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 European Vacation - 6/22/04 - 7/9/04

Italy | Switzerland | Germany | The Netherlands | Belgium | France

Getting to Rome/Roma - Tues/Wed 6/22-23:

Today we woke up early to finish the 5000 chores we still had left to do before leaving on our trip. After running around frantically (and ALMOST finishing the chores) the doorbell rang, the kitties scattered, and the limo had arrived promptly at 11:30am. We tracked down the cats to give them a kiss goodbye, hopped into the limo with the help of our chauffer Alex, and we were off to pick up Patti and Al.

We arrived at Patti and Al's house around noon and were surprised to see that Al was ready to go! After Harry and Lupe took a bunch of pictures we were off to LAX. The ride was nice and relaxing, and Alex made really good time. He was an expert and swerving in and out of the carpool lane without being seen by the cops.

As we pulled up to LAX we thanked Alex, grabbed our bags and were off to wait in line. We got our tickets and went to wait to check in our bags. The line looked really short, and we thought we wouldn't be waiting more than a minute or two… until we turned the corner. Ohhhh… so that's what they did with the rest of the people. Well, it took about a half hour, but we made it and ran up stairs for some food before getting on the plane.

This time my bag was actually searched as I tried to get on the plane. Terry, Patti and Al went ahead, and thought something was wrong as they saw the guard was questioning me for almost 5 minutes. Never fear though, we were only talking about Harry Potter.

The flight was long and cramped, and the lady in front of me had her seat completely reclined from the moment the plane reached altitude, to the moment it started on its decent. Fortunately we each had our own television in the back of the persons chair in front of us… so I got to watch that about 4 inches from my face the entire way. YAY!

After trying to sleep on the plane for about 9 hours, I managed a couple small 15 minute naps. The neck pillow I bought did absolutely nothing to hold up my bobbing head, and the screaming baby four rows over wasn't the most relaxing sound. But we hung in there and finally landed in London. Of course our connecting flight to Rome was about an hour and a half late, but at least that flight was only about 2 hours.

We finally landed in Rome, gathered our luggage, found Joe (our tour guide), and made it off to find our driver Michelle and our brand spankin' new coach. We finally arrived at the hotel at about 7:30pm on Wednesday, with just enough time to wash our face and head downstairs for the welcome drink. We didn't last very long, but did manage to eat a bunch of green olives, chips and peanuts before heading up stairs to crash.

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Rome/Roma - Thursday 6/24:

Today our wake-up call was at 5:45am - not the best time for only sleeping a couple hours the "night" before - but it was well worth it as we were going to visit the Vatican that morning. We head down stairs to the restaurant of the hotel for a quick buffet breakfast, hopped on the bus, and we were off!

Today we had a tour guide named Marco. Joe was not allowed to give us a tour through Roma due to the strict laws, but Marco was extremely good, so we definitely didn't mind. He handed out some headsets so we could stray and still hear his lecture. Definitely cool! We arrived at the steps of the Vatican at around 7:30am and were still in line behind several other tours. No matter though; the Sistine Chapel, and the hallways to get there, were completely incredible.

The hallways were littered with old sculptures and tapestries, the ceilings were painted, and the floors were covered in marble, granite, travertine and other mosaics. Once we made it to the Sistine Chapel we were told to whisper and not take and photos. This was the second time I had been to the Sistine Chapel, but it was much more brilliant this time. When I went there in 1996 they were only about a third of the way finished with their restoration. They had been restoring it since 1994 and finally finished in 1999. They left a small square of the "before" to show just how big of a difference the restoration made. I believe they were removing soot from the plaster, so the colors were just so much brighter this time around.

It was crazy to see these paintings by Michelangelo and to hear the stories that surrounded them. I had no idea that he spent his entire life making these paintings, and that he was still working on the final wall when he was in his sixties. Talk about dedication! I did find it funny though that he was not fond of women. He thought that a man's body was built to perfection, so you will notice that all of his women were extremely masculine.

After leaving the chapel we head out to Saint Peter's. This church was absolutely enormous! The walls were covered in sculptures and "paintings" - which were actually made of small pieces of glass. Towards the end of our stay in the church Al decided to confess his sins… oh boy… this was going to take days, if not weeks. So we decided to leave him there and continue with the tour.

We left the church to go to the "official" Vatican gift shop where I bought grandma a spoon and some stamps to send her a postcard. You could also purchase items here and have them blessed by the pope for no extra charge. As I was on my way out we ran into Al. Wow, that was surprising… he some how made it out of there within a half hour (though we don't think he got very far along with his confessions).

