Monthly Archives: March 2012

Skiing Aximer Lizum

Today we skied an Olympic ski run, at a resort called Axamer Lizum.  Both the 1964 and 1976 Olympics were held here.  Oddly enough, the 1976 Olympics were moved here from Denver because Colorado voted down a State bond issue referendum, making the financing of the games uncertain.

Skiing here is HARD!  The trails we did were all blue, which is the easiest here (red= medium and black= hard).  However, I was rust form having not skied much lately, and the conditions were kind of bad.  It’s almost April, what do you expect.  The snow is very wet, and got very clumpy, especially on the steeper parts of the hill.  Oh, and I had a screw up with the ski rentals.  They did not fit my boots to my bindings properly, and my right ski fell out every time I turned (left).  We had to trudge up a hill and take the ski lift down to the rental shop to get it fixed.  This wore me out, and wasted the good part of the ski day, morning, before the trails get clumpy from use.

It is hard to imagine, though, that skiing an Olympic course is 29,50 Euro, slightly less than the $45 it costs to ski Devil’s Head in Wisconsin.  They also gave us a free wiener schnitzel!  This was at a restaurant at the top of the mountain, with an amazing view of the town.  So, overall, the ski mountain was a great deal.  The rental company was not.  They did not even give us a discount for the mess up with the rentals.  But, I learned something.  This was the first time I ever saw a ski resort have multiple rental companies.  Usually, in the US, the ski resort just sells the rentals.  Here, there were multiple companies competing for our business.  In this case, we should not have gone to the first rental company we saw.  They have the least need to be good, as they can count on business from tourists that just go to the first place they see.  The others need to have a good reputation to get business, so they are a better bet.

For some reason I feel a bit closer to home here, which feels odd to me given that I am half Italian.  But, it’s just some little things.  Innsbruck has sushi, thai, and other food options that I don’t remember seeing in Italy.  The restaurants are open a bit earlier for dinner (around 6 PM), and it is less out of the ordinary to eat dinner at 7 or 7:30.  I also see pool, bowling, darts, and other activities I am used to seeing around.  I saw young people being rowdy both Friday night and Saturday night.

Tonight we stumbled upon a crazy acrobatics show outside the Golden Roof.  People were on stage in colored body suits, singing, banging on the drums, etc.  And then someone, head to toe in orange, tried to walk a tightrope across the street, from one building top to another.  I still have no idea why this show was happening, but it made the town feel a bit like the town in Hot Tub Time Machine, where people ski and party!

Also, everything is cheaper here.  We got gelato for 1,10 each.  It was never under 2 in Italy.  Beer is 2,10 and most other things are noticeably cheaper.  Most likely this is because Innsbruck is not much of a destination for people from other parts of the world.  But, sometimes I wonder if a cultural difference, or Italy’s current economic standing/ dire need for cash has anything to do with it.  Maybe this helps me explain the US a bit.  Could it be that Italians, in love with the extravagant, made New York expensive and extravagant as an image of their culture, while the Germans and Polish made Chicago and the Midwest cheaper and more practical in their image?

Train Ride from Florence to Innsubruck

Today was mostly a travel day as we moved on from Tuscany and headed for Innsbruck.  It started with another phenomenal breakfast at Poggerino, but that now seems to feel like it happened like three days ago!  Ever notice how while on vacation, or during special events time feels like it is going faster while things are happening, but in retrospect more time seems to have gone by?  I’ve had times at work where I mistook a Tuesday lunch conversation for a Wednesday one, but the start of this trip feels like weeks ago.  Maybe it is that we perceive time in the present tense based on our awareness of time’s passing (i.e. inversely related to how involved we are in what we are doing), but in the past based on the quantity of memorable experiences in our lives.

The train rides started off kind of dull.  Florence to Bologna was like 80% under tunnels.  Bologna to Verona, at least until you approach Verona, is flat.  I saw irrigations and felt like I was in the Kansas of Italy.

After Verona things got interesting as we headed into the Italian Alps.  We kind of missed the Dolomites, but the mountains were quite nice.  Plus, the railroad tracks followed a river valley, so we got to see the scenery (as opposed to being under tunnels).  I read up a bit on Trento and Bolzano while we passed though this area.  It seems as though this is the outdoorsiest part of Italy.  There were bike trails (most likely the same one) along the river valley for much of the journey, and I saw plenty of riders.  Finally, we went thought the Brenner Pass, exiting Italy into Austria.

Innsbruck is exactly as I imagined it; an Austrian looking ski town.  The mountains came right up to the town and watch over it in all directions.  We could probably walk right up to one from the Weisses Kreuz, our hotel, which is right in the center of town.  There is a shopping district that seems to cater to both skiers and Austrian type people with bars and beer gardens.  Like I said, EXACTLY as I imagined.

