Beyond North America

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.

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, Uncategorized | 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 ancestry.com 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

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.

Pisa

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.

Lucca

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

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

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.

Rome

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. 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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBM8VPehfb4

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEZAKjKaA2c

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2GxU-PfD8A

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.

Yikes.

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’Zammora 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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZNkNcWquyE

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

Skiing the Italian & Swiss Alps (March 2006)

Fresh from a one-week ski trip in Snowmass and Aspen CO, I am flying across the pond in a Boeing 767 to Milano, Italy. It will be my first taste of European skiing.

I have long heard that European skiing is mediocre in comparison to the groomed powder in the Western US, and I am therefore thinking that this trip will be primarily to enjoy the charming Italian and Swiss ambience, and only secondarily to ski. This trip is to be a test of that thinking.

Our plane touches down in Milano, and I am all eyes and ears, as this is my first trip to northern Italy. At the airport, we are astonished to learn that one in our group has lost his passport and will need to be deported and flown back to the US. Simply awful.

We board our touring bus and are whisked into the mountains between Milano and Bormio, our destination. The mountains are quite dramatic, steep and angular, indicating they are relatively “young” mountains (as the forces of erosion have not yet softened their features and drama).

A fascinating feature of this drive is that for a large portion of the route actually passes through arched tunnels boring their way through the steep topography. Indeed, paying attention to my watch reveals that a full 15 minutes is required, at one point, to pass through one of the seemingly endless tunnels. It boggles the mind how much time and effort must have been expended to build these passageways. As I understand it, the tunnels allowed hours to be shaved off the travels to the north from Milano.

Along the way, we see many of the stereotypical, quaint little Italian villages dotting the landscape on both sides of us – villages that are punctuated with magnificent, soaring, ancient stone chapels and towers. Many of the roofs, of course, emphasis the village ambience by being clad with vivid orange-brown clay tile roofs.

As we emerge from one tunnel, the lovely Lake Como is before us – a lake that is wrapped this time of year by magnificent, snow-capped mountains. A lake that is considered the most beautiful in all of Italy.

During our drive, one of our guides (“Gabrielle”) informs us why “all roads lead to Rome.” Roads radiating out from the great and ancient empire were essential to the lifeblood of Rome, as these routes provided access to resources, trade areas, troop routes for war, and cultural exchange.

In nearly every backyard, no matter how tiny, grapes are being grown mostly on terraced plots to feed the essential production of Italian vino. After all, my mother and others have told me that Italians drink and savor wine as if it were water.

Appropriately, our bus pulls into a cooperative vineyard (the “Cantina Di Villa”), where much of the grapes are destined to produce the Italian nectar. Here, we sample a number of delicious wines, lovingly made cheeses, locally-produced honeys (including a yummy Rhododendron flower honey), bread and meats.

A great deal of heavy, wet snow (flakes as large as quarters) gently falls on Bormio our first afternoon and evening, and continued into the next day – a Sunday morning. I decide to speculate that the snow will not let up on Sunday, so I forego skiing and opt for a stroll in old town Bormio.

As it turns out, the snow ends at noon and Sunday afternoon issues glorious sun, creating wonderful ski conditions. I don’t regret it, however, as there is plenty of time for skiing and I need sunlight to capture lovely Bormio on film.

Our lodging is the Hotel Nevada, a small hotel sitting next door to the main Bormio 2000 (meters) gondola. It is conveniently a ski-in, ski-out place to stay. The hotel is hosted by two of the sweetest, long-haired, snow-white Samoyed dogs I have ever encountered. I vow to own at least one in the future. The canine pair spends all day lounging in the lobby or sleeping next to a door (in hopes of being let out to frolic in the winter wonderland outside).

Old town Bormio is an ancient, medieval village with highly appealing, comfortably narrow streets, and alleys, graced with stone buildings and inlaid street and sidewalk bricks that are so small that they appear almost cobblestone-like.

By noon, the sun appears over the town, which creates a dazzling, electrifying view of the snow-capped mountains wrapping snugly around the little Italian village in the valley.

The streets, despite the sloshy, snowy conditions, are bustling with pedestrians.

Lunch is at the Trattoria Ristorante, which sits on the exceptionally picturesque Piazza Cavour – a piazza that terminates the stupendous Via Roma pedestrian shopping street.

I dine on a scrumptious, signature Bormio dish for lunch, and later at the hotel for dinner. A homemade buckwheat pasta with melted cheese, potato, cabbage and spinach.

That second night, the temperature plummets, the wind kicks up, and the slush ices over.

The next morning is crystal clear, and I can’t wait to sample the Italian Alps.

The snow turns out to be understandably a bit crusty, but is mostly groomed, which becomes increasingly soft, fairly deep powder as the day wears on. Indeed, my perception is that the Bormio slopes (and other slopes later in the week) have the softest, silkiest snow I’ve ever skied. Not sure why that would be true.

While the ski conditions are surprisingly good, I quickly notice that the Bormio slopes are almost totally lacking in trail (or lift) signs, and the ones found tend to be on the small side for readability at a distance. Lift chairs are relatively comfortable here. I have my first experience with what amounts to a conveyor belt that carries skiers forward into position as a lift chair scoops up the skier. Took some getting used to at first.

My impression of the Bormio slopes is that the intermediate level trails tend to be steeper and somewhat more challenging than those I’m familiar with in Colorado, and many of the black diamond trails tend to be less demanding than those I’ve skied in Colorado. As a “strong intermediate” skier, this sets up a rather ideal situation for me. A recipe for mucho grande enjoymento.

Looking down from the top of the ski mountains, the mountains surrounding the valley are, in a word, staggering. The most spectacular, snow-capped peaks I have ever been in the midst of. As a result, on that first day of skiing, I was snapping photos of the magnificent mountains every time I have a moment between hurtling ski runs.

Lunch at Mario’s Café on Bormio 2000 turns out to be impressively authentic. A real Italian treat for a ski lunch. I blissfully gobble down delicious, moderately priced polenta and gnocchi.

The grand finale on this first day is to go to The Top – Bormio 3000. The views, impossibly, are even MORE staggering.

The slopes on Bormio tend to be forgively wide and fairly well-groomed on Bormio 3000. Not what one would expect at this nose-bleed elevation.

