Friday, October 6, 2017

Iceland — Part 1

Blue Lagoon and silica masks.Our flight to Iceland was on Monday, July 20th. Originally we planned on taking a taxi to the airport from Oslo, but after talking to our hotel’s staff we realized that taking a bus is a much cheaper and more convenient option. There is a FlyBus stop right in front of the hotel, and buses leave for the airport every 15 minutes or so. We saved some cash for the tickets, but apparently paying by credit card was an option as well. We only had to buy two tickets since children were free of charge, plus we got a discount for staying at Radisson Blu hotel. It probably took us 15 minutes longer to travel by bus, but we did not have to wait for the taxi to come to the hotel, so we pretty much have not lost any time.

Hilton Nordica.After a quick check in at the airport, we still had some time for lunch. We ended up eating burgers and drinking Hoppy Blond beers (adults only). The lunch was expensive as all the food in Norway, but it did not feel like there was an airport premium. We had some Norwegian coins left, and Arosha decided to use them as souvenirs. The cool thing about 1 and 5 Norwegian Krones is that the coins have a hole in the middle. When we got home, the children made necklaces and bracelets using krones for themselves and their friends. They were a big hit.

Our Fiat.The flight to Keflavik was relatively short and uneventful. We did have a bit of an issue locating our car rental company representative who was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Danya had to call them and was told that the staff member will be at the airport shortly and we have to look for him walking with the company’s sign. We waited for about 20 minutes after that, which was a little annoying. There were other people who were waiting for the same company, but luckily we were all able to fit into the company’s van. The driver turned out to be Russian by the way.

Our room.We got our car without any hiccups. It was a dark blue Fiat. We paid for the full insurance, but a few things were not covered, such as doors torn off by the wind, or damage done by driving on certain prohibited gravel roads. The wind part was really surprising to me, but I suppose Iceland is really windy. So we made sure to open the doors with caution and to not leave them open. Also, there was a sandstorm in the area, so not buying a full insurance was too risky.

Sun Voyager.After approximately an hour long drive we got to Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. When we were booking our stay, the biggest room that we could find was a room with two twin size beds. However, knowing how accommodating Hilton usually is to its Diamond members, Daniel called the hotel before making a reservation and inquired if it will be possible to get a roll-away bed and a crib into the room. He was told that they normally don’t do that, but they will for us. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist did not know about the roll-away bed situation and he said that the room that we have booked will not fit it. However, after Daniel explained our booking circumstances to him, he upgraded us to a much bigger room in which all the beds fit perfectly. We also got a higher floor — 5th instead of 2nd. Since he had to make some changes, we had to wait for about 20 minutes. The receptionist went out of his way to make us feel welcome and gave us two sets of drink vouchers, which was very nice of him.

Sun Voyager and Arosha's sneeze -- the only pictures we have.Everyone was tired and hungry, so we’ve decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant VOX. It was pricey, but it had a Michellin star rating, so it was supposed to be top notch. I ordered salmon for myself and for the children — they shared one adult portion, and Danya got fish and chips, which at $35 were the most expensive fish and chips that he ever ate. The food was good, but not as spectacular as I was hoping.

Shore line.The next day we had Blue Lagoon reservation at 18:00, so we did not want to drive anywhere far in the first half of the day in order not to be stressed about making it to the lagoon in time. Exploring Reykjavik seemed like a perfect thing to do.

Building stone towers.After breakfast we got into our car and drove for about 15 minutes to the city center. We parked close to the waterfront, payed a very reasonable parking fee and schlepped to see Solfar, or Sun Voyager, metal boat sculpture. It is one of Reykjavik’s landmarks, so naturally there were plenty of people around it taking pictures. We participated in this activity as well. By the way, I’ve noticed that there are different parking zones with very different pricing. If we were to park next to the statue instead of parking across the street, we would have payed 3-4 times more for the meter.

Concert Hall.Next point of interest was Harpa concert hall located nearby. We took a walk down the waterfront promenade — Danya and I used the paved path, but the children preferred to run and jump on boulders next to the water. They spotted spiders and their webs from time to time and were really excited about those. The sea, the skies, the shore looked sort of milky grey and very serene. Reykjavik on that day elicited a peaceful feeling in me, like I was suspended in a big, soft, melancholic and dreamy cloud.

Streets of Reykjavik.When we reached tall glass building of concert hall, Danya went to take some pictures of it, and I stayed by the water with the children, who really wanted to build some stone sculptures. There were plenty of such sculptures already in place, so naturally they wanted to add a few of their own. It was fun to watch them busy at it and I wish we had something similar close to our home.

Hallgrimskirkja.After this we went to see Hallgrimskirkja — a modern church, which also happens to be the tallest church in Iceland. Luckily for me, Danya is so good with maps and finding his way in new places. I think I would have struggled so much if I had to locate all the landmarks by myself. Anyhow, the church looked fine, but it did not leave any special impression on me.

Shore.We walked through the streets of Reykjavik for a little while, visited some souvenir and clothing stores and started looking for a nice lunch spot. I have to say that prices in Iceland are very steep. Three t-shirts from the souvenir store cost us $100, and we did not buy any of those nice looking wool sweaters because they were $200-400 each. I did get a hat and a pair of really warm gloves for myself though (we got a bunch of hats for the kids in Norway) at a very reasonable price.

Soups for lunch.We ended up eating soups in bread bowls for lunch. We got lucky getting seats in the little restaurant, Svarta Kaffid, that was serving them. We got the last available table, and by the time we were leaving the waiting line was impressively big. Danya found this place on TripAdvisor, where it had an excellent rating. The restaurant only served two types of soup — vegetarian curry and Hungarian meat stew. Arosha and I got curries, and Danya and Anюta got stews. Everyone except Anюta liked their soups — me and Danya shared for variety as we often do. The price per soup bowl was $18.

Streets  of Reykjavik.After lunch we walked around the shopping streets of Reyjkyavik for a little while longer and headed back to the hotel for quick rest before heading out to much anticipated Blue Lagoon.

Streets  of Reykjavik.We arrived at the lagoon 15 minutes ahead of time, but got in without any queues or delays. This time of year it does not really get dark in Iceland. It gets a little darker for a few hours when the sun goes down, but never gets pitch black. I have to say that it presented certain difficulty for us at bed time, especially in the beginning of our vacation in Norway, but as far our lagoon experience went, we enjoyed the day lighting conditions in the evening hours.

Entrance to Blue Lagoon.By the rules of Blue Lagoon all guests are required to take a full body shower without any clothes on. Naturally, there were separate gender specific showers, so Danya and I got one kid each to shower and to change. The staff recommended to amply use hair conditioner and leave it in to minimize the effects of silica, which apparently makes hair all dry and unmanageable. We did just that. Luckily, individual showers had doors, so people could minimize being naked in front of strangers. Some people felt perfectly fine being naked in the crowd though. I think it’s probably more of a cultural than individual thing.

Path to Blue Lagoon.Anyhow, when we finally got outside, we jumped into the water right away since the air itself was freezing. Oh boy, it was pleasant! The water was so hot indeed, that at some point the children got a little overheated and jumped out for a few minutes to cool off. The water was milky white in color and it was 98-104 F in temperature. The temperature varied in different places, so we would feel it change from hotter to less hot spots and back up as we walked around the lagoon. The children got free floaters to wear, which was nice. There were steam and dry saunas available — we checked them out, but did not stay in either one for long.

Blue Lagoon.There were also free silica mud masks included in entrance fee, so Danya and I tried them on. We were offered by Blue Lagoon employees, who were sitting on the raft in the water, to have our picture taken on their iPad and get it e-mailed to us. We happily agreed. Oddly, many people who see those pictures think that our mud masks are a thick layer of sunblock. I don’t remember by now if my skin got smoother after the mask, but it probably did as it does after all similar products.

Streets  of Reykjavik.I was surprised to learn that this lagoon was man-made and is fed by water from the geothermal power plant. But on the other hand, the plant just uses the natural occurrence to produce electricity and then re-uses the water for the lagoon, so in a way it is not truly man-made after all. The water is rich in minerals by the way and supposedly is very good for the skin, especially psoriasis. I think that one visit certainly does nothing to improved any skin condition, but it’s pleasant to know that you’re bathing in something health-promoting.

