Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A European Vacation: In Pictures (I Mean, Words)

Holy Crap! My Own TV!

So last year I thought talking about our vacation a week after we returned was probably too late. What would last year me think about this year me as we've been back for nearly two months and I have finally just finished getting through all the photos we took.

Sadly my recollections probably won't be too great, seeing as it has been nearly a month and a half since the beginning of our trip. And we did so much in a pretty short amount of time, but I'll try...for prosperity's sake.

At the bottom of this post is a pictorial review of week in Europe, the highlights are as follows. I warn you now, it is long. As I no longer keep a written journal, I have no record of the trip, so I wanted to try and get as much down as I could remember. It is really for my own benefit, so please feel free to pop down to the bottom to see the pics or straight on to my Flickr set, I won't be mad if you don't read the book that follows. ;)

Getting There
Our journey actually began Friday (September 4) after work. We had packed our carry-ons, our backpack and all Nibbler's stuff in the few days prior, so we threw everything into the car, got Nibbler in there as well and then headed up north to Mom & Dad's. Nibbler was lucky enough to stay with them (thanks Mom & Dad!) while we were gone, and they also acted as our ride to and from the airport. Almost immediately upon arriving, Nibbler not only managed to run into their sliding screen door, but turned it perpendicular on its track! I know, the dog is a beast. Luckily mom & dad are used to dogs ruining the screen door and despite being dogless now, had a spare in the garage.

Our flight to Ireland left Saturday evening, so Nibbler got to have some quality time with us before we headed on our long flight with an even longer layover (what you have to do to get cheaper flights these days!). We were dropped off at O'Hare and waited nearly an hour for our ticketing booth to open…so much for needing to be there at least 3 hours early for international flights. But you know what, we knew we'd have so much waiting to do on this trip, that it didn't bother us. While checking in, I followed the advice given to me by my coworkers and asked if there was an exit aisle available, since originally Mike and I were not given seats next to each other. We lucked out and we able to get seats with extra leg room - though it still appeared that someone would be seated between us. Oh well, we'd be glued at the hip for the next week, so it was probably a good idea to get some alone time while we could. We went smoothly through security and then sat and wandered waiting for boarding time. Not that there were many places to wander, these small airlines seem to be put off in the middle of nowhere at the airports.

When we boarded, turns out our exit row seats were actually the first row of coach - right by the main door and flight attendant station. It made it nearly impossible to sleep throughout the 8 hour flight since the station was lit at all times, but to make up for it, we had awesome stowable screens (everyone else's were on seat backs) and the ability to watch a bunch of different movies and tv shows. Between meals (2 full and a snack) and a bit of reading, I also managed to watch 2 movies and a couple episodes of the first season of Mad Men which has been on my Netflix queue.

Experiencing Ireland

There were a couple surprising things about our flight. Number 1: we actually left O'Hare on time. And number 2: we arrived in Dublin about an hour early. That meant our seven hour layover turned into an eight hour layover. After arriving and passing through security again, we headed to our terminal, which turned out to be a major mistake because once we passed a certain point we weren't allowed to turn back. And as it turned out the majority of the food and shops and other time killers (and warmth) were on the other side of that point. So for the majority of our layover we were stuck on stiff metal chairs & benches in a chilly terminal (on a cold rainy Dublin day) with very little option in the means of food. Mike experienced Ireland by having a Guiness (but no fish & chips or haggus because that was probably on the other side of the "point") and then we sat, read, listened to podcasts and tried to stay warm. We were each able to grab a little cat nap, but nothing substantial, and I was able to get my first taste of Glee (thanks ipod touch!).

Once it was finally time to board and get our butts to Rome, it was raining and we, of course, had to board the plane on the tarmac. So we were a bit misty, but ready to be on our way. The flight to Rome offered me a couple hours to nap again, but I'm not sure what Mike did, probably read his advance copy of the Rod Blagojevich biography. Upon touchdown, the back of the plane burst into cheers. I'm pretty sure that it must have been a group a young travelers that had a ripple effect because the flight wasn't bad - turbulence or otherwise. After taking a bus from the tarmac we were greeted by a long line of Asian travelers with many wearing face masks, thinking it was some sort of tour group traveling together we snaked our way through only to see that, oh no, that was the very line we needed to be in - for those of us with non-EU passports. More waiting ensued, only this time on foot and after many hours of flying and waiting and not sleeping we were getting to our wit's end. Luckily after passing through customs (at least an hour later) we were able to quickly get our backpack and find the train that would take us from the Leonardo di Vinci airport to the Termini train station in the center of Rome.

