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.

Paris Promenade ou marche, marche, marche

[Oops, this is not Steven talking, it’s Susan!] Not to sound snobby (although sometimes I feel like we do just because of our lifestyle), but we have been in Paris many times and we’ve checked off all the really touristy stuff so we try to explore areas where real Parisians are (and where we may want to live if we can learn some French after we learn Spanish). We are also tried to make sure we can do the loooooong hikes we signed up for in Patagonia and Machu Picchu.

So, this weekend was death march weekend. That’s Steven’s name for them anyway and according to our phones, he’s getting the old man bump. Even though we are walking the same distances and walking them together, his phone always says he’s gone farther than my phone says I have walked (HA! She is just jealous of my ability to out-walk her).

Anyway, Saturday, we took the Metro to Pere Lachaise, but we didn’t play Dead Person Bingo. We just wanted to explore the 19th arrondissement. I thought there was a farmer’s market there so the plan was to buy some lunch and head to Parc Buttes-Chaumont for a picnic. Parisians love a good summer picnic. I didn’t realize that the farmer’s market wasn’t open on Saturdays, but aucun problème. Instead we hit the Carrefore supermarche (I bought curried chicken, was supposed to be served hot, but I put it on a baguette – it was delicious) and headed over to a park in which I heard no English spoken. Excellent!

BTW, we totally decided that we love the 19th. In fact, we LOVE Paris. What are we thinking when we say we want to go somewhere else. Paris is magnetic, electric, parfait! The park was beautiful, the day was beautiful and so we made our typical decision and walked home all the way across Paris. How can you go wrong (Can you say death march?)?

On the way home, Saturday my favorite store!

After the park, we headed over to Paris Plages at the canal. There are paddle boats, swimming spots, snack bars, playgrounds, and other fun activities at the water (nice little restaurants which we didn’t stop at because no drinks allowed during the death march!). We had no idea it was there, but we had past it on the Metro on our way to the park and decided to walk that way. One thing we do well is the detour. It’s always worth it to find somewhere on the map and just head over because it looks like something worth seeing.

Sunday, we planned another long walk. One of the fabulous things about Paris is that we really still don’t know it at all. We “live” close (if you are like us and think a 4 km walk is close) to a huge park and Roland Garros and didn’t even know it. Nothing is happening at Roland Garros, but that makes it 3 for 4 grand slam sites I have seen, but not been in. Haven’t been to Melbourne, yet.

Then, we headed to Parc de Bagatelle, which Google said was “more crowded than usual,” but was mostly deserted and beautiful. It’s a botanic garden with a chateau (that was closed) and a few ponds to sit around while you eat your picnic lunch on a perfect Paris day without a cloud in the sky. We ate, admired the roses and then we (I) decided that since we were so close to the Seine, which oxbows around there, we should head over.

The bad part of that was that we accidentally left Paris. Oh no! Technically we were in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, but we could see Paris across the street — phew! The big plus was that we didn’t hear any English, not that we can speak French although a few words are coming back from my four weeks of lessons last year.

This weekend we hit the westernmost park and an eastern park. We walked about 17 miles, most of the time trying to figure out how we would manage to live here … but who knows? We have no plans past our South American jaunt.

Friday night, we met a woman Steven used to work with and her husband and had a very nice Lebanese dinner at al Dar. One of the tough things about travel is that we don’t have much of a social life except with each other, so it was a happy coincidence that their travel overlapped with ours. Life is good.

Re-bonjour Paris

Wow, it has been over a month since our last post. Sorry dear readers. We spent July in Chicago visiting our friends and family and so there didn’t seem to be much to write. We have a love/hate relationship with that city. What we love: our friends and family, the food, the food, the food, the parks are plentiful and beautiful, the lake front, the vibrant night life and of course, the food. What we hate…That winter is 9 months long. I used to say that Chicago in the summer is a Siren calling us to crash into the rocks. It is so beautiful, the weather is so nice, the food so good, the entertainment so plentiful for 2 months of the year. The rest of the year it is like living in a very large freezer.

Once the calendar page turned to August, it was time to hit the road again and return to Paris. We landed at De Gaulle on Monday morning and after a relatively short wait at immigration (the sign said less than 30 minutes, and it took us about 90) we hopped a cab and headed toward the apartment. We are once again cat sitting the fabulous, but ancient Seuss. Our friend sent us a video reminding us of the front door code, how the Dutch appliances work (Extra Drugge!), the alarm system codes and where to find the keys. We said hello to Seuss, unpacked and settled in.

It is amazing how quickly we fall back into a rhythm when we return somewhere. We headed to the Casino grocery store, the home of the infamous “We can’t get out” incident and picked up some necessities. We grabbed our favorite grocery cart (see pic) and walked over. It was as if we never left. Muscle memory knew where to go, the shop was familiar, yet still fun to wander through.

The cart we long for

A quick side note to let you know that France is suffering from a mustard shortage. Yes, as horrific as the rest of the world’s news is, it pales in comparison to the dreaded mustard shortage in France. When I read the article, I assumed it was overblown and while there might be a shortage, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding mustard. I was wrong. The Casino had no mustard!!!! It was terrible. I even screwed up my courage to ask someone in the store where the mustard was (où est la moutarde?). She kindly took me to the spot and pointed to an empty shelf. Hmm…This could be an issue, I thought to myself.

We only bought the absolute necessities today – milk for my coffee, salad fixings, cheese, some easy to make pasta for lunch, bread and of course a bottle of wine – we headed back to the apartment and had lunch.

