Around the ‘Hood

Havana is a city of 2.1 million people. The Old Town begins at the city’s harbor and appears to end roughly at the Capitol Building.

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The red X marks the location of Casa Venezia, our Casa Particular. We didn’t realize it at the time but Oficios street, where we were,  is a primary connecting street for all of the Old Town.

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Since we had some time before the first tour, we decided to get lunch and check out the area. Right around the corner, toward the docks, we had passed a nice looking restaurant. Soon we were settled in. It didn’t take long for the music to start.

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At almost every restaurant we visited, live music was part of the experience. And, these people were excellent musicians. For a few pesos, well worth it. The food was also quite good and very reasonably priced. About 8 USD’s will get an excellent meal in Cuba.

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The lobster is not from Maine. Still tasty but a little, shall we say, firm.

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After lunch we checked out the neighborhood. We soon found that three large plazas were within easy walking distance. The first was the Cathedral Square:

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Nice place! However, as we approached the square I saw, hovering near the entrance, several ladies all dressed up in their dance hall finery. The oldest trick in the tourist book. John was a little behind me when I blew past those women. Then I knew that, just like a calf in a buffalo herd, the wolves had gotten him. Sure enough:

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To his credit, he was able to talk them down from their original exorbitant asking price to just a few CUC’s. It was hard bargaining. All in all, a small price to pay for the Cuban Tourist Education Program.

Later in our travels we encountered one of several tour groups. None were American. Many were Canadian. Judging from the flight board at the airport, about a third of all air traffic was from Canada, about a third from Europe. The rest were Middle East and Africa and one American. Us. It appears there are strong ties between Canada and Cuba. You would think they would be investing, but I imagine the commies have some kind of issue. Who knows?

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We then went up one of the streets leading to the Capitol building. These were busy, lively places to go.

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Then to the Plaza Vieja.

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This is a plaza surrounded by nice shops and some homes. Since Cubans can now own property, if they can’t afford to pay for the entire cost they are able to set up businesses, like this upstairs cafe’.

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Also, along the way, we passed multitudes of street vendors, all declaring their friendship with us:

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After the Spanish were driven off the island, there turned out to be an excess of cannons. At first, nobody could figure out what to do with them. Then somebody had the bright idea of using them to close off streets to traffic. Worked like a charm! But, when it’s time for street repair, they have to come up:

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Not often you see a bunch of cannons laying around. And these are real, too!

At the Plaza Veija there is a famous work of art called “The Power of Women Over Men” There is, of course, the fork. The rest is self-explanatory:

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By the time we had taken in all these sights, we had wandered somewhat far from our home. We had to be back there by 2:00 for our first tour. Since it was now quite a hike, we decided to hire a tri-cycle with a very cozy seat. Off we went. When we pulled up to our place the guide was already waiting. The driver charged us 40 CUC’s, which was an outrage. Here is a classic blunder: Always set the price BEFORE you go. We had to cough it up. To our credit, this was the only time we got snookered down there, although many tried. So, it was a better track record than usual.

 

 

 

 

On the Road to Habana

On the whole, the Cuban people are poor, with the average wage per month being about $19 USD’s, according to Wikipedia, or 466 CUPs.  About 80% of the people are employed by the government. Only recently has there even been a private sector, which is now the other 20%. There are no traffic jams because few have cars. There are no yachts in the harbor because there are no rich. Or, there is no ostentation. Interestingly, one of the guides told us, and other confirmed, no one knows where Fidel and Raul Castro live. They just show up for work. They are said to live among the people, in true commie fashion. Uh-huh. They probably don’t have any Caribbean bank accounts either.

On our trip from Varadero to Havana we saw many examples of what daily life is like for the Cubans. Here is a guy on his way to work. It is Wednesday, not Monday. That says it all.

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More likely you will see groups of say, 50 or so waiting along the road for the next bus. The buses are often tandem, two buses being pulled by one. My guess is, the AC, even if it works, fails to meet the demand on a hot summer day. In addition to the buses you will often see another form of transportation, the dump truck:

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Some dump trucks are even fit out with seats, possibly folding chairs. All this for a subsistence wage. It is said the people in the countryside are even poorer.

The road into Havana is four lanes all the way and well-maintained with flowers and well-tended plants in the median. We would often see workers with machete’s knocking down weeds. Clearly the idea is for foreigners to have a pleasant journey, which it was.

About half way to Havana, we passed through the port city of Matanzas. In typical Cuban fashion there were palaces next to dilapidation

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A high-rise apartment.

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A nice area near the harbor.

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Not far from Matanzas we came upon this. The cloud extended out into the ocean as far as the eye could see:

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In time the driver stopped for a much-needed break at this small observation area:

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As usual, somebody was selling something:

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Plus they had yet another band of musicians. And trinkets galore.

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Or, you could just look at the scenery, which is what the stop is actually for!

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Soon we were on the outskirts of Havana:

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To get into the city, you have to go through a tunnel which takes you under the harbor.

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When you come out on the other side, the fist thing you see is Morrow Castle, the only landmark I knew in Cuba:

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We wound our way along the harbor for a brief time, then the driver turned down some side streets. Soon we were winding our way through very narrow, bustling streets of Old Havana.

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There were some condition issues with the streets and some of the properties, but on the whole this was a lively and colorful part of the city. In time, the driver stopped at a corner. “This is it,” he said in broken English. We looked around. There was a door standing open that led into a small, I guess “courtyard” is the word, but it was more like an alleyway inside the building, painted green. A couple of stories up a woman yelled down for us to go inside. In we went.

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We wound our way through a kind of passageway:

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Under those steps you see in the background. Then into an open area:

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When we got to these gates, the owner’s daughter was there to greet us and hand us each a set of four keys we would need to get our room. Experience tells me that this is about three keys too many. Up we go.

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And go….

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And go. Note the bottom step in the picture below. It is about three inches higher than all the others at every level. I took its picture because John and I tripped over it every time we went up there, which was often.

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It was a hike, people! Theresa, Rich and Dianne Stoner will remember one much like it a little farther north.

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At last we were in our new home! And, in spite of tight, and I mean TIGHT security, and the considerable cardiovascular test that was administered, we absolutely loved this place!

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The room was basic, but had a great AC. John’s had two twin beds.

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A common bath, but immaculately clean. Hot water was in short supply, however. Just like in Varadero.

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The dining area, where they served a terrific breakfast.

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An immaculate kitchen, which in pleasant Spanish we were invited to keep the hell out of.

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And a very nice living room, tastefully appointed.

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This is certainly better than we expected, given the locale. We had time to freshen up, and look around the hood before our first tour.

 

 

 

Cuba, 2016

In 1959, when I was eleven years old, the commies took over Cuba. With that takeover, and everything that went on after, it looked like I would never see the day when the doors would open to Americans. That is, till this year. Following a series of sweeping reforms,  a path is now open.

For years, I have discussed with friends how we might get over there. Now, all of a sudden, here it was. And, there was no better time, since we would already be in Florida for the twenty-year anniversary of our first visit to Key West that I posted earlier. And, while everyone in our party considered it, only I and one other, John Starr, actually decided to go through with it. Dianne had no particular interest in this experience.

Serious planning for this trip began around the end of May. Last year, Dianne and I visited Costa Rica and on this trip all the planning and arrangements were accomplished through the assistance of a tremendous organization called “Anywhere Costa Rica”. I was pleased to discover that they had just opened up an office in Havana called “Anywhere Cuba”. I contacted them right away, and just like in Costa Rica, they were outstanding to work with.

At this time it is not possible to go to Cuba as a tourist. You have to plan your travel to meet one of the twelve approved reasons for going. The category we chose was the “People to People Travel” which focuses on interaction with the Cuban people through planned activities. These activities were set up by “Anywhere Cuba”, and there were plenty of them. Anyone who has followed this blog already knows that these kinds of exchanges, more than just sightseeing, are the reason we like to travel in the first place.

