Friday, March 30, 2007

Day 6

We awoke around 7am, good and rested from the day we had in Venice. No one much felt like walking anymore, so the plan was to have a hearty breakfast and take off direct for Firenze. We partook in the hotels breakfast, same cuisine, which was again very good and before 10am we were off for Florence, actually Fiesole, which is a town in the hills east of Florence.

Once back in the car, I remembered how nice it was to have such a vehicle on this journey. Even though I have not had proper time to get acquainted with the 3er, I already have great confidence in how well it handles, it made me feel very confident even though I had no idea what was in store for today’s drive, especially what driving in Firenze would be like, as I had heard it was somewhat stressful and difficult to navigate.

As soon as we made our way from the Santa Chiara parking lot it began to rain, this was the first sign of poor weather we have had thus far, so we were glad it was occurring on a travel day as walking the streets of Venice soaking wet did not sound at all appealing. We headed out of Venice, across the long water way and onto the autostrada heading southwest towards Firenze. The weather really started to get bad as we began to ascend into the mountains and thru the tunnels, we only reached about 2000 feet, but at that point there was dense fog and the rain was coming down something fierce, made me feel like I was in Seattle, however as always the car kicked ass, no hydroplaning, no issues with the real wheel drive, nothing but solid handling at fairly high speeds. The one thing I have to say is how narrow some areas of the autostrada are, especially around the tunnels, passing trucks at high speed was pretty scary, but there were no issues and we began to descend down to a few hundred feet above sea level, at this point the rain subsided and the weather cleared up.

All of a sudden we were literally in Florence, it really took me by surprise as I had been preoccupied by the weather and had not paid attention to the trip computer. We ended our journey on the autostrada, total toll cost of 15.60 Euros and were plopped down right in Florence. I was pretty prepared for a crazy driving experience, so at first I was like ”hey this is not bad at all”. Literally I said this to my wife, but slowly I started to understand what people were talking about as scooters would pass on both sides of my car, cars would be 3 wide on a two lane road, or people would literally pass other cars on downtown streets, swerving into oncoming traffic to do so. It was pretty surreal, but nothing too bad, I think it is just something that you have to get used to, it also helps to be decisive, which is obviously pretty hard to do in a place you are utterly unfamiliar with, even with the navigation system.

We traversed thru town, I think we might have made it hard on ourselves by making a wrong turn which caused us to go directly thru the city to get to Fiesole, but it was a good experience since nothing bad happened and we made it thru town and into Fiesole.

When going into Fiesole you go down this huge hill and then back up another huge hill, the road is very narrow and I was a bit preoccupied by paying attention to the passing cars side swiping my mirrors (none did) that I missed the turn to the city, but the nav immediately re-routed us to a loop that came back to the city, so I continued to follow the narrow road and then all of a sudden like a little miracle there was a sign for our hotel on the right hand side, I had actually forgot the address of the hotel and had heard it was a bit hard to find, so this was a real coup. We pulled up their very steep cobblestone laden road to find an oasis of goodness. This place came highly recommended from many members of bimmerfest and I can see why. It is situated right above the town of Florence, you can see the entire city from their parking lot. We went into register and they sent help out for our bags and treated us like royalty, it was a real treat and much different from our experience in Venice. We went up to our room to find an amazing marble floored room with 12 foot ceilings and a great view of the city. The room was just gorgeous, with an amazing bathroom to boot (with a full shower and tub). This place is meticulously clean and the front desk is more than willing to help you navigate your way to the bus stop (that will take you to Florence) and anything else you may need. The kids were a bit disappointed to hear that the pool was seasonal and closed, but beyond that this is about as good as it can get for the price.

After settling into our room, we decided to take a short drive into Fiesole for a late lunch. The town itself is very quaint, we found a small pub that had sandwiches and small pizzas, we sat at the bar and consumed the goodness placed in front of us, food always seems to taste a little better after a trip and this was no different. We then made our way next door to the gelato store, the kids had chocolato and I took a chance on tiramisu, while Christie had a cappuccino. It was a great pick me up and we headed back to our hotel as the wind made walking around the town a bit uncomfortable. We spent a few hours relaxing and enjoying our grand room and then went to the hotel restaurant for dinner, realizing we had a full day ahead of us in touring Florence.

