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Thursday, July 26, 2012


As we made Spain a major target in planning the trip, I had forgotten that my arrival in Barcelona would be 20 years later than first planned.  The 1992 Summer Olympics were held in the capital of Catalunya, and the radio station I was working for at the time told me a few months ahead of the games that I would be going.  I’m not sure why I got the call, perhaps because I had proven myself as an international traveler in 1989 when I got to go to Paris for about five days.  That was my first time in Europe and just like the first time I had a tater tot, I was in love immediately. 

I’ll never forget how I found out I was going to Paris.  The program director at Magic 96 in Charlotte, Don Schaeffer, was also the morning man, and I was the morning news guy/side kick.  It was on my birthday, June 9th, that he told me live on the air.  American Airlines had just started up a non-stop flight to Paris from Raleigh-Durham and to help promote the flight, they sent radio shows from around the region to Paris for a few days, to broadcast back to the states the magic and allure of the City of Lights.  I would be going with another air personality,  Bill Young, (who had the on-air nickname Magic Man) and we each got to take our significant other.  I was just about speechless on the air, it took me completely by surprise, and I had been watching the French Open on TV and thinking about how wonderful Paris looked. 

Then came the hard part.  My first wife (we’ll call her Mulligan) and I needed passports within about two weeks. That meant going through the expediting process, which added to the cost and the stress of not knowing if we would get them in time.  We got them with about a day to spare, took the trip and had a great time in Paris.  The dates of the trip included Mulligan’s birthday, June 27th, so for the rest of our time together I could say, "hey I took you to Paris for your birthday, now leave me alone and let me watch the golf!"

I’m not exactly sure what happened three years later, but about a month ahead of the trip, all of the sudden I wasn’t going to Barcelona anymore.  I think someone complained/whined that Bangert already got a free trip to Paris, how come he gets to Barcelona?  So for me it was Paris oui, Barcelona no!  (That’s the Spanish “no” by the way in case you couldn’t tell.)

My next trip to Europe would be to Spain in 1997 with my keeper wife Annie.  To celebrate her graduating from the MBA program at Xavier, we decided to take a trip, using our newly-acquired time share.  It was May and all the resorts in the Carribean were booked up.  However, the time-share company offered us a deal—if we booked one week in the Canary Islands, we would get a second week for free.  Having no children at the time, we decided to jump at the chance for two weeks in the islands that belong to Spain but are close to the coast of Morocco.  We enjoyed our two weeks there and were on our way back to the States when we got our first taste of Spain. 

When we got to the airport in Madrid on the way back home, the flight to Cincinnati was over-booked.  The airline offered to put us up for the night, buy us dinner, and give us 400 Delta Dollars a piece if we would change our plans.  Again, not having children, we jumped at the chance.  We only spent about 18 hours there, but really enjoyed the city of Madrid, and pretending for some reason that we were Basque Separatists.  I think that helped plant the seed of attraction to Spain that took root in my head, and contributed to my desire to go to Spain with my wife and kids in 2012. 

The pain of leaving my favorite city so far on the trip was eased a bit by departing from the gorgeous Estacio De Nord in Valencia.  Three hours later, we were getting off the train at the main station in Barcelona, and taking a taxi to our apartment. 

After being in the periphery of the action in Bologna, we decided to stay right in the heart of things in both Valencia and Barcelona.  In Barcelona, that meant booking a surprisingly affordable place a half a block away from Sagrada Familia.  That’s the iconic church designed by Antoni Gaudi.  Seeing photos of the tall spires gave me the impression that we would see them from quite a distance away.  But due to the congested nature of the city, we didn’t see the amazing structure until our taxi turned the corner and there it was!
We had all seen plenty of photos of Sagrada Familia, but those didn’t come close to preparing us for how breathtaking it is in person.  Construction started in 1882 and is still going on and is scheduled to continue until 2026.  The tallest towers have the appearance of the kind of sand castle you make in wet sand on the beach when you let the soggy grains drip out of your hand at a slow pace. 

Up close, you can really see the details of the complex design which has been continued by other architects following the general plans of Gaudi, who knew he would not live long enough to see his masterpiece completed.  You could stand and look at it for days from every direction and see something new every minute. 

We enjoyed taking in the exterior view our first day and night there, and didn’t waste any time the following day by going inside. 
The interior of Sagrada Familia is stunning.  The outside appears somewhat dark and imposing, but the inside is filled with light that splash over very welcoming wide-open spaces.  Gaudi's primary design principle is to incorporate nature into his architecture, and as you can see, the main columns on the inside rise to the ceiling and branch out like trees.  

