This past week, I received an email that TravelPod would be closing and that we should download and archive our travel blog. I had been thinking about TravelPod only a few days before, trying to remember when was the last time I’d added an entry. Turns out, I got derailed in Havana, in 2010, but I did begin blogging on this WordPress site sometime in 2012-ish.
So, now…TravelPod ending. Wow. I was first introduced to TravelPod by my friends Amy and Mark. Their honeymoon was a six month trip around the world in 2004. They posted entries from all over the place. And from our hometown–to where we’d returned after 16 years away–we followed along, reading with both awe and envy. Our lives had gone a bit–let’s just say, “off road”. Or maybe it’s more descriptive to say that we drove our life down a very familiar street…hoping to see the old views, but now it was distorted, faded, colors running and surreal. We adjusted, adjusted again, and eventually returned to the highway that is Chicago. Yet, we have had so many knocks and bumps in the past 5 years that today, it feels as if we must be on a bombed out highway…a journey that has all of the rockiness, but none of the joyful thrill and exhilaration of a true off-the-roadmap travel experience. TravelPod reminds me of that.
It remembers me. It reminds me. It calls me. That world “scorecard” is still there. And I need to pull out the wish list roadmap and get to it! And I need to write! There are many journeys we take that aren’t on a map.
In the meantime, I’m happy to say that all of the old TravelPod entries are coming to live here. In fact, they are already here in pretty raw form with bricks of copy. They need editing, and they need their photos, so stay tuned. But a big THANK YOU to TravelPod for setting up an easy downloadable archive for moving to WordPress. Our first live blog was to Antarctica in 2007. I wrote from a ship tossing across the Drake Passage. Reading it reminds me of the night I sat in our little cabin writing and watching our things swing, sway and tumble as the waves rocked and rolled us. I get chill bumps–and a little seasick again–just remembering that sensation and the *THRILL* of being at the end of the world. There were other “live” blogs too–though none quite like that. Later, I also went backwards into time and added some journal entries from previous trips. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to clean up all the imported entries. And I’ll be daydreaming about the next “TravelPod” entry!
Three quiet October days in Telluride. The place holds a special place in my heart.
I first visited Telluride on a media trip in 1999, just a couple of weeks after my Grandmother passed away. I was tired. My heart hurt from crying. And I ached to see her again, to talk to her some more…just a little more. While the rest of the group skied, I spent time in solitude…staring at the mountains. And in those moments, I found a peace that comforts me to this day.
So, when I realized that I’d be within a 6 hour drive of Telluride just a few days before my birthday, I decided to return.
The “6 hour drive” from Santa Fe turned into an 8 hour drive because I stopped so many times to admire the wide open spaces and the long winding roads through the pueblos and reservations of New Mexico .
I arrived in Mountain Village just before dark, threw my stuff in the room, and took the first of about a dozen gondola rides up and over the mountain into beautiful little Telluride.
I would spend only 3 nights there–waiting for the sun to rise and set on the mountain top, soaking up the sun on the streets of Telluride or my sweet little balcony, walking the side streets and trails with my camera, looking for the even numbered magpies, sketching and writing in the coffee shops, and savoring a little time in the spa. Good days.
On my birthday, I was on the first gondola to the mountain top. I walked across the ridge waiting for the sunrise, my boots crunching the frosted grass. Three elk stopped about 50 feet in front of me. I could see their breath clouds. After a silent few minutes of mutual acknowledgement, they returned to grazing and I to walking. I heard their antlers tapping together a few minutes later and turned to see two of them playing like puppies on the mountain side. Just after sunrise, I called my mother and father from the mountain top. I talked to several friends that day, had a massage, enjoyed some home-made ice cream and had a perfect little day. And as I went back over the mountain the final time that evening in the quiet dark of my own gondola, I whispered a few things to my precious grandmother.
I drove out of Telluride in the still pitch black morning…at one point a family of deer ran on the windy road alongside my car. Ah, Telluride…I’ll be back!
I’m am woefully behind in posting some of the things I’ve been working on these past six weeks. But I can’t be too sorry as it has been an extraordinary time filled with little journeys. Two weeks ago today, I returned from my first visit to my 32nd state, Washington. Things that impressed me?
The low, dense fog that covered the city when we landed. I thought it was a cloud. But upon clearing it, we were seconds from the runway.
The neon in the Public Market!
The gum wall in an artsy/gummy alley. How exactly does this kind of thing get started and “go viral”?
The Starbucks mother-ship…for my coffee-like blood, this was like mecca! Put this coffee with one of the chocolate croissants from Le Panier and a potato and cheese pastry from Piroshky Piroshky Bakery, and a bite of fresh made cheese from Beecher’s…and well, I could have stayed there all day.
The bar called Canon. Beautiful. Extraordinary light and atmosphere.
And last but not least? Where was that mountain?! The fog was thick for 3 days. I told friends that the only way I could possibly see that mountain was if I was standing on it. On the flight back home…I thought I had missed it, had sat on the wrong side of the plane…but lucky me! The plane did a U-turn and as soon as the wings leveled off…there it was! Mt. Rainier…massive, majestic!
Around this time last year, I was traveling in Cuba. On the road across the length of the island. Such an exceptional place, and even more so when saturated in spring rain. These images washed over me like a dream. Looking at the photos now, I’m reminded of the fresh smell of that warm Caribbean air. I remember the feel of the humidity, the breeze, the sound of the rain, and the low rumble of thunder rolling. The season was changing. I was changing. What is it about Cuba that draws us out, that lifts life, calls it to the surface?
