Tag Archives: vacation

That time we were stranded in Italy

15 Sep

gelato siena.pngIs there anything better (or worse) than coming home from vacation? You get to sleep in your own bed again and return to the daily routine. On the other hand, you have to return to the daily routine — no more sailing along the Danube, driving with the top down through Tuscany or eating gelato for both an appetizer and dessert.

We just returned from an epic holiday to Prague, Budapest and Tuscany (as per our tradition, three places that are not really close and have absolutely nothing to do with each other). It was one of our best trips yet — until we tried to get back to London.

We booked a flight out of Florence on CityJet — an airline that previously canceled our Paris flight and made us take the Eurostar train. But that was weather-related, so surely we’d be fine flying out of Florence. It was a bright and sunny day the day we were scheduled to leave. And yet no planes seemed to be doing that — leaving. As we sat in the terminal, slowly we saw each flight on the monitor go from “delayed” to “diverted” to “canceled.” It was a clear day and yet no planes were taking off or landing in Florence. I was tracking our plane on my phone and noticed its landing time kept getting pushed back by 5 minutes before it finally switched to the dreaded “diverted.” It was diverted to Rimini near San Marino, a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Florence Airport.

High winds was the excuse they gave us, though the weather reports were showing only 20mph gusts. Stephen has his own theory about an air traffic control officer who took a long riposo (Italian siesta). Something didn’t add up.

Since no flights were landing at the airport, every airline bused their passengers to nearby cities like Pisa or Rome. CityJet put us on a bus to Pisa. The employee at the gate ensured us that we would be put up in a hotel and that CityJet would text us about our rescheduled flight, which would likely be flying out of Pisa airport the next morning. Another passenger told me this had happened to her before and they rescheduled her flight for 6am. At least we’ll get back to London early and not waste another entire day, I thought. I envisioned us staying in the center of Pisa as we had just a week before, enjoying one last Italian meal and stroll by the leaning tower at night.

Instead the bus pulled up to a hotel 20 minutes outside of Pisa with absolutely nothing nearby besides a gas station. We were stranded. Our room didn’t even have WiFi. CityJet texted me that they were working on sourcing a crew and aircraft for us to fly out of Pisa and would continue to send updates. The next update was that they were rebooking us on alternate airlines and would email us our new itinerary. As we entered the lobby of the hotel, we were greeted by a chorus of CityJet hold music emitting from fellow passengers’ phones. We overheard one woman who had managed to get through to someone.

“You bused me out to Pisa then booked me on a flight leaving tomorrow night from Florence Airport with a layover in Amsterdam? That is unacceptable!”

We hadn’t received our rebooking yet, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be on the direct British Airways flight out of Pisa. I was correct.

“Paris,” I told Stephen. “They’ve rebooked us on a flight out of Florence Airport tomorrow with a connection in Paris.”

He immediately got out his phone to call CityJet.

“Are you going to complain?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m going to get our money back. We’re not taking that flight. We’re not risking it with Florence Airport again. Look up cheap flights from Pisa or Rome.”

And that’s how we ended up spending the next day taking a taxi to Pisa’s train station, riding a 4-hour train to Rome, riding a 30-min train to Fiumicino airport, sitting at the airport for 3 hours, finding out our flight was delayed 30 minutes and wanting to cry, but finally landing at London Gatwick.

We left our Florence hotel at 9:30 am on Tuesday, thinking we’d be back in London at 2:30pm. We got back at 11:30pm on Wednesday. That is two entire days of our lives wasted on traveling. Though I suppose I should look on the bright side — we did manage to get home safely, our transportation costs to Rome should be reimbursed by CityJet, and the refund we’ll receive from our original flight should cover the cost of our EasyJet flight from Rome. But, man, talk about putting a damper on an otherwise amazing trip. We’ll certainly be back to Tuscany, but the next time we’ll think twice about flying in and out of Florence.

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Eating everything and walking everywhere, or Aug. holiday ’15

13 Aug

You know how some parents make their kids smoke an entire pack of cigarettes to make them never want to smoke again? I think I did that to myself this past week with food. For nine days I basically ate nothing but carbs and sugar, from Portuguese custard tarts to Belgian waffles, chocolates and fries. Nothing was off limits, and now all I’m craving is roast vegetables. I never want to eat another waffle or praline again (…or at least not for a few months).

