Learning how to live like the French

Apologies, all. I neglected to provide a pronunciation for this energetic city in which we’re living through the end of June. If you took any French classes in high school or college, you probably know Montpellier is pronounced: moan-pell-YEA.

Leslie and I are getting into the French lifestyle, and it has its advantages. Notably, the idea of joie de vivre (zwah-du-VEEV-ruh), or “joy of living.” Leslie has done a bit of research on this concept. It’s all about enjoying life, nature, good food, fine wine. Work is less important than having a leisurely meal with friends, and it’s fine if that’s a two-hour lunch. Actually, work is less important than just about everything, which is counter to the culture we left behind in the States and we like it a lot.

Through Airbnb, we have a nice one-bedroom apartment with a comfortable bed, a big-screen TV and a decent kitchen. The refrigerator, however, is quite small. Once at the nearby grocery store I commented on something that looked delicious. “There’s no room in the fridge,” Leslie responded. So I stopped suggesting. Anyway, she picks the food, I’m just the pack mule.

So we’re adjusting to how the French live. They visit the markets almost daily, buying food for tonight’s dinner and maybe tomorrow’s breakfast. But many shops are closed (or have limited hours) Sunday, and many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday. You have to plan appropriately.

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A great assortment of olives at the market. One of the benefits of living near the Mediterranean.

And the markets are amazing. Across the street from our apartment is the Halles Castellane, an enclosed market that’s open daily with stalls for a variety of vendors: fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, cheese, fresh fish, dried fruits, pastries, even wine. One produce vendor sells fresh-squeezed orange juice — 5.90 euros ($6.94 USD) for a liter. Expensive, but it’s the best OJ in town! There are a couple of cheese vendors, but we like Les Marie because the young woman who runs the stand speaks a little English and is helping us try different French cheeses, like comté and appenzeller. Leslie was over the moon when she found her all-time favorite roquefort — the real stuff.

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Strawberries, ripe all the way to the center. Yum!

The Marché des Arceaux, a short walk away, is an open-air market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. It’s more like our favorite Saturday morning farmers market in Downers Grove — and just as crowded. You can buy almost anything here. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we got some gallettes (like a potato pancake — great lunch), some pâte de fruit (fruit candies), and a nice chunk of smoked ham with roasted vegetables. We also bought a bottle of wine and some olive oil from a woman who told us she grows the olives and presses the oil herself. Vendors set up their tents under the 18th-century aqueduct that once brought the city’s water 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from the Saint-Clément spring to the water tower in Place Royale du Peyrou.

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Lots of people shop at the Tuesday and Saturday morning markets under the aqueduct.

We’ve also learned more about the wines made in Languedoc-Rousillion, which is an area of more than 700,000 acres under vines. It is the single biggest wine region in the world, producing more than a third of France’s total wine production. You can get Languedoc-Rousillion wines in the States (see our friend Sean at Hinsdale Wine Shop!) but Leslie and I are focusing on wineries near Montpellier — especially from Pic Saint Loup (a mountain about 15 minutes northeast of Montpellier). There’s a wine shop right around the corner from our place, Maison Regionale des Vins, where they speak a little English and are eager to help us find great local wines, many of which come from the Pic Saint Loup appellation.

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We enjoyed a glass of rose among the vines.

We spent a morning recently at Domaine Haut-Lirou, riding in a 4X4 with new friend Nicholas to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The vines are bright green and growing like crazy right now. There’s been a lot of rain lately, which is good. Most of the vines have already set fruit, and we could see the beginnings of grapes. Their wines are excellent. We came home with four bottles! We’re planning more wine tours over the next few weeks.

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Nicholas explained pruning and how important it is for the vines.

Finally, we’ve found an English-speaking non-denominational church. When I stumbled upon the website for International Chapel I thought most of the photos showed young people — college-age or slightly older. And highly diverse. Not many people that look like me or Leslie. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our place, so we went. Yep, mostly students and no old people. But this was one of the warmest, most outgoing congregations we’ve encountered yet. We met a couple with three kids from The Netherlands, here because of his job. We met a young woman from Papua who’s just wrapping up her Ph.D. We met a guy who grew up in Montpellier but is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a baby. Diverse? Yep again. Black, white, brown, yellow and mixtures of the above, from lots of different countries. It truly is an international church.

