The Siena Cathedral

Well people, it has taken me so long to write up our trip to Italy that some of you think that either we’ve gone back or we never left. We are, in fact, home. At least for now. As far as these seemingly endless blogs are concerned, we are at about the halfway point of our Italian adventures. If you find the pace tedious, (as does the author) my advice would be to wait a year and read the whole thing at once. Good luck!–MS

On our first full day in Siena we headed for the Siena Cathedral. By the time we got there, a line had already formed and ticket sales were brisk. These were not tour tickets, they were just to get into the place. Groups of, say, 50 were let in at fifteen minute intervals.

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Of course, as we waited at the entrance, it’s not like there was nothing to see:

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At last it was our turn. And, just like so many cathedral visits before, from the first step inside, our minds were immediately blown:

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The entire cathedral inside and out is made up of alternating layers of white and black (or dark green) marble, symbolizing Siena’s color scheme.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1100’s with much of the artwork being added in the following two centuries. What incredible engineering!

There’s no point in me yammering on. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

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The pulpit:

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This is the view looking back toward the entrance:

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As if the place needed more art, in the 1200’s they started to lay mosaics into the floor:

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Then, of course, there is the regular artwork. This is Michelangelo’s Saint Paul:

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And, just as you being to recover your senses, you join a line to get into what looks like a side room. Turns out it leads to the Piccolomini Library:

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The principle purpose of this room is to house rare medieval choir books. Feel free to sing along:

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At last it was time to head out the door:

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We spent one last evening in the piazza, then it was time to head to wine country!

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What an incredibly beautiful city!

Siena

Well, we wound our way our of the hills of San Gimignano and eventually found a four-lane divided highway with a sign pointing south to Siena. Siena is also a walled city, but this one is huge, home to 55,000 people. And, there are only eight places you can get in, called “Portas”. To get to our B&B, which was inside the walls, we had to find Porta Romana, on the south side. Once again the Google blue dot was a little tardy when it came to suggesting an exit and we were soon well past Siena before we figured that out. So, in a few miles we found a way to get back and the exit that looked promising. Sure enough, there was a sign for Porta Romano, which led us to a matrix of interconnecting highways, that once again had us heading south. But this time, it was only a two-lane road so turning around was quicker and easier. On our third try we spotted a tower that a sign confirmed was Porta Roma.

Here is the layout of Siena. The green area is the part that is inside the walls:

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This is where we stayed. The blue X marks the spot:

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Here is Porta Romana:

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Our B&B is called Palazzo Bulgarini, located on Via Pantaneto. When we booked it, months before, the manager said to be sure to let her know the license number of our car so she could notify the police. Well, of course, I didn’t have that number at the time of booking, so on our way out of  San Gimignano I called her first to tell her we were running late, and also to give her the number. Mastery of the English language, however was not her strong suit, but after repeated attempts I discerned this bit of info: Once we got through the Porta Romana we only had to continue straight in and look for number 93. She would call the police and give them my plate number. Then, we would have a half hour to unload, turn around, and get the hell out. After 30 minutes, a ticket and/or towing might be in my future.

So, in through the tower we went. Just as she described, we saw door after door with descending numbers until, at last, we were in front of number 93:

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We rang the bell, the buzzer buzzed and in we went with our bags. In and up:

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Until a door opened onto a rather compact hallway:

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We were a little winded, having dragged our stuff up here, but realizing time was of the essence I was ready to head back down at a moment’s notice. The manager gave us a warm welcome and began checking us in. One of the first things she asked for was my license number. I told I had already given her that info on the phone. Clearly she had not called the police, which substantially increased my interest in getting back to the car. I asked her where I could park. She said to continue in the direction I had come until I came to a street on the left. Turn there and take another quick left. That would put me on the street heading back out of town. Once I got out the gate there was plenty of parking around. We finished the paperwork, Dianne started moving the bags into the room, and I beat feet back to the car.

Her directions were perfect and soon I found myself headed through the Porta and out into the civilized world. Not far from the gate, to my surprise, was a parking place with a number on it. I pulled in. But already my mind started working. Surely this could not be a free space. What was that number for? I looked around. No machine.No sign. I got out and looked at the cars behind me. They seemed to have some kind of sticker that might be a parking sticker. I didn’t like the look of things. I pulled out and kept moving.

Soon I was at an intersection, no parking space in sight. I turned left and ran parallel to the wall. Soon I was driving downhill past Porta Pispini. Not good. A few blocks from there, however, the street widened and became a road. And, not far down that road I found a bunch of cars parked along the side and one free space. I took it.

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Once again, I looked at the other cars. No stickers, no nothing. I decided this was the place I would make my stand. Then I began the roughly mile and  a half uphill climb back to our room. At least it was scenic.

After an extended period of time, I made it to our room. I was eager to tell the manager exactly what I had done and to hear her say, “Good parking place”. But, by the time I got back, in the fine Italian B&B tradition, she was long gone.

