Back in the USA

Plus a weekend in Belgium

We flew back to the US yesterday with little to no drama. Just a short delay at JFK and a bit of confusion about how to get from one terminal to the next. Delta wasn’t exactly clear about the process, but we made it. We stayed at the Sheraton at the Brussels airport and I have to say, that was great. The train from Bruges left us a few escalator rides from the hotel, which was directly across the street from the terminal.

We had most of the day to wander, so we took the train back into central Brussels, which hadn’t really impressed us the last time we were there. This time, we headed up to Parc du Cinquantenaire, about a 30-minute walk from the central train station. The park was built in 1880 for the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s freedom. When you walk toward the park, you can see three arches topped by a bronze chariot with four horses plus a beautiful view of Brussels. It houses three museums — Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, the Royal Museums of Art and History and Autoworld. Can you guess which one we visited?

Yes, you are correct — Autoworld! It’s a little pricey for what it is, but you can just wander and look at all kinds of cool cars. We think the museum buildings are repurposed train stations. Autoworld has sweeping arched ceilings, almost like a plane hangar. After the museum, we admired the landscaping and sat in the park a bit. Steven is excellent at finding restaurants that have food I can eat, so we set a course for our last Belgium beer and dinner. We sat outside at Au Brasseur, watching the people and enjoying the Belgian sun (which was in short supply during our trip). Our impression of Brussels is that its probably a very livable, international city (if you don’t mind the weather), but I wouldn’t put it at the top of my tourist wish list.

Middle Eastern or Asian food is always a good choice for me and my wonderful husband (in whose best interest it is to avoid hangry me (it is called self-preservation)) found a delicious Lebanese-Syrian place just a few minutes from Au Brasseur called East@West. Of course, the owner (at least I assume he was the owner) speaks four or five languages and they had a fabulous selection of vegan options, even kibbeh, which I have never had because it’s always meaty. This version had walnuts, which Steven said he had never had. We thoroughly enjoyed everything and then headed back to the hotel to get in one last night in the EU.

In Bruges

Of course, we ate frites, don’t even ask! Hold the mayo, though.

We had been in Bruges once before (which, you, our faithful reader already know), but we didn’t really have enough time, so we headed back. We made the mistake of not checking the train schedule careful and only found out that there was no speedy train from Amsterdam to Brussels on Saturday (or it was sold out), so it took about four hours. Oh well. Live and learn. Overall, I love the European trains!

Once again, we stayed at Hotel Academie, which is in a great location on a quiet street, but steps away from the tourist madness. The staff is lovely and helpful and the room features beautiful wallpaper with birds and flowers. Also, the bed is very comfortable! We stayed in an executive room, which offers a little more space. There’s even a closet (and it had a Murphy bed which we called Ellen after our friend in Chicago who has one in her apartment) . What’s up with all these hotels that have no place to put your clothes???

Anyway, the hotel is also two doors down from (surprise!) a beer place that is famous for a 12-glass tasting.. We thought it would be a couple of sips each, but no, they are half glasses full. I’m a light-weight, so I left most of it up to Steven (it is a tough job but someone has to do it). As is the case in most places we’ve been,the bar was playing a lovely selection of 1980s-90s American pop and I know all the words. Steven asked me the name of one of the bands, and as I said Duran Duran, so did two guys behind us. Next thing we knew, we were fast friends with Stephen and Oewen (that’s an approximation because he said his name was tough and sometimes he tells people to call him John). Anyway, they were really good guys and we had an fun learning a lot about Dutch life.

Sunday was museum day. We unenthusiastically figured we had to hit the Choco Story, or the chocolate museum. We thought it would be a tourist ripoff, but it was very informative about the history of chocolate and at the end we got all-you-can-eat chocolate (just don’t stuff your pockets and take it with you). We also hit the Torture Museum, but 100 methods of torture was a bit too depressing for us and we were glad to be done with it.

A great thing about having a bit more time and being wanderers is that we discover places we might have otherwise missed. Before leaving Bruges, we headed in the opposite direction from the hotel and ended up on a route that rings the city with a bike/walking path.

And now we are back for a bit, just in time for Mother’s Day and the famous American holiday Cinco de Mayo.

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.

