Category Archives: Travel

The First US Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin (Day 2)

Thanks to my father, I was indeed fortunate to be given the opportunity to go to my first Formula 1 race in person. I’ve been a huge F1 racing fan for many years. I love it so much I even wrote a young adult novel about the sport. What made this event special was that the Grand Prix race was held at a brand new racing circuit called, The Circuit of the Americas. It was built specifically for Formula 1 cars, a first for North America. The circuit was raised from the ground up during most of 2012, then polished up just in time for the Formula 1 race weekend on November 16th-18th of this year. The following is part two of my first-person account of the race weekend. Hope you enjoy it.

(Click here to read Part One)

5:45am Sunday morning. Race morning.

We get up and our brains are still on snooze, but we get dressed and hit the road anyway. Our hotel is in Temple, Texas which is about an hour north of Austin, only place we could find under $150 a night. And we booked months early too. It’s all water under the bridge as we chow down on a quick McDonald’s breakfast and make it to the downtown shuttle bus location in Austin. It’s a forty-five minute bus ride out to the track, then a few miles walking after you get off. And then another mile or two walk to our seats. No one can say that we aren’t getting our exercise during this trip.

We make it to our seats at 9:30am just in time to see the first race of the day, a 10-lap all GT-3 Porsche race. It’s fun watching these Porsches thundering down the racetrack. But one thing I notice is these cars look slow going through the S-curves compared to the lightning fast speed of the Formula 1 cars, which is strange because these GT-3 Porsches are quite fast in their own right.

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Next race is an all Ferrari super-car lineup. These showroom Ferrari’s are slightly modified to handle this circuit. The honor of driving them falls on a bunch of Ferrari dealers who get to pitch these cars around in this amateur race. It’s fun to watch one of them crash a brand-new Ferrari. The crowd also pity-applauds the Ferrari in last place. 

Hunger tickles our bellies so I convince Dad to go grab our lunch now so he doesn’t miss the start of the Grand Prix. The food choices here are interesting. The jumbo corn dogs that you can get at the state fair for about $6 are $10 here. That’s nuts. What’s that a 95 percent markup? It’s a hotdog with batter.  The big sausage sandwich is $15. Someone also sells Krispy Kreme donuts at a very high price too. Dad found a hot dog place yesterday that was only $5 a dog, a bargain here. Unfortunately today, everyone found out about the hot dog place and now it’s too busy. So dad gets us nachos which comes with a cup of cheese, a cup of peppers, and a bag of Tostitos Tortilla chips. Oh well. We’re not here to enjoy lunch. We’re here to see some racing action!

The pomp and circumstance for the Formula 1 race begins. The University of Texas marching band plays at the Start/Finish line. We see them on the jumbo-trons, pounding on their drums, smashing on their cymbals, and blowing their trumpets. But we’re too far out and can’t hear them at all. Guess the show is not really for us.

Now a line of vintage American cars forms on the grid. All convertibles. Each Formula 1 driver sits on the back to wave at the crowd as the cars make their way around the circuit. Except driver Kimi Raikkonen‘s Mustang, it’s having some issues so he hops on-board with another driver.

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After the tour on the track ends, we wait.

The race cars form on the Start/Finish grid. The crews make last-minute checks. The national anthem plays as a man with an American flag parachutes down.

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A flight of three World War Two aircraft and an F-16 do a diamond-shape formation over the circuit. The parachute guy realizes he’s taking too long and dives down quicker to get out of the way of the low-flying aircraft.

Finally the safety car (or pace car as we like to say in America) leads the group of cars for a parade lap around the circuit. Cars weave back and forth to try to warm up their tires so they’ll stick to the pavement better.

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I’m way past excited. The cars are right in front of me. I’m not seeing all this on television. It’s in-person and it’s wonderful. In the stands, I can feel the anticipation in the air. Over 120,000 fans collectively hold their breath, like 120,000 antsy children waiting for the teacher to call recess.

The cars do their parade lap and line up to their places on the grid. We have to watch the jumbo-tron for this part. But that’s okay. Five red lights come on one by one and I know what’s coming next.

Wait for it…

The lights go out and the cars are moving. Many fans are ooing and awwing at the screen, but my gaze falls to my left. I’m not missing my first glimpse of all those cars screaming down the S curves in front of us for the very first time.

