Thoughts

A couple of suggestions for Waze

Waze

I’ve been using Waze for over a month and I love it. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s surprisingly accurate, even in a country where you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of users, like Romania.

The traffic updates can get a little overwhelming in large urban areas like Bucharest and sometimes it doesn’t find an address I need, but overall, it’s a wonderful app and the idea of a user-driven (and updated) map is awesome. Live traffic alerts and automatic calculation of the best route based on current traffic conditions are awesome options (these used to cost a pretty penny with GPS devices and weren’t very good nor up-to-date).

Here’s a way to make Waze better: use the accelerometer in our iPhones to automatically determine if the road is unsafe, based on braking, swerving, stopping and yes, even driving (or falling) through potholes. I love being able to report a road incident but when I’m swerving through potholes and recently dug up roads (like the one between Medias and Sighisoara), I don’t have the time nor the multitasking brain cycles to tap on my phone and report a hole in the road. So doing this automatically and reporting it to the users would be a wonderful new addition to Waze. I’d love to get an alert on my phone as I’m driving through fog or rain, when the visibility isn’t great, telling me there’s a pothole ahead. And by the way, Waze, have you thought about hooking up weather info to the traffic reports?

One thing that always annoyed me with GPS devices is the constant repetition of stuff like “take the 2nd exit” or “turn left”. The new version of Waze seems to be doing the same thing. I’d love an option in the settings where I could specify that I’d like to be reminded about such things a maximum of two times (not 3 or 4 times…)

A big thanks to the Waze team for the awesome work!

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Places

An afternoon on the Transfagarasan Road

This weekend, we spent an afternoon on the Transfăgărășan Road, in the Făgăraș Mountains of Romania. (Trans-faragarasan → “Trans” = across and “Fagarasan” = the specific mountains which it crosses.) I enjoyed driving its challenging curves (Ligia not so much) and later we both enjoyed walking and meditating in the mountains. I also took photos (naturally) and I hope you’ll enjoy them.

This is how the mountains look as you approach them from E68, after you pass through a village called Cartisoara.

As we started to climb, these are the sorts of views we started to get. Hold on, the best stuff is yet to come.

At the top, it was fairly crowded. I tried to avoid the crowds as I took my photos. Some people were hiking, others were stuffing their faces. Not sure what it is about the top of a mountain that makes people so hungry. It’s not as if they climbed it — they drove it. There were loads of cars in the parking lot.

This is what the slopes to the top peaks looked like. Although it’s summer, we were fairly high up (above 2,000 meters in altitude) so the weather was foggy and fairly cold (10-15 degrees Celsius).

Since it was too crowded and noisy at the top, and the smell of cooking pervaded the air, Ligia and I decided to drive on past the main peaks and we stopped further down the road, where it was nice and quiet. That’s Ligia hiking toward me.

The views only got better as we went higher up. The black dot in the center of the photo is Ligia.

I’ll let this three-photo panorama show you what I mean. I left the white space unmasked on purpose, to show you everything the camera captured.

Here’s a close-up of the left side of that pano, showing the twists and turns of this picturesque mountain road.

We stopped to meditate and enjoy the tremendous beauty before us where the rock face turned sharply upward and climbing by foot became dangerous (we had no climbing gear with us). As we sat there, fog from the valley rose up alongside the cliff, joining with the clouds.

We climbed down refreshed and clear-headed, and as evening drew near, we wound our way down toward Sibiu and home, but not before taking another panorama of the Transfagarasan.

Here’s another photograph that shows the spread of the road in the valley below.

As usual, if you’ll go through gallery below, you’ll find photos that I haven’t shown here. Enjoy!

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Places

North Bethesda and Rockville at night

Here are cityscapes of North Bethesda and Rockville at night. Most are taken from a vantage point in Grosvenor Park while some are taken from the walkway above the I-270. I do love it when cities and architects take the time to think about color casts and the impact they will have on the way their places are seen at night. The right lighting can make a place look magical at night. And let’s not forget about incidental light from cars and other road vehicles, which has its own amazing charm in long exposure photographs.

There are more photos in the gallery below. Click on each thumbnail to view the images in full-screen mode. Enjoy!

