Our Trip to Europe (2013)

By Greg, with Help from June

June and I started out at LAX after getting a ride from Aileen. Thanks, Aileen! Our flight to Rome on Alitalia was delayed by about an hour, for some reason. Before boarding, we ran into a friend on the same flight who was with another friend and her friend's husband, with whom I talked for a while. He works for a NASA contractor part time after having spent his career in aerospace. Currently he's helping design equipment for a trip to Mars.

We talked about the planned trip to Mars, and it came out that he knows about the secret space program and sometimes works at that secret area north of Las Vegas. Most of it is underground, he said. It was a very unexpected and interesting discussion.

While we were talking, they changed the departure gate again, so we all migrated over to the new gate. When boarding time came, we all loaded onto buses which took us to another part of the airport where the giant Airbus was waiting. It seated 10 passengers across.

Our 11-hour flight was smooth, but our seats got uncomfortable after a while. I'm sure the seats are better in first class. We arrived in Rome about 2 p.m. the next day and breezed through customs, since they didn't check our bags. We found the train station but missed the first two trains due to confusion about how the trains were numbered. Finally we boarded the train to Civitavecchia, the port city for Rome. It is not a tourist city. In fact, it's hard to find a restaurant there other than a pizzeria. It's also hard to find a street sign, so I had to ask, in my very limited Italian, where the street was that led to our hotel. After asking several people on the street, we finally made it to the hotel after walking about a mile with our backpacks on.

Following title=”click for larger image, if available” href=”https://www.ricksteves.com/”>Rick Steves' advice, we had bought backpacks which doubled as suitcases. We also brought along a smaller cotton bag with shoulder straps, which I carried by hand. We were exhausted from lack of sleep and our trek through town, and went to bed early.

We awoke around 2:30 a.m. and waited until 7:00, when they opened up for breakfast in Hotel Traiano where we were staying. After an excellent buffet breakfast, we went shopping starting about 8:15 a.m. The stores are open early there, I guess because they're closed from 1:00 to 4:00 each afternoon for siesta. We bought a SIM card for the GSM cellphone I had bought online and brought along, a belt for Brian, and some Euros with the prepaid debit card I had bought before our trip. Civitavecchia, like most other cities and towns we visited, has narrow streets. Parking is tight, so there were many small cars, including Fiats, Citroens, Lancias, Smart 2 cars, Volkswagens, and others. We stayed one more day in Civitavecchia and mostly explored the town.

The next day we had another excellent breakfast at the hotel and took the shuttle, along with five other guests, to the cruise terminal. One of them told us that a girl in Rome had tried to pick his front pocket (!) but he grabbed her hand before she could. Hearing that made us glad we'd brought money belts, which was another recommendation by Rick Steves. After waiting a while in the huge cruise terminal building, we boarded the Norwegian Epic cruise liner. We were excited about going on our first ocean cruise. The Epic is the third largest cruise ship in the world, they told us, carrying 5,000 passengers and over 1,000 crew members – a floating hotel, as Norwegian Cruise Lines calls it.

After finding our cabin and shedding our backpacks, we made our way to the Garden Café, where they had a huge buffet lunch waiting for us. The Garden Café is a dining room that spans the width of the ship and opens up to the outside deck, where there are swimming pools, a water slide, a stage, a bar, and an outside dining area. The food was great and the choices were many. The challenge was to keep from eating to the point of discomfort.

Our cabin was on the 10th deck, out of a total of 18 decks. It was small, with no windows, but otherwise was nice. I used the treadmill in the fitness center that afternoon. That night we had dinner in the Taste, one of the “free” (no extra charge) restaurants, where the food was very good. Later we saw a Beatles cover band, who did an excellent job covering Beatles songs. They had all the right Beatles instruments, including a left-handed Hofner bass guitar.

The next morning we woke up at 3:00 due to our jet lag, but it was a little later than the previous morning. We docked in Livorno, Italy, where most of the passengers disembarked for tours of Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terra, and other destinations. Since we were tired and hadn't signed up for any of these tours, we stayed on the ship that day and explored.