Here they come. Fast. Very fast. The leaders at the front. My favorite Ferrari driver Fernando Alonzo had a great start on the grid, managing to jump from 8th place to 4th going before going uphill to the first turn. The screaming engines fill the air, piercing my eardrums, and it feels soooo damn good.

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The race is fast and furious. My head swivels, trying to check out everything that’s happening. The cars on the S-curves in front of us. The faraway straightaway on the other side that funnels cars to the action-packed Turn 12. The series of turns out of turn 12. Lots to keep up with and it’s awesome.

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 Kimi Raikkonen makes an amazing pass on the tricky S-Curves in front of us. How cool is that? It was so gutsy that no one else tries to duplicate it during the race.

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Sebastian Vettel, who is leading the World Championship, keeps the number one spot. But second-place Lewis Hamilton reels Vettel in lap-by-lap while Alonzo and Kimi make their own charges up the black pole. Soon Hamilton catches up to Vettel and zooms around him going down the long straightaway towards Turn 12 opposite us. And we see it right from our seats!

Hamilton keeps his lead. Alonzo climbs to third-place but can’t make any more ground on Vettel and Hamilton.

Hamilton goes on to win, joining Vettel and Alonzo on the winner’s podium. Normally, each driver wears a cap from the Italian tire manufacturer Pirelli  with #1 #2 and #3 on them. But Texas always has to be different. The Pirelli caps have been turned into black cowboy hats. It looks funny on all three of them. I’m sorry that Alonzo wasn’t able to win. But it’s nice to see Hamilton win because lately it’s been all Vettel and it’s kind of boring. Still, what a fantastic race! Now all of us have to leave…

All 120,000 of us.

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The human traffic jam is enormous. Waiting to go through the two pedestrian bridges takes awhile, in some places you only move four feet every five minutes. Yet, we still make it to the other side and walk down the long, gravel pathways to the long bus shuttle lines. Saturday’s lines were long, but it doesn’t compare with these. Almost a half a mile I would say, maybe longer.

So we wait.

But the cool thing that we all get to witness is world democracy in action. Our line is filled with every nationality and ethnicity one can think of, forming a true melting-pot of the world. And in this world the one thing that can bind people together…is their outrage of seeing a-holes trying to cut in line. Especially THIS line.

One by one, people in line rat out people who try to cut in. And we always know when these little line-dodgers are getting near us because the crowd takes turns booing and verbally mocking them all the way down to the end as they do their walk of shame. It’s hilarious.

Finally we climb aboard our bus and get to our car in Downtown Austin. We are tired but in extremely high spirits. The weekend is the best I’ve had in a long time and I think my dad would agree.

As an American fan of F1, I’m glad to have our race back again. 

A huge thanks to the people of Austin, the people who run the Circuit of the Americas, and all the people involved in Formula 1 for making it a special weekend! I hope to be back for more next year.

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Rome, Italy (Part II) — Travel Blog #8

After rushing around the streets of Rome all morning, our tour guides arrange for a nice sit down lunch at an authentic Italian pizzeria.

We park our Mercedes mini-van in a space and fall out on to the concrete sidewalk. Our driver informs us that we will be crossing the street. The street where Roman traffic is zooming past us and there is no cross walk, no traffic light, or even a corner to cross.

I should point out that Italian men love to drive and they’re aggressive. To them, traffic lanes are not relevant. Only traffic signals and other cars that block you are relevant. Even pedestrians must be aggressive and walk across streets without looking at the driver’s faces. The Italian drivers feel that if they don’t see your eyes looking at them, then they must stop for you. However, if you do look into their eyes, the drivers assume you can see them so you as the pedestrian should wait for them to go. Sounds crazy but the system seems to work as long as everyone know the rules. Our driver says no one in Rome has road rage. If a car cuts them off, an Italian blows it off because it’s all fair game. The other driver beat them. All’s fair in love and traffic.

So our driver fearlessly leads us across the street and sure enough the traffic stops for us. Hey, that concept of not looking at the driver’s faces really does work! In Rome.

