Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh (Europe Part 6)

Here is a perfect example of you cannot judge a book by its cover.  Or, in this case, you cannot judge a hill town by how it looks from the outside.

As we approached our resort, we rounded a bend and saw this view.

All four of us exclaimed in unison, “oh my gosh, oh my gosh.”  It was magnificent, towering in front of us beckoning us to come in.

When the day arrived for us to visit the Oh My Gosh (as we like to call it), we were shocked. It’s actually in the town San Casciano de Bagni.  Today it is a medieval ghost town.  Amazing on the outside and deserted on the inside.  We still enjoyed the view immensely but it was surprising.  I guess that’s why Rick Steves does not mention it in his guidebooks.   Oh, Rick, we are sorry we deviated from your guidance. It won’t happen again.

Florence – Why Don’t we Call You Firenze?  (Europe Part 5)

I cannot figure out why we call some cities by their native name and others by the English/American version.  For instance, Rome vs Roma, Florence vs Firenze, Munich vs Munchen.  I have decided not to contemplate this too much because I am on vacation, but I will say it is much more fun to say Roma, Munchen and Firenze.

Speaking of Firenze, that was our destination today.  Florence had the hustle and bustle going from the minute we turned onto its streets.  Cars stacked up at intersections and motorcycles darted in between them in spaces thinner than a pepperoni.  It was unnerving but totally worth every nail that was bitten off during the drive.

Seeing the Statue of David by Michelangelo would be reason enough to go to this city. He was magnificent.  At 17 feet tall, he literally was head and shoulders above all the other statues in the corridor.

 He was not the only attraction in his area, though surely he was the main attraction.  Michelangelo also had a hall lined with his Statuas Incompiuta (Unfinished Statues).  According to Michelangelo, the figures were already in the stone just waiting to emerge as he sculpted.  They were fascinating.

  

 And, of course, there is a duomo in Florence.  As we left the city an orchestra had assembled on the front steps of the cathedral and gave a small concert.  They appeared one by one as musicians playing solo and then they came together with a sound so magnificent that it brought tears to my eyes.

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As we headed down the autostrada toward our resort, an hour and a half away, we decided we would take a different route home.  We exited at Chiusi to look for dinner in this small town or any of the others that dot the meandering roads on our way back.  It was not looking too promising to find anything.  The landscape was becoming more and more rural.  Our plan was to follow the signs for the first eatery of any kind that we came across.

Since there was nobody else on the road, when we noticed a small sign Bob screeched to a stop and we turned up the unpaved road.  This was what they refer to here as a white road – gravel and narrow.  At the end of this road we found a charming little restaurant, Trattoria del Contadino, and had the best meal of our trip.  We were the only guests and were treated like VIPs – from the antipasto tray all the way to the limoncello at the end of our meal.  It was perfecto.

Unfortunately we lingered long enough that Bob had to drive the white road out of there. We were thankful to be back in our beds that night.

The views at night are a bit more terrifying.

The views at night are a bit more terrifying.

Orvieto (Europe Part 4)

Our first stop out of Rome was Orvieto.  The thrill of visiting our first hill town made it even more impacting.  The beauty of these towns will take your breath away.  So will all the walking.  The town center is typically dominated by a cathedral, which may or may not have a dome.  I thought duomo always would translate to a church with a dome, but it does not.

Orvieto’s cathedral has one of the most spectacular facades that I have ever seen.  Here is our first peek at it.

 This is an example of Italian Gothic architecture.  Of interest is how the look of the facade changed as the afternoon light on the colorful mosaics made them shine like the sun itself.

 

 Strolling through this medieval city was like walking through a fairy tale.  I kept having to pinch Bob to make sure I wasn’t sleeping.

  

I hope you enjoy these few shots.  Ciao for now.

The Sistine Chapel (Europe Part 2)

During our last trip to Rome the Sistine Chapel was closed for the day – that was quite the disappointment.  But, since I had thrown a coin into the Trevi Fountain on that visit I knew I would return.  This time I was not disappointed. Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling was more beautiful than I had imagined.  But it was his The Last Judgment painting that got to me.  As you walk into the Chapel, you pass under The Last Judgment.  The symbolism was striking.  I entered into the chapel under judgment.  I walked out in freedom because of what Christ did for me.  He took my penalty.  The One who was sinless has cloaked me in his righteousness.  Such a picture!

Photographs are not allowed to be taken in the Sistine Chapel.  The tour guides take you to the museum gardens near the chapel and explain what you will see.  There are panels with pictures of all of the art work displayed for their tutorial.  This is a picture of The Last Judgment from one of those panels.

