Friday, October 26, 2012

Rome to Venice

 The past two weeks have been a ghost town on this blog for good reason:

About a year ago, my stepmother, Melinda, started planning a surprise birthday celebration for my dad (his 70th is in December). The two of them had booked a cruise from Rome to Venice for October of the following year; Melinda, however, had secretly invited along each of Dad's four kids (and spouses) as well as Dad's best friend and his wife.

They travel with a group of people based out of Cleveland, OH. Their friend, Susan, has a travel agency and books one trip a year for all of her friends and favorite travelling people. There's about 20 couples in all - all nearly or already retired - Dad & Mel are part of the 'out of town' group (maybe 8 or so couples aren't based in Cleveland).

I knew I'd be out of pocket for two Fridays, but couldn't post warning on the blog because loose lips sink ships; I wasn't going to be the one that ruined the surprise that was a year in the making...

So, two Fridays ago, Kenz and I flew from London to Rome, took a taxi to our hotel room, and hid out for three hours (we were too scared to walk around for fear that we'd run into Pops before the big surprise).

It wasn't like 'hiding out' in the room was rough by any stretch of the imagination. We lucked out with the view.

The plan was to meet at the restaurant at the top of Dad's hotel by 7. Susan and her husband, Barry, were going to collect Dad and Mel 'for drinks' in the hotel at 7:15. My sisters, Kelly and Kara, with their husbands, Chris and Jerry, along with Dad's friends Joe and Terry all arrived (Kristin and Jamie didn't make the trip because they just had their little baby, Lucy!).

We were a bit concerned how Dad would take the surprise. We figured he'd either be delighted to see us, or he'd wonder what the hell we were all doing crashing his romantic boat trip...

To our relief, he was delighted!

The only time I've seen my dad genuinely surprised (and speechless!)

Jerry, Dad, and the back of Susan's head

Kara and Kenz

Susan's husband, Barry, Chris, and Mel

Terry and Dad

Dad had to sit initially because he was so taken aback by the surprise. He genuinely had no idea this was going to happen. In fact, about ten minutes of us standing around, relishing the surprise, someone said, "you do realize we're all coming on the boat with you as well, right?" He hadn't processed that far yet - he was still just amazed that we were going to have dinner with him! It was a double-whammy surprise.

Birthday Cake

The whole crew
After four hours of varying types of seafood-based courses and birthday cake, the surprise was over and we returned to our rooms to get some sleep.

The view from dinner

Sunset from our hotel room

Luckily, Kenz and I didn't have to struggle with the time change that everyone else had. As a result, we woke early to stroll around Rome before taking the bus to the boat. We got lost on our way to the Spanish Steps, eventually found them, then made our way to the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon before returning to catch the bus.

Just some 2,000 year old wall - no big deal

The fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain

Yay tourism!

The Pantheon

Pantheon dome!

Internet memes have made their way to tourism shops

The bus ride was about an hour and a half; I'll let the following picture explain how the ride went:

Joe Kelly, master of naps.
We soon realized what a treat we were in for after boarding the boat. The ship only holds about 300 passengers and 150 staff, has sails (and motors), and everything on the inside is as nice as the nicest hotels I've been in.

After exploring and unpacking, we had a mandatory safety drill.

Kenz's ill-fitting life vest

Post-drill was lunch, and then it was off to sea!

I should say, at this point, that Kara and Jerry came straight from their honeymoon to Rome. Essentially, they were finishing their honeymoon with this crew. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being Jerry on this trip? Two weeks after getting married, you're on an 8 day cruise with your in-laws? Jeez Louise...

Kenz was verging on 'terrified' about the cabin; she kept saying 'I don't think it's going to be big. I think I'm going to be claustrophobic. I don't know if I'm going to be able to sleep all week.' Apparently she had looked at the dimensions of the cabin online and convinced herself there wouldn't be any room to walk to the other side of the bed - that to get to one side of the bed, she'd have to crawl over me. Of course, that wasn't the case. It was as big as you'd expect a cabin on a boat to be - just enough room for two people to change for dinner at the same time.
Spacious cabins. And, yes, we were sharing a wall with the honeymooners...