Our Portuguese and Belgian holiday was a success in every way that a holiday can be — for nine days I completely forgot about work, running and healthy eating, everything that consumes my daily life in London. It was a refreshing reprieve, but now that I’m back I’m realizing how important those three things in my life are. I did manage to run once while in Brussels at the hotel gym. The treadmill was in Dutch and all I could think of was Dr. Evil:

dr evil dreaky deaky dutch
Fun fact: Dr. Evil is supposedly from Bruges, Belgium where they speak — wait for it — Dutch.

thats the jokeFor most people, a dream holiday is lying on a beach. I am not a beach person. I would much rather lie in bed at a nice hotel with the comforts of free WiFi and AC. I did a lot of that this holiday, plus walking and exploring (and eating — have I mentioned the eating yet?). I think this was my first real walking holiday where I didn’t end each day feeling exhausted — in fact, some days I continued to walk in tiny circles around the hotel room to get even more Fitbit steps. I remember back in college my roommate and I went to Vegas for spring break. We tried to walk the entirety of the Strip, but crapped out halfway. We took “we’re crapped out” selfies (before they were called selfies) while sitting on a bench in the Fashion Show Mall. At the end of our trip my feet were so sore from walking that I literally crawled to the bathroom on my knees on our last night (my roommate has photographic proof). I was a hot mess hobbling around at the airport the next day — not because I was drunk or hungover like everyone else, but because I could not handle walking 2 to 3 miles a day in sneakers. Now I sometimes walk 2 miles around my flat in my slippers just after breakfast. One of these days I need to return to Vegas just to prove I can walk from Mandalay Bay to Circus Circus. My Fitbit walking may not have helped me lose weight (see above about waffles and chocolates), but it’s definitely helped my overall fitness.

More posts about Portugal and Belgium (with photos) to come!

Holland Holiday, or What part of my body hurts the most?

29 Aug
There’s this obscure song by my favorite composer Jim Steinman called “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?” That’s what I woke up wondering last week in Holland.

Was it my legs from biking 35 miles in one day?
Was it my butt from biking 35 miles on a rental bike with a broken seat?
Was it my arm or hand from trying to hold an iPad mini to navigate while biking?

If you couldn’t tell, we went on a short holiday to Holland last week. We stayed in Amsterdam but decided to take a day trip to Haarlem because the only two cities in The Netherlands Rick Steves writes about in his “Best of Europe” book are Amsterdam and Haarlem. We intended to take a train there until anonymous strangers on the Internet planted the idea of biking in my head. “Holland is flat as a pancake!” they wrote. “People commute to work in Haarlem by bicycle everyday! It’s an easy 20 km ride.” (That’s 12 miles, Americans). It’s true that the Dutch bike everywhere and there are very clear bike paths and signs. So we rented some three-speeds from MacBike and set off for Haarlem, armed only with a GPS that couldn’t seem to locate our location and an iPad Mini with the Forever Maps app.

The last time I rode a bike was in college when I rode 10 minutes to my classes on north campus. But sure enough, riding a bike is just like, well, riding a bike, and I easily peddled around the bike rental plaza. But then we had to go on the actual road and I quickly realized I had no idea what the cycling rules of the road were. I knew I had to stay on the bike path, but what about intersections without stoplights? The cars seemed to be giving me the right-of-way, but then a tram came, along with hordes of pedestrians. Eventually I hopped off and walked my bike until we got to the major road. Stephen tried to hold the GPS and navigate while I stopped every 5 minutes to check the iPad map, but eventually we decided to just follow the clearly marked signs towards Haarlem. Google Maps and the random people on the Internet assured me the journey would take a little over an hour.

It took us two hours. At one point a couple that reminded me of my maternal grandparents passed us on their bikes.

“So what is there to see in Haarlem?” Stephen asked as I caught up to him, but couldn’t catch Grandpa. My mind went blank. I knew Rick Steves raved about it, but as we were halfway there I couldn’t remember why I wanted to go to Haarlem so badly.

“There’s a windmill there… and a church.”

