Friday, May 14, 2010

Can You Hear The Sirens Singing?

We were in no hurry to get out of bed this morning because it was raining when we went to bed last night and we knew it would be raining all day today. So we finally roused ourselves (because breakfast was ending at 10:30) but were not looking forward to seeing the rain out our balcony window. Actually, we really didn’t have any idea what we would see out the window because it was pitch black when we checked in the night before. So when Ian got up, peeked out the black out shades and moaned “oh man”, I knew the weather predictions were correct. So I laid back down only to be blinded when Ian threw open the curtains to reveal ……. (Angels singing)……. endless clear blue skies over a deep blue sea. We would have done some sort of jig right there but we soon realized the man in his speedo on the “get your tan here” deck had a pretty clear view straight into our room. Ian quickly pulled the wispy privacy drapes closed and then we really celebrated!
No - not what you are thinking. Unfortunately.

But I wet myself just a little bit when I saw nothing but blue sky.

We ate our breakfast on an outdoor terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the picturesque village of Positano. We expected every little cloud in the sky to somehow come together and ruin all our happiness, but it never happened. The warm sun that morning on that breakfast terrace had never felt better to two weary, wet travelers. It was glorious.

So what better way to celebrate than to go shopping?! Not really, but we (I) wanted to explore the town a little bit before any rain came back, we took the 246 stairs that zig-zagged down the cliff to the stony beach. We walked down the beach and got so excited about putting our feet in the water because it was so not expected for that day. We just chillaxed on the beach for a while and decided to weave our way back up through town to the main road. This town was also car-less below the main road and had only skinny alley ways and stairs that weaved their way back up the cliff-side. In and out of the shops, we eventually made it back to our hotel where we were still stoked about the lack of rain.

I’m taking over to finish this up. Sunny Positano was awesome. I didn’t even mind wandering aimlessly through the shops with Kitty. No, really, I didn’t. After trying to keep up with Kitty the past two weeks, a sleepy, sunny, warm, beach town was just what the Dr. ordered. I guess Positano’s big thing is lemons… that and people in skimpy bathing suits. Did I say people? I meant to say men in skimpy bathing suits. Those Europeans must have a great sense of humor or think Speedos look totally hot on hairy, overweight, middle-aged men. Anyway, after about an hour of lemon-based souvenir shops, I was ready to break out the tighty-whities and hit the beach-chairs on the deck of our hotel and get some sun on my paper-white shoulders.

Yes- that is me setting an awesome tan! Seriously as soon as we got all set on our chairs the wind picked up and it was pretty chilly. But we were not going to let weather dictate our lounging activities. So we stayed. Pretty soon the wind settled and then we were too hot. Seriously - we are hard to please!
We went back into town, haggled with a vendor (lady) over some jewelry, grabbed some sandwiches and hung out on the beach. The public beach, not the pay-portion of the beach with the fancy beach chairs, umbrellas and drink service. Which costs 15 Euro per person to sweat in. Robbery. Collected pieces of colored beach-glass, back through town, got a better deal on the jewelry from the vendor lady’s husband while she was away (score!) and got ready for dinner. We got some gelato somewhere in there, but I can’t remember when. 15 Euro for Gelato- I don't see a problem.

Food has been a big part of the trip, but dinner at Trattoria La Tagliata was ridiculous! The guy at the front desk of the hotel recommended it (and a couple others) so we made reservations for sunset (which is totally early for us on this trip) and scheduled a pick-up. The restaurant is higher in the mountains far above Positano. A shuttle was sent to pick us up and drop us at the gates of food Nirvana. The drive on the winding, shear-cliff roads was worth it on its own. After changing my pants, we went inside. We got a table by the window, and we were already giddy. Maybe it was the altitude or the lemoncello or the views, but we were pretty stoked before we even had any food. It’s a family run restaurant and the daughter came out to tell us a bit about the place, its history and that there is no menu, and that the meal was prepared from their own gardens. They just bring you what they are cooking that night and hope you like it. And then the avalanche of food started coming out, kind of sampler style. We had about 5 different types of appetizers (fava beans prepared two different ways… we’d never even had fava beans one-way before), and then five different types of pastas, and then five different types of meat from the grill (chicken, steak, pork, lamb and rabbit), and then 3 kinds of desert. We were full after the appetizers, but kept eating so we didn’t offend the chef (who was in front of the grill at the other end of the room yelling something at the top of his lungs every 20 minutes or so). So I know this paragraph was way too long, but this was just such a fun place. The food was great, but the experience was even better. If you’re in Positano, this place is a must.

Then back down the mountain to the hotel in a shuttle full of insanely happy, very full, very talkative diners who were bursting to share their experiences. Although all 10 in the van ate the same food, we all had different versions of the same experience.
I love this place.

I must state, for the record, that Ian's account of the meal we ate at La Tagliata were mere words where words fall short at doing any justice to the experience. It was a state of euphoria I never knew food could induce. I am pretty sure the servers thought we were on something, if you know what I mean, because we couldn't stop giggling. Thinking about it now makes me feel full, gluttonous, and giddy all over again.


The Loader
The Washer

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get Outta Town - #5

Time to pack up again and head for a new destination. Of course we had to get some shopping in before we left Rome, because we have unfortunately learned by now that the best shopping possibilities were behind us in Florence, Milan, and Siena. But I did not want to lug trinkets all over Italy with us when we faced the goods the first time. So we headed off, hitting one too many souvenir shop. We were not in much of a hurry because we were catching a train and we knew they were plentiful headed south towards Naples.