I will say this, though, the room was nice:

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And the view out the window was quite pleasant:

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Once I regained my composure, we decided it was time to do a little exploring. We headed down Via Pantaneto. After only a few blocks we found ourselves in a huge piazza called Il Campo, the heart of the city:

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The Piazza del Campo is simply breathtaking, just like stepping back into Medieval times.

The first order of business was to get a little dinner, and, as you can see by the awnings, there is no shortage of places from which to choose. We settled on one nearby:

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The lady in black, with the menu, is the head of sales. You encounter about 15 of them as you stroll around Il Campo. They are happy to invite you in. I won’t go into a meal by meal account of this place, but I would draw your attention to this little delight:

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It is simply melon with a shaving of prosciutto. The two together make for a salty/sweet explosion of flavor. A little mozzarella smooths things out nicely. When we got back from Italy we served up many a helping of this over the summer. Can’t wait for melons to come back!

But, I digress. The Piazza del Campo was laid out in the fourteenth century and, in 1348 it was paved with these:

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From the center, nine lines of marble radiate across the piazza signifying the families in charge at the time. .

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Relations between families in Siena were not so contentious as they were in San Gimignano, so nobody felt the need to build defensive towers. Instead, they chose to compete in a much classier way: The Palio de Siena.

OK, so here is how the piazza looked at the time of our visit:

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Now picture it slightly more populated:

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Every July 2nd and August 16th, people from all over the area and all over the world come to Siena for the Palio, which is a ten-horse race that has been run in this piazza since 1633. In Siena there are 17 Contrades, or city wards. Not surprisingly, given the history of Europe, they are bitter rivals. But, rather than kill each other, long the custom elsewhere, they settle their grievances with this horse race. Because the piazza is limited in size, they only race 10 horses, so they have developed a system for which contrades get to race at any particular Pialo. The race is run for three laps around the piazza, which takes about 90 seconds. It begins with the dropping of a rope:

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For this race, the city, at considerable expense, hauls in tons of special dirt to place around the perimeter of the piazza. The riders ride bareback and the only thing they carry with them is small whip, which serves two purposes: 1) to move their horse along, but more importantly, 2) to whip the hell out of opposing jockeys and their horses, too. This is not intended to be a friendly race and there are plenty of euros being exchanged behind the scenes with race officials to get an advantage in position of whatever.

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Because some of the turns are sharp and because the jockeys are wailing hell out of each other, it is not uncommon for a rider to be ejected from his mount. And some have been seriously injured. Horses have been injured as well, so recently padding, as you see on the left below, has been added to soften the blow. As you might imagine, animal rights people take a very dim view of these proceedings.

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Interestingly, some horses have won the race without their rider attached, which is allowed.

We were not altogether sorry to have missed this event, given our lack of fondness for big crowds. After a very nice dinner we continued our stroll through the streets. Next, we’ll show you what we saw.

Toolin’ Around Tuscany

After returning to our room from our day in Cinque Terre, we were pleased to find that, true to her word, our laundry was waiting for us, clean and neatly folded or hung on hangers. The next morning, when it was time to settle up, the young lady who ran the place would not take payment for her mother’s work. OK. So, we left a tip that far exceeded what a laundromat would have cost, sneaked down the stairs, and we were out.

Thankfully, our car had no tickets waiting for us. We hopped in and made our way out of La Spezia. It was one of those places where, when you leave, you hope to return to some day.

Our next destination was the medieval city of Siena. Typically it would be about a 3 hour trip, if you knew where you were and what you were doing. Unfortunately, we often didn’t know either of these things for most of the trip. Accordingly, it took substantially longer. Here is our route as it may, or may not have been: The red line is to San Gimignano. The blue is from there to Siena.

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At some point in the planning process for this trip I happened to see a Rick Steves video which talked up the romantic qualities of some of the historic Tuscan hill towns. Of these, the one that stood out above all others was the village of San Gimignano (pronounced gym-in-NYAN-o). What made it appealing is that many of the old towers associated with the powerful families of the area, were still visible. It looked like a beautiful place for a stroll, overlooking the Tuscan hillside. So, off we went.

Well, here is what I do know: We took the right exit off SS67 which heads back to Florence. But not long after taking said exit we found ourselves at various intersections that Google Maps had a hard time keeping up with. And, at many of these, decisions had to be made quickly. The net effect was, that we were generally headed in the right direction, South, but certain villages did not appear when they were supposed to. So, when a rare sign came up that would take us to a village we could find on Google, we followed the sign which soon had us winding our way down numerous dirt roads through a large provincial park.

Since we had plenty of time and since it was one beautiful pastoral scene after another we were perfectly happy to be where we were and spent some time slowly enjoying the countryside. Along the way we encountered hikers, bikers (of the bicycle persuasion) and various other outdoor types. Clearly many people were enjoying the first days of Spring. What we did not encounter in our journey was either gas stations or bathrooms. Just when the need for both was no longer amusing, we found a town. And, as it turned out, San Gimignano was not all that far away. Here is a look at some the countryside:

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Now, those of you who have been over the good ol’ USA will recognize from your travels scenery that is just as beautiful. What sets Tuscany apart is the charming and picturesque Italian villas dotting the countryside, with the white stucco and the red-tiled roofs where the grounds are meticulously maintained and where peace and tranquility reign. And, of course, there is the wine.

