First you have to get to the airport by driving or taking public transportation. If it’s the former, you will need to find parking, the latter, good luck with your luggage. Once you arrive at the airport (assuming you are traveling) there is check-in, checking your luggage and then security. Any one of these can produce lines longer than Hands Across America. Eventually you make it to your gate where you wait and then get into another line to board. Once on your flight you can relax. Well, at least you can sit. The delays don’t stop here; now you have to deal with scheduled “push off” times, runway traffic and air-traffic control (who can do whatever they want). Once you land don’t expect your gate to be ready, and if you are in the back of the plane waiting for 80 other passengers to de-plane, you may want to jam a pencil into your ear. Traveling is the worst.
Category Archives: Travel Writing
It takes two minutes for the taxi driver, Jerry, to offer me drugs. We have been in Jamaica for twenty minutes. We arrive at our hotel, an all-inclusive hotel in Montego Bay, which pretty much means sub par food, beach access, and all the Red Stripe you can drink. With Red Stripe in hand, and Bob Marley playing all around us, we tour the grounds in search of the mini-golf course only to find that the mini golf has not been played since Arnold Palmer was still winning majors. Instead we elect to have a couple more Red Stripes and some of Jamaica’s famous jerked chicken.
It is quickly apparent that the people who come to Jamaica do not leave the resort. We go against the grain and venture out to Gloucester Avenue, the local strip, where we find our first Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville, a deserted bar and restaurant with incredible views, Bob Marley music, and strong Margaritas. After, a look at the menu at Marguerites (a restaurant next door), two more propositions for drugs, and a move on to The Twisted Kilt, a pub that serves everything from local dishes to pizza as well as Margaritas and Red Stripes. Both are consumed liberally. The Bobsled Café is a bar based on the John Candy movie Cool Runnings. The movie runs continuously inside, outside we consume Red Stripes, vodka, and watch a dance party break out on the streets. Next store is another bar with no name that we just call The Rasta Bar; a small room upstairs playing Bob Marley music, where you are offered many drugs and given a surprised look when settling on Red Stripe. Across the street at The Blue Beat, a blues bar that advertises live music we are disappointed to see that the live music is only a concert shot on a movie screen. We consume one glass of champagne and call it a night.
Apparently jerked chicken spices and forty-seven Red Stripes do not sit well because it takes a full two hours before I am able to move the next morning. Once ready, we head to rafting on the Martha Brae River. An hour and a half jaunt led by a local known as a raft captain (his actual name was Cleve); it’s a time to sit back and enjoy the scenery, with Red Stripe in hand. Run out of Red Stripe? No problem mon! There are many locals along the way that will come out into the river to offer refills.
Back at the hotel, drinking a Red Stripe at a tiki bar on the beach, it’s a cool 72 degrees, not exactly lay out and fry weather. We decide to leave again, this time road tripping to Negril. We hire a taxi driver named Francis. There are three things you need to know about Francis, first he keeps a bible in the back seat of his taxi, second, he listens to gospel music (this is the only place where Bob Marley is not playing in Jamaica), and finally, each girl that he comes in contact with he will hit on relentlessly, bordering on harassment. We stop at a local bar/restaurant along the way called the Travel Halt. We all order Red Stripes and relax in an open space, in front of a gift shop. First stop in Negril is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. A quick Margarita at the tiki bar on the beach, four separate drug dealers offering dreams and highs, a walk on seven mile beach, a Red Stripe, two listens to “Jammin”, and we are off to our next stop, Rick’s Café. We watch the sunset, people jumping off a cliff into the ocean, have several Red Stripes and then are back in the car with Francis, heading back to Montego Bay.
Back in MoBay, as the transplant locals call it, another stop at Jimmy Buffett’s and The Bobsled Café followed by a night cap of Red Stripes at a local Jamaican Mexican joint called fittingly: JaMexican. It is here we meet a confused couple (she is a self labeled “cougar” at thirty years old, he is a straight man working in the airline industry and not a pilot) and a guy from Boston who measures life by how many weekends you have left before you die. Despite this eclectic crew, the Red Stripes go down quite nicely, closing out day two.
The start to day three feels a little strange and then it hits you: It has been over seven hours since you last heard a Bob Marley song. Luckily, a sliding door leading out to a balcony is enough to hear the music off in the distance, feeding my new addiction. It’s time to move on.
We hire Deon, a taxi driver, to drive us to Ocho Rios. On the way we stop at a local bar and gift shop where we drink cold Red Stripes in the hot sun. Arriving at our hotel we are welcomed with chaos over the number of guests on our reservation and then oddly given plastic cards to be used in case we need towels, complete madness. After a few Red Stripes and a swim up pool bar where the bartenders all offer to sell me drugs we eat pizza and then it’s off to the city. We hire Dan to drive our taxi, he makes it easy telling us to just let our waiter know when we are ready to be picked up (more on this later). First stop is predictably Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, again, Margaritas are consumed and then we stop off at Oceans Eleven, another deserted bar with cold Red Stripes and beautiful view of the ocean.
