This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Friday, June 6, 2008

Viva Venezia!

Venice was one of the cities on our itinerary that I had visited on my much-earlier European tour. My memories of it were hazy, clouded by the fact that I had been feeling very homesick at that point, and distinctly uncomfortable sleeping at a youth hostel in a room full of strangers. Still, on this day, as our train from Rome passed from hilly countryside through much flatter terrain and eventually across a lagoon, my excitement was growing. Venice, just by the uniqueness of its setting, seems somehow magical to me - a tiny island kingdom from another era, complete with palace, its narrow cobblestone streets completely devoid of traffic. Here, after leaving the train station, we dragged our bulging suitcases onto a vaporetto instead of a bus or taxi. We climbed off at our stop right next to the Rialto bridge and made our way along the canal and down a few sides streets to our bed and breakfast. Wrestling our way up six flights of stairs, we finally arrived at our room and met Claudete, perhaps the loveliest and most accommodating of any of our hosts to date. She graciously provided us with maps, directions, and suggestions. As we got ourselves settled in our room, a beautiful, operatic male voice drifted up into our open window. I hung my head out to see man walking along the narrow lane outside our room, enjoying the acoustics as he walked. He looked up at me, grinned widely, and continued singing on his way. I knew right then that I was going to like this place.

We grabbed our map and set out walking, savouring the carless streets and manageable distances. After a short stroll, we found ourselves in the Piazza San Marco. I instantly felt like a kid in a candy store, and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the day. The crowds didn't bother me in the least as I walked around snapping pictures of tourists covered in pigeons, vendors selling t-shirts, masks, and silly hats, St. Mark's Basilica, and the beautiful Doge's Palace. For me, it was another "Somebody pinch me!" moment. It was like being Photoshopped into a series of postcard images. Crossing over the Rialto bridge, we strolled through the crowded market stalls and shops hawking Murano glass jewelry, scarves, or fresh fruit. Eventually we made our way to Campo San Polo. This large square bordered by homes and a few restaurants was recommended to us by our hostess, who told us we would be able to dine here in a place frequented by Venetians rather than tourists. As we sat outdoors, feeding bread crumbs to a sparrow that came and sat expectantly on the corner of our table, we watched neighbourhood children chasing each other around the fountain or kicking soccer balls while parents and grandparents strolled around the square, stopping to chat with each person they met about the news of the day. Gradually, as the sun set, they all headed home for their dinner, or began to fill in the tables at the restaurant where we were, as usual, among the earliest of the diners. It grew dark as we headed back toward "home," and we stopped off at Piazza San Marco on the way. This area becomes quite magical at night, pigeons and vendors mostly gone, and the square softly illuminated by lights atop the buildings that make up the perimeter. Several of the restaurants that face onto the piazza set up tables and chairs, and each of these spots includes a small canopied stage where a small orchestra in evening attire plays throughout the evening. Few people actually sit at the tables, having been forewarned (as were we) by their guidebooks that exorbitant prices are charged for drinking or dining there. But there is no charge to listen, so one is free to wander from place to place stopping to listen to whichever quintet strikes the fancy. Periodically, one or two couples would step back from the small crowds watching the show and spontaneously begin to ballroom dance in the empty parts of the square. Others just stood with their arms wrapped around each other, swaying to the music. Later, we found our way back to our room, crossing canals over small bridges while gondolas passed quietly underneath, carrying well-heeled tourists who had opted to wait for nightfall to indulge in their lamplit tour of the city's waterways. I personally don't know how Niagara Falls ever got its reputation for being the honeymoon capital of the world; in my estimation, Venice beats it hands-down for romance at its finest.

The next morning, we awoke to a lovely tray of breakfast, including my very own pot of coffee, brought to our room by Claudete. Fuelled for the morning, we headed off to check out the morning fish and fruit market near the Rialto. This incredible array of seafood and farm-fresh produce starts arriving by boat before dawn, hauled to row after row of long wooden tables. As I viewed the vast displays of squid, octopus, long eel-like fish, and another variety of fish that looked like it was soaking in black ink, I tried to memorize their Italian names so that I wouldn't accidentally order them from a menu. I'm afraid that my spirit of adventure does not extend very far when it comes to seafood.

Next on the agenda was a lengthy tour of the Doge's Palace, including the so-called "secret areas." These included a torture room, as well as the jail cell where Casanova was once held prisoner until he made a daring escape. We also passed through the famous "Bridge of Sighs" which connects the palace to the prison, so named because its windows offered convicts their last view of the city before their incarceration. We walked for hours in the afternoon, all the way to the train station and back, stopping en route to visit the huge Frari Church, filled with massive and glorious statuary, including a statue of the crucifixion that I found more moving than any other I had seen - and I had seen quite a few by this point.

After all of our walking, Wendy felt like an evening in, so I set out to prowl on my own. Venice is one of those cities where I never felt unsafe for a moment, even when walking alone. I loved to wander along the canals and narrow streets window-shopping, people-watching, taking pictures from bridges, and watching the gondoliers gather to moor their boats for the night. And before heading back to my room, a gelato in the Piazza made a perfect bedtime snack, and the music of the duelling orchestras offered a lovely lullaby.