Executive Lounge.We spent close to three hours soaking in the wondrous Blue Lagoon. The whole family really enjoyed it and was sad to leave this unusual place.

We arrived at the hotel totally wiped out, so dining in VOX was the easiest option again. Anюta got really cranky after falling asleep in the car, and she barely ate anything. In addition, she lost her favorite toy bear somewhere on the way from the car to the hotel room and we could not find it no matter how much we looked. It was very sad since she adored that bear so much. Arosha got it for her on Valentine’s day sale at school and she was absolutely in love with it for the longest time. For the record, the bear’s name was “Кленовый Сироп и Небо” and now he lives in Iceland. Oh, and Arosha only had $2 for that sale and he spent them all on the gift for Anna and nothing on himself. Just a side note.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Memorial Day in Cape Cod

Nauset Light.We wanted to go to Cape Cod for years it seems. The place is relatively close, but somehow we never went, in part because it gets pricey in season. It was not cheap this Memorial weekend as well — a little over $250 for a room per night, but definitely more affordable.

Salt Pond Bay.We booked Hampton Inn hotel by Hilton in Hyannis. The location is not ideal since it’s still a 40+ miles ride from Provincetown, but we wanted to book something with a big chain rather than a small business in case we will have to cancel the trip on the account of children getting sick.

Nauset Beach.The original plan was to leave at 15-16 o’clock, but after some consideration we’ve decided to go as early as possible in hopes to beat some of the traffic, which in our case was right after picking Arosha up from school at 14:20. I prepared chicken sandwiches and tea so that Arosha could eat in the car and save us some time.

Down to Nauset Beach.Well, what can I say? Getting out of a megalopolis on the verge of the long weekend is not pretty. It took us 4 hours to drive the first 90 miles. We did stop at some point to get a quick dinner at a Turkish restaurant, which kids really liked, but pretty much all we did for the rest of the day was driving and standing in traffic. We got to the hotel at 22:30 and went to bed after 23:00.

Eroding Cape Cod.On Saturday the plan was to drive to Provincetown and make a few stops on the way in order to see different lighthouses and maybe take a hike or two.

Balancing at Nauset Beach.Approximately midway we stopped at the visitor center, where Danya and the kids got their passports stamped, and then proceeded to Nauset Lighthouse and Three Sisters Lighthouses. We went down to the beach, but did not spend too much time there since we had a lot of other plans.

Streets of Provincetown.The children started climbing sand dunes on the beach, which apparently is not a good idea because it can facilitate coastal erosion. We did not realize it at first, but within a few minutes someone pointed that out to us, so we explained it to Arosha and Anюta. I think if they were allowed to proceed, they could have enjoyed this activity for a very long time.

Streets of Provincetown.We then went and looked at the Nauset Lighthouse and took a few pictures of it. There were no tours to the top available. We did not take a hike to the Three Sisters, but drove by them — the remnants of the replacement wooden lighthouses (the original brick ones fell into the ocean over a century ago) are not on the shore and only one of them looks like a lighthouse.

Streets of Provincetown.We then proceeded to Provincetown. The roads were quite busy, but no major traffics. In the city though it was tough to find parking. Luckily, we stumbled upon a big public parking lot (it was relatively inexpensive) and on the farthest parking field there were still some spots left.

Cape Cod Bay. View from Provincetown.What can I say? Provincetown seemed too busy for my taste. I guess, if we did not have children, it would have felt nicer, but it was a little unnerving for me to keep track of them in the crowds of people, especially considering the fact that Anюta stopped in front of every single dog and tried to communicate with it, and there were a lot of dogs in Provincetown that day.

Breakwater walk to Wood End Lighthouse.We picked one of the less popular places for lunch — it still had relatively decent rating on TripAdvisor — and got some beer, burgers, chowders and a lobster roll to share. The seafood in Cape Cod is fresh and tasty, and even though I am still not a huge fan of lobsters, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Breakwater walk to Wood End Lighthouse.We walked around the town for a little longer after lunch, and then drove to the Wood End Lighthouse. People at the visitor center warned us that we won’t be able to take a hike to it with little children in tow since the path to it is made out of huge rocks going through the water. We decided to see what exactly that looks like, but could not find any parking. Luckily, there was an inn with a big parking lot right next to the path, and the management let us park there free of charge for an hour.

National Seashore headquarters.The children were very excited with the rocky path — they were jumping from one rock to the next with the speed of a fit adult, but I was worried that one of them would slip and get into the cracks in between the rocks and break something. So we walked towards the lighthouse for about 15 minutes and then headed back to the children’s great disappointment.

Marconi Wireless Station Site.Originally, we planned to see one more lighthouse located in the area that day, and also to get another stamp at the farthest visitor center. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the center was already closed. Everyone was tired, so we decided to postpone the lighthouse visit until tomorrow, if we would feel like driving so far from our hotel again.

Authentic Cape Cod lunch at Moby Dick's.When we got to the hotel, the children went to the pool, which was also super crowded. Danya and I also changed into our bathing suits, but to be honest, neither pool, nor jacuzzi looked appealing enough to get in, although I did put my legs into the hot tub — I guess, Costa Rica spoiled us in this regard.

Lunch at Moby Dick's.We spent about an hour in the pool, and after a quick shower went to get dinner at local Peruvian restaurant. Danya and the children got fajitas and I got some Peruvian seafood dish that our waitress recommended. It turned out to be really good even though I oftentimes don’t like stuff like that. I think that the quality of the local seafood really makes all the difference.

Cape Code Lighthouse or Highland Lighthouse as it is known now.The next day we have decided to drive to the top of the Cape Cod again to see the Cape Cod Lighthouse. We stopped at some ranger station first in hopes to get an extra stamp, but it was closed. We did make it to Marconi Wireless Station Site though. We had lunch at Moby Dick’s restaurant. It was a nice experience — you order your food at the counter and take any table that you like and they bring the food to you, and the food was good too.

View from the top of Highland Lighthouse.After getting the passports stamped, we went to see the Cape Cod Lighthouse. Danya and Arosha took a tour to the top, but Anюta is not tall enough to be allowed in, so both of us waited for the boys outside. Daniel liked the tour and one of the interesting things that the guide told them is that the lighthouse was moved 3 times already due to coastal erosion.

Light lens itself up top of Highland Lighthouse.We wanted to see another lighthouse and maybe take a hike on the beach to it, but were not sure where to go exactly. A park ranger at the entrance to one of the $20 per car beaches (which we skipped) explained to us that there is a small hidden parking lot from which we can take a mile long hike to the lighthouse, and we even managed to find it, but it had no empty spaces. Oh well.

Highland Lighthouse.We ended up parking at Herring Cove Beach, which was free by the way, and taking an hour walk in the direction of the lighthouse on that beach. We could have walked longer, but it was just so windy and chilly that we could not take it any longer.

Herring Cove Beach.After this we went back to the hotel and the children enjoyed the pool once more. For dinner we went to Brazilian Grill, and it was a real treat. I think kids each ate about as much meat as I did, as they tend to do in this type of restaurants.

Hike at Herring Cove Beach. Windy.Our last full day at Cape Cod happened to be rainy. We didn’t do much. First the children went to the pool and spent 2 hours there. Then we drove to one of the restaurant streets in Hyannis, and had lunch at The British Beer Company and some deserts at the local cupcake store. We also checked out a few souvenir shops and got a cool looking magnifying glass for Arosha and small pink plush seal for Anюta — they christened it tюlenьka.

Herring Cove Beach.We then went back to the hotel and kids hit the pool and a hot tub again. This time around they spent 3 hours enjoying the water activities.

Collection of shells.Danya and I used the fitness center to get a workout on an elliptical trainer. I enjoyed it, but I still like our Peloton much more.