Although all this sounds simple, there were a lot of details to work out which I won’t go into on this blog. If you are seriously considering doing this yourself, contact me directly and I will provide you with links and budget info. It is not extremely expensive, but not cheap either.

The purpose of our trip, in addition to interacting with the people, was to see Havana before we Americans come in with our Yankee dollars and change the place forever. It is rare to be able to go anywhere that has not been overdeveloped. Cuba is one of the last.

Sometime this summer, four or five airlines were approved by the US and Cuban governments to fly routes to Cuba. It was not until about a month ago that any of them began to actually fly. And, while all approved airlines put out flight schedules, none of them fly into Havana. The closest we could get was an American Airlines flight into a small town called Varadero, which we had never heard of. It is about an two hour drive to Havana from there. I checked to see if there were buses running and there were several. I contacted “Anywhere Cuba” and they offered to send a private driver and, since we would not arrive in Cuba till about noon, they booked one night for us there and two nights in Havana. That was all we needed.

One of the requirement for getting into Cuba is to purchase a visa or, Travel Card. If you buy it from the Cuban government, it costs 50 USD’s. If you buy it through American Airlines it costs 85. I tried to buy it directly, but the Cuban government web site is not set up to handle American currency. Since I didn’t have any British Pounds laying around, I went through American. I will say, they provided very good service and FedEx’d the visas immediately.

The visa comes in two halves. One to get into the country and, more importantly, one to get out. Sadly, the Cubans only stamp the visa, not your passport.

Because of the still-in-place embargo, Cuba has no relationship with any US banks, cell providers, or anyone else. Even UPS and FedEx have nothing there. DHL is the only delivery service. So, when you go to Cuba you will have NO cell phone service, internet (except VERY sparse wifi) no credit cards, no debit cards. You are on your own Thankfully, Anywhere Cuba provided us with a Cuban cell phone in case we had problems. That was our life line down there.

You must bring cash to Cuba. When you get to the Cuban airport there will be a currency exchange. You will change your USD’s to the Cuban currency called the CUC, although they are called pesos by the locals. The Cuban government charges a 10% penalty for the exchange of USD’s. So, 100 USD’s will get you about 80-90 CUC’s depending on the exchange rate over and above the penalty.

Interestingly, the CUC is a currency created for tourists only. It is not traded on any international currency exchange, so you cannot buy them ahead. Actual Cuban citizens use a similar peso called a CUP. These are not traded either. While no one explained this to us, it is pretty evident that the Cuban economy is shored up, in part,  by its holdings in foreign currency.

With American Airlines it is not possible to pre-print a boarding pass to Cuba. They say to be there three hours before the flight. We were a little tardy, but not much. When you get to a kiosk at the check-in everything is routine. They scan your passport and then a screen comes up asking for which of the 12 reasons your are going to Cuba. You tap the one that applies to you and that’s it. The subject never comes up again. No questions asked. No one to see. No nothing. They print your boarding pass, you go through TSA and head for the gate.

At the gate, there is a kiosk just for visitors to Cuba. There a young lady looks over your visa to make sure it’s filled out correctly, looks over your passport and then stamps your boarding pass “Cuba Ready”. With that stamp you are allowed on board the plane. Cuba also requires a fee for their medical insurance and an exit fee (like many countries south of the border) but the cost of these things is already built into your plane ticket and they handle it.

So now, after all these months, the only thing left for us to do was fly.

Varadero

Varadero, as it turns out, is a beach resort area overlooking the Strait of Florida where it meets the Gulf of Mexico.In Havana they call it the “Plastic City” because it was apparently created for tourists. You see it on the right.

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The plane was only about 2/3 full and most of the passengers were Cuban nationals. Very few like us.  John and I were able to switch seats so we could see what was below. We were surprised to see fairly rugged mountains, like the Blue Ridge, but not as high. Here is what looked like on approach:

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The airport is new, but small with a total of four gates.

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When we got off the plane we had to go through passport control and another TSA type screening. John and I only had carry-on bags. We had been warned by Anywhere that checked bags can take over an hour to be processed.

After we got through all that we headed for the exit and there was our driver holding up the Anywhere Cuba sign! Always a relief to see that guy. We stopped at the currency exchange, got enough bills to last a day or two and we were off to our new home.

Perhaps you are familiar with the ABC’s of sales: “Always be Closing”. In Cuba, they have not hit that level quite yet. Instead it is “Always be Selling” and from the moment your tootsies hit Cuban soil, somebody will be trying to sell you something. Between the currency exchange window and our cab it was cold beer and souvenirs. We declined both.

In Cuba, tourists have two options for places to stay: One is the state-run hotels which generally receive poor reviews. The other option is a “Casa Particualar”. Within the last few years the government has allowed private property owners to rent out all, or part, of their houses to tourist after the fashion of B&Bs. Casa Partculars are available through, for example, Air B&B. Their reputation is much better than the hotels. And, staying with a family is consistent with the “people to people” mission. A perfect fit.

Originally, Anywhere booked us into a house in town. A few days before departure, however, I received an e-mail from them saying they had just added a new property which was on the beach. They changed the booking and put us there, subject to our approval. We approved. This was the place:

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Before long, our driver pulled up to the gate and we were in! They had two rooms for us, one in the front, one in the back. We flipped for the one in front. I won. But, we mostly spent time on the balcony anyway, so we both got good use out of that room. Here is a view from the room:

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And, from the balcony. A private resort was next door.

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Here is the room interior. Dated and somewhat worn.

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Here is the layout of Varadero. An X marks our location:

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This is an expanded view:

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The point of these maps is, this place is much bigger than it looks. That is, longer. We had a nice lunch. Our first meal in Cuba was a pizza. Then, we went back to the house. The rooms were ready, so we got settled in and checked out the beach. John waded into the water, but I declined. When I was younger I loved the sun. Now, for some reason, it seems to want to kill me. Even when trying to avoid it, I still get plenty.

Later in the afternoon we decided to head uptown. However, it became clear that we were not going to see much of this place without assistance. Travel in Varadero takes three forms: Standard taxi, three-wheeled motorcycle, or horse-drawn carts. Keeping with “people to people” we chose the latter.

The driver was an old man, who spoke little English, but we were able to get the message across that we wanted a tour. Off we went!. He had one of his sons with him and we soon picked up another.

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Here was part of trip: (video)

 Here is what The Lonely Planet says about Cuba: “Timeworn but magnificent, dilapidated but dignified, fun yet maddeningly frustrating – Cuba is a country of indefinable magic.” That’s as close as I can come to explaining this place, although I’m still processing it. It is like a 1950’s theme park, except it is real. So, on the one hand you have a very nice resort:

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A few blocks down, this: Right on the beach.

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You think a beach front property like this would be standing in the US? Cranes would be running into each other trying to knock it down. Throughout all the places we visited the one glaring common theme was lack of working capital.

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The fitness club was a big attraction for the locals:

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It was now almost dark and our driver started recommending restaurants. It later became clear that drivers get a little extra for bringing in people. But his choice was good and so was the food.

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They had an excellent band playing Cuban music at this restaurant. During the break they come around for tips, which we gladly provided. The band leader asked where we were from and when we said “America” he didn’t understand. When I said “Estados Unidos” he stared at both of us and shook John’s hand. He said that was the first time he had ever shaken hands with someone from the US. Maybe. Maybe not.

If I have learned anything from our travels it is, when someone approaches you for whatever reason, be wary. Before long, the leader was back with a small handful of USD’s. He said the manager had paid him in these and he wondered if we could convert them to CUC’s. So, here we go again. I told him on our tour we had passed a very nice bank. We suggested that he use it.

