Friday, November 30, 2007

Ahhh Venice!!

Venice is 3 hours from Milan by train. We knew we were near when we saw the ocean. Venice is located in a lagoon along the Adriatic Sea in northern Italy. We arrived there past 9 in the morning. We were in Venice! We were back on track. Never mind if we had lost a night's stay in this city.

When we saw the souvenir shops at the train station lobby, Gino and I became very excited. Lovely Venetian masks, murano glassware and other stuff! We oohhed and aahhed. Picture picture!

Outside the station, the first thing we saw was a canal. Venice consists of many islands and is famous for its canals. These serve the same function as roads. Transportation within the city is by water. Either that or you walk. I read that as many as 400 bridges connect the islands of the city.

Our hostel is located on Giudecca Island which is accessible only by boat. It is not very far but a little out of the way. We bought two 24-hour boat passes for 15 euros each. It was cheaper than having to pay 6 euros per trip. For us it was well worth it because we took several boat trips.

To take a public boat, called vaporetto, you have to go to a waiting area, a.k.a. dock. At first I thought it was already the boat because it was floating on the water, until the boat arrived.

Vaporetti. Vaporetto, singular.

Have you ever seen a TV show featuring Venice and these gorgeously handsome gondoliers? Tell you what. SO TRUE! I'm saying that as a matter of fact. No malice there. These young boatmen, who were not even on a gondola but on a regular boat, should be on a magazine cover or Armani poster, I thought to myself.

I had mistakenly booked only a night's stay at Ostello di Venezia. We had already missed it because of my flight delay, so I was not very sure if we could still be accommodated. Thank God, we were accepted. The rate at the hostel at this time of year was 20 euros a night. This was one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest, I could find online. Bedrooms were dorm-style, 16 beds to a bedroom, which is really one huge room with 4 cubicles. Each cubicle had 2 double-decked beds. You get your own locker with key. Bathroom is common. Male and female rooms are separated. Breakfast is included in the fee.

Like other hostels in that part of the world, Ostello di Venezia was closed for cleaning and maintenance in the morning. It opened at 1:30 pm. Because it was only past 9 am, we had to leave our luggage in a locker near the reception area, and took the vaporetto to Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square, the principal square in Venice.

People and pigeons flock to St. Mark's Square.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Paris slide show

Gino, who's in his last few weeks in France, sent me photos he took on his camera. Hot off the internet! I think he's got better shots than I have. He's got more shots of me too. Thanks!

Here's a slide show I created using his photos and mine that we took in Paris on our first day and on the day before I left Paris for Canada. Thanks to Cool site! Great music too.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buongiorno, Milano!

Our trip to Venice, Italy consisted of 4 train rides: Paris to Lyon, Lyon to Chambery, Chambery to Milan, Milan to Venice. In both the Lyon and Chambery train stations in southern France, we only had 15 minutes lead time between arrival and departure, which meant we had to run quickly from one train to the next. Gino and I did a lot of running with our 4 bags.

Ahh, enjoying a great compartment until I realized
this was first class and our tickets were economy.
Quick! Move before the inspector comes around!

We both enjoyed the beautiful sceneries along the way--fields, mountains, country homes... If we took the night trip we wouldn't have seen as much of the French countryside.

We arrived at the Milan station a little past 9 pm. As we entered the station, we were met by several border officials who inspected our passports. We were now in Italy! Another language. Another country.

We knew we would be missing the last train to Venice by more than an hour, so we were mentally prepared to sleep at the train station. "That's OK," I said. "I have slept in a (Philippine) bus terminal before."

Outside the Milano Centrale train station. It is said to
"one of the most beautiful in the whole world. Enormous,
abundantly faced in heavy stone..." But I don't understand
those statues.

Gino and I go sightseeing, or rather nightseeing,
outside the station.

If it were not quite late at night, we would gone further down the block to visit some major attractions or look at high end designer shops. After all, this was Milan, also labeled fashion capital of the world.

Back inside the station, we went around to look for a place to sleep. I didn't mind sitting down, but even chairs were hard to find. Gino was willing to sleep on the sidewalk like the homeless. Nah, that would be too cold.

Finally, we found benches along the staircase leading to the exit, and we quickly settled in one. Gino stretched his tired body on the bench and soon he was snoozing. I took out my book and started reading. I tried to ignore people passing by and giving us a curious look. Who cares? They won't see us ever again.

The station closed at 1 am. By 12:30 am, a worker at the station started yelling some Italian words that woke up the few people, Gino included, who thought we could sleep in that area. He announced that those who had train tickets should sleep inside the waiting room. So there was a waiting room! That was what we'd been looking for. I think it was called sala d'attesa. It was very big, in fact, the biggest I would see at any train station. How did we miss that? There were lots of wooden benches. I was probably able to sleep lightly between 3 to 4 hours.