Seashell castle.Then at the evening I felt a massive migraine building up, so by the time we went to the restaurant and ordered dinner, I could barely sit straight. We took the food to go, and Daniel with the children ate their meals in the dining area of our hotel. I did not touch my meal, which was for the better, since I ended up throwing up a few times, which I suspected would happen.

Race Point Lighthouse from afar.Long story short, I was able to sleep most of the night and felt better the next day, although I still had a slight headache and queasy stomach.

Rhode Island Capitol.After breakfast on Tuesday we headed home. We stopped at Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. We visited the state capitol there — looked around, took some pictures, got special stamps.

Inside the capitol at Providence.We ate lunch later on at McDonald’s to save time and arrived home at 7 p.m. The total millage for the trip was 763 miles, which is a lot considering that it was just an extended long weekend getaway.

Arosha with Liberty Bell.I had fun overall, but at the moment have no desire to revisit Cape Cod. I understand that the timing was not ideal since a lot of people travel during this particular weekend, but it just felt so overcrowded. Our average speed for the trip was 30 miles per hour, which means that we spent 20 hours in the car altogether, and this was definitely tiring for everyone, especially Daniel.

Rhode Island Capitol in Providence.But then again, this was a quality time spent with my family and I am grateful that we were able to get away from our everyday routines and just explore new places together.

Providence.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Cape Cod Weekend Getaway

Cape Cod map.During our last weekend’s trip to Fire Island I again started reminiscing about us visiting so many places and yet still not being able to make it to Cape Cod. Well, we decided to take an upcoming long Memorial Day weekend and remedy the situation.

One of the issues before was that we have tried to look into visiting the cape during the peak summer time and the prices are just way out there. We decided to go there ahead of the season — there are still supposedly plenty of things we can spend our time on without having to actually swim in the ocean.

Another decision that we made was to stay at the very start of the Cape Cod peninsula. Most of the land along the National Seashore is covered by little motels and lodges and they have less than stellar cancellation policy. Having two little kids who can decide to develop a fever on whim’s notice we prefer bigger chains.

We booked our stay at Hampton Inn & Suites Cape Cod1 in Yarmouth-Hyannis area. There was another Hilton property in close proximity, but we settled for this one because it had a hot tub in addition to an indoor pool that both properties featured. Provincetown itself is 45 miles or 1 hour away, so we’ll be able to visit it on one of the days while we are there. Continue Reading

  1. Hampton Inn & Suites Cape Cod — 4 nights, total of $1,115 with taxes included. []

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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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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

Grand Place.The ride to Brussels was fast and easy. We took a cab to the Paris Nord train station and after a relatively short train ride we arrived at Brussel-Zuid station. Our Hilton was located right next to another train station — Brussels Centraal.

Brussel Centraal train station.We did not know it back then, but we could have hopped on pretty much any train going in that direction for free (our tickets from Paris covered it) and would have gotten to the Centraal station in 5 minutes. Instead, we decided to take a local subway, and it took us around 40 minutes to get to the hotel. Oh well, we still saved some money if not time compared to the taxi ride.

Our top floor hotel room.At Hilton, we got an upgraded room looking out to the city center. The hotel had an executive lounge, which is a always a big plus. This particular lounge served not just appetizers, but full dinners in the evenings. The hotel’s staff was also very nice and they sent us a card and a bottle of Prosecco wine at the day of our anniversary. As I said many times before, Hilton does not disappoint.

One of the multiple fry places.We arrived to the hotel mid-day, and were pretty hungry by that point. Since all the travel guides praise Belgian french fries as superb and authentic, we decided to get them for lunch. We randomly picked a small place with a lively crowd. Danya got a burger with fries and I got a salad with the same side. What can I say? It tasted just like plain boring french fries is supposed to. Have you guessed that I am not a big fan? There was nothing special or extra delicious about it in this place, or any other place in Belgium for that matter.

Grand Place.After a quick lunch, we walked around the center and checked the Grand Place for the first time. Funny thing is that during our preliminary research both Danya and I were sure that there was a Grand PAlace — a King’s residence, and not a PLace — an old square in the center of Brussels. I’ve read that the Place looks especially Grand during flower blooming seasons, but with our vacation happening at the end of November the flowers were long gone.

Grand Place for afar.Our first impression was that even though the city center was nice, it was not distinguishable enough to stand out from the other European cities. The thought that we should have spent more time in Paris and less time in Brussels came to our minds more than once. However, Brussels grew on us as days went by. We circled around the center many more times and as the streets were getting more and more familiar, the city seemed more and more charming.

Beer tasting.But back to our first day. After lunch we picked a pub to taste some of those famous Belgian beers. The bar that we chose was cozy, but I think that we made a mistake by buying a sampler instead of just going for the beer types that we typically enjoy. There was probably one or two beers out of 6 that we’ve gotten that were more or less OK, the rest was just too bitter for our liking. We did mention to the bartender that we like wheat beers that are more sour than bitter, but with the exception of one beer she pretty much gave us the standard sampler. What a pity.

Our first beer bar.We went to pubs in Brussels two more times during our trip. Second time we picked a bar across the street from the first one and got a pair of Hoegaardens. The beer was nice — draft is draft — but the atmosphere was probably a little worse than during our first day. The bartender spoke Russian to us (we did not inquire where she was from though), and there was a big table with older people who were pretty loud.

Our second beer bar.Our third and final beer pub experience was the best. The bar itself had pretty high ratings, but it was not the beer, but the company that made it more special. We decided to sit by the bar this time around and at some point a young guy, who happened to be an American on a business trip to Europe, started a conversation with us. It was fun to talk to someone about a whole bunch of things, and he also suggested that we should try a sour beer — Belgian specialty, which I ended up really liking. In fact, we tried two different types of sour beer and one of them reminded me of kvas, only with alcohol.

Delirium Café. Largest selection of beer per The Guinness Book of Records.On our fist day we had dinner at a highly rated Belgian restaurant Fin De Siecle, which apparently translates as The End of the Century. It was really crowded and they had a layout similar to beer halls — long tables that people share and all. There was no menus available, just a blackboard with chalk writing on it by the bar, and they did not accept credit cards.

Central. Place.The food was decent and relatively inexpensive, but it was so hot and loud that I was glad when we got out in the cold and quiet of the night. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the city center again and the buildings were lighted up in blue, which looked pretty nice I think.

Metro station.The next day was our 10th wedding anniversary. Yay to the happiness that we’ve had and hopefully will continue to have! We decided to go to Brugge and possibly stop at Ghent on our way back. There will be a separate post about that day.

Atomium.On the third day we made a trip to the Atomium, which was constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Travel guides say that Belgians consider their Atomium to be on par with Eiffel Tower, but I beg to differ. I have not heard about Atomium prior to visiting Brussels, and I bet I was not alone in my ignorance.

Inside one of the strands at Atomium.We took a subway ride to the place — even though we had to switch train lines ones, it was easy enough to figure out how to get there. Once we got there, we first took a stroll in the vicinity and took some pictures and then got tickets for the inside tour. It was not especially memorable — mostly a bunch of World Expo posters. The view from one of the spheres was OK, but nothing special as well.

Looking out one of the windows.After Atomium, we walked around some more and went to have lunch at another place rated well by Trip Advisor. It was almost closing, so we could only pick one of the two dishes from the day specials, which actually worked out just fine. I got fish, Danya got meat, and I ended up really enjoying it. I also got a raspberry Hoegaarden beer, which tasted more like compote.

Another window view.Funny thing is that when we were looking for that particular place, we passed a whole bunch of other places where the waiters were quite aggressively trying to lure us in, promising free beer and such. From what Danya read on Trip Advisor, such places turned out to be tourist traps, where people ended up paying high prices for substandard food. Good thing that we skipped those. Although, as a rule, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Park by Atomium.In the evening we took another stroll though the city center and even went to see the silly statue of the pissing boy — Manneken Pis. I don’t know why, but it managed to be in a spotlight of tourist attention for a very long time, and people do not seem to tire of it. Oh well, why not?

Park by Atomium.The next day we just spent a good chunk of the morning staying in bed — vacations without children are the only time when I have a luxury to do this. I actually managed to read three books during the vacation. For me it’s a very fast pace, since I don’t normally have much time for reading for myself — reading for kids is the whole other story.

