Friday, February 17, 2017

Bruges and Ghent Day Trip

Bruges. Bruges Photo Point.During our latest November vacation to Europe our longest stay was in Brussels — 4 nights and almost 5 days since the ride from Paris takes only 1 hour. Our 10th wedding anniversary — November 23rd — also happened to fall on that stay in Brussels.

Street of Bruges.The reason why we made the stay in Brussels longer than in other cities and to make our anniversary stand out more we planned to take a side trip to a pair of old Belgium cities — Bruges and Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.As with all our side-trips there was a slight fear that we might flake out and not make it as happens with about half of our planned trips of such kind. In our overseas vacations we managed to keep our trip to Miyajima Island in Japan and we rented a car for a day to drive to Pisa in Italy. Yet we didn’t make it to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany nor did we visit Toledo while in Spain. Luckily us skipping out wasn’t the case here.

Streets of Bruges.What made this trip especially easy was the fact that trains running to Bruges and Ghent originate from Brussels Central Station which was located right across a tiny square from the entrance to our hotel — extremely convenient.

Our train tickets.I did a little bit of research beforehand and knew that we could buy an open “via” ticket — no specific time — which would allow us to break our trip in two on the same ticket. In other words we could go to Bruges, get off at Ghent on our way back if we felt like it and get back on the train to finish the trip off. And this whole privilege ended up costing us only a couple of extra euros.

Bruges train station.We were definitely set on seeing Bruges which was the farthest of the two cities and it also was older than Ghent. I wasn’t sure if we were going to stop at Ghent at all and neither was Alёna. So we got on a train and in a little more than an hour were standing at Bruges train station.

Streets of Ghent.The unfortunate thing for us was that it was the only day of our whole vacation when it was really raining. When we left Brussels in the morning it seemed like it would be a nice day, bus alas, it wasn’t. In fact it was raining to hard that we had to find a store to acquire a pair of umbrellas. But overall walking through an old town and it’s narrow empty streets and rain soaked alleys ended up being quite romantic.

Bruges central square.When we got closer to the center we stepped inside Sint-Salvator Cathedral for a couple of minutes, but it was pretty bleak inside compared to some of the other cathedrals we have seen in Europe. And soon after we were on the central square of Bruges which had a good number of tourists all over it. However the rain was still strong, so we didn’t walk around too much.

Belfry of Bruges.Instead we decided to climb to the top of Belfry of Bruges. It’s 83 meters tall and it takes 366 steps to get to the top. But the views from the top were magnificent, as expected, including the main squire right below. I also spotted some waterfront from the top to which we walked to and took some nice shots. It seems that it actually is a pretty popular place for photography.

View from the top of Belfry.After the tower we ate lunch at some Italian place and then the rain was done. So we did walk through those streets and numerous and numerous chocolateries.

Waffle on a stick.I’m not a fan of any sweets, but we bought Alёna a waffle on a stick and bought a pair of artisan chocolate bars for our kids — white chocolate for Arosha as he doesn’t like dark chocolate and dark for Anюta. I also liked how chocolate looked when it was made in a form of rusty nuts, bolts and pliers of all kinds.

Artisan chocolate.That was our visit to Bruges. We started to walk back to the train station trying to take a different route through more old quite streets. And at some point we just stood on one of those tiny streets making out — it was our 10th anniversary after all.

10th wedding anniversary!We got on a train to Brussels feeling ready to go back to our hotel. But then we though — why are we so set on skipping Ghent? It was only around 5pm and we had a ton of time to stop by there as well. Both of us felt kind of happy that suddenly decided to visit it — again, not sure why both of us were sure that we won’t make it to Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.We checkout out the map and went towards the old center of the city. It took us about 40 minutes at a decent pace to get there. We went though the usual streets of Ghent, looking at people going about their business, returning home from their day of work. When we were getting closer to the center the sun was gone, the streets got tinier and lights from all the trams running along those streets made everything look really cozy.

Ghent's main square.We walked around the main squire taking some pictures of Saint Nicholas’ Church and Het Belfort van Gent set against a dark blue sky. Sadly by now it was too late for us to climb the tower. We spent some time admiring the old structures and all the atmosphere of this place and set back to the train station.

Saint Nicholas’ Church.We also saw that there was a ton of trams running all around the city and it turned one of those runs directly back to the train station. So we hopped onto it, bought the tickets from the driver and were back on a train station soon after. Catching a train to Brussels was also very easy and soon we were back at our home away from home. We were so tired that we just went to our executive lounge for a free dinner. It was a good day.

Streets of Ghent.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels. Park by Atomium.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Испания — Барселона

Avinguda Diagonal. Barcelona.Ну что ж, еще один отпуск позади! Пора писать, пока мысли и ощущения не потускнели в каждодневных хлопотах.

