Sunday, January 27, 2013

Day Trip To Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa.When we were planning our trip we couldn’t make up our mind whether we should rent a car and drive or if we should stick to trains as it has worked so well for us in Japan. After thinking and thinking we decided to go ahead and get the driver’s license anyhow and possibly try to rent a car for a single day, but traveling by trains seemed like an easier and less stressful thing to deal with and that’s what we did1. We ended up not visiting any small towns, but it was the right decision for the first trip.

Tuscany.We moved from city to city by rail via bullet trains. We used public transpiration around those cities and that was definitely the right thing to do. Even though city centers are quite busy and streets are tiny that wasn’t the scary part of driving. The scary part was the fact that there are some no driving zones even though roads lead there and tourists tend to drive into those parts and get fined. Plus who wants to deal with looking for parking on vacation?

The streets of Pisa.But having a European driver’s license in hand we figured that visiting Pisa would be a great time to try renting a car for a day. We were staying in Florence for 3 nights and Pisa is only 60 miles away. We weren’t quite sure if we’ll want to spend the day outside of Florence or if we’ll want to spend that day in Florence itself. However several things tipped the scale towards a drive to Pisa.

The streets of Pisa.First we arrived to Florence pretty early on Sunday. Somehow we budgeted the whole day for the train ride, but since the ride wasn’t all that long we ended up going to downtown area on that very day and saw a good portion of what we wanted to see — Duomo. We also did our climb to the top and took a good set of pictures. Our second objective in Florence was Uffizi Gallery and it was closed on Monday — we had Tuesday for that. Third is the fact that Pisa Tower is a very famous place and being so close to it and not seeing it would not make sense. And fourth was simply the fact that we wanted to get some out-of-the-country car renting experience under our belt.

In our Fiat on our way to Pisa.Before the trip I looked for car rental places, but all of them were near the central train station close to downtown or the airport. Neither one seemed exactly convenient, but I made a reservation near the train station, thinking that we’ll be spending time in the center of the city anyhow. On Monday morning we couldn’t really decide whether we still should do it. Driving out of the center is one thing, but not knowing where to drive is a whole other matter. Instead we went down to the reception desk of our hotel and asked if there were any rental places around. Turned out that Eurocar Rental was 5 minute walk away.

Our Fiat Panda.That’s where we went. Slowly moving guy, by American standards at least, said that they did have cars and their rates were very comparable to the rates that we got online for downtown rental. We also decided to include a GPS unit and all possible insurances that they were offering in addition to the mandatory theft insurance — none of my credit cards were offering insurance to cars rented in Italy and neither did my own car policy. The total for the day came out to $127. There were no hidden fees that and no problems whatsoever.

Central Pisa.One funny moment or maybe a silly moment for us was that we decided to boast how cheap the gas is for us in the U.S. and how we can easily afford to drive big, V8 powered cars to which the guy gave us a sobering reply: “Our medicine is free. My kids will go to college for free.” And something else along these lines. In his words it’s nice to be middle class in Italy, but if you want to be rich you have much more chances of making it in U.S. I personally will take my chances. All other countries are fun, but there is no place like home and New York is it.

Our Panda.Now that was a long introduction. At this point we finally got into our Fiat Panda which sported a 1.2 litter engine at the most, but which was unexpectedly roomy. The car came with a manual transmission. Luckily for me I had a pretty lengthy manual transmission experiment running during my younger days, so I had no problems driving a stick. All the traffic was also no big deal after New York. And with the help from our GPS unit we were soon speeding away from Florence and on our way to Pisa via autostrada A11.

Pisa.Weather-wise the day was less than stellar, no put intended. It was the only day when it actually rained throughout all of our trip. But it worked out OK for us. It only rained while we were driving and when we arrived to our destination the rain stopped. Rain was one of the reasons why we took a big highway straight to Pisa instead of small back roads. Another reason was the fact that we sill weren’t too sure of our navigational abilities, so we took the surest route. We hoped that on our way back we’ll take some smaller road and hopefully will get to stop in some small towns. Alas, that’s not how it worked out.

Parking meter and street signs.It took us an hour to get to Pisa. We spotted the tower from quite a bit away and soon after easily found parking fairly close to the central district of the city. There was a ton of elaborate signs explaining the parking rules, but in the end it came out to operating a very similar in use parking machine that New York City is covered in. We dropped the coins in, it spat a printed ticket out that goes behind the windshield. The restricted traffic zone was also very clearly marked, so I don’t think there really was a danger of us crossing into it accidentally.

