A Travellerspoint blog

August 2017


Final stop in Europe

sunny 82 °F
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I will put more pictures from Firenze onto the site and, of course, many from our time in Venice, but I wanted to add another blog entry before adding additional photos because, as of August 19, we returned from Europe to Boston. So our trip has entered its final phase. Bringing the blog up to date through Venice finishes telling about our time in Europe.
The train station in Firenze was every bit as hot as the rest of the city had been for ten days, which made getting onto the air conditioned train all the more satisfying. To our delight, when we arrived in Venice, the city was 20 degrees cooler than Firenze with a nice breeze blowing across the water. We took the slow water "bus" up the Grand Canal to the Rialto Mercato (Market) stop and moved into our new apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, newly renovated unit that overlooked the market and Grand Canal. We have stayed in some lovely Airbnbs throughout our trip, but we might have saved the best for last. How do you improve on looking over the canal?
If you are unfamiliar with Venice, the Rialto area is in the center of the two main islands, much more so, for example, than San Marco Piazza, and while we didn't scrimp on taking water transportation, the longer we were in the city, the more we chose to walk. From our location, almost everywhere was reachable in less than a mile.
Venice is the most interesting city I have ever walked, both because the canals were originally the only means of transportation and therefore lace through everywhere you go, and because you are constantly being surprised. With few exceptions, Venice doesn't have streets; it has sidewalks. And many of the sidewalks dead-end at a canal. Learning which sidewalks have a bridge at the end of them becomes essential if you want to reach your destination. When we were in Venice ten years ago, I got us seriously lost, ending up on the opposite of the island. Now we have Google maps. We still got lost but discovered our mistakes much sooner.
Not that getting lost in Venice is a bad thing. We were still discovering shops, interesting churches, and sites to see as we neared the end of our visit. What looks like the smallest alley can lead you to a wonderful campo. You think you are far off the beaten path and come across a restaurant or shop. Each corner you turn has the possibility of bringing you to some place unsuspected. And, as pointed out on one of walking tours and which we found to be true, walking even a block away from the major tourist areas significantly changes your experience of Venice.
The noise disappears, few people remain, you can stroll and take your time to enjoy the architecture, or stop on a bridge just to look at the houses that remain accessible only from a canal. Plus this is where the locals live, which means the restaurants with the best food and not too outrageous prices are there to be found.
Only 50,000 people still live in Venice, it's just too expensive for the average family, but this is where you'll find them and the shops and restaurants they frequent.
To summarize, by all means see the Grand Canal and take the boats out to some of the other islands, but give yourself time to wander around and get lost on the sidewalks of Venice. That's where the real city lives.

Update: Chesirae got better but only slowly. Her stomach never settled enough to allow her to see the city, for which we are all sad. But she has time to come back. I am sure she will.

Posted by randjb 04:11 Archived in Italy Tagged venice italy Comments (0)

Dante, Firenze, and The Inferno

Surely just a coincidence

sunny 106 °F
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We traveled from Cinque Terre to Firenze (Florence) without incident, thankfully, a short, comfortable train ride. We met a very nice mother and daughter from the States who were also traveling Europe for the summer, making the trip even more enjoyable. Then we arrived in Firenze...
We stayed ten days in a lovely Airbnb that looked directly across the Piazza del Duomo at the cathedral's dome - the famous one built by Brunelleschi. Of all the places we've stayed, except the villa in Granada, this apartment was probably the most spacious and best laid out; two large bedrooms, an even larger living room, a good sized dining room, separate kitchen, laundry area, and bathroom. Only the latter was small.
When we arrived, a copy of Dan Brown's "Inferno" was on the coffee table, the fourth adventure of Robert Langdon. If you are unfamiliar with the book, Langdon wakes up in Firenze with no memory of how he got there or what he was doing. He proceeds to visit many of the most interesting and famous places in the city while being chased by almost everyone in authority. As he proceeds, the glue that holds the story together is references to Dante's Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno.
I had not read his book before, though I did study Dante for a full year back in college, so I read it while during our stay; for two reasons: turned out to be a decent read, and we could visit all the places he mentions in the novel. And we did - all of them, except those he made up. We also, as it turned out, had our own version of the Inferno. Firenze had the hottest days on record in the last 20 years, and not just one. The temperature rose above 100 for the first seven days we were there and was above 95 the last three.
On one of our outings, Debbie and I visited Giardino di Boboli, but not before traversing our way through the south side of the city and climbing the steep paths of Giardino Bardini. Altogether, my fitbit recorded over 16,000 steps and 52 flights of stairs, all in the blazing heat. When we returned to the apartment (climbing those last three flights of stairs almost did me in), I drank three glasses of water and one of Coke in the first five minutes. I collapsed on the couch and didn't move for at least half an hour.
After a few days, Chesirae and I became very careful about when we went out and for how long. Debbie, always the adventurous one, did not slow down until a few days later when, after walking about all one afternoon, she too returned exhausted and close to heatstroke.
As a consequence, we did not walk around Firenze nearly as much as we did other cities nor as much as I would have liked to. Instead of feeling like one of locals living in the middle of the city, I felt like a shut in. This is not to say we didn't see and do things. Take a look at the pictures as they get posted. We climbed the cupola of the Duomo, we went to the gardens, saw a reasonable number of the famous sites, took a Segway tour, and altogether saw much more than the average person who visits for three or four days. Still, our time was not the complete experience we had in Paris or Seville nor like the one we are wrapping up now in Venice.

