Category: vacation

Italian Vacation: Rome

Our final city of the trip was Rome, and it’s the city where we spent the most time. It’s a large city with such a deep history, how could we do anything else? Because it’s so large, getting around it was more difficult than the other places we’d gone. Everywhere else, once we were in the city, we could mostly walk everywhere we needed to go. You can’t do that in Rome. (Also, you don’t want to do that, because it’s sweltering outside.) On the plus side, Rome has a fairly large public transportation network. On the minus, most of that depends on buses, and those are . . . not very on time. We were never quite sure if the bus was just seriously late or very early, and we made many mistakes about which stop to wait at. It was just plain confusing, though it also might be due to being very tired by this point.

Still, Rome didn’t disappoint. Here’s a rundown of the highlights:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica: Talk about ginormous. It’s the large (large) cathedral built over St. Peter’s grave. We first tried to hustle there right before it closed, but all that hustling was for naught. Instead, we went back on Sunday, which worked out very well. The place is very large, with lots to see, and we got to see mass and hear the organ music, which is always a plus. There’s Michelangelo’s Pieta, the tombs of so many popes, monuments to different popes of note, St. Peter’s grave, and a hike up to the dome which we didn’t do. (Though I’ve heard very good things about it.)
  • Vatican Museum: This is also where you go to see the Sistine Chapel. I was amazed by just how much is on display here. Artwork for so many different masters. Treasures from throughout history. By the time you get to see the Sistine Chapel, you’re almost in sensory overload. I had always assumed the Chapel would be like so many of the other painted ceilings I’ve seen in palaces over the years, with Adam reaching out to God being the large centerpiece. Instead, it’s essentially one large painting. Adam and God is in the middle, but it’s no larger than any of the other scenes depicted. It really was incredible.
  • The Colosseum was much bigger than I expected. It was also absolutely mobbed. Like with many places, however, there was a glut of people taking pictures at the literal first chance they could, but if you got away from there, things opened up and it wasn’t as packed. (And you could take better pictures.) That said, it didn’t take too long to actually see the place. It’s largely in ruins, after all, and without an organized tour, you’re really just checking out the massive scope of the place. I really liked it.
  • The Roman Forum: A series of monuments built by Important Romans over the years, all kind of scattered around in the same area of the city. Daniela was a big fan, and she now wants to know more about archaeology. (A heads up: we bought the two day ticket for the Colosseum and the Forum. The first day, we went to both, but we were short on time, so we decided to come back and see more of the Forum the next day. When we came back, we discovered that “two day ticket” actually means “you can use the ticket either the first or the second day, but once you use it, you can’t use it again.” It does not mean “come both days.” So that was a bummer.)
  • Circus Maximus: I thought this would be awesome. The site of chariot races? How could you go wrong? Instead, it’s basically a big open field with a lot of construction work in it, often used as a concert venue. There’s like one small ruin on one end, and that’s it. Underwhelming.
  • The Stone of Truth: Famous from Roman Holiday, it’s the stone Audrey Hepburn visits that is supposed to bite your hand if you’re a liar. It’s also right next to the Circus Maximus, which helped make that trip feel more worthwhile. Yes, you essentially just wait in line to take a picture in front of the stone, but the kids really liked it. (Daniela liked recreating shots from the movie.)
  • Catacombs of St. Callixus: The burial site of the popes before things in St. Peter’s really took off. This is where Christians were buried back in the early days, when they were still being fed to the lions on a regular basis. Seeing this firsthand made the persecution early Christians experienced much more real to me. These catacombs are enormous, and they estimate about 500,000 people were buried there over the years. Very much worth the bus ride.
  • Trevi Fountain: The most famous fountain in the city. It’s generally mobbed unless you go early. It was pretty, but I had somehow expected more . . . fountains. Like, actual streams of water going every which way. Instead, it’s mainly just a regular fountain, but with great statues. Not a big fan of the crowds, though.
  • Spanish Steps: The site of my biggest mistake of the trip. We went early to the steps and got there well before the crowds (which meant we could actually take some pictures with almost no one else in them.) However, it also meant we had enough space to race up the steps. First the kids gave it a shot, and then I decided I wanted to try as well. People, there are a lot of steps. A lot of steps. I bolted up them as fast as I could, thinking there were only as many as you can see from the bottom. But then they turn, and there are more steps. I made it to the top, but I felt awful for the next half hour. That wasn’t that smart. Don’t pull a Bryce, folks. Just walk up the steps.
  • The Pantheon: Originally a Roman temple and now a Christian church, this was super interesting to see. We went early and were some of the first into the building that day, which was (again) a good call. Great to see the place without a big crowd. It still has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, 2000 years after it was built.
  • Borghese Gallery: This was the one art museum we decided to visit in Rome. (Any more, and some of the kids would have started a revolution.) It was very nice, and quite compact. We saw the whole thing in under two hours, and it had some fantastic sculptures and paintings. Very worthwhile.
  • Gelato della Palma: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this gelato place. It has 150 flavors of gelato to choose from, which was really incredible. We went twice, and we could easily have gone many more times. So much gelato, so little time.

