30 July 2007

The Trip Home

July 9, 2007
Milan, Italy to Las Vegas, NV

The only thing remarkable about the last day of our trip was the fact that it seriously took an entire day. We went to the airport on an early shuttle and ended up with just enough time to go through security, get to the terminal, and be bussed to the airplane. I was sick and my nose was leaking profusely. I tried to keep it to myself (and let people see me pour on the hand sanitizer) but I'm sure I was the object of many a head shake.

When we arrived in Newark, we had to go through customs. That means we had to get our luggage, have our passports stamped, recheck the bags, go through security, and find our terminal. We had more than 2 hours to accomplish that - so we figured we'd get something to eat as well. Unfortunately one of our luggage handlers had a medical emergency on the tarmac.

Honestly I can't tell you if it was a he or a she, or is s|he fell or a had a heart attack. I can tell you removing that person delayed the luggage by 90 minutes. We had our big suitcase. We were just missing one duffel with all the souvenirs. Yes, it came and yes, that was the longest wait. But it was not the only wait.

Customs was smooth, but did not move quickly. And the line to recheck luggage was down two hallways. We were still 45 minutes from our flight, and therefore did not qualify for the 30 minute or less fast-track. When we finally got the next set of luggage screeners, the sight was disconcerting to say the least.

We were told to leave our bags just anywhere on the side. We had no time to argue. Jesse maintained his cool - until he realized we had to go through security again. Then came the "I hate Newark" rant that comes from anyone who has ever had the EWR experience. But as you can guess, it all worked out. We found our terminal, grabbed something to eat, and boarding began just as we were were finishing our food.

And thus concluded Cruise 2007.

29 July 2007

A Day On The Road

July 8, 2007
Italian Countryside

Our flight back the states left from Milan. Neither of us had any desire to see Milan, so we decided to take a train that Sunday afternoon. We sat in the technologically advanced first class cabin, with adjustable seats and electrical outlets. I started looking through the pictures we had taken. Jesse started listening to his i pod and dozing. Rome started melting away. In place of monuments and tourists, there were mountains and trees. I'm glad we saw that part of the country. It as if Rome was leaving us, instead of the other way around.

Milan is not Rome. The people are not as friendly. The train stations are not as clean. The map we bought seemed to be useless. Milan is not Rome.

Here's the rundown: We got out of the technologically advanced first class cabin in Milan. I then had to pay to use a very dirty bathroom, where no one stood in line people were dashing into open stalls. We then paid for a map that didn't show the neighborhood surrounding our hotel. We took city trains to an express terminal, where we took another train to the airport. At the airport, we found a free shuttle to our hotel. I think we spent 8 hours getting from One hotel to the other. We were exhausted.

Our hotel was fantastic. There was a flat rate for Internet and after some finagling, we had power to the computer. Actually we had had power the entire time via an adapter. But it didn't have a slot for the third prong and we didn't think it would worked. We were wrong.

We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and from what I remember, it was delicious. While it wasn't the most eventful way to spend our last day in Italy, we were exhausted. And we went to bed.

28 July 2007

Our Last Night In Rome

July 7, 2007
Rome Italy

In one day (which was really 2), we saw the sites, at the food, and bought the goods. On our last night in Rome, Jesse and I bought a bottle of wine (and an opener) and sat on the Spanish Steps. As I'm sure I've mentioned, the best part about sitting on the Spanish Steps is watching the people. Some don't know they're being watched, but I'm sure others go there just for the attention.

I call this man Xerxes. There are more similarities than not. He strutted up and down the steps, granted every photo request, and (as you can see) was fully able to strike a pose. I took a few pictures of him. He entertained us for about an hour.

Otherwise, we sat and drank our wine out of the bottle. I didn't think we were on anyone's radar until two kids offered us cups. After we emptied the bottle, I knocked it over. So their timing was perfect.

After we drank, we ate. We picked Trattoria Otello all Concordia based on a recommendation from Frommer's. It was an excellent choice and we had a lovely time. We wrapped up Rome with a walk back to the Colosseum, and a tax ride back to our hotel.

27 July 2007

After The Vatican

July 7, 2007
Rome, Italy

We walked out of St. Peter's Square, bought some trinkets, and followed another crowd heading towards the Sistine Chapel. On the way, we decided to eat at a place on the corner. There was nothing extraordinary about it but I'm pretty sure it was the best pizza I ate in all of Italy. Of course that could have been because I was really hungry.

Our menu consisted of Coke, Fanta, bruschetta, pizza, and lasagna. It seems like a lot when it's written out. The service was quick, the food was delicious, the bill was not steep and there was soap in the restroom. I highly recommend it.

We were less than two blocks from the Sistine Chapel but we never made it inside. My only explanation is this sign. It clearly states the chapel closes at 1pm during the week we were there. Had we known that, we would have planned accordingly. Still, I think this was our only missed opportunity and I'm proud that there's only one. We planned ahead and didn't leave a lot of room for error. This one just happened. As a result we had a lot more free time in Rome and not a whole lot else to do. Fortunately we found the perfect way to pass the time.

