Sunday, April 16, 2017

Opening Doors in Modena!



    Not only is traveling an adventure, a vacation and a respite from everyday routine, it can also be an enjoyable learning experience. On each of our four recent trips to Italy, we had lessons that were humorous, painful and/or valuable. The first lesson (which we knew before we left home): Italy is not the United States. For some, that’s a tough one to grasp, but for us it is a big reason why we travel. While people around the world do have a lot in common, it is often the differences that provide the biggest gift.
    On our most recent visit in November, more than once, we were the unwitting students to the lessons of everyday Italian life. Here we were on a misty, dismal day getting off the train in Modena for the first time after a short trip from Bologna. It was a while before we realized that we were not walking towards the center of the city where we wanted to be. We had looked at the map posted outside of the train station, but still tried to rely on our directional instincts to find what we were looking for. Those instincts had us following a crowd from the station for a while, until we were certainly a little lost. But, alas, we did get to see the Maserati headquarters building as we wandered down the wrong streets.


     We finally decided to find a bar for coffee and directions. We were off the beaten tourist track, but we were lucky to find a small neighborhood bar. Unfortunately, even though it seemed fairly busy inside, the door was not opening when we tried it. The young woman behind the counter inside appeared to laugh, along with some of her customers, as they all signaled to us “to push" the door open.  As we entered, she was saying “spingere” which happens to mean “push” in English. The sticker with those instructions was on the door! Of course, we were trying to pull (tirare) the door open.


     For us, luckily, laughing in Italian is the same as in English. We all had a quick laugh as we ordered our Caffe Americano and brioche. And, we were actually not too far from the city center and easily followed the directions (the pointing helped) to our destination. Even though it was now kind of a drizzling day, we still found a very nice restaurant for an excellent lunch, where we were able to have another laugh at ourselves. Beyond learning the meaning of "spingere" and "tirare," we once again discovered the treasure of spontaneity  and its rewards of laughter and learning. We have found that by visiting places with the anticipation of wonder and discovery, we are rarely disappointed. By minimizing our expectations we often receive a surprising gift. Our advice would be to enjoy the little things as well as the fantastic art, architecture, history and sights. Most of the time, just being there is enough. Even on a rainy day. Italy is waiting for you!
Modena shop.

Debbie having lunch in Modena at Ristorante Uva D' Oro.

Lunch in Modena at Ristorante Uva D' Oro..

Monday, March 27, 2017

Florence, Sorrento and Bologna Trip Photos

Four months has passed since my last post. Our November 18 day stay in Italy is in the memory book now. What a trip it was! While the weather was a bit more seasonal last year than in 2015, we were still able to be faithful to our itinerary with two exceptions. More on that in an upcoming post.

I thought I'd begin this series of posts on our 2016 adventure that took us to Milan, Florence, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Bologna, Modena and Ravenna, with some photos that highlight our experience. These  photos are from our first few days in Florence and as we arrived in Sorrento. Hopefully, you can glean some inspiration to start planning your trip to Italy. It's waiting for you - get going!

Florence. The white-haired gentleman is the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, on the 50th anniversary of the Flood of 1966.



Pitti Palace.

Security at the Duomo in Florence due to the visit of the president.

High waters of the Arno River as it passes through Florence in November 2016.

Debbie at the anniversary of the Flood of 1966 in Florence.

Debbie at the Milano Centrale train station.

Debbie with friends Gabriele, Alessandra and Stefania...visiting Certaldo.

Inside The Abbey of Passignano.

Inside The Abbey of Passignano.

Sorrento.

Mt. Vesuvius.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fantastic Lodging For Our November Trip To Italy


   Now that we have finalized our major train trip plans, I would like to share our lodging choices. Since our flight to Italy takes us to Milan's Linate Airport, we'll be staying in Milan (Milano) for the first night of our 15 days in Italy; next, we'll take the Trenitalia Frecciarossa (fast train) to Florence (Firenze) for a 3 day visit; then, we'll board the Italotreno, another fast train, bound for Naples (Napoli). on our way to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast where we'll be for 5 days; and, finally, before returning to Milan for our final night, we'll take the Italotreno train north to Bologna for a 5 day visit. It might seem like a lot of moving around, but really, we'll have lots of time to relax and take day trips from each location without being too stressed or trying to do too much. However, we will be traveling more with our luggage than we did last year so we're going to try to pack lighter than ever. We will have a washing machine in each of the apartments we've rented which should reduce the need for extra clothes. Hopefully, packing for 7 days instead of 15 will lighten our load considerably.

