Monday, October 26, 2009

Italy Trip - Positano Day 7

Positano Coast

After Capri, we decided to take a ferry straight to Positano.  We did not arrive at Positano till the late afternoon because we spent one final day hanging out with the guests that came to the wedding.  This trip to Positano would have a big effect on the rest of our trip.  We had planned to spend several days on the Amalfi Coast before we made our way to Northern Italy but after Positano we decided to skip the rest of the coast.  More on that later in the post.

Part of the problem when we arrived was that we were already tired from a full day at Capri. Compounding the problem was that we had not booked a hotel in Positano when we arrived.  We decided at this point to kind of wing it and see what was around when we arrived.  This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.  The ferry arrives at Positano in the harbor.  We got off the boat and looked around to a city that just goes straight up.  We were asked by several people if we were in need of a porter.  We thought this was kind of strange but it made sense shortly.

All the luggage we had on us prevented us from walking around too much because everywhere we went we were met with a staircase.  So I left my wife to watch the bags while I hunted for an available hotel.  I looked up down and around Positano for something that was in our price range.  Now one thing to know about Italy is that every hotel has a "star rating" associated with.  We had decided that we would focus on mostly three star hotels because we are not particularly picky when it comes to lodging and preferred to try and save some money on the trip.  Most of the hotels in Positano, at least around the port, were rated four stars.  Now I know what you are asking yourself, "What do the stars mean for Italian Hotels".  Well I'm here to tell you they mean almost nothing.  It turns out that these stars are some sort of quasi-government rating system but they have absolutely no consistent meaning from city to city.  A three star hotel could easily cost more money and be better furnished than a four star hotel in the same city.  Three star hotels could have more than $50 Euro difference if not more.   We of course would not learn this until later.

After a very long hike around Positano, I decided that we would stay at whatever hotel was the closest to where my wife was waiting.  I was exhausted and was in no mood to carry the bags all around.  So we went to the closest hotel and asked how much it was.  Despite being four star, it ended up being quite affordable and we just booked it for the night.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat on the beach, I had the veal and she had the cannelloni (both of which were excellent), and then returned to our room and passed out.  It was a good thing because we need all the energy we could muster the next day.

We decided that we were tired of small town Italy and were going to move on.  We had planned to take the first ferry out of Positano to Sorrento but it seems that the ferry was broken in the morning so we had to make the most of it in Positano for the time being.

There is a reason we did not see a lot of overweight people in Italy.  They walk everywhere.  Even more than that, there are a lot of stairs.  Nowhere exemplifies this more than Positano.  Below is a picture from near the top of Positano.

Postiano Top

I did not take a bus to take this picture.  I hiked all the stairs from the bottom to the top.  I am still not sure what possessed me and my wife to do this.  We just kept walking up and up.  We were looking for an outlet or a road that would eventually take us down, but none was to be found.  It seems there is only one direct way to get from the harbor to the main road and that is by taking the stairs.  After we discovered this, we decided to make our way back down.   On our way down we met a friend.

Positano Dog

Shortly after we started to descend we ran into this dog.  At first he seemed like any other normal dog but he ended up being extremely intelligent.  He would follow us wherever we went.  He would run ahead of us but if we did not follow he would run back to us and continue down the path we were taking.  On one part down a road we found we noticed that he kept running to the other side of the road.  He would run to the other side, see that we were not following him, and then run back.  He kept doing this over and over again, insisting that we follow.  It turns out he knew what he was talking about.  A few meters down the road and it was clear what he was trying to tell us.  There was a blind corner coming up.  He was basically trying to get us to the safe side of the road.

We did not have any food on us at the time to reward him for his efforts and by the time we did get food he ran off.  Still he created one of the more memorable parts of our trip.

We finally got on a ferry mid-afternoon that took us back to Sorrento where our trip would continue.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Italy Trip - Capri Day 4-6

Capri Coast

Most of the rest of Capri is kind of a blur.  We purposely did not do very much the day before because I was still getting over being sick and we were playing it safe.  We shored up the restaurant plans for the wedding and took care of some loose ends.  We met up with a few of our guest and went out to dinner with those that had arrived.

