Monthly Archives: May 2014

Southern Italy

(Naples – Assisi, 5-16 April 2014) Our deep dive through southern Italy was interesting. Fabulous in many respects, but challenging to the senses in others. This is likely to end up a long post, but there is much ground to be covered, and not just geographically. Southern Italy is amazing and we loved it; however, the full story includes several layers. Italy is a complex society, one of puzzling contradictions, and also one currently showing signs of significant distress. Too often, the shadows cast by monuments to a glorified past cast their shadows upon desperate beggars living on the streets. Based on what we heard (and witnessed), the Italian government has lost all trust of its people and lurches from one scandal to the next. Meanwhile, tourists (like us) still come in droves seeking an Italy that may exist best in myth and romanticized perception.

Jessica and I were a traveling duo once again after saying good-bye in Rome to Mallorie, Brandon and nieces, LeAnne and Mickaela. After their departure, we would first journey to Naples where we engineered a five night stay at a hotel using points accumulated through our credit card. After the accelerated pace of the previous two weeks, we knew a planned slowdown was in order.

Additional destinations weren’t known to us at that time, but at least we’d given ourselves five days to figure out our next moves. That is one of the awesome luxuries of traveling in the style we’ve adopted. It’s great knowing exactly where you’ll be when, but not knowing invites exploration that can lead to wonderful discoveries.

Tennis Anyone?

Using credit card points to book our hotel was free but risky. There were a limited number of hotels to choose from in our particular rewards program and none were centrally located to Naples. A commuter train was required for the 40 minute trip to the outskirts where the Tennis Hotel (seriously, that was the name of it) was located.

Too cheap (and stubborn) to pay a cabbie 20 euros ($30) for the 3 km lift to the hotel from the train station, we hoofed it. Not only did we not know at the time that practically the entire hike was uphill, we hadn’t fully appreciated just how far outside the touristy circles we had come. We were nowhere near the monuments, statues and souvenir shops. We were where the everyday people of Naples lived and worked. Although enlightening, it was not a pretty sight.

Our directions had us turning left from the main street and onto a one-way industrial road that was full of trash. Not just a few bottles and cans strewn here and there, but full-on trashed out. We said out loud how glad we were that Mallorie and the others weren’t with us now. Their image of beautiful Italy would have been tainted forever.

As we approached the hotel and saw the half-dozen tennis courts out in front. Then it clicked- we were staying at a tennis “resort.” Interesting, but that’s not the most notable part. Our hotel was situated only a few hundred feet away from the vent of an semi-dormant volcano called Sulfuerous, named so for the sulfuric gasses it exhales. The smell from these gasses wafted over our hotel like a hot fart from a sleeping giant.

The room was clean, large and appointed with standard stock hotel furniture. Not bad and all….but the foul smell was inescapable.

Naples- Grit and Pizza

Naples itself was jam-packed with places of interest. To see and learn about some of them, we boarded the hop-on, hop-off city tour bus. From our perch on the upper deck, we took the photos you’ll see below.

The best part of the tour for me was the pre-recorded audio. It not only explained what was coming up on the left and right (in the language of our choosing), it also incorporated music and commentary about Naples that was refreshing in its honesty. In advance of coming to Naples, we’d heard it described as gritty and less refined than either Rome or Florence. This was perhaps true, but if so, only by a few small degrees. (They’re all a little gritty.) The audio tour alluded to this as well, but managed to turn this theme into a reflection of the resilience and determination of the Napoli people. The music swelled to a crescendo as the narrator read passages from an inspiring poem someone had written about Naples. I was sold. Naples had won me over. (Jessica heard the same audio guide as me, and, though she liked Naples plenty, it didn’t have the same effect on her.)

This is one extra castle-y looking castle.

Some domes are just prettier than others.

This is hanging out in Naples.

Supposedly, Naples is where the world-wide phenomena that is pizza first originated. For this reason, I wasn’t going to leave Naples without sampling a slice or two. We paused at a street cart displaying IHOP-pancake-sized pizzas behind a glass case. I pointed to show the vendor that I would like one. In a flash, he grabbed the small round pie, folded it in half once, then repeated the motion to fold it a second time, creating something that resembled a flattened drinking cone like you might find at an office water cooler. I wanted to yell, Hey, what are you doing to my pizza?! His movements flashed by so quickly, however, that no syllable had a chance of escaping.

Mama mia! My folded-up, over-priced, room temperature “pizza” was surprisingly good. The pizza sauce made it. It was fresh and tangy enough so that the scarcity of cheese and basil on what they were calling a margarita pizza didn’t seem to matter. We were in Naples, Italy and I was eating pizza. Beautiful!

[I sure would have thought we took a photo to mark this grand pizza occasion. We have so many pictures of us eating food, but sadly, not this one.]

The Unique Story of Pompeii

Not far from Naples lies the ancient archeological site that once was the thriving Roman city of Pompeii. The close proximity made it easy to visit with a day-trip by train.

By the time Jessica and I were touring Pompeii, we’d already spent many hours walking through several of the best-known, most well-preserved, Roman ruins in all the world, including the Ancient City of Jaresh (in Jordan) and Ephesus (in Turkey). Regardless, Pompeii was bound to be unique.

The story of how life ceased in the city of Pompeii may not be known to everyone. Here is a brief summary: On the morning of 24 August, 79 AD, Pompeii’s nearby companion, Mt. Vesuvius, violently erupted launching hot volcanic ash and stone into the air and down on top of the city. So much material fell in just a few hours that the entire city was buried to the point that single story houses were hidden entirely from view and only the upper part of two-story dwellings remained visible. Later, earthquakes connected to the eruption demolished what remained of the second stories. Most of the city’s residents managed to flee their homes before being killed, but far from all of them. It is estimated that 2,000 people died in the event; many of them were the rich people that chose to stay in their expensive homes for fear of losing everything….which obviously, they did anyway.

The streets doubled as drainage channels for water run-off and sewage. Hence the “crosswalks” that allowed for feces-free street crossings. (The stench must have been awful.)


The degree of preservation of the streets and buildings of Pompeii is remarkable. We entered restaurants, stepping over the same thresholds crossed by ordinary hungry Pompeii citizens so many centuries ago. Some houses were cramped and simple, while others were large, sprawling and clearly lavish, with internal courtyards and even garages for the chariots/wagons. Paintings adorned many of the houses we saw. Though, in those days homeowners did not hang paintings on their walls. Instead, paint was infused directly into the plaster walls through the technique known as fresco.

Photo taken from inside one of the bath houses. I bet this was fancy-shmancy in its heyday.

Exploring Pompeii was both fascinating and emotionally weighted, imparting the kind of melancholy one gets from visiting an old box of memories stored in the attic for decades.

Train-Ferry to Palermo, Sicily

Sicily is the island that looks like it’s getting kicked by Italy’s boot. We heard it said that Sicilians like to think of themselves as being a whole separate country from Italy, but the truth is that Sicily embodies what most people in the world think of as “Italian.” The Cosa Nostra, the Godfather, Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros….these are all exports from Sicily, Italy. In other words, when you think of the animated Italian with the burly chest, thick mustache, exaggerated gestures and sing-song accent…that is the personification of someone from Sicily.

Within Sicily we chose to visit Palermo because it appeared on several lists of must-see places in Italy. To get there from Naples, we took the train. Even across the strait between Sicily and the mainland of Italy, we took the train. How does a train cross a strait when there is no bridge connecting the two? On a ferry, of course. As strange as it sounds, that’s exactly what happened. They split our train into two pieces and rolled it onto a boat. We never imagined such a thing existed, but there we were:

Palermo was a cool choice. More credit card points were used to make our hotel stay free. However, this time we were smarter and read a few hotel reviews before booking, leading to much better results. With the exception of the beach, which required a ride on a city bus, all of the coolest sights of Palermo were within walking distance.

