Archive for category travel

Dolly Parton, Princess Leia, and some bird from the ’70s

Saturday April 17

Damned if the fricken ash cloud isn’t the talk of the B&B. Starting to think we should really start to worry about getting back home on schedule. Weird to have to think about. Honestly, it’s the dogs we worry about.

The weather changed back to not-summer weather. We spent a low-key day on the new side of town in Edinburgh. Tons of walking. Got a perfect lunch from Sainsburys – yogurt and satsumas – and ate at a park. Walked back through a great cemetery/park under the shadows of the castle. Very very cool.

Tombstones

Looking up at the Edinburgh Castle

Dinner was a fantastic Indian meal. Love it when the Indian veggie choices are something you’ve never heard of.

Got back to the B&B only to run into Dolly Parton, Princess Leia, Kate Bush, and some bird from the ’70s. Our B&B hostess and her daughters were heading off to a costume party. She even left and emergency phone number with us. Should we be worried?

Well, worried didn’t fit the bill. Let’s just say the party came back to the B&B around 2am and carried on to at least 3:30 am. Needless to say, that Jill, our hostess, didn’t get us breakfast the next morning. She was having a long lie as her daughter put it. Long lie indeed.

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I got a sunburn in Edinburgh

After the adventures of the day before, we slept pretty hard. Woke up to a full breakfast – scone, eggs, this and that – and clear, sunny skies. So sunny that the locals were declaring it summer and donning shorts. We weren’t that brave and headed out properly attired. We hit one of the must-see spots – the Edinburgh Castle. Amazing views and very old castle-like buildings. We skipped the crown jewels and the military museum. Seen one jewel, seen them all.

Castle-eye view

Got a great Iranian/Kurdish lunch just around the corner from where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter. Went to the (free) National Museum of Scotland. It was actually a cool museum. Nice to see a museum point out the history of the world in millions of years, and backing up their claims with factual evidence for doubters. My kind of place. Lots of bones, leather shoe remnants, jewelry (not of the crown jewel persuasion), metal works … fun stuff.

Is that a kilt in your pocket?

Jumped back over to the Royal mile which was basically street after street of kilt and sweater places. Wool socks, three for £5. Fisherman’s Wharf, you’ve met your match. Used the loo at Queen Elizabeth’s holiday Palace – Holyrood Palace. Decent bathrooms. Because it was after 4, we decided against tackling Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano (that caught fire later that night). Walked aimlessly a bit toward our B&B and then hailed a cab to Bierex, a pub we could walk home from. Had some good ale, hard ginger ale, and the standard pub veg burger and haddock meal.

A decent day and a sunburn to prove it.

Nothing better than a pint and a natural disaster

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Planes, volcanic ash, trains, a taxi, and Edinburgh

I’m dusting off my blog to catalog our UK trip to Scotland and England. Wait, I think dusting is not a good word choice here. Read further and I’ll explain.

We boarded our Virgin Atlantic plane around 4:30 pm on Wednesday. Thankfully, we had a two-seat across row, so it was just us in super uncomfortable, cramped chairs for 10-plus hours. The flight was uneventful and usual for a transatlantic flight. We tried to sleep, couldn’t. Watched some airplane movies (The Blind Side for me, Michael Jackson’s This is it for Shelly – who made the better choice? Discuss.) Snacked. Fitfully slept some more. Shelly had better luck napping, although her bobbing head every time she fell asleep was a little disturbing to watch.

Bored, I switched around the TV on the plane and clicked through SkyNews. And found this:

SkyNews

UK airports closed by ash cloud from volcano. Um, excuse me? Is this a bad ’70s TV movie? Where’s Linda Blair with her guitar (only Airport movie aficionados will get that)? I told this to Shelly who apparently was still asleep. The folks in front of me saw it as well and flagged down a flight attendant who knew nothing about it. She came back after checking with the pilot and said it was nothing to worry about.

Well, after circling Heathrow for a while and waiting 20 minutes on the tarmac for a gate to free up, we hear that planes are backing up at the airport. Backed up indeed. The volcanic ash, dust, disturbance, cloud basically shut down airspace over the UK as we were flying in. We were on one of the last planes to make it in before the airport shut down indefinitely. After we got our bags, did the customs thing, catching our BA flight to Edinburgh wasn’t going to happen. So, we rushed through the confused crowds of people, grabbed the quickest train into London, and booked a train to Edinburgh out of King’s Cross. Last-minute train bookings are not cheap but we wanted to get going.