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There’s a lot of energy in this little non-denominational church, with young people from all over the world.

We talked extensively with Pastor John and his wife Robyn, who have been serving International Chapel for 14 years. Turns out John grew up in Hinsdale! The church is in a very small space on the ground floor of an apartment building just outside the historic district. Their services don’t include much liturgy. Just several songs, some prayer, a sermon and a closing song. We like the church, the people, and the energy. We’ll go back over the coming weeks.

Next time, I’ll tell you more about the history of Montpellier and about some of the places  Leslie and I have been able to visit — like the 13th-century Jewish ritual bath.

A bientôt!

 

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Red wine ages in French oak barrels. Haut-Lirou’s red wines are very nice!
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Some of Haut-Lirou’s vineyards. Nicholas told us that on clear mornings, he could sometimes see the Alps in the distance. Not today, unfortunately.

A happy reunion with good friends

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Our friends Julie and Dave were traveling in Italy, so we took the opportunity to see them in Florence.

Last weekend (May 26-28), Leslie and I rented a car and drove back to Florence. That’s an eight-hour drive through two countries and lots of tunnels! But it was worth it to spend a whole day with our dear friends Julie and Dave Kronbach.

When Julie and Dave lived in Naperville, Ill., we all attended Grace United Methodist Church. Leslie and Julie became fast friends when they were roommates on the church’s annual youth mission trip. And Julie somehow convinced me to serve on the Stewardship & Finance Committee. (Can you imagine? ME on the finance committee?!?!) She and Dave moved to the Denver area several years ago to be closer to family. Leslie and I last saw them about five years ago when we drove to Prior Lake, Minn., to spend a few days with them at their lake house.

If you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, you’ve seen the picture of the four of us in front of the Duomo. Julie and Dave were in Florence with Julie’s sister Susie and husband Mike. The four of them took a Mediterranean cruise and had a few days on their own after it ended. We met Julie and Dave about 10 a.m. Sunday in front of the Duomo and looked around for a place to chat and get an espresso. We found a nice al fresco spot on the piazza and stayed there almost all day, talking and catching up.

At some point shortly after noon, I realized our waitress was looking at our table often. I imagined her thinking, “Are they ever going to leave?” It wasn’t long before one of us had a great idea: Let’s get some menus. So we enjoyed an excellent lunch there and kept talking until we decided to check out two possible dinner locations, both of which Leslie and I discovered during our initial visit to Florence.

After reviewing the menus in both restaurants, we chose Le Botteghe di Donatello for its diverse offerings, outdoor seating and view of the Duomo. Susie and Mike joined us for our goodbye meal, and we enjoyed meeting and getting to know them. Leslie and I got back in the car Monday morning for another eight-hour drive while they took a train to Rome for their flight home.

What a great day we had, sharing the events of the past few years and renewing our friendship with these delightful people. Now we’re back in Montpellier, learning more about living in France. Until next time…

A bientôt!

 

 

 

 

Bonjour, Montpellier!

 

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The view from our window. The Prefecture is on the left and the post office is straight ahead. Place Martyrs de la Resistance is usually a busy place. The people-watching is great. Students congregate here until the wee hours, and we’ve watched locals let their dogs play in the fountain. Free entertainment!

Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.

Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.

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Our nearly 500-year-old building. You can see Leslie waving if you look carefully at the fourth-floor window above the gray awning.

Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!

So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.

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The stairs outside our apartment. Thank God for handrails!

Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.

Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédiein less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.

Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walking under the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.

First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.

There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.

A bientôt!

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Place de la Comedie. A few days ago Leslie and I sat under one of those umbrellas and enjoyed a glass of wine while watching locals and tourists go about their day.

 

 

Florence: More Michelanglo, but first some cheese.

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Looking out the window of our hotel room in Florence onto a small Sunday market.

Florence is the third and final stop on our Italian tour, and our favorite by far. It’s a beautiful city, and very walkable. Best pizza of the three, too! Leslie admitted she could live here, even though they had snow in March. We’ve never considered Italy as a home, but Florence is a pretty amazing place. Gotta think about this.

We arrived by train (Frecciarossa 1000, cool high-speed train) from Rome on a Sunday afternoon. Our hotel is in a 16th century building on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, near the city’s historic center. When we arrived, the piazza was hosting what appeared to be a farmers market.

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This was great cheese!