Dinner is at Evita’s, a local Italian restaurant, two hundred yards at the top of the hill with wild dogs walking around. On the way to the restroom I notice a closed door that appears to lead a back door casino. Wine and a dish called the Rastafarian Lasagna are consumed, along with more wine. After eating we are joined by a local Rasta Man who plays his guitar and sings Bob Marley tunes for the next hour. While enjoying the show and after dinner Red Stripes our taxi driver, Dan is looking for us, but can’t find us. Eventually we ask our waiter to call our driver. Dan appears a minute later, saying he has a car load of others that are going back to the hotel with us. In the car is a group of stoned men throwing up gang signs. We sit in the front of the taxi van; Bob Marley is playing on the radio. At the hotel a Jamaican Michael Jackson show is taking place. In the back we sip Red Stripes and watch the show that is surprisingly good. We later get up close to get pictures, and even later see the pictures, noticing the face of the Jamaican Jacko that can be described only as chilling. The image requires two more rounds of Red Stripes. Sometimes it’s best to forget right away.
Our final morning is spent at Dun’s River Falls. Again, we negotiate a price with our taxi driver Dan to take us. Once we arrive he strangely tries to get the park to open early for us (we were fifteen minutes early), of course they decide to open the park at the normal time. At the falls we meet Marcus who is a tour guide and someone I would consider shy given it took a full twenty minutes before he offered to sell me drugs.
Traveling back to the airport we blow off Dan (we had had enough of his strange vibe) and have taxi driver Roxy take us. Along the way he explains a lot of the drug trade and rules in Jamaica (illegal, but okay to sell to tourists), and how Jamaicans will build their houses very slowly, one wall at a time, depending on when they have money available.
At the airport we need lunch so what do we find? Of course, it’s a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. We eat lunch and walk across a deserted gate area to find yet another Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. This makes five Margaritavilles in four days. Do the math.
In our gate area, we start to board; this is when I notice the Red Stripe gift shop. I quickly jump out of line, and grab a T-shirt. Sometimes you just can’t remember unless you’re wearing the shirt.
There are people who take the train and then there are just plain annoying “train people”. On our way to Venice from Florence I go to the bar car where a lot of people are lined up waiting for food. A fairly large, middle aged woman (presumably from Minnesota) is holding up the line trying to find the Italian word for Mayonnaise because she doesn’t understand that a ham and cheese in Italy doesn’t come with condiments. Everyone in the car is yelling, finally she leaves. She gets back to her seat and hands her husband the sandwich. He asks for the Mayo and she explains that she didn’t get any. The husband is visibly disappointed, the wife defeated. Train people.
One step out of the train station and you are bombarded by first the amount of tourists, and second, the beauty. Yes, the canals of Venice are really that amazing. Who would have known? The first question I was hit with (while staring at a bridge that goes over the Grand Canal) was how are we going to get to our hotel with our 130lb of luggage? There is no way I was going to spend the next couple hours trying to navigate Venice after failing in both Rome and Florence. Luckily we found a water taxi and he took us to our front (or is it back door) of our hotel, San Cassiano, located on the Grand Canal.
The San Cassiano did us well, hooking us up with a Grand Canal view suite complete with sitting area, day bed, and chandelier. After a few moments taking it all in from our windows above the water we headed out, toward the Rialto Bridge. I don’t believe I have ever traveled 100 feet and been lost. I felt lost around every corner in Venice it was impressive to say the least. Armed with 4 maps and an iPhone with GPS was no help. Eventually we found enough signs pointing to The Rialto to get us to the bridge. Souvenirs, tourists, gelato, tourists, more gelato, and even more tourists sums up this bridge over the Grand Canal, lined with restaurants, shopping, and gondola guys wanting to take you out for a spin through the canals. Cross the bridge and in no time you will find yourself headed to San Marco Piazza, the center of Venice with restaurants, drinking, live music, and many pigeons waiting to be fed and fly up into your arms and onto your shoulders. We drink Prosecco and listen to music than walk around and find Harry’s bar, the creator of the Bellini, but I am not allowed in because I am wearing shorts so we have a Spritz at a bar that contains awful tasting liquor named Aperol and then we are back near the Rialto where we have another sub-par dinner of pasta and pizza.
Venice doesn’t have that one thing. There is no Coliseum, no David, no leaning tower. The city itself, the canals and narrow streets is the thing. Walking and getting lost (every couple steps) and looking down each street it feels like an adventure waits. The adventure isn’t necessarily spooky, in fact, often it’s just a small gelato stand. Take the adventure. We walk and get lost, very lost this time. Walking through streets that we don’t know if we’ve seen before and circling around is more the norm than the exception here. If you are lucky enough to have a clear day with only a few white clouds in the air, it looks like the Las Vegas Venetian, that is to say it looks so perfect, it looks fake.
