Friday, February 24, 2017

Amsterdam

Amsterdam canals.Amsterdam was the final stop of our November anniversary trip. I did not have especially high expectations of the city, but thought that it is worth visiting in any case. Some people that I spoke to before going really love Amsterdam — the so called energy — but for my taste it was a little too heavy on the pleasure seeking crowd. Granted, our hotel was pretty much next to the red light district, so it might have skewed our impression a little.

Our DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam hotel. Our room was in that hanging section.We arrived to Amsterdam by train and walked to the hotel since it was close to the train station. Hilton upgraded our room to a fancier one with an amazing view. The thing that surprised me was the size of the hotel — it took us a few minutes of brisk walking to reach our room from the elevator. Longest hotel ever!

View from our window.We had our first Dutch lunch at the bar downstairs. Danya got a cheeseburger, I got a risotto, and we washed it down with some very nice tasting local wheat beer. I am still not sure what Dutch cuisine is apart from the cheeses and herring sandwiches.

Cheese shop.The breakfast bar was indistinguishable from other Hilton buffets in Europe, and the snacks in the executive lounge were worse than in two previous cities. The one thing that stood out in the executive lounge was the Heineken beer on tap. I’ve never seen tap beer in such places before.

Royal Palace.Later in the evening we went for a walk in the hotel’s vicinity. There were a lot of bicyclists by the way, which reminded me of Munich. Unlike Munich though no one was yelling at people when they were walking on bicycle paths, and the reverse was true — no one scolded bicyclists for riding at pretty high speeds through the crowds.

Red light district.What surprised me was a traffic regulator on one of the relatively quiet intersections. Later we had a chance to see him in action — he ran to the car which was taking a wrong turn yelling (in English) something about the driver smoking too much pot and being stupid. I guess, these Dutch people know what they are doing when they assign traffic controllers.

Amsterdam canals.The red light district left an uneasy impression. I’ve never tried any kind of drugs, so even though pot seems benign to many people, I look at any kind of drug use more harshly than some. So for me it was not very pleasant to walk in the cloud of pot smoke. The smell to me is pretty disgusting (I feel the same about cigarette smoke), and I kept thinking how many of those people were using something stronger than marijuana.

Streets of Amsterdam.As for the prostitutes, we’ve seen a bunch in the windows. Some were young, some were more middle aged, some were skinny, some were curvy, but it just felt so weird that they do what they do in the open. Don’t get me wrong, I think legalized prostitution is better for everyone than the illegal one, but the whole idea of selling sex like candy makes me feel bad for women who resort to that profession.

Amsterdam.The next day after breakfast we went for the walk in the red light district again. Amsterdam has a lot of canals going through it like blood vessels. We also saw many bridges connecting the banks of canals, which gave it more romantic haze in my view. The city itself is beautiful, even though it does not have some famous landmark which would make it instantly recognizable in pictures.

Heineken Experience.We walked around for a while and ended up going to the Heineken Experience museum. It is worth mentioning that there was a sizable line to get in — longer than we’ve encountered in any European museum in the second half of November.

Beer stages.The museum was OK. I somehow expected more, but it was interesting to taste… whatever it’s called, the liquid which will later becomes beer. And see and smell hops. And hear about Heineken way to fame. The beer tasting at the end was disappointing — it was just regular tap Heineken, which I could have gotten for free in the hotel lounge.

Boat tour.We also booked a boat with Heineken Experience to take us to the Amsterdam lookout. Danya’s parents really enjoyed their tour on Amsterdam canals, but for me it was fun for the first 5 minutes, and then I just could not wait to get out of there.

On Heineken boat.Maybe if we had a guide who would have told us about city’s history, or if our driver was not an inexperienced lady, who was going sooooo slowly, it would have been a different story. Oh well. I am glad that we did not book a longer tour — our ride took about 45 minutes, even though it was supposed to be 30.

View from the top. Amsterdam Centraal train station across the bay.When we arrived to the Amsterdam lookout, we went straight to the top and Danya took a bunch of pictures. It was cold and windy out there, so we went inside a few times to warm up.

Window view.There was also some sort of swings which was putting people outside of the roof and they were kind of hanging in the air. There was a lot of excitement and screams associated with that contraption, and the line to get in was long, but I know that I would not get there even if I got paid. Adrenalin rush? Thank you, I will pass.

Streets of Amsterdam.We ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. It was very decent. Danya got a steak, and I just ordered a few side vegetable dishes, which turned out to be tasty and very sizable for the price.

By Delft shop.By the way, when we were walking by the canals we tried to find, unsuccessfully, the famous herring sandwiches. I suppose, they don’t sell them in November. What a shame!

Delft vases.On our last day we went searching for gifts. Danya found an interesting looking tulip vase online and we thought that something like that would be an original gift.

Little Delft museum.We started with souvenir shops, but buying things that are made in China seemed… I don’t know… boring? So when we spotted a real Royal Delft pottery store, we were very pleased. Unfortunately, if you want an authentic thing, you have to pay prices corresponding to developed country labor costs.

Walking around.Luckily for us, they had a 50% discounted section with last season’s stuff, which made the pottery more affordable. The vases were still in 100-200 euros range, but the one that we’ve chosen had a little defect, which Danya discovered at the counter, so they sold it to us at additional 50% off (we bought two vases total).

View from the top of Heineken Experience.We also visited the second floor of the store and watched an artist decorating the pottery for a while. We talked to her a little bit about the process and she was informative and also let us into the little museum belonging to the store for free — normally it is 5 euros per person.

Hearty lunch at Irish pub.After that we wondered the streets for a while, but did not buy anything else except for some wooden tulips.

Irish beer at Irish pub.We ate a very nice lunch at an Irish Pub — I washed it down with Guinness, Danya stayed loyal to wheat beer.

View from our hotel window.And this was our Amsterdam. It has its charm, but I liked it less than our other stops during this trip.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Spain & Portugal

Spain, PortugalAt the very end of September we have booked ourselves a new vacation to Spain and a little bit of Portugal. This one is just for Alёna and myself. Alёna’s mom and my parents are going to look after the kids. The plan is again simple — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville in Spain and we finish our vacation off in Lisbon of Portugal.

Right after we booked our hotels and our flights we left things off for a bit. All the hotels are Hilton’s as always except for Madrid where there was no conveniently located one. We assumed we’ll just book trains later on. Imagine my surprise to find out that there are no trains running between Seville and Lisbon. Shock even.

We were left with three options — rent a car for an insane amounts of money, fly, or take an overnight bus. Overnight bus was the cheapest bus, but it would ruin the next day because of a lack of good sleep. Luckily for us because we had to get to Lisbon on Saturday there was an extra trip available throughout the day. Of course the bus will take over 6 hours. Far from stellar, but decent enough of an option.

We fly1 to Barcelona directly from JFK leaving on the evening of November 19th. And we fly back from Lisbon with one change of plane. Both flights are serviced by Delta. I want to write down the highlights of the trip for each city so we could use it as a bit of guide for ourselves.

We arrive to Barcelona on the 20th. We’ll be staying2 here for 3 nights. The points that we want to visit are Catedral de Barcelona and the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic); La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell. Everything I read about Las Ramblas scares me. We’ll have to figure out public transportation as our hotel is not as close to all these locations this time.

On the 23rd (our anniversary) we’re taking a train to Madrid. We’ll be staying3 here for only 2 nights. On the first day we want to walk through Plaza Santa Ana, Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor. We also have to find an interesting place for our anniversary dinner. On the second day we could possibly take a side trip to Toledo.

