October 6, 2010

I forget where I had breakfast so clearly it didn’t make an impression. On the way back to the hotel, I purchased some postcards. Some friends of my friend Rafa offered to show me around Madrid. I couldn’t have asked for better tour guides than Alfonso and Claudio.

We started out at a nearby bar that offered tapas along with your beverage. I had a delicious beer and LOVED the paella, croquettes and tortilla espanola. There was some aged pork on the counter that the bartenders were hacking off And then we went to another bar where the specialty was vermut en grifo or vermouth on tap. I have to say this was a delightful surprise. It looked like a typical beer tap, but this brownish-red liquid came out. Once the glass was nearly full, she released the handle and stuck the glass under a faucet that had this round handle like on a garden hose spigot which released a bit of tonic water. In addition to the drinks, the bartender had some tasty snacks, too.

Then we hit the streets. First up was a traffic circle just off Gran Via. I understand that one of the soccer teams celebrates victories at this fountain. 

We continued on to Parque del Buen Retiro, a huge park one the edge of downtown Madrid. This is a beautiful building that overlooks the lake in the Park. The park is very popular on Sundays when folks come and enjoy the park.

There was also the Palacio de Cristal in the park which was architecturally stunning. There were some interesting art installations on the inside.

The park was also popular with brides. This was one of 2 or 3 that we saw in the park that day.

The park had some beautiful gardens!

It’s one of the few places that has a statue of the Devil, El Angel Caido.

This is a memorial to the 3/11/04 terrorist attacks that occurred in Madrid.

And we saw some local wildlife!

As we left, I saw this tower just near the exit. There was a row of book stalls lining the walkway, but they were mostly closed. Reminded me of the stalls along the Seine.

And a quick peek into the Botanical Garden

Our next stop was the Caixa Forum, an old brick building that has been transformed into an architectural gem. The brick exterior has been adorned with a steel screen that has been intricate detail work. The building has been raised on columns and there’s a fountain underneath.

The interior was as captivating as the exterior — particularly the hanging lamps.

There was also this green, living wall outside.

We also walked by Centro de arte Reina Sofia.

We went to the train station Antigua Estacion de Atocha. The old hall now houses a tropical garden.

This connects to the modern train station that’s a major transit hub for Madrid.

There’s a memorial here for the 3/11 bombing that occurred at this station.

We then took the Metro which proved to be a beautiful and reminded of Washington, D.C.’s system.

Some of the fun things we saw were.

We also went to Plaza Mayor which is a huge square in old Madrid. My father had stayed in a hotel here in the early 1960s. I never did find the hotel.

Nearby was the Mercardo de San Miguel which was absolutely lovely.

The sun was starting to sit making for a dramatic setting.

We ended up near the Palacio Real or Royal Palace.

It was a delightful day and I’m so thankful to Alfonso and Claudio for showing me so many wonderful sights in Madrid.

I had dinner at a sidewalk cafe near the hotel. It was tortilla espanola between two slices of bread. I had a beer to wash it down. I stop by a local watering hole, but it was crowded and smoky.

All the walking and good food had left me sleepy so I call it a night!


Paris to Madrid

October 3, 2010

After a leisurely-paced morning which included an indulgent 20-minutue shower, I pack and check out of the hotel. Even though it’s early, I decide I want lunch. With my mouth watering from memories of yesterday’s delicious lunch, I go back to Le Chant des Voyelles. My starter is gazpacho which is delicious and refreshing. I go with the faux filet au roquefort again as it was so delicious. It didn’t disappoint the second time around. I notice young couples with toddlers disappearing into the restaurant and learn that there’s a lower floor that connects to the catacombs. I’m guessing their celebrating a toddler’s birthday as most carry gifts. I forego the icky cocktail and just have water and Coke. Oh, how I yearn for a Pepsi. Coke is everywhere but Pepsis are few and far between.

I walk back to Notre Dame and circle it to see its architecture from different perspectives.

Book stalls still line left bank of the Seine. Among the used books are cheesy souvenirs. With no particular destination in mind, I walk along the Seine, past the Louvre and loop back towards the hotel. There’s an intersting tower near the hotel called Tour Saint Jacques. And I walk around the St. Merry church by the hotel and discover some great public art. It’s a few short blocks to the Pompideu Center and its contemporary architecture. I scope out the route to Chatelet les Halles which is the train station that I need to use if I decide to take public transit to Orly airport for my flight later today. There’s a nice fountain nearby.

Back at the hotel, I grab my two suitcases and roll the 8 blocks to Chatelet les Halles and catch a RER train for the 35-minute ride to Antony station. It’s warm and I’m a bit sweaty from struggling with the bags. The A/C on the train is weak. At Antony station, I transfer to the Orlyval automated train for a short 9-minute hop to the airport. Public transit for under 10 Euros is a wise choice if you don’t want to cough up 35-45 Euros for a taxi ride in heavy traffic.

There’s a huge line to check in with Iberia. While they are operating my flight to Madrid, I had purchased my tickets online via LAN, one of Iberia’s partner airlines. Little did I know the wisdom in this purchase. After waiting 30-minutes, I’m greeted by a happy young airline employee. Seems that Iberia’s baggage policy is just one checked bag, but LAN has a policy of two free checked bags. Thank you LAN! I saved about $100 on bag fees.

I buy a boxed sandwich and water. I think the cardboard box might have had more flavor. The gate area is over run by children hopped up from their visits to Euro Disney. Seems Orly is they airport closest to this attraction and luck would have it that I was surrounded by a see of Spainish families returning from their weekend with Mickey. I’m all for letting kids romp in the airport in hopes that they’ll be exhausted and sleep on the plane, but I knew the rambunctious behaviour was going to spell disaster. Sure enough, one of two brothers that were sprinting back and forth between two sets of chairs tripped and fell only to have his sibling literally run over him. I’m sure he was going to have a bruise on his back. But not blood, no foul. Boys from three families descended on the Wii player that was clearly not functioning and began to pull on the hand controllers until I thought the stand was going to topple over. They announce the flight is delayed by one hour. Oh, joy! I’ll have a ringside seat for juvenile mayhem for another hour.

