Milan and Lake Como

Milan Cathedral

It was dark and raining when we arrived into Milan. Our hotel was a little bit out of the centre of the city, but it was perfect for us as since we still had our rental car. It was a huge complex and surprisingly comfortable.  In the morning the wind was pushing the small trees we could see from our balcony sideways. The sky was dark and gray and the rain was pelting down. We took our time getting ready and as we went for breakfast the rain magically stopped. We checked out and stored our luggage, and when we went outside the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  We couldn’t believe our luck. The hotel was only a few blocks from the metro station so we walked to it to head into the centre.

We exited from the metro in the main plaza with the magnificent, gothic Milan Cathedral in front of us. They have been doing restoration work on it for years. The last time I saw it the front was covered in scaffolding. This day it was cleaned and looked very impressive. We went inside before climbing the 200+ steps to the roof top. We laughed at the simple climb after doing multiple 400+ step towers elsewhere on our journey. We could see across the city to the snowcapped mountains in the distance. What a view! We really enjoyed our time climbing on top of it and being close to the all the intricate design that went into it.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

After leaving the Doumo we walked through one of the oldest, grandest malls in Italy, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. We went next door to a restaurant on the rooftop of a high-end department store. There we ate outside on the terrace with a view of the Cathedral; the food was delicious. After browsing through the departments on the way out we made our way to the Golden Square section. Here all of Milan’s designer shops are located in a four block radius. We window shopped but mostly observed the incredibly well-dressed people walking through the neighbourhood. We were really pleased with our visit to Milan.

We left Milan and drove to Lake Como. We stayed off the main highway on the way there to see a little more of the country. After reaching Lake Como we drove up the eastside of the lake to a little town called Torno. This village of 1200 people is where we stayed for two nights. We rented two apartments just off the lakeshore very close to a ferry stop. Doug and Carol took the split level apartment up above the craft store and wine bar, while Leanne and I had the smaller one off the side alley. The apartments were nice and it was incredibly quiet at night.

along Lake Milano

The following morning it was still sunny and we caught the ferry towards Bellagio. It stopped at many docks along the way. We disembarked at a town called Lenno. Here we caught a water-taxi to the peninsula where Villa Balbianello is located. It was a terrific way to arrive. These beautiful grounds were very familiar because they were used for filming the romance scenes at the end of Star Wars II, and the grounds where James Bond recovers in Casino Royale.  After returning to Lenno we decided to walk along the “green” trail towards the next village and Villa Carlotta. While some of the trail was scenic, particularly through a park along the lake we think we deviated in other areas and had to walk along the road. We arrived at the next dock just before the next ferry was arriving.  We passed on going into Carlotta to head straight to Bellagio for lunch and to see it before the rain came in. Clouds were already darkening the sky.

Leanne and Michael at Lake Como

I had high expectations for Bellagio, the inspiration for the famous casino in Las Vegas, and felt a bit let down. It could have been the crowds (we arrived on a public holiday) and it could have been the weather, but I just didn’t find the charm I was hoping for. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth seeing. It is a nice little town in a very scenic location. From there we made the long boat journey back to Torno.

The next morning we left Lake Como and decided to drive into neighboring Switzerland so Doug and Carol could add it as a country and see how Lake Lugano compared. From there we returned to Milan and arrived at the rental agency at the exact minute the car needed to be returned. We went to the train station and booked tickets in first class for the trip to Venice.

Tuscany to Portofino

San Gimignano

We have now travelled the entire length of Italy by land, with the obvious exception of our boat trip between Sicily and the mainland. This has involved some train travel, but most of it has been driving. Fortunately there is always something incredible to see along the way and having a car lets us get to the wonderful spots a lot of tourists don’t get to see. We rarely drove much longer than an hour before having something worth visiting. We have driven a lot in this last week.

On our last day in Tuscany we started with a visit to the towered city of San Gimignano, which we had been looking at in the distance from our rental villa. It is a great little town in a beautiful Tuscan hillside setting. It is also very touristy and despite being there early the tourists were starting to pour in by the bus load.

Pisa

The next stop was the famous leaning tower of Pisa. The sun was shining and hoards of tourists were already there. What I found more entertaining than the complex itself was all the people lined up along the grounds in various “funny” poses with the usual lame photos of holding the tower up, pushing it over, finger-on-top, etc.. We explored the grounds and noticed it was built with differing pieces of marble that had been taken from other regions and times.

