April 14, 2008

We came, We saw, We conquered - Rome!

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April 11-14, Roma.
Veni, Vedi, Vici - something from those HS Latin classes finally paid off!
We plowed through as much of Rome as we could in 2 full days, saw most major sites & a little local flavor.
Legs are tired, feet are sore, and my hand is literately cramping from holding the camera so much!
Time to catch the plane home. Need to grab taxi to train station in like 20 min, so being brief.
Looking forward to returning home to the dog (hope she remembers me!), soft bread, green beans, Mountain Dew, bagels, baseball scores and kicking my feet up in the ottoman and doing nothing for a few hours.
Wish we had more time in Rome too.
Will post more photos in a day or two.
- Mark

April 13, 2008

Two Hour Tour of Perugia, Italy

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On the way out of Magione to Rome we had to catch a train in Perugia, which is the big city in the area (~25km from Magione). Since we already had to take a taxi from the villa & would have a layover in Perugia if we took the train from Magione to Perugia, we decided to spend a few extra euros and head straight to Perugia. We saw Perugia in the distance on our hikes and new they had a large chocolate factory. We tried to get to the chocolate factory, but didn't have time to figure out the local transportation. We did catch a bus up to the top of the hill to the city's center, found some good views, chocolate & birthday present for my nephew who will be 7 next week.
Wish we had more time!

April 11, 2008

Travel Log: Vacation from Vacation - il Cantico della Natura - in Umbria

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Tuesday night-Wed-Thu, April 8-10 - a Magione hillside villa

We've scaled the Swiss Alps, visited the Milano Duomo, rode a gondola through canals in Venice, saw "The David" in Florence. It was time for a vacation from the vacation.
Our train pulled into the little town of Magione & we barely made it off (I think we were the only people deboarding). Rain was picking up & we sought shelter in the little very-local cafe at the station. Soon our host, Frencesco arrived to carry us up the hillside through the tiny village of Monte Sperello to our destination - Il Cantico della Natura. In heavy rain we wedged our luggage out of the tiny car into the warm hospitable confines of the villa dining hall.

This place was picture perfect & exceeded expectations - already set high by the web site. Since the restaurant was closed and we didn't have a car, Frencesco prepared us a spread of local sliced meat, cheese & wine (best wine on the trip, so far - a couple bottles will hopefully make it home). Tee enjoyed the large "slipper" tub on a cold rainy night before enjoying a good night sleep.

In the morning we found the entrance to the dining room blocked by "guardians of the breakfast lair" - 3 sleeping puppies!

Rain was in the forecast Wed & more so on Thu, so we nixxed biking plans and after a huge breakfast spread hiked up the hill, along the ridge, explored an abandoned very dilapidated dwelling overgrown with vegetation, and traversed down the back side and into the little village of Monte Melino. This village had everything it needed, small [private] castle, 1 building housing a few families, large villa w/ mean dogs, taverna, olive orchard, and beautiful church. No more, no less (well, there was a timely placed public WC!). A local elder invited us to visit the church. The hike back UP the hill (and through the village of Monte Sperello) prepared us for dinner - which was awesome (not sure what it all was, since the fixed menu was in Italian, but all was good).

Thursday - Definitely a day off. We caught up on email, explored the grounds, napped. I took a run down the hill and weaved over to large abandoned villa which intrigued me - it was viewable from our room. I found it, ventured inside, then ran (ok, walked a lot) back up to get ready for dinner.

Both Wed & Thu called for rain, but we never felt a drop, so no complaints!

So much to say about this wonderful place, definitely wish we had more time. See later posts for photos.

Florence, Italy

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Sun night/Mon/Tue April 6-8 - Florence When I walked into our hotel room in Florence (Hotel La Scaletta) I really felt for the first time that we were in a different culture linked to a different time.
A few hours earlier we checked out of perhaps the "shortest" room I've ever stayed in and just walked into the "tallest". The ceilings of Room 30 were nearing 20' with a long window over looking the street below. I'd describe the walls as a fresco red, with old stone steps leading to a mirror on a wall long ago sealed off. We walked down to the hotel from the train station; it was late (~11pm) but we had enough energy to zip downstairs (94 steps, thankfully they had a SMALL lift, barely big enough for 2) and grab some late-night gelato at the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) - best gelato of the trip, so far.

Rain was in the forecast for Tuesday, so Monday was focused on outside activities. We started with a hike up to an overlook. En route stopped at a local grocer to stock up on bananas & H2O and stumbled into a quaint "paper shop". Florence was filled with these ancient paper & leather shops, as well as lots of gold/silver shops (especially on the Ponte Vecchio), and T managed to find some nice leather boots.The lookout contained a large (nearly full size) replica of The David & beautiful views of the river, bridges and churches (including the iconic Duomo of Florence). Venturing further up we found a large monastery (got to go inside) and captured many photos, of course. On the way back down the hill we spent .6 euro for a much needed WC stop! Winding through the streets we ventured into the Palazzo Vecchico Piazza, home of Neptune fountain, another David (on the spot the original was located; it was moved many years ago after someone tossed a bench out the window and broke his arm) and numerous other statues (including a bronze depicting the slaying of Medusa) and the likes of da Vinci & friends in the Uffizi courtyard.
End of the afternoon included a visit to the local market for some bartering for pashminas & photo opp w/ the bronzed wild boar, followed by a visit to the top of the Duomo dome (~450 steps, no lift). The view inside & out was beautiful.

