Thursday, 9 December 2010

Bucharest Romania

The Black Sea (black and white photo taken in Constanta)

"Dracula's Castle" If you have ever read Bram Stoker's Dracula you can picture the Count crawling down this wall.

The Orchestra House.

So with just six months left overseas we are starting to look at places you wouldn't normally plan a trip to from the US. Romania came to mind.
With as modern as they have become in the past 20 years they still have a ways to go in some areas.
We ended up going with another family, my boss really. I told him about the great price I found for a direct flight over Thanksgiving and he asked if I cared if he and his family came. The boys played baseball together and went to Poland together so we all knew each other and we all get along so there was no issue. Someone in his family works for Marriott so he hooked us up with a room for $80/ night at the JW in Bucharest. So for less than $800 I've got airfare and lodging for four. Going to Bucharest for Thanksgiving!
We left on Wednesday afternoon. No problem with the flight. The airport is SMALL although I didn't realize how small until we flew out. You go through customs and get your luggage. The dollar rental car was a small stand, really like a podium, next to the Thrifty podium. Who needs computers? All the paperwork was filled out by hand. I think he fished the keys out of a box. We walk out to the curb and he says, "Wait here. I'll bring the car up." It really wasn't that the service was that great, there is no parking garage. He had to run over to the tiny parking lot a couple hundred yards away. He pulls up in a tiny Chevy Spark. It was full of scrapes and chipped paint but I wasn't to worried at that point. It was cheap and temporary. The back tire was a little low. The response was, "Yeah, that's how the last guy brought it back." Fair enough. Welcome to Romania.
The TomTom (ours) has limited mapping of Romania. It kinda knows roads are in place but unless it is a MAJOR road there are no names. We bought a map to get to the hotel...
Thursday. I went out to check to see if the back tire was holding the air we put in the night before. It was holding. Good you may say. Now in the day light though I can see the tires better. The back tires were obviously front tires at one point and the car must have needed an alignment. The outside edges of both back tires were almost, you could see little dents that used to be trend, smooth. No big deal, I remember Carey driving around on bald tires for quite some time went we were teens in Florida. Its when you start to see threads that there is a problem. We were headed out towards to airport anyway.
First sight. An outdoor village museum. They went all around Romania and piece by piece took apart and reassembled traditional old (some hundreds of years old) homes. Actually very interesting. All very simple. Small. Fun to walk around though. We saw a squirrel wit really big ears.
The kids spotted a Hard Rock the night before. It was right around the corner so we all agreed we'd go. The exchange rate is about 3 Leis to one dollar so it really wasn't that bad.
To the airport. The night before the guy gave my boss his cell phone number so that on Sunday we could call ahead and he would meet us out front to return the cars. I didn't think much about it but once we got to the airport it became very clear. He only works when there is an appointment. No one around to care about my bald tires let alone swap out cars (I really don't know if they would have had anything else anyway). Back to the memories of Carey's first car... It’s only a long weekend.
That night Carey, the kids and I went to see an orchestra. Very pretty building. 50+ people in the orchestra. It was a piece used in Fantasia.
Friday. Constanta. A 2600 year old city right on the Black Sea. It is now the forth largest shipping port in Europe. We spent the afternoon just strolling through the small old town. We went down to the water so everyone could say they were IN the Black Sea.
That night we got back kinda late so we had dinner at the Lebanese restaurant in the hotel. Really good.
Saturday. Brasov and Bran. Bram Stoker got the inspiration from and used the castle in Bran as the starting point in Dracula. I got most of the way through the book before we went to it so it was really neat to see the castle as he had described it. The castle itself was great. It was something you could really live in. No over the top rooms or hallways. Normal size rooms, with normal transitions, and normal stairways (and one kinda secret staircase). On the top floor there was a pretty good history of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) and the myths. Long story short, Vlad really believed in impaling people as punishment for crimes. This lead to comments such as "his taste for blood." That was then carried out further. His father was part of the Order of the Dragon. Dracula is "little Dracul." It was funny to see the light go on in Brianna's head that Twilight wasn't he beginning of Vampire movies... I think she knew that but didn't really know it went back that far and I'm not sure if she had heard of Dracula.
Brasov is another nice old town. Beautiful area on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains. We finally had a traditional Romanian meal there. I had tripe soup. Cow stomach. Delicious.

Driving around Bucharest was interesting. All the old communist apartments are still in place. You never had to worry about people wanting more than their neighbors. Very dreary. Much more of an overwhelming sense of the communist life style than we saw in Berlin or Warsaw.

Oh yeah. The tires held up just fine. When I turned the car in the response was, "Yeah we were waiting because we're going to have to put on winter tires soon."
The major international airport in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, has 4 gates. All in one small area. Sitting there looking around was like something out of a movie. Flights were on time though and our luggage came with us...

Good trip. Glad we went.

Next stop, Istanbul, Turkey! The week between Christmas and New Years.

As a side note. I just got back from a week long underway on a surface ship. We pulled into Split, Croatia. Extremely beautiful area. More small towns to explore. National parks (I took an excursion to see some incredible water falls). It was enough to put Croatia back on the short list of places to go soon.

Two more to go... Stuttgart Germany

The week of Veterans day I had to go to Stuttgart for work. Brianna has a good friend that moved from here to there and we really like Germany (if that hasn't become obvious) so we decided to take the long weekend up there. It worked out well. Brianna and Danna were glued at the hip and gitty the whole time.
Carey and the kids got on a direct flight from Naples to Stuttgart on Thursday and I met them at the airport with the family we were staying with. We couldn't have asked for more really. We had a place to stay for free and we rented a minivan for the weekend so the families could just stay together and travel around. They were still kinda new to the area so it was a good trip for them too.
Thursday night jumped on a train and bus to a little restaurant. As always, good food and wine. I had pig's cheak. It really was good.
Friday we all loaded up and went to Strasbourg, France. How great is that? "I think I'll go to France for the day..." It is a little less than 2 hours away. We spent the day walking around just enjoying the small town. There was a very pretty church. We climbed the 300 or so stairs to the top of the bell tower. Great views of the surrounding area. We took a nice, glass enclosed, river boat tour. That evening we ate there and then headed back.
Saturday we had a pretty fun and laid back day. We saw Mega-mind at the base theatre in the morning, then went on the hunt for "a great skate park" someone told Austin about. Someone was misinformed... Oh well. Later we went to an indoor water park. They had some waterslides, a wave pool, and a big out door heated pool. That evening we left the kids at home and had an enjoyable dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The Skip was the pilot that flew President Bush onto the aircraft carrier during the Iraq war. The story was awesome. Politics aside, Bush seemed like a very personable person and to this day they still get Christmas cards.
All in all a good weekend.

Berlin (starting to get caught up...)

A shot of the Holocaust Museum

Berlin Cathedral. Some kid doing a handstand in front of it...

We've taken family that comes out to different countries. For my parents we chose Berlin.

Honestly, I kinda screwed up the planning on this one but it still worked out pretty good. We had about 48 hours on the ground in Berlin. In my defense part of the "problem" was that Carey and I went to see U2 in Rome the night before. Woa is us... The concert was AWESOME.
The first day (afternoon) we got on the metro and went to a giant outdoor flea market. The walk there was pretty. There is a giant park (Tiergarten Park), nice walkways, statues, etc. The market was neat. Anything from antiques to spare parts, to paintings and furniture. That night we went to a Brauhaus for good German food and beer. I think with enough time here I could convince my dad that Busch beer really is nasty. Probably not.
Normally we don't put to much stock in hop-on hop-off busses but with some proper planning they can be very effective. This will be a little out of order as I go through the Rick Steves book and look at the bus stops on line but I think I'll cover it all...
Reichstag Building. It is the parliament building. Massive with pretty, huge glass dome on top. There is a nice open grassy area in front of it that you can take in the size and get some really good pictures. Of course there is people watching and pretzel vendors too. I think we ate our way across the city!
Brandenburg Gate. The last surviving gate of Berlin's old city walls. When the Berlin wall was up it blocked off right in front of it. Street performers, people posing and taking pictures in US and German uniforms, a make shift passport stamping stand (we have very few stamps believe it or not now that the EU countries have open borders).
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 gravestone/ coffin looking pillars all at different heights. It is the first government sponsored holocaust museum. Below it is a fairly large museum that outlines the events of the holocaust. Eerie personnel stories, letters, tell of individual sufferings. As with all things holocaust, moving.
Berlin Cathedral. Huge! I think I read somewhere this was the protestants answer to St. Peters. Unfortunately services, or something, were going on inside so we had to admire from outside. Interesting, yet unrelated, the terror threat through Europe has been a little higher in the past few months so the police were enforcing a no parking, standoff, zone in front of the cathedral. We saw two or three cars towed in 15-20 minutes.
Check point Charlie and the Berlin Wall. All through Berlin there is a brick path following where the wall used to be. At Check Point Charlie there is a long detailed exhibit that tells a really good history of the wall. If you listen to some of the tourists, I got tired of reading, you could here people reliving times that they had spent here (one guy in particular was in the service or something and was telling a story about the procedures and some problems getting back and forth). Detailed in the exhibit were the stories of people trying to get over the wall (was no easy feat since there was a huge cleared area where you were likely to get shot) or smuggled out in the trunk or with fake id's etc. We walked up the street a found one of the few remaining portions of the wall. Amazing to think of what it must have been like to live on either side of the wall and the different lives associated with each.
The final morning we went to KaDeWe's. A huge, high end department store second in size only to Harrods in London. I don't think I will ever understand the logic of spending so much on even common clothing (hats, shirts, jeans) but ,wow, there was some pricey stuff in there. The most amusing part was the food section. "Gourmet" foods from all over. What does America have to offer for the Europeans? Betty Crocker. I don't make this stuff up. You see it here though too. There was an international bizarre at the NATO base here in Naples and that's what the American stand had there too.
So we really did pack a lot into our 48 hours.
Some trips are more "fun" than others, but all of them have something to offer as far as history and culture are concerned.