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Places

First snow on the Transalpina Road

Transalpina is the highest road in Romania. It’s also quite possibly its most picturesque; it certainly offers the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in Romania so far. It connects Transilvania to Oltenia, and the official length of the entire road is 148 km from Novaci to Sebes, although only a stretch of 30-40 km travels atop the Parang Mountains (part of the Carpathians), reaching an altitude of 2145 meters at its highest point.

The road was built by the Romans, as they traveled north toward Sarmisegetusa and then used by them as they carted off thousands of tons of gold and silver from Dacia’s rich mines. (You might want to read through this post for the background info.)

According to this website, the road was paved with rocks by King Carol I in the 1930s, maintained by the Nazis during WWII, then forgotten. Work to repave its entire length began in 2009 and it still goes on, though large portions of the road, including its most beautiful sections, are now ready to be used.

We visited Transalpina twice this year, most recently during this past weekend, and we were awestruck by the beauty of the vistas you can see as you travel along its length. We had the good fortune to drive through right after first snow had fallen on the peaks, draping them in a light blanket of pure white snow. Moreover, we were blessed with a gorgeous sunset that colored everything in sight in a golden orange hue. It was heavenly.

We’d have loved to spend more time atop the mountains but night was falling quickly, the temperature was dropping, and we had hundreds of “miles to go” before we could sleep, to paraphrase Robert Frost.

We drove on, descending into the valley below and into thick fog, then wound our way through the mountains toward Sibiu, passing through such interesting places as Jina and Poiana Sibiului.

I’ll leave you with a few more photos from the trip.

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Thoughts

Top Gear in Romania

The Top Gear team visited Romania for a bout of grand touring. They started in resort towns along the Black Sea, like Constanta and Mamaia, then found their way to the famed Transfagarasan mountain highway, by way of Bucharest, the People’s Palace and a bunch of villages inbetween. It was fun to see them drive through the same places and on the same roads I’ve driven on so many times in the past. I’m not sure when they did this show, but it must have been before the appearance of many potholes on the A2 highway — potholes which I struggled to avoid during my recent winter road trip.

I am peeved with their depiction of Romania though. It looks like the Top Gear team sought out a gypsy village on purpose to add some color to the show, but I, and the overwhelming majority of Romanians would say that was a rather distasteful decision. Color and drama could have been added in many other ways. But I digress…

The show ends with a climactic drive on the Transfagarasan highway, during which all three (Jeremy, Richard and James) agree that it’s the best road in the world. Nice.

Top Gear in Romania – Part 1

Top Gear in Romania – Part 2

Top Gear in Romania – Part 3

Top Gear in Romania – Part 4

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Thoughts

Are roadside trees a safety concern?

In Romania, many roadways are lined with trees. It could be walnut trees, or poplar trees, or fruit trees of some sort — the point is, they decorate each side of the road, standing guard, so to speak. I happen to think they enhance the beauty of the road, but I’ve heard talk of people who want to do away with them. They say they’re dangerous since drivers might run into them, as it happens every once in a while.

The road ahead

I recorded my own thoughts on the matter one day, while driving on a road in the province of Dobrogea. You can watch the video clip, or you can read on. My words and my voice both carry the same message.

I disagree. I don’t think the trees are dangerous. It’s the drivers who are dangerous. In the overwhelming majority of the cases where cars meet with trees, the drivers engaged in reckless maneuvers and were the very cause for the accident. Any trees that happened to be there simply drove that point home much more poignantly than some shrubs or an empty field ever could.

Thing is, Romanian roads, with very few exceptions, were built for low speeds. They were laid down during Communist times, when the car of choice (the only car, actually) was a Dacia — a relic of early 60s pseudo-design. It was underpowered, creaky — even when new — handled like a tractor hooked up to a blender engine, and stalled frequently in cold weather. If you managed to hit 100 km/h in those cars, it was definitely something. My grandparents had a Dacia 1310 model, and when that thing would get close to 100 km/h, it shook so badly I thought it’d fall apart.

Those were the cars that the road builders had in mind when they laid the roads and highways of Romania. The speed limit in the cities was and still is 40-50 km/h, and the speed limit outside the cities was 80-90 km/h. The latter has now been increased to 100 km/h. Problem is, people drive on these roads at 130-160 km/h or more. They just weren’t built for these speeds. The turns are steep, ungraded, sometimes unmarked, there are potholes most everywhere, and one often finds pebbles and mud on the roads from tractors that cross them to get to the fields, which makes braking on certain portions of the roads hazardous at best.

