Spectacular Panoramic Google Earth

A few weeks ago my eldest son Thomas and I visited one of our friends at Google. Andy was a very gracious host and gave us a great tour. We were both very impressed, esp. Thomas as this was his first visit to the Googleplex.

Probably the coolest part of our visit was playing with a six screen, 180 degree, panoramic version of Google Earth. It was amazing. Extremely fluid and fast, very easy to control, and the 3D buildings made it a truly awesome experience.

Here's ace pilot Thomas as he travels the world. Many thanks to my wife Katrine who did a great job creating a movie out of my poor footage.

Boats of Venice

Gondolas, of course, are a big part of what makes Venice special. Popular and numerous as they may be, they're far from the one only boats on the canals. One of the games we enjoyed playing with our sons was trying to spot new types of watercraft. Ambulance boats, garbage boats, package delivery boats, bus boats (the famous vaporetti), and more all ply their trades up and down the canals. The world is so different when there are no roads!

Reflections of Venice

These are two of my favorite pics from Venice. Both are reflections in the waters that flood San Marco Square regularly (daily while we were there). They have a surreal quality to them and remind me (just a tiny bit!) of some of Magritte's paintings. No photoshopping involved.

Venice at Dawn and Piazza San Marco

The downside of taking the night train from Rome to Venice is that you arrive very early, around 05:30. That's also an upside: you can admire Venice at dawn (the other advantage is not losing a day of vacation).

We rented a lovely apartment in Venice, right across from where Marco Polo lived long ago (which made for good educational opportunities with our sons :-). Fortunately the landlord was able to meet us early on a Sunday morning so we could drop off our bags, then it was off to Piazza San Marco, the principle square of Venice, to show the boys some of the beauty of the city.

One of the great things about Venice is that just going somewhere is an adventure given the novel boat-based public transportation system. Our sons enjoyed the trip down the Grand Canal, esp. lovely (and quiet!) in the early morning. We had fun trying to spot as many winged lions as possible, the symbols of Venice.

At the Piazza we admired the architecture, walked around, climbed the campanile (tall bell tower) to get a panoramic view of the city, and visited San Marco Cathedral's museum. All hits with young and not-quite-so-young :-)

Travel tips:
  • A travel pass is expensive but if if you're going to take a vaporetto (a "bus boat") more than twice a day, it's worth it. We paid 33 Euro for 3 days, the cost of a single ticket is 6.5 Euro
  • Pay attention to tides (and this site) if you want to see Piazza San Marco partially flooded, the most you're likely to see, but be ready to stand on crowded walk ways
  • The museum in San Marco's cathedral is well worth seeing for its view of the Piazza and its beautiful mosaics
  • Time your visit to the campanile with the top of the hour and you'll be treated to nice bell ringing (loud too!)
  • FYI, Sunday mornings the cathedral itself is close to tourists until 14:00 due to mass being held, though the museum is open
  • It's easy to get a little disoriented in Venice's streets. A GPS or GPS enabled phone (or in our case, iPad) is easiest, a compass can be quite useful, but just paying attention to signs saying "Per Rialto" or "Per San Marco" can often be good enough when navigating the city. Besides, it can be fun to get lost!

More of Rome: Castles, Temples, Fountains, and Baths

We packed a lot into our last day in Rome. First off: a visit to the Castel Sant' Angelo, located near the Vatican. Originally Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, it was turned into a castle and intended primarily to defend the Holy See. The castle is many leveled and a fun visit with kids. The boys particularly liked the balista, the old weapons on display, and the view from the top.

A walk across the Ponte Sant' Angelo brings you to the center of Rome. Be on the lookout for clumps of "wishful" padlocks people have attached to the railings, their version of throwing pennies in a fountain.

The Pantheon was next on our list. A temple to all the gods rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in AD126, it's another example of astounding Roman architecture. Its dome is huge, perfectly circular, and is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Its oculus (the open hole at the top) provides a surprising amount of light. Once you're at the Pantheon, it's a quick walk to famous Trevi Fountain (better than I expected) and Trajan's Column.

