Beyond North America

The Return to Sicily, December 2019

Our travels in Sicily are my second experience here, as I have previously toured Sicily in November of 2006. For Maggie, a person with a Sicilian father, this is her first trip to Sicily. It is the land “of her people.” A return to her original roots.

We start our two and a half week trip by taking a train from Roma to Napoli. In an “only in Italy” experience, our train ticket checker is a high-class woman with four-inch-long red glossy fingernails who looks like a model for a high-priced magazine.

An early stop for us on our trip is the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, found on theHerculaneum Nov 30, 2019 (50) western Italian coast. The town was founded in the 6th Century BC. Like Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. While Herculaneum was almost entirely preserved by being caked with a shell of solidified mud (it is one of the very few ancient Roman towns preserved almost in its entirety — including much of its woodwork), Pompeii (which I visited in 2006) woodwork was consumed by fire.

Both towns are well worth your visit.

Our first full day and night find us in the very pleasant coastal town of Sorrento. Like so many charming Italian cities, Sorrento is a “Christmas Town” in December, as its lovely and romantic old streets lend themselves to be sweetly decorated with holiday lights and ribbons. So that is exactly what is done in Sorrento. Of course, it is irresistible to walk in Sorrento Italy, Dec 1, 2019 (26)Sorrento, which means that we notice a great many residents walk in this little town.

This resort town has a character much like Old Towne Key West Florida. Streets are very festive — particularly during the winter holidays. It is very much one of the charming Italian Christmas Towns.

The very picturesque town has been the home of many notable authors and musicians over the years. A delightful, romantic place to stroll.

Sorrento is a worthy place to visit along the impressive Amalfi Coastline in southwest Italy.

We always make it a point to spend all of our time in the “Old Towne” or historic center of the city, where one invariably finds the most charm, romance, lovability, and walkability that the city has to offer, and Sorrento does not disappoint in this regard. We find that Sorrento has many “walking streets” in its historic quarter, and particularly in this time of year, these streets are very enjoyably festive with happy people out and about.

Having forgotten my belt in security at the JFK airport a day earlier, we check prices and see that most street vendors are selling belts for 20 euros. But then we come upon a vendor who is selling her belts for only 5 euros. Not only is her price very low, but she is happy to quickly cut the length of the belt for me when I discover it is too long for my thinner waist due to my low-carb, high-fat diet.

The views of the Mediterranean Sea are outstanding!

Our next day is a three-for-one day, as we visit the romantic, charming, storybook Amalfi Coast towns of Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello. Each of these towns is set straddling deep coastal ravines, which adds immeasurably to their delightful, unspeakable beauty. Once again, as an indication of how beautiful the cities are to me, I cannot stop taking photos. A reliable measure: The more photos I shoot, the more I love the city. Which is a bit of a tautology…

Wikipedia has this to say about Positano, our first stop today: Positano was an essential Positano Dec 2, 2019 (23)stop for the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians on their expeditions to western areas. It is said that the coastal village was named after Poseidon, God of the Sea.

Like many other places along the beautiful Campanian coast, it was a favorite site for wealthy ancient Romans to build rich and grand villas.

Positano became a wealthy market port from the 15th to 17th century and has only continued to grow in popularity over time.

Positano was a port of the Amalfi Republic in medieval times and prospered during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Positano began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 1950s, especially after John Steinbeck published his essay about Positano in Harper’s Bazaar in May 1953: “Positano bites deep”, Steinbeck wrote. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

Amalfi is the second town we visit on our Amalfi Coast tour of towns. Amalfi is a lovely, Amalfi, Dec 2, 2019 (33)historic village. It was easy for us to see why this town has long been a place to visit and live in by many luminaries. Like other towns in the vicinity, Amalfi is set in a deep, dramatic, scenic ravine. Amalfi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Long, romantic, ancient stone stairways weave throughout the town, like other towns on the Amalfi Coast.

Of course, like almost every town I’ve visited in Italy over the years, I fall in love with this splendid, breathtaking town. We highly recommend visiting Amalfi.

These are the photos I shot while we strolled in Amalfi.

The lovely village of Ravello was founded in the 5th Century and splendid enough to draw a large number of famous artists, writers, and musicians over the years. Ravello offers a seemingly endless network of ancient, romantic stone walkways and stairways. Ravello is an easy town to fall in love with, and enjoy with a loved one.

Next, we summit the mighty Vesuvius Volcano. It is an easy, 20-minute walk on a wide, ash-filled path. The crater at the top is enormous, and steam continues to issue from it. Vesuvius, you see, remains a grumpy mountain. To celebrate our visiting the volcano, Maggie and I toast at the rim of the crater with a glass of wine.Maggie and Dom Vesuvius hike, Dec 3, 2019

According to Wikipedia, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae, as well as several other settlements. The eruption ejected a cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases to a height of 21 miles, erupting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 7.8×105 cubic yards per second, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. More than 1,000 people died in the eruption. It was one of the most catastrophic eruptions of all time.

Vesuvius has erupted many times since and is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years. Today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people living near enough to be affected, with 600,000 in the danger zone, making it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world, as well as its tendency towards violent, explosive eruptions.

Our plan, designed to save some time and lodging money, is to take an overnight ferry from Salerno to Catania in Sicily. Our walk to the ferry dock starts out leisurely, as we are hours ahead of the departure time for the ferry. But our little walk turns out to be a HUGE, hours-long ordeal, as it turns out that one must traverse for miles and miles in an industrial, parking-lot-choked area full of 18-wheeler tractor-trailers. With no signs informing us of which direction to take, we are obligated to ask for directions several times. Each of the first three times we ask for directions, however, leads us astray, as the Ferry Sorrento to Cantania, Dec 4, 2019directions are wrong each time. Finally, after a great deal of stress and worry, we happen upon an entry. There are no signs. Only huge trailer trucks streaming toward a hidden dock. A man in a security booth ushers us to a shuttle van after he learns we are looking for the ferry, and the van drives us through an obstacle course maze of big trucker rigs.

It turns out, in other words, that it IS impossible to walk to this ferry! Unless one is a lunatic. The area where the ferry is found is in the middle of an industrial freight container truck zone packed with hundreds of massive tractor-trailer trucks (our ferry was so huge that it must have held 2,000 18-wheeler trucks).

We discover that we seem to be the only non-truckers on the ferry. Our room, thankfully, was clean and adequate for the journey.

We arrive in Catania and soon travel to Ortigia in Siracusa, where we dine at Osteria La Gazza Ledra. After finishing our first course, I wait over 90 minutes for my second course only to learn that the reason for the very long wait was that the waitress had never taken my order! Good thing we asked, because had we not, I would STILL be waiting for my second course!

Soon after Catania, we find ourselves in the medieval neighborhood of Ortigia in Siracusa. I love Ortigia perhaps more than any other place on earth. We spend glorious Piazza del Duomo, Siracusa, Dec 4, 2019 (8)days enjoying Ortigia. On one particular day, we engage in one of our favorite activities in the medieval town centers of European cities — bicycling! In Ortigia, the food market and deli are can’t miss experiences.

As these links to the videos I shot show, one finds a lot of singing and shouting and endless food in the outdoor Italian food markets.

The castle at the south end of the Ortigia peninsula is overwhelming and seemingly impenetrable based on its many fortifications. The ancient Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco) is also quite impressive. Because it is so charming, human-scaled, and romantic, Ortigia is happy to show itself off as a “Christmas Town” by festooning its streets with festive holiday lights.

The Ortigia historic quarter is FILLED with stupendous streets that make my heart sing every time we encounter and stroll on a street here. I feel as if I can barely stand the joy. BIG smile on my face the entire time we are in Ortigia. I am like a kid in a candy store. I Siracusa, Dec 5, 2019 (9)could visit this place every month and be as happy as a clam (or live here permanently!).

In sum, I am in love with Ortigia.

Ortigia has the full package, which explains why I love it so much. It has overwhelmingly spectacular food, wine, happy and attractive people, architecture, and sightseeing. It is also a festive place.

Here, we come upon a telling quote at what is perhaps the best food market on earth in Ortigia: “I don’t envy god heaven…because I’m happy to live in Sicily.” – Frederico II di Svevia. Exactly, Frederico…

We train from Siracusa to the lovely little medieval hill town of Ragusa Ibla. So lovely that even though I had first visited it in 2006, I feel it worthy to visit again — breaking my travel rule of not visiting a place more than once. I tend to live by that rule because there is so much I want to see in the world that I don’t have time to see places more than once!

According to Wikipedia, Ragusa Ibla was founded in 2 BC. The town was devastated in the 1693 earthquake. Historically, it was conquered by the ancient Romans and the Byzantines, who fortified the city and built a large castle. Ragusa was occupied by the Ragusa Ibla, Dec 5, 2019 (11)Arabs in 848 AD, remaining under their rule until the 11th century, when the Normans conquered it.

The town is home to a wide array of Baroque architecture, including several stunning palaces and churches.

According to Wikipedia, the Cathedral of San Giorgio started in 1738 by architect Rosario Gagliardi, in place of the temple destroyed by the 1693 earthquake, and of which is the only place in the city a Catalan-Gothic style portal can still be seen. The façade contains a flight of 250 steps and massive ornate columns, as well as statues of saints and decorated portals.

On a narrow winding street connecting Ragusa Ibla with Ragusa Superiore lies the church of Santa Maria delle Scale (“Saint Mary of the Steps”, built between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries). This church is particularly interesting: badly damaged in the earthquake of 1693, half of this church was rebuilt in Baroque style, while the surviving half was kept in the original Gothic style (including the three Catalan-style portals in the right aisle). The last chapel of the latter has a Renaissance portal. The chapels are adorned with canvases by Sicilian painters of the 18th century.

One of our day trips from our four-day base camp of Siracusa was to visit Noto and Modica. We tour the wonderful town of Modica central area of Sicily on December 5th. Modica is known for many things, and one of the most obvious to us was their fame for Modica, Italy, Dec 5, 2019 (42)chocolate. We see it everywhere in Modica.

Another noteworthy attribute is the endless stairs one must climb in Modica.

That night, we are fortunate to serendipitously stumble upon an enoteca wine bar in a quiet little alley. The proprietors bend over backward with their generous kindness and offerings of fantastic platters of various meats and cheeses, as well as having us sample their special wines.

We have a fabulous time there.

We have a lot of fun in Ortigia Siracusa and Modica. Noto, however, does not quite meet our expectations. The town is cute-ish and has some nice architecture. But during our December visit, it was too lacking in street life and seemed too quiet. Still, in 2002, Noto and its church were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We arrive in the beautiful, wealthy resort town of Taormina on December 8th. Here, as I still recall from my visit here 14 years ago, we enjoy the many stunning views of the sea that Taormina offers.

At our first ristorante here, we sample pistachio expresso for the first time, and a Arco Rosson Enoteca in Taormina, Dec 8, 2019 (110)pistachio crème liquor (southern Italians and Sicilians are very big on pistachios, probably correctly boasting that their nut is the best in the world). We also enjoy a very nice half carafe of local Rosso wine along with two absolutely delicious plates of assorted cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, and meats.

By this time in our trip to Italia, by the way, it seems that I have been eating crazy delicious food and drinking fabulous vino, almost continuously, morning, afternoon and night since our arrival.

On our second day in Taormina, we visit the spectacular Teatro Greco, Taormina’s ancient Greek Theatre, which is said, rightly, to be the most impressive in all of Sicily. One of the things I’ve always been impressed by at this theatre is how the designers set up the venue so that spectators would have an incredible view of the picturesque bay and the imposing Mount Etna on the horizon just above the stage.

After visiting the theatre, we ascend the nearly endless stairs to Chiesa della Rocca, a church that offers huge panoramic views of the region beyond Taormina. We then ride the cable car (Funivia) down to the charming little cove in Taormina Bay, where one finds little coves and a beautiful island (appropriately called Isola Bella).

One finds the three-legged Sicilian flag all over the island. The three-legged ancient symbol of Trinacria is the head of Medusa (a gorgon with a head of snakes) overlaying three legs conjoined at the hips and flexed in triangle and three stalks of wheat. It was first adopted in 1282 by the Sicilian Vespers.

We arrive at Mount Etna on December 10th. Our guide (“Mr Excursions”) is very Mt Etna hike, Sicily Dec 10, 2019 (7)knowledgeable about the region, and takes us on a very impressive hike on the slopes of the volcano, including ash/cinder fields, volcanic cones, volcanic craters, and a long underground volcanic tube. While hiking, we hear Etna growling loudly several times. The volcano remains actively angry and is talking to us during our hike. Even our tour guide gets nervous and wants us to pick up our pace.

The guide then takes us to one of Mount Etna’s best wineries. Gambino Winery provides us with six bottles of vino to sample their product, along with a fine selection of local meats, cheeses, tomatoes, and fish. Our winery guide provides a very thorough summary of their product. The winery, we learn by tasting, produces outstanding Rose and Rosso wines. Gambino wines, like other wineries near Mount Etna, produce wines that benefit from the rich volcanic soils they grow on.

After Taormina, we bus back to Catania. There, of course, we visit the obligatory La Pescheria. As you can see in the video I shot in this link, the place so boisterous, raucous and fun that crowds of people stand along a balcony above this world-famous fish market just to enjoy the action below them. At La Peschericia, we feast on the famous Sicilian street foods of boiled tripe and boiled beef cheek (barbacoa), and the vegetables of roasted red pepper and roasted artichoke, among other similar delicacies. We have eaten none of these street market delicacies La Pescheria fish market, Catania, Dec 11, 2019 (3)before, and enjoy them so much that we vow to prepare them when we return home.

We walk the impressive, Baroque street named Via Crocifori. From there, we stumble upon a medieval neighborhood just west of the main city train stazione. Surprisingly, the neighborhood – despite very impressive urban design “bones” – is a festering sore in the city. It is a skid row full of drug pushers and prostitutes. I wonder why it has not gentrified, and decide it must be partly due to opponents of gentrification.

In sum, we recommend visiting Catania, but we suggest not allocating more than a few hours to walk the city.

Our next base is the little hilltop medieval town of Enna. Enna has the highest perch of any of the many Italian hilltowns, which provides it with spectacular panoramic views of the central Sicily landscape. In Enna, we go to Tommy’s Wine, which gets RAVE reviews from our Enna apartment proprietor as well as many online reviewers. The reviewers were SO RIGHT! His wine is one of the best I have ever had in my entire life (a Nero d’Altura Lombardo). And Tommy’s food is out of this world. Tommy has a very tiny place (only five tables), but it is perhaps one of the world’s best examples of how one must Enna, Italy, Dec 12, 2019 (43)prioritize quality over quantity.

It is cold and rainy while we are in the clouds of Enna, but I manage to squeeze in a morning town perimeter walk. Enna is worth a few hours of your time to walk it. Shockingly, we are awoken this moring at 5:30 am by an outdoor marching band! What marching band performs at that ungodly hour? We are informed that it was likely part of the annual celebration of one of the many Catholic saints.

A day trip from Enna brings us to nearby Piazza Armenia, where we encounter fabulous building architecture and wonderful streets.

The Duomo itself is worth the price of admission.

While in Piazza Armenia, we take a taxi to the overwhelming Villa Romana del Casala. This Roman palace is immense in size and nearly all of its floor space is covered with highly impressive mosaics that tell stories about hunting and other aspects of Roman life at that time. According to Wikipedia, excavations have revealed one of the richest, largest, and varied collections of Roman mosaics in the world, for which the site has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The villa and artwork contained within date to the early 4th century AD.

The mosaic and opus sectile floors cover some 3,500 square meters and are almost unique in their excellent state of preservation due to the landslide and floods that covered and therefore preserved the remains.

For me, the most memorable and astonishing aspects of the palace is a mosaic of women of Ancient Rome wearing what appears to be an ancient version of a bikini. The Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina (75)inscription at the palace informs us, however, that this is a depiction of female athletes wearing athletic attire.

We recommend allocating at least two hours to the palace.

After the palace, we are fortunate to visit Siciliartegusto, a fun enoteca run by a father and son. We arrive too early for their hours, so we opt for the palace visit and promise to return after the palace. Our taxi driver actually knows the enoteca owner, so when he drops us off in Piazza Armenia after the palace visit, he calls the owner to inform him that we are waiting for his shop to open again. We are greatly amused when, while we walk to the enoteca, the owner passes us in his car and shouts out the window that his shop is open again after the Dom Maggie at Sicilartegusto Enoteca, Piazza Armerina w proprietors, Dec 12 2019afternoon siesta!

Probably because it is the off-season, the enoteca father and son bend over backward to offer us generous kindness at their shop. They insist we sample their best wines and their many fresh foods.

That night, our nightcap is at the very good PaccaMora wine bar in Enna, which has been recommended to us by our apartment proprietor.

For our first night and day in Palermo, on the northern Sicilian coastline, we experience a drenching rain. We walk the polished limestone streets regardless of their being slippery rivers under these conditions.

Palermo is quite a monumental city – comparable to Rome in that regard. I find the architecture here to be similar to what is found in Barcelona.

We dine our first night at the highly-rated Palazzo Sambuca, and now know why it is rated so well. They are known for their fish and seafood – particularly their swordfish. We sample their grilled calamari, and it is the best calamari we have ever eaten in our entire lives. After that remarkable antipasti, I opt for their homemade gnocchi, which is combined with swordfish. Superb. For secondi, it is squid stew, which I thoroughly enjoy, as it is highly flavorful – a taste for big flavors and spices I have learned earlier in the trip by one of our hosts is something the Calabrese (like me) are known for.

After dinner, we encounter — in this video I shot — street music in a piazza.

Tragically, too many of the ancient polished limestone streets in Palermo have been covered with dull, crappy, crumbling asphalt. Now, instead of the timeless, durable, beautiful charm of the original limestone, these routes are now ugly, litter-strewn alleys no one loves or cares about. And again, the new asphalt is much more of a maintenance headache and cost than the limestone. Who needs enemies when we have ourselves to degrade our streets?

The next day, under sunny and warmer skies, after peeking into a few overwhelmingly Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, Palermo, Dec 14, 2019 (3)ornate Palermo churches (St Catherine of Alexandria is particularly mind-blowing), we visit the Monreale Cathedral, said to be one of the most important sights in all of Sicily.

Earlier in the day, we have lunch at Mercato del Capo, one of three fine outdoor food markets in Palermo (all of which are well-known for their outstanding street food). Mercato del Capo turns out to offer many fantastically delicious street foods, which are both highly flavorful and extremely affordable. I opt for a tray chock full of several different fresh seafoods sprinkled with lime juice (squid, octopus, clams, etc.). Large enough for two, it costs me a mere 5 euros. In combination with other accessory items we buy, it is my most wonderful lunch ever.

One of our favorite treats when we visit an Italian town is to encounter the much-loved evening community stroll. The ritual is known as “la passeggiata,” Each evening, between the hours of 5 pm and 8 pm, Italians take to the streets, to walk and socialize. Sociologists label la passeggiata a cultural performance, and on Saturdays and Sundays entire families participate, this frequently being the main social event of the day. Afterward, everyone heads home together for the evening meal.

The passeggiata in Palermo mostly occurs on their main walking street (Via Maqueda), and it is an unforgettable, inspiring sight to see. This link is a video I shot as we joined the stroll.

Via Maqueda is a large street, yet like our recent experience in Bologna, la passeggiata so fills the large street that it is a Passeggiata in Palermo, Dec 14, 2019 (2)gridlock of pedestrian congestion that one normally only sees with a road clogged with cars.

But in contrast to car congestion, when everyone is angry with everyone else on the road, pedestrian congestion adds to the sociable joy of being on common ground with other people. As Dan Burden once said, cars are happiest when there are no other cars around. People are happiest when there are other people around.

One of many things that makes me proud to be an Italian is the Italian tradition of la passeggiata.

As I understand it, the size and popularity of la passeggiata on Via Maqueda has been growing over the years (it became a walking street in June 2018). I believe that is because such an event benefits from being a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle. That is, because humans are a social species and our world tends to isolate us from each other, something that draws people to sociably be with others is so enjoyable and such a “people-watching treat” that others in the city start learning about the enjoyable event and join in. And this growing number of participants induces even more to join as word about it is spread (or people encounter it on their own). And so on and so on.

La passeggiata is, in the words of urban designers, a “social condenser” that most humans seek out to enjoy.

In my view, all cities, to be healthy, should have a nightly passeggiata.

We bus to a suburb of Palermo, which contains the extensive and utterly fascinating Catabombe dei Cappuccini. Highly morbid, but extremely interesting. DO NOT MISS THIS!Catacombs dei Cappuccini, Palermo, Dec 15, 2019 (5)

For lunch, we first stroll through Ballaro Market in Palermo and then return to the culinary delights of Mercato del Capo. Our wine for lunch was simply stupendous! And again, highly affordable. This is a video I shot as we walked through Ballaro.

Tonight we visit an enoteca on the Via Maqueda walking street (we can’t resist!)

All in all, Palermo is highly enjoyable – particularly on the Via Maqueda walking street. Such a delightful city that we are anxious to return again, despite my “rule” about not visiting a place more than once.

We enjoy a delicious meal of typical Sicilian dishes in Piazza Armerina, topped with a superb Sicilian Nero D’Avola wine at a remarkable wine shop in Piazza Armerina. We spent the day wandering the streets and visiting Villa Romana del Casale and popped in here to warm up and have a glass of local wine. The hospitality Giusseppe and his father show us is unmatched. The food and wine are superb but their generosity is beyond our expectation.

We notice a number of times in our travels on the Amalfi Coast and in Sicily that many ancient buildings have a great deal of plaster flaking off the exterior walls. We see this happening on so many buildings that I wonder if it is being flaked off deliberately. After all, the medieval stone under the plaster looks much more impressive and interesting and ancient than the plaster. In addition, the underlying stone surely requires less maintenance than the plaster. Here is to more flaking!

Our newly-discovered loves from this Italy trip include Frappato wine, Nero D’Avola wine, grilled tripe and grilled barbacoa (beef cheek), and fried chick pea flour.

Our trip to the Amalfi Coast and Sicily highlighted tradeoffs for off-season travel that our December trip exemplified. On the one hand, prices are lower, and crowds are smaller. On the other hand, some retailers and restaurants and services are closed for the season, proprietors starved for customers bend over backward to serve you, and the smaller crowds make the cities less festive.


Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Five-Country Bike-and-Barge trip in Europe, August 2019

By Dom Nozzi

Tuesday, August 13 and 14. We arrive at Paris airport and high-speed train to Strasbourg at the border of France and Germany. In Strasbourg, we tour the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I find to be gray and dreary inside. Remarkably tall ceilings, and a massive Notre Dame Cathedral Strasbourg France, Aug 13, 2019 (31)amount of stained glass windows. We visit the once-daily Astronomical Clock inside the Cathedral. Enormous crowd assembles to see it. I manage to squeeze my way into an area that gives me an unobstructed view of the Clock, only to realize that by doing so, my view of a video screen is blocked by an enormous masonry pillar, which means I miss a detailed 40-minute video describing the history of the Clock. The animation itself is highly disappointing, as a mechanical crow flaps its wings a few times and a few mechanical human figures rotate a few times. After 50 minutes of waiting, that is what 3,000 people have assembled to see?

We climb the 330 steps to the top of the Cathedral spire, which offers a superb view of the terra-cotta-roofed city. We also enjoy a 90-minute boat tour on the River Ill.

We are fortunate to have an opportunity to rent and ride bikes while in Strasbourg because in 2017, Strasbourg was rated the 4th best city to bicycle in the world.

Strasbourg is a party-till-late-at-night city, which means that bedtime for many does not start until 5 am and places do not open until 9 or 10 in the morning (including Starbucks).

I would give our Bed and Breakfast in Strasbourg a negative five rating (on a scale of one to ten). No soap. No shampoo. No waste can in the bathroom. No spare keys. No closet space or fridge space (because it is jammed with his clothes and food). The water heater closet is stuffed with fire hazard clothes and towels. And because the proprietor does not provide a user name, and has chosen an impossibly long password with handwritten letters making it impossible to know if the letters are uppercase or lowercase, it is impossible to log into WiFi.

Strasbourg is mostly a city containing one prominent feature: A charming shopping street main street. Even as a one-important-street city, the city is lovely and contains an outstanding walking street full of pedestrians.

The fabulous historic main train station for Strasbourg, very sadly, is now criminally fronted by a Modernist glass blob. A disgraceful design blunder.

According to Wikipedia, Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. In 2016, the city proper had 279,284 inhabitants and both the Eurométropole de Strasbourg (Greater Strasbourg) and the Arrondissement of Strasbourg had 491,409 inhabitants. Strasbourg’s metropolitan area had a population of 785,839 in 2015 (not counting the section across the border in Germany). Strasbourg’s historic city center, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city center.

The Roman camp of Argentoratum was first mentioned in 12 BC; the city of Strasbourg which grew from it celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988. The fertile area in the Upper Rhine Plain between the rivers Ill and Rhine had already been populated since the Middle Paleolithic.

Thursday and Friday, August 15 and 16. Our initial plan is to drive our Eurocar rental car to Mannheim for a visit. Fortunately, during our drive, we opt instead to visit the charming medieval village of Heidelberg.

According to Wikipedia, in the 2016 census, the population of Heidelberg was 159,914, of which roughly a quarter consisted of students.

Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, “Heidelberg Man” died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907. Scientific dating determined his remains as the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of worship were built on the Heiligenberg, or “Mountain of Saints”. Both places can still be identified. In 40 AD, a fort was built and occupied by the 24th Roman cohort and the 2nd Cyrenaican cohort (CCG XXIIII and CCH II CYR). The early Byzantine/late Roman Emperor Valentinian I, in 369 AD, built new and maintained older castra (permanent camps) and a signal tower on the bank of the Neckar. They built a wooden bridge based on stone pillars across it. The camp protected the first civilian settlements that developed. The Romans remained until 260 AD, when the camp was conquered by Germanic tribes.

Heidelberg has what looks like many newer buildings that mimic historical and ornamental style. My hat is off to the city and its architects for at least making an effort to design lovable buildings rather than unlovable Modernist buildings. But lacking the patina of age, the buildings looked too new. And therefore a bit sterile. The many newer buildings is a sure sign that many historic buildings were lost during World War II.

After Strasbourg and Heidelberg, we tour Nuremberg Germany – mostly on rented bikes. A great many historic buildings have been replaced with awful mid-century Modernist buildings. Again, a sure sign of the many buildings tragically lost during World War II. The Modernism severely detracts from the former charm of the city streets.

According to Wikipedia, Nuremberg has a total population of 787,976 (2016), while the larger Nuremberg Metropolitan Region has approximately 3.5 million inhabitants. Nuremberg was the site of major Nazi rallies during WWII.

We have dinner on a town center island at the Restaurant Trodelstuben, which served me absolutely delicious, authentic German food. I opt for “pig knuckles,” which is a very fatty, buttery meat (when served boiled). I also enjoy knockwurst Barbarossa, which consists of three types of knockwurst in three different types of sauerkraut beds – a total of nine knockwurst. To top off the meal, I enjoy a delicious glass of smoked dark bier and an unfiltered bier.

There are a good number of walking streets in town center Nuremberg. But nearly all of them are too wide and are degraded by too many Modernist buildings of recent decades.

Saint Sebastian Church in Nuremberg is stunning, as I learn upon entering. In a design I had not seen previously, the main alter of the Church is set far back from the parishioner seating.