  Choosing our lodging mainly involved viewing properties and reading reviews on Booking.com and Tripadvisor. The average per night price for our hotel and apartments is about $101(with a high of $140 and a low of $82) which we think is pretty reasonable. Last year we stayed in Milan at the Hotel Mythos for a total of 4 nights and found that it was economical, clean, quiet and close to the Milano Centrale train station, which was ideal for us. So, it was a logical choice for us this time at €83, or about $93 at today's exchange rate. The main reason we'll be in Milan is that our Aer Lingus airfare was much cheaper than flying into Florence. We do favor Swiss Air when flying into Florence, though. There are still things you can do in Milan even if you're there for only a 1/2 day and night. If you plan a couple months ahead, you should be able to get tickets to see DaVinci's Last Supper (we did this last year on our last day with tickets from Selectitaly). And, if you walk to the Last Supper which is about 2 1/2 miles from the hotel, you can see Milan's impressive Cathedral ( Duomo di Milano), the La Scala Opera House and The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II mall on the way!

Hotel Mythos in Milano.

Our room at Hotel Mythos.

After our one hour and thirty-nine minute train ride to Florence, we have about a 15 minute walk to our Design Apartments on Via Venezia that we booked through Booking.com. We were disappointed that the apartments we stayed in on our previous 3 trips to Florence were not available, leaving us to find someplace new to stay. The prices seemed a bit more expensive for a decent apartment in Florence, but choosing this apartment was not difficult at all after reading the great reviews, seeing the perfect location and viewing the photos. Our price for this one bedroom apartment for 3 nights was €375 or about $420. The apartment is close, within 15 minutes walking, to the Piazza San Marco (5 minutes), the Accademia Gallery (8 minutes), the Uffizi Gallery (15 minutes) the Ponte Vecchio (15 minutes), Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station 15-20 minutes) and the city center with all its sights.

Via Venezia, Florence.

Design Apartment's bedroom.


Design Apartment's kitchen.

After 3 wonderful days in Florence, we once again head to the SMN train station to catch our 11:33 AM train to Naples. 2:55 later we should be in the Napoli Centrale train station looking for our Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento. The apartment we have reserved through Booking.com is the Appartamento Corso Italia 269 which is situated on the main street through Sorrento. Our rental rate for this one bedroom unit was €365 or about $410 for 5 nights. We have never been to Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast so this will be an exciting new adventure for us. From here we hope to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Positano, Amalfi and the isle of Capri. That will be a lot to do in 5 days but we'll still have time to see Sorrento and to relax.
Bedroom in Appartamento Corso Italia 269 in Sorrento.








Dining area...

Kitchen...
   After spending five days and nights in Sorrento, it's back to Napoli Centrale train station for our 12:55 Italotreno ride to Bologna. After arriving at Bologna Centrale train station about 3 1/2 hours later, the apartment owner will pick us up and take us to his Palazzo Pannolini apartment in the center of town. Last year, when we visited this beautiful porticoed city, we rented a very nice apartment further from the center, so this time we decided to be much closer to restaurants, stores and historical sites. We were immediately attracted to this apartment on Tripadvisor because of the photos showing a cozy, well-appointed and beautiful one bedroom apartment that was built into the portico of the 16th century building. Our rental rate for 5 nights was €446 or about $495. From our apartment we can easily walk to everything! We are also planning day trips to Ravenna and Modena. Our last train trip will be back to Milan for our final stay at Hotel Mythos. So far, we have no plans for our last day in Milan...

Living room at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Entrance at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Bedroom at Palazzo Pannolini apartment.

Palazzo Pannolini.


   Well, that's the nuts and bolts of our lodging for 15 days traveling in our favorite country - Italy. Finding a great place to stay that suits your budget is not difficult. The easiest to use site for me has been Booking.com. There you can, more often than not, reserve an apartment or a hotel room without a deposit, pay when you get there and cancel for free within a week or two of your reserved date. You can also communicate directly with the hotel or apartment owner to tweak your plans with them if you need an early check-in or late check-out time or for any other special requests. Tripadvisor's site also worked well, but you might have to pay a big deposit upfront. We had to pay a 60% deposit for the Bologna apartment. Still, on Tripadvisor, you'll be able to get a complete refund if you meet the "date by" requirements.

