Monday, July 18, 2005

I walked a marathon at Disneyland's 50th Birthday

I have distinct memories of trips to Disneyland with my parents, and later my friends, starting in 1956. If you asked me how many times I have been to Disneyland, I couldn't tell you. I'm sure there was a visit to represent each decade. Even as I served in the Navy, transferred jobs, etc., there was always a visit to Disneyland that fit in between life events.

One of the most frightening memories I have of time spent at Disneyland was riding the donkeys through the Painted Desert when I was seven years old. Yes, that ride and that desert are gone now, and there's a good reason for the former. Those donkeys knew where the edge of the trail was, and where the cliff was, but as I leaned over in the saddle toward the edge of the narrow road, I was sure that I was going to plummet off the side of the burro into that chasm at any moment. My understanding is that the Disneyland donkeys were always sure on their feet but not as sure in controlling their impulse to bite the customers.

I also have uncomfortable memories of my brother twisting the center knob on the Alice in Wonderland Teacups in order to make it spin violently. I was terribly ill after that, and he looked quite pleased with himself.

But the Spaceship to Mars ride was the real reason I wanted to go to Disneyland. I saw it on the Sunday Disney T.V. show, and had to go there. I had to have my trip into space. I remember quite a few details about that first ride, as my father took me up the long staircase into the pod. I remember quite distinctly being aware that there weren't enough g's on the ride -- and this was at age 7 -- but not being terribly distraught about that fact.

Our visit to Disneyland in 2005 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the park, and planning began about a year and a half ago. Plans have changed many times since then, and even a day before we left, but on Thursday evening, Brandon, Ricky and I drove from San Diego, where they lived, to Anaheim, and spent a night at the Worldmark resort in preparation for the trip.

Ricky, Brandon and I were joined by Joel, Rick's best friend, and Donald, Joel's friend, the next morning in the Disneyland parking building, and we transferred luggage to Joel's car, as we knew he'd be driving to the Desert Inn & Suites at 3 pm that day when we checked in the four guys. The Desert Inn was right across the street from Disneyland, right off Disneyland Way.

Friday, July 15th, we saw some unusually large crowds, many of whom were there for the Neil Armstrong Space Mountain dedication ceremony to be held at 10:00 am that day in Tomorrowland. Rick, Donald and I headed over to Tomorrowland, as we were very interested in seeing the former astronaut who made history with his one small step. Space Mountain was to be opened after being closed for over a year; it was to be transformed into a darker and smoother ride, a roller coaster in the dark.

However, we quickly discovered that they had moved the ceremony from the ground level to the rooftop of Space Mountain (and closed Space Mountain for the first few hours of the day). We couldn’t see anything from the ground level. And we couldn’t get up to the rooftop. Ricky and I suggested that Neil Armstrong's wish for privacy and security was at the root of this.

So, we went into the Innoventions exhibit, climbed the stairs to the 2nd level, and went outside from there. From there we could get a clean look at the festivities across the way. There were other fans there, gathering, but there were also huge camera set-ups, and within minutes, cast members were there to tell us we couldn’t stay there. They would not even allow us to stop on the ramp going down from that level. Since we couldn’t see anything clearly from any angle, we left Tomorrowland, which was growing denser by the minute. We grabbed a Fastpass for the new Buzz Lightyear game on the way out.

I rode Buzz Lightyear about six more times after that. While I really like the “ride,” where you shoot Zurg aliens (aiming for boxes with “Z”), I didn’t do well at all. The Disneyland ride seems to be a great improvement over the Disney World ride, as some of the targets are easier to see and you can raise your handheld blaster and point it wherever you want. It was proving to be a popular ride in Tomorrowland, but Fastpass (and the popularity of the newly opened Space Mountain ride) cut that wait quite a bit. I missed a few phone calls over the next few days on my cell phone, and found it hard to explain that I was shooting Emperor Zurg's robots in an important mission. "To infinity...and beyond!"

We spent the first day or so looking at what was different about Disneyland in an effort to commemorate the 50th Anniversary, including 50’s all around, lightposts with the gold 50, shopping bags and souvenirs with the 50th anniversary logo. Also, a very special treat: every original ride has a gold ride among them. For instance, the Autopia has a gold car, the railroad has a gold train, etc. So far we’ve accounted for 9 of the original 10, but haven’t spotted that gold train yet.

I made reservations for lunch and dinner for Friday and Saturday, believing that getting decent food in the parks would be difficult. Disneyland hamburgers are famous for their cardboard taste, and I have more expensive tastes these days. So, on Friday we ate lunch at the Blue Bayou, the best restaurant on the Disney grounds, located in New Orleans square overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (from the inside). All of us -- except for Joel, who, as usual, went for the kids' menu -- had the world-famous Monte Cristo sandwich. As Donald pointed out, when we asked him if he liked it, "I certainly should like something that's totally encased in fat." Oh, yeah.

