Two quiet days recuperating on the ship, with not too much to look at, since Livorno was heavily damaged during WWII and hasn’t been rebuilt with anything but functionality in mind.
The first day was raining all day, so our cancelled wine trip might have been pretty soggy. Linda mailed the payment off to the guide in cash anyway, so he should be surprised and happy.
We’ve never spent days onboard when in port, and it was interesting to see how much crew activity there is, with a blackout test one day that herded remaining guests into the Horizons lounge while the power was off for an hour, and emergency lifeboat drills for the crew on the other day.
Well, Rome’s port isn’t the most attractive place in the world. It’s also not particularly close to Rome, almost 2 hours away in traffic.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter, because I got sick and had to get some strong antibiotics from the ship’s doctor, and Linda was unwilling to leave me alone to go on the private tour of the coliseum that she had spent months planning. I feel really bad about that. We also canceled tomorrow’s private tour to Tuscan wine country, so I basically cost us the two highlights of the trip. Sigh.
Today we arrived in Amalfi, a picturesque city on the Italian coast that shares its name. Contrary to reports, the shops were almost all open, even though it was Sunday, a last chance for the shopkeepers before the season ends. The narrow main street seems like it is for pedestrians, but cars and motorcycles also squeeze up and down.
Particularly impressive are the lemons from the region, used to make Limoncello, a desert liqueur. My photo compares them to normal lemons.
We had lunch in the hard to find Trattoria Teatro off an obscure alleyway. It is so named because it was once a children’s theater. Lunch probably wasn’t as good as claimed by Fodors, but it was fresh. Perhaps not as fresh as the drinking fountain in front of the cathedral, though.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours in Taormina, a medieval city converted to a pedestrian tourist shopping street, on top of a hill in Sicily. The weather has warmed up to 71, and we had an alfresco lunch at a trattoria on a secluded street. The town is very busy, with cars an motor scooters dodging tourists, so it’s easy to see why they made part of it a pedestrian street.
Unfortunately clouds obscured Mount Etna, which we’re told towers over the coast here.
For Dani’s 16th birthday she asked to take her friend Christina, to Europe. This is the journal of that trip.
The only time Christina has been out of the country was on Dani’s 13th birthday cruise to Nassau, so this will be an adventure for her. We picked her up Friday evening and headed for the airport to catch our nonstop Virgin Atlantic flight to Gatwick airport south of London, connecting on British Air to Rome.
The Virgin flight is one of the few nonstops from Orlando to Europe, and they offer premium economy, which has better seats than coach but is much less expensive than business class. The food is still English, though.
Saturday, June 30, 2007
London to Rome
The girls didn’t get much sleep to speak of on the plane and I got none (my own fault since we were all wearing our ipods, and I was listening to the lyrics).
The plane got into Gatwick a little late but we had a five our layover. Good thing! What a mess it was! At first the immigration line simply wasn’t moving, and there were hundreds of people in front of us from several large planes. But finally, after they processed all the EU people, they must have put more people on the non-EU line. Still, it rook more than an hour to clear immigration, Another hour to get our bags and get checked in at British Air, and then more time to clear security back to the gates. We had to run a gauntlet of eight guys with assault rifles (they must have had some inside intelligence since there was a problem later at Glasgow airport), do the normal X-ray, and then X-ray our shoes separately in a small, shoe-sized X-Ray machine. Gatwick really is broken. The flow and policies make no sense. I don’t know if I’d try to connect through there again or not.
For lunch number 2 (or was it 3?) the girls picked a revolving sushi place that was excellent. That’s where there is a conveyor belt and you take what you want, and then pay according to the stack of empty color coded plates.
Then the plane for Rome was delayed an hour getting into Gatwick. We were dragging by this time, But we had hot chocolate and got our second wind.
The main problem was that the entire population of Western Europe was at the airport. I suspect that’s because it was the first Saturday of summer and everyone was headed for the Mediterranean. Given the cold, rainy weather in London I can see why.
By contrast the Rome airport was a breeze. First time I’ve seen someone stamp passports without looking at them at all!
Our driver was waiting for us and the trip into Rome was quick. We rode with another threesome embarking on a different Globus tour from a different hotel. They are from San Francisco and just spent two weeks in Spain.
The hotel is in a great location, just a half block from St. Peter’s. It’s fairly newly refurbished with nice wood flooring and trim and new furniture.
It was so late the girls didn’t want to nap, they just wanted dinner and bed, so we walked the half block to the edge of the Vatican and had pizza in a local hangout – located literally within the thickness of an ancient wall — that sold it by weight from a deli case. Then we crossed the street and had the best chocolate gelato I’ve had since the last time I was in Rome. The weather was great. 77 degrees.
Now I need to answer a pile of ed2go postings and get to bed.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
I was awakened by the phone this morning. It was Dani informing me it was 11 AM! Admittedly, I was up until midnight doing email, but I was surprised how late I slept.
The weather was beautiful today, mid 80s and a slight breeze. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen and set out to walk across the city.
We passed St. Peter’s square at noon and saw (a teeny dot in the distance) and heard the Pope speaking to the multitudes. Then we crossed the Tiber, bought some postcards in an antique book shop (Dani’s postcard torrent begins) and made our way to the Pantheon.
In the square there we had lunch at the same outdoor cafe as on our last visit, then ventured into the immense coolness of the Pantheon.
I didn’t bring a guidebook on this trip, so I had to wing it, but I think I got most everything right except possibly the part about it having been built by Haliburton.
Next stop was the Trevi fountain, where we all threw coins in to guarantee our return to Rome on a future visit.
On our way back we spotted the Roman ruins (pictured on many of the local postcards) where there are hundreds of cats fed by local cat ladies. Then we meowed for a taxi and caught a ride back to the hotel. A very successful day.
We met our tour group this evening in the lobby. They seem very nice. The demographics are interesting. It’s a much younger group than usual, with 8 of the 44 being teenage or recently teenage girls. This is nearly everyone’s first visit to Europe.
Out Tour Director is Lia, short for Cornelia. She is a middle aged Dutch woman with a great sense of humor.
Dinner was at “The Grotto of the Emperors,” a basement restaurant similar to all the other basement restaurants that cater to tourist groups. The six course dinner and free wine were tasty, and the entertainment by a trio of accordion/guitar/opera singers was. . . clearly audible.
By the end the group looked ready for bed, but we felt completely on schedule. Good thing, because our wakeup call tomorrow is 5:45 AM.
Monday, July 2, 2007
The early wakeup call wasn’t all that bad. After a traditional European hotel buffet breakfast we took our coach around to the other side of the Vatican to queue for the tour. We arrived about 40 minutes before the group opening at 8 AM, which was a good thing, because I’ve never seen the Vatican so crowded. This was because Friday through Sunday it was closed for a holiday.
Our local guide, Patricia, spoke exceptional English, but the microphone on her Whisper audio system wasn’t picking her up all that well. When she narrated on the bus it was great, though.
At the Vatican Museum we toured the Roman sculpture gallery, the tapestry gallery, and the map gallery. In other words, the usual hallway that leads to the Sistine Chapel. Patricia provided an excellent explanation of the history of the frescoes in the chapel before hand, since there is no talking (only mooing) allowed in the chapel. We found an uncrowded corner with only about 400 people in it and admired the art for 20 minutes.
Then it was next door to Saint Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. The dome in Saint Peter’s Basilica is so high the 34-story Sun Bank building in Orlando would fit in it. Our exploration was somewhat cursory compared to the private tour Linda and I took a couple of years ago, but everyone’s feet were tired anyway.
We walked across St. Peter’s Square (it was hot!) to a (you’ll never guess) Vatican gift shop. For the past two days I’ve been trying to cash a 500 Euro bill, but the hotel never has enough cash. But guess who does? Yup.
The girls bought Vatican stamps to mail their first pile of postcards, we had a soft drink, and then entered a tunnel that led to an amazing parking garage designed for tour buses. Next stop: the Coliseum.
We got a nice break in the weather, as it began to cloud over and a breeze came up, and there were even a couple of sprinkles. By the time we reached the Coliseum. it had probably cooled off ten degrees.
Did you know that “Coliseum” is only a nickname, because it had a colossal statue in front? Unfortunately, like every other piece of metal in ancient Roman it has long since been melted down. But the name stuck. I guess “The Flavian Amphitheater” didn’t have much of a ring to it.
It was a lightning fast tour, but it worked (Linda would have been frustrated, though). Then we climbed the hill to overlook the forum.
There is an exhibition being put together, and they have erected stark white plastic(!) columns in the places where the original columns are missing from the temple that overlooked the Coliseum. That gave us an interesting impression of how big the thing was.
We arrived back at the hotel around 1 PM, freshened up, and strolled a block toward the Tiber, where we had lunch in an outdoor cafe down the street from St. Peter’s Square. As we walked back, it was beginning to sprinkle lightly.
Nearly all of our group went back out again at 3 PM for an optional $80 tour, to do what we did on Sunday, followed by another group dinner (but will there be another demon accordionist?) We, on the other hand, got to relax, do postcards, journals, and naps. At 8 PM we went out and wandered around the neighborhood until we found a trattoria that suited us and had a leisurely dinner. Then we walked back to our gelato place for desert.
I’m really glad we had the extra day. We got to touch on all the highlights of Rome without overdoing it.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Rome to Florence
We left Rome at 8 AM and had an easy drive to Florence, entertained along the way by Lia’s sense of humor, and arriving a bit after noon.
We had a fairly poor lunch at the Grande Café at San Marcos Square and then queued for the Uffizi Gallery. It takes a month to get reservations, so I had never seen it. Our local guide was fine, but took us only to a room of religious icons and to see Michelangelo’s David. I explored an extensive and ornate musical instrument exhibit and quickly walked through a sculpture hall while she prattled on the headset.
David looked just like the exact replica of him in Piazza Signoria. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about David. His head’s too big for his body and his hands are too big for even his head.
We then walked to the cathedral to view Brunelleschi’s Dome (only from street level, although some brave soles had climbed 34 stories) and the brass doors of the baptistery (which are copies of the originals).
Next we walked to the Piazza Signoria where we saw the Rape of the Sabine Women (not the actual event, a sculpture). We had seen the plaster model for this at the Uffizi, and it looked just the same only cleaner.
Finally we walked to the Piazza San Croce, where we met up with Lia, who ushered us into a gold and leather shop. Expecting one of the normal hard sells, I was pleasantly surprised by the brief and entertaining presentation about Florence gold. But what was really good was the leather presentation, which was very funny and informative. A number of the people on the tour got to model the coats for us, most amusingly, and Dani actually ended up buying a very nice (i. e. expensive) leather coat that looks great on her. Since she spent her schoolbook refund money on it, I like to think she’s wearing everything she learned this year.
By the time we walked to the bus (did I mention they’re not allowed anywhere in the old city?) we were ready to sit down. Florence is cute, and has some nice art, leather and gold, but for me, five hours was just the right stay. It’s not a place that excites me, the way Rome does.
Our hotel, the Cosmopolitan, is a bit west of the city. It’s very new and European chic, with proximity switches at the door. The group dinner on the third floor was okay, and the Montipulciano was excellent. .
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Florence to Venice
We left Florence at 8 AM and header over and through the Apennines on the fours hour drive to Venice. The scenery along the way was initially green mountains with a sprinkling of houses and olive groves, but near Venice it changed to pastureland. The weather in Florence looked threatening, but in Venice is was mostly clear and about 90 degrees.
A water bus took us from the end of the bridge to Saint Mark’s square. With a little time to ourselves, we strolled along some of the smaller passages and had some delicious sandwiches and calzones at a snack counter. Then we met our local guide back at Saint Mark’s for some information about the history of Venice.
While we waited to enter the cathedral we noticed water coming up from the drains as the tide came in, driven by a strong wind. Before we could enter they had to change to a door at a higher elevation. Inside, the cathedral is fairly ugly, although it is admittedly almost 1000 years old. The tiled floor rolled like the sea due to settling.
The local guide dropped us off at the Murano Glass shop — not the real one on the island, but a huge shop a block or two from Saint Mark’s Square, with many floors and many rooms on each floor. We saw a demonstration of glass blowing, where the craftsman mad a fairly elaborate vase in about three minutes. It was really impressive and fun to watch as always. Afterwards we shopped for glass thingamabobs and wandered the narrow passageways until it was time for our gondola ride.
Unfortunately, it was also time for a storm, and it got cool and began to pour. On the bright side, we weren’t already in the gondola.
Instead, we went to one of the cafes off of the square where we paid extortionist prices for espressos and listened to live jazz.
After about thirty minutes the rain stopped and the girls ventured out to feed the pigeons. One of the decided to go for a ride on Dani’s head, and was content to sit there as we strolled about a block. It must have been migrating.
A few people did stick around and got a gondola ride, including a couple celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary. Last year she lost the stone from her wedding ring and has been wearing a cheap replacement. On the ride he took her ring, threw it overboard, and gave her a nice new one.
Then we caught the water bus back to the land bus to our hotel. The Hotel Anthony is not far from the bridge to the island. It’s an older hotel in fairly good shape, but it’s the kind of place where the shampoo comes in a Taco Bell hot sauce packet. Definitely not four star. My first stop was the front desk, to pay three Euros for the “free” wireless Internet service.
We had a group dinner at the hotel that was fine, and shared our Ferrari Spumante (fairly dry, like off-dry Champagne) with the anniversary couple.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Venice to Lucerne
We spent Thursday on the bus from Venice to Lucerne. Leaving the hotel at 7:30, we took a wrong turn at Milano and so had lunch in a truck stop. It was delicious! Unfortunately, this cost us an hour or two of extra driving time.
Our morning drive paralleled the Dolomite Mountains. After lunch we turned north and began to climb up into the Alps.
The buses here record the driver’s hours on a paper disk (to become electronic next year), and the drivers have lots of restrictions, including a 45 minute break every four hours. (In fact, tomorrow our driver isn’t allowed to drive at all, hence our two-day stay in Lucerne. )
We stopped in Lugano for one of these breaks. It’s where the home office of Globus is. Lugano is a beautiful and pricey shopping area and resort just past the Italian/Swiss border.
It seemed strange to have to stop at the border at all, but of course Switzerland isn’t part of the EU (which means we’ll need some Swiss Francs, too).
After Lugano the road climbed steeply, and we entered the most picturesque scenery I’ve encountered. Sharp, snow rimmed peaks towered above us, their bases blanketed by emerald grass. Cows with placid brown eyes and real cowbells around their necks grazed on the steep slopes, well above the treeline.