That night we had dinner in the Manhattan Room, where you have to dress up a little (no shorts or tank tops). Some passengers really dressed up, with ties for the men and high heels for the women. But since we were traveling light, we didn't dress up much. The food was once again excellent, as we were coming to expect. The ship set sail again at 6:30 p.m., after announcing the names of stragglers from the tours. I assume they found them. That night we saw Legends in Concert, a Las Vegas show that was excellent. We saw “Tom Jones”, “Adele” and “Tina Turner”. All of them looked and sounded a lot like the original artists, and the band and backup singers and dancers were also very good.

The next morning we pulled into port at Marseilles. We didn't purchase a shore excursion but paid for a shuttle bus to drop us off and pick us up from the downtown area. Marseilles has a huge shopping district near the waterfront – everywhere we looked, there were shops of many types. I forgot our camera and thought I had lost my sunglasses (I found them later in the cabin), so I bought a new pair for 10 euros. We also bought a surprise for Aileen, which we will give her next time we see her. After shopping and sightseeing for a couple of hours we were looking for a restroom but found out quickly that the restaurants there don't have public restrooms. So, when we saw a McDonalds, which was packed with customers by the way, we were very relieved, since we thought they would have a restroom we could use. Actually, we needed a “code on a receipt” to get through the door that led downstairs to the toilettes. Since we hadn't purchases anything, we just went in with a few other customers when an employee opened the door. We went to a French restaurant and had baguettes with cheese and veggies for lunch.

Returning to the ship, we did some Wii bowling in front of a huge LED screen. It's scored like real bowling, and June beat me by one point – 171 to 170. After dinner we saw Blue Man Group, another Vegas act. We didn't know what to expect but found out they were pretty crazy, and very funny at times. It was mostly slapstick – the kids in the audience loved it. At the end, they climbed into the audience on the arms of the chairs and walked to the back of the theater. Then they unrolled numerous rolls of toilet paper, which were passed forward by the audience to the front, until we were all covered with toilet paper – a little audience participation. The backup rock band members were painted with day-glow paint under a blacklight. It was a powerful visual and auditory experience, and certainly unique.

We then went to the Bliss Bar where they were singing karaoke. June and I sang two songs each. On the way back from the restroom, June met some of the background singers and dancers for Legends in Concert, and they complimented her on her singing. No compliments for me, unfortunately, but I did get some polite applause for my singing.

The next morning we didn't wake up until 8:00 – finally, we were catching up on our sleep! We were in Palma Mallorca, a Mediterranean island which is part of Spain. A bus tour of this island was the one shore excursion that we had purchased. It's a fairly large island, and much more populated and developed than I thought it would be. Our tour guide was a lady who spoke good English and was very knowledgeable about the history of the island. At our first stop, we got out and walked a short distance to a large cathedral. She explained its history in great detail (it took 400 years to build) and I took a lot of pictures of the stained glass windows, statues, etc. We then visited a Spanish Pueblo, an old village within the main city, and then finally a castle on a hill overlooking the harbor. That night we saw the “Beatles” again, and they played some of the later Beatles songs that they hadn't played the first time we saw them. We enjoyed their show one more time.

We arrived in Barcelona the next morning and it was raining. Also, they told us not many places would be open, since it was Sunday, so once more we stayed on the ship. I was disappointed, but a shore trip on that day probably wouldn't have been so great.

That night we saw the Manhattan band, with a trumpet player/singer, sax, bass and drums, and a female singer for some of their songs. They were doing a Stevie Wonder tribute. Earlier, I had met the trumpet player, who was doing a solo guitar gig. He told me they would be doing “Isn't She Lovely”. I told him I had a harmonica and knew the song, since I had played the harmonica solos for that song with our band. He said they would be doing it in the original key, and invited me to sit in with the band on that song. When the song came up I got on stage with the band and started playing. Surprise – it sounded terrible! I just couldn't hit the right notes, so I quickly sat down, very embarrassed. Later, the band leader told me the song was played in a flat key, which Stevie Wonder typically writes songs in. It turns out that in our band, our keyboard player had found a version written in C, which was the key of my harmonica. No wonder it sounded bad. I consoled myself by thinking “oh well, at least none of the audience knows me”. But I was wound up and couldn't get to sleep that night until about 4:00 a.m.

