Monthly Archives: July, 2014

Mediterranean Cruise – Art Auctions, Barcelona, and Tunis

As we left Nice we were sad at the limited time we had to visit with our friend Margo.  We determined that we must come back to Europe and visit with her and Jeff at a future date.  Cruise ships in general and the Holland America line in particular are noted for their beautiful interiors and lovely art.  In fact every cruise we have taken has had an art auction at some point during the “at sea” portion of the adventure.  On our first cruise to Alaska, and our first cruise ever, we were enamored with the beautiful art on display that was later to be sold at auction.  Setting in on the first day of the auction we noticed that the friendly ships’ crew were not only offering us free champagne but were very quick to refill our flutes.  What generosity!  What an artistic spirit of benevolence!  As the auction progressed…and the free champagne flowed…I could not help but notice the freedom of purchase that many in the happy audience were engaging in.  We saw one of the happy art purchasers at dinner a night or two after and commented on the several pieces that they had purchased.  They replied that they had better like them because they certainly cost a lot of money.  The moral of this story would be that if you attend an at sea art auction…do not drink the free champagne.

Barcelona, Spain is simply a beautiful city.  During our shore excursion we partook in a great guided tour that stopped in two different Tapas restaurants.  Tapas are a snack or an appetizer in Barcelona that can be consumed as a main course.  The idea of Tapas is that you can eat delicious food and still be able to concentrate on good fellowship of others, at your table, and engage in conversation.  These are small finger foods or horderves that can be either hot or cold, spicy or mild, and composed of almost anything.  We sat at table with a simply delightful couple.  They were on the cruise with us and Dan was from the East coast while Michelle was from Florida.  She had been a member of the Mossad in Israel.  He had retired twice…the first time for a period of five years until his wife told him that there was not enough money…and thus he said,” I went back to work for ten additional years”.  We not only had lunch with Dan and Michelle but later after the cruise we were united with them again on a seven hour bus tour of Italy and lunch at Assisi.

During our tour we marveled at the Sagrada Familia basilica who’s architect was the renowned Antoni Gaudi.  This is a basilica like none I have ever seen.  

We also saw Gaudi’s Casa Batllo which is one of his most unusual works.  

There was a liveliness and excitement in Barcelona that was immediately felt.  It is a very busy city with friendly people and many children…who watched us with purpose and question as we walked around their city.

The next day we docked at Tunis, Tunisia.  Tunis is the capital of Tunisia and is located in north Africa.  We were one of the first cruise liners to begin docking in Tunis about four months after the Arab Spring uprising had freed them from the dictatorship of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who had been removed and his government overthrown.  In fact the Arab Spring began in Tunisia.  Tunisia is a Muslim country with 98% being Sunni Muslims.  Our tour guide was an interesting animated fellow.  He began to recount his gratefulness to the United States for standing with Tunisia during its’ recent struggle for independence and his appreciation for Holland America for having the courage to be one of the first cruise lines to begin docking at Tunis.  His comments were heartfelt and like nothing that I have experienced on a tour.  As we drove through the city it was like being in the pages of National Geographic.  The ancient buildings and the locals setting in front of them having coffee and smoking and talking was a surreal experience.  We were in another culture and another world.  Not a bad world…on the contrary it was fascinating and by the quizzical looks we received as we drove by I think the Tunisians were thinking the same things as we were.

We stopped at the ancient ruins of Carthage.   This was something to behold.  The City dates back to the first millennium BC when it was a Phoenician colony.  

We visited the military cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia where thousands of fallen american veterans have their final resting place.  When we saw the immaculate keeping of the grounds and heard the Battle Hymn of the Republic being played on the belles from the cemeteries chapel we could not help but tear up at the thought of all of the young men who had given their lives in Europe and many during the North African Campaigns of World War II.  

One of the most colorful stops during the tour was at a rug manufacturing shop.  We first were given a demonstration of how the rugs were made by hand stitching that was extremely intricate and producing a beautiful product.  Then we were ushered into a long narrow room that had benches aligning the walls.  A sweet Tunisian dessert was offered to each of us and some small cups of delicious tea.  Now for the sales pitch.  Exquisite rug after exquisite rug was brought to the middle of the room for our inspection and purchase.  The beginning prices on each were exorbitant.  Some of our group simply purchased their rug at the first price offered and seemed extremely proud of their consumer acumen.  While others waited until the third, fourth, and even fifth price was quoted before making the contract.

