Saturday, June 14, 2008

Learning to cook in Tuscany - Day 8

Our 8th day had an all day cooking class and tour planned. We were picked up just outside of Florence (as it costs a lot of money to drive in the city center, it is almost pedestrian only) and were taken off to the hills of Tuscany along with a couple from Toronto and a family from Georgia (the parents were celebrating their 30th anniversary and their daughter was a sr in college studying in Florence for the summer) so we had a nice small group.

We drove about 45 minutes outside of the city to a little winery. I forget the name but it is on pictures somewhere and Teresa wrote it down. They don't make enough to ship anything to the US though. They also make olive oil as do most winerys as our guide (originally from Arizona) told us. The tour was interesting but I wish I knew more about wine and wine making before hand so I could have asked some better questions. The specialty in the area we were in is Chianti.

After the tour we had a little wine sampling. It was all different reds and I wasn't thrilled with them but they did get better as we went a long (they also got more expensive). The last one though was a desert wine that we saw where they keep it in barrels for 5+ years. It was really sweet and really good. It was also €30 for a .25 liter bottle! We decided not to get any wine from them but we did pick up some olive oil. Look for a dinner party with pasta and oil coming to a home near you soon (family only, sorry any other readers).

After the sampling, we drove through the hills with tons of olive and grape groves. Looking at the GPS they took us the long route specifically for that. I didn't retain all the details of the different varieties of grapes and things but it was still interesting.

Next we arrived at the house of the owner of the tour group where we learned how to make pasta. They lived in an old moestary I think. It was huge and they had a lookout tower too. (It was the smoking balcony.) We didn't cook as much as I wanted too but we did learn how to make pasta. It turns out it is really simple. Pasta is just eggs and a specific type of flour. You mix it up, roll it out, flatten it and then cut it up. I imgine this would be a lot harder without a machine but I was told you can use a rolling pin or even a wine bottle if desperate.

With our dough, we first made spinach ravioli and then we made some fettucini. After all our hard work, the owner, who had been cooking the whole time, served us a plate with beans, bread with melted cheese and honey and a potator quiche type thing. They were all excellent. Next course was the spinach ravioli we made. They were also excellent. The third plate was a pasta from the fettuchini noodles we made. It was a little spicy but got old after a bit (as pasta has started to do most places in Italy for us so far). I still cleaned my plate! For dester we had fresh peaches in a desert wine sauce with crumbled cookies (giner maybe?) sprinkled over top. Also excellent. And that was our cooking class... (Oh yeah, our tour was through Accidental Tourist.)

And now for a video Teresa made of me rolling out pasta...

We got back from our tour a little earlier than planned so we met up with Laura again. We hiked up to Piazzale Michelangiolo for great views of Florence. I talked them into staying until sunset and it was well worth it.

Florence, Italy - Day 7

Today was our first full day in Florence. Our first sight of the day was the Uffizi gallery. To get in you have to wait a long time or have reservations. Teresa planned ahead. We got to the ticket office about 30 inutes early though so we walked around the corner to see Ponte Vecchio again, in the daylight this time.

Visiting the Uffizi (which means "office" in Itallian as it was the office space for the ruling Medici family) was great thanks to following Rick Steve's audio tour. Without a tour it would have just been a lot of paintings and a few sculptures, some of which I would have thought "Haven't I seen that somewhere before?" Unfortunately they don't let you take pictures there or I would have a ton. The gallery pretty much takes you from early Renissance up through the Renissance with a select number of works. The most famous one I recognized was The Birth of Venus.

After the gallery we went to the Duomo Museum which has all the original statues and old works that have been removed over the years (the ones that still survive at least). This is another of those musums that would have been really boring but we rented the audioguide. It was nice because I had headphones and a splitter since we were doing other audiotours with our iPod so we just plugged into the headphone jack and only had to get one guide. It also helped us to go at the same pace. I think others were jealous as they were checking out our setup.

After the museum we climbed the Duomo bell tower. It is, I think, 414 steps. Teresa even climbed with me. She has been pretty adventurous. The view was nice and there was no wait. It was overcast though so we didn't get the best views. It was still worth it. It was also cool looking at the Duomo after the museum because you could place all original statues you see with their copies that are now part of the actual building.

Next we did a Florence walk where we learned a little about the city and its Renissance roots. It was short though and only took us from the Duomo down to the Ponte Vecchio.

