Fijne Koningsdag

We spent Monday visiting two islands off Venice. We took a vaporetto (water bus) over to Murano in the morning. Murano is famous for blown glass, which is on sale everywhere on the island and in Venice. It is very pretty and you can go see it being blown at many of the factories. However, even before the war in the Ukraine, the price of gas had skyrocketed and many had stopped production. We wandered around the island and once we were away from the crowds it was very pleasant. We took another vaporetto to another island called Burano, which is famous for its brightly colored houses. It was also very pretty, but truth be told, after 30 minutes or so of brightly colored houses, they all looked the same.

Tuesday we headed for Amsterdam. Our flight was a little late due to air traffic control issues at Schipohl, which made more sense once we found out that Wednesday was the King’s birthday and many people have the week off.

The hotels provided this

Happy King’s day! Yesterday was the Dutch King, William’s birthday. Not surprisingly it is a national holiday in the Netherlands. Sue’s friend Ellen gave us the heads up and let us know that wearing orange clothes were an absolute requirement (the Dutch monarchy is the House of Orange). Sue had some already and I quickly bought an orange T-shirt before we left Venice so that we could blend in with the natives. Our hotel gave us a short document telling us some of the rules for the day. For those of you from Chicago, imagine St. Patrick’s Day, where the entire nation is closed, but without any parades and everyone is nice. The second important part of King’s Day is that much of the city is turned into flea markets. Many of the roads are closed and everyone just puts their stuff out on the sidewalk and sells it. The Dutch lifestyle is much more use it and resell it focused than in the U.S. I suspect in part because everything is so expensive, but also it seems to be part of their very straight forward approach to life. Their logic seems to be that I am done with it, I will sell it and someone else can use it. There was everything from clothes, toys, home goods and fresh donuts on sale on the sidewalks.

Ellen and her family invited us to spend the day with them so we walked over and met Ellen about midway between our hotel and their house. We wandered through the area around their house and Ellen picked up a few things for her kids. All of us then headed to a local bar for lunch. We had beer (Heineken of course) nachos, French fries (No MAYO!) and something called bitterballen, which is deep fried gravy. After lunch we headed to their house to visit and then back to the hotel. After a brief rest, we went out again for a wander towards the center of town (which is called the Centrum). By now it was about 7 p.m. and the party was in full swing. People were partying in the streets, on the bridges and in boats on the canals. It was wild. The best part was that it was very good-natured; everyone is there for a good time and any accidental bumps, pushes, feet stepped on were easily dismissed with a wave and holding up your can of Heineken. We had a reservation for dinner at an Indian restaurant called Lumbini. The food was great and was a nice change from the pasta and pizza diet we had been on for the last couple of months. As we walked back to the hotel at about 9 p.m. the sun was just setting and the street party was beginning to thin out. From what we understand it moves inside with lots of dance parties that go on well into the night.

Thursday morning we woke up and the city was spotless. Nothing on the streets, the overflowing trash bins were gone, no detritus in the canal and everyone was back at work as if nothing had happened. We were amazed. Ellen picked us up at the hotel and took us to see the tulip fields as they are in bloom at the moment. It is an incredible sight, just rows and rows and rows of flowers each section is one color, except for the odd interloper from another row. We simply stopped by the side of a road and wandered into the fields for a while. The most interesting thing is that the farmers are not cultivating the flowers. They are cultivating the bulbs. After the flowers bloom, the farmers cut off the flowers at the base of the stem and harvest the bulbs for sale. From there we went to the Kuekenhopf Castle and wandered in their gardens and woods with Ellen’s dog Albany (and Ellen of course). After our fill of flowers and woods, Ellen dropped us back at our hotel. We each did a bit of work, grabbed lunch at a vegetarian street food place and walked in the Centrum.

Later in the afternoon we set our sights on Wynand Fockink, one of the oldest tasting rooms in Amsterdam, to sample jenever. We learned two important things from the bartender. First, that jenever (or genever) is the ancestor of modern gin. The Dutch made it for years with just a little bit of juniper in it; the British then went to replicate it and added tons more juniper. Second, that if you are asked in Amsterdam if you have ever tried anything before say no, and the bartender will give you a sample. We tried the various types of jenever, and some of the other types of spirits that they make. For dinner, we tried to get into an Indonesian restaurant, which are very popular in the Netherlands, that one of the bartenders suggested, but they were fully booked, so we settled on a reasonably good Mexican place near our hotel. We have learned that you should always make a reservation in Amsterdam.

Destination Anywhere

Oh, the best laid plans. We had everything in place; flights, hotels, AirBnBs, tours, SIM cards – yes everything. Then Sue tested positive for COVID. Ugh! (If I actually had Covid, it was asymptomatic. I feel fine.) Time to pivot. We couldn’t stay in the place in Rome, so we did what we do best. We gathered our thoughts and made a new plan.

Part one. Sue took another test and came up negative, but Israel was still out because she would need to get the PCR test from the lab that was already closed, so that was off the table. First, we had to find a place for the next day or two so we had time make real plans. We looked for hotels in Rome, but quickly decided that Venice was a more interesting choice as Sue had not been there.

We checked the trains and found a train leaving in a few hours. We picked a hotel and made a reservation for the weekend. Whew, the immediate issue was settled. We had a quick lunch, headed for our favorite train station – Rome Termini – and boarded the train to Venice.

The train gave us time to think, plan and organize ourselves. We decided to go to Amsterdam, another city Sue has not been to, and visit Sue’s friend Ellen; then head to London to see my daughter Abi. I contacted Abi but on hearing that we wanted to visit – she immediately left London – OK, not quite, she has a business trip starting on Monday and would not be back until we were going to be back in the states. So, no London. After a very brief discussion, we decided to go back to Brugge, which we loved, but only had a day there way back in September.