We left Pisa (and Tuscany) for our final push to Portofino. The plan was to stop in at an Auto Grill for a quick lunch of pasta and salad, unfortunately we stopped at a Fini Grill instead. There was an Auto Grill taunting us, inaccessible on the other side of the toll-highway. We ate at the equivalent of a 7-11. It was late in the afternoon and we were so hungry we subjected ourselves to eating the awful substitution for food, processed microwaved meals.

View of Portofino

After driving through what felt like an endless number tunnels and bridges, we finally reached our destination of Portofino. What an awesome little town. No wonder it is a playground for the rich and famous and managed to find its way into the last position of the Top 100 Wonders of the World. We parted from our travelling companions as Leanne and I stayed up the hill in its famous hotel the Splendido while Doug and Carol stayed by the water in the Domina Piccolo.

Hotel Splendido

Our room in the Splendido had a beautiful view and we were welcomed with a chilled bottle of Proseco and fresh fruit. I swam in the infinity pool overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea before we made our way into the heart of the town. We were visiting ahead of tourist season and there was hardly anyone there, which was a welcome change after our previous stops. The locals were trimming all the trees and preparing for a massive bonfire at the edge of the harbour. It was a quiet evening. For dinner that night we made up for our lunch, and had multiple courses with cocktails with the main being a mix of fresh locally caught seafood.

The next day we climbed up to the castle on the hill for amazing views of Portofino. We left in the afternoon and stopped in Santa Margherita Ligure on our way towards the highway. Then we surprised Carol and Doug with an impromptu visit to Cinque Terre. It was not part of the original itinerary but Carol mentioned it a half dozen times on the trip. We thought we would surprise them by taking them to it. They didn’t catch on until we were close enough that it was listed on the road signs. It is a difficult drive to reach it, but we were able to get into Monterosso. We had lunch there not far from the ongoing reconstruction being done to repair the devastation it suffered from the flood in late October, 2011.

Manarolo, Cinque Terre

We were able to get to all five of the villages by train and walked the Via d’Amore between Manarolo and Riomaggiore. It was an enjoyable walk in great weather and it was good to see some of the villages were not impacted, buy my favourite one was hit the worst and is still on a long road to recovery. Click here to see a before and after of the beautiful town of Vernazza. We’ve had a photo from here on our wall at home for years since our first visit to it 2005.

We left Cinque Terre late in the day and made the long drive to Milan. On the way out of Cinque Terre we went on the road less travelled as we had entered from the north and couldn’t get through the roads still being reconstructed to reach Spezia for our planned scenic drive. We took a small road through other damaged towns that are still in terrible shape from the flood.

We joked a lot about the Auto Grill on the drive to Milan. At one point seeing a futuristic looking one on the opposite side of the highway. We finally found one and had dinner there getting it out of our system and realizing it really isn’t all that good. Before reaching Milan we passed another one built as a bridge that spanned a six lane highway.

I have fixed our photo albums, but had to split it in two. Use the following links to access: our most recent photos and photos from the first half of our trip.

 

Tuscany

Florence skyline

We arrived in Florence (Firenze), the capital of Tuscany and proceeded to the hotel. It is a luxury boutique hotel in the pedestrian area just a short walk from many of the city’s major sights. We went out to explore and wandered to the Piazza del Doumo to take in view of the iconic Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower. We continued on and crossed the Ponte Vecchio before making our way up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for a view of the Florence sky-line. Here Leanne and I waited and watched the sunset. That evening we had an excellent meal at La Bussola.

