Friday, June 27, 2008

The Home Stretch

We took our leave of Chiusdino, and headed into the hills of Tuscany. With several extra hours before we were expected in Florence, we wound our way through the small towns located on the back roads, until we came to the hill top town of San Gimignano. This was a beautiful break in our drive, and gave us an opportunity to sample more gelato. Little in the town is level and you seem to be climbing up or down hill no matter where you are going. There are a few cars mixed with the mostly pedestrian traffic to keep you on your toes, but most walk to get around.

Arriving in Florence instantly reminded us we were in a sizable city, rather than some small Tuscan village. Lots of traffic with busy streets and tightly contested parking. We stayed in a hotel between the airport and the historic downtown area, which required a bus ride each way, giving us a chance to meet some of the local inhabitants and see parts of the city not included on the usual tour routes. We only had two full days in Florence and knowing that some of the important museums are closed on Monday, we were determined to visit the “must see” attractions on Sunday. Primarily this meant the Accademia museum, which has the original sculpture of Michelangelo’s “David”. We hopped an early morning bus downtown, and were in line by 8:45, and quickly were allowed into the cool recesses of the gallery. I had always imagined the statue being slightly larger than life, and was taken aback by its fourteen foot height. How was Michelangelo able to look at a block of marble and envision this beauty hidden inside? We wandered the other galleries in the museum, but came back to this artistic magnet again and again. Some had suggested we eavesdrop on tour guides as they discussed exhibits, but there were so many holding forth simultaneously, we quickly tuned them out and felt as though we were completely alone with this wonder from the Renaissance. Emerging into the sunlight, we discovered the waiting line now reached down the block and around the corner. The Duomo was next on our list, followed by the street market outside the church of San Lorenzo. The market gave the LB the opportunity for some unrestricted shopping before we headed back to our hotel. The next day we visited other attractions in Florence; the Boboli Gardens, Ponte Vecchio, Galileo Science Museum, the Loggia, and the Piazza della Repubblica were some of the high points. With the temperature reaching 38.5C (101F) our enthusiasm faded rather quickly. Sadly, although refreshing, the gelato was not up to the standard set for us in Siena.

Interacting with people, both locals and other tourists, was what made our trip so special to us and kept it from being just a “sightseeing” excursion. In Florence, we found a restaurant where our waitress went out of her way to take care of us. In this little “Mom & Pop” place her husband did the cooking, their son ran the pizza oven, while she waited tables and took care of all the customers. She spoke passable English, but we still had some problems deciphering some of the listings on the menu. With her help, we had some wonderful dishes, along with an extremely pleasant atmosphere. The next evening, we decided we would go back again, and discovered she had brought her Italian-English dictionary from home, so she would be able to better help us just in case we came back. This kind of personal contact was what made this trip memorable for us, and will have us getting ready for our next adventure.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Civilization(?) again

We arrived in Florence this afternoon and checked into our hotel. We have a wireless internet connection, so I will try to catch up getting some things posted and a few pictures hung here and there around the blog. Catch you up soon.

Ice Cream Dreams

Thursday, June 19, 2008
The opera was a blast last night. We arrived about 2 ½ hours before the performance and had dinner in a restaurant adjacent to the Abbey, operated by one of the local agriturismi. It was a beautiful evening and we sat at a table outside and watched the play of light on the ruins from the setting sun as we sipped our espressos.
I’m not sure if it was just first night confusion, but the show started 30 minutes late. It was sung in a mixture of the original German as well as Italian, and if we didn’t have some idea of the story line, we would have been completely lost. Most of the performers were good and the orchestra did a great job. Theatrical lighting was a challenge in the ruins of the old abbey, and there were several dark spots around the stage with which the singers had to contend. With the late start, we didn’t get home until after 1:00 a.m. I’m not used to these late hours!
Even after the late night, we were up early this morning, in the car, and headed to the town of Siena to see the sights. Our first challenge was to find parking close to this walled hilltop town. Fortunately, Siena has provided parking garages scattered around the perimeter where we can park for just €1.60 or $2.65/hour. They even provide escalators to bring the tourists and their money inside the walls.
Our first stop was the cathedral or Duomo, and its museum. The museum contains many of the fragile original artworks from the cathedral which have been replaced over the centuries with replicas. I was also able to see why they sent San Galgano’s skull home to Chiusdino…they have skulls, fingers and toes from more saints than you can shake a stick at. But the best feature was the Panorama dal Facciatone. Back in the early 1300’s, Siena began an expansion of the duomo which would make it larger than the new cathedral of rival Florence. The Facciatone is the façade for what was to be the grand new entrance, and was the only part finished before the money ran out and the Black Death killed off a third of the city’s population. Climbing tiny, claustrophobic spiral stairs take you to the best view in Siena. Not only is the town on display, but also the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Il Campo is the social center of Siena, and is certainly where the tourists gather. It is a wonderful place to sit and people watch or just stroll about. However, the middle of the day is a bit warm, so we quickly headed in the direction of the escalators and the car park. Just off the Campo, we happened upon a gelateria which provided the best gelato we have sampled so far. Orange-chocolate & pistachio for me and coconut & Amaretto for the LB helped us to cool down as we strolled back through the winding streets. I hear stories of a gelateria in Florence which puts all the others to shame!! Ah, the sacrifices I have to make!!
Ciao for now!

