Monday, February 25, 2013

Monster Time

With the freeway open and free of flooding, and a day of rest and relaxation behind us, we headed home with one final stop on the Sister Tour of Italy...the Monster Park! This place has been starred in my Italy guidebook since before we left the USA. A park with fantastical sculptures all over less than three hours away - why did it take me two years to visit? The Monster Park was commissioned by a Duke in the late 1500s in memory of his wife, and the architect was none other than Pirro Ligorio, who finished St. Peter's Basilica after Michelangelo died. The park is even today held privately, but it is open to the public for a fee. I can see that at a better time of year, it must be filled with families as there is a playground, patio with tables, and grassy field, and all this before you even follow the path to enter into the Monster part of the park.
The park has walking path that wander to and around fun, humongous sculptures. It's a place best described with pictures instead of words:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Spa Time

Chianchino Terme's Historic Centre
The final leg of our driving tour of Italy was to get home via one overnight stop in Tuscany. We picked a spa town, Chianchino Terme, just off the freeway and a spa hotel in hopes of getting in some relaxation time. It was almost noon by the time we actually got ready to pull out of the parking garage on the edge of Venice. Not too far down the road was a weird meeting of a number of different exits, and unfortunately, I took the wrong one. In Italy, when you miss your exit or take the wrong exit, it is not a simple matter to get back onto your original path. You cannot just take the next exit and turn around. There are many other roads to travel, hoping you pick the correct one, before being able to once again rejoin the freeway. Back on the freeway and another hour down the road, we came to a dead stop. After some time, we cleared the jam and finally reached Tuscany...and yet another dead stop. My sister, good traveling companion that she is, grabbed her iPhone, somehow navigated to the right spot in an instant and told me to take the exit we were passing. She then directed us down beautiful, winding, Tuscan roads on an enjoyable bypass versus sitting in exhaust fumes. Once again, back on the freeway, and beyond all the traffic, we continued on for awhile, stopped at the Autogrill (Italian version of a truck stop) for food, bathroom breaks, and baby feeding (and while in the car feeding the baby, I watched out the window as some friends drove by - it can be a small world sometimes), then on the road again...and stop...again. This had turned into a never-ending, 3.5 hour drive to Tuscany. Except this stop was different. Dark had fallen as well as rain pouring down, fog set in, and there was no escape from the jam. We crept along for over half an hour, having gone less than 2 miles in the half an hour, before reaching the point where the entire freeway was closed, and police were directing all of us to the same exit.

View from our hotel room windows
My sister was once again quick with her fingers on the magical iPhone, and with only one extra circle of the roundabout, had us redirected and onto the back way to our hotel. We finally reached our hotel, rain was still pouring, and I needed to feed the baby so badly that I didn't think I could even make it the 15 minutes it would take us unload and get into our room. After a 3.5 hour drive turning into a 7 hour drive, all sorts of kerfluffle in getting our room key, getting the baby fed, reorganizing our luggage with the clothes needed for this stay, and getting inside, we were worn out. As it turns out, the freeway was closed due to flooding. After we saw our room, which was a two room suite with picture windows overlooking the Umbrian hills and including two bathrooms, one with a humongous, jacuzzi tub and the other with a massage shower, then checking our rate ($50 each), we promptly went downstairs to find out if we could stay a second night. We needed a day off. I needed a day off of driving. And we had no idea if the freeway would be open by morning since the rain was still pouring.

