When travelling overseas, communication can be a problem. Not a huge problem as many people in Europe do speak English but still, in an emergncy you don’t want something like a language barrier to get in the way of what you need.

If our cab driver, as well as some of the staff in the hospital in Brugge, Belgium spoke no English the Maiming Of The Nose story would be a much more painful anecdote.

For those that might be interested in being doubly prepared on there travels I have found the perfect accessory!

The Traveler’s Phrase Book T-shirt

The tee shirt has a phrase book printed on it: point a finger at the pictogram you need and then point it twice at the question mark, which means, “Where is it?”

Available for purchase at

Thanks to Laanba for the head’s up!

The 10th lucky caller will receive….

I have been so lax about chronicling the last leg of the trip to Europe.

Rome is major undertaking. In our physical scrapbook it constitutes 1/3 of a 4 inch binder.

As I was sifting through my pictures to cull out some for the post I came across this one taken from the outside patio area at the Vatican Museum. In the background you can see the antenna of Vatican City Radio.

We jokingly referred to it as K-POPE, Voice of God Radio!

We never actually heard it but we figured the faithful could probably tune it on on their fillings.

I really wanted a radio t-shirt. Maybe they had give on-air give aways?


I came across this picture I took from the train going to Pisa from Florence.
Most of the trains in Europe are electric. They use suspended electrical cables to power the engines.
It makes sense to have warning signs cautioning people not to touch them.

You have to respect a country that uses a skull and cross-bones on their warning signs.

Translated at it says:


European Oddessey – Florence

The train ride to Florence was not nearly as eventful as the one to Venice. The train was cleaner and we even had the opportunity to dine in the dining car. As good as Italian food is, it’s even better when served while traveling at speed on the European rail system.

As we made our way to Florence it rained on and off. This was not encouraging. The trip so far had benefited from good weather and we held out hope that it would last for the duration of the trip. No such luck. When we arrived in Florence the skies were overcast and it was drizzling.

After the beauty and charm of Venice, this brooding medieval city shrouded in stormy darkness seemed most unpleasant. When we arrived at our hotel there were some less than reputable looking people huddled beneath the canopy of the front porch area. My heart sank a bit.

Inside the hotel it was much better. The building that is the Hotel Loggiato dei Serviti was built between 1517 and 1527 by the religious order of the Servi di Maria. It really is a cool space.

We checked in and got settled. As per our routine we set out on foot to find sustenance and get our bearings. The hotel had free loaner umbrellas to which we availed ourselves. We trudged down a dark, narrow street toward the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (aka The Duomo).

As you can see, even on a sunny day this street is somewhat foreboding.

As we made our way the skies opened up with torrential downpour. We sought shelter in the doorway of a shop and waited, using our umbrellas to ward off the splash of cars speeding through standing rain water.

It did not look like it was going to let up so we made a dash for a nearby restaurant to ride it out. We ordered some food and something to drink and talked about the current situation. Keep in mind we are about 2/3 of the way into our trip (thirteen days), having traveled from Amsterdam to Bruges to Paris to Venice and now here. We are tired and we have seen and done so much. I guess we were just breaking down a little and letting it get to us.

Not only was I not enjoying being in Florence but I was having anxiety about Rome. Cynthia was also a bit dismayed but stepped to the plate in a big way and spoke positively about what we had accomplished and gave me many, many words of encouragement. We both agreed that it was silly to lament such things and Cynthia quoted from one of the Rick Steves’ books where he said (and I am paraphrasing here) “you must arm yourself with militant optimism” and “if you were not having fun you weren’t trying hard enough“.

We finished our meals and crossed the street to have a look at the Duomo. The rain had let up and was coming and going but not bad. We walked a bit and then decided to go back to the hotel and retire early after having the clerk make our reservations at Galleria dell’Academia to see Michelangelo’s David.