It’s a Burton Holmes quote, said about his Travelogues over 100 years ago. How I ache to go when I look through his book of hand-tinted slides from another time, another place…his many Grand Tours of the world followed by “magic lantern” tours of tales. It was a different world back then.
Redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants, California. 2011.
Long Live the Record Store! Chicago, 2012.
Gentoo Penguins. Barrentos / Aitcho Island, Antarctica. 2007.
Lamare Channel Antarctica, 2007
Detail of a 29 mile long, 8 mile wide Iceburg lodged against an island in Antarctica. 2007.
Mixed-media Swings at the Wilson County Fair
A gondolier looks back. Venice, Italy, 2009
Turkey Door #12, 2003.
Balloon Below, Turkey, 2003
Mixed media of Prague’s curlicues and golden light. Prague, Czech Republic 1998.
Eiffel Tower in the Spring, Paris, France, 1997.
Dome of the Rock and Laundry seen from Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. 2008
Boy in street, Muslim Quarter, Jerusalem. 2008.
Ireland’s West Coast, 1992.
Iceland Farmhouse, 1999.
Havana’s Rooftops, Cuba, 2010.
Good morning Havana. Sun streams down the streets of old Havana, Cuba. 2011
The magic island of Easter… Easter Island Moai, 2007
The magic island of Easter… Easter Island Rain, 2007
Packing for a trip to Cuba is a careful endeavor. There are the gifts to take, and the necessities, and the cameras and lenses, and of course, the clothes. But there’s a weight restriction of 66 lbs total…no more than 22 lbs carry-on. I’ve spent the last couple of days piling up the things to go, weighing, reweighing and then making hard choices of what stays and what goes.
In my bag:
A bag of Snickers and a bag of M&Ms (intended as gifts, but a constant temptation…)
Box of Tylenol (gift)
2 boxes of Band-Aids (gift)
10 tealights (gift)
10 bars of little soaps (gift)
10 Hot Wheels (gift)
20 Little Pet Shop figures (gift, they are the cutest little things!)
10 peanut snack bars (para me, between meals)
1 pack of shortbread cookies (para me)
3 pills for diarrhea (just in case…)
ATM and credit card (for Mexico…U.S. issued cards won’t work in Cuba)
105mm f 2.8
24-70mm f 2.8
Holga + 7 rolls of film
Sony Cybershot for video
10 memory cards
2 extra Nikon batteries
A mile of chargers and cords
Hopefully the right adaptors
Blackberry and charger for Mexico (our cellphones won’t work in Cuba)
2 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of travel pants
1 pair of linen pants
Finn comfort clogs
10 tops (combination of long/short sleeve)
rain jacket (pockets are stuffed to reduce the carry-on bag weight)
undergarments + socks
shampoo, conditioner, lotion, toothbrush/paste/floss, deodorant
Trip insurance paperwork
Medical insurance paperwork
Moon handbook to Cuba
The carry-on camera bag alone weighs 25 lbs, not the 22 requested (so I’ll be stuffing some things in my pockets The big bag is at 38 lbs. 66 total is the limit.
Oh…and it’s 12 degrees in Chicago.
Pre-Cuba // Meeting the group in Cancun, Mexico: December 9, 2010
The American flight landed early yesterday…just after skimming low over the most beautiful seafoam-turquoise-ink colored waters you can imagine.
Immigration–baggage claim (mine was one of the first out!)–customs and out into the throngs of people touting time-shares, rides, tours…They’ll do just about anything to stop you. “We must check your voucher here please”, “Here we are, waiting for you!”, “Ride to the hotel?”, “Welcome to Mexico. Let me help you”, “Do you know where you are staying?”…blah, blah, blah.
You walk–quickly, confidently, and with a smile, past the obstacles–a bit like a video game, going around them when they step directly in front of you. Once past the hurdles, the doors automatically open–there’s a mariachi band in black playing the Frito Bandito song, a bar, and another herd of drivers holding signs with everyone’s name. And it’s warm, humid, a smell of that air that can only be hot climates near the sea.
Reid from Santa Fe Photo Workshops was waiting by the Marriott Shuttle spot–guarding someone’s luggage and greeting us. He dolled out my $230 pesos with instructions to take the airport shuttle from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 and get my Cuban Tourist Visa from a lady in white next to the Air Cubana counter there. That was the “normal” terminal–not full of tourists. Starbucks, regular lines of regular people doing regular airport things.
The lady at the counter spoke to me in Spanish–but I understood she was asking if I had pesos–I replied “Si, pesos.” She had on wedge heels–how long would she stand there today I wondered? She was filling out visa forms pulled from her purse–and sitting alongside her rubbermaid of peppers for lunch. Visa done. Easy peazy.
Met Angelina and Larry back at the shuttle area and we piled in for the short drive to the hotel. Checked in (room 449 for me, $149/night) and met back in the lobby for quesadillas and margaritas. Conversation about “our photography”–what do you shoot, what do you do with photography, what camera did you bring? Lenses? And the same concerns about weight and bag limitations.