We enjoy a wonderful museum in the Nuremberg Castle, and we cross “Hangman’s Bridge” to reach a café where I opt for “Gunpowder” tea.

We then visit the still-functioning Nuremberg courtroom where the famous Nuremberg trials were held for Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II. It is a very moving Nuremberg Trials Courtroom 600 Nuremberg, Aug 16, 2019 (79)experience to be in that courtroom – a courtroom that tried. Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were all hanged after being convicted. Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess were tried. And Hermann Göring committed suicide before he could be executed following the trial.

We have lunch at the Behringer Bratwursthausle (the original, serving traditional German food). I opt for Nuremberg bratwurst, and delicious dish of cured tongue and smoked sausage.

Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18. We visit Regensberg Germany. Dom Saint Peter’s Cathedral contains amazing stained glass. And Saint Emmersam’s Abbey (Benedictan) contains ornamentation that is so busy that it makes one dizzy. We try somewhat St. Emmeram's Abbey Regensberg Aug 17, 2019 (60)unsuccessfully to avoid disturbing a wedding ceremony while there.

Regensberg contains a gratifying number of great human-scaled streets. And the city is attractive in part due to the playful pastel colors used to paint many buildings.

According to Wikipedia, Regensberg was founded as a hilltop fortified settlement about 1245 by Baron Lüthold of Regensberg.

Later, we arrive in Munich, where we again rent bikes and later dine at Haxnbauer Restaurant in Old Town Munich. This restaurant is said to serve the most loved and popular veal and pork knuckle in town.

According to Wikipedia, Munich is the capital and most populous city of Bavaria, the second most populous German federal state. With a population of around 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Germany, after Berlin and Hamburg. The name of the city is derived from the Old/Middle High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks”. It derives from the monks of the Benedictine order, who ran a monastery at the place that was later to become the Old Town of Munich; hence the monk depicted on the city’s coat of arms. Munich was first mentioned in 1158. Catholic Munich strongly resisted the Reformation and was a political point of divergence during the resulting Thirty Years’ War, but remained physically untouched despite an occupation by the Protestant Swedes.

The first attempt of the Nazi movement to take over the German government in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch was stopped by the Bavarian police in Munich with gunfire. After the Nazis’ rise to power, Munich was declared their “Capital of the Movement”. During World War II, Munich was heavily bombed and more than 50% of the entire city and up to 90% of the historic center were destroyed. After the end of postwar American occupation in 1949, there was a great increase in population and economic power during the years of Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle”. Unlike many other German cities that were heavily bombed, Munich restored most of its traditional cityscape and hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Marienplatz in Munich is MONUMENTAL!

Unfortunately, our hotel is situated in a town center Munich location that seems to be a Middle Eastern skid row.

Also unfortunate for Munich is that there appears to be regular competitions held in which architects compete with each other to see who can design the most hideous, ugly building. It is agonizing that there have been many winners of this “contest.”

Munich, for me, turns out to be the most disappointing of the German cities we visit on this trip. The streets (now roads) are too wide – including the walking streets. There is too many Modernist buildings. And too many parts of the town center are run down.

The English Garden Park in Munich is extremely interesting. We come upon a grassy field packed with Woodstock-like sunbathers. Streams flowing through the part have such a strong current that several swimmers float down the streams without using tubes or life preservers. The park also contains a wave park, where several SURFERS took turns surfing the waves. Who knew you could surf in Munich?

Dom w 1-liter dark Bavarian beer Hofbrauhaus, Munich Aug 18, 2019 (3)For dinner, we are at the Hofbrauhaus, where I opt for boiled pig knuckle and a ONE-LITER glass of dark Bavarian bier. It is the largest glass of bier I have ever been served.

Monday and Tuesday, August 19 and 20. We arrive in Passau Germany, our gateway city for the bike and barge trip we are to embark on. Our first bicycling day after barging down the river a bit starts in Engelhartszell. Here we climb stairs after passing by the lock system along a pathway that crosses the Donau River. We find nice, flat, paved trails for our 30-mile ride this day.

Along the way, we cycle through vineyards, cornfields, plum and apple orchards, and forest.

According to Wikipedia, Passau is also known as the Dreiflüssestadt (“City of Three Rivers”) because the Danube is joined there by the Inn from the south and the Ilz from the north.

Passau’s population is 50,000, of whom about 12,000 are students at the University of Passau.

In the 2nd century BC, many of the Boii tribe were pushed north across the Alps out of northern Italy by the Romans. They established a new capital called Boiodurum by the Romans (from Gaulish Boioduron), now within the Innstadt district of Passau.

Passau was an ancient Roman colony of ancient Noricum called Batavis, Latin for “for the Batavi.” The Batavi were an ancient Germanic tribe often mentioned by classical authors, and they were regularly associated with the Suebian marauders, the Heruli.5-country tour

During the Renaissance and early modern period, Passau was one of the most prolific centers of sword and bladed weapon manufacture in Germany (after Solingen). Passau smiths stamped their blades with the Passau wolf, usually a rather simplified rendering of the wolf on the city’s coat-of-arms. Superstitious warriors believed that the Passau wolf conferred invulnerability on the blade’s bearer, and thus Passau swords acquired a great premium. According to the Donau-Zeitung, aside from the wolf, some cabalistic signs and inscriptions were added. As a result, the whole practice of placing magical charms on swords to protect the wearers came to be known for a time as “Passau art”. (See Eduard Wagner, Cut and Thrust Weapons, 1969.) Other cities’ smiths, including those of Solingen, recognized the marketing value of the Passau wolf and adopted it for themselves. By the 17th century, Solingen was producing more wolf-stamped blades than Passau was.

In 1662, a devastating fire consumed most of the city. Passau was subsequently rebuilt in the Baroque style.

At Niederranna we and our bikes are ferried across the Donau. Upon finishing our bike ride, we rejoin our barge at Brandstatt.

Wednesday, August 21. We enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Bratislava. Here we find very nice ornamental architecture and smooth paved stone streets and sidewalks.

For lunch, we dine at the Bratislavska flagship restaurant. I select Klastorny Leziak Tmavy – a half liter of tasty, dark Monastic bier. We also sample one of Slovakia’s trademarks: Currant wine – which to me tastes a little like a light, sweet cough syrup. For food, I select Pecena Klobasas Oblohou (a roasted homemade sausage).

Biking Old Town Bratislava is a treat. We start with a diversion that takes us to the location of the former Soviet-block wall that the Soviets told the world was needed toBunker at Slovakia border Bratsilava Slovakia Aug 21, 2019 (13) “protect the peaceful Communist nations from the decadent capitalist aggressors.” Only tiny remnants of tall, barbed wire fencing remains at the Slovakia border, along with a number of grim, heavily fortified concrete bunkers. We also find time to visit the Bratislave Castle.

Overall, a very good day.

According to Wikipedia, the first known permanent settlement of the area that includes Bratislava began with the Linear Pottery Culture, around 5000 BC in the Neolithic era. About 200 BC, the Celtic Boii tribe founded the first significant settlement, a fortified town known as an oppidum. They also established a mint, producing silver coins known as biatecs.

The area fell under Roman influence from the 1st to the 4th century AD and was made part of the Danubian Limes, a border defense system. The Romans introduced grape growing to the area and began a tradition of winemaking, which survives to the present.

In 1968, after the unsuccessful Czechoslovak attempt to liberalize the Communist regime, the city was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops. Shortly thereafter, it became capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, one of the two states of the federalized Czechoslovakia.

Bratislava’s dissidents anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centers of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Thursday, August 22. We are in Budapest Hungary.

According to Wikipedia, Budapest is the capital and the most populous city of Hungary, and the tenth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits. The city has an estimated population of 1,752,286.

The central area of the city along the Danube River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has several notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Matthias Church and the Liberty Statue. Other famous landmarks include Andrássy Avenue, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Heroes’ Square, the Great Market Hall, the Nyugati Railway Station built by the Eiffel Company of Paris in 1877 and the second-oldest metro line in the world, the Millennium Underground Railway. The city also has around 80 geothermal springs, the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue, and third largest Parliament building in the world. Budapest attracts 4.4 million international tourists per year, making it a popular destination in Europe. The first settlement on the territory of Budapest was built by Celts before 1 AD. It was later occupied by the Romans.

On a guided bicycle tour. Our guide has a very heavy French accent, which made her extremely difficult for we Americans to understand. In addition, despite her soft voice, she used no voice amplification, nor did she do well in keeping the cycling group together. To top it off, she offered very little information about what we were seeing on the tour. Overall, the tour was so disappointing to us that we successfully got a refund from our barge tour operator afterward.

Bizarrely, at the start of our bicycle tour, a German tour leader was trying to stop vehicles so that cyclists could cross the street and start the tour. One car fails to stop, which infuriates the guide so much that he angrily tries to slap the car with his hand to show his unhappiness. But his slap turns into vandalism, as his hand actually knocks a sideview mirror off the car! Immediately, the two in the car slam the brakes on the car, open the doors, and – red-faced – angrily storm toward the guide to confront him with their understandable rage. The guide gets in their faces and SCREAMS at them for not stopping. It is an ugly scene of fury.

Known as the “City of Baths,” Budapest sits on a fault line, and its thermal baths are naturally fed by 120 hot springs. The city is home to an impressive selection of thermal baths, many of which date to the 16th century.  I convince my companions that an obligatory part of any visit to Budapest is to visit the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.Budapest Aug 22, 2019 (23)

Budapest always provides delights. Everywhere one looks, there is a statue or monument that is over-the-top in splendor. The same is true with the stupendous buildings in the city.

Friday, August 23. Our 60-kilometer bike ride today takes us through the very pleasantly charming little villages of Visegrad, Vac, Veroce, Nagymaros, Zebegeny, Szob, and Esztergom. Esztergom, we are surprised to learn, contains a spectacular Cathedral that is the fourth largest in Europe.

Saturday, August 24. We are in Vienna. Immediately we can see we are in a monumental, world-class city with spectacular architecture. The city is also a very good place to cycle, although as is the case with many large cities in the world, car infrastructure has gone too far – particularly with the monster roadway widths and oversizing of intersections.

Saint Stephen Cathedral and Hofburg Palace are remarkable.

On a guided bike tour, we visit an artistic smokestack, the Gaudi-like Hundertwasser painted apartments, Saint Charles Church, the Vienna Opera House, the Hofburg Palace, City Hall (WAY more spectacular than city halls in America), and Saint Stephen’s City Hall Vienna Aug 24, 2019 (86)Cathedral.. But we miss the famous Narchaet Food Market.

For lunch, we opt for the delicacy that Vienna is world-famous for originating: Strudel. We sample both apple and plum strudel. So good that one has not eaten strudel until it is eaten in Vienna.

According to Wikipedia, Vienna is the federal capital, largest city and one of nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria’s primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million (2.6 million within the metropolitan area, nearly one-third of the country’s population), and its cultural, economic, and political center. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today it is the second-largest German-speaking city after Berlin. In 2001, the city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger. Apart from being regarded as the City of Music because of its musical legacy, Vienna is also said to be “The City of Dreams” because it was home to the world’s first psychoanalyst – Sigmund Freud.

Vienna is known for its high quality of life. In a 2005 study of 127 world cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city first (in a tie with Vancouver and San Francisco) for the world’s most liveable cities. Between 2011 and 2015, Vienna was ranked second, behind Melbourne. In 2018, it replaced Melbourne as the number one spot. For ten consecutive years (2009–2019), the human-resource-consulting firm Mercer ranked Vienna first in its annual “Quality of Living” survey of hundreds of cities around the world.

The UN-Habitat classified Vienna as the most prosperous city in the world in 2012/2013. The city was ranked 1st globally for its culture of innovation in 2007 and 2008, and sixth globally (out of 256 cities) in the 2014 Innovation Cities Index, which analyzed 162 indicators in covering three areas: culture, infrastructure, and markets. Vienna regularly hosts urban planning conferences and is often used as a case study by urban planners.

Between 2005 and 2010, Vienna was the world’s number-one destination for international congresses and conventions. It attracts over 6.8 million tourists a year.

Evidence has been found of continuous habitation in the Vienna area since 500 BC, when Celts settled the site on the Danube River. In 15 BC the Romans fortified the frontier city they called Vindobona to guard the empire against Germanic tribes to the north.

Sunday, August 25. We bicycle from Wachau to Pöchlarn, Austria. We bicycle through the very sweet little villages of Mautern, Forthof, Durstein (which has an exceptionally charming main street – so charming that we wished we had a day or so to enjoy it), Spitz, and Melk. Our day ends with a pleasant Austrian wine tasting near our barge in Pöchlarn.

Monday, August 26. We drive our rental car from Passau to Frankfurt. On the way, we stop in Erlangen to stretch our legs and enjoy this German college town. Frankfurt has the unfortunate distinction of having an enormous number of glass and steel skyscrapers.

Town center Frankfurt turns out to be very quiet at night. I was not awoken by sirens or scooters.

Random, general observations about this trip…

The older the city we were in, the more lovable it was. The more recent the cities and the more recent the buildings, the more awful those cities and buildings were. This has been true in my travels throughout the world, but most strikingly in Europe, where one finds extremely ancient settlements.
Many German cities have been ravaged and degraded by Modernist buildings that are destroying the lovable charm that once graced these cities for several centuries.
Nearly all of the cities we visited on this trip had outstanding bicycle path and bicycle lane infrastructure.
We found that many larger German cities contain a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population. We were surprised by the overwhelming number of burka-wearing Muslim women we saw in German and Austrian cities.
German cities, in general, tend to be late-night party cites, where vast numbers of citizens seem to drink and dance and laugh into the wee hours of the morning. And not just on weekends.
We found ourselves driving at speeds at or above 140 kilometers per hour on the German Autobahn (about 89 mph). And yet we were regularly passed by motorists driving 200 kph, which made it seem like we are standing still.
Our barge traveled through countless locks on the Donau (Danube) River – some changing our river height by 60 meters.
The Donau River is very wide, and is milky green in color – a sign of eutrophication caused by agricultural fertilizers.
For many of the eight days of our cycling and barging, we experienced very warm, muggy, humid weather.
Interestingly, the Hungarian language contains many words that are extremely long and mostly use seemingly random letters that make for a daunting effort to try to pronounce. Hungarian, our barge guide told us, was about the most incomprehensible language in all of Europe. Amusingly, our guide informed us that the Hungarian word for “kiss” is “puszi,” which is pronounced “pussy.”

An Unfitting, Agonizing End to an Otherwise Remarkable Trip

Two big, crushing lessons learned on this trip from severe brain damage and stress associated with not learning this lesson previously. First, I must never again go on a trip to Europe where travel from city to city is by rental car. With our rental car, we experienced agonizing levels of stress and rage from one-way streets, lack of parking, a rental car company that sought to force us to pay for damage we did not cause, and the stress associated with driving in both congestion and crazy high speeds on highways.

Second, I must never again fly with Air France or through Charles de Gaulle airport. For our flight back to the US from this airport and with Air France, I experienced the most enraging, stressful, unpleasant airport debacle I have ever suffered in my large number of airport experiences.

Unbeknownst to us, Air France now has a punitively low maximum limit for luggage weight. At 12 kilograms and FOUR trips through a baggage weighing line, I was compelled to THROW AWAY three-quarters of my belongings in order to get under 12 kilograms and be allowed to proceed to security (shirts, sandals, pants, food, underwear, socks, etc).

Because airport staff could not speak English, and because they were utterly incompetent, I spent almost two hours being sent on an almost infinitely-looping wild goose chase. I circled between baggage weighing and passport clearance FOUR times. During that entire time, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, nor was the airport staff able to provide correct, consistent information. I repeatedly lost my temper with the incompetent, power-drunk, bureaucratic staff. In fact, the staff threatened to call the police to have me arrested, to which I responded that I would be grateful to be confronted by the police as maybe they would allow me to proceed to the security gate.

It was miraculous that I did not miss my flight, and was only able to catch the flight because my girlfriend heroically called Delta Airlines (the sister of Air France) to have a staff person guide me through the impossible, Kafkaesque infinitely looping quagmire that I was trapped in. It became obvious that the prime qualification that Charles de Gaulle airport looks for when hiring employees is that they must be utterly incompetent. And they must love exerting their paltry, lower-level power whenever they can as a way to punish air travelers. A useful tip for Air France: Please inform your passengers BEFORE THEY REACH THE AIRPORT that there is a draconian weight limit so passengers have a chance to retain possessions at home before being forced to dispose of them as a way to board your plane. Of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken in my life, I have never had to weigh my luggage at the airport, which means this is a very rare requirement.

News flash to Air France: the rarity of this sort of policy should make it obligatory that you notify passengers of this far in advance.

Categories: Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spain is Splendid Again, Nov and Dec 2017

By Dom Nozzi

We arrive at the Denver International Airport. Surprised that our bus to the airport was full, as it was Thanksgiving Day. Who travels on this holiday?

Weather forecast for the coming week in Boulder will be unusually warm for this time of year. I am hoping that we will return to a lot of snow and good ski conditions, however.

We started the trip by walking Brooklyn and Manhattan. Bad idea on BLACK FRIDAY.


Friday, Nov 24: Our flight from Toronto to Barcelona took off at 9 pm on a Friday. By 8 pm the next day, after 11 continuous hours of travel by plane and bus, we finally arrived at our first Spain hotel in Valencia.

I have previously traveled in Spain (eight years ago). Maggie has never been. She is in for a treat…

Oddly, I have been in Spain twice and both times I had a train trip be cancelled. This has never happened to me for any other trip I have taken in the world. First cancellation in Spain had us be transferred to fly from Madrid to Barcelona. This time, it was a bus from Barcelona to Valencia. Turns out that rail workers were on strike in Barcelona.


Saturday and Sunday, Nov 25-26: Old Town Valencia at night is lovely. We have a very charming, romantic, festive first night in Valencia. The streets are surprisingly vibrant even during a non-tourist time of year. Our tapas bar serves fantastic food at a place full of happy customers.From our hotel, Valencia, Nov 25, 2017 (1)

We start with a very tasty breakfast at a place called BBVA. Boisterous, loud Sunday morning crowd. I have the smoked trout omelet and Maggie has the salmon bruschetta. We then rent bicycles and have a very enjoyable ride along the Valencia greenway, where we pass athletic fields containing soccer games, rugby (who knew Spaniards played rugby?) and baseball. We bike to the beach. Valencia, of course, has many street trees that are orange trees. Valencia oranges. I opt for a FANTASTIC Imperial Brown Ale at Tyris Craft Beer.

At the end of our greenway bike ride, we spot several surfers surfing at the beach of the Baltic Sea. In late November! Who knew that Spaniards surfed?

The architecture in Valencia Old Town is mind-blowing. Ornamentation is stunning.

Our last night in Valencia is spent on a shiny marble piazza surrounded by fantastic medieval architecture. We dine on very tasty paella and a glass of house red wine. The view from our Valencia lodging is above. The photos I shot while in Valencia are here.


Monday, Nov 27:

Old Town Sevilla is a delight to stroll through DESPITE very narrow sidewalks (much of it less than 10 in. wide). The streets are so crooked and cranky that we got disoriented and lost several times. Which, of course, adds to the delight. Nearly all of streets are medieval cobblestone.

The modernists have added “tripe architecture” to Old Town Sevilla. A blight on the charming ambiance of the neighborhood, but a handy landmark for finding our apartment.

The Sevilla churches are noteworthy for containing an overwhelming amount of intricate gold. They can’t seem to get enough of it, to the point where it makes the observer dizzy.

Alcazar, Sevilla, Spain, Nov 27, 2017 (33)Alcazar boasts Islamic (Moorish), Christian, and Renaissance architecture all blended together by successive kings over the centuries. An incredible place to visit (again, for me).

Great, fun, tasty tapas are to be found in Sevilla. Our first stop for tapas is at a bar that opened a few years ago (1670, to be exact). They serve us excellent red wine and delicious tapas. A quirk is the bartender slicing thin strips of meat from a leg of a pig. And writing our check total on the bar with chalk.

So far, our biggest mutual problem on this trip is our inability to get enough sleep. We are both sleep deprived.

Nearly all of the street trees and courtyard trees and plaza trees in Seville are orange trees which are loaded with oranges. Valencia oranges are EVERYWHERE! Are the oranges harvested from street trees, or left to drop and rot?

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, Maggie is too sleep deprived to get out of bed in time for our planned day trip to Malaga. Unfortunate, since Tuesday is the window of fair weather for the next few days in that southern coastal town. She sleeps until noon, which gives us a relatively late start on our second day in Sevilla.

But I am happy to have her sleep late, as today is her birthday. On her birthday she will enjoy a full day in Sevilla. For her birthday last year, we were in Rome.

Lucky girl.

Since loss of sleep was due, at least in part, to the noisy cobblestone street traffic outside of our apartment, and because our washing machine was in disrepair, we are happy to learn that we can move to a nearby apartment with quiet conditions and a working washing machine.

First stop is the incomparable Cathedral of Sevilla. Like eight years ago when I was first humbled by what is the largest gothic cathedral in the world, the Cathedral is stunning. Built to such a crazy huge and ornamental size, according to Rick Steves, that the builders would be considered “madmen.” So huge that one feels like an ant inside the colossus – surely the intent of the Catholic designers who seek to make mere humans Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla, Spain, Nov 28, 2017 (30)seem puny in the house of their infinite god.

Again, the Cathedral is full of altars and sanctuaries that feature overwhelming gold flake. The support columns inside are too tall and wide to believe. Somehow, we are again not converted to Catholicism despite the dizzying splendor.

We depart Ground Zero Catholicism in Spain for a walk in the nearby Santa Cruz neighborhood, which is a delight. The dimensions are too cute. A lot of very narrow, Venice-like, cobblestone “kissing” streets (so narrow that people on balconies of buildings facing each other can kiss). Indeed, some of the streets in the neighborhood are so narrow that we are able to touch building walls on both sides of the street at the same time. Delightful! Romantic! Charming! And utterly inconceivable in America, where 100-foot wide roads are considered Nirvana. And the only way to prevent babies from dying in burning buildings.

After our stroll, we reach a place to rent bikes. Biking in Sevilla is relatively pleasant and safe with its okay supply of grade-separated green-painted bike paths flanking many streets. We enjoy a delightful ride through an enormous park with flat clay pathways and a lush forest, where trees there today had been planted in the 19th Century. The park contains extremely impressive military and university building towers that are linked by a crescent-shaped building system.

Over-the-top palaces seem to pop up around every corner in Sevilla. In its history, the city has seen the construction of both palaces and parks and cathedrals fit for kings.

We drop off the bikes and walk back to the Cathedral, where we are disappointed to see that only a small handful of horse-drawn carriages are waiting. Earlier in the day, we had been descended upon by an endless gauntlet of carriage drivers begging us to be their passengers. It is, after all, the “shoulder season,” when tourist customers are relatively scarce, so the begging is particularly fierce.

Now, at 7 pm, only 3 carriages are in the Cathedral plaza, and we are unable to find a driver who speaks more than a few words of English. And it is also starting to rain. This is our only opportunity for a romantic carriage ride in Sevilla, so we board a carriage with these less-than-optimal conditions. Happily, it turns out to be a pleasant ride.

The photos I shot while in Sevilla are here.

Day Trip to Malaga

Wednesday, Nov 29th: Our day starts out in an unfortunate way. After only 15 minutes of travel on our train to Malaga — a coastal town on Spain’s southern coast — we passengers must deboard the train and board an “autobus” (a bus). It is the second time we have been transferred from a train to a bus in this Spain trip. This time due to a huge flood in Southern Spain.

Why, when we bought our train tickets 15 minutes earlier, did they sell us the tickets and not tell us that there was massive flooding ahead of us in Southern Spain? Had we known, we would probably stayed in Sevilla and not boarded the train to Malaga.

This would have been a mistake, as we are to eventually learn. Malaga is a delightful place. Even in monsoon rains.

Our bus finally arrives in Malaga three full hours after we would have arrived had our train not been stopped by the biblical floods.

I am immediately struck by the large size of the city. I had thought we would be arriving in a small coastal village, but Malaga is a large metropolis.

We stroll along a festive walking and shopping street festooned with holiday lighting. The surface is a polished marble not unlike the main street in Dubrovnik. Skinny, fun, smaller shopping streets branch off in odd directions from the main shopping street. We stop at a restaurante with outdoor seating facing the amazing Malaga Cathedral and order a fish and seafood paella that is both very filling and very delicious. Rioja house wine is our beverage. An excellent choice.

The Cathedral is simply stunning. We walk inside with our faces looking straight up at the splendor looming above and around us for about an hour.

Alcazaba, Malaga, Spain. Nov 29, 2017 (66)We then explore nearby Alcazaba, a medieval labyrinth with brick passageways, small Moorish doorways, and brick steps leading in all directions. Several times we find ourselves with a very nice view of Malaga and the seaport. A delight. In its heyday, this was surely a romantic place for a walk with a loved one. To top off the Alcazaba, we stumble upon Teatro Romano, a medieval theatre that surely was the venue for many a play or performance. The photos I shot while in Malaga are here.

In the end, we find ourselves on a higher speed train than the one we were bumped off of in the morning. We are heading back to Sevilla, wishing we had more time for surprisingly pleasant Malaga. The train upgrade is a compensation from the train company for our morning inconvenience.

Day Trip to Cordoba

Thursday, Nov 30th: We awake to clear skies after the Wednesday deluge of rain and clouds. We hop on the 8 am bus from Sevilla to Cordoba.

Our first stop in Old Town Cordoba is the incomparable Mezquita. A massive former Mosque that since the 16th Century has a Christian Chapel built in the very center of it. An astonishing place. One of the Wonders of the World. Indeed, I ask Maggie how it was possible that neither of us had ever heard of the place until now. Over 800 arches areMezquita, Cordoba, Spain. Nov 30, 2017 (17) inside. The contrast between the Muslim and Catholic symbolism is striking. We spend hours wandering around in wonder.

After Mezquita, we have lunch at a small, quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant (Casa Mazal) in the Jewish Quarter. The food was DELICIOUS. Maybe the best lunch I had ever eaten.

After lunch, we stroll the lovely, romantic little cobblestone streets that move in all manner of crooked, confusing, delightful directions. The sun in the clear skies is so brilliant that it hurts our eyes.

Unfortunately, our time is rushed, as our train leaves for Sevilla in the afternoon.

Back in Sevilla, we stop at a very nice tapas bar/restaurant and dine on very good food. We nailed two consecutive tasty meals in a row today! After dinner, we walk down an impressively busy, bustling, lovely shopping street (Teutan?). So full of happy strollers that it seems like a “paseo” (an evening community stroll). I could not stop taking photos of the beautiful lighted streets and people.

From dinner, we walk across Old Town to a house now converted to a Flamenco singing and dancing venue (Tablao Alvarez Quintero). The acoustic guitar based performance is riveting. I have never before seen live Flamenco singing and dancing, and am quite impressed. The dancer and singer display pride and anger in their movements and facial expressions. Very, very good.

On the way home, we pass several bars that are overflowing with huge numbers of chatty beer and wine drinkers. We stop in one of them for a beer. The beer and wine, we notice, is in the one to two euro price range. Sevilla late at night is a party town containing what seems like the Spanish version of German beer halls.

The photos I shot while in Cordoba are here.