Friday night we crossed over to the Dark Side and entered Disney's California Adventure. DCA has a terrible reputation with Disneyland fans, and for the most part, it's well earned. Never has so much real estate been devoted to so little. But I was willing to try its restaurants since I hadn't spent much time there. We had reservations at 6:30 pm at the Wine Country Trattoria, and after waiting some time in the heat, we were finally seated outside in pleasant surroundings. At the end of our meal, however, we all agred that the Trattoria has a limited menu with odd choices (lots of lasagna, for instance, but no spaghetti or other pasta), and terrible service.

Crowds were growing in the parks. Friday was manageable, Saturday approached about 100,000, and Sunday was expected to draw a capacity 112,000. Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly hot -- only in the low 80’s for the three days -- and thank extra goodness for DCA. The added park stretched the crowd out, especially during the Electrical Light Parade at night, held at 8:45 pm each night at DCA.

On Saturday morning we ran over to Space Mountain so that Donald and Joel could get a Fastpass. Unfortunately, on the second day of its opening, thousands of other people did the same thing. Whomever planned the exhibit, though, goofed and put the Fastpass booth in the same area as the initial boarding area, and the masses crowded in there, trying to find Fastpass. While Donald and Joel managed to score their Fastpass, it was a confusing mess. It turns out that most visitors really wanted to ride the re-opened Space Mountain, and within an hour, the Fastpass return time was pushed back to the evening.

On Saturday, the crowds were heavier but we could still cope with them if we pushed for our rides in the morning. By 11:00 am, the kids were beginning to arrive, though, and rides in the afternoon were difficult. Space Mountain was impossible. We had a pleasant lunch at the La Brea restaurant, right outside the gates in the beginning of Downtown Disney -- it was the first $11 BLT I’ve ever had, but it was delicious. And lots of peach tea. Dinner was at the Rainforest Cafe at the very end of DD. A long walk, but good food (also expensive). We shared a hot fudge Volcano at the end of our huge meal - whew!

On Sunday, July 17th and the actual birthday for Disneyland, everything changed. We had heard from various websites that they would be taking early arrivals between 2 am and 6 am and lining them up in Disneyland’s California Adventure. So Ricky, Donald and I agreed to meet at 5 am at the “O” in “California” at DCA. There was no way for me to get there by car or shuttle from my WM Resort, so I left my room at 4:30 am and walked 25 minutes down well-lit Harbor Blvd to Disneyland Drive. When I arrived, I couldn’t get to DCA at all, but I saw in the darkness that cast members were directing people to line up in the bus and shuttle parking lot. I got in line and then called Donald. They sent Brandon out to get me, and I happily discovered that they were about 200 people ahead of me, having arrived 20 minutes ahead of me.

We slowly went through security and they let us file into DCA, where they handed us our prized golden ears (with the date embroidered on the back) and a colored wristband, we walked and walked, trying to find the end of the long line. Finally we lined up and sat a little before Grizzly Rapids in DCA. We sat or stood there until about 7:20, when the line finally began to move in to Disneyland. We figured that about 10,000 of us early birds walked single file through a roped-off lane on the right into Disneyland, past the crowd who arrived after they capped the line. All the Disneyland cast members lined Main Street on each side as we entered the park, clapped for us, and shouted out, “Welcome home!” It was an unbelievable and moving experience.

Donald held out his hand and slapped the hands of cast members as he walked along Main Street towards the central hub. I merely looked at the cast members, thanked them, and took photos as I blinked back tears.

Ricky immediately went to the stage at the hub where the statues of Walt and Mickey are to see if there was any way we could stand to watch the ceremony live. The large speaker and screen blocked the view of the castle from almost any vantage point. It took a few minutes for him to determine that there was no chance to see the ceremony live, as about 4,000 people had gotten into Disneyland ahead of us, and many of them had the same thing in mind.

While he was doing that, I ran off to try to make lunch reservations. I got to the Carnation Cafe, and they said they were not taking reservations but that we could come back and stand in line. I ran over amidst thousands of early arrivals to the Blue Bayou in New Orleans Square, only to find that all the priority seating was gone until 4 pm -- since they weren’t taking any P.S.’s over the phone in advance, that meant that early arrivals booked all the P.S.’s in the hour before I arrived. I noticed a big, long line snaking around the river and asked a cast member what that was all about. “This is the line for exclusive merchandise, offered only today.” Oooh, I thought, but took one look at the growing line and decided it would be much like Celebration 3. I went back and rejoined Ricky and Donald at the hub/stage area.

Ricky went to the nearby Carnation bakery and got us the free cupcakes Disneyland promised. The cupcakes, of course, were the "birthday cake," a gift from Disneyland to all us, and available that day only in places that sold food in the park.

While we waited, we enjoyed the "Ken" show while I avoided people stepping on me in the roped off area (roped off soon after we planted ourselves there). Ken was a cast member who had the unfortunate duty of telling people they couldn't sit on the benches at the hub or even walk through there, as it was a VIP and Media gathering area. He used all of his skills as hundreds of people tried to sneak in, or yell at him to get in, or do anything they could, all to no avail. One of the people in our roped-off section said, "Hey, I know you! You're from the Tower of Terror!" Ken grinned, and responded that they all were, and pointed out the other Tower of Terror cast members who had been drawn over to work at this big event. "Who's over at Tower today? Nobody," he shrugged.

