Miscellaneous

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

A Trip of Splendor and Wonder in the Tuscan Hills of Italy, December 2016

Maggie has never been to Italy. I inform her that this must be corrected immediately. One has not lived, after all, until a trip to Italy has been made.

So on Thanksgiving day, we hop on a plane in Denver to fly to New York City, where her son lives.

I open up the Boulder newspaper as we ride the bus to Denver and am amused to see that my letter to the editor describing the “Growth Ponzi Scheme” has been published. I turn to Maggie, point out the letter, and tell her that this dangerous man must be stopped. He is infuriating us with his regularly published, wrong-headed opinions!

Once in Brooklyn, we celebrate Thanksgiving 2016 by visiting a Brooklyn brewpub offering an impressive array of craft beers. I opt for the usual: a stout and a porter. The three of us then go to the Fat Goose in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving dinner.

We spend the next day with Maggie’s son walking in Brooklyn and staying in a rooftop airBnB.

The next day, we board a TAP Portugal flight from Newark to Lisbon and then Rome. I had never flown this airline, but opted for it when I discovered their screaming deal airfare to Europe. Nice plane. AWFUL 2-hour wait in the customs line in Lisbon to show our passport.

Maggie and I discuss whether it would be worth it to again put up with that line in order to visit Portugal in the future.

We arrive late afternoon in Rome on the 26th. After unloading our stuff in our stunning pantheon-rome-italy-nov-27-2016-4BnB – inside our place are medieval walls and arches in the heart of Rome – we take a short walk to the Pantheon. Maggie is blown away by suddenly arriving at such an ancient, world-reknowned building.

We also visit the can’t-miss Trevi Fountain at night (I shoot photos not realizing my camera is accidentally set at a distortion view, which makes the fountain look like an LSD trip).

For the next day and a half, we visit the incredible sights in this world-class city: St Peter’s, the Roman Forum ruins, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, breakfast at Campo dei Fiori, and the Colosseum. Maggie ends up calling the visit to see the Colosseum the highlight of what she saw in Rome.

Of courses, our time in Rome includes drinking much vino, sampling gelato, and enjoying much high-quality Roman food at various trattorias. One of our eating experiences in Rome was the fun Enoteca Cul De Sac gastropub.

Here are the photos I shot during our time in Rome.

I had expected the worst on this trip for weather, as Maggie’s work schedule did not give her enough time off for our Italy trip until late November, when the European weather tends to be chilly and foggy and drizzly. But good fortune was with us, as for almost our entire trip, the skies were clear blue and less chilly than I expected.

Midday we find ourselves on a train to Orvieto, a town very close to our much-anticipated visit to little-known but insanely charming Civita. Orvieto turns out to be lovely in its own right. Duomo di Orvieto – like nearly all duomos and chieasas and basilicas in Italy – is hard to believe it its ornamental splendor. We see such splendor so often in Italian basilicas on this trip that it almost becomes boringly ordinary. “Oh, this unbelievable, ornamental, solid gold room must be a tool shed!”

Here are the photos I shot while we were in Orvieto.

While waiting for a bus that will take us to Civita, we observe a busload of young schoolchildren getting off another bus. They are about 11 years old, and nearly all of them immediately light up a cigarette. It is emblematic of Europe, where it seems as if the entire population is chain-smoking. I jokingly ask Maggie if babies born in Italian hospitals are given a cigarette to smoke just after their butt is slapped and they take their first breath.

Civita in person is even more romantic and hard-to-believe splendid than I imagined. The civita-italy-nov-2016-43tiny town (current population of 10) sits on a chimney-shaped land form in the picturesque Italian landscape. An elevated walkway bridge leads pedestrians from Bagnoregio to Civita. We are told that the original walkway had been destroyed by retreating German soldiers in World War II. Unfortunately, the walkway was replaced by an unlovable modern walkway.

It is here that I conduct my first of three surveys of Italians: “What did you think of the American elections?” (we had just elected Donald Trump). For each of the three Italians I asked in three different cities, I was happy to hear that each was very happy and relieved that we had NOT elected Hillary Clinton. The reason each time was the same: “Hillary is a warmonger who promises to keep fighting endless wars.” Clearly, this little survey confirmed my belief that America is a warrior nation. Most all of us, shamefully, seem to think it is now normal and okay to have endless wars of death and destruction in the Middle East. For many in Europe, it seems, this is a terrible crime against humanity. Shame on us for out militarism in America.