Friday, Dec 1: We train from Sevilla to Madrid on a crystal clear day late in the morning. Our first destination is the infamous Plaza Mayor, historic site of much mischief in the name of the Catholic god by the immensely cruel Spanish Inquisition. At this Plaza, countless “heretics” were executed or tortured. Today the Plaza is filled with silly amusements for tourists. A stark contrast.

After failing to find a tour guide-recommended restaurant, we opt for a random place on the outer walls of Plaza Mayor based on the charming medieval arches and walls within. It turns out to be a stroke of luck, as the food and wine are stupendous.

Dinner is followed by our walking at a brisk pace (it is now icy cold and very windy in Madrid) toward the Prado Museum. Unfortunately, the line is several blocks long. Forget that! We continue down the street to the Reina Sofia Museo to visit the stunning, larger-than-life Guernica masterpiece by Picasso.

On the way back from the Museo, we cross the heart of Madrid: Puerto del Sol – an Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (42)immense and always festive piazza. Tonight Puerto del Sol is jammed with happy people – tens of thousands crowd the piazza and nearby walking streets. We stumble upon what appears to be an annual event where a massive crush of people are squeezed into three or five street blocks to watch an animated Christmas holiday show being performed on a building façade by little mechanical elves and snowmen.

Throughout our walk in Madrid, we are stunned by the stellar, ornamental, monumental buildings and architecture. Truly a MONUMENTAL, world class city. Madrid shows off much of its architecture by lighting up the building facades at night with brightly colored lights. If only American cities had a decent collection of such lovable buildings to flaunt at night with lights!

We don’t.


Saturday, Dec 2: Our apartment sits on a vibrant walking street in Madrid. Despite my fears, we are not awoken overnight by the 24/7 party atmosphere just outside our 2nd story balcony. But our earlier plans to enjoy bicycling in Madrid today are put on hold. It is chilly and in the 30s this morning! Spain is unseasonably cold for our trip.

“Breakfast” is at the world famous Chocolatería San Ginés, said to be the best chocolatier in all of Madrid, and a place that has had a long list of famous customers in its over 100 years of existence (including Audrey Hepburn, Penélope Cruz, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Sophia Loren, Tony Curtis and Naomi Campbell). All seats were filled when we were there, and EVERYONE was enjoying dipping their churros into chocolate sauce.

We walk to the Royal Palace (Palacio Real), which is only a short walk from our Madrid accommodations. The sumptuous splendor of the rooms (there are 2,800 of them in the palace!) is mind-blowing. When one looks up “over the top” in the dictionary, there is a drawing of this palace.

Upon departing, the sun is out and it is warm enough to bike, so we rent a couple of “Donkey Rental Bikes” to sample bicycling in Madrid. We discover that the large park behind the palace is off limits to bicycling, as are the gardens in front of the Edifico Espana palace that we stumble upon. The superb Gran Via shopping street in Madrid, we also learn, is not very bikeable at all (the occasional “sharrow” is dangerously out nearPlaza de Cibeles, Madrid, Spain. Dec 1, 2017 (20) the middle of the heavy traffic street). So we walk the Gran Via.  We enjoy the Puente de Cibeles city hall (?), which is impressively ornamental inside and out. We then enjoy bicycling in the very large Parque de El Retiro flanking Madrid Old Town.

Overall, I’d give Madrid a 2 or 3 on a scale of 10 for bicycling quality.

After bicycling, we visit the Mercado San Miguel. As it always seems to be, the place is PACKED with happy, festive customers hungrily jostling for more and more tapas to gobble down (and washing it down with great Spanish wine). We enjoy a delicious salmon tapa, sardine tapa, octopus tapa, cod fish tapa, tuna tapa, squid ink and seafood paellas tapa, and raspberry tapa. Along with a few glasses of tinto (red) Spanish wine.

We walk to La Gayalos restaurant – reputed to serve outstanding paella. Along the way, the streets of downtown Madrid are utterly JAMMED with people out walking. It is as if New Year’s Eve at Times Square is occurring on every street in downtown Madrid. I have never seen so many walking people packed onto streets before. And these were not tiny streets. Utterly astonishing.

At La Gayalos, we have black rice paella with shrimp and squid. Superb. The chef comes out to serve our paella onto our plates from the pan, and at the end of the meal brings out a Spanish brandy: Spanish Grappas. Very tasty end to an excellent meal.

Later that night below our 2nd story apartment balcony on a Madrid walking street, an acoustic guitar player and opera singer performed. An unexpected treat.

The photos I shot while in Madrid are here.

We will be sorry to be leaving Madrid.

Day Trip to Toledo

Sunday, Dec 3:  We learn at the Madrid train station that we need to be at the OTHER Madrid station to get the direct train to Salamanca, our planned day trip today. So we opt to instead go to our other day trip option: Toledo. Salamanca will be tomorrow.

Alcazar and Tagus River, Toledo, Dec 3, 2017 (3)Toledo is spectacular medieval charm, as always. The entire city, after all, is designated as a world heritage site.

We enjoy walking (and getting lost several times) on the crooked, often nameless streets. Fortunately for us, many of our church and museum destinations are free on Sunday, including the military history museum, which we very much enjoy.

The Cathedral of Toledo knocks our socks off with its splendor, as it does to everyone else who visits.

The photos I shot while in Toledo are here.

One thing we have noticed in our Spain travels overall, by the way, is that the trains are impressively spotless in cleanliness. Or as they might say, the trains in Spain are mainly without stain!


Monday, Dec 4: We board a metro subway train at Puerta del Sol to get to a Madrid train station. That station will take us directly to Salamanca, a charming, medieval college town in the remote northwest of Spain. The college there was established in the 13th Century and is the oldest in Spain.

It is a very chilly day in Salamanca, so we skip our plans to rent bikes. Too bad, since Salamanca has a very nice bike route system that circles the old town.

The city turns out to be far more impressive than I had anticipated. The medieval streets and buildings are wonderful – particularly the main cathedral.Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain, Dec 4, 2017 (16)

For lunch, we have a very, very good tapas meal overlooking Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. It is a bustling place. We order several tapas overflowing with delicious seafood. Along with two glasses of nice red wine, our final bill is $13. Surely there is a mistake. Is there a zero missing in our bill??

We have a bit of a SNAFU on our return train trips. First, we struggle to exit as our train cards are not opening the gates to let us out. Then we get on a train going the wrong direction for our destination. But we figure things out, and end up at the Mercado San Miguel again for another round of sumptuous tapas for dinner.

The photos I shot while in Salamanca are here.


Tuesday, Dec 5: We hop on a luxurious bullet train to be whisked from Madrid to Barcelona. The countryside shows of mountains and a very arid landscape. Looks a lot like the American southwest – albeit with olive trees here in Spain.

The trip is only 2.5 hours due to the speed of the train. We are served a large and tasty breakfast as part of our train ticket.

In Barcelona, we immediately have smiles on our faces. This is a great, fun city. After checking in at our apartment up the street from Las Ramblas, our first errand is to rent a few Donkey bikes. The weather is sunny and warm. Much more pleasant than the frigid Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (1)cold we experienced while in Madrid. The bicycling is fun and impressively safe in this big city. We bike down Catalunya, walk through the incomparable Las Ramblas, and get on the bikes again for a ride along the marina and waterfront (near the Christopher Columbus statue/tower). We also have great fun riding in the wonderful, historic, kissing street neighborhood of the Barri Gotic (getting lost over and over again, happily).

I would give Barcelona a 6 or 7 regarding bicycling system quality. On the downside for transportation, Barcelona is afflicted with a large number of enormous, hostile streets. Many are 4- and 6-lane one-way roads that have very high car speeds. Even when on a bike lane or protected bike lane, I found bicycling unnerving at times.

Barcelona has many sex shops. Seemingly more than even Amsterdam. We visit the Cathedral of Barcelona for another WOW experience. Outside the Cathedral, we enter a market of vendors selling a dizzying number of Christmas manger figurines. Bizarrely, I notice that on top of one of the vendor carts, there are two male figures squatting to poop. The next morning, I very coincidentally see a posting from a Facebook friend who reports on this strange Catalonian tradition. She reports that “…[f]or at least the past two centuries, the traditional nativity scene in Catalonia has included a character called a caganer. In polite terms, the best translation is ‘the defecator.’ When residents were asked what the tradition is about, they seemed confused and came up with varying answers: ‘It’s typical of Catalonia. Each house buys one for Christmas, I don’t know why (we do it), it’s just a tradition.’ or ‘There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables,’ he said, claiming that the figurine is a symbol of fertility and good fortune.”

Later, after a surprisingly long search, we opt for a restaurant on Plaza Reial (considered by some to be Barcelona’s best-loved porticoed square) after comparison shopping the many restaurant options on the square. Delicious black ink seafood paella and tinto wine.


Wednesday, Dec 6: Our day starts with our stumbling upon a very large demonstration by Barcelonians marching to oppose the separatist efforts by the Catalonians.

We visit three of the most famous Gaudi creations in Barcelona. Today is Bizzaro World, Barcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (29)so we visit Casa Batllo, Casa Milla, and Sagrada Familia. Next, we spend a lot of time bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood (see photo at left). Big smiles on our faces while we ride in this stupendously enjoyable place. Every street beckons us with its charm. I could visit Barcelona, spend weeks doing nothing but walking or bicycling in the Barri Gotic neighborhood, and have the time of my life.

We serendipitously stumble upon ancient, unearthed stone ruins and view them for an hour or so.

Next we enter Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral, which is quite impressive (as are so many European cathedrals).

We walk through an absolutely crushing number of Barcelonians browsing a vendor outdoor sale of a dizzying number of Christmas manger and manger figurines. What is it with the Spanish and mangers (and manger figurines)? We have seen so many of them sold in Spanish towns on our trip. Included was a large set of “pooping boys.” We areBarcelona, Dec 5, 2017 (35) VERY tempted to buy a set today. Especially when we saw a vendor selling pooping famous figures, like Obama, Bob Marley, Trump, etc. They are surely a collectors item. Big crowd of people gathered around this evening to snap photos of them. What an ODD tradition!

Dinner is at the very homey and locals popular Petra restaurant. I have a delicious meal of cod mixed with purple potato gnocchi, pumpkin sauce, and vegetables.

 Day Trip Montserrat

Thursday, Dec 7: We hop on a bus for a guided group tour of the highly popular Montserrat, a “serrated” mountain with an extremely important history – it was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Barcelona.

We see (and learn) much about Barcelona on our bus ride. Montserrat is unusually shrouded in a cloud, which gives it a spooky appearance. At Montserrat, we hike to the San Miguel cross high up on a ridgeline about the town, Impressive views.

Dom and Maggie, Montserrat, Spain. Dec 7, 2017 (33)I then opt to wait in a line for over a half hour to see the highly beloved “Black Madonna” in the Basilica, which was found in the 9th Century and spurred the creation of the Christian community in Montserrat.

After that, Maggie and I enjoy a Tuscan soup, and FOUR (!) complimentary shot glasses of four versions of a very tasty liquor.

The photos I shot while in Montserrat are here.

Back in Barcelona, we happily get on our bicycles for another fun ride experience in the city. Maggie spots a craft beer place, so I insist we stop so I can sample their wares. I try an Espiga (Blackcelona) Imperial Stout. It is extremely tasty. The way an Imperial Stout should taste.

We visit a much-talked-about neighborhood transportation experiment being conducted in Barcelona: The “Superblock.” The Superblock is intended to improve quality of life and reduce air pollution, noise pollution, and safety problems by reducing the amount of car traffic within connected city blocks.

According to a 2017 book I am now reading, Barcelona was substantially failing to meet European Union air quality standards, and car emissions were an important reason. The City learned that 85 percent of its public space in a typical city neighborhood was being consumed by cars. In response, a pilot program has been started to address these problems. Started in 2016, nine city blocks are aggregated into a “superblock.” Within the superblock, car access is strongly limited but not completely prohibited. Car traffic declined within the superblock by 40 percent, which noticeably improved air quality and freeing up a lot of new space for people, cafes and playgrounds.

The Superblock we visited was very interesting. A few of the very large intersections have been retrofitted to include a kiddie playground. Trees in large planters are used to close off street lanes. Single lanes in the Superblock are “sharrows” (lanes where cars and bicycles share the lane safely). It appears that only neighborhood vehicles (how doSuperblock near Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Dec 7, 2017 (63) they regulate that?) and service vehicles are allowed within the Superblock. The Superblock we saw seemed to be relatively “permeable,” which was a fear I had when I first heard of the idea – that a Superblock might be inwardly turning by putting its back to the outside world and creating what amounts to an urban gated community. But the Superblock we saw does allow car, bicycle and walking traffic to pass through.

The Superblock was quiet and seemed very safe for bicycling and walking. But it seemed rather dead and lifeless. Many blank walls and other blank building designs deaden the streets, as do the overly wide streets, overly wide sidewalks, many vacant lots, and overly generous building setbacks. We also did not see any “activating” buildings on the street, such as cafes, bars, restaurants, or retail. No “third places,” in other words. In sum, it appears that the Superblock idea might have some potential over time, but the example we saw in Barcelona seems a long way off of being a great place. For starters, the Superblock needs to have skinny, human-scaled streets and intersections.

We are in search of churros with chocolate sauce, but the THREE places we stop at in the Barri Gotic neighborhood all have very long lines of hungry customers (each place has no seating due to their capacity crowds). We have now seen these long churro lines several times in more than one Spanish city. The Spanish seem to LOVE churros and chocolate!


Friday, Dec 8: We get a very early start because the day before, our Montserrat guide had given us the handy tip that entry to Park Guell – a Gaudi creation – has free entry just before their official morning opening time. Unfortunately for us, the park opens at 8:30 am, not the 8:00 am we were told about. The second misfortune for us this morning is that unbeknownst to us, very steep hill climbing on our bikes will be required to ascend to the park. A tiring way to wake up!

Park Güell, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (41)Curving tile formations are everywhere, as are stone pillars and caverns and caves for this hilltop park. Park Guell is a place where Dr. Suess meets Fred Flinstone. In sum, his Park Guell was very interesting, and in many ways admirable and appropriate.

Gaudi’s building designs in the city outside of the park are certainly remarkable. His design of buildings is worth seeing to check out Bizarre World. It is like being on LSD without taking the drug.

I strongly dislike the modernist (ie, innovation is the imperative) design that Gaudi was a pioneer of. Modernism is a failed paradigm, and in my opinion, Gaudi is a failed architect. We know that because successful design is replicated over and over again (indeed, replication is the biggest compliment that can be paid to a design). When touring Gaudi’s buildings, it is strikingly obvious that almost NONE of his ideas have been replicated. He threw timeless design that has been loved for most of human history out one of his weirdo windows and replaced it with things that are so impractical and unloved that none of it has been replicated.

Gaudi should have stuck to designing parks and leaving buildings alone.

We bicycle back to our apartment along a very nice, tree-lined boulevard. Little did we know that the “Fiasco of the Day” was awaiting us.

After preparing at the apartment for the remainder of our last full day in Spain, we depart for lunch. European door locks have always befuddled me, and this strongly contributed to what is about to happen.

I make it a habit to ALWAYS keep my keys in my pants pocket. But today, I opt to follow Maggie’s habit over the past few days to leave our apartment keys in the keyhole of the backside (inside) of the door. When we move through the first door of our apartment (there are, oddly, two separate lockable doors), I forget to pull the key out of the keyhole to take with us. At the instant our first door shuts behind us, a horrifying thought explodes in my head: OUR KEYS ARE INSIDE THE APARTMENT DOOR!!!!!

There are two huge problems with that. One, our apartment door automatically locks without a key when it shuts behind us. Two, we had been in the habit of locking the outer second door when retiring in the apartment each night. What that meant is that we now had the crushing, slightly panicky realization that we are trapped inside this tiny 2 ft by 3 ft vestibule with locked doors on either side of us! And no keys. Yikes.

Maggie retains her reasoning skills enough to call the hotel proprietor to inform him what has happened.

The first solution tried is to send the cleaning lady to unlock our door. We wait over a half hour for her to arrive. While waiting, I contemplate what we would have done if we had to spend days inside that vestibule prison. Try to break down the door like in those TV detective shows? Resort to cannibalism?

When the cleaning lady arrives, the next awful event occurs. Her key will not open the inner door, since our keys on the other side of the lock are preventing her key from unlocking the door!

We call the proprietor again to report the latest debacle. He informs Maggie we will need to pay for a locksmith, and the locksmith will be both difficult to find due to the holiday this day, and very expensive (due to the holiday). Maggie admirably and firmly points out to him that since we were given no clear instructions about locking the doors, we are not liable for what Dom had stupidly done (forget the keys). Fortunately, the proprietor learns that he will be covered by his insurance.

The locksmith, we are told is 90 minutes away. So we opt to find lunch in the meantime. Unfortunately, we are unable to find an acceptable place before we must return to meet the locksmith. The locksmith arrives, and in a flash he opens the locked door.

For lunch, we visit a highly popular tapas restaurant in the Barri Gotic quarter. The night before, we passed by and I noted with extreme envy that the place was PACKED with happy, hungry tapas costumers. As the Beastie Boys would say, you would have to fight for your right to TAAAAAPAAAAASSSSSSS. Just the way I prefer it! (could anything be more enjoyable?) But this afternoon, the place is nearly empty. We go in anyway and enjoy great tapas.

Happily for us, these lost hours are not a crushing blow, as we had time to burn before starting our last Barcelona experience: the Magic Fountains.

We arrive by the easy-to-use Barcelona metro subway at the Montjuic. Before the show, we marvel at the immensity of the Olympic facilities near the fountain, as well as the splendid and enormous palace that is today a museum. Impressive to what extent the city had put so much time and money and effort into their selection as the 1992 host city for the Olympics. Besides the Olympic facilities, the city actually re-located a number of large industrial operations out of the city.

It probably paid off, as Barcelona, ever since those Olympics and accompanying world exposure, has been a huge draw for millions of tourists throughout the world.

The Magic Fountain show is, as it was when I first saw it eight years ago, quite…well… magical. A masonry wall rings the fountain pool. Unfortunately, while this arrangement accommodated hundreds of Barcelonians as they joined hands and danced to the Dom and Maggie at Magic Fountain, Barcelona. Dec 8, 2017 (12)choreographed colored lights, water, and music, the wall is now roped off, so we did not see much dancing.

On Saturday morning, as we prepare to depart Barcelona and Spain, we find a restaurant in downtown Barcelona that serves us a wonderful breakfast. A fitting farewell to Spain.

The photos I shot while in Barcelona are here.

All in all, we enjoy Spain enough to want to return.

And no, we did not return to a lot of snow in Colorado, as we (actually, just Dom) had hoped. Not a flake of snow has fallen in Boulder for over a month.


Categories: 2011-Present, Adventure by Location, Adventure Chronologically, Beyond North America, By Type of Adventure, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Denmark, Sweden and Germany Trip, Sept 2017

By Dom Nozzi

We arrive at the Denver International Airport at the crazy early hour of 5:00 am. At the security gate, a large man is being told he must remove his stability boot (for an ankle/foot injury). He is not happy. He shouts angrily that he will not remove the boot. He states that underneath the boot is a bloody mess. No matter. A supervisor arrives and informs him he must remove the boot.

The episode reminds me of how America has lost its mind and gone off the deep end regarding safety, which in my view is so patently permeable that it is clearly a form of security theater. I realize that the level of concern for safety will be much more relaxed (ie, more sane and reasonable) in Europe.

Boarding the plane, we passengers sit for an hour with no “pushback” by the plane. Periodically, a flight attendant or pilot informs us that there is a tiny, minor scratch that is being evaluated on the right wing of the plane. It needs to be documented, logged, and photographed so that an engineer in Dallas (!!!) can evaluate it. “We will be underway shortly,” we are promised.

We are then told that the “minor scratch” will scrub the flight. For the first time in my life, we passengers must deboard the plane and board another plane in the airport.

Finally, more than two hours after our flight was scheduled to depart, our new plane (hopefully free of “minor scratches”) lifts off. Fortunately for us, our relatively long (3-hour) layover in Chicago allows us to avoid missing our connection for the flight to Providence RI (where my brother and sister-in-law have generously agreed to host us for the night before our trip to Copenhagen the next day).


Sunday, Sept 24: Our first day in Copenhagen starts as cloudy and muggy but eventually and mercifully became bright and sunny for most of the day. We rent bikes and enjoy seeing the sights.Copenhagen, Sept 24, 2017 (8)

We have a large brunch at a café called – appropriately — Apropos. We find a delicious, broad sampling of many Danish delicacies. The bread and cheese is hearty and tasty.

Dinner is at “Tight” restaurant. I order a HUGE and very tasty vegetarian burger and wash it down with a yummy Dracula Licorice Porter from Estonia.

Impressions from our first day: To begin with, I am disappointed by the large number of cyclists I see who are wearing helmets. When I was here 13 years ago, I don’t think I saw any. Today about 3-4 percent use them. Probably a bad influence from the US, where bicycle helmets are obsessively pushed and aggressively required for all cyclists on all bicycle trips. An effective recipe for perpetuating the myth that cycling is dangerous and unfashionable and inconvenient. Such an overwhelming, crusading pitch to always demand cyclists wear a helmet surely reduces the amount of bicycling in America. Ironic, since many helmet pushers are firmly convinced that increasing helmet use PROMOTES bicycling.

Second, I feel as if the streets and bicycle infrastructure seem a bit more safe and comfortable for cyclists in Copenhagen than in Amsterdam. Amsterdam certainly benefits from a quite large number of cyclists, which provides huge “Safety in Numbers” and sociability benefits, but motorists seem more patient and slow in downtown Copenhagen.

Signage at the Copenhagen airport and within the downtown leaves much to be desired. Signs are either missing or confusing.

Copenhagen, Day 2

Monday, Sept 25: Another pleasant weather day, despite initial worries that the Denmark climate would be cold and wet this time of year.

Disappointed to notice how many overly wide streets are found in Copenhagen, which requires a VERY long crossing time for pedestrians (we were often stranded in the center median because we have insufficient time to cross a very wide street with too many lanes). Also disappointed to notice that Copenhagen does not seem to have countdown crossing signals, so pedestrians don’t know how much time they have to cross.

We find a very affordable, fun, and quite delicious place to have lunch today. Papioren (also known as Street Food) has a large number of food vendors to choose from (about 50?). The foods are very tasty. The prices are very moderate. Seating is indoors or outdoors on long wood picnic tables. The outdoor tables sit along a waterfront. The ambiance, however, is “warehouse.”

We visit the very entertaining Christianshaven neighborhood, which is Copenhagen’s popular counterculture neighborhood. The lifestyle is CLEARLY “alternative” and “utopian” here. For me, it seemed like the Haight-Ashbury of Copenhagen. Here one finds a great many funky homes and businesses, including an enormous number of marijuana vendors. Squatters took over the abandoned military base in the early 70s and have made it a desirable, “rules are different here” kind of place.

Here are the photos I shot while in Copenhagen.


Tuesday, Sept 26: Malmo, slightly more than Copenhagen, is a delightful, safe, and comfortable place to ride a bicycle. The city is home to spectacular, photogenic, medieval Statue parade, Malmo Sweden, Sept 2017 (9)and classical architecture, which is tragically and jarringly juxtaposed in many cases with modernist architecture in buildings next door. The sterilizing, deadening, blank modernist building walls made of glass, metal, or concrete are obliterating the former charm, interest, and lovability of the historic building facades. It is as if the city had great architecture built prior to the 1930s, and then skipped over anything from the 30s through the 60s and lurched right into the utterly failed, hideous, unlovable modernist architecture since the 70s.

I am thrilled to learn in an Internet search of famous food and drink in Sweden that the best beer made by the Swedes consists of about 30 imperial stouts and porters, so of course I have to try three of them during our day trip to Malmo. DELICIOUS!

Here are the photos I shot while in Malmo.

Dusseldorf and Cologne

Wednesday, Sept 27: So far, I find the Danes, Swedes and Germans to be attractive, healthy, and in good shape.

Dusseldorf turns out to be a surprising treat. On another day of pleasant weather, we find that the Old Town has a huge number of heavily used walking streets loaded with outdoor cafes and happy strollers. Dusseldorf had been nearly leveled by the Allies in Dusseldorf, Germany, Sept 2017 (2)WWII, apparently in retaliation for what the Germans did to London, and it shows. Nearly all buildings seem to have been built since 1945. The very few remaining historic buildings are churches, which leads me speculate that perhaps the fighter bomber pilots for the Allies were given strict instructions to avoid bombing churches. Despite the brutal bombing in its past, the city seems to be happy and normal.

 We dine on our first night in Cologne at Brauerei Päffgen. This place is WILD FUN! They keep serving us glasses of beer without our asking, which, we later learn to our joy and amusement, is the tradition at German beer halls. We almost have to beg them to stop serving us. Even the waiters are chugging glasses of beer while they are serving. Very loud, good times, rollicking atmosphere (without the loud music you get in the US). First time I have eaten brotwurst and sauerkraut since I was 12 years old.

In both Dusseldorf and Cologne, we are pleasantly delighted to notice that the beer hall waiters tote around large trays full of several glasses of the same beer in the same 6-8 oz glass. The staff IMMEDIATELY replaces empty beer glasses with a full glass WITHOUT YOUR ASKING THAT THIS BE DONE.  We later learned that the signal for your being finished drinking is to place your beer coaster on top of your glass.

Here are the photos I shot while in Dusseldorf.

Cologne and Bonn

Thursday, September 28, 2017: On the way to the Cologne train station this morning, we take in a few sites in Old Town Cologne. We stop in at the Old City Hall (Rathaus) and then enter what many believe is the most exciting cathedral in Europe: The Cologne Cologne Cathedral, Sept 2017 (34)Cathedral (Dom). Like other German churches, this cathedral is relatively understated and not as bright and colorful as we have grown used to in many Italian churches. The inside, however, is quite impressive given the very tall, soaring ceilings and columns. Cologne Cathedral is an immense, towering, over-the-top-intricate building.

In Cologne we visit a very interesting church that was brutally bombed in WWII. Since then it had been restored by raising walls and installing a new ceiling. Tragically, the intricate colors were not restored and what one sees today is plain vanilla, unadorned concrete butting up against the splendor of the original sections.Bonn, Sept 2017 (2)

Bonn is relatively small but still has many pleasant things to see and do. We rent bicycles and have a lot of fun bicycling for many miles in the Old Town and points south along the Rhein River. We end up having a great time at the Bonn Markt.

Back in Cologne, we enjoy the 18th Century charm of Peter’s Brauhaus beer hall in Cologne over several Kolsch beers. A fun, vibrant place full of happy people.

Here are the photos I shot while in Cologne and Bonn.

Aachen and Cologne

Friday, Sept 29: We train west for a day trip to Aachen. Tragically, Aachen suffered destruction of 80 percent of its city during WWII. Had I known that in advance, I would have opted not to visit. Too much of what we see is awful post-WWII architecture. Much of it needs to be leveled again as it is sterile, dated and not enjoyable to visit as a Aachen Marktplatz, Germany, Sept 2017 (71)pedestrian (or cyclist or motorist). We do visit a few medieval sites that are interesting – particularly the Aachen Cathedral and plaza, which is impressive.

Later that night, we do a pub crawl to several top beer halls in Cologne. Brauhaus Sion, Bierhausen d’r Salzgass, and Beverai Zum Pfaffen.

