Monday, August 25, 2014

Amsterdam and The Hague

I found out last year around this time Italy shuts down for the Ferragosto holiday season. Almost nothing is open for about two weeks. Gas stations, bakeries, bike shops, you name it-if it's anything but an international chain store or in a touristy downtown area, it's closed. I decided this year I would simply do as the Italians do and head north for some cooler air. It was just Emily and I this time, so after trying every which way to make a trip to the British Isles work to see family and friends, it just wasn't feasible- too far without any help, and too expensive for plane tickets, no matter how I split the time (high season travel, boo). So, I settled on The Netherlands, and pushed a trip to Scotland/Ireland back a few months.
The Netherlands is a country I've been hearing about my entire life. My Grandad held a job there in the 1970s, and stories from my family's time there have been retold over and over at dinners for as long as I can remember. My Dad had always hoped I'd get the chance to live abroad like he did as he remembers his time in The Hague so fondly.

This is them, doing something touristy. c. 1971-73

Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a blur. A good blur, but one filled with near constant downpours accompanied by powerful gusts of cold wind. Guess who packed light summer clothes? :D Next time I'll believe the forecast, I swear.
The evening we arrived was pretty simple; a quiet dinner at a great little Thai place, then we spent the rest of our time before bed watching SpongeBob Schwammkopf on German Nickelodeon.


We set out the next morning for the Anne Frank House, leaving plenty of time to wander, watch the leafy streets around the canals slowly wake, and grab a cheap bite at a tiny bakery. Like lots of people, visiting the museum has been 20 years coming. I read Anne's wickedly funny, introspective, informative account of life in hiding several times as a young teen, and reread it a couple months ago. It holds up so well for me as an adult-I think I got much more out of it this time around. There are so many lessons held within it and I can't wait for Emily to read it too. Anne was so incredibly bright and knew what she wanted out of life and had she not perished at Bergen-Belsen, there would have been no stopping her. You can watch loads of interesting videos over at annefrank.org. As for getting Emily up to speed, we spent several evenings looking at an illustrated biography and talking about the eight people in the annex. I kept it really simple and sanitized, just enough to give her a gist of where we were going and why people had to hide there (from mean people who didn't like them and didn't want them to live in Holland).
The tour is self-guided. The rooms are empty, with quotes, some small artifacts, and photos from a shoot to show what the furnishings would have looked like. You start in the warehouse and move up to the offices, and into the secret annex. Emily did pretty good and seemed to be listening as I explained what we were looking at and why, but she definitely didn't understand that we weren't going to meet Anne Frank. When she saw a photo series in the first room, she said she wanted to go see her. "She lived here a long time ago, this is just where she and her family and their friends had to hide." Later, we saw a video interview of an elderly Miep Gies. "There she is! That's Anne Frank when she got older!" *heart breaks in a million tiny pieces* "No honey, she never got to grow older. Let's go see what's over here..." The end of the attic has an exhibit about the holocaust which we skipped.
The layout of the annex and rest of the building wasn't at all how I pictured it. It's much smaller, and I got a better sense of how imperative it was to remain absolutely silent during the day. It was also shocking to realize how dim their quarters were. With one allowable window in the front attic and its small view of a chestnut tree being the only patch of the outside world Anne could gaze at and only at certain times, I can understand more clearly what that bit of light and fresh air meant. You know, but to see it...poor souls.

.................

We left and stepped out into a downpour. Conveniently, a nice warm and completely overpriced canal boat was docked across the street. A quick ride and short walk later, we were at the Albert Cuyp street market. I picked up some souvenirs and fresh cheese to bring home and headed off to look for a bite to eat.

Then, more rain. All the rain! All the crying. I decided to give up and head to the hotel, but I got horribly lost, and it was at least a 20 minute walk away. As I held the stroller with one hand, Emily, the umbrella and a map in the other she finally just lost it-and then I saw the ultimate tourist hell restaurant shining before me and we ran for it, scooping up the last table during the busy lunch hour. 13 euro nachos are worth every penny to see a happy toddler.

The rest of the day went better. We chased each other through Vondelpark, then a nap for Emily and age inappropriate American dramas for me (Our free military tv service is very limited and almost not worth turning on, so good programs tend to be a real treat when we're out on the economy).

