2018 Europe Trip: Milan, Turin

(This is part 2 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

On the night of June 22, we flew from JFK International into Milan on Air Italy, an overnight, nonstop, eight hour trip. While everyone else seemed to doze off for a few hours, I mainly stayed awake. I’ve never really been able to fall asleep on a plane. The anticipation and stress of such an undertaking didn’t help.

We were fortunate enough to have cousin Sara waiting for us at the airport. After a long day/night, we welcomed having someone guiding us through our first interactions with the train system and everything else that comes with being in a new country. She laid down the jet lag law: no naps, tire yourself out, get to bed after 7 PM.

We opened our trip with a late lunch at a wonderful neighborhood restaurant where we were treated like regulars (I’m sure Sara being a regular had something to do with it). It was a relaxed introduction to Italian eating — a plate of hams and cheeses to start, followed by delicious homemade pasta with a variety of sauces. We lingered over our plates and talked over all kinds of logistics.

I had read quite a bit about what to expect in Italy, and everyone talked about the pace of the Italian restaurant dinner. And yet, I was still somewhat unprepared. I’m sure there are plenty of times Italians rush through their dinners just as we often do back home, but many of our restaurant meals (including this one) took a decidedly relaxed pace. Take your time at every stage, enjoy every course, and be prepared to ask explicitly for the check when it’s time to go (and don’t be surprised when along with the check comes a drink, a snack, or some candy for your ten year-old daughter — or all of the above).

After our meal, our next step was the famous Duomo of Milan.

We took the train there, and I’ll never forget how it felt to walk up the stairs from underground and have the ancient cathedral dominating all my view. We didn’t go in, but walked all around it, admiring its many statues and its massive architecture from every angle (dodging crowds along the way). Here was also received some education on being streetwise, learning to say “no” in a firm voice when people tried to hand us free bracelets or other “gifts”, and recognizing some ways in which dishonest panhandlers or pickpockets might target people.

From the Duomo we launched into a massive (to us) foot tour of Milan. We walked through the Galleria, gawking at the high fashion shops and doing the traditional bull’s spin.

We ate gelato (sorbet for me) which would become quite the tradition on our trip.

Evie preferred chocolate and mango (often combined: eek), whereas I could have had lime-basil sorbet after every meal. We went down cobblestone streets and admired quintessential European city views of little balconies with drying laundry and small gardens on them. We checked out Sforza Castle (taking a moment to look at the cats snoozing in the sun at the bottom of the “moat”) and Simplon Park, and admired the Arch of Peace.

It was an excellent introduction to Europe, to Italian cities, to how comfortable we would have to get on our feet. We got back to Sara’s place in the early evening and talked about our travel plans well into the night. We also took some time to celebrate our daughter’s tenth birthday with cake and fun kid activities.

The next day, fighting off a weakened jet lag (indeed, Sara’s advice worked), we ate a breakfast of eggs and received a critical piece of technology that would make the rest of the trip easier: a prepaid wifi access point. It let us connect our phones (and Evie’s iPad) via wifi and access the mobile data network in Italy. We were never far from online maps, Italian/English dictionaries, restaurant reviews, and online entertainment for Evie. We also could easily contact our loved ones, and quickly communicate with Sara when we needed advice or just someone to share our stories with.

I can’t imagine having the same sense of complete comfort in another country in the 21st century without some form of connectivity. Definitely look into it if you’re thinking of making a trip like this.

Breakfast done, we grabbed a backpack and set out on a day trip to the nearby city of Turin, home of the 2006 Winter Olympics. It’s also the home of the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, and Evie is a bit obsessed with ancient Egypt, its mythology, and its artifacts. So we planned to have lunch in Turin, visit the Egyptian museum in the afternoon, and then explore the city a bit before heading back.

This was, in some ways, a dry run for the rest of our trip. Cousin Sara accompanied us to Milano Centrale, the giant rail station in the heart of Milan, and then departed — we would not see her again for the remainder of our trip (our busy schedule and hers never overlapped). Turin was a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy on our own — smaller in scale, with only one clear destination and plenty of time to enjoy in whatever way we saw fit. It also gave us a huge confidence boost in navigating the rail system.

