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!

 

A slight delay

“Mom, if you wanted to stay with me longer all you had to do was ask,” said our daughter Stephanie as she and I hovered over Leslie’s bed in the emergency room.

No, we’re not in Costa Rica. There’s been a slight delay and we’re still in San Diego. But while I’m staying in Stephanie’s guest room, Leslie is a patient at Sharp Memorial Hospital on the city’s north side. I’ll try to make a complicated story as concise as possible.

After suffering with abdominal pain all day Monday (Jan. 29), Leslie asked me to take her to Urgent Care on Tuesday morning (Jan. 30), just to make sure she was OK to get on an airplane to Costa Rica the following day. Urgent Care did some tests and sent her to the ER at Sharp Memorial, where she was admitted with acute pancreatitis — probably caused by passing a gallstone Monday (hence the pain) — as well as pneumonia.

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Just one of the devices Leslie has been hooked up to. She would not agree to pose for a photo.

Since then they have pumped her full of antibiotics and other meds. As of Friday (Feb. 2) afternoon, her condition has improved to the point where a surgeon may be able to remove her gall bladder Saturday morning, tentatively at 9:30 a.m. The gastroenterologist who treated her in the ER said her gall bladder was “full of sludge” and she might have more stones in the future. We agreed that doing the surgery now will help avoid the possibility of throwing another gallstone while we’re on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

There are some positives here. First, we’re in San Diego where Stephanie can be with her mom, and where doctors and nurses speak English. Second, Leslie’s room is on the seventh floor of the acute care wing with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. Well, it’s several miles away, but you can see it if you look closely. And the sunsets are super!

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The view from Leslie’s hospital room. That’s California Highway 163 in the foreground. Across the freeway is the Kearney Mesa area of San Diego, and the ocean is in the distance.

We have cancelled the first part of our trip to Costa Rica, the house in Atenas, but everything else is unsettled. We hope to rearrange accommodations in the beach town of Jacó so we can arrive March 1 and leave April 10. That way we can still evaluate Costa Rica as a possible retirement location, but give Leslie plenty of time to heal and still take the cruise to Europe.

More to come…

 

 

We join thousands marching in San Diego

First, the good stuff. Leslie and I have completed our Costa Rica plans, renting a condo in the Pacific beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) for five weeks in March and April. So we have solid plans through the end of April.

Here’s how it plays out: We fly from San Diego to San Jose, Costa Rica, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, arriving late in the evening. We’ll spend that night at the Hampton Inn (great breakfast!) and then move on to the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). We’ll be there until March 10, when we go to Jacó. International Living has named Costa Rica the top retirement destination of 2018, so we’re excited.

On April 11 we fly from San Jose to Miami, then take a shuttle up the coast to Fort Lauderdale to board the Celebrity Reflection. We set sail the afternoon of April 13, arriving in the port of Rome on April 27.

That’s where it gets fuzzy. The plan is to be tourists in Italy, like we were in the U.K. in October 2016, for two or three weeks before taking up residence in France. In the coming days, we plan to nail down some of that Italian tourist stuff and decide which city in France will be (hopefully) the final stop on the two-year Vagabond Tour. We’ll be in France until late July, when our 90-day tourist visas expire, and then back to the Chicago area.

Now on to the fun stuff, completely unrelated to our travels. On Saturday, Jan. 20, Leslie and I joined more than 37,000 of our closest friends for San Diego’s version of The Second Annual Women’s March in Waterfront Park. You already know about this if you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, and some of the photos below will be familiar.

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It was a bright, crisp morning. Cool in the shade, pleasant in the sun. Just about perfect. 

We took the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s trolley (light rail) from our condo to Waterfront Park. Walking there was an option, of course, but there’s something weird about walking to a march! Getting off at the Little Italy stop, we could’ve turned right to go to the weekly farmer’s market, as we have done several Saturdays since our arrival. Instead, we turned left and followed the crowd into the park.

We couldn’t get close enough to hear the speeches well, but we were there and supporting the cause. Progressive rallies and marches are lots of fun, in my opinion, because the signs are so creative. The signs also feature correct spelling and proper grammar (usually). However, halfway through the route, just as the crowd turned to head back to Waterfront Park along a different street, I said to Leslie, “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for lunch.” She quickly agreed and our need for a burger won out over our desire to march for anything. Lots of other marchers had the same idea. We both had burgers at Barleymash (I highly recommend The Volcano burger!) in the Gaslamp Quarter, then went home and took naps!