Matteo, who admirably mans the hotel’s front desk, said there were a number of cheese vendors there. Well, I couldn’t resist that. We found the cheese, as well as vendors selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, bread, books, musical instruments, and just about anything else you might want. I scored a nice piece of cheese and noshed on it for the remainder of our visit. Bene. Molto bene!

The piazza has proved to be a great source of entertainment. There are always tour groups checking out the bronze statue of Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and part of the famous Medici family (he was one of the good guys). Or you hear the cacophony of school groups being led through the piazza to a museum that was at one time an orphanage. Much quieter are the groups of art students sitting on the hotel’s front steps sketching buildings around the piazza. Bikes and scooters and tourists, oh my!

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David, the biggest attraction in Florence.

Just as in Naples and Rome, there are tons of tourists. Most are here to see the undisputed star of the show, Michelangelo’s 17-foot marble statue of David. It does not disappoint. Although Leslie and I noticed two things that didn’t quite fit. First, Michelangelo sculpted the future king of Israel with a slingshot over his shoulder and a rock in his right hand. But the statue is of a fully grown man, not a youth or a teenager as David was when he slew Goliath. Second, it’s obvious he’s not circumcised. But his father Jesse observed the Law of Moses, and would have circumcised all his sons when they were only eight days old.

Tour guide Frederica agreed with us, but said the work was consistent with the style of Renaissance art. Michelangelo wanted to create the finest representation of the human form. And he did. The detail in musculature and form is stunning. You can even see the veins in David’s forearm. Furthermore, Michelangelo purposefully picked a piece of marble that had been rejected because of the veins in it. He then used that veining to sculpt David’s legs so those marble veins look like veins in a person’s legs. Fascinating.

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Here we are with David. 

The only “imperfection,” as Frederica explained, is that the hands and head are too big. They are not in proportion with the rest of the body. Explanation: David was designed to stand in a niche near the top of the Duomo, more than 260 feet above the ground. Never happened, but that’s why he was carved with big hands and a big head.

Michelangelo worked on David between 1501 and 1504. It was originally displayed in the Piazza della Signoria. But in 1873, the work was moved into a specially built hall at the Galleria dell’Accademia. That’s where long lines queue up daily to see David. If you go (and this applies to just about everything in Italy), sign up for a group tour with a guide. You get more information that way, plus you don’t have to wait as long to get in.

In most cases, that is. We had to wait over an hour to see the Duomo of Florence, officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). Frederica explained (and you could tell this bothers her) that the Duomo’s ruling authority recently revoked the tour group preference. Now everybody waits in the same line. That caused us to miss a few other places that were on the tour itinerary. The tour people are rightfully unhappy about it, and so were we.

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The “new” facade of the Duomo. You can see the dome in the back.

The cathedral is worth waiting for but we found that the inside is just OK. The real show is the building itself. It’s unlike any European cathedral we’ve seen. Almost as visually unique as Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Construction began late in the 13th century and was completed in the 15th century. The building is covered with marble panels in various shades of green and red, bordered by white. All the marble came from areas near Florence, in what is now Tuscany. In the 19th century, an ornate Gothic Revival façade was added. This Wikipedia entry has a ton of information on how the dome was built. All you architects out there (Hi, Larry!) will be interested.

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This clock measured time from sundown to sundown, which was important in the Middle Ages.

In the back of the nave is an interesting 15th-century liturgical clock that still works. However, it has only one hand and measures time from sundown to sundown, rather than actually telling the time. It has to be adjusted weekly.

Workers are cleaning the cathedral now, so the scaffolding and the equipment detract from the view. You can easily tell which parts have been cleaned and which haven’t. The city is trying to keep things a bit cleaner now — at one time, some 800 buses a day drove through the piazza. Now, the only vehicular traffic is police cars and electric-powered city trucks.

The last significant attraction we visited was the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and a number of other fine works of Renaissance art, almost all of which were owned by the uber-wealthy Medici family.  Two of those works are by Leonardo da Vinci. Well, two and a half, according to our guide. In one painting, da Vinci painted an angel, while another artist did the rest of the work. Yeah, you can tell. It’s pretty obvious which angel Lenny drew.

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Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” one of those paintings many of us have seen in one way or another.

