Friday, June 19, 2015

3rd time is the charm

Please refer to Hubby's blog for current pictures and a more comprehensive review of our travel adventures.

I am working with the Ipad and trying to navigate using the Blogsy app. It isn't as user friendly as one might hope (ok, maybe it is user error as well?). However, it is a good tool for generating general drafts. As Thing 1 grants me access to his laptop, or when Hubby is not using his for work, I will try to update with pictures to go with my journal notes. But for now, anything posted here is more of a work in progress.

Going into the trip, I wanted to mix in structured tours with unstructured tours. I knew we would want the freedom that comes with just wandering in a new area and taking things in but occasionally it would be fun to go with a more structured format. Also, in the more popular destinations, I had read enough to know that we were going during "high season" and tours that gave you "no waiting" access would be priceless in terms of ensuring we saw what we wanted to see with minimal muss and fuss.

In Rome we took two tours with the company called Walks of Italy. Reviews were favorable and they offered the features we wanted so I splurged on two tours. Yes, they were good tours but nothing that left me thinking WOW, I would totally recommend that company. I realize it is also a roll of the dice in terms of who you receive as a tour guide, how he/she connects with your group, and how well regarded the tour company is by the hosting facility. As was the case in the colloseum tour, a portion of a promised access was rescinded by the Collesseum itself. Much as I would like to blame the tour company, they are at the mercy of the facility. With our Vatican tour, I think we were just frustrated by the crowd levels of the facility, again not the fault of the company or guide. But with two OK but not WOW tours under our belt, even I will admit I was a little apprehensive going into Tour #3. Would it be ho hum or hopefully would it be something worth blogging about.

Well, I"m blogging so there you have it...third time was the

Today, we had signed up for a walking tour of Venice with the company called City Wonders (I think another name is Dark Tours, at least that's how it appeared on my cc charge and receipt). Our guide was Eleanora and she is a born and raised Venetian with all the elegance and charm one associates with the city of Venice.

She started the tour promptly at 0900 (much to the frustration of a family that arrived late and then was not successful in meeting up with us until 2/3 of the way through the tour). But fear not, we had done a recon of the meeting point last night so we knew it would take about an hour using public transportation to get from our apartment in Mestre to the starting point and well, if you know me...you know that I will add in extra time just to make sure we aren't "Martha late" (meaning arriving 10 minutes before the start time).

First stop was at the home of Marco Polo where she helped sort out fact from fiction in terms of the legends of his time. No, he did not bring back the noodle from the Orient. Italians figured out pasta all on their own. Yes, he was imprisoned after his return from the Orient, and it was while he was imprisoned that he wrote his famous travel tale, Il Milione or the The Travels of Marco Polo. It still boggles my mind standing in front of some home that dates back to the 1270. Just that gentle reminder that we are such a young country.

We then wandered through the side streets of Venice stopping along the way to tell little stories and she even pointed out the hospital. I wonder if they are hiring? Yeah, not really, Venice is a beautiful city, but not one I would want to have to work in. Nope, if I lived here, it would need to be in one of the Palazzos and I would want my own gondola at my disposal, and of course, we would just lounge around being on Italy time..

OK, but to the recap of today's tour. Next stop on the tour was to visit the Basilica of St. Mark. St Mark, one of the "No waiting" access options. As the crowds were starting to form, I admit I felt pretty special to just walk right in, head upstairs and receive a history lesson of this famous church. I really appreciated Elinore explanation of the art we were seeing. You forget that at the time the churches were built, many of the people were illiterate. The art served as the story of the church: from the story of how the remains of St. Mark were stolen and brought back to this church built for the sole purpose of housing the remains of their patron Saint, St. Mark, to the homily if you will....with biblical lessons being told in ornate gold plated mosiac "story boards" if you will.

Next stop was the Doge's Palace. 19+ years ago, Hubby and I visited here, but neither one of us rememebered much from that tour. Today's tour brought to life the role of government in Venetian history. Sure there was some corruption, but it is interesting to hear some of their efforts to maintain a fair democracy. For example, if you were related to the doge, you could not be in office, too much concern for corruption. If you had a crime to report, you placed the information in a special mail box, that could only be opened by two people, again, leaving no one person in control of critical information. I found it fascinating the overlap between the church and the state and the references to the zodiac time.