Back to the room for a bit of a nap and some reorganizing of stuff. Down to the lobby again around 7 to meet the folks returning from Cuba… talked to a couple of ladies and Dinah & Barry; heard about rice and beans, exchanged $40 U.S. for $40 C.U.C. They were still in awe. We watched their photo slideshow of their week–stunning. The light, the faces, the eyes, the decay… One lady described it as very European, but not–it’s decayed, dirty, neglected. 3rd world. She said she couldn’t even describe the feeling she had on the first day–the depth of culture shock. I can’t wait! Shaking with anticipation.
Talked to Nancy–someone I met in 2008 at Nevada Wier’s workshop in Santa Fe. We think we’re roommates on this journey–and made a pact to get up early, stay up late, and go to the Tropicana
So now, it’s 8:15a–I slept good, I’ve made my second pot of coffee in my room, had breakfast downstairs, had a shower, and have repacked yet again…moving chocolates to my carry-on for snacks and for gifts, loading up my pockets so that the raincoat weighs about 10lbs–relieving the carry-on. Crowded House’s “Always Take the Weather” came on the iPod shuffle–good advice! I’ve called home…and sit ready. I can feel my heart beating in my skin. CUBA!
We will meet downstairs at 9a for an orientation. And head out to the airport at 10:30 to deal with check-in and the cultural visas (that came in last night). Flight is at 2:35p.
POSTSCRIPT // 2017:
As I am moving old TravelPod entries over to my blog almost 7 years later, I came across this first trip to Cuba, and the entries that abruptly stop before I even get on the plane. Of course, now I know. Now, after 7 trips to beautiful Cuba, I know how shocking those first days are. Now I know that packing is indeed a careful endeavor. You’d better pack anything you might need, because you are not likely to find it there if you’ve forgotten it. “It’s not like I’m packing for Cuba,” has become a standard “don’t worry” statement when I pack now for all other trips. I also know now that these flights TO Cuba are the heaviest flights ever. Seriously, it’s a wonder that the planes can leave the ground. Coming back, without all the gifts, the bags are less than a third full, but the memory cards are bursting.
Sailing Lake Michigan on the tall ship, The HMS Bounty – August 2010
Lately, we’ve been a little obsessed with tall ships–the beauty of the sails and the awe of the masts’ heights. So, we booked passage on a tall ship as it made it’s way to Chicago for the Tall Ships Parade and festival. Our ship was the HMS Bounty. The Bounty was built in the 60s for “Mutiny on the Bounty”. It also had a part in the “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”.
Getting to the HMS Bounty
Our journey began on Sunday, August 22, 2010. We loaded up the backpacks and took the el into the loop, walking over to Union Station. We had tickets on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Express to Milwaukee. The Bounty was currently in Port Washington, WI and we were to meet her there.
We had to stop first to see the Great Hall at Union Station, famous to us from the scene in the Untouchables where Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia get Capone’s accountant and save the baby in the carriage during the shoot out. Such a Great Hall it is too. I wish the days of train travel were still just as cool as that Hall reminds us.
$22 one way/each. And packed to the gills on this Sunday afternoon. The ride was only an hour and a half, past the rail yards and the loop, into the suburbs, and with just a glimpse of the midwestern prairie before reentering Milwaukee’s suburbs.
Next step was to find transportation to Port Washington. Bryan negotiated $50 for a cab to take us there…only about 30 miles north. Arrived at the quaint little town on a crisp, sunny day around 3:30 in the afternoon. Stopped for a drink and a bite at a pub sitting just above the little festival. And there they were…the masts of the Tall Ships sticking up above everything else in the harbor.
On board the HMS Bounty:
We boarded, met some of the crew and got the introduction to life on board the Bounty. The crew works 2 shifts per day…broken into 4 hour increments. 12-4, 4-8 and 8-12. AM or PM, doesn’t matter, you work 12a-4a and again noon-4pm. We got the 8-12 shifts, though not required to do them seeing as how we’d paid $125/night per person and brought our own bedding to be aboard.
The captain began prepping for departure in the morning on Monday, 8/23. He started by quizzing the crew on “how would we sail out of here…no motor?” We were docked between 2 other ships and the wind was light, but in the wrong direction vs what we needed. Lots of debate and discussion about the location of the anchor, the direction of the sails, and the ruddering to avoid the dock, the other ships and squeezing through the breakers.
Anchor up and sails down around noon as we pulled out of the harbor. The crew climbed the ropes and unfurled the sails from high above deck. “Ease Out and Haul Away!” “Two. Six. Two. Six.” “Don’t give any back.”
Miles and miles of rope, reaching up to the sails and wrapped around pegs on deck. There’s a special way to coil the ropes so that they are “belayed”–neatly stowed, but ready to go. I heard terms like mizen, bosun (the boatswain, responsible for the rigging), mainsail (said man-sail). I watched people tie-off knots and climb like monkeys up the rigging and then stand like tight-rope artists on a rope while folding and unfolding sails.
And holy cow…what a gorgeous sight when those buttery yellow sails came down and caught the wind! The sheer height of them stretching into the blue sky and catching the sun behind them so that only rays peered around. They covered the ship in shade. Life got quiet once we sailed. Work began on tarring the ropes and finishing a yard.
I sat in the sun–staring up at the sails and snapping away. Bryan got harnessed up and climbed the ropes into the crow’s nest. A long peaceful day of sailing–quiet, breezey, and a warming sun.
