Monday, May 27, 2013

Hotel Paradiso

Our hotel in Venice was a lovely old hotel, very much first class, with shiny marble floors of dark and light geometric patterns, beautiful chandeliers, marble trimming the arched doorways, art deco stained glass in the transoms above.  I can speak only of our room, but it was large, clean, comfortable, with elegant, old-style furniture, and a big, marble-floored bathroom.  And we had a view of the canal, from our two windows, though it was not a straight-on view, since most of the rooms in the hotel face each other across the space that separates what were once two separate 17th century “palaces” (i.e., rich people’s fancy homes), now connected by one of the restaurant’s dining rooms, with the hotel’s tiny terrace in front of it – these are what lay directly beneath our windows – and, at the back of the building, by a narrow, black-and-white-check-floored corridor, which was what everyone took to get from their rooms to the main part of the hotel.

Unfortunately, when Pat and I arrived at Hotel Westin Europa & Regina there was no room available for us.  The hotel was currently filled to overflowing with what seemed like hundreds of folks from (as we later ascertained) a cruise ship, very noisy and chaotic.  They were obviously in the process of checking out – their suitcases were all crowded together at one side of the main hallway that led from the door to the dock to Reception, at what was officially the front of the hotel, but seemed like the back – but in the meantime their rooms were still being cleaned.  The woman at the desk was also confused because, as she said, the people with Perillo Tours (PT) usually all came together.  If we would please to wait until the others came…

Which takes me to the big snafu that put the other members of the tour in a rather sour mood right at the outset.  Gianni, our PT guide (and that is his real name), had made the decision to wait for everyone who was coming in, even though they were arriving at different times.  Thus, he met the folks whose plane arrived at 9:30, and asked if they would please be so patient as to wait for us.  He knew that our plane was late, and informed the group – who of course were all as tired as Pat and I.  So they all waited, not only past 11, but past 12, until 1 p.m., when Gianni finally gave up, mainly because Kelly, the woman from Kentucky, kept insisting that she was pretty sure, given our conversation while we were waiting for our luggage, that we had already left.

This error in judgment is probably the only negative thing I can put to Gianni.  For about 12 hours a day, for eight days, he was trying to keep track of 36 rowdy Americans, some of them determinedly independent (I plead guilty – he was always having to look around for/wait for, me), and he was invariably patient and good-natured.  But the idea of keeping over 20 tired people waiting for up to three hours, for two other people, seems really preposterous.  I assume it was to prevent his having to go back to the airport, but still…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I had to be fed, and Pat had to have a cigarette.  My hypoglycemia, which requires that I ingest a reasonable amount of protein every three hours, was as inconvenient as it always is when I travel.   While Pat joined the cruise folk out on the terrace, I ventured into the dimly-lit bar with its elegant bar of dark brown and charcoal grey Italian marble, and little tables scattered about.  For some time, I sat at a little table just inside the door, feeling vaguely uneasy and unsure of myself,  until the male half of the barkeeping team took note of me.  When I asked if I could get something to eat, he said of course, then took forever to bring me a menu.  I carefully avoided looking aghast when I saw the prices: a Ceasar Salad with chicken for 23 Euros ($33), a hamburger, which I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be ordering in Italy anyway, was 24 Euros.  There was nothing on the menu I could bring myself to spend so much money on, and I suspected it would take forever to get my food anyway.  So I went back out into the main hallway, which I suppose I should call the lobby.  In the dining room across the way there was obviously an “event” going on.  I wafted through, on my way out to the terrace, and saw that it was a cold buffet.  Hmmm…

Given all the people milling around, I decided to take a chance on blending in, grabbed a plate, and started picking and choosing.  All the silverware to be seen was in the place-settings on the tables around the room, where people were sitting, laughing and talking, so I ended up eating everything with my fingers, but that was o.k.  When I joined Pat on the terrace, where she had managed to snag one of the few chairs at one of the glass-topped tables, I had a nice collection of odds and ends, most of which were delicious, including the perfectly ripe, and sweet, strawberries, and kiwi.  Throughout the trip we were treated to fresh, ripe fruit at the breakfasts provided by our hotels, and it was such a joy, especially for this person from Maine. Most of the fruit we get is rock hard, as it has been picked well before having ripened, in order to ship it safely.

