Friday, January 13, 2017

Paris — The City of Lights

Eiffel Tower from the top of Arc de Triomphe.It’s getting to two months since our return from Europe and we have yet to write anything about it. So I will start with Paris — the first stop of our three country vacation and the rest will follow.

Our hotel. Hilton Paris Opera.As most European flights are we left JFK on a red-eye flight to Paris with a stop-over in Reykjavik. For some reason this flight was unusually tiring on us. Neither one of us can really sleep well on a plane and this time around Alёna started to get a huge migraine which in her case usually leads to inability to stand and possible fainting. And the only solution was to sleep which she couldn’t do well.

Streets of Paris. On our way to the arch.During a stop-over in Reykjavik we had to stand in line to go through passport control and I feared that she was either going to pass out or decide to lye down on the floor. Luckily after we went through passport control she started feeling better and the next flight went relatively OK. But we were very very tired after it all.

Streets of Paris.I remember during our trip to Germany we even went out right after our flight to Berlin. And when we went to Barcelona we didn’t feel as tired either. We took a short nap and set out for a long walk. As we did here. We took a taxi to our hotel which was not far from all the things that we wanted to see, got checked in after a small wait — which we spent in an executive lounge — into an small suite via a free upgrade with an “amazing” view of some roof.

Arc de Triomphe.The hotel itself looked grand inside and out. It actually looked like some old opera house inside. So we asked whether it was converted from something else into a hotel. Turns out it was always a hotel which was built at the end of 19th century. It used to be directly connected to a large train station behind the hotel which is still there. The hotel changed ownership multiple times throughout it’s history and was acquired by Hilton group in 2013. Now it’s known as Hilton Paris Opera.

View from the to of the arch.And after a well proportioned nap we got dressed and set course towards the famous Arc de Triomphe which was one and a half miles away from our hotel or a 30 minute walk. This was our first impression of Paris. And it is grand, like no city that we have seen before. The streets seemed old yet cozy. Old churches, old buildings — lots and lots of history.

Another view of the tower from the top.There were a lot of refugees on the streets, but instead of feeling unsafe in these situations you couldn’t help but feel compassion for those families. During the day woman would spent time with kids under the blankets in cold streets and later on a father would join, probably coming back from trying to find work.

Staircase inside the arch.The arch was quite impressive and even though it was dark out there was a large number of people around it. Since climbing atop the arch was one of the things on our list and we would be coming there again anyhow we didn’t spend a lot of time around it and turned back. We tried to find some dinner place and ended up walking through some tiny streets to find a highly rated place via Trip Advisor. But it turned out to be closed on that day of the week.

The Eiffel Tower.We walked back all the way to our hotel and searched again. Ended up going for dinner into some small tapas places, but for some reason we ended up ordering full dinner entries. In retrospect that was a mistake — should’ve gone for things that they specialize in. We did, however, try some interesting red sweet beer.

Right across Seine from The Eiffel Tower.We started our first full day with a walk back to the arch, bought the tickets and took a long spiral staircase up to the top. The view was magnificent. This was also the first time we actually saw The Eiffel Tower with our own eyes. And the vantage point was perfect for photographing it. The arch itself was located in a center of circle to which a lot of streets were connecting, making it look like you are standing in a center of sun with rays running out of it.

Under the tower.We spent a while walking around and taking pictures. Sadly for my photography the sky was constantly gray making for less then stellar end results. But I had my GND filters with me, so I could still make photos without featureless skies. In fact the view was so great that we decided that there was no point going to an observation deck of skyscraper that we originally planned to visit.

Shores of Seine.Our next destination was the famous tower itself — another 30 minute walk. Beforehand we had to do a thorough inspection of a bathroom — none of which are free in Paris — of a large department store. A side note — everything in Paris was within a walking distance, so we didn’t have to use any kind of transpiration at all.

Seine.Right across from the tower there was a set of stairs that one could climb for a nice view of the tower and surroundings. And after taking a couple of photographs from there we crossed the Seine and ended up pretty much right under the tower. It really is pretty huge. To get exactly under the tower one had to go through security gates — there is a fence around the tower — and since we didn’t really want to go up the tower we decided to skip that.

Alexandre III bridge across Seine.And then we just set course towards our hotel along the shores of Seine. Since it was a weekend a lot of people were out and about — running, cycling or just walking. At one point a shady looking woman bent over in front of us and made it seem like she just found a golden ring. It was obvious to me that it was some kind of scam, so I just waved her off. Alëna wasn’t sure, so we just stood there and watched. The same exact scene repeated itself when she walked up to some other group of people. Things like this are pretty easy to spot to avoid unpleasant situations.

Alexandre III bridge. The Eiffel Tower in the background.After a nice walk we crossed Seine again and even the bridges in this city are grand — magnificent statues and all. We got caught under a bit of rain, but it stopped shortly after it started. And then we ended up on one of the winter markets that we remember so well from Germany. Lots of street food, crafts, drinks and everything else that these markets tend to have. And a lot of people.

Christmas market.This is where we tried one of the “musts” in France — crepes. We ordered a pair of crepes with different stuffing. We wanted to get some Gluehwein — hot German wine, but for some reason didn’t. The crepes were crepes. Nothing unexpected. But now we can claim that, yes, we did try crepes in Paris. And I again had to test out the local facilities — my stomach was acting up all day long — the one and only day when it was giving me problems. I don’t think it’s crepe related though, but it did put a bit of a damper on this fun day.

Parisian crepes.On the way to our hotel we stopped by another very grand looking church with huge columns for a short visit and that was it for exploring on that day. For dinner we went to Restaurant Garnier that was recommended by hotel staff — a place right across the street from our hotel. It turned out to be probably the best dinner of the whole trip. I ordered some insanely expensive fried fish, but it was totally worth it.

Louvre.The main objectives of our second and last full day in Paris were Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris. If the tower and the arch were on the west side of our hotel, Louvre and Notre Dame were on the east. The day turned out to be somewhat rainy, so we borrowed an umbrella from our hotel and were on our way.

Louvre lobby.Louvre was about 2km away — another 30 minute walk through the streets of Paris. When we arrived there we saw the world famous glass pyramid entrance and as expected — no line. We quickly passed through the security checkpoint and saw a coat check by the entrance. We figured since we’re going to spend 2-3 hours were it would be nice to to lug our outerwear with us.

Venus de Milo.The thing is that we hate going through a regular coat check though. Standing in line, getting a number, somebody handling your clothing, retrieving it, tipping and all that. But in Louvre you end up in a large locker room in which you pick any shelf from different sized ones and each one is equipped with a digital lock. You put your stuff in, set the pin and that’s it. Great.

Mona Lisa.And then we wondered through the halls of this top art museums of the world. Among the most famous things we saw was Venus de Milo and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was probably the most crowded place of the whole museum. It was not even possible to get close to it. There were two guards, a guard rail, bullet proof glass and a “selfing” crowd.

One of very many halls inside Louvre.The museum is impossible to cover in one day. We usually places like this 2-3 hours and then we tend to get tired. Towards the end of our tour when we sat down on one of the benches for a little bit of rest Alёna remembered that we still haven’t seen the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David — The Coronation of Napoleon. I started looking around and lo and behold — we’re sitting right in front of it.

Streets of Paris.Notre Dame de Paris was another 1.7km away in the same direction — further away from our hotel. Needless to say the walk back was somewhat long. But we keep trying to take different routes and end up seeing a good portion of all the cities that we visit through non-touristy streets. These walks probably are the things that built the feel of the city for us.