The show was brief and very nice. Art Linkletter, who hosted the original opening of Disneyland, appeared and kicked things off. Today was also HIS birthday!!! At 93, he was as quick-thinking and witty as ever, and had a ton of stories to tell. But he only told a few and introduced the two Disney CEO's, Iger and Eisner. Then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of the castle with Mickey, and said a few words about Disneyland helping the economy and creating jobs. Then, the piece de resistance appeared in the form of Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who told us how Disneyland was created ("Dad reserved Saturday mornings, just for us kids, and would go to parks with us, sit on the bench and eat peanuts"). We really enjoyed hearing her talk.

After the ceremony, the crowd moved, slowly, towards the rides. I and my crew, however, went towards the Carnation Cafe. They were starving, as they were looking forward to their first meal of the day. We dutifully stood in line at Carnation, and I was pleased to see that it only took 50 minutes to get in. In the meantime, Joel had caught up with us and Ricky found Brandon over by the Star Tours meeting place.

Donald, Ricky, Joel and Brandon agreed to meet at their motel at 2:30 so they could drive home to San Diego. In the meantime, however, Ricky, Donald and I went over to the old Mr. Lincoln spot, and watched the Steve Martin/Donald Duck movie of how Disneyland was created. We also looked at the actual props and drawings for the park in the waiting area.

On the way out of the park, I grabbed several of the Disneyland programs, as this version was only printed on the Disneyland birthday, July 17th. I hugged everybody and waved goodbye, and headed over to DCA for one last look. I watched the Aladdin play live, a 45-minute show, and marvelled at it, but found myself falling asleep. But one last look at Crush, the talking sea turtle -- amazing interaction with the audience!! -- and I knew I had had enough. I went back to the WM resort on the van, and fell asleep at 6:30 pm, and wouldn't wake up until Monday morning.

Thank goodness for cell phones, or we would never have found each other over the three days. However, it was difficult keeping track of Brandon, our teenager who turned 16 in Disneyland on Saturday. I found myself wishing for an arm implant with a tracking device for him. He disappeared at least twice a day, and I wondered if we would ever see him again. We would quiz him on where to meet, where the hotel was, just so he would have a reference point if he found himself alone.

And I needn't have worried about keeping up with my exercise during this vacation. My pedometer showed me I walked, we walked, 4 to 9 miles a day. The most was on Saturday, which was an exhausting day of running from place to place. Sunday was exhausting just because of the hour at which we had to be there. This was not the time to see Disneyland to see rides. This was the time to visit Disneyland to celebrate its birthday. It's amazing to think I was there, 49 years ago, with my mother and father. I rode the Spaceship to Mars rocket, my dream come true, along with other rides that are no longer there. So many years later, I realized another dream as I visited with the next generation of my family. As the cast member told me on my entrance on Sunday, I had come home.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 5: Villa Pisani and the Beach Boys

"Are you awake?" Val whispered to me at 11:30 pm. We were both lying there in the dark in our room at the Villa Pisani, listening to the dum, dum, dum of the bassline.

I said, "Sure." "Do you hear that music? What are they playing?" she continued.

"'California Girls,' I replied, absent-mindedly, since I'd been following the band over the last two hours. "'The midwest farmer's daughters really make you feel all right, and the northern girls...' I sang along.

"You hear words? I don't hear words." I could barely hear the singer, hearing instead the booming of the bass along with the upper-register twang of a guitar. But I knew all the songs. It was an Italian band doing really poor cover versions of songs from the '60's.

"You'd think Madame Scalabrin would have told us she had a party scheduled for tonight."

Indeed. But the maintenance on a huge villa dating back to the 16th century must cost a fortune every month. I was sure she was booking anything and everything she could to stay afloat. After all, that's how we became guests at a real Italian villa.

We found Villa Pisani in Vescovana, a hamlet 30 minutes south of Padua, after driving up and down highway 4 for half an hour. When we knew we were close, Val popped into a bar, and in her improving Italian, asked the bartender where the Villa Pisani was. He pointed up the road. We drove about three blocks but found nothing. We noticed that the numbers on the building, however, were getting larger, so we turned around. There was the bartender, standing outside his doorway, pointing next door. I think he was laughing...

Mariella Bolognesi Scalabrin met us at the huge gate, and welcomed us warmly. Without much fanfare or introduction to the huge estate, she showed us quickly under the grape-vined trellis of the patio to our room, which was on the 2nd level off to one side of the much larger and cooler salon.

The building was constructed in 1468, and went through several families over the centuries. When Evelina van Millingen took up residence in 1852, having married Almoro III Pisani, the last descendant of the Santo Stefano Pisani family, she transformed the villa into a showpiece by transforming the garden to a proper English garden. Evelina's villa became the base for American artists and royal visitors, among them Henry James, the Queen of Sweden, the Empress of Germany, the daughter of Queen Victoria (Frederica), Robert Browning and Lord Byron.