After the Vatican we hopped on the bus and head over to see Michelangelo's Mosses. It was hidden within a very modest church, but incredible nonetheless. We learned all of the theory's to why he had horns on his head (because the Latin name for rays of light could also be translated as horns) though it is mostly thought that he had horns because Michelangelo was not able to portray the rays of light using marble. Terry and I also found a few very interesting sculptures of the Angel of Death within this church.

After leaving this church we walked over to the Coliseum. At one time there was a 30 meter high bronze statue outside of the Coliseum (which is actually where it got its name) though all of the bronze was at one point melted down. Anyhow, the Coliseum is very impressive, especially when you stand inside of it and think about the gladiators that used to fight inside. They are still excavating the hallways and rooms underneath the structure.

We were pretty pooped after this (even though it was only about 2pm at this time) due to jet lag and an early wake-up, so we jumped back on the coach and headed for the hotel. I zonked out for a couple hours and awoke just in time to get ready for our illumination tour and dinner. This was a tour of Rome at night to see many of the buildings and monuments all lit up. Our first stop was at a little restaurant for a nice long dinner. Our first course was an antipasto and bread sticks. After this we were served a crepe and some kind of tortellini. Then for our third course we were served some other kind of pasta which I found rather repulsive… but fortunately we had a fourth course of veal and a fifth course of salad. They of course saved the best for last with a sixth course of fruit and Gelato. WHEW! That was one hell of a meal! We of course all had wine with our meals, and the waiter gave roses, kisses and pinches on the butts to all of the women. Terry was also awarded a rose by the waiter, though his was missing the flower on top. Hehehe… The best was when the waiter (who we liked to call Guido) tried to kiss Jennifer and Kimberly (two of the younger girls on our trip) - they were rather disgusted with the whole thing, and made some very memorable faces while receiving a kiss on the cheek.

After eating we began our tour of the city with one of my favorites… The Trevi Fountain. This is a big hang out spot for the locals after midnight, but while we were there it was instead a hang out for little Italian boys who try to "sell" you flowers. They hand the girl flowers and say that it is a gift for a beautiful woman. You say thank you and walk away with the flowers… but you don't realize that he is following you! About a minute later they tap on the man's shoulder and ask for a donation. When you do not cough up a few cents for the flowers they grab them back from the lady and walk away with a pissy attitude. We had them try to "give" me flowers several times.

After the Trevi fountain the rest of the tour was from within the coach. I did my best to stay awake, though I found my head bobbing for the last 15 minutes of the drive back to the hotel. It was a beautiful evening, but I was ready to hit the hay.

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Rome/Roma - Friday 6/25/04:

Today we got to sleep in until about 7am. Terry and I met mom downstairs for breakfast around 8 because we were going to hop on the coach at 9 for a trip to the Spanish steps. Dad, Patti and Al actually left at 6:30 this morning to head down to Pompeii for the day. Since I had seen this last time, the three of us decided to wander around Rome, and then take a tour later in the evening.

After having a nice breakfast (mmmmm… Nutella) we jumped on the coach and headed to the Spanish Steps with map in hand. Joe walked us to the steps (which were very pretty by the way) and then pointed us in the right direction from there. So with map in hand the three of us were off to find the Pantheon. We thought we were lost and we wandered the skinny cobblestone streets, dodging scooters and "Smart" cars (tiny little two seater cars the size of a small golf cart). This was actually my favorite part of the walk. When we were walking through these tiny streets we got to see more of how the locals live. They were all in these tall, close together buildings. All of the buildings were old, painted similar colors, with plants pouring out of every opening and hugging the cracked plaster.

After many turns and looks at the map we suddenly round a corner and there it was… this incredibly enormous dome sitting right in the middle of all of these other buildings. I took a bunch of pictures, but they just don't do this place justice. The inside was also beautifully painted and tiled.

After about 15 minutes of oooing and aaaaing at the Pantheon we headed out on our walk. We had about an hour to make it to the other side of Rome (on foot) in order to catch the shuttle back to the hotel. We made it back to the shuttle stop (surprisingly with some time to spare) grabbed a pizza from a local Chinese lady (who knew?) and head back to the hotel after walking just under 4 miles. Not a bad way to start off the day!

We had a couple hours at the hotel before we needed to get ready for the evening excursion, so Terry, my Mom and I grabbed a table on the patio - I grabbed a Gin and tonic (which I later found out would cost me roughly $12) - and we played Gin Rummy for an hour or so.

