Friday, October 14, 2011

Keeping Up International Relations

Perfecting our use of Public Transportation
A boat, a train, a metro, a cab, a plane, a bus, and a metro all in 24 hours!

The morning started with some anxiety about our vaporetto ride getting us into the train station where we would have to catch a quick train across the lagoon in order to catch our next train back to Rome. Apparently, I should have read the ticket a little closer. Upon arriving at the train station I realized we didn't have to catch 2 trains but only 1 for our trip back to Rome - crisis averted. And our seat mates for this train ride turned out to be an American couple, who it turned out were from San Diego, and even lived in the same town as PS. Random small world!

Side note: We must have had the travel gods smiling on us. There was some type of transportation strike across Europe that actually happened the day we were meandering around Venice, not the day before or after when we were actually traveling by train. We ran into quite a few people who it took over 10-15 hours just to get to their destination.

Back in Rome for the afternoon before catching an early morning flight to Paris!

Lucky for us, EB's office at the UN is right next to the Forum and Coliseum, so we took a quick tour, dropped off our bags, and headed off to explore more of Ancient Rome. And for those inquiring minds, EB works for FAO (Food & Agricultural Organization) concentrating on food sustainability and biofuels (the short explanation).

Visiting EB at the UN - FAO.
Her view from the rooftop of work - Circus Maximus, Palatine Hill and the Coliseum

Walking over to the Forum and Coliseum

Since we knew we had a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time, we thought we would actually get an audio tour for the Palatine Hills, Forum and Coliseum. BAD IDEA! Not only did this take longer, because they gave you so much historical background of names and dates you would never remember, but half the time you didn't even know what you were looking at. Next time we'll just download an app (like we saw one smart girl doing) or revert back to our tried and true method of self-naration via Rick Steves/Lonely Planet. Although we did eavesdrop on the tail end of a very entertaining tour guide, who was giving an alternate version of Caesar's death...not the version we all know thanks to Shakespeare.

The Forum

Once again, EB came through with great recommendations (if she ever decides to stop saving the environment, she has a serious career in travel planning)! Instead of waiting in a LONG line at the Coliseum, we bought our tickets at Palatine Hill for all 3 sites and walked right past all those without the benefit of an awesome sister with great advice! 
Afternoon at the Coliseum

Unfortunately we had to cut our exploration a little short, as EB called to tell us the UN security desk was closing, and they had our passports.  (Not so good when you are trying to fly to a different country the next morning). And after all her good advice so far, I decided to cut her a little slack for not informing us of this little timing detail ahead of time. Well, she made up for it with our next stop...Happy Hour which included unlimited plates of delicious food (over 20 choices of items) including a glass of wine or large beer for just 10-15 Euro!

Unlimited plates of food at Happy Hour...amazing!

Are you seeing a pattern of PS with large beers?
Enjoying a delicious Nobile!

The next morning we planned to jump on a 6:30am flight to Paris via Ryanair, after a 5am cab ride out of the city to Ciampino. Now, having flown Ryanair before and paid the price (literally) for heavy luggage, we were determined to cut down our luggage even more. We left a few items behind at EB's, mainly anything to account for cold weather since I had determined it wouldn't be any colder than 70 degrees. WRONG! We stepped off the plane in Paris Beauvais to drizzle, wind, and temps in the low 60's. At least we had an hour bus ride into the city to warm up, sleep a bit, find the metro, and then get my brain to remember all my French from HS and college. 

Saying Ciao to Italia and Bonjour to Francais for the next leg of the trip!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Getting Lost in Venice is Half the Fun

Day 3 and 4 of our Italian Adventure - Venice

After wishing EB a fond arrivederci this morning, PS and I took our 1st (and easiest) train ride north to the Jewel of the Adriatic. This leg of the trip we were lucky and had one of Trenitalia's luxury fast trains and arrived in Venice after 3.5 hours.

Side note on train travel in Europe: They literally give you less than 15 minutes to board before they depart, so once they post the track it's like a mad dash to find your train car and get your luggage settled.

