Thursday, September 8, 2011

Italy Trip - 7th Installment

Pictures for this entry are at:

Monday, July 11th
We slept well at Castel di Luco. Breakfast was included with the room, as it was at most of the places we stayed, so rang the castle doorbell around 9am to collect our croissant and Nutella. Apparently even pseudo-royalty doesn't eat meat or cheese for breakfast. But it was hard to complain when the spread an entire table of food out just for you (1). Breakfast didn't take long (still full from "lunch" the day before) so we snapped a few more pictures of the frescoes and decorations in the dining rooms (2-4), packed up our stuff, and set off on foot back down the mountain to Acquasanta to meet Linda. Francesco kindly offered to drive us (by gesturing like he was holding a steering wheel), but I was looking forward to walking so we just said "grazie" and left.

Linda had offered to meet us back at the first hotel and take us to the Comune to inquire about family records. Practically before we could even say good morning she had a poster sized family tree unrolled for us to admire. I mean literally a family tree drawn on paper (5-6). One of her relatives was a nun and had traced their family back 12 generations. It was astonishing work. Then she led us the 3 blocks or so through the town (7-8) to the Comune.

The Comnue occupied at least 2 floors of a rather small building but the records seems to be concentrated on the 2nd floor. The helpful lady working that morning found Ali's great grandfather's birth record (9-10) in a matter of minutes after we gave her names and dates. Apparently they had at least a hundred years of records from the town in a room probably the size of your living room. A few minutes more and she had a large book open in front of us with the marriage record. She made a photo copy for us that I haven't scanned in yet. She also created and printed several copies of an official birth record for us to take home. The marriage license was a treasure trove of information. Ali's great grandparents were married in a civil service. Michele was 27, Maria just 17. The document also had the names of their parents, which was new information for the Sestile family.

With Linda's help we had already found much more information than we had even dreamed of. We copied down the address for the Comune so we could request more information in the future and walked back to the main part of town. We promptly ran into Francesco from the castle. Now that we had a translator we could tell him what we were up to. Like Francesca at the hotel, he quickly grabbed a phone book and started cold calling (11-12). No luck, but it was a nice gesture. We also spoke with one of the gentleman from the day before (13) who gave us one more clue to track down. There was a teacher at the local school whose mother's maiden name was Sestili.

We climbed a lot of stairs (14) to get up to the school to meet Rita (15). I suppose it must have been summer vacation there too because there weren't any kids around, despite it being the middle of the day. Linda introduced us and told her why we were there. She immediately called her mother to ask about the family name. We're a little fuzzy on the details but we think it's likely Rita is a distant cousin of Ali's. Her grandfather, or possibly great grandfather, was a Sestili and would have been about the same age as Ali's great grandfather. Rita even invited us to stay with her if we ever made it back to Acquasanta. Before the trip I had pondered the idea of trying to stay with a distant relative if we could find one but I never pursued it since the family didn't know of any distant relatives still in Italy. We might just have one now!

It's hard to tell when someone is turning down a gift to be polite and when they genuinely don't want it. We assumed Linda was turning down our offer for lunch to be polite so Ali kept asking until she relented. She had spent several hours helping us and we really wanted to treat her to lunch as a thank you and to spend a little more time just talking with her before we left for Rome. She took us to a local place (as if there were any other kind of restaurant around) called Pizzeria Ristorante (17). Now, I don't speak Italian but that sure sounds like Italian for "Hole in the Wall Pizza Place." The owner's name was Bruno (18) and Linda new him well. It was a bit like having our Italian chef friend cook for us in his home. We never saw a menu and there was no need.

Louisa, our Irish friend from the train had raved about some kind of pasta called carbonara. It has bacon so what more do you need to know? We mentioned wanting to try it so Bruno made up a plate of that and another kind of pasta. Each plate could have fed 4 people by itself. They were both good, although we preferred the alternate pasta and Bruno confirmed our correct choice. We had already had an appetizer of proscuitto and a local fruit but we couldn't turn down the lamb he offered next. Last he brought out three different kinds of liqueur for us to try. It was a fantastic lunch (19-22) and we had a chance to talk with Linda about her life and her husband. She invited us to visit her in Canada when she got back and we of course offered her room and board in Texas if she ever made it to Dallas.

After lunch Linda took us to the convenience store to get our bus tickets for the ride to Rome that afternoon. We had about 3 hours to kill so we said goodbye to Linda and went to explore the town some more. We walked down to the river first and observed some locals caking mud all over themselves (23). Ali guessed it was some kind of beauty treatment. I guessed they must not have been using it very long. Since we weren't interested in a mud bath we just walked back up to the hotel, snapping some photos along the way (24-28).

We still had an hour to kill so we sat down outside the hotel (29-30) where we stayed the first night and I took some time to write in the journal. After about 30 minutes my concentration was broken by a "Hey, are you the Americans?" Good grief, can anything more unexpected happen on this trip? I looked up and an American couple a little older than us were sitting down. They had heard we were in town asking around about family.

Vincent and Nancy had been married at Castel di Luco and that's where their Italian adventure had begun. It had started much like ours, with a vacation trip to his ancestral hometown. One thing led to another and now Vincent is a dual citizen and they had been living in Acquasanta for a year. Nancy already seemed tired of it. We chatted with them until the bus arrived, exchanging contact info as we had with all of our new friends. The bus pulled up to the stop across the street and I probably seemed rather rude when I grabbed our bags and jumped with barely a goodbye, but I didn't want to get left.

I don't think I've ever been car sick before. But I've also never ridden on the top of a double decker bus winding up and down and back and forth through the Italian mountains. I closed my eyes and tried not to barf. I don't believe I've ever written the word barf before. The bus ride was about 3 hours and after we got out of the mountains it was more pleasant. We had reserved a room in Rome at a hotel called the Bee Hive. From the Trip Advisor entries it sounded like a trendy little place that catered to Americans. At least we matched half the characteristics of their typical clientele.