Florence Doumo

The next day we visited the Medici Chapel and the Bargello Museum before our reserved entry time into the Uffizi Gallery to see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. We benefited from being in a city famous for its museums during cultural week. This meant all the museum entries were free for us, but it also meant the crowds could get big midday. When we left the Uffizi there was a torrential downpour. We took shelter against the wall of a building while we waited it out. In the late afternoon the sky cleared and we climbed Giotto’s Bell Tower for an impressive view of the Doumo and city. Our last museum of the day was the Academy of Fine Arts to see the original David statue. We finished our day off with dinner at Buca Mario’s, a restaurant that has been there since 1886.

home cooked Tuscan meal

The next morning we went through Pitti Palace and its museums before heading into the Boboli Gardens. We followed this with lunch at Obika for fresh, regional Burrata and smoked mozzarella. Then we picked-up our rental car and drove illegally through the narrow pedestrian streets to reach our hotel. It was a little stressful and local shop owners were laughing at us. The hotel kindly registered our plates so we wouldn’t get fined. Fortunately they could do this for their guests given their location.

our Tuscan Villa

We escaped from the city and travelled out into the Tuscan countryside. We arrived at our multi-level rental villa out in a remote location. Here we were able to enjoy the comforts of home: grocery shopping, home cooked meals, and doing our own laundry. It was a needed break from being on the go. We had a self-catering apartment in part of a larger complex, but we were the only ones staying here. It is an idyllic setting and would be perfect for a large group of friends and family to share space in. There is no road traffic whatsoever and other than the occasional frogs at night it was completely quiet.

Dario Cecchini's Butcher Shop

It rained heavily the following day and we had limited success exploring. We spent most of our time around the villa after making a short visit to Siena. The following day, however, was a big success as we went to Greve in Chianti to visit the Saturday market. We thought it would be a farmers market, but it felt more like a flea market. Our next stop was to the famous butchery of Dario Cecchini to sample some meats and wine. Following that we drove into a remote area with a beautiful view to have lunch at Osteria Alla Piazza. From there we drove through the incredible countryside to reach the grounds of Barone Ricasoli and did a wine tasting at the birthplace of Chianti Classico. The roads in this region are such a joy to drive. They curve continuously through the beautiful rolling hills and there is minimal traffic. I am so happy our rental had a manual transmission to get the most out of it. I really enjoyed it, but still felt a sense of envy when we would see the occasional motorcycle travelling the other way. Of course, I didn’t feel that way during the brief hailstorm we encountered. I would love to return for a motorcycle trip one day.

Siena and the Piazza del Campo

With the sun shining we decided to return to Siena. We enjoyed the views and people watching at the Piazza del Campo. In the evening we had our third home cooked meal. All of them were delicious and accompanied with local wine. As a comparison to the cost of wine in Canada, we had the most expensive bottle of white they sold at local supermarket. It cost just over 5 Euro. Many thanks to the chefs Doug, Carol and Leanne for all of the great meals.

I am posting this on the morning of our last day in Tuscany. We have a couple more visits planned before heading to the coast further north. We continue to post photos here. Given the size of the album now it is probably a good thing no photos are allowed in the Florence museums. :)

Umbria and San Marino

Villa di Monte Solare

We picked up our rental car and made our way out of Rome. We drove into the beautiful Umbria region and made our way to Orvieto. Prior to getting there we stopped in one of the fantastic auto-grills that can be found along the major highways. It was a quick place to grab some food and snacks. When we reached Orvieto the weather was dismal and we ended up exploring it mostly by car as most of the shops were closed.  The town’s location is among the most dramatic in Europe, rising above the almost-vertical faces of cliffs that are completed by defensive walls built of the same stone. It is too bad we didn’t get to see it on a better day. We carried on to what turned out to be a perfect countryside stay at Villa di Monte Solare. The setting was beautiful and the rooms were comfortable. Here I indulged in a massage at its spa before enjoying dinner in its amazing restaurant. We had multiple courses of the amazing regional food and wine.

Michael in La Cantina di Spello

The next morning we left early to explore some of the hill towns in the region. We started in Todi and arrived early enough to miss the crowds. We parked below and took the funicular to the top and It felt like we had the whole town to ourselves. I really enjoyed it. From there we drove through the winding mountain roads to another valley to visit a town called Spoleto. The drive was fantastic, Spoleto less so. There was a running event taking place and many of the roads were blocked. We found parking and took numerous escalators and an elevator to the top of the hill where we visited the castle and took in the view. After Todi this felt like a bit of a let down. We carried on and went to a little town called Spello. Here we had the best lunch of our trip. We ate at La Cantina di Spello, a popular spot and one that doesn’t cater to tourists. From the Italian only menu all of our dishes were great, but Leanne’s was the stand-out. She had the “Sformatino di Patate e Porcini con Fonduta di Reggiano e Tartufo Nero” which google translate tells me was “Potatoes and Porcini flan with cheese fondue and black truffle.” Expectional.

