A Travellerspoint blog

Arrival

Delayed but safe

We arrived at the airport no problem due to Nathan's excellent driving skills. The sun is out and our spirits are high. Very excited to be able to go on this trip. Corinne is shopping for gifts to give our hosts in Avignon and Montauban. The one thing I don't like about travel is the hurry up and wait aspect. And expensive airport shops. And expensive airport food. Ok, that's three things. And cramped seats. And trying to sleep on a plane. Amongst the things I don't like about travel include those listed above, but I must say the food at Spinnaker's at YYJ was very good.

I have never been first on a plane before. No special circumstances, they called for passengers and Corinne and I just strolled up. Technically I was 2nd, Corinne was first. With no one behind us Corinne scoped out our seats (row 2)., and we sat down, several minutes later the next passenger gets on, walks up, and politely asks us to move. Corinne chose the wrong seats. We were on the other side of the plane.

The ride over was bumpy and interesting because the flight attendant regaled the couple in front of us with takeoff and landing horror stories. I guess when you have been in the industry for 30 years you get to see a few things. I'm not certain if the likelihood of these events happening goes up with years of experience, or if she was just unlucky. I hoped for the former. We landed safely without incident so I guess probability ruled.

The flight to Amsterdam was delayed a little, but we made it safe and sound. Waited for our flight to Marseille, which was also delayed by about an hour. Apparently there is a strike in France which was causing delays. Arrived to 20C plus in Marseille.
Got the car and had to ask how to put it in reverse. Off we went with google maps as our guide, on paper. Never again. Pay for GPS or else make certain your data plan works! Had to pull over after getting lost on the maze of streets from the airport. Found out our car has navigation, in French, so off we went. One crucial piece of info we should have had, probably, was the actual address of the hotel...lovely countryside tho.
Found the hotel in as calm a manner as two hungry jet lagged travelers lost on a tiny country road could be, and all was good. Checked in, got directions to restaurants, went, found one, sat down, looked at the prices, and then shrugged. Oh well. It's one meal. And what a meal it was.
Salad with buffalo mozzarella and air dried ham with fennel on a bed of mâche. Meat stew with sausage, duck, pork belly with these yummy beans. A bottle of wine (not emptied) and we were done. No dessert please, just the bill and off to bed.
So full.
So tired.
So good to be here.

Posted by MadameBallam 02:12 Comments (0)

Going to France

T - 6o minutes and counting

Nathan is coming to pick us up soon to take us to the airport. SO looking forward to trying to sleep on the plane... Got my stupid U-pillow, gonna try it on backwards because it never worked the proper way. Melatonin, CHECK. Passport, CHECK, all set. See you later.

Posted by MadameBallam 10:26 Comments (0)

Venetians are not blind.

Would you pay 500,000€ to get a job?

Morning came and we walked with our guide to the docks to catch our transport to Venice. Once on the islands of Venice we walked along the shoreline to St. Mark's Square. There our guide told a few of us about the square and the tower within. We had an appointment in the Doge's Palace but had time to kill, so many of us took the opportunity to leave our bags with the guide and enter the Basillica Di San Marco. Magnificent golden mosaics on the inside were hard to comprehend. Then it was off to the Palace for the "Secret Itineraries Tour". We divided into two groups for this tour. This is the place where Casanova was imprisoned and from where he eventually escaped with the help of an imprisoned priest. The tour was very interesting and then we had time to explore the rest of the museum. The Sun King didn't outshine the Doge for this place was opulent and overwhelming, much like Versailles. Except this was very Italian! Room after huge room had ceilings painted with Justice themed artwork of biblical proportions with ornate guilded frames surrounding them. Walls too were covered in similar artwork. Some boys were not impressed. Then came the weapons rooms, and those boys came to life! It was interesting to see the evolution of weaponry from your standard swords and spears to swords with a built-in gun. Was this the precursor to the WW I bayonet rifle? The wind up crossbow and other implements of death were fascinating.

Our meeting time was fast approaching for our group, so Leslie headed for the exit, just around that corner... No, ok, the next corner. It says exit. Trotting along at a pretty good clip we navigated a labyrinth of hallways and stairs which eventually emptied into an enclosed courtyard. Onward we marched through more tunnels following more exit signs through more hallways and stairs to wind up in a bookstore. Ah, the exit sign up ahead, which led us to the cafeteria. From there we easily navigated to the outside. It was probably a good 7 minute journey of twists and turns. What fun!