On the 25th we take a train to Seville where we are going to be staying4 for 3 nights. We plan to see Catedral de Sevilla, Alcázar and climb Giralda Tower. Apparently portions of the 5th season of Game of Thrones was filmed at Alcázar.

And on the 28th we take a BUS which takes approximately 8 hours to get to Lisbon. As I said earlier, if I knew of this beforehand we would’ve probably excluded Lisbon altogether. We’ll be staying5 in Lisbon for 3 final nights of our vacation. We plan to visit Castelo de São Jorge among other things.

And that’s our plan. Looking forward to another memorable adventure. And all that starts tomorrow!

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $895 per person. []
  2. Hilton Barcelona — 90,000 points total. []
  3. AC Hotel Carlton Madrid — €248 in total. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Sevilla — 60,000 points total. []
  5. DoubleTree Lisbon — 90,996 points in total. []
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Monday, August 25, 2014

Germany Austria Vacation

MapIn a great turn of events my parents have agreed to take over our kids for a week in late November allowing Alena and I to take another what we hope to be a great vacation for our eighth wedding anniversary.

We had an approximate plan in our head for a while now, but this week we actually did a good amount of preliminary research and have finalized our core itinerary. After having done that we have booked the plane tickets and our hotels.

We have a pretty good idea of what we want to see at each destination and how we are going to get around. Trains will be the main form of transportation. However we are planning to rent a car for one day and have a side trip as we did in Italy.

It seems that train pass doesn’t make sense for us yet again, as we’ll only be taking the train two times. I looked at approximate pricing of train tickets on the routes that we have to take to make our plan more solid. Same with the car rental.

Now in the coming month we’ll just do a lot of reading to make sure we don’t miss something interesting as well as what food we should try beside the obvious bratwursts and beer. Basically we’re going to start building on our initial plan. One thing that we know we want to try avoid is anything related to World War II. But I think that will be in our minds anyhow throughout this trip.

The short summary of the plan is as follows. We leave on late night of Friday, November 21st. We fly1 to Berlin with a change over in Frankfurt on our way and land on November 22nd. We couldn’t find a decent direct flight. However I finally do get to fly Lufthansa and Boeing 747! We’ll be coming back on Monday, December 1st on a direct flight from Vienna with Austrian Airlines.

We were thinking of which cities to visit and ended up decided not to spread ourselves to thin and limit it to only 3 cities — Berlin, Munich and Vienna. As before we’re going to stay in Hilton hotels. At this point we booked hotels for a combination of points and euros, but by the time November rolls around we plan to have all of them upgraded to points exclusively.

By taking advantage of our Hilton Diamond VIP benefits we expect to get rooms upgraded, access to executive lounges, free breakfast and Internet access.

Our trip will start in Berlin. We’ll spend 3 nights2 in the city. Judging by our Italian vacation the first day we’ll feel very much like zombies, so we’ll just grab some dinner and go to sleep.

Our hotel is located right in the center of the city. Guides suggest that people visit Gendarmenmarkt square and it’s right across the street from us. Brandenburg Gate is also within a walking distance. We also want to visit Fernsehturm — a TV tower built during soviet times. Also we will possibly visit Tiergarten — Berlin’s Central Park. And we will try to climb to the top of Reichstag.

On Tuesday of November 25th we take a train to Munich. We’ll spend 3 nights3 there. In Munich we plan start start with Marienplatz (the main square), climb to the top of the tower at Rathaus (city hall), visit Frauenkirche (Munich’s largest church). We will also try to visit the English Garden and have some beer at the world’s most famous beer hall — Hofbräuhaus am Platzl.

One of our Munich days we’ll dedicate to renting a car and driving south to visit Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.

On Friday, November 28th, we will depart to the final stop of our trip — Vienna, Austria. We’ll also spend 3 nights4 here as in the other cities. Our hotel is located right in the city center, so we’ll be mostly walking around without having to use any transportation. We’ll try to visit Hofburg Imperial Palace, 12th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral and we’ll try to climb to the top of one of its towers.

We still need to do a lot of reading about other places that we want to visit in these 3 cities and build out a more detailed plan of getting around the cities and from city to city. We made the reservations in the beginning of April, but still have not made a lot of progress as far as t he exact plan goes. Hopefully it will be another great trip filled with memories.

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $2,155 for the both of us. Very expensive this time around. But we do get to fly Lufthansa and Austrian. []
  2. Hilton Berlin — 60,000 points per night. Expensive! []
  3. Hilton Munich City — 60,000 points and €195 for all 3 nights. []
  4. Hilton Vienna — 48,000 points and €149 for all 3 nights. []

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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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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day Trip To Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa.When we were planning our trip we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should rent a car and drive or if we should stick to trains as it has worked so well for us in Japan. After thinking and thinking we decided to go ahead and get the driver’s license anyhow and possibly try to rent a car for a single day, but traveling by trains seemed like an easier and less stressful thing to deal with and that’s what we did1. We ended up not visiting any small towns, but it was the right decision for the first trip.

Tuscany.We moved from city to city by rail via bullet trains. We used public transpiration around those cities and that was definitely the right thing to do. Even though city centers are quite busy and streets are tiny that wasn’t the scary part of driving. The scary part was the fact that there are some no driving zones even though roads lead there and tourists tend to drive into those parts and get fined. Plus who wants to deal with looking for parking on vacation?

The streets of Pisa.But having a European driver’s license in hand we figured that visiting Pisa would be a great time to try renting a car for a day. We were staying in Florence for 3 nights and Pisa is only 60 miles away. We weren’t quite sure if we’ll want to spend the day outside of Florence or if we’ll want to spend that day in Florence itself. However several things tipped the scale towards a drive to Pisa.

The streets of Pisa.First we arrived to Florence pretty early on Sunday. Somehow we budgeted the whole day for the train ride, but since the ride wasn’t all that long we ended up going to downtown area on that very day and saw a good portion of what we wanted to see — Duomo. We also did our climb to the top and took a good set of pictures. Our second objective in Florence was Uffizi Gallery and it was closed on Monday — we had Tuesday for that. Third is the fact that Pisa Tower is a very famous place and being so close to it and not seeing it would not make sense. And fourth was simply the fact that we wanted to get some out-of-the-country car renting experience under our belt.

In our Fiat on our way to Pisa.Before the trip I looked for car rental places, but all of them were near the central train station close to downtown or the airport. Neither one seemed exactly convenient, but I made a reservation near the train station, thinking that we’ll be spending time in the center of the city anyhow. On Monday morning we couldn’t really decide whether we still should do it. Driving out of the center is one thing, but not knowing where to drive is a whole other matter. Instead we went down to the reception desk of our hotel and asked if there were any rental places around. Turned out that Eurocar Rental was 5 minute walk away.

Our Fiat Panda.That’s where we went. Slowly moving guy, by American standards at least, said that they did have cars and their rates were very comparable to the rates that we got online for downtown rental. We also decided to include a GPS unit and all possible insurances that they were offering in addition to the mandatory theft insurance — none of my credit cards were offering insurance to cars rented in Italy and neither did my own car policy. The total for the day came out to $127. There were no hidden fees that and no problems whatsoever.

Central Pisa.One funny moment or maybe a silly moment for us was that we decided to boast how cheap the gas is for us in the U.S. and how we can easily afford to drive big, V8 powered cars to which the guy gave us a sobering reply: “Our medicine is free. My kids will go to college for free.” And something else along these lines. In his words it’s nice to be middle class in Italy, but if you want to be rich you have much more chances of making it in U.S. I personally will take my chances. All other countries are fun, but there is no place like home and New York is it.

