Friday, October 31, 2008

Day 13: Vienna's Sausages

We arrived in Vienna around 8:30 in the morning, feeling quite gross. Luckily the station had bathrooms with showers in them (thank goodness for flip flops) and we were able to feel a bit cleaner. Finally refreshed, we stepped out into the Austrian air ready to explore the city.

We boarded the cutest trams… or should I say “S-Bahn” since we were in Austria… to take us to our hostel. They were retro styled cars that looked like they came straight out of the 50’s. Note to self: next time bring poodle skirt and black and white loafers.

Once we dropped our luggage off at the hostel, we bought metro passes (aka. U-Bahn) and rode that the rest of our stay, since it dropped us off mere feet away from the hostel’s front doors. We took the metro up to the city center and walked our way over to the useless tourist information. We at least got a number of brochures out of it, and found a walking tour to take.

Right before the tour, we grabbed THE most delicious bratwurst. They drilled a hole inside a large roll and shoved the jalapeño brat in, along with a bit of ketchup. DE-VINE! The tour itself was alright. It did seem to pale in comparison to the tour we had in Rome, but overall we got a fair amount of information on the center of the city. Plus, it did provide us with the morbidly romantic opportunity to see the crypt inside the private church of the former royal family. The Hofburg’s were all married in that church, and after each died, the crypt is where they left their hearts.
On the way to our hostel in the morning, my mom saw sales posters plastered on store windows. So, we decided to spend our afternoon clothes shopping…, besides, after that tour we really weren’t 100% impressed with Vienna.

Around 8pm, donned in our new outfits, we met a friend of mine at the Stephensdom Cathedral. She took us on a private tour of Vienna, which was much better than the one we had earlier. We walked down the Jewish Quarter and she showed us a building where all the Jews from the city were forced into. When they realized what was happening, sadly, a number of the Jews being held jumped from the building's windows.
She led us through the streets of Vienna over to City Hall, where during the summer months they have an outdoor music festival. Peter and the Wolf was playing on a large screen, and restaurant stands lined the pathway. The atmosphere was great, and the food was even better. Nothing beats strawberry filled dumplings!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Day 12: I scream, You scream, We all scream for... gelato.

In preparing for our European adventure, I did what any tourist heading to Italy would do: spent hours on the internet searching for THE BEST gelatoria the country had. During my research, I came across countless rave reviews on one specific gelatoria known as Grom. Grom is located in a number of locations in Italy, France and even the US. Venice was one of the locations, so we obviously couldn't pass up an opportunity to have what critics called the most delicious gelato known to man.

After eating breakfast at the hotel, which consisted of warm yogurt... yuck..., we went about our normal "last day in a city" morning routine. I'll spare the details. We decided to visit the other non-touristic islands of Venice (mainly so I could satisfy my craving for delicious gelato). During our "last day in a city" morning routine, we had asked someone if they knew how to get to the street where Grom is located. (I had the address, and he pointed on the map). But he then proceeded in saying that it really wasn't the most impressive gelato he'd ever had, especially for the price. He went on by telling us his favorite gelatoria and exactly how to get there.
So, we made our first stop on the tiny out-of-the-way island to taste his favorite gelato. Our verdict: not good. Everyone knows that gelato is not supposed to have ice crystals... obviously the best part of gelato is it's creamy texture. There's no way someone can call themselves an Italian when their favorite "gelato" is really a ice cream flavored slushy. Since there wasn't much to see or do on that island, which may be why it wasn't full of tourists, we started walking to another port to take a boat back to San Marco. Along the way though, we found a gelatoria that looked better than the previous one we stopped at. So we bought another scoop... besides, we had to replace the bad tasting gelato from our memory.