Assisi

Our last stop of the day was in Assisi. We hiked around the entire town which meant a lot of up and down. It was certainly worth the effort. After traversing one side to the other we climbed to the top of the Castle and its tower. Here I took a small passage way through a long wall to reach another lookout point. It was a long day and we saved the best for last. When we were finished we returned to our villa just outside of Perugia. We enjoyed our meal there so much the night before we did it again.

cooking in Italy

On our final day Leanne, Carol and Doug took a cooking class. I joined them for a delicious five course meal. The biscotti that was served at the end is the best I’ve ever had. I was instructed that it has to be dipped in the sweet wine to have it properly. When we were finished we took to the road and drove to Gubbio. Another medieval town built up a hill. We wandered through it and carried on towards the republic of San Marino.

San Marino

It was quite the drive to San Marino, at times we had heavy rains and severe fog. Our GPS was giving us directions that took us off the main roads to go through some small mountain passes only to rejoin with the previous road we were on. It extended our time but made for a very scenic trip. It felt like we were on a never-ending uphill to reach San Marino. We were close to cloud level there and had a night view off one side of the mountain but not the other. We celebrated seeing a new country as we explored it in the dark and found an open restaurant for dinner and had local beer.

The next morning we were rewarded with the sky clearing up. Views to the valleys below, the hills in the distance on one side and the Adriatic sea off to the other. It exceeded my expectations. Its perch high on the point of a mountain makes it fairy-tale like. We climbed a couple of the towers and walked along the walls for the tremendous views. We had the place to ourselves and tourists were only arriving when we were ready to leave.

War Cemetery

We detoured to visit the Coriano Ridge War Cemetery to pay tribute to the hundreds of Canadian troops that perished here in World War II. It was beautifully cared for, and was very touching.

We dropped the rental car off in Rimini after looking out at the Adriatic sea. Then we took the train to Bologna where we stopped for lunch. Leanne wisely had pasta with bolognese sauce in the city where it originated. We wandered a bit to see the city and took the train again onto Tuscany.

Rome and the Vatican

Trevi Fountain

Our hotel in Rome was ideally located against the Villa Borghese Park. After checking-in we went exploring. We wandered down the nearby Spanish Steps and zigzagged our way towards the Piazza del Popolo and its Egyptian obelisk. From there we continued our walk eventually making our way through touristy Piazza Navona before visiting the best preserved of all Roman buildings, the Pantheon with its massive dome. After admiring this marvel we continued on and saw the Capital building and the Trevi Fountain and found a nice little restaurant nearby with good atmosphere for dinner.

Leanne, Michael, and the Colloseum

The following day the sun was shining and we went straight to the Colosseum. We beat the lines and were able to wander through it before joining a group tour for an explanation of its history. By the time we left it was packed. We carried on to the Palatine hill and Roman Forum enjoying the history and great weather. We stumbled across a local vegetarian restaurant for an unexpected, enjoyable lunch. From there we went to the top of the Capitol building for a panoramic view of the city. In the evening we made our way to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood with its narrow cobbled streets lined by medieval houses. There are many great restaurants there, but we managed to find a terrible one. We laughed as I tried to make it look like I ate more of my meal than I did before they took the plate away.

The Vatican

The next morning we went to visit Vatican City, the smallest independent state in the world by both area and population. We first went into the impressive St Peter’s Basilica. Here we admired the impressive scale of it all. We also descended into the Vatican grotto to visit the tombs before climbing all the way up to the top of the basilica for a view over the Vatican grounds and out to Rome. That afternoon the rain came in heavy. We left the Vatican and took refuge in the nearby Castle of the Holy Angel. We returned to visit the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. We braved the massive crowds and we were happy to get out of there. We found a bakery for lunch and took the metro back to our hotel. We were drenched when we finally returned. That evening we made up for the previous dinner as we dined on the rooftop of the hotel. The food was excellent and the fresh Burrata served with marinated tomatoes was superb.

We wandered a little more around Rome the next morning, having breakfast again at a nearby cafe. Carol threw a coin in the Trevi fountain and we picked up our rental card and left for Umbria.

We continue to upload our photos as we go. Click here to see them.