   I hope this information will be helpful to you as you plan your big Italian adventure. Remember, Italy is waiting for you!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Trenitalia or Italotreno - Buying Your Train Tickets Online


Milano Centrale Train Station.
   Once you've pretty much finalized your itinerary and made your lodging reservations, you can begin to firm up your transportation between cities you'll be visiting. If you're renting a car, this would be a good time to find the best routes to your destinations. If you're going with a tour group, you'll be able leave the driving and planning to someone else. But, if you're planning to travel around Italy by train, you can start purchasing train tickets before you leave home and save quite a bit of money in the process. Trenitalia has a great "how-to page" for doing just that. Just click here to get started. And, here
for how to buy your tickets online. You should also check fares between major cities on Italotreno. Often, Italotreno fares are cheaper than Trenitalia's. You may even be able to snag First Class (Prima) seats for less than Second Class (Smart) if you start earlier enough. Just remember, that those less expensive seats usually won't allow changes or refunds. Also, I did experience some difficulties completing ticket purchases on Italotreno's site. First of all, the page where you choose your departure and destination cities is in English, but when you click continue after choosing times and the number of passengers, the next page where you choose which train/ticket displays only in Italian. The first two tickets I bought went through without a hitch. After that, I couldn't complete a purchase. In the end I bought our last two tickets on Trenitalia. On Trenitalia, be sure to check the box to proceed "without log-in." Another thing to look for is the "Choose the seat" button which appears over the "Continue" button. Otherwise your seats will be assigned without your input. Just take your time.

   I'm going to include some photos here of some of the Trenitalia pages you will be using to buy your tickets. Be sure to use the Italian spelling for the cities/towns you're visiting. It's also good to know beforehand if a city has more than one train station and which station you want. Many times, you'll want the station with "Centrale" in its name. Usually, that's the main train station near the city center, but your lodging may be nearer to another station. Check that out with your hotel or apartment rental office.  Tripadvisor and/or other travel sites can also help you to determine which station you need. As you do this, you can also learn directions for entering/exiting a train station you'll be using. It's pretty easy asking a question or finding an answer in a Tripadvisor forum for the city/area you'll be visiting.

So, here are some of the photos from my online ticket buying for our upcoming trip to Italy:

Start here at the Trenitalia English (EN) page.

Choose "One Way" or  "Return" for round trip; your departure station and your destination station, your dates, the approximate hours you'd like to leave and the number of tickets (adult & children). Then click "Search." Since we're flying into Linate Airport in Milan (Milano),  and taking the train the next day for Florence (Firenze), I've chosen Milano Centrale station which is close to our Hotel Mythos and Firenze Santa Maria Novella station (SMN) which is close to the city center in Florence.

On the next page, you make your choice (solution) for which train to take. For our purposes, we will choose the Super Economy Frecciarossa option for 69,80 euro for two adults. (I waited a few days to book this ticket and the Super Economy fares were sold out for the time we wanted, so our price went up by 10 euros. However, other departures were still available for 59,80 euros later in the day). Hover your cursor near the price and the "choose" option pops up for you to click. If your getting a "return" (round trip) ticket, you'll have to "continue" to choose your return trip details. You can see that the trip will take 1 hour and 39 minutes - in our experience, the fast trains in Italy like the Frecciarossa are almost always on time to the minute.
 We try to time our departures when going to another city so that we'll be able to check into our lodging right after we arrive. Sometimes there is more flexibility on check-in times with self-catering apartments than with hotels. Hotel Mythos in Milan was very accommodating when we requested in advance for an earlier check-in time. They also were willing to hold our luggage in a safe place if the room was not yet available. Either way, no worries.

So far, this is what our "Cart" looks like.

Choose your seat and click continue...

We have heard that there really is little difference here, so we choose the "I continue without change" option.

Choose your payment option here and click "Accept." And, on the next screen choose "purchase without registering," and fill out all of your information with the same email for all passengers. After you hit the "Confirm" button for payment, you'll receive an email immediately or very shortly thereafter with your ticket and all the information. I just completed my first ticket purchase for this trip and the process was easier than previously so you should have no problems. One thing that I missed on this one, though, was the option of picking our seats, but the ones we were assigned look fine.
So, we're all set for the second leg of our journey. We have our plane tickets and our hotel reservation for our first night in Milan. On our second day, we'll check out of the Hotel Mythos, grab a coffee and a brioche at the station and board the Frecciarossa for bound for Firenze.