Restricted traffic zone.We left our car and went on a hiking tour around Pisa. The town itself was somewhat of a cross between Florence and Rome architecture-wise, although the number of tourist was noticeably smaller than that of the other two cities. And beside the tower and central cathedral there really wasn’t much to do as far as our itinerary went. Even though the city itself has numerous other historic churches we decided to limit our whole Italian trip to the most famous locations in order to avoid a complete mess of memories at the end of our vacation.

Central Cathedral and Tower of Pisa.The famous tower itself is indeed a sight to behold. I knew the tower was leaning, I didn’t realize how much. It really stands at freakishly steep angle. In fact the angle was so freakish that we decided to forgo the climbing to the top tour — our only such omission during the whole trip. We took a good number of pictures, although I ran into another problem here. While all the normal towers on my pictures were falling down because of wide-angle distortion, this one was actually coming out straight. Quite ironic. As a result I don’t really have any pictures that I’m proud of from this particular place.

Mediterranean Sea coast.We walked about around the central area, took some more pictures of the main cathedral and headed back to our car. Our next objective was try to head up north along the coast of Mediterranean Sea as far as the day (sun) would allow. We actually wanted to get all the way to Manarola for its picturesque views and it was only 60 miles away, but there just wasn’t enough time. The sun was getting close to horizon by the time we were only half way there. So we stopped in one of the coastal resort towns — Marina di Pietrasanta — and took a nice walk along some pier and watched the sun set over the water. The town itself was virtually deserted, but it probably is bustling with activity during the summer months.

View from the pier.At this point we got back into our car and headed back to Firenze. Since it was dark out already we ended up not stopping or taking detours towards any of the small towns, even though we took a different road back. When we were getting closer to Florence I went into some panic mode — I know, so unusual — thinking that we won’t find the rental place, our hotel or any gas stations to fill the car up at. I really wanted to return the car this day and not have to wait until morning and worry about this chore the next day.

Resort town of Marina di Pietrasanta.“Strangely enough” there was no problem finding anything, although gas bill came out quite high even on 1.2 litter engine. We turned the car in and were back at our hotel room at around 7pm. Now I could truly relax and reflect on the experience of this fun and unique day. We decided not to take a bus to the center of the city and went to local restaurant for dinner on a recommendation of our hotel staff. We walked through the modern yet quite neighborhood of residential Florence, ate our dinner and drank our wine at Mi Amor restaurant, and were asleep soon after getting back to our cozy room of our Hilton Garden Inn.

  1. We did the math and buying a pass like we did in Japan didn’t make financial sense. In Japan the reservations were included in the price of the pass. In Italy reservations are mandatory and are not included in the price. []

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mexican Vacation

Caribbean sea.We’re home. Just yesterday in the morning some of us were swimming and Caribbean Sea and now we’re in cold, gray New York. But I must say no matter how good the vacation is it is always nice to come back home. Home, sweet home.

I want to take a moment and jot down some notes before the memories start to fade.


Flying out of JFK is sweet. The ride there is less than 20 minutes which keeps my departure fears in check and saves greatly on time and taxi fees.

Near the main pool.We had a bit of a scare during check-in. First we were told that we were missing some papers that we should’ve gotten for Alёna at Mexican consulate, so she can’t go. I kept insisting that I did call the consulate and the embassy and was told that we don’t need anything and kept making them recheck until they did figure out that everything is OK. That was scary 15 minutes.

After a relatively short flight1 we stood in a passport check line for about hour and a half. The line was huge and was moving slowly.

And going back was even more fun. When we got to the airport the line to AA (our airline) was spanning through half the terminal. We stood in it for 1.5 hours and started feeling that we’re not going to make it. At that time they started letting people bound for New York go ahead of the line. Ironically it turned out that pretty much all flights were delayed, including ours, so we wouldn’t have been late anyhow.

The whole “check-in” in JFK took about 10 minutes, which was nice.


Riu Palaces Las Americas in Cancun, Mexico.During check-in I gave $20 to the clerk and asked for 2 rooms to be next to each other, be on the highest floor they can give us, and have ocean view. Inside the resort, near the elevators on our, 6th, floor.I’m not sure if $20 did it, or just asking would’ve worked, but that’s what we got.

The room had a full fridge of beer and other drinks and there was a full bar of hard liquors. I proceeded to take a shot of tequila before putting down my bag. )

The territory of the resort was not too big, but it had 5 restaurants, a buffet, a couple of bars and a bunch of pools and jacuzzis.

And no matter where you were there were always somebody asking you if you wanted any kind of drink. So needless to say we drank our fair share or all things alcoholic.