Well, we continued happily along, once again on a secondary road, and then we came around a corner and there it was, off in the distance: San Gimignano

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Not too hard on the eyes

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San Gimignano has been occupied in one form or another since Roman days. In boom times there were as many as sixty towers like those you see here. Now there are only a dozen. For around a thousand years San Gimignano was a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and it long flourished as a trade center as well. But, it is a walled city and here was a big problem with walled cities in those times: The Black Death. By the end of  1348 over half the city’s population was dead or dying. San Gimignano never recovered.

In time the town leaders gave themselves over to Florence for governance. To be accepted they were required to tear down their towers, which most did. But, Florence had other issues to deal with and San Gimignano was never developed. Instead, all but abandoned,  it remained in its medieval state until the 19th century when scholars began to realized what a treasure it was. Now, it is given over to the tourist trade.

We arrived there around noon and the first thing we discovered was that the place was packed with tourists. Parking lots are arranged in tiers going up the face of the hill to the outer walls of the city. The first tier, closest to the walls, was full. So was the second. And, the third, no wait, some guy is pulling out. He went out, we went in.

It was quite a hike getting up that hill. But, it was also pretty scenic:

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As we looked out over the countryside, we couldn’t help but note that the sky was getting quite dark. And, the frequent thunder was another clue that there could be problems. We had rain gear in the car, but were in no mood to hike back down to get it. And, my meteorological savvy told me the storm was moving away.

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We continued to the wall:

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Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you up to this level. From there it is a quick hike to the city, where the first order of business was lunch.

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By this point in our travels we had become fond of meat and cheese plates for lunch. They are flavorful and light, except for the bazillion calories served with each dish.

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We had just finished the last bite when the rains hit:

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They started out light at first and we were able to pass by some nice shops:

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Olive wood is all the rage in the tourist world, as are ceramics.

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But the time for window shopping soon passed:

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Without the benefit of so much as an umbrella, we made a mad dash for one of the piazzas:

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We, and about fifty other tourists were able to find shelter in the alcove below:

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Not only was it pouring, it had turned quite cold. And, while we enjoyed the beautiful view, after about a half hour of this we were ready to abandon ship. One item of note: in the picture below, above the pointy hood of the lady in pink you will see a stone structure with steps on the piazza. It is a cistern. At one time, all the rain water from the roofs of the towers was collected here and provided drinking water for the whole town for a thousand years. See, I did learn something. Two things, actually. I also learned that I do, indeed, have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

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Clearly this was not going to be the occasion for a romantic stroll through the towered city. When the rain let up we made a mad dash for the car. By the time we made it we were plenty damp, but not soaked.

To get out of San Gimignano, the parking tiers all empty out onto a two-lane road. There is a gate at the end of each lane where you pay to exit. I had both credit card and euros in hand, but as we approached the gate I noticed that a woman a few cars ahead, who was actually at the gate, suddenly opened her door and made a mad dash down the parking lot. She returned in a few minutes, fed the machine, the gate opened and off she went. Of course, my comment to Dianne was something to the effect of, what kind of dumbass would approach a gate, with cars backed up to Rome, and not have any change with her?

After what seemed like an eternity it was finally my turn. I approached the machine, rolled down my window, and quickly observed two things: there was not place to put money and there was no place to put a credit card. There was a little slot, so i tried to jamb my credit car into it, but I discerned  from the get-go that this was not going to work. I was absolutely baffled. And, there was no way to back up; no way to turn off.

Suddenly someone came to my window, probably the person behind me. She said, in very broken English, something to the effect of, “Buy ticket”. “Where!!!” She pointed down the parking lot from which my predecessor had made her panicked run. I was off like a shot. And, I must confess to the use of certain colorful language that required no translation whatsoever. Soon I found a bank of machines, slammed in some euro, and grabbed the ticket. Usain Bolt himself would have applauded. In a twinkling I was back in the car, the ticket was consumed by the monster and the gate opened up. Once again the question came to mind: Why did I rent a car?

 

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a series of five villages along a coastline known as the Italian Riviera. They are now encapsulated into a national park. Here is the layout. The blue box down at the bottom is roughly the location of La Spezia:

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We decided that the best approach to visiting five villages in one day would be to go to the farthest one and work our way back. So, early in the morning we were on the train for the 50 minute ride to Monterosso. Even at that early hour, seats were hard to come by:

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It was a pleasant enough ride, though, and soon we found ourselves in this beautiful village by the sea.

Monterosso

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Monterosso is a summer resort, not only for tourists, but also day-trippers and weekenders from Florence and other nearby cities. Of the five villages this is the only one with an extended beach area. It also has the most hotels. It didn’t take long to appreciate the beauty of the place.