After lunch we had our required jet lag nap and then got down to work. One of the nice things about being six hours ahead of New York is that we have the entire morning to do as we wish, and then just work in the afternoon and evening. I really like this schedule.

We had a simple dinner of salad, bread, cheese and wine. Afterwards we settled into the evening trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour. I tapped out at 10:30, Sue made it to about midnight.

Le Piston

Last year, we did not have any luck with the espresso maker, so we bought what we in the US call a French press, but which the French call a piston (say it in French, accent on the first syllable and more or less just hint at that last letter). However, this year, Sue quickly remembered how to work the giver of the sacred caffeine and on Tuesday morning we had great coffee in the morning. Thank you, Sue. (You’re welcome, although it really was mostly self-preservation.)

We ventured back to the grocery store during the day to pick up more necessities and then worked all day. Not exciting and I would have stopped the blog before it, but I wanted to get to Wednesday morning – so fast forward to Wednesday morning. We woke up late and headed down to the local farmers market. There are many of the them in Paris, and ours runs from the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet down a few blocks towards the Palais de Tokyo on the avenue du Président Wilson – Charles, I included this in case you wanted to look it up on Google Maps 😉.  At the very end of the market, is a Lebanese stand that has great falafel. So we wandered over there and bought a bunch of stuff (falafel, kibbeh, vegetarian kibbeh, Jerusalem salad, hummus, garlic sauce, pita) for a lunch. Well, actually lunches because I am not very good at portion control and we bought way too much. Oh well, we will eat it up. We also stopped at one of the vegetable stands and bought more fruit and veg.

The weather here is unseasonably hot. Today will reach 36˚C (96˚F), which is about 11˚C (19˚F) higher than normal. Our apartment has no air conditioning, but the high ceilings and a few fans keep the temperature reasonable. It gets cool at night – 18˚C (64˚F), so we sleep with the windows open. Lucky for us we are on the second floor (in the US this would be the third floor).

The rest of the week will likely be the same, out for a walk and errands in the morning, followed by work in the afternoon. We haven’t made any plans yet for the weekend, but I am sure we will do some fun things.

And finally – Just some random photos of Paris until we get out and get some of our own:

Fijne Koningsdag

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

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

The hotels provided this

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

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

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

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

Destination Anywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter in Rome

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

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

This is what you see through the keyhole

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

Sue having a picnic with one old one and one ancient

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

Next week in Jerusalem!

Just the Bare Bones of Our Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

Join a Gym …

Well, it doesn’t have to be a gym, but get yourself into the world of people who really live where you’re hanging out. In Guadalajara, we did yoga and learned some Spanish along the way. We also learned that Mexicans are helpful and friendly.

Monday, we signed up at a gym, Rabbit Sport Center, (and, no, I didn’t translate that) in our neighborhood in Rome. How bad did we feel when the front-desk person repeatedly apologized to us because his English isn’t good?!?! We intended to go in Tuesday but … we may have slept until 10:15. Oops. Delayed jetlag or just old people doing too much in one week? Whatever. On Wednesday, we met our new trainer, Antonio, who speaks English or at least enough English. (at least enough to torture us!)

We got two really important things out of our first day:

  • We can count to 12 in Italian!
  • We now know how out of shape we really are.

We are sore, but we did go back today. We have to make up for living around the corner from Pasticceria Tiramisù plus Italian bread, pasta, and cheese.

We are starting to feel like we live here after a wonderful week with David and Stacey. The downside to that is we aren’t playing tourist except for weekends. Life is tough.

Friday Death March

Friday, we decided to head to Trastevere, a neighborhood not far from us, but difficult to get to by train. It was death march time! The southernmost hill of Rome is nearby and offers views of the entire city. We did our usual and marched up and were not disappointed (But we – or at least I – was in pain). There’s also the Finnish embassy and a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, hero of Italian unification, plus a gravel walkway with the busts of soldiers who fought with Garibaldi. Sad to say, in a battle between those known warriors of the world, the French and Italians, the French won the day and Garibaldi and his soldiers’ efforts to protect Rome were in vain.

Garibaldi

We then headed down into the neighborhood of Trastavere, and after a detour to see an overturned Mercedes (roof still intact), we made it. We are jaded, I have to say. Trendy neighborhoods are full of restaurants and tourist shops. That’s fine, but not that exciting to us, there’s a sameness to all of them. Instead, we crossed the Tiber and did what we do best: wandered aimlessly and discovered the beauty of Rome. Everywhere we turned there was an amazing sculpture or an ancient column in a tiny piazza. Now I get why people love Rome! We walked about 7 miles and took in the winding cobblestones and incredible architecture. We sat and had a cafe in a piazza where children were running around after school and just enjoyed people watching. Then, we headed back to our neck of the woods where we had wine at a local wine shop and bar, Vineria Beva Boccea. The waiter was very kind with our lack of Italian and recommended some delicious reds. Finally, we ended the day with Japanese food at Umi Sushi. I know, but we will still eat plenty of pasta.

We have noticed that while Mexicans go for straight 1980s American hair band music, the Italians seem to like their American music with a twist — a very slow twist. They turn it into elevator music with that slow jazz background. Everything from Toto to Madonna to Michael Jackson slowed to half speed with a drum machine. It’s pretty amusing.

Funny aside: Someone in Florence accidentally Airdropped me a bunch of photos. They are all portraits of one man. People: Be careful who you Airdrop. I won’t publish the pics, but someone else might have.

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.