Crowd levels were quite busy. I went out one evening to see things at night, and it was elbow to elbow walking down streets in popular areas. If you know me, you know how little I enjoyed that.

One thing I would do differently if I were to do it again would be to actually pay for some tours of the different places we went to. We sort of cobbled together the history with the small posted signs and some Wikipedia searches, but it would have been much more impactful to listen to someone who actually knew what they were talking about. (Of course, you’re never sure if you’re going to get a good tour guide or a bad tour guide, and with kids, “no tour guide” is definitely preferable to a bad tour guide.

Anyway, that wraps up my report on Italy for now. It was a great trip, and I’ve got lots of good memories from it now.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Italian Vacation: Pisa

The way I figure, if you’re going to Italy, and you don’t take a stupid looking picture in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, have you really been to Italy? It’s only an hour train ride from Florence, and so we decided to do it as an afternoon trip on one of our days there. It took a bit to decide just how long to stay. You can get tickets to go up the tower, and to visit the church and baptistry there. In the end, we decided to just stick with seeing the outside.

The plan, when we left, was to head out of Florence at 4:30, get to Pisa at 5:30, walk to the tower, check it out, grab a bite to eat, and then come back on the 8:00 train, which should have theoretically given us plenty of time at the tower and to eat.

In practice, it ended up taking more time at the tower than we had anticipated. For one thing, you just underestimate how much time it takes to get a really good goofy tower pic. Everyone wanted their own, and when there are 11 of you, it doesn’t matter if you have multiple cameras. It’s going to take some time, especially because everyone wants to make one with their own style. It’s kind of like carving a pumpkin in that respect. You don’t all want to be identical.

So there were pics of people hugging the tower, leaning on the tower, stealing the tower, eating the tower, jumping in front of the tower, running from the tower. You get the idea. Meanwhile, there are hordes of other people doing the same thing, so you have to make sure to time your pics to have as few in them as possible.

Of course, there’s a ton (ton) of people taking pictures right where the main path leads out to the tower. It seemed like the perfect angle for it. We took a bunch there, but then we walked to the other side of the tower, and you could actually walk on the grass there, it was in the shade, and there weren’t nearly as many people. So if you go, remember that there are more angles to take a good picture from than just one.

Just as we were finishing pics, some of the group decided to see inside the church and baptistry, which took additional time. Long story short, we were too low on time to grab food in Pisa and make our train. This meant we were forced to just buy gelato, instead. I know. The sacrifices we make sometimes. I will say that there are much worse things than gelato for dinner . . .

Honestly, there isn’t much else to do in Pisa than what we did. Yes, we could have walked up the tower, but then you’re just looking out on Pisa, and it’s not like the town itself is famous. There were a few restaurants there, but there are many more in Florence. I think we timed things just about right, all things considered. Very glad we didn’t take more time in the city.

Of course, this begs the question, “Was it worth the trip?” I would say yes. The tower is world famous, and it’s not that much time to go see it. Would I go again? No. But once was far from a waste of time. Your mileage may vary.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Italian Vacation: Florence

When I told people I was going to Italy, I was surprised by how many of them said, “So you’re going to Florence, right?” Honestly, Florence hadn’t even been on my radar, which shows just how ignorant I was when it comes to Italy. Florence, for those of you who (like me) don’t know, is the center of art in Italy, more or less. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance, so yeah: pretty important. We decided to stay there for three nights, though we didn’t get in until late on our first day (9:30pm). (Pro-tip: getting a bus in Florence is a pain in the rear, or at least it was for us, possibly because we came into a train station that wasn’t the main one. We ended up getting taxis, which were very reasonably priced. It just took an hour to figure out that was the way to go.)

