Rome, Italy

Returning home from a recent family visit, we have resumed trying to find things to do to fill the days as we continue to self-quarantine due to Covid-19.  During our stay in Georgia, Alan and our son-in-law, Robert, started construction on a treehouse.  Though only the main infrastructure was completed, it functions well as a tree fort to the delight of our granddaughters, and they immediately moved in with a tent and lawn chairs.  Construction will be completed in the fall when cooler weather returns.

Since arriving home, Alan built an impressive puppet theater for our granddaughters and has completed a couple more paintings.  I’ve been continuing with my writing project.  Discovering the app, Geoguessr. has supplied a different mode of travel for me.  Granted, this geography game would not be everyone's “cup of tea”, but I’ve been enjoying the World Map version, and coupling it with Google searches, it is providing the discovery of regions we have not yet had the opportunity to explore.  

Now, I’m journeying back in time to Italy.

Spanish Steps
June 2000.   Flying into the Leonardo da Vinci airport, we arrived late in the day at the Elite Hotel.  Located on a cobblestone street near many of the city’s principal points of interest, we wandered our first evening to the popular, traditional meeting place, the Spanish Steps.  A recommendation from friends, who had visited the city a number of times, provided our first dining experience a few blocks away.  

The following day, we headed out first thing to the Trevi Fountain.  Though the fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome (dating back to 19 BC), construction on the fountain was not started until 1732.  By arriving early, we beat the crowds that normally surround the area.  We followed the guidelines for the legend that is supposed to ensure a return trip to the city.  Turning our backs to the fountain, we each threw a coin from our right hand over the left shoulder into the water.  (So far, the legend has not worked for us).  The coins are retrieved daily and used for local charities. 

Known for its huge dome, the Pantheon was completed around 126 AD and was converted into a Christian church in 609.  Massive granite columns greeted us at the entrance.  The central oculus of the dome (over 25 feet in diameter) provides natural light, and surprisingly, we were told, rarely allows rain to enter the sanctuary.  But, a drainage system built into the marble floors takes care of the problem during storms, if needed.  Our guide said the oculus was included in the design “to allow the prayers of the devoted to reach heaven faster”.  

Piazza Navona was our next stop, and it is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in the city.  Built in the 1st century AD, it was known as a competitive arena for public games.  A large Egyptian obelisk was installed in the 17th century.  Surrounded by fine Renaissance and Baroque buildings, artists, vendors, shops, and restaurants fill the square graced by three gorgeous fountains.

On route to the Roman Forum, we stopped at the Capitoline Hill.  It is the symbolic center of historical Rome and features the nearby, imposing Victor Emmanuel II National Monument.  Victor became the first king of a united Italy in 1861.  

At the entrance to the Forum, we hired one of the numerous
Arch of Titus in the Forum
guides available.  Even though the amount of information shared was a bit overwhelming, he brought to life many stories from ancient Rome and made our visit infinitely more interesting.  The still-active archeological site is comprised of temples, basilicas, statues, arches, and memorial columns, most that run along the main street, Via Sacra.  Public events first took place here around 500 BC, and over the centuries the site was expanded to accommodate functions from elections to public speaking formats.  

The Coliseum was a 10-minute walk away along the Via Sacra.  Completed in 80 AD, it is still the largest amphitheater in the world.  Seating over 50,000 people for the brutal events held, the site is known for the slaughter of tens of thousands of gladiators and wild animals through the years.  At times, the building was even flooded and used to perform mock naval battles.

A dress code is in place for all churches in Italy, which means no shorts or sleeveless shirts, and the code is strictly enforced within portions of the Vatican.  One of the most iconic pictures of Vatican City is Bernini’s Colonnade at St. Peter’s Square, and this is where we began our morning tour.  It serves as an impressive entrance to the fabulous Basilica.  As expected, the expansive cathedral is richly embellished but the
highlights were Michelangelo’s Pieta and the extraordinary dome.  Next, we moved on to the Vatican Museum.  Featuring works by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, the museum houses an amazing and vast collection of masterpieces.  Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel to see the stunning ceiling and altar frescoes completed by Michelangelo.  It is also decorated from floor to ceiling with art by the most famous artists from the Renaissance era.  The crowd of tourists made it difficult to see and appreciate all the room had to offer, but it was still an incredible visit.

