Friday, July 23, 2004

Italy/New York/Virginia Plog (Trip Log)

Italy

After a week in Maine soaking up some sun and getting Grady and Liam acclimated to staying there for over a month with Grandma Grady, Colleen and I left for Italy.  Our first day in Italy, June 15, is at the top of this blog posting, and our subsequent days follow that, through the day we got home, July 14.  I have posted related pictures to the Plog.

Tuesday, June 15, Rome                Rome pictures
We flew British Airways from Boston to Heathrow, then to Rome.  We had arranged for a driver to meet us at customs to take us to our hotel in Trastevere, Hotel Santa Maria.  We whisked through customs no problem – the bodybuilder customs official simply stamped the passports without even looking us in the eye.  We looked for our driver, who was to display our name on a sign.  Nothing.  We waited about 3 minutes thinking the driver was late, but after that I attempted to use a public phone to call the car service.  I was unable to figure it out, but in the meantime, Colleen had spotted the driver.  He was young, about 20 and well dressed.  He walked us out to a brand new Mercedes Benz.  Not bad.

He pointed out the big landmarks as we drove through some not too desirable areas of Rome.  He announced, “We’re very close,” and Colleen and I looked at each other like, “what have we done?” because the neighborhood was still very sketchy.  But a few turns here and there, we were within a stereotypical Italian neighborhood, with narrow streets, gorgeous old buildings and outdoor cafes.  Our driver navigated the hair-raisingly narrow alleys with ease, and pulled through the giant iron gates of the Hotel Santa Maria driveway.

We fell in love with the hotel immediately.  It was an old cloister, and the nuns’ rooms had been converted into guestrooms, then totally updated in the year 2000.  We were in room 16, an end room, and found it very desirable.  By the time we unpacked our bags, it was lunchtime, so we went walking to find some Roman pizza.  It didn’t take long – about two blocks – before we found a quaint stand-up pizza shop.  It had about 12 giant rectangular pizzas to choose from, and when we pointed to the one we wanted, the nice woman held her knife about five inches up from the bottom to ask if that’s the size we wanted.  See, they sell pizza by the ounce here, so the larger slice you want, the more it is.  Ingenius!

We walked back to our room and napped for a couple of hours, hoping to eek out any jet lag we may have had.  It seemed to work.  We dove into our Rick Steve’s Italy 2004 book to see what we might want to do our first night in town.  Rick Steve’s outlined an evening walk that would take us through big squares, and by the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and the Spanish Steps.  We set off around 5:00 and stopped for a tiny, and heavenly, slice of pizza in the nearby Campo di Fiori.  Piazza Navona was very cool, with three major fountains by reknowned artists, the best known being Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain.  We walked back the same we had come, but stopped for dinner in a restaurant right in Piazza Navona.

Now, Rick Steves had warned against eating at a restaurant directly in a square, because they cater to tourists, overcharge and server mediocre food.  We should have listened, but we were just too tired to go searching for a place off the beaten path.  I had a shrimp and scallop linguine, but the shrimp was one giant one with the head and antennae still attached.  Not very enjoyable.  After that we headed back to Trastevere’s Piazza Santa Maria to have gelati.  Yummm!  While sitting on the fountain eating our gelati, I was struck by how “local” this square was.  There were clearly neighborhood children riding bikes in a dangerous mix of tag and polo, and well dressed Romans out to dinner or just strolling in the nice evening.  I was trying to pinpoint how it was so easy to determine who was Italian and who wasn’t, and I think it was a combination of two things: how they dress and how they walk.  They dress very well, in well-tailored and good-fitting clothes (as opposed to most Americans who dress in looser clothes).  And, when they walk, whether men or women, they almost glide.  Very fluid movement that appears slow, but is actually a pretty rapid pace.  This is as opposed to us heavy-plodding Americans.

Wednesday, June 16, Rome
We woke up early to get a head start on our Audience with the Pope.  We were told it started at 10:00, but we had to be there by 9:00 to secure the special seating Richard had arranged for us through the archdiocese of Boston.  We started walking from our hotel north along the Tiber at 8:00, not knowing how long it would take us.  It took us only 15 minutes, so we got there very early. 

We had to ask about six guards (yes the Swiss guards in the poofy uniforms supposedly designed by Michelangelo) to find the “brass door” we were to enter to claim our tickets.  I had to flash the official letter from the archbishop several times to get to the brass door.  Only one of us was allowed in to get the tickets, so Colleen stayed outside, closely watched by a Swiss Guard.  St. Peter’s Square was outfitted with approximately 10,000 folding chairs below the main staircase of St. Peter’s.  Our tickets let us ascend the steps and sit on the same level as the Pope, but slightly behind him.  It was only 8:30 by that time, so we had 90 minutes to kill, or so we thought.

Only 8:30, but the sun was strong that day.  It must have been above 90 by 9:00, and we had no source of shade but our tour books.  10:00 approached and there was no sign of the ceremony starting.  That’s because it didn’t start until 10:30.  We were pretty tired by then, but all of a sudden we heard cheers and shouting.  The Pope had come out, but down on the main level so we weren’t able to see him just yet.  He eventually made his way up to our level and he blessed a group of newlyweds, then made his way to the dais (podium? altar?). 

