London – the second weekend

We were lucky enough to have two weekends in London and we packed the second one as full as we could. On Friday night, Abi, Laurens, Sue & I went to London’s Chinatown for a relatively early dinner at Joy King Lau. We ordered about 10 different dishes all of which were yummy and managed to finish all of them. After dinner we had reservations at the Comedy Store for an evening of stand up. They had seven comedians, an MC, the other four shown on the poster and then two more who did short sets of about 10 minutes each. They were all very good and we had a great time. After the show, Sue and I grabbed a cab back to the AirBnB driven by a very funny and talkative cab driver name Josie. 

Saturday, Sue and I went on a nice little stroll from Hackney to Highgate (circa 4 miles). Our destination, was, of course, Highgate Cemetery. We stopped on the way at the Lord Palmerston pub for a real British pub lunch. Sue had fish and chips and a cider while I had a Caesar salad (ok, not really British pub lunch, but I was still full from dinner the night before) and a pint of beer. We sat outside in the sunshine (yes really, there was sunshine) and watched the world go by. 

After lunch we headed for the cemetery to play our favorite game – Dead Person Bingo. The cemetery has two sections, East and West. We started with the west section and found Michael Faraday, Alexander Litvinenko and George Michael (real name Georgios Panayioto). Unfortunately we missed Beryl Bainbridge and Bob Hoskins, but oh well, you can’t see them all. In the East section we found Karl Marx (really impossible to miss), Malcolm McLaren and Douglas Adams (Don’t Panic!). All in all a very successful dead person’s bingo day.

We left the Highgate via the overground trains (which Sue has dubbed the overtube) on our way to meet up with Abi & Laurens to celebrate Laurens’ birthday. We met them and a bunch of their friends at a canalside bar called Crate Brewery. A good time was had by all. When the sun started to go down, Sue & I decided to have Indian food for dinner at Bengal Village on Brick Lane. The food was delicious a great end to a really enjoyable day.

Sunday, Sue and I walked down to Borough Market just to see what was there. Broadway Market, which we visited last weekend, was all prepared and ready to eat food, Borough Market had a much greater mix of prepared and grocery foods. The walk there took us past a few of the buildings that worked in when I lived in London, back during the 1980s, which made me a bit nostalgic. After walking through the market we decided to have lunch at the Anchor Pub, which has been open since 1615. I used to work around the corner from it, and when I lived in London, I would often go there for lunch. After a nice lunch, we had some time to kill until me were meeting Abi & Laurens, so we continued down the south side of the Thames to Tate Modern Museum. We wandered around looking at the installations for about an hour, and to be truthful, I just don’t get it. I think I am going to give up on modern art museums, I just don’t understand why the pieces that they are showing are good art. Some are interesting to look at, but what makes them great art? After being thoroughly bewildered by the Tate, we walked back to meet Abi and Laurens for a drink and then headed back to our AirBnB. Back to back 10 mile days, my legs were tired.

Monday was a bank holiday in Great Britain, called August Bank Holiday (pretty clever huh?).  Unfortunately, we had to work, because none of our clients are British. Sue and I did yoga in the morning (as if my legs didn’t hurt enough) and we met Abi & Laurens for dinner our last dinner in the UK at a Jamaican place called Ma Petite Jamaica. The food was good and we had a nice, if a little melancholy time, knowing that this was our last night together for a while.

Steven neglects to mention that Sue went on a 4-mile walk on the Regents Canal to Camden Market. The walk was the goal, not the market. In fact, the market, which is pretty famous, has every type of food you could want and plenty of knickknacks, leather goods, souvenir junk, and jewelry. If you don’t mind crowds, it’s a fun visit. That’s where I found Amy Winehouse. It used to be a haven for punks and goths, but like everywhere else, it just seemed touristy and hipstery.

Just some random photos of London courtesy of Sue:

Tuesday morning, we took the Chunnel to Paris and Wednesday morning we flew back to Chicago.