We stopped at 6000 foot Gotthard Pass to take photos and discovered the temperature had dropped from 90 degrees to 50 degrees during our half hour ascent.
On the other side of the pass, rivulets collected in a small pond, flowing out in a gradually increasing stream — the headwaters of the Rhine. It twisted between grass-carpeted shoulders and rocky outcroppings.
Passing through the narrowest gorges, the scenery resembled a model train layout, with its exaggerated topography, crisscrossing railroad and foot bridges, and cascading waterfalls. In many spots the road was covered to prevent avalanches or rock slides from scraping the cars off. Occasional outposts or solitary cottages appeared unexpectedly around each bend.
As we descended we passed from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to the Swiss-Deutsch part, which represents 70% of the country. The road curved through many tunnels, the longest of which was 9 kilometer. There is a far longer tunnel that bypasses the pass, but we didn’t take that one because we would have missed the scenery.
We arrived in Lucerne at 7pm, after almost 12 hours on the bus. Good thing it’s a comfortable bus and Lia is so entertaining! The temperature was back up to 80 degrees .
Our hotel, the Astoria, is in the center of downtown. It has many restaurants, and there is a lot of shopping nearby, and it’s a short walk to the lake. The hotel is the poorest of the trip so far, but is, frankly, more like what I was expecting. The soap is literally less than a square inch, and comes in its own hot sauce packet.
The hotel’s atmosphere isn’t helped by major construction of a meeting hall. The view outside my window is of a twenty foot square concrete room, and their is scaffolding inches from the glass. On the other hand, the street noise we were warned about won’t be a problem in this room!
Anyway, it’s nice to be off the bus. Most of the group was going to a folklore dinner, but we weren’t really in the mood for something so touristy, so we strolled across the historic wooden bridge to the other side of the river and had fondue and dinner in an outdoor cafe at the Hotel des Alpes.
I stayed up until midnight doing my journal, responding to students and trying to upload files through the lame Internet service at the hotel. I was sitting in the temporary lobby when our well-oiled group returned from the folklore dinner. Reports were enthusiastic, but I’m not really into events that include a beer drinking contest, so I’m glad we skipped it.
Friday, July 6, 2007
Another 6 AM wakeup call, for an early breakfast and ride on a coach borrowed from another group. We were the first ones to to board the cog wheel railway that ascends Mount Pilatus. The weather at the base was mixed sun and overcast, so we weren’t sure what it would be like on top.
Legend has it that after Pontius Pilate committed suicide the area where he was buried was cursed. So the Romans moved him to the most remote spot they could think of. This was it. (Personally, if I’d been assigned to do that, I would have dumped him off a bridge and just claimed I buried him on top of a 7000 foot mountain, but hey. ) There was also something about a dragon guarding it, but I missed the connection somewhere.
Anyway, Globus gave us these really nice embroidered caps with the dragon on them, so our entire group looked like a coed baseball team.
The cog wheel train ascends the mountain at a steep angle, near 47 degrees in most spots, so the trip up was spectacular. Towering fir trees gradually gave way to grassy slopes broken by the occasional slide of gravel sliding down a sheer face, or rivulets splashing over jagged boulders. Halfway up we passed a farmhouse. The farmer had already taken his cows even higher on the hillside, and in another few minutes we heard their cow bells ringing, and then passed them as they grazed. (I’d love to have heard the conversation: “Hey, look at that really tall mountain. The top of that would be a great place to graze cows. “)
At the top we passed into the underside of the clouds, so except for occasional glimpses, visibility was near zero. It was about 40 degrees, with a stiff wind blowing. Stiff enough that we couldn’t take the gondolas down, which is too bad, I’m sure it would have been amazing. But we enjoyed the ride down on the cog wheel train, too.
Back downtown we visited the Lion sculpted from the rock face, the most famous site in Lucerne. It commemorates the Swiss Guards killed while unsuccessfully defending Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. If you look carefully you can see that the sculptor played a joke on his patron, who he thought was a pig. Look at the outline of the opening.
Nearby we stopped at Bucherer’s department store to use some vouchers for free spoons and buy some chocolate. Nice jewelry and Rolex watches here. The prices aren’t as outrageous as the rest of Europe.
Near the lion sculpture is a restaurant Lia recommended called The Old Swiss House. Its traditional architecture in the midst of the modern city makes it look a bit like a tourist attraction, but the three of us decided to try it. Wow! What a fabulous meal. The gazpacho was the best I’ve ever tasted (sorry Linda) with fresh diced ingredients served on the side to dump in to your taste.
Weinershnitzel was prepared tableside. Let’s just say a serving for one involved two sticks of butter. And the creme brulee (called burned cream catalan here) was possibly the best I’ve ever had. Best of all, I discovered they were a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner with a very deep list of old Bordeaux at crazy prices. Would you believe 1961 Ch. Croizet-Bages for $130? I couldn’t resist. What a fantastic bottle of wine that was! On the way out the proprietor pointed out their Mouton vertical — every vintage back to the 19th century! Because every year’s label is unique, the worst years are the most expensive, since those bottle were not laid away. So the 1946, which I’m sure would be undrinkable, set them back $12,000! Anyway, it was an amazing experience, and all three of us really enjoyed it.
After lunch we did some tourist shopping. While the girls were in a bookstore I found an inexpensive digital camera as a gift for Christina. Her camera has been eating batteries like a demon, so I think she’ll have a lot more fun with this one.
We strolled back to the hotel and had a restful afternoon, then a group dinner (tasty sauteed fish with a lemon sauce) in the dining room.
Saturday, July 7, 2007
Lucerne to Paris
We spent most of Saturday on the bus. Almost as soon as we left Lucerne, the scenery changed to rolling hills and farmland. We skirted a few outlying vineyards in Burgundy, but the most memorable sights were the many vibrant colored fields of sunflowers. Several truck stops provided breaks and lunch, and we arrived at the Holiday Inn Republique around 5 pm. Dani and I stayed here once before, but it has been remodeled since then. It’s a large, older hotel with nice rooms. They serve a full complimentary breakfast and the worst (i. e. American) coffee in Paris.
After a couple of hours rest we headed back out for an evening sightseeing tour. We’ve only purchased two of the optional excursions on this trip because we know our way around these cities. This tour was particularly popular, with 100% enrollment by the group.
Because Miguela couldn’t drive any more that day, we borrowed a bus from another group, a Trafalgar tour. This bus had 52 seats compared to our 44, and would have been very uncomfortable for daily use.
We began by passing through one of the seediest parts of Paris, an unlikely combination of wedding shops and sex shops. We disembarked in front of the Moulin Rouge, which I hadn’t realized was in the midst of this detritus. A tourist tram took us up the hill that is Montmartre. The district turned first trendy, then touristy as we reached the top, where Sacre Coeur overlooks the city.
Searching for a non-touristy restaurant we walked away from the square and tried a restaurant called La Bonne Franquette. Unfortunately it turned out to be just as touristy as the rest, and they tried to pull a bait and switch on the wine I tried to order. The food was mediocre by French standards, but certainly adequate.
After dinner we purchased chocolate and Nutella crepes from a take out window and strolled back to the tram stop.
It was now past 10 pm and the lights of the city began to come on. We drove around the city admiring the lights along the Champs Elysee and then stopped at the Eiffel Tower, where Lia convinced everyone someone was going to jump off. Of course what we were really waiting for was the strobe light illumination that occurs for ten minutes at 10 pm, 11 pm and midnight. This is part of the system installed for the Millennium, and recently put back into use.
On the way back to the hotel we drove past Notre Dame and through the Marais district, with its bustling gay bars.
By the time we returned to the hotel and I did some email it was nearly 1 am, not leaving much sleeping time before our 6 am wakeup call.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
The streets were nearly deserted Sunday morning, a big contrast to Saturday night. Our local guide, Isabella, took us, past Notre Dame and the Sorbonne, then to the Eiffel Tower to get into line early, before its 9 am opening. We had tickets to the second floor, but considered leaving the tour and going to the top. In the end we opted for convenience and stayed with the group, getting dropped off on the Rue de Rivoli outside the Louvre. We had a late breakfast or early lunch at Angelina, a tea room similar to our favorite, La Duree. Ahh! at last! French food. Baguettes, cheeses and super rich hot chocolate.
We walked to the pyramid and entered the Louvre, which was perhaps a bit less crowded than on our last couple of visits.
We spent about two hours doing the highlights, including the medieval castle they unearthed when digging the new basement, the Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samathrace.
We probably spent the most time in the 17th century Flanders galleries. All told I estimate we walked though about five percent of the Louvre.
Back on the Rue Rivoli we had drinks in a sidewalk cafe and the girl went to the nearby fun fair and rode one of those rides with the swings around the edge.
Henry, the director of Alcorn McBride sarl, picked us up a bit before 5 pm and took us to the Champs Elysee for dinner. His son Zacharie came along tool. Zacharie is now fours years old, a handsome little boy.
Originally we had intended to hang out for a while and then go to dinner later, but we were all tired and Zacharie was feeling a bit under the weather, so we decided to have an early dinner at Fouquet’s, a famous restaurant across from Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysee.
The food was surprisingly good for a touristy place, and we enjoyed having a chance to relax and chat with Henry. We were back at out hotel before 8 pm, and enjoyed a good night’s sleep.
Monday, July 9, 2007
Paris to London
After breakfast we took a short bus ride to the Gare de Nord, where we said goodbye to our driver, Miguela, and caught the TGV train. Once on the outskirts of Paris, the train accelerated to over 200 miles per hour, and the French countryside raced past.
It goes slower in the chunnel, because of the amount of air is displaces as it moves through the relatively constrained space. The chunnel transit took about 20 minutes. When we emerged in England we traveled slower, because the track is not as good. We arrived at Waterloo Station shortly before 1pm, with a one our time change.
A bus ride across London brought us to the Hilton Metropole, a large convention hotel that is quite comfortable. We said goodbye to our tour director, Lia, and were handed over to the Globus representative who work in the office at the Hilton. We didn’t sign up for any of the optional London tours, so we’ll be mostly on our own, now.
Dani and Christina took advantage of the comfortable beds and had a long nap. For dinner we rode the elevator up to the 23rd floor and had a nice Japanese meal at Nippon Tuk (is that name a joke?)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
We were extremely lucky with the weather today It has been raining in London for a month, but today was lovely, with scattered clouds and temperatures in the mid seventies. More importantly, it was a lovely evening for the open air theatre.
Our day began with the last Globus event, a city tour around London. We passed all the usual sites and then stopped at St. Paul’s where we left the tour and walked across the Millennium Bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe theater. Dani and I saw Coriolanus here on our last visit, but this time we just took the guided tour, which was quite interesting, and gave us a chance to experience to view from the yard and the lower seating. We discovered that the second tier seats have more legroom than the third tier seats we sat in last year.
A couple of performers in one of the current shows were rehearsing while we were there, and they seemed to be fairly mediocre.
After the tour we crossed back over the Thames and caught the underground to Embankment, where we had fish and chips and curried chick for lunch in the cafe in the park. There are many fewer pigeons in London than there used to be because it’s now prohibited to feed them. They seemed quite put out about this.
We walked to Trafalgar Square and spent an hour in the 18th century painting wing of the National Gallery. It was quite impressive to see rooms full of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Van Gogh.
I think everyone’s favorite painting was “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,” in which artist Joseph Wright perfectly captured the varied emotions of each person present.
Our next stop was Harrods, which is more like an entire city inside one store. Dani wanted to proved to herself that you can even buy bridles for your horse in this department store. You can. But like almost everything else at Harrods, they’re expensive. Our purchase was sandwiches, bread and cheese for tonight’s picnic.
Back at the hotel the girls took a long nap and then we took the tube to Regent’s Park. Outside we picnicked under the tents, but the girls didn’t like the yellowjacket that was interested in our sandwiches. Ah, the joys of outdoor dining.
Macbeth was interesting. It was staged very similarly to Trinity Prep’s production, using a mixture of modern costumes and traditional plaid. The set was several large cargo containers.
All of the performers were either marginally or significantly better than their Trinity counterparts, with one glaring exception: Lady Macbeth. She played only one emotion — ruthlessness — throughout. And her sleepwalking scene was completely emotionless. I could feel Dani next to me, struggling not to jump up and show her how to do it.
After the show we walked back to the tube, and were back at the hotel by 11:30.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
We took advantage of a rare day with no wakeup call to sleep in, and nearly missed the 10:30 cutoff for breakfast. Then we took the tube across town to The British Museum, where we spent a couple of hours looking at all the stuff the British stole from Greece and Egypt.
Avoiding the mediocre Indian restaurant we tried last time, we found another a half block north, called Chambeli, and enjoyed a leisurely four course lunch before returning to the hotel for naps before the show.
Linda had arrived for her day and a half in London, and was napping, too.
In the evening we went to the West End to see Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre. The staging of the show was amazing, with an entire house moving up and down, the attic and roof top expanding as needed, and lots of ‘magic. ‘ It used the original songs from the movie to great advantage, but more closely followed the book. The performers were all terrific, and the audience loved it.
I like act 2 better than act 1, because it does a better job of finding the story, which is about the father. The new songs they added are formulaic, and don’t measure up to the originals, but there aren’t many of them. It builds to one of the best endings for a musical I’ve seen.
After the show we crossed the street and had an Excellent Thai meal at Patara. We got back to out hotel a bit after midnight, answering the question: “Do underground day passes really expire at midnight?” Not if you’re already inside the turnstiles.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
We slept in, then took a rather circuitous three segment underground ride to Marble Arch, a nearby place that’s hard to get to from our hotel. Today was the culinary highlight of our trip, a visit to Le Gavroche, London’s first 3-star Michelin restaurant (although now two start, since the original chef retired and his son has taken over.
Lunch consisted of eight courses:
Rare peppered tuna
Asparagus tips with truffles
Wild salmon with crispy skin
Fois Gras and a duck pastry
Rack of lamb
Cheese cart with about 50 selections
Chocolate Gateau and sorbet
Yes, there were two desserts. Plus petits fours! Oh, and an amuse bouche to start. Oh, and hors d’oeuvres upstairs before hand.
There were about as many employees as guests, and the service was orchestrated like a ballet. Linda and I had the wine pairings with the lunch, and shared a taste with the girls. All eight wines were top notch, and brilliant matches to the food. The standout was a 1928 Maury Solera. The wines:
Liefmanns Kriek Cherry Beer (amazing!)