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Of course, this time of year it’s a little nippy to be taking advantage of the beach. The first order of business was breakfast.

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It was warm enough to sit outside, so we did. Next to us were four American students who spent the morning arguing about where to go next. Some wanted to go to Venice, others to Florence. And, of course, much of the discussion focused on the cost of going to each location, an expense which increased dramatically due to the fact that they had no plan. But, that’s the joy of being young!

Well, rather than listen to more of that, we had a fine breakfast and then headed to the beach.

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Dianne took the opportunity to dip her finger into the Mediterranean for the first time. That was the extent of our swimming.

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Looking down the coast we could see our next destination, Vernazza.

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Soon we were leaving the fishing boats behind and heading for the train.

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Vernazza

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Vernazza is one quaint and gorgeous little town. It is a simple hike to edge of the sea.

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Of the five villages, only Monterosso was ever a fishing village. The others relied principally on growing olives and grapes. To do that they had to terrace the hillsides. More about that later.

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If you like a hike before breakfast, here’s your spot.

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Here is the lower level

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Even on a relatively calm day, the surf is up.

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Everywhere there is radiant color.

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The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, built around 1318, oversees the harbor:

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One thing about Italy, love is always in the air, and often on the street:

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Here is a young tourist making a beeline for one of the gift shops:

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And returning, remembering how much room there is in her suitcase:

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Vernazza is a place that deserves more than a visit of a few hours. But, that’s all we had, so on to Corniglia

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Unlike the previous two villages, this one sits on a cliff. To get there you can either hike up that cliff, or, you can wait for a bus to pick you up.

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The bus drops you off at a nice little central piazza:

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But, if you think that by taking the bus, you have avoided hiking, well, not so:

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Everything is up in this place, which means if you look down you get some fabulous views:

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Here is a view of our next stop, Manarola:

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It was time for a lunch break. We found a nice little spot overlooking the valley:

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Below is the terrace where we were seated:

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Farms on the hillside:

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Here is the story of the terraced farms:

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Just a beautiful place to be:

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Equally charming is the village itself:

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Lemons are grown in many places on the coast.

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You never know what else you may find growing here as well:

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Another incredibly beautiful village. But, time to move on:

Manarola

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To get to this town from the train you have to walk through a long tunnel carved into the cliff. When you finally come out, here is what you see:

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The one feature that is outstanding about Manarola, is that there is a walkway that takes you along the cliff face so you can look back over the village:

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Not too hard on the eyes, that’s for sure.

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Time to move on to our last stop.

Riomaggiore:

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You may recall from my last post that we went here the day before. Unfortunately, since it was a spur of the moment decision, I didn’t have my camera with me. Dianne took a few pictures with her phone. I mixed in a couple from Google to give you the lay of the land.

I can tell you that it is much like the other villages, except that it is built on a hill, so the shops and restaurants sit at an angle. It would not be hard for, say, a beer bottle, accidentally knocked off a table to roll several hundred kilometers before it found its way to the sea.

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Cinque Terre, as you have seen, could easily be a destination on its own and you could spend weeks there and not see it all. I would add this caution, though. Last summer Italy was overwhelmed with tourists. Places like Rome and Florence were better able to handle it than islands like Venice, or small towns in the Cinque Terre. Things got so bad that certain of these places,  Cinque Terre included, began restricting the number of people they would let in. All the more reason to go in the shoulder seasons rather than fight the heat and the crowds.

Next up: A Leisurely Drive Through Tuscany.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bay of Poets

My apologies to all my Italian readers. My little side trip to Cuba and other adventures have, no doubt, broken the spell. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico and think Italian thoughts. When last we visited Italy, we had gotten our rental car, managed to drive through Florence without getting killed, visited Pisa where I manged to drive straight through the pedestrian piazza, failed to get back onto the Autostrade and instead found ourselves in Carraara, the marble capital of the world. Eventually we arrived at our actual destination, La Spezia, the gateway to Cinque Terre.

La Spezia is a city larger than Canton, OH and it is nestled inside a very beautiful bay on the Italian Riviera.The reason we stayed there is that it is not a tourist town primarily and because it gave us a place to keep the car while we explored Cinque Terre. We’ll get into that stuff later, but since I know there are numerous English majors and/or enthusiasts who sometimes look at this blog I thought I would share with you a story that I sure never heard as an English major at BGSU.

The bay of La Spezia is called the Bay of Poets because it was a popular getaway for the likes, of Dante and Petrarch, then later, Lord Byron, and not least, Percy Byshee Shelley.

 Picture from some travel site.

Not least, because for a time Shelley had a place just up the bay a little bit, in the town of Lerici. One day in 1856 Shelly sailed off with a couple other guys in his new sailboat to meet with a collaborator on one of his projects. On the way back a storm came up and  the boat was swamped and sank. Shelly, age 29, and his two shipmates all drowned.

A day or so later, Shelly’s body washed up on the beach near Viareggio. The sanitary custom of time required on-the-spot cremation.