And yet, people just don’t get it. They think they’re somehow immune to accidents, until they lose control and run into a tree, often with disastrous consequences. Are the trees guilty? No. They simply point out the obvious — that the drivers themselves are to blame. If the trees weren’t there, I bet those same drivers would go even faster, knowing that if they ran off the road, they’d stop in some bales of hay or a wheat field. It would encourage even more irresponsible behavior.

A mountain road

I like the trees. Let them stay where they are.

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Places

The Italian road trip

We came back yesterday morning from a wonderful week-long road trip through Italy. We started out in Pisa last Wednesday, February 18th, and returned from that same city yesterday, on February 25th. Before we left, we mapped out a circular route that cut through the following regions: Toscana, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Marche, Abruzzo, and Lazio.

Italy - Tourist and Road Map

Morning fog over Florence

I traveled to Italy in 1999, 10 years ago, and stayed in Rome for three weeks. I also visited Florence for a day. Lots of things have changed in Italy since then. Here’s what happened this time around.

The route

The towns we visited were, in chronological order: Pisa, Firenze, Venezia, Ravenna, Rimini, Grottammare, Tivoli, Roma, Ladispoli, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo. All in all, we drove about 1,300 km. It was a fairly large amount of ground to cover, and I was even told it couldn’t be done in a week, but I knew that if we stuck to the route and were disciplined about the amount of time spent in each city, we could accomplish our goal. We did, and even had time to make unscheduled stops in towns too beautiful to pass by, such as Grottammare, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo.

Unbeknown to us, we passed right by the Lamborghini factory in Sant’ Agata, near Modena. It was evening, and we drove through the little village on our way to Ferrara. We wondered what in the world the red Lamborghini brand was doing on a glass-encased rectangular building that lined the road, and about an hour later, the jigsaw puzzles came together and it finally dawned on me what we’d seen. D’oh! We didn’t have time to go back, or else I’d have tried to get a tour. That would have been fun!

My intent is to write individual articles about each city we visited, each illustrated with plenty of photos, so stay tuned for that. I will add links to those articles below as they are published.

The weather

It was February, which is technically winter, but we stuck to the warmer regions of Italy, so we had beautiful, spring-like weather. Temperatures ranged from 1 – 19° C while we were there, and it was mostly sunny, with little rain.

Late afternoon fields

There was no snowfall, although if we’d ventured further north, I’m sure we’d have gotten some. There were times when we passed through mountains, particularly on our way from Pescaro to Rome, that the weather got downright freezing and snow was clearly visible on the mountain tops.

Mountain village

The prices

We visited during the off-season. Not many people go to Italy in February, so prices are less than in high season.

Expect to pay about €10-20 per plate for lunch and about €15-30 per plate for dinner at restaurants. Even a restaurant located right on the main canal in Venice or near the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome won’t cost you more, for lunch anyway. Of course, you can also go into a buffet and get a slice of pizza or some spaghetti or something, and it’ll be a lot less, but it’s nice to know going to a restaurant won’t break the bank. Make sure to always ask for a menu before being seated if you’re uncomfortable getting up from the table once you find out what things cost.

A restaurant near Basilica din San Pietro

Going to a supermarket and buying bread, fruits, vegetables and various kinds of cheeses and other delicatessen is even less expensive than going to a buffet or cafe. You can eat the food up on a hilltop, or in a forest, or even in your hotel room if you’re rushed for time — just not in public parks, because it’s not allowed there. It’s healthier and a lot lighter on the wallet. But make sure not to litter if you eat out in nature. Bring an empty bag along and take all your trash with you. It’s the civilized thing to do.

The hotels were also not as expensive as we thought — at least the ones we looked at. Rooms ranged in price from €50/night at a two-star hotel to €90/night at a four-star hotel for a double room with the usual amenities, including breakfast.

Fuel prices ranged from €1 to €1.30 per liter for regular diesel, which is what our rental car used.

The people

We had nothing stolen from us this time, unlike what happened to me in 1999, and on the whole, the people were a lot friendlier than I remembered them. Even if I could only speak a little Italian, they were willing to help me and we got along in fragments of mixed English and Italian. I found the people in the smaller cities and villages were a lot nicer than those who lived in the larger cities. It looks like my theory about larger cities being too stressful for healthy living is true — not that I’m the first to think of it.