Still catching up

A couple pictures from Ravello.

I really should have stayed on top of this... Now its kinda painful and I have to remember...

My parents came out in September/ October.
We saw a lot of the same stuff I have already written about but we also took a trip back to Cusana Mutri (the hill town we have family from). My Uncle hired a genealogist to meet us up there and go back further in the family tree. The town records people where extremely supportive. We were, mostly by ourselves, able to go back a few more generations and then go FORWARD. The woman working that day looked at the genealogist and said, "Let me take you all up the street to talk to some people." Condensing the story a little, we ended up having coffee in the living room of some very distant cousins (to be exact, my mom's great-great-grandfather and Antonio's great-great-grandfather were brothers). Not the overwhelming family reunion I think I wrote about with the Retrosi's (they had a get together with 80 of their closest relatives they had never met) but still pretty neat.
We also took the time to walk around the town a bit more and it really is pretty.

Another little trip worth mentioning while they were here was Ravello. Every now and then you go some place around here that you think "This is Italy. This is the beauty that I always thought of." Ravello is one of those places. It is along the Amalfi coast but set up in the hills just a little. Absolutely beautiful ocean views and lookouts. If you ever find yourself planning a trip that involves sothern Italy center your time around the Amalfi coast. Its nice to say you've been to Pompeii but if my time was limited I wouldn't spend much of it looking for things to do around Naples. If you do have time to kill there are definitely things worth seeing, and our guests so far have all had weeks here so we have taken them, but Amalfi really is what people picture.

Berlin to follow...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Need to catch up a bit...

This will probably come in a few posts. Out of laziness I stopped posting trips around Italy but there have been a couple lately (the last few months) that are worth posting.

Labor Day weekend: Carey posted pictures on facebook right after we got back from this one so it may seem a little familiar to some of you.

We went to Pescasseroli which is a small town in the mountains a couple hours north of here. We stayed at a nice hotel that had an excellent resteraunt downstairs. The town itself is nice but the area is really about outdoors activities.

The first day, Friday, after walking through the town, we went to the ski lift area. They had these four wheel cars, no engine, that got towed up the bunny slope and then gravity takes you down. In addition to the four wheelers they had jumbo wheeled skooters. Pretty fun... After that, we went down the street to where they had tubing and trampolines. For the tubing, they built wood ramps on the side of the hill and then covered them with what is essentially inch and a half tall, in-door/ out-door carpet. Then you slide down on a tube. One of the ramps ended by launching you up and out onto a huge airbag. They also had outdoor trampolines. Nice ones. Competition type.

Saturday, we went horseback riding. This time Austin got to do it all by himself. It was funny riding the horses, they were definetly raised in Italy. They were all trying to either pass eachother or get in a better position. Kinda like Italian driving... After that we went back to the ski area. We took the main lift to the top and then hiked back down. About an hour and a half later we got back to the bottom. Pretty area. Pretty views.

Fianlly, on Sunday we stopped at a really pretty lake on our way back to Naples. Lago di Barrea. We rented paddle boats and spent an hour or so just cruising around the lake.

Nice weekend. Relaxing, fun.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany, and Slovenia, oh my

Some mountains in Slovenia.

One of the great views from the trail that went up and beyond the Neuschanstein Castle (Austria)

Switzerland near Atzmannig.

The Rope course. Brianna is on the zip line. Carey is in the background on the platform. Judging by her hieight you can see how high up we are.

Hollgrotten Caves. The walls and features look slimey but they are just wet smooth limestone deposits.
If you are on facebook, go to Carey's page and like all the other trips, there are about 70 more pics and a video of the toboggan run.

This was a great trip. We wanted to get in one more big trip prior to the kids starting school. We did… Carey has already posted a bunch of pictures to facebook.
We decided to rent a car for the trip. All the activities were spread out, we were going through 5 different countries, and we didn’t want to put the extra miles on the Jetta. At the last minute (really within hours) we cancelled our original rental because the trunk was to small (we were able to see the car we were going to get on base). I found a bigger car, still a Fiat, online that we went with. After I booked it and we cancelled the first, Carey got a call saying the car wasn’t available. Carey told the guy she was going to go try get our original rental back. That car was already gone (within 45 minutes). But wait. The guy called back while she was gone and said they worked something out! So we go to the airport to get our car, still thinking it’s a Fiat. The guy tells me, “We didn’t have the car you booked so we gave you a free upgrade.” I said, “Great.” Then he looks at what he is giving us and starts to ask where we were going and making sure we were going to have secure parking. I laughed a little and assured him we were not staying in Naples so everything should be fine. Come to find out, we got upgraded to a new BMW 320. Not a bad start.
Saturday morning we got up early and were on the rode by 6 AM. We drove all the way through to Zurich, Switzerland. Long day…
Sunday we slept in a little bit because it was raining. We changed our plans a bit and went to Höllgrotten caves. The caves were found around 1863 by people mining tufa rock for building material. The website I’m looking at is translated from German and the signs at the caves that gave a good history were in German so the best I can come up with is this. After the last ice age as the ice melted the caves were carved out because of the different densities of the rock layers. Same idea of ground water and underground reservoirs. The area is rich in lime stone though so lots of stalactites and stalagmites, along with features I thought looked like a brains were formed. Some of the areas were wide open and very colorful. After we were done in the caves we hiked up along the river for quite a ways. The rain had stopped earlier so it was a nice, cool, hike. At one point we passed a small hydroelectric plant. Did you know Switzerland makes 99% of its electric power without oil? Nuclear and hydroelectric. Also, the Swiss really don’t have their own language. They speak the language of the country the border is closest to (Italy, Germany, or France).
Monday. This was supposed to be the nicer of the days… Not so much. We drove out to Atzmannig (another area in Switzerland) anyway. When we got there it was still raining so we drove a little bit more. Even though it was raining the area is still very beautiful so the drive was nice. We stopped for lunch hoping the rain would stop. It mostly did… After talking about it we decided even if it meant getting wet we were going to Aztmannig and doing the high rope park. What is a high rope park you may ask. I had to ask… It is awesome is what it is! So you have a few acres of land with some really big pine trees. Build ladders and platforms 20 to 40 feet up on these trees. Then connect the platforms with cable, zip-lines, and various daggling objects. You now have a high rope park. You get a harness, really a belt with straps that also go around your legs. Attached to that are a couple cable lanyards and a zip-line roller. You get a quick demonstration and a practice run on a real small, low, course and then you are off to the trees. You always have at least one cable connected to a guide/ safety cable but it is still a bit of a rush being up to 40 feet above the ground trying to balance and step from daggling stump to dangling stump or tight rope from platform to platform… The rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise. At first we were bummed that it was a rainy day but after all was said and done the rain kept everyone else away so, in total there were less than 20 people at this place and we never had to wait to do anything. AND it stopped raining by the time we got our gear on… My Aunt and Uncle like to say we Stacks can fall into poo and come out smelling like roses… So far between the car and the rope park we were smelling good! Three hours later we were worn out and ready to go.
Tuesday. We drove from Zurich to Garmisch, Germany via Lichtenstein. We stopped in a small town in Lichtenstein and just walked around for a while. Just to say we did. For a small fee Carey and the kids got their passports stamped with a Lichtenstein stamp. Nice little town. The whole drive was beautiful. Again, cloudy but nice.
We got into Garmisch and Edelweiss (the US Army’s MWR hotel and resort) and enjoyed the indoor pool and giant hot-tub. They also have a good buffet so dinners were cheap and good.
Wednesday. We drove around a loop of roads into Austria that linked up several of King Ludwig’s castles. We didn’t go into a single one. We did however walk through some of the grounds and hiked to the Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. Above Neuschwanstein castle there is a bridge high above a small river. The bridge is narrow. The floor is wood. There are a ton of tourists on it. You can’t help but think, “I wonder what the weight limit is…” Beyond the bridge is a nice short hike up a bit more. The views from there were great.
Thursday. We went to Area 47. It is at the 47th parallel. It is labeled as the ultimate outdoor adventure. It was awesome. We went white water rafting in the morning. Again, all the rain helped. The water was cold, 7 degrees (about 45F), but they provide nice, new wet suits. There were several spots were it got deep and slower so we could just jump in. Not bad in the wetsuit. Your fingers and head take the shock though! A bunch of nice rapids, just right for beginners and Austin and Brianna. After that we went to their water park. There is a descent size lake, that I couldn’t really tell if it is man made or just a convenient shape. Water slides; come-alongs stretched tight as tight ropes; a ten meter diving platform; another platform that was 27 meters (over 75 feet) high (adjustable down to about 15 meters); giant ramps into the water that people went off on sleds, snowboards, and skis; and a human water cannon. All under a beautiful Austrian sun. The lake itself was about 20 degrees (~69 F). Cold, but not bad since it really was a nice day.
Friday. We drove to Slovenia via Salzburg, Austria. Near Salzburg we found a toboggan run. Totally not planned, we had talked about it because it sounded cool. It was. You take a ski lift up the mountain and then you ride a light weight plastic cart, just big enough for an average adult, down a metal track. The cart is locked into the track kinda like a roller coaster. It isn’t real fast but the combination of the size of the cart, only being held in by a seatbelt, and the jerky turns, it is plenty fast! Carey has a full run video that she took with the camera on facebook. It really was a blast!
We got into our hotel in Slovenia and had a nice dinner. Out front there was a small stage set up and singing groups of Slovenians singing what I can only guess were kinda like folk songs. They were all decked out in old traditional outfits and all.
Saturday. We got up early because our horseback riding appointment was at 9 AM and it was at least an hour away. Slovenians are not afraid to build steep (18% grade at a couple points) and banked roads through the mountain passes. The BMW handled it great. A white knuckle ride later we got to the horse back riding place. At first the guide looked at Austin and said he couldn’t do the planned ride because he was to small. After Carey and I looked at each other and basically said we weren’t going to just ride around a pasture he conceded to using a guide rope from is horse to Austin’s. It was probably a legitimate concern. Horses are strong and if it had started to go its own way I’m not sure Austin would have the weight to change its mind (truthfully I’m the one with the most riding experience and that was a camp in Davie over 20 years ago, so I am pretty sure if the horse really felt froggy or got spooked I would have problems too). All the horses were good though. Carey’s was the one that wanted to do its own thing every now and then. Pretty funny watching her try to pull its head up from eating grass… It was a nice 1 ½ to 2 hour ride through some trails in the hills.
This area of Europe is beautiful. Its kinda a mix between where my parents live (at least when they first moved there) where there are older homes/ farmhouses wide spread on farms/ ranches and then out west where there are real mountains (yes mom I still think you just live on a really big hill). Average peaks were probably 5-6 thousand feet but many were 8, 9000, and Zugspitze is just short of 10,000 feet. They can build some tunnels too. 16 km (10 miles) was the longest we were in. There were several others in the 3 – 5 mile range. The whole area is super clean. You struggle to find an accidental piece of trash on the road. The great thing about all these places… The Europeans aren’t sue happy. They will look at you and say, “This could be dangerous. If you break something it’s your fault. You shouldn’t have done it.” And it’s true. I wouldn’t consider anything we did to be life threatening (I don’t care where you are, a business doesn’t stay open killing its customers) but there was potential for a lot of bumps and bruises… But that’s life and that’s what made it so much fun.