The next issue we found was that the flights to Amsterdam were very expensive on Monday, but reasonably priced on Tuesday. Once again, after a brief discussion, we decided to stay in Venice an extra day. Note to self, we would need to change the hotel reservation in Venice, but we could do that once we arrived. Sue then started the process of talking to Delta to change our return flights (which were Tel Aviv to JFK and then JFK to Fort Lauderdale) to be a couple of days earlier.

The first thing we found was that flying from Amsterdam was €2,600 while flying from Brussels was €1,200. With Abi unavailable, and our revised plan to go to Brugge, Brussels seemed like an easy choice. The first person quoted the new flight as an additional $800 per person, which seemed excessive as we had paid an additional $500 per person to change our original flight from Rome to JFK to be from Tel Aviv to JFK. So even without any credit from the original flight we would still be paying more for the flight than had we just bought it.

I then started a conversation with Delta, too, and my person quoted a price of $300 per person to change the ticket. Sue checked the Delta website using the modify ticket function and it was giving us was giving us a refund of $500 per person, but for the wrong class of ticket. Sue then asked a Delta pricing specialist why the website was showing a $500 refund and customer service was quoting a $800 increase. The representative came back with a $300 credit on the ticket per person on the international flight using the right fare class and then also gave us a $250 per person credit for changing the date of our JFK to FLL flight. All in, we received credits of $1,100 instead of paying an additional $1,600. There just does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to this pricing system. (Note to Delta: Train your customer service people!) We quickly booked the tickets for both US flights and the flight from Venice to Amsterdam. We then booked the hotel in Amsterdam and the hotel in Brugge. During our four-hour train ride to Venice, we managed to plan the entire two weeks and make all the arrangements.

You know the old saying. When life gives you lemons, make lemoncello.

So here we are, in Venice – the consolation prize. We purposefully selected a hotel that was not too far from the train station, but when we arrived it looked like it was going to be a long walk. Outside the train station there are porters who will take you bags to your hotel on a rolling cart and boy am I glad we did that. The walk to the hotel included two bridges, one of which had 42 steps and was about half a mile – if we didn’t get lost, and we would have gotten lost. Our porter, Mahbubur, is from Bangladesh has a degree in political science and speaks “only six languages”. He works in Italy to send money to his family and has two girls in college, studying nursing and dentistry. I felt somewhat ashamed that this man, who has a better education than I have, was carrying my bags for a living. It is often jarring to be reminded how lucky we really are.

We checked into the hotel and headed out for dinner. We found a place just around 7 corners, 3 bridges and a couple of covered walkways. I left a trail of breadcrumbs so that we could find our way back, but the pigeons ate them, so we will never be able to find that restaurant again. We waited about 30 minutes but sat down on the early side of dinner at about 8:30. The food was good, and we sat and enjoyed ourselves finishing just around 11 p.m. You know – early for Italy.

Today, Sunday, we headed out for a full day of wandering, ostensibly our goal was to get to St. Mark’s Square, but after taking several random turns and studiously avoiding the directions that Google was giving us, we found that we could not actually get from where we were to St. Marks without either crossing at the Rialto Bridge or taking a water bus. Sue had wisely put a patch on Saturday night and so we decided to brave the water bus. We found the station easily (only three wrong turns and two additional bridges) and bought a full day pass for the water bus. The boat showed up, we boarded and went exactly one stop almost literally across the canal and got off. I know it is only April, but there are so many tourists in Venice already, I can’t imagine what it will be like this summer.

After St. Marks we hopped back on the water bus (after a couple of false starts trying to find the right bus and the right direction) and headed to the Jewish Ghetto. Stacy and David (our sister in law and Sue’s brother) had gone to a shop there and we wanted to have a look. After doing a little bit of shopping we decided it was time for lunch.

I don’t mean to sound snobbish or ungrateful for the adventure we are having, but we have been here about two months and are just a little tired of Italian food.  In Rome went to an Asian place, where Sue had sushi and I did not; a Mexican street food place near our AirBnB and found a Persian place on our last full day in the city, all were a very nice change from pasta and pizza.  Today for lunch we found a place that did Middle Eastern (Lebanese, Iranian and Afgani food). They served a selection of five things per person. Afterwards, we wandered around for a while longer, crossed the Rialto Bridge and rounded out the day with dinner at a traditional Italian place, just down the street from our hotel.

Easter in Rome

This is our last weekend in Rome, and the weather is warming up. We decided to try and avoid the center of Rome as we thought it would be mobbed with tourists here for Easter (which in Italy is a four-day weekend). For Saturday, we set our sights on visiting the Non-Catholic Cemetery of Rome (yes, that is really its name). We decided to play another round of Dead Person Bingo and see the final resting places of two of the great English poets; Keats and Shelley.

On one side of the cemetery is the city wall and built into the wall is the Pyramid of Cestius. Technically, I believe the wall was built around the pyramid, but the important point is that because it was part of the wall, it was not pillaged during the later periods. It is a 100-foot high pyramid built as the tomb of Cestius that dates from 12-16BC. It is in stunningly good condition, having been restored several times and it is quite arresting to look at. It is one of the amazing things about Rome; you turn a corner and find a wall, a column or a ruin dating back 2,000 years right next to some modern building and people passing by it without even a second glance. Just amazing.