Notre Dame de Paris.Notre Dame itself is not all that unusual from the looks of it inside or out to my untrained eyes. But what makes it really special is the fact that it has seen so much history. The construction of it began almost 900 years ago. Napoleon was crowned inside of it, as is depicted by the above mentioned painting. The day was quite rainy so we decided not to go to the roof though.

Streets of Paris.And after that we took a long walk back to our hotel. We were so tired by the day’s end that we decided to grab a late light lunch in hotel restaurant and later some appetizers at the executive lounge instead of going out. And thus our stay in Paris has concluded as the next morning we were leaving it for Brussels.

Streets of Paris.As I said earlier Paris has left a very positive and lasting impression on us. It really is grand all throughout. We did see a lot of things, but there are many many other things to do that we didn’t have time for. In retrospect we really should’ve allocated more time for Paris, especially considering that a train to Brussels only takes an hour. I would like to visit it again in the future.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Seville of Spain

Seville from the top.We arrived to Seville by train from Madrid at around mid-day. Since our hotel was not in the center, but more on the outskirts of the city, we took a taxi, and soon after were checking into Hilton Garden Inn.

Hilton Garden Inn of Seville.Now I want to say a few words about this particular hotel. Even though its location was not optimal for city exploration, the staff really made us feel welcome and at home. Talk about the art of hospitality! The manager was a really nice woman in her 30th, and not only she sent us some fruit to congratulate us on our anniversary, but she included a hand-written postcard with warm wishes.

First lunch in Seville.After we checked in, we went to get lunch in one of the places that was recommended to us by the front desk. What can I say? The food was pretty good, and very cheep too, but they did not have a menu in English and not a single person there spoke English. Somehow we were able to ask him to bring us 4 tapas of his choice and two beers — to give you an example of the prices, beers were €1 each.

Streets of Seville.The city center was a 30-minute bus ride from our hotel. In reality, it often took us over 45 minutes to get to and from because of the wait time on the bus stop. On our first evening we decided not to go the the center, but to walk to the nearby canal instead.

Bridge.The weather was warm, so even though we took our jackets with us, we ended up wearing just sweaters and carrying warmer clothes in our hands. The canal was not too far — probably a 30 minutes walk from our hotel. I really enjoyed walking there — we had to walk for a while next the wall of a giant cemetery, and then through some neighborhoods with 5-6 story buildings, orange trees in the yards and clothes handing on balconies.

Graffiti walls.When we reached the canal, there were a lot of people running and some skating or bicycling. There were a lot of graffiti drawings on the walls by the canal, and it was interesting to check them out. We also saw some good-looking bridge, but did not walk far enough to reach it.

Streets of Seville.We took a different route home and acquired a bus pass in one of the little grocery stores. It took us a while to explain what we need, since the owner, a young guy, spoke zero English. Luckily, his assistant could speak a little bit, and she also was checking some words on the internet dictionary.

At Bodeguita Ar Sabio.We ate dinner in one of the places close to our hotel — a little restaurant called Ar Sabio. It opens at 8, and it looked like we were the first customers. The owner did not speak any English either, but at least they had a menu in English. I liked the food and the atmosphere. The owner was very friendly, and the bill was ridiculously small.

Streets of Seville.The next day we decided to take a bus ride to the city center to see some of the main Seville attractions. The weather was nice again, so we felt very comfortable without warm jackets.

Plaza de España.After we got off the bus, we walked to the Plaza de España. It was built for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair of 1929. What can I say? The plaza looked interesting, and it was nice to walk and gawk. As in many places in Seville, there were a lot of beautiful tiles in Neo-Mudéjar style.

Alcázar of Seville.Afterwards we proceeded to Alcázar of Seville. The walk itself was quite enjoyable. I have fond memories of bright orange trees, and palms, and blue skies, and even people roaming around. When I was doing some research on the Spain beforehand, I found out that in addition to still being one of official residences of Spanish royal family, it was a residence of the fictional Dornish prince in “Game of Thrones” — the HBO show that Danya and I were watching prior to our vacation. It made visiting Alcázar even more fun!

Alcázar of Seville. Dorne from Game of Thrones.The palace is old and beautiful, with lots of Moorish architecture. The tiles again were simply amazing. We even bought a decorative gold-plated plate in one of the ceramics shops of Seville that was made using an old Moorish technique. It hangs on the wall in our apartment, and every time I look at it, it brings me back to Seville and Alcázar.

Alcázar of Seville.After walking through Alcázar for a while, we decided that it was time for lunch. By that time we were pretty tired of Spanish cuisine, so we picked a decently rated Italian place. We ordered a buffalo mozzarella pizza, which for some reason was not baked as we expected, but rather it was a caprice salad on top of the cooked crust. It was still very delicious, so no regrets there.

Seville Cathedral.After lunch, we went to see the Seville Cathedral. It was beautiful as all old churches are. It was big too — apparently, this Cathedral is the third largest church in the world. We walked around for a little bit, and walked by ramp to the top of the bell tower. The ramp has 35 sections, but still it was much easier to get on top using it, than it would have been if there were actual steps. Apparently, the ramp is wide and tall enough for the person on horseback to get to the top. The walk down was even easier and faster.

Climbing atop the tower.There were many other people, who wanted to see Seville from the top of the tower, but it did not bother me. We admired the views for a short while, Danya took some pictures, and we went down again. We stopped at the inner garden, full of orange trees. There was also a little pond with waterfall.

Garden of orange trees on cathedral grounds.Afterwards we just wandered around Seville some more and went home. Waiting for a bus took forever, and by the time we got to the hotel we were so exhausted, that we decided to have dinner at the hotel. It was Thanksgiving, so Danya ordered duck, and I just had a risotto. The food was nice, the service was friendly, and even though we payed 2.5 times the cost of our other Seville dinners, the prices seemed normal relative to NYC.

Cathedral.On the next day we went to the center again. I really wanted to get some ceramics as souvenirs, so we went to a part of the city which was identified as full of pottery shops by the hotel staff. We crossed some bridge and went looking, but did not find any ceramic stores at all. Just a bunch of little cafes and cheap souvenir shops. Maybe we were looking in the wrong place.

Lunch at Gusto Ristobar.We went back to the Alcázar-Cathedral area, and Danya picked a place with decent TripAdvisor ratings for lunch. It was called Gusto Ristobar. We ordered some jamon, spaghetti, cheese and beer. To our surprise, they even had Franziskaner, albeit a bottled variety. It was still so good! The waiter was very nice and spoke good English. He suggested a few nice authentic Spanish draft beer places for the evening, but we passed on those since we had to leave for Portugal the next day. He also suggested to go see Metropol Parasol — a modern mushroom-like structure not far away, and was kind enough to show it on the map.

Metropol Parasol.We did go to that Parasol structure afterwards, and it was a nice activity to do. We got to the top of it (the fee is 3 euros per person) and walked around a bit. The Seville lied spread down around us again, so we admired the views one more time.

Views from the top of Metropol Parasol.After that we spent some time trying to find nice souvenir ceramic plates for our parents and us. There were plenty of shops with similar things, but we ended up getting hand-painted gold-plated plates sold in the factory store. We only saw those in this one store, and the sales girl, who was Russian by the way, explained to us that the factory owner sells this particular collection in her store only.