We reconvened with our guide and headed back to St Mark's Square to debrief and head out for lunch. We had a whole afternoon to eat, wander, and shop. Don't let anyone fool you, Venice is built for tourists. The Venetians know a good thing when they see it and there are myriad of stores selling high end goods and jewelry to T-shirt shops and everything in between. One of us witnessed a woman trying out 3 different Gucci bags, and taking all three! Luckily it wasn't my wife. There is money to be made here!

But you do not have to sell goods, you can sell services also. Gondoliers and water taxis are offered up everywhere as it is the only form of transport on these islands other than feet. To get a water taxi licence seems like a good idea since the minimum charge is about 60€. That is for the taxi ride, and up to 6 people may board those taxis. But to get a licence you first have to learn the rules of the waterways and get your navigation and boat operator's license. That is expensive, but not as expensive as the water taxi license; 500,000€ for that. It is expected that you recoup that money in about 6 to 8 years. How much money do they make? I don't know, and the competition was fierce. But there are 15 to 16 million visitors a year to the islands whose resident population is 65,000. I certainly didn't see any water taxi guys in the Gucci shop.

With our shopping time over we headed for the restaurant and then back to the shore for our Lido shuttle. We went back to the hotel where we dispensed words of wisdom about going to bed early because of our 3 am wake up call and how staying up late will just leave you a mess. Much like the Giuletta right mammary myth, some students heard us and chose appropriate bedtimes. Lights out at nine, and our room checked showed most had lights out at nine. I'll leave it at that.

3 AM comes early no matter what time you go to bed, but all were up and ready to leave by 3:30. A quick walk to the docks and onto our water taxi for the 30 minute ride to the airport. An hour later we arrived and were extremely pressed for time to check in, go through security, etc. I was the last one through security watching the clock tick by: 10 minutes to flight time. Then 8 minutes. Then 4 minutes. I get checked through. Final boarding announcement as I race to the gate, belt not on and jeans sliding down to find a lineup! What? I board to find we had been delayed due to fog in Amsterdam, and in fact we sat for a good 20 minutes while other stragglers with late connecting flights boarded. Security checks should issue Ativan.

We are enroute over Greenland right now which means you will probably read this after our return, but both Madame Ballam and I, as well as the other three chaperones wanted to let you know what wonderful kids you have. They have been polite, respectful, friendly, and have represented you, their upbringing, our school, and Canada in an exemplary fashion.

And fashion is what many are bringing home, amongst other things. Just so you know, there has been a cold and flu that has dogged this trip. Some have been affected more than others, but everyone has been taking care of everyone else and the ill students never complained or held us up. Troopers are what they are. They have been bone tired, ravenously hungry, bitterly cold and wet, and always have had a smile to offer. They have sung songs, danced, and walked through 3 European countries, shopped like fiends, managed to get food, get goods, talk with locals and visitors alike, and always, always with a laugh and a smile. I hope you will see a little bit of this growth experience stay with them when they return home.

It has been a pleasure keeping you informed of the daily happenings, I hope you had as much fun reading as I did writing. This was a task I lifted from my wife so she could have sone down time. It takes an enormous amount of work and organizational skill to accomplish what we did, and it is all due to her that we have made it with as few hiccups as we had. The only reason she does this is because of the fabulous students we have. I say good bye for the last time (unless something worth writing about occurs between now and home). Thank you for reading

Cheers

Posted by MadameBallam 17:48 Comments (0)

The Lido Shuttle

The _______________ my friend, is blowing in the wind....

Up and out of Florence we bussed for 3 hours nonstop to Verona. We picked up our tour guide as we entered the city and she was practical, informative, and opinionated. It was great. We parked at the Piazza dell'indipendenza and got off the bus. From here we walked into Verona. Crossing over the river using an ancient Roman bridge we stopped for a group photo, and then our resident (Ninja) ballerina donned her slippers once more for another pose. Placing her walking shoes and jacket carefully on one of the window ledges separating people from the abyss and river below, she stood on point and gracefully raised one leg behind her while bending forward out another window. After the photo shoot she went to retrieve her jacket, a simple feat had not a gust of wind picked it up and carried it out the window and over the wall just inches from her grasp. She watched as down it fluttered to be one with the ducks. The disappointment of the loss of this quality Roots jacket was eased by the fact that she also lost the Tim Horton's logo on its sleeve.

