Sunday, October 24, 2021

Random Italy tips and oddities

When I close out a trips blogs, I always have an eclectic mix of subjects. This time is no exception.

I’ll start with my new hobby of taking pictures of scenes through a wine glass. I’m so pleased with how fun everything looks.

Speaking of crowded; it amazed me how locals in the bigger, more touristy areas would just march forward. If you didn’t move out of their way, they’d walk right into you. Lucca and Peschiera were different. It reminded me of how Joe and I got used to the millions of pigeons everywhere. At first we tried to walk around them, but as we got used to them we just marched right through them… they got out of the way. I think the locals thought of us as pigeons.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind regarding metro and train travel. For most region to region travel, you will use trains. There’s a great app called Trenit that gives you a fairly accurate guide to the times and prices—it even has a map feature to show where your train is going to stop. Pay attention to how many trains are shown. It’s much easier to not change trains and of course the travel time is less and the price is more. Our technique is to go to the train station a day ahead of time to check the accuracy of the Trenit prices and times (sometimes the times are a little different). We go through the process of buying the tickets until they want money, just to decide which train departure and arrival time we want. Then when we’re committed we buy them. These are non-refundable, so don’t buy your tickets for your first train-trip after you arrive on a plane. If the plane is late, you can’t get your money back on the train-ticket. Obviously this can be problematic during local holidays when your route may be sold out.

Metros are both easier and trickier. They’re everywhere and super easy to buy tickets at the kiosks inside the metro station. Pay attention to pick-pockets while you’re focused on the purchase. Metro is super cheap. For 1.5 euros you can travel for 100 minutes. Look up the metro system map ahead of time and screenshot it to your phone for reference. Even if you change trains you can keep going on the same ticket. The ticket’s minutes don’t start until you stick it in the little turnstile machine. The reason I tell you is that you can purchase your return tickets simultaneously instead of doing it again later. So to go from Tor di Valle to Colosseo and back (with a metro change along the way) we bought 4 tickets for 6 Euros… two for going into town, two for return.

Now for the drying rack. I noticed at our first Airbnb there was a two door cabinet above the sink which was empty. It looked like it was made to set plates and bowls in at an angle instead of stacked, but the dishware was in a different cabinet. Shrug. The next place had the same empty above-the-sink cabinet. At the third place, I became suspicious that I was missing something important. Upon inspection we realized (yes, Joe was baffled too) that it was a dish drying rack that dripped into the sink. Isn’t that brilliant? You do your dishes, put them on the rack to dry, and shut the door to hide them. It would be great here in the US, but we all have a dishwasher.

I noticed a major fashion change since our last visit. The shoe fashion has always been the cornerstone of the Italian culture, so I was shocked when I saw that practically everyone was wearing tennies. Mostly white ones. Even in formal clothes, like a black dress, the girl would have white Adidas on! It’s smart, don’t get me wrong, but very different.

Next trip in the spring, we head to Portugal.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Venice to Rome

We came into Roma on Thursday (from Venice on the high-speed train at 155 mph) and had a little time to kill before our friends got off work, so we dropped off our luggage. There’s a luggage storage place in front of the Roma Termini train station. It’s six Euros per bag… well worth it if you want to walk around for a couple of hours. We headed down a street perpendicular to the train station road. After a couple of blocks we went right and wandered down the street until I saw a sign saying ‘Roof Bar.’ It was a high-end hotel with one of those fancy rotating doors. We figured they must be okay with the riff-raff off the street coming in, otherwise why would they have a sign on the sidewalk, right? We went in and the fancy maitre d' pointed to the elevator and said to get off on the eighth floor. What a stunning view! We sat up there enjoying the freezing cold wind and a glass of wine/beer until Gianluca got off work. (La Terrazza dei Papi Rooftop Restaurant, Mecenate Palace Hotel across from Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore)

We took the blue-line metro to Eur Palasport and Gianluca picked us up there. The next day (Friday) he drove us to a different local metro. We had to get off that one at a bigger station where the inner-city metro crossed paths. At first we couldn’t figure out what to do. Everyone got off the metro and left the station. There was no indication of the metro we wanted. Finally we left the station, though we were afraid we’d have to buy new tickets (it was only 4 bucks, but still), and asked someone walking by. They pointed to an entrance twenty feet away. We went in and it was a completely different metro station—it even had a different name. Our tickets worked just fine and we were off to downtown. We took the Circo Massimo exit and walked down the center of this famous athletic field. We ambled up to the Venezia Palace, which we call the wedding cake, and went by the Roman Forum and ended at the Colosseum. 

