Saturday, March 29, 2008

Some tips for France, especially Brittany.

For your enjoyment or maybe even for your use! Friends of mine went on a first trip to France last year. They took 15 days and I told them for a nice flavor of France maybe split up the trip by 5, 5 and 5 days - 5 Paris, and then visit two other places for 5 days each. The below is some advice I've put together to help them out. Enjoy!

Here are some things I thought about which might help you with your trip coming up. I think Paris has enough going on that you could fill your days without even consulting a guidebook! If I think of unusual Paris things I will send those along later. The usual stuff you can’t help but find.

If you have time google the below places and see if they interest you at all. On my last visit to Paris I stayed at Agora St. Germain which is a short walk to Notre Dame among other things. Good location. Nice hotel – 3 stars I think. It’s not fancy but it’s clean. Don’t forget to get the Museums and Monuments pass – any metro station. This is more valuable as a line-jumper pass than actual money savings. You can look up the museums on the internet. Overall don’t bother to buy any tickets or passes until you get there though. It is a waste of time and one more thing to forget to pack.

I liked climbing Notre Dame for a good high-perch view of the city (included in pass). Also the Arch of Triumph is included – you can climb up there too. In Paris, don’t miss Angelina at 226 rue de Rivoli. You can do this before/after you walk through the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre. They have the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had – get “L’Africain” hot chocolate. Yummy.

There is La Maison de Bretagne at 203 Boulevard St. Germain. This is a good place to check out tourist info if you are heading to Brittany from Paris as they seem to cover all aspects of a holiday in Brittany.

In fact, as a rule, whenever you get to a town, if you have time, check out the tourist office because they usually can tell you about unusual things to see or do. If you have time, Giverny, where Monet lived out the latter part of his life, is about 60 miles from Paris. It is really worth a visit and especially for Les Andelys, the town not far down the river which is where Richard the Lion Heart’s fortress is. The house/gardens are closed on Mondays. Many of his paintings were inspired there – the lilies, the red bridge, etc. You can see it all at his house.

If you are going to go to Brittany, a side trip on the way up into Normandy isn’t too far out of your way and would take one day (obviously you could stay a lot longer). In fact Giverny is on the way up to Normandy. You could at least see some of the Normandy beaches. If you go, you gotta have Crème Brulee while you are there (the best! Fresh cream) and also Calvados, the apple liquor which is a specialty in Normandy.

As you leave Normandy on the way to Brittany Mont St Michel is really worth a visit.

At Pointe du Grouin - on a reasonably clear day you can see Mont St. Michel across the water. Brittany and Normandy go together logically on a trip because they are next to each other.

When I left Normandy and kept going into Brittany, there is a really cool place to visit called Ploumanach where the Cote du Granit Rose starts – nice walking there. Along the way I found a really cool cliffside drive (near Perros Guirec I think) to follow as well as a 13th century Abbey. Abbaye de Beauport it was called.

Brittany is neat in that it’s more Celtic than French in some respects. It’s not classically French like you think of Paris or the Riviera or Provence. It’s more remote, wilder and less people live there. To me it seems like a great place to summer – lots of boating, some beaches (not going to be warm though!) and hiking and horseback riding and biking. In some ways it seems like New England to me – more rustic and rural than other parts of France.

Each part of France is quite unique. One thing though – Brittany seems to be more popular with Brits/French/other Europeans and not nearly as overrun with Americans as the other parts of France are so that may be appealing too. I have also heard from friends who went to France that the Dordogne was their favorite area – I have not visited there yet. I also really want to visit the Calanques sometime too.

One thing to note – if you use Michelin maps in France (recommended) the really pretty scenic drives are highlighted in green (I think) on the maps. The map key will tell you, but I think it’s green – they highlight the parts of the route which are particularly scenic and that is nice to follow along.

Try to research restaurants and towns with good ones in Brittany if you go there, especially when you get to the more remote parts of it such as Finistere (a part of Brittany). You will be there off season and I didn’t plan well and as a result lived on crepes and salads. Also note places close down midday. If you are hungry, best to eat at lunch time and don’t wait until 3 PM to start looking for food. Pont Aven was a good place to find restaurants as was Quimper and Vannes had lots of restaurants.

While at the tip of Brittany I stayed in Audierne, at a hotel called Le Goyen. It wasn’t far from Pointe du Raz (don’t miss!) and the horseback riding I wanted to do. I liked the hotel – my room was easterly facing over the water and I had a small balcony too. Horseback riding at Plogoff, where I rode near the cliffs of Pointe du Raz. They are easy to reach from Audierne: phone 0033/0298/706/740

How about hiking or biking in France? I know their hiking paths are well maintained – I haven’t done any major hiking on them though. There is a coastal footpath all along the Breton coast (Brittany) which you can pick up anywhere. (“Sentier de Grande Randonnée GR34”)Leaving Audierne, I also visited Pont Aven (artists’ village – Gauguin for instance) and Carnac on the way to Vannes.

You'll definitely want to see the Menhirs in Carnac. HUGE! These were seriously motivated people (or maybe aliens).

In Brittany there is a special pottery called Faïence. There is a factory in Quimper which is a larger town in Brittany. You can get knockoffs all over – for fun I got dishes with my cats’ name on them. Who knew Cecily and Ophelia were popular names in France. (Cecelie and Ophelie).

Heading back east - I LOVED Vannes. Brittany itself is set up into 4 separate areas, the Morbihan area is on the way to Paris and has Vannes which is usually really high on French “great towns to live in” lists. Plenty of places to eat and shop.

In Vannes I stayed in Villa Kerasy which was great. My room was called "Pondichery". The owner had spent much time in India (he is from Lorient in Brittany, which was a major port for the Eastern trading) and he decorated the hotel to reflect the tastes he picked up there.

I wanted to do a three hour bay cruise tour of the Golfe du Morbihan while I was there but the hotel was so busy when I checked out I had to wait – I zoomed down to the boat slips and I drove up to see them throwing the ropes off the boat. I ran to the dock, and waved to the folks sitting there on the boat which was already about 20 feet away from the pier. So if you get there, see if you like the boat cruise and don’t dally because they don’t wait or come back.

Other stuff I think is cool – how about looking up the various UNESCO World Heritage sites and visiting the ones where you will be? I haven’t done this on purpose but once I looked at the listings on the internet I found I had seen a bunch of them anyway. This might be worth it to go visit things you might not otherwise drive out of your way to see. They are literally all over the world and France has a lot.

One other thing I had to mention – if you don’t see the Loire Valley and its chateaus I’ll be bummed! It’s kinda/sorta on your way (driving) to Provence if you leave Brittany and head southeast – I don’t know what the roads are like though. You won’t do it a lot of justice if you zip through in one (long) day but it’s still really interesting and beautiful – plenty of wineries (and you can do a vineyard drive or bike ride…) and lots and lots of castles. Overall the food there will be better than in Brittany (anywhere in France, it will be better. I wasn’t impressed with the food there really). And you won’t find wineries in Brittany (at least not good ones). It would be a good alternative to Brittany if you decided to do that instead. Also bear in mind Brittany is a lot more west and it’s still north so driving to Provence afterwards will take longer than if you just left Paris and headed straight south (or went to Loire Valley instead). Paris – Avignon is 6 hours of driving (it is three hours by fast train). From Brittany it will be a lot more – I’d say likely at least 10 hours if not more, driving although you’d likely see more cool stuff. is a great place to figure out routes and times. Some times I’ve picked up a car, used it, dropped it off, taken the fast train to another spot, and gotten another car for sightseeing. That might save some time too for you.