More historic centre
The next day was a day to enjoy the itty, bitty historic centre of Chianchino Terme, enjoy a delicious lunch at the tiniest cafe but with the grandest of views, and take turns having a spa treatment and then enjoying the hotel's heated, indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, and relaxation room (comfy, leather lounge chairs, fruit, fancy tea, dim lighting - that sort of thing). The spa treatment was nice, but a bit different than I was expecting. I booked a facial. When I showed up for my appointment wearing my swimsuit and the fluffy robe from our room, my esthetician handed me a little, paper triangle with string attached and gestured towards my body, then left the room. Clearly, she wanted me to put the triangle on. But I just wanted a facial, so I was confused. I waited until she returned, then asked to make sure, and yes, I was to remove both top and bottom of my swimsuit and put on the triangle. Then lie on the table. She left again, and I followed her instructions. Then realized the table did not have a blanket. Or a towel. Or any covering whatsoever. For a facial! This was mortifying, but thankfully, the lady gave me a nice, warm blanket when she returned. And the facial was quite nice. Sadly, spending time afterward in the spa center was basically just me killing time because I felt like I should but actually thinking that my niece was visiting for three, short weeks, and I'd rather be spending time with her and Nora. Our stay in the hotel was complete when the next morning at breakfast, a table of three stopped us as we walked by to ask about Nora. One of the questions was her age. When I responded with "two months," one the ladies said, "Ha! I knew it. He thought she was three months, but I said no, she had to be less than three months because you are so big." Well, thank you. Thank you so much.
Even Baby Nora gets a spa treatment, a manicure by Auntie

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

High Water Time

To continue with the Venice trip, we arrived in Venice on Friday evening, spent Saturday and Sunday, and left on Monday morning. On Saturday evening, we heard that Sunday morning would ring in with a very high Acqua Alta. Venice is a city built in the middle of a lagoon. All that picturesque water you see in photographs is tidal, so at times, the high tide brings flooding. The entirety of Venice does not flood, just the low lying areas...which hold the majority of the tourist sites, hotels, and in general, places that visitors to the city want to see. Sometimes the flooding is just a light coating of water covering the streets for a few hours. Sometimes the flooding can enter the businesses. And sometimes, they get that once in a few decades flooding. One guess as to which happened on our trip!

About 5am on Sunday morning, a loud alarm started going off, rising in intensity. At first, we thought it was a fire alarm, but then realized that it must be the high water alarm we'd read about. The alarm rises to certain decibels depending on how how high the water prediction is, which lets residents know how to prepare. Water is a-comin'! At 7am, a little tap-tap-tap on our bedroom door was my sister, summoning me into her room, which overlooked the front street outside the hotel and a Burberry store (pretty much the perfect room for her). We watched as residents made their way through calf high flooding. Still in our pajamas, we ventured to our hotel's lobby, just to see if water had come in. Yes, indeed, and it was rising even more as we watched. And yet, the hotel staff members were busy laying out boards for guests to get to the breakfast room. By the time our crew got ready to actually eat breakfast, the water had risen so high that breakfast in the breakfast room was not a possibility. The electric appliances holding the hot foods had to be unplugged, the cold foods could not be restocked due to water blocking the refrigerator doors. Water was knee high. Let's not talk about what types of bacteria were in the water - it's enough to say that the stench was so bad I could not eat food in that room anyway.

Nathan decided he did not want to wade through dirty, smelly water. My sister and I thought playing in the water sounded like a ton of fun, so we taped on the heavy duty garbage bags our hotel provided and went out to explore the city. In places, wooden walkways were set up to avoid the deepest of the flooding, but this Acqua Alta was the highest since the 1960s, so there was no way to avoid stepping in water. My bags sprung a leak about 20 feet from the hotel, and by the time we'd gone three blocks, I found it easier to throw the bags away, roll up my blue jeans, and walk around in the flip-flops I'd packed. Travel tip #472: Always pack flip-flops, even if it's a pair of thin, shower type ff's. Personally, I pack a pair of Keen, trail ff's that I can use both around the hotel as well as for walking around all day long.

