Friday, May 9, 2014

I Love Firenze

Our room at the Miltontre had a typical high ceiling and large 10 foot window with wooden shutters. Next to the window was a small cute square wooden table which I looked forward to having our family breakfast on since our arrival. Maybe it was because we were in Italy, I was starting to love the little touches. The house keeper left us with a variety of juices, bread, and biscuits. I brewed a cup of tea, mixed oatmeal with honey, and cut up some tomatoes, cucumbers and peaches we picked up from the mini market last night. Breakfast was served and enjoyed!

After breakfast, we headed for Firenze town centre but without a specific destination in mind. We quite literally stumbled upon the biggest attraction here: the Florence Cathedral, although it was hard to miss. This church had a very in your face presence. Since it was nestled within small narrow streets, it couldn't be admired from afar to help one take in the grandness of the church in one frame. Instead we were "forced" to have a close encounter and we couldn't help noticing the awe inspiring elaborate and intricate exterior walls.

The lineup to get into the church wasn't too long at 10:30AM. 15 minutes later, we were inside. The inside was beautiful. But nothing compared to the outside or the interior of St. Peter's Basilica. We did notice another line up coming from another entrance. We exited the church to find out what it was. As suspected, it was for going up the to the tower via some over 400 steps of stairs. The lineup was way longer and moved slower than the one getting inside the church. Drake was not going to tolerate that. We didn't even bother checking the admission cost and instead opted for another gelato break next to the really long line.
We walked around the streets of Firenze aimlessly sprinkled with a little souvenir shopping.
Before we knew, it was time to pick a lunch spot. Drake fell asleep in his stroller so we ate in peace at Carrozze Olim near Piazza Santa Trinita. Greg had the mushroom pasta. I went for a nice salad with fine vinegar and olive oil (only option for salad dressing in Italy and the only way to eat salad).

Drake woke up just before we finished our lunch. It was a beautiful sunny day so we decided to feed Drake his lunch in the piazza. While Drake chowed down on cheese, two street performers were setting up to perform. The skinny blond woman started belting out the haunting tunes of Ave Maria with a man on accordion. They had the attention of the entire piazza. We sat and allowed ourselves to love this moment and love Firenze.

The opera singer was about third song in before a tiny police car showed up. She gave the cops a very sad look and knew they now had to pack up. It was probably a good thing for us since we would've probably stayed forever.

We then moved on to see THE Ponte Vecchio. The colourful and picturesque bridge was so quaint from a distance until a closer look. The bridge was full of gold jewelry shops and packed full of tourists.

More just aimless wondering the streets of Firenze. Drake was out of his stroller and running around like a wild man. I noticed a wet spot on his khakis pants. Indeed he had peed through his pants. We found a discreet corner and quickly changed Drake's diaper. We have gotten this changing diaper without a flat surface thing down to a system, a routine. But I forgot to pack a pair of spare pants so the aimless wondering now had been upgraded to mission-find-Drake-pants. Lucky we were not too far from the shopping district. For 15e at Zara we got Drake a pair of skinny euro-jeans. We had to put it on him right at the till. It was a little embarrassing. Oh well, we couldn't be the first parents who had a pants-less child in public.

Downgraded back down to aimless wondering again we stumbled upon Palazzo Vecchio, the old town hall where the original David statue by Michelangelo used to reside.  It's since been moved to Gallery of the Academy but a replica of the statue has been replaced in its original spot. We didn't bother going in as it was getting late in the afternoon, but there were many statues outside and around the piazza to enjoy.

We wrapped up our day after getting a book of masterpieces from Uffizi Gallery souvenir shop for my dad.  Unfortunately, there was no time for us to visit the gallery itself.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ciao Roma, Ciao Florence

It was our last day in Rome. We booked a late afternoon train to Florence, so we still have the morning to explore Rome some more. There were still a lot more interesting old things to see in Rome, but clearly Drake had no interest. The poor little guy who had been spending a lot time in a stroller needed some nature and a place to run free. Monte Mario was a short metro ride outside of Rome and sounded like it would provide a nice hike and a good view of the city.

We took A Line and got off at Cipro station. After walking north about 10 minutes,we were at the foot of Monte Mario. Going uphill wasn't too bad since it was just a gradual windy road. About half way up we could no longer continue, road construction had blocked the road going up. We still were able to have a nice view of the city but no where to sit or relax and most of all nowhere for Drake to run free amongst the construction material laying around.