The transportation

We rented a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel. I liked it a lot. It’s the European version of an American station wagon. It can seat five people and their luggage comfortably for long stretches of time. The ride was smooth, the gear shifting was smooth, braking was strong but not crude, and things worked as they should. It had decent acceleration for a 1.6L diesel engine loaded down with five passengers and a full trunk, even going uphill.

Our rental car, a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

I liked its many storage compartments, and the fold-out trays behind the front seats, which can be used for light meals inside the car. I liked the windshield wipers, and here’s why: when you squirted wiper fluid onto the windshield, they did a few passes, then stopped for a few seconds to wait for the last beads of fluid to pour down the glass, and did one last pass to get them. It’s a clever little touch that means a lot to me, because I always found myself having to do that last pass manually on other cars.

I also liked the car’s light fuel consumption. On average, it did 6.1 liters per 100 km, and oftentimes it did even less, even when I drove over 100 km/h, which is pretty good considering the load it carried and the car’s size.

Steering wheel and dashboard, Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

One thing that bugged me about the car was the safety belt beeping. If you didn’t put your belt on right away, it started to beep annoyingly every few seconds. That really got on my nerves, and it seems like most newer cars bug you like this. One reason I like my MINI so much is because it doesn’t beep. All I get is a red light on the dashboard. That’s plenty for me.

Another thing was the somewhat soft steering at higher speeds. I didn’t go faster than 130 km/h with it because of that very reason. It just seemed like it wouldn’t do very well if I had to do a quick swerve to avoid something, so I didn’t push my luck.

Would I rent this car again? Definitely. I even took it offroad, and it’s so well-built underneath that you can’t break your exhaust pipe on a rock or crack your oil drum, like you can with other cars. Everything is neatly tucked away above the car’s steel frame. Even though ground clearance isn’t high, you can take it over uneven ground and it’ll do just fine, within reason.

Driving and traffic

The drivers are civilized and slow-paced in the smaller cities or villages, but fairly crazy in the larger cities like Florence and Rome. They’ll make four lanes out of two at stop signs or roundabouts — that’s if they stop at all. You really have to keep on your toes when you drive there, or you might run into another car or a pedestrian, who will step out into the road at a crosswalk and expect you to stop, which is not what happens in the US, but is what you should do in Italy. Honking and cutting in front of other cars without warning is quite common and should be expected there.

While this style of driving was a shock to my system at first, I quickly got used to it and found it quite advantageous in the end. You see, I had to constantly pick my way through the cities by following the maps and street signs, and if I was a little late with a turn, I could cut through the traffic my “elbowing” my way in, so to speak, just like the others did. They might honk at me and shake their hands at me, in typical Italian fashion, but I’d just shrug my shoulders and smile — and they’d let me pass.

I didn’t see a single case of road rage in Italy, unlike in the US, where some doofus is liable to pull out their gun in the middle of the street. The Italians might get angry, but it’s only surface anger — a small reaction to the situation which quickly gets forgotten as the annoyance disappears. If they honk at you, it’s to get your attention, not because they’re truly angry. If they shake their hands at you, they’re not swearing, it’s just the way they react. Really, it’s not as bad as it seems. Just go with the flow.

An Italian highway at night

Roads and street signs

The roads were kept in good shape. There were a few towns (Pisa, for example) where the roads were in construction and full of potholes, and a few sections of the highways where potholes were beginning to emerge through the asphalt, but generally speaking, the roads were smooth, well-built and fairly safe.

I have a bone to pick with Italian speed limit signs. You’re generally expected to do 50 km/h while in the city and 90 km/h outside, but more often than not, they had me going 50 km/h outside the cities, in places where I should have been going 70-90 km/h or more. The Italian drivers themselves didn’t obey the speed limit signs. They usually did 10-20 km/h more than the posted speed limit, or even more, even in the cities. I tried to obey the posted limit but also keep up (more or less) with the general traffic, and I hope I’m not going to be surprised with one or more speeding tickets in the mail.

Street and landmark signs are pretty good. Sometimes, there are too many of them and you can’t figure out which way to turn while the traffic behind you keeps pushing you along. What I did was to put on my emergency blinkers and pull to the right. As long as you don’t do it in the middle of an intersection, people will understand.

