Thursday, June 30, 2005

Yes, Pinky's DOES have the Best Pizza in Sestriere!

June 13, 2005, 1:13 PM, Grangesises, Italy

It turned out to be a pretty interesting day. We slept until 11:00, can you believe it? But this condo is as dark as a cave, even with all the shutters open. We probably could’ve slept even longer. But we got up, threw on our clothes over our pajamas and headed across the square to a little café that we’d been told would be open. Believe me, we were praying. Caffeine was the only thing on our minds at the moment. But luck was with us. We saw a few people sitting out on the terrace, soaking up the sun (yes, the sun!) and drinking coffee. So we got our coffee—American coffee, but still strong—and a croissant, and planned our day.

Since it was so warm, we wore summer clothes and flip flops (since that was the only shoes I have that didn’t hurt the blister made by the other shoes I wore in Venice.) So we started walking—uphill—toward Sestriere. Mind you, it’s gorgeous here. The Alps rise all around us, and some are still snow-capped. The air is gloriously fresh and sweet-smelling. But a two-mile hike uphill isn’t exactly something I look forward to. We’d gone maybe a mile when a car came up behind us. And I did something I’d never do in the States. I stuck out my thumb and “hijacked” a ride.

So, when I heard the car approaching, my thumb went up automatically. A purple PT Cruiser pulled over, and a pony-tailed Italian man told us to get in. His name was Roberto, and he turned out to be the owner of a pizzeria in Sestriere called “Pinky’s.” We didn’t know it at the time, but this ristorante was reputed to be the best pizzeria in town and a popular hang-out for the US Ski Team during alpine competitions. Roberto told us that he’d be heading back to Grangesises about four, so if we wanted to wait around, he’d take us back. So we had a beer in his place, and chatted with him for an hour or so. When the tourist office opened, we went over there and paid for twenty minutes of internet time so we could find a hotel at a reasonable price (yeah, right!) at the beach. We ended up booking a room for $101 Euros a night at the seaside town of Marina 'd Pietrasanta in Tuscany for Tuesday through Saturday. So, if nothing else, at least it should be warmer down there. (Roberto did tell us it was really expensive there—eating out, entertainment, etc.) Well, why should it be any different from anywhere else we’ve been in Italy? It’s expensive everywhere! And at the amount of money I’m spending with this little change in plans, at this point, it really doesn’t matter anymore. I’m going to be in debt up to ears when I get home, so there is no point in worrying about it now. I guess I’ll be looking for a balance transfer at a low interest rate. Jeez, I bet Nora Roberts never has to worry about stuff like this.

Okay, so we booked our hotel, bought some bread, cheese and wine at the tiny market and rode back to Grangesises with Roberto. He told us he’d be heading back to the restaurant at nine, so if we’d like to go with him to eat dinner there, and if we didn’t mind waiting for him to close down at midnight, he’d bring us back. Well, we jumped at that. Food! Real food! Never mind that pizza is all we’ve had to eat since arriving in Italy on Saturday morning. Thank God I love pizza, that’s all I have to say. Of course, “Pinky’s” offered more than pizza, but with our dwindling money supply, we figured we’d better stick with the cheapest, and believe me, the prices were quite “touristy.” Five Euros for a Marguerita pizza (sauce & cheese) and the real killer was the 4.50 E for a large beer. (The small one at 2 Euros would barely wet your whistle.) ***Note: Little did we know at that time that 5 Euros for pizza was a good price; once we got to Siena and Florence, we paid 7 Euros.

Roberto wasn’t lying when he said he served the best pizza in the area. It was awesome! (And I’d thought the pizza in Venice and in Cesana was pretty damn good.) Roberto, having discovered that Kathy (or Katty, as he called her) was the single one, gave her a free glass of wine, and then later, awarded both of us with a couple of shotglasses of Limonecello and Grappa. (Was he trying to get Katty drunk?) At one point when it got rather warm in the restaurant, Kathy took off her sweater. Roberto was sitting opposite her, and I happened to catch the expression on his face when he saw the low-cut body-molding top she was wearing. It was like looking at the face of a little boy eyeing an ice cream cone. I almost laughed out loud. He flirted with Kathy throughout the evening, and on the drive home, they had a brief conversation in Spanish, and on the way up to the room, she admitted that he’d told her something to the effect that he wanted to “stay with her,” and she told him no, and like a true gentleman, he accepted it. But I think he thinks he’s going to see us tonight, so I’m sure he hasn’t entirely given up on her.