You won’t run out of things to do in Provence. The sun is out a lot – the lighting is wonderful (another reason artists love Provence) and there are lots of wineries, olive oil, great food, stunning sights to see – the lavender comes out in July – I still haven’t seen that yet other than the late season stuff. I think a cooking class would be fun, haven’t done that yet though.

Arles has a lot of Roman things to see (a great arena – I saw bullfights there) and don’t miss Pont du Gard – also Roman. Nimes has a Roman arena as well (I didn’t go there).

If you want a really nice place to stay check out Patricia Bach’s home in Maussanne: I stayed there once and on a second visit just went to her home for lunch. She is American but has lived overseas most of her life as has her husband. The place is gorgeous and she is a great cook too, in fact, she used to have week long cooking classes, maybe she still does. I have not spoken to her in a long time.

I also went horseback riding there, starting from St. Remy (also might be a nice base to stay – I stayed there once too). It’s not far from Arles, either. Pretty drive. If you go horseback riding there, make sure to ask for the 2 hour ride because they will take you up into the mountains (the Alpilles). Beautiful sights and I think you either get to the top by foot or by horse – I didn’t see many regular roads up there. I would kind of like St. Remy as a place to stay better than Arles but that’s me – it’s a short drive to get to Arles anyway. And Les Baux is close by too (where the dead city is I told you about). There are also Roman ruins near St. Remy, too.

I have heard good things about this hotel: but have not stayed there yet – maybe another time. I had dinner in Uzes one night which is a village worth a look, too.

Vaison la Romaine (heading up north) is definitely worth seeing (I think Patricia Wells’ home is there – one of them anyway) and this area also has a lot of wineries.

Chateauneuf de Pape is worth checking out for sure. B&Bs etc outside of Paris check out:

One very good website for Provence: you may decide to make your whole trip here once you start poking around.

If you fly in and out of Paris, and, the south is your last stop, I’d drop the car down south and take the fast train to Paris OR Nice has easyjet to Paris or you can just fly home from Nice. I wouldn’t backtrack-drive just to fly home.

Ok I am running out of steam. This is a good start anyway. No matter where you pick you will have a great time and see cool stuff.

Books to read to prepare for a trip to Italy

Colosseum at dusk.

I thought this list might be of interest to people who are seeking books to read before a trip to Italy (or during, or aftter...). I read voraciously and the below are books on my bookshelf. To make up for the sparse text, I've peppered this blog with photos I've taken in Italy. 

Enjoy the list! Do leave a comment if you liked any of the below books or have others to recommend. Most of the below are non-fiction books, but, I would love to read some fiction books/stories about Italy. If you have any to recommend, I'd love to hear about it.

Miss Garnet's Angel by Sally Vickers – oh such a treat! I highly recommend reading this before you leave and visiting some of the spots the author highlights. It's a fiction book and quite enjoyable, it gives you a real sense of place. (...older English lady leaves England after the death of her friend to start a new life in Venice...). Mom and I visited the church that was the subject of her story. It is utterly beautiful. I'll have to find a photo of the ceiling and post it later.

Meanwhile, the below I took not too far from the Rialto bridge.

Time Out for Venice, Florence/Tuscany and Rome, and the Top Ten DK guidebooks for Venice, Tuscany, Rome. For Tuscany I recommend the Reid Bramblett one. Time Out is my favorite guidebook series and I like Top Ten to carry around day to day.

Collected Traveler for Venice and for Italy, both by Barrie Kerper. I love this author and her approach. She collects her favorite essays about certain areas and each chapter is devoted to a certain theme - for instance history, people, food. The book has a very "stop and smell the roses" approach and it's evident she has a serious book habit as each chapter, each essay, has an editorial afterwards in which she describes her favorite books about that given topic.

Venice for Pleasure by JG Links. The ultimate take-along walking tour book written by a devotee of Venice. While I always recommend taking a guided walking (or in Venice, boating) tour while visiting a destination, this is a great substitute or add-on to your experience. There are several photos as well as prints/artwork throughout the book, and many I had never seen before. For instance, there is a photo of the aftermath of the Campanile collapse in 1902. What a pile of sad rubble.

Below is Venice as viewed from the Campanile on Isola San Giorgio.

A Valley in Italy by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran – wacky Englishwoman raises family in a formerly-ruined castle Umbria. Charms village in the process.

Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison This book received the highest recommendation by Barrie Kerper, above. I didn't finish it, and it's on the waiting list for my attention again.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict by (and about) Peggy Guggenheim. If you want to see how the other half lives. Talk about the roaring 20s. Her life story, and the stories about the lives of the expats in the '20s and '30s, are what make us all (well, me anyway) have such romantic notions of chucking it all and moving to Europe. There's that little detail about either being an heiress or having latent artistic talent – must put that on the list of Things to Do.

World of Venice by Jan Morris. I bought this several years ago before my first trip to Venice and re-read a few chapters before each subsequent one. A must-buy before you visit Venice. even though it was written in the 50s, it's just as timely as it was then.

A Traveler in Rome by HV Morton. My absolute favorite book, to date, about Rome. A must-read. No question about it.

The above photo shows Fleurs de Lis in Florence.

The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy. A delightful book about the history of Florence. I'd recommend this as a take-along if you have room. (edit - I dropped this in the bathtub one night while reading it and needless to say have not finished it).

Witness to Hope by George Weigel. This is about Pope John Paul II. I think it must weigh five pounds. On the to-read list. My Mom bought it for me for Christmas the first year I went to Rome. (update - it still sits collecting dust).

Below are some books bought in Florence after the fabulous walking tour I took:

April Blood by Lauro Martinesi. This is about the Pazzi conspiracy - and do you know Pazzi now stands for "crazy" in Italian? If you knew the story you would understand why!

The above photo was taken in Assisi and has nothing to do with Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King. If you like how-to books, this one is for you.

Medici Money by Tim Parks. God what a slog. I set it aside. "Quicken" for Medicis. blech. It's a shame because I really like Tim Parks' books otherwise. I've since seen this book referenced in other books about the Medicis so maybe I will give it another go.

Another take along book to Rome: Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome. One of my guides on the walking tour of the Colosseum highly recommended this book. I walked around the Forum with it, too. If you cannot have a guide, this is the next best thing.

I bought a book on the Colosseum while visiting it – and I recommend getting one there, they are fairly comprehensive. They also have photos and diagrams which are a plus.

The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone. It's a masterpiece. Must-read before a trip to Florence and Rome. Even though MB died over 400 years ago, I still cried at the end when he died (SPOILER ALERT. haha).  One of the things I particularly enjoyed when reading this book is adding to my "mental timeline" of history.  The more I have read about the Middle Ages/the Renaissance the more fascinating I find it.  Think about this:  while Michelangelo was waxing poetic with stone, Columbus was busily discovering the New World.  King Henry VIII was a wee bairn in 1492 and turned the WORLD on its head a scant 40 years later, if that.  Contemporaries!  That kind of stuff lights my fires. 

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon. Are you kidding? Waiting for attention.

Naples '44 by Norman Lewis. Not read yet.

The Rubicon by Tom Holland. ditto.

