson for an interview for her book; and after not being able to set a date with him due to his busy schedule, he invited her to travel around with him on his tour bus for a few nights.  Marshall also wrote a song about the experience called “Riding With Willie.” She has a very natural way of storytelling, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind and share a bit of her heart.  She strums to the rhythm of her own guitar; she is truly unique, and I completely admire her.

Will Kimbrough accompanied Marshall onstage.  Will’s guitarmanship was in fine form, although a bit subdued to match the folk genre and Station atmosphere.  He had some slow solos that showcased his total instrumental control.  He played a bluesy slide, and interchanged his two guitars to match the mood of the song.  The mostly quiet and polite audience responded with loud whoops and applause when Ms. Chapman introduced him after one such solo.
PART III:  NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, DAY 2

The next night, we decided to check out Broadway.  The street is lined with vintage neon signs advertising honky-tonk bars and kitschy restaurants and shops.  You can find every imaginable souvenir mug, magnet, bedazzled t-shirt, and Elvis likeness.  Made in China.  If you look closely, though, you can also find the beautiful Gruhn Guitar shop filled with vintage Martin acoustics, Fender and Gibson electrics, banjos, mandolins, and Dobros.  We also stumbled upon Hatch Show Print, which has been printing show posters since 1879.  We found one for Wanda Jackson and Old 97’s and purchased them on the spot.
I loved walking down the sidewalk on Broadway and hearing different music from each venue spilling out into the night.  Every few steps was a different sound:  Mainstream country covers, tribute bands, bluegrass and karaoke.  There is no cover charge for most bars; the musicians survive on money left in tip jars.  We wanted to go to Tootsie’s, a tiny bar with good country rock, but it was completely packed–standing room only.  I wanted to stand outside and listen, but the sidewalks were crowded, and people were pushing to get through.
We moved to the next bar, called “Second Fiddle.”  It was a long, skinny bar, dark and dead silent, except for the county cover band trying to get everyone’s attention on this Thursday night.  The band was fairly decent; but not good enough to hold our attention for more than one drink, so we left.  We weren’t sure where to go next; we were a bit tired from our late night and from hoofing it all over the city earlier that day.
Layla’s
Then…the sound that captures my soul…old-timey, Outlaw Country!  We peered in the picture window of Layla’s Bluegrass Inn and saw the upright bass getting spanked, flying fiddle rosin, a frontman with a mohawk and tattoos, a rockabilly drum beat, and guitar player who looked and sounded like Ken Bethea of Old 97’s.  We were in!
Slim Chance Through the Chicken Wire
Layla’s was tiny half empty (or haf full, depending on how one looks at it), and half of the people were half-drunk.  We decided to catch up, and ordered Pabst Blue Ribbons and saddled up to a tall round table close to the stage.  The PBR slid down like water, and we ordered a couple more.
Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys
That little band blew us away.  And their name, perfection:  Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys!  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Within minutes after our arrival, they broke into a rollicking version of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” followed by a Waylon Jennings number, Hank III and then my favorite train song, “Orange Blossom Special.”  Josh Headley almost caught that fiddle on fire during his rendition of that song.  They played a few more songs that were equally rowdy and a little dirty.
Bass and Fiddle Hamming It Up
Slim and the boys play at Layla’s every Thursday night.  I wanted them to come to Seattle and fire up The Tractor.  They’d fit right in.  I wanted to get up and dance, but instead, I let the ex-football player white guy at the other table get up and act like a fool.  I took a few pictures and the band hammed it up for me.  I could’ve stayed the rest of the night until they kicked me out; but we had to be responsible parents and get home at a reasonable hour, and try to act sober.

On our way out of town the next day, we stopped by Third Man Records,
Third Man Records
snapped some pics and purchased some t-shirts in the tiny storefront.  We were hoping for a tour, but they were busy that week.  It was pretty amazing just to be there and see the Rolling Record Store up close.  There are hundreds of vinyl records on sale from the many bands that are now on Jack White’s label.  Lots of cool souvenirs and shirts, too.

Rolling Record Store

I wish we had more time to explore Nashville.  I would have loved to see more shows at some of the other smaller, but well-known venues such as The Bluebird Cafe and The Basement, and also visit the historical United Record Pressing, but it wasn’t meant to be on this trip.
My Southern experience exceeded my expectations.  The Gulf weather was warm, the countryside was beautiful, and the people were friendly.  I embraced the South, and it embraced me.  And Nashville still has a heart and soul, if you know where to look.

July 14, 2011 Posted by | Concert Season 2011, Music, Randomville, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Italy 2008

Italy 2008

Venice - Canal from Rialto Bridge

Although this isn’t a music journal, I thought it was worthy enough to add a separate Travel Category.  Our trip to Italy in the summer of 2008 was a trip of a lifetime. We’ve traveled to quite a few states in the U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico, but nothing so far beats our trip to London and Italy.

June 22 London to Venice
We had morning tea with Cousin Joan and Michael in their beautiful October Cottage, about 45 minutes south of London.  I will discuss our short visit and tour of London in a different journal.  Michael drove us to the Gatwick airport at about 10:30.  After brief hugs and promises to return, we ran through a quick security check after Jake had to be patted down for his big metal belt buckle!

More sitting and waiting.  We boarded the plane fairly quickly, but had to sit on the tarmac for about an hour!  Once again we were next to a small toddler, about 17 months.  The parents were very nice, young couple originally from Canada, but working in London.  They were on their way to Venice for a vacation.

Finally arrived in Venice about 4:50.  On the way, I remember seeing beautiful hillsides of England, then the gorgeous Swiss Alps.  I remember Dad telling me about his adventures in the Army, and how they took leave to visit Italy and the Alps.  He always wanted to go back, and encouraged me to visit; but not possible on this trip.  As we flew over the marshes surrounding Venice, it looked more like a swamp to me!  We then flew in a little closer and I could see some familiar towers and the Grand Canal.  The airport was very nice and clean.  It was very hot; much hotter than London, that’s for sure!  I believe the time was about an hour later than UK time.  Customs was a matter of getting our passport stamped!

We found our way to the ticket office to purchase our vaporetto tickets.  We hurried over to the boat dock, then realized too late that we were almost out of water.  Darn.  We had to wait approx. ½ hour in the heat, although the dock was covered.  We had all of our luggage of course, and were feeling good about not over-packing!

Venice on the Horizon

Finally the vaporetto (water bus) arrived.  It was the slow boat, but we thought that would be the most economical at 12 euro apiece.  We could’ve taken a taxi, but it would have cost about 100 euro!  We thought we could use the money somewhere else, so we sat back to enjoy the ride.  Well, about 45 minutes of sweltering heat later, we were really questioning our decision!  The canal was so crowded, and they had to dock in very tight spaces.  They had so many stops.  It seemed like at one point it was so crowded that they just turned around and went another direction.  I’m not sure.  It just seemed like forever.

Gondolas and Ducal Palace

By this time, we were pretty hot, cranky and hungry.  Finally, over an hour later, we came to our stop, right in front of San Marco!  Oh, what a beautiful place!  We unloaded our suitcases, headed to the left and promptly got lost.  Although we studied our maps, we weren’t really sure of the scale or the location of the street in which to turn.  We went back the way we came, then past the Piazza.  I argued with Pat (trying to keep my temper and voice down) that I was sure our hotel was not that direction, that we were indeed on the left side.  So back we went, dragging and rolling our suitcases behind us!

By San Marco

Finally we turned on the correct street and then we didn’t quite know where the next turn was!  Up a very narrow street, then left.  We ended up walking right past the door, because I looked left instead of right!  We walked by a restaurant and asked the nice waiter who told us to go back and we would find it on our left.

Ah, there it was!  Locanda Antica Venezia on Calle Frezzaria!  But the door, which had two brass doggies for doorknobs was locked.  What next?  So we saw the intercom and buzzed it.  We couldn’t really understand the clerk, although he was speaking English.  We told him our names and he eventually buzzed us in.  We entered and found ourselves standing in a square dungeon of a room.  Not a very nice entryway!  We then saw the stairs and started climbing up, up, up!

Doggie Door at Locanda Antica

Four flights up was the front desk!  Again, although our legs and lungs were killing us, we were so glad we didn’t over-pack.  A nice female clerk showed us to our room, another flight up and through a dining area and little living room with a big couch and tv.

Jacob's Alcove

Our room was soooo cool!  It had the original beams dating from the 16th Century!  This was originally a house of a patrician.  They gutted out the attic and made it into several living quarters.  Ours was a suite because of the extra boy in our party.  We loved it!  We quickly ran to the windows and opened the Real green shutters and just looked and listened.  Although our windows overlooked a little alley and a terra cotta roof, we could hear the noise and chatter of the people below, cats, dogs, church bells, boats on the Canal, clinking of silverware on dishes.  It was hot, though, so we shut them up again and cranked the air conditioning.

A Room With A View

After cooling off a bit and changing and drinking lots of water, we decided to venture out to find something to eat.  We didn’t have to venture far to find a little restaurant just around the corner from our alley on Calle Valleresso.  It was pizza, and I thought, “how original” but we were too hungry to care.  We just needed some food.  Our waitresses and two others were Asian.  I was thinking, “What did we do, find the only restaurant in all of Venice without Italian waiters??  Whatever, just give me some food!!!”

We ordered pizza, salao, and wine.  The wine came first.  OMG.  It was so good.  Just a house wine, but it was so smooth, fruity and delicious!  I can’t remember what salao is, I’ll have to look it up.  I think it was mixed veggies and bread or something.  Then the pizza.  Oh yum!!  We ordered two, one with meat and I believe mushrooms, and the other cheese so we could take some to Mike and Jackie when they arrived later that evening.  We chowed down and only had two or three slices left!!

Very satisfied and full, we walked back to our room to await our friends, Mike and Jackie, who would be joining us for most of the trip.  We weren’t exactly sure when they’d be in, but we were estimating around 8 or 9:00.  We got up to the front desk and looked down and saw Jackie’s auburn hair coming up the stairs!