After dinner it was now pitch black and we had no idea how far up the main street we were from our house. We took a left and started hoofin’ it. Before long we spied a lady with a three-wheeled moped looking like she could use some work. She spoke virtually no English, and we could not give her a destination since we didn’t even know our address. While I was searching through my pockets for a card from the house she noticed my World Series hat. She said “Ah Basebol!” In very broken English she said she knew Adolphus Chapman, the Cubs fireballer, who is from Cuba. John kept asking her questions. It turns out her son plays baseball and played with Adolphus. Well, then, it turned out he didn’t play with him, but had seen him. Uh, OK, she actually never met him, but had heard of him.

While this discussion was going on, I realized I had nothing to show her our destination. Finally we said, “Turn left and we’ll tell you when to stop.” Off we went.

It turned out to be a short trip, however and she soon had us home.

This is the main gathering area of the house:

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The TV was on and the election returns were coming in. John and I went to our respective rooms. I watched the returns until there were some grave doubts that Hillary would pull this off. I shut it off and hit the hay. But there were some real issues with this room that I won’t get into. Suffice it to say, it was a mostly sleepless night.

When I woke up the next morning I turned on the TV in my room. There was no cable service. I went downstairs and met John at a patio by the beach. A woman from another group came over to ask if we had heard the news. She didn’t have to bother. Her expression told the story. Nothing to be done about it. We got ready for our driver to Havana, who was due at 8.

KEY WEST, NOVEMBER, 1996

 “The writer writes his book to try to explain to himself what’s beyond his comprehension.”
Gabriel García Márquez

Forward

This is a story about a dumbass. It is all true, to the best of his recollection. So true, in fact, that the characters are all real people, names unchanged. Why not? There is only one dumbass in this story and that’s the guy who’s writing it.

 In The Beginning

We didn’t really need a fire. It was July 4, 1986. A fire just seemed like a good idea. We were out in western Holmes County, Ohio at Pat and Pete Morgantis’ home in the boonies. Only the men-folk opted for the fire, the wives preferring the cooler indoors. So it was Pete, myself, and Pete’s brother-in-law Mark sitting around the fire, sipping the suds and discussing the issues of the day. Then Pete changed the subject.

“I was reading an article the other day about some guys who agreed to meet each other at a certain place, at a certain time, exactly ten years later. And, they agreed to arrive by different means, unknown to the others. They would simply arrive at the right spot at the right time. There would be no further discussion among them. That’s what I think WE should do.”

Mark and I exchanged knowing glances.

“OK. Where should we meet?”

We discussed various places, Los Angeles, Vegas, even Alaska. No consensus. Then it became clear that Pete had a destination in mind all along.

“How about this? I propose that we meet in front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West at high noon.”

Hmmm. He was on to something. All three of us were frequent visitors to Put-in-Bay, a small city of bars out in Lake Erie. At the Bay, Sloppy Joe’s was legendary both as Hemmingway’s hangout and the place where many of the musicians who played the Bay went in the winter. The idea received instant approval. Except that, wouldn’t it be hotter than hell on July 4?

We agreed that it would. So, we decided to add six months. Except, isn’t that the most beautiful time to be in Ohio, with the fall leaves and all? True. So, OK six month plus one. There was not much to miss in Ohio in November. We were agreed.

So, how would we get there? We couldn’t all three find ourselves on the same plane, or whatever.

“I’m flyin’” said Pete. That left Mark and me few options except driving, or maybe a bus or a train. Then I had an epiphany.  Years before I had, over a series of trips, traveled almost all of the US by motorcycle, easily the greatest adventures of my life to date. Although I no longer had a bike, it seemed no challenge at all to come up with something in ten years

“I’m going by bike.” Mark and Pete looked at each other.

“OK. Whatever” I had been so focused on how I might come up with a bike that I set aside the detail of what a November ride might be like. At least the Ohio part. I remained committed. Mark did not declare any means of travel that day.

“OK,” Pete went on. “The only way this is ever going to work is if we get the ladies to buy in. And, the only way that will happen is if, every time we get together, we bring the subject up: November 4th, high noon, Sloppy Joe’s, Key West. Over and over and over.”

We saw the wisdom in his plan. We shook hands, then ran indoors to tell the wives. They barely looked up from their wine glasses.

People, for the next ten years, I mean ten long years, at every possible opportunity, we stayed on message. And, with each passing year, we were taken slightly more seriously so that as 1996 drew closer, some hard questions started to be asked. By this time I had taken a new job as the superintendent (the title given to the person who runs things) of the Coshocton County program serving infants, children and adults with developmental disabilities. This had necessitated a move from western Holmes County to a home just over the line in neighboring Coshocton County. Although we were farther removed from our friends we were still able to keep in touch. Just not as often. And we were still able to reaffirm our plans.

1996

While I began the year steadfast in my determination to make this a motorcycle trip, one nagging problem could not be overlooked: I did not own a working motorcycle. And, with our daughter Emily beginning her freshman year at Miami University in the fall, this did not appear to be the year to be busting the very tight budget for an item that would be welcomed only by me, and mightily scorned by all others in the family. My wife, Dianne, had finally come to accept the inevitability of the trip, but the motorcycle part was quite another matter.  It appeared I would flying the big bird after all. Then a miracle happened.

One spring day I happened to tell this entire story to Dennis Eggerton, a co-worker and a friend. He said, “You need a bike? I’ve got several. You can use one of mine!”

Wow! Now things were getting REAL! I promised I would pay for a tune-up and replace any worn items when I got back. He wasn’t even much interested in that part.

As summer turned to fall, final plans fell into place. Pete made hotel reservations at La Concha for the three of us. We were each fine tuning our plans. That’s when the boys broke the news that they were both flying AND they were both flying together, acts far removed from the spirit of the original plan. I had no problem reminding them that at least one of us would be true to our agreement. They were unmoved.

About a week before departure we met one last time to talk over final details, and, most importantly, to synchronize our watches. Remember, this was before cell phones and also before the internet was of much use. We shook hands and said see ya in Key West.

By way of preparation, I first had to make arrangements at the program to make sure everything was taken care of before I left. I put in for a week of vacation, figuring three days to get down there, three days there and three days to get back with an extra for weather. Four of those days would be weekend days. Dennis was the man in charge in my absence.

My plan for departure was to leave of November 1st which should give me plenty of time. It is roughly 1,450 miles from our home to Key West one way. To keep down costs I took our used camping gear so I could just put up a tent along the way. And, while in this day and age a person would spend hours and multiple dollars at an outfitting store choosing all the right gear, I went to Wal-Mart in Millersburg bought a vinyl plastic rain suit and a sports bag (not waterproof) for a suitcase. The plastic garbage bag with which I covered the sports bag and sleeping bag made them waterproof.

I took grateful possession of the bike about a week before the departure date. It was a 500cc Yamaha Virago. I was a little concerned that a 500 would be under-powered for a trip like this, but it was not. Even carrying my gear and myself it zipped around traffic with the greatest of ease.

It had been quite a few years since I’d even been on a bike, so the trip to our house set no land speed records.  I appreciated the electric start, as my Triumph was a kick start. Not really a problem, but electric is much easier. The one issue I spotted early on, however, was that this bike did not have a sissy bar, so there would be nothing to fasten my sports bag, or my sleeping bag onto. I went to a metal shop and asked them to bend a piece of rebar in a shape that would work. I painted it and then fastened it onto the bike frame with hose clamps. It worked like a charm.

One item of preparation not so easily accomplished was tranquility at the old homestead. For Dianne, the bike part of things was still a “no sale”. Considering that she had ridden with me to South Dakota and Wyoming on two separate occasions, one of which was on our first anniversary, I had hoped she might project her fond memories of those adventures onto this one. That did not happen. The atmosphere, in those final days of preparation, was tense.

