Fairies and leprechauns and witches, oh my!

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The Molly Malone statue on Suffolk Street is the meeting point for most tours. In Dublin, she’s known as “the tart with a cart.”

Dia dhuit!

Leslie and I are excited to be in a country where they speak English. (Irish too, such as the “hello” greeting above and “goodbye” at the end, but mainly English.) We decided to close our second European visit with a few days as tourists in Dublin. We’ve learned a lot about the home of some of our ancestors (Mike: Ireland, Scotland, Wales; Leslie: Ireland, Scotland, Hungary).

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Some very old books on the shelves behind us, and busts of important people such as Plato and Sir Isaac Newton.

We started out at Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells, a ninth-century illuminated version, in Latin, of the four New Testament gospels. It’s hard to believe, as you gaze upon this treasure, that someone did this intricate work over 1,000 years ago. It’s beautiful. After you see the book, you can wander in The Long Room section of the college’s Old Library and see books that date back hundreds of years.

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The Cliffs of Moher, after the fog had lifted just a bit. There are many species of bird living among these cliffs, but we only saw a few sea gulls.

From Dublin it’s a very long bus ride to the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning display of God’s handiwork along Ireland’s wild west coast. The visitor center has videos to watch and displays to peruse. This can be helpful when it’s cold and rainy and the clouds drift down toward the sea, restricting visibility. We spent a few minutes checking out the center, then wandered outside to find “peeks of sun,” as we say in Chicago. It wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the views were awesome! We were forced to take off our rain gear because it was getting too hot. Just like Chicago — if you don’t like the weather, wait. It’ll change.

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A monument to the 400 rebels who died defending the Hill of Tara in the Irish Rebellion of 1789.

Then we visited the Hill of Tara, the political center of ancient Ireland, and also Uisneach, the spiritual center. Tara is where the Irish High King ruled. We saw a neolithic burial mound as well as a ring fort where the High King’s family may have lived. Our guide, John, said the Irish kings were chosen to be tribal leaders. It was not necessarily a hereditary office. The king was merely the best person for the job at the time. The Hill of Tara is important to Irish politics because it was central to the Irish Rebellion of 1789. British forces won a battle at the Hill of Tara, killing almost 400 rebels. A plaque commemorates their loss.

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An artist’s concept of Eriu, from whom Ireland gets its name.

Uisneach is on private land, owned by the family that runs the largest dairy farm in Ireland. Here we were joined by Simon, whose knowledge of Irish mythology and folklore is amazing. He loves telling the old stories of Lough and Èriu. Uisneach is also the site of an annual fire celebration, such as the 2017 event in the video on this site. Watch the video carefully at the :36 mark and again at :57 to get a glimpse of a very short man with white hair on the sides of his head and none at all on top. That’s Michael Higgins, president of Ireland.

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Simon tells stories of the fairy trees, while standing under a fairy tree. 

In Ireland, fairies are an important part of the culture and the folklore, but they’re nothing at all like Tinker Bell. Simon showed us a fairy tree, which is merely a hawthorn tree standing in a field by itself, sometimes with large stones underneath. Simon said the Irish are not superstitious, but they will never cut down a fairy tree. He told us two stories. One was about a motorway (we call it a tollway) the government wanted to build. But the plan required cutting down a fairy tree, and none of the site workers would do it. Eventually they changed the motorway route and the tree still stands today.

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Legend says Lough was killed in this lake, nearly dry now because of the drought. Behind the lake is a mound, which Simon says is scheduled to be excavated soon.

The other story is about how a fairy tree was actually cut down to build the DeLorean Motor Co. plant in Ireland. Is DeLorean still in business? Of course not, and the Irish say it’s because the company cut down a fairy tree. No, the people of Ireland are not superstitious, but they will not mess with fairies. Better to be on the safe side.

They don’t mess with leprechauns either, and while we didn’t get much instruction in these little fellows, Simon did say that they cannot be trusted. If you catch one, he must give you his crock o’ gold. But they’re crafty and will try to cheat you out of it. Simon’s advice was: If you see a little man in a field or a wood repairing shoes, just keep walking.

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The Hag’s Bench at Cairn T. It’s a long climb up a hill to get here, but the view is great!

