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October 24, 2009

Lunch (and rain) in Leesburg

After the most painless flying experience we've had in years (empty airport, half-full flight, on-time departure, early arrival), we headed to Leesburg for lunch. When I lived in the DC area, (too) many years ago, I was here only once, briefly. My recollection was of a historic town with quaint shops and restaurant, so it seemed like a worthwhile place to kill a few hours before checking into our room.

My impression was largely correct, though like so many picturesque, historic towns, there's less than meets the eye when you actually try to find something to do. In other words, Leesburg has many shops, but relatively few of interest to us. To be fair, we were there on a crowded, rainy Saturday with only one small umbrella we picked up at a grocery store 30 minutes earlier. In search of a bookstore, we walked about a block before deciding it was raining too hard, then ducked into a parking garage to wait out the worst of the downpour.

Lunch was a quick sandwich at Shoes Cup and Cork Club, a pleasant, atmospheric cafe/coffee shop on King Street, the main drag in town. The name reflects the space's history as an old shoe store, renovated enough to be comfortable but still retaining old signs and other reminders of times past.


A genuine trip...sans child!

Janene and I are on a plane, bound for a long weekend in Northern Virginia. It's the first time we've traveled by air since Evan came along, since five months before he was born, more than three and a half years ago. What a treat to have an uninterrupted conversation with my wife. To navigate the airport check-in process virtually hassle-free. To stroll through the airport with a relatively light carry-on (no portable DVD player!).

Yet more than any other mini-vacation we've taken, we're feeling his absence quite deeply. He's particularly cooperative and engaging these days, and fun to be around. I think we'll enjoy the time away together, celebrating a belated 10th anniversary, not to mention the 13th of our first date (10/27/96). But for now, we miss our little boy, who is probably having a great time with his grandparents (who no doubt are feeding him ice cream as we speak).

June 29, 2009

Time to leave already?

We're set to leave tomorrow. Unfortunately, I just wrote four paragraphs and accidentally deleted them. No time to write more, so I'll only describe this evening, which was lovely.

Dinner at Il Fico, a spot near Piazza Navona that I'd read about on the Internet. Outstanding Roman cuisine in a very informal setting. We walked back past the Pantheon and had probably our favorite moment on the trip. Sitting on the fountain steps in the center of the piazza, we read Evan a book while a street performer sang arias nearby.We finished in time to hear his final number, which Evan knows very well from one of his favorite YouTube videos. It brought a huge smile to his face, and therefore ours.

Then, gelato at Giolitti, followed by a very long walk back to the hotel. (We've been staying in the Westin Excelsior in a lovely suite, using hotel points. It's far nicer than our house, and I think they'll have to drag us out of here by our fingernails.)

In all, a very nice end to a very nice trip.

June 23, 2009

Some down time in Tuscany

Spending our third full day in Borgo Iesolana, near Bucine in Tuscany. There's much to love about this place.

Our apartment is beautiful. We chose our previous lodging, in Montàsola, for an opportunity to live like Italians for a few days. This time, we're living like Italians with more money. The apartment is spacious, with two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen (including a dishwasher), and an enormous patio with sweeping views of the mountains and trees. While it's been too cool to use the pool, we've got one of those too, as well as vineyards to wander through, a ping-pong table and small soccer field at our disposal, and bales of hay to touch. (There's also a resident cat, Teo, who has already taken advantage of one open patio door to make himself at home on our couch.)

On the other hand, the approach to the grounds here is about 3 km long, beginning with a narrow brick bridge. I'd call it a one-lane bridge, but that overstates it. Really, the bridge is only slightly wider than our car, which isn't that big. The rest of the road is basically a gravel path. It takes us a good five to seven minutes to even make it to the main road—a drawback when traveling with an easily bored toddler.

Also, as nice as this place is, we feel nickel-and-dimed every time we need anything. Breakfast, which we haven't eaten since the first morning, consists of a small buffet of cereal, yogurt, juice, bread, and pastries and is 7 euros per person (even for Evan, even though "breakfast" for him consists of licking the Nutella off his toast). Internet access is 8 euros for an hour -- explaining the infrequent posting. Laundry is 10 euros to wash and dry a small load. They charge a considerable amount to change a single towel. And so on.

Still, it's been extremely pleasant to have a home base for an entire week, particularly one that's as geographically central. We began the week with a trip to the iperCOOP in Montevarchi to buy groceries. This was a memorable experience—all the glorious chaos of Italy in a single Costco-sized warehouse. You can buy seemingly anything in this store—fruit, cheese, fresh bread, televisions, mobile phones, swimming pool flotation devices (the reason we went in the first place), books, etc. It's not the sort of place to go when you've just got a few things you need because it's impossible to get in and out quickly. But it's definitely fun if you have the right attitude.

Otherwise, we've stayed fairly close to home and not been too adventurous. Our most outstanding meal was at L'Antico Borgo in Civitella in Val di Chiana, a beautiful hilltop town that Evan particularly liked for the bells that rang on the hour. Since then, he's heard bells in other towns, but none seem to compare. We also spent the morning yesterday in Arezzo, a very pleasant city about 35 minutes away from our apartment. It's got an impressive cathedral and a nice mostly-pedestrian-only main shopping street.

Yesterday, needing a quick bite to eat, we grabbed some pizza slices at Gli Svizzeri, a touristy bar with a pleasant  terrace along Via Del Corso. Only after we sat did I notice its motto on the window, Per prendere un caffè è tradire la moglie, c'è sempre tempo. To have a coffee and cheat on one's wife, there's always time. You'd expect a place this classy to have outstanding food, but sadly, it was not. Twelve euros for three slices of pizza and a bottle of water later, we were on our way.

June 22, 2009

Our first few days

We've been off the grid since we arrived in Italy, hence the lack of any blog updates. Scusate.

It's been a nice if ultimately frustrating first few days here at Agriturismo Montepiano in Montàsola. We're about an hour and a half outside of Rome, yet we couldn't be in more of a different world.

The town is in a stunning location, a tiny, ancient hilltop castle/village with awesome views. The town itself is a true slice of Italian life. Aside from Letizia, our helpful proprietor, literally no one here speaks English. If I couldn't speak Italian, we'd be utterly helpless here. (Of course, if I couldn't speak Italian, we probably wouldn't be here at all.)

Staying here for three days has been extremely interesting. We booked our apartment thinking that we'd have the opportunity to get a sense to live like an Italian. Boy, have we. Montàsola is tiny. One restaurant, one bar, a post office, a pharmacy, a minuscule grocery store, a hundred or so residents, and...us.

We—and especially Evan (the resident biondo, "blondie")—stand out here. Every evening, four to six residents congregate on the nearest bench to discuss the day's happenings (including, I imagine, the strange Americans that insist on dining before 9 pm).

Montàsola seems more movie setting than active town. There's next to nothing to do except stroll around and watch the locals living their daily lives. Because there's so little activity here, Evan practically has the run of the place, and he's had a great time climbing the steep hills and steps, running through the piazzette with his bubbles to blow.

At the same time, two days ago we probably exhausted everything there is to do in town. And because of the combination of jet lag, Evan's general toddler-ness, and his toothache (more on this in a moment), we aren't really able to stray too far from our home base. Which means essentially that we can't go anywhere, because there's not much nearby either. The closest town, Casperia, is nearly 15 minutes away. It's only slightly larger than Montasola—it has a gas station, a few bars, a tabaccheria, and a restaurant.

Our two-bedroom apartment, La Terrazza, is reasonably sized and comes with views worth every penny. But it lacks air conditioning, which has been a big problem at night because it's been so warm. Also making it impossible to sleep is the pack of dogs that live, unseen, below our apartment and bark in tandem at regular intervals throughout the night.

Another challenge has been Evan, who in addition to being highly jet lagged, seems to be getting his molars in. We really thought we were done with teething. He's been constantly complaining about his teeth hurting, and it's even keeping him up at night. With the combination of the heat, our canine neighbors, and Evan's crying, we probably woke up 5 times each last night. It's been difficult. We hope it gets easier soon.

Our most memorable meal so far has been at the nearest restaurant, steps away from our apartment...Quello che c'è, c'è (what is, is). (They say they're franchising in New York, but I'm taking that with a large grain of salt.) Outstanding collection of antipasti, an excellent pappardelle with wild boar, good wine, and fantastic biscotti to finish the meal. Of course, by that time Evan had had more than enough of sitting, so Janene got to enjoy hers in our apartment an hour or so later.

By the time this is posted, we'll be in our next apartment, Borgo Iesolana, in Bucine. Back soon.

June 14, 2009

Italy blogging

On Tuesday, we're off to Italy -- me, Janene, and, yes, Evan, age-not-quite 3. This is the most ambitious trip we've tried with our resident toddler. He's extremely energetic these days and careens from delightful to impossible in a shockingly short time span.

In short, aside from some good food and lots of coffee, we have literally no idea what to expect from this trip.

I'm planning to do periodic blogging, depending on internet availability and how tired we get. At the same time, blogging will definitely be lighter than in the past. I spend so much time on the computer during my normal life that I'm also going to take a vacation from typing.

So...wish us buon viaggio e buona fortuna. Next stop, Agriturismo Montepiano on Wednesday for a 3-night stay.

March 28, 2007

A day at the Mall

A very pleasant day today. Reasonably cool -- upper 60s with a nice breeze, but quite warm when the sun was out, which was the case for most of the day.

Like yesterday, Evan had a great time in the city. There were so many things for him to look at -- the tall Metro escalators, the smiling passers-by, the fast subway cars whizzing past him on the platform, and a big lawn to play on (otherwise known as The Mall.)

I started off the day with a short run in the beautiful neighborhood around the hotel, headed northwest past the embassies, then left into Dumbarton Oaks Park. What a wonderful place for a run. Only a few steps into the park, as you descend a big hill, you suddenly feel like you're miles from the city. The noise dissipates, and what had been an urban run suddenly turns into a cross-country trail. It made me wish we had anything remotely comparable at home and nostalgic for my two years living in the DC area.

By the time I returned to the hotel, Evan was up from his nap, and we headed to lunch at Five Guys at the National Place Food Court near Metro Center. We'd read about this place on the Internet. Its burgers and fries are rated as some of the best in DC. We don't know about that, but it was very good, and very cheap, and very greasy. This isn't fine dining. But the small cheeseburger -- not particularly small -- was around $3, and the small fries, plenty big enough for Janene and me to split, were about that as well. For about $12 between us, we had a delicious, not very healthy meal.

March 26, 2007

In DC, and very tired

Traveling is so much more tiring than it used to be, in our pre-parent days. Everything takes so much longer. There is so much more stuff. You don't just get in a taxi -- you have to load the trunk with the stroller and all of your bags, then strap in the car seat and make sure it's totally secure before you can go on your way. Airplane flights, subway rides, trips down escalators...it all requires multiple steps.

The flight to DC was uneventful, but by the time we got to our room at the Westin Embassy Row -- in a beautiful neighborhood two blocks from DuPont Circle, though the hotel badly needs renovating -- we were completely spent.

Evan, however, was ready to go. After a short rest in the hotel, we took a walk to Luigi's, where Evan became the third generation of Kessler to eat there (it was a favorite college hangout for my dad). The food's not bad -- old school, traditional Italian with red checkered tablecloths -- but if that's your reason for going there, you're missing the point. It's just a great, classic Washington spot that's been operating since the 40s, and I try to stop in every time we're in town.

March 07, 2007

Kid blogging

The key activity involved with any travel blog is traveling. Since Evan's been born, we haven't done any to speak of. But we're going to try to get back on that horse later this month, when we head to our nation's capital for a quick four-day jaunt.

It's not yet clear whether traveling with a seven-month-old will allow us to do enough interesting things worth writing about. And by interesting, I mean interesting from a travel perspective. I don't want this to become a place to describe the latest adorable thing that Evan's figured out how to do (though, wait until you hear about this one...).

We'll give it a shot. Back in late March.

June 09, 2006

Slow start, lovely park

Had a slow start to the morning. Janene wasn't feeling great for a few hours, and then as soon as she was doing better, I got a stomachache that kept us in our room for another hour more. But once we finally got going, we saw some beautiful glacier-influenced scenery today. First stop was Toft's Point, just up the road in Bailey's Harbor, a nature preserve with beautiful open Lake Michigan views. It's a lovely spot, with open grasslands giving way to huge, flat stepping stones leading up to the water. Quick lunch back in Bailey's Harbor, buffalo burgers at Weisgerbers Cornerstone Pub. Pure Wisconsin, right down to its collection of headshots of famous Green Bay Packers. Then a lovely walk in Whitefish Dunes State Park. Both Janene and I like the idea of hiking a lot but don't do so well when we actually have to get close to nature. But this park has not only beautiful scenery, but nice wide trails that help keep nature at a comfortable distance. Janene's stamina was the only problem on this walk, as the hills -- something we don't see a lot in Highland Park -- were a bit much for her. On the way home, we made a brief stop at Cave Point County Park, next to Whitefish Dunes and equally beautiful. Then on to Wilson's in Ephraim for an old-fashioned root beer float. (If you're in the mood to transport yourself back to the 1950s, then Door County may be for you.)

June 07, 2006

Not the "New England of the Midwest." But nice enough.

I've seen Door County referred to in various guidebooks as "the New England of the Midwest." According to Lee's Law of Travel, anyplace that describes itself as the X of the Y is not nearly as good as the original.

I'm here to report that Door County has not disproved Lee's Law, although it's a reasonably pleasant place to spend a few days.

Today was a day for exploring the peninsula, beginning with Peninsula State Park, which according to our guidebook gets as many visitors per year as Yellowstone National Park.

It was quite empty today, which we attributed to it being midweek. But it could have just as easily been because we're the only ones who didn't hear that Wisconsin's mosquito population was throwing a party. I think we were the guests of honor. The ranger said that he'd never seen so many mosquitos at any time in the past three years. We believe it. We stepped out of the car and were instantly swarmed. Then we got back in, killing one mosquito after another, generating bug-lotion-greasy handprints all over the windshield.