I am currently reading A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. This is set mostly in the Dolomites during WWI. As you may know, much of north-eastern Italy was Austria prior to WWI. This is a moving, well written and fantastical story about one soldier's experiences during wartime. The photo above I took in the Dolomites.

While in Pienza, I bought the book War in the Val d'Orcia by Iris Origo. It is her gripping diary written during WWII while on their farm/estate in Tuscany. That part of Tuscany was no man's land, and when Italy capitulated the Germans took over. Iris and her family took in orphans (or children whose parents could not take care of them during wartime), they sheltered partisans, they lived in danger on a constant basis. Iris buried her diary after each entry. As I read this I was very impressed with her on-the-spot knowledge of the war efforts and politics behind it all, for they had radio access if that.

The photo below was taken from a balloon over the abbey of Sant'Anna in Camprena, which was in the movie the English Patient (set during that time).

The Lady in the Palazzo by Marlene de Blasi. I was late to discover the charms of her writing. Over this past New Years I traveled with my friends Anne, Kirk, and Jill to Orvieto for the Orvieto Jazz Festival and they raved about her books. She actually lives in a Palazzo that is within view of the magnificent Duomo in Orvieto. She moved to Italy in mid-life and fell in love with "the Venetian", which romance apparently was the subject of her book 1000 days in Venice. She then moved on to Tuscany for 1000 days, and then they settled in Orvieto and spent a very long time (1000 days anyone? anyone?) renovating their Palazzo. Her writing is quirky and charming and as a bonus you get recipes at the end, as well as some teasers within the story itself. I burn with jealousy over people who can just "whip up a gourmet meal" on a whim. Below is a photo I took in Orvieto when we arrived late December 2007.

Some Italy notes... (from May 2006)

Matthew McConnaughy piloting a gondola...

Recently I've been sorting through old emails that were sent to friends during some of my trips in the past few years, here is another installment, somewhat edited after the fact. I put the ballooning experience as its own separate posting below. This was my 2006 trip to Venice, Florence and Rome. I have to seek out the Rome part of it, and also add photos later. For now, enjoy!

Hi everyone!

I am here in Venice, finally, and unbelievably had no jetlag at all yesterday, at least until dinner when I had a few glasses of prosecco. Then it hit me like a brick. I was only awake for 36 hours straight! I don't know what the problem was. ar ar

I took Air France through Paris to Venice. If anyone remembers my posting from the spring, I wasn't sure if the bewilderingly short connection AF allows in Paris was a bright idea and in the end I opted for the 3+ hour layover. I was quite glad I did because the 50-odd minutes connection time they offer is a joke. Why they allow for that is beyond me – if you are reading this, please heed – CDG needs more than an hour for connections if you are coming from the US. The good news is that they broke their perfect streak of losing my luggage and it actually arrived with me. You can imagine my horror at Dulles when I left – I was so proud that I had managed to pack only one 22 inch case for the whole trip and they simply wouldn't let me carry it on. There was a bit of a tug-of-war at the ticket counter but in the end I lost. Since I hadn't done triage on my luggage as I usually do (one small carryon, one checked) I was biting my nails for a while. But, it made it – wonders never cease.
When I landed in Venice I couldn't believe I had really waited five years since the last visit! What is wrong with me?? Because I had already been in transit for quite some time I decided to splurge with the water taxi straight to the Hotel Wildner. That's a spendy trip but it was so much fun.
The Wildner is a great little hotel and a wonderful value. I will post a photo of “the view from my room” and the view was certainly grand. I only paid 220E per night. It's a few doors down from the Danieli, right on St. Mark's Basin, so you can get the same view for about a quarter of the price! I did walk into the Danieli - it's quite an elegant hotel but I'd prefer to stay at the Wildner unless I was on my honeymoon or something. Elisabetta and the other managers there were very friendly and welcoming. I'm definitely staying there again!
My best meal in Venice was at Osteria San Marco. Don't be put off by the name, proximity to St. Mark's in this case does NOT mean mediocre quality. It was fabulous and in fact my stomach hurt after I left; I ate so much. (Well, it was that and the full BIG bottle of San Pellegrino that I drank.) There I had a 1/4 carafe of prosecco, the above devil-drink (gassy water) and a big caprese salad (big enough for a meal) and also ravioli filled with ricotta and drenched in butter and topped with lightly sauteed asparagus. In order to find it on Frezzeria, you need to head west while in St. Mark's square. When you are about two-thirds of the way down the square, look off to your right and you will see a little sotoportego. Once you go through this, you will see the gondola ranch (I call it this because there must be 10-20 gondolas all lined up there, ar ar ar). Turn left and keep walking. You will shortly intersect with Calle Frezzeria.
I also met up with my friend Monica on this trip. She was ending her Italy trip in Venice; I was beginning it. So we met for dinner each night and my first full morning in Venice (after sleeping off the jetlag) I was up quite early and walked from my hotel to La Calcina where she stayed and had breakfast with her at La Calcina's outdoor terrace. Here is a photo from my morning walk.
I must say early mornings are the best time – you have the city to yourself (and a few locals walking their dogs, and the odd storekeeper and restaurateur). I'll have to come back later with the restaurants she chose since when we met up for dinners I let her pick from her lists. She's much more organized than I am and especially when it comes to food!
Three days is simply not enough, not enough by far, for this city. It takes me that long to settle down. I think I had Stendhal Syndrome (not Stockholm syndrome! although I suppose I was held captive by the city so maybe that isn't far off the mark either. heh heh).
I will catch major grief in some quarters but I only went to one museum - Ca Rezzonico. I went on a guided tour that had me inside St. Mark's for all of 5 minutes. I went into a few smaller churches but most of this trip was walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, and of course photo taking. And walking. My last trip 5 yrs ago saw me going in to several museums and churches and since it was SO nice out (and my last trip was in winter so I didn't cover as much city ground) I decided to spend more time outdoors). I did very much enjoy the boat tour we took one evening. They are quite easy to find, but if anyone is interested I will look up the one we took.

Some observations: Pigeons + kids = cute cute cute. Pigeons - kids = damn shitting birds.

Gondoliers on the Grand Canal are either brave, or lost. I watched a few navigate their gondolas as we passed in the vaporetto. Maybe the best word for them is "deft" (at handling the waves).

Peggy Guggenheim's dogs all seemed to die very young! Out of something like 12 dogs only a few made it past age 10 and the rest lived 1 or 2 years it seemed like. She buried them all in her garden and she's buried next to them. Leave it to me to notice something weird like that. (Peggy was a very eccentric rich American who moved to Venice in her middle age and made it her permanent home. Think Guggenheim Museum in NYC - THOSE Guggenheims.)

I am going to take the brave position here (quite controversial) and say I prefer Venice without all the bloody tourists (which I, of course, am not one.. ha) The best time to wander around is very early or late if you don't want to feel like you're at a crowded rock concert.
You can find any famous Italian designer you can imagine, in Venice. It was far more interesting in that regard than say, Fifth Avenue.

Venice is as beautiful and as decadent as I remember it. I've spent most of my time merely wandering and I think I've taken 200 photos so far (sad but true. not kidding. in 24 hours.) Don't worry I won't send them all to you. I've got to slow that down because despite the 2 gig cards, I am blazing through one pretty quickly.