By Atomium.For lunch we’ve decided to check out a cheese sandwich place — Tonton Garby — which had very high ratings on Trip Advisor. The shop owner is very chatty and attentive, and he obviously knows his cheeses. We liked our sandwiches a lot.

Tonton Garby cheese sandwich shop.The downside is that you have to wait for a long time to get your sandwich since the owner spends roughly 10 minutes per customer. We stood in line for about 40 minutes — there were two couples ahead of us — but I think it was worth it. We ate our sandwiches in Hilton’s executive lounge though — more room, warmer, and who can beat free drinks?

Église Notre-Dame du Sablon.In the afternoon we went to explore the city some more. We walked to the Royal Palace, had a nice stroll in some park and even visited a church, which was probably nice, but does not stick out in memory.

Grand Place.We also stumbled upon a shopping avenue with many famous brands present, but we just passed them by since neither me, nor Danya felt particular urge to buy stuff. We did visit a BMW shop which had a free expo going. There were a whole bunch of historic BMWs, and even though I am not an automobile aficionado, it was interesting to see the car industry evolution through the experiences of this particular company.

Christmas market.And of course we ended up in the center again, where we got lucky because the holiday market, which was being built during the previous days, was finally open. We wondered through it for a while, and I even got a nice hand-made pendant on a black rope.

View from our window.After that we made our last visit to the local bar — a place called Delirium. I’ve wrote about our nice experience there a few paragraphs back.

At Delirium bar.I think we had dinner at the Executive lounge, and it was really good as always.

Brussels. Park by Atomium.
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Friday, January 13, 2017

Paris — The City of Lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Helena — The Capital of Montana

Montana State capitol.When we put together our road trips we try to include state capitals even when those require a bit of a detour. Especially for those capitals that we haven’t been to previously. But Helena, the capital of Montana, turned out to be directly in our way and not only that, but very much in the middle of our drive from East Glacier Park Village to West Yellowstone — our next destination.

Helena. Montana State capitol.However instead of going through Helena and just stopping there for a short while we decided to break our long drive apart and spend a day in Helena itself to make things easier on our kids. It was 187 miles away from Glacier National Park and 176 miles to Yellowstone. We spent one night in Helena and we stayed in the only Hilton owned property of our whole trip — Hampton Inn Helena.

Capitol from the front.The drive to Helena itself was mostly uneventful except for a bit of anxiety we experienced on the part of us running out of gas and a complete lack of settlements of any kind on our way. So we were quite relieved to reach a town of Choteau with a population of around 1,500. We decided to grab a quick lunch at the gas stations where we filled up our car. We ate some typical gas station food, but Alёna and my dad ordered some soup to-go at a small sandwich place across the street.

Inside capitol. Anюta being Anюta.Hampton Inn turned out be very pleasant. Probably the cleanest and nicest place we stayed at on this trip. The only exception is a place at Jackson where we actually had a huge two bedroom, two story suite to ourselves — the only place where we actually finally got a joint room — our last day. Anyhow, we deiced not to procrastinate and get right back into our car right after check-in.

Looking up into the dome.The only thing that we wanted to see in Helena was its capitol complex, which was only 10 or so minutes away from the hotel. Since the day was Sunday the capitol building ended up being closed, just as we expected. We walked around it, looked at various monuments and simply spent some time laying on the green grass surrounding the capitol while kids ran around and played.

Walking up.As far as the pictures go, the sun was shining from the wrong direction, but the biggest issues that prevented me from taking decent photographs was my continuing lack of a shift lens. Thus without having one on hand all my pictures in their original form have a serious case of converging vertical lines — buildings appearing to be falling down behind themselves. Thank you, Photoshop.

Hibachi dinner.While kids were running around Alёna and I were going through restaurant listings on TripAdvisor. We wanted something different from the usually available American cuisine and ended up settling on a Japanese hibachi place called Nagoya Steakhouse which was in 18th out of 115 places — decent enough. The food turned out to be very good. Kids enjoyed the show and all of us enjoyed the food. Even my dad, who is not easily impressed by restaurant food, commented on the fact of it being delicious.

Senate chambers.And to finish our day all of us went out to hotel pools which also had a hot tub. Here I was pleasantly surprised by the progress that my kids had made with swimming. If back in April during our Canadian trip Arosha used to swim like a kind of a mix of amoeba and a zombie, he was actually swimming like a typical human would. And Anna who would refuse to go into a pool alone before was swimming all around it with a help of inflatable arm bands. All those trips that Alёna makes to our building pool with them really pay off.

Senators.One the morning of the next day — Monday, before leaving Helena we drove over to the capitol complex again. The building was open to visitors, we got our official capital stamps in our passports and were able to explore all over the capitol itself. It had a lot of paintings depicting Native Americans inside. We also were able to check out house and senate halls. It looks good inside, but to tell you the truth all the capitols are started to blur together in my head by now.

Inside the capitol.And that was our stay in Helena. The next stop was Yellowstone National Park itself — the longest single portion of our whole trip — five nights in one place.

Some of my stamps along with the one we got at Montana capitol building in Helena.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Seville of Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaza de España.

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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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So our Tennessee vacation is the thing of the past. What left is a bunch of fond memories, hundreds of colorful pictures and of course stronger family bonds.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee.To be completely honest, I was quite nervous beforehand. Danya and I never traveled alone (without parents) with Arosha, let along with two small children. Plus there is Anюta’s eczema, my gluten-dairy-nut-soy-eggs-you-name-it diet, eating out multiple times a day with an infant for almost two weeks, cloth diapers which need laundry every other day, and 400-miles-a-day drives. Oh, and staying together in the same room with two little children, who go to bed at different times, was also on the list of things that made me anxious.

Our travelers.It all turned out better than expected! Apparently, our kids are born travelers! They handled long drives just fine — Arosha was either talking, listening to Russian rock music or sleeping; Anюta was either playing with her toys or sleeping. Rarely did they complain or cry. During long drives we made sure to stop every few hours, so that everyone can stretch, run around and get some rest.

Car travel. Stop in Great Smoky Mountains.Danya downloaded a whole bunch of audio books for Arosha to listen to in the car, but we listened to them very little on account of Anechka. Every time Danya turned on a story, usually read by a man, she was crying after a few minutes and did not calm down until the recordings were off. Interestingly enough, the exception to this was when the story was told by a woman. Anna had no issues with music and songs as well. She is a pretty sensitive child, so my theory is that she was getting scared of strange men that were suddenly talking and talking in our car.

Sleeping arrangements. Pillow barricades for Arosha.Cloth diapering on the road was a little annoying (when is it not), but totally manageable. We mostly stayed in Hilton branch hotels, and all of them had guest laundries. The only hotel that lacked both laundry and hot water in the room was the Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park. There I had to hand wash diapers in ice cold water and then dry next to the radiator. We also had to finish drying some inserts on the dashboard of our car — luckily it was a very sunny day, so it only took an hour or so. I did not even try using disposables in fears to irritate Anna’s sensitive skin. By the way, she does #2 on the potty every morning pretty consistently, so I rarely have to deal with soiled diapers. Not that they disgust me — I think nothing my kids do at this age can — but it’s still nice to catch even a little break.

Drying cloth diapers.Anюta’s eczema was getting worse little by little throughout our trip. She had almost clean skin in the beginning, and was all covered in red itchy spots by the end. I am still not sure what causes it — probably food sensitivities — but at least I was able to rule out cat allergy, which is a huge relief. I think that she definitely has a reaction to bananas, but the rest is still questionable. I keep maintaining my diet to the best of my ability, although by the end of the trip I ate some gluten and other things which I try to avoid.

DoubleTree restaurant.Both kids did great at restaurants. Arosha loves going out and we never have issues with him. He loves hamburgers and french fries, so he had his share of those, but majority of the time we ordered him healthy things like vegetables, grilled chicken, wild salmon, soups, hummus, rice and beans. He also developed a fondness of oatmeal for breakfast. He usually hates it at home, but brown sugar and raisins really made the difference it seems.