Skiing down from 3000 – while exhilarating – quickly froze my face and fingers to numbness – largely due to the blustery, fierce wind and bitter-cold air up here. I ski faster to speed my arrival at a place of warmth.

One of my runs this day turns out to be a rather steep intermediate. I later learn why. It was the venue for World Cup Ski Championships only a short time before our arrival.

Monday night after our hotel dinner, the 450 of us in Bormio from Florida assemble for a gala parade on Via Roma. I am, frankly, not expecting much from this event, but am pleasantly surprised.

Each in our Jacksonville group is carrying a American flag scarf. And we are all led by a local marching band. Many flank the street to greet us. Our march terminates at Piazza Cavour, where there are so many locals that it appears that the entire town has come out to happily greet us and dance with us.

There, the mayor and other local dignitaries officially welcome us. They serve us all the hot, spicy wine we can drink. All of us then spend the next several hours wildly dancing in the piazza and on the stage to both American disco and Italian folk (Bormio folk dancers also treat us to traditional folk dancing on stage as we watch).

Flanking the piazza is a street that has been coated with snow to allow sledding and traditional wood ski skiing.

The next day finds me skiing the next mountain down from Bormio – Santa Caterina. On the way there, our shuttle bus passes through streets that seem too narrow to allow our bus to pass through (on a two-way street, I might add), but our driver skillfully negotiates through. Here, 3-story buildings butt up against the street. My knowledge of urban design has me observe the scene with quiet admiration, and regret that I do not live in such a quaint little town.

After my day of skiing Santa Caterina, I come to realize that no, skiing is not secondary to the Italian venue. The skiing, instead, rivals the quality of the Italian towns in my view.

Another unusual, somewhat challenging feature of the Italian (and later, Swiss) slopes I ski this week is the almost total absence of clocks. In America, they tend to be mounted prominently at each chair lift, but during my skiing here, I am regularly finding myself needing to ask someone nearby if they can show me the time on their watch.

On Wednesday, I sample a third mountain – Le Motte (pronounced “Le MOAT-ay”), Valdidentro, San Colombano. As our guide had promised a few days before, I have the mountain all to my own. Indeed, for the first time in my life, I am riding up a chair lift with over 200 chairs and appear to be the only person on any of the chairs.

On this day, I OWN this mountain.

Trails here are well-groomed, like Bormio and Santa Caterina. And like those mountains, the trails here tend to be quite steep at their terminus. Unlike the other two mountains, here the trails are fairly well-marked.

Overall, however, I find the skiing here to be slightly less exhilarating.

I finish the skiing by getting an enormous free lunch courtesy of the Florida Ski Council on Bormio 2000.

To conclude another fabulous day, we are bused to a famous Roman Baths facility (“Bagni Di Bormio”) just outside of Bormio. The complex is a veritable labyrinth of small rooms containing every imaginable warm-water (heated by volcanism) therapy. Saunas, steam rooms, hot water jet rooms, mud baths, “relaxation” rooms, “mood” rooms, a pool room with large and therapeutic stones on the floor, an outdoor swimming bath (which we enjoyed as a fairly heavy snow fell on us).

A set of hot water rooms have waterfalls of warm water that crashes down on your back and neck, providing an outstanding massage. So good that it is the only room I go back to for seconds.

To finish, I ceremoniously don the white, terry-cloth, hooded robe they have given us and walk outside, monk-like, to a small out building. Inside, there are two ancient and ORIGINAL Roman stone baths that were once used during the Roman Empire, and continue to be available today.

I could almost sense what it was like in ancient times, sitting in the steamy, dark stone room, to be a Roman Centurion, seeking rejuvenation from the stress and injuries of fighting wars for the Empire.

Completely, utterly stress-melting experience. An unforgettable, blissful joy so fantastic that I tell others I’d give serious thought to coming again to Italy just to experience the baths. Don’t miss them. As they say, it as if the skier has died and gone to skiing heaven.

As we leave, there is a very soft, quieting, peaceful, gentle, romantic snow falling over us in Bormio. The fresh snow glistens in the street lights.

Livigno (pronounced “Liv-EEN-yo”) is our Thursday group destination and it starts ugly. Like Saturday and Sunday morning, the heavy snow has not let up from the night before as our bus groans slowly up the narrow mountain road. The forecast we get from our guide “Verona” is grim conditions all day.

The bus ride is a white-knuckle ride as our driver needles the bus along the horrifyingly narrow, fresh-snow (read: slippery) road switch-backing and snaking up the mountain side (with a steep drop plummeting down hundreds of dark forest feet on our shoulder-less left).

The bus stalls as the driver shifts into second gear. He restarts it and it stalls again. And again. He calls the garage for rescue. We are to unload our ski gear and transfer to a functioning bus that has come for us. We now face inhospitable weather all day. We have lost at least an hour of ski time.

But miraculously, as we drive into Livigno on our new bus, the sky clears and the sun lights up the snowy slopes.

We spend all day skiing deep, fresh, virgin powder. Not my favorite conditions, but as the day wears on, I become increasingly (if slowly) more adept at this sort of skiing.

Like the other mountains, there are a modest number of trails to ski, but the powder creates a very enjoyable ski day. One of the best trails, starting at one of the highest peaks at Livigno, is called BellaVista, an exceptionally appropriate name for a trail with jaw-dropping views. I end up shooting about 15 photos on BellaVista due to its breathtaking nature.

Our day, delightfully, shifts from the slopes on one side of the Livigno valley to slopes on the facing side across the valley. Apres at the end of the runs appears to be an extremely popular pastime at Livingno, as there are an enormous number of sun worshipers and partiers at the outdoor cafes facing the slopes.

Crack of dawn the next day, our bus departs. Destination: The prestigious St. Moritz resort in the Swiss Alps. St. Moritz is a few hours north of Bormio and nestled within the legendary Swiss Alps.

Our group information prior to the trip to St. Moritz was that this optional trip was a bit pricey and perhaps not worth it.

We were therefore unprepared for how worthwhile it turns out to be. St. Moritz valley is a gorgeously picturesque, cute little Swiss village full of clock towers and spires, as were the Italian villages in the region. The streets, again, are wonderously human-scaled, adding a very quaint, ancient feel to the village.

Many of the hotels in town are enormous and proudly ornamental.

The resort is very classy – particularly the gondolas. Only a few gondola cars are run, but each holds approximately 125 skiers.