Amalfi Coast, Capri, Pompeii

Infinity Pool in Ravello

Easter morning we left Taormina and took a train from Sicily to Italy. To cross the Tyrrhenian Sea the train boarded a ferry; it was a very unique experience. We eventually reached Salerno and we were met at the station to be driven to Ravello. The coast line here is stunning, but unfortunately it was grey and raining. We took a slight detour to stop in Amalfi and sought shelter indoors with a short exploration of the large Cathedral there.

We continued on and climbed the winding roads high up to the small town of Ravello. It has striking views overlooking the Amalfi Coast. Here Leanne and I separated from Doug and Carol as we splurged to stay in the Hotel Caruso for a night. We were welcomed with rainbows in the sky as the sun broke through and we swam in the beautiful infinity pool overlooking the coast. For Easter dinner I had a taster menu at an incredible restaurant and two of the courses I will remember for a long time: asparagus with poached egg and Tovere sheep cheese, and lasagna with braided beef (the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted). The views, the pool, and the meal perfectly paired with regional wines made for a wonderful, romantic evening.

Positano

Late the following morning we met with Giovanni for our tour of the Amalfi Coast.  He is very Italian, very animated and opinionated. He was a perfect guide and a great driver. The rain from the previous day disappeared and it was a sunny day for the most scenic drive in the world. Before leaving Ravello, we visited the gardens and the view at the Villa Rufolo. Next stop was a return to the town of Amalfi. This time we explored the outdoors and walked out on the pier for photos. Having a driver here was ideal. He was able to drop us off and pick us up from the little coastal towns avoiding traffic and parking headaches. He also knoew the best points along the road for photos. Picturesque Positano was our last village on this side of the coast and it was my favourite. We meandered through its narrow streets and visited the beach. Easter Monday is a holiday and it was packed with people from neighboring areas. Having a knowledgeable guide and driver was invaluable.  We had one last look-out stop after leaving Positano before going to our final destination for the day, Sorrento. Giovanni took us through the packed streets down to a fishing area for a very late lunch. As he was driving into the tight roads leading to the restaurant a tourist driving out from the area stopped him to let him know that his van would be too big to get in through. Giovanni said thanks, laughed and drove through it with ease. It was very funny. We spent the night in a boutique hotel nestled amongst the pedestrian streets. A porter met us and we walked with him through the crowds to the inner courtyard of the hotel where our rooms were a few flights up.

Capri and the Faraglioni

The next morning we took a catamaran to the island of Capri. Here we bused to Anacapri where we took a chairlift (only one person per chair) to the top of Monte Solaro. It provided a great view of the entire island, particularly of Capri and the iconic stacks called Faraglioni. We later made our way to Capri itself and had an awesome hike down to Marina Piccola. That evening back in Sorrento I was hopeful to visit to the “best restaurant in the region” instead we ended up going to Franko’s Pizzeria. It was ok, but a particularly funny contrast to the other place. Franko’s deliviered our food with plastic cups, plates and cutlery.

Pompeii

The next day we left Sorrento and had a guided tour of Pompeii.  Pompeii  is remarkable as it was buried under four to six meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. This preserved it until it was partially unearthed over 1500 years later. It offers a fascinating look into what life was like so long ago. It was sad to see the remains of people who perished in the ash. The shapes of their bodies were preserved in positions of desperation.

Following Pompeii we went into the heart of Naples, not a pleasant town from what we saw, and from there we caught a high speed train to Rome.

Sicily

Taormina, Sicily

We had a delightful stress free journey to the stunning town of Taormina. The flight was 35 minutes to Catania and a driver met us at the airport to deliver us to the hotel. It took about an hour and it was a surprise to all of us just how high up the hill the heart of the town of Taormina is, and that our hotel was even further above. We stayed in the Villa Ducale and everything about this small boutique hotel was exceptional. The service was exemplary and the views superb. We took a shuttle to the village just in time to catch “the procession.” All the ladies were dressed in black and carried lanterns. They lined the main street clearing a path for the depictions of Christ that were carried through the centre. It seemed like most of the town was involved including the children and the music being performed by the marching band sounded like something straight out of the Godfather.  We eventually made our way to the restaurant recommended to us. We even had a local lead us straight to it when we had trouble finding it. Sadly dinner did not go well. It was late, we were tired, and the staff was unfriendly and unaccommodating. That blip of a bad experience was overshadowed though by the rest of our stay.