By the time the train departed, it was dark and getting late. We were hungry and tired, but we were able to keep it together long enough to walk a few blocks and find our hotel. After checking in and dropping off our things and the clock nearing ten, we headed out into our neighborhood to find a place to eat. We came across this little place with a few tables outside and headed down the stairs into the tiny dining room. It was crazy to see little kids being out so late, eating dinner so late. A family with a small (maybe 3-4 yrs old) girl came in shortly after us - not crabby or anything, like it is completely normal for such a tiny child to be up so late and just eating dinner.


Day 1 - Rome
Our first full day in Rome started with both Mike and I almost killing ourselves in the shower. Our shower was what can only be described as a half tub with built in seat. There was no where flat to stand on both feet, so we both ended up slipping and almost cracking our heads open - I actually had to call Mike in to help me out because the tub side was about 2 feet high at the least, slippery and wet, a disaster waiting to happen. Despite almost dying, we were able to leave the hotel early and head on foot to the Colosseum and the rest of the historic district. We ended up actually splurging on audio tour headsets, so we were actually able to know some of the history behind the site, as opposed to my first time there where we tried to duck in and out of tour groups for free and only managed a piece meal version. Our only mistake was not eating beforehand because combined with the heat, by the time we were done walking around the Colosseum (our first stop), I was feeling ill. After grabbing a frozen bottle of Gatorade, I was able to continue on and make it through Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum and up near the Trajan Column until we stopped a little pizza place to grab some pizza a taglia and some fruit. Let me tell you something very important. Choose your shoes wisely. Despite being comfy, convenient and somewhat more stylish then gym shoes, they ended up not having enough cushioning and my feet were constantly achy from days and days of walking miles on cobblestone. The rest of the afternoon was spent seeing the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain and getting Mike his first taste of honest-to-goodness Italian gelato and then hiking back to our hotel for a break/nap. As evening came we headed out for a stroll (hike, whatever) to the Spanish Steps and to find a nice dinner outside our neighborhood. Lucky for us, our journey to the Spanish Steps brought us to the top of the Steps because I'm not sure after the day of walking I could have made it up the 300+ steps. We arrived right around sun set and took some time to try and capture some photos - of the sunset, the lit steps, of all the people. And once we were all photographied out, we found a restaurant and sat outside and enjoyed antipasti and pasta (my first gnocchi and it was delicious) and a shared tiramisu. Once we were all done, we walked the long way back to the hotel so we could see the Trevi Fountain lit up at night.

Doing Good - Last Set of Stairs

Day 2 - Rome
Our second full day of vacation started early as well, but this time with breakfast. I dig European breakfast (at least those you find at hotels) - bread, a soft cheese and some fruit - that is my kind of breakfast. After fueling up, we headed to the metro to make our way to the Vatican City. It always surprises me how at ease I can be while taking the subway in foreign countries, but when I need to take it in like Chicago, I'm nervous. We spent the morning wandering through the Vatican Museum, making our way to the Sistine Chapel. The afternoon was spent going through St Peter's Basilica and then Mike dragging me to the top of its cupola. Yes, we hiked to the top, though I must admit we took the elevator up to the first level and walked from there. Around and around through increasingly smaller corridors and up steeper and steeper flights of stairs. I made it to the top without passing out, tripping or needing to pull the emergency SOS alarm, so victory. I'm glad Mike made me go, there's nothing like seeing the inside of a basilica's dome from so close and looking down from high up to the altar and then to see Vatican City and Rome from so high in the air. After returning to the hotel for another afternoon rest, we headed out later in the evening to find dinner, where I enjoyed fresh calamari (so good, not chewy, yum), and then back to the Colosseum to capture it at night and then on the back to the hotel for the night we stopped to get our last taste of Italian gelato - swoon!