I gotta run so I'll write more later when the mood strikes. I hope this email finds everyone well and I'll catch ya later. Beth

And now today, in Florence (ps. I was wrong on photos, it was more like 500 the first 24 hours...!!)
My trip from Venice to Florence was mostly uneventful but for a little bit of a surprise at the train station. I had gone the day previously to buy my ES Italia tickets to Florence and used the ticket machines instead of standing in line for a ticket. I wasn't paying attention and when I bought the ticket hit the button for Venezia/Mestre to Firenze. I imagine you know what happened... I showed up with plenty of time to spare for my 9AM train – but from the wrong station! Yep, you guessed it, I needed to get a ticket from Venice's main station to Mestre and another one to Florence. I had the Mestre-Florence leg... and the only way I made it was to jump on the first train to Mestre (which was the only one I could have taken to make the connection on time) and hope it wasn't a long run to the correct track.

As it turned out it was no problem at all – once off the one train I merely had to walk across the platform – a distance of a few feet – but I was sweating it until I got on the ES train! The next train into Florence was that afternoon and I didn't want to waste it in a train station. Take heed – if you get your own tickets make sure to get both legs sorted out!
Once in town it was rather grey and the second surprise of the day was that my hotel, the Antica Torre di via Tornabuoni, had a problem in one room the night before.. and had put the person there in MY room thus leaving me room-less for that night. Why they couldn't put me in a different room I don't know – I asked. They sent me to the Albergotto, just up the street, for one night. It was no problem at all in the end because they took care of the taxi ride up and the Albergotto was also a fabulous hotel. I may not have found it but for that little hiccup and I'd definitely recommend it as a place to stay, too. My room rate was 250E a night for the Antica Torre and 230E a night for the Albergotto and I stayed two nights total.

It would be a tossup which one I liked better, too. The Antica Torre had by far the best view and of course the rooftop terrace. My own room there had a terrace, which, if you stretched your neck, you could see the Arno!
I didn't make a lot of use of the room terrace due to the lovely rooftop one. The room was large enough but not massive like the Albergotto... and it had carpeting not hardwood floors. It did have a huge bathroom which is always a plus. The room in the Albergotto I liked better – spacious room... hardwood floors.. big windows which when opened allowed the breeze to waft in through the long white sheer curtains... spacious bathroom with tile flooring.. but no terrace.

In the end the terrace really counted for a lot so if you are going during a time of nice weather – I would recommend the Antica Torre. If it is too cold to be outdoors you could go with either one but I'd likely stay at the Albergotto. You won't be displeased with either.
I had the best meal in Italy (this time) in Florence. I stumbled across this excellent enoteca by perusing Time Out shortly after getting settled in. My meal was simple: a glass of Brunello (10E), Crostone with melted gorgonzola, honey, and celery as an appetizer, and, ravioli in a light cream sauce, filled with pecorino cheese and pear. The ravioli was delicate and had the appearance of a tiny package, tied up at the little neck, rather than a square blob as you see here. The whole meal came to 25E and I ended up going back AGAIN before I left since I knew I'd never find that in the US. The food just melted in my mouth. It's very close to the Duomo, if anyone wants to find it let me know and I'll look it up – but it is in Time Out Florence.

I also have to give rave reviews for my walking tour the next morning. It was on basic Florence history and amazingly well done. It was the Original and Best Walking Tours which you can find it on the web at I saw that Michael Palin proclaimed it his favorite walking tour in Florence and since hey, he's my fave Python, not to mention a truly inspiring traveler - so why not check it out. (What is it with Brits and world traveling? They put all the rest of us to shame, no matter how much we may travel; they do so much more; I imagine a lot of it is from having so much of "their" sun shine on so much of the globe).
The woman who guided us was getting her doctorate in the Italian Renaissance and she was very thorough as a result. I learned some interesting little factoids on the walk – here are a few (which may be apocryphal but nonetheless entertaining):
“Stinking rich”: the rich used to be buried under the floorboards of churches – the richer you were, the better your “real estate” in a church – with the richest being up near the front. Naturally, dead bodies underneath tended to stink. “Hole in the wall” signifies the little tiny holes built into palace walls with a tiny door on either side. The rich folks inside would leave food and other goodies in their “hole in the wall” for the poor to come by and take for themselves and their families.
We didn't just learn little factoids, she also dissected artwork both on churches and buildings as well as inside them. After the walk I bought three books - two on the Medici (April Blood by Lauro Martinesi, about the Pazzi conspiracy to murder the Medici brothers.. Medici Money by Tim Parks), and the third one was Brunellschi's Dome by Ross King. Did you know because of the Pazzi conspiracy to kill the Medici (and thereafter the Pazzi family was extinguished....) the word pazzi in Italian means crazy?
I also got a number of my gifts for friends and family - Florence is great for leather items so it's going to be a leather birthday for everyone this year (and wedding, etc etc). I bought some beautiful watercolors from a street artist along the Arno. I am a sucker for flowers and especially poppies. I also walked my buns off in Florence – including a walk to Piazzale Michelangelo. That was a stunning view and I wish I had gone up a little closer to sunset. But it was wonderful nonetheless. I definitely got my exercise on this trip. Next up – into Tuscany! (including Pienza and the ballooning ride).
I picked up the car in Florence and drove the S22 down to Pienza. It is a beautiful drive - if you are a ceramics junkie like I am, stop in Castellina and check out Pep Bizzarrie. Stunning ceramic pieces (plates, platters, pitchers, etc.) and all of them hand painted. I bought a 4 piece place setting and a pitcher and shipped them home. I also stopped in Castellina di Chianti and San Gimignano.

My hotel here in Pienza is amazing. It is Il Chiostro di Pienza and I have views over the Val d'Orcia from my room. It is a beautiful hotel and well situated. (see the other blog post for the ballooning story...)

After the ballooning, I dined at Poggio Antico in Montalcino. The setting was beautiful and the food and wine - well let's just say after a two hour meal I was ready to take a nap. There are plenty of good shade trees around for that! I didn't however, I went into the winery itself and bought 3 bottles of 99 Brunello Riserva to bring home. Remember the days when you could carry on liquids? Well, it went into my carryon. Try that now!

After two nights in Pienza I drove to Rome and dropped the car at Ciampino. I'd recommend that over the train station I think.
While in Rome I stayed at the Hotel Parlamento, which was recommended to me a few years ago by Kismetchimera on fodors. I've stayed there twice now and number three will be in May 2007. It's a small family run hotel, nothing fancy but very clean and the terrace rooms are spacious (the double I had in May 2006 was a very small double, but I had a terrace room on a previous trip and it's quite nice - it even had an American electrical outlet next to the Italian one).
I very highly recommend the walking tours offered by Context Rome. I took the Roma Antica tour and it was fascinating. I tend to read a lot before trips (and during, and after) so it was interesting to have some of my readings come alive through the tour guide. As usual a 3 day visit to Rome barely scratches the surface but, since Rome wasn't built in a day I won't see it all in a day either. Must... Go... Back...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ballooning in Tuscany, May 2006

Today was one of my most memorable travel days yet - as in ever.
It will be hard to decide which overall travel experience is going to go down as my favorite of all time, chronologically they are so far:

Galloping horseback, surfside, along the Pacific Ocean in Peru. uncontrollable giggling as the horse thumped along the beach.

Flying over Whistler in British Columbia...

Volcano run in New Zealand. (giggling the whole way down - if you ever get a chance to run through scree, by all means, do it!)