Loughcrew is yet another spot that evokes ancient Ireland. We had to climb a sizable hill, dodging sheep (and sheep droppings) on the way up, to see Cairn T, also known as Hag’s Cairn. It’s called that because of a large stone bench used by a giant witch who wanted to rule all of Ireland. The people agreed, provided she could leap from one mountain to another carrying rocks in her skirt. She failed, and you can see where she spilled the rocks all over what’s now Hag’s Cairn. Our guide, John, said many burial sites have been robbed of stones over the centuries, mostly by people who simply wanted to build a stone fence and were unaware of the historical significance of these tombs. But all the stones are still on the Hag’s Cairn. Remember, Irish people aren’t superstitious. They just won’t do anything that might make the witch mad. Why take a chance?

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When the sun hits the entrance to the Cairn T burial chamber on an equinox, it moves from one symbol to another, straight up.

We squeezed into the small megalithic burial chamber under the mound to see symbols carved into the rock. As dawn breaks on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun’s rays fall perfectly on the the first symbol, then move up the rock to the next ones. John said this was a calendar for the ancient people. It told them when to plant and when to harvest.

Leslie and I got our fill of great Irish food in a few Dublin pubs John recommended on the bus ride back from Loughcrew. The Oak dates to 1860, and Stag’s Head (which has an actual stag’s head over the bar) is in Dame Court where a pub has stood, in one form or another, since the 18th century. I admired the wood, mostly original, used to build the bars in these two pubs. Outstanding craftsmanship. But if you ever get to Dublin, go to the Temple Bar area and look for Boxty House. Best corned beef I ever ate.

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Tourists gather at The Oak for a pint and some history. The wood in this pub was beautiful.

We head back to the U.S. to visit family and friends, see some doctors and decide where we’re going to live now that the two-year Vagabond mission is over. What will our choice be? Looks like it’s down to two very different cities. It’s not going to be an easy decision. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, enjoy more photos of Ireland.

Slán!

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The banquet hall at 12th-century Castle Trim. There would have been a roof, of course, over the open area. The stairway at the bottom of the photo leads to what was essentially a 12th-century refrigerator.
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Castle Trim, where several scenes of the movie, “Braveheart” were filmed.
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The Oak pub, the newer part of which is on the corner. The red building is the older bar. Leslie and I had dinner there one night.
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Stag’s Head has an actual stag’s head over the bar.
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Neolithic carvings inside a burial chamber at the Hill of Tara.
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Our day at the Cliffs of Moher began like this, with fog, rain and chilly temps. After just about an hour, the sun peeked through the clouds and it was a nice day. Many species of bird and waterfowl live here, but they must’ve been hiding. We saw a few seagulls.

A childhood dream becomes reality

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Leslie always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel. 

When she was young, Leslie had a poster on the wall of her room. It was a picture of the iconic French abbey Mont Saint-Michel (MOAN san-me-SHELL), showing the awesome structure poised at the top of an immense rock with sunset (sunrise?) colors all around. She called it “ephemeral,” and has wanted to see the place ever since. So we did. No sunsets, though.

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Looking down on the causeway that leads to the abbey. At high tide, all those people would be swimming.

Seen from a distance, this 10th-century structure rises up like a fortress out of the landscape. When you get closer, it’s truly awesome — there’s the abbey way up on the top of an immense rock, and a village around the lower part. We were there at low tide so we saw people walking in the sand below. At high tide, the rock is an island. There’s a causeway now that leads to the entrance, but in ancient times you needed a boat or patience (waiting for low tide) to get there.

“I’ve always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel up close,” Leslie said as we were headed back to our group tour van. “I never thought I would see the inside. It’s just amazing!”

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The sanctuary. See the rope on the left side? That’s how they ring the bells.

What she didn’t count on was all the steps we had to climb to reach the actual church where the monks worship. Lots of steps! But it’s worth the climb because you get to see the inside of a structure that was built over 1,000 years ago. We saw the sanctuary where the monks and nuns worship, and the cloisters where they go to meditate — or they did, before thousands of tourists started pouring in daily. There have been changes to the abbey over the centuries, including installation of a statue of Saint Michel himself on the pinnacle. It looks great, but its real purpose is a lightning rod. I’ll add more photos below.