The next morning, after breakfast, I asked Claudete if there was any way to tour the Grand Canal without spending an arm and a leg. She mentioned that she had heard something about a celebration of some sort taking place that day, where they might be offering free gondola rides for the morning. Wendy had seen gondolas gathering near the Rialto on her early morning walk, so we headed down there to check things out. She talked to a girl who was standing near the dock and she confirmed that it was true - she, in fact, was waiting for her two friends to meet her there for the event. We were near the front of the line and waited patiently there until the appointed time of 10 o'clock, doing our best to hold our own against the shoving of the Venetian matrons who showed up in droves and showed little respect for the concept of waiting in line. When the time arrived to allow people onto the gondolas, we managed to climb aboard one with the three girls, and were handed two Venetian flags to wave. As our new friends tried to explain to us, this was some kind of tourist board-sponsored pro-Venice, anti-motorized boats event. We pulled out into the Grand Canal and then sat there for quite a while, surrounded by dozens of other gondolas. I assumed that this was to be the extent of our free ride, and was content to have had a chance to sit in a gondola. Suddenly, our flotilla began to be joined by other larger gondolas manned by teams of rowers in uniform. Then came two much larger boats rowed by larger teams and carrying what seemed to be important town dignataries. One boat was draped with a huge red banner proclaiming "Rispetto e Decoro per Venezia" (respect and honour for Venice). As these boats pulled past us, our gondoliers all began to paddle, forming one giant procession with the larger boats! We travelled all the way down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. The largest boat had a sound system blasting stirring music such as the "Ode to Joy," alternating with rousing speeches by a man on board and concluding with cries of "Viva Venezia! Viva San Marco!" It was so exciting and moving that I was close to tears. People crowded along the shores and bridges waving and cheering as the "parade" passed. We felt like real celebrities. Wendy and I decided to pretend that this event was, in fact, a belated celebration of our 50th birthdays (mine had just taken a couple of years of extra planning) - and we even got to keep the flags. What a thrill, and it cost us absolutely nothing!

My time in lovely Venice was brief, but so very memorable, and as I took my farewell stroll through the Piazza San Marco later that night, I knew that our departure the next morning would be another one of the sad goodbyes. But Lake Como awaited us at the end of the next train ride - the last hurrah for our month-long Italian tour.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Honeymoon is Over

In the interest of keeping an honest account of my observations on this trip, I must confess that after four weeks, the inevitable has happened - we are tired of each other. Not tired of travelling, mind you, not ready to go back to our predictable Canadian lives, but certainly ready for separate rooms. We are VERY different from each other; we have different ways of looking at the world, different body clocks, different sleep schedules, very different taste in food and drink. Throw in too much train travel and some bad weather, and you know that you're both in for some character development. The upside is, if you have to have your character developed anyway, you might as well be in Italy while it's happening!

Our idyllic week in Tuscany ended, as they say, not with a bang but a whimper. Woken up too early once again, I dragged my luggage to our rental car and said one last sad goodbye to San Gimignano on a fittingly grey and rainy morning. After dropping our car off in Siena, we climbed aboard what would be the first of four trains that day. Our third arrived in Pescara late, and we had missed our connection to Ortona. Fortunately, we were able to find another about an hour later. Ortona, while very out of the way, was not a random choice. Wendy's father had taken part in a battle here 65 years ago, and his friend was buried in a local cemetery for foreign soldiers, mostly Canadians. We were coming here so that Wendy could see the place where her father and so many other Canadians had fought, and to leave a momento at the cemetery.

Arriving in Ortona was a little like pulling into a station in the Wild West. Small building, no office, seedy little bar on one end, starving mother cats prowling the platform. To one side of the tracks, a seaport, apparently deserted on this Saturday afternoon. To the other, the town, some distance away and on top of a very high hill. No evidence anywhere of a way to connect these two points.

I stayed with the luggage, feeding cheese to the cats, while Wendy wandered off to look for help or direction. Well, it seems that God had gone ahead of us to this apparently God-forsaken place and prepared the way. Wendy soon emerged from the bar with the news that she had found a man who would not only use his cell phone to call us a cab from the town to take us to our hotel, but who would pick us up the next day and drive us out to the cemetery (don't faint, Mother). This was Carmine, a kindly middle-aged man with gout in one knee and no teeth to speak of. He may also have been the only citizen of Ortona with a working knowledge of English.

As promised, our "taxi" soon arrived, in the form of a distinguished-looking senior in a Jaguar. He helped us put our luggage in the trunk and off we went to our hotel. We tried not to be nonplussed by the fact that there was no meter in the car; when we arrived at the hotel, he made up a price which seemed reasonable.

I don't quite know how to describe Ortona. One some levels, it seems to be a place frozen in time. Some buildings and neighbourhoods look like the war just ended, but there are also designer clothing stores and girls in tight jeans and high heels. People eyed us warily on the street as if we were some alien life form, but when we got lost and asked for directions to our hotel, the woman we spoke to decided it would be easier just to drive us there in her car than to try and explain the way!

On Sunday morning, Carmine picked us up and drove us to the Moro River Cemetery. It was about 5 km from town, and I doubt we could have found it on our own. On the way, he stopped to show us Casa Berardi, a house on a ridge where Germans had encamped, picking off Canadian soldiers as they climbed up from the valley below. Many lost their lives there. We also met retired Col. Berardi, whose family home it had been before the Germans took it from them when he was five years old.

The cemetery was beautifully landscaped and immaculately maintained. 1,325 Canadian soldiers lie here, dead and buried in a foreign land. I wept as I walked along rows of white headstones of these men, most of them younger than my own sons, many only 19 or 20 years old. Each stone was engraved with name and rank, home town, age at death, and a personal message or verse obviously chosen by family members a continent away. It was very moving, and I'm glad we had a chance to see it.