Day 5

We awoke around 7 am and headed down to the hotel’s breakfast. We were wondering what it would be like in comparison to the one in Germany. To my surprise it was somewhat similar, although a bit lighter on meats and cheeses, but they still had them along with numerous breads, cereals, fruits, jams, eggs etc…. and of course it came with cappuccino or cafĂ©… we went with the cappuccino and were not disappointed.

Headed off to Venice, went across a few bridges and ended up on the main street that went along the main canal and headed towards San Marcos square, which was somewhat our main destination, but we were really just aimlessly walking.

Anyone who has ever been here knows that Venice is basically one big tourist attraction, I had the feeling of being in Disneyland, but with churches and architecture instead of rides. Venice even has the characters, the masked men and women that pose on the streets for change, we stopped at the first ones we saw and snapped a picture with the kids and my wife, pretty cool and they were very nice. Another goal of the day was to pick up masks for everyone, we told the kids they could pick out the one that they wanted most and we were going to do the same. We went from shop to shop looking at the glass trinkets and masks that were seemingly everywhere and I mean this quite literally, almost every shop had some of both and there are a million shops in Venice. If the shop did not have masks or glass, then it was chalk full of some delectable delight, from Gelato to chocolate and an endless assortment of baked goods. The US could really learn from this type of fresh and quality food choices that we just do not seem to have. Even in the local grocery store they had an amazing selection of all high quality foods and we are all loving the selections we have around every corner.

The thing that really amazed me about Venice is how easy it is to get lost, I mean one turn and all of the sudden you are in some deserted alley way and the streets are haphazard and go in all directions. There were some signs to navigate by, especially to the rialto bridge and San Marcos, but beyond that I found it pretty tough. Even with a map it was difficult as many of the names on the buildings for the streets would not match. The one constant is you could easily tell if you were off the beaten path by the utter lack of shops, the main streets they are ubiquitous… having said this, we were probably only “lost” a few times and only for 10 minutes or so, but I never felt comfortable that I really knew how to traverse the city, just knew enough to stay on the main paths and such, which worked out for us.

We stopped for lunch and had a great pizza (prosciutto, mushrooms, yellow peppers) , a small cheese pizza round and a small half sandwich, it was great sitting out in the main street watching the people pass and just enjoying the great weather which was clear and sunny. We continued down the winding streets stopping and looking for masks and trinkets as we went and having a good time. Venice is really fun, it is completely touristy, but it is so different and so delectable it was a real treat and somewhat a surprise to us all.

We eventually came to the Rialto bridge, amazing bridge that goes over the grand canal. It is a huge bridge with 3 different rows of shops along it, we crossed and walked for a bit and very quickly found ourselves lost, it took a bit but we realized that we had already crossed the grand canal and we were on the correct side to find San Marcos square, so we double backed and followed the masses. You very quickly realize you are going the correct way as the shops turn from trinket shops to Gucci, Ferrari and the likes… soon we could see the light, literally the end of the rather small road we came has an opening at the end that opened to the immense square.

The square is amazing, I think it is heightened by the fact that the rest of Venice there is NO open space at all and then all of the sudden you emerge into this gigantic open area with buildings that just take your breath away. We decided to go into San Marcos church and went up the stairs to the horses, as the sign says. The stairs were really cool, it was like ascending in a dungeon and you could feel the impressions of the millions of people who had made this trip over the past years as the stone literally had foot marks worn in it. The kids were a bit scared, but with the help of a modern railing that has been more recently installed, it was not too bad. At the top we realized why so few were going this way, there was a fee and a mini-museum upstairs, 6 Euros later we were in and looking at some amazing sites.