We quickly tried to hide and surprise them, but that didn’t work, of course!  Lots of hugs and squeals of joy that they made it!  They were exhausted after their huge travel day of Seattle-Calgary-London-Venice!  Ugh.  They were hungry, so we immediately showed them up to their room next to ours, and gave them our remaining pizza.  They ate it furiously while telling us about their trip and asking about our London visit.  We were all pretty tired, but wanted to go explore.

We walked out to the Piazza where we could hear the little orchestras playing, watch the other tourists (including ourselves) gawk at the beautiful buildings surrounding the square, and look up at San Marco and the Campanile Tower.  We took a few pics and headed home, but first found our soon-to-be favorite gelato shop and had pistachio, melon, stracciatella, and dulce latte!  Yum.  Back up our stairs, Jackie and Jake counted 84 steps to our rooms!!

San Marco

June 23 Venice, full day

Although we were somewhat used to the time change after being in the UK for 3 days, Mike and Jackie would need some adjustment time.  We all got up early though and showered.  That was an adventure, until we figured out the routine.  Our bathroom was down the hall, but we had a key.  We shared it with M&J, but it worked out well.  The shower, on the other hand, was simply a very small but deep bathtub with no curtain and with a shower attachment and hose that you would have to use by either squatting or kneeling (as Mike tried to do and Pat walked in on him!!) or just sitting down and enjoying the difference in culture.  Jake also liked the bidet!  We all tried it and had varying responses!

We went outside to the little rooftop courtyard and the waitress brought our first cup of caffe!  Oh, it was soooo good.  With a little warm latte, perfetto!  We were now officially Italian.  We had a nice little breakfast with lots of choices for hot food, as well as a simple buffet of granola, yogurt, and fresh fruit and juices, including blood orange juice (my fave).  Jake said he liked the croissants and corn flakes the best.  We found this menu throughout our stay at all the bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Grand Canal

We gathered our small backpacks and water and headed out for our first full day of exploring.  We didn’t have a set schedule in Venice because we knew it would be better to just keep it unstructured as we all adjusted to the climate and time zone.  We took Rick Steves’ advice and just got lost in Venice!

Venice Alley

We sauntered down the narrow alleys which actually kept us out of the sunlight and much cooler.  We crossed over little bridges that were packed with tourists and gondoliers chanting for our business: “gondola-gondola-gondola!”  We found a Tourista agency not too far from our hotel.  We decided to purchase our train tickets early, since we had a plan for getting from city to city.  It was easier than we thought, and the ticket agent was very helpful.

Gondola

We continued to stroll around through back alleys, shops, over bridges.  Laundry was hanging between alleys, just like in pictures and movies.  Flower boxes were hanging off deck railings overflowing with brilliant summer colors.  I thought that was just a stereotype, or maybe just a tourist area, but no, it’s everywhere!  People live here!  I felt like I was in DisneyWorld, only not so sterile of an environment.

Venice Piazza

I have talked to quite a few people who have visited Venice, and about 50% of them didn’t like it because of the smells and grittiness of the place.  This is exactly what I loved about Venice!  It gave it its charm and unique quality.  In a place like DisneyWorld, although initially magical, my senses are dulled.  Eventually after a couple of days there, there is no sense of…authenticity…I’m not sure.  All I know is my senses in Venice came alive.  I could smell every alleyway, I could smell the people, I could smell the beautiful fruits (the grapes did smell purple, just like the movie Under the Tuscan Sun) and vegetables in the market, I could smell the water in the canal, and I could smell the food cooking in all of the little trattorias and osterias and ristorantes that we passed.  I embraced that city; we all did.

Market

We walked and walked and walked.  We strolled the back alleys and glass shops (the island of Murano is world-famous for its glass art), bought glass earrings, bottle stoppers, bracelets, stepped over many bridges, found a sleeping cat next to a doorway (I petted it then hoped I didn’t get ring worm!), saw graffiti, a down comforter hanging, more flowers, the Rialto Bridge, where an older French couple asked us to take their picture without saying a word of English, merci, merci!, San Marco in the daytime, cruise ship tourists by the thousands, a Ferrari gift shop (where Jake purchased his r/c Ferrari), saw delis full of wine, meats and cheeses, saw a beggar lady who looked 95 hold out a tobacco case for change, gondolas and gondoliers down every back tributary, a street guitarist, store fronts for the best designers: D&G, Armani, Gucci, leather goods, and postcard shops.

Rialto Bridge

Also, I became enamored with the doors and door knockers.  I first noticed our doggies on Locanda Antica’s green doors.  Then I decided to take pictures of them as we strolled down the many streets and alleys.  I must have taken at least 50 pics just of door knockers!  It became a joke after awhile, as everyone would start looking with me.  More knockers!  Here are some big knockers! Etc.  There were mostly made of brass or maybe bronze.  The best were patinaed and old.  There were lions, cougars, Africans, Egyptian pharaohs, more lions, flowers, rings, gargoyles, and even more lions.  And the doors…how old?  Wooden, dented and scratched, painted, stained, light, darker, black.  Years of knocking, banging, hitting with keys, groceries.

Door Knocker

We remembered watching a show called Three Sheets where this funny guy travels all over the world to try out the different alcohol-related customs.  He went to Venice in one episode and visited Cantina Do Mori, a little wine cantina from the 1460’s!  They had a variety of appetizers he tried as well as many choices of red and white wine.  One of the appetizers was octopus, which the host tried, but made a terrible face.  Jake decided this would be the appetizer he would choose, if we actually found the place.  Which we did!  We literally stumbled upon it while turning in to an alley near the Rialto Bridge.  It was dark inside the narrow little cantina.  The servers were very reserved and watched us as we ooh-ed and aah-ed while looking at the ebony wood walls and all of the appetizers in the case, and all of the wine.  We played it safe and just ordered a glass each of the house wine.  I tried the white, since it sounded cool and refreshing, which it was.  We then chose our appetizers.  Jake, the baby octopus.  It was a whole baby octopus.  Ugh.  I had bruschetta.  Pat had a prosciutto sandwich.  M&J also tried bruschetta.  Jake actually finished the whole octopus, much to our horror!  We soaked in the ambience of the place and still couldn’t believe that cantina has been in business since before Columbus sailed the ocean blue!

Cantina

We finally wore down with  true hunger and turned into a little square and without giving another thought turned right into a little Trattoria Pizzeria.  I didn’t pick up a business card, but remembered the not-so-unique name.  The waiters, although a bit stand-offish, were prompt to seat us.  There were many people outside, but we soon realized if we ate indoors we usually had the place to ourselves as well as air conditioning.  Also, lunch and dinner for the locals was never the same as when we wanted to eat, so we usually did eat almost entirely alone.

We ordered red wine and again found it delicious!  We also ordered bottled water (gas and no gas) as was a tradition in each city we visited.  I’m not sure if this was borne from ignorant tourists not trusting the water, or something in which they prided themselves.  Either way, it was refreshing.  We each had varying dishes of lasagna, spaghetti and gnocchi.  Jake had gnocchi al pesto, Mike had gnocchi al pomodoro, Jackie had spaghetti margareta, Pat had lasagne which he said was like butter, and I had tortellini with spinach and cheese and pomodoro marinara.  All good!  We stuffed ourselves and headed back out, first stopping for more gelato for dessert.

Spending months learning, reading and preparing for our trip was so worthwhile.  Our greatest asset was the Rick Steves series of books and travel shows on our public channel.  He has such practical advice from hotel choices to food, to which way to look for a taxi when you get off the train at your destination.   One of the things we enjoyed the most in each city, but especially in Venice, was something I’d read and seen on one of his shows: water spigots!  The bottled water was great in the restaurants, but when we were wandering through back alleys in Venice, the spigots were our lifeblood.  We all started out with full water bottles, but the heat and walking drained them quickly.  We turned a corner and found ourselves in a very tiny square surrounded by apartments and window shutters.  Looking down was a little running water spigot.  Do we drink…?  Yes.  We filled up and found the water to be cool and amazingly good.  Apparently it is piped in from the Alps.

Water Spigot

Took a rest back at the hotel and decided to eat dinner at another little pizza joint next door to the one from the night before off Calle Valleresso.  It was a little fancier, the waiters were very Italian and wore white dinner jackets.  One stout little waiter would sing at the open door into the alley to entice customers. The food was fairly reasonably priced and again very good.  We had lasagna there, too, and it was comparable to the place at lunch.  We had a little fridge in our room so we were able to save some nibbles for the next day.

June 24 Venice – 2nd full day

We breakfasted at 8:00 and already we could feel the heat bearing down on us at our rooftop perch.  But oh, the caffe latte was soooo good!  Today we had to dress up for San Marco.  We decided to take a tour of the basilica which opened at 9:00.  We made sure wear our nicer clothes and cover our shoulders.  I brought my nice wrap, which was way too hot, but did the trick.

Bridge of Sighs

San Marco Horses

Italian Navy

We started walking through the Piazza, but were stopped and directed over to the side.  The Italian Navy was marching through!  What a sight!  We watched as hundreds marched by in blocks of three or four.  They were all so beautiful!  Even those with glasses were very stylish!  They stopped and the Navy band played a few songs, then they marched back toward the dock.  As we stood in line for St. Marks, they marched back and did it all over again!  I took lots of pictures.  They were in camouflage with little black berets with anchors on the beret fronts.  There was an Italian lady in line behind us trying to speak with Mike, and what we could decipher was that they were either going to or were back from Afghanistan.

Navy

Finally, our line started moving and we were shuffled in to the Basilica.  It was stunning.  Gorgeous gold mosaics depicting bible stories glimmered in the morning sunlight.  The domed ceilings and arches looked like they were painted in gold.  Closer inspection made us realize how painstaking it must have been to lay all of the tiny pieces of glass and still make brilliant pictures with shading and flowing robes and varying colors and tones of skin and backgrounds.  On the outer walls was the story of how monks smuggled the bones of St. Mark himself back to Venice, where he now lays to rest under the large altar.