The hotel itself didn't have any rooms available but they had a shared apartment a few blocks away that we had reserved a room in. If you count the night we left Texas, this was now the 9th straight night we'd be in a different room. We checked in at the main hotel, got our instructions for getting into the apartment, and headed out into the heart of Rome. As we walked towards the apartment the streets began to get dirtier and smellier. Clearly this was not a block of town popular with tourists. It did, however, seem to be popular with Indian immigrants.

The front door to the apartment building looked a bit like a prison cell door. By this time I was heavily second guessing our choice in rooms. We went through another cell door guarding the staircase up to our floor (31). Next to the staircase was the smallest elevator you've ever seen (32) which we took up to the 4th floor. It was really more like a pod than an elevator. The apartment was fairly large and had 3 rooms with a common living room, kitchen, and bathroom. One of our roommates came in a few minutes after us. He had lived in Rome before so we were a bit concerned when the first thing he says to us about this area of town was "if it seems a little shady, it's because it is." Thanks, that made me feel better. We debated for a little while but decided to keep the room.

About 9pm Ali decided she needed something for dinner. I wasn't hungry, probably due to my anxiety about where we were staying. We walked back down the street a couple blocks and grabbed some takeout from a little hole in the wall place that was on par with one of those quasi-chinese fast food places in a mall food court. But I actually felt much better about our room as we walked back. It was well after dark, but there was nobody loitering on the streets, no gun shots in the background, it seemed safe. Our roommate even backed off a little when we pressed him and said he had lived in this area before and never had a problem. So the apartment was adequate, though incredibly unromantic (33-40) and we wouldn't be spending much time there anyways. Most importantly, we were scheduled for 2 nights there, the first 2 nights in the same bed in almost 2 weeks. We crashed fairly early knowing we had a full day of hard core Roman site seeing the next day.

Next up: Colloseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, etc. etc.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Italy Trip - 6th Installment

Pictures for this installment are at:

Sunday, July 10th
Our room at the hotel in Acquasanta was plain, but more than adequate (1-2). The views out the window in the morning of the mountainside and the rest of the town were probably the best we'd had since we got to Italy (3-7). Breakfast in the hotel restaurant was simple, which we had come to expect in Italy. Nutella was served liberally. The building seemed to be pretty old and the stonework was beautiful (8-11). So was the furniture (13). We found more pictures of Acquasanta near the turn of the century hanging on the walls (14-15).

After breakfast things got weird, or amazing. Alison told Francesca, the hotel owner, why we were in Acquasanta. In what seemed like a completely natural reaction, Francesca pulled out her phonebook to begin cold calling Sestili's and Clerici's (16-18), the surnames of Alison's great grandparents. We couldn't understand what she was telling them of course, but it was a very nice gesture that didn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Still, we had no expectations when we arrived so any help at all was a welcome blessing.

Then another lady walked in and seemed to be waiting to speak with Francesca. She was speaking Italian at first but as she realized we were American she introduced herself in English as Linda, a Canadian by birth who had married an Italian and lived there for 30 years. For some reason she instantly took a liking to us and offered to take us around town to talk with some of the seniors about the family names. We had discussed trying to hire a translator for a few hours and here we had someone volunteering! So off we went into town with Linda to do some genealogical sleuthing.

Being a Sunday morning in a small town, there was no shortage of gray hairs outside the several caffes near the hotel (19). Linda began introducing us and asking about possible descendents. We were also learning about Linda at the same time (20). She was an opera singer, a soprano, and had married an Italian opera singer, apparently fairly well known, though I don't travel in opera circles. He had passed away several years before and it was clear she deeply missed him. But she was looking forward to returning to Canada soon to be near her sister. She had some bad blood with some of the people in the town because of how they had treated her husband. One of the men she introduced us to she hadn't spoken to in years, and had never forgiven him for whatever it was he had done. Perhaps not surprisingly he made some snide comment about Ali not being able to speak Italian, which Linda refused to translate (21). After probably 45 minutes of strolling around we learned that there were many Sestili's in Ascoli, where we had come from on the taxi, and possibly some Sestili's and Clerici's still in Acquasanta. But we needed to come back to the Comune, the local municipal office, on Monday morning to have them pull records. So Linda agreed to meet us again the next morning to help. We couldn't have hired a better guide!

Already having learned more than we hoped for, we returned to the hotel to pick up our bags. Our reservation for Sunday night was at the medieval Castel di Luco, only a couple miles up the road. We cinched up our backpacks, got crude directions from Francesca, and set off back up the main highway towards Ascoli. Our hike to the castle turned out to be my favorite adventure of the trip.

Acquasanta Terme is actually a collection of small towns connected by common government and mountain roads. So while the castle was in Acquasanta Terme, it was actually a couple towns over from Acquasanta proper. We turned off the main highway just outside of the main drag in Acquasanta and immediately began heading up (22-24). So far we seemed to be following our napkin map okay. We reached the next town, Santa Maria I think (25-26), and any doubts about us being outside the tourist routes were dispelled. We could feel the stares, if not see them, but I think it was more curiosity than anything. In Santa Maria, we looked up to an open window where some ladies were chatting and asked in a questioning tone "Castel di Luco?" They pointed us towards an alley where we saw some stairs that Francesca had described.

We climbed some more as we exited Santa Maria until we saw Paggese (27), the next town over. We knew the castle was just outside Paggese but the road divided so we had to make a choice. Taking the steeper route we approached a man walking his dog. Again, we gave the questioning "Castel di Luco?" He was very friendly and motioned in a couple directions but eventually managed to communicate that if we went left it was 1 km, and if we went right it was 2 km. Tough choice. As we left Paggese, still climbing, we saw the sign for Castel di Luco (28). Our casual walk had turned into a moderately strenuous hour and half hike. Good thing we brought backpacks!

The access road to the castle was another half mile long but it gave a very nice view as we approached (29-36). It wasn't very large, at least not by my hollywoodized idea of what a castle is, and there wasn't a soul in sight (37). We wandered around some of the outer buildings for a few minutes, unsure about whether to go up to the main part of the castle since there was a clear private property sign. Eventually we decided we had no choice, walked up the stairs (38) to the front door, and literally rang the door bell (39). A lady not much older than us answered the door and we showed her our reservation confirmation. She spoke a little English and walked us back down to the building where our room was.