I recommend anyone going in the church to go up the stairs and pay the money, because the view is amazing. You get to look over into the entire church from above and be that much closer to the amazing mosaics that cover all the walls and ceilings. The little museum is pretty cool as well, this is where the horse mystery ends, as the original 4 horses that are outside the building reside, they replaced them with replicas outside. The best of this whole stop is you get to go outside on the balcony where the 4 horses are, there is a great sitting area along the wall and you have a bird’s eye view of the entire square. We basked in the sun up here and took a much needed break for half an hour or so, it was great. After this time we went down and toured the square, lots of high end shops, not exactly in our price range this trip, but we did manage to have 5 euro hot chocolates and cappuccinos and we were off to find our way back to the hotel.

Right off on our way back we ended up down an alley that did not look familiar at all, we ended up doing a giant circle going by the huge open air fish market that was shutting down for the day. We dashed thru the bloody fish gut cobblestones and came back to where we began. This time we made a discreet effort to follow the masses and keep to the busy streets, what took us almost 6 hours to navigate on the way there, probably only took about 45 minutes on the way back, we only stopped to pick up our masks that we had been searching for all day and we were back at the Santa Chiara before we knew it.

Once back at the hotel, we took a break to relax, the kids were pretty much done for the day and we relaxed before going out to dinner. This again consisted of some quality bier brought from Munich for myself and some juice and other odd treats for the kids. We ended up just going down the main canal about 400 meters to the second restaurant we came across, a real quaint little place where we all had various pastas, mine carbonara and it was fantastic. We also had some Chianti, it was great, especially for the price paid. We headed back to the hotel and crashed good and hard.

Day 4

Woke up early, around 6 am and everyone got ready to go down for breakfast, yes more meat and cheese please. This time we were early, so we got the best selection, once again it was a great start to the day, especially today as we planned to drive all the way to Venice. Finished up breakfast and went upstairs to pack everything up for our departure. We were all ready to go when I realized I only one of the two keys for the bimmer… Ok at this point I have to say I kind of freaked out, since I basically lost this thing the day after I received it and that if the car was stolen and I could only produce one set of keys I would not be covered by the insurance policy thru BMW. I ravaged thru all the luggage, actually started taking it out to the car piece by piece to see if the CA system would activate when the luggage was near….nothing was working. We were down to our final small bags when it hit me, I had placed FOB number 2 in the cell phone holder of my backpack, I never put anything in this spot usually so I never thought of looking there…Ok crisis averted and we were off to Venice.

Now Rolf said that we should put Venice in as a destination and select to “avoid tolls” thru the navi. I did so and it plotted out a route that was east of Innsbruck, I had always planned on going thru Innsbruck but since we will be returning that way I thought what the heck. We proceeded thru the city of Munich and finally we were out of town and on our way. I have to say the navigation system is really cool, anyone who has driven here knows that there are numerous round a bouts, the navi is fully aware of these and tells you exactly which exit to take, even displaying a picture of where to go… this was really helpful, without it we would have gone in a few circles to say the least.

The way the computer sent us thru southern Germany and Austria was really cool, we went thru a slew of small towns and talk about twisties (if it were not for my daughters in the back we would have had some real fun) it was really a fun trip, slow, but fun. I think we hit 5500 feet elevation and we went by at least 4 ski resorts that still had their gondolas running. The road was totally clear of snow or ice and the temperature never went below 34F. If I would have known this route would have taken us up so high I am not sure I would have taken it, as I was avoiding any possibility of snow driving possible, but it was such a cool trip I am glad we took it. I think the same route a week before and we would have been in some serious snow trouble….