Golden Hour was about the best ever. The golden orange on the wooden deck floors, the passing colors over the parchment and butter sails. The moon rising in a baby blue sky. A Maxfield Parrish sky as the green sailing lights were lit beneath the sails. The white of the sails against the darkening blue sky as the crew climbed up to lower the royals for the night. Magic. Just magic.
That evening, we took a juice with our flask of rum and had a nip. And slept like babies with the gentle rocking of the boat, with the rum and the day of sun easing us to sleep.
I should mention Dina and the galley. This woman cooks 3 meals a day in a galley where everything moves. She made bacon, waffles, eggs, roast pork, etc. over the 2 days we were there. Delicious food. Everyone washes their own plates. Those on duty pass the line and someone else washes for them. Coffee is always available.
I awoke before dawn. Dark and cold on deck. Red, safety lights lighting the galley and the navigation shed on deck. It was a cloudy morning, trying to spit some rain. Fortunately for us, it never mustered the strength and the day turned into another sunny, cooler day.
Today, we watched as the crew hung the yard on the stern mast. A process that took over an hour, with 3 crew members up in the rigging.
As we entered the Chicago area around 1:30, we could see Evanston, and then the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. The crew was getting excited…some of them had never been to a city this size before.
Arrival in Chicago and the Tall Ship Parade:
Small boats approached us–“Welcome!” they’d shout and snap some pictures of the giant Bounty. As we entered the Chicago area proper, more tall ships arrived too…as did more small sailing boats and motor boats and coast guard and police and fire boats. Everyone who had a boat appeared to be in the area between 2-5p as the tall ships arrived. We tooled around waiting for all the tall ships to arrive so we could line up for the 4 p.m. Parade into Navy Pier.
A gilligan boat brought 3 “media” guys to the Bounty to do stories. They had trouble getting close enough to climb up and over. But finally made it. One guy came with a 1960 National Geographic and asked about the original nail from the original Bounty that was supposed to be on ship somewhere. Jesse calmly and without drama told the guy that the nail was in the scrapyard. Broke his heart, that did.
It was crazy crowded in the water. The Coast Guard and Police boats had megaphones and kept announcing “PLEASE STAY 100 YARDS AWAY FROM THE TALL SHIPS”. Still, some sailboats passed dangerously close–perhaps not realizing that we could not turn or stop quickly enough to avoid hitting them if something happened. It’s amazing how many boats were around us–and how many of them I snapped taking pictures of us.
Around 4, we began lining up. Our Bounty was the finale, behind the Flagship Niagra. We sailed into the breakers and past a crowded Navy Pier. Ships firing whatever “cannons” they had on board in a salute to Chicago. And the Chicago Fire Department boat giving us a water cannon salute as we turned and headed back out of the breakers to drop sails. Really proud moments…the city looked beautiful, the ships were amazing and seeing this all from the deck of the best ship of them all was too much!
We motored around while the sails were furled, and then we entered the breakers again as the sun was going down, and made our way over to our dock on the North side of Navy Pier. I heard the Navy Pier dock crew ask over the radio if we needed a guiding boat to dock. The Bounty captain politely declined. As did Niagra. We motored past the lighthouse as the light turned it pink.
Again, people welcomed us and clapped from the dock. The crew threw ropes over so the little navy kids could catch them and tie us off. The docking process took maybe 20-30 minutes as we eased into the space and tied off. Bryan exited quickly…he was already nearly 2 hours late for work. I left about 30 minutes later. I turned in the near dark to take one last photo of the Bounty resting at dock.
POSTSCRIPT 10/30/12: She sails no more. Strike the Bell slowly….
On 25 October 2012, to avoid Hurricane Sandy, the Bounty left New London, Connecticut, heading for St. Petersburg, Florida. “A ship is safer at sea,” wrote Captain Robin Walbridge. Initially the Bounty was going on an easterly course to avoid Hurricane Sandy. Later, the ship would turn towards the category II hurricane, which was not turning towards land as had been expected. According to crew, The Bounty was motor sailing—using engines and sails. “We were moving as fast as I’ve ever seen the boat move under power,” said shipmate Faunt. “We worked those engines hard.” Waves grew to 20 feet, wind was gusting at 70 mph and it took two people to hold the wheel.
The initial request for Coast Guard assistance was sent in an email by the captain to the vessel’s organization. At about 8:45 p.m. EDT on 10/28, the organization relayed the request to the Coast Guard about Bounty’s situation. The ship was taking on water, had lost electrical power due to water flooding the starboard generator, and the crew was preparing to abandon ship. Some of the 16 people on board had been injured from being thrown about by the crashing waves.
The C-130 rescue plane had equipment outages on its rescue flight, including its anti-icing system and its weather radar, and because of the turbulence caused by the Hurricane, the crew was sick. Because of the poor visibility conditions, the pilots conducted the search at approximately 500 feet in an attempt to locate the vessel visually. Shortly after midnight on 29 October, the Bounty was discovered. “I see a giant pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”
Bounty was listing at about a 45 degree angle on its starboard side. The plane dropped life-rafts but had to leave the vessel and crew on their own in rough seas and 58 mph winds because they ran low on fuel. It would be more than an hour until the first Jayhawk helicopter arrived to begin the dangerous rescue attempt around dawn. The storm had washed the captain and two crew overboard—one of the latter had made it to a life-raft, but the other two were missing. Claudene Christian, one of the two missing crew members and who claimed to be related to HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was found by the Coast Guard. She was unresponsive, and later pronounced dead at a hospital. The other missing crew member was long-time captain, Robin Walbridge.