Our guardian angel picked us up again on Monday morning to drive us back to the train station. He would only accept a little money for his gas expenses, insisting repeatedly, "I don't do this for the money." Carmine was a refreshing change from the many other men we have encountered in train stations who are eager to help, but only for the money.

The next train carried us across to Roma. Many people had raved to us about the beauty of Rome, but the Eternal City was not about to open her arms to us. Our visit began with a bus ride that took more than an hour and, unlike driving through Paris, offered no hints at any beautiful sights to come. We found our B&B with some difficulty, and our hostess basically greeted us with, "Here are your keys. We're available in our office from 10-5 each day. Can you pay now?" We had asked her to make reservations for our at the Borghese Gallery, and were told, "The Gallery is closed for a week. I don't know why. Sorry." Thud. No Bernini sculptures for us. Since we were located near the Musei Vaticani, we decided to walk around and acquaint ourselves with the area before visiting it the next day. We found the museum and walked around its walls. After a while, we came to a gate that seemed to lead into the Vatican itself, complete with uniformed Swiss guards. As we kept walking, we passed through an opening and realized that we had stumbled into the courtyard of St. Peter's Cathedral. It was huge and quite beautiful, surrounded by scores of massive pillars, and overlooked by a procession of huge statues. As we prowled the nearby streets and bridge that evening, it began to rain - an omen of what was to come.

Tuesday morning dawned grey and drizzly. We joined the line making its way into the Vatican Museum, and spent most of the morning enjoying the lovely rooms and artwork. We both found ourselves surprised by the Sistine Chapel. Somehow it wasn't at all what we'd expected from photographs. While it was immense and beautifully detailed, we felt that we could have passed through the room without realizing what we were looking at. We would have liked to be able to get closer to it to see it in greater detail.

When we left the museum, we joined the throngs making their way to St. Peter's. I was engaged in conversation with a woman from Ottawa, and Wendy managed to wander off on her own and got separated from me for about half an hour. Fortunately, I was wearing my bright yellow Paddington coat and we were eventually able to reconnect. Under threatening skies, we joined the line to climb to the cupola of the basilica. This time there was a lift that took us part of the way up, still leaving us with 310 steps to climb. When we reached the top, we had time for a few pictures in the high winds. Suddenly there was a tremendous crack of thunder directly overhead, and the skies opened. Dozens of people huddled back against walls and in crevices, struggling to find protection from the storm. An umbrella didn't offer much cover, and I didn't fancy the idea of acting as a lightning rod. It soon became apparent that this weather was not going to blow over. We made our way back down the narrow, winding staircase and descended, dripping, to tour the basilica itself. Although it was massive and very impressive, neither of us found that it impacted us as much as some of the smaller cathedrals we had visited.

The persistent downpour put an end to any plans for further sightseeing or a night walk of Rome. We were reduced to spending the evening in our room, fixing a quasi-spaghetti dinner in the kitchen of our B&B. The rain continued all night long.

Wednesday morning the rain stopped for a while, so we hit the soggy streets. We took a subway to the Spanish Steps. Nearby we stopped in at what I believe is the first and largest McDonalds in Italy, complete with gelato for Wendy and a very fine capuccino for me. The next stop on our walking tour was the Trevi Fountain, which I thought was magnificent. We joined the throngs of tourists snapping photos of each other tossing coins into the fountain. The city must make a fortune from that place alone! As we left that area, the rains returned and, apart from a few short breaks, remained for the rest of the day. We marched on in sodden shoes, our map gradually dissolving in our hands. By the time we found the Pantheon, we were drenched. We marvelled at its construction, austere beauty and remarkable history as a pillar of rain poured in through the opening at the top of the dome.

It was obvious that we were never going to find Santa Maria della Vittorio (?) church under these conditions, so I had to give up on my last chance to see a famous Bernini sculpture. We did manage to walk through Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum between showers - each remarkable in its own way. At that point, we had no idea how to find any public transportation that would take us anywhere near where we were staying, so we resigned ourselves to walking. I dragged Wendy to the Bocca della Veritas on the way, determined to at least be able to add another photo to my movie/book tour collection. We schlepped along the banks of the Tiber, across a bridge, through St. Peter's, and eventually back to our room, damp and exhausted. I have no idea how far we walked that day, but I think that when I return to Canada, I will look into having my worn-out, bunion-ridden feet removed and replaced with titanium ones.

Our very truncated tour of Rome left me, I'm afraid, with this general impression: big, dirty, unfriendly, many fascinating sights linked together by generally uninteresting city. Obviously, many have a much different impression and perhaps, in better weather, I would too. If my coin thrown in the fountain works its magic, I will return some day to give Rome another chance to win my heart.

Venice, on the other hand, had me at hello. But that is a story for another day.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Under the Tuscan Sun - the book tour

We have reached the half-way point on our six-week journey. It is hard to believe that we've only been gone that long. Last night I was reviewing some photos on my camera (whose memory card is already full!). When I looked at pictures from Paris, it felt like that was a year ago. We keep feeling like we'd like to freeze time for a day at the end of each stay, just so that we could review and digest what we've seen.

I find that by the end of day two, I begin to get into the rhythm of a place. I start to know my way around a bit, and start recognizing landmarks as we come and go from our accommodation. I even find myself smiling when I see new arrivals, pulling their luggage down the streets with that lost, vulnerable look on their faces that I must have worn the day before. Then, in another day or less, we move on to the next destination. Not so with San Gimignano.