After my mother beat us at cards we changed out of our shorts and hopped on the coach for a ride to Tivoli and its wonderful gardens. The gardens were insane. They went far down the hill of Tivoli and had some of the most impressive fountains I've ever seen. The entire thing was built around fountains and water. There is even a fountain that uses the force of the water to play the pipe organ. Another interesting thing was that though it was a steep walk, there were mostly ramps instead of stairs. This is because they used to ride horses through here, and the horses were not able to climb the stairs.

When we were finished ogling over the water works we headed to this small out door restaurant for an amazing dinner. Again we had many courses starting with an antipasto. After this we had two different kinds of pasta, some chicken and potatoes, a salad, some cake… and of course wine! Alden played the spoons for us (along with the little band who was serenading us) and Anne was sung a love song called "Mama". Tonight we sat with a lady named Anne (who was actually on the trip with us 9 years ago) as well as this guy Kelly and his mother Franky. I thought tonight was terrific - even better than the amazing dinner the night before.

Notes on Rome:

Terry and I both loved Rome. The weather was hot, but not nearly as bad as last time. The drivers are insane, especially the ones on scooters, and everyone has tiny tiny little cars! The food for the most part was good (I have actually liked most of the pasta) and the people were for the most part very friendly. Throughout the entire city there were many different ruins, from the Circus Maximus, to the state building, to scattered arches and monuments. One thing that surprised me was the amount of graffiti. There was far more graffiti than anywhere in LA. Apparently it's gotten so out of hand that the city gave up at trying to control it.

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Getting to Florence/Firenze - Saturday 6/26:

Today we woke up bright and early, got our bags out to Michelle, grabbed a quick breakfast and head out to the train station. The train station was like the airport, except open and without security. There were a bunch of shops for people while they waited.

After waiting about 45 minutes for our bullet train to arrive we finally pushed our way through the masses and hopped onto our first-class car. Patti, Al, Terry and I all got to face each other in these big cushy seats, with mom and dad across the isle from us. We played some Rummy, had a small lunch, and watched the Italian countryside pass by. It was a very nice two hour ride to Florence.

When we arrived in Florence, or Firenze, we immediately walked over to the Academy, met our tour guide Flavia, and went in to see Michelango's David. This time they weren't allowing pictures, so I was glad to have been able to take pictures when I was there the first time. Again, it was very impressive, and this time I spent more time looking at his unfinished sculptures.

After the Academia we head over to this huge church (Duomo) which had beautiful mosaic floors, stained glass windows and murals. This church also had a large dome which had a very cool mural painted on it. Around the bottom of the mural was hell, with demons, the devil, etc. And the top was of heaven.

After meeting back with Joe in the piazza, we ran back towards the church picking up a Stracciatella (chocolate chip) Gelati (mmmmm…. It was SO good) on the way. We actually spent 6 Euros to hike up 463 steep and narrow steps to the top of the dome. We got to stop about 3 quarters of the way up to walk around the top of the dome on the inside of the church. Wow, I didn't realize how high it was until I was actually up there! After our legs had turned to rubber and the stairs had become so steep they were more like a ladder, we finally made it to the top! We were actually on the very top of the dome on the outside of the church looking out over the entire city of Florence. It was amazing!!! A little scary turning my back to the edge to take a picture, but amazing nonetheless!

After traveling back to ground level we head over to Croce for Al to see where Galileo, Botticelli and others were buried. They were 5 minutes to closing so Terry and I waited outside for a couple minutes while Dad and Al grabbed tickets to go inside. On our way back we grabbed yet another Gelato (I got lemone this time) and head back to the piazza to meet the group.

We walked out to the river and head about a half a mile down to meet Michelle at the coach. From here he drove us out into the country a small ways, and to our quaint little hotel. It was at one time a private estate. It wasn't my favorite hotel, but it was nice. We smushed the mosquito's in our room, got ready for dinner and head over to the dining room. Dinner was just okay tonight. We of course started out with bread and pasta, which I didn't care much for, and then had a main course of chicken, potatoes and broccoli. This part of the meal was good, but the desert (some kind of lemon custard cake) was pretty weird and really didn't do it for me. After dinner we went back to the room and crashed out.

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Getting to Venice/Venize - Sunday 6/27:

This morning we got up and I felt pretty crappy (which of course made me a little late, which made me even crankier). I've just been having allergies so horribly on this trip so far! But fortunately after a hot shower I was feeling a little better. Breakfast was fast, and not too great, but it did the job. The one thing I have liked is the chocolate spreads they always have out in the morning for your croissant.