Aachen makes me realize that the more a city has been destroyed by bombing, the less I am interested in visiting that city. Too much of the lovable, charming architecture has been forever lost. Replaced by post- WWII architecture that is part of the failed era of architecture (roughly the 40s up until the present day).

In many cities in Germany, we notice the sale of “currywurst,” a type of veal sausage. Of course, I have to try one in Aachen.

Here are the photos I shot while in Aachen.


Saturday, Sept 30: We take the high-speed rail from Cologne to Berlin. Unfortunately, we pick a train car that turns out to be the child care train car from Hell. For the entire 4 hours, it seems, each of the 10 or 12 3-4 year old kids were screaming at the top of their lungs in seats next to us.

After a rain-filled ride, we arrive to clear, warm, sunny skies in Berlin. We are there in the late afternoon so we stroll through some awe-inspiring sites in the city center, confident we will return the next day for a more leisurely review. We only have time to check out the Berlin Wall Memorial and the many exhibits about the Nazi and East German history in Berlin. Our first impressions are that Berlin is surprisingly bike-friendly. It is a city full of outdoor cafes and buzzing with energy.

East Berlin is far less sterile in architecture than we expect. Impressive residences and several tree-lined streets.East Berlin, Sept 2017 (13)

Our first effort to find a dinner spot is foiled by the very long line out front. We walk a few blocks looking for an alternative. I spot a very funky, quaint, cool-looking, popular place that does not even have a sign out front of its brick façade. Is this a restaurant or someone’s home? I walk in and eventually get help from the staff. Our meals and drinks were very good. Our appetizer is a smoked tabouli with shrimp. I have a white fish with risotto main dish, which is divine. As is the octopus dish Maggie opts for. Our waiter treats us to complimentary spicy scallop in red sauce. And a round of anise for our end of the bar.

On our ride back home, we experience what I never thought would be possible: A 4-mile bike ride at night in the middle of a very big city felt very safe and comfortable.

Our second day of bicycling in Berlin – October 1 — is cool and drizzly for most of the day. We have a fantastic breakfast at a place in Hackescher Markt, stop at Checkpoint Charlie, Humboldt University, Berliner Cathedral (which is on par with many Italian cathedrals that stunned us in the past), the DDR Museum of life in the Soviet Block (mostly East Berlin), the Memorial of Murdered Jews Museum, Brandenburger Tor Gateway, the Reichstag, and Hitler’s Bunker (I am amazed that it is today a parking lot paved over the site of the bunker).

Berlin is clearly a monumental world class city on par with Rome and Barcelona. On our first night, we accidentally and serendipitously stumble upon an unnamed restaurant that looked charming, hip, and popular. It turns out to be a place called “Night Kitchen.” I have smoked tabouli, white fish risotto, and Maggie again has octopus saute. To be more German, I have a glass of Riesling German wine. Exciting night life here.

Here are the photos I shot while in Berlin.


Monday, October 2: We visit Leipzig in a day of drizzling weather. The town turns out to be much more enjoyable than I had been led to believe by the guidebook I was using. The Leipzig, Germany, Oct 2017 (31)guidebook claims that Leipzig is the most drab of any city in Germany, as so many quaint old buildings have been replaced by bulky box modern). I see less than I had wanted to as we are rushed to catch at 2:15 train back to Berlin (the next train is 3 hours later).

That night, Maggie’s son Ryan leads us on a walking tour of the seedy, grimy, run down part of Berlin, where we stop and a great meal at an Indian restaurant.

Here are the photos I shot while in Leipzig.


Monday, October 3: Our last day for this Europe trip includes a day at Dresden, Germany.

Dresden is a big surprise, as we did not expect anywhere near the splendor that is found there. Stunningly spectacular. One of the most photogenic places I have ever visited. This city has clearly been a capital of an empire in the past. Wish we could have spent more time here.

Dresden was viciously firebombed by Allied forces in WWII, which destroyed nearly the entire collection of spectacular medieval buildings. The controversial American and British bombing of Dresden towards the end of the war killed approximately 25,000 Dresden, Germany, Oct 2017 (24)people, many of whom were civilians, and destroyed the entire city center. After the war restoration work has helped to reconstruct parts of the historic inner city. It is quite impressive to see that a great many of those destroyed buildings have been rebuilt to close to their original splendor. Much of the detailing is no longer there in the newer sections of buildings. Many sterile and unlovably boring and dated modernist buildings have marred the Dresden streetscape in the Old Town. And many gaps remain in the Old Town where bombing destroyed buildings. But the reconstruction effort is nevertheless a job well done.

To bid farewell to Germany, I eat knockworst on a bun with sauerkraut and mustard and a dark Dunkel German beer. I also sample a very interesting, unusual German version of Italian gnocchi, which is mixed with sauerkraut, of all things. That night, I dine on salted raw herring filets with scalloped German potatoes.

Here are the photos I shot while in Dresden.

Germans are relatively fit and attractive. At German restaurants, the meals served tend to be quite hearty and huge in size. In many instances, we notice that bar and beer hall staff drank alcohol while at work. Vonderbar!

All in all, we enjoy Germany enough to want to return. Tops on our list is to spend more time in Berlin.


Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touring Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Belgium, May 2017

By Dom Nozzi

It is Thursday, May 4, 2017. Maggie and I depart Boulder at 8:30 a.m. It is the start of a very long day of travel. First, we fly from Denver to Washington DC. It was not until 1 p.m. the next day that we arrived at our European gateway – Zurich Switzerland.

Iceland airport, May 2017 (1)Our airline – IcelandAir – takes us to their home base in Reykjavik, Iceland. First time I have ever touched land in Iceland. The Iceland landscape from the airport looks barren, volcanic, and treeless. The photos I shot are here.

Unfortunately, IcelandAir loses my luggage on our flight from Reykjavik to Zurich. Despite the fact that Maggie sees my bag being loaded onto the plane in Reykjavik. The consequence for me is that I have no change of clothes for three days. One benefit: It was lightning fast for me to get ready in the morning!

We train to Bern. Like all cities I have visited in Europe, Bern has an impressive, charming old town district. We enjoy strolling the city streets, and learn the old town can easily be seen in less than a day. Our fondness for Bern is tempered by the fact that the Bern Switzerland, May 2017 (42)streets are relatively wide. Most of the streets we walk, therefore, lack the human scale I adore so much in Europe. Here are photos I shot while in Bern.

We are informed by a Geneva, Switzerland friend who has met up with us in Fribourg that Switzerland has suffered a long, terrible drought. That drought comes to an end on our arrival in Switzerland. Saturday morning greets us with a steady, cold rain, which starts before we wake up and ends up being continuous for over 50 hours.

As I often say, if a place is suffering from drought, the effective method for ending the drought is to have Dom Nozzi visit…

On this day, we enjoy touring Fribourg — a very lovely, charming town. We ride the only poop-powered funicular in the world while in Fribourg. Photos I shot in Fribourg can be found here.

We make a quick side trip to Medieval Morat down the road. I find it to be a very nice little town. Fortunately for us, we are mostly able to avoid the rain, as the ramparts we walk along the edge of the city are covered. These are the photos I shot while in Morat.

Entry to Gruyere Switzerland, May 2017 (1)We then tour the town of Gruyere, famous for its cheese. Again, a quite pleasant little town. We are treated to a delicious fondue in the best place in the world to have a fondue. Here we start what will be several consecutive days of eating a lot of cheese. Photos I shot while in Gruyere can be found here.

Lodging for the night is in Chateau-D’Oex at Hotel de Ville. Our ride there by Michael Ronkin, our tour guide today, takes us through lovely, typical Swiss villages and mountain valleys. My Chateau-D’Oex photos are found here.

Our next stop is Montreux, home of the Montreux Rivieria on Lake Geneva and a striking Freddie Mercury statue. Our friend and guide that day – Michael Ronkin – tells us that in 1970, he played in a band that opened for Deep Purple just before that band wrote Smoke on the Water. “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline…” We walk by the new casino that has replaced the one burned down in the early ‘70s, and I start singing the lyrics I have not forgotten since first hearing the song in the early ‘70s, “…some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground. Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky. Smoke on the water. They burned down the gambling house. It died with an awful sound. Funky Claude was running in and out. Pulling kids out the ground. When it all was over, we had to find another place. But Swiss time was running out. It seemed that we would lose the race…We ended up at the Grand Hotel. It was empty, cold and bare…” You can see the photos I shot in Montreux here.

Michael drives us to the small lakeside town of Nyon, where we first walk a bit of the town (here are photos I shot), then board a historic steamboat to ride to Geneva on Lake Geneva. We spoil ourselves by ordering a delicious red wine on the boat, and marvel at the Swiss palaces along the shoreline. Upon arrival, we enjoy a quick walk through Geneva Old Town. These are the photos I shot.

In the early afternoon on Monday, after a brief walk and nice, affordable lunch at a popular Lake Geneva dock-based restaurant, we fly Geneva to Amsterdam on EasyJet. Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, we rent bikes and go for a fun ride on random streets. I love riding in large groups of cyclists. Safety in Numbers is palpable.

We arrive at our apartment, It is a fantastic, two-story abode featuring large, unfinished wood beams.

Tuesday morning finds me ordering goat cheese, spinach, garlic oil, and pine nuts pancakes. We top that off with mini-pancakes smothered in chocolate sauce.

Lunch today is fun and fantastic. Zeppo’s in Amsterdam. It is the first time I have ever sampled raw herring. I gobble down two of them without retching. My friend Michael Dom Nozzi eating raw herring for lunch at Zeppos, Amsterdam, May 2017 (27)Ronkin had informed us that he has lived in the region for 30 years but has never had the courage to sample the Dutch delicacy. It takes me less than a day to beat him to the punch.

This day also includes my first consumption of marijuana (an edible in a brownie) in 39 years, as we stop into an Amsterdam pot shop. I don’t opt to consume enough to get high, but since I last had pot in 1978 and experienced extreme paranoia and hallucinations, I have no idea if even a few crumbs would send me to a mental asylum.

We make the obligatory walk in the Red Light District, where many “ladies of the night” beckon me with winks and hand waves. We also decide to tour the very amusing Sex Museum.

Maggie has eaten too much of her pot brownie and ends up flat on her back on this night. This nixes her much-desired tour of the Anne Frank House. She is too knocked out to get out of bed for dinner, so I have to set out on my own at 10 p.m. for dinner (at a café bar). Latest time of evening I have ever gone to dinner. My photos of Amsterdam can be found here.

On Wednesday, we decide to make a day trip to Utrecht. We find Utrecht to be delightful. I revel in the vibrant atmosphere and the charming, lovable, human-scaled streets and canals.

Our favorite city so far on this trip. My photos of Utrecht are here.

We buy four different cheeses and a hearty bread for our train trip from Amsterdam to Delft.

We happily take advantage of a complimentary meal offered to us by our Delft apartment proprietor at a restaurant across from our apartment.

Delft Markt for breakfast, May 11, 2017 (7)Thursday morning finds us grabbing breakfast and shopping at the big Thursday outdoor market at Markt Square in Delft (my pictures of Delft are here). We bike a bit in Delft and without more to see in Delft, we decide on biking the countryside to visit the beach and then The Hague.

Despite detailed advice from friend Michael Ronkin, we get lost several times, even though we use a numbered bike route map described to us by Michael. Our problem? A huge percentage of bike route numbers are missing. The missing numbers has us guessing several times and ending up biking much further than we need to.

Town center in The Hague is quite bustling, I grab a delicious Queen Bee Stout brewed by a British brewpub in the center. We end up much more quickly getting back to Delft as we mostly abandon the bike map and just follow the motorist street signs back to Delft.

Friday finds us hopping on a train with our bikes from Delft to Gouda. We spend a few hours enjoying Gouda and biking around the small, quaint town. I decide to order a fantastic quadrupel beir and a great carpaccio sandwich for lunch on the main piazza.

We then train to Leiden, which is another charming canal town FULL of cyclists. It warms my heart to see huge numbers of cyclists on major city roads. My Gouda and Leiden photos are here. We then bike 15 miles back to Delft in the late afternoon and early evening through a very stereotypical, delightful Dutch countryside. Our ride Leiden, May 12, 2017 (36)includes the stereotypical Dutch weather: on and off drizzle through much of the ride.

In general, in our time in The Netherlands, we notice that the Dutch start their mornings relatively late. Public outdoor markets and breakfast cafes don’t really open and get started until well after 9 am.

On Saturday, we train from Delft to the Belgian city of Antwerp. Antwerp turns out to be surprisingly impressive. We emerge from exiting the train to arrival in the main train terminal hall. The hall is spectacular. I quickly snap a large number of photos, as do many other arrivals at the hall. My Antwerp photos are here.

Our plan to rent “Blue Bikes,” which would allow us to conveniently use the same card to rent a bike in multiple Belgian cities at a relatively low cost is foiled as we are surprised to learn that the Blue Bikes office is closed on weekends (we arrived on Saturday). Instead, we opt to rent from another company for a few afternoon hours. We head straight for Old Town Center Antwerp and we are immediately immersed in a crowded flow of pedestrians on a large walking street. Our evasive and reflex bicycle skills are tested as we must constantly weave in and out of crowds of walkers.

After a few blocks, we arrive in an area of fantastically ornate medieval buildings and tiny walking streets. Both the large and small streets are full of high-end shopping (one comment I had spotted on the Internet before our arrival stated that this was a woman’s favorite shopping city in the world).

Maggie cannot resist buying a Belgian waffle, so we stop at an outdoor café where she enjoys a delicious version of one. We rush back to the train station where we quickly return our bikes, grab our luggage from the lockers, and arrive at our platform to board a train to the sightseeing powerhouse of Bruges, Belgian.

We walk Bruges at sunset. Over the top charming and huge wow factor. Overwhelmingly picturesque (my photos here). We enjoy dinner at a pleasant place along a canal. Then take a romantic evening horse-drawn carriage tour of the old town sights.

Finished the night at a very local beir joint that has a huge selection of beers. Sampled a lambic for the first time. AWFUL. Also tried a very nice Hawaiian stout. Ended up drinking a good Belgian local Hercule Stout.

We rent bikes in Sunday morning and have an enjoyable day bicycling around town and in the southern suburbs of the city. Belgian drivers seem to be more aggressive and faster near cyclists than in The Netherlands.

We treat ourselves to a pleasant, large lunch where I order a huge steaming pot of mussels (along with fries).

To our great fortune, as we start bicycling again, we stumble upon an ENORMOUS celebration by thousands and thousands of fans of the Bruges soccer team. The Bruges team is to face off, as the #2 team, against the #1 team. We were told by a fan that if the #1 team won, they would win the championship. But, he added, that won’t happen. The Massive fan pep rally before huge Bruges soccer match, May 14, 2017 (60)celebration is a near riot of yelling, singing, loud firecrackers, blue (the team color) smoke flares, and a sea of blue clothing. Shocking how rowdy the fans are in this spectacle of fan support for the team. And this BEFORE the match. Having played high school football, it is difficult for me to imagine the stirring joyfulness the team must experience when the team bus drives into this party.

We get so caught up in the hysteria that we end up watching some of the match later on a pub TV.

Dinner tonight is at The Flemish Pot in Burges. Delicious slow, fresh food. The Flemish eat a LOT of food, so our portions are HUGE.

As I sit at an outdoor café with another delicious Belgian beer and the convivial atmosphere of happy people all around me, I wonder: “Would I prefer living in a place of walkable, compact, convenient, charming, romantic urbanism where the weather tends to be cloudy and damp? Or would I prefer a more sterile, suburban, isolating, boring lifestyle that features sunny and dry weather?” I decide I would lean toward the former.

On Monday, we have a delicious breakfast at Julliette’s in Burges. After fueling up, we climb the 366-step Belfry at the Markt.

We learn to our great dismay – despite what we were told when we called in the US before the trip – that we cannot rent a “Blue Bike” unless we have a Belgian passport.

We train from Burges to Ghent, regretting that we have not lodged in Maastricht rather than Ghent. Rick Steves has given Ghent an average rating, noting that it is a working town without the charm of Burges. But we found many striking buildings and charming medieval buildings in Ghent (my photos of Ghent). We tour the castle (intended more to intimidate local citizens than to protect the city, according to Steves) and I am so impressed by the structure that I shoot quite a few photos.

We chance upon a restaurant which has a fun motto: “We love organic ingredients, local products, and f**king rock and roll. The pizza names are also hilarious. We cannot resist, so we have antipasta and a nice salmon pizza at the restaurant.

After dinner, we select an outdoor café for a Belgian beir. Oddly, we are unable to find a suitable outdoor cafes for beer along the Ghent canals.

I cannot resist the urge to sample Gruut Bruin, a local dark, sweet beir brewed a few blocks away in Ghent. Gruut is made without hops, but instead uses a medieval mix of herbs that brewers call “gruit.” I decide Gruut tastes much more like a beer than I expected. And tastes much better than I expected.

Overall, we find that foods such as yogurts are much less loaded with sugar than they are in the US.

We also discover that Belgians are beir connoisseurs, not tea connoisseurs, as we learn through the fact that all the restaurants and lodging have only Lipton tea.

Throughout Belgian we see a large number of severely pruned large trees. We also note that the great majority of homes and commercial buildings are brick rather than wood.

We start the day with a lovely breakfast at an outdoor café in Ghent. On the way to breakfast, we get lost along the way on our bikes – which just meant we got to see more of Ghent.

We drop off our bikes at the bike rental shop, walk home, collect our luggage, forget our bread and cheese in the fridge, and hop on a tram to the train station.

Our Rail Pass today is taking us to Brussels. This city has a very noticeable “big city” vibe compared to other cities we visit on our tour of Europe. Our apartment is on the third floor, which has us climbing a LONG and narrow wooden spiral staircase to the apartment.

Grand Place — said to be the most beautiful place on earth — is a block away and its tallest tower looms close by outside one of our windows. We stop at a café in the Grand Place to Grand Place at night, Brussels, Belgium, May 16, 2017 (61)map out our city stroll this day. We don’t notice as many cyclists here in this city as we had in previous cities in Belgium and The Netherlands. It is only late in the day that we discover we could have cheaply rented Villo bikes without being local resident “members.”

In general, we find Brussels to be impressive, but too hostile to biking (at least compared to other cities we biked in The Netherlands and Belgium). We end up disliking the Villo bike share system, as the bikes are far too heavy and too commonly out of repair.

Brussels has an impressive number of pedestrians. The city seems very alive, electric and vibrant – particularly at night. We enjoy the many streets closed to bicycling. I personally find the city to be too “Big City” for my taste. That is, streets too big, and distances to destinations too large.

On our first night of sleeping in downtown Brussels, we learn what it is like to be in a “real” city – a city that is, in other words, a 24-hour city. From about 7 p.m. till about 6 a.m., we hear a continuous buzz of talking and socializing outside on the streets.

Looking outside our apartment window upon being awoken, I hear a lot of people talking. Since I could see street buildings, I assume this means it was the early morning breakfast crowds at outdoor cafes. Instead, it was about 2 or 3 in the morning, and the street buildings are visible not due to morning sun but because the streetlights are on. These are my Brussels photos.

On Wednesday, we train Brussels to Leige to Maastricht first thing in the morning. We rent bikes to ride around Maastricht on a very warm day (85 degrees). Maastricht turns out to be an impressive medieval city. Quiet and low-key – particularly compared to 24-hour Brussels. My Maastricht photos are here.

We have a delightful, festive final dinner at Arcadi Café, a 1900-era café in the heart of downtown Brussels (and across the street from a very loud, boisterous art opening). As a Dom Nozzi on Delirium Tremens beer alley, Brussels, May 17, 2017 (2)nightcap, we stumble upon “Delirium Tremens” Alley, which is lined with several connected Brussels bars full of great Belgian beer on tap. I have the infamous Delirium Tremens, and a taste of the black Delirium Nocturnum.

It is always a treat when I am able to freely and legally join wine and beer drinkers in a public street outside of a bar, and this is the scene here in the “Alley.” In nations where I have experienced this, which includes Belgium and Italy, adults are treated like adults and allowed to drink in public streets outside of the bar. By contrast, in America adults are treated like misbehaving children. A form of Nanny State.

Overall, streets are very difficult to navigate in downtown Brussels. As Andres Duany would say, the streets are very “cranky.” They are crooked and stubby and twisting every block. The French street names use what seems like 6 to 8 unpronounceable words, and the names seem to change every block. The street name signs, to compound the problem, are also hard to find, and often too far away to read.

I find myself enviously admiring the strong outdoor café culture in The Netherlands and Belgium. Over and over again we come upon large happy crowds of people enjoying this delightful, convivial, festive scene in the cities of those two nations.

On this trip, I must have drunk over 30 different Belgian beers. The Belgians certainly excel in making high quality beer. A delicious aspect of visiting Belgium.

Water quality in Belgium, as confirmed by how awful the water tasted to us — and what we were told by a waiter — is amongst the worst in the world.

It is no wonder that the Belgians are so avid about brewing beer.




Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sampling Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, April 2017

Maggie and I now make a decision about our next trip based on a “screaming deal” we see for travel prices. Maggie notices that we can fly to, and lodge relatively cheaply in, Puerto Vallarta. That is all we need to know. We are soon on a plane.

It will be my first time spending a meaningful amount of time deep in Mexico.

Our first day is a Tuesday. For an early April date, I immediately notice that this locale is a FURNACE! How can people stand the much hotter conditions in the summer, I wonder?

At the Puerto Vallarta airport, when walking to get bags, one is inundated with THOUSANDS of offers to take a taxi. Taxi and bus service is everywhere. VERY tourist-driven economy.

I also notice, with both trepidation and amusement, that the city buses are very Third World. The bus lacks identifier numbers. Instead, one sees on the windshield a list of major stores the bus serves. The bus is loud, and packed with people — so much so that many are standing in bus stairwell. Also, the bus has no shocks. And seems to have been built in the 1940s.

At first, I see no ability to signal to the driver that we would like to get off at the next stop. Then I hear what sounds like a male whistling to stop. I don’t see any men whistling, and notice that this is the sound that is made when one presses a button to have the bus stop.

Glad we won’t need to just leap off a moving bus like skydivers…

Another Third World trait: We are almost constantly hounded by people hawking tourist trinkets, food, and drink.

Maggie Waddoups at Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (16)Impressive public art is everywhere in Puerto Vallarta. Maybe this town is not so backward after all.

In what we soon learn is a sample of things to come during our time in Puerto Vallarta, we enjoy a very tasty and affordable ceviche for what we make a combination lunch/dinner at a “locals” restaurant/bar.

We discover that “old town” is very fun and vibrant, with nice cobblestone streets, good street dimensions, and a party atmosphere full of music and dancing at night.Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (4)

The main north-south coastal roadway in Puerto Vallarta is an awful, miserable highway to hell. Impossible for pedestrians, dangerous, and full of loud cars and trucks.

Affordability is a pleasant trait of the town. When we were there, $20 USD was about $300 pesos.

On Wednesday, we opt to rent bikes and quickly learn that bicycling is really tough here: zero bike parking, and very hostile roads. The major roads are commonly high-speed and crowded. A great many neighborhood streets feature a lot of bruising cobblestone surfaces – which would be charming if in a compact, walkable area, but are mostly a nuisance when distances require bicycling. To add insult to injury, there are almost no signs informing you of street names.

On Thursday, we take a catamaran on a two-hour ride to the Marietas Islands. We see many dolphins and sting rays breaching the water surface. We also catch a glimpse or two of quite rare whales along the way.

At the islands, we hike along a very scenic beach filled with interesting arched rock formations. From the catamaran, we do a little kayaking and paddle boarding, and a Maggie Waddoups paddleboarding at Marietas Islands, Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (56)little snorkeling. On our way back, it was Booze Cruise time. I had two margaritas, two pina colodas, a salted beer (Mex style), and a Bloody Mary.

On Friday, we have a great breakfast on the beach at La Palapa restaurant. We then walk for several blocks in old town, where we stumble upon a very enjoyable, local produce market.

After several months of urging Maggie to try paragliding (and her saying “NO WAY NO HOW!”), I finally talk her into something safer and approximate: parasailing, which we both try out on the Puerto Vallarta beach.

Delightful.Dom Nozzi parasailing over Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (5)

Soon after, we grab lunch at what most call the best fish tacos in town at Marisma’s Fish Taco stand.

On Saturday, we make our daily trip to Old Town, and today I wonder about how charming the streets must have been before the tourist invasion. Like Cuba?

In general, authentic Mexican food is quite spicy hot. Yet here in Puerto Vallarta, many restaurants we visited often served noticeably mild food. I conclude that this is likely due to the fact that the restaurants do not want to scare off the more mild taste preferences of Americans. A menu today read, for example, something I have never seen on a menu: “Don’t order a dish if you do not know the dish.” Surely a sign of this concern. Too many tourists in the past have surely Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (32)refused to eat a dish when it turned out too spicy, and the restaurant was obligated to dispose of the dish.

Throughout our trip, we notice a curving cobblestone decorative pattern inlaid into public sidewalks. I joke to Maggie that this was a way to humorously mimic the path taken by people staggering home after getting drunk on too much Tequila. I mentioned this to a taxi driver later and he confirms my speculation was true.

We very much enjoy browsing in an open air Saturday market in the public square in Old Town. We sample many delicious breads, cheeses, grains, drinks, pestos, and oils. We wonder why there were not more vendors at this market in a square and guess it is due to pressure from nearby restaurants concerned that they would lose business.Puerto Vallarta Mexico, April 2017 (10)

Late in the afternoon, we enjoy watching four entertainers on the beach spinning upside down from a tall tower while hanging from ropes.

Pinatas are everywhere in Puerto Vallarta. Not sure why this is so.

During our time in Puerto Vallarta, I notice that it seems unusually easy to bargain down prices for goods and services in the community. My speculation: This is a sign that prices are inflated, which makes it likely that vendors are easy to bargain down on their prices, since a lower price is the “reasonable” price.

In our five days here, we drink alcohol like fish. We also eat high quality fish and seafood Dom Nozzi and Maggie Waddoups breakfast in Puerto Vallarta, April 2017 (70)for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.

It turns out to be a bad trip for my glasses: First, I forgot my sunglasses at home, which meant I had no eye protection from the several days of intense sun in Puerto Vallarta. Then, I discover after getting off the plane from Denver to Puerto Vallarta that I had forgotten my reading glasses on the plane. To top it all off, I discover to my extreme annoyance that I had forgotten my back-up pair of reading glasses on the plane from Puerto Vallarta to Denver!

I think I need to have my sunglasses and reading glasses surgically attached to my head…

Here are the photos I shot during the trip.

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Enjoying Five European Countries, May 2014

by Dom Nozzi

Ann and I can hardly believe it. We are with friends in Boulder on Tuesday, April 29th, and will be getting on a plane the next morning. Our first stop is in Rochester NY, where we will join my family in celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday (I have used to create a family tree book as a gift for her). After a few days there, we fly to Amsterdam in The Netherlands, then on to Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Montenegro.

We are excited in anticipation of what will surely be an unforgettable trip to five nations we have never visited before.

It is May 5th. I have survived a nasty, mercifully short-lived stomach virus I contracted in Rochester (which included a fortunately unrealized fear that I’d be nauseous for seven hours in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean). We are on a noticeably quiet train taking us from the Amsterdam airport to the Centraal Station in Old Town Amsterdam. The architecture we see from our train window transitions. First, in the newer, outlying part of Amsterdam, we are given unpleasant views of the almost invariably unlovable modernist architecture of boxes and glass cubes. We know we have arrived in Old Amsterdam when we start noticing the change in architecture toward the timelessly lovable, ornately classic architectural styles of buildings built over 80 years ago.