Our room was in a remodeled building that had once been a barn or stable or something. They had used the original walls but redone the interior (40-48). It was easily the nicest room we had stayed in and it seemed that we were the only guests there. It was on the second floor of the building and the roof of the room below us made a small terrace outside our door (49). The castle itself was privately owned and had been in the same family for several generations. The family lived on the premises and probably used the bed and breakfast revenue as a small supplement to maintain the castle. We were informed that lunch would be served in the main castle if we wanted to eat. Although we were pretty sweaty from our hike we didn't linger in the room long since it was already 12:30.

The main castle was circular, with a courtyard in the middle (50-52). About half the rooms on the bottom floor had been converted into a dining room. They had seating for maybe 75 people but we were the only ones there (53). The husband of the lady who had shown us to our room was named Francesco and would be waiting on us for lunch. He spoke no English but offered to give us a brief tour of the lower floor of the castle. We followed along and he did his best arm waving and charades to explain what each of the rooms was. In the room next to where we were eating there was an old loom (54) and small mouse trap (55). We saw the sun dial (59), a cistern for holding water (60-61), a former winery (62-63), and the dungeon (65-67).

Two plates of food were delivered to our table a few minutes after we finished our impromptu tour. We had some cured meats, like proscuitto, and canteloupe. We polished that off quickly and sat patiently. We had learned that Italians seem to think it's rude for the waiter to bring the check of his own accord, so typically you must ask for it. We were still hungry but after several minutes of waiting we thought maybe they just served a light lunch and we needed to ask for the check. But as we debated, Francesco brought out two more plates with veggies, spinach cheese bread, and fried zucchini. Dish #2 was delicious. Glad that we had gotten a little more to eat it was a bonus when he brought out the polenta next, dish #3. Then came the pasta with meat sauce, dish #4 (68-69).

By now we were wondering just what kind of lunch this was. We knew a traditional italian meal included an antipasti, a first plate, a second plate, and I suppose a dessert. We had never ordered all those things because from our experience each one was as big as a normal American entree. He brought out a salad next, dish #5, and as we counted the dishes we figured this must be it. Nope. Dish #6 was a pork plate (70) and by this time we had been at lunch for over 2 hours and were completely stuffed. When the Bible talks about feasts in heaven I think I have a better understanding of what it means now. Dish #7 (71) was lamb with truffles (mushrooms). Mercifully, dessert was next. The dessert was a selection of biscotti like cakes and a dessert wine for dipping (72-73). Also a panna cotta with a strawberry topping. Ali liked the panna cotta so much Francesco offered her another one, which to my shock, she accepted. I don't know where she put it. The final count was 8 courses in a total of almost 3.5 hours. It was worth every penny of the $100 we paid.

Wasn't much to do after that. We wandered the grounds a little more (74-82) and then went back to the room for a nap. Later that evening we went out for a night stroll. There really wasn't anywhere to go but the night views of the castle were spectacular (83). Then I stepped on a slug (84).

Next up: Family history at the Comune, bus ride to Rome, the Beehive

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Italy Trip - 5th Installment

Pictures for this entry at:

Saturday, July 9th
I thought I'd start by sharing one more story from Friday in Venice. Our only hotel reservation for the trip was at a medieval castle near Acquasanta for Sunday evening. Friday afternoon we decided we'd try to stay Saturday night in Acquasanta. When we got back to the hotel to rest before dinner Friday evening we decided to try and make our reservation in Acquasanta for Sat. night. Reasoning that it was a small town and we'd likely not get someone on the phone that spoke English we asked the clerk at the hotel in Venice for help. He spoke English but still didn't understand what we wanted. So while I took a short nap Ali grabbed the Italian phrase book to study before making the call.

I had managed to find a hotel in Acquasanta on the internet so it was just a matter of making the call and communicating. After 30 minutes of studying, Ali dialed the number. "Parla Inglese?" was always our first question. Surprisingly, the lady did speak some English, but not to let her studying go to waste, Ali proceeded in Italian anyways. The "conversation" was short. But she hung up knowing we had a room, how much it cost, and that it had a private bath. Since we're married we share our victories, so we headed out for a little pre-dinner gelato to celebrate. She had celery and ginger flavored gelato. Really, she was literally picking celery strings out of her teeth. Chock it up to another interesting experience that doesn't need to be repeated.

Okay, on to Friday morning. Getting to Acquasanta was not difficult but not quite as straight forward. We needed to catch a regional train to San Benedetto along the eastern coast and then a milk run train to Ascoli Piceno, about 40 minutes further inland, and finally a bus to Acquasanta, a final 20 minute ride. Having not checked the train schedules the night before we ended up in a rush getting to the station in Venice to catch a 10:30 train. Total travel time would be about 6 hours and wanted to get into Ascoli early since we didn't know where to catch the bus and we would most certainly have more difficulty finding someone who spoke English.

We rushed into the train station with 15 minutes to buy our tickets and board the train. No problem. The automated machines were a snap, only I couldn't find the automated machines. They had the station divided in half for some remodeling and I was on the wrong half. Ali finally got in line for the travel agency while I kept looking. When I did find the machines I discovered the 10:30 and 11:20 trains already sold out. I got back to the travel agency just in time to stop Ali from buying the tickets so we could regroup. The 12:30 train was our only option, and that would put is into Ascoli pretty late, much later than I wanted. Let the adventure continue. With time to kill now, we walked back out of the train station to find breakfast.

Our travel day to Acquasanta was supposed to be uneventful, with plenty of time for me to catch up on my writing. The first hour was (1). Our first short leg was on a nice Eurostar train. In Bologna we changed trains and lost our reserved seats. This was our first time on a train with the cabin layout instead of a center aisle. The train was laid out with cabins on one side, each having 3 seats per side facing each other. A single narrow aisle ran on one side of the cabins with seats that folded out from the wall. You could even get one cheek on them when someone wasn't trying to walk through the aisle. Oh, and was stiflingly hot. Fortunately, the a/c caught up after half an hour and it was bearable.

