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Insights from Italy (and beyond)―Day 20: Monaco

Monaco

Monaco…the second smallest sovereign state in the world, after the Vatican. I learned that interesting fact today on our thirty minute scenic tour of the lovely city. I also learned it only covers one square mile and has a population of 35,000.

A twenty minute train ride took us from Nice to the center of Monaco and a long, steep walk down winding steps took us to the busy harbor of Port Herculè. We had lunch overlooking the harbor, admiring the mammoth yachts lined up like cars in a downtown lot.

The sun warmed us as we hiked up the hill to the Prince’s palace (a short walk, one woman told us in broken English as she pointed the way up the hill…yeah right). I’ve done my share of complaining, but I have to admit, it’s worth it when you get to the top and see the panoramic views in all directions.

Prince's Palace, Monaco

We toured the palace, which is a museum but also home to the Prince and his family. I knew very little about Monaco’s royal family before today, except for hearing something years ago about Grace Kelly. Now I know that the Gramaldi family has been ruling Monaco since the 1200’s, that Prince Rainier (who married Grace Kelly) was responsible for the current positive economic state of the country and that their son Albert II now rules. We were not supposed to take pictures inside the palace, but Ron got a few with his I-phone.

From there we took the scenic tour and saw more of the city including the casino for which the section of the city known as Monte Carlo is famous.

Casino at Monte Carlo

 

 

 

 

We’re back at our hotel now and soaking our feet! On our last night before flying home, we intend to relax, no rushing out to catch the sunset at just the right moment, no more sights to see (if we haven’t seen them by now, it’s too late). We’re both craving crepes, so that might just be our dinner. The French make a crepe like I’ve never had it in Canada. Ron says his grandmother used to make them that way—so thin and light with mounds of real whipped cream and filled with just the right amount of sugary, carmely filling. Bon appetite!

 

 

 

Insights from Italy (and beyond)―Day 19: Nice

 

Enjoying Nice

 

I wish I had paid more attention in high-school. I know six years of French classes must be stored in my subconscious somewhere, but I’m sure it would take weeks or months of being submerged in the culture for me to remember it. Fortunately, the basics have come back easily enough and most people we’ve encountered speak at least some English, so we’re doing fine.

For the first time in our three week holiday, Ron and I went our separate ways today. He wanted to hike to a point of land we could see from the waterfront area and I wanted to meander through the old city, check out the morning markets and then find a bench by the sea to read and/or write.

I enjoyed the old city with its narrow streets lined with tables of pottery and racks of clothing and shopkeepers standing in the doorways having a cigarette (okay I didn’t particularly enjoy that part, but it does seem sooo French!)

Walking down the long narrow market street, I was greeted with the most amazing array of smells. The herbs and spices in cloth-lined baskets filled my nostrils with their bold earthy scents. Home-made soaps and bags of lavender offered a delicate fragrance. Ripe fruit and vegetables gave off a pleasing aroma. Freshly baked panini and pizza made my mouth water.

 

Market in Nice

 

I had to walk quickly by the fish table. The odor was so strong and flies landing on the uncovered fish made it very unappetizing.

Fresh flowers, homemade jams and preserves, embroidered towels and aprons trimmed with delicate lace added visual appeal to the market.

 

Mediterranean blue

 

Now I’m staring at the endless expanse of water before me. I know now what color Mediterranean blue is! A color so cool and fresh that it lures bathers—even on this windy cloudy day. I’ve seen pictures of this stretch of beach completely filled with chairs and umbrellas, but today only a handful of diehard sun-worshipers lay on striped towels, hoping, I guess, for the sun to penetrate the cloud cover and add color to their already bronzed bodies.

It’s actually a great day for pictures. With breaks in the cloud, the sun peeks through, illuminating bits of the city here and there. I glance over at the high-rises on the curve of the bay to my right and see them gleaming. On my left just minutes ago, the rocky point of land where Ron is hiking was lit up. Now its my turn. I close my eyes to breathe deeply as the sun caresses my skin and wraps me in a loving embrace. J’amour la soleil!

