Monthly Archives: October 2010

Fractured English of the Day

Gotta love the chutzpah:

A Fishy Farewell

One last hug for Paul: I think that he couldn’t stand being asked to predict the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections in the US.  Hat tip to Central LS.

A Tuscan Trip: a few more pictures

The obligatory postcards: These are the ones that you just can’t capture with a silly little phone camera.  (Yes, all the rest of the pictures from the trip were taken with my trusty Nokia E71, which is all I take on trips anymore. No separate music player, camera, calendar, etc.  I have a translation app, a flashlight app, and even an ebook reader on this thing!  Love it!)

Still, the little cheesy camera just can’t get those big, grand shots.  Plus I forgot to take it on the day we were in Firenze (Florence)!  I’m not too proud to scan a few postcards!  These are not my shots and I do not claim to own the copyright. Here’s that magic shot of the Ponte Vecchio reaching across the Arno.

Here’s what the front of the Duomo looks like:

And here’s the shot showing the tower and the dome:

And another shot showing the some of the city:

And a final lovely view of the Tuscan hillsides:

Lost in Translation

Why Google Translate is not always a safe bet: Two gems from this week.  First, it is pretty common when the automatic translation doesn’t recognize something, it just transliterates the word or leaves it as is. But getting confused on mitvaikim??  Sheesh.

But even better was the whackiest translation yet for what should have been automatic incremental increase (mispar ratz  otomati)…

Then, for some reason, Google became quite political whenever copy-and-paste text had been from a Hebrew Word document with style containing a particular type of bullet, translating the actually bullet into the text “extreme right everywhere.” No kidding. (Probably something to do with a right-justified, right-aligned bullet.) Unfortunately, I didn’t get a screen grab in time…

A Tuscan Trip: odds and ends

Just a few last goodies: I always love interesting signage, and here were two of my favorites from this trip.

Piazza San Marco, Venezia. OK, I understand about not walking around in your underwear, but what’s the problem with playing soccer?

Also Venezia, on the doorway of an unidentified buiding. Anyone figure this one out?

A Tuscan Trip: Day 10

Venezia to Roma: After one of those inexplicable nights of little sleep, I got up and faced the real task of packing.  My small roll-aboard bag had weighed in at 9 kilos on the way out (over Alitalia’s 8 kilo limit, but no one noticed, so I took it on the plane).  But now, after buying a ton of art books for my friend Renee (who was taking care of Terri), a few books for myself, a little rain coat, and three large disc sets, not to mention two small alabaster candlesticks and a tiny piece of crystal as a momento of Luciano and Colle di Val d’Elsa, my bag was now expanded to its full size, bulging at the seams, and weighing in at a very chunky 14 kilos.  Yes, my bag gained 5 kilos! 

After checking out, we rolled along to a water bus stop less than 100 meters away.  However, that 100 meters quickly turned into 300 as we had to go around several buildings, through alleys, under construction… but we were finally on the boat and motoring along towards the San Lucia train station.  The ride was a last long view of  Venice, and we both stood there, staring at the lovely facades and the magical vista as they slipped past.

The train station was quite large and we ended up being so early that our train was not even on the board.  I went off to buy our picnic lunch (we had picked up some fruit the evening before), and when I returned, I stayed with the bags so that David could go out and say farewell to the canals.

The train was one of those very high-speed modern trains, and every time it went into a tunnel (which was quite frequently), our ears felt like they would implode from the pressure.  The train was very full, which was great to see.  With just a few stops, it took less than 3.5 hours to zip all the way back down to Rome.

At Termini, I spent a frustrating 20 minutes trying to get our tickets to the airport for the next morning. The ticket machines were all in Italian, and I was trying to figure out what to do when a scruffy-looking guy approached to help. This is a classic tourist scam, but when the machine wouldn’t take my 50, he stuffed his own money in. “Break the 50 and pay me back,” he shrugged. No one would make change, so I was forced to buy an unwanted pastry (which got completely squished and required David to rinse out his travel bag!) before I could repay the fellow. “Something for me?” he asked. So I dumped some change on him. Not a scam at all; just a guy trying to hustle a few small tips by helping clueless tourists navigate the ticket machines.