Some of the windows are filled with stained glass, while many others are not, evidence of the ongoing work inside and outside of the building. The work is being continued by architects who are trying to be truthful to Gaudi's vision while leaving their own design styles.  One of the most distinct examples of that is the exterior portion of the church depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The sharp angles and edges and non-traditional image of Jesus have created a certain amount of controversy.  But I think that's what the best art does--it challenges conventional wisdom and ideas, and makes the viewer think, perhaps in ways they never imagined.  Sagrada Familia certainly had our complete attention for the three or four days we were around it.  I've put it at the top of the list of man-made things we have seen on the trip.  I just absolutely love it.
The work of Antoni Gaudi is prevalent throughout Barcelona.  A handful of buildings display his distinctive style.
Guell Park which provides a gorgeous view of the city is also home to several works of Gaudi.  It's actually a failed housing development from the early 20th Century that is now a park.  And yes, I borrowed this photo from the internet because for some reason the ones we took disappeared from our camera.

If the only personal items we lost in Barcelona were some digital photos, that's probably not a bad thing.  We had gotten more than one warning about pickpockets targeting tourists but never saw any in action and never felt threatened at all.  And we walked around plenty.

Like Valencia,  Barcelona has great architecture, with many buildings featuring beautiful iron work on balconies everywhere you look.  We saw a lot of the city on foot, as we had to visit the property management office on Monday and sign a contract and arrange payment since we arrived on Saturday when the office was closed. 

Barcelona is very pedestrian-friendly, with wide sidewalks leading to plazas and boulevards.  The city's bull-fighting ring is beautiful on the outside, giving no hint of the carnage that goes on inside.
While strolling the streets, we saw several posters advertising concerts coming in the coming weeks and months.  They must have the same booking agent as Riverbend, with exciting acts like the Beach Boys on the way!
We finished off our stay in Barcelona in style by taking a Segway tour.  We had seen them offered in other cities and did some research and found that in some places, like Rome, they were more than 100 Euros a piece.  That was a little steep for our tastes, so when we got to Barcelona and found the Segway tour there cost less than 60 Euro a piece, we took the plunge. 

We had originally planned to take the tour on Monday, but some miscommunication between us and the tour company resulted is going two nights later.  It worked out quite nicely that we did the Segway tour on our final night in Barcelona.  It happened to be July 4th, and we hadn’t made any plans to celebrate the 236th birthday of our homeland.  And in keeping with the true “melting pot” nature of the USA, we rode Segways in Barcelona with a German tour guide. 
Vincent was from Hanover, Germany and had lived in Barcelona for about two years.  He was patient with us as we spent about 20 minutes getting the feel for controlling the Segways.  They are a product of how you move your center of gravity.  Lean forward, and you go forward.  Lean backward, and you go in the other direction.  
The machines are very intuitive and after about 15 minutes it's really like walking.  You learn to lean in the direction you want to turn, you can speed up and most importantly slow down exactly the way you want to.   

The route that Vincent took us on was perfect, hitting areas of the city we hadn't seen yet.  We wound through some of the older parts of town, which meant navigating some crowded, narrow streets.  All four of us managed to do that without incident or injury to ourselves or anyone else.  

It was a bit of a relief to get to a less crowded area along the water front.  By this point, about a half an hour into the 90-minute tour, we all felt confident enough on our Segways to do a little manuevering, which was a blast.  
Docked on the waterfront was the largest yacht we had ever seen, on this trip or anywhere else.  Victor informed us that it was owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian tycoon (who also owns the Chelsea football club) who made his billions like many of the other super-wealthy:  through illegal and shady business dealings.  We didn't get close enough to get a good photo of the boat, but it was impressive to see even as far away as we were.  

The Segway tour was a blast and a perfect ending to a great stay in a great city.  As much as we loved Barcelona, we had smiles on our faces as we boarded the train heading toward our next destination the next day and for five good reasons:  Puppies! 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Great Expectations

Enjoying the moment is one thing I'm not very good at (among many things, including like right there, grammar).  I'm always thinking ahead to whatever event is coming up, and my expectations of that event impact my enjoyment of it.  Too many times I get really amped up about something and it doesn't live up to what I hoped it would be and I come away disappointed.  On the other hand, if I go into something with low expectations and have a great time, the enjoyment of that event is greatly heightened.  I had really been looking forward to getting to Spain almost throughout the entire seven months leading to our arrival there, and I was hoping it would live up to my great expectations. 

In the winter of 2011, when we first started planning the trip, Marley wrote all our names on a white board and made columns under our names, listing the five places we each wanted to go.  Over the next few months, after doing some research on the internet or seeing something on TV about a particular spot, the list of desired destinations would change some.  One of the constants on my list was Spain.  I felt a very strong draw towards the Iberian Peninsula and wanted to make sure we spent some time there.

