Sunday, September 30, 2007

Amazing Amsterdam

For the record: Amsterdam is expensive, plus the dollar hit an all time low vs. the Euro yesterday according to the TV, (that will teach me not to watch TV while on vacation), but worth every penny or guilder or Euro.

The sky actually cleared, and we made our connections like we knew what we were doing. Into the Central Station, then we took the local bus (electric down the middle of the streets which takes some getting used to) right to the Rijksmuseum. Are we good or what?

The masterpiece draw of course is Rembrandt's Night Watch. A tour guide was giving a talk, so we listened in and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of those paintings that you have to see to believe. Our immediate reaction was "Wow, that's big", but spending a half hour with it we left with "Wow, that's fantastic".

We were able to see 3 of the 4 Vermeer’s owned by this museum and they are so perfect and colorful, no reproduction I have seen even comes close to doing them justice. (A small aside: the 4th was visiting in Tokyo and we were disappointed. Vermeer is our favorite and seeing more of his paintings was the nexus of this side trip to the Netherlands. With only 35 paintings of his for the whole world to appreciate, (that excludes "The Concert" stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston in 1990) it was unfortunate that we didn't connect. 3 in Amsterdam, 3 in Den Haag, 6 out of 7 is not bad.) This link is the best Vermeer site I have found.)

Across an open park/square right behind us was the Van Gogh museum. Could they make this any easier? We ate our first meal of the day, a nice quiche for me, sandwich for Kat in a bright café, sun pouring into the windows.

In the Van Gogh, the paintings are organized chronologically, and walking along you find yourself on an interesting journey from one style to another and slowly into madness. The paintings sparkle in the light. The textures, particularly in his later works are intriguing. Presented another way, you might not notice the evolution. Not being a big Van Gogh enthusiast I didn't linger except on some of his better known works. (Not to take anything away from the guy, I'm sure he was talented, but reading as we went through, it appeared he became famous mostly through a lot of promotion by his sister-in-law. Probably unfair.)

Kat went through the drawings on the upper floor and was very impressed, apparently the boy did have talent. I opted to sit in the sun across from the entrance/exit have a cigar, and contemplate what I had seen in the past 4 hours.

The opportunity to see Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters" drew me into the building. I first saw a picture of it in one of those Time-Life art series books I bought for the kids when they were very young (about 25 years ago). I knew I wanted to stand in front of this painting. There is something about the dark, honest, strong, earthy family portrait that caught my interest and holds it today. All art is personal.

Three masters, three styles, all from this small remarkable country. Was it something in the air or the water? Seeing those 5 paintings made my trip to Amsterdam complete. (Almost)

We walked through the Leidesplein, past some outdoor chess players, and a girls gymnastic group displaying it's trampoline skills (dry synchronized swimming, per Kat), on our way to our real target. The Rookies is a famous café that sells cannabis, has a hotel, serves drinks, etc. where you can sit outside have a drink and a toke and be happy. It was quite an experience. A tubed “Northern Lights” cost €8.0 and awaits. I have to admit I was quite nervous, even though it was legal, I felt like I was doing something wrong, so it was kind of exciting as well. I didn’t tip the guy and still wonder if I should have.

Walking through this architecturaly beautiful city on a sunny day lifts your spirits. There was one house that I would have like to have stopped at to ask if I could just go to their top floor for the view. From street level I could only imagine how spectcular it must look from their balcony. Our next stop was what we feared would be one of the world's biggest tourist traps; the Anne Frank house, and we could not have been more wrong. Sure there are tourists, but it contained one of the most poignant scenes I have ever come across, the bedroom where the 14 year old glued postcards and pictures and magazine/newspaper clippings to her wall paper. A must see, that has an effect I didn’t expect.

Desiring a place of solitude after that experience we headed to the Begijnhof church courtyard. This quiet oasis in this loud bustling city is such a surprise. Behind the large wooden doors is a community green surrounded by very expensive (I imagine) three and four story residences. Formally dressed congregants were just arriving for an English Reformed Church service and we could hear singing and organ music. Interestingly across the courtyard is a Catholic church that was allowed to remain, as long as it was kept secret. (For more information see the Wikipedia article.)