Santa Maria della Salute from hotel terrace

The half hour or so that we spent sitting on that terrace was among those moments I stated earlier we didn’t have enough of: time to just sit and take in the realness of where we were. The ornate, domed church Santa Maria della Salute lay directly across the canal.  We watched boats gliding by in the canal, in particular an extraordinary number of gondolas, sometimes with the young gondoliers singing their hearts out as they poled away.  Once a group of three lined up side-by-side, and gave a joint performance.  What made this seem especially strange was that what one thinks of as a romantic experience was taking place in the middle of the day.  Pat and I agreed it was all rather hokey – very much in the theme park vein – and we agreed we weren’t going to fork up the 42 Euros apiece to go on the optional gondola ride the following evening.   (Note: most of the folks who did go on it seemed to enjoy it enormously.)

The hundreds of jolly cruise folk decamped at last, taking with them the resort air they had foisted on the place, and almost immediately thereafter the PT group arrived.  Gianni greeted Pat and me with unmitigated joy – he had not lost two of his travelers on the very first day – and went to get us all registered.  Unfortunately, our rooms still weren’t ready, and wouldn’t be until about 3:30.  Some energetic folks took off to explore the neighborhood; Pat and I (and a number of other people) were just too tired.  Some collapsed into the elegant chairs and sofas in the lobby, and fussed with their electronic devices; I forked up 12 Euros for a coffee from the bar, and Pat and I sustained ourselves with that, and some pieces of chocolate she had tucked away in her purse. 

View from our room
When we did, finally, get our rooms, Pat collapsed onto the bed and announced she was done for the day.  I rested for a while, took a stimulating hot bath in the wonderfully long, old-fashioned bathtub – what a luxurious joy to be able to stretch out completely – got dressed, and set out to find one of the sandwich places mentioned in Rick Steve’s Italy.  I was going to get something for me, for now, and something for Pat, for when she came to.  But down in the lobby I met a group of people who were planning on making their way to a ristorante that had been recommended by Gianni.  I asked if I could join them and they said sure, the more the merrier. 

But that’s our next adventure.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Venice was enchanting.  I’d live there in a heartbeat. No traffic!  I personally consider the automobile the scourge of modern-day urban living, and here is a city without the automobile! 

I have a thing about islands anyway, as evidenced by my having spent six weeks living on Santorini, three months on the Ile d’Yeu, off the west coast of France, and on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland.  For that matter, would love to be able to live on one of the many islands off the coast of Maine.  What’s different about Venice, as compared with all those other, and most other, islands, is that it is all one city.  Although really that city is made up of not just one island, but a total of 100 tiny islands.  Every time you cross one of the many, many little, and several large, bridges, you are crossing from one island to another.  There are also several larger islands in the lagoon, that are also visited by tourists: Murano, famous for its glassblowers, Burano, ditto for its lace,  Torcello, which served as the original settlement of Italians seeking refuge from the barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, and now is virtually deserted, and San Giorgio Maggiore, directly across the lagoon from San Marco Square, and famous for the view to be had from the bell tower of its cool, peaceful church.