I think we went thru Austria and I did not even realize it, the next thing I knew there was an unmanned Italia border gate and a sign that said as much and we were in Italy. I think our first site in Italy was of two police (the military Northern Italian kind) having pulled over a car in front of us bearing machine guns, yeah machine guns… I think I read about this before, but it is a pretty crazy site to see in person, glad we were not the ones who were pulled over or I would have been crapping my pants. Once into Italy we slowly came down in elevation eventually getting all the way down to sea level with the temperature rising to 60F. Once at this level we passed an endless amount of vineyards, the vines were still bare, but they were pretty amazing to see. It seems that everyone had a vineyard and the vines were thick and very old. At this point I also began to experience the oft noted Italian driving style, cars would come up behind me, I would be in the right lane, but the car would be straddling the lines, basically taking up both lanes and then at the last minute would swerve into the left lane to pass me. This was not an isolated incident, it happened quite often and when we exited to go to Venice there was a single lane to make the exit, but the cars were 2-3 wide with people trying to weasel their way in.

Once off the main road we were off to Venice, not too far we encountered the road that goes across the water and brings you to the parking area and the large bus turn around. We had reservations at the Hotel Santa Chiara, this hotel is the only hotel that has a parking lot in Venice and from viewing it on Google Earth I knew where the hotel was, however there were some pretty large signs that said busses only, so I ended up doing a circle and the next thing I knew we were going back the way we came. I flipped a U-turn, as best I could with all the traffic and went back, this time I ignored the signs and navigated thru the 30 or so buses and masses of people to find the hotel parking lot gate. We were able to get up on the curb so we were off the turn around, but the whole area is swirling with people, as it is the main entrance/exit to Venice. My wife jumped out of the car and soon had the gate to the parking lot opened and we were able to park.

Inside the hotel, the man asked for the keys to the car, which I was a bit hesitant to give up with the insurance issue noted above, and all of our passports. I was somewhat wondering what was going on, the man did not explain why he needed any of it, so I finally asked what was going on and in broken English he basically said I need everything and I will give you the passports back at some time in the future. Not knowing what else to do, we went along with this and headed to our room. The room was very interesting, about 10 feet lower ceilings than our last hotel and very rustic, bordering on cheesy, but after knowing Venice a bit more it kind of fits.

We went out for dinner, we ended up going the wrong way, if any way is the wrong way in Venice, and were down a pretty quiet stretch of street. We did find a few restaurants and ended up at the one with the most convincing salesman at the door… FYI probably a good rule of thumb to avoid the restaurants with the hard core salesman at the front… The meal was fairly good, the pasta (both ravioli and spaghetti) were amazing, I made a mental note to myself to order the pasta dishes going forth as it was just amazing food. We also had the house wine and a few fish that the waiter deboned at the table for us. The meal would have been great if we would have lost the fish and focused on the pasta, but it was still decent, but it was also a bit pricey, coming in at over 110 euro…. Later we would realize this is somewhat standard fare, but if you went to more competitive areas you could get the same meal for half.

Headed back to the room and crashed hard, we would have a full day in Venice tomorrow and some serious mask hunting to do.

Notes: the longest tunnel I have ever gone thru was on the trip thru the dolomites

Got up to 128 mph in Germany, car still felt solid

In Italy they make all of the trucks drive in the far right lane (at least that is what it seemed) always thought this would be a good idea, but made for a hellacious traffic jam and some interesting exiting as you had to weave between trucks and could not read the signs

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 3

Day 3

Woke the next day at 7:30am feeling greatly refreshed, went downstairs to the complimentary breakfast and this is when it hit me, we were indeed in the land of MEAT and CHEESE. The Uhland has a great spread, consisting of all sorts of meats, cheeses, breads, cereals, juices and of course soft and hard boiled eggs. I had never really had such a hearty breakfast, but it was great and after basically missing dinner the night before it hit the spot.

BTW I highly recommend the Hotel Uhland for anyone who wants to stay in a very clean and friendly place, the hotel staff is great, they even called the airline for us and spoke german to get our luggage expedited. This hotel is not in the heart of the city, but very close to two different UBahn stops that go to the city center in just a few stops.

