Sunday, April 14, 2013

European Vacation - Roma!

Day 11
We arrived at the train station in Rome around 4 pm and worked our way to our B&B located near the Vatican.  Stacy has done a phenomenal job of planning this trip (as well as all of our other excursions this year) and she has it all worked out that we need to catch the Metro (subway) and then walk to the hotel.  This is where Carter really likes to get involved and he does a great job of figuring out the correct trains and lines to take.  Once we leave the Metro, this is where I take over.  With my advanced age, I often have visual issues finding the location on the map, but once it is pointed out to me, I can navigate the streets and get us to our destination.  This routine has occurred multiple times on our holiday with very positive results.

View of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican from our window

Our B&B is right next to the Vatican.  We can look out the window and see the dome of St Peter’s Basilica from our window on the 6th floor and I estimate that our building is within 200 yards of the walls of the Vatican City.  We dropped off our luggage and headed to the Vatican. 
Hangin out in St. Peter's Square
Since it was quite late in the day (around 5:30), we were able to walk straight into the Basilica of St. Peter and take in all of its glory.  We again plugged in to Rick Steve’s audio tour that Stacy downloaded and we listened to details about the Vatican.  These audio guides have been great since they are free with our only difficulty being trying to walk with four people, each using one ear bud connected to a single I-Pod.  We managed to see a large portion of things before we got hungry so we resolved to come back another afternoon since that is when the crowds are the lightest.  Dinner this evening was takeaway paninis from a nearby deli and I had a spec, fontina cheese, and sundried tomato one that was quite tasty.

Day 12
On our first full day in Rome, we took our tour of the Vatican Museum.  Stacy had reserved tour places for us in advance which was very smart enabling us to go past a queue that was at least 100 yards long and three people wide.  We got Cara a kid’s audio guide that she really enjoyed so she was not completely bored with the artifacts in the museum.  There are all sorts of objects in the museum, some of which are artifacts from Egypt. 
In the Vatican Museum

Cara was very interested in those since this past term at school, they did huge unit on Egypt.  I found the Geographic Map Corridor very interesting, with the maps of the different regions of Italy frescoed into the walls of the corridor.

The Geographic Map Corridor

A frescoe of Venice

Of course one of the highlights of the entire Vatican Museum was getting to see the Sistine Chapel. This is the place that is famous for having the entire ceiling and altar wall painted by Michelangelo. We found a bench along one side to sit on and listen to an audio tour description of all the important parts from the painting of the Creation of Adam to the Last Judgment.  While we were listening to the descriptions, there were constant reminders from the security to be silent (in many languages) and that no pictures were allowed, but here is a link to the Vatican and their pictures. Cara was able to point out Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the Last Judgment and other interesting details she got from the kid’s audio tour.

At the Trevi Fountain

That afternoon we rode the subway over the river to visit the Fountain Trevi and threw some coins for an ensured return visit!  Next we went to the Pantheon, a Roman temple from 27 B.C. and rebuilt in 120 A.D. known for the circular hole in the ceiling to allow light into the domed room.
Stacy at the Pantheon
We then strolled through Rome and found an amazing gelato shop that advertised 150 flavors.
Unfortunately we had picked up gelato just before visiting the Fountain of Trevi, otherwise I’m sure we would have found many great flavors to try. Maybe that will happen on our next visit?! We finished our stroll to the Spanish steps which were crowded with other tourists enjoying the sun and people watching.
crowds at the Spanish Steps
Our evening was capped off with dinner at a sidewalk café in the Piazza Risorgimento by our B&B.

Day 13
Our last full day started with a typical Italian breakfast of a chocolate chip coronetto and cappuccino (for me) and then we headed across the Tiber River to visit the Pallatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Colosseum.
Stacy & Jim at the Forum
We started with an audio tour of the 5 acres of the Forum right in the center of Rome. It was full of columns, temples, arches and tourists! One thing I never knew before was that many of the statues that we see today, were once painted bright colors instead of the white we often see. As amazing as the ruins still are, it is hard to imagine all the gold and mosaics and decorations that used to make them even more magnificent than they are today.