Once again, the lack of signs, arrows or clocks lead to a bewildering experience, but the skiing is so lovely that one is easily able to overlook this. (Curious that Switzerland, a nation with a world-wide reputation for crafting the most sought-after watches in the world, would be so lacking in ski resort clocks…)

The lift lines, despite the world-wide fame of St. Moritz, are reasonably moderate in size. The slopes are relatively wide, fairly well-groomed, and tree-less, due to our being above the tree-line, with names such as Lanigiro, Alpina, Marmotta, Schtattain, and Akademiker.

The thick layer of fresh snow has blanketed the slopes, and without the trees creates an other-worldly, lunar-like experience. Nearly pure white. What I imagine it would be like to ski Antarctica.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of St. Moritz is not so much the skiing (although skiing here is much better than average). No, the most unforgettable reward of St. Moritz, which makes it such a worthwhile visit, is the utterly breathtaking views. Head-shaking vistas of the snow-covered peaks and valleys. I shoot a great many photos. Soon, I regret that I had not brought 15 rolls of film to St. Moritz, instead of one.

I would shoot a photo of the most incredible view I have ever seen, ski around a corner just ahead, and come upon a vista before me that is EVEN more spectacular.

Mesmerizing.

Now I fully understand why the Alps are so legendary.

Fittingly, our final night in the Alps, to conclude a week of sheer bliss, is a WILD dance party at a hall in Bormio. Again, it appears that most of the town of Bormio has come to bid us arrivaderci , and they do so grandly, as we are treated to a great deal of wonderful vino. This time, the vice-mayor and the tourism director serenade us and toast us.

Being Italian, they show their hospitality by serving us steaming hot, fresh, al dente penne pasta in a delicious sauce, which I gobble between frenzied dancing. At first, they are subtle in serving us from the side of the hall, but then dressed in traditional Italian folk mountain attire, they weave amongst us to serve us the manna with their gargantuan-sized pasta caldron.

As the 7-day trip comes to an end, I think back and realize: “The week was so enjoyable that it has passed in the blink of an eye.”

More than once, I think to myself, “There would be worse things than missing the bus back to Milano the next day to fly back to the US, or losing my passport. I could enjoy living here.” “Didn’t I have a one-way ticket from Jacksonville?”

A few weeks before our trip, I had read a news report about a recent global warming study indicating that within approximately 50 years, there will be very few, if any, remaining places to ski.

I resolve to ski as much as I can in the short time we have.

Preferably in the Alps…

This YouTube link is a video showing you more photos that I shot during this ski trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxr6sjae3i0

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

Diving Cozumel (July 2004)

Cozumel, Mexico.

A destination that has long been on my list for diving. I’ve always heard spectacular things about Cozumel, and have been anxious to see for myself.

My sister-in-law asks if Maureen and I are interested in joining her for a one-week package diving trip there. How could I possibly decline?

We fly to the island in the early afternoon of a July Monday. Our first impression is that Cozumel is a FURNACE this time of year. And we say this as people who have lived through a number of Florida summers.

The island of Cozumel is 189 square miles in size and just east of the Yucatan Peninsula. Very flat and dry, with scrubby vegetation, a small number of tiny, unnoteworthy Mayan ruins, a heavy concentration of tourism, and colossal cruise ships on its western side. And packed with folks who know that there is really only one reason to visit Cozumel: world-class scuba diving.

Despite our arrival after lunch on Monday, we realize we have plenty of time to squeeze in a few shore dives. We check in at our lodging for the week – Scuba Club Cozumel – and head for the Club Dive Shop to check out tanks.

We learn that the Club provides many conveniences for divers. Plenty of easily-accessed dive lockers located next to a good number of fresh water baths for rinsing gear after dives. Our room, the dive shop, the Club restaurant, and the lockers are an easy, short walk to both a shore dive entry and the pier where the Club dive boats pick up divers each morning.

Our first shore dive quickly confirms what we have heard. Cozumel has impressive visibility – even on shore dives. We also discover that the shore dive in front of the Club contains a number of hollow concrete igloos perforated with portholes. I was unable to confirm this, but I’m nearly certain that these structures were part of the “Eternal Reefs” program I’ve recently learned about, where one can have his or her cremated remains incorporated into a concrete monument that is placed in a marine environment to establish artificial reefs. We notice that the tropical fish seem to enjoy the structures.

The water is warmer than any dive waters I have done in the past. Bath water.

In our first shore dive, I spot a good number of moray eels, skates, a good number of schools of siren fish, starfish, and a large number of jet-black sea urchins (which I get an immediate introduction to as I start our first shore dive and mistakenly use my hand, without looking, to keep myself from being bashed against a rock wall – a painful introduction…). Later on, in our twilight shore dive, we also see a number of sea cucumbers, a snake eel, sand rays, and parrot fish. Shore diving in front of the Club, like most diving at Cozumel, is drift diving, as there is a noticeable current moving from south to north on the west coast.

Day Two, and I’m already blundering due to my forgetfulness. As the diveboat – the Coral Diver – heads out to our first boat dive destination at 8:45 am, I realize that I have forgotten my wetsuit. A fortunate blunder, however, as my mistake has me realize that the waters are comfortably warm without a suit. Indeed, it is my first dive without wearing a suit or even a shirt, and I discover that I feel more free and less burdened, as my wetsuit tends to be an ordeal to squeeze into and out of for dives.

I make a mental note to do more suit-free diving in the future.

Our first boat dive is the most famous reef in Cozumel: Palancar Reef. It takes only a few seconds to understand the fame of Palancar. Stupendous visibility and a stunning maze of giant, coral-studded canyons and swim-throughs. I’m stunned, as this combination of features creates an eye-popping display of the most vibrant colors I have ever seen. It is as if I have been color blind for my entire life and suddenly had my eyes corrected to see color for the first time…

Our second dive is Tormentos Reef. Rather average with regard to reefs. But we quickly come upon the most enormous moray eel I have ever seen. The eel is lying under a coral rock ledge, is about 8 feet long and as thick as a telephone pole. We also spot octopus along the way. Suddenly, I discover that Cozumel does not only grow large eel. I come upon what is certainly the most gigantic grouper fish I’ve ever seen. Almost the size of a small car.