As we began to board the bus after the rug show our tour guide stood in the middle of an extremely busy street and stopped the traffic as any police officer would do…however he was a tour guide..and a brave man.

I think one of the primary problems between Christians and Muslims is that they have never taken the time to get to know each other.  The people we encountered in Tunis were very friendly…other than the one old man who made an obscene gesture with his hand at us…and are facing much of the same struggles that christians do on a daily basis.  I must reiterate that our tour guide was touching in his sincerity of appreciation for Americans and for their support.  As we were in a gift shop that was attached to the rug factory…he insisted on introducing me to his boss who seemed honored to meet me.  I was honored to meet him as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mediterranean Cruise – Genoa, Cannes, Eze, and Nice

As we boarded our Holland America cruise liner at Civtavecchia and began to set sail I straight away noticed the relaxed care free feeling that customarily comes over me when I am on a cruise.  From the epicurean dinners to the fine wine and cocktails to the beautiful public spaces and comfortable accommodations, cruising is an almost worry free way to see the world.  Not to mention that the entertainment is often Broadway quality.  We were diverted from our first port of call and docked in Genoa, Italy.

Genoa has a population of over six hundred thousand inhabitants, according to Wikipedia.    My only memory of Genoa’s history was that Christopher Columbus was born there…but even that is of historical question.

In any case our first stop was little more than our standing on the dock and walking to a nearby merchant area…where they watched us with a skeptical eye.

The next day we went ashore at Cannes, France.  We boarded a bus for a guided tour of Cannes, Eze, and Nice.  These towns line the historic French Riviera.  Cannes was very interesting in that the Cannes Film Festival was transpiring while we were driving through.  We looked intently for famous movie stars but sadly the guide told us it was a bit to early for them as they usually came out mid-afternoon.  We did see the famous red carpet.  The population is roughly seventy-three thousand people.  The famous film festival began in September, 1946.

Eze was where we took a walking tour of this small town in the mountains.  Eze has a population of just under three thousand people.  Eze is sometimes referred to as the “eagles nest” due to its’ height of 1,401 feet above sea level.  We virtually toured the entire town and visited many of the small quaint shops…first by walking up the steep incline and then down to return to the bus.  We stood in front of the Fragonard Perfume store for some time but did not go in.  Three years later in Grasse we did go in and stayed for some time.

Nice was an exciting destination for us as we were to have lunch with our friend of many years Margo.  We were to meet by the old opera house.  Thus we asked the tour guide to let us depart from the bus and tour…and inquired when and where we should meet again for the return trip to the ship.  As we looked for Margo I noticed the extreme beauty of the old city.  The buildings were unique in their architectural structure and close proximity.  IMG_0307

 

The picture of Nice above was taken June 2014 and not the time of this blog which was May, 2011.

We had a lovely lunch and then perused an outdoor antique market.  I noticed both at lunch and during our walk through the market that many of the residents had their dog or dogs with them.  We learned that the french take their dogs virtually everywhere with them and it is culturally acceptable.  Nice is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe and has three hundred days of sunshine annually.

I think everyone but me indulged in some gelato just before we departed from Margo to board our bus.  Watching them eat…I wished that I had joined them.  We decided that someday we would like to return to Nice for a few days rather than being bound by a cruise line minimal land schedule.

 

Rome – Before the Mediterranean Cruise

January 1,2011 I retired from a job that I loved at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.  Mary Jane then retired from Her favorite position at SIU at the end of February 2011.  Having worked all of our lives, to that point, we wanted to take a holiday like we had never experienced before.  Thus we decided to embark on a Mediterranean cruise in May 2011, with an extended stay in Rome after the cruise concluded.  Aaron and Jonathon were both able to join us and the excitement was electric.

We landed at Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome.  After we retrieved our baggage we waited for Bob’s Limo Service, who would be our chauffeur both during the day that we were in Rome prior to the cruise and the week after.  The driver for Bob was a delightful fellow.  He greeted us with broken english and proceeded to drive like a bat out of hell, as my mother was fond of saying.  I have driven in Manhattan… and was grateful to have finished without a major accident.  As Jonathon remarked at the conclusion of our great east coast adventure, ” We had a lot of close calls.”  Nevertheless I have never seen traffic or driving as I witnessed in Rome.  There are thousands of small scooters interweaving in and out of cars and trucks and other scooters.  Apparently there are no rules of the road as drivers cut in front of their peers with abandon.  We were told by our chauffeur that the rule of driving in Roma was to not make eye contact with a person that is attempting to cut in front of you as that is body language for giving them permission to do so.  After more than a little heart palpitations we arrived at our destination, the Hotel Montecarlo.