Don Jose Sherry Olorosa (bone dry)
Puligny Montrachet, “La Truffiere,” Morey, 1999
Tokay Pinot Gris, Beyer, 1997
Ch. de Villegeorge 1999 (Haut Medoc)
Le Soula 2002 (Rhone)
Maury Solera 1928
Vin de Constance 2001 (muscat)
I particularly enjoyed the Boulette d’Avesnes, an orange pyramid of cheese that we also had at L’Arpege, the 3-star Michelin in Paris.
It was an amazing three hour lunch.
To complete our European spree we headed for The Victoria Theatre and London’s greatest musical, Billy Elliot. It’s a particular treat to see this show, because it will probably never play in the US, due to its apparent appeal to young people but its extremely salty language. Dani and I saw it last year, but Linda wasn’t with us. This show is the reason for her whirlwind trip.
The show was terrific, but not as good as when Dani and I saw it last year with the original cast. This Billy was perhaps a better actor, and had a more modern dance style, and his enthusiasm made us suspect it was one of his first shows. They made some staging and dialogue changes that sometimes worked better but other times didn’t. The final half hour was particularly good, though. The show has a unique way of dancing through the bows that it quite exciting.
All in all, a very fine last day to our trip.
Friday, July 13, 2007
London to Orlando
We took advantage of Globus’ transfer service to get to the airport. It’s a really easy and economical way to do it. Meanwhile Linda headed off separately with a driver to catch her Delta flight.
Gatwick airport wasn’t the madhouse it was two weeks ago, although security was very, very tight. The only complication was that our tickets were for the next day(!) I’m not sure how that happened, but an extraordinarily helpful Virgin Atlantic agent at the baggage counter took care of getting our tickets changed, and we were all set.
I dozed during the nine-hour nonstop to Orlando, and Dani read Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, about her tenth book of the trip.
We cleared customs in record time, and despite a jam on I4 dropped Christina at home before 7pm. Linda arrived shortly after 9pm.
First Day in Rome
The Old Swiss House
Dani’s final postcard tally for the trip: 43.
Some Tips for Next Time
Globus buses seat 44, while Trafalgar buses seat 52. That would be a big difference in comfort over a week or more.
The little, laminated, folding map of London is great.
Chambeli is a good Indian restaurant on Southampton Row between the British Museum and the Russell Square underground station.
There also is a large Indian restaurant on the circular road around Regent’s park, a bit west of the south entrance.
When in Lucerne — even passing through at noon — eat at the Old Swiss House.
Consider avoiding connections in Gatwick. Orlando to Miami/Atlanta/JFK to Rome would be better.
Best seats for Billy Elliot would be front row of the balcony, because nearly all of the orchestra puts your eye level below the stage floor, so it’s hard to see the tap dancing.
Rome – Starhotels Michelangelo **** Florence – Cosmopolitan Hotel ***** Venice – Alberghi Antony Hotel *** Lucerne – Astoria Hotel ** Paris – Holiday Inn République **** London – Hilton London Metropole ****
Rome, Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples, Pisa, Athens, Ephesus, Monte Carlo, Barcelona
Tuesday, June 8, 2004
Orlando to Paris
Last month Linda sold her Mitsubishi Eclipse to a friend and is driving a rental car until the 2005 RX8s are available, so it was very convenient to drive to the airport Tuesday morning and simply abandon the car. We had a long layover in Miami, spent in the Air France lounge. Security in Miami is ludicrous. At the entrance to the escalator they check your passport and boarding pass. Then, at the top of the escalator there is a line for the metal detectors. Before you may enter the line they check your passport and boarding pass. After passing through the metal detector, you enter the terminal, but first — you guessed it — they check your passport and boarding pass. There is no way for anyone to enter or exit this process between start and finish, so what is the point. . . other than to spend your tax dollars?
Because the terminals at Miami are connected by an unsecured area, you must do this even to change flights. And since we originally were looking for the Air France lounge in the Air France terminal (silly us), we ended up having to clear security three times Tuesday. That means Linda’s purse went through the X-ray machine three times. Yet when we arrived in France and she emptied her purse, in the bottom she found a full-size Swiss Army knife! Now don’t you feel secure?
Dinner on Air France was very good: smoked duck salad, scallops and shrimp, and a nice steak. Dani and Linda slept, I listened to an audiobook of Mystic River, extremely well-read. (Has anyone ever actually been able to use those in-seat video screens, or are they perpetually being “reloaded”?)
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
Henry, Marjolaine and Nathaniel met us at Charles de Gaul airport Wednesday morning. Four of our five bags showed up. The other — Dani’s — was nowhere to be found. While Nathaniel played with the parachute toy we’d brought him I visited baggage services and was eventually directed to a different carousel where I was told the lost bag would emerge. Three seconds later the power went out in the building and the carousels all stopped. (Henry says the electrical workers are striking by cutting power periodically. That’s so French!)After about five minutes a head poked out from between the flaps at the conveyor entrance and then the missing bag was pushed through. I wish I had that on film. It took two cars to transport the six people, five bags, three carryons and one parachute toy to the Holiday Inn Paris Disneyland, about a mile from Henry’s house and Alcorn McBride sarl. The hotel is touristy, but quite nice, with spacious rooms that are an interesting cross between American and European accommodations.
We took a several-hour-long nap and then Henry picked us up for a trip to the market to buy dinner. Grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities in France. Auchon at the mall in Marne la Valee is like a giant toy store for hungry adults. Bread, wine, pate and stinky cheese — we were set. Off to Henry and Marjolaine’s for a relaxing dinner outside, overlooking the valley. The weather was in the low 80s, and the food and company were excellent. In true European style, dinner ended about 11pm.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
We sort of missed Thursday morning. I can’t remember the last time I slept 11 hours. But we were up in time for lunch with Henry and Jean Marc (head of A/V for DLPI) at Walt’s, on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom.
We did a little theme-parking:
Pinocchio Same as Florida as far as I could tell.
Pirates The best of the three I’ve been on. The scenes are in a different order, but it’s closer to CA than FL. The dueling pirates were moving, but they are no longer making contact.
Haunted Mansion The best of the three I’ve been on. It’s audio is MUCH better than the others, there is more story line, and a whole section of western sets at the end.
Big Thunder About twice as long as the CA or FL versions. Henry spent most of the day on the phone with customers. As it happens he was in the process of answering his cell yet again as the Big Thunder cameras snapped our picture. I wonder what the customers thought of the screaming in the background?
The Dragon Few people discover this well-animated dragon that is sleeping(?) in the dungeon under the castle.
Auto Stunt Show We drove over to the second gate, a very modest implementation of Disney Studios. There are only a handful of attractions here, although we understand they are going to add Tower of Terror if they can figure out where to get the power. Henry says they may have to synchronize with Rock ‘n Roller so they don’t both launch at the same time! The stunt show was very interesting to car aficionados, and even those of us with not automotive genes were impressed by the precision driving (skidding?) ballet. Like most stunt shows it would have been better without the fake movie shoot plot.
Cinemagique This was the best show of the day. It’s a beautiful theater with great audio. During the show a guest with a cell-phone (not Henry) is chased “through” the screen and finds himself pursued through a montage of famous movies, from silent to sci-fi. The screen transitions are pretty amazing, and the use of both English and French works extremely well. This show was considered for use at Disney MGM studios, but I think it’s a bit too long for American attention spans.
We had a nice dinner at Chiny Cottage, a little house-turned-restaurant on the way to Lagny. Linda and I had been there in 1992 and it was still good, if a bit expensive for what it was.
Friday, June 11, 2004
Dani and I nibbled at a truly appalling breakfast at the hotel (sort of an American version of a German buffet?!!) and then I headed to the office for a couple of hours. At lunchtime the five of us met up and headed for the medieval city of Provins, about 30 miles southeast of Marne La Valee.
At La Fleur de Sel creperie we had some delicious jambon, gruyere, eouf and ongion crepes, followed by chocolate or caramel and butter crepes. Yum.
Then we explored the Tour Cesar, begun in 1152. It perches atop a hill in the center of the walled city. Visitors can squeeze their way through increasingly narrow stone passages, all the way to the bell tower (that part’s almost brand new, having been added in 1689).
For dinner we went into Paris to one of only 25 Michelin three-star restaurants in France, Arpège. Words cannot express the quality of this meal. Numbers cannot express the price of this meal. Well, possibly using scientific notation. Each course had layers of subtly complex flavors, particularly the vegetables, which are the chef’s specialties. We had:
A glass of 1996 Taittinger Champagne from magnum, bottled for the restaurant.
Incredible artisan bread and butter.
Amuse Bouch consisting of a small egg, served in its shell, with honey and vinegar cream.
1997 Clos de la Roche, a deep and complex Burgundy.
Various vegetables including carmelized onions au gratin and green beans with almonds. Dani had Osetra caviar, which was sufficient to serve the table.
A consume containing stuffed ravioli with spiced cumin.
(At this point in the meal I went out and quickly sold Henry’s car so that we could continue eating. )
Main courses including lobster, chicken and squid.
An incredible cheese cart, from which we selected twelve cheeses.
A variety of small pastries (to get us ready for dessert).
Various desserts including chocolate souffle, Mille Feuille and tomatoes(!) that had been basted with vanilla and a dozen other spices for most of the day.
Coffee and herbal tea.
Saturday, June 12, 2004
We spent a quiet day at Henry and Marjolaine’s house in Chalifert. Linda alternately read a book in the back yard and wrestled with the washing machine, which, like all French washers, is the size of a coffee grinder and similar in results. Dani, Henry and I went to the mall for a little shopping and groceries and when we got back home Marjolaine had returned from her mother’s with Zacharie, who is one year old. He is very cute and inquisitive. We made it an early night, so we could get up early to drive to Paris.
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Henry picked us up at 9am to go to our favorite breakfast spot, La Duree. After some delicious croissants and pain au chocolat we stopped on the Champs Elysee. While Henry had a short meeting about show control programming at the Renault showroom Dani, Linda and I walked up to l’Arc de Triomphe.
Then it was on to the Louvre so that Dani could visit locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code (which she finished yesterday).
I’ll skip the explanation so there are no spoilers, but it was fun taking pictures of all the tourists taking pictures of La Jaconde (the Mona Lisa).
We also visited the apartments of Napoleon III.
Henry was somewhat disgruntled that we dragged him to a hot dog stand next to Notre Dame for lunch, but that was where Dani had a fondly remembered hot dog three years ago after four days in food hell (i. e. London). I’m not sure this hotdog was quite as good, but it was filling.
We made a brief stop to take a photo in front of La Tour Eiffel, and then headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours before our farewell dinner at Henry’s home.
Monday, June 14, 2004
Paris to Rome
In the morning Dani, Henry and I had breakfast at Paul, a tea house at the mall. It’s one outlet of a bakery established in 1889. The French bread flute and coffee were delicious. After a brief stop at the office to take photos and check email we picked up Linda and headed to the airport. The brasserie lunch we shared with Henry at the airport was really quite good. Then we bid Henry goodbye and headed for Rome. Just to show you that airport security really is protecting you from terrorists (in the interest of political correctness I can’t say crazy arabs) Linda (who had repented of her mini-jihad and stowed the Swiss army knife) was unable to smuggle aboard a pair of plastic children’s scissors (airline approved) which were promptly confiscated and deposited into the receptacle for dangerous-things-confiscated-from-people-in-wheelchairs-and-short-women. By the way, when you’re paying $10 per kilogram for overweight luggage, don’t pack Diet Coke. The flight from Paris to Rome is less than two hours, so we arrived by 6pm. We had arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport with an eight-passenger van — the only thing with enough room for our luggage! Actually we don’t have that much luggage for a month-long trip, but it would overwhelm the small Mercedes they usually use. Because the airport is a ways outside the city and there are no expressways in the city it takes close to an hour to wend your way through the streets into the ancient part of town. I’m always fascinated to see the modern buildings that abut — and in some cases almost swallow — the historic structures. Nothing can be knocked down, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build all the way around it!The Empire Palace Hotel is a pretty nice hotel considering it is offered as part of the Princess Cruises land tour. We’re on our own for two days before the tour actually starts; when I booked the extra days I was surprised to find it was a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Our room is a bit odd, but not unpleasant. It’s shaped like a flag: You enter at the base of the flag pole, turn right and advance twenty feet down a two and a half foot wide hall before it opens out into the living space. The bathroom is rather small, with one of those corner showers with diagonal doors, like in a small cruise ship cabin. There is an emergency cord in the shower, but I can’t imagine what for, since it would be physically impossible to fall down. Perhaps it’s in case of claustrophobia.
Around 9pm we ventured out into the pleasant evening weather and walked a half dozen blocks down a side street until we came upon a small trattoria called Ai Tre Moschettieri, where we had a very pleasant meal. I enjoyed Tagliatelli alla Arrbbietta and Saltambuca Romano. Dani made the best choices, though, Tagliolini Bolanese and grilled shrimp (and rejected squid). When we arrived the place was full of Americans, but by the time we finished we were alone. The service was very friendly, and the owner treated us to some limoncella, that lemon liqueur from Capri. Dani stayed up late playing the new Harry Potter game on her PC.
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
I had an excellent breakfast of bread, croissants and espresso at the hotel restaurant while Dani and Linda slept in. Then we walked to London. No, seriously, we only walked halfway to London. We set out first for the Trevi Fountain. Along the way we stopped at an Internet cafe in the Piazza Barberini, where I caught up on email. The Trevi Fountain is an enormous, elaborate thing, shoe-horned into a tiny piazza and surrounded by tourist vendors. Still, there’s something pleasant about the sound of the water and all the pigeons fluttering about. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain you will return, and it seemed to work last time. This time Linda and Dani threw in Euros, so I guess they’ll be coming back to the continent. Ever thrifty, I threw in an American penny, so I guess I’m going to Illinois. We continued on in search of a Jesuit church with a fabulous tromp l’oeil ceiling, but missed it (and upon our return discovered it was closed anyway) but found ourselves at the Pantheon, our next destination.
We had a pleasant lunch of pasta and pizza in an outdoor cafe on the square there, then ventured into the enormous structure.
The Pantheon is the best preserved of ancient Rome’s buildings, probably due to the fact that in the sixth century Christians, claiming to be troubled by its demons, converted it to a church. This was better than the sixteenth century approach, when the Christians converted much of ancient Rome into a sort of Home Depot for those needing marble and limestone to build ugly churches. The Pantheon’s several hundred feet of unsupported dome is pretty impressive when you consider it’s constructed of 2000-year-old stone.
