Joined January 2018 Message
  • Day2

    Back in the Motherland

    August 29, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    Happy to report the flight was uneventful and more pleasant than I anticipated, no doubt in large part to modern pharmaceuticals. I obtained the seat assignment I'd originally requested, so I had my window to lean against while I caught some sleep. The flights were on schedule and my bag arrived, so things are off to a good start!

    Once I got to London I did the housekeeping stuff- obtained cash, got a transport card for the Tube, bought and installed a SIM card and made my train reservations for the remainder of my trip. I have a month-long Britrail pass but was unable to obtain seat reservations on the internet. You have to be in the UK to do that, which is frustrating.

    After dropping my bags at the hotel, I headed off via tube & train to hit my first sight, Highclere Castle, aka "Downton Abbey". I watched a documentary on the home and learned that it costs $1,000,000 pounds annually to maintain the estate. No wonder they have to make it a tourist attraction, albeit only during the summer. They are largely closing the attraction at the end of the month, so I made it here just in time to see it. They allow you to wander the grounds, gardens and much of the interior of the house BUT you are not allowed to take pictures inside. The excuse is that the "Lady" doesn't want their to be pictures taken of their private home. Yet she is happy to have such pictures sold in many forms (postcards, books, etc) in their gift shop. She also is quite enamored with placing photos of herself throughout the home. I promise you there are no less than 6 photos of her in each and EVERY room. From the documentary I also learned that several of the story lines in Downton are based upon some of the history of the family- for example the estate was once in jeopardy of being sold due to a lack of funds but the Lord had married a rich American woman, who ended up 'saving' it with her finances. Also, the same woman/Lady did spearhead turning Highclere into a hospital and rehab center for military personnel during the 2nd World War.

    On the trainride to Newbury, which is where Highclere is located, I sat next to a lady with her 3 little girls. They were really cute and there is something enchanting about hearing little kids speak with an English accent. Of course they are just like siblings the world over, pushing one another's buttons, etc. One of the kids had opened something incorrectly and her older sister said "Well done but not in a good way." Later she scolded her sister about a game saying "That's not the proper way." LOL I can also tell you that apparently little girls the world over are enamored with the colors of pink, purple and all things unicorn. Based upon what I overheard in their conversation, they also think they know everything. One of the girls had obtained a book full of pictures of kittens and cats and I have never seen someone so rapturous in looking at a book of kitten pictures. That kid really needs to have a cat but unfortunately her mom said she's allergic. Guess she finds out at a young age that life can be cruel!

    While Highclere Castle is indeed very large, it is nothing compared to say, Biltmore House. The original house was much smaller and fairly nondescript. In the 1900's the present structure was built arround the original one and the architect, Berry, is the same one who designed Parliament, and the style is very recognizable as a result.

    The interior rooms were nice but some of the rugs and furniture was a little tatty looking due to how old it was. Some highlights were a desk of Napolean's and some incredible silk wallcoverings. I wish I could have obtained a picture of those wallcoverings.

    In each room there were Downton set pictures to let you know what key scenes had taken place there. There was no guided tour, it was self-guided, but there were docents in each room who could answer questions.

    The day was sunny and the temps were in the mid-upper 70's, so it was quite nice wandering through the gardens.

    They also had an exhibit about the one of the former Lord's Egypt discoveries. The current Lord's grandfather financed the ultimately successful hunt for King Tut's tomb. Having spent a few weeks in Egypt on a prior trip, this didn't hold any interest for me, so I didn't bother purchasing a ticket for it. That said, the connection is interesting.

    I caught my train back to London and then had dinner at an Indian restaurant, whick was no better than that which I've had in the states, and called it a day. I am certainly hoping to find better curry later in the trip. Other than India, I can't think of a better place to eat Indian.
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  • Day1

    Headed Across the Pond

    August 28, 2019 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    After months of reading, watching DVD's, listening to podcasts and endless itinerary planning, it is finally time to set off for my month+ in England. Originally I had intended to spend half the month in England and the other half in France but as I began to do my research, I found that there was so much to see in the way of historical sites and natural beauty, that there was no way I could do England justice with a couple of weeks. The number of castles, cathedrals, manor homes, etc. is mind boggling.

    I have trial packed, packed and repacked, in an attempt to whittle down what I can and yet still have what I potentially will need. Suffice it to say that I my bag is as prepared as Mary Poppins on her best day. The main thing that made packing a challenge was the weather. It is somewhat unpredictable as it's typically in the 60's-70's in England this time of year and yet last week it was in the 90's. Sheesh, if I wanted that sort of thing I could stay in FL. Anyway, layering was definitely what was called for and that means more clothes than if you just have to plan for either hot or cold.

