Sunday, April 6, 2008

Girl Shoes and Italy

Hi All,
Ok, so the girl shoes and Italy have absolutely nothing to do with one another. I'm going to insert some of the travel blog now from Italy and get back to the shoes later.


Thursday, March 20:

We all managed to get a fair night of sleep and had a box breakfast in the morning. The train arrived around 9:30am at Roma Termini. There were quite a few homeless people around and Steph was a bit disturbed by that. It was also a bit of a culture shock for her, as she was suddenly in the same position we’d been in since Frankfurt – unable to understand the language. We headed off to find our Corona Hotel. It was just about 6 blocks and we found it with no problem. We left our luggage and headed out to explore. We went to St. Maria Maggiore church (where the tomb of the artist Bernini is located) and then headed to Trevi Fountain. We ate lunch and had pizza at a little restaurant near there (Ristorante La Fontana) and then had our first taste of gelato. We checked into the hotel. The room at Corona is adequate and clean but a sure step down from our Berlin accommodations. We all had a nap and then headed to the American church Santa Susanna for Holy Thursday Mass. Steph scanned the “Time Out Rome” book and we were off to find a place for dinner. Upon much poor-lighted consideration, Steph narrowed down the choice to a restaurant that was relatively nearby, boasting that one could “eat like a horse and drink like a fish” on a reasonable budget. A 15 minute hike later we arrived at Osteria del Rione. We were greeted by Bruno himself (much touted in the guide book) and soon we were seated in the almost-empty restaurant. This isn’t saying much, as there were only places for 30 people, max. Upon hearing our wine request, a carafe of red wine (that even Sandy liked!) was brought to the table…and then the courses started to roll in. First came Bruschette, (toasted French bread topped with raw tomato chunks), next French bread with a VERY strong and soft cheese, then a plate of grilled eggplant, tomatoes with parmesan, wine-soaked cooked black olives, an odd sort of bread with cheese and zucchini, and cannelloni beans in a red sauce that were absolutely delicious. It was at this point we realized we very well may be in over our heads…we had no idea! Next they brought out a large dish of deep-fried mini-meatballs, and deep-fried potato dumplings with apple in the middle. By this point we were glad to see that other late (early for Europe) diners were arriving – it meant our dishes didn’t arrive at such a speedy interval and we had extra time to digest. Then came the onslaught of pasta! First there was a thick, long-tubed pasta with a light white sauce and parmesan, next came a penne coated in fresh pesto (amazing!) and finally, the “ear” pasta, as Bruno called it. It was small, thicker, bowl-shaped pasta in a light red sauce (reminiscent of Chef Boyardee, as Dave classily noted). We now knew we were in it for the long haul and didn’t manage to finish the three hefty servings dished. Steph remarked it would have been a convenient time (for once) to have 3 teenage boys around – although there’re only 2 now, technically. Barely had we finished when we were attacked with a dish containing deep-fried (it’s a theme…) dumplings with broccoli, a little dumpling stuffed with eggplant and 6 regular sized meatballs – that were, for the record, not as good as Dave’s mother’s. Unfortunately, Bruno also brought out the plate of tripe – which only Dave was brave (and unfortunate enough) to try. He said it reminded him of calamari – but with a much stronger and unpleasant taste to go with the characteristic rubbery-ness. Finally, we were given a choice of dessert (Steph and Sandy chose the Tiramisu, while Dave went for the “Chocolate Cake”) and grappa. At this point, Dave realized that he’d had more wine than he’d intended and ended up shaking down an orange for Steph on the way home. However, back to dessert! Dave’s was like a glorified brownie, and Bruno actually ended up bringing a whole other plate for us all to share. It probably had something to do with the fact that Sandy requested his autograph in the book and he was so tickled pink he showed it to some regulars. We concluded the night by getting pictures with him and waddled our way back to the hotel (along streets lined with orange and lemon trees). We booked a full 18,166 steps, or a full 6 miles today!

