Italia Day 4 – Rome The First!

In which we leave before dawn to get to Rome before the Romans.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hotel door dumped us out right by the bus stop for 36:37, whose first holiday-time stop was at 5:34 in the morning and took only 10 minutes to get back to Firenze SMN. Our train for Rome, leaving from SMN, would be at something like 7:35. However, since we’d experienced trouble getting on the train the day before, we decided to be as early as possible to make sure we got tickets.

So we shivered outside for a few minutes (skipping breakfast at the hotel, alas) before jumping on the bus. Like most busses in Italy, these tickets were cheap (1.2euro ea) but had to be purchased in advance. We bought them while wandering Florence the day before.

Unfortunately, Aubri wasn’t much interested in eating (other than one case of the most delicious gelato ever) while we were in Florence, and so while I was buying the train tickets she promptly tossed up water and stomach acid all over the floor. We did our best to clean it up with napkins but couldn’t find an attendant to help clean the mess. Ugh.

Finally we gave up and hit McDonalds (the only thing open this early inside the station) to get some food and cappuccino. It was about what you’d expect from them, but Aubri ate almost one whole pancake. She was feeling a little better, briefly, but it was clear she was coming down with something.

We made it on the train without further incident and found ourselves in Rome Termini at around 8:22. While on the train we realized that Aubri was starting to develop a fever, so we decided to look for a pharmacy (Farmacea) for some baby tylenol before heading out to our first Air B&B stay. With a little extra pantomiming, they got the idea and hooked us up with a dropper liquid style tylenol alternative. They told us “three drops per kilo” and we were on our way.
Needless to say, counting out something like 42 drops for the kid was not going to happen, so I just gave her two droppers full and left it at that for the moment.

Our Air B&B stay had given good directions, so we were staying over near the San Giovanni exit and within a 15 minute walk of the Coliseum.  We were an hour early thanks to catching the better (cheaper) train, but our host G was there and we chatted for a while before leaving our bags in the room and heading out for our first day of exploring Rome.  It was expected to be around 54 degrees F as a high, so we felt prepared to have a good day. G hooked us up with a nice Ancient Rome area map and directions to some of the cooler spots, and we were on our way.

Looking back, I really should have pulled out the full paper directions (which I could read because I know enough Spanish/Latin to get by) and dosed Aubri with a lot more tylenol before we left. It turns out she should’ve been getting 7.5-10ml (a third of the bottle) every 6 hours because of her age and weight. Oops.

Anyway, we headed out for the Coliseum, and on the way we found a handful of pizza shops, one of which had thick handheld pizzas for only 2.50 ea. Jamie got one with olives and I got one with chicory leaves. They were delicious. We had to coerce Aubri into eating about 10 bites. We were amused to find several LGBT bars in the area immediately surrounding the Coliseum, well-denoted by rainbow lights. Lots of attractive people wandering around them at night, too. Good place to mingle probably, if you don’t have a small child tagging along.

The line at the Coliseum was absolutely crazy, and we suddenly remembered that it was Saturday. We settled for some cool pictures of ourselves outside it, and then moved on toward the Forum.
The Forum’s line was lighter, but since I thought we couldn’t actually get close to the ruins I didn’t really want to pay 12 euro each to go in there either. A Roma pass would have been a good choice, but we’d skipped on that. Note for next time.

Just past the Forum is the Piazza Venezia, which is dominated by a large and beautiful marble palace filled with cool statues. And let me add that I am pretty good at reading maps (even horrible tourist maps). But for some reason, I didn’t realize that huge marble structure was right by the Piazza, and we got turned around at this point. But I’m still not sure exactly where or how, because we didn’t realize that we were no longer walking in the same direction until we found the Pyramid, and the Pyramid was not on the map. Anywhere. This was an hour or so into our meandering walk, so we were displaced by a decent distance. Naturally, we kept walking and finally found ourselves at the Pyramid metro station, which was in an awful neighborhood with lots of loitering teenagers leering at people (namely, females, including us) as they walked past. We hopped on the metro to get back to the Circo Massimo stop.

By now Aubri was getting really whiny from walking, so of course she passed out on that short train hop, and we wound up stopping at a little tea shop to have a cup of black tea while Aubri slept on Jamie’s lap.