Of course it does not do the original work justice, but in case you have not seen it before, I wanted to show you.  Especially vivid is the bottom right corner where those who were not covered by the blood of Jesus entered eternal damnation.  Of interest, the man depicted prominently is said to have criticized Michelangelo’s work.  I guess that is one way to be immortalized in art.

The other work that affects me so much that I find it difficult to stop looking at it is La Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Michelangelo was 23 when he was commissioned to do this work.

 Our guide told us that it is said that Michelangelo worked alone.  Other artists had students who often worked on projects with them, but Michelangelo did these two works of art alone.  My take on what she said is that his genius did not lend itself to working and playing well with others.  That made me think of how God has gifted people so individually for the work that he has for them.  Perhaps If Michelangelo was more of a teacher or less of a perfectionist he would not have created these masters.  I am not an art scholar by any means, but that was food for thought for me.

No Roads Lead Out of Rome (Europe Part 3)

After a riveting 48 hours in Rome we were ready to head to Tuscany.  If you ever travel to Rome and make the mistake of renting a car, be sure to get a GPS that speaks your language.  I can only imagine how helpful that would be, because Bob did not spring for a GPS.  To his credit, he does have an excellent sense of direction.  But that is not quite enough in this part of Italy.

The first challenge was getting the car out of the parking garage.  It was like trying to put toothpaste back in a toothpaste tube.  It can’t be done without getting messy.  I will spare you the details of his efforts, but it is sufficient to say that in a mere 47 minutes we were out of there with no noticeable scratches or dents.   Then the fun began.  We circled and circled trying to get away from the terminal, which is also where you pick up the rentals. Thankfully it was morning so we knew what direction we were heading because of the sun.  We eventually broke away and headed north.

The signs are all in Italian, of course, and there are so many signs placed close together that I would suggest to you that if you are driving in Italy, make sure you have three other people in the car with you.  Between all of them, you might luck out and have someone read the sign you need and point you in the right direction.

We decided to look for a petrol station and fuel up.  It is not a good idea to get low on gas whenever you are a stranger in a strange land.  As Bob fueled up, I ventured inside to buy a map.

The lady clerk did not speak any English.  None.  She understood “mapa” even though I am not sure that is the proper Italian word.  She said, “Roma?”  I said something that confused her and we went back and forth for a while.  Finally I said, “Arrivederci, Roma,” and she pulled out a map of Italy that would be great to don any classroom.  It was huge.  Then this kind woman called someone in that spoke English and I was able to tell him we were going to Orvieto and Tuscany.  During our conversation an older gentleman who was riding a motorcycle came in to pay for his fuel and he got into the conversation, too.  I have never encountered such helpful people.

The man on the motorcycle, who did not speak a word of English, offered to lead us to our exit.  We followed him for two to three miles (or an unknown number of kilometers) and he pointed us to the proper exit.  We are fairly convinced that if it had not been for these three people we would still be in Rome.

Driving along the highway was such a treat after meandering around the vicinity of Rome.  We watched the scenery change to rolling hills dotted by Italian Cypress trees with the occasional hill town standing majestically in the distance.  Ah, Tuscany.  We are so happy to see you.

Languarge Barriers (Europe Part 1)

In preparation for our trip, Bob and I each decided to make efforts to learn to speak German and Italian.  He embraced this by using Duo Lingo to learn German.  Italian was left up to me.

Instant immersion CDs were my weapon of choice. I used the Spanish version before we went to Spain in 2013.  With Spanish I was building on the shaky foundation of my high school Spanish course and found myself communicating with the locals.  It was a rudimentary communication, but it was helpful.

Meanwhile, Bob has been embracing his inner German (even though he is of Swedish decent).  So dedicated was he to this endeavor that he would not go to bed at night unless he had completed at least one lesson.  He progressed very well and before long he reported that he was even dreaming in German.

Things were not going quite as well for me.  My plan was to use my car time to learn Italian.  This proved to be a two-fold problem.  First off, I am usually in my car sporadically.  Therefore, I never could quite remember where I left off.  And, without having ever studied Italian, I found myself lost (unless you count my lapses into Spanish).

Secondly, the first CD got stuck in my car player.  I wasnt sure how far I would get in Italy from that CD as it only covered the alphabet and different countries of the world.  At least that is what I think it covered.  I really don’t  remember.