Our last stop took us south on public transportation to the Baths of Caracalla. These are a little off the beaten path but very interesting nonetheless. Completed around 216AD (thanks to 9,000 people working for 5 years!) the baths are huge. A center of Roman life, these were used to business and pleasure. What impressed me most is that Romans built these baths at all. They must have cost a pretty packet at a time when funds were needed across the empire to repel invaders, shore up defenses, build critical infrastructure, etc. Clearly Roman culture was a lot more than blood and gladiators.

Travel tips:
  • Though fairly packed, you can easily see these in a day (as always, bring water!)
  • You'll find many opportunities to grab a bite to eat around the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, etc. just avoid picking a place right next to the monuments or you'll certainly be paying for it
  • The Baths of Caracalla are south of the Colosseum, but not much. Check bus routes before setting out and you'll be fine getting there and back

St Peter's and the Vatican

It's not everyday you can visit a country within a city. The Vatican is one of the world's smallest states with its own post office, gas station, supermarket... And, of course, church!

This was one of my favorite visits in Rome: the Vatican museum is stuffed with jaw-dropping artwork, primarily from Renaissance and Baroque periods. We took a guided tour and our guide was talented enough to (mostly!) keep our boys' attention on the art and its many backstories. St. Peter's was also impressive: not only is it the biggest cathedral in the world, it's also home to much art. One letdown: the Sistine Chapel. It may be an amazing work of art but it was way too dark in there to properly appreciate it.

Next time we're in Rome, I'd definitely put the Vatican museum on our list of activities, there's a ton to see.

Travel tips:
  • As with the Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum, plan on spending a whole day (and bring water)
  • Make sure you send a few postcards from the Vatican's two post offices, one on each side of St. Peter's
  • The post office on the right of St. Peter's as you exit has tables you sit at to write your postcards. While you're there, check out the Vatican bookshop next door
  • Postcards are much cheaper in the Vatican and there are pictures of sites all over Rome
  • Visit the Vatican museum first: this will avoid standing in line to see St. Peter's as you end up inside the cathedral at the end of your museum tour after the Sistine Chapel
  • Get a guide for the museum: you'll avoid the lines and it's money well spent. There are precious few signs & explanations in this huge museum, a good guide will increase your enjoyment tremendously
  • I liked climbing up to the top of St. Peter's: it only costs 5 euro and the view is great. You also get a view of the inside of the copula and afterwards you exit inside the church, so you may avoid 

The Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum

At these three sites, all very close together, I finally got a good feel for the might of Rome. The sheer scale of the constructions, the engineering needed to build them, the beautiful art work, and the fact that so much is still standing after 2,000 years, is just amazing. 

Having just watched Gladiator with the boys, we were most excited by the Colosseum but the Palatine, and esp. the Forum with all its temples, also captured our interest. If you have kids, I strongly recommend you watch programs about Rome before you visit. Firing up their imaginations is one of the best things you can do. We also watched one of Rick Steves' videos, and the decent Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire. Hunting for Roman numerals turned out to be a surprise hit: the boys really enjoyed learning these concepts and still make up their own Roman math problems.

This was the first area we visited in Rome and made for a great start.

Travel tips:
  • To take pictures of the whole Colosseum, visit at midday so one side isn't in the shade
  • A guided visit may be nice but you can learn a lot just through the extensive explanations and exhibits (though this will likely be long for children)
  • If you buy a Roma pass, which gives you 3 days' unlimited travel on public transportation + 2 free museums, the Colosseum / Palantine / Forum counts as one visit and you can bypass the lines at the Colosseum
  • Bring food & drinks: you can easily spend the whole day here and the nearest food stalls are very expensive (in the summer bring lots of water!)
  • The Colosseum's bookstore has a great selection of books on Roman history, mythology, games, customs, etc. including an excellent children's section
  • Contrary to the Colosseum, there aren't many explanations / signs to read at the Palatine and Forum, so get guide or buy a book to help you better appreciate what you're seeing
  • You rent audio guides at many sites in Rome though we did see people listening to guides on their iPods (something to investigate...)