When we awoke the next morning we had breakfast at the hotel which was provided as part of our accommodations. They even served regular coffee and left the pot. It was heavenly. The extra rest and the breakfast really lifted our spirits. To top it all off the sun was even shining.
We were both in a much better mood and our enthusiasm was returning. We set off on foot to see the Duomo in the sunlight and take in some of the other sites before our appointment with David. We trekked down to the Arno river and saw The Ponte Vecchio. We saw the bust of Benvenuto Cellini in it’s prominent location in the middle of the bridge.

The railing around this bust was covered in padlocks with writing on them. Hundreds and hundreds of padlocks that city workers were having to cut away with bolt cutters. I found out later that this was something lovers did to symbolize their eternal devotion. They would lock the padlock and throw the key in the Arno river.

We made our way back to Galleria dell’Academia in time for our appointment to see David. The statue is much larger than I thought it was going to be. Standing a full 17′, it was originally designed to go atop the Duomo and be viewed from below. It is truly something I am glad I had the opportunity to see in person.

We polished off the day with a side trip to Città di Fiesole, a small town outside of Florence perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the city. Even when we got off of the bus a few stops too early we were undaunted and enjoyed some small talk as we waited for the next bus. Fiesole is a charming town and it solidified our notion that Italy is a wonderful place when you get off the beaten track and really dig in.
We caught the bus back to Florence and walked some more, taking in a few more sites.

For our last day in Florence we decided once more to leave the confines of the city and explore. This time it was an hour-long train ride to Pisa to see the La Torre Pendente. We figured we might as well, when would we have the chance again?

Pisa is a “one trick pony” kind of place. You go to see the leaning tower, you look at the cheesy souvenirs and you leave. It took us all of an hour before we were ready to go back to Florence.

That’s pretty much it. The complex featuring the tower and the cathedral. More pics at the Pisa Gallery on my site.

When we returned we took a chance and went to see how bad the afternoon line was at the Ufizzi Gallery. When we had thought about going to this museum prior the lines were VERY long. Now they looked manageable and we didn’t have to wait long before we were inside. The Ufizzi is one of the most famous museums of paintings and sculpture in the world. Its collection of Primitive and Renaissance paintings comprises several universally acclaimed masterpieces of all time, including works by Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Mantegna, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. German, Dutch and Flemish masters are also well represented with important works by Dürer, Rembrandt and Rubens. What a send off to this city! We marveled the whole time we were in there.

I should also mention that while we were in Italy they in the middle of some type of cultural awareness program. What this meant to us was free museums the whole time we were there. This saved us quite a few euros.

Our successes in Florence mounted and we were embiggened mightily for our final rendezvous with Rome. The clincher for me in Florence was one last walk where we encountered a small shop called The Jokol’ Arte Juggling Store. Yes, a store that sells only juggling supplies. You need juggling balls? They have juggling balls. I giggled with delight just seeing it and was beside myself with joy walking inside and talking with the proprietor.

Ahhh, the absurdity.

Next Stop – Rome

European Oddessey – Venice

This was a crucial and somewhat daunting leg of the trip. We made reservations for the night train to Venice when we arrived in Paris. Reservations are a good idea when there is only one train and you MUST be on it. It’s 700 miles from Paris to Venice and train ride is roughly 14 hours. By taking the night train we combined travel and hotel into one evening.

When we made our reservations all of the private sleepers were full so we settled for a 4 berth sleeper. This meant we would be sharing with 1-2 strangers. We did try to buy the whole car to ourselves but it was already booked. We just hoped for the best.

We boarded the train and found our berth. In our cabin there was a man who we learned was traveling to Venice from Nigeria on business. He seemed nice enough but my mind did flash to those scam e-mails we have all seen in our inbox and I was dubious about his claims to be in the auto-repair business. I have also heard many stories about theft on the train so my guard was up. The conductor comes by and asks for our passports and informs us that they will be returned to us in the morning when we arrive in Venice. This bothers me but I expected it from our research.