Painting by Louis Edouard Fournier

So, a ceremony was hurriedly put together. In attendance were Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, Shelly’s close friends. There are varying accounts of how this happened, but they all lead to the same outcome: Shelly’s heart did not burn. Trelawney fished it out with a stick, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief, and gave it to Shelly’s wife, Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. It is said she kept it in her desk drawer and, years later,  it was buried with the remains of their son.

Sorry to open with this grisly little tale, but it just goes to show that a tourist can happen by here 160 years later, look out over the bay and have no idea of the things that went on.

We arrived in La Spezia with only a general plan on visiting Cinque Terre. Turns out, this is a pretty big city so it took some driving around to get the lay of the land.

Some street scenes:

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Eventually we found the train station, but had much more difficulty finding a place to park. After driving up and down the hills we were able to locate a spot in front of a coffee house, so we stopped in and got our bearings using our phones. We had some time kill before our B&B would be expecting us, so we decided to walk down to the train station, just to plan for the next day.

To get to the train station you enter below and climb stairs to get the the actual entrance:

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A nice station

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Cinque Terre, interpreted literally, is the “Five Lands”, which they no doubt were when they were built hundreds of years ago. But now they are five villages, one more picturesque than the other. The train connects them all, but many people come here for the hiking. Cinque Terre is actually a national park. Hiking, however, was not on our agenda.

We had originally planned to stop in and buy a day pass for tomorrow. But, the guy at the window told us that the first village, Riomaggiore, was only ten minutes away and the train would be leaving soon. Well, why not? So, we jumped on the train and had a very pleasant afternoon there.

In the next post I’ll show you Riomaggiore, along with the other four villages, but instead we’ll keep it in La Spezia for now. By the time we returned our room was ready.

As it turned out, our room was located in a building that might have been a bank or an old hotel. Lots of marble inside. There were steel gates at the entrance. But we rang the bell and were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady, who helped us up the considerable stairs.

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All the climbing led us to a very nice room, one of about four or five on that floor. The lady of the house showed us around and gave us our set of keys. The only slight inconvenience was that our bathroom was down the hall and around the corner. It was not shared by the other guests, so that was good.

The first order of business in La Spezia was to find a laundromat. But, when we asked for a recommendation, our host said that her mother would do it. What? How much would she charge?. “She LOVES to do laundry.”, we were told. She will not charge. Well, we could hardly pass up that deal. So, later that night we treated her mama to a heaping pile of duds.

We then asked if she could recommend any nearby restaurants. She said, absolutely. There is a place called Trattoria Nuova Spezia about a fifteen minute walk away. She made reservations for us for 8:30 and gave us simple directions for finding the place.

Last order of  business, where to park the car. She told us that there is a city lot, about five blocks away. She said be sure to pay the meter and get a time-stamped ticket to put on the dash. Otherwise, we could look forward to paying a huge fine. So, soon I was out the door and retrieving the car from its temporary location. I had no problem finding the lot, but when I stuck some euros in the ticket machine, they came spilling right back out. After several attempts at this I started looking for another machine. I found one come distance away. Same problem. I started looking on the cars and many had tickets, but some did not. I pictured myself throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, telling them in English that I had really tried to buy a ticket, but their stupid machines didn’t work. I then pictured myself getting twenty years to life. I searched for yet another machine.

I finally found one, across the street from the parking lot. I prayerfully slammed in my euros for the maximum amount of time. It worked! Out came the ticket. I raced back across the street and carefully placed my ticket for maximum visibility. In the meantime, a lady behind me had observed my success and quickly slammed her euros into the same machine. Out they came. Clearly, the city had performed zero maintenance on these things for some long time. I doubted that they even bothered to check the tickets.

When I got back to our room I was about to raise that question with our hostess, but Dianne advised me she was gone for the day. And so began our first experience with what would be a recurring issue: the absentee host at our B&B’s. Apparently the custom now is, check ’em in and get the hell out. We had an emergency contact number. That was it.

It was now time for dinner, so we headed up the street. I had already gotten a preview of the neighborhood in my walk back from the parking lot. We headed down Via Amendola. It was clean, and there wee people around, but you see graffiti, even though it is everywhere in Europe, and you think gangs. If there are any, we didn’t see them, and we always felt safe.

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When we arrived at the front entrance we pulled on the door and it didn’t open. Another couple was standing nearby and one of them said, “It’s locked!”. Well, that seemed odd. “There are people in there, but they haven’t opened the doors yet,” they told us. So, glad to hear a little English we talked to them for a while. But, no luck on getting in. Finally I peered once more into the window on the door. A waiter happened to be walking by. I knocked. He looked at my haggard, starving face and opened the door right away. “Come in!” he said in English. As it turned out, the door opened to the inside, not outside, so it was open all this time. Once again. I can’t overstate the importance of making a good first impression. Apparently the fire codes in Italy are a little lax.