In researching where to go next from Bologna, we found that one of the cheapest places to fly to was Valencia, Spain.  Valencia is on the southeastern coast of Spain, and is about a three-hour train ride to Barcelona, which is not that far from the French border.  We had a house-sitting obligation in the French Pyrenees which separate France from Spain, so it seemed like a logical progression to hit Valencia for a few days, then head toward Barcelona leading up to our much-anticipated stay with seven labradoodle puppies.

The trip from Italy to Spain would be our first experience with Ryan Air.  That's a somewhat infamous low-cost airline based in Ireland that offers what look like at first unbelievably low fares, like 20 dollars to fly to Paris.  That's before you add on fees for luggage (15 Euros per person for one bag each).  There's a 40 Euro fee for online booking, there are fees for choosing your seat ahead of time. I think they even have a fee for all the fees you ring up.  By the time you get through all that, the fare winds up being about double what the initial advertised price was.  Still, it's more affordable than any other airline.
We had also heard complaints about rude service and constant selling of products once the plane was airborne.  The flight attendants did try to pitch a few items, including smokeless cigarettes, but it wasn't annoying at all.  The plane was clean, the flight crew friendly enough, and we got there at a decent price.  Our expectations were low and we ended up being pleasantly surprised.

The only thing I really knew about Valencia before we got there was that it was the site of a Franz Ferdinand concert from 2009 that MTV would show from time to time.  Not that I watch MTV much if at all, but I like live shows and Franz Ferdinand has some good tunes, plus the setting for the concert was at the City of Arts and Sciences complex.  It's a very modernistic series of buildings and gave the show a very unique backdrop. 
Our love affair with Valencia started pretty much from the moment we arrived at our apartment.  It helped that the place we booked had some great spaces inside, and was overlooking the Plaza de Napole y Sicilia.
The apartment was located inside the old city, giving us another experience of being taken back in time.  One of our discoveries on our first walk around the city on foot was the Mercat Central.  It's a gorgeous building that dates back to 1914, but is in fantastic condition, and roomy and airy inside.
The market stalls offer up a wide variety of meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables, bread--pretty much anything you want to eat.
The atmosphere is buzzing with chatter between customers and merchants, and gives you a great feel of what local life is like.  We've tried to check out the local markets in our various stops along the way, and this was by far our favorite.

Our apartment was in a great location, just a short walk away from a broad plaza called the Plaza de la Reina, or Plaza of the Queen.  That just happens to be Annie's nickname, so she was feeling appropriately regal as we checked out some of the shops and restaurants and cafes that ring the perimeter of the square.

One thing we didn't notice anywhere there was a place to watch the upcoming Germany/Italy game outside.  Watching the football on TVs placed outside at restaurants was something we really enjoyed in Perugia and we wanted to re-create that there in Valencia.  Another thing we needed to do was go to the train station to buy tickets for our next travel segment, going to Barcelona in a few days.

As we headed south from the Plaza de la Reina toward the train station, we started to see a little more evidence of excitement for the football game.  More cafes and restaurants had chalkboard signs out front advertising the game, and we found one spot that already had a TV outside, and offered a menu that would suit everyone's appetite, including Marley's.

There were more bars along this stretch of the street leading to the train station, and a few were flying the German and Italian colors.
After a walk of about 30 minutes, we made it to Estacio Nord, the main train station in Valencia. Besides having the most beautiful market we've seen so far on the trip, Valencia also has the prettiest train station of the handful we've seen.
Just like with the market, it's beautiful on the outside, and clean, light and airy on the inside.  The architectural details are fabulous, and evoke elements of Art Nouveau, as well as the Arts and Crafts movement, especially the design work of Charles Mackintosh.
It doesn't quite have the hustle and bustle of some of the other train stations we've been in, but that's kind of the way Valencia is as a whole.  The streets between Plaza Del Reina and the train station are lined by buildings that are about five or six stories tall and the majority have wonderful ironwork on the sides.
One other thing we liked about Valencia is that it's not stuck in the past.  It became the first European city to host the America's Cup in 2007, and apparently did a good enough job that the Cup races returned in 2010. 

Partially as the result of hosting the Cup twice, the harbor area was revitalized and is home to an impressive stretch of sand, and a long line of restaurants.  The harbor area is also home to the course where a Formula 1 race is held each year and we missed it by just a couple of days.
Crews were still in the process of tearing down stands and concessions from the race, but you could still see where the cars came through, making a very sharp turn right by the port.