We started shopping for souvenirs. We both had a list of ideal items we would have liked to have found. But the reality is that there are few souvenirs sold by hundreds of vendors. Unique gifts might be out there, but they're nowhere a tourist would be able to find.

Aside from shopping, we went back to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. I liked the fountain better in the daytime - because I could see just how many people were there. It was not a comforting sight, but at least I was aware.

We once again sat near the fountain - with some gelato. I found a place I had been to back in 2000. It was still there and the gelato was still fantastic. Even Jesse, who has a odd distaste for good foods, thought the gelato was phenomenal. That is a very high complement.

So we sat, we stood, we shopped, and we had seen all we could within reason. We had plenty of time to enjoy our last night in Rome.

26 July 2007

The Vatican | Grottoes

July 7, 2007
Vatican City, Italy

The popes are buried in the Vatican Grottoes. There we were allowed to take pictures of all the popes of which we had never heard. Pope John Paul II, however, still has a guard. We could have laid flowers or a card, but all I really wanted was a picture. We did see remnants of the old caskets that held popes. I assume, since the casket pieces were bolted to the wall that those popes had decomposed. But I suppose they could be off somewhere being studied.

There's only one way out of the Grottoes, and it leads right out of the Vatican. A lot of people who go out aren't prepared for that. And while I can't say I was ready to go - I had had my fill. We were among the lucky ones. The Swiss Guards were unrelenting and several people outside of the gates tried to argue their way back inside. On the other hand Jesse and I were off to lunch.

25 July 2007

The Vatican

July 7, 2007
Vatican City, Italy

Once we made it into St. Peter's Square, we stopped. It's breathtaking - and not in the dramatic way a guy in a romantic-comedy says a gal is "breathtaking." I mean to enter St. Peter's Square leaves you spinning on the spot to take it all in, with your mouth agape and mind churning. Say what you will about the Catholic as an institution. The Vatican is beautiful. Take a look for yourself.

The church even made the line look small in the beginning. But watch that video again and see how far it stretched. It did seem to move quickly and I occupied myself by taking pictures.

Our first run in with security was the usual x-ray / metal detector arrangement every airline passenger should know and love by now. The we came across the fashion police.

Now more than a tourist attraction, or scene from Angels & Demons, the Vatican is a church. You say it's the most churchy-church out there. So if you go, make sure you'd wear something you could wear to church. I don't mean you ought to dress up, but if you are showing shoulders or knees (male or female) you will have to cover the offending parts before you go inside. We had not thought about appropriate dress even once. Fortunately, we were covered, literally.

All this to say: we went to the Vatican and it was lovely. Inside we saw art I cannot describe and opulence that surpasses wealth. We saw tributes to popes past and Jesse dabbled in a confessional for about 3 seconds before he started smoking.

Even though it was our first stop of the day, it was mentally exhausting. There were so many impressive parts, I felt overwhelmed by it all. Jesse said he felt the same way. I don't how long we were there, but we left to go find the Papal Tombs.

24 July 2007

The Vatican | Getting There

July 7, 2007
Rome, Italy

Another day, another chance to explore. I woke up refreshed and ready - and not in the least bit tired of traveling. We had been on vacation for nine days, and we both wanted more. Our itinerary was short: Vatican & Sistine Chapel. We wanted to take it easy because it was our last day before we began heading back to the states. The day turned out to be even easier than we anticipated.

Technically, our first stop was breakfast, where I ran into an old favorite: peach jelly. My first rendezvous with peach jelly happened when I studied abroad in Spain. Peach Jelly is the absolute best jelly for toast. I don't think I've ever seen it in the states. Americans, it seems, do not associate peaches with top-of-the-morning taste-bud pleasure. Anyway peach had a new friend: cherry. Before we left the hotel I would put some in my purse to bring back to Las Vegas.

The lady at the front desk recommended we take the bus to the Vatican. Jesse insisted we take the train. I didn't think it mattered either way, so we took the train, got out, and followed the crowd.

But before we got off the train (before we got on really) we saw this ad for the Gay Village. I'm not sure what it is, buy we got a kick out of the gay bears. I suspect its a television show, but I can't be sure. As far as I'm concerned, it's just cute... and gay.

It was pretty easy to find the Vatican from the train station. We were among hundreds of people sidestepping beggars and peddlers en route to a place just beyond our sight. The Vatican is surrounded by a giant wall. Instead of being solid, it's a group of giant pillars. They were the first indication of how small we would feel at the Vatican.

23 July 2007

Rome | Trevi Fountain

July 6, 2007
Rome, Italy

Our final planned stop of the night was the Trevi Fountain. In order to get there, we had to pass by a few interesting sites, including the Pantheon at night and a McDonald's with an outdoor patio.