We told the people at the desk that we had reservations made by our hostess, who they indicated that they knew. We were promptly seated at a nice little table for two. In just a few minutes our waiter arrived. He welcomed us and asked where we were from. When we said America his eyes opened wide. “America!”, he said, “I LOVE America!” He went on to talk about all the things he loved about our country, but it seems he had never been there. From that point on, our names were “America”. He started us off with a small pitcher of house wine, which was excellent, then he came back to take our order. We picked a couple items  from the menu and then he said. “You don’t want that. You want THIS!” he pointed to several options. “THIS is excellent!” Well, his recommendations did sound good, so we went with the program.

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Our waiter, Luciano. That was not our meal. This is from the La Nuova Spezia Facebook page.

Well, in Italy you go through several courses and while, previously, we only picked a couple, here, we went full out. This is a small sampling:

Antipasta, with real anchovy.

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The creature on the left is a lobster.

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Fried seafood with more anchovies and a few tiny octopi in there as well. They were tasty, but, although I had the opportunity for more elsewhere in Italy, this was enough. Anchovies are more like smelt. Very yummy.

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Luciano took our picture before we exploded:

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Well, that was some dinner! While we were sampling away, a large family of about twelve occupied a big round table close by. They all knew the staff and were in an out of the kitchen. Dianne had a clear view into the kitchen, or as clear as you could get through clouds of steam. Carts, with four or five dishes each, were continuously streaming out. Empty carts were streaming in.

Since La Spezia is not principally  a tourist town, a restaurant like this is the real deal. Everybody knows everybody. The energy and noise level are high and the whole experience is an event. Luciano frequently returned and when he came to take our dessert order we said we were too stuffed. But, Luciano would have none of it. Just like the old Monty Python “One thin mint” routine, he offered us dessert on the house. OK. We shared a tiramisu:

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Fabulous! Then Luciano came back with a limoncello, the lemon flavored liqueur and an orange liqueur as well. “On the house!”, he said. We had originally planned to have dinner the next night in one of the five villages, but this place was so good and so fun and so reasonably priced, we made reservations for the next night. When we showed up, the hostess looked at the reservation book, turned it toward me, and asked, “Is this you?” Luciano had written “Captain America.”

The Women’s March on Washington

We knew this was going to be huge when our local paper reported on the morning of Inagural Day, that a woman in our area put out a notice on Facebook that she was looking for enough women to fill a bus to go to DC for the Women’s March on Washington. She received enough responses to fill TWO buses. This, from Donald Trump’s heartland!

The turnpike plaza where we stopped was packed full of women clearly headed to the march. Early estimates suggested there might be upwards of 200,000 demonstrators. Every indicator we saw suggested many more.

The speeches were supposed to begin at 10:00 so we left Emily’s house in Manassas before 7:00 to head for the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station. By the time we got there it was already very crowded. I had pre-ordered a Metro ticket long before the event, but it never arrived. I was afraid the lines to get passes would be around the block, but we were early enough and the Metro had people to help with the machines. There was no problem getting a ticket.

The Vienna station is the farthest out on this leg of the Metro system. Here is what the train was like, with many stops yet to come:

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Everywhere were the pink Pussy Hats, a recurring theme throughout the day. By the time the train arrived downtown, we were packed like sardines.

Because it was early, the barricades and food trucks were still being placed in position.

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The food trucks lined a side street, but were impossible to get to except for those on the fringe.

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Hundreds of porta-potties lined the streets and parks.

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The route they gave us took us down 7th St, right onto the National Mall and right again on 4th St. We could only get as close as the intersection of 4th and Independence, between the Air and Space Museum and National Museum of the American Indian.

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We were joined on this adventure by Jen’s friend Kim (on the left) who drove all the way here from Columbus.

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This is a family that took the picture above. In turn, we took a picture of them. They invited Emily to join them.

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Above is the end of the Air and Space Museum. This was as close as we could get. We arrived before 9:00 and by then Independence Avenue, where the stage was located, was packed. Here is the best aerial photo I could find showing our location:

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In the lower right corner you see a blue box (C-Span bus) and a white box (Holding a big TV screen) We were just off the picture to the right of the white box. That area on the lower right of the picture is 4th St. The long street to the left is Independence.

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Within the hour, our area became much more populated.

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Keep in mind, all the above was going on before the first speaker even started. Here are some of the sounds:

You will note that while this is a determined crowd, it is not an angry crowd. I certainly cannot comment on the behavior of the  hundreds of thousands of others scattered across the area, but where we were people were kind, respectful, helpful and supportive. Believe me, this day stood in sharp contrast to the demonstrations of the sixties and seventies. Maybe the most singular difference was in the attitude of the police and military who provided security. Far from combative, they joked with the crowd and were often helpful. There were no counter-demonstrations  in our area. As far as I know, there were not any. Even when we finally marched, we saw nothing even hostile. It is generally agreed that there were some 500,000 people participating in this march. The Washington DC police reported zero arrests. Better than Woodstock!

From time to time, first responders would have to work their way through the crowd. Everyone gave way.