Конечно, я знала, что Испания и Португалия — это южная Европа, но всё равно меня почему-то очень поразили пальмы и апельсиновые деревья. Первые дни я то и дело удивлялась, а потом привыкла и уже принимала их как должное. Еще меня очень удивило то, что в Испании очень мало и плохо говорили по-английски. Я-то думала, что все европейцы из развитых стран как минимум двуязычны (со вторым английским языком), но это оказалось не так. Вот думаю, что надо будет Ароше выучить испанский — очень даже может в жизни пригодиться. В Португалии же, напротив, все могли обьяснится по-английски — кто-то лучше, кто-то хуже, но не владеющих английским языком людей мы там не встретили.

Streets of Barcelona.Все города мне понравились по-своему. Пожалуй, немного худшее впечатление произвёл Мадрид — своей грязью и подозрительного вида типами в людных местах — но и в нём несомненно есть свои прелести и интересные места.

In front of one of Gaudi's buildings.Начали мы наше путешествие с каталонской столицы Барселоны. Кстати, я и не знала, что существует каталанский язык, который совсем не похож на испанский и активно используется в Каталонии наряду с испанским языком.

Hilton of Barcelona.Прилетели мы в Барселону рано, и в гостинице были часам к 10 утра. Нам повезло — в гостинице в это время уже была свободная комната и нам не пришлось ждать до 14 или 16 часов дня чтобы заселиться. Мы немного отдохнули, и пошли гулять по городу.

Av. Diagonal.Барселона оказалась очень чистой, с ухоженными домами, на балкончиках которых очень часто гордо висели каталонские красно-жёлтые флаги, с маленькими уютными детскими площадками, с большим количеством красивых зданий, с пальмами и, конечно, мотоциклистами. Мотоциклистов в Барселоне ну просто пруд пруди. Причём мне показалось, что для большинства людей мотоцикл — это не принадлежность к определённой сабкультуре со всеми вытекающими отсюда последсвтиями, а просто средство передвижения.

Streets of Barcelona.В первый день мы просто пошли вперед по широкому проспекту, идущему вдоль нашего отеля, а когда решили свернуть на понравившуюся аллею, то с удивелнием обнаружили, что мы оказались на известной Ла Рамбле, которую хотели посетить. На Рамбле было много кафешек на открытом воздухе, но несмотря на относительно тёплую погоду, мы решили перекусить где-нибудь в помещении.

Inside Cathedral of Barcelona.Еще до поездки Даня читал, что на Ла Рамбле надо держать ухо востро, потому что там много карманных воришек. Мы старались быть осторожными, но честно говоря, там было не очень много людей и момента, когда я могла бы заволноваться о своей собственности у меня не было.

La Rambla.Мы прошли по Рамбле до Готического квартала, по которому тоже немного подбродили. Мне барселонский Готический квартал сразу напомнил Флоренцию. Те же каменные старые здания, узкие улочки, мощёные булыжником дороги. Мы дошли до Барселонского Собора. Площадь перед ним мне очень понравилась в первую очередь из-за уличных музыкантов, которые очень хорошо играли на гитарах. От их музыки создавался особый настрой и теперь в моём сознании Готический квартал Барселоны прочно ассоциируется с гитарными ритмами.

Inside Casa Mila.Поужинать мы решили недалеко от гостиницы. Нам очень хотелось попробовать испанскую кухню, и была надежда, что в ресторанчике под не очень благозвучным для нашего уха названием Piscolabis будет вкусно, несмотря на средненькие отзывы о нём на Trip Advisor. К сожалению, приятного сюрприза не произошло. Еда была сьедобной и сытной, но не более того. Вкусной её не назовёшь. Мы заказали по пиву и штук 5 разных тапас — закусок, распространённых в Испании. Единственное, что мне на самом деле понравилось — это оливки.

Tapas by our hotel at Piscolabis.Вообще надо сказать, что несмотря на то, что иногда мы в Испании ели вкусно, еда в целом была так себе. С нами такое случилось впервые — обычно во время отпуска в другой стране мы не могли нахвалиться национальным кухням, а в Испании уже на третий день при слове “тапас” пропадал аппетит. Паэлья нам тоже не понравилась — но мы и раньше её не очень-то любили, просто думали, что в оригинальном исполнении она будет лучше. Зато нам очень понравилась испанская иберийская ветчина, по-испански хамон. Хамон, особенно от свиней вскомленных желудями, блюдо дорогое, но вкусное. Больше всего он мне напомнил поляндвицу и кумпяки, которые готовили мои бабушка и дедушка, несмотря на то, что в случае моих родственников мясо коптили, а испанский вариант — сыровяленный.

