23.5.11

4 is my lucky number

I'm interupting the vacation pictures/blogs with a post on driving in Spain. As you know I have been trying for months to get my driver's license. It shouldn't be that difficult of a process. I've been driving for years. When I finally got to take my written test I passed the first time. Of course by then I'd been studying for a few months and if I hadn't passed it, I would have been worried. I started trying to take the driver's test right away.
My first attempt was with one of my fellow classmates who had failed it her first time out. We were both nervous as we started out. She drove first and we ended up in this commercial zone that I'd never driven in before, with wide streets and odd parking lots. It was very confusing and I failed pretty much immediately when I didn't follow a street sign that told me to turn. Eduardo told me that 80 percent of people fail it the first time. I am not worried...I chalked it up to experience and waited the week before I could take it again.
My second attempt brought me to another section of the city. Our practice the day before went well. I was reasonably confident that I can pass. We drive along...everything was great, until the last turn into the street in front of the testing center...I took the turn funny and crossed the dotted line. And failed. I even did the parallel parking perfect. So, now I'm beating myself up because I should have passed. It was just a stupid thing I did.
I have to wait two weeks to take the test again. But third time is a charm right? This time I am taking it with someone I don't know. A very confident man who for some reason every comment he makes about driving in the city makes me MORE nervous. After all, I know how easy it is to fail. And it was a tricky trajectory. Even Eduardo was saying I was very unlucky with my trajectories. Even knowing some of the tricks I got caught at a left turn....and failed. I missed a red light. Don't ask. It's crazy. I completely lost all confidence. What was I thinking taking a test in a city. I am not a city driver...and it's in Spanish no less. I'm nervous anyway...and in a city and trying to translate on top of it. It was no wonder I couldn't pass. I had to pull myself together again.
Now I have to wait 3 weeks, only he couldn't schedule me for the third week and the 4th week I was in the US. So he scheduled me for the Monday after I returned. I think originally he was thinking we would have our practice on Friday and I could drive around all weekend knowing the trajectory. I had thought he was going to give me a quick practice when I showed up at 8 am but no, it was the test. No time to practice. I shared the exam one more time with someone who was taking the test the second time. (She turned out to be our old neighbors. She lived behind us) She started...and I hopped in half way. It was the same strange area that I was in the first test, only this time I was more confident. I slowly (a little too slowly Eduardo said) drove around where he told me to go...and never had to parallel park.
After the test, there is a small conference between your instructor, Eduardo and the examiner. It seems like a very long time. Your heart pounds and your brain runs through all the things you could have done wrong, could have done differently, and after the 4th time even starts psyching yourself up to take it again. Eduardo came over to us and shook his head. First he told my exam partner that she failed and explained what had happened....and I waited. Then he looked at me and said "You passed." Words can't describe what a relief that was. I did it! Finally. The thing "they" said couldn't be done...that was too hard to do and not worth the effort. I did it...on my 4th try. (Don't judge, I know people who have failed it 5 times).
I picked up my provisional license today. Once you pass they mail the provisional license to the driving school in about a week. And in a few weeks the official one will come in the mail. I am especially thrilled because they accepted my paperwork on my experience. New drivers in Spain have special rules they have to follow, special speed limits,etc. In order to get around that you need a special, stamped driving record and a stamped translation. I was a bit worried that my translation wouldn't work..I wasn't sure we had the right stamp. But it did..so that means I don't need to drive around with a big L on my car. Yay me!!!

22.5.11

Verona!!


I've fallen behind in my blogging again. I decided to split up our Semana Santa vacation into three parts because I have a hard time choosing which pictures to post...so there are a lot. Once we decided on spending a few days in Northern Italy...Venice was our first choice. Our second choice was to stay at Lake Como. And conveniently located in the middle (ok, closer to Como) is Verona. It made the perfect place to stop and enjoy the day outside as opposed to in a car. From Venice it is about 2 hours. It was a beautiful day to see a beautiful city. Once we parked we walked down the street towards the old gates. Inscribed on a plaque on the way out of the city is Shakespeare's words from Romeo and Juliet, "here is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hencebanish├Ędis banished from the world, And world’s exile is death. " It was clear by the time we read that on the way back to our car that Shakespeare had left his mark on the city...and the city as well leaves it's mark on you.