Again, that gelato really wasn't very good. And at that point, I really didn't want any more. I know, you may gasp, but it was true. I was all gelato-ed out. I couldn't face another poorly tasting scoop... nor any good scoop for that matter. However, deep within my soul, I had a yearning desire to try Grom's gelato. After all, we hadn't travelled all the way Italy and made our way over to a corner island in Venice for nothing! So, since I had the map, I secretly directed us to the water taxi by taking us down roads which just happened to lead us to Grom in the process. When my mom saw it, she asked if we should give it a try. My stomach screamed "no" while my mouth said "yes".

I'd be lying if I didn't say it was the most delicious gelato that I've ever had... because, in fact, it was. Although my stomach was protesting the entire time, I couldn't help but enjoy every last spoonful. Yes, it was expensive... but definitely worth the cost, and the stomach ache that ensued. At least a lesson was learned in all of this, which was: trust the voice of millions, not one of a stranger you ask directions from... even if he is a local.

Gelato search accomplished, we finally made it onto the boat taxi to take us to another boat. Earlier that day we bought tickets for a group gondola ride. Luck was on our side at that moment, because we got into the first gondola with a German couple and the musicians. We sailed down the canals with 3 other gondolas, but with the musicians in our boat, it felt like they were playing for us alone.

As we would sail by, shutters would open and people would lean out their windows to listen to the music. There couldn't have been any better way to end our Italian tour than that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day 11: Vacation from our vacation

If I haven’t said it enough yet, I’m sure this time I’ll get my point across. I hate the Italian train system. I can count on one hand the number of hours worth of sleep I received on the overnight ride. And to think if we didn’t have a couchette…
We arrived in Venice at 5:30 in the morning, and waited around at the station until 6 when they opened up the bathroom so we could freshen up. Right after, we left to do an initial check-in at the hotel, even though it was hours before check-in time. Obviously our room wasn’t ready, but since there really wasn’t much we could do in the area, and the laundry mat didn’t open until 8am, we hung out in the hotel lounge. Well, to be more specific, my mom hung out while I slept on one of their plush sofas for an hour or two.
Washing our clothes was number 1 on our list of accomplishments for the day, and number 2 was to mail home a few things we had acquired along the way. That, in a nutshell, took up our morning. Across the street from the post office was a buffet restaurant. It was definitely not a place I normally would have chosen to eat, especially on vacation… but I was hungry, and in no mood to look any further. Thankfully my mom went along with it, even though I’m sure she would have liked to eaten at a better restaurant.

Finally ready to enjoy our day, and after making a final stop at the tourist’s office, we boarded the bus without wheels and floated down a few islands. The isle of San Marco was packed with tourists. It didn’t help that the streets were narrow, and many of the shops were the size of my cubicle at work, but it’s a great island. 

After walking through the maze of shops we found ourselves at the San Marco Square. At that point in time it really didn’t seem very impressive. The sun was blazing and we were excruciatingly hot when not covered by the shade. So, we spent a mere 2 minutes at the square before turning around and set off to discover other shops on the island.

Around 3pm we made a quick trip back to the hotel… a 2.5 hr long “quick” trip. I had often wondered why people would spend their precious hours of travelling inside a room doing absolutely nothing. 

After 11 days of my own travels, I began to understand. I was completely content when my mom said she needed to take a small nap. Our hotel room was very cute and overlooked a non-smelly canal… which is nothing new to me… but my mom enjoyed it a lot.

At 5:30 we were re-energized and ready to pull a late night-er. We sailed back over to the San Marco Island and strolled around a bit. After grabbing a quick calzone for dinner, we were off to the opera. The concert was in an amazing building built in the early 1800’s, the orchestra musicians and singers were dressed in the styles of that era and played baroque music to match. It definitely made you feel like you stepped back in time, even as we left the building after it was over, greeted by the Venetian architecture.
The food shops were about to close for the evening by the time the concert ended, so we rushed over to the nearest gelataria, and each got a scoop. Word from the (now) wise: don’t get yogurt flavored gelato- it’s quite bitter,… although they did succeed in making it taste like natural yogurt.