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!

Bologna + Somewhere in Tuscany

I had mentioned to our niece Genny that the two of us could go somewhere together during the week while we left Steven home to work. (Aren’t we nice?) She chose Bologna mostly because she had heard that it was liberal and LGBTQI+ friendly. Plus, it was only a bit over 2 hours by train as opposed to Venice, which is more than 4 hours. I guess I’m never going to make it to Venice, but who knows.

Sure, Bologna it is, I said. Genny had heard about an LGBTQI+ center that had events, so we booked a room and figured we’d check it out. … Unfortunately, it was only open in the morning and we got there Thursday evening when no events were scheduled. Oh well. Instead, we wandered the city center, ate delicious pasta (what else), rested for a bit and then sat outside sipping a cocktail at a (gay, but not aggressively so) bar just a few blocks away from the hotel.

Friday, we headed back to town and after I caved in and bought a charging cord from the Apple store (poor Genny was a trooper since my cheapness made me search fruitlessly for a knockoff to replace my broken one), we ate breakfast, shopped a bit and headed to the train station. Genny went back to Rome for a weekend with friends (and no old people) and I went to Florence to meet Steven and his friend Ronan. I got there a couple of hours before poor working man Steven, so I went native and decided to sit at a cafe. You may have seen my adventure in trying to speak Italian. Bottle, glass, whatever. It was wine, sun and relaxation in Firenze! And, no, I did not finish the bottle. I tried unsuccessfully to give some of it away, but the Italians and tourists alike seem to love the Aperol spritz. Not a fan, myself.

Fattoria Il Palagio

Steven’s train arrived and Ronan met us at the station for the 40-minute drive to his incredibly beautiful home in somewhere Tuscany that’s 40 minutes northwest of Florence. I dream of living somewhere like that for maybe 6 months or maybe that’s too long considering there’s not much to do. Although … hiking, biking, gardening, photography, eating. We had an amazing time. Friday night, we went to a fabulous local restaurant, Fattoria Il Palagio, that looked like what you would imagine if someone said “Tuscan stone villa” to you. I had fried artichokes (its artichoke season!) and tortelli, which is local to the area and is ravioli stuffed with tomato and potato. How can you go wrong with carbs stuffed with carbs? Oh, and topped with Italian sauce. Steven had the same pasta but with a meat sauce. That’s what he always has. Oh wait, he had something with ragu (a ragu is a meat sauce, but that was my first course, my main course was a local stew called peposo). Sorry, Uncle David. We know it’s not as good as the ragu in Bologna, but according to Steven, it was very good (yes it was fabulous as was the peposo).

We were happy for the chill weekend since we have been doing our usual running around and Steven has been working a ton (to keep me in the lifestyle to which I would like to become accustomed). Ronan is a great host and we enjoyed taking Ronan’s dog Rufus for walks, watching Ronan cook for us, letting Ronan make us coffee, drinking Ronan’s wine(and gin and grappa). My life advice for you is as follows: Make a friend who lives in Tuscany, preferably one as nice as Ronan!

Antica Osteria de Montecarelli

Sunday, we went to Antica Osteria di Montecarelli, a tiny restaurant in what once was a house, and ate giant platefuls of pasta. Ronan had to use his locals only skills to get us in and it was worth it. We stayed full for most of the day and just had a snack for dinner.

Our time in Rome is winding down. This upcoming weekend is Easter(and sadly our last weekend) and already everything is much more crowded and the traffic has multiplied (along with the honking horns). We were thinking of heading to the Vatican to see El Papa, but did you know that Mass starts at 10 a.m. and the recommendation is that we get there by 8 a.m.? That seems early for us, so we may leave the Pope to the Catholics on Easter Sunday. We’ll see.

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.

Eleven-train weekend

Yes, that’s right: 11 trains. Sounds a bit overboard (off the rails?)(UGH! She is stealing my jokes!), but it just kind of happened that way. We started out Friday taking a cooking class about 25 minutes (by train) outside of Rome. That required getting to Roma Termini by Metro and then taking the regional train out (stay tuned for a blog on our train mishaps!). Four trains round trip.

Only the local trains were this highly decorated.