Near the Piazza Bra, which is probably the most modern piazza we've seen to date, is the imposing ruins of the arena. Built in AD 30, and surviving earthquakes and wars, it has been renovated in the interior to still seat 15,000 for events.


Once inside you can go up to the stone seating, which we preferred...

Nick and the kids went all the way to the top.
The renovated stage, with red chairs.
Jess and Alexa taking some pictures from the top....turned to pose for Dad at the bottom.
The reason we decided to stop at Verona was of course, Romeo and Juliet. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Romance. And for some serendipitous reason we've managed to watch "Letters to Juliet" about 10 times on transatlantic voyages and other ways. So we were all excited (Joe because he was studying Romeo and Juliet in his English class) to seek out Juliet's house. We simply followed the crowds. Below is a picture of Piazza delle Erbe, a beautiful little piazza with market stalls (behind the kids) selling fresh fruit and other items.
Juliet's house from the street...
Just about as famous as the balcony is the graffiti that covers the entire entrance to the courtyard. All of it, every word, is an expression of love.
We admired the balcony from outside and the girls and I took a tour inside. No pictures allowed. It is a sparsely decorated building, said to have period furniture from the Montagues and Capulets time. Interestingly enough the story of the feuding families is true and Shakespeare based his play on " Giulietta e Romeo", by Matteo Bandello. Sadly, there were no letters to Juliet left in the wall as now the entire process is digital. Inside one of the rooms they have computers set up where you can leave your notes...very modern. The girls loved it...I thought it lost some of the romance.
Nick has a picture of me on his blackberry on the balcony...one of these days I'm going to see it. ;)
Joe took the following picture...even Mom's get a shout out on the wall.
From there we walked to Castelvecchio, a castle built in the 1300's for the Scaligeri family to protect themselves from their enemies in Venice. (Remember Venice the country extended into mainland Italy at the time) Now aside from the obvious coolness of wandering the grounds of a castle, you can also enjoy the impressive art museum as well.
inside courtyard
I believe this is the family crest...it can be found several places in the castle
Jessica on the walkway above with a view toward the Adige river.
in the distance
another view of the Adige river


We enjoyed a great day in Verona. Definitely an enchanting city...worthy of an even longer stay the next time. And maybe Nick and I will take in an opera at the arena. Ah, "good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow. That I shall say good night til it be morrow."

1.5.11

Venice!


The kids have the week before Easter, also known as Semana Santa ( Holy week) here, off from school. This year we decided to use the time off to go to Italy. I've always had a fascination with Italy and Venice, an almost magical city. Venice is a city comprised of 117 small islands connected by small and large bridges. We drove from the airport in Milan, a three hour car ride (long story) and arrived to the San Marco garage around 7 at night. I was so thankful that I had made the reservation as our (oversized) vehicle had the last space in the garage...and cars were everywhere...and it was the last we saw of a car for the next 4 days. Our hotel was right off the Piazza San Marco so our first glimpse of Venice was aboard a water bus down the Grand Canal. We got off the bus stop near the piazza and wandered dragging our suitcases with our handy GPS guidance on Nick's Blackberry over bridges and down alleyways until we found the Torre Dell'Orologio Suites...named for the clock tower of the same name that sits on the piazza. Only in the morning light did we realize that we could have gone straight from the bus stop toward the Piazza San Marco, and make one turn, walk through the clock tower and find the street on the left. I think the GPS version was more fun though.
Our first morning was Palm Sunday. I had seen online that they have a procession through the streets with palms making their way to the Basilica. We had no further information of time. But while we were eating Breakfast Joseph noticed the procession passing through a small window and we rushed out to see the end of it. After Breakfast, we decided to take our maps and guidebooks to find a mask shop. Venice is full of mask shops but I was warned before hand to make sure the masks were made in Venice and not China. So we picked a reputable shop out of the guidebooks and since we needed to cross the Grand Canal again we headed for a water taxi.

Here is a view of the Doge's Palace from the water taxi. We later learned the hideously large Toyota ad covers the renovations for the exterior of the palace as well as the Bridge of Sighs.



Once on the appropriate island we started on foot. Once again over bridges and through alleyways to find the mask shop.


