Monday, December 15, 2008


I was able to get an afternoon off while working in Florence and made a quick trip to Pisa.

I took the slow train which meant it made a few stops and took about an hour and a half. There might not be a fast train... I'm glad though - the scenery was great...

And we went through some very cool looking little towns and train stations...

I had a great calzone and some chiante at a little restaurant where they pointed me toward the tower. They only spoke Italian, so I pointed to a picture of the tower on the back of a map I'd bought... :-)

The walk from the train station goes over the Arno (same river that runs through Florence). I think this is a really nice photo - you can click on it to enlarge...

I liked these signs. Is it common for street signs to indicate the 'star' rating of hotels?

The route takes you through the University district. It looks like a cool place to go to school and a friend told me it's one of the best Universities in Italy. A girl almost ran into me on the sidewalk because she was walking with her head down studying the periodic table.

The medical school.

Now I'm sure I'm going the right way!

I was a little surprised that there was a big church next to the leaning tower. I think I've only seen photos of it alone so it looks like it is just standing all by itself. Actually there are 3 large structures in addition to the tower:

The Duomo... (A church. I embarrassed myself thinking duomo meant dome...)

The baptistry... (dome shaped in rear...)

And a walled cemetery I didn't get a shot of. The entire piazza (plaza or square) is walled, which you can a see a bit of behind the Baptistry in the photo above.

This shot really shows how it was leaning and then they built on to it later going vertical. I know what happened: The project manager said he wouldn't pay to fix what had had gone on before. Like project managers everywhere, he just wanted to get his part built as fast as possible so he could move on and leave the mess with the owners to clean up.

Engineer, "We can't build on this, the base is leaning."
P.M., "It won't lean any more. Just get to it."
Engineer," How do you know it won't lean any more?"
P.M., "You're not a team player. You're transferred to the quarry."

Good call.... lol
I walked up to the top of the tower...

The tower is the bell tower for the church (something else I didn't know), and the top is ringed with large bells (no pun intended!).

Some kid climbed on this railing (which I wouldn't even LEAN on) trying to get a better photo and the guide came absolutely unglued - screaming at him: Are you stupid? Do you want to die? I think the correct answers were yes and not really.

Nice views from the top. The walking surface is really noticeably slanted when you are on it.

Another beautiful place I should have spent a couple days at and had to pretty much race through.... There sure is a lot to see :-)

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I had a Sunday off before I had to go to work so I took the fast train down to Rome. I don't know how fast the train goes (and tried to look it up online) but it's fast. Going through tunnels uncomfortably pressured up my ears and when we met trains on the parallel track there was quite an impact. I guessed 80 plus MPH based on how we passed highway traffic. Google maps says it's 170 miles Florence to Rome on the highway and it took 1.5 hours, so 100 MPH is a pretty good bet. It was relatively cheap (about 100 USD RT) fast, smooth and comfortable.

The train station in Rome is not the relatively laid-back affair it is in Florence... :-)

When I got there I jumped on this tour bus for a tour of the city. You can get on and off all day for a flat price and it's narrated so I figured I'd make one loop to see where I wanted to go and then jump on and off on the second circuit.

That didn't work out QUITE as planned though. I shortly (OK, eventually...) figured out that I had no idea where we were and the recorded narration didn't match what I was seeing. About then I saw a street sign pointing off toward the Trevi fountain, so I bailed from the bus...

It was a lot more crowded than in the movies!

After a quick lunch I got back on the bus and asked why I was so confused. The bus employee said that they didn't follow the route shown on the map. They followed the listing of stops printed on the map. The list of stops were like "Via della something across from the store". Which would work just fine if you lived in Rome I guess. For me, there was no way to know where I was. Also, I'd hoped to see where I wanted to get off on the first pass, but they didn't stop right in front of anything of obvious interest. You had to walk off a few blocks.

So, I told her all I really wanted to see was the Vatican and the Coliseum. Unfortunately I had just got back on the bus after those stops. So... another city tour is indicated. And a 20 minute bus driver break. And another 20 minute bus driver break. I really didn't care - I'm still riding around Rome so what the hell!

