This is the story about our three week trip to Prague and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic; Siena and the Cinque Terre in Italy, and the West Country of England. To save time loading, the pictures are all imbedded in the story. Click on any underlined word to see a related picture.
On October 15, 1997, Christine and I left Chicago's O'Hare Airport on a British Airways Flight bound for London. The flight was not full so I moved across the aisle giving Christine three seats and I had two. Given the extremely small area that BA gives you, this allowed us to catch some sleep on the flight. We arrived at Heathrow on time and caught the bus from Terminal 4 to Terminal 3. It isn't hard, you just follow the overhead signs to "Transfers". You have to walk at Heathrow but after a trans-Atlantic flight, it feels good. At Terminal 3 we had a few hours to kill so we walked around some more and then sat down for some coffee. The flight to the Czech Republic was uneventful but our first views of the Czech Republic as we approached the Prague airport showed us several small villages, farms and then a couple of large pipelines that criss-crossed the countryside. There are a lot of big pipelines above ground in the Czech Republic. A car met the plane on the runway and the plane followed it to gate NUMBER ONE. This was a very bad omen as "Vittoe's Rule #1" states that our plane will always dock at the gate furthest from the terminal.
The Prague airport was a little strange as arriving passengers and departing passengers were mingled together. This is contrary to most international airports where international passengers are segregated and ushered directly through immigration and customs. Because of this we passed by many of the shops that are in the departing lounges. We also passed many places to change money; don't change your money at these places. We skipped them all even though we didn't have any Czech money. Leaving through the Customs Green Door, we noticed several cash machines on our left. We immediately went to one and withdrew about 12,000 Czech Kronas (our rate was 32.4 kronas to the dollar but you don't know what the rate is until you get home and see your bank statement. Then we went to the Information desk and asked about transportation to the city. All the taxis outside were newer cars and had "Airport" signs on the top. We had been warned by many people about the taxis so we decided to try the bus. Following the instructions from the lady at the Information Desk, we walked about 40 yards to a news kiosk and purchased 20 bus/tram/metro tickets for 200 Kronas (kc), 10 kc each. I was informed on May 1, 1998, that the price is now 12 kc each. We crossed the street in front of the airport, walked across a small parking lot, and saw several #119 buses waiting. The bus stop is about 50 meters from the terminal.
When the driver opened one of the doors, we got on with our luggage and we remembered to stamp our tickets, it's very important to time stamp the tickets. The ride to the Dejvicka Metro station took about 25 minutes and the bus filled up along the way. At one of the stops a woman got on with two children about 10 years old. I noticed the boy looking at the address on my luggage tag which had "USA" on it and asked if he spoke English? He didn't but a girl sitting across from me did. She translated my words to the boy and his mother and through this meeting I found out that my ticket was good on the Metro and Streetcar (Tram) as well as the Bus and I could transfer free as many times as I wanted within one hour from the time I first time stamped it.
The public transportation system in Prague is great. You buy single ride ticket for 12 kc from a news kiosk or a vending machine in the metro station. You MUST time stamp it in a yellow machine when you enter the metro or on the bus/tram when you first use it. The ticket allows unlimited transfers within 60 minutes between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Other times and all day Saturday and Sunday, the time limit is 90 minutes. You can transfer any number of times between the Tram, Bus and Metro. Technically, you are supposed to buy a half fare (5 kc) ticket if you are carrying a large piece of luggage but few people do. We were always charged the half fare when riding the bus in the Czech countryside where you paid the driver directly. In Prague you ride on the honor system and no one checks when you enter the metro or get on the bus or tram. There are however, transit police who will stop you as they walk through a tram or metro car and check everyone. The fine for not having a valid ticket is 200 kc.
Once, when we were on the Metro a woman approached Christine and showed her a badge. Chris thought she was trying to sell her a piece of jewelry and said "no thanks." The transit police target tourists. We met some Americans who had purchased a three day unlimited ride pass and properly validated it in the yellow time stamp machine when they first used it. They had not, however, completed the back of the pass where it says, in Czech, to enter your name and address. They were fined 200 kc each. We only saw one place where you could buy a 1, 2 or 3 day pass and this was at the Information Booth in the west tower on the Charles Bridge. I think the 3 day pass was 130 kc and a 1 day pass was 50 kc. When we saw them advertized we still had 16 tickets left. We spent 240 kc for three days using one ticket per ride so the three day pass would not have been worth it for us. You have to be very careful of pickpockets on the Metro, you can tell even the locals are wary. We met a man Stefhan from Sweden who had his pocket picked by a group who surrounded and jostled him on the Metro, then took his wallet out of his front pocket.
