Friday, September 28, 2018

Italy Vacation 2018

Plan MapIt’s been a long time since we’ve had a vacation. This year was very busy with a house purchase, so we had to put our 3 times a year vacation rate on pause. But now that things are settling down we felt that it would be nice for our family to see something and relax.

We’ve been thinking of a place that our kids would find memorable. My initial though was Venice. However full 10 day vacation in Venice would be too much, so we tried to add Florence. And the plane tickets were in the range of $1,000 per person.

Then we tried London and Paris. Great plane tickets, insane hotel prices. Each night was coming out to $500-600. The reason for that is that Anna can no longer fit in a crib, so we need a room with at least 2 beds and a roll-out bed in addition to that.

So we kept looking and looking and looking. Nothing was adding up to a reasonable price. There are a lot of nice places in United States to see, but end of November would be either too cold or too crowded.

We decided to return to our initial location. Plane tickets were still too much. I tried adding Milan in place of Florence and that did it. Good times, good flights. And reasonable hotel prices. So we booked a full trip for Thanksgiving week.

The reason why we like Thanksgiving week is two-fold. First — school has only half day in addition to the holiday itself. And our wedding anniversary fall on this week as well, since we did get married on Thanksgiving day after all.

The plan is simple. We fly out1 from JFK to Milan on November 16th and spend 2 nights2 there. One must see thing is Milan Cathedral. Then we take a train to Florence and spend 3 nights3 there. The plan is to see Duomo and visit Uffizi Gallery. And we finish our trip with a 4 night4 stay in Venice where we will celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary.

Looking towards this vacation and introducing kids to some of very unique places.

  1. Air France with a stop in Paris — $578 per person plus $37 insurance per person. []
  2. Hilton Milan — €199 per night. []
  3. Hilton Florence Metropole — King Junior Family Suite, €462 + 88,000 points total. []
  4. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — King Family Suite, 368,000 points. []

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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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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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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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