We spent an entire afternoon at the aforementioned Ciudad de La Artes y Ciancias. The complex was built in the mid 90s by a pair of architects who certainly weren't shy about making bold design statements. 
The Science Museum was our first stop and was very engaging for both adults and children.  It featured a wide variety of hands-on displays, some of which tested your balance and equilibrium, while others tested how far and how high you could jump.  There were also displays on weather, including a machine that made a mini-tornado.

There truly was something for everyone, including those who wanted to see baby chicks hatch live, and really who doesn't want to see that? 

The complex also includes the Oceanografic, which is described as the largest aquarium in Europe.  The design reminded us of the science museum we had seen in Singapore, as well as a temple in India and the Sydney Opera House.

The Lotus Flower design seems to be something of a worldwide trend, so we're hoping that by the time we get back to Cincinnati, there will be a restaurant or hotel at The Banks with this type of architecture.

After a few hours of getting our Arts and Sciences fix, we were ready for some football!  When we got to the restaurant we had scouted out earlier, there was only one table left outside with a view of the TV.  Just after sitting down right before the start of the Germany-Italy game, we looked around to see if there were any other German fans.  That's when we noticed some people wearing Italy's team colors.  And that's when we realized we were watching the Germany-Italy game at an ITALIAN restaurant.  Ach Du Lieber!

The situation deteriorated quickly when Italy scored a goal and people at all the other tables jumped up and cheered, with a view chairs knocked over and forks and knives scattered about.  A few minutes later, that distasteful scene was repeated when Italy scored a second goal.  Fortunately, we finished our meal right about halftime, so we paid our bill and quietly slipped away toward our apartment, hoping to avoid any jeers from the Italians.

Germany was unable to rally in the second half, scoring a fairly meaningless goal very late in the game, which ended in a 2-1 win for Italy.  The German players seemed to lose their focus and patience when they got behind and played their worst game of the Euro 2012 tournament.  But after seeing what Spain did to Italy in the title game a few nights later, (a 4-0 win for Spain) maybe going out in a one-goal loss in the semi-finals wasn't such a bad thing. 

Our expectations of Valencia were exceeded by our fabulous experience there.  The next stop was Barcelona and we had high expectations there, especially after finding a reasonably priced apartment a half a block away from the most iconic structure in the entire city.  Let's go!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I started liking sports cars when I was ten and went to an ice skating rink with my friend Will.  He already liked sports cars and he saw a Porsche in the parking lot of the ice rink, and I thought it was cool too. I also had a lot of racing video games and I really liked the cars they had in the games. Then I started to watch Top Gear on TV (top gear is a show that sort of reviews/test sports cars and they do cool challenges) and I thought all the cars were really fascinating.

There was one sports car company that I really liked and still do, it is Pagani.   They have always made amazing cars and they are all made by hand, unlike Ferrari and Lamborghini which are partly made by machine. Also they aren't as big as a company as Ferrari or Lamborghini.

One thing I was really looking forward to on this trip was seeing exotic super cars all over the world. During the trip,  I have seen many cars that I have never seen before like: many Ferraris, a Bugatti Veyron, two Mclaren Mp4-12c's, Maseratis, a Lamborghini Aventador and other Lamborghinis, a few Bentleys and a Pagani Zonda F, Zonda R, and Huayra. I still would like to see cars like: a Gumpert Apollo, a Bugatti Veyron SS (the world's fastest/most expensive production car), an SSC Ultimate aero and Tuatara, and a Pagani Zonda Cinque.

I saw many sports cars during the very first stop on our trip when we were in Los Angeles for a few days, then some in other countries. I would usually see them in showrooms but every once in a while I would see one driving on the street.

One day during the trip I searched "Pagani factory tour" on Google and I saw one that was from a company called Motorstars and they also do Ferrari and Lamborghini factory tours. So when we were in Italy (where Paganis/Ferraris/Lamborghinis are made) we booked a tour that would take us to the Pagani factory, Ferrari factory and museum and a Lamborghini collection (a collection of the first cars Lamborghini made).  I was pretty excited.

On the day of the tour my mom and I went to the Bologna Central Railway Station and met a man named Francesco, and the other people who where taking the tour. Francesco was really nice and I got to sit up front with my mom (there were 3 seats in the front of the van). On the drive there when we got near the Ferrari factory we saw a few Ferraris driving down the road, I was really excited to see them, then when we got there we saw several of Ferraris and 2 Lamborghinis in a parking lot of a place where you could test drive Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

When we were dropped of I went to look at the Ferraris and Lamborghinis. They asked if I wanted look inside one of the cars and I chose the Lamborghini Aventador, so Francesco asked someone to open the door.
After a while they opened it but Francesco told me to go to him and he was standing next to a Ferrari California and he asked if I have ever sat in one and I said no.  Then he pulled my mom aside and he asked her quietly if it was ok if someone could take me for a ride in the Ferrari! I couldn't hear them but I was already pretty sure they would, but then he asked if I ever heard the noise of a Ferrari engine starting up, which I have just not while sitting in one. I was so excited.