Our Panda.Now that was a long introduction. At this point we finally got into our Fiat Panda which sported a 1.2 litter engine at the most, but which was unexpectedly roomy. The car came with a manual transmission. Luckily for me I had a pretty lengthy manual transmission experiment running during my younger days, so I had no problems driving a stick. All the traffic was also no big deal after New York. And with the help from our GPS unit we were soon speeding away from Florence and on our way to Pisa via autostrada A11.

Pisa.Weather-wise the day was less than stellar, no put intended. It was the only day when it actually rained throughout all of our trip. But it worked out OK for us. It only rained while we were driving and when we arrived to our destination the rain stopped. Rain was one of the reasons why we took a big highway straight to Pisa instead of small back roads. Another reason was the fact that we sill weren’t too sure of our navigational abilities, so we took the surest route. We hoped that on our way back we’ll take some smaller road and hopefully will get to stop in some small towns. Alas, that’s not how it worked out.

Parking meter and street signs.It took us an hour to get to Pisa. We spotted the tower from quite a bit away and soon after easily found parking fairly close to the central district of the city. There was a ton of elaborate signs explaining the parking rules, but in the end it came out to operating a very similar in use parking machine that New York City is covered in. We dropped the coins in, it spat a printed ticket out that goes behind the windshield. The restricted traffic zone was also very clearly marked, so I don’t think there really was a danger of us crossing into it accidentally.

Restricted traffic zone.We left our car and went on a hiking tour around Pisa. The town itself was somewhat of a cross between Florence and Rome architecture-wise, although the number of tourist was noticeably smaller than that of the other two cities. And beside the tower and central cathedral there really wasn’t much to do as far as our itinerary went. Even though the city itself has numerous other historic churches we decided to limit our whole Italian trip to the most famous locations in order to avoid a complete mess of memories at the end of our vacation.

Central Cathedral and Tower of Pisa.The famous tower itself is indeed a sight to behold. I knew the tower was leaning, I didn’t realize how much. It really stands at freakishly steep angle. In fact the angle was so freakish that we decided to forgo the climbing to the top tour — our only such omission during the whole trip. We took a good number of pictures, although I ran into another problem here. While all the normal towers on my pictures were falling down because of wide-angle distortion, this one was actually coming out straight. Quite ironic. As a result I don’t really have any pictures that I’m proud of from this particular place.

Mediterranean Sea coast.We walked about around the central area, took some more pictures of the main cathedral and headed back to our car. Our next objective was try to head up north along the coast of Mediterranean Sea as far as the day (sun) would allow. We actually wanted to get all the way to Manarola for its picturesque views and it was only 60 miles away, but there just wasn’t enough time. The sun was getting close to horizon by the time we were only half way there. So we stopped in one of the coastal resort towns — Marina di Pietrasanta — and took a nice walk along some pier and watched the sun set over the water. The town itself was virtually deserted, but it probably is bustling with activity during the summer months.

View from the pier.At this point we got back into our car and headed back to Firenze. Since it was dark out already we ended up not stopping or taking detours towards any of the small towns, even though we took a different road back. When we were getting closer to Florence I went into some panic mode — I know, so unusual — thinking that we won’t find the rental place, our hotel or any gas stations to fill the car up at. I really wanted to return the car this day and not have to wait until morning and worry about this chore the next day.

Resort town of Marina di Pietrasanta.“Strangely enough” there was no problem finding anything, although gas bill came out quite high even on 1.2 litter engine. We turned the car in and were back at our hotel room at around 7pm. Now I could truly relax and reflect on the experience of this fun and unique day. We decided not to take a bus to the center of the city and went to local restaurant for dinner on a recommendation of our hotel staff. We walked through the modern yet quite neighborhood of residential Florence, ate our dinner and drank our wine at Mi Amor restaurant, and were asleep soon after getting back to our cozy room of our Hilton Garden Inn.

  1. We did the math and buying a pass like we did in Japan didn’t make financial sense. In Japan the reservations were included in the price of the pass. In Italy reservations are mandatory and are not included in the price. []

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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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Monday, December 24, 2012

Florence

Florence. Duomo. Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore.Florence left a very nice, lasting impression. When we were getting to this Renaissance town by train, we learned that its Italian name is Firenze, and somehow it stuck with us. So Firenze was nice. The center of the city with its narrow cobblestone streets, red-roofed old buildings, absolutely surreal Duomo, dreamy-looking tourists was just what I expected it to be and more.

Little streets of Florence.Upon our arrival, we took a bus to the hotel. Danya asked hotel’s stuff in advance for directions, so we knew what bus and in what direction to take. It was a smooth ride, although the bus was pretty crowded. On one of the stops bus driver did not open the door for a pair of shabby-looking gypsies, who cursed and spat on the bus in retaliation, and to be honest I was rather relieved that we did not have to worry about our luggage since these people would be practically hugging us if they went in. We decided to take a taxi for our next ride with luggage when it would be time to leave.

Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli. Our room.We were staying in Hilton Garden Inn. It was located in a quiet neighborhood and had a view on an interesting-looking newly-built living complex and a huge green field. The room was big and clean, the stuff was friendly, and breakfasts were as good as one can expect them to be.

Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore.Since we arrived mid-day, we’ve decided not to waste the remainder of the evening and start exploring. We took a 15-minute bus ride to the city-center, and in a few minutes of walking we got to Duomo. I was absolutely stunned by its beauty. It looked like it was not built by humans, but came from a fairy-tale and was conjured up by some magical creatures. The facade, which is made from red, white and green marble, is so delicate, so delightfully gentle for such a massive cathedral, that we could not take our eyes away from it for a while.

Firenze. View from Uffizi Gallery.As with most Italian churches, it took hundreds of years to build this work of art, and it felt special to be there and to be able to see it with our own eyes. Pictures just don’t do it justice, and for me this particular place was one of the most memorable from the whole trip.

Climbing to the top took 414 steps.We took stairs to the top of Giotto’s Campanile — a tower adjacent to La Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Now, there are over 400 steps, so it might not seem as an easy climb, but in reality it was more than manageable and I would recommend it for anyone. The beauty is that you don’t have to climb the whole thing at once — there are numerous watching points where people can admire the views and get a short break. I am actually very happy that elevator was not an option — getting to the top on foot made the whole experience more satisfying. I guess, it’s a human nature — we have a greater appreciation of things which require more effort.

Florence. View from the top of Giotto’s Campanile.The view from the cathedral was quite lovely. The sea of red roofs, the mountains on the horizon, the greying sky… I tried to take in the sense of tranquility which being there on top brought.

Cellini’s Perseus.After getting down, we walked around a bit. We stopped at Piazza della Signoria — a squire by the entrance to the famous Uffizi Gallery. It had a few very famous statues, including fountain of Neptune, Cellini’s Perseus, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. It also had a reproduction of The David, and if we did not know any better, we could have confused it with the real thing. As for the real David, we never got to see him actually. We kind of planned to, but got so overfed with art after visiting Uffizie Gallery, that we decided to skip it this time around.

Piazza della Signoria.I have to be honest, many of these statues are fascinating and disturbing to me at the same time. What went on in the minds of artists who created them? What inspired them? Why did they choose certain subjects?

Duomo.We felt increasingly more hungry as the day was turning into a chilly fall night. Before our vacation, people who’ve been to Firenze kept saying that we have to try a Florentine beefsteak. I personally am not a fan of steaks, and rarely order beef when we go out, but in this case I was very curious. We started to look for a restaurant which has it on the menu, and to our delight all respectable-looking places seemed to have it.