We both took lots of photos, and I leave you with some of my favorites. Next post from the land of Pura Vida: Costa Rica!

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Surprise! We’re back to Plan A.

You may recall that Leslie and I originally planned to go from San Diego to Costa Rica, but those plans changed because of scheduling issues. So we decided to take a cruise through the Panama Canal instead. A great way to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we thought. Well, we’re back to Plan A again!

It’s a long story — here’s the short version. The company we were working with to book the Panama Canal cruise failed miserably, so we called on USAA* for help. They quickly verified that canal cruises in the time frame we wanted were sold out. After some discussion about our options, they booked us on a repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome in mid-April. So we return to Europe in spring when temperatures are milder than in February!

That, in turn, caused us to take another look at Costa Rica, and we found what appears to be a good place — under budget — in the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). The plan is to be there for about five weeks, then head to a Pacific coast beach town for another five. Still working on the beach town. More on that in the next post.

The 14-night transatlantic cruise takes us from Fort Lauderdale to Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome, with stops in Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain); Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona, Spain; and Ajaccio, Corsica (France).

While we’re presently not sold on Italy as a place for us to live — at least not right now — Leslie and I would like to check it out and do some touristy stuff, like we did in Scotland and England when we started this journey in 2016. So the plan is to spend two or three weeks in various parts of Italy and then head to France for about six weeks, probably in Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, or maybe in Provence. Details to come.

If all goes well, we will be back in the Chicago area in late July to see our doctors, catch up with friends and family, and make a decision on a retirement location. By the end of this year, we hope to be vagabonds no more!

Looking back at the last post, I’m afraid it may have left you with the impression that we don’t like San Diego. We love San Diego, but our focus is to live in another country. Plus, the cost of living in southern California is quite high, so things will have to change dramatically for us to retire here.

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Lots of Navy people attend this church. The design of the sanctuary is that of an old sailing vessel, upside down. The roof is the ship’s keel. 

There are lots of great things about San Diego, though. One of them is not even in San Diego — it’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the “Church of the Voyager,” on Coronado Island. We’ve made some good friends at St. Paul’s and have learned a lot from Pastor Robb’s sermons, like his current thought-provoking series on the Gospel of John. Anytime we’re back in San Diego, we will return to St. Paul’s.

I’ll close with this: Stephanie’s Christmas gift to us was tickets to the musical “Hamilton”! All three of us went on Thursday, Jan. 11, to the San Diego Civic Theatre. Wow! This is the best show I’ve seen since “Les Miserables,” which is my all-time favorite. The music, the staging, the singing, the dancing — all just incredible. I’ll admit I was prepared not to like it because I’d heard some of it was in rap. But the rapping was like the recitative, or spoken words, in opera. It worked really well. I highly recommend “Hamilton.” Go see this one, it’s definitely worth the price!

The music is the real star: songs like My Shot, The Room Where it Happens, and Washington On Your Side, just to name a few. They’re not tunes you can hum while walking down the street, though. They are rich and complex, like fine wine. One of the most impressive things about this musical came after the last notes died away. The entire cast took a bow together. Curtain calls didn’t start with the minor characters and end up with the stars getting the most applause. No. The cast appeared at the end as equals, no matter what role they had. It made me think about Mr. Jefferson’s eloquent words, “…all men are created equal.” Too bad we have drifted so far away from that idea.

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The Civic Theatre is an excellent venue. Decent seats and good sight lines, even from the upper balcony. We could see the dance moves well from up above.

 

*We use San Antonio-based USAA (United Services Automobile Association) for car and home insurance, life insurance (Mike), banking and investments. In fact, I’ve never had any other brand of car insurance — over 45 years with the same company. The bank and investment services are available to anybody, but the insurance is sold only to current and former military officers and certain non-commissioned officers. The company offers many additional services to members, including a car buying service and a travel agency. If you ever served in the military, go to their website to see if you qualify to become a USAA member. And no, they didn’t pay me for this advertisement!

New year, new plan

Happy New Year, everybody! May this be a great one for all of you. Leslie and I have been sharing a bad cold since right before Christmas, so we’ve been staying pretty close to home and doing very little of interest. Nothing to post about. We both feel much better now but we still have lingering coughs that sound worse than they are.

A new year brings new plans. We will be here in San Diego until the end of January (longest we’ve been anywhere since this project began). Unless our circumstances change significantly, San Diego is not on our list of possible retirement locations.