Michael, Leanne, Doug, Carol in Taormina

In the morning we made our way to the cross overlooking all of Taormina. It was a short five-minute walk from our hotel. The views were stunning. We proceeded to walk the 500 stairs down to the main village. We walked through town to the Teatro Greco which is a popular tourist spot but still used for the occasional concert. From there we wandered down further to the city gardens and then all the way down to the beach. The views of the bays and the small island were perfect.  We covered a huge distance on the walk and relaxed on the beach with some drinks. The trip back up was easy with the cable cars.

Taormina is one of those wonderful places you hope to discover. It is now one of my favorites and greatly surpassed my expectations. It is known to be the gem of Sicily, but that could probably be expanded to all of Italy. It is well known here though and it is filled with tourists.

Teatro Greco

We had pizza and wine for lunch, and had a pleasant afternoon wandering the village and relaxing back at the hotel admiring the views from there. That night we had a very special dinner prepared for us at our hotel. A Sicilian cook at the hotel cooked freshly caught fish and clams purchased at the fish market that morning. The clams were served with spaghetti as a primi and the fish was the secondi accompanied by roasted vegetables and a side salad of orange slices with oregano and olive oil. We shared a bottle of wine from vineyards at Mount Etna which we could see in the distance as part of our view.  It was the perfect dinner and the best way to finish an amazing day in a phenomenal place.

Photos from our trip have been posted here.

Malta

Maltese Island Comino

We flew to Malta with its national airline. I had fortunately pre-booked an exit row for me and Leanne. It cost a little extra, but it was worth it. There was a man on the plane who was well over 2-meters tall and he couldn’t sit down in the regular seats. In fact even those who are vertically challenged didn’t have any leg-space in the other rows. The admirably-tall Dutch man was required to pay to have the privilege of sitting in an exit row.

driving on Gozo

We picked up our rental car at the airport. It was a perfect size for us fitting the four of us and all our luggage comfortably. The GPS I had brought over sadly didn’t have maps for Malta, but it is a small group of islands and we thought we’d be ok with the paper map. I quickly adapted to the manual transmission and driving on the left side of the road. The traffic was hectic however and we struggled with directions taking an hour to get to the hotel and driving through the heart of old Valletta and its narrow streets in the process. We were a bit unlucky with the weather that day, but wandered down to Spinola Bay and had dinner Pepinos restaurant. The place had decent food and the walls were covered with awkward paparazzi taken photos of some of the numerous celebrities who had eaten there including, Brad Pitt, Madonna, and Leonardo DiCapro.

by the blue grotto of Malta

The following morning we left early to navigate our way across the island of Malta to the ferry across the Comino channel to Gozo. There we ventured out to the Azure Window, a natural rock bridge. After wandering through there we got somewhat lost going through tiny towns and country side before coming upon the Ta’ Pinu church. We carried on to the Citadel in Victoria where we twice found the best parking spots available. One was just at the entrance to the citadel and the other right beside the centre of town near to where we had lunch.  We ate on an outdoor rooftop overlooking the city square.

Marsaxlokk

Before leaving Gozo we visited the Ggantija Temples which predate the pyramids of Giza, but are not much of a sight to see. Back on Malta our driving adventure continued and we happened upon Popeye’s village, the actual set created for the movie and still remaining as a tourist attraction. We then went to Golden Bay, considered the best beach in the country, to dip our toes in the sea. The highlight that day was going to the medieval walled city of Mdina. It was early evening the day before Good Friday and we were able to walk around in peace and quiet. That night we had Thai at the acclaimed Blue Elephant restaurant that was connected to our hotel. For those that know Carol, yes she ate Thai and has been adventurous in trying all sorts of food normally avoided at home.

On our last day we went to see the fourth largest free-standing dome in the world in the town of Mosta. We then went to the west coast and got in a small boat to explore the blue grotto and rocky coastline. The next stop was the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. Our challenges with navigating the unmarked roads were severe but we always managed to find our way. When we left the hotel that afternoon we managed to make it to the airport in just 15 minutes. Just when we had started to learn our way around it was time to go.