The older architecture is such a nice change. What a tragedy for what we have built in modern times, however.

In our too-brief couple of days in Amsterdam, we are astounded by the overwhelming amount of charming streets, canals and architecture – as well as the great food — in the town center neighborhoods that surround our Air B & B hotel.

Bicycling, of course, is seemingly engaged in happily by all demographic groups: very young through very old, businessmen and women in suits, elegant ladies in high heels and dresses, very poor through very wealthy. Over the course of our first day, I notice a great many women singing as they bicycle. It is obvious that bicycling is a great way to feel happy.Amsterdam May 2014 (26)

We make the excellent decision to rent bikes and join the thousands of happy Amsterdamers bicycling through their lovely city.

In the late afternoon of our first day, we serendipitously bicycle to a canal bridge where thousands have gathered to enjoy a concert by a symphony orchestra which is performing on a stage floating on the canal at Hermitage.

In our two days in the city, we have an absolute blast bicycling in what amounts to a ballet of bicycling. So many bicyclists that we feel as if we are joining a flowing river of bicyclists. Scooters, cars, and bicyclists are weaving and darting in a dizzying number of directions at intersections – almost without care or worry, as they somehow safely avoid each other. Indeed, during our time in the city, despite this seemingly chaotic mixing on streets, we don’t witness even a single minor fender bender or crash. Safety is truly in numbers. The ballet induces joyful riding without crashing. Check out this video I shot of one intersection I came upon while bicycling in Amsterdam.

A colleague of mine – urban design consultant Victor Dover – has cited his admiration for a street in Amsterdam called Tweede Tuindwarsstraat in his Street Design book. We eventually bicycle to the street and confirm its wonderful, vibrant nature. We join many others in happily eating gelato at an ice cream shop on the street after I’ve shot several photos of the architecture and street dimensions.

Over the course of our 2014 journey in the five European nations, we are relieved to find that most everyone speaks English. I feel shame that like most Americans, I do not, by contrast, speak more than my native language.

As Rick Steves points out in his tour guide for Amsterdam, we notice that many who reside in this city are relatively tall, attractive, and seemingly healthy. Is this any wonder, given how much bicycling (and walking) occurs in Amsterdam?

The next day, May 6th, I set off on my own. I arrive at the festive Leisplein Square, where so much seems to happen in this city. Here one finds the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, a great many restaurants, and lots of lingering people.

I also walk Kalverstraat, the famed pedestrian street in Amsterdam (which seemed a bit antiseptic to me in comparison to the delightful, vibrant rough edges I find elsewhere in the city), the well-known Spui Square, and the extremely popular Dam Square. The walk on this morning also brought me to Anne Frank’s house, and the Flower Market. One of the most interesting (amusing?) things I experienced (as both an observer and a user) was a tiny, simple, low-cost public men’s urinal. The device was a small, green, sheet metal wrap that allowed males to pee very quickly and with just enough privacy (which wasn’t much!) to avoid any embarrassment. A brilliant idea.

Next I stroll the obligatory Red Light District, which was highly entertaining. On very narrow alleys, a large number of sizeable studio windows feature a scantily-clad prostitute – a great many of whom did whatever they could to draw me into their “office.” Most all of them winked, vigorously beckoned me to walk in, or mouthed a welcome to me. I was quite impressed by the fact that a large percentage of them were highly attractive. Had I any interest in using their services (I’ve never been tempted at all throughout my life, for the record), this would certainly be a place I would make a “purchase.” One such alley contained a number of young males who seemed not very happy when I shot a photo of them and the alley.

Later, Ann excitedly informs me that she has boldly asked an artist she had met earlier in the day (who pointed out to her in passing that he had a small boat) to give her a tour of the Amsterdam canals. Surprisingly, he was happy to agree to do that (and later expressed surprise to us that she was so forward about asking). He gives us a fabulous, leisurely guided tour (coupled with his many thoughts about Amsterdam and politics) of the Amsterdam canals at dusk. Our “fee”? We are to provide a picnic meal, which we are of course more than happy to do. The tour was an excellent way to see town center Amsterdam (including another amusing pass through the Red Light District), and the lights at night showed how romantic the city can be (even more so than it already is in daylight). He even provides wine for the three-hour trip.

We start the next day by stepping into a bakery for a superb breakfast sandwich, and a chocolate croissant (Ann feasts on them throughout the trip). We step into a nearby cheese shop and are extremely impressed by the vast quantities of cheese on display – including, of course, Edam cheese, which the Dutch are known for. It is our farewell to Amsterdam.

Here are the photos I shot while in Amsterdam.

We fly to Budapest. Our first stop is the very enjoyable, charming Castle Hill, where our lodging is located. We go to the Royal Palace and the over-the-top ornate Matthias Church. Crossing the Chain Bridge brings us to Pest (Buda is west of the river). Here we find Vaci, which some call the best pedestrian street in the world (I would rate it a 7 out of 10). The architecture is stupendous. The public library, for example, is a beauty that any city would be proud of. We also visit the Synagogue, the gorgeous Budapest Opera House, and Franz Liszt Square.

Budapest is known as a city with perhaps the most impressive collection of natural hot baths in the world (who knew?). The main reason Ann has added Budapest to our itinerary is to enjoy the baths here, and she is not disappointed. We visit Szechenyi Baths (via the Budapest metro subway), which contains an amazing labyrinth of a seemingly endless number of heated baths, saunas, and steam rooms. Visiting these baths ends up being a highly enjoyable experience for us on this day. Ann later concludes that Budapest is now her favorite city in the world.Ann at Szechenyi Baths Budapest May 2014

As I am to notice in the other four nations we visit, a great many of the women in Budapest are highly attractive.

The next day, we walk the “long” way to Pest from our across-the-river hotel over the bridge north of Chain Bridge. We pass by the impressive Hungarian Parliament building on our way to Szabadsag Ter (Liberty Square). Here we find the controversial Soviet monument of liberation (often defaced), and visit the “Great Market” – which is loaded with sellers selling a vast array of goods (although a surprising lack of food diversity).

We buy a loaf of rustic black Hungarian bread, and Hungarian cheese. I can’t resist sampling the Hungarian vino, so I buy a red Hungarian wine for $990 Forints (the Hungarian currency, which is equivalent to about five US dollars). That night, we picnic on the steps of the Royal Palace. Our vantage point gives us an impressively panoramic view of the Danube River and the Budapest skyline lit up at night (including the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge – both of which are superb when lit up). It is the night before the Hungarian Prime Minister is to be crowned for his second term of office on these very palatial grounds.

Here are the photos I shot while in Budapest.

First thing on the following day, we are on a train through the Hungarian countryside. We had wanted to use a train each time we went from city to city (or nation to nation), but were surprised to learn that they are not only much slower than planes, but more expensive. Our train crosses through a portion of Slovekia. Along the way, we see vast acreages of agricultural fields that are brilliantly bright yellow. Later, we learn that this is the “corn” of Hungary. Huge government subsidies seek to promote the production of rapeseed as a way to create more energy independence through bio-diesel. The Hungarian countryside we pass through reminds me very much of my boyhood home region in upstate New York.

We arrive by train in Prague, and on our way to our hotel we stop at what is obviously a local beer hall filled with boisterous, blue collar locals happily drinking pilsner beer. Like the other local beer hall we sample later in Prague, this place is choking with cigarette smoke. It would be my first-ever experience where every single patron (about 40 in the second beer hall) was chain smoking like a chimney. Overall, my assessment of the Czech version of a dark beer is that at least that particular beer is mediocre.

My walk he next morning gives me an unusual experience for town center Prague, as the annual Prague marathon is being run this morning, and there are runners and running booths everywhere. I come upon Nerudova Street, cross the fantastic, pedestrian-only St Charles Bridge, the Tyn Church, the Church of St Nicholas, the Old Town Hall (including the Astronomical Clock), Bethlehem Chapel, the Estate Theatre, the Powder Tower, the Municipal House, and the Church of St James. I am overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture of the buildings in the town center, and cannot stop taking photos.Charles Bridge Prague May 2014 (5)

That night, we are, in effect, robbed by a restaurant we visit for dinner. There is no other way of putting it than to say it was a HUGE rip-off scam operation. Name of the restaurant is “Mystic.” Avoid this place at all costs (although we were to later learn that the place changes its name often – apparently because it strives to avoid losing customers who might see bad reviews). We ask for tap water and are given priced bottled water. Little do we know that the cheap, paper-thin potato chips (about 5 chips) set in a bowl on each table will later cost us three dollars. A mediocre salad cost Ann $13. The waitress brings out a main dish without the cranberry sauce on the menu, so comes back with a bowl of awful creamed berries in a tasteless white cream. To economize, we order only one main dish that we share. We are also hit with the surprise of a large, hidden “service” charge. Total bill: $70 (had each of us ordered a dinner, it would have cost almost $150. When we complain about the terrible, rip-off nature of the meal and ask the waitress if we can speak to the manager, she informs us that the manager will not be there that night or the following night. We then get a sob story from her informing us that if we leave without paying (as we threaten to do), she will be forced to pay the bill herself. Later that night, we learn that the Internet is filled with criticism of the place. One called it a “criminal rip-off.”

Overall, the “Mystic” restaurant offered the worst meal experience I ever had, and, ironically, the most expensive.

In the morning, I walk the west side of the river, and find it almost as impressive as the famous town center of Prague.

Here are the photos I shot while in Prague.

We fly to Split, Croatia from Prague airport. Split has a very Caribbean, tropical ambience. Our first experience is to tour the astonishing Diocletian’s Palace (built by a Roman emperor as a retirement residence – and who was terrified of being assassinated). We stumble upon a pair of acoustic guitar players serenading a crowd at the ancient Peristyle Square. They play a melody of famous American popular songs. Check out this video I shot of the performance.

After the performance, we dine on a very tasty seafood risotto and a tuna steak dinner. I finish the night with a draft pint of dark Czech beer (this time a bit better) at a local pub.

I walk more of Diocletian’s Place first thing the next morning, explore the old neighborhood west of the palace, and circumnavigate Marjan Park further to the west. The park provides great views of Split, the Adriatic sea, and many coastal villages.

Ann opts to have us be given a walking tour by a historian. He informs us of many interesting historical facts about the palace and emperor. We learn, for example, that the main entrance to the palace essentially operates as a human mouse trap. Invaders would naively rush through the open gate and find themselves stopped by a closed gate inside a circular “foyer” area. The gate they rushed through would quickly be sealed shut, and archers would then proceed to fire arrows at the trapped men. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.Peristyle Square Split Croatia May 2014 (2)

Here are the photos I shot while in Split, Croatia.

We ferry to Korcula, an island famed for its wonderful waters and beaches and ancient architecture. A heavy thunderstorm hits on the first night. We are later to learn that this storm system causes major flooding in nearby Bosnia and Serbia, but we somehow don’t see any of this in our later bus crossing into those nations. Because of the rainy, surprisingly cold weather that greets us in Korcula (and is forecast for the next several days), we end our stay in Korcula and opt to go to Dubrovnik. Our brief stay in Korcula, however, gives us enough of a taste of this lovely island to tempt us to want to return.

Here are the photos I shot while in Korcula.

Our bus from Korcula to Dubrovnik is loaded onto a ferry to get us across the water to the mainland. The bus takes us through the Croatian countryside and along the coast. Both are gorgeous. We are rewarded with great views of the islands along the coast that dot the Adriatic sea. The region we pass through is rich with grape vineyards, wineries, olive orchards, fig treess, and oranges. The countryside and coastline have an appearance very much like the Amalfi Coast in Italy, including many treacherous hairpin turns on steep mountain roads. The drive is so scary that I start wondering if cars have plummeted off the cliff to the sure doom of the drivers. Sure enough, just as this thought crosses my mind, I look down to the bottom of the cliff and see a number of crumpled car carcasses.

Dubrovnik immediately signals to us that it is often inundated with tourists, as the port is crowded with cruise ships and the gateway jammed with tour buses. And for good reason. Dubrovnik is shockingly dripping with the charm that only ancient construction can provide.Old Town Dubrovnik May 2014 (3)

I should note here that many of the towns along the Croatian coast are so flooded with tourists that their economies have become distorted. Nearly all jobs are now tourism-related.

In Old Town Dubrovnik, I find alluring swimming holes behind the St John Fort, and immediately alert Ann about them. I hear a commotion of parading, singing, shouting young people who are setting off firecrackers, and learn later that this is the annual celebration of those graduating from school.

We visit the Rector’s Palace, and an amazing display of seafaring artifacts and history at the Maritime Museum. Like many other ancient quarters of towns we visit, old town Dubrovnik is graced with highly polished stone roads and walkways due to the centuries of being walked on by residents. I end the day by strolling along the top of the city fortification walls, which provided spectacular views of old town and the coastline, and had my shooting photos almost non-stop. We stop to enjoy two live music performances. One a band of men, and later a group of girls singing near our hotel.

During our four days in Dubrovnik, we learn why our hotel is called “La Musica.” While there, we were serenaded by lovely classical music played at a neighboring music school.

I opt to buy a van and walking tour of nearby Bay of Kotor and Budva, and my van sets off the next morning. Along the way, the driver points out that the nation we are driving to (Montenegro) is named because the mountains in the region appear black during heavy storms. Montenegro is also the most recent nation created in the world (2006).

Among the many noteworthy features of the Bay of Kotor is the fact that it is so well protected by a very narrow 58 Kotor May 2014waterway throat and surrounding mountains that it was the only community in the region that was not conquered by the mighty Turkish Empire. We also learn that the Bay contains the southernmost fjord in Europe.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Kotor and Budva.

Our final full day in Croatia is spent at the little-known seaside village of Cavtat. A 50-minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik Old Port takes us there. I experience my first-ever kayaking  and swimming in the Adriatic Sea. The water was chilly, but crystal clear.

My maiden kayak voyage on the Adriatic was on a relatively “tippy” kayak, and combined with the sea waves being “pushy,” I felt somewhat ill at ease (despite my many years as a kayaker). But while it felt disconcerting, it just added to the enjoyment of it all.

Here are the photos I shot while in Cavtat.

Our final dinner was a joyful discovery Ann made of the Lady Pi Pi restaurant, which sits perched at the highest point on the top of the old town Dubrovnik city walls. The restaurant, which is named after a female statue that crouches and “pees” into a ceramic bowl as a fountain, offers commanding views of Old Town, and is topped by attractive green grape vines.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Dubrovnik.

Overall, our three weeks touring five nations in Europe was highly pleasant and quite unforgettable. Ann repeatedly noted that she wants to either live in a number of the places we visited, or visit them over and over again.



Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris and Italy (May 2002 & November 2011)

The large Powerpoint viewing screen in front of me, plotting our course across the vast, blue Atlantic Ocean, shows that our Boeing 777 jetliner has finally reached the European land mass after a 6-hour, 3,628-mile journey from JFK in New York.

It is the crack of dawn on April 25th, and the cabin of the plane is silent as most of us continue our transatlantic dozing. Not having ever been to Europe before, I am catching my first glimpse of the continent. Looking down, a warm glow comes over me. There, below us, just as I expect, are small, compact, walkable patches of English towns illuminated by their street lights. Having lived my entire life in America, they did not seem real. They seemed like storybook towns in a Walt Disney movie.

Plymouth lay 40,000 feet under us-a quite fitting first glimpse for me, since Plymouth Rock was the first outpost of the US colonies across the Atlantic fivecenturies ago.

As an information junkie with a continuously inquisitive mind, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Powerpoint data being fed to us in the cabin. The screen gave us, for the entire flight, our altitude, speed, outdoor temperature (-74 degrees! Yikes!!), clock time in Paris (our European airport destination), estimated time of arrival, and a map of where the plane was on a global map. These were all of the statistics I was always nagging the flight attendants about, and it was delightful and rather comforting to be able to see it all in front of me throughout the flight.

Our planned adventure in our two weeks in Europe was absurdly ambitious. We would spend a few days (two of us with our girlfriends, who joined us for the Paris leg only) in Paris, train to Florence for another few days, see the important cities of the Florence region (Pisa, Cinque Terre, Lucca, San Gimignano, and Siena). Train to Venice for a few days. Then train to Rome for a concluding few days before flying home.

Western Europe is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We learn that the jet lag going TO Europe is much worse than returning FROM Europe. Going there, we slept on the plane during the European sleep hours and arrived first thing in the European morning. For our entire trip, the lag simply meant that we were able to stay up later at night (and my insomnia, which has me getting up too early in America, was less of a problem when we needed to get up at what would be ridiculously early hours, EST, while in Europe).

By contrast, the trip back to America meant, for us, arrival late at night, EST-what was 11:30 pm in the US felt like 5:00 am western European time after two weeks there. Back home, it was hard to stay up late, and easy to fall asleep early. The result was weeks of falling asleep during the day, and constantly fighting fatigue.

Originally, the trip to Europe was a group of five of us. Our group flew in three separate planes that converged at slightly different times in Paris (the air travel equivalent to auto-dependent, Single Occupant Vehicle travel that three in our group work professionally to discourage).

Given the recent “9/11” World Trade Center terrorist attack, I made the goofy decision to carry a Swiss Army Knife in my checked luggage. This, of course, was quickly confiscated (meaning that our efforts to cut cheese or uncork European wine was later to become a comical challenge). Because of this, I suppose, I was also asked to remove my sneakers to check for additional contraband. Finding none, I was released.

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the art, architecture, and urban design in our travels. The Italian food was simply outstanding. And for a few dollars, we bought Italian bottles of wine that put any American wines to shame. A pleasant observation: Much more so than in America, a very large percentage of the young men and women in the Italian cities were gorgeous, glamorous, and very physically fit.

Interesting geographic factoids I learned: Paris is at the same latitude as Canada. Rome is the same latitude as New York City.

Having sampled so many high-quality wines in my travels in Paris and Italy, my appreciation for drinking wine every day grew by orders of magnitude.

Interestingly, like Charleston, which I believe is the most walkable city in America, the outstanding, highly walkable cities in Italy (and Paris) contain a large number of NARROW sidewalks.

As a city planner often involved in city design, my expectations for my first trip to Europe were high. I had heard, for many years, about the quaint, walkable wonders of European cities, which made me quite exhilarated about the trip.

I was not disappointed. Paris and the Italian cities we saw were stupendous. Stunning. Spectacular. Europe is a cultural and culinary feast, and we greedily gobbled it up. A good nights’ sleep comes easily after a full day of walking the streets in Europe.

Bored to tears in the Chicago airport on the flight back to Florida, I find and start reading the headline news on page one of USA Today. After getting numerous complaints about noxious air on flights, the cover story says that a study of Boeing jets finds that airborne chemicals from the jet engines are emitted into the cabin of the planes. A group of airline flight attendants, who were experiencing headaches and other ailments, are now suing Boeing and Honeywell over these allegations. The problem is noticed on Boeing MD-80 jets. The aircraft for my flight from Chicago to Orlando: Boeing MD-80. On the plane, I ask the attendants about today’s news. Oddly, they have not heard…

An amusing discovery I make when returning home: I look in all my bags and pockets, and cannot find my keys anywhere. I begin to start assembling duplicate keys for a new key ring. Then, two days later, I put on my sneakers. My foot gets caught because inside are my keys, $50 in cash, and my missing (fortunately electronic) plane tickets. Incredibly, I had walked several miles throughout several crowded Paris and Italian streets with the sneaker dangling from my backpack, flopping around and upside down wildly the entire time. Somehow, dumb luck meant that they did not fall out.

There is a stark contrast between America and Western Europe. In America, we purchase luxury homes (“McMansions”) and luxury cars filled with high-tech gadgets. The insides of our homes and cars are the most luxurious in the world. We work long, stressful hours so that we can buy the latest Lexus, the most impressive suburban home, and most expensive entertainment system. We have essentially turned inward. We are isolated and segregated from our fellow citizens within our private realm of home and car.

We spend enormous amounts of time in our shiny metal boxes-our expensive BMWs and SUVs-stuck in traffic congestion on our gold-plated highways as we angrily battle with our fellow citizens to rush back to our remote, sprawlsville homes after a long day at the office, where we collapse in our moated, cul-de-sac’d cocoons.

When we step outside onto our streetside sidewalk or public park, we encounter what is the most miserable, empty and unpleasant public realm in the developed world.

What I found in Western Europe was stunningly reversed. The insides of homes and cars are noticeably modest. But each time we walked out into the surrounding community (the streets, the sidewalks, the squares-that is, the public realm), we are in a veritable paradise. Outside, there is vibrancy, sociability, a sense of place, a sense of community, people laughing, people having fun. People have “siestas” during the workday.

The public realm in Western Europe-available to all, regardless of economic status or ranking-is stupendous, lively, sociable, picturesque, romantic, and memorable. The streets, sidewalks, and squares are very quaint and human-scaled. You feel wonderfully alive as you walk amongst the large number of friendly residents who are happily outside enjoying their compact, walkable community-a community surrounded by forests and farms, instead of sprawling residential subdivisions and Big Box retail strips. The citizens of European cities enjoy interaction with their community and their fellow citizens, instead of being isolated and cooped up with expensive entertainment equipment inside luxury homes. They enjoy longer, more relaxed, more fun, and more enjoyable breakfasts, lunches and dinners at their countless outdoor cafes that are found throughout their cities.

Americans seek quality of life by working long hours, making lots of money, buying lots of things and then “cocooning” indoors, away from their fellow citizens, who are, by now, strangers to be suspicious of-and to do battle with each day on raging, high-speed arterial roads during the commute to and from work. Europeans have opted for the more relaxed and friendly joys of community life in the public realm. The community is their living room. Each day brings a friendly, serendipitous walk in a sociable, urban Eden.

When it comes to quality of life, the Europeans do it right. The standard of living in America may be higher. But the quality of life in Europe is unmatched.

Our 2 weeks in Europe-my first trip to the continent-started with a few days in Paris. We then trained to Florence to spend a couple of days. From Florence, we rented a car to see Pisa and Lucca. Trained to Cinque Terre. Drove to San Gimignano and Siena. Back in Florence, we trained to Venice for a few days there. We then trained to Rome to enjoy 2 days there.


Paris is the paramount destination in France. It is culturally, artistically and architecturally rich, in an overwhelming way.

Looking down from my plane window, an odd patchwork of rhombus-shaped French farms appeared 11,000 feet below in the crisp and golden glow of morning sunrise. Compared to American farms, the fields in the agricultural areas surrounding metro Paris are long, thin parallelograms. Sleep-deprived but too excited to be sleepy, the farm towns, basking in the morning sun, look like a fairyland of quaint little villages as I peer down.

Huge farms surround Paris. I see no gargantuan, asphalt seas of parking lots. No endless patterns of sprawling residential subdivisions. It is perfectly appropriate, given this lack of auto-oriented sprawl, that the first thing I notice as the plane touches down was a passenger train speeding by near the airport.

As the plane taxies into Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I chuckle as I think to myself about a stunning factoid I have come across recently: The city I am from—Gainesville FL—is a city of approximately 100,000 people. Cosmopolitan Paris, one of the great cities of the world, contains roughly 2.2 million people (10.5 million in the metro area). Yet the geographic size of Gainesville-the number of square miles- exceeds that of Paris! What a testament to the wasteful use of land in America…

An interesting, unfortunate trait, during our 30-minute train ride into the heart of Paris, that we are to notice throughout our European travels, is an immense amount of graffiti that is densely applied to all available walls along the train route-albeit high-quality graffiti.

We arrive at our hotel. Hotel de Lille. The pleasures of Paris are so beckoning that we set down our luggage and immediately set out.

First destination: Notre Dame, the enduring, Gothic symbol of Paris (The construction of Notre Dame began in 1163, and was not completed until 1345.) Out front (photo above right), we are greeted, at place du Parvis, by what was to become a daily scene in our travels. Superlative street life and lively outdoor cafes. Notre Dame is quite impressive. We climb the narrow, claustrophobic, winding marble staircase (another common theme in our travels). Exhausted after climbing the 387 steps, we reach the top of the cathedral and emerge at the rooftop perch of Notre Dame. We are treated to outstanding, panoramic views of the city in all directions. The fierce gargoyles frame the scene in a dramatic, picturesque way as we look out at the heart of the city. Inside, the cathedral soars in dramatic, ornamental fashion with its stained glass windows.

After experiencing Notre Dame, we walk to a very lively, popular outdoor café just across a Siene River bridge. I eat a almond/chocolate crossiant, and sip French wine. It doesn’t get any better than this…

That first night, we walk to Les Ministeres for dinner (Of course, I had to select the “skate wing with raspberry sauce, which sounded irresistible, and was…).

After dinner, we enjoy a walk through Paris neighborhoods-still quite alive and pleasant in the late evening hours. Everywhere we look, there is sumptuous food in windows, at outdoor cafes, at markets and shops. We arrive at the Eiffel Tower. Lit up, it is breathtaking. I am quite surprised by how colossal it appears at its base as you stand underneath it.

The cars in Paris are noteworthy. We notice an almost complete absence of American cars. One popular car we see is one that makes perfect sense in a city where space is at a premium. The “Smart” car looks like a small American car cut in half. We discover that it is so short that it can park perpendicular in a parallel, on-street parking space without protruding into the street. In other words, two Smart cars fit into one standard parking space.

Back at our hotel room, we find our bed barely fits inside our tiny room. Small by American standards, but after all, it is all about what is outside our hotel room…the public realm that awaits us outside is what we’ve come to enjoy.

Breakfast is continental in the basement of the hotel. The basement appears to be catacombs or a dungeon, with its arching, brick ceilings, and absence of windows.

After breakfast, we walk across the Siene to the Louvre. The Louvre is the world’s largest museum (photo above left). It was originally built as a fortress in the 13th Century by Philippe-Auguste, and still boasts an outstanding classical architectural style. Upon arrival at the entrance, however, we are greeted by a controversial design by I.M. Pei, the American architect. It is immediately obvious why the structure elicited so much hostility. It is a very modernistic, glass pyramid that is jarringly out of place with the classical architecture of the building it serves as a gateway to. My only comfort is to realize that such a structure will, in the future, be easy to dismantle and remove.

The Louvre served as the residence of many French kings. The paintings and sculptures within the Louvre had been assembled by various French governments over the past 500 years. Most famously, it contains da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The painting is surrounded by an enormous number of camera-clicking tourists. I feel as if I am observing a crowd trying to get close to a famous rock star for an autograph.

Overall, the artwork inside the Louvre is overwhelming.

We walk to the nearby Palais de Justice (the law courts). There, we find the Sainte-Chapelle. Inside, the ceilings are 40 feet high, and the walls are almost completely covered by a colorful, intricate set of stained glass windows. It was built by King Louis IX in the 13th Century (built to house his most prized possession: what he believed to be the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns).

We also enter the Conciergerie, a luxurious palace built in the 14th Century that later became a prison. During the Reign of Terror from 1793-1794, enemies of the Revolution were brought here. One of the 2,600 prisoners held here before being led to the guillotine was Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”), as well as Robespierre.

Several times, we stroll the famous “Left Bank” along the Siene-only a few blocks from our hotel.

