Thursday, April 30, 2009

Letter from the Pope's peeps

About 2 months before our trip to Rome, we sent a letter to the Papal office in Rome, hoping to get free tickets to the Papal address. The Office only receives faxes or snail mail and even though we tried to fax, in the end we used the trusty snail mail. What's up with not using email???

In early April, we received our official letter from the Vatican confirming our attendance at the Papal address on Wednesday, April 29. Some of our closests friends are either gasping or picking their jaw from the ground.....but, when in Rome.....why not?

Our day started by picking up our tickets from the Bronze Doors. Yes, they are bronze. And you are greeted by a nice fellow in a rather colorful outfit. Unfortunately, I had to wait as only one person is allowed through the doors. W!

I think Chuck's grandma and grandpa Peeters will be excited to hear we saw the Pope (and we also visited his church in Munich last summer).

We were told the gates opened at 8am and that the Pope would arrive at 10:30. We were up early because it was a sunny morning and walked to Trevi fountain and the Pantheon for some nice early morning pictures. We were at the Vatican by around 8:15 and the scene was mobs of people. By 8:30 we were seated about 30 rows back in the first section at the bottom of the ramp.

There was a couple sitting near us, and from their accent, I would guess from Ireland. She asked us what time 'the show' started. The guy kind of grimmaced when Chuck said 10:30. About 5 minutes later they stood up and as they walked out she said to me....'I guess we're not that devoted.' I almost died laughing!!!!

UPDATE: I forgot to add that the bells at the St. Peter's Basilica need a little tune up. They have a pleasant, ding dong, ding dong, ding, duuuung. Each time, Chuck would say 'sour!' Grandma Geraldine was probably chuckling.

Here are some pictures.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cruising the Amalfi Coast

Before we left for Italy, I read quite a few reviews and discussion forums on TripAdvisor (which, by the way, is a great site for information). One of the comments routinely stated is that driving in Italy should be avoided at all costs. And, if you do decide to rent a car and drive, make sure that when driving the Amalfi Coast you pay attention and don't look at the beautiful scenery. Ahhh, after just returning from a driving trip to Positano, I completely understand why.

The view is breathtaking. The roads are a mixture of hairpin turns and narrowing passages. My palms were sweaty as Chuck navigated his way through the crazy traffic and hairpin turns. I kept thinking if the concrete barriers were enough to stop a car from careening off the cliff. I suspect not.

Positano is a cute little town on the Mediterranean with narrow shop-lined pedestrian passageways snaking their way down to the ocean.

Some pictures from our adventures...

Cute shops lined the narrow passageways through Positano.

Don't those tomatoes look good??


Picture of Positano taking from the road that snakes its way into the town.

I can't imagine that this little barrier would stop a car from careening down the cliff.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii is located just south of Naples and about a 30 minute drive east of Sorrento, Italy.

Pompeii was completely buried during a long catastrophic eruption of the Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. Pompeii was buried under 60 feet of ash and re-discovered in the 1700s. The excavation and preservation of the city is amazing. I envisioned a ruins site similar to that of Chichen Itza or Uxmal. Imagine my surprise when we entered the site and quickly panned around to get our bearings. The site is HUGE.

Here are some pictures from our visit to Pompeii. The slideshow will be added later.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Isle of Capri

The island of Capri is located off the Sorrentino coast of Italy. Our 4 day stay in Sorrento included a quick ferry over to Capri. The 'fast ferry' takes about 30 minutes and is a pretty smooth ride. Once we arrived at the main port, we searched for an information no avail. We were, however approached by a guy peddling a private boat tour of the island. We obviously look like tourists, because we are constantly approached!!!

After Chuck inspected the 18' boat (to make sure I wasn't going to either toss my cookies or get tossed overboard) we agreed to the 2 hour tour. The price was reasonable and far less than we've paid in the past to rent a sailboat for 4 hours in the caribbean. The sea was pretty rough, but Cristiano did a great job of explaining the sights and making sure I didn't fall overboard! We toured some of the grottos, saw the natural arch, ricotta rock, the faraglioni and a lighthouse (the second one built in all of Italy).

Once the boat tour was over, we made our way to the city of Capri and then over to the city of Anacapri. Once in Anacapri, we took a single chairlift up to the highest point on the island.

Here are some pictures from the trip.

Picture taken from the highest point on Capri. The faraglioni are in the background.

The second lighthouse ever built in Italy.

A grotto located on the southside of the island.

Chuck enjoying the boat ride.

Ricotta rock

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The beautiful parks of Beijing

When Chuck was busy, I had an opportunity to explore Beijing on my own. Aside from shopping, which I know Chuck prefers not to do, I spent some time strolling through the many beautiful parks. It is amazing how once you enter the park, you can easily forget that you are smack-dab in the middle of a sprawling metropolis with 17 million people. The foliage, walls, flowers and trees all block out the honking horns, humming busses, construction noises.