November 1

Departure day dawned bright and clear. It also dawned cold and crisp, somewhere in the mid-forties. I had my winter coat, a sweatshirt, jeans and my white sports shoes and black leather gloves. I was good to go. I wanted to get an early start, so our daughter Jen had not left for school. She gave me a goodbye hug and said “Don’t crash and die.” I assured her I would try not to. Dianne gave me a hug and goodbye kiss and said to call her when I got there and don’t ride in the dark. I said I would call right away, but did not discuss riding in the dark, which was inevitable. Off I went.

At that time we lived on Ohio State Route 83 between Millersburg and Coshocton. My plan was to ride 83 down to US 36, east to I-77, then I-77 to Columbia, South Carolina for the night. It was a somewhat chilly ride down 83. At the point where US 36 meets I-77 there was a McDonalds, so I thought I might as well stop in and get a cup of coffee before continuing on my way. As I was sipping the java I happened to notice a copy of USA Today was sitting on one of the trash receptacles so I got up and brought it back to my table. Before long I was at the back page where the weather report is. When I looked it over I did not like what I saw. Which was, that I might soon be running into snow AND there was an ice warning for the mountains south of Charleston, West Virginia. I looked outside at the beautiful blue sky and wondered how this could possibly be.

Now at this point you might be thinking, well ya dumbass, didn’t you look at a weather report before you planned this debacle? As a matter of fact, no. I didn’t. The reason for that is, remember, this was 1996. I’m not even sure we had the internet back then and if we did, we did not have all the fancy weather sites we enjoy today. We probably had The Weather Channel on the satellite dish, but rarely watched it since it didn’t have local weather on it. The two principal reasons I got that rude surprise at McDonalds were; 1) I had a rain suit and garbage bags to cover my gear so I considered myself ready for the rains that would surely come, and, most importantly, 2) In my mind South=Warm and the Souther you go, the warmer it gets. Good theory, soon to be debunked.

The first flakes of snow didn’t start falling till I was past Cambridge. It began as a squall and I pulled off to a rest area to wait it out. I was chilly, but even though the temps were in the thirties I was OK to ride. The squall soon diminished to flurries and I set out again. The only thing the flakes had accomplished was to make the road wet. My white shoes were soon soaked and my piggies were getting cold. I decided that when I hit Marietta I would pull off and buy some boots. Which I did. I found some cheap rubber high-top boots that I wore under my jeans so they wouldn’t fill up with water. That appeared to solve the problem.

The prospect of ice in the mountains past Charleston now seemed a very real concern, but by the time I got there they had salted the highway so it was only wet, although it was also kind of foggy. Once I came down on the other side the weather cleared and the air warmed up into the forties. I now felt like I could get to Columbia, as planned. It was around six or so that I stopped somewhere near Charlotte, found a pay phone, and called home. A relieved Dianne was pleased to hear I had made it that far. I said I still wanted to get to Columbia, which wasn’t that far away, and call it a night. We did not discuss night riding, per se.

An hour and a half later I was on the Columbia, SC outer belt. Although I originally planned to camp, after such a long day, I decided a cheap hotel was a better option. I had seen a billboard sign for a Red Roof Inn, but could not remember the exit. I rode the outer belt half way around Columbia and was faced with the prospect of either taking the last exit or going farther south. I was in no mood to extend the day beyond Columbia. As I approached the last exit I saw a neon sign: Econo Inn. Actually it was the Economy Inn, but the last two letters of the sign had burned out. Perfect! I was soon greeted by a couple of Indian gentlemen who took my $35 and handed me the key.

This was a single story old southern motel, clean, but showing some age. I locked the bike, pulled off my gear and headed into my room. It was basic, but it served my needs quite well. I settled in, went out to call home and find a restaurant, came back and crashed. A good day.

November 2

The next morning, I awoke to the tintinnabulation of pouring rain. A quick look out the window confirmed what I hoped was just a bad dream. I told myself that after a nice hot shower and a change into dry clothes it would all go away.

The shower did indeed melt away some the aches and pains from my previously sedentary carcass. As I was scrub-a-dubbing, however, I happened to glance up at the ceiling of the shower stall. There, glancing back at me, was my first ever palmetto bug, the Southern cockroach. He was black and shiny, about the size of a small dog. To the extent that such a thing is possible, he looked amused. I was not.

I departed the shower leaving only a vapor trail. I ran so fast I didn’t even need a towel to dry off. Soon I was pulling on dry clothes, then my rain suit, then my boots. I covered my luggage with my garbage bag, strapped them to the bike, and was gone.

I have many memories of this trip, of course, and one that often stands out is the sensation of riding up the I-77 on-ramp in that steady rain and, with the gathering speed, how the sounds shift deeper and how intense the pounding rain becomes. Acceleration, people. There is no substitute.

Just out of Columbia I-77 joins I-26. About an hour and a half later this road joins I-95 which would take me the length of Florida. The ride from Columbia to Savannah was like driving through a car wash. The rain never let up and often intensified. I will say this, though, the bike held its own. No slips through the curves, no loss of control during sudden stops. And, even at freeway speeds there was always at least one more handful of power, if needed. Great bike! Thanks, Dennis!

The nice thing about face shields on helmets it they are curved to such a degree that rain runs off and you don’t have to install a wiper. Ha ha. Unfortunately, the rain that runs off, will often find its way down your back, especially when your rain suit is tailored by Wal-Mart. Additionally, by the end of those three hours the wind-whipped plastic of said rain suit will start to shred into microscopic pieces.  By the end of the day, there will be little of the lower half of that suit that will be familiar to the original consumer. And that is what much of the next three hours was like.

Somewhere south of Savannah, though, I found that I had outrun the storm.  But, a quick glance into the rear view mirrors revealed those same glowering black clouds right behind me. That storm chased me all the way into Florida, through Jacksonville and St. Augustine. I had only time to stop for gas and a brief lunch before the sprinkles would start up again. At Ormond Beach I called it quits for the day.

Once again, I had planned to camp nearby, but the threatening rain and the compelling need to dry out, convinced me otherwise. I called home and explained the situation. I was encouraged to seek shelter. So, just inside the city limits before you hit the high rises I found a little hotel run by a Japanese family that must have had the word “Cheap”, “Budget” or “Economy” in the name. I settled in and changed to dry clothes. I walked up the street and found a very nice German restaurant. I ordered a schnitzel and a couple St. Pauli’s. This was the first time since leaving home that this trip felt anything like a vacation.

November 3

I awoke to a bright Florida sun. At last! Imagine my disappointment, then, when I stepped outside to discover that it was only about 40 degrees. Wait a minute! This is Florida isn’t it? So, back on with the Winter coat and off I went.

It’s a four hour run from Ormond Beach to Miami. On my way down I was treated to the stylings of Florida drivers, who, in my experience, rank second only to Michigan drivers for achievements in reckless operation. And, regardless of numerous postings to the contrary, the standard speed is 85 mph. Thankfully, my little Yamaha was more than capable of producing. Years of biking has taught me one thing: you don’t want to be the slow guy in the fast lane and down there all the lanes are fast.

As I came closer to Miami I began to realize that finally the air was getting warmer. In time I was able to stop and take off the winter coat. By early afternoon I was on US 1 which takes the form of a causeway leading to the Keys.

This time I was determined to find a camping place. It did not take long. On the far edge of Key Largo I saw a sign for RV and tent camping. I pulled in and looked around. The place was only about half full and there were many tent sites available, some right near the lapping waves of the Gulf. I chose one of these. I found a small building that passed for an office. There was on one there, but there were cards to fill out and hang at the camp site. I completed the card, hung the sign, set up my little tent and rolled out the sleeping bag. By the time I completed this operation I had already suffered about a dozen mosquito bites with the promise of many more to come.