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008
According to the LB, it stormed most of last night, with the same kind of pyrotechnics and sound effects as in that movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”. After stuffing myself at dinner and my one glass of wine, I was totally oblivious, and never knew anything happened. Heavy fog or a low cloud completely enveloped our house this morning. A little Italian man appeared to check on us and ensure we survived the storm with no ill effects, and our electricity and gas were both still on.
This morning Deutsche-Welle announced the victory of Italy 2-0 last night, even though there wasn’t ever much doubt, so they will advance to the quarter finals in the Euro 2008 tournament. We are starting with a lighter breakfast this morning and plan to get out and do a little walking later. We need to pace ourselves so we are ready for the opera which doesn’t begin until 21:00.
We went out walking around the farm this afternoon to work off a little of the good food the LB has been fixing. When we first talked about visiting Italy, I assumed we would be eating every meal in one homey little trattoria after another, especially since her favorite food group is pasta. After a week in Venice with no kitchen, she was almost giddy when she discovered she had a gas four burner stovetop and convection oven to play with. We’ve still eaten out regularly, but when we are feeling a little culturally overwhelmed, she whips up some wonderful dishes, using fresh local ingredients, that stave off any feelings of homesickness we might be having.
The house where we are staying is located on a family run farm, or agriturismo, which has branched out into hosting tourists to supplement the farm’s income. Every day, the workers roll past the house in small 3-wheeled pickups on their way to work in the olive groves, vineyards, and fruit orchards. Several times each day, I will hear the tinkling of bells and get to watch the sheep moving to a new pasture. Walking the narrow tracks that connect the different parts of the farm allow us to see the differences in techniques used here and at home.
Walking past one of the vineyards, we see it doesn’t look at all like the manicured rows we see in the Texas Hill Country. Grasses are allowed to grow around the vines as a means of controlling erosion, since there is plentiful rain and no need for drip irrigation. Flowers, poppies in this vineyard, are planted between rows to help attract honey bees to the grapes, and rose bushes are planted as “canaries” around the vineyards since they are more susceptible to some of the same diseases as the vines. Olive trees are scattered wherever there is enough room, and berry vines are found on most of the fence rows. Fennel, sage and rosemary seem to grow wild in drainage ditches, and I keep being sent out to harvest “just one more sprig” for our next meal. A few days ago, the hands were on ladders around a couple of the fruit trees, and it wasn’t until they moved on I realized they had tied brightly colored plastic bags to limbs to keep birds at bay until the fruit is ready to be harvested.
We never know what we will see when we drive away from the house. Yesterday, it was a beautiful pheasant which seemed to think it owned the driveway and moved along at his own pace. Today, it was a very jolly hog trotting across a pasture alongside the highway. No pig sty for these guys, they really are “free range”, and the quality shows on the dinner table.

Real Football

Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Out and about early this morning. Headed over to the abbey to see if we can pickup tickets for the Siena opera, which is to take place in the ruined abbey tomorrow night. We get to see Il Flauto Magico, by some fellow named Mozart. See...and y’all thought I was just a country bumpkin with no dam couth.
After getting our tickets, we hit the road to do some cruising and see what this part of Italy holds. We headed off towards Grosseto until my Lovely Bride announced she had found an “interesting road” on the map for us to take. I made the turn and the “interesting road” turned into a gravel one laner through the local equivalent of a national forest. The promised turnoff for a ruined castle never appeared, but after an hour in second gear, we at least returned to a paved road. It can be the little things which sometimes mean the most.
Rained in this afternoon. We came back to the house to take a nap and hand wash a few things, so naturally it started raining right after the LB got the clothes hung out. Rain kept up through time to go find dinner. There’s nothing quite like driving in the rain on twisting mountain roads in the dark, with no idea of where you are going. We ended up at a ristorante named Il Palazzetto, not too far from our house. As we arrived, the pre-game festivities for the France –Italia Futbol match are underway on the projection TV which was moved to project on an entire wall. Dinner was memorable in that we both managed to forget our phrase books, and thus were at the mercy of the non-English speaking staff. We have no idea what we ate, but it was very, very good. As the game began, the mood in the place ramped up quickly. Food and service became secondary as the Italians and French fought it out, with the local boys demonstrating their superior ball control techniques early in the match, and with the room erupting from time to time in celebration of Italian good moves, or French faux pas. As we made our exit after the first period, with Italy leading 1-0, the LB asked me why college football can’t be that exciting. Nearly an hour of non-stop action, a half-time for the Band, followed by more full speed action. This instead of the interminable starts and stops for first downs, team time outs, media timeouts, official time outs, etc, which drag an hour of playing time out to 2½ - 3 hours. Now she has a mission and wants A&M to find an Italian coach to fire them up. Maybe she is on to something.