Here are the photos I shot during our romantic walk in Civita.

We train from Orvieto to the hill town of Perugia. Perugia is a college town, and its spectacular medieval character is fantastic. We arrive in the early evening and stroll on its magical holiday-lit cobblestone streets. Our airBnB is just down the street from the lovely Piazza IV Novembre. The Corso Vannucci walking street is, as expected, quite nice. We dine at Osteria a Priori. We have wine at Civico 25 wine bar.

While lodging in Perugia, we opt for a day trip to Assisi. We were star-struck by Assisi! So assisi-italy-dec-1-2016-2much charm and romance in its medieval cobblestone streets! We loved the town so much that we talked about someday renting a villa there for several months. We visit Basilica Papale San Francesco D’Assisi, Duomo di San Rufino (containing a statue of the town rock star – St Francis), and Chiesa Nuovo.

We eat lunch at Caffe Duomo Assisi.

Here are the photos I shot while in Assisi. The pictures will allow you to feel as if you are walking in the town.

Our departure from Perugia gives us a delightful, serendipitous discovery: As we take the escalators down to the bus terminal, we pass through a wondrous, ancient brick tunnel system. We learn we are in the ancient Etruscan-built “Underground Perugia.” Anywhere else, when one goes down an escalator, one finds sterile, plastic or cinderblock walls. But in Perugia it is stupendous wonder in walkways once walked by ancient Romans.

We are stunned to learn at the bus terminal in Perugia that there are no buses scheduled to go to Siena until tomorrow, despite what we had found on the Internet. We scramble for a Plan B. Car-share (Italy’s version of Uber) does not work out. I go into the bus ticket office to ask about tickets to nearby towns that might have trains to Siena today. Stupidly (probably because I live in Boulder CO, where there is almost no theft and residents therefore tend to get lax about security), I leave my laptop bag outside. To my horror, when I glance back at it a few minutes later, I realize it had been stolen.

Surprisingly, I take the theft in stride and do not erupt in frantic rage. I realize that I had backed up all my files before the trip, so no files would be lost. I am now rushing to change all my most in-need-of-privacy site passwords (fortunately had my password list in a cloud!). I decide that it will be a relief not to have to lug the laptop around Italy and through airports now. And that this is an opportunity to replace my laptop with a better one. One has to look at the bright side, right? Maybe this is an example of my happy mood from being in Italy overcoming the normal fury of such an event?

These are the photos I shot while in Perugia.

For some odd reason, the Perugia bus terminal staff did not think of the solution we realized we had for the “lack of buses to Siena” problem we had that day. Take a train to a town outside of Perugia that has a train run to Siena later in the day! Problem solved!

In Siena, we soon find ourselves in the place Siena is most known for: Piazza del Campo. A public-market-at-piazza-del-campo-siena-italy-dec-2016-28grand, soaring space that is home to the proudly tall Torre del Mangia (which we climbed the 445 stairs of), the bi-annual horse race, the countless shops surrounding the piazza, and a festive, fun weekend farmers market (that does not close until 10 pm on weekends!). We had so much fun in the Siena farmers market sampling formaggio, pane, pizza, wine, fruits, and olives that we went back to it several times in our short Siena stay. As always, when we visited Siena Cathedral (the Duomo), we were stunned by its ornamental wonder and vastness.

We dine at Taverna di San Giuseppe. Superb! Maybe my best dinner ever.

Amusingly, on each night we go out to eat dinner during this 16-day trip in Italy, we go later than we normally do in America. We arrive at 7 or 8 pm. And almost always, we are the only ones in the trattoria. I feel sad that it seems as if the place must be going bankrupt. But by 9 or 10 pm, the place would fill up with customers. Turns out that we are just not used to the late dining habits of Italianos!

These are the photos I shot while in Siena.

The next day we bus from Siena to the never-disappointing San Gimignano, an ancient town of towers and cobblestone. Here, even the public RESTROOMS are from the time of Ancient Rome, with thick medieval stone walls and arches.

These are the photos I shot while in San Gimignano.