With all 4 maps out we worked our way back to our hotel from the Rialto area. Two blocks still on the map and then all of a sudden you are doing circles in the street. Lost. Keep walking and eventually you find your way, usually with little help from your accompanying maps.
The night desk manager, who looked like he was about to kill himself and was aptly nicknamed Mr. Personality, was also the bartender. So the several requests for more Prosecco brought many deep sighs and grunting as he got out of his chair to go to the bar area so we could enjoy a drink on the terrace overlooking the Canal as the Venice night passed us by.
The next morning we had breakfast outside, on the second floor terrace. It was probably the best breakfast we had had in Italy, which is to say is what good, not great. We weren’t raving about the pears so that was a good thing. Headed to Murano Island, the glass blowing capital of the world, we are accompanied by another couple (also staying at our hotel), from Philadelphia. As the taxi docks we are immediately greeted and directed to sit down and watch a demonstration of the glass blowers. The “tour guides” have split the groups. Beth and I are with the Philly couple and a guide that looks like an Italian Rodney Dangerfield, complete with the cheese ball jokes and the “I get no respect” wobble. After the demonstration we go through a gallery where the pieces start around five thousand Euro to no limit. Three floors, not sure if there is an exit we find an escape route, leaving the Philly couple behind. Last we heard they were still not accounted for. After the great escape we have a Cappuccino, walk around, buy some glass and then head back to Venice in a water bus where we are dropped off near San Marco, the Piazza that really does pull you back in. We have another Cappuccino at Florian, the world’s most expensive place to buy coffee and then (wearing pants) we go to Harry’s and have a Bellini. No pictures are allowed in Harry’s so the fake-out iPhone pics are taken. The Hard Rock is next to get a pin and then we decide to eat chicken and have a drink and then one more lap around San Marco to ensure everyone has gotten their souvenirs accounted for.
Ensured that we have enough David penis aprons and funny Venice hats to bring back home we take our Gondola ride through the side canals and even onto the Grand Canal for a moment and then back near San Marco where we break the Gelato curse and actually enjoy a cup of chocolate. Dinner is had on the not-so-touristy side of The Rialto, we get lost heading back to the hotel, find our hotel, and then have Mr. Personality get us a Prosecco where we join a group of Norwegians at the hotel terrace and they begin singing “Take It Easy” and “New York, New York” and talking politics and then it is time to go to sleep. The next morning brings a numbing feeling as we pack and arrange for a water taxi to take us to the airport. In the breakfast room the Norwegians are still there. They are smiling. They are smiling because they have another day to spend in Venice.
Arriving from JFK we walk to the front of the taxi line and in no time are riding very fast toward Rome. Our hotel, IQ is steps from the Opera House and a supposed fifteen minutes from The Spanish Steps. We would learn what that means in Italy time soon. The boutique hotel was all about their breakfast, vending machines (espresso, beer, and wine), and their internet tracking. For a country so lax on security it was a surprise to find that they track who, what, where, and when logging on to the internet.
With multiple maps and books in hand we head off toward The Spanish Steps. We are lost within minutes. Not “we missed a street” lost. We have lost all sense of direction lost. We hail a taxi and she drives us (fast) to The Spanish Steps. We take pictures and then find a wine bar where I attempt to practice my Italian and order a Cappuccino and two glasses of wine. “Un Cappuccino y due biccheire vino de bianco?” It is an utter failure; the waiter corrects every word and repeats my order in English. I have a minor anxiety attach, drink my wine, and grade myself an F.
Next we walk to Trevi Fountain, getting turned around only once, making the ten minute walk into an easy twenty minutes, looking for taxis along the way. Pictures are taken and coins are flipped into the postcard worthy fountain. Something we learn quickly is that wherever there is water or a fountain of some sort they have you flipping coins “in hopes you will come back soon”. It’s like a tourism tax. We are hungry so we find a local pizzeria that caters to tourists and allows me to rape their language as we order wine and pizza. What’s nice about ordering a Margarita Pizza in Italian is that it translates to Margarita Pizza! After a liter of wine and so-so tourist pizza and meeting many other Americans who also found the touristy pizza joint we attempt to find the Hard Rock Café, because we have a pin collector in the family. For those of you not familiar with Hard Rock pin collectors it’s a lot like a crack addict, the one exception being you don’t get a moment of “AH!”. We walk and walk. We are lost, again. We pass a street named Cappuccino four times until we finally find the HRC, go in buy the pin and leave.
We are lost again, looking for The Spanish Steps where we have a dinner reservation at Il Palazetto, a restaurant with a prime location looking over (almost hanging over) the steps. The food is horrid and the service was horrid. If it wasn’t for the expensive bill we would not have even known we had just been at a great restaurant. For a city known for their great food, we are off to a bad start to say the least.