After poring over the map for a while, I finally realized we’d walked right off of it, but in the opposite direction I thought we’d been walking in. So we finished our tea, scooped up the monkey, and spent the next two hours slowly looping around the back side of the large triangle that includes the forum and Coliseum, as well as a bunch of cool old churches and such. We got a few neat pictures of ruins, and Aubri cried. A lot. It was getting a little more cloudy and grey, and she kept complaining about being cold.

Finally we made it back around to where the Coliseum was. We were still struggling to keep Aubri awake. We stopped in at a tasty smelling restaurant and just barely beat their rush. They were delicious and quite popular (though one of our pasta dishes was unexpectedly cold). The matron of the place coddled Aubri and even tucked her in with a tablecloth when she fell asleep. They gave us a to-go tin to make sure Aubri got some to eat because they didn’t want us to wake her up.

For dinner we ordered canneloni, ravioli, and that salmon penne again. Everything was good (especially the ravioli), but the penne was a little overly salty. I also notice that salt and other condiments almost never exist on the table in these restaurants–and maybe you can get your hands on pepper.

After dinner (which took some time because they were so very crowded), we scooped Aubri up and dragged ourselves back to our hosts’ home. Aubri’s fever was feeling much too high. Once we got to the house, we shoveled a few ravioli down her throat and then I resolved to give her two droppers of tylenol every two hours until her fever broke. These were the directions we got from her doctor when she had a high fever in November right after Thanksgiving. So we started watching Legend of Korra and dosing her. She was so hot by this time that her cheeks and hands were flushed totally pink. Yikes! It took like 4 hours, but her fever went down and she broke a heavy sweat. Finally instead of forcing her to drink water, she asked us for it. We were in the clear…and exhausted ourselves.

The bed at this host, hands down the comfiest bed we’ve ever had in a hotel or homestay arrangement. Nice down pillows too,  totally wonderful. Breakfast is a bit of a serve-yourself arrangement, but we’ll make it work.

And tomorrow, we have some choices to make on where to go.


Italy Day 3: In which we escape from Venice to Florence…

I awoke around 4am, which would have been perfect for getting to the station on time for the 5:40am train. Except that, to save my life, I couldn’t get Jamie to get up out of bed. The Autoespresso wasn’t exactly the most comfortable hotel, but getting lost in Venice the day prior was exhausting. So I laid awake in bed for another two hours, and our opportunity to catch the earliest train faded.

We did gorge ourselves (somewhat) on breakfast that morning, to make up for it. However, despite the fact that trains seem to run every 30 minutes or so between Venice and Florence, every train after the 5:40 was packed up until about 2pm. A kind ticket clerk found us a complicated route where we transferred at both Bologna and Prato to arrive, finally, in Florence at about 1:47…approximately 4 hours later than I had planned.

The Florence main train station is loud and cold, because it is enclosed above but open. Many homeless and questionable people wander around, but at least the station is cleaner than some. The station is Firenze S.M.N. (Santa Maria Novella), and the bus station outside is called “Abside S.M.N.” but also by several other names, to complicate things a bit. Within an easy walk we found the tourist information center, and they gave us a local walking map and advised us to try the Ufizzi Gallery, since we only had time for one now that the trains had stolen 4 hours of our day.

We decided to walk with the suitcase and backpack, rather than go all the way to the hotel and back first. It was finally gloriously warm in Florence! I think it was only 54F, but we started shedding coat layers in the sun. The roads are uneven, you must play chicken with the cars, and sidewalks almost don’t exist. But many of the side roads were at least partially pedestrian-only, so we made our way through streets lined with old reliefs and brilliant giant wood doors with huge knockers molded like lions and angels.

The view along the river was glorious, and we were happy that we saw considerably less defacing of old buildings in Florence. People were still difficult–many stared us down rather than go around the women lugging a suitcase and young child. But the air was less thick, some of the time.

The walk from the tourist center to the gallery was straightforward enough. However, when we arrived at the gallery, we saw that they were completely packed and would be inaccessible until the next day. Fortunately, they had many beautiful statues nearby, so we were able to enjoy some of the splendor of Florence even if the holidays had them overrun with tourists. We also discovered the best gelato we’ve had so far, just around the corner from the gallery.

The walk across the Golden Bridge and down that long winding road past the large Piazza was charming enough, though Aubri was getting very tired and whiny. We took note of a book/game shop and a tea shop for perusal later. Our hotel was a converted 14th century convent known as the Convitto della Calza. The bed was dreadful, and the room was understandably small. But the shower was amazing and the location was fabulous (36/37 bus stop immediately outside the door, easy walk to Boboli Gardens). We can’t speak for the breakfast because we had to leave far too early the next morning to catch the train to Rome.