We both woke up late the next day and skipped breakfast. That day we were at sea. We bought a gift watch and wallet set for Andy, at a crazy two-hour-only sale. People were standing three and four deep around the jewelry counter, waiting for the sale to start. When it started, it was like a feeding frenzy – one lady bought 11 of the sets. Luckily, nobody got hurt. They were always having some kind of sale or promotion on the ship. June and I played a game of pool, but the balls rolled around somewhat due to the rocking of the ship, which as big as it was, still rocked a little at times. The ship was crowded that day because since we were at sea, all the passengers were aboard.

In the morning we got up early and packed our bags, preparing to disembark. We had arranged before the trip to get off in Naples so we could take the train north to Turin. There, we would meet up with three of June's cousins and their husbands, all from the U.S., in a mini family reunion.

After leaving the ship we found the bus station and caught the bus to the train station a couple of miles away. But when we boarded the bus, we couldn't see any way to pay. Apparently, everyone else had a bus pass. So we didn't pay, and luckily no one checked. We caught the 9:45 train to the Torino (Turin) Porta Susa station. It was about a five-hour ride, mostly very smooth, at speeds up to 300 km/hr. Reaching the Porta Susa station, we then had to find a local train to the town of Bruzolo, where we would be staying. We asked some people where to catch the train to Bruzolo, but no one had heard of it. Finally, a ticket agent found it on his computer, and after some confusion and almost getting on the wrong train, we boarded the train to Bruzolo.

June and I were the only ones who got off in Bruzolo. Following the signs, we walked through the underpass to the other side of the tracks and waited at the Bruzolo station, a two-story boarded-up building. The hotel manager had told us he would pick us up from the station if we called him, which we had done in Torino, but when we called him from the station, it seemed that his English suddenly failed him. So we called June's cousin Mary and her husband Wendell, who had just arrived at Marco's house in a rental car. Shortly, Marco and Wendell pulled up in Marco's car, picked us up from the deserted train station, and took us to the hotel. Marco is June's relative who lives near Bruzolo and speaks English. The hotel manager must have felt guilty about not coming to get us, because as soon as we checked in he treated us to some red wine in his bar/breakfast room.

Hotel Thea is a modern hotel in a building that was built up against an ancient tower on one end, and apartments on the other end. Bruzolo, we were told, was founded in the year 789 and has a population of about 400. Marco, who is 39, is the son of Gino, who passed away last year and who was the son of June's mother's cousin. We had dinner in the restaurant adjacent to the hotel, with June's cousin Debbie and her husband Dick from Minneapolis, and her cousin Kathy and husband John from Cleveland. Debbie works for the travel department at Delta Airlines, so she and her husband Dick traveled free on standby. They also got a free rental car for this trip.

The next morning we had breakfast at the buffet in the hotel lobby. In our experience, the breakfasts in Italian hotels beat the breakfasts in most American hotels hands down. In the hotels where we stayed, the breakfasts included several kinds of fruit, croissants, yogurt, toast, coffee, tea, juice, eggs, and other types of food. If you ever get a “continental breakfast” at a hotel in the U.S., you might ask them what continent they're referring to. I don't think it's Europe, at least not Italy.

Sandra, an Italian relative, came over to take us sightseeing. She also speaks pretty good English. Marco came along to help drive us, too. We had a caravan of three cars and traveled a few miles to nearby San Giorio, and up a mountain to the house where June's grandmother had lived. It was in a very old neighborhood. We then went a few miles further to the town of Susa, which has a museum and a number of historic features. We ate lunch at an authentic pizzeria which was very good. After lunch, we walked to the ruins of a Roman aqueduct, and an archway from the first century that had Julius Caesar's name on it carved in stone. Afterwards, we went into a museum. On the way back, we stopped at Fabrizio's house where he has a graphic arts shop with his son Alex. Alex gave us banners from the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics in Sestriere, Italy. He designed the logo on a corner of the banner. Fabrizio is Gino and Onorina's son.