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By now 4th street was packed all the way back to the National Gallery:

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The speakers started promptly at 10:00. If you have any interest in this event, you have probably already seen clips. Here was our view.

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Interspersed with all these people were a multitude of musical acts and speakers on every conceivable liberal agenda item.

There were problems with the sound system and some speakers could not be heard. Often the pictures of the crowd were pixelated. Those who arrived late, probably neither saw, nor heard any of the speakers, so, based on what we were hearing in the background, it seems they were amusing themselves with various chants, and who know what else.

The march was supposed to start at 1:00. At 2:30 they were still ranting away. After 5 and a half hours of this, while standing on hard pavement in the cold, misty air, and with no end in sight, we were starting to get edgy. And even those with the best of good will were sending echos of “MARCH! MARCH! MARCH!” cascading down 4th St. They fell on deaf ears. Some resorted to just sitting on the pavement if they could find room:

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Apparently (and somebody could have told us), because the crowds were so much larger than anticipated, the leadership first decided to cancel the march. Then, they changed the route from in front of the White House to down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Ellipse. Barricades had to be moved, and so on, and all of this took time.

When you are packed in that tight, you can’t just say, “Well, that was pleasant, but I think I’ll head home.” There is no escape in any direction except by way of endless “Scuse me”‘s. Finally we were given orders to march! But, the question was, which way? The person on stage pointed her finger into the camera and said, “March this way!” Apparently, she forgot that TV screens were facing in all four points of the compass. Eventually we figured it out. Up 4th Street we went.  Now, even more signs (if such a thing is possible), came out:

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Here are some of the sounds:

Mercifully, the route took us past a park:

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My favorite rebel:

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Then, off we went down Pennsylvania Avenue:

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We soon passed the Newseum, which, of course is dedicated to press freedom.

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Then, incredibly, it took us past the Trump hotel.

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Now people, I can guarantee that if this had been the sixties, there would not have been a window left un-smashed in this place. Today, people stopped for selfies. Then moved on.

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We continued on for several more blocks, but the end was still some distance away and it was after 5. Thinking of those long Metro lines to come, we abandoned ship and headed for the nearest station. Others had preceded us, and rather than try to squeeze their signs onto packed trains, they created their own little museum:

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The trains were indeed packed and it took us some time to get out of there, but the Metro workers are the unsung heroes of this event. They were terrific.

To experience a day such as this as a family is unforgettable. It was our moment for the ages.  Will it have any lasting effect? Who knows? That depends on you. The one lesson, though, regardless of your political leanings, that cannot be overlooked is this: The world is now being driven by social media. If you have any doubts, go back and take another look at these pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

Adios to the Land of the Palm Trees

I was down to my last few CUCs when Pedro dropped us off at the Arms Plaza. I used all but two of them to buy cigars for my friends back home. No problemo. I had enough USD’s to convert. I would simply head for the bank a couple blocks from our place and exchange them. Except, by the time I got to said bank, it was closed. Soon we were headed up Obrapia Street, where someone told us a bank would still be open. It was not.

The bank guard there told us there was a currency exchange a few blocks over. We went there. One look at the sad faces of those leaving told us something was not right. I approached the entrance window. The lady pointed to a large seated crowd of weary, forlorn tourists and said, “Dos horas”. Uh, two hours? No thanks.

Here is why I love TripAdvisor.  In their forums is all kinds of advice for sticky situations. In this case, the advice was to exchange currency at a hotel if all other options fail. We left this ship of the damned and soon found a very nice hotel and a clerk more than happy to see those USD’s. I ended up getting a better rate than at the bank.

So, now that I was solvent once again, it was time for some dinner.We headed back down Obrapia:

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We had passed a number of places with outside dining and finally found one that looked appealing. We thought we would celebrate our last night in Cuba with a nice $8 tenderloin. We were quickly advised they were out. John settled on a lesser cut. I decided to go for the pasta. It didn’t take long to realize we had picked the wrong place:

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That squiggly stuff on top is some kind of cheese. Sort of like Swiss. But not. John’s steak was not much better. How we missed Yelp!

In our younger days we might have taken advantage of our last night in Havana to party into the wee hours. But, considering that we would be leaving for the airport at 7:30 am and that our whirlwind three days had more than taken their toll, we decided instead to head for the Cathedral Plaza, light up a cigar and toast the city. It was a beautiful night.

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I will say this about traveling with John Starr: In addition to his sparkling sense of humor, this is a guy who appreciates adventure and who has the rare ability to stay cool when situations arise that others might find, shall we say, unnerving. And how fine it is to meet such an old friend later, not to talk about the good old days, but but about what just happened. It is something rare in my experience.

When you visit a country whose leaders have hated your own country’s everlovin’ guts for more than a half century, you want to make sure all “i”s are dotted and”t”s are crossed before you get there. But even more important than getting into such a country is getting out.  Once again, TripAdvisor’s forum offered considerable reassurance, as many described how easy the process was.