The driver started up the engine and it roared. He took me on a 3 minute ride on a freeway, which was awesome!! I still can't believe that I got to ride in a Ferrari.
Then we looked in the gift shop next door and they had a wide range of diecast model cars, but we got some post cards. Then we went to the Ferrari museum and we learned a lot about the history of Ferrari. We saw the first cars they made and that they were owned by Fiat, and that the factory was bombed in WW2 then repaired at the end of the war. 
We saw a lot of F1 cars and also learned that the current F1 engine ways as much as me 80 lbs (42 kilos). We saw many trophies that Ferrari won in F1 races. 
My favorite F1 driver (Micheal Schumacher, who actually is the guy who races cars on Top Gear's track they call him the Stig) used to race for Ferrari and won the most races out of any Ferrari driver ever.
Then we were waiting outside the museum for Francesco and we saw three Ferraris drive by in about 5 minutes! After Francesco picked us and the rest of the group up he drove us over to a place to eat lunch, which was only okay but still food is food. After we ate lunch we went to the Ferrari factory which I saw several Ferraris on the way there, we weren't able to go in the factory we only saw the outside if it, we did see the test track and a red plane (which was the plane that a Ferrari beat in a race and it was the first time a car was faster than a jet, the Italian air force donated it to Ferrari then Ferrari painted it red). Then we went to the place where I wish I lived, the Pagani factory which is a two story about 7 roomed building and when we went inside there was a Pagani Zonda R in the showroom!
We saw some drawings Horacio Pagani (the founder of Pagani) drew of some sports cars. Then we saw the first model cars he made when he was only my age (12 years old)! We also saw the first race car he made when he was 20, it was more like a go-cart. Then we went into the factory which is only three rooms! I don't want to give too much information about the factory but I saw, for the first time ever, a Pagani Huayra!

I was out of my head at this point. I also got to feel some carbon fiber, and I learned that every Pagani is made completely by hand. I bought a Pagani shirt. Next we walked outside and I heard the noise of an engine, but it sounded like a powerful engine. I turned my head and I saw a Pagani Huayra driving down the road!!! 
I got a quick video, then it drove off and turned around and stopped right in front of us to get into the gate to get to the garage of the factory.  I got pictures and a video, and also admired the car a lot--I can't explain how awesome it was to be there in front of a Pagani Huayra, in front of the Pagani factory.

After we got some drinks we went to the Lamborghini collection which had over 1,000 pictures of Lamborghini's history. I saw the legendary cars, the Countach and Miura, the Miura is considered the world's first supercar.
I also got to see some old concept cars, and learned that Lamborghini was a tractor company before they were a car company. 

I met the nephew of the founder of Lamborghini, the nephew's name is Fabio Lamborghini.
There was a helicopter that Lamborghini made and it actually flew, which is hard to believe once you take a look at it.
On the way home we stopped at the Ducati store, but we didn't get anything because we aren't into motorcycles. We were heading home and Francesco dropped everyone off except for my mom and me because we didn't get to our apartment yet. Francesco was about to drop us off at the railway station but we reached our apartment first and it was just sort of cool 'cause we didn't think we would. At the end of the day I was really happy to see so many amazing cars and would do the tour again.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Money has been the deciding factor in a lot of choices we’ve made on the trip.  It has been the biggest influence on deciding where we go next.  After Rome, we weren’t sure what our next stop would be.  Ben had his eyes on Modena, because it was the home to a tour of several “super car” factories and museums, including Pagani, Lamborghini and Ferrari.  The tour website suggested staying in Bologna, so we started investigating that as a destination.

When we were in Tortoreto, Ida, the cousin of a friend of ours from Cincinnati, suggested several possible places to stop in Italy.  Our goal was to experience the true Italian lifestyle, and not just go visit famous sites.  After a lot of research, we settled on Perugia, an Umbrian town known for it’s university and classic Italian architecture. 

Frequently, where we decide to stay in our next stop is influenced by elements of our current accommodations.  In Rome, for some reason the wi-fi there only worked on one device at a time, sometimes two.  That makes it difficult for Ben and Marley to do online schooling through the Khan Academy and also difficult to do research for the next stage of the trip. 