Goods in hand we decided to try again to get one last taste of the heavenly focaccia from our first night in Rome meal. And we made sure we walked the extra half-mile back to the place before the closed for siesta. Arrived, it was open, we were drooling. We even had the same waitress who knew exactly what we were talking about when we ordered famed focaccia. “solo notte” was the reply. We were confused. “only nighttime.” She settled our confusion. It was enough to make us, well me, start crying on the spot. But I held it together and ordered caprese and a frittata in stead. It was so disappointing.
Trying to help the situation, I asked for a little plate for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip some of their dry, bland bread in. We already had the vinegar and oil for the salad. To add insult to injury, they ended up charging us 4 euros for using the vinegar and oil for our bread. Apparently it comes with the salad, but not the bread. Always the cheapskate, that made me cry on the spot (ok, not really).
Back to the hotel to collect our bags and make a reservation at a hotel in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast. That’s’ right, we didn’t have anything booked. We wanted to leave it open just in case we really liked Rome and wanted to stay longer. We were ready for some down time and couldn’t wait to get outta town, For the 5th time now.

Our leisurely pace soon turned frantic as we realized the next train left in 20 min and if we really hurried, and used all of our positive thinking powers, we might just make it (Better with my time management skills than some, I knew we’d never make it no matter how positive we were thinking). So off to the metro, up to the Termini train station, miss train, buy tickets for the next one, and spend the next 40 minutes wandering from “info desk” to “tourist help desk” to try and figure out what “NO POSTO GUARENTO”, which was printed on our tickets meant. I was seriously amazed at how everyone we asked seemed unwilling (tourist desk woman who spoke perfect English but said –no train information here), or unable (language barrier), to help us. The last man said, “ Just get on the train. Ask on train.”

So we got on another high-speed train and we figured out soon enough what NO POSTO GUARENTO means. Basically they over sell the train by about 10%. So most of the passengers have assigned seats, but those of us with NO POSTO have to wander the train cars in search of an empty seat and hope that no one came to claim it. It was a little nerve racking to be so clueless about how it all worked. Ian found an empty seat, asked the girls sitting near it if it was taken, and they both got up and left the seats. I think they mistakenly assumed they were our seats. Their loss.

We were feeling pretty comfy in our seats as the train pulled away from the station. But as more and more people came down the isles and kept kicking squatters out of their seats we got a little nervous. Eventually a man kicked Ian out of his seat and he got to stand for the hour and 10 minute trip to Naples. But don’t’ feel bad for him- he was entertained by Avitar on someone’s laptop for the trip.

Arriving in Naples we had to find the next train to Sorrento. In all of my advanced reading and research I somehow missed the fact that the “train” to Sorrento is actually a Metro train with 36 stops!! And the train was packed with all kinds of rowdy Napolites so we enjoyed the ride standing until the 22nd stop. The scenery slowly changed from heavily spray painted everything with hanging laundry in between to glimpses of the sea and terracotta roofs. (but the graffiti was always lurking.)
The graffiti has matched the areas we’ve been in, modern graffiti in Milan, more colorful and better quality graffiti in Florence, simple but plentiful graffiti in Rome (I actually saw a guy carrying a baby in a baby bjorn pull out a paint pen and write all over the walls while waiting for the Metro and in the middle of a conversation with two pregnant women… kind of weird), but the graffiti in Naples reached a whole new level. You could hardly see out of a lot of the train windows it was so bad.
It was dark as we got of the train and headed out of the station to the local bus that drives the road between Sorrento and the Cliffside towns of the Amalfi Coast. Little did we know, but the 9pm bus that we hopped on was the last of the night. So glad we made it! As we took off from the station it started to rain. We knew it was forecasted to rain all of the next day, and although we hesitated going all the way down to Positano to be in the rain, we decided we were sick of the rain in Rome, so might as well go.

Mario Andretti has nothing on the SITA bus drivers. The roads they drive on are INSANE! Although we could see what was out our window, something Ian and his fear of heights was grateful for, we knew we were on some very curvy, sheer cliff-side roads – in the rain !! I am not one who gets motion sickness, but when our bus came to a stop, I was pretty happy to get off.
A college student girl in the seat in front of us only made it half-way through the trip before she started barfing. That was fun to hear the rest of the way. We felt bad for her, but were glad it wasn't us.. I was on the verge.
So we unload all of our stuff off the bus, in the rain, on the side of a poorly lit cliff and the buss pulls away and just leaves us there. That mental image will be forever burned into my memory. It was like a scene out of a comedy, so we just had to start laughing. We started to walk down the only road we saw and hoped it headed into Positano and towards our hotel. I don’t know how we ended up choosing the Maricanto Hotel, but I am so glad we did. Main reason- it was only about 100 yards down the hill from the bus stop.

Into the room and off to the nearest restaurant for our 10:30pm dinner. Right on schedule! Ian was in heaven with another seafood dish which I was happy to observe disappear from the sidelines. Back to the room (3 times the size of the closet we just left) where we fell asleep to sound of waves crashing on the rocks below.