We then take a van tour trip from Siena to Montalcino. We spend a day tasting Brunello (100% sangiovese) wines in Montalcino and walking the town (we also got lost and nearly missed our van back to Siena!). Great wine towns such as this make excellent wines and are fiercely proud of their wines (Montalcino stoutly claims their wines are better than the world-famous wines made by neighboring Montepluciano). Our first Montalcino vino tasting is at Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino. We then go to visit a little winery (Abbadia Ardenga) in town proudly owned by a 90-year old winemaker. He shows us that for each year, he keeps an archive library of wines he has produced. His library goes back to 1945. He showed each of us his wine from each of our birth years. We enjoy a meat and cheese platter as we sample his vino matching our platter foods. Maggie buys a Rosso di Montalcino bottle of wine.

These are the photos I shot while in Montalcino.

From Siena, we train to Florence. Florence is the ultimate Renaissance town. Full of Renaissance paintings and sculpture. We first visit the incomparable David statue at the Accademia Gallery. We go to Piazza dellea Signoria, a spectacular piazza full of fantastic david-statue-at-accademia-gallery-florence-italy-dec-2016-7sculpture. We go to Duomo Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and climb the Campanile di Giotto tower and dome of the Duomo for spectacular views of Florence (and to kiss at the top!). We exhaust ourselves seeing the seemingly endless splendid art contained in the Uffizi Gallery (including the world famous Birth of Venus). We gawk at the mountains of solid gold and silver jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio. We enjoy the Santa Croce Basilica, which contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo.

In Florence, we thoroughly enjoy exploring the indoor Central Market. We find a pasta and sauce-making factory, which has a tiny glass-windowed room where two cooks are preparing fresh pasta and sauce selections for lunch. Of course, we opt for lunch here!

While here, we find ourselves locked in an art museum below Santa Croce! After several minutes of banging on doors and trying to exit through locked doors, we finally find an unlocked exit door. Whew! Almost had to spend a night with Renaissance art!

We have dinner with a good friend at Osteria Pepo, which serves us delicious local Tuscan fare, including pumpkin soup. We stroll at night to Piazzale Michelangelo for a wonderful view of the Florence skyline at night. Throughout or trip in Italy, we fell in love with the full-bodied, flavorful extra virgin olive oils we had with our breads in trattorias. We carry that love back to America, where we quickly proceed to buy several virgin olive oils, seeking to find that delicious taste.

As the gelato capital of Italy, we of course sample much gelato in Florence.

On our last day in Florence, we opt for lunch at my favorite trattoria in all of Florence: Trattoria Mario’s, which happens to be next door to Osteria Pepo, where we had dinner the night before. Like my visit in the past, Mario’s is packed with happy diners sitting at tiny tables. It is a bustling, loud, crowded, fun place where one can even view the happy cooks preparing orders.

Our last dinner in Florence is at 4 Leoni. Excellent.

These are the photos I shot while in Florence.

We are now on a bullet (high-speed) train from Florence to Bologna. First class! Maggie must try the train as she has never ridden high-speed rail. Unfortunately, nearly the entire route is in a tunnel. But we do get brief glimpses of landscape as we rocket at 450 mph through the Italian countryside.

We are going to Bologna mostly because this is the city we will fly out of to return to America. Rick Steves, who is nearly always quite reliable, suggests that Bologna be avoided. He observes, I believe, that the city is ugly, dirty, crowded, and boring. But he turns out to be very wrong, at least in our experience. Old quarter Bologna – especially the Piazza Maggiore area and Qudrilatero neighborhood – are bustling, fun, festive places crowded with happy people enjoying vino in the streets, cafes, trattorias, produce and seafood markets, wine bars, tightly human-scaled streets, holiday lighting, and walking streets. Bologna is also world famous for its seemingly countless portico arcades, which I could not stop taking photos of.

Yes, the newer, outlying areas of the city, like most cities in Italy and elsewhere, is unlovable and unworthy of visiting. But Maggie and I felt that the old center city of Bologna was our most pleasurable experience on the trip, and we would love to visit again. Next time, we intend to again visit the piazza containing a farmers market, where we saw a vendor cooking HUGE pans of delicious-looking paella.

via-indipendenza-bologna-italy-dec-2016-63On our first night in Bologna, we find ourselves on Via Independenza, which is a 6-lane walking street. Full of porticos. And on our second night, I see something I have not seen before: a 6-lane road that is so wall to wall walkers that it looks like a traffic jam!

In Bologna, we have vino at Roberto Bistrot wine bar. We dine at Zerocinquantello, where we sample an excellent example of Tuscan fare: a thin-sliced meat and cheese platter. When in Bologna, do as the Bolognese…

Here are the photos I shot while in Bologna.

