Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 9! FREE AT LAST!

We awoke at the usual pre-dawn hour, but with a renewed sense of freedom and optimism for the trip. We were driving to Switzerland and hoping for cooler temperatures and a much more enjoyable second half of our trip. The drive from Venice to Lugano, where we stopped for lunch, was breathtaking. We traveled through Milano - actually through the city as the loop around it was a parking lot - and then to the Alps.

Lugano is a lovely town situated on a glacier-fed, blue-green lake. We only had a brief stop for lunch, due to the delays in Milano, but enjoyed some Burger King and a walk along the lakeshore. There were numerous cafes which would have been nice (but very expensive - 20 Euro for lunch?) and there was not enough time.

This picture was taken by one of our traveling companions by the fountain in Lugano. Don't we look happy and more relaxed? After our short break, we headed on through the Alps to Lucerne, driving through a number of tunnels including the world's longest tunnel. It took about 30 minutes to get throught it and I was only a little relieved as Simone explained that it had a massive air system for providing fresh air inside the tunnel and a parallel emergency tunnel adjacent to it in the event of a collapse. In fact, the Swiss stock these tunnels with months worth of provisions so that they can be used as bomb shelters if needed.
I think this was Lake Lucerne - it might have been at Lugano - both were beautiful!
Simone decided to include the one sight we were scheduled to see in Lucerne upon our arrival - so we piled out of the bus and walked just a block or so to see the Lion of Lucerne. The Lion is carved into the side of the mountain as a memorial to the Swiss Guard who were killed in 1792 during the French Revolution. It is a beautiful carving, but the shadows at that time of day made it impossible for me to get a good picture that showed the detail.

Our next stop was the hotel - and this was one of our favorites. The Astoria. Our room had a beautiful view of the ancient wall around the city of Lucerne, built in the 14th Century and complete with turrets. The optional excursion for this evening was an "Alpine Folklore Experience" - we knew exactly what that meant - they would pack us in like sardines and yodel at us for two hours while feeding us mediocre food at an inflated price. Instead, we checked at the front desk, and decided to have dinner at the riverside cafe that cooked food that the desk clerk said was, "just like her grandmother makes."

What a wonderful treat! We sat with the cool breeze wafting off the river, watching the sun set on the flower-adorned, covered wooden bridge as the swans glided past. For less than it would have cost for one of us to go to the Yodel-fest, we shared a meal that included a farmer's salad with zuchini and yellow squash, a scrumptious soup, fabulous potatoes that tasted a little like a hot version of German potato salad, and a piece of viener-schnitzel that was as big as my foot. That's a size 10, thank you very much. And we had enough food left over that we easily could have fed a third person.

The view from our table at dinner...not bad, huh? See the swans over by the side?

We strolled along the river and planned our attack for the next day. While Simone's victims would be riding a boat on the lake and then taking a train up the side of the mountain (which we discovered later meant climbing huge steps at the top - 7000 ft. elevation - with no air left in your lungs), we planned to explore the shopping and see the town wall.

It was just turning dark when we returned to the hotel and we decided to visit the rooftop lounge. The lounge was actually divided into several sections and only one section was open each evening - so on this evening we had a beautiful view of the mountains and the city wall as well as the river. The lounge also provided free wifi access, so we were able to touch base with home.

The very best part was our sense of freedom. We just couldn't get over how different it felt to not be herded from place to place. And even better - since we weren't going on the optional tour - we could sleep in as late as we'd like the next day!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 8!

"Ahhhh...Venice!" to quote Harrison Ford. Well, not exactly.

Day 8 started once again with an early morning wake up call and back on the bus we went. Once again it was about a four hour drive. I always thought I might enjoy being a tour guide, but I must say, not even I have the wind to talk for four hours straight, day after day! Simone told us about the history of Italy, about the Medici family, and the historic Romeo and Juliet, about how Venice was built...it was all very interesting, but at some point your brain simply cannot hold one more tidbit of information! Not to mention, most of us would have preferred snoozing a little given our early morning departure.

The bus trip was also occupied with her giving a description of all of the optional excursions that were available, and passing out a sign-up sheet for us to indicate which ones we wanted to participate in. We checked at least one excursion in each city, including the one we had already participated on in Rome. We were to turn in our selections at dinner that evening.

Arrival in Venice consisted of parking the bus and walking a couple of blocks to the pier to catch a 'water-bus' to the area we were going to visit, which included Piazza San Marco (weren't we just there yesterday? Different Piazza San Marco). The ride took about thirty minutes and the views were quite amazing with buildings rising right out of the sea.

It was about five blocks from the pier where we landed back to Piazza San Marco, and then another four blocks back toward the pier to the glass factory - where once again, we had the Venetian Glass/timeshare sales pitch. It was interesting to learn how they make glass - but the best part was the AC and free and clean restrooms! I also have to note that in Venice, when you are thinking of blocks, there aren't streets, there are canals, so at every "intersection" there is a bridge, but the walkway is at such a level that you have to walk up a flight of steps and down a flight of steps at each bridge. Who needs stairmaster?

After our lesson in glassmaking and perusing their shop - which really did have some incredibly beautiful glasswork, especially chandeliers - we enjoyed lunch at one of the outdoor cafes and shopped for a bit before we had to meet up with our group for our optional "gondola serenade" at Piazza San Marco. We made it back to the Piazza about 45 minutes before the meeting time and managed to find about 18 inches of cement ledge to sit on in the shade and wait - the Piazza was as crowded as Rome had been and we were particularly on guard against the pickpockets we had been warned were very common in Venice.