Oh Great…Another Church

It would have been interesting to count the number of churches we have entered since our trip began. 30? 40? 50? Who knows? Should we count the many churches we have approached and looked at, but for one reason or another did not enter? We’d surely bust through 100!

Churches (and mosques) stand out. They are wonders of artistry and architecture. Whether looked upon positively or to the opposite, they are amazing achievements for ALL they represent. Nevertheless, it is possible to reach a saturation point. Speakly solely for myself, Ladies and gentleman, the thrill has left the building.

With that as a backdrop, we visited a chapel in Palermo that brought back the wow in an instant. What made this church pop were the gold-laiden mosaics that adorned every corner of the church… both inside and out. The mixture of cultural styles were unique– patterns and designs of Sufi Islam blended easily with standard Christian themes. We’ve seen a lot of churches, but never one like this.

It is rare to find such an intricate blend of classic Christian symbols interspersed with Arabic stylings. Every bit of the church’s interior is mosaic.

I would love to make a floor like this.


Biblical scenes leap from the walls in gold mosaic.


The chapel’s exterior face was also created tile by tile.


She’s Got A Ticket to Ride…Or Does She?

We kept hearing about Palermo’s fantastic beaches, about a 30 minute public bus ride away from where we were staying. It sounds simple enough, but Italy’s public transportation infrastructure is a bit of a mess, especially when compared to so many other places we’ve traveled. We waited close to 45 minutes for our bus to the beach.

Perhaps they would have more money to improve the bus service if they had a better system for charging people. The way it works now is that riders buy a ticket from a machine sitting next to the bus stop. The machine prints out a little receipt that shows you have paid. Great, but here’s the odd part, you don’t have to present the ticket to the driver. Instead, you simply board the bus. To enforce compliance with the ticket requirement, a transportation official will occasionally get on the bus and ask everyone on board to show their tickets. Not having a ticket means you could be fined…..or you could simply get kicked off the bus.

To the surprise of exactly no one, it appeared to us that many people frequently ride the buses without paying.

Unexpected Beach Wear

After finally making it to the beach, we found it fabulous. The water was too harshly cold for comfortable swimming, but wading into mild surf was totally doable. It remained surprisingly shallow as I marched away from the beach and deeper into the Mediterranean. Jessica was frustrated to no end, because some how she’d come to the beach unprepared. She had no bathing suit or towel. Exactly how this happened we are not sure. Our last couple of beach visits didn’t involve entering the water….still too cold.

At least I was prepared with my frisbee so Jessica and I threw it back ‘n forth a bit. Bodies were strewn about the sand, but we found a little pocket big enough for us to throw. At one point, a woman I’d guess to be in her early 30’s walked cluelessly close to our parlay. A throw I made to Jessica flew a little wide, striking the woman in the right thigh. She went off!

I immediately began apologizing as did Jessica, but this woman was having none of it. She ranted loudly saying who knows what (because it was all in Italian) until any sympathies Jessica and I had for her turned into a mockery of her behavior. Her reaction was comically disproportionate to the event. Did she think she’d been hit by a truck? C’mon, lady, you’re going to be okay. Even after she’d walked past us she was still complaining to everyone who would listen about how she’d become a victim of those crazy Frisbee-throwing Americans.

Jessica Finds the BLAM!

Walk down any shopping district in Italy and high fashion will meet you on the sidewalk. Large retail windows burst with mannequins dressed in the latest. On the sidewalk, image-conscious locals dress to impress regardless. The northern Italian city of Milan is known the world over for its contribution to the fashion industry, but truly…it’s everywhere in Italy.

One particular corner clothing shop near our hotel caught Jessica’s eye and she dove in for a look-see. I had wandered away in search of a grocery store at that moment and vowed to catch up with her a few minutes later. This was her moment to shop!

Clothes-shopping is always a challenge for Jessica. Finding the right print, style, design, color, fabric, cut, etc. If only she had a fashion consultant to help her out.

Enter Iriana, one of the sales staff at the store. All smiles and energy, Iriana approached Jessica and offered to help. Jessica played it off with a casual wave, but Iriana was undeterred and sprung into action, first sizing her up and then seizing a few items from the racks for Jessica to try on. Jessica’s first thought is that she doesn’t know me and how hard it is for me to find the right clothes…but I’ll humor her.

Iriana wasn’t offering Jessica a mere skirt or top, she was loading her up with complete ensembles. AND IT WAS TOTALLY WORKING! Jessica stepped from the dressing room, looking fabulous. Iriana kept nailing it over and over again. By the time I arrived to the store from the supermarket, Jessica was beaming in front of the full-length mirror. Check her out!



Poor Iriana didn’t have a clue about why Jessica wouldn’t be buying all of the fine clothes she was clearly loving. Our circumstances weren’t going to allow it and no amount of desire would change that. In the very end, Jessica bought a good-looking pair of jeans from the store, but left the trench coat, dresses, shoes, shirts, scarves, sunglasses, belts, purses and other bling behind.

What Jessica learned from her experience with Iriana is that the possibilities are far greater than she had imagined with regard to what outfit potentials there are in the world.

Italy’s Split Personality

Italy was the 14th country visited on our trip. In none of the other 13 countries that we’d been did we observe so many joggers/runners. It wasn’t that we never saw any joggers in other countries, only that in Italy they seemed to be everywhere. Staying fit and healthy was clearly a priority for a lot of Italians.

In stark contrast to the above observation, Italians sure smoke a lot. We’d just come from Greece and Turkey, so we were used to seeing nearly a cigarette per person. Nevertheless, the smoking culture was still especially striking in southern Italy. A walk down the busy sidewalks of Palermo, Sicily was a fight for pockets of fresh air.

Further contradictions were in evidence on the streets where the distance between rich and poor begged for mercy. Extreme fashion and fancy cars cruised past regular people that were clearly in a state of struggle. In our travels, we’ve been directly asked for money on many occasions; however, nowhere were we approached more often than in Italy. We started the year with $205 set aside to give away- $100 was from our own pockets and another $105 I collected from friends and coworkers prior to leaving. Point being, we are inclined and ready to give away money when the moment feels right. Handing over money to someone just because they asked almost never feels right.

Making a buck is hard and people do what they need to do to survive, we get that. People who had no say in where they were born and under what circumstances sometimes just need some good news. On arriving to Italy, we had about $80 left in the give-away fund. Before leaving Palermo, I gave (the equivalent of) $30 to an Bangladeshi guy working the intersection as a windshield washer. I observed him for a moment and saw that he was always respectful and never pushy in his approach to people as he asked if they’d like their windshield cleaned.

I walked up to him and asked him if he spoke English. He said, yes. But I think his response would have been yes to anything I uttered. He spoke no English. There was no way for me to explain why I was handing him 20 euros, but when I did, his emotions swelled up in an instant. He gave me a moist-eyed hug and may even have kissed me on the cheek. The moment came and went in a blur, but there was nothing about it that didn’t feel right.

Former Colonial Subjects Coming Home to Sell Handbags

The Bangladeshi man was just one of many immigrants we spotted in Italy. A large number of them were immigrants from northern and eastern African countries; specifically, those countries that were once Italian colonies. At nearly every tourist site we visited throughout Italy, a cluster of African men were hawking knock-off watches and handbags. I really wanted to hear their stories, but found it difficult to engage myself in conversation with them. Guess I should have feigned interest in a Rolex.

Since witnessing the phenomenon of African immigrants in Italy first hand, I’ve seen several stories in the news about how the Italian coast guard has rescued thousands of Africans from drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean in dilapidated ships. The Italian government claims the rescue missions cost millions of dollars it doesn’t have, and wants the other European Union countries to pitch in money to help the humanitarian effort. It’s a bit of a mess.