A formal investigation into the sinking concluded that Captain Walbridge’s decision to sail the ship into the path of Hurricane Sandy was the cause, a “reckless decision”. The ship had persistent problems with leakage, “bondo Bounty” some would say. But the ship was considered to be “in the best shape of her life” in October 2012. Walbridge had tempted fate before. In each instance, some combination of bravado, skill, and luck had returned the ship home safely.
We had put vacationing on hold for a while…but then decided to do a rest & relax, “fun & sun”, return to Cabo. We first visited in 2003. Only 7 years ago. But what a 7 years. Can you return?
It has been a rough year. Changes at work. Belle’s illnesses. Cluttered mind. Restless spirit. We decided to go back to Cabo. It was a place we’d visited in 2003…before the move to Nashville, before the heartaches of Holling and Riley passing, before the return to Chicago. We packed books, cameras, sunscreen, and swimsuits, and a whole lot of hope for a restful week.
Room 310 of Pueblo Bonito Blanco: complete with a sitting room, coffee maker, and kitchenette.
The time-share sellers still as persistent as ever.
Sitting at the pool overlooking the beach on the first day, I counted 12 sailboats, 6 Gilligan boats, 1 cruise ship, and an assortment of jet-skis, para-sailors, helicopters and dozens of smaller, glass-bottom boats and water taxis.
The crashing of the waves! The water out there is known to have a dangerous undertow. By the sounds of the waves, and the sucking sound the tide makes when it moves out–I can only imagine.
The sand on this beach is like sandpaper. Exfoliating.
Tiny birds wait like stray, hungry little dogs at breakfast.
Days spent in the sun. Hot sun and cool breeze. Just lovely. Reading. Reminiscing. Daydreaming and staring out to sea. What would my 46-year-old self tell my 39-year-old self?
I read the Time Traveler’s Wife. “To happiness. To here and now.” “To world enough and time.”
Also plotted the years until 50…101 things to do before 50? 50 states by 50?
Rum drinks and Bloody Marys. Dinners on the beach. And making coffee in the room in the still-dark mornings.
Flamingos, parakeets, and turtles at the hotel.
7 sunrises in 7 days. Keeping a weather eye on the horizon…searching for certainty, confidence, and “what’s next?”
Even though we’re not Catholic, we had to experience the Vatican. We were hopeful for one of those mass audiences with the Pope…but alas, he had left for Jerusalem a few days before.
Nonetheless, we visited his home, his country, his fortress–the Vatican. It’s only 106 acres, but it has it’s own post office, currency, army (the Swiss Guard), radio station and freight train station. And it counts as another country on TravelPod!
We got there early–at 7 a.m. just as St. Peter’s opened for the day. There is a special “Pope door” to the far right–and of course we noticed the Pope balcony above our entrance.
Michelangelo’s Pieta is just to the right of the front doors. It is a smooth, white marble statue of Mary and a dying Jesus, carved when Michelangelo was only 25…and the only piece he signed. It is protected behind glass since some idiot tried to destroy it in 1972. Who tries to destroy a beautiful piece of artwork carved over 500 years ago?! I don’t get it.
St. Peter’s is massive. Sunlight streams in and seems to turn corners–highlighting the marble Veronica to the left of St. Peter’s altar. St. Peter himself is buried here they say, in the grottos below. Poor St. Peter’s bronze statue likeness has had his toes lovingly rubbed away over the years by adoring pilgrims. And pigeons fly high above in the golden rafters of the church.
We took yet another climb to the top of a dome. This time 320 steps (after a lift). The view of Rome from the steep dome was stunning. We stopped mid-way down to buy some rosaries and postcards with Vatican stamps from the nuns and to enjoy a standing espresso while we wrote postcards to be mailed from this mini-but-mighty Country.
Next, we made our way over to the Vatican Museums. Through a pack of people and a dozen rooms filled to the brim with paintings, frescos, tiles…and through a long hall of painted maps and gilded ceilings. Our goal was to get to the Sistine Chapel and spend some time there soaking it in.
Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel–the place where the papal conclave is locked until they elect a new pope, the place where black or white smoke signals the vote results to outsiders, the place where Michelangelo lay on his back on scaffolding for over 4 years, painting scenes from the Bible on the ceiling, and returned about 25 years later to paint the Last Judgment on one of the walls. As we were ushered in, everyone started snapping pictures. I took 4 including ones of the ceiling, the Last Judgment and the amazing floor that no one ever looks at (all without a flash) before guards reminded everyone that no photography was allowed. We sat quietly on the edges of the room looking up and admiring the scenes and the colors–and trying to grasp the history in that room…the stories those walls could tell!
Truly a highlight of our trip…Pope or no Pope!
We left very early on Wednesday May 13 for the train station and our train to FCO airport. Somehow, Bryan got us on a direct flight to ORD vs a lay-over in JFK…and saved us 4 hours of transit time! So we did some duty-free shopping–chocolate and single malt, and then enjoyed a last croissant, pizza slice, and cappuccino before the 10 hour flight home…5,151 miles.
We watched Marley and Me on the plane ride home and I cried my eyes out…and so did most of the plane.
And then there were those thoughts of the Pantheon–and how very cool it would be to stand in there when it rains and hear the patter on the marble floors. And to see Venice in the snow. And to see the Pope blessing the crowds at Easter. Here’s hoping those coins in Trevi Fountain do their jobs! Ciao Italy…we’ll be back!