Zorbing in New Zealand. (non-stop giggling. and I mean helplessly nonstop)...

and this morning... ballooning in Tuscany. (google that phrase if you want to know more).

It was such a pretty day and what magnificent countryside. Perfect weather and 50 miles viz. I got up at 445 AM and made my way to Montisi. I actually decided to do a dry run last night just to make sure I wasn't wandering around aimlessly at 530 AM today. It worked out well - I found the place last night just before sunset (a beautiful time to be out) and then went back to Pienza.

That drive between Castelmuzio and Montisi is now one of my favorites - it really reminded me of the Corniche drives above Monte Carlo and Nice. zoom zoom zoom. very twisty windy curvy.

Last night I also visited Sant'Anna in Camprena - the English Patient abbey (we also saw it from above today).

Robert and Liz (the balloonists) are a lovely couple and needless to say I now have new friends in Tuscany with an open invitation to come back any time I want (even if I don't go ballooning).

What a production to get it all prepared! He used big fans to get it partially blown up and he then used the flames to get the balloon itself to rise. The basket then righted itself and we all clambered in. Then the takeoff. I remarked that it reminded me of the Wizard of Oz - haha! We lifted slowly slowly up and up. It was such a gentle graceful glide and it appeared we were headed right for the trees but he didn't even graze them as we passed (but it sure looked close!). We saw the Abbey from way up above. Robert pointed out all the various spots off in the distance and let me tell you, Tuscany is now one of my favorite spots on earth. (it's in stiff company but it's up there to be sure).

We were up at 2000 feet at one point and a few other times down so low we were almost grazing the ground. As we passed some agriturismos the folks came outside to wave and take photos. That was when he descended to just above the rooftops - boy did they get a good view. We had dogs barking at us at various times, and saw many deer. Near the end as we landed in a field some horses came out to investigate. They were separated from us by a fence but as we were descending to land they were all lined up watching. What a hoot!

The other couple was from Phoenix, and, Robert's brother Mark (Robert is the pilot) went along as well. A very nice person, we talked quite a bit after we landed and come to find out he was Kristin Scott Thomas's babysitter way back in the day. Can you guess how that conversation started? Also come to find out his wife is the niece of the Duke of... (it sounded like he said Fief but I doubt that was right, I have asked one of my British friends who is very knowledgable about everyone in royalty to figure it out although we did exchange emails so I suppose I could ask him, he was very forthcoming about it all.) At any rate he knows the Queen as well as the Princes and so forth. I thought that was pretty interesting.
After landing we loaded it up in the jeep and trailer and headed back. On the way back Mark and I stood in the basket which was bungee'd to the trailer. We were warned that if Robert tooted twice it was the carabinieri and we were to duck down into the basket. (which didn't happen but of course I'd have real trouble not peeping anyway) It was so much fun - like a very bumpy convertible ride after a balloon ride.

All of a sudden Italian fighter jets ROARED overhead, doing very low passes, and then I really squealed and jumped up and down. There were four of them and I was enthralled watching them. I suppose we were lucky they didn't try that while we were airborne as they were definitely that low!

I will write more later...


ps. Scott - haven't seen the Giro, I don't think they are near where I am?

Dean, what is your number, I meant to call you y'day after the ballooning. You and Steph must try this when you come over!

Sandy - I will tell you more about Poggio Antico later, it was a real treat and I saved the menu for you. It was so much food I just wanted to take a nap afterwards and in fact didn't eat dinner last night as I was still too full. I will say this much though - the ballooning included a champagne breakfast afterwards, they spread out the food on the trailer (attached to the jeep - actually an UMM for anyone who digs old foreign cars...) It was a simple meal with local wines and also champagne, we sat in the grass in the 9 AM sunshine out in the middle of nowhere with the balloon stretched out next to us... and I must say I enjoyed that ten times more than Poggio Antico!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Land of the Long White Cloud (New Zealand, September 2005)

This posting is made up of emails I wrote to friends while I was in New Zealand a few years ago with the 99s, the International Association of Women Pilots. I'll come back later and include photos. Enjoy!

Paige, I bet you are up now, it's nearly 10 AM in Germany! Linwood, are you still in Brazil? so many friends in different time zones!! we have had fabulous weather since we got here - mid-high 60s I'd say. it's definitely spring, all the flowers are out and all. Look what I did yesterday!!

I've decided that New Zealand should be spelled with an X - New Xealand - because they definitely put the X in X-treme. That photo was at Thrillseekers Canyon near Hamner Springs. They have bungee jumping and all sortsa ways to kill yourself there. Right near the center was a local cemetery, I joked that it was where they buried their mistakes. (actually don't laugh, in Zermatt Switzerland there was a climber's cemetery near my hotel, everyone who fell off the Matterhorn got buried there...) I digress as usual!

This above was a jet boat - it skims the water surface and the drivers are crazy! They head straight for the rocks/trees/banks and at the last minute whip it around! He told us when he holds his hand up and makes a circle with it to hold on tight because he is going to do a 360! It's kinda like being on a motorcycle in the water, only you are high and have a death wish. Our driver was hilarious - when we all sat down he said "so is it the first time for everyone?" and we all shouted YES! he said "me too! but I've seen it done!" hahahahaha and off we went!

When we got back I said to him "so, did you enjoy your first time as much as we did?" and he said "yeah, it was great, wonder if they'll give me a job!" hahahaha

We went to Hamner Springs after, some people went in the pools, others went shopping (I have plenty of other opps to go into the hot pools on the trip, I'll do it later). On the way back (it was a full day) we stopped at a winery - Pegasus Bay. That sounds familiar, wonder if we can get it in the US? I bought their 2002 Pinot Noir which has won many awards and accolades. yummy! (yes, I know I am not supposed to be drinking but I'm on vacation so I'll deal with it) [edit - I was undergoing treatment for Lyme Disease with many different meds]

That night we went to the International Antarctic Centre. Oh my God! How cool was that! NZ is the closest point to the main bits of Antarctica (Argentina is technically closer but only to the one peninsula - Ross Peninsula I think? NZ is closest to the meat of it. There is a US Antarctic exploration center right there (took pics, will send later) and many flights leave from Christchurch/Queenstown.

They had a lot of info on Antarctica in general and a simulator!! You go into this room that is full of snow, an igloo, and whatever those big snowmobiles are called (not skidoos, the really big ones, you know what I mean) and then they turn on the "winter storm" and it gets down to sub-zero cold. (it's below freezing when you walk in, before they turn on the "storm". winds howling, etc. I stayed in for a few minutes and said "I get it, it's cold").

I still wanna go to Antarctica though! There is a 30 day Antarctic cruise they offer, sounds cool although a month may be a bit long, I'll have to ask Kavey what she thought of hers. I got a squeaky penguin which I know someone's going to fight over when I get home - I don't know who to give it to. (I can't believe how big those Emperor Penguins are! they are as big as a 6 year old child!)

Today we went to Akaroa which is also beautiful . We went on a dolphin cruise but didn't see any dolphins. We did however see a bunch of seals and cormorants and I SAW A PENGUIN!! A REAL LIVE PENGUIN. He was kinda tiny though - blue penguin - and all by himself. Everyone was leaning over the side of the boat snapping pics like crazy - kinda funny had we capsized. (not - it was a big enough boat).

