Friday, June 24, 2011: Venice

Yet another travel adventure awaited us today (actually two…read on until the end…). We set off for Venice in the morning after my husband walked to the train station early to buy our tickets. However, when we all walked over at the designated time to catch our train we saw the word ‘soppresso’ where the track number should have been. We quickly learned this was Italian for ‘cancelled’. Since we were meeting a guide for a tour of Venice we were in a bit of a time crunch. The information line was not long, and we garnered that in these situations you just hop on the next train and hope there is a spot available…not the ideal situation for us since we had paid extra for 1st class seats and were not now guaranteed seating at all (together or otherwise) in either 1st or coach…and no refunds offered! A bit of an unorganized operation…Fortunately we were all able to find a stray seat here and there in 1st once we were on the train (uh, the next train…), and we only arrived in Venice about 45 minutes later than planned, and still in time to meet our guide at the pre-arranged time. So in the end it was more of a learning experience. Yep, that’s what I’m going with on this…

Venice is magical…I just loved the sights as we rolled into our stop! There are water buses, water taxis and gondolas waiting as you exit the station…we chose a water taxi to take us to Piazza San Marco where we were meeting our guide. Our taxi wound through the canal, giving us ample time to take photos along the way. Upon docking we found a quick bite to eat to tide us over…

We met ‘Guiliana’, our guide…a wonderful Italian lady from Venice who has been giving tours for over 20 years. She grew up here, and although she no longer lives in Venice, she still owns a house here…which is now vacant. Apparently this is common these days because the upkeep to maintain these homes is expensive.

Guiliana took us through San Marco Square first, giving us a basis in the town’s rich history and guiding us through the church of San Marco. This is a busy, touristy area, quite crowded this time of year. We were able to avoid the long lines since she is an approved guide…very helpful and time-effective!

Next, we headed off the beaten path. Once we left the main area it was not crowded at all, and we were given a tour of the town she grew up in and knows so well. We stopped for a bite to eat at a wonderful restaurant where we ate their fish special of the day…a triple play selection including flounder, sea bass and some other white fish…all steamed and served with a very light tomato sauce, olives and potatoes. It was supposed to be a light snack, but our waiter was the ultimate convincer, especially after serving us an aperitif of Aperol (an Italian liqueur) mixed with Prosecco…who could resist???

Then it was back to the streets/alleys/canals of Venice to finish off our tour. We left Guiliana and strolled a bit more on our own, stopping at a wine bar when we needed a rest. Sitting outside we people-watched as we slowly sipped our wine and water. Refreshed, we continued on to the train station to head back into Verona.

This brings us to the ‘Hindsight is 20/20’ Thought of the Day: When taking the train, verify your stop before you exit the train. It was late and we were eager to get back to our hotel and rest up for the next day. We saw ‘Verona’ listed as the next stop, but did not verify it was the stop we needed. Yes, you guessed it: it was the wrong stop. We soon found ourselves in the less-touristy area of Verona. Just another side note: in Italy you cannot just hail a taxi off the street…by law, you must either find a taxi stand (we could not locate one) or actually call a company to send a taxi (we had no number/name of a company to call). We did not feel comfortable asking for directions (didn’t want to tip anyone off that we were lost tourists, even though we were obviously tourists, and obviously lost) but we finally found a pizza place that was kind enough to call a taxi for us. So we had our second train adventure in the space of 24 hours…ah, what is yet to come??? J

Thursday, June 23, 2011: Verona

Verona is a beautiful town. It is one of the most visited cities in Italy and most known as the setting for ‘Romeo and Juliet’. We checked into our hotel [they just keep getting worse! Can’t take the smoke smell in our non-smoking rooms, and these beds are the worst!], and then set off for a walk into town.

It was only a short distance into town [this is one of the few redeeming qualities of the hotel; the staff was friendly/helpful, too]. We strolled past the touristy section of town where the restaurants take advantage of the great views and charge a cover to be able to eat there – and found a wine bar off of a side alley. The wines were well chosen varieties from the area and ranged from about 2-5 euro per glass…The man who owns the bar is experimenting with making his own microbrews, so the beer choices he offered, though not extensive, were great selections as well. He also offered us a lovely restaurant recommendation which was off the beaten path of the typical tourist places. This turned out to be a good little hole-in-the-wall choice with local food offerings (uh, my eldest son ordered horse meat…my apologies to all of my horse-loving friends. Please note I did NOT try it…even though he insisted it was delicious) and delectable desserts. And again, the prices were much more reasonable than if we had eaten at a typical tourist trap…

After dinner we waddled on back to the hotel. All this walking should hopefully ease the stress those extra calories are putting on our bodies!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011: Milan – Italy at last!!!

Today is the day I have been eagerly anticipating…the day we FINALLY enter Italy! We checked out of our hotel, toured downtown Zurich for a bit, had some lunch at a Turkish (?) café (the food was quite good here), bought some (delicious yet expensive) chocolate, and eventually headed for Italy. Our first stop: Milan! Milan, like Zurich, is not cheap. We found a hotel just on the edge of the city…probably similar to a Holiday Inn in the US. The boys’ room reeked of perfume-scented cigarette smoke…ours was not quite so bad. However, it was a deal cost-wise, and we were there for only one night…all very doable. In the end it was an especially good deal because they extended our check-out time to 2PM, which gave us a chance to tour downtown Milan’s famous ‘Il Duomo’ and have lunch before heading to Verona. And an even more important reason: I was able to leave the [delicious yet expensive] Swiss chocolate in our room so it would not sit in a hot car and melt…

We took the tram into the heart of the city to visit ‘Il Duomo’. A wonderful Italian lady saw us reading our maps and (in Italian) suggested places we should visit. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we only had time for the church, but I did take advantage of the opportunity to practice the months of Italian lessons I have invested in for this trip. I was pleased that I was able to understand most of what she was saying (she was kind and spoke slowly).