Tickets to Rome from Florence were €84, again purchased from a machine in the train station. Our 2 hour train trip to Rome began on May 7 at 12:30 p.m. Tuscany again passed by at 90 mph, rows of brown, plowed fields and criss-crossed stripes of vines like lines of crosses over the fields. And those tall, proud cyprus trees. Yellow fields, cute little orange and yellow farmhouses with red tile roofs…it was typical Tuscany as always dreamed. I could almost smell the garlic and lemons cooking…
We were staying at Mecente Palace conveniently located near the train station and both red and blue metro stops. This hotel had a rooftop bar overlooking to the west, the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore and an awesome sunset.
Rome was far busier than Florence and light years from Venice. We bought 7-day train passes for €16 each to ease some of the long distance walking that we expected here.
Of course, we spent our days seeing the sites. We stumbled onto some sites–the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain. Others, we had to hunt for–the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona.
One of the first sites we visited was the Colosseum. It is spectacular to walk up and out of the subway into the shadow of the colossal Colosseum. Built in AD 72-80 to hold 50,000 people, it was abandoned 500 years later–becoming a fortress in the middle ages and a source of stone for other Roman buildings. Today, it sits there–in a roundabout practically–traffic racing around it and the subway running under it. The place is huge. But all that really remains is the bones of it. Only three-quarters of the outside structure still stands, with Doric columns on the bottom, Ionic in the middle and the fancy Corinthian up top. Inside, the seats are long gone and columns lay scattered here and there. The wooden floor is gone, revealing a plush green grass floor and a labriynth of stones marking what used to be underground passageways and chambers to hold prisoners, slaves and animals. The place spooked me. It’s hard to understand the sheer volume of people and animals who died here in cruel shows. During it’s opening 100 days and nights alone of “games”, thousands of gladiators battled to the death and over 5,000 animals were slaughtered.
Our next stop was Palatine and the Roman Forum. We roamed the area in the hot afternoon sun for some time before finding the forum…the streets of ancient Rome where Caesar once strolled and was assassinated. We were tired and sunburned by the time we got back on our colorful subway line and headed home.
The Spanish Steps were not quite what I expected. The fountain is at the bottom and there is a grand series of steps to the top–where there is a French church and a fabulous view. People sat there in the sun–watching, waiting, wooing…we saw it all. A teenage boy feeding a teenage girl strawberries just after he put a spray of Cool-whip-from-a-can on them. A flirty woman with a drawer full of make-up on who had stripped down to her camisole (and rolled it up), leggings and bare feet to catch some rays (or guys?) and who photographed herself repeatedly and slowly added layers as the sun went down–including over-the-knee, 5-inch stiletto heeled boots. A man walking among all the people, looking at the girls. A woman with a white sweater set, turquoise scarf and matching turquoise leather bag and notebook–sitting there gazing at the domes of Rome. A guy with a guitar singing loudly and badly. An old Asian couple picking apart the petals of a rose as a friend photographed them. Another elderly couple popping a bottle of champagne and pouring it into paper cups as they sat there under their matching khaki hats. Austrians and young girls with heart-shaped sunglasses filled water bottles at the fountain. Old men sitting on the fountain side in trenchcoats talking in Italian at a brisk, yet quiet clip. And all the while, there was this smell of roasting chestnuts coming from street vendors. It was a fascinating place to sit, enjoy the sun and the site, and people watch.
We heard Trevi Fountain long before we found it. I never expected to see it attached to a massive building. It is the size of half a football field. Toss a coin in over your shoulder, and they say you’ll come back to Rome. We each tossed in 2 coins We’d return to Trevi often–usually early in the morning or late in the evening with a gelato to avoid the crowds.
The Pantheon was quite a discovery one day. We were sort of lost and stumbled into a piazza in front of this huge old hulk of a building. Inside its massive bronze doors, it was quiet and cool…and open to the elements from its only source of light–a giant circular opening (the oculus) at the top of the dome. Any rain drains out via 22 small teardrop shaped holes in the old marble floor. Amazing in there. It was built around 100 A.D. and to this day, the dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. One day, I’d like to spend a rainy morning in that ancient space.
More discoveries: We found a place with blown-glass ornaments in lovely blues, greens and reds, strung like Christmas lights across the alley. The city was full of tiny cars, and the lawnmower sounds of Vespas. All the motorbikes would rush to the front of the traffic line at stoplights. At night, some people would sit with a single chair and a single parakeet on a stand…and a spotlight. Never understood what was going on there–but the birds always seemed to be waiting to go home…staring at their people. Rooms are “cameras” or “stanzas”, floors are “pianos”. It’s so musical! The bells ring the hour AND the quarter hour… for example 3 o’clock is DING-DING-DING. But 3:30 is DING-DING-DING-DONG-DONG. You can imagine that 11:45 pm is a bit tiresome. “Prego” when you sit down or are ready to order.
Some favorites: La Fiaschetta, Papa’s Caffe and Wine Bar and L’Enotec Antica–the last being an atmospheric wine bar with delicious meals and a non-stop bowl of pistachios. The colors of navy blue and mauve purple together and mustard yellow with plum and red trims. And one of my all time favorite meals at Osteria Al Valle–a place with only 9 tables and the best meal ever–rucola salad with tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, salt and pepper…followed by cheesy gnocchi, a bottle of tasty Chianti, and tiramisu and cappuccino for dessert. Sheer heaven.