He looked really, really small and frail.  For each language spoken, a priest, bishop or cardinal from that country would speak first, then the Pope would add his 8-10 sentence blessings in that language.  I think the languages were Italian, Spanish, French, Polish, English and German.  We were excited when the English turn came, but quickly realized the Pope’s voice was so muddled and weak that he might as well have been speaking Polish.  “Blah, ta-ana, ma-bla-bla, muh-nuh….”  Huh?  The interesting thing about these blessings is that when the priest was introducing the Spanish people, or any other language, he would do “shout-outs” to particular groups, like the Milwaukee Catholic Youth Group, or the Mexican Catholic House, and then those groups would go wild, either singing if they were a choir, or chanting stuff like “John Paul II, we love you, John Paul II, we love you!”  It was a pep rally, and we never did feel very spiritual.  What topped it off was that the Polish high school band began playing YMCA after the official ceremony, but while the special folks were getting personal blessing by the Pope.  I tried to defend it when Colleen pointed out it was YMCA, saying it’s at least a Christian song, but just seconds after I said that, they launched into Macho Man.

We had 1.5 hours to kill before our Vatican Museum tour started, so we just found some pricey sodas/water at a cart to quench our thirst.  The tour started at 1:00, so we tried to find a nice place for lunch, but the area around the Vatican is VERY busy and very commercial.  We found no place to our liking, so just skipped lunch.  The tour lasted 3.25 hours and was awesome.  So much to look at.  And so much to smell – our female tour guide REEKED of body odor.  It took me about an hour to determine it was her; I was blaming a guy in our group for a while.  And, you know, tour guides do a lot of pointing, so it got to be a joke between Colleen and me that we stayed as far back as possible, but close enough to still hear what she was saying.

We were back at our hotel by 5:00, where we drank wine and read books in the courtyard for a couple of hours.  We took a Rick Steve’s suggestion and ate at a local Trastevere restaurant called Trattoria del Lucia.  I had WONDERFUL meat tortolloni – the noodles were so fresh and buttery and the meat perfect and sumptuous.  The tables were lined up on either side of a pretty narrow alley, and several times during dinner, mopeds raced through the alley, just inches away from diners.  Surreal.  We finished dinner and walked for about an hour around Trastevere, discovering it was a mecca for young, hip Italians.  The enormous number of bars that were invisible behind steel curtains during the day came alive at night, playing host to gorgeous Italian women and men.

Thursday, June 17, Rome
We had gone to bed at 10:00 p.m. and we slept until 11:00 a.m.!  13 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Boy did that feel good.  Like we were back in high school.  We had missed breakfast at the hotel, so just sat in the hotel’s courtyard reading our guide books while the other person showered.  While I was in the shower, Colleen had begun talking to an early-50ish couple from Colorado who was staying at Hotel Santa Maria as well.  I came out and met them, which is when we discovered he was the founder and CEO of a marketing and PR firm, Stratacom.  He was impressed we both were with WaggEd, and that it offered such a nice perk as sabbaticals.  The wife was particularly nice, and supportive of what we were doing – leaving the kids behind and vacationing alone for 17 days.  It made us feel good, coming from an experienced mom like herself.  We said our goodbyes and walked to the Roman Forum and Colosseum.

While we were getting our first glimpse of the ancient Forum, we came upon a group of tourists enraptured by a young tour guide who was giving a free tour.  They had started at the opposite end of the Forum, so we were just able to listen to about five minutes of the guide’s narration.  We were impressed, so when he told everyone he was going to begin a tour of the Colosseum in 15 minutes, we jumped at the chance.

It was the right choice, too.  He was an excellent guide, full of energy and enthusiasm.  The Colosseum was impressive, and I liked that he told us a 50,000 person crowd could enter or exit the Colosseum in under 10 minutes because of the smartly designed tunnels and doorways.  Any modern baseball, basketball or football stadium you’ve been in borrowed its design techniques from the Colosseum.  Another cool fact is that gladiators were the lowest class in society – even lower than slaves.  Some slaves were approached and given a choice – either become free when your master dies (if he so deems it), or take your own chances in the arena, and perhaps win your freedom.  Ancient Rome’s thirst for blood was insatiable so the more gruesome the battles the better.  They even flooded the Colosseum a few times and recreated full navy battles for the citizens, who didn’t have CNN.

When the tour ended, we were too tired to try to get back to the Roman Forum, so tried to find a quaint little lunch place.  We got hopelessly lost and ended up walking about a mile in the wrong direction.  2.5 hours later, we made it back to Trastevere and chugged drinks and scarfed down pizza.  We went back to the hotel to shower then sit in the courtyard to drink wine and talk about where to go for dinner.  A nice couple from California, with two kids, told us they had a great dinner at Trilussa just around the corner.

We went and had B- dinners.  I had a thick, very al dente spaghetti with a spicy pomodoro sauce served in an oversized skillet.  On the way out, we saw the Stratacom couple and the friends they were traveling with waiting on line.  We chatted a bit and learned they were supposed to get to Venice the next morning, but had heard the train workers called a strike.  We wished them luck and said goodbye.

We walked back to Piazza Santa Maria to have gelati and sit on the fountain.  I saw a guy drinking a beer in a plastic cup and asked him where he got it.  He directed me a little bar a couple of blocks away that was selling to-go beers.  When I got back to the fountain, Colleen was talking with him, and we found out he was from Spain, and was traveling through Europe.  He showed us some pictures from Morocco that were beautiful and told us we could stay in Morocco for a week for what we were paying for a night at Hotel Santa Maria.  We stayed and watched a husband/wife team perform fire eating tricks, glass walking feats and nail bed stunts.  It was very entertaining and I gave them 2 euros.   While we were there, the euro was strong, hovering around 1.21 - 1.24 per dollar.  That meant our dollars were worth less than $o.80.