That afternoon, our dive boat takes us to the extremely popular Cozumel wreck dive. The C-53 Felipe Xicotencatl is a mine-sweeper that was sunk in 2000. It is 184 feet long, 33 feet wide, and was built in Tampa FL under the name “Scuffle”. Donated to the government of Mexico in 1962, the ship was then used as a gun boat, a patrol for illegal arms and drugs, a search and rescue ship, a troop transport and eventually as a training vessel for cadets of a naval academy. After 55 years of service, the ship was retired in 1999.

The boat sits upright on a sandy bottom 80 feet from the surface. It is a large, ghostly ship. For about 30 minutes, after we pop into it from a deck portal, we swim through a narrow labyrinth of passages inside the ship. Somewhat disconcerting for me, as I’ve never dove inside a ship for more than a few minutes, nor have I ever been in such a confined set of ship passages. “Stay calm, Dom. You’re safe.” I repeat this to myself throughout the ship. Will I panic? Will I be overwhelmed by claustrophobia? What if I panic and cannot find a portal out of the ship? Will I have time to get to the surface if there is an “out-of-air” situation?

Fortunately, I successfully suppress these fears of events that are extremely unlikely.

I settle down and enjoy the wonderful views of the ship innards, aided by the great visibility and the many portals allowing sunlight to stream in. Appropriately, this mine-sweeper contains schools of small glassy SWEEPER fish.

I recommend the Xiotencatl wreck as a relatively easy, enjoyable wreck dive. Even for scaredy cats like me.

On Wednesday morning, the Coral Diver ships us to Santa Rosa reef, another famed Cozumel dive. It’s hard for me to believe, but Santa Rosa has wall diving and swim-throughs that are, in many ways, even more impressive than Palancar. Santa Rosa features a tight, human-scaled sequence of swim-through tunnels. Again, the visibility is mind-blowing. And again, the grouper are huge (one awaits us at the end of an incredibly beautiful swim-through).

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Santa Rosa swim-throughs is this. We would swim through an astonishingly colorful and lengthy tunnel and abruptly come upon the Santa Rosa Wall, which meant swimming out of the tunnel, looking down, and suddenly seeing a seemingly bottomless abyss dropping thousands of feet below me.

This is what it must feel like to be a cliff-dwelling bird…

The wall diving here was, by far, the most comfortable, relaxing wall dive I have ever done. We are able to simply let the ocean current carry us along, as we serenely face the wall in an upright posture for several minutes. The feeling of effortless weightlessness is outstanding.

Our second dive is Villa Blanca reef. Strong current. Colorful sponges and coral. Along the way, I’m treated to encounters with tiger grouper, black grouper, trigger fish, puffer fish, moray eels, trumpet fish, and snapper.

On Thursday, the Coral Diver brings us to Colombia Reef. Again, I’m shocked by the superb, memorably long, winding, and confined swim-through tunnels. Here we are treated to large sea turtles and bright, bright colors.

On the way to Colombia, I discovered that there is one thing that I’ve left in Cozumel that I’ll never be getting back. As far as I can speculate, my gold wedding ring is now inside the stomach of a Cozumel grouper. I noticed the ring missing while I was checking out my dive gear during the morning dive boat ride, and am guessing that it fell off during a dive the day before. I feel awful about it, but am comforted to know that at least I’ve left it in a memorable dive location, instead of, say, a strip commercial parking lot in New Jersey. Lesson learned for a guy who is not used to wearing jewelry. Don’t wear rings while diving.

Yucab reef – which we dive after Colombia – features quite a large number of ocean trigger fish. We are also treated to a large number of so-called “splendid” toadfish, which apparently enjoy hanging out under large rocks with their whiskers poking out menacingly. Again, we spot large grouper and a good many lobster. Overall, we come upon an amazing population of sea life at Yucab. But the very strong current along the reef on this day means that we must look QUICKLY at the creatures, as we fly past at a rapid speed.

It is our final shore night dive in Cozumel (see shore entrance at lower right). Me, Maureen, and my sister-in-law Carol. We are a bit rushed, as Maureen is hoping to be back in time for the “last call” for the delicious ice cream that the Club restaurant serves.

The 3 of us set out. The 2 women stop for several minutes to investigate a rock pile teeming with all kinds of interesting Cozumel creatures – their flashlights blazing into the many crevasses within the pile. I lose my patience, and set out on my own, but Maureen’s frantically waving dive light (a signal to other divers during a night dive that there is something to see) calls me back.

I look under the large, coral-encrusted rock to see 2 large, bulging eyes looking out at me. It looks like a yellow-orange blob. What is it?

Maureen quickly gives me the diver hand signal for “octopus.” Of course!

Back on course, we are confronted with an ocean current that is noticeably stronger than it has been on our previous shore dives here. I battle mightily, expending a great deal of energy just to swim a few feet. Maureen again signals me frantically.

Another octopus.

Later, I spot a large moray eel. Then, while inspecting a large coral reef wall, I find myself trapped by a well-known diver dread: fishing line. It is my first time, in over 100 dives, being caught in fishing line. It also happens to be the first time in all those dive outings that I’m not carrying my dive knife – which is primarily carried by divers in the event of getting caught in a line.

Why I am without my knife? Because on my first boat dive in Cozumel, my otherwise quality dive master instructs me to not use my dive knife in Cozumel, as the diving is within a national park where fishing is not allowed (and therefore, no fishing lines are expected in the reefs). Not carrying the knife is a way for Cozumel to minimize the likelihood of divers using a knife to harm sea life or coral. I protest to the dive master, jokingly saying I need the knife to fight off man-eating sharks that are sure to track me down.

But in this case, I am now kicking myself for my awful misfortune. As dive books instruct, it is rather easy to become totally enmeshed in line. The more a diver struggles to be free of the line, the more tenaciously the line gets tangled around the diver. Fortunately, even though I now have hundreds of feet of 100-lb test line caught in my hoses, my BC and my fins, we are only about 20 feet down, so the line becomes more of an amusing annoyance than the terrifying specter it would have been had I been, say, 90 feet down within a ship wreck (as I was the a few days before).

Finally, after Maureen frees me with her knife (she was not “caught” by the dive master), her sister Carol gets caught in it! WE FIND OURSELVES WITHIN A GRADE B HORROR FILM! IT IS THE FISHING LINE FROM THE GREEN LAGOON!!