We continued our trek, heading east past the “wedding cake”, a monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy. (There were only five before 1946 when, as a result of losing WWII, Italy became a democracy. ) This was Mussolini’s favorite building, so you can assume it is overblown. Behind the wedding cake lies the Roman Forum, which is currently undergoing some fairly extensive exploration by a lot of archaeology students. It’s a little difficult to picture all the great structures that were once located here, but it looks just like the jigsaw puzzles. We visited the ruins of the temple of the vestal virgins. These girls were selected at age ten to supervise the eternal flame, and it was a pretty good job except that if you forgot to keep it lit you got whipped and if you forgot to keep your virginity you got buried alive. The girls held the position for thirty years, and could then retire. No doubt that’s where we get the expression “life begins at forty. “
Beyond the forum is the Palatine Hill, where Augustus, Rome’s best — and most enduring — emperor lived. We would have explored it, but we were about five miles into our walk at this point, and it was after 3pm, and the Palatine Hill is, after all, a hill.
Turning left we encountered the Coloseum. Well, it had actually been looming over us for some time, but we decided to finally acknowledge it. We purchased a tour from a company called Romaround — which gives you an idea of their sense of humor. Everyone selling the tour was from the US and spoke perfect English, but the guy giving it was Italian. That’s actually not an accident, though, because the law requires a local guide. Anyway, he was very funny, and being on a tour lets you jump the line.
When Dani and I visited the Coloseum three years ago, we could walk across the arena, but now you can’t. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: did you know the word “arena” comes from the Italian word for sand? The floor of the Coloseum was wood, covered with three inches of sand (it’s good at absorbing blood). Under the wood floor were all the cages for the thousands of animals they slaughtered each year. Those Romans really knew how to party.
Speaking of animals, everywhere we looked in the Coloseum we saw cats. What’s up with that? Anyway, Dani enjoyed photographing them sitting on the ruins and licking their butts.
We had intended to catch a cab back to the hotel, but this seemed to be impossible, so we decided — to Dani’s disgust — to hoof it. Hey, it was only halfway across Rome, and we’d already walked about twice that far. Of course, Rome was built on seven hills. . .
On the way back we were passed by some sort of honor guard consisting of twenty horses and a very busy street sweeper. Now that’s efficient. For dinner Dani had room service and Linda and I had a simple meal of Italian cheeses and Chianti Classico by the fountain in the courtyard of the hotel.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Dani had a bit of a sore throat this morning and opted to spend the day reading. I had breakfast in the hotel and then walked (yes, amazingly my feet do still function, albeit painfully) down to the Piazza Barberini for some quality Internet time. My June Theme Park Engineering class starts today, so I needed to populate the discussion forums. The going was a bit slow; I thought I’d been clever to select an English keyboard layout since yesterday’s Italian layout led to many corrections. Unfortunately I discovered that even with the English layout, the key assignments were still Italian — double trouble. At lunch time Linda and I walked east, past the Baths of Diocletian and the central train terminal, stopping at at Ristaurante Al Fagianetto (I know what you’re thinking), a cafe near the Mediterraneo Hotel where Dani and I stayed three years ago. After a nice lunch of bruschetta, pasta with porcini mushrooms and pizza, we walked back to the Museo Nationale Romano. This part of the museum was in the Palazzo Massimo. It houses Rome’s largest collection of Roman artifacts, with two floors of statuary and a floor of floors — mosaic floors, that is — mounted to the walls. There were also some very nice frescoes from the house of Julia, daughter of Octavian. I can’t imagine how they move these frescoes intact. One of the most interesting things in the museum was the basement. The entire room is a vault, filled with numismatic displays. Excellent interpretive signs traced the history of coinage from lumps of bronze to the 20th century, with the emphasis on the Roman era. It turns out they were constantly devaluing the currency and reducing the precious metal content, just like modern day politicians.
In the late afternoon we headed back to the hotel for an organizational meeting with our tour director, Larry Bell, who looks just like Sean Connery. We opted out of all the optional excursions for the remaining time in Rome; after all, we’ve already walked halfway to London.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
After breakfast I carried the laptop down to the Piazza Barberini, where the wireless connection and familiar keyboard turned an hour’s job into ten minutes of work. I was even able to transfer this journal to date over to the web server. Dani is still a bit under the weather. She finished a 591-page book yesterday and is now well into another. It’s her last chance to veg for a few days. Linda and I had lunch at an outdoor cafe, Taverna Flavia, just a block from the hotel. The smoked swordfish was delicious.
A driver and guide picked Linda and I up at the hotel at 1pm for a tour of the Vatican. Our guide, Isabella Roggero, was incredibly knowledgeable. We didn’t ask her a single question she couldn’t answer during the entire afternoon. As a result, out tour of the Vatican Museum was filled with previously unimagined insights into the significance of the various statues and paintings.
Since the popes claimed all of the objects unearthed in Rome until about a hundred years ago, all of the good stuff is in the Vatican: the only surviving gold plated bronze statue, which survived because after being struck by lighting the superstitious Romans buried it; rare dark red marble sarcophagi for the wife and daughter of Constantine, the former unaccountable engraved with pictures of warfare (Isabella said it had originally been intended for Constantine’s father, but maybe he and the wife didn’t get along); Florentine tapestries from the 14th century, clearly superior to the Italian and French ones; and a corridor of maps, once showing the Po river in its old course, far from Venice.
Isabella also provided wonderful interpretation of the Sistine Chapel. In the recent restoration they were able to determine from the plaster marks that Michelangelo worked on it 449 days over a five year period. (Frescos must be painted on wet plaster, so you must mix a fresh batch each day. ) Since Michelangelo had to learn the technique to do the job, you can clearly see the improvement in his designs in the large panels on the ceiling, which improve as you approach the altar. You can also see the tremendous difference in mood between the fanciful ceiling (painted at age 35) and the tormented Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar (painted at age 65). In St. Peter’s we admired the scale of the building (The Sun Bank building in Orlando, 24 stores tall, would easily fit inside the dome), Bernini’s outrageous monuments and canopy, and the recently beatified pope somebody or other, whose waxen smile welcomes everyone strolling past his mummified corpse. Beneath the basilica is the reputed tomb of St. Peter. But Isabella clued us in to the fact that the box everyone is taking photos of doesn’t hold his relics (that’s “bones” to you non-Catholics). It actually contains one of the Pope’s old shirts. St. Peter’s alleged bones are another level down.
Because Isabella was such a fabulous guide, we asked her to spend another hour with us. She took us to the Roman houses beneath the basilica of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo (that’s Mr. John and Paul to you non-Italians). John and Paul were a couple of fourth century Christians who lived in a house that is reputed to be the first Christian church in Rome. When Constantine died, the next emperor, Julian the Apostate, wasn’t a Christian. As a result, John and Paul lost their heads. Literally. They were buried under their house. In the fifth century the current basilica was built on top of the house. The rooms below were used for storage and wine making, and some of the pagan frescoes were painted over. The basement was listed in the Middle Ages’ equivalent of the Zagat Guide to Holy Tourist Spots and lots of pilgrims went to lower their neck chains into the hole over the reputed tombs. Then the whole thing was filled with dirt and forgotten. Later, someone built a well right down through the middle. Then, in 1887, Padre Germano, priest at the church, decided to try to find John and Paul. When he started digging he was amazed to discover the Roman house, adjacent apartment complex and shops, and even an earlier house beneath that. In fact the only thing he didn’t find was John and Paul. Visitors can follow catwalks through the many fascinating levels of the excavations far below the church. The frescoes have been uncovered, and you can walk around the shaft of the well! This is probably the single most interesting site in all of Rome. The adjacent museum holds an amazing array of artifacts from the house and apartments, including fine glassware, plates, coins, statuary and Pokemon cards (just checking if you’re awake).
For dinner we went back to the same trattoria where we had lunch, but Dani wasn’t feeling up to it, so I walked her back to the room. She felt better later, though. As it grew dark — a little past 9pm — Linda and I enjoyed drinks in the courtyard.
Friday, June 18, 2004
Umbria (Orvieto and Todi)
Today we actually joined the tour group. We met in the lobby while we waited for the bags to be collected, which took 30 Italian minutes (an hour and a half). The group is comprised of a wide range of ages, including another girl Dani’s age (13) several other teenagers and even a few middle aged folks, as well as the grandparents who are treating all the teenagers to European tours. The group is entirely Americans, except for two retired South Africans who now live in Chicago. It’s a better traveled (and therefore better behaved) tour group than any I have been with before.
While we waited we swapped stories about travels in Australia, England, France and Italy. We boarded our comfortable tour bus before 10am and driver Simone (pronounce the final ‘e’) headed us north. In less than two hours we found our bus climbing the steep road to Orvieto, a town in Umbria.
Umbria is the only one of Italy’s districts that doesn’t border an ocean or another country. It is rural, with only about 90 people per square mile. We saw corn, olives, tobacco, grapes and many vegetables along the way.
In Orvieto we visited the duomo, a basilica constructed from 1290 to 1590 (these things take time). If you’re keeping score, this was the third church of our trip. It was riveting. Just kidding. The construction of the church was inspired by (I’m not making this up) a miracle in nearby Bolsena, when the consecrated wine actually turned to blood and spilled onto the altar cloth. I hate when that happens.
We had a very nice group lunch in the small Trattoria la Grotta: ziti, a delicate vegetable lasagna, chicken, beans, salad and a wonderful tira misu were accompanied by white wine (Orvieto, of course) and a not-too-sweet spumante (I didn’t know there was such a thing). The bread in this part of Italy is not that great, because it lacks salt. This tradition dates to the building of the Trevi fountain, when a tax was imposed on salt, and the city-states outside Rome refused to pay.
After lunch Linda and Dani pursued the traditional Renaissance activity of trying to get a stuffed toy out of the claw machine in the arcade next to the duomo. No luck.
We did a little shopping. Dani found some nice glass pen and ink sets as gifts, and Linda bought a pair of Etruscan-style earrings.
In 1527 Pope Clement VII commissioned the construction of a huge well, the Pozzo di San Patrizio, to provide Orvieto with water in case the city was attacked. (In those days Italy was comprised of many separate city states that couldn’t get along. . . a lot like today, in fact. )But this well is no ordinary well. This well is a work of art. In case you don’t know your arts from a hole in the ground, let me assure you this is one big hole. It’s 203 feet deep. And there’s no rope. But this pope was no ropeless dope. There are two intertwined staircases, each with 248 steps that spiral down the sides of the well. One for down, the other for up.
Why two staircases, you ask? It’s hard to turn a donkey around on a staircase. And they don’t swim well.
An hour’s drive east from Orvieto brought us to another hilltop town, Todi. The two towns are separated by rolling countryside, farms and a zigzagging River Tiber.
Our hotel, The Bramante, is nestled on a hillside below the town, and is connected to it by a nearby funicular (inclined elevator car). The Bramante was formerly a 12th century convent. What the nuns did with this swimming pool, I have no idea.
Anyway, our room is about twice the size of the one in Rome. It’s a lovely, peaceful spot. funicular funicular
In the evening we took the funicular to the top of the hill and wandered the medieval streets of Todi. It’s a charming little town of 17,000 residents and 18,000 churches. The many gift shops seem reasonably priced. todidinner todidinner Linda found a wonderful trattoria, with a floral bedecked patio overlooking the Umbrian valleys. We had a leisurely dinner as the sun set. The wine was a 2000 Sagrantino di Montefalco by Antonelli, a dark and complex red with which I was not familiar. We took the funicular back to the hotel around 10pm.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
Tuscany (Assisi, Siena and Florence)
The cool breezes wafting across the terrace at the hotel provided a lovely environment for our al fresco breakfast. Then we headed to Assisi, about an hour northeast.
Assisi was the home of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan order. There a local guide, Maurizio, provided a tour of the basilica (number 4 if you’re keeping count). My “Whisper” radio receiver was on the blink so I can’t comment on the commentary, but Linda and Dani(!) said it was interesting. For me it was among the more boring hours of my life.
To summarize, the church is unusual because it acknowledges not just Catholicism, but also Judaism and Islam, without invoking weapons.
Beneath the church is the crypt, with the tomb of St. Francis. There you can purchase a candle for St. Francis. You pick it up from one box and place it into another. There is a sign that says “Please do not light”. The church has discovered they last much longer this way. Yet another miracle.
Back in the main church, at the shrine of St. Duracell, you may place a coin in a slot and an electric candle will light for a while. Sort of a parking meter for blessings.
Finally we escaped from the church into the courtyard in front of the monk’s quarters, turned around and climbed the steps into — aaargh! — another church, this one the top level of the previous. That’s number 5.
As with the one downstairs, the walls and ceiling had been covered with pictures of flat people painted by perspective-challenged artists. Those by Giotto included just enough perspective to demonstrate how bad he was at it.
Slowly I inched toward the fresh air and natural light beyond the exit, and at last we were released. On the way back to the bus we visited the subbasement of the church where for fifty eurocents we paid homage to the pagan god of white porcelain.
The two-hour drive northwest to Siena gave us time to nap and appreciate the fact that we were not in a church.
Siena is a gothic (13th century) town that was once a powerful city state until it was conquered by the Medici family of Florence, an event the local residents still resent.
We had a rather long walk to the restaurant for lunch and it was hard on quite a few of those in our group. Fortunately the three of us got into training in Rome.
On the way we passed through the Piazza del Campo, an unusually large square where an annual bareback horse race is run. There are no rules, just three times around the square, the winning horse is the first to cross, with or without its rider.
Lunch was different.
Different than good, anyway: antipasti, odd pieces of thick crust pizza with strange coatings, and then a bowl of garbanzo bean soup. Fortunately there was plentiful white, red and dessert wine, perhaps an attempt to make up for the food. The dessert wine was the most interesting, a late harvest Sangiovese.
The restaurant featured 13th century architecture and acoustical treatments (brick).
A local guide met us after lunch and took us on a torturous tour of Siena, which exhausted many of our group. But you’ll never guess what we saw on the tour–Oh. You guessed.
Yes, we visited 183 churches.
The largest church in Siena is the duomo. (I think the Italians have all these different names so you won’t realize that all the buildings are churches. ) Unlike the duomo in Orvieto, which is white and light gray striped, this one has an important difference. It’s white and dark gray striped.
In their competition to “out stripe” the Florentines, the residents of Siena began building an addition to the church that would have converted the existing structure to a mere knave. The Plague put and end to the supply of both workers and congregation, but two walls still stand.