After a flavorful dinner at a Mexican restaurant (where I forgot my Newport Vineyards hat) we headed back toward Central Station, passing again through the packed red light district. We read that it is unwise to take photographs there, so the only one I got surreptitiously without a flash, looks like modern art.

By 10:00 we were beat and ended this very full and emotional day by making beautifully choreographed train and bus connections to Hoopdorff. Tomorrow we hope to explore Den Haag and see "The Girl".

(Well in fact that was not the end of the day for me, because I still had my little “Rookies” rocket left and it was (figuratively) burning a hole in my pocket. I decided to indulge in a little of the local culture, so I carefully (no smoking hotel – bathroom did have a pretty good exhaust fan though) imbibed in what I can only describe as a delicious post-dinner delight. After almost 30 years, it was better than I remember, plus legal, and it ensured a very peaceful night’s sleep, with absolutely no hangover or post indulgence effect that I could discern. Plus the very good news was that at least 2/3 of my €8 investment remained safe in the blue plastic bank. Oh goodie.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Paris to Amsterdam

We begin the second part of our trip with mixed emotions. We love Edward and Alicia. They are very nice people (and I’m not just saying that) and we will miss their company, and laughs, and the good natured ribbing. Having said that, we are “free, free, free at last”.

As predicted last night we ate breakfast alone, then jumped into the car to head north. We hope they had a good, and safe trip back to Rhode Island with a lot of good memories to keep them company.

After a scenic trip through parts of Roissy, going the wrong way, we spotted a sign for the A road to Lille, and motored on. It was rainy and foggy, but no problem driving as we headed north, with more traffic than I had expected. It is bucolic in this part of France, with never ending pastures and farmland. We went through the old Belgique border crossing guard station, which was empty and decrepit. In the past we have had our passports stamped when passing through the EU borders, but no more. The old glass and concrete building looks like it belongs in Berlin, next to where the wall was.

We were able to take a wrong turn because the Benelux map we bought along the way was missing the little border piece with France. Figures. It was a kind of crucial bit of information that we were lacking and we headed to Brussels instead of Ghent, and spent ½ hour backtracking through small towns, which were an absolute delight.

As we approached Amsterdam and were making our last major road connection, we noticed the traffic in front of us, on this long ramp, slowing then stopping. A tractor trailer truck had jackknifed on the curve of the ramp totally blocking it. It must have happened moments before we got there. We were about 35 meters from it. What to do?

After about 10 minutes with traffic really backing up behind us, people realized I’m sure, that it was going to be a significant amount of time before this truck was cleared. The second car in front of us pulled up a little and started BACKING down the off ramp from the major road we were trying to get to. (The risk, of course was that people flying along that road wanting to take that exit ramp ONTO the road we were getting off would slam into the back of our car.) With nerves of steel, and pants of wet, we took our turn, and ended up going the right direction on the road we wanted, all without negotiating the cloverleaf. Pretty slick. It would have been a perfect maneuver had not the wuss in back of us been blowing his horn all the time, apparently afraid I was going to back into the front of his Volvo. We were on our way again, feeling rather proud of ourselves. Kat navigated us beautifully to the hotel.

For the next few nights only ONE hotel. (The Marriott Courtyard - Still using points collected while I was working. We have found the airport Courtyards in the major cities to be a great deal when using points. Typically 20,000 points for rooms worth about $350 per night). We learned the best way into Amsterdam was to take the bus across the street to the airport (Schiphol) then the train to Centraal Station. Sounded easy and it was. The airport is modern, clean, and pulses with energy. Each train stop is designed with flair.

The first few moments in a strange place are exhilarating. The senses are bombarded with new and different stimuli: sights, sounds, and smells that don't have a basis in memory heighten your awareness. Amsterdam is very different from southern Europe, and the first moments as you emerge from the train station you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

We walked and walked, and asked and asked, and basically went round in circles, every canal and bridge looked like every other canal and bridge. Our target was the Anne Frank house and we arrived at 6:20pm. Since it closes at 7:00, we thought we were golden. Not quite. You can’t get into line if the line can’t get in by 6:30, (they seem to have a lot of rules for such a small country) so off we went to find food, our favorite comfort activity.