The Montecarlo was a lovely Hotel with an old world ambiance.  As we checked in with Claude the desk clerk, and bartender as I later discovered, we noticed that he had only rudimentary english skills and we had no Italian language skills.  Remember this was our first exposure to Europe.  We were ushered to our rooms and Aaron and I collapsed on twin beds while Mary Jane and Jonathon overcame their exhaustion and sought lunch.  As they departed the lights and air conditioner ceased to function.  The electricity was off.  Being so unbelievably tired we perspired through until their return.  Later I inquired of Claude and discovered that if your key was not inserted into the socket provided for it by the inside of the  door of the room your electricity immediately was turned off.  We were awoken from our hot slumber by Mary Jane announcing that it was time to catch Bob’s Limo Service to the Catacomb tour.  Jonathon and I protested that we would rather sleep…but the fact that I was in Rome and might never be so again won out and we left with Bob.

There are forty or more catacombs under Rome.  They started in the second century AD.  The empty underground burial niches in the stone and earth under Rome were extremely interesting.  However they palled in comparison to the Sicilian catacombs that we visited later in the trip.

Now, no matter how tired we were we were ready to eat.  Just a block from the Montecarlo was a trattoria that Jonathon and Mary Jane had visited for lunch.  We decided that sounded good to our weary minds and bodies.  At this point I must mention that our hotel was located more or less on embassy row.  There were uniformed armed guards along the path to the trattoria and the surrounding blocks.  As we entered the trattoria I noticed the liveliness of the establishment.  Much talking, laughing, and movement were all around us.  Our waiter was colorful as he was extremely busy with slightly crossed eyes and a balding pate.  When I inquired what was best on the menu he responded that, “What was best was not on the menu…but that he would fix his off menu speciality for us if we desired”.  We responded that we desired very much.  When he brought the off menu special to us we began to eat what was the best pasta dish that we have ever partaken of in Europe…and we have now been there three times.  It was exquisite.  At the conclusion of the outstanding meal I left my customary tip of 20% and we proceeded to exit the building.  Our waiter followed us into the street and exclaimed, ” Please come back again…we are closed tomorrow…but we will be open every day after that!”  I responded that we were going on a weeks’ cruise but after that we would be returning to the Montecarlo for an additional week and that we would definitely be patrons again.  He seemed very happy.

The next morning was embarkation day for the cruise…but first was the private tour of the Vatican.  Bob sent a Mercedes to pick us up at the Montecarlo and deposit us at the Vatican.  Our guide Sergio met us within five minutes of our arrival and we began.  This young man, from the instant we met him, was the consummate professional.  He took us in a side door and commenced to best guided tour that we have ever had.  DSC00010DSC00007

By the time he had completed our three hour tour we were inundated with both ancient and modern knowledge of the Vatican.

At the conclusion of our tour we said goodbye to Sergio and returned by taxi, not Bob, to the Montecarlo and then by bus to Civitavecchia of our embarkation on the ship that would take us to many interesting points around the Mediterranean.  We had only just begun.

Faith

One of the definitions of  faith, according to Dictionary.com, is, “belief that is not based on proof”.  Another definition would be,” belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the pilgrims.”  

I have often reflected on the meaning of faith…why do people attend synagogue, church, or mosque.  Is it the hope of an afterlife, a rapture, rewards in heaven that seem somewhat earthly in their descriptions?  

Is religious affiliation much like a club to many people?  You pay your dues and show up for the main events…and you have got your bases covered with the big man upstairs?

The popular author Tom Perrotta has written a compelling book titled, the leftovers,  which has been made into a series on HBO.  The basic premise is that a rapture like event has occurred taking one hundred and forty-thousand people away from the earth and their families and friends to somewhere yet to be determined.  One of the most interesting components of this yarn is that that people were apparently from all walks of life, faithful and faithless,…moral and immoral.  After this unexplained departure it appears that a slow chaos is building among the leftovers…including an appreciable decline in church attendance.  Nihilism is taking over the town in which the story is set.  