We all loaded into the bus and were off to Venice! About halfway there we stopped at this little truck stop to use the toilette and grab a snack. Unfortunately there were a whole bunch of tours busses there at the same time as us, and it took us forever to use the bathroom. It was so crowded in there you could hardly move around! The entire time I was in line at the bathroom this old, rather large, Italian woman was pushing into me… like I had anywhere to go!

Once we finally made it to Venice we got off the bus and walked across a little bridge where we met a private water taxi. This taxi took us over to Piazza Sant Marcos where we walked through some shops and had some lunch. I had a bowl of cherries and apricots, a caprice salad and some kind of really tough, dry, meat skewer. But all in all it wasn't a bad meal. At least the toilettes at the restaurant were free!

After eating we walked back to the square to meet our new tour guide, who was much better then the lady in Florence. First she took us to the church of Saint Marcos. Unfortunately we couldn't take any pictures in there, so I will do my best to explain it to you.

The ceiling was covered in this gold leaf mosaic… there was 60 pounds of gold leafing on that ceiling!!! It was crazy. All of the "paintings" were in mosaic. It took about 30 years to build the structure, and about 600 years to decorate it. The floor was also crazy. It too was made of mosaic, and since the foundations in Venice are very unstable, the floor was very bumpy and uneven.

We had to go through this church quickly, so we didn't have too much time to look in it. After this we went over to this other state building that had a prison inside. We actually got to walk through this prison and over the "Bridge of Sighs". They called this the bridge of sighs because this was the bridge the prisoners took when entering the prison. There were small windows on this enclosed bridge (which bridged a canal) and the prisoners knew that this was the last place they would ever see outside… and so they sighed.

After this part of the tour we went over to see the Moreno glass factory. In Venice they make 3 things… Glass, Lace and Masks. This glass blowing demonstration was very interesting. This HUGE guy did the glass blowing with the metal tube and fire… he did it very quickly making a vase with handles. Very interesting! After that they showed us some finished pieces. All Moreno glass is very durable, all hand made, and beautiful. The colors are all made naturally with different minerals - red being the most difficult and most expensive. A small vase was about 80 Euros.

When the demonstration was done (and we finally found our way out of the glass factory) we head over to meet Joe for the Gondola ride. This was definitely the best part of the trip. There were only about 1000 Gondolas now (down from about 10,000) and they were about $14,000 each if you were to buy one. They were all hand carved and painted black. The six of us (mom, dad, Terry, Patti, Al and I) all hopped into one and waited for the rest of the group to get in theirs. One of the lucky couples got to be in the Gondola with the singer and accordion player. It was gorgeous… I hope the small movie I took of it does it justice!

Download the Movie (4.3 MB)

When we were done we got back onto another water taxi which took us over to our hotel. The hotel was very modern, but very nice and comfortable. We freshened up a bit and went to this great little place for dinner. I loved this area because we were staying in a very non-touristy part of town. It was great because there were no cars here, no motor scooters and not many tourists (or people at all!) Dogs (with tags) were running around by them selves, and there were also lots of cats.

Anyhow, we sat outside on the patio for dinner. The long table was tilted towards me, so our first course of vegetable soup (which was delicious) was almost spilling out of the bowl towards me. The second course was breaded veal with lemon, and green beans cooked in butter… it was also extremely good. For desert we had this apple pie/cake thing. It was yummy too! I think this was my favorite meal of all… very good and no pasta!! YEAH!

Terry and I walked back to the water after dinner to watch the sunset (sun went down at 9pm). It was very pretty but the mosquitos were out in full force so we head back to the hotel. Most other people took the time to walk back into town, but Terry and I decided to play some cards and get an early start to bed (wake up at 5:45am yet again!!)

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Verona and Baveno - Monday 6/28/04:

We left the hotel this morning after breakfast, hopped back onto the water taxi and made it back to the mainland and Michelle. We took a two hour bus ride and stopped in Verona, which is where Romeo and Juliet was set. This of course was a fictional story, but it was set in this town, and in this small courtyard with a tiny balcony. It was very interesting. People from all over the world would come here and stick loved notes to the wall. Thy would either just write them on the wall, write it on gum, stick the paper to the gum or just write directly on the wall.

We walked through the city, passing by a Roman stadium (2000 years old, but one of the best preserved roman structures) and over to this great piazza. After paying half a Euro to use the toilette, Patti, Mom and I head back to the square where we had lunch.

Lunch here was SO good. I think this was my favorite lunch of the trip. The six of us were sitting in the shade of big umbrellas with three other people on our tour. We all shared some pizza, caprice salad, a chicken sandwich and bread. Terry had this huge amaretto gelato and they actually put ice in my water for me! The only part of this lunch that sucked was that a bird pooped down Terry's back, and there was a little gypsy child who kept begging us for money.