The Chicago skyline from the window of our plane – the color is due to the tinting on the window:

Ground Control to Major Tom

This was our last weekend for this trip to Paris as we are heading to London next Saturday. Friday night we decided to try a Mexican restaurant near Montmarte cemetery in the 18th arrondissement.  The place had good reviews on Google but we are quite disappointed. The food was at best mediocre, the drinks were watery and the service was poor. Oh well, sometimes these things don’t work out. We decided on a whim to walk the 3 miles home. It was quite warm but the walk west into the setting sun was wonderful.

Saturday the temperatures were in the 90s Fahrenheit (about 34˚ C). We started the day by meeting a classmate from Sue’s time at Alliance Française and her partner for brunch. They chose the Maison Sauvage, which happens to be our local watering hole. We sat in the sunshine and had an enjoyable brunch.I really enjoyed seeing Lin again and meeting Jean Baptiste. They are very sweet. They recommended a museum called Musee Jacquemart Andre. After a short(ish) relax after brunch we put our walking shoes back on and walked over the museum. It is in a private mansion built by Edouard André and his wife Nélie. Mssr. André  was the only child of a very wealthy banking family during the Second Empire period (1852–70) and he and his wife spent their entire adult lives collecting art. The house and the art was amazing. One of the interesting things was that the reception rooms were quite grand, but the private chambers were relatively modest.

After we done wandering in the museum, we headed over the Parc Monceau and just sat on a bench and watched the world go by. The park was full of people enjoying the warm weather and hanging out in the park. Or perhaps they were sitting in the park because it cooler than sitting in their un-air conditioned apartments. Either way, it was very enjoyable. I like Parc Monceau because it’s not a tourist attraction. For the most part, it’s just Parisians hanging out. When the sun started to set we walked back to our apartment.

Somewhere Sue found an article about a place called Ground Control, which is sort of like an indoor/outdoor food court with some boutique shops in the 11th arrondissement right near Gare du Lyon. One of the food stands is run by refugees and they focus on food from their particular homeland. It sounded interesting when Sue described it, so we decided to walk the 5 miles (8Km or so) along the river to it on Sunday. Once again the weather was in the 90s (about 34˚ C), but there was a nice breeze blowing and it was somewhat overcast. The walk was great and we were certainly hungry when we arrived. Sue had a gazpacho that was a thick green soup and reminded me of pureed avocado (at least it looked like that) and a deep fried vegetable dish. I had Caribbean bbq chicken with coconut rice. Once again, we sat in the sunshine and enjoyed the atmosphere. We decided to take the Metro either because it was a really long tiring walk there and I … I mean we…couldn’t face a walk back, or it was supposed to rain soon. You decide the more likely reason.

Another fabulous weekend in Paris.

The Old and the Restless

Gratuitous bear statute pic for the granddaughter. Somewhere near the DC zoo, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the zoo.

Surprise! We’re restless in our apartment in Baltimore, so Friday we went to DC to wander around, but first we had a very important errand. We visited the Polish consulate to apply for my EU passport. It was a bit of a disappointing experience in that the room was tiny and stuffy and the man behind the plexiglass barely spoke as he stamped away at my documents. The good news is that he didn’t ask why I speak not a single word of Polish plus we will be able stay in the EU as long as we want (if we want). Aside from that, we took a long walk and did the math in our heads about how house poor we were willing to be to live in a city. I’ll let you know if we ever figure it out.

We did have fun strolling around and noticing that every apartment that is for rent is a luxury apartment. Good for us. Who doesn’t love luxury? Do you think they come with a butler or house cleaner?

We definitely like the restaurant variety and the ability to get around by Metro. We didn’t like the traffic trying to get back to Baltimore. Apparently it’s not only construction season, but car crash season as well. We have noticed that many cities are great as long as you stay in them and don’t drive.