Saturday morning we headed to Pompeii. Back on the Metro to Termini for the intercity train to Napoli followed by the regional train to Pompeii. But wait! We went from there to Sorrento on another train. Keep up with me here; we’re up to 8 trains.

Of course, we had to get back on Sunday, so Sorrento to Napoli, Napoli to Termini, and Metro home. Phew! But, it was all worth it because cooking class, Pompeii, and Sorrento!

Friday

Our cooking class was taught by Claudia, with entertainment by Bruno, her husband. They are a great combo. One other couple (Hi Eva & Hosea – sorry Hosea if I have misspelled your name) had also signed up for the class and they turned out to be fun companions (I was a little concerned when we first met them because they are from New Jersey – but despite that – they were really great). We spent a lot of time chatting as we made two kinds of ravioli and beef rolled and stuffed with something (what do I know, sono vegetariana!). While we rolled dough and blabbed, Claudia made a delicious salad of oranges, fennel, fresh olives (from their trees), salt and olive oil (which she makes) and Bruno provided piano accompaniment with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, John Lennon’s Imagine, and a jazz version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall And Volare! I’ve been in Italy for 4 weeks and it’s the first time I’ve heard it.

The delicious dinner took a bit longer to complete than expected and we ended up rushing out the door at 20:05 to try to make the 20:12 train, a 15-minute drive away. Quote of the weekend from Bruno: “I think it’s impossible, but we will try.” Try and succeed after a mad dash to the platform. Thanks to the conductor who held the train for us while we ran up the steps with very full stomachs.

Saturday

You already know how we got to Pompeii. We did have an OK lunch in Napoli, allegedly creator of pizza, and then got back on the train. BTW, Napoli is a bit gritty, but it’s hard to get a fair judgment from the area around a train station in any city. Certainly no one approached us and we never felt we or our belongings were in danger.

We arrived in Pompeii about 13:30 and wandered for 3 hours. I had no idea how big the city had been. Being there turned Steven and I philosophical. He was musing on the scope of time and I on how beautiful and civilized a place it seemed to have been. Bathhouses, government buildings, commercial streets, an amphitheater and a societal structure of haves and have nots (and the have lesses) all wiped out by caprice only years after a major earthquake followed by rebuilding.

One of the joys of traveling off season (and at what I hope is the tail end of COVID restrictions) is that nothing is overly crowded. So much nicer to travel without elbowing through throngs.

Pompeii shuts down around 17:00, but we reached our limit about 16:30, so we got back on a train and headed to Sorrento.

We had a room in a hotel just around the corner from the train station (Diamond Suite), but when we arrived, we couldn’t find the place. The manager (owner?) Michele kindly came downstairs and found us. He was a wonderfully helpful person and I bet if we were staying longer, he would have had some secretly great recommendations for us. The place itself was no luxury hotel, but it was spotless, had a nice balcony and a comfortable bed (but the shower did have mood lighting!).

After a short rest, we wandered the narrow streets of Sorrento until someone got a bit hangry (not saying it was Sue, but it was totally Sue). After fruitlessly marching around looking for restaurants based on Google information (COVID has changed a lot and times in Italy aren’t exactly set int stone), we landed at La Maison Douce. The food was delicious, but the waiter made the night. He was friendly and comped us limoncello. (Think he knew we had a blog?) Plus, they had FEW gin, straight from Evanston, IL. Who would have thought(I used to live a block from the distillery, and have done the tour…just a few times.)

Sunday

It was a day for (death) marching. We headed down to the water for some photo ops at the Marina Grande. Ah, ancient stone dwellings built into cliffs and the requisite restaurants and their touts beseeching you to eat lunch at their establishment. Plus, an obstacle course for drivers. Why do people buy big cars in Italy?

We realized we couldn’t escape without having an aperol spritz, so we gave in. I knew it would be a bit bitter, and it was. I steer very clear of Campari because it’s even more bitter. I’m plenty bitter without adding to it(notice I am not saying anything).