Friday, March 21, 2008:

After having a hard time sleeping over Dave’s snoring the previous night (Sandy and Steph finally resorted to ear plugs that Dave so graciously provided), we rolled out around 7am to shower and head to the hotel breakfast. My, how standards had changed! We found a few scraps of bread, juice, and jam and a little dried out sweet bread. There were also banana and apple pieces. We satisfied ourselves and headed out to catch the bus to the Vatican for our 9:15 tour. The bus ride was an event in itself. It was so crowded and there was a woman that kept wanting Dave to just get off. He tried to explain that he was with Sandy and Steph and he wasn’t going to get separated. The bus eventually cleared a bit and a kind woman let us know when we were at the end of the line and needed to exit. That is something that is very non-impressive about the public transit. The street signs are hard to find and the bus gives no indication at each stop of just where you might be. Freshly off the bus, we headed towards the St. Peter’s dome and Sandy headed right through a gate of the Vatican Wall and was kindly asked to leave the private property. Who knew that there were only just a couple of ways to get in? So we had to trek ¼ of the way around the wall to meet our tour. Lucky for us, the meeting place was under construction and also popular with about 30 other tour operators. We finally found our tour after some tense moments and linked up with Michelle and 17 other tourists in our specific group. Michelle told us several times that we were moving along quite smoothly through security and that she had expected things to be much worse on Good Friday. The tour was very well done and covered all the galleries on the way to the Sistine Chapel as well as St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s is gigantic and, unfortunately, a lot of it was blocked off in preparation for the Holy Week services so we only got about ½ way into the church. Our tour ended at the front entry of St. Peter’s so we headed down the steps and caught a guard change at the Swiss Guard station. Then it was over to the Vatican Post Office to buy postcards and Vatican stamps. It was very busy there and Sandy doesn’t do Euro math very well and ended up purchasing about 15 extra stamps than she requested. She had also left all of the mailing labels over in the hotel. Oh well, they can be mailed when we come back on Sunday. At this point it’s after 1pm and Steph is starved and we are trying to find a way to have a meatless light lunch (Good Friday). After a few frustrating stops, we ended up at a small shop having calzones stuffed with cheese and spinach. They would have been better if they had been totally warm, but they did satisfy! Our walk then took us to Piazza Navona where we saw Neptune’s fountain, and the church St. Agnese in Agony (both by Borromini) and also Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers. Apparently there was some strong competition between these two artists. And, of course, there was also the obligatory obelisk (probably stolen from Egypt but with a cross installed at the top once it arrived in Rome). About this time it started to rain shower. Dave found a WC by a sidewalk restaurant and we decided against staying for a cup of hot chocolate that would have been 5 Euros each. Next stop was the Pantheon. We also only got to go about ½ way in here because a church service was about to start. Campo di Fiori was nearby so we decided to check that out next. The open air markets were just closing up shop about that time and we walked over lots of artichoke debris on the cobblestones. Shortly thereafter as nifty street-sweeping machine came along and whisked it all away. The fatigue was setting in so we set off in search of a bus and had yet another thrilling and crowded ride back to the stop near our hotel. We took a bit of a rest (Steph read, Dave napped, Sandy wrote post cards and washed out some laundry) until we elected to head to the corner grocery store in search of makings for a light supper in the hotel room. We had bread, cheese, tomatoes, fruit, wine, and Girl Scout Thin Mints (which we had brought from home). The earlier thought had been to take in the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum at 9:15 pm with the Pope, but although the spirit was willing, the body was weak and we were just too tired to venture out again. Time was spent reading, journaling and planning the adventures of the next day.