We broke down eventually and purchased waders, mainly because my sister's nice leather boots under her garbage bags were soaking wet and my legs were burning and developing a rash from the filthy water. We got to watch the clerks in the fanciest of stores (think Prada, Rolex, Gucci) sweeping water out their front doors, enjoyed looking at the water barriers many stores put up to try to hold back Mother Nature, and visited my favorite jewelry store in Venice (Winter Dreams - beautiful beads that are the real deal, made in Murano, stuff, i.e., not made in China and then slapped with a Murano Glass sticker) to see how the proprietor had fared. We'd gone in the day before and spent some time picking out matching necklaces and just chatting with the owner, and we were relieved to find that she'd had very little water enter. At her store, we were able to get the lowdown on the flooding. If I'm remembering correctly all these months later, predictions were for 120cm (about 4 feet), which the businesses and residents find manageable. This morning's Acqua Alta had reached 150cm (about 5 feet) and caught everyone off guard. Added to the irritation was an orienteering race that had been scheduled and not cancelled, so while business owners were trying to get their places swept out and cleaned, hundreds of race participants were splashing through the very narrow streets, greatly impacting the clean-up process. I was amazed that most of the businesses were open in the first place. Sunday + winter + high flood. And yet, as tourists, the only impact we felt was having to take breakfast to our room and not being able to go out with the stroller for a few hours.

By noon, all water had receded and life was completely normal. In contrast, we were stationed in Key West a few years back and one of the hurricanes that passed by caused a post-storm surge of flooding about 2-4 feet high. Damage on the island, including to the Navy bases, was over 100 million dollars, we lost about half of our worldly possessions due to furniture soaking up water and things stored in lower drawers and closets, and we spent six months living in a hotel while our house was going through mold abatement and renovation. Perhaps the hurricane zones of the U.S. should take some Venetian lessons. Marble floors and concrete furniture are much cozier when dressed up with silks and velvets.

Another Acqua Alta, much smaller, returned in the late afternoon. We went to Piazza San Marco to watch the water rise. My niece went all out by wearing a tutu dress and her Venetian mask with her cast stuck out the side of the stroller. And the following morning, our departure morning, we found out that our beloved water taxi could not reach the hotel's rear water entrance due to yet another Acqua Alta. The water raises too high for some of the lower bridges, and boats cannot get through the canals. Nathan had left early to catch his plane home. As my sister and I sat in the lobby to consider whether we wanted to hang around until 1pm or so for the water to recede or the two of us spend an hour getting us, our two children, two strollers, bags, and miscellany over the very narrow wooden walkways and bridge between us and the vaporetto stop. With a four hour drive ahead of us, plus over an hour of baby feeding stops, and on top of the time it would take to get back to our car and get it loaded, I was not crazy about waiting until noon. My sister finally had the brilliant idea to bring up our dilemma to our hotel clerk. No problem - they would send a porter with us to help. I loved our hotel! With the porter helping us, we reached the vaporetto stop in less than ten minutes, shoved our way onto a crowded vaporetto stop, then sat back and enjoyed our final cruise down Venice's Main Canal, one of my favorite views in all the world.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Return to Venice

Bridge of Sighs
You may not be able to see the carved headboard
due to the adorable, masked girl, my niece.
After my sister, niece, Nora, and I left Assisi, we headed the car north for Venice. Venice is unlike any other place in the world, and I didn't want my sister and niece to miss it. It is a love it or hate it kind of city. When I meet people who have been, invariably, their reaction is strong - "I LOOOOOOOOVE Venice" [me] or "Ugh - I hated Venice. It was dirty, smelly, crowded, and expensive." We knew that Venice would be a challenge with my niece in her wheelchair stroller and me carrying Nora in a baby carrier all day, but we felt that it was worth the struggle. Venice has somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 bridges over canals, and each of these bridges means going up a flight of steps, across a flat area, then down a flight to the other side. I found a couple of articles saying around 100 ramps are installed over city center bridges for the fall marathon, and they leave them up until the spring tourist season begins, so winter is a good time to go in a wheelchair (or with a stroller). Going in November also meant that we were able to book a beautiful, older hotel in a fabulous location to all the sites, lots of charming details such as the most amazing, intricately carved headboards, and best of all, it's very own water entrance.

The water entrance meant that we could meet up with Nathan at the car park* on the edge of town, load all our bags, strollers, and babies into a water taxi, and for 70euros, be dropped off at our hotel. No fussing with lines and luggage to get on the vaporettos that ply the main canal and serve as the public "bus," and while 70euros sounds like a lot of money is a lot of money, riding the vaporetto would have cost us 28euro and left us several blocks from our hotel and at least one bridge over a canal (=steps) to cross with all our gear and children. Plus, back when my aunt and uncle visited in 2011 and we visited Venice, we took the water taxi to the airport and had one of my favorite experiences of our entire time here in Italy. The chance to motor slowly down small canals in the heart of Venetian neighborhoods, then speed up the main canal, provides a glimpse of Venice unmatched by taking the public vaporettos or a slow gondola. And you get to pretend to be a movie star.