The trains were unbelievably crowded, with SRO and luggage in every nook and cranny, but at 7:45 pm, four train rides and nearly eight hours after we landed in Heathrow, we made it to our bed and breakfast in Scotland. We stumbled around Edinburgh looking for dinner and settled on some decent Thai food. And that was the end of the longest day.

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The last supper and the last gelato

Saturday, September 20

Up early to take the train to Milan, the final leg of our trip. Everything fit in our bags, we washed the dishes and emptied the trash, and took the bus to the train station.

As we were waiting on the train platform, a woman walked by with her little wire-haired dog. Of course, the woman noticed us noticing her dog, and came over to chat. Her dog’s name was Latte (milk) and he had recently been operated on because he had been attacked by another dog. Latte was yet another unneutered dog – we have not seen a single, neutered male dog. They are all intact. But then again, we have not seen a single stray dog.

Our seats on the train were next to a mother and her son. And their cute little dog  named Slinky who looked out the window as the train started up. Okay then. Time to go home to our dog.

Once in Milan, just about two blocks from the train station, we rolled our suitcases over to the Berna Hotel, our four-star hotel, Italian-style. We found a caffeteria lunch around the corner, expensive by our standards, and then retreated to our hotel for tea. We bought yogurt and cheese down the street for our early-morning breakfast. Our hotel is famous for their breakfasts, but since we need to leave at 5:30, we will miss it handily. We caught an episode of the Daily Show on TV. Here, however, it was sponsored by the country of Croatia.

Our last big deal on the itinerary – Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper – was our next stop. You have to have reservations for this masterpiece and only 15 people are allowed in at a time.  It’s not in great condition – some renovation gone astray – but it was completely worth seeing it.

But let’s not gloss over the best gelato I’ve had on this trip. We discovered Chocolat on the way to see DaVinci. Not only did it have a line out the door, but it had at least six different kinds of chocolate. Chocolate, pistachio, and crema rounded out the gelato tastings for this trip. Now, no more ice cream for the rest of the year.

Back onto the underground for dinner by the canal. Pizza for me, pasta for Shelly, and a shared salad. And a walk back along the canal. What a busy spot. People were swarming into the area as we were walking out. But time for us to go.

And that wraps up our 12 days in Italy.

See you back on the other side of the pond.

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Love letter to Skype

One of the dilemmas I pondered before going to Italy – get mobile coverage for my iPhone or rely on free wifi and pay for Skype credit? I use Skype to talk with a coworker in the Netherlands, so it’s already on my laptop.

I decided to go with the latter. I used the iPhone for music and games, the computer for everything else. Why did we want phone coverage in Italy in the first place? To call Shelly’s sister, Laurie, in the U.S. on her birthday, of course. I bought the minimum $10 Skype credit thinking that would easily cover the call and still be cheaper than international mobile rates.

Well, we ended up using Skype more than for the 40-minute birthday phone call. We got an email from Citizen Canine saying that our dog, Frances, took sick earlier this week. She has existing conditions, so even little things with her cannot go untreated. As we were figuring out what to do, Shelly said to Skype them, and I did. We decided on a course of action and a couple of days later, Frances is better. Thank you, Skype.

Aside from the birthday call, the dog-emergency call, we used Skype one final time. We needed to get information for our Heathrow to SFO flight, so Shelly called British Airways in the UK from our Milan hotel room. Again, Skype worked perfectly.

Oh, and so far, our Skype calls have cost – $1.26.

So, that’s my love letter to Skype. I’m just really impressed.

Thank you, Skype.

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A three-hour tour to Venezia

Rain today. Or at least first thing in the morning. Despite the weather and Shelly’s cold, we choose heading to Venezia over hanging out in Verona. We missed the morning trains and bought round-trip tickets that gave us just under four hours in Venice. Not a lot of time, but enough to get the flavor of the city. We almost missed our train though because we had a good 1.5 hours before our train left. We hopped a bus back into Verona only to hop the wrong bus across town. With the traffic and waiting for another bus back, we had less than 45 minutes to find lunch and get back in time for the train.

We took another bus, went to a bank, found no decent restaurant, and ended up buying a yogurt, cheese, breadstick lunch from an outside market. The cheese was amazing. Gorgonzola cut from a fresh wheel, and nodula pugliese (I think the spelling is close), which is pulled fresh mozzarella. Great stuff.

