Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tuscany; The Beauty and Brutality

Tuscany is, simply put, beautiful; a veritable fairy tale.  One could imagine a ginger house tucked gently into the woods.  But, just as in a fairy tale, Tuscany also has a dark underbelly; wild boars, porcupines, foxes and wolves.   

The wolves have been the bane of Chianti Cashmere.  On our first night in Tuscany, us tucked soundly in our beds, eleven goats were attacked in the yonder field.  Seven goats were killed outright (and only one eaten) while four others were severely injured.  

We only just found this out upon our return from Siena.  Nora, the owner of the goat farm, was devastated.  This attack represented a serious loss of income for her, as well as, loss of her beloved animals.

She has guard dogs; two for each herd but the dogs were recent additions and still too young to adequately protect.  At five months old they simply weren’t a match for a pack of wolves.

Now is the time I must confess I’d been pulled in by folk lore and Hollywood hype -- I couldn’t help but imagine werewolves roaming the Tuscan Fields, preying on wildlife and hapless humans.  Fortunately the moon wasn’t full and therefore did not lend to my wandering mind.

But back to Nora.  As we arrived at the farm she was in the process of moving the male goats from their larger pasture to a smaller, better barricaded pasture (i.e. one with barbed wire like you’d find around a prison).  She needed our help herding the goats from one pen to the other.
Our job was to keep the boys out of the flower beds and keep them from going up the road and out to the street.  This turned out to be an easy task -- Nora and her employee were leading the alpha male by the horns.  Everyone else followed suit.  

The dogs, too, followed the crowd, though they stopped to visit with us.  It took all our self control (and then some) not to pet them and love on them. You see they are meant to bond with the goats and not humans; thus making better guard dogs.   

Nora only had one barbed pen.  She couldn’t put the males in with the females as this would significantly disrupt her breeding schedule.  Thus she was stuck hoping the wolves wouldn’t return and/or her dogs would do their jobs.  

Now let me tell a little about the goats.  They are cashmere goats (as in cashmere sweater (i.e. expensive yarn) fame).  Once a year, in the spring, the cashmere (which is the soft undercoat) is gently harvested, by hand, by combing out each goat (talk about time consuming).  It takes anywhere from one to three hours to comb the cashmere from a goat.  

The goats are bred specifically for the quality and quantity of their cashmere, as well as, for the color (white, tan, hazelnut and cocoa).  

After combing, individual samples are taken from each goat and analyzed in a laboratory; testing for quality, softness and color. The cashmere is then sent to a local company that separates it from the coarser outer hair.  After that the cashmere is sent to another local company which turns it into roving.  Finally the roving is sent to a third company which spins it into yarn.  

No wonder cashmere is so expensive. And Nora’s yarn?  Oh you wouldn’t believe how soft.  

So, yes, when her goats are attacked she is devastated, financially and emotionally.  These are not "just goats."

While all this was going on I felt rather helpless.  As a veterinarian I wanted to jump in and fix things.  But I did not have any equipment or authority to practice medicine.  Nora used to be a vet but was longer practicing (though she keeps her licensing intact).  She, too, had limited medical supplies.

As an animal lover I wanted to cry.  Of course the wolves needed to eat and we were encroaching on their habitat.  But they didn't hunt solely for food; rather this hunt appeared to be more for sport.  

We did not keep the deaths hidden from the children.  I showed them one of the dead goats and we talked about what happened.  Now keep in mind my children are being raised with a veterinarian, an emergency veterinarian at that. Blood and guts and death and gore are a regular part of my life and this is something my children have often been exposed to.  

The good news is the four injured goats were making a miraculous recovery and were doing well by the time we left the farm. 

For my part I bought some of Nora’s yarn (which I would’ve done anyway).  I wanted to support her sustainable cashmere.  Now I have two skeins of very special yarn waiting for a project.  

Nora has a designer who is currently working on some exclusive patterns just for her.  She has promised to send me the designs once she receives them.  I can't wait to get my needles clacking. 

And for me?  Despite the brutality I am dreaming of a goat farm of my very own -- half cashmere and half milk goats -- right here in the states.  Oh how the wheels are turning.  

Next up? Day Eight -- The Land of Twigs and Berries (aka Florence).


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Italy Day Seven; Escalators and stairs, churches and gelato

On this day we let the kids sleep in a bit.  It seemed right given that we were vacation and had been getting up early nearly every day.  

After a leisurely morning we left for Siena.  It was about a 45 minute drive from our place in Radda over picturesque roads

Siena is a medieval town surrounded by a large wall.  It has a limited traffic zone meaning you have to park outside the walls and walk in.  We like these cities with fewer cars -- less chance of getting squashed like a bug on cobblestone.  Fewer cars is all well and good but first one must get in to the city.  

We had a difficult time finding parking .  Our hope was to park close to the walls thus limiting the amount of hiking to get inside.  I know I keep saying it but our dogs were tired.  Let me put it to you this way -- by this point in our trip I’d already worn holes in two (TWO) pairs of socks and Little’s pinky toenail was AWOL.  

It was challenging getting these kids out of bed let alone convincing them to go on a hike.  Therefore we didn’t quite tell the kids what we were doing when we gave up parking near the wall and went to one of the lower lots.  We figured we’d just start walking (aka hiking) and the kids would eventually figure out what cruel and evil people we were.

We parked at the Il Campo Lot which ended up being fabulous.   I can't recommend it more.  

We got out and began our hike to the city (again not tell the kids just how far we had to go).  We went up a small hill and turned to the right following the signs to the city.  

When what to our wondering eyes did appear?  No, no, not a reindeer.  More serendipitous than that -- we found a series of escalators all the way up to the city.  Hallelujah!  A break for our feet and fun to boot.  We were in escalator heaven. 

We entered the city near the Duomo.  As we turned the corner we found ourselves at it’s back side (this must’ve been where you lived Rachel!).  

I don’t really know how to describe the churches here in Italy.  They are majestic, intricate, beautiful and awe-inspiring.  And they seem to come out of nowhere.  

Little took a brief break on the steps of the church (tired from all that escalating).  Then we went to find coffee.  The coffee shop also happened to be a gelateria.  Mistake.  The kids immediately wanted gelato.  We, parents, thought they should have breakfast first because, you know, Nutella filled croissants are WAY healthier than gelato.  