I'll skip over the details of the wedding other than to say it ended up being perfect.  We were a little worried because the photographer had plane trouble but other than that the wedding went off without a hitch.  The skies even seemed to clear even though it was rainy the day before.   I am not sure we could have picked a better venue to actually have the wedding as the views were absolutely spectacular and the hotel staff was so helpful.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the restaurant we went to that had some of the best food we tasted on the entire trip and had the hands down best cup of cappuccino.

I do want to say one thing about the Hotel Ambassador Weber.   After my previous post, it may seem like it is the worst hotel in Italy but nothing could be further from the truth.  I will say that the quality of the rooms can vary greatly.  The one I had was awful.  The one that I changed to was quite nice.  The room was spacious (by European standards anyway) and the view from my balcony was spectacular.

Hotel Weber View

The staff was more than helpful in every possible way.  There are so many things that could go wrong with a venue and there are so many ways people can not be helpful (which we would learn later in Italy) but none of that happened.  I am sure that we made more than the usual number of request from their guests since we had a lot of things that had to be done.  But the hotel staff was always happy to help us.

We saw the other part of the island on our last day there but decided to skip the Blue Grotto.  Capri is famous for it but we decided it was not for us.  We get seasick so the idea of being on the ocean in a small little boat was not our idea of fun.  It also seemed somewhat like a tourist trap being way to expensive for such a short experience.

From Capri, we decided to take the direct ferry to Positano which would turn out to be one of the more memorable stops on the trip.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Italy Trip - Capri Day 3

Sorrento Port

After our stay in Sorrento, we got up bright and early to make our way to Capri, the location of our wedding.   The challenge we had was to somehow make it to the port (pictured above) from our hotel.  The town of the Sorrento is high up on a cliff while the port is down below.  We weren't quite sure how to use the bus system (yet) so we decided we would take all our stuff and hike down the hill.  It would be the first of many trials we had with our luggage.  To make matters worse, I woke up with an upset stomach.  It was a precursor of bad things to happen later as this would end up the worse day of the trip.

Port of Capri

We actually made it down to the port fairly easily.  We were a little bit worried about getting sea sick on the boat but that did not happen.  I could only wish that getting sea sick would have been the worse of our problems.  We arrived at the Capri port about 45 minutes after we left Sorrento and attempted to figure out how we were going to get to our hotel which was on the other side of the island.  The hotel had a shuttle service from the port but we ran into what would continue to be a problem for us, making phone calls.  Don't ask me why, but for whatever reason my wife and I could not figure out how to make a phone call in Italy.  I am not exaggerating.  The phone was a serious problem for us.  We tried to make a pay phone call to the hotel but this was too big of a challenge.  We asked someone for help and rather than help us make the pay phone call she just called the hotel for us from her own phone.

We ran into a couple also trying to make it to the hotel but had been waiting for 30 minutes for the shuttle.  They finally got fed up and decided to take a taxi.  Not even one minute later, the shuttle driver showed up to take us to the airport.  We actually pulled into the hotel at the exact same time as the other couple.  Now for a disclaimer.  What I am about to write is not a complete picture of the hotel we stayed at,  he Hotel Weber Ambassador.  A bunch of things conspired to make this a bad day, not all of which was the hotel's doing.

We were staying at Capri for three nights.  We had decided fairly late that we wanted to stay on the island the Thursday before the wedding so we could plan and set up some stuff.   We were shown to our "garden view" room which should have been characterized more appropriately as a furnished closet.  It was small, even by European standards but like I said earlier, my wife and I are not particularly picky when it comes to room size.  I opened up the curtains to let some light in.  I was met with a wall. If I looked straight up, there was an opening.  It looks like my "garden view" was if I looked straight up.  I was starting to get a little bit worried.

Tired, and a bit cold, I decided to take a shower.  The shower definitely didn't help the situation as it had no water pressure and no hot water.  The day was getting better and better.  I then noticed that the bathroom door did not shut.  the door was warped in such a way that it was impossible to close the door completely.  What else could go wrong?  At least I could relax a little bit and watch some TV.  OK, maybe not.  The TV had nothing but snow.  Why on earth do you put a TV in the room that doesn't work?  Just for decoration?

We went into town to get a bite to eat but I had no appetite.  In fact, I was feeling quite nauseous.  So we headed back to the hotel.  By this time, I as feeling quite cold and realized that I had the chills.  I tried to bundle up in the bed at the hotel but as those who have had a bad case of the chills knows, there is nothing you can do.  We still had several things to take care of for the wedding like picking a restaurant and getting her a bouquet.  I was in no condition to go as I could barely get out of bed at this point so my wife went on her own.  Before going I asked her to be careful as we would be separated with no real way of getting in contact with each other.