Venice. The train station exited right onto the Grand Canal where we jumped on a water taxi. The weather had cleared and warmed up, so it turned out to be a perfect day. We passed gondoliers, work boats, all kinds of boats. I can now say that I have seen someone steering a boat and talking on a cell phone at the same time.

We got off just past St. Marks Square and actually walked away from it. The crowds of people were a turn off, so we just walked through little alleys and over the bridge by the Accademia stop toward the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The museum, one of my favorites, wasn’t packed with people, and was quite the little oasis in the middle of this overrun city. The permanent collection, the traveling exhibit, Peggy’s house and garden entertained us for an hour, and then it was back to the alleys, and a boat trip back down the Grand Canal to the train station.

Overlooking the Grand Canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum

Overlooking the Grand Canal from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum

Let’s just say we got on the train with not even two minutes to spare. A very short trip indeed, but I’m glad we went.

We decided to break our dinner habit of eating downstairs and ventured off a few blocks from our apartment, down by the river. Via Interrato dell Acqua Morta (dead water) is basically where the river used to be, and is now covered over by streets and houses. We walked right past a church frock store. One couple stopped to look and they crossed themselves. We just took pictures.

Which color goes best with my eyes?

Which color goes best with my eyes?

We decided on Il Burchio (Nuovo Burchio on the receipt) and had a wonderful dinner. We both had the veggie antipasto buffet. Three euros and choices of giant capers and cornichons, lettuce, radicchio, sun-dried tomatoes, cauliflower, green beans, etc. Excellent. Shelly had beef in a red wine sauce and I had fagillitini, a take on raviolis, but hand-wrapped little pockets of spinach and ricotta pasta in a light cream sauce. We shared a glass of red wine and I got a homemade apple cake for dessert. Great meal.

We spent the rest of the evening packing for Milan. I hope everything fits in our bags.

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Get to know Verona day

We had two simple goals in mind today. To see some sights in Verona and possibly do a little shopping. We did both. We visited the Chiesa di San Fermo, a cool but spooky church with a long history. The church proper sat on top of an earlier, more Byzantine style church. The church below had arches, and that great ol’ old-church, tomb smell. (There were actually three layers, the later two built upon a Roman temple/tomb area.)

They don't look too happy to me

Not so happy looking religious figures

Our trek took us to L’ Arena, Verona’s colosseum. It mimicked the larger, Rome Colosseum in that it was in fairly good shape. In fact, they still hold concerts there (Bjork performed there last week), so it was a bit weird to see the place with seats ready to be filled.

Verona's L'Arena

Verona's L'Arena

To be honest, our main destination today was Dada, a shoe store that our apartment owner told us about and even circled for us on our map. When we got there, it had just closed … for lunch. Phew. It promised to reopen again at 15:30, so off we went to get an espresso. I got a cappuccino and Shelly ordered a little coffee advertised on a banner hanging above the bar. It came in a cute little cup and pretty much curled her hair when she drank it. I guess it was a bit strong. An interesting fact that I hadn’t remembered from my previous trip through Italy – their espresso is served warm, never hot.  Maybe they served them cooler this time of the year, but the three that I’ve had have definitely not been hot.

We had some more time to kill, so we walked back toward the center of town by L’Arena. We passed an older gelateria. I had to walk in. I walked out with a wonderful treat – La Giuduitta or something. Basically, a small cup of whipped creamed, chocolate hazelnut ice cream, more whipped cream, chopped nuts, and dark Swiss Chocolate. They are also known for their ice cream bars, so Shelly got a three-layered one with Amaretto, chocolate, and vanilla, nestled between two tiny, thin wafers. It looked better than it tasted.

Coffee drinking, ice cream eating delay tactics done, and onto Dada, a store of shoes. Their men’s selection was disappointedly small, but Shelly found and bought two pairs of  women’s shoes – reddish, leather loafers and bright red desert boots. Mission accomplished.

We wandered slowly through town, back toward our apartment, still looking for shopping opportunities, but found none. We finished the evening with some quick food shopping, laundry across the street, and dinner once again, below our apartment at Arce di Noe. Seems like we’re getting into a pattern.

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What do Google Maps, AIG, and Dell have in common?

After visiting the church built below the Chiesa di San Fermo, we walked toward Verona’s Arena, a mini-Colosseum.

On the way, Shelly noticed a little black car outfitted with a fold down, roof-mounted camera and a Google Maps placard in the front window. In the passenger side of the car, a Dell monitor. And in the front window, paperwork that said the car was insured by AIG Europe.