The scenery is simply stunning. I mean really. rugged mountains, beautiful clouds... and the viz is GREAT. as we drove to Akaroa the guide pointed out the southern Alps - he said "those are 130 KM away - and we could see them fine. 130 KM viz! t Tat's even better than when I was in Seattle last month. The people are soooo laid back here! We're doing a bunch of other stuff and I'll fill ya in later.

Matt, show this to Mom and Dad, ok? Linda and Paige, feel free to send this around ok? William, I found the "New Zealand - Down Under no more" map! (it has NZ at the top, totally different perspective - south on top. it's so cool! I'm going to hang it somewhere.

The first person in the world to see the sunrise...

or, nearly the first.

We were in Napier, which is the second town in the world to get the sunrise (NZ is really close to the dateline - it's Wednesday afternoon here and Tues night at home...) anyway, given the fact that there were maybe 3 people on the beach with me I'm thinking that I musta been in the top 40 of the planet seeing the first glimpse of the sun on the 30th... how neat is that?

Our trip is actually coming to a close! I leave in 3 days. I took many addresses for postcards and sent them at least a week ago, you should have it if I knew your address, if not, and you want a postcard, drop me a line and I'll send one to ya. more highlights: first of all, let me say, if you come here, put Rotorua high on your list of places. It is like an adult fun park. Today we climbed up a volcano crater, peered over the edge, and walked/ran/slid all the way to the bottom on the scree (ohmygod was that fun - like wearing moon boots. seriously). I JUST got back from zorbing and I will say that is THE highlight of the trip. you get in a massive, 12 feet tall bubble, they throw in a few buckets of water with you, and then they push you down a long zig-zag hill. The experience defies description but I'll try. I decided just to lay flat and go with it - some folks try to stay on their feet and run down the hill with it but that doesn't seem like as much fun. You are sloshed all over like in a washing machine, GIGGLING madly the entire way. Sky, grass, sky, grass, sky, grass, water water everywhere, and it's so slippery you just let it throw you around. It's awesome - easily the most fun thing I've done this trip and we've done a lot!

Well, I'll cut this short and fill in the gaps later. with photos.

Oh yeah we also did a luge ride here in Rotorua - also a lot of giggling. you are on a "luge track" down a mountain but are in little scooter/bumper cars. pictures will help explain. a blast!!

I hope to see y'all soon. Let me know if you didn't get a postcard yet (with address) and I'll send one along.



And finally, some of the wines we enjoyed:

South Island - Pegasus Bay. I ended up buying their 2002 Pinot Noir, 40 NZD, and apparently it's won many awards in that part of the world. (including Australia). It is in the top 5 PN in NZ and OZ. I know NZ is more well known for Sauvignon Blancs, but, the Pinots are up and coming and I wanted to try something different.

The history behind wine making in NZ is fascinating. Do you know even 30 years ago it was a relatively dry country? They've really made up for lost time. They have not only the southernmost vineyards in the world, they have the "easternmost" if you count the International Date line as the marking point.

North Island: I bought 3 bottles of wine from Ngatarawa ("between the ridges"). One Chardonnay from their "Silks" line, one from the Glazebrook line (I think Syrah, I have to check), and one late harvest Reisling.

We visited Matariki winery but those are more easily found in the US so I decided to hold off. The wine was excellent, one wine was called Quintology - 5 grapes.

We had lunch at Vidal winery. It was a bright beautiful day. I can recommend going to NZ in off season because the weather (at least in the North Island) is not cold (other than Wellington) and actually can be quite bright and sunny. Napier was absolutely brilliant.

Trinity Hill - also v. good wines. Enjoyed the tasting, but didn't buy any. I believe this is available in the US too.

We didn't make it to Sileni. That was our first choice for lunch, the kitchen was closed that day.

How can I forget Waiheke Island! We didn't actually stop at wineries but we spent some time at Vino Vino, which has a lovely patio overlooking the water...

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Alps in IMAX - vertiginous and awe inspiring

Not necessarily in that order either!

I found out about this movie a month ago and had meant to see it much sooner but have been busy on the weekends. I checked movie times yesterday at the Udvar-Hazy center and saw that it's leaving this very week! Well, no time like the present. Off I went!

This movie is the story of John Harlan III, whose father, John Harlan II, died while attempting a new climbing track up the Eiger. The vertical drop from the top of the Eiger is one mile, I'm not sure where he was when he fell but he was a few days into the climb so pretty far up. John wanted to exorcise the ghosts of his Dad's death by doing the exact same climb, and thereby honor him.

The photos I've posted here are of the Matterhorn (not the Eiger) which I took in June 2004. The first one is also of Bernie and Minnie, two large St. Bernards - a little known True Beth Fact: I grew up with St. Bernards as my Mom raised and showed them until I was about 9 years old - they are wonderful, gentle dogs. At any rate, the Matterhorn is also an unforgiving mountain. Near the base of it in the town of Zermatt there is a climber's cemetery. Mostly, the demographic is men between the ages of 18-24, although I did note a few women's names here and there. The "Horn" of Matterhorn means "peak".

Spoiler Alert: John did make it up the mountain with his team of two (and the IMAX crew). We saw them settle in to sleep each night, clipped to the mountain and each other. There were utterly breathtaking views of the Eiger and various other Alps, both close up while they were climbing (and I do mean close up - the crew was along side them for certain) and some panoramic shots as well. IMAX movies have the tendency to make you feel you are right there with them and you get a bit of vertigo watching all of this.

I want to make a special note here of the IMAX crew. My theory is that photographers/videographers as a group suffer from the Ginger Roger's syndrome: Fred Astaire gets all the credit, but Ginger did it backwards and in heels. In this movie there was no piercing of the fourth wall - the climbers did not acknowledge the camera in any way - but they were not only climbing along side them, they were also carrying all that camera gear!

The last Matterhorn photo I took from the balcony of my hotel room, room 56 at the Hotel Allalin (in case you wanted to stay there). That's just fine by me - enjoy the beauty from afar. I enjoyed hiking around Zermatt though. Another note - they showed John doing chin ups. I haven't seen such biceps/triceps on this side of Schwarzenegger! They were HUGE. Considering your arms are pulling your body weight up the mountain, they have to be.

Here is the movie link:

EDIT:  Here is a photo of the Eiger, taken during my trip with my parents in 2010.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Back from Portugal, reports from the road

I hope you enjoy my tiny little trip report from Sunny Portugal. These were culled from emails home to friends during my trip. Each title is from the subject line of the emails I sent. If you want to see all the photos, click on the "Photos of my various travels" link to the right. I went over Thanksgiving week, which I highly recommend as a great time to visit there.

Portuguese Lessons

Hello everyone

I made it! The first "new" country I have visited in a while.

I am really jetlagged but it has been a great day. I am in Coimbra tonight and spent several hours today in Obidos. Obidos is a 13th century medieval town! Except that it is all whitewashed with bright blue accents on all the walls - nothing grim or dark about it. Lots of stairs, lots of cobblestones. It reminds me of photos of Greece actually except for the wall surrounding the town (which I walked the length of. and later remembered I had not put on sunscreen when I took the time to brush my teeth in the airport this morning. drat.)

Portuguese is an interesting language. It is very soft - the "S" is pronounced sh and the X is pronounced zh like zhivago. Think of Sean Connery: "Good morning Mish Moneypenny". The town Cascais looks like you would say Cass-Case, but no, it is Cash-Caesh. It all sounds very shexy. Obidos is Obi-doosh. Lisbon is actually Lisboa and it is pronounced Lishboa. (those who asked, by the way - yes, Portuguese guys are hot. Not quite up there with the Italians but pretty darn cute nonetheless.)

