Florence travel journal (part 5): Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 5: Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

This is the final installment of the barely tangentially related to yoga ūüėČ travel series on my trip to Firenze over New Year’s Eve. This one is all about getting there and getting around.¬†(I would have finished it by now, except I’ve spent much of the past week KO’d by a bug I’m convinced we picked up on the flight from Amsterdam back to Michigan. As I’ve said elsewhere — I’m not complaining about this. All I wanted was to not be sick in Italy, and I felt great the entire trip.)

>>Getting there (or, why we <3 our travel agent more than we can tell you)<<

So here’s the deal. Scott and I have never ever used a travel agent. We were under the impression — that, we have found, many of our friends were under as well — you have to pay travel agents to do things you can do yourself online. Not true. We didn’t pay a dime to book our flight and hotel through our travel agent — and here’s the killer part — we paid half what we would have paid on our own. Half. We went online and checked a package that included the same number of nights at our hotel, on the same flight (departure and arrival day), and I’m not kidding, this trip was half that price. So, had we done this on our own, one of us would have gotten to take this trip (we joke that we both know which one of us would get to go), or we would have been able to afford three nights rather than seven.

We worked with Classic Travel based in Okemos, MIch. Joy Thrun and the excellent team at Classic Travel literally made this trip happen for us. Scott and I can’t thank them enough. And part of the reason, I think, is that Joy and her husband, Tom, truly love traveling, and sharing that passion. Here’s a snippet from the Classic Travel website:

Time flies when you are having fun. Probably the oldest cliché in the world, but for us at Classic Travel, it certainly holds true. It does not seem possible that we have been selling travel and all the exciting things that come with it for thirty one wonderful years. And thanks to you, our well-traveled clientele, we have had the pleasure of sharing in your globe-trotting adventures for the past quarter century.

Over this time we have witnessed events that have changed the world and impacted our industry. Travel is our business, but above all, it is our passion. We believe that travel contributes immeasurably to the overall quality of life. No matter how well traveled you may be, each trip you embark on brings knowledge and new experiences. Travel is continuing education and we will never run out of exotic places to go. One of the most precious rights that we have is the ability to move freely around this fascinating world of ours. To experience the diversity and richness of far away places creating memories that will last a lifetime, we are proud to be one of the most experienced travel companies in the entire industry, but we continue to grow in many different areas.

We also have to thank Sara Metz, whose trip to Morocco with her husband, Will (catch him live here), inspired me to ask her about traveling. She promptly put me in touch with Joy.

So if you’re reading this and thinking you’ll never visit Italy, I want to say that I didn’t think I’d get there either — at least not any time soon. Life works in strange ways sometimes.¬†Stay realistic, but hopeful, that you’ll eventually¬†find a way to make the trips you dream about.

And if you do go to Florence, here was our itinerary, along with some tips on finding the right guides.

>>Itineraries<<

We flew out of Detroit two days after Christmas, stayed all seven nights in Florence, but took the following day trips (one-way travel time by fast train in parenthesis):

  • Venice (two hours)
  • Rome (1.5 hours)

In addition, we devoted an entire day to taking a 12-hour tour aboard a comfortable bus that allowed us to visit the following towns in Tuscany:

  • Sienna
  • San Gimignano
  • Pisa

I don’t have travel stats to bear this out, but I have this idea that Americans tend to gravitate more toward Rome and Venice. Before this trip, I had very little sense of geography of this boot-shaped country, and probably would have been happy to spend seven days in any of these cities. After this trip, I thought Florence was¬†the¬†perfect — truly, the best — home base for me. It’s a compact but lively, walkable city (apparently it was once rough for pedestrians but has, thanks to car-free zones, become quite pedestrian-friendly — though you still have to watch out for that crazy Italian driving!).¬†Florence is home to the Renaissance and a cultural cradle. Seeing Michelangelo’s¬†David¬†in person is awe-inspiring. You’re a hop and skip away from fascinating and gorgeous Tuscan towns. All the culinary Italian specialties I’m so enamored of — like¬†tiramisu¬†and¬†pappardelle¬†— have roots in the Tuscan region. What’s not to love?