Lazy Day

Monday, June 16, 2008
Lazy day around the house, and then went to town for some shopping. The LB tossed some fresh stuff together and came up with a wonderful zuppa di pasta e fagioli. We keep feeling jet lagged after the 3 hour train ride from Venice (hey, we’re Aggies), and the soup was just the thing to help.
During the day we wandered about Chiusdino a little more. We visited San Galgano’s birthplace which has been a number of things since, including a jail when Napoleon was in charge of Italy. There was also the Church of the Visitation of the Archangel Michael, commemorating when he appeared to San Galgano and threw down the gauntlet, so to speak, of giving up warring and turning to church work. Or maybe it remembers when Mike visited Galgano’s mommy who was barren up ‘til then to let her know she was going to conceive…it gets confusing, especially since everything is in Italian. Anyway, the church has the reliquary holding San Galgano’s head tucked away in a corner. Siena had it for several hundred years, but gave it back to Chiusdino in the 1970’s when they couldn’t come up with any practical use for a slightly used skull.

The Sword in the Stone - Really

Sunday, 16 June 2008
A late start today, but we only went as far as the Abbey of San Galgano. San Galgano is the Chiusdino favorite son as well as patron saint, a young man born here who turned from the life of a soldier to the church. He had a vision of the Archangel Michael, and to show his resolve plunged his sword into a stone on a hilltop within sight of our house. Later, in the 1100’s the church built an Abbey nearby and a small chapel over the stone where only the sword hilt and a short portion of the blade is visible. Some say this is the original source of the Arthurian legend, while others hold that Galgano was only a copycat. At any rate it makes for an entertaining story and having the Abbey and chapel close at hand help us to feel we are enmeshed in the history of this place. One day this week, we plan to visit his casa natale in downtown Chiusdino. Hey, nobody can say we’re not having an exciting time on our vacation.
After a week in Venice, it is exciting to just be able to see and enjoy some of the little joys of nature. At S. Galgano’s, the honey bees were everywhere, pollinating the vineyards, as well as flitting to the beautiful flowers which we saw all around. We’ve found that driving in the early afternoon is much less congested as many take the Italian version of a siesta, allowing us to slow down and leave the windows open smelling everything in the outdoors. Right now, I’m sitting under an arbor in front of the house, enjoying the sun and breeze, listening to chickens at the next little farmhouse over, as well as constant birdsongs.
It seems our biggest challenge since arriving in Tuscany is getting ourselves on the right schedule. W e seem to sleep later here, have a little breakfast, and then head out to see what the day holds for us, just about the same time the local restaurants and stores are closing for siesta. I don’t like to be out driving after dark on these little roads, so we are trying to find somewhere to eat long before any normal person; i.e., Italian, would even think of dining. Last night we found a spot on the road to Siena which looked interesting. It was about 6:30pm, all we could get was pizza, and they stuck us in the back room along with all the other crazy tourists who were eating at that ungodly hour.


After taking the train from Venice to Florence, we picked up a rental car and took off on our own. Once away from the chaos of Florence, driving the small back roads of Tuscany was a totally wonderful experience. The roads were mostly deserted, and as long as I stayed 10 or 15 kph over the posted speed limit, I didn’t hold up the local traffic too much. As we moved into the area southwest of Siena known as the Val d’Merse, or the Merse river valley, the hills got larger and the roads began to twist and turn more vigorously. No problem, at least until some of the locals became impatient with my progress, and started sitting on my bumper. Our little car, a new Ford Focus with a turbo-diesel, was up to the challenge of the tight corners and very short straights heading up the mountain, but I was the obvious limiting factor in this game. The tailgaters finally swept past us on a blind uphill turn, and were gone from sight in seconds. Benvenuto a Italia!!
Without further excitement we arrived in the small hilltop town of Chiusdino where we were to stay for this week. Studying the map and directions sent by the rental agent, got us headed down a one lane track more appropriate for a tractor or four-wheel drive truck. At the bottom of this path, we found an old German who managed to convince us we were beyond lost. Backtracking to Chiusdino, we spotted another little road which might fit the description given in the directions. We tried to translate the written directions into actions, and ended at another dead end, this populated by an ancient Italian woman, 2 geese and a dog of indeterminate ancestry. With much waving of her walking stick and gesturing, she managed to convey to us that, no we weren’t in the right place, but just needed to return to the last intersection and keep going despite what the directions said. Another ten minutes of maneuvering along gravel paths brought us to our home for the next week, Casa Emilia. The rental agent was at the house, and gave us a quick introduction to the place. One reason for the brevity was her complete lack of English and our lack of either Italian or German. Oh well, that’s why we have phrase books, right?
With a German rental agent, the house was spotless, including the kitchen, whose shelves were completely bare of any foodstuffs. We packed up and headed back to the town above, to find a restaurant for a bite to eat and then off to the COOP, which is the HEB of Italy. We finally located the restaurant, which was closed at the time, so we headed into the COOP. It turned out to not be nearly as large as the one we had been frequenting in Venice, more like a gas station mini-mart. We picked up a few things, headed next door to the meat market and then down the street to the fresh fruit and wine shops. Of course, between each of these shopping opportunities, it was necessary to return to the parked car and unload. Our reward was some delicious steak au poivre, fried potatoes with green beans, sliced tomatoes with asiago cheese, and a fresh baked baguette, accompanied by a very nice Maglianello Chianti Reserva. This was our first real meal outside a restaurant since we left Texas.