We were lost more than we were found during our walk and took a break for some pizza when we found the street but not the shop. I read the other tour book we had (yes, I have more than one) that said it was closed on Sundays. We picked another mask store close by and were able to find that one.
They had the most lovely masks and all the girls were able to find masks. Joe and Nick were still searching, though.
We passed a church that had some signs for a Leonardo DaVinci exhibit. Joe was interested and we went inside. There was some really cool inventions that DaVinci had created that the kids could manipulate. And it was in a beautiful old cathedral. Below is the alter.

We found some signs on the building that lead to the Rialto Bridge which would lead us back to the island that the Piazza San Marco was on.
The Rialto Bridge is one of 4 bridges that span the Grand Canal. It is the oldest bridge having been constructed in 1591. And it contains stores along either side of it's length going across.
one of the stores on the bridge
Trying to find our way back to the Piazza we found an opera house. I'm not sure which one it was. We had were beckoned by some music wafting out...and walked around the interior. We weren't able to see a the actual theater though.
Alexa and Joe were entertaining themselves through the walk trying to take pictures of themselves with Alexa's camera. I'm not sure what happened to the picture they had just taken before the following picture. But they sure found it funny...
We found our way back to the Piazza and our hotel. After a quick break we went out to celebrate Alexa's birthday at dinner. We ate at a lovely restaurant with a patio on the Grand Canal. Alexa ordered Lobster but didn't eat it...we all helped her finish and she ate Nick's Lasagna. They brought out Sambuca to finish our meal.
Our next morning we took another water taxi out to Murano.




We saw a glass blowing demonstration where they made it look so very easy!



It was a beautiful tranquil town which was very enjoyable. We found the Cathedral of Saint Maria and Donato. Saint Donato is a relatively unknown saint who apparently killed a dragon by spitting on him. Apparently the dragon had poisoned the well and something had to be done. A challenge was issued, the spit flew and the dragon fell....and now the bones are on the wall behind the alter in the Cathedral, which is why I am telling you this.
I couldn't take a picture of the bones in the church but you can see it if you go here:

http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2011/04/20/the-dragon-bones-of-saint-donato/

After our visit to the island we came back and rested...we then decided to finally take the Gondola ride that Jess kept asking for.

It was lovely to pass through the small waterways and under the quaint bridges that we had been crossing the last few days.


below is the top of the Torre Dell'Orologio, the clock tower. The two figures are said to represent Moor's and they strike the bell on the hour all day long.

Our third day we went into the Doge's Palace. Venice was it's own country until the 1800's at time occupying the land into Italy as well. It earned it's power and money from trade and it's success in the Crusades. The inside of the Palace, in the inner garden was the only place we could take pictures.

I thought the most interesting place was the dungeons. We've all heard the story of the Bridge of sighs where prisoners would pass through on their way to the dungeons and sigh at their last view of freedom. Here is where they were going..
the view from inside the Bridge
Then we waited in a very long line for a very short time to go into the Basilica of Saint Mark.
Saint Mark is one of the 4 gospel writers of the bible. He died and was buried in Alexandria. During the history of the Catholic Church it became popular to have bits and pieces of various saints buried in the giant cathedrals they were building. A group of Venetian merchants thought that a piece was not good enough and they went to Alexandria and took St Mark's body, all of it, back to their Cathedral in Venice and Venice got a new Patron Saint.

It was a very ornate church. And in the back there is a golden piece of artwork with thousands of jewels and precious stones that is quite remarkable. Still it was a stone coffin that holds the remains of St. Mark that were the most powerful for me. For over 2000 years, people have read and been inspired by his words. It's impressive.

Andrea decided to go back to the hotel and rest. The remainder of us decided to get lost again. And get lost we did. With the help of GPS we were able to get back on track and found our way to the Rialto bridge again and it's lovely markets.
Jess bought herself a Gondolier sweatshirt.

Our last night the kids had sandwiches in the hotel. We finally realized that dinner was much more enjoyable without the whining teenagers who had had enough of culture by the time dinner rolled around. The kids did really enjoy wandering around Venice. We gave them the maps and GPS and had them lead us around. We let them pick our side trips into the Exhibits and stores. They were more than happy to go into each mask shop looking for the perfect mask. It was a beautiful three days and I can't wait to go back.
The next morning we moved onto Lake Como spending a day in Verona but this entry is already too long so I'll post more soon.