To sum up, Bob is practically fluent in German.  I might get by if I meet an Italian who speaks Spanish.  And only if they speak slowly.

But since I have been in Rome, I have found no real problem with my lack of language skills.  In Rome a smile goes a long way.  The people are kind and patient.

Bob and I are traveling with my sister and her husband.  They live in Washington state and we met up with each other in Rome.  The four of us have met people from all over the world.  On our coliseum tour we witnessed a family run into a group of their friends.  It really does seem like a small world sometimes.

We were discussing this while riding the metro to our Vatican tour when a nun spoke up and said, “And who would have thought you’d run into a nun from Chicago.”

We chatted all the way to the Vatican.  In fact, she guided us to the exact place where we were to meet our tour.  We had an instant, though momentary friendship.

The Sister, My Sister and Me

The Sister, My Sister and Me

St. Peter's

St. Peter’s

 

 

One side of the courtyard hug

One side of the courtyard hug

Our tour guide of the Vatican pointed out to us that the courtyard in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is shaped in the form of a hug.  It begins at St. Peter’s with an arm extended from each side. It doesn’t get much friendlier than that.

 

Heading for La Dolce Vita

Life on the Lighter Side is going to Europe.

Bob and I are getting a jump on our 40th wedding anniversary celebration, which is in August.  We chose to travel in April for a couple of reasons.  It’s not prime season.  That means smaller crowds and cheaper flights (allegedly).  Also, I will do just about anything to keep from sweating.  (The irony of that statement combined with the fact that I live in Florida is not lost on me.)

We have been planning this trip for months.  Of course, that means Rick Steves has become our best friend.  We love his travel books.  I follow him on face book, which is how I discovered that he is in Italy right now, paving the way for us.  That also means I have the opportunity to stalk, I mean look for, Rick.  It will be my version of “Where’s Waldo.”

Besides devouring Rick’s books and making a steady diet of watching his PBS shows, I have been working on getting myself in shape so that I can best enjoy our trip.  Our destinations include Rome, Tuscany, Austria, and Bavaria.

My workout regime focuses on four main areas.

  1. Walking.  We will be doing walking tours.  The last time we were in Europe we walked everywhere.  When I got home I missed being able to walk to a destination instead of doing the much less inspiring laps around the block in my neighborhood.
  2. Bike riding. We will do a bike tour of Munich.
  3. Spinning.  Not to be confused with any form of biking.  We will be doing the Sound of Music tour in Austria.  You know that part of the movie where Maria walks up the hill, makes a dramatic spin and belts out “The hills are alive?”  I plan on doing that.  The problem is I get queasy with the slightest twirl.  That’s why I’ve been working out.
  4. Drinking wine. I love wine.  Especially red wine.  One of the big draws of Tuscany is the myriad of vineyards and local wines.  I have been pretty much a one-glass-of-wine person.  Two makes me sleepy.  My sons like to tease me about this and have suggested that I try to increase my endurance in this area.  So, I’ve been working on it, but only for the good of my trip, mind you.

We will touch down in Rome tomorrow morning.  I plan on blogging (wifi permitting), so if you’d like to follow my adventure, stay tuned.  I’ll share the highlights with you (assuming that second glass of wine doesn’t put me to sleep).

Give Me Some Space

Personal space is a very American mental structure. Please allow me some space to explain. When I get in line to go to the movies, I’m careful not to stand too close to the person ahead of me. That space is theirs, psychologically speaking. I don’t want them to feel crowded and I appreciate the same consideration. When I go into the theater, I don’t sit directly next to anyone unless the theater is packed (no matter how much fun I think it would be to mess with a person). That buffer area is part of personal space.

The first time I went to Europe I found myself getting annoyed at how people cut in front of me while I waited in line. It was like I wasn’t even there. This happened several times before I realized that by European standards, I wasn’t in line. Being in line in Germany or France meant you could feel the breath of the person behind you on your neck. I think this is why the early explorers crossed the Atlantic. They needed some elbow room. It also could explain why four out of five Europeans where neck scarves. So now I’ve learned – a line in Europe does not have any open space. You find the end and wait up close to the person ahead of you, all the while hoping the guy behind you doesn’t let loose with a sneeze. If you want open spaces, go to Montana.