Monday, 19 July 2010


Warsaw Uprising monument.

Shot a shotgun lately?

Torun. Lots of buildings like this.

Old town hall in Plock.

Some kid trying to hit a ball...

So Poland was on our list of places to go but all of a sudden, about a month ago now, the MWR baseball league decided they were going to try to field a team for the European-Middle East-Africa Little League championships. So off to Kutno, Poland we go!
Kutno is about 120 km east of Warsaw. Why baseball in Poland you may ask? (That’s your cue to ask…) About 15 years ago Stan Musial, a major leaguer and Pole, decided he wanted to bring baseball to Poland so he went to Kutno and now there is a very nice baseball complex. The whole adventure was short notice so the coaching was shaky at first, it was me and another guy (neither of us knows baseball) covering while the real coaches were on travel for work. Then the boys had about two weeks to try to come together as a team, get brought up to speed (the MWR coaching is less than average…), and fund raise. We went in knowing we were likely going to loose but hoped it would be a positive and memorable experience for the boys. It DEFINETLY was. They played and interacted with kids from S. Africa, Ukraine, Moldova, Italy, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Bellerose, and Ireland.
Most of our trip centered around baseball and we had games 4 of the 7 days we were there but we did make time to take in some sights. So here we go…
Even on about one weeks notice we still found a non-stop flight from Rome to Warsaw for $135 each. Cheap airline so you have to pay for luggage; Rome so we needed to take the train… Still way cheaper than Lufthansa this time. Be careful with cheap airlines… So for the FORTH flight in a row… As a re-cap: volcano strands us in Paris, French air traffic controls holds us up in Milan, mechanical problem reroutes us in Madrid. This time… Couple versions to the story, probably most of everything is true. The plane had maintenance that had to be done (delay 1). There was a piece of electronics that needed to be replaced (delay 2). The airline didn’t pay the Rome airport their parking fee (delay 3). Eight hours later, 11:30 at night, we are finally boarding and headed to Warsaw. We land in Warsaw around 2 – 2:30 AM and get a room at the Marriott at the airport. Nice and very reasonably priced. So now Saturday is Sunday and we get our rental car and we are off.
I found a rental, again a week out, that was probably a little pricey by Polish standards but was awesome. It was really like a guest house on these peoples’ estate. The nephew of the owner, also lives on site, spoke English and the family went out of their way to make us happy and keep us entertained and well fed. As we were checking in there was bread, bear, and homemade soup waiting for us…
Monday: Baseball game. Played Ukraine. Got spanked (they actually won the tournament). Good eye opener and settler for the boys. They got the point and started to focus. That night Carey, Brianna, and I went into Plock to find dinner. Delicious. The Polish do meat right. Plock is a nice little town too. No “major” attractions, but we enjoyed just walking around.
Tuesday: Baseball. We played S. Africa. We got spanked. They went to the semi-finals… Tuesday night back to Plock for dinner. This night the restaurant we picked didn’t have an English menu and the waiter didn’t speak much English. I have been happy to just point at the menu and hope for the best ever since Carey’s dad and I did it in Munich last Christmas. This was Carey and Brianna’s real first time doing it (other times we had an idea of what they might be getting). Brianna played it safe and picked something out of the pierogi section (filled with blue berries, covered with yogurt, very good). I just pointed at a soup and something in the meat section. Delicious soup and an amazing, what I think was a, pork chop and potatoes. Carey points and gets… chicken wings and french fries (I can’t make this stuff up!). We saw more of Plock after dinner, including a walk over looking the river.
Wednesday: No baseball. We went to Torun. Torun is known for a few things. One, it is the home of Nicholas Copernicus. He was one of the guys who said, “Hey, we got it all wrong. The earth is not the center of the universe! In fact, I’ll draw you (a pretty accurate, circular vice elliptical orbits) picture of the solar system.” Pretty neat seeing the limited resources he had to come up with that HUGE leap in 1543. Thing number two, pierniczki. Gingerbread! And it was good. Finally, the architecture. Big beautiful old brink buildings. Wednesday night our land lords cooked for us. The woman serving us didn’t speak much English so we just went with it and tried to guess what we were eating. I can’t express how good it was. My mouth is watering now… As we were finishing up Eryk came in. Turns out the soup had quail, the steaks were deer, and the patties were wild boar. Next we were introduced to Polish tradition. We did shoots of Vodka and Eryk’s homebrew for the next hour or two. Even Brianna got a shoot (or three…they were small). Did I mention this all cost us nothing extra?
Thursday: Baseball. Moldova. The also beat us. It was a better game, and afterwards we figured out they cheated a bit and went out of batting order a few times to get their better hitters up. The coaches realized it to late. We went back to the house that evening and Eryk stops by. “You ready?” We’re going shooting! He takes Carey and me out to an awesome range that he and 24 others own and built. Professional range. Disks being launched from all competition angles. No charge. Just shot his shotgun and his ammo for an hour and a half…
Friday: Baseball. We played Ireland and we… won. It was a morning game and our last so finally we gathered up Austin and his stuff (this whole time he and the rest of the team stayed on the complex. Free room and board.) He was exhausted and emotionally drained at this point. He actually took a nap. That evening they cooked dinner for us again. A bunch of different types of pierogies. Again, very good, homemade, and no charge… After dinner a horse drawn carriage ride through the forest.
Saturday: Warsaw. Warsaw has an amazing history. Poland in general has an interesting history. Poland sandwiched between Germany and Russia was once Europe’s largest country and also became non-existent for a period of time. The Nazis did everything they could to wipe Warsaw off the face of the earth. The entire city was leveled during WWII. At the beginning of WWII Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million. 800,000 were killed in WWII. That is more than the total number of US and UK troop casualties. After the Warsaw uprising in 1945 the Nazis took revenge by killing 180,000 civilians. Today the city is completely rebuilt. A major city and the historical areas are all put back together. As you walk through the old town square you would swear the buildings and palace are a couple hundreds years old, because that is the way they restored them. If you see pictures at the end of the war you are absolutely amazed. We went to the Old and New town Squares. Next to the Warsaw uprising monument and soldiers cathedral. Warsaw uprising was what started off as a somewhat spontaneous group of insurgent troops trying to take advantage of the Nazis getting pushed back by the Soviets. The troops grew to 40,000. They were anticipating the Soviets, who were JUST ACROSS THE RIVER to help. Stalin said, No. Instead they let the Nazis regroup and crush the rising so it would later be easier for the Soviets to walk in and take it. 40,000 troops and 180,000 civilians were killed and Hitler ordered Warsaw to be razed. Finally, a trip to the Polish Army Museum. Tanks, planes/ jets, old uniforms and weapons. Kinda neat, and different.
Flight home… Success. Train ride back from Rome, not so much… We made it though, the same evening.
Great trip.