Disappointed we headed downhill. I'm sure there must've been another way to the top of the hill. But without a car, we were out of luck finding another route. To make ourselves feel better, we had to have a pre-lunch gelato.

We made our way back to Rome on the metro in time to figure out what to have for lunch. Did I mention I was a bit tired of the same Italian food? We opted for McDonalds. Now I got why hubby had to have KFC when we were in China.

We picked up our bags from our hotel and headed for Roma Termini again to catch our regional train to Firenze aka Florence. There was no Frecciarossa train (which we assumed was the fast train) available during the time we wanted. The regional train didn't allow us to pick seats, we were a bit nervous about how dog-eat-dog this was gonna get. Despite our two large backpacks, two day packs, one food bag, and one stroller with a toddler in it, it turned out to be pretty easy. There were plenty of empty seats so we took up 4 seats without feeling too bad. Drake was antsy like any toddler. He wanted to explore constantly. It was tiring trying to make sure he didn't dig too far into the garbage can, bang his head on the metal chair, or pull on stranger's bags. Normally Drake is not allowed to watch TV or any electronic devices. But in this case, we had to pull all the stops and calm him with some technology.

A hour and half later we arrived in Firenze SMN station. It was still early. We decided to take the bus to get to our hotel. We found the #13 bus just outside the station and hopped on. But we couldn't figure out where to buy the bus tickets and all the bus driver said to us was to buy them at a store. We had to get off the bus while I go running around the train station looking for a place to buy tickets. It turned out that tickets (1.20e each) were sold at any newspaper stand.  I rushed back to the stop in time for us to catch the next #13 bus.

A 20 minute ride dropped us off across the street from Miltontre Guest House. Miltontre had no elevator and was located on the 4th floor. Our host showed us our room and recommended a restaurant called Tito for dinner.

We settled in and set up Drake's crib before we ventured out to the town centre which was about a 15 minute walk. We found Tito no problem using the CityMaps2Go app. We were early to arrive just when they opened and they gave us a table without a reservation. A typical restaurant here, the front of it looked small and intimate. Then a hallway led to the back revealed a spacious brick room with 10 foot ceiling.

We ordered brusatta with home made anchovies to start. It was oily, but very yummy. The 4e half litre house red wine kept Greg very happy too. For main, I went with the meatballs. I tried really hard to like this dish but it was way too salty. Not even Drake could stomach more than 3 bites. He was more content with the bread and flirting with the waitress who gave him a big piece of biscotti after dinner.

After dinner we strolled back to Miltontre and tucked in for the night.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pope's House

We had an early day yesterday and day was yet another early day.  Continuing with the déjà vu theme, our Vatican walking tour was with the same tour company Enjoy Rome and even the same tour guide Viviana (they do have more than one guide).

By 8AM we took the metro and made our way to the Enjoy Rome office near the Vatican. We checked in and paid our 60e per person (plus 23e entrance fee for the Vatican). But for whatever reason they gave us 10e discount. I wasn't complaining. The group again was about 8 people and we were given our headphone receivers.

We walked by a huge line up outside the walls of the Vatican. We were pretty glad we booked with a tour that allowed us to skip this crazy lineup.

After going through security and checking our backpacks, Viviana led us to the courtyard and took over 30 minutes explaining what we would see in the Sistine Chapel.  She did this because no talking was allowed in the chapel, I was a bit worried how Drake would behave.

Viviana then took us through several notable galleries housed within the Vatican. Galleries that displayed paintings, marble sculptures, hand painted maps, and hand woven tapestries. I have seen the Louvre in Paris, Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Forbidden City in Beijing and the Vatican would certainly rival them all. While all Drake wanted to do was to play with the velvet ropes, we could barely keep up with all the beautiful treasures to look at.

The part all of us looked forward to was the famous Sistine Chapel. Viviana took us through a different chapel entrance than the regular.  The Chapel was dim, but we could see the awe inspiring ceiling very clearly. The Chapel wasn't totally silent, it was filled with a quiet mum. Benches surrounded the perimeter so we picked a spot and let Drake out of his stroller. We took our time staring at the ceiling and taking mental picture since we were not allowed to take actual pictures. We also took turns watching Drake who was running through the crowd and letting out the occasional excited yelp.  At one point the respectful silence was broken by the familiar deep breathing of Darth Vader as Drake squeezed the toy attached to his stroller.