I found a nice place in Perugia in the heart of the old town, but when I asked the owner about internet access, she said it was broadband via a key that you plug into the USB slot of a laptop.  That doesn’t work for us, but it turned out she had another apartment that was smaller and not as nice, but it had wi-fi and was a lot cheaper.  Plus it had three bedrooms, not two, and the kids enjoy the rare occasions where they get their own rooms.  So we decided to go that route. 

Our time in Perugia was enhanced by the ongoing UEFA Euro 2012 championship.  Almost every restaurant we walked by advertised that they would be showing the game that night and would list the teams that were playing.  Many restaurants set up tables and chairs outside, and at night would bring TVs out to follow the football festitivies.  

On the night that Germany played the Netherlands we completely lucked out.  We underestimated the level of interest Italians and visitors to Perugia would have in the contest that night, and most tables with prime viewing location to see the action were taken.  That was until we walked by a place where we had lunch our first day in Perugia.  There, front and center, right in front of the TV, was a table that had just been vacated.  We were more than happy to sit there and wait for it to be cleaned off.

Unlike when we were in Asia or even Turkey, it was difficult to detect the nationality of the people we saw in Italy. The evening of the Germany/Netherlands game, Ben and Annie were the only people wearing anything with the Germany colors or logo.  But when Germany scored, most of the people at the other tables cheered, so we knew we were in friendly territory.  It was a lot of fun to share the passion of the football fans.  Portugal and Holland were also playing that night, and some of the other restaurants were showing that game and whenever something dramatic happened in that game, you could hear the shouts from the people watching.   

It was a great atmosphere and made for a very enjoyable time, enhanced by the fact that with their win, the Germans advanced to the knockout round as one of the eight teams moving on past the group stage.  Having the football to follow really helped us feel part of the European community.  And that’s one thing I love most about in sports: how it brings people together.

Perugia is the prototypical Italian village, perched on a hill with gorgeous views of the Umbrian countryside. The streets are charming and romantic, mostly cobblestone, weaving their way gently through the old stone buildings.
One sunny afternoon, Annie and I left the kids back at the apartment to do some schoolwork online while we did some exploring.  One thing we wanted to do was to see if there was a place to watch the football that wasn’t out in the middle of the town, hoping to possibly escape the somewhat touristy feel that had.  While we came up empty on that front, we scored big time when we found a cafĂ© with fantastic views that offered some antipasti and some tasty wine.  The view was better than the food, but we didn’t mind at all.  It was great to just relax there on a rare parents-only moment and soak up the fabulous tableau surrounding us, and comment about what a wonderful adventure we were on. 
A couple of days into our four-day stop in Perugia, someone mentioned on Annie’s Facebook page something about the Amanda Knox case.  It had completely escaped both of us that Perugia was where that media circus unfolded.  During my days at WLW, I totally ignored the story that for some reason TV networks in the US were obsessed with.  I did some research and found that there was a picture of the house where so and so was found murdered, and it was apparently in the old village, but we never found it.  I did find out that the courthouse where the trial was held was a massive gray stone building that we walked by everyday. 

We made the most of the internet access we had in our tiny apartment in Perugia.  The kids got caught up on some of their schoolwork, and I made good progress in researching the next few stops of our trip.  A house-sitting assignment awaits us in the French Pyrenees starting July 5th, and we were trying to figure out where to go before then.   Bologna was a must-see because we really wanted Ben to have the chance to see the birthplace of so many of the super cars that he loves.  The plan to hit Bologna right after Perugia and move on from there after a day or two was killed when we discovered the tour was booked up on the day we wanted to go, but was available a few days later. 

In a reactionary move to the tight quarters we had in Perugia, I found a place just outside of the old walls of Bologna that boasted a big living room and two bedrooms, plus a wrap around balcony.  That would be a nice change from Perugia, where the only non-bedroom place to sit was in the cramped kitchen. 

The train ride from Perugia to Bologna was another enjoyable one, exposing us to more beautiful Italian landscape.  The train station in Bologna was a short taxi ride away from the apartment and we met Mattia from the property management company outside the modern-looking building that was in sight of one of the remains of the 12 gates that used to provide an opening in the walled city. 

We got to Bologna a little earlier than expected and Mattia was just a little late, but we managed to find some shade as we waited, hoping to hide from the relentless rays of the sun.  Italy was experiencing something of a late-spring/early summer heat wave, with temperatures well into the 30s, even threatening the 40s.  That’s nearing 100 in Farenheit and we were looking forward to spreading out and catching up on some sleep after another day of travel.