The flight is uneventful and I land at Madrid-Barajas at 10:25pm. It’s one of the prettiest airports I’ve been in and clearly not the terminal I experienced when passing through to Malaga in 1996. I gather my bags and make my way to the taxi stand. Rather than struggle with my bags on an unfamiliar subway at night, I decide taking a taxi would be best. This proves to be expensive (43 Euros) and ill advised. My friendly taxi driver doesn’t speak English well but he does communicate through lots of hand gestures and a few words of English that the street my hotel is on (Gran Via) is closed. He’ll take me as far as he can but I’ll have to walk some.

What I didn’t know is that I had arrived on La Noche en Blanco. It’s an annual event that has art galleries, museums and other attractions open until 4am that attracts some 750,000 people to downtown Madrid. Well, the cabbie got me as close as he could. Some 8 long blocks from my hotel. I wasn’t prepared for the crowds. Here I am trying to weave my way through the crowds, not roll over anyone’s toes, nursing my crippled suitcase and its battered wheels. I was anxious at first but it turned out to be amazing. I even stopped and took some photos. There were two people slathered in what looked to be wet terra cotta posing as one of the public art installations. And some of the buildings were striking with dramatic lighting.

Before I knew it, I had arrived a H10 Villa De La Reina. The front desk staff quickly checked me in and were apologetic about my having to trek on foot. I dropped my bags, turned on the A/C and washed my face. This hotel had an interesting feature: you had to slide your key card into this holder by the door to turn on the A/C and most of the lights. I guess it saves them money but turning off everything when you exit the room. It just means that the A/C can’t cool off your room while you’re out.

I head out looking for food as the airport sandwich isn’t going to hold me over. Even though it’s nearly midnight, the streets are bursting with folks out for La Noche. It’s surprising for me to see families with very young children out this late at night, but everyone is having a good time.

I investigate a couple of restaurants that I’d seen rolling to the hotel and decide on Vitamina as it has immediate seating. I order a hamburger and patatas vitamina. The burger is okay, but the fried potatoes are delicious. Lightly battered and deep fried, the potatoes come with three different sauces: ketchup, melted cheese or BBQ. It hits the spot. While I’m eating a multi-generational family is seated at the next table. It’s half past midnight and the kids’ energy is starting to wane.

Actually, my energy is waning, too. I take a few more photos on the way back to the hotel before falling into a deep slumber.

Paris Day Two

October 3, 2010

After a relatively late night — who knew Parisian bars stayed open until 4am or later — I sleep in. Some might find this wasteful as I should be out exploring and sightseeing, but I find sleeping in one of the great joys of travel and life in general.  I take a picture out one of the windows to capture the view.
And a shot of the hotel’s exterior. My room was the corner room on what we would call the 3rd floor with french doors on each side of the building.
I have brunch at Le Chant des Voyelles which is just across from my hotel. This sidewalk cafe has a hearty menu. I order a Caprese salad which is okay but rather than slices of mozzarella, the chef has diced the cheese. It’s different and not as good as sliced. But my entree of faux filet au roquefort avec énormes frites maison was AMAZING. I’m a big beef eater and there was nothing faux about that filet! LOL  The house cocktail had a frightful flavor that reminded me of the pink medicine I took as a child.

A pair of pants that had caught attention the day before drew me into Tara. The pants remind of something out of the Mad Max movies with lots of pockets and zippers and I’m not sure if a 40-something should wear them, but I decide this will be my souvenir of Paris.

I walk past Hotel de Ville and there’s a special event in the forecourt. They have these large screens where they project the action (there’s some guy being interviewed) that I think would be ideal for Art & Soul when the bleachers get too crowded so folks can see the performances.

I cross part of the Seine and there’s Notre-Dame in all here glory. It is a visual feast. I decide to hop on a city tour that Jeremy had recommended.

Laughed at this restaurant named for Notre-Dame’s famous resident.

Given the beautiful sunshine, I chose the open upper deck of the tour bus. Traffic congestion means that the bus lumbers slowly, but it makes seeing the sights easier. Highlights include Champs-Elysees where I see this adorable three-wheeled car, Arc de Triomphe, Concorde, Opera, Louvre Museum, Seine River, Invalides and Eiffel Tower. The column is bronze and made from 10,000 Austrian cannons captured by Napoleon that were melted down. The carved relief shows battle scenes from his victories.

This is The Thinker’s butt. All I saw from the tour bus.

The Opera

Not everyone found the tour riveting as evidenced by this bored guy who was dozing off.

I get off near the Palais de Chaillot which is the same vantage point where we saw the Eiffel Tower in 1985. It’s a beautiful day and the tour is a perfect low energy day. I hop back on another bus and continue the tower until I end back at Notre Dame.

All the open top touring has left me sunburnt and tired. It’s an early evening for me.

Paris Day One

October 3, 2010

I awake at 7:30. The train is scheduled to arrive in Paris at 8:15. Something tells me we’re late. I use the bathroom and then the conductor gives me an orange juice and a pre-packaged croissant. I guess this is breakfast. As I come back into the room, I hear the cabin mate blowing his nose so I know I don’t have to be quiet since he’s awake.

He goes to smoke (even though smoking isn’t allowed on the train, I guess there must be some secret place). While he’s out, I do a quick wash of the face and pits using the tiny sink in the cabin. Slap on some deodorant, along with fresh socks and t-shirt and I’m good to go. I feel so European. The tracks into Paris are quite rough and jolting so I get as much water on the floor as I do on myself. As we’re coming in, I see these tall skyscrapers that weren’t here in 1985. We arrive at about 9:05am. I roll my bags on the platform and decide my one broken suitcase’s wheels are like the legs of a French whore — spread wide!