Evening in Florence.There was only one issue — our timing was off! It was around 4:30 p.m. and every fancy-looking trattoria we checked was closed. All of them were supposed to be open for dinner in 1.5-2 hours, so we had little choice but to keep walking around like a pair of lost puppies.

Night in Florence.Also, before coming to Florence, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Italian ice-cream, or gelato. We stopped in some random place, and I got a pistachio one. I used to be a huge ice-cream lover, but in the last year or so ice-cream lost its appeal and just does not taste as good as before (am I getting old?). So I was hoping that gelatos will revamp ice-cream image for me. This did not happen in this place — it was so mediocre, that I barely finished my portion.

The proper gelato.However, when we got to the hotel I did a bit of research, and figured out that the place we picked was not very good. For one thing, my gelato was too green, which suggests artificial coloring and overall subpar quality. The next day, armed with this new knowledge, we picked a better place, and gelato was extremely tasty. I would totally buy from them again! Also, what I did not know the first day is that you can ask to combine a few flavors together, but in the future we did just that. I got wild berry and mascarpone flavors combination, and Danya got mandarin and strawberry one. The sales lady let me try a pistachio one as well, and it was delicious too.

Trattoria ZaZa.Anyhow, back to our first night in Firenze. After a disappointing gelato break, we kept walking around and stumbled upon a restaurant, which was actually recommended to Danya by one of his colleagues. It is called ZaZa. We were in luck — it was open and had a Florentine beefsteak on the menu! We ordered artichokes as an appetizer, and they were heavenly! We only ordered one main meal since apparently no-one sells it in portions smaller than 1 kg. Who on earth can eat this much meat in one setting? Seriously, it’s enough beef to sustain a small village for a week, but we had no choice if we wanted to indeed try it.

Bistecca alla Florentine.Another thing about steak is that both of us prefer it to be medium well done, but the waitress suggested that we should order it medium, and that’s what we did. Huge mistake. It was too red inside, and neither of us liked this. We cut pieces of brown meat from the top, but for the most part we could not eat it. Potatoes on the side were delicious though! I still don’t understand what’s so special about this meal — in my opinion, American chain restaurants offer much more tender and flavorful steaks. And it can’t come even close to cobe beef that we’ve tried in Japan (150 grams to share at quadruple the price). We also got some Prosecco wine, which to our surprise turned out to be sparkling wine. We liked it and ordered it a few times more during our vacation.

Streets of Florence.After dinner we got to the hotel and peacefully slept some insane amount of hours again. One of the things that I loved about this vacation is getting lots of sleep. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sleep so much again, but whatever, Aroshka is totally worth it!

Tourists. Central part of Florence.Next day was Monday, and museums in Florence were closed. We knew it in advance, and planned a day trip to Pisa and surrounding areas. We’ll write about our little trip in a separate post.

Duomo.And then we had all Tuesday to explore Firenze some more. We knew that we wanted to go to The Uffizi Gallery and maybe The Accademia Gallery if we’d feel up to it. As I previously wrote, the latter did not happen, since in my opinion a person can only process a limited amount of art in one setting, and my head was already spinning after seeing what The Uffizi had to offer.

Uffizi Gallery.We read that there are always lines to the Uffizi Gallery, since it’s one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. It was our hope though that since it was off-season, we’ll get lucky. And so we did — no line at all!

Streets of Florence.I’ll be honest, neither Danya nor I know a lot about art, but we still saw paintings which we were able to identify. The most familiar to me were The Birth of Venus and Spring by Botticelli, Venus of Urbino by Becellio, Annunciation by Da Vinci. It was pleasant to see so many famous works of art with our own eyes. As in Vatican, I particularly enjoyed looking at all the Madonnas with children icons and paintings. There is a different quality to those women, a different vision of a different time. Many of them are so calm, relaxed, even dreamy, yet there is often sadness in their gazes. I often feel as if they look at me and tell me that they’ve seen it all, and life is beautiful, and life is sad, and life is short, and life is eternal.

Ponte Vecchio Bridge.After spending over two hours at Uffizi Gallery we just decided to take it easy. We walked around Firenze, ate some gelato, went window-shopping on a famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge, got a cappuccino, checked some clothing and food shops.

Gnocchi with Truffle at Osteria Dell Agnolo.What caught our eyes in many stores were products with truffles — truffle olive oil, truffle spread, truffle risotto mix, truffle-infused Parmesan cheese. We actually bought some of those for ourselves and as gifts, and then decided that it will be a good idea to eat something truffle-ish for dinner.

Alena. Florence.We started checking menus of different restaurants and finally decided on Osteria Dell Agnolo. We got bruschetta for an appetizer (and our waiter corrected our pronunciation — apparently “ch” should sound like “k”), and it was very good. And for main courses we got truffle risotto and gnocchi with truffle. Both meals had that rich distinctive smell, and both of them tasted delicious. We washed the food down with half a liter of house red wine, which was also very good.

Old Firenze.Before coming to Florence, Danya heard from people that it’s possible to find nice leather goods in Florence (although he read online that most tourist-oriented shops have low quality stuff). He wanted to get a leather-banded journal in particular, but we did not see anything worthy. Either they were made from faux leather, or the styling was not that great.

Streets of Florence. And Daniel.While looking for the journal, we stumbled upon a stationary store, Il Papiro, which sells hand-made paper products — post cards, boxes, calendars, blank books. Danya really liked the idea of a person putting so much work into simple things, so we bought him and his dad nice journals. They are pricey, but as they say — you get what you pay for.

Florence. Central part.After dinner we just went back to the hotel, packed our bags and went to sleep pretty early again. Milan awaited!

Florence. By the river.
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Friday, December 21, 2012

Exploring Rome

View of Saint Peter's Square from the top of Saint Peter's Basilica.Getting there was pretty uneventful. Our flight departed from JFK at 10 o’clock in the evening. We were flying Alitalia directly to Rome and with my inability to sleep on the planes I ended up watching a bunch of movies on the built in TVs for the most part of the night.

One of typical buildings in Rome.When we landed in Rome it was right in the middle of the day — 12pm. After being awake for such a long time the first day is a bit hazy in my head. We quickly went through the customs and passport control and were out into the wild with our bags in hand in a very short amount of time. As we exited the airport doors we ran into a driver holding a card with our name — we pre-arranged a car to take us to our hotel through the hotel itself before our departure. The airport is well outside the city and happened to be located on the opposite side of Rome from our hotel on top of that. Knowing that we will be quite tired from the flight we figured that it would be worth to pay €55 to avoid fumbling around with public transportation with luggage at that moment.

At Vatican Museums.This time around, having learned our lesson from Japan, we opted not to exchange currency at the airport, but instead pre-ordered €300 from our bank to be delivered to our home before our trip. That combined with credit cards ended up being enough money to last us through the rest of our trip.

Our hotel — our Hilton Garden Inn.Even the ride to hotel itself has proven to be an interesting experience. Our driver was doing a pretty good job cursing at people who were getting in his way. The funniest moment was when he ended up stopping right in the middle of an intersection, thus blocking the way for cars on a perpendicular to us street. The guy in the first car on the said street proceed to roll down his window, stick his head out and send a very passionate stream of words towards our guy. Not to be left out our guy rolled down his window and replied in kind. After the exchange of what I’m sure was nothing but pleasantries was completed, we were ready to move forward.

Streets of Rome.The ride ended up being quite long which made me even more grateful for getting a ride on car. On our way to the hotel we drove through the middle of the city and I was able to follow the whole trip through my phone’s GPS with pre-downloaded maps. We kept looking out of the window and going — wow, there are some nice ruins there, and then some more there and there. And what is that weird ruin there? Oh, wait — that’s a Colosseum!