    The main downside to my leaving is that there is a 'major' hurricane brewing in the Atlantic and bearing down on FL and it looks as though it also has Central FLin its sights. I feel really bad about leaving my brother to hold down the proverbial fort and offered to reschedule but was overruled. So I will just have to leave it in God's hands, not that it was ever in mine.
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  • Day58


    March 16, 2018 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    I got to Rome a couple of days ago and the good news is the people here are nice and helpful. My hotel is great and with the exception of having spacious rooms, offers pretty much everything you could want. Rome is to Italy something like what New York is to us, so I should not anticipate there would be spacious rooms.

    Most of what I have done this far has been to go on walking tours. I did see the inside of the Pantheon and a couple of interesting churches. There's plenty of art and history to be seen here and I would say there's more here for the individual interested in history than anything.

    I am finding it's more difficult to find one's way around here because of all the buildings and the fact that the roads go in all different directions with no grid system. Also there are only 2 metro lines which means that the sights aren't all accessible by the metro but rather a large bus network which is also a challenge to navigate. For this reason I have largely been walking and walking and walking. I'd like to say Google maps has been a huge help but even it seems to be challenged to direct a clear-cut walking path. Plus it tends to eat up phone battery time.

    Tourism is alive and well in Rome. Unfortunately that means lots of "souvenir" shops lining the streets all selling pretty much the same junk. There's also an abundance of hustlers selling selfie sticks, bus tours and other stuff they are hassling you to buy. I just completely ignore their existence and find myself left alone. Unfortunately I see tons of tourists that get stop and hassled because they fall for answering their questions. I have not seen many real artists selling things which sort of surprises me. There are several individuals selling "watercolor" paintings but they are actually prints that people are being duped into buying. Either that or their are multiple artists painting the EXACT same scenes, in the exact same style and colors around Rome- LOL.

    The other thing you see plenty of in Rome is clothing shops. I haven't checked any prices as I'm not interested but if you were there is plenty of great fashion to be found lining the streets.

    There are some street performers here & there. A couple of very good ones. It's always interesting to me how many people will stand around and enjoy them, take pictures, clap, etc. but never donate any money as a show of appreciation. If everyone who enjoyed them even offered up as little as a quarter it would make a big difference in the income realized for such performances. I don't get why people can't do that for the ones they enjoy.

    I am glad I did my research and purchased tickets in advance for all these sights. The lines at places like the Colosseum are ENORMOUS. I have heard people discussing the fact that they spend 1/2 their day waiting in line to get into a sight. Definitely not ones idea of fun on a vacation.

    After today you will probably not hear from me very often during the next two weeks as they are super packed but I will be checking emails.
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  • Day54


    March 12, 2018 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    I changed my home base yesterday and I am now in Orvieto. The good news is the funicular that takes you to the historic center is located just outside the train station so that makes things much easier. My hotel was also near the train. I got my things settled and headed into the old town.

    Orvieto is a town that is formed on top of a layer of tufa, which is a softer, porous type of volcanic stone. It was established by the Etruscans and at one time they lived underground here. There is a tour of the ancient underground, so I went there first as it was just about to begin when I arrived. The tour showed you where they pressed olive oil, the well and where they kept pigeons. Each house had a pigeon keep. There were also places where you could see stairs leading up to where the house was above the pigeon keep but no house excavations were shown, so I guess there aren't any. I hope to try pigeon whi.e I am here as there are supposedly a couple of places that cook it.

    After the underground tour, I went and had lunch at a local trattoria. I had some cured venison that was really good and almost literallly melted in your mouth and a very good roulade of rabbit with a side of spinach.

    Speaking of food, European breakfasts continue to be the weak point- cold cuts and pastries with no eggs or anything hot making an appearance. At least their coffee choices are plentiful. Italian breakfast cakes tend to routinely be dry and bland. Evidently just a variant taste from our preferences. That said, they do go to a fair amount of trouble to make them appealing looking.

    After lunch I headed to Orvieto's Duomo. Talk about a mega church! It is pretty massive. I believe it took about 300 years to complete. The outside has very ornate decoration, both sculpture and paintings. The inside also has some beautiful frescoes by Luca Signorelli that depict mainly end-times themes. He is one of the artists by whom Michelangelo was inspired. The artwork throughout the church was so abundant and overwhelming that I may return for a second visit if time allows.