The garden is Victorian in taste and features a large formal garden with sculptures and boxwood hedges. The garden was reportedly inspired by "The Formal Garden in England," a book published in 1892 by Sir Reginald Blomfield. The park has centuries-old trees, old and knotted rose bushes, clipped hedges forming geometric designs, statues, fountains, a pool house, rock garden and family theater and chapel. It's a beautiful way to spend an evening.

The villa itself seems to stretch for blocks along the garden, and has an endless number of antique- and frescoe-filled rooms blending one into the other. Even our "simple" bedroom was adorned with antiques. The bed was new and comfortable, and a wooden addition within the room provided us with closet space and a small but adequate bathroom and shower. I felt like I was staying in a museum, but the only inconvenience I felt was the lack of air conditioning on a hot day.

We took our afternoon activities into the salon while waiting for the room to cool off. We sat on the cool tiled floor and played gin rummy while observing through the large open window the arrival of guests. We could also hear tables being set up nearby. Obviously there was going to be some sort of celebration tonight, but we weren't invited.

The next morning we went downstairs, and were greeted again by Madame Scalabrin, who showed us to the breakfast room. "We would normally eat outside," she apologized, "but it's so cold this morning." Cold meant that it was in the low 60's. Two menopausal women were thankful for that kind of chill.

We ate breakfast, just the two of us, in silence as we took in another breaktaking old room, filled with several sets of silver tea service and china that had obviously been in the family for many years. Breakfast was rather simple: cheese, mueslix with milk, yogurt, tea and coffee.

After breakfast, I loaded up the car with our bags while Val continued to talk with Madame Scalabrin. She related later that she told her the Villa Pisani website was lovely but lacking in information, particularly an adequate description of how charming her home was. Mrs. Scalabrin was delighted to see some of the digital photos in Val's camera and seemed to enjoy hearing that here was someone who could help advertise her home for future guests. Val left her after promising to write some copy about the estate in the near future, to be emailed directly to her.

I guess I don't have to tell you that the copy advertising the magnificent Villa Pisani will leave out the part about the Beach Boys...

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 4: Driving in the Bermuda Triangle

I had some nightmares about driving in a foreign country, particularly Italy. After all, during my first visit, our tour bus driver told us (as translated), "Red lights are merely a suggestion for driving in Italy."

So, it was with great trepidation (which I didn't hide very well from my traveling companion) that I approached the rental car counter as we left Firenze. Our scheme was to rent the car on our way OUT of Florence so that we didn't have to bother with driving around the big city. Florence is a walking city anyway, and that would've seemed a waste. However, the problem with renting a car IN the big city is that you have to drive the car OUT of the big city.

So, with all of that in the back of my rather negative attitude, we were waiting for the taxi outside the Hotel Adler Cavelieri at 10 o'clock that morning after 5 days in glorious Firenze, I twiddled with the rental car voucher....and just happened to notice that the dates we were to rent the car were all wrong. The travel agent had booked us to rent the car on the day we arrived in Florence, which was, of course, incorrect. We were screwed before we even started.

We both agreed that the best way to approach the rental car agency, Europcar -- a name which would subsequently produce terror -- was to allow them to tell us we screwed up. And they did. "You do not have a car, madame," said the very polite man at the reservations desk. After much fiddling and conversation between Val and the reservationist, he produced a car some 45 minutes later. As we were about to climb into the car, we noticed it was a stick shift. We politely informed him that we booked an automatic, and that we cannot drive a stick shift. He looked perplexed. This appeared to be a very grave problem.

It seemed that the only thing that could be done was to contact the U.S. Europcar agent, and begin the rental process all over. So, he dialed the phone, explained the problem in English to the person on the line, and handed the handset to Val. She did her best to explain the problem. The U.S. office promised to fax a voucher to Europcar in Florence immediately.

It turns out that "immediately" in the U.S. has the same meaning as "immediately" in Italy, at least in this case. Five hours later, we were still in the little cramped, non-airconditioned office. Val had the extremely bright idea to stay put in the office in the single chair provided patrons, so that when the staff went to lunch they would look at us and feel guilty. While I don't know if that scheme worked, something happened very soon after they returned from a rather lengthy lunch. Even though they had called three times for us, the voucher still had not arrived. However, one woman who took over for our reservationist suddenly said, "Madame, I have a car for you," even without the required voucher. She explained that it was a larger, more expensive car, but it was an automatic and air-conditioned. We mentally leaped for joy, and thanked the entire staff for their kindness.

The Mercedes was a 220, a shiny black testament to fine workmanship. Val sat in the driver's seat, and I surrounded myself with all kinds of city maps in the passenger's seat, and, with directions on how to get out of Dodge firmly in hand, we set off...

And immediately found ourselves in a speedy, rolling quagmire. We were in the steets of Florence, going this way, going that, and the map seemed to make no sense at all. After we crossed the Arno, I said, "I don't think we should be crossing the Arno," but Val took a right turn at the next bridge and all was well. When we passed the last Firenze sign (with a line through it), we breathed a sigh of relief. We blissfully had no idea that things would go downhill from there.