Streets of Rome.The city itself was nothing like a typical U.S. city. There were no 1-2 story private houses, but mostly buildings. A lot of windows had shutters on them and what looked very nostalgic to us were strings with drying laundry on them everywhere. Out of all the cities that I have visited in the past 20 years I would say that Rome looked very much like Odessa to me for some reason and that somehow created a nice warm nostalgic feeling towards Rome for me even though I’ve only been to Odessa 3 times in my life.

European type elevator of our hotel.Our first hotel was Hilton Garden Inn. Our other option in the city was Waldorf Astoria, but it was quite a bit more expensive and since the reviews were very mixed we decided that it wasn’t worth it. Hilton Garden Inn turned out to be very nice and clean with a good sized room that we could expect from such a hotel in U.S. The only thing that gave it away as European was a tiny elevator that barely fit both of us along with our suitcases inside.

Rome.What turned out to be a nice convenience was the fact that there were 2 trams running by our hotel. Tram number 3 would take us directly to Vatican and tram number 19 would take us directly to Colosseum — our 2 main objectives to visit in Rome.

Park near the gallery.On our first day we decided to take a walk to famous Galleria Borghese that was about a kilometer away — a rather short walk at that. Gallery itself was located in the park, so we figured that even if we decide not to get inside we’ll walk around the park itself. On our way there we passed by a number of embassies including ours. Ours of course looked like a fortress with a huge wall around it and armed people guarding the entrance.

Vatican Museums.When we got to the gallery we realized that we had to turn in our bags and cameras in and we didn’t want to do that yet. On top of it it was pretty crowded, but most of all we were feeling like a pair of zombies falling asleep on our way. We figured it wouldn’t be money well spent, although I’m sure the gallery itself had a lot to offer. We decided to start walking back towards the hotel and grab some dinner on our way before we completely turn off.

Here we had our first dinner.We found a pretty cozy place very close to the hotel — our first Italian dinner. The food was not bad, as was the wine. From this moment on we haven’t had a single dinner without wine. In most places wine would end up costing us no more than bottled water. Thus concludes our celebration of Alena’s birthday. On our way back to our hotel we bought ourselves a pair of all day tickets for Rome for the next day which covered all trams, subway and bus rides for that day. At €6 per person it was well worth it.

Waiting for our first tram to Vatican in front of our hotel.Our original plan was to try to last until at least 6pm, but we ended up falling completely asleep at 4pm. Then we woke up around midnight and watched some TV (our strategy for not waking up at 3am). I feared that now that I woke up I won’t fall asleep again. I was wrong. I did fall asleep again and the next time I woke up I was quite shocked to find out that it was 7am already. Now that was some power way to get over our jet-lag.

On our way to Vatican.In the morning we woke up completely refreshed and full of energy, ready to explore the famous city of Rome. Rome has a lot of things to offer and since we were here for only one full day we had to set realistic objectives. Our plan was simple — see Vatican City with its main basilica and see Vatican Museums along with Sistine Chapel during the first part of the day. The second part of the day we wanted to spent around Coliseum. So we proceeded to do exactly that. After we ate our breakfast at our hotel we hopped on tram number 3 towards Vatican.

Alena on Saint Peter's Square.Now having seen what I’ve seen I can say that I was expecting to be impressed the most by Coliseum, but turned out that Vatican was the most memorable part of the day. We had reservations (to avoid lines) for Sistine Chapel, but we had no idea where to look for what. So we went for the place that seemed the most obvious — a large circular “square” in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica. At that time we didn’t know the name of this large church and assumed that it was Sistine Chapel. We went through a short security line and ended up inside. The place was unexpectedly huge.

Inside the basilica.One of my main objectives was to get on top of the cupola for some bird-view shots. We had no problems finding the place where one can get to the cupola as there were signs pointing us in the right direction. There were two options — either take the stairs all the way up or buy an elevator ticket and ride half the way up and climb the rest. We decided, that since we had a lot to see and weren’t too sure of our climbing abilities, to spend the money. The elevator took us to the room right at the base of the cupola. We went inside and were able to look down. People looked like ants down on the floor.

Looking down from inside the cupola.We started the climb to the top. The staircase was very narrow and was laid between two walls of the cupola — the outer and inner shells. It wasn’t too hard to deal with, but people with claustrophobia probably shouldn’t get in there. I was full of anticipation and when we finally got out on the top it was totally worth it. The views were amazing. Sun was shining us right in the face which is not great for photographs, but I still managed to take a couple of great shots that I’m very happy with.

View from the top. Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums are on the left.Afterwards we walked around the roof for a bit and went down into the basilica itself. As I said before the building was immensely huge. According to Wikipedia it indeed is the biggest church in the world. At this point we were already full of impressions, but we still didn’t find one of our main objectives. We asked a guard on how to find Sistine Chapel and it turned out that we had to walk out of Saint Peter’s area and go all the way around Vatican City and enter the museums from an opposite side. And that’s what we did.

Another direction from the top.Now if we were rather well prepared for Japan trip here we were mostly winging it. We knew the places that we wanted to see — like Sistine Chapel — but in this case we weren’t 100% sure why. Alena mentioned that it was famous for the fact that it had been painted by Michelangelo. But more on that later. Once we figured out that the museums and Sistine Chapel was not Saint Peter’s Basilica we had no problem finding it. On our way though we were pestered by numerous tour guides offering to take us in the museum and avoid the lines. It was actually quite annoying, since we had to say “No!” every 30 seconds while we were walking there.

Inside the basilica.When we got in we quickly exchanged our reservation vouchers for tickets, but were even more amazed to see that even to buy a ticket there simply were no lines! That’s the beauty of traveling in the off-season. There was still a lot of people, but not to the point where things would get uncomfortable. Now the collection of various forms of art at Vatican Museum is vast. This place is probably heaven for art lovers and students of art. Since we were less informed we tried to make the most of it and try to simply appreciate all the history that this place contained.

Hall full of sculptures.It was an interesting experience, but I want to share a thought that I kept catching running through my mind. All this is great and dandy, but how many countless lives had to be taken over the centuries to amass such riches. I really didn’t want and don’t want to get into politics of things, but somehow you can’t help but wonder about that. Now being there I just wanted to enjoy the place and that fact that I’m there, so I tried to push those thoughts away.

Geographic maps.There are two ways to get to Sistine Chapel — the short way and the long way. The short way is just a shortcut to get to the most famous place in the museum and the long way is to go through what seemed to be miles of hallways filled statues, paintings, rugs and other pieces of art. Since it was pretty early in the day we decided to walk through all of it. One place that stands out the most in my mind is the hall filled with a big collection of ancient geographical maps. Also in a lot of cases the halls themselves were art — the paintings on the ceilings, the decoration of the walls.

Maps.So by the time we got to Sistine Chapel we had a bit of an information overload happening in our system. For some reason we expected to see “The Creation of Man” by Michelangelo spanning the whole ceiling here. When we didn’t see that and saw several smaller paintings instead we shrugged it off and moved on. However 5 minutes later while we were waling by souvenir shop we saw books about Vatican Museums and a lot of them did have “The Creation of Man” on their covers. So we started thinking that this being by far the most famous painting — at least to us — and Sistine Chapel being the most famous place in the museums, something was amiss.