    Today I got up and took a touring break to do some laundry. I hate having to take the time to do it but with a trip this long, it is unavoidable. The laundromat here is amall: 4 washing machines and 2 dryers and you have to wait to put your laundry in between loads that they are doing for their laundry service. It's also a little pricey compared to our laundromats- about $10 per load to wash and another $4 to dry. At least it includes the soap. The lady that runs the place was nice and showed me how to program and use the machines which was great because I don't know that I would have figured it out myself. The soap is contained within the machine somehow and you go over to one wall to insert your money and select your machine and then the machine itself to select temperature and then back to the wall to select start and then back to the machine to press a button and make it start. Confusing.

    After my laundry was done and I walked it back to my hotel, I went back up to the old town and walked around a bit; bought a new umbrella and had pigeon for dinner. I figured I'd see what the Etruscan fare was like while I had a chance. Answer is it was OK but not much meat and somewhat gamey tasting. It's a dark meat. Mine was covered with this olive puree, which while it didn't make for an aesthetically pleasing dish, it did help the flavor and lessened the gamey taste. So I can scratch pigeon off my list. No need to have it again. I also had a glass of their local wine and I have to say that Orvieto wine is pretty decent. Actually all the wine in Italy has been decent. Some is better than others but none of it has given me any allergy problems, a sign for me that it's decent.
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  • Day53

    This Is Us; Italian Version

    March 11, 2018 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 14 °C

    So here's a pretty typical experience in Italy over 24 hours...

    We'll start with last night-

    My hotel was supposed to have a guest computer but something happened to it (probably a guest smashed it out of frustration with all things Italy) but the owner said I could use their office computer and sends me into their office. My brother's office was more organized and comfortable and his was a mess. You would not believe the absolute POS office chair they had. Incredibly uncomfortable and that comes from me, clearly not the person who thinks furniture is generally uncomfortable. So I use the computer to draft a list of things to see over the next few days and some notes on a Word document and go to print it out. Well I did not know he had loaded some receipt paper in the printer and when he heard the printer go off, he came rushing in the room screaming No! No! No! and got all upset. You would have thought I had printed all over his daughter's wedding invitations just before they were to be mailed. I said "sorry I didn't know" and he just kept shaking his head and exclaiming how this couldn't happen. NEVER said, "Well I realize you didn't know" "It's my fault, I should have told you..."

    So after that I go to this restaurant that is really close to the hotel and is good and cheap and I have already eaten there twice before. It is always full of locals and not tourists but then again the town I am staying in is not a big tourist destination, it was just easiest as a base due to its proximity to the train station. So I walk in and the woman starts yelling in Italian that they can't serve me and basically waves me off. So since I only wanted one of their pizzas I ask if I can get one to-go. She doesn't understand and keeps waving me off and finally a local explains to her. She gets exasperated like I have asked if they can whip me up a baked Alaska and yells back at the kitchen and owner and he finally says OK so then I am made to stand there and wait for the damn pizza. Meanwhile I notice that their other room only has 1 couple in it AND there are 2 waitresses this night as opposed to just 1 as was the case on all the previous visits. In not too long they shove my pizza at me and say bye!

    So this morning I get to the train station on time and get my ticket and get on a train. Halfway to my destination I have to switch trains with about a 30 minute layover. So I get off at the correct station and, of course I have to get to another track. Another track which requires going below one level and back up BUT there's NO ELEVATOR or escalator. So for people with luggage, babies in strollers or, God forbid a disabled person in a wheelchair, tough shit. So I lug my bag down the stairs and back up.

    I arrive at my final station and, since my hotel is only 1.5 blocks and 10 minutes away, I decide to walk. So I use Google maps and head to my hotel but end up going the wrong way, UPHILL, and then it starts to pour rain. So I trudge downhill with my bag along a shitty sidewalk with rain running like a river and get soaked. Oh and it's like 55-60 degrees. I find the street to my hotel and it's back uphill again. These are like San Francisco hills BTW. I finally get to my hotel, looking like a drowned rat, and they hardly acknowledge my existence. I explain who I am and they say "Well your room is not ready yet." So I stand there because I don't want to get their furniture soaking wet and they say, "We'll let you know when it's ready." One of the owners is presiding over the breakfast that is there for guests and I finally ask him if I could take a glass of water and he says "sure" and also offers me coffee. After about 15 minutes they get me a room, hand me a keyring and show me the way there, which is across the street. One of the owners did help me with my bag, which was nice because the room is on the 2nd floor and there are no elevators.

    Enroute to my new town, Orvieto, I noticed that the sole of my hiking boot was coming off, so I asked the hotel owner if there was a shoe repair place where I could get it repaired tomorrow. She says no. I say what about a place where I can buy some glue. She says that won't work. She then proceeds to tell me I have to buy new ones and tells me how her shoes are really good and I should get some like them and they cost about 120 euros, so like $150. There is no offer to go on the internet or call to try and find me a repair solution.