Venice at Night

Day 3 - Rome & Venice
Our final day in Rome was spent wandering through the National Roman Museum and then walking the streets killing time while toting our huge backpack until it was time to catch our afternoon train to Venice. And despite being there a couple hours early, disaster nearly struck as departure time neared. As we were validating our internet purchased tickets to board the train, I noticed our tickets looked very different and said "ticket reservation" and I panicked thinking perhaps I was supposed to exchange our reservation form for a ticket, so we hurriedly went to try and figure out a half hour before the train was scheduled to depart. With no information desk to be found, we were directed one way but we decided to briefly split up. Mike heading the the main ticket booth to stand in the long line, and I to the "information" desk (which was really just a smaller ticket booth) far down the first terminal - our train was at the 24th terminal. As I finally got to the front of the line and the train was scheduled to leave in 15 mintues, I quickly found out that my reservations were an actual ticket, and sprinted loaded down with backpacks and packages to find Mike. But he wasn't there and time was ticking down. So I sprinted to our terminal thinking Mike would be there waiting, but he wasn't so back to the ticket booth, panic rising, I started trying to flag down a police officer to ask if there was a way to find a missing person, a PA, anything, and they had no idea what I was saying. So back I ran to our terminal with 5 minutes before the departure, hoping I would just find Mike, not caring that we would miss the train, just wanting to find him. We had insurance on the tickets so we could get a partial refund for not using them and we could just catch the next train...and then I saw him looking panicked and mad and we ran and jumped into the first car as we were down to only a couple minutes so there was no way to make our way to our coach outside the train. But we were together, and on the train as planned. Ugh, it still makes me stressed thinking about it. The panic, the despair, the fear. When we found our seats, some guys were sitting in them and the panic about the tickets didn't subside. Thinking I was told wrong, and we didn't pick up our reserved tickets so our seats were sold, there was nothing we could do as the train was moving. I found a conductor to ask for assistance, really just hoping for validation that our tickets were ok sooner rather than later. We were lead to our seats and the conductor asked the men to move, we sat down and then finally breathed again. As soon as our ticket was punched, we were able to relax and our journey to Venice began with a vow never to stray from the other's side. Several hours later we began to cross the water into Venice and as we stepped out of the train station and saw all the people and bridges and the grand canal, we knew we finally made it. After finding our hotel right off the grand canal and settling into our gold room with 4 beds and a side canal view, we went to explore Venice in the dark in search of food. As we wandered the tiny, dark streets occassionaly coming across other people but no real food establishment - we realized that National Geographic article we read before leaving was true, there are very few real Venetians left in Venice, which can really be seen at night as the streets become deserted - so we headed back to the Grand Canal and back across to eat at a hopping place on the canal. As we watched vaporettos load and unload, we ate, Mike being the more adventurous one (he dined on cuttlefish in a black, black, black squid ink sauce!), before heading in for the night.

Mike Hates Birds

Day 4 - Venice
Our day in Venice, started with us packing and checking out of the hotel at like 8 in the morning. Lucky for us, our hotel allowed us to store our bags all day so we didn't (and by we, I mean Mike) need to carry around the giant backpack all day until our evening train. We were then free to roam the streets of Venice, and that we did. We just walked and walked through the tiny streets and over the hundreds of bridges. I was just so amazed at how tiny and cramped it was, like a theater set of a city. We knew two things for sure about our time in Venice. Number one, we were going to find a mask to bring home and add to the wall in our dining room with the African masks my sister brought us from Africa and number two, we were going to take an gondola ride, despite be super expensive. We were out early enough in the morning that the city wasn't super crowded, we were able to find what I can only describe as gondola port and get right in for a 45 minute ride through the tiny canals. It's amazing that the gondoliers can maneuver those extremely long boats through those tiny canals, following so closely behind one another with only the one paddle. Mike's favorite part of the ride had to be when the gondolier in front of us was all like, "Ehhh!" to the a motorboat that tried to cut in front of us. The rest of our day was spent just wandering. We hit St Mark's, where despite Mike's fears of birds, I made him stand within 10 feet of a giant flock of pigeons to take a picture, and the Rialto, along the Grand Canal. And we searched for the perfect Venetian mask. In the end we actually (miraclously) found our way back to the first mask shop we visited - where the young man had modeled a mask and cape for us, even cocking his head in a very creepy, scary movie way - and I found a mask that really stood out as different (though those little Pinocchio masks were calling my name) and sophisticated, with bronzed brown and blues and greens, just perfect for our home's color scheme. As the day wound down and we tired out, Mike and I headed to the train station to check the status of our train and to just chill on the steps over looking all the people until it was time to board for our overnight train ride to Paris (in a 6 person coachette - I ended up in the bottom coffin bunk with a runny nose and freezing cold).