Still atop of Metropol Parasol.The owner, an old lady, who spoke perfect English, was there too. She even gave us a discount on account of American Black Friday, which was a big surprise for the sales girl, since she said this normally does not happen. I like our plates, and I hope that our parents do too.

Sevillians after work.Afterwards, we just decided to get to our bus stop and go to the hotel. It was surprising to see crowds of people drinking coffee and beer and wine in the outside bars on some streets. There was really really a lot of people. I guess, it was Friday after all, and the locals were starting to enjoy the weekend.

Somewhere at Seville center.We ate dinner at Ar Sabio again. We actually planned to go someplace different, just for variety, but the owner saw us coming by and invited us in, so we decided why not. The food was very good again, and cheep too, and the owner even remembered what we drank last time. I had a great time, and even felt a little sad about leaving Seville in the near future. In my mind, it remains the coziest and friendliest of all cities that we visited during this trip.

Plaza de España.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

General Observations and Barcelona

Streets of Barcelona.We’ve come back from yet another one of our European trips and I wanted to share (mostly with myself) some thoughts and impressions of our travels through Spain and a little bit of Portugal. I think it makes sense to go through some general thoughts and feelings at first and dive a little deeper into each city we have visited later on.

Overall the best part was just spending some “us” time with my wife. We love our kids dearly, but they are always a handful and it’s hard to really relax with them being around. During these fall vacations of ours we can really enjoy each other’s company while exploring new locations and cuisines of those locations. We can just wonder the streets of an unfamiliar city for hours upon hours. In fact during this particular trip we have averaged about 8 miles of walking per day, including the days when we took the trains from one city to the next.

La Rambla.Of course we have to say a huge thanks to our parents who stayed with our kids, allowing us to take the longest “alone” vacation since Arosha was born. We spent 3 nights in 3 cities and 2 nights in one city. On our previous vacation to Germany it was only 3 nights for 3 cities, meaning that we could have to drop Madrid from this trip — which frankly wouldn’t be a huge loss though.

Alёna’s mom stayed with Anюta and my dad took care of Arosha. My mom helped on both fronts, but she didn’t have to spend her own vacation on us. Again, we’re extremely grateful for having this opportunity to take some time for ourselves every year.

La Rambla.With respect to the cities we visited — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Lisbon — if I had to pick my favorite I would have a hard time choosing between Barcelona and Lisbon. I can easily pick my least favorite by far — Madrid. Seville also was very likable. But more on all of that later.

Spanish cuisine has surprised us. We have tried quite a number of places relying on some random choices or TripAdvisor ratings and various other guides and recommendation — which never failed us before — and ended up with a quite unremarkable impression of it all. Not that it was bad, it was just very unmemorable and not special as during our previews trips. Granted, it is possible that we in fact did end up with a bad selection of eateries, but nevertheless that’s what we have taken away from it all.

Streets of Barcelona.We did try numerous tapas, we tried paella and other things guides recommend. My most favorite entries from the tapas selection ended up being Ensaladilla Rusa and a selection of Iberian Acorn Ham (Jamón [xaˈmon] Ibérico) served on a bread with various tomato pastes.

As far as Ensaladilla Rusa goes — it turned out to be a dish commonly present on our holiday dinner tables at home — variations between what we call Olivier and Mimosa salads. For the Jamon — I was never really a big fan of these kind of food — but the Spanish version was quite tasty. And it really has very very little in common with the thing that is called ham in America.

Barcelona.Another surprising thing for us was a complete and utter lack of English in Spain. Nobody speaks it with very few exceptions. For example for our anniversary dinner we ended up in a highly rated places of Spanish Cuisine which didn’t have any menus in English. However we were provided with an English expert that would help us out with anything we needed. The only problem with that concept was the fact that this English expert’s English was only slightly better than my Spanish which is saying quite a lot — I don’t speak any Spanish.

At one time we tried to buy a bus pass which took about 15 minutes instead of 30 seconds. Or our lunch where we basically just somehow managed to get our waiter to pick four tapas for us. Portugal on the other hand was a complete opposite — everyone had great English — like every other European country we visited before. Or Japan.

Barcelona


Avinguda Diagona.Barcelona was the first stop of our trip. Our plane got in quite early and we were by our hotel at around 10am — way to early to normally get a room. But we haven’t slept for the most of the night and I got really motion sick (normally never happens) during the flight for some reason. Very luckily for us they saw our Diamond status with Hilton and gave us a nice room right away. That really saved the day for us. We took a two hour nap and decided to explore the city around the hotel — that actually helped me off walk off my motion sickness as well.

The hotel itself wasn’t exactly in the center, but it was located on a pretty big street called Avinguda Diagonal. We decided to walk towards the center as far as we would feel like. On a sidenote I’ve read through a number of guides of Barclona and for some reason all of them mentioned that you have to be real careful around another famous street called La Rambla because chances are you are going to get robed. So I was thinking to avoid that place altogether.

Streets of Barcelona. Not La Rambla.Funnily enough after talking quite far along Diagonal we saw another big street mostly closed off to traffic. There was a good number of people walking around and a whole bunch of open air restaurants in the middle of it. So we decided that it looked like a nice place to explore so we turned into it. After walking for a couple of blocks we noticed the name of the street. You guessed it, La Rambla.

And I have to say that not a single time throughout our whole trip we felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way. We walked through a lot of touristy places, used public transportation in multiple places and not a single time we didn’t feel as comfortable as we feel at home. So indeed, if you act with common sense nothing will happen. We kept our documents in Alёna steel mesh purse just in case, but I carried my cell phone in my front pocket — as I always do. We did see some people walking around with 1/3 of their phones sticking out of a back pocket — that’s like asking for it to be stolen. Anywhere.

Gothic district.Anyhow — we ended up at the old gothic district — one of the places that we planned to explore. So on the very first evening we saw the main cathedral of Barcelona — another one of our objectives. There was a number of street musicians playing Spanish music and it created a really nice, special atmosphere. We wondered around for quite a bit through the old tiny streets.

Barcelona Subway.It was already getting dark, and we were feeling pretty tired, so we decided to take subway back home. Luckily for as all of the stations are equipped with vending machines which could be operated in English. It was quite easy to figure out and we did easily get back to our hotel.

Streets of Barcelona.We ate our first Spanish dinner in a place right by our hotel called Piscolabis — not the best sounding name for Russian or even English speakers. What they had going for them was a menu with pictures for all the tapas. It was a decent dinner, but as I’ve said before — nothing really stood out. If after Japan or Italy we wanted to find good places specializing in those cuisines in Brooklyn we got no drive to find anything Spanish here.

On the roof at Park Güell.Another thing that stood out for us in Barcelona was how clean it was. A really pleasant city to walk through. It was also covered in Catalan flags. Felt very much like the good old US of A. We really do love our flag over here and so do Catalan people. After all, Catalonia did vote to split off from Spain in a very recent referendum. Not sure it’s going to go anywhere, but they sure do wish it.

Park Güell.On our second day we took a taxi to Park Güell. The most interesting part about this park was the fact that it was designed by Gaudi. Although you need to buy tickets to get into the architectural part of the park, the park itself is pretty big and has a lot of free zones. You can actually rise quite high above the city for some good views, but the sun was shining right in our faces, so no good pictures came out of that. And as far the the Gaudi buildings themselves — they are as visible from outside as they are from the inside for the gated section — as became apparent after we got in. So we’re not quite sure why we paid to get inside after all.