I cannot fathom the level of desperation that must exist for someone to board a rusty old boat and embark on a weeks-long journey across the Mediterranean to a foreign land.

The Amalfi Coast

Have you ever heard of the Amalfi Coast? It is where Italy’s rich and famous go when they need to take a break from it all. Many celebrities, rich politicians and corporate elites have vacation homes along the Amalfi Coast. It is a little bit out of the way and probably reached most conveniently by yacht. Yet, we aimed to go.

We left Palermo via the same route we had arrived– train-ferry-train –and proceeded to the town of Salerno where we stayed for four nights. Salerno is near, but not on, the Amalfi Coast. Our choice to stay there was determined solely by price. Staying in one of the picturesque villages that dot the Amalfi Coast was painfully far out of our price range.

Salerno is a coastal working town most famous historically for having the first medical school in the world with origins dating back to the 9th century.

For us, Salerno served as our gateway to the Amalfi Coast, offering both a ferry and bus to get there. We chose to experience both. In the morning we boarded a small ship that cruised up the rocky coast until docking at the tiny town of Amalfi, the original town that gave the entire coastline its name. In the afternoon we returned by bus on the swervy road that links Amalfi to its neighboring villages and eventually back to Salerno where we started. The ferry was way better, by the way. The bus kept having to stop and let oncoming cars squeeze past it whenever the cliff-hugging road narrowed to one lane.

The Amalfi Coast is home to a dozen picture-perfect towns like Amalfi. Common to all are classic Italian architecture, outdoor art, sidewalk cafes, clothing and souvenir shops, and, of course, lots of gelato stands. At the center of Amalfi was the grand Amalfi Cathedral with its dramatic stepped entrance.

As we wandered through the streets of Amalfi, we kept hearing rushing water. We saw no rivers or streams running through this tiny village, so where was the sound coming from. Eventually we walked over a grate in the street and figured it out. There was water flowing underneath the streets! Fresh water from the mountains for everyone! Our stroll to the far edge of town finally brought us to the puzzle-picture-worthy source.

There are quieter, less touristy sections of Amalfi.

Each of these coastal towns has its own protected boat dock and a small beach-fronts.

Of Assisi

Even though at this point we’d been ricocheting around Italy for several weeks, our next stop would prove to be a true gem in the gold mine that Italy is- the small town of Assisi -best known as the birthplace of St. Francis. Assisi wasn’t even on our radar until good ol’ Boris made the recommendation. So glad he did.

20140909-222453.jpg Unlike Venice, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Palermo and the Amalfi Coast, Assisi is practically silent by comparison. It’s located in the broad middle of everywhere, but not along any of the main highways or rail lines that connect the larger cities. Small farms and villages dominate the generally flat landscape though small hills bubble-up here and there. Assisi was built on one such raised part of the Earth giving it plentiful views of the Italian countryside from every angle.

At the mound’s highest point, a castle was built in The 12th century. Stone walls, turrets, ramparts, courtyards…it was the classic medieval castle.

Mannequins wearing medieval dress provided the entertainment.

We walked through the castle walls to the southernmost turret.

The castle offered great window seat views of Assisi and the grand countryside below.

Headline: UNESCO Stifles Growth

By all appearances, Assisi was frozen in time. How easy it was to imagine feudal lords and fiefdoms, knights and wizards, princes and peasants. (Kings and queens rule from afar.) One reason for Assisi’s lack of “progress” is its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a site gets annointed with that label, all new building stops. Renovations are allowed, but only if they conform to the historical record. [The running joke between Jessica and me is that they give out this designation far too easily. We once pointed to an old park bench and wondered if it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In our travels alone, we have visited probably 40 such sites…so far.]


Assisi is clean and pretty throughout, almost (dare I say) Disney-esque. Cafes and shops straddle the narrow streets that seem only to exist for connecting one church to another. For being such a small town, Assisi sure has a lot of major churches. To be expected, most of Assisi’s churches have some connection to St Francis of Assisi. Either he went there, had a vision there, or it was built to honor him after his death.

Though there aren’t many, the cars that drive over Assisi’s streets make a strong hum as tires roll over the cobblestones embedded in every winding and narrow street. There are stone-cobbled sidewalks for walking, too, but these were too often not wide enough to hold the throngs of tourists (and large groups of school-kids) that visit Assisi each day.

Having a Moment

It has already happened many times on our trip. We find ourselves suddenly flooded with emotion when the grandness of our unique circumstance hits us. Standing before a particularly beautiful or personally meaningful scene can trigger this feeling. We continue to question it as if it isn’t really happening. “Can you believe we’re doing this?” “Did you ever in your life think you’d be in fill-in-the-blank. “Can you believe we are here?” We’ve been at this for eight months and the magic has hardly diminished.

Often times it is just one of us that gets flooded with the emotion that causes water to pool at the bottom of the eyes. One of us might say to the other, “I’m having a moment.” On occasion, it hits us both simultaneously.

Jessica and I shared an unexpected moment in Assisi while simply strolling through the town on one of its quieter streets. It was later in the day and there were only a few other tourists around. Within earshot of us was a man walking with his wife, their two young children close by. Sounding thoroughly American, we heard him say, “I would really like to go to Petra some day.”

His sentiment affected us immediately.

We’ve been to Petra. We’ve wandered past those magnificent ancient ruins and felt the awe and wonder they inspire. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact….it happened, not during some distant vacation, but during this one, simply unbelievable, year. We will not have any unfulfilled desires to ‘go to Petra some day,’ because now we’ve been there.

I cannot bring myself to say we are “blessed,” though undeniably that is sometimes how it feels. We are fortunate. So extremely fortunate that our lives will forever include this amazing year.

[Oh great. As I write these words and then read them aloud for Jessica….we relive that “moment.” yet again.]

The sunsets in Assisi were pretty spectack!

Good Ol’ Italian Cooking?

Assisi is expensive, especially the food. It’s the classic tourist trap in every sense. Jessica and I survived mostly on granola for breakfast and peanut butter sandwiches for everything else. One of the few times we “ate out,” we chose a small corner cafe and shared a delicious-looking (from the menu’s picture) tortellini dish. After waiting at our table about 10 minutes, the “cook”/waiter brought our meal. He struggled at first to remove the plastic seal that covered our (formerly frozen) entree’s container. He finally succeeded with a flourish before handing us each a plastic fork and wishing us, Bon apetito.

Okay, it WAS delicious, but still not what we would have expected from an Italian restaurant in Italy. How easily he could have fooled us just by transferring the “TV dinner” to a plate prior to serving it.

My theory is that businesses in Assisi are so tightly regulated that getting a license for a restaurant kitchen is almost impossible, and that microwave ovens occupy a loophole in the laws.

Despite the above incident, we both agreed that of all the places in Italy we have visited so far, Assisi emerges as a favorite. It’s just so dang pleasant, peaceful and pretty. Thank you, Boris, for suggesting it to us.

North vs. South

After Assisi, we went to Rimini, Italy where I played in the Paganello Beach Ultimate Tournament (separate blog post). Next came our visit to Cinque Terre (also a separate post). From there we traveled east to the Northern Italian city of Padova (closer to Venice).

This post is labeled Southern Italy, so no, our time in Padova technically does not belong here. It does, however, give me an opening to define what is meant by Southern Italy and it’s probably not what you think. All but the most learned and sophisticated of outsiders is unaware of the stark historical and cultural differences between Northern and Southern Italy. As a matter of geography, it’s not difficult to define Northern Italy- it’s the swath of land across the top of the boot; the part bordering the Swiss Alps. What should come as a surprise to most is that everything else is considered (by those in the north, at least) to be Southern Italy. Even Florence (and the whole Tuscany region), as far north as it looks on the map, is considered by norther Italians to be part of “the South.” These distinctions are less about geography and more about character. (Think about how the Yankees and Southerners in the US feel about each other.)