The museum was a clear shot from the train station in Turin, but we took a meandering path, stopping and admiring various side streets and reveling in our newfound sense of freedom. We had an outdoor lunch at a pizza place near the museum (a common theme on our trip — outdoors dining in the beautiful weather).

We then walked to the museum and toured it thoroughly. Evie took on the role of expert, teaching us what she knew from her own exploration of the topic.

I felt personally impacted by the number of preserved ancient bodies — mummies, skeletons — physical remnants of lives long forgotten. It was a somber reminder of both our own mortality and the possible permanence of the physical, bodies which had long outlasted the religions and governments under which they lived.

After we finished at the museum, we walked around Turin. We stumbled onto a celebration day (La Festa di San Giovanni) with parades and music.

We then sat in the public park while Evie sketched a pond and fountain on a souvenir notepad. It was a relaxed way to spend the afternoon before getting back on the train to Milan.

In Milan, we managed the rail system to get back to Sara’s neighborhood, had dinner at a wonderful restaurant (Veal Milanese for me — a real treat) much later than we’d usually eat back home (dinner is served late in Italy! Going out at 9 PM is not unusual, but going out before 7 PM is) and then packed our bags for the next leg of our trip. We were headed out for six days, and crammed all we could into two small bags and a couple backpacks. It was time for our trip to really begin.

2018 Europe Trip: Introduction

In the next few posts, I’ll be writing about our family trip to Italy and Switzerland in June and July of 2018. On the trip: Myself, Jess (my wife), and Evie (our ten year-old daughter). Italy hadn’t been a dream destination for any of us, but sometimes the road calls you in unexpected ways.

Jess’s cousin Sara has been working in Milan for the past couple years, and has offered her couch (ok, really, her spacious spare bedroom) to family members who wanted to use Milan as a launching point for exploring Europe. We kept saying “maybe we should” and realized if we didn’t start really planning it, it would never happen. Life has a way of slipping by while you’re planning for the future.

So we stared seriously discussing it in February of 2017. We weren’t sure what countries we wanted to visit, how long we wanted to go, and whether we would bring our daughter with us. But if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s obsessively plan things, and this was a meaty problem I could sink my teeth into.

The trip started to really firm up in November of 2017, at another family member’s wedding. Over a few drinks we talked details, prices, potential timelines, and more. We decided for sure we were bringing our daughter, too. Over the next few months we dialed it in, buying airline tickets in January and then solidifying our destinations and how we’d get between them. Many people have asked if we followed a recommended tour, or booked ourselves onto one. We did not — we dealt with all the details ourselves, with all the pros and cons that implies.

I know this post has no grand descriptions or photos, but I wanted to set some context for the upcoming posts. This was a life event, not a “vacation.” It was an adventure. It was a trip we knew would cost us more than we could really afford. We planned accordingly, squeezing as much out of it as we could. It took us 16 months to nail down everything. I bought four travel books. I spent hours on youtube and travel blogs, watching people teaching Italian phrases and trying my best to understand the ins-and-outs of the European rail system and the cultural norms of the Italian cities we were visiting. I hunkered down with travel booking and review websites. We had to renew passports, pick out hotels, buy train tickets, fine-tune timelines, everything. It was a completely different trip than anything we had done before, in many ways, and it was hard not to over-plan and burn out.

In the end, our trip had us arriving in Milan on June 23 and departing on July 7. In-between, we would visit Turin, Rome, Orvieto, Florence, Pisa, Wengen (Switzerland), and Venice. We would spend five nights in Milan (thank you cousin Sara!), and two nights many other places.

So. Settle in, grab an espresso or limoncello (or even, to borrow a phrase, “a nice Chianti”), and check out where these eager feet got off to this summer…

Sanibel Island, Summer 2017

These Eager Feet love to travel, whether it’s a day trip to a new hiking trail or a month-long road trip (still the best trip I’ve ever taken). It’s always difficult to decide when to take on new adventures and when to return to comfortable ground. It’s like going to a restaurant — order the tried and true meal or branch out and order the special with the garnish you’ve never heard of?