Then it was off to our hotel. I had directions and I had map coordinates. What I was missing was a few critical pieces of information (such as the fact that it isn’t really a hotel, and that a different hotel name appears outside), causing us to trudge in a large, painful loop through a really scruffy part of city (what I think of as the “bad” side of Termini, near the University). What should have been a ten minute walk turned into an hour, and by the time we eventually found the place, we both needed to get cleaned up!

Then we were off again to take advantage of our last day in Rome. I had not been able to snag tickets to the Borghese Museum (one of my favorites), so we settled on the National Museum of Rome, which is right on the other side of Termini, and which houses some of the greatest Roman statues, mosaics, and frescos. I have never in my life seen such perfect mosaics, and the frescos were awesome. We particularly liked two very large bronzes, one of a battered boxer resting between rounds. Some of the female figures reminded me of Rodin’s work; nothing new under the sun, it seems.

After the intensity of this ancient art, we desperately needed a cold beer, and settled on a sidewalk bar where we could watch the evening traffic and the hustle and bustle of this crazy city.

Refreshed, we headed towards Trevi Fountain. Call it kitsch, call it a tourist trap, but there is still something so wonderfully whacky about Neptune rising from the waves that it is worth seeing. My navigation was OK on the large scale, but it took some help to fine-tune it (i.e., I was in the right general area, but completely lost!). But we found the neighborhood and the next thing we knew, there it was: that monstrous, ridiculous, completely overstated fountain shoved into this tiny piazza. It was already dark (best time to see it) and masses of tourists filled the area. We had a good gawk and then started thinking about dinner.

As usual, all the places around a site like that are very touristy. But after winding our way back and forth in these narrow streets, we stumbled across a place that was fabulous. They seated us down in the basement, and we had good service, excellent food, very drinkable house wine, and were quite happy. The ambiance of the cellar was great, and when we emerged after our meal, we were very surprised  to discover that it was raining. Heavily. And our rain gear was back at the hotel, which was who knows how far away.

Rome has a whole substrata of street vendors, mostly East Indian (or so it appears). They spring forth magically from the very pavement at the first drop of rain, hawking folding umbrellas. We had to fight our way past dozens of these guys. Realizing that I would surely get us lost a dozen times on the long way back, and that we would be soaked to the skin in another few minutes, I flagged down a cab, and we rode back to our dumpy little not-a-real-hotel in style.

The next morning I was on my way by 6:00, and my dad followed on his own a few hours later. We both arrived to our various homes safely, suffering no more than the usual lines and travel aggrevations. I was greeted by my happy doggy, who spent the next day bringing me half-gnawed rawhide bones as a sign of her devotion.

Bella Italia. It was a spectacular trip, full of wonderful sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. We met lovely people, saw so much art and history that our brains couldn’t absorb any more, enjoyed achingly beautiful landscapes, marvelled at the clean cities and gracious citizens,  and brought back a few choice treasures for ourselves and our loved ones. We patted dogs in seven different cities and towns, walked (by my estimate) 50 km, ate 5 kilos of pasta, drank a liter of espresso, 5 liters of wine, and 6 liters of beer. We got lost more times than I can count. We said grazie and per favore hundreds of times. I asked, “Dove e quie in mappa?” (very bad pigeon Italian for “where is this place on the map?”) many times. We laughed a lot. We talked about food and cooking a lot (I’ve even changed my method of cooking beans because of my father’s culinary tips). And we never got sick, had anything stolen, or even felt remotely threatened at any point. (OK, trying to cross those big streets in Rome is a bit scary, but…)

Now I can’t wait for a different travel adventure with my mom!

Life is short. The world is magical. Travel while you can.

A Tuscan Trip: Day 9

Venezia (Venice): We both woke refreshed and ready to go. Hotel Marconi put on a heroic breakfast spread in what looked like a small ballroom, the floor sagging in the middle and the whole room listing gently to starboard.  The weather was obliging and we had, once again, a gorgeous sunny day for touring.

To get an idea of how well-located the hotel was, here is a view from the Ponte Rialto; our hotel is on the right with the red awnings.