I passed out almost immediately.  About an hour into my rest, I heard a click and the room went dark.  At this point I honestly though I checked into the Death Hotel or something because nothing seemed to be working.  I was not sure if it was just my room or the hotel but when I started to hear noise in the hallway I figured out it must be at least hotel wide.  I could barely move so I was in no shape to go inquire about what was going on but I also could not just lie there not knowing.  I waited for the lights to come back on but they were not.  So about ten minutes later I decided to get up and figure out what was going on.  When I walked out of the room, it was clear the problem was at least hotel wide.  I followed some low flickering lights down the stairs and walked past the reception to step out on the terrace.  It was quite apparent that this was not a hotel problem.  The whole island was dark.

At this point, I'm pretty worried.  Nobody knew when power would be restored and I have no way of getting hold of my wife.  Compounding the problem is that I'm sick and the only way into town is to walk up some very dark, very steep streets.  So I sit and wait, and wait, and wait.  About an hour goes by and I decide I have to go do something to go find her even if it means dragging myself up the streets.  Just when I'm about to go, she thankfully walks into the door.

We sit in the lobby for the next hour or so.  The lights would eventually go on about an hour and a half later but at this point my big worry is what else is going to go wrong before my wedding?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento Day 2

On the first night in Italy, we slept.  I think we slept a total of 12 hours.  Liz was getting over some sort of bug and we were tired from the long journey.  Because we went to bed really early it did not prevent us from getting up bright and early the next day.  This is something we have tried to do consistently throughout the trip because I wanted to take as many pictures as possible and the best time to take landscape pictures is first thing in the morning. Unfortunately for me, the day ended up being pretty cloudy in the morning, but I made do with what I had.

One of the odd things about Southern Italy in general is the preponderance of dogs just walking the street.  I am not sure if Italy just does not have the same amount of animal control as the States do but the loose dogs on the street was quite noticeable.

Sorrento Dogs

The golden dog pictured above became our guide in Sorrento.  He seemed determined to show us the sites and followed us wherever we were going.  It was early, and the streets were empty (another advantage of taking pictures really early in the morning) so he probably had nothing better to do.  He eventually guided us down to the coast where I was able to get some good pictures of Sorrento early in the morning.

Sorrento Coast

After the hard day of traveling the day before, it was very serene to be on the Sorrento Coast with nobody else around.  After walking around the city in the early morning, our next stop was to make it to Pompeii and see the ruins.   This was supposedly a short train ride from the Sorrento Train station but like most things in Italy, my wife and I found a way to make it difficult.

Pompeii TrainOn the train, called the Circumvesuviana, has two stops marked for Pompeii, Pompeii and Pompeii Scavi. For those who do not know anything, Pompeii seems to be the right one. But for those who know Itallian, Scavi means "dig". So Pompeii Scavi is the right stop if you wish to go see the ruins of Pompeii. It is also the easier stop to get to as there is no transfer while there is a transfer of trains to get to Pompeii.

My wife and I were in the last train car and were confused about which one to get off on. We guessed "Pompeii" and as it turns out we were wrong. Only one person in our car got up to exit the train at the Pompeii Scavi stop so we figured we were OK. But when the doors closed we saw a throng of (excuse me for being racist here) white tourists who had exited the train and heading toward the site. We quickly looked up "scavi" in our dictionary to find out what it means and quickly determined we had missed our stop. To compound the situation, the train heading in the direction back passed us on the way to the next stop meaning we had to wait even longer for it. When we got off on the next station it was clear we had made a mistake. We were the only ones to get off the train, clearly not something that would have happened at a major tourist site. On the bright side, my wife and I will always remember that "scavi" is the Italian word for dig.

When we finally made it to Pompeii Scavi, the ruins were right outside of the small train station. The site is huge. It is hard to imagine a whole city like that being buried by a Volcano only to be dug up later by a bunch of archaeologists.

Pompeii Street

While I think it was an interesting place to go I think I was somewhat disappointed by the whole thing.  For me, the ruins start to blend into each other after a while.  One pile of rubble starts to look like the next pile of rubble.  What was even more disappointing was that all the best places to go were restricted to tourists by gates.  Below is a picture of a typical experience for us.