After dropping off our bags, finally, we headed out for tea and dinner. The tea shop we’d seen before was also a chocolatiare. We spent some time perusing their wares before leaving with several truffles and a cup of delicious green and fruit tea. Aubri charmed them all, of course, including the Korean exchange student learning Italian while we were there.

Afterward we wandered the street looking for dinner. We settled for a place with some pasta dishes that sounded alright. Their food was overly salty and clearly more for tourists. By the time we got out of there only an hour or so later, it was getting to be after 7 and we were exhausted from all the walking. So we returned to our room, watched a few episodes of Legend of Korra, and collapsed with the alarm set for 4am…

And the next morning we are off to Rome!

Italy Day Two: Venice! Again!

There are several conclusions we’ve reached while traveling, even this short period of time:
1. Graffiti is a national pastime, and the older the wall the better. (It’s true, see this link).
2. Every third person in Italy smokes. Maybe not quite, but it sure seems like it when they are all carrying lit cigarettes at the height of Aubri’s face. (Another research point here).
3. All the signs are in both Italian and English but few people actually speak English. For someone who can read Italian decently well but not understand fast speakers, that presents a problem.
4. No one looks down in this city. Ever. So they aren’t looking for a walking little person.
5. No one apologizes for slamming into you either.
6. Clearly we shouldn’t have visited Japan first.
7. Every hotel charges a separate 2euro/person/night tax payable only in person (adults, littles under 4 don’t count). This vaguely complicates super early checkout. This was a “known but forgotten” factor, so just prepare for it.
8. People don’t make eye contact and are really confused if you do.
9. I sometimes can’t be sure if someone is speaking French or Italian and I’m sure that’s insulting to someone. But maybe there are some French tourists around.
10. Conditioner? No one uses or sells conditioner? Only shampoo? My hair weeps.

Those things being said, we started our second day in Venice off with a well stocked (mostly cold) breakfast from Autoespresso. Eggs, various breads and sweet treats, ham and baby swiss (The best swiss we’ve ever had), boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of decent strong coffee with steamed milk, Delicious. We ate our fill and headed out to Venice proper.

I realized a little late that our hotel is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. There were lots of broken bottles and trash etc all over the place after the night’s revelry. Also when we tried to find the hotel originally, we noticed the other side of the station was much nicer. Typical. We had a similar experience in Kyoto with the hotel gem we found back in April–great breakfast, horrible beds, nice price, awful location. For two nights in Venice only a 12-15 minute bus ride from Venice Proper, including breakfast, with a spacious room, it was only about $108/night during New Year’s. Other times of year would likely be much less expensive.

So after our bus ride, we took a look at the only free local map (at the waterbus station) and headed off in the general direction of the Doge Palace. And promptly spent the next 6 hours wandering aimlessly through the small alleys of the center of Venice, where we saw lots of random graffiti (Our favorites were unsavory, of course) and ruined houses. We noticed little restoration process, but lots of layered building that was interesting.

We had intended to actually go into San Marco Basilica and the Doge Palace, but the lines were obscene. This was also the first place I felt uncomfortable leaving my tripod standing to get group photos, because we expected someone might just knock into the camera and send it crashing down.

So, given the lines, we resolved to search for reasonably priced Venetian masks and other interesting things. We came across a DaVinci exhibit, likely identical to the one in Denver (similar pricing, 8 euro vs $12/person). We went in to give Aubri something to do, as she was getting mopey about being forced to march all over. We also discovered some Steampunk influence to masks, as some artists had taken to gluing plastic machinations all over mask forms and then painting the whole thing.

And then we had Dulce du Leche gelato and the whole world was made right. Until poor Aubri started shivering from the cold.

Ultimately, we spent the entire day just wandering, and then found ourselves back across the way from our first restaurant experience, ordering food. This whole restaurant was so charmed by Aubri that they were offering to let her keep the Christmas tree she liked (what?? No!). But their ravioli with spinach/Gorgonzola/walnuts were delicious, as was the brie/Gorgonzola/mozzarella cheese pizza. And their service was extremely fast, so I think the other restaurant was just odd. The pizza chef came out to flirt with Aubri because his daughter’s name is Arianna and the staff thought that’s what we were saying.