This is what you see through the keyhole

We had a quick lunch at a food market in Testaccio and then climbed the Aventine Hill to look through the famous keyhole of the Buco della serratura dell’Ordine di Malta (which I believe translates to the keyhole of the knights of Malta). It is literally a keyhole in a door that has perfect view of St Peter’s Basilica. We waited in the glorious sunshine for about an hour to spend thirty seconds gazing through the keyhole. It is one of those things that is worth doing once if you aren’t pressed for time and the weather is nice. There are some nice gardens just down the hill and after gazing through the keyhole, we walk down to them and from there headed down to the river and accidentally into the center of the tourist part of the city. We walked past the Teatro di Marcello, another ancient theater that we now has apartments in it. From there we headed up the steps of the Musei Capitolini (which overlooks the Roman Forum), and from there headed back to the Metro to go home.

Sue having a picnic with one old one and one ancient

Sunday was Easter and while we considered going to St. Peter’s Square, we decided against it as we would have to get there around 8 a.m. to possibly see the Pope at some point after the 10 a.m. Mass. Spending hours standing in a confined area to see someone who heads another religion speak in a language that, even if we could hear, we wouldn’t understand, just seemed like too much effort. Instead we headed for Parco degli Acquedotti (which translates to Aqueduct Park, and for those of you from New York, the answer is no, they do not have horse racing there).  It is a large park in southeast Rome that has the ruins of Roman aqueducts running through it. We packed a picnic lunch and headed out there on the Metro. It is on the same line as we are, but at virtually the opposite end of the line. The area around it was very pretty and the park was fabulous. We wandered around for an hour and then found the perfect spot for our picnic. After lunch we walked the rest of the park enjoyed a beautiful spring day. We headed back to the Metro to ride back to our AirBnb and closed our final weekend in Italy.

Next week in Jerusalem!

Just the Bare Bones of Our Weekend

This weekend is going to be a calm and quiet one, no 11 trains, no traveling halfway across the country to go the ballet, not even a quick trip to Florence to see more of the sights. Wednesday as we were discussing our weekend plans, Sue stumbled onto a place called Jerry Thomas, that describes itself as speakeasy and was right near a restaurant we were planning to try. It is named after, surprisingly, Jerry Thomas who is described as the father of the American cocktail. To get in you needed to answer a question about him, which was actually about New York’s old Sunday blue laws. We answered the question, which yielded an email that gave us the secret password to get in. On the site is a link to a phone number and instructions on the times that you can call and make a reservation. This just seemed too fun to pass up, so at the appointed hour, Sue called and found that the earliest reservation we could get would be midnight and also that it is a private members only club, so we would have to purchase a membership for the grand sum of €5 each. Now at this point reasonable people our age would have said either: no and given up on the adventure or perhaps, asked if could we get a reservation for another day at an earlier time. But no way we were going to do either of those (we’re not reasonable). So midnight it was.

We re-arranged our plans and had dinner near our place then settled in for an hour or so before heading out to look for a taxi. There is a taxi stand just around the corner, but, it was empty. On reflection, I guess not surprising, since it was 11:45 and our place is somewhat in the suburbs. However, after about 5 minutes of trying to figure out how to order a cab, one drove by and we hopped in it. The speakeasy is clearly marked on the map, but of course, the “road” it was on was merely an alley. A group of people milling about midway down the alley so we quickly figured out that this was where we needed to be. Plus, the cabdriver pointed. After a brief moment, a man opened the door of what looked like a brownstone or row house and started to call names. He called Sue’s name and we were allowed in. Humorously one woman tried to bluff her way in by claiming to be in another party. The look of derision that he gave her was withering and she slunk back away from the door. The doorman seemed a bit dour, but I guess I would, too, if my job were to make everyone wear a mask, check their green passes, shout names into the unruly crowd and keep everyone quiet in a residential area as they were clambering to get into my workplace. The bar was decked out in early Prohibition. The cocktail menu appeared first, followed by our drinks, which were delicious. We would like to especially thank our server, Luca, who kindly spoke English and brought some focaccia for us. At 1:30 a.m. sharp our reservation expired and we headed home. We had a similar taxi adventure on the way home, but the wait was only a few minutes.

Saturday morning, our niece Genny arrived for a two-week stay.  She got in about 10 a.m. and after a brief stint trying to sleep, we ate lunch and headed to one of weirdest places that we have been to so far. The Capuchin Crypts are a series of chapels under the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The chapels are built with the bones of Capuchin friars. There is a small museum that really just seems to be there to lead the way to the crypts. Apparently when the friars moved to this church they brought the bones of their dead brothers with them. At some point, according to the information in the museum, it was either a Capuchin friar who had fled from France and was hiding in the ossuary or a local artisan who ask permission to create the chapels.

There is simply no way to describe how weird it is; photography is banned so these pictures are from the web, but they do not really do justice the how bizarre the whole thing is. The Paris catacombs, which we visited way back in August, were odd, and the bones were arranged with some artistic flare. But this place was a whole different level of weirdness. There were friars in repose underneath arches of bones. The chandeliers where made of bones, the ceilings were decorated in bones. A couple looked like they had mummified faces. Very creepy. Suffice to say we loved it.

After finishing there, we decided to walk to the Vatican to see where Genny had lived during her time here as a nun…OK, she wasn’t here as a nun, she did a semester abroad in Rome and had an apartment just near the Vatican. After walking past her old apartment, we grabbed the Metro back to our stop and settled in for the evening.

Florence for the Weekend

The view from our AirBnB’s front window

On Thursday, we headed out for a couple of days in Florence. Stacey had organized the travel, so it was smooth and easy. After an hour and a half train ride, we were in Florence. We grabbed lunch and checked into a fabulous AirBnB (link), which is two doors down from the first Medici palace. Once we had unpacked and settled in for a bit, (and gawked at what a fabulous and fancy place we had) Sue, Stacey & David headed out explore, while I sat down to work for the afternoon and evening.