During our days in Rome, Alan made multiple stops for a cappuccino at coffee bars. Locals consume the small cups in a couple of gulps while standing at the counter and he followed that example.  Strangely, if the same cup of coffee is consumed at a table, the price will be 2-3 times more.  Our extensive walking had us stopping for frequent snacks.  Numerous gelaterias in the historic district provided the opportunity for us to check out a variety of establishments.  We rated The Old Bridge Gelateria, near Vatican City, as the best in Rome based on our fairly widespread sampling.  Typically for meals, we ventured away from the main attractions and piazzas.  We lost the crowds, the higher menu prices, and the staffs’ knowledge of English.  We had some amusing conversations with Alan’s combined Spanish/Italian.  Locals appreciated his effort, even though most of what he said did not really translate, we pointed to order and ate some remarkable meals.  

Our visit culminated with a day trip to Tivoli.  Taking the 45-minute bus ride from the city, we were only a few minutes from the Villa d’Este on our arrival.  This 16th-century estate was built for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the son of Lucrezia Borgia, who was the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI and his mistress.  It is most famous for its terraced gardens and magnificent fountains and we spent a couple hours exploring the splendid grounds.

After a lunch break in Tivoli, we hopped on a bus to Emperor Hadrian’s Villa.  Built during his reign in the 2nd century AD, the sumptuous country residence included underground service passages that were big enough for vehicles.  At over 250 acres, the property has numerous fountains, in addition to libraries, thermal baths, temples, and gardens.  Hadrian had reproductions made of many of the things he had seen in his travels through the Roman Empire.  This massive archaeological complex and the neighboring Villa d’Este are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We had packed a lot into our getaway, but it was time to return home.

Florence, Italy

We are still primarily sheltering inside, but are currently doing it in Georgia instead of Florida.  Last week, we traveled to a Roswell, GA, to visit with daughter, Nicole, and family.  Towing a 5X8 U-Haul trailer, to deliver a number of items that were left behind in conjunction with their move last February, meant driving more slowly.  But, we actually arrived more quickly than we typically would.  Due to COVID, we made only essential stops and did the drive in one long day.   Historically, we make this distance in 2 days.  

Obviously, visiting with our two granddaughters was the highlight of the trip.  At 3 and 5-years old, they are growing quickly and their skills are multiplying by leaps and bounds.  Though we are mostly staying at the homefront, we were able to find a lovely outdoor respite at the Medlock Bridge Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.  Seemingly, it was one of the only parks within a 50-mile radius of Atlanta that was not overrun with visitors.  This stop provided short hiking trails and 50-degree water on our own private, yet muddy, clay beach area.

The following story is a continuance of a flashback to our Italian vacation from 20 years ago.

June 2000.   Arriving late afternoon in Florence, we checked into the Cellai Boutique Hotel and took the 15-minute stroll to the Piazza della Signoria.  As the center of political life in Florence since the 14th century, the prominent Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) overlooks the square.  Finding a nearby restaurant, we had a relaxing dinner and called it a day.  

Details on David's hand
The following morning, we headed first to the Galleria dell’Accademia, Europe’s first school of drawing.  Best known as the home of Michelangelo's sculpture David, the museum also houses a number of other sculptures and a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists, mostly from the period 1300–1600. For us, once we stood beneath the phenomenally rendered David, carved from a single block of marble, everything else in the museum paled in comparison.  

The Piazza del Duomo in the heart of Florence is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  Within the cathedral, there are gorgeous mosaic floors and a stunning dome over the main altar.  Nicole took advantage of the opportunity to climb the 463 steep, narrow steps leading to the dome, where she could admire up-close the Last Judgement frescoes.

In front of the cathedral, the Baptistery of St. John is one of
the most important monuments in Florence.  The white marble is accented in green and pink stone, a beautiful and uniquely designed building.  The extraordinary bronze, eastern doors, dubbed the Gates of Paradise, were created over 28 years by sculptor by Lorenzo Ghiberti.   The doors consist of 10 rectangular panels, each showing multiple scenes.

After a quick lunch break, we walked to the Palazzo Vecchio and signed up for a tour.  The entrance is flanked by a copy of Michelangelo’s David and a statue of Hercules and Cacus.  The richly decorated interior includes numerous frescoes and paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.  Moving to the Uffizi Gallery, we were exploring one of Italy’s top museums, with a large collection of Renaissance masterpieces.  The Birth of Venice by Botticelli and The Holy Family (Doni Tondo) by Michelangelo were highlights for us.  The Google Art and Culture link provides a walkthrough of this museum, here.  

The Uffizi also provides great overviews of the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio.  The current arched, stone bridge was built in the 14th century.  Initially, all types of shops from tanners to fishmongers were allowed, but in the late 16th century it was decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers be allowed to have their shops along this span.  During our visit, we saw a number of souvenir shops interspersed with the gold shops the bridge is famous for.