Views from up on top of Pallatine Hill which adjoins the Forum allowed us to look out over the ruins as well as the surrounding city. There was a formal garden area and lemon and orange trees, which Carter tried to shake to get the fruit from the upper branches to no avail. After lunch, we went to visit the imposing Colosseum. The north side still has all 4 levels and is imposing to imagine such a huge work built so long ago.  
the Colosseum!
There is so much more open to see in the Colosseum than when I was here 30 years ago.  I can only remember seeing the base level from one end then.  This time we were able to walk ¾ of the way around the ground level and all the way around the 1st level.  To think that 50,000+ people came to bloodletting events here for enjoyment is hard to believe, but then I think about some of the things that are out there in the movies, on TV, and the internet, I am not really that surprised.  What is truly amazing is that the Romans were able to build something that colossal without today’s technology and machinery (that is actually where the name Colosseum came from).

Cara inside the Colosseum

Our next stop was a break for an hour or so at our B&B and then back out to the Vatican for our climb up the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica which is another creation by Michelangelo.  We had to deal with a few more crowds as we got there around 4:30 in the afternoon, but we had to do this in order to make sure they did not close the tower (we had tried to do the tower yesterday but were too late).  We elected for the cheaper rate and avoided the lift for the 1st part of the trip and therefore we probably climbed a total of over 500 steps to the top.  The staircases at the bottom were nice big circles, but after the lift the staircases became quite narrow and spirally. 
Inside the lower section of the dome we could hear the service and singing

At the top of this staircase we found ourselves at the base of the cupola but inside the Basilica.  From here we could look down on a mass that was being held down on the Basilica floor.  Next we started circling the actual upper sections of the dome and the walkways became slanted (because we were between the outer and inner walls of the dome)!!! 
Climbing inside the slanted walls of the dome

We eventually made it to the top and were rewarded with fantastic views of St. Peter’s Square and all of Rome.  We could easily see our B&B with and the Colosseum as well as other places in Rome.

View of the square from the dome

Here's where the new Pope lives - see the guards?
And other guards near the Basilica

We finished off our evening with another meal of pasta and pizza at a trattoria right behind our B&B and gelato once again for dessert!

Our final day in Italy we spent taking the train north to Milan for our flight home the next day. Much of the train journey was a repeat of the portion from Bologna to Rome, but in just 4 days, there were fields of bright yellow that hadn’t existed just a few days earlier! Spring and blooms arrived during our spring holidays and we sure enjoyed the warmer sunny weather and even had a couple of chances to wear short sleeves and shorts for a change. Our flight home the next day took us over the Italian Alps – wow!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

European Vacation - Bologna

Day 10
We packed up all of suitcases and backpacks and made the trek through the streets of Venice to return to the train station.  Our next destination was to be Bologna, about 1 ½ hours away by high speed rail.  At one point on the journey, the speed was shown at 222 km/hr which converts to 138 mph.  The views out the window were not as impressive as our train ride through the Alps, but it was fun to look out and see signs of spring.  The fields were a luscious green and many of the trees were coming out in green leaves or blossoms.