Friday, June 18, Rome
We slept until 10:00 – the latest we could and still score the free breakfast at the hotel.  It was good.  Fruit, yogurt, cereal, juice.  It was our last day in Rome, and we decided to take it a bit easy, so walked the same route as our evening tour the first night to get out to Santa Maria del Vittoria where Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa is.  The church closes between 12:00 and 3:30, so we were either going to have to hustle, or take our time.  We decided to take our time.

We spent more time in the Pantheon because the first night we were in it for maybe 3 minutes before a guard ushered everyone out for the night.  The Pantheon is way cool.  Lots of analysis has been done on the biggest and first dome of its kind, and they found that the stone dome is actually different types of stone.  Thick, heavy stone at the base, and lighter more porous stone at the top to help with weight distribution.  We had lunch near the Trevi fountain (pizza, of course) and got to Santa Maria del Vittoria at 3:00.

The church is not in a touristy section of town, so we had to walk among office buildings to get there.  We sat on the dirty steps, choked on bus exhaust and basically kept our heads between our knees until a beggar lady motioned to us that the church was open.  I guessed I’d be giving her a euro on the way out.  Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa is smaller than I had imagined, but oh so intriguing.  It was and is a controversial statue because some people think it’s too sexual.  An angel is holding a golden spear over St. Theresa, about to plunge it into her, while she waits with a look of euphoria on her tilted back face.  I paid the beggar lady 1 euro on teh way out and we lamented walking the 3+ miles back in the late afternoon sun, so we took a tram.  We got help from a very nice man who overheard us asking a shop keeper what tram to take back to Trastevere.

I showered and went out to the courtyard and ordered a liter of chianti while Colleen napped and showered.  During that time I had to fight with pigeons who were trying to steal the peanuts the waitress had brought me.  I had practially finished the whole liter by the time Colleen came out 90 minutes later.  We talked about dinner and decided to trust Rick Steves again and tried a Pointe Sisto restaurant, which was the nearest footbridge over the Tiber from our hotel.  Rick Steves did it again!  The lasagna I had was outstanding.  The kitchen folks were loudly cheering a Euro 2004 game, the big soccer tournament.

We got gelati again and sat at the fountain, but only for a couple of seconds because we were turned off by a group of American high school/early college-aged tourists who were drunk and swearing loudly.

Saturday, June 19, Rome/Tuscany                Tuscany pictures
We took a taxi a couple of miles to the Avis Car place, and I was a bit nervous that they wouldn’t honor the certificate I printed out from AutoEurope.com, where I had prepaid for the car.  But, the rental experience was the most pleasant I have ever had in my 50+ times renting a car.  The lady was happy to see us, brought us out to the car (Opel Corsa), showed us a couple of things about the car, and gave us directions out of the city towards Tuscany.

We left Rome at 10:00 and got to Tuscany at 1:00.  The drive was fun and the car was great.  It was diesel and was super efficient.  I’ve been reading how diesel cars are nothing like the late 70s/early 80s versions that spewed exhaust and cost more to fill up than a gas car.  I’d seriously consider buying diesel in the future because of my experience with the Opel Corsa.

MyItalianVacation is where we had booked our villa through, and they sent us very good & detailed arrival instructions and directions.  I had called the property’s managing agent the day before, as requested in the instructions, and despite the stated 4:00 arrival time, the agent told us the property would be ready by noon, and they’d be waiting for us to arrive around 1:00. 

We pulled into the villa’s gate at 1:00 expecting to be met by the agent.  Nobody was around.  We walked around a bit with our jaws hanging open for the sheer beauty of the place and the views.  It smelled of fragrant flowers too.  We eventually came upon a 20 something man who spoke no English and was clearly a field worker in the vineyard on the property.  We showed him our rental form and he disappeared for about five minutes and then came to try and tell us to come back at 2:00.  He eventually had to draw a clock in the dust in our car to get it across to us.  Having come from Rome where everyone spoke English, we quickly realized the countryside was a completely different animal.

We drove down to the nearest little town, Pianella, to buy a couple of snacks/drinks to stock the room.  The place was called Jolly Café, and was jolly indeed.  An elder couple ran the place, which was the size of a modest kitchen, but was stocked with so many different things.  A bar where they served coffee, wine, beer and liquor, a deli where they had smoked meats and pizza (yes we got the pizza!) shelves full of crackers and cookies, the floor covered with bottles of water and soda, and two walls covered with kids stuff like board games, school supplies and dolls.  We felt very much welcomed.  We noticed every patron left the place shouting Ciaooooooo instead of Ciao.  At one point a patron walked out the door saying ciaoooooo, and seconds later we heard a long squeal of brakes and burning rubber.  Everyone cringed and waited for the thump, but, thankfully it didn’t come.

We went back to the villa at 2:00 and were shown to our room.  It was gigantic.  Through two ancient doors we entered the kitchen/tv/sitting area and to the left we walked to our large bedroom where 30 people could have slept on the floor.  A bathroom was off the bedroom and I was happy to see a giant sink.  However, I soon found out that because the faucet was positioned so high up, whenever we turned on the water, our shorts got doused.




We threw our stuff down and went directly to the pool that had an amazing view of Siena.  We had been so busy in Rome that we had vowed to spend a couple of days just relaxing, but we realized we’d need to eat dinner and no restaurants seemed to be close to our countryside villa.  Siena called to us and we drove the 12 km to town. 

We got turned around a lot, since there was no clear sign to the center of town in the half dozen rotaries we encountered.  We stopped once and a man told us in broken English to look for “historical center” sign.  Nope, never saw it.  We stopped another time and a young woman, who spoke better English told us to look for the bulls eye symbol which means the city center.  Aha!  With that piece of info, we made it there lickety split.