We managed to find a reasonably bug-free hike to do along Green Bay and had a pleasant walk for about 30 minutes. Lunch was in nearby Fish Creek at The Cookery. The food was pretty good -- Janene had a large salad with grilled chicken and dried local cherries while I had a garlic pesto burger -- but we were the youngest people in the restaurant by about 25 years.

Baileys Harbor in 15 minutes or less

While Janene was getting ready for the day, I took a walk to explore Baileys Harbor, our home for the next couple of days. It's very pretty and relaxing and unhurried, especially since it's still early for tourist season. We've read that we're on the "quiet" side of the peninsula, and I believe it. There's not much here -- not much traffic, not many stores, not many restaurants. It's a relaxing getaway and very beautiful, but don't expect much to do here.

June 06, 2006

In Door County

Made it to Door County, Wisconsin, in time for dinner. For a long time this morning, we didn't think we'd make it out our own door.

Last night we had been warned by ComEd that there would be a planned power outage this morning at 9. It was bad enough that we only had 12 hours' notice -- particularly since I had some last-minute work to complete before we could go. But they also turned the electricity off at 8:30, a half-hour before they said they were going to. So I didn't get the files off my computer that I needed, so we couldn't do some last minute ironing, so we couldn't load the dishwasher, and so on. But even worse, we couldn't get the garage door open until a service person came to fix it (it was fortunate we were able to get someone to our house on short notice.

The power came back on at around 12:30, and we were on our way. We made the obligatory detour to Milwaukee for custard at Kopps, finally making it to Door County at around 6:30 in time for dinner -- a very good but overpriced meal at the Harbor Fish Market and Grille. I'll post more tomorrow after we've had a chance to see more of the area. But we very much like where we're staying, the Blacksmith Inn, in Bailey's Harbor, Wisconsin. The room overlooks the water, and we have a great view of Lake Michigan, as well as a soothing soundtrack of water lapping up on the shore.

April 01, 2006

Can't believe we're leaving tomorrow

Enjoying a lovely day on the patio of our B&B, Anne's Place. It's a beautiful view. Sheep from a farm just down the road, mountains in the distance. Hard to believe that we're just 45 minutes from Rome.

Spent a very nice day in Palestrina, a hilltop town best known for being the birthplace of the composer with the same name. The town is utterly Italian. Barely anyone speaks English, which is very surprising considering how close we are to Rome, where everybody does.

It feels like we just got here, and tomorrow we head home. Looking forward to no longer being on the go, but we're in no hurry to depart either.

March 30, 2006

Checking in

Sorry we've been out of touch. We're having a great time and have been generally too tired to blog. Also, I've been trying to limit my typing time to give my arms a rest.

We're spending our second night in Sorrento. It's an attractive city but not our favorite. Our B&B, Il Roseto, is very pleasant, but it's far from the center of town, so we have spent a good portion of time walking a mile or so on narrow sidewalks, dodging scooters and cars and breathing their ample exhaust. Also, we prefer places with few tourists and lots of locals, but Sorrento is full of visitors -- meaning generally high prices and average food. In short, the city is nice enough, but we'd probably choose somewhere else to stay on a return visit.

Such as Ravello, where we spent a good portion of the day on our tour of the Amalfi Coast. The coast is stunning, but don't drive it unless you're fearless. The roads are narrow, and Italian drivers are insane.

If there's time, I'll provide updates of our time in Naples and Rome earlier this week.

March 22, 2006

A presto!

If you're here, you've found the blog's new home. Welcome. We're headed to Rome, Naples, and Sorrento in several days. As much as I'd love to write at length, commentary will be brief -- probably just the occasional paragraph and some links to pictures. If you're extremely curious about what we're up to, by all means check in!

August 02, 2005

Beautiful Vancouver

Spent a lovely day in a lovely city. Our second time in Vancouver has been just as pleasant as out first trip here. There is something so completely pleasant, so vibrant, so comfortable about this city. It's small enough to be manageable by foot, but large enough to feel like a major metropolitan area, with great restaurants, cafes, and shops. And the public spaces are especially magnificent. If we lived here, we would never tire of the waterfront paths and the not-very-distant mountains. Vancouver is everything that we hoped to find in Seattle but were disappointed not to.

We spent pretty much all day on our feet, although our plans today were not particularly ambitious. We slept in, headed to Caffe Artigiano for breakfast and some of the best lattes anywhere. Afterwards, we walked to Sunset Beach Park and strolled along the waterfront for a few miles, finishing up our walk at the water taxi stand for a ride to Granville Island, Vancouver's wonderful public market.

After lunch, we walked through Yaletown back to our hotel, the Westin Grand, and refreshed in the room for a while. We decided to go to the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens, which according to our guidebook was a peaceful oasis within the center of Chinatown. But we didn't have much inner peace after paying $17 CDN for the two of us to stroll around the park. It was very nice, and indeed a pleasant experience. But the garden is postage-stamp-sized, and the presence of many tourists makes it difficult to attain inner peace and Zenlike calm--the only things that would have made the admission price worthwhile. What's more, the gardens are attached to a public park, which while not quite so lovingly sculpted, was nearly as interesting and free besides. If you're visiting Vancouver, we recommend you to to the free park and peer into the Sun Yat Sen gardens from a distance.

Dinner was at Incendio, a Gastown pizzeria we liked two years ago. Their pizza is quite good--if not amazing--and the patio was a pleasant place to enjoy the lovely evening.

July 30, 2005

Wifey's Birthday

A lovely day to celebrate Janene's birthday. Much driving today, owning to our inn being near absolutely nothing. Seabeck is only 40 or 50 miles from Seattle, but we feel like we're hundreds of miles from civilization here. The view of the stars tonight was magnificent, probably the clearest we've ever seen--hard to believe considering the proximity to a major city.

Our first stop was the Olympic National Forest, where we took a beautiful hike through some much rougher terrain than we'd ever see in Chicago (although quite easy by local standards). It felt great, once we got used to being in nature. Janene and I are not exactly outdoorsy, but armed with bug repellent, the insects stayed to themselves, and we enjoyed our hourlong hike.

We then headed to Mount Walker and took a harrowing four-mile gravel road to the 2,804-foot summit. The view from the top was stunning, with Mount Rainier and the Seattle Skyline clearly visible. Truly unforgettable, and enough to make us ignore the even more nerve-wracking ride down, much worse than the drive up.

On to Port Townsend, a nice getaway community it seems, for vacationing Seattlers. Lots of classic Victorian buildings on an attractive “Main Street,” with plenty of quaint-looking shops and cafes targeting urban dwellers in search of the same premium coffee available at home. Unable to move our 8pm dinner reservations any earlier, we spent several hours wandering around town and enjoying the waterfront view.

Dinner at The Wild Coho, an excellent bistro in town where we continued to eat too much. A lovely place for a birthday meal. After dinner, we would have loved to hang around longer in Port Townsend to enjoy the jazz festival that was going on there. Lots of big names were performing, but they weren't starting until 10 and we still had an hour and fifteen minute drive back to the inn. Next time.

July 29, 2005

Peace and Quiet

Left Seattle after lunch. We enjoyed the city quite a bit but aren't entirely sure what we think of it. Surely it's in a magnificent setting with amazing Mt. Ranier in the background. But the waterfront is used less to its potential than any major city I've ever seen. It's full of factories and loading docks, and access to the water is limited by I-5 and a railroad track. Given the natural advantages, you'd expect it to be much more in attractive than it is.

My guess is that there are plenty of stunning spaces in town (maybe by Bill Gates's house?), and we just need to get out of the central city to really see Seattle at its best.

We took the ferry to Bainbridge Island and drove the hours or so to the Kitsap Peninsula and to Seabeck, where our inn, the Willcox House is located. The view from here is magnificent, with the Olympic Mountains in view across Hood Canal. And the inn, which has only five rooms, is a beautiful 1930s era seaside getaway. Our room is the Clark Gable Room, named for its most famous guest. It has a private balcony that I want to sit on all day long to look at the mountains and water.

On the negative side, the innkeepers are not what we are used to. Typically, people who run inns are helpful, warm people-persons. The woman who runs the inn may be a magnificent cook, and I'm sure she's kind to her cat, but she's not exactly tempermentally suited to work in the hospitality industry.

For example, when we arrived, she wanted to know whether we were planning to drink coffee or tea at breakfast tomorrow morning. Like, fourteen hours in the future. I generally like to sleep on that decision and make my breakfast beverage choice on the spot, and up until now it really hasn't been a big problem.

We were also told at check-in that dinner was at 6:30. Message received. Apparently, though, we couldn't be trusted to retain that information, because a dinner bell rang at 6:28 to call us and the one other couple staying at the inn downstairs. We're half-expecting a wake-up call in the morning for calisthenics. I will say, however, that the dinner was wonderful, and it almost makes up for the rigidity of the place.

July 28, 2005

All Walked Out

Back to the hotel after dinner and a Mariners game with cousin Cecilli. We must have walked eight miles today. We're pretty tired.

Safeco Field is a nice place to see a game, with a great terrace around the perimeter of the upper level, offering views of Puget Sound and the skyline. Also the garlic fries are not to be missed.

We spent most of the morning at Pike Place Market. It's a farmers market, but calling it that is a huge understatement. It's full of stall after stall of fresh produce, restaurant after restaurant of great-looking, great-smelling meals, and assorted other vendors. It really is hard to believe how big and how good this market is. It is no exaggeration to say we could eat every meal for the rest of our lives there and never get bored.

For lunch we had a truly remarkable meal at Matt's in the Market which we read about in the guidebook and on the Internet but would otherwise have been hard to find. Janene had incredibly fresh halibut, while my salmon in a pancetta vinaigrette was so good. It's extremely casual with a small bar and only about a half-dozen tables. The menu changes almost every day. This place is well worth a visit.

Went up the Space Needle this afternoon. Touristy and too expensive, but the view of the area makes it worth it. The park in the vicinity is one of the nicest parts of Seattle we saw during our brief stay.

July 27, 2005

Sleepy in Seattle

Arrived in Seattle this evening for the first of eight days in the Pacific Northwest. The flight was reasonably pleasant. Flying first-class--which we were able to do by using United miles--certainly makes the four-hour flight much more pleasant.

Arrived at the Sheraton Seattle around 7:30, strolled around the Belltown neighborhood and had a light and very good dinner at The Flying Fish.

We walked back via the waterfront (verdict: a little disappointing; a lot touristy), up Madison Street (verdict: steep), past the architecturally significant Seattle Library (verdict: interesting, but closed), and back to the hotel to get some much needed rest. We'll have more to say about the city tomorrow.

July 04, 2005

Happy Fourth!

It's nice to wake up on the Fourth of July in New England. We're headed back to the 'rents house in Albany today, via one small town after another.

Took a stroll around the “town” of Lower Waterford. It consists of a post office, a church, and an “honor” library (pick up a book, promise to bring it back soon). Below the town is a pleasant path to a lovely vantage point of the Connecticut River, with New Hampshire on its opposite banks.

July 03, 2005

U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Back home in the mother country.

We really enjoyed our time in Quebec, but it's nice to be in a place where others speak the same language and purchases are made without mental currency conversions.

We got an early start this morning to try to enjoy Quebec City before the crowds emerged from their slumber. The city is so different when it's quiet. It's enough to make one forget the insane crowds of the previous night.

When strolling around the city, both last night and this morning, we found some areas of Quebec that seem to be popular with locals and not quite so much with tourists (although we don't think we'd have any problem being understood if speaking en anglais). This is the sort of knowledge one gains on a first trip someplace and uses on a second trip.

Our drive south on I-91 was beautiful. Quebec is lovely, but the best scenery seems to be saved for Vermont. We've been to Vermont numerous times but did not expect it to be quite so remote in the state's Northeast Kingdom. You quite literally can drive for 10 minutes at a time and see nothing but trees and mountains. And that's pretty much all we did see, all the way to Lower Waterford, Vermont, and the Rabbit Hill Inn.

The inn is lovely and completely relaxing. It's easy to forget what quiet sounds like, but here, birds sound like they're miked. Individual cars can be heard coming from a mile away. And then...nothing.

July 02, 2005

Crowded Quebec

Perhaps a holiday weekend for both Canada and the U.S. was not the best time for us to be visiting Quebec City. It's packed here, and for good reason. Quebec is a beautiful place, a slice of Europe on our own continent, but without pay toilets.

I was fortunate to be up relatively early and take a walk around town while it was still mostly empty. Quebec feels remarkably like France--the stone houses, cobblestone streets, and sidewalk cafe are all there even if the food's not as good. But then the crowds come, and everything takes on a Disneylandesque feel, no longer so authentic-seeming, more like an amusement park. Of course, the crowds and we are here for a reason, because Quebec is authentic, and because there's no place like this in our hemisphere.

July 01, 2005

More driving than expected

We slept in this morning, finally getting out of bed at 9:30. I guess we were tired. Our morning was uneventful. Breakfast at the hotel, packing, a quick walk down by the river. We saw the crowds out for Canada Day, Canada's day to commemorate its independence.

Before heading to lunch at a Chinatown restaurant, we paused to watch a street performer with a sign offering “free hugs.” I would have thought a national holiday would increase the demand for hugs, especially free ones, but we saw only one person take up the guy on his offer.

We left the hotel around 2, headed northeast to Quebec City. The very nice bellman at the hotel had told us it would be an hour-and-a-half drive, possibly two hours. We're not sure what he was talking about. Montreal and Quebec are about 150 miles apart, so with traffic, the drive was closer to three hours.