“We are biking all this way to see a windmill and a church?” he replied. I told him the journey was half the fun, even though half the time we were biking next to the motorway and so the only scenery was the cars rushing past the various industrial parks.

Eventually we made it to the city center and parked our bikes near the Grote Markt.

grote markt
The markt area was beautiful. Haarlem reminded me of Bruges, what Harry from “In Bruges” would call a “fairytale $*&%ing town.” We had lunch on the square, toured the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”), then took photos by the windmill.

“How far is the beach, again?” Stephen asked.

When researching the route to Haarlem I noticed the beach town of Zandvoort was only 5 miles from Haarlem. Stephen had wanted to go to the French Riviera instead of Holland for our holiday, so I thought biking to the beach might be a nice compromise.

“The map says it should take less than 30 minutes,” I said.

We cycled through Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, which while beautiful, was certainly not “pancake flat.”
Zuid-Kennemerland bike
So many times we thought about pulling over, calling the mound of sand on the side of the bike path “the beach,” and heading back. But we needed to see the sea — we had come too far. After an hour we finally emerged from the national park into a seaside town. We walked our bikes up the stairs, and there it was — the North Sea. The beach.
Zandvoort beach
As far as I know, The Netherlands isn’t known for its beaches, but I was pleasantly surprised. It looked like any other beach town. We parked our bikes then got some ice cream while we looked at the sand sculptures.
zandvoort sand sculpture
Then we had to bike the 17 miles back to Amsterdam before it got dark. I was better at navigating on the way back, but it still took us over two hours. My butt has never been more sore. That was over a week ago and it finally no longer hurts to sit down. Needless to say we spent the rest of the week on foot, no more cycling.

And now the photos that didn’t fit into the narrative:

Grote Kerk St.-Bavokerk
Grote Kerk
Ceiling of the church:
grote kerk ceiling
Zoomed in:
grote kerk ceiling zoom
Haarlem backstreet:
haarlem street
The famous windmill:
haarlem windmill
My typical shallow depth of field shot:
haarlem flowers
One of the many Haarlem canals:
haarlem canal
Shutters aren’t just for decoration?!
haarlem shutters
Haarlem Beetle
haarlem beetle
Now with some quick, crappy editing!
haarlem beetle bw
At first I thought this was just a different spelling of my name, but apparently Rennes is a city in northwest France.
rennes snackhouse
Finally, proof that I biked to the Zandvoort beach!
holland bike

Greek service at its best

16 Jul

I went down to lunch with wet hair, and by the time I got a menu, it was dry. Yes, I said menu, not food. The entire lunch experience took an hour and a half and all I ordered was a salad. I can’t complain too much, though, because this was my view (please excuse the crappy iTouch quality):

IMG_0479

I like to think it wasn’t typical — there is a Panhellenic strike today, which means there was one waiter at the entire restaurant and my bed has not been made up. At least the manager brought me free watermelon at the end of my meal to apologize.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m in Greece. London was just too hot — 30 degrees! (86 F) — so we came to Greece, where it’s also 30 degrees. The key difference, though, is air conditioning. Athens is used to sweat-your-face-off temperatures, but London is not. I’m typing this while gazing out onto the sea from the comforts of my air-conditioned room, like Mother Nature intended. (No, we didn’t really come here just to escape the London heat wave, Stephen is doing some business and I got to tag along.)

My big fat not-Greek-related news: I completed the Couch to 5K program! My first 30-minute run was rather unceremonious. I thought week 8’s program was three runs of 28 minutes, but they made the last one 30 minutes, which I didn’t realize until I reached the end of my 28-minute playlist and saw I still had two minutes to go. It’s still hard to believe that I can run for 30 minutes, although I do take a quick walking break or two, if anything just to wipe the sweat off my face. (Freaking London heat wave!) I attempted to go for a run outside today, but I had a hard time finding a path. I followed the beach until I stumbled upon the hotel next door’s better fitness room, which I took as a sign, and got on the treadmill. It’s been ages since I’ve used a treadmill, I never realized how different it is from running outside. For one, it’s so boring!! I had a view of the ocean and a little TV playing a documentary about baklava (torture or motivation?), but I still felt like time was dragging. I’m not used to pressing buttons when I want to take a walking break or speed up during a fast song. The only thing nice was seeing approximately how many calories I was burning, how fast I was going and how far. I’m so glad I live near a park in London where running outside is easy. I may have to screen up and work out a course for tomorrow, I’m not sure the treadmill is for me.