The Loader
The Washer

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

O Holy Day

We are not fans of alarm clocks. Especially the early morning types. We are soul mates in that area. It is true love based on a foundation of good sleep. (and a foundation that the good sleep shouldn’t start until around midnight) So when we had to set an alarm for this morning so we wouldn’t miss our date with the Pope, we weren’t thrilled. I did make the appointment purposely super early, at 9:30am :-), so that we would get our butts out of bed and get our day started. After an even quicker breakfast than usual, we made our way to the Metro, two stops and we were at Vatican City.

We hurried to meet the tour guide I had booked weeks prior to our arrival because I knew the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica is huge and would be overwhelming to try and navigate on our own. With just a few minutes to spare, of course we headed the wrong way. We were supposed to meet at the entrance to the Vatican Museum, but we headed towards St. Peter’s square instead. After asking a Swiss guard, who looked like he was 14, where the museum was he told us to follow the wall all the way around the city until we found it. Now our little cushion of time was gone and we were running.

(the Hot Dog On A Stick uniform has got nothin on these guys)

Until we ran right into two Mormon missionaries. “What’s up Elders?!?’ It was so surreal to be walking around the wall of Vatican City, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, and come face-to-face with two young faced boys. Even though we were running, we had to stop and talk. They were from California and Utah and when I asked if they usually just hang out around here, they said Noooooo Way. Turns out the elder from California was heading home later that day and they were running to get one last souvenir for his mom and dad. It was a highlight for me and if we didn’t have plans I would have asked if we could have taken them to lunch. (blah, blah, blah)

On our way to the museum entrance we rushed passed a line that was easily 500 yards long. We decided at that moment booking a tour guide was worth every penny just to get us into the museum without waiting in that lengthy line. As we arrived at the entrance Francesca was waiting with a sign with our name on it. Hallelujah! And just like that we followed her through the metal detector, security check, and into the Vatican Museum for our private little tour.

The line jumping was a great perk in addition to having someone to make sense of all the chaos. I lose interest quickly without the little back stories.

The collection at the Vatican is so extensive that it takes up 5 miles of space if line up side by side. Something crazy like that. So we followed while Francesca led and explained stuff about stuff and more stuff and more stuff. It was pretty cool, but wouldn’t have been as meaningful without our guide. (Francesca has a Masters and PhD on the Renaissance so she was really good with all the different scandals that occurred with the different popes, cardinals, bishops, artists, and their families, turns out that there are some good reasons why some didn’t become saints). We saw the rooms Rubens painted for one of the Popes apartments. And then we wound our way up and down finally filling Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Most memorable moments in the Sistine Chapel….
  • Ian taking video and getting caught by the very angry security guard for his mistake. (I didn’t see the no video/photo signs, probably because I was blinded by all the flashes of people disregarding the signs).

  • The same angry security guard getting even angrier at the Indian couple next to us who didn’t understand (or just didn’t care) about the no photo rule. (I thought he might beat them with his billy-club)

  • The large dark square on the wall to show the chapel pre-14-year-restoration.

  • Ian’s surprise over the small scale of the famous painting of God touching Adam’s finger.

  • Feeling like we were on the set of Angels and Demons with all of the Cardinals (although there were none in sight) during Conclave.

Then we filed with the masses towards the largest church in the world, St, Peter’s Basilica. (on the way our guide was telling us about all of the naughty Popes and their sordid stories. Seriously interesting, but so not appropriate for retelling here). What else can we say….the Basilica was a freaking huge- two football fields long and 11 stories high. And that is just the nave and dome. More relics, including glass coffins with entire bodies of Popes who are now Saints, more statues (Michelangelo, Bernini, and more domes - 11 in all. So we just climbed the 500+ step to the top, because that is what we do. It was raining when we got to the top, which made things interesting. So we hurried down and made our way out of the big Vatican City, pop 998.

(People don't always pay attention to this sign. We had a bit of a traffic jam when an older lady couldn't make it up and had to come down. See the picture of the steps below and imagine someone trying to come down the same steps at the same time as it is filled with people going up. Not good.)

It was 2pm by then and time to eat (man- our entries are getting really repetitive. And yes- we know they are long (my posts aren’t as long). But it’s journaling, right?!) So we didn’t just eat at the first place we came across (mistake) and decided it would be cool to eat on Piazza Nuvona (another Angels and Demons site – place where he tries to drown the cardinal). But when we sat at one of the many restaurants lining the piazza we just weren’t feeling it. Looking back- we were idiots. But hindsight. . . oh well. We decided nothing sounded better than the foccaccia wonder we had last night. We wanted it so badly we were willing to walk another mile and a half to get it.

Walk, rain, walk, rain, walk, walk, walk, CLOSED, crap! Nice try. So now we sat at practically the next place we saw and had a great meal. What ev. Now I am even boring myself!
(I'm pretty sure Tyler had a similar hairdo at the end of his first year at BYU. Is that what hooked you Ashley?)

And later we took a cab over to a neighborhood called Trastevere for dinner. Did a night walk through the neighborhood, saw some stuff and ate some yummy dinner, and got caught in a serious downpour after dinner without umbrella #2. Since we refused to spend another Euro for umbrella #3, which was repeatedly offered to us from every wandering street vendor we passed, we sat out the worst of the rain in a tiny gelateria then headed out. Of course Trastevere was the furthest we had ventured from our hotel and of course every taxi we passed was full, so we had another memorable walk towards home. When it really started pouring again we took shelter with others under an awning, which turned out to be a taxi line. So eventually we were in the back of a taxi speeding towards our comfortable bed-in-a-closet for a good nights sleep.