Inside Sagrada Familia.And from there we set course to Sagrada Família — a massive cathedral designed by Gaudi that is still under construction, but it is open to the public. The thing is that we’ve been to a lot of cathedrals all over Europe now. And most of them look very similar, especially inside. Sagrada Familia is nothing like any of them. Gaudi really was an architectural genius. We also had to buy tickets to get inside, but thanks to this being November, lines everywhere were quite short. Also we didn’t get a chance to get onto the top of the towers because the day was windy and they were closed off.

Sagrada Familia.And after that we set course to the gothic district again to wonder the old streets. We did a really nice dinner here this night — thank you TripAdvisor. We walked all the way over to the water with a huge monument to Columbus. Not everyone likes Columbus on this side of the pond, but they sure love him in Spain. And by this time we were spent. Over 10 miles of walking. We jumped onto a train again to get back home for our mandatory 12 hours of sleep.

On the roof at Casa Mila.One the last day of our stay in Barcelona with all our main goals met we decided to knock off a pair of other famous buildings designed by Gaudi. Both of them were located on the next street that runs in parallel to La Rumbla. It was less than a 2 mile walk from our hotel via Av. Diagonal and we had a full day ahead of us. Since it was a Sunday all the stores on Diagonal (lots and lots of fashion stores) were closed as in pretty much any other self respecting European country.

Casa Mila.The first of our two stops was Casa Mila also known as La Pedrera. It really does look like nothing else. We bought the tickets for the inside tour (no lines again) and were able to walk through the inner yards, get up to the roof and take a walk through an apartment-museum where all the old furniture was left in place. We asked our parents who traveled here with a tour group if they have been to the roof, but because of the group size these kinds of things are skipped often — they haven’t been up there.

Casa Batlló.A couple of blocks further was another famous Gaudi building — Casa Batlló. For this one we just sat on a bench in front of it resting our feet and admiring the structure. We decided not to go in inside of this one as one was enough for us. Seeing these in person though did bring up some distant memories. I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere (pictures) before, I just didn’t really know what it was.

From the roof of Cathedral of Barcelona.And after that we proceed to walk to the same gothic district again. This time we ended up there earlier than previous days, so we decided to take a tour of the main cathedral. We went inside and to our surprise discovered that one could actually get up to the roof, which we did. We took some panoramic pictures and moved on.

Streets of Barcelona.We couldn’t really get an internet connection so we picked a place for our dinner at random. We decided to try some traditional Spanish Paella, but we didn’t make a good choice of a restaurant. It had the illusion of being full, but it turned out to be just one big family occupying several tables. When those people left we were left alone. Tapas were pretty stale and Paella was … not tasty. That was our first and last Paella try. Luckily we were able to fill up on good tapas back at the executive lounge of our Hilton.

Streets of Barcelona.And thus our Barcelona stay has concluded. On the next morning we checked out from our hotel, jumped into a taxi and asked for a drive to the main train station. Our next destination was Madrid.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Испания — Барселона

Avinguda Diagonal. Barcelona.Ну что ж, еще один отпуск позади! Пора писать, пока мысли и ощущения не потускнели в каждодневных хлопотах.

Конечно, я знала, что Испания и Португалия — это южная Европа, но всё равно меня почему-то очень поразили пальмы и апельсиновые деревья. Первые дни я то и дело удивлялась, а потом привыкла и уже принимала их как должное. Еще меня очень удивило то, что в Испании очень мало и плохо говорили по-английски. Я-то думала, что все европейцы из развитых стран как минимум двуязычны (со вторым английским языком), но это оказалось не так. Вот думаю, что надо будет Ароше выучить испанский — очень даже может в жизни пригодиться. В Португалии же, напротив, все могли обьяснится по-английски — кто-то лучше, кто-то хуже, но не владеющих английским языком людей мы там не встретили.

Streets of Barcelona.Все города мне понравились по-своему. Пожалуй, немного худшее впечатление произвёл Мадрид — своей грязью и подозрительного вида типами в людных местах — но и в нём несомненно есть свои прелести и интересные места.

In front of one of Gaudi's buildings.Начали мы наше путешествие с каталонской столицы Барселоны. Кстати, я и не знала, что существует каталанский язык, который совсем не похож на испанский и активно используется в Каталонии наряду с испанским языком.

Hilton of Barcelona.Прилетели мы в Барселону рано, и в гостинице были часам к 10 утра. Нам повезло — в гостинице в это время уже была свободная комната и нам не пришлось ждать до 14 или 16 часов дня чтобы заселиться. Мы немного отдохнули, и пошли гулять по городу.

Av. Diagonal.Барселона оказалась очень чистой, с ухоженными домами, на балкончиках которых очень часто гордо висели каталонские красно-жёлтые флаги, с маленькими уютными детскими площадками, с большим количеством красивых зданий, с пальмами и, конечно, мотоциклистами. Мотоциклистов в Барселоне ну просто пруд пруди. Причём мне показалось, что для большинства людей мотоцикл — это не принадлежность к определённой сабкультуре со всеми вытекающими отсюда последсвтиями, а просто средство передвижения.

Streets of Barcelona.В первый день мы просто пошли вперед по широкому проспекту, идущему вдоль нашего отеля, а когда решили свернуть на понравившуюся аллею, то с удивелнием обнаружили, что мы оказались на известной Ла Рамбле, которую хотели посетить. На Рамбле было много кафешек на открытом воздухе, но несмотря на относительно тёплую погоду, мы решили перекусить где-нибудь в помещении.

Inside Cathedral of Barcelona.Еще до поездки Даня читал, что на Ла Рамбле надо держать ухо востро, потому что там много карманных воришек. Мы старались быть осторожными, но честно говоря, там было не очень много людей и момента, когда я могла бы заволноваться о своей собственности у меня не было.

La Rambla.Мы прошли по Рамбле до Готического квартала, по которому тоже немного подбродили. Мне барселонский Готический квартал сразу напомнил Флоренцию. Те же каменные старые здания, узкие улочки, мощёные булыжником дороги. Мы дошли до Барселонского Собора. Площадь перед ним мне очень понравилась в первую очередь из-за уличных музыкантов, которые очень хорошо играли на гитарах. От их музыки создавался особый настрой и теперь в моём сознании Готический квартал Барселоны прочно ассоциируется с гитарными ритмами.

Inside Casa Mila.Поужинать мы решили недалеко от гостиницы. Нам очень хотелось попробовать испанскую кухню, и была надежда, что в ресторанчике под не очень благозвучным для нашего уха названием Piscolabis будет вкусно, несмотря на средненькие отзывы о нём на Trip Advisor. К сожалению, приятного сюрприза не произошло. Еда была сьедобной и сытной, но не более того. Вкусной её не назовёшь. Мы заказали по пиву и штук 5 разных тапас — закусок, распространённых в Испании. Единственное, что мне на самом деле понравилось — это оливки.

Tapas by our hotel at Piscolabis.Вообще надо сказать, что несмотря на то, что иногда мы в Испании ели вкусно, еда в целом была так себе. С нами такое случилось впервые — обычно во время отпуска в другой стране мы не могли нахвалиться национальным кухням, а в Испании уже на третий день при слове “тапас” пропадал аппетит. Паэлья нам тоже не понравилась — но мы и раньше её не очень-то любили, просто думали, что в оригинальном исполнении она будет лучше. Зато нам очень понравилась испанская иберийская ветчина, по-испански хамон. Хамон, особенно от свиней вскомленных желудями, блюдо дорогое, но вкусное. Больше всего он мне напомнил поляндвицу и кумпяки, которые готовили мои бабушка и дедушка, несмотря на то, что в случае моих родственников мясо коптили, а испанский вариант — сыровяленный.