We had a nice dinner at Ottoburg, at the recommendation of the hotel desk.  There, I decided to dive right into the local culture, and got the most traditional Austrian dish that did not seem scary.  It was phenomenal.  While there, we encountered a group of five guys in their 20s.  It was crazy because, other than speaking German, they looked and acted exactly like you’d expect a group like this in America.  Oh, except they were at a fancy restaurant together.   Groups of guys, for one reason or another, don’t do that in America.  But, their behavior, their interaction indicates one of two things; there really is not that much different amongst different types of people, or that the German influence has manifested itself in the heavily German Midwest (especially WI and NE) in the form of drunken Friday nights.  I’ll let you be the judge, but either way I had my first conversation with completely random people in Europe- awesome!

My Last Day in Italy

It was our only full day in Tuscany, and our last full day in Italy.  Tomorrow, we’ll take the train straight to Innsbruck, Austria.  I already begin to wonder if I have seen enough of Italy.  However, John, the guy, one of the organizers of this B&B informed us that our train route tomorrow will go through the Dolomites north of Verona, so I guess I will see more of Italy.

Before this trip I knew I wanted to make Italy a part of this trip.  My family heritage is 50% Italian, and I had always considered that a part of who I am.  Mostly, to explain my lack of patience sometimes I would say: “I have about the level of patience you’d expect from an Italian-American New Yorker”.  However, I’d never known about the culture, beyond the basics.  Now, I kind of understand, or feel like I understand it more.  From now on, those maps of Italy put onto pizza boxes in America will mean more to me.

Today we went to the town of Siena, after an amazing breakfast cooked by the staff here at Poggerino.  Siena, like Florence, “grew up”, in the Middle Ages.  For a few centuries (1000 to 1400-ish), these cities were constantly in conflict with each other over supremacy and influence in the region.  Florence, more or less, eventually won this battle, and Siena was “vanquished” to smaller status (still true today).  This was around the time the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance.   It is probably no coincidence that Florence became the city in Italy most associated with the Renaissance, attracting thinkers/inventors from all over Europe.

In a way every place we visited has an associated time period.  Rome- the Roman Empire, Siena- The Middle Ages, Florence- The Renaissance, The Tuscan Vineyards- now, as it is currently one of the wealthiest and best known parts of Italy.  So, given the small allocation of time, I think I did well and learned a lot about Italian culture and history, about my history in a way.

Finally, I was wayyy excited to have purchased salami, cheese, bread, soda, and an orange from a local shop in Radda, and eaten at home.  It was only 8,64 Euro, so we saved between 25 and 50 (Euro), and we ate at 6 PM (after all, we are American), and did not have to drive unlit roads in rough terrain at night like last night.

Staying at home allowed us to witness a casual fire around 8 PM.  This week’s weather has been warm and dry.  I’ve already gone though all of the short-sleeved shirts I brought.  Today though was windier, making it seem like textbook wildfire weather.  This fire was actually on Poggerino property.  It appeared as though the wind ignited a fire among a pile of dry leaves and wood pieces.  We were worried, and even tried to contact the proprietors of this establishment.  But, noting came of it, and the fire died around 10 PM, when the wind calmed down.  Maybe I am a stupid city slicker.  Or, maybe we got lucky and I need to learn to be more self-sufficient.

Relaxing in Italy’s Wine Country

Today we left Florence for Chianti.  To get to our winery/ bed and breakfast we needed to rent a car.  Since driving in downtown Florence is restricted, we had to take the T1 tram to the Hertz rent-a-car.  The T1 tram is the Brown line of Italy, slow and seems to have too many unnecessary turns.  On top of that, it was kind of hard to get tickets.  We spent ten minutes just looking for a place to buy them- and eventually bought them at a newspaper stand.

The drive to Poggerino B&B, near Radda in Chianti took about an hour.  We took the scenic route, which had some great views.  We actually climbed to near the top of the mountain (both in Palzzano and near the B&B).  After today, I feel like I have seen many different parts of Italy; Rome, a big city, Florence, a more moderate sized city, and the Tuscan countryside, with small towns and rural areas.

Overall, today was a more relaxing day.  Abby was a bit stressed driving in Florence, but after that it was relaxing.  People often forget to relax on trips.  They often forget that a vacation …well… is a vacation.  I find that Americans see vacations as being in two groups

1.  Vacations to relax, to places like beaches, or even to stay home

2.  Vacations to travel, see places, and do things, often with ambitious itinerary

When a vacation belongs to category two, people can sometimes return more worn out then when they left.  We have a lot to see on this trip, and had done a lot the last few days.  So, today it was time to relax a bit, enjoy the weather, the sun, and the view (which is really nice).