While in Florence, we opt for a day trip to Ravenna. I had never heard of the town, but Rick Steves recommended it. The town is full of UNESCO World Heritage sites. We find it to be worthy of a great day trip.

Here are my photos from walking Ravenna.

On Saturday, December 10th, we fly from Bologna to New York City.

Overall, this trip to Italy was unforgettable splendor, wonder, and fun. We absolutely loved it. Maggie now knows that she has not lived until she has been to Italy.

 

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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.

 

 

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Our Old Stomping Grounds in Arizona: Arcosanti, Jerome, and Flagstaff

Ann and I spot a screaming deal for round-trip airfare from Denver to Phoenix. We opt to carry out a desire we’ve had for years: To return to Arizona and see places we had lived in decades ago.

We drive north on I-17 from Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. The city of Phoenix is a poster child for sprawl, as several decades of publicly-funded highway widenings and the creation of oceans of free parking has dispersed houses across endless miles of desert surrounding Phoenix. As we head north on the Interstate, we cross an exit for Northern Avenue. And doing this gives us a clear view of the extent of Phoenix sprawl, as Northern Avenue in the early days of Phoenix was surely at the northern edge of the city. Today, several miles of residential and commercial sprawl have been smeared across the arid landscape north of Northern Avenue. Indeed, Northern Avenue could probably be called “South Central Avenue” now, given all the costly dispersal.

Ann decides to drive us through Black Canyon City in her search for some needed eye drops. We spot a tiny, lonely, hardly visible Mexican “café” and on a whim, Ann adventurously decides we should sample it for lunch.

The ambience could hardly be worse. The “café” is playfully called the Chihuahua Chill Grill Black City3 AZ Dec 2013Chihuahua Chill Grill, and the restaurant “building” is housed within a tiny trailer sitting on one corner of a vast, empty Family Dollar asphalt parking lot. The “seating” is on small outdoor picnic tables grouped around the trailer, and the “floor” is asphalt. Surrounding the “café” is chain link fencing topped by razor wire. Tumbleweeds and cactus are the neighbors.

What could be worse?

As it turns out, however, the Chihuahua Chill Grill has gotten rave reviews from visitors throughout the world, as the fish tacos and enchiladas are superb. And affordable. We enjoy our filling, delicious lunch there so much that we later decide to stop there again for lunch on our way to Sky Harbor airport at the end of our Arizona tour.

Our first visit is to Arcosanti, where Ann lived briefly in the 1970s.

Arcosanti is an experimental town and molten bronze bell casting community that has been developed by Paolo Soleri, who began construction in 1970, 70 miles north of Phoenix. Soleri started the town to demonstrate how urban conditions could be improved while minimizing the destructive impact on the earth. He taught and influenced generations of architects and urban designers.

My assessment of Arcosanti is one of surprise and great disappointment. I had heard of Arcosanti when I was at school in nearby Flagstaff, and expected it to impress me. But what I find is appalling.

The poured concrete buildings are hideously ugly, bizarre, and utterly unlovable. Why did Soleri not use the timeless adobe architecture that had existed in the region for centuries?Arcosanti8 Dec 2013

In the middle of a very arid, extremely water-scarce region, Arcosanti must draw precious water from a well system. Yet despite the desperate lack of water, Arcosanti has several areas landscaped with grass sod. Unsurprisingly, the grass is being watered by an irrigation system while we are there. Why did Arcosanti not opt for xeriscape landscaping to avoid the need to squander precious water on grass? And why does Arcosanti have an enormous outdoor swimming pool that results in high levels of water evaporation?

The main dining hall for Arcosanti is stunningly cold on the day we spend there. Indeed, all that have gathered for the meal we attend need to wear winter coats as they sit at the indoor dining tables. I notice that the dining hall has enormous, unshaded glass windows facing south and west. Clearly, the design leads to huge heat gain in warmer months, which must turn the space into an oven. Why, then, is Arcosanti designed to be so awful regarding climate control?

Arcosanti is isolated in the middle of the central Arizona desert. Such a location necessitates relatively high levels of motor vehicle trips to support the “community,” which was envisioned to be the home of 5,000 to 6,000 people, but currently has a population of 56. To make a visit to the doctor, a trip to buy clothes, a night at the movie theatre, or an excursion to buy groceries all require long car trips. Why is Arconsanti not location-efficient, so that it closely neighbors such regular needs?