We also saw a man who literally makes his living out of sitting around. He covers himself and his clothes in a metallic paint and finds places to sit. I guess I don't know if he makes a living out of it, but it would certainly not be worth the hassle otherwise. Jesse didn't like this man, or any of his painted friends. I didn't mind them. Still, seeing them move was bizarre.

Eventually we made it to the Trevi Fountain. We and a few hundred of our closest friends banded together against peddlers of useless wares. We tried to be patient and I tried to turn them away kindly. Jesse chose to leave all the kindness to me. His idea of patience was to not hit them. I appreciated his restraint. The peddlers did not know how good they had it.

We threw our coins into the fountain (as required by tradition) and probably paid $5 to make sure we returned to Rome. We sat as long as we could, but it was difficult to watch people and our possessions at the same time. In fact, throughout the entire trip, my guard was the highest while we were at that fountain. Thankfully we left, and safety returned at in the Spanish Steps.

We didn't spend too much time there. There weren't any outlandish characters there for us to watch. We mostly tried to figure out how to get back to the hotel. The trains had stopped and we figured we were too far for an affordable taxi. The adventures of the day were finally starting to catch up with me and one of my legs was starting to cramp. So we walked back to the Colosseum for inspiration - which was wise.

On that night, the Colosseum was lit for some sort of event. I don't know what it was, but we were lucky to find it. The pictures came out pretty well, If I must say so myself.

From there we took a cab back to the Hotel Saint Paul. Our day had come to a close. After waking up on a boat, taking two trains, touring ancient Rome, and taking 237 pictures, we were exhausted. Thank goodness we took that nap.

22 July 2007

Rome | Piazza Navona

Jule 6, 2007
Rome, Italy

The next stop on our one day tour of Rome was Piazza Navona. Now while there are several architectural and historical reasons why Piazza Navona is famous - we went to simply watch the people.

Jesse and I put a lot of effort into this plan. We saved Piazza Navona for a time near dusk. We chose to eat at a restaurant located near the middle of the square. We made it a point to sit as close to the walking traffic as possible. Basically, we wanted to have a perfect stoop in the Piazza Navona neighborhood. And that's exactly what we got.

We ate at Caffe Domiziano. We chose it because it was centrally located. Initially, we sat close to the back because even though we wanted to be near the people passing through the piazza, we also wanted to see as much of it as possible from one vantage point. Fortunately a table in the front became available before we even saw our waiter and we helped ourselves to the better real estate. Moving to a better locale turned out to be a smart decision - because it distracted from our terrible service.

I understand the European concept of not rushing through a meal. But there is a difference between not-interrupting and neglect. The waiter was not the scurrying sort. There were even people who sat down, studied the menu, waited, and left because the waiter never came to them. We ordered quickly and while I am not sure, I think the food took its time as well. Nevertheless, the pesto showed me it was worth the wait.

We both ordered pasta. I chose pesto. Jesse chose pomodoro. We both chose well. The food was not too oily (although I did drip and stain my shirt) and the flavor was distinct. We devoured it. Once we had eaten, it didn't matter that our waiter had better things to do. He stopped by when it was important (when I wanted gelato) and left us to appreciate the sites on our own.

Mostly we watched street performers. There was one kid who apparently carried his livelihood on a cart. He rolled to a stop, unloaded his Viola, and started a little radio. He played while we ate and just as we became used to the serenade, he stopped and took out his purse. We gave him the change we had and he left. Apparently no one gave him enough euros to stick around for an encore.

He was quickly replaced while we sat there, and so was his replacement. We watched the sun go down and the artists come out. Eventually we left too. We still had more touring to do.

21 July 2007

Rome | The Pantheon

July 6, 2007
Rome, Italy

Next stop on our walking your of Rome was the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. We had no intentions of stopping there, but it was right around the corner and the last time I was in Rome at that monument, I had no idea what it was. Now I know and I am going to tell you.

Victor Emmanuel II, or Vittorio Emanuele II, was the first king of Italy. His monument is made of marble and is almost 500 feet wide - which explains why you have to go three blocks away to take a picture of it. The monument also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, built after World War I. So the next time you see this building in a movie, (minus the scaffolding) you'll know it's important.

The Pantheon

From something historic and Italian, we went to something ancient and Greek. The Pantheon, or Πάνθεον, was a temple built to honor seven gods. Now it's a Christian church and tomb. Among those buried there are kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I. Wikipedia says the Pantheon is the best preserved building in Rome. I don't know how that could be verified but architecturally speaking, it's pretty cool.

The main area is round with an arched ceiling. That ceiling is pretty simple but I am always amazed at tall structures built before motorized cranes. Also, no one knows what kind of concrete was used. Assuming there's no metal reinforcement, modern concrete would crumble under its own weight. I say that qualifies as impressive.

Outside the Pantheon, there is a little plaza. We stood there for a few minutes, just being in Rome. We had already seen quite a bit -- and there was still a lot more to do -- but it was important to remember that a girl from Pennsylvania and a boy from North Dakota were enjoying the weekend after a cruise on the Mediterranean by hanging out in Rome. Life was good.