That night we went to dinner at Marco's house, which is very interesting. The dinner was in Marco's “man cave”, a room adjoining his garage where he keeps his Ford Mustang. Marco likes everything American. He even has an American flag on his wall, and he has a collection of American license plates on the wall where he parks his Mustang. I asked Marco where he got them, and he said he bought them all online. June brought Marco and family wild rice from Minnesota and a Route 66 T-shirt for Marco's wife Monica. She gave June a thumbs-up sign that she liked the T-shirt. Marco and his wife were planning a Route 66 trip earlier, but it didn't work out. Besides Marco there was Debbie and Dick, Kathy and John, June's cousin Mary and her husband Wendell from Cincinnati, and at least five relatives from Italy. These included Marco's wife Monica, another lady named Monica, and a few others – I counted 13 around the table.

First they brought out the antipasto, which I thought was the main course. It was very good, and then the main course came, followed by more courses and finally, gelato ice cream. I think Italians make the best ice cream. We started at 9:30 and finished around 11:30, unable to eat any more. I realized later that “anti” means “before” (the pasta).

In the morning we headed for Sestriere in the mountains near the French border. In 2006 it was Olympic Village, but these days it's just a ski resort, and many of the Olympics facilities look abandoned. Georgia, who is Alex's sister, told us she tried out for the Winter Olympics and would have made the team, but she had to return to school. She was practicing for the bobsled (the “Bob”, as the Italians call it), luge, and skeleton, which are all daredevil events. Georgia said she misses the adrenaline rush. We visited the facility where those events were held, and it's now completely abandoned. On the way back, we stopped for some delicious gelato. I usually avoid dairy products, but I make an exception for gelato. It's not as sweet as American ice cream, and creamier.

We had dinner that night at Sandra's house – a large house, by Italian standards. Like the dinner at Marco's, it lasted about two hours and when it was over we were stuffed. They also had an after-dinner liqueur and gelato, which we somehow found room for.

The next morning we went with Dick and Debbie to St. Michael's Abbey on top of a mountain overlooking the Susa valley. Kathy and John had left a couple of days earlier to tour more of Italy, and Mary and Wendell were doing something else that day. After parking as close as we could, we walked up uphill on a private road bought tickets at a gift shop. We then started climbing the many steps up to the abbey, which was built in the 11th century. When we got to the top there was a small cathedral where we heard Gregorian chants, which are more like songs. At first I thought I was actually hearing the monks' voices, but then I found out they were recorded.

The visit to the abbey was very interesting and well worth the climb. Driving back into the valley, we stopped for lunch at a lakeside restaurant that had Homer Simpson and action figure displays inside. You never know what to expect in Italy!

Since we and June's American cousins were all running out of clean clothes, we went into Susa to a laundromat, a “lavanderia” that had a sign saying “self serve” on the window, but it wasn't self-serve. We combined our clothes with those from Dick and Debbie, Mary and Wendell, and asked the attendant to wash and dry it for us. We had to leave the clothes overnight because she was closing in a half hour. That night we went to a trattoria, a type of Italian restaurant, for spaghetti with June's cousins.

After breakfast and checking out of the hotel, we picked up the laundry for 30 euros, split three ways. We separated all the laundry and then traveled further up the valley. We then visited an abbey in Novalesa with Sandra's daughter Elenora, her husband Igor, and their two young children. Elenora works at the museum in Susa that we had visited earlier, and knows one of the tour guides at the Novalesa abbey, so we got a private guided tour of the grounds and chapels, which they don't normally do. We then all visited a cemetery in San Giorio where June's relatives have a family plot.

We all went to Sandra's for lunch, where we had polenta, eggplant, sausages, cheeses, some other cold cuts, gelato, and of course, vino. We then left with Dick and Debbie for Torino Airport, where they dropped us off and caught a train to Milan. They were going to catch a flight to Frankfort, Germany for a few days, since they had a better chance of standby flights to the US via Frankfurt. Getting to our hotel in Torino was an adventure. First we took a train, then a bus, then a streetcar, and then we walked about a half mile. We got lost several times in between modes of transportation and had to ask strangers for directions in our poor Italian, so it took us about two hours to get there.