The first three or four days of sea were whitecapped - the boat was rocking and people were walking around as if they were drunk. I spoke to the captain on the bridge the third morning (yes, we got to go on the bridge while the boat was at sail, yes that's awesome) - it was an especially 'rocky' morning. He said, 'just wait until people get a few drinks in them - then they'll start walking straight'. I wondered how many times he'd used that joke before. It didn't matter because it was my first time hearing it, so I went and repeated it (giving credit) to anyone who'd listen. I had originally gone to try my joke on him, which was, 'ok, we've had enough rocking - if you could turn it off now, that'd be great'. I later realized he had probably heard that one as many times as he'd used the drinking joke.

Speaking of drinks, though, I'll take this moment to say that, yes, the boat was essentially a 'seniors only booze cruise'. I assumed the population of passengers would tend to be an older crowd, but I didn't realize just how much older everyone would be. Kenz was the youngest on the boat. In fact, I think Kenz and I would be considered 'outliers' if you were statistically analyzing the age of everyone on the boat. It was fine, though - old people are more my speed anyway.

Really, the only drawback of the boat was the dress code: after 6pm, everyone was expected to be dressed in business casual attire. The first night, Kenz and I realized that we have 'super casual' and 'super formal' in our wardrobe, but not much in between. We signed up for the laundry service to ensure we'd be able to meet the 'standards' after the fourth day...


I woke up the first morning at about 6am, planned on rolling back over to sleep, and then realized it was the only realistic chance I'd have of catching a sunrise. I strolled out to the front of the boat and took about 25 pictures; I'll spare you and only include 3.

The first full day was Capri, which is a small island off the tip of 'the boot' of Italy. One side of the island is a rock face, the other side residential, and the middle is populated with high-end shops such as Prada and Gucci.

Jerry and I had as good a view as we did breakfast
Jerry, Chris, and I decided to get out on the island. We took a tram up the (steep!) side of the island and walked through the residential section. The most striking difference, for me, was the street size. There's just enough room for three people to walk abreast. There are no cars on this section of the island, because they simply won't fit. After we took a left off the main tourist street, we were met with sparsely populated streets and a really cool 'outsiders looking in' perspective of the island.

This church was about a million years old. 

That's a street...

To the right is our boat. 
After we'd finished our self-guided 'tour', we headed back to the town only to find Kelly, Mel, and a sweaty Dad. They had hiked up what we took the tram up. Dad couldn't believe that he walked all that way when we popped on the tram and made it up in 5 minutes, "I didn't realize y'all were wusses!"


Long story short: Taormina is one long street flooded with tourists, shops that range from kitschy  souvenirs to the high end fashion shops seen on Capri, churches, old homes. The street leads from the sea to the amphitheater (which happens to be about 2300 years old).

Being that it's in Sicily, there's a healthy amount of Godfather paraphernalia. Shops have t-shirts and prints, ranging from the stoic Brando black and white portrait to the irreverent Homer Simpson parody. As Dad and I neared the end of our walk, we saw two men playing the musical theme from The Godfather. He turned to me and asked, "What do you suppose they did before The Godfather?"

These were the musicians

Dad and Jerry solving the world's problems

Kenz enjoying her alone time

This is the picture the family will like

This is the picture I like.
I didn't get my land legs the whole day. Standing still on solid ground, I felt like I was still swaying. I fell asleep while waiting on everyone to reconvene and didn't say more than 20 words during the entire visit because I had a headache to boot. It was rough. I'd probably have more to write about Taormina if I hadn't been so sick. 

Day at Sea

In order to get from the western side of Italy all the way over to Kotor, Montenegro (the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea), we had to sail for a full day. It was the 'rockiest' day of them all - the day I had the joke exchange with the captain on the bridge. The crew had several 'exciting' activities available to passengers throughout the day. Kara, Jerry, and I played putt-putt in the lounge for an hour and a half.

We opted out of 'knot tying' and 'the galley tour'. Later, Chris, Kelly, Mel, Kenz, and myself took part in a trivia contest, only to come in a distant second to a two person team. Whereas we were happy to have the silver medal, we were a bit embarrassed that five of us lost to a two person team.

I found the 'poop deck'.

Jerry, Chris, and I entered the Blackjack tournament. Similar to trivia, I won second place - if you're ranking how quickly someone can lose out of a Blackjack tournament...