We arrived at the train station in Bologna and went to check in at our hotel.  Once at the hotel, we were given the keys to our apartment that was a few blocks away but closer to the city center.  We unloaded our gear and walked into the center of Bologna looking for lunch.  In spite of the fact that everyone was desperately hungry, it took us a while to find the right spot.  We ended up at a street café a couple of 100 yards from the city center.  Don’t ask me the name because, I could not spell it, let alone pronounce it.  It was though, a very pleasant lunch.  We sat outside and enjoyed the wonderful temperature.  It probably was only in the low 60’s but it was so much nicer than the weather we had been experiencing in the UK and even Germany.  Stacy, Cara, and I had sandwiches made with local cheeses and meats, while Carter had pizza.  It was all very tasty and the atmosphere helped as well. 
One of the things about Bologna that made it interesting to explore was that Stacy and I had read a book called “The Broker” by John Grisham and much of the story takes place in the city of Bologna.  
Two towers, we climbed the Asinelli Tower on the left
In the book, the main character huffs and puffs his way to the top of a big tower in the city so we decided to do likewise.  The tower was owned by the Asinelli family and was built many years ago as a defensible home.  The base of the tower seemed to be not much more than 10 or 12 yards square.  The hike up to the top was on a single narrow staircase with limited room for people to pass going up and down.  With the long hike up, we were rewarded with great views of the surrounding area.  
View straight down from the top of the tower
Carter commented that the views below of the city looked like the view from Google earth.  After descending, we rewarded ourselves with gelato.  I may have to stop getting gelato for my family since each of the others managed to pour, drip, and/or spill quantities of the gelato on their clothing.
Caution, gelato spills!
Okay, now that it is time to talk about the food, I’ll take over! We wanted a REAL Italian meal, typical of Bologna, so I did a little research and found a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. We had reservations for the first seating of the evening, 7 pm and were probably the first ones in the door for dinner. Being on a non-European eating schedule, we were nice and hungry by that time and ready for a multi-course meal. We shared an apertivo (appetizer) of warm cheese wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of dressed salad greens. For our primo piatto (first course which is usually pasta) we ordered the very traditional tortellini al brood(tiny tortellini in a broth), gnocchi with mushrooms and asparagus, and tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a sage butter sauce (tortelloni are large tortellini).

For our main course, I had beef cheeks with creamy mashed potatoes, Jim enjoyed a special cheese that had been broiled until brown and bubbly and was surrounded by sliced prosciutto, and the kids shared a plate of sliced meats and special homemade rolls. It was all pretty tasty, but not what American’s typically think of as Italian.
special homemade rolls
Our second day in Bologna began with a visit to Basilica St. Petronio, which is reported to be the 9th largest cathedral in the world and one of its claims to fame is that it has never been finished, with its beginnings in the year 1514.  The inside was very plain in many of the niches but others were very elaborately decorated.  The ceiling of the nave was a crème color with no decoration at all.  In many ways it made the church seem even grander and larger without the extra décor.
The Cathedral visit was followed with more pigeon chasing by Carter and Cara in the main piazza where they actually cleared the entire piazza of pigeons, if only for a moment.  

Next was a lunch in a small café with Carter and Cara having pizza, Stacy with yummy ravioli, and I had tortellini.  We enjoyed all of our food and then picked up our bags for the train ride to Roma.

I could just ride a train through Italy the whole time for the varied scenery. We saw the typical tall thin cypress trees and terraced hillsides. There were olive trees climbing the hillsides with their grey leaves contrasting sharply with the grassy green. One of the things that was so different was that many homes and small towns were located on the sides and tops of hills, not down in the valleys where water sources would be. There were a lot of terra cotta and warm gold tones in the buildings. We went through a ton of tunnels on our trip to Rome, which made our ears pop over and over.
One of the views from the train

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

European Vacation - Birthday in Venice

When I woke up on my birthday I was really tired because I was up all night. I got a card in German, a Lego Friends toy, a banana wrapped in a ribbon (from Rocky) and a mask. 

After I opened all my presents, we had breakfast. I got to chose what I wanted first. I had honey smacks cereal and some chocolate pound cake. Then we got ready to go out. We went to Saint Mark’s Square and up the bell tower. 

Then we got a gelato. My flavour was forest berry yogurt. 

Then we walked around and got talked into a gondola ride! I didn’t think that would ever happen! I always thought the boat would tip over! Although our gondolier didn’t sing (extra money) I still had lots of fun. 

We rode along the Grand Canal and under the Rialto Bridge then turned around. 

After the gondola ride we had lunch. I had bow ties (aka Farfalle) in a five cheese sauce. After lunch we got ANOTHER gelato! I got lemon and mom wanted to steal it! Next we walked to a mask store. This is where I got my birthday mask. It took a long time to choose because there were soooooo many. My mask had butterflies and flowers on it.

I woke up this morning and discovered an 8 year-old girl in our bed.  She had a tough time going to (and staying) asleep last night since she was very excited about her birthday today.  Cara opened her birthday card which was in German and then opened her one present that we had with us, which was a small Lego Friends set.  The rest of her presents and her party will happen when we get back to Scotland.