Almost There

Day 5 - Paris
Upon arriving at the Bercy station in Paris the next morning, we were greeted with a massive temperature change, no ability to change to warmer clothes and needing to waste about 4 hours until we could check into our hotel. We ended up hiking from Bercy Station to Notre Dame Cathedral first thing in the morning. The nice thing about starting so early in the morning is for the most part (except for the line to get into the Vatican Museum) the crowds are weak. Since the crowds were thin, we were able to go into Notre Dame with our giant backpack no problem. If you haven't been, the rose windows really are amazing. Enormous and intricate. After making a pit stop (finally - the train had not toilet paper & the train station bathroom was closed) in a free restroom underground in the area in front of the cathedral, Mike and I headed off to find the nearest Metro station to take us to our hotel. Despite having a map, we couldn't find the station as we were staying on the streets and after walking in a giant circle and stopping at a information booth outside the cathedral, who was no help, we found the station entrance tucked within a pedestrian block. We navigated the Metro and walked to our hotel, which ended up sending us to a different hotel several blocks away because of a plumbing problem. We settled in, changed and went to take the Metro to the Louvre. We walked through and made our way to our final destination of the Mona Lisa, which has been moved since I was there several years ago. When I previously saw it, we were ushered through a small room and not allowed to spend too much time in front of painting, and don't even think of taking its picture. Now it's displayed in a big hall on it's own wall floating in the center of the room and the surrounding walls showcasing only a enormous painting - a nice contrast between the giant paintings and the petite masterpiece. We were able to spend as much time as we wanted, and even though we couldn't get too close (there is an altar type thing below it and then an area was roped off a couple yards beyond it - I believe within a month or two before someone threw a beverage at it), you could still see it wonderfully. And there was no restrictions on photography! We were able to snap a clear picture as proof we had been - and unlike my last visit, trying to get a photo didn't distract from actually viewing the masterpiece.

Eiffel Tower at Night

After making our way out, we started our walk to the Eiffel Tower and headed to the top as the evening started to set in. Boy, was it cold and windy up there, but just as peaceful as I remember. Mike and I walked around looking at Paris from all directions. After we finally finished just gazing in the distance (and freezing) and headed to dinner. The funny thing is, we ended up eating at the same restaurant I ate at while visiting in 2003, crazy, right? As we sat down and I looked around the decor felt so familiar, I am almost 100% that it was the same place. Once we were done and it was dark, night pictures of the Eiffel Tower were in order and then we strolled through the park slowly making our way to a Metro station to get back to our neighborhood.