In the eyes of northern Italians, those from the south are an embarrassing source of all classic Italian stereotypes- from hands that do the talking, to the emotion-filled and affected “Italian accent,” to the thick black matching eyebrow and mustache set…that’s Southern Italy and northern Italians would be better off without them.

Ever Heard of Enchiladas?

Padova was our last stop before leaving Italy and we were there primarily to pause a few days at the family home of everybody’s good friend, Boris. On the day we arrived, only Boris’ sister, Micol, was at home. Boris has been living in Perth, Australia for more than two years now and his parents just happened to be at the tail-end of a vacation to see him at the time we arrived to their house.

I had been to Boris’ home once before (in 2006). It’s a large, but modest two-story house built on a couple of acres of land. Enough land for raising chickens and planting a variety of vegetables. With the parents away on vacation, Micol was left doing all the chores, including shucking a big tub of freshly picked peas. Grateful for the free accommodations, Jessica and I (mostly Jessica) contributed to the pea-shucking effort, too.

We also got to know Micol’s boyfriend, Marco, during our stay and liked him a lot. He visits often and helps Micol out as needed. Together, they prepared dinner for us and treated us far too well. As a return gesture, I volunteered to make enchiladas for them. At the grocery store, Jessica and I found that they sold tortillas, but they were crazy expensive. For example, a package of three tortillas was the equivalent of about $4.00. Jessica kidded that I should just make ’em.

I’d never in my life made tortillas, but with that little comment, I was off to the races. Somehow I did it and they turned out okay.

The chicken, the cheese, the sauce…it all came together and the enchiladas were a hit. At the dinner table, I asked Marco if he’d ever eaten enchiladas before. His reply was, No. Then, to my shock, he also said he’d never even heard of them before! Whoa!!!

A Happy Rosie

For Boris’ parents, their trip to Australia would mark the first extended vacation they have been on in literally decades. One side-effect of this vacation-less life was that Rosie, the family dog, had almost NEVER been left alone. Now, she faced days home alone with the parents gone and Micol working her day job at a bank.

What a joyful reunion it was when Boris’ parents returned. Here is Boris’ father greeting Rosie after being away for two weeks.

Here we are with Boris’ mom, sister and Rosie.

Both a marathon and International food fair were held in Padova’s main square on the days we were there. This square is notable for being the second largest in all of Europe. (Only Red Square in Moscow is larger.)


The largest paella skillet the world has ever seen!

This is my last post on Italy. (Or is it?) We criss-crossed the country for almost six weeks and absorbed hundreds of new and fantastic experiences. And still we realize there is so much more to see and do. Of course, that can be said about all of the places we have traveled. Sometimes the hard truth feels like a curse- you can’t see EVERYTHING. We remain thankful and humbled by what we are doing. So few in this world will have the opportunity to spend two weeks in Italy, much less six.

From Italy, we travel to Slovenia. (That post went up previously.) Hope you are still with us.

Vienna, Salzburg…and Prague on a Whim

(Vienna & Prague – 22 May 2014) We have now traveled to Vienna and Prague. I would call these two of the Great Old Cities of Europe. And now that we’ve seen them, I feel emboldened to label them “sister cities.” (I know, heads are exploding all across Europe.)

Different languages, different ethnic backgrounds, different foods, dress and customs…. but to our American eyes, they kinda look similar. Both are rich with mighty old buildings, speckled with extraordinary works of art, and each has a big river that weaves directly through its middle– the Danube splits Vienna and the Vltava River runs through Prague’s historic center.

Finding Vienna

Coming to Austria was a dream of Jessica’s ever since she watched the Sound of Music over and over again as a child (and adult). That story (of the Von Trapp family) is centered in Salzburg, Austria, not Vienna. Nevertheless, that movie clearly served as an awesome ambassador for the whole country. The iconic scene of Julie Andrews, arms stretched wide and twirling atop a high Austrian meadow, while singing, the hills are alive with the sound of music, will be etched into the world’s consciousness for generations to come.

The train ride from our beloved Slovenia into Austria was seamless. We would hardly have noticed a change at all were it not for the crew substitution at the town closest to the border. Your tickets, please, turning from Slovak to German once in Austria. Deeper inside Austria, the landscape turned more distinct and dramatic…more “Austrian.” From our train window, we saw strong, snow-covered mountaintops hovering over green rolling hills, many with storybook villages seated on top. Looks like a nice life.

Our train carried us to a station on the edge of Vienna, but very near to where our hostel was located. (It was far cheaper not staying in the city’s center.) Our hostel was located half-way up the side of a hill. On top of that our own room was on the sixth-floor giving us a great view of this huge city.

The Heart of Vienna

The heart of Vienna beats inside and around its central ring. It’s where many of Vienna’s most impressive buildings and monuments lay waiting. I call it a ring, because that’s what they call it, the Ringstrasse. We toured it by public tram while listening to one of Rick Steve’s audio guides. It was tricky to know when to start and stop the audio and we may have missed half the sights because of poor timing. In retrospect, we should have walked the Ringstrasse instead. It might have taken two hours on foot, but there was a lot to see and the speed of the tram had our heads on a swivel trying to take it all in.

Once our tram had made its full circle around the Ringstrasse, we hopped off and explored a little more of the area by foot. Daylight was almost gone at that point, but downtown Vienna shows well even at night.

Loved this statue dedicated to the life of Mozart. You cannot see it from the picture, but the back side of the pedestal had a relief of a young Mozart playing the piano.

Perhaps the grandest city hall building in the world.

Colorful lighting dresses up this columned entry gate. (I’m not sure what happened to me with this pose.)

An opera themed bathroom? Only in Vienna.

We found a Saturday food festival in Stadtspark, located on the ring’s edge. Rows of perfect white-tented booths were set up for catering a wide variety of sausages, cheeses, breads & pastries, and lots of wine. It was a beautiful day and the orderly people of Vienna flooded that park. The atmosphere was one of sophistication and luxury, though it felt normal, not snooty. Many carried glasses of wine as they strolled the tree-shaded walkways or found spots on the grassy areas where they could smile and laugh with family and friends.

In Vienna, it’s never too early for a glass of wine. (Though it could be juice.)

Vienna is home to many opulent palaces. We visited the gardens of Belvedere Palace and garnered inspiration for the day we have a backyard once again.

Nice water feature.

Trimmed up and ready for a backyard BBQ.

20140715-115337.jpgAustria’s symbol for Pedestrian Crossing looked more like Watch Out for Pervy Cowboys. It was painted on the sidewalks all over town, too.

Little fun details like this are what we’ll remember about Austria just as much as we remember the fabulous buildings, parks and monuments.

Prague on a Whim

We applaud those who’ve been paying attention to our travels enough to notice we went to a place NOT on our original itinerary– Prague in the Czech Republic. We kept hearing, Prague is great. You should go to Prague. Don’t miss Prague. Flexing our flexibility muscles, we went.

The train ride from Vienna to Prague was about 6 hours. Unless you’re in a particular hurry, that’s nothing. So comfortable are those trains that it feels like a nice relaxing treat every time we hop on board. Jessica and I have had 18 different conversations about how we wish train travel like this existed in the US.

The Czech countryside was full of bright yellow fields like this one.

I heard Prague is sometimes called the city of a thousand spires. So true.

There is hardly an ordinary building among the lot.

We’d come to expect cobblestone streets, since they are prevalent throughout old Europe. However, unique to Prague were the (mostly) black and white stone patterns in all the sidewalks. Typical were simple geometric patterns based on the square, but still so many creative designs. Check out this webpage. It does a great job of showing what I’m talking about.

Street food in Prague! These twisty little numbers were sweet and tasty. It was dough wrapped around a cylinder and baked over an open flame. We’d never seen anything like it.