Be careful with a new batch of signs called ZLT (Zone a Traffico Limitato). They weren’t in place in 1999. They were introduced recently to curb the traffic through certain areas in popular cities, and to reduce the amount of pollution. You’ll get a hefty fine if you happen to pass through such a zone when you’re not supposed to do it. The signs should say what hours and days the ZLT rules are enforced. Ask a policeman to be sure, or just don’t venture inside the zones. Find a parking spot somewhere near the places you want to see, and go on foot.

Hotel signs are another matter altogether. There are tons of little signs advertising hotels of all kinds along the roads in major cities. They’ll say go left or go right, but unfortunately, those initial signs aren’t followed up by subsequent signs that take you to the hotel. You may find yourself nowhere near the hotel at the end of 5 minutes’ or 10 minutes’ driving, even though you’ve turned like the sign said. That can get pretty frustrating, particularly if it’s getting dark and you need to find a place to stay.

The hotels

In Italy, there’s a huge difference between a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel in a city, particularly in a city’s downtown area, and a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel on the city’s outskirts, or in the countryside. Keep that in mind when you look for hotels in Italy.

We stayed at a two-star hotel on the outskirts of Ferrara one night. A few days later, we looked at two-star and three-star hotels in the middle of Pisa (centro), and they didn’t even compare to the two-star hotel out in the countryside of Ferrara. That hotel was clean, roomy, warm and downright luxurious when compared to the dumps they call two-star hotels in Pisa. Those don’t even have bathrooms in the rooms — they have a single bathroom in each hallway, yet they have a sink, bidet and trash can next to the bed, which is disgusting.

The lesson to be learned is simple: stay at four-star hotels inside the cities, if you find a good price, or find two or three-star hotels, or even bed & breakfast places, outside the cities, in the countryside or in small villages, if you want something clean and comfortable. Of course, that entails having a car so you can get around without having to worry about public transportation routes, which don’t exist (to my knowledge) in the countryside.

While most gadgets one carries around with them when traveling are made to work on both 120V and 230V current these days, almost all of the electrical outlets in Italian hotels take only the thinner round prongs, not the thicker round prongs used elsewhere in Europe. This means you won’t be able to recharge your laptop or camera batteries or your cellphone if you don’t bring or buy an adapter that has the thinner round prongs.

Two types of plug prongs from Europe

Also related to electrical outlets, make sure to also have an electrical strip or splitter with you. You’ll be lucky to find one spare outlet in most hotel rooms, and if you have multiple gadgets and no splitter, you won’t be able to recharge all of them during the night. I found no spare outlet in a few of the rooms we stayed, and had to unplug the TV in order to plug in my own stuff.

Here’s the list of places we stayed at, in chronological order:

Villa Aurora, Firenze: not open to the public. Family of ours from Florence arranged our stay there, so it doesn’t really count, but it was beautiful. I’ll post photos from there in my Italy album, probably under a new sub-album for Florence. Price is usually €50/night for a double room.

Hotel Daniela, Ferrara: a two-star hotel with bigger, cleaner rooms and newer fixtures and linens than a three-star hotel in downtown Pisa. It had rooms with real bathrooms, proper heating, shiny floors and clean, comfortable beds. Shower water was piping hot, which was nice. Breakfast was included, and it was good. Espresso was good as well. Only problem was a pipe/drain in one of the walls that made a small but annoying dripping noise during the night. Thankfully we were so tired we slept through it. Price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. The hotel is in the middle of a field. The view isn’t special in any sort of way, but the price is decent and it’s very clean. There’s parking in the back.

Hotel Caldini, Chiaggio: no stars were advertised for this hotel, but the rooms were large, clean, well heated and it had large, proper bathrooms. Breakfast was not included, but we started on the road so early that day that we didn’t need it. The price was definitely worth it: only €50/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €55/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and two single beds. The hotel is inside Chiaggio’s centro, and faces a canal with small boats. Nice view. There’s parking in the front of the hotel.

Bed & Breakfast La Toretta sul Borgo, Grottommare: this was an experience above and beyond everything we’d hoped to find on our road trip. We found the city of Grottommare by happenstance, because we saw its lights from the highway. It looked nice, so we pulled off, and when we entered the old part of the city, our jaws dropped. We just had to find a place to stay right there in the old city, so we kept looking around until we found this B&B, which is set right in a medieval building in an old citadel. They only had one room available, but we didn’t care. We crowded into it, all five of us, and we loved it. I definitely recommend it, and will post photos soon. Breakfast was included and it was delicious. The espresso was great. The view was amazing, and so was the decor. Price was €100/night for a room with a queen size bed and two bunk beds, meant for four people. We squeezed in five of us anyway, and it was worth it for the amazing experience. You can get a double room there for €60/night. Parking is available in the general parking area right outside the castle, but you’re allowed to drive up to a piazza close to the B&B to unload your luggage, if you can squeeze your car through the narrow medieval streets.