Many people are members of a belief system by virtue of their birth.  Judaism, Muslim, Catholic, or Protestant, while many more are members of a denomination by the same random circumstance, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and others.  

I had a good friend disclose to me many years ago that the only reason he attended church was to avoid a burning hell.

As Mary Jane and I have traveled throughout Europe we have toured many exquisite cathedrals.  I must tell you that I find them inspiring.  The people that built these magnificent edifices had to be inspired.  Did they come up in the same faith system that I have?  No, I think not as the catholic church would be the primary religious influence throughout Europe.  Nevertheless the physical manifestation of their belief in the unknown is palpable.  

When I was working at university I was acquainted with many wonderful students from all over the world.  Their backgrounds and belief or faith systems were as the old testament patriarch Josephs’ coat of many colors.  One of these, an African American young man, worked in the office with me for some time and was a muslim.  He was a delightful person and caring person and dedicated to his faith.  

I have several friends who are Jewish by birth and Christian by faith.

Many voices in the United States, and some with appreciable political influence, would have our government follow their narrow interpretation of the Bible and their belief system.  You see that’s the  rub as we used to say.  Prayer is powerful…but do I have to recite your… or the politically correct prayer?  

Having begun my faith walk in a non-denominational church forty-five years ago and now having been a member of First Presbyterian Church for the past sixteen years I have experienced quite a view of my protestant faith.  Faith is extremely personal and many times private.  

One manifestation that I enjoy seeing in the Presbyterian Church is people living their faith with practical actions of helping others and the less fortunate.  

 In the new testament (NIV) Jesus said in John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

 

 

 

A Month in Europe – Reflections

We packed so much into our month in Europe that it is impossible to mention everything that we did.  But it occurred to me that I must highlight some of the lovely people, places, events, and impressions that I have thus far not mentioned in the past A Month in Europe blogs.

We were privileged to meet two of Margo and Jeff’s good friends Ron and Barbara.  These were simply delightful people.  Ron is retired from several meaningful positions including rocket scientist while Barbara has her own insurance consulting business and still is working part time.  They are from New York but have the most interesting  annual living plan of residing in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France for part of the spring and summer, then home to New York, New York until the first chilly winds blow, and then to Florida.  They met us at a stop on the train from Nice to Ventimiglia, Italy where we were all going to the famous Friday outdoor market.  The market is located in the towns’ center and has over five hundred stalls that have everything from cheese and salami to italian coffee pots.  This Market is a microcosm of humanity.  Beautiful silks, cashmere sweaters, and leather goods along with toys and trinkets, and purses being sold by African folks who were very interesting to watch.  These gentleman would take some time in laying out their wares of primarily purses on a blanket on the ground only to subsequently gather the blanket by the four corners and run, as if for their life, when word traveled that the italian police were in the area.  I asked Jeff what was happening and he told me that they were probably in the country illegally and were thus not wanting to be apprehended by the police.  The theatre did not happen once while we at the market but many times.  Not long after the fleeing the Carabinieri who walked slowly and deliberately down the narrow paths of the market…they soon returned to the same location that they had fled a few minutes earlier and again went through the painstaking process of setting up their wares.  Ron purchased a great italian coffee pot…that if I had seen them I would have purchased one as well.

Jeff told me early in our stay in Nice that their was a Jazz club very near their apartment and that we would go there for some Jazz appreciation during the week that we were in Nice.  I thought how nice this would be as Jazz is my favorite form of music.  I even considered that perhaps we would attend two or three performances due to the close proximity of the club.  The week went by very quickly and one of the last nights we were there as we were walking back to the apartment Jeff remarked that he and I should stop in to the Jazz club that was right in front of us.  I responded that we must wait for the girls…as I was certain that they wanted to join us.  We never made it to the Jazz club…and I can still hear the music.

The times I spent with Jeff at the Mediterranean Sea coast…reflecting on our all to quickly passed youth…and the unthought of miracle that we had renewed our friendships so many years later in Europe were very special and memorable moments in life that is such a profound mystery.  The Mediterranean is alluring and sublime in its’ beauty.  If you just visited Nice and sat each day by the Sea…you would be fulfilled and happy.