Later that afternoon, Kara, Jerry, Kenz, and I learned how to play 3-card poker. The odds aren't great for the individual, but it's easy to learn, easy to play, and we had the whole table to ourselves (which meant we were incessantly laughing and talking trash while at the table).

Within an hour of sitting down, Kara had hit the biggest payout possible in the game. 40:1 on a $5 bet for a 3 card straight flush.
Kenz and I quickly realized that Kara and Jerry are very different players than we are. They're lucky. They win. We're unlucky. We lose.

The second night, Jerry hit the second biggest payout: 30:1 on a $10 bet for three of a kind. (He wound up hitting another trip the next day)
I'm using pictures from different days to show how often we played this 3-card poker game. We went on a 4 or 5 night run of playing this game because we were having such a good time. The thing with having your own table (and playing against the dealer) is that you get to actually be happy for the others at the table winning. Kenz and I would nurse our chips as long as possible as we watched Kara and Jerry win hand after hand after hand after hand. It was uncanny. It was as if Kenz and I were paying to watch them play.

My rationalization? "I don't drink," I said to myself, "so I'll bet about as much money as I think Kenz is going to spend on drinks this trip." I didn't realize Dad was going to pay for our room incidentals at the end of the trip - I'm only just now thinking that may be the reason I caught a sideways glance from him the day we got off the boat...

This last picture basically sums it up. Our last night of playing, Jerry hit another straight flush on a $15 bet (which won him $600 in one hand). Kara got so excited that she ran over to Jerry, spilled coffee all over his pants, and proceeded to clean it up as Kenz pouted on the other side of the table:


It was suggested that we wake early for the arrival into Kotor, Montenegro. We would be approaching the town via river that had spent however many thousands of years carving itself out of the mountains. The view, they said, would be worth it. It was.

After docking, I left the family to meet a friend in a different part of town for a few hours. Everyone else toured Kotor and climbed to the top of the Kotor Fortress. I eventually made my way back to the historic part of town, found McKenzie, and she directed me to 'the stairs'.

Kotor is an oooold town situated at the head of the 'river' that we had travelled up in the morning. However, directly behind the town is a mountain range. The town had walls around it at one point, and the fortress at the top of the hill was meant for protection. It's now a pay-to-walk self-guided tour that you can do...if you dare.

It probably took me an hour and a half to climb to the top of the loose rock stairs and countless switchbacks. I had the camera on me, and justified several 'stops' 'for pictures' when, in all reality, I was stopping because I felt like I was having a heart attack. I was happy to have been climbing alone so that I didn't have to keep pace with anyone else.

Blue is 'low risk', yellow is 'medium risk', and red is 'high risk'. 

Kotor and the boat from 1/3 the way up

They said the church was halfway up, but the second 'half' sure did feel a lot longer than the first 'half'!

This was a house on the opposite side of the mountain than Kotor. I'd hate to have to go grocery shopping.

Graffiti's always been around, I guess

Guys like these were at various parts of the climb, selling water to people who forgot to bring it. Yes, they're smoking. At the top of a mountain. After having carried a 20lb. cooler full of water up it. 

'ol kitty cat was hanging at the top of the fortress

I took my time coming back down the mountain because I was wavering between a fear of heights and a fear that my legs were going to give out on the stairs.

Several times, passers by looked at me, bewildered; there I was, a big, bald, sweaty mess, laughing to myself by myself...

I couldn't help laughing while descending because I kept imagining what it would look like to see me falling down the five or so thousand stairs, just crunching the camera and bones, making uncontrollable and awkward audible noises as I descended each switchback and curl in a bloody, sweaty, blurry sphere. And I was laughing, nervously, at how likely it felt that that was about to happen.

After a safe dismount, I regained facility in my quivering legs by walking - slowly - around town.

"I don't need Google my wife knows everything"

The view of the fortress from outside the town.
The evening was an on-deck BBQ. The dressiest BBQ I've ever been to. And the only BBQ I've been to that had lobster on the grill.

