Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 15 - The journey home & reflecting back 29Apr2011

The flight back to Vancouver gives me no shortage of time to look back on our trip, review the highs and not-so-highs, and avoid doing work things that have been piling up in my absence. We left our Rome B & B at 0600 hrs, flew to Amsterdam, transferred to our flight to Vancouver then landed at YVR at 1400 hrs (but add 9 hours for the time zone change) to give a total of 17 hours of mostly sitting around after a very active couple of weeks. So, here come the highlights, not-so-highs, things I’ll try to carry on and things I won’t carry on after getting home.

The highlights:

Amsterdam by day (including bike ride)

I’ve wanted to visit Amsterdam for a long time. I think the one time I was there in the past was when I was 11-years-old, the same age Daniel is now. I remember a few things from back then but mostly that I really loved it and wanted to come back one day. Last year when Daniel and I were travelling to meet up with Laura and Dena in Israel, we were going to have a layover in Amsterdam but as many know, that trip did not turn out as planned, the least of which was not getting to Amsterdam. Just wandering the streets of Amsterdam during the day was really being in a different world and I would still like to go back there again.

Dena, Laura and Daniel at original Anne Frank House entranceIt would also be impossible to talk about Amsterdam without including the Anne Frank House. When I had visited it as a child, it was just a house and there were no crowds. Today, just the sight of never-ending line-ups made that visit special. The idea that so many people are interested in seeing the Ann Frank House is amazing. The addition now of an attached museum, dedicated to spreading the awareness of hatred in this world, was one of those unexpected surprises of this vacation.

Biking outside Amsterdam with Mike’s BikesOne of the biggest highlights of the entire vacation was the family-friendly bike ride with Mike’s Bikes. Yes, souvenir wooden clogs and overpriced cheese graters were a bit of a rip-off but that was definitely one of the best things we did during the whole two weeks.

Venice by night

Venice by nightVenice, another canal city, is very different from Amsterdam. Whereas we didn’t really get the sense that we were amongst tourists in Amsterdam, in Venice, at least during the day, it felt like being trapped amidst thousands of tourists in a never-ending shopping mall. By night though, Venice’s natural charm could not be beat. With day tripper and cruise ship people gone, the streets seem to be devoid of tourists and it was just like strolling through quiet little neighbourhoods.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience in Venice was the Passover Seder. Although we gave up keeping the annual tradition for the eight days that followed, the celebration with so many others from all over the world in one place was special and should count for extra days! This was also when we bumped into the family originally from South Africa but now living in Australia whose mother, also Laura, grew up with my sister-in-law Ruth in Sea Point. We would never have imagined bumping into them again inside the Colosseum in Rome. It makes you wonder whether some things happen for a reason.

Cinque Terre

Vernazza classic photoThe main reason for this trip was my desire to go to Cinque Terre (five lands) after so many other people we know have raved about it. Our family likes active holidays and the chance to hike along a coastline for a few days was something we could not resist. As we started the hike, I didn’t really expect to shed a tear but I did; the idea of wanting to come here with my family and then being there was overpowering. The hiking was more challenging than expected but in a good way. This was in part due to one section having been closed due to a landslide that may keep it out of commission for one or more years until it is repaired, leading us to do an upper route instead of skipping to the next village by train. Also, the extra hike we did to Levanto was as steep as the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver but with far more rewarding views.


Michelangelo’s Pieta at St Peter’s BasilicaOne name says it all! Seeing his David statue in Florence gave me goose bumps and was the only other time I was moved to tears on the trip. The Pieta at St. Peter’s Basillica and of course the Sistene Chapel were all incredible and have to be seen to be believed. It would be a tough call as to whether the David statue or the Sistene Chapel is the greatest work-of-art of all times but we saw them both. Michelangelo went on to become an architect in doing the original work in designing the Basillica. Pure genius that would even top Steve Jobs.

Gelato all over Italy

Gelato in Rome and everywhere else!Just the idea of eating our way through Italy on a budget was fun but we hardly went a day without trying gelato from a different place even if we were still in the same town. The top flavours over the course of our trip according to everyone else in my family were tiramisu, hazelnut, strawberry, yogurt, and grapefruit. My personal faves were chocolate hazelnut, banana, and pistachio.

Red wine cheaper than water or soft drinks

The best wines were in Venice and Cinque Terre, both in taste and value, which made them taste better! It’s hard to argue with 4-5 Euros for a half litre in a restaurant. Each town in Cinque Terre grows their own grapes to make their own wine. 

Food on KLM!

KLM food on the flight homeEven after eating some great food in Italy, which should not go without being mentioned, the food on the return flight with KLM reminded us how KLM is a cut above any airline we’ve ever flown on. Who would ever think anyone would talk about airline food in Economy Class as a highlight?

The not so highs:

Smoking everywhere

We’re really not used to this in Canada anymore. Everywhere we went, including just walking on the streets or sitting on a bench, second-hand smoke would blow into our faces. We probably each smoked a pack of cigarettes in the past two weeks from second-hand smoke. I know, people like the freedom to smoke where they like but public health as a whole seems to be ignored in the places we visited. Thankfully there was no smoking indoors. In addition to all the smoking, seeing people not wearing helmets when riding bicycles and some crazy driving competing with bicycles in Amsterdam, and with motor scooters in Italy, lack of red lights to cross on, were also threats to public safety that make Vancouver seem safe.

Gold foiled religious paintings

After the first thousand or so religious paintings of people with gold foil haloes around their heads, you kind of get the idea.

Things I’ll try to carry on after getting home:

More things to learn

Reading up on history, especially how the religions were founded, in relationship to where Christianity veered away from Judaism. If anyone has good suggestions on where to begin to learn more, I’m open to suggestions! Especially if they are available on Kindle or!

Try not to work every single day of the week

Try not to do work-related things every single day. That’s going to be the toughest thing and I’m not sure I can pull that one off. There is rarely a time, even when outside the office, that I don’t have a million work-related things on my mind and it’s going to be the death of me.

Things I’ve been doing already

Well before this trip I already had the good coffee, aqua minerale frizzante, and red wine everyday tradition going on strong. Since I was brought up with a love of coffee that I’ve taken to my own obsessive levels by home-roasting organic beans, I’ve already been getting great coffee everyday. A glass of red wine each night has been just what the doctor ordered since my heart attack in 2005 and Sodastream has been keeping me in homemade soda water every day. Wow, no wonder I liked Italy so much…I’m so Italian!

More whole family activities!

Hard to argue against that one. We managed to stay together without getting on each others’ nerves despite close quarters, and in the case of some places, REALLY close quarters, for 15 days. We are fortunate that we get to do lots of family activities but there is always room for more with me not always lured away by just one more thing to do for work.

Things I won’t carry on after getting home:

Unhealthy breakfasts

The Italian unhealthy breakfasts of too many sweet carbs are not a tradition that I’ll be making any attempt to carry on. Given that we all walked more than 20,000 steps per day for two weeks, we were able to get away with some high carb eating, but walking only half that each day back home, this kind of eating won’t work. In fact, I am very tempted to return to a bit of the Israeli tradition of salad and fish at breakfast time.

Stopping motorists to cross the street

Another trick I won’t be doing, especially since it is not legal in Vancouver, will be to look the motorists in the eye and using an outstretched arm with open downward facing palm, bringing traffic to a stop in order to cross the street. The first day in Rome was a bit of a challenge but by the end, it became routine and empowering…especially since I never got hit!

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 14 - The Vatican and two gelatos 28Apr2011

We’ve ended the trip, aside from the adventure of getting back home, with the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basillica, and two gelato stops. Some things far exceeded expectations for some of us, other things were a bit disappointing to some, but we all agreed on the gelato!