Insights from Italy—Day 16: Verona, the city of love

 

Juliet's balcony

 

Verona, the city of love. Well, I’m in love. Yes, of course with my husband of twenty-five years, but I’m also in love with another one of Italy’s famous cities. We arrived by taxi to Verona’s centro dela città (pronounced cheetah) or city center where the first stop on our mapped out walking tour was Juliet’s home. Verona does a lovely tribute to Shakespeare’s most romantic characters. Fiction, or not, tourists flock to see the tiny courtyard, the lovely stone balcony and the statue of Juliet. According to my guidebook, people do send or leave letters addressed simply to Juliet, Verona, Italy. We didn’t see them, but volunteers collect the letters and send replies (just like the movie).

From there we walked down a few more streets and checked out a piazza and a local market. I was fascinated by the unique products the artisans had. Most were sitting behind a table, working on their craft, like the old man creating mosaics.

 

Italian craftsman

 

He had small precut pieces of marble―different sizes, shapes and colors. I watched as he looked through his pile of marble to find just the right pieces and put them together to create a pattern. A woman was selling babies―yes babies. Not the Cabbage patch knockoffs that were all the rage a few years ago, although the construction and materials might be similar. These looked so lifelike that if you put one in a stroller and walked down the street you would have plenty of oohs and awes over what a cute baby you have! Seriously! She was holding one in her arms and I had to look twice to see if it was real or one of her creations.

As the crowds grew, we decided to deviate from our plan and find what looked (on our map) to be a path along the Adige River.

 

Adige River in Verona

 

We’re glad we did, because we spent the next few hours strolling along one of the prettiest (and cleanest) rivers we’ve seen yet in our travels. Along the way, we climbed to Castel Saint Pietro (more steps!) for an incredible view of the city, sat in an almost deserted park overlooking the river, and sauntered through Castelvecchio, a medieval-looking monstrosity that was built as a home and fortress by Verona’s powerful Scaligeri family in the fourteenth century.

As we headed toward the train station, we passed through Piazza Brà (pronounced just like the support garment, but in Italian it means open space) It was packed with people and cordoned off so we couldn’t get in to view the Roman amphitheater. Spectators were cheering and as we got closer, we were amused to see five-year-olds riding bikes (some with training wheels) around the ancient stadium. There appeared to be as many as a hundred bikes and watching the little munchkins, it was obvious they were in it to win.

We’ve learned much since we’ve been away. First of all, don’t try to pack too much into a day or a week or three weeks! Standing to consume coffee and snacks costs much less than sitting. Paying for the use of toilets doesn’t mean they will be clean. Regional trains are cheap―really cheap. If you buy your ticket from the biglietto (ticket stand in the train station) as opposed to the vending machines, you save a lot. Italians are friendly and even if they don’t speak much English they will help you find your way with gestures or ask someone they know whose English is better. And finally (I just discovered this tonight) bidets are great for soaking your feet after a long day of walking:-)

Insights from Italy (and beyond)―Day 11: Athens

The Acropolis in Athens

We climbed the Acropolis today. A steep climb but the view was worth it. You can see Athens spreading out for miles in all directions (a city of 4,500,000 inhabitants). Old and new blend almost seamlessly here―the ancient alongside the modern everywhere you look.

Dogs are everywhere here. Unlike Venice where every dog was attached to his master, here they simply follow the crowds of people or lie in the shade. I watched a few, curious to see if they belonged to someone, but no one seemed to pay them any attention. Some looked sad. Others relaxed in the sun. Some appeared to be guarding something―like the one we saw atop the acropolis, just lying near the Temple of Athena watching the crowds pass by.

 

Guard dog on the Acropolis

Arriving at the port, we experienced what was to be the theme of the day―confusion! No clear direction. Even the English signs and English speaking people in the terminal weren’t much help. So we headed out the main doors, hoping we might see which way to go. There, we were met with swarms of taxi drivers, ascending on unwitting and disoriented tourists, like wasps at a picnic. And just like the wasps, I felt like swatting a few of them!

Someone from our cruise ship had told us of a city tour bus aptly named ‘Hop on, Hop off’ so we kept walking away from the terminal until we found it. It wasn’t far and soon we were seated on the top of a brightly colored double decker bus. Perfect. If we had understood the man who sold us the ticket (and we were confident we did) we could now just sit back and enjoy the sights, listen to an English tour-guide on the earphones and hop off at any point to have a closer look at the tourist attractions on our route. We really only wanted to get off to see the Acropolis and the rest we were content to view from our open-air seats on the bus.