We stayed right downtown, perhaps a block from the Duomo. It was B&B Le Stanz, and the rooms were nice, spacious, and well air-conditioned. (Too well air-conditioned, according to Daniela.) Being so central to the city was great in terms of getting around places. All the old sites were within walking distance.

Three days was probably a bit tight for a good stay in Florence (go figure), but at the same time, I think it was about right for a stay with family members ranging from 9 to much older than 9. The younger kids can only do so much when it comes to museums, after all. Here’s a rundown of what we did and what we ate:

  • We started things off by going to the Accademia Gallery, home of the David and other Michelangelo statues. Seeing it in person really was stunning, and my kids were big fans of the musical instrument collection the museum had as well (including a Stradivarius violin and cello. Bonus!) We got tickets ahead of time, and we got them for as soon as the place opened, which was definitely a good move. We walked in, and there was hardly anyone there, giving us time to walk around the David at leisure and see everything with no crowds. A half hour later, the place was busy, and when we left an hour after that, it was packed. Way too many people. It’s not an enormous museum, which is also nice. Easy to see in a few hours.
  • From there we went and got “smoothie bowls” at the Shake Cafe at the Via del Corso location. These were thick smoothies with toppings you could add, and they were so tasty, we went back for breakfast the next day. Highly recommended if you’re looking to switch things up from the same thing all the time.
  • We toured the cathedral and baptistry, which were . . . different. From the outside the Duomo in Florence is just stunning, in green, pink, and white stone, it looked impressively unique. But once we got inside, the interior was disappointingly generic. I had somehow expected the interior would match the exterior. It didn’t. The baptistry was interesting, as it had once been used for baptisms by immersion until, according to the story, a child almost drowned getting baptized, so they shifted to the current baptism by sprinkling water.
  • Outside the Duomo, there are a ton of street artists. Daniela had a great time checking each one out and asking them about their techniques, and she bought a painting to take home. It’s also a great spot to be at night, as there’s a lot of musicians around (and being a block or so from it made that very appealing.)
  • We got sandwiches at L’Girone de Ghiotti. There were vegetarian options, but I had salami the first time and (since everyone liked them) spicy pepperoni the next time we went.
  • The Basilica of Santa Croce was incredible. It’s the burial site for many famous Italians, from Michelangelo (with the memorial carved by Donatello) to Galileo. I really enjoyed walking up and down it, reading about the people there.
  • In the evening, we caught some of the sunset at the Ponte Vecchio. It’s an old bridge with a bunch of shops on it. From afar, it looks great and is picturesque. When you’re actually on the bridge, it feels like you’re on a crowded street, and you can only see the river from the middle. Good for pictures, but that was about it.
  • The next day, we started by going to the Pitti Palace first thing. Again, great to beat the crowds. (Actually, this is something we did often there. Head out early to see things, and then come back to the hotel in the afternoon, because it was dang hot. Then we’d head out again in the evening when things cooled off a smidge.) The palace was very impressive, with some great views of the city, and a cool ancient map collection. When we came out, a police band was giving a concert in the square by the palace. Totally unplanned, but a great coincidence. They were very good. I have no idea when they usually play there.
  • Some of us headed to the Galileo Museum. This another small-ish museum, but it had a lot of cool exhibits, including Galileo’s telescope and (bizarrely) his middle finger. There are exhibits on how science has developed over the years in different fields. It was a very popular museum for the kids.
  • In the biggest tragedy of the trip, we had tickets then to go to the Uffizi Gallery, one of the best art museums in the world. When we got there, it was completely shut down. Apparently the museum workers had decided to go on strike “until 3:15.” I have no idea how such specific strikes work, but it meant that we no longer had time to see the museum. Not cool. I suppose I’ll have to come back late. (Though to be fair, some of the kids were Far From Crushed about missing out on the museum.)
  • We finished the day off by getting kebabs. You can never have too much kebab. That’s a fact.