So we’re done being tourists in Italy. But before I close this chapter, let me repeat something I’ve said to lots of people along the way: We have felt pretty safe everywhere we’ve been since October 2016. Italy was no exception, even though a few of our tour guides specifically warned us about pickpockets. All the major tourist sites here are heavily guarded by federal police and the Italian army. Some just look important in their dress uniforms, but lurking near most of the crowds are young men and women with automatic weapons at the ready. I paid close attention to these kids, and they ain’t just for show. I watched them carefully scan the crowds, looking for potential trouble. Very professional, in my opinion. Helpful, too. We asked for help from a heavily armed young woman in fatigues who spoke English, and she guided us to the street we needed. “Army?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied. “U.S. Army Reserve, Retired,” I said, pointing to myself. She gave me a big smile, but no salute.

Now it’s time to get back to our primary mission, to find our next home, somewhere in the world. We’re headed to Montpellier, France, where we will be living for at least six weeks in a 16th century building overlooking the Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the city’s historic center.

Next post from Montpellier! I’ll leave you with more photos of Florence.

Ciao!

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Our Florence hotel, built between 1517 and 1527 as guest rooms for the monastery of a religious order. Its style mirrors a former orphanage across the piazza.
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Detail on the external wall of the Duomo, from a section recently cleaned.
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The inside of the Duomo’s octagonal dome.
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We thoroughly enjoyed a chamber music ensemble doing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and other works, in St. Stephen Auditorium. This was one of the first churches built in Florence. It was revised and renovated many times through the centuries, then nearly destroyed in World War II. Renovation in the 1990s turned it into an excellent music venue.
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We finally found the Central Market, but it was late and most of the vendors had closed. Fortunately, the bars and restaurants on the upper level were still going strong. We found this little wine bar and enjoyed some nebbiolo and a bit of pate.

 

 

The Vatican: Michelangelo’s work impresses

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St.Peter’s Square, where thousands of the faithful wait hopefully every time a new pope is elected. First time I saw this place was in the movie “Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn and David Janssen. Excellent movie, you should rent it.

On our last day in Rome, Leslie and I spent some time at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Michelangelo’s work on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as his Pieta, completed when he was only 24.

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The Pieta, one of Michelangelo’s most famous, and most revered, works.

This was the second time Leslie has seen the Pieta. The first was at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The sculpture is stunning in its intricacy, and inspiring in its subject matter. As I tried to get a decent photo, which is difficult since the statue is protected by plexiglass, I noticed a young man make the sign of the cross right after taking a picture. His reverence was balanced, however, by those who felt they just had to get a selfie with the madonna.

Laura, our amazing tour guide, explained that Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So when Pope Julius II hired him to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he refused. Turns out it’s hard to say no to any pope, so in 1508 Michelangelo started the project that would keep him on his back for four years. As Laura pointed out, painting frescoes is difficult because you must paint on wet stucco. Once the stucco dries, it’s too late. So he painted on wet stucco on a rickety scaffold about 60 feet above the marble floor. Is it any wonder the artist started dictating to the pope what he would and would not do?

But the ceiling, with the creation of Adam as the iconic focus, was just the first contribution Michelangelo would make to the chapel. Between 1535 and 1541, he also painted The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, on commission from Pope Paul III. While he was working on it, Michelangelo crossed swords with a powerful cardinal over the nude figures in the painting. But Michelangelo was older now, highly respected and powerful in his own right. He painted the cardinal’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. When the cardinal complained to the pope about this, the pontiff said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so — no changes. Moral: You don’t mess with Mike! Michelangelo also painted his own face in the work, on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew. (Click on the link in this paragraph to see the whole work and get lots of details. Fascinating stuff!)

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Laura uses photos outside the museum to explain Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is sacred space, and all are encouraged to be silent. Not everybody obeys.

Probably the coolest thing about the Sistine Chapel, though, is that this is where the conclave of cardinals meets whenever it becomes necessary to elect a new pope. I recall a great scene from the 1968 movie “Shoes of the Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn plays a Russian cardinal who attends the conclave only weeks after being released from a Soviet gulag. Nobody’s winning, even after lots of politicking and a number of failed votes. Suddenly, one cardinal makes an impassioned speech in which he practically deifies Cardinal Kiril, who isn’t even one of the candidates. His speech sways other cardinals, who end up proclaiming Kiril as pope despite his vigorous refusals (“My brothers, I beg you! Do not do this!”).

