Go to Another Vacation
Italy and Oman - March 2009
With consistency, CDG Paris airport causes me misery. We arrive early, open the doors late. End up in long lines to transfer between gates, were verification of passport and hand luggage is deathly slow. Miss our flight to Rome. So does everyone else, apparently, because the next flight to Rome is now fully booked with other lost sheep. My fault for delaying for a stop in the bathroom. Next time wait until we get to the gate with ticket in hand. Third flight out to Rome and we are finally on our way again. Big bonus for the airport is there are a lot of free magazines to read. If your French is good. Voilà!
We get our ride from the airport to our apartment. Last time we took the train, which was fine, but this time we went the easy way and pre-booked our private ride with Gianni Car service (firstname.lastname@example.org). I didn't want to deal with all of our luggage, and switching train and the Termini, and then the crowd at the Spanish Steps. Though we came in on a different flight, I was able to email the car service and cross my fingers. Thankfully, our driver is there waiting for us and vacation finally became relaxing.
We arrive at our apartment on Via Babuino, which we booked through Under the Roman Sun. We have used them before and were thrilled with our prior experience. We reserved via a pay pal payment and then brought the rest of the rent with us to pay on arrival. Someone was there to meet us for check in to our apartment for the week. We were originally sad not to be able to book the studio apartment we had last time, but the apartment with the terrace this time that they recommended in it place was a fantasy. We discovered that this terrace was our *private* terrace with potted plants overlooking a private courtyard. The kitchen was a bit small, but overall, this is a city apartment, and probably bigger than the studio we rented the last time. It had internet hookup, and a stereo with CDs to listen to. We would be pretty happy here.
After moving in and shopping for groceries, we headed up to Villa Borghese and walked around. We found a little lake where you could rent a rowboat for €3 for 20 minutes which is more than enough time for this tiny lake, but it was a fun way to end the day.
We went to Ostia Antica a few years ago. or so we thought. We actually went to an old tomb site related to Ostia Antica (Isola Sacra necropolis) and thought we had seen "Ostia Antica". Yes, this is embarrassing, but good to be honest. A year or so later we saw photos of Ostia Antica in a book, and thought "oh my gosh, we definitely saw the wrong site". It would have been hard to miss a huge amphitheater and the note of the acreage in the book was way beyond the little place we had visited.
We had originally thought we could book with Green Line Tours since they clearly knew the way, but they did not run the trip at that time of year. We would have to attempt the trip on our own. We found an Ostia Antica web site with directions and a printout tour booklet. We felt good about this...until we arrived at Ostia Antica and it was closed until the afternoon due to a staff meeting. This at least gave us time to wander around and find a pretty little section of town filled with cats and narrow alleys. Great for photography, and then we headed back and had a leisurely picnic lunch. Finally with only a few hours before closing, the park opened its gates.
The unfortunate part of the day was that the park closed about an hour and a half before the restaurants opened in the pretty area we had explored earlier. Exhausted and hungry, we took the trail back to our apartment and called it a night.
Today was a day of no planning and going wherever we ended up. We started out at Santa Cecilia’s in Trastavere and moved on to Santa Maria in Trastevere, and ended up in the Ghetto in time for a late lunch of Carciofi alla Giudia alongside the ruins, which is a favorite of ours. When we make it at home, it does not come close to the real thing.
We finished our day at Torre Argentina and the Cat Sanctuary where Ceaser was killed. Not that he was killed at a cat sanctuary - he was killed at Torre Argentina which is now a cat sanctuary as well as a historic site. It is a tiny little site, not like the Forum, and it shares its claim to fame with countless stray cats and a cat shelter that provides a tour of the site at 4pm according to the sign attached at the gate. Though we did not get to go into the site due to excavations, the tour around the perimeter was very interesting, and the visit to the Cat Sanctuary was also enjoyable.
It did not start out as a museum day, but our visit to Santa Maria Maggiore seemed to be a cut short by Mass. Either the Pope was giving the Mass or it was Lent or this is the most impressive congregation on the planet. Could be all three. People were flocking down the streets by the dozens. This was The Place to Be. At least if you understood Italian, which seemed to be the language the service was starting in. We opted for the museum under the church, which was impressive and we spent a good amount of time while we were there.