We got stuck for a bit behind a pair of American women who had brought oversized luggage that they could barely lift, and proceeded to block the entire aisle, until PS and a few others had to assist them. Lesson learned - don't be those type of Americans!

Upon finding our seats, we got to employ EB's tactic for dealing with Italian customer service, although this time it was a woman and her 2 kids who were sitting in our seats. I think my lack of Italian actually came in handy this time as I just showed her our seat #'s and stood there smiling until she moved.

For most of you reading this blog I realize you don't know PS, and haven't experienced how directionally challenged he is, which will help to explain how I ended up in charge of all the travel logistics. He really doesn't like to function without a GPS or nav system, which proved to be very interesting when we were traveling with EB.

So, we arrived at the train station, caught a quick train across the lagoon, and went to catch a vaporetto down the Grand Canal, almost going the wrong direction before we quickly jumped off and went to the correct dock. PS had another Oh Wow moment, as he loves being on the water, and quickly fell in love with Venice!!
View from our Vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal

The Rialto Bridge

Now PS and I are not huge museum buffs and are much more inclined to spend our vacations outdoors, so by taking the vaporetto we got to view a majority of the palaces and museums (that also cost at least 5-7 euro ($10) each time you go in) and appreciate them from the canalside perspective instead.

So we arrived at St. Mark's and within 10 minutes arrived at our hotel after navigating some random alleys and crossing a few bridges, but actually no wrong turns - I mistakenly thought I had my map reading all figured out and wouldn't be getting lost in Venice...not so much!! I shoud have realized it wasn't so easy with more than 200 canals and 400 bridges and directions that read, go 15 feet from the base of the statue as if you were walking backwards, and then take the small alley on the right as it turns left.

Since it was just after lunch we ventured out in search of some food, and prosecco, and decided to just wander towards the Rialto bridge and follow the signs. Again, relatively easy...oh Venice you had me so fooled! 
1 of 2 nassone we found in all of Venice - compared to hundreds in Rome.
Thank goodness this was just outside our hotel!

After a few wrong turns we found a cute little place (recommended by Rick Steve's) with 2 Euro prosecco and some cicchetti, but then decided to change it up a bit and headed over to an Irish pub for a pint. We quickly realized the error of our ways when the pints cost 8 euro each ($12) and the prosecco was just 3 euro. Now PS and I had been commenting on the awesomeness of the trip so far, but how trips are always more fun when you make friends with other travellers (EB has noted that I have a great knack for this too)! Well, we were finishing off our pints when we got lucky and an adorable Scottish couple celebrating their 25th anniversary sat down at the table next to us. Needless to say, we proceeded to hang out with them for the next 8 hours, finishing quite a few glasses of prosecco, getting lost finding a restaurant for dinner, and then heading back to the same Irish pub for more drinks. 

Side note - this bar had a live feed webcam so Lorna was trying to get in touch with her 17 year old son who they had left at home for the trip (somewhat unsuccessfully) and PS decided to try and send a message to his sister and nephews. Well, we had no idea they had actually gotten it until we received a message telling us "we were pathetic lightweights" and that we needed to be more entertaining. So for the rest of the evening we kept waving at the camera, cheersing, and looking like idiots just in case they were watching. You're welcome!

Posing like a EB tradition!
Trying to gauge directions from the point of this statue was up for interpretation.

We were on a mission to find 2 Euro prosecco!
And then we proceeded to drink an entire bottle each.

Sitting in an Irish pub, making new Scottish friends, drinking Italian prosecco - ironic?

The next morning we managed to sleep in for a bit, but woke up just in time to grab a delicious breakfast! I know I've been good about describing our dinners and snacks, but I could seriously get used to eating croissants, chese and nutella every morning. Which is ironic, since I really only eat protein and no bread in the morning in the States. Unfortunately though, we missed the Rialto Seafood Market where they bring in all the fresh catches and you can wander through the stands, so instead we found a little trattoria for lunch, tucked on a side canal where the gondoliers passed by, and actually quite a few of them were eating inside as well. 