We finally circled all the way back to the Circo Massimo just in time for a giant protest being held against the Green Pass. I felt like Forrest Gump when he would just accidentally show up at historical events. They were chanting, “Libertad!” We walked right through the middle of the crowd and the camera crews :)

Saturday, we went to the beach with Gianluca (Egle was away on business until that night). The Mediterranean was calm and the water a bit chilly, but it was perfect for walking on the sand. We headed back to the condo and waited for Egle and the dog to show up. Duca is an English Bulldog. Those are the funniest dogs. He was so excited to see Gianluca—he sounded like a pig making snorting and grunting sounds as he raced around the condo chasing Gianluca.

Sunday was a lazy day. We went to a big park and walked around for an hour then sat and had breakfast. It was an American-style restaurant, so the meals were big. I had pulled pork eggs benedict. Then the guys went and had a beer while us girls went window shopping. We ended at a huge fascist-style church built back in Mussolini’s time. It was gorgeous. Egle was saying that all of this area was built in preparation for the World Expo being held here. The World War II cancelled that. That’s interesting to me. It feels poised for something to happen, like it’s still anticipating its days of glory.

Monday we headed to Roma again. We sailed through the metro process like locals. The weather has been perfect. We wandered around for awhile until we found Trevi Fountain. I’m not sure why that was important to us as we’ve seen it before. Then we began the real search… Shamrock Pub Roma. (FYI, make a hard right when you step out of the Colosseo Metro stop—the Colosseo will be looming up on your left. Follow that busy street up to your first right on Via del Tempio della Pace, then make your first left onto Via del Colosseo. Shamrock’s on your right.) We split a hamburger and Joe had a Guinness, but they had the weirdest potatoes I’ve ever seen. We returned through the Jewish Ghetto area, which is really nice and has lots of shops.

Today we decided we’d had enough of Rome and took the metro to the beach. It only took about 20 minutes. We sat and had a cappuccino on the promenade. Then walked along the shore for awhile. Eventually we ended up where we started and went to the Old Wild West restaurant (the same chain as the one in Venice). Such good food and great wine.

Gianluca picked us up from the metro and took us to get swabbed for Covid. We had the results in 15 minutes and the pharmacist gave us the approval form, so we’re good to fly back to the states tomorrow. I’m done packing and every item of clothing is dirty. We brought two small backpacks and two carry-ons for the month. I had to buy socks, a pair of shoes, a sweater, and a jacket for Joe. He left behind a pair of cargo pants that were so old they were tearing at the cuffs. All in all, we packed well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Lake Garda to Venice

I have to share this unfortunate event… not unfortunate for us, but for someone else. We were at the train station waiting for the train, and I was watching a woman on a different platform. Her train arrived, but the train door was about fifteen feet away from her, so she carted her three bags to the door and placed her first bag in the train and turned to pick up her other two bags. She got the suitcase about halfway through the door when it shut on her suitcase. She wrestled it free and the train door snapped shut and the train rolled away. To say the least, she was stunned! So were we. She just stood there with her hands on her head. Trust me when our train arrived, we jumped on as fast as we could… it wasn’t the correct car, but we could get to our car after the train got moving.

Once we arrived in Venice, we had a little surprise waiting for us. First let me say that I’d reached out to our Venice host to let her know when we’d arrive. She never responded, so when we arrived we were basically on our own. We went straight down the train steps to the Grande Canal to the vaporetto (water bus) ticket booth and asked for the fundementa Nove stop. She told us in very polite, but firm English, “That’s not possible. It’s Acqua Alta.” To our surprise we’d came during the high-high tide. The vaporetto for our stop was suspended until the tide dropped for some reason… maybe it wouldn’t fit under the bridges? She looked at a timetable for a moment and said, “It will start running again in 45 minutes.” We decided this would be a good time to eat. I got onto the restaurant WiFi to see if our host had responded to me yet. Nothing.

We got off the water-bus and hour later and found our apartment. I was immediately pissed off. When I booked the place a couple of months ago, I’d noticed a construction project in front of the door to the place on Google map’s street-view. I’d contacted her and asked her if they actually did have a huge construction job going on at the doorstep. “It will be completed in a week. When you come in October, it will be finished.” Now I stood looking at a project double in size to the one I’d seen.

We followed the instructions given to me when we booked it and got into the apartment, still without having made any contact. Inside the tiny, stuffy little apartment, was an instruction manual with the WiFi  address and code. I searched for the WiFi router address, but none existed. Joe and I searched the apartment, top to bottom, but couldn’t find a router. I tried to text her, but she didn’t respond. There are spider webs in the place and the air was very still. The electricity worked, but otherwise it felt abandoned. The youth hostel next door gave us their WiFi code and I tried again to get ahold of the host through the Airbnb app. Nothing. I was beginning to think she was hospitalized or worse. We put it out of our minds and went out to discover the maze of our new neighborhood.