The sleeper cars can be configured for sitting or sleeping. About an hour into the trip we dropped the beds and prepared to settle in for the night.

Passengers are provided with a pillow, a sheet and a blanket. The mattress is permanently affixed to the bunk and is moderately clean. My mind shudders when I think of those that have slept here before. I try to clear my mind and not think about it too hard. My money and credit cards are stashed in a leg belt (like a money belt but attaches to your calf) and tuck my camera between me and the wall.

Cynthia fell asleep pretty readily and I drifted into fitful slumber. My dreams were peppered with every WWII movie train scene I could think of and at 4 am we were awakened by the sound of knocking on our cabin door.

” ‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door.
This it is, and nothing more.”

It was a man dressed in what I could only presume was an Italian military uniform. We were stopped at some deserted train station and it was raining. We let him in and he began questioning our Nigerian traveling companion and searching his baggage and person. This went on for about 30 minutes and I was relieved when he left without questioning or searching our belongings. Not that we had anything to hide…I just didn’t relish the thought of trying to re-pack those backpacks. We went back to sleep as the train pulled out of the station.

We arrived Venezia Mestre station on the mainland around 8:00 am and caught the connecting train to the Venezia Santa Lucia station in the city itself. From there we walked to the vaporetto stand. A vaporetto is a water bus. There are no cars in Venice. All traffic is by foot or boat. We rode the vaporatto to the stop near our bed and breakfast. Our hosts had e-mailed very clear instructions so we hiked over 3 bridges and turned left to find our accommodations. Once we had checked in we set off on foot to explore.

Venice is truly amazing. We were a short walk from the Ponte de Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) so we made our way there. Antonio Contino’s bridge over the Rio di Palazzo was erected in the year 1600 to connect the Doge’s prisons, or Prigioni, with the inquisitor’s rooms in the main palace. The name “Bridge of Sighs” was invented in the 19th Century, when Lord Byron helped to popularize the belief that the bridge’s name was inspired by the sighs of condemned prisoners as they were led through it to the executioner.

We got some nice pictures and walked on toward St. Mark’s Basilica.

The first patron saint of Venice was St.Teodoro. In 828 St.Mark the Evangelist substituted him when two merchants smuggled his mortal remains back from Alessandria (Egypt). St.Mark’s remains were initially buried in a chapel in the Doge’s Palace but later a church was built that was to be his perpetual resting place.

This is where the picture of my grandfather was taken in 1919. The square was full of pigeons and tourists. Still, a magnificent structure and it was something to behold.

We found a place to get some lunch and we took it pretty easy. The whole idea behind going to Venice in the first place was to relax after Paris and before plunging into Florence and Rome. The first day was spent taking it very easy and we took the evening to wander St. Mark’s Square and I got some nice night shots. We were assured by our hosts that Venice was completely safe from violent crime. Sure, there were pickpockets and scams…but no violent crime.

The next day we did some serious exploring. As we walked ever deeper into the residential areas we fell in love with Venice. Every time we rounded a corner we saw a scene more idyllic than the last.

I especially liked how everything was done with boats. Flower boats, fresh produce boats, ambulance boats and so forth.

We wandered deep into the residential areas and we stumbled upon the gondola repair shop and also a wonderful restaurant tucked away in pleasant area. Inside were a few occupied tables, one of which was filled with chatty gondoliers. I said to Cynthia “It’s like a truck stop, you know the food is good if the gondoliers eat here!” I don’t know if that is true or not, but this restaurant was fantastic!
I am a convert! It’s the best appetizer EVER!

We continued walking after lunch and got so lost that even the Italian postman could not show us our location on the map we had. No worries, it’s an island and you can only go so far.

Eventually we found our way back to the B&B and then had dinner. I wanted to go out that evening and get some more night shots but it began to rain around 10:00 pm so I stayed in and rested.

It was with a heavy heart that we prepared to leave Venice. We really did fall in love with the place and the people. We considered restructuring but decided against it.