At the end of the tour, we had the option of hanging out for awhile in the Palace. We decided to head off in search of the location for where we had taken a "selfie" back before we called it such...we wanted to recreate that pose if possible. Hubby is working on the photographic details, will add later.

With the tour being complete, we were now free to head off in search of our next adventure....

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trip Detour

Over the weekend, we encountered our first slight hiccup in the travel itinerary. After seeing the ruins of Pompeii, we headed up to the town of Modena. The intent was to visit with a friend of Hubby's, MP. Hubby and MP had worked together back in the 1980s while Hubby was stationed here in Italy.
Something was lost in translation so despite a couple calls on our end to identify a time and place to visit, we soon realized we had 2 days with nothing particular planned.

Fear not, Hubby had a plan. And a wonderful plan it ended up being.

For starters, Thing 2, the driver-in-training asked to visit the Ferrari museum. I admit, I'm not much into cars, but there is something about seeing a room filled with very pricey cars that makes every one's heart go pitter-patter. OK, not just pricey but very flashy and fast cars.


The museum is nicely done, albeit a little on the small side compared to the cost of admission, but as Hubby pointed out there is a fair amount of work that goes into keeping the place up to the Ferrari standard. I'm also starting to appreciate that while some venues are pricey (This and the Pisa tower), it does tend to keep the busloads of tourists and the street vendors selling selfie sticks at bay. Something the rich figured out awhile ago, paying for a tad bit more of a private experience is often worth it.

So while the museum was nice, what I found very interesting was the location. Here we were, driving along a country road, very similar in weather conditions to where my dad lives in Western Wisconsin (translation: both are muggy and buggy, swap the corn fields for vineyards where the famous Modena Balsamic vinegar is being grown) and BOOM...there she sits, the factory for what is often called the world's fastest car ever made. You can hear the classic rumble of the engine off in the distance (nope, not workers testing their product, but true officianodos testing their skills on a very expensive "drive a ferrari" experience....something that nobody in the Chang Gang was interested in.)

After this, we headed back to our lodging where we decided to check out the restaurant on the end of the street. OMG: filled with locals, our waitress had a difficult time making sure she got our order right (for the records she did get it right. you could just tell she was nervous about waiting on tourists, I"m guessing we are a rarity in this restaurant). Turns out it would have been fine if she mixed up our order, as everything was delicious and as I glanced around at the others eating nearby, everything else looked equally delicious.

On Sunday, we decided to briefly leave the beauty that is Italy, and headed on a day trip to another country. Just 2 hrs from our lodging in Modena, is the country of San Marino.

 It's the world's 5th smallest countries with what is the oldest surviving republic dating back to 300 AD. Perched high on the top of Mt. Titano one could easily appreciate how hard it would have been for the neighbors to attempt an invasion.

 On a side note, this mountain sits majestically high at 750m. HaHa: compared to our mountains back home it seems barely hill status, but one should factor in we start at sea level and started the climb up some twisty-turney roads, filled with bicyclists (and not the weekend road riders we see in Colorado...these guys were all in matching jersys and riding in large groups, suggesting it was either a structured race or a training day for local teams?).

We reached the top, yet again, before the hordes of tourist buses had made it up the hill, and headed off in search of some breathtaking views.

 Thing 2 wanted to show off his physical stamina, so he asked to take off on a path and said he'd meet us at the castle. Turns out we should have been a little more specific, as there are two castles in town.

 Oh well, with it being such a small country, and with great cell phone coverage, he soon found his way to our spot and my mama worries were subsided. At the time, I was a little more than worried, and slightly annoyed, but looking back on it, I realize there is a certain amount of humor in terms of saying we may have lost our child in such a tiny country?!

The rest of the day was spent wandering the town, seeing the bicyclists that crowded the roads on the route up, and realizing that this sleepy little country would indeed be a destination popular with school groups and tourists. But luckily, the selfie stick sellers must have gotten the memo not to be bothered by coming to San Marino.

As for the shopping, seems that given their independent nation status, and lack of a VAT, the shops offer a unique array of gifts. True designer hand bags (not the ones spread out on a tarp down some dark alley in Rome) and gun stores were plentiful. The designer boutique made sense to me: saving a little on the tax, means maybe you can get a wallet to match your purse. But the gun store? Not sure I understood that one until Hubby pointed out that in Italy the laws are very restrictive in terms of purchasing weaponry. But here in the country of San Marino, well, different laws applies. Sure enough, we saw many people walking around with long boxes, doubtful they were bringing home an umbrella to mark their visit to San Marino.

