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!

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Italia! Day 1: Entering Milan and Escaping to Venice…

Sorry for the long silence, but we’re back to adventure blogging with a young child–this time to Italy!

Apparently I’ve absorbed all my WordPress storage space, so I’ll have to put the photos in later.

We’re operating at a much greater handicap this trip because neither of us speaks Italian (though I know enough Spanish and other Latin variants to stab my way through most signs and menus). We had a prediction at the beginning that Aubri would steal the show, as she always does.
We also knew that depending on the system in question, most transportation and museums etc are free to under 4 or under 6. So that was a plus, at least. The exchange rate when we started out was around 1.22 usd : 1 euro.

I’m probably going to use metric and military time throughout the Italy posts so I don’t have to screw my own head back on in the actual travel.

Let me also add that it is much cheaper to buy train tickets 4-6 weeks in advance (potentially up to 30% cheaper), but I opted not to do so because it can be hard to guarantee an exact time for trains with Jamie’s deep love of sleep. As a rule, new readers will note that we pride ourselves in packing only one suitcase for the three of us, plus a backpack for electronics such as the camera and laptop. This means our luggage may be heavy, but we each have an arm free to catch the kid at all times. Said kid is 3.5 as of this trip.

First, let me say that the flight from Denver to Milan (MXP) is totally awful. Not because the individual legs are totally unbearable (3 hours and then 7.5), but because the layover (Newark) was long (4.5 hours) and that airport is dreadful. It’s loud, full 0f people not paying attention to little ones, and it took us half an hour to get from gate C92 to gate C102 because they are on opposite ends of the airport. Someone failed at counting, I’m thinking.
And we had to be at DIA by 6:30am, and it was -4F when we left the house.
But the Newark airport also had staff and employees of various kiosks who were far more polite than the Detroit airport, so that’s something. Though the Starbucks made Jamie’s coffee so hot it melted her cup and burned her hand pretty good. Aubri did befriend someone at dinner though, and Jamie got to chat four hours with a woman from China who was also headed to Milan and had more experience in Italy than we do.

That start aside, we finally made it into Milan and discovered it is also not the best airport–though several hundred dollars cheaper per person than, say, Rome or Venice (Literally about 350/ea cheaper to fly in the 31st and out the 9th). The airport is super long and you have to keep walking for ages to make it anywhere. The customs were quick though, in and out in under 15 minutes. The guy checking our passports flirted with the overly sleepy Aubri, thus already affirming our suspicions of her future as the princess of another country (See all my Japan posts ever).

We discovered our first major issue here in the airport. Apparently, train kiosks, some registers and most automated devices won’t accept a credit card (or debit card) that doesn’t have one of those new chips embedded in it. ATMs will, however, and this is still my preferred method for exchange. I use a bank that charges no exchange fees and refunds ATM fees from other banks, so I get dangerously close to the full bank to bank exchange rate with no painful overhead.

Unfortunately, there seems to be only one actual ATM in the entirety of the MXP airport, so we did a bit of hunting. Once we found cash, it was a $10/ea ticket to catch the 45-minute bus directly to the Milano Central station, where we picked up tickets for a total of 75 euro to get to Venice Mestre, where we were staying for two nights at the Autoespresso Hotel.

The station was cold because it was only about 32 degrees outside (Dec 31st) and the station acts like a giant, beautiful wind tunnel. I also noticed a disturbing number of creepy people looming, staring over other peoples’ shoulders as they bought tickets, or just getting way too close for no apparent reason. There were a lot of people in this station with a wild-eyed look and lots more carrying all their possessions with them.

 

 

Finally the train. And then there was much dozing in the next 2.5 hours. The trains are neat because even economy class is arranged around tables, so there’s a surface you can use if you need it. The luggage rack is really high up, though.

 

We chose to stay in Venice Mestre instead of Venice Proper because it’s considerably less expensive. We did not anticipate it being much harder to find the hotel (which appeared to be right outside the station, if Google Maps was to be believed). So while we got to Venice at about 13:30, we spent another hour and a half ish trying to find the place. If only we’d gone a half block further…

When we finally made it to the hotel, one part facepalming and one part wondering how Google thought it was close (it’s like a half kilometer from the station), check-in was painless. The front lady (she might be the owner?) “forced” Aubri to accept like three pieces of candy. Check two on her list. Unfortunately, their elevator seems to be an outdoor service elevator and we had to cart our heavy luggage up three full flights of stairs. Apparently they start counting floors at number zero┬áhere? They don’t do that in Japan.

The room is a bit eccentric, and has a concrete floor rather than wood or carpet.

 

After we change out of our now-two-days-old clothes, it was time to go find a way to Venice proper. By sheer luck, around the corner from the hotel is a bus stop for Route 6, which goes almost straight to the Venice station and bus hub. This stop doesn’t sell bus tickets, though, so the bus driver grouchily let us on because he was having a hard time explaining what we’d done wrong. Normally each ride is 1.3euro/person, and each adult has to have a swipe card with the charge. The ticket is validated on each ride to deduct the total from the balance on the card. These cards are sold from machines at most, but not all, stops. But we made it to Venizia after a 15 minute bus ride!

Our plan was to see the fireworks at the San Marco Basilica Plaza on the 31st, and enjoy the outdoor concert in the meantime. However, as I mentioned, it was cold. The high was about 32, and around the water it felt much colder. It was about 16:30 by the time we finally made it to Venizia, and we snapped a few pictures and browsed a few kiosks. Aubri was feeling photogenic.

 

We decided to try some dinner on for size, and a persuasive woman outside a place called Trattoria Bella Venezi (I think) convinced us to come in and try their set plate menus.

Aubri approved of their penne with salmon, and their lasagna with meat sauce was delicious. I’m pretty sure I can replicate the penne easily enough. This is why I come to other countries, to learn their culinary secrets.

 

The chicken was chewy, but tasty. Ultimately we enjoyed it immensely, but we did discover that water only comes in expensive bottled form here. 3.50 euros for ordering water, 4 euros each for cappuccinos. All told, the meal was 42 euros. I expect other parts of Italy will be a little less expensive for “cheap” menu items. The portions were also not really sufficient for sharing, so it’s fortunate that we had more than one item each. For some reason this restaurant was very slow. We were unsure at the time whether it was their style, or the style around town.
Aubri adored their whole staff and enjoyed tons of chatting with the waiters. Of course.

Also it seems like you don’t tip waiters and the like. Here’s a list of other tips I probably should have known ahead of time (mainly the coffee note).

After dinner we wandered for a while longer and tried some cheap 2 euro hot wine. We also picked up some meringues because seriously. Everyone was saying the fireworks were cancelled because of the cold, and we were exhausted. So we headed back on the same bus (which had to loop all the way around before hitting our stop), and then crashed at about 20:00. After consuming cappuccinos and the delicious meringues.
…And promptly woke up at exactly 10 minutes to midnight, thanks to jetlag and the sound of bombs (fireworks) bursting in air. For two and a half more hours…The inability to get back to sleep might have been partially due to the sugar and caffeine.
We did go down to the lobby to watch a few of the fireworks, but we could only see some of them. They were being set off very low in the sky compared to what we’re used to, and so weren’t really visible over the buildings.

So, Happy New Year! And on to Venice, Day Two…