Margo is an inspiration to me.  Having dreamed of writing for many years, and having done some…but not enough, her dedication to the craft and success at it has been exciting!  I enjoyed so much seeing her office and her desk, of which she stands at much of the time, and the throughly enjoyable evening we spent with her and Jeff at Patricia Sands Forum caused me to realize that if I wanted to write…it was time.  Mary Jane and I both remarked that being in Nice and seeing the various sites that Margo had written about in previous articles caused the scenes to come alive for us in a special way that would not have happened had we not been privileged to read the pieces.

Venice was like entering a beautiful story.  It had a surreal quality to it that at first I thought must be only temporary…but indeed it lasted the five days that we were there.  Jeff was ill from beginning to end of our stay and this made us sad.  Margo watched over him for the duration and thus we were orphans in an unknown world.  The strangeness of the geographical location is compelling.  Venice seems to be a tight-knit community.  Yet watching the tourists and locals for many hours I was struck with the cosmopolitan nature of the group.  Venice is a relatively small city with a worldwide reputation.  During our first guided tour of Venice, of which we could not hear the guide most of the time, we had also received the information that we were eligible for a free tour to the island of Murano where the famous glass is produced.  Murano is famous for its’ exquisite blown glass that is sold worldwide.  Mary Jane was searching for just the right piece of Murano glass.  And so we went on the free tour.  The water taxi took almost thirty minutes to arrive at our destination.  When we disembarked we were kept in a tight group and escorted immediately to a glass blowing factory for a demonstration that was mildly enjoyable.  Then we were shown another walkway that led directly into the glass factory store.  Here we were shadowed by a sales person who began by quoting us phenomenal prices for Murano artwork that we seemed to be interested in.  He then mentioned to me that he would not insult me by suggesting that price was an issue for me but that he could be flexible on some of the quoted costs if we were interested.  I was perplexed at the sales techniques of one of the apparent managers of the sales force when he brushed off a woman who seemed extremely interested in a relatively expensive piece and his admonishing her to go to the basement where there were cheaper pieces specifically for tourist souvenirs while subsequently following us as what he perceived “big fish” clients.  We left without any glass.

Margo returned from a solo journey in Venice one afternoon to announce to us that we must see a bookstore that she had discovered.  She explained that books that had apparently been water damaged had been constructed into stairs and platforms that customers could stand upon.  We had to see it.

Venice Bookstore II

Venice Bookstore III

Venice Bookstore IV

You may notice that the beginning of the Venice Video that is contained within my A Month in Europe – Venice blog begins with the proprietor of the colorful bookstore.

Mary Jane has always been beautiful.  I have admired her beauty for over forty years.  Yet she has a special glow in Europe which is one of her favorite destinations.  Mary Jane I

Margo and Mary Jane have been friends for over forty years.  I reflected often during our month adventure with them that the years simply roll away when I look at them together.  Mary Jane and Margo I

We departed Venice with two pieces of Murano glass…one beloved and one hidden.  We also purchased a painting for each of our wonderful sons, who did not accompany us on this trip, but have on two trips to Europe prior to this one.  I thought, as I have on almost every European location that I have visited, that I could spend a year and only scratch the surface of the rich culture and heritage of Nice and Venice.

 

 

Dante’s Neighbour, but for 715 Years

The Curious Rambler

In the above image we see Dante holding his book, “The Divine Comedy”, with “Mount Purgatory” and the city of Florence in the background.

Probably the most familiar image of Dante

When I was in Florence, I lived in Dante Alighieri’s neighbourhood.  For those of you who might be a little rusty on your Italian poetic history, Dante is regarded as one of the greatest early Italian poets and is known as “the Supreme Poet” (il Sommo Poeta). He lived in Florence in the late 13th century, before he was exiled from the city for political reasons.  It was during his exile that he wrote what is considered to be one of the most important poetic works in the Italian language, “The Divine Comedy,” which tells of his imaginary voyage through hell, purgatory, and finally heaven.  I guess I was a bit optimistic when I downloaded this medieval masterpiece to…

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What Talent has Discovered You?

jonathonbrooks

I believe people are born with talents. Some men are born to be musicians. Some women are born to be painters. Perhaps some folks are meant to be writers while others are meant to be public speakers. If we are all born with talents where does hard work meet with our gifts? What if an individual had the talent of painting, but never believed he had it so he failed to ever pick up a paintbrush? Where does inspiration and hard work collide with natural ability?
I’ve heard it said that if a person has a gift from God and they use it then that is their gift to the world. I love this idea! Perhaps our talents find us instead of us discovering them. Maybe all we have to do is show up and put the time in to do what we were born to do.
Make time for…

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A Month in Europe – Florence

As we drove down the one lane mountain turnpike the last time I reflected on what an interesting experience our five night stay in the ancient farm house had been.  Another world…and one I was so glad to have experienced in this short span we call life.