Inside Sagrada Familia.Следующий день мы посвятили Гауди и его постройкам. Начали мы с парка Гуэля, куда добрались на такси. Денёк был очень тёплый, и в парке мы даже сняли куртки. Парк оказался большим — мы там довольно долго бродили. Было много музыкантов, играющих на совершенно разных инструментах — от волынки до цимбал. Сами постройки мне понравились, но из-за того, что я их уже видела не один раз на фотографиях, какого-то особо сильного впечатления не произвели.

Sagrada Familia.После парка, мы пошли в Храм Святого Семейства, или Саграда Фамилия. Этот храм, работы над которым начались в конце 19 века по проекту Гауди, до сих пор находится в процессе постройки. В принципе это не очень удивительно, ибо многие знаменитые церкви строились не одно столетие. Несмотря на незавершённость, Саграда Фамилия поражает своей красотой и необычностью как снаружи, так и внутри. Я не очень разбираюсь в архитектуре и не владею правильной лексикой, но мне запомнились разноцветные витражи, колонны в виде деревьев и вообще когда мы были внутри, то мне казалось, что я нахожусь в каком-то подводном царстве. К сожалению, на крышу мы не попали, потому что день был ветренный и туда не пускали из соображений безопасности.

Park Guell.После посещения Саграды Фамилия мы снова пошли в готический квартал. Мы там немного побродили, а потом наобум зашли в какой-то ресторан подкрепиться. Выбор наш оказался неудачным — тапас там были не слишком свежими, а паэлья слишком жирной. После еды мы побродили еще немного, посетили площадь со огромной статуей Колумба, доехали на метро до гостиницы, где вскоре после небольшого ужина в executive lounge отправились спать.

Casa Mila.В наш последний полный день в Барселоне мы посетили еще две знаменитые постройки Гауди — дом Мила и дом Бальо. Находились они относительно недалеко от гостиницы, так что мы дошли до них пешком.

Inside Casa Mila.В доме Мила, или камелономне, как её когда-то прозвали не очень впечатлённые постройкой барселонцы, сразу чувствуется рука Гауди. Извилистые фасады, своеобразные функциональные статуи на крыше, внутренние дворики, несущие осветительные и вентиляционные фунции… Внутри дома находится квартира-музей, обустроенная предметами быта испанкой буржуазии начала 20 века. Мы эту квартиру посетили, было довольно интересно. Еще мы поднялись на крышу.

Casa Batlló.Дом Бальо находится совсем близко от “каменоломни”, так что мы туда быстро дошли пешком. Внутрь дома Бальо мы не пошли — только полюбовались на “рыбий” фасад сидя на скамеечке напротив, сделали пару фотографий, и отправились дальше.

Потом мы снова дошли до Барселонского Собора, и на этот раз зашли внутрь и забрались на крышу, с которой открывался неплохой вид на Барселону.

Cathedral of Barcelona.Потом мы решили пообедать, но на этот раз, чтобы снова не поесть чего-нибудь невкусного, мы опирались на помощь Trip Advisor. Даня подключился к интернету возле какого-то ресторанцика с бесплатным вай-фаем, и для обеда мы выбрали ресторан под названием Xaloc с относительно высоким рейтингом.

Park Guell.Еда там была очень даже неплохая — закуски хорошие (хотя “русский салат” наподобие “мимозы” есть было скучно), Данино мясо оказалось очень вкусным, ну а мои кальмары средненькими. Я их взяла в первую очередь из-за соуса айоли, который несколько раз делала дома сама, но хотела попробовать в оригинале. Мой соус мне нравится больше. Еще мы зашли в джелатерию и я заказала какие-то экзотические сорта джелато — из маракуйи и инжира. Было неплохо, но, наверное, слишком холодно, чтобы насладится холодной сладостью по полной программе.

Dinner at Xaloc.На следующий день нас ждал Мадрид.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shenandoah Trip 2015

Pick your own farm.Это небольшое путешествие прямо перед началом учебного года Даня запланировал еще до нашей поездки по каньонам. Если честно, то после возвращения из июльского отпуска, я попросила его отменить Шенандоа — несмотря на то, что отпуск получился замечательным, я сильно устала от езды в машине с детьми (особенно, когда Анюту укачивало и рвало). Даня на отмену отпуска согласился, но всё равно очень хотел куда-нибудь поехать.

Corn maze.В результате, мы немного поменяли наш план, и вместо трёх полных дней в парке Шенандоа, мы провели там один полный день, но зато были полный день в Херши и пол дня в Вашингтоне. Ну, и еще мы сдвинули поездку на день вперёд, чтобы Ароша не пропустил первый день школы.

In a peach tree.Сразу хочу сказать, что сьездили мы очень хорошо, и что я, конечно, рада, что Даня меня не послушал и всё сразу не отменил. Недаром же говорят, что гораздо лучше вкладывать деньги не в вещи, а в различный опыт — например, семейные поездки.

Family units.Выехали мы из дома в четверг (3 сентября) вечером. Ароша, который считал дни до поездки уже недели две, вскочил с утра пораньше и был готов отправиться хоть сразу же. Ждать до конца Даниного рабочего дня ему было тяжело — думаю, в 5 лет время тянется как минимум в два раза медленнее, чем в 35, так что когда мы наконец-то вышли из дома и направились к машине, радости нашего сына не было предела.

Brewery beer selection.Чемодан я, кстати, паковала в тот же день, так как заранее с нашими маленькими пачкулями особо не соберешься. Вообще надо сказать, что я терпеть не могу собирать и разбирать чемоданы, хотя могу делать это довольно быстро — всё-таки наши многочисленные поездки меня закалили. Я всегда нервничаю, что что-нибудь забуду, но составлять списки не люблю.

Beer sampler and lunch.Выехали из дома мы где-то в 7 вечера, а прибыли на место около 10. Ароша и Анюта немного поспали по дороге, а также перекусили орехами (все) и хот догами (Даня и Анюта). Остановились мы как всегда в хилтоновком отеле — Hilton Garden Inn. Там были бассейн и завтрак — две вещи, которые облегчают жизнь в поедзках с маленькими детьми.

Bottling plant.Всю пятницу мы провели в Херши и его окрестностях. Сперва мы решили сьездить на ферму, которая находилась примерно в 3-4 милях от нашего отеля. Там мы собирали яблоки и персики. Когда я пишу “мы”, то на самом деле я имею ввиду Арошу. Он самолично заполнил довольно большой мешок (пол бушеля, или примерно 17.5 литров) этими фруктами. Причём, когда он собирал персики, то залез с мешком прямо на дерево — так ведь гораздо интереснее! Я боялась, что фрукты за время нашего путешествия испортятся, но яблоки остались такими же свеженькими, а персики просто дозрели. Правда, большинство яблок и персиков, собранных нашим сыном, оказались довольно мелкими, но на вкусовых качествах это не отразилось.

Pins of visitors at the brewery.Жарища в тот день была ого-го (30 с плюсом по цельсию), а у меня в придачу ко всему сильно болела голова, так что на ферме мы долго не задержались.