Panoramic view toward front St. Peter’s Basillica

View of ceiling and some of the walls Gallery of MapsOnce again, a bit of planning ahead proved helpful when it came to the Sistine Chapel. This is part of the Vatican Museum and we had booked tickets in advance online. This allowed us to skip past another queue that was probably in excess of two hours to get in to the museum. What we saw in the Vatican Museum blew us all away. We had read up on the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basillica so knew what to expect but had no idea of all the treasures the Vatican Museum holds. A huge collection of archeological items dating back from BC to the 1800s, much of it not Christian. A lot of it still had to do with different belief systems such as scrolls to take to the afterlife, cat and dog headed gods, mummies and tombs. The Gallery of Maps was another big surprise and something that one can get lost in for an entire week (Daniel says an entire year!) The walls are covered with ancient maps of the different states of Italy and parts of other countries. The ceiling had so many paintings that it was impossible to take in even a small fraction of them.One of the ceiling paintings Gallery of Maps

We eventually reached the Sistine Chapel which Daniel and I found incredible and spent time to study. After the grandeur of the Gallery of Maps, the Sistine Chapel seemed small and dingy. The lights are kept low, probably to avoid damage since the artwork was cleaned in the late 1980s. The crowd that was squeezed in to the room was a bit much for some members of our family to handle. Aside from the rumbling sound of about a thousand people trying not to talk too loudly, we constantly heard “SSSSHHHHHHHHhhhh! No photographs, No pic-tures!” from one of the guards. Laura spotted a guard watching over a visitor until he deleted some pictures he had taken on an iPhone. We followed author Rick Steves’ advice to move off to sit near one of the side benches and just look at the different panels. As many know, the ceiling depicts the entire history of the creation of man and was done entirely by Michelangelo. His assistants only mixed the paint and plaster but he did all the work himself. About 25 years later he was asked by the Pope to add the Final Judgement Day which is a very dark entire back wall. The creation shows hope as the spark of life is passed from God to Adam, and other scenes include the creation of Eve, Jonah and the Whale, Noah and then his drunkeness and more. The Final Judgement shows a Christ that is far larger than Mary, who turns away from her son as he makes pronouncements on mankind on what they have done in their lives. Bodies are pulled down to hell and up to heaven. Michelangelo’s harshest critic is being strangled by a large snake and Michelangelo himself is painted into the mural with a look of uncertainty as to how he himself will be judged for his work. Whereas the creation was done in the hopeful Renaissance period, the Judgement Day was done in the less hopeful Baroque period that followed. Altogether an incredible work of art. It’s a shame that soon after Michelangelo’s death, the naked body parts were painted over with cloths and fig leaves.

Portion of map showing Cinque Terre Region Gallery of MapsAfter a gelato break near the Vatican, we checkd out the line-up for St. Peter’s Basillica. What had been about 2 hours long when we first saw it before going to the museum, had tripled in length by noon. We headed back toward home and vowed to return later. Dena bought a book about the Gallery of Maps and Daniel bought one on the Sistine Chapel as great reminders and ways to learn more about what we had seen.

Market not far from VaticanOn our way back from the Vatican, we stopped by a market to buy things for lunch. We have had the privilege of visiting so many different markets on our trip and somehow this one felt the most familiar. They are all so much like the old Atwater and Jean Talon markets of Montreal and a bit like Granville Island’s market. Everything just seems fresh and tastes better.

Light of Ahhh! St. Peter’s BasillicaAfter 4 pm we headed back to find no line at St. Peter’s Basillica. Earlier in the day we had explored the outside, spotted the Pope’s residence and stood in the central spot to make the multiple rows of columns appear as one. This afternoon, we not only got to explore but we also were able to hear and see some of the afternoon Mass that was in session. Walking into the Basillica, we were greated by the ‘light of Ahhhhh!’ as Daniel calls the light we sometimes breakout into when going up Whistler on Saturday mornings and get above the dark clouds. I was able to capture the light in photos but not the enormity of it all. Much is written about the architecture of the Basillica so I leave you to explore sources online for more information. Some highights are that it was built on the site where St. Peter was crucified upside down—by his choice—feeling himself not an equal of Christ, and then buried. It was also built around the prior chapel which was then removed after the basillica was built. It took 150 years to complete construction and some materials were taken from other historical sites like the Pantheon and Colosseum. The obelisk outside was taken from the Egyptians by Caligula and this courtyard area was the same site that Nero enjoyed crucifying Christians. Suffice it to say that every religion seems to have its dark and dirty past and none of us can really get away scott free! Although huge inside, tricks of design were used to make it seem less huge. For example, the statues on the bottom of the columns are significantly shorter than those higher up on the column. This prevents the higher statues from looking smaller and even further away. Despite this, the Basillica is bigger than every church in the world (except perhaps one in Ivory Coast?) Also, aside from what is believed to be the remains of St. Peter in the crypts, below are many other popes. There are also some crypts on the chapel level itself.Michelangelo’s Pieta, St Peter’s Basillica

Gelateria del Gracchia, Rome, ItalyAfter an extended stroll, and me finally deciding to buy the Vatican Museum book after resisting so many times during the day, we grabbed some food within a block of our B & B. The stroll included passing by the Castel d’Angelo and one last walk through Piazza Navona. There was a great pizza & kebab shop that Dena, Daniel and I got kebabs at (what we call shawarma) and Laura got a pannini of chicory and cheese next door. We topped it off with a second gelato in honour of our last day, at a place just 3 doors down from us, the Gelateria dei Grachhi, at via dei Gracchi 272. They make the gelati on site and it was probably the best of our trip though there were a lot of close seconds.

Tomorrow we have an early wake up for the long flight home. We’ll reflect more during our flight home on the highs and less highs of the past two weeks on the road together.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 13 - The Colosseum, Synagogue and more 27Apr2011

On our second-to-last day we visited the Forum, Palatine Hill, the Colosseum, the Synagogue and whatever happened to be in between. We explored new taste sensations and are reading up on the Vatican in preparation for tomorrow. Somehow, like being hit by lightening twice, we came across the same family we had bumped into in Venice (with the mother having been a classmate of my sister-in-law in South Africa) inside the Colosseum!Daniel, Laura and Dena outside the Colosseum

After biting off a bit much yesterday, we were a bit slow to get going this morning. The way this B & B handles breakfast is that they have someone they send over by 7 am to cut up the fruit, set the table in the common room, set up the bread, cold cuts, prepackaged brioches, jam and yogurt and prepare the coffee to order. Unlike the Israeli hearty and healthy breakfast from last year, I don’t think I will be trying to carry on the Italian breakfast when we get back home. This new B & B is also having some issues with their WiFi router from Vodafone that is not quite configured properly and keeps asking for a PIN. I couldn’t help spending more than an hour of my time troubleshooting as I feel the pull back to work starting again. It has been nice to get away!

Victor Emmanuel MonumentIt’s a pretty long walk to the Colosseum from where we are staying but everyone was up to the task. One of the first identifiable landmarks that we passed was the Victor Emmanuel monument across from the Piazza Venezia. This oversized monument was built in 1870 to celebrate the king who unified all the state nations to form Italy. It is a building that many locals don’t like, and is known by a number of unflattering nicknames like the “wedding cake”, and sits on top of prime archeological relics.