The next morning was reserved for shopping and exploring the city center. There are so many things I miss that aren't available in Italy. Like Starbucks, which was my first stop. Some writer once called European shopping streets something like tacky outdoor malls that never represented the spirit of a place. Sure, but the things and the stuff-the stuff I haven't seen in over a year. For me, no matter where in Europe they are they will always be the charming way to shop when you hardly see pedestrian commercial districts like these in the States.
After I had my fill of familiarity, we wandered through the famous flower market, picked up souvenirs and ate probably too much falafel from my beloved Maoz. It was a good.

After a short break in the afternoon, we walked to the Van Gogh Museum on a whim. I figured the bright colors would be fun for Emily and keep her interested. I figured a lotta things. I did not figure the line would go down the block. We spent an hour waiting to get in, only to find so much crowding the paintings were barely visible. Emily finally had had enough and started whining, quite loudly, to go back to the hotel. A snack, two back to back potty breaks, and a stream of pleas for a toy from the gift shop later, I finally just gave in. We only managed a really fast circle of each of the floors, bought some crap and took off. Heed this warning travelers: buy the advance ticket during peak season, and go early, especially if naps are an issue!

The Hague

Our final full day in The Netherlands was all about much deserved kid fun. We went to the Madurodam, a miniature city that shows kids of all ages how a modern Dutch city operates. You can watch planes taxi at Schipol International Airport, play games at the kiosks, use pumps to spray water on a blazing oil tanker, learn your weight in wheels of cheese, and my favorite: order up a miniature pair of ceramic clogs from the miniature clog factory, delivered in a miniature truck, of course. It was a huge hit.

video


We spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. I had given up on the idea due to the weather, but accidentally hopped on the wrong tram, and in the spirit of adventure decided to see if it took us anywhere interesting in the next ten minutes. Wouldn't you know it, a few short stops later, there we were at Scheveningen Beach, just as the clouds began to part.
We had lunch at a place right on the edge of the sand, and watched the clouds roll over the North Sea, quite cozy behind the glass walls. The food was okay but the view was gorgeous. We all know what clouds look like so I guess a dead camera doesn't matter. :(
We ran up and down the boardwalk, and Emily climbed all over a huge public art display (I think it was meant to be climbed on. I hope so.) that she thought was silly but I think was meant to be a serious comment on the environment. She then went round and round for 4 turns on the merry go round. As soon as the music started, the attendant would say, "you don't want to sit in the carriage, you want a pony!" For every safe thing I plopped her in, dude was like, motorbike with no safety harness! *sigh* I have a big girl. She didn't fall off or die and she was thrilled. Europeans just can't with helicopters like me, which is such a refreshing cultural difference, even if in the moment I was like Whatno! My baby!
So that wraps up our much too short visit to The Netherlands. Emily didn't want to go home. She could hardly stand the idea of leaving the hotel with its glorious cartoons, and cool suspended orb-chairs in the lobby. If we must return, we must.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Marostica

The small city of Marostica is a local favorite, set against a sweeping mountain range north east of Vicenza. A large castle sits atop Pausolino hill overlooking the city below. Two walled pathways lead down either side. We set out yesterday to hike to the Castello Superiore and I was under the impression we could march up through the walls to see it, but the only route currently accessible cuts straight through the center of the city around the old churches, and up a shady stone trail. It was a good hike, and well worth the view.

Castello Inferiore

Before we got started we took a tour of the Lower Castle. From the early 1400s on, it was used for day to day governmental operations and as a residence for the governor.

St Anthony the Abbot's Church on the right, The Blessed Sacrament's Chapel "Scoletta" on the left, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the rear (the most important of the three).

Marostica is known for its human chess tournaments, with a huge board in the square, and two smaller ones with over sized pieces for anyone who wants to play. Emily played her first game...and won! Amazing. Can you believe she's never had a lesson?