We stay in the “Sky Suite,” which provides grand views of a scenic desert landscape surrounding Arcosanti, as two of the four walls of the suite consist almost entirely of glass. But the glass is unshaded, which surely leads to issues of energy conservation problems and climate control issues, not to mention the lack of privacy. With its high elevation and abundant glass, I feel as if I am in a fishbowl, where everyone around us can look in on us.

After Arcosanti, we drive to the charming, historic hill town of Jerome. Ann lived in Jerome in the late 1970s at the same time I lived in nearby Flagstaff. We stay at the lovely “Surgeon’s House” bed and breakfast, and enjoy a stunning sunset over the valley and canyons to the north of Jerome5 Dec 2013Jerome, and are treated to the best breakfast we have ever eaten on the morning of our departure.

Jerome was founded in the late 19th century on Cleopatra Hill, overlooking the Verde Valley, it is about 100 miles north of Phoenix. Supported by copper mines, it had 10,000 residents in the 1920s. As of the 2010 census, its population was 444.

In the late 19th century, the United Verde Mine, developed by William Clark, extracted ore bearing copper, gold, silver. In total, the copper deposits discovered in the vicinity of Jerome were among the richest ever found in any time or place.

Jerome made news in 1917, when strikes involving the IWW led to the expulsion at gunpoint of about 60 IWW members.

We drive to Oak Creek Canyon on yet another bright, sunny day. Our Wilson Creek trail2 Oak Creek Canyon AZ Dec 2013dayhike is on the incredibly beautiful, picturesque Wilson Creek Trail. In the late 1970s, I would tag along with friends from Flagstaff to go tubing at Slickrock in Oak Creek Canyon. So enjoyable is the hike that Ann and I vow to want to return to Oak Creek a number of times to enjoy the many gorgeous trails there.

Our last Arizona stop is Flagstaff, where Northern Arizona University is found. I was a student at NAU for three years from 1978 through 1981 before transferring to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to finish a degree in environmental science.

I had not been to Flagstaff in 33 years, and despite having lived there for three years, I did not recognize anything in Flagstaff, or on the university campus.

My favorite drinking and live music nightclub when I was a student was a place called “Shakey Drakes.” It has since become a strip club briefly, and is now a Thai restaurant. My buddies and I drank many pitchers of Schlitz beer there while enjoying performances by our favorite local band – “Loosely Tight.” According to Wikipedia, Loosely Tight was based out of Phoenix, got a lot of airplay on KDKB radio station (our favorite rock station), and the band came to prominence after taking top honors at the 1979 California World Music Festival. My favorite song by Loosely Tight was a song called “Renegade.”

As they say, “you can’t go home again,” as communities change quickly (and old friends move out of town).

For old times sake, I return to my old college dorm – Peterson Hall – and Peterson Jam 1980 and Dec 2013actually remember my old dorm room door. We go into the basement and I “reenact” my being a rock star where I had played air guitar with a plywood guitar in 1980. Later, I stitch together a photo of my 2013 visit to a shot taken of me there in 1980. The white metal trusses on the ceiling match, which provides evidence that the venue is the same.

 

 

Here are the photos we shot during our visits to Arcosanti, Jerome, Oak Creek Canyon, and Flagstaff. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left.

Arcosanti and Jerome:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/ArcosoniAndJeromeAZ

Oak Creek Canyon:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/OakCreekCanyonAZDec2013

Flagstaff:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/FlagstaffDec2013

_____________________________

Car is the Enemy book coverMy book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607

My memoir can be purchased here: http://goo.gl/S5ldyF50 Years Memoir Cover

Visit my other sites:

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http://dombestlist.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

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http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

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http://domz60.wordpress.com/

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http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

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Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dom’s Adventure Tour of Southwest Colorado (September-October 2013)

A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.

We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name. Buena Vista beautiful view from town, Sept 2013 M

I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.

Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.

After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!

Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.

Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GreatSandDunesColorado

Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biHF_0lpPLE&feature=c4-overview&list=UUr3Iyrr6_pzCS56wz0_ELGA

On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…

On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.

Treasure Falls, Rt 160, Colorado, Sept 2013We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.

Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SouthernColoradoSept2013

Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.

The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.

We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP2, Sept 2013

At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.

After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.

Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MesaVerdeNPAndSanJuanMtns

Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary San Juan Mtns hike near Highland Mary Lakes trail8, Sept 2013Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.

Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SanJuanMtnsHiking

The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.

On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.

I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.

In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.

I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.

Overall, a VERY close call.

Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.Dom on Ice Lake hike41, Oct 2013

We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/IceLakeHikeOct2013

On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?

I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?

The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.

Yellow Jacket Mine ruins, Bear Creek hike58, Oct 2013We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/BearCreekHikeOct2013

On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.

During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”

Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!

Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.

In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…

We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!

After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.

A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.

Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnyGorgeKayakingCurecantiNationalRecreationalArea

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Miscellaneous, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loving Cozumel in 2013 (February 2013)

This adventure started with an incredible family travel coincidence. Ann made reservations for me and her to spend a week snorkeling and scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico – a paradise for water sports (particularly scuba diving). We are to arrive on February 20th and depart on February 27th.

A day after Ann made the reservations, we learned from my mom that my two sisters and one of my nieces will be getting on a cruise ship departing from Miami in the near future.

One place they will spend a day off the ship?

Cozumel.

On February 21st.

When we booked our trips, none of us knew of the plans of others.

What are the chances of this happening??

Ann and I ended up spending a wonderful week in Cozumel.

My two sisters visited us on our second day in Cozumel, and we enjoyed snorkeling and diving with them off the hotel dock. We didn’t learn until after our trip to Cozumel was booked that their cruise ship trip would be stopping in Cozumel the day after we arrived. A pleasant, astonishing coincidence.

We lodged at the Villa Aldora hotel very close to the presidential retreat (you will see several photos of Villa Aldora in my link below). The hotel patio we ate breakfast at each morning was only a few feet from a very nice snorkeling area. Waters were warm (83 to 85 degrees), impossibly clear, dazzling blue in color, and sitting atop snow white sandy and coral bottoms. Our dive operator was Aldora Divers, widely recognized as the best dive operators on the island. Each morning their dive boats would arrive at our hotel dock to take us diving (the Cozumel14dock was only a few feet from our room). My big dives were at Palancar Caves, Columbia Deep, Santa Rosa Wall, and Punta Sur – each of which provide utterly gorgeous, vibrantly colorful reef walls, tropical fish, and spectacular swim-throughs (I LOVE swim-throughs!). The following video, while not shot during my dives, shows diving at the Columbia and Santa Rosa sites I dove over the past few days in Cozumel:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=516KZ2nOCoA

I had SEVERAL eye-popping encounters with VERY large marine life: lobsters, green moray eels, eagle rays, black-tip sharks (the shark in the video is a black-Cozumel16tip about the size of the three or four I encountered), turtles, spotted eels, queen angelfish, and barracuda.

This link shows photos I (mostly) shot during the trip. Since I didn’t have an underwater camera, the shots of marine life and reef formations were not shot by me, but were shot by another diver during my dives. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, don’t forget to click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/Cozumel2013

On Sunday night, we went to the Cozumel town center and had a DELICIOUS, authentic dinner at a restaurant that is very popular (with good reason!) with locals (we hate touristy places!). During dinner, street performers entertained us with flaming torches, as you will see in the photos. We then walked to the town square where a large number of festive locals had gathered to enjoy a very good horn band. We danced the night away on the plaza there.

Throughout our stay in Cozumel, we had the good fortune to eat at a number of great, funky restaurants popular with the local population. Our favorites were Café Indio, Del Sur, Casa Denis, and Corazon Contento. We also had lunch at a taco stand that served out-of-this-world fish tacos.

It was a four-hour direct flight from Denver to Cancun, Mexico when we returned home. Because Cozumel is relatively close to the equator, we had severe weather shock when we returned to Denver and Boulder. The morning of our departure in Cancun found us at a Cancun bus station. It was sunny, humid and VERY hot. Sweating profusely in 90-degree temperatures. A few hours later, we were walking from the downtown Boulder bus station to our house. The temperature was windy and about 15 degrees. We were so painfully cold that we opted to take a taxi after a few blocks, even though we were about five blocks from home. We had gone from “middle of summer” weather to “middle of winter” weather in four hours.

Ann and I hope to make return trips to Cozumel again and again.

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Caribbean, Diving, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Walking in Downtown Philadelphia

In January 2012, I accept an invitation to serve as keynote speaker for a forum entitled “Walkability: Philadelphia Strides Into the Future.” I give the presentation on a Thursday night at the Academy of Natural Sciences on Logan Square.

I am told my presentation was “inspiring.”