Pisa and Florence, Italy - Day 6

We debated if we should go to Pisa or spend another day in Siena for a while but we decided in the end that we had gotten a good taste for Siena (I really like it, it is very chill and reminded me of Rothenburg, Germany - Teresa not so much) and had seen what we had to. So instead of day 2 in Siena we took a side trip to Pisa (you know, the leaning tower).

Getting to Pisa was easy once you get to the train station. We took a local bus but didn't relize we had to already have tickets purchased so we freaked out when the bus stopped and the ticket checkers hopped on. Of course this was the first time we have ever dealt with ticket checkers and one of the few times we have not had a ticket. Fortunately they just let us discreatly get off the bus and be on our way instead of laying the large (I think ~€70) fine! Since I had the GPS I knew we were only 6/10 of a mile from the train station so we just walked.

From Siena you go to Empoli, switch trains and then head to Pisa. Of course our delay was only 10 minutes but the train from Empoli to Pisa ended up sitting in the station for almost an hour. The Itallians need to learn from the Germans how to run a train system. This was the 3rd time we have had a train delay!

Once we got to Pisa we took the bus to the Field of Miracles where the leaning tower is. It is a lot shorter and fatter than I though it was but still very impressive. It was also a very impressive €15 each to climb witha very strict time limit! You buy your ticket for a certain time (our time was an hour later) and then up you go. Teresa went too and she is not big on the climbing. The leaning does freak you out a little at the top. Just hold on to the rails!

After lots of silly pictures leaning on and holding up the tower, we headed for a geocache on the way to the train station and walked the rest of the way back. One more note about the area though. There area million people selling junk in Pisa but Teresa did manage to find a gem. She got a bracelet that a guy makes out of stainless steel silverware. Hers is an apitizer fork. It is really neat and she loves it.

After Pisa we had a direct train to Florence. It was only about an hour. We checked into our hotel, walked around Florence some, saw Ponte Vecchio, saw the Duomo, had more gelato, saw some people we saw on our same flight from JFK to Rome and then were off to bed. Teresa and I started to like Florence the best (so far) immediately.

Siena, Italy - Day 5

Day 5 was in Siena. We went to Siena mostly because Teresa's sister Laura is studying there this summer. We only spent about a day there total but it was still worth the visit just to see Il Campo!

The funniest thing happened to me on the bus ride from Rome to Siena though. Many know I mumble from time to time but today it must have been particulalry bad. I asked an American tourist waiting for the same bus it he was waiting for the bus to Siena (to be sure we were at the right place). His answer? "English" This bus ride also included an Itallian girl next to us watching movies on her Vista laptop, a girl in front of us on her MacBook writing a paper and using bluetooh + her cell phone to browse the Internet and one of the American women on the bus reading from a Kindle. Cool.

Anyway, getting to Siena was about a 2 hour bus ride. We wanted to take the 8:30 bus but with a broken alarm clock we woke up at 8:30 instead. The next bus was at 10:30 and we made that one. We just had to hop on the North-South metro line for €1 each and ride it a few stops to the other train station in Rome, Tiburtina. The bus station was around the corner.

Once we got to Siena, a medieval hilltop town between Rome and Florence, we walked to our B&B. The owner was really nice and very helpful. It made us regret getting an apartment in Rome that had no one there to recommend things. After getting settled we walked a few blocks to check out Il Campo and wait for Laura to get out of class. While waiting, I climbed to the top of the tower (If there is something to climb, I want to do it) and we had yet more gelato.

Once Laura arrived, we headed off to the dumo there. It was pretty neat. There were marble heads of all the Popes lining the tops of the walls. There was also a library room that had a ton of books with old music written in them. This was before the modern way of writing music (which Laura said was ~1700s if I remember correctly). It was similar but not the same. It was all blocks. Laura said she had a class where they had to translate that to the modern way. Interesting!

After the church, we had dinner with Laura on Il Campo. It was pretty expensive but it had a great view.

The rest of the day we just walked around and rested. We also found out that we only had $300 left in our checking account thanks to a goof. Fortunately that has since been corrected.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pompeii via Naples - Day 4

After 3 days in Rome, we decided that we had seen all the big sites and enough of the smaller sites that we wanted to see something else. We decided to head down to the old city of Pompeii via Naples.

The morning got off to an interesting start when I got out of bed and could not support my own weight because my feet hurt so bad! Putting on shoes helped and an ibuprofen eventually kicked in but I limped all the way to the metro station.