I would love to show you the incredible, high-resolution, professional-quality pictures I took of Michelangelo’s works. But The Vatican doesn’t allow photography in the Sistine Chapel. You can go to the Vatican Museum’s website to see what it looks like. And Khan Academy has a site that is very educational.

 

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Looking down the nave from the back toward the altar of St. Peter’s. That’s an enormous bronze sculpture, biggest in the world, that marks Peter’s burial place.

We ended the tour in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Laura told us the basilica was built on the site believed to be where the Apostle Peter was martyred. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same way Christ died. The Vatican claims Peter’s tomb is under the basilica’s altar. Therefore, only the pope can say mass at this altar.

The rest of the Vatican Museum was interesting — a good warmup act, if you will. Works of art in sculpture, painting, mosaic and tapestry. Gallery after gallery of stuff. Impressive, but in a way it made us think the church could sell off a small portion of these treasures and help the poor. Isn’t that what Christ wants us to do? I’m just sayin’.

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Greek and Roman sculptures, a small part of the Vatican Museum’s huge collection.

So it’s time to bid farewell to Rome. It will be a pleasure because Leslie and I have been sharing a summer cold during our time here. Now we move on to Florence (Firenze in Italian), birthplace of the Renaissance, and hope for better health.

Next post from Florence, and more about Michelangelo.

Ciao!

 

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One of the Swiss Guards, who provide security for the Vatican. Tour guide Laura said the uniform and the armament are traditional, but he’s got a gun under that outfit and he can get to it quick if he needs to.

 

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Sculpture of our favorite pagan god, Bacchus. God of wine.

All roads lead to Rome

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Our hotel is just a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, one of Rome’s most popular, and most romantic, attractions.

Rome. The Eternal City.

Shortly after arriving in Italy’s capital, Leslie and I climbed the Spanish Steps and gazed out across the city. “We’re in Rome,” she beamed as she grabbed my arm. Okay, we’ve been to many of the major cities in Western Europe by now, so a new town really shouldn’t be making us giddy. But there really is something special about this place. After all, we’re walking in the steps of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren. Lots of other folks, too.

There’s a lot going on in this town. More tourists than downtown Chicago in July! We’ve seen ancient wonders like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, as well as more recent tourist sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, both of which were an easy walk from our hotel.

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The Trevi Fountain by night. Both of us tossed coins into the fountain, which means we will come back to Rome.

We started with the Colosseum. Our outstanding guide Roberta explained that the world’s largest amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian to get rid of a lake and some buildings put up by Nero after he burned Rome. Construction started in 70 C.E., just after the Empire destroyed Jerusalem. Jewish slaves got the whole thing done in just nine years. Impressive. Vespasian got it started, his son Titus finished the amazing arena.

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Free bread and free sports, like the games here in the Roman Colosseum, kept the public happy.

Events in the Colosseum were free, part of the empire’s way of keeping the populace in check — give them free bread and free sports. There were exotic animals fighting each other, simple executions and gladiatorial contests — the main event. Gladiators fought for three years. If they survived, they won their freedom. That doesn’t mean they went at it every day. Roberta said gladiators only had to fight four or five times a year.

The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people — some say as many as 80,000. Even though it was free, you had to have a ticket that provided a reserved seat in the proper section.

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Seating for top government officials. Best in the house, except for the emperor’s box.

The best seats were reserved for the emperor, top government officials and wealthy citizens. The good seats were for the middle class, while ordinary folks were higher up. Slaves and women — because they really didn’t count — got the nose-bleed seats (women of wealthy families could sit with their husbands in the better seats, of course).

Roberta then took us through the Roman Forum, where we saw several temples to pagan gods and a massive victory arch celebrating the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. If you’re thinking that’s where we get the term “vestal virgins,” you’re right!

We also saw the Capitaline Hill, where the Roman Senate once met and which is still home to one of the most important Italian national government buildings. The Forum was a marketplace for ideas as well as consumer goods.

We finished the day at The Pantheon, which was originally built “to honor all gods” but now it’s part tourist trap and part Christian church. Originally built in the first century B.C.E., it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the second century C.E. Parts of it, though, are over 2,000 years old, including the marble floor, the stunning facade and the beautiful dome, which is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. (Yeah, the Romans had concrete.) The dome really is an architectural masterpiece. If you can tear your eyes away from it for a moment, you’ll notice lots of other people looking up and gaping. Great design.