Back to our trip from the airport to our Hotel. We got off the bus at the Dejvicka Metro station, took the train to the Muzeum station, then took the #11 Tram to our hotel. A female voice on the tram, straight out of the movie "1984" tells you the current stop and the next stop so you can be prepared. Of course she speaks in Czech so I had no idea what she was saying. After a few days, I was able to recognize some of the stop names.
To get a hotel in Prague I used a service that I found on the Internet, Interacta.cz I was initially wary of using my credit card on the Internet but decided to chance it. I was very satisfied with Interacta and highly recommend them. I also used them to reserve a room in Cesky Krumlov. Their web site has a lot of information with pictures of the hotels and current prices. They got back to me quickly by e-mail with a confirmation and directions to the hotel I had chosen. We were very satisfied with the rooms and the prices. I highly recommend them.
The Hotel Marit was located southeast of the Old Town in a area bounded by a park and several apartment buildings. It was six tram stops from the Museum, about 10-15 minutes by the #11 tram which ran frequently. (Buzz Singer recently visited Prague and said in his e-mail to me : "The direction of the tram to the hotel is "Sporilov" (a sign appears in the front window of all trams) and the tram stop for the Hotel Marit is "Pod Jezerkou."") A good point to remember is almost all trams and subways in Europe have the destination written on the front of the car. Buzz also said: ". While in the Museum underground station itself, I would tell travelers to follow the signs to the tram and to exit the station by the escalator. There is only one escalator and it is the best exit to take to get to the #11 tram." A good point to remember as we had trouble deciding which exit to take.
The room, with shower, toilet and breakfast for two, cost 1,500 kc per night ($46 USA). I selected the hotel to get away from the noise of the city center.
The Hotel Marit was excellent, very nice and clean. We ate dinner there two nights because the food was so good. It cost about 430 kc ($13) for both dinners with a bottle of wine, coffee and desert. The first night we slept very well as we were tired. The second night a car alarm went off down the street about midnight and stayed on all night. Luckily, I had earplugs, Christine didn't! The third night there were some Germans who had a party in the restaurant until 3 am and were a little noisy after the party broke up. They were in the room next to us so I banged on the wall a few times. I pity the serving girl as she had to be up the next morning to serve breakfast. This wasn't the fault of the hotel so we will probably stay here again.
After checking into the hotel we took the tram back to the Muzeum which is the top of Vaclavske Namesti. Namesti means "square" in Czech and you know it as Wenceslas Square. Mustek Metro stop is on the other end of the square. Wenceslas Square actually looks like a large boulevard. We stopped in an arcade and listened to some concertina players. We walked to Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square) - Pictures Picture 1, Picture 2, and Picture 3. The Old Town Square is where the Astronomical Clock is located.
We then walked across the Charles Bridge and looked at the Castle across the Vltava River. and stopped for a drink at a small wine bar. I asked for some peanuts and they brought out a 150 gram can. We were only charged 40 kc for the can. I got .5 liter of Pilsner Urquell beer for 50 kc and Chris got .2 liter of wine for 40 kc, 126 kc for the total, about $4. We walked back across the Charles Bridge and stopped to eat at place Christine liked, The Golden Lion on the northeast side of the square where the Opera (Stavovske Divadlo) is located, just north of Mustek . We had decided only to eat at places that posted a menu with prices outside the restaurant. The place was like a grotto and was busy. We didn't have a reservation so we were seated in a room by ourselves with a man playing the organ as background music. I believe most of the people in the other rooms thought the music was recorded as the organist never stopped. We started with a nice bottle of white wine. We both had a salad with "sour cream"dressing, two pork chops each with two kinds of dumplings, sauerkraut and red cabbage. I also had some potato pancakes. The food and wine were very good. There was a dance floor so we danced. We had coffee and apple strudel and the bill was under 500 kc ($15). I recommend this restaurant, the food was excellent.
We went back to our room and slept with real feather comforters.
