29 August 2016

Postscript: Paris and Italy, Spring 2016

It's been 3 months since my wife and I returned from our 26-day trip to Paris and Italy. I've written separate posts about each of the destinations that we visited. This is an overview of the entire trip with some miscellaneous comments.
We couldn't go to Paris without a pic of the Eiffel Tower

Technology: We took our first trip to Europe for our 25th wedding anniversary in 1999. Of course, I was still working and felt the need to keep in touch. I think I had a cell phone in those days; I can't really remember when I got my first one. But I certainly did not get an international calling plan. Instead, I used a toll-free number to check voice messages back at the office and visited internet cafes to check e-mails.

It's a lot different now. First of all, no more internet cafes. Every place we stayed had free WiFi included with our rooms. We were able to use our iPads to get emails every day plus keep up on news back home, send photos, and check TripAdvisor reviews of restaurants and attractions in the cities we were visiting. At a couple of our hotels, the WiFi connection was not great. But at most of them, it was good enough so that we could even have Face Time chats with our grandchildren back home.

Also, my cellular carrier - Sprint - has a free international plan that I activated before we left for this trip. I had free, unlimited text messages, free, unlimited data (at a reduced speed), and phone calls for 20 cents/minute. Since cellular companies are so competitive, I'm sure that other carriers have similar plans available.

I didn't really use my phone a lot for voice service. But where it really came in handy was being able to use the GPS and mapping apps on the phone for finding our way around. We had a car for about half of the trip. On that first trip back in 1999, we also had a car for a few days driving through Provence in France. My wife was the navigator and I drove (stick shift). We survived, but it was a strain. This time, we used Google Maps and it was fantastic. My wife still was the navigator, and I was still the driver (because the car still had a stick shift). But we plugged the phone into the power port in the car, programmed in our destination, and let the Google voice direct us.

Linda still watched the map on the screen. But for the most part, we relied on the voice directions to tell us where to go. In fact, the only trouble we had was when, for some unexplained reason, Google didn't give us a voice prompt to turn. Linda was watching the map, and she said "I think we should have turned back there." But we'd gotten so confident in the verbal directions that we drove on a few kilometers more before realizing that indeed, we should have turned. In addition, Google Maps helped us find our way while walking, particularly in Rome. I hated to look like a clueless tourist, walking around Rome, holding my phone to get directions. But after getting hopelessly lost on our first day in the city, I did it anyway.
Piedmont was my favorite part of the trip, Barolo wine!

Language: Before our trip, I spent 1-2 hours per day on my computer, working with Rosetta Stone to try to learn a little Italian. I also used Duolingo (a free, online language instruction site). Much to my frustration, it wasn't enough. That's not to say that I was totally clueless. I could pick up occasional words and deduce from context what was being said. By the end of the trip, I was starting to pick up some phrases. But for the most part, I found that either the people we met understood English and if they didn't, I didn't know enough to understand them.

We started our trip in Paris. But since we were only going to be there for 3 days, I didn't bother to study any French. When we arrived, we decided to take the train from the airport to our hotel. We got our tickets just fine and got on the train. But when we got into the city center, the train stopped a few stations short of our destination and everyone got off. A helpful person noticed our confusion and told us that the trains were on strike, and we'd have to find another way to go the rest of the way to our hotel. So we got off the train and found an official-looking person wearing a transit uniform. "Excuse me," I said. "Do you speak English?" "Do you speak French?" he asked me (in perfect English). "No," I admitted. "Not even a little?" he chided me. "No," I said. He sighed and gave me a disapproving look, and then told us where to find the subway to our hotel.

By contrast, in Italy, most of the people we met were apologetic if they didn't understand us. A few times, I would try to ask for something in Italian. They wouldn't understand me. Then I'd switch to English, and we'd be OK.

One more technology tool that helped with language - Google Translate. I used the app on my phone or on my iPad to understand something or to help make myself understood when trying to communicate.
Positano, from the cliffs above the sea

Our itinerary:
Paris - After an overnight flight direct from Minneapolis, we were there for 3 nights. We stayed in a quiet neighborhood just at the edge of the Latin Quarter. The weather was chilly with occasional rain showers. But we had a great time walking around, seeing sights that we'd been to in the past as well as many new sights. Click here for my post on Paris.