It’s around 11pm when we head back to the hotel. There isn’t a lot of overflowing late night bars, but rather restaurants with late dinners. At the hotel we hit the vending machines for cold beers and relax on the terrace next to other Americans and a large group of Asians that appeared to have spent their whole vacation on the terrace. The beers are good, but we are tired from a long day of travel so we call it a night.
The next morning we wake up late which means there will not be any breakfast. All I hear about is the Italy hotel breakfast and now I am unable to partake. Instead we take a taxi to The Coliseum where I grab a Mars bar and cram it in my mouth before we get to the line. Ever watch the “Travel Secrets” show on television? Well, here’s a secret: Buy your tickets online prior. You walk right in, no wait, no hassle. It felt like the red carpet treatment. Of course that is if the red carpet contains people wearing brown nylon fanny packs and white tennis shoes bumping into you on both sides. Inside we do the self-guided audio tour which uses the word “speculation” a lot when describing what had occurred inside the arena.
Standing inside The Coliseum is the equivalent of wrapping yourself in a history book. It’s remarkable and you can envision the battles and crowds from thousands of years ago “performing” below. We stop at the gift shop and I’m surprised to not find any books titled THE ART OF FIGHTING TO THE DEATH or TOP 100 COLISEUM BATTLES: The Real UFC. Famished from the lack of food, heat, and many staircases we B-Line to a pizzeria located across the street from The Coliseum. I will repeat that. We B-Line to a pizzeria located across the street from The Coliseum. No surprise here. Worse pizza ever, cardboard covered with zebra feces would have (probably) tasted about the same. I’m sure it is in all of the guide books and all over the internet not to eat here, but it was close (and we were starving). You know what else they tell you not to do? That’s right, get pictures with the Gladiators out front of the Coliseum and we did that too. At this point we are 30 minutes from getting pick-pocketed and becoming another tourist statistic. Living on the edge in Rome: Eating shitty pizza and getting pictures with middle age men dressed up as Gladiators.
Next stop is across the street, the Roman Forum and ruins. This is a good time to point out it is about 90 degrees outside and have already spent approximately 40 Euro on water alone so when we walk 1 kilometer out of our way, it didn’t go unnoticed and our bodies began to question the Coliseum pizza we ate not long ago. We briskly walk through the ruins, get lost trying to find the exit, and then once we exit are unable to locate the direction of our next stop, the Santa Maria chapel and the Mouth of Truth. We are lost and luckily we find a taxi. The taxis versus water expenses at this point are surprisingly close. At Santa Maria there is this large ugly looking face with an open mouth that will bite off your hand if tell or think of a lie. SPOILER ALERT! It’s not true, (trust me). After, we don’t even think about trying to walk to our next stop, hail a taxi and we are off to see The Pantheon. The driver leaves us off three blocks away and we are lost again, luckily we ask – Do’ve Pantheon?, they point, we ask again – Do’ve Pantheon?, they point some more, and we wind up inside The Pantheon and piazza full of restaurants. We sit down at a table outside at a restaurant and drink Cappuccino and eat chocolate cake. Rome, a place where you do crazy things, for example: sipping coffee and eating cake when it’s 90 degrees outside. Inside The Pantheon is impressive and so is the number of tourists as I become the Oreo cookie trapped between two giant black fanny packs.
Wandering around, lost, we stumble into Obika and have a snack of pasta, cheese, tomatoes, and wine. With a slight wine buzz we walk through the shopping area an land inside Piazza Navona, a giant square closed off by chapels, restaurants, and a miraculous sculptured art piece in the center that shows many looking away and/or covering their eyes. I’m going to assume they are trying to shield themselves from the 90 degree heat. Chianti, Pinot Grigio, and Prosecco are had not necessarily in this order, but in abundance. Searching for food we find a small restaurant with an angry waiter who becomes upset when we decide to not order any food and just order more wine. At the moment we decided not to eat the waiter had the look that if a bear would attack he would break its neck without hesitation. It’s important to note that there are two tables open and that there is a local next to us demanding Cognac be poured onto his Gelato dessert. These two items are not related, but important to note. The angry waiter runs back and forth; yelling and pointing and more yelling. He is upset with out table, with the six person table and everyone else. Another American couple sits next to us and I share my wine, this takes the air out of our waiter. He is now laughing in amazement. We finish out glasses and leave to find a tourist restaurant that has pictures of pastas and faded chicken on a board out front. We have another sub-par meal and then considering the non-typical day we’ve had we taxi it over to The Ice Club, a bar made purely from ice. It is a Sunday, and no one is in the ice bar, except us. We drink vodka. This is okay. More drinks and then vending machine beer at the hotel. Tomorrow will be a time for cleansing.