The are only seven monks and five nuns now. Our guide, Caroline, said this is a plum assignment for servants of the Church. This iconic abbey is only inhabited by the best of the best, and only for three years at a time. We saw one nun walking around in a gray habit talking to people.

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Saint Michel gazes over the abbey that bears his name.

The last stop in our tour around Normandy was seeing the Bayeux Tapestry. Formerly housed in the Bayeux Cathedral, it’s now in a museum. The audio guide explains the whole story. The tapestry is an account of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy seized the English throne from King Harold (who was, in truth, a usurper) in what we know as the Norman Conquest. We know William, the first Norman king of England, as William the Conquerer.

They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, so click on the link above to see some of the scenes, or Google “Bayeux Tapestry” for more information.

Now it’s on to Ireland! We’re in Dublin for a few days, then back to Chicago. See you soon!

 

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Caroline explained that some of the artwork in the abbey, like this pieta, was defaced during the French Revolution.
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A model of the Saint Michel statue. This one overlooks the ticket counter.
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The front of the Bayeux Cathedral, where the Bayeux Tapestry was once housed. We stepped in after dinner at the restaurant on the right, and were treated to organ music. An organist was rehearsing for a concert scheduled for the following evening.
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The back of the Bayeux Cathedral, which was undamaged in World War II because the Allies did not bomb the town of Bayeux.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normandy: We spend a day in 1944.

Leslie and I celebrated Independence Day in Normandy, wearing red, white and blue. We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, where paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division spearheaded the D-Day invasion on the night of June 5, 1944. We walked on Utah and Omaha beaches where the American army poured out of little flat-bottomed boats and helped take back a continent. We stood on sacred ground in the American cemetery in Colleville, surrounded by the graves of those who died in that operation, some of whom never made it off the beaches.

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This dummy shows where John Steele got hung up on the church steeple. Except it was actually on the other side, which is not as viewable as this side.

This was kind of a “bucket list” trip for me. I had brief affiliations with the 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division during my time in uniform, and I thought of this as similar to a pilgrimage. Our excellent guide, Francois, told us the 1962 film “The Longest Day” was filmed mostly in places where the historic events took place, such as in Sainte-Mère-Église. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a solider, Pvt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the steeple of the town’s church. He was stranded there with German soldiers shooting at him. There’s a dummy hanging there now — in the wrong place. Francois explained that the movie showed Steele, played by Red Buttons, dangling from a steeple overlooking the town square. But in reality, he was on the other side of the building. A minor distinction — except to John Steele.

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Looking across the English Channel from Utah Beach.

We went to Utah Beach, where Francois apologized that we arrived at high tide. The invasion happened at low tide, and he wanted us to see how far the soldiers had to move across the beach. We had to visualize how they left flat-bottomed Higgins boats — named for their American inventor — and made their way inland. He said this landing had success in part because aerial bombardment was more accurate than in other sectors, and because most of the Sherman tanks made it onto the beach to support ground troops.

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Looking west from Pointe du Hoc. The cliffs you see are similar to what Rangers had to climb to accomplish their mission.

Pointe du Hoc is a spot between Utah and Omaha beaches where U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder of Texas, had to scale 100-foot cliffs to destroy artillery emplacements that were part of Germany’s impressive Atlantic Wall defense. As Francois explained, the Germans had removed all the 155mm howitzers (big cannons) to protect them from Allied bombardment. But two Rangers found the weapons hidden in a wooded area and the mission became a success. We saw the craters from Allied bombs, and we climbed over and through what’s left of the concrete German bunkers.

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A German observation post at Pointe du Hoc.

The views from this place are incredible. We could see other cliffs in the distance and got a feel for what these young men had to deal with. Casualties were heavy. Of the 225 Rangers who hit the beach that morning, 80 were killed in the assault and only 90 were still able to continue at the end of the day.

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A French lifeguard watches over a peaceful Omaha Beach. See the yellow buoy to his left, just past the waves? That was where the beach began the morning of June 6, 1944. American GIs had to make it that far without being shot. Many didn’t.

The American army met the stiffest resistance at Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment was less effective and most of the tanks didn’t make it to shore. Francois described how bomber pilots were instructed to fly above the clouds to avoid antiaircraft fire. Only a small percentage of bombs reached their target, and the landing force walked right into a devastating crossfire. Because the assault happened at low tide, some of the landing craft hit sandbars and deposited soldiers too early. Many were forced to traverse a distance of three or four football fields, sometimes wading in neck-deep water wearing full combat gear. More than 1,000 men died on this beach.