San Marco Mosaic

We snuck away from the generic and hard-to-hear tour guides and up the steep stairs to the balcony which had a breathtaking view of the city, Grand Canal, Piazza, and the Navy.  We spent several minutes taking pictures, walking carefully around the sloping balcony.  From there we could really look closely at the mosaics.  Each little piece was only as big as my finger nail!  There were also four bronze horses that kept watch over the Piazza.  I later found out these were copies.  The originals were kept in the museum.  We decided to check out the museum next.

Horses

It was hot, we were all a little hungry, but thought we’d just breeze through it at our own pace.  We purchased our tickets (fairly cheap) and past an old marble pedestal…and then…The Four Horses.  I had seen beautiful gold mosaic depictions of Christ on the cross, Mary and Jesus, the Nativity, the Pieta, but the Horses made me weep.  I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  The rest of our group continued on around the corner and explored other rooms of the small museum.  I lost track of the time.  I asked a tour guide, “How old?” Her reply, “Two thousand years.”   I read that the horses were first thought to be from Constantinople, that Constantine acquired them, then Napoleon took them, then they ended up in Venice, then back somewhere else, then they finally mounted them atop the Basilica.  About 25 years ago they finally moved them inside.   They were at least 95% copper, had some copper color left after much restoration, but still had some green patina.  They were scarred and scratched from their days outside to keep the sun from reflecting too brightly off their strong bodies.  I guess what brought so much emotion out of me were their expressions and the details on each one.  I felt their presence, like they were real.  Bold, strong giants, trotting proudly, veins, wrinkles, snorting, shaking their massive heads, slamming their hooves down, bringing their strong legs up for the next step….2000 years.  How did the warriors carry them from place to place without damage?  Why were they so prized?  Who made them?  I cried.  I sobbed.  I wept.  I was completely overwhelmed by their power. Nothing, not the saints, not the Madonna, not even Jesus, had the power to move me the way the Four Horses did.

I caught up to Pat as he was walking back to find me.  I started crying all over again.  I tried to explain to him and to Jake and M&J, but I just couldn’t figure out what moved me to tears.  There’s a word for people who have an emotional reaction to art.  I don’t remember now what it’s called!

We wandered through the rest of the museum, then I asked if I could have one more look before “letting them go” and promising to visit them again.  I still have burned into my memory the last look of the first horse peering over the dividing wall at me.  I guess that’s my one thing that I want to remember the most.  Ralph and Karen’s son Chris passed away a few years ago.  I didn’t know him very well, but I learned so much about him at the funeral, which made me sad, but at the same time, glad I got to know him better.  His friend said that they had traveled to Italy (at that time, Italy was only a far-off dream to me).  He said that they were in Tuscany and could see a beautiful landscape in front of them.  Chris told his friend to burn that image in his mind forever, and every time they went anywhere, they would try to remember that one special image that made the trip so special.  This was my image: The Four Horses. See more information here: http://www.jssgallery.org/Essay/Venice/San_Marco/Basilica_San_Marco/Four_Horses.htm

Original Four Horses, copyright philg@mit.edu

A View At The Top of San Marco

We soon departed the Basilica and decided to take a ride up the Campanile tower since the line was fairly short.  Luckily there was an elevator since we didn’t feel like climbing stairs in that heat.  Up to the top, we had an amazing view of the city and beyond.  Oh my gosh, we haven’t even covered ¼ of the city!  We thought for sure we’d walked most of it!  Then we found our “house”!  Locanda Antica, with its big white awning was easily recognizable.  It made sense, since we could see the tower from our seats at breakfast!  We took some pictures (try to find the Locanda!)  and made our way back to the elevator door.  It was pretty crowded and hot up there, but there was a nice breeze from the canal.

From the Tower

Our House With White Awning

Above San Marco

By the time we got back down, I was a little dizzy from the heat and was hungry.  We got some water and headed back to the rooms to change and take a break.

Time to head out again to get some food!  There was a self-serve café just down the street that we thought we’d try called Chat Qui Rit, which means Cat something.  It was very overpriced, not that great, and very hot inside.  We paid 68 euros just for the 3 of us!  And there was a Soup Nazi moving the line along.  Prego, Prego!

Went back to the room and had a siesta.  I believe this is the time that Jackie fell asleep in a chair in our room!  We were all a little tired.

Doges Palace

We went to Doges Palace (got tickets in the am after our Basilica tour).  It was pretty much a self-guided tour through the lovely palace of a very rich dude.  It was right next to the San Marco Piazza, a pinkish marble building built in a U shape with a great courtyard surrounded by statues.  Inside was stunning with gold leafing, ornate wall decorations, rooms packed with paintings and painted ceilings, an armory room, and then things changed from banquet halls to the halls of justice.  This is also where prisoners were tried and found guilty or innocent.  If found guilty, they were led across the Bridge of Sighs (their last look at the Canal–sigh) and into the dungeons of the prison next door!  We walked through the bridge and took pics of the tourists taking pics of us!

On Bridge of Sighs

Water Taxi Tour

That evening, we decided to hire a sleek wooden water taxi.  We all decided not to take the pricey and touristy gondolas.  We just didn’t think that was what we wanted to do.  Of course, everyone thought we should have, but we weren’t really into it.  Besides, I said, we did that in Vegas! Ha  Pat and Mike dickered with the driver to get the price down about 10 euros (big deal–still cost 90).  But it was very fun.  He cruised through the whole canal and took us around to spots we weren’t able to walk to without having a few more days.  He didn’t speak English, so that was the only bummer.  It would’ve been nice to be able to know what we were looking at.  I did point out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum!

We then went to dinner at Green Bar, which was a little deli full of nice panini sandwiches, good beer, and strawberry bellinis!  Yum!

Back to the hotel after a little shopping and more gelato.  Oh, and one night while licking our heavenly gelato from our favorite little shop by our hotel, we witnessed the purse dealers and purse pimp in action.  At first, we weren’t sure what was going on.  There were African men that would appear on the street corners and alleyways holding big blue plastic bags.  We thought they were garbage collectors at first, and I almost threw my gelato napkin in one of them one time! Luckily, I thought better and didn’t attempt it!  But that night, we saw one of them pull out some purses as a group of young women strolled by.  They stopped and bargained, then continued walking, but turned around and bargained some more.  The pimp, an Italian man, was speaking to the dealer to either get more money or to keep selling, etc.  Finally the deal was made and one of the women left with a big purse, and the dealer ran a few yards up the street to hand a wad of cash to the pimp.  Wow.  It was fascinating to see how it worked.  Although illegal, most cops just turned their heads as long as they weren’t pestering or causing trouble.

June 25 Venice to Florence

We were up by 7 am, showered, had our last breakfast on the roof with our caffe latte and then caught a vaporetto to the train station.  It was hard to say goodbye to Venice.  We took our last looks as we putted down the canal.

The train station was a bit confusing.  We figured out which train, but we weren’t sure where the first class coaches were.  We hopped on, trying to run to the correct coach.  It was very difficult hauling our suitcases onto the narrow steps and then down the very narrow aisles.  We found what we thought were our seats, but then ended up moving to a different coach after we started out.  We finally figured out how to read our tickets after we found the correct seats.

The train ride took longer than we thought, because we actually went back one hour for the time change.  We took some short naps, got some food.  Took some pictures of the rolling hills.  It reminded me of Northern California in the springtime.

After passing through several little towns, we finally arrived in Florence, Santa Maria Novella station.  It was an eye-opener.  It was very hot, extremely busy with taxis, buses, electric buses, scooters, people walking, tourists gawking, businessmen in beautiful suits on bikes and scooters, and all on cobblestone streets!  We were frightened to move!

Florence

Arno River

We found the taxi line outside the station and hailed two after looking up our next destination.  We prayed we’d get to our hotel in one piece!  It was pretty dodgy getting through some narrow streets to our hotel, Hotel Maxim on Via Caiziouli.  Talk about a central location!  We were literally surrounded with the biggest sights in Florence, including the Duomo, Giotto’s Tower, Uffizi Gallery, Accademia, and Ponte Vecchio bridge.

The hotel didn’t have much style, but the front desk people were friendly.  Our room looked like an old hospital room, painted stark white with high ceilings, one middle light hanging in a white ball, a tall window and a tiny desk and mirror.  The bathroom was moldy with a little fan that had to be plugged in to work.  Jake was immediately disappointed after loving his little alcove bed and attic room in Venice.  And we all hated the traffic and craziness of the city.

Pitti Palace and Gardens

We settled in and decided to get a small bite to eat and take a look around.   We walked and walked and walked in the 90 degree heat!  Again the buildings were tall, so we were able to get out of the direct sunlight.  We decided we had some time to do whatever we wanted so we ended up purchasing tickets to Boboli Gardens, which was the “backyard” of the Pitti Palace.  Pitti, once owned by the Medici family, is now a giant museum.  We were going to other museums over the next few days, so we opted out, much to Jacob’s relief.  As we were walking up the paved entrance to the palace to purchase tickets, this little English girl with blond braids was talking to her father: “Seriously, Daddy, if I have to see one more museum…”  We laughed!

We thought we’d stroll through the gardens at our leisure.  What we didn’t know is that the gardens were situated on a very large hill!  We had to walk up,up,up!  On the way up were beautiful fountains, hedges and statues.  Jake especially liked the statue of Neptune in one of the fountains because he just did a play about him in his class.  There was a giant statue of Ceres that must have been about 15 feet tall.  We finally made it to the top where there was a little box hedge garden and a fantastic view of the Tuscan hills.  Just like in the movies or photographs.  There was even a little castle at the top of the far hill.  Also, there was a pretty little museum we visited with china of all sorts in cases.