On the umbrella thing, we were about to buy a tiny, overpriced umbrella from one street vendor, but when he opened it up (new right out of the plastic) the handle fell off before he could even hand it to us. I just couldn’t do it.


The Loader
The Washer

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Romancing the Rome

Although our room was tiny at the River Palace Hotel in Rome, the real value was in the black out shades. With no set plans for the morning, other than doing our laundry, (I know- our first morning in the Eternal City and we are washing our undies, because we are out) we were able to sleep in a bit for the first time on this trip. We slept in until 9:30 and then had to scurry to get ready and go down for breakfast before they stopped serving. Every place we have stayed has had breakfast included with the room, and that’s been a life-saver.
Life saver may be an exaggeration, but it has been convenient. I am pretty sick of muesli and yogurt now.

After breakfast we did a little game-planning for our time in Rome and booked a tour for later that afternoon of some of the ancient Roman sites (they’re all ancient, but some are ancienter than others) like the Colosseum, the Forum, where Julius Caesar was killed, the Arch of Constantine, etc., and then we headed out to do laundry.

We had a false-start with a nearby laundromat that turned out not to be a self-serve laundromat (that was an awkward, translation-plagued conversation), we jumped on the metro for a laundromat near Vatican City. We found it without incident and the guy running it was a lot of help. We hung out for the next hour (catching up on the blog to pass the time).

I don’t know if we should admit that we wasted an hour of time in a laundromat 2 blocks away from the Vatican and all its sites. What can I say? It has been a long trip and we needed a little down time. The Indian laundry house was the perfect place.

While sitting inside, we heard a big crash right in the street right out front. We looked out to see that two scooters had crashed into each other. One rider was up and about, but the woman on the other scooter was still on the ground. We hear a lot of sirens in Rome (and everywhere else we’ve been for that matter), but it sure did take a long time for the ambulance to finally arrive.(Enough time that we were able to fold and pack all of our laundry and leave before the ambulance arrived. I think it was lost in the crazy streets.)

The guy running the laundromat said she was going to be ok. (For sure take the word of the laundry-man.) It’s a common occurrence with how crowded and crazy the streets are. With our clean laundry in tow, we headed back to the hotel to catch our tour.

It turns out that a lot of the tours are closed on Wednesdays for some reason, but we found one that the hotel recommended. Most of the tours we were looking at had about 8-12 people per tour, so that’s what we were expecting. They picked us up in a shuttle bus, and took us across town to their headquarters where they loaded us on a ginormous bus along with about 55 others. About 12 of them were French speaking and had their own guide, but we were pretty disappointed to be in such a big group. The tour was overpriced and just ok, but we wished we had just gone on our own with the Rick Steves audio guides we had downloaded to our ipods back hom

Side note- every large tour group we had seen up to that point was one we swore we would never go on. Following behind someone carrying an umbrella while talking into a microphone so we could listen to the remote headset around our necks. Slick system, but not our cup of tea. It was a learning experience. Plus we were kind of tired of being our self-guided selves. We wanted someone else to tell us what we didn’t know – which is a lot!

Interesting facts we learned on the tour: Not many gladiators actually got killed in the Colosseum. It turns out it was big business to care for and train the gladiators, and the managers didn’t want their investments killed so quickly, so the weapons were pretty dull and they were trained just to maim the other person. So much more civilized. They also got good medical care. They would get knocked out with opium before surgeries.

And gladiators were like rock stars who had to use a private tunnel entrance to keep all of the crazy “Fans” from touching them. Just like modern day stars.

At the end of the tour we ditched the tour bus and kept touring on our own. We made our way over to the Pantheon. This is a seriously old building. It is the only building in Rome to have been in continuous use since [like a bigillion years ago] We also learned that the Romans were great recyclers. Some emperor or ruler would have a massive bronze statue of themselves (or some other building) erected and the next guy in charge would melt (or tear) it down to make his own or to make weapons. That’s why there aren’t a lot of bronze statues left, even though they were so prevalent during that time period.

Ian just got hi-jacked because he is totally confusing days and sites and information. But he can tell you every Gelato flavor he has had since we landed.

After the Pantheon highlights were the Trevi fountain – huge and packed with tourists- and the Spanish Steps – huge and packed with tourists. The beauty of the steps was that we arrived just as the sun was setting. We climbed to the top, dodging the pushy rose sellers, as we went. We arrived at the top and staked out a place to take in all of Rome;s rooftops and many domes while the sun set behind the hills to the west. It was just lovely.

We eventually made it back to our room to change and get ready for dinner. Another day where the rain threatened but never ruined our plans. While still home Ian had been sent a list of reviews of restaurants in Rome. The reviews were done by a student in Rome who fancied himself some kind of epicurean. I only read one of the reviews before we left and it mentioned a gnocchi with gorgonzola, prosciutto, and black truffle dish as one of the most memorable he had ever eaten. So we were off to find Pietros.

We broke down and took a taxi to dinner. I was pretty sure our cab driver was either lost or driving some totally indirect route to jack up the fare since I could clearly see from the map that there was a road that went straight to the area the restaurant was in. So, here I was trying to give the taxi driver (who had GPS and didn’t speak much English) directions to a place I’d never been. Turns out that straight road was one-way in the other direction and he was right after all. Go figure. (yeah- that was classic. Ian trying to tell the local, experienced driver armed with GPS that he was obviously going the wrong way. Laughable!)