Made it to Quebec around 5:15 and checked into another very nice hotel, Auberge Saint-Antoine. Our room is lovely and we really like the hotel's design. Very colorful, very whimsical. We've seen very little of the city so far, but what we've seen so far reminds us more of Europe than any place else we've seen on this continent. We'll have more to say about Quebec tomorrow.

Yummy dinner at a casual French bistro, Cafe Bistro du Cap. We enjoyed a lovely meal on the sidewalk, and finished most of it before a thunderstorm sent us inside to enjoy our dessert.

June 30, 2005

Dinner on the patio, jazz on the plaza

When we asked the concierge for a dinner recommendation, either a casual French bistro or a simple Italian restaurant, we had a pleasant, low-key place in mind. But when you're staying at an upscale hotel, the dinner recommendations sometimes need to come with an asterisk. In our experience, concierges at trendy and expensive hotels tend to assume that guests want trendy and expensive restaurants.

The Italian place that was recommended to us, Bice, was quite good. Apparently Robert De Niro eats there whenever he's in town. We figured if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for us. And we enjoyed our meal very much. The mozzarella di bufala appetizer was great, and Janene really enjoyed her vegetable ravioli. But the restaurant was quite pricey--probably double what we had in mind--and very hip, filled with servers in matching tailored shirts and expensive-looking haircuts. We enjoy good food, but we have no interest in the sort of places that strive to make you feel important by virtue of your presence in the restaurant. The service was hurried and the attitude was slightly standoffish, but we can't say anything remotely negative about the food. It was great.

After dinner, we walked the 25 minutes or so to Centre-Ville to catch some of the jazz festival. We saw an Indian jazz group whose name I don't remember. They were quite interesting, playing a synthesis of Indian music with occasional jazz influences. Can't say I'd listen to their CD very often, but we were glad we got to hear something different.

Montreal Jazz Festival...it's hot!

The Montreal Jazz Festival began today--a big reason why we planned on a couple of nights here--and it's most impressive. There are multiple stages throughout the Centre-Ville, and all types of music going on for the next 12 days. Most of the events are free; the big-name soloists play indoors at the largest venues (not free), and plenty of films about jazz and other related activities are going on as well.

We saw an excellent Dixieland combo today, as well as a better-than-average big band from the University of Sherbrooke. We would have liked to have heard more, but all of the venues were on plazas with no shade for the noontime sun. Since I get burned looking at a picture of the sun, I was reluctant to stay out too long until later. We're planning to listen to more music after dinner. The music is scheduled until well after midnight, so we'll get plenty of opportunities.

June 29, 2005

Dinner at Boris Bistro

A muggy evening stroll in our hotel's neighborhood, Vieux Montreal (verdict: charming old buildings, pleasant-looking and overpriced cafes, many tourists), we enjoyed a nice dinner at Boris Bistro. It's a nice place with a charming patio, which we couldn't get a table on--good thing, because of the violent thunderstorm that began just as we were ordering dessert.

The food was excellent French bistro fare, and the service was quite good. The only snag was when my buffalo steak, which I ordered medium-rare, came to the underdone side of rare. I like my meat red, but this buffalo was close to walking off my plate and catching a bus to the Dakotas.

I sent the meat back, asking if they could cook it just a bit more. About 15 minutes later, the server returned, told us they would bring me a whole new meal, and offered to pay for our desserts and coffee. I have no idea why--an extra five minutes in the oven would have been just fine, and I certainly didn't think they had to make anything up to me. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our coffee and dessert, earning a trip to the gym in the morning.

O, Canada!

In Montreal, and to quote Team America, everything is bon. Blogging will be light during our brief trip to Quebec and Vermont, owing to my tendonitis. For the duration of our stay, my lovely assistant Janene will be doing the typing, which frees me to focus on the witty, urbane travel-writing that my five loyal readers have come to expect.

We're in the lovely Hotel Place d'Armes, and our room is beautiful. Very spacious, especially the shower, which is large as our bathroom at home. Everything is super-modern, while the exposed brick adds a touch of faux-age to the space (the brick might be real -- we're not sure). Great sound system and a comfy bed too. If we have one complaint, it's that all the streets nearby are crowded and one-way, but that's not really the hotel's fault, is it? We got ourselves quite lost on our arrival, and ended up driving well out of our way and then in circles before we were able to park out front and head up to the room.

April 30, 2005

Santa Fe in the sunlight

Just in time for us to leave, the sun came out today, and we enjoyed a lovely morning. The last few days have been chilly, periodically rainy, and almost entirely grey. New Mexico is not at its most attractive when the sun is behind clouds. The browns and oranges of the landscape and the architecture make for kind of a dreary view.

However, this morning, with blue skies, Santa Fe and the countryside come alive. Everything is bright and beautiful. With 300 sunny days a year, this is the normal state of things, but unfortunately until today we were not seeing this part of the country at its best.

Determined to make use of our convertible, we drove the 65 miles back to the Albuquerque airport with the top down and the heat up.

April 29, 2005

The High Road to Taos (part 2)

After leaving our friend the chile expert, we found ourselves back on our way, twice slightly delayed by dogs who were in the middle of the road and didn't really want to let us pass.

Mile after mile of beautiful scenery, and it was lunchtime. Prior to coming to New Mexico, we had done some research on chowhound.com and read about Sugar Nymph Bistro, a small restaurant in a nondescript town, Peñasco, about 20 miles or so south of Taos. It was a great find, the sort of place you'd pass 100 times and never try, but the food was fantastic -- we both had extraordinarily fresh salads with goat cheese, dried cherries, and grilled chicken -- and well worth a lunchtime visit.

We made it to Taos around 2 pm and were a little disappointed. The town has its charms, but we both thought Santa Fe was generally more interesting and less touristy. In this case, it was the journey that was the highlight of the trip, as it was one of the most beautiful drives we've ever been on. The drive back, along the Rio Grande for much of it, was beautiful as well.

Back to the hotel around 5:30 for a pre-dinner rest. We had a very nice meal this evening at Paul's, which we highly recommend.

Tomorrow is our day to explore Santa Fe. We plan to take a self-guided walking tour of the city, and then poke into the shops on Canyon Road, the upscale shopping street here. We'll finish our day with dinner at Geronimo's, our “splurge” meal of the trip.

The High Road to Taos

Pretty full day today. After a decent hotel buffet breakfast, we got in the car around 9:30 to head to Taos, the historic town below the world-famous ski resort. It's also known for being the setting of the commune scene in Easy Rider.

We had hoped to be able to make use of our convertible on this particular drive, but the weather did not want to cooperate. Although it has stayed dry, the high today didn't make it out of the 50s, and the high winds made it feel quite a bit chillier than that. New Mexico may be the desert -- we're reminded of this every time we feel our sandpaper-rough skin -- but this time of the year is not all that warm here, especially at night, when it's been in the 30s.

We opted to take the High Road, the slightly more scenic and curvy route from Santa Fe to Taos. From the very beginning, the setting the stunning. The evergreen-tree-covered desert framed by snow-topped mountains is an unforgettable site. The emptiness of New Mexico is particularly striking. The towns -- often just a collection of buildings -- are miles apart, separated by enormous open spaces. If you ever wanted to withdraw from civilization, New Mexico would be an awfully good place to give it a go.

On the way, we took a short detour to see El Santuario de Chimayo, a well known church known for the miracles that have taken place there as well as its dirt, which is said to have healing powers. The best part of the detour was the three-mile downhill road offering a stunning panorama of the countryside. The church was interesting, but it apparently was a slow day for miracles; we didn't see any. As for the dirt, the jury is still out on its efficacy. I put some on a patch of irritated skin, but 10 hours later it's still irritated. (But imagine how irritated it would have been!).

We were stretching our legs in town and heading back to the car when we were stopped by a guy with a leaf blower outside his restaurant/food stand, Chimayo Holy Chiles.

In his Cheech-and-Chong-like Spanish accent, he asked us if we wanted to see something. We demurred, but he was not the type to take no for an answer. “Isn't that why you're here? To see something really special?” We relented, and he proceeded to show us various chiles, pine nuts, and more that he had for sale.

He was particularly proud of his chile powder. “You could go to 4,004 places and not find anything this good,” Then he corrected himself, “4,007 places.” I asked him what my odds would be of finding something equally good if I went to 5,000 places. Even then, I'd apparently still be wasting my time.

We bought one bag of his chile powder #1 for $6, declining his repeated requests to include a bag of #2 (“but don't forget about #1!”) for an even $10. He was so proud of all his products, and so convinced that we would regret not having any of #2 once we got home, that he threw in a small amount of it for the road -- making me think that his profit margin on #1 was pretty high.

Now a close personal friend, he had much to tell us. When Janene mentioned she's a teacher, he mentioned his wife is too, also a lawyer who's never lost a case. Then he started telling us about the power of positive thinking and how Jesus helped get him a really good deal on a truck and we figured we would have to cancel our dinner reservations pretty soon. I'm not sure how we got away, but eventually we did, and we were on our way.

If you want some of this magical chile powder -- which actually is quite tasty, if overpriced -- along with other local New Mexico specialties, you can call our friend at Chimayo Holy Chiles at (505) 351-4824. If you call, just keep your afternoon free.

April 28, 2005

Knock, knock...

“Dude!”

This wild-haired, drunk-looking, angry-seeming guy is coming toward us. We have just finished dinner at The Shed -- delicious, by the way -- and are crossing the street by the Plaza. There are few people around. We're a little nervous. I'm wondering how much money it's going to take to get him to leave us alone. He starts talking to us before I finish this thought.

“What do you do with a dog who barks too much?”

(pause)

“Put him in a barking lot!”

We laugh.

“C'mon, that was pretty good, right?”

I tell him it's great. Later, I regret not being quick enough to ask him if he knows how to stop a bull from charging.

Wandering around Santa Fe

Got to our Santa Fe hotel, the Inn on the Alameda, around 3:30ish. It's a nice place, combining some of the touches you'd expect from a B&B with the amenities of a larger hotel. We like it.

After freshening up, we explored for a few hours, heading in the direction of the Plaza, Santa Fe's town square, built in 1610. It's very attractive, with similar Native American street vendors as we saw in Albuquerque. (In New Mexico, judging by the signs we've seen, Indian seems to be the more popular designation; it's interesting that the term is considered offensive in most of the country, where Indian/Native Americans are uncommon, but apparently acceptable here, where they are a significant part of the local population. All further evidence that we spend way too much time worrying about such matters, if I may editorialize.)

From there, we wandered around, popping into a handful of galleries in the area. For a small city, Santa Fe has a remarkable amount of artistic talent. Much of the art is not our favorite style, but its very high quality is instantly obvious.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped in the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral. It's one of the most beautiful churches I've seen. It's not tremendously old -- built about 110 years ago, if I recall -- but the interior is very light, airy, and colorful. The stained glass window above the front entrance is particularly beautiful.

On to dinner at The Shed for some New Mexican cuisine. We're still a bit full from our giant burgers this afternoon.

A burger to remember

At the recommendation of a fellow student in my Italian class, we grabbed lunch at Bobcat Bite, just outside of Santa Fe. It was quite out of our way but the cheeseburger topped with chile was worth every extra mile -- and calorie. Even if the food had been bad, it would have been worth it just to see the place, which clearly hasn't changed in its nearly 50 years.

The place felt comfortable and familiar as soon as we entered. There were six or seven small tables and a long counter inside. All of the servers treated us like we were guests in their home. Most of the customers seemed to be locals stopping in for a bite with old friends.

Prior to lunch, we took the scenic Turquoise Trail from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The setting was beautiful -- rugged pine-tree-covered hills and snow-capped mountains in the distance. It's amazing how much empty space there is in this part of the country. We passed only about four or five towns in 60-odd miles. The most interesting was Madrid, a hippieish artist enclave about halfway on our drive. Lots of interesting artist studios and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor besides.

In Madrid, we stopped in one pottery studio run by Greg Conley, who is the sort of person you just don't see outside a place like New Mexico. He was heavily bearded, wearing a full Western-style suit, complete with vest, along with a cowboy hat. He was a very nice guy who said he came to visit in 1973 and just kind of wound up there. His work was very nice.

April 27, 2005

Skip Old Town Albuquerque

Blogging from Irish Mac's Coffee House, across the street from the University of New Mexico. It's a very pleasant place for a cup of coffee and to check guidebooks and email.

The plan this morning was to spend an hour or so in Albuquerque before we moved on. Our guidebook had some nice things to say about the Old Town area, so we gave it a go.

The neighborhood has modest charms. It's anchored by a historic and attractive church, Church of San Felipe de Neri, built in Spanish style and celebrating its 300th anniversary next year. The church is on a charming plaza, where we sat and relaxed for 15 minutes or so. Near the plaza are a number of mostly Native American vendors with reasonably nice looking jewelry for sale on a blanket.

But aside from that, Old Town has the same collection of stuff you'll find in every touristy neighborhood in the world. Think Fisherman's Wharf, or Times Square, or the streets around Notre Dame in Paris. The buildings look different, the accents change from place to place, but they're all places to buy postcards, T-shirts, and other knick-knacks. If that's what you're looking for, great, but we always find ourselves preferring the neighborhoods where actual people live. My favorite memories on trips have been the places where we can pretend, if just briefly, that we're residents of the place we're visiting. I'll remember blogging in this nice cafe by the university longer than I'll remember the nondescript souvenir stands in Old Town.

April 26, 2005

¡Buenos tardes, New Mexico!

We're in New Mexico. Our flight was one of the easiest we've ever taken. We pulled away from the gate precisely on time and were in the air seven minutes later -- unprecedented in our experience at O'Hare, where we've often taxied for much longer than that.

The flight to Albuquerque was very smooth until the end, when the pilot descended a bit too steeply for our liking, and when he took an extremely sharp turn very close to the ground -- we thought it was the airborne equivalent of veering off the highway at the last minute to avoid missing the exit. Fortunately, we made it here in one piece, and 30 minutes early besides.