We caught the vaporatto back to the train station and bid a fond farewell to this magical place vowing to return some day…

Next stop – Firenze! (Florence)

European Oddessey – Paris

Paris gallery behind this link!

After a few days in Bruges we caught the train to Brussels where we would board the high speed bullet train to Paris. Brussels is the capital of the European Union and has a very large, very busy and rather interesting train station. While we were waiting we encountered an odd fellow speaking French who I assume was playing the part of a germ. Perhaps advocating cleanliness or a cleaning product. He was armed with a plunger and a toilet bowl scrubber. It was very entertaining if not somewhat surreal.


I was very excited by the prospect of this train ride. The bullet train travels at speeds of up to 200 mph and reaches Paris in about 2 1/2 hours from Brussels. The trip was cool. We saw a lot of the countryside and the train was very clean and comfortable.

In no time at all we arrived at the train station in Paris. We hopped off and headed to the front of the train station to catch a cab. In our research we read that you should avoid hailing a cab in Paris. At the train station there is a cab stand and you wait in line there. There are some type of “free-lance” cabs that wait beyond the “official” stand and they are to be avoided.

After we checked in to our hotel we set out for our first attraction, The Eiffel Tower. It was just a 10 minute walk from where we were staying and it was a gorgeous day!


Heavens to Murgatroid! That thing is HUGE! Built in 1887-1889 for 1889 Universal Exhibition and Centennial of the French Revolution the tower juts an impressive 986 feet into the sky.

As you might imagine, there were crowds and vendors everywhere. We crossed the Seine River over to the Trocadero. From here you can climb the steps and get a good view of the tower and the surrounding area.

We decided to make our way back to the hotel and see about getting some dinner. There was a street nearby that featured some good places to eat as well as some shops with wine, bread, cheese and fresh produce. It smelled heavenly!

After dinner and relaxing a bit we walked back to the Trocadero to set up the tripod and get a nice time-lapse shot of the Eiffel Tower at night. If you click the thumbnail you can go through the progression of shots leading to the ultimate night shot. We did not know this, but the tower “twinkles” every hour on the hour for about 10 minutes starting at 10:00 pm. The twinkling lights were installed for the millennium and looks VERY cool.


It was starting to get chilly and we were fairly tired so we packed up the camera gear and walked back to the hotel hand in hand. It was quite charming.

We slept good and got up the next day with our sites set on mounting the Eiffel Tower. For just under 11 Euros you can ride to the top. The view is pretty spectacular and I we got some great pictures of the city. From there we caught the hop on, hop off bus to tour the city. This gave us a very good overview of Paris and allowed us to get our bearings.

After that we mostly walked to take in the sites. We did use the Metro to get us to the Musee d’Orsay but walked and walked otherwise.

Over the next few days we walked to Notre Dame, we walked to the Louvre, we walked to the Arc DeTriumph and to the Champs Elysee. We walked and walked and walked.

The Louvre was worthwhile…besides the obligatory Mona Lisa and Venus De Milo we saw many interesting exhibits including Winged Victory of Samothrace.

While we really like the Louvre I have to say, the Musee d’Orsay had to be our favorite. Filled with impressionist works we saw more Van Gogh works as well as Monet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissarro and the list goes on and on. The museum is an old train station saved from demolition and remodeled into one of the best art spaces I have ever seen in my life.

I took some pictures but nothing can do that place justice.

Notre Dame was beautiful to behold and also of note was Sainte-Chapelle. Some magnificent stained glass. We also visited the Cluny Museum , home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries.

There is one thing we did which I recommend to anyone going to Paris. There’s a restaurant at the top of a department store called The Samaratain. From the roof you can see all of Paris and it’s very nice. We enjoyed a lunch there and fed the sparrows who came begging at our table.

Paris is full of some very fond memories. We were getting rather tired going all day every day and it was catching up to us. When the woman with the severe eye makeup and the goth-esque clothing passed us on the street for the second time I quipped “I’m late for my noon haunting”… an inside joke that kept us laughing the rest of the trip.