I queue up for a cab and a man with a carte invalid (handicap card) gets to jump to the front of the line. But wait, the first cabbie says no and points to me. The car is a relatively new Skoda wagon which we will probably never see in the US. It’s a manual transmission and the cabbie is a bit jerky. So much traffic and noise – such a difference from Venice. I’m convinced I’m going to get hit by a car walking as I’ve not had to worry about cars for three whole days. The cabbie’s GPS can’t find the hotel. He’s getting frustrated and pulls out this map book. Voila! The hotel is on a pedestrian-only street so I’ll have to walk the last 100 feet. No worries except for the damaged wheels on my large suitcase. The cobblestones add an extra challenge for them. The cab ride from Gare Bercy to Hotel Saint-Merry is 20 Euros.

As I anticipated, my room isn’t ready so I drop my bags at the lobby and wander the ‘hood. I’m in Marais district so there’s a ton of cafes and shops. I walk by the Pompideu Center and decide it’s time for a petite dejeuner. I decide to go back to the cafe below the hotel as it looked inviting. The menu has a fromage and jambon omelette which I’ve been craving so I order that and a cafe au lait. The food is delicious and I order a second cafe au lait. Folks are streaming by on their way to work (I assume). Two Venezulaeans are peering at a map and clearly need assistance. I offer to help and decipher the Metro map for them. It’s fairly easy so I’m not sure why they were stumped.

I decide to put on a collared shirt for lunch at Willi’s with Juliet and Jeremy. I snag one out of my suitcase in the hotel lobby and discreetly tuck it in as I walk down the stairs. Since I have some time before lunch, I wander the neighborhood. See Taverne Karlsbrau which is open 24/7. I make note in case hungry strikes late at night. There’s lots of construction around Forum les Halles. Looks like they’re re-landscaping some of the park. The Eglise Saint-Eustache is a hidden treasure. Reminds me of Notre Dame with its flying buttresses. There’s a post office so I purchase enough stamps to send cards to folks back home. I find the restaurant and still have time so I continue wandering. The sun feels good and I take a seat in Palais Royal to enjoy the flowers and fountains and to people-watch.

As I begin to head back towards the restaurant, who do I bump into at one end of the gardens but Juliet and Jeremy. We wind our way back to the restaurant which is just a few blocks away. The meal was delicious and the company was great! Read their review of the meal at It was amazing to see French businesspeople around us having long lunches with lots of wine. The French do know how to live. A general strike was recently called when the French President proposed raising the retirement age by two years to 62. There is an amazing quality of life in Paris.

After lunch we’re off to the first hotel they stayed at to retrieve Juliet’s stray sunglasses. The hotel is near the Champs Elysees. We sneak up to the rooftop deck even though the bar/food service has ended. The views are stunning.

We meander back towards the Marais and duck into a cafe as dark clouds threaten. Just in time too as pouring rain pelted pedestrians within two minutes of our arrival. Jeremey, a true beer connoisseur, always tries local brews and he hit the jackpot with a brew that had a distinct orange flavor. I avoid most beer due to the overpowering flavor of hops, but this was a delight. When the beverages are gone and the rain stopped we walk to a Metro stop and hop on. Unfortunately, I lead us on to a train going the wrong direction but Jeremy notices immediately and we get off a the next stop and walk up and around to the platform with a train heading the correct direction. We agree to meet at 7:30 to arrive in time for our 8pm reservation. They de-train one stop before me. I exit at Chatelet and am a few short blocks from my hotel. I’d selected Hotel Saint-Merry based on some reviews and the fact that it has an amazing Gothic feel. It was the presbytery for the church next door and the rooms have timbered ceilings and lots of character. I check-in and am happy to learn my room is only one flight up as there is no elevator. The room is large with two two large french windows that overlook the pedestrian way below. I’m delighted even though the carpet is slightly worn, it’s clean and comfortable with enough space to have both suitcases open.

I finally have a chance to shower which feels luxurious after the quick spritz in the train cabin’s sink. I pop out looking for an exchange booth to convert dollars to Euros but all of the nearby ones are closed. Jeremy rings on my cell that they’re nearby on foot and we walk to Le Gaigne as it’s very near my hotel. The restaurant is very small with fewer than a half-dozen tables, but the food is amazing. I have the best fish I’ve ever had with a very creative beet ravioli. The soup was something I’ve never experienced before with complex flavors and textures. I can honestly say I’m not a fan of aspic but did love how the fresh dill livened up the dull broth made from white kidney beans. As I have explained to my family, it was food that I’d never had before. Read Juliet’s and Jeremy’s reviews at

After a leisure dinner, we walk back to my hotel and invite Juliet and Jeremy up to experience the room’s character. We say our goodbyes. It was such fun to meet up with them in Paris. They are scheduled to depart for the States the next morning. I wander through the Marais and end up at a bar that looks small from the outside but goes two floors down. One floor down is a the mezzanine that overlooks the dance floor that’s one more floor down. I think these lower floors may be part of the catacombs that are under Parisian streets. It’s very cool and they have Jack Daniels! There are some folks from San Francisco who are in town with Toyota, a couple in from Columbus, Ohio and another from Tel Aviv. I discover that the catacombs are not meant for someone 6 feet tall after hitting my head on one of the low arches. 

Venice Day Three

October 2, 2010

I awake about 7am and realize it’s overcast. Wait, it’s raining. Holy cow! It’s pouring. Then there’s the roar of thunder and the echo as the sound bounces off buildings in St. Mark’s Square. The strobe of the lightening is pretty against the Venetian landmarks. The storm reminds me of the tropical deluges I’ve experienced in Hawaii. It was raining that hard. But I’m cozy in bed.

I think the crappy weather will make it easier to leave Venice tonight. I linger in bed, check email and avoid packing.

Finally motivated, I begin packing. I rearrange my luggage so that the big suitcase is mostly dirty laundry and souvenirs while the smaller suitcase has my toiletries and fresh clothes. This should make changing on the train easier. After a great shower, I check out and the hotel agrees to store my luggage. The American couple from the restaurant the other night is also checking out. They have a train to Rome in 40 minutes and the clerk and I are alarmed as the boat to the train station from St. Mark’s Square takes about 40 minutes. Oh, well. I’m sure there’s frequent trains to Rome.

