Saturday, April 21, 2007

I finished the following books while on vacation:

Child of Flame by Kate Elliott. I often pick up large, fantasy books when flying. They usually keep me involved enough to distract me while on the plane/train/bus but it doesn't matter if I really pay attention or if they are great books. This one is the fourth in a series called Crown of Stars. The first three weren't that good. They were OK reads but a little un-remarkable. This is actually the best of the four - it seems to start to tie together some of the plot elements in an interesting way and you get a better idea of the where the series is going. Thankfully, the whole series (seven books) has been published so I don't have to worry that this will be one of the current fantasy series where the author just stretches and stretches and it appears they will never end (i.e. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or possible George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones)

Angels & Demons
by Dan Brown. This is the first book featuring the same protagonist as the mega-hit The DaVinci Code. I had read this before and brought it along so Stacey could read it. I thought it would be amusing since it features a number of sites in Rome. After she was done and we had left Rome, I re-read it to see how it read after I had seen the same locations it uses. It's actually a pretty bad book - even worse than The DaVinci Code - and I wouldn't recommend it unless you are planning on visiting Rome or the Vatican.

Amazon Links:

Child of Flame (Crown of Stars, Book 4)
Angels & Demons
Italy - final thoughts

Italy was a lot of fun. One of the reasons we chose Italy was the variety of things to do - museums, ruins, good food, shopping, hikes. But it was also very expensive and not a relaxing vacation at all. If you are looking for something affordable, or looking to come back well rested, pick somewhere else.

There were also a couple of myths we had heard about Italy that we're dis-proven:

Myth - All the food in Italy is great.
Truth - There is plenty of mediocre, and even bad food, in Italy - even if you avoid the "tourist trap" type places. We didn't end up getting consistently good food until we started following recommendations rather than trying to pick all our own restaurants. If you are coming from someplace where it is harder to get high quality, fresh food, then Italy might be better on average, but we come from someplace with lots of great food available and nothing we had in Italy was better than what we can get around here and a lot of it was worse.

Myth - Everyone in Italy dresses very well, compared to America.
Truth - We saw a lot of very casually, very plainly dressed Italians. Even when they were more dressed up, it often wasn't in a good way. Current fashion trends in Italy seem to be jean jackets, fancy belts with big belt buckles and large, bug-eyed sunglasses.

Guide books we used:

For the general trip, we used Rick Steves' Italy 2007. This is a pretty good book. It covers the important sites well and gives nice summaries for each area and city. In addition, the recommendations are better than some of the other books I've seen. We tried one of the hotel recommendations and a number of the restaurant recommendations and they were all very good. The maps included are good for high level navigation but are best combined with a more detailed map if you are looking for anything specific.

Since we were in Rome for four days, we decided we needed more details for that part of the trip. We bought a copy of Frommer's Rome (2007 Edition) when we got there. It has some good recommended walks throught the city and a nice included map. The recommended restaurants we tried weren't as good as the ones recommneded by Rick Steves.

Amazon Links:
Rick Steves' Italy 2007
Frommer's Rome

Friday, April 20, 2007

April 17th - We started out today by buying some Italian anti-histamines. Allergies have been affecting us since Florence and we should have bought these earlier.

We went to the National Museum of Science and Technology. This is one of the best science related museums I've seen, much better than the ones in SF or San Jose. In addition to a cool gallery showing models based on devices described in Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, they had sections on astronomy, clockmaking, telecommunications, energy, metallurgy, etc, all with interesting displays in both Italian and English.

After that we headed back to one of the pedestrian only shopping districts to have lunch and so Stacey could spend some more time at a store she found that carries a lot of things she really likes.

After a while, we had to interrupt that to go on a Milan city tour that we had pre-booked, mainly because it included a visit to Leonardo's Last Supper. In addition, it included the Duomo and Sforza Castle.

Then we went back to shopping for a little while, had supper and then did our final packing for our flight back to San Francisco tomorrow.
April 16th - We took the train to Milan and checked in to our hotel ( Hotel Edolo). Since it is Monday, many museums were closed so we just wandered around the old part of the city, looking at the high end fashion shops and the architecture. Allergies were hitting both of us pretty hard today.
April 15th - breakfast at the hotel, did some shopping on Murano and saw a bit of a glass blowing demonstration. The glass artists here are amazing. They are family trained, with over 15 years of experience before they are considered ready to actually work. The guy we watched made a little horse in front of us in about 10 seconds, forming the head and legs with small, precise motions of his tools. He seemed to have total control over the hot glass.