A couple of observations: whether Dan Brown's book has made it more aware or I just noticed more, Firenze seems to be paying more attention to Dante - as they should. Besides Shakespeare, no author I am aware of had as great an impact on his culture as Dante, and of course he was born and lived in Firenze until he was banished at age 37.
Also, Firenze has been more than discovered. The entire city center is either historically important or is shops and restaurants. High-end stores are everywhere, going on for blocks, and the crowds fill the streets. Highly recommend avoiding Firenze in the summer, even if it were not so hot. And by the way, you cannot trust the information on "average monthly temperatures." I am not sure how many years they are using to determine those averages, but we did some checking and the last five summers have each averaged about ten degrees warmer than what they say. While we were there, Firenze was 20 degrees above the supposed average!
When you do go, book ahead as much as possible, especially if you are only staying a few days. We got tickets to what we wanted to see but in some cases only because we could book eight or nine days out. Had we been staying less than a week, some of what we saw would have been sold out. We talked to more than one family who didn't get to do everything they wanted.
Lastly, more than most cities, to understand what you are looking at and its significance, a little history of Firenze is a must. Whether you come to see Michelangelo, or follow in Dante's footsteps, or walk the streets Galileo and Machiavelli walked, understanding the families that ruled Firenze, the brief but brilliant period of republic, and the role the city played in moving Europe from the Middle Ages to Renaissance will enrich and deepen your experience of this extraordinary place, even if it was hot as hell.

Posted by randjb 13:01 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence firenze Comments (0)

Medical Update

All turned out well

sunny 82 °F
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As you know, this summer has been our family's tour of Europe, Chesirae's graduation present, and a chance for the three of us to be together before Chesirae takes wing on her own. But medically speaking the last two months have been rough. For Chesirae, things started out with irritants, mosquito bites in Paris. In Seville, however, she caught whatever bug I had in Paris and spent most of 10 days in bed. She got better only to run into an unrelenting heatwave. Granada had record breaking temperatures, Barcelona was only slightly better, Nimes was more heat and so many mosquitoes she couldn't keep the windows open when the nights cooled. The worst of the heat was Florence, the highest temperatures in 20 years, and Chesirae was again housebound.
We were excited to reach Venice where the highs were only in the 80's, and we thought all three of us would finally get more time sightseeing together. Within two days, however, she developed shin splints and was again stuck in the apartment. We wrapped her leg, started icing it, and hoped she would mend quickly.
Yesterday morning, however, she woke with chest pain, had trouble breathing, and later felt pain in her left arm. As the pain was sporadic, we all hoped this was an aberration.
Today however, the pain remained and she was still having trouble breathing.
We began to worry.
We called Kaiser (in the US) to get advice. After describing her symptoms to the nurse, who relayed them to a doctor, they advised us to get to a hospital as soon as we could, fearing she might have a blood clot.
We worried more.
Venice is not the best place to have a medical emergency. The ambulances are boats. Walking to the hospital would be quicker, about 15 minutes, but I felt guilty for every step as our sick daughter had to trek to the emergency room.
We arrived at Hospital SS Giovanni e Paolo at 11 a.m. and were there until 4 p.m. Emergency rooms in Italy are very much like those in the States, crowded with people who all need attention. We did a lot of waiting, but eventually Chesirae got an EKG and a series of blood tests. After more waiting, we got the results. The doctors couldn't find anything wrong.
Big relief.
And Chesirae is beginning to feel better.
Moral to the story: Big plans for college in Boston, new house in San Diego, an entire summer traveling Europe, everything put together has no value unless your family is safe.
Not a profound learning - but today made the lesson very real.
One tiny footnote: the entire trip to the emergency room, EKG, blood tests, and two doctors examining her cost 70 euros, about what we paid for dinner last night, and that was for someone who is not a citizen of Italy or even of the European Union. Thank you socialized medicine.

