Thursday, March 18, 2010

Italy - Pisa

Our last day in Italy!

I was originally planned to take a day trip to Pisa when we were in Florence since that's the closest but due to the airlines strike in Athens, we lost one day in Florence. We weren't able to visit Pisa so now back in Rome, we decided to save the last day for a day trip to Pisa. How can we not visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa when we are in Italy!!!

I checked the train schedule from Rome to Pisa takes around 2.5 hours which is doable for a day trip. We woke up early in the morning and took the metro to Rome Termini and took the train to Pisa Centrale. Since we have the Eurail pass for 4 days travel, we only need to pay for the reservation ticket. When we arrived at Pisa Center Train Station, we crossed the street and took the bus to the Leaning Tower of Pisa!  The bus was crowded with tourists like us, you can't miss the stop since the tower is the tallest building in Pisa! As the bus approaching the stop, I almost wanted to scream out "omg that's the Leaning Tower of Pisa"!

The area where the Leaning Tower of Pisa is located has two other beautiful and interesting buildings: the Duomo and the Baptistery.

The Baptistery:

The Duomo:

Leaning Tower of Pisa, I didn't tilt my camera!

My first impression of the tower was that it was shorter than I thought but much leaner! Without wasting any time, we walked to the admission office and purchase our ticket to walk up the tower. They limited the number of people per time slot so purchase ticket right away! When we were there, the next available time slot was half an hour later which wasn't bad at all! The area has plenty to photograph so the half an hour wait went by quickly.

Got to have a pose like this with the Leaning Tower LOL!

Hubby and I and Leaning Tower! Now you can compare how tile it is with us standing straight!

We went back to the line to wait, we don't want to miss our time slot! There was a ticket guard at the entrance of the tower to check the time, I think it was only 50 people allowed per time. It was our turn to go in yay!! I heard the tower has 296 steps, hey I climbed 300+ steps in Vatican City so not a problem for me! At first it was perfectly fine like walking up normal stairs until we reached maybe half way through then we really noticed the difference. We really felt the tower is tilted! The spiral staircase, one side I felt like I was walking normal and then the other side I felt like I was being leaned toward the wall! What an experience it was! Warning....if you are an easily feel dizzy person, stop and rest in between!

Walking up the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

When I was about to feeling dizzy, the end of the staircase was a few steps away, phew!! Once we got out of the enclosed staircase, I felt better! The view from the tower which is the tallest in Pisa was incredible, it was worth my climb!

The bell on top of the Leaning Tower:

View of the Duomo and the Baptistery from the top of the Leaning Tower:

Nice view of Pisa from the top of the Leaning Tower:

After the 360 degree view of the city, we walked down; the walk down was so much easier! I felt like another mission accomplished: climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa!!!

Before we headed back to Rome, we walked around some shops and had our lunch. We chose a "Japanese" restaurant since it has been so long since we have Asian food. We totally regretted it! This restaurant is the worst restaurant I ever been in my life!  The restaurant name is Zen, Via S. Maria, do not eat there! The price was outrageous (tourist area price which we expected already) but the portion was small and the quality was horrible! A dish of what they claimed to be "beef fillet teppanyaki" looked and tasted like overcooked-boiled beef pour over with Miso soup sauce! It wasn't even beef fillet, it was cheap beef cut into small cubes which cost 12 euros! And trust me the people who worked in this restaurant are not even Japanese!!!

Anyways, besides this bad restaurant, Pisa is a very nice little town/city!

We headed back to Rome afterwards and had our dinner at the hotel since we were tired and wanted to spend time packing. 

Our flight back to the US was 10:05 am, we got to the airport at 7 am. I read that it was recommended to arrive at least 3 hours early for international flight! We went through customs to have our VAT refund form stamped and cashed our refund at the refund service desk like a breeze. There wasn't any line at all so we were lucky! The line through security was extremely long and took us 2 hours to get through! So the 3 hours suggestion is highly recommended! Good-bye Italy, we hope to be back later such a beautiful country!!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Italy - Rome Part 3

More sightseeing and shopping!

It was a beautiful day, the warmest day ever of our Italian honeymoon trip. I have a list of places I wanted to visit so we begin with the furthest first - Piazza del Popolo. We took Metro A from our hotel to Flaminio -Piazza del Popolo. Once we stepped out of the metro station, we walked through a gate/wall, the square is located right inside the gate. Rome has a lot of beautiful squares with awesome architectural structures, Piazza del Popolo was one of my favorite. One thing I really like about Piazza del Popolo is the twin churches, I felt like there is a mirror right in the middle.

Looking from this angle, the Egyptian obelisk divided the square into two identical parts!  The square has many fountains, the Fontana del Nettuno is my favorite.

We walked to each end to visited all the fountains. Afterwards, we stepped back to Metro A and went to Spagna where the famous Piazza di Spagna/Spanish Steps located. There were many people sitting on the steps to enjoy the beautiful warm day.