Raphael's frescoes.We decided to backtrack through the crowd of people going in the opposite direction and get inside Sistine Chapel yet again. And sure enough when we got there right in the center of the ceiling was “The Creation of Man” — the very famous painting know practically to anyone. This time we decided to pay attention and spend more time there. We looked at all the paintings on the ceiling and the walls and I’m glad we did. There is just something about seeing such a famous thing with your eyes in its original form. Photography here was not permitted, so you’ll have to go and see this place with your own eyes.

Long halls of Vatican Museums.At this point we felt a certain sense of accomplishment, but we had seen enough art for one day. We decided to make our way towards the exit, but I wanted to see one more famous thing I was aware of — a large circular stair case located somewhere in the museum. But when were right at the exist I started to think that maybe I made a mistake and it wasn’t in this place or we missed it somehow. I asked a person in the information booth at the exit about it and she said — turn this corner at the exit. And sure enough — there it was. The very last thing in the museum leading people out back into the street.

Spiral staircase.Thus we were done with our first part of the day and our next objective was the Coliseum itself. In order to get there we planned to take subway. Rome only has two lines, so after dealing with subway in NYC there is nothing to it. The maps were quite clear and it was an easy thing. There was a station near Vatican and one near Coliseum. But we had to change the lines and that station was located right on the central train station in Rome — Roma Termini. We decided to get out there and buy ourselves a pair of tickets for our bullet train ride to Florence the next day.

Raphael's frescoes.Here I want to take a small detour and say a couple of words about my worries about the high crime level and our actual experience. Before the trip I read a lot of posts from various people around the internet of how the crime was very high in Italy. I read that you can not have anything in your pockets, that you will get tricked, things will get ripped off, bags that are left at your feet during lunch will get snatched and the car that you rent will be stolen — hence the mandatory theft insurance on rentals. Needless to say all this was quite worrisome.

Saint Peter's cupola from inside.Of course now in retrospect I imagine that if people who are planning a trip to New York will do the same “research” I did will walk away with an “unmistakable” conclusion that they will most defiantly get shot while here. Now having lived in New York for almost 20 years and being able to avoid getting shot to this day I had a pretty similar experience in Italy. Everything was overblown. The only two moments where my anxiety kicked in (and probably rightly so) happened on this day in Rome. First one was at the train station while we were buying tickets.

Inside Saint Peter's Basilica.The easiest way to buy a ticket is to use one of the vending machines that are located all throughout the station. We found one that wasn’t being used and within 3 seconds of me touching the screen there was a shady looking young guy practically hugging me offering me his assistance. This being our first day in Italy and me being all on edge from the supposed crime that was about to happen I kind of flew off the handle a bit and started yelling at the guy and demanding that he moves at least 5 meters away from me and doesn’t get any closer. Seeing this somewhat unbalanced reaction he decided not to argue and did exactly what I asked. He also put his hands inside his pockets.

Streets of Rome.We decided not take our chances anyhow and decide to just move to a different location of the station. We saw that the next couple — another pair of tourists — who came after us got the same treatment from this character. Only they didn’t send him away. I wonder if they walked away with the contents of their pockets or not. Anyhow, at the next machine I was taking my time, reading through all the instructions and yet another guy tried to help me. Only this time it was an impatient Italian guy who was in line after us — but I wasn’t aware of that yet. I yelled a bit at him too and proceeded to buy our tickets at my own pace. Only when we were walking away I realized what was going on and got an earful in Italian. I’m sure he was wishing us to have a pleasant day.

On the tram.What gave us a great peace of mind was the fact that before our trip we bought Alena a travel messenger bag. The bag had steel cables in the shoulder strap, steel mesh embedded in the fabric to prevent it from being cut open and a locking zipper that clips onto a ring attached to the shoulder strap. It also has an RF signal blocking pouch inside. We kept our money and our passport in this bag all the time. The bag is made by PacSafe and was well worth the purchase. It was convenient and we didn’t worry about any of our stuff.

Inside of Saint Peter's Basilica.The second incident happened within 30 minutes when we were walking around Coliseum. Some guy started talking Russian to me in broken Russian and trying to tie some string around my finger. That unnerved me a bit as well and I yelled a bit at this guy too. And that was it. Like a lot of people told me before the trip — just use your common sense and you’ll be fine. And they were right. There a lot of beggars, but just get away from them. People will try to give you flowers and then demand money — don’t take the flowers. They will try to tie strings on your wrist for luck and demand money — don’t let them.

Roma Termini.I carried my iPhone in my front pocket all the time — like I always do. I had my big and expensive camera with a big lens on me all the time. And nothing happened. When we moved from city to city we used locks on our luggage. With a little bit of common sense everything is indeed easily avoidable and nobody got even close to being confrontational with us. I gave myself stress for no reason. At least that was our experience. I’m sure the fact that we were there in the off-season and crowds weren’t huge probably helped as well. This concludes my detour and brings me back to Rome.

Coliseum itself.After buying our tickets to Florence we went back into the subway and in 10-15 minutes walked out right in front of the Coliseum itself. Coliseum as it stands today has two distinct sides — the more impressive side where the outer wall still stands and an opposite side where that outer wall came down during an earthquake some 800 years ago — we basically barely missed it. Sadly for us the sun was shining directly into the camera for me to take a well lit picture of the exterior wall, but we still tried. We walked up some steps which gave us a good vintage point. I did a couple of HDR bursts which still resulted in a somewhat mediocre photograph, but that’s the best we could do.

Arch of Constantine.Next thing we tried to do was to go inside the structure. Funnily enough an elderly French couple gave us a pair of tickets for the entrance — they were done and were heading back to Paris. We thanked them, but as we expected the bar code on the tickets showed them as used up already. There was a decently sized line at the ticket office and we decided not to stand in it and instead explore the area while the sun didn’t set yet. We proceed to Arch of Constantine which is located very close to Coliseum. It’s quite big and looked interesting. From what I read it was built in 315 and served as an entrance for triumphant emperors returning to Rome.

Forum.After that we went around the other side in search of the entrance to Forum. On our way there we started feeling thirsty and tried to buy a couple of bottles of Fanta from a street vendor. When he told us that each was going to cost us €4.50 we told him to keep them. Anyhow, at the entrance to Forum we encountered a much smaller line for the same ticket that gives access to all the area attractions. Each ticket was about €12. We bought them at about 3:20pm. What nobody bothered to mention to us though was the fact that all the entrances close at 3:30pm. We only realized that much later once we tried to return to Coliseum again — hence we didn’t see the inside of it after all. Of course the ticket was valid for the next day as well, but that wasn’t helpful to us at all.

Forum area.We wondered around Forum for about 30 minutes, took a couple of pictures, looked at what was left and went back to Coliseum to take a couple more pictures from the other sun-lit side.

Raphael's frescoes.By now we were feeling pretty tired and we were starting to get hungry. But instead of eating around this massive tourist trap we decided to take advantage of our unlimited travel passes and hopped on a tram 19 towards our hotel. When we got far enough from the center we started looking for a hole in the wall type of pizzeria. When we stopped new one such place we jumped off the tram and that’s where we had our dinner.

Leaving Coliseum.Pizzeria there worked differently from what we were used to. The owner had a bunch of different pizza pies of rectangular shape. We pointed out the ones that we wanted, he cut off the piece of our preferred sizes and weighted them. We were also surprised to see that this tiny place had a nice selection of wine, including the kind of wine that could be served in a vending machine — nothing like that in NYC. So we had our nice pizza dinner with red wine. At the end of the evening I managed to knock over some wine left overs and painted my jeans dark red, thus taking them out of commission.