Then we took a vaporetto (basically a water bus) to St. Mark's square. St. Mark's was already a zoo of people lined up too see the sites. We walked across the square and went into the Correr Museum, a less popular site with no line. It was an OK museum, nothing spectacular compared to the other things we had seen on our trip.

Then we walked over to the Rialto Bridge and took a vaporetto to the train station. From there we took a vaporetto that went the full length of the Grand Canal for sightseeing. It's a very cool looking city from the water. It was helpful to have our guide book to point out some of the interesting buildings along the route.

Then we went back to St. Mark's square and the Doge's Palace. It's a very cool Gothic palace for the head of state from the days of the Venetian Republic. I didn't know very much about the Venetian Republic before this trip so it was fascinating site with lots to read and learn. The building also contained chambers where their grand council and smaller councils met, an armoury with great collection of period weapons/armour and some prisons, as well as some great art.

Because it was Sunday, St. Mark's Bascilica closed early so we didn't get to see that, which is OK since I've seen enough churchs for one trip. After that, we just wandered around for a while. Venice is so tourist oriented that it is a little less interesting to me than some of the other places we've visited.
April 14th - travelled to Venice. It tooks 4 trains to get here - 3 back to Florence and then 1 to Venice.

We are actually staying on Murano, an island slightly north of Venice in the same lagoon that is known for it's glass products. Because of the distance to travel, we didn't get here until around 4:30PM and didn't get out to look around till after 5PM. By that time, things are starting to close down on Murano as the tourists go back to the main island and back to the mainland. In fact, we had difficulty finding an open restaurant for supper. Most of them are open during the day while the tourists are here and then shut down quickly afterwards. Other than taking trains and eating, not much else happened today.

Venice is a very strange place, as one might expect with canals instead of roads.
April 13th - after a light breakfast out on the harbour, we decided to hike to the next two towns over - Corniglia and Riomaggerio.

The hike to Corniglia took us about 1.5 hours but it was a much harder hike than we had anticipated - very up and down with a path up of un-even stone for most of the way. Since Stacey hikes sometimes with a friend, it was surprising that I was in better shape after it than she was. It was probably a combination of light breakfast, not enough water and a hard hike but she was dizzy with shaking muscles and difficulty concentrating. We decided to have some food, water and rest for a bit and then head back. We paced ourselves on the way back to conserve Stacey's strength and it took us about 2.5 hours but Stacey felt much better afterwards. Normally, we would have had the option of taking a train back to Vernazza from Corniglia but today is one of Italy's train strikes so we didn't have that choice.
April 12th - after a quick breakfast, we squeezed in a little more in Florence before we had to catch the train. Stacey had done some price comparing on a nice leather jacket and got one for a good price. Then we went over to the History of Science musuem, a very cool collection of Renaissance scientific instruments, telescopes, clocks, etc.

Then it was off to Vernazza on our first ride on Italy's second class trains. If you can, ride first class as much as possible. Second class is a lot more crowded and lacks air conditioning.

Vernazza is one of the five towns in "Cinque Terre" on the west coast of Italy. It's a small, semi-isolated sea side town with a bunch of tourists and a nice little beach. Very colourful and relaxing after the last week of running around big cities looking at monuments and museums.
April 11th - Almost missed the train to Florence today. Stacey had trouble finding a bathroom and then it turned out to be a pay toilet and she didn't have any change. We made it on the train with just a minute or two to spare.

Once we got to Florence, everything was good. Found the hotel OK (Hotel Spagne) and wandered around Florence for the afternoon. Florence has the best food so far in Italy - both meals we had here were quite good. Florence seems smaller and a little more relaxed than Rome and the people are the nicest we've met so far.

We didn't have reservations for some of the important art galleries to see but we decided to see if we could get in anyways. After a stop in the market by San Lorenzo, we went to the Acadamie where Michelangelo's David is located but the line was 2 hours in the hot sun so we walked around checking out the churches and architecture.

We went to another open air market, had gelato by the Arno river and then wandered over to the Ufizi gallery. The expected wait was only 45 minutes (in the shade) so we stuck around. Inside were paintings by Boticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, etc. Very cool, "best of the best" kind of stuff. My favourite was Boticelli's Birth of Venus.

When we got out, we dashed back across town to the Acadamie just before it closed and there was no line. Michelangelo's David is one of the few pieces of art I've seen that lives up to all it's hype. It was very moving and beautiful.

