Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter holiday in northern Italy

There's lots of photos of our trip here - I also put a few of my favorites in this post.

After a bout of stomach flu (norovirus or something like that) that both kids came down with Tuesday, they were over it enough that we thought we were ok to head to northern Italy, starting in Turin.  We stopped by Issognes Castle in the Aosta valley.  It was not really worth it, because you had to be on a guided tour, which was in Italian only, and also photos were not allowed, even though there was some very interesting old grafitti, from the 1600's.   I tried sneaking a photo, but since there were only 6 people on the tour (4 in our family, and a couple), the guide put a stop to it.

We stopped in Verres after our tour of the castle, at a little kebab place.  In a similar little town in the US, you'd find lots of fast food places.  But here, all over Europe, in the same type of little town you'll find a couple kebab/pizza places, usually run by Arabs.  I know the conventional wisdom is "big chains bad" but I would really love the option to have a 100% predictable restaurant experience - i.e. fast food - everywhere we go.  Sometimes I'm just too tired to want to navigate something new.

And there, unfortunately, Kenny had a resurgence of his norovirus (or whatever it was).  Maybe it was the strong smells of the place, who knows - in any case, he vomited after we'd been there a few minutes.  The owner was nice about it, cleaned up, and led Kenny back to his personal bathroom in the back.  It turned out he was half Lebanese, half French, and spoke French quite well, which was handy since I don't speak Italian.  He gave Kenny a glass of sugar water, which he said he always gave his own son when he had stomach problems.

So, we then drove on to Turin (Torino).  Unfortunately, Kenny started vomiting again in the car.  No, it was not a good drive!  Luckily we had a strong plastic bag.  We got to the apartment, got settled in properly, and Kenny rested in bed, then started feeling better.  Even more unfortunately, by that point I was starting to feel a little queasy.  I had been really careful to always wash hands after dealing with the kids, but since the kids had been well a few days by that point, I relaxed a bit with the incessant hand washing, thinking they were over it.  Well, Kenny wasn't, so I came down with the same thing.  The next day (Friday) Eric took the kids to the Egyptian Museum while I dozed at the apartment and ate nothing at all.  We all went out for dinner to a nearby restaurant that was supposed to have typical food from the Piedmont region.  The kids got what looked like regular spaghetti with tomato sauce to me, but they said it tasted weird, and ate very little.  I ate very little because my stomach was still sensitive.  So Eric was really the only one that ate anything.

Around Torino
In the next few days we went to the Cinema Museum, walked around Torino.  Easter Sunday was a truly gorgeous, sunny warm day - yipee!  Based on the forecast, it may be the only one we have here in Italy, so we appreciated it fully.  In the morning we took a walk around the city center, towards the river Po.  Almost all stores were closed, and most restaurants.  Then we took a taxi back to our little apartment, and drove out to Sacra di San Michele.  Now that was a place worth seeing!  Beautiful old ruins, along with a church, and in an amazing setting, high on a prominent outcropping of rock.  Most of the rest of Italy thought so, too - it was absolutely packed, and parking was tough.  We got some great shots of the cathedral with the mountains in the background - lovely. Also lots of shots of a cloud shadow that I thought looked very much like a dragon!  Supposedly the building was the inspiration for Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

At Sacra di San Michele
After 4 days in Torino, we spent another 4 days in Verona, also in an apartment - smaller, but nicer, with breakfast included and great for kids, with a large playground just outside, and huge back lawn. It was about a 30 minute walk along the river to the center - a touch too long, but okay.  Verona is more touristy than Torino (in Torino we barely saw any tourists at all) but very beautiful, full of old buildings, with a huge pedestrian zone - pretty much the entire old town.  Some cool old bridges to visit, lots and lots of crowds, especially on Monday, which was a holiday in Italy.

On Wednesday we took a day trip to Venice.  We were questioning our decision to drive (the train is supposedly convenient as well) after being stuck in a traffic jam on the way there - at least 45 minutes.  When we drove by, it looked like whatever accident had happened was completely cleared up, but there were still people waving flags, off the side of the road but still catching enough people's attention to slow them down.  Venice - again, very beautiful city, really the most beautiful one that we've been in here.  There's very few spots that you wouldn't want to take photos, what with all the canals, bridges, beautiful buildings.  So, we ended up with lots of photos to sort through.

Peter loved feeding the pigeons in Venice
Thursday was a partial rest day (lots of playground time for the kids), then in the afternoon we went to Sirmione, on Lake Garda.  The ruins of a Roman villa there were stunning, very enjoyable to walk through.