Entering the city square we were led past ancient Roman arches and a plethora of restaurants, which according to Marina, our guide, were not very good. We wound up at the arena. Verona, like many places in ancient Rome, had an amphitheatre where gladiatorial battles and executions took place. The pain and misery inflicted upon men in the past continues today for this is now the opera house.

Our guide took us over fossils captured in the marble walkways to Casa Di Giulietta, or Juliette's house. Here the walls of the entrance to the courtyard are lined with (mostly) love graffiti, and in the courtyard stands a bronze statue of Juliette. Legend has it that if you touch the right breast of Juliette it will bring you luck in love. Our guide was quite clear that this was not true, but some of our students did not listen. The patina on her right breast is a testament to the thousands of tourists who either believe this myth or just want a photo opportunity.

Also in the tiny courtyard were a few shops and a red mailbox where you could deposit your love letter to Juliette. There is a society that collects those letters and responds to each one! So if you happen to receive some post from Italy you will know your child is obviously a lover of Shakespeare...

We then moved on to Romeo's residence which is still a residence and not a tourist trap. Our walk continued through this lovely town and our guide pointed out this and that along the way. We wound up back at the amphitheatre/Opera House where Marina said ciao. It was also time for us to chow down, and as soon as they could students ran off for the restaurant with the panzerotti, or deep fried balls of yummy goodness that the guide had mentioned earlier in the day. I guess students were listening then. One must set their priorities!

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove beside the same route that the Roots jacket had taken as we headed for Venice. The weather turned as we got closer to Venice, and the jacket stealing breeze became a cold harsh wind that made the rain bend to its every whim.

We arrived at the Tronchetto, the place where we were to get our private water taxi to have a tour and take us to the island of Lido. We trudged through the rain from the bus to the docks to figure out what to do next. We thought there might be a place where you would go to and say "we're here!" But there was no such place. The public water transport booth was devoid of life, but we noticed the disembarkation of passengers from a boat proudly displaying our private boat company's name at Berth 3. Madame Ballam and I walked to the gangway to wait for the passengers to offload so we could talk to the boat operator, but as soon as the last passenger stepped off the boat and onto the gangway the gangplank was raised and the boat motored off leaving us standing there bewildered as what to do next. We looked around at nothing but empty berths and the backs of tourists heading for their bus. Plan B.

We phoned the boat operator and left a message. Plan C.

We returned to our students who were huddled under the meagre shelter to discuss options. There was another tour office right there with people inside, so we went to speak with them. The place was operated by the Ice Queen and Indifference Man. Indifference Man acted as if we didn't exist, the Ice Queen cast a look of disdain at us and offered "yes?". We asked if she could help us and explained our situation. "Sorry, we work for another company". Really! Oh, ok, sorry for disturbing you. We are, after all, polite. So back out into the cold driving drizzle and a few more phone calls and... nothing.

Plan D, for Don't know what to do.

We both walked up and down the pier again looking, hoping, praying for a sign. We saw nothing. Our 4 pm boat was now not even a 4:30 pm boat, and we were considering how to take the public transport, but thought why not try the Ice Queen one more time. That is when our prayers were answered. The sign we were looking for came in the form of a tall Dutchman by the name of Phil van Bourgondien. He joined us and strode up to the desk with the confidence of Matador. Upon gaining the attention of the Ice Queen his brilliant smile and charming demeanour melted the Ice Queen's heart, or at least thawed it a little, so that she actually picked up the phone and phoned the company for us. Indifference Man seemed unmoved by
Phil's charm, but it was hard to tell as he ignored us. Elsa got through and spoke with someone, and then she hung up. Looking at us she said "All you had to do was call. Berth 3" and then an audible snap was heard and she reverted to her former self as if suddenly flash frozen. Indifference Man suddenly continued ignoring us. We said an unheard thank you and headed back to the damp darkening drizzle.

We gathered our troops and returned to berth 3 where we had been standing before. Out of nowhere came two workers who asked "School group going to Lido?" Where were these guys 40 minutes earlier? Anyway, the boat came, we got on board, and we had our shortened private tour which was for the best because we couldn't see out the rain covered windows whose transparency was further diminished by the breath and drying clothes of 34 bodies. Once at Lido we looked for our guide...

He did show up, but was easily missed due to his meek manner. He quietly took us to our hotel, a 15 minute walk in the rain. Once there we issued room keys and there was a jubilant cheer when we announce free wifi. Small pleasures. All retired to their rooms to change into dry clothes, or rest, or logon for their internet fix.