We shared our little section of the aisle with a very nice Irish girl names Louisa (2) who was in Italy for the summer teaching English. She was on a break and going to the beach for the weekend. She had told us about her sweet American roommate who seemed to know about nothing outside of America. Louisa had tried to explain that yes, even though Ireland is really small it can still be a country. When we got on the train we had impressed her with our light packing ability and we were only too happy to fight the ignorant American stereotype as well. Unfortunately, I may enforced the arrogant American stereotype when I declared I wouldn't live anywhere in Europe. Nothing personal, just don't like the socialism. We talked the entire time we shared the train and it was probably one of the most enjoyable conversations we had with anyone we met on our trip. She confirmed that yes, Europeans love Nutella, although amazingly she had never had peanut butter, and explained the Italians' obsession with hygiene as the reason for the ubiquitous squatty potty. It was difficult to understand how they were more hygenic, but it did explain why the Italian guy in St. Mark's square shrinked away from us like we had leprosy when we offered him and his daughter our extra pigeon feed.

No sooner had Louisa departed for her beach trip than we struck up a conversation with 4 ladies in the booth across from us. Somehow we had mentioned we were going to San Benedetto, which was their destination, and then on to Ascoli Piceno. The two older ladies were from Ascoli originally although had lived in Australia most of their adult lives. One of the ladies had her two daughters with her and they were all going to see family still in Italy. They told us all about Ascoli and how wonderful the region was. I think they would have invited us to their house if we had been staying in San Benedetto. We departed the train in San Benedetto with the four Italian/Australian ladies. Before leaving, the ladies escorted us to the right platform for our next departure and posed for a picture for us (3). As with our other friends we had made we wrote down their contact info in our journal.

If I had just woken up at the station in San Benedetto I have have thought I was Mexico (4). Or maybe an old western movie partially set in Mexico. I know, it looks normal in the picture. Certainly the security guard with the beer belly and the slicked back jet black hair could have been auditioning for a low budget Italian remake of "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The "train" we were taking to Ascoli finally pulled up to the station. It consisted of two cars with a few dozen seats and a couple diesel engines crammed underneath somewhere. When it was time to go, the conductor turned over the engines and we hopped on one of the nearly empty, stifling cars, which fit in well with the deserted ghost town train station theme they had going.

The car cooled down as we started moving towards Ascoli, counting stops in between to make sure we didn't miss ours. It was only about a 45 minute ride and actually quite pleasant (5-7). We hopped off in Ascoli and asked one of the train conductors about the bus to Acquasanta. He directed us to the Tabacchi shop at the station. Tabacchi shops are the Italian equivalent of the corner drug store and are all marked with a big 'T' sign so you can't miss them.

We were definitely off the tourist path. When we asked the lady behind the counter if she spoke English (we asked in Italian to be polite) she scowled at us and motioned towards an older gentleman in the corner. I wouldn't really say he spoke English but we managed to communicate that we needed the bus to Acquasanta and he managed to communicate that we were hosed because there wasn't another one that night. "Taxi?" we asked. That's one of those handy words that's the same in Italian. He very kindly pulled out his cell phone to call one for us and then walked us outside to wait. There was further lack of communication for a few minutes then I walked back inside to get a couple drinks, primarily to break a large bill I had. I gave the scowling lady a 20 for 3.50 worth of drinks and she gave me back a 10 euro bill and a couple coins. My first thought as I picked up my change from the counter is that they had a 5 euro coin I hadn't seen yet. As I turned to walk away I came to the realization I was likely getting ripped off. So then I had to decide whether to stop and argue with the scowling lady and the store full of Italians or just eat the 5 euro tourist fee and move on. One of my favorite movie quotes is Rex from Toy Story stepping back as he exclaims "I don't like confrontation!" I ate the 5 euros.

I got back outside with my tail between my legs in time to see Ali trying to negotiate with the cab driver, the older guy who helped us, and another lady we hadn't seen before. It was one of our few true moments when we were completely on our own with no help. I showed the cab driver the written address in Acquasanta where we were trying to go and he and the lady seemed happy so we went along with it and put our bags in the back. The new lady was going to Acquasanta too and was going to split the fare with us. Almost as soon as we got on the highway we noticed the amazing mountain scenerey we were entering and were glad to be headed to Acquasanta a day early. Since everyone seemed so friendly Ali got bold and tried to strike up a conversation from the phrase book. According to Rick Steves, it's only 4 syllables to ask someone where they're from. So either he was just wrong about which 4 syllables or she butchered it so badly that the phrase came beyond all native recognition. Just to be sure, she repeated it several times but the strange looks from the front of the cab finally made her give up. We sat in silence the rest of the way and just enjoyed the scenery (8-11).

Albergo Ristorante Terme was right on the main highway through town, explaining the abrupt end to taxi negotiations when we had shown the address. The proprietor, Francesca, spoke English well and showed us to the room. It was nicer than the one we stayed at in Milan and cheaper too. We had made it to Acquasanta and had a room to sleep in! Relieved and hungry we went out for dinner.

I'm not sure what "Baba Yaga" translates too but it seemed inviting and it was just a few doors down from the hotel. It's funny when you try your best to speak Italian and the waitress just answers you in English as if to say "you're butchering it, stop trying." Turns out our language skills weren't going to be tested much in Acquasanta after all. We sat down for dinner and right behind us on the wall was a picture of Acquasanta from 1904, about the time Ali's great grandparents left for America (12-13). As we were paying the bill, Ali decided to make her first attempt at fishing for family information. She told the owner, Aida, who also spoke English, about her great grandparents and why we had come to Acquasanta. She was very friendly and offered to check at the local records office for us. So we exchanged contact info and went back to the hotel for rest after a long day of traveling. The trip to Acquasanta had turned out to be quite exciting, with new experiences and new friends to show for it.

Up next: Linda, the seniors of Acquasanta, hike to the castle.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Italy Trip - 4th Installment

Pictures for this entry are at:

Friday, July 8th
We ate breakfast in the hotel courtyard (1-2). We were already used to Italian breakfasts of mostly breads and sweet rolls, and Nutella. Some of the other guests had fruit and few other things that we were never served. Breakfast was adequate. The hotel clearly catered to Americans. I think everyone we saw there, guests, wait staff, front desk staff, spoke English. The high Trip Advisor ratings were obviously working their magic.