Nathan had a three day weekend, so we'd planned to meet up with him, spend two full days, and then go our separate ways, with Nathan flying back home and the rest of us driving home with a little stop along the way. Thank goodness Nathan was there. Remember the multitude of ramps that were supposedly put up on the bridges - we came across one. One ramp. And while I thought I would be able to help my sister with one end of the stroller while wearing Nora strapped to my chest, I was very wrong.

Glass Maestro
Despite the difficulties, the rain, and the flooding (that post will be next), Venice was it's usual delightful place. Our hotel, like many hotels in Venice, offers a free water taxi ride to Murano and a tour of a glass factory. I'd read all about these - that they are heavy sales pitches, don't do one because you can just go to Murano yourself on a vaporetto, and so on. But we decided that with our group of four, why not give it a try. Well I will tell you that all those cynical tour books are wrong. The trip was so lovely. At the appointed time, we walked to the back of the hotel where a tuxedo clad staff member helped us into yet another beautiful, wooden water taxi and we settled in and enjoyed the sights as we wound through small canals until reaching the Main Lagoon and speeding across it to the island of Murano. No crowding onto a vaporetto, fighting to find a seat or standing outside in the cold, and the chance to see the very small, interior canals, places the large vaporettos cannot go. The Mazzega glass factory representative met us at the docking area and led us in to watch a glass blowing demonstration by a glass Maestro (a master craftsman). Their Maestro has been working the glass for over 40 years, and I seem to recall that to become a Maestro takes something like 15-20 years. After the very interesting demonstration, we were led upstairs for the high quality merchandise rooms. The rooms went on and on and were completely filled with beautiful glass - vases and cups, plates and goblets, chandeliers, sculptures, trays, candlesticks, each room opened onto more beautiful things. We were offered coffee, water, and soda while we browsed, and I never once felt pressured to buy. Nothing has price tags, so we did ask about a few items, but in the end, we walked away without purchasing any of the higher priced items. The downstairs shop, open to the general public (the upstairs is not), had several items that are significantly cheaper (and probably not made on Murano, but I didn't ask). We then had an hour to wander the island before meeting our water taxi to return to the hotel. My one complaint is that I would have liked more time to wander around, but then, we always could have just made our own way back to Venice on the public vaporetto.

That night, we heard tell of high water on the way.