The rain has stopped and there’s no line at the Basilica di San Marco. I’m literally able to walk in while other days there had been a one-hour wait. Because of the Alta Acqua, you enter on a platform to avoid the flooded outer floor of the church. The interior is stunning — probably would be even more so with sunlight streaming through the windows. I’m angered by the people that take photographs including flash photography — both are prohibited in this sacred space. The ceiling artwork is amazing.

As I exit, I see that a line to get in has formed and is already about a 15-minute wait.

I have breakfast at Al Todaro in St. Mark’s Square facing the Grand Canal. Soon after I order, an older British couple sits down at a table nearby. Their bickering is endearing. I watch a drain back up so water is actually coming up out of it and flooding the sidewalk…I dub it the Undrain.

I’m guessing that the tide must be coming in so the water level is rising even more. The waiters are decked out in tuxedos and some of the waiters are trying to dry off the chairs by slamming the legs on the sidewalk to get the bulk of the water off and then wiping them down with a cloth. I see three overloaded UPS carts trying to make it through the tourists that are herding in the dry spots. There’s a Asian man burden with technology at a nearby table. Besides his Blackberry, he’s got an iPad and a laptop. All of us within earshot become burdened by technology when he uses Skype on his iPad to call Japan. The connection is horrid and he’s sitting there shouting into his iPad. Don’t they have a headset for the iPad? I give him my best American glare. He picks his nose. I decide it’s clear this man has no social graces.

One way you can tell locals from the tourists is by the high rubber boats that the tourists wear during high water. I recognize the captain from one of the delivery boats the other day. He and a crew of three are delivering three very large pieces of furniture on a cart. Quite a challenge made worse by the crowds.

There’s a guy bailing out his gondola — getting it ready for his first fare of the day.

I end breakfast with a frothy cappuccino.

I hop on the vaporetto and head towards the Jewish Ghetto. The nearest stop is San Marcuola. An ambulance boat goes by (yes, they have a siren and lights like ours) and the boat’s wake sends waves crashing even higher on the buildings along the Grand Canal. The water splashs as high as the windows. Someone placed a pallet on the sidewalk near the vaporetto stop so folks don’t have to get wet feet when they leave the stop. It begins to rain.

The Jewish Ghetto has a police shack in the square. Not sure why. Sobering displays talk about the Jews that were rounded up and sent to a concentration camp during the war.

Head to Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto. It’s dedicated to travelers and I think a visit is fitting. Tintoretto, one of the Venitian masters, lived nearby and painted much of the interior. It is stunning. The artist and his family are buried in the corner chapel. 

See this boat sticking out of a building as if it had crashed through it.

I see one of the marinas.

The rain has stopped and the sky’s are clearing. Since it’s my last day, I decide to splurge and have a cocktail at one of the pricey cafes in San Marco. Caffee Lavena has a 5.70 Euro supplement to pay for the live music. I feel cheated as I only really get 5 songs from my band during the hour I linger at the table. The bands at the different cafes take turns performing so they aren’t competing . The Venetian cocktails are delicious. 

Make my way back to hotel, pick up my luggage and roll to the vaporetto stop. The wheels on my large suitcase are straining. Thank you United.

The vaporetto does take about 40 minutes to reach the train station.

I stand around waiting for the train’s track number to appear on the departure board. Grab some snacks including these yummy bread twists (Tarallucci) that I had enjoyed at the restaurant the other night and two bottles of water. Once the track number appears, I roll down there. It takes a moment to see where the train car number is displayed as I’m in a specific bed on a specific car (Bed 12 in Coach 92). I had reserved a first-class sleeping berth for the overnight train from Venice to Paris. I wasn’t expecting the Orient Express, but was hoping for the best. I find the car and heft my two bags up. It’s a ridiculously compact cabin and the beds are all set up. I learn from the conductor that my cabin mate will board in Milan. Next door is an older British couple and two doors down is a young loud couple who inquiries about smoking on the train. There is none so they hang on the platform to have a smoke. They have more luggage than I do.

I settle in to the cabin trying to find places for my coat and shoes that will be out of the way. I discover a wash basin in the cabin. The water is not for drinking. The toilet is down the hall. I venture in and my nose is immediately assaulted by the smell. There is no stopper or u-joint to prevent the odor from rising up from the holding tank. YUCK! The train takes off with a massive jerk — this is a theme that’s repeated at every stop. This is going to be an  interesting journey.

I decide to enjoy the dinner service at 8:30pm about an hour after departure. At a table for four, I’m joined by Dominico who lives half-time in Venice and half-time in Bologna. He’s quite quiet at first, but half way through his bottle of wine, he becomes chatty. He works at an art gallery in Venice and is a poet. He’s originally from Sicily but loves Venice.

The first course is penne in a bolognese sauce. The main course is a delicious chicken with mushrooms served with a tomato salad. Dessert is fresh fruit as I can’t have the chocolate cake. A sweet pear and fuzzy kiwi.

When I return to the cabin, I begin to nest. Trying to figure out what to do with the paper foot mat (conveniently identified by the footprints printed on it). As I stretch out on my bunk — thankfully the lower one — I download images from my camera as I had maxed out the memory card again today! The bed is kinda of comfortable and I’m sleepy.

We arrive in Milan and my cabin mate enters. A young African Italian who’s going to Paris on business. He’s purchased two bunks otherwise there would have been three of us squeezed into this closet of a cabin. I poop in my ear plugs about 11:30pm and quickly fall asleep.

The thin duvet is surprisingly warm. I slept fairly well.

Venice Day Two

September 27, 2010

I woke up fairly early and heard what sounded like chanting. Assumed that it was my imagination or something at one of the churches.

Minor Alta Acqua (high water) has left a few large puddles in St. Mark’s Square causing even denser pockets. I’m definitely frustrated by the crowds and that leads to wet feet as I venture into the puddles to make headway through the crowds. I figure Venice is built on water and one should expect to get wet feet – as long as I don’t fall into a canal, I’m happy.