After picking up our car in Florence on Saturday morning, we leave the city and head into the countryside of Tuscany. Our country mouse cheers with relief. She loves to see green around her instead of crowds, finding cities to be a necessary evil. Unfortunately, as she says, you won't find a Michelangelo sitting out in a field. Our approach to SG does not afford us much of a view of the town. After phoning for directions to our B&B, we head down a gravel road outside the gate, and the skyline of the town starts to reveal itself behind us. Climbing out of our car, we walk to the back of the house, and immediately realize that we have booked a week in paradise. One of the first things that strikes us is the heady sweetness of the air. Before us is a beautiful pool, surrounded with umbrellas and pots of flowers. To our left lies the ruggedly handsome town - a viewpoint that you don't get from any other angle. On all sides of us, the land spreads out in a patchwork of rolling hills coloured in spring green, alternating with the corduroy pattern of vineyards and orchards of olive trees with their grey/green leaves. All of this is punctuated by the dark green strokes of the rows of cypress trees. Tile-roofed villas dot the distant hilltops and, in the far distance, high and hazy hills form the horizon. We both look at each other, speechless for a few moments. As our strictly Italian hostess would say with great understatement, "Bella - no?" Bella, yes. And the icing on the cake is her English-speaking assistant, her son Francesco, who looks pretty much like a fully-clothed miniature version of Michelangelo's David.

The scented air, we determine, comes from a combination of sources. One is a shrub with sweet-smelling bright yellow flowers that look like butterflies lighting on the branches. Another is Carla's collection of fragrant roses, all with saucer-sized blooms. Still another is the huge acacia tree in the yard. It is in full bloom, and there is a constant low hum around it from contented bees. When the wind blows, a shower of creamy petals takes flight and even drifts into our room, which opens off the patio. We will later learn that the property is just as magical at night when the lights come on in the town (which we can see from our bedroom window) and also twinkle from the villas and villages dotted across the hilly landscape.

In the morning, we sit out on the patio with this amazing view, and a green-eyed Italian man brings me my coffee. By that time, Wendy has already been up since dawn, swimming in the silence as hot-air balloons pass over, then walking through the nearby orchards. Later we may walk into San Gimignano (which is also beautiful) and spend some time taking pictures, window-shopping, or eating gelato and big slices of pizza with tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Other days we drive to other towns like Cortona and Volterra, all of which are walled and precariously perched on mountain tops, accessible only by miles of zigzagging narrow roads. I can't imagine any army wanting to besiege them badly enough to make that kind of uphill hike! Each village has its own peculiar charm, and I was tickled when we were able to do some detective work and find Bramasole, summer home to Frances Mayes, author of "Under the Tuscan Sun."

I could go on for pages more about the small pleasures that each day affords: the tiny green lizards that sun themselves on rock walls and skitter into the underbrush as we approach, the swallows that whistle like over-eager referees, then swoop down over the pool to scoop up a beakful of water, the pheasant unexpectedly crossing the road in front of us as we walk to town, the unidentified bird or fowl (perhaps even the self-same pheasant) that we hear and never see, sounding like the horn of a Model T Ford, but at a slightly higher pitch. But the towers of San Gimignano are beckoning outside my window, and I want to go out and savour every moment of the time I have left here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


On Wednesday morning, as we dragged our luggage down narrow sidewalks of uneven cobblestones en route to our Florence hotel, I found myself wondering why I had such warm memories of this city. We checked into our hotel, Il Bargellino, and found it to be a lovely spot on an unlovely street, with a sort of fading elegance and a wonderful large terrace in back. We met our hosts, Boston-bred Carmel and her Italian husband Pino. Carmel kindly offered us a map of the city and some suggestions, and we headed out to explore. We ambled through the outdoor stalls of the San Lorenzo market, passing dozens of sellers of purses, scarves, jewelry, and cheap clothing. For the first time on our trip, we found ourselves the targets of masculine attention and compliments; sadly, it was just from merchants trying to attract our business. As we continued on our way, we turned a corner and there, in front of us, was the Duomo in all its glory. Suddenly I remembered why I loved Florence. The Duomo (apart from the actual dome) and its campanile (bell tower) are covered in a mosaic of white, pink, and green marble, and I find it breathtakingly beautiful. Apparently some people agree with me; others disdain it as "the cathedral in pajamas."

We continued on past the Palazzo Vecchio with its huge outdoor statues and the Uffizi Gallery. Crossing over the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio with its jewelry stores and crowds, we finally made our way to the Pitti Palace and passed through to the Boboli Gardens. This seems to be the only large green space within Florence. The gardens and statuaries are beautiful. As we progressed through the various levels, we climbed a final set of stairs and reached the highest point. This was a lovely rose garden in its own right, but the view from its walls was possibly the most glorious I had seen in my life - to that point. Tuscany lay spread out before us, layer upon green layer, out to the distant mountains. Cypress trees, vineyards, villas, towers, farmhouses, and the sound of church bells floating up from the city below. What a welcome!