Once done with breakfast we headed out to the UBahn and to the Marienplatz. Getting to the Ubahn was super easy, the ticket machine was somewhat hard to figure out, lots of choices and even once I figured out the correct choice I did not realize that I needed to select the choice prior to putting the euro’s in, not after. Trial and error is a great thing and eventually we figured it out. Stamped the ticket at the entrance and proceeded…. The curious thing about the Ubahn is that there is no one really checking tickets and there are no gates or turnstiles or anything, it is almost all on the honor system, or at least it seemed that way…. The Ubahn itself was very clean and easy to figure out, another curiosity that we noticed is upon entering the Ubahn it was almost completely full with people, but you could literally hear a pin drop. Everyone was amazingly quiet, almost eerily so, this was definelty a trend and seems to be a cultural thing, at least in Germany. I for one really liked it, people were still very friendly but were respectful of other people’s space and such.

Exited the Ubahn and went up to the Marienplatz, this was really cool. The actual square is amazing and then almost every side street had a ton of shops and restaurants including open air fruit and vegetable stands that were filled with amazing fruit (we partook in the raspberries and apples). We went into a ton of shops, wandering thru the streets with no real destination in mind other than taking in the city and picking up a few gifts along the way.

We happened by the Hofbrau Haus down one of the side streets and decided to do lunch here since I had read so much about it on the Fest. It was a bit after normal lunch hours so the restaurant was pretty empty, we sat down and had a few glasses of the regular beer and ate a great meal. I had the roasted pork knuckle, not usually a fan of such meals, but this was really great. The kids shared half a chicken, which was also very tasty. Once done we went down to the gift shop and picked up a few trinkets, it was really a fun meal and a good time for our limited days in Munich.

Went back to shopping and purusing the rest of the area, very soon the munchkins began to grow weary of our foot travels and we picked up some quick sweet treats at a great bakery and headed back to the Ubahn and our hotel. Again, it was easy to navigate to the appropriate train and we were back to our hotel in 20 minutes or so after a quick walk.

Took a quick break in the room and then tried to figure out what to do with our last evening in Munich, since walking was more or less out, we decided to take a late trip to the Neuschwanstein castle. Headed down to the 335, plugged in the destination in the nav system and we were off. I gotta say the nav system was great, we were in rush hour traffic in Munich and never missed a turn or exit, there is no way I would have been able to do that without the nav.

The trip to the castle was very nice once we were out of the city limits, the road was one lane each way for the most part and had a few areas of unlimited speed, but the road was pretty curvy and the unlimited speed zones only lasted a short distance. One note of interest, at least something that surprised me was how often the speed limit changes here. I mean literally it will go from unlimited speed to 120km to 100km to 80 km in a distance of a 1000 meters and then all of the sudden it will be unlimited speed and then back to 100km and so on. It was really interesting and the one thing I noted was the limit, whatever it was, was almost never paid attention to by the locals, or at least by most of them…. The only area that these were really heeded were in the construction areas, which you pretty much had to go slow in due to the road conditions.

Got to the castle, it was pretty late, so most things were closed. We were able to drive almost all the way to the lower castle, but really just stayed in the car and saw both from afar. It was a very spectacular area. After a bit of gazing we headed back, stopped off at the local grocery store where I proved a valuable point, that bier is in fact cheaper than water, picked up 6 pints of fine Bavarian bier and headed back to Munich. The trip back was a bit hairy, in the dark with a new car on some pretty twisty roads, made it back around 8:30pm, again we were all so tired we skipped dinner and had some snacks, yes this means we are leaving Germany tomorrow having never eaten dinner here, but still having very full belly’s at all times.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Day 2


Arrived in Amsterdam around 9:30am local time, had about an hour and a half to make it to the next concourse, seemingly a quick journey, however it was quite a hike across the Amsterdam airport. Speaking of which, this airport was very cool, a ton of shops and it was spotless clean, even the restrooms we went into were amazingly pristine and I had my first run in with the oft noted urinal fly here, although I was a bit timid to be taking pics in the men’s bathroom, so no shots…

Made it to our final plane leg to Munich, the plane took off a few minutes late and accordingly arrived about 15 minutes late to Munich, no big deal, but Rolf was waiting for us so I wanted to get a move on. Deplaned and went to the baggage claim, first bag off was one of ours, unfortunately our second bag never showed up. Getting a bit antsy, we rushed to the Lufthansa baggage claim area to file a report (BTW this is the reason this report is late, our voltage converter was in the lost bag J…do I get a pass on the 12 hour rule??). Tried to give Rolf a call on his mobile, but no one answered, quite frankly I was unsure if I was even calling the number correctly as there was no voice mail. We were just about finished up with the paperwork with Rolf called, evidently he had left his mobile in the car and had been waiting patiently.