A quest for blue in Santorini

12 Sep

When we decided over a year ago that we wanted to take a cruise around the Mediterranean and Greek islands, Santorini was one of the ports I was most excited about. It’s the kind of place that makes you say “I want to go to there” when you look at photos of it. Its white-washed, blue-domed churches and houses are what comes to mind when you think “Greek islands.” Surely it is a magical place that does not smell at all like donkey poo, I thought.

As we left Rhodes to sail to Santorini, I sat on the balcony listening to Yanni’s “Santorini” on my iPod in what would have been an epic, defining moment were my life a movie. Mykonos, the other iconic Greek island, was beautiful, but crowded. I was ready to see what Santorini had to offer.

I thought about making this just a photo post. Rick Steves says if you can’t take a postcard-quality photo in Santorini, it’s time to retire your camera. But I like to keep it real on this blog. So first I’ll show you some photos I took that will make you say “I want to go to there!” and then I’ll tell you how miserable it is to actually get there.

Pretty, right? Now to burst the magical bubble…

Santorini is a volcanic island. It blew its top around 1630 BC. Cruise ships anchor in the middle of the former volcano, now below the sea, and they tender passengers to the island via little boats. That was the first obstacle in getting to Santorini — sitting on a little boat while it rocks and rolls in the open sea, waiting for all the passengers and their wheelchairs to get on. (I’m not exaggerating — it’s no secret that the majority of people who cruise are old.) Because of the way the island was created, the villages are built into cliffs. The tender took us to the bottom of the cliff, and we had three options to get to the town of Fira at the top: ride a donkey up 587 steep steps, hike up those sames steps, sharing them with donkeys or their poo, or take a cable car.

From the tender you can see the cable car on the left and zigzagging donkey trail stairs on the right. You can also see a lot of people waiting…

Rick Steves and the cruise company recommended the cable car. It seemed like a no-brainer. But there was one minor detail that the Santorinians forgot when they built the cable car: cruise ships carry nearly 3,000 passengers. Sometimes three or four ships will be anchored on the same day. Yet they built a cable car that can carry 36 people at a time. (Or maybe they did think of this because they were generous enough to build two cables, meaning 72 people can go up at a time.) When our tender docked we saw a massive crowd of people. We figured many of them were waiting for boats on the pier, so we started walking in the direction of the cable car entrance. I eventually stopped and asked the people what they were waiting for — “the cable car,” they replied. We then had one of those movie moments like they did in “Christmas Story” or “Eurotrip” when your brain fully takes in just how many people are queuing in front of you as you trudge to the back of the line.

“Cable car wait is hour and a half!” the donkey man shouted. “Donkey ride only 5 Euro!”

The only pic I got of the donkeys through the cable car window.

It was tempting. But I could already smell the poo and heard from multiple sources how unsafe the route was. So we waited. And waited. Did I mention that it was 90+ degrees out? And there was little shade? The donkey man’s hour and a half prediction was an exaggeration, but we still waited about 45 minutes to finally get to Fira. And Fira isn’t even where the magic is.

Fira

For the blue domes we had to go to Oia, which meant finding the bus station. We tried following the map I picked up at the cable car station, but the only landmarks and streets name on it were for paid advertisements — not very helpful. We finally found the bus station and joined the throng of tourists who repeatedly tried to buy tickets at the desk, despite “Buy tickets on bus” signs in every language imaginable. There was a mad shuffle when the Oia bus showed up, but we managed to get a seat. People were standing in the aisles, but the ticket seller still pushed his way through to everyone. It was about a 25 minute ride, 15 minutes of which we were driving mere inches from the edge of a cliff. It was equally picturesque and terrifying. Just like I thought my time was up on a plane ride between Dalian and Shenzhen, I thought it was all going to end in a fiery bus crash off a Santorini cliff. But we made it. Knowing that maps were essentially useless in the maze of pedestrian streets, we just went exploring. I was determined to find the blue-domed buildings. We saw a lot of white, but no blue.

Pretty, but no Greek islands blue! (You know, besides the sea and sky.)