Mom decided she needed a visit to the restroom before getting on the gondola, but there wasn't enough time to get to the glass factory and back, so she decided to take her chances on the public restroom in the Piazza while I guarded our precious real estate. As with most of the restrooms in public areas, she encountered an old woman outside who was collecting the fee - a whopping 1.50 Euro! The woman directed her up the steps - unfortunately, when she got there, this restroom had a turnstile and a man insisting that the woman was just a gypsy and had nothing to do with the restroom - so it ended up costing 3 Euro (about $5!). Then she got locked in the bathroom and couldn't get out until finally someone helped her. Lesson #59 - when in Venice, don't pay until you see the turnstile!

We met our group and walked to the gondola loading area - a few more blocks. We were grouped with two other pairs of ladies we had met in our tour group - Tracy and Joan, who were also a mother-daughter pair about our ages, and Rama and Lori, friends who had just completed their Masters in Library Science and decided to celebrate with this trip to Europe.

Stepping into a gondola is a whole lot like stepping into a canoe - you have to be very careful not to tip it over! Mom and I got in first and got the best seats, forward facing at the back of the boat. Joan and Tracy were next, and then Lori and Rama - poor Rama really got the short end of the stick - she was stuck sitting at the bow, facing the rest of us and getting to see only where we'd been and not where we were headed.
But she was still sweet enough to take each of our cameras and take pictures of our group! (Notice our gondolier talking on the cell phone).

There were about six gondolas for our group and we learned that by 'gondola serenade' what they actually meant was that they would put two fellows who could barely carry a tune in a bucket, much less a gondola, in one of the boats and let them belt out some Italian favorites. The only time we heard them was when we reached the Grand Canal and they pulled all the gondolas together side-by-side, and then spun us around to head back to our starting point. The big excitement came when we realized just after we'd set out that we were somewhat unbalanced and tried to have Joan and Tracy switch sides to even us out. Lesson # 62 - Once in the gondola, DON'T MOVE! Overall, it was a nice ride - probably not worth 37 Euro but, hey, how often do you get to ride in a gondola?

Once we successfully evacuated the gondola, we headed back across the bridges (up a flight, down a flight, walk a block, up a flight, down a flight, walk a block...) back to our water-bus. We were standing on the pier, looking forward to a shaded ride back to the bus, when a linebacker for the NFL plowed into Mom.

OK, he wasn't actually a linebacker for the NFL, he was a short Asian man who had gotten in line for the wrong water-bus and was apparently afraid of missing his ride. But he basically came running down the pier, arms up like a blocker in the Superbowl, and nearly knocked her down as he slammed into her shoulder and arm. He came at us so fast that none of us even saw him coming in time to react. When we got up to our boat and saw him sitting in the one next to us, Mom politely inquired as to his mental health and intellect, but he didn't respond. We can only presume that he also suffered from hearing impairment.

By this time, we were pretty much exhausted, sunburnt, and ready to collapse in a nice cool hotel room. We arrived at the hotel and found (with some difficulty) the welcome reception Simone had promised. Since we were a few moments late, we did not hear the description of the pink liquid that filled the frosty glasses being provided. Given our overheated and parched condition, we each took a nice swig before realizing it was rubbing alcohol - OK, yes, I know, it wasn't rubbing alcohol, and I know I'm no connosieur, but this stuff was awful! It was all I could not not to spew it across the room. Frustrated, we headed to our room, only to discover it was about 90 degrees in there! After several trips to the front desk, we finally got someone to come and fix ours, but apparently it was an issue throughout the hotel - eventually ten guests from our group had to move to another hotel for the evening.

The air conditioning was, I do believe, the final straw. At that point, Mom was hoping the whole Italian peninsula would sink into the Mediterranean. She was exhausted, injured (I left out the part about opening the mini-frig onto her toe and slicing it open), frustrated, insulted, feeling guilty and afraid that I would miss something because she couldn't do it all, and almost ready to pack up and go home.

I'll give God all the credit for the words that He gave me and the sense of calm in the midst of the storm, but I said something along the lines of: "All this STUFF has been here for thousands of years, and it will be here for thousands of years, but you will not. I did not come on this trip to see everything I could possibly see, but to enjoy this time with you and see what we could. From this point on, we are going to do exactly what we want to do and nothing else. If that means in the midst of the next march, we decide to call a taxi to take us to the hotel, then that is what we will do. If that means we don't go on any of their excursions, so be it. We will ride their bus, stay in their hotels and eat any meals that are included, but anything else, we'll just do our own thing. If it costs us more, it costs us more, but I don't think it will because so far every one of these excursions we could have done the part we wanted on our own for cheaper than what we're paying. Most importantly, if we get to see everything, but you end up killing yourself doing it - THAT is not my idea of a good vacation!"

With that said and our room down to 85 degrees, we dressed for dinner and met up with our fellow travelers. When one of the 20-ish travelers couldn't make it to dinner due to heat exhaustion, we took a little comfort in the fact that it wasn't just us who were overwhelmed. We crossed out every one of the excursions we had indicated on our selection sheet - except Dinner/Wicked in London and the dinner/bus tour of Paris at night - over $1000 worth of excursions, and handed it to Simone with a smile. She looked at us strangely and we just said, "from here on out, we're doing our own thing."

