Back from the Czech Republic and Hungary

For Thanksgiving this year, TB and I decided to take Owen on his first international trip and make our first visit to Eastern Europe. We departed Seattle Saturday, November 21, flying Lufthansa to Prague via Frankfurt.

Map of Eastern Europe Sidebar:
Hungarians and Czechs would take offense to their countries being classified as “Eastern Europe” however, for my purposes, I consider everything east of Berlin and formerly under Communist rule Eastern Europe.

After the 10-hour flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, 3-hour layover and 1-hour flight to Prague we were all exhausted. Owen is still a great travel baby and several flight attendants and nearby passengers commented on how happy he was throughout both flights. He had smiles and lots of chattering for anyone who looked his way and slept about 5½ hours during the 10-hour leg. TB grabbed 2 hours of sleep but I stayed awake the entire time reading or pacing with Owen.

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Back from Belgium

Bruges, Belgium TB and I spent six days in Belgium. We flew from Seattle to D.C. (Dulles) to Brussels on United. We stayed at the Sofitel Europe located in the outskirts of Brussels and did a couple day trips to the center of the city and to the Flemish town of Bruges. French is the primary language followed by Flemish/Dutch and German. Most of the people we encountered spoke enough English to communicate with us and a couple times my semester’s worth of high school French paid off. For example, TB was all amazed when I was able to request two 3-day train passes from the agent who spoke no English. (Shout out to Madame Duffy who taught us to écouter et répétez. 🙂 )

Brussels, BelgiumWith the significant French and Italian influences, Belgian dining was sublime. Of course the chocolate and waffles were top notch but so too were the frites, pizza, sandwiches and smoked salmon. The most memorable heavenly dining experience was the scoop of Belgian chocolate ice cream from a shop that was literally a Häagen-Dazs combined with a Godiva.

I took a couple dozen pictures during our trip a few of which have been scattered throughout this post. The black-and-white image is of a Brandenberg-esque monument located in a colossal public park a few blocks from the Sofitel in Brussels. The park is over 1 1/2 miles around its perimeter which made it a perfect spot for doing a six mile run. There were a few moments of showers while we were in Belgium but it never rained long or a large amount. The temperature ranged between mid-60s to upper 70s and we were fine with light jackets.

Bruges, Belgium

Overall, Belgium is a fine place with fine dining, mild weather and friendly people. I would go back as part of an extended trip that includes a couple of its neighbors (France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands).

Taking the train from Florence to Milan

NH Grand Hotel Verdi (Milan, Italy) room keyI made it to Milan just after 1PM as scheduled. I am staying at NH Grand Hotel Verdi which is a €5 taxi from Milano Centrale train station. The hotel rooms are modern but the lobby, lifts and hallways are rather dated. Here I was thinking the Sheraton Firenze Hotel has olskool keys. Check out the behemoth to the right. That round thing is a solid brass disc about 1/2″ thick. The entire key chain easily weighs a pound. Yikes!

Anyway, the train was easy. The only blemish was the Italian woman seated directly across from me who insisted on using up all her anytime, free & clear, whenever minutes calling up her fifty-five faves during the 3 hour ride. I understand why the FAA doesn’t want to allow cell phones during flights. Thankfully I had the aural serenity provided by my Etymotic Research ER6i Isolator Earphones and Zune playing Salif Keita’s M’Bemba.

Alas, I’m here for work and only for a short time so I won’t have nearly as much time or things to blog.

The Internet access in Italy is horrible. Not only are hotels charging through the nose (€17-€22 or $23-$29 per day!) but the speeds and reliability are abysmal. Downloads don’t complete or take forever. Many sites are either blocked or cannot be found. It is extremely frustrating.

Touring Florence, Italy: Day 2

As I mentioned in my May 25 post rain has been expected in Florence all week. Well, it finally came today…in force. I woke up at 7:30 again but was piddling around editing photos and planning for today’s trip. I messed around and missed the last morning shuttle which meant I had to wait for the afternoon rotation to begin at 3:30.