Friday, we had a walking tour of Florence, which is a small city and totally walkable. We started by going to the Galleria dell’Academia, which is the art museum that displays Michelangelo’s statue of David (I had never thought about it, but David has a nice tushy too!), among is other works. It is incredible to realize that he sculpted the Pieta at age 23 and the David at age 26. Our tour guide was very informative and she brought our attention to many of the techniques that Michelangelo used to make the masterpiece, such as his enlarged hands and feet.  

We spent about an hour in the Academia and then headed to the Duomo or Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, one of the main attractions of Florence. It is a soaring 13th century Gothic-style cathedral, financed by the di Medici family to let everyone know how rich (and pious?) the city of Florence was. The dome is 90-meters high and can be seen from miles around. (I am sure if you have seen a photo of Florence, you have seen the dome of the Duomo.) It is also the third largest Catholic church in the world.

We headed toward the river to see the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence, and the only one the Germans did not destroy when they evacuated the city. The Italians have a complicated relationship with World War 2, which seems to focus only on the liberation of Italy by the Allies. Mussolini has only been mentioned twice, and both times derisively. The bridge houses a long line of jewelry stores, and I, of course, bought Sue one large piece from each store – or not. We really just wandered across and looked in the windows. We did, however, learn that the stores were originally butcher shops, so that the waste could be tossed into the river. But when the Medici’s built their third palace on the other side of the river, they also built an enclosed walkway that went from the second to the third. The route it took was through the Uffizi Gallery and then across the bridge above all the shops. Not surprisingly, they decided it would be nicer to walk above jewelry stores, than smelly butcher shops.

From there, we walked over to the second Medici palace, called Palazzo Vecchio. It now houses the city government of Florence but was originally a fort and palace for the Medici family. The square in front of the palace is called Piazza della Signoria. It contains a number of important statues and Michelangelo’s David originally stood here before being moved to the Galleria in 1873. My personal favorite is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, in part because the sculpture (Benvenuto Cellini) seems to have carved his face into the back of Perseus’ head. Unfortunately, due to the lighting, we did not get a good photo of this. Interestingly, our guide pointed out that there are three statues with heads that are, or are about to be, cut off. Perhaps as a warning to those who wished to oppose the government? On the south side of the piazza is the Uffizi Gallery, which we did not have time to visit, but Sue and I are returning to Florence in a few weeks, so we will perhaps go in then. Can’t get enough Jesus pictures when you’re in Italy.

After lunch (yes, that was all before lunch) and a short rest, we headed for the Basilica of Santa Croce to play our favorite game – dead person bingo. The basilica houses the mortal remains of Galileo, Dante and Michelangelo. Imagine the conversations going on at night between those three! The church dates from the 13th century – or at least parts of it do. There are many people buried under the floor and wandering through it is easy to find markers as old as the 15th century.

Once we had completed our bingo card, we headed back to the AirBnb and then out for dinner. After dinner, as we were relaxing, there was a protest outside our place by the communists, demanding peace, which seemed somewhat ironic.

Saturday, we just lazed around and did nothing.

Stacey and David and Chianti mascot (in the middle)

Yeah right. Not a chance – Stacey had booked an all day wine tasting trip to Chianti. I know, tough job, but someone had to do it. Our driver, Eduardo – Eddy – picked us up at 10 a.m. and drove us out into the beautiful countryside. We learned the history of how border between Florence and Siena was set and why the local mascot is a black rooster. Here is a link to the very short story. We first went to a vineyard called Fattoria Montecchio and learned about the different types of Chianti (Chianti, Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva) and Super Tuscans. We tasted each of the wines that they make and also tried their balsamic which was a revelation to me. I loved it. (It does not involve vinegar, but is simply an aged grape reduction.)

We then headed to Casa Emma, a very small organic winery. They served us lunch and paired the very delicious food with their different wines. Once again the had the three types of Chiantis and a super Tuscan, along with two different balsamics, one of which was aged 20 years.

After a very long leisurely lunch with great company and great food, we staggered back to the van and Eddy took us to the small market town of Greve in one of the valleys, which is known for its smoked meats. Then we climbed (Eddy drove us in the van) up to the top of one of the hills and explored a village that was the defensive fortress for the valley. Finally, we headed to the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who apparently did quite a bit of exploring, but more importantly managed to have a bridge named after himself in New York. (It helps to be born into privilege. The Verrazzano castle was quite lovely.)

Sunday morning, Stacey and David headed to Venice while we stayed in Florence for a few more hours. Sue indulged me by going back to the da Vinci museum (which she had seen on Thursday) and then we went to the Galileo Museum. The da Vinci museum is quite small and has replicas of many of his machines. It is incredible how wide his knowledge and interests were. The Galileo Museum was brilliant. It displays the history of astronomy, measurement and other science starting with Galileo and going into the 18th century.  They even have his middle finger on display (they also have his index and thumb, but they are less interesting).

We left the museum wandered for a while then stumbled upon a place called La Ricettario for lunch. Sue had a bean soup and I had lasagna. The food was perfect. Simple ingredients, prepared well, served plainly. No fanciness, no experimental ingredients, no fuss, no bother. The meal was brilliant. We sat for close to two hours enjoying the place then headed to the train station and back to Rome.

The end of a perfect week, traveling with those we love, enjoying the sights, sounds and experiences of two new cities in one. Life is sweet.

The first four days in Roma

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind, and this portion of the blog is going to cover only Sunday to Thursday. I promise will write more tomorrow or Monday about the rest of the week. I am also only including a few photos. Our amateur photos of Vatican do not do the the art justice, so please use the links to see professional photos.

We arrived in Rome on Sunday morning after a smooth flight. Monday Sue’s brother David and our sister-in-law Stacey arrived from Chicago. They are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a 10-day trip to Italy. Stacey is supremely organized and so we just waited for them to arrive and for Stacey to let us know what we were doing and when.