Just before I had turned into the campground I notice a small general store. I had had more than enough biking by that time so I decided to walk up there. I soon was in possession of a large bottle of mosquito repellent which I applied liberally to myself, my tent and everything inside. It did the trick. I was settled in. It would be another three hours to Key West which gave me plenty of time to get there by noon. Now I had some time on my hands.

I had also noticed , as I rode into town, that not far from the general store there was a nice looking little bar called the Caribbean Club. It promised a relaxing afternoon so, again choosing to walk, I headed up that way.

When you saunter into the place the first thing you see is wood paneled walls hung with large stuffed fish and various pictures of huge fish. In front of you is the wood-paneled bar and to the right a pool table and a wall with a fireplace above which is the biggest stuffed fish in the place, a marlin. I sat at a corner of the bar near the fireplace and ordered a brew. This was a Sunday and the Dolphins game was on the TV. They were losing.

Above the fireplace were several framed newspaper articles and, being in no rush, I looked them over. I was surprised to learn that this very bar had been the inspiration for the movie “Key Largo” and several external scenes were shot here. At that time there was also a hotel here and a larger bar. They all burned down in 1955 and this wall was apparently the only thing remaining of the original. Bogart and Bacall actually stayed here for some “mood shots”.

 It didn’t take long to get the idea that the Caribbean Club had a mostly local following. Everybody seemed to know everybody. A little while after I settled in a couple local boys, who had possibly been hitting the sauce before they got here, decided to take up a game of pool. They racked up the balls and one of guys said, “All right. Your ass is grass and I’m the lawn mower!” He shot the break and none too well. It was clear that neither of them had brought their “A” game. The breaker often repeated his famous phrase, now adding numerous adjectives in front of “lawn mower” borrowed directly from his unabridged dictionary of profanity. Of course the other guy responded in kind. The whole thing was very entertaining. Eventually they noticed that I was laughing at them, so they invited me to play. I could hardly turn them down. So, for an hour or so we hit some balls and had quite a few laughs. Sadly, I apparently left my “A” game back on the bike, as well. Even so, it was still a very fine time.

But now I was ready to get out of there, get some dinner and get settled in. When I got back to the tent I shot everything with another dose of mosquito repellent and zipped myself in. It took no time at all to get to sleep.

November 4

I was up not long after dawn. I located the shower room and put it to work, then went back to the office to settle up. No one was there and there was no place to put a payment nor any envelopes even if there were. I asked several campers walking by and they told me the owners show up from time to time. I said I couldn’t wait and they said it looks like you just got free camping. Which I did.

Soon I was packed up and heading down US 1. At last I could wear shorts and a T-shirt. I had plenty of time, so I stopped along the way to take pictures. This place was like nothing I had ever seen. The water was all shades of blue and green and palm trees of all kinds were waving in the breeze. It was absolutely beautiful!

US 1 is a four-lane divided highway but the speed limit through most of the Keys is 45 mph. Before long I found myself in the small village of Tavernier. Being a huge Buffet fan I was immediately reminded of his lyrics from Meet Me in Memphis: “He was holed up down at Ramrod Key at the Tavernier Hotel..”. Sure enough, off to my left stood the Tavernier Hotel. It was showing its age, but was still open for business. I stopped in for breakfast. It was a very pleasant place, with big bamboo ceiling fans. It was not, however, on Ramrod Key, which is many miles distant. Clearly Jimmy was playing fast and loose with the local geography.

After breakfast I continued on my way, stopping to take pictures from time to time. This was before the age of digital photography. I had a Pentax ME Super, a pretty good camera for its day. I had loaded a roll of 36 pictures to make sure I didn’t miss an opportunity. And there were plenty, with the beautiful water, the pelicans, the palm trees, and, best of all, the Seven Mile Bridge. You pick up the bridge just past Marathon. It is an absolute thing of beauty as it winds across the water and onto Bahia Honda Key. I got lots of sure-to-be award-winning shots.

I arrived in Key West at about 10:30. Here US 1 winds its way through a complex of high rise hotels and marinas and then into the city proper, then into Old Town. I knew generally where Sloppy Joe’s was, but I had to find out for sure with about an hour to spare. The principle street in Old Town is Duval Street. It is not hard to find. I decided since I was early I would risk being seen and take a run up the street. I only had to go a few blocks till I saw Sloppy’s up ahead. I took a hard right on Eaton, rode up a few blocks and parked the bike.

I was constantly on the lookout, but there was nobody around. Sloppy Joe’s is at the corner of Duval and Greene Streets. I walked up to Greene and found something like an old lumber yard or shipping area. There were pallets stacked around. I decided to make that my hideout. I guessed it would take about a minute to walk from here to Sloppy Joe’s. I waited and waited. Finally, at 11:59, I started down the sidewalk. Sure enough way up ahead I saw Mark and Pete standing at the corner looking around. I was down to thirty seconds. Mark saw me first. They both just stood and stared as I held up my watch. At exactly 12:00 noon, on November 4, 1996 we shook hands in front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Key West.

Key West

Well, in no time at all we were sitting at the bar in Sloppy’s with a bucket of Polar Beers talking over our adventures. The boys, it seems, flew into Orlando, visited Cape Canaveral then headed south. On the way back they would stop at the Everglades, then the Dali Museum at St. Pete’s. Just a couple of regular tourists. I, of course, needled them at every opportunity about their divergence from the original mission. A good time was had by all.

Eventually, we decided to get me checked in at La Concha, so I went to get the bike and said I would meet them in the parking lot. La Concha is not hard to find since it’s the only high rise in the Old Town. As I rode up to Duval, Pete snapped this picture:

arrival-november-4-ed

I saw him about to take it so I returned an appropriate salute.

La Concha is a swanky joint, so I was both surprised and pleased that they let me park the bike under cover near their entrance. At the time I parked it I had logged 1,455 miles.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening exploring, enjoying sea food, and doing the usual tourist stuff. Rather that toast the sunset at Mallory Square, though, we went up to the top deck of La Concha and toasted it from there. We had planned to go out for the evening, but I made the mistake of stretching out on my bunk and was soon sound asleep, the first of many clues to come that, at age 48, I was not a kid any more.

The next day we enjoyed breakfast by the sea at the Southernmost Beach Café’, then we headed for the Southernmost Point. Some British guy was there offering to take videos and pictures. He took this one:

southernmost-point-ed

Pete is on the right

After this photo op we headed up Whitehead St. I had long been a fan of Ernest Hemmingway and his home was open for tours. Mark and Pete declined, but this is something I really wanted to see so I went ahead without them. It did not disappoint.

However, I had taken my camera with me on the tour and, as I was taking pictures, it began to dawn on me that even with a 36 frame roll I ought to be hitting the end. The more pictures I took, the more nervous I became. Finally, I decided to wind up the roll and put in a new one. As I turned the little crank, though, there was no resistance. I anxiously opened the camera and discovered that the film had slipped out of the little slots that hold it in place while it turns on the spool. It had never advanced. Not a single picture I had taken in the Keys had been saved. For the rest of our stay I did my best to make up for the lost pictures and promised to stop on my way back through the Keys to shoot again.

After the Hemmingway Tour the day was spent enjoying seafood and visiting some of the numerous watering holes to be found there. We were sitting in the Green Parrot when all of a sudden we see a long parade of hydrofoil power boats on trailers, pulled my muscle trucks rumbling by. Turns out that this week there was a huge power boat race.

But even more important, this day, November 5, was election day with Bill Clinton opposing Bob Dole. Pete and I were both Clinton supporters. Mark, a staunch Republican, favored Dole. We were back in our room by the time the early returns came rolling in. There was the usual bantering back and forth, but, unlike in current times, it was good-natured and often humorous. Once again, however, I found that I could not keep my eyes open much past 10, but by then the matter had pretty much been decided.