After about 20 minutes, we exited the Chapel and met up with Viviana again. We continued our tour through the central square within the Vatican. The square was again littered with impressive artwork like the "big pinecone", "global within global".
 Our last stop was the St. Peter's Basilica. Strollers were not allowed in the church so instead of checking ours we just transformered our Kelty into a backpack. The church was massive, probably the biggest I have ever seen. We didn't spend too much time in there since I was concerned Drake was getting pretty hungry and I didn't want to feed him any more cookies to tide him over.  Once exited we had to find our way back to the Vatican entrance to pick up our backpacks.

We walked by the now even longer lineup to get into the Vatican. So very glad our tour was already over. We found a restaurant called Jet Leg 64 with a large outdoor patio for lunch. I ordered the American breakfast to share with Drake. We haven't had just plain scramble eggs since we started this trip. The breakfast platter of eggs and Italian sausages was huge, they really meant this dish to be American sized but it was still with an European twist. Fresh tomato slices, arugula and grilled mushrooms made this breakfast a little more guilt free.

We debated what to do next during lunch. After two pretty early days, we agreed a family afternoon nap time was needed but not before we grabbed train tickets to Florence from Rome Termini. We had tried to make online booking on last night but we weren't able to reserve seats so we thought getting them directly from station would help us.  Only it didn't.  We didn't want to waste too much time on this matter and figured we just embrace the madness of trying to fight for seats with a toddler.

Family nap time was glorious. We were recharged for the rest of the afternoon and made our way to the Spanish Steps on foot. I had downloaded a map app called CityMaps2Go. This handy app allowed me to download maps of cities and use them offline.  A one time Wifi connection helped the map find my location and continued to show my location offline as I moved.  The app also has other features such wiki information on famous spots and creating my own pins which was really helpful since we booked a quite of few Airbnb apartments.

With the map, we had no problem finding the Steps on our own.

There were many people sitting on the steps enjoying the sun, this made carrying Drake in his stroller down the steps a bit hairy. A kind and very chatty woman with her two sons helped us. To be honest, I was cautiously grateful about their help since we were warned about the many tourist scams in Italy. In the end, they were just really nice people. Must have more faith in humanity!

After the steps, we put away our map and wondered around the shop and restaurant filled narrow streets. Then we realized we haven't had any gelato since our first day, we had a new mission!  It wasn't hard since we just looked for people walking down the street with a cone or cup. Then we came across a place called GROM. Their gelato was chilled in canisters. We ordered a cup of pistachio and dark chocolate (3.50e) and a strawberry gelato smoothie (4.0e). GROM is obviously a chain gelato store but its gelato tasted like home made. It was pretty heavenly delicious. The smoothie was gelato blended with milk and was also really good, but very very very sweet. I would just stick with the straight up gelato.

We eventually found our way out of the maze. It had been a long day and we packed in a lot.  It was time to call it a night.

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Location:Vatican City

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We Love Ruins

The big plan for today was to find our way to the ancient city of Pompeii. We had to deal with train a lot in Russia which wasn't too easy, but the train experience in Western Europe looked promising. We booked our two way tickets from Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale (Naples) on before our trip for 69e per person (I believe there was a discount for booking the return trip on the same day) and Drake was free since he was under 4.

When we arrived at Roma Termini early morning, the departure platforms were posted on large screens about 20 minutes before departure. We found easier to look for the platform using the train number since not always your destination would be listed only the final destination was. In addition, there were often multiple trains (rapid vs regular train) going to the same destination.

We booked the rapid Frecciarossa train with assigned seats. It was on time and pretty easy to find our assigned carriage and seats. There was no one to check us in by the train, the tickets would be checked on board.  With online purchases it was important to know the booking reference.

Train at Roma Termini

It took about just over 1 hour to reach Napoli Centrale. Now came to the task of finding the train to get us to Pompeii. We did some research last night, there was a commuter train called "circumvesuviana railway" just downstairs from the main floor of the Napoli Centrale station. The ticket was 2.90e per person. Once we made our way to the platform, it was a bit hard to determine which train we were suppose to get on. We almost got on the wrong train and had to panic to get off before the doors shut. Good thing there were plenty of tourists around who knew what they were doing.