The hotel I am staying in is Quintas das Lagrimas - it is a Relais et Chateaux which is euro-speak for Really Nice Hotel. I have already managed to flood the bathroom (wayward jacuzzi jets, I mean jacuzzzzhi jets) and my hiking clothes are now hand washed and hanging all over. hahaha (I have those "technical" hiking clothes which are great for traveling, I figured I wanted to be comfortable on the plane rides). Luckily, the clothes will be dry before the maid sees them and I just used one of those 6-inch thick bathrobes they left out for me to sop up the floor.

Kidding! hahahaha I just used one of the 6 by 8 bath sheets they have.

ok I am getting punchy now. time for a glass of wine and then a snoozh. later!


could someone email me to tell me what symbol comes up when you hit shift-2? this is a portuguese keyboard and one of my passwords uses that symbol but it is different here.

Nasty, Brutish and Short


I visited the Roman ruins today at Conimbriga. I would have spent considerably more time there but the nice, sunny, warm weather of yesterday apparently went to Morocco because it sure isn´t here. (kinda neat to be close enough to Morocco to say that, too!)

Anyway, it wasn´t just rain, that I can handle. It wasn´t just cold, I can handle that too. No, this is the driving, blinding, cold and very windy rain. Let´s just say my planned day of town hopping turned into a drive to Conimbriga, a quick lap around the ruins (I got a photo of the Roman road to Lisbon though!) and then a run to the car after a brief stop at the empty visitor center. As I wandered around, thoroughly wet, cold and miserable in the space of about 10 minutes, I pondered on the above saying. Hobbes´ quote about the life of man seemed fitting for a day like this - if it´s going to be nasty and brutish, it may as well be short - why prolong the misery? (I know he wasn´t talking about weather but I was pretty irritated at this point).

I knew I didn´t want to be back out in that cold windy rain so I got out the map and decided to go to Tomar, which has a UNESCO World Heritage site there - the Knights Templar Convento de Cristo. I figured that perhaps it would die down a little on the drive there. Nope, it got worse. The rain was beating so loudly on my little car that I couldn´t hear the radio. When I got to town the main roundabout was so flooded I was afraid that my car was going to flood out. No joke. Big Mercedes-es had water up around their doors in that roundabout. I took the plunge anyway and made it through. I found the hill to get to the Convento since I came all that bloody way, I wanted a photo. When I put the window down I got soaked so needless to say the few photos I have were taken from the car and then I left and went back to Coimbra.

I had a really late start today since I slept so long! Tomorrow is calling for even MORE rain, even heavier than today, so watch CNN for me and let me know if Portugal´s weather is in the news. I hope there is some kind of break because I really want to visit Nazare on the coast. It appears that Lisbon will have rain through Wednesday, with a nice day on Thursday and then a little rain on Friday before a really nice day on Saturday, when I leave. Oh well, always an adventure. I´m usually really lucky with the weather. Maybe it will break and get better in time for the latter half of the week.

My little car is SO little, it has one windshield wiper. Yes, you heard that right. Just one. It is Peugeot´s answer to the Smart Car - it looks pretty similar. It does have power windows but the driver´s side door only has the control for its own window since the passenger door is close enough to lean over and push the button to open it. It is a stick shift but the shifter is so long it looks like it belongs on a tractor. When you depress the gas the engine gets a lot louder but there is no perceptible change in the rate of forward motion. It also has a nice silver medallion right in the middle of the steering wheel and it occurred to me that if the airbag ever went off you´d have a nice imprint on your face (oh, the things you think about when you can´t see 50 feet down the road...)

and I´m off again! Nice to hear from everyone, I hope my reports are making you laugh.


Come to Portugal, Save Money, Lose Weight!

Probably not the tourist board´s slogan of choice but I gotta say - Portugal is cheap. Even with the sad state of the dollar. This 6 night trip is going to cost roughly 2500 bucks (not incl souvenirs) and about 1000 of that was transportation - both airfare and the rental car/gasoline. [my edit - it turned out to be around 3000 dollars plus souvenirs]

I did see a Mastercard advert in the airport - it said "Discovering the city that discovered half the world: Priceless". I thought that was pretty cool.

The weather brightened up as I approached Lisbon and right now it´s sunny and even a bit warm. I have already spent an hour walking around and had to head back the apartment to shed one item of clothing - I thought it was going to be cooler and even at 800 AM wearing two light shirts was too much.

about losing weight - Lisbon is all hills, many of them steep! I walked over to the street that has the Elevador da Bica which is the reason I bought a plane ticket here. I had seen a photo of that street a few months ago and previous to that had not seen many photos of Lisbon at all. here it is:

Is that not beautiful! I took my own photo of it:

I rented an apartment that is just lovely, spacious and clean, and in a fabulous location. Right in the nicest part of town - 90 euros a night. This internet cafe is just a 30 second walk away (you will know it by the awning - it looks like a vintage chevy hanging over the doorway) and the above Elevador da Bica is another 4-5 minute walk.

A few of you asked about the hotel in Coimbra - I just did an internet search and found it. I was looking for Pousadas (former palaces converted into hotels and stumbled across it - (although I am not sure this is a Pousada, it just came up when I did the search). I stayed in a spa guestroom and paid 137 E a night. (can you believe it). The spa section is newer and was designed by some famous Portuguese architect. I really liked it - all modern, hardwood floors, spacious, big balcony. The hotel has a one-star Michelin restaurant in it! I ate there Sunday night and the totel cost for the 6-7 course meal, including wine, was 66 euros. It was so much food I did not eat until the next evening. (66 euros for a one-star Michelin meal! imagine if this were 1999, when the euro was upside down to the dollar, that would have been cheaper than dinner and drinks at TGIFridays, almost.)

more later, gotta run. have a great Thanksgiving everyone!!


Portugal is tiny!
How tiny is it? I keep running into the same tourists! I sat on a tram the other day and a group got on after I did - and 5 hours later they walked into the restaurant where I was eating. When I dropped the car off, I was right in front of an American family who had picked up their car at the same time. In Sintra yesterday I saw people wandering around who were on the plane from Newark, with me... No doubt I´m going to run into someone from DC before I leave...

I hope everyone had a nice Turkey Day with your families!

Last night while walking home from dinner I passed a busker who had a little electronic keyboard playing Xmas music. The thing is, he had it propped against his shoulder and was busy reading the paper. He actually had some coins in his hat though. He needed to take lessons from the cute little dog I saw yesterday! A busker was sitting on the ground, playing an accordion, and his tiny tiny little dog (almost like a Chihuahua but not so skinny) was holding a little basket in his mouth. The dog was so still and half asleep - but he didn´t let go of that basket! Yes I took photos.

This is by far the hilliest town I think I have ever visited - including those on Lake Como. San Francisco hills are nothing compared to this. I have not seen a single overweight person on the streets here yet - including tourists. I think you have to be in minimally good shape just to get around - I wonder how senior citizens do. The guidebook did make reference to the reason that you see SO many Mom and Pop groceries and all around is because the older people rarely leave their own hood.

I had another amazing meal last night - write this down: Olivier. It is in the NY Times and also Time Out. For 35 euros you get 9 small starters (like tapas) and then the main course. I also had two caipirinhas and their signature dessert for a total of 56E plus tip. (I overtip - another 10E).