The best church was the one that displayed in an open box (I’m not making this up) the head of St. Catherine of Siena, who apparently didn’t need it after she died in 1380. I wish we had stuff like that at Disney World.
Dani was still hungry after watching us eat lunch. Deciding against communion wafers, she made a fast food run to Siena’s only McDonalds while the rest of us straggled back to the bus. I suspect more than a few people on the bus were jealous of that burger.
It was a very quiet hour and a half bus ride to Florence.
In retrospect, I don’t think visiting Assisi and Siena is a waste of time, but I do think the activities our tour engaged in were pointless and repetitive. I am certain everyone in our group would have preferred a couple of hours in Siena to find lunch on their own and to shop. Unlike the four hilltop towns we’ve just visited, Florence (which is really called Firenze) is located in a valley, and is divided by the Arno river. Much of the town is a typical 20th century European city, due to the beating it took in World War II. Our hotel, the Anglo American, is quite nice. Our room is cool. You enter into a small sitting area with built-in desk and cabinets, and a love seat that makes into a twin bed. There is also a fair-sized bathroom. Along one wall are open stairs — no railing — that go to a loft with two more twin beds and a large bathroom. (All of the bathrooms we’ve had have included bidets, but this is the first time I’ve encountered little bottles of “intimate cleanser”. The ingredients are identical to the shampoo. Hmmm. ) We walked along the Arno River about six blocks to Harry’s American Bar and Grill for dinner. It’s not the dark, wood-paneled, intimate space in the ad, but rather a bright, noisy place. I wouldn’t say it’s really American, but it’s not really Italian either. The service was formal, reminding me of continental restaurants from the 1950s. One of the reasons we decided to try Harry’s was that our guide Larry warned us the place was expensive, and we wanted to see what a $34 hamburger looks like.
Maybe it’s just that after Arpège nothing will ever seem expensive, but it didn’t seem all that bad. The hamburger was only 19 Euros. . . and the fries another eight. . . hmmm, let’s see. . . that makes. . . $34.
Anyway, I had smoked trout and an Entrecote that was excellent. Linda had — I’m not kidding — pasta. The wine, a 1999 “super Tuscan” by Collazzi, was superb.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
Sunday was a beautiful, blustery day, with cool breezes to offset the heat of the sun. It rained a few minutes during breakfast, then the wind pushed the clouds east.
Florence is marvelously walkable. Although the city is large, the central area is only about a half mile square.
Today was a church-free day.
We wound our way through the twisty streets to the Piazza di Signoria, stopping along the way for some shopping in an outdoor bazaar. Many shops were open even though it’s Sunday.
At the bazaar we recognized a bronze statue of a boar. There is a copy of it at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando. Legend has it that if you rub its snout for good luck. . . the snout will stay shiny.
In the Piazza we admired the scaffolding that surrounds a copy of Michelangelo’s David. (This is where it originally stood, prior to being moved into a museum for safekeeping during the 1880s.) More impressive was Cellini’s bronze of Perseus Beheading Medusa, which stood opposite. What they say about the medusa must be true, because all of the figures around it were stone. There was also Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, but they hadn’t gotten to the raping yet.
We skipped the lines at the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi art museums (sort of Italy’s version of the Louvre) and instead focused on what Florence is really all about: shopping.
Dani bought a leather bound journal and wax seal with her initials, and a few gifts. florencepontececchio florencepontececchio The place to buy jewelry — at least the place for tourists to buy jewelry — is in the shops that line the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge, the only one to survive the German demolition teams as they retreated during WWII, used to be the location of the butchers and tanners. But the smell was so bad in the 1500s the ruling families kicked them out, and the jewelers moved in. Across the upper level of the Ponte Vecchio is a causeway the Medicis used to get from one palace to another without having to mix with the peons. Untended by the Germans during the war, it became a route for the resistance to cross the lines with plans of their artillery placements.
We had lunch at Ristorante Dei Bardi, a wine bar with a spectacular view of the river and the Ponte Vecchio. Wine, cheese, salads, fish, meats, pastas, bread, fruits and coffee — a typical two-hour Italian lunch. On our way back across the bridge Dani bought a Roman coin of Constantine I, mounted in a pendant. Linda bought a chain for Dani to hang it on, and another chain for herself. (I gave Dani her allowance and trip money on a prepaid Visa card. She has been enjoying the novelty of paying with plastic. )We assembled in the lobby at 7pm and a fleet of taxis drove our group across town to Tavernetta Della Signoria for our farewell dinner. The company was good; we enjoyed hearing everyone’s travel stories. Larry, our guide, has had an interesting life, raising a family while working for the US foreign service in Morocco and Paris, and now traveling the world hosting different tours almost every week.
After dinner I decided to walk back to the hotel by myself so I could take some photos of Florence at night. The moon was out and it was a glorious evening along the Arno, with the sky still fading to indigo at 10pm.
Monday, June 21, 2004
Florence to Venice
The Eurostar Train pulled out of Firenze Station at 8:50am for our three-hour eastward trip across Italy to Venice. This is the final leg of our land tour.
In Venice (it’s really called Venezia) we went straight to the ship, and were onboard by 12:30. Our suite is on the stern of the ship, so we have nearly a 180 degree view, guaranteeing we can see the port city no matter which side is used to dock. We can see Epcot’s — er, I mean St. Mark’s — tower from the ship.
Our cabin layout is virtually identical to that we had last year in Alaska, except mirrored. There is a sitting are with a convertible sofa, and a bedroom area with a queen bed. Both sides have built in desks and drawers so Dani and I can leave our computers set up. There is also a bar, walk-in closet and a divided bathroom.
Our cabin stewardess, Nicole, is the best we have had. She and her husband have been aboard for eight months, and this is their next to last voyage. During that time the Star Princess has been all around the world.
Nicole clued us in to a few features of the suite we weren’t suspecting: free laundry, dry cleaning and Internet access (although unfortunately no wireless access. )
We spent the afternoon exploring the ship and doing. . . well, nothing. It felt great. Then we had a pleasant dinner in one of the ship’s dining rooms and hit the sack.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
We were up early for our morning tour of Venice. It began with a motor launch that took us through the lagoon to the Grand Canal where we went on a 40-minute gondola ride in the canals. Often people describe things as unique, but usually it isn’t really true. Venice surprised me. It really is unique. There are no cars, not motor bikes, not even any bicycles in the city. The streets are few, and they arbitrarily narrow to only a few feet wide, because there is no need to accommodate anything larger than a person. The city is actually a network of 118 islands separated by 150 canals and connected by 400 bridges. Most of the canals have no sidewalks, so it really is almost impossible to get around without using a boat. The cheapest form of transportation is a water bus, at about one Euro. The most expensive is a private water taxi, which costs 70 Euros(!) to go from one side of the city to the other, a distance of only a few kilometers. The tide seems to run only a few feet, but it appears to get dangerously close to the ground floor of most buildings. It’s a very harsh environment for construction. I was amazed at the amount of traffic on the canals: not just tourist gondolas, but launches delivering vegetables and supplies, construction and baggage handling boats, even garbage collection boats.
It was rush hour Venetian style.
Our next stop was Morano, a collection of islands a few kilometers away, where glass has been made since the 12th century. We watched a demonstration of a decorative carafe being made. It was impressive, but not the delicate ballet of four glassmakers we watched at the Hedeland Glassworks in Sweden.
The shop upstairs was ridiculously priced — a set of six goblets was 1600 Euros — but we bought a few decorative trinkets downstairs. stmarks1 stmarks1 The final stop on our tour was a church, but we escaped and caught a water bus across the lagoon to St. Marks square.
It’s a lot bigger than the Epcot version — and a lot more crowded.
We explored the side streets and canals for a while, looking for a restaurant that wasn’t a tourist trap. Finally Linda saw one that looked fairly traditional, and we went in and sat down. . .
. . . only to discover the ceiling of the room was decorated as a cave! The food was actually pretty good, and a carafe of wine was less than four Euros.
After lunch we walked back to St. Mark’s Square and had great fun feeding the zillions of pigeons.
The Star Princess left port at 6:30. We watched from our aft balcony as a tugboat wrestled against the ship’s engines, rotating it to squeeze through the lagoon and into the Adriatic.
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Today we did nothing. It was nice. Actually, Dani and I spent a couple of hours painting ceramic boxes. They don’t have a studio here like they did on the Coral Princess, but they do have a cart up on the pool deck, with the same selection of bisque and glazes. We’ll decorate our boxes with scenes from the trip, just like we did last year in Alaska. Then we did nothing. We discovered that having the cabin on the rear of the ship has a disadvantage: the white noise created by the wake is really quite loud. The balcony is fine for reading, but conversation is a challenge. It was formal evening, so we dressed in our best and headed for the Promenade Lounge, where Dani, Linda, Dani, Steve and Dani shared some caviar.
Sabatini’s is one of two restaurants that have a small cover charge in exchange for finer dining. We had dined at Sabatini’s on the Coral Princess, so we knew we should only have a bite of the first dozen things we were served! They weren’t exactly courses, since the waiters only replace the plate after every half dozen items or so, but we were served food 28 separate times! Even being careful, it was still impossible to do justice to the cold water lobster when the entrees finally arrived. The wine was an excellent 2000 Amarone.
Thursday, June 24, 2004
More ceramics in the morning, then more nothing. I wish I had a dollar for every Dan Brown book on this ship. I guess Dan Brown does. While she was sick in Rome Dani read the DaVinci Code and Digital Fortress (plus three other books that didn’t earn Dan Brown and money). Linda brought Deception Point and I forgot Angels and Demons, but found it in the ship’s store. So Dani is reading that now. I must have seen a hundred other copies of those books around the ship today.
Dinner was at Tequila’s/Sterling Steak House, the other cover charge restaurant on the ship. Originally I suspect they were trying for a Mexican-themed steak house, but the only remnant of Mexico was the decor. The steaks were excellent, the service a bit clueless, and the band truly horrible. It’s difficult to say which rendition was worse, Spanish Eyes or Horse With No Name, but the fact they were both in the same set gives some suggestion of the band’s awfulness.
Friday, June 25, 2004
The ship docked at the town of Kusadasi (Coo-SHA-duh-see) while we were having breakfast on our balcony. The town has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a large resort area over the past 30 years. Before the war in Iraq there were as many as eleven cruise ships in the harbor at once. Today we were the only one. A security boat circled our ship all day, staying between us and any small boats that passed. Despite this precaution, Kusadasi seemed like a very clean and safe — if annoying — town. It’s been a long time since I was in a place where every shop keeper tried to drag me into his store full of tourist crap, but it only took me a few minutes to remember why it had been so long.
Fortunately our bus departed almost immediately for Ephesus, a Greco-Roman city about 25 minutes outside Kusadasi. By the way, did you know that Turkey is actually spelled Turkiye (with some funny little marks I can’t make) and is pronounced tur-KAY-uh?Although GWB is working hard to turn the Turks into enemies, the Muslim influence in Turkey is somewhat muted. (Istanbul was originally on this cruise but was removed in February. Just as well — they’re rioting against Americans there this week. ) A statue of Ataturk, founder of Turkey, stands on the hill above Kusadasi even though graven images are a violation of Islam.
Ephesus was founded in the fourth century BC by the Greeks. In the second city BC the Romans moved in. At its peak there were a quarter million residents. It was a very rich town because of its excellent harbor for traders and the nearby Temple of Artemis (several times larger than the Parthenon) which brought many pilgrims. The traders and pilgrims brought money. The streets of Ephesus were paved in marble. Every house had indoor plumbing. There were toilets with running water, sewers with manhole covers, even a marble bed heated by hot water pipes. The library had double insulated walls and cubbies to store 12,000 scrolls.
A small theater — still in use by performers like Elton John and Ray Charles — seats 1400. A larger stadium seated 37,000. (I suppose Elton was once popular enough to fill the larger stadium, but it’s a crumbling ruin. . . a bit like Elton, in fact. )
By the fifth century AD Ephesus was in decline. The harbor filled with silt, leaving the city two miles from the sea. The Romans, now officially Christian, no longer made pilgrimages to the temple. Earthquakes finished the job. Ephesus lay undisturbed until the late 1800s. Even today, only 10% of the site has been excavated. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and also funny.
We were truly impressed by what a beautiful city Ephesus once was. While not preserved like Pompeii, it was easy to glimpse its former glory.
Back in town we were ushered into a carpet salesroom for an almost exact replay of our carpet salesroom experience in Morocco over twenty years ago. They’re cheaper at Home Depot. The carpets are woven by girls belonging to nomadic Turks, who comprise about 8% of the population. They take about a year each to weave, and comprise the girls’ dowries. Many of the carpets contained repeating symbols of five squares, symbolizing the number of times a day that Muslims pray. (According to the salesman, good Muslims pray five times a day, bad Muslims sell rugs in Kusadasi. ) A little hot apple cider, a pita, and many carpets later we escaped with wallet intact. (It’s traditional for salespeople to give you apple drinks and food. Selling through guilt. Hmmm. . . I wonder if that would work for Alcorn McBride. . . )
I wrestled my way through the salesmen back to the ship; Linda and Dani stayed to shop. Later they returned with two rugs about the size of cat boxes. (Past experience suggests this is an apt comparison. ) They had a pleasant lunch on the pier, where the local cats were enthusiastic about the shrimp and lamb kebabs, but weren’t allowed to use the rugs.
We went up to deck 17 and watched the 360 degree view of the ship leaving Kusadasi harbor, then Linda and I snuck down to the Promenade Lounge for some caviar without Dani.
parthenon2 parthenon2 bigcolumn bigcolumn
Saturday, June 26, 2004
We docked in Piraeus, Athen’s very busy harbor, a 6:00 am, and were boarding a coach for the Acropolis a little after 7:00 am. It was worth getting up so early, because we were one of the first groups to reach the hill, and it was uncrowded and not yet hot. Both conditions would change within an hour. It’s quite a climb to the top, but we were in good shape after our training in Rome. The weather was pretty hazy, and so was our guide. Actually Angelica knew her subject, she just wasn’t very interesting. I’ll try to be more exciting.
The Parthenon was constructed by the Greeks, and is only one of a number of temples on the Acropolis. In addition to its use by the Greeks and Romans, it was also at one point converted to a Turkish mosque — complete with minaret. The reigning Turk kept his harem in a nearby temple named — I’m not making this up — the Erectheon.