We returned to our lodging around 1700, and after a brief rest we took Thing 1 out to purchase his souvenirs from the local mall. Seems the Italian Gamestop had gadgets for his game that are too rare to find in the US? Okey dokey, this is his vacation as much as ours we realize.....and found ourselves back at the wonderful restaurant just at the end of the our block.
The take home lessons from all of this
  1. Sometimes plans need to be changed. Trying to assign blame or attach a reason leaves everyone frustrated.
  2. Having a few days in a vacation with nothg particular planned is a good way to regroup and re-energize.
  3. If Mama is acting anxious and stressed, find her a mezzo-litre of House wine. She soon will be returned to a reasonable state of being.
Until next time (strong wi-fi and sleeping children letting me have access to their gadgets...)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Week #1 Recap


Hubby continues to do an amazing job of daily recaps with loads of pictures. So for the pretty stuff, that's where you will want to head first.

I'm sitting here in the carriage house,(or is it barn house?) of a restored country estate outside of Modena, reflecting on our first week in Europe. It's been a great trip thus far...sure some little hiccups along the way but nothing we can't sort out in some way.

 Speaking of sorting out, we were able to locate a power cord for Thing 1. It happened in a rather unplanned fashion. Both Hubby and I did a quick search of the Internet and found the cord to be product specific, so we had agreed to just let Thing 1 adapt. But then on Wednesday, we were headed towards the metro to go visit a museum (pushing the limits of being out in the heat of the day). We were greeted by a closed down metro line and it wasn't clear when they would re-open. Not sure how that worked in Italy, neither Hubby nor I were eager to wait around and discover the metro line either never reopened or broke down again once we were stuck on it with thousands of other tourists, locals and pick pockets (if there is such a thing in a big city she says with a sarcastic snicker).

As we headed back to the hotel, I spotted a computer store. Looked more like what a repair shop looks like in the US, but Hubby was able to ask if they stocked such an item. Sure enough, they did! Still not convinced it was the right product, I wanted to keep Thing 1 in the dark until we were sure we had a surprise for him. Thing 2 caught on rather quickly to what Hubby and I were looking for, and we all said that Dad was shopping for a tripod (another item left back home). I swear it wasn't until we handed the kid the bag with the cord in it, did he realize that he had his most precious souvenir...a source of power for his laptop.
See what I mean about things sorting themselves out?

Eating: Yes, we've enjoyed some fine meals and some less than fine meals. We all agreed our first meal in Italy was a bit of a bust. We broke those cardinal travel rules of picking a place close to the tourist attractions, we were caught off guard by a waiter hovering in the side walk area, looking for that look of fatigue followed by hunger and after all was said and done, we can now tell you where to find probably Roma's toughest pizza crust near the Vatican!

As for the best meal, well, that depends on who ate what, where and when. My best of the week was at a small osteria in Pompeii (Osteria da Peppino)I had the most delicious seafood pasta. Thing 2 fell in love with the pizza and tiariamasu at a restaurant near our hotel at the Vatican (Borgo Nuovo). OK maybe it wasn't the food he fell in love with but rather the flirty Italian waitress, but hey it is often the setting that makes the meal memorable, right? Thing 1 has discovered the Pizza Diablo is spicy like a pepperoni and he tends to order this when given a chance. But his favorite I'd say was the discovery of fries at a take-away store not far from our hotel in Pompeii. As for Hubby, he's certain tonight's meal will be the best...when our friend Max, a native to this area, picks the restaurant.