I liked Marostica. I'm so glad we finally got a chance to check it out.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mantova

We did a day trip to the city of Mantova yesterday. It's a small walled city on a lake about 20 minutes south of Verona. To reach it you take a bridge over the river and are greeted with this grand view of the east side of the city. I was driving of course, so here's a swiped picture from the web:

photo credit

Small cities like this are great to explore without a plan; you can never get lost, and most of the points of interest are crammed within a five minute stroll. We wandered all over before circling back to see the castle and palazzo. We had lunch on the piazza and ended the day with stop at the playground. A fine Sunday.

A 17th century chapel.

La Rotonda di San Lorenzo

This is the oldest church in the city, dating from the 11th century. I'm going to take an educated guess and say it was probably the site of a pagan temple. What is most interesting though is for hundreds of years it was hidden by newer buildings and totally forgotten until 1907. Restoration went until 1911 when it was opened to the public. It's free to see today but donations are welcome.

You can just make out the frescos on the walls.

Castello di San Giorgio

Only a few rooms are open to the public, but luckily what you get to see is a room painted with beautifully preserved, bright frescoes done by Andrea Mantegna.

Sneaky fine art selfie!

Palazzo Ducale

Right around the corner is the palace, home to the noble Gonzaga family who ruled Mantua for about 400 years.

Seriously, every museum needs a puzzle play area for restless toddlers.

Pretty corridor.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pompeii and Napoli

We spent a couple days in Pompeii and one in Napoli last week. Exploring the archaeological ruins of Pompeii was everything it could have been. The crowds were scarce most of the time and we gained a ton of insight into how Roman cities were designed and how people lived in every segment of society. So often all that is left of a place are its monuments and religious artifacts which only tells a tiny piece of a culture's story. A medium-sized city preserved in time tells the stories of thousands in way it never could have if the Pompeii had continued on, progressed and changed over many centuries. We walked in villas and store fronts, baths and even a brothel.

This is the theater. When you stand in the center of floor you can hear your voice reverberate. A tour guide said it was like the first microphone. The second picture is a view of backstage.

Emily is trying out the crosswalk. The grooves between the center stone are from chariots. The design also allowed water to pass through.

A house. The rectangle on the ground was once a reflecting pool.




An area where quite a bit of work still needs to be done.

Cody, Live at Pompeii!

Like any city today, Pompeii had a restaurant row where people could grab a quick bite during the day as Pompeiians generally didn't go home for lunch.
Here is one place... 
And a competitor a few doors down.

We ducked in to get out of a thunderstorm, where Emily decided to make something for Daddy. My favorite part of the day.


"Where's the spatula?"




Inside a villa. Here we learned that reflecting pools, which were just past the entryway, were beautiful, but also meant to collect rainwater through a skylight. The water would drain into a reserve to be used for emergencies. Pretty brilliant.

The volcanic stones used for the streets are water proof. This shows the road design in action.


Above is the panificio, or bakery. Donkeys circled the mills, grinding the grain into flour.


Single stone cross walks indicate a one way street.

From the House of the Faun. The large mosaic depicts Alexander the Great in battle. The original is in the National Archaeological Museum.

We wandered into a long passageway to find ourselves in the baths.

Mt. Vesuvius from the Forum.

On the second day as Emily neared her limit, she and I headed to the hotel. Cody ended up staying for hours longer, and as the tour groups left, he found himself with Pompeii almost completely to himself. He found some archaeologists dusting around, took his time wandering though the baths with no crowds and no toddler dividing his attention. He said this ghost town was kind of eerie but it was one of the best experiences he could have had, and given his love of antiquities, I'm so glad he did, and I'm trying hard not to be even a little jealous.

My camera kept dying so I wish I could bombard you with the Necropoli and that unmarked villa with a mosaic of Nero and everything else we saw in the small piece of Pompeii we covered. I don't think we had even made it to our house before we were planning for our next visit. It just astounds me that an entire city can be buried and forgotten.


After two days in Pompeii, we were scheduled to hop on the Circumvesuviana to check into our hotel in Napoli, then spend an evening and one full day taking in the city. The night before we got curious about those buses that take you up the volcano to spend a few hours hiking around the rim. After checkout we had to make a last minute decision on whether to run down the street and catch a ride. Tickets were steep, but it was leaving in a few minutes and ahh! let's just do it! We can do this real fast then leave, no problem! Once in a lifetime, right?!