The coffee shop was just off the main campo in Siena.  While Mr. Peculiar paid I took the kids down to see the campo.  I was trying to explain the Palio to them (which is an annual horse race right through the square.  

Then we started talking about the bell tower and I casually mentioned that one could climb to the top.  The kids got crazy excited and all wanted to it.  Really?  Ye who wouldn’t get out of bed? Ye who would have melted into a pile on pavement had we not found an escalator?  Ye children want to climb 300 steps up to see the view of the city?  Yes. Yes they did.  

And so we did.  We forked over 8 euros apiece, checked our purses at the door and climbed.  The stairs were narrow (I’d not recommend this for a claustrophobic person) and steep. The stairs and railing with silky smooth -- worn down from all the hands and feet passing over time.  

The view from the top was, of course, gorgeous.  More exciting to the kids was a baby pigeon on the landing.  

And then back down.  Down, down, down the steps we had just climbed.  

When we got back it was time for gelato.  After all we’d earned it.  But first -- lunch.    We wandered around the back streets and came across Cava De’Noveschi - a little restaurant and champagnerie.  

The food was wonderful but a bit fancy for the kids.  We ordered the girls pasta with shrimp which they normally would have eaten.  However I made the mistake of telling them it was cooked in champagne -- bleech, eech, yuck.  There was also the little matter of the shrimp still having eyes.  In different packaging the meal would’ve been devoured.  As is stood Mama and Papa enjoyed it with our champagne.  The kids sat and pouted because they didn’t want to be in a “fancy alcohol place.”  

Too bad little people.  Just be glad you were sitting!

The restaurant was just down the road from the Duomo.  So it made sense to go visit before ice cream.  Another decision heavily protested by the younger set.  Alas they don’t make the rules.  

The protesting quieted down once we entered the church.  Out of all the churches in Italy this is my favorite.  There are stars on the ceiling and moons on the floor.  Again I can’t even begin to describe these places -- words fail me.  All I can say it visit if you can.  You won’t regret it. 

After church? Gelato time!  You knew we wouldn’t leave the city without partaking at least once.  

Then time to go back to the car.  

I had the parking ticket in my purse and this time we were smart enough to pay before going to the car (cash only).  

We had a bit of trouble getting out of town.  We got mixed up and went South instead of North and therefore got an unanticipated tour of the rest of the city.  

Our plan was to go home to rest and then go back out to get some dinner.  But when we got back we met up with Nora and our plans changed.  

Turns out there had been some unwanted activity overnight and Nora needed our help.  


Friday, October 26, 2012

A Beautiful Day on a Train Puffing; Italy Day Six

Every time I’m at a train station I look for platform 9 3/4.  I simply can’t help myself.  Doesn't everyone want to ride a magical steam train? 
On this trip we were able to do just that.  We booked tickets on the Treno A Vapore per La Festa Della Castagne (Vintage Steam Train to the Chestnut Festival).  

You see it’s harvest season here in Tuscany.  And as I was perusing the internet I happened across this train, taken out of retirement, to transport passengers to the chestnut festival. 

I was sure, absolutely sure, the train would be sold out.  Nonetheless I sent an email in broken Italian asking for tickets.  I received a fabulous email in broken English saying “we expect to have a beautiful day together on a train puffing.”  Be still my heart!

We had to be in Siena at 7:55 am to catch the train.  We left at 6:00 am not knowing how long it would take to find the station.  As it turns out we happened upon the station the moment we entered the town.  We were an hour early and had some time to kill. 
We parked at the lot under the station and went upstairs for coffee and pastries.  The coffee was mediocre at best and the pastry case displayed flies, as well as, baked good (self inoculation, self inoculation -- that was the mantra I kept repeating to myself).  We opted for a second cappuccino from the vending machine on the platform (enough said).  

Finally the train arrived.  The body of the train was pushed to the station by a traditional engine. The steam engine arrived on it’s own accord.  The kids were mesmerized.  They were thinking about Harry Potter and The Polar Express and, I, Mama that I am, Thomas the Tank Engine.  

The exterior of the train was a bit plain (minus the steam).  The interior was gorgeous -- wood seats of two facing one another, pictures over the seats and beautiful luggage racks.  

A band played as we boarded.  Turns out they were with us for the entire trip - playing at lunch and the festival as well.  

The train took us deep into the Tuscan countryside -- it’s final destination a defunct train station.  From there we boarded busses and headed up into the hills.  A place, I might add, that busses really weren’t meant to go.  I did not envy the drivers.  

We were deposited at a farm and left to pick chestnuts.  Now have you picked chestnuts?  I had not.  Turns out they are encased in a very prickly shell.  After a bit of observation we discovered the secret to picking. 1) Find a BIG stick.  2) Pound the living bejesus out of the prickly shell.  3) Reap your rewards.  

Now this expedition was planned for the Italian people; they did not have American tourists in mind.  Therefore there was no translation.  When we got off the bus instructions were given solely in Italian.  We had no idea what time to return to the bus.  We decided to go by herd mentality and simply follow the others when they left.  

This plan worked well leaving the farm -- we successfully made it onto the bus and were transported to lunch.  There were five buses on our tour.  After chestnut picking all five buses drove to the Kronos Restaurant.  This was a large banquet hall made to accommodate large crowds.  Now I must admit, the hall gave us some hesitation.  We were expecting mediocre food at best.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  

We sat down to a six course meal (SIX) that included crostini, bread salad, risotto, pasta, pork and desert.  You could’ve rolled us out of there.  

In between courses the band played and the Italian children danced on the stage (we couldn't convince our lot to do the same).  

Mr. Peculiar correctly noted that he felt like an interloper.  With the exception of two Asian women we were the only foreigners in the crowd.  The Italian people, however, were kind and welcoming despite our language barriers.  

After such a meal a nap was in order.  Instead transported to the Chestnut Festival -- streets and streets of vendors; food, goods, coffee and crafts.  The bus driver told us to be back at 4:00 pm (as I understood in my limited Italian).  The group dispersed and we could not follow the herd.  I only hoped I was right.  

We returned by 4:00 and indeed I as right about the time (yay me!).  However, at this point, the kids were whiny and tired and THRISTY.  They NEEDED something to drink and could not POSSIBLY survive the trip back to the train without a beverage.  