Hershey Chocolate World.Следующей нашей остановкой была местная пивоварня — Tröegs Independent Craft Brewery. Там мы купили пробник с шестью сортами пива, а так же иразных закусок типа картошки фри и маринованных овощей. Как мы и ожидали, больше всего нам понравилось пшеничное пиво (вайсбир), так что мы не стали мучиться и допивать невкусное пиво, а просто купиили по бокалу того, что нам понравилось (у них было даже два вида такого пива, оба хорошие).

Singing cows at the chocolate ride.По пивоварне можно было сделать небольшую эскурсию (с детьми без экскурсовода, ибо экскурсовод = пробовать пиво), что мы и сделали. Больше всего мне запомнилассь конвейерная лента с бутылками, в которые разливалось пиво, и то, сколько шума она создавала.

Our room at the Big Meadows Lodge.После обеда мы отправились в Hershey Chocolate World. Я даже не знаю как лучше охарактеризовать это место, так как это нечто большее, чем магазин, но и парком это не назовёшь. Там мы купили билеты на 3Д мультик — небольшую “детективную” историю, главными героями которой были (и кто бы мог подумать?!) шоколадки. Мне было скучновато, но Ароше, вроде, понравилось.

Big Meadows rooms.На выходе всем вручили по небольшой шоколадке — Даня свою отдал детям, а я решила сьесть, о чём потом немного пожалела. Когда-то я очень любила молочный шоколад, но за последние годы привыкла к чёрному (70% массы какао и выше), и молочный мне показался переслащённой гадостью. Но дети, конечно, были очень довольны.

Playground at Big Meadows Lodge.Еще мы сходили там в шоколадный “музей” — небольшую выставку, через которую надо ехать на специльаной машине, двигающейся по транспортёру, где немного рассказывается о производственном процессе на шоколадной фабрике. Анюте больше всего там понравились поющие игрушечные коровы. Ну, а в конце это экскурсии, все тоже получили по шоколадке, так что нам даже не пришлось покупать шоколад в магазине.

Bars.После “шоколадного мира” мы поехали в отель. Даня прилёг отдохнуть, а я пошла с детьми в бассейн. Вода там была очень тёплой, и в результате мы провели там около двух часов (в конце к нам присоединился Даня).

Dinner at Big Meadows Lodge.Поужинали мы пиццей, а бедная Анюта даже заснула по дороге в ресторан, так как днём она не спала.

Rocking chairs inside the lodge.На следующий день мы отправились в Шенандоа. Дети вели себя хорошо, и по дороге даже уснули, что оказалось весьма кстати, так как последние 20 миль мы ехали по жутко виляющему серпантину, и Анюту вполне могло укачать.

Lodge.На этот раз мы остановились в новом месте — в Big Meadows Lodge. Комната оказалась очень приличной, и даже можно было принять душ, в отличие от нашего предыдущего посещения, где и напор был очень слабый, и температура воды совсем низкой.

Looking out.Мы немного погуляли по территории гостиницы (дети провели пол часа на детской площадке) и пошли на ужин в местный ресторан. Еды было много — я даже отвыкла от таких огромных порций. После еды мы отлично провели вечер в большом гостиничном зале, который находится рядом с рестораном. Там были кресла-качалки, игры (шашки, конструктор) и пару книг для детей, а так же отличный вид на горы.

Tucked herself in after a long day.Так же там сидел мужчина лет 55, который играл на гитаре и довольно неплохо пел. Его пение создавало какой-то особый уют, и я получила море удовольствия слушая гитару и наблюдая за играющими детьми. Даня немного помогал Ароше играть в шашки, но вобщем-то, насколько я понимаю, Ароша уже довольно неплохо освоил эту игру.

Big Meadows.На следующий день после завтрака, на который мы убили 1.5 часа (минус мест без буфета с завтраком), мы отправились на прогулку по Big Meadows. Мы были на этом лугу поздней осенью и ранней весной, и выглядел он примерно одинаково — поле, покрытое бурой сухой травой — что, впрочем, тоже имело свою прелесть. На этот раз луг выглядел более красочно — было много зелёной травы и разноцветных цветов типа ромашки и репейника. Так же мы видели много бабочек, гусениц и прочих насекомых.

Caterpillar.Мы дошли до дерева, которое полюбилось Ароше в прошлый раз, потому что на него можно очень хорошо залазить. Там мы провели минут 40 (Ароша всё время лазил по дереву, время от времени прыгая с него), и отправились обратно.

Big Meadows hike.Потом мы решили поехать на водопад. Дорога к водопаду занимает чуть больше киллометра в каждую сторону — сначала надо идти вниз, а на обратном пути карабкаться вверх. Денёк выдался очень приятным — не жарким и не холодным — и мы получили массу удовольствия, шагая к водопаду. По пути туда мы видели медведицу с тремя медвежатами (довольно близко, но нас разделял ручей), а Ароша нашёл водомерок, которые, по его мнению, ничуть не менее интересные, чем медведи. Еще они с Анютой катались на стволе поваленного дерева и вообще много бегали и радовались. Анюта, кстати, хотела идти сама — только иногда мы переносили её через особо сложные места, да Даня вёл её за руку по земляным ступенькам.

Butterfly.Сам водопад был неплохой, но возле него было ужасно много народа, поэтому долго мы там не задержались. Практически весь путь назад мне пришлось нести Анюту (она устала, плюс под горку идти тяжелее), а Ароша шёл с Даней и немного поднывал.

Under a tree. We have an early spring picture on the same exact spot.На обратном пути мы тоже встретиили медведя. На этот раз без медвежат. Мы начали на него смтореть, и каково же было наше удивление, когде медведь начал подниматься на тропинку. Надо заметить, что мы шли в довольно большой толпе людей, но так уж получилось, что медведь выходил именно на нас. Если честно, то я испугалась. Прямо перед Даней шла пожилая женщина, которая начала проворно шагать вперед, потом за ней отступали Даня с Арошей, потом я с Анютой в эрго, а метрах в двух от меня — медведь.

Decided to pose for pictures.К счастью, кто-то из толпы с другой стороны от медведя додумался громко похлопать в ладоши, и медведь решил убраться от людей подобру поздорову. Даня себя потом укорял, что не сделал фотографий, когда медведь был так близко, но он тоже испугался, особенно за детей. Всё-таки медведь — зверь сильный и быстрый, и вести себя рядом с ним надо очень осторожно.

Sitting in a tree.После водопада мы поужинали в баре нашей гостиницы очень вкусными бургерами, снова немного погуляли по территории и отправились спать.

Big Meadows.Изначально, мы планировали провести в Шенандоа еще один день, но решили уехать на день раньше и остановится на ночлег в Вашингтоне. Главной причиной было сократить дорогу домой в последний день. Плюс, в Шенандоа не было бассейна, а в Вашингтоне мы забронировали номер с бассейном, и Ароша был этому факту чрезвычайно рад.

Hike to waterfall.В понедельник утром мы отправились в Вашингтон. Для того, чтобы не терять времени на завтрак в ресторане, мы подкрепились печеньем и чаем. Пока я паковала чемодан, Ароша и Анюта играли на улице возле номера. Анюта первой увидела оленей (мы видели их на территории уже пару раз, но они были довольно далеко) и закричала “мама! аени! мама! аени!”. Я тоже вышла посмотреть, и увидела двух пятнистых оленят и маму олениху. Они довольно быстро убежали, но я всё равно была рада, что дети увидели их так близко.