Leaving Venezia

We had no plans for our last night in Venice. It had been a day of cleaning and getting ready to leave a city we weren’t certain we wanted to leave yet. We were finally feeling comfortable in wandering the calles and fondamenti around the island without worrying about getting terminally lost. After all, how can you be expected to find all those places you aren’t looking for without getting lost occasionally? Public transportation only held surprises for us, not barriers.
My knee was becoming the limiting factor in our journeys around town, but it felt better if it was exercised and stressed a bit, so we headed out with no real destination or goal. Our path took us past the Rialto and along the Grand Canal into new areas. During the day, this part of town is jammed with tourists and locals catering to them. After 19:00, only the occasional shop was still looking to harvest the few dollars or euros available. Screams rang out from upper floors of buildings, signaling the ups and downs of the football match against Romania. (It ended in a 1-1 tie. But we were robbed!) An elderly grandmother in a shop allowed me to watch the game on her small television as long as the LB kept shopping.
We ended up, as it seemed we always did, at San Marco, just in time for the passeggiata, listening to the dueling orchestras competing for the attention of locals and tourists alike. We strolled the waterfront again, listening to the incessant squabbling of the gondoliers, sounding like nothing so much as a group of feisty seagulls all squawking, “Mine, mine” (It helps to understand if you have grandchildren!) After all this activity, we decided to have a last meal and stopped into a little trattoria for a quick meal of sweet & sour sardines and steamed mussels. The sardines are a local delicacy in Venice and really are much better than they sound. The little café was on a new street, so we decided to follow it toward home. After encountering several watery cul-de-sacs, I was forced to use my map…so much for finding my way around town. Fortunately, in this place you go from totally lost to home in the span of a single turn. Such was the case last night, with “our church”, S. Maria dei Miracoli, jumping out as we made the corner and crossed the bridge.
The weather during our stay in Venice has been beautiful…warm and sunny during the day, with cool evenings. Yet visiting Venice is very much like going to New Orleans or Galveston. Even when the weather is good, it is going to be damp and humid, so you may as well get used to the idea. Our departure day dawned drippy, gray and cold. By the time we were packed and ready to leave, it had increased to a steady drizzle, making for an uncomfortable walk to the vaporetto stop. An enterprising flower shop owner earned my thanks and a few euros by having a display of umbrellas by the door. The vaporetto came to our rescue, and provided our transportation to the rail station. At one time I had suggested to the LB we walk from our apt to the station, but she vetoed that idea quickly. Sometimes (?) she really does think straighter than I do.
At the station, we walked into what appeared mass chaos. If we had not stopped and reconnoitered the layout during a previous outing at a quiet time, we would have been lost. As it worked out, we had time for cappuccinos and still found our train and even the correct car, unlike quite a few of the other American tourists. On the track next to ours, sat the latest incarnation of the Orient Express. Their passengers didn’t have to schlep their own luggage, since the liveried porters delivered it directly to their stateroom. Another porter went from compartment to compartment, placing fresh flowers in each. I also noticed the passengers didn’t dress like the rag-tag bunch of locals and tourists on our train.
Finally, the train eased out of the station and began the trip to Florence. Since we were travelling on the Euro Star, there were only a few stops along the way, first in Mestre (which is the Venice station on the mainland), then Padua, and finally Bologna before pulling into Florence’s S. Maria Novella station. At times it seems as if everything in this country is named after one saint or another. It sounds beautiful, but can make it difficult to keep track of where you are. In Florence, the plan had been to catch the bus to the airport to pick up our rental car, but the LB was looking a wee bit frazzled, so I splurged on a taxi. It proved much easier getting there, but I’m not sure it helped her nerves any. The taxi driver seemed determined to see how close he could come to every other vehicle on the road. Lanes and signals obviously meant little to him as he slalomed through traffic, determined to set a new speed record on this fixed price run.
At the car rental office, all went smoothly after I convinced the clerk I really hadn’t reserved a 3-door Yugo. The correct paperwork was located and soon we were headed out into the streets of Florence. The airport is on the outskirts of the city, so it was not difficult to find the autostrada headed toward Roma. We veered off toward Sienna and then were on some of the prettiest back roads I’ve ever driven. Next stop: Chiusdino!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday, 13 June 2008
Happy Friday the 13th! Last night the LB got to take her boat ride. Yes, it is an extravagance, but when you consider how much it has cost to get here and how long it has taken to make the trip, and how grumpy(oops), I mean how terribly, terribly disappointed the LB would be if she didn’t get her romantic gondola ride, it is well worth the cost. Just before dusk, we tracked down a gondolier (they’re everywhere) and set forth for a quiet tour of the area we have been living in for the past week. We have spent a lot of time standing on bridges, gazing at the canals flowing underneath, but from water level all looks different. By the time our ride began, the delivery traffic had stopped, so we encountered very few motorized boats, mostly just other gondolas. Quiet, smooth waters, with the occasional tourists watching from bridges as we glide past. I often wonder how many photo albums the LB & I will appear in around the world, because it seems as though someone is taking our picture every time we turn around. After our ride, we strolled until my knee got tired, and then repaired to our favorite pizza parlor in Campo SS Apostoli. It is the magnet to which we are drawn whenever we get lost. Don’t know how, but we’ll be stumbling along lost, wondering where in the blazes we are, and then suddenly pop out into the campo. Plus they have the best pizza we’ve had in Venice.
Today is our last day in Venezia. It will be a day of washing, packing and checking details for the next part of our trip, which will see us in Tuscany. We’ll get this posted today, but we don’t know what the state of the internet will be in the small town of Chiusdino, which is where we will be staying for the next week. We’ll have a car, so we should be able to get out and about a little more, and see some of the countryside. Tomorrow we’ll hop on the train for Florence and then LB gets to navigate us through the hills of Tuscany, while I mix it up with the Italians on the autostrada!
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Memos to self:
1. Next trip to Venice, bring slipper socks. Stone floors get really cold!
2. Don’t characterize the lovely bride (LB) as being a grump when she is gastronomically challenged. For some reason, she finds this objectionable and becomes grumpy.