Walking past these canal side homes, you appreciate what an interesting city this is. Following a delicious Thai dinner we walked through an early evening drizzle (cold drizzle by the way) around the red light district, (drizzle, cold or otherwise was no deterent, it was packed) then back to Centraal Station to take the train to the bus to the hotel.

Upon my return to the train platform from the WC, I found Kat engaged in conversation with an American couple. He was on a business trip, she had traveled to meet him for the weekend. We chatted with them, said goodbye and headed to our train to Schiphol. Just as we expected to feel the lurch signaling departure an announcement was made that the train to the airport had been cancelled: a fire in one of the tunnels.

Back to the platform we went where we found Helen and Nick (our new best friends –should have guessed Greek), paying rapt attention to the same announcement with the same silly look on their faces that we no doubt sported. They were trying to get to the airport as well. The four of us, now joined by about 50 others, herded our way to the information booth searching out an alternative. We brainstormed (retired but sometimes I backslide): bus, dreaded taxi, car rental, etc. but ultimately decided to do what the rest of the cattle were doing.

There was a train heading to Leiden (wherever that was) from which we could get to Schiphol. I wasn't really surprised as I'm sure in a small country you could get to Schiphol from everywhere. Nick was kinda celebrating having recently been promoted to Vice President of his $5 billion a year electronics company (a Raytheon supplier). Now we were bosom buddies, and there was something about them both that was appealing. They seemed like down to earth people on an adventure. (I later learned that the announcement wasn’t yet official, however it was going to happen, and not to worry about getting back to the hotel, as he had a new expense account he was trying to break in with his new position, and he would pay for any taxi, limo, or private helicopter we needed to get us back to the hotel).

They were Greek Orthodox, and Eleni (Helen) kept referring to non-Greeks as xenos (just like in Our Big Fat Greek Wedding with Gus). They were funny and we had a lot of laughs on our little train ride, thrown together by misfortune and coming out ahead. Travel is great.

Arriving in Leiden, we found the connecting train to Schiphol, and along the way learned that they were staying at the same Marriott we were. What are the chances. We chatted about kids, grandkids, etc., life in general, what it was like to be retired. We finally got to the airport and learned (when Nick called the hotel on his cell phone - everyone has one but us) that we missed the last shuttle and they were not going to send another.

Kat and I were familiar with the bus routine at this point, so we all headed across the parking lot to try to find the #300 bus that would go through Hoofddorp (which is where the hotel was located).

While waiting for the (a, any) bus we noticed a couple of young people (boy and girl, about 20) who were smoking what appeared to be (to our untrained noses) cannabis. We asked if they knew where our bus would load, and they remarked that they were taking the same bus, and suggested we wait there with them.

We (Nick and I were nothing if not astute and curious) made a polite comment about what they might be inhaling. Kat and Eleni were chatting, ignoring us, so like two little naughty boys Nick and I asked them about the culture and pot in particular. So many questions, so little time, as the bus was just entering the parking lot. We asked where to get it, how much it was, did you have to imbibe (is that the right word when it is smoke rather than liquid?) at the coffee house, or could you take it with you, was it strong, or weak, etc. They answered our questions, and the girl asked if we wanted a hit on the joint she was smoking. We declined, but Nick asked if he might perhaps buy an “extra” joint from them if they had one. They agreed and wanted to give him one, but Nick wanted to pay them for it and gave them €5 for one, not knowing if that was not enough, too much, or just right. The kid seemed happy with the arrangement and Nick seemed thrilled.

Just then Eleni noticed something going on, came over and said sternly “What are you doing Nick?” The kid deadpanned, “… a drug deal” which broke us up laughing. What a great country.

When we got back to the hotel, Kat went up to do her laundry, so the other three of us sat at the lobby bar and had a drink, chatting about retirement, financial planning, how we were able to retire so young, etc.

I went upstairs and tried to send e-mail via the “easy” TV internet access that wasn’t.