Dinner was the highlight of my day (besides spending more time with Kitty of course). Keep it coming! Pietros was on a tiny street with a tiny sign and tiny door (OK- normal size door) and it was tiny. Only 7 tables! Simone, who runs the place, greeted us at the door with a handshake and very warm welcome. There was only one other couple in the place. Simone was also our waitress. She explained at the beginning (in a thick Italian accent) “If youa donta lika, youa donta pay.” We paid for everything. From the fried mozzarella stuffed zucchini flowers to the asparagus with lemon and parmesan – everything was delicious. And the host made the meal even better. Simone had us sign a little book with our address so she could send us a Christmas card.

The clouds came back during dinner and it rained a bit while we ate, but stopped by the time we were done (which had to be close to midnight) and since we were so full, we decided to walk back to the hotel. The walk back was a little surreal. Just strolling through Rome with Kitty in the middle of the night, after such a fun evening. Perfect.

Perfect until I stepped in something slimy in my new Italian shoes. A few steps later when we saw more piles of slimy stuff we realized that Romans don’t always pick up their dogs business. Yep- pretty sick.

Oh- and Ian forgot to mention that he totally fell for one of the pushy flower guys cunning tactics. I think he was all caught up in the moment – having read about a meal in another country, eaten said meal that exceeded expectations, walking through a romantic city just after the rain…. So the guy gives me the long stemmed rose and I say “No Grazie” as always. He keeps persisting. I do too. But he tells Ian “gratis” which means free. Ian thinks- oh I like free and takes the flower. Then the guys says “Kiss her” and so Ian does, thanks the man and is giddy like a school girl as we walk away. 10 seconds later the guy turns around, follows us and let’s Ian know that yes the flower was free, but 50 cents for the kiss. So the man got his money and we laughed about it the rest of the way home (as long as I didn’t think about the poop on my shoe).

Girls, we're super excited to see you soon. Can't wait.


The Washer
The Loader

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Travels in Tuscany

I'm writing this post while speeding from Rome to Naples. We are behind on the blog, but with good cause. We are on vacation and are busy having fun. I am sure you think I am the one eager to post, but you have to know the truth. Ian is the main force behind this blogging thing. He definitely feels a need to keep the girls informed. I seriously feel a need to sleep when not doing as the Romans do. (The reason she needs to sleep, is because she runs around like a crazy woman during the morning, day, evening and night. There aren’t a lot of things left to see in Italy.)

Anyhow, back to Sienna. Woke up to a dreary, rain soaked morning in Sienna. Since we had spent a good portion of the night before roaming the dark streets, we weren’t too anxious to roam those same streets in pouring rain. But we decided we should at least make a visit to the Church of San Dominico dedicated to Saint Catherine. Who is Saint Catherine? We didn’t know, but I liked her name and thought it would make my mom happy to have me visit a Saint named after me. :-)

So after a quick breakfast, where we eavesdropped on an aristocratic woman spewing big words about how terrible the Catholics were and all religions in general were about money and power, we headed out in the rain. (It wasn’t really eavesdropping, we were in a small outdoor breakfast atrium and she was a loud American.) Armed with our trusty umbrella #2, we made it to the Sanctuary of Saint Catherine only to wonder what all of it was about. There wasn’t much in our guide book about this place and all of the little signs were in Italian. So we made a quick round of the place, squeezing past 2 large Italian 7th grade school groups, and back into the street.

That red stuff is orange juice by the way. Colors don't quite match up on the food here.

We found the church at the top on the hill just inside the ancient wall that surrounded the city of Siena. The bells were ringing in the bell tower, but it wasn’t on the hour or half or quarter past either. Who knows what they ring the bells around here for, but they are going off pretty frequently. So we went inside another huge cathedral. Woo-hoo. The place was packed with many tourists seeking shelter from the rain. The high points of this church were its relics (we are learning some Catholic terms here). The relics included the actually thumb and head (yes HEAD) of the very Saint the Church was named after. And all of the hoards were pressing to get a good look and try to snap a photo. The man “guarding” the head was getting very angry with all of the idiots who didn’t read the signs. He kept shouting “NO PHOTO!!! Lady- no photo, no photo. Mister. NO photo.” Saint Catherine didn’t mind having her picture taken though so I don’t know why he was getting so worked up.

The relics thing is a bit odd here. People line up to see a thumb or skull or some bone fragment that is supposedly from some important ancient saint. I’m a little skeptical.

Eager to hop back into the Panda, we slogged back to our hotel and loaded the car. We made it out of Siena with out any near death experiences this time. We were taking the scenic route through Tuscany and had planned to stop in a few medieval towns along the way. As we started driving the rain started to let up and clouds cruised by. Not that it was all blue and sunny, but it was better than we expected.

It was truly a real scenic drive. Not just a pretend one. We drove by Montalcino on our way to Pienza, where we planned to stop for lunch. Pienza was just as cute as all the rest, except fewer tourists and narrower streets. It was very small and I wanted to wrap it up and bring it home to California in my suitcase. We were lured into a store because of the choking smell of fresh leather. Every kind of leather product was sold from key chain characters to shoes, bags to leather covered scooter helmets. Because the guy behind the counter was so friendly, and because he said his father designed everything in the store, we decided we should pick up some handmade leather goods. A pair of shoes for me and a belt for Ian. Super spiffy.