Dinner was awesome, T ordered the best risotto we've ever had. I've noticed a trend at Italian restaurants - pasta dishes are superb, while second courses (meat dishes) are great, but not quite as good as the pasta (or anti-pasta, which would preceed the pasta, of course). After dinner we walked deeper into the local district to take in a piano recital in an old neglected church. The audience numbered merely two dozen. It was an enjoying & relaxing way to wrap up the evening. Our final day was a rush through the final "must-see" sights on our list - Galleio's finger & telescopes in the Science Museum and, of course, "The David", which was well worth it, and some turbo shopping before we were back on the train station in route to the little town of Magione in Umbria region.

Originally I was going to skip a stop in Florence, but glad we made it - and wish we had more time. Thanks for talking me into it T! Sample more photos (most taken by T).

April 10, 2008

Venice, Italy

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Sunday, April 6 - Venice A whirl-wind (or world-wind?) tour of Venice came & went quickly, but was well worth it. The visit got off to a scary start on Saturday. Between the train station snack bar and ticket office, I lost my wallet! After a mad-dash to retrace my steps over the past 5 minutes, I abesent mindedly left the wallet on the snack bar check out counter. Fortunately the workers turned it over to the police and we found it - with all cash & credit cards intact. Whew!

The water bus from the train station (there are no cars in Venice - zilch, boats are the only form of transportation) dropped us off by the Rialto bridge (which is wide enough to hold 2 rows of shops). Traversing the bridge w/ luggage through the crowd was a sight. A left, a right and to the end of a little alley, we found our
tiny B&B. Up a long staircase we arrived at the front door.
Up another long staircase to the owner's flat. Then up another staircase to our room, which is basically a renovated attic - very well renovated - we liked this room better than the 4-star hotel in Milan (Milan was more like an average 2-star joint - it did not live up to the web site billing). The Venice room was perfect for our 1 night stint (just watch your head).

Spent a few minutes settling in, then hit the streets.
Our target destination was St. Mark's Square, we intentionally deviated off the beaten path - discovered a maze of alley ways, campos (squares), deadends, characters & canals. And lots of photos opps. I logged 400+ photos (& mini-videos), not to mention all that T captured. Among discoverys, a McDonalds! - whose "water closet" was nasty, just like home! :)

Sunday morning began with the obligitory (and recommended) gondola ride, our gondalier pointed out several sites (many we saw by land/bridge yesterday), including Marco Polo's home during his Venice stay. We enjoyed seeing the locals hanging laundry out to dry above the canals. Remainder of the day was filled with a boat ride to Murano (famous glass factories & lunch; both underwhelming IMHO), an impromtu stop at San Michele Cemetery island, tour of The Doge's Palace back at St. Mark's Square and cruise back up the Grand Canal to pick up luggage (over the Rialto Bridge again) and back to the train station (with wallet secure).

The city is surreal, just like the movies (I kept trying to spot the Grand Canal Palace which was imploded in Casino Royale). Well worth the trip. Wish we had more time.

Next stop - Florence.

April 5, 2008

Ciao Milano

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Saturday, April 5 - We've wrapped up Milan, Italy stop and are on the train to Venice. Thursday evening we did laundry in the bath tub and found creative places to hang our clothes before meeting my co-workers for some pizza & beer on the Navigli canal where Craig gracefully spilled one all over Tee and into her purse (photo below). The quest for a Karaoke bar for Chris didn't pan out, so we settled for more beer and dancing with representatives from South Africa, Romania & Canada. After we shut down the bar Tee & I crashed hard. Fri am was spent catching up on sleep & lightening up our load by shipping winter clothes, souviners and some work material back home via the local office. With some panini sandwiches from a street vendor in our bellies, we hit the Milan subway for some turbo sightseeing which included quick tour of National Museum of Science and Technology (lots of Leonardo da Vinci stuff) , Castello Sforzesco (castle) and the highlight - a trip to the top of the Duomo. The Duomo itself is beautiful and huge, one of the largest churches in the world. The volume of detail was amazing. The top was the best. Aside from a bird's eye view of the city (1.3 million residents) we could see the alps to the north in the distance. The trek back to the hotel included a wrong turn after the subway ride, so we resorted to a taxi (we were closer than we thought). The evening was topped off with a fabulous dinner at el Brellin (recommended, but not cheap), just 2 bridges down the canal from the hotel (Art Hotel Navigli - not recommended!).

Enroute to Venice now, view from the train window includes the alps again :)

Some Milan photos:

April 3, 2008

Greetings From Milan, Italy - Final Switzerland thoughts & photos

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Apr 2, 2008: From Switzerland to Milan Italy

Tee and I arrived (via train) in Milan, Italy at noon Tuesday and immediately ran into several of my co-workers at the hotel. We all enjoyed authentic Italian pizza on the canal (Milan has a couple canals). My work activities just wrapped up after 2+ days of meetings & presentations with colleagues from around the world. It is a unique pleasure to sit down at dinner in Italy with folks from Finland, Greece, South Africa, Canada, Romania, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands and a dozen more countries. With work wrapped up, I can start to see some of Milan before we head to Venice.

But first, some more on Switzerland - despite gray skies & light rain, we enjoyed our final full day in Switzerland (Mon, 3/31/08) with a short train ride to Thun (pronounced "tune") for a tour of the local castle & shops. We finally took in some of Interlaken at dinner time - and ate Italian! (sorry Ted Farr, we didn't find the Hooters). Definitely glad we did not stay in Interlaken, it is nice, but touristy. Wilderswil was much more our speed. A few Switzerland photos...

Grindelwald Alps

Thun, CH castle