Shenandoah. Skyland Resort.Anюta was as easy in restaurants as a 7 months old baby could possible be. I started following a baby led weaning approach with her a few weeks prior to vacation, so she loves holding pieces of food and munching on them. For breakfast I was giving her apples, melons and even a piece of bacon ones (I know, not good). For lunches she was usually munching on steamed vegetables or grilled chicken — I realized though that I have to ask them to not season vegetables and it made my food more delicious. She does not swallow much — food is more for tasting and playing for now — so getting proper nutrition was not a concern.

Best toys.I also am happy about the fact that our children seem to really like and enjoy nature. Arosha loves being outside and he always can come up with some game to play — he pretends to be fishing, or sweeping, or building a fire and such. He found a great tree for climbing in the Big Meadow in Shenandoah and could not get enough! He hiked one and a half miles each way to two different waterfalls in the Smokies, he also had no issues with steep road uphill to Clingman’s Dome, although we had to stop for rest more than ones.

Anna playing with the grass.Anюtka also loved being close to nature. Sometimes, when I was taking her out of the car and she saw how beautiful it was outside, she laughed out loud out of sheer delight. I let her play with sticks, stones and the likes. She also really enjoyed playing with the water near Laurel Falls. I carried her around either in ergo or just in my hands since she prefers to be forward facing. We took our City Mini stroller, but have not used it a single time.

And of course it was so good to explore new things with Danya! We see each other a lot since he works from home twice a week, but on vacations its a different quality of together time. I love traveling with him, with our children. I will write more about the nuances of our trip, but for now let me just say again that I am very glad that it all went so well.
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tennessee Trip Highlights

Time really flies. It’s been more than a week since our vacation has ended and I, as usual, am having trouble figuring out which way to go about these posts. So I decided to just pick out some general categories about the whole trip and then split off location specific notes into separate posts.

Hotels


Throughout our trip we stayed at five different places. Four of those places were Hilton properties. We did not take advantage of our points for any of these since we’re saving them for our November trip, but we did get the full benefits of our Diamond VIP status.

Park Vista by DoubleTree. Gatlinburg, Tennessee.All Hilton properties are great. Clean, big rooms, nice blankets, good breakfasts. I would rate them all at four out of five starts with the exception of one. The hotel where we spent six nights — the longest and most important part of our vacation was just superb and by far the best one of our trip. It was Park Vista by DoubleTree (Hilton property) located right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Our hotel. 15 stories atop a hill.Everything about it was great. The hotel itself was located on top of a mountain located right in the middle of a forest. We got upgraded to the top, fifteenth, floor. We had a balcony with a great view of Gatlinburg and the mountains that surround it.

View from the inside.This hotel had a very nice breakfast included with a chef that would cook hot to order meals. We also took advantage of the on property restaurant practically every day. Once we ate directly at it, but mostly we would order some dishes to go to bring up to our room and had our dinner while Anechka was tucked in for the night in the same room.

Other Hilton properties that we stayed at were located in Hershey, Pennsylvania — right near PA capital of Harrisburg, Chapel Hill, North Carolina — not far from NC capital of Raleigh, and the last one was located in Arlington, Virginia — right across the bridge from Washington, DC.

Skyland Resort at Shenandoah National Park.Our only non Hilton hotel was a lodge located right inside Shenandoah National Park. We did stay at the same lodge at the end of 2010. However because we had to reschedule our trip we ended up having to take the only left over room. It was located in a different part of the lodge (cabins are all over the property) and was somehow way below the standard that we are used to.

DoubleTree at Gatlinburg.Floors we were not covered with carpet and cold. Beds were small, mattresses were old. Arosha kept falling off the bed throughout the night. Hot water would run out before one could take a quick shower. There were no laundry facilities and we couldn’t do without them because of Anna’s diapers (more on that later). And it smelled like … — well, it just smelled.

The only thing that it had going for it was the fact that it was located right in the woods and we had a nice porch where Arosha could play with leafs, sticks, stones and all other things he loves playing with. And the restaurant was nearby as opposed to the other cabins from which one had to climb atop a rather steep hill to get to it.

Arligngon, Virginia.Overall this contributed to us cutting our Shenandoah stay one night short. We ended up adding the night to our Tennessee stay which proved to be a very good move on our part.

Pools


The hotel in Tennessee had probably the best pool we’ve encountered during all our previous travels. It had a pair of shallow pools for kids, a hot tub, and an adult pool with a two story high slide leading right into it. Arosha loved it. I would put him between my legs, we would lie down on our backs and slide down right into the water. I have to admit that it was quite fun for me as well.

Pools at Gatlinburg DoubleTree.There was another smaller slide leading into the kids pool, but it was a tube going through the wall. It was pretty dark inside and only on our last day I managed to talk Arosha into trying it. He had to go through it alone as I would not fit into it. So when he was ready to go in I told him that I’ll run down to the pool and catch him at the bottom.

The first time by the time I got there I saw a huge splash and Arosha managing to get above water on his own. Naturally he wanted to go again. On the second time by the time I got down to the pool I heard yelling coming through the tube:
– Ready??
– Ready.
– Ready???
– Ready!

Water slide.The next thing I see is Arosha flying through the tube with complete terror on his face. He splashes down into the pool, jump out with with complete ecstasy written all over his face. Again! Third time went very much like the previous run. Same “readies”, same terror, same happiness.

Alena also took Anna out to the pool. She also enjoyed it along. Alena would hold her in the water with her head above it and they would “swim” around the pool. One time Arosha and I talked Alena into trying the slide. We practically had to coerce her into it. Eventually she reluctantly agreed.

Another view of the slide.When she got up there I told Arosha — now listen to this! And then we heard multiple high pitched yells, screams and howls. She did end up liking it too. I’m glad we made her try.

Our other pool experience was rather sad. While we stayed in Arlington we decide to go to the pool. Arosha got all dressed, all prepared, totally happy. We all also got dressed for the pool. Then we couldn’t figure out which floor it was on. When we went down to the lobby to inquire where it is it turned out that this was the only hotel of our stay where there was no pool. It was a complete tragedy for poor Arosha. So much preparation and anticipation and such a fiasco. He was crushed. That will teach us a lesson for the future though.

Our Car


Our car has served us admirably. I’m really enjoying the “utility” part of our SUV. The cargo space easily fit a pair of large suitcases, a stroller and a good number of smaller bags and purses, while still allowing us to pull a cover over them.

Shenandoah fog and our car.The ride was comfortable and higher vantage point makes for a better trip — you can see more. Distronic made driving for 2,000 miles easier on me. Our car fully loaded with four people and a lot of cargo came out with a very respectable MPG of 26. That’s with mixed highway and city driving. We had to fill up only 4 times and that’s considering that we never waited for it to fall below 1/4th of the tank. Diesel rules.

One thing to note is that while I feel rather well driving Mercedes in and around New York it felt a bit awkward everywhere else. It attracts too much attention and really stands out. Something like Chevy Tahoe would feel somehow safer and more comfortable in that respect.

Another trail.However while before I never wanted anything to do with SUVs now I’m a big fan of an SUV as a family car. It is safe, heavy, stable and allowed us to easily park in all kinds of “off-road” ditches while in the parks.

Kids


Our kids did great. We feared that 400 miles in one day was not doable without many problems. Our original plan was to split it into two days when we left Shenandoah one day early. Turned out it wasn’t a problem at all. We kept planning to stop at 200 miles, 300 miles, but they just kept doing well. Only towards the end a little amount of crying ensued from Anyuta. Arosha had zero issues at all.

On the trail to Laurel Falls.The totally love nature. We could not drag Arosha away from anywhere. Sticks and stones, rivers and puddles. Arosha’s kind of paradise. Anyuta also was very happy to sit on the ground and taste grass, flowers, sticks and just plain good old dirt.

Arosha did great on hikes. We did numerous long hikes on steep trails that were about 3 miles in length and he walked them on his own without any problems. Anna on the other hand refused to sit in her ergo for the most part and Alena had to carry her. I don’t know where she gets the strength and energy. Us driving our stroller around was totally pointless. We haven’t used it once.