All I can say is I’m glad he’s not pursuing me. Although I am a little miffed that he told Kathy she was beautiful, making me feel like chopped liver. But when I said something to him about that, he laughed and said, “But you’re married to Francisco,” because of course, I told him all about my Italian husband and my bella Irish-Italian kids.

Oh, forgot to mention something that happened yesterday afternoon. We asked Flora, the resort manager, about making a phone call from the room, and learned that we couldn’t make an 800 call here, but after we kept questioning her, she finally, almost with resignation, told us we could call the States free this week only because the system for charging hadn’t been set up yet. We took her at her word and went back to the room where I called Frank, and Kathy called Vince, and tried to call Daddy, but he wasn’t home. In a few minutes, as soon as it’s a decent hour in Virginia, I’m going to call Barb. Why not? We’ve got to get something out of this horrible mistake of a resort. (Sorry, Paolo. We loved you, but...well, you have to admit, Grangesises is not the place to be in summer. However, it'll be a "happening" place in February when the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics arrive in Sestriere for the alpine events.)

Well, the clouds are rolling in—it is afternoon, after all—and it’s starting to get chilly out here, so I guess that means it’s time for our afternoon nap. Maybe I’ll be lucky and will be able to sleep through the rest of the day until tomorrow morning so we can get the hell out of here.

I can hardly wait to lie on the beach and soak up the sun.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Who had the Bright Idea of the Alps in Summer?

June 11, 2005, 11:35 pm, Grangesises, Italy

You ever had a day start out really good, and as the hours pass, it gets better and better and then suddenly…things go downhill with the speed of an Indy racecar? Well, that’s kind of what happened to us today.

No, we didn’t get kicked off the train, or even get moved to a 2nd Class compartment. In fact, we met a very nice Italian lady, Giana, who lives in Torino (Turin) and she helped us find the right platform for our change of trains in Milan. Things were looking up. Then, on the train to Torino, the conductor, Vittorio, befriended us—even sat with us for the last half-hour of the trip, and told us about his adventures in America. He gave us his telephone number and told us to call him if we had any trouble while we were in Italy. Now I’m wondering if he was clairvoyant.

Okay, things started taking a turn for the worse in the village of Oulx where we learned that the bus didn’t go to Grangesises, but just to Sestriere, three kilometers away. No biggie, we thought. And it really wasn’t because when the bus actually arrived and took us to Sestriere, the bus driver was nice enough to take us to Grangesises, anyway. And for that, I gave him a ten Euro bill. (But now that I'm thinking about it, that was probably way too much for an extra three kilometers.) He drove off, leaving us at this “village.”

I guess it was as we entered the village that the alarm bells went off. It looked like a ghost town. We were the only two people around. I mean, the place looked totally deserted. (Remember the movie, "The Shining?" That's what it reminded us of.) We kept walking and finally came to a place that said “Residence.” I stayed with the bags while Kathy went up the stairs. I could hear her talking to someone, and at first I was relieved. But I knew something was very wrong when she called to me to leave the bags and come up. And that’s when she broke the news to me. It was essential to have a car here because none of the restaurants and shops were open in the summer, and we had to go into Sestriere—which, by the way, wasn’t all that big, and also didn’t seem to have anything open at eight o'clock in the evening. So, here we were, stuck in a seemingly deserted mountain village with no food and no way to get to town without walking (3 kilometers—2 miles--and up the mountain) and of course—nothing is open tonight so even if we did have a car, we couldn’t get any groceries tonight. And we hadn't eaten since breakfast in Venice.

Paolo, a young man who works at the resort, came to our rescue and drove us to Cesana, another village several kilometers away for pizza. He ate with us, and we treated, of course. He really was a great conversationalist—spoke excellent English, and we had a good time, almost forgetting about our situation. We were talking about options, and Paolo said, "Well, you could always hijack a ride. It is safe here." Kathy and I kind of looked at each other, but didn't say anything. But later, when Paolo again mentioned "hijacking" a ride, Kathy told him the real term was "hitch-hike," and we had a good laugh over it.