    So I get settled and set off exploring. I had read about how to get around and got way up the mountain into the historical part of town without incident and headed straight towards the tourist information (TI) center. I noticed that the "Underground Orvieto" tour office is right next to the Tourist Office, so I made a note to go there next. I go into the TI and ask about walking tours or tours of the churches other than the Underground tour and the lady says "Yes there are some but you have to ask the lady next door, she has a list on her door." So I go back to the Underground tour and by my ticket for that and I ask the lady there about this list and she says "No, you have to ask the tourist information next door." To which I of course reply "I did and she told me to ask you."She indicates that this isn't right and waves me off. So no help there. Both office then close for the 2 hour midday break. So suck it tourists, if you need help or want to see anything between the hours of 12:30-2:30 in Italy, you are SOL and then things are going to close between 4-6 in the evening. God forbid you sleep in on vacation. Oh and it's generally not easy to go back to your hotel and take a nap because most of them are down at the bottom of the mountain and your transport bus cards are only good for 90 minutes. So you will have to pay to go both down and up for that nap, if you wanted to join in the midday break.

    Later I am touring the Duomo (cathedral) the surly Italian guide takes my ticket. No welcome, thank you, do you have any questions, etc. Just takes the money and ignores you. I ask if there are any tours or guides and he scowls and shakes his head no. As Iam looking around, I notice there are these phone box looking things in different areas of the church and lo & behold they are audio in 4 different languages that tell you about things in different parts of the church. No bother to mention that buy the ticket guy. God forbid they help you out, You'd think they'd want to earn more money for the church. Better yet, since it is a place of God you think they might be gracious and helpful. The stupid audio things cost 2 euros, so about $2.50 each to listen to, so that could easily add another $10 to the church coffers.

    It's raining out again so I decide to call it a day and head back to the hotel. I get to my building and pull out the key ring with 3 keys, none of which anyone has bothered to explain to me. None of the keys work to open the door and I am getting soaked. (Forgot to mention that umbrella I bought was great but I left it somewhere) So I go to the office and no one is there. Eventually one of the owners strolls in and I explain the key doesn't work and ask them to explain it to me. She looks at the keys I am holding and says No! These are not your keys! Where are your keys? Cue the Twilight Zone music... I say "Well these are the only keys I have. This is what I was given." She says "No! WHere are YOUR keys?" I'm thinking, what does she think that I can somehow magically make random hotel keys appear in my purse? We do the verbal key tango about 3-4 times and So I then I empty out my purse and lo and behold I do have another set. How I got the extra set I have no idea but they must have given them to me at some point. Anyway I then ask her about the 3 keys and what they do and she explains that one is for the front door, one is for my room. And then I ask about the 3rd key and she looks at me like I am a stark-raving idiot and says "it's for the garage!" On the way out I noticed an internet code posted, which no one had bothered to share with me. THere's none of that, "Welcome to Hotel.... Let me show you to your room and explain how everything works..." There's also little heat in this hotel but at least it is spacious by Italy standards and there are extra blankets,

    I am getting back at Italy though... I am using the big flush button on ALL their toilets everywhere I go. Screw them. LOL

    A couple of people have indicated to me that things are better in the big cities, so we'll see. Things were fairly good in Milan.

    Also I met a really nice guy from N Dakota, who is here on a college trip. He is originally from Liberia. Seemingly great guy and he said we should visit Liberia. Note LIBERIA not Libya! LOL Anyway, his impressions are similar and, like the Australians, he thinks the no speaking of English is purposeful. I didn't prompt him either, he mentioned that on his own.

    So there's a typical 24 hrs. here... and the night is young

    And this is why I may go to Paris for my last 10 days of the trip. It's pretty bad when I am thinking of preferring the French to your country. At least the art is spectacular and the scenery is often pretty.
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  • Day52

    Spoleto & Spello

    March 10, 2018 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    Well today it is overcast but not crazy cold and rain isn't predicted so hopefully that will hold out to be true.

    I am going to 2 towns today as neither has any "huge" sights and are mainly just known as pretty Umbrian hilltowns. I guess when you have the Alps in part of your country, you can't call these "mountain towns" as it might seem like an exaggeration, however in the south we would definitely term them as mountains.

    I arrived in Spoleto first and, yet again, there was no tourist information at the train station. I had read that you needed to take a bus into the historic center and purchased my ticket from the little convenience store in the station. When I asked the woman at the store which bus to take, she said she didn't know and it wasn't because she didn't speak English (she did) it was because she didn't know about the buses. Are you kidding me? You sell bus tickets all day and live in the little town and you have no idea? Seriously?