Tuesday morning was a four-hour tour of ancient Rome. A driver picked us up at our place and took us to the Coliseum where we met our tour guide. The day was cool (40s F) and quite windy. It made for a rude change from the 80°+F that we were used to in Guadalajara. Sabrina, our tour guide, quickly ushered us into the Coliseum and started filling us in on the history of both the building and of ancient Rome. One of the benefits of using a tour, rather than just entering on our own, is that we had access to the “upper decks” of the building. There is a museum on the third level and with Sabrina’s excellent explanations we learned so much. Some of the things we found out included that the building is the Coliseum, not because it is so large, but because there was a statue of the emperor Nero called The Colossus that predated the building; that the building was partially destroyed in an earthquake during the 13th century; that there is no mortar between the large limestone blocks, they were held in place by brass pins and those brass pins were looted during the middle ages, which accounts for large holes in the those blocks (don’t think too hard about the fact that the entire building doesn’t have anything holding the blocks together); that the original bricks used were triangular as they held the mortar better than rectangular bricks; and finally, that you can tell the nicer areas by the quality of the floors. The upper tiers had brickwork floors, the lower tiers had mosaics while the emperor’s walkways were lined in marble. 

After about an hour, we headed to the Forum, which is the original city center for Rome. The buildings along the forum road generally dated from ancient times, many of the buildings are still in very good condition and as Sabrina commented, “The buildings that were converted to churches are the ones that survived.” The rest were looted or, in more modern terms, they were recycled to be used for other buildings. We saw lots of evidence of that in the Vatican (foreshadowing – we go there on Wednesday). The Forum was built in a valley between the hills of Rome, and so one of the first things the Romans did was to design a drainage system to keep the area dry. After the fall of Rome, the area fell into disrepair and slowly over the years ground level rose (due to sediment and fill) to be about 10 meters higher than the original road. The excavations brought the area back down to the original. Once again, Sabrina was very informative and while we were cold, the time passed quickly.

Once we had our fill of the Forum, the driver picked us up and we drove past the remains of the Circus Maximus, and then to the Jewish Ghetto. Sabrina gave us a quick tour of it and then we said good-bye to both her and our driver. We found a nice place for lunch and warmed up and relaxed.

After lunch, I headed back to the AirBnB to do some work, while the others headed to the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Spanish Steps.

Stacey also organized our tour of the Vatican Museum for Wednesday. We started the day by taking the metro four stops and wandered to a little (literally six seats – think of a New York pizza place that has a small railing with a few seats) handmade pasta place that our AirBnB host had recommended, called Pastasciutta. You simply order your pasta and your sauce and they make it up right in front of you. After lunch we had a little while to kill so we wandered near the Vatican and found a coffee shop. Stacey, Sue, and I ordered a drink. I ordered a Viennese, not knowing what it was, and the photo to the right is what I received. Yum!

We met our tour guide, Valencio outside the entrance and he whisked us through the incredibly complicated system to get in. First you show the guards your reservation, then pass security, then get your ticket then head upstairs to the entrance. It is a system that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. The Vatican Museum is simply astounding. The entire layout is set up to lead you through the collection and ends in the Sistine Chapel.  The rooms are stocked full of amazing artwork, there are innumerable statues, mosaics, and other objects d’art from ancient Rome including what may or may not be Nero’s bathtub (imagine a cistern about 20 feet in diameter about 5 feet high). Many of the popes, especially during the Renaissance commissioned gorgeous murals that covered entire rooms. Valencio pointed out that during that time there was a focus on the Greek and Roman philosophers many of whom appear in the artwork.  We looked at room after room of stunning artwork and even the rooms where Valencio said “there is nothing interesting here” were amazing. The final part of the museum tour is the Sistine Chapel, which simply defies description. The rules for visiting include no photos, no loud talking and the tour guides are not allowed to provide commentary.  We spent about 30 minutes quietly contemplating the magnificence of Michelangelo’s work before heading out.

After the Sistine Chapel, we walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica and once again were just amazed by the grandeur of the building and the decorations. We spent about an hour wandering through the basilica with Valencio filling in much of the history. We saw the Pieta by Michelangelo, the massive central alter and soaring bronze canopy that covers the alter, but perhaps most impressive was the Bernini’s sculpture for the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. The way he used the space is amazing. The entire sculpture is over a door to some offices, but he managed create a beautiful and moving piece that has so much symbolism. It is awe inspiring.

After four hours of drinking from the fire hose of history and art, we called it a day and hopped on to the Metro home for dinner and gelato.  

Back in the USA

Friday morning at 11:30 we left our AirBnB in Guadalajara for the 30-minute ride to the airport.  It is the end of another leg of our foolishness. We are usually pretty careful about the weight of our luggage, but the prices got the better of us and bought a couple of bottles of tequila and one very heavy present. Both our bags came in at just a shade over the 23-kilo maximum, but we figured we would risk it. At the airport the scales started at 23.5kg and slowly balanced themselves to exactly 23kg. Whew.

Somewhere over Mexico

Our destination today is Fort Lauderdale, with a. stopover in Houston. The flight to Houston (IAH) was smooth and easy. The flight left and landed on time. The arrival in Houston started smoothly. We used our global entry for the first time. The scanner took really bad photos of us and printed them on what looked like old style fax paper. We grabbed our entry slips and walked right through immigration. It took a while for our bags to appear, which I guess is the drawback to not standing in line at immigration, but one we will gladly take. Once the bags arrived, we walked them over to the transfer station, dropped them off and headed to the new gate.