Not ready to call it a night, we tried to find roads we hadn’t already walked down. Once again, we ended up at the San Marco Square… and this time we absolutely loved it. There are 3 restaurants at the square, and each one had a band playing. We spent nearly 2 hours walking from one side of the square to the other listening to the music.

It was easy to understand why Venice is the city of romance. It’s definitely magical… especially in the evenings.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Day 10: When in Rome...

It was our last morning at the hotel, so I took full advantage of the fruit served for breakfast. My plate was overflowing with it, since I didn’t know when the next time would be that I’d have such delicious fruit to eat.

After breakfast we left immediately, since we had so much to do. It’s amazing how quickly time passes in Rome. You walk into a building, and the next thing you know, two hours have gone by. Before hitting the sites though, we first locked up our luggage in the highly unpleasant smelling lockers at the train station. (And kept our fingers crossed the rest of the day that our clothes wouldn’t end up smelling like urine).

We had made a mental outline of our day, and put a time limit on how long we’d spend at each location. That was shattered before we even got started. We ended up taking a tour of the Coliseum, skipping the hour and a half long line, but it also gave us a free tour of Palatino… thus shifting our schedule entirely.
If I had to choose one thing to see in Rome before we got there, it would have been the Coliseum. Thankfully I didn’t have to only see one thing, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if it were the only place we had gone to visit. It was an absolutely incredible site, and an absolutely magnificent structure. It only took 8-10 years to build, it could hold over 50,000 people, and if an emergency evacuation was needed, those 50,000+ people could be cleared out in about 5 minutes. Unfortunately portions of it were destroyed later on by the Roman priests who were trying to rid the city of paganism. After the tour, we had 15 minutes to walk around and take pictures before our next tour would begin. Although it wasn’t much time, we snuck in a few shots, and were off.
We had the most interesting and entertaining tour through Palatino. I’m sure I would have loved history in school if I had teachers like our guide. Palatino is the oldest remaining section of Rome. “Back in the day” it was a marble masterpiece. The Romans wanted their city to look like those in Greece, but they were quite resourceful (and money conscious), so all the buildings were made out of brick and mortar, with a thin marble façade. The guide said she was quite sure that if the same Roman priests who destroyed parts of the coliseum didn’t rip the marble façade from the buildings in Palatino for the Vatican, then more of those buildings would have still been standing today.
It was nearing the middle of the afternoon, and we had only checked off 2 items on our list. So, we quickly made our way over to the Sistine Chapel, since it was closed the day before. We arrived there right as the museum doors were closing, and pleaded with the guards to let us in. It was quite neat to see the artwork of some of the great masters of the Renaissance period: Michelangelo and Raphael. I couldn’t help but wonder who decided which painting should get more acclaim than the other. There were so many beautiful paintings that are hardly, if at all, known to the general public. We had to walk through the museum quicker than we would have liked, since we only had an hour and a half before we were kicked out. We ended up reaching the chapel 20 minutes before closing time, and sat on the chairs that lined the walls and looked up until we were told to leave.
With only a few small hours left in Rome, we couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend it then to eat a nice meal. The night before we found a great square with a few restaurants, and many artists displaying, selling, and painting their work. So, we went back… and ended up having the worst meal of our entire trip. Having only eaten a few bites of what the restaurant called food, we searched for gelato to fill us up instead. At least this way we were able to walk around the city before our train. The sun had set, and we were able to enjoy our last few moments in Rome at its prettiest… in the dark, when you can’t see the dirt.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Day 9: Roman Holiday

My mom's birthday started off quite well. We woke up in a great hotel room, and then sat on the terrace to eat a wonderful breakfast with fruit! I can't express in words the joy I felt when I saw fruit, real fruit, on the buffet table. I hadn't eaten fruit for breakfast, or any time of the day really, since we had started on our trip. Yes, I loved that hotel.