What makes Venice magical is, of course, the canals…

…and the gondolas…

…and the beautiful facades of the buildings (with the water lapping at the front doors)…

…it is what Rick Steves describes as “quietly rotting elegance”…

The only thing I absolutely insisted that my dad see was the Doge’s Palace, so we headed there in the lovely morning light.  Along the way, we passed the theater with its ornate grill work…

…and very classy shops, such as this one that had nothing but leather gloves…

We hit Piazza San Marco with the people feeding the pigeons…

The Duomo, San Marco, was partially hidden by scaffolding, but we still could admire the clock tower and the overall effect of the square. When you consider that for years, San Marco was the Doge’s private chapel, you get an idea of how rich Venice was.

We got into line for the Doge’s Palace, and it moved pretty quickly. Within ten minutes, we were inside and heading towards the Golden Staircase. Before we hit the staircase, David said that he didn’t think that it would stack up to the Doria Pomphilj Museum in Rome (the royal residence with the incredible art collection and painted ceilings). Five minutes later, he was stunned into silence. Again, we decided to split up and see things at our own pace, meeting up again near the exit.

As many generations of Doges built up their wealth and power, the building became more and more ornate. Every inch of wall and ceiling space is decorated. Huge fireplaces of ornate marble grace rooms of gigantic proportion. You could spend an entire day in one smallish room, and the large rooms completely stun the senses. The grand salon is so massive, a skilled pilot could probably land a Cesna in it. Massive paintings cover walls and ceilings, depicting as many battle scenes as religious motifs. Tinturetto had an entire workshop dedicated to this, and he and his junior painters were kept mighty busy. His work is everywhere, including the world’s largest oil painting in the grand salon.

After the oppulence of the official chambers, the upstairs armory is very strange. There were bizarre front-loading guns, lethal swords, and whole suits of armor (they normally have Henry IV’s suit of armor, but it was on loan to France). Then it is on down to the dungeons, first passing over the infamous Bridge of Sighs. Since no photography is allowed inside, my shots were limited to the outside courtyard…

Another view of the outer staircase…

An ornately sculpted font…

The colonnade is another reoccurring Venice theme…

We staggered off, too overwhelmed to do much more than sit in the sun in Piazza San Marco and watch the water receded down the drains.  (When we crossed the piazza a few hours before, it was dry; the slight tidal change forced the water up through the drains.  Yes, Venice really is sinking.)  We watched the tourists pose with the pigeons; when David was approached by one of the guys who hustles paid pictures and pigeon food, he commented, “No thanks. I don’t want to be covered with flying rats.” 

After a while, we were ready to find a place to eat.  Walking along the main promenade where all the massive cruise ships dock was entertaining (though crowded), and jam packed with booths selling shlocky tourist stuff.  Another chance for a cheesy photo at a YAF (Yet Another Fountain)…

All the restaurants around the promenade area are even pricier, so we wandered away from the Grand Canal and looked for something else.  Our ultimate choice might have been more affordable, but it was definitely our worst meal of the trip, with cardboard pizza and rubbery veggie lasagna.  Oh, well.  As we always say, they can’t all be shlaggers.

Lunch was our chance to compared notes on what we had seen in the Doge’s Palace. We were both completely confused by the massive five-foot swords. How could anyone have wielded such a weapon in battle?  And those fiddly firearms that must have taken several minutes to load!  I wondered if the irony of the idyllic landscapes painted on battle shields was intentional.

Back at the hotel, we rested for a while and then asked for a recommendation for dinner.  The young concierge immediately pulled out a restaurant card and told us, “Not expensive, not touristic.”  We found the place, took one glance at the menu, and beat a hasty retreat.  No expensive, my ass!  It only took a few minutes of wandering for David to spot a real, authentic, family restaurant, with a big hearty owner, very cheap house wine, and some great food.

Strolling back through the now quiet city, we got lost a few times (part of the magic of Venice) and eventually found our way back to the massive Ponte Rialto.