15,582 steps (5.2 miles)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Today we got up and had a re-run breakfast, certainly nothing special. Around 9:30 we headed off on foot over to the Capitoline Museum. On the way we stopped at St. Peter in Chains church. It had started raining by then so we very dutifully left our umbrellas outside as directed. The church has as sculpture of Moses (by Bernini?) that was very detailed and beautiful. They also claim to have the chains that St. Peter was in while he was jailed. They are displayed in a glass case. Sandy was really impressed with marble in this church. Unfortunately, Sandy’s umbrella had been stolen during our visit so had to buy a new one at a very conveniently located stand just at the bottom of the church steps. On to the Capitoline! We walked past the Forum on the way in. The museum had many sculptures. Probably the most famous was the statue of Marcos Aurelius on a horse and also Remus and Romulus being nursed by the she-wolf. There was also a whole floor of paintings and a second building which we didn’t have time to explore. We had lunch at the museum cafeteria and then walked to the Colosseum for our Dark Rome Walking tour. We started at the Colosseum and then did the Forum, Piazza Venezia, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona. We walked from there to the Spanish Steps where we picked up the Metro train back to the stop near our hotel. That was a better experience than the previous bus rides. On the walking tour we met a couple with 2 young girls from Delaware (the girls were perfect and soooo cute!), an American couple visiting from their home in Brussels, and a couple women from Maryland and one of their daughters from Omaha. We gave the last group mentioned a recommendation for the restaurant we ate in with Bruno. We rested for a bit back at the hotel and decided not to venture very far for dinner. The desk guy at the hotel suggested the trattoria right next door, Antica Boheme. We went and had pretty terrible service (which wasn’t helped by our non-existent Italian skills and the waiter’s miserable English) and the food was just OK. We walked ½ block up the street and used computers to check email (unfortunately, Steph’s computer malfunctioned and her e-mails got erased) and send quick notes off. We spent a little time repacking suitcases and then went to bed.

21,802 steps (7.22 miles)

Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008

We were hopeful as we got up in the morning because it wasn’t raining. We went to another simple breakfast (there was nothing special added for Easter) and checked out of the hotel. We headed to the Termini and left our baggage in storage. We hopped the Metro to the Vatican and joined the throng heading there for Mass. We arrived about an hour early and got a standing spot just outside the roped off area where people that had Mass tickets got to have chairs. Oh, and it started raining just as we got out of the Metro station. The square had jumbotron screens and even they were hard to see with all of the umbrellas. We thought we would have a pretty good view but were mistaken. As soon as Mass started, the people in the back chairs decided to stand up on the chairs. I guess people can be rude even in the presence of the Pope! The light rain soon turned to pouring rain and we decided to try to get to the postal drop box to mail postcards and then head out. The Mass was all in foreign language, except for the second reading that was in English. The post boxes were unreachable and the experience of trying to leave St. Peter’s Square against traffic with all the people just getting there to try to be there for the blessing was possibly the worst crowd experience ever! We were pretty wet by the time we got to the Metro station and happy to get on the train back to the Termini. Once at the Termini, we had about 2.5 hours before our train so we decided to look for a place to sit down and eat. Our language barrier was again an issue as we tried to order lunch at a fast food counter. It turns out that the place didn’t, in fact, actually have the sandwiches that were pictured all over the restaurant so we had to quickly make a change in our selections. They ended up getting the order wrong and Steph ended up with a sandwich she was unwilling to eat. She marched back to the restaurant and probably gave the proprietor good reason to fear those “ugly Americans”! In the end, they realized their error and replaced the incorrect sandwich with another 2 sandwiches! We hunted around and finally found a ledge to sit on and eat the food. That Termini station has a serious absence of seating! We strolled around the 2 levels of the Termini and found a chapel (seats!) and went in to pray for a while. (We had, afterall, left Mass early…) Then we headed to reclaim our luggage and figure out which track to get the train on. The train ride to Venice was mostly peaceful and gave us the chance to dry out (except for shoes and socks). We arrived in Venice around 7:20pm and quickly found the Hotel Bellini very close to the station. Our room was actually a lofted room. Steph’s bed was on main level with the bathroom and the double beds were up a curving staircase. The walls were covered in fabric and the bathroom had a tub and sort of a shower door so the floor didn’t get as flooded as at the last hotel. (In that place, the shower was just set in the corner of the bathroom with a floor drain nearby.) We headed out to find something for supper and went to a little place and had spaghetti with mushrooms, bread, and wine for 30 Euros total. It was raining in Venice too and forecasted to rain again the next day as well.