Gate at Pompeii

It is probably safe to say that a third of the places listed on the audio guide were closed off to the public.  It is probably equally safe to say that all of the best and most interesting places were gated off.  It became increasingly frustrating that the audio guide would tell you to walk through a doorway and see a beautiful fresco painting only to be met by a locked gate.  Even worse when you could not walk into the site in the first place.   Since there were so many places that were closed, we were able to walk around the whole of the Pompeii site in a matter of about three or four hours.   Our luck being what it was with the trains, we saw the train back to Sorrento pull out in front of us so had to wait for the next one.

That night, we went to another out of the way restaurant.  I had the calzone, she had the spaghetti with clams.  They were both excellent.  It was seriously the best calzone I had ever had.  The crust of the calzone was excellent and the cheese was just superb.  We were also given some of the local champagne, prosecco which ended up being pretty tasty.  Thus far we were pretty impressed with the food we had been served in Italy.  And this was only the beginning of the trip.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento Day 1

We decided to get to Italy a few days before the wedding to set some things ups.  We wanted to check out the hotel, find a place for the reception, get a bouquet, and settle a little bit before the wedding.  Our original plan was to spend the night in the city we landed in, Naples, and eventually make it to where we got married, Capri.

After doing some research and reading we decided against that plan.  Everything we read about Naples was umm ... interesting.  All the guidebooks warned tourists that Naples could be dangerous.  They made it sound as if thieves were around every corner and the mafia was just waiting to shoot you in the street.  So we passed on Naples and went to the other town with an easy ferry to Capri, Sorrento.

We booked through Expedia a small little hotel called Hotel Sorrento City.  Picture below.

Hotel Sorrento City

As it turns out, it was a great location, right on the main drag in Sorrento.   One of the disadvantages of taking a long trip is that you spend a lot of money on lodging simply because you have so many nights to account for.  My wife and I have decided to stay at relatively modest hotels to save some money and because we are not really fancy people anyway.  We only require a safe location, clean room, modest bed, and a nice hot shower.  Most other problems we can deal with.

Hotel Sorrento City satisfied these conditions so it was adequate.   But it was not more than that.  The room was definitely small but not that small when you compare it to the European standard.  It was somewhat odd that there were built in pull down beds on the side of the wall but I guess that could be convenient for some.  I wish there was free internet access but there wasn't.  I wish there was wi-fi but there wasn't.  Just a small little pay station in the lobby.  The breakfast that was provided was pretty good though.  My wife really liked the coffee out of the coffee machine but she has liked all the coffee that we have had since coming to Italy.

Sorrento itself was a very nice city.  Our very first stop was to the center square to catch a bite to eat.  Right in the middle of the main square was a place called Fauno Bar.

Fauno Bar

It seemed to be a typical Italian outdoor cafe but bigger.  There were lots of people there, and that is usually a sign of an OK place to go, so we asked for a table.   I had the cannelloni, my wife had the gnocci.  It was seriously some of the best Italian food we had up until that point.  The pasta was clearly fresh and the cheese was very tasty.  Part of it was that I was pretty hungry by this point but the other part of it was that Italian food is just better in Italy.  Go figure.

One of the odd things we noticed while we were eating was that we were THE ONLY people who ordered food.  I'm going to write more on this later but it seems that Italians eat really really late.  Dinner doesn't start until 7:30, and in some places 8:30.   After dinner we were wiped out from the trip so we went back to the hotel and just fell asleep.  That concluded our first day.

Italy Has Bad internet

I have been meaning to post along my trip but I have found my internet connections in Italy to be lacking.  The last two places I stayed at, one in Bologna, and one in Florence, have both had internet connections which have been flaky.  It seems about 1 in every 3 requests is just dropped.  I could understand if it were just one hotel's bad connection but two?

I finally got to a hotel which seems to have a steady, albeit somewhat slow connection.  Unfortunately, I'm too tired to post as I've been driving all day in the search of an elusive mall.