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Some of the more than 9,000 graves at the American Cemetery in Colleville, France.

We ended the day at the cemetery, which is literally American soil — given to the U.S. in gratitude by the French government. Thanks to Francois’ excellent driving, we arrived just in time to see the 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony. Every day, two American flags are lowered and “taps” is played as the second one comes down. I’ll admit I got a little choked up. After the ceremony, I was able to stroll the main walkway and look down the rows of white crosses, with a few Stars of David in the mix too. They’ve been gone for 74 years, but as a U.S. Army veteran I still see them as my brothers. They make me proud to have worn the uniform.

Next time, Leslie fulfills a childhood dream.

UPDATE: Mexico has been knocked out of World Cup competition, but France won its quarterfinal final match against Uruguay, 2-0, so they’re still in the hunt. We’re pulling for France, but no, the World Cup winner won’t determine where we’ll be living six months from now!

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Our guide, Francois, explains a map in the 82nd Airborne Division Museum in Sainte-Mer-Eglise 
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Fighting in the town of Sainte-Mer-Eglise destroyed the church’s stained glass windows. This is one of the replacement windows, showing American paratroopers as angels protecting Mary and the infant Jesus.

Montpellier: C’est très bien!

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Just a few of the many good things about France: Great cheese, bread, sausages, tapenade, and of course, wine!

Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.

France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).

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One of our favorite produce vendors.Most of this good stuff is grown in France, but some comes from Spain and Italy.

Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.

There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.

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There are fountains everywhere, like this one in Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I jog nearly every morning through the esplanade.

As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.

Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)

Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.

Au revoir!

MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:

And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):

We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it:

 

Now, some still photos you should see:

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There’s a carousel on the Place de la Comedie that dates to 1889. It’s even a double-decker. Leslie wouldn’t let me ride it.
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One of the horses on the 1889 Carousel du Comedie.
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An example of Haussmannien style, made popular in Paris by architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-1800s. Locals called this building “the diving helmet” for obvious reasons.
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Montpellier has expansive newer neighborhoods, too. 
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I’ve mentioned it several times. Can’t believe I haven’t provided a photo of the Arc de Triomph. A little smaller than the one in Paris. This is the entrance into the city’s historic center.
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The area known as Antigone, modern buildings in classic Greek architecture. If we return to Montpellier, this could be a target location for a modern apartment.

 

 

 

We’re close to the coast and vineyards

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Here we are on a Mediterranean beach in the town of Carnos. We got lost that afternoon, but it led to us having a fine lunch: mussels provencal with a nice rose wine. Yum!

While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.

Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.

We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.

There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting. Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”

We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.

We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.

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A small portion of the crowd outside our window. The revelry went on pretty much all night.

We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region.  French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.

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Bertrand shows us mildew on some of the grape leaves as our new Swedish friends Bjorn and Lydia watch. In the background is Bertrand’s friend from the vineyard.

When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.

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This map shows where wine is produced in Languedoc. Pic Saint Loup is north of Montpellier.

Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.

Bonne journée!

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You probably can’t find this in the U.S., but if you can — buy it! One of our favorites!

 

Montpellier is a “young” city in more ways than one

Leslie and I are liking Montpellier, and the south of France, a little more every day. This is a young, energetic city with lots going on. But at the same time, the pace is not hectic. People take time to enjoy life.

We’re learning more about Montpellier, having taken a guided walking tour of the city center and ridden on the little white tourist “train” through a slightly larger part of the historic district. Let me tell you about our current home.

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The tourist “train” is a 40-minute audio tour of the historic center.

But first, Leslie insisted I say something about the French people. We have found them to be warm and helpful. Most people we encounter speak at least some English and many are able to slip seamlessly from French to English if we need assistance. For example, we went to the beach last week in the coastal town of Carnon. Coming home, we took the wrong bus. In trying to fix the problem, the driver realized I didn’t speak French, so he gave us instructions in English. While we were waiting for the right bus, a couple came by and the gentleman said something in French. When our response made it obvious we didn’t understand French, he switched to near-flawless English and explained how we could take a different bus to get home. After discussing the options, we decided to stay with the original plan.