>>Essential guides<<

Rick Steves’ Italy 2012

It got to be a joke at some point that every American we met on our travels toted a dog-eared copy of the¬†Rick Steves Italy¬†book like their travel bible. We bought Rick Steves this time because his London guide served us so well last year, and his Italy book proved to be every bit as useful as the London edition. In addition to the overviews, tips and details you need from a good guidebook, I really appreciated the extras — like the appendix that includes an annotated copy of an actual train ticket so you know what each part of the ticket says.

 

Rick Steves’ Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary

This pocket book was the one I pulled out of my purse most frequently. I’d argue that you need this compact little thing even if you get the Rick Steves country book. The phrase book has a menu decoder divided by theme — desserts, wine, etc. — and sections on hailing a taxi, getting a room, and so on. There are also handy Italian-English and English-Italian dictionaries tucked inside. I was happy to see that this book included phrases such as “I’m allergic to” (“Sono allergico[a] al…”) and “Sorry for the mess” (“Scusi per il pasticccio”).

 

Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Florence & Tuscany

This slim number was a wonderful reference to check on everything from masterpieces of art located in the Uffrizi Gallery to masterpieces of the culinary kind brought to your dinner table.

Great Eats Italy

I really liked this book for the introduction, which gives some great tips for finding good eats throughout Italy. The book then provides specific recommendations by neighborhood.

Hotel concierge

A guidebook can only get you so far. The concierge at the Grand Hotel Baglioni¬†got us a reservation at what was, hands down, our best meal in Florence (Buca Mario). (By the way, there doesn’t seem to be a standard recommendation for tipping for concierge services, but I recommend tipping, especially if they book something for you.) This hotel, which is ridiculously centrally located and a place we really enjoyed, would normally be way out of our price range — see the travel agent section above on how we managed that.

Your tour guides

I highly recommend paying the extra however many euros it takes to see the Uffrizi and Accademia Gallery with a tour rather than on your own. For one thing, you skip the unbearably long line and go right in with your group. For another, especially if you’re traveling as a couple, it’s a nice way to get out of your couple bubble and meet fellow travelers. We met a great family from Pittsburgh on our Uffirzi tour, and if we’re ever in Pittsburg, we’ll be dropping them a line. Maybe we just got lucky, but every single one of our tour guides were awesome — full of character quirks and full of passion for their beautiful city. Tour guides are also great sources for general tips and restaurant recommendations.

>>Random travel tips<<

Some of my random travel tips:

Tell your friends, family members, colleagues and travel agent about your fantasy trips.

You never know if a tip they might hear about and send your way could get the ball rolling for a getaway. If you have the kind of lifestyle where you could leave quickly for a trip, sign up for notifications about last-minute deals. Ask around for good travel agent recommendations, and let them know your parameters.

Barter presents at home for better meals abroad.

This year, Scott and I agreed: No Christmas presents. Believe me, every bit we saved on that, we spent in Italy. Knowing that our families would insist on getting us Christmas presents, we told them about our plans, so that they could get us something related to the trip, thus decreasing our expenses that much more. Scott’s parents got us fantastic luggage that could handle the abuse of international travel, and my parents got us the gadgets that we couldn’t live without (namely, the converter for our iPhones and iPad) and a great Italian Berlitz CD set and computer program that taught us how to properly say, “Parla inglese?”

