Friday, September 28, 2018

Italy Vacation 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anniversary in Venice

Sunny day in Venice.Venice was the final stop of our Italian trip. We timed it so that our 6th wedding anniversary would fall on one of the days that we would be staying in Venice. In fact, originally we planned to spend 2 nights in Venice and 2 nights in Milan, but shifting one of those nights over to Venice was definitely the right thing to do.

Venice character.If I were to write a short story it would be this: Venice was magical. It really was the peak of our trip. Rome was a great place to start our vacation and Venice was the right place to finish. I’m glad that it wasn’t the other way around. And it really would be hard to find a more romantic place on Earth to celebrate our anniversary at. And our hotel was the most luxurious one of our whole trip. While other cities have places to see Venice itself is a place to see.

Canals of Venice.And now into the details. We arrived to Venice by high speed train sometime in the early afternoon. Venice has two train stops and luckily we did our research ahead of time, so we got off on the right one — the very last stop of the line. We were slightly worried about getting to our hotel as we had to catch the right “bus” boat since we couldn’t really walk to the right place and taxi-boats would be very expensive. However directions that we prepared ahead of the trip turned out to be very easy to follow.

Canals of Venice.Right after walking out of the train terminal we saw what looked like a bus stop, only for boats. We had two options — either take one directly to the island where our hotel was located and walk, or take the boat to the island across the canal and catch a shuttle provided by hotel directly to the doors.

Streets of Venice.We figured we’ll just take the one that shows up first — they had numbers just as buses do. The one that arrived first actually stopped at both places, but the shuttle schedule didn’t really line up, so we figured we’ll take a walk, even though we worried slightly that there might not be a sidewalk or something like that.

Hilton Molino Stucky Venice.Our hotel was located on an island called Guidecca, which is directly to the south, across the canal from the main Venice itself. The stop that we got off at was called Palanca. Turned out that the walk itself took no more than 10 minutes at a relaxed pace and the only slight complication was that we had to carry our luggage up to a pair of small bridges to cross the canals — no big deal at all. Soon after we were inside the lobby of Hilton Molino Stucky Venice hotel — the most expensive (point-wise) stop of our trip.

Our suite.Several days before our arrival I got an email from the hotel manager asking what is the occasion for our stay and I told him that we are celebrating our anniversary. When we arrived instead of getting an upgrade to executive floor (our Diamond VIP benefit) they actually upgraded us to an executive floor suite with a view of Venice. When I checked the actual cost of the room it clocked in at over $1,000 per night. And we were getting this for free.

Window view.The view really was great. Included breakfasts were usual Hilton style — full kitchen with hot food. And executive lounge provided free drinks and snacks all day long. We really did drink a lot of wine throughout our vacation. There was no way to walk to the main part of Venice, but there was a ferry running every 30 minutes provided by our hotel with two stops on the other side: Zattere — a stop right across the canal and San Marco — main squire of Venice. The ride to Zattere was about 5 minutes and to San Marco around 15.

Ponte dell'Accademia. View from Accademia Bridge — one of four bridges over the Grand Canal.We also soon realized that you can walk all across Venice by foot. All the places are interconnected by tiny bridges along with several large bridges across the Grand Canal — no need to figure out public transportation or anything like that. Plus Venice itself is pretty tiny and can be walked across in a short amount of time.

Streets of Venice.Now we heard things from people that Venice doesn’t smell good, is very hot and humid. It very well might be that during the summer, but it defiantly is not the case at the end of November. We didn’t notice any smells and the temperature was very mild.

Venice. Daniel.We actually lucked out with the weather. Less than a week before we got to Venice there were a lot of reports of Venice being completely flooded. When we were there it was perfectly fine and we didn’t see any signs of flooding. However right after we left the city got flooded again. Talk about good timing.

Foggy night.I also got a good amount of great photographs. First day was cloudy, second day was sunny and third and forth days were very very foggy which made the place even more cozy and romantic. The city definitely has character. We spent hours upon hours just walking around, looking for the tiniest and quietest streets and bridges we could find. All in all we absolutely loved it.