We discover that a large percentage of storefronts in downtown Paris are restaurants or bars. The French, we find, are specialists in preparing mouth-watering fish dishes in the many Paris restaurants.

And unlike in America, we see NO “gaptooths” or tears in the urban fabric of Paris. That is, building facades are not interrupted by “dead zone” surface parking lots. Instead, pedestrians are seamlessly treated to a continuous feast of interesting, lively facades.

There are endless urban design lessons for American planners such as myself when visiting Paris. An example: many interior courtyards, graced with large, ornate wooden doors at their entry, serve as not only wonderful courtyards. They also serve, occasionally, as parking lots. Unlike American lots, which are miserable when cars are parked there and when they are not, these Paris lots are wonderful both when cars are not there AND when cars are there. And they do nothing to harm the urban fabric, since they are hidden behind building facades and doors. Every street, in part because of how the parking is treated, is picturesque. Every Paris street is a delight.

Next morning. Breakfast again in the hotel dungeon. We set off for the Eiffel Tower-the most famous, recognizable Gallic structure in all of Paris.

Eiffel was built by Gustave Eiffel for the World Exhibition (World’s Fair) of 1889, which was held to commemorate the Revolution. It celebrates the centennial of the storming of the Bastille prison.

Almost torn down in 1909, it stands a majestic 1,043 feet tall. The tower contains 7,000 tonnes of steel, bolted together by 2.5 million rivets (photo above right).

We wait for several hours in one of the many seemingly endless lines of tourists waiting to ascend the tower on an elevator. Finally, we reach the elevator, and are lifted to the 2nd platform. There, we must wait several minutes, since the capacity of tourists at the top (third) level has been reached. Once at the top, we are greeted by icy cold (and very strong) winds. But the views! They are magnificent, and make the wait and the windy cold worthwhile.

Next, we stroll to the Pantheon. The Pantheon, built in the 18th century, contains the mausoleums for “the great men of the era of French liberty.” The crypt of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Rousseau, as well as a number of French statesmen and military heroes, rests here in the ornate marble interior of the domed structure.

Palais de Luxembourg and Luxembourg Gardens follows. Gloriously colorful gardens in one of the few large parks in Paris. The palace was built in the 17th Century, and is not open to the public. It houses the French Senate.

On this day, I reach a conclusion: Paris is the most outstanding large city I have ever visited.

On to Champs-Elysees the next morning. A one-mile boulevard originally designed and built in the 1660s. Lined with shops and boutiques, the avenue is teaming with vibrancy and a cosmopolitan character. High-priced fashion is at its most supreme here. Formerly used by the French aristocracy to parade their wealth.

We started at place de la Concorde, built in the 1770s, Paris’s largest and most infamous cobbled public square (the location where the guillotine lopped off 1,343 heads-Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre met their fate here). Here, we find the immense Obelisque de Louqsor, a huge, rose-granite obelisk which was erected in 1883, and dates from the 13th century BC.

We arrive at Arc de Triomphe (photo at left), second only to Eiffel Tower as a Paris landmark. The Arc is a gigantic, 164-foot arch in the middle of the world’s largest traffic roundabout. Originally commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories, the arch was finally finished in the 1830s. The Unknown Soldier of WWI lies at the base of the arch, with a flame that is ceremoniously lit each evening. An underground tunnel is the only way to reach the arch, as trying to cross the several lanes of manic motor vehicles darting around the roundabout is suicide (it is quite frightening to look down from the platform at the top of the arch down to the roundabout, as the cars and trucks weave toward seemingly chaotic destinations in a mass of confusion).

Finally, we take in Musee d’ Orsay, and I am stunned by the spectacle of the dizzying number of the impressionist masterpieces.

We stop at a festive outdoor market which has taken over a street and purchase a hunk of a blend of cheeses (a combination of goat, cow, and sheep milk), and some bread. This we treat ourselves to as we sit at a bench along the Seine.

Lit up at night, the inner plaza of the Louvre is stupendous. As is the National Academy of Music (The Opera House).

On our final day in Paris, we ride a packed train to Versailles, the magnificent, grand extravagance of French royalty-palace of Louis XIV. Versailles was the King’s version of a “hunting lodge.” The palace is so opulent that it led to the outrage which catalyzed the French Revolution. Inside, the rooms of the palace have walls and ceilings filled with Renaissance paintings and sculptures. We walk down the grandiose “Hall of Mirrors,” filled with sparkling chandeliers and site of the Treaty of Versailles (photo at right). Indeed, each room contains a stupendous fireplace and chandelier. The grounds of the palace contain geometric, formal gardens, fountains, pools, and sculptures. There we also view the Cathedrale de Chartres, a breathtaking cathedral using Gothic architecture.

Large numbers of people in Paris have a dog on a leash. In fact, dogs are often welcomed into Paris restaurants (in one case, I observe four happy dogs just inside the doors of a bar).

Roughly, not including our lodging, our expenses in Paris were approximately $60 (Euro dollars) per day.

Florence and the Region

We arrive at the Paris train station for our trip to our next destination: Florence, Italy. Our loading dock for the train is oddly packed with a large battalion of about 100 commando-like soldiers, who boarded our train in full uniform.

We depart Paris on a high-speed “sleeper train” to Florence, hoping we are not heading for the Russian front. Foolishly, I did not think, earlier in the day, to buy much in the way of food for the train trip-passing up all those delicious, open markets in Paris. As a result, I went a full day with nothing more than salad, bread and a small amount of cheese. Involuntary fasting in this land of ancient Catholic piety…

The train ride was quite smooth and quiet, which allow us to get a good few hours of sleep in our cramped, bunk-bed quarters. We awake to a rising sun over the snow-capped Swiss Alps on the horizon. Our first stop is Lusanne, Switzerland. We notice no hand-to-hand combat at the station, and are relieved. The commandos will apparently not be pressing us into bloody battle.

With no food to be had on the train, I desperately and hungrily hope for nourishment at the Lusanne station. But we find no restaurants or vending machines. Euro dollars are not taken, nor are credit cards. One shop is found, but it had just closed two minutes earlier. Without food or water for nearly a day, I began hallucinating. I have cheese, but my knife was confiscated at JFK. In a panic, I start breaking off pieces of cheese with my fingers, and eat voraciously and ravenously. Keeping in the spirit of canine-friendly Paris, we notice there is a poodle and German Shepard being kept in the berth next to ours on the train. Perhaps I should end my vegetarian diet…

Florence is a city that seems to have been constructed as a work of Renaissance art. The city is full of masterpiece sculptures and buildings with highly-detailed ornamentation.

Upon arrival at the Florence train station, we strap on our backpacks and set out for our list of most-desired lodging (it was only in Paris that we had advance lodging reservations). The “must-do” recommendation (it was almost a command) was that we stay at a place called La Scaletta. The friend back in Gainesville has stayed there on his previous trip to Florence, and became convinced that it was unmatched in quality. Our guidebooks agreed.

But how could a place widely recognized as being amongst the most impressive, moderately-priced lodging in Florence have any vacancy? I was silently pessimistic. We had not, after all, made reservations 9 months in advance, and assumed the staff would laugh at us when we asked about vacancy.

Somehow, miraculously, they have one room left, and it was large enough for the 3 of us. An extremely large room, and again moderately priced. The hotel had a feature that we were now well-versed in: a long, winding marble staircase of 101 steps leading to our room. We usually opt, however, to use the tiny elevator up to our 3rd floor room (an elevator so tiny that it barely fit one, yet we sometimes squeezed two and even three into it).

What makes La Scaletta so rewarding? The reason it is THE place to stay in Florence? The hotel possesses a wonderous rooftop garden. During our stay in Florence, we were to frequent this place, as it gave us sunshine and a eye-popping, panoramic view of the Florence skyline. And kept on this rooftop was a tortoise-apparently the hotel pet.

Day One in Florence. We walk to Santa Croce, a Gothic church with very tall ceilings, indescribable stained glass, and containing a number of famous tombs: Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli. The church also contains the most impressive collection of paintings and sculpture of any church in Florence.

Fronting the church is the stupendous Piazza Santa Croce. Overall, the piazzas in Florence, such as Santa Croce, are colossal, monumental expanses.

We were to immediately realize that Florence is apparently the capitol of the world in leather goods. (And the Santa Croce environs seemed to be the leather epicenter, as the piazza was surrounded by countless leather venders.) Knowing this, my fiancé had given me explicit instructions: “If you see a leather jacket for about $50, buy it for me.” We stop at a few vending booths. At one, we spot what appears to be quality jackets that fit the description of what my fiancé is looking for. I let the vendor know what I’m looking for. “I know exactly what your fiancé looks like,” he says, “and I know the jacket that is perfect for her. She will look spectacular in this! Here! Feel the buttery softness of this lambskin jacket.” I tell him my price instructions. We haggle down the price. It is marked at $395. He eventually says he can give it to me for $150 euro dollars. He whips out his calculator. “$120 American dollars! Tell your fiancé that such a jacket could not be found anywhere for $50.” I’m helpless in the face of this rapid-fire salesmanship, and pull out my credit card-realizing that I’ve exceeded my $50 limit.

The next day, by the way, we return to this vendor as one of my travel companions would like to buy a full-length leather jacket. Just for fun, I try on a black leather “bomber” jacket, just to see my look in such a jacket. Mistake. There are now two vendors, and they are all over me like machine-gunning dive bombers. I loudly shout that I have ZERO need for a jacket, since I own a similar one at home, and I therefore have ZERO intention of buying one today. Besides, I’ve already exceeded my $50 limit for my fiances’ jacket!! It does no good. By putting on the jacket, I am doomed. I WILL buy the jacket. “You look absolutely GORGEOUS in that jacket!! GORGEOUS!! It fits you perfectly!! You’re GORGEOUS! Your fiancé will love you!” I have no defense against what is the most impressive display of salesmanship I have ever been subjected to. He whips out his calculator again. The $400 jacket is marked down. “Both this and your fiances’ jacket for $250, which is a great deal that I am giving you only because you were kind enough to buy a jacket from me yesterday!” Suddenly, shockingly, my credit card is out again, and I’m now paying for TWO jackets and my $50 limit is now a distant, forgotten memory, as I ascent to a $250 price for the two.

The most important sales pitch did not come from the salesman, however. While there, another woman was there to buy two jackets. She told me that her friend works at a leather shop. The friend saw the quality and price of the jackets being sold by the vendor, and she was extremely impressed. That was it. I was sold…

Later, I end up buying a lambskin tri-fold wallet I actually needed.

We find ourselves ready to climb the tower next to the Duomo of Florence. Again, the endless, narrow marble stairs. But again, the view from the top is amazingly worth the drudgery of the climb (photo at left). Throughout my stay in Florence, both at the top of the tower and on the streets, I was unable to stop taking photos. Everywhere I looked, I saw things that were urban design gems. Picturesque, human-scaled, quaint, breathtaking.

Our first museum in Florence was Palazzo Vecchio. Contained within are fabulous, immense paintings and sculptures. Also contained within was the Florence city commission auditorium, so large, grand, and filled with sculpture and paintings that it made my Gainesville city commission auditorium back home, by comparison, look like a tiny outhouse.

We visit the center of artistic expression in Florence: The stunning, magnificent Piazza della Signoria is the most astounding piazza in all of Florence. The piazza is lined with a number of quite dramatic sculptures and presents a grandiose view of the surrounding building facades (photo at right). In 1497, it was the venue of the famous “bonfire of the vanities,” at which followers of a fanatical monk heeded his call to toss their worldly goods into the flames (later, this same monk was to be hanged and burned in this piazza, accused of being a heretic…).

Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) is an elegant bridge over the Arno River. It is packed with shops, and was built in 1345 to replace a bridge swept away by a flood. In 1593, the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando I, decided to evict what he believed were unpleasant retailers on the bridge-blacksmiths and butchers. He replaced them with goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewelers. Ever since then, the bridge has been devoted to such retail commerce. The bridge is world-renown for its commerce, which became apparent to us as it was jammed with wall-to-wall tourists and endless display cases of what appeared to be very fine jewelry, not to mention food and leather.

Florence has noticeably more food markets downtown, more wine shops, more leather, and more small retailers, overall, than Paris.

First thing next morning, we are off to Gallery Academia, a curiously plain, modest building given what it holds-the David statue by Michelangelo. David is all that he is billed to be. A stupendous sculpture. The Gallery also contains a number of fascinating, unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo.

The Duomo cathedral in Florence. Completed in 1436, it took 14 years to complete just the dome (which stands 292 feet high), and today, it symbolizes Florence in the same way that the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris (photo above left). We find it to be an enormous spectacle inside.

Beside the Duomo is the Baptistery. Most notable are the bronze-paneled doors. Inside, we found Byzantine art on the ceilings, including scenes depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their expulsion, Hades, the 12 apostles, coffins with the dead descending to hell or ascending to heaven, the final judgment, and the arch angels.

The weather in Florence when we were there in late April, was nearly perfect.

Florence was noticeably more dirty, grimy and noisy than Paris. Enormous platoons of wild-eyed, maniac Italians on scooters and motorcycles-the Florence equivalent to the obnoxious air boats in Florida-form ear-shattering packs that race up and down the Florence streets 24 hours a day.

The streetlife in Florence is nearly 24 hours a day. Even after 10 pm, the streets were alive with fun-loving, sociable people enjoying the evening. And both night and day, the streets are filled with the most sumptuous smells of food imaginable.

There are very few street trees in Florence, unlike Paris.

Sadly, we fail to see the Uffizi Palace. Even though we arrived first thing in the morning to beat the long lines, we failed to realize that on May 1st, the Palace would be closed.

Instead, we walk the beautiful streets. Florence is a city that seems to have been constructed as a work of Renaissance art. The city is full of masterpiece sculptures and buildings with highly-detailed ornamentation.

We rent a Fiat Punto to drive from Florence to towns to our west. Our average speed on the autostrada was 90 mph in order to keep up with the flow of Italian traffic. (Rather harrowing due to the rain and narrow lanes, but when Dom “Mario Andretti” Nozzi took the wheel, he insisted that he should toss out his rear view mirror because “what is behind me…is not important.”) We discover that the highway signage is much clearer about directions than are the signs on American highways-perhaps out of necessity, given the relatively high speeds (and, therefore, the abbreviated reaction time) of Italian drivers.


First stop: Pisa. Perfect weather for shooting photos of the marble bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of… Unfortunately, we did not have the time or patience to wait in the long line at the tower for the opportunity to climb the tower, which has recently been opened again to those wishing to ascend to the top of it (and the courage to do so). The tower stands 179 feet tall. It is now 15 feet out of perpendicular due to its leaning history.


We drive to Lucca. Built as a defensive rampart almost 500 years ago, Lucca was a medieval city built over more ancient Etruscan and Roman settlements. The town turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Medieval in design with a gridded, connected, walkable, compact, Renaissance street layout and character. The entire town is surrounded by a very tall medieval fortification wall built to repel the marauding Florentine hordes of that age. I tell one of my travel companions-a county commissioner-that we need to build such a wall (“A wall to fight against sprawl!”), instead of what is now proposed, which is a “urban service line” on a map. The wall, after all, would be so obvious that even a schoolchild could understand that the city should not sprawl beyond it.

46 miles west of Florence, Lucca is a very quaint, charming town.

Lucca’s surrounding fortification wall is topped by a very romantic paved greenway trail, canopied with a tunnel of trees and filled with community residents out for a stroll, a jog or a bicycle ride. It is a “social condenser” on which the citizens socialize and interact as neighbors with their fellow residents. An extremely rich sense of community is found on this wall. The trail serves as a “serendipity conduit.” It is a perfectly safe, enchanting place for lovers to walk hand-in-hand (photo at right).

Lucca is a city to walk and explore. Surprise awaits at each intersection as you walk down its narrow, medieval streets. With buildings hugging the sidewalks, there is an extremely comfortable sense of enclosure that makes walking the streets delightful-unlike American streets, which are so wide with big parking lots and big setbacks that the rare pedestrian feels unsafe and over-exposed.

Piazza Napoleone in the middle of town is the most perfectly designed square I have ever experienced.

We dine at the Da Leo dei Filli Buralli restaurant. It is superb, authentic, vibrant. The ambience is outstanding. Inside, the authenticity creates problems, as the menu contains no English translations of the menu items. Only able to understand a few of the appetizers on the menu, I mistakenly order a “rigatoni” dish as my 1st course, and a “pasta” dish as my 2nd course. Our waiter laughs and asks, “due”? “Si”, I said. “Due.” He laughs because as it turns out, I had unknowingly ordered two rigatoni dishes. But the basil rigatoni they served me was, by far, the best rigatoni dish I had ever tasted. “I’ll have tre rigatoni!!”

Lucca was, in my opinion, the best city we experienced in Italy.

Cinque Terre

From Lucca and La Spezia, we train to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is five isolated, nearly unreachable coastal villages perched on sea cliffs. Their almost inaccessible location probably explains why they remain so cute, quaint, and walkable. In such a setting, they have been able to largely escape the degradation of being designed for cars and tourists.

The villages were originally built higher up on the cliffs to protect against marauding pirates. In total, the five villages today contain approximately 6,500 residents.

By far, it is best to travel to Cinque Terre by train, which we did.

We arrive in Riomaggiore. Unfortunately, we are greeted by a chilly rain, which must be common for a seaside region. In hopes of waiting out the rain, we have lunch in a tiny town café. We order the pesto pizza and pesto gnocchi’s. They are both outstanding. It is, by far, my biggest lunch meal ever. I gobble down two servings of gnocchi’s and one and a half pizzas.

By the end of lunch, the relentless rain continues, but we refuse to be denied an exploration of Cinque Terre. We set out on the now cobblestoned “Via dell’Amore”path (Walkway of Love) that links the five villages. Looking back toward Riomaggiore as we reach the first bend in the path, the scene is of a dramatically placed little town spilling down from the steep cliff above the sea (photo at left).

Our progression along the path is stopped after Manarola, the second village. A gate blocks the way, suggesting disrepair ahead on the path. Reluctantly, we turn back to seek out lodging for the night.

Both Riomaggiore and Manarola contain vast areas of terraced vineyards and citrus on their steep farm fields, just outside of the pastel-colored buildings of the villages. In a Riomaggiore vineyard, we spot whitewashed wooden figurines built to look like workers in the field. Italian scarecrows?

It is in Riomaggiore that we find a hotel room (the Locanda Hotel) after a great deal of searching and being told that there was no vacancy. But again, our room is very modestly priced at $90 for the 3 of us, and have a third floor window facing the bay, which gives us superb views of the village and the sea. Which means, of course, lots of stairs to climb again. But, oh, what awaits us at the top makes it all worthwhile.

We lay in bed in the early evening with our windows flung open-listening to the pleasant sounds of a small Italian village. Wafting up to us is the sound of happy, animated villagers enjoying life on their cute little streets. No sirens. No leaf blowers. No cars. No helicopters. We are not in Kansas anymore.

For dinner, we sample “fruit of the sea” and “fruit of the vine” at Trattoria Lalampara-excellent village ambience with a grand view of the sea.

The next morning, villagers laugh as they look up to our hotel room and see me dangling my feet from the window (photo at right). Craftsmen below are laying in new cobblestone on a streetside stairway as I watch the locals walking to work.

Soon, I am at an outdoor café enjoying fresh foccacia pizza with tomatoes and oregano.

We are back on the road. This time, it is the rural roads of Tuscany, an extremely picturesque region of central Italy. The hills and farms of Tuscany are covered with rolling fields of wheat, vineyards, and olive trees.

San Gimignano

First stop is the well-preserved medieval town of San Gimignano. Lots of strikingly beautiful towers (originally 72, now 14). Lots of cobblestone streets. Lots of brick archways. And lots of tourists. Indeed, it does not seem like a real town where people live, but more like a theme park. Still, it is worth the visit. At our restaurant, I accidentally order a “Tuscany pate sampler.” Not a dish to order if, like me, you are a vegetarian. Have my first taste-in years (no, wait…ever!!)-of ground goose liver, goat kidneys, sheep intestines…


Siena. City of the Virgin. Founded by Augustus. Another extremely impressive medieval town. Lots of narrow, cobblestoned streets. Stunning vista terminations. Handsome buildings. Countless outdoor cafes. Gigantic churches.

Shockingly, in the summer of 1348, 65,000 residents of Siena died of the plague (The Black Death).

The Siena Duomo is very dramatic, yet inside, is quite dreary with its dark colors. Started in 1200, it was completed in the 1400s. Over 200 busts of popes and Roman Emperors are found inside.

For dinner, we are serenaded by street performers playing Italian songs on an accordion and flute.

Siena, I’m told, has a fantastic, human-scaled street system. Sure enough, the next morning, I am walking the labyrinth of streets in Siena-so narrow at times that I needed to stand sideways to let a car pass. I walk to the edge of the city. Looking out at outlying, sprawling Siena through an archway at the fortification wall of the medieval city, I feel as if I am looking through the gates of hell. The car orientation outside the city is so depressing and America-like outside its walls.

Lit up at night, the Piazza dell Campo-the main piazza of Siena-is magnificent (photo at right). In the morning, I again ascend countless steps (400, actually) to reach the top of the tower (Torre del Mangia) standing over this piazza (364 feet high). The views from here of the terra cotta rooftops of Siena and the outlying Tuscany hills are breathtaking. As I look down into the piazza, I try to imagine the bi-annual spectacle that takes place there. Twice each summer, the “Palio Race” is held there (first held in 1283). It is a mad, wild-eyed, bareback horserace featuring representatives from the 17 neighborhoods of Siena. Each neighborhood has its own trademark flag, and these are paraded before the race. The race is three times around the piazza-which has been covered with dirt for the madness-and lasts approximately 90 seconds. A palio is an embroidered banner, which is the prize for winning the race. That, and the pride of winning the race for the victorious neighborhood. Vast numbers of spectators watch from every imaginable vantage point surrounding the piazza. Someday, before I die, I must go back to observe the spectacle.

We drive like maniacs to return the Fiat in Florence. We catch the train to Venice, and just in the nick of time, as the train pulled out 30 seconds after we boarded. Whew!

Relieved to be on the train, we settle in and start sipping the Riomaggiore Locale Rosso wine we had smuggled aboard (restaurants in Italy tend to serve their “locale” wine as their house wine-and usually for the very affordable price of about $5.


Venice is a city of enchantment. A city built on water. It is a city with extravagant, artistic flair, and intricate architectural details in all its buildings.

The most romantic, picturesque city I have ever experienced. Many call it the most beautiful city in the world.

Filled with outdoor cafes, magnificent churches, magnificent museums and statues, very, very narrow alleys/walkways (so narrow that two people crossing each other on foot must stand sideways to let the other pass) and small canals plied by gondolas.

Our lodging here is at the Hotel Trovatore.

Without cars, Venice is very serene, peaceful and quiet-particularly in comparison to other large Italian cities.

Piazza San Marco is undeniably the center of Venice. In 1797, Napoleon called it “the world’s most beautiful drawing room.” It is the most important piazza of Venice, and contains many of the important attractions of the city. I ascend the San Marco bell tower (this time by elevator, thankfully), and enjoy outstanding views of the piazza and metro Venice.

Our first night there, we notice, to our amusement, that the piazza has 3 to 4 symphony orchestras that seem to be dueling each other as to which can play the most impressively and thereby attract the largest crowds. The music literally fills the piazza.

I visit the Ca’ Rezzonico Baroque mansion, containing the greatest ballroom in all of Venice, and several floors of Renaissance paintings (I am, by now, suffering from “masterpiece fatigue”…).

We have lunch at Piazza San Margareita at the touted Trattoria Pizzeria Antico Capon. I order the spaghetti al pesto and the pizza calzone. Both are delicious. (our “hero,” at left, waiting for his pesto at the Piazza)

Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) is worth a look. Construction started in the 12th century and was finished in the 14th century. It is a Gothic-Renaissance structure using with pink-and-white marble. Below the governing floors are the torture chamber and dungeon/prison.

Inside the dungeon, I am stunned by the thickness of the window-less cell walls. The dreariness of those dark cells must have been unspeakable. Leading into the dungeon from the palace is the “Bridge of Sighs”. Built in the 17th century, it was given this name because condemned prisoners being led to their execution crossed this bridge. It was said that the moans and sighs of the condemned could be heard from the Grand Canal.

In Venice, we frequently wonder about the law of the Mafia-that if we make a mistake, we will “swim with the fishes” later.

Oddly, we were to discover that despite all the delights it holds, Venice restaurants are noteworthy for serving very mediocre breads, compared to other cities in our travels. We were invariably given a basket of stale, cheap buns and slices of bread.

The Riverwalk in San Antonio, in Texas, creates an extremely vibrant, exciting street life atmosphere for that city. It struck me that Venice is a city that is ENTIRELY composed of such river walks.

In my several miles of walking in the neighborhoods of Venice, I was spellbound. In a few hours in one of my mornings there, I shot 3 rolls of film. Every time I turned around, there was a fantastically picturesque view. Walking the narrow streets so wonderfully enclosed by buildings, I felt extremely comfortable. Felt as if I was in a fairy tale. The “outdoor rooms” (the streets, the sidewalks, the squares) of Venice are outstanding.


We take the Venice train to Rome.

Rome has been home to two great empires of the western world: the Roman Empire (now the Roman Ruins) and the Christian Church (The Vatican).

At the Stazione Termini in Rome, we are immediately swarmed upon by hordes of seemingly helpful “tourist guides,” who turn out to be hawking tourists to stay in their hotels in Rome. (The Rome streets contain large hordes of restaurant barkers as well-urging you to sample their delicacies.) One especially articulate and aggressive “guide” directs us to the Daphne B&B, which sounds okay given its modest price and central location.

The B&B starts out as a stunning “small world” experience. Alyssa, the proprietor at the B&B, asks us where we are from. “Florida.” She tells us she used to live there in a city we have probably never heard of. “Gainesville.” Turns out that she graduated from Buchholz High School in Gainesville the same year one of my two travel companions graduated from that school. And her father, who visits the next day while we are there, is an anthropology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, knows my friend and I by name, and played an important role in hiring one of my heroes at UF-Marvin Harris, the anthropologist, who is now dead.

In a scene from “Sparatcus,” one of the classic movies of all time, slave-leader Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas) issues one of the most stirring lines in cinematic history by shouting to the assembled mass of slaves that “we march on Rome TONIGHT!!!!”

So we begin our own version of “marching on Rome” to track down our B&B. I highly recommend the Daphne B&B (named after the famous Apollo and Daphne sculpture at the Borghese). Click here for their web site.

Their price is quite moderate. Their hospitality is quite helpful-particularly for those guests who speak English (and are from Gainesville FL…). And their location puts you within walking distance of most of the important Roman treasures.

My first stop in Rome is, of course, Vatican City. Toured the immense St. Peter’s Basilica, which is gigantic and opulent beyond belief, and is the world’s largest church.

It was overwhelming. The basilica covers 18,100 square yards, is 212 yards in length, and contains a dome (designed by Michelangelo at age 72) which stands 435 feet in height and 138 feet in diameter. In 319, Constantine built the original basilica over the tomb of St. Peter, and the structure stood for over 1,000 years. The current structure was begun in 1506 and not completed until 1626. As I approach the basilica, I am walking across one of Bernini’s masterworks: the monumental Piazza San Pietro, complete with a surrounding colonnade of 284 marble columns and the statues of 140 saints.