Pizzeria selection.We arrived back to our hotel fairly early by Italian time and went to bed. However for some reason I couldn’t fall asleep for a good number of hours because of anxiety — completely pointless one at that — about our move to the next city. I was worrying about “thief filled” train station and us being there with our luggage. But as I said earlier nothing bad happened at all and I gave myself stress for no reason.

Our dinner.In the morning we jumped on a bus and were at the train station in 15 minutes the most. Soon after we figured out how to find our train — the line number appears only about 15 minutes before departure. Then before boarding a train we asked a young guy if we were about to climb into the right car. He confirmed it. We found our seats. At first we left our luggage near the doors, but then we realized that there is plenty of space between the car seats — they were with their backs to each other. We moved our luggage there, close to us. And as we sat down the guy who we talked to before getting into the car came in and sat down right across from us at the same table.

Streets of Rome.We ended up talking to him all the way to Florence. His name is Lorenzo and he lives somewhere in the vicinity of Venice. His English wasn’t perfect, but he was able to keep a conversation going for almost two hours. He kept insisting that he is horrible and can’t speak — if only my Italian was even 1/10th of his English I’d be grateful. He works as a baker. We asked him what he would recommend to try food-wise and drink wise among other things. He mentioned that Prosecco wine was well known. Turns out it is well known in US as well, but we never heard of it before.

Waiting for our train to Florence.And thus our visit to Rome has ended. Now thinking back I already have plenty of warm memories about the city that we only caught a slight glimpse of. I would love to suddenly turn out in front of our hotel on the street that was full of big green trees — like in Tashkent and old buildings with laundry drying — another nostalgic memento of Soviet childhood. It was a great start of a great vacation.
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grand Italian Vacation

One of magical canals in Venice.It’s already been seven days since we returned from our “Grand Italian Vacation” and I’m faced with my usual post-vacation conundrum — how do I do a good job conveying and preserving all the great feelings and experiences that we had, through words and pictures.

I think I will start by saying a couple of general things and will go into more details as I go on. Our Italian vacation — as most of our vacations tend to be — was great. We really liked Italy and all the cultural and historical experiences that it has to offer along with an abundance of famous places to visit.

Having said that I probably should mention that while we enjoyed our trip greatly we weren’t completely swept off our feet the same way we were in Japan. I’m not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we really wanted to visit Japan for many years and year after year some obstacle would prevent us from going. So when we finally managed to do it — the achievement itself made if feel more special. And then there is the fact that it still is much more exotic of an experience. After all — United States itself, even though quite a bit different — did originate from Europe, while Japan existed and developed on a very different trajectory for thousands of years.

Florence. Climbing the tower.But not to get way too off course — back to Italy. The trip was great and everyone who has a chance should visit Italy. The country has so much history to offer in various forms that 10 days is barely enough to touch upon it — ancient structures, famous locations, familiar to everyone paintings and sculptures, unique cities and a great selection of local cuisines. We spent 10 amazing days in Italy that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives.

So a short summary of our trip would be that we got lucky with the weather, loved our Hilton hotels, used trains with great success to get around and even rented a car for one day. We tried a good number of Italian specialties and had a rather good luck with randomly picking places to dine at. All the cities look and feel quite differently from familiar to us U.S. cities and we loved exploring each and every one of them. But my favorite stop of all would have to be Venice — there is just nothing like it in the world and you feel how special it is when you’re there.

Milan. Main square.One of the things that we were worried a bit about was the time of the year that we were going at and all the floods that happened in Italy a week before our departure. However it turned out that weather was warmer and more pleasant than it was in New York at the time even though the most southern city (Rome) in our itinerary was still closer to the north pole than New York is. There were no signs of recent flooding when we were there, but even more surreal was the fact that the flooding has started again right after we left.

However a bigger advantage of the time of the year that we picked was the fact there were no enormous crowds. There were still tons of tourists everywhere, but we didn’t encounter a single line — no line to Saint Peter Basilica, no line to Vatican Museums, no line to Uffizi Gallery and tons of empty restaurants which were very happy to serve us.

Venice. View from Accademia Bridge over Grand Canal. Basilica of Saint Mary in the background.Speaking of which — the service everywhere was great. I couldn’t tell a difference between the typical great service that you would get at restaurant in U.S. from what we were getting in Italy — fast, courteous and very polite hosts and waiters everywhere. A lot of places put a sitting charge on your bill — ranging from 1 to 4 euros per person, but from what we learned from other Italians that we talked to — this pretty much frees you up from having to leave a tip. Even though we still left tips at certain places we felt very much OK with leaving a small tip or not leaving a tip at all.

But of course the best part of the timing of our trip was the fact that we ended up celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary in possibly the most romantic place on earth — Venice.

And now having all of the above laid out I can jump right into our trip and start from the beginning and get deeper into details.

P.S. Selecting photographs for the introductory post was really hard. I didn’t want to use up photos from the stories about each city, yet this post came out looking really photo-scarce. We’ll probably readjust this when we are done with all the posts.
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Italian Vacation — Start

Colosseum.Our Italian vacation was expedtedly grand. It seems like almost everyone we know have been there, and the consensus is that one must visit. I mean, what’s not to like about Italy? The churches are mysterious and old, the art is beautiful and famous, the food is delicious and flavorful, the people are warm and emotional, the cities have so much character, the wine is abundant and cheap. Need I go on? It was a really, really good vacation.

I have to say though that somehow our last year’s trip to Japan was a bit more exciting. Maybe, Japan is just more exotic; or maybe we planned and prepared for it more. I am not sure. There really is not reason to compare, but I felt compelled to mention this. I loved Japan. I really liked Italy.

I also have to say that as far as logistics of the trip go, Danya did most of the work. I know it made the whole thing more stressful for him, but for some reason I could not put my mind to it.

Look at Florence from the top.We stayed in four cities during this vacation — Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. Originally we were not sure if it makes more sense to rent a car and to drive from place to place or to travel by means of public transportation (Eurostar Italia). Traveling by car seemed attractive at first because it would allow us to see more cities on our way, but at the end we’ve decided that trains will be faster, cheaper and simply more convenient. I am happy with the way things went, and if I had to decide again, Eurostar would undoubtedly win. We also decided not to buy a train pass, since unlike Japan, you can’t board any train with it, and must do reservations (which cost extra) for specific trains. Considering we only traveled by train three times, pass would have been more expensive without providing any extra convenience.

Italian bullet train.Our plane to Rome departed at 9:50 p.m. on Thursday evening. One thing that happened the day before was that Danya’s dad got a pretty severe allergic reaction (horrible rush, fever, headache), and we were not 100% sure if it was an allergy indeed, although the doctor said that it should not be anything else. Danya’s dad never had anything like that in his life, so understandably everyone was really worried. A multitude of of bad case scenarios galloped through my brain, but luckily he got well within a few days and we did not have to change any of our plans.

Aroshka let us go easily. We’ve been telling him about our upcoming trip for some time, so he knew that we would leave and then come back in a week. He promised us not to cry and to listen to his grandparents, and that’s pretty much what he did. Aroshka and Danya’s mom waived us good-bye, and then Maruk gave us a ride to JFK airport.

I was not looking forward to the flight itself, since I am never able to sleep on planes and the flight was during the night. Also, I don’t know who decides how many people could be stuffed into one plane, but rows of seats are just too close to each other to be comfortable for a 6 feet tall long legged girl (especially when people in previous row recline all the way back). But whatever. After flying with a toddler ones, I appreciate having to worry only about your own comfort.

We arrived to Rome on Friday afternoon. It was my birthday, and even though we were really tired, I was looking forward to celebrating it in such an interesting city!