By the time I was done trying it was 1:30 and sleep came easily.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Champagne and Paris

This morning we awoke to a rainy, 12° C, 54 F day in one of the most beautiful areas of the world. The vineyards in the Champagne region fill every available bit of land, so precious is their crop (since we all know that only grapes from Champagne can be used to make this elixir of the gods). I await in the car outside the hotel, and it appears that for the first time on this trip our honeymooners are not all huggy-kissy. Alicia is not her usual joyous morning self, (not sure why, but being cooped up with Edward for so long probably goes a long way toward answering that question), but we will soon be on our way to drink some champagne instead of eating breakfast. How much better can it get?

Our drive to Moet & Chandon for the cellar tour was interesting. We entered Epernay and decided to drive along the river opposite the champagne house since we were so early. We ended up in a dead end with warehouses, however the views looking across the river to the city were worth the detour.

We all paid tribute to the good Dom (“I am drinking stars!”) on the way into Moet & Chandon. The reception room gives an indication of the corporate culture of the company that produces the most glamorous and famous wine in the world. We peeked into the meeting rooms where the mega-deals are made, admired the freshly cut flowers, and made sure to use the toilette to check for gold faucets.

The tour itself was excellent, our guide well versed in the history of the company and the minutia of the wine making process. She was quick with a smile, clearly engaged with the topic and us (perhaps because it was the first tour of the day and not the 15th). The walking tour takes you by thousands (millions?) of carefully stacked bottles, with some vintage bottles that have been there a long, long time.

In the gift shop we sampled (This is the real breakfast of champions!)and browsed and met an interesting couple (Brits); he converts barns to homes, and is into various other construction activities. She took a good shot at our dear president Bush, and I only wish I had been quick enough to remind her of their Neville “peace for our time” Chamberlain* (the guy with the scarlet A on his chest), and that if it wasn’t for us Yankees she would be speaking German now and not the King's English. Next time.

The drive to the Marriott at CDG was rainy so it was not great for sightseeing, however this region continues to astound by the natural beauty of the place, plus my favorite French architecture. We checked in, parked the car in the underground garage, and off we went via shuttle (navette) to the airport metro/train stop to the Gare de Nord, then on to St. Michel. We were on a mission to the Cluny museum and since the kids had no desire to travel back in time (mentally) to the middle ages headed off to explore on their own, agreeing to meet us later at Notre Dame. (I had a fleeting memory of the same deal we made with Kristin and Adam in Rome before spending a terrifying 3 hours trying to find them.)

The Cluny museum and specifically the six tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn were on our list of things to see on the last trip with Emily, but we never made it there. We were determined to see them this time, and so glad that we did. They are larger, more interesting and vivid than I had imagined, hanging side by side in a round, softly lit room. It was not crowded and you could get up close and personal with them. Having accomplished our mission we made a half-hearted attempt to be interested in the rest of the museum, but IMHO you can take just so much looking at Middle Age stuff, so we left ½ hour before it closed, and sloshed our way over to Notre Dame to meet the kids.

Thanks to Kat we had an umbrella, and when we met the kids (who were ½ hour early and not ignoring us from some sidewalk cafe) she provided a second umbrella to Edward and Alicia, convincing me once again that she is incredible. Our first real rainy day of the trip didn’t dampen our spirits however and off we walked to St. Michel for dinner. We ate at the equivalent of a Newport Creamery, French style. The Crêperie de Cluny complete with faux glass Lady and the Unicorn tapestry windows (our waitress wasn’t sure what the subject of the windows was ... this surprised us since we were about 500 meters from the very famous, real deal) met our expectations (I did manage to have an excellent omelet ).

It seemed very cold when we came out, so I gave Edward my over-shirt to wear, and decided (well three of us decided) that scarves would be just perfect to keep the chill off. We headed to our favorite souvenir shop (Quasimodo’s by Notre Dame, where else) and we all bought scarves and worked our way back to CDG and our Marriott. (Ed was extremely resistant when it came to buying and wearing a scarf. However he looked dapper in it, when tied properly, and I think in the end he enjoyed it).

What trip to France would be complete without encountering at least one strike (grève, we know that word by heart) by some transportation worker or another. It was on the train line to CDG, so we changed at Gare du Nord again, then did a Keystone Cop routine up, down, and around to find the location for the shuttle buses (navettes – level 5 upstairs for future reference) and took a slow, torturous ride back to Roissy and our hotel.