The next morning we had a good breakfast and set out by tram to the Charles Bridge to take photos of the castle in the sun. On the way we saw several puppet shops, they are very colorful. On the Charles Bridge some vendors had already set up and Christine started spending by purchasing two watercolors. We took the #22 Tram up the hill to the Strahov Monastery, quite a library. We then walked to the Loretto Shrine where they have a bearded lady statute, some severed breasts, the Virgin Mary's home from Nazareth, etc. The churches are very ornate, to say the least. We walked down towards the castle and saw the changing of the guards. Then we stopped at St. Vitus's Cathedral (it sort of pops out at you in the small castle courtyard) and then St. George's Basilica. We were hungry so we decided to skip the Castle (Wallenstein Palace) tour. We walked back down towards the Vltava River. It's an easy walk DOWN but take the #22 Tram on the way UP to the Castle. We stopped for lunch at a small outdoor cafe right under the Charles Bridge overlooking the Old Mill. We both had potato soup. The weather was clear and in the high 50s F, just warm enough to eat soup outside. I had a cold beer.
We walked around Old Town, stayed for a demonstration, on the hour, of the Astronomical Clock and then Christine found the Municipal Building. The art nouveau building just reopened and has been completely restored. There were no more English tours for the day so we only saw a small portion of the building. We walked over to the Old Jewish Cemetery but it was closed because of the Jewish Holiday. We were able to look inside through several openings as we walked around it.
We stopped for coffee in the elegant cafe and met two men from Sweden. One, Stefan, was Jewish and had been freed from a concentration camp at the end of the war. He emigrated to Sweden after the war and was accompanying his Czech friend, Stanislaus, who was making his first trip back to the Czech Republic since the war. They had both married Austrian women and became friends through their wives. Stanislaus had lived in the same area where our hotel was located before the communists took over and he fled. Stefan was the one who had his pocket picked and he had just finished contacting his bank in Sweden to cancel his credit card. He was good natured about it saying that he still had his health and family and he had not been carrying much money. I guess you have a different perspective when you survive a concentration camp. Christine paid for their coffee to help their day get off to a better start and we said goodbye. We had a very good conversation with them and talked for about an hour about many things. They both spoke very good English. They told us about their lives and how they ended up in Sweden after the war, their families, etc. We told them about ourselves. It was a pleasant way to spend some time in very elegant surroundings. Stanislaus then went to the information booth to find out where we could get information on buses to Rozmital, the town Christine's grandfather had been born in. He said we should go to Florenc, the bus station, which we did. I wish we had asked them for their addresses so we could send them a Christmas card.
Important point: Most places that you will want to see in the Czech Republic will only allow you to enter with a tour. English led tours are infrequent and much more expensive than the Czech led tours. We were unable to get on an English tour for the Municipal Building so we missed out on seeing much of this great art nouveau building. We ran into the same thing when we attempted to tour the neo-Gothic Hluboka Castle 10 km north of Ceske Budejovice. At Hluboka Castle Christine got the idea to go with a Czech led tour and we did. Our tour guide did speak a little English and answered several questions for us. We had no idea what she said during her presentation but we did get to see the castle. The English tour cost 150 kc and the Czech tour cost 40 kc! We could have taken a Czech language tour of the Municipal Building just to see it but didn't think of it at the time!
At the Florenc bus station we got nowhere. No one spoke English or German and even though we had the town Rozmital Pod Tremsin written on a piece of paper all they would give us is phone number to call. We eventually got the name of a Metro stop (Andel) on the B line. We took a trip out there and it turns out that's where the buses leave to go southwest. Not too many buses going and coming from Rozmital on Saturday, the day we had set aside for visiting Christine's ancestral home.
We then went to the Europa Hotel Cafe on Wenceslas Square and had a drink with piano music in the background. Expensive but elegant, very art deco. I went to the men's restroom and when I came out a rather large Czech woman blocked my path and pointed to a table with a dish on it, the sign said 3 kc and I paid up. She let me pass. As we began to say to each other, "3 to pee."
On Saturday we decided to rent a car to drive to Rozmital as reading the bus schedule was beyond us. We went to Avis and then had to go to the airport to pick up a car. We were able to drop it off at the downtown office. Since we had no reservation, we paid through the nose, about $85 for the day. It was worth it and there were few cars on the road.