The Parthenon was in fairly good shape until the Turks decided to store ammunition in it, and it was bombarded by enemy artillery until the obvious conclusion was reached. Today it has been 45% reassembled using 85% percent original parts. The rest of the original parts (all the good stuff) are in the British Museum. Like everything else in Athens, the Greeks have decided to spruce it up for the Olympics (which start in a month) by surrounding it with scaffolding.
Like everything else in Athens it won’t be ready for the Olympics. Actually, the Olympic venues we saw appeared to be ready — if you don’t think landscaping, parking and infrastructure are particularly important. The major challenge of these Olympic games will be simply getting to them. The problem is that after WWII Athens was a town of 800,000, but within 15 years the population had grown to more than 3 million. Plenty of buildings were constructed — which is why Athens looks like a modern city. (Here’s a bit of trivia: 92% of Greeks own their residence, the highest rate in Europe, perhaps anywhere. ) But no highways or other infrastructure were constructed to go along with all those buildings. As a result traffic on the twisty little streets is terrible.
Fortunately, we were in Athens on a Saturday, so we only had to contend with the weekend traffic as we left town and headed for Corinth, a little over an hour west. Along the way we stopped at a French beach resort for a buffet lunch that was quite tasty, but of no discernible nationality. (I use the term “beach” loosely. I wonder if the brochures mention it’s 100% gravel. )
Ancient Corinth was located on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnesus Peninsula to the Greek mainland. It was originally a Greek, then a Roman city. The agora — shopping and meeting area — have been excavated down to the Roman level.
We enjoyed exploring the site because unlike at Ephesus we could wander among the ruins. Dani and I climbed down into the underground tunnels that connect a distant spring to the city’s fountains and water supply. The system still works. It was 90 degrees, and the sun felt like a radiant heater, so we tried to keep to the shade. Linda and a few others even carried parasols.
On the way back we stopped at the Corinth Canal, dug by the British in the late 19th century. The 4-mile-long, 250-foot-high canal eliminated the several hundred mile trip around the Peloponnesus. Unfortunately, at only 75 feet wide and 25 feet deep it almost immediately became useless for modern commercial shipping.
Sunday, June 27, 2004
Champagne breakfast on the balcony. Sometimes the ship’s passage brings school of small fish to the surface. They dart through the light blue wake as greedy seagulls swoop down, trying for an easy snack. Once we saw a good sized fish leap four or five feet in the air, perhaps chasing an unseen insect. Over and over he soared, until we left him far behind. At 8 pm we squeezed through the Strait of Messina, where Italy’s toe almost touches Sicily.
It was the second formal night, and we dined in Sabatini’s.
Monday, June 28, 2004
Naples (Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri)
It’s a shame that Pompeii, Sorrento and Capri are all near Naples (which is really called Napoli). It’s just too much to do in one day, particularly when it’s 95 degrees. Fortunately our tour was in the reverse order from when Dani and I visited three years ago, and we were able to see Pompeii before it got really hot. Our first stop was at a cameo factory near Herculaneum. It was a bit of a tourist trap, but soon we were on our way to Pompeii.
Our guide, Enzo, was much better than the previous one, and gave us some real insights into everyday life in Pompeii. Of all the archaeological sites, it’s definitely the best. It’s frozen at 2pm, August 24th, 79AD when Vesuvius erupted, burying 2000 of its 20,000 residents in 30 feet of ash.
Unlike our previous tour, this one wasn’t the erotic tour of Pompeii. But although we skipped the house of Vetti and the whorehouses, it was still hard to overlook the thousands of phalluses (phalli?) that sprout from almost every wall. We also found a special barstool for Linda.
Down the coast about 20 miles (and through two very long tunnels under the mountains) is Sorrento, a city that Dani and I only passed through. This time we had a nice lunch at Villa Rubinacci and did a little shopping along the Corsa Italia before climbing the steep stairs down to the jet boat dock. The Corsa Italia is the only north/south route out of Naples. It’s about 30 feet wide (enough space for two lanes of traffic or about 1500 scooters). When you consider there are 3 million people living on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius — still a very active volcano — it’s pretty scary.
In twenty minutes we were on Capri. Up until this point we had been in a group of 44 people, but we suddenly found ourselves dumped together with about 400 other people from the Star Princess, all trying to take the funicular from the harbor up to the town. We were all packed into a super-heated loading area for an interminable wait. Finally at the top of the funicular we emerged into. . . a tourist trap of a square filled with 400 Star Princess passengers. This wasn’t at all like Dani’s and my previous trip to Capri. Depressed, we wandered around for about a half hour before we found a path leading to the back side of the island, and the Garden of Augustus.
The view was fantastic. This was the idyllic Capri we remembered. In retrospect, the last time we took a wild bus ride to the very top of the island, where things are much less commercial.
After another torture session we took the funicular back down and caught the jet boat directly back to the ship. Even after showers all the way around Linda was still hot and tired, so Dani and I went to dinner on our own while she ordered room service.
Tuesday, June 29, 2004
It was strange wandering around a deserted cruise ship today, as nearly all of the passengers left early for the long trip to Rome. The girls just wanted to veg today, so I took an early shuttle down the long pier and into the port city of Civitavecchia. On the way I passed the stone fort at the harbor entrance, with still visible WWII bombardment damage. The city is a place where people — mostly maritime industry employees and their families — actually live, not a tourist trap. It took less than an hour to walk the grid of the commercial district, with its collection of clothing and appliance stores. There were many people out walking, but few tourists. At the end of an alley I spied a crowd and went to investigate. I found myself in an open-air market: more than a full city block of stalls selling fruits, vegetables, meats, clothing, and an assortment of flea market merchandise. People were rather dressed up for market day. The older women in particular wore dresses with fancy beaded necklaces or colorful scarves. They haggled over the prices, then loaded their purchases into baby strollers or pushcarts and moved on to the next stall.
My only purchase was a fairly hard-sided suitcase, for 20 Euros, to transport some of our more fragile acquisitions. Then I headed back to the ship, before the day began to heat up.
Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Imagine having a guide who despised the place she’s guiding you to. That was Viola. Apparently there is a longstanding rivalry between Livorno and Pisa. We boarded our bus in the port of Livorno and were greeted by local resident Viola, who quickly admitted she hates Pisa. During the 30-minute drive she delivered a litany of everything that was wrong with the place. This was particularly remarkable, considering that Livorno — at least the industrial area where the ship docked — is slightly less appealing than the anus of a dead goat. So it was with considerable skepticism that we approached the “miracle square” of Pisa, with its duomo (yes, another church), baptistery (a church in disguise) and leaning tower (a church bell tower).
As it turned out, even Dani and I had to admit that the church was the most beautiful we’ve seen on this trip, both inside and out.
And the baptistery possesses incredible acoustics, designed for Gregorian chanting. Any sound reverberates for perhaps half a minute, as demonstrated periodically by one of the female guards, who delivered a two minute performance that was quite remarkable. Linda and Dani climbed the 243 steps sandwiched between the inner and outer domes, all the way to the top.
The tower is open to the public again, after an 11-year effort to straighten it from a 5. 5 degree tilt back to a 5 degree angle, removing about 200 years of settling. This was accomplished by carefully digging underneath the high side. Forty brave people are allowed to climb the hollow cylinder each half hour, but insurance is not included.
I knew they had made some adjustments during the 100-year construction of the tower, but I never realized they had resulted in it being slightly banana shaped. If you look carefully at the photo you can see that it actually curves back toward the duomo.
Even though it was hot, it was definitely worth the trip to Pisa. Still, we were happy to return to the ship, even if it was stuck in the rear end of a goat.
Dani and I headed for the sun deck for hotdogs, iced mochaccinos and a dip in the pool while Linda took a nap. montecarlo montecarlo
Thursday, July 1, 2004
Monte Carlo, Monaco
The city of Monte Carlo is essentially the same thing as the country of Monaco, since the entire country is less than one square mile. It’s a cluster of mostly 1960s high rises pressed against the steep mountains on the coast between France and Italy.
The Star Princess is bigger than the entire harbor, so we moored off the coast and took tenders to the dock.
The city isn’t really oriented toward cruise ships. Instead the marina caters to multimillion dollar yachts. The shops along the pier are an eclectic collection of art galleries, upscale brasseries and boat maintenance businesses. The only gift shop was closed from noon to 2:30 pm, the majority of the time the ship was in port.
We had a delicious lunch at Quai Des Artistes. It was nice to find some true French cooking after two weeks of Italian and cruise ship cuisine.
After lunch Dani and I spent only a few minutes walking around before deciding to head back to the ship. Linda went on a tour of the casino made famous in many James Bond movies.
Friday, July 2, 2004
At Sea / Barcelona
It’s a long way from Monte Carlo to Barcelona, so the ship doesn’t arrive until noon. There was a 25 knot wind during the night, which made for a bit of a wild ride; I was glad I was lying down!We have sailed 2593 nautical miles since leaving Venice.
Most of the passengers left the ship for shore excursions, but since we have two more days in Barcelona we stayed aboard and had the ship to ourselves for a leisurely day, much of it spent fitting all our stuff back into the luggage.
Saturday, July 3, 2004
Barcelona is a beautiful city. Rarely have my expectations been so completely wrong. I had envisioned a sleepy, dusty old town. Instead it is a vibrant, clean metropolis. We purchased a two-day pass for the tourist buses that continuously circle the city. These double-decker busses are open on top. You can hop on and off at any stop, listen to the commentary in eight languages, or simply enjoy the sun, the wind, and the occasional tree branch in the face. Barcelona offers a dazzling mixture of modern, traditional and truly fanciful architecture. Most impressive are the many buildings by the architect Gaudi, whose organic structures fascinate the eye and impart a playfulness to the entire city.
His cathedral, the Temple de la Sagrada Familia, which is about halfway through a 200-year construction project, is simultaneously beautiful and creepy. Currently at 100 meters, when its twelve towers are complete it will reach 170 meters The towers are hollow parabolas, designed to enhance the sound of the bells to be hung in them. Taking the recommendation of one of the hotel receptionists, we dined at a restaurant on the Passeig de Gracia called Tapa Tapa. Not surprisingly, it was a tapas restaurant. It was also delicious. We had many, many courses, most of them only about $3. Ordering was simple because the hundred or so selections were pictured on the placemats. This was a good thing, because the descriptions were in the local language, Catalan, something across between French and Spanish that took considerable deciphering.
Catalonia is the eastern corner of Spain. With a population of 6 million, it is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Its major city, Barcelona, is one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. It is a center for art, finance and commerce.
After lunch we waddled up the block to a book store where Dani added to her Harry Potter collection with editions in Spanish and Catalan.
The five star Grand Marina Hotel is easily the nicest of our trip. The ultra modern building is circular, and sits on a cruise ship pier in the marina. Our room is huge, with an expansive bathroom and hi-tech shower separated by futuristic sliding glass panels. Every surface is covered in rare wood or marble.
There is a fantastic guide book in our room, even though it’s one of those hard cover advertising books you find in all hotel rooms. It’s filled with maps and useful information, arranged in order, and even lists non-advertisers. It weighs about 20 pounds and costs $85.
The book describes a night on the town: dinner followed by a night club. Night clubs open around 12:30 am and some go to 6 am. Then you can go for a stroll, and still have breakfast as late as noon. (Presumably one then sleeps. )
After a siesta we went in search of an early (for Spaniards) dinner at 10 pm. We walked to the marina and had seafood at El Chipiron Monchos. Linda and I shared a passable paella. Dani ordered spiny lobster, but her plans changed when the intended victim showed up at the table writhing indignantly.
Since evening is the central point of the day here anyway, we’re trying to get on a later schedule in preparation for our afternoon flight home on Monday. So now bedtime is 1 am.
Sunday, July 4, 2004
Happy 4th of July!
It was a beautiful day in Barcelona and we made good use of it. I started the morning catching up on email and uploading my journal in the hotel’s business center, which is really just a corner of the lovely piano bar on the first floor.
Sunday breakfast was popular, and the patrons spilled out of the adjacent restaurant into the hotel’s courtyard. It was close to 11 am by the time I finished uploading (while listening to piano music and leafing through a beautiful book about Dali). I hurried up to the room afraid that Linda and Dani would wonder where I’d gone, and found them. . . still asleep! Spanish time, indeed.
Eventually we made our way to the historical center of the city and strolled down the Rambla de Santa Monica, admiring the many booths of jewelry, pets (including chipmunks), postcards, and souvenirs. There were also street performers, including a horrible Mickey Mouse and two ratty Pooh Bears. And mimes. Always the damn mimes.
Soon we found ourselves on Paseig de Gracia. Since it was now lunch time — 1 pm, early for the locals, but hey — we decided to have lunch in Citrus Restaurantus, one flight above where we ate yesterday. This meal was more Mediterranean than tapas, but it was nice.
After lunch we crossed the street to admire Gaudi’s organic Casa Battlo. Truly beautiful.
We caught the tourist bus and took it past the Temple del al Sagrada Familia (no visible progress since yesterday) to Parc Guell, where we found Gaudi’s house and a lot of other wild architecture. (It was a long steep walk up to the park, but we’ve been in training. )
The central plaza of the park is supported by 84 Doric columns, the outer ones canted inward. There is also a winding portico supported by strange organic pillars covered with lava rock. Everywhere there are mosaics.
Next we caught the tourist bus and took it to a shopping area on the aptly named Avinguda Diagonal, which cuts diagonally across the entire city. We were looking for a shop Dani wanted to visit: Chocolat Factory. It lived up to its billing chocolate-wise, even if it wasn’t a factory. Nothing like 77% cocoa to bring a smile.
We rehydrated at an outdoor cafe as the sun set behind the buildings, then caught the tourist bus back to the hotel to clean up and relax before dinner.
Tired, we selected the restaurant on the first floor of the hotel, which proved to be a good choice. It was quiet, intimate and sophisticated, and since it wasn’t yet 10 pm there weren’t many other customers. We had their seven-course tasting dinner which was pretty adventurous, with giant sardines, grape soup, turbot, suckling pig, and two different desserts. The most interesting thing was the chocolates they served afterwards, which seemed to contain something like ground up Pop Rocks. Weird.
Monday, July 5, 2004
Barcelona to Orlando
The Barcelona airport is bursting with colorful shops and cafes. It was so nice we would have been happy to browse, but after a short wait in the Air France lounge we boarded our Delta flight for Atlanta, and connection to Orlando.
It was a great trip — perhaps a week too long, as (some of us) missed our pets — but full of interesting places and fun experiences, and we enjoyed each other’s company throughout.