As Mattia and I went over the particulars of the apartment, Annie started fiddling with what looked to be a thermostat or temperature control on the wall, hoping to bring a chill to the stuffy room.  When we asked about how to turn on the air conditioning, Mattia paused, and shook his head vigorously enough to cause his sweat-drenched black bangs to quiver to and fro on his glistening forehead.  “No AC” he said, gesturing toward the large glass doors leading out to the balcony.  It never occurred to me to ask about AC when I was booking the apartment.  I mostly wanted wi-fi and easy access to the city.  Every place we’ve stayed with the exception of Fiji had air conditioning.  This place looked modern and new, nicely appointed with two bathrooms, a washing machine, decent-sized kitchen.  Of course they would have AC.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

By opening the exterior door in the kitchen that led out to a small balcony overlooking a courtyard and opening the large glass doors to led to the larger balcony overlooking the street, we got a decent breeze going through living room and kitchen in the apartment.  But the bedrooms were to the side of that wind flow so the air in them remained as still and steamy as a sauna.  That led to me waking up our first night there after about five hours of sleep drenched in sweat.

I hate being sweaty when I sleep, and always prefer some air moving around the room.  At home, I turn on our ceiling fan and a floor fan to keep a breeze going.  I’ve always been a pretty solid sweater, something my son seems to have acquired.  Plus, now that I’m more than a year into my 50s, I’m fostering a healthy amount of hair on the backs of my upper arms as well as my back.  In another ten years, I’ll be able to go to Star Wars parties as Chewbacca without having to wear a costume.  

Despite being a bit sleep-deprived and sweaty, we managed to enjoy Bologna.  The architecture is fabulous, dating back centuries.  The reddish stone buildings of the main square take you back in time.

The Piazza Maggiore is dominated by a statue of Neptune, who happens to be naked and fairly well-endowed which has caused a touch of controversy over the years.  Bologna is a very easy city to walk around in, and in some ways more enjoyable than Rome.  There aren't as many iconic sights to take in, but it's more compact and has a less hectic air then Rome.  

Bologna is also considered to be the food capitol of Italy, and we had some delicious meals there.  We had possibly the best pasta we've ever tasted at a restaurant that someone on Facebook recommended to us.  It was at a classic Italian restaurant with photos of Italian celebrities on the wall, documenting visits they had made to Trattoria Anna Maria over the years.  And we had to sample Bolognese sauce while in Bologna and that did not disappoint.  

The main reason we were in Bologna certainly didn't disappoint either. And you can read all it about it in Ben's blog about his super trip to see super cars.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tri, due, uno...

In the course of traveling for almost seven months into and out of 16 countries, we have encountered about a dozen different languages.  In most countries, we try to at least master the basic greetings and numbers up to ten or twenty in each language.  That process has given us some favorite numbers in foreign tongues.  My favorite is the word for two in Italian, which is due.  It's pronounced due-way and the great thing about Italian is with the way inflection is used in that language, you can drag "due" out to about six syllables if you work at it. 

The language certainly isn't the only thing we love about Italy. There's the fabulous food and wine and scenery and people--and trains.  The train system is fantastic--clean, efficient, on-time and very affordable.  We traveled from Ancona to Tortoreto to Rome for less than 100 Euro for all four of us.
In the picture above you can see us all safely standing a decent distance away from the yellow line as the train that took us from Tortoreto to Rome approached.  Part of the reason for that is about three minutes before this train arrived slightly behind schedule, another train came speeding toward the station.  Thinking it might be ours, we edged up toward the yellow line so we could get all our luggage on board and get some decent seats.  Much to our surprise, that train was not stopping at Tortoreto and went flying through the station about a foot and a half away from us.  Annie did what any normal person would do and screamed bloody murder. Just another moment in the lives of world travelers.

Another positive about train travel in Italy is that the Trenitalia website is easy to use and you get a confirmation email to print out your tickets almost immediately after booking your ticket.  The seats are roomier than what you get on a commercial airliner.  Plus there is the element of romance as you haul your stuff onto the train, settle into your seats and watch the landscape roll by.

The ride from Tortoreto to Rome went through some gorgeous scenery in Abruzzo.  The late spring sun splashed over the various shades of green on the hillsides, and the terracotta-tiles of the roofs of the villages added just the right amount of contrasting color.  If only Thomas Kinkade and that guy with the afro who painted on cable TV back in the day were still around to appreciate it and perhaps re-create it in their own unique styles. (Silent pause to remember their special talents.)       Thank you.  
We first visited Rome in November of 2010, on the trip that planted the seeds for our current journey.  During that visit, we saw the Colisseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a few other "sights".  This time around we wanted to experience Rome from more of a locals perspective. 