That night was a little nerve-wracking because once inside the apartment behind the twelve-inch thick walls and door with one little lock, our cell phones didn’t have service. That meant we were pretty much cut off from the world once inside. Hopefully nothing happens, otherwise we’ll be calling for help from behind our barred windows! The next afternoon, the host contacted me. “Sorry, but we don’t have WiFi. I hope that doesn’t create a problem for you.” What!?! I won’t bore you with the following back and forth messaging. I’ll be leaving a scathing review on Airbnb. Needless to say, this will be posted from the hostel next door.

Venice is gorgeous as always. We wandered all the way to the south-east portion of the island where the gardens are. Very pretty. Then we headed back to Saint Marks square. That place is always a madhouse, but especially during high tide because it floods the square. It’s not as bad as it used to be because they built gates at the bay, which prevent the wind from combining with the high-high tide to drop the city completely below the water-line. Now it just creates big ponds. The city-workers set up raised sidewalks to get over the flooded areas. It was crazy. We escaped back to our construction zone.

Apparently our plaza is a favorite for the youth, especially on the weekends. There’s only one exit to the water, so they can play ball. I really enjoyed the sounds of the kids playing in the area (around the fenced off construction site). Our place is part of an old monastery with an enormous church next to us. The rest of the monastery is the hostel—it’s huge. Next to the church is the north bay with views of the cemetery island and Murano.

It’s much colder here than we anticipated. I’ve been bundling up with three or four layers. Joe’s been shivering. We saw a household doorway with a bunch of used jackets hanging there. There was a sign saying the jackets were free, but an offering would be appreciated. A little old lady came to the door and chattered kindly in Italian. She went back in and came back with a huge coat. Joe was lost in it. He picked out a thick black jacket and gave her twenty Euros. She was so excited and Joe is warm.

We walked along the north-western edge of the island and got completely lost. If you like corn-mazes, you would’ve had a great time with us. After about two hours we finally ended up at the train station! Speaking of trains, I got an alert from my train app, Trenit, telling me that the Italian trains were going on strike Sunday night through Monday night… thank goodness we don’t leave for Rome until Thursday! The guy at the restaurant told us they’d be closed Monday night because nobody would be able to get to work. I have to admit, there were a lot less people today on the island (but then again, we were lost in the residential area). They do have roads to the mainland, but most people don’t have a car.

Today we headed to the south-west. Lucky for us, Joe found a map on the ground. Yay. We still got lost, but for less time. We’d discovered a terrace restaurant called the Old Wild West. It was pretty cool and the wine was the best I’d had since coming to Italy… it was an Italian wine. We split an enormous double cheeseburger. A young lady came out, took the corner table, ordered her food and went inside leaving all her belongings. Pretty soon the waiter brought her drink. Still no girl. Then he brought her food (a crepe loaded with whipped cream and berry sauce). Still no girl. All of a sudden the pigeons swooped onto the table and started ripping apart her crepe. Whipped cream and bright red berry sauce went flying every which way. Her bags of stuff and her black jacket got covered in it. I tried to shoo them away, but they weren’t giving up their feast. When the girl finally came out it was way too late. The waiter shrugged and picked up her decimated plate and brought her a fresh one while she moved her stuff to another table. The ring-leader hopped onto the rail near us and tried to look innocent with his bright pink berry covered beak!

Once back to our pad, we took a nap and now we’re next door at the old monastery cloister. Every teenager on the entire island is here. Seriously… it’s entertaining. It’s also free, though they do have a restaurant and bar here along with a very popular hostel. I’m nursing a glass of wine in a water bottle from our room. :)

Tomorrow we’ll do a test-walk to the train station to see how far it is by foot. On Thursday we head to Rome.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Florence to Peschiera Del Garda

Well, we’re definitely not in Florence anymore. We took the high-speed train here to Peschiera del Garda and were the only two who got off the train. At first we couldn’t figure out how to get off the train because the doors don’t open automatically. I think I’d still be on it if Joe hadn’t figured it out. As soon as we stepped onto the sidewalk, the train doors snapped shut and it zipped away leaving us standing alone with our bags. By the way, our bags have taken a beating on this trip. They rolled around the department store so smoothly, but cobblestone streets are a different story. We left a wheel somewhere along the way. Since then I’ve noticed several suitcase wheels abandoned in gutters.