The first item on the agenda was the Rialto fish market. Near the Rialto bridge there is a large square that becomes the main island grocery store for a few hours each morning. We had seen some of the fruit and vegetable stalls that remain open later in the day but we wanted to see it at peak hours. As we made the short walk from our hotel to the market we saw numerous boats stacked with boxes (3-5) waiting to be unloaded. All goods travel around the island by boat and hand truck (6-7). The hand trucks had two small wheels sticking out the front that allowed the hard working delivery men to climb the numerous stepped bridges around the island by rocking the trucks onto the front wheels at each successive step.

Arriving at the fish market we immediately had a much better appreciation for the fresh seafood dinner we'd eaten the night before. It had all likely come from the market that morning. What had been an empty square the night (8) before was now lined with tables in a makeshift grocery store seafood department, except there was about 10 grocery stores worth of seafood, some of it still alive (9-14). I sort of felt like a highway rubbernecker, holding up the locals trying to conduct their business while we slowed to gawk. But they're kind of asking for gawking toursists when they put entire swordfish heads on display (look carefully in 14). I don't remember that being on our plate the night before.

The market is near the famous Rialto bridge (15), hence the name. The bridge really is impressive, with a large center walkway lined by shops (16) and smaller walkways on the backside of the stalls where you look out over the grand canal. Picture 17 is just a random picture some where in Venice.

After some debate about our agenda for the day we headed towards Frari church (18-19), a large medieval church in the center of town away from many of the other tourist traps. Some street musicians were playing in the piazza outside the church (20), but we didn't close enough to feel obligated to tip them. No pictures allowed inside the church but I'm sure you can find some online.

I suppose like many churches of that time it was an interesting dichotomy. Ali had to cover her shoulder to go inside, but inside there was an angel sculpture wearing nothing but a leaf. The church was shaped like a 'T' and the entire bottom half of the T was lined with great tombs of the big church donors, each seemingly trying to one-up his predecessors. Two marvelous wooden choir boxes were situated side by side at the back of the worship area, dividing the T and creating a center aisle. The very top of the T was divided into smaller sections, the main altar in the center featuring a painting of the Assumption of Mary by a famous Venetian artist. To either side, more tombs. My overall impression was that these ancient Christians spent a great deal of time and money honoring themselves. Then again, I hadn't been to the Vatican gift shop yet.

After wandering the church for a while we exited to the piazza and I sat down to listen to the street performers who were still playing. If I had more disposable time I would enjoy picking up the violin again. At this point we discussed going out to the other islands where the glass blowers and lace makers are, but the Vaporetti would be almost $50 so we passed. Instead we just set out on foot to explore. First order of business was lunch.

The major achievement at lunch was Alison using the phrase book to ask for a spoon in Italian (21). The waiter spoke English but seemed amused that she was making the effort. I ordered sardines (22). It was a nice lunch in my opinion (23). The sardines were good (24). After lunch, as we were walking Alison figured out how to ask for some vino to go in Italian. Another succes (25)! And yes, that's my wife drinking wine out of a plastic cup.

We wandered some more (26-28), stopped to mail the kids some postcards (29), and eventually made it back to St. Mark's. The line was too long to try and go inside so instead we fed the pigeons (30-33). Somewhere along the way we also stopped in a video game art gallery. There are not words to describe it. Imagine your worst stereotype of a self-aggrandizing artist making nonsense modern art. Now imagine that artist spent his entire childhood playing video games so that's the only subject he knows. You probably have the idea now of what we saw. But hey, it was free.

Then it was back to the hotel for a rest. Snapped a few shots of the front door with the private bridge over the canal (34-35). The hotel also had a receiving dock (36). Later that night it was back out for more strolling. Venice sure is pretty at night (37-39). We went to St. Mark's a third time to listen to the orchestras and people watch (40-42).

At this time I'd like to point out a few things about the St. Mark's pigeons and capitalism. We were told the government fixes the prices of gondola rides. Feeding the pigeons in St. Mark's square, however, is not even legal (43), a fact we were unaware of when pictures 30-33 were taken, much less regulated. My demand for pictures of Ali and me with pigeons all over us eating of our hands was high. My supply of pigeon feed was low, zero actually. The guy from the helicopter cartel wants as many euros from me as possible. His supply of pigeon feed is high, actually he holds a monopoly. So the result? I give him the first coin I pull out of my pocket, 2 euros or about $3, and he gives me 25 cents worth of pigeon feed. It briefly occurs to me that I'm getting ripped off but don't care because I'm on vacation and have already paid 3 euros for a can of coke on several occasions. But I get my pigeon feed, he gets his euros, and we all walked away happy. Capitalism. Now, guess how many $120 gondola rides we took?

Okay, last thing. Every tourist town we visited had street pushers pouncing on tourists trying to sell something or give you something "free" and then ask for a donation. But the big thing in Venice seemed to be guys hawking these little helicopters with a blue LED that they flung 20-30 ft. high with a little rubber band slingshot. I really wondered who organized them. They were spread out all over the major tourist thoroughfares through town and were especially dense in St. Mark's square. They all looked to be of Indian descent and clearly had their own territories. We even thought we saw their handler one time watching over them from the end of the square. It was clearly organized, not just a couple guys trying to make a few bucks. I suspect they all lived on the mainland and would take the train in every morning but I still wondered how they managed to make enough to pay their cartel handlers and eat too. Anyways, we knew the boys would like the helicopters. So Alison asked me to come stand with her more towards the middle of St. Mark's square. I didn't know what she was doing. We were there maybe 15 sec. before we had a guy trying to sell us a helicopter. I think the starting price was two for 5 euros. She paid 1 euro each. She was good. When another guy came up, she offered 0.50 euros for one. He walked away. I think this also is a good case study on monopolies of non-essential commodities. Consumers control the price. She had obviously driven the price down to something close to its real value. You don't like that I'm selling a Wii for $150 over retail 3 weeks before Christmas? Learn some patience, quit paying the exhorbitant prices, and people like me will quit selling them. Supply and demand.