Today was the day we had set aside for exploring the lagoon islands. At the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop, we purchased 48 hour passes so we can hop on and off as much as we want between now and when we head for the train station Saturday morning. We caught the 41 boat for Murano, and headed for the glass museum, with the LB keeping her eyes open for souvenir possibilities along the way. The museum gives a pretty good overview of the history of glassmaking in the lagoon, dating back to the time of Christ. We headed out to do some serious shopping on the way back to the vaporetto, stopping at several likely looking shops. One was promising, even though it was a little up-scale for us, but the staff sat and visited with each other and completely ignored their customers. So even though I had found what I thought I wanted, we left in search of a more hospitable shopping environment. Sure enough, about half way to the vaporetto stop, we found a much smaller shop where the owner was a young Italian woman who spoke to us in passable English, let us move pieces to better appreciate the colors, and advised us about the high costs of shipping items to the US. It wasn’t any real difference in merchandise quality, but rather her attitude and personable approach which caused us to buy in her shop.
We cut short our cruise around the lagoon after my bum leg started giving me trouble. There was an unmarked step-down in the museum which I missed, my knee made an interesting and not altogether natural sound, so Burano and Torcello will just have to wait until our next trip to the Veneto.
We returned to our apt too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so we rummaged in the fridge and munched on leftovers to keep up our strength. We keep picking up cantaloupe, prosciutto, cheese of varying types, bread, fresh fruit and so on whenever we are wandering the back alleys, so there has been no real threat of losing weight while on holiday. Satisfied for the moment, we are going to rest up to prepare ourselves for the real meal of the day this evening, whatever it may be. If we ate like this at home, we would feel very, very guilty. Here our gluttony is just part of showing our appreciation for cultural diversity, and it is the least we can do. Alleluia!
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Today was one of those days when nothing we had planned came to fruition, but it was still one of the nicest days of the trip. First, we managed to ignore the alarm and snooze until after 9:30. Scrounged breakfast from the fridge, and headed out quite a bit later than planned. We headed to San Marco by a different route, going by way of C. Santa Maria Formosa and San Zaccaria Church. All was well until we left C. Formosa and went astray, once again. Somehow we missed San Zaccaria completely and arrived at the Arsenale, or military headquarters for Venice. We managed to convince them we really weren’t looking at their Amphibious Assault Ship, and went on our way. If they didn’t want people to take pictures, you’d think they wouldn’t park it in the main channel!
After walking the back streets for a couple of hours, we found ourselves on the waterfront where all the hotel shuttles, water taxis and vaporetti come and go. The lovely bride was beginning to grump a bit since she hadn’t been fed since our makeshift breakfast, so we found a dockside café and had a beer each and split a plate of antipasto. She mellowed out considerably after absorbing some of the Birra Morretti, nibbling on prosciutto and salami, sitting in the sea breeze and people watching. A word of caution; check the menu before ordering anyplace close to the center of touristic activities…the beers ended up costing 11 euros each, or a little more than $18. By the time we got to Piazza San Marco, all was closed, so we headed home by way of the Ferrari store. Lots of interesting stuff there…just bring money.
After a short naptime, we headed out to find some dinner. One place we had seen in our comings and goings was a small corner ristorante in Campo S. Maria Nova named the Antico Gatoleto. We showed up and ducked inside just as a small thunderstorm blew in. Parking at a corner table, we were able to watch the other patrons as they interacted with the staff. This was the kind of friendly, neighborhood place we are always looking for, but rarely find. Even though about half of the diners were tourists, the waiter was friendly and attentive. There was none of the coldness or even rudeness we have too frequently seen among wait staff who primarily serve tourists. We were made to feel this was our neighborhood diner, and the staff was really glad to see us, not just tolerant of our presence. When our food began arriving, we realized there was more than just the staff to bring us back again. We had a variety of seafood as well as two different veal dishes and salad, finishing up with espressos when we couldn’t find room for dessert. For once we were in agreement that this was the best meal we’ve shared since arriving in Venice.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Same day, just later.