At the base is this very cute boat looking fountain called  Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Old Boat):

The Spanish Steps is also where all the luxury shops are located so shopping time! I went in a Louis Vuitton store and bought a handbag for my mom as gift (it was cheaper to buy in Rome than the US). Why and how it is cheaper, if you are wondering? 

1. Price tag differences: if you converted Euros to USD, it will be still cheaper in Rome. Also, many states in the US have tax so the total price will be price tag price + tax. The price tag in Rome already included tax! For example, the handbag in Italy cost 820 euros which is around $1066. The exact same bag in US cost $1250 and plus 5% tax which total to be $1312.50.  Savings = $246.50

2. For non-EU citizens, you are eligible for VAT tax refund at the airport when exiting the EU. Tax refund rate depends on country, Italy was around 12%. So that means the tax return for the 820 euros bag is 98.4 euros which is around $127.92.

The total saving = $374.42!

The VAT tax refund process was pretty easy. Bring your passport with you, there's a minimum purchase to qualify so check before you go. When I was in Italy, it was around 150 euros minimum. At the checkout, asked for VAT tax refund, most likely the sales person will ask you. Give your passport to the sales person and he/she will fill out a form. Keep the form and the article you purchased with you when you are at the airport and be sure to arrive early in case there is a line of people! The refund form must be stamped by customs and sometimes they inspect the item you purchased. After you get the form stamped, go to the refund service desk, give them the stamped form, and chose an option for refund - cash or credit back to credit card. Note that the refund service desk charge some % of the refund so don't expect to get the full 12% and best to refund back in euros instead of USD (their exchange rate was terrible).

Enough of shopping haha, back to sightseeing! We went in a pizza place to have our lunch. This time, pizzas are sold by weight which is one unique thing about pizza in Italy! I like the sold by weight since I could order a small piece of various toppings to try them out. The hardest thing was they have so many different toppings! We ended up with shrimp with salad toppings and mushroom with Italian sausages toppings. Both were delicious!

After lunch, we headed to the beautiful Trevi Fountain! This fountain is my favorite fountain of all! The scale of this fountain made the rest of the fountains look so small! The incredible marble sculptures are masterpieces by itself!

I heard the best gelato shop is near the Trevi Fountain called San Crispino. We went in there, bought our cup of ice cream and came back out to sit in front of the Trevi Fountain! Very smooth and creamy gelato!

Afterwards, we followed the legend and toss a coin over our shoulder on our back to the fountain, legend said tossing it this way, you will return to Rome! I hope someday it'll come true!

Next, as we were walking back to the metro, we saw this very nice building, we walked through its "court yard". The golden wall paintings were amazing, I wondered who are so lucky to live in this building! Rome is truly full of surprises!

We took the metro back to The Colosseum to visit the Roman Forum that we didn't have time to yesterday. Walking on the hill of the Roman Forum, we came across many Roman ruins. Looking at those ruins made you wonder what it'll be like to be in the Roman Empire time.

Up on the Roman Forum is an excellent view of The Colosseum!

What would be a best way to end our day than with The Colosseum again!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Italy - Rome Part 2

Back to Rome!

After the magical two days in Venice, we were heading back to Rome. The train was 3 hours and 30 minutes, we arrived Rome just before noon. We grabbed some sandwiches in Rome's train station and headed back to our hotel (Sheraton Roma Hotel & Conference Center) to check in. Since we have half a day left today, we seized our time and went to the most famous landmark of Rome - The Colosseum! We took the metro train from our hotel to the stop "Colosseo". As soon as we walked out the metro station, we followed the sign and quickly we saw The Colosseum!!!

I was so excited, I finally get to see The Colosseum, the famous structure that I have seen in movies and travel shows! I felt so unrealistic to stand in front of this ancient structure; this structure has been standing for thousands of years!

We went in line and bought our tickets; the line wasn't bad since it was the low season. We went in, walked up to the 2nd floor to view its interior. Walking inside the Colosseum made me felt like I am back in the ancient Roman Empire! Looking at the arena and the hypogeum which is the underground structure, I imagined where the gladiators came in and the audiences cheering for them. Although a very cruel "sport" but that was part of the history.

We walked around a whole loop around The Colosseum and took our time to appreciate this great structure! There were mostly students and their teachers were lecturing about The Colosseum, not much tourists, so we felt like we had the whole place for ourselves. Even though it was quite chilly since it was March, we didn't need to squeeze through people to have a spot to take a good photo nor we had to "keep moving".

After The Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine was just right next to The Colosseum. This arch inspired many other arches like Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris!

The Roman Forum was right across from The Colosseum but it was getting late in the afternoon so we'll save the Roman Forum for later on!  We walked back to the shops and restaurants area to find a place for dinner. During our walk, we passed by very nice architectures that captured my eyes:

We found an outdoor restaurant located in between main shopping streets. We saw this restaurant with outdoor seating and standing heating lamps, thought it was cute to eat and people watching so we gave it a try.