Fine. I, less than happy, dragged the boy back into the throngs of the festival for drinks.  In the meantime our bus arrived.  Mr. Peculiar told the driver I’d left my camera and had to go retrieve it (as if I’d be that careless).  We were back shortly thereafter and boarded the bus.  Right after we got on the roll was called.  There were people missing.  The bus, without an ounce of hesitation, left without them.  Holy cats.  Good thing our tea didn’t take any longer.  

And that tea?  Well that tea had to go somewhere.  This meant a trip to the bathroom.  The girls went on their own as it was just at the front of our car.  They came back whispering and full of giggles.  Little told us "the train poops."  It turns out the toilets emptied directly onto the tracks au naturale.  That's vintage for you!

And another note about vintage trains.  They don't have central heat and/or air conditioning.  This was all well and good in the morning when there was a nip in the air.  Not so well and good after a hot and tiring afternoon.  The train did have windows.  And the air felt great.  That is until the train went into a tunnel (of which there were many).  Steam (aka coal) in a tunnel has nowhere to go but through the windows of the the train.  Talk about a cough fest.  

People took to covering the windows with the heavy curtains each time the train entered the tunnels.  This worked surprisingly well to keep the smoke out.  

And the tunnels.  There were interior lights on the train but they weren't turned on. Therefore the tunnels plunged us into total darkness.   I couldn't help but think we'd come out the other side to find someone murdered.  It had the makings of an Agatha Christie Novel if I'd ever seen one.  

I do believe we all made it home intact (expect, perhaps, those left hapless at the festival).  The train got back in to Siena at 7:00 pm.  We got into our car and were looking forward to going home to chillax (yes I was traveling with the teenagers). 

The parking lot, of course, was a pay lot.  We pulled up to the exit and put our ticket into the slot.  Then we tried to figure out how to pay.  We stuck our credit card into the ticket slot -- nothing.  We could not find a place for coins or bills.  We were hot and tired and frustrated.  I do believe Mr. Peculiar contemplated ramming the barrier (thank goodness he didn't follow through).  

An Italian woman pulled up behind us and was becoming increasingly impatient.  I got out of the car and explained to her via gestures that we didn’t know how to pay.  She held up two coins; i.e. you American idiot.  Finally she got out of her car and walked over the the pay station with me.  She, too, couldn’t figure out how to pay.  She pushed a call button and had an exuberant conversation with the person on the other end.  Then she gestured for us to follow her.  She backed her car back into the lot and we did the same.  

Turns out there were pay stations INSIDE the parking lot.  You had to pay BEFORE you got into your car and tried to leave the station.  Duh (said facetiously).  After paying you insert your stamped ticket into the exit slot and the barrier lifts.   

I was glad the Italian lady was also surprised by the pay system -- it made me feel slightly less stupid (though only slightly).  

We were still full from lunch, skipped dinner and went straight home to bed.  We slept soundly (a little too soundly as we’d later learn).  

On the agenda for the next day?  Siena proper.  Stay tuned.  


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Van Gogh, Vampires and a Jesus Handle; Italy Day Five Continued

The A1 is a large highway and driving on it is much like driving in the states (except for the tolls).  The roads in Tuscany, however, are a different story.  These roads are curvy and one lane each way (sometimes only one lane period).  

Now there are a few ways one can drive on these roads.  The first is at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenery and enjoying the view.  The second is to treat the roads as if they were a video game and/or the autobahn.  

Guess which way Mama drives and which way Papa drives?  Papa was behind the wheel as we left the A1 on our way to Montepulciano (our first stop out of Rome).  Needless to say the Jesus Handle was put to good use.

Montepulciano is a medieval hill town known best for it’s wine.  Apparently it is also the place where some of the Twilight Saga was filmed (thanks Tracy for that little tidbit, and no, we didn't see any vampires -- sparkling or otherwise).  

We were using Montepulciano as a place between Rome and Radda in which to stretch our legs.  And if we partook in a little wine while stretching?  Well you know what they say -- when in Rome ... 

We took the first Montepulciano exit off the A1.  This exit, apparently, was not for the actual town but rather for a gas station.  Gas stations off the Autostrada are like pit stops; you pull over, fuel up and peel back onto the freeway.

We didn’t need gas so, after a few choice words, shot straight back through to the Autostrada.  The next exit led us to a pay booth; this was promising as it meant we were leaving the A1 (aka we were in the right place).  The tolling station took credit cards and was quite simple to use (a miracle in and of itself). 

Then we were set free in Tuscany.  We followed the blue directional signs (when going slow enough to see them) to Montepulciano.  

We parked outside the city walls in a pay-to-park area. It took some time to figure out the parking machine.  Turns out we needed coins which, thankfully, another tourist gave us in exchange for bills.  The machine may have taken credit cards but, for the life of us, we couldn’t figure out how to use them (this will be a theme -- stay tuned).  

Finally time to wander the streets.  We were foot weary and our wandering was accompanied by a litany of complaints -- tired, hungry, sore, bored (seriously, bored? I mean c'mon!).  If you can think of a complaint we heard and subsequently ignored it.  Have children.  Will march.  

It was just after noon and we decided to browse the shops before they closed (many shops close from 1 pm to 3 pm for lunch and siesta).  Restaurants, thankfully, stay open.

The town was full of artisans.  One artist that caught our eye was a man making mosaic reproductions of Van Gogh’s famous works (he doesn't seem to have a web page). Van Gogh is one of Little’s favorite artists (she studied him in school last year).  The mosaic pieces were prohibitively expensive, otherwise, we would have purchased one on the spot.   

As far as the kids were concerned lunch couldn’t come soon enough.  At 1:00 pm, on the nose, we sat down to eat at a lovely outdoor cafe. Two loud, boisterous and gabby Italian women sat a couple of tables away.  They were laughing and gesturing and waving their cigarettes about as if they were on display.  And indeed they were. I daresay even the waiter was pleased when they finally went on their merry way. 

The food was fresh and delicious; seafood linguine, crab linguine, ravioli with pistachios and pecorino cheese.  The children ate with nary a complaint.  Mama and Papa, of course, had a half liter of vino -- just enough to calm the nerves.  The meal was rounded off with two espressos -- drunk with a touch of sugar.  