It was fun getting to know Paolo, but the fact remains, we’re in a difficult situation. First of all, the accommodations at this place are incredibly awful. Bad mattresses, a refrigerator that won’t close, no coffee-maker and oh, yes, no heat. And it’s freaking cold up here in the Alps. I’m praying we’ll have hot water for a shower tomorrow. I don’t know what we’re going to do about the rest of the week—a very long week, it could be. If we rented a car, it would cost us 60 Euros a day, which would, no doubt, be cheaper than a hotel for seven nights, if we decided to go on to Tuscany now. But we just might do that. Kathy isn’t excited about driving on mountain roads, and I can’t drive a stick shift. (No such thing as automatic transmissions around here, apparently.) Anyway, we’re going to sleep on it and make a decision tomorrow. This could turn out to be a substantially more expensive vacation than we’d planned.

I wonder if we dare call Vittorio?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Pinching Ourselves in Venice--Are We Really Here?

June 11, 2005, 10:47 AM, Venice

We’re sitting here on the train, waiting to leave for Milano. I hope we’re in the right car. Our tickets are for first class, which is where we are, but one of the conductors said something about reservations, after, of course, last night when we went to the information area of the train station to ask about reservations, they told us we didn’t need them. So…we’ll probably have to move which means I’ll be forced to retreat to my “happy place” and I’m not sure that’s going to be easy.

Meanwhile…let me catch you up on all our adventures in Venice. We were very lucky yesterday morning when a beautiful young woman joined us in our compartment. Her name was Chiara. She spoke excellent English, and told us all kinds of good information about Venice. Then she offered to walk us to our hotel. Luckily, it wasn’t very far from the train station—just across the Grand Canal. The trick was getting over the bridge that crossed the Grand Canal. We’re talking steps. Lots and lots of steps. Chiara was sweet enough to help me with my luggage, but poor Kathy was on her own. The Antiqua Figeura Hotel was just gorgeous—and the man who checked us in was….well, he was gorgeous, too. What is in this Italian water that makes the men so beautiful?

We couldn’t check in until noon, so we left our luggage there and started walking around. Venice was everything we expected—just like in the movies and photos. The gondolas, the gondoliers in their striped shirts (some of them wore plain shirts, though), the bridges, the narrow, twisting alleys. Oh, and the shops with all the beautiful Murano glass. I bought Murano necklaces for all the Bunco Babes, and one for Leah and Sharon. We found a great sandwich shop and had sandwiches and real water!!!! Not that awful stuff we had in Vienna—mineral water. Yuk! We checked into our beautiful room with a view of the Grand Canal, and showered. What a blessing that was after that overnight train trip. It felt fantastic! Then we went for a walk.

A long walk. We made our way to the Rialto Bridge in the San Marco sestieri (district,) and had a beer at an outdoor café overlooking the gondoliers on the Grand Canal. Then we decided to make our way to Piazza San Marco--the famous square you see in all the movies where the pigeons congegrate. And we found it without any trouble! What a magnificent sight that was. It was huge, and of course, there were pigeons everywhere. People were feeding them, and they were sitting on shoulders and heads and fluttering about. I made a mini movie, and one of them landed on Kathy’s hat and just sat there. It was hysterical! I sure hope I got it on the camera. (I mean I hope I filmed it right; I’d never done that before.) Note: Turns out, I didn't, darn it!

It was almost six o’clock by that time, so we decided to make our way back to the hotel and rest awhile before dinner. As if! You know how you hear how everyone gets lost in Venice? Well, we were no exception. Finding our way back to the Rialto Bridge was not as easy as it looked on the map. By seven o’clock, I was exhausted, my feet were hurting, and I had a throbbing headache (and I was hungry.) In other words, I was having a very difficult time staying in “my happy place.” We kept following—or trying to follow these signs leading to the Piazza Roma. And miracle of all miracles, by eight o’clock, we found our hotel. No time to rest, of course, because we suddenly realized that we needed to check the schedule for today’s trip to Torino, and…well, it’s a long story, and too complicated to get into it…let’s just say we realized we didn’t have as much time left in Venice as we needed. And I’d yet to do the shopping I wanted to do. (Heaven forbid I not spend money!) But I had to get myself a Murano necklace, didn’t I? Yes, I did. Of course, the store where I’d seen the one I wanted—yes, in the entire city of Venice (that we managed to cover) I found only one necklace that I really, really liked—but the store was closed last night. We decided to have pizza at Gino’s Pizzeria, and it was delicious!