Gino fell asleep immediately.

That's me on the opposite bench.

We woke up at 5 am so we could get our train tickets to Venice and get on the 6 am trip. But the ticket windows opened at 5:45 am. As soon as Gino bought our tickets, we dashed off again to our train. After boarding, I heaved a big sigh of relief. We are on our way to Venice!!

Coming up - stories and pictures from lovely Venice.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Paris, day 1

Our first order of the day, after hugging and greeting and unloading some of the foodstuff in my luggage onto Gino’s backpack, was to book a train to Venice and get back to our itinerary. Gino and I took the RER train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Chatelet metro station then to Gare de Lyon, which I had seen in the Mr. Bean movie.

I found these two subway stations very confusing. It felt like a maze with too many commuters rushing in different directions. I read that the Paris Metro, the rapid transit system of Paris, France, is the second busiest metro system in Europe next to Moscow. It has 16 lines, mostly underground. Vancouver’s Skytrain only has two at the moment.

Chatelet-Les Halles is the world's biggest underground station carrying 4.5 million passengers a day. If you are getting off there, you don't even have to move an inch. A throng of people will push you out or into the train.

The Gare de Lyon station is where you take a train to Southern France. After arriving at this station, I closely followed Gino--to make sure I didn't get lost--to a ticketing window where he conversed in French with a man behind the glass. I was impressed. I have a French-speaking son! Their conversation sounded to me like a series of shwa ngwo dzjwa wersh wersh wersh interspersed with oui, or ouai, finally ending with merci.

Gino was able to book three train connections: Paris to Lyon in Southern France, Lyon to Chambery, still in Southern France, then Chambery to Milan, Italy. Total travel time would be about 8 hours. From Milan, we still needed to get a train to Venice.

“Mom, there’s no direct day train to Venice,” he explained. "We have to change trains quickly in Lyon because we have only 15 minutes in between."

Since we had time before our 1 pm departure, Gino suggested that we go see the Notre Dame church on the Île de la Cité, an island in the Seine River. We took another train then walked several blocks passing by the Palais de Justice and La Conciergerie, a prison where many, incuuding Marie Antoinette were held before being guillotined.

Gates of the Palais de Justice

I was very excited to see Notre Dame just because I had seen it in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the animated movie! I wondered if there was really a hunchback who used to live there... By the way, there are still many gypies like La Esmeralda in the story walking on the streets of Paris today, asking for money from passersby.

Honestly, I don’t know much about this landmark except a few things I had read from Wikipedia, that it was one of the first Gothic cathedrals, is still used as a Roman Catholic cathedral, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Paris.

Here’s an interesting piece of information: Did you know that in the early 19th century the cathedral was in state of disrepair and city planners were contemplating on tearing it down? Victor Hugo, an admirer of the cathedral, wrote the novel Hunchback of Notre Dame, to raise people’s awareness of the cathdral's heritage which led to fundraising campaigns for its restoration.

Here are some pictures I took outside and inside the church. (Click photos to enlarge):

Part of the cathedral's facade. The pointed arch is typical of Gothic architect- ure.

Gino standing outside the cathedral.

I was so fascinated by the interior of the church, I took a while going around and taking pictures inside while Gino waited with our luggage outside.

Then I realized we had to go to the train station. Gino and I hurriedly walked back a number of blocks, going up and down many steps to the subway. I got a little bit nervous. I was only relieved when we reached Gare de Lyon 30 minutes early. By this time, I was beginning to feel woozy due to jet lag. I slept through the early part of the train ride to Lyon and woke up just in time to enjoy the scenic countryside.

We rode a train like this to Lyon.

Next - Buongiorno, Milano!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zoom zoom zoom

I woke up very early on October 30 more upbeat about my trip than the day before. I was unusually chatty with fellow passengers, airport personnel and even the two Filipinos working at the airport Subway concession stand where I spent my $10 breakfast voucher.

“Do we have good news? Is the plane flying out today?” I asked the lady at the baggage check-in. “Oh, I don’t mind the delay as long as the problem with the airplane was fixed,” I said to another passenger. “It could have been worse.”... “As long as we get there safely…”... “Did you sleep well?” ... I made little conversations with people who like me were stranded for nearly a day. In times like this when it’s so easy to be grouchy, sometimes a little cheer makes the difference in you and in other people. In the same way, it takes only one sourpuss to set off a foul mood in people.

“Mom, where are you? I feel like Mary and Joseph (looking for an inn),” Gino sent me text messages. He was forced to find and check in at a hostel without prior reservation.