Piles of ruins at the Forum by DenaThe first set of ruins that we then visited was the Palatine Hill and Forum that leads up to the Colosseum. We took advantage of what Laura learned from the guidebooks to buy our tickets here first as these same tickets are also used for the Colosseum. The wait at the Palatino/Forum was only about 20 minutes and would have likely been in excess of 4 hours if we had bought them at the Colosseum. There was also no shortage of ‘tour guides’ willing to get you to the head of the line at the Colosseum for an extra 10 Euros per person and give you a brief tour but this is completely unnecessary if you already have tickets since you can just go to the front of the line with the Palatino/Forum tickets.Move to front of line at Colosseum if already have tickets

Restoraton work in progress at historical society at PalatinoThe Palatino/Forum ruins Dena feels gave her an idea of what things must have looked like back then. For Daniel, although the ruins were crumpled and old, and kind of wrecked, it was pretty cool that it could last so long. That’s really true when you consider buildings in Vancouver can’t survive more than about 80 years without being torn down or less than 10 years before leaking; we really live in a disposable society compared to Italy and the Netherlands. The Forum is where the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” was uttered by Marc Anthony after the death of Julius Caeser. The Palatino has the Arch of Titus that is adorned with images of the enslaved Jews carrying their own precious goods that the Romans were taking from them.Arch of Titus showing Menorah

The Colosseum was built around 80 AD, ten years after the destruction of the second temple, and used for bread and circuses. You can read a lot about the horrible things that took place at the Colosseum for a few hundred years from many online sources. So, I won’t talk about all the battles to the death and drinking of human blood. Instead, we’ll think about how amazing it is that a structure that old can still have so much of it standing, despite so much construction material having been looted from it, including by those building St. Peter’s Basilica! Alot of the travertine and marble has been replaced by other material over the years and a large section is still buried across the street, under a road and apartment building, but you can get an idea of its grandeur.Inside view of the Colosseum

Onward to the Synagogue, not too far from the Colosseum. The surrounding neighbourhood has many kosher eateries, a few judaica shops and dry good stores. We started with some gelato at La Dolceroma at Via del Portico D’Ottavia, 20/B to give us the strength to choose somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, we ended up arriving during the afternoon siesta so even though patrons were still eating, many places were not allowing any new customers in. There was a very good take-out joint, Bete’Avon, where we were able to try the Jewish quarter’s famous style of grilled artichoke, a panini with grilled zucchini and mozzarella (delicious!), cheese pizza, and steamed chicory salad!Fried roman jewish style artichoke

We made it back on foot to our B & B as the rain began to fall. After relaxing for a few hours, we didn’t feel like going too far in the rain for dinner but found a rosticceria a few blocks away after not being able to get into a grocery store that was closing early to do some repairs. A yummy dinner of exotic salads (zucchini, cous-cous, roasted chicken, orzo and barley) for about 20 Euros total.

Tomorrow - Vatican City which may be the least walking and the most waiting of our Rome portion of the journey. And, yes, I fixed the internet connection at the B & B tonight after dinner. The missing PIN to activate the WiFi on their Vodafone router was on a SIM card in the original box. Once entered one time from any browser, it activated the router for WiFi use.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 12 - Morning in Siena; evening in Rome 26Apr2011

We broke all the rules tonight. We could not stop ourselves from exploring too much of Rome in just a few hours. The day started smoothly with no train problems coming from Siena where we were exploring this morning. What a day!

Horse hitch in SienaSiena state flags with Daniel, Laura and DenaThis morning in Siena we learned more about Il Palio that takes place each year in Il Campo, the main square. Representatives from the 17 historic states of Siena fight it out on horseback in Il Campo to a crowd of 110,000 spectators; 80,000 free standing room in the middle and another 30,000 reserved seats outside the shops and cafes on the outer portion of the ring. We learned most of this from one of the shopkeepers who is very proud of his own state of origin. We now have some flags from some of these states as well as dishtowels as souvenirs.

Synagogue in SienaAnother interesting site that we visited was an ancient synagogue. There were two marble plaques on the outside, as well as 3 new wreaths from the prior day’s National Day celebration honouring the end of Italy’s occupation. One plaque honoured the Jews who were burned in the piazza in the 1700s and the other stone was in honour of those Jews of Siena who died in the Holocaust. The building itself is now used as an Israeli society.

We are fortunate to have added an extra day to our Rome portion of our trip as we had read that there was so much to see here. Tomorrow we will see the Colosseum that we were probably going to otherwise miss. We did not expect to not be able to stop ourselves tonight from covering a lot of ground. It sounds like something both my parents and Laura’s parents would do to themselves as well, so we come by it honestly, plus we were driven by amazement.

Our room at You Bed B & B, Rome, ItalyI should start by mentioning our beautiful B & B run by Barbara and her twin sister. We had not realized that this is their third B & B apartment that they now operate and this one has only been open for 7 days so far. Located at 278 Via Gracchi, puts it a 5 minute walk from the Vatican and 10 minutes from the Piazza del Popolo more or less.

Our walking route took us first to that very Piazza del Popolo, after first getting used to crossing the crazy streets here. You have to wait for some breaks in the flow of traffic, put your hand up in front of the cars as you look the drivers in the eyes, and walk with authority. Or, you can try to find crosswalks, push the buttons, and often wait for nothing to happen. Our route took us down Via del Corso for a fair stretch, to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navono, a very late night stop for pizza and lasagna, then home.

Dena and Daniel at Piaza del PopoloThe Piazza del Popolo amazed us with its grandeur as our first exposure to Rome. Ancient buildings, tons of people of all ages, folks filling water bottles from the public fountains, as cars zipped around the piazza. This seems to be the norm in the Rome that we saw tonight.

Spanish StepsThe Spanish Steps were just packed with mostly younger people, a lot of whom were just sitting there, while others were doing the tourist thing and taking pictures like us. Of course, almost no tourist spot in Italy would be complete without people trying to sell you junky flying light-up toys while they whistle with these bird chirps so there was a lot of that going on as well.

Trevi FountainThe Trevi Fountain, like so many things in Rome, is just hiding behind another building. It’s really an incredible work of art, steeped in some deep meaning that will lead me to read more, and a lot of people taking it all in.

The Pantheon in RomeThe Pantheon was an unexpected incredible site. We just picked that as something that was on our route to Campo de Fiori, but were not expecting it to be even more amazing on the inside than the outside might lead you to believe. It must have been bricked over at some point in its life to make it look like just a ruin, but the incredible detail of the interior was something to behold.Pantheon interior photo by Dena

Campo de Fiori was sort of set as a spot to check out based on Rick Steves’ guide book but was less special than the other cherished sites we already came across. We were also hoping to find a place for Pizza Bianco that was referred to in the guidebook but it was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, Piazza Navono redeemed the sense of beauty, and a little pizza and pasta restaurant refuelled us…Sale Miele at Piazza tor Sanguigna 12. Home-made pizza margherita, lasagne, insalata mista and we were ready to head back here by 10 pm.Piazza Navona at sunset

Tomorrow we will head to the Colosseum after first finding out whether the Canucks were able to overcome the jinks that is the Chicago Blackhawks and get past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s almost 11 pm here in Rome and the game will be starting at 4 am local time…I think I’ll be sleeping but may be up before the game ends.View of St Peter’s from near our B & B

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 11 - Stuck 10 km outside of Siena 25Apr2011

A day that started slow got even slower (Daniel’s words). We started in Monterosso al Mare, hung out on the beach, then had two very tight train connections, and sat in a broken-down train 10 km outside of Siena for 90 minutes before being rescued. We then wandered aimlessly around Siena in search of the Alma Domus convent hotel, found it (at last), and had one of the best meals of our trip.

One would think that the newest looking trains would be the least likely to break down - guess again! We began our most exciting travel day yet in Monterroso al Mare on a train that was 10 minutes late and had 11 minutes without the delay to connect in Pisa Centrale. Someone else on the train pointed out our next train a couple of tracks over and we ran like hell to make the connection. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and cheeks but we made that first connection, and wow, was that train packed. We found out only after arriving in Siena that today is not just Easter Monday, but more importantly here in Italy, it is National Day…the 25th day of April is when Italy was liberated in World War II. At Empoli, just a half hour and two stops from Pisa Centrale, we had to once again run like crazy to get to our next connection and the final leg of today’s journey, connecting us to Siena…eventually. It was the newest train we had seen in all our travels here so far. At the first stop, we sat in the station for 10-15 minutes and we didn’t think much of that while the train stopped and restarted. However, as we approached Siena, the train seemed to be coasting at times without any power until it finally stopped altogether, about 10 km outside of Siena. After about 75 minutes with attempts at restarting the engine, and very little in the way of explanations, other than what an Italian lady could gather, translate to French for Laura to tell the other passengers in English, another engine came from Siena to pull our train to the station. One of the train engineers, who claimed to not speak any English, when he opened the train doors and got out of the train, said, “Don’t move!” We all expected “I’ll be back!” to be uttered next. We got to know Jill and Sam, a couple of engineers from Minnesota during the wait and shared a lot of laughs. It turned out that they were also staying at the same former convent in Siena.