As it turns out, after much cutting and gathering, we surface from the dive with what seems like about 7 miles of heavy-duty fishing line and promptly inform the dive shop that their pier should be checked for more dangers lurking below for unsuspecting shore divers.

On our last day of diving, the dive master suggests Palancar Gardens as our Cozumel Grande Finale. The Gardens are aptly named and an appropriate finale, as this reef contains a fantastic assortment of colorful, garden-like soft coral sponges and tropical fish. Along the way, we find large lobster. The reef contains a delightful number of fabulous swim-through tunnels and canyons.

It was magical, these swim-throughs in the Gardens.

The final Cozumel dive for us is Paso del Cedral. This reef also holds a surprise that I am not expecting. Despite its shallow depth, we float through a surprising number of swim-through tunnels. Again, we are stunned to come across what appears to be an 800-pound grouper, several toad fish, and a barracuda that appears to be the size of a freight train.

Dom did NOT chase that ‘cuda…

Overall, we saw very few barracuda and NO sharks at all. The visibility during our week of diving was an out-of-this-world average of 120 to 150 feet (very much like the crystal clear spring water we are used to diving in Florida).

Scuba Club Cozumel is a club I recommend for Cozumel divers. In addition to the convenient services and facilities, we found the rooms to be comfortable and adapted to wet dive gear. The dining is very casual, and one can therefore feel quite comfortable going to dinner at the Club restaurant dressed in a grubby t-shirt and torn up shorts. Be forewarned, however, that tipping will be an eye-opener. At least it was for me. I was unprepared for the fact that the maid, restaurant staff, bellhops, boat crew and dive master ALL expect to be paid relatively hefty tips. Apparently, such a state of affairs is based upon what I presume are low wages paid to such staff.

Divers must wait at least 24 hours after a last dive before flying, so we have all of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning to explore Cozumel topside. Rather than bore myself to tears in the Club room, I decide to ignore the strong advice from Carol that I NOT rent a motor scooter to see the island. “They’re too dangerous,” she says with an air of confidence and alarm. “People drive crazily in Cozumel and you’ll be rammed even if YOU drive safely.” I’ve heard this all before, and promptly ignore the warning. But I am disappointed that Maureen HEEDS this nervously-nelly, fun-killing advice.

After haggling a bit on the rental price (I am proud to say that I saved many, many pesos by talking my way out of paying the sales tax…), I gingerly board the scooter with my ill-fitting safety helmet. I humiliate myself in front of the smirking rental scooter staff, as I’ve never ridden any sort of motorcycle, not even a motor scooter (even in my reckless youth). Like a dork, I get assurance that the scooter has no gears for me to try to learn how to use. I’m shown how to accelerate, brake, and push the scooter off its kickstand. Warily…awkwardly…I rotate my right handgrip, not sure of what would happen. The scooter scoots forward. No turning back now.

In front of me is a frantic, chaotic scene of crazed Cozumelians negotiating streets and vendor stalls in every direction. I cautiously brake every 3 feet just to assure myself that I know how to stop the vehicle.

Satisfied the machine can be halted, I am next confronted with the fact that I don’t know what Mexican stop signs look like, nor whether I’ll be harangued mercilessly by experienced drivers behind me. Fortunately, the north-south route I take south has no traffic signals or stop signs, so that terrifying thought subsides.

My confidence grows. I pass a number of seemingly exclusive, “guests only” resorts on the southwest coast. I stop at a beach entrance and decline to enter due to the fee required. I get back to the scooter and realize, to my horror, that I don’t know how to re-start the scooter. After 15 sweaty minutes, I begin to wonder if another scooter operator in the parking lot will help show me what to do, or how much it will cost to have my scooter hauled back to the rental place.

Miraculously, I manage to start it, and I’m back on the highway heading south, with the cooling breeze blowing through my hair. So THIS is what it means when I see Harley riders with black leather biker jackets reading “Live to Ride. Ride to Live.”

I pass by long stretches of gorgeous waters and nearly deserted sugar white beaches on the south side of the island. The scooter and the speed limit signs inform one that the maximum speed is 60 KPH. Ordinarily, I drive over the posted limit, but in this case my inexperience and the bumpy Cozumel highway surface keep me feeling less than comfortable over 65 KPH.

The south portion of the island, despite the fabulous beaches, is nearly uninhabited. Almost no vehicles or buildings. Just open road and incredible vistas. Again, I feel deep regret that Maureen is not with me.

 The history of Cozumel island is fascinating. During the period of the Mayan civilization, starting in 300 AD, the island was considered sacred and each Mayan woman on the mainland was obligated to visit the island at least once in her lifetime by canoe. Early in the 16th Century, Spaniards Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzales Guerrera were shipwrecked on the island, were captured by Juan de Grijalva and made slaves until they were accepted by the Mayans. Hernan Cortes, the well-known Spanish explorer, sailed to the island, where Aguilar happily boarded the ship. However, Guerrera, who had since married a Mayan woman and had children with her, refused to leave. Aguilar joined forces with Cortes and used his knowledge of the Mayan civilization to help defeat them. Guerrera sided with the Mayans, and died defending them against the Spanish invaders. As a result, he became a hero of the Mayans. By 1600, the Mayans had been wiped out by massacre and disease, and the island became uninhabited.

In the late 17th Century, the island was besieged by pirates.

Shockingly, as recently as World War II, the US Army had a base on the island and dismantled some of the larger Mayan ruins on the island.

Jacques Cousteau made the island famous for diving with his 1961 TV documentary about the reefs he had found there. There are now more than 100 world-class dive sites ringing the island.

For more and better photos I shot or gathered at Cozumel, go to this link. Select “slideshow” for the best view when the link takes you to Picasa: https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Cozumel2004#

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

Copenhagen, Denmark (2004)

In early 2004, I’m minding my own business in my office, when I get a call. It seems that an architecture professor at the University of Florida has heard that I know a fair amount about bicycling, and he is leading a studio of students to prepare a bicycle master plan. Part of his studio is to take groups of students to see model communities for bicycling. He asks if I’d be interested in joining a group going to Copenhagen-he’d pay my air fare out of the grant money he has.

I can assure you that he did NOT have to twist my arm. Indeed, I nearly leapt out of my chair, as I was so delighted over such good fortune.