Our final day in the city, we boarded a bus for a one-hour trip to San Gimignano. This small,
walled, medieval town is in the Tuscany region of north-central Italy.  Famous for its well-preserved Romanesque and Gothic architecture, about a dozen towers are still in good condition.  Alan and Nicole climbed to the top of one to take in the fabulous views and snap a few photos of the surrounding hilltop setting, encircling walls, vineyards, and stands of cypress.  Numerous shops and restaurants serviced the large groups of tourists that descend on the town.  All of our food experiences in Italy were exceptional, but in San Gimignano, we found a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant that provided perhaps the best meal we had in the country.  A freshly made pasta tossed with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes still makes my mouth water just thinking about it 20 years later.  I tried to recreate a number of the foods we enjoyed during our Italian travels on our return home but unfortunately was never able to come up to the mark. 

The next day, we flew to Rome.
St. John's Baptistery

View of the Arno River from Ponte Vecchio

Looking up at the cathedral dome

Venice, Italy

Ominous clouds as we paddle home
Primarily sheltering inside, Alan has almost completed another outside project.  With the pilings on the dock cleaned of barnacles, he is wrapping the pilings with vinyl so the barnacles will never return (hopefully).  Nailing underwater is just as challenging as it sounds.  He is awaiting appropriate tide and wind conditions to finalize the job.  

I’ve finished the initial editing and transfer of all 350+ blogs to Pages.  More writing and editing need to be done, but accomplishing this first step was a big hurdle.  

Early morning kayaking provides an ideal social distancing activity.  The Indian River Lagoon seems to supply an endless array of beautiful images and opportunities to interact with Mother Nature as we paddle along.

Resuming our European vacation story, I’m continuing to flex my brain by delving into this long-past experience.

Approaching San Marcos
June 2000.  Flying into the Marco Polo Airport built along the edge of the Venetian lagoon, we were soon boarding a vaporetto (public water bus) to transfer to Venice.  Registered at the Hotel American overlooking the Grand Canal, we were just a 5-minute walk from our accommodations when we were dropped at the San Marcos ferry terminal.  Venice is situated on the Adriatic Sea of northeastern Italy and is composed of 118 small islands that are separated by canals.

Arriving late in the day, we wandered through St. Marcos
Square and the winding alleyways of the city to orient ourselves.  Gondoliers, a part of this city’s history since the 11th century, glided past us adding a romantic touch.  Though there was plenty to see in Venice, the following morning we headed out on the vaporetta to the nearby island, Murano.  After landing at the Faro terminal, we took a short walk along the waterfront to the Vetreria Artistica Colleoni Glass Factory.  Initially, we headed into the workshop.  Enthralled by the spectacular process, we spent quite a while watching the craftsmen create a variety of items.  Using glass-blowing and a myriad of other techniques for shaping the pieces was fascinating.  Moving into the store afterward, we were inspired to purchase dishes, glassware, and decorative items, and arranged for their shipment back to the USA.  

Heading back to the terminal, we took the 45-minute ferry to Burano.  Considered the most colorful of the lagoon islands, brightly painted houses fringe the waterfront.  Fishermen and lacemakers by tradition, much of the island's income now comes from tourism.  Meandering along the streets a number of older women were sitting outside their homes making lace.  Items, of course, were for sale, but the tedious, time-consuming effort involved in creating the lovely pieces means they are understandably expensive.

With lunchtime approaching, we headed to the highly-rated Black Cat restaurant.  Open since 1965, they are famous for serving the tastiest of fresh fish and seafood and their exquisite cuisine did not disappoint.   

Returning to the San Marcos terminal, we headed to the Piazza San Marco and the Campanile (Bell tower) that provides a fabulous overview of the city, surrounding islands, and lagoon.  Originally built as a lighthouse, tourists can now be whisked to the top via an elevator.  We moved next to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace).   Built as the seat of government in the 9th century, the original palace was destroyed and was reconstructed in the 12th century.  Signing up for a tour, we were led over 3 floors through the richly decorated structure.  Elaborate chandeliers, fresco walls and ceilings,
statues, and paintings graced the building.  Our tour was concluded with a walk over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614. Connecting the Palace to the Prison, a small window on the bridge would allow prisoners one last glimpse of freedom before being thrown into the dungeons.   

Most activities on the island are accomplished by boat; garbage pickup, food deliveries, etc. are completed with uniquely designed vessels.  Much of the commercial movement on the water takes place in the early hours of the day before the rest of the city comes to life.  