We have the worst WiFi yet on our entire journey at this hotel; it’s a good thing that we only dabbled with it paying for only 30 minutes. Everywhere else we have been, WiFi has been free with the hotel. It isn’t really worth a penny here, it is unusably slow. If I didn’t say before, this place is called Santuario S. Caterina Alma Domus. We are very grateful to have found a room, and after more than 30 minutes of wandering the crazy steep hills of Siena with our luggage on the cobblestone and stairs in the rain, finding this place is not all that bad…just forget about internet access here.

We enjoyed looking around this amazing town with some of the oldest buildings of our trip. The Il Campo in front of the city hall is an incredible site that is a must see. We ate some gelato since we had time to kill before dinner since Trattoria La Tellina didn’t open until 7 pm tonight (usually it opens at 6:30 pm, but delayed because of the holiday.) More pasta dishes, best grilled eggplant of all time, and sea bass was then topped off with the best tiramisu of the trip as well as really good vino della casa and aqua minerale frizzante. The service was very professional and duly noted on the bill in addition to a cover charge. We topped off the evening with more walking to the Duomo and another series of Dena, Daniel and Rob photoshooting like maniacs.

Tomorrow, we get to explore a bit more of Siena in the morning before heading to Rome for the last few days. We’ll have to gather our courage to get back on a train! 

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 10 - Cinque Terre Levanto 24Apr2011

We lazed about the morning but I got up early to post photos of yesterday’s big day. We then hiked to the next town north of Monterosso al Mare: Levanto. We also had to do a fair amount of web surfing to sort out our next two days which were the only unplanned days of our trip. We topped the evening off returning to our favourite restaurant in Monterosso: Il Brigantino.

Easter breakfast at 5 Terre Hotel, Monterosso al MareYou would think that we would be in great shape to handle today’s hike, given all that we did yesterday, but it was still quite the slog. We weren’t really sore from yesterday but it was very muggy and the hike toward Levanto begins with a lot of steep climbing. I should back up to say that we were treated with a special breakfast at our 5 Terre Hotel in the form of dark chocolate and an easter edition of pannatone that was especially sweet and that only I seemed to really like. Yes, a lot of hiking so I can eat whatever I want…this will all change when we get back to Vancouver.

Caught the elusive DenaDena was really incredible as she flew ahead of the rest of us during the hike. She really became quite the elusive creature. The only way we could catch her is if she were to get a thorn in her paw or hurt one of her wings. Once again, I like Daniel’s description of Dena today:

“With Dena hiking almost like a mountain goat along the trail…except she doesn’t poop when wants to and doesn’t have four legs (I left out the hairy part.)”

Villa overlooking the sea on the way to LevantoThe trail to Levanto, aside from being challenging, is not as well maintained as the Cinque Terre trails as it is a regional park instead of a national park. That being said, the views all along the sea were very rewarding and it was well worth it. In Levanto, once again we made sandwiches, this time replacing the pesto with cucumbers. The town itself was more low key as not part of Cinque Terre so it was less touristy. It also had sand instead of rocks for its beach. We caught the train back to Monterosso and were greeted with a massive crowd at Monterosso when we tried to get off the train. What a scene. Daniel overlooking sandy beach at Levanto

Crowds trying to get on train at MonterossoThe next two days were originally left without any plans so that we could decide what to do once we were here. We have decided to stay in Siena tomorrow and then to go to Rome one day early so that we can now take in the Colosseum from the inside instead of just the outside based on what we have heard from other folks during our trip. We won’t be as rushed now in Rome before heading back to Vancouver. Tomorrow it will take more than 3 hours to get to Siena with two transfers, including having only 5 minutes to change trains from Empoli to Siena (but an ample 11 minutes in Pisa to catch the train to Empoli.) We leave Monterosso at 1103 hrs so we better pack a lunch since it doesn’t look like we’ll have time to grab something en route unless we miss a transfer somewhere.)

Waitress and me at Il Brigantino, Monterosso al MareWe returned tonight to the same spot we ate on our first night here: Il Brigantino. Half a block off the main drag, this place gets far fewer customers but the food is better value than anywhere else, and really good. The 0.5 litre of wine here costs the same as a single glass at the place we ate last night and here was a local Cinque Terre wine which was not an option last night for red wine. We stuck to a few pasta dishes, lots of aqua minerale with and without gas, lots of wine and a couple of tiramisus.

That’s it for another day in Italy!

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 9 - Cinque Terre 23Apr2011

Vernazza the most popular of the 5 lands

(Dear friends and family: please note that you can click on any of the photos to enlarge to full size. This is only a small fraction of our photos so there will be many more to show you after we prepare a slide show.)

The words and the photos can’t begin to explain today’s hike. With one section closed due to a landslide for an indefinite period of time, rather than skipping that section, we detoured to add on the high route. The kids were awesome, we reek, and nobody fell off any cliffs.

Trailhead Via Dell AmoreAfter breakfast at our hotel, serenaded to 80’s pop, we by-passed the local grocery store that was charging 10 Euros for a foccacio bread and boarded the train to the most distant of the 5 lands of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, to begin our hike. The train was pretty crowded but with people ready for the outdoors so it was a very different vibe from the crowds we faced in Venice and Florence. We bought our day pass for the trail and it seems each day the prices and types of passes that are available have changed and don’t match the guidebooks. There are no more 3-day passes being sold, at least for now, weekday and weekend pricing suddenly appeared and now there was a family day pass that we had not seen before which worked well for us. We were off!

Locking in love on Via Dell AmoreThe first section is the easiest, the portion from Riomaggiore to Manarola, and is called the Via Dell’ Amore. As with the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze, people in love have attached padlocks to different railings and retaining wall fencing to secure their love forever…or at least until authorities get fed up with all the locks and chop them off.

Photo by Daniel of ManarolaIn Manarola we bought our food supplies for the rest of the day. A crusty bread, tomatoes, proscuitto, and some more pesto sauce…the local specialty. This region is best known for it pesto, local wine, and olives. We still had enough Gouda left over from Amsterdam for our lunch; amazingly still great even without a fridge for more than a week. We also met a couple from Saratoga Springs, NY, at the store who vacation in Manarola every year and don’t even hike but just love hanging out on the balcony in this small town.Stations of the Cross in Manarola

Home as leaving ManarolaThe section from Manarola to Corniglia had been wiped out recently by a landslide. The options were to either hop back on a train to get to Corniglia, take a boat, or detour to the high route trail, gaining about 400 m, and adding 3 or 4 extra kilometres to our day, extending it beyond the standard 12 km. As a bit of a surprise to us, Dena and Daniel were keen on doing the high route and it proved to be very rewarding and challenging. The bonus meant walking through Volastra, visiting its church, seeing ladies working in their fields and enjoying a different view from the usual coastal walk.Volastra’s church and soccer filed

Preparing lunch in CornigliaWe made our lunch in Corniglia and put our feet up for awhile before continuing on to Vernazza…the first of the towns to really feel crowded. We had seen Scouts throughout our hike and a huge group in Vernazza. This was our gelato stop of the day at a artigiano shop. Our water supply was running low so we stocked up with a couple of 1.5 litro bottles of mineral water and one of my favourite, aqua minerale frissante that Dena and I shared. This allowed us to burp pesto for the rest of the hike! Yum!Streets of Vernazza

Gelato in VernazzaWith the last stretch ahead, from Vernazzo to Monterosso al Mare, Dena and Daniel were still keen to keep on walking. Many parts of the trail in this section narrowed to less than a body width and for much of it I had to duck because of the brush overgrowth. Just when we thought we had seen every type of trail: rocky, cobblestone, steep cliffs, water features, etc…we would reach another type of trail we couldn’t have imagined. The highlight was probably that instead of opting for long, gradual switchbacks, they crafted what was almost spiral staircases in many areas.

Dinner in Monterosso el Mare after the hikeBack in town, cleaned up, great dinner at the Baia, and we are done.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 8 - David and lots of trains; Florence to Monterossa al Mare 22Apr2011

Can it be that this is the same day that we were covered in goose bumps walking down the grand hall of the Academia Gallery in Florence? What followed was a series of Amazing Race incidents with trains to lead us to Monterosso al Mare for the Cinque Terre portion of our journey.