We didn’t realize that we had to go through security again, and that was a bit of a nightmare. No TSA precheck so a long line, we had to take everything out of our backpacks (phones, Kindles, laptops), and basically strip down to our skivvy’s (take off shoes and belts) to get through the system. I first couldn’t find my Kindle in the bag, then thought I had left my cellphone in the bin. After a few minutes of panic, I found the phone and we headed into the terminal. Did I mention that Houston was 39° F and our flight was delayed by an hour? Houston has not endeared itself to us; both flights out of there were delayed.

Me, The Very Reverend Esther & Sue

Sue and I retired to the first bar we found and ordered a couple of cocktails…and had sticker shock. $20 per drink. We spent as much on two drinks as we did on drinks AND DINNER in Guadalajara.

The flight eventually left and we arrived at Fort Lauderdale at about 11:30pm. We hopped an Uber and arrived at my mother’s place at 12:30 almost exactly 12 hours after we left.

Saturday we spent the day visiting with friends and family and having a nice Thai meal with my mother. Sunday we returned to the airport and flew up to Baltimore to spend the week visiting with our most favorite (and only) granddaughter – and her parents.

Next stop – Rome!

Mexico City

Four days and just a little sleep

This has been a busy four-day weekend for us and I thought I would give you a quick idea of what our schedule was like. Sue will fill in more details in the next blog, but for now I just figured you might like to see a timeline and a few photos.

Thursday

The now legally required Instagram sign for the city.

9:00 am  – We grabbed an Uber to the airport – it was about a 25-minute ride. Our flight was scheduled for 11:25, so we got there quite early because we were not sure what security would be like.

9:35 am – Through security

10:50 am – Boarding starts. The boarding plan was kind of interesting. We lined up by seat number. First class boarded, then they boarded from the rear of the plane forward. We were row 10, so we boarded pretty late.

11:30 am – It is scheduled as a 90-minute flight, however, wheels up to wheels down was actually about 45 minutes. We barely had time to have our drink and eat a couple of empanadas we brought on board for lunch.

12:45 pm – We are at the gate and off the plane. We received a free transfer from the airport to the hotel, so we found our driver and headed into Mexico City.

1:30 pm – We stayed at a hotel called AR218 in an area of the city called La Condesa. The check-in went without a hitch and we quickly unpacked our stuff.

2:15 pm – We head out to walk up one of the main thoroughfares called Avenida Insurgentes. We relied on my brilliant reading of Google Maps, so we went about a mile an half the wrong way. Oops.

5:00 pm – We found a park called Parque España. It was a cute little park, and in the middle there was a young man giving massages. Sue decided that she wanted one, so for the grand sum of 80 pesos (about 4 US dollars), she had a 20-minute neck and back massage. (It was fabulous!)

5:30 pm – We started to get a bit hungry on the walk so we wandered over to a place called El Rey de Falafel. It was no L’as du Fallafel which you might remember from one of our posts from Paris, back in August. But was still really nice and filled the hole.

6:00 pm – Our wanderings brought us to Parque Mexico, which was busy but still an oasis in the middle of a crazy city.

6:30 pm – We returned to the hotel having covered about 9 miles.

8:30 pm – We strapped on our walking shoes again and head out to Baltra bar, a place one of friends suggested. It was a bit too hip for us, so we had a drink and then left.

9:30 pm – We walked over to another place near our hotel that was recommend to us called Felina. We sat outside and watched the evening go by for a few hours.

12:00 am – Back to the hotel and called it a night.

Friday

9:00 am – We booked a tour to the Teotihuacan Pyramids about an hour outside Mexico City. All in we spent about 5 hours getting there, learning about their history and getting home.

2:00 pm – Back in the hotel for a quick rest.

3:00 pm – Ubered to the center of Mexico City to see murals by Diego Garcia and others. We first went to the Government Palace, but unfortunately, we were not able to get in to see the murals. (Damn Covid!) In Mexico, opening and closing times for public access seem somewhat random. But since our language skills are not the best and we have trouble understanding what the guards are saying, we just shrug our shoulders accept the no, and move on.

The Rockefellers didn’t like this one.

4:30 pm – We walked from the Government Palace to the Palacio des belles artes that has murals by Diego Garcia, José Clemente Orozco and Alfaro Siqueiros. The website that we found said that the museum was open until 7 pm, so we figured we had plenty of time. However, when we arrived, they said it closed at 5 pm (see above comment on the opening/closing times). We knew we didn’t have much time, so we focused on the murals. The Diego Garcia mural was originally commissioned by the Rockefellers, but they had it painted over when they saw that Lenin and Soviet May Day parades were included; he then recreated the original here. We had seen other works by Orozco in Guadalajara (here is the link to the post) and the one we saw in Mexico City was being restored, which was pretty interesting in and of itself. I was taken by the work of Sr. Siqueiros, and we will stumble on his name later in this post.

The ceiling at Comedor Lucerna

5:30 pm-7:00 pm – We wandered from the Palacio over to Comedor Lucerna, a weird and wonderful food court that Sue found.  It wasn’t very far from the Palacio, but we didn’t want to get there too early, so we just wandered. We passed by the Museo Nacional de la Revolución, which luckily for me was closed, as it has a glass elevator, and I am sure Sue would want to go up, so I would feel obliged to join her.

7:00 pm-9:15pm – We had dinner in the food court and relaxed . At about 9:15, we walked a couple of blocks over to a jazz club called Parker & Lenox. The had a really great trio playing and hung out for both there sets.

12:30 am – Ubered back to the hotel having walked just about 7 miles.

Saturday

9:30 am – Somewhat surprisingly we woke up a bit late.. I wonder why😉.

10:00 am – Ubered over to the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It was amazing and overwhelming. We spent about two hours there and saw about one quarter of the collection when we both reached our limit. It is absolutely on our list of places to visit again. (I guess that means we’re coming back to Mexico!)