And then time to explore some more.  We found a wine cellar advertising free tours.  Suddenly we were underneath the city -- deep and dark, musty and sweet, oak barrels stacked all around.  The cellar opened onto a tasting room.  

More vino?  Why yes!  Yes please.  Even the boy got to taste.  We left sated.

Our parking meter was running out (we'd paid for three hours).  Alas it was time to leave.  

From Montepulciano we followed the blue directional signs to Siena.  We were scheduled to be at the Siena train station early the next morning.  Our thought was to find the station to avoid early morning confusion.  But, as we pulled into Siena, we saw blue directional signs for Radda, our final destination.  Tired and worn we decided to skip the station and make our way home.  

We had reservations at the Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm.  

Following the Radda signs we found our way to the farm, checked in and promptly fell asleep (it was 7:00 pm).   

This wasn't the last time we'd end up skipping dinner.  The food here is filling and plentiful.  Believe you me we didn't go to bed hungry.   

The next morning we had an early wake up call (we had a train to catch) thus it was good to get a good night's sleep.  

Next on the dock?  A vintage steam train ride.  Stay tuned.  


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rome Day Five; Getting out of Dodge

Rome Day Five; Getting out of Dodge

Time to leave Rome.  The question was how?  We had car reservations from the Termini Train Station (which was about 1.5 miles, give or take, from our apartment).  Walking 1.5 miles with three children *and* luggage was less than appealing.  

We considered the buses.  Routes 40 and 64 would both get us there.  However, after some research, we decided this also may be a bad idea.  It seems these buses can be "the most expensive rides in town" (the expense due to heavy pick pocketing).  Three children and luggage would leave us exposed to those who might take advantage.  Therefore we decided to take taxis (plural).  

Most taxis in Rome only hold four people. Five people and luggage would be a tight fit indeed.  We could’ve called a larger taxi but I was told the meter starts when the taxi leaves it’s current location.  Therefore it made more sense to take two.  

We walked the couple of blocks to Piazza Navona where the taxis gathered.  Our car reservation was for 10:00 am and we arrived at the Piazza at 9:00 am.  Thus we decided to have a bit of breakfast and waste a bit of time. 

Up until this point we’d had breakfast standing at the bar.   Our breakfasts had been typically running 12 to 14 euros (five pastries, two cappuccinos and three other drinks).  On this day, however,  the children were whining and we chose to sit down.  Bad idea.   In comparison a sit down breakfast, containing essentially the same items, cost 35 euros.  Point taken.  Stand at the bar no matter how much the kids fuss.  

After our shocker of a breakfast we caught our rides.  Little and I took one taxi and Middle, the Boy and Mr. Peculiar took another taxi.  My ride was 10 euros, the Mister’s was 15 euros.  The difference, I think, was the luggage charge.  

At the train station we had to ask where the car rental booths were -- platform 24.  Our reservations were made through Auto Europe.  Therefore we stood in line at Auto Europa.  We questioned whether we were in the right place.  Then I compared logos -- the one on the paperwork to the one on the Auto Europa sign.  They matched.  We had to to be in the right place.  Not.  

Turn out that, yes, we’d made our reservations Auto Europe but our pick up location was through EuropCar (which was clearly stated on the paperwork if we had read a little further).  Alas another line and another lesson learned (read your paperwork dummy).  

Now another line normally wouldn’t be an issue (we were getting used to waiting).  However our taxi driver had mentioned that a big protest was planned at 11:00 am, that very day, at the train station.  Romans from near and far were to gather to revolt against austerity.  If this were to occur we could very well be stuck in Rome.  I was hoping the protestors would be on Roman time and show up at say -- twelve o'clock or even one.  At any rate I didn't want to stick around and find out.  

Finally we got to the front of the rental line.  We had our passports and international driver’s licenses at the ready.  The paperwork went quickly.  Then another chink in the armor.  Our car was to be driven around; the driver would meet us outside.  

Hmmm.  I had very specific directions on how to get out of Rome; how to get out of Rome from the parking garage.  Not how to get out of Rome from the front of the station.  Eeek.  

And then our car came.  I had rented a Volkwagen Toureg (or equivalent).  We got the equivalent -- a 3008 Peugeot.  The Mister nearly had a meltdown.  Our Peugot, in his mind, was NOT equivalent.  Our luggage, though relatively small, barely fit (though, with some creative squishing, it did).  

I felt we should take what we could get and get the hell out of dodge before the protests started.  After all the five of us and our luggage were safely stowed in the car.  The Mister wanted to march back in to the rental place and complain.  

After some stomping and choice words, he agreed to let it go.  We had to find reverse (this was a stick shift, as were most rentals in our price range).  We also had to figure out the parking brake --which turned out to be a funny button in front of the stick.  

Now on to the streets of Rome.  My directions starting from the front of the garage turned out to be useless.  We did not pay additional for a GPS unit.  Therefore we decided to wing it (loosely based on the directions I had).  

We drove down one street, turned in front of the station, turned right again and skirted around the station, right again behind the station, then left, left again, right, left, left, under a train track and miraculously (by the hair of our chinny chin chin) we were on the road that lead to the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA).     

The GRA is a main highway that circles around Rome.  Off this circle are the exits for the Autostrada that lead to where ever one might want to go.  

But first one must get on the GRA by following the green directional signs.  We missed such a sign and had to turn around.  At this point the Mister, already frustrated, decided to do as the Romans do.  He swung a u-turn, cut a few people off, made some outlandish gestures and let out a few obscenities.  Truth-be-told he was rather enjoying himself.  Rome allowed him to drive the way he’d always wanted. 

Me?  I was just trying to keep my underwear clean.  

Our second time around we found the GRA.  The next question was where to find the A1 -- the Autostrada that led us out of town.  For all the research I did I had no idea if the A1 was on this side of the GRA or on the complete opposite end of town.  Plus there was traffic.  Oi!

Serendipitously the A1 showed up shortly thereafter and, despite all, we were on our way to Tuscany ... 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rome Day Four; Religion, Art, a Nap and Viagra

Rome day four:

This was our day to visit the Vatican.  You shouldn't visit Rome without visiting both Saint Peter’s Basilica and The Vatican Museums.  