Rome street.We took a cab from the airport to our hotel. Danya has arranged everything in advance with hotel’s staff help. It cost us 55 euros, and we left 5 euros as a tip. Our driver looked really surprised that we left him extra money, but since we were not sure if it’s customary to tip in Italy, we’ve decided to be nice just in case. Since then we left tips on a few occasions only (first time we ate at a restaurant and when we were particularly happy with the service). The thing is that when we traveled by train from Rome to Florence, we spent our time chatting with a very nice Italian guy named Lorenzo. He was traveling home to some small town in the province of Venice after attending a rock band concert in Rome. Among other things, he told us that people rarely leave tips in Italy. There is a cover charge, or coperto, in each restaurant, and from what we understood it serves as a substitute for tips. The lowest coperto we’ve seen was 1 euro per person (during our first dinner in Rome), and the highest was 4 euros (during one of our dinners in Venice).

Lorenzo. Our companion on the train to Florence.By the way, Lorenzo’s English, to his anguish, was not fluent, but he could understand pretty much everything that we were saying and could communicate his thoughts well enough to have a 1.5 hour conversation with us. Many Italians that we’ve encountered (granted, a lot of them were in the service industry) had decent English, which made it easy for us to travel. Lorenzo is a pastry chef by the way, so his line of work does not require knowledge of English. Since we spent most of the time in tourist areas, almost all restaurants had English menus (and some places in Venice even had menus in Russian).

Alena and a tiny car.But back to our ride from the airport to our Rome hotel. The driver took us through the city via some scenic route. You can tell that Rome is an old city, and we were particularly excited when he drove through the area around Coliseum. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of bikers on the streets, but unlike American bikers, Italians somehow looked more casual, like they were riding bikes for convenience and not just to have fun. Cars in Europe are also different from what I’m used to. They are much smaller on average, and there are a lot of European cars in use (and very, very few American). One of the obvious reasons for the abundance of bikes and small cars is the price of gas, which is considerably more expensive in Italy than in the United States. I also have a feeling that majority of cars have a manual transmission. At least when we were renting a car, we got one with the stick shift (and it went without saying) — good thing that Danya had a lot of practice with it before.

It was pretty funny when our driver got emotional on two occasions — first he cursed some girl who inconvenienced him by crossing the street, and then he had an exchange with a fellow driver after our taxi blocked an intersection on a red light. It seemed to us that Italians drive somewhat more carelessly when Americans, but later on I actually started to appreciate how nice they are to pedestrians. On multiple occasions when we had to cross the street without a traffic light or a crosswalk, some driver would eventually stop and let us go.

Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge. Our hotel.Our hotel, Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge, was located close enough to the main tourist attractions, but not too close to be overly expensive. When we took a walk in the neighborhood, we actually saw a lot of embassies around. The hotel itself was not big, but very nice. The elevator was really tiny, but the room itself had plenty of space, and I especially liked red sparkling marble in the bathroom.

After checking in, we walked around for a bit and almost visited some museum in the local park, but then decided that we’re too tired and it’s time to get something to eat. By the way, one of the things that I loved about Italian architecture is that all the windows have outside blinds, which to me makes the buildings look old and romantic.

In a park near Borghese Gallery.There were a few restaurants close to our hotel, and we randomly picked one. It was almost empty. I ordered a seafood risotto (my fist, but not last) and Danya got steak with potatoes. The food was Ok, but I would not return to that place again. We also got some red wine to go with dinner. Wine was so abundant and relatively inexpensive in Italy, that we ended up drinking a glass or two every single day.

At the end of the dinner both of us could barely keep our eyes open (and it was not even 4 p.m. yet), so we went to the hotel right away and happily jumped into our big and cozy bed. Danya was saying that we’ll end up waking up in the middle of the night because we went to sleep so early, but apparently he was wrong. Apart from a brief period of non-sleeping at 10-11 p.m. we slept until the alarm went off at 7 a.m. After a quick breakfast and shower we went to explore some of the things that Rome has to offer.

Our room in Rome. Time to sleep!
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Vacation

ItalyIn light of the fact that our Grand Canyon and Las Vegas vacation fell apart due to the fact that we were unable to obtain a visa for Alena’s sister we decided to stay positive and still plan a vacation even though it was not what we originally hoped for.

We asked my mom if she would still stay with Arosha for the duration of our trip and she very graciously agreed. She has to take time off work herself for us to be able to make this vacation happen so we appreciate this very very much.

We did some initial research and based on this outline we booked the whole trip already. We know the route that we want to take, but now we need to fill in the gaps and build out an exact plan for each destination and means of getting from one place to another — trains and car rental. The list of things that we made certain decisions about and things we know already follows.

On late night of Thursday, November 15th we fly out on a direct flight1 to Rome and will be coming back on Sunday, November 25th on a direct flight from Venice. Thus we’ll be able to have our 6th anniversary dinner in Venice — one of the most romantic places in the world.

We, again, are taking advantage of our Hilton points and our Hilton Diamond VIP status to get the best bang for the buck. Hilton points are better used if they are being spent in one place at once. Since it was not really possible with a trip like this we took an advantage of a new program that Hilton recently introduced — an ability to pay for the room using points and money.

The hotel portion of the trip ended up costing us 215,000 points (free portion) and €428. We’re getting a room upgrade, access to executive lounge, free breakfast and internet as benefits for our Diamond status. If we were to book the same hotels without points it would amount to €1,627 and everything I mentioned above would cost additional money. Needless to say we’re quite happy with how this program has been working out for us.

We will spend 2 nights2 in Rome. We’re assuming that even though we’ll get to Rome somewhere around noon on Friday we will be very tired, so we’re not making any complicated plans for the evening. We’ll do something simple based on how we are feeling. On early Saturday morning we are going to explore the Colosseum and its surrounding, eat lunch and spend the second half of the day exploring Vatican.

On Sunday morning we’re planning to catch a train to Florence where we will spend 3 nights3 and rent a car. We’ll spend one day exploring Florence itself and another day we’ll drive out to Pisa and take a look at its leaning tower and drive through Tuscany back-roads.

On Wednesday, November 21st we leave for Milan. We will spend 2 nights4 there. We will try to make a short stop at Bologna on our way. In Milan we plan to explore a huge Milan Cathedral and go up to its roof. We also would like to explore Lake Como if weather permits it and if we’re in the mood.

And on Friday, November 23rd we’ll drive to our final destination — Venice. We’ll spend 2 more nights5 there, making stops along the way at Verona and Vicenza. We haven’t yet decided where exactly we will have our anniversary dinner, but any place in Venice should be quite romantic. Our final Saturday we’ll dedicate to exploring Venice with Piazza San Marco being one of the main objectives.

As always it sounds like it will be a great vacation, but how and where exactly we’ll end up going we’ll only find out after it’s over. Now we need to start the work on researching our destinations.

Update: We ended up reshuffling the days a bit. Rome and Florence portions stayed exactly the same as listed above. However we spent 1 night in Milan and 3 nights in Venice. We also ended up having enough points to full pay for those 4 nights — 40,000 for Milan and 150,000 for 3 nights in Venice. The final total cost for the hotels came out to €232 and 275,000 points. Points worked out great again. The suite that we stayed in in Venice, for example, would’ve cost $1,100 per night if we didn’t have our points.

  1. Alitalia to Rome and Delta from Venice non stop flights for $886 per person. []
  2. Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge — 20,000 points, €56 and taxes per night. []
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli — 15,000 points, €40 and taxes per night. []
  4. Hilton Milan — 40,000 points per night. []
  5. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — 25,000 points, €98 and taxes per night. []
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