By herself.До Вашингтона от Шенандоа ехать не очень далеко, но первые миль 20-30 дорога петляет по горам. Я немного волновалась за детей, и как оказалось, не зря. Где-то через 45 минут езды Анюта начала похныкивать и поплакивать. Видно, её укачивало. К счастью, плакать ей пришлось недолго — дорога быстро выровнялась, и нашей дочке стало получше.

Climbing everything.Я помню, как укачивало в детстве меня. Родители останавливались на обочине дороги, и мы устраивали 10-15 минутную прогулку по лесу. В Америке такой номер не пройдёт — вдоль шоссе не остановишься (хотя нам пришлось это два раза сделать, чтобы Ароша смог опустошить мочевой пузырь).

Playing at a spring.По пути мы остановились на ланч в Outback-е, и по приезду в Вашингтон решили навестить национальный собор. Мы с Даней там уже были, но дети его не видели. В собор мы поехали главным образом потому, что на улице стояла неимоверная жара, и бродить под палящим солнце по многочисленным мемориалам не было желания.

Dark Hollow Falls.В соборе нам пришлось заплатить за вход (плату ввели в начале прошлого года), что сразу напомнило мне о Ватикане. Мы немного побродили по собору, поглазели на его отделку яркие мозаичные окна. Даня в пару предложениях рассказал Ароше историю Иисуса Христа, и нашему сыну она очень понравилась (хотя за пару дней до того он нам сообщил, что не верит в Бога, а верит в обезьян).

At the falls.После церкви мы отправились в гостиницу. Там мы сразу отправились в бассейн, где провели почти час. Надо заметить, что никого кроме нас в бассейне не было. Потом мы пошли на ужин. Долго решали куда — на небольшом расстоянии от нас было довольно много неплохих ресторанов — и в результате пошли в средненькое китайское место, где мы ели во время нашего отпуска чуть больше года назад.

View from the top at Shenandoah.Что меня неприятно поразило в Вашингтоне — это бомжи. Когда я говорю, что на каждой улице вокруг нашей гостиницы их было по 2-3 чековека, я не преувеличиваю. А прямо на соседней с нами улице был небольшой парк, где они собрались большой группой из 10-15 человек. Соответственно, на улицах было много мусора, да и вообще было как-то неуютно.

Leaving Shenandoah.Примерно такой же опыт у нас когда-то был в Сиэтле. Причём надо заметить, что наша гостиница находилась не в каком-то плохом районе на окраинах города, а практически в центре. По причине запруженности улиц непривлекательными элементами, мы после ужина не пошли гулять по окрестностям, а сразу отправились в номер.

National Cathedral.На следующий день мы позавтракали и поехали домой. Дорога обошлась без приключений, и дома мы были где-то около трёх часов дня, чему я была рада, так как я волновалась о том, чтобы Ароша получил адекватный отдых перед началом первого учебного дня.

Inside the cathedral.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anniversary in Venice

Sunny day in Venice.Venice was the final stop of our Italian trip. We timed it so that our 6th wedding anniversary would fall on one of the days that we would be staying in Venice. In fact, originally we planned to spend 2 nights in Venice and 2 nights in Milan, but shifting one of those nights over to Venice was definitely the right thing to do.

Venice character.If I were to write a short story it would be this: Venice was magical. It really was the peak of our trip. Rome was a great place to start our vacation and Venice was the right place to finish. I’m glad that it wasn’t the other way around. And it really would be hard to find a more romantic place on Earth to celebrate our anniversary at. And our hotel was the most luxurious one of our whole trip. While other cities have places to see Venice itself is a place to see.

Canals of Venice.And now into the details. We arrived to Venice by high speed train sometime in the early afternoon. Venice has two train stops and luckily we did our research ahead of time, so we got off on the right one — the very last stop of the line. We were slightly worried about getting to our hotel as we had to catch the right “bus” boat since we couldn’t really walk to the right place and taxi-boats would be very expensive. However directions that we prepared ahead of the trip turned out to be very easy to follow.

Canals of Venice.Right after walking out of the train terminal we saw what looked like a bus stop, only for boats. We had two options — either take one directly to the island where our hotel was located and walk, or take the boat to the island across the canal and catch a shuttle provided by hotel directly to the doors.

Streets of Venice.We figured we’ll just take the one that shows up first — they had numbers just as buses do. The one that arrived first actually stopped at both places, but the shuttle schedule didn’t really line up, so we figured we’ll take a walk, even though we worried slightly that there might not be a sidewalk or something like that.

Hilton Molino Stucky Venice.Our hotel was located on an island called Guidecca, which is directly to the south, across the canal from the main Venice itself. The stop that we got off at was called Palanca. Turned out that the walk itself took no more than 10 minutes at a relaxed pace and the only slight complication was that we had to carry our luggage up to a pair of small bridges to cross the canals — no big deal at all. Soon after we were inside the lobby of Hilton Molino Stucky Venice hotel — the most expensive (point-wise) stop of our trip.

Our suite.Several days before our arrival I got an email from the hotel manager asking what is the occasion for our stay and I told him that we are celebrating our anniversary. When we arrived instead of getting an upgrade to executive floor (our Diamond VIP benefit) they actually upgraded us to an executive floor suite with a view of Venice. When I checked the actual cost of the room it clocked in at over $1,000 per night. And we were getting this for free.

Window view.The view really was great. Included breakfasts were usual Hilton style — full kitchen with hot food. And executive lounge provided free drinks and snacks all day long. We really did drink a lot of wine throughout our vacation. There was no way to walk to the main part of Venice, but there was a ferry running every 30 minutes provided by our hotel with two stops on the other side: Zattere — a stop right across the canal and San Marco — main squire of Venice. The ride to Zattere was about 5 minutes and to San Marco around 15.

Ponte dell'Accademia. View from Accademia Bridge — one of four bridges over the Grand Canal.We also soon realized that you can walk all across Venice by foot. All the places are interconnected by tiny bridges along with several large bridges across the Grand Canal — no need to figure out public transportation or anything like that. Plus Venice itself is pretty tiny and can be walked across in a short amount of time.

Streets of Venice.Now we heard things from people that Venice doesn’t smell good, is very hot and humid. It very well might be that during the summer, but it defiantly is not the case at the end of November. We didn’t notice any smells and the temperature was very mild.

Venice. Daniel.We actually lucked out with the weather. Less than a week before we got to Venice there were a lot of reports of Venice being completely flooded. When we were there it was perfectly fine and we didn’t see any signs of flooding. However right after we left the city got flooded again. Talk about good timing.

Foggy night.I also got a good amount of great photographs. First day was cloudy, second day was sunny and third and forth days were very very foggy which made the place even more cozy and romantic. The city definitely has character. We spent hours upon hours just walking around, looking for the tiniest and quietest streets and bridges we could find. All in all we absolutely loved it.

San Marco. The center of Venice.On the first day we just walked around and looked around and had a very nice dinner at Santo Stefano. Alena’s black ink risotto was especially nice.

Inside San Marco Cathedral.On the second day we went to explore the main square and San Marco Cathedral itself. It’s an eastern influenced architecture and has 5 domes more reminiscent of those that you would see on a mosque.

Piazza San Marco.There is also a high tower next to it. There are no stairs and only an elevator ride to the top. As a result it didn’t seem as impressive — there is no sense of accomplishment that I’ve experienced when I was at the top of the tower in Florence. But the weather was nice, so we got some bird-eye view photos.

View from the top of the tower.And we did a lot of wondering on this day as well. We also stopped by Venetian Guggenheim museum, and quickly realized that if you want to visit Guggenheim you do it in New York. They advertised that they had Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and such, but in reality had one of each. New York is where you go.