Finally she says "Two more stops is the Coliseum". Great... then her phone rings. There's a bunch of animated Italian talking and she tells me "We have a problem.... the road is closed so we can't go to the Coliseum now. We'll get there but we have to go around...", so we take off winding though these little streets in this huge bus. She gets out several times to direct - once stopping cross traffic and chasing some people off the sidewalk on an inside turn and another arguing unsuccessfully with a police woman that wouldn't let us turn the way she wanted. After about 30 minutes the phone rings and the road is open.... so they drop me off a few blocks from the Coliseum.

Which is incredible.

This is Emperor Constantine Arch which used to be the entrance to the city.

One COULD go IN the Coliseum... if one hadn't spent the day riding the bus until it closed.

The Basilica of Constantine, I think.
I still can't believe you can just walk into these churches... incredible.

City ruins.

On the way to the Coliseum is a monument to the first King of Italy and the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Great views..

There are a couple tricks to the train I now have all figured out, but one that threw me on this trip was that the train returning to Florence went to Milan. So it's listed on the board as Milan.... you would know it went through Florence if you were a regular... I went to the train office trying to to find what track I needed but the line was HUGE.. about 200 people with their luggage so I went and bought some water in a shop and showed my ticket to them. We didn't have enough common language for it to be perfectly clear to me, but they pointed to the right track and the first passenger I saw on the train confirmed we were headed to Firenze.

When I got back I was cold, wet and tired. I went to my hotel restaurant looking pretty ragged, I'm sure. The Maítre D' scurried over to me in his immaculate white suit and asked "Do you have a reservation?". He visibly relaxed when I said "No, is that a problem?" and told me that none of the 20 empty tables I saw behind him were available... I decided I'd rather sleep than eat anyway and went to bed!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I had a chance to spend the day in Amsterdam recently. I had an idea of what I wanted to see in a brief visit, but my plan quickly fell apart on a cold, foggy, windy day with an inadequate map... so I fell back on plan "B" and just wandered around...

I took this train from the Amsterdam airport which was pretty painless except for the color - I image that green makes it an unappealing ride for the hung-over!

I'm sure James Bond has been in this train station...

I was struck by the number of bicycles - they're everywhere. All kinds of bikes from cool freight haulers with the front wheel ahead of a wooden wagon and the wheel steered by a chain from the handlebars to modern-looking mtn bikes but most of them were plain single speeds with an upright seating stance. All kinds of people were riding them - young, old, elegantly dressed ladies in heeled shoes and kids and women riding sidesaddle on the rear rack. They brazenly cruised though intersections seemingly regardless of traffic (I've decided you can ID the tourists in Italy and Amsterdam because they pay attention at intersections). Not a helmet in sight either.

Just wandering about...

One thing I wanted to really see was the Anne Frank House, and I made it there. They didn't allow photos. It was pretty impressive, but depressing. They had a photo of Jews being led down her street and her room is still decorated with magazine pictures she pasted up.

I blundered into the red light district ... accidentally, yeah that's it :-) and it was pretty interesting. Prostitutes in bathing suits behind glass windows and weed (and occasionally psychoactive mushrooms) for sale in the coffeeshops. I wanted one of the marijuana menus I've heard of but was embarrassed to ask - also I wouldn't go in when I could smell dope because my boss said 2nd hand smoke will trip our drug testing limits.

I'm also embarrassed to admit that I really didn't realize how many canals there are - I know... windmills, below sea level, duh, but I didn't know that Amsterdam was just full of them. Most of these houseboats were lived in I think.

Some of the houseboats were clearly too tall to fit under the bridges, but they have these locks that look like they can lower the water level to let them through.

I came upon a playground where they prohibit dogs and sperm...

From a distance I thought this was war-era VW (if there even really is such a thing...) but it was an old Citroën.


I don't know if it was impound day or what, but there were a couple teams using a gas powered rescue saw to cut the locks on bikes...

And then loading them into a truck..And these guys were looking for sunken boats still tied to the canal wall, cutting the locks and loading them onto the barge with a big claw. It seemed a shame - the boats were intact (until the claw got them) and some still had motors. They took a Polaroid of it sunken before they raised it.

The Amsterdam airport had an awesome observation deck. It spanned 3 terminals and you could see almost all of the airport. There was one of those 'plane spotter' guys there with binoculars and a notebook. They keep lists of planes they've seen (like bird watchers).

This would be a great place to come back to... in the summer :-)