The second museum we went to was by chance as well. While walking down the street, we saw a banner advertising a display on frescos that I had seen advertised earlier in the week. It was at the Museo Nazionale Romano and featured amazing displays of frescos set up to reflect the room shape and size that they came from. For a small museum, they certainly packed in a lot of treasures. In the basement, there is a large room of old coins and jewelry, and in the upper floors, there are large mosaics and many statues that we enjoyed.
Today we took the trail to Frascati, and our friend Henry picked us up for a visit. The area is very pretty and has Villas that would be nice to escape for a weekend get away. Henry brought us to a monastery and to a villa to see a few sites before we went to his house to see his daffodils. We were a little early for the annual Mostra del Narciso, but we still were able to have a little showing of some early flowering bulbs. It was just what the doctor ordered.
In the afternoon, we did a tour with Green Line Tours to see Tivoli. We visited Hadrian's Villa (Villa Adriana in Italian) and Villa D’Este, a UNESCO site with well preserved gardens that blew my mind. If you haven't guessed, I am a closet gardener at heart. After visiting this site, I decided have a lot of work to do in my back yard. Taking the bus tour is not normally our style, but this company made it easy for us to access both gardens, and the guide was very interesting and really nice. We had used this company once before to go to Capri, so we booked our trip to Tivoli with them before we left the US.
For our last day, we visited a few churches, threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, and visited the little museum in the Piazza del Poppolo which was featuring bugs. it was cute, it was close to home, and seemed like a good pick. We did enjoy it, though many of the signs are only in Italian, but there were a fair share of signs in English so we could follow along with the displays.
Rome to Zurich to Dubai to Oman. Thank you Swiss Air for having personal TVs at each seat so we could pick any movie from the list to watch at our own pace. It made the flight much more enjoyable. I am always happy with Swiss Air!
The trip, once we landed in Oman, was handled by A&K. We were greeted in the airport and sat in a private lounge while someone else brought our passports though whatever it was others stood in line for, then we were picked up by our private driver. He gave us a quick orientation on the way to the hotel to sleep, and asked questions to see if there were ways to customize anything that was important to us. A welcome gift was waiting for us in the hotel room from the company as well. This is our second experience with A&K, and as usual, an extreme pleasure.
We had a bit of a rough start in Muscat. Parking was banned due to a visit from the President of Egypt for safety measures, so our morning of shopping in the souk and visiting sites was cut short. It's just the type of thing that you can't do anything to change or fix, but we were able to go on to other places in Muscat like a quick stop to see the outside of the Sultan's Palace.
We visited Bait Al Zubair, which is a home that was turned into a museum and focuses on the heritage and traditions of Oman. We also stopped across the street at Bait Muzna art gallery that had a beautiful display of watercolors by Patricia Al Fakhri. We then went to the horse stables at a park for a prepaid horse demonstration that seemed to be a confusing thing to the guy running the place. He had no idea what to do. So we decided that I would take a horseback riding lesson on an Arabian horse. It ended up being a lot of fun as well as a lot of work, but at least I got to wear a jaunty helmet so Bill could laugh at me. The day was improving.
We then went back to the Chedi Hotel to spend some time at the beach, and then at the pool. The beach did not look as glorious as the photos on their site, but the pool did meet expectations.
I think the part that set us off from the hotel experience was the buffet we chose that night. We looked at the prices of the restaurants, and guessed that the Arab buffet was probably more economical as well as the only restaurant on the site that focused on Arab fare. In my mind I had the Mövenpick buffet at the Dead Sea in Jordan which was a five star buffet with a desert selection that was out of this world. This buffet would be different. Throw in a diet coke and a water, the Chedi buffet for two came to $158.00. and was the biggest disappointment of the entire trip.
This was a fantastic day. We started out at the Grand Mosque, which to say it is beautiful is an understatement. Every detail was made with exquisite care. We saw a rug that was hand made in situ by women who came from Iran specifically to make it. The chandeliers were like no other that we had ever seen. We then headed back to the car to head out to Nizwa.
Along the way to Nizwa, I asked about bananas. I don't really know why I asked, but it lead our driver to take a detour into an Oasis that grows bananas. While we visited the Oasis, we got to explore an old city in ruins called Birkat Al-Mouz that went up the side of a mountain. It was maybe the favorite part of our trip. Once again, we got into the car and headed to Nizwa.