From St Peter’s, I at first have trouble locating the Vatican Museum. But I wander in the direction of where my map of Vatican City says the Museum should be. Sure enough, I turn a corner and see a long line on a sidewalk. Found it.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is, of course, exquisite. It took the great man approximately four years to complete his frescoes. By the end of my tour of the Museum, my neck aches from all the time I spend looking up at the masterful ceilings…but like my long, endless climbs of winding stairways in Italy, the aching neck is worthwhile. The Museum contains a startling array of superb art and relics.

We visit the Spanish Steps (photo at upper left), and are amused to observe a film crew filming a scene of three ladies of the night passing two homeless men huddled around a fire. It is one of three film crews we see while in Rome.

The Trevi Fountain is stupendous. We learn later that night that the evening view, when the fountain is lit up, creates a dazzling display as well.

On my own again, I visit the Pantheon. Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt in 120 AD, it is the best preserved building of ancient Rome. The hole at the top of its dome represents the “all-seeing eye of heaven,” and while I am there, rain streams in through the “eye” and falls to the marble floor where I stand. On such days, did the ancients believe that it was a sad day for a weeping God?

The bronze entrance doors are over 1,800 years old, and represent some of the only metal ornamentation in the Pantheon that survived the plundering the building was subjected to by various emperors and popes.

The Piazza Venezia is impressive, and fronts the Palazzo Venezia, also known as the “typewriter” or “wedding cake” because of its appearance. This was Mussolini’s residence.

I tour the ancient Roman Ruins-particularly the imposing Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, and the former site of Circus Maximus (a chariot racetrack that held 300,000 spectators).

Construction of the Colosseum began in 72 AD. At its opening ceremony, over 500 exotic wild animals and hundreds of gladiators died in the arena. The arena held over 50,000 spectators. Still in existence are the below-grade passages where the animals were transported (see above). It occurs to me while looking at the structure from the inside that much of the design techniques used to build the Colosseum are still in use today to construct our contemporary sports stadiums. I try to picture what it must have been like to be a gladiator standing on the floor of the colosseum looking up at the crowd of spectators. It made me shudder.

The three of us go to the spectacular Galleria Borghese. A palace dating to 1613, where the Cardinal Borghese was to show off his incredible collection of art and artifacts. Here, our B&B proprietor suggests we use one of the audio recordings available for rent at museums such as this. The audio describes what you are seeing as you can carry the phone-like device around with you. Turns out they are actually quite informative. A cheap way to rent a tour guide.

Unfortunately, because no umbrellas, cameras, or bags are allowed inside, I wait in line for 30 minutes to check my stuff behind a desk (and then another 15-minute line afterward to retrieve it). As a result, I miss a portion of the gallery as visitors are required to have reservations, and our reservation period runs out of time before I see the entire gallery. I realize that Il Duce would have never tolerated such inefficiency…But nevertheless, what I DID see inside is outstanding.

That night we enjoy dinner with our B&B proprietor and her parents. I discuss deep anthropological theory (cultural materialism) with the father, and soak in the enjoyment of another vibrant outdoor café during our dinner. “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” so we engage in a boisterous discussion about urban design, Italy, politics, and other theories, as we enjoy another delightful meal, this time at the Campo de Fiori. Afterwards, we again sample some Italian gelato at Piazza Navona, said to possess Rome’s best gelato. The gelato place we sample is rated #1 in Rome by the New York Times for its gelato (Il Gelato Di San Crispino – do not miss this place). I sample their pistachio and lemon meringue pie. It is to die for! An amusing feature just outside the gelato shop: “Canine Parking” hooks just outside the door for “parking your dog.”

Campo de Fiori is mostly famous for being the venue of the public burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, who was executed here for heresy, as accused by the Inquisition. His statue in the center looks down upon the square.

It is here, too, that I walk through a very lively outdoor market that is held here each morning.

That morning, I sample a Sicilian-style canola-a favorite pastry my Italian mother made when I was a boy. Scrumptious!

Another day, we are wandering through Piazza Navona, enjoying the animated activity within, and at night, enjoying more delicious Italian wine and pasta at an outdoor café. It is 9 pm, and obvious that downtown Rome is more alive than ever on the streets at such a late weekday hour. The 17th century piazza is quite large, and lined with Baroque palaces. Three fountains grace this piazza. Formerly, it was the site of Emperor Domitian’s stadium. The piazza was built over the ruins of the stadium, which held Roman circus’, jousts, and carnivals.

Overall, it becomes clear to us: Rome was, indeed, NOT built in a day…

This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during my travels in Paris and Italy in 2002:

November 2011 trip to Rome, Florence, Montepulciano, Cortona and Venice

Dom and Ann spend a few wonderful days in Rome, train north to spend a few fabulous days in Florence, train south to spend a few fantastic days in Montepulciano, train north to spend a few lovely days in Cortona, then train north to finish with a few stunning days in Venice.

While in Florence, we had lunch at Trattoria Mario’s, a vibrant, authentic little diner. The food was outstanding, and the staff was fun-loving. Our table gave us an excellent view of the cooks preparing meals in the kitchen. (See photo of the trattoria on the right.) Very close to us, a cook who’s white cook hat said “Romeo” had an enormous slab of Florentine beefsteak that he expertly chopped into steaks with his large, quite sharp meat cleaver. I left to use the restroom, and on my return I find that Ann has been gazing at the chopping so intently that she has been swept into the kitchen area and had a cook’s hat placed on her head by the kitchen cooks. As I walk back to our table, I spot Ann with a big smile on her face in the middle of all of the trattoria cooks. Perhaps the cutest thing I have ever seen.

We both thoroughly enjoyed Montepulciano. I would now call that town my favorite of all the cities and towns I have visited in Italy.

While I know that other ethnicities have admirable traits, as an Italian I am proud to know that Italians are the best in many, many ways. While in Italy, I was reminded that Italians have the best cars, food, gorgeous women (and men), gelato, ancient architecture, wine, art, transit & cities. Molto buona!

However, Italians are second-rate when it comes to music and military might. Everywhere we traveled in Italy, Italians were listening to popular American songs. Very few seemed to listen to Italian music. And the Italian military over the past century shows quite well the old adage that Italians would rather love than fight. Make amore, not guerra!

Ann and I were astounded by the high percentage of Italian women who are drop-dead gorgeous and glamorous. I speculate that one possible explanation for this is a virtuous cycle in Italy: In a culture where beauty is so highly valued (art, cars, architecture, streets, etc.), some women worked very hard to look very, very attractive. This group of women grew to the point where Italy came to have a reputation as a place where beautiful women lived. That attracted even more beautiful women to move to Italy. Many women in Italy who are not beautiful then have roughly two choices to be competitive (i.e., be attractive to men compared to other women, and to be generally admired): (1) Move from Italy because they are unable to compete with the beautiful women in Italy; or (2) Work very, very hard to become beautiful. Both of these factors, over time, have increased the percentage of relatively beautiful women in Italy.

“Pici,” a rustic, homemade, thick and chewy spaghetti pasta is served in a great many restaurants in Tuscany. It is DELICIOUS!

Most Americans have grown up in communities that are utterly awful and unlovable. Huge, high-speed roads everywhere. Giant, deadening asphalt parking lots that create a swiss cheese lunar landscape. Terrible modern architecture. So when I arrive in Italy and walk its medieval, charming, romantic, ancient streets, I am thoroughly joyous by the spectacular beauty all around me. I can hardly believe how wonderful the ancient streets and buildings are to me. And it occurs to me that spending my entire life in the awfulness of American communities means that when I see such charm in Italy, the contrast is so vividly striking — so absolutely night and day – that I am able to thoroughly appreciate what is around me in the Italian town. In other words, it takes a lifetime of living in a world of misery to truly enjoy the unsurpassed charm of these old villages. By contrast, many Italians have lived with this wonderful charm for their entire lives. Do they truly appreciate what they have? Or is the grass always greener somewhere else? Will they fight to protect their lovable communities, or ruinously seek to emulate America?

Here is a YouTube slide show of our trip in Italy in 2011:

Categories: 2001-2010, 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Enchanting Trip to Spain (2009)

Our anticipation of the upcoming, first-ever trip to Spain combines both excitement and regret. Excitement because we are certain Spain will be wonderful. Regret because we learn that the great rock band – U2 – will be playing Barcelona a few days before our arrival in that city. And the fact that Tour de France also passes through Barcelona just before our plane arrives.

Disconcertingly, the trip starts off with stress. At Dulles airport, our check-in lines are moving so glacially slow. People are rudely filling out baggage ID cards at the desk, rather than doing so beforehand, and are practically in need of trucks and cranes to load their seemingly endless number of what looks like 4,000-pound suitcases. If that is not enough, the security line seems to stretch all the way to West Virginia. At DeGaulle airport, we are alarmed to learn, on arrival, that our Barcelona flight leaves in an hour. DeGaulle obligates us to pass through customs and security again. The line is once again endless. We don’t have time for this! I’m very worried.

Somehow, we catch the flight.

I walk from the Barcelona train station to Hotel Continental Placente on the most famous walkway in the world: La Ramblas. Immediately, I notice that the city streets are throbbing and bustling with pedestrians. And the architecture is superb.

A wonderful experience, but I’m disappointed by the many clipped intersections and one-way streets I find as I walk. Oh, well. No place can be perfect. But I can already see that Barcelona is mighty close.

We enjoy a night on La Ramblas, which is filled with happy, festive people. With street-performing buskers and hawkers. We have tapas, Sangria and wine at Irati, and an outdoor café near Placa de Catalyunda – the central transfer point in the heart of Barcelona.

On Monday morning, we sleep extremely soundly. We have complimentary breakfast on a nice outdoor balcony overlooking La Ramblas.

The city is noticeably more quiet than Rome, a city that features screaming, shrieking chaos (not to say it is not wonderful as well, however). Barcelona has a great many traveling by bicycle and scooter. There are many bike paths and bike lanes. The people are noticeably attractive and fit. The central city streets are filled with cafes, which fills me with envy.

Our hotel room is exceptionally gaudy, entirely predictable in the city of Gaudi.

The next day, I am on a train to Pamplona. The train carries a great many Americans who are, like me, destined for the annual spectacle of the Running of the Bulls in that northern town. On the way, our train passes Tarragona, which gives me a brief glimpse of the sparkling Mediterranean.

Heading west into the Spanish countryside, I can’t help but notice something I will observe throughout my two weeks of train trips in Spain: The country is extremely arid – almost desert-like.

When I arrive in Pamplona, I depart the main entrance with what is apparently a bewildered look on my face, as I am accosted by an older, short and chubby Spanish woman, who proceeds to relentlessly plead with me as she holds a small, handwritten cardboard sign saying “room for rent,” and several other words I am unable to decipher.

She nearly screams at me for 20 minutes, but I cannot understand a word she says, except “porto” and “inglese” and “autobus.” Someone standing nearby, though, understands a bit of English and proceeds to try to translate for me. I finally realize that she is offering a reasonably-priced room for me to rent at her home in Pamplona. Being without a room and not looking forward to the prospects of an all-nighter on the unknown Pamplona streets, I recklessly accept. Weeks ago, I had earlier made a reservation at a Pamplona hotel while in the US, but was forced to cancel my reservation and lose my money due to an unforeseen schedule change.

Fear grows in my mind as I follow her on a bus to her home. I’m following an old woman who I’ve never met. We cannot communicate at all. I have no idea where she lives. I have no idea whether anyone at her home speaks English, or whether the home is close by or several miles from town. It turns out that she lives in a newer, more suburban part of town. A long hike, but I decide it is manageable.

After dropping my backpack in my room, I manage to walk to the Pamplona town center. It is a circus. Amusement park Ferris wheels and screaming girls greet me at the entrance to Pamplona. It is 11 pm. Every place I go, streets and bars are crammed with thousands of Spaniards, every single one of which is wearing white slacks, a white shirt, a red scarf and a red sash. I feel nearly naked wearing just a white shirt and kaki shorts WITHOUT red.

The Pamplona town center is a wild orgy of crazed, drunken, dancing, singing celebrants, who will party until dawn in anticipation of the last bull run in this “San Fermin,” the bull-crazed, week-long festival made famous by Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises. Each day of the week, the bulls run at 8 am. Pamplona nights this week all feature, in other words, a 10-hour party till sunrise.

At midnight, I walk back to my rented room and find myself confronted with an unexpected obstacle course. But it is not a gauntlet featuring enraged, stampeding toros. It is an ordeal of Spanish hookers, provocatively dressed and waiting in groups of 10 to 20 at every intersection I pass. They behave like rabid, wild animals (which, in a sense, is part of their profession). Each of them loudly, lewdly beckons me to purchase their “services.” One grabs me roughly by the arm, nearly pulling my arm off, as I briskly try to walk past her. Another boldly and bodily slams herself into me as if she is a Rollerball athlete. She almost knocks me down like a bowling pin.

Having somehow survived the prostitution firing line, I settle into my unknown bed. I find myself walking back to the town center at 4:15 am (not feeling like I got more than 10 seconds of sleep). But it is, after all, only 9 pm in the US. Guidebooks advise Running of the Bulls participants to arrive no later than 6 am to participate or observe.

Earlier, when getting out of bed, I discover to my horror that I have forgotten my running/walking shoes at the Barcelona hotel. I have only sandals here in Pamplona. Can I be crazed enough to run with furious bulls in SANDALS??? Particularly worrisome, at this point, is the fact that the first death to a running bull in 14 years had occurred the day before in the Pamplona streets. In paternalistic America, that would have ended the bull run forever. But here in Spain, the show – the spectacle — goes on…

Forgetting the sandals at the hotel ends up meaning that I am doing miles and miles of walking for the next several days in Spanish streets, as I will not be returning to Barcelona for more than a week. I don’t advise this.

I snare a perfect, elevated vantage point to observe the bull run in the heart of Pamplona. Standing next to an Australian woman (who claims she is not running due to pregnancy), I ask how many have decided not to run, given the death of a young Spaniard by bull goring the day before. She looks down at the street below us, which is crammed with wild-eyed runners in red and white.

“Not many,” she says.

At the last minute, I opt not to run (a decision that few, if any, have made, apparently). Too reckless in sandals not designed for running. And I don’t know what I’m getting into, having not seen the run in person before. I don’t even know how to get onto the street for the run. Do the Pamplona police need to “screen” me to make sure I can sprint? That I am not too drunk?

Next time, I’ll run. Sandals are not conducive to outrunning the fury of thousand-pound steer.

Next time. With Nike sprinter shoes…

Our observation point is not only an excellent vantage point to watch, but 15 minutes before the run we discover that we have the most prized spot in all of Pamplona. A woman on a ladder mounts a Virgin Mary statue and solid silver candle holders in a small alcove in the wall directly below us. She also places a board on the wall showing the flags/insignias of what I guess are neighborhoods or regions in the area (or is it patron saints?).

She lights the candles, and at eight minutes to 8:00, a man in the middle of the anxious throng below us shouts “UNO!! DOS!! TRES!!”, which induces the hundreds gathered around the Virgin/candles/flags to turn toward us. In unison, they sing and chant. Finishing with “EH!! EH!! EH!!” Clearly, the battle cry (and a cry for heavenly protection) before the “run for your life” is to begin. They do this at three distinct times in those eight minutes. Each holds a rolled-up newspaper in a clenched fist as they shout the chant/song. Their newspaper batons vigorously chop up and down – for added emphasis.

When these runners turn and seemingly look up to us from our vantage point in preparation for their chant, I feel as if I am an emperor in his throne, and the “gladiators” are chanting, “For those about to die, we salute you!!!!”

A tight line of policemen has arrived. They link arms — to hold the throng from getting too close to the bull release gate down the street. A bottle rocket is fired at 8:00, signifying the dreaded gate opening. The commencement of the bull charge. The cops strain mightily to hold back the runners. But some runners break through the line and dash toward the madly sprinting cluster of six bulls coming toward them. Apparently, it is a macho right of passage or badge of honor to be the first to meet the charging toros.

The tight clutch of furious bulls dash toward us at blinding speed. They look meaner, beefier and faster than I expect. The runners, who have been bouncing and stretching to prepare for the dash for their lives, part like the Red Sea as the hellish bulls roar by. I can see that for most of the runners, one never actually sees the bulls approaching. All you see are a great, terrified mass of red and white runners sprinting toward you with terrified looks on their eyes. Finally, you peel off and perhaps catch a glimpse of the bulls as they thunder by in the middle of the street.

There are no fatal gorings today, but I walk away astonished by the insane spectacle I have just witnessed.

Heading back to my suburban room, I am struck by the suburban nature of Pamplona’s outskirts. Unlike the charming, lovable, quaint streets of the ancient quarter in the town center, the newer and suburbanized Pamplona is the most awful, punishing, unrewarding highway design I’ve ever experienced. Way too much road capacity, high-speed design and inconvenient, out-of-the-way pathways for pedestrians. Ironically, walking in suburban Pamplona is WAY more dangerous than running with the bulls in the civic-pride-inducing town center.

On my train ride from Pamplona to Alicante, where my spouse is speaking at a conference, I notice that the Spanish countryside contains enormous forests of windmills and solar PVC panels. I am fortunate to be able to sit next to a nice Spanish woman who happens to speak English. She is happy to chat with me about Spain and her experiences in America, which I really enjoyed. She points out that in her brief visits to America, she was struck by how OBESE Americans are, and how big the food portions are when meals are ordered at restaurants. And how many homeless people she saw.

For our first night together in Alicante, my wife and I sit at a pleasant outdoor café at 11:30 pm for dinner. She has long since eaten, but joins me at the café. I order a seafood paella, but the language barrier results in the waiter returning with a huge paella frying pan full of enough food for six. As it turns out, he had thought both of us were ordering the paella. I am famished, though, and eat all the food.

Alicante is bustling with pedestrians day and night, something we are to find in all the Spanish cities we visit. Many charming, medieval, narrow cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes. Again, traits that are shared with the other Spanish town centers we are later to visit. An impressive, hilltop castle looms over the city with what we are told are stunning views. We go to a large, multi-story central indoor food and produce market filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, seafoods and cheeses to buy our train trip lunch.

On the train from Alicante to Valencia, I enjoy fresh Spanish produce (a plum, fig, peach, olives, bread, and affordably delicious red wine). The long-distance trains in Spain (which are mainly in the plain…)(sorry, but I couldn’t resist) tend to be filled nearly to capacity.

We walk a bit of old quarter Valencia and admire the spectacular architecture. We stop at two different cafes for wine and beer (one next to a Baroque building). At a recommended restaurant, we dine on sumptuous black ink paella and marinara paella in the birthplace city of paella. We finish at a tapas bar with glasses of Agua de Valencia (a strong specialty orange drink in Valencia).

Thursday starts with an excellent hotel breakfast featuring deliciously fresh Valencia orange juice. Only later do we discover that the meal is not complimentary but instead comes with a rather steep charge. We reach Plaza de la Reina near our hotel, where we spend a few hours being astonished by the impressive cathedral of Valencia. Here, finally, after a quest that is centuries long, we find the (replica) holy grail. We climb the 207 steps of the bell tower for breathtaking views of the city. A place where Victor Hugo is reported to have proclaimed that he could see 300 bell towers on the horizon. Noteworthy are the many dark blue ceramic-tiled dome roofs on the “skyline.”

We check out the endless (over 1,000) stalls of Mercado Central, and have lunch at an outdoor café just outside this market. I have a seafood salad and wash it down with “horchata,” the famous, sweet Spanish tiger nut milk. Next, we browse the Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, said to be second only to the Prado in Madrid. Curiously, a number of these centuries-old religious paintings show women breastfeeding their child, which I had not seen depicted before in such art.

Back in the old quarter, we visit La Lonja de lu Seda de Valencia – the former Silk Exchange and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the tiny, charming cobblestone streets are impressively showing a bell tower terminating the vista (excellent for photographs). We then go to the nearby National Museum of Ceramics – a former grand palace with extravagantly ornate rooms. In the “entertainment room,” I re-live the history of the room by doing a brief waltz with my spouse, with music accompanying us.

By 9 pm, we conclude the day by settling in, serendipitously, at what turns out to be a tasty, festive outdoor café in a charming, ancient alleyway near our hotel. We order a range of sumptuous dishes of tapas, ensaladas, and fish (along with a bottle of Spanish vino blanco). We all agree that the meal is outstanding.

My spouse and I bid farewell to our outstanding travel companions to embark on our all-night sleeper train from Valencia to Granada. It is 1:00 am when the train departs. The air temperature is still a steamy 81 degrees. I am amazed that I am able to sleep soundly on the train. I pull back the curtain as the light of dawn starts streaming into our car to be greeted by an immense field of bright yellow flowers and the arid Spanish countryside.

Granada, like Alicante and Valencia, has many tiny, romantic, medieval cobblestone streets in its town center. We quickly find a Rick Steve’s-recommended (and very affordable) hotel. Pension Landazuri. We are amazed to see how it is only a stone’s throw from the world-renowned Alhambra, which looms over the hotel on a hilltop. The hotel has a rooftop sitting area which we vow to use later. First thing next morning, we grab a quick breakfast at a nearby café, which unfortunately does not serve breakfast food. To our horror and gastronomical disgust, the sandwiches we order contain big wads of mayonnaise, which sits unpleasantly in our bellies for most of the day. Enviously, we see a nearby couple enjoying what appears to be a delicious bowl of fruit.

Despite the sandwich blunder, we then have a very pleasant and romantic stroll in the tiny cobblestone streets of the Alaycin neighborhood. Former stronghold of the Moorish and Gypsy dancers, and now mostly home to modern-day hippies.

Here, we find the St. Nicholas viewpoint, which provides a grand view of Alhambra, one of Europe’s great gems. As we walk back to the hotel, I can’t stop shooting photos of the wonderful little twisting labyrinth of streets. We arrive at Alhambra and enjoy the formal gardens and castle-like hedges. At 3:00, the assigned time on our tickets, we tour the stunning stalactite intricacies of Placios Nazaries. Afterwards, we check out Charles V palace and the Alcazaba fort.

To top off the visit, we find a café for some ice-cold Sangrias. For “dinner,” we dine at Bodegas Castaneda, a bustling tapas bar where we sample a vino tinto fermented on the premises. We are given some tapas gratis, but I also order a trout avocet (raw trout) and sea mussels. I must admit that the raw trout is a taste that takes some getting used to…

To finish the day in style, we join hundreds of others at the San Nicolas viewpoint plaza to watch the drama of the sun setting on Alhambra.

Earlier in the day, we stroll Paseo de lost Tristes – a narrow walkway along the Darro River. Multiple times on our strolls in Albaycin, we are enchanted by this ground-zero locale for hippies and gypsies: Calle Caldereria Nueva, a narrow, winding passageway crammed with tiny shops (teterias). It is a colorful, Turkish-like feeling that seems to suggest to us that we are in Morocco, not Spain.

We hear no sirens in Granada or Valencia, thereby giving us peaceful, restful sleep.

We start Saturday at Plaza de Bib-Rambla, formerly a site for public executions. We dine on very fresh melon. Next, we take in a 90-minute Arabic bath/steamroom/aromatherapy – the Arabian version of the Turkish bath. Later, our recommended lunch café doesn’t open until 1:00, so we naively think a clever strategy is to explore the maze of Alcajceria – tiny shopping streets jammed with silk and jewelry merchants. Very festive. But the displays make me dizzy. We soon discover our mistake, however. Lunch doesn’t open for five minutes, so we check out the situation with the chapel and cathedral (our next planned destination). We are heartbroken. They are closed from 1:30 till 4:00 due to siesta! We will miss the chapel, as our train departs at 4:30. We opt to rush to the cathedral, which is spectacularly immense and decoratively gilded. We spend 30 minutes gawking with our mouths open and our heads tilted back. Granada concludes at Restaurante Sevilla – serving the obligatory yet still delicious paella.

One thing we learn in our Spain travels: The Spaniards, like many in Europe, start relatively late in the morning. Many siesta in the early to late afternoon (when the sun is at its blazing hottest). Then eat, drink, stroll and party till late.

Sevilla, our next destination, is immediately striking. We taxi to an affordable hotel from the train station. The hotel is in the heart of the medieval quarter, where we insist on being in all the cities we visit. We start out for a drink and quickly find ourselves on a “tapas bar crawl” (or “tapas tango”) – sampling some of the best watering holes in Sevilla, which for us includes a delicious gazpacho soup.

We pass “kissing streets” – streets so narrow that a couple can kiss from windows in buildings facing each other across the street. At Plaza Santa Cruz, we saunter along an exceptionally romantic, uplit, ancient stone walled street. It is quiet, peaceful and warm. The sounds of Flamenco guitar serenades us as we walk.

Then suddenly, it is upon us. Striking. Intimidating. Spectacular. Enormous. The world’s largest gothic cathedral TOWERS over us in its uplit nighttime splendor. I am humbled and awed by it. Shocked by its immensity. Inside, as we gawk, we are a bit surprised to see a group of miners, who are on the 25th day of a hunger strike, camped out inside the cathedral.

We breakfast on churros (fried dough), eat endless amounts of paella, and drink endless gallons of Sangria – at least once with a Spanish acoustic guitar and singing during our lunch. We tour Alacazar in Sevilla. Stupendous! We amble through the cathedral and gape in utter amazement at the huge spaces and silver/black intricacies of the ornamentation inside.

Afterwards, a cold shower and siesta is just what the doctor ordered. How hot is it in Spain? In Sevilla and other cities we visit in Spain, handheld fans are sold EVERYWHERE. We find ourselves showering three or four times each day.

Unfortunately, in combination with these furnace-like conditions, Spain has a characteristic shared by other parts of Europe that makes for an uncomfortable, expensive, dehydrating situation in summer months. Unlike in the US, where restaurants always provide endless amounts of icewater gratis, and drinking fountains are found everywhere, Spain’s restaurants only provide water when bottled water is ordered (at a fairly steep price). And drinking fountains are almost never found anywhere. One result is that the visitor ends of drinking a lot of (relatively expensive) bottled water and cold wine.

Our high-speed rail arrives at the handsome Toledo train station at 4:30 pm. Fortune is with us, as we quickly find the bus that takes us to the Plaza Zocodover – the center of Toledo – and we soon learn that our top choice for a hotel has vacancy. We tour one of Europe’s great cathedrals nearby and hop on the “tacky tourist train” for a very interesting and impressive look at the river, fortification walls, town gates, aqueducts, and the ancient buildings surrounding the city. We soon discover why Toledo is known as the largest outdoor museum in the world.

Inside the cathedral, we learn that holy Cardinals are able to choose where they’d like to be buried inside the cathedral. Most are entombed under the floor, covered by a rectangular brass plate. Their red velvet brimmed bonnet is hung from the ceiling above their tomb until it rots away.

In Toledo, cafes are noticeably and surprisingly scarce – at least compared to other Spanish cities we visit. I speculate this is partly due to the lack of plaza space in this tightly compact and ancient city.

In our travels, and including in Toledo, we notice that nearly all bars and restaurants proudly hang a great many pigs legs from their ceiling, with tiny plastic umbrellas under the legs to catch dripping oil. We also find in our tour that Spain has so many olive trees in the countryside that I wonder if there are ANY trees in Spain besides olive trees.

