Friday, December 21, 2012

Exploring Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Italian Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Vacation — Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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