I am not Catholic. I was not raised Catholic, but I am (as we all are) very aware of the Pope. I mostly think about the Pope Mobile, the vehicle with bullet proof glass he is paraded around in. That and I think a lot about his different hats. It is a lot of hats for a man of any sexual orientation. I am just saying. Today is Pope Day!
We begin with the hotel breakfast. After rave reviews I am left with a sub-par feeling which is no surprise at this point in the trip. When you walk away saying “the pears were excellent” you know you didn’t have a great breakfast. The hotel arranges for a taxi to pull up and we are off to Vatican City. Here’s a secret: The Vatican Museum is far from the Vatican Chapel. Here’s another secret: You can get your tickets ahead of time and walk right in, avoiding lines that could take hours (if lucky) to wait in and get through. Once we arrive the “F Bomb Challenge” begins. The record is the Notre Dame church in Paris. Annoyed by tourists, Beth dropped an F Bomb within minutes. Today it would take approximately ten minutes, but to be fair we were outside so we’ll have to consult the Price is Right rules to see if this counts.
Inside the Vatican Museum the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings and art and gorgeous rugs and statures of past Popes. There are several gift shops along the way and even a cafeteria that advertises a daily chicken special (Pope’s Pollo?). We continue our March toward Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural. Since you start at the top it seems like you are in a basement once you reach the Sistine Chapel. It is dark and quiet and no photos are allowed. Here’s a secret: Take a photo without flash and the worse is someone yelling “No Foto!” Of course, it is dark so it would probably not turn out that well anyway. The mural itself, well it’s one of those things you really need to see in person. You’re welcome for the insight. Silence is the rule and if it becomes too loud there is a person responsible for SHOOSHING the crowd. Lucky for him the chapel is well preserved, it may be tough to find work unless he likes libraries or moves to New York City to work at Burp Castle bar in the East Village.
Between the Museum and Vatican Chapel we go through several souvenir shops looking for Pope hats and Pope mobiles. We strike out in both areas; however, we did see one store front that displayed about a dozen different races of baby Jesus. Not quite a Pope hat, but not a bad find. Inside the Vatican Chapel you are not allowed to have exposed shoulders or knees. The amusing part of this is that you have to go through a very long security line, and then another line before they turn you away. Add 90 degree heat and you actually see people lose feeling in their face when they are told they will not be allowed in. Once inside I am looking for people falling to their knees, a sign, or anything. Instead I count 9 out of 10 people in front of me wearing white sneakers. A new world record. Exiting the chapel we pass the Swiss guards and look up to where we believe the Pope lives. What does he do all day? Does he watch the news? Does he watch Cosby Show reruns? Does he have a special Pope Stocking he wears on his head when he sleeps at night. I am left with more questions that answers as we depart the Vatican.
It’s a quick 5 minute discussion (in a shaded area) to decide that we will take a taxi to an area known as Trastevere, an area with ivy lined streets, for lunch. We stop at a restaurant named Good and have lasagna and pasta and it was here we finally have our good Italy meal (not fantastic, but “good”). This of course does not include the meal we had at the chain Obika or the McDonald’s chicken wrap incident which we are not allowed to discuss at this time. We drink wine and then cross the bridge back into the city and have more wine and then go to the hotel Rafael’s where we go to their terrace and look out onto the city of Rome and drink Prosecco followed by more Prosecco and then more walking around the winding streets where any right or left turn leads to another historic looking street that contains a Pizzeria, a Café, another Pizzeria, and another Café.
Dinner is at Enoteca Antica where we have pizza and pasta, again, and the food is okay to good and there is someone who at first appears to be someone, but must not be because he is sitting with his back to the crowd. The night is finished strolling around the outer area of the Spanish Steps, taking in one final breath of Rome, and then back to the hotel to prepare for an early train to Florence.
One of the worst days of my life. That day was many days ago. I’ve taken a couple of weeks to gather my thoughts. Still, all I can say is three words: Fuck. Delta. Airlines.
We arrived on a Wednesday morning with one direct flight from NYC to Milwaukee. There were rain storms on the drive over, enough to ground planes, but only for an hour or so. I was not alone. It was my wife, eight month old son, and the hot dog (hyper mini dachshund). After arriving fresh and ready for our direct flight, what did we end up with? Here is a quick summary:
1. Three canceled flights
2. Four changed flights (twice the flight changed FROM took off while we were still in the airport)
3. Zero seat priority for stand-by (despite our situation*)
4. One million delays (impossible to count, rounding up)
*We have all had bad travel days, but this was different. Not only did we have baby and dog, we had a very sick family member we were traveling to see. Time was of the essence. Each hour mattered. This was all at the shit hole known as LaGuardia airport. LaGuardia airport is the worst and coming back tomorrow was not an option.