And then we went back to the hotel and passed out because we really needed to be at the train station early.

Top 10 Steampunk Vacations: #5: San Francisco!

San Francisco may have been more recently developed than the east coast, but this city has all the flavor of a great explorer–with trains and street cars to add to the experience. San Francisco has a unique flavor, particularly due to the diversity of her occupants. The gold rush began in 1848 and drove much of the city’s growth for the next several decades.

Start your trip in Union Square. Directly opposite the square is a Neiman Marcus that stands where the City of Paris department store once stood. Duck inside just to get a glimpse at the glass rotunda that was her crowning glory. While you’re at Union Square, sneak a peak at the French Quarter, but really you will want to catch one of the only three remaining cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Wharf is a brilliant day of exploration for the scientifically or nautically inclined. At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (say that three times fast), you can stand on the decks of dozens of ships that once sailed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If dieselpunk is your flavor, you can also check out the WWII floating museum the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Make sure you duck over to Aquatic Park as well to view the American Freedom train.
After you wander the boats to your heart’s content, enjoy air conditioning and innovation of the modern variety at Exploratorium, which has just recently moved to Pier 15. This science museum has loads of hands-on exhibits to give you ideas for the past…

Back to our favorite walking tours, put on your best walking boots and explore the Barbary Coast Walking Trail, reported to cover the best aspects of the Gold Rush of 1848, including ship graveyards, cathedrals and temples, and more beautiful architecture. Separately, wander the “Western Addition” neighborhood to see lots of Victorian-style houses and mansions that survived the Great Earthquake of 1906. Make sure you also take the time to wander Chinatown, with a beautiful collection of historical Chinese-architecture buildings built and rebuilt around the time of the quake.

After you’ve finished that grueling walk, wet your whistle at St. Francis, reportedly the oldest ice cream parlor in San Francisco. They have old fashioned soda fountains too.

Make a stop at the Palace of Fine Arts, first built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

What trip to San Francisco would be complete without checking out the Golden Gate Bridge? When you’re in the neighborhood, stop at the San Francisco Ferry Building, which sports a 245-foot-tall clock tower that was completed in 1898.  Also stop at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

And to top it all off, here is a fun list of historic restaurants in the bay area.

If history is your style (and I hope that it is, if you’re into Steampunk), then certainly check the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society for any events that might be happening around your visit. If you can’t get to San Francisco, this website has lots of amazing photographs and information of San Francisco in eras gone by.

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Top 10 Steampunk Vacations: #6: New England

Yes. The whole thing.
Sometimes these vacation thoughts are about a city, and sometimes they’re about an entire region. In this case, what better place to explore Steampunk inclinations than the center of American culture’s imitation of the Mother Country during the Victorian Era?
(Incidentally, I know we think there are 5 places better for exploration. I’m getting to those).

In the mean time, take a walk down memory lane!

Begin your journey with a historical trek through the New England Air Museum, exploring and climbing in and around the myriad of aviation inventions and discovering the history of America’s expeditions in the air. New England also boasts Mystic Seaport, the museum of America and the Sea–including exhibits on 19th century life. The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation has been so enchanted by our movement that they hold once-monthly meetups for the local crowd. They also have gloriously unique presentations on steam power, watches, clocks and the like.

For the geek in all of us, if you time your visit appropriately there are dozens of conventions and festivals featuring a steampunk flare. Check out this list.

Now, on to the walking tours… In Boston I recommend the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile long loop exploring old houses and historical sites for many of the founding inventors and statesmen. Granted, much of this is 18th century–but where would Steam be without Ben Franklin’s discoveries? Also do visit the Boston Public Gardens, which were put in place in the 1860s and laid out in the French Empire style. Wander through Forest Hills Cemetery to explore graves established from 1848 onward.

In Maine visit Castle Tucker and wander a mansion largely still furnished with Victorian sensibility. Also in Maine, visit the Observatory for a sunset tour–it’s the oldest remaining signal tower in the US.

And where to stay? If you get the chance, stay at the Liberty Hotel in Boston–it was once historic Charles Street Jail! Check out The Inn at Lower Farm in CT, or Martin Hill Inn in NH.