A Tuscan Trip: Day 8

Borgo Santinova to Venice: The morning was occupied with packing and checking out, but we were in the car and on our way by 10:00.  It was my turn to drive, and I programmed the GPS straight through to our car drop-off address.  The stretch in between was not very pretty and had a lot of industrial areas, so we figured that our time was better spent in Venice.

Once again, we hit strange weather as we drove. It was very windy and blustery, but we were rolling along nicely.  Suddenly, traffic slowed to a crawl. It stayed that way for about an hour, as a long convoy of big, slow trucks turned the Autostrada into a parking lot.  But at last we were zipping along again, stopping only for gas and then for a snack.  Roadside stations are convenient, and we appreciated the clean bathrooms, but the tourist crap was pretty funny. We were also amused to see M&Ms on display. Can you imagine? In this country of wonderful chocolate, and they want to import crappy American stuff?

As we were pointed towards a major city, the GPS obliged with directions. A very refined British fellow would pipe up every once in a while and tell us to “stay right” or “after 800 meters, exit.” It was all very nice until we got to the complicated exchanges around Venice, and he suddenly took offense and refused to talk. “Nu?” I yelled, “am I going straight or veering left??” He remained silent. I ended up in the wrong lane once, but did a truly Roman maneuver and managed to get us to our destination. Of course, I started to go into a one-way exit in front of the rental place, but David hopped out, dragged the guy out of the EuroCar office, and got help.

We were astonished at their casualness. No one came out to check the car for dents, look at the mileage, check the gas, etc. They just nodded, took the keys and the GPS, and waved us off. I don’t think we ever actually paid for the GPS, which was a mixed blessing at the best of times.

From the rental car office, it was a short schlep to the water bus. At our stop, I got a bit lost, but it turns out that we were actually very close to the hotel. To my surprise, Hotel Marconi was actually on the Grand Canal, and was much nicer than I expected. In Venice, everything is very, very expensive, so based on the rates, I wasn’t expecting much. As usual, we had microscopic rooms, nice clean baths, and a good location.

Relieved to have safely turned over the car, we both wanted to dump our stuff and meet downstairs for a beer. A lovely canal-side cafe enticed us with their charming tables. I ordered a beer. David came down and joined me, and I ordered another beer for him. We sat, relaxed, and soaked up the scene, complete with striped-shirted gondola guys…

The cafe (or more correctly, traitoria) scene was lively, too…

When the bill came, we gulped at the price, put the money on the tray, and left. Some four hours later as we came back past the cafe on our way to our hotel door, the waiter leapt out at us. “You didn’t pay!” he said. Ah, sure we did. “That was for one beer!” Holy crap! Nearly 8 Euro for one beer? We thought it steep for two! Those two modest draft beers were 15.80.  Yes, that is almost NIS 40 for a beer.  Everything in Venice was wildly expensive, but as we were only there for a day and a half, we took a deep breath and dove in.

We went off in different directions, agreeing to meet up at the hotel in two hours. David did a long walk out past Piazza San Marco to a park, and I allowed myself to get totally lost in the tiny narrow streets. I was looking for the most illusive trophy: an Italian shoe that would actually work for my poor arthritic toe.  (No such luck.)  I found what looked like a lovely restaurant (it was) and was actually able to navigate us back to it when we linked up again. Very chic food compared to the hearty peasant food we had been enjoying. Once again, it was the booze that hit us; we thought we were paying 10 Euro for the wine, which would have been steep, but it was 20. Oh, well…

In the evening, the cruise ships leave and Venice calms down again. If you wander through the back alleys, it can be quiet and peaceful. Because it was already October, the canals didn’t stink as much as they do in high summer, and the lines at major sites were manageable.

After our dinner, we wandered around, just soaking up the atmosphere of this utterly unique city, slowly sinking beneath the waves.  Back at Hotel Marconi, I enjoyed the luxury of a bathtub (first on the trip, though of course every hotel, no mater how dumpy, has a bidet) and allowed myself to slip under the waves…

A Tuscan Trip: Day 7

A nature hike: After our intensely crowded day in Firenze, we needed a low-key, quiet day.  Mostly, we needed to recover, so we let ourselves sleep in (and sleep we did, thank goodness!)