Michelangelo’s David exceeded expectations this morning at the Academia. The museum begins with religious artwork from 1200 AD -1600 AD and then you enter the hall that was builit in the 1873 specifically for David and the “slaves” or prisoners that Michelangelo helped to free from the marble. The size cannot be imagined nor can the detail. Every muscle, bone, artery and vein is visible and the biggest stunner - not circumscised?!

In Daniel’s words from his diary:

“at the Academia museum you won’t believe what I saw…more Jesus paintings from when he was a baby to when he died and maybe you might just find some paintings of his toenails.”

The funniest thing he said was when we got to a painting on the first floor and Daniel said:

“This is a very special place where we are standing. Oh, you mean a special moment in Jesus’s life? No…this is a spot where…Rick Steves once stood!”

For those who don’t know it, Rick Steves has became the latest guru when it comes to travelling in Europe, has written guidebooks, created a TV series and other tourists and even scam artists are sure to have his book in hand.

Another unexpected highlight for me at the Academia was the music history gallery. Seeing the only remaining Medici Stradivarius Viola and one of the first ever upright pianoforte’s ever made was a unique experience as a lover of music.

Arriving at the train station in Florence, we took a train an hour earlier than planned but it was NOT the direct train. We jumped out at Pisa, realizing that the train we were on was not going to end up in La Spezia only by looking at the sign in the station and Laura asking a staffer in the station. There was a train heading to La Spezia very soon on the same track (2)…or so we thought. It turned out there was a track 2 West…we ran but were three minutes too late so back to another platform for the next train after grabbing some food in the station.

Eventually we did get to Monterossa el Mare via La Spezia and it is incredible. Dinner at Il Brigantino and gelato of course, at Nuevo Eden, a walk through the old city, and back to our hotel after Dena and I photographed our brains out. We are now back at Hotel Cinque Terre for the night and start out tomorrow along the coastal trails that join the Cinque Terre.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 7 - Florence Birth of Venus...check! 21Apr2011

Birth of Venus - check!

Lunch at Trattoria Mario - check!

City bus to view Florence from Fiesole at sunset - check!

We began the day at the Uffizi Gallery and ended the night atop Fiesole with a panoramic view of Florence. Throw in a visit to the central marketplace to see fresh food, including the tripe stands, and lunched at the Schwartz’s of Florence - Trattoria Mario. The Uffizi is really incredible and it is possible spending days in there if you want to analyze everything in-depth. Their shop sells guidebooks with increasing detail, size, and price but after a couple of hours you sort of get the idea. It is interesting seeing the development of painting through the Renaissance from very flat and all religion-related to experimenting in depth, colours and themes. Our son Daniel sums up the day, including the Uffizi, as follows:

“Today I got up from an almost sleepless night, ate breakfast at the hotel for the first time. It was mostly desserts and there was some lady who had to serve us food even though it was set up buffet style. We then left for the Uffizi art gallery. The paintings were either portraits, angels, Venus, Jesus, Baby Jesus, Jesus’s mother, Jesus being born, Jesus on a throne, Jesus’ first steps, head of Jesus, portrait of Jesus, eye lash of Jesus, dead Jesus, bloody Jesus, Jesus on a cross, Jesus coming back to life after death, etc. We also saw some original statues. I think the remakes outside are better.”

“After the gallery, we walked to the hotel and napped and read. We then left for Fiesole - it is a place high up and you can get a good view of Florence. We then went back to the hotel for dinner and bed.”

I guess that pretty well sums things up and I couldn’t have said it better myself! The only thing to add was that we lined up for an hour to get into Mario’s and it was worth the experience. Just like we would advise visitors to Montreal that it is worth the wait to take in Schwartz’s, the same can be said about Marios. A few pasta dishes, a 1 kg steak served rare, and a green salad, washed down with aqua minerale frissante.

Tomorrow…an appointment with the real David at the Academia gallery then off to Cinque Terre!


Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 6 - Florence MTV TRL Awards 20Apr2011

A day that included catching a train from Venice to Firenze, getting an overview of the Duomo & Uffizi, more gelato tasting, great local pizza and watching some of the MTV TRL Awards live in Piazza San Croce. Technical challenges were also faced as I finally began to merge all the photos and videos that Dena, Daniel and I are taking and realizing they were not always in the same time zone…well, you can well imagine how obsessed I might get with trying to fix the metatags for the files.

We wished Venice a fond ciao and moved on by train to the next stop on our adventure, Firenze. At the ticket counter, we were greated by a shake of the head and the question - today? Oh great. Eventually we were able to get seats for the 1327 hrs train after first offering us tickets for 1627 hrs. We hung around the station and I bought a cappucino at the station for just 1 Euro. It turns out though that what I had learned in the past no longer worked - “una cappo” should really be “una cappuci.” The price was still right! Why do the very clean looking waiting rooms at the train stations smell like urine? We preferred to hang out with the fresh air, trackside.

After putting our feet up at the Hotel Casci, and having more cappucinos here, we went out for a little stroll for about four hours just to get us familiarized for the next couple of days we have here. We passed through the nearby market for our first taste and smell of leather. Yes, I tried on a buffalo leather jacket, that the shop owner claimed was durable and fireproof - just what I’m looking for in leather. Oh yes, he also claimed buffalo make the best mozarella! Hey, wait a second, I don’t even look good in leather! I was able to walk away thanks to Laura providing the thumbs down. We later found out that the leather is sourced in South America, finished in China and mass produced in factories here in Italy. Maybe. The food highlights of the outing were the best gelato yet at Gelatoria Perche No! After taking in the sunset at Ponte Vecchio, we found a great local wood burning oven pizzeria, La Mangiatoia, where all pizzas were between 4.50 - 6.50 Euros which we ate back on the Ponte Vecchio.

We finished off the evening watching the beginning of the MTV TRL awards in Piazza San Croce and are now catching the rest of the live show back in our hotel room on TV. Tomorrow is another big day….


Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 5 - Venice, gelato & other junk 19Apr2011

Slept in, ate gelato again, walked some more, had a siesta, ate gigantic meringue seashells, walked some more, ate a big dinner; those are the highlights aside from the gondalier whistling “The Final Countdown!

You can’t go to Italy and not eat gelato, right? Ummm, like once or twice a day? We managed to try one place last night before the seder to give us strength to last until meal time. Today of course we ate it because we earned it after a lot of walking. Strawberry always ends up being a winner when in doubt, but Rum and Raisin was pretty darn good combined with coffee. Tomorrow, another town, another gelato as we move onward to Florence by train.

Today was a great chance to sleep in to recover from the seder and all that walking. After a late breakfast we went to Piazza San Marco, after the crowds from the cruise ships and day trippers had already arrived. Despite that, it really is quite a site to see, complete with live music and lots of buildings being renovated. In a town that has history dating back to Christ’s time and most buildings more than 800 years old, it’s good that they are being maintained even if it means buidling-sized ads to help cover the costs. Next year you can look forward to the Toyota Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs.)

We are still working on our stash of Gouda from our Amsterdam days which served us well for lunch, as did the Amsterdam marketplace bread. We’ve now depleted our market supply and tomorrow we’ll dig into the organic Gouda from the cheese and clog farm we visited on our bike trip. We complemented the bread and cheese with fresh fruit from the market that is less than a block from our pensione.

The streets of Venice are incredible and quite the maze. Even with the map, it takes double and triple checking at times to figure out where we are. We had quite the adventure searching for the BNL bank that is affiliated with our Scotiabank. It is fun though to just turn some corner, cross another ponte and end up in some other square that could have a church, a theatre, or a few cafes. It is also fun to get away from the heavy tourist areas like Piazza San Marco, and end up in a big park at one end of town or the Academia at the opposite end of town. In addition to rewarding ourselves with the sites we stumbled across, and with gelato, we also feasted on gigantic meringues to get a nice sugar high to help us find the bank.