Later, back at our hotel, we dined al fresco on the terrace and began a nightly ritual of sharing travel stories with the other guests. Leopoldo the hotel parrot offered commentary from the sidelines, sometimes "laughing" loudly, sometimes just murmuring "ciao" in a low, throaty voice. There were even nightly visits from the neighbour's cat, Yogita, who would brush by each table with her huge plume of a tail, looking for a little attention. The hotel really turned out to be a lovely oasis each evening after a day spent jostling through crowds in the city heat.
Thursday was the start of our museum tour. We had appointments at the Accademia in the morning and the Uffizi Gallery in the afternoon. At the Accademia, we saw Michelangelo's statues "The Prisoners." They were very impressive, but nothing surpasses his famous, massive statue of David. You can view it from every angle for half an hour, and still feel like you could sit and stare at it all day. There was so much to see in the Uffizi, but the highlight for me, as it was 31 years ago, was the paintings of Botticelli. I find myself transfixed by them.

We pushed on from there to the church of Santa Croce, where we viewed ancient frescoes and the tombs of many famous Italians, including Galileo, Marconi, Michelangelo, and DaVinci. It is amazing to be in a city surrounded by buildings and art created 600-700 years ago that still exist and function.

After all of our museum touring, we refreshed ourselves with a stop at the famous gelateria, Vivoli's, where we tried their signature flavour, riso (rice). It doesn't sound good, but it is - Wendy was so impressed that she immediately converted from her usual vanilla (?!) and went back for seconds.

Friday was our last full day in Florence. Among other things, we toured the lovely Bargello museum, where we enjoyed sculptures by the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo. That afternoon, we climbed the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo for an amazing view of the city. It was challenging, but not nearly as much so as the hiking trails of the Cinque Terre. By all logic, I should be wasting away to nothing due to the amount of walking and climbing we have done...gelato must have more calories than we imagine.

We finished our stay in Florence with another quiet evening on the patio, enjoying pizza picked up at a neighbourhood restaurant. Saturday, we pick up our rental car and head for our much-anticipated week-long stay in Tuscany.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cats in High Places

Anyone who knows me well will probably tell you that I am destined to be the crazy old cat lady of my neighbourhood. I love cats. I love my cats. I freely admit that I cried when I left home on April 23rd and my cat gave me that "I see the suitcases - I know, you're leaving me again" look.

My travel companion, Wendy, does not love cats. She doesn't even like cats. Nonetheless, she has had to admit that the cats of Europe have, on an almost daily basis, conspired to show up in the oddest places to put a smile on my face.

Paris seemed to be bereft of cats. In spite of all of the lovely parks and trees, it definitely seemed to be more of a doggie town. My first "chat" sighting did not take place until Avignon. We were touring the Palais des Papes, a huge stone edifice with many great rooms and narrow hallways. As we neared the top level, a cat wearing a collar came trotting down a walkway past all the visitors, looking like he owned the place. A castle cat. We later spotted him curled up in a little nook in a wall - a spot to keep cool and out of the midday sun. Since that first sighting, at least one cat seems to have crossed our paths nearly every day. Alley cats, medieval cats, B&B cats, cemetery cats, rooftop cats, cats peering out from niches in stone walls. But I must say, so far the Italian cats have made me smile the most. Sunday, as we took our first walk through the streets of Vernazza, I spotted a few different cats on steps throughout the village. In the evening, as we sat at an outdoor cafe by the harbour, I noticed an older woman walking toward the water with a bag in her hand. Behind her, trotting in formation, came three of the cats that I had seen around town earlier. They followed her obediently to a spot near the water's edge, then gathered around as she spooned the contents of a can of food onto the rocks for them. When they had finished eating, they took turns licking off the spoon in her hand. So, Italy has "crazy" cat ladies too.

The ultimate sighting to date occurred today as we were hiking from Vernazza to Monterosso. I had panted and wheezed my way up the steep stone steps and stony trail to what would turn out to be nearly the highest reach of our climb before descending. In front of us was a deep stone ledge and on it, a large cat. He meowed hopefully as I approached. It was then that I noticed two cat "houses" at the back of the ledge along with a few plates. The one cat was quickly joined by two others, all purring and mewing as I petted them, and seeming quite sure that I must have brought them something to eat. So either there is a crazy cat lady in a dwelling perched on the mountainside who cares for this little colony of cliff cats, or they survive on the offerings of passing hikers!

But enough about cats. Tonight we are winding down our final evening in Vernazza. We arrived here on Sunday afternoon after a totally sleepless night and six hours on the "milk run" from Nice. The train ride afforded us only brief glimpses of the Mediterranean coastline, as the majority of the time we were snaking through black tunnels. By the time we arrived in Vernazza, we were almost too exhausted to appreciate its charms. We soon connected with our hostess, Michelle, and her beautiful baby Sofia. Then came the bad news - our room, like everything else in town, was up - 69 steps up, to be exact. Up the side of the mountains which surround the town. To say that wrestling our luggage up the steep stone steps and narrow walkways was gruelling would be an understatement. When we finally made it to our destination, we were rewarded with wonderful views from the shared veranda, and a lovely and comfortable room. Vernazza is as lovely as the post cards, yet also less polished and more down-to-earth. While there is a great deal of tourist activity, one also gets a good sense of it being a real working community. Laundry hangs on clothes lines outside of windows, even on the main street, and fishing boats and gear are stored up against the buildings. The buildings themselves are all pastel colours with dark green shutters, and are separated by narrow alleyways of stairs climbing up and up from the street. Store owners are likely to be out in the street visiting with friends, only returning to their posts when a potential customer walks in. Women chat to each other window-to-window across narrow passages. What is most amazing is the way that the steep, mountainous terrain has been put to use. Starting down at the harbour, the houses and buildings are stacked like dominoes up the slope. Wherever there is not a building, there is a terrace, often contained by a low cement wall. These terraces were created over a thousand years by peasant farmers, and they continue literally to the peaks of the mountains. Lemon trees, heavily laden with fruit year-round, orange trees, olive trees, vineyards, roses, and even corn grows in this ingenious system. It's hard to conceive how difficult it must be to reach and work these plots. There are even small dwellings on the sides of the mountain, right up to the top!