Madrid 24-28 June

From the tram ride in Toledo.

Just a cool sculpture in the train station...

El Tranparente in the Cathedral in Toledo.

Sorry for the delay. Been busy…
So we left Naples early afternoon. Checked in no problem. Took our first flight to Milan. As we go to transfer flights we look at the status board and, our next flight is canceled. One counter to find out its due to the French air traffic controllers striking, one counter to find out luggage, and yes, another to re-book. Lufthansa did alright though. They put us up in a nice place and feed us a nice meal and we were on a flight first thing in the morning. Still a hassle and it was EARLY. We got into Madrid and found the apartment. Once again, the way to go.
So Friday. A trip to the Prado Museum. Another really big art museum filled with a lot of paintings. The time period covered is later in history though, 12th to early 19th centuries. I’m sure the artists on display are “famous” but they aren’t names that I’ve heard much of prior to going (I had to look up El Greco, one of the most famous ones prior to going so I would maybe have some appreciation). At the risk of sounding spoiled or ungrateful, it’s getting hard to go to museums to look at art when we’ve been to Rome, Naples, and Paris. Also on Friday we got a little oriented with the city and its metro and picked up our bull fight tickets. Then to bed early, to end our early starting day.
Saturday: Toledo. Everyone we know who has been to Madrid and Toledo has said you have to go to the Cathedral. It didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo is a very large gothic cathedral. After a few periods of Catholic then Muslim then Catholic rule the cathedral, as it is now, was started in 1226. It took a couple hundred years but was all the way done in 1493. Huge alter. Huge separate choir area. Several large naves, side rooms, including a small much more enjoyable museum. The pictures here by El Greco were actually very interesting. He was born in Greece, trained in Rome, and made a living in Toledo. He is credited for starting the break from Michael Angelo Renaissance style painting and started the move toward realism. Longer features, such as faces and fingers. I’ll steal this next description from wikipedia but this was fairly amazing and they had an English narration in which the parts it was talking about were illuminated. “One of its more outstanding parts is the Baroque altar called El Transparente, several stories high, with fantastic figures of stucco, painting, bronze castings, and multiple colors of marble, a masterpiece of Baroque mixed media by Narciso Tomé enhanced by the daily effect for a few minutes of a shaft of sunlight striking it through an appropriately oriented hole in the roof, giving the impression that the whole altar is rising to heaven. The fully Baroque display makes a strong contrast with the predominant Gothic style of the cathedral. It is from the play of light that this feature of the cathedral derives its name. The cathedral also receives its light through more than 750 stained glass windows, from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the work of some of the best artists of those times.” So yes, if you find yourself in Toledo, stop by the cathedral… Also in Toledo, we took a small tram ride around the outside of the city to take in the sites of the river and gorge that surround the city. Relaxing, easier and COOLER than walking. Pretty area.
Sunday: We started off on the hop-on hop-off bus. Our first stop was the Retiro Park. Once a royal park for a palace, it was opened to the public in 1868. Fountains, statues, ponds, trees, and a large pavillion. That morning we paused to hear the Madrid Orchestra put on a free concert in the park. Back on the bus, touring the city, it was time for lunch. Simple lunch at a sandwich shop and then we walked to another square close by. About that time is when I realized, I no longer have the hop-on hop-off tickets… Oops. We jumped on the metro and then walked over to see the outside of another palace. Nice area. Nice gardens. Again though after Versailles, and even the palace here in Caserta, its hard to go into palaces… Plus, we had a BULL FIGHT to get to!
There were six fights. The first one we all sat there and let the shock/ awe pass. I read plenty about it before going so I knew what was coming in all the different parts. I also let Carey and the kids know prior to buying the tickets. You kinda have to desensitize yourself from the repeated stabbings of the bull and then you can focus on the traditions and art of the fight. The crowd definetly gets upset when the matadore screws up and can’t put the bull down in one good shot in the end (unfortunately we saw a case of that). They also get rowdy when all the rules aren’t followed. Thanks to a man behind us who knew english we got the translation of the guy yelling at the judges. When the horses are in the arena they are supposed to get seperation between the bull and horse each time to “test the bull’s bravery” (i.e. will it keep charging the horse). That wasn’t happening all the time and the man was basicly calling the judges out. I’m glad we went, and I think even Brianna had an appreciation for the culture aspect. Having said that though, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to see another. The bull never really has a chance…
So Monday we head back to the airport and as we are going to the terminal Austin spots a screen and says, “Its canceled.” I kid you not… I think this was a mechanical problem. Again Lufthansa came through and re-booked us on a direct flight (before we even got through the line to re-book ourselves). No time lost. A lot of rushing but we made it.
Highlights. Definetly the Cathedral and bull fight.

Monday, 31 May 2010

A few weekend trips...

The inside of St Mark's in Venice. The whole interior was this bright.

This is an older picture I took from the parking garage at work. The snow is gone now but you can see the ridge we hiked to the left of Vesuvius' cone. That whole thing is Mt Somma and Vesuvius National Park.

The colorful water ways of Burano.

The wonderful blue grotto. The bright spot is the small entrance.


22, 23 May
Hiking Mt Vesuvius
So most people, including the Navy people we know here think, “Hike Vesuvius? That’s just a silly tourist road “hike”, a few hundred meters from the top…” Yes there is a “trail”, that may as well be a road, that cruise ships take the tourists to “hike” the last little bit of the cone. However, the whole mountain (Mt Somma is the original volcano that Mt Vesuvius is coming out of) makes up Vesuvius National Park and there are eight other trails. So while the girls went to Ischia to be pampered, we guys hiked all day, ate big steaks, and drank good German beer… The trail we took goes along the ridges along the left side (of the picture I’m attaching). Highlights… Of the 9 trails only the tourist, cheesy, trail was open. But we noticed the trail head for the trail we really wanted to hike on the way up AND we noticed there happen to be a few cars parked along the road outside the locked gate… Like any good Neapolitan, after confirming the trail was indeed closed, and after noticing the guy working didn’t seem too concerned, we drove back to the trail head, parked, and climbed through the cut out hole in the fence… The trail is closed because they haven’t done any clearing this year yet. Most of it was fine but there were a couple hundred meters that we just put our arms in front of our faces and pushed through. Amazing views. Unfortunately the women were in Ischia and they normally remember stuff like cameras… As you move along the rim you can see old lava flows from over the years (1906, 1929, and 1944). We had a very clear day and could see from Sorrento, in the south, all the way out to Ischia, to the north.

So after the women were done pampering themselves we all met out in Capri. It is a very pretty little island. A tourist trap worth doing at least once. If anyone is planning or thinks they want to go to the famous “blue grotto” I’ll save you the time, and more importantly, the ton of money. It’s a cave on the very steep coast that the walls don’t go all the way to the bottom of the water so the sun reflects off the bottom up into the cave… Pretty blue color. That’s about it. Not sure why it’s a huge attraction but whatever. I’ll attach a picture. You all owe me 10 euro.
Like I said the island is very pretty. We followed the sign to the “centro” thinking how bad a walk up can it be. 750 meters and A LOT of steps later… We took in the view, had a good, relatively cheap lunch, and then went to the Augusta Gardens. The gardens are very nice and colorful and over look the back side cliffs of the island. We’ll definitely go back because there is more to see, we’ll just skip the grotto…