Being the party animals that we are, we headed back to the hotel around ten and went right to bed. Slept like a log all night, disturbed only by a lone mosquito buzzing around my ear in the early hours, until Kathy got me up at 7:40. We had a great buffet breakfast in the hotel where I managed to embarrass myself with the coffee machine, not realizing I had to hit “stop” before my cup overflowed. We raced out to the shop to buy my necklace (yay!) and then went back to the hotel, said our goodbyes to our handsome hotelier, and lugged our bags to the train station. We’re becoming old pros at hefting our suitcases on and off the trains. And here we are.

The good news is…the conductor has checked our Eurail Passes, and didn’t say a thing about reservations, so I’m hopeful we’ll be able to stay in this car all the way to Milan.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Train Troubles in Italy

June 10, 2005 7:00 AM, Udine, Italy

Okay, so we’re not in Venice yet. Not that we’re supposed to be, but we won’t be getting there at the originally planned time. It all started at about five-forty-five this morning when Kathy got up to go to the bathroom. Let me just say that prior to this momentous event, the night was pretty good. It finally got quiet out in the hallway, and I slept well. So…Kathy gets up to go to the bathroom, and I’m still half-asleep. Twenty minutes goes by, and still no Kathy. Blessed with the wild imagination of a fiction writer, all kinds of things are running through my head. She’s been kidnapped. She was sleep-walking, and walked right off the train> She met Antonio Banderas while waiting in line at the WC and he offered to take her on a personal tour of Venice. (No, Antonio isn’t even Italian.) Finally, I’m wide awake—besides, I’d sneaked a peak through the curtain to see what the day looked like, and it was bright and sunny, so I’m really wide awake now. I get up and go out into the corridor to find Kathy. She’s standing right outside the WC, and there is no Antonio in sight. As soon as she sees me, she gives me this pitiful look and says, “I’ve been waiting here for twenty minutes, and I’m feeling sick, and my bladder is about to explode.” This, by the way, was the same WC I’d waited at last night for a long time before giving up to go find another one. I was astonished that Kathy hadn’t done the same thing, but when I asked her why she hadn’t, she said she was feeling sick and couldn’t move. Pointing out that it was obviously “out of order”—God knows why the train personnel couldn’t have been bothered to put a sign on it—she finally headed through the next car to find an unoccupied WC. (Ironically, a moment later, I followed her, and found one just inside the next car; she’d walked all the way down to the end.) Okay, so while I was in the the WC, I heard all this activity going on outside—Italian voices yelling, and all this clinking and clanging. When I came out, there were four men working on the platform between where I was and the car where my berth was. After a couple of minutes, I was able to pass through, and thank God, when I got to my berth, Kathy was in there. I knew there was no way I could go back to sleep, and it was a good thing because about ten minutes later, a knock came at the door. Thank God the Austrian guy was there so he could explain what was going on. He kind of laughed as he told us, "We're in Italy. The train is broken."

We had to vacate the car and move forward to another one, and that wouldn’t have been so bad except once they moved us, they didn’t tell us where to go or what to do, so we were standing out in this narrow corridor, waiting for instructions, which, apparently, were never to come. (And it wasn't just us; there was a whole row of car refugees waiting uncertainly with their belongings.) Finally, we saw this official-looking person, and Kathy left her luggage with me and went down to try to find out where we were supposed to go. Well, thank God, he found us a sitting compartment with these three other people, and right now, I’m sitting here typing this and waiting for Kathy to return, hopefully, with two cups of badly-needed coffee (bad as it's rumored to be.) Our luggage, by the way, is out in the corridor because there’s no place to put it in this berth.