I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave Venice. But, we’d bought the train tickets (€77 for 2) from a machine in the train station a few days earlier and we would have to leave eventually…and rain was coming again to Venice.
So on a gray Sunday morning, we hauled our suitcases down to the Grand Canal and boarded a water bus to the train station. We’d packed a lunch from a grocery store (sandwiches and chips) and two wine-filled water bottles. The train was punctual and at 12:43 p.m., Venice was “finito.”
It was 2 hours and 40 minutes to Florence. Over the Tuscan landscape filled with green fields, villas, and the tall skinny cyprus trees. We listened to our iPods, seated across from each other and watched Tuscan fly by sipping our wine and smiling. We were caught up in the daydreams of Venice and of our “next” trip to Italy where we’d like to drive this Tuscan land. There were also lots of tunnels and sudden ear-pops between Bologna and Firenze, which seemed to heighten our anticipation and get us out of the melancholiness.
Florence was teeming with cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, bikes…it was crazy after the Venice quiet. We maneuvered carefully to our hotel, over cobblestone streets and dodging traffic. Our Hotel Perseo is on the same street as the Duomo…and only a few blocks away. Our 5th floor is their 4° piano–and our room 407 looked west to the sunset and the bells of Santa Maria Maggiore. Breakfast and “happy hours” were served in a persimmon orange room on the lobby floor 3. The owners were kind enough to make reservations for us at both the Accademia and the Uffizi.
We spent our days in Florence eating, drinking, shopping, and seeing the art.
First things first–we climbed the 463 steep steps of stone and some spirals to the top of the Duomo. It’s a double-shelled dome and in some places it was hard to even walk straight up. But from up there you can see red roofs for miles…. Beautiful views. And to get closer to the frescoes on the inside of the dome was incredible. Bryan could even reach the frescoes. From below, the frescoed drawings seemed small–but up close, Bryan’s hand was about the same size as a toe of a man tumbling into the jaws of Hell’s devil. Huge.
We found the Chiesa di S.Lorenzo leather market–where we fed a sad, gimpy pigeon (and a few hundred of his friends), and bought €5 cashmere scarves and postcards. I ended up buying a leather bag too–shoulder bag with both short and long straps–in the softest cappuccino-colored leather. Later, we found Antica Sosta–a quiet place for wine that served bruschetta with some mighty-fine, sweet, olive oil for apertivi hour. Cin! Cin! During our 4 nights in Florence, twice we ate at an old restaurant–tucked into the back streets of old Florence, near Dante’s home. Bottle of wine, and pasta until we nearly popped. Excellent atmosphere.
One day started with a visit to Accademia to see David. How do you describe a statue 17 feet tall that was so finely carved by a 29-year-old Michelangelo more than 500 years ago? David stands today in a beautifully-lit, domed room in Accademia, but he was outside in a piazza for almost 400 years. No photographs are allowed of the actual David–making the postcards a must-buy. We took binoculars to look closely at his smooth face–one side innocent boyish calm, the other side tense and angry. An “understudy” David stands outside where the original used to stand.
Another day began with a trip to the Uffizi. A favorite of mine was the gilded icon panels–fantastic colors of layered-on gold leaf atop reds and yellows. And that tell-tale cracking from the egg coatings. There were a number of works telling the story of the Annunciation–where Mary is told she will give birth to the son of god. In one, by Simone Martini, she holds a forgotten book in her left hand and shrinks away from the angel in her chair. We also saw The Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli…both in low light rooms to save the colors. There was a map room in the Uffizi–cool and dark with harlequin, argyle-diamond windows of green, yellow, rose, and clear glass, and 11 globes as the only furnishings. There was almost too much too see. It is beautiful and each piece deserves an hour to fully absorb the colors, the faces, the gestures, the meaning–and to appreciate its age!
We spent time in the old art shops too–seemingly as ancient as the pieces hanging in the museums. Zecchi was my favorite–old, small, dusty–and a handsome, colorful array of egg tempera pigment powders in jars behind the counter. Old books with colorful pages for artist renderings, fat paintbrushes, palette knives of wood…I spent over an hour in there looking at all the stuff and watching artists come and go. I also enjoyed the Il Papiro store–featuring the handmade traditional marbled paper and the new experiments with gouache watercolor-like papers. I also got fascinated with the inks with names like Turkish Blue and Violetta…Tiny bottles with ornate little labels and tops sealed with matching wax. They even wrapped the inks in matching tissue paper, and placed a sticker on everything. With that tiny bag of carefully wrapped purchases, I felt quite special walking around Florence!
We also had laundry to do in Florence. One day we found a “Wash and Dry” and spent €3.50 a load to wash and €3.50 to dry jeans, socks, and undies. After only 4 days, our time was up.
Just as we were getting into Florence’s groove, it was time to go to Rome.
We arrived in Rome in the morning of April 27, and spent a few hours in the airport waiting for our delayed flight to Venice. It had been a long cold night on the plane and we were in a dream-like state–despite the sudden delight in having access to fantastic and cheap cappuccinos in the airport (we’d each had 3 within the first 2 hours on the ground in Italy). We were fighting nodding off in our cozy and lovely stretched-leather chairs in the airport. I remember staring at Bryan’s watch face willing my eyes to focus, while trying to listen to the announcements in Italian. “Are we delayed? Are we boarding?”