The road that the winery was located on, while being tiny and out in the country, was surprisingly well-travelled, and cars would come zipping along at a frightening clip, as we discovered when trying to walk along it one day.  So we wanted to find either a nature preserve or a real walking path. 

But who could we ask?

Lorella, our host, was busy with the harvest, which was short and brutal. The area had suffered from a damp, cold summer, and the grapes were dreadful.  She and her son were working constantly.  (Her son had stopped his work for a few minutes one day when we walked down to the cellars, and gave us some Cab grapes to taste.  He had a big sunny smile that reminded me  of my nephew Tavi.)  Besides, even if Lorella or her son were around, neither spoke much English.  But on Friday afternoon, we had a new “neighbor,” as the next apartment was taken by a young Italian couple with a toddler and a small baby.  I decided to ask them. The guy was quite helpful, and directed us to the Via Francigena.

Via  Francigena was a Roman road that ran all the way from France to Rome.  Today it is well marked for hikers.  Original paving stones can still be seen in spots.

We headed out of the winery property, walked for about 200 meters on the road, and turned off onto a smaller dirt road. 

It was a cool, overcast day, perfect for walking. A cyclist passed us in the other direction, and we were overtaken by a serious distance runner, but other than that, we were alone.  A few ultra-lights flew overhead, and a large pheasant rooster exploded out of the bushes (the second that we saw on the trip). 

After several kilometers, it connected to the Via Francigena, and we had our choice of directions.  One way led to Graciano, the town near us, and the other to some church ruins and another town, Quartaia.  We chose that route.

We passed the ruins of a tiny church, quite modern (early 20th century). Who knows why it was abandoned.

After another kilometer or so, we came to the town of Quartaia. Calling it a town is generous; it was a small collection of houses, some quite modern.  The first sign of a town was the small farm, where plump, smug-looking sheep, goats, horses, and chickens all shared the same area, guarded by a few big dogs.

One of the dogs came out and woofed happily, so we had to stop and pat it.

Some of the houses looked completely modern, and some looked quite large and fancy…

Some of the new buildings were done in an old style, and were quite charming…

The path, from before the church ruin, had been full of pottery shards, but there were even more in Quartaia.  The smell of wood smoke and a few Sunday lunches wafted out towards us, and I realized how hungry I was getting!

We walked back, completing a pleasant 8 km loop,  and spiffed up a bit to go into town.  Our temporary neighbor had assured us that while shops are closed on Sundays, restaurants are open, as that is a big eating out day in Italy. Sure enough, the same little family traitoria was open and there were several families there, including one little fellow who raced up and down the restuarant.  We had a great meal, including some really wonderful panacotta.

We decided to leave the car where it was and take the elevator up to the old city.  David spotted the big pieces outside of La Grotta del Cristallo, and we decided to pop our heads in again for another look.  Luciano was there, and this time I couldn’t resist getting a tiny glass to use as a bud vase.

In fact, all the crystal places were open, and we had a chance to confirm our opinion that Luciano made the classiest stuff.  Still, David decided to buy another simple, inexpensive glass from a different place.  While he was completing his purchase, I sat out on the terrace and admired the way people in the old city coped with laundry…

…or found tiny terrace spaces for gardens…

We also noted the “bus stop” in the old city (a sign stuck on the wall)…

As we were strolling along in the old city, we noticed that the civic museum, Colle di Val d’Elsa’s archeology museum, was open. We had missed it on our first visit to the city because it keeps odd hours. It was in the original civil building of that part of the city (dating back to the 1300s but seriously redone in the early-to-mid 1500s). There were lots of Etruscan finds, as well as a reproduction of a pottery kiln found in (you guessed it) Quartaia! It all came together!

The most astonishing thing were the frescos, totally unprotected, right in front of your nose, down low on walls that were completely accessible.

The colors were still very vivid. In fact, they were so casually there that David was sure that they were reproductions. But no; on our way out, I checked. They were the real deal, dating to the mid-1500s.

The building was also used as a prison until the mid-1920s, and a few cells were displayed, complete with the graffiti left by prisoners. Many were communists, and the hammer and sickle motif appeared a few times.