Milan - We took a 7-hour train ride from Paris, arriving late in the day. Our hotel was a contemporary business hotel centrally located for most of the things we wanted to see. Besides exploring Milan, we did a day trip to the town of Bellagio on Lake Como. We had one day of heavy rain during our 3-day stay. Click here for my post on Milan and Lake Como.

Lago d'Orta - Besides seeing Lake Como, we wanted to spend some time in the Italian Lakes region. We rented a car in Milan and drove to the town of Orta San Guilio where we spent 3 days relaxing and enjoying the scenic splendor of the lake and quaint little town that doesn't see many American tourists. Click here for my post on Lago d'Orta.

Piedmont - From Orta, we drove to the town of Barolo in the Piedmont region. We stayed for 3 nights at an agriturismo, went wine-tasting, and explored the small towns nearby. We also did a day trip to Turin which was a delightful city (may be worth a return visit some day). Click here for my post on Piedmont.

Cinque Terra - We continued by car from Barolo to Cinque Terra, where we stayed for 2 nights. The main attraction here was to do the scenic hikes between the towns on the coast. The weather was mostly overcast, but that was probably OK. It kept the temperatures cool so that the hiking wasn't so draining. Click here for my post on Cinque Terra.

Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany - We drove from Cinque Terra to another agriturismo in a very small town in the Lazio region, right on the border of Umbria and close to the southern parts of Tuscany. Here we did more wine tasting and explored the small towns in the region. Click here for my post on this part of Italy.

Amalfi Coast - We turned in our car at the train station in Orvieto. After a pretty long day on trains and buses, we arrived at Praiano on the Amalfi Coast. We stayed there for 4 nights, did a lot of hiking in the hills above the sea, did a day trip to see the ruins at Pompeii, and visited several of the other towns on the coast. This part of the trip was similar to Cinque Terra, except that the towns we visited were more sophisticated; there's nothing on Cinque Terra to compare to Positano or Ravello. Between the two regions, I'd go back to the Amalfi Coast in a heartbeat. Click here for my post.

Rome - We concluded our trip with 3 nights in Rome. We walked through the city and saw all the big sights - Vatican Museums, Roman Forum, Jewish Ghetto, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, antiquities everywhere, and great food. Click here for my post on Rome.

In Rome, we saw antiquities everywhere

21 August 2016

St. Genevieve: Come to South Mpls. for a French wine bar

There's a relatively new place in south Minneapolis that's getting a lot of favorable buzz. St. Genevieve is a French wine bar in a quiet residential neighborhood. We had a 7:30 reservation on a Saturday night. So, yeah, they take reservations! Big plus in my book. 

Friends had told us it's quite noisy, and in the entryway, it was. But we were seated at a table near the back, and it wasn't too bad. Probably the most impressive thing was the friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating staff. It was our first time there. The hostess sat down next to us and explained how things work - mostly small plates, encourage sharing, wine by the glass or bottle, half glasses of wine available. Very nice. 

When we had questions about the wine, our server was very helpful - accurately describing the ones we were interested in. We liked our choices. My wife usually shies away from Pinot Noir, but when she inquired about it, the server noted that it's a white Pinot Noir - Pfeffingen blanc de noir. It was actually a German wine, and my wife enjoyed it. I also chose something that I'd never seen before - a rose of cabernet franc (Plouzeau Chinon Rose). It was an easy-drinking wine that went well with our food.

We ordered 4 plates to eat, not knowing if that would be enough or too much. The server asked about food allergies, and my wife said she's sensitive to cilantro. No problem; nothing we ordered had cilantro. Except, a couple minutes later, she reappeared at our table to advise us that one of the items (squid) had cilantro in the marinade. We thanked her and canceled that plate. So we ended up having the Gem salad, and like other reviewers have noted, the kitchen split it for us and sent it out on individual plates. (Very Nice indeed.) We also had the octopus and an order of pommes frites. The salad was ample, as was the serving of fries. Our other plate, the octopus, was quite small. We didn't leave hungry, but we maybe could have had another plate. 

My bottom line - great ambiance, great service, they take reservations, good food, interesting wine selections (and reasonable prices), shared 3 plates between 2 people and 2 and 1/2 glasses of wine for $60 plus a tip.