The flowers are abundant and absolutely gorgeous. Jingshan park has beautiful peonies, roses, and tulips in bloom. At 8:30 in the morning, the park was filled with people exercising, dancing, walking, photographing flowers, and even several people perched on buckets drawing the various blooms.

Here are some of my favorite pictures....and yes, I do love taking pictures of flowers!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Exploring Beijing

We had great fun exploring Beijing the last few days. In our short time there, we...

  • Walked around Tiananmen Square
  • Explored the Forbidden City
  • Met the nephew of the Last Emporer and had him sign a beautiful wall hanging
  • Sat gridlocked in rush hour traffic
  • Walked through the Hutongs
  • Saw the Temple of Heaven
  • Shopped at the Pearl Market, on Silk Street, and Yaxiu Market
  • Got lost in the embassy district...stopped by a guard and told to show my passport
  • Walked the Great Wall (Mutianyu section) on a very cloudy / foggy day...then went back on a sunny day to get some nice pictures!
  • Rode in the same gondola at the Great Wall as President Clinton in 1998
  • Took a tobaggon ride down from the Great Wall
  • Went on a culinary market tour in the Hutongs
  • Saw dancers and performers at Ritan park
  • Walked around the Summer Palace
  • Walked through some amazing parks (Ritan, Jingshan, Beihai)
  • Watched the flying acrobatic show in the Chaoyang district
  • Bought some tea on Tea Street

A few pictures (until I get a chance to upload slideshows)....

The shopkeeper in one of the stalls at Yaxiu market, my favorite market.

The flying acrobatic show in the Chaoyang District.

Beihai park

Aerial view of Forbidden City; taken from Jingshan park. This is the north gate entrance (south gate entrance is near Tianenmen Square).

Jingshan park

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall

Shopping at the market in one of the Hutongs

Beijing Travel Tips

In planning for our trip to Beijing, we received a few tips and suggestions. After 'experiencing' Beijing, I have a few more tips to add to the list.

  1. When taking a Taxi, make sure you can see the driver's credentials, which are usually located on the passenger side glove compartment.
  2. Do not take a Taxi when the driver approaches you with a 'good price'. It is a rip off. Walk to the street and hail a cab. Make sure they flip the meter. Taxis are very inexpensive. You can get just about anywhere in Beijing for under 30 RMB (under 5 USD).
  3. A Taxi is available for hire, if the light be the rear view mirror is red.
  4. If your water bottle isn't sealed, don't drink it.
  5. Don't drink the tap water, not even to brush your teeth. Use bottled water (it is very inexpensive).
  6. Pearls, where do I start. All the vendors say they are real. They will even pull out scissors and cut a piece off, showing you that the color runs through and it is not plastic. The vast number of pearls is completely overwhelming and the prices they start at are crazy. As a reference point, I bought a pair of pearl earrings with 14kt gold backs for 12 RMB. She started at 100 RMB. Most jewelery is in silver and the gold will discolor, so if you must have 14kt gold, they will go and get different posts / backs for earrings. My advice for purchasing pearls....assume they are fake and pay a price that you are comfortable with.
  7. Saturday and Sunday are very busy with tourists, primarily folks from other parts of China.
  8. Taxi drivers speak very little, if any English. Make a map of Beijing with bubbles / call outs that have destinations in English and in Chinese so you can just point to the bubble.
  9. A Taxi from the Airport to Beijing should cost no more than 100 RMB. We paid about 70 RMB, but traffic was quite good, so there weren't any delays.
  10. The Summer Palace is beautiful. Rent an electric boat to get amazing views from the lake.
  11. Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is wonderful. You can take a gondola up, walk the wall for about an hour, then take a tobaggon down to the parking lot area.
  12. A Taxi to / from the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is about 1000RMB. If you choose a taxi, then don't pay them the full amount until you return from the wall....this ensures they won't leave you without a ride back to Beijing. You can also find a car / driver who will take you for about 800 RMB round trip.
  13. Shopping is quite interesting. Silk Street is extremely pushy and the sales people like to touch and pull you to look at their wares. Personally, I hated this market. The Pearl Market near the Temple of Heaven is nice and is a little less pushy. Behind the Pearl Market is another 'new' pearl market. It is quite nice with tons of display cases and very few shoppers. I enjoyed this market quite a bit and did most of my shopping at Jewelry Jun. Yaxiu market was probably my favorite market. The sales people were nice and it wasn't an overly stressful experience. There is also a very modern mall next to the market.
  14. Bargaining is a skill. If you have ever been to a market in Mexico, I would say the atmosphere is similar, but the intensity is about 3 fold. Remember, the vendors will never sell you something if they don't make some money on it!
  15. Tour guides will approach you all over the city. We were approached by Dina at the Forbidden City and paid 200 RMB for about 2-3 hours of her time. We didn't negotiate the price with her, because we thought 25 USD was a fair price.
  16. Western toilets aren't very common, so unless you have mastered the local facilities, I would advise searching out chain restaurants and hotels for bathroom facilities. The most interesting toilet facility was a room with about 5 holes in the ground. No screens or partitions between the holes. I turned around and decided to wait. I should have taken a photo, though!!!
  17. It is uncommon to leave a tip in Beijing. We got some pretty strange looks when we tried to give the taxi drivers and restaurant servers a tip. In the end, we stopped tipping and things were a bit smoother. So, no need to tip.