I’m trying to rush to post office as it is only opened in the morning. It costs .85 Euros to mail each postcard.

Discover there was a military review in St. Mark’s Square and there are still several men walking around in uniform. One older guy with lots of ribbons I assume is a general or something. There’s also a large group of Polozia in the square.

After posting the cards, I fight the crowds back to Campanile di San Marco, the 60-meter tower in St. Mark’s Square. My visit the previous evening was cut short by a full memory card in the digital camera. While the view at night is lovely, I preview the daytime view as the scenery is amazing. The tower was first built in 888 rebuilt in 1514 and collapsed in 1902. They rebuilt an exact replica of the tower and thankfully added an elevator. For 8 Euros you get a great view. When the elevator doors open, I’m treated to an amazing sound…one of the bells in the tower is ringing. This would never be an option in America as some fool would reach up and have his hand crushed by the clapper.

I can’t stand the crowds on the ground level so I head to the vaporetto. I assist two American couples with the vaporetto system and get rewarded with “Your English is very good.” I say “Thanks, it should be as I’m from California.”

I get off at the Salute stop which is right by Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute. The church absolutely drips with ornalte decor. Built in 1630, the church is supported by 100,000 pylons. From there a short walk to Zattere along Canale della Guidecca on the back side of Dorsodoro.

Make my way to Campo San Vio which has a simple church. See construction crew working on a building. Demolotion materials must also be shipped off Venice by boat.

Stop near Compo di S. Agnese for lunch. A great chicken sandwich with spinach and cheese in the patty (spinacchini fromaggano). Have bottled water along with sandwich.

Walk by this gallery that has a 5-foot-tall bear sculpture made from spark plugs. Very creative.

Go to the Gallerie dell’ Accademia which is the one Venetian museum I wanted to visit. I’m not a huge fan of religious art but this was amazing. I tend to find paintings done prior to 1550’s as flat and one-dimensional, but these were amazing pieces.  I loved Bellini’s Madonna and Child Enthroned. Caliari’s Feast in the House of Levi, Tintoretto’s St. Mark freeing a slave, Titan’s Presentation of the virgin at the temple and Tiepolo’s Praying figures at a Loggia. In fact, I liked the museum so much I purchased their catalog just to remember these amazing pieces of art. Really found some of the art painted on curved pieces amazing.

I continued wandering and found Squaro di San Trovaso which has the only patch of green lawn that I saw while in Venice. It’s right next to the gondola repair facility that was mentioned in one of my guidebooks. The building is really rustic looking but is still used. This island is Dorsoduro – a really lovely part of Venice that isn’t horrible crowded with tourists.  

Campo San Margherita is a wonderful, large square where kids play and friends gather. An authentic bit of Venice. It’s also site of the Dorsoduro Produce Market which only has two vendors this late in the day.

Discover this empty house on the corner of Rio Misuovo and Rio di San Panalou on Campo Pantalon. I fantasize about winning the lottery, buying the building and rehabbing it.

Walk to restaurant in guidebook on Calle Crosera. While the decor is very high end, the prices are very reasonable and the food was delicious. I have grilled polenta with mushrooms and salami. The polenta turns out to be made from white corn and is very pale except for the grill marks on it. To accompany the meal, I have a Venetian cocktail. Since it’s early for dinner and the place isn’t crowded, I linger over the cocktail and watch folks walk by. There really are lots of dogs here in Venice. Given the lack of grass, they must poo on the sidewalks. I witness several dogs pee on the side of this one building. Clearly, it’s the message board for the neighborhood’s dogs.

After some time, I venture back out. I pass the Chiesa di Frari and enjoy Campo San Polo, another square that’s full of Venetians greeting friends as their kids run around.

I end up at the Rialto Bridge and decide to take the vaporetto back to San Marco. There’s an ancient woman with a small, adorable dog. Before she boards the boat, she slips a muzzle guard on the dog. I guess he might not be a friendly beast.

I’m tired so decide to make it an early evening.

Venice Day One

September 13, 2010

Awoken by the sun and lay in bed for a bit listening to the bells ring. What a pleasant way to wake up.

The shower is a nice surprise as there is abundant water pressure. I had expected a dismal shower but it’s lovely. The odd part is the shower enclosure which has a very odd accordion fold that only allows entry from the end of the tub. Very difficult getting out when you’re standing inside. Sorry no pictures of that experience.

I begin wandering with no particular destination in mind. I see a man wheeling this cart stuffed with plastic garbage bags. He’s rolling it to the garbage boat. Then I realize that everything is transported by boat in Venice. DUH! The garbage man stops to drink from a Venetian drinking fountain. I soon learn that these are scattered throughout the city. I’m just not sure if I should drink from them and am not brave enough to try. I don’t want Doge’s Revenge, kinda like Motezeuma’s Revenge but with an Italian accent.

Deliveries come in as close to the final destination by boat and then are hand carted the rest of the way. That certainly adds some labor expense to goods here in Venice.

I stop for breakfast at Smack & Sweet Bar Gelateria. Have the Genovese Prosciutto sandwich and tea.

Linger and watch folks. A grandma stops to chat with a friend and her grandson grows bored and plays peek-a-boo around her leg. A mother is using an odd stroller to drag her kid around. When the emerge from a market, I realize the “stroller” was actually their two-wheeled market cart and the kid was just getting a free ride. There’s also these carts with three-wheels on each side that make it easy to go up and down steps leading to bridges. Brilliant technology.

An old woman with a floppy hat sits down three tables down with her adorable little dog. Two women at a table faun over the dog and one even opens her wallet to show the old lady a photo of her dog back home.  There are many dogs here. I guess Venetians love pets.

The crowds are massive here — particularly around St. Mark’s Square. I avoid the crowds by pausing at a cafe to have a beverage and write postcards.

I hop aboard a vaporetto (I’d purchased a three-day pass in advance and picked it up at the airport). It proves to be a great investment. I step off at the Arsenale stop. The Arsenale was the center of Venetian shipbuilding for 600 years. I wander the ‘hood and notice the museum. There are a few men in uniform which I guess means it is still a military post.