After that, we re-crossed town, crossed the river at Ponte Vecchio for a nice dinner.
April 10th - Today we had a pre-booked half day tour of the Vatican. They took us quickly through one wing on the Vatican Museum to the Sistine Chapel. Unlike the Coliseum/Palatine Hill tour we did, this tour allowed no free time so we didn't get to see a lot of things in the huge Vatican Museum, particularly some of the works by Raphael that I would have liked to see.

The Vatican was a zoo. There were tons and tons of people there, particularly tour groups. The floor of the Sistine Chapel was crowded like a cattle car. The art itself was glorious. After that, we went straight into St. Peter's Basilica, which is massive. We didn't end up being able to go the part right in the center (above where Peter is supposed to be buried) due to it being set up for some kind of papal visit. Afterwards, we mailed some postcards from the Vatican post office.

After we left Vatican City, we grabbed lunch in the neighborhood and then walked around to check out the areas around it, like the Parti neighborhood. Then we took the Metro back to the Spanish Steps in order to visit the Keats-Shelley Museum. This is located in the apartment next to the Spanish Steps were Keats died of tuberculosis. It has a recreation of the furniture in the room where he did and a lot of memorabilia (letters, paintings, etc.) of everyone related to Keats and friends - Shelley, Byron, Polidori, etc.

From there we made our way back to the Pantheon to check out the interior we missed yesterday - very impressive. Too bad it was converted into site honouring Christian martyrs but it did result in it being preserved better than a lot of similar sites from the same era.

After a break at the hotel, we had a fixed-price, fixed menu meal at a local restaurant - a semi-traditional 5 course Roman meal and some of the best food we've had on the trip.

On the way back to the hotel, we stumbled across some ruins of a couple of temples where historians think Julius Caesar was killed. Then we stopped by the Coliseum to see it at night.

Rome is an interesting city at night since a lot of the tourists are still hanging around with people peddling little toys and some Roman teens.
April 9th - We started out today with laundry - we washed everything we have worn so far. Then we walked over to the Pantheon but it had already closed early due to Easter holiday. We had lunch in that area then walked south, crossed the Tiber and checked out the Trastavere neighborhood, a less touristy part of the city, walked over to a suburb on Aventine Hill and then grabbed some supper before back to the Spanish Steps and checking out Rome's first (and probably fanciest) McDonalds. A low key day due to the holiday.
April 8th - Got up late after our late night out last night. After breakfast, we caught the Metro over to the Coliseum. The Coliseum is as stunning in person as you would think from the pictures. While we were figuring out the lines, a guy approached us selling tours. It came in two parts - the first half covering the inside of the Coliseum and the second half covering Palatine Hill.

The tour was definitely worth it. It added a bunch of new info I didn't have as well as a added context to a lot of info I already did have. It also gave us free time to walk around the sights during the tours. Each half had a different guide and the second one was a little more personable but they were both good.

After the tour ended, looked around Palatine Hill some more and the descended to the Forum area where we spent the rest of the afternoon. It was very interesting seeing all of the ruins from various periods of Imperial Rome.

At the end of the afternoon, it started to rain so we went inside the Capitoline Museum, which has a ton of great sculptures including an amazing equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

For supper, we walked across the inner city to the Pantheon/Piazza Navona area to get to a restaurant recommended by one of our guide books. It turned out to have good decor, a very tricky location to get to, and only mediocre food.
April 7th - Took the train from Naples to Rome, checked into our hotel (Hotel Alius) and then walked around to check out the shopping areas. Once we got near the main shopping drag, the streets got incredibly crowded. The high end shops had some clothes that were interesting for Stacey so we stopped and she looked around in a bunch of them.

After that, we went to eat and walked past the Spanish Steps. Our first choice was closed but the second, Ristorante Aurora, was the best food so far in Italy, but a little more expensive than we thought. They price some things (fish/shellfish) by the 100g and it added up to more than we expected.

After that, we walked to Trevi fountain which was an amazing scene, lit up for night and mobbed be people. After that we walked back to our hotel (past Trajan's column, one of the things we will check out tomorrow).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

April 6th - We took the train from Sorrento to Naples, stopping at Pompeii along the way. At the Pompeii station, we made our way through a short guantlet of tourist traps to the actual ruins.

Seeing the ruins was amazing. The ruins cover approximately 160 acres are are around three quarters excavated. We didn't have all day so we followed the recommended route in Rick Steve's book and saw the highlights, including the House of the Faun, the brothel, the temples of Isis and Apollo, the theater and the Forum. Some of the sections were closed off for renovations and there seemed to be a ton more to see so I would definitely go back. We ate at the Pompeii cafeteria and the food was actually pretty good. Then we got back on the train and continued on to Naples.

