Hai, Chicago!

I am very excited to be in Chicago.

I survived the drive in – it’s amazing how I haven’t forgotten how to drive in Chicago and the surrounding area. Minneapolis is very relaxed: most people follow road signs, nearly everyone uses turn signals to change lanes, they only change one lane at  a time, everyone leaves a nice buffer space between cars, and those who do speed do so at a nice, predictable rate and seem to know that they’re the ones who are bending the laws, so they’re good about working with surrounding traffic.

And Chicago drivers are all Screw. That.

Seriously, that $375 minimum charge for speeding in a construction zone…joke, right? If anyone were to drive the speed limit in those zones I’m pretty sure they’d get a fender in their bumper. Also, I forgot how much tolls suck and was really missing my old IPass. And, you all charge for reals money for parking.

Our hotel is on Michigan Avenue, and our hotel room… Wowza.

It reminds me of last summer when we passed through Vail, CO. Everything in town was a steal because it was off-season, so we splurged on a fancy room that normally went for $900/night in the winter. Of course, in Chicago we don’t have a view of the forests and a stream trickling right outside of our window, but that little puddle of water out front is kinda pretty.  Okay, we drew an inner courtyard room, but the fact that I know Lake Michigan is right outside the hotel is good enough for me.

Now, off to the bar to have a whiskey, then it’s time to decide how we want to spend tomorrow!

Hai, Chicago!

Terracina, Italy

Back to the travel-blogging!

Note: I don’t have my pictures from this leg of the journey yet, so any pictures below have been borrowed from other places on the web.  Clicking on the photos will take you to the photo source.

Ah, Terracina.  Finally, we get to the Mediterranean!

We left Perugia early on Thursday morning (6am-ish) and took the train into Rome.  Aaron and I packed up on Wednesday because this was the start of the second part of our journey; we were done with Perugia and would spend the rest of our time in Terracina, Rome and Amsterdam.  Once in Rome we switched trains to get out to Fiumicino Airport.  From there we rented a car for our trip to Terracina, a medium-sized town about an hour and a half south of Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Let me say that I had a blast driving in Italy, but there were some terrifying moments.  First of all, the only kind of car that the rental agencies offered were manual transmissions.  I was nominated to drive the Fiat Punto we rented because my last car (six years ago!) had been a stick shift; Mom hadn’t driven a stick since before I was born, and the Hubby had never driven stick.  But no problem – I figured I could get back in the swing of driving a manual.

Secondly, I was worried about reading and understanding Italian street signs, or rather not being able to do those things.  I briefly studied a guide called Back Roads Italy, which had many tips for foreigners who planned to drive in Italy, including a section of common road signs.  Still, I find it amazing that any government allows foreigners to drive in their country.  In Italy they do, thankfully, drive on the same side of the road as we do in America, but the driving attitude is very different – signs, lines and speed limits are more like suggestions than hard rules.

This was, oddly enough, my favorite part of driving in Italy; it’s more cerebral and requires the use of common sense.  One has to constantly evaluate the situation around them: Do I need to scoot right so this race car driver behind me can get by?  Will that car turn right and can I enter into the roundabout now or not?  Gee, this car in front of me is going 10km under the speed limit, so I can glide into the left lane and gun around him.

On the trip down the coast I felt like a race car driver myself – it was a lot of fun!  But that was on the highway; driving in the city was terrifying.  During our stay in Terracina we decided to drive up the mountain to the Temple of Jupiter, an ancient structure overlooking the sea and located high above the city.

The Temple of Jupiter on the cliffs of Terracina

Unfortunately, we had to drive through the city to get there.  For the most part, it seems that Italians do not recognize a “distance between cars” rule – everyone drives bumper to bumper, and scooters and motorcycles will speed between cars with inches to spare.  There was so much stop and go (slam on the breaks and then speed wildly forward), and there was increased signage in Italian that I couldn’t read, and then we missed our exit and ended up on a road leading out of the city.  Thank all that is for GPS getting us back to the hotel!  I decided that I was done with driving in Italian cities so we gave up on seeing the temple.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Terracina was actually my least favorite excursion of our entire vacation, but that was mostly due to our choice of hotel.  I’m sure that had we had more time we could have made it a lovely trip.  And if I would have had time to scuba dive, I might be saying that Terracina was the best part of the whole vacation!   It really wasn’t Terracina’s fault.