Getting to Naples was about an hour and a half train ride from Rome. After that we got on a commuter train for 30 minutes to Pompeii (called the Circumvesuviana). We sat across from a German guy who was quite the chatterbox. He apparently traveled a lot (to Las Vegas 10 times). I was glad he was sitting across from us though as I got to worry less about pick pockets. This train has a reputation for being one of the worst.

Pompeii was neat. I was there before on my trip to Italy in ~1996 but I didn't really remember much. In retrospect, we should have gotten a guide or at least audio guide. We followed the Rick Steves book for a while and then just wandered around. We walked all the way back to the stadium that I did remember from my trip before except you can't walk up into the seating area anymore. Bummer! We took a group picture up there last time! One sad thing in Pompeii was there were a good number of stray dogs. Poor things.

After touring the runis for about 2 hours, we had lunch right across the street. It was really good but after the bill was €20, not €17 as it should be. I went to go get the menu to check and the waitress came by, pointed to the part about 15% gratuity added and yanked the menu from me. Good to know but could she have done it in a more rude way? I didn't mind the gratuity but I do mind getting ripped off. (It was more than 15% too, the rounded up!)

We got back to Naples and decided we really didn't have any desire to explore the city. We were tired and it really didn't look very exciting. Plus, it is the center of the Itallian mafia and was currently in a "trash pickup"crisis! We got on the next train and after sitting in the terminal for an hour after our departure time, we were off. (I've heard that Italy's train system is not the most punctual, we found out on only our second ride.)

We had dinner at the train station in Rome. One thing of note here. In Italy, olive oil is like ketsup in the US. Say you go into McD's in the US, you have a ketsup pump and can eat all you want right? Well in Italy, at least at this place, you have a bunch liter bottles of olive oil to put on salads or whatever. That stuff is expensive (in the US) too! We also sampled some more gelato on the way home. I had pistachio and Teresa has raspberry. Both were excellent.

Rome - National Museum of Rome, and more - Day 3

Day 3 got off to a crummy start. We had a reservation for the Borghese Gallery (by reservation only) but we underestimated the time it would take to get there and we missed our entrance time. All that running for nothing. Instead we went to the National Museum of Rome instead. From what I've read those are similar in the collections. The National Museum had a lot of sculptures, some frescos and my favorite part: the coin museum in the basement. They had coins from the early Romans all the way up to the Euro.

After the National Museum we had a good, very Itallian lunch at the cafeteria in the train station. I had a nice bottle of Chardonnay with my lunch. It was only €0.10 more than a Coke. After lunch we parted with Laura as she was headed back to Siena.

We then headed for the Capuchin Crypt. It was pretty creepy. There are several areas all coverd in designs made out of human bones. I would share pictures but they wouldn't allow it.

After the crypt, we walked to Trevi fountai again. Last time we were there it was just before sunset so we got to see it in the full of daylight. It wasn't much different, including the bazillion people there both times! We had gelatio yet again and people watched for a while.

We then headed to the Pantehon again. This time it was open and we got to head in. We followed the Rick Steves audio guide which was excellent. Since the building is so small, we just camped out on the seats near the front and looked around as he explained about the history of this almost 2000 year old building and the famous people buried there.

After the Pantheon we walked farther west to the Piazza Navona with the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Unfortunately the fountain was closed for restoration work and mostly hidden by plywood walls. The street performers and local artists were in full force though so we did get to enjoy that aspect of the area.

After that, it was back home. Teresa fell asleep at 8pm. She was exhausted!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Rome - The Vatican - Day 2

Day 2 in Rome was spent at the Vatican. It was a very full day! We got up around 9am and headed over to the Vatican on th subway. There are only 2 subway lines in Rome. One is N-S and the other E-W. They need more! After you get off at the Vatican subway stop, you still have a good 5-10 minute walk to St Peters Squre. We got there, looked around and then waited for our tour with Angel Tours to start. In the meantime I went and chached some. I was 1 for 2.

Our Irish tour guide took us through the Vatican Museum. Our first site was a courtyard lined with the same 3 pictures of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel. They do this so guides can explain what everthing is since once you get in the chapel, there is no talking (except the loud guards saying "shhhh..... quiet please". After our 20 minute description of all the awesome paintings by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, we saw a Globe that we were told represents the damage technology does to the world. There are apparently 7 of these things around the world. I translate that as the damage technology does to the authority of the stubborn Vatican. I need to look into this more when I have the time.

After the courtyard we were off to look at a bunch of sculptures, tapesties, old but accurate map paintings of Italy and finaly the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel was beautiful but I was a little ticked that Nikkon paid to have the paintings cleaned in the 90s and now owns the copyright to them. Rediculous!