We visited Rozmital and Nepomuk, the towns where Christine's paternal grandfather and grandmother were born. We found some women in Rozmital washing the tombstones in the cemetery and they directed us to the Stupka family plots. The woman also said all the family was gone. They had a vending machine in the cemetery that sold candles for the gravesites. We walked around the town, the castle was closed and being repaired. It had been told in Christine's family that the family had once been caretakers at the castle. Didn't look like they did a very good job. We had lunch, .5 liter of good Czech beer was 8 kc, about 25 cents. On the way back to Prague we were stopped by a roadblock. They spoke no English and it was a little tense. They were looking for someone and we saw about 50-100 policemen and dogs assembled in the next town. There were also roadblocks on the other side of town and they were checking all cars going into town. It was dark when we got back to Prague. It's was harder to drive in Prague than the countryside since I can't read Czech and there are a lot of signs. The countryside was easier and very well marked. We passed very few cars out in the country.
After we dropped off the car, we stopped at the train station and purchased tickets for the next day, Sunday, to go to Cesky Krumlov. It cost us 92 kc from Prague to Ceske Budejovice and then 19 kc to go to Cesky Krumlov, 111 kc, about $3.50 each. We had reserved seats for an extra 20 kc each but we never found the car or the seats. Don't reserve seats on trains in the Czech Republic. At the train station we went to the Information Desk on the second level and told the woman when and where we wanted to go, she gave us a printout which we took to the ticket agent. Don't count on the ticket agents speaking any English. We met several people who would go to the Information Desk, get some information and then the ticket agent would say "nyet". After several trips to the Information Desk or several tickets agents, they would get their ticket. The next morning we took the tram and metro to the train station. We met an old man waiting for the tram who spoke no English. Christine was able to speak a little German to him. He was going to the market to buy food so his wife could cook for the day. He obviously had little money. He took us under his wing and made sure we stamped our tickets, got off at the right stop and walked throught the right underpass. We met a lot of people like this, people who helped us find our way around.
We couldn't find the train coach with our reserved seats so the $1 we spent for 2 reserved seats was wasted. The countryside was interesting with quaint villages interspersed with large, ugly concrete block apartment buildings and large pipelines criss-crossing the land. After awhile, the conductor poked his head in the compartment and said something in Czech. Luckily, there was a woman in the compartment who spoke English and realized we did not know what the conductor said. She told us they were working on the tracks and that everyone had to get off the train at the next station and we would be bused to the next station where we would catch another train to continue our journey. If she hadn't told us, we'd still be sitting on that train waiting for it to move. We met another American couple in Cesky Krumlov who had been on the same train and that's what happened to them. They just assumed everyone was getting off the train because it was a big stop. After awhile someone told them the train would go no further. Luckily for them, they were able to catch a direct bus to Cesky Krumlov. Their bus got to Cesky Krumlov before our train.
We had trouble finding the track that the train from Ceske Budejovice to Cesky Krumlov was on. We finally asked the man in the red hat and he told us but we still weren't sure until we actually got to Cesky Krumlov. Every station has a man or woman in a red hat and a stick with an "X" in a circle on a paddle who comes out of the station and signals the train it's okay to depart. We found that they are usually the one to ask which track your train is on. Our train was more like a streetcar. The train from Ceske Budejovice to Cesky Krumlov costs 19 kc and takes about an hour. The train station in Cesky Krumlov is about one mile from the old town area. That means you have to find your way to the old town area by bus, taxi or walk.
The bus station in Ceske Budejovice is right across the street from the train station. It's better to take the bus from Ceske Budejovice to Cesky Krumlov. The bus from Ceske Budejovice cost 18 kc plus 5 kc for luggage but the bus station in Cesky Krumlov is only about 100 yards from the old town, the train station is on a hill about one mile from the old town. As you walk from the bus station to the old town you get a fantastic view of Cesky Krumlov. The old town is on the left and the castle is on the right.
The train ride is scenic but we only took it once because the bus was easier. At both bus stations, you find the loading area for your bus and wait. You pay the driver. In Ceske Budejovice there is a central board in a waiting room that tells you where to wait, in Cesky Krumlov you have to walk around and read the signs at each bus stop area. The schedules are posted but we also got printouts from the Information offices in both cities.
In Cesky Krumlov there was a bus waiting in front of the train station. I had the name and address of our hotel written on a piece of paper and showed it to the bus driver. He indicated we should sit down so we took a bus from train station to the old town. It cost about 10 kc each and 5 kc for the luggage. Writing down your destination is definitely the best way if you don't speak the language. The driver wouldn't let us off at the main bus station and, instead, left us off down the road, closer to the hotel. He left us off near the hotel but where he left us off was only 100 yards from the bus terminal! He was being nice. We had also booked our hotel through Interacta (external link). We didn't like the first room they showed us, it was too close to the street. Turned out there was no traffic in the Old Town so our concern was for naught but we didn't know it at the time. They showed us a larger room overlooking the river. We liked the Hotel Barbakan, it cost 1,600 kc per night, including breakfast for two. It was quiet and right on the edge of the Old Town area. Fantastic views.