Siena was gorgeous.  It suited me perfectly.  There was limited car/moped activity, and because Siena lost it’s cultural battles with Florence in medieval times, it didn’t have money to update the city, which is a benefit now.  We ate at a Rick Steves-suggested restaurant just off of Piazza del Campo, Campane.  Because the streets are so steep, this restaurant had set up a stage out front with complex supports and levels to compensate for the severity of the slope.  Food was delicious – I had linguine with clams and mussels.

We got back to the villa around 11:00.

Sunday, June 21, Tuscany
We slept in, until about 10:30.  I met the official caretaker of the villa, Bidro, who showed me around the place, which had several secret little gardens and was larger and more impressive than I thought.  Bidro spoke less English than I spoke of Italian, so I’m sure I missed some things.  He also showed me the impressive wine cellar with hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles of Canonica a Cerreto wine made from the grapes right on the property.  Bidro gave me a bottle of 2001 Chianti Classico.

After the tour, I went back to the room and got ready with Colleen to go to the pool.  We spent all day by the pool and mid morning met a mid-40s woman from Toronto and her 10 yeqr old daughter, Kate.  The lady, Aileen, volunteered right away that her husband, John, was a retired investment banker but the cardinal in Toronto had approached him to manage some catholic funds, and part of the funds were going towards restoring some artwork in the Vatican.  Well, lah-dee-dah!  We eventually met John, who was in his late 50s, and very nice.  I told him about the wine cellar and that perhaps we should arrange a tasting.

About an hour later, he came down to say he had talked with Bidro and had arranged for everyone, including his two sons and one of the son’s wives, to have a tasting at 5:30.  Around 5:00, Colleen and I were still at the pool, when his youngest son (23), Jerome, came down to say Bidro had moved the wine tasting up to 5:00.  We rushed back to our room, threw on some clothes and went down to the wine cellar.

The family could not have been nicer.  It was just the two of us, and six of them, but they all made an extra effort to make us feel like part of their larger group.  The older son, Rob, had just graduated from the London School of Economics and they had all flown in the night before to start a two-week celebratory trip in Italy.  Rob was married to a very young woman, who was talkative and extremely nice.  They told us about a restaurant in Pianella that looked awful on the outside, but once you walked through to the back courtyard, it was much improved, and that the food was terrific and cheap.  Score!

We showered and made our way to the restaurant, only to find the six of them sitting there and only about two other tables occupied.  We waved our hellos and then the waiter sat us right next to them.  We all handled it with grace.  Not too much back and forth…totally natural.

Monday, June 21, Tuscany/Siena
We went back to Siena for a day-trip.  We climbed Torre del Mangia, the major tower in Piazza del Campo.  300 steps up.  At times, the steps were so narrow our shoulders brushed against both walls.  It was a bit claustrophobic.  Some of the older and larger folks were having a really tough time.  The view up top was worth the effort and the 6 euros.

Next we went to the Duomo, which impressed me more than any other sight to date.  It was built with white and black marble, so it looked candy-striped both outside and in.  It was chock full of Michelangelo statues, Bernini statues (one of which I skirted the ropes and touched on the foot – Mary Magdalene playing a harp while looking lovingly upward) and busts of popes.  I can only imagine the effort it took to create such an impressive space and can only dream what it would feel like to go to church here every Sunday.  I was moved.

On the way back to our villa, we stopped at a Supermercato Coop – a members-only supermarket.  We didn’t know it was a members only store, but we found someone who spoke English who explained we could buy items, but would pay more than members and we could only pay in cash.  That was fine.

The supermarket was interesting indeed.  The meat department was cool.  Full ox tails, chickens with claws and head still attached, salted and dried ham, and the produce looked like it was painted red, green and yellow it was so fresh and ripe.  We bought the reddest tomatoes you’ve ever seen, fresh mozzarella, basil, and still-warm bread.  We talked with an English couple who lived in San Francisco and just finished 6 years of renovations to their own villa a few kilometers from our villa.  Just like Francis Mayes!

We had our Caprese salad and a bottle of chianti for dinner under the covered patio poolside, overlooking Siena.  Divine!

Tuesday, June 22, Tuscany
All day by the pool on lounge chairs under an umbrella, drinking water, eating bread sticks, listening to birds and smelling the flowers, olive trees and grape vines.  Around 5:00 we showered and drove to a tiny hamlet about 15 km in the opposite direction of Siena.  Bidro had handed me a card from a  restaurant in this town when he took me on a tour of the villa Sunday a.m., saying, “Molto bene!”  We got to the town around 6:30 and the restaurant, in translation it meant The Frog Garden, didn’t start serving until 7:00, so we sat on a little bench and waited.  I had a delicious cheese, spaghetti and tomato sauce dinner.  Halfway through the dinner, the Stratacom couple and their friends walked in!  We couldn’t believe it.  I mean, this hamlet was off the beaten path and TINY, maybe six or ten structures to the whole city.  We had a good laugh and talked more.  They had taken a “fast train” to Venice and had avoided the train strike on the regular train a few days before.  They gave us some tips on Venice, knowing we’d be there in a week.

On our way home, up the 3 km dirt road to our villa, we saw two jack rabbits.  One of them raced us along the road, reaching 50 km/hr.  They were very tall.