Posted by randjb 11:54 Archived in Italy Tagged venice medical italy hospital Comments (0)

Cinque Terre

On to Italy

sunny 95 °F
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The drawback to staying in a non-tourist town, in this case Nimes, is that getting a train to our next destination was not so straight forward. Each time we've traveled between the Airbnbs we've stayed in seems to exhaust the entire day, even when the traveling is only a few hour such as Granada to Barcelona, but in the case of going from Nimes to Riomaggiore, our home in Cinque Terre, the travel truly was all day: the train left at 9:50 a.m. and after numerous transfers arrived at 10:05 p.m.
Of course, had that been how it worked out, we would have been pleased. Instead, as we neared Genoa, our last transfer, I got anxious since we had only 20 minutes to make the transfer and we had to carry the luggage downstairs, under the platforms, and up to wherever the train to Riomaggiore was leaving from. As a consequence, when we pulled into Genoa, I rushed us off the train... without looking at the station name. Yes, we were one station too early.
Luckily, Debbie and Chesirae remained resourceful, and they soon found an alternative train, one that had the possibility of getting us in only 15 minutes late. We got on the alternative train and hoped we would arrive in La Spezia in time to transfer to the fast train to Riomaggiore. Despite a four minute delay at one of the stops, we pulled in with a couple of minutes before the Riomaggiore train left.
I grabbed two suitcases and took off down the stairs, saw the platform number of the other train, and raced up the other set of stairs. My watch said the train was just about to leave, but in fact, it had left. Early! In Italy!
In the end, we took a long and expensive taxi to Riomaggiore and had to walk down the main street with our luggage. We have become used to carting around all the luggage needed for three months, but when you look at the pictures of Cinque Terre, you will get an idea of what going downhill means there. Despite it all, we avoided runaway suitcases and arrived 50 minutes late. Thankfully our hostess, Cecilia, was waiting and helped us the rest of the way. Thank you, Cecilia!
If you haven't been to Cinque Terre, think Escher stairs: they are everywhere, going in every direction, and just to keep them interesting, these stairs meet no building code I know of. Very high, very narrow, very steep, no handrails, twisting and turning, and also very worn so not level. The leg muscles of the locals are impressive (and that is not a joke.) My Fitbit registered two days of 51 flights of stairs each day, and Fitbit does not count going down.
A perfect example of how steep the hills are was the apartment we stayed in directly above the lowest part of Riomaggiore where the boat launch is. Despite looking straight down four floors from our windows onto the plaza below, the door on the other side of the apartment was even with the hill, and we had to climb further up to get out of the apartment. So the hill our apartment was built into rose over 40 feet in just the width of the apartment.
I am amazed anyone thought they could build a town on these cliffs - again, check out the pictures. But these building have been here for something like eight centuries! And the buildings aren't the only structures in precarious places. Riomaggiore's ferry dock is at the base of 30 feet of boulders that tumbled down the cliff over the centuries. Where the rocks meet the water, someone brought in a 10 foot wide slab of cement, anchored it to the boulders, and called it a dock. That a boat could pull to withing 10 feet of the rocks and not worry about hitting its bottom tells you how steeply the cliff descend. Naturally, the way to get to the dock is a set of stairs carved into the rocks. This arrangement is so tenuous that the ferry doesn't come into Riomaggiore unless the water is calm enough. During our five days, the ferry never made it and my guess is that it rarely does.
I have not mentioned the other four towns in Cinque Terra, but they are equally amazing with their own unique approach to living on the edge of a cliff. Debbie climbed up and down between Vernazza and Corniglia, a feat I did not appreciate until the next day when we took a bus to the top of the trail between Manarola and Corniglia and "only" hiked down to Corniglia. If I had had to climb up, I would still be laying on the side of the cliffs.
Luckily, the towns are connected by a train (the one we missed), which runs level but only because more than half the track is in tunnels they cut through the mountain sides. In the case of Riomaggiore, the tunnel goes through the town; you walk under it to get to the seaside and walk over it to get to our apartment four floors up.
We had a wonderful time at our first stop in Italy, and of course, great food! I don't think Italians know how to cook poorly. The only downside was the heat that once again traveled with us. Each day was in the 90's. We've already decided we won't be coming to southern Europe in the summer again - but then, with Chesirae in college, we can arrange that. Meanwhile, Cinque Terre was every bit as wonderful as we had been told.