Some Tips for Next Time
When booking a cabin, check the exterior view of the ship in that area. Our balcony was substantially blocked by a support member. The suite next to ours was not.
Avoid aft cabins. The wake is noisy.
The Star Princess and other ships in its class are not as well designed as the slightly smaller Coral Princess. The elevators don’t cooperate well with one another and dining and shopping access is all in one spot.
While most of the service on the Star Princess was excellent, the room service was, to be kind, incompetent.
Also, the attempt to emulate NCL’s “Freestyle Dining” with flexible seating in the dining room simply doesn’t work well, with long waits at popular times. The smaller and newer Coral Princess didn’t have this problem.
Don’t try to do Pompeii and Capri in the same day; select one. And don’t take the funicular in Capri, take a taxi to the very top.
The people who visited Pompeii and the farm in Sorrento really liked that tour.
In the spring Linda informed Danielle and me that she would be too busy to travel this summer. So Danielle and I began looking for something interesting to do, and hit upon this relaxed two-week trip to Europe. Although Danielle lived in France from the time she was three months to six months old, this would be the first trip within her memory. I’m pretty familiar with London, even more so with Paris — where Henry Corrado is a good friend — but we settled upon a tour because it was economical, would be a good introduction for Danielle… and I wouldn’t have to lug both of our suitcases.When I signed us up for this European tour, I never suspected we’d be setting out only five days after returning from Australia! But opportunities arise, and the Australia trip was great. Best of all, Linda was able to go along on that one.So feeling like expert travelers, at midday we headed for the airport, and the overnight flight to London.
Sunday, July 29, 2001
The Australia conditioning is still working. The trip to Charlotte seemed instantaneous, and the trip across the Atlantic passed fairly quickly as well. We took an Airbus A330, which is a lovely plane. It offers much more coach seating room than the competitors, and has personal video and CD on-demand players in every seat. We were lucky; the seat next to Danielle was empty, so she was able to sleep with her head on my leg most of the way.
I brought a Palm Pilot that came free with a new computer we purchased, and Danielle immediately seized upon it. She’s gotten quite good at the Graffiti writing, and is keeping her trip journal on it.
We arrived at Gatwick a bit early, about 7:50am. The Far & Wide travel reps met us, moved our baggage onto the express train to London, and gave us tickets. The train was the Eurostar style; Danielle immediately noticed the absence of clacketa-clacketa noises.
At Victoria Station another Far & Wide rep met us, and escorted us to a minivan for the ride to the Hilton Metropole. The hotel looks nice, and is conveniently located just north of Kensington. We were met by our Tour Director, Gloria, who secured us a room in the new tower. Unfortunately, our room wasn’t ready yet — no surprise at 10:00am — so we checked everything and, at Gloria’s suggestion, headed by taxi to St. James Palace. Just for the record, the taxi driver was the same surly bastard type that I’ve had every time I’ve ever taken a London cab.
At St. James Danielle posed with the guard, and then we walked through Green Park to Buckingham Palace. At 85 degrees it’s hot here in London — yesterday set a record — so the ice cream stand was doing some serious business. We sampled their wares while we waited for the changing of the guard. On Sundays the Mall (rhymes with Al) in front of Buckingham Palace is closed to automobiles, so we were able to jump into the street in advance of the trooping guards and take pictures — mostly of Japanese tourists doing the same thing. Rather than wade through the tourists to see the actual change of the guard, we headed down the Mall past St. James Park and under the Admiralty Arch to Trafalgar Square. There we had a extraordinarily mediocre pizza buffet, bought tourist trinkets, and caught the tube at Charring Cross.
Six quick stops brought us to Edgware Road, where we emerged across the street from the hotel. I’m always amazed by the comprehensiveness of the London Underground. The trip took ten minutes and cost $3, as compared with the $15 cab ride. And no surly driver.Although I was skeptical of the Palm Pilot, it’s been useful for three things so far: currency conversion when I wanted to change Danielle’s $165 into equal parts Pounds, Francs and Lire; Figuring the most efficient Metro route (I downloaded the data for all three cities we’re visiting); and, of course, entertaining Danielle.
On returning to the hotel at 1:30 our room still wasn’t ready, so we camped in the lounge and updated our journals, looking very high tech with our dueling electronic appliances. It was nice to be offered free drinks, but a bed would be much nicer.
At about 2:00pm our room was ready. Danielle was asleep in seconds.
At 5:30 I went down for orientation and then collected her for dinner in La Fiama, the Metropole’s downstairs restaurant. We dined with a nice couple from Arizona, the Drumms, who have been in the UK for twelve days, most of it at the British Open. The demographics of this tour are quite different from the Tauk Tour, although I guess that’s a seasonal thing. The average age of this group is probably late forties, and it’s fairly evenly distributed.
Monday, July 30, 2001
Feeling surprisingly like we’re on the right time zone, we breakfasted in La Fiama and then joined the group for a city tour. We started by retracing our steps yesterday to St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace. I took the opportunity to peek into the window at Berry & Rudd Ltd., one of the oldest wine merchants in the city. Our walk this time took us through St. James Park, along the Princess Diana memorial walkway. Rejoining the bus, we drove through the West End, pausing at Westminster Abbey for a quick photo. Then it was on to the British Museum.
Trying to do the British Museum in an hour is the ultimate exercise in futility. But Danielle and I split off from the group and shifted into high gear, hitting the highlights in rapid fire: The Elgin Marbles (stolen from the Parthenon), the Rosetta Stone (stolen from the French, who stole it from the Egyptians), many, many mummies (ditto) and Latham Man, a 200-year-old man perfectly preserved by being tossed into a peat bog after being ritually killed (this last item was from Northern England, and actually wasn’t stolen).
Next stop: Covent Garden, for lunch and shopping. Danielle and I had a baked potato and a waffle (you can guess who assembled the menu) in an open air cafe, and then Danielle bought several hundred stuffed animals. She’s now in the hole $48 — time to do some math workbook pages and earn some spending money.
The afternoon tour took us to St. Paul’s Cathedral (no photos allowed). It’s big, but not as attractive as Notre Dame. Danielle was hesitant to visit the crypt until I pointed out that it couldn’t be too creepy, as there was a Crypt Cafe. We visited the tombs of Christopher Wren, the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson, and Danielle learned some history. She says they’re studying English history this year in school, so this should put it wonderfully in context.
Our final stop was the Tower of London, where Danielle learned a LOT of history, particularly about Henry VIII and his sexual proclivities. The displays in the White Tower have been significantly improved since I was there last. I still think this original structure, built by William the Conqueror starting in 1066, is the most impressive.
It was extremely hot in London today — hotter than Havana! — and we were all pretty tired by the time we headed back to the hotel. A cool shower improved things, and then Danielle and I headed up to Aspects on the 23rd floor for a leisurely four course dinner. They featured a California cuisine which was the best non-ethnic food I’ve had in London.
Tuesday, July 31, 2001
The wake-up call for Stonehenge and Bath was at 6:45am, but we still got almost nine hours of sleep. If we weren’t reading such an interesting bedtime book — the fifth volume of The Indian in the Cupboard series — we would have gotten more.Danielle caught a nap on the tour bus as we headed through the English countryside to the Salisbury Plain. This is the third Mercedes tour bus we’ve had in as many tours (including Australia) and they’re really comfortable. The ride is smooth enough that I’ve spent it bringing this journal up to date.
Stonehenge:According to Danielle, “The stones are larger, and the circles smaller than I’d imagined.” I concur. There’s an eeriness about the place in its very improbability. Even the busloads of tourists, and the rope that maintains a fairly distant perimeter don’t prevent you from getting the feeling that some really strange things went on here 5000 years ago.
There are four stone rings inside an earthen ditch, with an alley leading to their center. The inner rings are horseshoe shaped, and the outer ones circular. Two of the rings are relatively “small” irregular stones called “blue stones”. These were transported from Southern Wales, over 240 miles away. No one can imagine how, and recent attempts by college students to duplicate the feat have ended with the stones at the bottom of the ocean.
The upright stones and horizontal lintels that we associate with Stonehenge are from much closer — about 30 miles away. But they weigh up to 50 tons. They’re fastened together like giant furniture, with pegs and holes.
Stonehenge was built by a group we call the “Beaker” People, from the fact that they placed beakers in their burial mounds. These mounds are called “barrows”. Several are visible from Stonehenge itself. Little else is known about the site, except for the fact that it’s a calendar. The flat stone near the front aligns perfectly with the central “altar” stone at sunrise on the longest day of the year, and sunset on the shortest.
Stonehenge really only occupies you for about an hour, and the free interpretive audio tour isn’t terribly informative. Nevertheless, it’s well worth the trip because it’s just so darn strange.
Bath:I wasn’t expecting much from Bath — frankly I had no idea what it was; but it turned out to be quite a nice mixture of history and ambiance. Bath is all about water — hence the name. It’s a good sized town built around the site of England’s only hot spring. The story goes that it was discovered by a leper who noticed that his pigs’ skin problems were healed when they bathed in the mud of the hot spring. He did likewise and was cured, then went on to become the king.
Later the Romans set up one of their elaborate bath houses on the spot, and it is chiefly the archaeology of this period that is presented at the historical site. The Roman building incorporated a temple, hypocaust, calderium, and a sacred pool into which you could throw pewter scrolls for the goddess Minerva — chiefly requests to curse people who had done you wrong.
Following the Romans, the Victorians rediscovered the spring, and turned it into a fashionable resort. The discovery of the Roman ruins in the 19th century further encouraged tourism. Today the town is filled with tourists, cafes, shops and flowers. Well worth the trip.
After a late lunch overlooking the river Avon (not Shakespeare’s Avon: Avon is Celtic for “river”, so there are a lot of River Avons — literally “River River”) we headed back to London, arriving at 5:30. Showered and changed, we headed out at 7:00pm for Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap”, which at 49 years is London’s — and the world’s — longest running play.
It’s presented in a small theater that reminded me of the Victorian music hall described in the Indian in the Cupboard series. The play is quite good, although we’ve watched so many Perry Mason episodes that we had it mostly figured out at intermission. At the end, the audience is sworn to secrecy, but I can assure you that the butler didn’t do it (there isn’t one).
We spent our cab fare on a T-Shirt, so we didn’t stay in the theatre district for a late supper as planned, but instead headed back to the hotel on the tour bus and went to bed.
Wednesday, August 1, 2001
This tour may be called “Leisure Europe”, but the pace hasn’t been too leisurely so far. I’m glad we didn’t select “Frenetic Europe”! So we decided to take this morning off. We’ll skip the optional Windsor Castle trip and rejoin the group for tea at Harrod’s.
After a truly appalling breakfast as only the English can ruin it, we caught the tube to Westminster for the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms. To our surprise, this turned out to be the highlight of our London stay.
The warren of underground rooms, protected by a 3-foot-thick concrete ceiling, housed Churchill and other key planners and military figures during the London blitz, from late 1940 until the end of the war. It has been preserved EXACTLY as they left it — right down to the last paperclip and cigar butt. The narration of the self-guided audio tour was excellent, capturing the uncertainty of the times with bits of actual recordings. Highly recommended.
On the way back to the Westminster tube station we walked past the Horse Guards. Incidentally, Westminster Station is quite amazing. It’s about eight stories deep, with crisscrossing escalators and interlinking tube platforms, and is entirely concrete and steel. It looks a lot like a scene out of Star Wars.
Back at the Hilton we had lunch downstairs. The Caesar salad consisted of equal parts lettuce, ham and eggs, all put through a meat grinder, with two sardines on top. Yum. (How can these people live only 40 miles from France?)
At 4:00 pm the motor coach dropped us off at Harrod’s for tea. Harrod’s is a really, really, really friggin’ big store. It’s six stories of an entire block filled with merchandise, much of it ridiculously priced, but with enough reasonably priced items to cater to all tourists and many locals. There are — get this — 300 departments, and 4000 employees. You can get furniture, plasma screens, furs and lettuce all under one roof. The cheese case alone was about 50 feet long. Tea was the usual finger sandwich and cardboard pastry nonsense, but we enjoyed conversing with the couple from Arizona.
Danielle, who is still trying to “math” her way out of debt, dropped another 32 pounds on stuffed bears and the hard cover special edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.I bought a bottle of water for 99p.
Thursday, August 2, 2001
Our wake-up call came at 5:00 am, for the 8:23 am Eurostar train to Paris. Is it coincidence that the London station that connects to Paris is named Waterloo?
The train poked along through England until the coastline, when it hit the smooth tracks of the Chunnel. As we pulled away from English soil, we bid a fond farewell to all the history of London, and a not so fond farewell to everything else about the place! Rudeness, inefficiency and bad food dwindled in the distance, as we continued at about 50mph throughout the 20 minute trip deep beneath the English Channel.
As we emerged into Normandy, the train gathered speed and soon we were hitting close to 200mph. It’s most impressive when you pass another one of these TGV’s going the other direction. At 400mph, they’ve disappeared in a little over a second.An hour later we arrived at the Gare du Nord. Our tour bus stopped at the Opera to pick up our local guide, Nicola. Since his mother was American, he speaks with virtually no accent — he sounds like someone out of a1950’s western, in fact.
Our city tour took us down the Champs Elysee, stopped at the Eiffel Tower for photos, and then took us to Notre Dame. The cathedral is impressive, but I think we’re both cathedralled out. More impressive to us was the food from the sidewalk cafes. Danielle says it was the best hot dog she ever tasted, and the brie was even better.
We checked into our hotel at 4:00 pm, and arranged to meet Henry at 7:00 pm for dinner at Quay Oest, his favorite riverfront restaurant, out on the west side.
Friday, August 3, 2001
Henry picked us up at 9:00 am and we had breakfast at La Duree, near the Place Madeleine. Now Danielle understands what a croissant is. Wow.We reached Paris Disneyland shortly before noon, where we went on Space Mountain — which Danielle loathed — and then met Jean Claude Boyer and Frederic Sauthier at Walt’s on Main Street for lunch. Afterwards, we did mostly Frontier land, which is a lot different than Magic Kingdom.For dinner we stopped at the mall in Serris to buy food, and then had a nice evening, dining on the table in Henry’s backyard in nearby Chalifert.
Saturday, August 4, 2001
Today was Eiffel Tower day. Henry picked us up at 11:30am for our lunch at Jules Vernes, the restaurant on the second level, 270 feet above the Seine. Lunch was fabulous. Particular highlights were the butter(!), foie gras and the incredibly complex flavor of the chocolate truffles. Better bring money, though — even the appetizers were $40 each (yeow!) At least it satisfied Danielle’s request for a fine dining experience in Paris, and it could have been worse — it could have been dinner pricing.