For a unique flavor, visit these Victorian-built mansions that imitate the older styles (Gothic period mostly): The Castle in the Clouds and Hammond Castle (which was actually built in the 1930s, but who’s counting?). The latter serves as a museum as well.

With each new location comes an interesting nuance–or several, as in the case of a region as large as New England. Try Candlepin Bowling, one of the variations invented to dodge the illegalization of 9-pin bowling (as a way to illegalize gambling).

If you can’t make it there, this site has loads of archives and collections of old photographs for your perusal. This blog has great articles about Forgotten New England in the Victorian Era!

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Top 10 Steampunk Vacations: #7: New Orleans

Fortunately for our next travel destination, the locals have already rallied the troops to create their own Steampunk group, the Steampunk Americans. I’m not sure how active they remain, but they have paved the way for time travelers.

New Orleans is home to a whirlwind of culture and–of course–the original steam cruise liners.

You can cruise aboard the 9th iteration of the famous Steamboat Natchez, for $40-75/person if you cruise with jazz and dinner.

Bob Dylan said of New Orleans: “The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay – ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here.
You could be dead for a long time”

On that beautiful note, explore the Saint Louis Cemetery, with graves dating back as far as 1789. The eerie collision of culture will only be sweetened by a late moonlit stroll and the telling of ghost stories. Some claim New Orleans is the most haunted city in the U.S.

What is a visit to a reputably seedy city without a good dip into the adult nightlife? Check out Bourbon Street’s revival of the Victorian Era Burlesque with Bustout Burlesque.

The French Quarter is a beautiful location for a walking tour, with buildings dating back to 1715. Of particular note is Jackson’s Square, and stop at Antoine’s (the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S., established in 1840). While you are wandering the French Quarter, search for clues to the real identity of the pirate Laffitte.

Meanwhile, because I am obligated to send you off to educational locations, the Louisiana Art and Science Museum is a good stop, and currently they are running some jazz programming. The Confederate Memorial Hall is another choice stop for those curious about the Civil War dispute.

Wrap up your trip with dessert–or afternoon tea. The Grill Room offers a delightful afternoon tea. Cure your sweet tooth with a visit to the French Bakery Croissant D’Or, or stop by Angelo Brocato for proper Italian desserts. Why not enjoy your trip to the decadent city?

What Steampunk adventure would be complete without a visit to a clock tower? Check out The Clocktower. The link is to an article about the home renovation, although I haven’t been able to find any details about visiting. Many of the cemeteries in the area also sport clocktowers.

This article doesn’t even touch on visiting during the Mardi Gras, but I hope you will explore N’Orleans (and savor the local food) with flare.

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Top 10 Steampunk Vacations: #8: Vienna, Austria

Vienna makes our top ten list for those who might be more interested in the arts and music movements than in the technology of bygone eras. Don’t believe me? Watch this 2008 video of Vienna from a Steampunk Lens.

Naturally if you are going to visit, you must start with the building that is in itself an evolution of architecture throughout the course of Vienna’s history–the Historic Centre of Vienna. This gorgeous complex shows aspects of culture from the 11th century until the early 20th century, and includes the Ringstrasse completed in 1900 and dozens of other historical sites. As far as photography is concerned, you would be hard pressed to find more interesting architecture.

Next I recommend that you stop in to Wiener Musikverein to witness a concert played in one of the most famous concert halls in the world–erected in the 1860s and still a musical wonder without the modern use of amplification technology. You can find information (in German) about concerts here on their website. They tend to feature Austrian composers and have a lot of focus on Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven this month. Save a seat for me!

Along with the arts and music also comes one of the more notorious soft sciences–psychology. And with it, Sigmund Freud. As a psychology graduate I’m not overly fond of his obsessions–or methods–but he did open the world’s eyes to the concept of motivation in many ways. His home is a museum and you can explore it on your tour.

The House of Music should be on your list as well, if only for the fun of virtual conducting. It is a museum of music as well as an interactive discovery museum.

Here is a museum that is Victorian both in nature and in age! Established in 1909, the museum is a tribute to all things technical (and particularly transportational).

While you are in Vienna, catch up with the Steampunk in Vienna group. They are a smaller group much like the Colorado Steampunks. In 2012 Vienna was one of the hosts to the Euro Steam Con, and details are not available yet for whether they will be again. If so, September would be a brilliant time to visit! The beautiful architecture and Western European flavor make this #8 on our list. Don’t forget your German translator! auf Wiedersehen!