           Circumvesuviana Railway Platform

After a 30 minutes ride and 12, 15 or so stops later, we got off at the "Pomei Scavi Villa dei Misteri" station with hoards of other tourists. The gate to Pompeii was just a 2 minute walk from the station. The ticket was 11e per person.  We didn't get a tour guide and just took our time with Drake stroll the grounds on our own.  We grabbed a guide book and map which helped us picked out what we were interested in seeing.  Pompeii as many know is a city engulfed by a volcano eruption and frozen in time.  This archaeological treasure was a massive area full of mansions, shops, bath houses and even a whore house.

                                 bath house                                     corpse

             Whore house rated R mural    Really old toilet in the whore house

Most of the streets in Pompeii were somewhat stroller friendly however after a few hours it felt like our Kelty stroller was taking quite a beating.

We thought once we entered Pompeii there would be no water or food available, but inside and close to the main square there was a cafe with food and beverage for sale.  Of course it was full of terribly overpriced and mediocre food complete with subpar slow service.  Around two o'clock, we were done and ready to head back.  We hoped on the commuter train back to Napoli Centrale.

Since we booked a 6PM train backed to Roma Termini (thinking we needed all day in Pompeii), we had a few hours to kill in Naples.  Naples was famous for their yummy pizzas, so we set out to find some.  But we couldn't go very far from the train station and not much was open at 4PM.  To my surprise we passed by a Chinese restaurant.  I really wanted to go there instead of pizza.  It was only day 3 in Italy, I already missed the taste of home.  But we were in Italy!  We ended up settling for the first pizza place that was open.  It was ok at best.  Train station pizza not recommended.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Old World Charm

We were up pretty early, but all things considered we actually slept really well.  We had to pack and move to another hotel.  Booking a hotel in Rome was really difficult., we had to break up our stay between two places to make it work.  First we found it was due to May 1st public holiday in Italy and second we found out it was Star Wars day (May the Fourth).  Yesterday we saw people setting up and men in black suits guarding a Tie Fighter replica in front of the Colosseum. As we walked by today again there were a parade of people dressed up as characters from the movie and kids playing with their light sabres.

After we moved our bags to the new hotel, we rushed to the Colosseum metro station to meet up with our walking tour group from Enjoy Rome.  The tour was 30e per person plus 15e entrance fee to the Colosseum and Forum. We were given earphones so we could hear our tour guide Viviana. At 8 people (9 if you count Drake) our group was pretty small compared to the groups of 30s and 40s we saw going by.  I don't know how these group keep together. 

It wasn't even 10AM but our first stop the Colosseum was already packed with tourists (and Star Wars people).  The lineup was around the block and then some.  Joining the tour group allowed us to skip the massive lineup.  Once we were inside there were more sea of people.  Maneuvering Drake through the crowd and stairs with his stroller was like a video game and we were always playing catch up with our group.  

Viviana was a very good tour guide. We covered the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Capitoline Hill, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Piazza Navona on the tour.  She spoke none stop for over 3 hours giving us the history and interesting facts about these ancient monuments (and sometimes just piles of rocks).  I must admit I didn't remember much from the tour, I was too busy making sure Drake was doing ok in the crowd, in the sun, and being confined to his stroller.

Our Kelty Stroller Backpack definitely saved the day again.  There were quite a few times we had to put Drake on Greg's back due to the stairs or uneven road.  Our biggest complaint about the Kelty is still when Drake fell asleep in it.  It just looked so uncomfortable for him.  We improvised by tucking a firm neck pillow under Drake's head and tilted the stroller on its back wheels to wheel him around while he was sleeping.  Of course, I had to be very careful and had a very firm grip on the stroller at all times.  The foamy non slip grip on the stroller helped a lot.  My height (5'4") also was prefect to pull the stroller in this position.  When my husband pulled the stroller this way, he had to lean over to one side and it became really hard on his back.

We had been walking all over downtown Rome for over 3 hours and it was almost 2PM.  We picked the first restaurant in the Pantheon area with an available table for lunch.  We went with the cheap lunch special that included appetizers and drinks.  The lunch was nothing special, the gnoocchi was covered in too much canned tomato sauce and pork cutlet was over cooked.  The hazelnut ice cream ball dessert was really good though.