Thus, begins our first day in Italy.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Rainy Send-Off in Vienna

June 9, 2005 – 10:50 PM, Somewhere in Austria

Okay, so I’m sitting here on the overnight train to Venice in our 4-person “Couchette,” which Kathy and I are sharing with a very nice Viennese couple. The train is a little bit of a surprise. It’s a “sleeping train,” which means pretty much just that. In other words, there are no seats, just beds. So, if you want to sit up, you have to sit up in your bed. What a concept! There was an even bigger surprise. There is no lounge car, no dining car and no snack bar. The man from Vienna told us they do have coffee in the morning, but we’d be better off skipping it. Apparently, it’s pretty bad. We ordered it anyway because we’re Americans, and we have to have our coffee in the morning—bad or not.

Okay, so it was an okay day—not as good as yesterday, but we had fun. We wisely decided to make a trial run to the bahnhof, and lucky we did because when we got to the Sudbohnhof, we found out that our train actually left from the Westbahnhof, which of course, wasn’t what our schedule said. So by the time we figured everything out—how to get from our hotel to the Westbahnhof, it was two o’clock. We stopped into this little café and had coffee and a bourbon-soaked cake with very sweet pink icing. Sat next to two gorgeous Austrian men—the kind you see skiing in the Olympics, but of course, they didn’t even notice a couple of “over-the-hillers” like us, even if we do look pretty damn good for our ages. :)

We shared a delicious chicken schnitzel sandwich at this fast food place (and if we’d known there wasn’t a dining car on this train, we probably would’ve each had our own.) Oh! Forgot to mention—it started raining about three, and we walked all the way back to the hotel to get our umbrellas, and I couldn’t find mine. So we stopped in at the gasthaus we went to last night, thinking maybe I’d left it there. Biergette was there, dressed in this cleavage-revealing dirndl—and it was the damndest thing! She acted like she didn’t even remember us from the night before—after all that talking over beer, the shot game she played on us, making us lose, and the 2 Euro tip Kathy left her. So, we figured the explanation has to be one of two things—either she was a little bit sloshed last night when we met or else she has a split personality, and really didn’t remember us. (Or a third possibility...maybe she has a twin?) Well, at least she posed with us in a picture anyway.

Well, Kathy has turned her light out, and I guess the couple in the upper bunk is ready to sleep, so I’d better stop writing now. This keyboard is making too much noise. Still lots of noise out in the aisle, though. I think some people must think this is a party train.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

Last Day in Vienna

June 9, 2005 – 8:50 AM, Vienna, Austria

I’m sitting here waiting for Kathy to get ready so we can go downstairs to the breakfast buffet. We’ve had no luck finding out whether this breakfast is complimentary or not. (As yesterday has proven, our cash situation is…or soon will be…in dire straits.) So, a complimentary breakfast would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, we’re going to have to go seek out a decently priced (yeah, right!) pastry shop. Anyway, what’s really important is coffee—and we’re certainly not going to that Espresso place that charged almost 3 Euros for a very tiny latte.

Well, I slept like a rock last night. The bed was comfortable, and as I remember from my past visits to Austria and Germany, there was one of those soft, warm eiderdowns on the bed. Kathy woke me up about two in the morning, asking if I was awake and could she open a window because she was burning up. I mumbled something and vaguely remember her stumbling over to the window. Went back to sleep and had vivid dreams—good ones—up until I reluctantly opened my eyes at 7:40. I could’ve slept for at least a couple more hours, but the day is wasting, and it’s our last one here in Vienna. I want to explore. We’re planning to jump on the #71 tram and see where it takes us. We don’t have to be at the Sudbohnhof until around 7:30, so we have plenty of time. We’re going to try to stop in at the gasthaus where we met Biergette last night, and get her picture.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Visit to Vienna's Giant Ferris Wheel

June 8, 2005 – 1:05 PM, Vienna, Austria

I’m sitting here in our hotel in Vienna, waiting for my hair to dry a little before I try to style it. Luckily, they let us check in early, so we decided to shower and then, to counteract jet lag, we’re going to hit the streets. Because our bodies are still on Virginia time—7 AM—we have to stay up until at least 9 PM tonight.

The flight over was awesome! No doubt about it, Business Class is the way to travel. The head flight attendant actually came by and personally spoke to each traveler, asking if there was anything she could do for us. The food wasn’t all that great, but the menu was nice. We had a choice of lamb, Cornish hen or cod. And Kathy and I both chose champagne for our drinks. The seats went all the way back so you could lie almost flat, and each seat had its individual TV. So, I managed to get a little sleep.