    I finally figured out which bus and took it up to the historic area. The girl at the tourist info center was nice and gave me a map as well and I set out walking with the aid of the map and Google maps- thanks SIM card! That said, Google maps is not the easiest to use here when walking. I find it has a slightly hard time following you for some reason and often there is not signage as to the names of roads, so it is a bit of a guessing game at times. I managed to find my way around and took a nice walk and mainly just caught the outside of the sights and enjoyed the local scenery. Then I decided it was time to head to Spello. I arrived back at the tourist info center and bus stop around 2:00 and it was closed. Closed at 2:00 on a Saturday... really? And no, I don't think it was just for the midday break, although I guess it is possible. From what I could discern, it didn't seem as though another bus was coming for about 2 hours, so I decided to start walking downhill, figuring I'd eventually find the train station and/or someone who could point me in the right direction. Unfortunately my phone battery had died and the map was challenging due to a lack of road signage. I looked around for a taxi but there were none.

    I walked. And walked. And walked. And then I walked some more. I met some folks along the way but either they didn't speak English or they had no idea where to go because they were not from the town. EVENTUALLY I came across a hotel and they pointed me in the right direction, which I had actually been traveling already. I finally arrived at a bus stop and 2 buses stopped and said mine would be along in 10 minutes. Finally about :30 later a bus did come and it took me to the train station!

    I arrived in Spello and yep, you guessed it, no tourist information. I found someone who pointed me in the right direction, which was basically just pointing skyward and said "up there". I asked if there was a bus and he said "It's not so bad. Just a little way." So I did some more walking. While it was an uphill trudge a fair way, it wasn't so bad and the historic area was very quaint once you arrived there. I basically spent my time in Spello just meandering amongst the cobblestone alleys and seeing the local color. They have an annual contest in Spello in the springtime to see who has the prettiest flower pot displays at their home and I could see evidence of the fact that people are really into it, unfortunately mainly just empty pots at this point. That said, I bet it is gorgeous when the contest is taking place. Almost as nice as mine possibly...

    Before leaving the train station in Spello, I had noted what times the trains returning to the town where I am staying were departing this evening and saw that I had a choice between one leaving just a few minutes before 7:00 or having to wait until shortly after 9:00. Since I was going to be moving hotels/towns tomorrow, I decided I definitely wanted to catch the 7:00 train. Well it was dark on my walk out of the town and I got disoriented and my phone was dead and I never obtained a map of Spello as the tourist info wasn't open when I arrived. So once again it was walk, walk, walk and TRY to find someone who spoke English. I found no one but a few old Italian ladies did their darndest to explain how to get there, in detail in Italian. I now know what I must sound like to my dogs... I finally found a young couple and their baby who spoke broken English and they pointed me in the direction: across parking lots, a soccer field, through a neighborhood and over the river, through the woods and almost to Grandma's house. I was walking through one neighborhood when a car quickly drove up next to me and stopped. It was the young couple and they offered me a ride. They must know hopeless when they see it. The train was due to arrive in less than 5 minutes and I really didn't want to have to wait until 9:00 (particularly since I was now out of the cute part of town) so I got in and they drove me to the train station. I gave them my sincerest thanks and ran into the station and bought a ticket. For once I was thankful that Italian trains consistently run late because predictably it was and I made it there with about 4 minutes to spare and caught the train back to Foligno! So sometimes late is a good thing.

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  • Day52


    March 10, 2018 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    Good news! Today's weather forecast says sunny skies and a little warmer, so I am going to take advantage of this and head to Assisi.

    I arrived in Assisi and again the tourist info center is located WAY up high on the top of the mountain, in the historic area. These historic parts of town are always on the top, because that's where they put them for safety purposes. Luckily I ran into a couple from Arizona and he had Google maps going on his phone so we grabbed a bus and traced the path to make sure we were headed correctly. Guess who's going to get a SIM card???? :)

    As some of you might know, Assisi was the home of St. Francis. His story is fairly interesting and I'll just give you the very abbreviated version: a long, long time ago, Francis was basically a playboy and the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. One night he was supposedly visited in a dream by God who told him to start a church, so Francis had a spiritual awakening and went down to the town square, denounced his father and all wealth, handed over his clothes and went into the wilderness. He took vows of chastity and poverty (along with something else I can't recall) and eventually drew followers, who became the Franciscan Friars.

    The Basilica of St. Francis is HUGE. Imagine a huge cathedral and then multiiply that by about 3. I found it somewhat ironic that the basilica to honor a guy who eschewed wealth and ostentation and sought to live a life devoted to humility, quiet contemplation and service to God would be honored in this fashion but whatever. The basilica is really something to see. It is covered in frescoes by Giotto that depict the story of St. Francis. I had downloaded an audio tour of the chapel by Rick Steves and listened to it in order to understand the whole story behind St. Francis, the paintings, and where to go to see the relics, etc.