I had heard a number of stories over the years about the cosmopolitan wonders of Copenhagen, and suddenly, shockingly, I’d actually be there to see it with my own eyes…in less than a week.

In the three or four days before the trip, I was so convinced that the trip was too good to be true that surely something would come up that would terminate this dream opportunity. My employer would deny my trip or my vacation request. The professor would change his mind about taking me along after hearing more about my high-octane bicycling views. The US would cancel flights to Europe over terrorism fears. I’d come down with a terrible cold. The airline would go out of business.

But the day arrives. I find myself sitting in the Toyota Forerunner of the professor and his students as we drive to the Orlando airport.

Along the way, we chat about effective and ineffective transportation strategies, and go into the details of our planning philosophies.

At the airport, we are amused to find that despite what our tickets tell us, our flight is NOT on Continental Airlines. Instead, we are to board VIRGIN Airlines. More so than my trip companions, I am especially amused because I’ve recently learned from an old high school friend (a guy that owns a company which names businesses and products) that he is wildly impressed that an airline has decided to call themselves “Virgin.”

After all, he says, what sort of images are conjured up by the word “virgin”? For most people, a virgin is someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. They are inexperienced. As my friend points out, are THOSE images the ones that an airline would want to convey??

His answer is fascinating.

Yes, those images are not what an airline would want potential customers to associate with the airline, but he also notes that people subconsciously assume that for an airline to exist and be operating, it MUST have FAA certification and must therefore be competent. Indeed, the name most likely is quite effective in attracting customers because the airline has effectively set itself apart from its competition-competition that has chosen obvious names such as “Continental” or “American” or “United.”

As it turns out, the key question for his naming company is how to convince a company that such an edgy, risky name is actually an ally instead of a liability. Too often, he points out, a company will ask a large number of its employees to come up with a consensus as to a preferred name. The inevitable result is a name that is obvious, safe, lowest-common-denominator, and deadly boring. A sure recipe for NOT setting a company apart from its competition.

On the contrary, Virgin Airlines seems to proudly revel in their name.

Not only is our Boeing 747-700 being flown by a company called “Virgin,” but the side of the jet carries, in bold, large black letters, a nickname: “Hotlips.” Just as I notice this, the largest parade of airline stewardesses I’ve ever seen (about 30 of them) board a plane are heading to board “Hotlips.”

And they are all wearing hot, unvirgin-like red dresses…

Hardly a virgin, this plane.

The plane itself is COLOSSAL in size. A double-decker 747-the “Queen Mary” of the fleet. A glimpse from inside the terminal gave the impression that this KING KONG jet would dwarf even an aircraft carrier.

We board our plane after the now obligatory, seemingly endless security checks and luggage inspections. Soon after we are underway, the on-board computer informs us that our flight from Orlando to London over The Big Pond will be 7 hours and 20 minutes.

We take off 4,350 miles from our destination in London.

Arrival in Copenhagen immediately sends the message that we have arrived in a cosmopolitan, contemporary city. The shops in the airport, for example, are exceptionally upscale for an airport.

Oddly, we also quickly notice a rather sophomoric aspect of the city. Both a retailer and a number of shirts worn by young people contain the term “FCUK”.

Also, I am quickly disappointed to find that the Danish are like many other Europeans in an unfortunate way. Nearly everyone-young and old-is a chain smoker. I’ve never come up with a theory about why this is so prevalent in Europe.

The city metro system offers the city the civilized amenity of serving the municipal airport-unlike nearly all large American airports, where the lack of transit service or use means that the airport is choked in automobile congestion.

As we leave the central downtown train station, we immediately realize we are in a more impressive world. Just outside the doors are parked what seems like THOUSANDS of bicycles. Clearly, a number of Copenhagen residents commute by bicycle to the station, then use the train to get to their destination.

We set out, on foot, for our hotel a few blocks away. We quickly learn that most downtown streets are rather medieval in design and human-scaled in size (that is, modest rather than Interstate-sized).

Many of the streets are set off by granite bricks instead of asphalt, or colored blocks.

Downtown Copenhagen is graced with a delightful (albeit small) network of “walking streets.” While we were there, and despite the overcast, frigid (28-34 degrees Fahrenheit) weather, we find these streets to be vibrant, throbbing, fun-loving, heavily-used places for the city residents to socialize, be friendly, smile, laugh, be animated and experience the walking joys of serendipity. All of which are largely denied to Americans, who have traded off these humanizing pleasures, and a quality transit system and public realm, by instead opting for auto dependency, hyper-consumption, creation of a luxurious private realm, social isolation, fear and distrust of others that such a lifestyle inevitably brings.

An unusual feature on some of Copenhagen’s larger streets is a somewhat separated bicycle lane. The design features travel lanes for cars, then sometimes a semi-separated bus lane, a stone curb, then a slightly elevated bicycle lane, then a sidewalk area. Each of these travel ways tend to butt up to each other rather than be separated by landscaping. In a few cases, the bicycle lane is separated from the car lanes by a layer of on-street parallel-parked cars.

Both arrangements provide downtown bicycle riding that feels relatively safe for bicycling.

On most city streets, however, the Copenhagen system has bicyclists share the travel lane with cars, an arrangement I generally advocate when, like in Copenhagen and many American downtowns, car speeds are modest. Bicyclists sharing lanes tend to be safer since they are more visible and more predictable to motorists.

And again, despite the icy weather, we see LARGE numbers of people riding bicycles on these routes-clearly commuters. Astoundingly, the bicyclists seemed to come from the entire cross-section of residents: seniors, middle-aged professionals, young adults, teens, and most impressive of all, a number of women I would classify as “glamorous” in the sense that they wear high heels, make-up, dresses, stockings, and fashionable coats. Many are parents who tote their young children in a child-carrying trailer usually mounted in front of the bicycle in the same way that many Asians tote food for sale in the Far East.

The large number of bicyclists have a pleasant effect on me as I bicycle about the city. Unlike in my Gainesville home, I bicycle without any sense of humiliation, even despite the fact that I am riding a cheap, 3-speed WOMEN’S bicycle. In Gainesville, usually as the lone bicyclist on the road, I often feel silly as I, a 44-year old professional, pedal around town. Hard to imagine how embarrassed I would feel in Gainesville if I were on a women’s bicycle. Obviously, the fact that a large cross-section of Danes bicycle all the time makes me feel almost HIP as I cruise around on my silly 3-speed. It almost seems as if it is the MOTORIST who is the oddball geek in Denmark.