We planned a late lunch because we wouldn’t be home until well after dinner time. Steven found a place, O’Parrucchiano La Favorita, but neither of us had any idea what a big deal it was. The place was huge, packed and it had lemon groves out back. Once again, the food was yummy. I guess you just can’t go wrong with pasta. We thought we had plennnnty of time, but suddenly it was 16:00, we had to stop at the hotel to pick up our backpacks and our train to Napoli left at 16:24. Oops! Getting the timing right on the little things can be the toughest part of travel. Sometimes we’re sitting around at the airport for hours and other times we’re sweating it out.

We made the train without a hitch, but it stopped for extended stretches at a few stops. Steven turned to me and said, “I think we’re going to be late.” We had left 30 minutes between the Napoli train and the one back to Roma, but we had to find the right track, walk from the local station to the main station, well, we worried a bit. All’s well that ends well, however. We had no difficulties (this time) and made the train with 10 minutes to spare. To cap off a great weekend, we got to the Metro platform just as our train arrived and we were home by 20:00.

Once in the door, Steven said to me, “I’m really tired for 7 o’clock.”

I replied, “It’s not; it’s 8.”

“Then, why does the clock say 7?”

Oops! We had completely forgotten about daylight savings time. No wonder we slept so late. Good thing for cell phone clocks or we really would have messed up our train schedule.

Weekend in Milano

But first, a visit with an old friend

I used to work with an amazing reading teacher, Ellen. Ellen is now living in Amsterdam with her family and they are living the good life too. Finally, finally after trying several times to meet up, she happened to be in Rome last weekend. I hopped in a cab to Trastevere and after a little confusion (the cab driver dumped me off at the correct street, but not the correct address) she appeared on the street before me. Yay! We had a coffee and a catch-up. I can’t wait to see her again! More incentive to visit Amsterdam.

Off to Milano

I am sure you all are aware of how classy we are, so it will come as no surprise to you that we took the train to Milano on Saturday afternoon so we could go to the ballet at La Scala. Ha! The truth of the matter is that when someone asks us, “Hey, want to do __________?” our default answer is “YES!” so when the person we apartment-sat for last August in Paris asked us if we wanted to see him conduct the ballet at La Scala, well, see above. Three hours on the train plus the Metro ride to the train? Paying for a night in a hotel? Know nothing about ballet? So what? The tickets were free! I’ll just say that we weren’t the worst dressed people there(which is the only bar I was willing to set for me).

We had no expectation of what Milano was like. I was there in a different lifetime and didn’t really have much in the way of memory of it except that I didn’t think we were impressed. Either we weren’t in the right area or I was impressed by different things way back when. We arrived in the evening and were staying fairly close to La Scala in the touristy Duomo area. It’s a little painful that beautiful buildings are now homes for Guess and Foot Locker(and of course, the ever present McDonalds), but it’s the way of the world. At least when you’re not shopping, you can admire the architecture.

Our friend mentioned that we DEFINITELY had to go to Ambrosiana, which is a museum and library. Once again, YES! We had no idea how amazing it would be. It did have the requisite number of Jesus pics, since it was the Renaissance, you know, but, it also houses original drawings of Da Vinci inventions and the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael. Those two alone made it more than worth the visit. It won’t surprise you to know that the building itself is spectacular.

From there, we had a serviceable lunch (the restaurant offered “pizza americano,” whose ingredients were mozzarella, tomato and French fries (No! I didn’t order it…I did think about it…maybe next time…)) and then headed to La Scala. I enjoyed the performance of the ballet Jewels more than Steven did (once again, low bar), but we both loved the music (conducted by Paul Connelly!). Jewels, created by George Balanchine, has three related movements (Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds) with music by three different composers (Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky).

I thought people who go to La Scala would be classy, but they were just as eager to take flash photos during the performance as any other group. Oh well. I finally gave in and took a few of the curtain calls (after all, the performance was over and I was about the only one who wasn’t).

Castello Sforzesco

Afterwards, we met Paul and strolled through Milano because he wanted to show us the Castello Sforzesco, a medeival fortress built in the 15th century that is now a museum. Inside is Michaelangelo’s last and unfinished sculpture and, of course, there’s a room decorated by Da Vinci. We wanted to see it, but we were running short on time. One truism of travel, even our style of travel, is that you can’t do everything. At least we got to see the outside. We completed our trip with the walk back to the train station for the three-hour ride back to Rome. We arrived home at 10 p.m., tired but happy.

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.