Special Note: After (not before!) making my purchase, I looked at my notes for train fares I had researched to find a notation about the Italotreno fare between Milan and Florence. The price for two just 39 euros! As I have said in a previous post, these Economy fares often don't allow changes or refunds. Since the price I already paid is more than double, I put in a call to my credit card company just to see if I could cancel payment on the ticket, explaining that it was really my mistake. The charge had yet to be posted, so I'm waiting to see what happens. Meanwhile, I called Trenitalia and I'm waiting for a call-back now. I imagine we'll just have to live with the higher priced ticket and it's no major  problem, but I share this as a cautionary tale to take your time when buying tickets or making reservations. I had done the research, but neglected use it.
Special Note Update: I decided not to pursue the cancellation of our Trenitalia ticket. The mistake was mine and I had accepted the Trenitalia ticket restrictions. So, I just moved on from there this week to buy our three remaining tickets online: Florence to Naples, Naples to Bologna and Bologna to Milan. In the end, two of our tickets are on Trenitalia and two are on Italotreno.

Once you're traveling on the train, look for signs like the ones in the above photo in case you don't hear the announcement for your stop. 




Sunday, July 3, 2016

Milan, Florence, Sorrento and Bologna - Our (Finalized) 2016 Itinerary

   Still planning your itinerary? I've been working on ours since my last post on June 5th. It is no longer just a hypothetical possibility - flights are booked and paid for - Boston to Milan's Linate Airport on Aer Lingus changing planes in Dublin. Got another super airfare ($1336 total for 2 round trips - there are a few even cheaper air fares available now on Swiss and Lufthansa) for an early November departure before election day. We'll definitely be voting, though, via absentee ballots.

Milan, on our way to see da Vinci's The Last Supper.


   Having already visited several cities like San Gimignano and Siena two times each, we have decided to explore a bit more of this beautiful country this time. This left us with many great choices, as usual. Since we'll be spending our first and last nights in Milan, we thought that would be enough having been there for four nights last year. Florence is always one of our destination cities because we love it and now, we have friends there. Bologna also deserved another look, especially with an eye toward new days trips from there. Staying in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre seemed like an attractive option, too. Getting to experience Arezzo's huge antique fair was also on my list of things to do. From Arezzo we could easily visit Cortona. Both towns would be new to us.

Leonardo da Vinci statue in Milan.


   Those considerations made for some easy decisions for our itinerary. So, I got out a calendar and started jotting down days and cities. Here is the first draft of our itinerary with day trips from each city we would stay in and the (number) of nights in each base city:

Draft Itinerary #1

Milan (1)
Florence (5) - Fiesole, Prato, Portovenere (overnight?), Pistoia
Arezzo (4) - Cortona, Montepulciano, Montalcino
Bologna (4) - Ravenna, Modena, Verona
Milan (1) - Como

Not a bad looking trip, but after more conversation, research and nine revisions, here is our final itinerary for our 15 day trip in November. You'll notice some significant changes from Itinerary #1 with some cities missing and others added. When we learned that our regular Florence apartments would not be available this year, we decided to spend less time there and expand our visits to Sorrento and Bologna. We have never seen the Amalfi Coast so that change kind of pushed us out of our familiar nest in Florence. While it will be the longest train trip (about 3 1/2 hours total), we know it will be worth it. The choice of Sorrento over Riomaggiore was also partially made because we are hoping to increase our chances of better weather a bit by heading further south. We'll see how that pans out...
Near the Duomo in Siena.

Itinerary #9

Milan (1) take it easy day
Florence (3) - Arezzo, Cortona, Fiesole
Sorrento (5) - Capri, Amalfi, Positano, Ravello, Pompeii
Bologna (5) - Ravenna, Modena, Ferrara
Milan (1) take it easy day

   This plan represents more train travel with our luggage than we have done in the past, but our experience doing that last year has given us some confidence. Plus, we are already planning to pack less clothing than last year so that we can more easily handle our suitcases. In 2015, instead taking one large suitcase and one medium one, we packed only one medium suitcase! Since we knew that we would have access to a washing machine in the apartment in Florence, we brought the clothes we each needed for one week even though it was a two week trip. This time, each of the three apartments we are renting has a washing machine. One even has a dryer! So, hopefully, we can pack even less than before. We may try to reduce what we take to fit in two carry-on bags and not check any luggage so we don't have to spend extra time in the Milan airport.

   Because we have already booked the dates and the apartments for each stay, we know when we'll be traveling, so we can take advantage of some great prices on train tickets by buying them online before we leave home. Sometimes the savings can be as much as 70%! For the day trips, we'll buy our regional train or bus tickets the day of or the day before those excursions. We will still have the flexibility to change our itinerary for our day trips as we choose to add/subtract places to see.