I bought an internet access card and used about 45 minutes reading about the Patriots and doing some e-mail. Kat and I decided to leave the next morning about 9:00 for Amsterdam, so we said goodnight to the kiddies, and Edward insisted that he would meet us for breakfast at 8:00 the next morning. After 10 days of non-stop activity they looked beat, and if I had to make a bet that the next time we saw them would be in the United States, I would have laid better than even odds.

*For the record: I know it's commonly quoted as "peace in our time" but I'm going with the transcript of the speech.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Grasse to L'Epine

We are in Mouans Sartoux, just outside and sitting with a cigar, excellent cup of coffee and this journal on the patio outside our room. At 7:45 am it is cool, clear and promises to be another of those spectacular late summer days in Provence. Reflecting on the trip so far, we have seen many beautiful and memorable sights, had a lot of good times and conversations, and we have certainly enjoyed each other’s company, but (there’s always a but isn’t there?) the motorcycle accident and uncertainty about Kat’s mom have created some tension that seems to manifest itself during our lively and emotional dinner times. We all wish those two things hadn’t occurred.

Today is the day I get to refill my prescription for my favorite cologne, Fragonard's Magellan (of Portuguese explorer fame), which is made right here at the factory in Grasse. I have a bottle at home that I have been nursing for the past few years, using it only on special occasions. The drive to parfum street was a breeze, and if I had to give up retirement and work in a factory, this would be the place. The setting is beautiful, and we arrived before they opened. Familiarity in thic case breeds comfort, and we made ourselves at home in the reception area reading the explanatory boards and exhibits. The first bus arrived just before 9:00 and our English language tour started right on time. Our tour guide was excellent and we were enthralled by the slow, exacting, and costly process of extracting fragrance from nature. So many smells, so little time. No wonder this stuff is so expensive. The last room you view contains the "organ" where the master "nose" mixes the various fragrances to create the perfect scent.

Kat traded the tour for a walk around the area and a visit to the perfumed fountain. I headed to the gift shop and my dismay was evident as I was informed that they had discontinued Magellan (I guess that was not that big a market for old Portuguese explorer scent). The young saleslady called the other Fragonard outlets (including the one in Paris) and none had so much as a bottle left … hmmm - seems to belie the theory that it wasn’t a good seller. Try as they might to sell me something close (I was dizzy from all the fragrances I tested), I was having none of it, and left disappointed but smelling pretty good. I think Alicia found something she liked.

As we left the building I was taken with the subtle harmony of the surroundings and that the colors are so easy on the senses. As in Siena, complimentary colors are employed by nature, surely by design. It’s easy to understand why all the impressionists loved Provence.

It is a short and easy ride to Nice airport from the hills, and the dreaded moment of car return was at hand. Our real fear was that SIXT would immediately charge our credit card the estimated repair cost. In fact, the gentleman who rented us the car wanted a second credit card (in case the first one had too low a limit) at the time, and I told him to forget the upgrade. He relented, afraid he would lose the €100 fish he had successfully lured onto his line. The same nice SIXT lot employee (Anna) who checked us out when we rented the vehicle checked us in when we returned it. She marked the four locations of damage on the return document, and told us that our credit card would be charged only when the repair bill was received by them. Our credit card company would coordinate with SIXT in Germany and they should pay SIXT the approximate $3,500. So off we went, no problem. What a relief I felt as I lugged/dragged our bent handle luggage into the terminal, my heart filled with love for my son.

The clear beautiful day in the hills was not evident these 30 miles away on the coast. Sitting at a bus stop outside the terminal the sky looked nasty. There was some mild turbulence as we ascended and before entering the cloud cover we barely had a view of the southern coast of France. We were settled into the next to last row of the plane where Kat tried to do crossword puzzles through the constant chop and the kids were so affected by the rough air that they fell asleep.