For an extra $6 per day, we upgraded to a nice convertible Chrysler Sebring with only 3 miles on it. The new car smell was included in the price.

We grabbed a quick bite at Frontier Restaurant, a 24-hour diner across the street from the University of New Mexico. It's very cheap and casual, but the food -- burgers as well as a lot of New Mexican options -- was excellent. We don't yet know what makes New Mexican food New Mexican, or what makes it different from Mexican food, but we are looking forward to finding out during the next few days.

The restaurant is on historic Route 66, so before we headed to the hotel, we took a drive to see all of the old neon signs, motor inns, and various other businesses from the road-tripping 1950s. Many of the old hotels are boarded up -- a sad sight -- but there are still plenty of reminders of what the highway must have looked like back in the days before Holiday Inn launched the chain motel era.

Time for a good night's sleep in our luxurious room at the Albuquerque airport La Quinta. The plan is to spend tomorrow morning exploring Albuquerque, and then head to Santa Fe in the afternoon.

A vacation from our “vacation”

The Germany trip wasn't much of a vacation for either one of us, so we're headed to New Mexico this evening. Flying into Albuquerque, where we'll have a quick overnight before driving to Santa Fe the next day. Back on Saturday, in time for Janene to play her Sunday concert with the Northbrook Symphony.

When we booked the trip, Santa Fe seemed like a perfectly nice place to go. Since then, we have been surprised at how many people gush about New Mexico and Santa Fe in particular -- the galleries, the restaurants, the scenery. We're looking forward to seeing for ourselves.

April 03, 2005

Home...at last!

On the plane, several hours from landing in Chicago. We're quite excited to be done with the tour and no longer traveling in a group of nearly 60.

Janene and I are looking forward to taking a proper vacation on our own in the near future. If I blog that one, I'm hoping to have much more material to write about.

Berlin and home

Our second day in Berlin was jam-packed. The day began with a rare treat -- one of the highlights of the tour. We had the opportunity to attend a dress rehearsal with a combined orchestra featuring members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, quite possibly the two greatest orchestras in the world. It was the first time these two orchestras have ever played together, and the upcoming evening concert was a huge event in town, with television cameras filming the rehearsal. We're disappointed we couldn't go to the evening's concert -- we went to a good but lesser concert by the Berlin Radio Symphony that evening -- but hearing the rehearsal was something we'll remember for a long time.

The afternoon was incredibly busy, as has been the trend on this trip. We saw a bunch of wonderful things, but mostly from the bus. We tried to pack way too much into the itinerary. We got off the bus to walk through the Brandenburg Gate for 10 minutes, and we got to see the remnants of the Berlin Wall as we drove by at 70 km/hr. We also spent about an hour each at the wonderful Jewish Museum and Pergammon Museum -- a comically insufficient amount of time.

We really enjoyed Berlin but don't feel that we saw anything of the city in the time that we had. We know just enough to know that this is a place that is worth our time.

Day 1 in Berlin

We each had some time to ourselves this afternoon, which, not coincidentally, has one of our favorite parts of the trip so far. Berlin is a wonderful city. We saw just enough of it today to know that we must come back for longer on our own. It has an energy level that matches those of the other great world cities we've been to -- New York, Rome, Paris.

After a morning tour of Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam, we had several hours at leisure to explore the main shopping drag of the city. We ate Currywurst, the local sausage specialty -- fries and sausage with curry ketchup. It was very good, if not entirely healthy.

This evening, while Janene was rehearsing the band prior to the concert, I took a nice walk in this East Berlin neighborhood. It was great to have some time on my own to explore the attractive stores and restaurants in the area. We definitely want to return.

Final concert

Pre-concert warmup for the last concert of the tour. This time we're in a church in the middle of the former East Berlin. The band sounds decent, although as with the last church we played in, the acoustics are kind of boomy, making it tough for the players to hear each other.

The final concert means that we're getting closer to the end of the tour. We are not unhappy about this. Janene has been working harder, and often more stressed, than I've ever seen her. So many problems that need to be resolved, so many opinions to take into consideration, so much worrying about making sure everything goes smoothly -- not to mention problem-solving when it doesn't.

Before we came, I had thought that this would be mostly a working trip, but that it would also be somewhat of a vacation. But with Janene so busy with logistics, and with our constantly-on-the-go schedule, and with the responsibility of watching over 43 teenagers (not to mention 15 adults), it's been nothing but work. Not just for her, but for me too -- and I lack the patience for this type of work. She hasn't been the only one stressed. We're looking forward to getting back to our lives and in charge of our own schedules.

March 31, 2005

Bus blogging

Munich and Dresden are about 450 km apart, so most of today is being spent on the bus. We stopped at a rest stop a short time ago, and, apart from our subway ride in Munich, this seemed to be the kids' favorite activity so far. They were very excited to buy all sorts of German snacks -- mostly the same stuff they can get in home, but with German packaging.

The kids have been very good-natured on the trip, rolling with all of the schedule changes and being very flexible and accommodating. They've been about as easy as 43 teenagers can be.

It's been nice to get to see a new country, but nothing about this experience has changed my mind that group travel is not for me. Traveling en masse takes so much more time than doing things on your own. There are no quick decisions. A "quick" bathroom stop quickly turns into a production that makes us later and later.

I prefer the freedom of having our own car. When we get on and off the bus, I have no idea where we've been and where we're going. Although we saw a few sights in Munich, we have no sense of their scale, of how far away different places are, and where the places we saw are in relation to each other. I don't feel like I've really gotten to know Munich, or Germany. Plus, we end up going to all the places that are equipped to handle a group of 60 Americans, which tends to insulate us from truly new experiences. There are many advantages to the group tour -- no planning time is needed, and, at least for Janene and me, we're not really paying anything. But I'm getting tired of feeling like a lemming, and looking forward to our next vacation, when we'll have our own car and our own itinerary.

Stopping for a quick lunch soon, and arriving in Dresden in a few hours.

March 30, 2005

Leipzig to Berlin

Early start this Thursday morning. We checked out of the hotel by 8:15, headed to central Leipzig for a guided tour around the city.

The most interesting part of our tour was to see the contrast between old and new. Leipzig was in former East Germany, and there are many signs of the new, vibrant Germany everywhere. The train station has a relatively new 140-store shopping mall, with stores as modern as anything you'd find in the U.S. But throughout the city you see charmless Soviet-era buildings that are begging to be replaced. Eventually it will happen; the entire city is a construction zone.

Our tour guide in Leipzig was not great, particularly compared to the others we've had, who have all been very knowledgeable and far more proficient in English. In Leipzig, English seems much less common than elsewhere in the country, perhaps because of the effects of 45 years of oppression.

Much of our tour was spent driving in the bus around town. Touring this way has some value because you can cover a lot of ground, but we have no idea where we were and what we saw.

The most pleasant part of the day was lunch at a famous Leipzig restaurant, Auersbach Keller, which was written about in Goethe's Faust. Markus, a pleasant lunch companion as well as menu translator extraordinare, joined us. The food was great, by far the best than the hotel buffets we've generally been enjoying. The biggest thing we've been missing on this trip is the flexibility to go to interesting restaurants and cafés.

Now I'm Autobahn-blogging, on the way to Berlin, our final destination before we leave for the airport on Sunday. Looking forward to coming home. Janene has been so busy and stressed, that this has been much work and little fun.

Rehearsal-blogging

At tonight's concert venue, about 5 minutes before showtime. Janene's wrapping up her pre-performance rehearsal. The band sounds decent, though a bit loud for the very small room. Attendance is somewhat sparse, with about 20 Leipzigers here. The other half of the audience is made up of chaperones. The concert was scheduled to be an exchange with a music school here in Leipzig, but the students at this school are on a spring break trip of their own.

Deteriorating international relations

We haven't seen CNN yet, but we assume the international crisis provoked by the Lake Forest High School hotel-poster-stealing incident was today's top story.

No one has yet admitted to the crime, despite the opportunity to come clean with no fear of punishment.

Not enough time in Dresden

Very long day on the bus yesterday, with a mediocre and rushed lunch at an American-style restaurant along the Autobahn.

Img 0927

It was hamburgers and fries all around, as our tour director tried to streamline the ordering process for a large group. The burgers were edible but nothing I ever want to sample again.

Made it to Dresden about an hour later than planned, cutting our three-hour city tour to a two-hour tour.

The city is beautiful. It was leveled during World War II, but the reconstruction was fantastic. The "old" part of the city has a great historic feel, but the interiors of the buildings sparkle in a way that 500 year buildings don't. I always wonder what the palaces and churches and concert halls we see looked like when they were first built. This gives us a small taste.

Part of the frustration I've felt in writing about this trip is that I just don't remember anything we've seen. Because we're not in charge of our own itinerary -- we just stand wherever we're told to stand, eat whatever they put in front of us -- I don't have a clear enough picture in my head to convey the experience.

For example, Dresden has fantastic museums, and our tour included about 10 minutes inside the main art gallery. We walked by some beautiful paintings. The museum is huge, with a beautiful courtyard. But I don't remember what it was called, and with no wi-fi access on the bus, I can't look it up. Go see it yourself. I highly recommend it.

We saw just enough of Dresden to know we want to return. It's lovely, with lots of pleasant-looking cafés and boulevards that Janene and I had no opportunity to explore.

Img 0964

At night, the kids were given the opportunity to walk around Dresden on their own, accompanied by chaperones. Janene and I along with a third chaperone accompanied 13 kids, who were expectedly loud. They also were begging Janene and me to hold hands in front of them. I'm not sure why our relationship holds such fascination for her students.

Writing as much as possible

Reading back over some of my entries, I notice that there isn't the same amount of detail as what I've written about past trips. There are several reasons for this.

First, we're on the go all the time, and today is the first day that I haven't felt half-asleep. (We had time to sleep in this morning.)

Second, Internet access has been spotty. I'm posting when we can, but there haven't been ample opportunities. I believe our Berlin hotel, where we check in on Thursday, will have access.

Finally, there are sensitivities involved this time around, so I've chosen to omit certain details that would be much more interesting than what I've given you, but inappropriate to write about for a worldwide audience. Really wish I could, but I can't. Sorry.

March 29, 2005

Monday in Munich

Today we took a guided tour of Munich. The day was much smoother than the day before.

Perhaps it was because of our German tour guides, Erika and Gisela, who were diligent about keeping us in line and free with the admonishment if whatever we were doing was not to their liking. This happened often -- whenever anyone talked, was a few paces behind, appeared not to be listening, was dawdling, or anything else that did not conform to their highly developed sense of Teutonic order.

On the other hand, having a couple of Germans in charge of our day was probably the main reason why everything went relatively smoothly. Markus, who is Austrian, has a much more casual approach about doing things and has been less willing to take charge when needed.

Munich is a very attractive city. There are some old buildings, although most of the city is relatively new, having been rebuilt during World War II. It makes one sad to think about all the destruction from that time, not just in Munich, but all over Europe. What a pointless loss of history and civilization.

We saw or at least drove by many of the main sights, including the Merienplatz, the pedestrians-only tourist town and had an hourlong tour of Nymphenburg Palace, which was beautiful but packed with tour groups like us. What was extremely disappointing about our day in Munich, however, was that Easter Monday is a holiday here. Except for restaurants, everything was closed. There seems to be lots to do in town, but we'll have to do more of it the next time, when shops are open and we get a real sense of life here.

At night, we took a hastily planned excursion to the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous German beer hall. It's kind of peculiar to take a group of American high school kids to a beer hall, but this is more of a tourist trap than primarily a drinking establishment. Okay, it's both. But the entertainment is as much of the experience as the alcohol, which no one in our group was drinking, even the chaperones, who were setting the good example for the kids. (It's kind of hard to have alcohol-free experiences here, just because beer is so central to German life.)

The entertainment consists of a bored-looking polka band, with German men and women wearing traditional Bavarian costumes and doing traditional Bavarian dances. To me it looked more like a Monty Python sketch. It was fun to see in mercifully limited quantity (we were there about 50 minutes). More fun was watching the two other tour groups there -- including a long table of southern Italians and one of Californians that were not showing the same beer-related restraint demonstrated by our group. Their full mugs were enormous, the Big Gulps of Munich.œ

March 28, 2005

We're glad Sunday is over

Sunday doesn't quite rate as a disaster, because no kids got lost, no one broke any limbs, and the day included a reasonably successful and well-attended concert at the end. But not much went as planned, and everything was much more stressful than it should have been.

The day started with a long bus ride to Neuschwanstein, about two hours away. It's a very famous castle built by Ludwig II, a Romantic-era Bavarian king. If you have a Germany guidebook, the chances are good this is the image that appears on its cover. The castle looks much like the one at Disneyland. It's in as picturesque a setting as you can imagine -- in the hills, the snow-capped Alps in the background and a lovely valley below.

We ended up getting to the castle far later than expected. The bus left the hotel about 20 minutes late. By the time we got the town, we stopped for what was supposed to be a quick bathroom break. What should have taken five minutes turned into 20. Then we headed to the location where you pick up the shuttle bus for the 10-minute ride to the castle. Except Markus -- who really is a nice guy but may be too nice for his job -- had us standing in the wrong place, and couldn't muscle us past the far more assertive Italians and Germans, who were standing in the correct place to board the bus.

We squeezed on to the bus at about 11:55, five minutes after our English-language tour was supposed to have started. Markus tried to talk us into the castle, but we were pretty sure that he was going to get walked all over. Germans don't exactly relax the rules well or often. And sure enough, Markus wasn't getting very far. One of the chaperones on the trip, however, speaks German, and was able to convince them to allow our group in, six people at a time, for each tour leaving every five minutes. Fine, except this added greatly to the amount of time we were to spend at this place -- it was at least 45 minutes before we all got through -- and it also seriously limited our appreciation of the castle because all the tours we joined in German. Given my limited facility in German, all I could understand was that in one room King Ludwig had "two" of something.