Herodeon Theatre

Ten minutes later, the bus stopped and we were told we had to get off because the bus we were on was going back to the terminal. The one we needed was across the street and would take us on the Athens tour. Okay, fine. We crossed the street and again managed to get a seat on the top deck. The Acropolis was the second stop, but getting to it involved a slow drive up a narrow street following a line of other tour buses. We could see our destination, but were inching our way there and breathing in diesel fumes. Another couple got fed up and asked the driver if they could get off and walk. We followed them.

Finding shade near the Parthanon

In my mind, Athens is one of those places that you go to see because it’s famous, it contains one of the seven wonders of the world, it is the birthplace of philosophy, democracy and drama… yada, yada, yada. But having seen it, I have no desire to go back. The marble is lovely (and plentiful) the columns are impressive, the architecture is to be appreciated. The history is fascinating.

Anyway, it was an experience―one we will laugh about as we reflect on the day spent in Greece’s capital. Getting back on the tour bus, we were looking forward to a relaxing and informative tour, but it was not to be. We had three and a half hours till we had to be back at the ship, which should have been enough time to take in what they advertised as a ninety minute tour. (I think they clocked it at 2:00 AM when the traffic was light) In reality, it took us 45 minutes to go 9 blocks and we realized that at that pace we could potentially be late getting back. Traffic there is much worse than Rome. I’m glad we weren’t driving. Busses cut across several lanes blocking traffic, cars squeak in at the smallest opportunity and motorcycles drive on the sidewalk to get around jams. Then they honk at the pedestrians to get out of their way! So we hopped off once more and crossed the street. (The street I’m referring to is six lanes of bumper to bumper traffic with pedestrian walk-lights that only get you to the median in the center)

Hadrian's Arch

Waiting at our stop on the other side was a large crowd of disgruntled people. Apparently they had been waiting awhile. Several busses had come and gone, but were mostly filled so only a few people were able to get on. Things worked out (as they always do) and we got back to our cruise ship on time. We even had time to stop at Starbucks near the terminal for a frappachino. We were hot and tired and thoroughly enjoyed the icy cold beverage as we left the confusion of Athens and were greeted by the smiling faces of our cruise ship personal.

Athens at first light

Insights from Italy―Day 7: Exploring Venice

Ron at the Basilica, St. Mark's Sq.

I’m sitting on an ancient-looking Victorian settee on the second floor common area of our hotel. The sun has tried in vain to shine all day, but for a few sparse moments here and there, it has been unsuccessful. The damp weather doesn’t discourage most of the tourists and we certainly haven’t been put off by it. Venice in any weather is a treasure chest and an umbrella only obscures the view of the magnificent buildings, the high balconies still bursting with colorful blossoms, and the decorative array of wrought iron hugging nearly every window. Even the humblest of dwellings is fit for the artist’s brush; the pealing plaster, exposed brick and colorful shutters are picturesque. Then there are the statues, carvings, columns, balustrades (those heavy railings made of wood or stone), not to mention the marble façades of the churches, towers and palaces—so much to see looking up!

St. Mark's Square

Rialto Bridge

Did I mention I love this place? Standing in front of the Basilica in St. Marks Square this morning, we marveled at how many varieties of marble are in the columns—some veined, some speckled, some cloudy—from green/gold to purple/grey to golden brown.

This piazza is what I had envisioned when I dreamt of coming to Venice. I’d seen pictures, I guess, of the popular tourist destination. When we began to make plans to come here, I realized that by imagining myself here, part of me had gone ahead and arriving in person was like meeting myself, finding myself, reconnecting with that part of me that isn’t limited by ‘what is’ but rather lives by ‘what if.’