I have to admit, we tried to inspire others to join us in our rebellion. We suggested that everyone just slow down on the marches - I mean she couldn't really leave us all behind, right? Or maybe we could offer Stefano an extra tip for picking us up early? I stopped short of suggesting we stow Simone under the bus with the luggage, but it was tempting.

Tomorrow - Day 9, but really Day 1 of the Freedom Tour!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 7 - Florence, Italy

Remember back on Day 3 in Prague when I told you about the red spots all over my ankles? Well, Day 7 began with Mom waking up to find them on her ankles. And mine, which had nearly disappeared, were back and even worse than before. By this time, we had heard from my sister-in-law, who confirmed that you don't get bedbug bites in just one spot, but we could not figure out what we might have stepped in that could have caused such a reaction. A little nervous that we might be spotted (pun intended) and quarantined, we kept our unsightly ankle-bites hidden by long pants despite the warm weather.

After all the warnings from Simone about keeping on schedule, we loaded the bus and pulled out five minutes early for our trip to Florence. This apparently made a HUGE difference as we escaped the city before traffic could get to its normal crazy volume. In fact, Simone reminded us at least a dozen times how fortunate we were that we were ahead of schedule because we had escaped before traffic got bad. The drive to Florence is about four hours and they had planned for one stop about halfway. I'll spare you the details, but it would have been nice if Simone had mentioned that there was a functioning toilet on board for emergencies - enough said.

Due to some rule about how often Stefano, the bus driver, had to take a break, we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill just outside of Florence, and then continued into the city. Autogrill's are Europe's version of Stuckey's. Basically, they operate along the many toll roads of Europe providing everything from a hot meal to junk food to books on tape. In this case, the restaurant was actually located above the highway with access from either direction of the highway - so we were cautioned by Simone to be very careful to come down on the right side or we might end up on the wrong bus.

We all made it back to the bus and arrived at Piazza San Marco, where the bus deposited us for our daily hike. It was only a few blocks down a crowded alley until we reached a very non-descript entry which we were told housed Michaelangelo's masterpiece, David. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical, but after waiting thirty minutes, we were led inside by our local guide for Florence; I think his name was Ferdinand. I don't recall his name because I've really tried to repress the memory. Between his strong accent and the paper he held over the microphone as he broadcast tour information to our headsets, we couldn't understand a word the man said.

Mom was surprised to discover that the statue of David was a statue of THE David, from the Bible. All these years, she thought it was just a statue of some naked guy named David. LOL. But when you think about it, you never hear it referred to as King David or David-as-He-Prepared-to-Fight-Goliath. In fact, I had never realized that he was holding a sling and a stone even though I've seen photos of the statue many times. Maybe it was because we had seen so many statues already at this point, but it was a little anti-climactic for me. It was beautiful and crafted with incredible detail -  but we had just seen 2000 equally beautiful statues in Rome.

I did catch one thing that Fernando said that I found amusing - apparently the benefactor for whom Michaelangelo created the David did not like the nose - he said it was too Jewish-looking and he wanted the sculptor to fix it (ignoring the fact that David was, after all, Jewish!). Rather than change it or openly offend his benefactor, Michaelangelo merely waited a reasonable time, told the man it had been changed, and left it as is. The benefactor agreed that it was much improved with a more 'Roman' nose.

We spent less than an hour in the small museum that housed the David and didn't really have time to explore the rest of the museum which included some beautiful paintings before it was time to continue our hike through Florence. This time the hike was well worth it - we came to the Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore.

This was perhaps the most beautiful of all the churches we saw in Europe to me. The entire outside is covered in white, rose, and green marble. I took a ton of pictures, but none of them even approaches the beauty of this place. The niches around the entire structure are filled with sculptures of saints and the arches at the bottom include beautiful artwork over each doorway. The dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th Century as the first of its kind to be built without the aid of a framework. The baptistry, which predates the cathedral by several hundred years, mirrors the ornate tri-color detail.

I really would have loved to see the inside of the chapel, but there was more to see so on we hiked, ending up at the Piazza di Santa Croce, where Simone introduced us to her friends at one of the local gold and leather shops. This works a little like a time-share weekend - only in exchange for enduring their sales pitch, you get to use their restrooms and sit in their air-conditioned shop for free. I know that doesn't sound like a very good deal, and in the US, it would never work - but in Europe it is well worth it! I even got to model a lovely $600 leather jacket in which, I must say, I looked absolutely fabulous.

They did actually inform us how to distinguish real leather from the fake leather that many merchants spray with 'leather scent' to fool tourists. (Basically, you just pinch the leather between your fingers and rub back and forth - if the unfinished side of the leather slides easily against itself, it is not real leather. Go home, try it, tell me if they were telling us the truth!)

So at this point, we had once again spent about 5 hours on our feet as we headed to the bus. Fernando lost any appreciation we might have had for him as he set out at a good clip, leaving several of us in his dust. Eventually, we were about a block behind the stragglers in our group. We were walking down the side of a one way street when we were attacked by pigeons. I don't mean a few pigeons, I mean a huge flock or Hitchcock-esque attack pigeons! They swarmed one way and then spun and dove at us like they were on a mission. I have never minded birds, in fact, I've always kind of enjoyed them, but I was left cowering against the building with my hands over my head squealing like a little girl. Shudder.

By the time the birds had sufficiently terrorized our little band, the rest of our tour group had turned the corner, completely oblivious to our plight. We were very relieved when we rounded the corner and saw the bus waiting within sight. And even more relieved when we arrived at the hotel - the Hilton Garden Inn Florence. This was arguably the nicest hotel we stayed in and definitely the most modern. It was situated quite some distance from the historic district but was modern and high tech - with free wifi in the room! Our dinner in the hotel restaurant was delicious - but even better than the meal was the company.