Wednesday, June 23, Tuscany/Florence
We woke early to drive to Florence.  We left around 8:30 and got there in no time.  The drive was fun.  I love that diesel car.  We didn’t make any reservations at the major museums – the Accademia or the Ufizi – but Rick Steves had made a suggestion that if you go to a lesser known museum, Museum of San Marco, you can buy tickets to Uffizi and Accademia and avoid the long lines.  There are reservation times at both museums, so your ticket says enter between 11:00 and 11:15.  If you go too late, the ticket is worthless.  It was 10:50 and we got the 11:00 to 11:15 entry tickets to the Accademia.

We got there and the line, even for those with reservations, was around the block.  I saw an English speaking tour guide shuttling her 20 or 30 people into line and I asked what happens if we’re in line but miss our window of entry?  She said the line we were in was just for big groups.  Two people like ourselves, can just go up to the front of the line and gain entry.  Well, that was great advice, because we flashed our reservations and the guy opened the ropes, while thousands of tourists continued to stand in line.  Thank you Rick Steves!

The museum was great.  It was small, so we got to see everything, with the highlight being Michelangelo’s HUGE David.  There was also a tapestry that used to adorn the front of an altar.  It was so intricately sewn, and real jewels sewn into it as well, that I think with even modern day sewing technology, it would take years to complete.

We ate bad pizza from a bakery.  Their bread looked good, but I think they just threw on cheap tomato sauce and cheese on top of regular bread to make pizza.  Yuck.

Florence’s Duomo was barren compared to Siena’s.

It was market day in Florence, so every cart vendor was crammed into a couple of streets.  It was fun.  We were kind of interested in leather jackets, and boy, I tell you, if you even glanced at a vendor’s wares, he was on you like flies on poop.  One of them tried to talk to Colleen, but she turned.  He pulled her arm and said, “Look at me.”  He lowered his glasses and said, “For you only, I give 40% off.”  He thought he was Lothario, but Colleen blew him off. 

We were in Florence for about 5 hours, and, overall, we gave it a big thumbs down.  Crowded, polluted and hot.  Colleen remembers it much more fondly from her trip here 10 years ago.

I filled up the car on the way back, and diesel is .96 euros a LITER.  It took 30+ liters to fill the tank just half the tank.  So, 60 euros to fill a tank – in US dollars, that is $72 to fill a compact car.  Gasoline was 1.13 euros!  We think we have it bad in the U.S.  Think again.

We got back to the villa around 4:00 after stopping at the Jolly Café to replenish our bread and mozzarella, which we ate under the covered patio.  A bit later we ate at the Pianella restaurant again, where I had the BEST pizza.  It was Pizza Rustica – thin, thin crust, a little tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage and onions.  Lots of red wine.

We saw the jack rabbit again, and filmed him.  It’s been since March 2003 since I posted any films.  This funny film of the rabbit might change that.  After all, why did I spend nearly $1,000 on a digital video camera if I’m not going to post films??

Thursday, June 24, Tuscany/San Gimignano
The villa had a washer that was available to guests.  Incredibly, the washing machine cycle took 4 hours to complete.  That made it difficult to get a load done when we wanted because the Canadians had 3 times as much laundry as us.  But, we were able to do a couple of loads while there.  And, I’ve talked about my Lands End tees that were easy to hand wash and only took 15 minutes to dry, so I was always with a clean t-shirt in a matter of minutes. 

We sat by the pool until noon, then got ready to drive to San Gimignano for lunch and dinner.  We had heard from the Canadians that it was a quaint hilltop village.  It took 35 minutes to get there and we got very lucky with parking in the nearest lot to the town’s gate.  No cars are allowed in San Gimignano except for when hotel guests are dropping off their bags.

We were immediately taken by this town with the towers.  It once had 72 towers, but now just 14.  It was not for defense, but to dry the textiles that residents were, and still are, famous for.  We ate in the first pizza shop we saw, and gave the pizza a C grade.  The whole town was catered to tourists, with shop after shop, but for some reason, it didn’t feel touristy.  Perhaps it was because the town was so quiet, and old. 

We entered a ceramic store (probably the 30th we’d been to since arriving in Italy) and felt that something was different about this one.  The pieces were more beautiful and the shop keeper, Francesca, was young and friendly.  Colleen found a pattern that she loved, and I liked it a lot.  She was in charge of this hunt, so I deferred to her.  If it were up to me, I’d have chosen a spartan pattern with more neutral space than design, but I’m very happy with the dark blue background, yellow/orange rims, and lemons & branches.  I asked Francesca what this blue with lemon pattern was called and she said, “Lemon in Blue.”

We priced out what 8 place setting would be and were pleased with the price, compared to another shop in Rome where we had priced out other place settings.  We weren’t ready to purchase that moment, since we still had ¾ of the town to walk through, but told Francesca we’d likely be back.

We had been told by Aileen, the Canadian, that the Collegiate Basilica had moving frescoes of Jesus’ life.  We paid the 3 euros each to go in (Colleen had to wear a paper skirt, since no female knees or shoulders are allowed to be seen in Italian churches) and were pleased we did.  The painted walls weren’t the showy style of Michelangelo, Rafael or others, but almost ashcan style, ala Edward Hopper.  It was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio.  I loved it.  But, again, no pictures were allowed.

We walked the rest of the town and then sat to have some wine and snacks.  We drank a full sized carafe of red table wine, then ordered another.  That’s one bottle for each of us.  Needless to say, we were a little tipsy.  We outlasted four waves of patrons in this little outdoor café.  So, we were probably there for 2.5 hours.  It was great for people watching, and we struck up a nice conversation with a couple from South Wales who had two young daughters.  The husband works for a Oregon-based window company, but out of Wales.