Other highlights of our full day at LGA include:
– My wife was using Frequent Flyer miles which is great, except when they cancel your flight and don’t give you the second “coupon.” Then you have to explain at each new gate (a million gates) that you don’t have the coupon, but they can look it up in their system and see that they fucked up. “Oh yes, I see it here. Now, it says here you were on a direct flight to Milwaukee, was there a delay?” FUCK. YOU.
– Being inside a terminal all day with a dog also brings other challenges. Example: Where does the dog go to the bathroom? Answer: You bring the dog into the Family Restroom, drop a pee pad on the floor, and let her do her business. Problem with this? TELL THE ASSHOLES AT DELTA AIRLINES!
– The girl with shit-dyed red hair that I explained my situation to and refused to even acknowledge with any assistance. I hope you burn your scalp next time you dye your hair.
– We give our dog light medication to travel. It relaxes her. Predictably the medication wore off, leaving us with a semi-psychotic dog. As we got bumped and moved from terminal to terminal she insisted on running through the tunnels and gate areas. I sprinted at least a half-mile with the dog. Problem with this? You know the drill by now…
– After ten hours in an airport, a freshly canceled flight, seemingly NO options, and an angry mob/family is there anything worse than, “Hi, my name is Becky, how can I help you today?”
By the end of the day we were beat, all of us. We eventually got to our destination, after 18 hours and connecting through Detroit (with baby, dog, etc…). You know what, apparently, I’m still not ready to discuss this. Take your shitty arbitrary rules, your red fucking hair, your coupons and go straight to hell Delta Airlines. You had a chance to do something good. Fuck. Delta. Airlines.
It’s early when we get on the train in Rome to go to Florence. We are also hungry and for some reason, regardless of the time of day, I will crave an Amtrak cheeseburger when I board a train. Here’s a secret: If you ever crave an Amtrak cheeseburger you should probably seek help, immediately. A quick nap, rolling hills passing by, and rather quickly we arrive in Florence. Across from the train station we are greeted with a McDonald’s. Interesting is that there are no Starbucks in Italy. With no hesitation or discussion we grab a taxi and travel approximately 500 feet to our hotel. Our hotel is a Best Western that has to be one of the nicest of the chain, located a stones throw from The Duomo, and complete with a rooftop terrace and nightly wine tasting.
It’s still early so we leave our luggage and head to The Duomo and we grab a quick breakfast (ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast? Why Not?) and tour the inside of the chapel and do NOT wait in line to climb stairs to the top. Initial impression of Florence: Lots of tourists and lots of children. Around the corner from the Duomo area is a street with several pizzerias, including one named O’ Vesuvio which is where The Jersey Shore gang is currently filming and “working”. This particular day it appeared they were filming. We came to this conclusion from the shaved head security outside and the losers signing release forms in the side alley which could only look more degrading (and regrettable) if the clipboard said Taxi Cab Confessions.
The Piazza della Signoria is where you will find replica statues, including David as well as several museums surrounding the area. We gawk and then go to La Terrazza at La Rinascente, a rooftop terrace overlooking The Duomo and city of Florence. We drink wine and eat pasta and drink a little more wine and then go back and take another look at the statues and then walk through the markets where there is a wild boar. Put a coin in the boar’s mouth, if falls into the grate below you will someday come back to Florence. If not, a man comes out and cuts you with a knife. Actually that is not true; actually I don’t think any of it is true. With more time to kill before our reservation to see David at Museo de Accademia we decide it is time to try this must have Gelato that we see on every corner of this city. We order a small chocolate to share. It doesn’t take long to see why everyone (who isn’t smoking) is eating gelato. Then it happens. The ice cream is messy so Beth reaches in her bag for a “Wet Ones” wipe to clean off the ice cream from her face and hands. Instead she grabs an OFF mosquito repellent wipe (I am allergic to mosquitoes) and wipes her hands and face. Well it doesn’t take long before there is a mild allergic reaction and we are running down the street trying to find a bathroom. After stops at McDonald’s, a pharmacy, and several F bombs we arrive at the museum. Here’s a secret: Don’t wipe your mouth with OFF! Here’s another secret: Get your tickets ahead of time for a reserved time slot, or else you won’t get in. We go in and take pictures of David. Here’s another secret: Pictures are not allowed, but they aren’t really watching that closely. Is David as impressive as heard? It’s pretty close. The features are astounding and there is a presence to this statue that is missing in others. I have yet to rank the art I have seen in my lifetime, but when I do I will definitely put David ahead of the Mona Lisa. Italy 1 France 0.