The tables were family style so you sat down at any open seat and wedged your self in. We ended up sitting with 2 older couples from LA who were travelling on a cruise, but I have to say weren't quite as fun as our friends from the night before. So in keeping with our tradition of sharing dishes, we ordered a mixed seafood plate and ravioli with bolognese sauce from our crazy waiter who talked so fast, even in English, that you could barely understand him and ultimately just ended up saying yes to his suggestions! Now PS is not actually a fan of most seafood, with the exception of a few fish, so this was pretty impressive that he was willing to share these dishes with me! Everything was so fresh and I was in heaven! So our crazy waiter enticed me into ordering an espresso (PS accuses me of pronouncing this with an X) and while we were waiting, a cute local Italian man had sat down next to us at the table. After ordering his meal and a bottle of red wine, he proceeded to offer PS a glass...isn't that supposed to work the other way around? Wasn't I supposed to be offered the glass of wine?

Frutti di Mare Misti

The rest of the day we wandered around the different neighborhoods, shopping in the little stores (finding some great Murano glass jewelry), and drinking some more prosecco along the canals, with the plan to end up at St. Mark's Basilica after all the lines had died down and the cruise ships folks had all gone back to their boats. We timed this perfectly and actually had no line to enter St. Mark's, and only a short 5 minute line to head up the Campanile. It was a pretty interesting contrast to see the byzantine and eastern influences within the church compared to the holy roman style within St. Peter's.

St. Marks and the Campanile
View from the Campanile

Looking down on St. Mark's Basilica

Afternoon gelato

While we had been warned that Venice was overly expensive and most of the restaurants along the canal had a service charge just for the price of sitting along the water, we found a great recommendation and made sure to make a reservation for later that evening. (I've forgotten to mention, PS and I normally eat late even in the States, but we took that to a whole new level in Europe sometimes not eating dinner until 9pm or 9:30pm at times). We again got lucky with a great waiter, who suggested the fresh grilled seafood plate which was actually prepped at the table. In case you hadn't guessed already but Venice is known for its seafood, so I took full advantage while we were there. PS got the chicken marsala and we shared a plate of pasta with olive oil, garlic and chili pepper. It's amazing how something so simple can taste so good!! 
Romantic dinner along the canal!

Grilled seafood plate - shrimp, squid, langostine and white fish!

Chicken Marsala

After dinner we headed over to Piazza San Marco to listen to the dueling orchestras and enjoy some after dinner drinks. One thing we had noticed the night before was that Venice actually shuts down around 11pm and the city is almost a ghost town. So the piazza wasn't too crowded but we were able to relax and people watch for an hour or so.
Battling orchestras in Piazza San Marco

Cote du Rhone and an Aged Tawny Port
Accompanied by potato chips and cookies...interesting.

Piazza San Marco at Night
The next morning we headed back to Rome and some more quality time with EB!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Prosciutto, Pecorino and Prosecco, si per favore

So this year's adventure had me following my favorite world traveler (aka my sister) to her next fantastic country of residence, Italia! Yes, you are allowed to be jealous of the fact that she keeps finding ways to get paid to live in amazing places, AND that she's my sister and I get to keep convincing work that family is important and I HAVE to go visit her for no less than 2 weeks! 

And while last year was our first official vacation as sisters, and unofficial training for our future Amazing Race, this year we added a new dimension to the travels and wine tasting extravaganza; my awesome boyfriend PS!! I don't know if he knew what he was getting into traveling with both Beall sisters on vacation!

So after some trials and tribulations of booking the flights, we headed off for 20+ hours of travel before arriving in Rome. I should preface this by saying that the week before this vacation, I managed to move my apartment, pack up PS' house, have an alumni meeting, and work a full week, which only made me appreciate the next 2.5 weeks even more! But I think I may have finally learned my lesson; trying to cram an entire country (or two) into 2 weeks of travel doesn't allow for much down time, but does give you some amazing memories, a lot of wine, and much inspiration for a return trip!