We sat across from a couple who owns a Ponderosa Steak House in Huntington, West Virginia - do you remember those? We used to have them around here and they were always a great meal for a reasonable price, but you just don't see them anymore in this area. At any rate, she was a nurse, and yes, we did it. We committed that unthinkable faux pax of asking a medical person for some free medical advice - which she was very kind to oblige and informed us that our 'ankle-bites' were actually petechial hemorrhaging due to the swelling in our ankles from all the walking! Even better, she had them too - you know how misery loves company. After spending the evening with our feet up and cool cloths wrapped on our ankles, we both were back in capris the next day!

Day 8 - on to Venice!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 6

The first thing they should tell you, in large BOLD letters, before you purchase a bus tour of Europe is that the average morning departure time is 7:30am. And they should also mention that your bags have to be sitting in the hall about 30-45 minutes before that, which means you have to be ready to go fifteen minutes before that so you can pack everything up. So if you're a woman, you should plan to just stay up all night.

They should also take a tip from the cruise lines and rate their excursions based on the physical activity level required. At least then you could call ahead and book your room at the nearest cardiac ICU. Nothing like being prepared.

Our first official tour day began bright and early with a promise from Simone that each minute we delayed would put hundreds of other tourists between us and Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel! We were blessed that our group took her warnings to heart and only two or three tour groups managed to squeeze in ahead of us in the line. Of course, being in line early meant the Vatican Museum did not open for another hour, so we got to catch up on our sleep while standing in line. Yes, it is possible to sleep standing up. We had a local tour guide for Rome named Marco, who really added a lot to the tour. Our tour was somewhat abbreviated and I'm sure we could have spent several days exploring the incredible treasures in the museum, the chapel, and the basilica, but even what we were able to see was completely awe-inspiring. A couple of sights really stand out in my memory even a month later - the first was The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo. While most focus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this work covers the wall at one end of the chapel and depicts Christ's final judgment. According to Marco, Michaelangelo created this masterpiece in the midst of the Reformation and, despite being commissioned by the Pope, depicted the Judgment in a very 'Protestant' manner. There is no evidence of purgatory, for example.

I found the painting fascinating and found loads of interesting information online about it, but I'll just pass along a link for those who may be interested: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/CSNs/CSNs_G_Giud.html

Saint Peter's Basilica was completely overwhelming - again, I could have spent a week inside inspecting each piece of art. An interesting fact I did not know was that most of the decoration and furnishing inside was completed after Michaelangelo's death and, according to Marco, he would have been furious at how his Renaissance design was 'ruined' by Bernini's Baroque furnishings and statuary.

Our next stop was the Coliseum, officially named the Flavian Amphitheatre, named for Vespasian and Titus who constructed it (Flavius being their family name). The name Coliseum came from a huge statue of Nero that he erected beside it. Marco pointed out that much of the damage to the Coliseum as well as other Roman ruins was due to Rome being constantly occupied since antiquity - they embraced the reduce - reuse - recycle mantra and many of the stones from the Coliseum could be found in the foundations of buildings throughout the city.

Marco seemed to appreciate that not everyone in the group was up to the task of hiking through the Coliseum and the area known as the Forum. He offered those who chose not to see the Forum the option of waiting for us near where our bus would return for us. That worked out great for my mom and gave her a little break while I enjoyed viewing the various columns, stones, and piles of rocks known as the Forum. I think my favorite part was seeing an active archaelogical dig and hearing Marco say, "On our right we have an excellent example of the species Homo Sapien Archaeologico. Notice the hunched over posture and the use of small brushes and tools, but please, do not attempt to touch or feed them. It's very dangerous."

While the bus took us back to the hotel for lunch and a rest, Mom and I tried to decide whether to join the afternoon optional excursion or not - finally we asked Simone whether there would be a lot of walking or if it was mostly by bus and she said, "Oh, no, no, it's not much walking." Yeah right!

The afternoon tour picked us up from the hotel around 3:00pm and the bus carried us across the Tiber River and dropped us off. We then proceeded to walk for the next three hours through narrow, quaint alleyways that opened into large picturesque squares...for the next three hours! All of it is somewhat of a blur of blisters and sunburn except two things - The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon was so totally unexpected - I had heard of it, but only vaguely - and it was amazing. Originally built as a pagan center of worship, the Catholic church purchased it and converted into a Christian temple. It has been in continuous use (since it was rebuilt after an earlier structure was destroyed in an earthquake) since 126 AD. The dome is made of concrete and they used less and less dense concrete as they neared the top in order to lessen the pressure that might eventually cause it to collapse under its own weight. At the center of the dome, it is open, letting in the only source of light - sunlight - and rain. The floor was constructed with drains to allow rainwater to drain off the marble floors. And all of this was conceived nearly 2000 years ago and has stood the test of time - amazing!

Trevi Fountain, on the other hand, was a complete disappointment. It was impossible to even get close enough to the fountain to study it in detail because there were probably several thousand tourists in the small square where its located. We had been warned by both guides, as well as others who have visited, that this is a hotspot for pickpockets, so we were on guard against any intrusion to personal space - but it was impossible because of the huge crowd. Fortunately, we did not fall victim, but it did take the fun out of it - I decided that I needn't throw 1, 2, or 3 coins in the fountain because I had no intention of returning.