12874 steps (4.26 miles)

Monday, March 24, 2008

We woke up and it wasn’t raining for a change. The weather was cool. Breakfast was a treat after the Rome Hotel experience! There were scrambled eggs, very wide bacon, yogurt, cold cereal, breads, meats and cheeses. We filled up well! Then Sandy had a slightly smelly incident. While Steph was showering, Sandy plugged in her curling iron to Steph’s adaptor (omitting her converter). Steph noticed a hot smell, but after touching the adaptor, she chalked it up to being the room heater burning up dust. However, when Sandy went in to curl her hair, a chunk abruptly seared off and wafted down to the sink. The clamp was melted to her hair and she couldn’t open the jaws of the darn thing! Certain swear words and exclamations may have ensued. Luckily the damage was not very noticeable on Sandy’s head. The curling iron, however, was a total loss! The room windows were opened and we left the stinky place behind! Next we headed to our Ferregio vaporetto (water bus) stop. We had bought a 24-hour pass the night before so only needed to validate them to start the clock ticking. We caught the number 2 which is more express and went all the way to San Marco. We had 9:55am reservations for the Doge’s Palace Secret Itinerary Tour. The tour took us to the “working” area of the palace where the archives used to be held, where the lawyers and clerks doing the investigations of criminals had their offices, as well as to the jail cells and torture chamber. It sounded like most of the torture was psychological as they made the poor guys stand and wait for torture in the dark for 3-4 hours in the dark before they started. Many people talked after just the long wait! We also got the inside scoop on Casanova’s escape (apparently the only one to ever do so successfully – although he had special privileges, so it isn’t as impressive as he makes out in his memoirs.) After the “secret” part of the tour, we were on our own to look at the rest of the palace. We started in the Doge’s apartment just on the other side of the Golden Staircase. Pretty impressive! The rooms were full of sculpture, paintings, marble, etc. We also took a path across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison just across the canal from the palace. The story is that that is the last view for the prisoners of the outside world before their incarceration so there was lots of sighing. After the tour, we headed away from the plaza and into the shopping district where we eventually sat down for a sandwich and something to drink. It was a busy shopping district and we shopped as well. We spent time in 2 different shops where the proprietors did a nice job of showing/telling us about authentic Murano glass. Steph bought a vase for Sandy and Dave as an early 25th anniversary present. She also found a tie for James and a few glass pendants for herself and friends. Dave bought a brass statue of the winged lion, which is the symbol for St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. They also selected a glass pendant for Sandy’s mom. Then we headed back to San Marco to look at the church and watch people and pigeons. Sandy and Dave went into the church to gawk at the mosaics while Steph stayed outside by the backpack. By this time, the sun had come out! We decided to ride the elevator up the Campanile and take in the view. We were up over 100 meters and the views were good. Then we went down and took the vaporetto back to Hotel Bellini to rest and drop off a few shopping purchases. Steph and Sandy went to the train station to purchase a better Venice map and Steph found the location of a restaurant we decided to try for dinner, Frary’s. We took the vaporetto to the San Toma stop and found the place. It served Greek and Arab cuisine and we really enjoyed it. The music was great. We had wine, water, mixed appetizers, and bread. Steph had a chicken Tajine dish and Sandy had a chicken with mixed vegetables and cous cous dish while Dave had the same thing, except with mutton instead of chicken. We asked for a recommendation for dessert and the waitress brought us a mixed selection of several things and all were delicious. The meal was topped off with a shot of some type of cinnamon liqueur. We headed off walking and eventually made it to the Rialto Bridge. The streets are very narrow and can be confusing at times. I guess everyone gets lost in Venice and we were only slightly lost for a short time! The night view from the bridge was nice, and as Steph took a picture of Sandy and Dave she witnessed a fellow getting down on one knee and proposing to his girlfriend right there on the bridge – ah, young love! We then hopped the vaporetto and headed back to the Bellini. Steph and Sandy found an internet point so they could make a quick note to home and then it was back to the hotel for bedtime.

12188 steps (4 miles)