12:00 pm – We had somewhat of a deadline to leave the museum as we had reservations to visit Casa Azul (Frida Khalo’s house), which is in a southern part of the city called Coyoacán. Our plan was to Uber down to Coyoacán, grab lunch at a place that we found and then head to the museum. But the best laid plans sometimes go awry. The restaurant didn’t open until 1:30 pm, which is when our tickets were for, so we just wandered around the area and killed some time until we could get into Frida’s house.

1:30 pm-2:30 pm – Visiting Casa Azul was interesting and we will write more about it in another blog, but for now, here are a few photos.

Famous Dead Person

2:30-3:00pm – Around the corner from Frida’s house is the house that Leon Trotsky lived and ultimately died in. For those of you who are not up on your revolutionary history, Leon Trotsky was a hero of the October Revolution but, for reasons that would take up too much space to write here, Stalin had exiled and then killed. Interestingly, there was an unsuccessful attempt on his life a couple of months before he was killed, and one of the assassins was Alfaro Siqueiros, the mural painter who I really liked.

3:30 pm – After getting our fill of Trotsky, we headed back to Amatista’s Tostadas (the place we wanted to go, but was closed until 1:30 pm). We had a wait about 15 minutes to be seated, but the food was delicious and quite truthfully, we were starving. After our late lunch we wandered through a little art market that was around the corner and then Ubered back to the hotel.

8:00 pm – Having recovered from the day, we had dinner at little cantina around the corner called Montejo. Once again, we sat outside, watched the world go by, ate, and drank some really nice tequila.

Sunday

The line for Chilaquiles tortas

9:00 am – Our tour guide on Friday had recommended a “place” (really a food stand on a corner near our hotel) called La Esquina Del Chilaquil that served the city’s best chilaquiles. It is just a food stand on the street corner and the line goes up the entire block. What you get when you order is essentially a chilaquiles sandwich (torta). (Corn tortillas and salsa on a roll? Can’t be beat.)

10:00 am-2:00 pm – We Ubered to Bosque de Chapultepec. It is large park in the middle of the city with a botanic garden, a couple of art museums and the anthropology museum from yesterday. Our goal was to go to Chapultepec Castle which has a Mexican history museum in it and was supposed to be open all day on Sunday, only it wasn’t. No idea why, but that is just the way it is sometimes in Mexico. Instead we wandered the park and visited the Museo de Arte Moderno , not my favorite style, but is was very nice.

2:30 pm – We ubered back to the hotel and grabbed lunch around the corner a pizza place called Balboa Pizza. It was pretty good pizza for not New York.

3:00 pm – Back to hotel and grabbed our bags and took a 30-minute ride to the airport. Once again we left lots of time to get through security and once again it took 5 minutes. The flight left about 20 minutes late and arrived just a bit early.

8:00 pm– Back in our AirBnb in Gaudalajara. Maybe just a bit tired.

8:30 pm – I realize I left my phone in the cab. We track it via Find My Phone. Yup, it’s back at the airport. We called the taxi driver, who spoke no English, and managed with the help of translation (it’s hard to speak Spanish when you’re feeling like an idiot) to communicate. He graciously brought the phone back to us and we rewarded him with what was a lot of money to him, but was well worth it to us. There are good people everywhere!

11:30 pm – Finished writing the text of the blog and will add the photos and publish tomorrow.

I need to get back to work so that I can get some rest!

Our last weekend in Guadalajara

It seems crazy, but this is our last weekend in Guadalajara. Next weekend we are in Mexico City and then we head back to the U.S. on the following Thursday. The time here has just flown by.

I took Friday afternoon off and met Sue in El Centro after her last day of school. I rode a Mibici (the rental bikes) from our AirBnB to her school and then parked it nearby. Our plan was to see two sets of murals by José Clemente Orozco. The first set is in the Palacio de Gobierno, or Government Palace. It the seat of power for the State of Jalisco. We arrived there just after 1 p.m., but unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it. Sue spoke to the guard who told her that they were only open from 3-4 p.m. We decided to head to the second set which are housed in the Instituto Cultural Cabañas.

 The building was originally a hospital and orphanage that opened in 1810. In 1980 it became a museum and in 1997, a World Heritage site. We wandered through a number of exhibitions, most were abstract, which is not my favorite. There was one dedicated to the history of modern art in Jalisco, which was quite interesting. However, nothing prepares you for the power and brilliance of the murals. They are housed in the major chapel building and they are simply breathtaking. There are 57 of them in all and they are political commentary on Mexican history and social injustice. Think about how difficult it would be to maintain proportion while painting on a dome.

After we had our fill of the museum, we skipped the Government Palace, in part because we were getting hungry. We decided to tick two places off our food list. For me, a torta ahogada  or “drowned sandwich” and for Sue, fish tacos. We stopped first at El Guerito (sorry, another Facebook page) for the torta. I ordered mine and the server looked at Sue, she said “Soy vegetariana”. The server looked at her with mixture of sadness and horror. He gently shook his head and wandered off to get me my sandwich. It was good, but nothing that would make me want to have another one. Then, we headed for Taco Fish La Paz, which Sue’s Spanish teacher had recommended. This, like many of the taco places, works like this: You place your order and are given the taco shell with the meat (or in this case fish), then you move over to long bar of fixings, like salad, salsa, etc. and you make you taco your own. Sue ordered on taco and one empanada and settled down after “decorating” them with salsa, salad and other stuff. She will have to tell you if they were any good. The were delicious and I had my usual agua fresca, flavor: green. I don’t know what it is but it’s yummy.

We headed home and relaxed for a while. In the evening, we went to the Paten Ale House  to try some local craft beer. We were under the impression that they brewed their own beer, but they did not. However, the food was nice and the beer was good.

Wadda mean it isn’t a cat?