I had forgotten how restorative naps can be. After our little snack, Susan worked on her blog for a bit, and I stretched out to rest my eyes…just for fifteen minutes or so. Several hours later, I roused up enough to realize I needed to feed my lovely bride before she started getting cranky again. We headed for a bar we had heard about which advertised live jazz, as well as decent food. On arrival, we found it had been taken over by a gaggle of foreigners, and ‘twas a jumping joint. After a brief consultation we elected to search for a quieter venue.
We wandered toward San Marco and ended up in the piazza. Amazing the difference between mid-day and 6:00pm. There were still people around the square, but most of them were trying to leave and get back to hotels or cruise ships. The museums and Basilica were closed, so the only thing to do was stroll about and people watch. We found an Italian seafood restaurant a block or so off the square, and settled in for a five course meal. Baby octopi, sweet & sour sardines, spaghetti with mussels, sautéed prawns, fried squid, shrimps, and minnows were just some of the interesting things crawling across our plates. While eating, two large groups of American school kids came into the restaurant: one extremely noisy, loud and northeastern in dialect; the second was quieter, more tastefully attired, and sat at three tables close to us. Susan & I kept trying to guess where they were from by their dress and behavior. Ruled out anywhere northern, especially after half of them ordered coca-colas, and they weren’t tanned enough to be from the west coast. Susan settled on Atlanta, based simply on the fact that the teacher leading the group and several of the guys were wearing deck shoes with no socks (a la Lewis Grizzard). As we were leaving, I had to ask where they were from, and they were from Beaufort, South Carolina. One girl was excited to hear we were from Texas since she is going to SMU in the fall. It’s a small world, indeed.
We arrived back at Piazza S. Marco in time for the evening passeggiata, or stroll. The personality of the square was completely changed from mid-day. Orchestras were set up in front of cafes around the edges of the piazza, and took turns playing sets of different music. This ranged from Broadway show tunes to Vivaldi. If you feel like sitting, the café will charge you for the privilege of doing so with a 10 Euro coberto or cover charge. We opted to just stroll the square with the crowd of mostly locals, listening to first one and then another orchestra in the gathering darkness. After this mostly perfect evening, I did manage to get lost again on the way back to the apt. Some things never change.
Ciao for now.

A Slow Day?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Today we have started out on a calmer note. Traipsing over the Ponte S. Maria Nova, brought us to the campo and a canal-side café. Susan & I settled into a tavola with our cappuccinos, and undertook some serious people watching. She thinks she is able to pick out the different furriners by their demeanor and dress (or lack thereof). Even though I’m not as confident in ID’ing Germans, Frenchies, Americans, etc., it is easy to spot the Italians. They tend to dress much better and move through their world with an air of confidence lacking in all the others. Some of the tourists, Germans especially, attempt to make up for this lack of confidence with a display of arrogance which can make even the Americans look good in comparison.
Last night we found an Internet café with a wireless hot-spot which allowed us to clear out the emails and post some pictures to our blogs. It was your typical little hole-in-wall Italian pizza parlor, run by a family of Chinese. We did alright getting drinks and food ordered since we stuck to the basics…vino rosso and pizza. Some Germans came in after us, and were trying to order complex Italian dishes in German from the Chinese waitress…it was not pretty.
One surprise in Venice has been the multitude of dogs. If I had given it any thought before arriving, I probably would have predicted it to be a cat city, with little or no solid ground and everything covered with concrete. But we have yet to sight our first cat, and there is a constant swirl of puppies around us wherever we venture. Evidently, the Venetians take them along to work, and they stay throughout the day. All sizes, all breeds…there is no real pattern other than it seems every third resident has one, and the puppies tend to be very well trained. And there are no messes in the streets. As we sat this morning, we saw several doggies do their business, and their owners immediately swooped in, picked up the poo and dropped it in the trash, obviously a routine part of their day.
We headed out to go to the grocery which is just up the street (alleyway) from the apartment. We’ve only been past it a ½ dozen times so far, so naturally yours truly gets lost and we end up on the Strada Nuova, which is one of the largest shopping areas after Rialto. I tried to get Susan interested in doing a little light window shopping since we were already there, but all we picked up were some picture postcards. Since I had already been lost in that area several times on this trip, we quickly found the COOP store and picked up some necessities. Left there and stopped at the fruit stand to pick up some melon and cherries, then next door to the cheese shop for some asiago fresa to go with our prosciutto. In fact, Susan just brought me a plate with some cheese, prosciutto, pane and fresh cherries for a little snack to tide me over until time for espressos in an hour or two. Then we have to discuss where we’ll go for supper…I think seafood tonight. So eat your hearts out people, cause we’re sure not in Naruna anymore, are we Toto?

Monday, June 9, 2008

How many times can an Aggie get lost on an Island?