Florence is the capital of Tuscany.  It is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance.  The prime patrons of he Renaissance were the Medici family.

Shortly after we arrived at our apartment, that was on a very narrow street, Margo and Jeff took us  on a tour of the surrounding area.  The Piazza della Signoria was breathtaking in its’ architectural Renaissance splendor and sculptures.  The Loggia dei Lanzi functions as an open air sculpture gallery and holds many of these fabulous pieces.  When I first saw all of the indescribably beautiful architecture and sculpture I found it a bit dizzying.  Florence

Florence II

Florence III

Our first lunch was at a trattoria that featured a large grill that you could see from the seating area.  Jeff pointed out to me what appeared to be a very large flank of meat behind Mary Jane and I and just in the sight line of he and Margo.  The appearance of it was pristine and I thought it must be fake.  However when our waiter arrived we found that the speciality of the house was their grilled steaks and that the cook would cut off the steak a patron had ordered and grill it.  I had a savory meat dish from the flank and in one of our two return visits to the trattoria Jeff had a steak that covered his plate…and he consumed it with joy and precision.

The next morning we were off to the Galleria degli Uffizi.  The Uffizi is one of the oldest art museums in Europe.  It was built in 1560 for Cosimo I de’ Medici as an office building for Florence’s magistrates.  Uffizi is translated offices.  Mary Jane mentioned that perhaps we should leave early to get a good spot in line…should there be one.  I suggested that it probably was the first tour of the day and I did not think that we would have a problem.  Was I ever wrong.  We stood for about forty-five minutes before gaining access but in the busiest times it is not unusual to wait five hours in line. The sculptures and paintings are indescribable in their ancient beauty.  IMG_1280

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Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265.  He is the author of the Divine Comedy.  Much of our stay in Florence was in search of Dante.  We visited his church.  We saw the door to his home.  And his death mask.  Dante’s church

Dante’s House

Dante’s Death Mask

We even took a wonderful tour in search of Dante but found that when it began the tour’s primary focus was regarding the most recent Dan Brown book, Inferno, of which much is set in Florence thus determining the sites the tour guide focused on.  The guide was an extremely engaging speaker and the tour took us to several historic buildings that we would not have seen the inside of had we not been on it.  One of these buildings was the Baptistry.  The Baptistry was built between 1059 and 1128.  Dante Alighieri was baptized here.  Baptistry ceiling

Florence Baptistry

During our search for the perfect trattoria Mary Jane and I happened upon one that had a delightful waiter who knew how to make a dirty martini.  Now you may think that this skill would be easy to find…but you would be wrong.  Having visited Europe three times this fine gentleman would be the first that has ever been able to produce  a martini and secondly a good dirty martini.  I must correct my last statement as there was a waiter in Paris, on our first night of our three day visit to the city of lights two years ago, that made a great dry martini.  However we did not return…we did however return to our favorite trattoria in Florence three times…great food by the way.

Ever since our visit to Collodi we also were in search of a perfect Pinocchio marionette.  You see my friend Steve had a collection of marionettes when I lived in Chicago.  I was under five years old, as we moved when I was five, and when Steve would bring the stringed puppets over I thought that they were like nothing that I had ever seen.  One day Mary Jane discovered the Pinocchio store.  The rest is history.

When I visit an exotic historic location that is rich with art and culture…I am often surprised regarding the simple things that create some of the warmest memories.  For instance we joined Margo and Jeff for a showing of the recently released movie Jersey Boys at the Odeon theatre.  The theatre was a majestic movie palace of old.  The movie was shown in english with italian subtitles.  Not only was the movie great…but the idea of being there with our lifelong friends had a unique sweetness to it.

If there is one thing that you discover when you leave the United States it would be that it is not all about us.  Other countries are doing just fine with a rich history and culture that it would take a life time to absorb.  Each country that Mary Jane and I have been privileged to visit we have found friendly people who are very fond of americans.  The diversity of this small planet that we all call home is what makes it so beautiful.