We ate lunch on Thursday at a really nice, clean-looking restaurant in Sirmione.  Unfortunately, Eric started to feel the effects of that lunch very early Friday morning - he had a serious case of food poisoning.  He was up a lot of the night.  We were scheduled to head back to Geneva on Friday, too -  4.5 hour drive.  He definitely wasn't in a condition to drive, so I ended up driving back to Geneva.  I was pretty stressed about it, since I haven't driven much in this car at all, and have only driven a total of 4 times in the entire past 18 months.  Plus - I didn't have my driver's license!  But we wanted to get home.  So, I drove back.  Unfortunately I got stopped for speeding in the Mont Blanc tunnel.  The limit is 70, and I was going 83, and they do monitor it very carefully.  Just as I got outside the tunnel, two police officers flagged me over - one French, and one Italian.  My stomach was turning somersaults.  I pretended to look for my drivers license, but eventually just told them the story - usually Eric drives, and the only reason I was driving was because he was sick.  Luckily, they didn't make a fuss about the drivers license (wonder if that would have happened in the US?) but I did still have to pay a 41 Euro fine on the spot.  And I may have gotten yet another ticket, as well - there's one area where you need to slow down quickly from 130 to 70 kilometers per hour.  A light flashed there - I think a speed camera took my picture.  So, it could be a very expensive drive back.  But we sure are glad to be home!

Monday, March 25, 2013


There's a week long school holiday in February here in Geneva.  Apparently most families with kids who can, use it for skiing.  We took advantage of that week to fly to Israel (a direct flight though EasyJet, thank goodness!)

The security going to Israel wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  We got to the gate way too early, and then about a half hour later, we had to vacate the area while two special security officers did a sweep, and then had everyone go through a procedure whereby they swabbed a little paper over the belt buckle, shoes, and hands, and the paper went into a sensor, which presumably checked for explosive residue.  Once we arrived in Israel we did go through a minor security screening, but it wasn't much more than asking us what the purpose of our visit was, and checking passports and pictures.

The ramparts of the old city of Jerusalem

Our hotel, the Dan Panorama Jerusalem, was huge and had lots of American church tour groups.  I was a little surprised by the atmosphere.  Here we are, in a place that's very exotic for us, and we're surrounded by really friendly church groups from the bible belt!  We were upgraded at no cost from a family room to a suite, which was nice, and gave us plenty of room.

One of the things that I looked forward to every day we stayed there was - the breakfast buffet!  I'm not exaggerating when I say it was the largest and most varied breakfast buffet that we've ever seen.    And not your standard breakfast buffet dishes, either - there were many different types of salad, lots of hummus, a HUGE cheese selection, many different fish dishes, plus the items that you'd expect at a breakfast (cereal, different breads, eggs).  But no bacon, of course, everything was strictly kosher!  No meat at all, as a matter of fact.  I don't understand all the ins and outs of when something is kosher or not, but mixing meat and dairy is not kosher.

Breakfast buffet at the Dan Panorama

One pleasant surprise was that there were lots of water fountains everywhere!  In the airport, in museums, around the Western Wall.  It reminds me of what things were like in the US before this mania for drinking bottled water got hold.

We put up a bunch of pictures from Israel on our picture website,, they cover most of what we did.  So here I'll just jot a few quick notes:

  • I've been carrying a little Swiss army knife everywhere, through airport security, for months.  Nobody ever found it.  At the security for the Western Wall, for the first time ever, it was found.  They let me keep it, though.  
  • There were LOTS of youth groups all over.  At Ein Gedi Nature Preserve there was a huge group of schoolgirls, and also a large Birthright group (the organization that brings young adults with a Jewish heritage to Israel for all expense paid trips) with armed guard.
  • Masada was very impressive, a stunning location, and ruins scattered all about.  We could have spent much more time there, didn't even see Herod's castle.   I wonder what happened to the 2 women and 5 children who survived the mass suicide?  At the food court area at Masada, there was a group of Palestinian kids (were they actually there to visit Masada proper, or because it was the only food in a long stretch) who were not very friendly, we sat at a (very long, plenty of room) table where some of the girls were sitting, they immediately got up and walked away.
  • So many soldiers walking around with machine guns!  They were all over the Old Town of Jerusalem
  • We got stopped at a roadblock on our way to Masada.  A female soldier with a couple male soldiers stopped us (they were stopping everyone) and said, very casually, "What's up?"  Eric didn't really know how to respond, I said, "We're headed to Ein Gedi'.  She said "Have a nice trip", and that was it.
  • I assume it's for military reason, but in Israel Google Maps does not have anywhere close to high resolution photos like they do everywhere else we've been.  You try to zoom in, and it's completely blurry.  Plus, you can't download offline maps for Israel.
  • Eric and Kenny (Peter and I had already gone back to our hotel) had stones thrown at them by some teenagers that they were taking pictures of as said teenagers moved what were probably stolen goods through the city walls.  Eric created put some pictures up:  Luckily they weren't hit, but it was scary.