Grand Canal

I enjoyed the square while Ron ascended the tower to get some pictures. I was happy just to sit, watching the people, smiling at the pigeons (hundreds of them descending on anyone with a handful of crumbs),

Pigeons landing on me

wondering at the plethora of seemingly mindless tour groups held together by remote earpieces listening to a guide tell them where to look and when to walk. I decided that’s not how I want to see the world. Despite the wealth of intriguing facts imparted by the knowledgeable guide, I’d just as soon piece the story together myself by what I’ve read or overheard, letting my imagination fill in the blanks—and be free to gaze at what ever my eyes are drawn to. I see the curious, bold pigeons in the squares, the rat that scurries down the street in front of us at night, the Italian woman discarding her wash-water down the narrow walkway outside her front door. I like the story I hear from the white-haired painter in Realto Market. As he proudly shows us his work, he tells us he just turned 64 yesterday and he’s been painting all his life. He shows us a faded newspaper clipping—a picture of himself taken 30 years earlier when he’d received an award for his work. We bought one of his paintings.

Front door?

Insights From Italy―Day 4: Enjoying Tuscany

Cats join us for breakfast

We actually slept in until 10:00 o’clock this morning. I think our bodies needed the extra sleep to catch up, because we both felt thoroughly refreshed.

After a leisurely breakfast on our sun drenched balcony, we took a drive into Siena. Our maps lacked sufficient detail, but we still managed to find the church of San Domenico, the famous Il Campo (called the best square in Italy) and the beautiful Duomo, a cathedral full of art and statues by Michelangelo. Throngs of people and damp weather made it somewhat less than enjoyable, so we didn’t spend long there.

Overlooking Sienna

Il Campo

Once we left the city and headed north toward Florence, the sun shone again and we tripped contentedly through a couple of smaller centers. Both in Chianti, the first one was called Castellina.

Villa below Radda

The second, called Radda, was absolutely lovely. It is built on a high ridge and has magnificent views in two directions. The narrow streets are barely wide enough for the smallest of cars to maneuver, but they are picturesque with jutting out balconies, small potted trees and baskets spilling over with red flowers. Colorful bed-sheets often hang out a window or over a railing to dry. The smaller towns are much cleaner than the cities, showing that the rural people take more pride in their surroundings—either that or they don’t have as many tourists to deal with.

Quiet street in a Chianti Village

Scenic views from Radda

It was nice to step outside the tourist traps and see Italy at its finest. I can see now why North Americans dream of owning a Villa in Tuscany. The food is delicious—whether it is eaten standing at a bar or sitting on a patio. The wine is plentiful and cheap. There are photo-worthy views everywhere you look and the people are always smiling, offering a warm greeting to a stranger.

Rolling Hills in Chianti

After leaving Radda, we got deliciously lost. It seems that all roads lead to Siena and/or Florence (Firenze) when you are in the heart of Tuscany, but if you’re looking for a small out-of-the-way Villa near a tiny town called Montebenichi, the road signs aren’t as accommodating. Neither is our trusted GPS. So heading in the direction we thought was right and using the setting sun as our guide, we finally found our way back. Meanwhile, we got some wonderful pictures and thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon.

Insights From Italy—Day 2: Following the crowds in Rome

The Colosseum in Rome

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Rome, wandering how, in the blink of an eye, I find myself halfway around the world. Wasn’t it just this morning I sat, waiting, in the Calgary Airport? No, that was yesterday already. We’ve crossed datelines and covered continents. A night passed—although it wasn’t marked by closing my eyes and waking up rested seven or eight hours later. I did sleep at one point, but was wakened by someone asking me to move so they could get past me to get to the washroom. Oh well, I did get to watch the new Robin Hood movie, with Russell Crow. I’ve been wanting to see that.  I also watched Letters to Juliet (for the third time) and managed to get in part of The Blind Side, before we touched down in the bumpiest landing I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting my first taste of Italian driving!

Despite all the warnings about travel in Europe, we made it through the airport, easily and effortlessly and were soon experiencing our first taxi-ride in Italy. Yes, they do drive bumper to bumper at 140 kms per hour.

Even though we were both tired, we disregarded our bodies cries for just a little cat-nap and took off sight-seeing with bottles of water,  jackets (not sure why; it was warm and very humid) and a small map of central Rome I’d printed off the computer.

Finding the sights in Rome, we quickly discovered, is easy: just follow the crowds. Today they led us to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and, of course, the Colosseum.

Our plan is to get up before sunrise tomorrow morning and head down to the Colosseum again to capture some pictures at sunrise. Stay tuned…I hope to upload the pics with tomorrow’s blog.

Now, finally, I get to close my eyes and sleep!!!!

Spanish Steps

Ron at Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

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