Ah lunch…I order a delicious four (Quattro) cheese pizza on a deliciously thin crust. It’s a juicy blend of mozzarella, provolone, and other local cheeses that melts in my excited mouth. The pizza puts every American one to shame with their tasteless crusts and bland seasoning. After lunch we fearlessly cross traffic again to climb back into the minivan and head for Vatican City.

The Vatican is a madhouse. Outside that is. All of Europe must be here waiting to get in. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but then again not really. Our tour guides have set up a Vatican guide who will take us through the facility. We each get a wireless receiver with earphones and our new guide leads us inside the Vatican, talking softly on his portable wireless microphone and pointing out all the important things that we should be looking at.

The Vatican covers a large area. There’s an enormous amount of art and other treasures inside the many large and spacious buildings.

Many statues that were saved from the Pantheon of Rome are located in their own circular room, much like you would have seen them inside the Pantheon during Roman times.

Another item that interested me was a few old twelve-foot high map paintings of Italy, Sicily, and the New World (North America) hanging on the walls.

Very massive paintings.

Now we go inside the Sistine Chapel

Everyone is instructed to be absolutely quiet while inside the chapel. The narrow hallway we must wait in seems to downplay the idea that something truly wonderful is at the end of this hall. It’s a little anti climactic even, since all the rest of the buildings that we have been in so far have been large, spacious, and a little bigger than life.

Now it’s our turn to go inside…

Oh My God. Michelangelo is a painting GOD. We stare in awe at the ceiling. How could you not resist? It’s beautiful. Wonderous. Overwhelming. But it’s just a ceiling of a church Doug. How really great can it be? Come and see for yourself. And then ask me that question. I must admit that I didn’t expect it to be this awesome. The different little scenes in each section contain two figures on opposite sides of the frame. There are so many details to the work, so many brilliant colors, so many nuances that I’m sure historians and artists have studied every inch of this ceiling in order to interpret every stoke of the master painter’s brush.

We learn that all the fig leaves were added later to the figures after the fact, due to a request from the Church. The portion of the ceiling that impresses me is the work Michelangelo did on the ceiling when he came back years later. The striking dark blue background makes it stand out from the older portion. On a side note, since the Church didn’t allow artists to sign their work, Michelangelo painted his face on one of the figures.

There’s also a mysterious black square that is near one of the corners of this great masterpiece. When the ceiling was restored many years ago, they purposely left this black square as a reminder of how faded the orignal ceiling was. From the black box, it looks like the ceiling was in bad shape. I’m so happy they restored it to its original glory and that we are here to enjoy the work’s beauty and power.

Next we visit St. Peter’s Square, where the Pope comes out to speak.

The Papal apartments are to the right of the Basilica.

I can see the little chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel where the Cardinals gather when they pick a new Pope. They release white smoke when they’ve chosen a Pope and black smoke if they’re undecided.

Leaving the grounds of the Vatican, we feel tired and worn out from a long and active day in Rome. But we all have enough energy to stop and get some delicious Italian Gelato or ice cream. I ask our tour guide what his favorite flavor is. His reply is Spagnoli. My theory is, if that’s a flavor the locals like, I should try it too. So we stop. The gelato place has all its doors and windows open as if to welcome us. Inside the glass case, deliciously colorful treats of rich gelato greet our eyes. I’m glad I asked for the flavor recommendation because there are so many exotic choices. My father and I both get the Spagnoli. Wow. It’s a rich, cherry type ice cream which has such a creamy texture. The cold, gooey substance tastes like heaven, especially after a long day. We resist the temptation to gorge ourselves.

Now our time is up in Rome. I’m sad to see it go but, we board our ship and sail off to our next destination. I’m so glad it’s still in Italy.
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Next stop, we visit the city of Florence, Italy. Home of the Renaissance!

Go here to see all our pictures of Rome!

Rome, Italy (Part I) — Travel Blog #7

ROME…

One of the most famous cities on the planet. A world epicenter for art, culture, food, history…and a list that could go on and on. Today we have one day here. Like Pompeii, a day just doesn’t do this city any justice. You would need a week at least. Yet getting any opportunity, even a small one, to visit this rich and vibrant city is worth it.