 

 

A Month in Europe – Tuscany

After spending two lovely days in Verona I was a believer that Romeo and Juliet did live there as the sweetness of the atmosphere of the city was a powerful reality.  So, we set off for a farm house, part of which was built in the 12th century, in the hills above Montecatini Terme and located in Borgo A Buggiano.

The road leading to Bed and Breakfast was extremely narrow and winding.  We all marveled at Jeff’s expertise in negotiating this, what seemed to be treacherous path, with ease and abandon.  When we arrived we were greeted by the owner Francesca.  We soon became accustomed to Francesca’s vibrant personality.  While we were there she fixed both breakfasts and dinners, doctored sick kittens, and midwifed baby chicks.  After what seemed like some very long days I could hear her and her son traveling among the various animal pens, one housing a very angry goose, after midnight.  The house was magnificent with its’ aged architecture.  IMG_1087

Our first night Francesca invited us to a festival being held in Montecatini Terme.  She not only accompanied us but rode with us and drove the car.  When we arrived we were joined by her husband Leonardo who manages a hotel in Montecatini Terme.  What an enjoyable time eating sausage and ribs and drinking a large glass of delicious red wine which only cost three euros.  At the conclusion of our meal Francesca asked if we wanted an Italian pastry and coffee.  She and Leonardo insisted on buying them for us.  As Leonardo was setting at one end of the table and I at the opposite end I gestured my appreciation to him and he responded as if we had known each other for some time.  I was reminded of many of the happy scenes I had watched on television and in movies of Italians gesturing and enjoying each others company.  Montecatini Terme Festival

The next morning after a lovely Tuscan breakfast we set off Luca but on the way found Collodi.  You may recall that the author Carlo Collodi penned the old children’s favorite Pinocchio.  The authors’ actual name was Lorenzini while he adopted the name of the town as his pen name.  Lorenzini was better known as a political writer during the earlier days of his career.  Collodi is a picturesque town with reminders of its’ most famous puppet everywhere.  Collodi

I neglected to mention the primary reason we stayed close to Montecatini Terme was because of the outstanding Spa located in the town.  Margo and Jeff had regaled us with stories of the wonderful relaxing effects that were inherent in a day spent at the Spa.  Now I probably should say at this point that I have never been to a Spa.  Prior to Montecatini I had never had a massage or been to a chiropractor.  So the first thing we did at our arrival and after lunch was to go to the Spa to sign up for our massages.  Jeff and Margo, being veterans, knew what they wanted and endeavored to explain to me what I could expect.  Jeff counseled me that I would need a pair of trunks to wear during the massage…and I thought this will be all right.

Saturday was Spa day.  First I accompanied our friends to an inhalation treatment which consisted of putting a cup over your mouth and nose and breathing in the healing vapors of the Montecatini mineral water.  At the completion of the treatment I thought I was perhaps breathing a little better.  Success!  Then we had lunch and it was back early for Jeff and I for a swim in a wonderful heated pool and some great whirlpools that I found throughly enjoyable.  Then the sauna…I had forgotten how hot saunas are.  But having been in a sauna before I was not surprised.  Again, a nice relaxing experience.  Then a short wait in a pleasant setting, relaxed, refreshed, and ready for a nice first time massage…that I vaguely recalled may have derived from India and involved oil.

As the lady who was going to perform the massage led me to the massage room I asked her how she was doing to which she replied that I was probably doing better than her.  When we entered the room she instructed me rather sternly that I could not wear the swimming trunks, that I felt extremely comfortable with, and then said that I must wear bikini.  When I protested that my friend, who had been at the Spa numerous times, assured me that I could wear my trunks she shook her head no and again said bikini.  After the change I reflected how I had arrived at this extremely embarrassing moment.  When my masseuse returned she had me set in front of a full length mirror and told me to relax…which I could not think of any possible circumstance that could be more relaxing… and I noticed my resemblance to Buddah …and then she had me shut my eyes and proceeded to pour oil on my head.  After the ritual had concluded Jeff told me that what I received was not the massages he was accustomed to and that I should try one in the states where I could keep my trunks on.

The town of Pisa is an interesting place.  It is located at the mouth of the River Arno which is on the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Of course our quest was for the Tower.  The Leaning Tower is the bell tower of the cities’ cathedral.  As we walked and walked each time we stopped to assure ourselves of the correct path the reply would be “the tower” to which we would shake our heads and proceed.  When we arrived I was amazed to see how much the tower does lean.  People were touring it and you could see them waking around close to the top of the structure…at a terrible slant.