Peschiera Del Garda is an ancient town at the southernmost tip of Garda Lake. It seems to be pretty, but it’s hard to say for sure because it’s raining all the time. We have clothes hanging about our apartment in varying degrees of dryness. It turns out our raincoats were not designed for continuous rain… maybe they’re just wind-breakers. I even treated mine with a water-proofing product before we left California. Part of the problem is, I picked an apartment about fifteen minutes from the shops and restaurants. The up side is it makes for great people-watching from the cafes while we wait for a break in the rain.

Our place is on the third floor and has a cute little balcony over looking the residential area. This morning, during a brief break in the rain, I could see a slice of the lake. We rushed out to get a dry walk in and got down to the lake, and it’s really pretty! All surrounded by mountains. It reminds me of the lakes in Northern California… when they have water in them.

It’s difficult to describe Peschiera (pesh-kee-era). It has two fortified islands side-by-side at the apex of the lake, so they give the appearance of being surrounded by moats. The giant walls rise straight out of the water. Bridges connect the islands to each other and the mainland. The action is on the second island (west). We are to the east, so we have to cross two bridges to get to the old town. Because we are so far north in Italy, two languages are spoken here; Italian and German. At least I assume it’s German. There’re so many dialects that sound like German, it’s hard to say. One of the signs describing the city said it’s been inhabited since ancient Roman times. Then it became part of the Austrian empire. Now it’s Italy.

But for daily issues, I’ve got a few comments about this region. First is the coffee. Their coffee tastes as good as everywhere else in Italy, but it’s a bit trickier to get coffee in your rental. Let me explain. I like espresso, so I’m content with the little stove-top device called a moka. It makes a couple of shots of espresso—or about a quarter of a cup of strong coffee. Joe likes regular coffee. Each place we’ve stayed in had a water kettle (it’s an electric pot for heating water). Joe uses the coffee filters from the store to make coffee in his thermos (he hooks the filter over the edge of the thermos and pours water over the grounds). In other words, we make it work. Why not just make espresso and add hot water?? Because the moka is very hot and it’s a little time consuming to take it apart and remake it after waiting for it to cool down. Not a problem in Lucca because they had 3 mokas, plus filters for the regular way. The Florence place had filters also, plus we bought some from the store… oh and they had an American coffee maker. But, alas, our place in Peschiera del Garda only has one little moka, no coffee pot, and no filters. None of the stores have coffee filters. None. Joe even carried a filter around with him to show the shop keepers. They were baffled. He has resorted to using paper-towels for filters— resourceful, huh?

The next issue is this area has different outlets then anywhere else we’ve been. The appliances, however, are just like everywhere else. In other words none of the plugs match the outlets. Can you see my problem? The host has one adapter in the whole place. Fortunately, we have an adapter with us. I thought it was comical that the hairdryer wouldn’t fit the outlet it was sitting next to. There was no explanation for this… we had to figure it out.

The bicycle culture is different here than elsewhere in Italy. In Lucca, everybody rode around on cute bikes. In Florence it was fairly common, but the scooter and vespas were more common. Here in Peschiera it’s the racing bikes. It’s apparently a tourist thing to ride around the lake on racing bicycles with racing outfits and bike cleats. I feel like we’re here for a race or something. They do have a nice cycling /walking trail along the lake.

This brings me to my last observation. Italians, and Europeans in general, still smoke cigarettes. I’ve seen some vape smokers, but not many. I’m just not accustomed to this. People smoke in the US, but not around other people in public. Here they smoke at all of the outdoor areas. A restaurant with outdoor seating (the vast majority are outdoor seating) will have three-quarters of the tables with smokers during their meal or drink. Honestly, for me it’s not that big of a deal. My folks smoked all my life—in the car with the windows rolled up! It’s just weird, especially because they’re so young. To see a girl who looks like a world-class model smoking a cigarette is sad.

The exciting news is the hubby found a pub that sells dark beer.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Slug Bug and Foodie Tips

I’m not sure if it’s a world-wide game, but in the USA we play slug-bug. The rules are this; whoever sees a Volkswagen Beetle first, slugs the other person. We usually played this on long road-trips, which created havoc in the car and eventually ended in a fight. So, you may be wondering where I’m going with this story? Well, not long after we arrived in Italy we noticed a lot of people wearing Levi t-shirts. A lot of people. We began to joke about it and then we turned it into a slugging game (not really slugging—just a light slap on the arm)… Levi! Whack! We’ve gotten a couple of funny looks because we have to hit each other fairly often. I told Joe we’ll draw a lot of attention if we accidently come to a Levi store :)

We’ve struggled a little to feel settled in Florence. Nobody seems like a local. On Oltrarno it’s a little better. We’ve found a couple of restaurants where they recognize us and seem excited to have us back. Two of them are run by elderly couples with youngsters working for them. Another one is actually a little cooking school with a deli. They have good wine and beer. We struck up a conversation with them the other night and got pulled back into the kitchen to show us where the classes are held. They were closing up for the night, so we stood and visited with them as they wrapped up the cheeses and put everything into the big refrigerator. But most of the places have such a huge turnover, they don’t remember us at all.