Each year we weigh this, and we keep coming back to Sanibel Island. We’ve been coming here for years (since before Evie was born), and it’s hard to put into words why we keep coming back. It’s somewhat unique, or at least uncommon, in that most of the island is a natural preserve. Development is controlled; town by-laws prevent chain restaurants from opening, hotels from going above three stories, or buildings a certain distance from the beach. Speed limits are low across the island, and it’s quiet, to the point where some people (I won’t name names, but they’re our own flesh and blood and traveled with us just once) get bored here.

I come here, I drive across the massive bridge, and I immediately begin decompressing. Tradition holds that our first meal on the island is usually at a restaurant called the Island Cow.  The Island Cow isn’t an amazing restaurant; it’s loud, crowded, disorganized, and has a massive menu that puts quantity a bit above quality. There’s always a wait, and I always get a drink from the bar and sit out back in the Adirondack chairs and slowly let the warm Florida air begin doing its magic.

This year we splurged and revisited a condo we’ve stayed in before. The views are incredible and you can’t help but be drawn to the windows whenever you’re trapped indoors, trying to spot the telltale splash of a pair of dolphins swimming by.

As well as having Jess’s parents along, we took Evie’s friend with us on this trip, so she would have someone to share the experience with. It’s always easier when they’re entertained and can share their unique childhood perspective with another friend instead of just adults.  While the grown-ups shopped for kitchen supplies I accompanied them outside of Jerry’s grocery store to talk to the parrots.  Again, these experiences are comfortable and routine to me, and even Evie is beginning to remember them from prior years, but her being able to share them with someone else made them feel new again, for all of us.

I apologize for a lack of pictures in this post; on a trip like this, when relaxation is king, especially when swimming and being by the water is such a big part of it, the phone just doesn’t come out that often, and I just experience the trip rather than photograph it.  In the moment it’s the right call but I can’t help but wish I had more snapshots to help summon the memories (especially in the dark days of winter, or the hardest days of work).

On Tuesday, we made our way across the length of Sanibel to its sister island of Captiva. There, Jess, Evie, and Evie’s friend took to the skies on a parasailing adventure with the accurately named Yolo Adventures.

After their trip, we spent some time at a nearby beach, playing, swimming, and collecting shells. For lunch that day, we stopped at RC Otter’s Island Eats, a little casual place on Captiva. We sat outside at a table for six, listened to a guitar player singing Jimmy Buffet and Billy Joel songs, and I enjoyed a couple cans of one of my favorite beers, Jai Alai IPA (not distributed to Massachusetts, I’m afraid).  My lunch was a simple blackened fish sandwich, and I honestly could have sat there, in the breeze with the salt drying on my skin, listening to that music and enjoying the moment, all afternoon.  It was one of the high points of the trip.

Later in the week the ladies took a speedboat tour around the island (The Sanibel Thriller) while Jess’s father and I fished our way across Ding Darling.  We fished a bit almost every day, but this was our day to have some dedicated time to fish.  We saw some interesting fish, including a shark that cruised by where we were standing — very exciting.  I didn’t pull in much but Steve did — the story of my (fishing) life.

We got some more fishing in on our last full day there, taking a boat out of Tarpon Bay Explorers to fish the inlets and shallow waters of the bay.  We caught over 40 fish between the six of us, across a wide variety of species.  Everybody had a great time.

And then … as quickly as it began, it was over.  The next day we drove north to Tampa (stopping at a tourist trap mini-golf place to play 18 holes, feed the gators, and break up the routine) and then flew home.

It hasn’t even been a month yet and the memories are fading, work is front and center again, and the stress levels are back up.  But I can still summon the taste of that ice cold Jai Alai with the breeze in my salt-water-hair, and I know that while my Eager Feet may crave adventure, there is some value in tried and true relaxation.

Quechee Gorge and Windsor Vermont

There’s something about the mountains of Vermont which speaks to me at a deep level. The winding roads, the gentle green slopes, the contrast between the lush mountains and the blue skies … it relaxes me almost immediately. Add to this the excellent local food and beer, and the fact that we can get there without touching the Mass Pike, I-495, or I-95, and you can begin to understand why I keep coming back.

To close out May of this year, we traveled with our friends Sean and Crystal and their daughter Olivia. We’ve traveled with them several times before, in both Vermont and the Berkshires. We have similar relaxed traveling styles when it comes to the outdoors and a love of great food, and our kids get along well too.