We loved the feel of the Testaccio neighborhood we stayed in, and in particular a great little pizza place called Remo's.  The food was so good and the service so friendly and the atmosphere so enjoyable, we ate there twice the first time in Rome and did the same thing the second time around.
It was the first time we had ever had a true thin crust, wood-fired pizza and we were smitten.  I even attempted with varying degrees of success to make pizza in our fireplace at home in Cincinnati. I couldn't get the dough as paper thin as they guys in the picture above, but getting that burned wood flavoring was great.  It was with great anticipation that we returned there our very first night in Rome.

The train from Tortoreto got us to Rome right around six o'clock in the evening and the UEFA Euro 2012  game between Italy against Croatia was just getting underway.  Our taxi driver was glued to the radio as he sped from the train station to our apartment in Testaccio.

The radio announcers were of course speaking Italian, so it was a little hard to understand what was going on.  But we didn't need a translation app to know that Italy scored, triggering a flurry of joyous horn honking by our driver, which was echoed by many other drivers.

We had a little hitch in our giddy up on arrival in Rome.  That morning in Tortoreto, some construction work at the hotel we were staying in meant the power was turned off.  That meant no internet, so I couldn't update my email and make sure I had all the arrangements finalized for the apartment we had booked in Rome.  I remembered from the owner's email that she said she would most likely leave the keys at a Chinese Restaurant downstairs.  

When we got to the Testaccio apartment there was no Chinese restaurant anywhere in sight.  After asking several people and being pointed to a place about eight blocks away I finally found a Chinese restaurant that was closed.  By now, I'm about a half-hour into the search, and I don't have the phone number of the owner who had said she was going to a play or exhibition of some sort until 7pm.  

I managed to find a laundromat that also offered internet access so I got into my email and saw that the apartment owner had said the keys would be left at the Chinese store by the apartment.  I walked back to the apartment, finding Annie and the kids waiting somewhat patiently, although we were all a bit annoyed by the delay in our plans to eat pizza at Remo's after a wait of more than a year and a half.  Sure enough, a couple of doors down there was a store with a Chinese couple as proprietors.  

Neither one spoke any English, or at least didn't want to speak any to me.  They did apparently speak some Italian and a customer helped interpret my predicament.  Turns out the woman did have the apartment keys but refused to give them to me!  She finally got the apartment owner on the phone but wouldn't let me talk to her.  I called her on my phone and was informed that her cleaning lady was in the apartment waiting for us.  Why the cleaning lady didn't occasionally look out the window and notice a family with suitcases and backpacks standing on the sidewalk will remain one of life's great mysteries.  

We were relieved and happy to at last get into the apartment, get settled in and head over to Remo's.  Walking back into a place that we had talked about for going back to for so long.  The dining room is almost like a living organism, always moving and shifting as the servers work their way among the patrons who sit elbow to elbow at adjacent tables.  

The food did not disappoint us, and after more than a year and a half of waiting, it was great to taste the pizza that we spent so much time talking about back home in Ohio.

One of our main goals of returning to Rome, besides having Remo's pizza, was to experience it as a true city, not just a place with a bunch of tourist attractions.  That's why we stayed in Testaccio, which happens to be home to a great covered market that opens early every day and is closed by mid-afternoon.  We could see the market from the windows of our apartment and enjoyed checking it out and buying a few items from the vendors inside.  I always tried to buy two of whatever I was purchasing, just so I could say "due, per favore!"
Thinking back our first visit to Rome, we remembered liking the area around Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, so we spent our first full day exploring that area.  We got there by way of the Metro which for whatever reason we didn't use on our previous time there.  The stations are clean, but the train cars are almost aggressively grungy, at least on the outside.  Almost all of them are covered in graffiti, but it just ads to the experience.
While walking around the streets that surround the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, we soaked up the atmosphere of the area.  The architecture of some of the buildings around there is very impressive, with great details and ironwork.
The Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps were both alive with people, and the energy was infectious.  We walked near the Colisseum the next day as we just explored the city on foot, but didn't stop and go inside this time around.  Instead we visited a place that was mentioned in a Frommer's guide book that we found at our apartment.

The Carpuchin Crypt is a series of tiny chapels located underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concenzione dei Cappucini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini. Like many things in Europe, it's closed for a few hours in the middle of the day, and re-opens at 3pm.  We got there about 15 minutes early and there was already a line to get in.  After about a ten minute wait, we made our way inside to one of the most unusual displays we've seen on the trip.
Each of the tiny chapels is decorated with the bones of monks who died over the years.   Every bone is used and attached to the walls and ceilings in very creative patterns.  In one spot, hip bones are used to create the appearance of wings. Once you get past the fact, if you can, that this is all made of bones, it's beautiful.  And unforgettable.  Just like Rome itself.