We have filled these too-short days with hikes to the neighbouring villages on trails that threaten to stop my heart - either from the long, steep upward climbs or the dizzying views off narrow paths with no guardrails. We have refreshed ourselves by dipping in the waters of the Mediterranean and by sipping the locally produced white wine while sharing stories with fellow travellers. Some of us have consumed more gelato than seems humanly possible (hint: it's not me). We have dined on overpriced spaghetti bolognese in the square by the harbour as the sun set beside us and bells rang out from the church on the hill. I will have trouble saying goodbye to the Cinque Terre. I wish we had more days just to BE in Vernazza. But time marches on. Next stop - Florence.

(In real time, we are actually about to leave Florence, but I'm way behind on my writing. All this blasted sightseeing really eats up your time!)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

France - the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a comment on my blog, my sister-in-law encouraged me to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. All three categories would be covered simply by describing driving in France. Good - because you are getting ever closer to amazing destinations. Generally, the passing countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills and sometimes mountains in the distance, pockets of the ubiquitous, vivid poppies of Provence growing up against crumbling rock walls, village after village of tile roofs and painted shutters, and azure skies above it all. Bad -because the road signs are confusing at best, contradictory at worst, and frequently no help whatsoever. Ditto our road maps. Distances seem to take much longer to cover than it appears they should, and there are complicated and sometimes death-defying roundabouts everywhere. Ugly - because we are frequently lost or unsure, and Wendy has no qualms about asking - or making me ask - any Tom, Dick, or Harry for directions. This could involve anything from pulling into car dealerships to grill the employees, to yelling "Limoux?" out the car window at a red light. Keep in mind that the people we are asking for help generally speak even less English than we do French, and you begin to get the picture. So far, we have always managed to eventually make it to our intended destinations.

On Tuesday morning, we found the Pont du Gard and spent a fascinating couple of hours hiking on and around this ancient Roman viaduct spanning the Rhone River. It left us scratching our heads in wonderment about its design and construction, since each stone in it apparently weighs two or three tons!

Following that came an extremely frustrating afternoon of driving from there to our B&B near Carcassonne. We had expected our driving in the south of France to be off the main routes. Well...this led to events such as unexpectedly finding ourselves careening around mountainous curves on a very narrow route to Nimes from Montpellier. In Nimes, we learned a lesson about letting oneself be directed to the "centre ville" when trying to bypass a town. We spent about an hour there trying to find our way through to the other side and a main road. We finally stopped to ask some mechanics for directions. When we told them that we did not wish to take the toll autoroute, they stared at as blankly and informed us that any other route would take about four hours. We had expected the whole afternoon's drive to take an hour or two! We obediently adjusted our thinking to taking the autoroute whenever possible, but that did not put an end to our driving misadventures for the day. Our B&B was located in a very small village outside Carcassonne, and one wrong turn took us down the streets of a village with streets so narrow that Wendy was sure that our little car would be wedged between the walls on either side. This was followed by a stop for directions - after which our car would not restart, as it had accidentally been turned off while in reverse. This was eventually put right after a cell phone call to the rental car agency by a helpful local. Our hostess at the B&B insisted that we drive back into Carcassonne to see the castle lit up at night and have a bite to eat. We did so (getting a little lost both ways, of course), then fell into bed mentally exhausted.

The next day we were better able to enjoy the charms of this huge medieval city, now housing within its ancient walls stores, restaurants, and an amazing high-end hotel. We had thoroughly enjoyed our tour, and went to use a washroom on the way out. It was an unusual-looking one with a large metal door like a freezer compartment. A sign outside said that it was cleaned and sterilized after each use. Wendy went in first; when she came out, I entered. After the door had closed behind me, I noticed the toilet seat raising by itself. The next thing I knew, the light went out and spigots in each corner of the room starting spraying across the floor. I huddled in a corner until it stopped and I could open the door, leaving with very wet, but well sterilized feet.

By late afternoon we had found our way to Arles and checked into our lovely hotel, complete with open courtyards from where you could hear birdsong at all times. The evening passed poking around town, admiring the shops full of gorgeous Provencal fabrics and viewing the Roman amphitheatre in the centre of town.

Thursday was the Fetes des Gardians and a holiday in the town. We were thoroughly entertained by this local cultural event. Men, women, children, and even babies in antique buggies paraded down a main street in elaborate traditional costumes. The "gardians" rode on beautiful white Camargue horses, carrying long wooden staffs and, sometimes, a woman ("Arlesienne") riding sidesaddle on the back. There were also bands consisting of men and women who somehow managed to play a pennywhistle held in one hand while keeping time on a bongo-like drum with the other - I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time!

The afternoon passed in searching for and visiting the hill towns of Gordes and Roussillon. Gordes is a beautiful town perched on top of a mountain and was featured in the movie "A Good Year." Roussillon is home to the world's largest ochre deposits, and all of the buildings are painted in the varying hues of ochre, from rich yellows through to oranges, pinks,and reds. The ochre cliffs here are amazing to see. On our way back to Arles, we drove through part of the Camargue, a delta area of the Rhone River, home to its famous white horses, black bulls, and flamingos. We had no luck in the flamingo department, and returned to Arles for a late dinner before climbing into bed, once more exhausted by all we've seen.