On our last day in Key West Pete had some things he wanted to do, so Mark and I headed off to the beach to check out the power boat races. It was quite a spectacle with helicopters flying over the boats which were throwing out big rooster tails as they flew by. We had wanted to go snorkeling, but with the races, none of the boats were going out. Instead we did some shopping and the usual bar hopping. Pete caught up with us eventually and day soon turned to night.

This time I managed to stay awake past ten. Mark and I went back up to Sloppy’s. They had a rockin’ band and, with the racers in town, the joint was jumpin’. We did not make it back to the room till after the witching hour. This time it was Pete who was already asleep.

November 7

It was time to head back. I was up early, cleaned up and packed before the boys had hardly opened their eyes. I said my goodbyes, gave them the final handshake, and headed out.

Here was the mission within the mission: Our eldest daughter, Emily, had just begun her freshman year at Miami University in Oxford, OH. This upcoming Saturday was the football game with Miami’s hated rival, Ohio U. I told her I would take her to the game on my way back home. Kickoff 1:00.

Here was the problem: The previous night, upon viewing the Weather Channel, my attention was drawn to a cold front that stretched from Hudson Bay, all across the country, and down through the Gulf. There was no way to avoid it.

I wound my way out of town on US 1 and before long I saw the Seven Mile Bridge in the distance, a perfect opportunity to re-take some of the pictures I had lost. I found a little turn-off that provided a very nice view of the bridge and took some brilliant shots, no doubt Pulitzer contenders.

I packed the camera away, hopped back on the bike and hit the starter button. Instead of the usual deep-throated rumble, however, what I heard instead was a high-pitched whine. I was baffled. There had not been a single problem with this bike till now. My first thought was that maybe I had just hit a flat spot in the gears. I pulled in the clutch, moved the bike a few feet with my legs and let the clutch out again.

Then I slipped it into neutral and hit the starter again. Same sad sound. I racked my brain trying to think of a solution. None came. I repeated the above a few more times. Then, an epiphany. Maybe I could push-start it! I had had plenty of experience push starting my various broken-down vehicles over the years, but had never push-started a bike. As I thought the process through I concluded that the best gear ratio would be fourth gear since it would generate higher rpms. So, I turned on the key, shifted into fourth, pulled in the clutch and pushed as hard as I could. When I finally attained Mach speed I let go of the clutch lever. Gravel flew everywhere. The bike did not start. This was not good. Once again I considered my options. They were few.

It was clear I could not solve this problem by myself. I went up to the highway where cars were whizzing past far faster than the posted 45. After what seemed like hours I spotted a police car. As he drew closer I waved him down. He pulled into the turnoff.

I explained the problem and told him I needed towed. He didn’t look all that interested, but he got on the radio and asked the dispatcher to find a tow service. He told me they should be here in an hour or so and drove off. I hardly had a chance to thank him.

About 20 minutes later the tow truck showed up. And right behind him came Pete and Mark, who happened to be passing by on their way home. They were sympathetic, but we all agreed there was little they could do. They took this picture and wished me a bon voyage:

imglease320161014_11044934

The tow truck driver made quick work of securing the bike, then he asked me where I wanted to go. He said there is a bike shop that works on Japanese bikes back in Key West, or, he said there was a Harley dealer in Marathon who works on all kinds of bikes. He further advised me that these are islands and people here work on island time. Which means that they may or may not be open. Of course, this is before cell phones so we couldn’t exactly call them.

I opted for Marathon since it was at least headed in the right direction. When we crossed over on the Seven Mile Bridge I got to thinking about my pack and whether it was well secured for a cross-wind. It was no problem picturing the whole thing flying right into the ocean. However, it did not.

He drove me to the dealer, who, thankfully, was open. I paid him and off he went. The guy who ran the place was a classic Harley rider with tattoos long before tattoos were popular. I gave him the lowdown and he promised to take a look soon. Which he did. Then he got on the phone. He called me over to give me the news that my starter was shot. He said he could get the parts in about a week.

Two bad answers. I asked if I could make a long distance call. He was fine with that, so I called Dennis. I gave him all the details and he said, “Just leave it. We’ll figure something out.” I told him I might have to, but would still try to come up with something and that’s how we left it.

When I hung up, the bike guy looked up and said. “You know; you could push start it.” I said I’d already tried that. He asked for the details. He listened and then he didn’t exactly say, “Well, ya dumbass!”, but it was implied in his tone. “You put in in FIRST gear, NOT the FOURTH!”

I said, “Show me.”

We went out to his nicely paved lot. I turned on the key, kicked her down into first, hopped on, pulled in the clutch started pushing like the bike was a football blocking dummy. When I felt the breezes blow through my curly hair, I let go of the lever. It started right up. Thank God! I thanked the guy profusely and off I went.

So, here’s the big problem with this bike. First, it is intended to be a street bike, not for touring. Which means it has a relatively small gas tank. The maximum range I could get out of a full tank was a little over a hundred miles. Now, I would have been perfectly willing to leave the bike running as I filled her up over the 1,400 miles I had yet to cover, except for one thing. To open the gas cap, you need the ignition key. You can’t pull the key out without shutting off the engine. There would be lots of pushing in my future.

So, here’s the big problem with Florida. There are very few hills.

Now the routine began. I would nervously watch the trip meter. When I was near a hundred miles I would scope the area for a gas station that was even slightly elevated. I would pull up to the pump then reluctantly shut off the engine. I would open the cap, fill her to the max, lock the cap and turn on the ignition. Then I would hop on squeeze the clutch lever and start pushing. When the speed seemed right I would pop the clutch and listen for the roar. Except sometimes the engine wouldn’t start. In which case, repeat. I will say, a man can get a little tired at the end of a day doing this.

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “Hey dumbass! Why didn’t you get another key made?” Well, two reasons. First the Yamaha key is not a standard key. I did not consider it likely that, say, an Ace Hardware, if I could find one, would have a blank. Second, while Yamaha is a known brand, it is not nearly as common as Honda or Harley. Any available dealership would likely only be found in larger cities. Which would mean I would have to find a phone book that hadn’t been vandalized, then get directions, then find the place, then find my way back. Could be that in some cities this might be easy. I had no way to know. It also could be that the whole process could take many hours. And, I was still all about the mission: Get to Oxford by 1:00 Saturday. Push starting was a pain in the ass, but it worked. I pushed on.

Sometime around 8:00 in the evening both I and the first sprinkles from the cold front arrived at some cheap hotel in Valdosta, Georgia.

November 8

No surprise, it was raining when I woke up. I soon found out that it was also dramatically colder, probably mid-forties. I had discarded my previously shredded rain suit, so the first order of business was to find a Wal-Mart for a replacement.

The desk clerk was helpful with directions and the Wal-Mart was nearby. As I pulled into the parking lot I was tempted to leave the motor running, but quickly concluded that my problems would be much, much worse if somebody decided to hop on for a joy ride. Once again, reluctantly, I shut it off. The rain was more of a mist and a drizzle. I soon had my shiny new rain suit. I wore the top part under my coat since it wouldn’t fit over it, and the pants over my boots. I was ready to ride! I gave her the usual push, and off I went! Even better, I later was able to find a gas station on a hill, so all I had to do was coast down to start it. Things were looking up!

The next few hours were a series of stops for gas, pushes (or sometimes coasts), and rides. Somewhere south of Atlanta the rain stopped. I did not want to ride through downtown Atlanta so I took I-285 around. It may have added to my time, but at least I didn’t have to deal with drivers in that crazy town.

More stops, pushes and rides. Just before I got to the Tennessee line I stopped for dinner and called home, then called Emily. I told her I was still on target for the game, but might be running late if the weather didn’t improve. No problem.