It may be that people are helpful because we’re in a big tourist area, but I think the key for non-French-speakers is to at least try French with the locals. Say bonjour when greeting people, even if you follow that with parlez-vous Anglais? If you try, they will bend over backwards to help. Just about every waiter in local restaurants speaks English well enough to explain the menu and answer questions. One waiter was surprised we knew no French, but he then went through the entire menu (it was fairly short) and explained each dish in English. We both had great meals. The moral of the story is: If somebody tells you the French are rude, they are wrong. Dead wrong. Just wanted you to know that. Now, on with the show.

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Montpellier has excellent public transportation, including four light rail lines like this tram. The cars are similar to those we rode on in San Diego.

Montpellier is called a “young” city. Yes, there are lots of university students here, but there’s also another reason: It’s only been here a little over 1,000 years. There are no Roman ruins here, as there are in nearby Nîmes and Arles, because Montpellier was not a Roman settlement. People didn’t start living here until the late 10th century. The university, including law and medical schools, dates to the 12th century. The medical school is Europe’s oldest, and one of the most prestigious. And Montpellier’s cathedral was built in the 14th century.

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A view of the park where Louis XIV reigns supreme, taken from on top of the Arc de Triomphe.

In the 16th century Montpellier was controlled by French Protestants, known as Huguenots. But the Bourbon kings were Catholic, and King Louis XIII laid siege to the city in 1622. Didn’t take long before the Huguenots gave up. Later, King Louis XIV, known as “The Sun King,” made Montpellier a regional capital. He created the Promenade du Peyrou, a nearby park dominated by a statute of Louis on horseback. He then decreed that nothing could be built higher than this promenade. It’s good to be king! Louis also installed a park in the city center, now known as Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I go for a jog  there almost every morning.

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Jewish residents of Montpellier came here over 700 years ago to be cleansed in a ritual bath.

We were thrilled to visit a Jewish mikvah, or ritual bath, that dates to the 13th century. It’s the only one left in Europe. The synagogue was destroyed when the Jews were driven out of this area hundreds of years ago, but the mikvah was underground. It was re-discovered in 1985 and can now be seen only on the walking tour.

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You can see the Gothic style of building a wall. Some stones are laid vertical, some horizontal so there is little waste.

Marie-Helen, our guide, showed us several buildings with what appeared to be 17th- and 18th-century façades — buildings that look like similar structures in Paris. That was the point of putting a new front on the building — to make the city look like Paris. But walk inside and the ceilings are obviously Gothic, dating to the Middle Ages. In one building, now apartments, Marie-Helen showed us an interior wall that was probably put up in the 13th or 14th century. She explained how builders in that day developed techniques that used all the stone they had, so there was very little waste. Two or three layers vertical, one layer horizontal was one such technique. It’s easy to spot.

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Medallions like this one mark the way for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

Another very cool aspect of this town is that it’s on one of routes for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. (Check the link if you’re not familiar with this amazing spiritual journey.)  In fact, one variation of the Arles Way actually begins right here in Montpellier. There are brass medallions in some of the streets in our neighborhood that show the path. We walk over them every day and think of friends who have made this lengthy hike.

Montpellier also has lots of cultural events. There was a brass band festival a few weeks ago. We encountered brass bands — well, some have clarinets and saxes, too — during the day in two different locations, just playing on a street corner. One evening we walked to the main stage in the Beaux Arts district, where we joined a few thousand locals enjoying a band called Los Teoporos (see video below). There were three more scheduled to appear, each playing for almost an hour. People of all ages were having a great time. And we went to a concert at the Opéra Comédie featuring the local symphony, Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier. Berlioz, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky. Loved it! There’s a modern dance festival coming up, too, and a Picasso exhibit just opened at the Musée Fabre. Something for everybody!

But there’s more to the south of France than Montpellier. Next time, I’ll describe a jousting match we watched this week. No horses, though — boats! Stay tuned.

Bonne journée!

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Here we are leaving the Opera Comedie after a symphony concert featuring a sensational young cellist named Edgar Moreau. Stopped on the way home to have some gelato!
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Inside the Opera Comedie as the crowd gathers. The opera house was first built in the 1700s, but that structure burned, as did its replacement. This version opened in 1888.

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.