The lightning storm started around noon and the rain was coming down in buckets. I was so happy I had missed the morning shuttle as I could just imagine me crouched somewhere in the city waiting out the rain with a couple hundred of my fellow tourists. I had lunch at the hotel (the food here is excellent, by the way) which consisted of broiled sole with buffalo mozzarella to start and gnocchi with scampi and wild mushrooms as the main. It wasn’t as good as lunch yesterday but it was a good dining experience nonetheless.

The rain finally died down around 2:30 so I caught the 3:30 shuttle. This time I got off at the first stop, Ponte Vecchio. As you may recall, today was the day to tour the eastern half of the city and Ponte Vecchio was the nearest to city center the shuttle stopped. Because the sky was dull and gray, and the ground was still wet, the picture taking wasn’t stellar. I considered throwing in the towel and doing the museum circuit (my rainy day backup) but almost every other tourist must have had the same game plan as every museum I passed had a line that wrapped around the front and one side. The outdoors would have to do.

Below is the map chronologically listing each of my major stops during my tours yesterday and today. Numbers 1-7 are from Day 1. Letters A-K are from today, Day 2. The sights aren’t listed on the map unfortunately so I have provided a list of today’s stops below. I already fully documented yesterday’s journey which calls out each stop 1-7 by name.

Map of Keith's Tour of Florence, Italy

A. Pointe Vecchio
B. Galleria degli Uffizi
C. Piazza della Signoria
D. Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze
E. Sinagoga (a synagogue)
F. Piazza M. D’azeglio
G. Istituto degli Innocenti
H. Piazza S. S. Annunziata
I. Piazza San Marco
J. San Lorenzo
K. Stazione Santa Maria Novella

The picture I’m proudest of from today is the panorama at Santa Croce (stop ‘D’) below.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze Panorama

This composite image was created from 7 individual portrait shots stitched together. The resolution of the final image is 7097×3624 before leveling and cropping! Of course I downconverted it for my blog considering I doubt any of you have a monitor that can display a picture 7000 pixels wide.

My trusty tripod came in handy for this shot. I will do a more detailed write-up of the steps involved in capturing panoramas later on. I think my Internet connection just expired and I was hoping to get this post out before I leave for Milan tomorrow morning. 🙁

Spending a Day Touring Florence, Italy

I was up at 7:30 AM with plans to catch the complimentary hotel shuttle into town at 8:30. I made it down for the complimentary continental breakfast figuring I would gulp down some carbs & protein to power my morning sightseeing. I headed to the front lot to catch the shuttle (which was there when I went to breakfast) only to find it had disappeared. Crap!

As it turns out, one must get a ticket from the front desk 10 minutes before departure. The 8:30 shuttle had checked-in full so it departed early. The next shuttle was at 9:30. I used the time to review my itinerary and triple-check the rough vicinity of the laundromat I planned to visit to do a load of clothes. Microsoft’s Local Live map service is decent for getting a lay of the land here in Florence but its ability to pinpoint actual street addresses outside the U.S. leaves a lot to be desired. At 9:10 I went back to the lobby. At 9:20 I had my ticket. The shuttle left at exactly 9:30. I love punctuality.

The 9:30 shuttle wasn’t full but a group of Australian chatterboxes sure made if feel that way. There were 3 couples all late-50s/early-60s going on and on and on. They are all from Melbourne, they hate British Airways (apparently one couple lost a bag) and they love Qantas (surprise!). One guy needs a hip replacement and two of the couples openly despise the 3rd because the 3rd apparently is well off and can afford to fly business class. The 3rd couple didn’t seem to care as they kept making a point about how comfortable their seats were and how they love that most long distance business class flights have seats that lie flat. That got the wife-of-the-guy-with-bum-hip’s goat, eliciting the classic “must be nice” response. I would paraphrase the 3rd couple’s response as follows: “Feel free to hate on us. You aren’t the first and you surely won’t be the last. We will be ok. We hope to have at least two more couples hating on us by summer’s end.” That’s what I’m talking about.

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