Saturday morning (think 11 a.m.) we decided to try one of the breakfast places that Doug and Kenta (our trusty Guadalajara food guides) suggested. One challenge was that we forgot its name. We had a reasonably good idea of where it was and remembered that they had a round sign with a cat on it. What could go wrong? We headed out and by sheer good luck we found it right where we thought perhaps maybe it might be. It is called the Comala Barra de Café. We both had chilaquiles, mine with chicken and cheese, Sue’s with eggs and avocado. These were really delicious, and very filling. Every time I have chilaquiles, they are differently delicious.

After breakfast, we met one of Sue’s school colleagues, Peter, and headed back to Tlaquepaque. We wandered around the town and visited the Sergio Bustamante gallery. He did many of the statutes that are displayed in the town and all of us really liked his stuff. My favorite is this door handle, but alas, at $2,700 it is out of the price range of a guy who doesn’t have a fixed address. Maybe next year.

One of our goals in coming to Tlaquepaque was to hear a mariachi band. We read that El Patio (Yay! Not a Facebook page!)  restaurant had an all female band that played starting at 3:30 p.m.

What we got.
What I expected

We arrived there at about 3:15 and settled into our seats in the open courtyard. I tried to order a cocktail called a cantarito, but unfortunately, I could not remember its name, so I described it a a tequila drink that comes in a ceramic mug. (By the way, I am describing it to our server in English.) He smiled and said you want a cazuleade! I said Yes!, Sue and Peter went along for the ride. I was surprised, to say the least went it arrived. They place the bowl in front of you with the fruit and mixer in it, then they pour in the tequila. It was light and refreshing and went down far too easily. In case you are wondering, it is served with a straw, so you don’t have to try and drink it from the bowl.

Fried grasshoppers

Sue never ceases to surprise me, and today was going to yet another time. The menu had guacamole with fried Oaxaca grasshoppers. Yes, my friends, my vegetarian wife ordered and ate those. She explained to me that bugs don’t count as meat. Well, they are sustainable and don’t live miserable lives in tiny pens. Ok. I guess. But then again, in my mind, they don’t count as food either. They are excellent sources of protein. The band wandered around playing songs that it appeared everyone (but us and the other tourists) knew (and sometime sang along with). The restaurant is built around a courtyard, so while the music was loud when they were next to the table, when they moved away, it was easy to talk and hear. We sat and enjoyed the music but we had to head home because we had a dinner date with Doug and Kenta.

We Ubered home, had a quick shower and the Ubered to their home. Kenta was cooking vegetarian Japanese curry. They both are great cooks and tonight’s dinner was no exception. We sat, talked and ate for a few hours, all of us realizing that our time in GDL is coming to close. 😦

OMG! We have a social life

On Saturday morning we grabbed breakfast across the street at Pata de Elefante. They have wonderful breakfasts, and Sue and I indulged. They had a two piece band (guitar and saxophone) playing in the corner and it enjoyed a quiet morning. Afterwards, we headed to Zapopan which is a city that abuts Guadalajara, and it is really just another neighborhood of the greater Guadalajara area. We went there to go to the local modern art museum with our friends Doug and Kenta. We biked to their place and they drove us to Zapopan. It has a nice little downtown and a large church that looks like it should be a few hundred years older than it is. Perhaps we are spoiled from our wanderings in France and Turkey, but a church built is the 17th century seems a bit new.  We didn’t go in as it seemed like quite a production so we took some photos from the outside, nodded our heads that we had seen it and headed for the museum.

It is an arts weekend in Guadalajara and the museum was displaying a bunch of local ceramics and mixed media art works. It is a fairly small museum with the ground floor dedicated to the ceramics and mixed media while the upper floor was dedicated to a collection of Alexander McQueen’s clothing. I found the ceramics interesting, and Sue explained in detail to me each piece of Mr. McQueen’s clothing she would deign to wear.

Once we finished the museum and wandering in Zapopan, we headed to the grocery store. Kenta wanted to take us to another upscale store called City Market which was very nice and we did our weekly shopping there and then headed home by Uber.

In the evening we met our friend Sam (for those who cannot manage to keep our social life straight – Sam is the young woman we met on the Tequila Tour who runs a vineyard in Napa, is vegetarian and is here studying Spanish for work) for an early dinner at a vegan restaurant that her teacher had suggested, called Choclo y Maiz (sorry all they have a Facebook page). The food was very good, even if it didn’t have any meat. One of the interesting things about Guadalajara (and perhaps all of Mexico) is that the main meal is earlier in the afternoon. Choco y Maiz closes at 7:45pm on Saturday night (and I think we mentioned that last Sunday we went to an Argentinian steak house and got there at 7:30 only to be told that they were closing), hence the reason to have an early meal.

After we were done, we headed to a craft beer bar that was pretty near our AirBnB (in the video the place behind the three green traffic lights). They had an open air dining area upstairs that looked down the main bar/restaurant road called Chapultepec. We found three seats on the railing that overlooked the street and ordered some beers. We talked and people watched. The street has a large median with a small open air market and there were a couple of performers doing circus acts (unicycles, juggling etc). We had a great view and enjoyed their show.

Nothing to see here folks….Just a guy balancing on a rope juggling in the middle of the street

Sunday we met up with more friends (Teresa and Stephanie) for lunch in El Centro (downtown). They are leaving on Monday so we had lunch, talked about our plans (they are spending a year traveling in Mexico) and made tentative plans to meet again. They sold us on a visit to Copper Canyon sometime in the fall – now we just have to make that happen. We may have sold them on visiting Chicago in July.

After we said our goodbyes, Sue and I wandered around El Centro, took a quick detour through the Mercado San Juan de Dios (we bought our fridge magnet!) and headed home to relax for the rest of the day.