By now we were starving. Although the croissants that morning were the best yet, we were running on empty and needed to refuel. So we asked the sales man to recommend somewhere quick. We went to the small place he said to go (we’ll never actually know if it was the right place) and ordered some crap to eat. It was crap, but the place was so small it was like we couldn’t get out of there without feeling bad. But luckily I had a melt-down so Ian asked for the crap to go so we could leave and eat where I wanted to eat. I don’t care if I sound high maintenance, it was worth it.

I confirm that it was a high-maintenance moment, but to her credit, the food really was bad. We hadn’t had any truly bad food in Italy (except for the translation problems at the beginning) and it was worth the move to the other ristorante.

We ended up eating at a place we thought was closed, but the owner happily invited us in. I had read about this little place in my book and was looking forward to trying some of their specialties. Pienza is known for its Pecorino cheese, and this restaurant made all kinds of crostini’s featuring pecorino. I ordered mine with pear and Ian had his with plum and prosciutto. And a side of steaming, sauteed vegetables and we were in our own private little heaven. It was great!

A little more shopping in Pienza and then we were off. Drove through Montepulciano, but didn’t stop. We were headed for the Autostrada and one tinier town on our way to Rome. Cruising down the highway, and still getting passed like crazy, we missed the exit for Civita, our last detour before Rome. No worries, we’ll just get off at the next one and go back. Only problem- the next exit wasn’t for another 30 minutes. Ian was unwilling to backtrack, and I gave in because we really had seen plenty of little towns. But this one was, I’m sure, the cutest of them all. Oh well.

In my defense, we didn’t really “miss” the exit. There were two small towns by the same name, and we blew past the one we really wanted to go to, but the navigator (I won’t name any names in order to protect her identity), didn’t realize it until we were well past the exit. I had enough driving by that point and I was determined to make it to Rome.

We were quickly getting into the suburbs of Rome. I knew they were building a temple in Rome and it was on our way into town. So I googled it and then mapped the route out on Ian’s phone. With my mad navigating skills and Ian’s mad driving skills we made it to our intended destination. Only problem was – we made it to the site of the future temple. The construction has yet to begin. And I am sure it is going to be the cutest of them all. Oh well.

It was a really nice chain-link fence and field, well worth the driving detour and countless u-turns in Roman traffic to get there.

I’m going to hijack this post from Kitty, because we’re three days behind now, and she takes too long and gives too much detail (which I’m sure you like).

The rest of the drive to our hotel in Rome went way better than I expected. Kitty did a great job navigating through rush hour traffic, right to the hotel. I was anxious to see the hotel. We splurged a bit on this one and were expecting some fanciness. It wasn’t too imposing or impressive from the outside, but the lobby was really nice. Then the porter led us to our room, opened the door and… wait for it… showed us what had to be a large closet. With a bed that nearly went from wall to wall. I could lay on the bed and touch both sides of the room with my toes and fingers. Nice!!! We were a bit disappointed since we’ve had such great luck with hotels up to this point. Oh, well, it’s not like we’re spending much time in our hotel anyway.

We next returned the rental car to the Hertz dealer “right up the hill.” We spent the next half hour driving at night (many illegal maneuvers) all over the [freaking] city trying to find the drop-off location. After finally finding it, we walked back to the hotel (Kitty was a bit frustrated with me on the walk back but a great dinner, at about 10:30pm, fixed everything.)

Ah ha! The real reason Ian hi-jacked this post. So I couldn’t give details of the incedent that lead to me being “a bit frustrated with” Ian. I can laugh now, but man- our first night in Rome was a doozy. We were seriously wandering lost, but still laughing about the craziness of the driving. And then…. Well, I’ll really spare you the details. But the hot foccacia with arugula (my new favorite), tomatoes and olive oil was ah-mae-zing and made everything all better.

Then back to the hotel to crash sometime after 12:30am.

Ciao Ciao

The Washer
The Loader

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rain + Rome = Running

We just got in from a midnight run (literally running) through Rome after dinner. Didn't bring the umbrella out this evening because we thought the rain was over- we were wrong. So now we are soaked. No public transportation in the neighborhood we decided to explore tonight. But we are in our 8 X 8 room safe and sound and satisfied with yet another memorable night on this trip.

Wish we had it in us to write more tonight, but we definitely don't. We will catch up tomorrow while we are riding the train down to the Almafi Coast.

We were talking about our little chickies at home tonight and both got misty eyed over how much we actually miss them. Dear CQT&S- we love and miss you very much! We are so grateful to their amazing Grandmas who are loving them while we are gone. And we love all of our friends who are hugging them for us too!

Fino alla mattina


The Loader

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Italian Rainforest?

After a quick bite to eat this morning (breakfasts have all included croissants, jams, musli cereal, yogurt - and meats and cheeses that we have yet to try… not that we don’t want to,
I don’t want to, but by the time you’ve eaten four different pastries, fresh juice (the colors of the juices here don’t match the colors back home) we’re usually just too full for meats and cheeses), we got all ready for our hike to each of the Cinque Terre towns.
And that was the end to the longest sentence in history

The weather report said rain, but it was just a little overcast when we left, perfect for hiking.
Sorry- but perfect hiking for me would have been in my bathing suit.