Lost again, we end up by Ponte Santa Trinita, a bridge built in 1252 that has houses built into the side and shops lining the inside. We cross, drink wine and watch birds land on tables and knock off glasses, crashing to the ground into many shards. Our dinner reservation is at a restaurant called Golden View, given because of the view of the Ponte Santa Trinita and no relation to Golden Showers. It is really a bad name for a great restaurant that pours Prosecco as you wait for you table. We enjoy excellent pasta, chicken, and vegetables along with lots of wine and a waiter who may be a little bit insane. At this point we have realized how to get back to our hotel – follow the giant MARTINI sign – which is easy to remember. After dinner we walk through Piazza della Republlica and drink more Prosecco and then find a small café near our hotel for one more glass of Prosecco. At this point we have cut back the attempts at the language to Gratzie and Prego (Thanks and Your Welcome) except for when drinking, continuing to rape the language, often to laughter. It is late and we have to get up early because we have a car picking us up for wine tasting in Tuscany, followed by a trip to Pisa. So we have one more glass of Prosecco.
After our diversions we are armed with now over 130lb of luggage due to increasing souvenir purchases we arrange for a taxi and he drives us 500 feet from our hotel to the train station where we are headed to Venice. Important to note that up to this point I have not seen one ponytail.
TUSCANY (Day Trip Through the Chianti Region)
Our driver is late. We are waiting in front of the Best Western pondering whether our driver, Michele, is male or female and also realizing the large number of Silver Mercedes vans that are in the area. Michele (male) shows up and begins driving fast, leaving the city of Florence. On the way he discusses Chianti wine and then drives even faster (unsure if there is a link between discussing Chianti and Italian driver arousal – hoping we don’t find out). The valleys are vast with rolling hills, olive trees, and grapes. If the car is moving too fast and you miss the view, it’s okay, just look again and you will see another picturesque image. After 40 minutes the Castello di Verrazzano vineyard comes into focus. It looks like a distant castle, surrounded by miles of grapes. To make sure we don’t miss the start of the tour, Michele pushes down on the gas, flying around 90 degree turns with cliff like sides until we eventually navigate the winding roads into the winery area. We run (Michele may have picked a gate lock) and catch up with the tour that has just started.
The first room showcases wine they manufacture for chapels and the Vatican, Pope wine. We walk through the fermenting rooms and more cave-like areas full of barrels of mostly Chianti wine. When asked why the older barrels are more round versus the new ones more oval the answer is simply: “Because they fit through the door!” Life is simple on the vineyard. In addition to wine they make olive oil and lead us into rooms containing vintage olive oil and wine collections that have dust that appears to date back 100 years. The tour is highlighted by the Chianti tasting that includes Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserve, and Super Tuscan wines. It’s before noon when we leave and are nicely buzzed already thanks to the ample tasting.
For the next 45 minutes Michele is driving fast around sharp turns while occasionally taking calls on his cell phone and checking email. The endless hills and greenery and postcard like shots appear to only change slightly each time you grab an eyeful. The second stop is Castello di Fonterutoli for more Chianti and then we are back on the road headed to San Gimigano, a medieval town that is known as medieval Manhattan because of its concrete towers. There is a quick diversion to see the Castle of Monteriggioni another small medieval area where 50 people still live today. Given the small quarters and lack of things to do it seems implausible that anyone would live there, then again, I look out into the Tuscan country and find it implausible that anyone would NOT want to live there. So I’m pretty confused. One thing we didn’t count on was that drinking Chianti and then driving for long periods of time makes a person VERY tired. By the time we hit San Gimigano we are both beat as we navigate the small alley like walk ways and take pictures with the towers and sprawling Chianti region to our backs. By the time we get back to the car we are running late and Michele once again begins driving very fast, only slowing down to grab his cell phone or talk about Siena where he lives. It was no secret that our tour guide was disappointed that Siena was not on our list as well as the fact that we were trying to squeeze so much into one day. When we asked him to take us to the train station so we could catch a train to Pisa, his response? “Why not!”
Running late from the Tuscan road trip we run into the train terminal, hit the “fast” something ticket machine and sprint to find the track empty, having to wait another 30 minutes for the next train that is delayed because it is a local train and regardless of the country you live in, if you have a “local” train it is always going to be delayed. Once we board it gets worse. There is no heat, the people are loud and angry and HOT, and it is looking like we are going to miss our reservation to go up into the leaning tower. As soon as the train starts, it stops. Starts again, and then stops again. It is getting darker which also means the “get a picture of the leaning tower like you are holding it up” may no longer be an option. Apparently this is not an option for Beth as she is willing the train to keep moving. Each time the train stops the conductor speaks something in Italian which leads to “Mama Mia!” chants and we can tell by the tone these are not good Mama Mia’s. Going forward I will always associate the phrase “Mama Mia” with shit going down. With seemingly everything working against us the story actually has a happy ending.
The train arrives one hour late, we hop into a taxi who takes us right to the leaning tower of Pisa and accompanying Duomo that runs parallel to a large park like field and a street of restaurants. Still light out we take our “holding up the tower of Pisa” photos and then go to the ticket area to inquire about our now expired tickets. No problem, we are put into the next group where we go up into the tower and look out.