Since Janene and I were in the final tour group, we had very limited time left for lunch. Along with the others in the final group, we grabbed a quick bite at a very touristy and somewhat overpriced but not too bad restaurant.

We got back on the bus and headed to Oberammergau, the site of the famous once-a-decade Passion Play and where the band and orchestra was to play their concert that evening. Except Markus directed the bus driver instead to Unterammergau -- a nearby but completely different city.

Finally in Oberammergau, we sat through a very impassioned but not-very interesting presentation by the priest at the Catholic Church in town, where our concert was to be that night. The church was very nice, but 25 minutes of explanation in German, translated by Markus, after we had spent most of the day sitting on a bus alternating with being lost, and still being jet-lagged, was more than any of us wanted to listen to at the time.

The evening's concert went well. Playing in a church is always challenging because the acoustics are so boomy, but the kids did a nice job. The concert was well attended, which was surprising considering that the entire town was closed for Easter Sunday.

Dinner followed at a local restaurant. We had sausages, which was nice, but extremely heavy. I'm already a little sick of German food. My stomach feels like a brick.

After dinner, we had to load the bus with the instruments, which is a time-consuming and cumbersome process in the best of circumstances. It's even less fun in the rain, especially followed by a two-hour bus ride home. Made it back at about 12:15, asleep by 1, and set to wake up the following morning at 8 am for a day in Munich.

(Note: Everything we wrote about Markus in this post was true at the time. But he got considerably better and more proactive as the trip went on. By the end of the trip, he was doing a great job.)

March 25, 2005

Trying to stay awake

In our Munich hotel, looking for toothpicks to place in our eyes until dinnertime tonight. After a long day of traveling, we are very tired. If this entry doesn't make much sense, blame it on the jet-lag, not the messenger.

The hotel, the NH Neue Messe, is surprisingly nice and quite modern. By European standards, our room is very large, especially the bathroom, which itself is bigger than most New York City hotel rooms we've stayed in.

The flight left and arrived on time. The students were pretty well behaved and quiet, but they're still teenagers. They weren't always using what I would consider their "inside" voices.

Our first day has been a little chaotic, mostly because our tour guide, Markus, though very nice, is not a take-charge kind of guy. Our first stop today was Dachau. (Nothing like a good concentration camp tour to get the trip off to a bang.) Markus took us to the grounds and told us we could explore until it was time for the English movie about the camp. But he never told us when the movie was, where it was showing, and what time it was showing. We found out from one of the chaperones that it was at 11:30, which made us more informed than most of the kids. Because so many of our group didn't know when the movie started, many were wandering in after the film had started, disrupting the people already in the theater. Another few minutes later and we would have missed the movie entirely. That would have been a huge shame. The was excellent, putting the camp we had just walked through in gruesome context. Beginning with the first image of mangled corpses, you couldn't hear a sound in the theater.

Dachau

After the movie, Markus gave us an extra 30 minutes to wander through the Dachau museum. But he seriously misjudged our energy level. Virtually the entire group went straight to a bench to wait the time away. Janene took charge and decided that we were done there. We headed to the hotel, dropped off our luggage, and went to a surprisingly good Italian restaurant for lunch across the street from the hotel. The food was authentically Italian, cooked and served by actual Italians (I was even able to order in Italian).

Hanging out in the hotel for a few hours, resting, showering, trying not to fall asleep, blogging, and waiting for dinner. It's going to be an early night tonight.

Blogging in flight

In the air. Made it to the airport three hours early. I met Janene at the airport -- she got there via the school bus with the rest of the group, I came by taxi so I would have a few extra hours at home to wrap up loose ends.

The check-in was uneventful. Janene was moderately stressed as the entire group looked to her for answers about what to do next, where to stand, etc., but everything went smoothly and we were on our way before long.

Many of the high school kids were inordinately excited to meet me in the flesh, having heard so much about me, or at least having imagined what the husband of their teacher would be like.

We'll probably be trying to nap pretty soon. We were up very late packing last night. Next time we fly overseas, we'll have to remember that starting to pack at 10:30 pm is not the best idea.

Should be landing in Munich in less than seven hours, at about 8:30 Germany time.

March 24, 2005

This time, Germany

It's a new post! It can only mean one thing. I'm avoiding my work. So it can mean two things -- procrastination, and some new material is coming soon.

We're off to Deutschland on Friday. This trip will be a bit different than the others. Yes, it's that time again. When you decide to marry a band director, it never comes up during the wedding vows that someday you might have to chaperone 43 high school kids to Europe on a three-concert tour.

There are definite pluses. The trip is nearly free, with lunches and shopping our only financial obligations. There are also minuses. Did I mention the 43 high school kids?

Next stop, Munich. More on Saturday, Internet access and jet lag permitting.

December 25, 2004

Back home

Made it back to Chicago. It's cold.

December 23, 2004

The end is near

Hard to believe, but our trip is coming to an end tomorrow. It feels like we just got here. The weather has still been warm by winter standards, although yesterday was overcast and considerably chillier than it has been. (For those of you shivering right now, I won't be too specific about what chilly means.)

The parents arrived the night before yesterday. We had lunch at their hotel yesterday and spent a few hours at their hotel. We did a little shopping, went to the Kihei Farmers Market for some fresh fruit (yum), ate at Longhi's in Wailea, went home to watch half of Napoleon Dynamite, and went to bed for the second to last time. We've been checking the Chicago weather often and are not looking forward to returning, especially since we didn't pack coats for our return to the airport. Looks like we'll wait for our cab home inside the airport.

Off for a run in a bit.

December 21, 2004

Kapalua, Lahaina, Ma'alaea

Nice massage with Raphael today. In many ways, my true vacation really starts after my hour with Raphael every year. Then we got in the car and headed to Lahaina for lunch at Penne Pasta. Very good food, especially for the price. It's hard to find very good cheap food in Maui. There's plenty of great food that costs a lot. There's also a lot of simply good food that costs a lot. But this was a nice combination of cost and quality that you just don't see a lot around here.

Then we took a drive to see Kapalua, where we've never been. It's a nice area, very different in appearance from Wailea. The two Kapalua golf courses look just like my computer game. Would have loved to play them. We then went a few miles past Kapalua to take a bit of a drive around the mountains. What we saw of the scenery was gorgeous. We would have gone farther but forgot to gas up the car. The road is extremely remote and takes at least several hours to go a very short distance. We're looking forward to doing the rest of the drive on another trip.

Back to Lahaina for some browsing in the shops. Then to a return trip to the Ma'alaea Waterfront restaurant for our third time there. Great food, and an "interesting" waiter who spent much of the meal hitting on my wife.

December 20, 2004

Running good, hills bad

Running feels great, but it's much harder here than in Chicago. 30 minutes at home is nothing. Here, after heading straight up a very steep hill, I'm exhausted.

December 19, 2004

(Don't) Eat at Joe's

Yesterday's post got deleted because I accidentally erased several paragraphs. Sorry.

We had a nice day but a disappointing dinner at Joe's Bar and Grill. The food was excellent, but for those prices, you expect an elegant dining experience. The restaurant was noisier than we like, and we were rushed in and out in 45 minutes, poorer. We liked our meal, but can think of so many other places we would have rather been

I don't plan to post much more on the rest of the trip because we really don't do that much here that's worth talking about. Every day is kind of the same. It's nice. We wake up between 6:30 and 7:30, we take our walk, we come back to the condo, we relax, we listen to the insanely loud people across the way (they're just waiting for Kip to come back and then they're going to go see some dolphins; then they leave for Honolulu in several days; they're doing Christmas in Honolulu; then they finish up their trip back in Maui; if you give me some more time to listen, I'll tell you what they're having for lunch), we read, we go to the pool or the beach, we eat, we relax, we take a nap, we go for a walk and watch the sunset, we eat, we relax, we go to bed, we wake up between 6:30 and 7:30, and it all starts again.

December 18, 2004

Beautiful day

Second day in Maui and we've already enjoyed more sun than we did in eight days last year. The weather is has been gorgeous. Started the day with a morning run (Lee) and walk (Janene). We then ran a coImg_0854_1uple of errands and lunched at Mama's Fish House. This was much more expensive for lunch than we were expecting, but the food was phenomenal and the view from our table was even better. After lunch, wImg_0855_1e drove down the road a short ways to watch some surfers on some unusually high waves.

We came back to the room, I struggled with and finally got the network connection working in the 'rents condo, went for a walk at sunset, went out for a quick slice of pizza at Shaka Pizza, and came back to the room to relax.

Made it to Maui

December 16, 2004
Nearing Maui. Our flight yesterday from Chicago to Los Angeles was routine, except we sat on the plane for a long time while they tried to resolve some paperwork. They didn’t have what we needed, so we taxied back to the gate. We finally took off about an hour late. We watched “Elf” on the flight for the second time in a week. We love Will Ferrell,  but a little more time between viewings would have been better. Finally made it to L.A. at a quarter after midnight, took the shuttle to our airport hotel, and crashed for five hours before going back to the airport.

LAX is no fun to fly out of. The security lines are ridiculously long. We had our choice of two adjacent lines but chose the wrong one in retrospect. The security guy at the front is charged with opening the ropes to let people from the various lines through. Unfortunately, he sent people through the other line about three times as often as he did ours. Whether he did this because he was incompetent or drunk on his own power, we’re not sure. But we do know it took us 40 minutes to make it through security. The flight has been uneventful. The movie, of course, was “Elf,” which this time we declined to watch since by now we can fill in the dialogue on our own. (“Does syrup have sugar in it? Then YES!").

We arrived in Maui around noon, took a nap, took a walk along the oceanfront path, played an impromptu game of ping-pong at the Renaissance Hotel, and went to bed, very tired from a lot of traveling.

December 07, 2004

Maui-bound

A new post. How exciting.

Why the new activity? We're headed to Maui next week. Internet-access permitting, we'll be writing about our eight-day return trip to paradise. Last year it rained every day of our vacation. Hoping for better weather this time around.

June 23, 2004

Recommendations

If we can find time this week, we’ll post some of our recommendations and lessons learned for any of you considering a trip to Italy. Until then, ciao!

What we'll miss. What we won't.

Things we’ll miss
The food
Meals
Art everywhere
History everywhere
Europe’s diversity of languages and cultures
Being on vacation
Not worrying about calories
A gelateria on every corner
Morning cappuccinos
Appreciating shade and big stone churches on a hot summer day
Late-afternoon naps
Cheap, good wine
Cheap, good olive oil
Pets in restaurants
Eating

Things we won’t miss
Italian drivers
Motorized scooters
Tourists
Long lines
Crowds
No air conditioning
Not understanding others
Not being understood by others
Cover charges for bread
Casual approach to time
Being lost
Dirt and pollution
Pay bathrooms
Lunchtime store closings
Having to buy water at restaurants
Being charged more to drink sitting down
Eating nothing but carbs
Searching for cheap internet connections
Paying 2 euros or more for a soda
High prices in cities (especially Venice and Florence)

Flight delays

The hotel at Malpensa Airport, Hotel Cervo, was perfect for our needs. It was cheap, clean, and five minutes from the airport. We slept well but far too briefly, needing to be up for a 8 am flight.

Our travels could have been smoother. High winds in London delayed our arrival there by more than 90 minutes, which caused us to miss our flight to Chicago. We were rebooked on an American Airlines flight two hours later but were told to go the gate for a seat assignment. Unfortunately, we did so before we got any food or drink for the long flight. At Heathrow's Terminal 3, the gates are a very long hike away from the shopping and restaurants, and once you enter the gate area you are not allowed out. Although we managed to talk our way out, it was just too far to get anything for the flight (I tried, though, sprinting through the terminal but turning around after hearing a premature boarding announcement).

Our new Chicago flight left a half hour late but is due in at around 2:50, two hours after we were originally due in. We are very much looking forward to being home, but sad to be done with our vacation.

Update: Home, safe and sound. Our second flight arrived about 25 minutes early, leaving us on the ground only 90 minutes later than expected. Customs was no big deal, and neither was the cab ride home.

Venice to Milan

Written June 22, 2004
We left Venice today, and we’re glad. The city is a gem, and we’re very lucky to have seen it before it falls into the sea sometime in trhe next century. But two days here during high season was more than enough. The crowds in the tourist neighborhoods around Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge are stifling. Even the wider streets can be unpleasant to walk down; the congestion on the narrowest streets are best avoided entirely. Venice’s saving grace is that most of the people, perhaps fearful of getting lost (not an unreasonable fear), stick to the main streets—leaving the back alleys wide open for pleasant wandering. Our fondest memories here were spent just a few blocks away but worlds apart from the main tourist drags.

So now we’re on the train to Milan. The trains are efficient and comfortable (when the air conditioning works; it was broken in the first car we sat in). Boarding the train was relatively easy, though it was made harder by the weight of the four bottles of wine we acquired in Tuscany, and the fifth given to us in Venice by Hotel Danieli. We had hoped to ship all of these, but apparently the U.S. has severe shipping restrictions for international wine shipments (something to do with 9/11—we have no idea why).

When traveling in a foreign country, not speaking the language can put up walls between you and the people you encounter. But it can also open doors to memorable experiences. Our train compartment to Milan was shared by an Italian, Fabio, who talked to us in broken English for about 45 minutes until we reached our destination. Fabio, who “has 29 years,” had been traveling by train all over Italy the entire day for reasons we were not able to figure out, was working in a factory in Sorrento for the past four days, does occasional freelance computer networking consulting and would want to open his own business were it not for the red tape in Rome, went to law school but quit because he did not enjoy it, and prefers swimming and rowing to soccer and basketball because they are less competitive. He was pleasant to talk to as we sped across northern Italy.