As an aside, I would attribute the large number of bicyclists not so much to the admittedly outstanding bicycle routes laid out, but from the fact that car travel and car parking is clearly burdensome and costly, which leads large numbers to rationally conclude that bicycling is financially prudent and more convenient than trying to travel by Ford Explorer.

At this point, I should also mention that like other European nations I’ve visited, it is curious to notice that despite the overall high-quality provisions for bicyclists, the bicycle parking racks are nearly all unacceptable from my point of view. Almost none of them provide frame support, protection from vandalism, or scratch protection. It is evident that the Americans may not have more than a tiny number of bicyclists in comparison to Europe, but we tend to greatly exceed the Europeans in the provision of bicycle parking facilities. It is one of the very few things that I take pride in about how we do transportation in America.

We at least respect, in many cases, the PARKED bicycle (perhaps out of a sense of guilt).

Other impressive features we see are modest, post-mounted traffic signals for bicycles, which informs the bicyclist when to stop or proceed. At most intersections, bicycle lanes passing through the intersection are clearly marked in blue paint and separated from the pedestrian crosswalks (which are often honored and made safe by being carried on elevated “speed tables”).

At crosswalks, the signals are timed to provide a crossing signal relatively quickly, which means that pedestrians and bicyclists are not overly burdened by the delay of waiting for the light to change. A very important benefit, which is only exceeded by intersections not controlled by traffic signals at all-such as at intersections controlled by a roundabout or traffic circle.

Because of these respectful, considerate features for bicycles and pedestrians, we notice that in Copenhagen, pedestrians and bicyclists tend to respect traffic signals and crosswalk signs. Unlike much of America, we see only a small number who don’t obey the signals. Instead, they tend to respect the regulations, perhaps because they feel respected AS PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLISTS. We also notice that motorists tend to respect and be courteous to bicyclists and pedestrians, generally making them feel safe and comfortable. The motorist in Copenhagen typically and politely pauses, patiently waits and otherwise provides a lot of breathing room to a nearby pedestrian or bicyclist seeking to cross or is within proximity of the vehicle travel lane. By stark contrast, most American motorists tend to find great pleasure in intimidating, harassing and otherwise recklessly ignoring bicyclists and pedestrians.

We find that one of the many pleasant features of Copenhagen is that nearly all of its citizens tend to be quite trim, fit, healthy and very attractive-no doubt due in part to the fact that many of them seem to engage in a good deal of bicycling and walking as part of their everyday lives. At this northern latitude, the Nordic, Scandinavian influence was rather obvious, as a noticeable number of women sport striking blonde hair and blue eyes.

Curiously, a great many Danes wear black coats, sweaters, shirts and pants. Perhaps to set off the light-colored hair??

The cost of living in Copenhagen is clearly quite high. I notice this especially on a night out on the town, in which we go to an authentic Copenhagen pub to sample Carlsberg, one of their indigenous beers (the other is Tuborg). A glass left me $7.50 poorer.

Interestingly, the culture seems to be relatively modest, as I notice a large advertisement along the side of a building facing a public plaza. The ad proclaims “Carlsberg: Probably the best beer available.” NOT that it IS the best beer in the land. PROBABLY is timidly suggested by the company.

As I had perceived beforehand, my days in Copenhagen seem to confirm that the nation is not really known for its cuisine, its wine, or even its beer. But even if it is just known for its outstanding cities, that would be sufficient for me to conclude that the culture is to be admired throughout the world.

Of course, the Danes are known for their DANISH, which obligated me to sample some of the authentic local faire. Quite good.

Because Copenhagen is so delightfully cosmopolitan, the lack of an outstanding native cuisine does not mean that one must go without culinary delights while in Denmark. On two separate occasions, we thoroughly enjoyed stupendous meals at authentic Italian restaurants-one of which, I am impressed to report, serves FRESH, HOMEMADE pasta dishes (La Vecchia Signora — the other was Via Veneto in Malmo Sweden). We also had an excellent lunch at an authentic Thai restaurant. In all cases, our meals were so large that we were generally unable to eat everything on our plates, which is quite astounding, given my own reputation for eating everything in sight due to my voracious appetite.

Sadly, I find that the charms of Copenhagen are being harmed. Outside of its core area, there are large roads (including overpasses) that create an auto-oriented, sterile, suburban character. Unlike the core-where uses are traditionally and compactly mixed-we find that in the suburbs of Copenhagen, the residential-only pattern we see so much of in suburban America is evident. Even in Copenhagen, when the roads grow in size, the car becomes king. The hopeful sign, however, is that even in suburban Copenhagen, residential densities seem relatively high, with 3-5 story rowhouses and townhouses.

Our lodging while in Copenhagen is within the Hotel Maritime. I would recommend the place. Modest in price, yet close enough to be a relatively convenient walk to the “walking streets” of downtown Copenhagen. Indeed, each time we walk or bicycle back to the hotel, we find ourselves able to walk a Walking Street. The complimentary breakfast served at the hotel each morning provides a very good selection-buffet-style-and provides more than enough food for even the biggest appetites.

On our final day, we visit the city of Malmo, Sweden. It is a city of 266,000 people, and we visit because in the week before this trip, I am told by 3 different people that if we visit Copenhagen, we should also visit Malmo. I am intrigued, and we end up adding it to our itinerary.

So on a Sunday morning, we board the Copenhagen train for a very soft, pleasant, convenient trip across the sea into Malmo-a train that, unsurprisingly, is designed for carrying bicycle commuters. Our crossing over the sea was interesting, as it was over a bridge of many miles in length. We pay $30 for the round-trip.

We disembark at the Malmo station and again are ASTOUNDED by what seems like THOUSANDS of bicycles parked just outside the station on a concrete barge on a canal.

Like Copenhagen, Malmo is delightful. Filled with multi-story masonry buildings that are richly, beautifully ornate and historic, they are pulled up to abut sidewalks (photo at right). What this creates is an ambience in which nearly every street is human-scaled and turns out to be sheer joy to bicycle or walk. I very quickly shoot through the rolls of film I bring along, unable to resist shooting almost every street we come upon. Malmo contains a great many outstanding bus stations that are impressively designed to provide an “intermodal” link between the bicycle and the bus or train.