There were a few restaurants like this one on this street, this was the 1st one and the waiter was nice :)  They also have a "Happy Hour" menu for early-birds like us. It was 14 euros menu for a first course, main course, and wine (too bad I don't drink wine)! I ordered a pizza, it was a full medium pizza came right out of the oven! Very fresh!

I love the pizzas in Rome! After I had pizzas in Rome, I refused to eat Domino's Pizza LOL!

It was an affordable and good dinner! Afterwards, on our walk back to the hotel shuttle pick up stop, we stopped by a grocery store and bought some drinks and sneaks. And somehow we ended up in front of Pantheon, we had been searching for this on our 2nd day in Rome and couldn't find it haha! It was some kind of a special night so it opened late at night and it was free to go in that day!  We went in or else we would never find it again LOL!

It was crowded even at night! The dome structure was incredible! Yay Pantheon - visited!

We headed back to the hotel shuttle pick up stop and waited for the next shuttle bus to arrive. The bus finally came, it felt like I had been waiting forever, and by the time we got to our hotel, we were ready to jump in our bed and sleep! Can't wait for the whole day of Rome tomorrow, so much more places awaiting for us to step in!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Italy - Venice Part 2

Today was our whole free day to explore the dreamy Venice. I called it dreamy because it was foggy and it made Venice more interesting to be in. Walking over small bridges and sideways where the front view was blurry due to the fogs felt like in a dreamland! From our hotel in the early morning, we followed the signs and walked to the famous landmark Ponte di Rialto.

Absolutely beautiful bridge and the view of the Grand Canal was magical standing from Rialto Bridge:

It was amazing to just stand here and watch the Gondolas and the architectures on both side of the canal! It was truly unique, only in Venice!

There were many shops on the bridge, shops that sell Venetian souvenirs like glass jewelries and masks. All were colorful and beautiful! We never had so much fun shopping for souvenirs from other places than Venice! Similar shops were found all over Venice! I spent most of my shopping time around the shops between Rialto Bridge and San Marco. Here are some pictures of the shops:

Beautiful glass chandeliers, I wish I could bring one home!

Venetian masks with Swarvoski crystals!

We went in many shops and trying to pick a mask that we both like so it was challenging since there were so many choices! When you walked into one shop you spotted a mask and thought that was pretty, then when you enter into another shop, you think that mask was pettier! That was exactly how I felt LOL! We finally managed to picked out a purple-colored one, and don't forget to bargain!  We saved at least 20-30 euros :)

Then we walked pass another store and saw another golden-colored one with Swarovski crystals and we couldn't resist but to get one more! This one was more expensive but it was very nice! So with that said, my tip is go into the stores that look interesting to you, mark the location and price down on your map, don't purchase yet! You might see the exact same thing but much cheaper later on! By marking down on your map, you will know how to get back, trust me you could get "lost" easily in Venice! It will be hard to remember where you see this and that by the end of the day after you went through tens of stores!!

Here's a picture of me figuring out around where was the store we visited earlier haha:

Enough about shopping, we continued our walk around this beautiful city. The little bridges and walkways were incredible. It was amazing to walk on the bridge and then stop and take sometime to enjoy the view, there were so much details and so much to see!

Here is their "department store" - Coin, love the window shape:

We walked through this extremely narrow side street. It was quite special :)

A beautiful Gondola:

We would love to ride on one if it is summer but since it was March, it was pretty cold!

After zigzagging around narrow roads and bridges, we finally reached San Marco plaza. Doesn't it sounded like we took a long time to get here from Rialto Bridge? Actually it only takes 9 minutes of walk from Rialto Bridge to San Marco Square according to google map LOL! But we were stopped by the beautiful views of the bridges and shops so it took us 10X longer!

Piazza San Marco was crowded with tourists but the square was stunning. Bell tower of Saint Mark:

I was originally planned to climb the tower to see the wonderful view of Venice but since it was a foggy day, we figured we wouldn't be able to see much so we skipped that! 

St Mark's Basilica, very colorful:

Next to the basilica is Doge's Palace:

Another picture of San Marco square:

Around San Marco square is where all the luxury stores located! But there were also many small cafes and sandwich shops that you can get relatively cheap breakfast and lunch! (We had some seafood sandwiches around this area for breakfast and only cost around 2 euros each sandwich!)

Our day went by quickly with the sightseeing and shopping. For dinner, we picked a restaurant with seafood menu, it was decent. We ordered fried seafood platter and seafood spaghetti around 20 euros per person with soda drink (more expensive than Rome but this is Venice!).

We went back to our hotel afterwards to pack up since we'll be leaving tomorrow to go back to Rome! In our hotel room, we tried on our masks that we bought :)

Venice is truly a unique and beautiful city.  It's our #2 favorite place so far (1st is still Santorini)! It was an amazing experience to walk around this city with no car only bridges and small streets! Take your own pace and explore hidden areas, we felt 100% safe!