We made it from the airport to the hotel with very little trouble—except for the fact that we went the wrong way out of the train station and walked a long way before realizing it. If we keep making stupid mistakes like that, we won’t have to worry about gaining weight, even if we overdo it on that great Italian food, we’ll probably walk it off.

Well, my hair feels almost dry now, so I’m going to take my European hot styling brush and try to get myself presentable. And then we’re going out to explore.

June 8, 2005 – 9:40 PM, Vienna, Austria

I’m still awake, but just a little drunk. Kathy and I have had a great day! We went out for a coffee “pick me up” and damn, it was expensive—well, about the same as Starbucks, but I’m not a Starbucks fan. I just wanted plain old coffee, and got a very nice latte, but it wasn’t worth three Euros. Anyway, we jumped on a tram and headed for the Prater where Riesenrad, the world famous giant Ferris wheel is. We rode on it, just like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in “Before Sunrise,” one of my favorite movies (and the one that made me want to visit Vienna.) It was fun, but yes…expensive. I have a feeling that’s going to be the case with just about everything we do here in Europe. Here’s one for the “Get a Clue” file. Carole, you didn’t bring enough freakin’ cash! Apparently, though, nobody cares whether you’ve bought a ticket for the tram because they never check it. Of course, we already bought ours—for both days, so we’re totally legal, but wondering why we had to cough up the Euros when nobody even checks to see if we have a ticket. Anyway, it’s fun taking the tram around Vienna, and I think by the end of our first day, we were really getting the hang of it. We actually found a restaurant that was recommended in a guidebook, and had a very nice dinner. I wanted Wiener schnitzel, but pork, not veal, and they didn’t have it, so I went for chicken Wiener schnitzel, and it was delicious! Good choice. We walked around Stadtpark for a while and came across a statue of Mozart and took a few pictures. Then we rode around the city on different trams before coming back to our hotel. It was still early, so we decided to go have a beer at a gasthaus down the street, and there, we struck up a conversation with Biergette, an Austrian waitress, and Hetti, a German woman who works at the German Embassy in Vienna. Hetti had lived in the Washington DC area for four years, working at the German Embassy there, and she told us how terribly homesick she was for America. We had a great time with these two very friendly ladies, and Biergette invited us to play a drinking game with her where we had to drink shots of…well…can’t remember what she called it, but I just know it burned as it went down. Anyway, we lost, and that’s why I’m feeling just a little drunk now. So…I’m off to bed, hopefully to sleep like a log in a real bed tonight. What a great first day in Austria! Until tomorrow…

Thursday, June 23, 2005

At The Airport

June 7, 2005 – 4:30 pm, Dulles Airport, Washington DC

I’m sitting here in the Red Club, United’s First Class lounge, waiting for our flight to Vienna to board. I’m drinking a yummy English toffee coffee (after slurping down a free Blue Marguerita, followed by two chocolate chip shortbread cookies) and I wasn’t even hungry. But hey, you’ve got to take advantage of freebies, right?

Anyway, Kathy surprised me when we got to the airport with the announcement that our airline tickets are in Business Class—the first time I’ve ever flown that way. (Only twice in my life have I flown first-class—once on my way to Egypt and once on my way from Athens to New York) so I’m really happy; I know how the better half live. Maybe if our seats are nice and wide, I’ll be able to sleep tonight, and arrive in Vienna sans jet lag, ready to explore the city.

That’s it for now. It’s time for us to make our way to our gate.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Leaving For Italy

Hi. I'm Carole Bellacera, author of four books of Women's Fiction--and one due out in September, CHOCOLATE ON A STICK. I'm getting ready to leave for the airport. My sister, Kathy, and I are heading for Vienna, Austria tonight--the starting point for a two-week tour of Austria and Italy. I have a lot of nervous energy right now; that's why I'm posting this entry on my blog. Just trying to fill time before we leave for the airport. I'm not a good flyer. I'd much rather take a train--or better yet, be able to do one of those "Star Trek" things where you can just get zapped to another place. Oh, well. Guess I'll just have to partake of all the free drinks on Austrian Airlines.

Anyway, I'll be keeping a journal during my two-week trip, so when I get back, I'll post it here. Wish me luck!