I was tempted to walk into a souvenir shop and ask “Where can I take this photo myself?”, holding up a postcard photo. I wonder if anyone does that. I suggested we turn down what looked like the entrance to someone’s house, and we finally hit the jackpot — the beautiful coast and the blue domes. The “I want to go to there” spot worth a cable car wait and crowded bus.

Found! But there are tourists ruining the shot…

That’s better, strategically cropped the tourists out.

I took more photos than I know what to do with, and then we headed back. I make that sound easier than it was — it involved another crowded bus, unshaded hour-long cable car wait, and tender ride. But at least I got my Facebook profile photo.

Going on holiday…

21 Aug

Tomorrow I am “going on holiday” and will not have Internet for two whole weeks. That will either be a really good or really bad thing. I wanted to post more this week, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. In an attempt to make up for that and to keep you entertained for the next two weeks, enjoy this panda riding a rocking horse:

(Click on it, it moves!)

The long-promised post about our August holiday

6 Oct

Our epic August mega holiday was two months ago, so naturally I’m writing about it now. I’m focusing on the Italy portion of our trip, because everything in Vienna was beautiful and went smoothly, and nothing makes a more boring blog post than “Everything was beautiful and went smoothly.”

Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Obviously you don't want me to go on about how beautiful it was.

 The more research I did on Milan, the more excited I got to go there. To be honest, the reason we put Milan into our itinerary was because there is a Park Hyatt there and Stephen racked up enough Hyatt points so we could stay for free. And when you have the opportunity to stay at a Park Hyatt — for free! — you do it. So Milan became our second destination on the trip.

I was excited to go to Milan for two reasons:
1. to see the beautiful Duomo cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
2. SHOPPING

Duomo did not disappoint — I’ve seen a decent amount of cathedrals, and this is one of my favorites.


And Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was equally impressive (on the left in the photo below), especially since our hotel room looked into it. (It’s a shopping center, home to the Prada flagship store.)

Shopping, however, was another story.
I did my research and found all the places we wanted to hit. Stephen is a big fan of Armani, so we had to hit the 8,000-square-foot Armani megastore. I, on the other hand, am a big fan of discounts and sales, so I found the two best designer discount stores. (Think TJ Maxx, except with Armani and Prada instead of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger). We dedicated an entire day to shopping in Milan, and set out in the morning for the Armani megastore. It was about a mile walk from the hotel and it was a gorgeous day out. As we neared closer to the golden triangle of shopping, something didn’t feel right — we saw no one with shopping bags, just loads of map-and-camera-clutching tourists. We finally came upon Armani Mecca, and….

It was closed for renovations for the next two weeks. (Renee’s Tourist Tip: don’t go to Italy in August.) We were disappointed, but figured we could find Armani even cheaper at a discount store, so we ventured onward. The discount store was around the corner, but was depressingly small and picked over. So we decided to hike to the mega discount store, which looked deceivingly close on the map. As we walked, we noticed less and less tourists and more and more “real” Italians. We soon found ourselves outside of touristy Milan and on the proverbial backstreets. We had come too far to turn around though, and the deals were calling us. So we walked for about a half hour and finally found the correct street. It too was quiet and deserted in an unsettling way. Where were all the people with their shopping bags? We stumbled upon the front entrance of the store, which told us to use the back entrance. We went to the back entrance, which told us the store was… closed for renovation.

So there we were in the middle of nowhere, Milan, having spent an entire morning walking around with no designer goods to show for it. We decided there was no way we were walking back, and walked towards the subway stop on the map. We eventually found it, but were greeted with ticket machines we couldn’t figure out how to switch to English and a subway map with way more lines than my little hotel map showed. We had walked so far we were no longer in the city central, and thus were on the suburban train line. It smells like a recipe for disaster — I imagined us boarding a train thinking we were going back to the city and ending up in a small town miles away where no one spoke English. But fortunately things went smoothly — we managed to get the ticket machine into English finally and boarded the right train to take us back to Duomo and tourist central. I complain about tourists a lot, but you don’t realize how comforting they are until you’re in a near-abandoned train station or back alley in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language.

As usual I wrote more than expected, so I’ll write about Venice in a new post (which I promise will come in less than two months).