Our uninspiring lunch set us off on a course to search for a high quality dinner.  Colline Emiliane received 4.5 stars on  After walking for about 15 minutes and getting a little lost we found Colline Emiliane tucked away in a small alley (by North American standard, it was an alley to me), however it was not open on Sundays.  What restaurant isn't open on a Sunday?!  Pretty disappointed we wondered down the same street and settled on a placed called Enoteca Barberini.  It seemed like a nice restaurant, it was even going to be a Jazz band playing later.  We ordered fresh buffalo mozzarella salad as a starter and I ordered beef tripe as my main.  The tripe was cooked in tomato sauce and a bit salty.  I think prefer my tripe cooked in black bean sauce and/or ginger.

Half way through our dinner Greg informed us we were getting looks from the table behind us.  Drake at this point was a little grumpy since it was past his usual bed time, but the restaurant wasn't that quiet during prime dinner time.  Drake occasional grunt and throwing of his bits of food (no one was hit) were definitely not head turning worthy.  Anyways, we asked for our bill without dessert.  Assuming service charge was already applied we gave almost exact bill amount.  As we were packing up, the waiter came back to our table to inform us that service charge was not included and we needed to tip.  Oh man... I will get never get this tipping thing right.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

All Roads Lead to Rome, Unless Your Plane is Hit by Lighting

We had been planning a Europe trip for August until we discovered we're expecting our second little one in November.  In less than two months, we rushed to plan an itinerary that will include 2 weeks in Italy, 3 days in Barcelona, and 1 week in Greece.  This is probably the first I felt the stress of planning a trip.

Nevertheless we are firm believers of the endless reward of being a traveller.  Our belief were tested right away. Our flight from YVR to Heathrow was delayed for nearly 5 hours.  As if that wasn't freighting enough, this was due to the plane being hit by lighting on its way out of Heathrow.  The mechanics had to do thorough check and repair a few minor issues in YVR.

We paced the airport with a very sleep delirious Drake.  Finally we boarded at 1AM.
We flew with British Airway who was are rated one of the top children friendly carriers in the world.  We were able to pick our seats before other passengers who could only pick 24 hours before the actual flight. In front of the bulkhead seats, a flat board could be pulled down to allow placement of a bassinet (for infant) or travel cot (for toddler). On China Eastern, they attached the bassinet (only available for infant) directly against the bulkhead. The advantage of that was it saved a lot of space.

Drake slept through the entire flight in his travel cot. The only complaints I had was I was trapped in the window seat. Getting up to go to the bathroom required a lot of internal debate of should I do it now or later before getting enough courage to wake up the fast asleep isle guy.  The second complaint was Greg in the middle seat couldn't enjoy his entertainment system since Drake's cot was in the way. These were all minor issues compared to Drake not having to sleep in my lap for 9 hours.

Our 5 hour delay of course caused a ripple effect. We missed our connection out of Heathrow to Rome. We asked to be put on another carrier. We had one hour to get from Terminal 5 to 4 but we didn't realize it took 20 minutes to reach T4 so we missed the flight again. Back to T5 with the only option of a next day 7AM flight. BA put us up at Sofitel Hotel in the airport.  At 11PM we were finally in a real bed ready to pass out.

Then at 3AM all 3 of us were wide awake from our jet lag.

When we landed in Rome we took the Leonardo Express (14 euro per person) train from the airport to Roma Termini Station. Then we transferred on to the city Metro (1.50 euro per person) to reach our Airbnb apartment next to the Colosseum. The Metro was really easy to maneuver around since there were only two lines.

After some freshening up we were ready to really start our Roman holiday with a nice Italian lunch. Poor Drake couldn't keep his little head up and slept through entire lunch in his stroller. On the bright side, we were able to have a nice undisturbed meal without flying food and random screaming. Despite being so tired after lunch we opted to walk around our neighbourhood to keep ourselves awake.  To spice up the day even more, we got caught in the rain.  It was time to head back to the apartment and wrapped up this long day.  We grabbed dinner at a closed by restaurant named I Clementini.  I was so tired that I didn't remember too much about the dinner other than I had clam linguini which was really good, but a bit salty.

I wouldn't call the last two days a great start to our Eurotrip, but it can only get better from this point on.

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