Hotel Executive, Roma: four-star hotel near Piazza Fiume. The rooms we got weren’t quite up to four-star standards, as the bed covers, room fixtures and furniture looked like they’d been there for a few decades, but at least the bed linens and the bathrooms were clean. A nice bonus was a large terrace that I used to take photos of Rome at night and in the early morning — we were given rooms on the top floor since that’s all they had available. Price was €100/night for a double room and €130/night for a triple room, breakfast included. The espresso was good. They had valet parking but it cost €35/night, so we used metered parking on the street, which was hard to find but only €4/day.

Hotel Miramare, Ladispoli: a three-star hotel built in the early 1900s, with original marble pebble floors, stairwell and doors. I think the rest of the stuff got renovated sometime during the last 10 years or so. The taste of the recent interior decorator left quite a bit to be desired, but the original architecture and design thankfully still showed through. The rooms were nicely sized and clean. The bathrooms were alright as well, but the shower stall was so tiny I could barely fit in it, and I’m not a large person at 5’11” and 165 pounds. The hotel isn’t soundproofed in any way, shape or form, so you’ll hear your neighbors if they talk somewhat louder or do something else… We got woken up early in the morning by sounds from the bathroom fixtures of our neighbors. Smoking is allowed in the hallways, but the smoke will make its way into your room sooner or later. The breakfast, included in the price, was halfway decent. The espresso was the best I had during this road trip. The price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. For what it’s worth, the hotel is right on the beach. Parking is €5 per night, or you can find a parking spot on the streets, which is free but hard to find in-season.

Hotel Repubblica Marinara, Pisa: a four-star hotel outside Pisa’s centro. This was the best equipped hotel we stayed at during this trip. I liked everything about it. The rooms were large and clean and had interesting lighting, the bathrooms were large and clean, and they smelled fresh. I think they’d redecorated the hotel recently. Some hallways still smelled of fresh paint. The shower stall was finally properly sized. I could stretch in there and twist around as one normally does when they wash, without hitting my elbows on the walls. Another thing I loved about this hotel was the presence of extra electrical outlets in the room, which is a rarity in Italy, believe me. The had four outlets right above the desk and one outlet next to each side of the bed. Two of those four outlets next to the desk even worked with the thicker prongs of the plugs from other regions in Europe. I was in gadget heaven, as I could finally charge up all my stuff in peace. Price was €90/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €110/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. Breakfast was included and they had ample free parking in the back of the hotel.

Electrical outlets in our hotel room

We really enjoyed our trip to Italy. It got a little stressful in the larger cities as we tried to find our way around and a place to stay, but it’s a very freeing experience to go out on your own and plot your own course through a country, then follow up on your plans and bring them to completion. It’s also fun to stray off the course when you discover something you really want to see, as we did, then pick up where you left off. As I promised above, I plan to write up the experiences we had in each city and to publish photos that I took. Stay tuned for that.

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Places

Photos from Beach Drive

Beach Drive is a picturesque road that winds its way through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs. Although called by different names along its various portions, it starts at the base of the Lincoln Monument as Rock Creek Parkway, NW, and ends somewhere in Rockville, MD, possibly at the end of Dewey Rd. I’ll let you trace it from end to end — it’s fun to follow it on Google Maps — just remember, the road should be inside the wooded areas at all times, and houses shouldn’t line it on both sides.

Certain portions of it are closed during weekends so that cyclists and pedestrians can take walks alongside it without the danger of cars. Road closure details are listed on the NPS – Rock Creek Park website.

Rock Creek Park and Beach Drive are truly one of the places to see in DC. The regular roads can get so clogged at times, and it can become so inhuman to sit in traffic and stare at buildings and cars on either side, that Beach Drive provides a welcome respite from the city.