One downside to being out of the country is a lack of baseball, so we’re taking advantage, especially since we are three blocks from the park. We went to a game last week and then decided to hit another on Friday after DC. It was Orioles vs. Guardians (who are from Cleveland and used to be called the Indians) and we were watching a no hitter for 5+ innings (guess which team didn’t have a hit). The Orioles tried to make it a game in the eighth, but they came up short and lost 6-3. Oh well, it was a beautiful night for a game and we got free T-shirts.

Saturday, we did the digital nomad thing and hit the storage locker to swap out a few things. It’s difficult to keep track of where everything is and what climate we need to prepare for. Afterwards, we had a belated birthday dinner for Steven at a restaurant called Cypriana. The hummus was amazing, the rest of the food was fine, but uninspired. We are getting spoiled in our international travels. We aren’t “foodies” in that we don’t want fussy or overly fancy foods just simple food done well.

Today, we decided on a mini-roadtrip to Frederick, about 45 minutes west of Baltimore. It’s a cute little city with a few breweries, a bunch of restaurants and stores plus a walkway along a creek lined with more restaurants, etc. We had a delicious lunch at JoJo’s Restaurant. Getting really good vegan food around here is difficult, but my vegan power bowl was tasty. There are only so many fake burgers a person can eat! We wandered (as we are wont to do) and then got a flight of beer from Attaboy Brewery. The day was perfect: sunny, low humidity and about 80 degrees, so we were glad for the chance to put the top down on the trusty Saab and hit the road.

It was especially nice because the AC in our AirBnB is out and it was a bit balmy in here. We do have excellent hosts, however. They came by with a portable AC unit and then refunded us $200 for our trouble. Sometimes, you just meet good people.

I’m guessing the next time I write, it will be from Barcelona. I’m very excited, since I have never been there, so if you have any tips for me I’m happy to accept them. Or any for Madrid or Lisbon, too 🙂

Planning time

I have a new spreadsheet, I am so excited! We are now planning our next trip; seven months in South and Central America. We will be leaving in early October and expect to be back in early May. Our plan is to stay for six plus weeks in each place as that seems to give us time to settle in, get used to the place and find a routine. If we had more time (or fewer places we want to see) we would probably stay longer. Even at seven months, we are finding we do not have enough time to visit everywhere we want to go.

Happiness is a good spreadsheet

Our plan is actually starting at the end of June, when we decamp from Baltimore. It looks like this:

July – We are heading back to Chicago for one of the two months when you can reasonably hope that there won’t be snow to visit Sue’s family and all our Midwest-based friends.  We are driving the (hopefully?) trusty 2006 Saab.

August – Our friend, Paul, from Paris, has asked us to cat sit for three weeks. Poor Seuss needs us, and we are not the kind of people to leave a cat without his favorite cat sitters. 😉. After Paul returns, we are going to take the train through the Chunnel and visit my daughter Abi, and perhaps (if we are deemed worthy) meet her boyfriend. We expect to spend about a week there, and I am sure we will be playing Dead Person Bingo at all the cool cemeteries and, of course, at Westminster Abbey. We are thinking we might visit Winnie the Pooh’s head and a few other odd museums if we have time. But mostly we are there to see Abi.

September – Our return flight is back to Chicago where we will pick up the (hopefully still working) Saab and drive to Washington, DC where we will be staying for the month.  We will spend more time visiting with my son, our daughter-in-law and, of course, the grandbaby. We are also trying to decide if we like DC or the environs to settle there once we are done with our travels.

Buenos Aires

October and November we will be in Buenos Aires. We are once again hoping that the (perhaps still running) Saab will get us down to Florida, where we are storing the car for the duration of our trip. During our time in Argentina, we are planning to head to Brazil and meet my very intrepid mother who has decided that she is going to visit my Brazilian brother (short version of a long story is that Vitor was an exchange student in high school and lived with us, so he qualifies as family) and his family. It is her 85th birthday and I am just amazed at her bravery at making this trip. A special thanks to my sister, Judie, and Vitor’s daughter, Alice, who have agreed to play Passepartout to her Phineas Fogg.  We also intend to visit Iguazu Falls, the wine region around Mendoza and perhaps cross over into Uruguay for a visit to Montevideo.