We ended the tour portion of the excursion at the Spanish Steps...so called because the Spanish Embassy donated the land for them. I believe it was 137 steps - and our tour bus awaited us at the top! Marco offered a welcome option to take an elevator to the top (even that required climbing two flights of stairs once we 'arrived') and Mom and I jumped at the chance. After nearly seven hours on our feet, we were looking forward to sitting down to dinner.

The dinner for this optional excursion was significantly better than the one included with the tour - it offered some variety to choose from at least. I had the chicken and Mom had the salmon, both of which were about average. The entertainment was a little more enjoyable, featuring a flautist and a guitar player.

We were eager to return to the room and plan our early morning wake up since we needed to be on the bus by 7:30am to leave for Florence, the home of Michaelangelo's David.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 5

For our first full day in Rome, we decided to take advantage of one of the many "Hop On, Hop Off" bus tours, so we checked at the front desk for a recommendation. We were directed to pass through Saint Peter's Square and continue down Via della Conciliazione to catch the GLT bus line. Almost all of these buses are double-decker buses - doesn't that sound like fun? Well, don't be fooled. In July, in Rome, the top deck of those buses is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The buses are equipped with headphone jacks and the cost of the daily ticket includes earbuds - unfortunately it doesn't always include jacks that WORK. We switched seats multiple times and failed to find any two seats where both jacks worked.

The other thing they neglected to mention is that the buses don't stop "AT" the sights, they stop "NEAR" the sights (see previous European definition of "near"). We got off at the first stop, wanting to see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - which looked interesting as the bus drove past. After strolling through a bunch of shops down the several blocks back to the church, we realized if we wanted to see anything else, we needed to hoof it back to the bus stop to catch the next ride. Once we got back on the bus, we once again couldn't hear any of the sight-seeing information, so we missed getting off at the next stop to see the Trevi Fountain. By the time we reached the Coliseum, we had decided that we needed to move downstairs before we melted. The traffic was so heavy, with mostly buses and motorcycles or mopeds, that we were just sure we were about to see a fatality at least a dozen times from our bird's eye view!

The bus was packed by this time, so we asked a couple who had come up to the top floor if there were any seats below. They said there were, so we gave up our seats and maneuvered carefully down the circular stairs to the main level only to find that the guide had let additional people on the bus and there were no seats. We tried to tell her if there weren't seats that we needed to get off because we didn't want to be lurching through traffic standing up, but it was too late. After a minor difference of opinion with the guide, we managed to hang on tight and then exited as soon as the bus stopped...only to discover we were at the Circus Maximus. Now, when you are back in the US and hear Circus Maximus, it sounds very interesting - but what it actually looks like is an abandoned railroad bed. There are hills on either side of a rectangular field and a raised area down the middle of the field that looks like a railroad bed minus the rails and ties. There are a couple of places where stone steps lead up the hill, but that is about it. Oh, and garbage. There were bags of garbage and lots of loose garbage everywhere. Until we checked our map of the city, we thought maybe they dropped us off at the local landfill (note to self: don't get into minor confrontations with the tour guide).

 The only real point of interest at the bus stop was a small cart selling drinks and gelato, so we went to get something to cool off. In truth, the stop also had a good view of the real Caesar's Palace, Palatine Hill. We learned later that Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) is actually where many Christians lost their lives under Nero. The aristocracy would watch the 'games' from the comfort of their palace overlooking the field. But back to our gelato. As we were enjoying our break, an American currently living in Tokyo - but visiting Italy - approached and we chatted just long enough to miss the next bus! Realizing we needed to wait closer to the stop, we did just that, and watched as about ten buses from other tours came by (four from one company) before our bus arrived - so here is your helpful tip for seeing Rome: Buy a ticket on the Big, Red Bus! They had 3 to 1 more buses than the other tour groups and looked like nicer buses - and were 4 Euro (aobut $6) cheaper than the one we bought.

We still hadn't had lunch and it was mid-afternoon, so when our bus arrived we decided to see the rest of Rome from the bus. I think we ended up standing most of the way due to it being so crowded - and a note to the under 30 crowd: when you see a 70-year-old woman standing up on a crowded bus, get your baggy-pants-covered tail up out of that seat and let her sit down!

We drooped back to the hotel and collapsed for a much needed rest before our tour group was to rendesvous in the lobby for dinner. The group was an interesting and diverse collection - it reminded me a little of The Amazing Race. We had two mother-son teams, both of the sons named Michael; a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law team that got along amazingly well; two friends who had just completed their Master's degrees in Library Science together; several couples of varying ages; one newlywed couple who were expecting; and two larger families which included the parents, their grown-up kids and any related in-laws. We had people from as distant as Washington State, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, and Texas. I was amazed how well the whole group seemed to come together.

After our tour guide, Simone Kis, introduced herself and our Italian driver, Stefano, we headed out to our first experience together - a 'traditional' Italian dinner. The restaurant was located on one of the many circles in Rome - as they say, each one has either a fountain or an obelisk, and some have both. They led us through to the very back of the restaurant to a low-ceilinged room with several levels of tables packed in. Two Asian tour groups were already seated and before long the entire room was packed with about 150-200 tourists. Throughout the meal, a Fabio-wannabe played an accordion - very loudly and often right beside someone's head - and a mediocre singer belted 'Volare'.