Parking spaces are another thing we Americans have over Europeans (except maybe in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Costco on the weekend). When Bob and I first visited Europe we made the rookie mistake of renting a car (a mistake we have repeated each trip). Our final day of that particular trip we were in Zürich, Switzerland. We had a few hours to see the city before catching a plane home. Bob was prepared. He printed out maps and directions so we would have them in English. The maps were easy to follow, but unfortunately they often led us to the wrong place. I can tell you from experience that there are a lot of dead-end streets in Zürich. Finally we decided to pull over and get directions, which sounds simple enough except evidently Zürich city planners don’t believe in parking spaces. We looked for one all over the city and finally found one at the airport rental car return. We parked and took the shuttle to our hotel. We’ll see Zürich another time (by bus).

Storage space seems to be another American construct. We’ve traveled through eight different countries in Europe, and I have never seen a sign advertising storage units for rent. In all fairness, though, I do not read signs well unless they are written in English – with the one exception of “degustation,” which means “wine tasting.” We stopped just about every time we saw this sign. We visited lots of vineyards, drank lots of wine, and saw no storage units.

In Orlando you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a storage unit facility (or a Starbucks). In case you are reading this and you are from Europe, a storage unit facility is a place where one rents a covered, sometimes air-conditioned space to store the things that have been purchased which don’t fit inside of your house or apartment. These things are so special that they cannot easily be parted with, yet they also cannot be tolerated in the home in which you actually live. Some brilliant person came up with this concept so that we can keep and purchase more stuff than ever thought possible, which is the American way. It also was a good use of the excessive amount of parking lots all over the city, which is why Europe will never have storage unit facilities. Of course, if you go backwards through the history of storage units you will probably end your search with the creators of the hit A&E series, Storage Wars. These guys are brilliant – talk about foresight.

Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica)

Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Basilica)

On my recent trip to Paris I had the opportunity to challenge a woman’s personal space. We were at Montmartre, the artsy area on the highest hill that overlooks Paris. Aubyron and I stood in front of Sacre-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris) taking in the view of the city and enjoying the music of a harpist who performed on the steps there. It was the kind of moment that you couldn’t adequately capture with your camera but we were compelled to try anyway. I walked around the top of the stairs shooting pictures from every angle and then came back to Aubyron who was trying to photograph the harpist. She had been attempting to get that picture for five minutes but was hampered by a woman who had put down roots on the step about four feet from the musician and directly in line between him and Aubyron. She seemed to be in her own world and content to stay in that place for the rest of the day. Aubyron was about ready to move on, sadly giving up her picture when I jumped in and said I’d take care of the situation. I left Aubyron with a puzzled look on her face, walked down the steps and stood next to the woman. Now when I say next to the woman, I mean very, very close to her. She looked at me with confusion and I smiled as I planted myself in her personal space all the while feeling a strange mix of being very American and very European.

The brunette is the woman who stood there so long.  Aubyron snapped this picture just as she started to leave.

The brunette is the woman who stood there so long. Aubyron snapped this picture of me just as she started to leave.

After a few awkward moments, Aubyron took this picture.

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A picture worth waiting for

I suppose we should have given up on the picture or just asked the woman to please move over a little, but I saw no fun in that; and I was fairly certain she wouldn’t have spoken English anyway. Quite honestly, it was an impulse. An impulse that gave us one of our favorite memories from our trip and no doubt gave that woman a funny story about the strange American that crowded her on the steps.

Europe Part 7 – Fun in France, or, I’d Rather Be Called a Pig in Paris than Anywhere Else in the World

20140122-132043.jpgIf you have planned a trip to Europe, you probably have been warned of pickpockets and scammers. These warnings are appropriate. One morning as we were walking to the Musee d’Orsay, some space opened up between Aubyron and me and Bob and Joe. As Aubyron and I looked ahead we saw a woman try the ring scam on the guys. I was so jealous. I wanted to have a scam attempted on me. I felt like my Parisian experience would be incomplete without one.

I was explaining this to Aubyron when it happened. The same woman walked toward us, bent down and scooped up a gold ring which she found right in front of us. I was so excited! I did what you’re supposed to do and walked past saying a simple, “No,” without making eye contact, which is the Parisian way. My heart was racing as I checked another experience off my list.

In case you don’t know, the premise of the ring scam is that the scammer finds the ring near the scammie. She asks you if it is yours and you say it is not. The kind-hearted scammer tells you that it’s not hers either. She shows you a mark that indicates it’s gold and since it must be worth something, offers for you to take the ring and sell it. Of course, she suggests that you give her a wad of your hard-earned cash as a way of splitting this amazing find.

I found it hard to believe that anyone would actually fall for this. Doesn’t everybody read Rick Steves’ Tourist Scams and Rip-Offs in Europe? Aren’t we all suspicious of everyone nowadays?