Most of the young people in Italy seem to know some English, and some are fluent in it, but we didn't find many young people to ask that day. We found the older folks, most of whom speak little if any English. But one lady walked two blocks with us to show us where to catch the streetcar, since we couldn't understand her directions. When we finally got to the hotel, the manager said he would arrange a cab ride for us to the airport in the morning. We had a snack in the small hotel restaurant, and it was interesting to watch the manager washing dishes while wearing a suit, coat and all.

The next morning we caught the “taxi” at 10:00. We think he was just a friend of the manager's, not a real cab driver, because the car wasn't marked and there was no meter inside. But the ride was smooth and fast, and we got there in about 15 minutes instead of the two hours it took us the day before. I gave the guy 25 euros and a 5-euro tip.

We had a smooth two-hour flight to Lisbon, sitting next to a Portuguese lady who spoke good English. When we got off, she helped by showing us where baggage claim was, and where to catch the Metro (subway). The Metro was very smooth and fast, and after one transfer we arrived in the Dos Anjos (“of the Angels”) district of Lisbon, an older part of town. I called my cousin Cristina, the daughter of my Dad's cousin Silvano, and she said she would pick us up in the morning.

This time we stayed in a hostel instead of a hotel. The price was so cheap, I thought what the heck, let's save some money. We had some trouble finding it, which by now we were used to, but we found it. It appeared to be an old hotel that was turned into a hostel. I rang the bell and the owner's daughter came down from the third floor, and checked us in. There was no elevator. Our room was on the second floor, which was actually the third floor, since in Europe the first floor is apparently floor zero. We got two keys, one for our room and one for the door off the stairway. The shared bathrooms (luckily there were two of them) were down the hall. The place was somewhat run down, but our room was clean. We walked down the street and found a small restaurant had stir-fried vegetables and rice for dinner. All of the shops and stores were small in this part of town.

In the morning we ate breakfast in a kitchen with a refrigerator, where we had placed some fruit and pastry we bought the night before. Cristina arrived a little after 10:00 in her BMW sedan to pick us up. I imagine she wondered why we were staying in such an area. The one-way street was narrow and cars were parked on both sides. We headed about a half-hour north to Cartaxo and her house, where she lives with her husband, her brother and her father, Silvano Rocha Homem. Their house is large, with a marble bannister for the staircase leading up to the second floor. They were very gracious and had lunch for us, which was prepared by their two housekeepers, a lady and her daughter. We had a good, healthy lunch, with wine.

They have a lot of original paintings and beautiful antique furniture. One of their paintings, they told us, was 200 years old. Silvano is 96, but he seems to be in good health and walks up and down the stairs without his cane. Each time we saw him over the three days we were there, he was wearing a suit. He doesn't speak a lot of English, but he did know enough to tell us some jokes. With Cristina driving, she and Silvano took us for a tour of their farm properties, this time in Silvano's stick shift Mercedes sedan, since an “attention” message had come on in Cristina's BMW and she didn't want to drive it too much. They own several farms and a vineyard (which we didn't get to see) in the Cartaxo area. There we were, speeding over dirt roads on their farms and raising clouds of dust, in a Mercedes. It was a unique experience.

We then went to Santarem, north of Cartaxo. It's a pretty town with lots of trees and old historic buildings. We stopped at a pastry shop for some “pasteis”, which are like little custard pies, and some expresso coffee, and then returned to Silvano's home and we met Luis, Silvano'sson. After that, Cristina drove us back to the hostel in her husband's Audi sedan. Silvano and Luis accompanied to Lisbon and the hostel. We never met Cristina's husband while we were there, however. She said he was busy managing the farm workers, since it was harvest time. June and I had dinner at a small but good and reasonably priced restaurant next to the hostel.

We had fruit and pastries the next morning, sharing the table with a young couple from Romania. Around noon, Cristina picked us up again and drove us to a seaside restaurant in Cascais, where we met her older sister Teresa and her younger sister Ana, who is the “baby” of the family, and that's what they call her. We had some excellent sea bass and veggies, wine, and dessert. The sea bass was cooked in rock salt, which seemed to bring out the flavor even more. Also, Cristina announced that it was her birthday.