Ceres

Art Students

City Wall

We were getting hungry and thirsty, so we walked back down and found a little restaurant on the corner just on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio.  It was very fancy with dark wood walls and furniture and covered tables, but no one was in there!  Once again, it was too early for dinner, and I think people do small meals for lunch.  The waiter was very nice and friendly, and once again we ate and ate and ate.  Ensalada Mista, pasta, gnocchi, wine, bread…very good, but I didn’t write down the name of the restaurant!  I’ll see if Mike did.  Gelato for dessert somewhere on the streets.

There was definitely a different flavor in Florence.  For one thing, the gelato tasted different!  It had a creamier texture.  The people of Florence were very much there to do business. This was a working city, not just a tourist trap.  People in nice clothes and suits were rushing back and forth, walking in heels on cobblestone streets, scootering, biking.  The street shops were not full of glass trinkets and souvenirs, but full of designer clothes and handbags.  Much fancier than Venice.  This was a fashion Mecca, a sister of Milan.  The cobblestone streets were only cut off from vehicles in the main square by the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio Bridge.  The rest of the streets were fair game.  We really had to watch ourselves and watch the streets to avoid getting run over by Vespas.  It was very stressful until about the 2nd full day.

Florence's Duomo

Copy of Baptistry Door Panel

Sasso di Dante

We took a break back at the hotel, then ventured out for a little while at sunset.  We again wanted to eat, so we settled for Sasso di Dante (Stone of Dante, or Philosopher’s Stone).  Again, the food was excellent, and the prices were much lower, very reasonable.  It was somewhere near the Duomo, but not sure of the street.  There were some of the friendliest waiters we had on the whole trip.  I later asked, “Que es Sasso?”  Stone!  Look! Right here!  Oh, the stone was planted right by the side of the restaurant with a little plaque that said Sasso di Dante!  I took a picture.

June 26 Tour Day

The David!  So many years went by thinking about going to Italy someday and seeing the Statue of David.  It was bizarre to think I was actually going to accomplish that dream today.  Several months before our trip, we made arrangements to meet Lise Apatoff, an expat tour guide.  Pat’s accountant friend at work gave us her information and was very satisfied with her when they went on a tour a year before.  I called her when we got in town and she was excited to meet us.

I passed her in the hall of the elevator without thinking…I hadn’t seen a picture of her.  So I ran back upstairs to see if I could catch her.  I introduced myself, and she thought I was too young, so she didn’t question if I was the Lisa she was looking for!  That was a nice thing to say!  Plus she was amazed I just ran up 3 flights of stairs.  Well, I told her, we had a lot of practice in Venice!  She went back down with me to meet the rest of the gang.

We started in a big square behind our hotel.  She sat us down in the shade on a bench and began to tell us a brief history of the city, as well as some of the surrounding buildings in the immediate square.  She had maps, postcards and old pictures of what Florence used to look like.  It was very interesting, yet not drawn out too long, being that the day was going to be hot, and Jake’s patience would not stand for too much study today!  All of the buildings that surrounded us were made of large rectangular stone and were hundreds of years old.  Some were like old towers that hadn’t changed over the years, but apartments butted up on either side of them.  The walls of the towers and old buildings had holes in them for inserting boards for climbing to the roof to fix the terra cotta shingles.  They also had hooks where rods could be hung below windows to show off the family crests or hang laundry, or even attach a pet monkey on a lead.  Lower, there were O rings attached on embedded iron to tie up horses.  They also had wooden hatches next to doors for delivery items that would go to the kitchens, etc. so the carts didn’t have to go through the front doors.  On the corners of the more prominent homes or businesses, there were religious depictions of Mary and Jesus.  Usually pictures with words of scripture or family names or both below.  Some would be etched into the stone, but many were encased in glass several feet up on the corner walls. 

We got to go into an old house from the 14th century.  Like the other towers and surrounding buildings on every block we walked on, this was wedged in between a row of other apartments and old towers.  I would have walked right by it, but she knew her way around all the back alleys and streets.  The house was now a museum.  She spoke to the lady at the entrance in Italian, and in we went.  There were 3 or4 or maybe more floors to this place!  They had the first 2 completely restored.  There was an old fresco of a knight with the family crest on one wall by the stairs.  A little stone lion guarded the staircase rail.  That is one of my favorite pictures that I took.  The little lion had such a sweet face.  The floors were all terra cotta tile.  The original door was studded with large iron spikes for security.  The kitchen was on the very top floor, but this was still being renovated.  All the cooking was done on the top so the smell of meats and smoke would drift upward and out of the house.  The bedroom had a little cupboard embedded in the wall and was like a little shrine for praying to Mary and Jesus, with beautiful paintings on the inside.  There was even a little bathroom in the corner, which was very unusual for the time.

Lion on the staircase

Little shrine in bedroom

Looking Up

We also visited an old church or convent that was important because inside was a very old fresco of the Last Supper.  I don’t remember the artist, but I did keep a pamphlet about it.  I’ll add that in later.

We then walked over the Ponte Vecchio bridge where she brought up the story of the German officer who was in charge of blowing up the bridge during WWII.  He couldn’t do it.  He’d studied art history and knew that the bridge was a significant part of the Italian Renaissance.  So he instead blew up the buildings and roadways on either side of the bridge, making it impassable, and keeping the bridge safe.

The bridge also has a passageway over the top of it for the great Medici family to cruise back to their palace without being noticed.  The bridge used to be filled with meat markets, but it was too stinky for the Medici family, so they sent the meat markets down the street and allowed jewelry vendors to occupy the bridge instead.

We walked to a back street and found a strange building that looked like it had been fractured down the side with a jagged knife, then attached to another.  This was where a car bomb blew back in the 60’s, I believe.  They rebuilt the part that blew off, so the building looks very odd.  They planted a new olive tree next to a very old one and fenced them in next to the building as a remembrance of the more recent 911, and how things do tend to continue on after great trauma.

Fractured Building

We walked Northeast toward the Accademia.  On our way we walked past the Duomo and the doors of the Baptistry, the beautiful bronze doors!  My friend Karen and I saw 3 of the original restored panels at the Seattle Art Museum back in April.

After paying for our tickets, we strolled first though some 13th century paintings and then into the beautiful rectangular room with a dome at the end. I had to look; I knew he was standing there!  David!  First, Lise tortured us by showing us some other sculptures of Michelangelo’s, his great Slaves, where the gorgeous bodies are trying to set themselves free of the marble.  Beautiful.  But I wanted David.  She saw me peeking, and quietly acknowledged that we would get there soon enough.

We strolled quietly over to him.  He wasn’t looking directly at us, but off in the distance at his giant prey.  He had such a presence, such a power to him.  There was a dome above him that let the natural light bathe his thin, muscular physique.  Nothing can really describe seeing him in person.  I’ve seen so many pictures of him, that being right there in front of him was very surreal.  Lise pulled us off to the side in the direction in which he was looking.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.  She explained the story of David, and also the story of Michelangelo and how he was only 26 when he sculpted this masterpiece.  And how his patron complained that David’s nose wasn’t quite right.  So Michelangelo climbed up his scaffolding and pretended to work on the nose.  He took some marble dust from his pocket and slyly dribbled it down to make it seem like he was chipping away at the nose.  He got down and let the patron view it.  Perfetto!  He was perfetto, smooth, beautiful.  His stare was ass-kicking.  We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, but I knew I had to make compromises with our group.  Some day, when I’m an old lady, I’ll come back for a visit and stay as long as I please.

We finished our tour at Ristorante da Mimmo.   It was originally a musical theatre with high ceilings and arched entryways.  It was beautifully painted, and again, empty!  She sat down with the waiter and spoke Italian and had him go through the menu with us.  I had the best lunch here. It was some kind of pot roast in an orange-brown sauce over noodles.  It was terrific.  I forgot the name, and I couldn’t find it on their online menu!  Darn!  I might write to Lise and see if she can find out next time she’s in town.

We were all exhausted as we made our way back to the hotel.  Jake was feeling overheated, so Pat stayed back with him while I went out with Mike and Jackie for gelato.  I grabbed an extra for the boys and headed back with melting cups!  We all took a break for awhile, then I headed out with M & J for a bus ride to the top of a hill called Michelangelo Park.  At the top, was a beautiful, scenic park and also a giant bronze-green sculpture of David.  There was a great view of the city from here, and the surrounding Etruscan (Tuscan) hills.  We also went into an old convent chapel where there were beautiful paintings and very old altar.  It was dark, cool, and very peaceful.

Bronze David

View of Ponte Vecchio

We decided to hike back after getting some water and a cool, fruity granita.  It was quite a long hike to the bottom of the hill, then over the bridge and up a few blocks to our hotel.  What a long day!  The boys were recovered and ready to go eat again.

We ate dinner at I Fratellini.  It was another little gem tucked away on a side street.  It was in Rick Steves’ book and another tour book we had studied.  It was good and had reasonable prices.  We have some funny pics of Jake here, because he was pretty tired and silly by this point.

We got more gelato, walked around by the Duomo and settled in for the night.  We even did some hand-washing of our clothes in the sink!  It actually worked out ok, and most of our clothes were completely dry by the next afternoon.

Giotto's Tower

June 27 Uffizi Gallery Tour

Piazza Signoria

Fake David

Medusa's Head

Uffizi Gallery!  We met Lise at 9:00 in front of the “fake” David in the sculpture piazza.  She took our picture in front of the fountain statue of Neptune, which Michelangelo supposedly called a waste of marble!  Or the big fat white guy!  We only had to wait about 5 minutes to get into the gallery because she had ordered tickets for us months in advance.  That is the only way to go.  The line for non-ticket holders was insane.  Plus, just after 9 or 10, the cruisers pile out of the buses and invade the city, so we were smart to go early.