Avoid credit cards if it’s possible (and safe)

Credit cards typically charge you a percentage of each transaction (a small percentage, but it adds up quickly), so if you’re traveling in a pretty safe area, see if you can roll with cash. Exchange a chunk of currency before you go (in the Lansing area, we got great rates at Liberty Coin), limit the number of times you use the local ATMS, and try to avoid credit cards. Scott and I didn’t pull out our credit cards once in Italy — and again, every bit we saved on transaction fees, we spent on meals. :-)

Keep your info handy

Electronically saving your passport information via a scan using Google Docs, Evernote¬†(thanks to Kate Tykocki for this idea) or by dropping in Dropbox, just in case you’re in a jam and need it. Perhaps online security experts will tell me this is a bad idea, but I think not having access to your info is also a bad idea. And hey, here’s a recent story about a guy who had to resort to using a copy of his passport scanned on his iPad¬†to get back into the country — honestly, your personal odds of getting back into the U.S. with a scanned passport is probably a big fat 0.0 percent chance, but it’s an interesting tale if nothing else.

The little things

Ask your hotel concierge before you leave home how much a trip from the airport to the hotel by taxi should cost, so that you’re not scammed by drivers who claim a different flat fee (not all airports post the mandated flat fees).

Travel like you won’t be back

Rick Steves likes to say in his guidebooks that you should assume you’ll return. I think he’s saying it to encourage Type-A American travelers from rushing from point A to point B so much that they don’t actually experience the trip. I say, however, travel like you won’t be back — so if you are wondering what something tastes like, by all means, taste it. Spend the extra euros to skip the two-hour-long line to get into the museum, so that you’ll have two more hours to wander, explore and be surprised. You can eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for as long as you need to when you return to make up for the extra little flourishes that you’ll remember for years to come.

>>Smart phones and iPads<<

Verizon vs. AT&T

Finally, if you are considering an iPhone or an iPad and don’t know whether to go with Verizon or AT&T, you might consider how important it is to you to be able to use the device when you travel abroad. Verizon and AT&T devices are built on different technologies, and AT&T devices are more likely to use the the same GSM technology used in European countries. When I bought my iPad, I chose AT&T over Verizon, and that was one of the main reasons. Before we left, we added an international data plan and took what we needed from the Apple World Traveler Adapter Kit¬†my parents had gotten us.¬†For more on this issue, because I don’t have the patience to think any more about it, see The New York Times‘ “How to beat roaming fees while traveling abroad.”

>>Worth the trouble?<<

There’s alway that moment in a trip abroad when I am remember how much work it is to travel. How awkward it can be. How exhausting. And then there’s always that moment when I remember why it’s worth all the trouble — all the scrimping and saving, all the research, all the harried, last-minute (in my case) packing.

At the end of our Uffrizi tour, Antonio, a very proud Florentine who spoke with a heavy Italian accent, said, ‚ÄúMay you travel a great deal. The best money is spent on holiday.‚ÄĚ

He is absolutely right.

As for us…I know we said we wouldn’t be heading back to Italy any time soon. That is true. But when we do, we already know the area we’re most interested in making our home base for exploring¬†— with at least a day trip to Firenze, of course.

Arrivederci!

(Graphic credits: Florence’s Porcellino: Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PorcellinoFlorence.jpg, Why this statue? Tuscany map: Screen capture of map from¬†http://www.italyguides.it/us/italy/tuscany/tuscany-italy.htm.¬†)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer: Keeping up with yoga topics using Google+ Sparks

 

If social media is a part of your life, about the only way you haven’t heard about¬†Google+¬†is if you’ve had a complete blackout of internet connectivity for the past four months. Google+ is¬†the social network that fans hope/predict will take down Facebook and take over the mantle of social networking goliath.

Because it’s a Google product¬†— with all the web ubiquity that comes with —¬†Google+ is a big deal, whether or not you think it has the potential to KO Facebook. I coordinate the Central Michigan Public Relations Society of America’s social media lunch and learns — a monthly brown bag lunch in which PR professionals get together to learn about new platforms and services — and our September session, held this past Friday, was on Google+. Andrea Ness and Naomi Burton, two of my colleagues at Martin Waymire Advocacy Communications, led the session, which garnered more interest than most topics.