We traveled to Nizwa to see some of the old forts and castles and to learn about the history of the area. We almost made it to our first destination at Nizwa Fort, but found a bead and silver shop and had to stop. I make jewelry, and could not pass up the opportunity to get some unique items to bring home for my business. After that final detour, we did make it to Nizwa Fort. The fort had been restored and had furniture and items set up, like a museum, to get a better feel of the history. It was beautifully done.
We stopped for lunch around 2pm for a buffet at a hotel along the way which was nice. I can't recall where it was we stopped, but it was included in our tour so we went where we were taken. They served kingfish which I think is common to Oman. Oman has the best fish in the Gulf due to cleaner waters. Oil spills and refineries can cause pollution that you can taste in the fish from other areas in the Gulf. Yay, Omani fish!
We rapped up our day at Jabrin Castle which was just about to close when we arrived, but they allowed us to visit and let ourselves out. Again, the rooms were set up with traditional items which made the visit more educational and enjoyable for us.
We started the day very early, thinking we had signed up for Kayaking and Snorkeling at the Muscat Diving and Adventure Center. It turned into a bit of a debacle, but we sorted out a somewhat reasonable agreement so we could get in a little bit of kayaking and a little bit of snorkeling. We saw five or six sea turtles and some fish, and then Bill got stung all over the face by a school of small jelly fish, so we decided to call it a day with snorkeling and head back.
Our day got better from there.
The trip out to Wahiba Sands was a long one, but we stopped along the way for a picnic in the tradition of the locals. Like may families that we saw along the way, we found a place to stop with a tree that offers some shade, and spread out a blanket and had a nice lunch. I chose a place across the road from a lookout tower because I thought it was neat. There are lookout towers on top of many of the hills and mountains that were built in the past when they needed to watch for enemies. They are beyond the need to watch for enemies, but the towers still line the way along the highway and beyond.
Wahiba Sands was awesome. The dunes went on and on forever. There were camels wandering around, and the time of day was perfect for photography. I was in Heaven. We stopped at our driver's friends' house, which was a tent in the desert that visitors/tourists can stop in and have tea. I got to dress up in scarves and jewelry along with a little 4 year old girl who was cute as a button. For a few bucks, their son brought us each on a short camel ride, which I just had to do to make the trip to the desert official. We then drove up and down the dunes in a manner that I can only describe as an accident waiting to happen, but clearly our driver was more skilled than we are at the wheel.
We ended the day with ice cream, which really hit the spot, then it was on to the airport to head back to Italy. I really liked visiting Oman and I would miss our driver/guide Salem. He made our visit to Oman a truly wonderful trip and he was a really nice person to get to know.
Figuring out how to get from the airport to our tiny little island of Venice was not obvious at first. We learned that they key is to get in the long line that forms at a single ticket booth. Those are the cheap tickets for the slow boat. We then walked the "7 minutes" to the boat dock. That is, out the door of the airport and bang a left and go until you see boats or docks on the left. Then it is a leisurely ride, whose last stop is San Marco, which of course was our stop. It was nice having the area tour, of course, but also good to finally land in Venice.
Finding our hotel was not a problem - for anyone who lived there. Everyone seemed to know the Hotel Gorizia. For us, it was a process of going a small distance, asking for help, going a bit further, panicking, and asking for help again. These roads are not straight. But the hotel was right where it was supposed to be, and our room was ready early, so we were very fortunate to head right up to our room.
Finding lunch was our next mission. we stopped at a small place for pasta which offered a tourist menu, which should be a warning, but an adequate meal was perfect because we were there and hungry. After that, we learned from a local to look for places with the word Osteria or Tratoria, and to not bother with tourist menus. This ended up to be excellent advice.
We took the afternoon easy at Doge's Palace. Truly spectacular. We learned of a Secret Tour the museum had to offer and signed up for that for the next morning. we did not really know what it was, but with the word Secret in it, we could not let that one go.
We struck gold for dinner with The Gallo d'Oro. The pasta was the best meal we had had for the entire trip. The service was perfect. We vowed to not take any risks and return for the rest of our meals while on the island. I just can't understand how their pesto can be so fabulous and ours is so lame. For a simple thing, they certainly mastered it. Yeah, I know it is just pesto and I sound crazy. If you tried it, you would understand. The pasta with clams beat the other three restaurants I ordered that dish in as well. By a mile.