The flight finally made it to Venice around 4 p.m. and we figured out the water bus easily. For 13 Euro each (including luggage), we’d get transported to San Marco Square. We followed a small stream of people out into the misty, windy Venetian afternoon and boarded a floating waiting room. About 10 minutes later, a boat pulled alongside, threw down a metal bridge between the boat and our waiting room. The trick was in getting the luggage across the divide, along with yourself, in the wind, quickly, because people were waiting; and both the boat and the waiting room were tossing in the waves…in different directions. I gave up on any grace, but made it over with everything in tact.
Little did we know, we’d spend another 2 hours getting from the airport to the San Marco stop. The canals were choppy, so the windows were closed to prevent splashing waves from reaching us. We were so drowsy–staring out those foggy windows. We tried to make out where we were, what we were passing and yet it was like a dream. I remember seeing an island of graves, hearing and feeling the boat-bus wash against the stops and the captain throw down the ramp, smelling the fresh sea air, and a prevailing smell of mint, watching a massive tour ship cross our path, and feeling the sea’s spray on my face when we opened the window for a clear view.
Finally, it’s as if we awoke from one dream and stepped out into a another dream–an ornate little miniature world come to life. We were in San Marco. There was the Basilica di San Marco. It reminded me of that old-timey carousel from Opryland. There was the Piazza San Marco and the long buildings with porticoes. There were the pigeons, the pillars, the tourists.
I’d read in a guidebook that Venice defies description, and so it does. It was drizzling and we followed a small map. Trying to find our way, and yet in awe by the canals, the gondolas, the gelato stands…
Our Hotel al Gazzettino was off a small canal, in a narrow alley. We’d splurged on a room with 2 tiny balconies over a canal–and wow what a room! Gold and blue bedspread, drapes and matching fabric wallpaper, white ornate furniture, a tiny TV that we never got to work (but who needs it in Venice!) and a bathroom as big as the room itself. We threw open the windows and stood out on the balcony watching the gondolas beneath.
It would rain almost the whole time we were in Venice, but the rain seemed to suit the place. With 117 Islands, 150 canals and 410 bridges–water is everywhere. Water stood at the entrance to beautiful old San Marco, easing into the delicate mosaic floor. Elevated sidewalks were set-up to keep the tourists’ feet dry. The wet streets and the sound of the rain hitting the water was becoming to Venice.
There are no cars in Venice–just boats. Boats for everything–police, mail, ambulance, buses, taxis, delivery, laundry… The Grand Canal has been described as the “finest street in the world” with a parade of old buildings now in elegant decay. Hundreds of gracious, ornate old buildings tilted this way and that line the banks…the water at their front doors. Boats are parked, tied up like Old West horses in front of the buildings. There is a smell of mildew and the sea, of old wood and coffee. Laundry hangs, pigeons wait, and Venetians tend to their potted gardens on tiny balconies and roof tops.
Our days were filled by wandering, watching, eating. We found a number of little restaurants–some with just 5 tables–serving homemade tortellini, lasagna, caprese salads, and delicious red wines. Cin! Cin! And there was the coffee, and the gelato. Grocery stores served fresh sandwiches and tasty paprika chips. We found a place selling wine for 3 euro–siphoned out of a giant cask and put into your plastic water bottle. We would sit on the banks of the Grand Canal, or in the coffee shop, watching the world go by. One day we shopped along the double-sided aisles of the Rialto Bridge…buying leather journals in a shop so small that the workshop above had to be accessed with a cedar ladder straight up.
San Marco was a highlight. No pictures allowed. The place is filled to the brim with treasures (from 1075, all ships returning from abroad had, by law, to bring back a precious gift to adorn “the House of St. Mark”): There are hundreds of relics of bones and bits in fancy glass jars, jewel encrusted walls, tiny-pieced golden mosaics on the walls and ceiling, and a loggia where 4 horses keep watch over the piazza before them. The ancient basilica’s floor is incredible with thousands of tiny mosaic tiles and so warped it could be described as hilly. I’m surprised that all the mosaics stay put in the floods and warping. There was so much to look at, it was stunning. That old basilica sits there day in and day out watching the crowds go by, feeling the water seeping into its foundation and holding tight to its treasures plundered and received 800 years ago. It is, by far, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I bought rosaries there–old marbled glass to remind me of the colors of the floor and walls.
We took a gondola ride during a clear hour one afternoon. The light in the canals was spectacular–diffused and rose gold. It’s about 90 euro for an hour ride around the area–and worth every single penny. Our gondolier, Ricardo, took us out into the Grand Canal for a pass under the Rialto Bridge. He showed us how the water’s high tide breeched the first floors of many buildings and described how many of the owners were abandoning the first floors of their homes–no longer using the canal-side doors. I imagined rooms with extravagant fabric wallpapers and gilded crown mouldings–standing lonely and empty now except for a few heavy pieces of furniture sacrificed to the flood waters.
On one of our last nights, we stood there listening to the violins and violas play the old songs in the Piazza. There was the tinkling of champagne glasses and delicate cups. We could see the rooms above with their red velvet damask wallpaper, dripping chandeliers and fancy dressed customers. Yet, the water still stood at the threshold of San Marco’s, lapping against those gold mosaics. “It’s like the Titanic,” Bryan said. Grand and sinking into legend.