Lise briskly walked us through 14th century Madonnas, including my favorite Giotto, with the little angels looking up at the holy Mother and Child.  Then on to the 15th century and Botticelli, my absolute fave.  I should have been more assertive and told her I’d catch up to the rest when they moved on.  I wanted to stare at La Primavera for the rest of the day.  I loved the sweet faces, faces that could be seen in modern times, the almost cartoon lines that outlined their shape, the 2nd toes longer than the big toes, beautiful colors, the flowers.  The tondo with the boys’ faces of innocence.  Venus, The Venus.  Gorgeous.  We’ve all seen it a million times, but to be in front of the real thing was surreal.  There was also Michelangelo’s tondo with the beautiful bright blue and orange-red robes.  I love Jesus’ angelic face looking up at his Mama.  Leonardo’s painting of the Visitation, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, a classic.  Look at it from the right side and look left for the best view.  He structured it with a left-centered perspective.  We also saw two Adams and Eves.  One is always shown in the beginning of Desperate Housewives.  It again was weird to see something that has become part of pop culture.  Titian’s Venus de Urbino was also there, laid out and beautiful, with her chamber maid in the background picking out her gown from a large trunk.  Masaccio (Little Tom–cat) and Vasari, the great and first art historian and artist himself.  But it all went by too quickly.  I could’ve spent hours there if I had the time by myself.  Instead, I settled with a book on Botticelli in the adjoining bookstore.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur.  We paid Lise for her services and thanked her profusely.  I promised to write to Rick Steves and recommend her.  We were hungry when we were finished touring.  We walked back to our street and found another cafeteria style restaurant that was air conditioned.  It was called Queen Victoria cafeteria or something like that.  I remember the server was very gorgeous, as were most of the young men in this city!  We had a quick lunch and some good non-alcoholic sangria punch with big chunks of fruit that was very refreshing.

I think we went back to the hotel for a break after that.  I’m pretty sure this is the day we decided to find a branch of Mike’s company, AON Consulting.  We took a city bus (it was at least 90 that day) and it got crowded really fast.  Jake found a seat and I stood behind him.  I could smell the sweat of the bodies around us, including my own!  Jackie was the victim of the worst possible thing that could happen on a long bus ride.  She was standing, and a man got on and stood in front of her, raised his arm above her head to hold on to the rail, and released the pungent odor of his armpit directly into her face!  She managed to keep from fainting and throwing up, so I must give her credit.  We were able to laugh about it later as she and Mike re-enacted the scene!

We found the AON building a few blocks up the street from where we got off the bus.  It was nicely renovated and had a beautiful courtyard.  We went into the very modern lobby while Mike presented his card to the non-English speaking receptionist.  She called for a representative to come downstairs to meet us.  A very beautiful and English-speaking rep came to meet us.  She was very accommodating and friendly.  We were very sweaty and hot, but tried our best to be good Americans! I remember feeling embarrassed by the amount of sweat dripping off my face and staining my shirt!  She was going to take us on a tour, but we bowed out, and Mike politely told her we just wanted to stop by and say hello.

I believe we walked back from AON and back to the hotel for a long break.  As the sun was going down, we decided to do some shopping.  I wanted a bag or satchel.  I didn’t want a fancy designer bag, just something simple.  We hit some shops near the hotel and then wandered down to the Piazza Signoria and over to an outdoor market.  I found about a billion purse vendors!  I took a pic for my purse fiend and friend Stacey.  I wanted a brown one, not too poofy, not too girly, and large enough to hold my papers and files.

I'll Take the Brown One

I Medici.  Perfetto!  An older balding man was the vendor of the I Medici bags and purses.  He was friendly, talkative, and willing to bargain a little.  He gave me his pitch, and I didn’t feel like walking away.  The leather is tooled here, in Italy.  In America, they stamp the word Coach on them and raise the prices!  He showed me the one I picked from the many hanging purses.  He opened it and showed me the hand-made quality, told me how it will get softer with age and last for years.  I fell in love with it.  He said if I want it, it’s $125 euro, but for me $90.  I should have dickered with him more to get the price down, but then we somehow got on the subject of dogs.  He asked what kind, I said Rat Terrier!  Then he got excited and took out his wallet to show me his two dogs, a fat, black and white Bull Terrier and a Jack Russell!  We laughed and compared dog stories of the barking, the fighting, the funny personalities.  We exchanged our euros for the bag, and wished him well.  I later saw an identical bag in a shop window in Rome for 135 euro, so I felt like I did alright.

Street Artist

Fresh Produce

WSU Grad's Knocker

We later walked down to the Ponte Vecchio for dinner.  We turned off before the bridge down the left side and saw a sign called Osteria del Cinghialebianco (white boar).  As usual, we just stumbled upon it.  It was more crowded than some of the other restaurants we’d been to, but they quickly accommodated us at a long table by the door.  This place was like a little brick cave.  It was dark with arched walls, but friendly and cozy.

Jake had on his Materazzi soccer jersey (a royal blue and black striped jersey, the team of Florence–Materazzi being a very good-looking player, according to the female store clerk, as she tapped her finger on her tooth!) and was a hit with the waiters!  When in Rome…or Florence…The one waiter slapped Jake on the back with a big, “Materazzi! Very good!”

Again, we had really good food, great wine poured from a little terra cotta pitcher with a glazed white boar on it.  We again ate too much.  We finally realized that we can order family style and just share.  We made the mistake over and over again of ordering separately and having way more left over than we could ever eat.  We also did not have a refrigerator in our room, so food was wasted.

June 28 Travel Day from Florence to Pisa to Monterosso

This was an exhausting day for me and I think for everyone.  We made the mistake of not getting our bags packed all the way the night before and found ourselves rushing to finish in the morning.  We were 15 minutes late getting downstairs to the taxi.  I felt really bad about that.  It was hot already, but off we went to the train station.  There were delays.  We were confused as to why our train wasn’t showing up on the board.  We had to stand around and wait to see which terminal it would pull into so we didn’t accidentally get on the wrong train.  This was very nerve-wracking.  Once it showed up, we had to run with our luggage to make sure we were ready to board.  The trains waited for no one!  It was scorching hot.  We finally embarked and had about an hour ride to Pisa.  No first class this time.

We disembarked and checked all of our bags at the station.  That was smart because we then had to get a taxi to the Campo di Miracolo (Field of Miracles) where we had tickets to the Leaning Tower.  Everything was rushed now that we were arriving later.  Plus, we hadn’t had our coffee or our usual big breakfast!  Pat and I were starting to get very crabby, and I had a pounding headache.  It felt like 95 degrees when we finally arrived at the Tower, and it was only about 10:00.  We verified our tour time (again, we pre-ordered tickets about a month in advance, so that part was easy) and walked down the block to a café for some coffee and a quick lunch.  Pat and I were not cooperating this day.  We really needed some “us” time and some relaxation, which we did not experience in Florence.  After some food and caffeine, we were a little more civil.

Part of Leaning Tower

Duomo and Baptistry

Leaning Tower of Pisa

We checked our remaining backpacks with the tour office and got in line to climb the tower just after 11:00.  It was blistering hot out.  It was so weird to think we were actually climbing the Leaning Tower!  The same tower found on pizza boxes, so many pictures and movies, such an icon of Italy.  As we stood right in front of it, I found the degree of the lean quite astounding.  I hoped it didn’t pick today to fall over!

Crushing the Tower!

Up we went!  It was also quite obvious on the inside as we climbed that the tower was leaning.  The stairs circled around and around, but when we would climb toward the leaning side, the stairs felt like they evened out and we were climbing horizontally.  It was the strangest feeling!  It was also much cooler on the inside, as the marble walls protected us from the sun’s heat.  The 700 year-old stairs were so worn in the middle from all the tourists climbing them that they were dented in the middle and smooth as David’s bottom!

Marble Steps of Tower

Jackie and I fell a little behind the boys.  There were two guys from India behind us who struck up a conversation.  One was from Calcutta and I believe the other was from Mumbai.  They were here on business, but were taking a day off for sightseeing with their Italian tour guide, Mario, who waited for them safely below.  They were trying to get Mario’s attention.  We came to a resting place and looked down at the small people wandering about the grounds below.  They found Mario!  They pointed him out to us.  “Mario!”  We all shouted! “Maaa-rio!”  Jackie, who has a great whistle, helped out.  Everyone looked up but Mario!  We laughed and tried again.  They later asked where we were from and also asked if we’d ever been to China.  We both said no.  Then one said in his heavy Indian accent, “Never go to China.  They can’t even speak English there! They don’t even know the word for water!”  Too funny.  We later laughed about this because we could barely understand them because of their accents.  We had a lot of fun calling out to Mario, though.  Tourism really does break cultural barriers, if you pay attention and keep an open mind.

At the top (it was a little dicey climbing around some stairs with a little railing to get there) we took a few pictures and quickly headed back down.  The town of Pisa is filled with red terra cotta rooftops.  In the distance we could see some hills.  We carefully made our way down to the bottom.  We were happy we went; it was something so unique to experience.

Pisa

We decided not to tour the other buildings.  There was a basilica and baptistery in the Campo, but we’d seen enough.  We were ready to get on with the next part of our journey.  We stood around in front of the Campo for a good 20 minutes without being able to hail a cab.  Finally, we saw some buses go by and decided to try our luck at reading a bus schedule.  We made our way across the very busy street and stood at the bus stop wondering if one would stop for us!  Finally one stopped and I politely asked if he was going to La Stazione?  Si.  Yess!  We hopped on.  It was like a Greyhound bus, very plush seats and air conditioning.  We were the only ones on it.  I quickly realized we’d never purchased a ticket for the bus!  Usually, you purchase tickets at the Stazione or at local tobacco shops.  We didn’t even think about it.  We had some cash, but then I got nervous thinking he’d charge us a bundle.  He was quiet and just drove on, and seemed to be heading in the right direction.  We arrived at La Stazione, which was actually the bus station.  This was ok, though, because he pointed that the train station was just up the block.  We started to disembark, and I believe Mike asked how much.  He said no charge (or something to that effect) so we all thanked him profusely!  Grazie! He was handsome as well.  Older, but still had that beautiful olive skin, chiseled jaw and dark hair, with green eyes.