The church was indeed impressive and well worth the time into town! We were not able to visit ‘The Last Supper’ because reservations are necessary and book up well in advance. This will have to be saved for a future visit…Guess we will have to come back to see that and take in an opera at the world-famous La Scala; perhaps even add in a shopping trip to top things off… J

***The ‘Hindsight is 20/20’ Thought of the Day: It’s never a good idea to face a tram head-on in Milan (in reference to my husband turning right into the path of an on-coming tram as we searched for our hotel upon arriving in Milan…)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011: One night in Switzerland

Stuttgart was more of an industrial town…Zurich is set in the Swiss Alps, a wonderful blend of beauty and money (expensive!).  We arrived late after trying to see the Black Forest in Germany…’tried’ being the operative word. We got partway down the road we needed to take and soon found it was closed for construction. It would have been a rather long detour around, and we wanted to make sure we saw the Alps while it was still light out; therefore, we gave up on the Black Forest and headed for Zurich. As expected, the Alps were stunning. We were able to stop and take photos at a few opportune spots. This is an area I would love to return to with a little more time (and money) on hand to fully appreciate its charms.

Arriving at our hotel, took a bit of an effort since our GPS took us through downtown Zurich at rush hour [side note: our hotel was just outside of the city…]. But we finally made it to the hotel… We were delighted to find out our room had been upgraded to one of their apartments due to a plumbing issue with our original room (no extra charge)…Aaahhh! It was so nice to have some extra room to spread out after a week on the road! We had a kitchen area, walk-in closet and HUGE bathroom with a rain head shower fixture!! Our boys had the original room booked for them. It was a bit smaller and the shower stood in a small kitchenette/bathroom area. Both of the rooms overlooked the lake, mountains and the city of Zurich. It was a glorious view to behold.

The hotel restaurant was booked for dinner, but the (one) restaurant within walking distance – Moosegg – was open and available…and expensive. Yikes! Our most expensive dinner yet…but it was delicious. I enjoyed a nice glass of an Italian red wine with a steak, salad and lentils, all perfectly cooked. It was great to finally have vegetables after all of Germany’s heavy food!!!

I am enjoying the dinner conversations with my family so much. We don’t always take/have the time to sit and chat with one another, especially with one away at college. The years have flown so quickly, and we are so fortunate to be able to take advantage of this incredible opportunity…I almost have to pinch myself sometimes!

Audi Factory Tour/Arriving in Stuttgart

We had a nice drive to Stuttgart today…the German countryside is lush this time of year. I feel as if I have been transported back to a former time and place with all of the older farmhouses and barns and other older architectural buildings we pass…Of course it would be wonderful to see this gorgeous countryside at a slower speed…ah, just love the autobahn!

Stuttgart itself doesn’t seem all that remarkable compared to other European towns we have visited/passed through; however, our hotel has a wonderful restaurant and is located right next to a beautiful park. As we arrive there is some sort of commotion going on in the streets. We ask our waitress what it is all about, and she informs us it is the typical ‘Monday protests’…apparently every Monday the crowds gather to protest the proposed changes to the city, changes which include cutting down several trees over 300 years old to make way for this progress. She says it has divided the city in half, but it will give an updated look to the town. She seems to have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I felt sad thinking about all those fabulous trees being taken down in the name of progress.

As I mentioned, the restaurant here is wonderful…we sat down for our complimentary welcome drinks (LOVE this – why don’t more hotels do this?) and perused the menu. The desserts looked fabulous, so we quickly made the executive decision to return for dessert after eating dinner and strolling around town. Upon serving us our drinks we were informed that particular restaurant in the hotel closed early, and the desserts we wanted were not offered in the other section of the hotel. What’s a family to do in this situation??? We – of course – made a second executive decision to have dessert first…hey, isn’t there some sort of expression about that? The desserts came, and we ate…they were all we had been imagining. My husband and I ordered pastries from their delectable counter, and both boys chose ice-cream concoctions which were quite a sight to behold. One was a black forest Sunday. It had chocolate ice-cream, cherries (REAL ones), chocolate sauce, a shot of Kirsch liqueur, and a dollop of whipped cream. The other was a ‘nutty’ sundae: Vanilla ice-cream, walnut ice-cream, caramel, candied walnuts, chocolate and caramel sauces, and whipped cream. I took liberties with my ‘parent tax’, having a couple of bites of each.  My husband chose a cherry pie unlike any other cherry pie I have experienced…and finally, my dessert was a torte layered with cream and pastry. I should have taken a picture of these, but we were way to busy enjoying them to remember to take a photo. 😉 The pastries are made fresh each day in the hotel, and the two women we met who baked them took such pride in their works of art. They had huge smiles as they described each pastry…I am hungry all over again just thinking about it!!

It was time to walk off some of those dessert calories…we wandered about the outside mall for a bit, taking in the sights offered.