The Charles Bridge may be the coolest bridge in Europe. Incredible statues line the stone-paved behemoth on both sides.

The Charles Bridge as seen from Mala Strana park, a hilltop park that overlooks the entire city.

Prague in full view.

Centered in the Prague Castle complex was the giant St. Vitus Gothic-styled cathedral.

Check out the entrance to the Presidential palace. The clear message is, Don’t mess with the Prez.

The oldest continuously working Astronomical Clock in the world! (Notice the sidewalk design here; not based on the square, but rather reflective of the clock tower it fronts.)

Jessica celebrates Wenceslas Square.

Experiencing what the world eats is part of our trip, too. Jessica tries a Czech favorite- Goulash, potatoes and a warm mug of wine.

Prague Insights

Many of our photos were taken during a guided walking tour. Good sights, but even better stories. Our guide explained how much Prague has changed since the fall of communism. Changed from what to what, I asked? One thing she told us was that under the communist system, everyone had to work. If you didn’t have a job, you would be thrown in jail. Imagine if for some reason you were to get fired from your job. You’d find yourself living in fear as you tried to find your next job; at any time the authorities could approach you on the street and ask for your employment card. Talk about a stressful job search.

Our guide also talked about the many stunning churches found in Prague. During the 41 years of communist rule, churches were closed by order of the state. While there are no bans on church-going today, multiple generations of Czech citizens grew up without the ritual of going to church. As a consequence, nearly all of the churches in present-day Prague function only as architectural magnets for tourism or classical music concert venues- prized for their heavenly acoustics.

It’s been 25 years since the velvet revolution, that’s what they call the fall of communism here because it involved no bloodshed. Supposedly, you can still find some that yearn for the ‘good ol’ days’ of communism, but I doubt there are many coming to that party these days. Unrestricted travel, name-brand clothing stores, and Starbucks are all here to stay. Freedom for the win!

Called the “Lennon Wall” (as in John Lennon), this concrete canvas was a quiet but powerful symbol of resistance during the communist era. Authorities could not suppress the peoples’ will to express itself through graffiti. The wall today is still alive, changing and growing through the time.

No Coincidence, No Story, No Charlie

Two of the friends we met last year while hiking the Inca Trail were Caroline and Patrick from Montreal, Canada. Like a couple of normal people, they returned to their homes and jobs after their vacation in Peru. We continued traveling, but have loosely kept in touch with them via email. Our last night in Prague we received a Hey, how you doin? email from Caroline. In that email she casually mentioned that her daughter (Charlie) was traveling in Europe with several friends. She listed the 7 or so cities on their itinerary and Prague was among them.

Interesting?! “We’re in Prague right now,” we replied. Her next email told us the name of her daughter’s hostel. A look at the map found she was only a five-minute walk away. See where this is going….?

Dashing northward to Prague for three days was a great choice. Surprising our friends’ daughter was the icing on an already delicious cake.

Sunny Side of Salzburg

After Prague we dipped back to the south for our final stop in Austria- a visit to Salzburg. Jessica was eager to see the city where the Sound of Music phenomenon originated. Just days before we were scheduled to arrive, she even began reading the book (written by Maria Von Trapp) that inspired the musical and movie.

Sound of Music sights aside, Salzburg is a city with spectacular charm and appeal. One of the first things we noticed upon entering the city’s heart was the Salzach River. Actually, it wasn’t the river itself that caught our attention, it was its green grassy banks filled with Salzburg’s youthful citizens that impressed. People were sunning themselves (on the sunny side), listening to music, reading books, playing cards, and sleeping. The sidewalks and bike lanes astride the river were filled to capacity, too. And, it was a Tuesday! (Particularly brilliant weather may have been to blame.)


The whole scene was a testament to living well. Salzburg radiated good energy and we were all too happy to soak it up.

Zooming in on the golden globe that occupies one of Salzburg’s main squares.

Sights of the Sound of Music in Salzburg

As nearly everyone knows, Sound of Music is based on the real life, World War II – era tale, of the Von Trapp Family Singers. First came the memoir written by Maria Von Trapp (the one Jessica read). Next up (in 1959) was the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical. And finally, in 1965, Hollywood released the movie that spread their story around the globe. Did you also know that Sound of Music won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1965?

To illustrate just how much the Sound of Music is still alive and well in Salzburg, there is a hostel in town that shows the movie every night at 7 pm. We even tried to stay there, but, alas, that hostel was fully booked.

20140715-114805.jpg I am significantly less touched by the Sound of Music magic than Jessica is. (Honestly, I have never seen the movie all the way through.) However, I am not one to turn down a city-tour bus ride either.

Jessica gains “confidence” as she channels Julie Andrews (channelling Maria Von Trapp).

Remember the scene where Maria and the kids fall out of the boat and into the lake?

Montage pics from and of the actual abbey where the real life Maria lived before becoming a Von Trapp. It wasn’t used in the movie, but still a big part of the story.

All from scenes used in the song, “Do Re Mi,” where Maria teaches the children how to sing and go wild at the same time.

The world’s most famous gazebo!

The Von Trapp family home used in the movie. We think the building is currently used as a music school. How appropriate!

Much of the tour’s commentary was lost on me, but it was still a great overview of the city and of the many sites used during the movie’s filming. Jessica had plenty of I remember that! moments as the tour progressed. She also realized how much she’s forgotten about the movie. Time to see it again!

We weren’t in Austria all that long. In fact, it was less time than we had originally scheduled due to our decision to dash over the Prague for 3 days. Nevertheless, we saw a good bit of the country- Vienna and Salzburg plus our multi-day bike ride down the Danube River. (Read all about the bike ride, HERE.) All was very positive with the exception of some inclement weather.

Next up is Switzerland. The forecast indicates better weather, but also higher prices. We hear Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. Look out! Check out the next post to see how it all turns out.

Vienna and the Four Day Bike Ride

(Vienna, Austria – 16 May 2014) What were we thinking? Neither Jessica nor I are hard-core “cyclists.” We both enjoy riding our bikes around the neighborhood on a Sunday morning, but even then our butts wind up annoyed. So what got into our heads to bike for four straight days in Austria? Simple, in Austria biking is a thing. People travel here from all over the world to experience riding their bikes along side the curvaceous and beautiful Danube river. Typical cycling vacation packages are 7 days long and cover 355 km (210 miles) from Passau to Vienna. That is far more than we wanted. But it did sound good. Here’s what one of the brochures said about it-

An easy and relaxing bicycle tour along the meandering banks of the Danube River, from village to village on quiet bike paths – the ideal way to explore the rich art, history and architecture of the Austrian Empire.

Another said:

This is an easy ride, downstream, predominately downhill, on level riverside pathways and quiet roads.

Our response to these pitches was to piece together our own do-it-yourself, shorter, and less expensive version of the same. Instead of biking from Passau to Vienna, like the 7 day tour said, we chose to begin in Linz, a small Austrian city located on the Danube about 150 miles east of Vienna. Still a long way, but assuming we ride at a reasonable pace, it would only take us four days to reach Vienna. Stops along the way would include three little villages between Linz and Vienna where our butts could rest up between rides- Persenbeug, Aggsbach Markt, and Tulln. (I know it looks like some vowels were lost in those names, but that is how they’re spelled.)

Laughing at the Rain

Our first day of riding would be the longest. According to the maps, we had 47 miles to cover that first day. Quite a lot for non-cycling people like us.

The best thing that happened to us on day one was our impeccable timing vis-a-vis the rain. We heard that riders can almost always expect to get catch rain at some point along the ride. There were indeed rain clouds in the area. We’d even felt a few light drops here and there between good stretches of sunshine.