We walked back to the ceramic shop and bought 8 place settings plus some extras like a serving bowl, spoon rest, creamer, etc.  Francesca told us it would take 25-30 days to get to us because the potter would make our pieces for us, and would be able to inscribe our names on the back.  We said go for it.  (Side note: the pieces came on July 21 and they look beautiful.  Our first meal on them was on July 22.  I slow cooked a tomato sauce, Bolognese style today with garlic bread.)
We consulted Rick Steves again for a restaurant choice, but after sitting down and seeing the fancy menu (we just wanted pasta) we excused ourselves.  We did that one more time (sitting down and then reconsidering) and decided San Gimignano wasn’t a great dinner town – the restaurants were either too fancy, too crowded or too gross.  Just outside the city gates, there seemed to be a nice restaurant with outdoor seating, so we took a chance.  I ordered a, guess what.....pizza!  Colleen ordered some spaghetti.  Her spaghetti came out first, and it took a full 15 minutes before my pizza came out. Colleen had fully finished her meal.  I took a couple of bites, then, in disgust paid the bill – no tip – and left.  It was very annoying.

We called Grady back home (we did every 3 days, I just haven’t mentioned it yet) and I was surprised how business-like he was on the phone.  Evidently he melts down after we hang up, so Colleen said we should limit the calls from then on. 

We made it back to the villa at 10:00.

Friday, June 25, Tuscany
Our last day in Tuscany.  Woke at 8:45 a.m. and was at the pool by 9:15.  I put in a load of laundry, and four hours later hung it out to dry.  Back to room at 4:00, where we showered and got ready for our third dinner at the Pianella restaurant, Il Pointe.  We got there at 6:00, very early by Italy standards, and the waiter told us we could sit but could not drink until 7:00.  Oh well.  It wasn’t until we tried to order did he say, you can’t eat until 7:00.  GREAT!  Bring us the vino, my man.  We sipped the delicious, and crazy cheap red table wine for an hour, then I ordered Pizza Rustica again, baby!  I wondered aloud to Colleen why someone couldn’t bring pizza like this to America.  If they did, it would take off like crazy.  It’s just so good.  Pizza, pizza, pizza.  Love it!

The Canadian family showed up at the restaurant again and we exchanged our hellos.  With just one waiter and the place full (40 plus people) , we waited at least 20 minutes to get the check when we were ready to leave.  Nothing we cared too much about, as it was a beautiful evening, and I was able to walk inside and get a coffee gelati.  We got home at 9:15 and packed for our car trip the next morning.  Onto Bellagio on Lake Como.

Saturday, June 26, Tuscany/Bellagio                        Bellagio pictures
Ugh, a terrible night’s sleep because of the caffeine in the coffee ice cream.  I was up by 6:30 and had up to 6 hours of driving ahead of me.  We took off at 7:30 and arrived at 12:30.  The drive was easy and fun.  I took the Corsa up to 165 km/hr, or 102 mph.  Yeeha.  Though, it was almost as fun seeing the high end Mercedes, BMWs, Porches and Volvos blow by me even when I was going my cruising speed of 150 km/hr, or 93/mph.  Oh how I wished I was in my Volvo 960.

We got stuck behind a slow bus on the very narrow and winding road into Bellagio for the last hour of our drive.  Annoying to say the least.  It should have taken us only 20 minutes, but the bus never pulled over to let the LONG line of cars pass.  Rude.

We got to Hotel Belvedere at 12:30 and our room wasn’t to be ready until 2:00, so we got a bottle of wine and sat on the veranda overlooking the beautiful lake.  We weren’t big fans of the décor of the place – it smacked of a Hyatt in Florida, with its pink table cloths, brass fixtures and the tour bus of seniors unloading.  The average age of the guests here had to have been 65.  After some wine, we got to our room, which was very nice. 

The walk to downtown Bellagio was less than five minutes, so we ventured down in the hot sun.  We liked the architecture, but not the tourist trap feeling of the stores.  It just didn’t feel like Italy.  The views were pretty and I could sense how the town was a magnet for celebrities decades ago, but it just was overrun by tourists now.  We were glad we had only booked two nights here.

We scouted out where we’d eat in the evening, then walked back to our room to take a deliciously deep nap.  We showered then ventured downtown again.  The restaurant seemed nice in the afternoon, but after we sat down and ordered, the place started really filling up, and tables were a mere two inches from one another.  It wasn’t condusive to any real conversation.  And, a family with two young boys was sitting nearby.  The youngest was a hellion and the only thing that kept their constant berating of the young guy from being annoying was their thick Scottish accent.  I had spaghetti with clams, and it was tasty.

When we got back to our room, there was a big, black, slick, fast spider on the ceiling.  The ceilings were at least 10 feet tall, so I had to brush this sucker down and hope for the best.  Of course it hit the wall on the way down and scurried behind the wall radiator.  Ugh.  We were freaking out since both of us suffer from arachnophobia.  I finally wedged a menu behind the radiator and the spider dropped to floor and ran.  I was able to smash it with my shoe.  Our hearts were racing.  Rowdy Siesta. 

That’s the name of a dog we met in an airport years ago.  The owner said she named the dog that because he’d get the “zooms” and then crash down and nap.  So, whenever we have lots of excitement and then go to bed, we say “Rowdy Siesta!”

Sunday, June 27, Bellagio
We spent 9:30 to 4:30 by the pool, overlooking Lake Como and the gorgeous mountains.  We existed on water and breadsticks.  I read several hundred pages of Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, which I enjoyed very much, but not as much as his The Corrections.   (Other books I read while on vacation: The DaVinci Code, The Middle Passage, and Sabbath's Theater.  I receommend all of them.)