Literally surrounded on each side by tall trees and bushy vegetation, it’s easy to forget one is in the middle of DC. It’s just beautiful. The only time the road’s proximity to nearby development is seen is during winter, when the houses and the roads are revealed to be only a few hundred feet away or less on certain portions of the road.

Understandably so, my wife and I go there often, and we also take photos. Here are a few taken on a recent trip. Click on each to enlarge it, then click again to view at full size (currently 720 pixels wide).

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Grosvenor metro station

There’s a neat tunnel that goes under 355 (one of the main roads in our area) and surfaces right at the Grosvenor-Strathmore metro station, under a beautiful canopy of curved glass, framed with steel ribs and anchored with pillars.

Descent

Ascent

If you’ve ever seen one of the old classic cars (early 1910s and 1920s) that had the pull-down roof which folded in the back, the glass canopy follows the same concept, except (of course) it’s anchored in the up position all the time. Come to think of it, the design also recalls the large, see-through fuselages of the big bomber planes of WWII. The effect is a successful combination of post-modernism with industrial-age design elements.

Fuselage

Radiate

The same canopy design (initially restricted to just a few metro stations) has now been extended to all of the stations I’ve visited. The canopy sizes are varied based on the size of the tunnel that leads down to the metro. I’m glad to see a good design philosophy being consistently applied and adapted to existing conditions, and I congratulate WMATA on making sure the work was carried through to completion.

This is my Week 6 submission for the 2008 Community Challenge.

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Thoughts

My take on the fading car culture

2003 MINI Cooper S

As I read through my feeds, I noticed a headline about the fading car culture. It seems a Nissan executive has noticed how interest in cars is waning due to congestion costs, interest in public transportation, and a desire to spend money elsewhere, like gadgets.

I also noticed something disingenuous in that article. It was his response to the 35 mpg mandate by 2020: “It is not an issue,” he said. Really? Is that why Nissan was one of the car companies that lobbied against it? I don’t want to lay the blame for this on Nissan alone, as most of the major car companies lobbied against fuel regulations in the past and some are still doing it. By the same token, the blame for the fading car culture does fall on most car companies, though there are other factors at play.

For one thing, car designs got horribly bad at some point in the late 60s. While cars are made better and they last longer, car designs have lost their soul. There isn’t that visceral response to a car nowadays that one has when they look at a classic car, one that was built to look good, not just function well. Everything is about streamlining nowadays — the wrong kind of streamlining, that is. There are no bold design decisions made anymore. Every great conceptual design gets neutered before it enters the production floor. I’m talking about curves that serve no purpose other than to make the cars more appealing. I’m talking about bold grilles, wooden or metal accent dashboards, gauges and textures that make you want to touch them. I’m talking about classic design elements. Just look at cars made in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

The old Mercedes

Fiat

Tears from the headlight

Stout and solid back

I’m not suggesting these photos are the best examples. This is what I have in my photo library, so that’s what I used. I’m sure there are a ton of great examples out there, and those familiar with car history know what I mean. That’s what I’m talking about. And that’s exactly what you won’t see on the market today. The few companies that might still include classic styling elements don’t do it wholeheartedly. We’ve got most people driving around in boxes nowadays. And they’re supposed to like it?

Another reason is an increase in fuel prices. Let’s face it, it’s no fun to drive around in a car that will put a serious dent in your monthly budget. Who’s to blame? Well, besides things that can’t be helped, like a dwindling oil supply, unstable world conditions and an increase in demand, I can think of a certain group I could finger: car companies. After all, they’ve been lobbying against fuel economy regulations for some time, and they’ve also refused to focus on economical models. Well, that same desire to save pennies on the dollar on improvements here and there is now going to cost them dollars — lots of them, and they’re the ones that have helped to dig the hole they’re in.

What’s another problem? Congestion on the roads. It’s no fun to drive bumper to bumper. Yet, increasingly so, that’s what driving has come to mean for those living in urban areas. When driving equals commuting, and when commuting means teeth-gnashing and extra stress you don’t need, do you really think people will want to drive, or that they’ll associate their cars with warm, fuzzy feelings? With the cost of new roads being so prohibitive, we know this isn’t going to change. If anything, we’ll start incurring more tolls in the future.

Congested highway

There are other costs that are driving this trend, such as car insurance and the high cost of traffic tickets, particularly when they’re falsely given out, which happens quite a bit when police departments want to put some money in their coffers. It happened to me, and that false ticket not only cost me about $150 but a day in court as well, and an extra $700 as well because of an increase in my car insurance. You think someone’s not going to consider public transportation options when driving starts costing them that much, particularly when they did nothing wrong? And what do you think they’re going to think about the crooked police officers that put them in that mess? I tell you, every time I remember what that thieving bastard did to me, smoke comes out of my ears. I hope he gets all that’s coming to him for what he did to me and probably to countless others…

More importantly perhaps is this: public companies react in unhealthy ways to market plateaus. That’s because they’re geared toward constant economic growth. Their market share or number of products sold or profits have to continually increase in order to satisfy the hungry appetites of investors and market analysts. Anything less than an increase on last year’s take is considered a failure. An extreme case of this very screwed up way of looking at things is Intel’s current situation. They earned 45% more in 2007 than in 2006, and yet their stock price dropped when they announced that their projected earnings in 2008 would be about the same as those of 2007. Instead of rejoicing over a stellar performance, our faulty economic expectations want more and more out of a market that’s performing very well.

That puts public companies in a very awkward and hard to sustain position. We’ll leave the microprocessor market alone, since I’m talking about cars at the moment. But do they honestly think that they can sustain (no, increase) their growth rate in a plateauing market? Who are they fooling? The demand for cars is going to continue to plateau, and quite possibly decrease. Sure, China and India are starting to develop, but they haven’t got the infrastructure or the economy to sustain a similar car-per-family ratio that we see in the States or Europe. What’s more, petrol supplies have already peaked. They are now going to start decreasing. Even if their infrastructure and economies could support a lot of cars, the Earth couldn’t, thank goodness. Have you driven in China or India lately? Their urban areas are packed chock full with cars of all makes and 2-cycle scooters already. They’re polluted to high heaven. I doubt we’d want more cars in those places. Add to that the upcoming flooding of the car market with cheap cars (enter India’s Tata car), and you’ve got a worldwide car market in serious trouble.

It seems to me there are a few things that could be corrected:

  • Stop the insanity of always expecting more from the market. Economic supply is not unlimited. Economists that made up that cockamamie idea should be taken out and horsewhipped, and recordings of those punishments should be posted to YouTube… Car companies need to realize that demand for their products will plateau. It’s a given. (Do I really expect public companies and their investors to change their perspectives? Yes, but it’s not going to happen. People are inherently greedy.)
  • Boring designs need to be retired for good. Serious inspiration needs to be drawn from the era of automobiles when the term motoring really meant something. Give people a reason to be passionate about their cars. Look at what Apple is doing with computers. Well-designed cars will sell, but they’ve got to look and feel so good people will drool over them.
  • A true focus needs to be placed on fuel efficiency and alternative propulsion methods. Ethanol-enhanced gasoline or even pure ethanol is not going to be the solution. I doubt it, and only one of the reasons is that corn agriculture cannot be sustained at the levels needed to mass-produce ethanol without turning all of the fields into dust bowls. Read up on soil erosion in agriculture if you want more info on this. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive and still need oil to be produced. Not viable long-term. Now is the time to really look at other ways, such as bacterially-produced fuels, or steam/other water-based fuels. Electricity, if made through solar or wind power, is infinitely sustainable, and electric cars are already viable alternatives.
  • Car companies could focus on producing efficient, well-made public transportation vehicles in addition to personal vehicles. We know they’re going to be needed more and more in urban areas, and yet very few of the major car manufacturers have focused their efforts on fleets. Buses are still horribly inefficient when it comes to fuel usage, and they’re ugly and non-aerodynamic to boot. They usually get 5-8 miles per gallon, they’re loud, slow, unsafe, and they start rattling after only a few months of usage. They could stand a lot of improvement. The market is there and will continue to grow. Did you know, for example, that the Washington, DC metro cars were made in Italy and are very expensive? While it’s nice to know that DC metro goers ride in Italian-made wagons, why couldn’t they be made here in the US?

These are just a few ideas, but they’re meant to get the discussion started. Want to know what Nissan is doing about it? They’re ready to follow in the footsteps of the Tata car, and are readying their own designs for a cheap car. How that’s going to play out in the large scheme of things, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that we don’t need more pollution and more congestion…

I leave you with a photo of the car that acted as a catalyst for change back when it was introduced. It can be done again, and in all the right ways. We just need a daring and willing company.

The classic MINI

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