Food and wine was cheap in Cesky Krumlov, about 500 kc ($15 US) for dinner for two, including wine, desert and coffee. We found a nice bar on a back street, the bar (Vinarna) was like a cave. Whitewashed walls and a domed ceiling with candles on every table. The candles, together with a fireplace where they cooked snacks cast shadows on the ceiling. Later, we found out the reason for the candles, they had no electricity except at the bar. The weather was beautiful and we were able to sit outside in Cesky Krumlov as long as the sun was up but after that it got cold quick. There were fantastic views of the castle at night from the city and great views of the city from the castle grounds. On a hill in the center of town is a church that is worth viewing.
Christine's luggage handle had popped a rivet so I took that opportunity to check out each hardware store to buy a nut, bolt and two washers to fix it. Every hardware store was friendly and I bought several combinations at several stores. They were very cheap and everyone wrapped them in small pieces of paper for me. I enjoyed the opportunity to check out the hardware stores.
We only used cash machines for local currency and had no trouble finding them even in the towns of Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice. Got great rates too! We stayed in Cesky Krumlov three nights and had a great time. Cesky Krumlov is a must see town. We toured the castle above Cesky Krumlov with an American tour from Seattle. This was before we got smart and took the Czech tours. We took a bus to Ceske Budejovice on Monday and visited the town. On Tuesday we visited the castle in Cesky Krumlov, then took a bus to Ceske Budejovice and on to Hluboka Castle. Both castles are well worth a visit. Hluboka is where we learned to take the Czech tour if there were no English tours. We had originally planned on leaving Cesky Krumlov on Tuesday but because the castles were closed on Monday we extended our stay in Cesky Krumlov to three days, that way we had all day Tuesday to tour two castles. We used AT&T USA Direct to call our hotel in Italy from the Czech Republic to tell them we would be a day late. I've found that's the easiest way to call another country from a pay phone in Europe, a lot less hassle. It cost about $7.
We left Cesky Krumlov by bus to go to Ceske Budejovice Tuesday morning. Then we took seven trains to reach Siena, Italy, including a sleeper compartment through the Alps. It cost 18 kc each by bus to Ceske Budejovice and another 5 kc for our bags, about 70 cents. The train from Ceske Budejovice to Linz, Austria, cost 395 kc each, about $12.20. We bought some food and wine for the trip in Ceske Budejovice, and so did everyone else on the train. There is a pedestrian mall across the street from the train station in Ceske Budejovice where you will find many stores, we paid 65 kc for a one liter bottle of German wine. Follow the mall into the main square of town, about a mile. We again had trouble finding the right train and it, too, turned out to be somewhat like a streetcar. The trip to the border took about 2 hours and there were only four of us left when we arrived at the Czech side of the border, Horni Dvoriste. By this time we had met one of our fellow travelers, an old man who was also going to Linz. He made sure we got off and then got onto another train for the short trip across the border on another train. At this point we met the other traveler. Both the Czech and Austrian border guards checked our passports as the border train moved south. The two older men started arguing over whether we should go through Villach or Innsbruck on our trip to Florence, Italy. They spoke German so Christine was able to tell them where we were headed. Not a lot of traffic at this border crossing. After only two miles or so we changed trains again at Summerau, Austria, and proceeded to Linz. The Austrian trains were much better than the Czech trains. I got off and took a picture of Christine, the old man who accompanied us is on the left.
In Linz we went straight to the Train Information booth and told the man where we wanted to go, Florence. He gave us a printout of what trains we wanted and then we went to the ticket window and bought our tickets, second class Linz to Innsbruck and first class with a sleeper compartment through the Alps to Florence. Our train left Linz at 1910 and arrived in Innsbruck at 2230. Our Sleeper car was waiting for us when we arrived at Innsbruck and we left Innsbruck promptly at 2240. Total cost Linz to Florence, including the sleeper was 3438 Austrian Shillings (AS), about $275.00. We were to arrive in Florence at 0525.