Off the ship, we again are whisked off in our private van to experience Rome as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Our first stop is the towering Roman Coliseum which was completed in 80 AD. The size of it is massive. Taking in the view, I’m instantly hit with a total Gladiator movie moment as I look across this massive structure which was built to hold 50,000 people. The floor is exposed, revealing hundreds of stone build rooms and corridors where proud or terrified gladiators waited for their time in the arena. Also pens for tigers, lions, and other wild, exotic beasts which were brought from the far reaches of the Empire to “entertain” the massive Roman audience. Well to do Romans sat on the first level, close to the action. Normal Roman citizens occupied the second level and paid nothing for the privilege. Subjects of the Empire were given nosebleed on the third level.

I marvel at how such a massive thing could be built all those thousands of years ago. The feat in itself is amazing. The fact that many parts are still standing is a testament to how well this structure was designed and built.

Right next door from the Coliseum is the famous Aventine Hills area of ancient Rome.

Roman history is literally everywhere you look.

Next we visit the real Circus Maximus. Only some of the outer wall still remains of the once proud ancient racing facility. The giant racing oval was once featured in the movie Ben Hur. Now, it’s basically a flat city park with dirt trails and not a lot of grass. Yet the space itself gives us an idea of how large the Circus Maximus was. When Italy won the world cup in 2006, thousands of Italians filled this park to celebrate, proving that this ground still holds a place in many Roman hearts.

Next our van sweeps us away from the Circus Maximus to a spot overlooking the Massive Forum, the heart of ancient Rome. The old archways which guarded both entrances to the forum are still standing. Much of these ruins were excavated during the reign of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Much of  modern-day Rome is built upon the ruins of the ancient city.

Unfortunately we only had time to see a view of the Forum. Exploring it would take at least most of a day since the size is triple that of Pompeii’s.  So many wonderful statues. So many ruins. Wish we had more time to see them all.

We hop into our black Mercedes van and weave through some of the narrow streets as we head for the famous Trevi fountain, which is so choked with people, our driver must drop us off a few blocks away. So we walk.

As we amble through the narrow street leading to the fountain, I notice a manhole cover labeled with the famous letters SPQR. The ancient symbol of Rome. It means…Senatus Populus Romanus. The Senate and the People of Rome. It amuses me that such a famous symbol is on a Roman city manhole cover. Shows you how proud these people are of their history. Kinda cool.

Soon we turn a corner and arrive in a closed square that is elbow to elbow with people. The Trevi fountain has been in many movies. My favorite, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Compared to the fountain you see on the screen, the actual Trevi fountain is gigantic. Wow! I didn’t realize it was this big…

Many people around me are tossing coins over their right shoulders. The custom says that if you do this, your wish to come back to Rome will come true. I thought about tossing a coin in too, but the crush of people is so bad, I decide against it. In fact, it’s hard to enjoy the fountain with this many people around. Oh well, at least we got to see it.

This glorious day will be continued…in another blog entry.  🙂

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In travel blog #8, we have lunch in Rome, see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and discover the joys of Spagoli. By the way, a link to all our pictures from Rome will be posted after the next blog entry. Trust me, there’s a lot of them!

Pompeii, Italy — Travel Blog #6

After our wonderful lunch overlooking Sorrento, we pile in to the mini-bus and head back towards Naples. Again we pass Mount Vesuvius. That ominous mountain draws attention to our next stop…

The Roman ruins of Pompeii.

We climb down from the bus which is parked a few hundred meters away from the entrance to the ancient city. Giovanni informs us that we only have about an hour here if we want to get back to the ship on time. It’s like asking us to visit all the hotels in Las Vegas in one hour. Impossible.

Okay. Well, my Dad and I rise to the task. We both purchase our tickets and plunge back 1,932 years to 79 A.D.

The ruins of this city are amazing. Composed of giant stones, the Roman road we walk across has elevated sidewalks on each side. These roads criss-cross the ancient city in rigid lines. The ruins of buildings surround us at every turn, putting our minds inside that period of time. One can easily imagine themselves as a Roman walking home from a day of work. The place bustling with activity around you. Carts clattering by. Horses dropping loads of crap between the spaces separating the stones. Pedestrians like you heading home, just like the sidewalks of modern-day Manhattan. It’s surprisingly easy to imagine here. I could so lose myself on these streets. Each section of ruins has its own unique story. Someone’s house. Someone’s business. Someone’s life. For me, it’s cool to imagine.