We showered, dressed and walked to a great restaurant, La Punta (The Point).  It was delicious and scenic, and not too expensive.  They played an old Elvis album quietly in the background.  It gave us the feeling that we were back in the heyday of Bellagio.  Sitting having a great meal in the late 60s with the elite vacationers.  Besides Trattoria del Lucia in Trastevere, La Punta served me my  best meal.  Spaghetti with tomato and basil, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, caprese salad and a custard/caramel/chocolate dessert.

We were in bed by 10:45 then remembered we had to call Maine.  We talked quickly with Grady.  We needed to get an early start the next day, as we had a 4 hour drive to Venice.

Monday, June 28, Bellagio/Venice                     Venice pictures
We were on the road by 8:30.  The drive was very straight (a nice change) and VERY fast.  Top speed was 168 km/hr, or 103.76 mph.  My cruising speed was about 152 km/hr, or 94.44 mph.  It was fun.  We got to Marco Polo airport in Venice to drop off the car, but there was no clear system to do so.  We finally figured out you just parked it and went into the terminal to let them know what space we had parked it in.  I hope we don’t get hit with some bogus bill.

We took a public water shuttle to San Marco Square (10 euros each and it took 70 minutes – a private taxi would have whipped us there in 30 minutes, but would have cost 50 euros total, so 30 euros more).

It was HOT and humid.  Probably 95 and 90% humidity.  And we had to carry our heavy baggage up several stepped bridges to our hotel about 20 blocks from the shuttle stop.  We were dripping wet.

My first impression of Venice was that it was unlike anywhere else in the world.  It’s a water city, literally built in a lagoon.  Many hundreds of years ago Italians fled to the lagoon to escape persecution (from whom I forget).  They drove millions of pine logs into the silt to establish a foundation for the city.  These pine logs have since petrified into stone because of the lack of oxygen in the thick silt, but it hasn’t stopped them from slowly sinking.

We didn’t experience any of the stench that some people warned us about, nor any of the flooding that takes place later in the year.  It was hot, but pleasant.

Our hotel, Hotel Flora, was tucked in a small alley between very high end stores like Bulgari Jewelry, Gucci, Prada and the most expensive restaurant in the city.  The hotel opened up once we walked through the small lobby into a nice courtyard where they served breakfast.  It was old, but cute.  Hotels in Venice are notoriously expensive, and Hotel Flora was no exception.

Our room #19 was so, so tiny, but nice.  Tan fleur de lis fabric walls, a king-sized bed and a small, but functional bathroom.

We took a walk to the giant and beautiful San Marco Square, just 3 blocks from our hotel.  Colleen is convinced that that commercial where the man shouts, “I love this woman!” is shot in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, but I’m convinced it was shot here in San Marco Square.

Stores here are on one end of the spectrum or the other.  Either it’s Gucci/Prada or crappy souvenir stores.  The souvenir stores all sell the exact same things – walls are covered in Carnival masks (Carnival is Venice’s Mardi Gras celebration).

We went back to the hotel and sat in the courtyard and drank some beers (or at least I did).  There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard and pigeons loved it.  They were a bit annoying and the waiter said, “Wait, let me get the gun.”  I thought he was joking, but he came out a few minutes later with a high-powered squirt gun.  It was much fun to surprise the pigeons with that. 

The courtyard was surrounded by other buildings on which ivy was growing hundreds of feet out from its base in our courtyard.  The trunk on that very old ivy plant was thicker than I had ever seen.  Without exaggeration, it was at least 3 feet across.  I wish I had taken a picture of it.

We walked around to find a restaurant and we found a great one.  It was tucked away on a small calle (street).  It had no view at all, but the menu seemed good and it was filled with locals.  The tomato sauce/Bolognese style was the best I’ve ever had.  And, the heaping bowl of mussels cooked in white wine/oil/garlic was so good. 

We walked back to San Marco Square and partook in the nightlife there, watching portrait artists mangle faces, listening to the competing orchestras and just strolling around.  The square is lined with chairs at night and about every hundred yards there is a small stage with a 3- to 6-piece orchestra playing classical music.  Three orchestras were on each side of the square, so six total, then another one just off the square.  It was great fun to see how the crowds around each orchestra tried to make the loudest applause in order to give that orchestra bragging rights for the night.

Tuesday, June 29, Venice
The bed in our room was supremely uncomfortable and the pillows were hard as rocks.  Not a good night’s sleep.  Needless to say, I woke up early, around 8:00, and read for a while.  We went down to breakfast at 9:45.  We were told breakfast was served from 7:00 to 10:30.

Well, at 9:45, the buffet-style breakfast was picked over and empty, save for some cracked hand boiled eggs.  It was clear they set everything out at 7:00 and don’t replenish.  We were forced to order “extra breakfast” from a menu, though we could barely do it.....  The waiter was in a frenzy, even though we were only one of three tables occupied.  He literally walked away when I was in mid-sentence ordering so he could begin clearing another table.  Another guest shouted at him a bit later when the waiter did the same thing to him.

Next to us was a wedding coordinator, the couple and the girl’s mother.  The scene was very uncomfortable.  It was clear the groom-to-be had never met the girl’s mother.  Lots of awkward laughs and eyes being diverted.  Good luck to them!

After breakfast, we took a free ferry over to Murano Island, where they make all the famous glass.  We were ushered into a glass factory where we saw artisans making a glass chandelier.  A rep from that factory then led us up to the showroom, where tacky, gaudy pieces were for sale.  We begged out of there as quickly as we could and got a water taxi back to San Marco Square.