I changed my remaining Czech money into Austrian Shillings at the bank, they don't take bills smaller than 500 kc. I also got about 200 AS from a cash machine in the train station and we proceeded to walk into town to kill the three hours until our train arrived. The Linz train station was a change from the Czech Republic. Clean and modern, with elevators and escalators from the tracks. We deposited our luggage at an automated luggage locker, we used the largest one for 50 AS. You put your luggage in a vacant locker and shut the door, it locks. You then have about one minute to insert coins in a control panel. If you don't, the locker pops open. If you insert the correct amount of money, a small magnetic paper card is issued and your locker stays locked. The lockers are good for 24 hours. We were relieved when our locker opened when we returned and inserted the magnetic card.
In Linz we stopped at a small grocery store to buy some more cheese and we were looking for plastic or paper glasses to drink the $2.00 bottle of German wine on the train The one we had purchased in Ceske Budejovice. A nice man at the deli counter said they had none but suggested we take a few of the plastic containers he used to sell potato salads. He gave them to us. They were large but worked out fine. I saw two older ladies standing at a kiosk eating sausages, rye bread and mustard and drinking beer. The sausages smelled great so I joined them.
We had some bottled water I purchased in the Czech Republic labeled "Good Water". It was mislabeled. We tried to buy water in Linz with no gas, impossible. We finally settled for water with gas and threw out the Czech "Good Water." Don't buy the Czech "Good Water" they sell at the train station in Prague.
The train from Linz to Innsbruck was crowded and we walked the length with our bags then Christine wanted to walk back to the front. She was right, we found a compartment with one man and he got off at the next stop. We had the compartment to ourselves and had our meal, it was a feast. We drank the whole 1 liter of wine too. Our conductor told us which track our next train would be on so we wouldn't have to fumble around since we only had 10 minutes to catch the train. If you have a connection between two trains with only a few minutes to change trains, ask the conductor before you get off the first train. This will save you the time of running into the station to find out what track your train leaves from. He also showed where our ticket had the car number and compartment number for the sleeper. Our train was waiting for us and the conductor and porter were waiting outside our car. The porter took our tickets and passports and directed us to our compartment. It was clean and comfortable. We slept very well. During the night the train changed directions and we didn't even know it. We both woke up at one point when we smelled the brakes. We must have been coming down from the Alps at that point. The porter was at the end of the car with his door open all night, he could see all the compartment doors. We had a sink and we locked the door. There were two toilets at the end, near the porter's room. He knocked on our door about 20 minutes before we arrived in Florence, we knocked back to let him know we were awake. You have to be ready when the train arrives as it only stopped for a few minutes and then continued south to Rome and Naples. My only regret was that we had only six hours to sleep. The porter gave us our tickets and passports. The only time you give up your ticket and passport is when you have a sleeper or couchette. I did not tip the porter and he didn't seem to expect it. Anyone know whether it is customary to tip the sleeping car porter?
Our train had stopped at Florence's Campo di Marti station and we had to catch the shuttle to Santa Maria Novella, the main station. An Italian family could see that we were a little confused so they took us under their wing. In Florence S.M.N. station I purchased a train schedule for 4,700 lira and we discovered a train leaving at 0633 to Siena. We purchased some coffee and two tickets. We did not validate them in the yellow time stamp machines, a potential 10,000 lira fine. The conductor could see we were muddled and just gave us a warning. In Italy, you must validate your ticket at the start of your journey. If you have a return ticket, you also have to validate the other end of the ticket when you start the return portion. If you forget to validate it, just take out a pen and write the date, time and starting station name on one end, tell them the machine wouldn't work. This is legal.
When we arrived in Siena I tried to read the instruction on an automated ticket machine, they were in Italian. I purchased two bus tickets (1,300 lira each) without knowing whether that was the correct amount. I was correct in buying the 1,300 lira tickets, pure luck. Later, I learned that the machine also gave instructions in English. You enter the bus from the front or the back and exit from the center doors. Remember to validate your ticket in the yellow time stamp machines on the bus as you enter. We caught the #9 bus across the street from the train station to San Domenico Church. Several nice people made sure we got off at the right stop. We went straight to the Santuario Saint Caterina, a Dominican Convent where the Catholic Nuns also run a small hotel, Alma Domus at 37 Via Camporegio. The phone number is 0577-44177 or 44487. They have a fax number 39-(0)577-4760. The country code is 39 and you don't dial the zero when you call from outside Italy, We got a room and took a shower. It was very clean and we had a balcony with a great view of the Duomo. It was about 2 blocks from the Piazza del Campo. The room cost 75,000 lira per night for two, no breakfast. Curfew was 2330. There was a gate and you had to be buzzed in and out. Rick Steves recommends this place and it has to be one of the best places to stay in Italy. The nuns are friendly but strict, reminds me of my grammar school days at St. David's in Chicago. It wasn't hard to find, walk towards the back of the church away from the square. Turn left along the Camporegio for about 100 meters and turn right down the first walkway/stairs. The iron gate on the left is the hotel. The nuns spoke no English. When we were leaving we asked if we could have our pictures taken we them and they said yes. John and Sister Mary Deskclerk and Christine and Sister Mary Deskclerk.