Lunch in the town of Grein was our first meaningful goal that first day. We crossed the Danube from south to north and entered Grein on the north bank’s cycle path just as light raindrops began to fall. Suddenly those little drops thickened and multiplied. A restaurant popped into view and we raced our bikes up to the rack and locked ’em up in a flash. The skies opened up in full, but we dove into the restaurant just before getting soaked. Seated in an enclosed glass patio, we watched the rain fall about us and laughed while enjoying our delicious lunch… nice and dry.

The rains were heavy and didn’t quit easily. Maybe if we calmly share a dessert the rains will tire and decide to leave us alone. It worked! By the time we finished our beautiful cherry ice cream sundae, rays of sunlight were finding their way back.

The final piece of our first day’s journey was dry, but still very tough on our legs and asses. Rolling into Persenbeug and finding our room was a triumph of will. Jessica was as exhausted as she was relieved to be done for the day. Everyone knows I’m a tough guy, right? But I too was extremely thankful that long ride was o-v-a-h, OVAH!

47 miles? As if! I used my phone’s GPS to get a more accurate tracking our our day’s distance. Turns out we peddled a whopping 53!

Monks of Melk Be Crazy

Our second day of biking was far more reasonable, only 24 miles. Plus, the ride was split into two chunks because of a planned visit to the Benedictine Abbey in the town of Melk.

What a huge place! Monastery life was guided by three leading disciplines– Work. Read. Pray. (I’m wondering, where’s the Fun in that?) Clearly, these monks had been hard at work for centuries.

At least the Monks had a lovely view.

The reception room and a view of its skillfully painted ceiling:


The library: No photos, please. So, imagine a room where every wall is filled from bottom to top with identically bound manuscripts. Impressive, but is anyone reading them? Uh, I didn’t see it happening.

The chapel. (Where did the monks find so much gold?):

The gardens:

Day 2 was a shorter day of riding, but we still covered about 24 miles. Maybe we should have rented a pair of e-bikes instead. The e means the bikes are fitted with little electric motors; not to replace your peddling, but certainly to make it easier. On one part of our ride, an older couple cruised past us riding their e-bikes and filled us with envy to the point that we wanted to throw things at them.

Aggsbach Markt

Our room in the village of Aggsbach Markt was 300 years old, explained Elisabeth, our host. Thankfully, it had been renovated a few times over the years and did not look it’s age. The one structural aspect of the building that gave a good indication of its age was the thickness of the walls. Constructed of huge stones and a full three feet thick, this building was ready to stand for another 300 years. Looking out the window was like looking through a short tunnel.

Elisabeth not only had a great place, but she was especially friendly and nice. She even asked us if we’d like to join her and her husband (Herman) for dinner out. Not wanting to miss out on an authentic Austrian cultural experience, we eagerly accepted.

The place they took us for dinner was about two villages over. A small tree branch with a red ribbon on it hung above the door, an indicator that the restaurant was open for business. This particular restaurant was licensed only to serve cold food, homemade wine and juices, which we found curious. Then we learned the restaurant belonged to a vineyard and therefore had to follow stricter food service rules, (for whatever reason). There were numerous vineyards in the area and that’s how they did things.

We ate our cold lunch meats, veggies and cheeses like regular Austrian folk. Jessica enjoyed some of the vineyard’s excellent white wine while I had some of the freshest tasting grape juice I’ve ever had. Our hosts ordered a dessert on our behalf that was strange and wonderful. Three white scoops of what looked like ice cream sat on a plate smothered with apricot sauce. But it wasn’t ice cream at all. It was shockingly delicious cheese!

The dessert menu. Ours was the first one listed.

Half Bike, Half Train

We were beginning our third day of biking and rains were again in the neighborhood. Though none was falling when we said our good-byes to Elisabeth and Herman, light, off and on sprinkles soon caught up to us. The previous day’s forecast said significant and dangerous storms were a real possibility, but that’s not what we were experiencing. However, that forecast did prompt us to figure out where to catch a train, in case we had to bail out of our bike ride.

From Aggsbach Markt, we rode a good 1 1/2 hours through several more quiet villages and many more vineyards before cruising into the slightly larger town of Spitz. Light sprinkles no more. By this time it was flat out raining.

Having no interest in riding several more hours in the rain, Jessica was eager for a train ride. Not silly ol’ me. I wasn’t ready to let go of my Austrian biking adventure just yet. I would meet up with her in Tullln, our next stop on the path back to Vienna.

One thing about Jessica and I riding bikes together is that we both don’t go at the same pace. Now that we had diverged, I would get to have a different experience. I put it in high gear and peddled on through the rain.

It didn’t rain constantly between Spitz and Tulln, but close to it. It was cold, too. Conditions were miserable, yet… I was not. It was my time alone with the elements. Some parts of the route veered away from the Danube and through the little farming towns that dotted the entire area, but most of it ran immediately alongside the river, built on what used to be “tow paths” used by teams of horses for pulling barges up-river. Those must have been miserable times.

By the time I rolled into Tulln and found the hostel, Jessica was thoroughly settled in. I hung my soaked clothes on hangers for drying and fell into a nice hot shower. My legs were worn out from the 43 wet but satisfying miles I’d just completed.

Scenes from the ride.

Train, Train Go Away

Unfortunately, the rains continued into our fourth day of scheduled riding. I’d already had my rainy day ride experience and wasn’t eager for another. Jessica’s interest in biking for several hours in the cold rain was less than zero. This meant the only biking we would do on day four was the short ride from our hostel to the Tulln train station.

We shot about a 25 short videos throughout our journey. I have pieced them together here for your amusement.

Watch Video

In the end, I will say that our Austrian bike-riding adventure was a little bit of a bust. By no means a total bust, but the disagreeable weather really cut into our good times and the overall mood of the adventure. The best riding was through the many quaint little villages, sometimes spaced only a stone’s throw apart. Riding along the more secluded sections of the pathway were also enjoyable for all of the swallows that darted about. Those birds are unquestionably some of the best flyers in the winged kingdom. They would dart and swoop all around our bikes on their way to or from skimming over the river water.

Back in Vienna by train, we turned in our bikes to the rental place. Now that our ride was complete, our butts were ready to stop hurting. The next day we would make our first real unplanned detour and head to Prague in the Czech Republic. Everyone says Prague is fantastic so why not check it out for ourselves while we are a mere 6 hours away by train. Find out how that went on the next post.

Slovenia, A Sweet Surprise

(Slovenia – 6 May 2014) I wish we had an amazing story for how/why we ended up visiting Slovenia. It still strikes me as a pretty obscure place for us to go. Neither Jessica nor I had ever heard of Slovenia until we read an article about it in a travel magazine some nine months prior to the start of our trip. I probably only skimmed the article, too, but I sure remember the gist of it: Go to Slovenia. You’ll love it. Good enough for me. On that alone I made sure Slovenia was included when we put together the list of countries we wanted to visit during our trip .

20140611-190721.jpg Slovenia is located just to the east of (the top part of) Italy and south of Austria. It was the first country to declare its independence after the break up of Yugoslavia. The slightly better known former Yugoslavia countries- Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia -cascade down the map from Slovenia’s southern border.

I assume it was by random accident that the country is shaped like a chicken on the run.

Slovenia Is Beautiful

What a favored spot of Earth Slovenia happened upon. Green, green everywhere. Fertile farmland in the valleys turns to forest as it rises up the mountain slopes. Only above the tree line does greenery finally give way to the white of snow. Streams and rivers spread their fingers throughout the landscape and keep the lakes filled and pretty for the many photos that will be taken of them.


The capital of Slovenia is Ljubljana. (Pronouncing it loob’-lee-yana will get you close enough. Their J technically carries the same sound as our Y (as in Yellow); however, attempting the Y sound immediately after an L is just asking for trouble.)