We selected the smaller roads rather than the auto strade because we wanted to enjoy the countryside during our journey. However, the SS road took us up into the mountains along a narrow, winding path, an effort that made me car sick the entire trip and that proved to be an intense effort for the driver. We did see some marvelous terrain when we reached the top, stopping at a local bar. The locals sat in the bar, watching us as we walked in looking for toilets and maps. We figured out quickly that tourists don't normally come through these little towns, even in the middle of the summer.

It took us 4 hours to reach Forli, the last big city before we would drive into Ravenna, and we knew the directions wouldn't be good enough. So we pulled into a little gas station and looked for a better map. Val looked in her little Italian phrase book the word for "map", and tried using her limited vocabulary on the gas station attendant. He spoke no English, but tried to be as helpful as possible while gently correcting her Italian. We found the city map of Ravenna and headed off, knowing that in one hour we would be in that magical city.

As the navigator, it's my duty to assure the driver that (1) we're not lost, (2) I know exactly where we are, and (3) we'd be in town, safely ensconced in our hotel before dinner. Numbers 1 through 3 flew out the window quickly. As soon as we hit the borders of Ravenna, I was quite aware that we were very lost. I couldn't find a single street on the map, as I tried to make out hidden street signs that flew past the window. We finally gave up in frustration and headed for the city centre.

The city centre isn't large in Ravenna, but it's laid out in a fashion that defies logic. There is no grid, just winding streets that may have three names within one block. We could not find the hotel, Albergo Cappello on Quattro (IV) Novembre Street. After an hour of driving around, knowing we were late to begin with and fearing we could not check in if we were any later, we decided to just park the car in the John Kennedy Piazza (at least we'd remember the name), and hoof it from there.

Once we got out of the car, finding steet names was slightly easier, and with Val's map skills we found the hotel, which, as it turned out, was only about two blocks away.

The Albergo Cappello is located off a piazza where there is no parking. Guests are told to "park anywhere, there is ample parking close by," but fail to tell you that all streetside parking has a limit. However, the next morning as we re-parked, we followed some "P" signs and happened upon a garage. The large, gruff Italian man in charge seemed to understand what we wanted, and with Val's limited Italian, we understood that we booked lodging for our car.

Off to the side while they were talking I noted a cocker spaniel. He was asleep when we parked, but came awake and sauntered over to sniff the tires of the car, not us. Then he leisurely went back to his place in the stoop of the apartment a few feet away, and drifted back to sleep.

The Albergo Cappello is a delightful hotel in a terrific location (if you don't have a car) in the middle of town. There are plenty of restaurants and bars around, and the local sights are just a few blocks away. We had to locate the hotel clerk, as reception was empty, but we found her quickly enough in the bar down below. She was very friendly as she took us to the elevator to show us our room. However, once we got off the elevator, we immediately discovered another flight of marble stairs had to be climbed to reach the room. I was beginning to realize that almost all hotels in Italy involve stairs.

Our room was larger than the usual European hotel room (or a Motel 6, for that matter), with wonderful windows that let in the light. The air conditioning was termpermental, but we finally figured it out enough to coax a little cold air. The bathroom, while not as grand as the Adler's, was quite nice, and featured a large tub with adjustable shower nozzle.

The hotel has only 7 rooms, 7 rooms in an older building but with modern conveniences. The hotel is attached to the old medieval tower, which we could see from our window. The hotel featured a large reception room which offered a breakfast nook and many magazines and brochures about Ravenna.

But we were here to see Ravenna, specifically the old cathedral, the mausoleum and the baptistery. Val was quite focused, once we reached town, as she wrote her Master's Thesis at the University of Chicago on the medieval baptistery. She could see it in her mind but she'd never been there. As she was to discover in an emotional wakening upon walking into first the cathedral and then the baptistery, seeing photos in a book is not the same as being there.

And so it was an exciting moment to watch as we climbed the stairs that lowered us into the San Vitale cathedral. I was immediately struck by the fact that very few tourists were there. (Actually, there weren't any tourists at all in town. No, that's wrong -- it's just that most of the "tourists" were Italian. Very few Americans, it would seem, traveled to Ravenna.) The cathedral looked enormous and stark even though it was one of the smaller ones I had seen this trip, but the visitor is immediately drawn to the delicately formed mosaics which have made this region famous. The last supper in the dome was an amazing sight; it's hard to realize that workers spent their whole lives putting these mosaics together.

The mausoleum was located in the courtyard just outside the cathedral. This building is amazing, and its mosaics are just as powerful. Only a few are buried here, which means it's a building not used much, a fact which has helped preserve its art. When I entered, I noticed how dark inside it was and slightly claustrophobic -- I did not have to bend to enter, but I noticed how small the doorway was, a testament, I supposed, to smaller men in the 13th century.

After we exited the site of these two buildings, we found ourselves back down winding streets and came face-to-face with the baptistery. Or at least Val did, as she recognized the nondescript, octagonal stone building immediately. "This is it," she said softly, and we entered the lone doorway quietly.