20140122-131625.jpgHours later as we crossed a bridge and headed back home we came across this same woman. (Evidently scammers have long shifts.) I saw her pull a middle-age couple into her scheme. The wife was obviously being duped while the husband stood back trying to assess the situation. We went a little past them, and I looked over my shoulder and saw she still had them in her clutches. I made a wide U-ie and circled back gaining the husband’s attention. “Be careful. It’s a scam,” I mouthed to him and turned back to catch up with my family.

He moved in, took his wife by the arm and walked away. I experienced the same exhilaration I had that morning, which came in handy because now this woman was following us. I wasn’t afraid. She was a tiny woman and I felt like I could take her, but it still kind of gave me the willies. I wanted no part of a brouhaha while crossing the Seine.

I didn’t understand everything she said, or should I say every name she called me, but there were definite slurs mixed with words that are universally insulting. She made it clear that she was mad that I had kept her from earning money. How’s that for irony? She called me a pig and sushi, which must be more insulting in French than in English. And that unspoken French rule of no eye contact – that was out the window.

But, c’est la vie. I love Paris! The city makes you feel so alive.

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Europe Part 6 – Paris

Time to go to Paris! As I mentioned, Spain was delightful – not only the amazing scenery but the people. They seemed to have a real zest for life, which was on full display during our plane ride out of Barcelona. The back of the plane was filled with a group traveling together. They broke out in song as they took their seats. When we touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the pilot announced our safe, on-time arrival. The back of the plane erupted into cheers – quite a rowdy, fun group.

We made our way through the usual airport routine, boarded the RER (France’s rapid transit system), and headed into the City of Light with our son and daughter-in-law as tour guides. In strict contrast to our plane ride, you could have heard a pin drop on the RER. This was also the case every time we rode the subway, unless a musician popped in for an impromptu concert. People don’t look at each other on the subway. The typical smile or nod of the head that is customary in Orlando is not readily observed in Paris.

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When at last I set foot on the streets of Paris, I paused to take it all in. Emotion welled up inside me. It was a little overwhelming. This city of romance, art and history has quite a reputation. I wanted to absorb the city, to remember the sights and sounds, to feel the rhythm of it all. I was in Paris. Yeah, baby!

I didn't want Paris to fly by too quickly.

I didn’t want Paris to fly by too quickly.

The first order of business was to get to Joe and Aubyron’s seventh-floor apartment. We walked for about 20 minutes along the streets of Paris, dragging our suitcases behind us. I knew what was ahead of me and I was not afraid. After all, this trip had been a walking trip. We literally walked for hours every day. I walked down the Rock of Gibraltar for goodness sake. I could handle the 124 stairs winding their way up to Joe’s apartment. I would do this. It was the moment I had trained for.

We opened the huge, green doors to a small, dark lobby. As if the staircase sensed our presence, the lights came on (either that or they were on a motion sensor). There it was looming large before my eyes. My Everest, my white whale – the oldest, windiest stairs I have ever dared climb. Up we went. I knew to pace myself. Nobody had to be a hero here. No records to break. Simply complete the climb. By the fourth flight I was feeling it. I handed my suitcase off as I feigned interest in the view from the window.

The stairs were angry that day - like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli

The stairs were angry that day – like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli

With each floor the stairs grew narrower and less level. I refused to let them defeat me. I would plant my suitcase firmly in that apartment and call it home for the next week.  The way it really happened was, I planted my four-wheeled suitcase on the floor of the bedroom in the apartment and it rolled across the room.  Such is life in a Paris apartment.

The sense of achievement I felt as I entered their apartment was only equaled by the exhaustion of the climb. I did it. Now, let’s go back downstairs and see the city.

We actually went up and down those stairs three times that first day.  The motivation of seeing more of Paris was enough to get us going.  Joe took us on a walking tour of the city that gave a great overview.  We passed Notre Dame and saw the Eiffel Tower from the Seine River.  I was captivated.

Not the Arc de Triomphe, but it was beautiful

Not the Arc de Triomphe

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Locks on the Bridges are common and considered a nuisance by the city

Locks on the Bridges are common and considered a nuisance by the city

This picture captures the way people think of the locks. Bob is interested. Aubyron sees the romance of it all. Joe is disappointed that people defile the bridges.

After a long day, we head back home. Here’s the image that was in my head that night.

Good Night Eiffel Tower.  It doesn't get much better than this.

Good Night Eiffel Tower. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Au revoir!