I see a flotilla of gondolas squeezing through a narrow canal already congested with delivery boats. Catch one guy texting while rowing — is that illegal like texting while driving? Sometimes if there’s a tight corner, the gondlier will kick off from a building with his foot.

I hop aboard another vaporetto and this route takes me around to some of the outer islands which is wonderful. See the old warehouses that have been converted to live-work lofts and artist studios. I see where the huge cruise ships that dump thousands of tourists here anchor. See a nice example of modern architecture — one of their train stations I think — that is truly out of place here. I snap lots of photos — 530+ on my first day. In the distance, I can see the ugly chemical plants in Mestre.

After looping back around, past the train station and the road that connects Venice to the Italian mainland, I’m back on the Grand Canal. I get off at the Rialto Mercado stop as I want to visit the Rialto Fish and Produce Markets. It’s kind of a dud. No fish, I guess that’s only on certain days. A few produce vendors. I snap a photo of one of the more colorful booths.

Traghettos are much like gondolas but they just go back and forth across the Grand Canal like a ferry boat. Say one that looked overloaded to me.

Why is this statue smiling? He’s in Venice!

And I thought the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were the first to have skybridges!

The Rialto Bridge is packed with people. I see an elderly woman who clearly stumbled somewhere on a stair and scuffed her lower shin. I ask if she’s okay or needs a tissue to blot the blood. She says she’s fine and clearly by the look in her eyes she is determined to enjoy her Venetian adventure. As she stops in pauses at the top of the bridge arch and looks at the view it’s as if she’s transported to another time. By the look on her face you knew she’d been to this spot before – perhaps on her honeymoon long ago. It was a sweet moment.

There’s some construction in St. Mark’s Square which affords a glimpse at the underbelly of Venice. I peek through the slates and see the modern steel pylons that are being installed.

For the other photos, a brief, but desciptive title should appear when you hover over them.

Berlin to Venice

September 7, 2010

After a chilly night, I awake to a beautiful clear morning. Perfect for exploring the city, but I have to pack and leave. I’m sad for a moment and then realize that I’m off to Venice! the repacking is an interesting experience as United damaged my larger roller bag so there are bits of shattered plastic strewn among my clothing. With the purchases from Berlin it’s really bulked up the bags a bit. I’ll have to pace myself to make sure I have room for purchases throughout the trip.

I make the 11am checkout deadline and store my bags and wander the neighborhood in search of breakfast. I end up at this busy restaurant with outdoor cafe seating. They’re having a brunch buffet and I don’t recognize most of the food, but the veggie salad with feta and fruit with creme fraishe is safe. I order scrambled eggs and bacon to round out the meal. My hot tea is served in a tall glass which transmits the heat to my fingers.

The timing is perfect for a walk back to the hotel and a taxicab to Tegel for my flight. The cabbie was a mathematican who did some early programming work in the late 80s and then taught a university for five years. When he didn’t get tenure, he consulted for several years. With the economic downturn he lost his clients and started driving a cab. The 25-minute drive goes quickly and costs 20 Euros including a tip for the cabbie.

My pool roller bag suffers as I roll through the terminal in search of Air Berlin. Instead of being parallel, the wheels are now turned out 20 degrees. Tegel is fairly small and I hear the Germans are opening a new airport in Berlin so we might actually have direct flights from the US.

I’m a bit distressed when I look at Air Berlin’s departure board and don’t see Venice or Venezia on the board. There’s Venedig which turns out to be the German spelling. The very sweet woman working the check-in counter is dismayed that I’ll be charged 70 Euros for my overweight bags. I explain I’m on vacation and not worried, she says I need that money for vacation and ends up having me carry my small roller bag into the cabin. A big thank you to her and Air Berlin, but I’m guessing this will be an issue later in the trip with other airlines.

Just as in the US, you have to separate laptops and liquids from your other carryon items, but you get to keep your shoes on! I forgot to take off my money belt thingie and end up getting wanded.

As we climb out of Berlin, I see lots of modern windmills for green energy production. I also see lots of trees and large farms like you see from the air in the US.

The pilot mentions that we’re flying over Prague in the Czech Republic. I look down and notice the square and rectangular fields have given way to odd-shaped parcels dictated by the topography. Sitting one row behind me are two young US women who were just in Eygpt. They speak loudly so those of us within five rows either direction can hear their conversation. The one directly behind me has the bad habit of thumping her tray which jars my seat. Argh! I’m behind a young couple with two toddler sons. One is a handful, but entertaining. The food smells good but I’m not really hungry yet and decide to wait to eat in Venice.

I look out the window and see snow on the peaks of the Alps and villages terraced down the slopes. Heidi lives down there somewhere with her grandfather. As we come in to land, I notice how industrial the mainland side is with what looks like refineries or chemical plants. As we land and taxi, there’s a FedEx plane on the tarmac. Ah, globization.

Get my checked bag and head through the door. No customs or immigration as I’ve already entered the EU in Amsterdam. They’re not very well organized at the Venice Connected booth. I had pre-purchased a 72-hour transit pass and ferry ride from Airport to Venice proper. The ferry is a five-minute walk from the airport. Nice to have the fresh air after the plane ride. Realize I don’t have the ferry pass and end up purchasing another one at the terminal for 13 Euro.

After a short wait, the boat arrives. This isn’t like a Mackinaw Island ferry. These are low, sleek, fast-looking Italian boats.

There’s about 50 of us that nearly fill the boat to capacity. The ride starts out slowly and I’m thinking it’ll be a week before we reach Venice, but then after passing the no-wake zone, the captain kicks it up several notices and we start cruising. My stop — San Marco — is the fifth on the route so I get to see some other parts of Venice including Lido before arriving. As we bounce through the waves two large cruise ships slip into the Adriatic. There was a regatta earlier in the day and all kinds of different boats are heading home. I can’t believe they stand up while rowing!