Our second morning, we headed to the Basilica de Santo Marcos.  Considered one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in the world, the ornate exterior is outshone by the dazzling gold-leaf mosaic tiles of the interior.  After spending hours exploring the cathedral, we spent the remainder of our day ducking into countless little stores.  Shopping for souvenirs, we found it easy to get lost in the maze of streets.  

The following morning, we headed back to the airport to fly to our next destination, Florence. 

Paris, France

Flying deeply into my memories to write about a two-decades-old trip has provided an opportunity to increase the synaptic connections in my brain. But, the narrated video created by daughter Nicole on our return from the vacation was invaluable as well.  Using the instant street view function of MapCrunch (click here), I was actually able to retrace some of our steps.  

Alan has continued with his online composition course, dealing with the inevitable tech challenges accompanying this endeavor, but learning and enjoying the process in spite of those occasional difficulties.  His most onerous task of scrapping barnacles from the dock pilings has been completed.

Local pickleball courts have opened for singles play, and by arriving shortly after sunrise we have all 8 courts to ourselves, so no problems with social distancing!
June 2000.  In anticipation of our family trip to Paris and Italy, I took a sorely needed French refresher course.  Having taken 2 years of the language in high school (and not used since) left me with the ability to say little more than hello and goodbye.  At the same time, Alan took a 6-week class to learn some basic Italian.  Though our language skills were still woefully inadequate, it was definitely helpful.  Looking back 20 years, the predominance of English as the international language was not as commonplace, and dealing with hoteliers or ordering in restaurants was more difficult without some knowledge of the local language.

On our arrival at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, we took the metro to the inner city near our hotel.  Scheduling Paris as a 3-day layover on our trip to Italy, required cramming a lot into our visit and we didn’t waste a minute.  Though jetlagged and tired from our overnight flight, fueled by our excitement to be in the city, we dropped our luggage and took off.   With the sun rising before 6 AM and not setting until almost 10 PM, we had many hours of daylight to enable our explorations.  The hotel’s proximity to the Seine River afforded us numerous opportunities for walks along the riverfront and our tiny balcony provided entertaining overviews of street activity.  A wonderful boulangerie (bakery) nearby was a convenient resource for croissants and snacks like the tasty jambon-beurre sandwich (ham and butter on a baguette).
Immersing ourselves into the nearby Marché Bastille after our arrival, the farmer’s market furnished the quintessential French experience.  Providing over 100 stalls of colorful flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables, loaves of bread, cheeses, meats, and seafood, takeaway food was available for some unique nibbles.  
Staying in the 5th Arrondissement of the city, we were easy walking distance to everything we wanted to visit.  Following the market stop, we headed to Notre Dame.  Built on a small island in the middle of the Seine River, construction was started in the 12th century and was completed almost 200 years later.  The medieval Gothic Cathedral was built over ancient Roman temples.  Long lines formed outside but moved quickly, and soon we were inside gaping up at the towering vaulted ceilings and the beautiful main altar featuring the Pieta statue completed by Nicolas Coustou in 1723.

In spite of the beauty of Notre Dame, our next stop blew us away.  Sainte Chapelle, consecrated in 1248, was in a word, magnificent.  From the exterior, this gothic masterpiece is beautiful, but not anything that makes it stand apart from hundreds of other cathedrals around the world.  But walking inside, the stunning walls of stained glass were jaw-droppingly gorgeous.  We spent quite a while just mesmerized by the exquisite interior.  

Walking along the Seine, we moved on to the iconic, Eiffel Tower.  We opted not to go to the top, but just looking up and enjoying a picnic on the lawn was a highlight for the day.  Following the lunch, we hired one of the numerous artists along the waterfront to complete a quick portrait of Nicole, and then boarded one of the many boats offering a multi-lingual tour experience along the river.

Of course, no trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Arc de Triomphe.  Crossing the busy Champs-Élysée to get to the monument almost seemed like a dare-devil endeavor.  Commissioned by Emperor Napoleon in 1806 to celebrate one of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars, construction was not completed until after his death.  

Musee d'Orsay entrance
Heading out the next morning to the Louvre, we arrived to find they were closed for the day.  Purchasing tickets for entry the following day, we moved on to the Musee d’Orsay.  Housed in a former railway station, the building was transformed into a museum that opened in 1986.  It holds the world’s largest collection of Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic art.  Masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and countless other renowned artists fill the halls.  Finally, hunger pangs won out over our enthrallment with the artwork and we moved to a nearby street cafe.  Utilizing the Google Arts & Culture site, in the street view mode, you can take a virtual walk through the Musèe here.

Originally built in 542 AD with portions reconstructed in 1163, our next stop is the oldest church in Paris.  The Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is said to house numerous holy relics, including remnants of the true cross according to our guide. 