Tuesday, March 25th

We got up fairly early in order to be all packed up and to catch one last vaporetto before our 24-hour pass expired. We ate breakfast, checked out and left our luggage at the front desk. We noticed that the Grand Canal was much busier today. Yesterday was a national holiday so many businesses were not operating (except tourism-related business!) We caught a vaporetto to Rialto and explored the Rialto market. Talk about extensive! There were (in a series of 3 squares) rows upon rows of merchants selling everything from fresh flowers to still-wriggling shrimp. Afterwards, Steph bought a tie for Brian and a few pashminas for herself and a friend. We found a hat for Brian and a decorative bottle of Grappa for Nate. Steph was also amused to find Italian “Magic the Gathering” cards and couldn’t resist purchasing them for Nate and Chris. Good luck boys! We asked the vendor that we’d bought Brian’s hat from if there was a post office nearby. He pointed out the direction, but we soon realized we’d asked for a post box…and so that’s what we’d found! However, Steph inquired at the little newsstand and came triumphantly back with 25 stamps! Mission accomplished. Next, after a bathroom was searched for, bread and really good chocolate-loaded scones/cookies were bought for the next train ride. The obligatory gondola ride was next. Our 45 minutes-3km ride took us past Marco Polo’s home, Casanova’s palace, and under several bridges and around tight corners. The gondoliers do a good job of watching out for each other and there seems to be some etiquette about navigating blind corners. After the ride, we walked our way back to the hotel with no problem (stopping along the way to gawk often and making a quick stop at the grocer’s for some cheese) and picked up our luggage. By this time the sun was out full force and we spent 30 minutes soaking up sunshine. We boarded our train and soon had a full compartment. The ride to Innsbruck was mostly uneventful, until we looked out the window. Going from sun-filled valleys covered with vineyards, we crossed the mountains and found Austria covered in 4 inches of fresh snow! It was gorgeous, but made us acutely aware of our spring coats. We got off at Innsbruck and after a bit of a trek (with no wrong turns) we found ourselves at Hotel Innsbruck – just around the corner from Maximilian’s (where Steph had stayed 3 years earlier on her HS German trip). After a quick check-in and recommendation for a restaurant (as Sandy had not picked up a Time-Out Innsbruck for the quick one-day stay), we headed just across the street from the hotel. After a dinner of pizza and beer (Sandy tried Radler, a mixture of beer and Sprite) at the Cammerlander Restaurant, we all vegged out in the hotel room, watching “No Reservations” on the English television channel – a marked improvement from our other option, the British edition of Antique Road Show.

(Pedometer data lost for this day!)

Summer of Endless Love: Fairy Edition

Ok, to explain the first part of my blog: my "girl shoes". Now, I have a few outfits that I brought (and recently bought) that would look awful with my brown shoes. So this means I needed some white "girl shoes". At the mall yesterday, I bit the bullet and bought a very low-key pair of nice white flats. A little white on white embroidery and that was it. Well, when everyone demanded I show them my new "girl shoes" - I was embarrassed to find that they not only had the words "Summer of Endless Love" but they also sport a good size depiction of a fairy on each inside heel area. It screams tween. How embarrassing....

On The Plus Side...

Ok, so there really isn't a plus side to the fairy shoes (other than you can't see them when I'm wearing them), and has to do instead with my language test. It wasn't obligatory, except if you wanted to take classes in a higher level. I tried a practice round available online, and did exactly the same (28,if not a point worse) than the FIRST time I took it. Not a good sign. However, when I got there, they explained the format had been altered. Now if there was 1 letter before the blank it could be 1 or 2 letters after it, 2 letters before was 2 or 3 letters after it, etc. And, I actually got to take it electronically because the system didn't crash. So I knew my score right away - a 53 (!). This plants me Solidly in the Unicert 2 level...I was so impressed I called my mother. (Who was a little shocked to hear I was calling with good news...). I also had to do a listening comprehension test (because they apparently had problems last semester with people with good grammar being put in too high of levels without having good enough comprehension), and that seemed to go ok as well - I find out the results tomorrow.

And Finally: Steph Gets Twirled

I know I'm not a huge person, but I also know that I'm no elf. With that in mind, I'll have to recount my encounter with Eric's friend Stu (Stew?) who came to visit today. He comes off his flight, gives Claudia a hug and picks her up, twirling her once around. He goes to Eric and gives him the handshake/hug combo. When I'm introduced we shake hands. Then he says "Well, I have to be equal..." and promptly scoops me up for a twirl as well (he's only about 3 inches taller and maybe has 50 pounds on me...). Now, mid-scoop I was tempted to say "I'm to big to be lifted/twirled". However, as last time I said that I got dumped in a pool, I decided to accept the twirling.

So, Italy, girly shoes and twirling...I sound like a member of the Italian Ballet.
Hope all is well,

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