Now these are popular places to visit and and the lines can be outrageous.  I recommend you have reservations and/or go very early.

The Basilica opens at 7:00 am and the entrance is free.  Thus we were up and out before sunrise once again; walking and in desperate need of caffeine.  

The walk from our apartment took about 20 minutes.  As I said before, I highly recommend walking around in the early morning.  

We found an open Bar (aka coffee shop) and ordered two cappuccinos, five pastries and three sodas (yes -- soda and pastry for breakfast -- healthy I know).  The total bill was 12 Euros -- quite a deal.  And a deal only for those who order and stand at the bar (as we found out the hard way the next day).  

Then on to the Basilica.  That early in the morning we were able to walk quickly through security and head on in the the Basilica.  The square was closed off as the Vatican was preparing for an event.  Thus we had to follow barriers to enter the church.  The barriers weren't problem as we were arriving.  Now leaving?  That was a different matter.  

The church is simply amazing.  We chose to tour it ourselves and likely missed out on quite a bit of the history of the building and art.  We felt the kids may not have the patience to take a guided tour.  In lieu of a tour we should have brought a guidebook.  Alas we didn't have the foresight to bring one.  Even without the historial minutia the Basilica is well worth visiting.  

As we were leaving we found that the exit was closed.  Instead we were re-routed back the way we came.  We walked all the way back to security where we were promptly yelled at and told to go back the other way.  We back to the church and asked how to get out.  Once again we were sent back the way we came.  At this point we were incredibly frustrated. I mean how hard is it to find an exit?  Uscita.  Exit.  We get it.  Just let us out!  

Finally we said “f*ck it” and decided to detour through a barrier which would then get us out into the open part of the main square.  We are talking 25 feet over open cobblestone.  Hardly suspicious activity.  

The Vatican Police, however, disagreed and whistled and gestured in no uncertain terms.  Not wanting to be arrested in the world's smallest country we promptly high-tailed it back to the visitor zone.  I was beginning to think we were being kidnapped by the Pope.  Perhaps he needed hapless Americans for a sacrifice.  

After much confusion the police opened a portion of the barrier to let people leave. For all their security you'd think they'd have an exit plan.  
At any rate we were set free and went back to the apartment to regroup.  I wanted to walk to a viewpoint but people were complaining about tired sore feet (and no wonder as Little later lost a toe nail).  I almost went alone leaving the rest of the troops at home.  However, at the last minute, they decided to go with.  I’m glad they did as they would’ve missed out.  

By this time we were hungry again and decided to have a second breakfast.  We found another fabulous coffee shop off a side street.   This coffee shop had a couple of things going for it.  First off they had a puppy for sale -- a beautiful yellow labrador that was allowed to wander around the shop at will.  And no.  We are not coming home with an Italian puppy (though the kids did beg).  

Second this coffee shop had prosciutto and cheese panninis for 2.50 Euros.  Another stupendous deal.  Of course we had two additional cappuccinos as well.  

Energy restored we made it to the viewpoint at Quirinal Piazza.  The view turned out to be disappointing.  However there was a museum on the corner advertising a Vermeer exhibit.  On a whim we decided to go.  The museum did not have “The Girl with the Pearl Earring" but the art was, nonetheless,  well worth seeing.  

And then, upon exiting the exhibit, the view.  Oh the view!  Floor to ceiling windows with a panoramic view of the city.  That was what I was looking for.     

Finally it was home for a well deserved nap.  The older kids and Papa fell immediately asleep.  Little took a shower until the hot water ran out (and never returned).  Then Little and I snuck out for some private girl (aka gelato) time.  

After returning to the apartment Little also fell asleep. The timing wasn’t great as we had night tickets to the Vatican Museums -- our reservations at 7:00 pm.  The whole family was somewhat crabby and not thrilled with me for a) waking them up and b) taking them on another forced march.  
I’d not been to the Vatican Museums and thought they were just around the corner from the Vatican.  No. They were around the corner and another and another.  In other words the walk was MUCH longer than I had anticipated.  After you saying "just five more minutes" repeatedly I began to lose credibility. And for good reason.    

When we finally arrived at the museum there was a looooong line.  Now I’d read the guidebooks and understood that this line was full of people with reservations and would move quickly.  Try convincing tired grouchy people of said fact after your credibility has taken a hit.  Not an easy task.  The moaning and groaning was heard all the way over at the Colosseum.   

Once we got inside most of the grumbling disappeared.  How can one not be mesmerized by the floor to ceiling art?  We decided not to push our luck by doing too much (there are multiple museums to visit) and headed straight for the Sistine Chapel.  

We sat on benches around the perimeter and starred up at the ceiling.  The kids, had all, in one form or another, seen the depiction of Michelangelo's “The Creation of Adam.”  But, until this trip, had never known where it came from.  So, yes, they did learn something while out of school.  

We finished our tour around 8:30 pm, and again knowing not to push things with tired kids, we took a taxi home.  Taxis in Rome don’t fit five people -- four at the most.  The first two taxi drivers refused to take all of us.  The third let us squish though he did take us to the far side of the piazza thus increasing his fare.  At this point in our trip it was well worth it.  

We ate dinner at a great pizza place just outside of the Piazza Navona, stopped for more gelato*, and called it a night.  

And that ended our time in Rome.  

The next installment?  

Renting a car and getting the hell out of dodge (aka driving in the big city complete with cutting people off, gesturing and obscenities).  

*** *** ***

*Gelato comes in many flavors.  The most exotic?  Viagra.  And I am dead serious.  Tell me -- who orders that?  


Friday, October 19, 2012

Rome Day Three; Eating and Walking, Walking and Eating

Rome Day Three

On the third day we slept in a bit longer.  It seems we were finally getting used to the time change.  

Our plan for the day was to see the Colosseum and then walk around the Trastavere.  

Only there was one little problem -- our dogs were barking.  It seems our delicate feet were not accustomed to so much walking.  Nonetheless we forged ahead.  

On the way to the Colosseum we passed the Campo di Fiori and an outdoor market.  We’d promised the kids pastries and the adults coffee.  But the restaurants in the market seemed to touristy and the vendors were selling mostly fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers.  