Finally, we wandered to the Luxembourg Gardens.  During our visit, an expansive large-format photo exhibit was on display on temporary walls surrounding the park.  The show featured fabulous photos taken around the world from an aerial perspective.  Intrigued by the collection, we purchased the accompanying book, La Terre Vue du Ciel (The Earth from the Sky).  Meandering around the formal gardens and the paths, we spent a couple of hours in the 61-acre park.  It was perfect for some serious people-watching. 

Ceiling at the Louvre
With tickets purchased the day before, we were able to bypass the line on our entry to the Louvre and maximize our visit.  Originally built as a royal palace/fortress in the late 12th and 13th centuries, the structure was first opened as a museum in 1793.  Considered to be the world’s largest art museum, we were only able to experience a fraction of the offerings, but it was extraordinary.  Walking beneath the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo, we almost had the rooms to ourselves.  Crowds surrounded the Mona Lisa but our viewing of the portrait was not blocked and we could take time to appreciate the famous smile.  Works like the massive (16X23) Raft of the Medusa provided a gloomy view of the human state contrasted by The Coronation of Napoleon (33X20) reflecting the grandiose riches of the entitled few.  One thing we noticed, as we moved through the museum, was that the ceilings frequently rivaled for beauty with the art on the walls.  
It was an all too short but fantastic visit, but now it was time to fly to our next destination, Venice.


LEAF - Black Mountain, NC

Even though things are starting to open up slowly in Florida, being "of a certain age" and with underlying health conditions, we are continuing to social distance and follow the other CDC recommendations regarding C-19.  Once again, I'm doing a little armchair reminiscing.  Receiving an email for the May 2020 Virtual LEAF festival (click here), I was inspired to write about our Fall 2017 experience.  Though the virtual festival is no longer available online, visiting the site gives a taste of what LEAF is all about.  The somewhat wacky and endlessly creative efforts of everyone involved in putting together this biannual happening makes it an event we will surely attend again.  (Our prior visit in October 2015 and more info on LEAF is recounted here.)  Connecting cultures and enriching lives through the arts is the key behind LEAF. 

Sheep at our Airbnb
October  2017.   As the 2017 LEAF (Lake Eden Art Festival) happening approached, tickets were ordered and reservations were made through Airbnb for a 7-night stay at a “pastoral farm” in the nearby community of Swannanoa.  Driving up over 2 days, we made our first stop in the area at Hickory Gap Farm and the adjacent Flying Cloud farm to load up on food for the week.  Buying tickets for the Saturday and Sunday events, we had 1 full day before the start to visit Asheville and the Art District and revisit the 12 Bones Smokehouse Restaurant for finger-licking good ribs, baked beans, and collard greens. 
Asheville Art District

 Saturday morning we headed out to Lake Eden, transferred by bus up to the festival we unloaded with the hordes of other festival-goers to move through the park.  With a full schedule spread over 6 main venues from 8 AM to 2 AM on Saturday and then 8 AM to 6 PM on Sunday, we had many more entertainment options than we could possibly see.  We had highlighted a number of the groups and artists prior to our arrival so we had a bit of an itinerary to help us maximize our experience.  Having purchased Culinary Passports for our meals, we found our way twice a day to the LEAF Cafe in Eden Hall for delicious, gourmet, international fare.  And, there were a number of Culinary Booths located throughout the park offering non-typical festival foods, often vegan or organic.
Saturday afternoon parade

Fantastic Negrito on stage
With poetry readings, dance workshops, drum circles, yoga, and a Saturday afternoon parade offered in conjunction with the music, there was never a dull moment and we maxed out both days.  The sunny and pleasant daytime weather in the 70’s dropped into the 40’s overnight but we had packed layers and were prepared.  Though we heard countless entertainers, our favorites were the energetic Fantastic Negrito with his blues-rock sound followed by the reggae music of Toots and the Maytals.  It was an incredible weekend in every sense.
Over the following days, we headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway to take advantage of “Mother Nature’s” fall leaf show. In conjunction with this, we made a return visit to the Folk Art Center that features Appalachian arts and crafts.  Outside of Asheville, we visited the Western North Carolina Farmers Market to load up on some of the new apple crop, as well as a number of other goodies spotted as we moved through the vendors.  The nearby Moose Cafe, offering farm to table Southern cooking, provided a delicious lunch option.

Stopping overnight in Savannah on our return home, we enjoyed a walk along the waterfront, stocked up on a few bottles of our favorite Johnny Harris Barbecue Sauce, and savored local seafood for dinner.

Waving Girl statue in Savannah