Next up: Traveling to Acquasanta, home of Ali's great grandparents.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Italy Trip - 3rd Installment

Pictures at:

Thursday, July 7th

We left hotel London not too early Thursday morning to catch a train to Venice. On the way out we were aiming for breakfast somewhere along Via Dante again. The first priority was coffee for the wife. Milan is very metropolitan (1) and not as touristy as the other places we went. There were many business people headed to work so we were a little out of place. Fortunately, ordering coffee is fairly straight forward. "Un caffe, per favore," my wife said. You mean "Uno caffe?" Yes, she thought that's what she said. They brought her a cup that looked like it came from a child's tea set, only smaller. See "caffe" in Italian is more like Cappuccino. If you want more than 2 oz. of fluid you have to order "caffe Americano," as if we didn't look enough like tourists. So we said "grazie" and moved along.

The next stop was a bar for some real breakfast. No, not the acoholic kind of bar. Italians seem to like eating their breakfast standing at a bar so it kind of makes sense to call the restaurant that. The polite workers behind the bar spoke a little English and were able to describe the array of sandwiches they had behind the glass. They failed to describe that no one eats those for breakfast. We didn't figure that out until after we ordered and they took the trays of sandwiches out and covered them with plastic. No, Italians eat croissants and other assorted sweet rolls for breakfast, and Nutella. But they didn't laugh at us for ordering lunch for breakfast, at least not to our faces, and I actually enjoyed it. It was local and not touristy.

After lunch for breakfast we walked a little farther back to Statzione Centrale to hop the train to Venice. We saved a few Euros by buying tickets for a regional train instead of the faster Eurostar trains. The savings cost us about an extra hour train ride, for a total journey time of 3.5 hours. So off we went about 11:30am. Despite our 2nd class train tickets, the ride was quite comfortable. We weren't guaranteed seats with out tickets but we got on the train early enough that we didn't have a problem. First come, first serve.

The small train station in Venice (2) is on the north end of the fish-shaped island. The terminal exits right onto the grand canal (3-5) where hundreds of mostly tourists are jamming past each other going between the station and the vaporetto (water bus) stops because they're too lazy, or have too much luggage to walk. We were to cheap for the 13 Euro/hour vaporetto tickets so we set out on foot (6-8) with our laminated Venice street map we had picked up in Atlanta. Good thing too, you don't really navigate around Venice, it's more like a very short, repetitive cycle of getting lost and then found over and over again.

The hotel was only half a mile maybe from the station but it took about 20 minutes to get there. The basic process was walk 2 minutes, check the map, repeat. The "streets," if you can call them that, are more like alleyways between buildings occasionally dead ending into a canal. We followed our directions to the back door of the hotel which was down a narrow alley (9-10) just wide enough for one person, or two people if you're used to shopping at Walmart. We had booked a standard double room, but when we checked in they upgraded us to the superior double as the standard was not available. Score! The room was spacious and very red (11-15). And yes, it had a squatty potty (16). It was quite a step up from our room in Milan. We were fairly well rested and did not linger long before going for lunch, through the front door of the hotel this time (17).

The hotel was in a less touristy area of the island so it was very relaxing just walking around. We found a local pizzeria with outdoor seating (18-19). This was our first pizza in Italy and I found it to be much like a pizza I might get here. It was good, but not much different. As we sat down for lunch I noticed a couple of teenagers under a tree across the piazza. Then I noticed one of them throwing his show up into the tree, evidently trying to get something unstuck. This went on for probably 20-30 minutes and I give him credit for his perseverence. Then the shoe got stuck. So, logically, he removed the other shoe to throw. By a stroke of luck the first shoe came out of the tree. Somewhere around the middle of our meal the two teenagers realized their ineffectiveness at dislodging the object was due to a lack of supervision, so another kid came over to watch. There was a brief moment of hope as the shoe hit the object, but it only bounced down a couple branches and got stuck again.

Since additional supervision wasn't helping, they decided to go with more muscle. A man came over, grabbed the lowest tree branch, bent it 180 degrees, and shook with all his might while the kid continued throwing his shoe. But to no avail. As we were finishing lunch and I worried about never knowing the outcome of the great tree affair, the shoe hit its mark and a soccer ball came bounding out of the tree. There was raucous celebration. Italians love soccer, you see.

With lunch a success, we walked back to the hotel for a short nap. Early in the evening we set off for Saint Mark's square on the opposite side of the island. Along the way we got our first gelato (20). It was nice walking through the empty streets (21) and seeing how the locals lived (22). This was also the closest we got to a gondola (23). The government has fixed the price of gondola rides at 80 euros (~$120) for 40 minutes. Um, no thanks. I'm sure there's a very good economic model for gov't dicated gondola prices, I just choose to live in my ignorance, 80 euros richer.

Saint Mark's square (24-37) was the seat of religious and political power when Venice was independent. Now it's the seat of thousands of tourists each day. We were too late to tour the Basilica but just seeing the outside was incredible, and it was a nice place to people and pigeon watch. We wandered for a while but decided against eating at one of the touristy outdoor restaraunts on the square. There are about 4 restaraunts, two per side, that have small orchestras performing every night. You can linger behind the last row of tables and listen for free.

For dinner we decided on a Rick Steve's recommendation closer to the hotel called Osteria alla Botte. It took us an hour to make the 20 minute walk back after starting out in the wrong direction from St. Mark's. Ironically, though the island is small there are so many different streets it's nearly impossible to figure out where you are on the map unless you already know about where you are. We eventually made it (38-39). Dinner was a selection of fresh local seafood. We didn't love it, but it was a little different and definitely local. We were the only tourists there. I think we would have appreciated it more if we had gone to the fish market first (see Installment 4 coming soon).

The night stroll back to the hotel was fabulous, with the buildings on the grand canal lit up and the boats going by (40). There was lightning in the distance which made me want to buy a better camera (41). Our first day in Venice was thoroughly relaxing and it didn't occur to me until later that it may just have been the complete lack of cars. We had decided we would spend one more full day in Venice on Friday. Fortunately, the hotel had a room available, though not the same room. Friday night would make 6 nights in a row we slept in a different bed. But considering we arrived in Italy with hotel reservations for exactly 1 night we weren't complaining.