The kids were none too pleased when we left the Campo empty-handed.  Little did they know they had a treat in store.  

We weaved our way down one road and another.  Finally we happened upon Forno RoscioliOh my!  My son order a mini pizza with thinly sliced potatoes, rosemary, olive oil and sea salt.  Bellisima! (said emphatically while gesturing with hands).  And my daughters?  More of those fabulous doughnuts.  

There was a bar across the street where mom and dad got their initial dose of caffeine.  

Tummies sated we continued on our way.  Mama got us a touch off track veering slightly to the right when we should have gone left.  But not too worry.  The error was quickly corrected.  

And what can I say about the Colosseum?  One can’t visit Rome without seeing it.  It is, after all, one of the most famous structures in the world.  Having said that I’m not sure it’s worth going inside (I've not been so can not say).  The lines are long.  The place is full of people trying to sell tschotckes from plastic pigs to pictures taken with a gladiator.  

We chose not to wait in line.  This left us with money to spend somewhere else.  And with five sets of aching feet we chose a bus ride; a bus with an open top second story.  Geeky?  Yes.  Touristy?  Yes.  Blissful?  Absolutely!  

We boarded at the Colosseum and, as tired as we were, elected to ride one full loop before exiting.  The loop took, oh, I don’t know, an hour or so.  

At lunch we got off at the Jewish Ghetto and ate at Da Giggetto Hostaria.  We had fried zuchinni flowers with anchoive.  Mmmm, mmmm!  

The Boy tried to order a coke.  The waiter repeated back to him “caprese?”  “Si,” the boy replied.  Then Middle chimed in, “due caprese, per favore.”    Needless to say they ended up with two caprese salads rather than the coke they were asking for.  The salads were delicious and they eventually got their cokes.  

After lunch we walked over to Tiberina Island for gelato.  I don’t what it is about pistacchio gelato but I just can’t seem to get enough of it.  Fragola (strawberry) carries a close second.  

Then we hopped back on the bus in search of the Capuchin Crypt Museum.  What is this?  Well the Capuchins are an order of monks who decorated their crypts with bones of their predecessors.   Actual bones; there are six rooms full of femurs, pelvises and skulls.  It was amazing and creepy and cool.  

The last room contained this quote: 

What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.


We weren’t allowed to photograph the crypts so I had to settle for photos of postcards purchased after our tour.  

Our minds full of the macabre we popped across the street for espresso, free Wi-Fi and a bathroom break.  

Then back on our feet.  We walked all the way to Piazza Popolo via the Spanish Steps (i.e. we walked a looong way.) Then we made our way down Via del Corso peering in shops all the way. 

We stopped at a grocery store for snacks and took the kids home.  Mr. Peculiar and I ventured back out for a quick glass of vino.  On the way home we shared a paper cone of roasted chestnuts.  The perfect ending to the day.  

Our final day in Rome centered around religion, art and a taxi ride.  Stay tuned.  


Rome Day Two; Walking and Phones and Luggage Found

Rome Day Two:

2:00 am -- I woke up and had trouble going back to sleep.  Ah jet lag and the time change!  I thought working nights and an irregular sleep schedule might exempt me from this particular aspect of travel.  Alas not.  

At 5:00 am, when the girls barged into our room, I gave up the ghost. Time to get up.  

We still didn’t have our bags and I only had the clothes on my back (which I'd also slept in).  Had I been smart I would’ve packed at least one outfit in my carry on.  But I wanted space for the really important stuff (camera, phone, computer and books).  My girls, with other priorities, did bring extra clothes.  Smart cookies.  

I showered using bathroom soap as shampoo.  There was a blow dryer in the apartment and we had a hairbrush.  Thus I was able to feel a bit fresher if not totally clean.  My undies went on inside out and I put my clothes back on.  

The boys also got up and the family ventured out.  By this time it was 6:00 am.  It was still dark. But again, the streets were well lit.  The lighting here is hard to describe.  It's not the harsh street lamp you'd find back home.  The lighting here is more artistic; highlighting the shops and buildings.  Something akin to uplighting.  

I highly highly recommend an early morning walk through Rome.  We were the only tourists out (and if you’ve ever visited you’ll know this is rare).  The only other people on the streets were those going to work.  

We wandered by a fabulous bakery near the Pantheon and got, as Middle put it, “the best doughnut I’ve ever had!”  Then we hit the Bar for “due cappuccino per favore.”  Two cappuccinos please, or, as my iphone translator tells me, two white coffees.  

Want to mark yourself as a tourist?  Order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Coffees with milk are only acceptable before 10:00 am.  After that straight espresso is the drink of choice.  Most coffees are ordered at the bar and drunk standing up.  Each cappuccino is a mere 1,20 euros (~ $1.50).  The best deal ever.  And, as Mr. Peculiar pointed out, they still don’t have coffee right in the states; espresso here is simply perfetto!

We were the only people at the Pantheon Piazza.  I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful it is to see these sights minus the crowds.  The Pantheon, itself, was of course closed.  But the building exterior is just as remarkable as the interior.  

After the Pantheon we wandered down to the Jewish Ghetto.  Then we crossed the Tiber River to the Trastavere.  The Trastavere is a fabulous neighborhood.  The residents are typically young, poor and hip.  It was my neighborhood of choice when looking for a place to stay.  Alas we couldn’t find a reservation there this time around.  The last time we were in Rome we stayed at the Maria Rosa Guesthouse.  

From the Trastavere we made our way upriver towards the Vatican.  We stopped and admired the statues on Ponte Sant’ Angelo (a pedestrian bridge covered with statues of Angels).  I couldn’t help but to whisper “Don’t blink.  Don’t turn your back.  Don’t look away).  Those of you who are Doctor Who fans will know just what I’m talking about.  

Our apartment is just down the street from Ponte Sant’ Angelo.  By this time it was 9:00 am and we decided to head home.  

The kids napped and Mr. Peculiar and I went to the laundry mat to call the airport.  After all we still needed to find our luggage.  The airport reported that our bags had arrived and we would be called when it was time for them to be delivered.  

This presented a bit of a problem.  We did not have a working phone.  At the airport I left the apartment manager’s number not knowing what else to do.  After our check-in fiasco this didn’t seem the best game plan.  