My brief commentary on international travel - I have been spoiled in my previous excursions abroad!! Direct flights on Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand set the bar extremely high, and even after researching our flights for in-seat tv's, what we thought would be power outlets, and the promise of free wine on international travel, none of these actually came to fruition with the exception of the TV, but without an on-demand feature (I know, I already said I was spoiled). I will have to say that until I can fly on the new Dreamliner (which PS has designed the new APU turbines for), I may be avoiding our domestic carriers for the foreseeable future.

Now, upon our arrival in Rome we grabbed our luggage from baggage claim (2 backpacks and 2 small rollies - I'm getting better and better at traveling light), we proceeded to Customs where we were promptly just waived through! No line, no questions, and NO STAMP! Seriously Italy, I realize you need all of our euros right now so you just waive us through, but I would have appreciated a stamp and an acknowledgement that I actually visited your awesome country! More updates on my lack of stamps and countries that I have actually travelled to in a later post.

But the upside of no Customs, we got to see EB even sooner! So after a quick train ride and cab to her apartment in Trestevere (she spared us the 150 steps for later that day), we got to relax and have our 1st glass of prosecco before 11am. Perfect welcome to Roma...although the mosquitos were not so welcome.

My first "meal" in Rome courtesy of EB!
Prosciutto, pecorino, and prosecco - what more could a girl ask for?

Walking the streets in Trestevere - EB's neighborhood.

Roma - Day 1, The Heart of Rome
I love Rome! I have to say, I love the fact that you can wander around a corner and find another historical building/fountain/piazza and that they built the modern day city around these ruins. Maybe it's cause we were traveling with EB, but I felt like everything was connected and that you could walk everywhere and continue to just stumble upon another amazing sight. PS had a few Oh Wow moments that made me appreciate them even more, even knowing what was coming! But one of the unexpected things I found I loved about Rome was something I had thought I would only find in Venice (which turned out to be the opposite), the Nassone!! Rome has hundreds of cast-iron water fountains that range from beautifully carved fountains and troughs to spigots on a side alley, but all of them provide ice-cold, pure drinking water! So for any future travellers to Roma - bring a water bottle and drink to your hearts content, it's a good balance to all the delicious wine!

So a quick recap of our day's adventures which included wandering through the streets of Trestevere, pausing at the statue of Bruno, past the Palazzo Farnese (home of the French Embassy), and arrival at our 1st stop in Piazza Navona where we enjoyed some gelato (almond truffle) before heading off to the Trevi. Coming around the corner, we got PS' first "Oh Wow" moment followed by trying to explain the aqueduct concept that fed Roman cities with fresh water, all without Google at our fingertips to help. We tossed in our coins to ensure a return trip to the Eternal City but EB refrained for fear that her next coin would find her a husband, according to tradition. We proceeded on to the Spanish Steps with a brief stop for an international SIM card (more on EB's mastery of Italian customer service below) and then finished our tour of the Heart of Rome at the Pantheon, an amazing ancient structure preserved almost in its entirety, and of course had a local giant beer to cool off from the heat. I have to commend EB on her ability to answer our random questions about what church or piazza or random statue that we might have been looking at - I highly recommend EB's walking tour (with the assistance of Rick Steves), just make sure you keep up, she walks pretty fast!!

Trevi Fountain
Pete's 1st Oh Wow moment when we came around the corner.
So happy to be on vacation!!

Ensuring my return to Rome by tossing in my coin!

Fountain at the base of the Spanish steps!
Just one of the awesom nassone I enjoyed throughout the city!

The Pantheon - Rome's most ancient preserved building!

One thing we realized very quickly on this trip was having a tour guide (aka EB) who spoke Italian made things much more efficient, especially after I realized that the CD to learn Italian did nothing for me and PS kept wanting to use his Spanish. But we truly got to experience EB's mastery of Italian customer service when we attempted to purchase a SIM card for PS. After asking for and purchasing the wrong card, we realized our mistake before we left the shop and attempted to have the sales rep swap it for the correct card (same price). What ensued was a battle of wills with EB realizing her Italian wasn't quite strong enough to argue in Italian, so she slid the receipt and card back across the counter, patted it and then proceeded to stare down the phone rep, to which he ultimately caved after much grumbing about getting a manager (not necessary) and my newfound appreciation for EB's tactics - I don't know if that would work here in the States, but it might be worth a try!