On arriving in Milan, we checked our bags and took the Metro to the Duomo. On emerging from the subway, we were disappointed to see the huge church covered in scaffolding. But the doors were still open, so we went in and were not at all disappointed by the Gothic-style interior. It’s immense, seemingly bigger than Notre Dame in Paris (although we might be wrong about that, not having looked it up). Unlike the other cathedrals we saw on this trip, the interior is decorated predominantly with beautiful stained glass, as opposed to elaborate frescoes.

After our Duomo visit, we walked around briefly looking for a restaurant and ended up in an open-air luxury mall named, as are many places herefor Vittorio Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The people-watching here was very interesting, especially to observe the contrast between Milan and the other places in Italy. Unlike Rome, Florence, and Venice, Milan is a thoroughly modern city. Lots more people in stylish suits. Locals move more purposefully. Modern architecture to complement the older buildings. Milan is still Italian but much more closely resembles the world we are used to in the United States.

Our final Italian meal was a disappointment. Mindful of the time and the need to get to our airport hotel before the shuttle stopped at 11, we opted to eat at Biffi, which we chose because it was the best-seeming of four nearby choices. The food was decent, but was extremely overpriced and probably not any better to Italian food we could have gotten at home. Worse, the check was slow in coming, and we were unable as planned to go elsewhere for dessert and coffee.

June 22, 2004

We won't miss the lines.

Quick breakfast this morning in the Italian style--croissant and cappucino standing at the bar. Then to wait in a very long line to get into St. Mark's Basilica, a beautiful cathedral at the foot of St. Mark's square. It's nearly 1,000 years old and, unlike many of the churches we've seen on the trip, has a very different, Eastern feel to it. Chalk it up to Venetian trading power with Byzantium.

A morning of wandering is ahead, then a quick lunch, then a three-hour train ride for a very brief visit to Milan.

More Venice

Written June 21
After a long afternoon of walking around the city, getting ourselves intentionally lost, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a while. I intended to take a nap, but that plan was derailed when outside our window three girls turned street performers decided to entertain the tourists in front of the Grand Canal. It wouldn’t have been a problem had they been good, but they weren’t. At first, the nearby gondoliers seemed quite amused by them, but eventually they made them leave. They probably were bad for business.

Around 5:30, we headed to an internet point to go online and find a suitable restaurant. We took a healthy walk to Osteria da Alberto, where we decided to go eat. We were early for our 8:00 reservation, so we hung out in a nearby piazza, Campo S.S. Giovanni and Paolo. We watched a boy and his father kicking around a soccer ball against an ancient church; eventually another boy joined the game. Though I’m not fond of soccer, it was interesting to see young kids who were relatively good at it; the typical American kid wouldn’t know where to start, although they’d be much more likely to throw a football with a proper spiral.

Dinner was very good—good, simple Venetian food and a place we would wholeheartedly recommend for a relatively inexpensive (for Venice) meal. As we were eating however, a neighborhood cat just wandered in the restaurant and made friends with the patrons, rubbing against the table legs and hopping up on a free chair. The presence of the cat caught all the Americans in the restaurant by surprise, though the Europeans, with their much more lax health codes, didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal. The cook came out of the kitchen, scooped up the cat and pretended to bring the cat into the back, “To the kitchen…I cook!”

On a beautiful evening for strolling, we took a long way back to the hotel, stopping occasionally to watch the gondolas pass, to look at the shimmering reflections of shop windows, and to stop into a store selling masks in an 18th century style (a la Amadeus). Had we a better idea how to pack them, we probably would have bought several.

We’ll miss Venice a lot. It’s as beautiful a place as you’ll ever see. But the enormous crowds are plain overwhelming, and we won’t miss the constant jostling and extraordinarily high prices. Tomorrow it’s on to Milan for dinner and a train ride to our airport hotel.

June 21, 2004

Why no photos?

In case you're wondering why we've been stingy with the pictures, it's because our digital camera stopped working in Florence. We've been using our film camera for the last few days.

Venice is wonderful...and annoying.

We set an early alarm to see Venice in the morning, when it's at its second-best (it gets better in the evenings). We weren't disappointed. Piazza San Marco was, at 8:15, relatively empty and tranquil. Better yet, cafe seating was available even as the cafes were not yet open, providing us with the same view without the obligation to spend 20 euros for a couple of cappuccinos and croissants. When the cafes started opening and the tour groups started coming in, we left for a less touristy piazza and had a nice breakfast over a newspaper.

Back to the hotel to shower and get ready for our day. Our room is a wonderful place to get to go back to. Opening the windows onto the canal makes everything feel so...Venetian (as long as we don't look down and see the hordes of tourists and souvenir stands below). But as beautiful and luxurious as our hotel is, we don't like it nearly as much as the other places we have stayed in Italy. We have encountered a lot of old-world snobbishness here that has been very off-putting. Example: Our clothes are very wrinkled. I called down to ask if it was possible to get an iron for a very wrinkled shirt. "No, it is not possible. But we can press it for you." Now, I assume most of this hotel's clientele are wealthy enough that they do not think about ironing their own clothes -- though Janene and I will stand a much better chance of getting wealthy if we do not spend 9 euros to get a shirt pressed.

Now that it's noontime, the crowds are out in full force, and the city, like Florence, resembles Disneyland Italy. Everything is so beautiful here that I can understand why it's so crowded, but it doesn't make it pleasant. We plan to wander the back streets, intentionally getting lost, and find a nice place for lunch.

Goodbye, Lucca. Hello, Venice.

Written June 20
This morning we said goodbye to our Lucca hotel, Alla Corte degli Angeli, which we really liked, except for the very mushy bed—not unusual for European hotels, in our experience.

All morning we encountered typical Italian situations that would have driven us crazy at home, but in Italy it just gave us some material to write about. First, we found that nothing—literally nothing—is open on Sunday morning (most stores aren’t open on Sunday afternoon either). We tried going to both a food store and a Mailboxes Etc. this morning, both of which were supposed to be open but weren’t.

Next, we sat in the lobby after checking out, thinking that we had requested the car, only we hadn’t. The hotel staff was content to let us relax in the lobby for a while. When we mentioned to them that we were interested in leaving the hotel eventually, Roberto at the front desk asked us, “Do you want your car?” This idea was so novel that we thought we’d just take Roberto up on it. They just don’t like to rush you in Italy. It’s just like at dinnertime, when if you don’t ask for the check they’ll let you sit there until closing time, maybe later. At home, we would be very impatient about the delay. Here, we shrug and are grateful for having good material to blog about.

We decided to stop in Bologna for a quick lunch. Bologna is known for its food, which is ironic considering its namesake lunchmeat. (Does anyone know where bologna got its name? Or, for that matter, why bologna is pronounced baloney?) Most everything was closed here as well, though we managed to find a decent pizzeria that screwed up both of our orders, omitting my capers and Janene’s basil. Before we left, we took a 10-minute walk around town and saw enough to decide that we would consider spending more than an hour the next time we were in Italy. The city is oft-bypassed between Florence and Venice, but has an attractive city center as well as a number of historic buildings worth a visit.

Our arrival in Venice was very hectic. We dropped the car off at Hertz, which has its offices at the car park facility. The office was closed, so we had to pay the 19 euro fee for a day of parking. After dropping off the key in the after-hours box, we tried to navigate the maze of disoriented tourists and daytrippers at Piazzale Roma, where the vaporetti (water taxis) depart for their trip down the Grand Canal. It took several false starts, but finally we found our way onto the boat and to our hotel, Hotel Danieli.

This is another one of those hotels that we highly recommend if you can stay for free. It’s tremendously opulent. Walking up the stairs and down the hall makes us feel like royalty. Our view is of the Grand Canal, which is very cool. The view is enough to make us ignore the noise outside the window, as the vaporetto stop is conveniently and loudly located directly below us.

We spent our evening wandering the streets of Venice, stopping for a better-than-average-but-disappointing-compared-to-the-food-in-Tuscany meal. The city, however, is magical. Venice has as many, if not more, tourists than Florence. But while they were hard to escape in Florence, they seem to stick to the main streets here, which leaves dozens of small alleyways and side streets available if you’re sick of the crowds. The city is especially beautiful at night. We loved wandering with no particular destination. It will be even nicer on a weekday, when more stores are open.

Piazza San Marco is as stunning as we imagined it. It’s a beautiful public space in the shadow of an immense cathedral. There are hundreds of chairs for three different cafes, each with its own four-piece orchestra to entertain their respective audiences. It’s very touristy, and sitting at the cafes is absurdly expensive, but it all creates an amazing ambience. The people-watching in the square is just as fun. Our favorite experience this evening was watching a very young and very small Asian-American boy dancing in a large puddle. He was having the time of his life, as were the growing crowd of tourists surrounding him, enjoying the show. Two American teenagers even came up to him to hand him coins, just as they would do for any other street performer.

June 19, 2004

Lucca is lovely.

We are really enjoying our day in Lucca. It's only about an hour from Florence, but it feels a world away. It's very relaxed, with enough tourism that we don't feel out of place, but not so much that we feel like we're at home.

This morning I woke up early for a couple of laps around the city walls, about 4.5 miles. The walls are probably the best part of the city. The top of the wall is widely used for jogging, strolling, and biking. Best of all, it is level and shady. Running has been a challenge elsewhere on our vacation, thanks to the hills and uneven surfaces.

I came back to the hotel to pick up Janene, who did not sleep well because of a bad back (she had slept funny the night before). We ate our mediocre hotel buffet breakfast food, and then headed to a place to buy olive oil and wine recommended by a hotel employee. He had warned us that the people there did not speak English and that few tourists venture there.

He was right. When we entered, we found three Italian men in the back, smoking and drinking wine at 10:45 in the morning. They were in a very animated conversation which became less so when we entered. When we mentioned to the man behind the counter that we were hoping to taste some wine, he pulled a couple of bottles off of the shelf. Then he went to a meat slicer and started making us some salami sandwiches, which we didn't recall ordering. After he finished, he poured each of us a full glass of two different wines and invited us to taste. They were all very good, good enough to convince us to buy a couple of bottles along with a bottle of olive oil.

After that experience, we wandered around town for a while, stopped for some coffee to rest my aching feet (already sore from all our walking, even more so when combined with the running). A quick slice of pizza for lunch, then back to the hotel to pick up clothes for a small load of laundry.

This afternoon, a bike ride around the walls, maybe a quick nap, and our last dinner in Tuscany before we head to Venice tomorrow.

June 18, 2004

Lost in Lucca

Made it to Lucca, though as usual when we get in the car, the trip was an adventure. We won't miss driving in Florence. It's a total video game. Cars, scooters, pedestrians, bicyclists...they're everywhere, they move in random directions, and they appear out of nowhere. It's very fortunate that we made it out in one piece.

Lucca, by contrast, is much easier to drive in, although it wasn't easier to find our destination. Getting close to the hotel was no problem, but we missed the final turnoff, not noticing that what appeared to be an alley was actually the street we wanted. Having gone about 300 meters too far, we pulled to the side of the piazza and asked directions to the inn from a nice policeman, who spoke as much English as I speak Italian. He told me that the streets were one way and we would have to exit the city walls to start all over again. Also, while Janene waited in the car, he walked me to the inn so I would know how to find it the next time.

The only problem was that once I got there, I had no idea where the car was. All the streets look alike here, and none of them are straight. Alessia from the hotel came with me, but I couldn't tell her where to find my luggage, my car, and my wife. I told Alessia we pulled over at a piazza, but the first one didn't have any of the things I was looking for. "Was there a church?" she asked. "Maybe," I said helpfully. So we went into another direction, but found no luggage, car, and wife. Then I mentioned we pulled off to the side, and Alessia said "Ah." A few minutes later, we found what we were looking for, we inherited a back seat passenger, and made our way to the hotel.

Two hours of the Renaissance

This morning, the Uffizi Gallery, which is, according to our guidebook, the best collection of Renaissance paintings anywhere. It was an outstanding museum, and we enjoyed it a lot. The museum, however, seems to tolerate rather than welcome visitors. Where the Accademia, despite the age of its building, feels reasonably modern, the Uffizi is dingier and hotter and has very poor lighting.

One thing the Uffizi does have in common with the Accademia is the same need to wait in a line, even with a reservation. Our reservation was for 8:15, so of course the reservation line began moving at 8:25.

We climbed the two enormous flights of stairs and entered the first room, only to discover that there were no descriptions of the paintings, not even in Italian. Wanting to get more out of our experience, we took the lift downstairs to get the recorded audio tour. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but our enthusiasm waned in the 15 minutes it took us to get to the front of the very short line. (I can't figure out why Italians drive so quickly since they do everything else so slowly.)

The audio tour was helpful, giving us valuable context as we moved through the rooms of paintings. The rooms were roughly chronological, which allowed us understand the development of Renaissance artistic trends-development of perspective, greater use of human emotion, increased use of light, and so on.

The audio tour also referred to many rooms that were closed. A good portion of the museum, in fact, was off limits to us. Our guidebook warned about the impromptu closures. After viewing all of the rooms in the first two corridors, we were unable to find anything to look at in the third corridor, even as our recorded audio guide was ready to tell us more about the late-Renaissance masterpieces beginning in Room 41. The rooms all appeared closed, but so many at one time? We asked the nearest gallery attendant, who, sensing our disappointment, shrugged apologetically "Room 41 is closed," she told us. "Room 42 is closed. Room 43 is closed. Room 44 is closed. Room 45...I am not sure, but it is probably closed." All told, we probably missed 40% of the museum. Something to see the next time we're in Florence.

After the museum we headed for the second day in a row to I Fratelli, a literal "hole in the wall" sandwich shop and wine bar just two blocks north of the Uffizi. It had been recommended to us by our guide on Wednesday, and it appears in both our guidebooks. If you're in Florence, don't miss it. Fresh bread and delicious sandwiches, plus the opportunity to taste a variety of Italian wines for ridiculously low prices. (Yesterday, I had a small glass of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a respected wine, for 0.80 euros - about $0.96.)