One interesting Google+ feature they noted is Sparks, which Google describes as the feature that “brings you stories on the things you love from all across the Web, so it’s easy to¬†strike up meaningful conversations¬†with your friends.” It occurred to me that perhaps yogis on Google+ would like to know how to use this feature to follow yoga news.

1. Sign up for Google+

Get a Google+ account.

2. Go to Sparks from your profile

From your main Stream page, click “Sparks” on the left.

3. Type in an interest and add it.

In this example here, I’ve typed “Ashtanga” into the search box and clicked on “Add to Interest.” I get a page that includes a video from David Garrigues:

That’s it. Any time you want to check out the latest “sparks” that have popped, head to this same page. For more, read the Google+ guide to Sparks. For more on Google+, see Mashable’s Google+: The Complete Guide.

Related features:
>>Ashtanga Yoga+ Social Media Grid 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

‘Hurry, take a photo of me in this pose!’: The view of a yoga journey from the one not on the mat

If a yogi lives in your home — doesn’t matter if it’s because you’re roommates, family, dating or married — ¬†congratulations and condolences. Congratulations because you’re living with someone who practices a way of life (yoga is designed as a whole system, or eight limbs) aimed at mitigating human suffering and liberating us from attachments. Yoga improves physical health while centering and calming a person.

The condolences part comes because — face it — a yogi’s significant other, roommate or even close friend or colleague tends to get sucked into the world of asanas, mantras and what I’ll describe as “mat talk.”

In the spirit of poking a little good-natured fun at how serious we yogis can take ourselves, let’s break down the learning curve experienced by the person who’s not on the mat. And, in an ode to the cheekily irreverent tone of YogaDork,¬†I will make an exception to my aversion to irresponsibly spreading fresh celebrity gossip by hereby¬†sharing links to reports about¬†charming funnyman Alec Baldwin¬†reportedly dating yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas. Do you think it’s possible that Baldwin could benefit from this YogaRose.net post? I just exhaled a deep¬†ujjayi breath just thinking about the possibility.

So, whether you’re the star of NBC’s “30 Rock” or not, check out my list of five signs you’ve been made an involuntary honorary yogi proponent (in the case of friends or roommate)/partner (in the case of a relationship) — or IHYP for short — even though you didn’t get the official memo announcing this change:

5. Your relaxation gleaned from soaking in the sun while chilling on the beach is interrupted when Yogi Partner (YP) suddenly shoves a camera into your hand and says, “Can you take my photo? I’m going to try a handstand!”¬†

For whatever reason, yogis cannot resist doing yoga postures on the beach. Something about the combination of the sand, sun and waves triggers a hormonal response in YPs that compels them to try out poses at the beach — particular arm balances and inversions, such as handstands and headstands.

4. You find yourself defending your basic photography skills (in the case of smart phones) or the shutter speed and aperture (in the case of nicer cameras) after you unsuccessfully tried to snap a shot of YP in an upside-down orientation or while balanced precariously on bents arms. 

Inevitably, YPs will try a pose they can’t master on land — postures such as adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or bakasana (crane) — thinking that trying the yoga posture on a far less even and stable surface will magically help them achieve the posture. The problem is, since they can’t do this pose on land, even if they do luck into the posture, they inevitably fall out after about a second.

Once they fall out, however, they turn to the IHYP with a look of heightened expectation. “Well? Did you get it?” As the IHYP, if you say, “No, I couldn’t catch it in time,” you will likely be sent a look of disappointment and frustration, which inevitably causes you to blame yours skills (or the camera settings) rather than the YP’s ability to maintain this posture for more than two seconds.

The good news is, YPs appear to have unending patience with trying the posture over and over again until the IHYP finally figures out how to get it right (all the while, a YP may be secretly patting his or her own back for extending such yogic patience to the IHYP).

3. You find yourself defending your skills as a yoga consultant.

Let’s say you finally snap that photo. A YP will be elated and ask you to scroll through the digital images so he or she can see the shot. On occasion, a YP will stare into the screen, furrow the space between the eyebrows (the third-eye space, in mat talk) and say, “Oh. Why didn’t you tell me my right hip wasn’t in line with the left?”