The meal consisted of several courses - more food than should ever be served to one person at a single meal. First came antipasto - cheese, some type of cured meat and peppers. Then the first pasta dish which looked (and tasted) suspiciously like spaghettios. Then a second - I'm guessing macaroni and cheese. Finally, the main course of chicken with a slice of meat of some kind under it, and I don't even remember the sides - honestly, I think I've blocked out the memory. It wasn't good. The tiramisu they served for dessert probably would have seemed good if we hadn't had such a delicious version the night before! All of this served as we sat elbow to elbow and tried to converse with our newfound friends over the volume of Fabio and his femme fatale. Regardless of the food or the atmosphere, we had a wonderful time getting to know our traveling companions.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 4

Why would anyone name their airline "WhizzAir"? Do they suppose the image of a plane whizzing through the air overpowers the image of a fellow standing on the tarmac with a rubber band on the propeller? Because it doesn't.

Day 4 started with a taxi ride to the airport (which cost less than the one FROM the airport, hmmmm). We found the purple and hot pink WhizzAir counter with plenty of time to spare and caught a quick bite to eat since check-in didn't begin for 30 minutes. When they opened up two lines, we picked the line with the gentleman who was either new or learning disabled. In the time it took the gal beside him to process fifteen people, he checked in one family of three. Fortunately, we had paid extra for "Priority Boarding"; unfortunately, we had NOT paid extra for "handicapped assistance". Apparently, if you break your leg on the way to the airport, you are out of luck, because you can only get a wheelchair if you order it (and pay for it) online - in advance. Well, I guess that isn't entirely fair. They did say we could walk down to the area where they have the wheelchairs and try to request one, but there was no guarantee they would have one and it was located at the far end of the terminal at the opposite end from where you had to go through security. We decided to take our chances...

We made it through security with a minimum invasion of our personal space and followed the signs to gate C21...all the way to the very end, thankful for the moving sidewalk. But when we got there, there were only Gates 9 and 10. We looked everywhere and finally went into one of the shops and asked - we were pointed back the way we had come and told we would need to go down a level and then back out to the end of the terminal on the ground level. Of course, the moving sidewalk did not go in that direction AND when we got downstairs, there was no moving sidewalk on that floor. So we ended up having to walk three times as far as necessary. I'm not sure what the lesson here is, except maybe to keep looking for signs even when you think you know where you're headed.

At this point, the message boards in the airport had not yet posted the gate assignment. Although C21 was listed on our boarding pass, we were told that it was subject to change and wouldn't be posted until 30 minutes before boarding - I had visions of them changing it to the other end of the airport and us having to sprint to make the flight! Thankfully, that was not the case and we made it to the gate with plenty of time.

Uncertain exactly what "Priority Boarding" meant, I studied our boarding passes. Apparently, WhizzAir tickets are simply 'a ticket to ride' - no guaranteed seat assignment. I hovered near the desk wanting to be sure that we were among the first, since there was no way to know how many passengers had paid the extra $20 for the privilege of being at the front of the stampede. This was probably the best $20 spent on the trip. Instead of being stuffed like sardines into the bus - that's right, we had to get on a bus to go out to the taxiway where the plane awaited us - we were in the front section and only slightly crowded. More importantly, we were #3 and #4 getting on the plane and consequently were able to pick bulkhead seats at the front of the plane. This ended up being a mixed blessing in that we had plenty of leg room, but I could see the insulation of the plane in the crack around the divider between the cabin and the galley. What is the accepted etiquette for notifying the flight attendant that the plane looks like it's falling apart?

The flight itself was pretty uneventful - the attendants provided the usual safety instructions with a little more dramatic flair than most airlines. And I think they not only use planes from the 1960's but probably have the same employment guidelines as were used at that time. While our other flights featured attendants that were male, female, young, old, slim, and plump - all these gals were straight off the pages of "Coffee, Tea, or Me." The only really disturbing thing was that the entire airplane erupted in thunderous applause when we touched down in Rome...did they know something we didn't?

The tour we were joining was supposed to include airport transfers, but since we booked our own flight and arrived a day early, they wanted to charge us $75 to take us to the hotel - that's $75 EACH. Mom wisely contacted the USO before we left the US and arranged transport for us for $50 total. We were so thrilled when both of our bags showed up and we saw the gentleman with a sign that read "Bowen". (Did I mention that my bag didn't make it to Prague until about five hours after I did and had to be delivered to us at the hostel? And was damaged so we had to find a shop in Prague that sold superglue - couldn't find any duct tape - to hold it together? No?) Security at the airport in Rome seemed very slack - until we saw the soldiers with machine guns and bomb-sniffing dogs. No need to pat you down with all that!

Anyway, back to the USO driver. He was a man of very few words and even more limited driving skills. Or maybe he had really good driving skills since we avoided being in an accident. I don't think there is any way to adequately describe traffic in Italy so I'll leave it with one word - terrifying. It didn't help when I saw a couple of soldiers on a jeep guarding the entrance to a villa with machine guns. When I asked the driver who lived there or what was that - all he could say was "No problem." Where I come from, when you see soldiers with machine guns, it means there's a big problem.

The hotel was much nicer on the inside that it appeared on the outside and we persuaded them to give us a non-smoking room minus the view of the St. Peter's Basilica rather than a smoking room with a view - definitely a good deal in my book. The Starhotel Michaelangelo was situated literally across the street a block from the Vatican.