She only had two requests for her special day. 1- to take a bus tour around the city, and 2- to go to the Trevi Fountain. So, we did just that... and managed to throw in a few other things as well.The hotel had suggested a tour bus line to use, but instead we took the first one we found. Bad idea. The dialog didn't correlate with the buildings we were passing by. They obviously didn't use a satellite navigating system for the narration. After a while I gave up, and was content with just looking around. My mom only became frustrated.
Our first hop-off location we took advantage of was at the Vatican. The Saint Peter’s Church is beautiful. We later learned that when the Priests were building the Vatican, they had taken the marble from other buildings (which are now ruins) and used it on the church,... which took away some of its beauty in my eyes. 

I loved, however, that there was a dress code to enter the holy grounds. Your shoulders and knees have to be covered in order to enter. Good thing we wear that dress code daily, because there were many people turned away. The size of the church is huge... and we spent much more time in there than we imagined we would. 

However, I was able to check another thing off my list of “things I never knew I wanted to do before I die” as we watched a part of mass in the Vatican. Although it was just a Bishop performing the service since the Pope wasn’t in town.

After leaving the church, we got some gelato for lunch and made our way over to the Sistine chapel. We were told by a guy at a t-shirt stand that unfortunately the chapel was closed for the day. So, instead we hopped back on… and off the bus. We walked around and looked at Italian leather purses for the next hour our two.

During that walk we neared my mom’s 2nd birthday request: going to the Trevi fountain to make a birthday wish. Apparently the Trevi fountain is THE fountain to make wishes in. So my mom had coins from 3 different countries (US, EURO, and Swiss Frank) to make her 1 wish. We weren't sure which coin had greater wish granting powers. But, we've come to realize that the chances of your wish being granted in the Trevi fountain are about as much as if you threw coins in a fountain at your local shopping mall. At least it is well maintained by the contributions of naive tourists who's hopes are later shattered from an unanswered wish.
Not wanting to let our money go to waste, we hopped back on the bus and let it take us to the one place I wanted to see that day: the bocca della verita (or mouth of truth). It's where Gregory Peck scared Audrey Hepburn by pretending he lost his hand, after sticking it in the mouth. ...And it's also where liars in ancient Rome were taken to in hopes that they would confess, due to fear of having their hands bitten off. It is quite the frightening experience, not knowing if you'll have a hand left after sticking it in the mouth... we both walked away with our 10 fingers intact.

For the next few hours we wondered around Rome, walking the circus maximus and the surrounding areas. *Just a word of advice for anyone planning on visiting the city: whenever you see a bathroom, use it... you never know when you'll find the next one.* We walked past Palatino and made our way over to the Coliseum metro stop and went to the hotel to wash up.

We asked the concierge working that day to book us a restaurant for my mom's birthday dinner. The restaurant ended up being in a beautiful corner of the city, and had a great atmosphere. However, the food wasn't that great. My mom enjoyed it though, and that's really what mattered, since it was her birthday.

After our three hour meal was over, we took a midnight stroll around the area, and made our way back over to the Trevi fountain once more to see it all lit up. It really is a beautiful fountain, even if all it does is steal your money.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 8: Ciao Bella

We only had a few hours left in the Italian Riviera, since we were leaving for Rome that same day. Breakfast at the hotel was ok, it did, however, serve an absolutely delicious blood red orange juice from Sicily. (I later went on a hunt for that juice to take back home with me... which I successfully conquered). We quickly left after eating to take advantage of the little time we had left to visit the other 4 of the 5 villages. I couldn’t get over how picturesque Cinque Terre is. I could have spent hours taking pictures in each of the villages. It happened to be what we spent doing most of the few hours we had, and the rest of the time we enjoyed the water and browsed the shops. The 5 villages are connected by a walking path. From the first to the last it takes approximately 7 hours to walk. Although we didn’t have time to walk the entire thing, we walked from the 4th to the 5th village. (That only took 20 minutes). However, we still had to pay the full fee to enter the walking path. As we walked around the final village, we both agreed that the first village, which we visited the day before, was our favorite.