We stayed at a hotel called the Blue River, and it was just so…mediocre.  Mom and I called it the “almost” hotel; everything was “almost” – the pool was almost clean, the hot tub was almost warm, the bed was almost suitable, the turkey dinner looked almost edible, the free wifi almost worked, the chairs on the balcony were almost comfortable, the visit to the beach was almost perfect.    A little detail:

  • The lobby was almost very nice, but the motif probably hadn’t changed since the 1970s.  The check-in was almost professional; kids and teenagers kept running in and out from a room behind the desk.  They would congregate and chat behind the desk while the concierge was working.
  • The bathrooms were all beautiful (we guessed that the owner must know someone in the business) but everything else was just sort of old – and not in the good 1,000 year old renovated way that we had gotten used to seeing.  It was more like, “Ugh!  They laid that linoleum back in the 1950s and really need to replace it.”
  • The rooftop was ugly and barren – everything was concrete and plastic.  Someone had strung up a laundry line and there were two old lawn chairs to sit in while you looked at the mountains.
  • The pool floor was stained and there were no steps or a gradual incline by which one could enter the pool.  Mom actually couldn’t use the pool because of this; she has arthritis in her knees and the ladders were not sufficient for her to get in or out of the pool.  The water in the hot tub was cold, and it was above-ground.  The only way in and out was a rickety ladder that again, Mom couldn’t traverse.  All around the hot tub was that awful outdoor green plastic “grass carpet” that always makes me shudder because all I can imagine is the bacteria and fungus that must growing in it.
  • At one point during our stay we went to the bar.  The bartender didn’t have Bloody Mary mix, so I ordered a gin and tonic.  The bartender rummaged around and then announced that they didn’t have tonic.  I finally ordered a martini because it was actually on the menu so we figured she must be able to make that.  She made a half vermouth, half vodka martini….blech, but apparently that’s how they make martinis in Italy, so I won’t say that she sucks at making martinis, even though the martini sucked.

BUT, back to enjoying vacation.  We’re on vacation, yay!  At the beach!  Let’s go to the beach!

The concierge tells us that there are chairs and umbrellas for rent at the beach.  The beach is a short walk from the hotel, so we grab our…oops, we don’t have beach towels.  Eh, we’ll drip dry.  And we don’t have sunscreen, so we figure we’ll stop at the convenience store to buy some, but oops! – it’s 1:30pm and the store is closed for the Italian mid-day break.  Eh, we’ll stay under the shade of the umbrella.  So, we head down to the beach and find an umbrella and chair.  We don’t see where we’re supposed to pay for the umbrella and chair, but figure that someone will come over and let us know if they see us sitting there.  Then we’re off to play in the water.  The water is cool, but we get used to it and I stay in for a long time, playing with the waves and the sandy bottom.

Mom and Aaron go back to the umbrella and hang out.  They buy some water from the bar and every five minutes or so wave off one of the dozens of beach vendors peddling glasses, jewelry, hats, purses, kites and other wares.  I play in the sand for a while, digging canals to capture water so I can scoop wet sand and I start to build a sand castle – but really it it’s going to be more of a fort with a broad, strong square base and high walls to repel oceanic intruders.  Then the Hubby and Mom convince me that my un-sunscreened self needs to get under the umbrella.  While we’re hanging out there, the lifeguard comes over and asks us for our ticket.  It turns out that the chairs and umbrellas for rent at the beach needed to be rented from the Hotel Blue River concierge, not at the beach (thanks for letting us know, Concierge Lady).  He then yells at us for not only not having a ticket, but for sitting in a reserved seat (apparently somebody had rented the seats and umbrella we were in for a three-month block, whoopsie!).  He tells us that we need to leave, and that we need to have a ticket next time we come to the beach.