The front desk gave us a recommendation for dinner and we ventured out after a short rest. Forgetting that Europeans idea of 'just down the street' is a mile, we were unable to find the recommended restaurant, but discovered one that seemed perfect just a few blocks from the hotel. It sat on the corner of a street facing the wall of Vatican City and was called Papa Rex's. Complete with a costumed Centurion and live music, this was another highlight of the trip. The music was beautiful and subtle, providing a backdrop to conversation instead of overwhelming it. Occasionally, the handsome couple would serenade us while we enjoyed lasagne and tiramisu. The food was delicious and reasonably priced and the atmosphere was lovely.

Stick with me - tomorrow we visit some of the sights of Rome and meet our tour group!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 3

Day 3 - our final full day in Prague! The day began with me waking up to notice the insides of my ankles were covered with red dots and blotches that looked like bites. I panicked, recalling all the news coverage of bedbug infestations. I had inspected the mattresses carefully when we checked in and they looked clean and free of the tell-tale specks. Megan suggested they were flea bites, since the hostel was home to five dogs that roamed throughout - people in Prague love their dogs and don't really seem to believe in leashes. At any rate, we reported it to the manager and were assured that it was not bedbugs - but just to be sure, I sent a pic to my dear sister-in-law the NP and asked for her medical opinion. (More on this later - you'll have to wait, like I did, to find out what this was!)

I was determined to do a little research for my novel, which meant taking a tour of the Prague underground - not the Metro, but the series of tunnels and rooms buried under the heart of Old Town. I wanted to learn the history of the tunnels and be sure my depiction of them was on target, so I left Mom and Megan to browse through the art shops and crystal dealers while I took the tour offered by Prague Special Tours by Ivan Galik. The tour was led by Eva, a young Czech who was not only fluent in English and well-studied in the history of the Czech Republic, but had a great sense of humor that really added to the tour. And best of all, the tour really provided some great confirmation and details for my story!

After a return to the hostel for an afternoon nap, we decided to venture across the Vltava to show Mom Prague Castle. Fortunately, we were able to take a bus to a stop near the Castle which is up a very steep hill from the river. We were hoping to find a restaurant nearby for dinner, but after walking downhill from the bustop to the Castle, we found nearby restaurants were closed for Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day.* 
Not wanting to trudge back up the steep incline, we decided to continue downhill until we found something open - and we were so glad we did! We discovered a vinyard with a little bistro along the side of the mountain. As the sun set over the city, we watched from the cool shade of a vine-covered trellis while we enjoyed a delicious dinner of grilled chicken, grilled vegetables and a baked potato. The view was absolutely spectacular!

After dinner, we continued down the hill to where we had been directed to the ladies room...only to find that the coin operated turnstile was out of order. We ended up having to 'hop' the turnstile! I'll just say, using the restroom was always an adventure in Europe!

We said goodnight and goodbye to Megan since she had plans to travel with a friend the next morning when we were flying to Rome on WhizzAir! You DON'T want to miss that story!

*"The two Byzantine Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius are very important for Czech history. They brought Christianity to the Great Moravian Empire in the year 863 and created the lithurgical Slavonic language and alphabet called hlaholice (the Glagolitic alphabet). They translated the Bible and contributed to the spread of Christianity and the Old Slavonic Language (staroslověnština) throughout Great Moravia." MyCzechRepublic.com

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 2, Prague

Morning dawned, gray and dreary, on our first full day in Prague. And the lessons continued...

1) When visiting a large city (about 1.3 million), be sure to take full advantage of all forms of public transportation. We made the mistake of taking the Metro to an area near Old Town Square and then walking instead of using the buses and trams to get closer to our destination. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll from the Metro station to Prague Institute, where Megan had her classes, and around various sites downtown to one of her favorite lunch spots - Club Architect. We enjoyed a tasty, authentic Czech meal at a reasonable price (88Kc = $6) at the quaint underground cafe,.

2) Don't be a guy - ask directions! I kept thinking, "I remember, it's just down this street!" Unfortunately, in the Old Town area, 'this street' looks just like 'that street' - so we ended up spending way too much time wandering in search of a particular site I wanted to share with Mom. By the time we drug ourselves to the bus stop to head back to the hostel for a rest before dinner, we had spent about six hours on our feet and were all three exhausted.

3) Another large city lesson - beware of pickpockets! Of course, we knew this. We'd heard plenty of stories of cameras, passports, and wallets stolen without the victim having the slightest hint when or where, let alone, who was responsible. In our case, it was a little less subtle than that. As we boarded the bus, Megan got on first and I hung back to make sure Mom could make it up the tall step on to the bus, but as I took her arm to help her, a young man jumped in front of her and stopped, asking in Czech where the bus went. I was totally oblivious, but Megan must have recognized that something was amiss because she started waving him off and yelling, "ne" (no) at him. Meanwhile, a couple of other young men were crowding in behind us and I naively thought they were also trying to get on the bus, but Mom recognized they were a little too close for comfort and shouted for them to get away. They left and we got on the bus, congratulating ourselves that we all still had our wallets - until we got back to the hostel and realized they had lifted the camera from mom's jacket pocket. We were so devastated - we had spent those six hours chronicling our trip and now all those pictures were gone. We eventually bought some disposable cameras and took some pictures with our phones, but the quality was not very good...hence the reason there are few pictures accompanying this blog!

4) Ask whether tour packages include all beverages or only alcoholic ones...while we were downtown, we had booked and paid for a dinner cruise on the Vltava River which included drinks and cost about $75 each. We discovered when we boarded the cruise, that it included alcohol, but not other drinks - not even water! So we ended up paying an extra $10 or more each in order to have water with our meal. Nevertheless, this was probably the highlight of our time together in Prague - the cruise was lovely as we passed swans and castles, the Dancing Building and Charles Bridge. We traveled well south of the city, using a lock to travel upriver past a shallow fall, and then returned in the course of about 3 hours. The views of the city and the countryside just outside the city were spectacular. We were even surprised to see a riverside RV park along the banks.