Monday, June 09, 2008
So much for good intentions! I managed, with help from my alarm, to crawl out of bed at an earlier hour this morning. Susan got the café brewed and served up (she really does take care of me) and we headed out the door on time. We even found our way back to and across the Rialto Bridge, and on to the church of the Frari, which was our mission for the day. It was after the tour of the church that I managed to get us lost again for a largish span of time. It was only when we were trying to get onto the causeway which connects Venice with the mainland that I realized my error. The only thing which made it bearable was the young couple from North Carolina who came up to us asking directions on getting to Venice…they are probably in Austria by now. I guess I should have known we were going astray when we went strolling across a parking lot…after only two days here, it really felt strange to see cars instead of boats.
The Frari was well worth the prolonged walk. It has works of Bellini and Titian as well as others who made their paintings and sculptures for just this setting. It makes some of the pieces in museums look lost, lonely, and out of context in comparison. If you are really interested in Venetian art, Google the Frari, etc. I feel I’ve done good to decide whether I personally like something, but I can’t begin to explain it to others, so I’ll try not to write art reviews and chase everyone away.
While we wandered lost on the periphery of this island city, we happened upon a green spot. It only takes a short time to become accustomed to the lack of grass and other vegetation, so finding an actual park with trees and shrubs and flowers was a welcome respite. It is hard to imagine trees in this place which is built on mud flats covered with stone.
I really need to start feeding Susan on a regular schedule. I am so used to grabbing a doughnut and a cup of coffee before embarking on a surgery marathon, which frequently sails right through lunch, I don’t think about stopping at a particular time for meals. However, Susan gets really testy if I don’t slow for real food with some regularity. I would even say she gets cranky if she has to skip meals. It seems one of her ideas of an Italian vacation revolves around an endless supply of pasta dishes, with some new and untried variety always available for tasting. After 32 years, I should know better.
It is about time for us to hit the sidewalks and canals again. Susan spotted an Internet café with wireless access, so we will try to find it again and connect with the outside world. After that, who knows what the night will bring us?
Ciao from Venezia

First Day in Venice

Sunday, June 8, 2008
Slept last night as only those who have crossed too many time zones in too few hours can, but awakened feeling rested and ready to go. Then realized the reason we felt so rested was that it was well into the afternoon before we started moving. Susan deciphered the inner workings of a strange little coffee maker and came up with some drinkable brew, although we had forgotten to pick up any creamer at the neighborhood COOP yesterday evening. I guess we’ll drink our espresso neat.
We didn’t have a real plan for our first day in Venice, but thought the best idea was to do a little on-the-ground scouting. We wandered out into a beautiful day, and headed in the direction of the Rialto bridge and then Piazza San Marco. The closer to our goal, the larger the crowds became. At the Rialto Bridge, we climbed to the top and watched the traffic on the Grand Canal. As we looked down at the crowds in the market, even Susan agreed she didn’t want to shop that badly. With Rialto behind us, we headed off on a tangent, away from the main corridor between Rialto and San Marco. Meandering through the back streets, we took a circuitous route which eventually led us unexpectedly into the main piazza.
It seemed as though there were as many tourists as pigeons, scattered in large clumps about the square. The gabble of different languages assaulting us from every side made me think of the Tower of Babel, with so many peoples drawn together for a single purpose, yet unable to understand each other. The one thing which was universally understood was by the little ones who realized the importance of chasing as many pigeons as possible, while simultaneously making as much noise as possible. We circled the square, orienting ourselves to the layout, and picking out spots to return to later. All was beautiful, and jam-packed with tourists intent on getting into and out of each of the sites on the piazza. Nothing was allowed to interfere with this mission, certainly not a couple of old folks from Texas who happened to get in the way. We realized that mid-afternoon was not the time to try to do anything there.
We headed to our apartment, and took the tourist path back toward Rialto since we knew it was in that general direction. All was well until I got distracted by a shop on a side street. After all, I couldn’t really be expected to pass up “The Vivaldi Store”, could I? We moseyed along in the general direction of our apartment, when what to our wondering eyes should appear? A gaggle of girls, wearing Maroon Out tees. They revealed they were Aggies in Europe ostensibly taking classes and somehow landed in Venice. One confided they were actually supposed to be in Florence, so I’m pretty sure they slept through Map-Reading 101.
Even though I stayed awake in my bull text classes, I still managed to become disoriented and thoroughly turned around. We kept finding places we had been, but couldn’t get from there to our apt. Finally, the Beta Sig in the family took charge and said, “You need a drink”. I’ve learned over the years to listen to my demonstrably better half when she feels it is necessary to take charge, so we grabbed a shady table in a pizzeria/café in the Campo dei SS Apostoli. Breezy and cool, it was the perfect spot for me to regroup mentally. After a salad, pizza with everything including anchovies, and a carafe of wine each, we were both feeling more relaxed and frankly didn’t really care if we found our apt. So naturally, the way was revealed and we were soon back home.
We sat up plotting out the rest of our week, since we don’t want to miss anything, right? Tomorrow, we are heading out to one of the many churches, S. Maria dei Frari, to see Venetian art as it was originally intended to be seen…in church as a worshipful adjunct. I’ll report what we find and I’ll try not to get lost too many times.