Santiago’s skyline

December and January – We plan to take a couple of weeks and go wandering in Patagonia. We will update with an itinerary once we have figured that out. The remainder of December and all of January we expect to spend in Santiago, Chile. That too is far enough out that we haven’t really wrapped our brains around what we will do with our time there, although I am pretty sure that we are going to spend a moment or two (or even more?) in the Chilean wine country.

I can’t believe they named a bean after this city!

February and most of March we will be in Peru. Once again it is pretty far out to have a firm plan in place, although we are in the process of booking a trip to Machu Picchu. Sue would prefer the four-day hike on the Inca trail. I would prefer to stay alive. So we have compromised and have found a trip that does a one-day hike and then you go on a train for the rest of the way. We are also thinking about going to Lake Titicaca, but have heard mixed reviews. If anyone has any thoughts on it, please let us know.

Mexico City – the final stop on this trip (unless we change our minds).

For our final stop, which will be for part of March and then all of April, we will return to Mexico City. We haven’t even thought about our plans for that yet. But we do have just a little bit of time.

I am hoping all my Spanish lessons will lead to my ability to have at least a first-grade level conversation with someone, somewhere on our travels!

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.

Hellos and Goodbyes

As we approach the end of our wonderful stay in Roma, we are faced with more goodbyes. Today, we said arrivederci (or ciao) to our trainer, Angelo, (from Rabbit Sport Center) who not only tortured us with full-body exercises for our aging carcasses, but invited us out for coffee with his partner, Meg. Not only is Angelo a very buff trainer, but he’s an excellent photographer. Meg works for the United Nations, so they are a real power couple, and sweet as well. Meg grew up in Toronto, so we were able to have a more comfortable conversation. Understandably, Angelo was shy about conversational English, but he did great (with some translating of more difficult topics like the differences in health care).

Didn’t have any pics of our new friends, so here’s one of a cat who was my friend while I petted it.
We have no idea who this is, but he accidentally AirDropped his photos to me, so I will call him The Unknown Friend.

Meeting new people, making a connection, learning about their culture and their lives makes life sweeter, but arrivedercis sting. We always say, “We’ll see you again, somewhere, sometime,” and we always mean it. Of course, we are moving targets and so are many of the people we meet. We’re attracted to open people with adventurous spirits, so they are just as likely to pick up and move as we are. It makes having a giant party a bit of a challenge.

Someday, when we settle down, we will issue a permanent invitation to all our far-flung friends and we will truly mean that they are welcome to stay with us. We now have friends in Mexico (in addition to our favs, Kenta and Doug), Brazil, Paris, Burgundy, Rome, Nice, The Netherlands and Jerusalem. Feel free to add to our list.

Although leaving here is melancholy, we will be reuniting with a friend we met in Paris, who lives in Israel. Not only will we meet him, but he is moving out of his place to let us stay there and his mom is meeting us there because he will be at work. Thank you, Gilad and family!

Speaking of Israel … We’ve been assured by all our Israeli connections that we will be perfectly safe despite the reports of increased tension. Passover and Ramadan (and Easter) apparently remind everyone that sharing a tiny piece of land is impossible for all who have the power (but not the will) to change things. Sigh.

We are leaving our AirBnB in Rome on Saturday and flying to Israel on Sunday. One of the foibles of our life (and increasingly feeble minds) is that we make logistical errors. We thought we booked the place until April 25, but Noooooooooooo, April 23. So, we’ll be staying at the airport, which works out since we have a somewhat early flight and are flying El Al, so we want to make sure we get there in plenty of time to get through security. But, keeping all the details straight can be difficult, even with Steven’s excellent spreadsheets.

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.