As soon as we took our first walk through the city’s center it was as though we’d just stumbled out the other side of the wardrobe closet. Ljubljana has a fairytale quality to it. The streets are paved with tightly knitted square bricks, photo-ready bridges cross a narrow river slithering through town’s center, and high atop a nearby hill sits a protective castle. Churches and Cathedrals punctuate the scene with their high domes and even higher steeples.


Lovely pedestrian-only streets.


First wooden bikes we’d ever seen.

Views from the Ljubljana Castle.



Right near our hostel was the very cool Dragon Bridge.

Dragons were an ever-present theme throughout Ljubljana. One legend says Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts fame) allegedly slew a dragon that lived in a swamp at the mouth of the Ljubljana River. A more reality-based explanation for the dragon says that the earliest city’s coat-of-arms contained a small lizard somewhere on it. That small lizard grew into a dragon over the ensuing centuries.


Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj

The featured image from that travel magazine story on Slovenia was of Lake Bled. It’s a small lake encircled by a hiking trail, green forested hills, and the town of the same name. Standing above and behind the hills are the higher mountains showing their snow. The circumference of the lake can be walked in less than 2 hours (which we did). Within the lake there is a tiny island. Built on that island is a not-so-tiny church. Get the picture?

Another angle. Notice the steps that lead up to the church entrance.

To get to Lake Bled we rented a car in Ljubljana and drove northwest a little more than an hour. This gave us further chance to experience Slovenia’s countryside. We observed that gardening is a national obsession, both flower and vegetable. Brilliant tulips were in bloom at the time we were there (early May) and decorated many of the simple yet beautifully appointed homes.

An additional 10 km drive past Lake Bled and we came upon a quaint farming village called Bohinjska Bistrica. There we stayed for three quiet nights in a two bedroom apartment that occupied the upper third of a three story house. Well, not too quiet; Jessica was fighting a severe cold at that time and experienced coughing fits that just wouldn’t quit. The family that lived in the main part of the house even offered Jessica some medicine, presumably after they heard her coughing throughout the night.

Best Run Ever?

Lake Bled was cool, but Slovenia has many scenic lakes that are equally as worthy….like Lake Bohinj- a glacier-carved lake at the pivot-point connecting two valleys. Streams entered the lake from the valley to the north and then exited the lake as a river heading down another valley to the east. Follow that river as it winds through the valley for 7 km and you will arrive to Bohinjska Bistrica. Along one side of that river is a simple two-lane road for cars and tractors. On the other is a bike path (also sometimes used by tractors).

I’ve been trying to keep up with my running (since I plan to do a marathon next year). One of our mornings I got up early-ish and ran the 7 km length of the bike path to the lake. It’s hard to imagine I will ever have the pleasure of running in such a spectacular setting again in my life. Running to the lake and back totaled 14 km or (8 1/2 miles), a good-sized run, but truly… I didn’t want it to end.

Later that day, I repeated the route with Jessica on a pair of rented bikes so that she could experience the same awe and wonder this valley so effortlessly delivered.

Why not kayak?



We kayaked in the lake and (on another day) went for a pleasant stroll around it. In the video below, Jessica catches me blowing a dandelion flower with humorous results.

Slovenia for Everyone

A few final thoughts on sweet Slovenia. We were only in Slovenia a week. It’s a small country and that might seem like plenty, but after becoming so enchanted with the two places we visited (Ljubljana and the lakes), we were left hungry for an even bigger bite. Slovenia has beaches to its south. I wonder if they’re as nice as every other place we saw. And, there are many more cities than just Ljubljana. We passed through some of them on our train ride north to Austria; they all looked terribly inviting.

The language spoken in Slovenia (categorized as South Slavic) was quite a departure for our ears. In some ways it reminded me of baby-talk. Not quite “goo-goo ga-ga,” but close enough to give me that impression. Fortunately for us, very few Slovenians didn’t speak English.

Another consideration that favors Slovenia is that it isn’t super expensive when compared to the rest of Europe. Small gelatos that were 3 euros in Italy were half that price and twice as big in Slovenia. Yay!

People form their impressions of countries and travel desires over time. Italy, France, Spain often top people’s list of European countries they’d like to visit. Now that we’ve been to Slovenia, we believe it deserves to be ranked far higher in people’s minds. It’s just so damn nice! Go to Slovenia. You’ll love it.

Italy and the Gang

(Venice, Florence, Rome – 4 April 2014) I don’t want to talk about it. It is a travel misstep so egregious it pains me to relive in the telling. Bare in mind, Jessica and I were not just responsible for ourselves now. Mallorie, Brandon, LeAnne and Mickaela were traveling with us, thus compounding the gravity of every travel decision we made. [Mallorie is Jessica’s daughter, Brandon, her boyfriend, and LeAnne and Mickaela are Jessica’s nieces.]

As travel days go, we knew this was a big one. We started in Mykonos, Greece, flew to Athens, caught a second flight to Milan, and then hopped a train to Venice. That last leg is the one that went awry.

Venice is thought of as an island city. And it mostly is. It only fails the island test because of a narrow manmade causeway that connects it to the mainland. The tricky part for travelers is that Venice (the island) belongs to the larger, “Province of Venice.” Meaning that a substantial portion of what is Venice exists on the mainland side of that causeway, too. It’s the non-tourist part of Venice that nobody outside of the area knows or understands; the part in which real people live and work and play. This is only important to our story because each of the two connected “Venices” has its own train station. One is called Venice- Mestre (that’s the one on the mainland side) and the other is Venice- Santa Lucia. We know all of this now, but didn’t at the time we purchased the train tickets.

So here’s what went down. When our train arrived to Venice- Mestre- the destination printed on our tickets -we assumed that was it. We all disembarked the train, smiles and excitement in tow right along with our luggage. But then we exited the train station and looked around…. confusion set in. The directions to our Venice apartment didn’t match-up with our surroundings. It struck me first, “I think we got off too soon.” Jessica chased down the nearest railway employee and showed him our ticket. He gestured and pointed while speaking only Italian. Jessica did the same, while speaking only English. Who knows what each thought the other said? When they were done, Jessica urged us all to get back on the same train we had just hopped off.

It was a mad dash back to Track 5. Or, was it 6? Maybe 4…? In the end we half-guessed the right track and were happy to see our train had not yet pulled away. As a final check that we were getting back on the correct train, Jessica showed two uniformed attendants our tickets (or should that be, “uninformed?”). The train whistle blew short. We had to hurry! One giant awkward pause later and one of the employees finally motioned for us to board. Whew! We’d made it back on with no time to spare. The door closed behind us and the train started rolling.

Feeling good that we’d realized our mistake and corrected course before getting ourselves into trouble, we were all high-fiving and full of self-congratulations, until….

Welcome to Trieste?

Using my iPhone, I watched the pulsing blue dot that represented us slowly move northward on the map. We needed it to be going east. I expressed my sinking feeling to the group by saying, “I don’t think this is right.”

We saw a train employee onboard and double-checked my hunch. It was true. We were securely trapped on a train carrying us further away from where we wanted to be. Our roller coaster of ups and downs just went way down.

To the Italian city of Trieste we rolled. The apartment we’d booked in Venice would remain empty that night. It was already after 10 pm and no trains would be returning towards Venice until the morning.

By the time our trained pulled into the Trieste station it was past midnight. An additional hour was spent walking the streets of Trieste in search of an affordable hotel for the night. What a debacle! In the end, we settled on a hotel that was miles more expensive than we could afford, but by that time we were all out of patience, energy and options. Getting some sleep at all costs rose to the top of everyone’s priority list.

Venice- Truly One of a Kind

We finally arrived to Venice approximately 12 hours later than planned, but once we did, all was forgiven. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air was clean and filled with the energetic sounds of Venice in high gear. Our gang of six was infused with new enthusiasm.