    After touring the chapel I walked around Assisi, which is a super attractive town. Cobblestone streets, medieval homes, arches, etc. Really pretty. I was walking into another church and who is walking out the front door but the Australian family I met the day before in Perugia! Small world! We talked for awhile, they gave me some tips on seeing Spello (tomorrow) and we parted ways.

    The Rick Steves tour of the basilica was so good that I decided to do his walking tour of the rest of the town and did that and took pictures for about another hour and 1/2. These "hilltowns" are so pretty and quaint that they almost don't feel 'real'. You can momentarily think you are at some Disney park or something.
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  • Day52


    March 10, 2018 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    Yesterday I moved my base to a town called Foligno, which is in Umbria. The train took around 4 hrs and I had to switch trains once. It was a rainy day, so a good choice for traveling. My new hotel room is very abnormally (for Italy) spacious, except for the shower which, as has been the case with all the showers thus far, is super small. As in smaller than even a motor home shower. It is like showering in a tube.

    Today I toured Perugia. It was located on the top of a big hill/mountain. When I got off the train I headed to the tourist info office, only to learn it was located on the top of the mountain, far from the station. So I had to figure out how to get there and began walking uphill. MAJOR uphill. I ran into a couple of women who explained it was a long way & inadvisable to walk and they explained there was a "mini metro" I should take. Basically a monorail but tiny car, similar to a ski lift cable car. When you arrived at the end of the end of the mini metro line, you then had to take a funicular up to the top of the hill to enter the historic town center. Thank God I met those women! Why they don't have an information booth of some sort at the train station is beyond me. Or how about a poster written in English and a couple of other major languages that explains how to get to the tourist area?

    I started wandering around the area and found a couple of the things I wanted to see, right as they were closing for the midday break. If I lived here I might like the midday break but as a tourist it is a pain. Outside the Duomo (Cathedral) I heard a couple speaking English and I pounced on them to see if they had any info about who to see. It turns out they are from Australia and are traveling for 3 months in Italy and have been here a couple of times previously. The takeaways from our conversation were that their experiences this trip were basically congruent with mine:
    - Italians are not very friendly
    - they see trash and grafitti everywhere and said the trash & graffiti in Sicily is absolutely horrific, as in piled high and graffitti covering everything
    - little English is spoken (but they believe it to be purposeful)
    - lots of begging and hustling taking place by migrants, who appear to be from somewhere in Africa
    - they find that a lot of things here are fairly backwards, particularly with regard to tourism revenue
    So they basically confirmed my experiences and I found that reassuring. They feel that it is largely due to the fact that it is a poor country, fairly high unemployment (around 11-12%), and that people are angry & anxious. I might add that, while I did prompt them on some points, they rapidly & enthusiastically agreed with the things I had noticed. They said this was very different from their previous trips here.

    I toured a palace that had been turned into an art museum, another church, and then spent time just wandering the streets.
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  • Day51


    March 9, 2018 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 7 °C

    For some reason the books I thought I had downloaded on my Kindle app are not showing up unless I am connected to the internet, so I am having to go around without the aid of a guidebook at hand during the day. I am making some notes on what I want to see and taking that along at present, since my day in Padua was a little less fruitful from a comprehensive touring perspective.

    Today I am visiting Ravenna, which is famous for its Byzantine mosaics. Ravenna was at one time the capital of Italy as well. I arrived in Ravenna and looked for the Tourist Information (TI) desk in the train station, which was non-existent. For some reason the TI is all the way on the oppposite side of town from the train station. So I decided to leave the station and start walking in whatever direction appeared the busiest. Across from the train station I spotted a map placard and decided to consult it for directions. When I got to it, there were 2 men staring at it, pointing and discussing it. I asked them if they spoke English and they replied "a little". So I asked them if they were going to see the mosaics and one of them said yes, we are ONLY going to 2-3 of them. I said "Good, I'm going to follow you." They didn't protest nor cheer at this announcement but they said OK and off we went.

    Along the way I learned that they were from El Salvador but had been living in Rome for 6 years and 1.5 years. The older of the two (Fabio) was a former musician (guitarist) and was now working at a hotel and was also a tour guide for Spanish tourists. The younger guy (Alejandro) was a photography student. What providence! I was now with people who could instruct and lead me in multiple ways. Oh, and they had Google maps! So we made our way to the 1st church of mosaics. We got there and learned that the ticket office was across the street and I announced to them that I was going to pay their tickets and in return they would lead me around. They looked at each other quizzically and decided to agree and that's what we did. So it turns out that Fabio and Alejandro ended up seeing all 5 churches of mosaics and made a new American friend. Alejandro is not aware of this yet but he's also going to take me on a photo tour of Rome once I get there- LOL!!! He showed me some of his photos, which I thought were really good.