We walked toward what we thought was the direction of the train station, but got a little turned around.  We asked a passer-by, and she directed us up the street.  We were pretty close.  We found the baggage claim area, which was now just about full of people.  He recognized us, though, and let us in behind him to pick out our bags.  That was very generous of him, since we probably would have missed our train if we would have had to wait in line.

We had time to grab some food at…McDonald’s.  Ugh.  But they actually had quite an assortment of pannini and other more nutritious snacks.  Jake chose the more American Big Mac.  This was his first ever!  He can now tell everyone he had his first Big Mac in the Pisa train station. Gross.

Monterosso

On to Monterosso!  Back on the train, clickety-clack.  We were hot and tired.  As we made our way toward the coast, we caught glimpses of the sea!  That made us perk up a bit.  It didn’t take too long to get there from Pisa, maybe 45 minutes, if I recall.  We disembarked and trudged with our luggage down a very long staircase to the sidewalk and street below the station.  Ahh, what a view!  But we had work to do.  We had to find our next hotel.

It was hot, steamy-hot.  A different heat than in Florence.  This definitely was humid.  It was like the Ligurian Sea was simmering.   I felt like a dork hauling my suitcase behind as I waked past all of the laid back tourists and near-locals (this is where Italians come to play) in their swimsuits and sun dresses.  I was not feeling great by this point.  Pat, also crabby and hot, plowed ahead of all of us to find the hotel, and pretty much left us standing there wondering why he was in such a hurry.  I’d had it.  I gave up, and just decided I couldn’t worry about him, I just needed to go at my own pace.  Jackie and Mike calmed me down and we continued up the street, hoping we were going the right way.  It was a tiny village, so I was pretty sure we’d run into it soon.  Just a minute down the sidewalk, and there it was!  The pink hotel!  La Villa Degli Argentieri!  Right across the street from the beach…but what they didn’t say on the website, is it is also right across the street from a gigantic parking lot!  To the left and right were the beautiful beaches.  That was a bit disappointing.  Also, not only were Mike and Jackie supposed to switch rooms after the first night, so were we.

Between this news and just being overheated and exhausted from our long day of traveling, I was very unsettled.  I didn’t feel I could nest here knowing I couldn’t really unpack and unwind.  I knew we had to move out the next day to a different room, so I just couldn’t enjoy myself.  Instead of taking some time to cool off and relax in the air conditioning, everyone wanted to hit the beach.  This didn’t help my mood because it was still so hot out.  I went anyway and we walked over to the public beach and plopped down among the throngs of locals and tourists.  I felt a little uncomfortable and overdressed in my tankini.  Most had bikinis.  Some were topless.  Pat and Mike located the most perfect-breasted specimen.  We waded out into the rocky shoreline, and the water wasn’t too bad.  It took me awhile to get used to it, and I did not feel like jumping in.  So I just hung out at about waist level and watched the boys swim.  Jackie stayed up on the beach.  It was really too hot to stay out there long.

We were getting hungry for dinner so we headed back to our rooms.  They were really quite nice.  The color scheme was a sea-foam green, Jake’s favorite.  The shiny green tiled floors felt nice on our feet.  The bathroom was floor-to ceiling tile with very nice jetted showers.  The tiles, mirror and even toilet were decorated with little fish and sea life.  The toilet seat was blue plastic with embedded plastic sea creatures.  Very cute!  We quickly changed and headed around the corner of our hotel to dinner.

Started with some Lemoncello liqueur, which was cold and refreshing.  We also had a berry-infused white wine at dinner.  We had good food again.  I think Jake had some mussels, I had a local fish, and Pat had another kind of fish.  It was very tasty.

I remember being very crabby that night.  Just exhausted.  I had a terrible time getting to sleep because the pillows were like rocks.  They were flat and absolutely could not be fluffed up.  My head actually hurt from them!

June 29 First Full Day in Cinque Terre

Luckily, the next day we awoke somewhat relaxed and cooled off.  We had a nice breakfast downstairs and got to know our hosts a little better.  Enrico was very courteous, and Monica gave us a good tip on restaurants.  We also changed rooms, so I felt much more settled in after being able to unpack.  Another gorgeous day…we were wishing we could stay a week and really unwind here.  We took it slower today and had some fun.  Mike and Jackie wanted to hike the entire trail from our town, Monterosso, to the first town, Riomaggiore.  They decided to wait one more day and take it easy today.

Riomaggiore rocks

We packed up our backpacks with necessities and walked into Old Town to purchase tickets for a boat ride to Riomaggiore.  It was comparable to an Argosy boat with passenger room inside as well as space in the bow and stern and along the sides for viewing.  It was steamy on the sea that day.  There was fog or steam making the hills of the towns seem even farther away.  We motored past the little towns, excited to explore as many as we could.  Our family wasn’t keen on hiking the whole Cinque Terre, but we definitely wanted to visit the towns.  The water was a gorgeous deep aqua/sapphire. 

After about ½ hour, we docked at Riomaggiore.  It was a bit tricky disembarking as the boat got tossed about in the sea.  We enjoyed exploring the little shops.  We found some nice souvenirs including a red ceramic bread/oil tray, marble wine stopper, little trinkets to add to necklaces, amazing cookies that tasted of lemons and strawberries but were lighter than shortbread, and cold lemoncello.  We wanted to get Cinque Terre wine, but it was ridiculous to purchase and export.  It would have cost over $100 to send 3 or 4 bottles home.  The only not-so-appealing part were the public restrooms which were glorified holes in the ground with a piece of square porcelain surrounding a 6 inch hole.  But when you gotta go…

We walked the beautiful trail called “Lovers Walk” from Riomaggiore to Manarola.  Pat surprised me with a lock, key and Sharpie to “lock our love” on a special point on the trail.  There are literally hundreds of padlocks and little notes and graffiti along the trail.  We found a perfect place by a little seat overlooking the sea to write on our padlock: Patrick + Lisa 2008 20 Years and locked it on the bar to the left of the lovers’ seat.  We had someone take our picture.  Unfortunately, that picture is on the disk that I lost on the airplane.  I’ll need to call one more time to see if I can find it.  Darn.  Maybe we’ll just need to go back! (After this journal entry, Mike and Jackie gave us a disk of pictures and on it was a picture of our lock!)

Padlock of Love on Lovers Walk

It was getting scorching hot again, although there was a nice breeze off the water.  When we arrived in Manarola, we were ready to eat again.  As usual, and to our utmost pleasure, we just stumbled upon a delicious place to eat!  This time, it was a place Rick Steves recommended.  We knew that because there was a big laminated pic of him and an article about the trattoria outside the restaurant entrance!  There was a covered outdoor café area and air conditioned seating inside, but it was filling up quickly.  It was called Trattoria Il Porticciolo.  They sat us down by the pass through at the kitchen, which was interesting because we got to watch the cooks and waiters in action as they cut up focaccia, mixed up mussels and pasta, chopped insalata mista.  Our waiter was a little man with a big memory.  He looked more German than Italian.  He took all of our orders without writing down anything!  I had gnocchi al pesto, Jake had lasagna al pesto and Pat had salmon ravioli.  Sooo good!  The tomatoes in the salad were fantastico!  The place filled up like crazy, with lots of Americans who had already marked this one in their guide books.  Once again we felt so lucky to find such a great place to eat.

We then strolled the town and did some shopping.  We wandered and purchased our souvenirs then caught the boat back to Monterosso.

Monterosso Beach from Cemetery

Later that afternoon (at least I think this is the day) Mike, Jackie and I explored an old hillside cemetery and church in Old Town.  We climbed and climbed up steps and a shady path to a very old cemetery.  There were large family tombs going back at least 200 years, if I recall.  There were individual tombs, and then a small graveyard behind the church.  We quietly entered the church, and to our surprise, heard beautiful songs being practiced by the local monks.  We caught our breath and just listened for several minutes.  It was beautiful.  We were the only ones there!  The graveyard was interesting, and what a view from the top.

We were very sweaty from our day so we took cool showers back at our adorable pink hotel.  Mike and Jackie agreed to let Pat and I have some much needed “us” time, so they took Jake to dinner that evening.  We took our time getting ready and enjoying time to ourselves and not feeling pressured to do anything in particular.  We spotted M&J and Jake eating at an outdoor caffe along the beautiful walkway next to the beach.  Jake was eating cantaloupe and prosciutto and loving every bite.  What a great kid!  We continued our walk over to Old Town.

View of the restaurant from hillside

We chose to go to dinner up on the hill by an old watch tower.  It was called L’Ancora Della Tortuga.  There were spots to sit alongside the big wall facing the sea, but we chose to sit in a booth inside the cave-like restaurant.  It was a cozy candle-lit spot with a bit of air conditioning (again, even at night it was hot) and privacy to just talk and enjoy each other.  The food was tasty, the wine excellent, and in large, generous glasses.  We shared our meals and took turns trying out each dish.  They left us alone to eat and relax, but then I believe our waitress was taking a break because we never saw her again!  We finally summoned someone over to get our check.  That was ok, we enjoyed our quiet time.  We caught up to M&J and Jake in our hotel lobby watching the end of the European Gold Cup of futbol.  Spain won against Romania, and it seemed Italy was cheering for Spain.

June 30  

Mike and Jackie decided to walk the entire trail this day.  They later said they got up so early that the sun wasn’t even up yet, so they waited an extra half hour or so.  They said they had trouble identifying parts of the trail and went on goose chases trying to find where it linked back up.  They also met people along the way, and spent a good half hour talking to a particularly chatty Australian.  It didn’t take long before they were sweating through their clothes.  They called us at different points along the way to tell us of their progress.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a very restful morning of sleeping in.  I awoke wishing for another week to unwind here.  I was finally feeling relaxed!  We decided to take the Cinque Terre train to Vernazza, the next town down from us.  The scary part was waiting in the tunnel for the train!  The high-speed trains also use the tracks through Monterosso, and they fly through.  We felt we were going to get blown right out of the tunnel!  Finally, our train came through.  You have to jump on quick or you’ll miss it!  And make sure you’re on the correct side of the tracks!