Little, black Google Maps car

Little, black Google Maps car

Try not to run into anything little black Google Maps car.

Might make for a good Geico commercial

Might make for a good Geico commercial

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Onward to Verona

Last-minute packing and a 20-minute walk down narrow sidewalks to the train station. Knock wood, but I am amazed that the wheels on our little wheelie suitcases have mastered the cobblestones of this city.

Another Eurostar train ride. Very smooth and fast. We had to sit across from each other this time, Shelly listening to her iPod, me typing away. We were shoulder to shoulder with an older couple from Germany. And the wife, who was sitting next to me had some powerfully bad breath. They ate their bread and stinky cheese sandwiches and bananas, while we chowed down on food Shelly bought from the same place we got yesterday’s lunch. Good stuff, but I think I had a bad olive. It was green but too squishy. Thank goodness we got off the train pretty quickly after that.

This train ride was much more picturesque than the one from Rome. Quite beautiful actually, with pear orchards, fields of verdura, old farmhouses, cities, rivers, the works. Arriving in Verona, we grabbed a bus to our next apartment.

Our Verona apartment is great. It’s very spacious, has a cute little kitchen, lots of storage, and is only one flight up. However, with the windows open, it sounds like we live on a Nascar track – with them closed, it’s very quiet and comfortable. We’re situated about five minutes from the river and one of the bridges, and we appear to be in a bit of an immigrant neighborhood. The guy at the store where we bought milk, tp, yogurt, eggs, etc., comes from Cambodia, and is here because he can work and save money. He also speaks about a million languages. We also picked up some bread just down the street. This area has everything including a stationery store. Let’s just say we spent some time in there, Shelly got names of some new products, and pictures were taken.

Pens, pens, and more pens

We proceeded to walk across the bridge (with another great view), and into town where we walked and shopped for a few hours. Shelly even got some eye-dropper medicine for the crappy cough/cold she’s picked up.

A view from a bridge in Verona

A view from a bridge in Verona

Dinner was at a restaurant below our apartment. Arce di Noe. One of our favorite, least expensive meals. We had a mozzerella, tomato, capers pizza; spaghetti with meat sauce; an insalata mista; and some cooked mixed veggies. Perfect. The husband/wife team also serves horse-meat dishes, a local favorite. No thanks.

Tomorrow: more of Verona.

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A Firenze gymnasium, The Knight Rider, and The Golden View

Tuesday, September 16

Shelly found us a gym about 10 minutes from our hotel. It was tucked away in a non-descript building, but once inside it occupied an old studio or home, and every room had some kind of equipment in various stages of decay. The machines still worked though, and we managed to get a decent workout.

Time to curl the old biceps

Time to curl the old biceps

For you Knight Rider fans, David Hasselhoff and Kitt graced the TV screens at the gym. I guess Knight Rider follows Charlie’s Angels during the week. Now, if we could just time our day to watch an Italian-dubbed “Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island” …

On the way back to our, hotel we walked past a tiny store that also sold take-away food. They were still putting out food, but we managed to get some interesting choices. Armed with our picnic lunch, Shelly looked into an archway and stopped. We were right in front of the oldest botanical garden in the world. The Firenze botanica has been in existence since 1545. And it was a perfect place for a lunch. A little oasis in the middle of the city. We used their bathroom and instead of flushing the toilet, Shelly pushed the alarm (it was a handicapped bathroom). It kept ringing until a woman came running over and turned it off. That was fun.

The view from the center of Firenze's botanical garden

The view from the center of Firenze's botanical garden

Our lunch was terrific. Ratatouille, another veggie dish with eggs and carrots, and the best eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. The sun made it bit warmer today so being outside and in this garden was quite nice.

Later that night, we asked for restaurant recommendations again, and this time decided to leave our immediate surroundings and head over the Arno for dinner. The 20-minute walk across town, at dusk, past the Duomo, through the heart of the city, over the Ponte Vecchio went by quickly as we weaved through all the tourists, past restaurants crowded with students, and bike shops.

We arrived at Golden View Open Bar, a scenic riverside restaurant that overlooked the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Equivalent to a Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant, but hey, we’re tourists, and this was our last night. The dinner was quite expensive for our budget at 70 euro, but I guess you have to pay for the view. I had my first draft Peroni and remembered why I drank wine in Italy.

We supplemented our walk back with gelato. I had a three-some of Nutella, coconut, and Menta, while Shelly went for yogurt and banana. Good stuff.

Goodnight Florence.

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