29-31 May
So we waited a while to plan the Venice trip, so airline ticket prices shot up. Carey had to work until 4 PM on Friday so… The perfect opportunity to experiment with a night train. Maybe it would be better if we actually paid for a sleeper compartment (probably not though since then it would have bee close to the airline tickets). Long story short, it was cramped, Carey and I only slept a few hours each, temperature control in the cabin was non-existent, and Carey got a new hair treatment, water della mozzarella de buffalo, as the cooler above her head very slowly dripped down. We did get to have a very broken, all Italian, conversation with the couple in the cabin with us (they owned the cooler and ended up giving us their name and address in Naples. Something about, we'll have pizza! Very nice people...).
We arrived in Venice at about 6 AM and got on the water bus to the stop near our apartment. The woman helping us was very nice, came and walked us to the main office, and set up breakfast for us. The apartment itself wasn’t ready until about 1 PM. A great two bedroom apartment with plenty of room, kitchen, etc. for half the price of most hotels (half the price of any hotel that had consistent good user ratings).
Most reviews of Venice say just try to get lost and wander. Definitely the way to go. It is nothing but tourist based so you will pay a ton for everything. Food, public transportation, sites… We spent that first morning walking around near Saint Marc’s square and the surrounding area just admiring the back alleys and canals and bridges. Its really neat to see boats for every normal automobile job (barges for delivery trucks, refrigerated barges for frozen stuff, garbage truck barges, taxis, buses, personal vehicles…) After settling into the apartment we went back to St Marcs and went into the church. Very pretty. I’m glad we waited for the lines to die down though. Through the day we went into a few churches and were impressed. Unlike other places we’ve been there was always something playing in the churches; either live pipe organ practice, choir practice, or just a recording.
The next day we went to Murano and Burano. Murano, famous for glass blowing, was a nice small set of islands. We got a real quick demonstration in a shop. Amazing how fast and precise the guy has to be. Screw it up the first time and it’s a waste… Burano, famous for lace work, was great. All the apartments are painted different bright colors. Still touristy in the main square, but small town touristy. Just pleasant to walk around.
We ate at the Hard Rock, twice. One, great American style (tasting) burgers! Two, 15% off military discount made it the cheapest place in Venice to eat!
All in all, I’m glad we went to Venice. Two whole days was just right, but I can see how people do it in a day. Probably wouldn’t be a bad place to stop on a cruise (don’t do the pricey cruise package, just buy a 12 hour water bus ticket and explore!) I’m glad we didn’t do a lot of planning and we just wandered. Most importantly, I’m glad we got out to Murano and Burano.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Rome Underground

We started just outside Rome and visited the Catacombs of San Callisto. In the first 300 years or so of Christianity people were not allowed to be buried within the city walls. The pagan religions had no problem with cremation so for them, no big deal. The Christians wanted burial though, expecting a second coming any time now, therefore waiting for resurrection. And by the way, Christianity goes against the current Roman rule and religion so you are persecuted if found out… So, being buried outside and underground was really the only good option. The land where the catacombs are, ultimately ended up belonging, and still belongs to, the Vatican. This site, if I heard the guide correctly, has about 20 km of tunnels and is four layers deep. There were about 500,000 buried here, including 9 popes. Rome sits on top of volcanic tufa rock. It is soft and easy to mine until the air hits it, then becomes hard. Perfect for an underground cemetery… We spent most of our tour in the second layer. There were individual and family tombs. Sadly, about 40% were small, for children and babies. It’s hard to say how tall each layer was. The tombs were abandoned around 800 AD when barbarians started to pillage the tombs. In the following 1000 years earthquakes filled in some of the ground. Where we were was about 10 feet tall (anywhere from 5 to 8 tombs high) but you could see the tops of some arches (entrances to family tombs) at foot level, so there had to be another 5 feet below us for that level. So doing the rough math and making some assumptions based on how far we walked down just to get to the second level, these catacombs had to have been 80- 100 feet deep. You can see the early “secret “ Christian symbols here. The fish, a Shepard carrying a sheep, and an anchor (the ring on top, not for tying a rope to but… for God, the never ending or beginning circle; the stock and shank, the cross…; and the crown, arm, and fluke at the bottom, not for digging into the sea bed… the wings of the holy spirit.)
Next was St. Clemente Basilica and the levels beneath including a Mithraism Temple. This was a church built on top of a church, built on top of a church and other, older, city remains. The top church was built around 1100 AD. The lower church was built in the 300’s (The beginnings of legalized Christianity). There were two pulpits. The tour guide explained this to be so teaching debates, or questions and answers, could be used to teach early and uneducated, Christians. The alter has an anchor on the front. Below that church was an old pagan church to Mithras. Also down here though were old apartments, a coin minting shop, and still running water from an old aqueduct. 2000+ year old, very well preserved, ruins.
Finally, on to Basilica of St. John and St. Paul (Constantine time frame John and Paul, not Jesus’). Again you see the layering of old to new. On the bottom you had market shops and the small lofts for living above. Then someone came along and built a house or two behind the stores. Then someone else came and combined it all and kept building up to make a huge house, then church. Then finally, a church built on top of it all.
We see the same type of archeological “problems” here in Naples too. When you have thousands of years of civilization you can see the effects of volcanoes, earthquakes, and floods. Stuff gets buried and forgotten about. People build on top. It all happens again and again. Not to say that Rome was buried three times but as things crumpled or were destroyed in a battle, or some combination of all of the above, layers developed and are still uncovered today. Just another interesting side of Rome and a day well spent…

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Paris... and more Paris

Eiffel Tower at night.

Place De La Concorde

Notre Dame. Our camera can take black and whites...

One of the stained glass windows in Notre Dame.

The "backyard."

I’m going to start this one a little different. Normally I try not to call out other people besides our family but this time it is deserved and I feel I owe it. I don’t think they even read this but, to the Geiger family, THANK YOU. I think we would still be in Paris (now Thursday) if it hadn’t been for their efforts and savvy use of the internet from 1000 miles away. From re-booking flights, Sam on hold with Lufthansa for 45 minutes, to Jana ultimately booking our rental car and good level headed/ detached advice. Also to Doug Hagenbuch who, I know, if we had really needed it he would have driven from Naples to Paris to get us. Our heart felt thanks.

Paris is a huge city. There are ~2.17 million people just within the inner city and 11 million in all of Paris. As of 2007 there were 3550 people per square mile. The closest US city is LA at 2700. The country history is interesting and very different from any of the cities/ countries we’ve been to so far. They have a rich history, all about them. I’ll explain. The most apparent way this is displayed is in their churches. For instance at Versailles, Louis XIV would enter upstairs and look down on the alter. Everyone else was down stairs and faced the back so they could look up at him. Notre Dame has a huge 300 foot spire. While the apostles are on corners looking down, the architect, Viollet-le-Duc is one of the highest figures and he is turned around looking up at his work. They turned another church into a monument to individuals they felt were important. Even Napoleon’s arch still stands and is now used to honor more victories. Every country has pride. Theirs just seemed a little, “In-your-face” at times. The people though were very nice. We never had a problem communicating. Most of the time they spoke English; other times we knew just enough key words to get our point across. It really does pay to at least try to speak your host’s language!

Let’s begin with the trip though… We flew out of Naples Monday afternoon to Milan and then on to Paris. Carey found a great apartment, right in downtown, in the Latin Quarter. By the end of the trip it was even greater… We dropped of our bags and found a simple little restaurant for a late dinner.
Tuesday morning we got up early and made our way out to Versailles. There is an early blog about the palace in Caserta and how nice it is and the huge “backyard”, including fountains, pools, etc. Versailles is described as the palace everyone else wished they had. Louis XIV turned this “little hunting lodge” into something extraordinary. The rooms and art go on and on. When mirrors were relatively new and expensive Louis had a hall nearly as long as a football field made with the inside wall of all mirrors reflecting the light from the outside wall which was mostly windows. King’s wing, Queens wing, entertaining halls… And the “backyard.” 800 hectares (1 hectare is 10,000 square meters). As you stand at the back of the palace you look out on reflecting ponds, fountains, statues and essentially forest. You get the same type of view standing at the back of the US capital looking out towards the Lincoln monument (not a coincidence). If that wasn’t enough, they had palaces to get away from the palace back in the yard, the trianon. These also had elaborate gardens in the backyard. I’m at a loss of words to describe how over-the-top this all was. Go to google maps and the satellite view and look at the distance scale when you finally zoom out enough to get the entire complex. Then keep in mind Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were maintaining and even expanding on all this while the peasants were suffering from France’s huge war debts. No wonder they revolted…
Wednesday. Pantheon, Notre Dame Cathedral, Historic Walk, and the Louvre Museum. The Pantheon was originally a smaller church dedicated to St. Genevieve. Louis XV was very sick and prayed to her for healing and was miraculously cured. In return he expanded it. Before it was complete though the revolution started and the revolutionaries decided it would be better as a place to honor great Frenchmen (and women). Again it seems like a “Look at what we did!” mentality. Entombed here are numerous French politicians and generals. Also though are the Curie’s (near and dear to me because of their work with radioactive decay, there is a unit of measurement, Curie, I use at work on subs). Also Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Alexander Dumas (The Three Musketeers), Louis Braille (the bumps for the blind).
Notre Dame: Very big, gothic style church. It is a nice contrast to the Baroque style so prevalent. The stained glass windows here, and also in the Sainte-Chapelle church, are very pretty. For me, the outside of Notre Dame was the impressive part. The sharp angles, spikes, flying buttresses, and gargoyles were just different.
The historic walk: Our good friend Rick Steves took us on a walk along the Seine river. The Sainte-Chapelle church mentioned above was part of it. Also included was the history of some of the shops/ apartments, and other monuments, like a statue of Henry IV. We bought a picture (surprise, surprise) from one of the small stands. The walked ended up with us near…
The Louvre Museum: The Louvre was the original palace before Louis XIV moved to Versailles. Now it is a huge museum. We spent 3 ½ hours inside and couldn’t see it all. Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa are here. Famous yes, but there were plenty of other things to see. Anything from ancient Egyptian statues/ carvings to Da Vinci paintings. So many artists; so many paintings; so many sculptures; so many styles. There is an entire wing we didn’t even go into.
Thursday. Orsay Museum, Walk along Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower at sunset.
The Orsay picks up where the Louvre left off time wise. A much smaller museum, we saw everything in it. Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Picasso… Classical, to impressionist, to realism. Again, so many artists. When we first got here I wasn’t so big on paintings. Still not to a certain extent but seeing this collection could keep anyone involved. Even the kids took it all in and, I think, have a real appreciation for the opportunity to see these works in person.
The Champs-Elysees walk: For $20 Rick will take you everywhere. The walk starts at a very large circle with an Egyptian Obelisk in the center. It was brought there by Charles X after they got rid of Napoleon. It was a monument to those executed after the first revolution, including his brother Louis XVI. Attached is a picture of the obelisk with fountains and the Eiffel tower in the background. Champs-Elysees itself is the name of the street that goes out to the Arc de Triomphe. It is packed with designer stores.
The Arc de Triomphe is another example of “We can build anything you can, bigger.” The 165 foot tall arch is like, and has the same meaning as, the Roman arches. Napoleon had it built to show how great they were. Today it is dedicated to all French armies. Lists of all French victories since the revolution and the names of Generals are inscribed and there is a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Finally, on to the Eiffel tower. It is big and impressive. We paid to take the elevator to the very top where you get some incredible views. We wanted to stay until it was dark to see it light up but the sun doesn’t completely set until about 9 (Paris is on the west side of the time zone and pretty far north) and we were tired.
And that completes our Paris trip. Not really.