   Well, with four months to go before we leave, we have booked and paid for our flights, settled on a great itinerary and reserved all of our lodging. Pretty good preparations, so far. We still need to purchase our train tickets on the Trenitalia  and/or Italotreno for Milan to Florence, Florence to Naples (Sorrento), Naples to Bologna and Bologna to Milan. I've checked all of the prices for the regional trains for our day trips, as well. Still left to do: check out some smaller luggage options, go to AAA to get some euros, reserve rental cars for transportation to/from Boston's Logan Airport and do some more research on places we want to visit. Were well on our way and are excited to be embarking on another adventure to Italy!

   Next up - Buying Your Train Tickets Online Before You get To Italy






Sunday, June 5, 2016

November Itinerary - Choosing Places to Visit


   Last November, when we decided at the last minute to go to Italy again, we worried a bit about the weather so late in the year. All we had read suggested that we would likely encounter more clouds and rain than we had on our other trips in June, July, September and October. It turned out that the bargain airfare we had been alerted to, convinced us to take the chance. We were glad we did.

   Since our plane tickets on Aer Lingus would bring us into Milan's Linate Airport instead of Florence's Amerigo Vespucci (Peretola) Airport, we planned a different itinerary as we made our way to our favorite city of Florence. Spending three nights in Milan enabled us to take day trips to Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como and to Bergamo. Meanwhile, we got a taste of the big modern city of Milano.

   From there, we were off to Bologna by train to our rented apartment for three days. We spent two days exploring the beautiful porticoed city before taking a day trip to Parma by train. Then, we were off again to Florence, just 35 minutes away by fast train, for seven days. From our self-catering, Aurora apartment, we visited the town of San Miniato for its great November Festival of the White Truffle (by train), Siena by the "Rapide" bus, Fiesole by city bus #7 (literally just 15 minutes away), the beautiful town of Montecarlo with friends from Florence and, we enjoyed walking around Florence taking in its beauty.
San Miniato Truffle Festival (4 photos).





   We boarded the train to return to Milan for our flight home the next day. Our only reservation in Milan was to see the Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (book tickets months ahead of time) the night before we left. We ended up getting our tickets last year from Select Italy for 18 euros (about $20) each because the site itself was sold out. It seems their price has gone up to $25 this year, but it's still a better price than taking a $55 tour.
Milan's Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente.

Lake Como.

Riding up the funicolare in Bergamo.

Cafe near the Duomo in Florence, Antico Ristorante Sasso di Dante.

   More than once, during our 14 days in Italy, we heard people say that the weather was very unusual for November. We couldn't complain about the pleasant sunny days with temperatures in the upper 60s! There were a couple of cloudy days and a rain shower once or twice, but the most rain we encountered happened as we traveled on the train from Florence to Milan on our next to last day there.

Nice little trattoria near the Duomo.


   So, here we are wondering if our luck could hold out for another November stay in Italy. With the possibility of another cheap airfare, it's certainly an option. Once the tickets have been booked, it will be time to start considering where to go and what to see. We have visited a pretty considerable list of cities and sights in our three previous trips to Italy, but there is still so much to see. The more-than-reasonable plane tickets may once again fly us into Milan, so we would start out our travels in northern Italy about an hour and forty minutes from Florence.

   Here are the towns we're considering for another November journey and some day trips to go with them:

Milan (1 night)
Bologna (2-3 nights) - Ravenna, Modena, Verona
Venice (1-2 nights) for the third time OR
Arezzo (2-3 nights)-Cortona, Montepulciano, Montalcino
Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre (3 nights)- Portovenere, Genoa, Levanto OR
Amalfi (3 nights) - Pompei, Positano, Sorrento, Salerno
Florence (4-5 nights) - Pistoia, Portovenere (overnight?), Arezzo, Cortona (overnight?) , Pisa (again)
Milan (1 night)



   We'd like to see a few totally different cities while using some of the ones we've been to as bases for exploring an area. It would be more ideal for us to fly into Rome or Naples for a visit to the Amalfi Coast, but since we'll probably start out in Milan, we'll just make the best of it. All of our train trips while in Italy have enjoyable and without incident. That leaves us pretty comfortable taking a 2-4 hour train ride to get to a place like Amalfi, Portovenere or Riomaggiore. Especially when staying in any one of those places for a couple of days will be much less hectic than taking a day trip there.

   That leaves us with only the weather as a concern. There is so much pertinent information to be found by Googling "weather averages in Italy." I learned today that much of Italy has an average of between 8 and 10 rainy days in November, so the odds are still in our favor of staying dry, and even seeing the sun, on some of our 15 days there.

   I've already begun a search for self-catering apartments in several cities and found that prices are so much lower in November than between May and October. Check back for my progress developing an itinerary to see where we might go.