“I’m having breakfast at Subway and counting my blessings,” I texted back. I was enjoying a foot-long sandwich and hot cocoa courtesy of Zoom Airlines. “I’ll bring half to you if I don’t finish it.”

Finally, at 12 noon, we zoomed out of Vancouver and cruised at an altitude of 33,000 ft. People clapped their hands. The plane picked up more passengers at Calgary airport.

Because of the flight delay, we were given free use of headsets to watch in-flight movies. Another blessing! Mr. Bean’s Holiday came on. Mr. Bean makes me laugh. He is such a dork. I had seen this film before but because it was set in France, I watched it again—and laughed at the same comedic parts!

Lady at a snack stand: Coffee?
Mr. Bean: Oui! (he pronounced it Ohh-weee)
Lady: Sugar?
Mr. Bean: Nooo.
Lady: Oh, your French is very good!
Mr. Bean (grinning with pride): Gracias!

That is so hilarious! I enjoy retelling that. The movie itself was about Mr. Bean’s prize vacation in Cannes in Southern France and the many misadventures that he and a boy experienced trying to get there. Missed trains, lost passport, no money, the boy getting separated from his father and ending up with Mr. Bean…

Because of this movie, I became more aware of things that could go wrong on MY trip. If you will follow this series of stories, you will know of the many adventures that Gino and I had in just two weeks. Keep coming back!

Early Wednesday morning, Paris time, I got a glimpse of the city lights. It was still dark when we flew in at 7 am. I’m in Paris!! It was beginning to sink in.

I was so pleased to see Gino at the waiting area of Terminal 3. If he had not arrived early, I would have proceeded to Terminal 1 because I was misinformed. We could have missed each other.

Gino looked good. He had longer curly hair. Clearer skin too ("Mom, it's our food," he'd say). I was so glad to see him.

(Next, the real vacation and sightseeing starts. Complete with pictures, lots of them...)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Leaving on a jetplane, the saga begins

(the first of a series of stories on my French-Italian holiday)

Monday, October 29.

I arrived at the Vancouver International Airport at 1 pm, more than 3 hours before departure time. Inside the terminal, I stood at an empty check-in counter right beneath a wall poster that said Zoom Airlines. I was the first in line.

Standing there, I took out my binder of chronologically arranged tickets, train and hostel reservations, travel insurance and notes on Italy and France and spent the next hour reading and re-reading the printouts. I was rather amazed at how the whole itinerary came together in so short a time without the help of a travel agent. Truth be known, I did not fully understand what I was doing. Things just fell into place in spite of my ignorance.

An hour later, I was still alone at the empty check-in counter. I walked around pulling my roller bag behind me. Ooops, wrong counter! See, I didn’t even know how to properly check the flight counter assignments.

We boarded the plane on time at around 4:45 pm, and soon after I settled in my seat, I fell asleep. The drone of the plane’s engine does that to me. Several minutes later, after the plane had been rolling toward the runway, I heard the pilot say that we were taxiing back to where we came from. Some problem with the small sensor in the wing flap. Minor delay, I thought.

This minor delay turned into two hours. You could sense people fidgeting in their seats. Finally, we were told to disembark while the problem with was being fixed. We have time to catch our night train to Venice, I said to myself. It’s still okay.

When the waiting dragged on, I began to get anxious. Oh no, we could miss our train! And Gino was arriving from Provence to meet me at the airport. What will he do? Where will he go? I started to pray and plead and beg the Lord, pleaaase let us leave soon!!!

By 9 pm, I was calling home and sending text messages to Gino to apprise everyone about the flight’s situation.

“Be prepared to change our plans,” I told Gino. I felt a sense of frustration that turned to resignation. But what can I do?

Finally, at 10 pm, we were told that our flight had been cancelled and that we were going to be bussed to the Richmond Inn where we would spend the night.

I thought I had my ducks in a row, but I got the wrong ducks, I told myself. Can’t be too proud. “Man makes plans but God directs his steps” the Bible says. God, I prayed, You must have a reason for this. I was not very happy but at some point, you learn to accept things you have no control over. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...

I thought about the train reservation and a night’s stay at the hostel we would forfeit, and the domino effect of a flight cancellation on the rest of our trip. I will not let this upset me, I will not let this upset me, I said to myself over and over. Yes, I will lose time and money, but I’ve lost more than these. This delay might actually be a blessing. The fact that the airline people discovered the problem before take-off might actually be a lifesaver.

The Lord will guard your coming in and going out, it says in Psalm 121. I began to see God’s hand in an otherwise unpleasant situation.

Look at the bright side, lerryblossoms. You get to stay in a nice hotel bedroom and eat a good meal for free, I told myself. By midnight, I was at peace and grateful and very tired. I slept soundly.

To be continued…