We polished off Paris with another long, LONG walk. We needed to tire ourselves for the upcoming ordeal…

Next up; Night train to Venice!

European Oddessey – Bruges

Bruges, Belgium
(photos behind this link)

After our stay in Amsterdam we packed up and left for Bruges, Belgium. This stop on our journey came recommended to us by my co-worker. We did some research and thought it would a good interim before Paris.

We took the #17 tram in Amsterdam to Central Station. Using our rail pass we negotiated passage on a train to Antwerp with a connection to Bruges. After a few hours we were there. We headed to the taxi stand to catch a cab to the Hotel Patritius. As Cynthia was entering the cab she slipped and hit her head on the door frame. Since she was off balance she pulled up and out smashing her nose.

It did not bleed immediately. Cynthia’s eyes were wide and she looked to be in shock. She kept apologizing and I was pretty worried. I instructed the cab driver to take us to the nearest hospital which he did. On the way Cynthia’s nose began to bleed pretty good. I assured her we would be ok and that we were going to get some help. We got to the hospital pretty quickly. I sent Cynthia inside and I paid the cabbie and grabbed our bags. Already the decision to pack only backpacks was paying off.

I hustled into the hospital just behind Cynthia and we talked to the admission nurse. Cynthia is admitted pretty quickly after they look at our passports and I jot down our home address. They let me go back with her.

By this time Cynthia is bleeding quite a bit and we are pretty sure her nose is broken. The nurse gives us some paper towels to clean up and it’s not long before a technician is taking her back to x-ray. When Cynthia comes back she sits with me and we clean her up. Soon a doctor comes in and informs us that the nose is not broken. This is good news. She gets a nurse to come back and bandage the wound on the outside of her nose the internal bleeding slows quite a bit.

The nurse did not speak English very well but he read the chart and seeing where we were from looked up, smiled and said: “Houston, have a problem!” .

The hospital gave us a copy of the x-rays and told us they would send a bill (which we still have not received). They called us a cab and we went to the hotel. Cynthia’s spirits we already picking back up.

We made it to the hotel and checked in. After that we needed to find a pharmacy to fill the prescription for pain killers the doctor gave us. Turns out it was extra strength ibuprofen. I had Advil in my bag! Oh well.

Bruges is a beautiful city. Filled with old world charm you can easily be transported back in time just looking at the buildings and walking the streets.

In the center of the Market stands the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. The statue honors these two leaders of the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs’ which took place on the 11th of July 1302.

It wasn’t long before we found the Dumon Chocolate Shop. Quite possibly the most famous hand made chocolate shop in Europe. The prices were great and Cynthia stocked up. This cheered her up even more.

Bruges is so charming and it was pleasant to explore. There was a great Internet cafe near Our Lady’s Church. This church has the distinction of housing the Madonna with Child created by Michelangelo. It’s a lovely marble sculpture and there are no real crowds to speak of.

Despite the tragedy this was an excellent stop. The charm and the chocolate went a long way. We drank some lambics, I smoked a Cohiba Cuban cigar…it was nice. Cynthia even took the time to climb the 300+ steps to the top of the bell tower on our second day there.

Next stop, Paris!

European Oddessey – Amsterdam

Matt G.‘s recent posts have reminded me that I have been lax in creating an actual log of our trip outlining what we did so I think I will steal a page (or 5) from his journal. Each thumbnail image is a link back to the gallery.

Be sure and have a look at Matt’s posts about his trip. He hit some good sites!


When we started mapping out our plans for the trip, Amsterdam was picked as a starting point for a number of reasons. The location in the north made it a good jump-off location, the large airport meant easy access via non-stop air transport, the Van Gogh and Ryks Museums legitimized the city in spite of it’s more notable reputation. Icing on the cake was the fact that my friend Carl had taken up residence there many years back, providing a social anchor for when we arrived in a foreign county. Never underestimate the value of a friendly face when you are in a completely alien environment.