The magnificence of the Neonian baptistery isn't immediately evident until you look at the details. Remember the adult men entering the baptistery once a year? The same rules apply here, and as they sink into the baptismal waters, they stare above to the ceiling and see a naked mosaic Christ being baptised in the River Jordan. When they rise again slowly to answer the bishop's questions, they would see his head surrounded by a large ring, almost a halo, painted onto the wall in back of the font. Gold and blues glitter as the light hits the mosaic stones. It is truly unbelievable to behold and find yourself wondering how the ritual went so many years ago.

We left Ravenna after two nights, after having seen those three magnificent examples of architecture and religiious belief in the Dark Ages. (The cathedral had been brought "up to date" in the Renaissance, with ungainly but modern paintings having been added in the blank spaces of the ceiling.) We agreed that we would take the auto strada to get out of town. Surely getting out of town wouldn't be as bad and lengthy as getting in?

It almost was, as we found ourselves having to turn contrary to the map. But we got back on the right road, and drove up to the ticket booth to begin the auto strade.

Except that I couldn't figure out what to do at the ticket booth. I couldn't pay money, it wouldn't allow for it. Finally the light went on and Val said, "Oh, we just take the ticket!" We then figured out that when we exit the auto strade, we punch the ticket, and the machine will tell us how much to pay according to how far we've traveled. Ingenious.

We hit the auto strade with renewed enthusiasm for our trip, having just witnessed what few have ever seen in Ravenna, and with a firm belief that "we can do this!" And driving on the auto strade in a straight line seemed a lot easier than finding your way in a little town. We decided that I would drive, for the most part, while Val navigated. The division of labor would save us, we were certain.

The auto strade usually has three lanes of varying speeds:

The right lane: Go the speed limit.
The middle lane: Go slightly above the speed limit.
The left lane: What speed limit?

I discovered almost immediately that if I stuck a toe into the faster lane, I would find a car driving up my butt, coming out of nowhere at tremendous speeds. So I learned to first, decide if I really do want to get into that other lane, and then, secondly, pull the wheel sharply and go like hell until I could get over into the right lane again. When that other car narrowly misses you because you're too slow, and you see the Renault's bumper just inches away from your own, you try not to take it personally. They don't. It's just driving.

So we escaped the Bermuda Triangle of Ravenna only to find ourselves in another of Dante's rings of Purgatory, the speedy auto strade.

My Dream Vacation, Part 3: Siena

We had planned to take a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano with a local tour company after a couple of days to recover from jet lag, so at 8:30 in the morning on Friday, we walked over to the train station and found the proper bus. We had two languages onboard, and so had the same tour guide speak in both English and Spanish. The drive to Siena, which was about an hour and a half south of Firenze, was very pleasant in the air-conditioned tour bus.

Roberto handed us off to Margarita, our Siena tour guide, as soon as we got to the city square. Margarita was a delightful woman in her mid-40's. She had lived in Siena for the past 20 years, but her husband is originally from Siena. He is actually a Snail, she told Val in a private conversation, from that local district.

When the group surrounded her, she pointed upward. "Do you see the flag waving above us?" We saw a yellow and green flag, and if you looked closely, you could see the caterpillar on the flag. "The horse race was just run two days ago, and the Caterpillars won. Therefore, the Caterpillars have the right to run their flag up all over town!" She also told us that various townspeople will have scarves of the victorious district around their necks, and in some extreme cases, some of the men will be sucking from pacifiers. "It's like they are reborn," she said with a smile but not a smirk. This is serious business.

Every few steps we walked in Siena, we saw different flags or markings of another district. The dragon. The rhino. Fascinating.

Although we fairly flew up the streets on the way to the Duomo, it was easy to see that this Roman city was full of charm. Full of tourists, too, although not overly so, now that the annual race was last weekend.

The Duomo was located next to the hospital. I learned that Siena was a natural town on the pilgrimage to Rome, and thus the hospital was born. Hospital in this sense meant a place that would take care of travelers by offering a bed to sleep in and food. The heat was beginning to be oppressive even though it wasn't quite 11 in the morning. The Duomo on the outside is large but not necessarily compelling. However, once you walk inside, you discover instantly that it rivals St. Peter's in terms of artwork filling up every single inch of space.

While we were looking at the mosaics on the floor, some of which were being restored as we were there, one of the teenagers in our party fainted due to the heat. They took her over to get some water and she seemed fine. When we sat with the family during lunch, the mother related that her daughter has often fainted. Here, however, it was obvious that she had no hat and carried no water.

Siena is a fascinating Roman city. The aqueduct system was the only thing that kept Siena alive in the Roman day, as it had no outside source of water like a lake or river. The sloping cobblestone streets spoke to me as I climbed my way through the city's alleyways.

At lunchtime, Val and I opted to join Roberto at lunch in the Black Rooster. The Black Rooster is a cavern, and its small eating area is totally underground, down some steep stairs. All the food, we noticed, had to be toted up and down the stairs by the wait staff. The food was marvelous! We had a four-course meal consisting of small portions of antipasti, vegetable soup, pasta with cheese and some flecks of meat, and cheese. And the bread was the best, but I found I was declaring that at every meal.