The cost of living is stunningly high here. For example, there is a one-bedroom, one-bath condo for sale on the first floor of the building we live in right now. It’s 717 square feet and is listed at $398,000. A two-bedroom, which is what we would need, is closer to $500,000+ in the downtown area. In nearby towns like La Mesa, one of our favorites, you can find two-bedroom places under $500K, but they’re generally quite small. And rents are high throughout the area. I’m not going into detail about real estate because everything depends on location. Prices are affordable if you don’t mind owning a double-wide in El Cajon. Want to see water from your house? Now you’re looking at seven figures.

Groceries cost a lot more here in Southern California. Ralphs is the biggest and best grocery store in the downtown area, and it’s an easy 10-block walk from our condo. (An aside here for my editor colleague John: It’s Ralphs, not Ralph’s. No apostrophe — checked their website to be sure.) The best thing about Ralphs is getting 30 percent off all wine (mix and match) if you buy a minimum of six bottles! That’s a great deal. These prices, though, not so much:

  • gluten-free penne pasta, $2.79.
  • Classico pasta sauce, $2.99.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.92.
  • grape tomatoes, $3.99.
  • Silk almond milk, 1/2 gal., $3.49.

Across the street from us is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a discount food store. Prices are lower and the walk is less than a block, but they don’t carry the range of stuff Ralphs or Whole Foods does:

  • 5 limes, $1.00.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.02.
  • Quaker oats, 42 oz., $3.29.
  • Ritz crackers, $1.99.
  • pineapple, $1.99.

When we have a rental car, we go up to the hip Hillcrest neighborhood to Whole Foods. There are some things we can only get at Whole Paycheck, like our favorite Intelligensia House Blend coffee, which sets us back $13.99 for 12 ounces. It’s worth it. Some other stuff:

  • guacamole, .85 lb., $7.64.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.99.
  • coconut milk coffee creamer, $4.49
  • low-sodium bacon, $5.49.
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People-watching is great at the year-round Little Italy farmers market.

Then there are the Little Italy (Saturday morning) and North Park (Thursday afternoon) farmer’s markets. I have no idea what we spend there, but it’s dramatically more than at the tianguis in Ajijic, or the mercado in Mérida. For example, you may recall me bragging about getting 13 limes at the Santiago mercado in Mérida for about 75 cents. At the Little Italy market, one vendor was selling limes at three for a dollar. Sometimes, though, you get what you pay for, like free-range eggs from Three Sons Farm in Ramona, Calif. — expensive at $7 a dozen, but by far the best eggs I’ve ever had.

I looked back at cost-of-living posts from Mexico, and you should feel free to do the same if you like. The Orowheat whole wheat bread I enjoy, for example, is $3.49 at Ralphs. We paid $2.30 for the same loaf at Wal-Mart in Ajijic, Mexico. At Ralphs, a dozen large eggs is just a penny shy of four bucks. In Ajijic, less than two dollars.

Mexico still seems to be in the lead in our home search, and cost of living is a big factor. But we’re giving Europe — France and maybe Italy — another chance in the spring. More on that when plans firm up.

Finally, some sad news. We had to say goodbye to our cat Sam last week. He was only 10 and suffered from episodes of poor health about once a year since he was a kitten. Dr. Berg, the best vet in the world, would give him a B12 shot and some other treatment and he would bounce back as if nothing had happened. She did that several times while we still lived in Westmont.

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Sam

This time, after more than a year of excellent health, he didn’t respond to treatment as he had in the past. He stopped eating and his kidneys and liver were shutting down, so we consulted with Dr. Berg and with our dear friend Barbara, who was caring for Sam in our absence, and made the tough call to end his suffering. We deeply appreciate Barbara, who did all she could for him. She and Sam had bonded, and we know she feels the loss as we do. We bring these little creatures into our homes and into our lives knowing their life spans are shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to handle.

2018 started on a sad note as Leslie learned that her second cousin, Helen Thoman, died in New Jersey at the age of 99. She was a grand lady, and a lot of family history may have been lost with her death, especially information about Leslie’s Hungarian relatives.

And we were shocked just after Christmas to learn of the unexpected death of our former neighbor Dan Smith. Dan and Zdenka were the best neighbors we ever had. I remember Dan shoveling his own driveway, then shoveling ours, then shoveling Monica’s driveway across the street, after her husband Ed died. Dan was one of those really big men who was never without a smile. Except, maybe, when the Chicago Blackhawks lost a hockey game! He was truly a gentleman, and a gentle man. Z, you and Christopher are in our prayers.

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We miss you, Dan. So glad we had this dinner together last summer.