More pictures and then a quick dinner at a restaurant called the New York Café where we eat Pizza in Pisa with tower in view despite the asshole neighboring restaurant’s attempt to block the view with umbrellas. Here’s a Secret: Even in Pisa there are douche bags.
The train back is rather uneventful which is to say there are no Mama Mia’s and we are back in Florence within an hour, clutching onto the camera containing the photos of us holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.
It’s not always how you write out the itinerary; sometimes it’s the adventure itself. After a Zipcar mishap I was informed I would not have my usual Prius, the car I have grown to love for my weekend trips. Instead I would have to trek up to 22nd street to a Dollar rental place to secure a car for our weekend trip. The one thing going for me, I did not have to drive through New Jersey, instead driving straight up through New York State and into Connecticut. A dream comes true!
The other positive was the incredible weather, what is often referred to as an “Indian Summer” which I’m not sure may be an outdated term that is now considered politically incorrect. Does Al Gore use this term when discussing Global Warming? Probably not. I really am not sure on this one. Another way to put this: It was over eighty degrees in October.
No issues at the car rental place, pick up Beth and the Hotdog, and we are off, headed to the Triboro/RFK bridge. One hour in, our first stop, McDonald’s for breakfast. I learn that there is a new McMuffin, the Sausage McMuffin. Has this been around for a long time, not sure? I eat two and decide I would rather stick with the classic Egg McMuffin, although the thought of having one of each becomes intriguing as we cross from New York into Connecticut.
Our first stop is Jones Farm, searching for pumpkins. We go through two stone covered drives and a grass path before we reach the farm. There is a fall festival going on, complete with full parking lot and a guy who looks like Santa Claus (long white beard, big belly, and jolly) directing traffic. He plays into this yelling “Ho, Ho, Ho”, but I also suspect he goes home each night and debates shaving the beard as he drinks a lot of bourbon straight from the bottle. Dogs are not allowed so Beth goes in and grabs a couple “spooky” sized pumpkins and then we leave. On our way out I write down “I would like black canvas Chuck Taylors” on a piece of paper and put it into Santa’s pocket…just in case. Okay that didn’t happen. I forgot to write “canvas”.
A running element of the trip would be the lack of roads leading to farms and vineyards. This would get increasingly worse as we traveled on. The first stop was White Silo Vineyard. Armed with our Travel Zoo voucher (wine tasting, lunch, and tour) we enter and see we are the first there. The first of MANY groups armed with Travel Zoo vouchers visiting the vineyard. The owners are extremely nice and we are allowed to look at the large vats of wine and even allowed to dip our fingers and “taste” the wine. Most of their wine is made from fruit (other than grapes). Their rhubarb wines are especially nice and were a pleasant surprise. Given the beautiful day lunch was outside. Another common element would be the large amount of bees in Connecticut. We were constantly under attack by the little yellow and black bastards! For lunch we were joined by two young boys who loved the Hotdog, video games, and chopping plants. The food was good. The wine delicious. We left with three bottles.
The next stop after several highways and roads was Digrazi Vineyard. The tasting room was very busy and the Hotdog was unhappy (other dogs were around) and the older “comedian” that may have been (probably) the owner continued to entertain the crowds with jokes as he poured tastings of very good tasting wine. The wine was delicious. We left with three bottles.
Our final stop, McLaughlin vineyard was actually in the middle of nowhere. How we (or others) find this place is an adventure in itself. However, it is worth it. The tasting room is small, but there is a large outside area that is surrounded by cut fields and vines of grapes. You are able to drink wine, run around, and frolic through the grapes should you wish. Unfortunately the wine was not to our liking. We left with zero bottles. We head back to New York. There would be one more stop, this one unplanned.
Somewhere forty-five minutes north of the city you will find a small town named Monroe. This is where we pulled off for a quick coffee and bathroom break. The town is a couple miles off the highway so you have to drive through a town that boasts several quaint restaurants and wine bars along the main strip. Pass a Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid and you will eventually see a Dunkin Donuts in the distance.
Beth would go inside as I walk the dog. When she exited she was shocked and told a story that at the time was not very believable. After Beth insisted on staying inside the car with the doors locked, I decided to go check this out first hand. It didn’t take long to understand Beth’s reaction. Various people were seated at tables, all with the same look: 1. Permanent grin (with mouth open) 2. A dazed look, as if looking through any object in front of them 3. No teeth – the one exception would be the one or two silver/gold teeth from the mouth. I have always heard “meth” is a small town problem. I would go a step further and say in this small town it’s a Dunkin Donuts problem. During each moment I felt on the verge of something bad about to happen. I saw a door for office personnel and just assume that’s where they were cooking the meth-amphetamines. I left, quickly and sped out of Monroe back to New York City, where it is normal.
It’s not always how you write out the itinerary; sometimes it’s the adventure itself.