Rooms didn’t have any internet, but there was a Wi-Fi connection in the lobby, which was half dead as well. But that’s probably should be added to the “pros” column.


This is the main part of the vacation. There was no plan, no place to rush to and it was great. Alёna, mama and Lina were on the beach getting their tan starting from 7am. Initially I was out there pretty early too, but as the time went by I kept sleeping later and later. )

On the beach near our hotel.The water in the sea was very clean and the color was beautiful. It was as warm as a sea can get and we did a lot of swimming. I took my Casio watch swimming with me every time and I it was cool not having to worry about it going bad and having the time right there with me.

The only bad part about the sea was the fact there was a lot sharp hidden stones under the water. Each one of us ended up hurting our feet pretty badly at one point or another.

Alёna sitting in the water on the Caribbean Sea beach.Besides that we treated ourselves to the spa with a massage, dry sauna and hot and cold jacuzzi. This was the first time either one of us got a massage. We all ended up liking it.

And obviously we did a lot of eating.


There is no question that there was a lot of choices. Buffets had different themes every night and there was a choice of 5 restaurants for dinner. For lunch there was buffet and Italian restaurant and for breakfast — just the buffet. There was also 24 hour free room service which a small selection of light meals.

A restaurant requires a reservation at least one night in advance, so our first 2 dinners were in buffet, but the rest were in the restaurants.

We tried out all the restaurants and I have to say that living in New York spoils you. Brazilian was a joke. A very sad parody of what a real Brazilian steak house really is. It got nothing on Plataforma and the service was horrible on top of that.

Japanese was a big disappointment for Lina and Alёna. And even thought I’m not a big sushi eater, I can tell when a Japanese place is good. The problem with this one was not the fact that it was bad — it just wasn’t Japanese. Anything, but Japanese.

Tio Pepe Spanish restaurant.Our 3rd visit was to the Spanish restaurant. We were impressed. Really interesting selection of meals, great atmosphere and great service.

Steak house was OK. I for some reason had grown tired of steaks, so I kept ordering different dishes in different places, but in steak house I had to go for a steak. As I’ve said, the steak was OK. I’ve had better, but it wasn’t bad.

And for our last night we went to a place called Krystal — a fusion of different cuisines. Another great place. Delicious food. I ordered bass and I loved it — this never happens. The atmosphere was really nice, you get greeted with champagne and friendly, funny servers.

Out of 5 restaurants I’d love to go to Krystal and Tío Pepe (Spanish cuisine) again and would stay away from Brazilian Rodizio.

Chichen Itza

On Wednesday we a took a tour to Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza it an ancient city built by Mayans.

The pyramid at Chichen Itza. Temple of Kukulkan.The price of a ticket for one person was about $99 and the private tour for 5 people was $348 + tickets2. The choice was obvious. We had a van all to ourselves with a driver and guide. Our guide was really mediocre and boring, but he showed us the right spots.

They used to place the heads of people they sacrificed on top of this.It was interesting to see the Mayan pyramid with our own eyes and the rest of the ruins of their city. They were a bloodthirsty and brutal civilization and a lot of their art and architecture depicts it.

Temple of the Warriors.Later on we drove to a swimming well. It seems to be a round deep crater filled with water, and you can swim in it. The distance from the top to the water is 75 feet and from than there is another 150 to the bottom.

Ik Kil Cenote by Chichen Itza.Sadly I managed to catch a cold a day before and by this time I had a fever of 38°, so papa ended up the only one going to swim. He said the water was not nearly as cold as he expected, it was very clean and there was a lot of fish swimming in there.


All in all it turned out to be a great vacation. It’s nice to sometimes have no agenda at all and just do a lot of nothing on a beautiful resort on the shore of a Caribbean Sea with family.

  1. 3 hours 40 minutes there; 3 hours 10 minutes back. []
  2. $110 pesos per person. Dollar was 15 pesos at the time. []
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Sunday, March 8, 2009


HDR shot of the main hotel pool in the evening.We are back from swimming in Caribbean Sea for the first time ever. The color of water is nothing short of amazing and reminds me of Hawaii.

Riu Palace Las Americas resort is located right on the beach.The hotel is as good as hotels go. There are five restaurants and a buffet. So far we’ve been to buffet only, but we have reservations to Brazilian and Japanese for dinner tomorrow and on Tuesday.

Main pool of Riu Palace Las Americas during the day.Hotel has a bunch of pools and jacuzzis, but everyone is swimming in the warm waters of the sea.
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