The only thing we did do was go into town (Radda) for lunch.  We also went out for dinner.  Lunch was unexpectedly the best meal I’d had so far.  It was this flat pasta with salami ragu.  A good portion too.  American portion sizes have become ridiculous, and not only at the Cheesecake Factory.  Some places in the city have scaled back to more reasonable sizes.  Buona Terra, our favorite Italian place is not too bad.  But, still you’re far more likely to get way too much food than not enough.

Rome to Florence

Today started with a ride on the fastest train I have ever ridden: The high-speed train from Rome to Florence.  It topped out at 250 km/hr (155 mph).  Traveling at those speeds did not feel too different than traveling at 60, 70, 80 mph as I commonly do in my car.  However, it was definitely noticeable that the scenery was going by faster than what I was used to, and that we were moving much faster than all the cars we saw on an adjacent highway.  There are also a lot of moderate size mountains in Italy.  I think we spent about 25% of this trip underground, in tunnels under mountains.

Our hotel in Florence was much nicer.  Mainly, it was a lot bigger, our hotel in Rome was really kind of small, but I guess that is what to expect in such a crowded area.  Luckily, our hotel room was ready for us when we got there, which was before 11 AM.  So, we were able to drop off our bags and go straight to the Galileo Museum.  This museum is actually not very well known, but it was our choice to be unique and go somewhere different.  This paid off for us, as the place was much less crowded than many of the other sites in town.  The museum itself was a really good deal, for only 4 Euro each, and it is quite stacked with ancient scientific instrumentation.  The museum also contained a historical narrative of the history of science.

After visiting the museum, my mind was fixated on the Renaissance.  Specifically, why it happened.  Why was it that people suddenly became interested in this stuff after nearly a millennium of seemingly not caring about any of it?  From sometime in the 1400s onward, there’s been a cascading of scientific discovery and invention; new instruments to measure the weather, directions, proof the Earth is round and not the center of the universe, observations of other planets, electricity, the steam engine, etc.  All of this made our lives much better than those that lived 1000 years ago.  But, what triggered it all?  There seemed to be an interest in navigation after European Nations discovered and started colonizing the new world.  But that was discovered in a quest to find trading routes.  So, was it all just a quest for cheaper cooking supplies, and spices in the aftermath of Marco Polo’s epic journey to the East?  Or, was it a new “age” of sorts, as explained by both Western and Eastern Philosophy/ astrology where humanity undergoes cyclical trends both long term and short, where thinkers like Aristotle and Socrates lead the emergence, or Renaissance out of the previous dark age (in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization), and Galileo and Copernicus leading the emergence, or Renaissance being discussed here.

Florence is a beautiful city.  We went out ourselves exploring it, after going to the museum and eating lunch.  First, we climbed some outdoor stairs to the top of the Michelangelo Garden.  Then, we climbed the indoor stairs in the Duomo.  That is where we encountered the most annoying American tourists of the entire journey.  This family was climbing the stairs (there are a lot of them) to the top of the Duomo.  The mother and the oldest son were behind us, and the father and the younger daughter were in front of us.  The mother in the back was getting claustrophobic and kept complaining- over and over again.  On at least six occasions, she threatened to turn around and go down.  The last one was after the father/ daughter had informed her that they saw the top!  The only one in that group I respected was the little girl.  She was like 6 years old maybe, and she actually taunted everyone else.  The older son kept asking the Mom is she was okay.  I bet she had expected climbing this Duomo to be exactly like going to the top of the Empire State Building, with a nice fancy elevator.  These people probably give American tourists a bad name.

The Arzo River, all day long, was filled with rowers.  No other water activites were going on.. NO … NINE!  No boats, no cruises, only rowing.  It is like a local law.  Also, the tops of the buildings looked like Mexico/ New Mexico (red clay).  We kind of enjoyed walking around here more than Rome.

Finally, at the end of the evening I got to try two Italian beverages.  Grappa, which I thought tasted like a combination of Vodka and bread.  The beverage is drank by Italians in a similar way that that one beverage in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you know, the tall one that Ian’s parents get drunk on, is drank by Greeks.  Also, Martini, a sweet vermouth beverage.  I enjoyed this one very much.  Both of these beverages were given to me for free.  How’s that for Italian hospitality.