By the way, if anyone doing ED is wondering whether they should use Rolf, wonder no longer he is worth every penny, especially after getting in from a long flight with no sleep. Rolf brought a luggage carrier and a scooter for our eldest to traverse the airport with…pretty cool.

We arrived at Rolf’s new de-badged 3er diesel wagon, I think he said we were the first customers to ride in his new ride. Rolf took us directly to the delivery center, passing by the famous Allianz which looked like a big blow up circular raft, which can change colors depending on who is playing. All the while during the trip to the delivery center Rolf was giving us hints and tips on where and how to get to places, he was truly great.

Arrived at the delivery center around 2pm, although at this point things began to get a bit fuzzy coming up on no sleep for 24 hours. Handed my passport to Jody (I believe) and went upstairs for some meatballs and drinks (BTW I highly recommend the meatballs). Also, wanted to let everyone know that they DID ask me for my meal voucher card first thing, I am pretty sure that they would have let you skate without it, but it was definitely something that he seemed to need.

Not more than 15 minutes later our delivery expert came up to tell us the car was ready and to sign the final paperwork. It kind of took me off guard, as I thought it would take at least 45 minutes, but we were one of the only ones waiting, so maybe this sped things up. Finalized the paper work and reviewed what we needed for the Police if stopped, then it was time to go see the prize….

Went thru the slick glass doors and there she was, my specialty built 335, it was really a cool moment. After planning this thing for more than a year I was kind of wondering if it would be anti-climatic, but it was certainly not, if anything it was better than I thought. My delivery expert went thru the features of the car, her English was a bit poor, but she was super nice and I already had most of the information down from the hours of bimmerfest lurking. Meanwhile my kids began to show the signs of dementia after the long flights and began to go stir crazy racing around the delivery garage. I was about to go nuts, but then realized that they had been thru quite a bit and this was the first sign of kid crazies, which was pretty damn good. My wife was able to corral them soon enough and we were off, driving the new car In Germany. I must say this was a crazy feeling and thank god for the Nav or we would have been going in circles for hours.

We made our way directly to our hotel, the Uhland, and checked in. Unpacked our things and had a bit of a snack, mine consisted of an Augustine-Brau Pilsner from the honor bar, which hit the spot perfectly. All of a sudden a fog came over me, the next thing I know is it is 2am local time and I had basically passed out at 6PM, my family had done the same and awoke for a late night snack… again mine consisted of another Pilsner, and then back to sleep.

Day 1

Day 1

We (wife Christie, daughters Grace age 6 and Mary age 4 and myself) left the Boise airport right around 1 pm on Sunday afternoon March 25th, heading for Chicago, luckily the flight was a bit early, as we only had 50 minutes to make our next connection. Arrived in Chicago a bit ahead of schedule and made our way to the next concourse and our Star Alliance 767-300 plane that would take us to Amsterdam. Once on the plane we found it to be quite comfortable, especially compared to the regional jet we had been on. It was pretty strange as quite a few of the passengers around knew each other, it seems that they were just returning from a poker tournament in Las Vegas and were all from Amsterdam, they were all quite friendly and made for an enjoyable trip. Cool quote from my eldest daughter so far when overhearing the man next to us speak Dutch then English to her…. “Daddy that man knows how to speak 2 languages, that is so cool!”

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Griswald European Vacation

This blog will capture the travels of the Running clan through Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome and Verona. We will be arriving on March 26th and head directly to the BMW European Delivery center to pick up the sweet ride....