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We traveled to Lucca.  The uniqueness of this city was its’ intact Renaissance city walls.  We walked on the walls which had quite a wide walking and biking area.

The supreme beauty of Tuscany cannot be over emphasized.  As we drove up the steep winding trails to the Tuscan Mountain town of Montecatini Alto the view was like none that I have seen.  IMG_1131This artist was along the road leading back to our car.

Tuscany

On Sunday morning at our mountain retreat we chose to simply enjoy the surroundings for the morning.  The majesty of the mountainous landscape coupled with the peaceful atmosphere was a welcome respite from our busy holiday.

 

A Month in Europe – Verona

As we boarded the water taxi for the return trip to Marco Polo Airport I thought how fortunate we were to obtain seats as most of the vehicle was standing room only.  To my amazement in short order a water taxi pulled alongside us and I discovered that we were not on our conveyance at all but a floating waiting area.  Upon arriving at the airport we rented our second car of the journey and I was so pleased to see that it had more than enough leg room.  We began what was little more than an hour’s ride to Verona, Romeo and Juliet’s home.

Our hotel, the Aurora, was in the heart of the city.  The desk clerk who checked us in spoke immaculate english and had a constant infectious smile.  She cautioned us to stick with the trattorias that she recommended to us as many eateries in Verona serve horse meat which is a local speciality.  It is called cavallo.  Indeed we found not only is horse a delicacy in Verona, and in Venice, but also donkey.  When I first heard the waiter of a trattoria that we had almost decided to enter,  describing some of his favorite dishes I noticed he spoke passionately about serving donkey.  He went on to say that this dish was very normal in Verona and that he preferred it raw with a little olive oil and lemon juice.  While we were in Verona we ate primarily pizza and pasta.

 One of the great themes of Verona is Romeo and Juliet.  William Shakespeare’s sonnet of the tragic lovers takes place in the old Italian City and is believed to have been written between 1591 to 1595.  It was first published in 1597.  Juliet’s house is the place to go and so we went.  The Casa di Giulietta is an example of the compelling power of the tragic love story.  The house was owned by the Capello family.  Juliet’s family name was Capulet.  The house was built in the thirteenth century but the balcony was added in the twentieth century.  It is not known if Romeo and Juliet were but figments of Shakespeare’s imagination.  Nevertheless the story’s power is only reenforced by a visit to the house.  While we were touring the house I noticed a young woman dressed as Juliet who was inspecting the premises as well.  It appeared her mother was accompanying her and taking her picture throughout the residence and the balcony.  The look of awe and wonder on this lady’s face expressed to me more than any history book the impact of the tragic love story.  A bronze of Juliet in the courtyard  of her home.  IMG_0757

 

We also visited Juliet’s Tomb.  I was highly impressed with the beauty of the garden surrounding the entrance to the sarcophagus.  The somber splendor of the cool mausoleum caused me to reflect on the possibility that remains of Juliet might be housed within.  Margo began speaking with a gentleman guarding the area.  As they spoke in Italian I heard them laughing  with a knowing look upon their faces.  When they concluded their conversation I inquired of Margo what the man had said.  She replied that he had told her that no one was buried in the Tomb…tourists.  

  The Verona Arena located in Piazza Bra is a fascinating structure reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome.  It was built in the first century by the Flavian emperors and gladiators fought there for nearly four hundred years.  Emperor Honorius stopped gladiator games in 404 AD.  After this the Amphitheatre stood empty for centuries.  The dark catacombs of the Arena were referred to as the labyrinth of the devil by the people of Verona.  From June until August you can enjoy opera nightly in the structure during the opera festival.  

After dinner the first evening that we were in Verona we enjoyed a leisurely visit on a terrace connected to the hotel.  The surroundings were very beautiful and a live band was performing in the city square.  It was then that I realized what a historic exquisite city Verona truly was.  There is a relaxed atmosphere that is rare in a city of that size.  

Our last dinner is Verona was at a trattoria that was housed both inside and in the courtyard of what appeared to be an office/apartment building.  Soon after we sat down it began to rain…first slowly and then an Italian downpour.  As I became partially wet, we were actually under some of the building, I thought what a nice experience in a beautiful city with dear friends of many years and enjoying delicious lamb…?