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.

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