My message, in part, is that while the city is already one of the best in the nation for walkable quality (largely due to its high density and proximity of destinations), the city needs to engage in transformative tactics to get to the next level. That the greatest cities share a common trait: they are all world-class places for enjoyable walking.

“It is not about providing more space for pedestrians (such as building new or wider sidewalks),” I point out. “It is about taking away space from cars (via road diets, removal of off-street surface parking, and so on), so that cars are assigned more of their fair share of space, rather than be allocated an excessive amount of space. It is about increasing the cost of driving, so that motorists are paying their fair share of the costs they impose on society. It is about increasing the inconvenience of traveling by car, so that cars do not unfairly inconvenience other users of streets.”

I also note that the pedestrian must be the design imperative. That everything else – cars, transit, the handicapped, even bicycling – come second. When buildings and streets are designed, in other words, the first and primary objective is that the design improves conditions for walking. Only then do we look at providing for other forms of travel, and then only in such a way as to not impede or reduce pedestrian quality. Doing so ensures that the community has maximized its quality of life, its economic health, its civic pride, and its sustainability.

I walk for several miles throughout the Philadelphia town center to get a better sense of the walking conditions. Immediately, I notice that the City has converted nearly every downtown street into a one-way street. So thorough, jarring and unpleasant is this conversion that it hits me over the head like a two by four. It is instantly clear to me: for Philadelphia to dramatically improve its walking quality, it must follow the lead of the large and growing number of cities throughout the nation that are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation.

Philadelphia had made the unfortunate change to one-way streets back in the 1920s.

Why are one-way streets ruinous? Because they inevitably increase car speeds, motorist anger and impatience, and motorist inattentiveness. Streets quickly become a raging, peddle-to-the-metal racetrack of hurried, high-speed cars. Retail shops and residences start fleeing from the newly hostile street. Bicyclists are increasingly pushed onto sidewalks because of the immensely uncomfortable danger of trying to share the street with the hurtling cars (bicyclists also find themselves increasingly riding the wrong way on one-way streets, as do some motorists). Those shops, homes and offices that remain on what are now a form of downtown highways start setting themselves back from the hostility of the street, or turn their backs by boarding up windows, pulling entrances to the side or back, and creating the immense, unfriendly blank walls that are now found on so many of downtown Philadelphia’s streets.

The incompatibility of bicycling and one-way streets in Philadelphia is evident in at least a few ways. Not only the frequent bicycling on sidewalks I observe, but also the fact that the City has decided to remove on-street parking on many downtown streets in order to install in-street bicycle lanes. Healthy downtown streets have on-street parking on both sides, which slows cars and obligates more attentiveness by motorists. Car speeds tend to be slow enough that most bicyclists are comfortable sharing the street with car traffic, and on-street bicycle lanes (which are harmful to creating a human-scaled street environment, and probably increase car speeds) tend to be unnecessary and inappropriate. But when Philadelphia converted to one-way streets, this bicyclist comfort was lost, thereby obligating the need to degrade the pedestrian (and retail) quality of many streets by removing much on-street parking.

Worst of all, the experience for the pedestrian becomes awful with one-way streets. The ambience is quite loud (high-speed cars are the leading source of noise pollution in ciites), and seemingly unsafe (high-speed cars seem very dangerous to the pedestrian, and often ARE dangerous due to the tiny reaction times high speeds provide). Impatient, inattentive, hurried motorists conditioned to be that way on one-ways also do not tend to be in the mood to offer the needed courtesy to pedestrians trying to cross or otherwise navigate on streets.

I acknowledge that many one-way streets in Philadelphia will be very difficult to revert back to two-way, as most streets are quite narrow. Probably only those streets that are three- or more lanes in size can be converted back to two-way, or two-lane streets that have low traffic volumes.

My hat is off to the city of Philadelphia on siren use reduction by police and fire trucks. In my 2.5 days in downtown Philly, I hardly heard a single siren. This siren reduction is an enormous boost to the quality of life, the sense of calm and serenity, and the overall well-being of the city. This siren reduction is in striking contrast to most American cities, where emergency vehicle sirens are nearly constant, 24/7 attacks on eardrums that powerfully create the impression that the city is under siege, or in an active war zone.

This link is a YouTube slide show of the photos I shot during my walking tour of downtown Philadelphia:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlRmBgB8dN8

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Miscellaneous, Pennsylvania | 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

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