Oddly enough one of the places we like to go eat lunch is the Mercato Centrale. Maybe we don’t expect to get to know anyone. Above this massive market place, is a food court. The food court seems to be run by a huge culinary school (different from the one I mentioned earlier). This is where we see the most Italians… especially teens. Because it’s got all the different choices, it draws a lot of groups of friends and small families. My favorite is the pulled pork sandwich.

It’s not easy to find the Mercato. It’s huge, but it’s completely surrounded by merchant carts. This is where you can get leather goods and scarves, but you can’t see the building. So here’s how you do it. Keep looking between the merchant carts until you see stairs. There’s many steps leading into the market… keep looking, you’ll find one. Once inside, with your mask in place, head for the center of the chaos. Past all the meat, truffles, wine, fruit, and veggies. In the middle there’s a set of stairs going up. There’re other ways to get upstairs, like an escalator, but it’s too hard to describe where they are.

Once you order and find a seat you can take off your mask. Within a couple of minutes a security person will ask for your “green pass.” Have your phone ready with the picture of your covid shot open. They understand that Americans don’t have the green pass, but you still have to show you’ve had a shot. They don’t know or care what they’re looking at, but they look anyway (though one time a girl asked about the second shot—I explained it was the J&J and she was fine). This doesn’t make much sense to me, since just as many people get sick whether or not they’ve had the shot. Shrug. Oh well, I guess it means something to someone in the government.

We went to mass at the Duomo… THE Duomo. If you’ve been following me for any length o f time, you know that I like to experience cathedrals for the purpose they were designed for. It’s an incredibly solemn experience to hear the Gregorian chants and then the massive organ vibrating the air. This is the second time we’ve done mass at the Duomo in Florence, though the first time it was in a nave. This time we were right up front and center. During the Latin service I could look up at the fresco designed by Vasari and finished by Zuccari five-hundred years ago.

We hustled straight to a pizza shop we’d seen earlier and had wolfed down a couple of slices. Joe hit me twice because he saw Levi shirts, but then I dominated for the rest of the day… especially because I found the Levi store! The store employees had to pull us apart because we were rolling around on the sidewalk smacking each other… just kidding! It’s humor, people. ;)

Then we did another cool thing. We went to the View on Art Roof Garden. I’m not sure where they got the word “garden,” but it’s a great rooftop bar we discovered on our tour. It’s near the Republic Square (Piazza della Repubblica)—the one with the merry-go-round. Take Via Dei Tosinghi, then right on Via de’ Medici. From the street next to the Robiglio you can see into a hotel lobby. A big lit up sign says View On Art inside the lobby. Go past that sign on the wall and you will find the elevator immediately on your right or six flights of stairs. A little sign says roof garden 6th floor. 

If you go during peak ours (late afternoon) you may need reservations. We went at about 3:00 and we had plenty of seats to choose from, though a lot of the shady seats were taken. There is indoor seating also. By the time we left at 5:00 it was almost full.

We also like this tiny little cafĂ© straight off the Ponte Vecchio. It’s called Gino’s Bakery. The cutest old couple own it and they are very enthusiastic about their products. It’s the hottest cappuccino I’ve had anywhere, and they have these amazing little flakey pastries with some sort of cold creamy filling. Joe got the one with chocolate. 

Today Gino talked me into trying the famous one with the orange/cinnamon cream-cheese filling. It was good, but a little too sweet and rich for me. I’ll stick to the tiny ones.

I’ve mentioned it before, but keep this in mind when traveling in Italy; they have a cover charge to sit down. It can be as high as 3 Euro each. So there’s a couple of ways of doing things. You can walk up to the espresso counter, order your coffee, sip it or gulp it, and pay just for the beverage. Or you can pick the exact place where you can get the best view and pay for the privilege… it depends on what you want in that moment.

Another oddity is the curfew for drinking cappuccino. Apparently it’s a mortal sin to order one after 11:30 in the morning. Thank goodness I’m not Italian, so nobody cares when I order my cappuccino. Don’t let this alter your behavior. Italians are very gracious people to everyone—except other Italians.

Tomorrow we head off to Peschiera del Garda. This town is on the southern-most point of Lake Garda. It’s supposed to be raining a bit, but we brought raincoats and umbrellas so no worries.