Sunday, January 20, 2019

Our Day in Milan

Milan Duomo.The biggest Milan attraction for us was the Milan Cathedral. I remembered what it looked like really well, and was hoping that the children will be impressed by the Duomo and by the fact that they could get on its roof.

Inside the cathedral.A week before the vacation I finished reading a book about Italian resistance during World War II “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan. It is based on a real story of Pino Lella, who was a Milanese native, so a big part of the action took place in Milan. My reading about the city and its people made visiting the city more interesting and somehow nostalgic. Milan took heavy bombing during those years, but I’m glad that the Duomo is still standing.

Rose windows.After a substantial Hilton breakfast, we took a subway to the Milan Cathedral. On a side note, there are a lot of shady looking characters who volunteer to “help” with entrance ticket purchasing, but we just asked to be left alone, and luckily they did not persist, although a young guy was eyeing Daniеl up and down for a few minutes, while I was eyeing him in return.

View from the roof of Milan Cathedral.There were a lot of people by the Duomo. A lot of pigeons too. There was a huge line to enter the cathedral and a separate huge line to buy entrance tickets. Luckily, we got preferential treatment in both lines on account of kids and skipped both of them. I think that saved us 1.5-2 hours of waiting. Hooray such an attentive and kind attitude to children!

On the roof.Interesting thing is that both Aaron and Anna remembered being told about the cathedral during art classes which they took in Brooklyn. Aaron told us that he recognizes the rose windows and some of the statues. When we were inside, I saw remains of cardinal Schuster, and it was such a strange experience, since I was just reading about him in the earlier mentioned book.

On the roof.After appreciating the beauty of the Milan Duomo from the inside, we proceeded to the rooftop of the cathedral. There was an elevator going to the top, but we picked an option of taking 250 stairs. We all think that a little effort only enhances the experience — you feel the sense of achievement (however small) and endorphin rush because of that. I knew that for adults and Aaron this should not be a difficult task, but we were a little worried about Anna and her ability to make it to the top without my carrying her.

Top of the roof.To our surprise, not only she made it to the rooftop without any complaints, but she was not even out of breath. In fact, she and Arosha practically ran all the way! Another thing that was on our minds is Arosha’s mild fear of heights, especially on top of man-made structures. To our relief, he was not afraid! He and Anna had quite a lot of fun, and I even had to stop them from running since it did not seem appropriate and very safe.

All of us.After Duomo we went to get lunch. Last time we were so impressed by buffalo mozzarella pizza in Charleston restaurant that was located nearby, that we decided to revisit it with Arosha and Anuta. The food was as good as we remembered. Our waiter, an older Italian man who could speak some English, liked our kids and called Anuta a “principessa”, which is princess in Italian. We took liking to it right away and were calling her our principessa a lot during the trip. We still call her that now and then.

Streets of Milan.After lunch we decided to see Sforza Castle which is located in the walking distance. Got our first Italian gelato on the way. I think it was the best gelato of the entire trip. I don’t remember much about Sforza Castle since we did not get inside any of the buildings. I do remember the surrounding walls and the fact that Moscow Kremlin was originally modeled after this castle. Maybe next time we’ll explore it in more detail.

We ate light dinner at the executive lounge again and went to bed early.
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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Arosha’s Italy Notes

Arosha was writing down little things about his days all throughout our vacation to Italy. We decided to post them to the blog under the tag of this trip as well, with some small editorial notes — in brackets.

November 17


Airport lunch.Today I made it to the first stop. It is Milan. We flew out of JFK, which stands for John F. Kennedy. I was flying for 7 hours and then for 2 more. What I didn’t really like [on the plane] was food. Another thing I didn’t like is that they did not give us room for hours [when we arrived to Hilton Milan]. I have not slept on the plane, so when they gave us our room I have not slept for 25 hours.

November 18


Milan Cathedral.Today I did a lot of interesting things like eating combs [honeycombs at breakfast buffet]. Another thing is that I saw a big cathedral [Milan Cathedral] and I was on the roof. It took 600 years to build the cathedral. There were lines [to get inside the cathedral] for one hour, but we are kids, so we skipped them [got priority treatment].

After the cathedral we went to a restaurant. I had pizza and spaghetti.

Then we saw a castle. It had holes in its walls. Also we tasted gelato. I picked lemon and coconut [flavors].

November 19


Bullet train to Florence.Today I’m going to my second stop. It is going to be Florence.

First we woke up and ate breakfast. Then we walked to the train station and waited for bullet train. When we got in, we realized that we came in from the wrong side of the train car because we got [seats] number 3 and 4 and we came in where numbers 18 and 17 were. The bullet train was so fast that it went 300 km/hr [at some points].

I saw Florence Cathedral in the evening. Then we came to the pool [in the hotel]. We really liked it. It was a giant hot tub.

November 20


At the top of bell tower in Florence.We went on top of the bell tower [in Florence] today. It has 414 steps and me and my sister made it to the top. It was so high that I was scared.

Then we went to eat.

November 21


Leaning Tower of Pisa.Today I went to Pisa. There I saw a cathedral and the falling tower.

Then we ate at a restaurant where my sister liked my food less than hers. I got a souvenir [tower of Pisa].

November 22


Waiting for a water bus in Venice.Today I am excited because we are going to Venice. Today is also a Thanksgiving.

First we traveled on a train. When we made it to the water, I knew it was Venice.

Then we checked in [to our hotel, Hilton Molino Stucky] and went out to eat. Oh, and before that I traveled on a water bus. The first bus that we saw did not travel to the hotel.

After the restaurant we went to look for gelato, but we found none and an hour! At the restaurant I ate home made spaghetti.

Then we went to the hotel and went to sleep.