Posted by randjb 10:59 Archived in Italy Tagged trains italy terre cinque Comments (0)

Barcelona and Nimes

Leaving our friends and Spain

sunny 86 °F
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We only spent 48 hours in Barcelona having been there a few years ago. Everyone except Diana traveled there from Granada. She stayed in Granada an extra day and then returned to Madrid and home. The most roundabout trip to Barcelona was easily Doug and Karen's. They drove back to Lisbon, Portugal to return their rent-a-car and then flew to Barcelona. Why, you ask, would they have taken an eight hour drive instead of the one hour flight? Remember the plane they missed way back in Seville? The least expensive way to deal with that issue turned out to be to rent a car, drive to Seville, and then use the car throughout Spain. However, dropping a car off in another country in Europe jumps the cost by hundreds of dollars, so they drove back to Lisbon, dropped off the car, and flew to Barcelona Tuesday morning. Homer and Wendy and the three of us also flew Tuesday morning but from Granada.
The others did more in Barcelona than we did; we mostly chilled and ate good food with them. We also visited the one place I will go back to anytime I can: Sagrada Familia. Personally, I think this is the most beautiful and interesting building in the world. Take a look at the pictures I've posted and see if you agree. They are scheduled to complete the church in 2026, and if they are anywhere close, I intend to come back and see the completed masterpiece.
After a lovely goodbye dinner with Wendy and Homer and Doug and Karen, the three of us headed out next day on a train to Nîmes. The train travel was excellent, and a little after 8 p.m. we arrived refreshed. After some searching for each other, we found our host, Jean Luc, who graciously escorted us from the train station to our apartment.
The walk was interesting on multiple accounts: first, the 10 minutes turned into nearly half an hour as we had to roll our heavy suitcases along cobblestone streets, but more importantly, we walked past a couple of unexpected treasures. Despite being a Thursday evening, Nîmes was hosting a festival and a French rock band that models itself after the Rolling Stones was playing a concert, specifically playing a concerts in the 2,000 year-old Roman arena. Turns out Nîmes has one of the world's largest and best preserved Roman arenas (think Coliseum). We all wished we could have attended the performance, but alas, the tickets were sold out.
When we arrived at our apartment, it turned out to be on the third floor of a beautiful building overlooking the tree-lined canal. Everything about Jean Luc's place was delightful except dragging our large, 50 lb. suitcases up three flights of a small spiral staircase. The main staircase and elevator were being renovated. I could not help but think of "Big Bang Theory," but I suspect our alternative staircase was meant for servants, never for anything like a suitcase. To his credit, Jean Luc took one of the suitcases and marched to the top with it.
While in Nîmes, we enjoyed the city, touring the arena as well as a well-preserved Roman temple, climbing to the top of the guard tower in the old city wall with a magnificent view in all directions, and eating French dinners until midnight.
We also took a day trip to Avignon to see the Papal Palace that served the popes when they temporarily left Rome. A note on that, this was in the 1300's and the "palace" was a Medieval castle, stark and not a place I would have wanted to live. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing it and Avignon while being very happy about staying in Nîmes instead of the more touristy city.
The highlight of our time in Nîmes however was the day Jean Luc and his fiance, Arielle, picked us up and drove us to the beach town they live in. The town, La Grande Motte, reminded us a great deal of Santa Cruz, beach front, boardwalk rides and amusements, restaurants, and condos. Of course this was on the Mediterranean Sea, but the French appear to enjoy their beach towns much as the US does.
We spent a lovely day with our two hosts, even got a chance to go out on Jean Luc's boat (he's an avid fisherman), toured another town, Aigues-Mortes, a walled city that is famous for being the launching point of the first Crusade, and finished by having a lovely, late dinner with Jean Luc and Arielle.
Having our Airbnb hosts spend an entire day showing us around Provence was unexpected enough, but what made the day all the more interesting is that neither of them spoke English and none of us speak French. A few words each, but mostly we spent the day pantomiming or using our phones as translators. The five of us did tolerably well I think.
We recommend Nîmes as a good place to spend a few days, and if you have a car, there are a few other sights, such as a Roman aqueduct, that are within a 90 minute drive. We didn't see those, but if we had another day, that's how we would have spent it.

Posted by randjb 07:10 Archived in France Tagged barcelona granada jean sagrada familia avignon nimes luc arielle Comments (0)

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