Part two.

As we were eating dinner near the tower Thursday night I saw, in French, something about a volcano and some airports being closed. Charles De Gaulle wasn’t one of them. We got back to the apartment and a friend called Carey and asked if we had seen the news. With only a small TV, with French channels, and no internet at the time, the answer was no. Our flight was still on though at 10 PM. Friday morning we all got up early and took the train back out to the airport and were immediately greeted by a screen full of red cancels. We got rebooked for Sat afternoon. Next, we checked into the cheaper hotel at the airport. Sat morning at 8 our 2:50 flight was delayed. By 10, it was cancelled. That is when the apartment got better. Carey got the cell phone number for the girl who booked us and luckily it was empty until Thursday. We had a place to stay (for ½ the cost) with a stove, washing machine, refrigerator, and a market up the street. Carey and I went grocery shopping and then went to the train station while Mary and the kids stayed in the apartment. The first train out is… Friday. Sam, after being on hold, got us rebooked for Monday. Let’s go see some more!

The Eiffel tower at night is very pretty. At the top of the hour huge strobe lights make it sparkle.
Sunday. Luxemburg Park and the Montmartre Walk.
Luxemburg Park is a very pretty park area around what is now the senate building. Beautiful gardens, trees, a pond for sailing remote control sailboats, tennis, chess, cards… Had there not been other things to see we could have done what a lot of Parisians and other tourists were doing, just sitting in the sun taking it in.
Montmartre Walk: This Rick guy always has time for us… The walk takes you to the heart of the old bohemian Paris. We saw Van Gogh’s apartment and Renoir’s house. The biggest of the two hills in Paris is where we start. On top is Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Its outside is coated with gypsum, which whitens with age, so it is very white and impressive with its five domes. Also on the walk are the two remaining moulins (windmills). Finally, the Moulin Rouge. It is real, and it has a real history of can-can girls, but if you think it looks anything like the movie with Nicole Kidman you are sadly mistaken. It is now like every other bar and shop on either side. It just has a small windmill on top. We can still say we saw the Moulin Rouge though!
Sunday night the flight was still “on schedule.” Anxious, I woke up at 3 AM and checked the status. Cancelled. Sunday afternoon Jana had finally found that Europcar would rent cars one way across country lines. Prior to that we couldn’t find a rental that we could take from country to country. At 7 AM we called her and she got on-line to make a reservation for that morning (I wanted to make sure we had a car BEFORE we set out bags in hand). We took the train back out to Versailles and found the rental company. No GPS and no map, we navigated from Paris to Naples. No map because the only maps at the gas station AND rest area were of the greater Paris area. Carey and I shrugged our shoulders, looked at the kids and said, “A year ago we didn’t even own a GPS and we have managed to drive across the US 5 times…” Versailles was a good choice to start from. It is outside greater Paris and to the south, the direction we needed to go. Also as luck would have it, getting on the highway couldn’t have been easier.
The drive through the French and Italian Alps is AMAZING! So clear. So beautiful. The Italians, even more than the French, decided the best way through is to blast tunnels. So while we winded up the French side we shot down in a fairly straight line on the Italian side (the longest tunnel was 11.6 km long). 1,000 miles and 18 hours later our journey ends. Tuesday’s flight was cancelled too…

Paris and food. I’ve heard eating in Paris is expensive. That’s no lie. During the day we would go to a sandwich stand and eat for a mere 40 – 50 euro (taste the sarcasm?). At night dinner was 70-85 euro. Before we got delayed it wasn’t a huge deal, just a few days. After we got delayed though, we went to the market and made sandwiches and cooked dinner. 50 euro total for two breakfasts, three lunches, and two dinners. Much better.
I don’t know what escargot in the states tastes like but WOW it was good in Paris! Duck, steak, and chicken, all good. And of course French fries.
French wine. Very good. Again, I paid as much in the market (4-5 euro) for a whole bottle as I would have paid for 1 glass at a restaurant.

How does Paris rank in places we’ve gone? Definitely worth going. Carey put together a great itinerary that covered all we would want to see. Plus the extra days… I think we covered it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Snow-boarding in the German Alps

I think we are becoming partial to Germany... Garmisch is beautiful. It is actually two towns, Garmisch and Partenkirchen. They were forced to combine by Hitler for the 1936 Olympics. Each town itself was to small for the venue, but together it worked out. They are near the edge of, but surrounded by the German Alps. Beautiful peaks and ridges all around.
We got up early on Sunday and took the 1 1/2 hour flight to Munich. From there a 2 hour train ride takes you right into Garmisch. Flights are only €100 each and the train for ALL of us was only €30. Gotta love the German train system.
We got into the hotel, Edelweiss, around noon. It is a US military hotel. The rooms are decent. The hotel has a few extras to make it easier on the families. There were plenty of washers and dryers down stairs, a couple restaurants, in-door pool, a huge hot tub, commissary…
So after a brief snowball fight, we had lunch and then later we went to the ski lodge (a quick cab ride) to get the kids fitted with snowboards and to get lockers. Good choice. It saved a bunch of time the next day. That night we ate at a Thai restaurant. Why Thai? Because we could.
Monday morning we were up and at the lodge before 8:30. Walking out of the hotel lobby, now with clear skies, you are immediately hit with an amazing view of the surrounding mountains. Brianna was signed up for a 4 hour snowboarding lesson with some friends of ours that also went up. So Carey, Austin, the other guy, his son, and I jumped on the gondola and headed for the slopes.
For those who have never snowboarded, think of it like a really long skateboard, if done right. One foot is in front of the other, sideways, so you have a front (toe) edge and back (heal) edge. When you first learn you spend a lot of time on your back edge plowing down the slope in a falling feather motion. It sucks because you go slow AND you push snow down off the trails. So as you get better you learn to transition from back edge to front and back again so you are pointing the board down the slope more (like skate boarding) in the same manner as a skier. Faster, better control, better for the trails.
Now that I’ve covered that… Austin and the other boy were in that learning to transition stage so the first run was a little slow. We stopped a lot. About half way down we all stopped, mostly off to the side, (not in the way and definitely visible). Out of no where a skier going faster than he should have, ran into Austin sending Austin 10 feet down the hill. The guy lost his ski and flew another 25 feet or so. It was enough of a hit that there was a line on Austin’s arm, through two shirts and a ski jacket, showing where the ski ran over him. Not a good start. His arm is fine. It swelled. It bruised. He could move everything. I pushed on everything all around it. After a binding repair and breather, he was back on the slopes.
We found a shorter, wide open run after lunch and stayed there for the rest of the day. The boys, both ride skateboards, learned fast. By the end of the day I picked a series of trails to get us back to the bottom to meet up with Brianna and the others from the snowboard lesson. I miss read the trail map a little. They only use colors vice colors and shapes that we use in the states. I ended up taking Carey and Austin down a little harder trail than I intended but they both did fine. Brianna’s lesson went well. She also started to get the hang of transitioning from edge to edge.
The World Cup is taking place on the same mountain! The American ski team, including Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso, came out to sign autographs and take pictures. Very cool. Not a bad first day.
Tuesday we were all up early again and were on the first gondola at 8:37 (I was impressed). We went up to the easy run from the day before to let the girls practice what they had learned in their lesson the day before. The problem with the lesson though was that they only went a little way up the practice hill so it was never steep and wasn’t very long. Snowboarding can be tricky. While the snow conditions weren’t bad, it was still hard packed with a small layer of loose snow on top so falls still hurt… By noon the other wife had smacked her head (even wearing a helmet it hurt) a few times and Brianna’s tail bone was hurt. All the women went down to recoup and head back to the hotel hot tub. The guys all set out for bigger, harder, longer trails. We found a couple combinations of trails that made the entire run over two miles long. By 4 PM we called it good. Over 7 hours of snowboarding (Austin and I skipped lunch to keep going). Awesome.
That night we took a covered horse drawn carriage ride through Garmisch. The girl driving/ giving the tour was very nice and knowledgeable. A little cold but worth it. Garmisch is about 1200 years old. The “Old Church” is about 800 years old. They refer to the churches as new and old because they otherwise have the same name…
Wednesday. The other family was a little bruised and beaten/ sore so they decided to make the most of things and rented a car to go see the Ludwig castles. One of them is what the Disney Cinderella castle is modeled after. Brianna, not sharing the same enthusiasm as Carey, Austin, and me decided to go with them. It worked out well. She really enjoyed her day.
So Carey, Austin, and I were back on the mountain by 8:45. That morning we tackled the long runs right off the bat. As I mentioned, the World Cup was taking place. We watched the racers as they flew down the mountain right below the gondola and right next to the trails we were boarding on! The TV doesn’t do it justice (we saw the same exact stuff on TV later that night). They are moving, cutting, and flying through the air.
By 10:30 the sky was clearing. We decided to get some brats, beer, and coke and then catch the cog train to Zugspitze. Zugspitze is the second ski area. It is glacier and at over 10,000 feet (2,964 meters), the highest point in Germany. About a 25 minute train ride and a 10 minute cable car (big gondola) ride later and there we were. The pictures below are from there. Absolutely amazing. The groomed trails were short but it is so wide open that you really don’t need the trails. I spent most of my time off the trails and in POWDER. Carey and Austin found a small jump to go off. It worked out well. After a couple hours the clouds started to roll in again so we called it a day just after 3.
That night we went to an old Bavarian restaurant. Good food; good beer; even a polka band.
When I first started looking into ski trips I was looking at week long trips. This turned out much better. One, a resort with an American side lodge/ hotel made it easy. Two, after three full days our bodies were getting pretty beat. Maybe if the local snow is better next year and we go a little more often a longer trip will be in store for next year. As for Garmisch, we will be going back sometime this summer for camping and hiking.
Next big trip… Paris!