By the time I finished my calls, it had started to rain again. And, the temperature was now in the thirties. Off I went. To make things more interesting, it was now getting dark. People, I can tell you it is a lonesome feeling slogging down the highway in these conditions. As the eighteen wheelers whiz on by, adding a nice spray to the mix, one thing you know for certain is, if you’re going to be out here you better keep to freeway speed because you just might not be the most visible thing on the highway.

North of Chattanooga there is a long steep grade. As I started down a small miracle happened. First, it quit raining. Then, I just happened to look up to notice that the clouds had parted and I could see stars. They were in the shape of a “W”, which, of course, I knew to be the constellation Cassiopeia. That little bit of astronomical insight would not make it into this story except to say that I had often seen those very stars from my deck at home and I knew that right now, if I were there and the clouds were gone they would be shining there too. Sounds sappy, but given my current unnerving circumstances, that constellation had a remarkably calming effect.

Said effect, however, was short-lived. It started to rain again, but it seemed cold enough to snow. Then the engine started running rough. It was OK if I maintained speed, but if I tried to go faster or slower it would start to cough. No doubt water was getting in somewhere. This made for some unpleasant riding.

I was now into Kentucky. I had hoped to make it to Lexington, where I would have a relatively short haul to Oxford, but I knew getting to Oxford by 1:00 pm was doable even from where I was. I took the next exit, Corbin. As I came off the exit I saw a sign for a cheap hotel, then I could actually see the hotel at the top of a very steep hill. When I stopped for the stop sign at the bottom of the exit ramp my engine died.

I pushed as hard as I could toward the road at the bottom of the hill that would take me to the hotel. I let out the clutch, but it would not start. I sat there in the rain for a time trying to figure out what to do. I could not start this bike without more speed and I wasn’t even sure it would start then. I clearly did not have the strength to push the bike up that hill, but it finally dawned on me that I might be able to make it up high enough to start the engine if I pushed the bike up the hill at a slight angle side to side, like a switchback. And so it started. I pushed all the way across the road and gained maybe three feet of elevation. I turned the handlebars and pushed it back across the road at a slight angle and gained maybe two feet. I repeated the process maybe ten times till I was up about twenty-five feet. I knew I would get plenty of speed at this height. So, I hopped on, somehow remembered to turn on the key, pulled in the clutch and started down.

It didn’t take long to pick up speed and I was going about 20 mph when I let out the clutch. Varooom! It started right up. I turned around at the bottom of the hill, keeping It revved up so it wouldn’t stall, and rode all the way to the top of the hill to the hotel office. I was afraid the clerk would look at my soaked and bedraggled remains and say, “Sorry, Buddy. Full up.” But he hardly looked up from the TV he was watching. He checked me in and handed me the key.

I could push the bike to my first floor room. I took the sports bag off and brought it inside. The garbage bags worked their usual miracle. The rain suit sprung its usual leaks. Adding to the problem, water was getting into my boots. My feet were freezing. I hung out my wet clothes to dry, as though they actually would. Then I changed into something not soaked and hit the hay.

November 9

Although it was overcast the rain had stopped. It was now much colder. In the 20’s. I didn’t care about the cold, but I was in no mood for precipitation of any kind.

The bike ran fine through the rest of Kentucky, but the sky was increasingly overcast. As I approached Cincinnati I ran into some kind of freezing fog. It didn’t attach itself to anything and the roads were not slick, but it was not a regular fog. It seemed to bounce of me and the bike. It didn’t last long, however. Soon it was replaced by snow.

I took I-275 west and picked up SR27 north toward Oxford. By the time I got to 27, though, it was snowing fairly hard; a squall. Fortunately, the road was only wet. Not long after the snow began, the engine started coughing again. I was in stop and go traffic moving slowly through the Cincinnati burbs. To keep from stalling I revved the engine at each stop, but now I had a new problem. The throttle was sticking. Which meant that when I revved the engine it stayed revved.  I couldn’t slow it down. Thankfully, when I let out the clutch it didn’t pop a wheelie. Instead I worked the throttle and clutch together. Eventually, it would drop back down to normal Rpms.

After the first such event I did not repeat the mistake of revving up too high, but the throttle still was sticking. The only thing I could figure was that water had gotten inside the cables and was freezing in there. It took a lot of fancy clutch and throttle work to keep it under control, but eventually traffic started moving. Once I could maintain highway speed, it behaved much better. I continued to work the throttle and in time, whatever was causing the problem broke free. I was able to control the engine speed, but it was still running rough. In time, I saw a sign welcoming me to Oxford.

Emily was staying at Wilson Hall that year, which is, thankfully, on the east side of campus where 27 comes into town. I only had to rev my way through a couple of lights till I was heading into a parking space in front of Wilson. As I pulled in the engine promptly died.

It was still snowing off and on and there was a fair breeze. As usual the inside of my boots were wet as were some of my clothes. I was sure that I didn’t look too presentable at the time, so I pulled off my sports bag and headed into Wilson Hall. Thankfully there was a public restroom on the first floor. I was able to get out of my rain suit and get into some drier clothes. I also was able to put on my trusty, and dry, white shoes. I packed all my wet stuff and put it back on the bike. Then I went back in and called Emily.

Although the rivalry is intense between Miami and Ohio U, neither one of us, especially me, felt like sitting out in the snow to witness the contest. We decided instead to head uptown and have a nice lunch. Then I would be on my way. She drove us into town.

At that time there was a restaurant/bar called Attractions, which we both liked. It was great to hear how her year was going. She had made some friends and it was everything we all hoped it would be. I talked generally about my adventures on this trip, but left out a few details so as to avoid concern and, even worse, unsavory calls back home. After a very pleasant time, she drove me back to the dorm, where I put on my rain suit and boots, and we both headed out to the bike.

I asked her to take my picture, which she did. I said my goodbyes. Then I said, well there is one more thing you could do. Would you mind pushing the bike?

What?

Having a little starter trouble.

I pulled the bike out of the parking space and got it headed in the right direction, not sure if it would start at all. Emily got behind as fast as she could. I popped the clutch. It started right up. I waved goodbye and headed for home. Here is the picture she took:

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I headed out of Oxford on SR 73. It was snowing lightly. I knew there was a gas station down the road, so I stopped and filled up. I gave the bike its umpteenth push and it would not start. I looked across the road, though, and saw that there was a cemetery with a paved road on a slight incline. I pushed the bike across the road and up the incline. I rode back down, popped the clutch and she started right up. I continued on my way to I-75. Like its rider, the bike seemed to benefit from a little rest. By the time I got to the Interstate it was running fairly well.

I was now about three hours from home and I was single-minded of purpose. Namely, getting there. Although the snow was off and on, the roads were wet. To add to the enjoyment, each passing semi would spew spray all over the place. The net effect was that it didn’t take long to get wet again and a good amount of that water had found its way into my boots. My piggies were frozen and my hands didn’t feel much better.  I decided that the surest way to relieve the misery and to continue would be to stop and a gas station and use a hand dryer to warm and partially dry my socks and gloves and also heat up my boots. I took the first station I came to, limped inside, and discovered that they were one of the few stations in the US that still used paper towels.

Even the warmth of the place, though, provided some benefit and gave me a chance to ring things out. After circulation was finally restored, I re-assembled myself, pushed the bike, which thankfully started, and headed down the road.

This is as good a time as any to step back for a moment and raise a few questions. For example, why in the hell didn’t you just get a hotel, either back in Oxford or anywhere else along the line? Or, why didn’t you at least stop and buy a better rain suit, or gloves, or boots or something? Or, perhaps a more global question like,” What the hell’s wrong with you?” comes to mind.