Perhaps the weather will be better in Paris. Perhaps not. Retrieving our bags at Orly, we headed to the nearby SIXT counter where we declined an upgrade and happily marched over to our little Ford van-like thing in the underground parking (much easier than CDG for renting then locating a car). Without a fancy navigation system we had to do it the old fashioned way (map and brains) to make our way out to Dizy, and a local Campanile, which is the French version of Holiday Inn.

Tonight is the night of the big dinner in L’Epine at Aux Armes de Champagne, one of the finest restaurants in which we have eaten. We had to call and ask to push our reservation back ½ hour for a number of reasons (maybe those navigation systems are worth the money after all) including Kat getting locked in the room. Oh well.

For years we have kidded Edward about his buying us dinner at the restaurant of our choosing and this was our choice. He was very good natured about it and we all enjoyed an excellent meal. Kat and I were afraid to look at the bill so we didn’t, but we did thank them both.

Tomorrow it’s the real Champagne then back to Paris where Kat and I hope to get to the Cluny museum and Ed and Alicia want to go sight seeing. Then Saturday morning we head to Amsterdam and that afternoon they head back to Iceland.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pisa and Portovenere

We are at the Riviera Blu, a very nice beach hotel on the main road of Tirennia about 25 minutes from Pisa. It reminds us of Jesolo outside Venice. The hotel is actually across the street from the beach, and given the few guests last night we got the two best rooms in the hotel, facing the beach, one on either side of the central staircase above the front door. It is a very pretty morning, in fact what looks like a perfect Italian Riviera morning, with bright sun and blue, blue sky.

I’m in the breakfast room, sitting at the wrong table after failing to notice the nice ceramic tee-pee place markers with room numbers indicating where we are to sit. This not understanding the seating arrangement for these included breakfasts is a recurring problem with me. I am not sure why, but perhaps it is that each hotel in each country does it their own way and I am just not interested in figuring it out over and over again at my age when all I want to do is have a cup of coffee in peace while I write in my journal. Oh well.

This morning’s plan is a hotel provided wake-up call to Edward to meet me at 7:45 am for breakfast in anticipation of an 8:30 “wheels-up” to Pisa. Alicia is good in the morning, Kat will trade sleep for breakfast any day, so she is not expected. Since it is now 7:55 and neither Edward nor Alicia have appeared, the plan has obviously gone awry.

Being on vacation I sauntered, rather than walked, over to the front desk to attempt to have the clerk call Ed’s room. My limited Italian and his inability to divine the central theme of my international sign language resulted in a climb (no elevator) back to our room to call their room, a scant 10 feet away. It appears our barkeep at the front desk failed in the wake up call routine as well. Situation remedied, somehow these two young people, plus my wife were loading our suitcases into the back of our wagon right at 8:30. They are all wonderful I have decided.

The drive to Pisa was shorter than expected, and it appeared we did indeed beat the crowds. Having been there before Kat and I were efficient in finding the quickly filling municipal parking lot. You buy a token from the attendant which you use to exit the lot through a mechanical arm device, that unlike La Storta seemed to be working. It is probably critical that you don’t lose the token.

We checked the picturesque and mostly useless town map on the wall and crossed the street to enter one of the most beautiful settings in Europe (IMHO). The Square of Miracles seems perfectly proportioned and to me the Baptistery alone is worth the journey. The newlyweds did the posing bit and I marveled at the setting. Outside the large portal gate a continuous flow of busses started disgorging hoards of tourists and we beat feet out of there ½ hour after we arrived. We were all satisfied and grateful for the experience.

Heading back to the parking lot we retrieved our car, and I inserted the little plastic token (which I had been white-knuckling for the previous hour) into the machine and out we drove. We checked our map and decided that since we had spent so little time in Pisa, we would enjoy a terrifying ride up a steep mountain in the rain to see some rocks. So up, up and away, we went, right through a soggy downtown Carrera, past all the stone cutters (some working on fantastic marble sculptures in their work yards) traveling this narrow, many switchback-ed road, always keeping our eyes out for the “Caves de Marmot” signs. We passed a number of working quarries, and the higher we got the easier it was to identify the white marble chips that stream down the sides of the mountains looking from below like snow.
One can only imagine Michelangelo scouring the hills, marking his M on the side of the perfect marble block (How did he ever find a block large enough to house the David?) We stopped at one of the many shops along the road and bought a small red marble heart while Edward and Alicia bought a beautiful vase and some wine stoppers.