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Looking up into the dome of The Pantheon. That’s actually a hole in the roof. 

Finally, a bit about Rome itself. Many of the streets are tiny, almost alley-like. But cars and scooters use them at will, meaning pedestrians do not always have the right-of-way. We sat down in the outside seating at one little restaurant and had cars going by less than a foot away from our table. We moved inside, but only because it started to rain. Drivers are stunningly aggressive. The only time they back off is for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Drivers have to stop — it’s the law. If you’re not in a crosswalk, though, stay alert or get run over.

Our hotel is in an area where there are lots of restaurants; one on nearly every corner — sometimes three in one block. The menus are much the same everywhere: antipasti, first course pasta, second course meat or fish. And pizza, of course. No, Roman pizza is not better than Neopolitan pizza. They both taste really good, but I still need to check the pizza quality in Florence. So far, we have not had a bad meal in Italy. And Rick Steves is right about one thing — in Italian restaurants, the pasta is always perfectly al dente.

The downside to Italy in general, in my humble opinion, is that pretty much everybody smokes. There are limits, such as no smoking in restaurants or public buildings, and not on trains. But just about every restaurant has outdoor seating, and smoking outside is OK. Well, not if your table is right next to mine. Also, while waiting for a train one day in Naples, we looked down at the track and saw that it was littered with butts. It’s hard to walk down a street and not smell smoke. Big downside.

I’ll leave you with a few additional photos and this short movie of the Colosseum. Leslie shot this with her phone. It may go into your “downloads” and you’ll have to look for it there.

Next, Vatican City and its treasures.

Ciao!

 

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The fourth-century Arch of Constantine, between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. 
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Where the Senate met. It’s part of the vast grounds of the Roman Forum.
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This section of the Pantheon is now a Christian church.

Naples: pizza, and a train to history.

Our two-week cruise is over. Many thanks to Ryan, our cabin steward, who exceeded expectations, and to Tenisha and Dwight, our favorite wait staff in the main restaurant. Thanks also to the spa ladies, who pampered Leslie just a bit. Great ship. great crew, great food. Would we do it again? No. Once across the Atlantic is enough!

Now we are in Italy — not checking it out as a possible home but just as tourists, like we did in Scotland and England back in 2016. Our ship docked in Civitivechia (chee-vee-tah-VEK-ee-yah), which is the port for Rome. Then we took a high-speed train to Naples so we could begin our sightseeing in the southernmost of the three Italian cities we want to visit: Naples, then Rome, then Florence.

Naples is the birthplace of pizza so we tried a few. I had a pretty good pizza with sausage and broccoli at a restaurant just down the street from where we stayed. And Leslie and I shared a true margherita pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil) at a hole-in-the-wall in Ercolano, which is modern-day Herculaneum. It was pretty good, but I think more research is in order. Is pizza better in Rome? We’ll see.

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We’re in the main square of Pompeii, fulfilling one of Leslie’s childhood dreams.

Leslie has dreamed of visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum since childhood. She even considered becoming an archeologist when she was young. Maybe you did too. Step one in fulfilling that dream was a visit to the National Archeological Museum in Naples, where our guide (and graduate-level archeologist) Enrica showed us the best of the floor mosaics and wall frescoes from homes in Pompeii. They can be better protected and cared for at the museum than on the site, Enrica explained. We gaped at high-quality mosaics — the ancient artisans used tiles smaller than the nail on your pinkie finger!

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This statue of a faun is what gave House of the Faun its name.

Let’s refresh our memories for a second. Pompeii and Herculaneum were Roman cities destroyed in 79 C.E. when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Thousands of people died in a matter of minutes. People in Pompeii were buried in volcanic ash, while in Herculaneum they were covered by lava. The main killer, however, was the pyroclastic flow. In Herculaneum, for example, people crowded into areas near the seaport docks to escape by boat. But the super-heated flow of air rushing down the side of the volcano killed them instantly.

To reach these two historical sites, we took a train called the Circumvesuviano. It’s a local train — similar to a Chicago “L” but above-ground — that makes all stops between Naples and Sorrento. It’s quite an experience in itself: dirty, covered with graffiti, un-air-conditioned and over-crowded, especially headed into Naples.