From there, we went to Ana's house. She has a large, modern house with a lot of modern art on the walls. Her husband, whom we didn't meet, is a surgeon. Teresa, one of Cristina's older sisters, was there, together with Silvano and Ana's son Jose, who is 26. Jose likes to sing and write songs, and has a recording studio in his room. He showed us a YouTube video he had made with him singing, which sounded pretty good. They brought out a cake for Cristina and we sang “Happy Birthday” in both Portuguese and English, and had our cake with champagne.

That night in the hostel, I got up at night to go to the bathroom and the key broke off in the doorknob on the door to our room. Luckily it was on the outside, because otherwise we would have been locked in our room – with me having to use the bathroom! We told the manager the next morning and he fixed it right away and gave us a new key. I guess that's happened before.

On our last full day in Portugal we met Cristina again, around 9:30, and she drove us to an apartment building in Lisbon to pick up Teresa and her husband Antonio. We never expected that Cristina would pick us up and entertain us every day, but she did. Our destination was an art museum. Antonio told us they have two art museums in Lisbon, a museum of ancient art and one of modern art. We went to the ancient art museum. Antonio belongs to a foundation that supports the arts in Lisbon.

In the museum we saw many excellent paintings, sculptures, pottery, and more. The signs said “no fotos”, but some people were taking pictures right and left, so I sneaked a few photos of sculptures and pottery, but none of the paintings or tapestries. After that, we drove to a famous pastry shop which Antonio told us was the most successful business in Lisbon. We went in and it was crowded, so we kept going through more rooms, and finally found an empty table. We had tea and “pasteis”, and then left to drop off Teresa and Antonio.

Around 2:00 we arrived at a small upscale restaurant where Ana was waiting for us. The lunch was delicious. We then drove out to a Sinta, a town north of Cascais, which is also very picturesque. We drove up a hill to a castle that Cristina wanted us to get out and see, but it was 10 closed for a wedding, so we stayed in the car. She told us it was where both she and Ana got married. We finally got back to the hostel, thanked Cristina for her great hospitality, and said goodbye. Later, we had a light dinner in the restaurant next door.

The next morning we left the hostel and walked to the Metro station about half a block down and across the street. I wished we had known about that station when we first got there, because it was so close to where we stayed. There was no ticket booth at this station, so we had to use the machine. While we were trying to figure it out, since all the instructions were in Portuguese, a young lady who spoke perfect English walked up and showed us how to buy our tickets and get on the right train.

We took the two-hour TAP Airlines flight not to Torino this time, but to Milan's Malpensa airport. But we had to get to the other airport, Linate, for our flight home the next morning. Since it was evening already, we had missed the last bus to Linate, so we took a bus to the central bus station and then caught another bus to Linate. From there we called Air Hotel, a hotel near the airport where we had a reservation, and after about 40 minutes a shuttle arrived to pick us up. We had some tea in the restaurant section and then went to bed.

In the morning we had breakfast downstairs. It was the biggest spread we had seen since the cruise ship, and by far the largest we've seen in a hotel. There were all kinds of pastries, fruit, cereal, beverages, and other items, and everything was excellent. We caught the 10:00 airport shuttle and were on a plane by 12:30. A couple of hours later we were in Paris, on a one-hour layover. The Air France terminal was like an upscale shopping mall, with all the designer stores. We bought another gift, had lunch, and then got on a Boeing 777 headed for L.A.

On the way home we flew over Greenland, where I took a few pictures through the window. We got two meals plus wine, of course. After all, it was Air France. They put us in the very back seats on the plane, which were more comfortable than our seats on the way to Italy. Still, it was a long flight. When we got to LAX we caught a Super Shuttle that was going to Orange County, but the driver wanted more passengers, so he circled around the airport and picked up four more passengers, all going to Anaheim. After dropping off everybody but us, he drove onto the I-5 freeway, where we were almost creamed by a large truck. Luckily, he was a good driver and swerved in time. We arrived about 8:00 p.m., tired but glad to be home!

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