Strolling down throught the new part of town, I found an Internet cafe, and grabbed a computer. For 45 minutes I checked email and just reassured myself that nothing major (business-wise) had blown up! Meanwhile, David sat in the town square, which was really hopping on Sunday evening. We said good-bye to Colle di Val d’Elsa, got a lovely pizza to take back to the farm-house, and polished it off with the Borgo 2006 Chianti (great, but not nearly as good as the 2007).  The next day, we would be leaving Borgo Santinova.

A Tuscan Trip: Day 6

Firenze: We had decided not to try to drive there (getting to the general area would be no problem, but once there, finding where to park and navigating back to the car would be a nightmare).  We left the car in our “secret” offstreet parking and took the bus.  This was a doubly good idea because we had both slept poorly and were feeling tired and less alert than the roads require!

The bus was a small thing, and it only carried us up to the top of a hill, where we transferred to a bigger bus.  We were dropped at the main bus station and spent some time there trying to confirm our return time. 

Since I had forgotten my phone, I was not able to take pictures during the day, but it also freed me up to wander around without looking like so much of a tourist!

We started walking towards the center, and stumbled across a tourist information office, where we picked up a city map.  Firenze was the biggest, most intense stop (other than Rome), and it was absolutely jam-packed.  While there were lots of tourists (particularly at major sites, such as in front of the Duomo), most of the people were locals, just out strolling and enjoying the day. It was, after all, Saturday, and we hadn’t realized what a crush of people there would be.

The street markets were in full swing, and we couldn’t resist a soft-as-cashmere wool scarf for my mom. (My dad later got dragged into a stall by a hard-sell leather vendor who tried to get him to buy a heavy leather coat!)

We had been warned over and over that pickpockets and thieves abound in Florence, but we had no problems. In fact, despite the dense crowds, we were not jostled or pressured at all, which made the day much more tolerable than it might otherwise have been.

Our first stop was the Academy to see if we could get tickets to see the David.  Huge long lines made us instantly abandon that plan.  While there are many things that you can get tickets to in advance on the Internet, that only works if you know exactly what your itinerary is going to be, and we never knew that far in advance.  One of the things we had both discussed before the trip was that we didn’t want to feel pressured to see things just so that we could tick them off a list.  So when the lines at the Academy were too long, we simply made a little detour and visited the San Marco Museum, which is actually an old convent where the  cells were painted with frescos by Fra’ Angelico.  Some good sculpture and paintings, but our favorite room was the library, with a good collection of illuminated manuscripts.  There was also a great selection of architectural bits salvaged from buildings in Firenze, including the lintel of the old beit knesset in the Jewish Ghetto.

We had an uninspiring lunch at a semi-self-serve place (good artichokes plus we were entertained by the birds flying around inside).  Then more walking.  We headed to the Duomo, which is even more outrageous than Siena’s.  (These guys were all competing with each other.)  There were mobs of tourists, and we didn’t feel any need to go in or climb the tower.   So we made our way to the Uffizi, looked at the replica of David that is outside (seriously, could you tell the difference?), and went inside to the courtyard where a photo exhibit of the Firenze police was mounted.  (Very cool old pictures.)  We cut through the gallery, which is free access and holds statues of many great Italians of the Renaissance.  From there, it was a short stroll to the Ponte Vecchio, where masses of people were strolling across, looking at the fancy jewelry stores.  On the river, a few single sculls were being launched.  It was a gorgeous day, but very intensive and tiring.

We meandered back through the streets, getting sent off course in our attempt to avoid a large demonstration.  (We found out later that it was one of several protests going on across the country to protest the budget slashes in education.) Again, by pure dumb luck, we stumbled across the Vivaldi Museum, which was free, housed in yet another impressive church, and we got to listen to wonderful music while looking at old instruments.  (We were both impressed by the funky trumpet violin and  the lyre guitar.)

I found a music store in the underground shopping complex (the passage you have to traverse to cross the big square by the train and bus stations) and was able to load up on the music I wanted.  A snack and the bus back.  We were back at the farm-house by 20:15 and had an improvised meal to use up our groceries.