In Pompeii, we were able to see a few of the houses, like the House of the Faun, that had mosaics and frescoes featured in the museum. But the site is so huge it would take most of a day to see it all. We used Enrica’s information and found most of what we wanted to see. Here’s a 2009 four-minute Rick Steves video about Pompeii.

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Looking down from what is now ground level to what was a seaside dock area in 79 C.E. That’s how much lava archeologists dug through to find the ruins of Herculaneum, where some residents waited in dockside storage areas (left) to be rescued. 

Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii. The beginning of a visit here can be a little depressing because one of the first sights is the skeletons of those who hoped for a boat rescue that never came. Leslie overheard one of the Italian guides tell his group that he could not go with them to this place because it is too difficult for him. In the rest of the city, we were able to see how these first-century Roman citizens lived. For example, we saw a bakery, a laundry and some restaurants.

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These people, and thousands more, died 2,000 years ago in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The Herculaneum website is great, but I couldn’t find an English version. If you know Italian, take a look. If not, the pictures are good.

We had hoped to see the Amalfi Coast on this trip, but I got sick and needed a day to recover. So I guess we’ll have to come back someday.

Next post, Rome — The Eternal City.

Ciao!

 

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That’s the culprit, behind Leslie’s head. Mount Vesuvius. Most recent eruption was in 1944. With 3 million people living in its shadow, Vesuvius is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.
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One of the frescoes in a Pompeii house.
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Try to imagine living in first-century Pompeii. You look through this arch and see fire and ash spewing out of Vesuvius. Gotta be frightening.

Stops along the way.

Leslie and I left the U.S. on Friday, April 13, for our two-week transatlantic 25th wedding anniversary celebration on the Celebrity Reflection. We next saw land on Saturday, April 21, as our ship docked at Tenerife (tenorREEF), which is off the coast of North Africa but is part of Spain. We also visited Malaga (MAH-lah-gah), Cartagena (car-tah-HEY-nah) and Murcia (MIRTH-ee-ah) in Spain, as well as Ajaccio (ah-JAH-see-oh), the capital of Corsica, which is a French island. In a few hours, when we dock at Civitavecchia (Rome), we’ll be in our fourth country on this cruise.

Spending time in Spanish cities has made us think fondly of our first foreign living arrangement over a year ago in Alicante, Spain. As we head for the final country tryout (France), Mexico is still in the lead to be our new home in retirement, but Spain is a very close second. Yes, it’s a long way from family and friends, but the pace of life and the general feeling in Spain just can’t be beat. It’s very civilized. This is going to be a tough choice.

I don’t have much to say about our stops along the way on this cruise, so I’l just be visual. You visual learners will just love this:

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The view of Tenerife harbor from our ship as we departed on a gray day
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Murcia’s cathedral and part of the plaza major. We had some very fine paella at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant here.
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The Roman theatre in Cartagena, which was not discovered until the mid-1980s. Restoration work is continuing. In its original form, it could seat seven thousand people.
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Corsicans don’t really like Napoleon Bonaparte because he fought for France and not his birthplace of Corsica. But tourists flock to Ajaccio to see this monument and the house in which the future emperor was born. As long as he brings in tourist dollars, Napoleon is OK.
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And of course, the obligatory selfie. We are on the well-kept grounds of a monastery that overlooks Murcia, Spain. The countryside here is beautiful.

Our visit to Malaga was for a wine-and-tapas tasting tour. For some reason, I’m unable to upload photos I took of our little group. We drank some wine, but not so much that it would affect the photos!

Hope you enjoyed the pics. Now on to Italy!

 

Ciao!

 

 

 

Water, water everywhere

It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.

He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.

I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.

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Our stateroom on Deck 9.

It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.

There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.

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Great view from our veranda. We’ve only seen two or three other ships on the horizon, and those were very far away. This is our normal view. Look at the color of that water. No, it doesn’t get boring.

If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.

Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”

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Fellow wine lovers sample a Spanish red blend and a terrific Austrian riesling. This event was quite popular.

It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.

Not much else to relate. I’ll try  to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Ciao!

 

Costa Rica misses the cut

While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.

On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.

There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.

But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.

Other downsides include:

  • There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
  • And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
  • Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
  • Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.

Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.

So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.

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Our last look at Costa Rica — a Pacific sunset. Hasta luego!

Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.

After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.

We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.

Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!

Ciao!