So I will have to try and catch up later.  Right now, I'm in Lucca Italy.  About to go see the wall that surrounds the city and maybe make it to Pisa to see the tower.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Italy Trip - Getting There


OK, I'm finally back blogging.  I'm still in Italy but I finally have some time to sit down and blog a little bit.  My intention was to blog along the way but there was a little hiccup with that plan.  Internet access has been spotty and I was way busier with wedding stuff than I thought I would be.  I'm going to try and catch up in the next few days but we will see.  I have a week left to go in my vacation and the second half is probably as jammed packed as the first.

Getting to Italy was an adventure by itself.  We had booked a flight to Naples Italy with stops in Seattle and in Paris.  The stop in Seattle was fortuitous because I got to visit Rick and make a stop at one of my old favorites Sushi Land.  Great to see Rick, not so great to go to Sushi Land.  Maybe I've been away too long or maybe something has really changed, but it just wasn't like I remembered it.  The pieces were smaller and the fish not as fresh.  Oh well.  After stuffing myself with fish and saying goodbye to Rick, we were on our way to Paris.  It was a lovely twelve hour flight.  I slept some and then watched The Hangover on the plane.  I'm usually not a fan of these types of movie but perhaps my low expectations and my being trapped on a plane with no choices made it entertaining. 

After departing this flight, this is where the fun really began.  All I have to say is the Paris airport probably needs to be rethought.  I had two hours to get to my connecting flight.  I barely made it.  First, I had to walk what seemed like an eternity to Passport Control.  I walked so long I seriously thought they were going to make me walk the rest of the way to Italy.  After getting through Passport Control, I had to walk again through security.  This was very odd to me.  Security in Paris was odd.  They asked for our passports (not odd) but then made me empty out my camera bag.  Then they stopped my (then) fiancee and checked all her stuff again.  Then they asked for her passport again.  So now she has had her passport asked for three different times. 

By this time, we are cutting it pretty close to the time.  But my fiancee is extremely hungry and thirsty so she needs to stop for some food and water.  As we approach the gate she stops at a small cafe.  I can see our plane boarding and I'm worried because we have quite a bit of carry on and I want to be sure I can get a spot.  She gets her food and water and we rush to the plane only to be once again be asked for our passport!  This is now four times since coming into Paris that she has had to produce her passport.

When we finally reach Italy we land in an airport where there they make you exit onto the runway before reaching the terminal.  Just outside is a bus waiting to take us to the terminal.  So we board the bus and, I'm not exaggerating, the bus drives 20 yards to the terminal.  It was kind of crazy.  We wait for our bags, which comes really fast, and then look for some sort of official looking person to either ask us about our bags or to check our passports.  Neither happens.  When you compare that to the Paris experience you can see why we were quite confused.

At this point, my fiancee is pretty ill and is in no mood to get on a bus for an hour.  So we sit in the Naples airport with all of our stuff for about two hours until she feels well enough to get on the bus.   She is not getting much better but time is running out for us to get to where we need so she muscles up some courage and we get on the bus run by CURRERI Viaggi .  It is a private company who specializes in making the trip between Sorrento and Naples.  However, hen we get to the bus, the driver tells us he can not take us all the way to Sorrento, he can only take us part of the way.  There is some stupid bike event or something blocking all the roads to Sorrento.  Seriously, they stop all the traffic going into a city for one stupid event?  What am I getting myself into?  Looking back, I kind of doubt they did; I think the bus driver was just being lazy and not wanting to drive us the whole way (we were the only people on the bus). 

The driver drops us off at a train station, the Circumvesuviana, close to Sorrento but still a 15 minute ride.  Here we are, tired and weary from our long drop, and still needing to slog through the local train to get where we need to be.  To make matters worse, we have no idea where the hotel is as soon as we get there.  It could be on the other side of town for all we know.  When we finally arrive Sorrento much to our delight, the hotel is just minutes away from the station.  We were REALLY lucky because most of the hotels are not that close.  Most of them are quite far away.  We get to our hotel room, which is quite small but typical of European hotels, and just finally relax.  We shower and then go get a quick bite to eat in town (the above picture is of the main Sorrento square).  More of Sorrento in the next post. 

All of this reminded me of why I really hate to travel sometimes.  It wears on you.  Things are never as easy as they should be and you are usually not as comfortable as you are at home.  This is magnified when you are in a foreign country where you don't really speak the language.  All in all, it was an ordeal to get to Italy (and every time we have had to move) but so far, a great trip.  More on that in the next post.