Vernazza

This is where I stopped writing.  Darn me!  I’ll have to go from memory.  In Vernazza, we enjoyed the beautiful seascape and quaint shops.  One art shop in particular was called Bottega d’Arte Cinqueterre on Via Roma.  There was a woman there tending the store that surprised me with English when I faltered in Italian asking about the price of something.  Turns out she was American married to an Italian artist who made all of the items in the shop.  There were beautiful paintings of the Cinque Terre (I purchased a calendar of the paintings), t-shirts with colorful designs, ornate handbags, and little trinkets to add to bracelets or necklaces.  I purchased a couple of the trinkets.  One was a little Giotto angel that I gave to Stacey.  Another was a picture of Vernazza’s colorful port.  As we left, I said to Pat and Jake, “I think I’ll have to marry an Italian artist so I can live over here!” and Jake immediately responded, “But what would Dad and I do??” So cute and funny, yet really made me think about our bond.  Then we decided we’d just have to be polygamists, like the crazy people we’ve seen in the news recently!

We got hungry so we started looking for restaurants.  We kept seeing signs for Al Castello.  That sounded interesting.  We climbed and climbed up through tiny alley ways by apartments and up steep steps following signs to Al Castello.  Ah, here it was, with a magnificent view of the port and sea.  There was a wide, sloping outdoor deck with a covering, but open sides for viewing the beauty.  I’m assuming the slope was for drainage in a storm.  It was weird to see my wine in my glass tilt slightly off level!

A very nice older gentleman served us.  He liked Jacob’s Materazzi jersey and patted him on the back!  We had our usual delicious meal with a great view.  I think Jake ordered linguini with clam sauce and I stuck to spaghetti.  We stuffed it down and I remember having some good bread and a cold glass of white wine with it.  The only negative side was the table next to us.  There was an older American man with his wife who were giving our nice waiter a hard time.  He seemed very rude and snotty.  He said to the waiter that he would “…only order the fish if it is fresh.”  The waiter, seemingly insulted, blurted, “Fresh!  Yes, it’s fresh!  It comes from….(he threw his arm out in a gesture to the sea below) there!” We looked at each other and smiled!  But we were also sickened with the idea of the stereotypical American tourist who behaves badly and gives us a bad name.

I was stuffed, and couldn’t finish my spaghetti.  I wanted to take it with me, but we didn’t have refrigeration back at the room.  The funny waiter came by and said, “You didn’t like it??”  No, I loved it!  I’m very full!

We took a boat back to Monterosso after grabbing some gelato first.

We met M&J back at the hotel where they told us of their hike.  They were really glad they did it, but it did get quite hot and humid.  We were all ready to hit the beach awhile.  We rented some chairs and umbrellas at the “pay” beach this time so we could have a little shade and a more comfortable place to hang out.  It was well worth the money.  We took turns going down to the water and cooling off.  Jake and Pat were like fish and could stay out there all day.  It took me several minutes to get used to the water temperature, but I finally submerged myself.  It was very refreshing!  I should have done this on our first day; I would have cooled my temper!  We dozed in the sun and under the umbrellas.  While enjoying my lounge chair, a little Italian boy with a mini accordion came over and played a sweet little song.  He looked longingly in my eyes as he played his only song over and over.  I could just imagine his Papa telling him to be sure to look directly into the tourists’ eyes so they’ll give you money.  I thanked him, and then he held out his hand.  I said, “Sorry, no dinero.”  He trudged off, but then recovered as he found willing people at the next row.

We cleaned up and decided to follow our hostess’ advice for dinner and ate in Old Town off Via Roma (all roads really do lead to Rome!) called Al Pozzo.  When we got there, a waiter, who looked a little like a cross between Colin Farrell and Antonio Banderas, seated us.  He had a great sense of humor and joked with us while we looked over our menus.  We also noticed that our hostess, Monica, was also seated a few tables over by herself!  Oh, she recommended the restaurant that her boyfriend worked at!  What a character!  There was also a very nice Italian family on our right with two little boys.  The waiter was joking with them in Italian.  We couldn’t understand everything, but caught enough of their mannerisms to know he was messing with them about their food choices, etc.  It was really cute watching their dynamics.  We ordered a huge iron skillet of risotto with mushrooms and just gorged ourselves.  It was simply delicious.

We went back to the hotel and opened a bottle of wine that Mike had purchased in town.  It was very unique and rich, a blend of three different wines, if I recall.  I was too tired and full to finish mine, but we enjoyed our rooftop view of the sparkling stars and silhouetted hills.

We packed and geared up for our very busy day ahead.

July 1
Monterosso to La Spezia to Roma!

A very, very long day.  We had to move out of our rooms fairly early, then we had most of the day to ourselves because our train was not coming until about 5:00.  We roamed the town and ate lunch at a little trattoria below a hotel.  It again felt like we were in a basement or a cave.  I believe it was located off Via Padre Semeria or Via Molinelli.  It was in a white building.  The older woman serving us and the cook spoke no English.  It was great!  We were the only ones there, and they were very accommodating.  We had some good beer, more excellent pasta and salad.  We were able to point to what we wanted and did our best to sound out our food names.  Grazie!

We finally were ready to catch our big train to Roma.  I think we had to take one train to La Spezia, then load onto another one to Rome.  We were grateful we got first class seating for this long haul.  But…once we got our first class seats, we realized we were also in an enclosed room with a glass door.  It reminded me of Harry Potter’s train ride.  Or the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night!  There was an extra guest with us.  A businessman with his briefcase and newspaper.  I felt like saying to him, “Forgive us, we are loud, sweaty and tired Americans!”  Our quarters were so close, our knees almost touched!  We were face-to face with him and his newspaper.  Luckily, he was off after about two stops and 45 minutes into the ride.  We had so much luggage to cram in that little space.  We were so grateful he left or we’d be pretty uncomfortable.  Jake and Pat did leave for awhile down to the cafe car, so that freed up some room.  It seemed like we were on that thing forever.  We also weren’t quite sure where to get off.  As we got closer to Rome, there were several stops.  I double checked our tickets and read up on Rick Steves and kept watching the signs.  Finally, our stop came.  It was about 10:30 pm!  We were wiped out and hungry.

We quickly grabbed our luggage and jumped off at our stop, carefully looking about for thieves.  I saw no one of any questionable character.  It was pretty quiet until we hit the street where the taxis lined up.  Then it got scary.  Taxis were queuing up in lines 3 or 4 deep.  People were in line, but the taxi system was chaotic, and various drivers seemed to be arguing over whose turn it was to take passengers.  Suddenly, what appeared to be a taxi driver grabbed Pat’s suitcase and started rolling it into the street in the maze of taxis. Pat, being the smart man that he is, did not let go of his grip on the suitcase and followed the man to his taxi!  We all thought for a moment he was scamming us.  He just wanted first dibs on our group!  M&J followed into the next car and we were on our way.  It was a crazy ride on cobblestone streets.  I really thought we were going to be killed!  There are no lanes, no lines, and no rules.  If you want to pass on the right, pass on the right.  If you want to go faster than the car in front of you, then tailgate until you find an opening on either side to pass.  It doesn’t matter, just get there as fast as you can!

Our stop was at Hotel Smeraldo Roma in a little alley called Vicolo dei Chiodaroli.  It was southeast of the Pantheon and Campo di Fiori.  We watched the meter go to 11 euro, but the driver wanted 20 “for bags” that we loaded into the trunk!  Gimme a break.  We were too tired to argue so Pat paid the man.  We trudged into the small lobby and got keys.  Unfortunately, this must have been another converted building.  The little elevator was only big enough for 3 people and no luggage.  We took turns either trudging up the stairs or taking the elevator to the 3rd floor.  We were tired and crabby.  M&J found their rooms on the 2nd floor below.  Or maybe they were above, I don’t remember.

We unloaded our bags and decided to go back out for a quick bite.  We were exhausted.  There was a little trattoria right across the alley way from the hotel entrance.  Instead of checking there first for food, Pat insisted we walk down the dark alley and around the corner of the block to find something.  Of course, many stores and shops and restaurants were closed.  It looked a little “iffy” to be walking too long around there by ourselves.  Jake was also very tired.  We made our way back to our alley and I finally took the initiative to see if the trattoria had food.  Pat waited outside while Jake and I went in.  I asked the blue eyed black-haired waiter: “Food?  Foccacia, Spaghetti? Food?”  He understood, yes, they have food!  We found Pat and he seated us.  We were wiped out and so hungry.  We guzzled some water and they brought some bread.  We shared some gnocchi and maybe spaghetti and salad.  Much better!

Our room, although very clean and modern, was very small.  We had three twin beds all lined up with just enough room to get our legs between them.  We had to shove our luggage along the sides and in the armoire.  The tiny bathroom had a shower literally the size of a phone booth.  It had a vinyl accordion door that didn’t want to be shut properly.  It was claustrophobic!  The best part was the window next to the toilet.  You could open it and listen to the locals at the bar down the street and across the alley.

Vatican Museum

Next morning was our tour day.  We had to get up bright and early and be ready for someone to pick us up for our Vatican tour.  We were hoping they could find us!  We had called to verify our dates, etc. while in the Cinque Terre, so all was in place.  We had to go early, so I don’t think we had time to eat at the breakfast table.  We grabbed some yogurt or granola bars or something.  Pat, Mike and I took turns hitting the little coffee shop next to the trattoria.  The grumpiest barista ever in all of Europe served the caffe.  I made the mistake of ordering like a dumb American.  I wanted caffe latte, to go, but I wanted latte fria-cold.  I wanted to finish it before our ride arrived.  It took her a minute to understand me, and she scowled her way through it.  It was embarrassing.  Then Mike came in and ordered a shot of espresso.  This Australian man stopped him and said he was the first American he’d seen who ordered it right!  He didn’t see Mike dump a pile of sugar into it! Ha  He set down his shot glass, but left a little in the bottom.  The barista, with a concerned look said, “Finito?! Finito!” and made him take the last sip!  Then she smiled.