Sleeping: So far, we've stayed in 3 types of lodging all with their own unique qualities. For the record, I used booking.com to book all of our stays. I really liked the platform they use for searching and reading reviews and their prices all seemed competitive with other sites. It is super convenient to have all our reservations located on one site, complete with maps and directions to each particular property type.
First place we stayed was the Borgo Pio apartment style hotel. In the heart of the Vatican area, we enjoyed a 2 bedroom apartment style room with a small kitchen area. The beds were comfortable, we all had plenty of space and I loved the proximity to the Vatican. The only thing missing was a sitting area to enjoy the outdoor space. But then again, it was rather warm so I doubt I would have used it. This complex was very popular with student study groups: I saw many American college coeds in the building, coming and going with their instructors. Wherever they were from, their mamas would be pleased to know how well behaved they were, and kind to their instructors. My guess and assumption is they were studying something to do with either religion or Renaissance art, probably with a steep price tag, and not your typical "party-hardy" college crowd given the location and the fact they called their teacher "Father". I later overheard two of the instructors talking. The father had been a professor at Gonzaga but this summer is with a "group of Presbyterian" students and the female professor was from University of North Florida (or something in that combination). That's about all this nosey neighbor was able to pick up on (Yes, Mrs. Kravitz has gone international!)
When we visited Pompeii, we stayed at a lovely hotel called Hotel Diana. Backing up a bit, finding lodging in Pompeii was tricky. Almost all the guide books suggest making Pompeii a day trip and staying in nearby Naples or even just taking a day trip from Rome. Given it's proximity to the Amalfi coast, yes, it was easy to see how nobody really spends the night in Pompeii.

So while It took some digging, I must that I did uncover quite the gem at the Hotel Diana. It has recently been refurbished and has so many nice little qualities that will result in me giving it a very high rating (once I get a chance). From the English speaking staff, to the adorable bunk beds that really made the room spacious enough to accommodate a family of 4 (for the record, European hotels are such that they don't usually feature the bed configuration we are used to in the states). There was a very pleasant garden courtyard with bar service (where yes, I enjoyed an evening glass of vino). The hotel included breakfast and had a good assortment of European style treats (bread, rolls, prosciutto, along with sweet snacks and fresh fruit). The cappuccino was perfect.

And now we are at our 3rd spot outside of Modena. In my searches for lodging, I had two consistent criteria: parking and free wi-fi. Parking as we have a rental car, and many places in historical centres are traffic restricted and the Internet is critical not only for us to stay connected, but more importantly, Hubby is expected to be working during the week day hours of 1600-2300. Telecommuting to the states requires internet access.

So with these two items being a priority, I was intentional in trying to find some diverse lodging. We've got hotels in the states, let's show the Things what other options are out there. I stumbled across an interesting place, and I'll be 100% honest when I say I was sold on the first picture they featured: vintage motorcycles. If you've ever met the Hubby, well, you know that's all it really took for me to make sure the other criteria were met and we were staying here at La Corte dei Sogni.
Bonus features are that we have the carriage house pretty much all to ourselves, with close proximity to the towns of Modena and Bologna. It is by far the biggest cultural experience for us as the hosts (?caretakers or owners, we are not sure) speak very little English. But hey, isn't that part of the experience?

Two things that we all have remarked one: Italian showers are a.m.a.z.i.n.g. Water pressure is strong, adjustable features, heck, this "farm house" shower has 3 different nozzles depending on whatever body party you want to target. And the beds: so firm that if we were Goldilocks, we'd be in search of something different, and yet, we get a great night's sleep on these ultra firm beds. Maybe the 6-12 miles I"m forcing the guys to walk each day may be a factor, but really, if I was shopping for a bed, I'd say the beds were too firm but now I"m re-thinking that line of logic.

Sights: I asked the gang at lunch today what was their favorite sight or event for Week 1. Thing 2 was the first to chime in with a smirk and a giggle. While wandering the shops in the Tuscan Hill town of Montepulciano, he founds some curiously shaped pasta. I'd like to say they were factor defect "dog bone" pasta, but alas, I fear I'd be just spinning a tale. Heavy sigh...but after all he is a teenage boy. Thing1 was less able to quickly identify one individual event or feature. He seems rather interested in a host of things, but he is also most appreciative of this custom called Siesta. In fact, my guess is he's sound asleep right now...the heat of the day, the best thing to do is to take a little nap. Hubby indicated he is pretty impressed with the churches, with the Basilica of St. Peter to be his favorite. Sistine Chapel didn't really do a lot for him thus far.

 For me, I was impressed with the Basilica as well. So impressive and ornate and to hear the choir singing during mass as I stood up on the dome, well, yes, that is indeed a highlight. Another favorite has been just sitting outside, sipping the vino and appreciating what a precious gift this trip is for me in total...to have my family here, together, minimal bickering and maximum bonding time has indeed helped make this the trip of the lifetime.