After this somewhat heavy meal, however, we followed Roberto quickly into the heat of Siena and to the large square where we would meet the rest of the group. Then we raced back down to where the bus was parked, a good quarter-mile away. In the heat, after the heavy meal (of which he partook), walking quickly when there were obviously some disabled tourists along was unconscionable in my mind. To make this personal, by the time I returned to the bus, I was flushed and my face was beet red. It took 30 minutes in the air-conditioned bus for me to return to normal.

And by that time, we were in San Gimignano, a medieval town totally behind imposing city walls that still stand. San Gimignano in my mind, however, was a complete bust. After climbing up the streets (about 3 blocks) to get to the gate, we found that the only thing that awaited us was a thoroughly modern commercial village, full of knickknacks and gelato. And it was hard to escape the heat.

Still, it was a great day for sightseeing and learning about Italy's medieval towns, towns which spent most of their resources defending against would-be attackers. I loved Siena. The time we had there was spent running after the tour guide rather than plumbing its depths. I would love to return.

Monday, July 11, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 2: Firenze

The Hotel Adler Cavalieri on the Via Della Scala allowed us to roam around Firenze all day, even in horrible heat. We would check the temperature on channel 10 every day (15 minutes in Italian, 15 minutes in English) and I would try to make the quick conversion to Fahrenheit. The first few days were blistering. However, even with jet lag, we jumped out of bed early the next morning, luxuriated in that huge shower, and headed for the Duomo with our little city maps in hand. We saw the Duomo -- or, actually, we saw Giotto's tower -- looming large before us as we walked down the narrow, winding streets.

I noticed immediately that cars did not have much respect for pedestrians. We are the enemy or even the targets. And narrow cobblestone streets didn't slow these little European cars down. And when we entered areas that cars couldn't reach, thinking we were safe, we were accosted constantly by scooters -- Vespa. Like mosquitoes, they would whiz past my ear when I wasn't looking, barely missing me by inches. And the bicycles were just as bad, just as fast, and could go where no man has gone before.

When we got to the piazza with the tower and Duomo, we immediately noticed an octagonal building right before the cathedral. In fact, this older-looking building prevented anyone from taking pictures of the cathedral straight-on; I remember hearing one American complaining about it, as he tried shooting his camera from different angles. The baptistery is centuries older than the Duomo, and yet only seemed to attract attention because of its famous doors: Ghiberti's bronze Gates of Paradise (supposedly named by Michelangelo when he first saw them). I understand Ghiberti spent over two decades carving these Biblical scenes out of bronze, just because nothing he produced was ever good enough.

But the story of the battistero is utterly fascinating. Since Val did a lot of graduate work on medieval religious art and architecture, I had my own personal guide to the baptistery. We had a seat at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes in the square, and I watched the round baptistery as she told the story.

In those days, baptism was performed on adult men. They would be rounded up at night in a raid, and one-by-one would be marched into the imposing baptistry, which was only used once a year. The bishop would ask the novice to swear each time, and each time he uttered "I swear", the priest holding him would kick out his knees so that he would fall backwards, face up into total immersion of the baptismal waters of the font. They would keep him down just enough so that he would wonder if he was really going to drown, rising only to see the artwork on the top of the ceiling: Christ welcoming him, it seems, to Christendom, except that some figures on the ceiling suggested that he was being welcomed into death. How frightening it must have been for them! After their baptism, they were marched straight into the opening of the cathedral, or Duomo, next door. Hence the closeness of the two buildings.

"With stories like that," Val told me, with a gleam in her eye, "who neeeds the Renaissance?"

I do. And so I insisted that we see Michelangelo's David. Luckily, we accompanied a tour, included in our Firenze city tour, so that we could skip the hour-long line wrapped around the Accademie. Since I had been here last -- 10 years ago? -- David has a barrier around him to protect him from well-wishers. And after I had gotten over my shock-and-awe at seeing this gorgeous sculpture, I could for the first time, notice some irregularities in the form itself, and enter into a thoroughly riveting discussion on why Michelangelo made the choices he did.

Val and I both agreed that this would not be a museum-seeking trip this time. We had little time to waste. Besides....Firenze is an open-door museum! Everywhere you turn, you find masterpieces in architecture all over the city, topped with its noted red tile.

Every day, due to jet lag and the sheer exhaustion of walking an average of 4 miles a day in the heat, we went back to the Hotel Adler to catch a nap in the afternoon. We began to notice how cold the room had become, although when we first entered the room, it felt delicious to us.

We discovered a restaurant close to our hotel. Amusingly it had the same menu, with the same English subtitle misspellings, as another restaurant we found close to the Accademie. This restaurant, air-conditioned inside, had helpful young wait staff and a variety of menu items. Each item we tried was delicioso. And we noticed that, when the patron next to us had finished, they were served a small glass of lemony-yellow liquid. This was limoncello, and we too were able to sample it. It's alcoholic, rather a shock after the pasta, a gift from the restaurant to our palate. Incredibly lemony with a bite to it. We would remember this.

What a wonderful custom in Italy, to consume languourously a large lunch consisting of multiple courses over the period of noon to about 3 pm. Indeed, most shops closed during that time, leaving the American tourist to find a bar that was open or go back to nap at the hotel. Or both.