This time, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Mount Ascutney Resort, a small ski resort near Windsor, Vermont.

The resort itself is beautiful, spacious, and quiet (maybe too quiet for some — it’s certainly a vastly different feel than Smugglers’ Notch). In the photos above you can see the building we stayed in, as well as the views from the rear of the main building, looking out over a small pond and up at the hills.  If you look closely you can see a fire pit with firewood stacked near it; we enjoyed some relaxing time around this fire but not nearly enough.  There’s something about a fire pit and a good drink that erases weeks of stress per hour spent.

We drove on Saturday up to Windsor for a visit to The Harpoon Riverbend Taps and Beer Garden. The food was great, and the atmosphere a ton of fun. I highly recommend it if you’re in the area.

We enjoyed sampler flights and a good lunch, and then spent some time outside playing as families.

Unfortunately, we didn’t time things well and I missed out on the brewery tour.  Next time!

The next day we went up the road a bit further to Quechee Gorge, also known as Vermont’s Grand Canyon.  A hundred year old bridge here is 163 feet above the river below, and makes for jaw-dropping views in both directions.  The bridge has crosswalks at both ends and wide sidewalks making for excellent, safe exploration (once you get over your fear of heights).

There’s a few hiking trails near here and we did a short hike up the river to the beautiful Dewey’s Pond. Along the way I couldn’t help photograph some of the cool tree bark.

At the end of the trail, we caught tadpoles in the pond and watched kayakers go by the river bend.

After exploring the trails, we stopped at the nearby gift shop and ice cream store.

The next morning, before the rains hit, we did a bit of exploring the property. Little memories sometimes make the most difference; we floated sticks under a small bridge over a nearby stream and watched them go over a little waterfall.

It wasn’t a very long trip, but three nights in the mountains does a world of good.

South Carolina and Florida, January 2017

Like I said, my goal here is to update the blog regularly with travel or other “new” experiences, regardless of whether I’m hiking or what.  So I’ll start with a short writeup of our trip to the Southeast earlier this month.

My nephew, who just turned 18 on Christmas, was graduating from the USMC Training Depot on Parris Island, in South Carolina. Last time we were in SC, my brother-in-law was the one graduating. It was nice to get a chance to see his youngest son follow in his footsteps.

We flew into Charleston which I hear is a very nice city (we didn’t have a chance to see), and drove about on hour to Beaufort. The drive itself was mostly nice — all the shallow flats made me wish for my fishing kayak, that’s for sure. Beaufort, like any city, has its ups and downs. We stayed in a “down” spot, unfortunately.  I’ve been told if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything — so I’ll say nothing more about that!

My brother-in-law also traveled down there, and took a different housing approach. They crammed a huge van full of people into a house on a dirt road on Saint Helena Island, immediately adjacent to Fort Fremont, a military installation built in 1899.  We spent most of our time (when we weren’t at Parris Island) there, sitting around their campfire, having dinner with family at the huge table, or going for walks over to Fort Fremont and exploring the ruined old site on the water.

After two days there, we took our rental car on a long drive south, through Georgia and ending up in Ocala, Florida.  There, we visited my grandfather, who turned 90 last year.  We were supposed to be taking him out for lunch but he insisted on cooking us a steak dinner.  I’m sure he spent his food budget for the week on us, but he’s been making us steak since I was a little kid and some habits die hard.  We took him to Bob Evans the next day.

In the evenings we slept in a home in Leesburg, about an hour south of Ocala.  The home is owned by extended family and we enjoyed the chance to relax in a home instead of a hotel.  Of course, relaxation is relative — tornado warnings and severe hail had us hiding in a closet while we were supposed to be watching the AFC championship game!

It was a busy trip, with a lot of driving. As a whole, it wasn’t a “vacation” or “relaxing,” but there were some great moments spent with family.  Smoking a cigar (the second I’ve smoked in my 43 years) and sipping a beer around a campfire with family and friends, all celebrating my nephew’s achievements — that was a great time.  Listening to my grandfather strum his guitar, sharing stories about his youth in Canada?  Priceless. There’s a reason you don’t just stay at home all the time — sometimes the good stuff happens elsewhere!