For centuries these sleepy fishing villages built into the steep, oceanfront hillsides have been connected to each other by narrow walking trails. It takes about 5 hours of hiking to get from town #1 Monterroso al Mare to town #5 Riomaggiore, if you hike straight through, longer if you stop at the villages along the way. We were warned that it’s a pretty challenging walk/hike. They weren’t kidding.

Since each of the towns are at sea level, first you hike up… and up… and up into the lush terraced (for grape growing) mountainsides. It’s quite green with a lot of flowers, plants, etc. It felt more like Hawaii than Italy. About ¾ of a mile into the hike, we were totally sweating and winded going up these endless steps.

Steps that were totally reminiscent of our Half Dome hike. Never ending, butt-cramping, slick-stone steps.

That’s when we came around a corner to find an 80 year old lady with a walker doing it one step at a time. We don’t know how far she was going, but she said she didn’t need any help. At her pace, she’s probably still hiking to Vernazza.

He’s not kidding. I am still worried about her and hope that she just turend around and went back to Monterroso. She was all alone.

The views were great and it was good to get some exercise for once (just a joke, we haven’t stopped walking since we got here).
And we have done a good amount of steps every day. All to counteract the gelato and eating dinner at 10pm.

We wish we had a pedometer to see how far we’ve walked (that sounds totally nerdy doesn’t it?).

Vernazza, the first town on our hike was about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Monterroso. We were going to see Vernazza, grab a quick focaccia for the road and keep going, but that’s when the rain started. It quickly turned into a torrential downpour. So we busted out the plastic raincoats we bought that morning. Lucky this wasn’t Milan, or we probably would have been refused service for the way we looked, but here in the Cinque Terre, it’s function over fashion.
As you can see, our rain coats were stylin’. Ian wanted to be yellow too, but I refused to let us become more dorky than we already were.
The downpour didn’t subside, so we decided to wait it out with a longer sit-down lunch. That was the best decision of the day. We ate in a small, family-run trattoria and had our best lunch ever. The region is famous for its pesto and they have a pasta that is specially made for pesto sauce, Trophie. It came out looking pretty plain, but it was awesome. It’s now the standard we compare all our meals to.

Seriously, I asked if I could kiss the cook. She was the Mama and when I said she deserved a kiss for the pesto sauce I could have bathed in, she seemed unimpressed and looked at me like, “silly American girl. Can’t she see I don’t give a rats about what she thinks of my pesto. Of course I know it is the best Trophie al Pesto in all of Iataly. Can’t she see that the gods are crying outside and now my restaurant size has just been cut in half because all of my outdoor tables are soaked? And all she cares about is the pesto she and her cute boyfriend just inhaled. Ciao”

By the end, the rain had calmed down (not stopped) and the town and trail had mostly cleared out, but we were having fun in the rain so we continued our hike.

We were basically hiking in the clouds. I know there must have been killer views surrounding us, but they were not to be seen due to cloud cover.

About 10 minutes before we got to Corniglia, the rain came back with a vengeance. Everything from the thighs down was completely soaked. It looked like I peed my pants when I took my coat off (maybe I did, no one will ever know).
Peed his pants- only if he could pee out of each thigh bone

I was surprised how much fun we were having hiking in the rain. After Corniglia was Manarola and then just a shot 20 minute hike to Riomaggiore. The last bit between Manarola and Riomaggiore is called Villa Dell’Amore. It didn’t exist for many years and when they finally completed that portion of the trail, it allowed dating couples from the two villages to meet in the middle and [say hi to each other] [edited for our kids].

We took the train back to Monterroso, ditched the soaked clothes and took long, hot showers to warm back up. By the time we had recovered and were ready for dinner, it was about 10pm again. We ate at Via Vente in Montorroso where our OCD waiter spent about 5 minutes aligning our placemats and folding our napkins. We closed the place down sometime after 11 (they didn’t let us get dessert because it was too late).

No- sold out
Dinner was good, but not as good as that Trophie al Pesto at lunch.

Hello- Ian must have forgotten he was in totally heaven with his Seafood Linguini. I have never seen anything disappear so fast. And he had to pull the seafood crap out of the shells too. Speedy Gonzales!
Back to Hotel Pasquale where we crashed. I don’t think I ever move after I fall asleep on this trip, we’re definitely maximizing our time here. But I may need a vacation from our vacation to recover.

Ciao Ciao
The Washer

The Loader

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Autostrada

Woke up this morning to clearer skies, but much nastier seas. Pack pack pack, a quick breakfast, a return to the little shop for some more pesto to take home. Then off to the train to La Spezia.

Sidenote- it is amazing how some locals will walk past tourists and know what language to greet them in. An 11 year old girl walked past us, said hello, walked past the next people said ciao. We get hello a lot. Walk in a store, 10 other customers get Buon Giorno, we get Hello. (I think Kitty’s side pony or my overalls gives it away).

Took the 10 minute ride through the mountains from Cinque Terra to the “big” city of LA Spezia. Taxi through La Spezia to the car rental agency. Had a fun conversation with our cab driver. (He spoke mostly Italian so we got to try out about as much Italian as we knew, it’s fun when they at least pretend that it’s fun for them too.)