We topped off the amazing day with dinner at Taverna San Trovaso in the Academia part of town. Way too much food but we ate it all and it’s great to see that red wine is still cheaper than Coke. It’s 2 Euros per glass of wine vs 3 for the Coke…and even cheaper by the litro.

The funniest moment so far on the trip involved a gondalier. I was walking with Dena and Daniel as we heard a gondalier whistling “The Final Countdown” to serenade his passengers?! I said out loud, and obviously loud enough for the passing Gondalier to hear, “ah the great Italian song, The Final Countdown!” He quickly switched to singing some opera and I began to laugh uncontrollably at how I alterd my surrounding world.


Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 4 - Plunging into Venice 18Apr2011

This morning we were in Amsterdam and now, after midnight, we’ve had a tour of Venice’s Grand Canal, wandered through market squares and tourist-packed streets, chanted Ma’ariv services outdoors with Chabad in the Jewish Ghetto and were part of a Passover seder feast with people from all over the world. 

If all roads lead to Rome, it sure seems like many lead to Venice as well, and with different modes of transportation.

We were very lucky with the timing after landing at the Marco Polo airport. I also pushed the call and answer “Marco”…..”Polo”….”Marco”…”Polo” to its annoying limit with the family, a trait I am so proud to have passed on to Daniel. We caught a public bus, at 5 Euros each, then the #1 vaporetto or water taxi at a harder-to-believe 6.50 Euros each but this allowed us a great chance to see the towns from the airport to Venice and then too see a good amount of Venice til we hopped off at our stop, Mercato Rialto, and easily rolled our bags to the Pensionne Guerato. Built in 1255, making it 300 years older than our hotel in Amsterdam, it also has lots of charm.

We took a 30-40 minute walk over the Rialto bridge then in search of our seder in the new jewish ghetto. Although somewhat disorganized, this is Italy! There were quite a few Chabad rabbis lingering about, some scurrying, others dawdling, and still others sitting. None of them were completely sure of what the plans were but over the following couple of hours everyone figured things out. Our Chabad instructions from the internet said things started at the Gam Gam restaurant with candle lighting, walk over to services, then return for the seder.

One of the three synagogues was open, looking quite grand from the glimpses we could see of the upper floors through their open windows. However, security would not let people in with any cameras or phones, even if they were turned off, even if you had a passport or other government issued ID card. If addmitted, you also had to agree to stay til the 9:30 pm conclusion of services that started at 7:45 pm. We didn’t want to walk 30 minutes back to the hotel to leave our things or trust them at the Gam Gam restaurant so we took a raincheck on that one.

Chabad held their own services outdoors in the open courtyard. There were some delays waiting for sunset to mark the beginning of evening. The rabbi told what I am sure was a great story, full of bravado, that might have even started with “a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.” Despite the awesome delivery, it was entirely in Hebrew so I had no idea what he was talking about!

Around 9 pm the seder began for the English speaking folks like us. It was the full deal, covering all of the Hagadah passover story with the traditional taking turns reading passages from the answer to the four questions. Everyone sang the four questions together along with other prayers. By 11 pm we had gotten through the appetizers and more songs but headed back to our hotel before the main course of soup, chicken, kugel, carrots and other things I didn’t see in the tin foil covered kitchen on our way out into the night.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 3 - Amsterdam 17Apr2011

What a full and wonderful day in Amsterdam that included a 4-hour family bike tour into the countryside with Mike’s Bikes and a self-guided tour of the Van Gogh museum. The kids held up really well through it all and Laura and I are doing pretty darn good too.

Mike’s Bike Tours has a drop-in family-friendly bike tour that leaves every day at 11 am and 4 pm during peak season. Finding Mike’s Bike shop allowed us to venture into parts of Amsterdam we had yet to see, as did our return walk, coming across a vibrant multi-cultural dining area not far from the Vondel Park between Spiegelstraat and Leidsertraat. A few dozen people showed up for the tour but they easily handled things by dividing us into two groups after Stewart, one of the guides, gave an amazing historical overview of Amsterdam. Although I never really did like history in school, it is so different when you are older and want to learn things before you die! As the token tall male in a birghtly coloured (lime green) top, I was appointed sweep for our group. This served me well, rewarding me with a free Grolsch beer when we got to the cheese and clog factory farm that served as one of the stops on our ride.

Highlights of our bike tour, aside from the free beer, was that it was such a great way to see the countryside, much of the city and learn its history with a fun tour guide and great group of like-minded folks. The dedication to commerce without taxation that founded Amsterdam as a trading powerhouse over 500 years ago led to its open attitude it has kept through modern times. Also, seeing buildings lasting hundreds of years built on dredged up marshland gives me some hope that nearby Richmond back home might not be washed away anytime soon. Our tour took us through the city to a rural road along the Amstel River, stopped at a farm and wound our way back along bike paths through farm fields, and parks, by houseboats, Vondel Park and back to Mike’s Bikes.

After stumbling across the amazing Soup en zo,  just down the street from Mike’s Bikes for a late lunch, we headed to the Van Gogh museum. We are very fortunate in having booked tickets in advance, including the self-guided mp3 player, as we could just bypass the crowds and also get the audio device that would have otherwise been sold out for the day. (We had…ok, Laura had, reserved this along with the Anne Frank House, and upcoming museums in Italy from our readings of the much revered Rick Steve’s guidebooks.) I was suprised by some of Van Gogh’s work. I usually think of him as the artist of the Sunflower and other works with fat brush strokes but had forgotten about his own impressionist style he had developed as a self-taught artist. In fact, even after a google search, I can’t find many of these works that I saw today at the museum.

Tomorrow we leave for Venice to begin the Italy portion of our trip.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 2 - Amsterdam 16Apr2011

Perhaps influenced by a strong desire to return to Amsterdam after remembering the visit with my parents as a child or having missed coming here this time last year when Daniel ended up hospitalized with a perforated small bowel - this is still the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you look is so unique, the people are friendly, and you never know what you’ll come across when you go down any main or side streets.

We are all exhausted, due to almost no sleep on the flight from Vancouver, and surviving on the fumes of herring and the beautiful sites. We arrived too early to go for a nap in our room but were able to drop off our bags and walk over to the Saturday market. With its great variety of produce, dry goods, bakery items, cheeses and fresh squeezed fruit juices, all at prices 50-75% less than anything in Vancouver, we had a great time exploring. We were able to have a bit of a ‘lie down’ before our 1545hrs pre-booked entry into the Anne Frank House and Museum. As Laura said to Dena and Daniel, the highlight was probably seeing so many people lining up to get in to learn the story of Anne Frank and how hatred still goes on in this world of ours. The museum has changed tremendously in the over 35 years since I was here with my parents. There are now two adjoining buildings taken up to serve as a museum with extra displays to tell the story. Aside from being moved by the presence of crowds, listening to Otto Frank on video explaining how he never knew Anne was having all these deep thoughts that he came to learn that we never really know what is going on in our childrens’ heads.

With no other confirmed plans for the day, we just decided to walk right down a main street and see what we would discover between the Hotel Hegra and Central Station. We were rewarded with many sights and sounds at every turn. Past Dam square in City Centre, through part of the red light district, laughing as I thought of the trip with my parents on which my mother said “Natie, roll up the windows!” as we drove through the red light district at that time. Like Stephen and I would never have seen the prostitutes in their window displays luring in their clients had the care windows been rolled up? Did she think we rented a car with blackout curtains?

As the herring snack from earlier in the day wore off, we ended up eating dinner at the Cafe DeRaed next to the herring stand and University of Amsterdam. Their house club sandwich that included smoked salmon and avocado was enjoyed by Dena and myself while Laura and Daniel opted for American Club sandwiches. We had trouble staying awake for dinner and are ready for a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s family bike ride.

Amsterdam & Italy 2011: Day 1 - The Amazing Race 15Apr2011

Over the next two weeks (April 15-29, 2011) our family will be traveling around Italy after a stopover in Amsterdam for a few days. From Amsterdam we head to Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, and finish in Rome. Although I will be writing from the road, I won’t go live with the articles until we are back due to home security reasons.