We wanted to go back up to that village, but yet again, the Italian train met our expectation… 100% unreliable. Instead we bought two slices of pizza and had a picnic on the coast, and left for La Spezia to wait around for an hour before our train to Rome. It was quite disappointing having to waste an hour in the Italian Riviera in the city of La Spezia… but I’m sure I don’t have to explain the reason why we did. Fortunately our train to Rome was direct, so once we were on it, we were able to have a stress free ride. We ended up sharing a compartment with a cute girl from Rome. She didn’t speak much English, and we didn’t speak Italian at all. So, we improvised. We had a few hour long conversation, with my mom was speaking in English and Spanish, I spoke a bit of Portuguese, English and Spanish, and she spoke bits of Italian, English and Spanish. Surprisingly we understood each other quite well.

She had called her dad during the ride, and he offered to drive us to our hotel. How grateful were we! Our Rome experience was already starting on a good note. When we pulled up to our hotel, we were extremely happy. We ended up having a room in the basement… which we were sure meant it was the lowest room on the totem pole, but it was absolutely fabulous! What a great hotel, and a great room.

When we were checking in, we informed the concierge that we hadn’t eaten dinner, and were wondering if there was anything open in the area. She said she’d make us reservations at a nice restaurant nearby. So, after we dropped off our things, and washed up, we left for Restaurant Sud. We were pleasantly surprised that the prices were more than reasonable, and it ended up being the best food we had on our entire trip. We had to stop ourselves from going back there the other 2 nights we spent in Rome. But, I know where I’ll be eating the next time I visit.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Episode 2: The one with the knife

Did I mention the transportation system in Italy is horrendous? The trains are never on time. We waited 40 minutes for the train to take us back to La Spezia that night, so by the time we got into town it was around 11pm. My mom and I walked over to the bus stop only to discover that the buses were no longer running.

My mom asked me if we should call a taxi, or if we should walk. I figured that since the hotel was only about 15 mins away by foot, and it was a nice night out, we might as well walk. A few minutes into walking, I noticed a kid in his young 20's walking behind us. A few more minutes went by, and my mom and I were trying to figure out what an extremely long building was that we were walking by. At this point the kid was in front of us, so we got his attention and asked what the building was. He responded in Italian. We said "oh, ok... never mind", and continued on our way. We later found out the building was a prison.

When we got to our first intersection, I pulled out the map to see which way to go. I noticed the kid looked a little hesitant, like he didn't know which way to go, and then he turned right. We continued going straight. At the next intersection, as I referred to the map, the kid appeared behind us yet again. This time he continued going straight and then turned down a side street. I then commented to my mom that I didn't trust that kid... there was something that just wasn't right. She, giving him the benefit of the doubt, said that he was probably scared walking alone, and wanted to be near people. I still didn't trust him.

After looking at the map, we continued going straight. We passed the kid this time, who was just around the corner of the side street, messing with some electronic equipment. My mom and I didn't even have to say anything to know what the other was thinking. We walked a lot faster, and started up the hill to where our hotel was located. The entire time I continued to glance behind us to see if he was there.

By the time we were half way up the hill, I saw him at the bottom. He then started running towards us, and I started yelling "what are you doing?" When he was about three feet away from me, as I'm still yelling "what are you doing?" and "go away!", he pulled a knife on me. I instinctively lunged towards him to grab his arm so he couldn't hurt me with the knife. All the while, my mom -who was farther up the hill than I was- started running towards the kid, screaming as loud as she could for him to go away.

I guess we startled him... who'd have thought 2 women would defend themselves... and he ran off. Thankfully.