One night, in our search for the meeting point of the Siena tour the next day, we found a restaurant near the train station, one in several chain restaurants throughout Italy. I have forgotten the name, but it's Pasta R Us -- well, not exactly, but you get the idea. The amazing part is that the meal we had there was delicious! And a great deal cheaper than others we had had. However, the limoncello afterwards was not gratis, and was a sickly yellow rather than a bright hue, denoting a drop in quality.

The food has great variety, of course, in Firenze but pasta is king, or at least is primi patti and for what I usually reached. No garlic is used in Firenze, however; you'd have to go farther north for that influence. Cream sauces were prevalent. And a lot of pesce, or fish, dishes, done all sorts of weird ways.

It was during this trip that I decided that Florence -- Firenze -- is my favorite European city. It's modern, it's medieval, it's Renaissance. Its people are curious, beautiful, fast-moving (and not just on scooters). Art is there to pluck like an overripe bunch of grapes off the vine. It has everything.

I became a little ill one night, and was hesitant to leave the hotel. George told me I should call the illness Luciano's Revenge. Perhaps an amalgam of jet lag and the heat, it nevertheless kept us in the hotel one night, wandering up to the hotel's bar on the highest floor. Unfortunately, the barman did not want to go downstairs for food, so we just ate a few of the h'ors doeurves available. Luciano disappeared by morning. And, as it turned out, it was time for us to move on as well.

Firenze even appeals to the fictional villain. One apothecary shop was notably included as a scene in the movie Hannibal. Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkin) walked into the store and ordered up several herbal remedies. The store itself is absolutely real. Originally a storefront for monks (and the monastery is still in the back), right on the Via Della Scala, it's a series of marble and wood furniture rooms with thousands of herbal possibilities, each of which is available commercially to the private citizen.

My Dream Vacation

My friend Val and I were talking about taking an international trip together during her break from school. What would be my itinerary, she asked, if I could go anywhere?

In the past two years I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would no longer be traveling internationally. It's too expensive, it's too hard, and with iffy health it's not something to be taken lightly. However, my health has improved greatly in that time, and going with another friend is always cost-effective and just too much fun to ignore.

My favorite place, I believe, outside my homes of Oakland and Coronado is Italy, or rather, Tuscany and north of that. I have been twice to Florence, but frankly all I remember are little swatches of shopping and museums. I took tours both times, and I distinctly remember being placed in the middle of the piazza by the tour bus, never being able to find my way back. If I could go back, unescorted and - hey! maybe even by rental car so we could have the most freedom! - I will have died and gone to pasta heaven!

Since this was back in May 2005, we didn't have much time for travel that would begin at the end of June. After several email and a couple of visits, we nailed down our itinerary to Florence, Siena, Ravenna, possibly Venice, Padua, Verona and Mantua, with Bologna another possibility. After we got the serious Italy map out, we made Siena a day-tour from Florence, cut out Venice entirely, and streamlined our journey to these hotel stops:

Florence (aka Firenze): 5 nights
Ravenna: 2 nights
Vescovana (south of Padua): 1 night
Mantua: 1 night
Firenze airport for last night: 1 night

We worked with a Triple A travel agent in Los Angeles, a "brother" who had been to Italy several times and had sensible recommendations. He set us up with the Firenze hotels (coming and going), the rental car, and the airline tickets. We were ready to roll!

Okay, we all know what happens with dream vacations, or dream anything: reality finally sets in. Reality, unfortunately, hit us immediately. Our flight from Frankfurt to Firenze was delayed 5 hours due to rainstorms over Firenze. When we finally got up in the air, they announced halfway through the short flight that the storms would prevent us from landing in Firenze. Instead, we landed in Bologna, one of the smallest airports I have ever seen. Without any further pronouncements on where to go, we managed to file, like ants, into a bus at the curb for the 2-hour drive from Bologna Airport to Firenze Airport.

When we arrived at Firenze Airport at 7:30 pm instead of 2:45 pm, we discovered that the Baspi Bus, the prepaid transport to our hotel in Firenze, was nowhere to be found. I used my new Euro coins to call on the pay phone, but no one answered at the tour office. It was, after all, pretty late by then. We stood in a long queue for the taxi, and the driver got us safely to the delightful Hotel Adler Cavalieri, a 3-star hotel near the train station and a 20-minute walk to the Duomo, etc. We marveled at the air conditioning in the room, the huuuuge shower stall in the rather nice bathroom, and, sodden with jetlag, took the desk clerk's suggestion of a late dinner at a real Italian restaurant right down the block.

I say "real," because only one person in the restaurant (I believe the owner) spoke any English at all. This was our first experience with an Italian menu (without subtitles!), and we spent a good 20 minutes reading it over and over, looking for clues in Italian words. Val had her phrase book, but that was slow going. And we were hungry.

The owner took pity on us, approached us and was very friendly, explaining in limited English what it was we were ordering. We still felt like we were gambling, but we would often find that to be so on this trip. You may not get exactly what you ordered, but it will be a delicious meal. That turned out to be the lovely truth every day we were in Italy. Buon appetito!