Our apartment is small but quite nice.  It has 1 bedroom plus a sitting room couch which folds out into a twin bed.  The kitchen has all of the things we need to cook with as well as a clothes washer.  This is quite handy as we needed to wash a few things to last us until our planned washing in Rome.  We did have a bit of a challenge figuring out what setting to put the washer on, since all of the writing on the washer is in Italian, but we eventually figured it out.
Canal right by our apartment
Our apartment is in a wonderful location, about halfway between the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square.  On our walk to the apartment last night I was pretty confused about the turns we were making in the rain, but after a short walk this morning to St Mark’s Square, I felt a lot more comfortable.  The walkways are very narrow in many places, often barely room for two people to pass, and then it will open up to 4 across, or even to a huge square with kids playing football (soccer) and people just sitting about drinking their cappuccinos and coffees.  We never knew what was going to be around the next corner which is what made the exploration of the streets of Venice fascinating for me.
view of St. Mark's Square & Basilica from the top of the tower
The first stop of the morning was St Mark’s Square and when we arrived at the square, we discovered a long queue to enter St Mark’s Basilica.  The interesting thing about the queue is that it was all on elevated platforms.  We were told by the apartment guy last night that they had had 16 days of rain and we also discovered that the tide was up, so St. Marks Square was slightly flooded. 

It was not flooded everywhere and even places that had water where not over 6 inches, but there were certainly more wet places than dry places.  Because of the long line, we elected to skip the Basilica and go straight to the Campanile Tower.  
This is according to Rick Steve's the first digital clock
We rode the elevator to the top and were rewarded with gorgeous sunny blue skies and 360° views of Venice.  Even though it was a bit crowed, the views were well worth it.  We could see many other islands, cruise ships, St Mark’s Square and the Basilica, and many other churches and buildings.  Of course we also could see lots and lots of boats as well.  After leaving the tower, we stopped and got gelato for Cara and Carter at 10:00 in the morning no less.  This is not something we would normally do, but since it was Cara’s birthday we splurged a little. 

One of the things that a Rick Steve’s guide said was have fun exploring the smaller streets of Venice since it was an island and you can never get really lost.  

Therefore we took that advice and explored the narrow streets of Venice, and found ourselves at one of the many gondola places.  Carter desperately wanted to take a ride and the rest of us thought it would be fun as well, so we hired a boat. Seeing Venice from the canals gives a completely different perspective on the city.  I could see how things moved about the city such as groceries and trash and it was easy to imagine how people several hundreds of years ago would have moved about since many of the walkways did not exist.  Our gondolier did a fabulous job steering the gondola through the narrow canals and under small pedestrian bridges all the while avoiding other gondolas and boat traffic.  I was amazed that during the 40 minute ride that we never once bumped into anything else.  The gondola ride turned out to be very fun, more so than I thought it would be, so I am happy Carter talked us into going for a ride.
Rialto Bridge on our gondola ride
For lunch, Stacy had researched Trip Advisor and found a takeaway pasta place that was very highly rated.  After consulting the map and walking to it, we discovered that it was literally right around the corner from our apartment.  We order pasta bolognese, pesto pasta, and five cheese pasta.  They all were very good and my personal favorite was the pesto.  After lunch we went exploring again heading across the island to a highly recommended gelato stand as well as a handmade mask store.  Since it was after lunch, we all got gelato this time and it was very good.  I believe that we are going to be sampling lots of gelato while in Italy.  The mask store was full of all types of crazy (and expensive masks).  I do not know why there are so many masks in Venice (almost every little kiosk store has some for sale), but evidently people buy them and we did as well.  We bought Cara a pretty purple and green mask with a butterfly on it for her birthday.  Maybe next year back in NC she can use it in a masquerade theme birthday party.

After a short break back at our apartment, we picked up large slices of pizza for a mobile dinner. We explored more streets and found a cool bookstore with a bookcase made out of books (and you could look over the wall right into a canal.
Can you believe this librarian is standing on books?!
We explored a little more, got ourselves momentarily disoriented, and eventually worked our way back to the apartment very much tired and ready to prop up our feet.