Friday we did a bit of shopping before leaving the clogged narrow streets of Arles. Our journey took us toward the Mediterranean. We decided to take the Rue Nationale cross-country rather than driving the autoroute or going along the coast. Although the trip took us six hours, it was toll-free and turned out to be an excellent choice. It was, I think, the highlight of our trip so far for our "country mouse" Wendy. The scenery was beautiful all the way, starting with rolling hills in the distance. One 50-km stretch between the cities of Draguignan and Grasse turned out to involve corkscrewing our way up and down mountainsides, driving through gorgeous towns perched on hilltops, down to deep valleys, then climbing again to heights where we were on eye-level with the mountains across from us. The vegetation seemed incongruous at times, with evergreens and palm trees growing side by side. Sadly, our amazing journey had a somewhat depressing denouement. Arriving at Antibes, amazed by the blue Mediterranean to one side and the snow-capped mountains to the other, we were reduced to crawling through rush hour traffic to Cagnes sur Mer, where we became hopelessly lost, despite the efforts of several well-meaning locals. At long last we reached our destination. Our B&B was lovely, with a pool, fountain, palm trees, gardens in back. Wendy was able to take a dip in the pool, and our kindly hosts ordered in a pizza for us so we didn't have to drive again to get dinner. And so, bon nuit.

Today is Saturday the 3rd - our last day in France. We had a lovely breakfast at our beautiful B&B, conversing with the other guests and our hosts, then spent a couple of hours relaxing in their garden and pool, having no desire to drive more than necessary in this congested area. Then came yet another harrowing and frustrating drive, this time into Nice. It has certainly changed since my last visit 31 years ago. Busy, dirty, noisy, hot, one-way streets everywhere we needed to go - and, at the end of the journey, a seedy hotel with ants in the shower and twin beds that look like hammocks. From the sublime to the ridiculous in a few short hours. I will skip the ugly details of booking a train into Italy (our only available option - 6:45 a.m.) and the ordeal of gassing up and returning our rental car. We have toured Nice on foot as much as we care to, dipped our toes in the Mediterranean, and used up our French phone card for a quick call home to hear familiar voices. Tomorrow - ITALY!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mr. Bean goes to Provençe

Most of the trappings of my everyday life have fallen away, and I feel somehow lighter (despite my excessive luggage). For the first time since I can remember, it is as if I am nobody's wife, mother, daughter, or sister - I am simply "une personne." I think of my family, friends, and cats at home all the time, but they almost seem like part of another life altogether. Perhaps they feel the same way about me.

Wendy was ill on our last day in Paris, so I spent a perfect spring afternoon and evening wandering by myself through the Impressionist wing of the Musée d'Orsay, then the Jardin des Tuileries. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork, gardens, fountains, statues, and topiaried trees, I felt so thankful to God for gifting mankind with the creative energy that comes from being made in His image. Everywhere you turn here, someone is making music or creating art right on the street. The French certainly seem to fully enjoy their cities, their food, and each other. In the parks, young couples sit in the grass and smile while their children giggle and chase each other around. Couples walk wrapped around each other, stopping frequently to smile into each other's eyes or share a lengthy kiss. In a restaurant, a young man enters and without embarrassment kisses his mother and grandmother on both cheeks before sitting down to join them. It's lovely to watch, coming from a culture where people tend to be far less demonstrative and affectionate. As I make my way back through the Metro stations to our hotel, I feel suddenly alone; but then, just as quickly, I remember that I am never alone because I am God's child. I take time to thank Him for taking the subway with me.

Now we are enjoying a different manifestation of French culture. Very early Sunday morning, we climbed aboard the TGV bound for Avignon. Once there, we stowed our baggage at the car rental agency and shuttled into town to tour the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon of song. After a sun-drenched lunch of salade niçoise in the town square, we headed back to pick up our car. Our first drive turned out to be a harrowing experience. What was presented as an easy, five-minute drive across a bridge to the village on the other side of the Rhone turned out to be an hour spent lurching around in circles trying to find access to said bridge. Traffic signs are difficult to follow and our little diesel car, although theoretically automatic, does not operate like its Canadian counterparts. Finally arriving in the historic centre of Villeneuve lès Avignon; we have our first experience with driving down incredibly narrow cobblestone streets. Only much later that night, as we relaxed in our room to update our journals, were we able to relax and laugh uproariously about our terrifying foray into driving in a foreign country. Personally I had felt like an extra in a Mr. Bean movie the whole time.

Our hotel and the surrounding neighbourhood are textbook Provençal, and I am enchanted. We were fortunate enough to arrive on an evening when a neighbourhood festival weekend was just winding down. Local vintners had tables set up along the closed street to showcase their products, and free samples were being proffered to all passersby. Children and young people in traditional Provençal costumes were dancing and singing in the town square. Every generation of families was represented and the whole town appeared to be in attendance. Later, a bonfire was lit in the centre of the square, and costumed dancers pulled in people from the crowd to dance around it. When the dancing stopped; a choir of young girls broke into what was obviously a traditional folk song and the crowd spontaneously joined in. A long table had been set up to one side; laden with small glasses of sweet red wine which everyone, including us, helped themselves to. What a charming welcome to life in a Provençal town.