Monday, 15 February 2010

Assisi (and other towns in Umbria)

We took our three day weekend and drove a little north of Rome to the Umbria region. We started by going to Marmore Falls near Terni. In about 250 BC the Romans made the falls by diverting water from a flood plain. They, according to Wikipedia, diverted it because the stagnant water was likely leading to the spread of malaria (mosquitoes). The result is the largest falls in Europe and the largest man-made falls in the world. They are about 550 ft high. Three different tiers. The first falls about 270 ft. The falls get turned on and off because now it gets diverted again for hydroelectric power. The picture I'll attach of the big falls is during the off time. There is so much flow and wind when they are on it was to misty for a clear shot. From there we drove on to Spello. At this point we are off the highway and driving through some really pretty valleys. Spello is a beautiful, small, not totally touristized town. Small alleyways. Pedestrian only areas. Churches that still feel like a church. Finally, on to Assisi and the "castle" we stayed at. Maybe it was a, barely royal, just passing through, castle. It was nice though. All together there were 10 families (coordinated a month or two ago). Of the 53 beds in the place, we occupied about 40. We ate dinner there, which was very good. There was a big open room where we sat around later and enjoyed the fireplace, games, wine and cheese. Sunday we went into Assisi. The town is famous for its two Saints, Frances and Claire. Frances was from a fairly well off family. Went off to fight in the crusades and then quickly realized he had a different calling. He ended up giving up everything and took up a very simple life. Monk robes, lots of time praying, fasting, teaching... Claire was from another well to do family in Assisi who heard Frances' teaching and also gave up everything. Some years later they were acknowledged by the church and were legitimate. We visited the church where both were baptized. Also to St. Claire’s. I liked this one. It was fairly simple. I say simple but it is hard to explain. Almost every other church we have been in in the last seven months has huge elaborate frescos, beautiful marble columns inside and out, and statues. This had some of this too but also a lot of simple white walls. The church built for St Frances was huge. There was an upstairs church where you could follow the story of his life around the frescoes. There was an equally large down stairs church (a church built below a church). And then finally, the tomb area below that where St Frances' body is. The last thing we saw in Assisi was the castle at the top of the hill just above the city. Amazing views of the area. The whole town was beautiful. I'm glad we went in February. I can only imagine how many people are there during the summer. One, because it really is beautiful. Two, the home of two Saints is a bit of a pilgrimage... Monday we drove down to Spelleto. A little bigger town then we anticipated but still some charm. The high point, both figuratively and literally, was the 700 year old aqueduct/ bridge. Ten towers, as tall as 250 feet, joined on top by arches to bridge the valley.
The entire area is beautiful. Rolling hills. Snow capped mountains. Clean. I've started to do the Rosetta Stone again on a fairly regular basis. The goal being to be able to go back to Cusana Mutri and actually communicate. Seeing some of these small towns and their simple beauty really re-enforces that.

Just a trickle. Check facebook in a couple days and you can see the dramatic full affect.

This is just a radom town we passed on the way from the falls to Spello. Pretty typical of a hillside town. As you drive through the country, Italy, you see random towns on top of hills.

Our castle.

St Frances. The building to the left and below is the "downstairs" church I was talking about. It extends completely beneath the upper church. You can see other small towns in the distance.

The bridge in Spelleto. Look at the center arch. Now look about an arch and a half to the right. You'll see tiny people. You'll have to click on the picture to make it bigger so you can see...