Back to the hotel to pack and head to our next destination, Lucca. By the time you read these words, we will be at our new hotel and using their internet connection.

Florence has a quieter side. Who knew?

Last night we got a different taste of Florence, one that was much more appealing. South of the river, across Ponte alla Carraia away from the packed city center, we saw a much quieter city. Less traffic, fewer scooters, fewer tourists. Before dinner we spent several hours walking around this part of town and wondered how the city could be so different just across the bridge from the chaos of tourist Florence. There are still plenty of "sights" south of the Arno, including Pitti Palace, the historic residence of the Medici family. Having seen many sights already, we did not choose to see more. We were just grateful to have found a lower-key part of a very intense and exhausting city,

Dinner was at Il Cantinone, a nice osteria south of the Arno below the Santa Trinita Bridge. This restaurant was filled mostly with tourists, but they were not nearly as hard to be around as the ones we encountered at dinner the previous night. The restaurant, close to our hotel, was on the ground floor in a medieval-era building, in a former wine cellar. The food, as always, was excellent. We each ordered a complete dinner, which included bruschetta, a pasta course, a huge portion of bistecca alla fiorentine, roasted potatoes, and a quarter-liter of wine for each of us, all for 50 euros combined. We also had some company for free, a couple of 60-something women who, upon sitting down to the table next to ours, asked us hesitatingly, "Americanos?" When we confirmed that yes, in fact, we are Americanos, the two women proceeded to talk to us throughout the meal. I would tell you more about our conversation, but that would indicate that we were paying more attention to them than we did.

June 17, 2004

More on Florence

Okay, more details about Florence. Our hotel, the Westin Excelsior Florence, is very, very nice. I cannot recommend highly enough staying here in a lovely junior suite for free, as we are doing using our accumulated rewards points. This hotel is extremely luxurious, considered one of the nicest in town. Our fourth-floor room overlooks the Arno River with its two balconies. The view is magical, especially in the morning, when you can see the Renaissance-era skyline reflected in the river below.

The only drawback to our temporary living space, which some may see as a plus, is that we feel like we're in the U.S. Embassy. Everyone here is American. Everyone. If we didn't want to speak a word of Italian to anybody, we'd get along very fine. It's comforting, but it also makes the travel experience a little less exotic.

Florence is nearly as crazy as Rome but not nearly as big. There are more Vespa scooters, seemingly, and the enormous tourist population is crammed into a much smaller space. The city also has a very youthful feel; at night the piazzas are full of American college students. This gave the two of us thirty-somethings a decidedly un-youthful feel.

Tuesday was the first day I was starting to feel a bit homesick. I wasn't feeling very well, probably something I ate. Hard to believe that I would have stomach issues after a week of a steady diet of pizza, salami, proscuitto, and strong cheeses. I also was feeling extremely sluggish and was not anxious to see or do anything. By Wednesday I was feeling better, in time for Janene to feel not so well. She thinks she might be getting sick, as she has had a sore throat and a headache. She's in the room resting now, so maybe that's all she needs (we haven't gotten a lot of sleep during the past few days).

On Wednesday morning, we took a three-hour walking tour of Florence through Walking Tours of Florence. If you find yourself in Florence and are looking for an overview of the city, I highly recommend them. Their brochure features accolades by both Michael Palin and Alex Rodriguez, so you know they're good. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and entertaining, and gave us a great overview of the city, providing a mix of architectural, art, and civic history.

The afternoon was spent with a nap and a quest--a search for a place to get our laundry done. It turned into more of a quest than expected. We were told of a place just down the street. It wasn't far, but wheeling our suitcase down the narrow bumpy streets along with the scooters and cars made it a pain to traverse the several blocks. The first time we went to the lavanderia, it was closed for the afternoon. Many businesses shut down for several hours during lunch, so this was not that unusual. However, the second time I went back alone, and the front door had a sign saying "Subito torno" (back soon). In Italian, this could mean tomorrow, so we went back to the hotel, found another place in the opposite direction, and had better luck this time. We got our clothes several hours later, and now have enough to last us the rest of the trip.

Before dinner, we took an expensive cab ride to San Miniato, a medieval'era church in the hills above Florence, above the Piazzetta Michelangelo. We went to the church because our tour guide mentioned that they do a daily 5:30 mass with original Gregorian chant. It was a unique experience to hear the ancient music in a 700-year-old church. Unfortunately, the monks weren't the best singers, and the church did not provide the best sound. We had fun anyway.

Dinner was at Mamma Gina's, a restaurant south ofthe Ponte Vecchio. We were disappointed. Our meal was eaten in a room full of American tourists, several of whom had polished off two bottles of wine and were acting the part of the stereotypical Ugly Americans--loud voices and needing to be the center of attention. We never would have noticed them in the U.S. -- okay, these particular Americans would have been hard to miss -- but here, abroad, they really stood out. The food was, as usual, excellent, but overpriced.

So what about Florence? We have very mixed feelings here. Certainly, for art and architecture, this city can't be beat. You can't walk a block without seeing something beautiful that belongs in a textbook. It would take a year to see it all, a lifetime to understand it. But compared to everywhere else we've seen, this feels like Disneyland Italy. See the Renaissance, speak one or two words of a real foreign language, spend incredible sums of money (Florence is very expensive), and top off the afternoon with an ice cream cone. There are so many tourists here that it's difficult to get a sense of the real Florence. Take away 50 to 100 tour buses from the city center, and I think this city would leave a much grander impression. Unfortunately, those 50 to 100 tour buses aren't leaving before we do, and we'll have to look forward to our next trip here, during low season.

We're alive.

We've been out of touch. Our apologies. Our hotel, despite having every conceivable luxury, does not have ready internet access. We are able to use the computer at their sister hotel, but at 7 euros for 15 minutes, we have been declining the privilege.

Learning from our experience at the Vatican Museum, we decided to go see Michelangelo's David at the museum's opening time. With our reservation card in hand -- the reservation entitled us to bypass the long line and wait in a shorter line -- we headed to the gate. The ticket-taker promptly sent us to a different line to wait, thus defeating the point of the reservation. A nice American let us in front, and in we went.

The early reservation was a good idea. We had about 10 minutes nearly to ourselves before the tour groups made their way in.

Not being artists, we lack the vocabulary to describe what makes David a better sculpture than others in Florence. But seeing it up close, it's clear that it is better. It's more...alive, as if it's getting ready to step off the pedestal and go to a different part of the museum for some peace and quiet. Other sculptures, by contrast, seem much stiffer by comparison.

The rest of the museum was nice. It's a small museum, so manageable in a few hours. We enjoyed the temporary musical instrument exhibit. The other art was impressive as well, but it was very religious-themed, which, though interesting, starts to look the same after a while.

We'll have more to say about our stay in Florence later. Only 1 minute of internet time left, and I have to save this post before it disappears!

June 15, 2004

A nice morning for a run?

I wasn't able to get my run in this morning, so I asked at the desk if they could recommend a suitable place to go. In town isn't a good option--it's too hilly, the street is too uneven, and cars running down the narrow streets can block your way. She pointed me to a street on the map, about 15 minutes away by car.

This was the first time I have driven in Europe without a navigator in the passenger seat. My poor sense of direction is well known. Fortunately, I did a passable job of getting to where I wanted to go. Even merged successfully into a traffic circle with a rush-hour backup.

About three-quarters of the way to my destination, it occurred to me that I had left the hotel without my wallet. No money, and, more importantly, no driver's license. Great. I instantly slowed down, having visions of mammoth fines and some time in a Sienese jail (wonder how the food is?).

I parked the car along the road--no way to know if it was a legal spot--and headed down the road. Within a minute, it was clear that the path was less than ideal for jogging. Narrow sidewalks meant I would have to step onto the road periodically, not something I was anxious to do given the many blind curves and erratic driving habits here. There probably were suitable side streets to take, but with no map, no money, no ID, and no Italian, I did not want to stray too far from the car for fear of losing it forever.

Giving up, I headed back to the car, clutched the steering wheel, and by some miracle found my way back to the general vicinity of the hotel. Had to go into the hotel to ask again for directions to its parking lot, but all in all I was pretty proud of myself for not accidentally winding up in Florence.

June 14, 2004

Dinner with other Rick Steves readers

Dinner at Osteria di Tamburino, a Rick Steves-guidebook-approved restaurant that turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the hotel. We've learned to trust his recommendations, but you can always tell from the clientele that other people have his book and swear by it. We're not really trying to be part of the club, but he hasn't steered us wrong yet. That must be why he has his following.

Anyway, the food was surprisingly good, and just 37 euros ($41) for two pastas, two vegetables, two 0.75 liter bottles of water, 1/4 liter of wine, dessert and two coffees. The coffees were probably unnecessary. In Italy, caffé means espresso, and what exactly is the point of decaf espresso?

The rain has stopped, so we're headed out for a short walk before an early night. We originally planned to leave Siena in the morning to see the countryside, but we like it so much here, we're going to spend most of the day here before heading to Florence.

A day in Siena

Not much to post today, other than we had yet another very nice day. Siena is a great city. It was the chief rival of Florence in medieval times, but the plague of the 1360s killed off most of Siena's population. It ensured that Florence would become the far more famous place and inherit many more American tourists.

The city--walled, like Montepulciano--is charming, with its original medieval layout intact. The hills are very steep, considerably more so than San Francisco. The two focal points are the Duomo, Siena's impressive church, which was originally conceived to be bigger than St. Peter's; and Il Campo, the town square, which is our favorite of the trip so far. Last night, we sat on the fountain steps and watched the people go by. We did the same at lunchtime today while eating a couple of slices of prosciutto and mozzarella pizza.

As the rain clouds approached, we thought it would be a good time to visit the Duomo. The church was very impressive, highlighted by the elaborate tiled floor, the numerous statues and artworks, and the side library of 15th-century liturgical music books. We followed the audio guide tour and spent about 90 minutes there.

When we left, the rain still hadn't come, but the weather looked even more ominous then before. So we headed back to the hotel, ducking into a local food shop to try a slice of Panforte, a Sienese fruit bread and local dessert specialty.

Back to the hotel to check email, relax, decide when we'll have to go to a laundromat, and plan for dinner.

June 13, 2004

June 13, 2004: In Toscana

Another early alarm this morning, this time to get the car and make sure we could leave Rome without killing ourselves and others. I was pretty nervous about driving here because we saw how others do it. It turned out to be no problem at all. We left the hotel by 9:20, and, it being Sunday morning, there wasn't much traffic. For the first few blocks of our drive, Janene caught me using the turn signals when changing lanes. This probably made the evening news in Rome. In our previous three days here, we didn't see a single other person using the turn signals. Until we got our car, we didn't even know the cars here had turn signals.

So we were on our way to Tuscany, stopping at several rest stops on the Autostrade that put ours to shame. Several had whole rooms devoted to fresh meats and cheeses. The food is far better than you would ever expect to find while on the move.

Driving in Italy does not seem like a big deal, although it will take another day or two for us to get completely used to driving habits here. Italians are not fond of, shall we say, the lane system. On the winding back roads, the cars swerve, tailgate, and generally drive on whichever side of the street suits them most at the moment. Their preference changes often. Even the cars approaching you are likely to share your lane until the last possible moment.

The first Tuscan town we stopped in was Montepulciano. IMG_0760We meant to spend an hour or so there. We ended up spending about three. Known for its wine, Montepulciano is a classic hill town, a walled city that got its start in medieval times. The city has an ancient and somewhat forbidding feel to it, perhaps reflecting its origins during a relatively barbarous period of history. Yet the town now was filled with interesting shops, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants, providing it with an attractive blend of old and new. We really enjoyed our time here, as well as our pizza lunch.

A bit further down the road, we stopped in Pienza, a Renaissance town with a much lighter feel to it but equally delightful. By the time we got there, it was late afternoon, and many of the locals were out, headed into town for a stroll before church. We found a nice cafe overlooking the Tuscan hills and enjoyed the view.

We did the remainder of the drive to Siena and arrived around 6. We drove through the walls of the city and, just a block from the hotel, found ourselves stuck behind an unexpected parade, unable to go further for another 10 minutes until it passed. The parade, IMG_0779we later discovered, was part of a summerlong celebration of the Palio, a big Sienese horse race that takes place twice a year. The town is divided into 17 different regions, each representing a different neighborhood, each represented by distinct colors and an individual flag. On Sundays between June and December, several of the neighborhoods march around the town to a drum cadence. It's a very festive atmosphere. The parade, which we joined on its second go-around, was for the Civetta neighborhood, which has instantly become our favorite part of town. We're hoping the results of the Palio (twice every summer) get posted on the internet so we can cheer them on.

The evening ended with a very nice dinner at Taverna del Capitana. The pasta was the best we've had yet on our trip.

Tomorrow we'll explore Siena in greater depth. It's supposed to rain quite a bit tomorrow, so it may end up being an inside day.

June 12, 2004: Last full day in Rome

We woke up early on Saturday. Our plan was to see the Roman Forum in more depth, but to do it early before the crowds made doing so unpleasant. We were out the door by 7:45, had a traditional cappuccino and croissant at the bar of a cafe (standing is half the price of sitting down) and made it to the ruins by 8:40, 20 minutes before the gates opened. At 9, we wandered in and followed our guidebook tour until 10:30, when the crowds were thickening.

Afterwards, we walked up to Campidoglio and sat in a nice courtyard, watching several wedding parties at a popular Roman photo-op. Next stop was the Pantheon. On our way was the Vittori Emanuele Monument, which in its basement museum had a photo exhibit devoted to the Allies' liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. The exhibit was surprisingly wonderful. The first appeal was the air conditioning, but our planned five minutes there took more than 30, and easily could have lasted two hours. It was especially nice to see photos of places that we had seen during just the past two days, and that have barely changed at all in the last 50 years.