The bus, already full took us on a half hour drive to a parking lot where we waited for another, more rugged vehicle to come down the mountain, unload passengers and pick us up. From there it was a very bumpy ride. I was nervous, watching rain leak into the bus, as Cody had said sometimes it gets cancelled when storms wash out the roads and the buses can't make it up the steep single lane road. We finally made it to the drop off point halfway up Vesuvius, and watched the bus disappear. A long line of people waited at the ticket booth. A woman walked up to us and told us to wait, not go any further. Thunder clouds passed uncomfortably close overhead.

Several minutes passed. A man finally emerged in the crowd and said, "Attention...We have a big problem. Thunder...it, uh...took a guy. So the park is closed. Now we all wait for shuttles and go back down where we argue about tickets. For now, close your umbrellas and turn off your cell phones." I was disappointed but you could not get me out of there fast enough. Three buses reappeared and the crowds mobbed to get on. We made the last one. The engine began to smoke, and we waited to be rescued with another shuttle. That got us to the transfer point where we spent another hour (to her credit, Emily was happy to be climbing on seats and didn't mind at all). Then the half hour back to Pompeii. We hopped on the next train to the city, crashed in our room too tired and famished to go anywhere. The next morning, I pulled open the curtains to see Vesuvius, stark against a clear blue sky. "Looks like a nice day to go for a hike, doesn't it?"


Napoli

Napoli has the most screwed up, sketchy train system I've ever seen. We wanted to get to the metro line which would take us to the Archaeological Museum, and had the joy of dealing with an exasperated clerk giving us directions in broken English twice. A map, ANY MAP posted on ANY WALL would have saved us all a lot of trouble and time, but that station had none, so.


The Museum was a bit of a letdown. No plaster casts to be seen, and the Egyptian exhibit was closed. There were very beautiful artifacts taken from Pompeii and that made the trip worth it, but Emily was disappointed she couldn't see the "people who turned into rocks," which was her main motivation for behaving all morning.

This is what a villa's entryway looked something like. The pillars would have stood by the corners of the reflecting pool.


From there we decided to try a Rick Steves recommended pizza joint, La Antica Pizzeria da Michele. They serve two pizzas, cheese or no cheese, and a handful of drinks. The line for a table is out the door. Supposedly it's one of the originators of the modern pizza, and a local favorite. And we could. not. find. it. The romantic stroll I envisioned before sitting down for lunch turned into a furious hangry march in circles, where one's hands were thrown in the air, and locals had no idea what I was looking for because I was mispronouncing it and the gps wasn't updating our location and people were driving like maniacs. After forever we located the damn place, and as we stood in a crowd of backpackers, one of those tacky red hop on hop off buses that I couldn't let myself buy tickets for paused in front of us. The driver pointed to the pizzeria and the happy tourists smiled, sitting pretty as could be. I hate them.

The pizza, at least, was good and very fresh.


The city center is crowded and touristy in some regards, but the people hanging out in folding chairs on the street or watching from their balconies always had a ready smile. It's congested and I wasn't super comfortable navigating the stroller with Vespas whizzing by as the sidewalks were often blocked with things for sale- but the locals, some of whom looked like they had been selling fruit on the street corner for 50 years, looked like there was no where else they would rather be than in Old Napoli. As for me, I'd be happy to never leave the ruins on our next adventure.


Things to know if you are travelling to Napoli and Pompeii:

The airport does not have a train linking travelers to the main train station. You have to take either a cab or Alibus, the airport's coach. It runs about every 30-40 minutes. You can buy tickets from the driver. Expect to be crammed in.

In a city with as many motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists as Napoli has traffic laws are a pretty much ignored. The Alibus ride was a real adventure. Mopeds darted from the opposite lane in front of the bus causing it to brake. The moped drivers cursed at the bus for getting in their way.

If you only want to do a day trip to Pompeii or only have a couple hours, the Porta Marina entrance is right across from the train stop, and that's where all the highlights are. If you have more time and want to bypass crowds, the far entrance closest to the amphitheater is best. You can purchase either a one day pass, or a 5 site pass.

If there is the slightest chance of thunder don't bother with the volcano. Don't lose a day like we did!

If you have pizza no where else in Italy, eat it in Napoli, where it was invented.