Our car is a Fiat Panda. (Dear Panda- we thought you’d like that we got a car in your honor.) I think it is a pretty big family sedan over here, but we filled the trunk with 3 bags and put the rest in the back seat. It is a 4 door dream and we are going to see if we can bring one over to the states for Camden when she can drive (actually, I think the Fiat 500 would be a great car for Camden. If it’s priced by the pound or by size, it can’t be too expensive. Camden, you should start saving now). We can’t even imagine having a Suburban over here. We would only be able to drive on the Sutostradas and not into any town centers. And we definitely could not pull the extremely illegal u-turn on the Autostrada like Ian did today.

So those first few moments of freedom our car provided us soon turned to panic as we headed on the freeway and tried to figure out what all the strange signs mean and where in the freak we were going. We learned, Ian especially, from our stressful start on the scooter to take deep breaths and just go with the flow. And the flow on Italy’s toll-freeway is fast and furious. They tailgate like they were born to do it and pass where American’s are taught to wait. So Ian pretty much fit right in. Except we are in a tin can that feels like the tires are going to fall off while taking some of the turns at 130km/h.

I couldn’t believe the cars/people I was getting passed by. In addition to the sports cars you’d expect, I got passed (but not just passed, they blew by me) by delivery trucks and plenty of elderly people who could barely see over the steering wheel.

With God, and Rick Steve, guiding our way, we made it to Pisa without a problem. We both looked at each other in shock- “How did that just happen? That was way to easy!” We had been well prepped that the Field of Miracles was pretty much all you wanted to see in Pisa, and then get out of town. So we pretty much did just that.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is seriously leaning. IT is crazy. And it started to lean pretty soon after construction began. But they kept on going. And stopping and going and stopping and 200 years later they had a permanent tourist attraction that makes the dingy city of Pisa lots of money. We refrained from climbing this though because Ian said it made him uncomfortable. We checked out the interior of the Cathedral and went into the baptistry, which is leaning too – not as much as the tower and in the opposite direction.

And then we each paid .30 Euro to use the W.C., but it was well worth it because I have had it with crazy public bathrooms in Italy. I have peed on myself more than all my babies peed on me over the last 11.5 years. And the worst part is AFTER the bladder has already stared to spastically empty, only THEN do I realize not an ounce of wiping material exists. Like toilet seats, toilet paper is almost always missing. I just now why I a girl was handing out tissues to her friends going in to use a public restroom. Basically that .30 Euro was the best spent on this trip! (I don’t know what Kitty is complaining about, public restrooms work just fine for me.)

Some take away lunch and we were back in the Panda trying to find our way onto the Autostrada so we could drive off into the Tuscan sun. If only it was that easy. Rick Steves had abandoned us, but God saved our lives when Ian made a u-turn on an Autostrada exit – something that couldn’t be done in the USA, suburban or not. And now we have a 58 euro souvenir to show for it.

Apparently going back out the way we came in isn’t an option for the toll road, so the pay-machine read our ticket and charged us 58 euros, we kept hitting the Assistance button, and eventually it printed some bill and lifted the gate (cars had been piling up behind us). If we don’t plan on coming back to Italy soon, do we have to pay the fine?

Finally headed in the right direction, we amazingly found our way to the Medieval town of San Gimignano. This hilltop town is a rustic-bread-charming as is gets. It is so well preserved because in the 1300’s the Black Death made a visit and took the town from 13,000 residents to 4,000. To add insult to injury the town was taken off the trade route and never recovered. So that is why it is so preserved and popular today. Take that, bubonic plague.

Of course we had to keep the gelato string alive by trying some here. We are doing our best to try different flavors (terra de sienna, stratecellia, acchogis) and both thought it was delicious, but still think the gelato we had in Milan was the best. (It’s getting hard for me to keep the different flavors and locations straight anymore.)

More driving through the beautiful countryside of Tuscay. It really is a complete feast for the eyes in all directions. Even better than I had imagined it would look. I totally understand why people come here and stay for good. And even though was didn’t get much of the Tuscan sun, the Tuscan clouds with scattered rain showers treated us pretty good.

Driving into the walled city of Sienna was flat out scary. We drove through the arch in the ancient wall surrounding the city and that is when it all got black and crazy! IT is really hard to retell this story in written words that my children will read, so let us just sum it up this way – turn onto on way road, stop in middle of intersection, stuck, yelling, yelled at in Italian, continue on curvy one way screaming “WE’RE GONNA DIE!!!” didn’t die, and ended up right in front of our hotel. What the?!? (again, I don't know what she's talking about, my superior driving and navigation skills just came through again.)

Checked into our room at a 500 year old pensione, that loves its aristocratic self way too much. But once we saw the view of the Tuscan hills beyond, we understand why it’s such a snob. Of course we have the view of the street. (some 800 year old street with a bunch of old stuff, like cathedrals and towers, in the way of our view).

Although it was definitely time to find some dinner, we just didn’t have it in us to eat, because we felt like we already had all of Italy’s food in us. So we went our for a night walk through Sienna’s cobble-stoned, crooked little roads. Saw their duomo and the Il Campo by night. (we found some more young guitarists playing and singing in the Il Campo, but it’s just not the same when they’re singing Guns N Roses and “Lean on me”). No crowds, no lines, no sirens, no dinner. We loved it all. Couple of power bars and a blood orange to share and it was lights out for me. Then Ian stayed up another 2 hours working (first loading pictures to the blog at a painfully slow rate, then a little work. This has been the most work-free trip I’ve ever taken). Technology really is amazing - even in Italy!

Love to you all!!

Ciao Ciao

The Loader

The Washer