Joe, Dad, Terry, and Mel

'The pearl of the Adriatic', Dubrovnik, was our next stop. Apparently its popularity is rising steadily among American tourists lately. I'll tell you, though, the secret's out. 2 million tourists visit this town every year. For good reason, though. It's got everything you'd want out of a trip to one of these stops along the Dalmatian Coast: tons of history, interesting/old architecture, good tourism shopping, good weather, and enough stuff to occupy an entire day (or three, depending on how in-depth you like to get into a city's history).  There are 40k people that live here year 'round. Used to be, they voted a new mayor every 30 days in order to prevent corruption. They were big traders, bribed folks not to invade their town, and got rich on salt - called it 'white gold'. 

Kara's faces > anyone else's faces

Bill Murray was on the boat with us. See him?

This reminded me of the Cathedral in Chichester. I'd quit my job the very day they told me to climb that ladder.

I learned that capers are actually flower buds that haven't blossomed.

Apparently wolves aren't welcome in town

Jerry had disappeared from the tour group, and then he reappeared with this in hand. Smart guy.


Split wasn't quite as awesome as Dubrovnik, but it maintains as a great place to visit. Both towns are recognized by UNESCO as 'World Cultural Heritage' locations. What is designated in Split is (what's left of) the palace. It's one huge square divided into four quadrants. Back in the day, the emperor, his wife, and daughter lived in the front half and 197 bodyguards and staff lived in the other half. The front half is the side that faces the sea - it's warmer and much more pretty. I assume it was much less crowded as well. The wall around the palace was built around 300 B.C. (I may be wrong on that one - either 300 BC or 300 AD - either way it's old as whoa). Somewhere around 3k people live and work in and around the palace, so it never has been (and likely never will be) just a memorial/museum/cultural site - it's a living historical monument similar to all the other towns we've been to. The palace, these days, is an example of history sandwiching on top of itself. Similar, I think, to how layers of rock change the deeper you get to Earth's core, so the walls and buildings within the palace change every hundreds of years. It's not all that different from any other super old city you'll visit, but it's interesting to see it all in one place. You've gold old school Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Modern, etc. all within the same four walls. The four gates to the palace are Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron (for what it's worth).

The tour guide: I always wonder if the people hanging their clothes realize how old that wall is.

St. Gregory/St. Dumbledore


Having tired of tours (and finally succumbing to my incessant pleas), Kara, Jerry, Kenz, and I opted out of the final guided tour in Pula in order to rent scooters (!).

We didn't really know what to expect - I'm pretty sure none of us had done it before (although Jerry may have - I never asked him). Honestly, I don't think any of them were too excited about it, but they wanted to appease me. 

Kara and I stressed for a moment about whether or not we were breaking one of our Dad's only two commandments while on his birthday trip. While we were in high school, he told each of us individually, "If you never take any of my other advice, please remember just these two things: don't drink and drive and don't ride a motorcycle." We discussed whether or not scooters constituted 'riding a motorcycle'. Obviously we came to the conclusion that scooters were in a different class than Harleys.

The dock at Pula looked like a ghost town when we got off the boat. My heart was quietly breaking as we strolled around, searching for a scooter rental store. We had postponed scooters for three days, always saying, 'we'll do it next time.' Today was the last day of the trip and it wasn't looking good for us. As Kara, Kenz, and I were consulting the public map, trying to find out if it had any information for us, Gregarious Jerry approached a local. He got directions as we stared blankly at the map. 

We approached the store to see four small but brightly painted scooters out front. Each was red with the words, "RENT ME" on the front with the store's phone number plastered all over the sides. The lady behind the desk was just turning away two other customers from the same boat as us (we knew them from the Blackjack table). The three of them told us that the weather forecast called for rain; the two other boat passengers then proceeded to put us in an awkward position (despite trying to be nice). They suggested the six of us split the cost of a taxi to the next town over - apparently it was prettier than Pula. 

We each stared at each other, not knowing how to back out of the proposition without appearing rude. 

I think it was Kara who said, "that's so nice of you to think of us, but I'm pretty sure my brother is set on renting scooters, rain or shine." She's good like that. 

We ignored the weather forecast and asked for the four scooters out front. However, the lady said, "Only two of those scooters runs reliably. I'd only be comfortable with you renting two of them."

This is not looking good. 