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Med cruise

Day 1: Let's start by saying there are 3 families, each with two kids. 11 days. Do the math and the luggage alone is crazy. We planned ahead though. We each had at least one car parked down in Naples at the Navy base. This way on the return trip we have transportation home... We then enlisted a small convoy of Honda Odysseys to get us all to the train station. So far so good... The train is an hour late... No big deal that is why we took the train the night before. Seven hour train ride to Genova. We got to our train station, got off and schlepped our ton of bags about a mile to the hotel. What a site for the good people of Genova. A long single file line of Americans and their kids and there dozen or so suitcases and garment bags at 11 PM. The hotel was pretty nice. We slept good.
Day 2: At sea. Room was a fiasco. Cold, rough day in the Med. If you had told me there could be 10 foot or better seas in the Med I would have said, "No way." There was.
Day 3: Olympia. Pretty neat seeing the site of the Olympic Games. They used to happen every five years, not four. She explained it weird. Four summers and then the next year they would have the games. The site was destroyed by earthquakes and covered by floods. It doesn't look like the Greeks restore like the Italians. For instance you can see in Pompeii where they are putting some back together as they excavate. It looks like in Olympia, as they excavated they left everything as it was found. They rebuilt a few key pieces so you can get a feel for what it looked like. Very pretty area though. Very green. Pines, oaks, olive trees, and grass. The site included the old stadium, different types of training areas (running, wrestling, boxing), a women’s area, and a small museum. Women were not allowed to enter the stadium area during the games. One woman did get away with it though. Her father was an Olympic champion. Her husband was an Olympic champion. Her son was competing. So she cut her hair and dressed up like a trainer. In true mom fashion as her son won, she cheered and made a scene. She pled her case and since she was surrounded by so many Olympic champions they let her off. If we decide to go back, traveling to Greece should be easy. We can take a ferry across the Adriatic. We'll have to do a little research first though.
Day 4: At sea.
Day 5: Israel. Really good tour guide for Jerusalem. As with any large group tour it was fast paced. We started off by going to Mt Olive where we got a nice view of old Jerusalem. This is also the site of the Church of the Ascension, where Christ was said to have ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. It is interesting seeing so many large churches, mosques, and temples all over, together. Next we went into old Jerusalem and retraced Christ's final walk. The whole area is a giant market. We went into the church that was built on top of the crucifixion site. Within the church there are several denominations. It’s kinda weird to consider really. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant... The guide said sometimes it gets a little tense as the different factions argue about who gets to use the church on what days. The rock the cross was stuck into, the marble slab he was wrapped up on, and what's left of the pillaged tomb were all there. The actual cross was found there but is somewhere else now.
Next we followed the path he took while carrying his cross. Mostly market now there are markers on doors and walls where the different "stations" or events happened. Next was the West wall. The one wall that the Romans didn't flatten of the second Temple. Still a very active prayer site. Men and women are split so they don't "distract" each other. Here we happen to also see some of the Israeli Army. Three years required service for men. Two for women. Five? for officers. All heavily armed, but very friendly. Austin has a picture wearing one of their berets as they are carrying grenade launchers.
From there to lunch. Very good. Chicken, eggplant, couscous, some barley thing, a pasty type thing. All good. Then to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. First, Bethlehem is in Palestinian conntroled territory. Our Jewish tour guide was not allowed to go into the city because some guides have been kidnapped. The next guy wasn't anywhere as good. The first place they took us was a tourist, marked up, souvenir shop. The prices were easily jacked up 5 or more times what we could have gotten the same stuff for in the markets in Jerusalem. I'm pretty sure it’s like an entrance fee for the tour busses. The Church of the Nativity itself is built right on top of the site where Jesus was born. It was built around 300 AD when Constantine's mom, the reason Christianity exists on a large scale, wanted it. The background on that, some of our older Roman blogs might cover it, was Constantine’s mom was a Christian. Constantine became Emperor Constantine around 300 AD. The Emperor then made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire which then made it a big deal. Anyway, the church isn't small but isn't huge. There were maybe 500 people crammed in the various rooms. We got a quick run down on the fact that the church is split in three groups, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Armenian. The street venders (beggers) here were aggressive but manageable. Much better prices.
Not a bad tour over all. I don't think Bethlehem would have been better even with a different tour guide. Some friends booked a private tour for the same sites and because he was Israeli he couldn't go into Bethlehem either. So for political/ religious reasons you're stuck with guides that are really there just because they know tourists will come.
Day 6: Going to Egypt right? Not so much. We were about an hour or 2 late leaving Israel, same night the Lebanese plane crashed in a storm, and the weather remained so bad the Egyptians closed the port of Alexandria. A day at sea and off to Crete.
Day 7: Crete. A beautiful Greek island. The fifth largest island in the Med. Mountains and beautiful coast. Pretty old towns. The day would have been better if we spent a day researching on line what towns we wanted to see and what path along the coast to drive. That, a rental car, and a GPS would have been great. The tour we went on wasn't what we expected. It was labeled "Villages of Crete." In Italy if you do that you will find a town that is big in ceramics, another big in Lemmon cello, another for wine, etc. We ended up on a tour bus that took a very pretty drive, which would have been great if we could have stopped a few times to take in the fantastic views, to a small tourist town, which was mostly closed because it is off season, and then to a bigger town (also a small port town). The driver may have given us a brief history on each but I think his accent was rougher or something because we didn't get much more than the city names. We got about 30-45 minutes to walk around each town. So not a great tour, but the good thing is if we decide to go back we can catch the military rotator (space A flight) over on a Wednesday and back to Naples on a Friday and stay at the Air Station.
Day 8: We're in Egypt! The tour here was exactly what we expected and wanted. We took a tour bus from Alexandria (named when the Romans had control) to Giza. The pyramids here are amazing. Huge. The three big ones are for a father, son, grandson set of kings. Interesting enough each son had his pyramid built a little smaller than his fathers out of respect. So each king gets his own. The wives (one king had 37) get the little pyramid in back as their tomb. At one point there were 117 pyramids in Egypt. Even where we were in Giza if you looked through the binoculars you could see different pyramids in most directions. In Giza there is also the Sphinx. All of it was just wild to see in person. The sand, the camels, the donkeys... From Giza we went to Sakkarah to see the first pyramid. Built 4500 years ago, it is about 1/10? the size of the Giza pyramids. They are restoring the bottom portion now. The king at the time made an offer to a very good architect at the time that he couldn't refuse. Build me a grand, new type of tomb. If I like it I will give you the title of King of Architecture. If I don't I like it, I'll have you killed. He apparently liked it. We also got to see some of the elaborate entrance/ tunnel. It decended about 100 steps and even though straight line distance to the pyramid was about 100 yds, it curved and winded around so much it was 6KM long. Next was a 4x4 ride through the sand and over some dunes. Not a long ride but it was in between the two previous sites and offered a couple good views and photo opportunities. At the end of that we pulled up to a herd of camels. Everyone got their own and we rode camels back the rest of the way to where we started. It was about a 15-20 minute ride. There must be an art to riding camels because I was ready to get off. Maybe mine had a weird gate to his walk... Finally "lunch" at 4:30. We brought with us, and were given snacks earlier to hold us over. The food was great. It was at a small country club type of place. After that we stopped at a three story store for souvenirs. They had paintings, jewelry, and then anything else the street people were selling. In Israel/ Palestine I complained about this. Here not so much. The prices weren't as inflated and the paintings I bought (we got two) are of real quality. The other thing is the people at the sites are aggressive salesmen (sales kids). You can't simply be polite and say “No thank you” to most. Ignoring at least got you through and an occasional stern “NO” got the others off your back. So to not deal with that was worth it. The tour was great.
Most Egyptians make about $7200 a year. While not as poor as some countries that still hurts. Most of the economy is driven by crops, tourism, and although the guide did not say it, I assume some oil. Gas was less than a dollar a gallon. Driving around as much as we did (it is three hours from Alexandria to Giza) you notice a big disparity. Everywhere is trashy. Most places are run down. But then there are some places you can tell are for the wealthy or strictly for tourists. I think this life is what breeds aggressive street selling and a general dishonesty. After we got off the camels the guys tried to tell us we owed them 25 euro for each ride even though we were part of the group and they clearly knew that. The tour guide gave us good warning all along the way though the day. 80% of the population is Muslim. The remainder is Christians and a small group of Jews. While the tour guide said "We don't care about religious differences. We are all Egyptians" I don't think I really believed it. 95% of that 80% may feel that way but the small fraction made it a necessity for each tour bus to have a submachine gun toten private security guard on board the entire day. Someone else said it is a kidnapping issue also. I'm glad we got as good a tour as we did. I loved it and would recommend someone do it the same way, but I won't go back. My hair is a little longer and I had grown a decent beard by this point in the week. For the first time in the last seven months I felt that it was good to not look like a clean cut US military person. I didn't feel it as much in Bethlehem but I think that is because we were in and out. I didn't see a single place in Egypt that I thought, "We could stay at that hotel and easily and safely get around to see sites on our own." Maybe it’s all the American press telling us how bad Muslim states are for the past 10 years but the fact that Israeli tour guides can't go to Bethlehem and the fact that we had an armed escort in Egypt seems to support that it’s not all that safe.
Day 9: At sea to Messina Sicily. The cruise itinerary got changed the day Alexandria was shut down. No more Tunisia. Now Sicily. Not a bad thing. We weren't going to do much in Tunisia and Sicily is someplace I want to go but don't really want to drive 8 hours to get to (or take a ferry).
Day 10: So maybe I will make the 8 hour drive some day. If nothing else for the cannolli!! Taormina is a pretty little town. Our tour guide was a wealth of information. Messina, where we actually pulled in is a fairly newly rebuilt city. It was devasted in a few earthquakes, a tidal wave, and WWII bombing. Taormina is a beautiful hill side town. Like most of the Med countries it was under Greek control, Roman control, Byzantine control, Arab control and then finally back to the Italians. It is interesting to see the different building styles (material used) between Greeks and Romans. We saw the difference in Olympia also. The Greeks used big stone (lime or marble, whatever was local) while the Romans made bricks and used concrete between bricks. There were a few really great views. Mt Etna was mostly cloud covered at 11,000 ft. It is the tallest and most active volcano in Europe. The views of the coast are gorgeous. We were then given about an hour to explore the little city. We stopped at a small bakery where I had the best Cannolli I have ever had. So rich. So sweet. SO GOOD! On the way back to the ship we stopped at a really pretty church in Messina.
Day 11: Back in Naples. The ship got in on time. We gathered our bags and walked right off. "Customs" was funny. We walked off the ship through a small building where a guy asked, "Any alcohol or cigarettes?" I have a bottle of wine in one of the suitcases. "Okay."
We took cabs from the port to the base where we had our cars staged. Our cab driver was the most aggressive, yet polite, driver ever. Ah, good to be home.
The cruise was okay. Israel, Egypt, and Taormina were my highlights. I would not go on an MSC cruise again. Service wasn't the same as it was on our American cruises. For instance after a couple nights our waiter warmed up to us and was kidding around with us but I think he just had way to much going on to have the time to really be engaged. Our cabin staff while very friendly, again wasn't at the same level or caliber of Carnival. You pay for all of your drinks. Europeans don't do tap water. The cruise line sells coupon books for coke, water, beer, wine, ice cream, shakes, and alcohol. So then you have to carry them around and sort though them... As an alterative to the main restaurants, there are "theme" restaurants. You have to pay for those. We went one night and even though the guy had probably 1/4 of the work load that the dining room staff had, he was horrible. While the cruise can't control the weather they can plan the timing and distance between ports on the itinerary. I think Naples was the only port we arrived or left on time from (we had 12 hours to go less than 200 NMs).