We decided to buy a cheap phone and prepaid sim card* -- which we did.  After the phone was purchased we found it would take twelve hours to activate.  Not quite what we were hoping for.  

Ah well.  What were we going to do?  We went back to the apartment to check on the kids.  Mr. Peculiar fell asleep and I stayed up reading.  Suddenly there was a loud buzzing noise in the apartment; the door bell.  

I answered and finally met Honey -- the apartment manager.  We took care of paperwork and the financials.  The airport had called him; our bags were to be delivered between 4:00 and 5:00 pm.  Honey told us he would meet the courier here and bring the bags in.  I think he was feeling guilty for the night before and was doing his best to make reparations.  

I must admit I appreciated the effort.  And watching him work and the effort he made on day two very much made up for transgressions on day one.  He got three phone calls all with different arrival times for our baggage.  He came to our apartment four times.  Not lazy behavior by a long stretch.  

Our bags taken care of we went to lunch, checked out the inside of the Pantheon, meandered by the Trevi Fountain and returned for a second nap.  We were tired.  After that we went to a late dinner.  

All our meals have been eaten outdoors.  The weather has been gorgeous -- upper sixties to low seventies during the day and mid-fifties at night.  And October to boot!  Apparently it rained the day before we arrived.  We've not needed our rain coats once.  

There is nothing like sitting at an outdoor table on a cobblestone street and having scooters zoom past. And when cars drive by?  Tight and scary.  It’s amazing no one has been knocked over.  

That’s the thing about Rome.  Cars, people and cafes all share the same space.  Pedestrians most definitely do NOT have the right of way.  Some of the main streets have lights that allow one to cross with relative ease.  Otherwise it is everyone for him or herself.  To cross you eventually have to step out into traffic and go for it.  

When crossing I grab Little’s hand and when feeling just brave enough (or stupid enough) we sprint; me running and her dragging along behind. Knock on wood we’ve yet to be hit.  

Another note about walking.  It could be easy to get lost in Rome -- there are a lot of alleys and small streets, twists and turns.  I’ve been here once before and also have an innate sense of direction. Thus we haven’t gotten lost (well not much).  But the boys were just at Piazza Navona (which is a couple of blocks from our apartment).  I had to walk them there and meet them later to walk them home.  They weren't sure of which way to go.  

If you are good with directions then wing it.  If not I suggest a map. 

Map or not Rome is best seen on foot.  Renting a car in Rome proper is simply a bad idea.  Driving is insane, roads are permit only and parking is challenging at best.  You will be much better off on foot and/or using public transportation.  

But if you do go on foot be prepared for tired feet.  But that's a story for day three ... 

*** *** ***

*A note on phone usage.  We elected to bring our phones but weren’t planning on using them as we wanted to avoid high roaming fees.  To do this we were going to leave them in airplane mode and then simply use wifi when available (go to settings --> Wi-Fi and turn it on).  

This is all well and good until you need to use the phone.  Unless you sign up for international roaming (at least through AT&T) you will have no service (though you could Skype via Wi-Fi).  

My suggestion is to bring an old and/or jail broken phone and buy a local prepaid sim card.  

I’ve carried my iphone with me all over town.  The truth is I’m addicted to iphonography and have used my phone camera nearly as much (if not more) than my Nikon d7000.  There are many cafes with free Wi-Fi (with purchase of course).  It’s fabulous to stop for an espresso and/or gelato and upload photos.   

And now it's time to hit the streets once again.  


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day One; Getting to Rome Continued (aka Persistence and Patience Pay Off)

The Church next to our restaurant as seen on Day One

Day one continued: 

You may recall us at the airport, our luggage AWOL and us without a ride to our rented apartment.*

We dragged our poor sleeping children from their cardboard beds and hauled them outside.  Our thought to find a bus to town.  Right outside the airport door stood a man; a man with a sign that said, simply, “Abraham.”  

Hallelujah!  We blissfully, blessedly had a ride!  George was there despite our lack of communication, despite our late flight and despite our lost baggage. I could’ve kissed him. 

The drive from the airport took about an hour -- not so much because of distance but rather due to traffic.  The kids, of course, slept the entire time. George dropped us off on our street (which was really a cobblestone alley) and told us, in very broken English, the key holder would arrive shortly.  

We sat on the stoop and waited.  And waited.  And waited (do you sense a theme?).  Finally a sweet, sweet African-Italian woman, who spoke no English, took pity on us and let us in the vestibule - for the bambini.  You see we were renting an apartment in a complex that housed Romans.  As in the real thing.  As in people who actually lived in Rome.  

The bambini, grateful for the vestibule, proceeded to sleep on the marble floor.  We adults waited and waited and waited some more.  The sweet woman returned and helped us to call the key holder.  We were told he was on his way-- pronto.  

In the meantime, I, as the trip planner (aka travel agent extraordinaire), was taking the flack.  I tried to explain to Mr. Peculiar that “Rome time” and “time time” were loosely correlated.  Mr. Peculiar did not buy this type of logic. Rather he was sure, quite certain in fact, that we’d been swindled. He suggested we bag the whole thing and find a hotel -- pronto.  

I wondered, if we were being swindled, why we were dropped right in front of the apartment by our driver.  A driver, I might add, who was also scheduled through Rome Loft.  I also wondered why the swindlers kept answering the phone.  Mr. Peculiar and I made a bet.  Let me just tell you  -- I won.  Though it took some time to prove myself.  

But really, what was the hurry?  Our cartilaginous children were contentedly asleep on the floor.  The weather was nice -- upper sixties and sunny.  There was plenty of activity in the alley to keep us entertained. 

Mr. Peculiar wasn't quite so content.  Across the alley was a laundry mat/internet store.  The Mister was able to pay to use their phone to call our contact. We were told, again, that he was on the way.

Finally, three hours after arriving at the apartment, a very sweet, very sincere Pakistani man showed up with the key.  He typically did not drop off the key but explained that the key holder, Honey (a man by the way) had been in a scooter accident.  This lovely Pakistani man let us in and told us that someone would be by shortly to fill out the paperwork.  

We waited another 45 minutes and decided enough was enough.  Officially checked in or not we were going to dinner.   