We then walk into the forum, a large area of ground where the people of the city would gather. Standing in the middle of the plain, one can see evil mount Vesuvius peering over the ruins of the city’s temple.

Imagine the Romans back then, so use to seeing that mountain just standing there, being quiet, looking beautiful. I’m sure they took the volcano’s beauty for granted. Not having a clue until the blast shot off ash and fire from the peak. The people terrified, thinking the world had finally come to an end. It’s fun to think of this place as just a cool Roman city, but it’s easy to forget how many men, woman, and children parished here.  But the one good thing to come from the disaster was the preservation of this Roman city under layers of lava and ash. A place where future generations can come and understand Roman culture.  Hopefully by studying their world, it will help us understand our own.

Next we go to a giant house named the House of The Faun. Historians aren’t sure which rich and powerful Roman owned the place but it contained many precious works of art, many of which are in museums all across Italy. Here’s the main entryway.

Here is a replica of the small statue that was found here.

Here’s a gorgeous floor mosaic.

Here’s another beautiful floor mosaic.

This floor depicts the great Alexander the Great in battle. Alexander was a hero to many Romans and no doubt the owner of this house was among his many fans. The real floor was moved to a museum. Still. Amazing stuff.

Here’s the main gate into the city. Looking back at it, I again can imagine myself a traveler preparing to enter the city beyond the walls.

Our hour is already up. There was so much we bypassed. The Roman baths. The large outdoor amphitheatre. More houses. More temples. It would take a couple of days to really explore it all.

I guess it’s a good reason to come back to Italy. 🙂

With frowns, Dad and I meet up with our group and climb up the steps of the mini bus and off we go to meet up with our ship. Overall it was a fantastic day. We just wish every day in life could be this fantastic.

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Next up Rome!

For this blog entry I only used a few pictures of Pompeii. Click here to see them all!

Sorrento, Italy — Travel Blog #5

Our large ship drifts into Naples and drops anchor. Italy. The land of Fiats, Pasta, and Romans. I can’t wait to get off our ship and lose myself in a country I’ve heard so many things about.

Our tour guide for today is Giovanni, an older white-haired man in his sixties who wears checkerboard rimmed glasses that are clear instead of white. This Southern Italian man literally bubbles with life, his voice overflowing with enthusiasm. After being with him for only a few minutes, Giovanni makes me feel like an Italian being welcomed back home.

As we travel south from Naples toward the town of Sorrento, Giovanni tells us a story about the time his taxi was stolen. He reported the crime to the local branch of the Carabinieri (the civilian police force). The officer told him to wait a few hours because the robbers will probably call him that night. If he didn’t hear anything, then call them back. Okay. So Giovanni waited and just like the officer told him, the robbers called Giovanni that very night. They offered to meet Giovanni and give him the taxi back for 5,000 lira. Giovanni was nervous but met the robbers face to face at the place of their choosing. Sure enough they had his taxi. So Giovanni gave them the money and drove the taxi home. Later that night, the Carabinieri called to ask if he got his taxi back. Giovanni told them he just found the taxi on the street and didn’t ask any questions.

We pass by imposing Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that wiped out the Roman city of Pompeii.  Giovanni mentions that it’s still active and how much the Italians would be screwed if the volcano went off like that again. What a pleasant thought as the mountain looms above us like the Death Star.

Our van weaves along the curvy and beautiful Amalfi coast road. The green and silver cliffs are sharp and dive vertically towards the sea, causing some people in our mini bus some anxiety about sailing off the road like Thelma and Louise, but our driver is a local and probably knows the route better than any of us do. Our mini bus is better suited than the large tour busses which attempt to navigate around the tight curves so I put my faith in our local driver and stare at the gorgeous scenery stretching out below me. If I die on this road right now, so what? What a beautiful place to die in.

Down below us, tiny islands hug close to the shore as Giovanni tells us which ultra rich people own them, which of course reminds him of another story…

Giovanni is full of stories. Point at a neighborhood, a house, or even a stone and this guy has a great story about it. Maybe some people would say he has too many stories. I would say I got my money’s worth of the best entertainment I’ve had all year.