San Marco. The center of Venice.On the first day we just walked around and looked around and had a very nice dinner at Santo Stefano. Alena’s black ink risotto was especially nice.

Inside San Marco Cathedral.On the second day we went to explore the main square and San Marco Cathedral itself. It’s an eastern influenced architecture and has 5 domes more reminiscent of those that you would see on a mosque.

Piazza San Marco.There is also a high tower next to it. There are no stairs and only an elevator ride to the top. As a result it didn’t seem as impressive — there is no sense of accomplishment that I’ve experienced when I was at the top of the tower in Florence. But the weather was nice, so we got some bird-eye view photos.

View from the top of the tower.And we did a lot of wondering on this day as well. We also stopped by Venetian Guggenheim museum, and quickly realized that if you want to visit Guggenheim you do it in New York. They advertised that they had Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and such, but in reality had one of each. New York is where you go.

Anniversary dinner at Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.This was the day of our anniversary. We decided to find a dinner place somewhere on Giudecca for this night. We ended up walking all the way from our hotel on the west side of the island to the very eastern side of the island and in the process discovered only two open places. I guess in low season this island is really asleep. We ended up eating dinner at one of the places that we found online prior to our walk — Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.

Streets of Venice.Although the pictures that we saw showed a very rustic looking place when we got there it turned out that they renovated and ended up with plain white walls. Sounds like a mistake to me. The food however was good. We ordered a couple of appetizers, I had Venetian liver and if I remember correctly Alena had some fish. And of course more wine again. This also was the only place where our waiter (a young guy) had trouble understanding our English — probably one and only such occurrence during our whole trip.

Venice masks.On our third day we did a lot of wondering around again. I’m repeating myself — but what a beautiful place. On this day we started looking for something authentic to bring as a gift to my parents and something for ourselves. When we first arrived to Venice we noticed tons of shops selling masks. At first we thought that it was weird, but later on, when you start looking at them you see how really beatiful and well crafted some of them are — they are indeed art. However the trick is to find the real ones that are made in Venice and not some imports. At first imports might sound like a good deal price-wise, but when you hold both in your hands you feel a substantial difference.

Mask shop.We walked through a lot of stores until we found one that we really liked. This place didn’t even have a sign, but when we walked in it had a nice collection of all kinds of masks and there was no sales person to pester you. There was a master working on them. When we walked in he was picking the masks out of the forms and cutting them out. He greeted us and carried on doing his thing leaving us to look at everything at our own pace.

Venice. Fog.We ended up picking out the ones that we really liked and got a pair of them for a very nice price of about €50 each — it really is a good deal. I asked him to pose for a picture, but he, what seemed like a typical Italian, said that he doesn’t really like himself on pictures, but instead will do something else. So he grabbed a mask, a cape and a hat and stroke a rather cool pose for us. We were quite happy with our acquisition and were actually glad to see the process of those being created with our own eyes.

Streets of Venice.In the evening we picked another restaurant to eat at, but this was really the only time that we struck out with our random picking. Not that the place was bad or anything, it just wasn’t anything special either — and by now we were spoiled with our luck with restaurants.

Foggy day. Venice.When we got to our hotel we ordered a taxi to the airport. The price was quite high — €105 if I remember correctly. But we were aware of it from the time that we were booking planes and decided that we don’t want to fumble with public transportation and other people’s schedules on the day of our departure. My nerves are worth to me more than the money and me being me — this was money well spent.

Canals of Venice.In the morning taxi picked us up at our scheduled time and gave us the last ride through the romantic canals of this beautiful city. We arrived at Marco Polo aiport and had an uneventful non-stop flight back home. Now some time has passed and all those cities have a very fond place in my memory. So many great days and places I’ve seen with my bestest friend in the whole wide world, my beautiful wife.

Streets of Venice.P.S. I have a lot of great photographs of Venice left, but no room to post them. The city is just too photogenic.

Fog. View from our window.
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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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