The architecture is magical. It’s too dark for photos as I arrive but stunning to the eye. The cobblestones try the poor splayed wheels on the large roller bag  as I search for my hotel. It’s a bit of a challenge to find the entry door and then the buzz to gain entry. The reception desk is on the third floor up a narrow stairwell. Greeted by name at front desk by Tahana and a new trainee who will be working the night shift. No credit card imprint as you pay at departure. They have Wi-Fi throughout hotel (unlike the modern Berlin hotel). The night shift guy is kind enough to carry my suitcases up two more flights to where my room is. 

The queen-sized bed practically fills the room, but there’s not wooden slats in the middle 🙂 There’s a wash basin in the room and a full bath down the hall. It’s got a lovely beamed ceiling and is better than I expected. It’s humid. I lay down for a moment and unexpectedly nap for 45 minutes.

I dine at Dreams, a restaurant suggested by Tahana. The Caprese salad is delicious and the chicken in a yummy sauce with rice-sized pasta is delicious. I have a Venetian cocktail of Prosecco and bittersweet Aperol. It’s not Jim Beam and Coke, but goes down pretty smoothly. I don’t realize it’s closing time and the staff does it’s best to encourage departure without being rude. I walk back via San Marco and enjoy the lights and live music. There are three places with live classic bands and they each take turns as not to compete. Very civilized.

September 4 in Berlin

September 7, 2010

It was raining this morning when I woke up which made me move slowly.

I wandered the six blocks to Nollendorfplatz for breakfast and I happen upon a farmers’ market/art show. It’s very large with lots of food and art vendors wrapped around this church.  This must be the church whose bells I hear from the hotel.

Three croissants, 100 grams of Gouda cheese and some slices of salami become breakfast as I wander the stalls looking at the different food items and great handmade artwork. I find some gift items and souvenirs.

The market attracts lots of different folks from old women doing their shopping to young couples with their kids. The market had a very authentic feel and I enjoyed it immensely.

On one corner of the square, I noticed someone tending a lush balcony garden five stories off the ground. Also noticed a burrito shop which just doesn’t seem right.

Took the U-bahn (part of Berlin’s amazing transit system) to Charlottenburg to see one of the attractions I saw from a distance on yesterday’s tour, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche (Emperor William Memorial Church). This cathedral that was all but destroyed during World War II was surrounded by a children’s carnival today. Quite a juxtusapostion for a memorial to the destructiveness of war.

Adjacent to the damaged tower is a new modern church known locally as the “lipstick case.”

The floor of the old church was a beautiful mosaic of an angel. Most people were staring up at the ceiling, which was beautiful, and not even noticing what they were walking on. The displays are in German and English and follow the history of the building from compoletion in the 1890s through present day. Some of the exhibit talks about how even Jews that converted to Christianity were persecuted by the Naxis. Wondered if the bombing raid that all but destroyed this church was one that Uncle Joe flew on during the war.

Outside, there were some street performers including a group of guys doing some bad break dancing and another doing skateboard tricks.

I wandered a bit further down the street which was one of the big shopping streets in West Berlin to view an interesting piece of public art. The guide yesterday had called it fighting spaghetti and I understand why.

I hop back on the transit system, The S-bahn and U-bahn (one’s supposed to be underground and the other above ground, but the first train I took went both above and below ground) to Friedrichstrasse with the intention of going to Pergamon Museum which is supposed to have some great antiquities on display. I never made it inside. Blame it on the great weather and another market that stretched along the river with everything from antique books to drawings and original paintings to souvenir crap.

Meandering through the market, I ended up at the same at the same cafe as yesterday, Cafe Im Sueg Haus. As I take my seat, I notice today’s entertainment is a mime who mocks folks walking through the market. I’m horrified to think I may have been one of his subjects just moments ago but am soon laughing along with the rest of the crowd at his good natured antics.
You sure can’t beat the view of Berliner Dom and I love when the bells ring. The little birds are quite tame here at the cafe and hop on the table to join you much like the Kona Country Club. The waiters use a wireless device with stylus to enter the customers orders — kind of high tech. After the mime, one of the young accordion players from yesterday is back, this time playing to track music. I decide I LOVE cafe live in Berlin and it’s not due to accordion music.

The Ice Tea I ordered turns out to be a sweetened, peach-flavored liquid that’s good enough. My lunch is a chicken breast sauteed in thyme and rosemary with root vegetables and potato noodles. It was excellent and affordable.  A patron at a nearby table calls over an older accordion player and sings along with him.

I notice folks walking by with what looks like hotdogs in super short buns — the bun is about 1/5 the length of the dog. I guess they’re meeant as a tidy way to eat a sausage by hand.

Just realize that most kids here don’t wear bicycle helmets. When the bells ring again, I realize that an hour has slipped by without an effort. Ah, vacation.

I walk back to the hotel through some of the same neighborhood as yesterday including Humboldt Universitat and the Mercedes Gallery.

I take a nap, work on the notes for this blog and then head out for a late dinner.

I decide to stop by an Italian restaurant to experience the German take on this cuisine. I thought I ordered pork medallions but what arrived was either beef medallions or the rarest pork I’ve ever eaten. Let’s just pretend for sure that it was beef. Regardless, it was delicious in a balsamic reduction sauce served with greend beans and root vegetables. It’s a very leisurely-paced meal.

I should have closed the window before going to bed, but I love sleeping in fresh air. I awake chilled and double up the duvet to get warm. I haven’t mentioned the hotel bed before. The king-sized bed is actually two twins shoved together which is common in Europe. What is odd is the bed’s wood frame including two slats down the middle of the bed that are taller than the mattress when one lays down. Makes for an interesting experience when one rolls over onto a cold wooden slate.

Friday in Berlin

September 5, 2010

The day starts slowly. I shave and shower. I grab a croissant and some water as I walk from the hotel towards Mitte, a different section of the city. My destination is Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate).

I walk through the Kulturforum (Cultural Forum) where I walk by the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), Neue Staatsbibliothek (New National Library) and the Musikinstrumenten-Museum (Musical Instruments Museum). All are unique architecturally.