After lunch we took the elevator to the top of the tower to experience the view of all of Paris from about 1000 feet. Spectacular. We took the elevator back to the second level and then climbed down the 649 stairs to street level.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Le Bon Marche, a fancy food store in the 7th Arondissment and bought some gourmet foods to bring home with us.
After relaxing for a few hours, we decided that since it was our last chance, we’d venture out onto the Place de la Republique in search of the true Paris bistro experience. The neighborhood was one that seemed to specialize in mussels and other shellfish, which wasn’t quite what Danielle had in mind.
We settled on the brasserie Maitre Kanter because they had duck. It was decent food, but the ambience was great, sitting at a table out on the sidewalk and dining late into the evening. Before desert it started to rain lightly and they moved us inside, where we enjoyed watching the crabs try to climb out of their large rock aquarium. By the end of dinner the skies had cleared, and we headed back to the hotel.
Sunday, August 5, 2001
We slept late again this morning; Henry picked us up at 11:30 and we drove to the Champs Elysee for lunch at the other La Duree. This one serves a complete menu, not just pastries. Mmm.
Next stop the Louvre. The Louvre is really, really, really big. In three hours we walked through perhaps 10% of the collection, pretty much without stopping. There were more Egyptian antiquities there than I remembered, and that area was less crowded than the painting section. The Mona Lisa (La Jaconde, the French call her) is mandatory, of course, but getting to it is another matter. Danielle finally squirmed through the crowd to get a glimpse. It is true that her eyes always seem to be looking at you, wherever you stand, a feature not apparent in the reproductions. It’s just a shame it’s impossible to really appreciate it because of the crowds. After visiting my favorites — the Flemish paintings — we headed back to the hotel for showers, fancy clothes, and a meeting with our tour group — the first in three days. Many thanks to Henry for entertaining us for our entire Paris visit; it was great.
We all boarded the bus at 7:00pm looking very different, in our jackets and ties. The group had obviously grown together during their Paris stay (many had taken up to four optional trips together). Several mentioned that they’d missed us. I guess Danielle tends to liven things up a bit. She enjoys talking to both the teenagers and the older people. I particularly like the Chinese family from San Francisco, the Midwesterners who now live in Marin, and Gloria, our tour guide. At 8:00 we boarded the Batteau Mouches for a dinner cruise on the Seine. Champagne was followed by a four course dinner of surprisingly good food. There were no complaints about the wine, either — a 1998 St. Emilion Grand Cru. It flowed freely, a fact that I’m sure was regretted by a few the next morning.
As the boat rounded the Isle de la Cite and Isle St. Louis, a band began to play dance music, and Gloria coaxed quite a few of us out onto the dance floor — Danielle and I included. A light rain outside, floating down almost like snow in the bright lights of the boat just added to the atmosphere. I was nearly midnight before we got back to the hotel; all in all a very pleasant evening, one I recommend to all Paris visitors.
Monday, August 6, 2001
Our wakeup call wasn’t until 7:45, but I was up at 7:15 to shower and pack. After breakfast we piled onto the bus and headed for Charles De Gaulle airport. I think everyone was reluctant to leave Paris, as always.The flight was only about 90 minutes, and Air France food was good, as usual. But with the logistics at both ends figured in, it was 5:00pm before we checked into the Mediterraneo in Rome.
Coming into Rome we passed though many mid-20th century buildings, most of which were marked with graffiti. Gloria explained that it could be expensive to clean your building, because it might attract the attention of the tax assessor! As we passed through the ancient Roman wall surrounding the old city there began to be many more ornate and Renaissance buildings.
Our hotel is located near Termini, the main train station, which the guide book says is not the greatest neighborhood, although it looks nice enough. The hotel appears to be about 100 years old, but is in good repair. The floors are marble, and there are rare woods throughout. Our room is large by European standards, with a nicely remodeled bathroom, including a bidet (“If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium” comes to mind). The beds are twin size, though.
Danielle walked through the door and fell asleep. We decided to skip the evening’s walking tour, including the Trevi fountain (of “Three Coins” fame) and the group’s many course Italian dinner, because we had a 6:00am call for the city tour on Tuesday. I went out to a small local market for some water and snacks and scoped out the neighborhood while Danielle slept, then caught a nap myself until 9:00pm.
When Danielle awoke she was ready for dinner, so we walked up to the Piazza di Republica and had pizza and pasta (yes, that’s really what they eat) in a sidewalk Tratorria overlooking the square. For dessert she had a fantastically rich chocolate gelato.
Tuesday, August 7, 2001
Rome is busy, but not like in the movies. We’re told that it’s “empty” because it’s August and everyone is out of town. It’s not empty, but our guide, Gloria, was surprised at how early we got to the Vatican: about a half hour before opening. We were the second or third group in. Our local guide, Amelia, was informative, but not as interesting as Gloria. We visited a single corridor of the Vatican Museum, then entered the Sistine Chapel.
It’s amazingly colorful since the cleaning of a few years ago. I had read some descriptions of the different sections in the excellent Dorling Kindersley Rome travel guide (don’t leave home without it), so it was more interesting than I was anticipating. Gloria rented personal radio headsets for us for the entire day. These were fantastic, as they allowed Amelia to speak in a whisper, even from 100 feet away, and we could all hear her. It made it very easy to collect the group as we moved from area to area, and saved us a lot of time throughout the day.
The Sistine Chapel empties into St. Peter’s square, where we made a U-turn and entered St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the largest of the cathedrals on the trip; the tallest building in Orlando would easily fit under the 448 foot high dome. Inside is the Pieta, now behind bullet proof glass, and many works by Bernini, who shared architectural credit with Michelangelo. Unlike the other cathedrals we’ve visited, this one is a work in progress, with many new mosaics honoring recent popes and parishes around the world. The large “paintings” in the various shrines are actually mosaic copies of famous paintings in the Vatican painting gallery; when examined extremely closely it becomes apparent that they are made of millions of colored glass beads.
After St. Peter’s we took a break so that Danielle could get fleeced in a tourist shop, and then wound our way through the historic part of the city to the Colosseum. On the way we saw many sights in the forum and surrounding area. While it would have been nice to walk, it was over 90 degrees, and the bus’ air conditioning felt great. I was a little surprised to discover that the forum is not only surrounded by modern highways, but is actually bisected by one. Those postcard photos must be shot very carefully.
Inside the Colosseum Amelia led us around the edge of the main floor, describing how the area beneath the floor was used to store live animals. Their cages were winched through trap doors to provide a dramatic entrance at the proper moment. Then they were slaughtered. Fun.
Because of the light crowds, we finished our tour by 1:30, a couple of hours early, and decided to have a quiet afternoon. (We have a 4:30 am wake-up call tomorrow… groan.)
We had dinner in a trattoria on a small street near the hotel. When I say “on”, I mean on — our table was almost in the middle of the pavement. Oddly, it was run by a Japanese man, but the food was strictly Italian, and better than last night’s. I had fettuccine Bolognese and we shared a ham pizza; this flatbread pizza style, reminiscent of what I fix on the barbecue, is apparently the true Italian style, invented in Naples.
Wednesday, August 8, 2001
This was the big day of the trip: Naples (Napoli), Capri and Pompeii. We were on the bus by 5:00am, but I think we were all comatose for the first ninety minutes until we hit a rest stop with a coffee bar.
At 9:30 we reached Naples, a big, unattractive city on a large bay. The culture is different in southern Italy, and the activities of the mafia and the underground economy have hurt the southern cities, which lag the north in prosperity. We were early, as the roads were empty, so we killed a bit of time in a square in front of what was the palace of a southern king. An interesting note is that stray dogs here are not rounded up, they are fed by the citizens.
At the docks we met Marco, our local guide for the day. He was a handsome and charming Italian, but fairly worthless as a guide. During our visits to Capri and Sorrento he was invisible most of the time, and did little more than point out good places to take photos. We emerged knowing nothing of those two places.
In Pompeii he was more informative, but spent much of his time making sure we bought books from his friend. But I digress.We took a hydrofoil to Capri, a 45-minute trip diagonally across the bay. The water was smooth, almost glassy, even as we ventured out into the edge of the Mediterranean. Seagulls floated on it all the way across.
Capri is a dramatic saddle of limestone jutting over 1000 feet upwards out of the bay. There is almost no level ground, but thousands of narrow terraces have been cut into the stone, and are planted with trees, shrubs or vines. A road switchbacks its was up the saddle and then across the vertical cliff face of the northern end. Wherever possible, it is lined with narrow houses squeezed against the cliff face and each other. There are few spots wide enough for even the tiny minibuses to pass, and scooters are the preferred method of transport. Our minibus ride was reminiscent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; at one point we had to negotiate a complete 360 in order to make a sharp right turn. We drove though three of the four villages on the five-square-mile island, starting from Marina Grande and proceeding through Capri to Anacapri, perched atop the northern end. Even with the early morning fog still shrouding much of the island, the views were spectacular: deep blue water dotted with dozens of sailboats and yachts, rocky limestone cliffs plunging to the sea, and everywhere colorful bursts of bougainvillea.
In Anacapri we boarded a skyride to the very highest point of the island. This was pretty exciting, as the seats were individual ski lift chairs, so our feet dangled above the scenery as we climbed almost another 1000 feet to the highest point on the island. On the way up our feet nearly grazed the tops of some of the trees, and we passed over many vineyards, gardens, and a backyard filled with what appeared to be shrines made from Barbie doll parts, plastic toys and seashells. From the top of the mountain we looked down another steep cliff to the small grotto where mermaids lured the Greek sailors in the Odyssey.
Back at the base of the lift we walked through the narrow shopping bazaar to the Hotel Saint Michele, an attractive white complex on the ridge, overlooking the harbor. We had a pleasant lunch, sharing a table with the Drumms, then retraced our minibus journey back to the hydrofoil for the shorter trip to Sorrento, at the southern end of the bay.
Sorrento is as charming as Naples is homely. Beautiful old buildings cling to the cliff tops, and the public squares are lined with interesting restaurants and shops. Unfortunately we were just passing through, taking a bus back to our tour bus, but this town definitely merits an extended stay.
The road from Sorrento back to Naples definitely tested the skill of Daniele (accent on the final ‘e’), our tour bus driver for the Italian portion of our trip. It clings to the rocky cliff top, skirting many volcanic beaches, and plunging through long, winding tunnels at several spots. The beaches were crowded with sunbathers and swimmers, but traffic was light.I was surprised to discover that Pompeii is surrounded by a suburb of Naples; I had imagined it in some secluded spot. But unlike the forum in Rome, which is bisected by a major highway, Pompeii is isolated by its size and the local topology, a lot of which is volcanic ash and pumice. Incidentally, Vesuvius erupts about every 50 years. The last time was in 1944. You do the math. There are 500,000 people in the immediate vicinity, and a single lane road leading in and out.
Pompeii is a city. Yes, I knew that, but somehow I was thinking four square blocks. In fact it’s huge, stretching in all directions as far as you can see. The second floors of most buildings are gone, but the first floors, including mosaics, frescoes, and even plumbing survive.
Buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii was only discovered in the 19th century, and excavation still continues. Delicate objects such as amphorae and wooden things have been gathered up and placed in storage areas or museums, but most of the structures are open for you to walk through.
Marco seemed to be fascinated by anything that was a penis, so we got what amounted to the erotic tour of Pompeii. There were penis stools, frescoes with giant penises, penises carved into the pavement to point you to the brothels, and penises mounted above the apothecary where you got treated for the clap you caught at the brothel. Inside the brothel were detailed paintings of the “menu”. I guess Danielle won’t be needing any sex ed classes.
We also toured some of the baths (which were much more interesting than the complex in Bath), an ornate private home, a bar and casino, and the public square. The level of detail in Pompeii is amazing, and we left with many unanswered questions about mysterious objects that we passed on the way through. Two hours is not enough. I’m not sure two days would have been. We will definitely want to return.
It was another three hours on the bus back to Rome, but the time went quickly, as Gloria told us stories on the way, including the history of the Hapsburgs, the gossip on the British royal family, and a hilarious tale about her vacation in a “camping machine”.We arrived at the hotel about 9:00pm and received sad news. Danielle’s Grandpa Dean passed away today. He was the kindest man I’ve ever known, and we’ll miss him very much. We’ll fly to Los Angeles on Saturday to join Linda at her mother’s.
Thursday, August 9, 2001
A late morning. While much of the rest of the group headed out at 6:00 am for the optional Florence tour, we hedonistically spent the morning in bed. We didn’t actually make it out of the room until after 1:00, but we had an energetic afternoon, walking halfway across the old city, through the Quirinal district, one of the original seven hills of Rome.
We lunched at a charming trattoria in a narrow alleyway, then spent the better part of an hour wandering around looking for the Trevi fountain. In retrospect, I think we missed it by one block three times, but the sightseeing was interesting; in the maze of twisty little streets there were many upscale shops and restaurants. We passed a bronze guy on a horse, a very ornately carved column, and a brand new water fountain built in 1957 where Danielle discovered that by covering the spigot it would water the top of your head (it was hot). Our map wasn’t good enough to identify any of these.
At the Trevi Fountain we threw in three coins: one from England, one from France, and one from Italy. Legend says that if you toss a coin in the fountain you will return to Rome. We’re hoping surrogate tossing works, because our third coin was for Linda.
On the way back, along the Via Nazionale I bought Danielle a gold heart pendant as a remembrance of our trip together.
In the evening the entire group went out to an Italian restaurant for our “last supper”. There were opera singers, and they had our frequent dining companions, the Drumms, play Romeo and Juliet in honor of their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
Friday, August 10, 2001
What an expedition we had getting home! It was supposed to be a nine-hour flight from Rome, but we hit a holding pattern over Boston and then had to stop in Baltimore to refuel. Then we spent an hour waiting for clearance to Philly, and an hour sitting on the runway in Philly waiting for a gate. Finally, after 13 hours in the plane, we got off to face an hour line in immigration. After clearing customs there was a three-hour line to rebook, since all the flights had been missed or cancelled. In fact, the soonest flight we could get was 24 hours later.
Anyway, we spent the night in Philly, and are rerouting ourselves directly to L.A. on Delta, where we expect to be for the next week.
And so we say “Arrivaderci Roma”, and bid a fond farewell to all of Europe. Thanks to Gloria and all the nice people who traveled with us for making it such a special trip.