After too many seasons watching The Amazing Race, it was hard not to think of how to “finish first” today so that we can get that extra prize for winning this leg of the race. The first “clue” said to use only public transportation to get to YVR to catch our designated KLM flight. We has time to get some euros at the bank, before hopping on the B-Line bus then the Canada Line Skytrain. At YVR, things were a bit chaotic as other teams lined up to use two check-in terminals while only one other team was actually checking their bags. Noticing two other touch-screen stations that were not being used, we jumped to those and then checked our bags way ahead of the other teams. Okay, so that was the only Amazing Race part of the day, except for all other teams ending up on the same flight and we couldn’t even get seats near the front so we can be first off the plane in Amsterdam!

Israel 'trip of a lifetime - not quite as planned' Part II, the video

Dena visits KDHS’ sister school in Har Vagai and Laura, Daniel and Rob meet her afterward for what was meant to be a 10 day trekking adventure. Instead Daniel ends up hospitalized the day we arrive and we all see a different side of Israel from within the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, outside Jerusalem.

Israel 'trip of a lifetime' albeit not at all as planned, part I: Hadassah Hospital

Dena entertains Daniel at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem, Israel

Three months have now passed since Laura, Dena, Daniel and I returned from our trip to Israel. I was about to post this first of my two articles about our experiences when the Gaza flotilla controversy erupted a month or two ago. It seems even more important to share this experience as it was really not what I was expecting to find visiting Israel. A second article will follow in the near future, describing some of our experiences outside the hospital setting.


This was not the trip we had planned. That being said, we learned so much about life in Israel even though our 10-day hiking trip covering the whole country was instead spent almost entirely in Jerusulem, or more specifically, inside the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem on the outskirts of town. The morning after arriving, we had to take our 10 y.o. son Daniel to the emergency room where by night’s end he had undergone an emergency bowel resection for a ruptured Meckel’s diverticulum. We learned so much more about people in Israel from this experience than we probably would have learned had we been able to pursue our hiking tour.

Our 13-year-old daughter Dena was in Israel with her school for a two-week visit with their sister school in northern Israel. Our plan was to meet her at the end of her school trip to start our family vacation. Laura arrived a few days in advance so that I could finish the work week and Daniel the school week. Daniel had a sore stomach before we were scheduled to leave. We delayed our departure by one day and spent time in the emergency department of BC’s Childrens’ and Womens’ Hospital in Vancouver two days before leaving. He was diagnosed with the stomach flu and we were told that if it were his appendix then we would know for sure within 48 hours (average time to perforation.) I don’t know if I’ll ever stop regretting the decision to fly to Israel with Daniel feeling mostly better given that he completely obstructed his small bowel during the flight from what turned out to be a perforation but had nothing to do with his appendix.

Daniel with an Arab Israeli nurse who provided superb careThe Israel we saw was not at all what I had imagined from my preconceived notions fed by years of following the news. I had been led to believe that I would be fearing for my life at the risk of bombs falling at any moment, buses being blown up, and people of different religions not getting along on the streets. I guess I’ve followed too much western media over the years. Instead I saw an Israel with Arabs, Christians and Jews mixing on the streets and working side-by-side in the hospital.

For most of the ten days spent in hospital, I was feeling so down that I never wanted to travel anywhere again. Daniel was slowly and painfully recovering from surgery and was given a rather guarded prognosis due to a high risk of a systemic or wound infection due to the perforation. We were warned he may need to remain hospitalized for a couple of months due to a high potential for complications. The hospital bills and all the travel expenses were adding up since none of the trip was refundable, and we paid out-of-pocket for new tickets from delaying our departure by one day. Tens of thousands of dollars overdrawn to cover the bills while awaiting insurance claims in the weeks and months ahead, on top of the wish that this coud have been detected before we had left Vancouver. It was all taking its toll. We had to be strong for Daniel but would still burst into tears spontaenously at times.

Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem, IsraelJewish and Arab Israelis work together with other immigrants from all over the world at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem. In fact, in 2005, the Hadassah Medical Organization was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (excerpt from below:)

In 2005, the two Jerusalem hospitals of the Hadassah Medical Organization were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination asserted three areas in which HMO has promoted peace in Western Asia.[4]:

  • Maintaining equal treatment for all regardless of religion, ethnicity and nationality
  • Setting an example of cooperation and coexistence by maintaining a mixed staff of people of all faiths
  • Initiatives to create bridges for peace, even during periods of active conflict between Israel and one or more of its neighbors

Hadassah Hospital really has done more to promote peace than some who have won the Nobel Peace Prize in recent years.

Set in what was once the countryside of Jerusalem as envisioned by Ben Gurion, Hadassah Hospital would allow patients to recover in a peaceful setting. In the decades that have passed since the hospital was established, the city has grown to reach the countryside but there is a still a network of hiking trails that surround the hospital and the tiny village. Maybe it’s the peaceful setting or just the desire of mankind to help heal fellow man that can unite so many healthcare workers of differing backgrounds under one roof.

Palestinian ambulance at Hadassah Medical CenterAnother driving force for quality care might well be that the doctors are not well paid compared to the cost of living. Compared to Vancouver, the cost of living in Jerusalem is even higher and the pay is probably less than 1/5th topped off with a 55% tax rate. The honor of caring for patients has not been tainted at Hadassah Hospital. Top healthcare professionals work together, regardless of religious differences, with the common goal of caring for patients.

Biking on the Kettle Valley Railway

Thursday 06Aug2009

After hiking in Cathedral Provincial Park for two days, my arms are still sore from supporting my Canon 50D camera by its lens throughout all that hiking. It was then time to try hurting other body parts by doing a 2-day bike trip on the Kettle Valley Trail.

After most of the trestle bridges along the length of the trail burned down in 2003, it looked as if this amazing rails to trails route in the Okanogan region of BC might be closed down for good. It was just in January of 2003 when the trail received historic status after major rebuilding of many of the bridges was finished. We've been wanting to ride a portion of the KVR trail since even before the fire and were fortunate to be able to do that now.

From Penticton, where we spent the night at a Days Inn, we were picked up by Mimi from Ambrosia Tours. After throwing our bikes and loaded panniers, sleeping bags, and water bottles into her van, we were entertained the whole 2 hour drive to Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park to start our ride with the Myra Canyon. Thanks to the advice from our friends Lynn and Jim, who had cycled the route before, we had some idea of what we were in for. It was a great bonus to hear from Mimi her tips on living better by avoiding restaurants, especially Chinese?!, and avoiding electronic devices like the iPhone I was checking during the drive as, once again, I feared I would lose cell/data coverage. Turned out not to be an issue; there must be some important Rogers person who lives in the area as reception is great (but non-existent to Telus customers.)

The views were mind blowing for the Myra Canyon portion of the ride. At each bridge, and often in-between, there were new sights to behold. The dirt trail was in really good shape and I was beginning to think that people before us were mistaken about the trail being tough to do. The last 10km of the 36 were like the final 6.25 miles of running a 26.25 marathon. Between the sand and the washboard gravel, it was a struggle at times to go any faster than 10 km/h and this is on an almost flat course.

Arriving at Chute Lake Resort was such a relief. The thought of being able to jump in the lake when we got here kept us going through the abandoned burnt-out forests on the skidding trail of sand and gravel. Well, first I had a whole day of tweets and a much needed and rare for me beer to take care of before jumping in the lake. The cabins are in decor from the 40s and 50s as is the menu...let's just say they are known for their hamburgers, fries and pie. In fact they only have hamburgers, fries and pie! Although almost everyone comes here after travelling for many hours on bikes, and almost all are west coast health nuts, there is nothing healthy about the menu...but it tasted sooo gooood!

An interesting pastime of the owner is collecting antiques. Rather than your typical furniture and fine china, their ecclectic mix of items focuses on transportation and industrial tools. Many items are within the lodge where you register and dine, including a glass trunk filled with Mason-type jars - one of which is valued at $1,100.00 and a glass cabinet containing glass telephone line insulators; the type that used to adorn the top of telephone polls. Behind the lodge is the 'museum,' which is an open barn, with more items than you can imagine. As Doreen says, you will want to go through it at least three times to see everything. The collection includes signs from old gas stations, license plates going back many decades, industrial age looking blow torches, an early telephone answering machine, gumball machine, tractors, bicycles, and an early 1950's Chrysler Imperial.