Anniversary dinner at Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.This was the day of our anniversary. We decided to find a dinner place somewhere on Giudecca for this night. We ended up walking all the way from our hotel on the west side of the island to the very eastern side of the island and in the process discovered only two open places. I guess in low season this island is really asleep. We ended up eating dinner at one of the places that we found online prior to our walk — Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.

Streets of Venice.Although the pictures that we saw showed a very rustic looking place when we got there it turned out that they renovated and ended up with plain white walls. Sounds like a mistake to me. The food however was good. We ordered a couple of appetizers, I had Venetian liver and if I remember correctly Alena had some fish. And of course more wine again. This also was the only place where our waiter (a young guy) had trouble understanding our English — probably one and only such occurrence during our whole trip.

Venice masks.On our third day we did a lot of wondering around again. I’m repeating myself — but what a beautiful place. On this day we started looking for something authentic to bring as a gift to my parents and something for ourselves. When we first arrived to Venice we noticed tons of shops selling masks. At first we thought that it was weird, but later on, when you start looking at them you see how really beatiful and well crafted some of them are — they are indeed art. However the trick is to find the real ones that are made in Venice and not some imports. At first imports might sound like a good deal price-wise, but when you hold both in your hands you feel a substantial difference.

Mask shop.We walked through a lot of stores until we found one that we really liked. This place didn’t even have a sign, but when we walked in it had a nice collection of all kinds of masks and there was no sales person to pester you. There was a master working on them. When we walked in he was picking the masks out of the forms and cutting them out. He greeted us and carried on doing his thing leaving us to look at everything at our own pace.

Venice. Fog.We ended up picking out the ones that we really liked and got a pair of them for a very nice price of about €50 each — it really is a good deal. I asked him to pose for a picture, but he, what seemed like a typical Italian, said that he doesn’t really like himself on pictures, but instead will do something else. So he grabbed a mask, a cape and a hat and stroke a rather cool pose for us. We were quite happy with our acquisition and were actually glad to see the process of those being created with our own eyes.

Streets of Venice.In the evening we picked another restaurant to eat at, but this was really the only time that we struck out with our random picking. Not that the place was bad or anything, it just wasn’t anything special either — and by now we were spoiled with our luck with restaurants.

Foggy day. Venice.When we got to our hotel we ordered a taxi to the airport. The price was quite high — €105 if I remember correctly. But we were aware of it from the time that we were booking planes and decided that we don’t want to fumble with public transportation and other people’s schedules on the day of our departure. My nerves are worth to me more than the money and me being me — this was money well spent.

Canals of Venice.In the morning taxi picked us up at our scheduled time and gave us the last ride through the romantic canals of this beautiful city. We arrived at Marco Polo aiport and had an uneventful non-stop flight back home. Now some time has passed and all those cities have a very fond place in my memory. So many great days and places I’ve seen with my bestest friend in the whole wide world, my beautiful wife.

Streets of Venice.P.S. I have a lot of great photographs of Venice left, but no room to post them. The city is just too photogenic.

Fog. View from our window.
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Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Day in Milan

Milan Cathedral.Milan. The commercial and industrial center of Italy. One of the fashion capitals of the world. We were not sure if we wanted to visit you. There are some people, who think you can be easily skipped on the first trip to Italy, but we did not, and we have no regrets.

Milano Centrale Train Station.We arrived to Milan on Wednesday (November 21st) afternoon by train. Before we boarded the train, I was secretly hoping that our travel companions will be as much fun as Lorenzo was. No such luck. First of all, they took one of our seats, which apparently is not a big deal, but we did not know it and felt uncomfortable at first. And secondly, they had no interest in communicating with us, which I absolutely expected, but still hoped for something more fun.

Streets of Milan.We ended up changing our sitting arrangement so that we would have no travel companions at all (there are usually two pairs of seats facing each other). The ride itself was relatively short, just under two hours. I think that one of the reasons why trains are so popular and well-scheduled in Europe is that distances between major travel destinations are not that great.

Our suite at Hilton Milan.Upon our arrival we took a short walk to the hotel and checked in. Since we only spent one night in Milan, we’d decided that staying close to the train station would be very convenient, and it actually was the case. The Hilton that we stayed in was very nice, and as Diamond VIP members we got our room upgraded to a suite, access to the executive lounge, free internet and free breakfast. The area around the hotel seemed safe, and the added benefit was that subway was close by.

Subway of Milan.After checking in we went to see the famous Milan Cathedral. It was just a few subway stops away, so we spent very little time getting there. The square in front of the church was quite busy — there were a lot of people and pigeons. The cathedral looked impressive from the outside, but I have to say that to me it was a bit less magical than the Florence one.

Inside the cathedral.After admiring it for a little while, we entered the place to check the inside. It looked expectantly Gothic — high ceilings, echoing steps, colorful mosaics depicting biblical scenes, altars, candles. I sat on one of the benches and thought about life; meanwhile Danya tried to take a few pictures despite poor light conditions. We also went to some sort of basement where sarcophagi with the corpses of a few religiously significant people were being stored. It felt a bit creepy.

On cathedral's roof.After that we decided to take a tour of the cathedral’s roof. We found the entrance easily, but it turned out that the tickets were sold in a separate shop, so we needed to acquire them prior to our admittance. The guards gave us good directions, so it was not a big deal (although I still don’t understand why they don’t sell them by the entrance). We opted for the elevator this time around.

Walking on the roof.Walking on the roof was a unique experience. You can’t really appreciate all the delicate details of the sculptures, spires and arches while looking at them from afar, so I am very glad that it’s possible to get so close to them. We also had an opportunity to look at Milan from above, but the day was somewhat hazy, so the view was just OK.

Another view from the top.There were also maintenance repair jobs going all over the place, so Danya was disappointed about the lack of more picturesque views. Oh well. It was still very nice, I am glad we did it. I’ve noticed that many statues had thin long sharp metal sticks attached to their tops. My guess is that it’s done to prevent pigeons from being too comfortable there.

Charleston.When we finished, it was time to eat. We walked around for a bit and picked a place at random. It was called Charleston, and we ended up having one of the best meals of our vacation over there. Since it was lunch, we ordered light — just a buffalo mozzarella pizza and spaghetti with chilli peppers. Both meals were super delicious, and I still salivate when I think about that pizza.

Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza.If I had a chance to eat a single meal from Italy again, it would definitely be buffalo mozzarella pizza. And pasta was just the right firmness. I’ve heard the term al dente so many times, but only at Charleston I understood the true meaning of it. I actually started to make firmer pasta at home upon our return from Italy.

Square in front of Milan Cathedral.We wondered around after lunch for a short while and went back to the hotel. There was nothing much to do, so we just relaxed, read, called Danya’s parents and Aroshka via face-time.

View from the roof.In a few hours we went to the executive lounge for some snacks and drinks. We’ve decided not to go out for dinner and just fill up on the free stuff that Hilton has to offer. And it was actually more than enough, because they had a great selection of snacks (salads, grilled vegetables, bruschetta, fish, olives) and wine was a plentiful as always. We went to bed early to be fresh for our last train ride next morning.

Street leading to our hotel.When we were reading about Milan we saw a lot of references about people gazing and looking at fashionable clothing. However people in Milan did not strike me as extra fashionable. I guess, after living in New York for over 10 years, it’s hard to be impressed.
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