There were several places in Piazza San Domenico to buy coffee and a roll for breakfast. You pay about 1/3 if you eat it standing up rather than at a table.
There was plenty to do in Siena. We usually walked to the Piazza del Campo (IL Campo) and sat outside with a glass of wine or cup of coffee and watched the people. We found that you could have a good glass of wine standing at the bar for 1,500 Lira or 6,000 if you wanted to sit down at a table. We usually sat down so we could people watch. Besides, they gave you a small bowl of potato chips or olives if you sat down.
We took a bus day trip to San Gimignano, transferred buses at Poggibonsi, driving through the wine country of Tuscany. The views of Tuscany from San Gimignano were worth the trip. We walked to the top of the fort and I asked someone to take our picture, it turned out better than the one I took. We purchased our ticket (7,900 Lira) from the bus ticket office based in an outside corner of San Domenico Church in Siena, near the Alma Domus Hotel. The automatic machines let you select the language and they print out schedules too. They also sell intercity tickets as well as local bus tickets. Just about all the Americans we met with rental cars say they won't do it again. They had problems parking them plus the big expense of gas and tolls, the rental is also expensive. We missed a bus going back from San Gimignano because we were waiting at the same place where the bus left us off. It stopped to pick up returning passengers only on the other side of the square so we walked over and waited for the next one. Most of the buses drop you off at one corner and pick you up at a different stop on the way back.
Our last night in Siena we ate at a local Osteria on one of the back streets and started talking to two young women who were backpacking in Europe for two months. They were halfway thru their trip. Millie was from Cleveland, Tennessee, and Stephanie was from Atlanta, Georgia. They had just graduated from college and were traveling a little before getting jobs. They were having a great time and did not appear to be looking forward to the job market. Millie liked pesto sauce and they planned to go to the Cinque Terre in a few days. Christine invited them to meet us on Sunday night for dinner at the La Spiaggia Hotel in Monterosso al Mare in the Cinque Terre. They met us on Sunday at 7:30 and we had a great time talking, eating and drinking for about three hours. We were joined after dinner by a man named Duke from Houston and the five of us finished off several bottles of wine and a few after dinner drinks. It was a very nice evening but we were having so much fun, no one thought to take any pictures. Millie had her pesto sauce and Stephanie got to look a whole fish in the eye on her plate. We walked them to the train and they took the 5 minute ride back to Vernazza where they were staying.
After two nights in Siena we took a train to Monterosso al Mare, in the Cinque Terre, and stayed at the La Spiaggia Hotel, with the beach just on the right in the picture. We've stayed here before and we were glad to see the owner, Andrea Poggi, when we walked in. He gave us a nice room that had a balcony overlooking the sea and a good shower. We couldn't wait for dinner and he didn't disappoint us. We had a new kind of pasta, Trofie Portofino, little dumplings with pesto sauce and fresh tomatoes. After dinner, Andrea Poggi walked around talking to all the diners. He would place a glass in front of each guest and several bottles of after dinner liquors. I tried Zambuka, it was very good and I had a glass or two all four nights after dinner. We asked someone to take a picture of Andrea Poggi, Christine and me.
One day we walked south to Riomaggiore, all five towns in 3 hours and 34 minutes. The world record for people over 50! We didn't even stop in Vernazza. Then we walked back to Manarola and had lunch. There was this huge group of Italian shaving a great time. They kept coming over to our table to take a picture of the whole group since our table was in the only position where you see the whole group. I finally got up with my camera and took their picture too!
One day we took the train to Lucca and walked around. Lucca is a very old town with a very big wall around it. Many stores, very nice shopping. We had visited here before and Christine wanted to visit an old coffee shop we had stopped in previously. Despite the small winding streets, we found the coffee shop.......
November 25, 1997