Tomorrow we will start with their traditional breakfast then be on our way to Penticton, stopping at a Vineyard for lunch just outside of town. Saturday and Sunday we will be picking up our lids from their camps and be able to compare stories.

Friday 7Aug2009
Well it was easy to roll out of bed this morning. Not just because I couldn't even stay awake past 9pm last night, but because when you step out of bed, the whole cabin floor is tilted just enough from the head of the bed to the kitchen sink, that you have to keep moving to prevent yourself from falling.

Breakfast at the lodge, which we had to order the night before, was a nice pairing to the dinner from the previous night. We did need to stock up on carbs for another day but it is beginning to feel a bit like hiking and biking is just an excuse to eat a lot! Eggs, toast with jam & peanut butter, hash browns, slice of ham, juice and a pot of coffee to get us to Penticton. Nothing could possibly harder than the previous day. Afterall, these last 42km are a steady downhill, with a planned stop at Hillside Estates Cellar for lunch at the 36km mark.

Despite the slight downhill grade, the day of cycling was still not easy as one might imagine it would be. It was still 20km before I felt that the surface was predictable enought to allow me to clip in both bike shoes instead of just one. Of course, I'm not someone who takes chances on a mountain bike. When I see people going to steep runs at Whistler, I'm never thinking 'I would live to do that!' In retrospect, perhaps I needed fatter tires on my hard-tail mountain bike. I don't know if full suspension would have helped too. All the jostling about also managed to dislodge the bottom bolt securing my book-rack to the bike frame so on pannier began to rub against the spokes. I was pretty frustrated by the time I caught up with Laura, who just so happen to have a spare bolt?! We kept leapfrogging with the group of 10 others throughout the day. At one point I learned that two of them had their panniers fly right of their bikes that day.

The temperature began to rise to 34 C as the trail became more bikable as we approached Naramata. Beautiful views of the vineyards below and more people on bile or just strolling as we reached Hillside Estates Winery at the outskirts of Penticton. The food was great and the wine pairing of the Gamay with Mediterranean lunch was a nice touch. We were so glad to top off our ride with this great meal.

The last six kms meandered through orchards until it overlooked the beach in Penticton. Down the city streets to the beach and back to our car at the Days Inn. We were fortunate to be able to shower and use the pool to cool down before the >5 hr drive back to Vancouver. The drive did not start well in terms of marital bliss thanks to the intrusion of our recently acquires GPS. Let's just say, make sure you have yours set to allow U-turns!


Cathedral Provincial Park

Welcome to base lotMonday 3Aug2009

Five hours of driving from Vancouver, past Hope then Princeton brings us to Cathedral Provincial Park. Three km before Keremeos, we turn off to begin a 14km drive along the base with little elevation gain to arrive at the locked parking lot. Here we await the transport to take us and our gear the remaining 9 miles up the mountain Cathedral Lakes Lodge in the alpine.

The challenge for me is adapting en-route to large areas of no data/cellphone reception. Waiting outside the locked parking area, no ability to check my tweets and beginning to adapt to this return to those simpler, less technology burdened days of my youth! At least I have the iBlogger program on my iPhone (in airplane mode) to keep me busy.

Mercedes MOG @Cathedral LakesQuite the ride to gain 4,000 feet over 9 miles. The transport vehicle was purchased from the Swiss Army and is 40 years old. Much of the trail is not much wider than the truck and there was a cliff at times on one side and large holders on the other. Although the truck can seat 14, there was just a family of four and the two of us. Both our kids are away at different camps this week so this is the first time Laura and I have a week alone since we've had kids. Two full loads of hikers and campers came down but things are quieter tonight. It is the end of a long weekend in BC and there is also a nearby forest fire which may lead to the park being close some time tomorrow. We will be aiming for an early start to get our 8 hour hike underway before a potential closure.

Tuesday 4Aug2009
Rob over GlacierToday was the big hiking day. Good thing as we had a huge dinner to work off from last night and breakfast from this morning. We began our ascent to the rim on the glacier trail. Passing some alpine flowers as we climbed, it took just a half hour to be above tree line and about 1hr 20mins to the rim itself. The views were incredible all the way and even more so once we could awe over to the mountain range on the other side. There were mostly gentle changes in elevation across the rim to Devil's Woodpile (stone overhang looks like a big pile of wood), Stone City which looked like the town of Bedrock (Flintstones), and Smokey the Bear (guess what that looks like!) We were treated to a small herd of mountain goats who were strolling along the same trail. We were in search of the Giant Cleft, but after half an hour of unsure footing and more cairns to follow, we had to give up. At that point, only the second group of hikers we encountered on the entire hike showed up. They were more adventurous and scaled a rocky ridge in search of the Giant Cleft. Later we found out that the slippery section of sandy scree was the correct route but it is too slippery for any cairn to stay without sliding away so it cannot be marked. Maybe a sign would have helped?

Mountain Goats on our trail

A bit of backtracking on the rim was next to get to the top of the Ladyslipper trail downward. We had been warned about this one; rather loose scree followed by a knife edge trail. The knife edge was a breeze after inching down, mostly on my butt, to get there. We reached a more meadoway area after passing near the base of a huge area of very vertical rockfaces that looked like cathedrals - Laura and I assume that's where the 'Cathedral Lakes' namr comes from.

At every turn on the hike, the landscape changed, sometimes quite dramatically. The ground changed from earth to smooth scree, boulders, clay, very sharp scree that sounded like glass breaking underfoot (Ladyslipper upper portion.) This continued all the way back past Ladyslipper Lake where Ken was out fishing, Pyramid Lake, where the fish were jumping like crazy, then back to the lake by the lodge, Lake Quiniscoe.

The hot-tub was pre-heate for us and was a great relief after 8 hours of hiking. I had never seen a hot-tub heated by a wood burning stove that sits in one end of the tub! Another great dinner, with just 11 guests tonight as the fears of approaching wild fires led to cancellations. It was great talking with guests from all over and settling down for some reading.

Tomorrow we'll have a chance to squeeze in a few more hours of hiking before we have to take the transport down at 1pm. That should be quite the joy ride.

Wednesday 5Aug2009
Not a great night of sleep:<( After having seen a mouse scurrying around behind the bar last night in the reception area of the lodge, any little noise in the night made me turn on my head lamp and scan the room in search of a mouse. When I told Richard, the owner of the lodge, this morning before breakfast his reassuring words were that if there was food in the room then it probably was a mouse that I heard.

With our 1pm planned departure, we chose a shorter hike for the morning: Diamond Trail around Scout Mountain. This 12 km trail begins below alpine with an amazing variety of sub alpine then alpine flowers as it breaks above tree-line. Though it doesn't have the big Wow factor of the Glacier-Cleft-Ladyslipper full day adventure of the prior day, it is a pretty amazing hike. You can think of it as a scaled-down version of that big rim adventure without the scary bits. It still brought is to a the rim of a mountain, through meadows, over boulder fields, across almost lunar terrain, past a small lake and down a set of switchbacks with good footing (take that Ladyslipper!) to return to the Lodge.

The transit down was in a Suburban-type 4x4 instead of the Mercede MOG for which we were very grateful to Paul for a safe return to our car at the base. Less than a km into our 21km drive on the mostly dirt Ashnole Drive to the highway, a girl in perhaps her early 20's was trying to hitch a ride. It turns out she had been trying for over an hour but nobody had come along the road at all! Monica is Check and in Canada on a one year work visa. She was supposed to start at a farm picking cherries for $2.50 per box but they had bo work for her today. She decided to hitch a ride toward Cathedral from near Keremeos, to walk a bit in the Alpine. Her whole day was spent instead hitching to then from the base but never going up. She had not expected the 12km all day hike in the woods and no option to hitch a ride to the alpine area.