Bike Tour in Munich

I loved the bike tour in Munich. Even though it was 4 hours, it only seemed like 1! We met some people from Buffalo, NY, who even knew my aunt Ginger! I made a friend named Zander who I had bike races with, pulled off tricks with, and tried to push each other out of a hammock. 

The tour guide that we had was a fun-loving Australian guy! He was always making jokes and saying funny stuff! One of the funniest things that he did was: when a person came up to us, he told us to all crouch down and shout, "STRANGER DANGER!" Unfortunately, we only got to do that once. Our guide also had some little squeaky toys on the front of his bike so when we rode by dogs, he would squeak the toys and some dogs went crazy, some weren't even bothered. As we were riding through a park, there was some water rushing out from under a bridge and there were rocks just outside the bridge in the river and it created HUGE rapids. There was one person out actually SURFING. That person must have been mental to go outside surfing in 40*F (5*C) temperatures. Anyway, dad pushed me and Zander up to the edge of the river so the surfer could splash us. 

Luckily, only my shoes got a little bit wet. Then, we went to a little restaurant and got some munchies and drinks. Dad got a big beer, and mom and Cara got hot chocolate, and I got water. Then we went and cycled over the Isar river (main river in Munich) and cycled (or at least tried to) over a big hill, only to go back down again. We cycled back across the river and then turned our bikes back in. I hope you liked hearing about my bike tour experience. I certainly enjoyed it!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

European Vacation – train to Venice

Day 8
Today I woke up early worrying about where our hotel was in Venice. We were supposed to get this information in the last week, but never did, so I spent some of Thursday calling and emailing, but no success. Finally, this morning, I called the booking company and got everything straightened out, whew! I can’t imagine getting to Venice & having to find lodging.

We found a bakery that served chocolate and banana croissants this morning and then walked the streets and gardens of Innsbruck. We picked up the train and started an almost 6 hour scenic train ride to Venezia (Venice)!

We love riding the D-bahn because it rides so quietly. Not many of the sounds you usually associate with trains. I think this might be because it runs on electricity – there are power lines that follow the tracks everywhere. We had a different experience on this ride because we HAD made seat reservations and ended up in a compartment car. It was nice having an area that you can close off from the rest of the car.
Chillin in the compartment
Today is the day before my birthday! We will be travelling to Venice on the train from Innsbruck. We had compartments with other people in it. A lady (like Nana and Grami) in our compartment heard it was my b-day tomorrow and gave me some money for a gelato!

Now train windows are not very good for great photo ops, but I can’t let it go without gushing a little over the scenery. Innsbruck is in a valley in the middle of the Alps mountain range, so leaving we had snow capped mountains and lots of evergreen trees. We progressed south through the Brenner Pass which is at 4,495 ft. elevation. The valley was narrow with viaducts type roads lining the sides of the mountain but much of the snow disappeared. It was also rather brown with no green leaves or grass. Many houses had typically Bavarian carved wooden balconies.
Castle on a hill in Italy
As we left Brenner, we entered Italy. All along the narrow valley, that we traveled  there were tiny communities and in almost each one, you could see a tall red tiled church steeple rising above everything else. We also kept seeing both small and large castles on the tops of the hills every so often. After passing through the town of Chuisa Klausen, Italy started greening up and we saw an overwhelming number of grape vines. 
one of 1,000+ grape vine fields
The bright yellow forsythia and pink cherry blossoms brightened up the fields of vines.  As we rode in the middle of the valley with high mountains on both sides, we saw tall waterfalls streaming down the sides. Cameras cannot adequately capture the beauty and awe that we saw and felt.
We don't know what this round building on the top of the hill was, but it was cool
We arrived on the actual island of Venice at the train station tired out from a long train trip. It was drizzling outside and we HAD intended to walk to a pre-arranged spot to get the info about our apartment, but decided that taking the water taxi would be a better choice. Boy are we glad we made that call. It is so overwhelming to get to a new place with a totally different language & tons of streets and alleys. We met up with our rental agent who walked with us through the winding paths to our apartment where we settled down for the evening.
Our first view of Venice
Yay for water taxis