After that we went for our driving “adventure” to find the Temple of Jupiter.  FAIL.  So we came back to the hotel with the idea of eating dinner, relaxing in the room and maybe having drinks on the beach while watching the sun set.  We stopped by the front desk to look at the restaurant’s menu.  We looked at the menu, and we looked at each other.  Then we looked at the menu again.  Mom asked if I wanted to drive somewhere for dinner, but I was burned out and traumatized from our last drive, so we reluctantly decided to eat at the hotel.  Unfortunately it was only about 5:30pm and the restaurant didn’t open until 7:30.  Shit.

So we decided to play Uno in our room on the balcony.  But we had Uno Fail – with only three people playing, the hands went on FOREVER – every hand we had to reshuffle the deck four or five times before someone would somehow win.  We all got cranky playing cards, and then mercifully it was time for dinner.  We went down to the restaurant and were the first group to arrive.  The staff were still rolling silverware and hanging out in the dining room while we ordered.  Our food came out in less than five minutes…everything was pre-cooked. Mom ordered meatballs and pasta, and she ended up sending her plate back because her noodles were bare.  They put four meatballs on the side of the plate and sent bare, cooked noodles on the rest of the plate.  My fish was alright, but the sauce was bitter and the fish was full of tiny bones.  It was all mediocre and all pricey; it was the most disappointing meal we had in Italy.

For Mom that was it – it was the final straw and she was done.  She didn’t even wait for the check – the Hubby and I had offered to pay for the monstrosity that was our meal, so she headed up to the room to lay down.

The Hubby and I decided that we needed to make some good memories in Terracina, so we decided to go walking on the beach and watch the sunset.  It was kind of amazing – the beach was deserted.  There were drivers rolling big machines across the beach, presumably filtering/cleaning the sand.

“*Terracina.. Beach By Night*” – This beautiful photo was taken by cL4uDj and was found on Flickr.

On our walk we wandered by this campsite – a semi-permanent setup of trailers, campers and buildings all parked together to make a little neighborhood of maze-like pathways located right on the beach.  It was reminiscent of a trailer park, but it seemed busier and more intimate than any trailer park I have ever seen.  Dining room tables were set up outside under makeshift roofs and it was hard to tell where one domicile started and the next began.  Kids were running around, people were washing the dishes in outdoor sinks, and others clustered in groups of chairs watching television.

We eventually arrived at a canal filled with very nice boats.  We sat on the dock and watched fisherman cast their lines and boats come back home for the evening as the sun was setting.  It was nice, there was a slight breeze and we were happy as we ambled back to the hotel.

The next morning we woke up – we had all actually slept very well, yay for small favors – and checked out of the hotel – Arrividerci and good riddance!  The Hubby wanted to stop on the way back to Rome to see the Anzio war cemetery.  1,056 Commonwealth troops who died in WWII are buried in Anzio Beach Head War Cemetery, and the city was a pivotal landing point for Allied troops during the war.  We used the GPS to get us to Anzio and drove through some beautiful rural backroads in Nettuno along the way.  The cemetery was immaculate, beautiful and a humbling reminder of the consequences of war.

This picture comes from a private blog dedicated to the memorial of Private Leonard Smith. The blog contains many beautiful pictures of the Beach Head Commonwealth War Cemetery and is worth a look.

And that was it.  We made it back into Rome and arrived at the meeting place for our walking tour with about five minutes to spare!

So, our Terracina experience wasn’t the jewel of the vacation, but I’m glad that we were able to spend some time at the beach.  The evening walk with Hubby was wonderful, and I really did enjoy driving throughout most of trip.  Terracina is a beautiful city, and I could even see visiting again with more planning.

Or maybe not.

Stay tuned for the next travel blog (I promise it will be cheerier!):


Terracina, Italy