It was a fun leg of the trip, and I’m very glad we went.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Italian Vacation: Cinque Terre

When we were planning our trip, I naturally researched the “must sees” in Italy before we went. Most of them had already been on my radar, but Cinque Terre was totally new to me. It’s a series of five small villages right on the Italian Riviera. Picturesque, even if they would be hard to get to (especially traveling by train). Still, there was a train that went straight there from Milan, and from there we could go on to Florence, so it seemed like it would be worth it, even if it might require a bit of trickiness.

First up? A three hour train ride to Monterosso, the northernmost city in Cinque Terre. This was actually a lovely train ride. The tracks go along the coast most of the time after Genoa, so there was lots to look at (and I actually could look at it, since I wasn’t driving.) Like Lake Como, we left for the destination without a real grasp of what we would do when we got there. We knew it was supposed to be beautiful, and we knew we had to be on our train to Florence at 7:30pm, but that’s it. We’d have 8 and a half hours at the place, and we’d have to come up with a plan when we got there.

The first obstacle was one I didn’t actually think of until about a week before, surprisingly. In my head, we’d get to the area and go exploring. I hadn’t remembered the fact that we’d have all our luggage in tow. Going exploring while wheeling carryons everywhere would be much Less Than Fun. Luckily, there’s a store right next to the train station in Cinque Terre that kept our bags for the day for a fee. Money well spent. We dropped the bags off and headed to the beach.

There is swimming available in each of the five cities, but only Monterosso has an actually beach to speak of. Much of the city is lined with a rocky shore. However, it’s also mostly privatized. What this means in practice is that you can either go to the tiny part of the beach that’s public (I’d guess it was about 1/20th of the entire beach), or you can pay to join a beach club for a day. This gets you an umbrella and two beach chairs and a spot on the beach for them to stay. The whole area is set up in advance, and you’re not moving your chairs that much. It’s arranged to pack in as many people as possible. We were with a big group, so we actually bought 8 beach chairs and the umbrellas to go along with them, and found ourselves nestled against the back wall of the beach. That actually wasn’t too bad. It was more private than most of the places, for one thing. Also, the advantage of packing all the chairs together was that the beach itself had much more free space. Many of the people there were more interested in lying in the sun than swimming in the water, so the beach didn’t feel very crowded at all. (I will say that we got there around 11, and our club was sold out soon after. If we’d waited much more, we might have been forced into going to the public beach, with no umbrellas, no chairs, no toilets, no showers, and no changing rooms. The beach club was money well spent.)

In the grand scheme of things, having two swimming days in a row wouldn’t have been as good as having them split up by some more touristy days, but that’s the way the logistics of the trip played out. The beach was once again rocky, not sandy, but it was exactly what you’d picture if someone said “small beach at an ancient town on the Italian Riviera.” The water was crystal clear blue, the sky was just right, and it was a perfect day for swimming.

Not that we only wanted to swim for the whole day. After a few hours of that, we went off in search of lunch. In Monterosso, the beach is on the more “modern” side of town. If you walk south for a bit, you get to an even older section. That’s where the bulk of the restaurants and shops are. We found a pizza place that would take the 11 of us. Tomas got an “American,” which he thought meant sausage and french fries. (You read that right.) In truth, it meant hot dogs and french fries. So he’s now had a hot dog and french fry pizza. I didn’t try it. One of his cousins ordered something he thought was chicken pizza, but it turned out to be ham pizza. (They’d written Schinken on the English menu, which looks like a misspelled attempt at chicken, but is actually a perfectly spelled attempt at the German word for ham.) So yes, the translations could have been better on the menu. But the food was delicious. (Well, maybe not the American.)

After that, we split up. I went with a contingent that headed up into the village as far as we’d be able to go, not really knowing if that would go anywhere at all. There are supposed to be great hiking trails connecting the five cities, but with our tight time schedule, bags, and kids with us, we didn’t think we’d have time for those. I still wanted to see some of the city from above, if possible. (It was at this point in the day that we decided we wouldn’t actually visit the middle three cities. There’s a ferry that goes to each one, but it comes once an hour or so, and going to one would mean at least two hours. That seemed like too tight of a turnaround. I’m glad we didn’t. We took a ferry from Monterosso to Riomaggiore (the southernmost city), and that let us see each of the five cities from the ocean, with no need to get out and walk. Perfect.)