Sadly, and again like Copenhagen, Malmo has a ring of sterile, car-oriented suburbs and larger roads feeding suburban shopping centers.

More so than in Copenhagen, Malmo contains a good number of TWO-WAY bicycle paths and routes, including a particularly outstanding example near its downtown, where what appears to be a multi-lane “bicycle highway” has an underpass under a city street, and steps and bicycle loops that connect bicyclists and pedestrians to the street overhead.

I experience a number of “small world” coincidences during this trip. For example, while on my flight to Copenhagen to evaluate their bicycle program, I find myself reading a book by Roberta Brandes Gratz called “Cities: Back From the Edge”. It turns out to be an enormous coincidence. While we are rocketing toward Copenhagen, I learn that Gratz is an advocate of the quality transit I am about to experience in Copenhagen, for she notes that “transit alternatives should be a self-interest priority for car drivers.” That while she accepts the fact that a number of people in American cannot imagine themselves getting around without a car, she also asks if such motorists would like OTHER drivers to “switch from cars to transit and leave more road room for them.”

The author is dismayed to report that “some European countries seem in a race to catch up with us in our economy’s overdependence on the automobile and highway building industries,” she also assures the reader that “none have either sold off their train networks to private interests or dismembered their delicate mass transit systems to the degree we have since World War II.” Just as our plane sets down in Denmark, I read that “Denmark…[has] many programs reflecting a whole spectrum of success that seeks to support compact growth plans…and keep transit reliable, frequent and reasonably priced. Many…cities have special auto-reduction standards per year. Everywhere in Europe, gas prices are higher than in the United States. In fact, gasoline is probably the ONLY consumer good that is cheaper in real dollars in the United States than it was before the 1973 gas shortage…It costs less to drive 100 miles than almost ever in our history…Pedestrianized communities often have the strongest local economy.”

While we only have time to get a brief taste of Denmark, I am frustrated to learn that we will not have time to see other towns in the region, such as the Dutch town of Houten. Gratz points out that in Houten, “50 percent of all shopping trips are by bicycle, two-thirds of household budgets are spent within the town.” I make a mental note to see Houten on a future trip to Europe…

Gratz points out that Copenhagen is “one of the world’s most civilized and best loved cities.” She looks with approval at Copenhagen’s transportation strategies—particularly what they do about parking. Gratz indicates that “2 percent of the city’s parking has been removed each year for 30 years.” Has this caused gridlock? Economic ruin? Apparently not. “Car traffic still flows smoothly through the city and has increased as more people come. Traffic surely has not increased as much as it would have if limiting measures had not been in place. Stability reigns. The economy thrives. No periods of overheated growth, no massive demolition, and no high-rise overkill has occurred.”

“In some Danish communities,” according to Gratz, “when parking spaces become scarce, the price for parking is raised. (Toronto does the same thing, using the price of parking as a traffic control measure.)…No parking lots at all are provided at schools. Students bike or walk. (The United States is probably the only country in the world with an expensive, single-use rubber tire transit system devoted exclusively to transporting children to school. It is a monumental burden for local public school budgets.)” The author strongly urges others to see the downtown benefits that the Danes have experienced as a result of their planning. “Every American public official, planner, or traffic engineer at all interested in promoting the stabilization or rebirth of American downtowns should visit Danish communities.”

Gratz reports a mind-boggling experience (for an American, at least) as she walks down the middle of a Copenhagen Street, where she is astonished by the scene in front of her. “A small delivery van was slowly following directly behind three women, one of whom was pushing a stroller. All three were in deep conversation. The women were oblivious to the vehicle’s presence. The driver did not honk, but just waited for them to reach a corner at which he was turning…Sure enough, I was being followed in a similar fashion by a ‘walking’ vehicle whose driver was undisturbed and unagitated.”

In Copenhagen, “drivers accept limitations,” she finds. “Bicyclists proliferate. All kinds of safety statistics improve. More significantly, traffic calming is much cheaper than building more bypasses that bring short-lived congestion relief, and it does not open new land for sprawling development.”

Gratz concludes that there is no reason for Americans to decide that the civilized life experienced by Danes is unavailable to Americans. “…The idea that these conditions are not as applicable to where we live as to where we choose to visit is bizarre…” Her recipe is to tame the car, as it “has become an impediment to both mobility and community. The only choice is to undo excessive dependence on it.”

I also find personal coincidences in reading this book. The author uses 3-4 pages to quote statements from a woman who was previously a supervisor of mine in the Gainesville Planning Department (she now works in NYC). The author mentions attending a conference in Toronto in 1997 that I ALSO attended. She refers to a study about the costs of sprawl authored by a Florida State University professor I studied under and befriended in the early 1980s, and notes how this study influenced a town to establish an open space acquisition program. The town, in upstate New York, is just down the road from where I grew up. Finally, the author refers to a central Florida city which has seen its downtown decline due to suburbanizing highway strategies. The coincidence is that over the past few years, I have given two speeches in this small city about traffic congestion, suburban sprawl, and a declining quality of life due to excessive car dependence.

One of the most impressive features I notice in Copenhagen, a relatively large city of 1.7 million residents, is that for all of the 3 days we are there, I see not a single police officer. In addition, I hear only one emergency siren for that entire period. Quite stunning, given the fact that I live in Gainesville, Florida, a city with 17 times less people than Copenhagen, yet I see a good many police officers each day in Gainesville. In addition, emergency sirens are nearly continuous throughout the day and night. (The sirens are so noticeably absent that I would be comfortable in speculating that Copenhagen is perhaps the quietest large city in the world). It is clear that the residents of Copenhagen have done well in funneling much of their public tax revenue into the quality of life in their public realm rather than fearfully squandering most of their wealth into law enforcement and emergency services.

In America, we’ve opted for a cornucopia of consumer goods in our privatized “me generation” culture. The trade-off is that we have lost-particularly in our young people-a sense of civic responsibility, a sense of respect for laws, a sense of community, any semblance of a quality public realm, a cultural memory of how to build a community designed for people instead of cars, and a civilized, affordable and choice-rich way to travel.

This YouTube video shows photos I shot during my visit to Copenhagen:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjBPY52ZzKk

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

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