Nature fun.Sleeping in one room was perfectly fine too. We thought that’d all have to go on Anna’s schedule and go to sleep at 8pm. However once Alena did put her to bed we could still sit around and do other stuff. Arosha could watch some cartoons or all of us would go through our pictures we took throughout the day. Or we would eat dinner using bathroom sinks as dinner tables. It all work out rather well.

Laundry


Now this was a first for us. Because Anyuta is allergic to disposable diapers we have to use washable cloth ones. And as a result we had to do laundry every other day. Shenandoah was the worst. No laundry facilities and the closest town was 30 minutes away. Hot water would run out. Alena did hand wash them in the cold water.

View from the window of our Gatlinburg hotel.We dried them everywhere. Radiators, tables, TVs and so on. The best place though goes to the dashboard of our car while the car was sitting in the sun and we were away on a walk of some kind. Other hotels did have laundry facilities, yet it was still quite annoying to say the least.

Food


Food was … boring. This country is full of steak houses with very little variety. By the end of the trip we could not look at steaks, burgers and potatoes. We did eat at a nice Mexican restaurant once and one Cuban hole in the wall place. While in Washington we ended up running into a completely random and cheap Chinese place that was in China Town which was well reviewed by New York Times as it turned out. By most evenings my appetite for any food was nowhere to be found so we mostly ate from the appetizer sections of the menus.

Bullfish Grill at Pigeon Forge, Tennesssee.One thing that worried us slightly was the fact that Anyuta would always cry before at any kind of a restaurant. But Alena figured out a perfect solution. She can sit very well in a high chair on her own. Alena would put a plate in front of her and would put all kinds of non-choke hazard vegetables on that plate — string beans, broccoli, slices of carrots and so on. Anyuta would reach out for them and taste them. That kept her occupied rather well and would could eat in peace.

Overall


Overall it was a really nice road trip. A great vacation with an exception of one nightmarish night in Shenandoah. I’ll explain in more detail later. Otherwise we got very lucky with the weather, spring was in full bloom and we’ve seen a lot of beautiful and interesting new places. It was fun for all four of us and it was not as hard as we thought it would be. It actually wasn’t all that hard at all. Our kids are great.
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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seattle

Seattle skyline from Kerry Park.Our drive from mount Rainier to Seattle was relatively short and pretty uneventful. Arosha was sad to say good-bye to the cabins, which he grew rather fond of, but then again, new adventures were ahead, and boy do all of us like exploring new places.

Arosha on playground by Kerry Park.We arrived to Seattle late in the afternoon. When we were looking to book a hotel, we were deciding between two options — regular Hilton, and more fancy Arctic Club hotel which was bought by DoubleTree not so long ago and was also available to us for Hilton points. We did not do a lot of research, except checking hotels location-wise, and just picked a more expensive one, which happened to be Arctic Club. The cost in points was the same.

Us at Kerry Park.Well, as it turned out, more money does not always mean more value. First of all, they did not have any interconnected rooms available, even though we specifically asked for them a good amount of time in advance. Also, they did not have a pool, or executive lounge, or self-parking. Breakfast was kind of included, but instead of great variety of Hilton buffet, we were given $12 worth of vouchers per breakfast per person (not including Arosha) which were valid at a restaurant downstairs. We always had to pay extra, since having a simple meal and a drink always exceeded the allotted amount.

Microsoft campus.Luckily for us, they had two rooms close to each other on the 6th floor. so at the end even though the hotel was not what we have expected, it all kind of worked out for us. By the way, valet parking and a crib were $40 and $10 extra respectively per day.

Microsoft visitor center.As for the area where the hotel was located, I expected it to be really nice, since it was pretty much in the center of the city. We were in for quite a shock when we discovered the amount of homeless people on the streets. There were literally two beggars per block, and walking around felt neither safe nor pleasant.

Rainy Seattle.When we were checking in, Danya tried to arrange a transfer to Hilton, but it was too late for that (they were completely booked). But oh well, as I said, it was not bad after all, especially considering that we paid for it with Hilton points.

Grandma Oksana, Arosha, Alena, Daniel on our way to aquarium.After checking in, we went to get National Parks stamps to the Klondike museum, which was located just a few blocks away from the hotel. The museum itself was not big, but it was interesting to go through it and to imagine what it was like to be one of the people who tried their fortune in times of Gold Rush. When I was growing up, I probably read all of Jack London’s books that I could find, so looking at some real artifacts of that era brought some distant memories of his stories. From the exhibits, I was particularly impressed with the list of suggested yearly Yukon provisions which could be bought in supply stores. I don’t remember the specifics, but they included something like 400 lbs of bacon, insane amount of flour, beans, etc, etc.

The Seattle Great Wheel.After the museum, we went to get some food at a small place owned by Russians right next door to our hotel. We got borscht and piroshki, and everything was delicious. The only thing that made the experience a bit less pleasant was that at the end, a beggar women came to our table and started asking us for money and food, which made us feel extremely uncomfortable.

Inside the cabin on the wheel.After dinner, we got our car and drove to Kerry Park. Danya wanted to take a nice picture of Seattle skyline, and he read that this was the place to go.

On the wheel.The “park” area is pretty much an overlook with a few benches, a “Changing Form” statue, and a few patches of grass, but the view is great indeed. There was a small playground nearby, and Arosha had a blast trying all kinds of rolling and twirling things which I think had some kind of space theme. We stayed there for a while, since Danya wanted to take a picture of the skyline after the Space Needle lights up for the night, but we left earlier than this happened on the account of tiredness, at around 9:30. The mount Rainier, which typically could be seen from that location, was not visible since it was pretty cloudy.

On the wheel.Our second day in Seattle was rainy. I guess, this was only natural, and we actually did not mind at all.

View from the top of the wheel.In the morning we drove to Redmond to visit Microsoft Museum. There is not much to say about it, except for the fact that I was very bored. And I think so was everyone.

Arosha on the wheel.After that we drove back to Seattle and after looking for parking for a good while parked near the piers by the Pike Market. It was not raining hard, but we still used umbrellas. I know it’s cliche, but the weather felt so right.

Seattle Aquarium.We took a ride on the Ferris Wheel. The cabins had transparent plastic walls, so it felt safe and was easier to take pictures; but there is something to be said about a different approach, where you can feel the breeze against your cheeks and have a more refreshing experience. This being sad, I felt slightly frightened in the first minute or two, and so was Danya’s mom. Our three men were not afraid throughout the ride. The view of the harbor and the city was nice.

Jellyfishes at Seattle Aquarium.After this we went inside some building which had a carousel (Arosha took a ride), and a whole bunch of small stores. We bought ice-cream, and proceeded to explore other indoor activities Seattle had to offer.

Pike Market.One thing that was different in Seattle is that people were often asking us what language we speak. When they heard it’s Russian, they often smiled, nodded their heads, said that it’s cool and so on. I am so used to being instantly identified in NYC area, that this was surprising. In many other places people don’t ask, or if they do, they don’t show any further interest. So Seattle in this sense was kind of refreshing. Made me feel good about being bilingual.

View from Pike Market.To our luck, there was a Seattle Aquarium nearby. Danya ran and re-parked our car, while we waited for him inside. I am very glad that we’ve decided to visit. It had a lot of sea creatures and fish, and I like how the aquariums were made. The jellyfish exhibit was particularly memorable — it is shaped as an arch, and jellyfish is in constant motion, and there are changing colored lights that illuminate it. And I also liked that there were pools where visitors can touch some marine life — sea stars, sea cucumbers and such. Arosha liked doing it. There was also a giant octopus in one of the aquariums — I don’t think I saw one before.

Pike Market.At the exit there was a machine, where you could make your own penny to remember the place by. You know, the one where you insert a penny and two quarters in, pick a design and then roll a handle which controls a penny-squishing mechanism? Arosha made one for himself, and was very excited about it for the next few days. He kept asking where his coin “на память” to remember is (it was in my purse), and kept playing with it and giving it back to me so as not to lose this treasure.