A tour van picked us up right on time.  We drove to another part of town and got on a big bus.  They did a roll call and off we went.  We had a nice tour guide who spoke English.  What we didn’t know and what they didn’t tell us in the tour information was yes, we would get an English-speaking guide, but we would also be in the same group with French tourists.  The guide also spoke French.  So every time we would visit a different room of the Vatican Museum or view rooms leading up to the Sistine Chapel, we would hear descriptions first in English, then repeated in French.  It doubled the length of the tour and really started to get on our nerves.  Jake was getting especially bored.

We did enjoy the Sistine Chapel and looked up until our necks hurt.  My favorite is the Delphic Sybil.  She looks so young and strong.

After the tour, they loaded us back in the bus and dropped us off at the Vatican-approved gift shop where we could pick up items and souvenirs blessed by the Pope.  How unbelievably tacky, I thought.  We politely looked around and thanked our guide, then walked over to a café for lunch.  We had the usual gigantic servings, but were thankful to sit down after 4 hours of standing and listening and looking.

We then made a plan to walk back over to St. Peters to see the inside of the church, which was not part of the tour.  Pat was not too happy about this, and probably wouldn’t have gone, except M & J reminded him that we’ll probably never be back here and this is the reason we came to Rome.  So he agreed.  We walked back in the heat through the gigantic square where I could imagine throngs of people gathered when the Pope is giving a speech.  We then had to go through a bag check and xray, but it went quickly.  We were thankful again to be in shade and the coolness of marble.

Staircase

San Pietro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelangelo's Pieta

San Pietro Duomo

Altar

The inside was a glorious sight!  We were truly amazed by the monstrosity of the place and all of the ornate and gigantic sculptures  and paintings that adorned every wall.  I gasped; the Pieta was to the right!  I walked over and got as close as I could.  There was Michelangelo’s other masterpiece, now protected behind glass.  Mary, her face so sad, looking down on her sacrificed son.  It was breathtaking.  We then looked up.  Above was a large hole where sunlight was beaming through, illuminating the marble floor and the gilded and painted dome.  Beautiful.  Oh, but there was more…that was only one “little” nook.  The architecture of the place was astounding.  Domes, double crosses, marble, gold.  An altar that must have been at least 20 feet tall, blessing St. Peter’s bones.  Massive.  Enormous.  Overwhelming.  There was a fuzzy line separating the holy/sacred from the secular/worldly.  So much wealth and power cannot be a good thing.  Is this truly the way to worship?  What would Jesus say to all this?

We again headed out into the blazing sun, but only for a few moments to watch the changing of the Swiss Guard.  It was a little uneventful, but their outfits were very colorful in blue, gold and red.  We also hit the souvenir shop for some post cards.  Mike and Jackie made sure to mail theirs from the official Vatican post office so it would be stamped there.  That was pretty cool!

We decided to catch a hop-on-hop-off bus back to our hotel, but we had to step off several blocks from our hotel due to the heat.  We were cooking.  On top of the bus the sun was beating down on us.  We decided to go below, thinking we were safe from the sun, but the inside was stagnant with heat.  It must have been at least 10 degrees hotter inside!  I couldn’t take it.  I thought I was going to pass out.  We walked a couple of blocks and I could feel myself on the verge of fainting.  I needed water and cool air NOW!  We finally found a gelato shop and we ordered and headed downstairs and to the air conditioning.  Jackie also got me some extra ice with lemonade that I slurped.  I was finally feeling much better about 20 minutes later.  Ugh.

Rome at Night

Colisseum

We got back and took a break, I believe.  We then headed out and saw the Trevi Fountain and Colosseum at night.  That was a beautiful walk.  East Indian peddlers were stationed all around the Colosseum and sidewalks selling everything from knockoff paintings to camera tripods and all kinds of souvenirs.  No one seemed overly aggressive, and there seemed to be lots of security around.  We never really felt unsafe except at the train station, and that was mostly just from being tired and going from the laid-back Cinque Terre to full-on Rome.

July 3

This was Mike and Jackie’s travel day.  We ate breakfast and said our goodbyes at the hotel door.  It was so sad to see them go already.  We had tears in our eyes.  It seems like they just got here!  We were now on our own today, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

We started out by going to an internet café just up the street from our hotel to make sure our plane schedule was still on time.  We needed to book our seats.  Pat had a terrible time trying to enter our booking code and getting it to recognize our info.  I don’t know why it didn’t accept it.  He kept trying and finally it worked.  I thought he had the wrong number, as he transferred it from the original email.  We were getting crabby at each other.  But it worked out and we took a break before venturing out in the heat.

We decided to get back on the bus while it was still not quite so hot out.  This time, we were prepared with extra water and an umbrella to beat the sun.  We sat up top, and were actually pleasantly surprised by a nice breeze until the bus stopped at traffic lights.  We did ok though, and enjoyed the tour much more.

We hopped off near the Colosseum again to witness it in the daytime.  We walked over to a little restaurant across the street.  We had to eat indoors in the air conditioning again.  Again, pretty much by ourselves!  We chowed on spaghetti and beer.  And lots of water.  This place was called Royal Café Art Restaurant.  It was next to a hotel.  The inside was decorated like the Sistine Chapel with enormous frescoes on the walls.  It was well-done.  A little pricey, but we didn’t care at that point.  We then decided to take a taxi back to our hotel.  It was spendy to do that, but we needed a break from the heat.

Pantheon Dome

Inside Pantheon

We then walked to the Pantheon, I believe.  It was so amazing. It was built in the 1st century, then taken over by Christians at some point in time.  The outside looked like the ancient ruins we’d seen all over Rome, but the inside was completely preserved.  The marble was polished, colorful.  The ancient deities had been replaced with Christian figures.  The large, perfect circle that was the dome’s eye, was allowing a beautiful wide beam of light to hit the floor.  It was so amazing.   We strolled around the huge columns on the outside, walked towards the fountain and looked back for a better view.

We started walking back to the hotel, but decided to take a back alley.  What a perfect walk we had!  We found a little butcher shop and quietly stepped in.  I believe it was called L’Arte del Norcino Lavorazione di Carne Suina, Via Di Torre Argentina or Via Dell’Arco della Ciambella (2 locations).There were a couple of people milling around.  The place had not been overrun with tourists.  The skinny, little old balding man behind the butcher counter was a true Italian.  No English.  He smiled at us as we stared with our tongues hanging out at the hanging prosciutto and all of the meats in the refrigerated counter.   We browsed the small shop quickly and decided on some biscotti and a little pasta and olive oil kit for Diana.  We turned to the counter, and the nice little man handed us each a slice of prosciutto he’d just cut.  Oh my god.  It melted in my mouth.  I could feel the smooth layer of fat on the roof of my mouth.  A little salty, not too much.  Nothing like the crappy preservative-filled meats we get at home.  Just perfetto!  He smiled at us as we mmmm’d and ohhhh’d!  He then crossed his hands and moved them apart like an umpire who declares a safe step to the base.  He said something in Italian to us.  We figured this meant: “Done Shopping?”  Si, si.  We paid the lady behind us near the door after he rang up our bill.  Grazie!!

We also purchased a little book on Rome that showed what all of the ancient buildings used to look like.  It was like a flap book where you could see before/after.  It gave a little history of each location and building.

That evening for dinner, we walked over to Campo De’ Fiori and at at the restaurant with the same name, right in the piazza.  It was amazing.  The food was overpriced here (you pay for the name and the view of the piazza and the bronze statue of Bruno, who was burned at the stake right in the piazza) but the atmosphere was superb.  There were musicians playing, artists selling jewelry, florists, all gathered in the square.  It was so romantic.  Jake enjoyed it, too.  There is also an ancient fountain in the square bubbling away.  We enjoyed our very romantic dinner, trying to just soak everything in on our last night in Italy.

We strolled the piazza after stuffing ourselves with more pasta.  We saw a skinny unshaven and very tan artist selling his silver jewelry out of a cart.  We’d seen him earlier in an alley right next to the piazza pounding away at a ring or bracelet.  His English was good, and he was very friendly.  He laughed at my poor attempt to speak Italian.  I tried on one of his rings that looked like two tiny spoons wrapped together and decided that was the one for me!  Only 15 Euro.  A steal, considering he was making them by hand just hours before.  He cleaned and polished it for me and said he could adjust it if I wanted it tighter.  My hands were swollen from the heat, so I declined.  He then gave us a tip to go visit Trastavere, just a short walk of 100 meters from the square. We thanked him, but we were too tired to walk anywhere else that night.  Maybe next time!  I will keep that ring forever.

July 4 – Home

We had a long journey ahead of us.  First, we had to take a taxi to the airport.  We got a good view of Rome and the outskirts during our 40 minute ride.  The driver was quiet, but friendly. I opened him up by asking about the cost of a flat in Rome.  I believe he said it was 3,000 per month!  That’s euros!  The city is all cobblestone until we reached the outer walls and on to the freeway. I wonder how many square miles of cobblestone??  Unreal.  I won’t miss the traffic there.  Or the Vespas.  On to London, then nonstop to Seattle.  Forever.  For some reason, it didn’t seem quite as bad getting home once we were on our way from London.  Customs took another 45 minutes or so, but the agent was friendly and joked with us.  Dad was waiting for us with open arms in Baggage Claim.  Back to the rain, back to reality.

We never once felt like we wanted to just go home.  We wanted to stay in Italy.  Maybe not in Rome, but Venice…we could have stayed there for at least a week, then on to the Cinque Terre for a week or two….then on to Southern Italy for awhile, then up to lake country, then Ravenna, oh, and don’t forget Siena…someday, someday….

January 1, 2011 Posted by | Italy, Travel | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments