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The French Countryside Part 1 – Bordeaux and Languedoc

  Exploring the French Countryside

Part One – Bordeaux and Languedoc

September 1, 2011

Dateline: St. Emilion, Bordeaux

Latitude at St. Emilion  44.89 Degrees N, Longitude 0.15 Degrees W

Being avid boaters, we had studied for some time the brochures advertising the pleasures of cruising the canals of France. Being equally fond of wine,  good friends and leisure, we thought it would be the perfect thing to combine a stop in Bordeaux, with a cruise on the Midi Canal in the province of Languedoc, a quick trip to see friends in Munich and some lolling around Provence and the Riviera.  We flew overnight from Atlanta to Paris with some talkative bikers who had just been to Vegas and had gotten the Harley T-Shirts to prove it chatting away in the rows behind us.

We arrived at 6:30 in the morning with a full day to find our way to the village of St. Emilion in Bordeaux. We took the metro from Charles De Gaulle Airport to the Montparnasse train station to meet up with our friends, and frequent traveling companions, Stu and Sharon. We had reservations on the high speed train, the TVG (which stands for Tren Gran Vitesse) from Paris to Bordeaux, in the southwest corner of France on the Atlantic coast.  It is a good thing the countryside was speeding by too quickly to enjoy it since we were all in need of naps due the overnight flight and the 6 hour time difference.

The Chateau Franc Mayne

The Chateau Franc Mayne

We rented a car at the Bordeaux train station and drove east to St. Emilion. We were at first glad to have a GPS system on board, but less so as we drove when the female voice (very similar to that same stern taskmaster found in cars in the US), kept announcing that we had arrived at our destination when we were barely out of the parking lot.  We were actually forced to rely on that antiquated method of navigation using paper maps and road signs. We eventually found the village of St. Emilion and found it to be every bit as charming as advertised. We did have to ask for some local guidance in order to find the Chateau Franc Mayne, our lodging for our stay here, since their seemed to be a gazillion chateaux surrounding the town. Chateau Franc Mayne is an inn and vineyard, which was also charming in a major way. It is rather modest as chateaux go, but it had elaborate furnishings with damask, silk, velvet, taffeta and brocade in dark rich colors in great abundance. On a rather non-traditional quirky note, we found several chairs turned upside down and mounted on the wall to serve, we supposed, as “art”.

Vineyards of St. Emilion

Vineyards of St. Emilion

Bordeaux not only is a city, it is the largest fine wine producing region in the world (strong emphasis on the word “fine” which indeed it is.) It is nirvana for the wine lovers (a.k.a oenophiles). There are 680 wine producing chateaux, producing 2, 700 wines in this region. The soil is a mixture of limestone, clay, gravel and sand, creating an ideal place for merlot grapes to flourish, but is not the place for cabernet grapes, which thrive in other areas of France. In a little corner of Bordeaux is the Cognac region where the best brandy in the world is made from distilled white wine. It is then aged in oak barrels anywhere from 4 to 40 years before being bottled and shipped world-wide. The quality of wine from the Bordeaux region stems from the chateaux that produce it. Typically a chateau includes a vineyard and a building which can range from an historic grand mansion to a far more humble dwelling. The chateau is the symbol of the wine’s character and quality and embodies the traditions surrounding its creation. There are literally hundreds of wine chateaux from the very famous (e.g. Margaux, Latour, Ausone, Cheval Blanc) to the more modest of reputation known only in France or only in Bordeaux, like our very own Franc Mayne.

St. Emilion

St. Emilion

St. Emilion is an ancient medieval walled city in the region of Aquitane in the heart of Bordeaux. Its origins go back to the 9th Century when a monk named Emilion came here from Brittany and chose to withdraw from the world to live a life of solitude, meditation and prayer. Even at that early time there was a town here called Ascumbas. Despite his attempts to withdraw from the world, he performed a number of miracles and drew a number of disciples to the area to create a monastery from his hermitage where he lived the last 17 years of his life. His followers named the monastic center after him after his death in 767 A.D. and the town grew up around it. In the ensuing years it became a medieval city surrounded by ramparts which still stand today, along with many houses from that era as well. There are also over 100 kilometers of underground limestone caves, or galleries as they are called.   Limestone was quarried here to build cities and chateaux from the 9th through the 19th Centuries. This quarrying created space that became the largest monolithic church in Europe,  dug out of a chalky cliff after Emilion’s death. It still stands, but its roof and walls are supported by a number of modern era concrete columns to prevent its collapse.

After checking in, we sat outside in the garden taking in the pastoral scenery and enjoyed wine and cheese while watching the sunset before surrendering to bedtime, shortly after dark.

September 2, 2011

Dateline: St. Emilion, Bordeaux

Streets of St. Emilion

Streets of St. Emilion

Today we slept rather late, still trying to adjust to the time change, and we wandered into town in our small vehicle in search of breakfast, driving through rolling hillsides covered with grapes as far as the eye can see in every direction.  The limestone layers just below the surface provide hundreds of natural caves, many of which are under the town and the vineyards, and are perfect for storing wine to let it mature. We were here just a few weeks prior to harvest, which occurs mid-September to mid-October. The French wine growers association is called the Viticole, and it is responsible for the strict standards and classifications to which French vintners adhere. There are 860 winegrowers in the St. Emilion region (or in wine lingo “appellation, not to be confused with “terroir”, which refers to the the specifics about a particular vineyard within the region, such as soil, rainfall, hill slope, sun exposure and so forth).  Wine also has a classification as assigned by various governing bodies, whose rulings appear to be law, particularly with regard to quality and appellations. The top classification for French vineyards is the highly sought after Grand Cru (translation is great growth) and is awarded to a vineyard, not a particular wine. Vineyards are evaluated every 10 years.

Grapes of Bordeaux

Grapes of Bordeaux

France has 10 major wine-producing regions – Bordeaux is one and Languedoc Rousillon is another. Later in this trip we would visit Provence, which is a 3rd wine producing region of the 10.  Winemaking dates back to pre-Roman times but the vine cultures and practices were introduced and spread by the Romans. The condensed version is this:  Wine starts with the juice of freshly picked grapes. Natural yeasts are found in the skins of grapes, although sometimes cultured yeasts are introduced to convert the sugars into alcohol as the juice ferments. These yeasts (called lees) are filtered out before bottling.  There is a slightly different process for white and red. For white the grapes are crushed to allow the juice to come into contact with the yeasts. Juice may be steeped and or macerated with skins to add flavor. White wine is lightly pressed and fermented in stainless steel vats. Red wine gets its taste from tannins present in red grape skins. These grapes need to be de-stemmed and crushed to eliminate undesirable tannins in the stems. So when they are crushed, they are de-stemmed at the same time. Grapes for red wine are thoroughly pressed and may have tannins or other flavors blended back in. Oak barrels (either French or American oak) are used to age red wine.  White is typically not aged and goes into the bottle from the vat. White wine makers use different shades of glass to identify the region the wine comes from (e.g. green, yellow). For red, the shape of the bottle identifies region (e.g. Burgundy has a tapered neck and Bordeaux has a bottle with “shoulders”).

The Cloisters of St. Emilion

The Cloisters of St. Emilion

We were struck and pleased by how extremely tidy everything is here. We found a bakery at the “bottom of town” as it is described on one of the many cobblestone streets that run up the hill to the “top” of town. We had great omelets outdoors and managed to find an equally great breakfast wine (a Bordeaux of course). We took a walk up the hill to the top of the town to the Place des Creneaux which boasts the town’s bell tower. The tourist Information stop occupies a former abbey, not too far from the ancient cloisters and the ruins of a monastery which once had cellars that made sparkling wine. En route we encountered a

 

The Cave du March St. Emilion

The Cave du March St. Emilion

number of “caves” (pronounced “kahve”) which are  essentially wine cellars, which seemed to spring up every few feet. Each cave of course offers a tasting room, which tends to slow forward progress up the street. The city is also famous for its macarons (or macaroons as we call them) and so any storefront that did not offer wine, offered these delicacies. We did both tasting and purchasing and also bought baguettes and cheese which were also fantastic.  We sampled the wines of a number of “caves”, hosted by wine experts, including one who billed himself as the   Marchand de Soif (translation is the Thirst Merchant). As it turned out we proved to be quite thirsty and as we sampled an array of delicious Bordeaux wines, the day more or less began to get away from us.

Monolithic Church of St. Emilion

Monolithic Church and Bell Tower of St. Emilion

We did take some time to explore the city including the St. Emilion Monolithic Church (monolithic meaning it was made from a single massive rock) which was a very interesting, structure, dug out by Benedictine Monks over a period of 300 years. There are also 125 miles of underground tunnels (originally dug as limestone quarries and later used for storing wine), steep streets and not a lot of tourist attractions – nothing to do but enjoy the wine, food and soak up the ambiance. The town seems to be carved out of the hillside like an amphitheater and in fact we learned that many of the buildings (not just the church) were indeed carved out of the hillside. Also underground are the catacombs where a number of cardinals were buried.

The Wild Boar that Must Not Be Mounted

The Wild Boar that Must Not Be Mounted

One of the personal highlights we found was the bronze statue of a boar which we assumed was to commemorate the truffle industry.  We had to chuckle at the sign posted in English advising tourists that it is forbidden to “mount” the boar.  We assumed they meant climb upon, as opposed to the more sexual connotation of the verb “mount”, which we were sure no one would be tempted to do.  We returned to the chateau to enjoy our wine and cheese by the pool. They had an all natural pool with no chemicals and so the bottom was a little slimy, but the water was crystal clear and very cool. We had dinner at the Chateau Franc Mayne – a delicious chicken pasta with fresh veggies followed by dessert and a cheese course that we had trouble appreciating since we had eaten so much cheese already.

September 3, 2011

Dateline: St. Emilion, Bordeaux

Wildflowers in Sarlat

Wildflowers in Sarlat

Today we decided to take a drive to the neighboring Dordogne region to a village called Sarlat after having coffee at a café in a medieval building, accompanied by pastries from a local boulangerie/ patisserie. We decided to stock up for a picnic lunch with a baguette and cheese. The bakery we chose had several loaves on the shelf, but the baker “tsked” over them and insisted that he get us a fresh one directly from the oven to meet his exacting standards. We were duly impressed with the dedication to quality, not just here, but in so many places we would eat and drink over the coming weeks. Our drive took us through lushly forested countryside, and through the village of Bergerac. Gradually we saw pear, walnut and apple orchards replacing vineyards, along with fields full of corn and tobacco. Approximately two hours east of St. Emilion, we entered the Dordogne Region via a beautiful river valley of the same name.  The Dordogne played a key role in the 100 Years War since it was the dividing line between turf of the warring countries of England and France.

Unwitting Pate Donors

Unwitting Pate Donors

This area is famous for pate (both duck and goose) and various other delicacies involving the flesh of these same creatures.The production methods for harvesting goose liver here in the Dordogne Region perpetually gets animal lovers up in arms. The farmers reportedly restrict physical movement of the geese and force feed them in a process called la gavage in order to slaughter them for their livers, meat and fluffy down. In the last 3 weeks of their lives, they are put in cages and fed 3 times a day to fatten their liver, which in this period of time grows in size from about a quarter of a pound to 2 pounds and yields the distinctive foie gras of the region which can be made into pate or sliced and served.  They use the same process with ducks, but without the same perceived excellence. It seems the livers of ducks are accorded less prestige than those of geese.

Sarlat House

Sarlat House

It was Saturday and Market Day in Sarlat (pronounced “Sar lah “with the accent on “lah” – the full name is Sarlat-la Caneda and it is in a region known as Perigord.  It is an old walled city whose cobblestone streets ramble up and down the hills on which the city stands. The town was started with the building of a Benedictine abbey in the 9th Century at the site of a natural spring, today called the Cour des Fontaines. Sarlat has more medieval and Renaissance facades, all built of golden ochre stone, than any place in France. The town maintained loyalty to the King of France during the Hundred Years War and was rewarded richly with money to rebuild and expand the town afterward, which explains the golden stone. Much of that building took on an Italian aspect since the reigning Queen of France at the time was Catherine di Medici, who just happened to have a boyfriend (also Italian) on the side, who was the Bishop

The Steets of Sarlat

The Steets of Sarlat

of Sarlat. The bishop had quite a fancy residence here, built right onto the structure of the Cathedral of St. Sacerdos. The cathedral itself dates back to the 12th Century when the locals built it, believing that the Virgin Mary had delivered them from the Plague of 1348. The bishop later left for Paris with his coffers full of cash. The century from 1450 to 1550 was the peak of Sarlat’s importance.  Many of the houses here dating from medieval times actually protrude over the street (i.e. they are larger at the top than on the bottom floors) in an attempt to maximize real estate inside the city walls, which gives the structures a somewhat lopsided aspect.

Market Day in Sarlat

Market Day in Sarlat

On Wednesdays they have a huge outdoor food market (at least its huge for the size of the town), Town specialties are walnuts and foie gras (goose liver), as well as truffles, (many still hunted by by pigs so we understand) mushrooms, cheese, garlic and an array of pork products, just as they were in the Middle Ages.  Macaroons are also big here and are much tastier to me than the various goose delicacies being offered. The recipe dates back to 1620 when the Ursuline sisters set up a convent here and started making them.

 

Park in Sarlat

Park in Sarlat

Every Saturday  the market morphs into more of a fair and what a treat that was, with food and clothing and all sorts of household goods offered in an open air environment.    There were also a number of wine and pate shops, as well as art galleries centered around the Place de la Liberte, a square dating back to the Renaissance.  We found a park at the top of a hill and feasted on our picnic, which prominently featured a nice Bordeaux from St. Emilion. Stu and Sharon sampled the local pate and pronounced it superb. For me the macaroons were the highlight. After our picnic, we explored the steep streets of the ancient city, with a Disneyland vibe at every turn.  We especially liked the Rue de Salamandre – a tiny lane named after the emblem of King Francois I which can be seen on many of the town’s houses from the 16th Century. The legendary salamander could not be harmed by either fire or water and it became the town’s mascot.

The Lanterne des Morts

The Lanterne des Morts

One of the most interesting and ancient sights was the Lantern des Morts (Lantern of the Dead) which was a conical tower which dates back to 1147, built to honor St. Bernard of Clairvaux who reportedly delivered the town from the plague, but not before a quarter of the population (1,000 people)  died from it. He reportedly stepped in and blessed their bread and showed them a few tricks of hygiene while he was at it.  The golden stone of the old city was especially beautiful as the light changed in late afternoon.  Of special interest were the contrasting dark stone roofs called lauzes of the old houses covered with lichen. They

Limestone Roof in Sarlat

Limestone Roof in Sarlat

were originally erected with stone cleared from the fields and people found they lasted so much longer than any other roofing material – actually hundreds of years.  However, the roofs had to be very steeply pitched to distribute the weight and small windows were installed to allow air circulation. This circulation was critical to encourage the lichen to grow, which actually kept the porous limestone from soaking up water and provided a sealant to stop leaks between the stones.

 

Sunset at St. Emilion

Sunset at St. Emilion

We took the motorway back to St. Emilion and were sipping wine on the Chateau  Franc Mayne terrace as darkness fell. After our sunset wine, we drove into St. Emilion to have dinner at Le Bouchon, sitting outdoors.  The walls of the town were dramatically lit, providing a wonderful backdrop for our delicious meal. We learned that the St. Emilion area had the first vineyards to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with vines having been grown here for two thousand years.   The Jurade of St. Emilion is a brotherhood of wine-growers of this appellation. A royal charter was issued in 1199 by the King of England, granting legal and political rights to “jurats” (members of the Jurade who were roughly equivalent to aldermen with the understanding that English merchants had first dibs on the wine produced here). This authority was in effect until the French Revolution in 1789 when the whole country was in an uproar and the finer points of wine production took a back seat to doing away with the nobility . In 1948 the Jurade was re-cast as a wine growers association.  Every year they have a “Fete de Printemps”, or Spring Festival, in June and members parade through the town in crimson robes.

September 4, 2011

Dateline: Narbonne, France

Latitude at Narbonne 43.18 Degrees North, Longitude 3.00 Degrees East

Classic Languedoc

Classic Languedoc

We were up early today to leave St. Emilion for Bordeaux to take the train to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which stretches from the Pyrenees Mountains on the Spanish border and along the Mediterranean Coast to the mouth of the Rhone River.  The name Languedoc comes from the word langue (language). Add to that “d’” (from) and Oc, which was the dialect spoken in the region of Southern France at the time. Literally Languedoc  translates as” language of Oc”. In this dialect Oc meant yes. Langue d’oil was the dialect of Northern France. Oil later became oui and it still means yes today.  However, Oc has more or less faded from the lexicon. Our first order of business was to return a rental car which was not at all as easy as one might think. We had the sadistic GPS that kept insisting on U Turns and kept scolding us for being off-course. We finally switched off that annoying voice and again relied on the navigational devices from antiquity – a car rental map, posted signs and directions from locals. We actually had an accidental/incidental tour of the city of Bordeaux while trying to locate the train station, so that provided a few moments of serendipity. The city is built on the Garonne River and has been a major seaport since pre-Roman times. It has few historical landmarks left, with industrial and maritime structures overtaking the city. Those few exceptions are from the 18th and 19th Centuries where an attempt was made to recreate a little of the grandeur of bygone days. A notable exception is the Esplanade de Quinconces – a large area lined with trees and statuary that was built in the mid 1800’s to replace a 15th Century Chateau and a number of grand 18th Century mansions, a consequence of Bordeaux’s real claim to fame which is wine exporting. It is the second oldest trading port in France after Marseilles, and the dominant export was wine.  However, its true heyday came in the 12th-15th Centuries when England controlled the region and gave Bordeaux a monopoly on exporting wine to the British Isles.  Bordeaux again gained prominence once the New World was discovered, and being an Atlantic Seaport, the city again could capitalize on export opportunities.

We caught the 11:25 Teoz train to Toulouse and changed trains, catching a 2:46 to Narbonne which arrived at 4:02. A short taxi ride took us from the train station to Le Boat’s Charter Headquarters in Narbonne where we would  find our canal charter boat for the next 10 days on the Midi Canal.

The Old City of Narbonne

The Old City of Narbonne

Our boat was tied up canal side (the Robine Canal to be exact) which we would take northward to enter the Midi Canal. Robine was the name the Romans gave the waterway back when they were here, but the topography was vastly different then. Narbonne was a sea port and what is now the Robine Canal was an estuary.   The town was very picturesque with tall sycamores,(also called plane trees) lining the banks of the canal, their overarching branches forming a green tunnel.  We were told we would find sycamores all along the Midi as well.  Napoleon ordered them planted to provide shade for the mules which pulled the barges back in the day. It was not that he was such a humanitarian, but rather practical in knowing mules could be more productive if they did not collapse from heat exhaustion.

There are 91 working locks on the Canal du Midi, which runs 150 miles (240 km.) and it is credited with making the Languedoc a rich trade area. It runs from the Mediterranean to the junction of the Garonne River in Toulouse, which then empties into the Atlantic.  There are 13 more locks on a 23 mile stretch on the Robine Canal (also called the La Nouvelle or New Branch) which runs through Narbonne and on to the Mediterranean, thus creating two access points from the Mediterranean Sea.  The locks are currently managed by the French Navigation Authority.

The Midi Canal near Arageliers

The Midi Canal near Argeliers

The Midi Canal was built between 1666 and 1681 by Pierre-Paul Requet to provide an inland waterway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The route was shorter with fewer hazards such as storms, pesky Barbary Pirates and other countries’ privateers. The Robine (also called the Embranchment de la Nouvelle) was built in 1776 to allow Narbonne access to the Midi Canal. The place where the two canals join is called the Canal de Jonction. On the Midi the first lock designs were rectangular, but due to a problem with collapsing side walls, an oval design was adopted that provided more strength. The oval locks will accommodate a minimum of 2 boats at the same time, but some are longer to accommodate four.

An Oval Lock

An Oval Lock

Having learned this engineering lesson of ovals versus rectangles, they built all the new locks on the Robine Canal in ovals. The Midi design called for dimensions of:  11 meters at midpoint, 6 meters at the gate and a length of 30 meters. Requet restricted maximum rise to just under 3 meters and thus there was a need for multiple chambers at some sites. The Canal underwent a modernization program in the 1970’s and some of these multiple chambers were converted into a single deeper chamber, made feasible with advanced technology and modern concrete.

A lock is called an ecluse in French and there are small bridges across the canal called pontelles, and the canal itself is a fluvial. The gates of the lock were originally made of oak with balance beams, with each gate having a large sluice drawn up by a vertical screw, but the modernization called for electric and hydraulic systems and metal gates.  At each lock there is a double front 2-story lockkeeper’s house, showing the name of the lock and the name and distance to each adjacent lock in each direction. On the Embranchement de la Nouvelle (a.k.a. Robine Canal) boaters can operate the locks themselves by pressing a button, but on the Midi, a lock keeper

The Narbonne Lock

The Narbonne Lock

must be present, so it is a good idea to time your arrival during business hours and avoid the lunch hour from 12:30 to 1:30. But if you do have to wait, the surroundings are beautiful to wait in.  The canal at its Western end at Toulouse is 433 feet above sea level. It climbs to 633 feet above sea level at its highest point west of Castelnaudary before dropping to sea level at Sete.  The longest stretch with no locks is 33 miles.  The shortest is 820 feet. The locks are numbered from west to east starting in Toulouse. Locks 1-18 are ascending, locks 19-86 are descending, but sometimes there are staircase locks listed as a single lock.

The Romans were quite active in Narbonne and it was the capital city of Gaul, back in the days when France was called Gaul. They built an arched bridge called the Pons Vetus over the Aude River here at Narbonne, which allowed the Roman Road, the Via Domitia, to cross the river and ultimately lead to Rome as all roads did back then.  In Narbonne today there are remnants of underground granaries  called the Horreum that date back to the First Century B.C.

The Robine Canal - Narbonne

The Robine Canal – Narbonne

Narbonne was also a thriving port during the Middle Ages  and a huge cathedral was started in 1272 but then the Aude River silted up and consequently Narbonne was relegated to the sleepy little town of today. We have seen this in several places in our travels, the most notable example being perhaps Ephesus which now sits several miles from the sea, whereas it was once a bustling seaport. We are thankful modern dredging technology did not exist at the time of the silting or else this place might have all the charm of the Houston Ship Channel. There are remnants of a much different sea coast in the olden days with marshy bodies of brackish water called “etangs”, stretching the length of the coast of Languedoc-Rousillon. There was also a profusion of  bulrushes along the banks of the canal which look like tall grass with wheat-like feathery tassels. In the distance we could see the mountain peaks of the Haut (high) Languedoc where there is a Parc Nationale.  In addition to the interesting landscapes, there are many medieval structures here as well, but we simply didn’t have time for much sight-seeing – we had canals to explore.

The Magnifique on the robine Canal

The Magnifique on the robine Canal

We found our vessel, the Magnifique #509  (translation the Magnificent) bobbing gently on the sun-dappled water and officially checked in.   While it was quite nice and comfortable, the Magnifique label was something of a stretch. My husband Gary was the Captain, and the other three of us were to be deck hands. We left our luggage on the Magnifique and set out to see the town. We walked to the town square which is actually on the back side of the cathedral. The town still has remnants of the old walls and towers called “donjons”. The Languedoc is another famous wine region and so we sampled some of the local product at an outdoor café, but had to move indoors due to a rain shower and an autumnal breeze that definitely let us know that fall was in the air.  The air was crisp  and the steady rain made for good sleeping on board.

September 5, 2011

Dateline: Marker 172 Argeliers, France

Distance traveled today: 25 kilometers with 3 locks

A Bridge in Narbonne

A Bridge in Narbonne

We slept in a bit since our departure was planned for 10:30 and had a leisurely stroll to a local grocery store for our provisions and then schlepped them back to the boat, crossing the canal on the Merchant’s Bridge which was festooned with flowers. It was a small market which helped us keep our purchases to be schlepped manageable, which is always a good idea when we “go by feet” as some or our German friends put it. The speed limit on the canal was 8 km per hour with the caution that you should pass moored boats at only 3 km per hour and thus we knew we were in for a leisurely cruise.

Motoring south would take us to Port Nouvelle and the Mediterranean, but we planned to head north to join the Midi. We encountered our first lock, the Ecluse de Gua, as we headed north upriver on the Robine Canal upon leaving Narbonne, and we

A Deckhand working the Lock

A Deckhand working the Lock

had all hands on deck to maneuver through it, an action we would repeat many times over the course of our canal exploration.  The process is this:  The captain will send a swabbie/deckhand ashore alongside the lock with a line tied to a cleat to help guide the boat into the lock through open lower doors. The boat pulls forward stopping at the closed door in front of it. The two on- board swabbies loop lines loosely over the bollards (really big cleats) attached to the sides of the lock, which at this point are above their heads The lock keeper (or swabbie on the Robine Canal), will press a button to close the gate behind the boat and the water will begin to rise inside the lock, taking the vessel with it and the on-board swabbies will tighten the lines to keep the boat steady. Once the lock has filled the to the appropriate water  level, the lock doors in front of the boat will open, and the captain drives the boat forward out of the lock. The on-shore swabbie re-boards and the boat proceeds.  Sometimes there are a series of locks so this procedure is repeated as necessary.  The process is reversed coming down stream.

A Lock Keeper's House

A Lock Keeper’s House

This is not Extreme Sport – it is Extreme Leisure. The most daring thing is boarding the boat via either a 6 inch plank or clambering aboard off the bank which involved some degree of agility.  We were immediately charmed by the little postcard villages, hillside vineyards and mountains in the distance as we motored along. There were a number of stone lock keepers houses, some abandoned, some repurposed. The over-arching sycamores formed shady tunnels that we motored through. The sycamore leaf is 3 lobed with several points – much like a maple leave, and at this time of year just starting to turn yellow. The tree trunks are mottled brown-gray and off white. It is so peaceful – no Internet, no cable TV, no telephones. There are also massive umbrella pines, and banks lined with oleander and the distinct scent of wild mint was in the air.

A Heavy Duty Bollard on the Robine Canal

A Heavy Duty Bollard on the Robine Canal

After only two miles we came to our second lock, the Ecluse Raonel and then we passed by the town of Sallelles de Aude, another storybook village which also had Roman occupiers in ancient times as evidenced by pottery left behind during the First to Third Centuries A.D. , along with the remnants of furnaces and an quarry that they used.    Just beyond this point that the Aude River crosses the Robine, and the river is channeled in an aqueduct over the canal.

 

 

An aqueduct on the Midi Canal

An aqueduct on the Midi Canal

Rather than using existing river channel of the Aude and other rivers, the Midi and the Robine Canals were dug by hand. The thinking was that they would be much more stable in that water levels could be controlled, whereas rivers tended to either flood or dry up. They actually built aqueducts so the canal could cross rivers and streams without the waters mingling, thus making water levels much easier to manage without being concerned about rainfall or the lack thereof.

 

 

Le Chat de Pesche

Le Chat de Pesche

We continued traveling north  a short distance until we reached the junction (or jonction as the French call it) of the Robine and Midi Canals at Marker 168. The Midi Canal runs east and west and the markers get larger running west to east. We turned east once in the Midi, making our way to our stop for the night near the town Argeliers at Marker 172 in mid-afternoon. We tied up along the banks to one of thousands of sycamores that line the canal. We walked up the canal a ways to check out a restaurant called Le Chat de Pesche (a.k.a. Catfish), but it was closed until dinnertime and so we meandered into the village and stopped at Restauranque for drinks in the garden. Restauranque is sort of a combination restaurant and swimming pool for use by canal boaters. This is something of a necessity for swimmers because swimming in the Midi is not at all advised since boat toilets flush directly into it. We looked at the menu, but decided we would cook on the boat so we stopped at the local charcuterie  –  a mom

The Charcuterie in Argeliers

The Charcuterie in Argeliers

and pop operation (or more appropriately Maman and Papa).  We bought some tasty veal chops and a most excellent local red wine called Marcelin Albert Minervois for the modest sum of 4.90 Euro. Papa wanted to hear about Gary’s Harley Davidson, but we found that “Softail Springer” didn’t translate well into French. As for Maman, she kissed her fingertips in the stereotypically French gesture and exclaimed “ooh la la” over our wine selection and explained that this wine won the Silver Medal in Paris in a recent competition. We went to the local market (a.k.a. marche) to buy potatoes and onions and had a veritable feast as we ate outside on the upper deck of our boat. The day was pleasantly warm and the evening cool and breezy, perfect for grape growing and canal cruising.  Ooh la la indeed!

September 6, 2011

Dateline: Marker 201, Colombieres, France

Distance traveled today: 29 kilometers

La Languedocienne Co-op

La Languedocienne Co-op

This morning we learned a valuable lesson the hard way. We learned that one should schedule a shower after the engines have been running, unless of course you want to torture your body with an icy one.  After breakfast we took another stroll into Argeliers to check out the grape processing co-op called La Languedocienne.  It was a beehive of activity since this is the harvest season with tractors with small open trailers laden with grapes taking turns backing up to dump their loads into a hopper with a giant augur like thing that smashed them into mush, and from there the mush was moved along to a device that separated out the leaves and twigs from the juice and skin. Today they were processing Syrah Rose grapes according to a chalkboard by the hopper.

We saw the Marcellin Albert tasting room across the street and decided to get more of their fabulous wine. There, much to our delight we saw four large spigots

Filling up at the Wine Faucet

Filling up at the Wine Faucet

in the wall which dispensed red, white, merlot and rose – all for sale for 1.50 Euro per liter. Local people queued there to fill up all manner of containers, including one gentleman who had one the size of a 5 gallon gas can. The proprietor told us he comes in every week and fills it up. We assumed he owned a restaurant, but were told no, it’s just for personal consumption. We bought a 5 liter container (about 1.5 gallons) and proceeded to fill it for our own personal consumption. We also bought a bottle of cognac for 5 Euros to test our theory that it is impossible to buy any bad wine or liqueurs in France.

 

Barges on the Midi Canal

Barges on the Midi Canal

We left Argeliers at 11:00 a.m. and continued east on a brilliantly sunny morning, so clear we could see mountains to the South that we fancied to be the Pyrenees. We stopped near the village of Capestang at Marker 189, having traveled the grand distance of 17 kilometers (a little over 10 miles). There were a lot of boats tied up along both sides of the canal and so we went up river a bit to find a spot in the shade. While we were preparing to leave for our short walk back to Capestang, a bicyclist poked his head in the window and asked if we had a corkscrew. We said yes so he stuck his bottle of wine through the window and Gary opened it for him on the spot so he and his 3 friends could enjoy their canal-side picnic under the sycamores.

 

Boats at Capestang

Boats at Capestang

We had a delicious lunch at La Bateliere overlooking the canal , with a steady parade of tractors and trailers full of grapes headed toward Argeliers in the background. Gary and Sharon had mussles (moules) which they pronounced fabulous, and the search for any superior to these became almost a daily quest. As we left Capestang, we noted that there are faucets with fresh water for sale all along the canal which works on the honor system. The procedure was to fill up and then go pay the “Captainiere” located next to the Tourist Information Center in town. We continued on our way passing the ruins of a castle, perhaps a ruin of a Cathar nobleman’s home.

The word” Cathar” comes from the Greek word katharos meaning “pure”. The Cathars were a 13th Century religious sect which was highly critical of perceived corruption in the Catholic Church and were quite extreme in their views. They were convinced that the material world was a force of evil and the forces of good were on the side of those renouncing all the fun stuff (sex, violence and meat).This group of dissenters, with notions of independence from both the Catholic Church and France found themselves in great need of castles for refuge. This movement was centered in the Languedoc-Rousillion region of France and the countryside today is filled with ruins of castles from that era on the highest of the craggy peaks dotting the area.The region also seems to have a lot of Spanish influence, which comes as no surprise since Spain is just over the mountains.

Cathar Country

Cathar Country

The Catholic Church went to war against the Cathars, considering them heretics. The kings of Spain and France both sought to take over the territory the Cathars controlled and joined with the pope in a Crusade against them led by Simon de Montfort in 1209. The heretics’ land was promised to the crusaders and the pope issued carte blanche forgiveness in advance for any atrocities they might choose to commit.  That promise, plus countless looting and plundering opportunities, plus the certainty of a place in heaven proved to be too great a temptation to refuse.  Consequently, there were scores of atrocities. In 1209 20,000 people were massacred in the town of Beziers. Not all of them were Cathars- in fact most were traditional Catholics – but the pope ordered the Crusaders to kill them all and let God sort them out. And wouldn’t you know that the pope at this time was most ironically named Pope Innocent III. But the atrocities did not end at Beziers. The following year after a 7 week siege against the town of Minerve, there were 140 people burned to death for refusing to renounce their faith. By 1244 it was pretty much all over, with the last Cathar castle falling to the armies of the pope and the two kings.

Tunnel del Malpais

Tunnel del Malpas

We entered the Tunnel de Malpas (Souterrain de Malpas), 541 feet long and a maximum height of 26 feet, which would be no problem on foot, but when you are on the top deck of a boat, it can get close.  We emerged from the tunnel at Colombieres, our destination for the night.  We had another feast on board – tuna fish sandwiches, potato chips and jug wine. The 5 Euro cognac was declared superb. It was also an effective sleep aid which we appreciated since there was a lot of canal traffic in the night rocking the boat.

September 7, 2011

Dateline: Marker 166, Le Somail, France

Distance traveled today:  46 kilometers

A Place to Mind Your Head or Lose It.

A Place to Mind Your Head or Lose It.

We learned still more boat lessons today in addition to the one about showering after the boat engines have been running:

  1. Mind your head – there are low branches, limbs, bridges and tunnels
  2. Don’t fall in the canal – it will not be pleasant
  3. Get the angle right on going up the bridge ladder – too upright you will bonk your head, not upright enough, you will bonk your hiney
  4. Step high going into heads – there is a ledge there in case of a flooded shower or toilet
  5. Learn to love tepid beverages that you used to think needed ice

 

Today we continued traveling east, stopping and tying up to a nearby sycamore a few kilometers from the city of Beziers. We were told that many of the sycamores on the canal have a virus and will have to be cut down which would really be a shame. They are the source of so much of the charm (and a relief from the sun).

The Fonserranes Locks

The Fonserranes Staircase

We opted to stop our eastward progress here since, to visit the city, we would have to traverse 7 locks in a row  which were called the Fonserrannes Staircase and which would take more time and effort than we wanted to devote to it, particularly since we had already navigated through 10 locks already. Instead we mounted the bicycles we had gotten with the boat and pedaled over some rough terrain on some really uncomfortable bicycle seats to view the locks to see what we would be missing. We had several broad vistas here at the top of the locks of the city of Beziers and surrounding country side of the Orb River Valley. Beziers was the

 

Biking to Beziers

Biking to Beziers

home of the Canal du Midi designer, Pierre Paul Riquet, and also home to a 14th Century Cathedral, but our bicycle seats dictated that we must dismount as quickly as possible to avoid permanent damage to our respective bottoms, so we didn’t undertake any city sightseeing . We speculated that perhaps the French anatomy differs significantly from that of American and thus the bicycle seat would not torture them as it did us. We managed to pedal back to our boat and load the torture devices back on, vowing never to pedal them again.

We set off  going west on the Midi, backtracking for a short distance of 6 kilometers and once we passed the “Jonction” with the Robine Canal, we enjoyed another leisurely 40 kilometers with no locks. We again crossed the Aude River on an aqueduct that kept the path of the river separate from the path of the canal. We were struck by how many cheerful, and even exuberant people we encountered, almost all French. They would wave to us, raise a glass in a toast and call out their “bon jours” as we passed, along with the occasional bon apetit if we were eating on board. We saw a number of tasting rooms on our route where you could tie up and walk up a path to sample the local Languedoc vintages.  The wines of the Languedoc are marked with an embossed  Cross of the Languedoc which looks like a Maltese Cross with little balls on each point of the cross. The Languedoc Rousillon  area makes  two types of wine,  the Minervois and the Corbieres.

Near Le Somail

Near Le Somail

We stopped at Le Somail for the night and had another delightful dinner at a small Restaurant called Café de Boche which we found only accepted cash. We ate outdoors and as the day turned from warm to chilly with a definite hint of fall in the air. Just at dusk we saw either an otter or an extremely large rat swimming in the canal – but we agreed we would go with claiming an otter sighting. We were told that they have Canal Jousting in the village of Sete not far from where we are, but it was too late in season for it.  Apparently contestants put on costumes and arm themselves with lances and paddle toward each other in gondolas with the idea of unseating the opponent.  This would have been something to see. Maybe next time.

September 8, 2011

Dateline: Marker 146 – Homps, France

Distance traveled today:  20 kilometers and 4 locks

We left Le Somail around 10 a.m. after a leisurely breakfast of baguettes and pastries that Stu discovered in the village while on his morning walk. Once underway we saw the occasional ruins of more medieval castles along the banks of the Aude River as it weaved its way around the arrow straight line of the canal.

Our Favorite Wine Tasting Room

Our Favorite Wine Tasting Room

Near the village of Ventenac de Minervois we saw our favorite tasting room on the canal. It was comprised of a space with a chair  set up beside the canal.  On either side of the chair were  2 large wine barrels set on end.  On top  were bottles of wine and glasses so you could help yourself to a free tasting. If you wanted to purchase a bottle, you could leave your money in a little box or walk up the trail to a building to buy in volume. We saw several signs along the way advertising local wine for 1.20 Euro per liter which is a bargain by anyone’s standards. As soon as we drank up the 5 liters we bought in Argeliers, we planned to fill up. We stopped at a marina in the village of Argens Minervois to get water and a few groceries at the epicerie which is a French version of a 7-11, minus the junk food. We stowed our supplies and took a stroll through the town, whose highlight seemed to be the mairie (a.k.a. town hall).

Cassoulet

Cassoulet

On the advice of the proprietor of the marina store, we sought out a canal-side restaurant called La Guingette, which proved to be a little gem of a restaurant, where the more adventurous diners in our party (Sharon and Gary) ordered a local dish called cassoulet which included duck, sausage and white beans, all cooked in a stew like concoction. They pronounced it fabulous. I was starting to see a pattern here (no bad food in France- no bad wine in France) The mystery is how these people stay so skinny.  I settled for loup de mer which I learned was sea bass and not sea wolf as its name would imply. We all agreed the French fries served with the meal were the best we have ever eaten, but do suspect they were likely cooked in lard.

We did have some excitement at La Guingette. Its seems a woman and her daughter had returned to the restaurant looking for the mother’s purse and they had been sitting at our table. We all stood and searched, and the maitre d’ and waiter joined us, but we found no purse. As they were leaving on a narrow path along the canal to go back to their boat, the daughter lost her footing and plunged into the canal. She was in no danger of drowning since it was barely waist deep, but we do think she was in danger of getting some awful skin disease from the obviously less than healthy canal water. The restaurant employees all rallied around to fish her out, and sort of haphazardly clean her and dry her off.  We don’t know if the missing purse was located, but we certainly hoped so. Their day was bad enough as it was.

The Ecluse at Homps

The Ecluse at Homps

We returned to our boat and continued our journey westward to the strangely named town of Homps. We had to traverse a double lock and had to wait our turn due to a traffic jam of sorts, but with all hands on deck (except for one that was ashore), we successfully maneuvered our way through.  We tied up and enjoyed a light meal of pasta on board.

 

 

September 9, 2011

Dateline:  Marker 126  Marseillette, France

Distance traveled today: 40 kilometers with 7 locks

Stalking Flies

Stalking Flies

We awoke in Homps, still not quite mastering the pronunciation of the name, which was somewhere between “humps” like a camel has and “Whoomp” from the rather mindless party song from 1993 called  “Whoomp! There It Is” by a rap duo called Tag Team. We seemed to be attracting flies at this point and were not exactly sure what was up with that, but we fashioned a mostly ineffective flyswatter from a stick and two paper plates held together with duct tape and tried to hold them at bay.  We determined that it needed to be more aerodynamic in order to attain the proper speed to actually dispatch a fly, so we poked holes in it, but that actually did little to improve its lethal properties. We enjoyed pastries from the local patisserie (as did the flies).

La Fabrique Winery

La Fabrique Winery

We continued to travel west, stopping at the ancient arches of the spillway at Le Redoute,  built in 1693 to provide flood relief in case of heavy rains. We got off the boat at the lock there to find very little activity. We did happen upon a huge wine co-operative called La Fabrique ( which translates as “factory”) but things were pretty quiet there as well. Back on the boat, we had to negotiate a series of locks to get to our destination for the evening, the village of Marseillette. There were 3 double locks, one triple and one single. By the time we tied up for the night we had only traveled 12 kilometers, but it had taken us 4 hours.  With all the locks we had gained quite a bit of altitude, but the highest point is still upstream at Narouze, where the altitude is 190 meters above sea level or about 623 feet and it  is past where we will be stopping our journey .

A Lock Near Homps

A Lock Near Homps

We made a quick trip to the epicerie (the 7-11 like store) for a few grocery items and we had dinner on board. The larger grocery store with more goods is called a marche (translation is market) and is frequently a Carrefours chain store, although they could not be called a supermarkets by any stretch of the imagination. We met a real character here who was an Englishman now living in Australia. He jokingly told us he doesn’t like Americans ever since one of them “nicked” his sister (that is stole his sister) back in England and took off with her on a Harley Davidson and he hasn’t seen her since. He did say the American asked for her hand in marriage from his Dad who said it was okay with him since it meant more food for the rest of the family.

We continued to learn boating tips as we travel the canal. One we learned just today was that the forward deck hand should not stand too close to the front of the boat when the gate of the lock opens. It could result in a spontaneous canal water shower. The staterooms on our boat were smallish – actually sort of coffin like in some respects, but because we had 4 rooms and two couples, we were able to spread out, but we still had to crawl to the end of the bed each morning to get out of it and crawl to the head of the bed to get into it. While this was a bit cramped, we spent most of our time in the spacious galley or up on the deck which we found to be delightful.

Art Gallery at the Aguille Lock

Art Gallery at the Aiguille Lock

We arrived at the Aiguille Lock (a double lock) during the lunch hour of the lock keeper and so we had to wait, but we did have the chance to enjoy his large “sculpture” gallery. The pieces were whimsical to downright funny figures. There was one of a woman with hair made from bedsprings, bolts for eyes and saw blades for feet. He also has sort of Rube Goldberg mechanical garden where one movement sets another piece in motion and so forth. One we particularly enjoyed was a figure taking a leak in a bowl which fills and causes another figure to box the ears of a third figure, which causes the first figure to take another leak. From there we motored on to Marseillette and spend a quiet evening with dinner on board.

September 10, 2011

Dateline:  Marker 118 Trebes, France

Distance traveled today: 8 Kilometers with 1 lock

The Midi near Marseillette

The Midi near Marseillette

We awoke in Marseillette (translation is little Marseilles and it is very little indeed).  It seemed to be another Disney village, complete with waddling ducks, except Walt would have used mechanical ducks to avoid the abundance of poop that we encountered. We had tied up for the night by an old cemetery which may have contained the only people sleeping better than we did after our long haul of 40 km yesterday.  We took a short walk on the grounds to find there were mostly marble and granite crypts with plaques etched with simple sentiments such as “mon amie” (my love). There were porcelain, silk and some real flowers with watering cans placed here and there for families to use as needed.  There were also some sculptures such as the angel with the fallen solider at her feet which was a memorial to WWI soldiers with WWII names added later. We noted there were many, many names for such a small village.

The Lavomatique in Trebes

The Lavomatique in Trebes

We proceeded to our destination for the evening, the town of Trebes, which compared to Marseillette was a bustling metropolis. We had several missions to accomplish here – some successful, some not. On the not side we had hoped to visit an ATM to get some more Euros. We found 4 different banks and were turned down 4 different ways. We had hoped to buy a train ticket to Narbonne from Trebes, but found that we would have to take a taxi to a different train station. We had hoped to be able to mail the key back to the Franc Mayne (our B&B in St. Emilion) that I had accidentally purloined, but the post office closed at 11:30 on this day.  On the success side, we needed to do some laundry and were directed to a local laundromat which turned out to be about a kilometer from the river where we were tied up at a local marina. With bags full of dirty clothes slung over our shoulders like hobos, we made our way to the Laundromat. It cost 4 Euros to wash and drying was 1 Euro for every 10 minutes.  We left our wash going and crossed the street to a restaurant for wine and chicken tapas which were supposed to be a snack, but were so good we ordered more and declared that our evening meal.

September 11, 2011

Dateline: Marker 105 Carcassonne, France

Distance Traveled today: 13 kilometers, with 4 locks.

We awoke in Trebes (pronounced “Treb-uh) with just the slightest nasally exhalation on the “uh”, where we went to the marina for fuel. There was a crisp breeze with hints of approaching autumn and a lot of boat traffic, which made for challenging boating, not to mention that it was a tight squeeze at the fuel dock. Alongside the canal we saw more chestnut trees, along with umbrella pines and oaks instead of the rows of sycamores and there were dense thickets of oleader all along the route to Carcassonne.

The Midi at Carcasonne

The Midi at Carcasonne

It took us 4 hours to travel the 13 kilometeres from Trebes to Carcassonne since we had 4 locks to negotiate – 3 singles and 1 triple. Carcassonne had several marinas, but we elected to tie up outside of town to enjoy the peace and quiet. We walked into town to the train station to buy our tickets to Narbonne for the end of our trip and made a quick visit to the marche for a few provisions and had lunch on board. At the marche we encountered what has to be the laziest beggar in the history of the world. He was stretched out on the sidewalk by the door to the marche sound asleep and snoring, a bottle of Heineken nestled in the crook of his arm.  He had a beret with a few coins in it, for donations of loose change or other largesse granted to him by shoppers. We assumed he would spring into action at the first sign of any pilfering .

Basse Carcasonne with Le Cite Above it

Basse Carcasonne with Le Cite Above it

After stowing our groceries, Gary and I took a walk to see the town and found there to be the new town (also called Basse Carcassonne, which means lower)  where we were and the old medieval city/castle up on a steep bank above the Aude River, which they call Le Cite (the City).The name Carcassonne according to legend comes from a Madam Carcas who lived here during the time of a siege by Charlemagne and actually made the attackers abandon the siege by throwing a fat pig over the walls despite the number of starving citizens in the fortress.  This messed with the minds of the siege troops who decided if they were throwing fat pigs over the wall, there was no hope of starving them out and they abandoned the siege.  There is a bust of Madame Carcas at the Narbonne Gate. Scholars however believe the name came from the town’s original name, which was Carcas, but that makes for a much less colorful story.

The Town Square of Basse Carcasonne

The Town Square of Basse Carcassonne

Some of the construction in the medieval city dates back to Roman times, but most of the restoration was done in the 19th Century. The new town is  quite old as well, but it is just newer than Le Cite. The Aude River, whose course we have more or less paralleled all week separates the old and new cities. Back in olden times, the new city housed a lot of workers from the castle and most visitors to the castle. It seems the resident Duke thought it wise to keep them outside the walls in case they turned on him. Carcassonne  is now considered a fully restored medieval town, complete  with fairy tale turrets and ramparts. Many have criticized the restoration done in the 19th Century for that very fairy tale aspect as being too  Disney-like and  would prefer the authenticity of the ruins.

A View of Le Cite from Basse Carcasonne

A View of Le Cite from Basse Carcassonne

Carcassonne was at a strategic crossroads in its day between Spain and France and between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Its original settlement was created by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC. Its peak of power was in the 12th Century when a noble family named Trencavel ruled here. This family built and occupied the chateau, called the Chateau Comtal within the walls. The chateau is actually a fortress itself with a moat and high walls, fire towers and galleries for archers to shoot down at invaders. The cathedral called Basilique St.-Nazaire was also built within the walls. There are actually two sets of ramparts – an inner and an outer.  The space between is called the lices and was used for activities such as archery and jousting.

Chateau Comtal - Home of the Trencavels

Chateau Comtal – Home of the Trencavels

During the Crusade of 1209 against the Cathars, 24 year old Viscount  Raymond-Roger Trencavel offered sanctuary to a group of Cathars who were being persecuted by the Crusaders.  His fortress was then besieged in an attempt to force him to give them up. . Carcassonne was independent from France in those days, so for the French it was not as if they were attacking their own countrymen.  Trencavel was captured during a so called truce and placed in his own prison where he died under what is termed “mysterious circumstances”.  It seems that history is not too clear on this point. The troops left in the fortress soon surrendered, but rather than killing them, the Crusaders expelled them from the city. This way there was no muss or fuss and they were free to loot at will.  They were permitted to settle across the river in what is today Basse Carcassonne.  This defeat eventually led to Carcassonne being incorporated into France.

September 12, 2011

Distance traveled today: 300 yards

Madam Carcas at the Narbonne Gate

Madam Carcas at the Narbonne Gate

Today we moved from our canal side mooring to a marina in Basse Carcassonne, where we could enjoy shore power and take on more fresh water. We took a taxi to the gates of Le Cite (the ancient part of Carcassonne ) which can be reached by two bridges,  the Neuf (new) and the Vieux (old). We entered through the Narbonne Gate, which is reached by a crooked drawbridge – made that way to slow any attackers. From there we admired the old Roman walls, now part of what is the inner wall.  Subsequent fortifiers in medieval times simply added stone and mortar to make it higher and to add arrow slits, since arrows were not part of the Roman arsenal.  The reconstructed outer walls of today contain 52 towers and are almost 2 miles in circumference.

A Barbican Used to Defend Le Cite

A Barbican Used to Defend Le Cite

We made our way to a restaurant called Adelaide on a square called St. Jean’s Place to enjoy lunch, and we again sampled the cassoulet. We proceeded though the gates of the inner walls which are the same gates from Roman times, passing the barbican – whose design was semicircular and open on the inside to allow defenders to fire down on any invaders who got past the outer wall.  Each gate also had a portcullis (a huge iron grate that could be lowered) and big wooden doors.   The inner walls also had arrow slits. With all these defenses it is clear why a siege was more successful than a head on assault.  You could starve them out if you could not root them out by force, and then there was always a host of diseases that could wipe out either side or both.

The Lices and the Inner wall of Carcassonne

The Lices and the Inner wall of Carcassonne

After lunch we planned to take in the highlights of Carcasonne, which included massive moats (called lices) between the inner and outer walls. Contrary to popular castle lore, the moats in medieval castles were not filled with water. They were essentially ditches intended to keep invaders from rolling towers up to the walls and going over the wall. They also prevented tunneling since anyone attempting a tunnel under the outer wall would emerge into the space between the two walls where they could be attacked with rocks and boiling oil or whatever was on hand.  On the subject on tunneling, sometimes they would be dug to try to undermine the foundation of the outer wall and to force it to collapse.  To combat that, there were walkways above where invaders could have unpleasant things dropped on them.

Inside Chateau Comtal

Inside Chateau Comtal

We  hired a guide for a tour of the Chateau Comtal. The tour was supposed to be in English, but it was more like “Frenglish”; however, our tour guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and even played the roles of some of the more colorful characters who have lived inside the wall of Le Cite.  We  learned that the Chateau Comtal was used in 1990 as the movie set for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, and many of the locals were used as extras. We also learned in the course of our “Frenglish Tour”  that Carcasonne was restored by a duke (“duc”) whose name was Viollette. In French”duc” is pronounced like “duck”,  which caused us some confusion until we caught on to this small detail as we heard, “the duck did this and the duck did that”, etc.  One thing the duck (oops make that the duc) did that

Some of Le Duc's Restorations

Some of Le Duc’s Restorations

has caused a lot of controversy is that he took some artistic license with the restoration and did not adhere strictly to historical details in the architecture. The purity of the site was not maintained.  One example cited of his transgression was that he put flat walls on the sides of the barbican when everyone knows they should be rounded. He also put a variety of roofs on various structures within the fortress wall – some cones, some chateau style, some Romanesque, some Gothic. It was quite an eclectic mix, but to the average tourist (ourselves included) – it is a beautiful thing. At various times in history, there were four types of monks from different orders  – Cistercian, Benedictine, Dominican and Franciscan and so their buildings added an interesting mix as well, long before Le Duc go involved.

The St. Nazaire Church

The St. Nazaire Church

We walked by the St. Nazaire Church which was a basilica in its day, but due to the diminished population today it is not even a parish church. It started out as a Romanesque Church, but after the fall of Carcassone, the northern French decided they would tear it down and replace it with a Gothic structure (their architecture of choice). The teardown proved quite costly so they abandoned it and just added Gothic elements where they could. We made a brief stop to see the Hotel de la Cite which is both an elegant hotel and restaurant which we found to be beautiful, but ridiculously extravagantly priced. It was a good thing we already

 

The Hotel de la Cite

The Hotel de la Cite

had lodging.  This was the Bishop’s Palace back in medieval days so we concluded the Bishop lived pretty high on the hog. We took a self guided walking tour and strolled through the village and then took a bus back to the Centre Ville (city center) and walked to the boat to “freshen up” for dinner. Later we would take the navette (little train) back up to Le Cite for dinner. We have enjoyed spectacular weather with clear skies, crisp days and cool evenings. From the ramparts of the castle we could see the Pyrennes Mountains to the south. To the north we saw a straight line of trees running east and west that define the Midi Canal and the somewhat snaky course of the Aude River between the Castle and the new town.

A View of Basse Carcasonne from the Ramparts of le Cite

A View of Basse Carcasonne from the Ramparts of le Cite

We went back to the Citadel that night and the dramatic castle lighting made it appear truly magical. We had dinner at the Auberge des Lices in the shadow of the cathedral and there was another excellent cassoulet on the menu. We learned that a member of l’Academy (Universelle  de Cassoulet (a.k.a. Universal Cassoulet Academy), who knew the dish, passed it down from the Romans. It can include a “confit”  (pronounced con-fee with the accent on “fee”) of jelly like stuff made from duck fat with either pieces of fruit or duck meat suspended inside.  (This detail was a deal killer for me, but our adventurous eaters who ordered the cassoulet, pronounced it magnifique.) We managed to find a taxi to take us back to our boat in Basse Carcasonne where we spent the night.

September 13, 2011

Dateline:  Marker 118 Trebes, France

Distance traveled today: 14 kilometers, with 4 locks

Today, we again headed east to return our boat to Trebes, where we would disembark. We traveled 13 kilometers today to get back to Trebes, passing through  the same 4 locks only in reverse and going down instead of up at each lock and so we had to let the lines out versus tightening them up.

At Journey's EndWe were blessed with yet another beautiful day – a cool morning, a warm afternoon and a cool evening.  While in one of the locks we were side by side with a French family who told us they spend July through September on their boat. They showed us a little garden of herbs growing on their top deck. When we cleared that lock and were queued up for the next one, the lady of the boat scurried off their boat, over a small bridge and around to our boat to give us some of her fresh herbs she had grown to use in preparing our dinner that night. The bounty included basil and lemon thyme and assorted herbes aromatiques as she described them.  We were quite impressed with the warmth of the French people who quite undeservedly often get a bad rap for snootiness.  We have found that an initial greeting of  bon jour (good day) or a bon soir (good evening) goes a long way in starting a congenial conversation and is essentially the well-mannered thing to do here. In contrast we have seen English speaking tourists charging up to locals and demanding to know where “ the damned cathedral is at” without any sort of preamble or greeting and they can definitely receive the “stink eye” from the French.

We arrived in Trebes with several chores to do. We still needed to mail the key back to the B&B in St. Emilion – having failed at that on a previous visit, and we also needed to shop for our last meal aboard. We went to the patisserie for bread and the charcuterie for meat and also managed to secure a few Euros at the local ATM.

A Challenging Place to Tie Up

A Challenging Place to Tie Up

After doing our shopping, we motored downstream from the town of Trebes to tie up in the shade of the sycamores. We have learned not to tie up to trees across the tow path since that is  frequently used by bicyclists, joggers and casual strollers, and in the dusk, they could accidently “clothesline” themselves.  We ended up tying up to tree roots on a steep bank right over the water and this involved an interesting maneuver whereby I lay prone to tie a line to the roots and Stu was in charge of holding on to the waistband of my shorts to keep me out of the water. It was touch and go for a while there and we thought we would both go in, but thankfully we managed to avert disaster for this, our final night.

September 14, 2011

Dateline: Nice, France

The Train to Nice

The Train to Nice

We returned the boat in Trebes  to the LeBoat office there and took a taxi to Carcasonne’s train station at 10:00 a.m. We then caught the  11:30 Teoz train to Marseilles. There was a delay (or retard as they call it), but we did manage to catch our 4:35 TGV  train to Nice arriving around 6:00 p.m. and then took a taxi to the Hotel Campanile at the Nice Airport. We ate at the hotel and Gary ordered osso bucco and pronounced it the best ever. (this is a common pronouncement – not that there is a real comparison – the best one is usually the one he is eating now). We also enjoyed a full-sized real bed instead of our cozy berth on the Magnifique which had been our home for 9 days. Tomorrow we will fly to Munich for the next part of our adventure.




French Countryside Part 2: Bavaria, Provence and The Cote D’Azur

 

  Exploring the French Countryside with a German Detour

Part Two – Bavaria, Provence and the Cote D’Azur

September 15, 2011

Dateline: Munich, Germany

Latitude at Munich 42.13 Degrees North, Longitude 11.56 Degrees East

The Aldstadt (Old Town) Munich

The Aldstadt (Old Town) Munich

Today we took a shuttle from our hotel in Nice to the airport to catch our Lufthansa flight to Munich to visit our friends Klaus and Inge. They met us at the airport and we took a bus into the city and then a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Schlicker, right in the heart of the old city and an easy walk to many of the sights in the Alstadt  (old town). Munich is located on the Isar River on the lower northern slopes of the German Alps.  It is the capital of Bavaria, which for hundreds of years was a kingdom unto itself. It only became part of Germany in 1871. The city has retained it richness of culture and architecture and draws millions of tourists each year.

At the Viktualien Market

At the Viktualien Market

We took a stroll at the nearby Viktualien Market (translation Victuals Market) which is a large square that has served as a market place for the last 200 years.  There we saw all sorts of food and crafts for sale in umbrella covered stalls, alongside churches and beer gardens. The food was beautifully presented with a liberal dose of vinegar on almost everything. We walked to the famous Dallmayr Deli and into a spice shop that had an amazing array of fresh spices from around the world. They also offered blended spices to season specific dishes, such as the paella we bought. The shop, and indeed the entire neighborhood, was decorated with the ubiquitous hops vines made into wreaths and swags. The hops used in brewing beer look like tiny and fragile pale green pine cones.  The traditional houses in the old town are tall narrow pastel structures with steep pitched roofs with Bavarian flags featuring a pale blue and white diagonal check pattern prominently displayed.

Rathaus (Town Hall) of Munich

Rathaus (Town Hall) of Munich

The city was getting ready for Oktoberfest, a   celebration started in 1810 when Prince Ludwig was married. The original date was October 17, and thus the name, but it was moved to September so they could have better (warmer) weather. The actual celebration runs for 16 days and takes place in Theresienweise , which most of the year is just a large oval meadow in a Munich suburb.  However during the last part of September, it turns quite boisterous, offering a venue for music, fun and the drinking of beer – lots of drinking of beer, so much so that the average merrymaker at Oktoberfest has no inkling of Prince Ludwig’s existence. Oktoberfest has been held continuously since it started (with the exception of 27 cancellations due to war and cholera), and with good reason. It brings around 1.3 billion Euros to the area.

The Beer Garden at the Hofbrauhaus

The Beer Garden at the Hofbrauhaus

We walked to The Hofbrauhaus  (translation is Brew House) to have dinner. The Hofbrauhaus was established in 1589 by Bavarian Duke Wilhelm V because he disliked the local beer and decided to have his own brewery. It became a food establishment as well, and one of its claims to fame is that the first food laws of the world were established here. It seems some brews had turned out to be poisonous or otherwise toxic before standards were adopted. In 1607 they established a second beer hall and made white beer (wheat based) and this is the recipe and the location of the Hofbrauhaus today.    In 1808 it was decided that the building was too small and the brewery was moved, leaving just the beer hall, which today is a mere 11,000 square meters.  It was originally just for private use by the duke, but it became public in 1828 when the current duke ordered it to be. He also regulated the price in 1844 so commoners could afford to enjoy a brew, but that had the unintended consequence of making it so popular that it created a shortage. With the ever increasing consumption at Oktoberfest and other holidays, they still struggle to keep production equal to demand.

September 16, 2011

The English Garden - Munich

The English Garden – Munich

Today Stu and Sharon took the train to Stuttgart to visit the Mercedes Benz factory while Klaus, Inge, Gary and I meandered around Munich. Our first stop was the giant park called Englischer Garten (English Garden) where we took a long leisurely walk. It was created by Count von Rumford, an American born scientist who moved to Bavaria in 1784 and was the Bavarian Minister of War. He convinced Karl Theodor, then Elector of Bavaria to build it. Electors were princes who helped select the Holy Roman Emperor (from 1623 until 1806 when the Holy Roman Empire ceased to be).  The Garden is approximately 1, 235 acres in the center of the city, built on reclaimed marsh land. Our first stop was at the Eisbach, a small channel on the Isar River to see The Wave – which is surf artificially created  by concrete pillars

City Surfers at

City Surfers at the Eisbach

or baffles which were installed in the 1970’s to slow the flow of the river. A side benefit is that it creates continuous waves of approximately 3 to 5 feet. There were dozens of wet suited surfers there riding the waves, but there was no paddling involved. They would throw their board on the water, much like a skateboarder and hop on from the bank.  We took a stroll on the English Garden Walk enjoying the perfect autumn day.  There is an interesting mix of buildings there – a Japanese Tea Garden and the Monopteros, a Neo-classical temple, creating a very eclectic look.

From the park we went to the venerable Bayerishcerhoff Hotel Terrace on top of the hotel for refreshments before continuing on the Residenz Museum. This massive structure was the home of the first dukes of Bavaria who were the first electors. These nobles later became kings of Bavaria from 1806 to 1918 when WWI ended a lot of monarchies. The royal family of Bavaria was named Wittelsbach and the Residenz started out in the 14th Century as their relatively modest family palace. Major additions were started in the 17th Century and more were added in the 19th Century to create the behemoth of today. Within the Residenz was

Inside the Residenz

Inside the Residenz

the Treasury, plus huge areas for entertaining and being entertained including a full size theater called the Cuvillies Theater which was built in 1751 in full-fledged Rococo style.   Some parts of the Residenz were under renovation so we missed those, but the parts open were still massive.  It didn’t have the palace look from the outside, in fact it looks more like the US Department of Agriculture or Justice, but the inside is exquisite.

A note on Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture  – both are very fancy and detailed, but Baroque preceded Rococo.  Baroque is mostly dark and serious, with death scenes, somber and often brutal statuary and carvings.   Rococo is done in a much lighter vein. It is very much over the top with curlicues, gold, rich colors, statues in every niche  (and not to mention cranny),  with designs, scenes, figures and creatures  (both historical and mythical)  carved on every surface with carvings on top of carvings, but everyone is happy in the Rococo motifs. If Baroque conjures up a witches brew, Rococo calls to mind a wedding cake.

How tables are Bussed at the HIrschgarten

How tables are Bussed at the HIrschgarten

We took a break from our sightseeing to have coffee and cake at our friends’ apartment with two other friends of theirs. Afterward we took a taxi to the Hirschgarten (Deer Garden) which is actually now a Beer Garden for appertifs and dinner. This garden, also known as the  Koniglicher Hirschgarten (Kings Deer Garden)  was an outdoor café that caters to approximately 8,000 beer drinkers simultaneously, making it the largest beer garden in Bavaria.  We did see a few of the tiny deer for which the garden was named still surviving, despite the 8,000 rowdy beer drinkers.

 

A Happy Guy with his Haxn

A Happy Guy with his Haxn

Dinner was a buffet featuring haxn (pig knuckles which are really pig knees). It is a huge hunk of schwein (pork or swine is a closer translation) on a plate with sauerkraut. Gary loved ever bite of it, but I opted for chicken. I also sampled wienerschnitzel  while here which, contrary to the name of a popular American hot dog eatery, has nothing to do with wieners as we know them. It is a delicious cutlet, lightly breaded and sautéed. We met Stu and Sharon here, back from their day in Stuttgart and enjoyed the beer, music and people watching.

September 17, 2011

The Bavarian Countryside

The Bavarian Countryside

Today we took a bus tour out to the Bavarian Countryside to see Linderhof and  Neuschwanstein Castle, both homes of King Ludwig II ( often called Mad King Ludwig or more diplomatically “a man out of step with his time”) who lived from 1845 to 1886. Ludwig II’s father, King Maximillian II died unexpectedly in 1864 when Ludwig was only 18.  It was a turbulent time of war with the neighbors and Ludwig II ended up endorsing the creation of the Reich and Bavaria lost its independence in 1871 and came under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I. (this was the First Reich). Ludwig II at this point seemed to retreat into a bygone era and he started building castles that conjured up medieval times, such as Neuschwanstein or the glory days of Versailles such as Falkenstein castle, which was designed and never built. In fact most of his projects, including Neuschwanstein, if started, were never completed. It was raining when we left Munich, but as our bus climbed to the village of Ettal, the sun came out and we had a sunny day to take in the gorgeous landscape – storybook houses, green pastures with sturdy well fed cows and horses, blue green mountains emerging from the mist and patches of blue sky here and there. With the clearing skies we were able to see the Zugspitz, the highest mountain in Germany looming above the narrow valley.

LInderhof

LInderhof

Everything was incredibly tidy and clean. There was a total absence of litter, and everything was orderly, from firewood cut and stacked in uniform lengths with nary a splinter out of place, to cars parked evenly spaced with nary a tire over the line.  Our first stop was Linderhof (translation is hall of the linden trees) which was the only one of Ludwig II’s building projects that was actually finished (completed in 1878), although this was a remodel versus a build-from-scratch project.  The outside is Baroque and very much influenced by French architecture, but  the inside is Rococo, also influenced by the French, but there are also many Bavarian elements mixed in as well. The grounds are equally opulent and very French Baroque, but with elements of an English Garden and buildings and grottos designed to replicate scenes from Wagnerian operas with a few Moroccan elements thrown it.

Gardens at Linderhof

Gardens at Linderhof

Linderhof was Ludwig’s personal play house. This is where he came to get away – from everyone, including his servants. He still had to have servants of course, but he insisted that he not see or hear them.  His dining room featured a dining table for one.  The table was set in the room below the dining room and then raised up through a concealed opening in the floor with the entire meal (fit for a king) on it. After he finished eating, it disappeared the same way.  Ludwig received no visitors and granted no audiences while here, but he did “work” from here. His Secretary of State brought documents from Munich every week for him to sign, but never saw him.  It was reported that Ludwig was perhaps shy and not crazy, but regardless of the diagnosis, he did not improve over time. He was also reportedly gay since he never married, but that, it is argued, could be attributed to his shyness. His biggest flaw as a monarch however was his profligate depletion of royal assets. Ludwig was very fond of the French Court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and patterned much of his residences after the over the top opulence of that era.  He even had portraits of some of the French court members hanging on his walls, but his construction projects were the final straw on the road to bankrupting the kingdom. Ludwig drowned in a lake at the age of 41 under suspicious circumstances (apparently there was a doctor present at the drowning)  and there are conspiracy theories  who say it was murder, either to cover up his sexual identity or that so one of his several uncles could inherit the throne. There was much intrigue along the lines of that surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death.  There are still a lot of Wittlebach royalty – the odd prince or princess around today- who receive a lot Hollywood style press coverage.

Oberammergau

Oberammergau

Our next stop was Oberammergau, home to the famous Passion Play, depicting the life of Christ. It has been performed here only every 10 years. The tradition was started in 1634 as a means of thanking God for deliverance from the Black Plague. The last one was in 2010, and so the next one will be in 2020.  The production requires the efforts of around 2,000 people and the townspeople are almost all involved in the play in some fashion. It is performed in German and is not video- taped or translated, but people still come from all over the world to see it. So I guess if you know your New Testament, you can get the hang of it, even if you don’t understand German. The town itself is quite charming in a Grimm’s Fairy Tale sort of way, set in a narrow valley with steep streets. The houses fit the Bavarian stereotype with window boxes full of ivy geraniums.  A unique feature of Oberammergau is the facades of the houses which are painted with scenes  from  fairy tales, Bavarian lore and Biblical events. They were status symbols during the 18th Century and the village has continued to maintain them.

Running of the Cows at Hohenschangau

Running of the Cows at Hohenschwangau

From there we went to the village of Hohenschwangau where Ludwig II had another castle which his father had renovated with the same name as the village. The original castle there dates back to medieval times. Ludwig II reportedly spend his summers here as a young man. We had a really delightful experience here that thoroughly jammed up traffic.  The local farmers were bringing their cows down from higher pastures and they came right down the main street of town. It was a little chaotic and the occasional cow would run amok into the crowds of gawking tourists, (sort of a tamer version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona) Although these were milk cows,  they were still big and could easily bowl you over like a ten pin.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

We had lunch at the Hotel Muller and then took the thirty minute walk/climb to Ludwig’s most famous structure, Schloss (Castle) Neuschwanstein, which was perched on a mountain top above the town. (Translation Neu= New, Schwan = swan, Stein = rock – or New Swan on the Rock if you will.)   It was, we were told, the model that Disney used for Cinderella’s castle.  It is quite imposing from the outside, but despite its 17 years of construction, it was never finished. Ludwig kept borrowing money right up until he died, much of it needed because he kept changing his mind and having work ripped out that he no longer wanted or liked. The castle designer was Christian Jank whose daytime job was theater design, which makes perfect sense when one sees the sheer drama created here at the castle.

A View of Neuschwanstein from the village of Hohenschwagau

A View of Neuschwanstein from the Village of Hohenschwagau

Ludwig was a big fan and patron of Wagner’s operas and he envisioned scenes from them painted on the walls of Neuschwanstein. He even had a cave built out of plaster of Paris on a frame inside the castle to replicate the one from the opera, Tannhauser. Ludwig had a special fondness for swans and thus the name of the castle, which is built on the shores of the Schwansee (Swan lake) but he also fancied himself in a romantic fairy tale kingdom with jousting knights, courtly love, poets and minstrels and he sought to re-create all of that here, (shades of Michael Jackson and his Neverland Ranch.) Given Ludwig’s castle building binges, he soon had money problems and word was out that he might just not be playing with a full deck and talk of deposing him was rampant. So in June of 1886, his mysterious “drowning” in Lake Starnberg solved a lot of problems for a lot of Bavarians. We arrived back in Munich in the early evening and had dinner downtown at Hugo’s on their outdoor patio, which was covered, but the rain and wind drove us inside after we witnessed one canopy collapsing and thoroughly drenching some neighboring patrons.

September 18, 2011

Draft Horses Pulling a Beer Wagon

Draft Horses Pulling a Beer Wagon

Today it was very vigorously raining on our parade – the Oktoberfest Parade that is, but we managed to find a spot where we only got mildly damp as the marathon parade marched past us. The parade is a massive affair with 8,000 people in costume, and entrants from all the towns of Bavaria, all the breweries in Bavaria and many regions in the surrounding Alps such as Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Each  group had their own costumes and themes, dancers and music and then each of the breweries had their own draft horses and beer wagons  all decorated in brass and leather to the hilt– the Budweiser Clydesdales would pale in comparison. Although these draft horses are generally for show, for Oktoberfest they actually are hauling beer and some of the breweries passed out samples along the parade route.

Village People Band

Village People Band

Many of the people in the parade would yodel or call out something that sounded like” Ya-hoo-hoo-hoo”, and then some added a few extra “hoo’s” .  It called to mind the call from the American West “yee haw”. It had that same sort of tone and inflection. It may be that cattle calling connection.  Their spunk and spirit were amazing considering they were whooping and hollering in a driving rain. Only Bavarian breweries participate in Oktoberfest, but there are plenty of them. Beer producers erect vast marquees (giant tents) and provide tables and benches or chairs and a plethora port-a-potties.  Everything was decorated with hops vines, a key ingredient of good beer. Admission to the event is free   but to get a table in one of the tents requires a purchase and connections since these seats are in high demand.  Each tent will hold thousands of people so it is quite the party inside.

Men in Lederhosen with Their Alpenhorns

Men in Lederhosen with Their Alpenhorns

Many of the local people dress up for the occasion, with the ladies typically in dirndl skirts and embroidered peasant blouses, and the men in leather lederhosen (short pants) and fancy shirts – sort of like Americans dressing up for a rodeo in Western wear. A symbol of the celebration is a large heart shaped, largely inedible gingerbread cookie, which can be worn as a pendant. Oktoberfest begins with the parade, and a ceremonial tapping of the first barrel of beer. Sixteen days later it closes no doubt amid massive hangovers. We did learn that at the end of each day there are a significant number of bierleichen (translation = beer corpses) who have to be rousted and escorted off the grounds. Recent statistics show 827 people requiring medical attention during Oktoberfest one year, which is really not bad considering there is seating for 100,000 and the grounds hold many more. In fact there are usually over 6 million

Hops and Oktoberfest Cookies

Hops and Oktoberfest Cookies

people visiting over the 16 days and they consume between 6 and 7.5 million liters of beer which sounds like pretty modest consumption except many of the attendees are children (drinking age here is 16).  Other interesting statistics: there are 965 toilets and ½ mile of urinals. Amazingly, crime is low considering the number of people and amount of alcohol with 487 arrested in 2012. The biggest crime seems to be theft of beer steins that some people perceive to be souvenirs included in the price of the beer. Authorities confiscated 226,000 from celebrants in 2012.We understand that there are no charges pressed as long as the perpetrators peaceably return the goods. Violence is also minimal – in 2012 for example there were 58 incidences of people hit over the head with beer steins, which seem to be the weapon of choice. We took a break from the parade, which was still going strong, for lunch at the Haxnbauer (rough translation is the Pigknuckle Inn). Said knuckles were quite large, served on a heaping bed of sauerkraut, making a feast suitable for  medieval times when bones were thrown on the rushes on the floor  for the hounds to gnaw on.  Gary is determined to try this at home – I am less enthused about this idea.   We stopped for coffee at 4:00 then we went back to the hotel to change into dry clothes for an evening at Oktoberfest.

In the Paulaner Tent

In the Paulaner Tent

We took the subway along with throngs of people and made our way to the Paulaner tent where we had reservations and where we met Klaus and Inge and their friends.  There was much merriment – singing and dancing on the floor and on the benches – no dancing on the table since you might knock the beer over. There were no formal introductions to people at adjacent tables, but we were included their group dancing. In fact a neighboring giantess, whom we dubbed Helga, was particularly interested in the men folk at our table and brazenly invited/demanded that they dance with her. And of course they did.

Serving up Paulaner on Draft with Fresh Radishes

Serving up Paulaner on Draft with Fresh Radishes

The DJ played a lot of dated American music including such songs as “Sweet Caroline”, “YMCA”,  “Hey Baby” and the very interestingly rendered “Sweet Home Alabama”.  They also played 3 to 4 times an hour, the German Oktoberfest Classic “Ein Prosit”  that none of us  Americans really knew the words to, but that did not keep us from singing along anyway. When this song is played, the crowd stands and sways to the music, often with arms linked, followed by a toast and chugging of beer. A key phrase in the song is “Gemutlichkeit”, which translates as “coziness” or” good cheer”  and it generates a sense of belonging, social acceptance and leaving your troubles (and differences) at the door. It was like a big fraternity party with 6,000 of your best friends. It felt a little like Woodstock must have been, with the same sentiments (peace love and understanding), but of course being German, it  was much more organized.  Beer may just be the solution to world peace that everyone has been looking for.

September 19, 2011

Dateline: St. Paul de Vence, France

Latitude at St. Paul de Vence  43.69 degrees North, Longitude 7.12 degrees East

The View From the Ramparts of St. Paul de Vence

The View From the Ramparts of St. Paul de Vence

We had a very early flight back to France and were picked up by a taxi in a downpour at 4:00 a.m. for our 6:40 a.m. flight from Munich back to Nice. We took a taxi to the train station in Nice to pick up a car.  Our first vehicle was a Dacia, but with four people and luggage, we quickly determined that this was a non-starter, so we swapped that for a Peugeot (a newer model of the car Inspector Clousseau had in the Pink Panther movie back in the 1960’s). From there, thanks to a combination of a map and GPS provided in the car, we drove to St. Paul de Vence with a minimum number of wrong turns and checked into the Hotel La Grand Bastide.  A bastide was a fortified town in medieval days and we learned that this part of France has a wealth of them, many now in the business of welcoming outsiders instead of sending them packing.

City Walls of St. Paul de Vence

City Walls of St. Paul de Vence

St. Paul de Vence (pronounced Sahn Pahl de Vahnce) is located on the Cote de Azur (pronunciation is “coat dah zoohr” with the accent on the first and last syllables. Translation is the Azure Coast) It is one of the iconic “villages perches” (translation = perched villages) of Provence. These are villages built on the jagged summits of mountaintops and hillsides, most dating back to the Middle Ages when these lofty “perches” were essential for defending against intruders. Each village has a very distinctive silhouette with ramparts and a bell tower jutting into the sky from a rocky promontory.  The villages are typically comprised of narrow cobbled streets with steps, archways and alleyways and were built around a fortified castle.  In the event of an invasion, the local people would close the gates to the town, and if that was not successful, they could retreat inside the ramparts of the castle for safety. Today these villages have been subject to a new invasion of artisans and tourists, who are welcomed with open gates and open arms and the tourists respond in kind with open wallets.

Insde the Walls of St. Paul de Vence

Insde the Walls of St. Paul de Vence

The medieval ramparts of St. Paul de Vence were totally restored in the 16th Century and these are the walls standing today, but the streets were bare until the early 1950’s when the Mayor had them laid with cobblestones from the beach at nearby Cagnes Sur Mer. The stones were placed on their sides in the Provencale tradition, which makes for interesting walking for anyone in ridiculously fashionable shoes. The site dates back to Roman times when an oppidum (essentially a walled provincial fortress) was built to defend against the uncivilized hordes from the north.  Over the centuries the town developed as people built around a chateau there with its chapel dedicated to St. Paul, and thus the name St. Paul de Vence  came to be. Then there were more walls built which date from the Middle Ages in the 13th Century to create a stronghold to fend off the Saracens along with other principalities such as Savoy, Austria and Piedmont. In 1543, “spur” bastion walls (walls that protrude out beyond the rectangle walls, providing a place from which to shoot arrows at anyone trying to scale the walls) were added to protect the city gates.

Afternoon Light at its Best in St. Paul de Vence

Afternoon Light at its Best in St. Paul de Vence

In the 19th century, painters flocked to the area, attracted by the colors of the hills covered with wildflowers and in particular the buttery light of the balmy south of France.  The most famous lodgings in town, the Colombe D’Or now has a wonderful art collection in their dining room of paintings accepted over the years in lieu of payment of hotel bills incurred by now famous artists. After looking at their prices for meals and lodging, we concluded that even a bartered Picasso or a Chagall might not go too far here. In the 20th Century St. Paul de Vence became a fashionable hangout for celebrities, with hangers- on and tourists following in their wake. We had brunch and a brief rest by the pool before walking up to the old town.

At the Place de la Fontaine St. Paul de Vence

At the Place de la Fontaine St. Paul de Vence

Entrance to the town is through the 13th Century gate of Porte Royale. The main street runs thought the town past the Place de la Grande Fontaine to Porte Sud . Fountains have been in use since medieval times as the source of water for the townspeople and this one has survived the centuries.   The town is a jumble of alleyways that twist and turn around the bell tower and central fountain square. We stopped at a store that sold liqueurs and olive oil called Le Trois Etoiles (translation is The Three Stars) and bought a peach liqueur thinking we might locate some champagne make Bellinis. We had dinner at a restaurant called La Sierra. Stu and Gary ordered rabbit and pronounced it wondrous, but I couldn’t bring myself to taste it – I could only visualize Thumper in the Bambi story.

Petanque Game in Progress

Petanque Game at the Jeu de Boules

After dinner we watched local men playing boules (also known as petanque, although technically the balls they play with are boules and the game is petanque). It looks similar to the Italian game of bocce. Their “pitch” was  grassless open ground under the plane trees of a square called “Jeu de Boules . The historic Café de la Place was adjacent, offering refreshments to the players and onlookers, built on the site of the old La Moulin a Huile (Olive Mill) where in the 19th Century water mills crushed olives into olive oil.

 

September 20, 2011

Lavender for Sale in a Local Shop

Lavender for Sale in a Local Shop

Today after coffee and baguettes, we drove east from St. Paul de Vence to the village of Eze-le-Village, (Eze rhymes with Fez) another “perched village” which bills itself as the Village of Art and Gastronomy. There is another Eze not far away, but it is nowhere nearly as picturesque, and thus the “le village” designation is important to travelers.  They should also add story book charm to the title. We were there on a beautifully sunny day and thoroughly enjoyed our explorations here.  Eze is a walled village built on a hilltop below the ruins of an ancient castle, and it has steep narrow lanes to navigate, but it is worth every step. Stephen Liergard (the same person who dubbed this area the Cote d’Azur) described the walk as a climb up “the golden braid” of a ” black bodice”.  I can’t say that I would describe it just like that, but he might have had more wine than we had at that point. I have seen the Mediterranean many times and most of that time the water doesn’t quite live up to azure, but here at Eze – it’s a different story.   It is most definitely azure.

The View from the Chateau Eza

The View from the Chateau Eza

The village itself is  postcard worthy. It is a collection of old houses built around the ruins of a 14th Century castle. We had a delightful walk with tiny shops and restaurants and fantastic views of the Mediterranean at every turn – and there were many turns -amid walls covered in jasmine, wild roses and bougainvillea. It is indeed a step back in time to walk the streets of this village whose houses, including those of the aristocrats, did not have running water until 1952. Despite this inconvenience, there was still an abundance of fine residences there including the Chateau Eza where a Swedish Prince lived from 1923 to 1953. The ground floors are now shops and studios. This space in those days was used for wine cellars and stables for the small donkeys that brought fresh produce directly from the surrounding countryside up the narrow streets.  The upper floors today house a fine restaurant and hotel.

Castle Ruins and the Church of St. Croix - Eze

Castle Ruins and the Chapel of St. Croix – Eze

The oldest building in the village built in 1306 is the Chapel of St. Croix which is also known as the Chapelle des Penitents Blanc (Chapel of the White Penitents).  The white penitents were a religious group of lay people of the Roman Catholic faith who created an organization to promote religious charitable works and penitence, such as fasting and self-abasement . This type of organization is called a confraternity and the color associated with their garb is attached to their name – in this group it was white. There are other confraternities which dress in other colors. They wear a costume that typically consists of a robe, a face covering and a pointed hood , making the white penitents outfit disconcertingly similar to that of the KKK.  A visit to Eze during an Penitents Blanc event can be a little startling if you are not tuned in to this unusual coincidence.

The Chevre d'Or

The Chevre d’Or

We treated ourselves to drinks at the Chateau Eza where the views were every bit as fabulous as advertised. We briefly visited the famous Chevre d’ Or (translation is Golden Goat) which is a hotel and restaurant with the requisite fabulous views of the Mediterranean as well.  According to legend there was in ancient times a golden goat which would make intruders lose their way in the winding streets and distract them from their goal of looting the castle back in the days when it was filled with treasure rather than bats. The castle was destroyed by the soldiers of King Louis XIV in 1706. Today the castle grounds contain the Exotic Garden, consisting mostly of succulent plants collected from around the world. We were told from the top of the hill one could see Corsica on a clear day, but we decided to continue on our way instead of making the arduous climb.

The Villas of the Corniches as seen from Eze

The Villas of the Corniches as seen from Eze

From Eze we drove east and we had a choice of 3 scenic roads or corniches which link Nice to Monaco. Corniche translates as roughly as a cliff (or cornice) or cliff road – which in this case are scenic roads cut out of the mountainsides.  There is the High (Haute) or Grand Corniche , Lower (Basse)  and Middle (Moyenne) Corniche. The Lower Corniche was built in the 1860’s along the train line to allow motorists access to the casino at Monaco. It also enabled the seaside villages to spring up and provided thousands of people with access to the water. We left Eze on the Middle Corniche, whose steep hairpin turns kept us “oohing and aahing” over the views it afforded us. It also gave us glimpses of sumptuous villas both above and below us, including that of King Leopold II of Belgium, built in the 1920’s and then sold to the Agnelli Family (of Fiat) and later to a family of American bankers.  We then made the ascent to the Grand Corniche, over 1600 feet above the Mediterranean,  which took us to the village of La Turbie, an old medieval  city, to enjoy a picnic lunch and a parking ticket (well, actually we only enjoyed the lunch).

The Ruins of the Trophee d'August at La Turbie

The Ruins of the Trophee d’August at La Turbie

The Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon and runs alongside the old Roman road called the Via Aurelia, which was the route the Romans took to first invade and then defend their conquest of Gaul (current day France).  A lasting symbol of their presence is the Trophee d’ Auguste, a commemorative monument erected in the 1st Century B.C, to glorify Augustus Caesar as the conqueror of the 44 hostile tribes  of the Alps. It stands on what was once the border between the Roman Empire and Gaul. This particular victory was the beginning of the Pax Romana  (Roman Peace) which lasted over 200 years. It is the only monument of its kind still in existence in France, although only a portion of it remains intact. Like so many Roman structures, it became used as a quarry for later building projects. Unfortunately it was closed for ongoing restoration while we were there, so we only got to see it at a distance.

 

Monaco as Seen from the Grand Corniche

Monaco as Seen from the Grand Corniche

From there we dropped down into Monaco and took the tunnel to Nice  and drove on to Villefranche-sur- Mer, (pronounced veal –fransh- sir- mare), another utterly charming village, with buildings of soft pastels and steep narrow streets. Like so many Riviera towns, Villefranch-sur-Mer was once a fishing village, but very few families fish today, largely because the Mediterranean is considered largely “fished out”.  Fish still is featured on most menus, but it now mostly comes from the Atlantic. Another Villefranche claim to fame is that it was home to the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet until 1966 when they moved to Naples.  The town still

 

Waterfront at Villefranche-sur-Mer

Waterfront at Villefranche-sur-Mer

boasts a huge castle built in the 16th Century by the Duke of Savoy to defend against the French, but of course, once the area became part of France in 1860 the castle became unnecessary and was turned into first a barracks and it then later housed city hall, the police station and  museums, which are still there today. We had drinks and dinner at a restaurant called Trastavere on the lively waterfront of the tiny harbor where we ate outside at a table right on the water and absorbed the ambiance.  Whereas Eze felt quite ritzy (and I guess it was since when I perused the menu at “The Golden Goat”, I found a cheeseburger priced at 55 Euros – which comes just over 80 bucks. Needless to say we did our burger eating elsewhere),

Fishing Nets on the Villefranche-sur-Mer Waterfron

Fishing Nets on the Villefranche-sur-Mer Waterfront

Villefranche-Sur-Mer has an Italian flavor, maybe a Cinque Terre sort of vibe. It seemed to be the hangout for a lot waterfront workers and crew members from the eye-popping mega-yachts in the harbor, or perhaps worker bees from the palatial chateaux of Cap Ferrat just across the bay. We noticed the dinghies of these yachts ranged anywhere from  humble Zodiac inflatables to a fully outfitted Boston Whalers, all bobbing side by side, as the yachtsmen and crew  members came and went.  We stopped at a market for cheese, baguettes, fruit and wine for our next picnic and then drove back to St. Paul de Vence full of good food and wine and memories,

 

September 21, 2011

Molinard Perfume Factory

Molinard Perfume Factory

Today we took our Peugeot west to the village of Grasse, famous for its perfume houses  dating back to the 16th century. It was also home to the painter, Fragonard. It wasn’t always such a sweet smelling town since there were also tanneries here at one time to compete with the fields of flowers used in the perfumes.  Today the tanneries are gone and the flowers to make the perfume are largely imported. Sharon and I toured the Molinard perfume factory  (although our particular tour was in German and so we didn’t learn as much as we might have) while the guys had a glass of wine at an outdoor café. Stu and Sharon’s grandson, who lives in Georgia, was curious about what French school kids looked like and so the guys tried to capture a few on camera, but had to be careful not to be mistaken for pedophiles.

 Lavender Ready for the Steamer

Lavender Ready for the Steamer

On our tour we learned that the perfume industry actually got its start here because of the tanneries. Catherine de Medici had started a trend with her perfumed scented gloves and the demand for them grew almost exponentially. The fields surrounding Grasse became covered with acres of lavender, jasmine, roses and other scented flowers, as well as aromatic herbs. The process is essentially this: Flowers are picked in the early morning and then essences are extracted by various methods including the steam method which we saw demonstrated. The idea is to separate the essential oils. Steaming is common with orange

 

Old Copper Perfume Vats on Display at Molinard

Old Copper Perfume Vats on Display at Molinard

blossoms which are mixed with water and boiled and the essential oils are extracted by an oil decanter called an essencier.  The more delicate flowers such as jasmine undergo a process called enfleurage where the petals are placed between layers of lard which becomes filled with the scent.  This process requires thousands of flowers. E.G one ton of jasmine flowers produces 1 liter of jasmine essence.   Perumes are created by a “perfumer” (also called “the nose”)  who mixes fragrances by  blending a number of essences.

 

From Grasse we drove through the Gorges of Verdon, entering at the village of Castellane, a one- time medieval stronghold, whose walls  date from Roman times. However these walls were repeatedly encroached upon by the river and eventually succumbed to it. The walls were rebuilt in the 14th Century,  but had  little success against the river.  Our plan was to continue through

A View of the Mediterranean Near Grasse

A View of the Mediterranean Near Grasse

the gorge to the village of Digne les Baines. (Pronounced “deen le bahn”). En route we saw Notre Dame du Roc, a church built in 1703, perched on a cliff 600 feet above the village of  Castellane.   We traveled through steep gorges and canyons with mountains close by on a road called the Corniche Sublime and it was indeed sublime.  – reminiscent of the mountains above L.A. or Santa Barbara with the sea close by and  visible from time to time as a blue haze in the distance.  We sampled some local French beer , brewed here since 1664, but not quite as good a French wine.

Back along the Verdon River we passed blue green lakes with tumbling waters in a series of rapids.  The mountainsides were covered with evergreen forests – now more like the Pacific Northwest than Southern California. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Lac De Ste. Croix. We did reach Digne- les- Bains, but had no time to enjoy the “bains” (baths) personally since the day was rapidly getting away from us.

Entrevaux

Entrevaux

A highlight on our return was seeing the citadel of Entrevaux, (pronounced “ahn tray voh” with accents on the first and last syllables) perched high above the valley floor. It is reached thought a series of switchbacks and then accessed through a drawbridge that permits access to the town. It was fortified in 1690 by a French military engineer and it became one of the strongest military sites in France. Instead of building the whole village on a hill, here the citadel is built on a rocky outcrop above the village. It would take about 20 minutes to walk to the citadel from the village, so it was probably a good idea to have lookouts to warn the townspeople when it was time to make the trek to avoid the marauding hordes. We skipped the trek as darkness was rapidly approaching.

St Paul de Vence - the "Perched Village"

St Paul de Vence – the “Perched Village”

Just about dusk we returned to our base at Saint Paul de Vence and had dinner in the village at La Fontaine where we had a fantastic Cote d’Azur red.  Actually we never found any bad French wine, no matter how little we paid for it, nor where we bought it. We even bought some at a gas station that was great.  The special of the day was cod, which was also outstanding.  The French have a way with food – rivaled only by their way with wine.

 

 

September 22, 2011

Tailgating in France

Tailgating in France

Today we had our own tailgate breakfast in the parking lot of a local bakery, Fournil du St. Paul, making our bellinis out of peach schnapps and champagne, and consuming an array of quiches, beignets and turnovers. We decided to focus on the Riviera today and to see what the beautiful people were up to. The Riviera was a big draw for artists long before the glamorous “discovered” it. Artists such as Matisse, Renoir, Chagall and Picasso, just to name a few came here and painted, all entranced by the wonderful light of the sun-drenched region. It was a great experience to see the simple lines and bright colors of same landscapes, lifestyles, buildings and waterfronts that appear in so many famous paintings, but of course to see it like they saw it, you have to imagine a lot fewer tourists.

Ancient Fortifications of Antibes

Ancient Fortifications of Antibes

We drove to Antibes (pronounced Ahn-teeb with the accent on “teeb”) and strolled around a bit, taking in Port Vauban, the yacht harbor and the old Fort Carre, which once imprisoned Napoleon.  It sits atop a hill overlooking the harbor. The origins of the citadel date back to 1487. Its main function was to protect Antibes from Nice up until 1860 when they both became part of France. The history of this area goes all the way back to the Greeks, who had a trading post here called Antipolis.  Antibes was a military town until after WWI, and only then did it become a party town with the help of such notables as Rudy Valentino and Charlie Chaplin.   There are a number of ancient historical sites here – the citadel, twin medieval towers and a cathedral, but we were focused on a more leisurely and hedonistic  “Riviera” experience in the Valentino-Chaplin mode. The very renowned Picasso Museum is also here, but we took a pass on that.

The Harbor at Antibes

The Harbor at Antibes

We paid our parking ticket from La Turbie at a local tobacco shop which we thought was rather strange, but that seems to be the way things are done here. We ran across an open air market called the Marche Provencale which offered clothes, antiques, food and assorted miscellanea.  From there we walked along the waterfront and stopped for lunch at the Royal Beach Restaurant adjacent to the Plage (Beach) du Ponteil, where we were treated to outstanding food and wine. We also had the opportunity to observe a number of topless sunbathers, and rapidly came to the conclusion that many of them really shouldn’t go topless, especially so close to a restaurant, lest the patrons lose their appetites. On the more tasteful side, we had an excellent view of Cap d’Antibes – a haunt of the Rich and Famous.

The Streets of Juan Les Pins

The Streets of Juan Les Pins

We took a longish, but very pleasant walk to Juan Les Pins (with the improbable pronunciation of jew-ahn lay pahn – accenting  “jew” and “pahn”.)  The village has a long history of famous visitors starting with Napoleon in 1815, but he wasn’t there to enjoy the beach. That came later in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and assorted millionaires such as Jay Frank Gould showed up. We found its tree lined streets to be quite charming and there were shops and restaurants galore, but the beach was not the wild and pristine sandy expanses found in the Caribbean. It appeared much more

 

The Beach at Juan Les Pins

The Beach at Juan Les Pins

regimented or perhaps  “occupied”  is the right word, colonized as it was by umbrellas, beach chairs and cabanas. It was wall-to wall civilization encroaching on the natural beauty. And the sand was quite coarse, just a bit finer than the pebbly stuff we had experienced in Nice.  There were also casinos, but  they were understated – more  Monaco than Vegas. The vibe here was youthful, chic and tasteful.

From Juan Les Pins we took the short train ride to Cannes to see what all the fuss is about, and found there to be not so much fuss when the Cannes Film Festival is not underway, which happens every May. And apparently the Beautiful People were elsewhere,  but then so were the crowds so that was not such a bad thing. We walked into the city from the train station and found it to be interesting, but in a different way from ambiance we had found in villages such as Eze and St. Paul de Vence. Cannes was just a sleepy little fishing village built on a hill above the port until 1834 when a British Aristocrat “discovered” it and built a villa here and it became trendy.

Le Suquet - Cannes

Le Suquet – Cannes

The old historical part of the city is called Le Suquet. Modern day Cannes has expanded around the Bay of Cannes with a wide  palm-lined boulevard called La Croisette running along the waterfront, lined with hotels and cafes. The most notable hotels for famous people are the Carlton, the Martinez and the Majestic . The whole boulevard becomes a focal point for glamour during the film festival. There are two historic casinos, the Casino Croisette and the Palm Beach Casino, which is only open in the summer and is built in the ruins of the Fort de la Croix. All up and down the boulevard there are international flag designs, made to look like candy wrappers on some extremely large pieces of candy (quirky, very quirky this place).

We encountered another historic market, this one called the Marche Forvil, which was rich with merchandise and people watching opportunities. We walked from there to the harbor to gape at the yachts (it was quite a somnolent scene and also sans beautiful people). Mostly it was filled with crew members, idle once all the brass was polished and the boss and guests were gone.

The Carlton Hotel - Cannes

The Carlton Hotel – Cannes

We enjoyed a stroll on the Promenade de la Croisette, visualizing it people with the glitterati and paparazzi.  We had drinks at the Carlton, one of the most venerable and elegant of all the hotels where all the A-List stars stay, and soaked up the Beautiful People ambiance.    The Carlton was built in 1911, with their colonnades and ornate ceilings unchanged since then. It is sort of a wedding cake kind of place with a host of balconies and windows, although we were told the two Black cupolas on either end of the structure were modeled after the breasts of a gypsy courtesan who had captivated the architect. They are quite tall and pointy (the cupolas that is), so we had to assume that either the architect was not going for an exact anatomically correct replication or else his gypsy had a very strange body.

Beach at Cannes

Beach at Cannes

From the Boulevard de la Croisette we took the Petit Train Tournotique de Cannes for a city tour of both old and new Cannes.  The name “train” is somewhat a misnomer since it had wheels for the street and no track, but cosmetically it looked like a train in a Thomas the Tank Engine sort of motif, complete with a smokestack.  It was a great way to take in the sights in a short period of time while resting weary feet.  They provided head sets and had a different language on each channel. Gary kept switching mine to Russian to see if I was actually paying attention, which is hard to do sometimes after wine and a big lunch – it is too languorous an atmosphere to sit still for long without nodding off.  As for Old Cannes, we saw the Old Cannes Castle, which houses a museum today and dates back to the 11th Century.

The Palais du Congres

The Palais des Festivals et Congres (the Bunker)

There is also the tower (Tour) de la Castre which can be climbed to take in the view.  It also dates back to the 11th Century. In New Cannes, we saw the boulevard including the Palais des Festivals et Congres where they hold the two week Cannes Film Festival. The Palais is nicknamed the Bunker for its rather clunky façade. This is the place where the top award for achievement in filmmaking, the Palmes d’Or (Golden Palm),  is presented. Nearby is the Allee des Stars containing handprints of famous people in the business (sort of like stars and footprints in the sidewalk in Hollywood).

We took the train back to Antibes where we had left our car and went back to St. Paul de Vence that evening and had dinner and had another wonderful meal with a view from the ramparts overlooking the country side.

September 23, 2011

Streets of St. Tropez

Streets of St. Tropez

Today we enjoyed our daily bread at our favorite patisserie, Fournil du St. Paul, and then drove to St. Tropez in really heavy traffic. We had anticipated a relaxing beach day, but found it to be not so beachy there. It was much more a yachting village that was once a fishing village.  It still retains a lot of charm, surrounded by vineyards and bordered by the very tranquil Golfe St-Tropez.  We parked some distance away and set out on foot along the waterfront and through the narrow streets . The village itself is tiny and was rebuilt in its original style after the Allies landed there in 1944 and consequently quite a bit of it was destroyed.

A Mega-Yacht coming into St. Tropez

A Mega-Yacht coming into St. Tropez

Walking along the quays (quais in French,) there was an interesting contrast between the rustic and sometimes  down-at-heel fishing boats moored alongside mega-yachts.   All the activity in the town – shops, galleries and restaurants – is centered along the waterfront as well. The pastel houses of this area are the subject of a number of post-Impressionist painters, some of which can be seen in the Musee de l’Annonciade, which we didn’t have time for, but will have to save for a future visit.

Despite all the painters, it was Bridgette Bardot who put St. Tropez on the map. She lived in  nearby La Mardrague and starred in a 1959 movie filmed in St. Tropez in 1959 called And God Created Woman. From that point on the place was a magnet for celebrities who flocked here in droves during the summer. And there were tourists  who came of course, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bridgette. Apparently there are cold winds in the winter months called Le Mistral which keep the rich and famous, as well as the tourists away then.

The Seawall and Ruins of the Citadel at St. Tropez

The Seawall and Ruins of the Citadel at St. Tropez

There is a citadel from the 16th Century overlooking the town and two towers that have survived, although most of the city walls are gone. There is an interesting story on the name of the town.  It is named after the little known St. Torpes. He was a Roman Centurion in Pisa in the time of Nero, who was beheaded for becoming  a Christian. According legend his body was put in a boat with a dog and a rooster and the thinking was they would eat his remains and this would be the final degradation of him. However when the boat washed up here in what is today the village of St. Tropez, his body was intact. No word on the fate of the dog or rooster.

Artwork on Display at the St. Tropez Waterfront

Artwork on Display at the St. Tropez Waterfront

With all the restaurants in the village jammed with people, we had an impromptu picnic by the water on a couple of benches and enjoyed the open air art displayed on the quay. We then inched our way out of there to return to our hotel. Seeking  relaxation, we lounged by the pool for a few hours.  We again went to St. Paul de Vence for dinner, this time at La Petit Chapel. They had a little French Bulldog who was quite shy and very well mannered. We watched the local men playing boules (petanque)  in the adjacent park, apparently a nightly event since we had seen it every night when we came to dinner here. We were told that it is good we were there in September because there is one road in and out of town and in the summer it can take up to 3 hours to get in or out.  After our day in fighting traffic in St. Tropez we can believe it.

September 24, 2011

A Vineyard Near Frejus

A Vineyard Near Frejus

Today we decided on a drive to enjoy the Provencal wine country. The Vin du Pays ( which translates as  “country wine” or, more specifically, the region of the country where the wine is produced) is Cotes du Provence. There are strict rules for producing wine under this name with regard to procedures, grape varieties, blends and geography. It is a category above table wine and below AOC (Appellation  d’Origine Controlee) which has even more strict standards.

We drove west to Frejus which was an old Roman town, the oldest in Gaul (which is what they called this part of France back in the days of the Roman Empire). There was an ancient cathedral and cloister dating from the 12th Century, but they had a baptistery dating from the 4th Century which was a re-purposed pagan Roman temple.  It was quite important to the Romans, as evidenced by the number of Roman ruins in the city. It was also an important trading town in the ensuing centuries until their access to the Mediterranean silted up over the years. There was much to see here, but we were on a mission to taste wine, and so we continued to Les Arcs, which is home to several vineyards.

At the Chateau de Vaucoleurs

At the Chateau de Vaucoleurs

We stopped in at the Chateau de Vaucouleurs at a town called Puget- sur -Argens – the last part of the name being a river – sort of like the way the British do Stratford-on-Avon to differentiate it from other places called Stratford. We were in the Argens River Valley where grapes, first brought here by the Greeks, had been grown since 600 B.C. On this particular estate, they have been grown since 1686.  The wine we sampled was Appellation Frejus and the label had a green lizard which was  a symbol of the village. We bought Le Cuvee Lizards, both a rouge 2007 and a blanc 2010. We had planned to go“tasting” in other vineyards as well, but these ambitions were thwarted. We found several vineyards closed because it was Saturday, or it was lunchtime, or the season for tourism was over or for other reasons unspecified. Nothing to do but find a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the wine we bought.

In the Village of Carces

In the Village of Carces

We found a charming spot on a lake near the village of Carces. The village itself was picturesque with murals on the walls of the wine co-op and quaint little houses.  We drove back to St. Paul de Vence for dinner at the Terrace sur St. Paul, followed by a stop at Ben and Jerry’s St. Paul de Vence branch for ice cream.

One of the most notable museums in the area which was very close to our hotel that we drove by almost daily was the Fondation Maeght which features a wealth of modern art. With little understanding or appreciation for modern art and so much else to see with beautiful weather, we did not make a stop here.   To my untrained eye most modern art looks like an accident, either a mutation of nature  or a disaster – either or  natural or unnatural.  It must be the Philistine in me.  Having said that, with sufficient time, I am amenable to getting educated on this subject , but will have to save it for a future time. The foundation was inaugurated in 1966 by Andre Malreaux, who was then the Minister of Cultural Affairs. All the big names in modern art are there – Miro, Braque, Chagall and so forth. There is much sculpture

Outdoor Art in St. Paul de Vence

Outdoor Art in St. Paul de Vence

scattered about town, some quirky and amusing, some just pleasing to the eye and some to make us wonder “ what were they thinking?” St. Paul de Vence continues to draw artists in all mediums – painters, sculptors and ceramists. An outdoor exhibition called L’Artenciel  is organized every year featuring works of art placed around the village. The streets are often used to display works for sale and you may see something in the morning that is not there the next day if someone has bought it.

We have found that many of the Provencale towns have contemporary art placed in outdoor locations that  blend in with surroundings views and landscapes in sort of open air galleries. Also several days a week there are open air fruit, flower and vegetable markets. And of course there are vineyards in every direction, visible from the heights of city walls of St. Paul de Vence.

September 25, 2011

A Gate to the Old City of Vence

The Port du Pontis Gate to the Old City of Vence

We had our usual breakfast at the patisserie and then drove to Vence (pronounced “vahnce”) to spend the day. Vence is an old cathedral town from the Middle Ages, built in the mountains high above the Mediterranean Sea. Very little of the walls is still intact, but the city gates and a tower from the 12th Century still stand. Where the wall used to stand there are attached houses built on the ancient foundations. In the days of the walled city,  houses were built up against the ramparts.  Where the moat used to be,there is a broad street called the Avenue Marcelin Maurel  below the walls of what once was the medieval town .

 

The Streets of Vence

The Streets of Vence

This area was occupied dating back to Roman times when a forum stood on the spot where the cathedral is today in a town called Vintium. There are still a few Roman inscriptions dating to 22 A.D. and traces of a section road built by the Romans.  We entered through the Porte de Peyra whose site dates back to 1441, but today’s gate was installed in 1810 – still old by American standards.   There is a 16th century castle now housing a museum.  The cathedral is one of the oldest (4th Century) smallest and most modest in France, but there is a chapel that has Chagall and Matisse artwork in the mosaics and stained glass installed in the 20th Century.

The Place Godeau

The Place Godeau

They were having La Fete du Moyen et Haut Pays (translation as best I could tell is The Festival of the Average Man in High Country, but I could be missing something here). It was similar to a country fair with artists and artisans, locally produced food, expositions, demonstrations and farm animals.  We had lunch outdoors at the Midi Restaurant adjacent to the old Cathedral in Place Godeau, named after a former bishop who was known as wit and confidant of the ladies in the 1600’s. The Place (pronounced “plahss”), or plaza as we would call it, replaced an Old Cemetery that was removed in 1780.

Rain Moving in to Vence

Rain Moving in to Vence

The festivities were interrupted by a driving rain and so we abandoned our tour of Vence with many sights unseen and returned to our hotel for an afternoon of napping and reading. We again returned to the Old City of St. Paul de Vence for our last dinner in Provence.  This time we took the navette (hotel shuttle) since finidng parking had always been a challenge.  For dinner our last night here, we  went back to La Fontaine where we had eaten our first night here. We ordered escargot which was exceptional and again enjoyed the local cuisine. Walking back to our car we stopped to watch the nightly game of boules under the ancient sycamore trees casting shadows on the dramatically lit walls of the ancient city.  It was a beautiful and memorable evening and good way to end this chapter of our adventure.

September 26, 2011

Dateline, Paris France

A Little Refreshment on the TGV

A Little Refreshment on the TGV

This morning we returned the car to the Nice train station (the Gare de Nice Ville) which was no easy feat since signage was at a minimum. We had stocked what we came to call our “Feed Bag” with bread, cheese and wine for our journey. After some minimal delays (the signs said the trains were “retarded” by which they meant late, not mentally challenged ), we took the train to Marseilles with stops in Cannes and San Raphael and then caught the TGV non-stop to Paris arriving at the Gare de Lyon around 4:00 p.m.

 

The Sorbonne

The Sorbonne

We had quite a wait for a taxi large enough for 4 passengers and their mound of luggage, but eventually we were successful.  Our taxi took us to the Select Hotel Rive Gauche, just next door to the Sorbonne. We had a cocktail and confirmed our flights for the next day. We a second cocktail at an outdoor café called L’Escrtoire which was a student hangout so we didn’t exactly blend in, but it was great for people watching.  The desk clerk at the hotel recommended a Corsican restaurant called La Cosi which was just a few blocks away and so we walked, briskly walked that is, due to a brisk breeze and chilly sprinkling of rain.  Their specialty was a veal ragout which was quite tasty. Packing up for our departure tomorrow, we gave the leftovers from our feed bag to the hotel clerk, who was a dead ringer for Ross the Intern from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and who seemed quite delighted to have them.

September 27, 2011

Today we bid farewell (make that au revoir) to France. We checked out of our hotel and took a taxi to the airport just as Paris was beginning to bustle.  We returned home on a long, but uneventful flight – my favorite kind, that uneventful part, that is. In reflection, I found this quote from Jawaharial Nehru to be very fitting for our trip:  “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure.  There is no end to the adventures we can have if we seek them with our eyes open.”




An Italian Adventure Part 1

An Italian Adventure

Part One –  A Cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Civitavecchia, Italy

May 1, 2011

Dateline: Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Latitude at Ft. Lauderdale 26.7 degrees North, 80.8 degrees West

This trip came about as we came to the realization in the summer of 2010 that we were approaching a major milestone – 40 years of marriage and we needed to do something appropriate (or else really inappropriate) to celebrate. Not only that, our long-time friends, Paul and Kathy were approaching the same milestone and our friends, Ray and Candace had just passed the 20 year mark. We decided that such major milestones called for a major celebration and the idea for a cruise was born. We chose a repositioning cruise (where cruise lines move their ships from one market to another based on the season – in this case from winter in the Caribbean to summer in the Mediterranean) with the Celebrity Equinox ,which would take us from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Civitavecchia (pronounced Chee-veet-ah- veck-ee-ah with the accents on  “veet” and veck”), Italy, which is the port for Rome.  Coincidentally, we also had other friends making the crossing, John and Evelyn and Bill and Ann.

We thought as long as we were on “The Continent” we might as well spend a little time (and a lot of money as it turned out, but that’s a different story). We all flew to Ft. Lauderdale the day before to ensure we did not literally miss the boat in case of airline issues. Packing was tricky since we needed both cruise ship clothes and wear-it-all-day -tramp -around –the-city clothes, but we solved that with our plan to leave a suitcase full of the frilly stuff and impractical shoes at a hotel in Rome and retrieve it on our last day before flying home.

We stayed at the Hollywood Marriott in Ft. Lauderdale which was mostly uneventful, except that at dinner, Paul got accidentally christened by a waiter with two full glasses of red wine, but we received a respectable credit toward our meal, and the shirt came clean so all was well, especially since the wine belonged to another table. All of our wine was consumed in the normal manner and since the christening did not involved bashing a bottle against Paul’s person,  there was no harm done, but we did  have to stay vigilant to be sure he did not attract ants.

May 2, 2011

Dateline: Ft. Lauderdale

The Pool on the Celebrity Equinox

The Pool on the Celebrity Equinox

We were able to board the Celebrity Equinox today around 1:00 p.m. and we found the ship to be fabulous. It is only two years old and its designers had apparently taken many cruisers’ fondest desires into account (i.e. to be able to see the ocean and have places to sit indoors and out and watch it go by.)

The ship is 122 thousand tons, carries 2850 passengers, and is cared for by 1250 crew members. It was first launched in 2009 and measures 1,033 feet long, with a beam of 121 feet, and a draft of 27 feet. The ship has 15 decks rising above the water. It is one of Celebrity’s newest types of ship, the Solstice Class – a particular design with passenger luxury in mind that includes maximum glass, open deck space, and every creature comfort imaginable, built at a cost of $750 million. It can achieve 21 knots maximum speed, but the average is 16, (1 knot equals 1.15 mph). The ship is registered in Malta, flying that country’s flag on the stern, which is a white cross on a red background. (Yes,  it’s a Maltese Cross).

We entered on the 4 Deck into a lobby soaring up to the top levels of the ship with glass elevators crawling up and down, distributing passengers on the 11 decks above us. The ship is very glitzy with an airy feel to it – more Vegas than Buckingham Palace, with modern art, bright colors and plenty of shiny surfaces. There  are big mirrors on one atrium wall  that spell out “Here Comes the Sun”,  and indeed when the angle is just right, the sun lights it up – sounds tacky, but somehow it worked.  This ship is not what you’d want if you are retracing the steps of Arctic Explorers, but is just the thing for the sunny Atlantic at this time of year.

Balcony Cocktails on the Celebrity Equinox

Balcony Cocktails on the Celebrity Equinox

We decided to wait for our luggage to arrive in one of the many bars on board and chose the Ocean View Bar, outdoors on the stern of the ship on Deck 14. We promptly met a cocktail waitress, Claudia, from Slovakia, who recommended the All You Can Drink (my terminology, not theirs) beverage package  for $49 per person per day, plus a service charge of 15%. It was a good deal for one day – but not so much for 14 where endurance comes into play. The guys all took the bait and proceeded to do themselves proud the first day (and pointing out the money being saved – i.e., you are ahead after only 7 or so bar drinks or 10 glasses of wine, or some combination thereof.  The cruise lines have got this figured out. A splurge the first day, hangover the second resulting in total abstinence,  an attempted comeback with a modest effort the third, a declaration of wellness and total indulgence on the fourth, oops another hangover on the fifth and so the cycle continues. And five of the 14 days are in ports of call, so that further undermines the business case for buying the package, unless of course you choose to stay on the ship and drink instead of going to visit Provence or Barcelona, which would be a most imprudent stance, assuming the drinking package purchaser intended to celebrate another anniversary with the current spouse. I dare to say that no cruise ship has ever lost

The Lawn Club on the Celebrity Equinox

The Lawn Club on the Celebrity Equinox

money on these packages. We roused ourselves from the comforts of the Ocean View bar and made our way to our rooms and from there to explore the ship. One of the more unusual discoveries was the Lawn Club, up on the top deck where there is an expanse of grass to walk or sit on. (A variety that thrives on salt air so we were told). Also equally incongruous was the Glass Blowing center, where glass blowers perform their art daily and their work can be purchased for a small fortune. We had our first dinner and met our assigned waitress from Serbia named Liliana. We found that Liliana ran a very tight ship and did not allow any talking by passengers when she was explaining the (perfectly understandable to readers of English) menu. Despite her rough edges, she was an excellent waitress and we did become attached to her.

May 3-May 8, 2011

Dateline: Atlantic Ocean

Distance from Ft .Lauderdale to Ponta Delgado Azores 3,304 miles

Our voyage would take us south of Bermuda on a heading of approximately 77 degrees and the crossing would take 6 days. Our  days at sea were something of a blur, and somewhat repetitious, but in a blissful, not in a boring way –  so for the sake of convenience I am blending them into a 6 day lump of days at sea.

Bar Activity is central to life on board – there are 15 bars here for 2850  passengers – more than enough to do a daily pub crawl and to ensure everyone gets served and in some case over-served   And for the non-drinkers there was always reading and eating and gambling and movies and Bingo and an unending list of other diversions.  For those who like to tipple, the ship published a schedule for the week of bar and culinary activities such as a Cinco de Mayo celebration, Sail Away parties in each port,   as well as Wine , Martini , Bourbon , Single Malt,  and Irish Whiskey Tastings by country or area – California, Italy, South America, France  etc.

The Martini Bar

The Martini Bar

One of the bar highlights for us was the Martini Bar with its frosted bar surface and magician/ bartenders mixing and pouring. There was an elaborate menu of martinis to choose from – very delicious and most definitely nap-inducing. In the olden days that was how they cut down on the threat of mutiny – nowadays it ismore about customer satisfaction (how can you complain about that which you cannot remember?) The Martini Bar’s bar was an almond shaped oval where the bar’s surface  was covered with a thick layer of frost so the martinis stay chilled.  The surface was perfect, like a mini Zamboni had smoothed it. We scraped our initials into the icy surface one night and voila, they disappeared by our next visit. We think they got the mini Zamboni out the minute we left. We are thinking that the Martini Bar may encourage obnoxious behavior. They also had bartenders who performed the multiple martini cascade, pouring 12 or so martinis at one time. We saw this one done with

Making the Martini Pyramid

Making the Martini Pyramid

12, but  we learned that the record number was reportedly 27. The bartender would make separate martinis, each in its own shaker, and then form a pyramid of glasses and pour all simultaneously, with no spills. Another favorite bar was the Sky Lounge up on the 15th deck and forward, with glass on three sides so you could have the same view as the one from the bridge. The guys played a daily cribbage (Championship of the Atlantic) match that travelled to various bars around the ship, and of course the bars provided wonderful hidey-holes to read and perchance to nap.

 

A Wine Vending Machines

Enomatic Wine Vending Machine

And if you can’t find an open bar, there are the Enomatic Machines in a cozy pub-like bar called the Cellar Masters. It is like a fountain drink coke machine only they dispense high end wines by the glass. You simply put your ship card in to charge it to your room. There were also mixology classes in various bars around the ship and there was always a Drink of the Day to be had – Mojito, Mango Margarita, Kumquat  Daquiri, Sangria and so forth.

If reading in a bar does not appeal, there is also the two story library with plush club chairs, and all sorts of parlor style seating in the common areas, where usually some sort of music was being performed by quartets, guitarists, chamber groups, etc. We also found a truly delightful place to read was the outdoor pool since we had balmy weather for our entire crossing, and of course there was a Pool Bar in case you should get thirsty and the pool in case you got hot. They also had an indoor pool, but this was way too steamy for us.

Of course food played a huge role in life aboard ship. Passengers typically plan their days around it, but there was really no need since you could order from Room Service 24 X 7.  And there were the excellent restaurants including these:

The Silhouette Restaurant  was the main dining room with a menu that both changed daily with a choice of all courses, and a standard menu that was offered daily in case you didn’t want anything from the specialty menus.

The Ocean View  Restaurant is a  buffet open 24 hours with coffee tea and juice. The only time you can’t get food there is from 1:00 a.m to 5:30 a.m. (perhaps quite a hardship for some, but if this is worrisome, you can always squirrel away some food from any of the restaurants or order room service.

The Mast Grill is a burgers and hot dogs place by the pool so you only have to take a few steps from your poolside lounger to feed your face.

The Aqua Spa was the only restaurant we didn’t patronize. We found it to be more for the tofu and bean sprout crowd who come to nibble on celery sticks and watercress between aerobics and yoga. The patrons here were not our people.

Bistro on Five is a creperie (dinner crepes and dessert crepes) for light meals,  but the meals are not at all light on calories. They also have a gelateria. They have free ice cream in the Oceanview Buffet, but for hard core decadence, we would buy our gelato here.

Café al Baccio is the equivalent of Starbucks. You could get your lattes and specialty roast coffees here, along with biscotti, if the mood struck you. It has never struck me since biscotti seems to be what you get when you leave cake in the oven for too many days, but the hot chocolate was good.

Murano is a French restaurant with truly delectable food (why it is named after an island in Italy we do not know).

Silk Harvest is an Asian fusion restaurant, with also really good food and a lot of it. Instead of large portions, they served dozens of things to nibble on, but the cumulative effect was the same as eating a 24 ounce steak and baked potato.

The Tuscan Grill is a restaurant with  an Italian theme and served up huge portions of  steak and Italian specialties, and again the food was outstanding.

There is entertainment galore on board with musicians performing all over the ship in the lounges and public spaces, plus there is a major show ( 2 performances) each night that is really top notch and with enough variety that it doesn’t seem repetitious. There were Big Broadway productions mixed with individual performances by a virtuoso violinist, a magician, a comedian and so forth – Las Vegas headliner types.

The casino was also a huge source of entertainment and also a money maker for the ship, but it is closed in port. As a measure of its popularity, there is a report in the daily paper ,Celebrity Today, with a cumulative slot machine payout. Our last day on board the payout was recorded at $1.522 million. (no word on slots pay in – a far larger number of course) Also popular (although not equally so) is a huge spa and fitness center, as well as a track. (Eight laps = 1 mile)  Gary and I did use the track in order to get a little bit of exercise.

There were daily classes on a wide range of topics and games of all sorts, as well as movies and lectures on really interesting topics.  If you are bored on this ship, you really have to work at it. You can be as busy or as indolent as you want to be – we tended to lean toward the indolence end of the spectrum – going for lazy sea days, but we often worked up the energy to listen to a lecture on astronomy, navigation or history and also we would almost always watch the great evening entertainment. Gary is prone to sing along with performers, especially when they do Broadway tunes, whether he knows the words or not – I call this Gary-oke.  One of our favorite events was Dancing with the Stripes (versus Dancing with the Stars) whereby selected ships officers danced with passengers in an elimination competition which proved to be quite hilarious.

Lounging on the Celbrity Equinox

Lounging on the Celbrity Equinox

Of course we couldn’t do everything so we had to be selective, but I am sure we never missed a meal.  For example, we had to pass on the Fab Abs classes, but we did manage the Argentina Wine Tasting. We would have liked the Language Learning classes they had daily, but the first sessions were too early in the morning since 10:30 for us about breakfast time and then the afternoon session would have interfered with the cocktail hour. Champagne High Tea sounded intriguing, but we never seemed to have our timing right.

We did have a small moment of drama on our voyage. Half way between Bermuda and Azores the captain announced that we needed to make a slight detour to rescue another ship in distress.  It was 17 miles from us and dead in the water. It was actually a 40 foot catamaran called the Lady Freda with 5 people on board. They had lost the use of their mast, were out of fuel and running low on food and water. We came alongside just at sunset and transferred drums of fuel, food and water to get them to the Azores. They had been at sea for 5 days and were drifting when we came to the rescue and of course they were really glad to see us.

May 9, 2011

Dateline: Ponta Delgada, Azores

Latitude at Ponta Delgada 37.44 degrees North, 25.40 degrees West

Celebrity Equinox in Port at the Azores

Celebrity Equinox in Port at the Azores

After 6 days at sea crossing the Atlantic, we saw our first landfall in the form of the island of Sao Miguel (Saint Michael in Portuguese) and we docked at the port of Ponta Delgada, a city of 120,000 people and the capital of the Azores since 1522, on Sao Miguel’s south coast. We had pictured these islands as bleak and desolate, sort of Galapagos-like, and were pleasantly surprised to see them so lush and green, sort of a cross between Ireland  (lush fields of emerald green, rocky cliffs) and Hawaii (volcanic mountains, tropical foliage and sandy beaches. At least Sao Miguel, the largest island is like this; they tell us the others are not so green. Today the islands are part of Portugal and have been used by mariners of various nationalities for centuries. In Portuguese, the name of the islands is spelled with a “C” instead of a “Z” and pronounced “ah-sore-ess.” The “C” is like the c in French that has the little hangy-down thing called a cedille which indicates the letter should have an “s” sound.

An Azores Village

An Azores Village

The Azores are made up of 9 islands,  which are actually very high volcanic peaks rising from the ocean floor, covering 373 square miles, lying about 800 miles off the coast of Portugal in latitudes 30 degrees to 40 degrees North, and longitudes 24 degrees to 32 degrees West.  It was a common stopover for provisioning  ships traveling to the New World in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The islands were discovered  by an obscure Portuguese sailor and then in 1444, under orders from Prince Henry, the Navigator of Portugal, the first settlers came to the Azores with cattle and established farms for wheat, sugar cane, dairy and vegetables. Farmers also became prosperous growing oranges and exporting them to England, along with tobacco and tea. Today the Azores are famous for their pineapples which are grown in greenhouses since they can get cold (and salty) damaging storms off the Atlantic. Since the islands proved to be prime real estate, other countries conquered them from time to time including the English, French and even the Algerians.  The locals  had defensive barricades to prevent pirate attacks, which were effective perhaps for  amateur  pirates, but no match for conquering navies and thus there was repetitive “regime change”.  Eventually the Azores came back to Portugal in 1640 when those other countries decided to mind their own business for a while, or at least focus their colonialism on  bigger fish such as China, India and North Africa. The waters off the Azores are very rich with cetaceans – whales and dolphins in particular. Whaling was big business here for centuries, but thankfully it was banned in 1981. Today they have quite a diversified economy and continued prosperity.

The Azores Countryside

The Azores Countryside

We had only a short stay in port from 8:00 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. and we chose a tour of the countryside in a 4X4 vehicle, so we were able to go on the “roads less travelled” with our guide and driver who had the improbably name of Milton. He was a native to the Azores and had a charming accent (Eyesland was the way he pronounced “Island” and while searching for the English word for horseback riding, he came up with “walks by horse”. The main attraction for our drive was an extinct volcanic crater 1,900 feet above sea level with two freshwater lakes at the bottom. One lake is deep blue, the other pale green even though they are side by side. They tell us the reason is that one reflects the sky, and the other reflects the vegetation of the crater walls. Unfortunately, we were observing them in the pouring rain so their colors were not as vibrant. This area is called the Sete Cidadas, which translates as Seven Cities  and

Blue Lake

Blue Lake Sete Cidades

which dates back centuries to when people believed that there were mythical cities out there on the ocean somewhere and this might be the place where they had once been..  There are in fact seven volcanic peaks in this area, so some historians believe this is the origin of the name. There is also a tiny village with this same name where we took a walk and sampled some local wine called Vinho Verde (green wine) which is a specialty of the area. This part of the island is covered with moss and ferns and ancient wind-swept trees, their trunks and branches bent from centuries of wind off the ocean.  Hydrangeas grow wild here and

Green Lake Sete Cidades

Green Lake Sete Cidades

line all the highways, but were not yet in bloom. The azaleas were in bloom and were mostly all one color – deep pinkish-red  – with only a few interspersed whites. There was an abundance of Calla lilies everywhere, but not yet in bloom.  Trees were imported to supply the demand for lumber flourish here and are comprised mostly of cedars and cryptomeria, originally brought here for building houses and ships. It is a veritable greenhouse of an island, with a moderate climate and plenty of rain.  All too soon our wine drinking and touring came to and end and it was back to the ship to continue our voyage.

May 10-11, 2011

Dateline:  Eastern Atlantic Ocean

We had two days at sea before our next port as we travelled south parallel to the coast of Portugal before turning east to transit the Straits of Gibraltar, 1,200 miles away. We made the transit on May 11 around 4:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately it was cloudy and we couldn’t see much of Gibraltar itself, but we did see dozens of vessels all around us making for the same narrow entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

May 12, 2011

Dateline: Cartagena, Spain

Latitude at Cartagena 37.37 degrees North, 0.59 degrees West

Cartagena

Cartagena

We arrived at 9:00 a.m. in Cartagena and departure was scheduled at 5:00 p.m.  so we would have to explore quickly. This city is actually the namesake of the more famous Cartagena in Columbia, renowned for its drug smuggling and hit men, but this is a much kinder, gentler Cartagena. The name comes from the ancient civilization Carthage (the ruins of which are in modern day Tunisia, just across the Mediterranean to the south and east,) and in fact the name means New Carthage. There is evidence that this was once a colony of theirs. Cartagena is located on the southeast coast on the Mediterranean Sea in the autonomous region of Murcia. It is the home port today for the Spanish Navy, such as it is.  There is a natural sheltered harbor with large headlands suitable for fortification on both sides of entrance. Despite the defensive opportunities afforded by the harbor, Cartagena has succumbed to a steady parade of seagoing warriors over the years – Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Barbary Pirates, the Spanish Armada and the British and French navies.

Hannibal grew up here in Cartagena and in 218 BC he launched his invasion of Italy with elephants over the Alps from here, which proved to be a really bad idea.  He had 60,000 men and 37 War Elephants, which he led across southern Gaul (now France) and over the Alps. He fought the Romans for 15 years, and of course they fought back, and Carthage fell to them in 210 BC. Cartagena was prosperous under the Romans until the Vandals (the barbarian tribe, not the motorcycle hoodlums) moved in around 400 AD. They were followed by the Visigoths, which were probably the prototypes for those Capital One barbarians in the TV commercials. They came and stayed 200 years, but were eventually defeated by famine and disease. Then in 711 AD, the Moors from North Africa moved across the Straits of Gibraltar and ruled for the next 700 years. Unlike the barbarians, the Moors made great cultural contributions in architecture, art, literature, mathematics, science and medicine.

Around 1000, AD Castilian and Aragon kings regained control of the area from the Moors in wars called the Reconquista and in 1492 were able to drive out the Moors altogether. But then the Barbary pirates came in and captured over a million Christians and sold them into slavery in Morocco, Algiers and Istanbul – So much for those headland fortresses. From this point the area fell into decline for several centuries and has only regained a spot on the world map due to tourism, although it is famous for pomegranates and roses so they say.

The Segway Gang in Cartagena

The Segway Gang in Cartagena

We chose a combined walking/Segway tour to see the sites of this ancient city and it proved to be a lot of fun with hardly any collisions. First we had a short driving lesson where we learned we must lean forward to go forward and lean backward to stop and to back up. What took a little getting used to was the tendency to overdo it, so there was a lot of overcorrection involved. Segways operate with a battery and gyroscope and respond to weight shifts and distribution. It is important to stand still and straight if you want to remain stationary.  Our guides were two young ladies, one leading and one following to ensure we did not straggle or stray into traffic or mow down any pedestrians. We took the Segways up winding streets past the ruins of the Concepcion Castle,  a fortress that was part of city’s defenses built on a peak that overlooks the harbor, and then back down through the Old Town to the City Square and the Town Hall  called the Palacio Consistorial.

Ruins of the Roman Theater - Cartagena

Ruins of the Roman Theater – Cartagena

We parked our Segways and continued our tour on foot which included an ancient Roman Theater dating back, of course to Roman times,  (It makes you wonder, if there was anyplace the Romans overlooked or anyplace they saw where they didn’t build something ).  The Roman Theater was buried for 2,000 years under rubble and new construction, until the ruins were discovered in 1987. Once excavated archaeologists found, cut into the hillside of city’s old neighborhood , the 6,000 seat theater. It is still being excavated and restored today with the

major goodies – statuary, carvings, relics -relocated to the museum, which we also visited. One thing that really hampers restoration is the age old habit of people using ruins as a building supply resource. We saw one whole wall built in later centuries of broken sections of columns. It must be like trying to work a jigsaw puzzle with about half the

Odd Building Supplies

Odd Building Supplies

pieces missing. There is evidence that  the Plaza de Toros, a bull ring built in the 1850’s, was constructed on the foundation of a Roman Arena and efforts are underway to excavate that as well.  We noticed from almost any angle, you can see laundry hanging from apartment windows and between buildings, so much  so that if you did not know your were in Spain, you would think you were in Naples.

For our second stop we fast-forwarded several centuries to visit the limestone caves of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s. Cartagena had the misfortune to be on the losing side when it was the Fascists versus the Communists. The Fascists won and Francisco Franco ruled as a dictator until his death in 1975. The people of Cartagena suffered enormously from bombings, executions and all other sorts of mayhem.  They ended up living in limestone caves, along with shafts and tunnels of defunct silver mines  to avoid the bombs and today there is a museum re-creating their school rooms, offices and sleeping quarters.

After our tour, we had a light lunch of cheese and bread at the Ristoranted y CafeteriaTeatroromano on the town square across from City Hall and strolled around the city a bit enjoying the quirky art around the city – for example a perfectly carved human head  made to look as if it is emerging from the ground and a life sized  bronze of a merchant marine seaman occupying a park bench. These seemed to be intended to give passersby reason to pause and smile. We returned to the ship several hours ahead of our departure time since the guys had a lot of catching up to do on their “All You Can Drink”packages . We watched  Cartagena  disappear from the Ocean View Bar as the Celebrity Equinox put out to sea.

May 13, 2011

Dateline: Barcelona, Spain

Latitude at Barcelona 41.23 degrees  North, 2.10 degrees East

New Barcelona on the Waterfront

New Barcelona on the Waterfront

Barcelona is on the northeastern coast of Spain and the Iberian peninsula, nestled between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean, not far from the border with France, To the south is Montjuic – a mountain that is named for a Jewish community that was there in olden times. It is the second largest city in Spain with 3 million people and is the capital of Catalonia, one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain. There are two languages spoken here, Catalan and Castilian Spanish, which is what we would recognize as real Spanish.  There is evidence of Greek and Phoenician civilization here, and of course the Romans came, saw and conquered and  founded a city here in the Second Century BC. You also may remember the 1992 Summer Olympics were here.

There was a lot of wealth here in shipping and trading until the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Catalonia was also on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and under Franco, speaking Catalan was banned, but it was brought back under King Juan Carlos I. and regional autonomy was granted.

Barcelona Bikers

Barcelona Bikers

We had a full day in Barcelona and so we decided to rent bicycles for a tour of the Old Quarter and the new parts of the city, which proved dangerous for us and the pedestrians. Our guide was an American who got laid off from his job and decided to hang out in Barcelona and be a tour guide. We were cautioned not to ring our bike’s bells in the Old Quarter or else we would risk having cold water thrown on us from above. Apparently bell ringing does not sit well with residents, unless it is church bells, of which there are multitudes. We were also cautioned that if we do not lock or carefully watch our bikes, our bike tour will become a walking tour, since bike theft is rampant here.

We found Barcelona to be as we remembered from a prior visit, a mix of the  very old and very new. This time we chose to skip a visit to the Sagrada Familia  (translation is Holy Family) Cathedral, designed by Antonin Gaudi (whose surname gave rise to the adjective gaudy and is pronounced the same way) . Gaudi built other houses and palaces, but none so weird as the Cathedral. Gaudi was run over and killed by a tram in 1926, and, at the risk of being insensitive, I have to admit I wondered “is it just a coincidence that his cathedral reminds me of a train wreck?”  The Cathedral  has sort of a melted look, like an elaborate wedding cake left out in the sun (or rain – I can’t help but think of the song MacArthur Park  sung by Richard Harris and later Donna Summer). Of course you don’t usually see wedding cakes with chunks of broken glass and colored beads in them, but you get the idea. We also chose to pass on the Picasso Museum  (Call me bourgeois, but I’m not a fan of abstract art) and the Catalan art museum whose paintings are of religious themes with not so skilled (in my humble opinion) drawing which tends to be very flat and  two dimensional. Culture and the arts have flourished here for centuries, and have nurtured many of the strangest of the strange such  as Picasso, Miro and Dali.

Parco de la Citadella - Barcelona

Parco de la Citadella – Barcelona

That being said, there are still plenty of other things to see. We started our tour in The Old City (a.k.a. Ciutat Vela)  which is also known as the Gothic Quarter  and is the oldest part of the city. Its streets are mainly pedestrian only, lined with buildings from the 13th Century medieval city, which was surrounded by walls until the mid 19th Century. There is a wealth of Arabic influences throughout to make it even more exotic. A maze of streets leads to the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, built between 1298 and 1454. She was a 13 year old Christian martyr  who was reportedly rolled in a barrel of broken glass in an attempt to convince her to renounce her faith.  (How do they think this stuff up?) Her sarcophagus is carved in bas-relief showing her torture and execution, lit by 500 year old stained glass windows. Also nearby is the Plaza of the King (Placa del Rei in Catalan) where he lived in the Palau Major (translation, also in Catalan is Big Palace).  City Hall and the palaces of lesser notables are also still standing in the Gothic Quarter, particularly along the Carrrer Montcada, reflective of the prosperity of the 13th to the 15th Centuries.

Flower Market on Las Ramblas

Flower Market on Las Ramblas

The streets in the older parts of the city are canopied with shady sycamore trees (although they call them plane trees in Europe). The most impressive street is called Las Ramblas, which was built on a dry river bed.  It is a wide boulevard with shops, newsstands, flower stalls and outdoor restaurants in the median. We rode down Las Ramblas to a large fountain and the Columbus Monument. From there we rode to the Yacht Basin, which was nowhere near as harrowing and dangerous as riding among the tourists of the Gothic Quarter, but there were dangers nevertheless. The main danger (for the guys anyway) was the distraction of topless sunbathers, although more often than not,  the “tops” on display were such that they guys just wished  they would cover them up. As in Cartagena we had someone leading and someone riding drag to round up strays. We left the waterfront and rode past some of the high end hotels such as the W and the Artistes. We stopped for refreshments at a biker bar (no Harleys, no tattoos – these bikers are all on Schwinns or the Spanish version of a Schwinn) before continuing to the Parc de La Citadella where we enjoyed the gardens from our perches on our bicycle seats. From there it was back to the Gothic Quarter to return our bikes.

We walked back to Las Ramblas to explore a bit more on foot, particularly the Boqueria Market, which offered fascinating sights and a good stop for lunch. It is a fresh market offering all sorts of delectable fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as oddities such as cow snout, pig’s tail and chicken feet. Everything is for sale here except the oink, cluck, quack, bleat and moo. Despite just having seen a cow snout, we were hungry and so we had lunch at the market at Las Ramblas. Paella  (seafood, chicken and vegetables served on saffron rice) is big here and so we ordered it to share.  A fish dish called Zarzuela is also a specialty with up to a dozen types of seafood used in this dish and cooked in brandy and wine sauce, which sounded way too fishy for me. Sangria is a specialty here so we sampled that as well as glasses of Priorato, a popular local wine.  After lunch we ambled down Las Ramblas to catch shuttle to the ship to assume our positions  in the Ocean View Bar for our 5:00 p.m. departure.

May 14, 2011

Dateline: Toulon, France

Latitude at Toulon 43.7 degrees North, Longitude 5.55 degrees East

We docked in Toulon (pronounced Two-Lawh with the accent on the last syllable, pronounced with sort of a snort) at 7:00 a.m. and were scheduled to depart at 5:00 p.m. Toulon, the port for Provence, is squeezed between the mountains and sea and is the capital of the Var Region.  Provence is filled with mountains and fortified medieval villages, lavender fields and olive groves,  and is adjacent to the French Riviera with St. Tropez  just to the east. And of course, Provence is also a fabulous wine region. Toulon has been a trading port since Greek and Roman times and today France’s largest naval base is here in its large natural harbor.

Toulon was founded in 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians, but soon became a mixed bag of cultures as Celts arrived, and at the same time the Greeks established a city called Massalia, which later became Marseilles. They were independent under the protection of Rome from 154 B.C. to 49 B.C. (when the barbarian Gauls tried to move in) At this point they were taken over by Rome in retaliation for rooting for Pompeii over Caesar.  The Romans stuck around for about 700 years, which of course gave them plenty of time do all that building they like to do, so Provence is chock full of antiquities. Christianity took hold as Rome declined and this area became part of the Holy Roman Empire in 1032. The area was aligned with the house of Anjou by marriage in 1246 and thus  they were part of France as it evolved.  The harbor for Toulon where we docked is called La Seyne sur Mer which translates as “reeds by the sea”, named for the extensive marshes that once were there, but which are now landfill.

The Spice Market in Aix

The Spice Market in Aix

To see Provence we chose a bus tour to the town of Aix-en-Provence (Aix is pronounced “ex”). It was an 8 hour tour, which included about an hour each way on the bus. Aix-en-Provence is the former capital of Provence, dating from the 12th Century up until the French Revolution. Aix has been through many civilizations – going back to the Greeks. The city gets its name from the Latin word for water, which over time became Aix, since there were thermal springs here that are still running today. They invited the Romans to come to this area (then referred to as Gaul) and help them drive off the barbarians and of course Romans being Roman, the came, they saw and they conquered. And  of course with the hot springs,   they could also have a hot bath afterward and the Romans were  always crazy for baths. The name of the area “Provence” takes its name from the Latin word for province.

Aix also prospered in feudal times as a base for the various feudal lords of France to drive off the Saracens, which were nomadic invaders from Syria. The feudal lords created Marius Provence (noble county) which of course required a count to rule the county. They unified over the years with other parts of France, but not with Paris, at least not for several centuries and several wars. To this day there is a disdain for things Parisian, and of course the Parisians are disdainful right back, and thus  the word “provincial “has come to indicate a serious degree of country bumpkinhood.  However, Aix is also a university town famous for art, music and literature and today it is a frequent venue for festivals.

 Cezanne's Atelier Aix

Cezanne’s Atelier Aix

We entered Aix-en-Provence under a canopy of plane trees, creating filtered sunlight along the narrow streets. The town’s major claim to fame is that it was the hometown of Paul Cezanne, the Impressionist painter. Our first stop was a visit to his studio (called an atelier) which is exactly as he left it when he died in 1906. Cezanne born, in 1839, was a descendant of generations of Cezannes in the area since the early 1700’s. He was educated here and later attended a free drawing school held in a Knights of Malta Priory in town. In the studio things were left just as they were when he died, including the still life he was working on (now with plastic fruit of course). He had windows specially built to face north for consistent light for his painting on the second floor of the building. He also had a large slot cut in the wall to take large canvases out without having to negotiate the winding stairs. He walked here from his home in town almost every day and he was quite sociable – going to cafes, attending church and holding art exhibitions.  Many sights in Aix today are Cezanne family homes or historical sites related to his work, including Saint Sauveur Cathedral where Cezanne regularly attended church. He was reputed to be generous, making up little batches of coins to pass out to beggars upon leaving church.  Most of the buildings  are from the 1800’s – Cezanne’s time, but there is little left from the Romans or others  that followed them.

Many Impressionist painters from all over Europe came to Provence for the light, which is captured in thousands of paintings, including those of Renoir and Van Gogh).  Cezanne painted in several media, from oils thickly daubed with a palette knife to delicate watercolors.   Later in the day we saw Montagne Sainte Victoire (Mount Saint Victory), a frequent subject of his paintings. He painted it 44 times in oils and 43 in water colors so he was apparently quite taken with it. It was 2 kilometers from his studio and he was often sighted trudging along toting his easel, paint, and palette.  He painted right up until the day of his death, which is attributed to pleurisy, following what was described in those days as a “fainting fit”, contracted while painting Mt. Sainte Victoire in a rain storm lasting several hours (One would think he could have painted it from memory after the first 50 or so versions of it).

Aix Cathedral

Aix Cathedral

The bus then dropped us off in the old city center (Centre Ville) to wander the streets under mild sunny skies.  There seemed to be flowers in bloom everywhere, with the heady scent of jasmine floating in the air. This happened to be market day so we were treated to several squares with open air markets selling fresh produce, spices,  clothing, flowers and all sorts of other interesting things, such as santons, which are colorful clay painted figures traditionally placed around the Christmas tree and  fragrant soaps and marzipan made of almonds and eggs in fanciful shapes

The streets were lined with buildings dating from the 17th and 18th Centuries, housing residences, outdoor cafes, and interesting shops, including patisseries and boulangeries on

Patisserie in Aix

Patisserie in Aix

every block. We learned the difference – a patisserie is a pastry shop, whereas a boulangerie is for bread and often has sandwiches and quiche.  There is some crossover, but purists say this creates mediocrity, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anything from any French bakery that was anything near mediocre. The French certainly know how to make good food. The cricket is sort of the mascot of the city and was prominently featured in many crafts sold here. We bought herb tapenades to eat later and an herb grinder featuring a cricket to do our part for the French economy.

From the city center of the old town, we strolled to the main street called the Cours Mirabeau, a wide tree-lined  boulevard, built on the ruins of an old Roman wall. We saw two of the famous thermal fountains  – large moss covered rocks that trickle warm water year round ,  built on roundabouts on the Cours Mirabeau.  Before stopping for lunch at the picturesque restaurant, La Bastide du Cours. We had a lovely table looking out onto the boulevard and a delicious lunch featuring lamb, which I don’t even like, but it seems when the French cook it, it actually tastes good.  Provencale food features lots of olives in tapenades (a paste of capers, olive oil and lemon juice with a dash of anchovies and aioli, which is a garlicky mayonnaise) and bouillabaisse  (fish stew). Their specialty drink is pastis – a pale green anise based drink served with black olives, but we did not get a chance to sample this. We learned from our guide that green olives are simply black olives not yet ripe – who knew?

Our guide told us that the French do indeed say “ooh la la” and she encouraged us to use it for our own expressions of wonderment. She did advise that the French often get a chuckle out of our mispronunciations of merci beaucoup (which means “Thank you very much”).  She said with our American accents, we do the “merci” part okay, but on the beaucoup part, we often sound like we are saying the French words for “beautiful ass”. So she suggested we may want to stick with a simple thank you. On the subject of accents, we were charmed by our guides “ahn?” at the end of each statement, sort of like the mobster’s “capisce”, but without the implied threat – more like “do you understand”? We also learned that the French drink exceptionally strong coffee (even by Gary’s standards). In France American coffee jokingly referred to as “Cat Pee”. We headed back to the ship, looking forward to a return to Provence – ooh lah lah indeed!

May 15, 2011

Dateline: Livorno , Italy

Latitude at Livorno 43.32 North, 10.18 East

We had a short overnight trip and at 7:00 a.m we arrived at the port of Livorno, with a full 12 hours ahead of us to explore.  Livorno itself is mostly unremarkable as a tourist destination, but it is the sea gateway to Tuscany and Liguria. Pisa was a port in the olden days, but the Arno River silted up and, with dredging still not invented, shipping moved to Livorno around the 15th Century, Most of the passengers were headed  to Florence or Pisa, but since we had been to both places several times, we chose another excursion to a region called Cinque Terre in  Tuscany’s neighboring region  called Liguria to the northwest. Cinque Terre (pronounced

Carrara Itally

Carrara Itally

Chink-we Tay reh with accent on Chink and Tay and translates as 5 lands) is  built on craggy coves on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was raining so we put on our raincoats took our umbrellas and set out driving north from Livorno, past the port of LaSpezia ( which was a Nazi fuel and ammo depot and thus site of significant Allied bombing in WWII. ). As we drove north on the mountains in the distance, we could see the marble mining operations of Carrara with the exposed pure white marble looking very much like snow.

Cinque Terre is considered part of the Italian Riviera, often called the Riviera Levante, referring to its position east of the Riviera familiar to all,  but is very rural and aside from the busloads (and boatloads weather permitting) of tourists that descend upon it, there aren’t that many people here. In ancient times, the villages each had their own dialect, although they are one kilometer or less apart The towns give the impression of a world of Munchkins with miniature

Cliffs on Cinque Terre

Cliffs of Cinque Terre

harbors and inlets, handkerchief size beaches with more pebbles than sand,  tiny squares lined with small houses and small chapel-like churches, and there  are not even any Vespas, much less automobiles. Each town is built on a vertiginous cliff or in a steep ravine clinging to the hillsides.  It was called Five Lands because in medieval times, each city was isolated, and villagers could hide in case of a Saracen invasion (you may recall the Saracens also terrorized Provence with people captured and sold into slavery). The 5 Lands could easily be defended from the sea and could not be reached by land. The area was virtually unknown to outsiders for centuries.  Villagers would post lookouts and build fires on watchtowers to alert the towns of the

Sentiero Azzurro Cinque Terre

Sentiero Azzurro Cinque Terre

approach of invaders. The threat remained until the last raid in 1545 when the Saracens apparently found other things to do.  As piracy declined, fishing, grape growing and trade prospered. Only recently were the towns connected by rail.  Prior to that, footpaths and mule paths (called sentieri) were used for centuries. Today the towns are connected by hourly trains and footpaths have been widened (with nets installed  to catch falling rock and guard rails installed to prevent falling tourists) replacing the narrow paths  dating back to ancient times. Today it is called the Sentiero  Azzurro (translation is the Blue Path). Trails, generally narrow with many rocky steps, are occasionally closed due to rock slides of such magnitude that they overwhelm the nets. No word on how many, if any, tourists have been lost in this manner.  The vegetation is a mix of wildflowers, cacti, palms, olives, and terraced grape arbors which have produced wine here since the 14th Century. The dramatic cliffs, breathtaking vistas and a dazzling sea below are the subject of countless postcards. We didn’t see much dazzle since it was raining, but we could envision it once the sun peeked out.  The area is quite understandably designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pathways of Cinque Terre

Pathways of Cinque Terre

The northernmost village is Monterosso, southernmost is Riomaggiore with Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola in between. We began our adventure in Riomaggiore which is is the least resort-like of the towns – looking very commercial  with a laundromat, boat dock and bus parking lot, but just off the main street are little pastel houses from a bygone era. Terraces on the hillside enabled the growing of vineyards and gardens, requiring of millions of cubic feet of dry stacked stone which are decorated with murals. There is a small beach and harbor and on the cliffs above are old WWII bunkers, as well as the 14th Century Madonna di Montenoro sanctuary.

The Train Station at Manarola

The Train Station at Manarola

From Riomaggiore (translation Big River) we strolled to Manarola on the section of the Sentiero Azzurro called the Via dell’Amore (Pathway of Love). This trail was only built in 1920’s between two of the towns, Riomaggiore and Manarola and it became a young lovers meeting point with the associated graffiti . We noted that hearts with arrows through them seem to be universal language. The newer trend, however is that lovers attach padlocks onto fences and cables as a symbol of their devotion and presumably the key is thrown over the cliffs to seal the deal. A local hardware store sells locks if spirit should move you, but we passed on this and wisely spent our euros on wine. This path winds through a series of tunnels used as bomb shelters in WWII. The Allies were really intending to bomb the sea ports, but their aim was not always so good in those days.  All along the Via dell’ Amore there are little alcoves with benches with an abstract version of two lovers, their heads together, rounded and featureless on stalk-like necks attached to painfully thin elongated bodies, like starving young lovers.   The Five Lands are ideal for strolling, and even dawdling, and our guide told us that we Americans seem to have the knack, particularly when compared to Germans tourists, whom she reports seem to favor the forced march.

Boats in the Piazza at Vernazza

Boats in the Piazza at Vernazza

We took the train from Manarola to Vernazza,  bypassing Corniglia in the interest of time. Corniglia is the only one of the five villages not on the water and is most famous for its wine. Vineyards there will reportedly let you sip a sample of wine out of the barrel with a straw. It sounded interesting, but it was also interesting getting off the train. Because there are so many tourists, they have more train cars than they have space to accommodate them on the train platform, so some cars stop in a darkened tunnel as our did. A few embarking passengers took headers out the exit door before we realized there was not a platform and there was a giant step down to the tracks. We concluded there are no personal injury lawyers here or else they would be lined up signing up clients. Our guide told us that boat service is the best way to see Cinque Terre, but the water was too rough that day, so the train it was. We did see how that would work though, if the weather did permit boat touring. To disembark we would essentially walk a plank (no rails) from boat to shore, presenting even more opportunity for lawsuits.

Vernazza Cinque Terre

Vernazza Cinque Terre

Vernazza  is perhaps the most scenic of the five towns. There are castle ruins, a pint-sized harbor, a tiny church in the Piazza Capellini dating from 1338 and pockets of vineyards terraced onto the surrounding hillsides. Buildings seem to be tumbling down the ravine, hanging by a thread. Boats are launched in harbor with an I-beam crane and ladders go down to fingernail-sized beaches from precarious rocky perches above. The cemetery is up the hill offering all “residents” an outstanding ocean view.  The small harbor is lined with outdoor restaurants which are tiny and few in number. We stopped for a glass of wine in the piazza and the sun came out briefly. With the rain gone, the locals emerged (easily distinguishable from tourists) and engaged in what we were told is a favorite pastime – the Passeggiata, which involves strolling up and down the main street – we would learn this is popular everywhere in Italy. Their walk takes them around the piazza and the site of the Fontana Vecchia (old fountain) which is long gone, but the name is still there. Townswomen used to do their wash nearby in a river in the ravine that has since been channeled underground before they got their Maytags, and for that matter electricity. There is also a monument to the World Wars. In 1943 in Italy, Hitler called up all boys 15 and older. Many took to the hills to become resistance fighters, while others were drafted and so tragically they often they were fighting each other until Italy judiciously switched sides after the Allied Invasion.  The harbor was actually extended with a breakwater to allow boats to come inside to pick up the areas only export – wine. In an era of prosperity the villagers also saw fit to double the size of the church in the 16th Century, more or less of overwhelming the tiny piazza. We were advised that we did need to keep an eye on the surf, since it has been known to surge over the breakwater and douse the tourists sipping wine in the piazza. Boats are tied up on buoys, except during winter storms when they are dragged up on the piazza.

The Train Tracks at Cinque Terre

The Train Tracks at Cinque Terre

From Vernazza, we again took the train, this time to Monterosso , the northernmost of the of the 5 towns. It is partially built on flat land, and like Riomaggiore on the south end of Cinque Terre, it sports a parking lot where our bus waited.  Monterosso has a 16th Century watchtower built in 1545, a pillbox bunker built by the Nazis and a street of shops that curve around a crescent of sandy beach. From the waterfront, you can see the other 4 towns. Like Vernazza, it also has a breakwater  and a harbor for small boats. We paused here for a tasty gelato and pondered the next 3 weeks as our Italian adventure continues. Tomorrow we will disembark from the Celebrity Equinox in Civitavecchia after completing our trans-Atlantic cruise of 5,320 miles.

 

 




An Italian Adventure Part 2

An Italian Adventure

Part Two – The Grand Tour

May 16, 2011

Dateline: Rome, Italy

Latitude at Rome 41.13 degrees North, 12.28 degrees East

Our final port of call on the Celebrity Equinox was Rome, which we had visited several times before, but we always find it to be endlessly entertaining (maybe that’s why they call it the Eternal City).  There are only 2.6 million residents, but when you add in an equal measure of tourists in the summer months – it could not be anything but entertaining, and this visit was no exception.

We disembarked the Celebrity Equinox at the port of Civitavecchia and took a shuttle to the Oeste Train station in Rome and from there a taxi to our hotel at the Hotel Villa Del Parco on Via Nomentana, just outside the old city walls (all that is left now is an old city gate called le Porta Pia). We had said goodbye to friends headed to other places and continued our journey with Paul and Kathy.  Our plan was to leave our sparkly clothes at the hotel while we toured other parts of Italy and we had to find a big taxi to accommodate us and our luggage.  We left our bags at the hotel, and upon the advice of our concierge, we caught the #62 bus  for one Euro – approximately $1.40 (although it seemed that only tourists bought a ticket called a bigletto.) The #62 line ran from our street ,Villa Nomentana,  to the Piazza Barberini and Via del Corso de Vittorio Emmanuel ,  (Corso for short), ending at the Vatican. The deal was that you had a little ticket you put in a machine to be scanned and it spit it back out for you to keep as proof of payment. There didn’t seem to be any sort of enforcement . We wondered what happens at the end of the day when it looks like the bus had only half a dozen riders. Our hotel clerk told us it’s sort of a wink-wink thing. Officials know what is going on, but don’t want to throw Grandma  off the bus for non-payment. We were told by another resident with whom we were chatting that Romans really like to see tourists pay the fare so it doesn’t appear that we are freeloading, although with the prices charged here, I can’t see how they could possibly think that. We assume that freeloading is reserved only for residents.

The history of Rome in a nutshell is this, starting with myth and going to documented history: Romulus and Remus were twin sons of the War God, Mars, and Rhea, one of the Vestal Virgins (thus dramatically shortening her career). Vestal Virgins lived in a temple and were keepers of the holy flame. They were able to retire after 30 years, but Rhea’s time was far from up. The babies were abandoned (we were wondering if this was part of a cover-up so she could keep her job as a Vestal Virgin ) and were adopted by a she-wolf. They grew up to lead a band of outlaws and according to legend, in 753 BC Romulus and Remus  attacked the nearby Sabine tribe and kidnapped their women and thus founded Rome, but eventually Romulus ending up killed Remus so you don’t see anything named after him.  From 800 to 600 BC Rome was ruled by 7 Latin and Etruscan kings, but in 509 BC the Romans revolted and established a Republic which expanded all over the Mediterranean. A long Period of Civil War ended when Julius Caesar defeated Pompeii in 48 BC. Later he was killed by Brutus and then Octavius Augustus became emperor and started a dynasty and a building binge that included the Coliseum, the Arch of Titus and the Forum of Trajan.  In the 4th Century Christianity took hold and the Papacy became increasingly powerful. Rome became top heavy with its own bureaucracy and succumbed to over-expansion and in 385 AD, it split into two and subsequently fell into decline. The 5th Century saw the Dark Ages and invasion by barbarians – Goths, Lombards and Franks. Then the Renaissance began and flourished in the 15th century under a system of powerful city states. The area was annexed by Napoleon in 1814, but in 1870 the various city-states took it back and it was unified as Italy. In 1922 Mussolini came into power for 20 years with his Fascist regime, but he was executed by his own people after Italy abandoned the Nazis and joined the Allies, who coincidentally were in the process of conquering the country, so it was an opportune time to make the flip-flop.  Later of course, came a series of prime ministers, including Berlusconi and his bunga-bunga parties,  and he emerged as sort of a head cheerleader for old- timey Roman decadence and moral decay, living proof that the “orgy” gene has continued to thrive in modern Romans.

Babington's Tea Room at the Spanish Steps

Babington’s Tea Room at the Spanish Steps

We got off the bus at the Piazza Barberini and walked to the Spanish Steps which we admired with thousands of other tourists and locals on their lunch hour (or hours – they take long ones here) Here we also saw the famous Hotel Hassler (one of Rome’s premier hotels and lodging for the rich and famous and those who  can pretend they are for a night or two) It is a very understated building (nondescript really) at the top of the steps off to one side. At the bottom of the steps is the equally unassuming Babington’s Tea Room, which was a hangout for young wealthy gentlemen doing the requisite Grand Tour of the Continent to round out their educations, including many  of Romantic poets and writers in their day (Keats, Wagner, Goethe, Byron. Apparently it was not that good for their health.  The house where Shelley died at the age of 30 is just on the corner and Keats died near here of tuberculosis at age 25.  Byron lived on the square as well, but he managed to travel to Greece to die at the ripe old age of 36.   There were some writers who did the Grand Tour and lived to tell about it such as Wagner and Goethe. An unlikely visitor, not in the English Gentleman mode, was Buffalo Bill. No word on how well he blended here.  In keeping with the ritzy Hotel Hassler, the most exclusive shopping street in Rome Via Condotti, which is sort of the 5th Avenue of Rome, dead ends here.  There is a steady parade of shoppers and window-shoppers mingling with the tourists and vendors. We found that it is not just the shoppers and tourists who walk here, particularly late in the afternoon. The passeggiata– the ritual of an evening stroll through interesting places –  is practiced throughout Italy.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

Even the McDonalds here is upscale or so we are told, but we skipped this stop in favor of a more traditional lunch. We had a simple, yet extravagant lunch (simple food – big price tag) close by the steps. It was very crowded, but very picturesque and the best place in Rome (second only to the Vatican ) to get your pocket picked – but perhaps they were seeking more prosperous looking tourists because we had no incidents. The scene was both charming and lively, with a mingling of tourists, shoppers, vagrants, lolly-gaggers, roasted chestnut vendors, souvenir hawkers, and knock-off designer goods peddlers. The local name for the Spanish Steps is the Piazza Espagna (Spanish Plaza). They were built between 1723 and 1725 at the site of the Spanish Embassy. There are 137 steps that ascend in 3 tiers from the Piazza de Espagna at the bottom to the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. From here you can see Rome’s 7 hills and it draws a large crowd at sunset. There is a boat shaped fountain  designed by Bernini in the Piazza Espagna called the Barccacia Fountain. He was quite prolific and is much on display around Rome.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

After lunch we continued walking to the Trevi Fountain, completed in 1762. It was designed by Nicolo Salvi in the typical Baroque style. The fountain features Neptune (a.k.a. Triton) trumpeting on  his conch shell, standing on a chariot with winged horses. The source of the water for the fountain was, and still is for all fountains in Rome,  a series of gravity-fed aqueducts, first designed and built by those most clever of humans, the ancient Romans. This fountain has water spouting from 24 different places. Tradition says that if you throw a coin in the fountain, you will return to Rome, so of course we all did this, along with thousands of others. After all we had all seen the movie, Three Coins in the Fountain. There are guards scattered about to make sure little ragamuffins (or financially distressed tourists) don’t dive in after the coins since there’s a veritable fortune tossed in there every day. We are told that they clean the fountain out at the end of each day and the money goes to charity, but this being Italy, we suspect that maybe some coins find their way into other pockets along the way.

Tossing Coins in the Fountain to Ensure our Return

Tossing Coins in the Fountain to Ensure our Return

From Trevi, we walked along the Via del Corso, the main street of Rome named for the Berber horse races held here during Carnevale. The races were held with no riders and things got kind of wild and unpredictable and the races were stopped in the late 1800’s due to an annual trampling of bystanders, which came to be considered a bad thing. (The country had come a long way from the Coliseum days in terms of sensitivity.)  We continued our walk to the Pantheon, built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa and reconstructed by Hadrian in the early Second Century. It is the most complete ancient building in Rome. It was originally intended as a place to worship all the gods and thus the name, Pantheon. It was also a burial place for notables including the painter Raphael. It survived the onslaught of the barbarians largely because it became a church dedicated to martyrs just after Rome fell and thus  it escaped being used as a quarry. The dome is 142 feet high with an oculus (a hole open to the sky) at its center and at different times of day and different seasons, small niches are illuminated by sunlight. The entrance is somewhat sunken since the Rome of today sits on 20 centuries of rubble.  The Pantheon has the distinction of being the only building from ancient Rome in continuous use since its construction.

We continued our leisurely walk, (a.k.a. passeggiata) experiencing “La Dolce Vita – which translates as “the sweet life”, which is the very essence of Italy.  And we found it to be pretty sweet actually. We ran across several piazzas of note including the Campo del Fiore and the Piazza Navona. Piazza Navona , built in the Baroque Period in the 17th Century, is the quintessential Italian piazza, built on the site of First Century AD stadium and race track built by

The Fountain of the 4 Rivers - Piazza Navona

The Fountain of the 4 Rivers – Piazza Navona

Domitian, which gives it its rectangular shape.  Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers (that would be the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) dominates the site. In the Four Rivers Fountain there are 4 River gods, mounted on horses plunging through the spray,  that represent the 4 continents that were known in Bernini’s day and the associated flora and fauna from those places.  The Nile, the Danube, the Ganges and the Plata in South America are represented (The Amazon, must not have gotten much press in those days since the Plata is very puny by comparison). An interesting thing about the South American piece of the sculpture is the presence of an armadillo – no word on where Bernini got that idea. The fountain is topped by an obelisk taken from the Appian Way, which was stolen from Egypt centuries before. There are several obelisks from Egypt around the city including one from the 6th Century BC that was taken as a trophy of war by Augustus when he defeated Antony and Cleopatra. (Seems like taking her jewelry would have been a lot easier).

There are two smaller fountains, the Fontana del Moro (the Moor’s fountain) which depicts Neptune (Triton) as a dark skinned man (thus the title “Moor”),  riding a rather diminutive  dolphin, which gives the impression that he is torturing the poor thing.  The other fountain is also of Triton, called the Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) which was begun centuries earlier, but only completed a few hundred years ago.

A Michael Vick sighting at the Piazza Navona

A Michael Vick sighting at the Piazza Navona

People watching is at its peak here.  There are vendors selling knockoff purses and sunglasses, artists, musicians, mimes, tourists and so forth. We saw a guy who was a dead ringer for Michael Vick in a Number 7 jersey selling knock-off Louis Vuitton purses. We had been wondering what he was doing in the off season. Apparently people watching  in the Piazza Navona is nothing new. Up until the 19th Century, it was a common practice to stop up the fountain outlets and flood the piazza and the rich people would splash around in their carriages while the poor made do with paddles and crude rafts.

From the Piazza Navona, we walked maybe 500 yards to another piazza,  the Campo De Fiori, popular with locals and tourists alike, where there are markets by day and street performers, evening strollers, and restaurant goers by night. We arrived roughly in between when there was a major sweep-up taking place rounding up the day’s detritus. The translation of Campo del Fiori is Field of Flowers, but the image of tranquility it evokes is deceiving. Reportedly the painter, Caravaggio, killed his opponent after losing a game of tennis on the square, and the famous goldsmith Cellini reportedly murdered a business rival here. The east side of this square is built into the actual wall of the Roman theater of Pompey, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Today there is a controversial statue of Giordano Bruno, an intellectual type who had the temerity to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. He was burned at the stake as a heretic on the same spot where his statue now stands. The statue was erected in 1889 but the Church demanded it be removed given his status as a heretic.  However local rioters turned out in force and triumphed over Vatican protests and thus Bruno still stands in the square today.

From Campo de Fiori we walked to the Piazza Campidoglio and Capitoline Hill, one of Rome’s famed 7 hills, and the belvedere atop it.  Capitoline is named for the site of the capitol. Italian cities seem to be fond of the “belvedere” which translates literally as beautiful view.  It is an architectural structure, often a terrace designed to take advantage of a view. The belvedere at the Piazza Campidoglio, was designed by Michaelangelo in the 1550’s to house the Capitoline Museums, veritable treasure troves of Roman sculptures and Renaissance paintings.  There is a flight of steps called the Cordonata leading up to the Piazza from the street. Although each step is only a few inches high, there are plenty of them to burn off more than a few pizza calories. The belvedere here offers a sweeping view of the ruins of the Roman Forum which we planned to explore the next day. Two of the most famous iconic sculptures on the belvedere are Marcus Aurelius on his horse and the legendary she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. Another famous hill nearby is Palatine Hill, which also overlooks the Forum, and was the site where all the palaces of the wealthy stood (the English word “palace” comes from Palatine, just as capitol comes from Capitoline).

Vittorio Emmanuel Monument

Victor Emmanuel Monument

From the Campidoglio, it is only a short walk to Piazza Venezia  and the mammoth Victor Emmanuel Monument – larger than anything the Romans contemplated, but then again it was built in 1930 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of unification and they had the benefit of more modern building technology. Prior to 1870, Italy was a country of often warring city-states until Victor Emmanuael became Italy’s first King. There is a statue of the king on horseback (43 feet long) and to give you an idea of the scale – the King’s mustache is 5 feet across. This was the site of many of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist rants in the late 1930’s, however, his glory was short lived. In 1945 in a display of extreme disapproval ratings, Mussolini and his girlfriend were shot and hung from meat hooks in Milan.

From Capitoline Hill, we trekked over to the Corso Vittorio Emmanuel (named after the same hero – sort of an Italian George Washington with a mustache. We had some fabulous bruschetta in an outdoor café called La Locanda de Tempio on a small side street.  The name translates as temple place and there was a part of a temple, but we were never clear as to whose it was. It stands in a little side street in the shadows of an ancient church in the Piazza San Ignacio. Rome has a gracious plenty of piazzas and since the onslaught of Americans so we fancy, we noted that there are pizzas to be had in all the piazzas. We first visited Rome in 1975 and found pizza to be scarce in these parts – it was primarily a Neapolitan thing – but that is no longer the case.  We took the #62 bus back to the hotel and fell into bed and into a deep sleep, only slightly shy of comatose.

May 17, 2011

Dateline: Rome, Italy

We set out this morning today for the Vatican on the #62 bus,  which was mobbed with people headed to work. We met a Canadian scholar who was working on a research project at the Vatican library who gave us a time management tip, saying that we should get off the bus one stop early and walk across the Tiber River, rather stay sandwiched on board as the bus sat in traffic trying to cover the same ground.   We walked past the Castel Sant’ Angelo which sits fortress like guarding the entrance to Vatican City (or at least it did in the old days). Castel Sant’ Angelo was built by Emperor Hadrian as a tomb in 139 AD. It later became a fortress, and now it is a museum. It has been featured prominently and quite dramatically in Dan Brown books and movies such as Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, supposedly providing  secret passageways into and out of the Vatican for assorted heroes and villains.

Gary and I had been to St. Peter’s Square a few times before and have always encountered throngs of people, but because St. Peter’s Basilica, is one of the most spectacular sights in the world, it is always worth another visit. On today’s visit it seemed that at least a million other tourists agreed with us on this and they were all in St Peter’s Square that morning waiting to get inside.   The Vatican is the smallest independent state in the world and is governed by the Pope, who is protected by Swiss Guards in colorful traditional medieval era costumes (replete with scarlet and gold bloomers and halberds), although we are told he also has his own Secret Service types who dress and are armed more along the lines of a US President’s protective detail.  The square itself is massive, holding an estimated 400,000 people. There are 284 Doric columns designed by Bernini, forming two semi-circles with an obelisk in the center. There are 8 Vatican Museums housed in the surrounding buildings and acres of private gardens.  The Vatican stands on the former site of the Circus of Nero (no animals, no clowns. A circus was in those days essentially a racetrack as seen in the movie, Ben Hur). St. Peters Basilica, consecrated in 1626, features the world’s tallest dome, and it is indeed a marvel both structurally and artistically. It is 448 feet tall and somewhere in history it was decreed that no buildings in Rome may be higher, and thus Rome is thankfully spared a modern skyline.

Paul and Kathy decided on a tour since this was their first time in Rome, but, we decided to savor our memories and “go walkabout” as the Aussies would say, and through the miracle of text messaging, we would rendezvous later.  We had no particular destination in mind, but over the course of a few hours we ended up walking  from  the Vatican to the Coliseum,  which is no small walk by anyone’s standards. This stroll enabled us to observe the smaller things, like for example the city’s manhole covers. They are have the letters  ” SPQR” , which in Roman times was an abbreviation for the Latin phrase, Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates as

The Bocca della Verita

The Bocca della Verita

“the Senate and the People of Rome”.  We also had the opportunity to stop by a small church to see the Bocca della Verita., which translates as “the Mouth of Truth” at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  I had somehow retained an image of this gaping mouth in my Repository of Useless Knowledge from a National Geographic photo and article from my childhood  and had always wanted to see it. The” Bocca”  was also featured in  a 1953 movie starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn called Roman Holiday. Legend has it that if a liar puts his fingers in the mouth , the said liar’s hand will be gobbled up. I am pleased to report that both of us emerged with all digits intact.

We had lunch at an excellent restaurant overlooking the Coliseum and then took a short stroll to a park where we had a short nap alfresco, but since we had last toured the Coliseum in 1975, we decided it was worth revisiting and we had never done a guided tour of the Forum so we signed up for both.

Inside the Colissseum

Inside the Colissseum

At the Coliseum we had a tour with Paolo, a Fabio look-alike with even a Fabio accent, but he projected none of the Fabio air-headedness.  The Coliseum – the  Piazzale del Colosseo in Italian –  got its name from a huge 100 foot high statue (Colossus) of Emperor Nero, which has long since “gone missing” . Its real name back in the day was the Flavian Amphitheater, named for the Emperor Flavius.  It is a free standing amphitheater and a marvel of engineering, made possible by the Romans mastery of two essential things – arches and concrete. The 3 types of columns used here were borrowed from the Greeks. It was able to seat as many as 50,000 people who came to watch gladiator contests and public spectacles.   It was begun in 72 AD by Vespasian and inaugurated in 80 AD by his son Titus. The idea was to keep the populace entertained so they don’t cause trouble. The entertainment was in the form of combat between men, between animals, between men and animals, and even between ships since the area could be flooded and ships floated. Simply put, killing was a spectator sport and the Romans wanted to share the fun with the average Joe in productions that were lavish and sophisticated.  Animals were held below the Coliseum floor in cages and lifted to the arena elevator. Christians were occasional combatants, but not so much as modern day lore would have you believe. The Romans wanted a good battle for their blood sport and the Christians were not typically much competition for their adversaries. The Romans did execute Christians along with other “enemies and undesirables”, but  it was usually done at lunch break (sort of a yawner half-time show) versus being a headliner event. And reportedly the lions were over-hyped as well and were more bewildered than ferocious.  Lions and Christians notwithstanding, it was the scene of incredible brutality and outlandish spectacle – I am thinking this may where modern “sports” such as demolition derbies and mud wrestling have their roots.

Another myth debunked on this tour was the iconic thumbs up or thumbs down by the Emperor to determine the post-combat fate of a gladiator. Paolo told us that the fans got to vote and it went like this:  If they wanted the gladiator to be killed, they stuck a thumb up and gestured, much like an umpire calling a base runner out.  It is believed that the thumbs up as a gesture of approval  came from American GI’s liberating Europe in WWII. If Romans wanted the gladiator spared .they would make a fist and press their thumbs against the index finger. A further note on Romans and fingers – much of their customs align with ours. They used the index finger for pointing and the ring finger for rings. They believed the middle finger was connected by veins to the genitals, so we can surmise that they used it for their individual obscene gestures as well. No word on what they did with the pinkie – maybe it was for dainty gestures, as it is for us, like when you extend it skyward while sipping a cup of tea.

We also saw where another unsavory custom may have originated. There is centuries-old graffiti on the Coliseum walls that Paolo pointed out to us, including a pictorial advertisement for a whore house. Or as Paolo suggested, tongue in cheek, you could argue that it is an advertisement for a lunch special since the “artwork” could be interpreted as being two grapes and a hot dog. One other interesting note – the exits were called “vomitoriums” from the Latin word for “issue forth at a great rate of speed”.

As the Roman Empire went into decline, the Coliseum was neglected for centuries and consistently ransacked for building materials. (sort of the Roman Home Depot for stone and iron). Many of the hundreds of Christian Churches in Rome contain recycled stone from the Coliseum.  Today only 1/3 of the building remains with three tiers of columns and 4 levels only on one side, but considering these ruins have been standing for 2,000 years, you can’t help but be in awe of the remnants.

As we continued our tour, we walked across the street past Arch of Constantine toward the Forum. The arch was erected in 315 AD to honor Emperor Constantine’s Victory over pagan forces and Rome’s conversion to Christianity. It seems that on the battlefield Constantine had a vision of a cross which caused his conversion and since he was Emperor, Rome converted right along with him.  The Romans were very big on building arches to celebrate military victories – after all a parade is forgotten an hour after the band marches through – but an arch, well it’s still there.

Ruins of the Forum

Ruins of the Forum

We were fortunate to have a guide for a tour of the Forum named Rachel (a UNC graduate and NC native) who was on a work-study program in Rome.  While it is often referred to as the Forum, there are actually two  here – the Roman and the Imperial. The forum was the political, religious and social center of ancient Rome , comprised primarily of temples and halls of justice. It was the site of speeches, processions, elections, parades and demonstrations. The Arch of Titus is here, commemorating his victory over Israel in 70 AD.  Also there we saw  the Arch of Septimius Severus  which was 6 stories high with battle scenes carved on it. The Roman Forum is the older of the two and is mostly in ruins. The highlights here include the Umbilicus Urbus , the center (or bellybutton) or Rome and by extension  the bellybutton of the world. There is not much here, just a circle of bricks, but this is supposedly the site which Romulus established as the Center. Of course the Greeks had their own belly button in Delphi, long before this bellybutton was designated, but that’s a different story. There are also the ruins of the Curia – the home of the Roman Senate, along with the ruins of a number of temples to Roman deities.

Perhaps the most important temple here was the Temple of Vesta, home to the eternal flame that the 6 Vestal Virgins had to keep burning. They were priestesses, recruited from the ranks of the nobility, some as young as 10 years old. They took a vow of chastity, but could retire with a large dowry and marry after 30 years of service, but by that time, most decided not to bother. Besides 40 in Rome isn’t anywhere near what 40 today is. If they should slip up and lose their virginity – the punishment was, well , a bit harsh. A fallen virgin would be strapped to a funeral wagon and paraded through the streets of the Forum, followed by a one way trip to a crypt where she was given a loaf of bread and a lamp and then was then interred alive. Reportedly many of the Vestal virgins did succumb to temptation and suffered this fate. The belief was as long as the sacred flame burned Rome would stand. Priests would whip the virgins if the flame went out which, strangely enough, was apparently was less of an offense than a mere dalliance or two.

The Imperial Forum was started by Julius Caesar (who lived from 100 to 44 BC) as a show of power . He replaced many wooden huts with great structures that stood for centuries. He found he really liked being Emperor and gradually took more and more power for himself.  Consequently, he was stabbed to death on the Ides of March (the 15th) by Brutus (who was his adopted son) and other Senator-co-conspirators.  He reportedly said as he was dying, “et’Tu Brutus?,” meaning “you too Brutus?”. Julius Caesar was warned by an Etruscan priest to “Beware of the Ides of March”, but apparently did not understand just how badly things were going to go that day.  However his followers, including Augustus and Trajan triumphed over the assassins in the end.

We met Paul and Kathy upon our exit from the Forum and we walked up to the Via Cavour  where we briefly watched a movie being filmed, but since they didn’t seem to be in need of any American tourist type extras, we moved on to find an outdoor restaurant with pizza and wine.  We met a friendly waiter from Egypt who has lived here for several years. He says he can make a much better living here in Rome than in Cairo and so he taught himself Italian, English and a few other useful languages and emigrated. (no word on his legal status). We headed back to the hotel to pack our bags.  We leave for Venice tomorrow on the train with much of Rome still waiting to be explored next time.

May 18, 2011

Dateline: Venice, Italy

Latitude  at Venice 45.25 degrees North,  Longitude 12.20 degrees East

The Grand Canal of Venice

The Grand Canal of Venice

We arrived in Venice by train in the late afternoon via Florence and Bologna. The station for Venice, Santa Lucia, is connected to the mainland by a causeway.  Nothing in the guidebooks prepares you for the sight you behold when you emerge from the train station. It is as if  you walked through a time warp and stepped back a few hundred centuries or else onto a movie set.  There are a series of steps from the train station down to the water line where the vaporettos (water buses) dock and more than one bedazzled tourist has taken a header while gawking at the dazzling Renaissance era tableau spread before them.  We boarded a vaporetto bound for the Piazza San Marco at the other end of the Grand Canal as it snakes through the city – abuzz with boat traffic around the clock.  This is Venice’s Main Street. It is two miles long lined with centuries -old palazzos, which are protected by laws against modernizing or otherwise changing. The canal itself is shaped like a backwards  “S”  and runs from the Santa Lucia train station (or Ferrovia) to the San Zaccaria stop at the Piazza San Marco, which is the heart of this old city full of elegant decay. The Grand Canal is 15 feet deep when the tide is in and 50 feet wide. Despite everyone boating at full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, there never seemed to be any crashes.

A Residential Canal - Venice

A Residential Canal – Venice

Venice, sometimes called La Serenissima (rough translation is” the most serene one”) was a republic and major world power for close to 1,000 years. Venice of today is built on approximately 100 islands in a marsh formed by a river silted up centuries ago. Buildings were built on pilings, driven into the clay below the silt. The city has 400 bridges and 2,000 labyrinthine alleyways, making finding your way a challenge, but then losing yourself in Venice is not such a bad thing. The city itself is around 1,500 years old, originally built as a refuge to escape the barbarians who were looting and having their way with things on the mainland of Italy, putting the finishing touches on the decline of the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years La Serenissima was at the center of East West trade until new routes were established. In the olden days each dukedom had its own currency and they traded in ducats, named after dukes, long before the Euro and the Lira.

As their wealth and importance declined, along with the population (from 200,000 to 60,000 residents today), the city partied itself from decadence right on down to decay. Today Venice’s only means of support is tourism and the decay is part of the charm. The city has a lot of practice at tourism since they have been playing host to tourists for over 400 years.  The city itself is the attraction with its museums, churches and palazzos lining every street. During the day, especially during high season (April-October), hordes of tourists descend on the city, but most come just for the day, so early morning, late afternoon and evening are the best times to be here.

A Vaporetto and Water Taxi Stop on the Grand Canal

A Vaporetto and Water Taxi Stop on the Grand Canal

Venice is divided into 6 districts and is pedestrian friendly, and since there are no motorized land vehicles, walking is the only way to get around unless you take some sort of watercraft which include:

Vaporettos – which are like ferries or buses on the water

Water Taxis which are classic Chris Craft type antique boats comparable to limousines taxis and are quite exorbitant

Tragehttos (in Italian the word means “ferry”), which are smaller versions of gondolas. These are free and ferry people across the Grand Canal at various places. Tragehettos serve as training vessels for aspiring gondoliers

Gondolas, which are also exorbitant, but rides on them are a must if you are to have a true Venetian experience.

All freight coming and going to Venice has to be transported by water so there are all sorts of working boats plying the canals during the day.

St Mark's Basilica

St Mark’s Basilica

Turning our heads this way and that to take it all in (Venice is literally an assault on the senses), we took the vaporetto to the Piazza San Marco and schlepped our luggage to our hotel , the Violino d’Oro (Golden Violin). It was 380 Euro for 2 nights, but at least we’ve heard the gelato is a bargain here.   We set out exploring , which was more like wandering, since we had no clear destination in mind. We strolled by the Caffé Florian and the Caffé Quattro to hear the dueling violins in the Piazza San Marco which is the heart of Venice. These are two outdoor cafes on opposite sides of the Piazza which have formally attired orchestras playing classical music. Each has a hefty cover charge and even heftier drink prices, but it is a lovely place to sit and contemplate St. Mark’s Basilica. The Church itself has 5 domes and is classically Byzantine in style, inspired by the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The current structure is the third Church on this site. The original burned down and the second was torn down to make room for the current church, which has been standing in its present form for close to 900 years. The basilica was built as the final resting place for the relics of St. Mark, whose body was allegedly smuggled by two merchants out of Alexandria Egypt in 828 AD (but of course after all those hundreds of  years, who would know for sure whose remains those might be?)  Other Venetians also swiped the 4 giant bronze Horses of the Apocalypse called the Quadriga  (out front above the entranceway into the basilica)  from Constantinople in 1204. Interestingly enough, there was actually a law  passed in 1075 that all ships returning to port had to bring a treasure (precious gift) for the church. Many treasures came in the form of looted mosaics. It gives one pause to reflect on that “thou shalt not steal commandment. Is it okay when you are swiping something for your church? To be on the safe side, the horses of the Quadriga on display are replicas. The originals are locked up in case anyone gets any ideas about decorating their own churches back home.

Several paces in front of St. Marks Basilica is the Campanile (bell tower) which is the tallest structure in Venice. It was originally built in the 8th Century, but it collapsed in 1902. When it was rebuilt they added an elevator which makes it much more popular with tourists nowadays.  There is a strong Byzantine influence here in its architecture and in the elaborate mosaics inside depicting Biblical scenes.

Happy Hour at the Rialto Bridge

Happy Hour at the Rialto Bridge

They no longer sell pigeon food in the piazza, which is something of a blessing since the pigeons could get aggressive with their dive-bombing  and poop dropping on tourists . They seemed more subdued on this trip, not so  bold or surly, but this proved not to be true at the Rialto Bridge bistros  where you had to mind both your pocketbook and your peanuts .

We enjoyed seeing the Torre Horologico (clock tower) which was covered and being restored the last time we were here in 2004. It was built in the Renaissance in the late 15th Century about the time Columbus was setting sail. It is decorated with phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac on its blue and gold enamel face.  It has two figures (the locals called them Moors since they were cast in dark bronze) taking turns striking a bell on the hour with little hammers. At the top is the symbol if Venice, a winged lion, representing St. Mark. The other evangelist disciples when they are symbolized in art are represented by other winged creatures: St. John an eagle, St. Matthew a man and St. Luke an ox (no word on why Luke got stuck with such an unglamorous creature.)  The clock has an interesting history. There was an accident during a 17th Century maintenance effort which resulted in what was probably the first case of death by robot attack when the clock started up unexpectedly and knocked a worker off the tower on to the piazza below. It is also part of Venetian lore that the two inventors of the clock’s mechanism had their eyes gouged out upon the completion of the project to ensure they could not ever replicate their feat in a rival city. The Venetians really know how to put the “horror” in horological.

We did some strolling through the older quarters, seeing dozens of chiesas (churches), shops, restaurants, and  galleries and countless palazzos, many dating back to the 15th Century. Some palazzos became hotels, others galleries and museums. One of our best discoveries was La Boutique de Gelato where fabulous gelato could be had for 1.50 Euro – a real bargain in these parts.

The Grand Canal at the Doge's Palace

The Grand Canal at the Doge’s Palace

We walked by the Doge’s Palace for a quick look.The doge (pronounced “dohzh”) was roughly equivalent to a duke and each doge was elected for life (rather than through primogeniture, where a title is inherited by the eldest son). The Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) connects Doge’s Palace to the prison (Palazzo dei Prigioni – here even the prison was a palazzo).  An appointed Council of Ten did the judging and condemning  in the Doge’s Palace where there was an official courtroom, which doubled as a torture chamber. The accused were hung by their wrists from the ceiling and confessions followed in short order. After extremely brief deliberations, it was off to the Bridge of Sighs and the Palazzo dei Prigioni and thus stern and swift justice was dispensed.

The Bridge of Sighs was so named because condemned prisoners would pause at the tiny window and take a last look at Venice and sigh for their loss.  There were not many ex-cons in those days since prison sentences seemed to be permanent.  The Doge’s Palace also contained living and working quarters, the Hall of the Grand Council, Senate Hall and an Armory. While the Doge was the ruler of Venice, he was not solely in charge. There was the council that he had to answer to and in fact there was one doge that the council ordered executed and they removed his portrait from the Palace as if he had never existed. In those days only the Doge’s Palace could be called a Palazzo. The rest no matter how grand, were simply Casa or “Ca” for short.

Approaching the Rialto Bridge by Gondola

Approaching the Rialto Bridge by Gondola

We walked from there to the Rialto Bridge, which takes its name from the Italian words, rivo alto (high bank).  It stretches across Grand Canal and is home to shops and more shops. The Erberia (Herb market) and Pescheria (fish market) are here by the bridge over the Grand Canal  as they have been for centuries. The current bridge was completed in 1591, replacing a series of earlier, lesser bridges. It was the only bridge across Grand Canal until the Accademia Bridge was built in 1854. Rialto used to be a separate commercial area, whereas  the San Marco area was for government and religion, but the two grew together long ago. The quays on either side of the bridge were used to load and unload goods. The two areas are connected via a winding series of streets called the Mercerie. Today the quays have tiny little outdoor restaurants which provide an excellent place to sit with a glass of wine and watch the action on the Grand Canal. In the shops above, there is a great deal of bartering and bantering going on – commerce still is king at the Rialto Bridge.

 

May 19, 2011

Dateline: Venice Italy

Today we decided to dedicate to leisurely strolling and seeing new things, particularly a much photographed church, Santa Maria della Salute, directly across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s Basilica. Despite several previous visits to Venice, we had only admired (and photographed) it from afar.   We used the Accademia Bridge to cross the Grand Canal and

Bridge on a Walk in Dorsoduro

Bridge on a Walk in Dorsoduro

stopped in a picturesque neighborhood called Dorsoduro for a leisurely lunch. We wound our way through small passageways and bridges, doing a quick walk by the Guggenheim museum, housed in what was a palazzo belonging to founder Peggy Guggenheim. She left the city her vast collection of modern art when she died. We decided to forego exploring the collection, but did take time to watch with fascination an art “installation” in progress. It resembled a giant bird’s nest – a round palazzo sized ball formed with dogwood trunk sized pixie sticks lashed together. The “artists” were crawling around the superstructure adding more layers. I thought I would Google the Guggenheim  to see the finished product, but had no luck, so I’m wondering if a strong breeze may have de-installed the installation.

After more circuitous walking we reached the church for a brief visit.  The name Santa Maria della Salute translates roughly as the Church of St. Mary of Good Health. It was built as a thank you to God for sparing the city in the Plague of 1630. Venice used cisterns in the olden days and collected rainwater that ran off the various piazzas and filled wells with it. Changing over to piped-in water from the mainland no doubt improved the “Salute” in Venice in addition to the church building. The church was complete in 1687 and features the large dome of the classic baroque style. It sits at the end of an island and is one of Venice’s most recognizable landmarks. It was built on marshy ground at the mouth of the Grand Canal and is supported by over 1 million timber pilings. Despite the external grandeur, it is actually simple inside by Venetian standards. This is contrary to most Venetian construction which tends to be shabby or plain on the outside and sumptuous on the inside.

As we left the church and continued to explore Dorsoduro, we made a serendipitous find on a narrow street just off the canal. It was a woodworking shop for gondolas. There were craftsmen working with chisels and planes shaping the various parts, and were making oarlocks on the day we were there, and gladly showed us their work.  We took a traghetto back across the canal to our hotel to get ready for dinner and a twilight gondola ride, preceded by a few drinks at Harry’s  Bar, a classic, if pricy, watering hole favored by Hemingway in days gone by. Harry’s Bar was founded by Guiseppe Cipriani  and his friend named Harry  in 1931 ( a new establishment by Venetian standards). We had been to Harry’s on previous visits, but believe that inflation has set in since our last visit. This is the home of the original Bellini – a wondrous concoction of white peach juice and champagne, but the price is equally wondrous at 15 Euro – roughly $23 and the martinis were 20 Euro or $30 each. So we sipped slowly and decided we had best hit the Euro Store (ATM)   before we ordered another round.

Sunset on the Grand Canal

Sunset on the Grand Canal

We set out in our gondola just before sunset on the Rio de Barcaroli. Our gondolier was Roberto, who gave us a wealth of information about the buildings along the canals, gondoliering and the canals themselves.   We learned that the back canals, (25 miles of them ) of which there are 150, are called rivers (rios) and feed into the Grand Canal with their depth being tide dependent. There 2 tides a day here and they provided the original sewer system for the city, but were long ago overwhelmed by demand.  Today they use pumps and pipes which is a much more agreeable solution for everyone.

We had borrowed wine glasses from our hotel and brought wine along and sipped it as Roberto expertly propelled us along with a single giant rudder-like oar as he pointed out these highlights:

The house where Marco Polo grew up and later died after his wanderings abroad to the Orient and other exotic places. He left Venice (a married man at the time) at 17 and did not return until he was 41. No word on how Mrs. Polo felt about that. (Polo is another name for Paolo, which is Italian for Paul).

The home where Goethe lived and wrote for several years

The house where Mozart lived and died as well as the house where the composer, Richard Wagner lived and died in 1883. This is now a low profile casino –no Vegas glitz allowed here. Casino means “little house” in Italian and most casinos started in houses such as this.

The house where the poet, Byron lived in 1818, as well as the places where Robert Browning and Henry James  stayed  for a while as part of their respective  Grand Tours.

The Ca’ de Oro (translation is House of Gold), built in 1420 is a fabulously ornate Byzantine Gothic structure – opulent beyond belief, with priceless works of art and Bernini sculptures. Today it is a museum

La Fenice Opera House (Gran Teatro all Fenice) where 5 Verdi operas premiered. It was an 18th Century structure gutted by fire in 1996 and since restored.  There is an excellent book by John Berendt called The City of Fallen Angels about the fire and restoration, filled with whodunit intrigue.

The house where Napoleon lived for a time. His first visit was as a tourist, his second was as a conqueror.

The Church of the Pieta – where Vivaldi worked as a choirmaster for an orphanage.

Roberto, a gondolier for 30 years, told us that the striped barber poles along the canal signify private boat docks where many palazzos have their own gondolas and boats tethered.  He also told us that gondoliers have to be licensed and they have to serve an apprenticeship. There are only 400 allowed to work at a time. The trade is handed down from father to son over

At the Gondola Workshop

At the Gondola Workshop

generations. Roberto had to wait until his father retired before he could become a gondolier. Prior to that he worked the traghettos for 13 years for tips.  Each gondola is handmade and costs around 50 thousand Euros ( 75 thousand dollars) and each gondolier must own his own gondola.  Gondolas are built to tilt to the right to counteract the weight of the gondolier who stands and steers on the left stern. They are all black and have essentially the same brass decorations on them, most with brass seahorses on the gunnels  and the characteristic brass comb-like ornament  called a ferri on the prow, with each of 6 “teeth”  representing one of the districts of Venice. In 1562 it was decreed that all gondolas be black to keep people from ostentatiously showing off wealth, but of course they found other ways.

For centuries, Venice has had to battle high water, and increasingly so during the last century. The city floods about 100 times per year, typically October through late winter. This period is called the Acqua Alta (high water). There are several problems contributing to this situation including global warming causing rising oceans, and the fact that the city was built on sediment from which increasing amounts of ground water have been pumped out over the years. The surrounding Adriatic is quite shallow and a strong wind can whip it ashore quite easily. When there is a high tide and a sirocco wind (from Africa), tourists and locals alike find themselves on catwalk planks supported by cinder blocks crossing the Piazza San Marco. Everyone is hoping than an engineering consortium can come up with a solution. Right now there is one being worked on called the Moses project. It involves underwater gates being built to shut out the sea when it rises, and is expected to be operational in 2014. Everyone who loves Venice is praying that it works so we don’t have to visit it at some point in the future wearing scuba gear.

May 20, 2011

Dateline: Lake Garda, Italy

Latitude at Lake Garda, 45.6 degrees North, Longitude 10.7 degrees East

Lake Garda,  Northern Italy

Lake Garda, Northern Italy

This morning we caught the vaporetto to take us to the train station for our short ride to Lake Garda. We had reservations as far as Verona, but had to go rogue for the Verona to Lake Garda segment due to a small mix-up in our reservation-making the day before. We arrived at the tiny train station at Desenzano on the southern end of Lake Garda, the largest of Italy’s Alpine lakes, and were met by our driver, for  whom I had arranged  in advance. It was a good move since it was at least an hour to the hotel in the town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of the lake. We checked in to the Hotel Florida – a fabulous hotel beautifully landscaped and perched on a mountainside with great views of Lake Garda.  We found we were definitely off the beaten path for American tourists, but there were still a lot of European tourists. Many wealthy Italians from major cities use this as their private upscale getaway. Unfortunately most of our upscale clothes were in a suitcase in Rome, but we tried our best to blend.

Our hotel is family owned and run with the most hospitable people imaginable. It was built in the Belle Epoch Era in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries and has hosted many of the aristocracy. Of course nowadays they are hosting us duffle toting, guidebook wielding tourists, but the Old World ambiance remains. The hotel is about 150 yards from the water, but the angle of the hill is somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees so it’s not so easy to stick your toe in from there. We found the panoramic views to be as advertised, from not only the lobby, but from the balconies

In the Village of Gardone Riviera

In the Village of Gardone Riviera

and terraces of the 22 suites as well. The furnishings were very elegant in a Laura Ashley sort of way, with a lot of chintz and florals. The walls and ceilings had hand painted designs – subtle and tasteful of course. There were fresh flowers and artsy touches everywhere.  We decided to walk into the town of Gardone Riviera, which despite our perched location, turned out to be even higher on the mountain – straight up , and so we arrived hot and thirsty. It is always dicey to quench your thirst with wine, but it was really good as was the lunch that we had at the Taverna del Borgo.

After lunch, we explored the town on foot – and found it spotlessly clean and right out of a storybook  in every sense of the word. There was a small train like vehicle (i.e. a train with rubber wheels) with the grand name of the “Orient Express “, but it was also called the Trentino or little train and we found it reminiscent of a Disney World shuttle. We took the Trentino back to the waterfront for 2 Euros each, but we still had a good walk to our hotel, which because of its perched locale, is always a good walk from anywhere along the waterfront.

Waterfront Gardone Riviera

Waterfront Gardone Riviera

Lake Garda is ringed by lemon and olive groves, as well as vineyards ,with the well-known Bardolino  and Valpolicella wine producers just across the lake from us. It is also ringed with the villas of the fabulously rich and quite often only locally famous (old money versus new). Lake Garda is not only the largest, it is also the balmiest of all of Italy’s Alpine Lakes, situated at the foot of the Alps.  There are some very pricey hotels here – sort of an Italian Lake Tahoe, however our Hotel Florida was both reasonable and beautiful with its own gardens. We noted that the whole area seems to be one big garden and we were lucky enough to be here in peak bloom season.

We spent the next few hours relaxing by the hotel pool (relaxing includes napping and reading). It was an infinity pool with the lake and islands at it edge. The climate here is reminiscent of Southern California at its best, with abundant sunshine and moderate temperatures.  No bugs – just right. A small and timely rain shower drove us indoors so we could get ready for a fabulous dinner at the lakeside Ristorante Casino.  It was a very elegant place – no longer a casino, but it  had several rooms for catering to large parties and special events requiring a high degree of elegance with great views of the lake. There was good wine, impeccable service and delectable food, and the price was commensurate with all of the above, so it looks like we need another trip to the Euro store tomorrow.

May 21, 2011

Dateline: Lake Garda, Italy

Sunrise over Lake Garda

Sunrise over Lake Garda

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more beautiful here, we awoke to witness the sun rising  in exquisite splendor over the lake.  Fortunately we did not draw our drapes the night before or we would have been snoring away (Gary would anyway – I only sleep out loud from time to time – or so he claims). We had the hotel breakfast alfresco on a terrace with a view of the lake and the pool.

We left the hotel to go to the ferry dock where we found the city was hosting a Vintage Design and Fashion open air market. We had a little time before the ferry was due to depart, so we strolled around on the promenade amid the oleanders, hydrangeas and palms. Above us on the hillside were the more formal gardens of the villas, accessed via narrow cobblestone streets scented with star jasmine, cascading over stucco walls and wrought iron fences. This is definitely a town evoking a bygone era – Jay Gatsby would be right at home here. We stopped for a bit and admired the fleet of old wooden pleasure boats (like Chris Crafts, but of Italian design).  Then for 22 Euro per person, we took a ferry from Gardone Riviera to Sirmione, via the villages of Garda and Bardolino on

Village of Bardolina on Lake Garda

Village of Bardolina on Lake Garda

the Navigazione Lago di Garda ferry.  This one did not take cars, but they have one called the Traghetto Autoveicoli  which does. The auto ferries cross the lake in two places, point to point, whereas the people ferries make loops at either the north end or the south end of the lake.  I fancy the lake is shaped like the head of an elephant with its trunk fully extended toward the northeast. The south end of the lake is the elephant’s head with one ear showing. Unfortunately, part of the head is missing, but with a glass or two of Bardolino, you can envision it.  Desenzano would be at the neck, Sirmione right where the ear attaches to the head and Gardone would be where the trunk meets the head on top. Bardonlino and Garda are along the edge of the ear. To the north toward the Alps is the tip of the elephant trunk and the town of Riva. We chose the fast ferry, although the slow ferry makes more stops, since we wanted to ensure we had some pool/nap time later.

Castle at Sirmione

Castle at Sirmione

Sirmione is built on an island 2 miles off shore and is a pedestrian only town with a medieval atmosphere. The town is centuries old and served as a summer getaway for Romans, particularly Catullus, the poet. The ruins of his villa are still here, but having just been in Rome, we were pretty much over seeing any more ruins for a while, so we stayed in town. The main attractions at Sirmione are the sulfur baths (Romans were nothing if not ultimate spa people), the Roman ruins and the Rocca Scaligera which is a fairy-tale like castle surrounded by the lake, complete with swans in the moats. It was built by the Scali (or Scaligera) Princes of Verona. The town, adjacent to the castle, has narrow cobble stone streets lined with shops and restaurants, with flowers everywhere you could possibly put  a pot or flowerbed.

Mountains of Gelato

Mountains of Gelato

We strolled the streets, shopped for a few mementos and stopped for a snack, bypassing the mounds of pastel gelatos tempting us to find a fresh fruit stand where we gorged on local berries and melon.  We stopped at a hotel for cocktails on their lakeside balcony before re-boarding our ferry back to Gardone Riviera. We decided our pool side relaxation interrupted yesterday should be continued, and so we disembarked the ferry and walked to our hotel and assumed our positions. We eventually roused ourselves to walk down the street to a small lakeside pizzeria. We feel we are starting to get the hang of this lounging around business.

May 22, 2011

Dateline:  Cortona, Italy

Latitude at Cortona 41.8 degrees  North, Longitude 12.56 degrees East

Sunflowers at a Flower Shop in Cortona

Sunflowers at a Flower Shop in Cortona

We had a long series of train rides starting at 6:30 to get to our destination for the next few days, the Tuscan village of Cortona . Our trip took us from the Veneto at the foot of the Alps through the rich farmland of Emilia-Romagna and into the hills of southernmost Tuscany where it borders Umbria. Tuscany is awash in vineyards and olive groves, farmhouses, villas and castles, cathedrals and churches – all in those stereotypically Tuscan colors such as burnt sienna and umber, tastefully faded and oozing character.  Cortona  is an ancient city in a country of ancient cities, founded by the Etruscans who were the predecessors of the Romans. They were apparently interesting people, and highly developed intellectually, aside from the fact that they believed you could tell the future by contemplating the entrails of animals. Historians believe them to be artistic and cultured, as evidenced by the pottery and jewelry they left behind. The name Tuscany is a derivative of their name. Tuscany, as in all of Italy, was really a loose confederation of city-states and was called Etruria going back to the Ninth Century B.C. Around 400 B.C. the Romans started taking over, but still maintained the tradition of feasts and revelry – in fact taking it to new heights, with the last Etruscan city captured in 256 BC. Cortona was a major power in medieval times, but because it later fell into obscurity, modern warfare thankfully passed it by and left much of the old city standing over the centuries.

We arrived on Sunday at the train station in Camucia and it would have been a long strenuous walk to Cortona, even without our luggage, and thus we understood why the guide book called for a bus ride; however the guidebook failed to mention that there are none running on Sunday– and there were no taxis  there either.  Fortunately when I called the hotel,  they sent one of only a few that operate in the town at all, much less on Sunday and it took us up the hill in only a matter of minutes to the Hotel Santa Lucia on the Via Guelfa. The taxi delivered us to the doorstep of the hotel , and thankfully so since the street runs at about a 45 degree angle. We left our luggage at the hotel and set off exploring.

Tuscan Countryside beyond the Walls of Cortona

Tuscan Countryside beyond the Walls of Cortona

The town, constructed out of a crumbly sort of sandstone, sits on a 1,700 foot hill perched above the dramatic fields and vineyards that look as they have for centuries (as long as you can ignore the strip of highway and the train tracks in the distance that is). However in pre-Roman times, it was marshland so we don’t really see what the Etruscans saw. Our view is only of ruins, wells and tombs  remaining from their ancient settlement .The main street of Cortona  is the Via Nazionale, which is the closest thing to a  flat  street in this town.  It starts at the Piazza Garibaldi and continues through to the Piazza della Repubblica. This piazza is the heart of town where City Hall (the Palazzo del Comune) stands. Cortona today remains a walled city (built atop walls from the Etruscan era 2,500 years ago) with gates called “portas”, with many stepped  streets to accommodate the steep hills. Cortona was made famous most recently by Frances Mayes in her book, Under the Tuscan Sun . There was a movie by the same name, but they chose a heroine about 30 years younger and 50 pounds lighter than the real Frances, and made her svelte and single, presumably to add some credibility to those steamy love scenes that sell movie tickets and DVD’s.

 Piazza della Republica

Piazza della Republica

Only a block away from our hotel, we found the Piazza della Repubblica and City Hall, which is a strange mix of medieval towers and a bell tower with a staircase much grander than the structures it leads to. There are many wooden balconies around the Piazza, which of course are reproductions of those from medieval times. We saw evidence of many more where there were holes visible in many buildings where the stone has lasted, but the wood has long since rotted.  You can picture servants in the olden days throwing stuff off them onto unsuspecting commoners below – but today the pigeons do the honors.  We enjoyed seeing the benches with the town elders (all men) sitting and visiting and they were gracious enough to move over to make room for us tourist types, but the cigarette smoke was so heavy, we couldn’t tarry long. In Etruscan times a street led from this piazza up the hill to a temple, then in Roman times it became a forum.  We particularly enjoyed sunset here with the changing pastels of the town’s buildings, swallows darting around the square, and the local townsmen trudging up the steep and narrow winding streets leading from the piazza. We had

Giant Calzones at Fuflluns

Giant Calzones at Fuflluns

dinner at Fuflun’s Tavern Pizza  (Fuflun was the Etruscan name for the god Dionysus), where we sat at the outdoor tables right on the street just a block off the Piazza Repubblica on the very steep Via Ghibellina. To accommodate the slope of the street, they had built small decks to make the tables sit level. Fuflun’s served the biggest calzones I have ever seen – about the size of a hubcap folded in half. With great regret, Gary had to abandon his a little more than halfway through. A note on the rather intriguing names,  the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. In the Middle Ages there was an ongoing feud between the pope and various secular rulers of the 14th Century. They each had their own warriors – the Guelphs who backed the Pope, and the Ghibellines who favored the secular factions.  The basic argument was over who should rule over the other. This battling between the warring factions went on for years and was good for keeping life interesting in between bouts of plague, famine and various natural disasters.

May 23, 2011

Dateline : Cortona, Italy

Along the Way of the Cross Above Cortona

Along the Way of the Cross Above Cortona

There are a number of great walks in Cortona, so we ambled around town, and eventually made our way up to the Santa Margherita Basilica just below the peak of the hill that Cortona occupies. En route we passed the Stations of the Cross (commemorating the 14 different places and events that took place as Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha).   This basilica (also called the Santuario) is named after the patron saint of Cortona, Santa Margherita (no relation to the beverage of the same name) and she is buried here in the Santuario.  Margherita was a 13th Century rich girl (and reportedly an unwed mother who took care of the poor. There were reports that a 13th century crucifix that “talked” to her. She was also a follower of St. Francis from nearby Assisi. Many believe she protected Cortona

Basilica of Santa Margherita

Basilica of Santa Margherita

from WWII bombs, but then again, it would have to be a severely off-course bomber which would drop a payload here.   We only had a quick peek inside the basilica, because a cleaning lady banished us from the church since she was mopping. She didn’t speak English, but we got the message from her brandished mop and so we wisely moved on.  At the very  top of the hill is the the Medici Fortress which is advertised as a 30 minute climb from town, but this does not include stopping and panting for air  periodically.   The Medici Fortress, used in medieval times to defend the town, occupies the highest point on the hill above the Basilica. The views were great, but a documentary crew was doing some sort of filming so we didn’t spend much time.

The View from the Piazza Garibaldi

The View from the Piazza Garibaldi

We walked back down to the village, taking care that our feet didn’t run away with us on the steep down slope, and found ourselves under the sycamore trees at the Piazza Garibaldi. There is a belvedere here,   a park like promontory on the city wall that didn’t exist in medieval times. It was built in the Romantic era during the Age of Napoleon just so people could sit and enjoy the view.  It is named after Guiseppe Garibaldi – a General who helped unite a greatly diverse Italy in the 1860’s. From here you can see a bit of the village of Assisi (home of St. Francis) and a small lake called Trasimeno where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC with 15,000 dying in the battle, shortly before things ended badly for  Hannibal and his elephants. Off to the right are the vineyards and the town of Montepulciano.

We walked through the tiny Piazza Signorelli whose  main attraction is the Casali Palace which was the headquarters for Florentine nobles who controlled the city at one point. Every 6 months or so Florence would send a new captain to be in charge, who would add his coat of arms to those who preceded him, and they are still on display today. Signorelli is the name of two famous artists (religious themed paintings of course) from Cortona who lived in medieval times, with the most famous being Luca Signorelli. It seems that there are unassuming “chiesas” (translation chapels or small churches) on every corner, many of which house priceless paintings.

There were several museums which we skipped in favor of just walking since the weather was fabulous and much too good to be inside. We also missed the Etruscan tombs in an area called Il Sodo which are called “melone” for they are said to be melon shaped. There is quite a bit of excavation still going on and with special permission, tourists can visit the site and watch.

We also did a stroll by of the Piazza del Duomo where another big church, the Cattedrale stands, which is no longer considered a true cathedral since they no longer have a bishop. The Cattedrale is very unassuming and in fact a bit “underwhelming”,   compared to cathedrals in Sienna and Florence, but there were beautiful views from here. We could also see the town cemetery which was moved from this area where the Piazza del Duomo is now in Napoleons’ time due to hygiene concerns – something to do with high ground and gravity and porous rock presumably, although some say it was just their excuse to reclaim this prime real estate.

The plan was for Paul and Kathy to return to Rome for their flight home tomorrow, and Gary and I would proceed through Rome and on south to Sicily. We decided to book a reservation since it was a lengthy trip . We also decided to break up the trip with an overnight stay in the city of Salerno along the way (more on that adventure in the next segment of the Great Adventure Travelogue). We stopped into a local travel agency called Tuscan Magic and encountered an agent who spoke little English. She told me (or so I thought) that she was getting ready to close for lunch and  I should come back in an hour, which I did. It was close to two hours later that she came strolling up the street licking a gelato, but the good news was that I was first in line to see her. (The other people behind me must have known that one o’clock doesn’t meant one o’clock in Italy.) As we proceeded with our transaction, I was a little alarmed that her English seemed to have melted away with the gelato and so we were going total Italian, plus I had to explain to her what a rail pass was, what a Social Security number was (needed by Citibank to confirm that I was really me using this Master Card number) and most alarmingly where Salerno was. I thought I was missing something when I understood her to say that the train cars are actually put onto the ferry and hauled across the Straits of Messina to Sicily. But as it turned out – my Italian must have been at least passable at this point because that is precisely what happened – but I digress.

Under the Tuscan Sun at Bramasole

Under the Tuscan Sun at Bramasole

After a few hours booking with Tuscan Magic (well with a casual lunch thrown in, it was more like 3), we had a few house of daylight left, so walked out to Bramasole (which means “yearning for the sun” ), the house that Frances Mayes and her husband Ed bought and renovated as described in Under the Tuscan Sun. It is built on a hillside that has morning sun and is in shade for most of the afternoon. The house is very plain and rectangular, and sort of an ocher color, but is nevertheless charming and the gardens between the house and the road are beautifully manicured. We understand the Mayes family is hires a number of year round gardeners to keep things looking so good.

Al Fresco Dining in Cortona

Al Fresco Dining in Cortona

For our last night in Tuscany, we treated ourselves to a great dinner – and found ourselves in the midst of a birthday party at Ristorante La Bucaccia, located in a rustic medieval wine cellar. They offer cooking classes, but are booked way in advance so we had to settle for just eating.   We ordered  Chianina beef, a specialty in Cortona, which was delicious. Chianina is a breed of cow, closer to an ox than a cow actually, which is one of the oldest and largest breeds in the world. We also enjoyed our hosts, Roman and Agostina , who made us feel like their personal guests. He liked to talk and she had to keep dragging him away to serve other guests from the birthday party, who were their regular customers, so we felt we must have been exceptionally witty and charming that night.  It was perfect last night in Tuscany.

 




An Italian Adventure Part 3

An Italian Adventure

Part Three – Islands of Southern Italy

 

May 24, 2011

Dateline: Salerno, Italy

Latitude  at Salerno 40.7 degrees  North,  Longitude 14.7  degrees East

We left Tuscany from the Camucia train station early this morning on a southbound train headed for Rome and then connected with a train to Salerno in Campania, where we decided to overnight before continuing on to Sicily. We only had 15 minutes to connect 10 tracks away. We were sprinting as we schlepped our bags up and down stairs. Once on board we had 4 hours or so to enjoy one of our rolling picnics (mostly wine, bread and cheese that we had been carrying around for the last several days).

According to Rick Steves, once you get south of Rome, everything gets more stereotypically Italian and more exaggeratedly so. We first noticed this with the abundance of gypsy and non-gypsy beggars that jump on the train and commence a brisk begging routine, with one eye toward the conductor. If he (or she) appears to be approaching they move away to the next car and, if another conductor is coming from the other way, they will hop off at the next stop.  To begin their “shtick” they hand out little pieces of paper with their personal sad stories outlined in Italian and some semblance of English (e.g. I am a poor widow caring for a family of 17 disabled children and the bambino needs milk – said bambino may or may not accompany the supplicant). Some of the more ambitious offer soft drinks and bottled water for sale, carried in a plastic bucket. The water is indeed in a bottle, which was likely recently retrieved from a trash can and filled from a local tap. We didn’t see any evidence of a conductor between Rome and Naples so it was open season on the tourists for that leg of the trip. We suspect the conductors keep a low profile on this run, and have conceded this turf to the moochers and shysters. We also noticed that while reservations are mandatory on the Eurostar trains, (versus the intercity trains which are smaller local trains) the reservations requirement is largely ignored south of Rome so there is a general musical chairs type shuffle after each stop. We saw Vesuvius on our left as we left Naples going south and it appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Of course that is probably what the people of Pompey thought back in 73 AD when it woke up in a rather dramatic fashion.

I had thought there would be some interesting sights to see in Salerno, particularly in light of this being the scene of an Allied Invasion in 1943 and the actual capital of Italy between the time Mussolini was impaled on a meat hook and the Nazis still occupied Rome.  Not only that, Salerno has been  the site of civilization since pre-Roman times. However, by the time our train pulled into the station and we took a taxi to the Hotel K (where the Tuscan Magic Travel Agency in Cortona had booked us) and checked in, dusk was setting in. We decided on a leisurely walkabout and perhaps locate a place to have dinner along the busy seaport boulevard (4 lanes full of beeping horns and darting Vespas). It proved to be an adventure, but not exactly what we had in mind. We were in a quasi industrial, working class neighborhood and the choices seemed to be a pizzeria or a darkened restaurant with lots of tables and no customers.

Pizza Delivery Bikes at the Ausonia Pizzeria

Pizza Delivery Bikes at the  Pizzeria Ausonia

The word seedy comes to mind.   In contrast, things were hopping at the Pizzeria Ausonia, so we chose it for our evening meal. There was an abundance of yelling back and forth and full-body gesticulating, but nobody was mad at anyone else –it’s just a matter of expressing oneself. We think this may be the Italian equivalent of the Bronx. We immediately discovered that no one spoke English, but our friendly waiter recruited a fellow customer,  who readily volunteered to be our translator  in exchange for hearing about life in America. He ordered a few pizzas and beers and then ambled  across the street with them. In his absence, we tried to chat with our waiter to inquire as to what saltimbocca might be. He took off across the street and returned with our translator who told us it was a stuffed pizza. Business started to pick up and the little fleet of Vespas buzzed out and back making deliveries of pizza, kept hot in a small box secured to what would be the passenger’s seat. They have a wood fired brick oven and the pizza dough is twirled and tossed to the delight of the foreign customers, of which we were the only two. The more we “oohed “ and “aahed”, the more daring the tossing became. It became clear that this pizzeria is very “autentico” and not a tourist stop. Gary and I love to go out and mingle (if not blend) with the locals and this was a great opportunity. A word on blending – I pride myself on being able to blend in many European countries – I could pass for Italian as long as I don’t speak, but Gary is the proverbial sore thumb here – he tends to blend more in Germany and Slavic countries where there are more people his size. We’ve observed that the Italians are noisy people – but  appear to be having more fun than the rest of us. As much as we love Italy, we are growing a little tired of pizza and pasta

If there were historical things in Salerno, we missed them. The guidebooks describe it as a lively seaport and we can attest it was both of those things. It was very entertaining in the pizzeria with lots of locals stopping in, talking loudly and waving   their hands, delivery boys buzzing off on delivery scooters, some with baskets, some with pizza tucked under their arms.  The tourist attractions are apparently the ancient Roman settlement of Paestum to the south and the Amalfi Coast to the North.  Unfortunately ancient Salerno was reduced to rubble in the pre-invasion shelling in 1943 and the rebuild left a lot to be desired in terms of charm and authenticity – that is to say, there is none.  They do have a duomo (cathedral) from the 12th Century, built on the ruins of one from the 10th Century using columns swiped from the ruins at Paestum  which was built on an ancient Greek site dating back to the 6th Century BC. They also have museums – but we have miles to go and no extra time.

We concluded that this is a working class neighborhood in a working class town. Once we got back  to the hotel, we noticed that it is indeed only the Hotel K,  not the Hotel O.K.  The shower had glass doors that sort of flapped closed rather than sliding. Our reservation showed it as K3*, which we later learned was code for the Hotel K which is a three star hotel.  All I can say is I would be leery of hotels with lesser constellations than those with a total of 3 stars.  From what I can determine – a 3 star gets you towels, which were generously sized, but with a thickness and texture appropriate for drying dishes. In fact the bath “towel” could have doubled as a table cloth. We suspect that terry cloth is only found in constellations above the 3-star designation – below 3 stars may have no towels at all.  The room did have AC and Wi-Fi, and a bed which is earthquake ready – being only about 2 feet off the floor, meaning there is little danger of a big fall if the building starts to shake or if you were over-served at the pizzeria and should consequently fall out of bed.

May 25, 2011

Dateline: Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Latitude at Taormina 37.8 degrees  North, Longitude 15.3 degrees East

A Picnic on the Train

A Picnic on the Train

Today we continued our train journey to Sicily, taking a morning train from Salerno through the region of Calabria and on to the port town of Reggio de Calabria at the very toe of the boot of Italy ( you can picture Sicily as a football being kicked by the toe, but it actually is shaped more like the head of a goat with a kick being delivered to the right ear),  and as promised, our train cars (with us on board) were loaded on a ferry and were whisked (well it was really too slow to  be described as a “whisking”) to the Sicilian port of Messina. We managed to locate a taxi at the train station and took a short but extremely uphill ride to the town of Taormina, perched on a cliff-face, high above the Mediterranean. We had reservations at the Hotel Shuler which turned out to be a lovely little boutique hotel with a small tropical garden and koi pond in back. We could go out the back gate and up a series of steps to the main street of the town, and thus were well positioned to explore.

Sicily’s history is one of conquest – with the locals never coming out on top. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans (bringing Christianity), Barbarians (Vandals and Ostrogoths who expelled the Christians), Byzantines, Arabs (bringing Islam), Normans ( who expelled the Muslims), Spaniards, Austrians, Bourbon kings (no booze, just French nobility) and finally the Italians in 1800’s. Sicily was truly at the crossroads of civilized world, as evidenced by the rich mix of language, culture, cuisine, architecture

The Cliffs of Taormina

The Cliffs of Taormina

The city of Taormina sits on a terrace of a mountain called Monte Tauro. The town was officially founded in 385 BC by the Greek, Andromachus. There was an earlier colony called Naxos on the coast below destroyed by armies from Syracuse (Greece not NY). In 36 BC Taormina was designated a Roman colony by Octavius and it prospered for a time, but was twice destroyed, by the Arabs in the 10th Century and by the Normans in 1078. The town more or less slumbered for the next several hundred years until the 1700’s when it became a tourist destination.

Our taxi went almost straight up from the railway station to 600 feet above sea level to the town which is built on a “balcony” carved out of the mountainside. From this balcony you can see the Straits of Messina and the mainland of Italy. The Greeks built an amphitheater with the stage columns framing a view of Mt. Etna in the Third Century BC and it was later remodeled by the Romans. It is built into the rock face of Mount Tauro at 675 feet and is still used every summer for festivals and performances.. The town is so picturesque with abundant gardens with bougainvillea and oleander draped over ancient stone walls, giving way to intimate piazzas and dramatic overlooks called belvederes. We found the people of Taormina, like other Italians to be fond the “Passeggiata” – the practice of ambling aimlessly along the streets of a city – and we readily adopted this habit.

We had dinner in the  evening at a restaurant called the Gambero Rossi (or Red Shrimp) and sat outdoors under a delightful evening sky and a warm breeze we were told comes from North Africa. We ordered Spaghetti Bolognaise, prosciutto and melon and  Scallopini Marsala. The bill came to 70 Euros – a little over $100 – and quite a bargain for this town. We did see the word “coperto” appearing on our bill which we learned is like a cover charge for sitting down in their restaurant. No music – but still a coperto. Even the gelato stores charge extra if you sit to eat your gelato versus walk out with it.  Tourism is big here, and has eclipsed fishing, olives, grapes and citrus and the tourists are gouged accordingly.

May 26, 2011

Dateline: Taormina, Sicily, Italy

Today we decided to explore the town of Taormina and its labyrinth of steep side streets that branch off of the main street called the Corso Umberto, built on what was the Via Valeria – an old Roman Road that linked Catania to Messina. The Romans had built a retaining wall of sorts with niches for statuary over 370 feet long which supported the Via Valeria and is still standing today.  We arranged for a tour of Mt. Etna and the Alcantara Valley for the next day, as well as ferry reservations from Palermo to Naples for our return to the mainland later in the week. We decided to take a cable car called the Funivia from Taormina to the town of Mazzaro down on the waterfront, a drop in elevation from 197 meters to 25 meters above sea level (a meter being

La Pigna, Sicily

La Pigna, Sicily

roughly 3 feet). There is a beach there called Lido  La Pigna (which translates as the Pines Beach and pines do indeed dot the hillsides) There were a number of sunbathers who mostly use lounge chairs since the beach here has pea to golf ball size stones rather than sand, making for  rather uncomfortable afternoon sunbathing if all you have is a beach towel.  We stopped for lunch at a casual place also called La Pigna– sporting plastic tables, plastic chairs, paper plates – but really plastic was the operative word as we soon learned, since you better have some plastic in your wallet or else a very large wad of bills. I had a Caprese Salad  and Gary had a fish called dorado, plus we had some wine. All were excellent so that kind of eased the pain of paying 60 Euros (about 90 dollars)  for lunch while seated on a plastic chair. You would at least expect some upholstery at those prices, but the scenery was fantastic – beach front, sun sparkling on the water, blue skies, gentle breeze. Life is good – plastic or no plastic.

We went back up to Taormina after lunch for some more sightseeing. I was intrigued with the symbol of Sicily called the Trinicria. It is the head of what looks like a somewhat startled woman with 4 snakes intertwined around her face, small wings where her ears should be, attached to three legs bent at the knee in the 4, 8 and 12 o’clock positions. I   suppose that the discovery of any one of these oddities while perhaps glancing in a mirror would be sufficient to cause her startled expression. The name Trinacria –  comes from ancient times and means “triangle” because Sicily has 3 capes, or pointy headlands and is  roughly triangular in shape.

The Greek Theater, Taormina

The Greek Theater, Taormina

We decided to visit the ancient Greek Theater which is one of Taomina’s primary historical features. It is situated on a cliff, even higher than the town with a commanding view of the cliffs and rolling hills of the island, the glittering Mediterranean and  the snowcapped slopes of Mt. Etna in the distance.  Just off the coast in the Baia Mazzero was the island of Isola Bella  (joined by a low causeway at low tide to the mainland). Gary had hopes for a senior discount when he saw their sign advertising just that, but alas was told that it only applies to old Italians – old foreigners get out your wallets and brace yourselves. The cost seemed as steep as the streets, but we always feel we may never pass this way again so we decided better go inside and see what the Greeks saw and indeed  the Greek Theater proved to be an excellent place to see the sunset.

One of my guidebooks recommended eight different walks around the city and we took some of them and then made up some of our own. We walked extensively and while we didn’t always know where we were going, it was always beautiful.  Another historic site was the Santa Catarina Church, dating from the 17th Century. Romans had an Odeon for musical performances and also a Naumachia (an artificial lake) for mock battles of which very little evidence is left, given the penchant of subsequent civilizations for taking stones already carved to make new structures. For example, here the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele was built on the site of the Roman forum and the Palazzo Corvaia was built from stone from a Roman temple. We went to bed early to rest up for tomorrow early adventure.

May 27, 2011

Dateline:  Mt. Etna, Sicily

Latitude at Mt. Etna 37.75 degrees North, Longitude 15.00 degrees East

Gole Alcantara

Gole Alcantara

Today we walked from our hotel to the bus terminal, a 15 minute walk to join our tour with the Sicilian Airbus Travel Group leaving at 7:00 a.m.  for 87 Euros round trip to Mt. Etna and the Alcantara Gorge (Gole Alcantara in Italian, but Alcantara is from the Arabic word for bridge.) Our first stop was in the Alcantara Valley, where we took a scenic walk along the deep gorge which is over 1 million years old, and provided courtesy of Mt. Etna. We found dramatic scenery comprised of a swiftly flowing stream burbling over rocks and waterfalls working their way through solid basalt rock, as they have done for millennia, creating sheer walls and cliff faces. The river is ice cold, cascading over a series of waterfalls. We learned that “granita” also know as Italian Ice (or flavored ice or snow cone) originated here. The Greeks and Romans created the earliest granita by flavoring snow from Mt. Etna with wine. Marzipan is also big here (almond paste candy made into the shape of fruit) and is pretty to look at, but not so tasty I think.

After hiking the gorge, we took a bus to Randazza, which was billed as an old medieval town, but we didn’t see any evidence of that era as we boarded a train (ferrovia), called the Circumnetea . It runs around the base of the mountain from Catania to Riposto.  There was a convivial multi-national group in our car and we all shared goodies from our respective backpacks to nibble on. From the train we boarded another bus to actually reach the upper area of Mt. Etna where we boarded first the Funivia dell Etna – a gondola lift which would take us up to an elevation of 3,000 meters, and then we boarded their special all terrain vehicles (ATV’s) to take us higher up the mountain.

Leaving the ATV’s , we proceeded on foot. It was getting really cold and foggy at this point ,which made the landscape all the more surreal. There was no visible caldera spewing lava, but there was a smoking sulfurous smell and dozens of steam vents  piercing the black crust over crystallized snow. We saw many deep drifts covered with several inches of gritty, ashy gravel the texture of coarse sand paper. The vents emitted steam, gas and smoke  and were called

Pausing for a Photo Op at a "Fumarolita" atop Mt. Etna

Pausing for a Photo Op at a “Fumarolita” atop Mt. Etna

“fumaroles” or “fumarolitas” if they were small.  The word is from the Latin “fumus” meaning to smoke. We did not go to the summit to see the main caldera since this is an active volcano and it was, if not spewing lava at the moment, was definitely belching smoke. We satisfied ourselves with fumaroles, which were quite intimidating in their own right. We walked around several deep vents crunching on the most recent layer of ash. We saw evidence of earlier structures, now up to the eaves in ash and snow from the previous winter. Prior to 2001 there was a ski facility here, but it was since been destroyed by the volcano.

In ancient times Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, was believed to be the forge of Vulcan, the God of Fire. It has damaged the town of Catania and surrounding villages many times over the centuries, most recently in 2001  After we got home, Mt. Etna did some serious erupting so what we saw may be covered now. It had been asleep since 2002, but it has erupted seven times the first 4 months of 2012).  The Greeks called it the Pillar of Heaven when gazing on it from the Greek theater in Taormina. White smoke which actually steam is a good sign that she is sleeping, but black smoke indicates trouble (i.e. an eruption) is  brewing. Mt. Etna has erupted approximately 300 times in the last 3,000 years. One of the most violent eruptions was the one in 1667 which destroyed much of Catania, 19 miles way. It is such a contrast to see the lower slopes with their vineyards and groves of lemons, orange, almond and olive, while the upper slopes look like a lunar landscape.

We stopped at an apiary (bee keeper’s place) where we could buy honey on the way home.  Our bus took us back over a new set of torturous hairpin turns. The buses here have rear wheels that steer like a fire truck, but there is no driver back there. We experienced and welcomed a radical change in temperature and got warm for the first time in several hours and eventually we were dropped at the bus stop and walked back to town.

A Picnic on the Terrace at Taormina

A Picnic on the Terrace at Taormina

We decided to do improvise and have our own picnic for an evening meal.  We bought wine, (a great Sicilian  wine called Sedara that we will attempt to find at home) breadsticks, prosciutto and cheese at a salumeria  (delicatessen) called La Torinese, and we bought cantaloupe at a street fruit market. We had a fabulous picnic dinner on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the sea far below, with boats bobbing gently in the bay. We fancied this to be the Sicilian version of the Red Neck Yacht Club that we convene at home for sunsets on the lake.  We had a clear view of Mt Etna to the south, the Ionian Sea to the east, with the sun setting over mountains behind us turning all surfaces to soft pastels.  We remember it as one of the greatest evenings of our trip.

May 28, 2011

Dateline: Palermo, Italy

Latitude at Palermo 38.11 degrees North, Longitude 13.36 degrees East

We took a cab to the Taormina train station, which turned out to be a major investment, but we had a train to catch and so we indulged ourselves, rather than schlepping our bags to the bus stop and going that route with the bazillion backpackers that frequent such places. The train ride was long, covering 259 kilometers (and what a difference those 259 kilometers make – like going from Park Avenue to the Bronx)  We first had an hour ride to Messina and then changed trains for Palermo with another 4 hour ride with 24 stops.  We kept seeing young people hanging out of train windows and thronging train stations, waving pink and black banners and learned that Palermo was playing Rome for the Futbol (a.k.a. soccer) championship of Italy on the next day. And the whole area was in a frenzy – not so different from American NFL fans, painted faces – a little wild-eyed, a little frothing at the mouth and so forth.

Palermo, on the northwest coast of Sicily has approximately25 centuries of history behind it with literally waves of civilizations and conquerors. The first settlers were the Phoenicians in 8th Century BC, followed by the Greeks and then Romans in 3rd Century AD. Once Rome crumbled, the Byzantines  and Arabs came in the 9th Century AD and brought irrigation, and architectural elements as well as citrus couscous, sorbet/granite, sesame seeds and, pistachios.  In 1071 the Normans conquered Palermo and established Catholicism once and for all.

The word “old” gets totally redefined here. For example, there is a Norman era church built in 1148 which was built on the ruins of a mosque that sat there for several centuries which had been built on the ruins of a monastery. We found it to be a fascinating place, but quite a contrast to Taormina, where  we were “oohing” and “aahing” over the scenery. Here we were gawking and gaping at other sights and sounds.  The street markets were selling food, along with everything else imaginable. They made paper cones for loose fruit items – no plastic bags which was a refreshing change.  The streets were filled with people shouting, laughing talking and greeting each other (both men and women) with a double kiss. The city sits in a bowl or natural amphitheater of sorts called the Conca d’Oro (Golden Shell)  with Monte (Mount) Pelligrino to the west and Monte Alfano to the east. To the north is the La Cala Harbor. The valley extends to the south to the ancient town of Monreale which sits on the slopes of Monte Caputo. The city is sometimes politely described as being in “reduced circumstances” – putting it mildly – but there are indications everywhere of its past grandeur. It’s a fascinating place, but not recommended for the fastidious.

The credo that “Less is More” is not followed here. In Palermo More is More,  with elaborate carving upon elaborate carving, as a prime example. Everything seems crowded here– streets, paintings, statuary, shrines, markets, flowers, flowers at shrines, candles, but also litter, graffiti, dead shrubbery, garbage and dirty windows.  Entire districts have become street emporiums with merchandise spilling onto sidewalks under streets strung with banners and lights and luminarie (banners made of light bulbs).

We checked into our hotel and  set off exploring the city on foot.  The main intersection of town is called the Quattro Canti where the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele meet at what is the mid-point  of the  City.  The intersection is shaped by a Baroque octagon with sculptures at each corner, and each sports an ornate façade of a palace or church, crumbling a little – but still reflecting a refined decadence of sorts. We found there to be churches and oratories (small chapels designated for prayers) on just about every block in the old part of the city, as well as palazzos and villas in various states of repair. It seems as if all the buildings from palazzos to pizzerias  are squeezed together with little evidence of zoning, except perhaps on one street we saw called Via del Liberta – which was a wide avenue with  a decidedly upper crust vibe.

The city is dirty and fascinating and fun and crazy. It is a deeply vibrant and thoroughly boisterous city,  with friendly people appearing to be in perpetually  high spirits. It is a city that can wear you out with your eyes and ears continually assaulted with the sights and sounds. Amid the delicate jacaranda blossoms, you will see laundry flapping in breeze along with banners and balloons and occasional litter blowing down a cobbled street. The smells of Palermo run the gamut as well – from delicious pizza wafting on the air, to a persistent smell of too frequently used urinals, which in fact are often, the city’s sidewalks.  There is  continuous noise in the city – of trucks, cars,  and scooters and a cacophony  of voices amid the lively bustle of bazaars and open air markets, which are often referred to as the ”theaters of Palermo” – offering a daily mix of comedy and drama. For those who don’t go to the markets, deliveries are often made with baskets to high rise apartments. The tenant receiving a delivery lowers a basket from their balcony with payment, and then the delivery person puts merchandise in the basket and it is raised up to the balcony.

To add to the carnival-like atmosphere, a small U.S. attack carrier, the Bataan was in port, complete with Harrier Jets and helicopters. It is 927 feet long , approximately the size of a cruise ship. Both sailors and marines stormed the streets, here on R&R from duty off the Libyan Coast enforcing  the no fly zone for NATO.  We stopped for a snack at La Brace, a sidewalk café of sorts, but in the tackiest sense of the word. It was a combination pizzeria and polloeria (chicken place). In Tuscany we would have had a canvas umbrella, wood or tile table, and upholstered chairs under a tree. Here at the polloeria we had a wobbly table inches from a busy street, precariously balanced  on a sloped cracked sidewalk, flimsy plastic forks and even flimsier paper plates, But then ambiance isn’t everything – the food looked and smelled so good, we went back for dinner. They were serving whole rotisserie chickens, mounds of fries, and hush puppy like things with veggies inside.

Mercato Vuccira

Mercato della Vucciria

We walked to the oldest market in town, Mercato della Vucciria, which dates back to the Arab occupation in medieval times in the 7th Century A.D. It remains very much a souk, with streets no wider than a supermarket aisle, and with product and produce stacked high on all sides. It is designed for foot traffic, but there are careening scooters and bicyclists competing with pedestrians for space with people scattering in every direction with the occasional fruit stand/scooter wreck when there is a miscalculation. It seems to be part casbah and part burrow as it winds through the Loggia district below street level of the Via Roma. Merchants, artisans, bankers, hawkers, shoppers, tourists and pickpockets all amble though the narrow alleys that are named after trades – e.g. silversmiths, dyers, wool merchants.  We quickly learned that we must take personal responsibility for personal safety. That is to say it is our job to get out of the way of an oncoming scooter, avoid the gaping hole created by missing manhole cover, and dodge the tumbling merchandise that may become dislodged by excessive celebrations.

We stopped for wine in the Vucciria at a bar called Maccheronai  and got a half liter for 5 Euros, a much better bargain than at Taormina, but of course this didn’t have quite the same view. Instead of scenery, we were treated to spectacle. We watched, for example, a restaurant owner going down the street to get food to fill orders for dinner. There was Arabic music playing, with banners for soccer flapping in the breeze, strung across narrow alleys like a used car lot, scantily clad women in really impractical shoes wobbling through the cobbled streets – it’s all here At one al fresco restaurant/ macellaria (butcher shop), we watched tripe being cooked for

Grilling Culinary Delights at the Vucciria Market

Grilling Culinary Delights at the Vucciria Market

kebabs, and the chef, seeing our interest brought us behind the counter for a demonstration.  We took a pass on tasting  the tripe kebabs, but bought big scallions wrapped in bacon that proved to be very tasty. We were invited to come back the following night for a big party to watch Palermo play Rome for the Italian futbol (i.e. soccer) championship. In fact they were putting up a big Jumbotron sized screen for the event while we were there. We marveled at the irony of a Jumbotron in a market that has been operating in roughly the same fashion for over a thousand years. They also have a fair number of homeless people who often live in cardboard shelters, sometimes forming cardboard condos where 3 or more are grouped together. But when we saw one of them talking on a cell phone, we concluded that irony is rich in the city of Palermo, even if the people are not.

May 29, 2011

Dateline Palermo, Italy

Today we had great expectations for a city tour of 4 hours duration at the not so modest fee of 170 Euros.  We were expecting a private tour with a native of Palermo who would be an expert historian who spoke flawless English.  We had booked the tour with Alessandra D’Eridita, but as it turned out she outsourced the job to someone who I called Guido. Well the “tour” was indeed private and we did have a native of the City with us, but the other expectations – not so much.  Guido knew less English than I know Italian (which is a small amount indeed) so Italian was the language in which we conversed.   La Signora (that would be me) “no capisce” (did not understand) most of what he said and she “capisced” less with every mile.  In essence, what we had was a two and half hour cab ride. Now I must say he did take us to see the highlights in my guidebook, (once I told him in my broken Italian what the highlights of the city actually were that is).  Palermo is awash in palaces (palazzos)  cathedrals (cattedrales), chapels (capellinis), churches (chiesas) and the small prayer places called oratorios. They also have duomos which is a specific type of cathedral which falls under an archbishop. We eventually decided to cut the 4 hour tour short and paid a mere 120 Euros to save ourselves from being churched to death.

Piazza x

Piazza Pretorio

We did see St. Catherine’s Church with a wonderful adjacent fountain (Fontana) in the Piazza Pretorio started in 1566 and built in the baroque style with a proliferation of elaborate marble inlays, frescoes and sculptures. We also got a very entertaining brochure describing the monastery there which indicated that “initially this monastery only gave hospitality to prostitutes . . . but after much munificence” (money from the Church  and wealthy families we assume), the monastery became “nobility’s buttonhole flower”. The brochure went on to rhapsodize over each detail of the church’s décor, of which there are thousands, in each of 6 side chapels and the main church and altar.  We did notice the Piazza Pretoria did seem to sport a lots of naked statues, so much so that the more pious Sicilians call it the Fontana della Vergogna (Fountain of Shame).

Then we visited the Duomo, started in 1184 A.D. which has a little Gothic, a little Norman, some Catalan and some Arabic influence. Sicily kept getting conquered over the course of the construction so each conquering party added their own touches. The overall effect was nevertheless stunning and quite ornate, befitting an archbishop. There is a lot of royalty buried here and the Treasury is home to the Royal  Jewels.  We missed the Treasury, due to the lack of guidance by our guide, but later read that it was not uncommon for royalty to be buried with their jewels, only to be dug up and have them removed to put on display – as was the fate of Constance of Aragon in the 18th Century.

The Massimo Theater

The Massimo Theater

We also missed seeing the inside of the Palazzo Reale, (Royal Palace) dating back over a thousand years, now home to the regional government of Sicily. It was built in Arab times originally and enlarged by the Normans. The line to get in was around the block and our “guide” who could be expected to facilitate cutting in line as guided tours so often do, looked at us with a blank stare when I broached the subject. Of course I could have used the wrong words and said something totally appalling since I was trying to communicate in Italian. I think he was thinking he could have a nap while we waited to marvel at the wonders of the Palazzo. We settled for what I call a “drive-by shooting” – you drive by and shoot pictures.  We also did a drive-by of the various famous theaters of the city including the  Massimo Theater, Garibaldi Theater,  and the Teatro Politeama,

One stop we made that we did not have on our list of must see  items was at the Catacoms Dei Cappucini Palmero –  (a.k.a. the Capuchin Catacombs), run by the Capuchin monks who have the strange habit of keeping dead bodies around for display purposes. I’m not sure what’s up with that, but it definitely will creep you out.  The Capuchins for years had dallied with mummifications and preserving the bodies of the dead with varying degrees of success

This catacomb was built in the 16th Century to bury (or perhaps “store” is a better word), the bodies of monks. It was expanded to include priests and lay people separated into categories of clergy, professionals, children, men and women. This has to be one of more bizarre sights we’ve ever seen. Originally they started burying monks in the traditional way in a coffin. Then they transitioned to preserving and displaying them  standing up at some point.  One method involved dipping bodies in arsenic of lime and was used mostly with plague victims. The most common method was desiccation – just letting the bodies dry out. Here is that recipe: (1) Place the deceased in a closed cell for 8 months (the cell is called a strainer – I shudder to think why) (2) remove and wash with vinegar, (3)expose to fresh air to complete drying. Then (4) based on the wishes of the deceased or his/her family, place in a coffin or niche for display.

There are cadavers all lining the corridors arranged by type. In the clergy section there are many monks in cassocks and robes, upright with heads drooping. Strangely enough, many bear nametags like they were fresh (poor choice of words, I admit) from a convention.  Some are arranged in gruesome tableaus, maybe around a dinner table, to give the impression of some sort of ghoulish interaction.  It is one thing to see skulls artistically arranged in, say a pyramid or other geometric shape, but here they are in the clothes they died in with gruesome expressions on their faces with expressions ranging from “ouch” to   blaspheming and screaming bloody murder.

In the Men’s section, niches are horizontal like bunk beds, but with fully dressed skeletons.  Some are displayed upright though and look more like scarecrows, with the head slumped forward –requiring some sort of support somehow to keep gravity at bay. One scene had an altar with a cross with a casket in front of it with four women skeletons fully dressed , positioned as mourners looking on with hands clasped before them.  The Professional section included doctors, teachers and other professionals, as well as officers, and soldiers. Sometimes the monks seemed to get playful with their tableaux – maybe a little tongue in cheek, like a husband and wife set up to look like she’s nagging away at him and he’s hanging his head like he deserves it. This catacomb business is a bizarre practice to say the least.

These particular catacombs were featured recently on a cable TV show as the home to an exceptionally well preserved body of a child named Rosalia Lombardo, who looks like she is simply sleeping. While she has been dead since 1920 she still managed a cable debut on the Discovery Channel. She was reportedly perfectly preserved in a doll-like pose, with chemicals injected  by Dr. Alfred Salafia of Palermo, whose formula was lost somewhere and has not ever been replicated. We didn’t see her here and figure she must be on a road tour

It must have become increasingly difficult to run a decent catacomb in later years.  In 1837 there was a law passed forbidding exhibition of bodies. Then to add insult to injury – I guess they were beyond injury at this point – there were many bodies extensively damaged by Allied bombings in 1943 and then there was a fire in 1966 and now there is an endless stream of gawking tourists wandering through.

Monreale

Monreale

From the catacombs, we drove to Monreale  to the 12th Century Cattedrale di Santa Mario la Nuove.   It was built of golden stone by the Normans on the slopes of a mountain above Palermo in 1172. We couldn’t go in since a service was underway (Guido professed not to know this fact) and he confessed he didn’t know what was inside since he had never actually been inside (strange standards for guides here).  I read my guidebook to see what we missed which I found included 6,000 square yards of mosaics  depicting biblical scenes, carvings, columns, inlays, and a very ornate altar. We did pay a fee to see the Arabic style Cloisters  and Gardens of the adjacent Benedictine abbey which were quite impressive , as was the view from a terrace with Palermo spread out before us to the north.

We returned to Palermo and dismissed Guido, our taxi driver, posing as a tour guide, and set out on foot. We stopped for pizza a few blocks off the harbor and met two E-6’s from the Bataan, chatted a while and bought their lunch. They had left Norfolk in late March and had been deployed off Libya to enforce the no-fly zone.  The ship was carrying 1,000 sailors and 2,000 Marines, most of whom were on the loose in Palermo that day.

We took a stroll down the Via del Liberta – sort of like a poor cousin to the Recoleta area in Buenos Aires, with nice shops, cheek and jowl, with major litter. Our walk took us through an English style park, but the tranquility was shattered Palermo style by a motorcycle rally of several hundred bikes with the few Harleys, vastly outnumbered by Vespas.

We got a freebie tour in the late afternoon due to the “miscommunication” with our supposedly English speaking tour guide, but since this is Sicily – we didn’t want to get too mouthy (maybe we have seen too many movies,  but for all we knew Guido was what they call “mobbed up” or maybe a Wise Guy.) The freebie was a ride up to Monte Pelligrino (which means “pilgrim” in Italian) to a grotto (shrine) of Santa Rosalia who saved the city from the Black Plague. A hunter was told where to find her bones so she was sanctified, beatified, etc. There is a procession of Santa Rosalie on July 15th  every year in which her  statue is put on an ox-drawn float to make the same journey that  her remains made in 1624 to end the Black Plague. The Shrine has a gold likeness of her inside a glass case and from the top of the mountain there are great views of Palermo to the east. From this vantage point it became  apparent why they called the curving shoreline the Conca d’Oro or Golden Shell.

We returned to Palermo to prepare for the big party in the city tonight for the soccer match against Rome for the national championship in which Palermo is the underdog. From the hotel we walked around the neighborhood and ate lasagna at a local restaurant. It was a bargain at 11 Euros for the meal plus 3 cokes at a restaurant with the improbable name of Danimart. It was more like a deli take-out, but the food was good.  Danimart was billed as a paniceria (bakery) pasticeria (pasta place), bar, and pizzeria. On this night, the whole town took on a sort of Super Bowl atmosphere. At the Danimart, the pizzas were flying off shelves to go to what we envisioned to be street parties.  We bought a Palermo team shirt ( for me) and a hat ( for Gary) and were quite a hit with the locals. There were grills out on the streets and the people cooking called us over to check out their food, have a beer and taste some of whatever it was they were grilling. (Gary ate his and under his breath reported a suspicious taste – I surreptitiously disposed of mine in the shrubbery). We had several invitations to stay and watch the game, but fearing more generosity with the grilled mystery food, we went back to the hotel. We intended to watch the game but fell asleep and only later learned that Palermo lost  3–1.

May 30, 2011

Dateline: Palmero

We had a full day left since our ferry to Naples left in the late afternoon  and so we  got up early and walked around the city.  Today Palermo is home to 1 million people with minimal attention to zoning and so our very nice hotel was just up the street from the Carcere Ucciardone ( a large jail)  and right across the street from the  commercial  produce market called the Mercato Ortofrutticolo, which was our first stop. The market is open 6 days a week at dawn, but it is empty by noon with vendors taking delivery of mass quantities of farm products. The vendors

Mobile Cheese Store - Palermo

Mobile Cheese Store – Palermo

were like everyone else we had met here – friendly and anxious to show us their operation and products – all fresh vine-ripened stuff.  We also saw teensy snails called babbaluci and special pasta called lumachine. We chatted up the workers and found many who work the market distribution center were immigrants from Ghana. They would slice open anything you might be interested in to demonstrate the quality including, apricots, oranges, cherries, strawberries, watermelon broccoli, spinach, lettuce, squash.  My favorite sight was an ancient Toyota 4-door sedan, totally filled – floorboard to roof with ripe apples – a combination delivery vehicle and display case.   Another standout was State Fair Prize sized giant zucchini, around 4 feet long.   All the vendors very generously offered all kinds of samples

A Fully Loaded APE

A Fully Loaded APE

including a monster tomato which I later re-gifted to a grateful homeless man. Instead of the Kawasaki mules like we have at home, they had a 3 wheeled version called the Ape (made by Piaggi , a scooter manufacturer) to bring in produce and then take it to delis and street market throughout the city. In addition to Apes, they also use cars, scooters, bicycles, and hand carts – always overloaded and under-maintained. We did see one spectacular wreck involving  a stack of cabbage, a bicycle and a hand cart. Once the market closes, local people pick through leftovers – sometimes a whole Apeload, which we figured they probably go sell at a discount place somewhere, although  we did see some obviously hungry people who ate it on the spot.

 

The Duomo of Palermo

The Duomo of Palermo

We went in the Duomo, founded in 1184 by the Archbishop of Palermo since we had only done a drive by with Guido. It was beautiful and way over the top as only European cathedrals can be with soaring arches, gold and silver everywhere, priceless art and sculptures. We walked through Porto Nuova (the new gate which is still ancient) to the Normanni Palace (aka Palazzo Reale or Royal Palace), but again as it was the day before,  the lines were long so we just admired it from the outside.   It is currently the seat of government of Sicily – sort of Governor’s Mansion meets Buckingham Palace.  From there we strolled past flea markets with all sorts of antiques – everything from old sewing machines to stone cherubs.  For our groceries for this evenings trip, we stopped at a Carrefours grocery store for the basics, i.e.  wine, bread, cheese and fruit.  We had to have some coaching from a nice local lady, who showed us how to weigh

Big Guy, Small Horse at the Park in Palermo

Big Guy, Small Horse
at the Parco della Favorita

our fruit before taking it to the checkout register. From Carrefours, we took a long walk through the Parco della Favorita, which was originally a hunting preserve for royalty, in particular King Ferdinand, which back in the day was surrounded by the summer villas of aristocrats. Today it is more like Coney Island crossed with an English park sort of gone wild in places. We encountered the tiniest pony I have ever seen, about the size of a Labrador retriever, pulling a tiny cart, which we surmised was for giving toddlers rides, although none were partaking at the time.

Tracing our route, we later figured out we walked a total of about 6 miles –  with stops for cokes, lunch, wine, snacks,  and we did a little shopping for our upcoming ferry trip.  Unfortunately since Palermo  had lost the soccer match last night, the droopy banners only seemed to underscore the loss. We had to be careful where we walked since the street cleaners were not yet out and about and our olfactory senses indicated that the whole city must have served as an open air Men’s Room during the festivities.

We picked up our bags at the hotel and took a taxi to the gate to the ferry. We still had quite a “schlep” from there so we were thankful that we had wheels on them. Our ship was the SNAV Sardigne with both passenger cabins and huge bays below decks for cars to drive on and drive off.  The fare for 2 was 143 Euros for a deluxe cabin (deluxe we found has so very many meanings here – I would have called it a Basic Cabin). We waited for close to half an hour as the ferry belched first black smoke and then white, just like when a new pope has been elected .

Leaving Palermo, Bound for sorrento

Leaving Palermo, Bound for sorrento

We got on the ferry at 6:00 p.m. and departed at 8:00 just as the sun was setting behind Monte Pelligrino.   We found a bench on the aft deck and had our wine and cheese as we departed.  We met 4 American expats  who were working in Naples,  but who didn’t provide a lot of detail on their jobs so we figured them for CIA spooks or spook wannabes.   There was absolutely nothing happening in any of the several lounges on board (i.e the lights weren’t even on) and one look at the shipboard restaurant made us glad we had gone to Carrefours. We went to bed early in our cozy little room. It faced forward with a small window so we could see out onto working foredeck, but it was too low to see any ocean views.  No frills and no lifeboat drills – just an overnight passage to Naples.

 

 

May 31, 2011

Dateline: Sorrento, Italy

Latitude at Sorrento 40.52 degrees North, Longitude 14.37 degrees East

The View from Sorrento

The View from Sorrento

We arrived in Naples around 7:00 a.m., but didn’t get to disembark until 8:00 from the ferry. We had only a short stroll to get to the ferry for Sorrento, but it turned into a long stroll by the time we negotiated all the fences and gates and so forth. We got our ferry tickets for the 9:00 a.m. ferry for the hour long ride on the A. Lauro line, for 11 Euros per person. We disembarked to find ourselves at sea level  at  the Marina San Francisco  and our destination, the town of Sorrento 150 feet  straight up . We consulted the Rick Steves book and found there was a bus by the Marina Piccolo (little marina) to take us up to the top of the cliffs, running every few minutes for a modest sum versus a taxi, which was closer to legalized piracy. We were congratulating ourselves on our European savvy when we realized the bus stop was at the train station and we still had to haul our bags to the hotel, perhaps half a mile away. It was a beautiful day and pretty much level rolling with only occasional stairs.

Sorrento on the Cliffs Above the Adriatic

Sorrento on the Cliffs Above the Adriatic

Sorrento, wedged between mountains and ocean, is situated upon cliffs on a peninsula far above the sea, with Vesuvius rising in the background The town is long and narrow with one main street, the Corso Italia, which turns into the Via Capo (Cape Road) once it leaves town leading south to the the Amalfi Coast.  The main square, the Piazza Tasso, sporting perfect flower boxes and picturesque outdoor restaurants  seemed like a Disney World venue.  In Italy we found that the piazzas serve as common living rooms since home apartments are often small and cramped and the Piazza Tasso was no exception. The town is famous for a perfect climate, great lemons and lemoncello. They also have softball-sized lemons that they call citrons, but  they are more for show than taste. We wandered about most of the afternoon drinking in the views and  drinking up the vino.

A gorge divides the town and separates the new from a charming old quarter and a bridge built in the 19th Century connects the two. There are also steps to the sea which were carved in the 5th Century by the Romans. The name Sorrento comes from the Greek word for Siren (mythical females who sang to sailors to cause them to wreck their ships) The Romans used this area as a summer playground which they called Sorrentum and ruins from the time of Caesar Augustus have been found. Sorrento was a favorite of opera singers, home to Caruso in his day, and more recently Pavarotti. When he belts out “Return to Sorrento”, it can bring goose bumps, even if you don’t know the language.

Rolling our bags behind us, we arrived at our hotel (The Carlton on the Via Correale), which was only a  5 minute walk from the square. Technically it was close to the harbor too, but that was straight down about 500 feet. We checked in, dropped the bags off, and set off on foot to explore. We had lunch at a restaurant called Mannequin Pis (after the statue by the same name in Brussels we assumed)  and settled on fish and chips, since at this point , pizza and pasta were starting to wear a bit thin. We spent a delightful afternoon napping and reading by the

Sorrento Sunset at the Foreigner's Club Terrace

Sorrento Sunset at the Foreigner’s Club Terrace

pool at the hotel under a grove of lemon and orange trees.  In the evening we went out to dinner at the Foreigner’s Club and sat on a breezy terrace under towering palm trees with soft music playing and a great view of the dramatic coastline of the Bay of Naples stretching away north and south. The Isle of Capri, tomorrow’s destination was visible in the distance to the west. We learned that they have a Men’s Club just down the street, a carry-over from the old days – still no women and no phones. We took an after dinner stroll and stopped at a bar with wi-fi to have a drink and check emails.

June 1, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

Latitude at Capri 40.55 degrees East, Longitude 14.22 degrees North

We took the ferry from Sorrento (very short cab ride as the crow flies, but the crow wasn’t flying so we paid 16 Euros to go less than half a mile – straight down).  We found as a rule that Italian cabs take you for a ride in more ways than one. We could have rappelled but it would be so awkward with the luggage.  Clouds had been gathering on the horizon as we boarded the ferry

Marina Grande, Capri

Marina Grande, Capri

and en route it began to pour 15 minutes into a 30 minute ride.  By the time we disembarked at the Marina Grande (Big Marina), we could see nothing for the sheets of rain before us.  We left the ferry with our rolling bags and emerged into the chaos that is the Capri Ferry dock, with the added mayhem of hundreds of tourists seeking shelter from the rain. We huddled, cold and wet, with roughly a gazillion passengers trying to take shelter under an awning designed to shade perhaps 20.  We waited for about half an hour, but decided it was not going to let up anytime soon.  We sprinted to a taxi stand called the Farrarelle, with rolling bag wheels a-flying. We hopped into a tiny cab, a convertible cab no less. It had a little Bimini top for shade, but today the cab was enclosed to keep out the rain. As the cab started the uphill climb, we looked back to see that our bags were hanging out the back getting thoroughly soaked in the downpour as we drove. We would later learn as we unpacked that they are quite porous around the zippers too so everything inside got a good rinsing. And so we spent another 15 Euros for another

Luggage Handling in Capri

Luggage Handling in Capri

vertical cab ride of less than a mile and it was still pouring. For deliveries, they do have tiny little electric delivery trucks, like those at Home Depot that beep up and down the aisles, that serve the same function as their 18 wheeler counterparts – flatbeds, panels, garbage, reefers, postal – only in miniature.

I had envisioned being delivered to the doorstep of the hotel, but this was not to be. Instead we were delivered to a taxi stand at the Piazza Martiri d’Ungheria and were told to walk just the short distance to the nearby Piazza Umberto since Capri proper is pedestrian only, and we could find our hotel from there Well I have to admit, that the Piazza Umberto was indeed nearby, but the hotel, not so much.  We again sheltered under an awning in the piazza for a few minutes, but since the rain was blowing sideways, we decided we couldn’t get any wetter if we were out walking around in it. We donned our raincoats, quite late in game at this point and opened umbrellas, which immediately turned inside out and took off like  Mary Poppins ‘ parasol.   In desperation I left Gary under the awning with the luggage (2 duffles, 2 backpacks) and set off to find the hotel. I called first and could not understand a word the clerk at the hotel was saying other than “go down the hill” from the piazza which confused me because I knew we were supposed to have broad vistas to enjoy from the hotel terraces. I set off heading “down” as instructed and inquired the way no fewer than 6 times in no less than 30 minutes before stumbling upon the sign for the Villa Krupp, towering at least two hundred feet above me. I dragged my sodden self up a long, tall series of steps, and burst into the dining room tremendously breathless, wet and bedraggled.

A Deluge in Capri - Trying to Stay Dry at the Piazza Umberto

A Deluge in Capri – Trying to Stay Dry at the Piazza Umberto

Our hostess welcomed me and tut-tutted in Italian over my sodden apparel and heavy breathing and suggested I call Gary and have him take the bags to the Co.Fa.Ca – a porter service  in town and then he could follow in my footsteps to the hotel. I knew this plan could only result in disaster and perhaps endanger my marriage, and so I set off back the way I had come to find Gary – just where I had left him, but now sipping contentedly on a cappuccino. We dragged our bags to the porter service (which was precisely where the taxi had dropped us a few hours earlier) and they brought our luggage to the hotel for six Euros per bag, which we later considered a bargain once we saw what was involved in their transport. We shouldered our sodden backpacks and trudged to the hotel as the hard rain continued. We were surprised to find we arrived ahead of our bags until we learned that delivery of the luggage included a motorized cart for part of the way, followed by porters hefting  the bags onto their shoulders  and climbing the  steps We were glad to be watching, not schlelpping ourselves. We totally emptied our duffle bags and backpacks and spread everything out to dry – it looked like the worst Earthquake at the Laundromat scenario  you can imagine – maybe a 9.0 on the Richter scale.

The rain was actually starting to taper off from hurricane force to merely  torrential and we set out to explore and have lunch at the Faraglioni Restaurant , and a truly outstanding lunch it was.  We had two bottles of wine, each of which cost only slightly less than our hotel room, but we felt we had suffered so much that we deserved it. It was a 2008 Monteventrano and was absolutely divine. We watched the rain while we sat on a covered outdoor terrace and somewhat gleefully pointed out dripping wet people hurrying by getting pelted by the rain.  Gary ordered fresh fish and I had baby squid called calamarettas, which were the best I’ve ever had.

The Faraglioni, Capri

The Faraglioni, Capri

With great restraint I managed to not lick the plate.   We shared a Caprese Salad which is essential if you are on Capri, which is the salad’s namesake.   The restaurant is actually named after the iconic 3 needle-like free-standing rocks that jut above the ocean’ s surface just off Capri’s southern shore, with the tallest pinnacle close to 400 feet high. Had the rain permitted, they would have been visible from our table. We walked back to the hotel for a restorative nap with the windows open and drying clothes hanging from every knob and hanger

The rain finally stopped in time for us to enjoy a sunset walk to town and dinner at Baco di Bucca – a local place. There was no view but they had a wood fired pizza oven and heavenly pizza with more good wine. It was chilly outside with the rainy weather, and so we really appreciated the fire.  We walked back to the hotel, I, making my fourth ascent up to the lofty Villa Krupp of the day. We welcomed our warm dry bed and read about how Capri was supposed to be.

Capri  (we learned it is pronounced with the accent on “cap”) is a mountainous island off the coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula just south of Naples. It has been the summer playground of the Rich and Famous as far back as Emperor Tiberius in 26 A.D. – sort of the Camp David or the Palm Beach of its day. Anyone who was  anyone has strolled through the piazzas and piazettas (the name for those little pocket sized spots, not big enough to be called piazzas) on the island. The climate has often been described as aphrodisiacal, with lush gardens, dramatic views, and pounding surf.  We speculated that Eden must have been like this 5 square mile island. Capri today is home to the glitterati – but more Martha’s Vineyard than Hollywood –i.e., simple and understated – unless of course you are talking about the yachts moored in the harbor. Capri is where the glitterati go to hide out without really hiding.

Capri has been over the centuries a retreat for emperors,  a secluded site for monasteries,  a bonanza for fishermen, a hideout for exiles, and a playground for wealthy German and British citizens in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as well as aristocrats from the Romantic Age. Now the island is frequently clogged with tourists of less substantial means (like us for example) but it does settle down once the cruise ship passengers leave. We considered ourselves one rung above these day trippers on the snobbery scale.

The main landmarks  of the island are its two car-free towns, Capri and Anacapri, filled with colorful houses in either white or pastels, and two marinas on the Tyrrhenian Sea , Marina Grande (Big Marina) for commercial boats and Marina Piccolo (Little Marina) for yachts.  Until 1874 there were no roads connecting Capri with Anacapri, but only a series of steps called the Phoenician Stairway. There are several modes of transportation here: ferries, boats, buses, taxis (with convertible roof) scooters and feet. (Only feet are allowed in the town and miniature delivery trucks) Also from the Piazza Umberto, you can take a funicular to Marina Grande. Off of Piazza Umberto is the Via Vittorio Emanuele, the Rodeo Drive of Capri with same shops and same clientele. The best hotel is reportedly the very elegant Quisisana,  where we will stay once we win the Powerball Lottery and return on our yacht.

June 2, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

Today was our anniversary, (the 40th) which dawned beautiful and sunny – our first of many gifts in a fabulous day of them. Today we would see first-hand what all those brochures and guide books were touting.  We took the cable car called the Funiculare down to Marina Grande to look into hiring a boat for a trip around the island and to the famous Blue Grotto. We met

Cruising with Captain Gerry

Cruising with Captain Gerry

Jerry, (short for Gennario) a native of Capri, who described all the wonders he could show us from his own boat, named L’Uragano, except the Blue Grotto which was closed due to rough water. But he says there are many other grottoes to behold. We decided to take a chance on Jerry, and as it turned out, this developed into a morning of extreme serendipity. His boat was all wood, varnished to a high sheen and quite spacious. We felt very smug watching other boats laden with people from stem to stern like cattle being shipped to market, piloted by people whom Jerry dubbed the “lying Neapolitans”, who only pretended to be native to Capri. So for a hundred Euros, Jerry and his boat were ours for a half day trip around the island. His boat was about 40 feet long – solid wood, polished to a high gloss and the two of us were the only passengers. We set off with Captain Jerry (I seem to recall there is a good rum with that name too) and his First Mate CJ, the dog , scruffy, but sweet, who apparently

First Mate CJ

First Mate CJ

accompanied all tours and liked to take the occasional dip into the azure waters himself.  We had a leisurely cruise around the island and a fabulous time, taking in the gorgeous scenery from the water. We saw a number of grottos, small cave-like openings in rock carved by wind and water with a Virgin Maria and Bambino in just about everyone with the occasional Pieta (the grieving Mary) sprinkled in. When there was not actual statuary, there were perceived likenesses in the rock formations (most a little hard to make out – sort of like seeing the face Jesus in your toast in the morning).

Waters of Capri

Waters of Capri

We cruised around the Faraglioni, the 3 pinnacles rising from the sea, and through the one which has an arch – perhaps the reason for the name which translates as “the ones of the light”, taking photos all the while.  As we ended our tour back in Marina Grande, Gary tipped Jerry 20 Euro and CJ 10 to be held in trust by Captain Jerry since CJ carried no wallet.

In the afternoon we rented a little Vespa-like bright yellow scooter from Noleggio Motorini., which proved both an excellent way to see the island, and a whole afternoon of thrills, but at some considerable risk to life and limb – mostly limb I would say.  After several near misses wedged between rock walls and tour busses on hairpin turns, we were wondering if the first 5 letters of the name (i.e. No leg) had some special meaning, i.e. you may be missing a leg when you return, if you return.  I felt my knobby kneecaps were especially vulnerable since I was riding behind Gary, and his, shall we say, less than diminutive size made my knees stick out at right angles to my body. I was worried about losing a knob or two from my knobby knees. His knees

The No-leg Scooter, Capri

The No-leg Scooter, Capri

on the other hand were safely tucked in. Fortunately Gary took exceptional care, and I and my knobby knees live to ride another day. We did have helmets which probably would provide some comfort for some small calamity, but in the case of a catastrophic plunge from the heights, they would be totally useless.

We stopped in the town of Anacapri, the only other town on the island, whose name means opposite Capri). We had lunch on the main square called Piazza Vittoria and considered our options. There was a nearby mansion and garden called the Villa San Michele, home of Axel Munthe, a wealthy businessman who cavorted here with artsy and gay people such as Oscar Wilde. We decided to pass on this and instead we chose the Seggiovia chair lift up Monte Solaro, the tallest peak on the island. The lift took us from the village of Anacapri at 589 feet to over 1,700 feet above sea level.  We passed over  meadows full of wild flowers and lemon orchards, whose products are widely used in much of the Caprese cuisine

The View from Anacapri

The View from Anacapri

The peak is 1,900 feet above sea level and offers the best panorama on the island.  We could just make out the ruins of the Villa Jovis, from where Emperor Tiberius  had ruled the Roman Empire, and sometime hid from assassins in 23-37 AD, his final years. Today the Certosa di San Giacomo, a Carthusian monastery founded in 1371 stands on the site of the ruins of Villa Jovis. It became a school in 1808 and is still operating today . The Carthusians are a Catholic order who focus on contemplation and from this mountaintop,  they certainly had the perfect place to do it.  In the distance on the mainland we could see the Sorrentine Peninsula against the backdrop of Vesuvius, the sweep of Naples Baby and the Amalfi Coast, as well as the Galli Islands and the Faraglioni Rocks..

We had the option to walk back down, which we decided to do to absorb more of the local ambiance. The ride up was 15 minutes and the trip down was a 40 minute  toe crunching, knee-stressing,  steeply inclined walk with a lot of braking action. While it was beautiful, our legs were seriously trembling by the time we got back to Anacapri. It really gave us a sense of the non-touristic side of Capri (a very small percentage, I might add) and it made me glad to climb back on the Noleggio motor scooter, despite the risk to life and limb.

Rough Water at the blue Grotto

Rough Water at the blue Grotto

We rode out to the the Blue Grotto (a.k.a. Grotta Azzura) to see if it might be open, but the waves were breaking at the entrance in rather spectacular style, so it was still closed. In calm weather you can enter in 8 ft. dinghies with special guides who paddle you through a 3 foot high entrance – more of a crack in the rock, than a respectable portal. We learned that inside, the cave is approximately 60 yards long. It is a vaulted chamber with as many as 3 thousand tourists visiting per day in July , the peak month. The Romans had enlarged it to its current size and called it a nymphaeum – their name for a swimming hole,  in this case, a very elegant swimming hole that in its day was ringed with statues of Poseidon  and other gods– all very decadent.  It is believed that there was a tunnel to the palace and that the Romans held orgies here, but the tunnel and the statuary are long gone.

We had a lovely dinner at the Il Geranio restaurant, overlooking the Faraglioni Rocks, the signature feature of Capri. I had fresh fish and Gary ordered pasta and clams and we  shared one of my favorites, prosciutto  (or Parma ham as they call it) and melon. The restaurant itself had a magical setting on an outdoor terrace, allowing us to enjoy their truly delightful (now that the rain has gone) climate.  There are always lots of celebrities about in Capri, in the evenings in particular. In fact our waiter told us that Leonardo and Naomi were just there last week. (he had to further explain that he meant di Caprio and Campbell). I usually get my celebrity updates while in the checkout line at the grocery store, so I at least knew who they were, but I had to enlighten Gary, who is perpetually and blissfully unaware of who’s who in Hollywood.

June 3, 2011

Dateline: Capri, Italy

The Villa Krupp Hotel

The Villa Krupp Hotel

Today we decided to explore on foot that which we could not do by boat or scooter. In front of our hotel, the Villa Krupp, lies the Via Krupp which snakes its way from our mountain top to Piccolo Marina in a series of steep switchbacks. Our hotel is the former villa of Friedrich Krupp, a wealthy industrialist from Germany whose holdings included much of the hardware and weaponry that  the Germans used in both World Wars. He built the Via Krupp in 1902 as a pathway to get from his house to  Piccolo Marina where he no doubt kept his yacht. We walked down the steep path and enjoyed fabulous views at every turn. I don’t think

The Via Krupp

The Via Krupp

we would have enjoyed the uphill trip nearly as much. We noticed that the Stations of the Cross were featured along the route. We have found that with almost any long hilly walk in Italy, you will frequently find the Stations of the Cross with the requisite niches and offertories, which are often much longer and more arduous than the actual Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa)  in Jerusalem

At the marina we had a small refreshment (2  8 oz. bottles of Diet coke for 10 Euros (or about $15.) While choking over that, we did have to admit it was a million dollar view. The water was a

Marina Piccolo, Capri

Marina Piccolo, Capri

fabulous gin clear azure, and there was a cool breeze and breathtaking scenery. There is one of Capri’s several beach clubs here, although there is not much beach. Clients pay 20 Euros for the day to use chairs and umbrellas on platforms built on rocks.

We humbled ourselves to take a city bus back to the town of Capri, although we suspect if we truly followed in Friedrich Krupp’s footsteps, we would have been met by a private carriage. The bus fare was 1.25 Euros each, That’s how you know you’ve gone native when you get some reasonable prices. Note to self: locals do not drink Diet Coke.

Once back in town, we took another stroll to a gelato shop for my favorite fragola (strawberry). Gary is prone to experiment with different flavors, the more bizarre sounding the better. He seems to have settled on “menta” (mint).We took a rather long stroll to Punta Tragada along a pedestrian road that is more a promenade lined with beautiful villas. There was a profusion of bougainvillea clinging ancient stone walls and elaborate gates, allowing us to peek at with  envy the opulent homes  and manicured lawns beyond, landscaped with  umbrella pines, ficus, date palms, geraniums, cacti, and impatiens.

 A non-Beach at Marina PIccolo

A non-Beach at Marina PIccolo

At Punta Tragada we found a “belvedere” providing a scenic overlook of the surrounding countryside and the sea.  Also located at this site is the apricot- hued Villa Tragada  (once a private villa, but now a hotel) seeming to hang over a cliff above the Adriatic. In this villa, General Eisenhower met with Winston Churchill in 1944 for a strategy session, when it served as an American HQ for a time during WWII. We walked back to the central piazza, retracing our steps. There was so much in bloom on Capri that we both were sneezing a bit at this point, but we think we may just have been allergic to the prices. We seem to be bleeding Euros here at an alarming rate so we stopped at the ATM for our daily transfusion of cash.  Even though we are staying at a moderately priced hotel (for Capri that is), we imagine we hear a giant sucking sound here that is made by foreigner’s money flooding into  the local economy.

Catching Up on Some Journal Entries - Terrace at Villa Krupp

Catching Up on Some Journal Entries – Terrace at Villa Krupp

We walked to the Piazza Umberto for salad and a slice of pizza and then back to the Villa Krupp. When I use the term “walking”, you might envision an easy stroll on a flat surface. This is definitely not the case.  I have concluded that in Capri, everything is uphill – both ways in most cases. We decided to spend the afternoon relaxing on the terrace at the Villa Krupp, overlooking the Giardino Agustino (Augustine Gardens) and the sea beyond, much as Herr Krupp himself must have done back in the day.

We did make one stop en route at Carthusia – a local perfume factory and sampled the scents that heavily emphasize lemon and lavender. They also have more manly scents that Gary was spritzed with, just like in the department stores here.  Legend has it than in 1380 the Carthusian Monastery , in preparation for a visit from Queen Giovanna, filled a number of vases with fresh flowers. They did not change the water for 3 days, at which time they discovered that the water was pleasantly scented and they made a habit of producing it. It did take some time for them to go commercial which happened in 1948 when the formulas were located and the Pope gave them permission to give it to a chemist. Now on this spot is the smallest perfume lab in the world.  We had dinner in town and went to bed early to catch the ferry to Naples the next day.

June 4, 2011

Dateline:  Rome, Italy

Latitude 41.87, Longitude 12.60

We took an early ferry to Naples, then a taxi to the train station to catch a train to Rome. We arrived in Rome at  noon and so we dropped our bags at the Hotel Villa del Parco an hopped on the #62 line for a last look at Rome. We decided to go piazza crawling to give Gary an opportunity to discover the ultimate osso buco. (Literal Italian translation is Bone Hole, which is what you find in flank steaks of veal and beef. I prefer other cuts of meat, but Gary thinks this

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

dish is sublime. Our first stop was the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon where we got a table in the shade to have some refreshments and people watch at a restaurant called Il Scusate Ritardo. We spent 33 Euros here (about $44.00) the Diet Coke price is about  $9.00 and beer is  $11.50 so the refreshment tab can mount quickly here, but after all I did get those 3 ice cubes in a glass for my Diet Coke. Anyway it provided an opportunity for some memorable people watching. In addition to the masses of tourists, this piazza is prime turf for knock-off purse salesmen. In fact, one of these entrepreneurs , who had an intriguing line of Louis Vuitton handbags (4 on each arm), we decided was  actually Michael Vick. He he had on the #7 Falcons jersey with the name Vick on the back and he also looked very much like him. And, we had seen him or a body double wearing this same outfit in Buenos Aires a few years ago. We decided that perhaps he was working here in his old jersey in the off season. He and his two sales associates vanished like smoke when the police on foot patrol strolled onto the piazza.

Our next stop was the Piazza de la Fiore where workers were just cleaning up from the big Saturday market. We perused all the menus on restaurants there and found only one offering Osso Buco, but it did not have a single customer, so we took this as a sign and moved on to the Piazza Navona and a much livelier scene. There we found both osso bucco and the Michael Vick impersonator still pedaling purses to this crowd – a true traveling salesman.

After dinner we had a leisurely stroll through the streets of Rome, enjoying our last night in Italy, finding ourselves in the Piazza Venezia at the end of the main street of Rome, the Via del Corso. There is a huge monument (even by Roman standards) to Victor Emmanuel build in 1911 out of white marble  which many Romans think is something of a sore thumb, an atrocity plunked down in the middle of Rome. Speaking of atrocities, this piazza, also the site of  the Pallazo Venezia – a 15th Century palace which was once  home to Mussolini and the site of many of his public rants.

We left Rome early the next morning, headed for home after a truly remarkable adventure filled each day with wonder and learning. The words of British author, Douglas Adams, may have expressed it best: “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”