The little Venice apartment we’d rented couldn’t have been more perfect. Peer out the bedroom window and see boats on water passing on the “street” below.

Oh yes we did. We had to, right? Of course, the gondola ride! Not cheap, but we split the cost six ways and piled into the boat. It’s such a cliché thing to do, but a thrill nonetheless; one of those pure magic moments you wish you could bottle up and keep around for whenever you need a lift. Our gondolier’s name was Andrea (In Italy, this is only a man’s name). He didn’t sing for us, but he did manage to kill a large rat (made of rubber) that somehow climbed into our boat. I asked him if he’d given rides to any celebrities during his many years at the helm. Bruce Springsteen and Robin Williams were a couple of names he dropped.


Fun video. Short and sweet!

Most of our time in Venice was spent wandering around aimlessly and happy. St Mark’s Square, the Riatta Bridge, the gelato (lots of gelato), we soaked it all up as much as time allowed.





Our final morning in Venice, Jessica and I went for a quiet early morning walk. Have you ever seen the streets of Venice like this?



Florence, Italy is known for having more than its fair share of great works of art. Michaelangello’s David is undoubtedly Florence’s most well-known single piece of artwork, but that’s only a beginning. Practically every corner of the city contains some world famous statue, fresco or painting. Most of the buildings are adorned with statues and ornate fixtures. Too bad I’m a genuine knucklehead for art. I look at art like a cat watching a card trick.

This huge church, referred to as the ‘Duomo,’ is the centerpiece of Florence. English speakers will understandably interpret duomo to mean dome. This is surprisingly incorrect! The name il duomo is a shortened term for “house of God.” (Think of the root of the word domicile.)

Its grand dome could even be seen from our Florence apartment.

While all of our time in Florence could have been spent rambling from one museum to the other, we decided to choose one art museum only- The Uffuzi -and then divide up our non-museum time among random pursuits. Fortunately, a few members of our group have studied a bit of art-history and a couple (Mallorie and Mickaela) even possess some talent for it themselves. Many artists are drawn to Florence. Walking around the city, we often saw young people with artist pads sketching away.

Everything we saw in Florence was accessed on foot. We had no car nor any need for one since there was plenty to see within walking distance. However, it did leave me wondering what we might have missed. I don’t really know where I got this image, but I pictured Florence to be more full of grassy parks with white marble statues sprinkled about. Not what we found by any stretch. Did we ever see a single blade of grass, much less a tree? I hope I’m exaggerating, but… at least in the part of the city we saw it was bricks and concrete surrounded by more of the same.

Florence had some pretty sights in the evening, too. (Hey, is that grass I see?)



At Home in Rome (and the Vatican)

Rome was our home for four days and nights. We “lived” in a quaint, 3 bedroom apartment, walking distance from the grocery store, dozens of cafés and restaurants, and the metro stop. It felt like a sampling of what it must be like to live in Rome.

So much to do. So much to see. And so much walking. Let’s get started.

Our first walk was from the apartment we’d rented to Vatican City, about 10 healthy blocks. There we saw the oval-shaped St. Peter’s Square, and the largest church in all the world– St. Peter’s Basilica. Quite a sight. And made all the more interesting by the Rick Steve’s audio guides we’d downloaded to our smart phones in advance.

Inside the behemoth church that is St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s cavernous!

We also paid our respects to the famous Sistine Chapel, where we heard Michelangelo spent some time with a paint brush. What an ordeal that was. So many people!!! And the circuitous route one must take to get there is worse than a rat’s maze. All visitors to the Sistine Chapel begin their journey at the Vatican Museum. Call me a simple-minded bore if you wish, but I honestly struggle getting into viewing items on display at museums, historic and amazing or not. Jessica is much more in-tune with high art.

Room after room we shuffled with the flow of the crowd. Through corridors, up stairs, down ornately decorated hallways. Hall after grand hall. We would sometimes stop to gawk at a grand and famous painting or two before rejoining the flow of humanity.

Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel. The room was floor-to-ceiling artistry and wall-to-wall people. There is bench-seating around the perimeter of the room; all spaces taken. Wait! There’s a spot! A couple of people got up and Jessica and I dove for their slots. From there we queued up another one of Rick Steve’s audio guides and listened while Rick helped lead our eyes across the ceiling. No photos allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. Whoops! Did someone sneak one?

On another day, the gang went early to St. Peter’s Square for “an audience with the Pope.” Every Wednesday (assuming he is in town), the Pope makes a rockstar-like appearance in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Hundreds of seats are set up for the crowd that swarms in for a glimpse.

Right as he first appeared he came rolling towards his fans in a modified, topless, SUV-looking vehicle. The people screamed his name, whistled and applauded. Pope Francis stood up in the back and leaned out towards the people while rolling slowly around the perimeter of chairs. You’d have thought it was Justin Timberlake (wearing a beanie) based on the cheers. To really get the masses excited, Pope Frances would periodically remove his hat and toss it to the crowd, only to put another on his head seconds later so he could repeat the stunt.


The Roman Coliseum and Forum

Of course, we all went to the Coliseum. Such an amazing and formidable structure it was (and still is). Again, we used another of Rick Steve’s audio guides to help liven up our visit. [A brief word about these guides: They’re informative and free.] In learning about what went on at the games, one thing is for sure, man had an incredible appetite for gore and brutality. And then to call it entertainment….




Adjacent to the Coliseum is an area known as the Forum– essentially, it is what remains of “downtown Rome” from back in its heyday. We walked through the rubble with another of Rick Steve’s audio guides and learned more stuff (we’ve since forgotten).


Ticking Off Rome’s Landmarks

We were intent to tick off more of Rome’s famous landmarks so naturally we had to pitch a few coins into the Trevi Fountain.

The Spanish steps were next. We’d heard eating and drinking were not allowed on the Spanish steps. If true, enforcement of this rule is non-existent; there was gross trash all over the place. It was even hard to find a clean spot to pose for the perfunctory photo.

I think they said the Pantheon is the oldest surviving continuously used building in the world. Its function and usage has changed many times since it was built some 2000 years ago, but the building itself still looks strong. It was originally built to honor the many hundreds of Gods worshipped by the Romans. Hence the name, Pan is latin for many, and theo was their word for god. Pantheon! (See, I did remember something.)



A Gelato A Day (Sometimes Two)

It was hard not to eat gelato everyday. Gelaterias were everywhere. And as soon as one person wanted one, everyone else had to get one, as well.


Many of our meals while in Italy were purposefully done on the cheap. Meaning, we would buy food at the grocery store and fix stuff at the apartment. Doing this enough times eased our minds about eating out. Food is expensive in Italy…at least for us. The problem really the unfavorable dollars-to-euros exchange rate. 10 euros for them is 14 dollars to us!

I think everybody from our gang had good eating experiences while in Italy. Mickaela ordered eggplant parmasean three consecutive occasions from different restaurants. It worked out perfectly, though, since she reported that the first one was excellent and then each that followed was even better than the last. One of our best “discoveries” in food was a something called an Arancini. It’s an Italian fried rice ball! None of us had ever heard of such a thing before, but it was dee-ee-lish! Seek them out. Eat them up. Arancini!


Other fun pics:




Back To Our Groove

The two weeks that Mallorie and the crew were traveling with us flew by so fast! For Jessica and I the pace of travel definitely accelerated while they were around. It had to. Our intention was to fill their two-week vacation with as much goodness as could reasonably fit– Athens, Mykonos, Venice, Florence and Rome. May their experiences sustain them for a while as they return to their normal lives.

Seeing them depart for home, made us think of that day when our year-long journey will come to a close. We have such mixed emotions about it, too. I hope to find a chance to say more about that in a future post. But for now, Jessica and I are plunging headlong into the next phase of our trip- more of Italy. We’ll be going to Naples, then traveling all the way to Palermo, Sicily. Stay with us!