She then volunteered that we could wait for 30 minutes (dubious - everything is a '30 minute' wait - when Kenz, Jerry, and I tried to rent scooters in Dubrovnik, they said 30 minutes as well..I wasn't trusting it). After 30 minutes, two of us could follow a taxi on the scooters, while the other two rode in a taxi to some guy's house where more scooters were. The look on Kara's face was both hilarious and depressing - she was quickly losing her steam. There was no way she was going to wait 30 minutes to go to some dude's house and pick up her own scooter. 

I suggested we just double up on the two working scooters out front. 

Jerry, team player that he is, swallowed his palpable reticence and only quipped, "I'm just a bit nervous about all this..."

I was getting quite nervous that the success of the day would be planted squarely on my shoulders. If it was a good day, then I'd get a quick pat on the back, but if it was a bad day, I'd still be hearing about it years from now. And there were a lot of factors that could've made for a horrible day: a wreck, getting lost, scooter breaking down, rain, running out of gas, not being able to see anything wasn't looking good for me. 

We figured if it was going to rain, then at least we'd saved the price of two scooters. The parting words of she who rented the scooters: If you have a problem, just call me - I can get a taxi to pick you up and I know the guy who drives the ambulance...

We were off, doubled up, within minutes. Jerry's knees were parallel with the front tire of their scooter and I was more wobbly than a circus bear on a bicycle. Kenz must've had the fear of God in her riding on the back of the scooter with me, but she did exceptionally well to stay as quiet as she could while we scooted down 100 feet of sidewalk before we could get to the street. 

Jerry secretly making faces; Kara very obviously making faces.

The fleet
We were told that if we headed about 30 minutes south, we'd find a nature preserve that has some good views. Jerry and I studied the map, drove a bit, studied the map again, drove a bit, studied the map, drove a bit, and finally found it.

When we got to the nature preserve, we traded seats with the wives and rode precariously behind them on the scooters.

Kenz's cheeks in that helmet!
After the nature preserve, we scooted north along the coastline. We stopped for lunch at what looked like a genuine mom & pop shop. We were right. After sitting down (at a picnic table outside), Kara asked the only member of staff we saw (mom) for a menu.

'Mom': What to drink?
Kara: Oh, ummm...water?
'Mom': Gas no gas?
Kara: Uhhhh....
Kenz: No gas -
Kara: - yea, no gas...
David: Diet Coke? Coke Light?
'Mom': Cola?
David: Yea, cola...
Jerry: Cola

After returning with our drinks, Kara asked for a menu again, symbolizing a menu with her hands in an unfolding fashion on the table.

Staring blankly at us, the 'Mom' asked, "Do you want the meat or the fish?"

Kara: Ummm...what kind of fish is it?

'Mom' said something no one understood, stared at us, and, with four blank faces staring back at her, she decided to give us the universal 'hold one second' symbol. Disappearing into the kitchen, she soon returned with a plate of two full, raw fish. She held them in front of Kara, awaiting approval. Kara nodded, unconvincingly, as Kenz agreed. Jerry and I ordered the meat plate, natch.

After five minutes, we got two family sized bowls of salad.

After fifteen minutes, we got two bowls of potatoes - one crispy and one cooked with greens - and our plates of food. It was delicious.

Two types of sausage, chicken kebab, and a pork chop. And some spicy thing I gave to Kenz.

They really enjoyed their fish, whatever kind of fish it was (we still don't know).
Bellies full and scooters warmed up, we spent the next two hours scooting back up the coastline, through Pula (twice), and back down to the dock. We all agreed that it was a successful day - possibly one of the best of the trip.

Hazy Pula


Nobody enjoys the end of a vacation. Disappointment about the impending return to 'real life', exhaustion of running around towns, too-rich food, too-little sleep, and 9 days with family will render anyone irritable. We all exited the boat in varying degrees of this mishmashed state. 

But Venice wouldn't wait! We took water taxis to our hotel, secured rooms, and were back out on the streets (if you can call them that) for yet another two hour walking tour. 

Dad & Joe, patiently waiting on a taxi

Yea, that tower is leaning. It's not the camera (or operator of the camera). Promise. 

They did the math on this trip and realized they've been friends for over 50 years!

Wedding photo shoot because why not?