Family time in Amsterdam

Our accommodation in Amsterdam

Leanne and I met up with her parents Carol and Doug at YVR airport where we had lunch together before boarding our flight to Europe. It was an overnight flight, none of us slept, and in the morning we arrived at Schipol airport. It always amazes me how simple entry is. Customs was nothing more than a hello and a quick stamp of the passport.  We caught a train from there to Amsterdam Central where we walked with bags in tow to the B&B that would be our home for the next couple of nights. It was welcoming place built in the 1600’s with traditional character and a rich history as it once had a secret Church in its basement, the same room where Doug and Carol slept.

Zanse Schans

We wandered around the Joordan neighborhood and found a place for lunch. When we returned we were all fighting the urge to sleep when Leanne’s sister Adrienne and her husband David arrived at our door. Adrienne had been doing studies in London and David had flown over the previous week. It was surreal to have them all together there in Amsterdam. It was a sunny day and we went out to explore and to fight-off our lack of sleep and jet-lag. We wandered from one side of town to the other visiting the extremes of the picturesque Beignhof area and the seedy red light district. We had a family dinner that evening at a Mexican restaurant of all places. It had plenty of space for us and was near where we were staying. We enjoyed our dinner and catching up with everyone.

Carol, Leanne, and Doug

The following morning Adrienne arrived without David. He had been fighting a nasty cold and despite making a valiant effort to be out the day before he simply needed rest and was concerned with getting us sick at the start of our adventure. We rumored that he wanted time away from the family to indulge in the guilty pleasures of the Red Light district on his first visit to Europe.  The five of us took advantage of the weather to make our way out to the countryside to see Zaanse Schans. We wandered through the touristy old town and visited the windmills. That afternoon we returned to Amsterdam where we had lunch overlooking the city from the top floor of the modern library before renting bicycles. Adrienne went to check on David and the four of us rode through town and around Vondel park before heading to the museum district to rendezvous with Adrienne. It was a short visit and David managed to be there to wish us well on our trip. That evening we had dinner at a recommended French restaurant called Prego and in the evening Doug, Adrienne and I went to a marvelous local bar that only serves Dutch beer called ‘t Arendsnest Nederlands biercafe. It was a good finish to our short stay and a fine farewell to Adrienne until we see her again back home.

Winter 2011-2012

99th Grey Cup

It has been a stay at home Winter this year although I did get to visit part of Canada I had never been to. I went to Saskatchewan for the first time to see its only two cities of any size. It reminds me of how much of my home country I haven’t seen and how I hope to change that. It actually felt strange to fly domestic.

Drew at the Aquarium

The most significant event has been the birth of our newest nephew, Ben. Other milestone birthdays included our niece Teagan turning one, our nephew Drew passing 18-months, and our niece Laura turning two.

We kept ourselves entertained. In the world of sports I was there when the BC Lions won the 99th Grey Cup at BC Place. I saw some great NHL games with the Canucks beating Chicago, Detroit, Winnipeg and Toronto. I also had half-a-dozen epic ski days in Whistler and Blackcomb. One of those days was with old friends who I used to ski with at Mount Baker back when we were teenagers.

Our niece Laura paying us a visit

We saw a number of concerts. The most impressive was an emotional rendition of Vivaldi’s the Four Seasons at the Chan Centre. It was led by visiting Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. The orchestra performed standing-up and rocked-it-out on the stage. Parts of the performance left us breathless. When it concluded the entire audience jumped to its feet with a standing ovation. It was such a response that the symphony was compelled to play two encores of the key movements in the piece. Of all the times I’ve seen the VSO, this was a first. It was exceptional. Other shows we saw included Charlie Winston, City and Colour, Mother Mother, and the Kooks. Most of the shows were at one of my favorite live venues, the Commodore Ballroom.

Vancouver is known for being a foodie city and we take advantage of it often. I love our nights out with great company, incredible drinks and exceptional food. Some of our favorites recently have been at Pied-a-Terre, Maenam, L’Abattoire, Cioppinos, Boneta, ORU, Blue Water, and the Diamond. I also enjoyed returning to the annual beer pairing event the Feast of Five Firkins at the Whip.

We have been watching some of the best movies ever made and after years of working on it, I completed my resolution to see all of the IMDb top 250 movies. Now I just need to keep up with its changes.

We are currently preparing for our next trip and are excited to be heading back to Europe in the very near future.