Staying in Sorrento: Relais Regina Giovanna

This summer our family spent four days in Campania, Italy, visiting Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii, the island of Capri, as well as the beautiful Amalfi Coast. We didn't want to stay in Naples, so we chose Sorrento for our base of operations. 

Across the bay from Naples, Sorrento was still centrally located for our purposes: easy public transport to/from Naples, close to Pompeii, and Amalfi. Just as importantly Sorrento is a small town with great atmosphere. The hotels, though, made you pay dearly for that atmosphere!

We settled on a different hotel, the Relais Regina Giovanna. Focused on the burgeoning agritourism movement, the Regina is a large renovated farm house located on a few acres of olive and citrus groves outside of Sorrento. It's a very relaxing setting. You can enjoy the terrace with its view of the bay, the gardens, and even a little private (pebble) beach for some swimming and sunning.

The rooms were well appointed and very spacious, with high ceilings. We took two rooms and still ended up paying less than one room would have cost us in a nice Sorrento hotel. Thankfully all rooms had air conditioning  and the cool terra cotta tiles were a nice bonus.

Would we stay there again? Definitely!

Travel tips:
  • One downside of the Relais: no internet in the rooms. There is a laptop you can share with guests. We just plugged in the ethernet jack into our own laptop when we needed net access
  • Second downside: lots of TV channels... but in Italian only. That said, you didn't come to Italy to watch TV, did you?
  • Don't bother eating at the Regina's restaurant: it's expensive and we found the food disappointing
  • If you walk up the road, you'll find a cheaper options including a little deli with decent but simple panini (sandwiches) and good family-owned restaurant (Ristoria Kalimera). Moreover, if you ask nicely, they'll give you the key to their wifi so bring your laptop and check email while you wait for your food to arrive
  • Getting to the Regina is a bit of a pain if you don't have a car (the hotel has a large parking lot BTW). A taxi from the train station costs over 20 euros, which can get expensive very quickly
  • Our solution: take advantage of one of the downtown tour buses that bring you to sample Limoncello (the local liqueur) and see Capri. They depart every hour, costing 7 euros for adults with children riding free. The bus passes right by the Regina. The first time we took the tour and ask the driver to drop us off at our hotel on the way home. After that we just tipped him a couple euros and he'd drop us off on the way out of Sorrento. And we'd get to hear him enthusiastically sing opera every trip! :-)


Visiting the Beautiful Amalfi Coast

We spent a wonderful day touring the Amalfi coast south of Naples with our taxi driver Giovanni. A strong sea-faring republic at the turn of the first millennium, it slowly fell from power due to natural disasters, invasions, and Venice's rise in the North. Today, the coast is home to a group of picturesque villages perched on hills above the dazzling Tyrrhenian Sea.

Travel tips: expect to spend a day visiting the area. Though there are a number of bus tours you can take, we preferred to hire a taxi. It was expensive (around EU270 from Sorrento and back) but, with five of us, no more than a tour would have cost us. What we lost out on local history (Giovanni was a decent guide but no pro) we gained in flexibility: stopping where we felt like, leaving an area when we were done. With three often impatient boys, this was very useful!

Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii

We had a great time visiting Pompeii and its volcano this summer. Vesuvius literally blew its top in AD79 and submerged the town of Pompeii in ash, mud, and molten lava. The ruins deserve their reputation: they're incredibly well preserved, down to murals, pottery, and yes, casts of the victims.

Travel tips: If you're an EU citizen bring your passport or driver's license along to the ruins, your children will get in free and adults pay less too. We paid a taxi driver 120 Euros to pick us up at Pompei train station, drive us up the volcano (stopping when we wanted to take pictures), wait 1.5 hrs while we explored the crater, then drop us off at the ruins. It was worth it and, given that there are five of us, much cheaper than paying for five seats on a bus tour. We saw Vesuvius and Pompeii in a single day.