I love a good sneak shot. Candids!

Piazza San Marco

The top of San Marco Basilica

Very few people in the group were interested in the tour guide to start with. I think everyone was ready for a nap, ready for home, but, at the same time, not wanting the trip to end. It didn't help that the tour guide, to paraphrase some others in the group 'gave a lecture, not a tour', 'had a hard time putting anything in context', and 'wouldn't really let us ask questions'.

Characteristic Kenz, petting every dog she sees, saying to it, "I wuv you"

This may be my favorite picture. The tour guide was explaining the significance of the bridge behind Chris and Jerry - how it was the final bridge prisoners would walk on their way to execution and how it was much prettier from the other side (note the crowd on the furthest bridge, all crowded around, taking pictures - as Chris and Jerry stare off into the distance, backs to the bridge. It symbolizes our morning. 

Pigeons as big as that dog

We 'finished' the tour in Piazza San Marco (we cut the tour short in order to have lunch). While we were there, however, we stood facing the San Marco Basilica. The tour guide stood, facing us, explaining the history behind it, the story of San Marco, how his body was secretly transported back to this site, etc.

I noticed that Jerry had put some distance between himself and the group - he was standing behind the tour guide, taking pictures of us. I didn't think much of it until I realized what he was really taking pictures of.

We had added a new tourist to our group. A lady who was waiting for her tour to start decided to join us and catch some extra information. At first it was just kind of benignly sweet that she was standing there, but she began to get really close to Kara - at times leaning in and out (and on) her.

Eventually everyone in the group wizened to the situation and muffled laughter began to spread throughout the group. It was like being in church or in class - the harder you try not to laugh, the more you laugh. We all began to laugh so hard that the tour guide stopped and asked us what was so funny.

Kara's literally pinching herself in order to stop laughing

We eventually made it to lunch.

Kelly was wearing a strategic hat in order to prevent a 'bird bomb' in Piazza San Marco. Smart move. 

We all went our separate ways after lunch. Kenz and I, neglecting a much desired nap, decided to go to an architecture exhibit in the city's arsenal - where they used to build boats. 

I wasn't too excited about doing this, but Kenz had already ridden on the back of a scooter with me...

I wound up being super impressed with the exhibit. We plan on returning next year. The exhibit flip-flops each year between architecture and 'contemporary' art.

Even firemen were in there, checking it out. Everyone was there.

Just about the time I said to Kenz, "I'm not convinced by the treatments that are written about the justification behind the exhibits, but I have to say I really like the exhibits themselves," we turned the corner to find this:

It got weird real quick...
 Afterward, we walked for about two hours before 'the last supper'.

People used to be so small!

"That's a pretty jank halo" - Kenz

The physical manifestation of disappointment, that is.

Decorations in the hotel


The trip had come to an end. We said our goodbyes after dinner, gave hugs, and relished the laughing points of the trip. All in all, I think it was a pretty epic surprise birthday party for 'ol Dad. I've not done the best job recounting everything that happened over the week - surely Kelly, Chris, Joe, Terry, Kenz, Dad, and Mel all have their own stories - but it's nearly impossible to relate everything that happened without being too boring or that person who says 'you had to be there'. 

Many thanks go to Melinda for organizing it (for an entire year!) and a big Happy Birthday goes to Dad!


Just a few more pictures from immediately before and after our trip:

Movie night!

Skate and graffiti exhibition on our little Walworth road

The new trend is having a pet duck

Apparently they're the most loyal of all the pets...

Baby Lucy with MOMA!

Seems a bit extreme just to have soft TP, right? Made from puppies?!

The biggest tuna steak in the history of our kitchen

In Cavendish Square, there's a monument made out of soap. It'll dissolve over the course of the year. Apparently it's representing how the city undervalues its monuments. Either way, I look forward to revisiting it each season. 

If you made it to the end of this post, you've earned a hearty congratulations. This is likely the longest post thus far. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed living it! 

Again, thanks to Mel for organizing the trip and congratulations to Dad for making it to 70!

Shoutout to my boy, Dustin Griffiths, tying the knot today in Dallas, Texas. Congratulations - wish I could be there!

Much love to all and Happy Friday! Enjoy the weekend!

With love from Venice!