Inside Sagrada Familia.Следующий день мы посвятили Гауди и его постройкам. Начали мы с парка Гуэля, куда добрались на такси. Денёк был очень тёплый, и в парке мы даже сняли куртки. Парк оказался большим — мы там довольно долго бродили. Было много музыкантов, играющих на совершенно разных инструментах — от волынки до цимбал. Сами постройки мне понравились, но из-за того, что я их уже видела не один раз на фотографиях, какого-то особо сильного впечатления не произвели.

Sagrada Familia.После парка, мы пошли в Храм Святого Семейства, или Саграда Фамилия. Этот храм, работы над которым начались в конце 19 века по проекту Гауди, до сих пор находится в процессе постройки. В принципе это не очень удивительно, ибо многие знаменитые церкви строились не одно столетие. Несмотря на незавершённость, Саграда Фамилия поражает своей красотой и необычностью как снаружи, так и внутри. Я не очень разбираюсь в архитектуре и не владею правильной лексикой, но мне запомнились разноцветные витражи, колонны в виде деревьев и вообще когда мы были внутри, то мне казалось, что я нахожусь в каком-то подводном царстве. К сожалению, на крышу мы не попали, потому что день был ветренный и туда не пускали из соображений безопасности.

Park Guell.После посещения Саграды Фамилия мы снова пошли в готический квартал. Мы там немного побродили, а потом наобум зашли в какой-то ресторан подкрепиться. Выбор наш оказался неудачным — тапас там были не слишком свежими, а паэлья слишком жирной. После еды мы побродили еще немного, посетили площадь со огромной статуей Колумба, доехали на метро до гостиницы, где вскоре после небольшого ужина в executive lounge отправились спать.

Casa Mila.В наш последний полный день в Барселоне мы посетили еще две знаменитые постройки Гауди — дом Мила и дом Бальо. Находились они относительно недалеко от гостиницы, так что мы дошли до них пешком.

Inside Casa Mila.В доме Мила, или камелономне, как её когда-то прозвали не очень впечатлённые постройкой барселонцы, сразу чувствуется рука Гауди. Извилистые фасады, своеобразные функциональные статуи на крыше, внутренние дворики, несущие осветительные и вентиляционные фунции… Внутри дома находится квартира-музей, обустроенная предметами быта испанкой буржуазии начала 20 века. Мы эту квартиру посетили, было довольно интересно. Еще мы поднялись на крышу.

Casa Batlló.Дом Бальо находится совсем близко от “каменоломни”, так что мы туда быстро дошли пешком. Внутрь дома Бальо мы не пошли — только полюбовались на “рыбий” фасад сидя на скамеечке напротив, сделали пару фотографий, и отправились дальше.

Потом мы снова дошли до Барселонского Собора, и на этот раз зашли внутрь и забрались на крышу, с которой открывался неплохой вид на Барселону.

Cathedral of Barcelona.Потом мы решили пообедать, но на этот раз, чтобы снова не поесть чего-нибудь невкусного, мы опирались на помощь Trip Advisor. Даня подключился к интернету возле какого-то ресторанцика с бесплатным вай-фаем, и для обеда мы выбрали ресторан под названием Xaloc с относительно высоким рейтингом.

Park Guell.Еда там была очень даже неплохая — закуски хорошие (хотя “русский салат” наподобие “мимозы” есть было скучно), Данино мясо оказалось очень вкусным, ну а мои кальмары средненькими. Я их взяла в первую очередь из-за соуса айоли, который несколько раз делала дома сама, но хотела попробовать в оригинале. Мой соус мне нравится больше. Еще мы зашли в джелатерию и я заказала какие-то экзотические сорта джелато — из маракуйи и инжира. Было неплохо, но, наверное, слишком холодно, чтобы насладится холодной сладостью по полной программе.

Dinner at Xaloc.На следующий день нас ждал Мадрид.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Imaginarium Railroad

Wooden trains.When we were considering what to buy for Arosha for his 3rd birthday we were thinking of a bicycle. However after trying some at Toys “R” Us we understood that it probably was not right for us this year. The fact that Arosha can’t really handle it yet is normal — he needs a bicycle to learn to ride a bicycle. The problem was that they were all quite heavy and it will be hard for Alena to manage Arosha, bicycle and a brand new baby during their walks. We put it off until the next spring.

Wooden railroad sets.Instead we decided to get him a pair of railroad sets. He really likes building stuff out of his LEGO bricks, so we figured this would be a different type of sets that he could build. We spent quite a bit of time trying to pick out the brand that we wanted to go with and then after we did that we tried to pick 2 sets out of 3 available. In a funny coincidence Ignat, Vika and Alisa presented Arosha with the 3rd set on his birthday. Instead of setting them up as separate sets we re-imagined it and connected all of them into a big massive system.

I decided to take a couple of pictures before we dismantle it to get the carpet vacuumed to commemorate our grand construction. Not sure what it’s going to look like when we build it the next time.
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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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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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