Next up: Rialto fish market, Frari church, pigeon feeding, helicopter cartel.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Italy Trip - 2nd Installment

Pictures for this blog entry are here:

Numbers in parenthesis correspond the image number in the album. Click on the first image in the album and you'll see the Photo # of 27 at the top.

Monday, July 4th

Our flight to Atlanta was supposed to leave at 5pm, so about 2 we piled everyone in the car set off for the airport. We had purchased hiking backpacks since we knew we'd be moving around a lot so all we carried was the two backpacks and two small day bags. The kids said goodbye very well- Eli was asleep and Braden hardly gave us a second look. I guess he knew how much fun Aunt Chris was going to be. Ali seemed fine leaving the kids, but it did cross my mind that Eli went to sleep completely oblivious and would wake up with momma gone for 2 weeks (don't think he would care to much about daddy being gone).

On Sunday when we looked at the flight there were 20 something seats free. On Monday when we arrived at the airport, there was a standby list of 30 something, and we were 20 something down the list. Apparently bad weather in Atlanta had wreaked havoc on Delta's schedule and our empty flight was now full. Great. The fall back was to call Aunt Chris back to the airport and revert to our original plan of driving overnight.

When we got to the gate they had already listed the flight as delayed an hour. We wouldn't know until they boarded the plane whether we had seats on our Buddy Passes so we went to get a snack. The hour delay soon became 2.5 hours. But as they boarded the plane we watched the standby list on the monitor shrink until they called us. We made it on the flight with just a few seats to spare! We didn't sit next to each other but that was fine, we had made it.

Further weather delays caused us to sit on the tarmac in DFW for an additional hour. We did the math and realized there was no way we'd make it to the Fullers before midnight so we were already resigned to getting a hotel in Atlanta. The flight was uneventful and at least we made it to Atlanta and didn't have to drive. After hiking through the ridiculous Atlanta airport we found an information desk where we picked up some hotel brochures. We called several and settled on the Embassy Suites. One of our few criteria was that the hotel had a shuttle. It was a little before 1am when we called the hotel and a little after 1 when we found the shuttle bus pickup area. We waited about 15 minutes and, having watched shuttles for half a dozen other hotels come and go, called the hotel again. The clerk told us the shuttle quit running at 1 and the driver had gone home, information that might have been helpful 20 minutes earlier!

As we debated what to do, a kind driver from another airport hotel offered to give us a ride to the Embassy. The entire 7 minutes drive he rambled about how Embassy was overpriced and people only stayed there because of the name. At $90 it was a litle steep, but they do have a good breakfast. We asked how much the rooms were at his hotel. I kept my mouth shut when he said $90. It was about 1:30am when we arrived at the hotel. Fortunately we didn't have to get up very early since our flight wasn't until late afternoon.

Tuesday, July 5th

We ate breakfast at the hotel and checked out, catching the shuttle bus back to the airport. From there we took MARTA (1), the local light rail, across the city to one of the northern most stops to meet up with the Fullers for lunch (2). We had a decent habachi lunch and enjoyed catching up with them. It seemed that everything was following into place for them in Atlanta, in my opinion maybe God's way of telling them they made the right decision. The big news was that they had started paperwork to become foster parents, possibly leading to adopting a child. They already have two.

They kindly took us by Walmart and a book store to pick up a few last minute things and then dropped us off at the kiss-n-ride. Really, that's what the parking lot at the train station was called. I leave our goodbyes to your imagination. We made it back to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Alison had a brief moment of terror as the guy checking her passport at security stopped her. She hadn't signed it and it's not valid until you sign. So she signed it in front of him and off we went. I'm sure it's a very important security measure. We got to our gate and checked in with the agent to make sure we were on the standby list. The flight still looked pretty open so were confident we would get on.

As the flight boarded the agents delayed and delayed boarding us waiting to see if they could get us into first class. Finally, they assigned us our seats, 1st class, baby (3)! I've flown first class domestically a few times from free upgrades when flights were overbooked but international business class is a whole other league. Alison got all giggly when she found a pair of socks in the little goodie bag in the pocket of the seat in front of her.

The flight was a peace of cake. The seats reclined nearly flat and each one had its own TV monitor with a good selection of movies and shows. But I spent a lot of the time reading our travel books and trying to figure out where we were going to stay when we arrived. We had hoped for wi-fi on the plane so we could try and make a hotel reservation online but no such luck. Since we would be arriving in Milan at 9am we also tried, with some success, to get some sleep.

Wednesday, July 6th

As we approached Milan we flew over the Alps. Nice view (4)! Our flight arrived slightly ahead of schedule. Getting through customs was simple, scarily simple. No questions, no bag checks, just a glance at the picture and a stamp in the passport. Although we did not have bags to pick up we stopped for a bit at baggage claim for Ali to freshen up. From our Rick Steves' tour book, we expected to find a hotel reservation service desk just outside of baggage claim that could help us. No luck. We did, however, manage to find the right place to pick up the bus to Statzione Centrale, the Milan central train station, which was about a 50 min. bus ride from the airport.

About and hour and 15 euros later we arrived at the grand Statzione Centrale (5-10). The station had about two dozen tracks coming in, and probably thousands of people milling about waiting on their trains. Buses stopped just outside and escalators provided access to the metro trains a couple levels down. The main part of the terminal was lined with shops, much like an airport terminal. We parked ourselves on an uncrowded bench, got out our guide book and Italian phrase book, and prepared to make our hotel reservation by cell phone.

There wasn't much need for the anxiety of scaling the language barrier. Nearly everyone we communicated with at hotels during our trip spoke English. I'm sure it helped we stayed mostly in the tourist areas. We settled on the Hotel London, which was a short walk from a metro station and had a room with a shared bathroom down the hall for 100 euros (about $150,cheap by our new Italian standards). Not terribly romantic, but we were tired and just wanted a bed for the night.