The Secret Tour at Doge's Palace was first on our agenda, but not before we were confronted by someone from the Tourist Board asking us if we wanted to go to Murano for the day. This was out Last Chance. Well, that was too bad, because we had tickets to our tour!
When we came out, another person from the Tour Board asked us if we wanted to go to Murano. We took the risk and took the "free boat to Murano" from the tourist board guys soliciting in the square. This is normally not our habit, but after grilling the poor guy on what was expected of us, what any hidden costs might be, and were we free to roam the island once we got there. The point of these trips is to raise awareness of real Murano glass made with the right ingredients and in the right traditions. Currently, real Murano glass is losing out to the glass imports from Asia that have flooded the islands and is presented as Murano glass. Buyer beware, the majority of glass sold in Venice is NOT Murano glass. It ended up working out very well, we got our free ride, a demo, and a free day on our own in Murano!
We tried to eat lunch at a place that was decorated like a corral. After seeing a group of men seated near us, seeing them get their bread, seeing them get their drinks, and then seeing them get their meal, without is getting even a nod from the staff, we left and tried another place across the water. I am glad we did. I had pasta with mushrooms and my husband had Bill had carbonara. The place featured seafood which looked fantastic, but we stuck with these simple dishes. They were excellent, and the ice cream deserts they had were a perfect ending.
Our final stop, after a few more glass shops, was the Glass Museum. I thought it was pretty. I was amazed that some glass items could be thousands of years old and still in one piece. it was a good way to end our visit on the island, and the woman at the ticket booth helped us to know how to get back to San Marco. We needed the help. You should be able to buy a ticket on the boat if the boat guy is into selling you one. Ours seemed less than ambitious to pick through the crowd at the end of the day, and I can't blame him. if you have tickets already, I think he punches them. At least that is how it worked for us on the "1" and "2" island boat the next day.
When we returned to San Marco, we walked around and decided to take a gondola ride. At the end of the day, it is easier to negotiate a price, since many tourists have left the island or are done for the day. We went for a short ride through the canals and it was as lovely as I always thought.
On our last day, Bill got to choose the agenda. We went to the Rialto bridge and then realized that we were done with that in about 15 minutes. We needed more to our plan. We decided to head back to our hotel and look through the books. Of course on the way I found another bead shop, but that is another story. We rested for a bit. In other words, we decided to be lazy and loll around. We decided to get a ticket for the day for the boat that goes around the island and to ride it for fun and get off at different stops. We ended up at the Gallerie dell'Academia that was like a little Sistine Chapel but by Tintoretto. We also visited the church next to the academy. Both were very beautiful. We then went back for a rest and for lunch, and then hit the Peggy Guggenheim museum which has modern art.
We ended the day at the Gallo d'Oro for dinner again and said good bye to the guys who ran the place since we were starting to be a fixture. We then went to our "Fantasy Gelato" booth - that is what it is named - really - and got our last ice cream. The girl who worked there gave us a final good bye with a glass candy for a gift. She was really sweet and again, we were becoming regulars at her booth. It was like we lived there and it was time to move away.
We had difficulties at check out from the Hotel Gorizia. We had prepaid and I had the receipt, but the computer at the main desk was showing the guy that we owed €89 per night for three nights for the room. This really stunk, not just because we pre-paid, but because when we booked through Hotels.com, we got seriously higher rate per night, and that was after the 20% discount. We also had "crackers and beer" on our bill, and if you know us, you know we did not drink any beer. It was pretty frustrating, but the guy believed us that we did not take beer or crackers from the fridge and we left him with our paid receipt for what we overpaid for the room. We tried sorting this one out with hotels.com, but they said we were not supposed to see those charges; only they were. After 7 calls to sort this out, hotels.com said they would send us a gift certificate for our next reservation with them, but it never came. We are not recommending hotels.com.
What I can say for the hotel is that it was conveniently located. We had to go to the counter to ask for things like toilet paper and soap, but they did always deliver it promptly. We are not sure why the cleaning staff did not restock the room when they came in to make the bed. But everyone was nice and our stay was pleasant until the bill that morning, so overall it worked out fine.
The flight home was not the disaster of the flight in. We were able to catch our connecting flight this time. The only part we could have screwed up this time was not making an early enough boat from San Marco to the airport. We purchased our tickets the day before and set our alarm, which was good since we never got our wake up call from the front desk. I bet whoever got our 5:30 am wake up call was pretty mad!