Beijing is an amazing city filled with great history, culture, and sites. Enjoy!

A little sightseeing in Beijing

I am beginning to think that every single local came out to wish us well on our first day of sightseeing in Beijing. There were just swarms of people. Actually, is there a word that signifies something larger than a swarm of bees all buzzing around? Luckily Chuck is about a head taller than most, so I was able to pick him out of the crowd on the few occasions where we were separated.

First up on our sightseeing list was Tiananmen Square. The line to see Mao's tomb snaked around the square and had about a 3 hour wait, so we just walked around and then proceeded to the Forbidden City.

Our next stop was the Forbidden City. We pushed and shoved (no, not really) our way through the south gate, a court yard, another gate and then we were snagged by Dina, a tour guide. She was willing to be our 'friend' for a few hours as we toured the sight. Ok, we relented, why not? In the end, it was a good deal. She quickly got us tickets, by sneaking her way to the front of the line, so her rather minimal fee was worth it not to have to stand in yet another queue!
While at the Forbidden City, our tour guide took us to an art gallery where the nephew of the Last Emporer was located. We were 'lucky because he's not always in.' Ok, so my defenses went up, thinking that this was a scam. After some research, it appears to be legit. We bought a wall hanging that has the Chinese symbol for Harmony and then had Aisin Gioro Yuining (nephew of Last Emporer Puyi), add Romenesko and Happiness forever in caligraphy. The picture below shows him writing Romenesko.

This is the entrance to Forbidden City, by crossing one of the five bridges, which signify the five Confucian virtues of humanity, sense of duty, wisdom, reliability and ceremonial propriety.

Chuck and Dina, our guide...who, by the way, quickly pulled me aside to tell me how handsome my husband is...after she asked if we were married...and then proceded to tell me that 13 and 4 are unlucky numbers in Chinese culture. Note: We were married for 13 years on the 13th day of the 4th month this year. Hmmm, is she trying to tell me something????

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hello Beijing (Ni hao Beijing)

I learned a few basic words in Mandarin before our trip to China. A week isn't much time to do a crash course in a foriegn language, but I think I should get an A for effort :-P

The two most important words....

  • Ni hao (knee how) = Hello
  • xièxiè (she she) = thank you
Our first day in Beijing was a day of catching up on sleep...and then a little exploring. Coming from Denmark (population about 5 million) with our little town in southern jutland (population 7000), Beijing (population 17 million, YES 17 million) was a little overwhelming and a bit of sensory overload!

Within my first 8 hours in Beijing, I was told to STOP, not once, not twice, but 3 times by an armed guard AND he wanted to inspect my passport and visa. Great. I was looking for the Ri tan park and got a bit confused, even with my map. Gee whiz, give a girl a break!

I found a quaint little shop that did foot massages and pedicures. The advertisement was in English, so I assumed they spoke English. Alex, I'll take Bad assumptions for 100 dollars (Jeopardy reference). The only English I heard was, 'Where you from?' and 'Oh, U.S.A. yeah Obama.' Just under 2 hours of pampering was a crazy 25 USD!!!

Tomorrow is a big day of sightseeing in Beijing. More to come.

Sunshine in Copenhagen

It's not very common to have days upon days filled with sunshine. So, wouldn't you know...we would have sunshine for 4 straight days in Denmark. My parents probably think I was fibbing a bit about the gray skies and drizzly rain. However, I'll take any amount of sunshine we can get!
We had wonderful weather for our tour of southern Sweden and Denmark.
After our day in southern Sweden, we crossed the Oresund on a bridge / tunnel (below) then spent 2 days in Copenhagen. It was Easter weekend, so many things were closed or had reduced hours. We were able to find plenty of things to keep us busy!

Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and is a bustling metro, a stark contrast to our little town in southern jutland. We were classic tourists...
  • riding the S and Metro
  • taking the hour-long canal tour
  • watching the changing of the guard at Amalienborg (royal palace)
  • Frederik's church
  • a view of the little mermaid before she travels to Shanghai, China
  • shopping on stroget street

Slideshow will be posted soon.