5) Inquire about road work or other changes to the public transportation routes (learned this lesson again in London!) It turned out that the bus we had used to get within a reasonable distance to the riverboat did not run in the opposite direction due to road work that was underway. Consequently, it was another mile hike back to the Metro station. My poor little feet ache just thinking about it!

Needless to say, we all tumbled into bed exhausted once again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tales from the TRIP

To fully appreciate these tales, you probably need just a little background. First, the TRIP was a sixteen day European adventure with my 70-year-old mother. Before you think that must mean a 70-year-old pace for the trip, you should understand that my mom is pretty sassy for her age. She walks a mile on a treadmill pretty much every day, zips around the lake on her jetski with her Flying Aqua Babes buddies, and travels cross-country in an RV at least a few months out of the year. This was her third major trip within six months to include cruising across the Atlantic and hiking to the top of Alhambra.

Regardless of all that, we learned some valuable lessons along the way:
1) Always request handicap assistance when changing airplanes. OK, I'm not talking to you 20-somethings out there that can sprint through the airport carrying your 49.5 pound luggage. But for those of us who have celebrated a birthday that involved black balloons and signs reading "Over the Hill" - don't be embarrassed, just do it! The connection at Logan Airport alone would have taken us the entire five hour layover to get from one terminal to the next if we hadn't had a gent wheeling mom along at light speed. (Thankfully, she held on to both our carry on bags and I walked on the people-mover or I wouldn't have been able to keep up with him.)

2) If you're flying for more than 4 hours, fly first class. No, we didn't do this, but I made Mom promise that if she ever does this again she will - I don't care what the cost difference, when you have two titanium knees, having to wedge yourself into that tiny space for that long should be against the law. Nevermind if you have someone trying to climb over you or if you have to climb over someone.

3) Heathrow is not an airport, it's an air-tropolis. The distance from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5 is further than the distance across the city of Raleigh I'm pretty sure. Oh, and if you're connecting through Heathrow, you definitely want to print out your boarding passes for your connecting flight before you leave home, so you can check your bags through to your final destination because if you have to get your bags, go through customs and re-check your bags again, you better have a week to spend at the airport.

4) When booking travel, try to keep the sum total of all hours in an airplane or airport under 24. We managed this, just barely, and I really think if we had another two hours in a plane, there might have been an incident involving airline security. Not mentioning any names, I'm just sayin'.

5) Check the size of the aircraft you will be flying on when crossing a large body of water, like, say, an OCEAN. I've flown overseas before...always had two aisles with a couple seats on the sides and 4-5 seats in the middle - this was 3 seats on either side of a single aisle....and when the air got rough, it was like riding the Dominator at Kings Dominion - only no big restraining bar to hold on to. And the people around us didn't appreciate me screaming and raising my hands over my head.

6) Upon arrival at your final destination, do NOT let your 19-year-old daughter convince you to save a buck by taking public transportation, as in, "We take the bus to the Metro station, and the Metro to the tram stop, and the tram lets us off just a block from the hostel." This is where the incident almost occurred...fortunately, she saw the dangerous glint in our eyes and agreed to a taxi before we had to resort to extreme measures.

And we learned all of that just on Day 1! More Tales from the TRIP to follow....

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I'm Baaaaaaaccccck!

So I know you're wondering...where did she go? Did she fall off the planet? Have some horrible accident? Get raptured back in May like Harold Camping predicted? :-)

Nope, I've just had one very busy summer! First, my oldest daughter left for nine weeks studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. Then I had the joy of working a couple of 60-hour weeks coordinating an office move for my employer. (This is what happens when they find out you're an Army brat - if there's one thing I'm an expert on, it's moving!) Then my second daughter headed to Bolivia on a mission trip. She was home for about a week before I left with my mom for a sixteen day walking tour of Europe - it wasn't billed as a walking tour, but we calculated that we walked about 3 times as much as the lady we met on the plane who was doing a walking tour of England - including spending a few days with my oldest in Prague.

The same day we returned, my hubby and daughter #2 and my oldest son all left for Student Life Camp. They returned on Friday and that Sunday was the kick-off for our church's VBS - for which Randy led worship and I led interpretive movement/signing/jumping-around-on-stage-like-I'm-a-teenager! Which brings us to this week - when Daughter #2 and Son #1 began Marching Band Camp from 8am-5:30pm daily. And this coming Monday, hubby starts back to his primary job as Middle School Algebra teacher, after spending the summer working full-time at his part-time Music Minister position while the two Marchers continue with evening practices. Meanwhile, my youngest son (10) has been hanging on for the ride and shuttled between grandparents, friends, Y-camp, and Camp Winshape. Oh, and did I mention that the two weeks worth of Tornado-damage-repairs turned into two months worth of workers in the house, on the house, and around the house?

Wow! When I put it all down on paper, I don't feel so bad about having neglected my blog!

The good news is that this crazy summer has provided some awesome stories that I'm looking forward to sharing. At any rate, life is (hopefully) returning to its normal crazy pace, as opposed to this summer's intensely crazy pace, so I'm setting a goal of updating my blog once a week...probably on Saturday or Sunday. Hold me to it. Feel free to leave nasty comments about how lame I am if I don't stick to it! Just don't give up on me!