Rooms were large, some having separate bedrooms. This was by far the nicest hotel, or at least a tie with our Paris hotel. One room had a kitchen and dining room table! The bathrooms were nice, and finally we were able to control the heat.

Dinner was a surprise, not because of the food but because of the procession of well dressed students who had taken the time to look their best. After dinner we congregated into a lounge area off the lobby, sat on the floor in a big circle, and we gave them a task - Be quiet. No talking. Think about this question: "What was the best thing, the most memorable thing about this trip?" We gave them several minutes to gather their thoughts, and then we started. The responses varied from the gelato to new found friends, and all the sites and happenings in between. I am certain you will hear many more highlights for weeks to come once we have returned.

Then it was off to bed for a full day followed by a very short last night.

Next up: Venice

Caio

Posted by MadameBallam 17:45 Comments (0)

David and Goliath

A full day in Firenze

Today I pass the torch (iPad) to my wife for today's blog.

We're sitting on the bus on our way to Verona and Venice as I type this. We passed two nights (1.5 days) in Florence (Firenze) or the city of flowers. We started our day yesterday bright and early with a a walk in the sunshine to the Galleria dell'accademia. with our guide. Everyone had slept well in the generous sized rooms with newer marble bathrooms, all with showers and or tubs and breakfast featuring Nutella filled croissants and espresso - a healthy start to the day? - well, delicious anyway.

Firenze is the birth place of the Renaissance and home town of Michelangelo so, of course our first stop was to see the 15 ft sculpture of David. It is enormous and magnificent. Every vein, muscle, and sinew has been sculpted out of the marble to portray the shepherd David ready to sling the rock at Goliath. Amazing to realise that this masterpiece was created during the start of the 16th century during the Renaissance. He was only 26 years old when he sculpted it!

Lunch time was spent exploring the plazas or piazzas found in the city centre filled with many shops, market stalls and cafes. The Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore sits in one of the piazzas with the Baptistry and bell tower, all gorgeously decorated with red, white and green marble. A stunning and surprising vista after following narrow streets lined with neo-classical buildings of 4 stories in height. Another piazza holds the Doge's palace or city hall and it's here that other 15th and 16th century statues sit, along with a replica of David. This piazza dell Vecchio is essentially an outdoor museum.

Scarves and leather goods, and store upon store of gold jewelry on the Ponta dell Vecchio are the city's wares and they are abundant. Of course one can't forget about the gelato and chocolate - especially the chocolata calda - hot chocolate served with whipped cream and tasting like straight melted dark chocolate. Yum!

So, after lunch it was a climb up to the dome of the Duomo - around 200 steps to see the fresco of the last judgement on the ceiling and from there also we could see the beautiful patterns on the inlaid marble floors below. Then outside, at the top of the dome, we were able to have a panoramic view of the city.

All bravely climbed the stairs up the Duomo but some didn't make it outside which was fine as we then had a coach to the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte,one of the highest points in Firenze. We attended mass with the Benedictine monks (of which there were only 4) and, by chance, with 100 students from a Christian school in Texas in the crypt of San Miniato. It was a moving yet chilly experience.

Afterwards we coached back down to our neighbourhood to a different restaurant for another delicious 3 course meal. There, I was again treated to birthday celebrations by the students and chaperones. Earlier in the day the students had handed me a Harlequin cone hat which I wore for a bit in the streets and was happy to do. But it didn't end there. In the church yard before mass the students flash mobbed me with a dance. I had thought it was some retreat dance or something that everyone had decided to do so I initially joined in, trying my best to keep up. Only when I heard the song and knew that it wasn't a regular retreat song and that everyone could do it but me, I stopped in amazement and gratitude. Anyway, I was happy for the acknowledgement but didn't expect the rap, the champagne or the cake at the restaurant - never mind the card and framed signatures and photo of Doug and I at the top of the Eiffel Tower!!!! Granted, one only turns 50 once but really, the fact that I was in Italy for it would have been celebration enough! Your children are seriously an amazing bunch of people - together and individually. They have been so open to new ideas, acting respectfully and with a sense of adventure and I feel blessed to have had this chance to travel and hang out with them.

So, we are nearing Verona now and the day promises to be wet. I'm sure we will still enjoy the sight of Juliette's balcony and lunch in a cafe before continuing on to Venezia.

Till tomorrow.

Posted by MadameBallam 10:25 Comments (1)

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