    The mosaics were gorgeous and I wish my pictures would remotely do them justice but they are sadly lacking. The churches were dimly illuminated and the mosaics were very large, so it wasn't the best of photography conditions. That said, I am sure you can fine some great pictures online if seeing them is of interest to you. The mosaics are made out of 1,000's of colored "tesserae" or tiles about the size of your thumbnail and are placed tightly together with barely any space between one another. The final result looks much like a tapestry hanging on a wall. Some of the floors were also decorated with larger mosaic tiles, looking like area rugs had been placed on them.

    After we saw all the mosaics Fabio and Alejandro returned to Bologna via train and I walked around Ravenna a bit more and then returned to Bologna as well.

    When I arrived in Bologna I decided to try and exchange some money, since they couldn't do that at my hotel. I went to 2 hotels near the train station and neither of them would exchange money and evidently hotels in Italy do not offer this service. I tried a bank but, on top of their exchange rate, they had a 40 euro commission, which seemed excessive. While I knew they wouldn't be the best place, I also looked into an exchange booth at the train station. They had the worst exchange rate (as expected) PLUS charged a 19% commission on top of it, so I said forget it. Someone had told me the post office was the best place to exchange money, so I found one located halfway across town and walked there. Lo and behold they offered a fair exchange rate and a 6 euro commission fee, so mission accomplished. Seemed like a strange place to exchange money but whatever.
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  • Day49

    Day 6 : Padua

    March 7, 2018 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 10 °C

    Today I am headed to Padua to see the Scrovegni Chapel to see the famous frescoes by Giotto and possibly some other sites.

    I arrived at the train station early, as is my intended SOP, and it's a good thing I did because in spite of the fact that the self-serve train ticket kiosk states it can make change up to 300 euros, it was unable to give me back 39 euros and change out of my 50 euro bill that was inserted, so I had to go take a number AND stand in the customer service line. Why you have to take a number AND stand in line is a little lost on me but whatever. BTW- the kiosk machine spit out a receipt detailing how much change I was owed.

    Finally my number was called and I went up to the agent and promptly learned he did not speak English. He eventually called over another agent who was roaming around the room and she understood what I wanted and asked, "Where did you get this (receipt)?" I pointed to the kiosk and explained the obvious- that the kiosk was unable to give me my change. So she took my receipt and said "Wait here" and disappeared back into the bowels of the office. Minutes later she returned and scowled at me and said "How much change are you to get?" I looked at her (while wondering why she couldn't clearly see what was stated on the receipt she was holding) and said "39 euros and some change" and she said "OK, here" and thrust a handful of crumpled bills in my direction, which I took. I guess she thought I was running some type of racket and gathering forgotten change receipts or something because that's obviously what middle-aged women from America are hanging out in train stations doing...

    Since I still had time before my departing train arrived, I took the opportunity to see about getting a refund for the incredibly late train the day prior and brought out that old ticket and explained what had happened. Both she and the non-English speaking agent consulted their computer and said they had no information on that train. I again stated the story of what had happened and asked what the refund process was and they again consulted their computer and then said, "That train was only 6 minutes late." I said, no the ticket I bought was for a train that originally should have arrived 3 hours before the train I was transferred to".... and went through the entire story for a 3rd time.

    Finally they produced a form, tossed it at me and said "fill this out and return it" and motioned me off. Now I know this will come as a surprise to you but the form was written entirely in Italian. I decided to give up my search for help at 'Customer Service' and that I would ask a Marriott Concierge to assist me later in my trip. Then I went to find my track but couldn't figure out how to get to the track I needed because it was located over several other tracks with no obvious way to get there, so I asked a uniform official. He answered me with a "smirk" stating "Well in Italy we believe in using the stairs." I answered his obnoxious reply with "Well I would love to use those stairs but where are they?" The signage for my particular track wasn't readily apparent. He pointed at a stairway down the hall (which did not say it went to my track) and I descended them and eventually found my track and headed on to Padua.

    When I arrived at Padua the line at their Customer Service wasn't very long, so I decided to wait and attempt another try at the refund for my late train. Again my agent didn't speak English, so he called over a female one who did. Do only the females in Italy study English? She was very helpful and their computer also didn't show exactly what had happened with my train and so she too mentioned filling out the form. I showed her the form I already had but explained I couldn't fill it out because it was in Italian and lo & behold she was able to produce a form in English, which the two of them assisted me in filling out, copying and filing. Now I have to wait for 2 weeks to see if I will be granted a refund because, it's Italy. After that was over, she walked with me outside and pointed me in the direction of the Scrovegni Chapel.