Tuesday in Toledo is “El Greco” day for us. We inspect the Santa Cruz museum, which contains an impressive collection of El Greco’s work. I notice that an El Greco trademark is to have the eyes of his subjects gazing in fascinating, curious, contemplative ways. In Santo Tome, we see his most beloved masterpiece. “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” which El Greco himself placed in this wall location over 400 years ago. At Santa Cruz, we see El Greco’s famed “Assumption of Mary.”

We high-speed train back to Madrid and taxi to our luxury hotel (thanks to an irresistible deal I had found via TravelZoo a month or so ago). In Madrid, we set out for the Royal Palace (said to be one of the most spectacular in all of Europe). We walk the pedestrianized, car-free Calle Arenal, and stop at a side street café for two large, refreshing glasses of Sangria. Next, we find our way to the large, cobblestoned Plaza Mayor, built in 1609. Each of the four sides of this square is flanked by continuous, multi-story buildings to allow the plaza to form a large outdoor room. Moorish archways permit access to each of the four sides. At the center is Philip II on horseback, who ordered the construction of the plaza. The history of the plaza reads like the history of Spain. Here, over the centuries, there were bullfights, royalty and the execution of heretics by the dreaded Spanish Inquisition (which, Pythoners know, nobody expects). Next, we enter the palace – which contains an astonishing display of utter, unfettered royal extravagance (the dining room table, for example is as long as a lane in a bowling alley). There is even a solid silver baby rattle in one of the sumptuous rooms.

We make our way to the old quarter where we arrive at the Prado – one of the greatest museums on earth. Afterwards, we dine at the bustling, enjoyable, breezy La Plateria Bar Museo, where I enjoy an outstanding baked codfish.

On Wednesday, we drop our bags at the train station in the morning, and then walk through the huge and pleasant Parque de Madrid on our way to the Navel Museum – an extremely impressive display for a place without an admission fee. We then head for the old quarter, passing a few exceptionally lively pedestrianized streets on our way to lunch at Plaza Mayor. We chat with an Argentine fellow sitting next to us, who generously keeps filling my glass with his vino tinto. We finish our Madrid visit with a walk through the museum holding the famed Picasso masterpiece – Guernica.

Soon, we are on the train being whisked to Barcelona, but our train mysteriously stops for a long time (3.5 hours, to be exact) in Guadulajara. Finally, we see several passengers get off the train. We don’t know why, as the train announcements and passenger comments are in Spanish. Almost no one speaks English – passenger or train crew – but I somehow find a cook on the food car who speaks some English. Turns out that there is a large forest fire (which we learned later had killed about 60 people) 80 km ahead of where we stopped along with three other trains. The train company, impressively, comes up with a plan to transfer the passengers by bus to the Madrid airport, where our bus ticket will allow us to board flights to Barcelona. It was a bit of a miracle that we actually learned of the plan, due to the lack of English-speaking around us. Our “high-speed” train, therefore, turns out to be turtle slow. Our arrival in Barcelona, originally scheduled for 7:30 pm, will now be a flight getting us there by 1:00 am. In the US, of course, this sort of passenger transfer would have never happened. We’d have ended up sleeping in the train overnight, then getting stuck in traffic gridlock on our way to being dumped in, say, a Toledo (Ohio) Wal-Mart late the next day. And needing to hitch-hike to get to a Burger King restaurant for a meal.

It is Thursday morning, and we are on a short walk from our La Ramblas-flanking hotel to the ancient quarter and cathedral. The miniature streets in the Barri Gotic neighborhood are filled with quaint little retail shops. I walk La Ramblas a few times, marveling at how much the pathway is filled with happy people. And how much I enjoy that feeling. Throughout the day, we gaze out on La Ramblas from our hotel balcony.

For lunch, we buy delicious, fresh food at La Boqueria Market – a place filled with fresh veggies, fruits, meats, and cheeses. The vendors and customers are animated by it all. We stop at Plaza del Rei next to the Royal Palace to enjoy a symphony warming up, then stroll to Placa De LaSeu, where we accidentally stumble upon a famous “Sardana” dance. This dance is a patriotic circle dance demonstrating Catalan unity – and led by a small brass band. We arrive too late to join in, sadly.

For dinner, we opt for the Rick Steves suggestion of La Plata, a small, simple, highly authentic local tapas bar, where we are served delicious plates of fried sardines and their freshly fermented vino tinto. A couple near us suggest another local favorite nearby, Bodega La Palma (on La Palma de Sant Just). Our cod tapa, and a red pepper and goat cheese tapa are out of this world, as is the fermented-on-premises dry (seako) vino tinto.

Just fabulous.

We then decide to walk to the nightly “Magic Fountains” music display in the extremely large Parc de Montjuic. To get there, we follow a recommended walking route shown on our Barcelona map which, oddly, takes us through some rather seedy, scary areas. The fountains, on most evenings, show their magic starting at 10 pm. Huge, powerful fountain streams, jets and mists shoot large amounts of water into the air, which is highlighted by multiple floodlight colors. And creating what looks like a cosmic fireworks display. Thousands have assembled to watch the show this night, which is accompanied by Spanish and American music. Spontaneously, we follow hundreds who have joined arms and hands in a large ring around the fountain. We dance, wave arms, sing and shout to the water, colors and music. A thrilling, community-building experience.

The fountains are at the center of a grand axis. At one end is the monumental Montjuic National Palace. At the other end is Placa d’ Espanya. The corridor formed creates a very grand entrance to the recently completed Olympic stadium.

We depart back to the hotel riding the Barcelona metro train – an extremely transparent, easy-to-use system, even for greenhorns like us who don’t speak Spanish. On Friday morning, our last full day in Spain, we metro to “Funicular,” which transports us to Montjuic (Mount of the Jews), formerly a fortress/castle. Because it was built in the 18th Century to watch over the city and subdue citizen revolt, today we enjoy grandly panoramic views of Barcelona. Franco also executed many political prisoners here, we learn. Afterwards, we walk through the Parc de Montjuic. Back at the Barri Gotic neighborhood, we find the vegan Juicy Jones café, and have splendidly fresh juices, superb sandwiches and incredibly delicious bread.

We siesta back at the hotel for a few hours after enjoying a glass of vino tinto we had bought the day before. We saunter along the “Block of Discord” on Passeig De Garcia – so named because it contains 19th-century building facades trying to out-compete each other as modernist “look-at-me” architecture. Gaudi’s Casa Batllo has a convoluted roof that looks like the back of a dragon. A short distance away, Gaudi assaults us again with Casa Mila, which is said to mimic melting ice cream with its eaves. The balcony ironwork appears to be cobbled together scrap metal that has been shredded and assembled into a chaotic, twisted confusion.

Finally, we come upon the amazing Sagrada Familia (holy family church) by Gaudi. The famed architect spent 45 years designing this modernist effort to be as memorable and lovable as the medieval cathedrals found throughout Spain and Europe. In my opinion, the blocky, relatively austere and only moderately ornamental façade (with its soaring towers) fails to do so. I believe that 500 years from now, the medieval cathedrals will remain lovable sources of pride, while Familia is forgotten (or laughed at).

We metro back to the Sagardi tapas bar in Barri Gotic. This bar is packed with festive people. And for good reason. The tapas are endless in variety and quantity as they sit crammed along a lengthy bar. The vino tinto is, as is so typical in Spain, delicious.

Arriving back at our hotel at midnight, we share a few more glasses of vino on our balcony as we overlook the playful, noisy La Ramblas on our last night in Barcelona and Spain.

I spend a last hour on La Ramblas the next day. A Flamenco dancer smiles and dances next to me. I sit eating my lunch of fresh oatmeal bread, fried octopus and fried squid. I walk the tiny streets one more time to the cathedral and sip the last of my vino. Walking the street toward Plaza Catalunya, I look back and marvel at the grand buildings and sea of pedestrians before me.

What a city.

What a nation.

This link brings you to a YouTube video I created by using the photos I shot during my travels in Spain:

Categories: 2001-2010, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Southwest Italy and Sicily (November 2006)

Destination: Italy, south of Rome. We understand that a stronger, more genuine dose of Italy is to be found here. We decide to avoid the hot summer days and the throng of tourists by delaying our trip from summer to late fall. We are to arrive in Rome on the morning of November 18th.

But as we pass through airports on our way to Rome, every newspaper, TV show, and magazine has screaming, media-frenzy, headline CNN news. World-wide mega-movie star Tom Cruise to marry Kate Holmes.

On the day of their wedding, they are staying in a hotel.

On November 18th.

In Rome.

A few blocks from our bed and breakfast.


We press on. Celebrity craze be damned. A brief tour of Rome, as Maureen has not visited this great city before. We opt for a guided tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum, because it puts us at the head of the long tourist line. The decision is a good one, as we learn quite a bit from our guide.

If only our guide was with us as we walked the streets of Rome, as many of them are unnamed, which makes life perplexing and adds to walking mileage due to getting lost in search of destinations.

Late on our first day in Rome, we are relieved to have somehow avoided the “TomKat” wedding spectacle. But as we walk from the Forum back to our bed and breakfast (the Daphne, which is affordable, with very nice rooms, nice staff, and in the heart of historic Rome), we come upon a large group of gawkers. Sure enough, we look up the street to see a long procession of cars with headlights on, and a helicopter hovering above.

First thing next morning, we hop a quiet Eurostar luxury train to head for Napoli. Mountains flank us on both sides as our train whisks us to the west coast. Napoli, we learn, is intense, dirty and grimy. We quickly find the old medieval quarter with its narrow, flag-stoned streets and its splendidly ornate building architecture. The streets and alleys, as we are to learn over the course of our travels in Italy, are jammed with small, recklessly racing cars and scooters (indeed, more scooters than cars).

While we have escaped the TomKat crowds and are out of tourist season, we have forgotten about something else this time of year.

Local winter holiday shoppers.

The street markets in old town Napoli are alive and filled with bustling shoppers and sellers hawking their fresh, authentic Italian produce. I feel exhilaration as I stroll. Without tourists, we experience the real Italian market scene. Everyone is Italian and speaking the language and selling local products.

One thing I particularly enjoy about the Italians (myself included) is that much more so than other peoples I have experienced, the Italians clearly enjoy speaking their colorful, romantic language. They relish exaggerating consonants. Emphasizing verbs. Highlighting their accents. They are physically animated when they speak with a big smile on their faces. “Arrividerrrrrrrrrrrrciiiiiiiii!!!!!!”

The side streets are jammed with peddlers and cafes. Because nearly all streets are narrow, flagstone, and filled with ancient buildings, walks are romantic and the cities are charming.

We notice that a great many Italians practice a simple form of using solar energy. Nearly all residential balconies double as clotheslines.

In Napoli, as in the rest of our travels in southern Italy, the homemade pizza, homemade pasta, and the vino de la cassa rosso (the local red house wine) are delicious. And affordable.

Next stop for us is a train to Sorrento along the coast. Sorrento is ritzy, tropical, and much like Key West Florida in character. A pleasant, worthwhile town to visit. We find a great many Americans here on vacation.

We hop a train to Pompeii. An ancient Roman city frozen in time because it was abruptly covered in hot ash by the explosive eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. An absolutely fascinating experience. We walk the extremely well-preserved stone streets and feel as if we are citizens of the ancient city (see photo at left). Even the buildings are preserved quite well. We enter a Pompeii brothel which still has rooms for “clients”, complete with stone beds and stone pillows. And walls containing frescoes showing various sex scenes (a pictorial menu with prices?).

A “Bachelor Pad” (House of the Vetti) we come to is extremely interesting. Inside, one can clearly see a fresco of man with an enormous penis, next to a scale containing money. Meaning: Only with a balance of fertility and money will you have abundance.

The plaster casts of Pompeiian slaves killed in the eruption are astonishing.

Salerno. A relatively large port city along the Amalfi Coast. At the gigantic port, I notice an enormous number of new cars waiting to be shipped out.

The City of Salerno, like most other cities, has its share of large, traffic-choked “car sewer” roads. In this case, some of them run along the waterfront, cutting the city off from the sea. Indeed, I am thinking that I should give up on Salerno as a city worth my time. But here along the waterfront, one also finds a very pleasant, tree-lined, miles-long promenade.

Also, just upslope from this area is the medieval quarter of walkable, vibrant, charming flagstone streets that redeem the city.

This leads me to one of my most important realizations during our travels. That is, for each of the many Italian cities we visit, we find that our task is to seek out the older, medieval, traditional section of the city. This is where the quality of life is high. Where one finds pleasant cafes. Romance. Charm. Beauty. A relaxed, unhurried atmosphere. Happy people.

By contrast, the newer parts of the cities are high-speed car raceways. Auto slums that are simply awful for pedestrians. The quality of life is grim. People are unsociable and in a hurry.

This to me is a complete indictment of how human civilization has ruinously abandoned the timeless tradition of designing wonderful places for a quality HUMAN habitat. Rather than learning lessons from past mistakes and improving on them (to build a better city), the designers of the newer parts of town instead are building places that are WORSE. The newer the construction, the more unpleasant the quality of life has become. Today, for most of the world, designing for cars, not people, has become the imperative. And as a direct result, our more contemporary development nearly always worsens our communities.

The guidebooks rave about the scenic splendor of the Amalfi Coast. By bus, it is breathtaking to see the dramatic sea vistas from 500 feet up on roads that abruptly drop off to the sea. The large number of narrow, hair-pin-turn roads here makes my stomach feel queasy, but the views and hidden beaches below are wonderful.

We hop a sleeper train to travel from the Italian mainland to Palermo Sicily overnight.

Palermo is a frenzied and historically impressive city. Again, it is quite noticeable that unlike America, one finds more scooters than cars on Palermo streets. The scooters roam around town like hordes of bees, as they are often clustered together buzzing and weaving along the streets, darting from lane to lane and around bulkier cars. Always seeming to be first in line at a red stoplight.

We walk a stone-surfaced street market absolutely PACKED with shoppers. The medieval character again is quite charming. We buy samples of fresh “formaggio” (cheese) and freshly-baked bread. Along with the Calabrese olives we find (where my mother grew up), and our excellent $2 Sangiovese wine, our lunch today is very tasty and very local.

The market on this day is so crowded with shoppers (on a Tuesday afternoon) that one must squeeze by and turn sideways to press through. Nevertheless, the hornet swarms of scooters (and the occasional CAR) impossibly find a way to snake through the mass of pedestrians.

Quattro Canti in Palermo is perhaps the most stupendous street intersection I have ever come across. At each of the four corners stands a magnificent, ornate, concave building graced with statues. One can only look with awe and disbelief (see photo at right).

Like Salerno, we find awful, car-centric roads that are misery for pedestrians along the perimeter of the city. These roads are filled with crazed, suicidal motorists. I feel my blood pressure rise and my stress level go way up when we leave the historic sections and find ourselves in the assaulting cacophony of these newer roads.

Overall, my speculation about the origins of seemingly reckless, angry, high-speed motorist behavior we experience in Italy is that many citizens find that driving a space-hogging motor vehicle is extremely frustrating on the human-scaled, narrow, compact street dimensions of Italy. Italian cities are simply not designed for cars, but many Italians insist on trying to shoe-horn their car travel into these quaint spaces.

Like Napoli, Palermo is a dirty, grimy city. We notice quite frequently the sound of wailing emergency vehicle sirens (rushing to scooter crashes, perhaps?). Everyone seems hurried.

Parking by Palermo residents, like in many other Italian cities, is entirely opportunistic. Motorists seem to have no concern about double- or triple-parking. Or parking on a busy street lane. Or leaving their car on a busy sidewalk.

Lots of city-degrading, high-volume, high-speed, one-way streets are found in Palermo. Motorists in Palermo, like Napoli, LOVE to honk their horns, probably indicating high levels of impatience and frustration.

So far, we find that this time of year brings brief, frequent, light drizzle rain which we are mostly able to avoid.

Dinner is at La Sparviero. A highly authentic ristorante. Superb swordfish and farafelle salmone pasta.

Our hotel is Hotel del Centro, a very nice and affordable place located in the heart of Palermo.

Our visit to Palermo ends at the original city portico. A splendid architectural gateway.

We depart Palermo on a bus bound for Agrigento – the town full of Greek Temples. But the blustery winter drizzle follows us there, so we opt not to stop. Extremely unfortunate timing, apparently, as it is said that it is almost always sunny and dry in Agrigento (a town name I was never able to pronounce!).

We find ourselves now in Piazza Armenia. Our hotel, the Ostello del Borgo is centrally located in the medieval quarter. The hotel is housed within an ancient monastery, and reasonably priced.

While I am on the verge of writing off the day as a chilly, cloudy, windy, rain-soaked loss, we take the advice of our very enjoyable hotel staff to eat at Garibaldi Ristorante, an extremely authentic Sicilian restaurant. A classy place with superb, home-cooked food. Scrumptious handmade raviolis and pasta shells (pesto and pistachio), and an excellent Sicilian house wine. My secondi pitti is an outstanding fresh seafood dish: Large crawfish shrimp, a small lobster and a gigantic swordfish filet. Our bill (“il conte”) is, once again, quite reasonable.

Walking home to our hotel is quite memorable, as the medieval, flagstone streets are particularly charming and romantic. They are without street lights and therefore absolutely pitch black.

We awake to a church bell and throw open our room window to a bracingly chilly morning air. Glancing to our left, we see that our hotel is situated in the heart of medieval Piazza Armenia. As always in Italy, my morning is free of the annoying headache one often experiences after a night of drinking wine. The wines in Italy are not only tasty and affordable. They also free one from headaches. My local wine merchant says that the lack of headache is because of my drinking the wine along with a large and delicious meal there, and the pleasant feelings of being in Italy, rather than there being caustic ingredients in the American wine.

We wander the very narrow streets and drink in the wonderful delight of walking the ancient, human-scaled vias.

Maureen and I decide to walk to Villa Romana del Casale, an ancient Roman castle buried and preserved in a mudslide just outside of town, and now being unveiled by restoration specialists. The castle is fascinating, as the splendid, abundant frescos found on its tile and marble floors are quite well-preserved (including an image of bikini-clad Roman girls in what must have been considered rather risqué in the 4th Century).

While walking to the castle, a kind Italian man stops and picks us up to give us a ride. Like other Italian drivers, he speeds to the castle at break-neck speeds. We decide, after our castle visit, to walk back to town, hoping to hitch a ride again. Astonishingly, the very same man stops and picks us up for a ride back a number of hours after he had given us a ride there. He has, for this day at least, become our chauffeur.

On the day before, I had remarked to Maureen that in all of my time being driven around in motor vehicles screaming down impossibly narrow streets full of cars in Italy and other locations in Europe, I was astounded to realize that not a single time had one of those drivers clipped or bumped a building or vehicle, despite countless near-misses that in some cases must have been no more than half a centimeter. So it was with astounding coincidence that on this day, as we are taking a bus to Catania, our bus has its side-view mirror whacked by a truck going the opposite direction. Fortunately, this does not stop our bus, despite the fact that most of the mirror is shattered and the driver must re-adjust the now loosened mirror every few kilometers.

For dining this night, we go to Trattoria S’Agata in Catania, an absolutely bona fide Siclian food in their enchanting little side street ristorante. I opt for Con de le Sarde, the Sicilian favorite of pasta and sardines. It is delightful.

For secondi, I sample their Messina Scuttlefish, a flaky and yummy dish served with red sauce and potatoes. Their cassa rosso vino is again superior in its smoothness and quality.

A pleasant bonus on our first Catania night is that in the wee hours of the morning, as I lie awake with insomnia, I hear not a single car, honk, scooter or siren, despite being in the centro city. And in a nation of cities full of such noises.

The Piazza Duomo in Catania is fittingly superlative. We have breakfast at an outdoor café on the piazza. We take in the pleasure of people-watching and admiration of the architecture around us, and dine on nutella croissants, tea and cappuccino.

As an aside, it is curious that we see very few bicyclists in Italian cities such as Catania.

The guidebooks indicate that the fishmarket next to the piazza is a MUST visit. The guidebook is correct. The market is a dizzying spectacle of an enormous array of the freshest seafoods, nuts, fruits and produce being loudly hawked by venders (see photo above). So mind-boggling is the scene that even LOCALS gather on an upper-level walkway wall to observe.

We buy fresh pepato (pepper) cheese, figs, freshly-baked nut and fig bread, yellow-squash-topped pizza and fresh olive salad for lunch on the piazza. We then enter the Duomo and are humbled by the remarkable immensity and exploding ornamentation inside. So staggering is it that we are compelled to speak in hushed tones (as one is always asked to do inside a Duomo).

Catania is full of ancient churches (chiesas) and a profusion of stunning building architecture (see photo at right).

We buy a bottle of Sicilian wine ($2.50 in euros) for our trip south to Ragusa. Mount Etnea’s volcanic plume ominously looms on the horizon all day.

Catania surprisingly turns out to be surprisingly enjoyable. Our hotel – a good one – is Hotel Gesi downtown.

Medieval Ragusa Ibla sits perched on a steep hill above a deep, narrow, picturesque valley filled with agricultural fields. Ibla’s ancient, flat-stone streets are tiny in width, and perfect for our romantic walk this first evening there. We enter the stupendous Duomo with its glowing green nighttime dome at the peak of the hill and sit in on the Catholic mass.

After a rain, by the way, we find that the slate and marble stone streets in these Italian towns is quite slippery to walk on. As slick as ice.

Our dinner is again superb at a ristorante a few steps from our bed and breakfast (the town seems filled to the brim with marvelously-located bed and breakfast establishments). Off in the distance into the valley at the stone railing along the edges of town, we don’t see a single light in the inky, quiet darkness. Indeed, the town turns out to be quite sleepy with a noticeable lack of cars.

The taxi we use to get to the Ragusa bus station the next day is a late-model Mercedes sedan. Our driver wears a suit and tie. Even the fast food-style restaurant we dine at just before leaving town serves us luscious homemade gnocchi’s, a loaf of homemade olive bread, and a ricotta and spinach roll made on the premises. There seems to be a noticeable absence of mindless, low-wage, zero-skill jobs in Italy. Even the fast food workers and taxi drivers can take pride in their product.

Our first night in Siracusa, we have a sumptuous dinner at Spaghetteria do Scogghia in Ortigia – the ancient portion of Siracusa that is much more charming and pleasant than the newer mainland portion of Siracusa (as expected). This ristorante serves a wide range of immensely tasty Sicilian pastas (a mind-boggling selection of various types). Ortigia is noticeably more bustling with pedestrians after 9 pm. We go for a romantic wander on a seawall walkway. Very pleasant and quiet. Piazza Archimede and Duomo are particularly lovely when lit up in the evening.

We set out for a stroll in old-town Siracusa the next morning. The alleys are petite in width and therefore especially charming (see photo at left). Our first destination is Piazza Archimede, which features a fabulous fountain full of sculptures. We walk to the mainland and visit the Greek and Roman “Neapolis” section to see the Roman and Greek Theatres, and the Siracusa stone quarry (which contains a stone crevasse that simply dwarfs us due to its immensity). At the Neapolis, we see Ara di Ierone II, the world’s largest alter.

For lunch, we dine at La Siciliana on Via Savoia. My Quattro Formaggio pizza and Maureen’s spinach and ricotta calzone are unforgettably good (our Let’s Go travel guide, which recommended this and other destinations we’ve enjoyed on this trip, is turning out to be quite reliable).

The bus takes us to our final Sicilian destination: Taormina. A coastal town that attracts large numbers of tourists.

For good reason.

The town is the most scenic and panoramic of our stops during our trip. We walk the very pleasant Corso Umberto, the main pedestrian shopping street in town (a street that we end up walking countless times during our two-day stay here). The street is perfect for window-shopping, people-watching, and safe and enjoyable strolls to most destinations in town. Very romantic, ancient stairways and side streets intersect Umberto along the way.

The panoramic views of the sea and coastline from points throughout the city are simply breathtaking. Perhaps the development that has best taken advantage of this fact is the superbly located Greco Theatre. The location of the Theatre offers spectators watching a play to also enjoy stunning views of the sea and the town skyline – views that envelope the Theatre. The architecture of the Theatre is equally stunning, and the Theatre still hosts plays to this day (see photo below).

Despite being relatively touristy, Taormina is a recommended visit. Quite pleasant, and perhaps the city I am most likely to return to again in Sicily.

Dinner is at A’Zammara Ristorante off of Via Umberto. Recommended to us by our very nice hotel proprieter. Very high quality food. Several homemade pasta menu choices and a superb wine (Maria Costanza 1998 Rosso).

On our second day, we bus to the mountaintop looming over Taormina. The castle sits at the peak of the mountain. The castle is, to me, not the highlight. The noteworthy aspect is the absolutely astonishing panoramic views of the entire region (including an array of terraced farm fields) and coastlines surrounding Taormina. Certainly a strategic advantage. Also more enjoyable for me than the castle is the tiny medieval town that surrounds the castle walls. Absolutely delightful.

After we’ve had our fill of these wonderful environs, we opt for the winding walkway that leads us back to town. It is a pleasant walk that takes us approximately 35 minutes from the top. We stop at a local ristorante near the Duomo. They serve us simply outstanding Italian pizza.

Then, we are on a cable car down to the beach from Taormina, where we find a roaring surf in a cute little cove, two dive shops, and colorfully cute dingy boats.

For dinner, I have more homemade (“fresca”) pasta.

Our direct train to Rome from Taormina is, again, a sleeper train. The trip, like the trip from the north to Sicily, features the nearly impossible-to-believe task of loading our train onto a ferry for a 45-minute crossing back to Reggio Calabria and the mainland.

Back in Rome, after a tour of the Vatican Museum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Pantheon, we lunch at an invigoratingly boisterous ristorante packed with the local office lunch crowd. So wild is the ordering at the counter that I feel as if I am bidding at a large auction. I feel rather disconcerted, as I realize I must quickly decide on what I am ordering from a vast array within the case in front of me, do so in understandable Italian, and not embarrass myself by sounding like a “greenhorn” American in front of these Italian office workers.

Here, very good spinach and mozzarella paninis are served, as I am pleased to learn when I bite into one.

We stop and enjoy the tremendous Piazza Del Popolo.

Our Italian finale for food is at Navona Notle, a ristorante just off Piazza Navona. Unlike the doughnut-loving cops in the US, we notice that here in Italy, the police run into our ristorante, hurriedly, for two pizzas (we had thought there was a robbery in progress, since the cop had such a worried expression and was in such a hurry, but it was for something much more urgent…).

Piazza Navona, when I first visited 3 years ago, is (was?) the most bustling, spectacular piazza in all of Rome, so I save it for our last Rome visit. Sadly, however, the piazza is now infested (and cheapened) by a swarm of cheap tourist vendors selling plastic trinkets – their carts now blocking and obscuring the magnificence of the expansive, sculpture-filled piazza.

For our last gelato, we go to Il Gelato Di San Crispino, the shop recommended by our bed and breakfast. Near Trevi Fountain, the gelato served here is the most delicious I have had in all of Italy. Earlier, I am trying to find this shop for Maureen, so that I can show her the perfectly cute little puppy leash parking hooks embedded in the wall outside the shop (not to mention sampling the to-die-for gelato). We look for it, unsuccessfully, near Piazza Navona, as I had a recollection that it was in a small alley off that piazza. It is therefore a wonderful coincidence, then, that our recommended shop is that very shop.

A fitting conclusion to our unforgettable days in southern Italy and Sicily.

This YouTube video shows more photos I shot during this unforgettable trip:

Categories: 2001-2010, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Blog at