So, all paper’s complete and readily available, we were ready to go by 6:30am. Our hostess made it clear that her customary luxurious breakfast would not be available at that hour, but she did have coffee ready, which was the critical issue. We had just been seated when she came in to advise us that our taxi to take us to the airport was already here. I went down with my Anywhere Cuba itinerary in hand and pointed out 7:30 to the driver. No problemo! Take your time. Well, we didn’t need much. The owner and her daughter helped us with our bags and soon we were waving goodbye and heading east.

There were no stops this time. We made it to the airport before 10 for a 1 pm flight. We pulled our bags into the main entrance of Maximo Gomez airport and looked to the right. There, lined up in front of maybe 5 or 6 all-purpose computer screens was a crowd of bleary-eyed lost souls waiting to be checked in. The room was about the size of a basketball court. Once again, TripAdvisor came to rescue. Just before we left, there was a post regarding the airport at Varadero, which reported that for 30 CUC’s you could buy VIP status at the airport to get out of the long lines.

Sure enough, directly ahead was a kiosk. They were selling something else, I forget what, but I went to the lady in charge and just said “VIP?” She said, “Wait a minute.” and off she goes. Soon she returns with a very professional looking woman who is holding a sign that read “VIP”. She confirmed the price and asked if we were interested. We both quickly agreed. In a twinkling she was escorting us past the soulless eyes of the throng, directly to a clerk sitting behind a computer screen. This was the line we had to pass through.The people in the background were doing something else:

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The clerk studied my passport, then looked up at me. “Sir,” he said “I am afraid there’s going to be a problem.” My guts did a barrel roll. “Did you vote for Trump?” “No.” He started laughing. “OK, just checking. Ha Ha Ha” From that point on he cracked one joke after another, quite a hilarious guy. Not exactly the time or place for this particular routine, however.

We were offered free checked bags, but I kept mine. John checked his. The VIP lady showed up again and moved us to a special Passport Control window where we did not have to wait in line. She seemed to know everybody in the airport and whatever she asked for, she got. All to our benefit. Passport Control could not have been easier. They take your picture, you give them the second half of your visa, they scan your passport, stamp your visa, which they keep, they hand you back your passport and say, “Please come again soon!”

Security was just like TSA.

It only took maybe twenty minutes to go through all this, then the VIP lady comes again and escorts us to the VIP lounge. There, a very nice gentleman collected our thirty CUC’s and offered to make us a sandwich. He then pointed to the bar area and advised us that all drinks are free. They would make a Mojita for us, or whatever.  Plus they had all kinds of snacks. Since it was early in day, free orange juice and coffee were perfect and some sponge cakes held us over till he brought the sandwiches. Here is the lounge:

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The place was only about a third full when we got there, and as flights were called the crowd diminished further. Soon it was just John and me. They had CNN on in English, so we finally got some details about the election.

The manager came around and invited us to take the escalator up to the second floor, where they have a bunch of shops in case we didn’t get enough souvenirs. I spent a few of my last CUC’s on some things, and went back to the lounge.

It turned out that our plane arrived on time, but since the airport has only four gates, they had to wait for a gate to open before we could board. It took about a half hour. Once again, the plane was about two-thirds full, so John and I could move around to window seats. We said our goodbyes to Cuba

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In no time at all we were rolling into our gate in Miami. During the flight, US Customs came on the screen to advise us about the streamlined procedure for going through. Rather than fill out forms, all we had to do was scan our passports at one of a multitude of kiosks. When you do that all your flight info comes up, along with the form and some touch-screen check boxes.  Then it takes your picture and prints out a form to hand to the agent.

John passed right through customs. The guy stopped me and asked if I was bringing back anything. I said cigars. He asked how many. I told him. That was it. By then there were no restrictions on the number anyway, so I don’t even know why he asked. Probably just to pass the time.

Since we had already been screened in Cuba, TSA gave me a pre-check card to carry with me. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. That was it. We were back in the good ol’ US of A!!!

Well, people, there have been a few changes since that plane touched down on the terra firma. My original objective was to see Havana in the time of the Castros. Turns out we cut it pretty close.  Now, with Fidel about to head up the smokestack, and lots of armed people around,  personally I would hold off on visits for a while.

Cuba, in the time of the Castros held few real surprises. Wealth is not flaunted, but there is wealth among those with the guns. Mostly, there is poverty and this is in places of relative prosperity. It takes no imagination to envision life in the small villages across this huge island. One thing that was not a surprise, because it is legendary, is the vitality and good nature of the Cubans themselves. This is a warm and welcoming country that deserves much better than it got.

Once the way forward is clearer, it will be an island well worth visiting. When the time comes, I cannot recommend highly enough the services of Anywhere Cuba. You will know what you are paying for and the people you hire will deliver. And, if trouble arises, they’ve got your back. For Cuba, my hope is for better days ahead.

https://www.anywhere.com/cuba

For those who follow this blog, if you are wondering what the hell ever happened to the tales of Italy, we are headed back there next. I got a little distracted this fall.