Today has been spent leisurely poking our way around back streets and alleyways, getting lost and finding our way again. We have marvelled at ancient walls, beautiful hidden courtyards, ornate doorways surrounded by potted flowers, and vistas of tiled rooftops over crumbling walls. We have walked around the walls of a castle (just sitting there at the end of a residential street, if you please) and toured a monastery built in the 14th century. Now sitting in the private courtyard of our hotel, a lattice of grapevines overhead and a cat sleeping in a flower pot, I am sipping un café and nibbling pain chocolat. We have seen and experienced so much in these past five days, that at night when we talk over our day, we find ourselves saying, "Could that really have been just this morning?" It seems at once like we have just arrived, and have been here forever. Tomorrow the journey continues.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The City of Lights

Somebody pinch me. I am writing this while sitting with my back to the wall of l'Arc de Triomphe, with a view down the Champs Elysées on a breezy, sunny April morning. April in Paris. I cannot believe I'm here, and I struggle to drink in every sight, sound, and smell.

The comparitive nightmare of airports and airplanes ended yesterday around noon (or dawn, to my Canadian body). Already dizzy with fatigue (don't you envy people who CAN sleep on planes?), we begin our long shuttle ride to the hotel. First comes mile after mile of characterless office buildings and airport hotels - we could be anywhere in the world. Suddenly the view changes to broad, tree-lined avenues of exquisite stone buildings, all six stories or less, each window fronted with ornate iron grillwork. You turn a corner and realize you are looking at the top of the Eiffel Tower over a rooftop. You are in Paris, and it is achingly beautiful.

Our hotel is nothing more nor less than you would expect for the price, and the location is ideal. After taking individual trips up the impossibly small "lift" to our sixth floor room, we go out for a brief wander down Rue Cler where we grab a slice of pizza (well, I do) and some fruit for Wendy. Back to the room for a short nap (again, I can't sleep) before looking at a map to try and decide what we will see. I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. I want to see EVERYTHING....we have two days.

We decide to hike down to the Eiffel Tower, which is within easy walking distance of our hotel. Impressive from a distance, the old girl is magnificent up close. We join the line for tickets to climb the stairs to the second level. Despite Wendy's fear of heights and my sore feet and poor fitness level, we eventually make it and are rewarded with an amazing view of the city. The walk down is considerably easier.

By now, our lovely day has turned to grey drizzle. We vainly look for cover, then surrender to being wet and make our way down to the Seine. After an hour's wait and some cold "frites" in a cafeteria, we climb aboard the Bateaux Parisien for the night cruise on the Seine. This may be the best money one could spend in Paris. As the boat pulls away from the dock, we are treated to the incredible sight of the Eiffel Tower completely lit up with thousands of white lights set to do a magical dance on the hour. We pass under amazing, elaborate, and ancient bridges, sail by palaces, museums, and churches standing out majestically against the blackened sky. We can hardly take it all in. What a perfect end to our first day in Paris.

Flash forward to the end of day two. We have climbed to the top of l'Arc de Triomphe for an incredible panoramic view of the whole city, wandered down the Champs Elysées (yes, I did sing Free Man in Paris out loud) to the Place de la Concorde. We searched out Le Grand Colbert and ate a decadent late lunch there. We stumbled upon the Palais Royal (which was amazing), walked along the banks of the Seine, bought watercolour paintings outside the Musée d'Orsay, took a bus to Montmartre, and visited Sacre Coeur. Back to our little hotel by a gritty and educational ride on the Métro (subway). We have seen immense beauty and creativity literally at every turn. It is difficult to take it all in. We could easily spend a month here. One day more.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Well, I guess I have to start somewhere...

Thirty-one years ago I, like so many at that time, loaded a backpack, got my first passport and a Eurail pass, and went off with a friend to hostel my way through Europe. That first five-week experience imprinted itself on me, and on some level I've been trying to get back ever since.

Years of busy child-rearing dulled the drumbeat in my subconscious for many years, but in the last decade the noise of it grew almost deafening at times. (Okay, so I'm being a little melodramatic.) My family will attest to the growing stacks of books about Tuscany, Parisian memorabilia, and endless movies with European backdrops being carted home. Since I couldn't imagine (short of winning a lottery) how I would ever get back there, I tried to content myself with armchair travel. Periodically I would wonder aloud to God why I would carry such a powerful longing for a place when it seemed impossible that I would ever get there. Now don't get me wrong - I am fully aware that in the grand scheme of things, I have been incredibly blessed. I have a wonderful family, a home, great friends, food on the table every day, and clean water to drink. But all that being said and acknowledged, still I yearned...

To make a long story a little less long, I have been the recipient of a modern-day miracle. I have been given an opportunity to travel to the lands I dream of, a friend to travel with, and the time and the means to do it. Tomorrow evening, after three months of planning, I step on a plane bound for Paris. Even as I form the words, it doesn't quite seem real. Six weeks in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, focusing on all of the places I've been dreaming of seeing, or of seeing again.

So I begin this blog as a travel journal - to try and record my experiences on the trip both so that I may remember, and so that I may share it with any who might be interested. My son Jesse tells me that a blog is just a diary that you write but, rather than keep it locked, invite others to read if they so desire. That being said, here we go...

Dear Diary:

I am excited, nervous, incredulous, thankful, and terrified. Apart from my travelling companion, Wendy, I will not be seeing anyone else who is part of my everyday life for six weeks. Goodbye, I love you all...please take good care of my cat.