Carl was pretty quick on the draw and actually called me on my cell phone as we were exiting the Central Station to find the tram to our B&B. He gave us good advice on which one to catch and offered to meet up with us after we were settled in.

Once we did get checked in to the B&B it was a quick phone call to arrange a meeting at The Dam just a few tram stops away. We were joined by Carl and his lovely lady Suzanne. We strolled the shops and canals taking in the sites and working toward defeating jet lag. For all intents and purposes it was about midnight (according to our internal clocks). In Amsterdam it was a sunny 11:30 am by the time we met up with our hosts. We knew we had to stay up or face the prospects of being lagged for the whole trip. Carl and Suzanne took us to a wonderful Dim Sum restaurant and then over to a book store to meet up with their friend Sean Condon who was hosting a book signing of his latest effort, “My Dam Life”, a story of his experiences being an Australian ex-pat in Amsterdam. We bought a copy and had it inscribed. We hung out for a bit and then moved on to wander some more. Carl led us to an open air book market where we saw many an interesting tome. We were not prepared to lug heavy books across Europe so we browsed but did not purchase.
This was no simple thing. With a degree in library science, Cynthia is an avid reader and a lover of books. Almost every room in our home has book shelves.

We wandered around and around and around. We were quite exhausted but the sights were delightful. The canals, the architecture. Carl was telling us an endless stream of tales regarding how he arrived in Amsterdam, obscure political tidbits about Holland and Amsterdam and generally doing a stellar job of keeping us awake. Very much appreciated but taxing none-the-less. We walked and walked and talked and talked. Suzanne had to leave us after the book signing so it was just Cynthia, Carl and I. After awhile we made it to Carl’s apartment and then on to the art gallery Suzanne runs in the Jordaan. It was a nice place with some interesting pieces in it. At this point it was late in the afternoon and we needed to get back to the B&B and get some rest. We were pretty sure we had beaten jet lag and were ready to sleep. We caught the tram back to our B&B and passed out after acquiring some food at the local grocery store

The next several days were spent doing the obligatory canal cruise and visiting the Van Gogh Museum. We even encountered a large anti-Bush demonstration. Apparently he was in Holland due to the VE-Day celebrations.

The weather was a bit cool (around 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit) and raining occasionally. Our second to last evening was spent at Suzanne’s apartment. She and Carl invited us for dinner where were served a delicious rack of lamb. We were introduced to poffertjes. Yum! Carl shared some home brewed chocolate beer with me and we were joined by Suzanne’s sister and her friend from Greece. It was a lovely time. Alas, I was struck with a major headache and was going downhill fast. Our hosts arranged for a taxi to take us back to the B&B. Apparently there are some tricks to hiring a cab and Suzanne’s sister came downstairs and spoke (in Dutch) to the cabby. Basically telling him to treat us fairly. Before we left Suzanne made the comment “I guess we know who the party person is in the family” which struck Cynthia as VERY funny considering she tends to be a home-body.

The crowning glory of the Amsterdam leg of our trip had to be, HANDS DOWN, The Keukenhof. For 8 weeks out of the year you can roam 28 hectares (roughly 70 acres) of beautiful tulip gardens. We took the train to Liden and then a bus to the gardens. A VERY easy commute. We met a fellow from Idaho on the train who was going out there to shoot some pictures. He was very pleasant but rather odd. Mostly harmless, I’m sure. The skies threatened rain but the provided a very “Van Gogh-esque” background on the day. We spent the entire day out there shooting pictures and marveling at the beauty. It did hail for about 10 minutes. No worries, we ducked into restaurant and had some lunch.

It was a magical series of days. Getting to catch up with Carl was very pleasant. Experiencing Amsterdam the way we did was great. Sorry, no sex museums or drugs. Not my style. Bill will cover that on his trip, I’m sure!

Next up, Bruges Belgium and the “Maiming of the Nose”