Dinner at Pike Market.Afterwards we went to the Pike Market to get dinner. First we wanted to go to the restaurant where some part of “Sleepless in Seattle” was filmed, but we did not like the looks of it, and picked the one next door. It was called Lowel’s and had decent rating on Trip Advisor. All of us ordered seafood — Danya and his mom a fried variety, me and his dad had grilled fish — and it was very tasty.

Pike Market.We did not really spend much time on the market itself since by the time we were done with the dinner, it was already closing.

Original Starbucks.Instead, we proceeded to 1912 Pike Street — the home of the first Starbucks. Despite the crowd, it was nice and cozy. All the sales people were very friendly, and I thoroughly enjoyed my decaf cappuccino with extra cinnamon on top. Mmmmm. I drink tea on a daily basis, but coffee is a very rare treat, so it’s nice to have a good quality one. Danya’s parents also got coffees, but Danya did not get anything since he is one of those rare people who finds a taste of both coffee and chocolate quite disgusting.

Museum of Glass.After that we went home and got a much needed rest before our last vacation day. I think Danya mentioned this before, but I can’t help repeating. Arosha painlessly adjusted his schedule so that all of us could enjoy this trip to the fullest — he did not nap, and slept for 12 hours each night in either crib, or just on a floor mattress. He also was fine following our eating schedule, and ate part of my portion (and sometimes of other’s) without any complaints. He was such a low maintenance, that I think it made the experience better for us.

Museum of Glass.The next morning after breakfast we went to the Seattle Center. The weather was very nice — warm and sunny. We walked around for a little while. Arosha got a kick from listening to some Native American band playing Ieva’s Polka, while Danya and his dad went to take pictures of some funky buildings. We then proceeded to the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. It was quite impressive. We’ve seen Chihuly’s works in Las Vegas and Toronto, but seeing so many creations by this artist and his crew in one place was fascinating. Of course, I had to tell Arosha not to touch anything like a hundred times, which was slightly stressful, but I am still very glad that we went there. I don’t even know what I liked more — the colorful globes of all sizes, the spiky and curvy chandeliers, the gigantic flowing flowers, or glass trees… I think if you’re in Seattle, this is a must see place.

Chihuly Garden and Glass.After the museum, we all thought it would be a good idea to go someplace where Arosha can run wild and free. Danya offered to go to the Discovery Park, which happened to be a largest area park of the city. We first stopped at the visitor center, where we got a parking permit for the West Point Lighthouse. Normally, people have to take a walk there, but on account of Arosha we were permitted to get close to it by car.

Arosha at Chihuly Garden and Glass.The lighthouse and the area around it are very pleasing to the eye. We walked around for a bit, and I let Arosha play in Puget Sound water for some time. We did not have any bathing gear with us, but whatever — I think that when you’re three years old, an underwear will do nicely, and we can always use some of extra clothing I bring along as towels.

West Point Lighthouse.After the lighthouse, we drove back to the visitor center and went to the park’s playground. There was this thing, which I know is called “тарзанка” in Russian, but I have no idea how to properly call it in English. It’s basically a rope tied between two trees, and then there is a swing hanging from it, and it can slide from one side of the rope to the other. Some children were sliding on it, and Arosha joined them. At first, Danya and I were running alongside and holding him a little bit to make sure he won’t fall, but after a few rides, he got a hold of it, and did not require any assistance from us. He had a lot of fun sliding on this thing, and did not want to leave when we were ready to.

Discovery Park.We were pretty hungry at that point, so we went to get dinner in one of the many restaurants Seattle has to offer. Danya just drove us to one of the streets which seemed to have more dining options, and then we consulted Trip Advisor to see which restaurant had good ratings. We ended up going to a Moroccan place. The food was really good and plentiful, and the design of the restaurant was very original. Instead of regular tables, there were this low round ones, and people were sitting around them on sofas and large cushions. There was a belly dancer girl, who I think was a little bit too skinny for the job (she was Japanese, not Arabic), but Arosha really liked her and tried to dance along a few times. It was a very original dinner, and if this restaurant was located in Brooklyn, I think we would be repeat customers.

Arosha at Discovery Park. Ringing the bell.After dinner we drove to Kerry Park for another take of the Seattle skyline pictures. Danya got more lucky this time around, since we stayed there longer and the Space Needle got lit up. The mountain was still not visible, but there was a full moon that night, which is also nice I guess.

Mount Rainier from the plane.Next morning it was time for us to leave the state of Washington. The drive to the airport and our flight home were pretty uneventful. Of course mount Rainer was visible on that day, but we did not have time to stop for pictures. Danya did manage to take a picture of it from the plane, and I think it came out really nice and kind of gives you some perspective of how high it is, when you see the peak above the clouds.

Seattle Center. Museum of Glass.Arosha was great on the flight back. He even managed to nap for a few hours, which gave me an opportunity to relax and watch a movie.

Seattle Center.All in all, it was a great vacation. Now, over two months later, he still loves to hear stories about this trip, and frequently asks us to go either to Seattle, or to some other place for a vacation. Last week I told him that tomorrow we’ll have to get up early. His face lit up and he started to pay extra attention to what I was saying. I told him that’s because I have an early appointment at the doctor, and he will come with us. He was disappointed, and replied, that he thought that we’ll be going on vacation. Last few times when we were going on vacation he was getting up early to go the airport, and I guess he has a pretty strong association between these two things now.

Seattle skyline at dusk.I don’t know when we’ll be able to travel next time in light of our upcoming family extension. I only know that all of us love traveling a lot, and each and every one of us longs for new frontiers to explore as soon as possible.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Costa Rica — Impressions

View from the balcony.Alёna already wrote about things in general, so I’ll probably be somewhat repeating her thoughts here, but here are my own impressions in a few words.

Flight


The flight was surprisingly easy. Arosha has “matured” a lot since our last trip to Dominican Republic. Even though the flight to Costa Rica was quite a bit longer he spent most of it in his seat either watching cartoons (not much at all) or looking at books, looking out of the window or just talking to us. And when he needed to go to the bathroom he would just ask. The flight back went pretty much the same way.

In addition to that I myself stopped taking motion sickness pills for the flights about a year ago. I find that I actually handle flights much better lately because I’m not insanely drowsy and can just watch movies and read without falling asleep while not being able to actually sleep.

Our Hilton Papagayo resort.One interesting thing was the fact that when we landed we expected to pay an entrance fee as it usually happens at these types of destinations. We were quite surprised that there was none. However as it turned out later there is a catch after all. Even though there is no entrance fee everyone has to pay a departure tax of $30 per person. I actually would’ve rather dealt with that upon arrival than having to do all that when you’re trying to catch a plane.

Car Rental


Renting a car worked out rather well for us. I’m typically not a huge fan of beach vacations, but a car gave us an opportunity to see more of the country rather than spending it in the confines of our resort. As Alёna said I just got a decent quote from a guy in the airport — you can actually push them for a better deal, and we got the car for exactly the price that was promised to us.

Our rental — Toyota RAV4.A quick shuttle took us to their location and soon after we were in a nice Toyota RAV4 on our way to our hotel with the help of a rented GPS unit. We decided not to rent a car seat for Arosha, even though we originally planned to do so. Instead we just bought a brand new one at Wall Mart for the same price that the renal would’ve cost us and this way we were sure that it was clean and new. It was light enough and you can check it in with your luggage for free for the flight.

Vacationing.The car was big enough for us to fit four of our suitcases in and seat 5 people comfortably. Later I also was glad that we rented an SUV as some of the roads would just be not passable on a normal sedan inside the national parks. The roads around the country itself were in a quite decent condition.

Resort


We decided to stay in Hilton Papagayo Resort. However we didn’t really win much beside free Internet for all our iDevices for our Diamond VIP status. We ended up booking the vacation through a travel agency because the combined price for the flight and hotel was coming out $500 cheaper as opposed to us booking it all separately. As a result we got no points for all the money spent.