We finished up, paid our bill and head down to grab yet another gelato before meeting Joe again. What a great relaxing lunch! While we were waiting for Joe to show up we watched this couple, who were dressed like sculptures, play the flute and blow kisses for tips.

We got back on the bus and were off! When we arrived we actually arrived in Baveno instead of Stressa because we ended up staying at the sister hotel of the hotel that we were going to stay at in Stressa. It was only about a mile away, and it was beautiful. Terry and I got a room overlooking Lake Maggiorre.

We got settled into our rooms and head outside for a quick walk before dinner. We walked around the lake a little bit and found this cute little church on the hill. We also walked around the hotel grounds which were beautiful. They had a life size chess set, two pools, and more… so we threw on our suites and took a quick swim before dinner.

Dinner that night was pretty good. We of course had some kind of cannelloni for the first course, followed by some chicken and veggies. For desert I had a fruitcake… which happens to be much better then the kind of fruit cakes in the states. This was more like shortbread with fruit on the top.

That night after dinner we all sat outside on the patio playing cards and watching the amazing electrical storm. What a night!

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Lake Maggiorre, Isola Bella, Stressa (Italy) and Zermatt (Switzerland) - Tuesday 6/29:

This morning we got up bright and early for a quick breakfast before heading out to Isola Bella. We hopped onto two private water taxis for our quick ride out to the island. This is still the private residence of a very wealthy family in Italy. They do tours on the island during the winter and the family still uses it for 2 months out of the summer.

This was actually the location where they filmed the new Star Wars wedding scene. The inside of the house was neat, but the gardens were most impressive. There were white peacocks roaming around all over the place, and everything was very nicely manicured.

After the island we hopped back into the boat and taxied over to Stressa. Stressa was a wonderful little town where we got to stop and have a "Taste of Italy". This lady and her son (who owned this little wine shop) did a demonstration and let us taste some wines, seasonings, olive oil and 10 year aged balsamic vinegar… it was SO good! The wines they let us taste were amazing. They gave us sips of extremely sweet dessert wines as well as extremely dry wines. Such an unbelievable difference in flavors! So of course I had to buy a bunch of stuff before leaving! I wanted to get some nummy wine but figured I was spending enough money on the 7 year aged balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, season packets and this super yummy nuget type candy bar with nuts and fruit... soooo good.

When I had finished buying out the store Terry and I headed out to this cute little piazza where we had a caprice salad and a salami pizza. Delicious! As soon as we had paid we took a quick walk to the water where we hopped back on the bus.

We were now on our way to Zermatt via the Alps. The ride was beautiful as we left Italy and entered Switzerland. As soon about halfway through the bus ride we stopped at a small little shop in the Alps to have some hot chocolate. WOW, the Swiss really know how to make hot chocolate! Nothing like sipping on some hot cocoa while sitting on a quaint little patio in the middle of the Alps!

About an hour later the bus stopped and we were almost there. We actually had to take a train into Zermatt because cars aren't allowed up there. The train ride was short and not very scenic, but the view in Zermatt more than made up for it. We were again bumped from our original hotel arrangements and actually split into two groups. Patti, Al, Terry and I were in the small group who followed Joe to a hotel he had never seen before. It was funny because the whole way there he was apologizing because he didn't know if our hotel would be nice or not. HA!

We arrived at the entrance to the hotel which happened to be a long underground cave. From there we took and elevator up into the hotel. WOW… the hotel was on the top of the hill and we had a gorgeous view of the Materhorn from our room. Terry and I got extra lucky and got a corner room which was full of windows. Once we realized just how much the ten of us lucked out on getting to stay at this wonderful hotel we made a pact not to say anything to the other people on the tour, but of course not 10 minutes later mom and dad came knocking on the door. They were so jealous!

We waited around for about an hour for our luggage to arrive before our welcome drink at the other hotel. Of course everyone got their suitcase but me! But never fear… it was just sitting at the other hotel. So I walked down to the welcome drink in my tank top, shorts and flip flops and changed when I got there. From there we went to a very good dinner at yet another hotel. Tonight we started off with this great dish that we essentially just melted cheese and some accoutrements. After that it was a salad bar (FINALLY) and some veal and veggies. Very tasty!

That night we went straight back to the room, snuggled up in our super fluffy down ticks and crashed. We made sure to only pull the lacy see-through curtains though so we would be able to wake up to the beautiful view. We knew that in the morning the sun would be shining directly onto the Materhorn.

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