But let’s take it from my first view of the city, when Pat and I took an incredibly expensive (110 Euros, or about $143!) water taxi from the airport, which is on the mainland, to our hotel.  We were supposed to be provided with free transport by Perillo Tours (PT), if we were around at the 9 a.m., 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. transport times.  According to the instruction sheet we had received from PT, if we missed these pick-up times, it was up to us to get ourselves to the hotel.  Well, our connecting flight from Rome to Venice was late, setting down at 11, so obviously we had missed that pick-up time.  By the time we got our luggage it was close to 12.  We were both very tired from our sleepless overnight flight from Boston, and I saw no point in our hanging around the airport for an hour, just for a free ride.  While waiting for our baggage to show up I had spoken briefly with the female half of the only other Perillo couple we had thus far encountered, wanting to know if they would be interested in sharing a water taxi.  “Kelly” (red-haired, sassy, works as a physician’s assistant; she and her husband look about 25, but have been married 10 years with two kids so are presumably closer to 30) said they’d probably wait for the tour pick-up.  By the time the bags appeared she had disappeared, so Patricia and I  made our way out to the counter where you could purchase tickets for the water taxis.

Later I had to acknowledge that it was a shame we had lost track of the young couple from Kentucky, since that steep fare covered up to four people.  Splitting that $143 would have been nice.   But I also have to admit that, at the time, I really didn’t care.  I loved the very idea of taking a boat from the airport to the door of my hotel, loved the swift, sometimes thump/thump/THUMP careening through the water, the cool air on my face (it was a pale gray day; rain was forecast), a polite, brawny young man at the wheel, boats speeding past, going the other way, or trailing out ahead of us, behind us – a regular highway of boat traffic.  And gradually, as we moved down the wide lagoon, Venice proper took shape before us.  No tall buildings – only the tall, narrow, bell towers at San Marco Square, and San Giorgio Maggiore – but rather cheek-by-jowl buildings of four or five stories, mostly beige, pale yellow, light brown, but also pink, a brighter yellow, even aqua.  As our driver slowed the boat and we turned into a canal, we were passing just a few feet on either side from these buildings – people’s homes! – with the water lapping at the walls, slopping over the tiny step to be seen at some back doors. We glided under low stone bridges that curved above our heads, and finally turned out into what I knew must be the Grand Canal.  The buildings on either side were much grander than those we had seen in the “side” canal, often with a large centered balcony on an upper floor, where the family back in the good ol’ days (1600s, 1700s) could have gathered to watch whatever to-do was taking place on the canal.

Which was currently full of boat traffic – besides the little speed boats like ours (would hold six comfortably in the little covered “cabin” where Pat and I sat), there were the long white vaporetti , or public buses, an astounding number of gondolas, being steered by the young men in their black and white striped shirts, and a number of what I came to think of as truck boats, i.e, boats transporting goods that would ordinarily be transported by truck.  For example, on the morning we left, we watched from the small terrace of our hotel as a winch was used to lift bins of the hotel’s dirty linen from the dock into a boat, obviously to be taken off to be cleaned.  
Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge


Looking in the other direction


There were tourists everywhere – in the boats, filling the small terraces of the cafes that fronted the canal, crowded onto the famous Rialto Bridge, that we passed under, then the rather odd Accademia Bridge, which looks like a graduate student’s geometric project, surging along the occasional narrow walkways that ran beside the canal for a short distance.  I couldn’t help exclaiming at one point, “It looks like a theme park!”  Because it was so unreal, that this could be a real place – and it was packed with tourists!

Finally, exactly at the point where the Grand Canal opens out into the lagoon, we pulled up to the dock of the Westin Hotel Europa e Regina.  We had reached our first home-away-from-home.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium, or, Melody's Whirlwind Trip to Italy

O.K., there are positives and negatives attached to almost everything; perfection awaits us in another life.  So let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first.  The most negative aspect of my long-awaited trip to Italy was that I and my friend Pat were fighting exhaustion virtually the entire time.  The tour we were on – Perillo Tours’ Marco Polo, for the record -- was grueling, probably more appropriate for people twenty years younger than we, people with more energy at their command, and certainly more stamina.  Our group of 36 included a few in that category, though it seemed to me that most of the folks were somewhere in their 50s.  Pat and I, with our 1947 birth year, were probably among the oldest of the “couples,” (as all but three women traveling alone were).  One lady was 78, and her husband was probably a couple of years older; they proved themselves amazingly resilient.  But poor Patricia, with her carefully controlled leukemia, and me with my never-very-high energy level, were anything but. 