I hug the edge of Tiergarten Park, the huge park in the center of the city. It provides me with geographic reference as my hotel is south of the park.
I see the soaring buildings of Potsdamer Platz long before I enter the plaza. Once barren land bifurcated by the Berlin Wall, this area has been heavily developed since 1989. In some cases it’s the worst case of global consumerism with Starbucks, Lego and Sony leading the charge.

There is some amazing architecture here. I was particularly taken with the roof  and one of the buildings. A bit of history is preserved here with the interior of one of Berlin’s grand old hotels preserved behind glass.

(I tried to do an artsy shot with Berlin’s past reflecting the modern construction).

There’s also six sections of the pre-cast concrete sections of what was once the Berlin Wall. A good display with information an an entreprenuer who would stamp your passport for a small fee. The panels have been tagged or used as artistic canvas depending on your perspective. I liked the one where folks had stuck pieces of gum into a kind of mosaic.

From Potsdamer Platz, I follow the road up to Brandenburg Gate. But before I arrive there I am struck by the Holocaust Memorial, more formally the Memorial to the Murdered European Jews. Some 2700+ concrete columns rise from the undulating ground. It’s a sobering place with the sunlight casting odd shadows. I tried to think how many murdered Jews each column represented. I think it’s something like 2,000 per column. And yet, there was a since of hope and life as toddlers played hide-and-seek amongst the towering black columns.

Right next door is the United States Embassy, a nice enough building.  Next to it, a building with an undulating facade is under construction. I was wondering if the architect was playing off the undulating ground of the Holocaust Memorial to create the facade.

Brandenburger Tor has been returned to its granduer after of years of neglect in East Berlin. Winged goddess of victory rides a chariot pulled by four horses.  There was a group singing between the columns and the sound was amazing. Behind BT is Pariser Platz which has been redeveloped from waste land into a grand plaza with many stately looking buildings that try and replacate the ones that once stood here.

I decide at this point to take one of the open top bus tours to get a better feel for the city’s sights. I learnt that Berlin has 200 miles of waterways and 700 bridges (more than Amsterdam or Venice). There are some 400,000 street trees and, in the highly organized way that is prevalent in Germany, each tree is individually numbered. It’s one of the greenest cities in the world (I’ll definitely vouch for that. It’s lovely.) And Tiergarten Park is the size of Monaco and the “green lungs” for the city. The 1 3/4 hour tour is narrated by a guide who easily switches from English to German, sometimes in mid-sentence. He also tries to be funny which works well in one language but perhaps not so well in the other.
We go past the Reichstag and it’s famed dome and through the Government Quarter. There’s even a pedestrian bridge across the Spree River between two government buildings. I think it’s very symbolic about the joining of East and West Germany.

We drive by Hauptbahnhof (the main train station) which was finished in time for the World Cup a few years back. It’s where I arrived from Amsterdam, but I hadn’t appreciated its architecture as I was exhausted. The guide talks about how it wasn’t quite finished with 100 meters of ceiling missing on one side and more on the other. I guess first class passengers have to wait in the elements!

We drive through the Diplomatic Quarter and see some embassies. We drive by the President’s palace where they were preparing for an official visitor by laying the red carpet.

Unter den Linden, literally under the Linden trees, is a tree-lined boulevard with some great buildings including Humboldt Universitat (not the one in California) and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) housed in the very ornate old Armory building.

Gendarmenmarkt is a square dominanted by the French Dome and German Dome, nearly houses of worship the former used by French Huguenot immmigrants and the latter by Germans.

In Charlottenburg, I’m struck by the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche (Emperor William Memorial Church). Built in the late 1800s, the cathedral suffered damage from repeated air raids and they’ve left the bombed out tower standing.

Saw some 1970s Soviet era architecture in East Berlin. Not as dreadful as I had expected. Skyline dominated by the tall television tower that East German government installed. Has a silver sphere that’s a restaurant and observation tower.

Drove pase Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) which was lovely.

Once the tour arrives back at Brandenburg Gate, I step off the bus and walk back to Berliner Dom. It’s really a lovely building. I capture a bride and groom or models walking back to a Rolls Royce with their photographer. Clearly they had a photo shoot with the cathedral as the backdrop. I take a photo with the TV tower to show contrast. I think the guide said this was the talest building in the European Union. Just the red and white part is 360 feet.

After lingering by the cathedral, I cross over the river to the other side and decide it’s well past time for lunch. I eat at Cafe Im Seug Haus outside overlooking the river and the cathedral. I have a wurst dish (sausage, big surprise) accompanied by a potatoe cucumber salad which was kinda like lukewarm augratin potatoes with chilled cucumber in it. Actually quite tasty. I linger over lunch which is one of the joys of vacationing. Find out tarte flambee is what the waiter calls German-sytle pizza. It has a very thin crust. I have my first beer in Germany. Wonder if there’s a minimum drinking age in Germany? Two different kids play the accordion and then ask for tips. I see an older man that I assume is their grandfather sitting off on a park bench. It kinda seems like he’s pimpin’ out his accordion-playing grand kids.

Watch all these great cars available in Europe, including several Honda and Toyota models we don’t get in the US, drive by with an occasion odd American vehicle like a full-size Chevy van and a Dodge Spirit.

On the long walk back to the hotel, I pause as the roads and crosswalks are blocked by police. Suddenly it’s clear that the dignatary that the Presidential palace was preparing for had arrived. It was a caravan of stretch Mercedes Benz. One jock driver did a super neat swooping skid in an E class that was cool.

I took a nap which turned out to be several hours long and then grabbed a currywurst with pommes for dinner. It was sliced sausage with a bit of curry powder and ketchup with a side of fries. Do you see a sausage theme here in Germany?

I visited a few bars in the neighborhoods before turning in around 1am.

Sorry for the slow postings. The hotel wifi was non existent and the staff was less than sympathetic about the technology blackout. As I upload this, I’m at Tegel awaiting my flight to Venice.