November 23


Gandola ride.Today is my mom’s and dad’s wedding anniversary.

Also, today we got a gondola ride. I really liked it, though it was expensive. It cost 100 euros.

Right after that we ate gelato and looked at Venice. Here are things that I noticed: not a lot of trees, lots of bridges, lots of glass stores.

After that we went to a fancy restaurant. Me and my sister had vegetables and spaghetti. It was very nice, and I also tried black spaghetti [which my mom was having].

A bit later we found a mask store, but I did not buy any [masks yet].

November 24 and 25


Venetian masks.Today we ate our breakfast and went on a ferry [from our hotel on Giudecca island]. Venice was a little flooded.

We went to into the [Venice] cathedral. It was pretty, and inside on the floor there was a mosaic.

After that we looked for masks. I was looking for sun and moon masks, and I bought one of them.

Then next we rode [by elevator] to the top of the Venice tower. It was a wonderful view.

It was raining all day, so we went to the hotel.
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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Italy — Flight and Day 1

Us on a plane.The day before vacation it was snowing in our part of the woods. Children were dismissed from school early, and if we knew any better, Daniеl would have left work in the early afternoon too. Long story short, it took him over 5 hours to get home, and he was stressed and tired. So was I to be honest.

On that same day we also realized that both of our medium sized suitcases were broken, so Daniеl had to stop at a store on his way from work and get a new one. When Daniеl was leaving the parking lot of the store he noticed that his wedding band was missing! Oh no! He ran back in and by some miracle found it inside one of the suitcases that he looked at earlier. Phew!

Anna and dad.Anna was on day 6 out of 10 of antibiotics treatment for ear infection. Having our vacation in mind, I asked the doctor to prescribe them in chewable form as apposed to the liquid that is usually prescribed and needs to be refrigerated. Anna had a terrible virus a week before that, with her temperature rising sky high and not going much down for 3 days. I have not slept a bunch of nights during that time because regular fever reducers helped very little, so I kept rubbing her with water and vinegar solution for hours at a time to bring the fever down.

That same day I finished my course of antibiotics too — I was treated for viral bronchitis, which I most probably got when Anna was sick.

Airport lunch.The night before Arosha’s nose started running, so I’ve decided to pack his nebulizer and use it during the vacation. We ended up completely ruining it by the way, because it slipped my mind that voltage in Europe is different from the one in the USA, and unlike all the Apple devises that are designed for dual voltage, the nebulizer needed an adapter. Luckily, Arosha got better pretty quickly and the nebulizer was not needed throughout the vacation.

Overall, everyone was healthy enough for the trip, but I was a little anxious that everyone stays this way.

Our flight.On the day of the flight, which coincided with my birthday, we got up around 7, ate, finished packing little things like snacks and books and went to Daniеl’s parents. It seemed that the most sensible thing to do would be to leave the car near Daniеl’s parents, and get a cab to the airport. It worked out even better than that, because we did not have to get the cab — Daniеl’s dad drove us to the airport. He was not sure in advance if he’ll be able to do it because he recently had a minor surgery and was in recovery, but it all worked out. Daniеl’s mom was at work that day, but she cooked us delicious lagman and even bought cheesecake for desert, so we had a nice lunch and got some rest after a ride from home to Brooklyn.

Yellow tram of Milan.The flight itself was pretty uneventful. We were lucky to get 4 seats together in the middle section of the plane, so me and Daniеl took isle seats with the children seating in the middle. Arosha and Anuta both behaved wonderfully. Neither one of them liked plane food though, so they barely ate anything. Anuta managed to snooze for about 2 hours on our flight to Paris, where we had a stopover. Arosha slept for about an hour on the plane from Paris to Milan. That smaller plane did not have 4 seats together in a row, so Danya was separated from us by the isle. However, the flight was short, so it did not matter much.

In front of Milano Centrale railway station.When we arrived to Milan, everyone was pretty spent. We took a cab to our hotel. Funnily enough, the first people who tried to sell us their transportation services were nice up to the point when we said that the fixed price of 65 euros seems a little excessive and that we’ll try our luck with another company. They became somewhat rude, but it turned out that it cost us just 25 euros to get to the hotel by a metered cab. No wonder the price seemed high!

We stopped at the same Hilton as last time we visited Milan. It is very conveniently located by the train station, which made life a little simpler for us.

Window view from Hilton Milan.When we were booking the hotel room, we had to book the big family room on account of children. Sadly, there are much fewer such rooms in hotels, which makes sense I guess. As a consequence, Hilton was not able to check us in early as we had hoped. They were kind enough to let us use the executive lounge, which still served breakfast at the time of our arrival. Unfortunately, all of the rooms like ours were booked and we had to wait for the people to check out first, and then for the room to be cleaned, which apparently takes about 2 hours.

Sweet sleep.We ate breakfast at the executive lounge, then we walked to the train station and got tickets for the trips to Florence and Venice. We had to wait in line for over 30 minutes, but it was worth it, since the clerk was able to book us better seats at lower/deal prices, which were not available from the automated booth.

Sweet sleep.When we returned to the hotel, the room was still not ready, so we just stayed in the lobby falling in and out of sleep in turns. The adults that is. The children were not falling asleep, but in fact were pretty active and were playing different loud games. By the time we finally got into our room, we have not slept for 25 hours. I am still amazed at how well the children endured this whole hard day.

Window view.It was a little after 2 in the afternoon, so we went to bed and put an alarm clock to wake us at at 6 in the evening. It made sense to break the sleeping cycle for a few hours in the evening, lest we woke up in the middle of the night rested and unable to sleep. We went for dinner to the executive lounge. It had light snacks and drinks, and it was just enough. We went to bed shortly after that and slept until the next morning.
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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).

Alёna 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 Alёna’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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