Our rooms are next to each other and 2 balconies.The property had 3 restaurants in addition to a buffet, but the food seemed quite repetitive. Italian restaurant actually had different kind of food, but the service was the worst and the food didn’t taste good. For example risottos that we ordered with Alёna were so salty that we couldn’t really eat it.

The territory itself was quite big situated on the coast of a very nice quite bay of Pacific Ocean among pretty steep mountains. There were very frequent shuttles running around, but as Alёna mentioned we ended up being pretty close to the beach, pools and main restaurants that we didn’t even need to use those shuttles.

Buffet. Checkout that fork action.Basically the moral of the story here is that as far as food goes we had the best experience at Riu Palace in Cancun and Hilton wasn’t really worth it in this situation. I think we’ll stick with Riu for our next vacation of this type if it will be available. Although maybe all the waving of my Diamond VIP card did have some effect on the rooms we got, even though we did have to move to get them.

The Beach


The beach was really nice. As I mentioned it was located on the bay and therefore there was practically no waves which can’t be said of the open coast of Pacific Ocean. When we were in one of the parks there were waves my height hitting the sand. Nobody dared to get into that water at all.

Arosha on the beach with his beach accessories.Arosha had a blast. He loved playing in the sand, jumping into the water, playing with his shovel and a bucket and all other things. He also spent a lot of time in the pools and enjoyed going from one place to another. He spent hours and hours playing and swimming throughout these days.

I on the other hand jumped into the ocean water once and preferred to spend my time hiding under a shade reading something on my iPad. I am very susceptible to sunburn and I enjoy putting on all the sunblock about as much as I enjoy the sunburn itself. Although I did swim in the pool almost every day when there was shade from the water bar covering a portion of the pool.

In the pool.Also on our last day my dad got burned by jellyfish. He had a pretty severe red line around his arm and a bad burning pain. I read that the best thing to treat this would be to spill some vinegar on it and fresh water would actually be the worst thing one could do. I suggested he goes to the diving equipment rental place that we had and ask them about it. Luckily enough the lady working there whipped out a bottle of vinegar when she heard about it and put it on his arm, so I guess it’s not a very rare occurrence there. Vinegar did help a lot. We were just glad that it happened on the last day and didn’t happen to Arosha.

Excursions


These were actually the most fun days for me, but I’ll write about them in the next post.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Costa Rica — Vacation Start

Hilton Papagayo Resort.Vacation time came unexpectedly fast as always. As the majority of people, I dislike packing, but at least I’ve become quite efficient with it over the years. It takes me 2-3 hours on average to pack bags for the three of us, and even though I usually overpack, the amount of unused stuff nowadays makes up a considerably smaller proportion of our overall luggage than it used to.

Anyhow, we packed, we made arrangements for Shublik, we went to bed early on Suturday and got up early on Sunday. The drive to the airport was quick — we do live very close to JFK after all. Checking in and going through the security lines was a pretty fast process too. We had a flight on JetBlue.

Our first set of rooms — 404 and 406.Aroshka was excited. The best thing about the airport as far as he is concerned are escalators. He kept telling us from the moment we set foot in terminal #5 that he wants to take a ride! He had to wait for all the necessary procedures to be finished (and that included breakfast), and then he just ran to the escalators and kept going down the escalator and up the stairs (there was no escalator up) over and over and over again. By my count he did it for about 20 times before it was time for us to go and board the plane.

Our second set of rooms — 202 and 203.What I love about JetBlue planes is more spacious leg room. In majority of airplanes my knees touch seat in a row ahead, and when people lean back, it actually hurts. I don’t have this issue while flying JetBlue. We had 5 seats next to each other — Aroshka, Danya and I were on one side of the isle, and Danya’s parents on the other. Arosha got a window seat. He first watched cartoons for about 10 minutes, but got quickly bored (maybe because they were in English and he does not understand it yet). We talked to him a lot, I read one of his favorite books for a little while, he watched cartoons on iPad for a little while (no more than 20 minutes I think). He ate potato chips snack — he likes chips, but we don’t buy them, so for him it was a rare treat. He did not sleep, but we kind of expected this. I was a little worried about him using the restroom on the plane — we have not had any accidents in months, but I was not sure if unfamiliar situation will affect him — but it turned out that I had nothing to worry about.

Aroshka playing on the beach. Check out the running part.Upon our arrival to Liberia airport, we took a shuttle which drove us to Budget car rental. Danya made a few reservations with other places in advance, but at the airport he got a better price quote from the Budget representative, so we decided that there really is no point to pay extra. We rented a Toyota RAV4, and there was plenty of room for all 5 of us and all our luggage. Before the trip we bought an inexpensive car seat at Wallmart for Aroshka and brought it along. It makes me feel better to use our own car seat — not only it’s cleaner, but we also know its complete history of accidents.

The drive to our hotel was relatively short, around 20 minutes. Hilton Papagayo resort, where we stayed, is located in Guanacaste area. The bay where resort is placed is really beautiful. I did not tire of the view throughout our stay, but kept thinking of how nature can create such an amazing, breathtaking grace. There is an old tree at the center of the beach line, and due to the dry season it was absolutely naked. Each time I looked at it, it seemed as though its branches formed faces and bodies of some magical creatures.

Main buffet-restaurant.We were pretty exhausted and starving. When we were checking in, in turned out that they only had rooms which required taking a shuttle to get to the main area where beach, restaurants and pools were located. It was slightly disappointing, but not a big deal, since this particular Hilton had a lot of small bungalows covering large territory and I think that majority of people have to take shuttles to move around. When we arrived to our rooms, it turned out that they were not interconnected as we have requested months in advance, but just next to each other.

Danya went to the front desk to see if it was possible to fix this, since having interconnected rooms was really convenient because of Aroshka. After initial reluctance of a lower level manager to do anything, the upper level manager fixed it — he told us that tomorrow a pair of interconnected rooms will be available, and that if we wish, we could move. And so we did. Our new rooms were also much closer to the center, which was an added bonus. We did not have to take a shuttle to get to the beach anymore. I have to say though that shuttles were driving around often and you could always request one. Moreover, Aroshka LOVED riding on shuttles, so pretty much each night we were taking a ride just for the fun of it.

One of hotel's frequent shuttles.We had a dinner at local buffet, and the food was pretty decent. They have a salad bar, and then everyone has to order the actual meal. It was functioning as a 100% buffet only at breakfasts. There were three other restaurants, but I find that the food was very similar in all of them. We got progressively more tired of it, but this usually happens to us in all-inclusive resorts. The only exception was Riu Palace hotel in Cancun — their food was far superior to other places we stayed in, and their restaurants were definitely high end. Aroshka ate pretty well. I felt slightly bad that he was eating french fries almost every day, but he ate a lot of fruits and vegetables too, so whatever.

We spent Monday at the resort. Woke up early, ate breakfast and headed to the beach. The sand on the beach was not yellow as we are used to, but grayish-black in color due to its volcanic origin. I think it also had a smaller grain and was lighter. There was also a lot of small pieces of corral on the beach, so I guess the beach itself has a mixture of volcanic-coral sand.

Hard at play.Aroshka loved the ocean. He spent around 3 hours running around, playing in the water, playing with sand and overall being happy. The sand area of the beach was pretty much deserted. Sometimes there were people going for a swim in the ocean, but they preferred to stay under umbrellas in the grass-covered area above the beach. Which worked perfectly for us — it was much easier to track Aroshka when there were no other people around.

I used a combination of zinc oxide sunscreen by Badger, which made Aroshka and I look like a pair of mime artists, and a more conventional spray which provides a chemical block. The combination of Badger and small-grain black sand was really something, plus it was hard to wash off!

Hilton Papagayo from the top.After the beach we ate a lunch in one of the cafes, and went to get some rest. After a shower Aroshka was fast asleep. He did not require any song-singing or fairy-tale telling throughout the whole trip. The only thing that was needed is the cosiness of his crib. By the way, he could barely fit into the standard hotel crib. I fear that in a few months he will outgrow it completely.

We planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park for Tuesday, but I’ll leave it for the next post.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anniversary in Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Day in Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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