The metro system was simple, with automated ticket machines in English and only a few lines (11). We found the hotel (12) easily and decided to go with it, even with the shared bathroom. The room was small but did have a sink and what Ali dubbed a squatty potty. I was instantly curious. It was basically a bathroom sink the size of a toilet. A #2 in there would not be wise. Also, the faucet aimed kind of out instead of down so if you turn it on too high... well, just don't do that. We heard from a nice Irish girl later in the trip that the Italians think squatty potties are more sanitary since you don't touch the seat. I'm not sure how splatter is more sanitary than touching the seat, but our own experience with the pigeons in St. Mark's square (see next installment) seemed to confirm the hypothesis.

We took a much needed nap and headed back out to do a little bit of sight seeing. According to Rick Steves, the Duomo on Milan is the 4th largest in Europe. It was massive and incredibly gothic. Spires and sculptures all over the place. Construction began more than 700 years ago and took something like 200 years to complete if I remember correctly. This was also our first experience with the cartel.

There are actually multiple cartels and the nationalities and commodities vary by city. In Milan's Piazza del Duomo (13) the dominant cartel seemed to be the African guys. Their tourist radars homed in on us immediately and we had two guys trying to put little bracelets on us. "Free," they said. We quickly discovered that "free" really means they expect a donation. We politely told them that "free" actually mean "free" and walked away. I then ripped mine off since it was like a big flashing light for the other dealers in the square to hit us up.

We took the elevator, think refrigerator box with 8 people in it, up to the roof of the Duomo to do our only real sight seeing in Milan. The guy operating the elevator looked a bit like John Travolta, a fact he played up by doing a little dance for us going up and then again coming down. Not sure if he didn't realize the people going down were the same ones going up or if he thought it would be funnier when we expected it. As for walking around on the 4th largest church in Europe, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves (14-26). Also, I'm an engineer and not good with subjective descriptions.

On the way back to the hotel we strolled down Via Dante (27), a fancy shopping street with plenty of touristy restaurants. Stopping to look at a menu by the outdoor seating is essentially a commitment to sit down and eat. The overly friendly, English speaking hosts go in for the kill with an act they probably repeat dozens of times a day. But it makes it comfortable for tourists and dinner was quite good, just a bit expensive when you factor the $1.50/euro exchange rate. Still, a successful afternoon in Milan.

When we got back to the hotel we hopped online, thank you ipods and wi-fi, and made a reservation for Thurs. night at the #1 Trip Advisor hotel in Venice, Al Ponte Mocenigo. All we had to do was get on the right train the next morning.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Italy Trip - 1st Installment

Alison and I took our 10th anniversay trip to Italy on July 5th. We (I) kept a journal during our journey and I had grandiose plans to type up a vacation newsletter. But we've been back 2 weeks and have been quickly reminded why we can't get anything done around here. So instead I've decided to attempt to share our trip piecemeal in more manageable blog entries. As I share the stories I'll link to pictures on our Picasa page. After I finish the blog entries I'll upload all of the remaining pics. Hope you enjoy!

First, the background. Alison's great grandparents on her Father's side immigrated from a small town in Italy called Acquasanta around the turn of the 19th century. She has always been interested in her Italian heritage and wanted to visit Italy. About two and half years ago I actually decided to plan ahead for an anniversary and opened a secret savings account, to which I direct deposited a little off the top of my paycheck each week since then. In February I finally decided to tell her about the trip, partially because I thought she would enjoy looking forward to it and also because I needed her help planning it.

My big reveal came at a nice Italian restaurant located in an old converted home in the cultural district of Ft. Worth. The weather was icy that evening and we were the only ones there, aside from the owner and his family at the table next to us. I had bought some Italy travel books and a couple of Rick Steves DVD's on Italy. I put them all in a nice box along with a balance statement from the secret account. She made fun of the wedding wrapping paper, but hey, I couldn't find wrapping paper that said "suprise, I have a secret savings account and I'm taking you to Italy for our 10th anniversary." I believe her words when she opened it were "No way!"

Skip ahead to summer. Despite summer being the busy European travel season we planned for a June trip since that was the easiest time to get help with the kids. But I had a business trip come up so we delayed until July. Alison's Aunt Chris was very gracious in offering to come out to Texas and watch the kids while we were gone. We quickly accepted that offer and bought her plane tickets before she could realize what she had volunteered for. We also had a pilot friend from church who kindly gave us a couple of "buddy passes" on Delta.

The buddy passes will figure prominently in our adventures traveling to Italy and back so I'd better explain them. Delta employees have a certain number of buddy passes they can give to friends and family. Basically you pay taxes and fees and Delta will fly you wherever you want to go, provided they have extra seats on the plane. They'll even bump you to first class if there's room. Our friend warned us that it's a risk in the summertime because it's the busy travel season. But we were flexible and they were much cheaper than even a low cost economy ticket. The plan was for us to drive to Atlanta and catch a direct flight to Milan, since domestic flights tended to be more difficult to get on and the Atlanta-Milan flight looked pretty open. Even with gas and an extra hotel night or two we would still come out way ahead.

We set our travel day for Tuesday, July 5. The flight left about 6pm eastern time and arrived in Milan the following day at 9am local time. Because we had no guarantees on when we would get there if the flight turned out to be full we were hesitant to book hotels, most of which were nonrefundable within a week of arrival. Although we had a rough idea of an itinerary once we got there, we really didn't know how long we wanted to stay at each place. The end result was that we had hotel reservations for only 1 night out of the 9 we expected to be there, and it wasn't the first night. But hey, that would be part of the adventure.

Alison's aunt flew out the weekend before we left to give some time for her and the kids to get adjusted before we left. On Sunday, July 3, I got the brilliant idea to check the flights from DFW to Atlanta, just to see if maybe could avoid driving. Lucky us! There was a Monday evening flight that looked pretty open. A few e-mails to Steve, our pilot friend, and he had us set up on the flight to Atlanta. We might even get to stay Monday night with our friends, the Fullers.

So the plans, such as they were, were all in place. I'll leave it there for this installment. Sorry, no pictures yet. There will definitely be some next time.