The ride to Naples was through some very dumpy/scruffy looking areas. A lot of the homes here appear to be big boxy apartment building.

Once we got to Naples, we caught an over-priced taxi to our hotel, Hotel Neapolis. The driving around the train station was like what we had seen around the airport. Cars, and pedestrians, came from every which way and intermingled according to no rhyme or reason. I think the only reason they don't end up with a ton of hurt people is because everyone pays attention at all times.

Our taxi had to stop and ask directions because our hotel was on a very short street in one of the oldest parts of Naples, all one narrow one way and pedestrian only streets. After we got to the hotel, we got a nasty surprise - there was a problem and they couldn't give us a room. They paid for the taxi ride to another hotel that could accomodate us and paid for the other hotel as well, since we had pre-paid through a travel agent.

The new hotel, Hotel Cavour, turned out to be right next to the train station and the driver who took us there was the one who gave directions to our first taxi driver. It was quite nice - we got a room on the top floor with a balcony, presumably to make up for the screw up earlier.

After a brief rest, we went out to go see one of Naples attractions, the Archaeological Museum. The neighborhood around the hotel/train station was quite seedy and a little un-nerving. We had gotten walking directions to the museum from the hotel but Naples is so confusing that we couldn't even find the right street out of the square the hotel was in! We had to go back and ask for directions again. It turned out that one of the streets we were supposed to take changed names partway down so we couldn't find it under the name we were given.

The museum was started in 1777 and contains a lof of the frescoes and statues that were removed from Pompeii so it was a good companion to our earlier visit. It also includes a number of erotic works that are kept in a "secret room" that used to require a special pass from the government to get into.

After the museum, we walked back to the hotel through a roundabout route through the center of the city to see a few more sites. I don't know how one could live with the chaos here everyday. At the end of the day we had supper in one of the classic pizzeria's (invented in Naples) and gelato from the oldest gelateria in town.
April 5th - Today we took a bus down to Positano and Amalfi on the Amalfi Coast. The drive down the Amalfi Coast is wild - very curvy, hilly and narrow. Vehicles often have to slow down or stop to make room for vehicles coming the other way.

Positano was cool - it is built in a ravine leading down to the beach and is more vertical than horizontal. Almost all of the streets are pedestrian only and there are lots of winding stairs that connect the streets between buildings. The bus stops at the top and and we walked down to the beach through the town, stopping at the many fashion shops. The beach was small but nice and we ate lunch at an open air section of place called Bar Mulano Verde. Then we walked back up to the bus stop at the other end of town and rode down to Amalfi.

Amalfi was more car (and therefore more tourist) friendly. There were some interesting back streets and a a huge cathedral that claimed to house the bones of St. Andrew, Christ's first disciple. Afterwards, we caught the bus back to Sorrento, which turned out to be a nightmare. Due to a road being out, the ride back ended up being almost 2 hours long and we were some of the last people on so we ended up standing for most of the ride. In addition, either the AC was out or the bus driver didn't want to use it so it was sweltering. One kid on the ride ended up being sick from the winding ride/heat.

We had dinner at Ristorante Caruoso in Sorrento's central square. The food was mediocre.
April 4th - Our flight from Rome to Naples was delayed, forcing us to re-book a driver we had scheduled from Naples to Sorrento. At one point we thought we might have to shell out for a 150 Euro cab ride but the B&B we were staying at helped us get a driver. The driver turned out to get the father of the family who runs Mami Camilla. the B&B/cooking school.

Traffic in Naples near the airport seems insane. There don't seem to be actual lanes/stop signs/traffic lights most of the time. People just inserted themselves anywhere they could. Things calmed down when we got away from the center of Naples but it was crazy (in a different way) when we got to Sorrento. Sorrento has old, narrow, winding streets, some inter-locking one-way, some just big enough to be two way if both cars are accomodating.

After checking in, we walked into the center of Sorrento to check it out. The center area has some pedestrian only streets (some are only big enough for pedestrians!) and a real old-world feel. According to our guide book, at least one of the streets has been here for more than 2000 years.

We also stopped in a nice cathedral, Stacey went into some shops and we saw the Sorrento's Men's Club. We also got soaked on the way back to the B&B. I had decided to not bring an umbrella when we went walking and it rained.

We had dinner at Mami Camilla - every night they have the students and the staff cook dinner and the guests can join in. The dishes were good but not great. The conversations with the other guests was interesting - a lot of them were from the UK.
I'm back in California. The next few posts will be from a day log I kept while in Italy. Then I'll post some general thoughts and summaries of books I read while on vacation.