As we cautiously and quickly made our way over to the hotel from that point, the only thing I said was "we're going to Rome tomorrow." ....At least that was settled.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Day 7: Cinque Terre

My mom had bought me a 800 page book for my birthday.... thankfully. The train from Interlaken down to the Italian Riviera was quite long, and the book was a welcomed treat. Italy was drastically different from Switzerland. You can immediately notice when you leave one country and enter the next. For years I thought I'd love Italy. I had always wanted to visit, eat the food, bask in the sunlight, and enjoy the Italian way of life. But as I looked out the window, I felt slightly disappointed. Maybe I had set my expectations too high, or maybe I shouldn't have gone to Switzerland first. But whatever it was, my first impressions of the country were slightly negative. It didn't help that we were drowned in a sea of people at the Milano train station as we waited for our connecting train, or crammed like sardines in a can once we boarded for our last leg of the trip.
However, like the old adage says, you can't judge a book by its cover. --One would think I'd have learned that by now, with the number of bad books I've bought.-- Once we were freed from the horrors of what the Italians call a train, I immediately started to appreciate Italy a bit more. (Even with the sweltering heat that enveloped us as we ventured out of the train station in La Spezia). But the appreciation I had gained was still very minute. I continued to be skeptical as we went across town to our hotel, and walked up the hill to a building that didn't look very impressive. My mom, however, was excited and said "ooh, this is going to be a great hotel!"

She said she could tell by the run down surroundings, as odd as that may sound. -I'm sure I gave her a strange look.- Sure enough though, the hotel was adorable once we entered the gates. It had a beautiful courtyard, with a vine covered pergola which gave shade to a few dining tables. The hundred-or-so year old building was a recently renovated from a restaurant into a hotel and rents 5 different rooms. Needless to say, I was becoming more impressed, and less disappointed.

Cinque Terre is made up of 5 separate villages along the coast, connected by a walking path. La Spezia isn't a part of Cinque Terre, so after dropping off our suitcases, we took the last boat ride of the day up to the farthest village. During that boat ride up to Monterosso, my initial disappointment with Italy completely disappeared. The view of the coast was breathtaking. It's hard not to fall in love the Italian Riviera. Each of the villages has a different charm about them, which you can see even as you're sailing by.

We thought we'd see at least two of the villages that day, but once we docked in Monterosso, we knew we'd spend the rest of the day there. Although the weather was starting to cool down, it was still quite warm out... so we waded in the water for a bit before walking around. Our stroll around the village turned into a quest for my mom to find some sandals. While she spent what felt like hours in a shoe store, I went across the street to get my first "made from italy" gelato - a scoop of chocolate and caramel, yum.

Unfortunately we had only booked one night at the hotel, and we were starting to regret it. Our hotel was already full the following day, so after my mom got her shoes and some gelato of her own, we stopped at an internet cafe to see if there were any hotels available for the next night. We found a few, but decided to make our final decisions later, since we had reservations in Rome for the next night either a fall back.

We later had dinner at a cute restaurant, watched people dancing to a live band playing right next to the coast, and then sat and listened to the waves crash against the rock lined coast. It was a really enjoyable and relaxing evening... and an even greater motive to try to stay one more night.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Note from the editor

On Sunday, my Windows XP died on me. This means… my laptop is dead. Thanks to working with a bunch of computer geeks (term of endearment), we were able to save all the data off my computer. However, I can not find my XP media center edition restoration CD. We installed the XP professional version, but it's not working correctly.

I remembered yesterday that a co-worker in the US once told me his daughter has the same laptop I have. Today this US co-worker (and my NL co-worker) have managed to somehow transfer data from his daughters XP media center edition re-install CD over here.

The reason I'm explaining all this, is for the following reason: I will not have a working computer until next week. I was hoping to have it fixed by this afternoon, but that will no longer be possible. The data hasn’t finished downloading onto my NL co-worker’s computer, and once it’s downloaded we will have a few more steps to take in the process of restoring mine.

Please excuse the pause in my holiday adventures. I hope to resume my posts next week. * Fingers crossed.*