Well, we left the perfect blue-sky Riviera day behind us as we made our way northward toward Portovenere, a great place, beautiful and windy. What a pleasure to find a nice space for the car down by the park, and walk around the bend to the harbor. The pictures don’t do justice to the colors on the buildings and the azure water with the boats bobbing. One of the boats failed to bob apparently and was sitting with water up to it’s gunwales, or whatever they are called, surrounded by a number of EPA types surrounding it with a boom system in a Chinese fire drill sort of way. Ed was fascinated by the whole process and spent most of the time, it seemed, wishing he could offer some advice. The other 3 of us headed toward the church at the end of the promontory.

The views are magnificent with the beautiful water and rough rocks at Byron’s Grotto. The wind was brisk, but the air had some warmth to it and we could taste salt in the air. A fantastic setting.

We headed down from the church and about half way along rainbow row we noticed a steep (very steep) set of stairs between two of the buildings. Intrepid travelers that we are a staircase is meant for climbing and at the top we discovered the high street in which there were a number of interesting shops (olive oil, souvenir, etc.) and one great little pizza place called La Pizzaccia where we relaxed and enjoyed a delicious lunch.

After lunch Kat went off exploring on her own for a bit while we did what we do best. (As I recall we were pondering whether or not we should get up and look for a pastry or perhaps an ice cream shop, as we hadn't eaten in at least 15 minutes. We did neither.)

The rain stayed with us the rest of the way up the coast toward France, and we made a feeble attempt to drive through downtown Monaco. There was little to see, it was very congested, however the Casino de Paris is worth the ride. We made our way to our hotel (L’Albatros – hope that’s not an omen) which is located in a very nice residential area of Mouans Sartoux. The homes are large by French standards and have tall fences and manicured landscaping.

It had been a long tiring day with lots of driving but we were all hungry and rather than risk the hotel food we decided to be adventurous. The result was an excellent meal at a Cambodian restaurant (our first: Cambodgiana just down the street past what we imagined was a large barking dog behind a fence. We intended to have fish anyway.

We returned to our hotel and Kat FINALLY got to TALK to her mother who is doing pretty well, in good spirits and has accommodations for the next couple of weeks settled. So that is good. Tomorrow is Grasse and Fragonard then to return the car. We expect that to be a nightmare.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Roma and on to Tirennia (Pisa)

For the record: we are about 15-20 kilometers outside Rome in a suburb called La Storta, part of greater Rome. It is a fast taxi ride (with a crazed driver) of about 15 minutes from Piazza Navona which is on the western edge of downtown to the parking lot (containing skid marks from last night) in front of our hotel.

Today is laundry day!

This morning Edward and I went to the Lavandaria Blu (makes sense), and getting there, as it turns out, was a piece of cake. It is at the top of the hill on the road to the train station and overlooks Via Cassia and what looked like an elementary or preschool.

The guys who ran the laundry were great, (they obviously thought that we had never done laundry before). With the sun streaming in the windows Edward fell asleep on a chair (he still denies this, I should have taken that picture), while I sat outside on a bench overlooking life on Via Cassia. In the other direction I could see the train station with it's nice, big, beautiful parking lot. (One of the downsides of renting a car in Europe is that you always have to find a place to berth it.)

It was pleasing to watch the students arrive, the younger children escorted hand in hand by his or her parent(s). Sometimes on vacation it is nice to see a typical family ritual unfold.

Back to the laundry. A bit expensive at €4 each for washing and drying, but well worth it, as this marks the end of our ongoing discussion and vindicates our plan.

Today is Roma via train, then on to a small town outside Pisa called Tirennia where we have booked a hotel for the evening. We took some pictures of the damage done to the car, and it’s really not too bad, just the front fender and a scrape on the lower side plastic and wheel. Missed the front door by a couple of inches. I know they are expensive to replace.