Our original dinner plan, before arriving in Rome,  was to eat at only places who a) did not recruit customers and b) did not translate their menu for foreigners.  We broke both rules the first time out.  We wandered into the night and found a restaurant with kitchy checkered table clothes, full recruitment and translation.  Despite all, or perhaps because of it, the food was delicious.  

And despite the late hour and our extreme fatigue we felt safe. Not for a moment did I worry about my children in the city at night.  It’s well lit, people are everywhere and one doesn’t worry walking about; not even really about pickpocketing (assuming one takes the most basic of precautions.  And by this I don't mean wearing your backpack on your front or bringing a God awful fanny pack or, God forbid, wearing a money belt.  I simply mean keep your wallet in a zipped purse if you are a woman and in a front pocket if you are a man.  Be mildly cognizant of your surroundings. And then get on with your life, trust people and enjoy yourself. Honestly.) 

After dinner we came home and crashed hard.  Simply put we were exhausted and could not stay awake one minute longer.  After one very long day we were finally settling in Rome.  

*** *** ***

*With five it is difficult and expensive to stay in hotels.  Instead we stayed at the Navona House rented via  It’s got two rooms, a pull out couch, a simple kitchen and a bathroom.  It’s not perfect -- the drain in the tub clogs, we found a lizard in the bedroom (who knew there were lizards in Rome) and, of course, there were the troubles checking in.  Despite all this it was/is perfect for us -- near main attractions and yet just far enough off the beaten path.  And, besides, when in a foreign country who spends that much time at their hotel anyway?  Not us.  That's for sure.  

Next up?  Day two.  


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Day One: Getting There; Bend, Oregon to Rome, Italy

Day One:  Getting there; 
Bend, Oregon to Rome, Italy.  Three kids in tow.  

We flew out of Portland, Or; approximately 3 1/2 hours from our house.  We could’ve flown from our local airport but this would have added $1000.00 to our tickets.  Thus we elected to make the drive.  Even with a hotel, gas and long-term parking we came out ahead.  

We drove over the night before and stayed in an inexpensive hotel (aka Comfort Suites via Hotwire).  The thought being we’d break up the travel for the kids (ages 16, 12 and 8). 

Our flight was scheduled to depart at 1:30 pm.  We arrived three hours early as suggested for international travel. By 11:30 am we’d checked in and passed through security. With time to kill we got coffee, wandered around, took advantage of the free wifi and generally became antsy. 

Of course our flight boarded late; 45 minutes late.  With a 1 hour 10 minute layover in Amsterdam this was not good news.  Had I known how big the Amsterdam airport was I would’ve questioned the time between connecting flights.  

"When you know better you do better." ~ Maya Angelou.

The first ten hours of our flight, from Portland to Amsterdam, were spent reading, napping, snacking and watching movies.  Each seat had a small tv screen and a wide selection of movies, games and tv shows.  The kids handled this portion of the flight well as they were entertained in a manner to which they were accustomed.  Things didn't go so well once we arrived in Amsterdam.  

First off we arrived late; pulling up to the gate with forty minutes to catch our connecting flight.  Keep in mind this was 1:00 am Oregon time.  My kids are used to staying up late but staying up late and functioning?  Good luck.

We got off the plane, passed through security and ran from Terminal E to Terminal D in record time.  During all this Middle daughter had to pee. She was less than pleased when we passed up the bathrooms and did not hesitate to voice her opinion.  

We arrived at the gate red faced and in need of albuterol (good thing it was in my carry on).   Our connecting flight was still at the gate.  Phew! 

Only we were not allowed to board.  Why?  Because our bags would not make the plane.  Yes.  Our bags.  And more befuddling, besides us five, there were seven other people in the same boat; flying from Portland to Rome.  Nary a one of us made the flight and KLM was absolutely unwilling to hold the plane.  

The good news is we finally let Middle use the bathroom.  Her eyeballs went from neon yellow to a sleep-deprived red.  Then we marched three exhausted children back through the airport to T2 -- central rebooking.  Then we waited and waited and waited.  And then we waited some more.  

"... waiting for a train to go, or a bus to come, or a plane to go, or the mail to come or the rain to go, or the phone to ring or the snow to snow, or waiting around for a Yes or a No, or waiting for their hair to grow.  Everyone is just waiting." ~ Dr. Seuss

Finally we rebooked a flight.  All was to be fine.  Fine indeed.  

Originally we scheduled a car to pick us up from the airport.  We were willing to pay extra for this service as we knew we'd be arriving with three harried children.  

When we went to call the driver and tell him of our delay we found our phone had no service.  Spectacular.  

We used a pay phone to make the call (I'm looking forward to that bill).  Unfortunately we were woefully unable to communicate with Gianni, our driver.  It seems he doesn’t speak English and we don't speak Italian (so much for those grammatically correct emails we’d exchanged).  

After our communication debacle we agreed we probably didn’t have a ride from the airport and would have to come up with plan B.  Plan B, plan B.  What was Plan B?

The kids were exhausted and fussy and poking at one another.  Tears were shed.  Angry words were spoken. Mom and Dad thought about scratching the whole trip and returning home and/or abandoning said children at the airport. They also considered visiting Amsterdam's famed Coffee Shops.  

Finally we boarded the plane to Rome (no contraband in tow).  

We did not have seats together.  I sat across the aisle from Little.  She spent the entire flight sleeping on a stranger’s shoulder.  I am ever so grateful to the stranger for allowing her to do so.   

The kids were impossibly difficult to roust once we landed.  Oh they were tired!  We dragged them though the airport and went to gather our bags.  

You know what's coming next don't you?  

Of course our bags weren’t there.  It's amazing they let us on the plane

And the other people coming from Portland?  Did they get their bags?  Why no.  No they did not. All our bags remained in Amsterdam*.  

My children, I have come to realize, would take to homelessness quite well.  As we were sorting out the baggage fiasco the children slept (and quite soundly I might add) on a cardboard box.  This sleeping arrangement portending our day to come ... 

... to be continued. 

*as I type this I am sitting in our apartment in Rome a full 24 hours after our arrival here.  Mr. Peculiar sleeps soundly in a chair.  The children have gone off to the sweet shop around the corner; gelato on their minds  Our bags have just arrived.  I am still in the clothes I had on three days ago.  Perhaps I'll change tomorrow.  

Ah the traveling life!