One "small" tapas was foie gras on top of carmelized onions. but these weren´t ordinary carmelized onions, they were soaked in port and a touch of raspberry vinaigrette and a "secret ingredient" for 4 hours and then carmelized. The foie gras was the size of a hockey puck, but not as thick. I ate the whooooole thing. Octopus carpaccio, beef carpaccio, puff pastry with goat cheese, honey and walnuts, etc. etc. the main course was juicy/crispy pork of a black pig and mashed potatoes with truffles mixed in (remember - 35 euros!)

Because it was the night of a huge soccer match when I got there, no one was there (huge as in - determining if Portugal was going to the 2008 euro-match). The waiters had the TV on and were watching the match which worked out fine until the owner showed up and had a hissy. It was funny watching them wrestle over the remote. As people eventually trickled in I figured out that they were in essence feeding me dual portions since they don´t halve anything for single diners. Some things lent themselves to one-person portions, other things (foie gras) clearly did not so I ate a two person portion of foie gras. With all this walking my pants still fit, despite the food, so if you want to eat well, come here and don´t use public transport to get around.

Yesterday I went to Belem and saw the Mosteiros (Vasco da Gama is buried there) and also had the Pasteis de Belem which has been a secret recipe since the 1800s. Those are worth the trip - yum.

I also hired a driver to take me to Sintra and Cabo da Roca (the westernmost point in Europe). Not cheap but so nice to sit back and let someone else do the driving. I think Sintra seems like a place you´d want to settle in for at least a few days - preferably in summer. (it wasn´t cold, but it seemed to have that "summer town" kind of vibe going.) Cabo da Roca was cool! also windy. I took some good "almost sunset" pics.

Today is the last day and I am just going to wander some more. I have a walking tour at 2 PM and other than that - nothing specific planned. Tomorrow is home!

I left in Autumn, and now that I'm back - Feliz Navidad!
When I left a week ago it was still fall - pleasantly cool and sunny and the trees were still colorful. One week later and I hear Xmas music on the radio when I stepped out for groceries. Once again I'm a cat-carpet (literally - they walk all over me, including my head, jockeying for a spot to sleep). Here is my last email - some overall impressions, and let's not forget some photos too. (not all of them, don't worry).

As it turned out the only rainy day was Monday - while it called for rain all week, it only rained at night and was cloudless and sunny in time for the day's adventure (and the rain would come back in again each night...) So for anyone who is concerned about Portugal over Thanksgiving vacation next year - I'd say go for it! I might consider heading south instead though - while Porto in the north is supposed to be amazing (another place I wanted to see, but didn't...) my understanding is the Algarve is Portugal's Riviera and should have a lot of sun regardless.

I was really glad I spent 4 nights in Lisbon - so many of my trips have me on the road to the next town after 2, maybe 3 nights (Rome, London notwithstanding) and while Lisbon is small 4 nights isn't even enough. By the last day I didn't even take my map out with me - I had a pretty good idea of the lay of the land and just took off.

The walking tour I enjoyed on Friday was FABULOUS. (not to overuse that word or anything). It was called Lisbon, City of Spies. It mostly related to the fact that in WWII, Portugal was neutral which actually means it just played both sides without getting really "involved' - and made buttloads of money in the process... for instance, profiteers in Portugal were selling wolfram to both sides (also known as tungsten).

James Bond was actually based upon a spy who centered himself in Lisbon - the Casino in Casino Royale was actually the Casino in Estoril, a suburb of Lisbon. Ian Fleming was alerted (somehow - never did figure that out!) to this man and his flamboyant habits and decided to tail him to use him as a character in his books. Supposedly this man knew he was being observed and decided to show off and dumped the equivalent of 60,000 dollars on the roulette wheel because it was "banque ouvert" meaning "accepts all tips". He played the Casino's bluff since they clearly wouldn't accept that (60K back in the 30s was a lot of money..) but the "damage" was done - Ian Fleming was so impressed he started the story based on this man. (who knows how apocryphal this story is, but it made for an interesting tidbit on the tour!). This same spy well after the war wrote a book called "Spy Counterspy" based on his exploits:

I also was reading a book that was reco'd to me relating to Lisbon during WWII and the Wolfram connection. It was a novel called A Small Death in Lisbon. I don't usually read crime novels but this one was very well done if rather graphic. I'd recommend it for the story and the writing unless you are squeamish (think Nazi Germany, spies, and a present day crime that ties the past and present together very powerfully).

Random impressions:
Lisbon's buildings are either cotton candy colored (pastel pinks, blues, greens, yellow...) or beautiful handpainted tile.
Now that I've given you a positive view in your head... bear in mind that many of these beautiful buildings are COVERED with graffiti and utterly filthy. They could use a good pressure wash to get rid of the grime. In many cases the tile (at least on lower levels) are also covered with posters/stickers (you know, concert posters, etc.) and clearly elbow grease is needed to remove them.

The sidewalks are mostly hand-laid tiles or stones - intricately carved and in beautiful patterns. The streets and sidewalks are pretty clean - I saw street washers out every single morning.

The people are very friendly and for the most part I encountered a lot of English speakers (apart from the cabbies for some reason!)

as an aside, a funny cabbie story:

Monday night, after the deluge, I decided I wanted to go to a little town near Coimbra to have the roast suckling pig. This small town is FAMOUS for this meal. Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times, and a well known wine writer, wrote an article about this town and its specialty - it's that good. I couldn't face another drive after being soaked so I took a cab to have this meal - it was still cold, raining, dark etc.

The cab driver on the way home was this tiny sweet little old man. Didn´t speak a lick of English.

He had a CD in his car that was FILTHY. I mean really bad - I won´t repeat what the songs said. It was hard rock-guitar but the words were BAD. Naturally I suspected this little old man had no idea what was being said.

In my very bad Portuguese and some sign language I asked him who the artist was. he pulled it out and showed me that it was a "home made" CD. I immediately asked him if his son (which I think is filho) made it for him. "yes yes", he smiled and waved. "My son". (in Portuguese). He told me his son speaks English. Now that is a mean son!! I was tempted to write a note to his son saying "NAUGHTY NAUGHTY!"

HAHAHA. Oh dear. The meal was amazing, btw. The only damper on the evening was that there were the beautiful handpainted tiles (azulejos) on the wall in front of me: The first scene showed Wilbur, Babe, and the Piglet sibs hanging out with Mama Pig. The next scene showed baby piglet with a spit up his arse, and farmer Joe holding the spit in front of the fire, with the title "entrada al forno" (meaning, entering the oven). Hard to enjoy the meal when you are looking at Wilbur and Babe.

ok, back to the impressions:

The ways Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco:
A suspension bridge that looks suspiciously like the Golden Gate Bridge
Very hilly
Cable cars
It was utterly devastated by an earthquake on All Saints' Day in 1755, and was consumed by fire in the aftermath. In other words Lisbon's buildings are post-1755 for the most part.

The ways Lisbon does not remind me of San Francisco:
No micro-climate. It gets a lot of sun and is temperate even in winter. (warmer than a San Francisco summer, in other words...)
Narrow rabbit warrens of streets, higgledy-piggledy all over the place. The "grid" of Lisbon is in a fairly narrow area.

and that's all folks! For now anyway... I hope you enjoyed my stories. Drop me a line!
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