At this point, as the IHVP, you will realize that you are terribly lucky in that you managed to get a shot at all. So you cannot, for reasons of diplomacy and maintenance of domestic peace, say, “Well, you could only get into it once and for two seconds — how was I supposed to have time to tell you?”

Instead, even as an IHYP in training, your survival instincts would be intact enough that you would know to reach for a good talking point. Popular ones include, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that until you pointed it out!” and “I thought you wanted to show imperfection, since you keep saying, ‘Yoga is a practice, not a perfect.'”

If your YP smiles at your comment and even hugs you, telling you that you’re the most awesome ever, feel the energy of your throat chakra (space of communication, in mat talk) suddenly becoming warm and illuminated. This is a big achievement; such a big achievement that if¬†the journey of an IHYP could be mapped onto an Angry Birds game, you would now have the little black bomb birds at your disposal.

2. You find yourself saying, ‘*(name of Sanskrit word you don’t understand) — that’s great, honey!’ a lot.

Very early on, an IHYP realizes a new pattern. After work, YP heads straight to yoga class. After class, YP pulls into the driveway at home, opens the front door, barely mutters hello, and says, “Guess what posture I got into tonight?!” and then blurts out, before the IHYP in the room can muster a guess, “*(insert sirsasana/bakasana/pincha mayurasana/kurmasana!”

You know you’re becoming a professional-grade IHYP when you seamlessly parrot the Sanskrit name even though you have no idea how it’s really supposed to be pronounced or what it means, and say, “That’s great, honey! I know you’ve been working on that for a long time!”

IHYPs out there, here’s my tip — free of charge — that will get you extra bonus points with your YP. Before they look at you and (at first apologetically, but eventually, after a few months of taking yoga classes, as a command) ask you to witness the recreation of the posture, beat them to the punch. Say with gusto, “I’d love to see it!”

1. You seek advice from friends and colleagues about how to decline your YP’s invitation to sign up together for a yoga retreat.

This sign applies to romantic and non-romantic relationships. Inevitably, at some point, the YP in your life will send you a text from work asking, “How about a yoga retreat in August? Wouldn’t it be fun? Soooo relaxing! We need it!”

It would be natural that your first reaction is a visceral one — perhaps an image of the archetypal boyfriend who looks bored out of his mind while his girlfriend tries on one cute sale item after another at Express.

Understandably, you would then start to panic, wondering what you can say to stop this inevitable yoga train from leaving the station.

You may shoot a Facebook message to a fellow IHYP asking for advice. You may Google “reasons not to go on yoga retreat” and become an instant expert on documented horror stories,¬†price ranges for yoga retreats, compatibility (or lack thereof) of yoga teachers and yoga styles, or travel restrictions, in the case of international travel.

Eventually, you realize the best course of action is to play the selfless significant other. “I doubt they’ll take me if I don’t practice yoga,” you text back. “Don’t want to be the reason u can’t go.” You, as the not-yet-master-level IHYP, think you’ve just heard the yoga engine turn off until you see the near-immediate reply, “No worries! U don’t need to practice yoga to come!”

And when, in a few short weeks, you find yourself on a mat practicing yoga during the yoga retreat that doesn’t require you to do yoga to attend, you will realize that you have just graduated from being an IHYP to simply an involuntary yogi (IY). You will be surprised to also realize that while yoga feels really, really hard, and while you don’t dig the whole mantra or chanting thing, you actually feel kind of exhilarated after the practice.

And that, dear IHYP-turned-IY, is when you can continue the vicious cycle and find an unsuspecting IHYP (a colleague, a friend, a sibling) to in turn corrupt. Congratulations! And condolences to them.

Me in a handstand on a beach in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2010. This photo was snapped not because I can do handstands well -- I was up for all of two seconds -- but because my sister Alisa has both great camera skills and a great camera.

(Photo credit: Alisa’s Happy World)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.