It turned out that hiking up into the city was just what we wanted. Once we were high enough, there were signs for a path that led to an old monastery and graveyard. Cool things to look at, breezes to bring the temperature down, and views that were fantastic. We spent an hour or so doing that, then walked back down to the beach, where the rest of the group had gone right after lunch. We swam for a while longer, then went to grab the last ferry, picking our bags up on the way.

I will say that having bags on that ferry proved more problematic than we’d thought. Once we got off at Riomaggiore, we discovered there are steps. Tons of steep steps up and down and up and down. It wasn’t too bad for me, but for little kids trying to carry suitcases, it was far from ideal. So be aware of that if you ever follow in our footsteps. (The stairs are also narrow. It makes sense. They’re ancient. But it was kind of hairy for a little.)

We had gelato while we waited for our train, and that was that. Overall, a great day, and one I would totally do again. And actually, I’m glad I didn’t have a car for it. I’m not really sure where I would have parked if I’d had one. The towns aren’t set up for that, from everything I could see. Trains were fine, though I imagine the cities are best seen when you take a day trip from a cruise ship. That was definitely happening while we were there.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Italian Vacation: Lake Como

I’d heard a lot of good things about Lake Como. Off in Northern Italy, it was supposed to be this idyllic spot in the southern Alps. Crystal clear water surrounded by towering mountains and quaint Italian villages. Surely it couldn’t be all that and a bag of chips, could it? I had to find out for myself.

It’s just a short train ride away from Milan. It took an hour for us to travel from Milan Central to Varenna, a town set on the eastern shores of the lake that was supposed to be a good place to start off. We went without really a clue about what we would do when we got there. All we knew is that we had tickets to arrive in Varenna at 10:30 in the morning and leave Varenna at 7:30 at night. For all I knew, we’d get there and just sit around staring at the water for nine hours.

As it turned out, the day was a complete blast. Lake Como is every bit as beautiful as I’d read. Better yet, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as some of the other places we’d been so far. (Mind you, “crowded” is a relative term. Venice had a lot of people in it, but I didn’t really feel swarmed ever there. Rome, on the other hand . . . )

We started our day by taking a rather steep hike up to the Castello di Vezio. It was a bit bewildering to find the path at first. We tried using Google Maps, but that told us to walk on a main road, which made no sense at all. So we walked into town a bit and discovered signs showing us to a footpath that went almost straight up the mountain. It wasn’t long, but it was steep enough that the younger contingent expressed their displeasure with this decision. Multiple times.

The castle had gorgeous views of the surrounding area, and they were even hosting a medieval festival that day, so there were a bunch of people fighting with swords and giving demonstrations. That went over well with the gang.

Once we were finished, we tromped down to the lake again and looked for a place to eat. While Varenna might not have seemed packed, it felt differently when we were searching for a restaurant at noon. We found a place called Varenna Mon Amour that looked tiny on the outside, but had a big (air conditioned!) room inside. The food was delish. No longer hungry or thirsty, we searched for a spot to swim.

Varenna didn’t have any sandy beaches or anything like that, but we found a spot just north of the ferry called Lido di Varenna where lots of people were swimming. It was very rocky, and though most of them were smooth, it was quite uncomfortable to walk on barefoot. I was glad I’d brought my sandals. The water felt cold when you first got in, but I think that’s largely because it was so hot that day. It was very nice after you were in, though it got deep quite quickly. It’s not a spot I’d just let kids play around without worrying about them.

We still had time, so we got on the ferry in Varenna and rode it over to Bellagio, an even older, swankier town on the lake. It was nice to get out on the water and see the towns from farther away, and Bellagio had fantastic gelato, but in the end, I think we would have been better served taking it easy around Varenna some more. People were very tired by the time we got back. (Actually, I probably should have gotten return tickets to Milan for around 5:30 instead of 7:30. Live and learn.

In any case, if you’re heading to Italy on vacation, and you want to do something other than touring through cities, definitely think about heading up to Lake Como. Everyone in my group loved it.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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