Touring Around Rome

How important is it to preserve our history?  It is obvious that different cultures at different time periods have answered this question differently.  Today was our main day of touring around Rome.  We saw all of the sights of ancient Rome, including the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and Circus Maximus.  Throughout the viewing of these buildings a common theme showed up.  Apparently, between the mid 4th Century (when Rome converted to Catholicism), and around 1800, these historic buildings were not only left to rust, but often their metal was raided for the purpose of making weaponry, or to build the Saint Peter’s Basilica.

A Spanish-speaking tour guide engaged her students in a discussion before viewing the Roman Forum.  I listened in on it, as we were waiting for our English language tour to begin.  She discussed with her students about how Rome has two histories; a pagan one and a catholic one, each with their own point of view.  The Catholics viewed much of the pagan history with shame, as evidenced by the abandonment of the Colosseum and it’s inhumane fight to the death Gladiator games.  This is probably why they so readily let these buildings get destroyed.

The one ancient building preserved through the ages is a building called the Pantheon, which was built in the year 120 AD.  This building was preserved because it was converted into a church to serve a Catholic purpose during the 8th Century.  It is Rome’s oldest still in use building.  After viewing the Ancient Roman buildings, we went to this building.  After that, we decided to just “Roam around Rome”.  We went over the Tiber River on the cheesiest bridge we had ever seen, the San Angelo Bridge.  Then, we literally stumbled on the Vatican.  Previously, we had absolutely no plans to visit this place, but since we were like right there, we went to look at it.  While there, I actually wondered whether nearby Catholics went to the Vatican on a weekly basis for mass, the same way any other Catholic would go to their nearby church, but the nearest one just happens to be the one the Pope speaks at.  That would be crazy.  Finally, we ate at Campo di Fiori, a really nice area, with somewhat of a nightlife feel.  But, today overall was a tiring day.

Today was another first for me.  I rode Rome’s subway system.  It was the first time I had ever ridden a train outside the United States.  The train cars themselves looked quite a bit like the ones in New York, but the system overall reminded me much more of DC’s (multiple levels of Subway, and the design of the train stations and entrances).  Oh, and Piazza de Navona was also kind of cheesy.

The First Day of my European Vacation

Today was the day I embarked on my first European vacation.  In fact, this is the first foreign country I have ever visited besides Canada.  And most people don’t think that Canada really counts as a foreign country.  In fact, Homer Simpson called Canada “America Junior”.

Our trip began with a flight from Chicago to Rome.  We actually flew into Zurich, Switzerland first, and then into Rome, as the best deal we could find was on Swiss Air.  When we arrived in Rome, I was kind of overwhelmed a bit.  I definitely deserve credit for going outside my comfort zone.  Firstly, the baggage claim at the airport was really slow.  A frequent European traveler at the baggage claim verified that this is one of the slowest baggage claims in the world, at least the world he knows.

We had arranged a shuttle bus ride from the airport to the hotel, as we knew we would be tired after the long flight(s), and would not want to wander all over the place with our luggage.  The bus driver was really friendly, but did not speak any English.  In addition to that, all of the roads were so much different than the roads I am used to.

To tell you the truth, I immediately felt kind of bad about having not learned the language before coming here.  I mean, it is their country.  Adding to my confusion, Italian sounds kind of like Spanish, a language I know fairly well (used to know better).  So, I spent the whole day kind of paralyzed in a way.  I did not say anything, because I was afraid I would accidentally spew out Spanish words and sound like an even bigger idiot than I already sort of seemed like.

Rome is the most confusing city I’ve ever navigated.  So many short, narrow roads.  The address system is weird to me.  We went and saw the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and a few monuments.  In a directional triumph, I did not get us lost once!  Our hotel is right in the middle of the touristy area so it is safe here, but crowded.  I probably could not live here because it is so crowded.  Traffic did not seem as crazy as the city’s reputation, but it is Sunday, so we’ll see tomorrow.  Also, there is almost no green space here (parks, etc.).  I am also surprised to see the occasional palm tree.

We had Italian Gelato, which was amazing!  There are like 9 gelato places within a 5-minute walk of our hotel.  Also had pasta here- it was good- got linguine with fruitti de mare.

The whole time today I kept thinking about two things….

1.  How Rome was once the center of the world.  How Mussolini tried to bring those glory days back, you know with those models of the ancient city in his basement and such.  And how much older this place is.  There is more history here than in any other place I have ever been before.  The closest I have been are places like Annapolis (Maryland), and Plymouth Rock (Massachusetts), which date back to like the 1600s, not even close.

2.  Having much of my heritage from Italy, but being four generations removed, how much can I really identify with this place?  I remember traditions as a kid that were distinctly Italian, but the culture here still seems so foreign, so different than what I know.  Still it’s a part of my family history