Crepe Maker

Day 6 - Paris
That was the nice thing about about where we were staying, it was an actual Parisian neighborhood, not touristy like the areas we stayed in Rome and Venice. The next morning as we made our way back to the Metro station for a train to the Arc de Triomphe, we walked through a street market (like a farmer's market). Our day was pretty low key, having done the major sites the day before, no rush, just going at our leisure. In addition to the Arc, we visited Les Invalides (the World War Museum and Napolean's tomb - pretty huge tomb for such a little guy) and then as we walked, we picked up a sandwich, some giant grapes and some chocolate and enjoyed an awesome picnic in the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower. That may be my favorite memory of the vacation, sitting in the sun in the mild weather, enjoying big grapes just gazing at the Eiffel Tower. It was actually kinda funny during our days in Paris we actually we mistaken as Parisian by a couple different people - I think it's because we weren't just in jeans and tee shirts - it was tough to tell the French lady that we couldn't speak French to give her directions. Hee. After our picnic we went out in search of Le Bon Marche so I could get a souvenir of fabric and yarn. That little trip to the department store turned out being perhaps the most stressful time on vacation (besides that incident in the Rome train station). Department store works very differently in Paris or at least their craft department does. Once I finally picked out my yarns and fabric, I got in line behind another person or two at a small register in the center aisle, when it was my turn, I got the evil eye from the french lady with a moustache with pointing and jabbing, we got the point we were missing some sort of ticket. But we didn't know where a ticket was obtained, so after passing around and retracing my steps to the different brand sections I had, I was lucky to come across a brand manager (?) who understood english, though did not speak it well. She helped me get started, so I understood what I needed and then headed to the other brand desks to obtain tickets that I would give to the register lady to ring up. Basically if your item does not have a Le Bon Marche barcode sticker, you must obtain a ticket from the brand's desk giving the price for what you want, kinda like when you get some fabric cut at Joann's. After I finally had my merchandise paid for, we headed to the highest point in Paris, Sacre Couer. Hiking up a giant hilly street crowded with people, and then up all the stairs to the actual church. On our way down we hit a little crepe stand and watched the man make our crepes in a little workstation right on the sidewalk (I had nutella, Mike had cheese). For our final night in Paris, we headed out in the neighborhood looking for some place local. As we walked, we passed through a block party of sorts, and eventually ended up at a little bar, with no english on the menu, so authentic, you know. Luckily our waiter was very kind and was able to help us out and speak some english and well as teach us a bit of french. The problem came as our night came to a close. We were tired, little sleep over a week and being on the go constantly had finally caught up with us, our waiter took a very long time to get our check even after asking him and then I got us a bit lost on our walk home. I'm still not sure how that happened, as I went the exact direction we came, but we eventually got back to the hotel to pack for our early morning ride to the airport.

Picnic Lunch on the Lawn

Getting Home
Our journey home started very early the next morning, as we has a 10AM flight and we were reliant on a shuttle service which according to the hotel front desk had never done a pick up that early in the morning, especially on a Sunday. As we rode through the dark streets of Paris, we ended up picking up an entire van full of people, so I think the hotel clerk just liked trying to freak out the americans. During our ride we passed by the Arc de Triomphe lit up at night and through the red light district. Our time in the Charles de Gaulle airport went well, except for I was patted down at security! I know! Like full body pat down and all my bags were searched by hand, I think wearing my watch through the metal detector and the crochet hooks and metal water bottle in my bags were prety suspicious. Ah well. We finally made it back to Dublin, and this time we were smart...we did not cross the "point" until after we ate (Burger King, I know, I know, but we only had some many euros left and we really just wanted a burger) and walked around a bit and luckily our layover this time was not as long, only a couple hours. The flight home from Dublin was so long and I managed to make it even longer when I misread the time and told Mike that we only had about two hours left when actually it was like 4 hours. Yikes! Sorry, Mike. But at least we got to watch A LOT of tv (and crocheting on my part). I managed to watch about half the first season of Mad Men which was cool. Oh, and you know how on our flight to Dublin when I said we left on time and arrived early...well guess what happened on the way back?

You'll never guess.

We got into O'Hare about 45 minutes early! Shocking, I know. And when the pilot said we were early and there was not a terminal ready, I was convinced we were going to turn into one of those cases you hear about on the news where the planes full of passengers get stuck on the tarmac for hours with no water and stinky bathrooms. Well, we weren't. About 10 minutes later we were disembarking and calling my parent's to come pick us up. Oh and another cool thing was we basically went through the whole customs process in Dublin, so besides a quick question about what kind of food we had brought back. By the time we grabbed our bag and I went to the bathroom, mom and dad were pulling up to pick us up (of course right after I told Mike, "yea yea you have time, just go to the bathroom"). We struggled to stay up to a normal time, trying to beat jet lag, and by the next morning our vacation was on its last leg. We were both up super early so we were able to say goodbye to mom before she left for work and pack up Nibbler and eat breakfast , and still get on the road early so we would at least have a few hours in our own home to recoup before needing to head back to work the next day.

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