Finding a relaxed set of wives when we returned with clean laundry, all that was required was a quick pack-up and we were on our way to the La Storta train station. When we approached the parking lot, the mechanical entry arm was up, and clearly hadn’t been used in some time, so we wondered about the fee arrangement as we hadn’t received an automated ticket. To our surprise a couple of nice gentlemen approached us, and one even walked us to where we could park. We paid them directly and thought about man over technological advancement for a moment as we passed some disused ticket/payment machines. Nice people here in the suburbs. Of course they could now be having a nice pasta dinner with our Padua policemen.

We bought 8 tickets at the tabacci (we are getting good at this) and off we went. Our train ride in was pleasant, however we got off the train one stop late, St. Pietro, (missed the metro connection station) but at a good location. Looking at the map Ed and Alicia decided to walk to St. Peters, and since we had been there before decided to just wander by ourselves, agreeing to meet at the Pantheon at 2:00 to catch the train back to the car park.

The day was clear and beautiful, just right for walking around Roma. We decided to take one of the buses right outside the station, and ended getting off at St. Peters a few minutes later, certainly more quickly than if we had walked and no doubt before the kids.
The square is breathtaking, huge and the lines were long. It was interesting watching the people and the religious making their way through the square. As we walked away from the church, the road has an extraordinary number of shops selling religious reliquary, and associated articles. Quite a business.

We decided to walk across the river to Campo del Fiore having read about it being the actual site where Julius Caesar was assassinated (the Senate was having a “This Old House” renovation going on that Ides of March.) The kids wanted to tour Castel St. Angelo, and the views it offered of the vatican and the river.

Every view is picturesque, and the Tiber slow and muddy. We were alone in this fascinating city away from the crowds and noise as we walked along the river. Quite peaceful.

The Campo de Fiore, a short walk from Piazza Navona, is an interesting market square, surrounded by ancient buildings some dating back to Julius’ time. Kat enjoyed an apple while I was too timid to ask for a piece of one of the strangest melons I have ever seen. I feared I would have to buy the whole fruit and lug this pumpkin sized monster through the streets of Rome. I was fascinated by a staid woman vendor sitting in her stall, in front of aprons on which were printed the loins of some famous art work. We all have to make a living somehow, or did in some cases.

Making our way to the Pantheon, we stopped at the Church of Minerva (Santa Maria sopra Minerva), where the body of St. Catherine is located in a golden sarcophagus. I think we’ve seen the location of most of her body parts, the body in Rome, the head in Siena, and I think we came across her finger somewhere as well. Tough being a saint in those days.

Also in this church is the magnificent statue of Christ with the crucifix (Christ the Redeemer) by Michelangelo (with the gold loin cloth added later). Also added was footwear to the right foot to protect it from the pilgrims that came to this church just to kiss the foot. It is amazing that you can, and I did, put your hands on this masterpiece. How many people over the years have done this I wonder.

The kids met us exactly on time at the Pantheon. Not a minute late (or early). Turns out they were sitting and sipping at one of the local cafes watching us walk through the square looking for them. They had no intention of inviting us to join them, clearly understandable (newlyweds). The Pantheon continues to amaze me. We did get a good look at the square hole Brunelleschi cut into the ceiling when he was imagining how he was going to build the Duomo in Florence. As with most other sites in Rome it was crowded.

We stopped at a little Irish pub for a beer and some onion rings (toilets are hard to find in Rome and the McDonalds by the Pantheon was packed) and noted a handicapped fellow on a scooter type board with wheels, who made his way around the city pretty well. We last saw him in Tres Scalini in Piazza Navona (a pretty good distance).

We took the bus back to the train station, the train back to the car park, and the car to Tirennia, not bad maneuverings if I say so myself. Getting the train at St. Pietro instead of Aurelia ensured us seats since there is no metro connection at that stop, a good thing to remember for future trips. The drive was fine and the hotel, Riviera Blu was good in what is clearly a beach town during the summer. It reminded me of Jesolo (outside Venice), kinda quiet in the early fall, but it has a certain Italian beach town feel to it. We ate a restaurant (Il Cavaliere Nero – The Black Duke) that was just down the main street where the food and wine were quite good, and the discussion was quite lively (read heated) at times.

Tomorrow, an early morning drive to Pisa, hopefully just before the crowds.