*A few tips for travelers to Venice:
- There are parking garages where you can leave your car. Venice is built on water, so you cannot drive around it. You park in one of two piazzas (one closer to the water where you catch vaporettos - boats - or water taxis) and one a little further. Call your hotel and ask if they offer a discount to any one particular garage. Ours offered 20% off at the most expensive garage which is closest to the water taxi and vaporettos. With the discount, we paid only 5euro more per day for safe, guarded parking and the convenience of not dragging luggage all over the back of beyond.
-  Get restaurant recommendations and use them. Good restaurants that are also affordable can be hard to find, and honestly, the bad meals cost as much as the good ones.
-  Buy a vaporetto pass. You will most likely ride a vaporetto a minimum of four times. At 7euro a pop, this can add up. If you are going to be visiting Venice more than once within a five year period, check into getting an Imob card. Just google it. Basically, you provide a passport, an application, and 40euros for a card that allows you to buy vaporetto rides for 1euro or so, and the card is good for five years. I got one on my first trip and have saved so much money in my three trips so far, with a fourth trip coming up.
-  At some point, leave the tourists behind. Just start walking. It doesn't matter where as long as it is not on the main path. Take that alley that looks like a dead end. Explore. But before you do...
-  Get a really (really) good map. Your hotel might offer one.
-  Lost? Keep your eyes up. On the sides of buildings at intersections, there are often painted directions to a main site or to a vaporetto or traghetto.
-  Vaporetto equals small ferry - they ply the main canal and circle the island, and really are the equivalent of a city bus system. Traghettos are public gondolas that cross the main canal from one side to another - there are very few bridges over the main canal, so traghettos can save you a ton of walking. Traghettos are 1.50euros as of November 2012, and are a fun way to have a short, gondola experience (you are indeed rowed across by a man in a striped shirt and red scarf). Water taxis are the most expensive transportation option, but can serve a dual purpose in giving you a private, water experience while getting you somewhere you need to go (airport, train station, hotel, etc.). Gondolas are for the classic experience, not to get you from point A to B - They are expensive, and I've yet to do one as I've enjoyed the first three options enough that I haven't see the need to spend what the gondolas cost.
-  Leave lots of room in your suitcase. Venice has the best shopping in all of Italy. Lush Fortuny fabric scarves/shawls at Venetia Stadium, Murano glass jewelry, handmade paper stores, leather books and home accessories, unique clothing, masks (love, love, love Rugadoro), even the street artists are quite good.
-  Visit at least one of the islands - Murano if you have time for only one, but Burano is well worth the trip. A great day would be morning in Murano, lunch there, and a couple of afternoon hours on Burano before returning to Venice. Both isles are accessible via vaporetto.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pause for a Laugh

A friend here in Naples posted a You Tube video on Facebook which I just had to share on the blog as well. This video captures so much of Neapolitan life, the funny, the frustrating, the confusing.

Naples Street Scene

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In the Steps of St. Francis

 With a little girl all bandaged up and stroller purchased to cart the lame child around, we set off on our driving tour of Italy. First stop, the hill town of Assisi. Assisi was my first foray into the Tuscany/Umbria region right after we moved to Italy. I wrote about that trip here, with the inspired blog post title of Assisi. That post covers all the fun facts and such - stuff I'd completely forgotten about St. Francis. I won't repeat it all again.

View from hotel room window - well worth the half hour
it took for us to find the hotel.
We'd changed our itinerary a little bit to take into account the second stroller. Assisi is a very easy town to visit, with a mostly pedestrian city center, several eating options, lots of safe parking options, and smooth streets. The plan was to make the four hour drive in the morning, see Assisi in the afternoon, spend the following day visiting one or two other villages in Umbria, then on to Venice the following day - possibly another city stop on the way to Venice. Ha! I quickly found out what traveling with children is actually like. First of all, we didn't get out of the house until almost 10am. Nora was eating every three hours, so we had to stop for a feed the baby break. Arriving in Assisi, we wound our way through the town on the very few (one way) streets upon which driving is allowed and finally the GPS told us we'd reached our destination. We had not. We finally did reach our hotel and spent another two hours getting the car unloaded, me driving out of town to the parking lot and walking back in, unpacking, me feeding the baby, and so on. Traveling with children is a whole new ballgame for me.

Tea Room break
By the time we got out to walk around, most of Assisi's little shops were closed up. We made one loop near our hotel, then finished up back near the Basilica of St. Francis to see a gorgeous sunset over the Umbrian countryside, then into the nearby tearoom for some tea, pastries, and hot chocolate - a favorite stop of the day for every member of our group!

Basilica of Saint Francis
The following day, we covered the entire town. Every alley, every church, every shop. We even went up the steepest street I've seen outside of San Francisco. We pushed and pushed and pushed those strollers up, found an interesting church at the top, then back down. We stopped for tea, stopped for lunch, stopped to feed the baby, stopped to play with Princess dolls in a piazza, stopped for hot chocolate. The day was freezing cold, but our little live Princesses were bundled up, and the sky stayed a gorgeous blue all day, highlighting Assisi's beautiful, stone buildings and the flowers spilling out of pots all over the city. Day 2 of our trip was fairly successful, but next up was Venice - land of 1000 or so pedestrian bridges, so not really the place to have strollers (okay, actually only about 400 bridges), but we read that in winter, most of the bridges in the touristy areas have ramps. We'll see.