After weaving through countless trees full of ripe lemons and olives, we finally arrive in the town of Sorrento. A beautiful and clean city. We all get out and spend an hour or so just wandering the streets and browsing stores full of colorful and quite reasonably priced merchandise.

Next on the agenda…Lunch.  We step inside a McDonald’s…

Just kidding…

Giovanni takes us to his friend’s restaurant. Our outdoor table rests on a balcony overlooking all of Sorrento and the sea beyond. Fresh dishes of home-made Bruschetta wait to be eaten on a fully set table with bottles of red and white wine, made from the restaurant’s own vineyard. The first course is homemade mozzarella cheese on top of fresh sliced tomatoes served with homemade bread. The main course is a dish of three generous samples of pasta. Cheese ravioli, ziti, and an eggplant wrapped pasta that I’m not quite sure the name of. It all tasted…so good. The ravioli was the best I’ve ever had in my life. After we are done, tiny shot glass of strong but delicious lemon liquor was served to us, no doubt made from the local lemon crops.

So far, the morning was awesome. Next up we travel to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Here is Giovanni’s tour company…Tour of Italy

Here are all the photos from this leg of our trip!

First Day At Sea — Travel Blog #4

Tonight I sit on a private balcony, overlooking the port side of a massive cruise ship that at this moment, I could care less about. My eyes focus on the Mediterranean Sea in front of me. The horizon is only a dark, mysterious outline but I can still make it out. The heavens are speckled with stars, the Big Dipper constellation front and center. I would love to get a telescope out here. I bet the stellar decorations I see above hold more wonders than my eyes can take in. But I’m not on a ship going to Mars, although Italy is a nice substitute.

The waves of water gently thrash against the keel below me with a steady, rolling like sound which soothes my ears and sends a tingle up my spine. As I write these words, the corners of the paper are teased by the wind which is playful tonight. Almost like its asking me…what are you doing? What are you doing? Like a curious puppy fixated on you and only you in a roomful of people.

I still can’t believe this is the Mediterranean Sea. I still can’t believe I’m really here. A body of water steeped in so much history and culture. It truly amazes me.

The cruise ship is okay with its fourteen decks full of swimming pools, restaurants, ice rink, theater, arcade, casino, shopping, library, spa, exercise room, and rock climbing wall. There’s a lot to do if you’re bored looking at water.

Tonight I’m bored with artificial stimulation. The sea offers relaxation. A sight that frees your mind from clutter. A sight that offers a pure diversion from life. A sight that doesn’t fill you up with more stuff, but empties out the stuff you’ve had stored up for way, way too long.

Dad did alright on our cabin selection. The cabin isn’t as cramped as I though it would be. Two nice beds, a sofa with a coffee table, desk with chair, and a enough space to store all our clothes, plus a private balcony of course. The bathroom isn’t that small, but the shower is, and the toilet is…different. Not European vs. American different, but the thing sticks out of the wall like a shelf. Our own toilet shelf. And you have to be careful using it too, since it’s hooked up to the ship’s water system. Basically you don’t have a lot of water to play with. (Not that I play in toilets) So you have to flush a lot more or you will clog up the system. I know you are marveling at that one fact, but that’s enough about the ship’s sanitation system.

To reach Italy, we take one full day to cross the Mediterranean. Halfway there we cross the straits between the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.

That’s a French warship in a task force that passed us. I assume they were on their way to the French naval base at Toulon in Southern France. Surely they wouldn’t be stationed around Corsica. The French wouldn’t be afraid of the Italians on Sardinia staging an invasion would they? Although I’ve heard rumors that the Corsicans aren’t exactly thrilled to be under French rule. But that’s a subject for a different blog.

The weather is gorgeous as we pass the two-mile wide strait. The view of both islands is quite beautiful and makes you wish we could park the boat here…sorry Dad…SHIP here for the afternoon. But we have to reach Naples by seven tomorrow morning.

Oh well. At least I still get to watch the sea until dinner time.

Here are some more pictures of the strait between Corsica and Sardinia.
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Next on deck…Naples, Sorrento, and how the Italian police deal with stolen cars.