Arrived in Venezia

Saturday, June 7, 2008
We departed Dallas on a completely full 767, and headed for Europe. Almost 10 hours later we arrived in Paris, after passing a sleepless night. The meskin food we had at DFW did not mix well with the hard-to-describe chicken dish I had somewhere over Maine. Adding some yogurt and too-strong coffee at breakfast a few hours later really did not help my stomach, especially with little rest.
Paris was one layover we were really looking forward to. I had allowed more than two hours giving us some time to do a little wandering in what had been described to us as a thoroughly modern airport. After an extended wait on the taxiway for our gate to be ready, we debarked in what is described as a satellite terminal. After walking to the 2A main terminal, we found our connecting flight was “probably” going to leave from the 2F terminal. We were instructed to go outside the terminal, and wait for a shuttle bus which would take us where we needed to be. The waiting area was adjacent to the flight line, and we had to be careful of fuel trucks and baggage transporters which were constantly zipping past.
After a scenic tour of the working areas of Europe’s second busiest airport, we arrived at what we hoped would be the appropriate terminal. Meandering through what Susan kept saying was the ugliest airport she had ever seen, we came to a security checkpoint where we were told we had to get a boarding pass before proceeding. This wasn’t really new or useful information, and after a protracted multilingual (well, she spoke French and we spoke English) exchange, we were directed to the Air France counter to get boarding passes for our Alitalia flight. Apparently, Air France has acquired at least a part interest in the financially distressed Alitalia, and has taken over operating some of their flights. When we made our way to the AF counter, we first thought there was a riot brewing. It turned out some travel agent had sold tickets for a non-existent tour going to Beirut, so there was a large group of unhappy middle eastern travelers stuck in Paris, with no way of going to Beirut or getting hold of the person sold them the tickets. By comparison, our request for a boarding pass to Venice was welcomed by the agent as being a problem that at least had a resolution, so he helped us almost cheerfully… at least as cheerfully as possible while still being French. (It may have helped that I wasn’t cursing at him in Lebanese!)
Boarding pass In hand, we made our way back to the security checkpoint, which we passed with no trouble. It was no different from any airport security in the states, at least if you ignored the machine guns. Emerging into the gate area of the terminal, we thought we had finally found the airport we had heard about. Soaring glass ceiling, very open and quiet with none of the blaring overhead announcements so common in American airports. We cruised the duty free shops and didn’t find anything affordable or desirable, except for some off-color French postcards which I resisted buying. Time for our flight arrived and we headed down the jet-way, to…a bus. No plane awaited us at the bottom of the stairs, so we started off on another tour of the guts of CDG airport. We went to yet another terminal, climbed yet another flight of stairs, before finally boarding our plane. At last we were convinced our luck had changed. The plane was an Airbus 321, which was the nicest and roomiest medium sized plane we have traveled on in a long time. Larger seats, more leg room, and the cleanest interior we’ve seen on the trip. And finally, an airline that understands that flight attendants are supposed to be young(ish), well-groomed and professional in appearance and action. Soon we were on our way with only a few minor glitches; such as, being delayed 25 minutes because a flight from Atlanta was late, and the ancient French guy in the next seat filling the barf bag before the plane moved an inch.
The impression we had gathered of Air France’s flight crew and plane was heightened, when after about 15 minutes in the air we were fed the best airborne meal of the trip. We had a salmon pasta salad and an extremely dense and rich chocolate dessert with beer or wine included. No Charge! All this on a flight which lasted an hour and 20 minutes! When was the last time anyone had that on a domestic flight??
We got to Venice too late to catch our planned ride, but caught the next boat and made our way across the lagoon to Fondamente Nove, where we met our rental agent, who led us across the island to our apartment. I had felt pretty confident I could find the place on my own, because after all, I had a map! I quickly realized that having the map didn’t make much difference on the ground. What looked like nice straight broad thoroughfares, turned out to be 4 foot wide alleyways which twisted and turned constantly. We’ll see if things look any different in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
Ciao for now!

Friday, June 6, 2008

The First Step

We have taken the first step on our trip to Venice. DFW! At least the food places in the new international terminal are an improvement over the usual airport fare. Next stop, Paris! Stay tuned and look for how Europe copes with an influx of Naruna-ites.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Getting Ready

Preparations for our departure are beginning to take on a frantic feel. All the major issues (transportation, accommodations, etc.) have been resolved, just leaving the niggling little details to deal with. I am trying to maintain a deliberately low key approach to what I’ve discovered could be a frantic, panic-attack inducing psychological trauma. Early on it was clear I could easily be the weak link in our trip plans, never knowing when my less than perfect knee joints might bring all sightseeing efforts to an unexpected halt. With this in mind, we decided to approach our trip as an opportunity to spend some “quality time” in a few places, rather than undertaking a headlong dash down the boot of Italy, ducking into every museum and gift shop along the way. Opting to be in control of our time and activities, rather than turning all the planning and logistics over to a commercial tour operator was one of those difficult decisions we had to make as we first began to plan. Only time will tell whether this was really the right choice, but I bet we have a good time, anyway. After all, I’m going to the land of amore and exotic Italian food with my lovely child bride. What more could a fellow ask for?