St. Peters Basillica was next. It was nice and HUGE! They even have a partition in the middle to show the next largest church in the world. Show offs! There we saw 3 dead Popes (1 in bronze and the other 2 in wax) and even more paintings and sculptures. My favorite was the sculpture done for some pope by a protestant sculture. The vatican didn't find this out until he was almost done but when they did they said they would not pay him or give him credit. He got the last laugh though as he carved HIS face instead of the dead Popes in the statue. They said the storage area is used as broom closet now. I have a feeling that story was BS but it sure is a good one if not.

After the basillica, I headed up to the top of the dome. It was quite a climb but I had the time as Laura and Teresa accidentally left the secure area and have to go through security again. The view from the top was great, especially inside the dome and then the view of Rome from the top. Next we went to the catabombs below the church. They were not that great but we saw a lot of old dead popes tombs and some newer ones like the 33 day pope from the 70s and John Paul II. There were 2 guards as his in fact. Next we sent a few postcards from the Vatican state post office.

After that we left the Vatican heading for the Pantheon. We got off the subway as close as we could and ended up at the Spanish Steps. Not much exciting there. Had dinner at McD's (I know, lame, but it is supposed to one of the the biggest and7or nicest McDs ever). I had a Grecko sanwhich which was really a Greek pita but in hanburger form. It was decent. Love some cucumber sauce!

After dinner we made our way to Trevi Fountain. We stopped in for groceries on the way so we could have toast and jam for breakfast. The sun was setting by then too so we took some pictures and has some gelato to wait for the sun to set to see it at night. I took some good night pictures (I think at least). We then headed to the Pantheon which was closed at this point but still lit up.

After all that we walked the almost 1.5 miles home. Long day!

Rome - Colosseum & Forum - Day 1, Part 2

Ok, I found an Internet cafe. A nice cheap one too as compared to the other one we passed this afternoon (2€ an hour). I am going to finish day 1 in Rome. Part 1 was really just getting here...

After we got settled into the apartment, we decided to walk around the corner to take a peak at the Colosseum. We passed Laura on the way. After she got settled we went to the Colosseum. I reallyfrogot how big it is. I also didn't realize that it was built in less than 10 years! I guess all that slave labor from conquering other people helped. We walked right in thanks to our Roma Passes that Teresa bought before we left. They get you into 2 museums for free and then an all you can use metro pass for 3 days. It was 20€ and considering the Coloseum was 11 and each metro ride is 1, after the second museum and a few rides, it has more than paid for itself. After walking around the Colosseum, we went and found a geocache. It didn't take long but we had to wait a while to put it back. First find in Italy!

Next on the agenda was the Roman Forum. This was like the National Mall of Rome. most all of the Roman goverment was here. We had to pay 11€ to get in here (we thought it was free and it was until March, we also now think it was included in the price of our Colosseum ticket too so we paid twice) but it was well worth it I thought. Teresa and Laura were not as thrilled. Most of the Forum is only ruins. There are very few buildings still standing. The best are the 2 arches on each end of the Forum and the senate house. After exploring the Forum and listeing to Rick Steve's slightly confusing audio guide, we headed up to Palentine hill which overlooks the Forum. The view was great!

After all that walking we went to find some dinner. This proved to be more difficult that we thought as it was only about 5:30pm and many places did not even open for dinner until 7! We eventually found a place called W.A.N.T.E.D.. It was ok (and across from this internet cafed). I had a sausage calzone. Teresa and Laura both had pizza (artachoke and salami respectivley).

One thing I still don't like about Europe is the lack of tap water. I really don't want to pay $3-5 for some water. What is worse was Teresa got a can of Coke Light for 4€ ($6.30!!). You really need fluids after walking around all day.

After dinner we headed back to the apartment and took a short nap before doing some planning for the next day, transfering pictures, taking notes, etc. We watched a little TV too. The only channel with English was MTV so we watched some really dumb date show. The TV is really strange too. You can't turn it on with the power button. To turn it on you have to use one of the channel buttons. The power button only turns it off. Also, in Rome there are over 20 over the air broadcast channels. I wonder how many people have cable with that much coming in for free (or thanks to taxes, not sure).

About 10pm I ventured out to take some night pictures of the Colloseum and the Arch of Constantine. They look aweseome! They key with a point and shoot camera is getting the camera steady and using the auto timer to let it settle down after you press the button. No flash either of course! In all I took 181 pictures (532mb on the first day). Not a bad start.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rome - Day 1, Part 1

So far I have only forgoten to bring two things: a hat (replaced with a ny yankees hat at jfk airport) and the little tripod my sister got me for christmas. Here is hoping that is all I forgot.

