Friday, September 28, 2018

Italy Vacation 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Friday, December 7, 2012

Italian Vacation — Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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