Tired of all the kitsch, we walked a few kilometers away from San Marco Square and found ourselves utterly devoid of other tourists.  It was pleasant.  Though we got terribly lost, it was still nice to experience the "local" Venice.

We ate delicious lemon gelato in the shade once we got back closer to our hotel.  The day was a scorcher.

We drank some wine back at the hotel courtyard and decided to walk towards the Rialto Bridge to find a restaurant.  About 1/3 the way to the bridge, we came upon a restaurant that we just couldn’t pass up.  We enjoyed a nice meal and Colleen enjoyed some VERY expensive greyhounds.  12 euros each we later found out.  I had rock lobster cream soup, which was a lot more fishy than lobstery, but which I enjoyed nonetheless.  And, then I had spaghetti with an uninspired pomodoro sauce.

Back to San Marco Square to listen to music.  The square had little pockets of flooding near the drains.  We bought light-up yo-yos for the boys.

Our first day in Venice we had bought a dancing Mickey and Minnie Mouse from a street vendor.  It was a paper Mickey with a magnet on the back that reacted to the energy coming out of the speakers.  This is how the vendor demonstrated it to us at least.  Well, when we inspected the packages later in the room, we saw we had been scammed.  A string was required to make these paper dolls dance.  So, we had fun with all the other vendors from then on who were selling similar items.  We’d show interest, ask how it worked, then bust them.  They all had a mini boom box with an invisible string they’d hook the dolls up to.  I’d tug the string to their horror.  A few times we squashed a sale to other customers by busting them.  Asians had the lock on these dancing Disney characters, Africans controlled the fake hand bags and Indians controlled the licensed carts.

Wednesday, June 30, Venice
Our last full day in Italy.  We walked to the Rialto Bridge and toured the markets there, but it was all junk.  Across the bridge was the Gallerie dell'Accademia.  We had read it was always crowded and reservations were mandatory, or at to least go in the evening to avoid crowds.  We were there around noon, and walked right past the entrance because it was utterly empty.  We thought perhaps it was closed, but, no, it was just a slow day; we probably saw a maximum of 50 other people in the whole museum.  No work stood out, but as a whole, the exhibits were good.  I’d recommend spending at least an hour in this museum if you’re ever in Venice.

We then got back to the hotel and I wanted to check on our flight out the next morning.  I went to the reception desk and began to ask the guy where the nearest internet café was, but saw he was surfing the web at the desk.  I asked if he’d be willing to look up a flight for us, and the look he gave me was like I had asked him to swim in lead boots.  He agreed, though, but only in theory.  He simply refused to type correctly the web address: britishairways.com.  I got fed up with him and just went to an internet café, which cost me 6 euros.  The bastard.  The rude waiter, bad breakfast and now this guy made me really dislike Hotel Flora.

We sat in the courtyard and read.  Around 6:00, we began searching for a restaurant.  We never thought it would be so difficult to find a restaurant that appealed to us in Venice, but we walked for 90 minutes without finding one.  Just as we were getting annoyed, we happened upon the nice restaurant we ate at the first night.  What the hell, might was well recreate that good experience.  We did, and enjoyed it a lot.

Thursday, July 1
We got up early, took a water taxi to Marco Polo airport and had an uneventful flight back through London Gatwick and London Heathrow (British Airways doesn’t fly from Vencie to Heathrow).  Erin, Tyler and Chelsie picked us up at the airport in Boston and we headed up to Maine for another week of beachy relaxation.

July 1 - 8 stayed in Wells, Maine with up 30 other folks to celebrate 4th of July.  Pictures. Grady and Liam were happy to see us and well behaved with their 10 cousins and 8 aunts/uncles.  We were able to see my Uncle Philip for a great picnic in Kennebunkport.  His friend, Toru, who is a chef by training, laid out the most varied and delicious picnic I've ever seen.

July 8 -- drove to Long Island to stay with my grandmother for a night.  My aunts and uncles on Long Island had never met Grady or Liam, so we had a nice bbq/pool party that late afternoon.   Pictures.

July 9-14 -- drove to Virginia and stayed with my parents.  Pictures.  It was so nice to be home.  My parents hosted a bbq for some of my high school friends and their friends on Sunday.  We left the boys with my parents on Sunday night to have an exquisite dinner with our good friends, Mike and Angela Lunter.  We ate at Vidalia in D.C.  Expensive but worth it.  I was able to get to know my sister, Katy('s), boyfriend, Erik better.  They just bought a house together in Arlington, VA.  It's a nice, cute house.  The backyard is overgrown with very mature, 40 foot tall bamboo, which is a supreme pain to take out.  So, their original plan was to take it all out, but after spending many hours making just the slightest dent, they've decided to trim it back so it's not right up to their deck, but more of a feature of their yard.  I can see how it would be very peaceful once it's under control.  My parent's yard is beautiful.  Check out the picture of Grady and my dad throwing the baseball.  They might as well be in Hawaii.  We took Grady to the Museum of Natural History downtown and he loved all the animals.  He threw a tantrum when we had to leave, but he enjoyed getting back on the metro.  I took a freaky picture of a moth that appears to be grinning with the evilist smile.

Our flight back to Portland was not too pleasant.  Liam was in a bad mood, and Grady was whiny.  We had some jackass in the next row making snide comments.  It was great to get home and see that Jennifer, our house and dogsitter, had done a fantastic job.  41 days away and the yard looked great, the plants were healthy and Coltrane was happy.  Ahhhh.

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