Our flight ended up being about 3 hours late due to some problem with the AC. That put us in Rome at 10 instead of 7:30 am. We ended up getting to our apartment 45 min late instead of really early but it was not a problem. We did feel rushed so we took a cab the approx 1 mile from the train station to our apt instead of walking as planned. We got cheated by the driver and he charged us €18 ($29) instead of the €7.25 on the meter. We only had €50 bills so we could not just give him a 10 and leave. He gsve us some line about the bags that he never touched and were not even heavy. Why don't ATMs here give smaller bills? Is it because we got out so much at once (€600)? Happend in Paris a few years ago too.

Ok, part 2 to come later. Typing this much on a blackberry is tedious.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Please don't let this be my TSA experience

While looking for something funny to include in my vacation email to my coworkers, I found a very interesting video titled TSA Gangstaz. It was way to vulgar to send to everyone at work but if you aren't offended easily (I am not and still found this a little over the top) feel free to watch.

I found the Spinal Tap scene where they go through security less offensive instead.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What reading material should I take?

I'm not sure what reading material I want to take on my trip this year. Usually I don't get to read much but last year I read The Assault on Reason and really enjoyed it. It was also a fairly compact book which was good for traveling. Most of my reading was done on trains and the flight home.

So this year my choices come from many books I have started but are not done and should probably just start over (or a couple I want to re-read). They are:
And I don't care for any fiction. I'd rather learn something considering how long it takes me to get through a book. I really do have to much politics in my reading list though, wow. I could also always take some magazines but it is nicer to have 1 book. Thoughts?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Free Italy Audio Tours from Rick Steves

Tonight I am working on downloading and getting all the Italy Audio Tours from Rick Steves loaded onto the iPod. I am not sure if we are going to use them but they will be good to have in case we do want to. We are hitting all 3 cities he has tours for: Rome, Florence and Venice. We already have a headphone splitter. They also come with little maps to accompany the tour. I think we have most of those from his Italy book already but these maps are a little larger.

In all there are 12 tours across the 3 cities and each one is divided up into several different files. They are about 40 minutes each with the shortest being the Pantheon (19 minutes) and the longest being the Uffizi Gallery (48 minutes). The ID3 tags need a little work though. I changed mine so the album name is the name of the location. Before they were just split into 2 albums. Now when we want to listen we can browse by artist to Rick Steves and the by album to find the tour we need. The mp3s also only take up 416 MB on your music player so there is plenty of room for other music and/or photos (We bought our iPod specifically to store photos while traveling).

The World's Most Impressive Subways

Check out the Wired gallery of the world's most impressive subways. I've been on a few of these but unfortunately none of the best of the best which are in Asia (someday!). I've ridden on Atlanta's MARTA, D.C.'s Metro, Chicago's L, New York's subway, London's Underground, Paris' Metro, Mexico City's Metro, Berlin's S-Bahn, Munich's U-Bahn and Vienna's U-Bahn. I love mass transit!

Unfortunately while in Berlin we never took the U-Bahn. We did explore the ghost station in Berlin though. There are a few other systems I've not had the opportunity to check out even though I've been in the city. Those systems include Boston's MBTA, Berlin's U-Bahn, Glasgow and Frankfurt. There may be others I've forgotten. Also, I didn't even know there were subways in Glasgow and Frankfurt but then neither were actual destinations, just transportation points.

Every subway system has it's own very distinct character. I haven't been on one I didn't like yet but my favorite so far has to be Paris. It is efficient and super cheap. Mexico City also has a super cheap, large and well organized (although crowded) system. London's was the most expensive from what I remember. It was about $4 each way! Most I have been on charge a flat single fare for each way (I don't always remember because we often buy an all you can ride for a day/week pass) but some like in D.C. charge based on your origin and destination points. The little differences are interesting.

Remembering Berlin also reminded me of a very different concept in European public transportation: the honor system. On most of the systems in mainland Europe (not Paris though) we have used, you paid for your fare and kept your ticket but you never had to use a ticket or token to gain access to travel. If you were dishonest, you could easily ride for free. Of course you could also get a hefty fine. The only system I know of like that in the US is was in LA. The free ride is over for them though. I wonder what the rate of non paying riders is in Europe now. Are Americans just more dishonest?