The Pantheon was next, and it was amazing to be in a building that's pushing 2,000. The building was spared destruction because of its use as a Christian church when Rome fell. The other Roman sites are magnificent, but you have to use your imagination a lot when you look at them. The Pantheon, however, is still a functioning building, with even the floors still intact.

Next was lunch from Antica Solumeria, a very good grocery right on the Pantheon square. We ate sandwiches and drank Fanta sitting in the columned entryway to the Pantheon.

Then, gelato at Giolitti's the elusive gelateria we had missed the previous night. It was worth the wait. The selection was large and included the standards; every fruit flavor imaginable (including blackberry, raspberry, pineapple); and more unique flavors such as rice, caramel, Cappuccino, and Grand Marnier. We ordered small cones, which were still large enough to include three flavors and topped with whipped cream.

Back to the hotel around 2:30 for a nap and to check email. Then, it was time for my run, which required a great deal of motivation on my part, especially considering how much my feet hurt from our miles of walking the previous two days. Once I got going, it was really enjoyable. Instead of using the treadmill, I ran through the Villa Borghese, past the museum of the same name, past the zoo, and a ways around the perimeter of the park. I was reluctant to stray too far from the outer edge of the park because I knew I would get lost otherwise. The streets were closed to cars, so I was able to run past tourists and locals alike, out for a weekend late-afternoon stroll.

For dinner, we took the long walk to the Campo d'Fiori, and had a wonderful dinner at the guidebook-recommended Ostaria da Giovanni ar Gelletto on the nearby Piazza Farnese.

Afterwards, a stroll through the Campo d'Fiori, the least touristed place we have seen on our short Roman holiday. While there were still plenty of other tourists, this was the first time where we felt we were seeing Italians on their own turf. And as a result, the place was chaotic. Lots of bustle, lots of noise, lots of hand gesturing.

Though fun, we didn't stay long. We walked along the Tiber, back to the Campidoglio and down the steps to see the Roman ruins at night. Many were more disappointing than we expected-we just didn't see a great vantage point. But the Colosseum was beautiful at night. We sat for about an hour and then took the Metro ride back to the hotel.

Tomorrow again will be an early morning. We leave Rome via car, which, having seen the way Romans drive, makes us very nervous. The plan is to depart before the traffic gets heavy.

We'll miss Rome a lot. But this city, as beautiful as it is, takes a lot of patience. It's probably for the best that we're leaving before it runs out.

June 12, 2004

June 11, 2004

Long, hot, frustrating day yesterday…and we made the best of it. We started by taking the Metro to Vatican City, hoping, along with every tourist who wasn’t at the Colosseum and Roman Forum, to see the Sistine Chapel. When we arrived at around 10:20, the line into the Vatican Museum was longissimo.

At first we were irritated that it would take so long to get in, then we were relieved to see how quickly it the line was moving. Then we soon became irritated again as we tried to find the end of the line and saw that it looked like one of those Renaissance artist studies in perspective in which the line seems to go to infinity. Our irritation eventually turned into amuseument and disbelief, as we realized just how long the line was and that there was no force of nature that could convince us to wait on the shade-free sidewalk under a baking sun. Peak tourist season doesn’t officially begin for a few more weeks; we can’t imagine how much more crowded Rome can get.

So…a quick change of plans later, we headed into Popeland to see St. PetersIMG_0714, whose line was kind of long but, under the circumstances, suddenly quite manageable to us. Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) is beautiful and looks exactly like the images from television. It’s enormous, as is the focal point, St. Peters Church. As our Rick Steves guidebook says, “To call it vast is like calling God smart.”

The interior is cavernous; the gold-lined ceilings are incredibly opulent; every wall up to the very high ceiling is filled with priceless art and sculpture (especially Michelangelo’s “Pieta," which, to our untrained eyes, seemed much better than the other sculpture, much more alive); the floor is entirely of magnificent marble.

As beautiful as the church is, it’s also a bit much, apparently designed to inspire awe in the power of the papacy as much as in God. If we were Catholic perhaps we would feel differently, but other European churches we have been to—Chartres comes to mind—have felt much more religious and spiritual. Of course, it’s hard to create an atmosphere of religiosity among thousands and thousands of picture-snapping tourists.

We left St. Peters, walked by some nuns on their cell phones (who are they calling, their broker?), consulted our map (an important theme on this trip), and headed to lunch nearby at Vito e Dina, a cheap restaurant we had seen in an article in the online Los Angeles Times. There was no mistaking the place once we got there; Dino was out front, proudly pointing to the article on the front window and announcing its presence to every passerby. He was a stereotypical Italian character, and the restaurant was a real find. Great food and quite inexpensive. The bruschetta was of particular note. I do not eat tomatoes. I do not like being near tomatoes. But when in Rome… Not only did I like the tomato-topped bread, I wish I had more of it right now as I type.

We figured we’d head back to the hotel via the museum, and go in if the line was more manageable. It was, less than half the length as before. So we decided to give it a try, chatting with a couple of newly graduated Stanford students enjoying a five-week trip through Europe. We felt quite old by comparison.

We followed the sign to the Sistene Chapel, got to where we thought it was, looked upward a lovely ceiling that looked somewhat familiar, and thought it was very nice but a bit underwhelming. We remarked how it seemed so much emptier of tourists than we had expected. It took us about five minutes to realize that we were not seeing the Sistene Chapel (we’re very quick). We saw some additional signs, followed them, and proceeded through a long series of rooms, at least a dozen, any of which could have temporarily been the Sistene Chapel as far as we were concerned. Each of these rooms was progressively more crowded, filled with amazing art that would have been much easier to appreciate were we not joined by so many other fellow travelers.

The crowds and claustrophobia only got worse. We proceeded single file down a long, hot staircase into the Sistene Chapel (for real). It’s magnificent. But at the end of a long, sweaty day, on aching feet, among several thousand tourists in a room that would have been crowded with several hundred, we just weren’t in the mood. We stayed for about 15 minutes and wondered what the masterpiece would have looked like under quieter circumstances.

Headed to the Metro, we got very lost, yet again. A nice older couple pointed is in the proper direction. Every time we veered from their instructions, they shouted disapprovingly from behind, caught up with us, and pointed us in the way they would have preferred us to go. Eventually, we took a hot Metro ride back to the hotel for a quick power nap.

Around 7, we left for a nice Friday evening stroll among the Italians and other tourists in their finery. Started in the Villa Borghese, sat in the Piazza del Poppolo, down Via Corso. We ended up at the Spanish Steps and, hungry (it was 9 pm; late by our standards, early by Italians’), looked for a restaurant. It’s always a mistake to look for food when you need food, at least if you’re hoping for someplace unique. We can’t remember the name of where we ended up, and the food was just as forgettable. The giant squawking parrot by the kitchen (don’t they have health codes?) was the main memorable part of the evening, along with the couple from Tampa sitting next to us and, minutes before they were to be served, asked us how our meal was. How do you answer that question?

We walked back home, hoping to pass Giolitti’s, a famous gelateria we had read about and passed the previous night. It was nowhere to be found. At no time during our trip have we set out to find something and ended up there as planned the very first time. After about two miles of walking, we finally admitted to ourselves that we had no idea where the place was (and later discovered it wasn’t even in the same neighborhood). Instead, we just got gelato at a reasonably nice spot near the Trevi Fountain, sat, ate, people-watched, walked back to the hotel, got lost on a walk we had already done once before, finally made it to our room, and collapsed.

June 11, 2004

A full day of Ancient Rome

Though I wrote this entry throughout the day, it’s getting posted all at once. There’s no in-room internet access here, so we’re not able to get online as often as we thought we would.

***

A good night’s sleep left us refreshed, though more disoriented. The second day of getting used to a big time change always seems to be the hardest.

***

I woke up early, at 7:30, for a quick run on the treadmill. (The Chicago Marathon isn’t planning to run itself!) Fortunately, there were only two other Americans in the gym. But I’m being redundant. Almost everyone in the hotel, except for the staff, seems to be American. It feels like an extension of the U.S. Embassy down the street. The familiarity is comforting, but we are definitely giving up something in local flavor. Had we not been staying here for free, we probably would have chosen a different place. The hotel is great, though. Very comfortable beds; very nice service; great gym; beautiful building, inside and out.

Headed out shortly to see the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and lots of other highlights of Western Civ 101.

***

The first view from the Colosseum Metro station is awe-inspiring. You emerge from the dark station, and there it is, right in front of you. It’s bigger and taller than you imagine. It’s dirtier than you imagine. And it’s just as impressive as you imagine.

Then you notice how chaotic everything is. Every ten feet or so, a local asks you, “Do you speak English?” When you answer yes—you learn not to answer at all—they try to book you on their Colosseum tour. The impromptu tour operators are not as aggressive as the gladiatorsIMG_0676, who, dressed in their full imperial garb, will pose in pictures with you for a not-so-small fee.

The line to get into the Colosseum was very long and probably would have taken us over an hour to reach the front. We remembered from our Rick Steves guidebook that the ticket office to the Palatine Museum offers a combination ticket that includes admission the Colosseum. There was only one person in front of us. It was definitely the right choice, and not just because it saved us time. The ruins surrounding the museum and the grounds were very impressive, and we had them largely to ourselves. We then proceeded past the Roman Forum, and those ruins were more than impressive.

Some things just defy description, and this part of Rome fits into that category. The combination of its great age, immense scale, and historical importance connects you to the past in a way that almost nothing else could.

***

After wandering through the Roman Forum ruins, we searched in vain for a nearby restaurant mentioned in our guidebook. This is a very difficult city to navigate. We ended up grabbing a sandwich and slice of pizza at a “Gastronomia” truck near the Roman Forum. The food wasn’t bad, better than you’d expect from a truck in a tourist neighborhood.

***

We went back to the Colosseum to check out the interior, and ran into a young couple who had taken for us earlier in the day. They mentioned that an English-language tour was available at 3. Unfortunately, the guide’s English was lacking, and we did not get much out of the experience.

Back to the hotel via a hot, sweaty, crowded ride on the Metro. Deciding where to go for dinner.

***

Crossing the streets in Rome is intimidating. The streets are wide, the cars (and Vespa scooters) drive very fast, and no one really pays much attention to the traffic signals. Today we figured out the secret to crossing like a local. You just have to show the drivers that you can’t be intimidated. When you want to go, you just go. They’ll speed up at first, just to see if you can be cowed. When they see you can’t be, they’ll stop grudgingly and let you proceed. The alternative is to wait for an opening, but those don’t seem to come around very often.

***

This is the part where I would tell you about all the interesting things we did at night -- a stroll past the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, getting lost on the way to the Pantheon, dinner at Pizzeria Bufetto, a tartufo in Piazza Navona at Tre Scalina. Unfortunately, I lost all of it when my computer crashed (I thought Macs are stable!?). If I can, I'll update the text later. But you may just have to imagine our lovely evening.

June 09, 2004

We're here. And we're tired.

We made it to Rome, safe and sound. This will not necessarily be a very coherent update. We are very, very tired from the long day, night, and day of travels.

Our flight out of O’Hare was delayed an hour while they resolved some maintenance issues. While the flight was otherwise uneventful, it did cause us to miss our connecting flight out of Brussels. This gave us an extra 90 minutes to kill in the airport there—a very nice airport, though if you ever find yourself there, you’ll definitely want comfortable walking shoes for the exceedingly long hallways. The 90 minutes was barely enough time, however, to straighten out the mess caused by confusion between American Airlines, Sabena, and Alitalia. Each one seemed to think the other was responsible for the lack of the appropriate sticker on our revised boarding pass. In the end, we made it on the flight with no problem, and arrived in Rome around 2 pm.

The trip between the airport and downtown Rome was effortless, a very easy 32-minute train ride. Finding a cab between the train station and our hotel was not effortless. We exited out the first exit we saw, which turned out to be a little-used alternate. This led us to a street filled with independents looking to coax you into their cabs. Not knowing how far away our hotel was, we had no interest in getting in a taxi and not having any confidence that the route taken was reasonably direct. After much confusion and investigation, we finally found an official taxi stand, and we werepleased with the €7 fare.

We arrived at our hotel, the Westin Excelsior, which is lovely. We highly recommend staying here for free, as we are, using our Starwood points. The Via Veneto neighborhood is on the touristy side, but since peak tourist season hasn’t quite begun, it is relatively manageable.

One nice feature of our location is our nearness to the Villa Borghese, a great “Central Park” of Rome. We walked through it briefly today and spent some time people-watching on a shady bench.

Headed back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes, only to find out that our bottle of wrinkle-release spray exploded after some not-so-delicate handling from the Transportation Security Administration. Indeed, my clothes weren’t wrinkled anymore, though they were awfully wet.

Dinner at a charming place, Santo Padre, recommended by our guidebook. The food was delicious, though in our jet-lagged state, the use of a verbal menu in broken English was a little intimidating. Everything was great, though, and we think the meals will be a highlight of our trip for the next several weeks.

Tomorrow we plan to do the Ancient Rome sights. Hoping a good night’s sleep will make them much more interesting.

June 02, 2004

Greetings! We have nothing to say yet.

Welcome to Italia 2004, a weblog devoted to Lee and Janene's Italy Experience. 14 days and nights in Rome, Florence, Venice, and points in between.

Nothing to report yet, as we won't actually leave Chicago for another six days. This blog will be much more interesting after we have, I don't know, actually gotten on a plane.

For our loyal past readers, you'll see some changes with this version of our travel blog. There's now a comment feature, which gives you the ability to share with the world your belief that we seem to be having a perfectly lovely time. I'm also hoping that we can add photos, which will take some pressure off of us to supply consistently witty and interesting commentary.

Finally, the standard disclaimer: We make no promises that we will keep this up. If posting is sparse, assume we are having an amazing time, can't find a internet connection, or have decided to do as the Italians do and go on strike.

More next week.