Patricia, as a retired lady of leisure, is accustomed to getting up about 9, feeding the dog, having a cup of coffee & a cigarette while she reads the paper (and her smoking was moderately problematic throughout the trip, as none of the hotels permitted it), having a breakfast pastry and another cup of coffee before taking a shower, and finally being ready to tackle the world about 12.  Although I am still a working stiff, I, too, am accustomed to fairly leisurely mornings, since I don’t usually have to be to work until 11; virtually never get up before 8.  But here we were, dragging ourselves out of bed with the 6:30 wake-up calls, on the bus by 8 a.m., doing a lot of walking when the bus got us to wherever we were going, being given a lunch break of an hour to an hour and a half, with no additional time for resting, before we did it all again for the afternoon’s excursion.   I’m accustomed to resting frequently, usually take a nap after returning from my 4  1/2 to 6 hour work days.  But on our tour the only way to get some rest was to say no to some activity or other, which as a matter of fact we did, twice.  In Florence we did not go to one of the free dinners, because Pat was utterly dead from the day’s activities, and I couldn’t bring myself to abandon her for the evening (naturally it was the dinner that everyone said was the best of the three we’d so far been provided with).  And ultimately I opted out of the final afternoon excursion, in Rome, because I knew I simply had to rest.  After doing so for a couple of hours, I was able to go out for a walk, to the famous Spanish Steps, about 15 minutes from our hotel, and also to the nearby Trevi Fountain.  I was still back at the hotel well before the exhausted excursion folks returned.

While Pat and I may have been especially hard-hit by the rigors of the tour, they were hard on everyone.  Diana (names have been changed to protect the innocent), one of the ladies who was making the tour on her own, said at lunch on the next to the last day, “I am so tired of being tired.”  And all of us at her table laughed uproariously in rueful agreement.

The other major negative, as far as I (and I think a number of other people) was concerned, was that there was insufficient time allotted to be able to just enjoy the sights we were seeing.  Except for the church we visited in Padua, we always had a local guide, giving us historical facts in heavily accented English, through the little earphone sets we were given.  So there you were, marching along, trying to catch what was being said, at the same time that you were trying to take in all that you were seeing.  And naturally at times something just cried out to be photographed.  Now, admittedly, those folks with smart phones were at an advantage when it came to taking pictures.  They could just point the phone at the desired image, shoot, and keep on walking.  Some of us had slightly more demanding cameras, and mine was especially demanding, as it was new, and I really didn’t know how to work the damn thing properly.  Time and again the group would have moved on, while I was still trying to get a shot – sometimes impeded by people from other groups (there were a kazillion tour groups, which is actually another negative, but one that Perillo Tours can hardly be held responsible for), and I would then have to go hurrying up the hill, or down the street, or through the church, trying to relocate them.

And sometimes it wasn’t even a matter of wanting to take a picture, but of just wanting to be able to sit and enjoy the scenery for a while, luxuriate in the realness of actually being where you were – hey, dig this: I’m in Venice/Florence/Siena -- or to go off and explore on your own for maybe an hour. One of the few opportunities we had for this sort of thing was on the morning we left Florence for Rome.  We drove first to Michaelangelo Square, with a glorious view of the city spread out below us, the hills in the background.  We were able to spend a relaxing half hour drinking in the view, taking pictures, checking out the little souvenir stands (not so many as to be obtrusive).  It was magical.  

I think the core problem is that it is just a mistake to try to do four major cities, a stop-over in a minor one, a wine tasting, and a long day trip to an ancient city raised from the volcanic ash, in eight days.  That’s what produces both the exhaustion, and the lack of free time to explore more in each place.  So there you go, a word to the wise.

But, coming up: the positives.