    I headed in the direction she detailed and along the way I came across a map placard, which stated I should make a turn and would arrive at the chapel in 10 minutes, so even though it was different than the agent had stated, I decided to go with the map as I'd received such poor directions from the Italian constituency thus far. And in 10 minutes there was no chapel in site but there was another map that said to go in another direction and I would be there in... 10 minutes. I then asked a few passerby how to get there and found one who spoke broken English and she said "Go left" and pointed right. I decided that it was POSSIBLE her sense of direction was better than her English and went right. I eventually arrived at the Scrovegni Chapel.

    I went to the ticket counter and produced my timed reservation confirmation and the ticket clerk handed me a ticket. He did not tell me where to go however and it turns out the chapel is not connected to the main building, so I asked and he pointed me to the outside but without any real directions. I decided I would just follow the other people who were holding tickets. On the way out I noticed they had a "cloak room" so I went to check my coat and was told that they did not check coats just purses and she motioned me to give her my small one. I told here I wasn't giving it to her and she said OK but still wouldn't take my cloak/coat. Then I passed a cashier booth that stated they had audio tours (no helpful mention of this way for his employer to make additional revenue and the tourist to learn was given by the ticket clerk) but there was no cashier to be found. So I asked someone if they could help and several minutes later the absent cashier came and asked what I wanted. I explained and paid the 2 euros for the audio tour and he gave me the apparatus but barely gave me any instructions on how to use it and disappeared again.

    I went to the chapel and listened to the audio tour while I waited a few minutes for my group's turn to enter the dehumidifying room, listen to a brief background movie about the chapel and then enter the chapel. A little background- the Scrovegni Chapel was built & paid for by a guy who did it in order to try and basically buy his father's way into heaven. His father had been a usurer (loan shark) and the son thought his father would likely be banished to hell for his profession. The truth is it turns out the son was also in the same profession, so he thought he'd get a 2:1 deal, sort of an ancient BOGO. So he hired Giotto to paint the inside. Pretty much every square foot of the inside. It's a lot to take in within 20 minutes, which is all the time you are allotted. I decided to use my time taking pictures, which surprisingly they let you do. The painted scenes are a compliation of biblical stories as well as some from the apocraphal works of which I know nothing about.

    When my 20 minutes was up, I returned back to the ticket/gift shop/cashier to return my audio tour apparatus and there was no cashier there. I momentarily considered just leaving with the audio tour stuff but opted against it. Once again I found someone to find the cashier and returned the materials with no thank you offered by the cashier, no "I hope you enjoyed your visit", no nothing.

    I decided to wander around Padua and found myself at the University of Padua, which is the 2nd oldest in Europe. I noticed a sign that said "tickets" so I went to find out what the tickets were for. Turns out they give tours of part of the university in Italian &English, including the anatomy theatre and there would be one starting momentarily, so I bought a ticket. The ticket agent doubles as a tour guide. I suspect she might be of German ancestery as she was not friendly, not interested in having the group keep pace with her and was very curt and succinct in her guiding. She immediately told us that we were not allowed to take pictures inside the building.

    We entered a room where everyone was ask to sit and it was an old lecture room where accademic luminaries such as Copernicius and Gallilleo once taught. After giving a little background history of the university and its luminaries, she then directed us into another room where we saw the wooden lectern that Gallileo used (close enough we could touch it potentially) and a glass box that had contained one of Gallileo's vertebra but which is now kept elsewhere for safekeeping, like some major relic. What is it with the Italians collecting body parts of the famous?

    We then proceeded to the old anatomy theatre. Here are the main takeaways: they were only allowed by the Catholic church to dissect 2 bodies per year, which they did during February due to the cold temps at that time. The 2 bodies were either of criminals or women. They studied the body for either 1-2 weeks and the anatomy theatre was about 7 stories, in a conical design and about 200-300 students STOOD side-by-side to view the bodies amidst a stench filled small area. I wish I could've taken a picture to show you this setup. It was dark and back then they would've only had candles to illuminate the area. How in the world anyone could've derived any knowledge in that scenario is beyond my ability to comprehend.

    I find it so ironic that you can take pictures of the very fragile frescoes of The Last Supper and The Scrovegni Chapel, both of which are so fragile you have to enter a dehumidification chamber prior to entering their respective rooms but at the University of Padua, to view wood and plaster, you cannot take pictures,
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