Now I realize that this is supposed to be a FOOD and travel blog and I owe you some explanation of the delicious dishes that we enjoyed! It's a good thing EB loves food as much as I do and she provided us with a background of dishes that were local to the regions that we would be travelling to, to ensure that we sampled the best of what Italy had to offer. So off we went to a little restaurant in Trestevere called Ristorante Paris (ironic) where we ordered the amatriciana pasta, a traditional Roman dish of red sauce with pancetta, onions and spice, polpette (meatballs), black truffle ravioli, veal limone and a side of chicory. Now PS and I have perfected the art of sharing food when we go out, since neither one of us wants to choose just one thing, and I was happy to find that EB was an enthusiastic participant in this ritual! Amidst all the delicious food, we also managed to squeeze in some wine drinking along the way and following dinner headed out for an evening stroll and some limoncello - as they say, when in Rome!

Enjoying black truffle ravioli!

Quality sister time, just add some limoncello!

Roma Day 2 - St. Peter's (Vatican City) and Ancient Rome at night
So, the day began contemplating our outfits, so that we would be appropriately chaste for our adventure to Vatican City! EB and I donned scarves, while PS took a chance with shorts and tucked a pair of pants away, just in case. So off we headed into another sweltering day, but made sure to grab some sustenance of not-so-personal sized pizzas and a carafe of wine. Now in general I would say Italians have much better portion control than Americans, but clearly not when it comes to pizza.

Pizza and wine for lunch - si, per favore!

Seriously, St. Peter's was just as impressive in person as it seems on film! I can only imagine how it looks with thousands of people inside. Our goal of hearing the Pope give Mass was foiled since he wasn't actually in residence, but enjoying his holiday in the country. We had been warned about the lines that wrapped around St. Peter's but only actually waited 5 minutes before getting inside - I think God was smiling down on us! :) Then again, those lines may have been for the museums and not the church, but we did see quite a line form after we climbed to the top of the cupola! 

St. Peter's aka the Vatican -
just so you weren't thinking I was referring to Pete as the saint!

Looking appropriately chaste.
Covering your shoulders on a 90 degree day and climbing 300+ stairs is not ideal!

Inside St. Peter's

Pope John Paul XXIII

Climbing the cupola turned out to be less daunting than I imagined. While I have a slight issue with claustrophobia, and the heat certainly didn't help, it was broken into different climbs and the view from the top was well worth it!

Climbing the cupola

Cool breeze and an amazing view!

Taking in the grandeur of Roma

The best part is there was a group of nuns up there with us too!

We planned to meander back to EB's place and then head out that night to see a few ancient monuments in the evening, but we got distracted along the way with a stop in the Jewish Ghetto and some gelato and prosecco. A few extra sights included a random traditional dance party, a bride and groom photo shoot, and a smaller version of another coliseum.

Enjoying my afternoon gelato!

Random dance party

That evening we headed out on the town to take in some more of Ancient Rome, and were surprised with some light drizzle/rain. The break from the heat and the awesome smell of the rain was a great treat as we meandered over to a locals place for dinner. There's something mystical about the monuments at night, and it's amazing to view them without all the crowds. After taking a tour of the DC monuments at night and finding a whole new appreciation for them, I think nighttime excursions are a must do for any future travel!

Romulus and Remus  - founders of Rome.
Romulus aka the tiny town where PS went to HS!
The Forum

A devoted fan of Rick Steves, but I think she adds a little something extra to her tours! 

Dinner that evening was at a restaurant that EB had previously enjoyed for apps and drinks, recommended by a local Italian, so we thought we'd be in good hands. Apparently great local food also comes with surly Italian waiters, even with EB ordering for us!

Not normally a fan of gnocchi, but these "pillows" of pasta were amazing!
I might have to try making them at home.

One of the best steak dishes of the entire vacation!

Our final traditional Roman dish - pasta carbonara.
While delicious, I already knew I wasn't a fan of this egg based pasta, but then again everything is better with bacon, or pancetta or prosciutto!

Next up - Venezia and the City of Romance!