Believe me, I have asked myself these same questions and more, many times over in the last 20 years. The quote at the beginning of this story from Gabriel Garcia Marquez was not chosen at random. First, I can tell you that I believed all my various calamities were manageable. AND, I was only three hours from the goal line. AND, none of this was a totally new experience. I had been through it all before on my various bike trips out west. Of course, that was 25 years earlier and you might think I would have learned not to do this stuff again. Not so. AND, (I know for a fact this is not unique to me) it is possible to be entirely consumed by the simple act of completing the mission, even when there is more than one act and many of them are not simple. I continued on.

My reward was, to repeat exactly the same thing that happened above. My cold piggies became worrisome.  I stopped at another gas station. They also had only paper towels. I got somewhat dryer and warmer. I took off again. I was now on I-70 headed into Columbus, somewhere around Springfield. Yet again the cold started getting to me and even though there were none of usual signs telling me about the fabulous services to be found, I took the next exit. Not only were there no fabulous services of any kind, my bike stalled at the bottom of the exit ramp. And, although it was a 4-lane divided highway, there was no one around. I pushed the bike up the exit ramp, rode down and it started again. Happily, all this work restored my circulation and I was able to continue on.

By the time I reached I-270 around Columbus it had started snowing again, on and off. I decided to pull off at the Westerville exit and call home. I found a gas station and, to my great relief and surprise, they had a hand dryer! I spent about a half hour in there and came out feeling much better. I got some snacks, found a pay phone, and called Dianne. While she was relieved to hear from me, she was not pleased to hear that I was going to try to make it the rest of the way, about another hour and a half. I asked if it was snowing at home. It was. About like here. I told her if it got any worse I would bag it. None of this conversation went particularly well.

I then went out and, for what I hoped would be the last time, filled the tank and gave her a push. It was now almost dark. Off we went.

In a very short time I was on SR 161, recently converted to four lanes. In a short time four lanes became two. It was right around there that my real problems began. My mask started to fog up. I was able to briefly clear it with my glove, but it came back. My glasses began to fog up as well. They were much harder to clear. I knew I couldn’t hold my breath the whole way home. Yes, I could have taken the mask off, but my glasses were the real problem. In the snow they would not stay clear

The only good news was that traffic was not moving at its usual rocket-like pace. I was able to navigate by following the blurry tail lights of the cars ahead. But I knew I couldn’t keep going like this. I had to find a way to improve visibility and I couldn’t do it while riding. I started looking to the side of the road for a lane or something to pull off onto. The ground was covered with snow, but grass, though also blurry, was still visible. I slowed down now and in my mirrors I could see a line of cars behind me. All the more reason to get out of here. Finally, I found a spot that almost certainly looked like the end of a drive. I slowly pulled onto it. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. I hit soft, wet grass and as soon as I did, the bike slid out from under me. We both went down. I heard the distinctive sound of something breaking. Turned out to be my left signal light.

I was not hurt, so I got up right away. I HATE it when this happens. I was pleased, if that is the word, to see that my headlight had not broken and was still shining brightly. The engine, as had become its custom, had stalled. I was sorting all this out, when all of a sudden I heard a voice from behind. I looked up to see a car had stopped and somebody was running toward me.

“Are you OK?” somebody yelled breathlessly.

I said, “Yeah, I just hit a soft spot. Could you help me lift the bike?”

“Sure!” We both found something to grab and soon the bike was vertical again.

I thanked him profusely.

He asked if I was sure I was OK.

I said, “Well, there is one thing. Do you suppose you could give me a push?”

WHAT?

“My starter’s broken and if you don’t push this thing I’ll be stuck out here all night.”

He did not sound pleased.

“OK.”

I worked the bike up the edge of the berm, cleared my mask and he gave me a running push. The bike started right up. I don’t know who that guy was, but if he should ever happen to read this, he can be assured he has my undying gratitude. And I would return the favor in a heartbeat if it turns out the he is also a dumbass.

Well, I was moving again, but I knew now that it was game over. Then I looked up and saw a bunch of flags flying in the snow. I now knew where I was. On my numerous professional trips to Columbus I would always pass a golf course that flew the flags of many nations. I was at that golf course. Even better, they had a lighted, paved entrance. I pulled off immediately and just sat there. I took off my helmet and re-discovered how much better things are when you can see stuff. What I saw, far up ahead, was what looked like an exit. What I saw in my mirrors were increasingly bright red and blue flashing lights. I was about to be visited by a member of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

“You OK, Buddy?”

“Well, I’m having a little trouble seeing. My mask keeps fogging up”.

“You see those lights up there? That’s Granville. You follow me to that exit. There’s a gas station up there. You go there and make whatever arrangements you need to make to get you off this road. And then you stay off.”

“Thanks for your help!”

Soon I was following flashing lights to the Granville exit. Soon I was parked at a BP station where my engine promptly died.

I called Dianne and told her I couldn’t make it, which was a relief, at least as much as there could be relief given the circumstances. I knew Granville, of course, the home of Denison University, and had visited there several times over the years. Pretty town. The only hotel I knew in the area was the swanky Granville Inn. I found it unlikely that their Water Rat Suite was available. I called them anyway and it turned out no room was available. Actually, there was nothing in Granville for me at all. After talking things over with the mechanics at the station, I called a cab from Newark, about five miles away. I told the cabbie to take me to the cheapest hotel he could find. Believe me, he did.

November 10

I told the cabbie that, unless the cockroaches had eaten me, I wanted to see his ass back at this fleabag no later than 8. He was there promptly. It was Sunday and when he pulled into the BP station back in Granville, I quickly observed it was closed. I paid him off and the next thing I quickly observed was that the bike was covered with ice. This could not be good.

Thankfully the weather had cleared. I spent the next fifteen minutes or so chipping off enough ice that I could run the thing. This was the first opportunity I had to look at the damage done by my little spill. The left turn signal was broken off and hanging by a wire and a few pieces of busted plastic,  and the lens was gone. The mirror was bent and there were some scratches. I could hear the cash register ringing.

Finally, I got enough ice off to be able to turn the throttle, run the brakes, and not slide off the seat. I pushed the bike toward the entrance which was elevated. Where I really wanted it was at the top of that elevation, which was up a grade to the right of the gas station. About the time I realized I couldn’t push it that high, a guy in a Jeep Wrangler pulled into one of the pumps, apparently not realizing the place was closed. He stepped out and looked around.

“I’m afraid it’s closed,”I told him.

“Awww”, he said. There was a pause in the conversation.

“Do you suppose you could help push this bike up to the top of the grade? My starter’s broken and I can’t get it started.”

“Sure,” he says and comes over to help.

We get it up there. I climb on, start rolling and pop the clutch. Nothing.

I get off and start pushing back up. He comes and joins me. This time it is quite a push, since we are at the bottom. I thank him profusely.

We get up the top. I hop on, pull in the clutch and start rolling. Good speed now. At the bottom I let go of the lever. Nothing.

I sit there for a while and the guy shakes his head. He says he doesn’t think it’s going to start. I said, “Let’s give it one more try.”

We push it again, both breathing VERY hard. Finally, we are at the top. I hop on, pull in the clutch, and start rolling. I pop the clutch. ONE cylinder fires. It is REALLY running rough. I wave to the guy with my clutch hand, but I can’t even slow down or I know she’s a goner. Now I’m out on SR 16 which crosses over the road I had come in on. I know I can’t even slow down to get onto that road or she’ll stall for sure. I continue past the on-ramp headed south on 16, praying the engine will warm up enough to fire the other cylinder. In what seems like an eternity, it finally does. I turn around and take the ramp onto the four-lane, headed home.

I don’t know who that guy was that helped me, but if he should ever happen to read this, he can be assured he has my undying gratitude. And I would return the favor in a heartbeat if it turns out the he is also a dumbass.

I was maybe five of six miles down the road, traveling in cold, clear weather when something didn’t feel right. I reached back behind me. My sports bag was gone! Since it was a four lane highway I couldn’t just turn around. I looked in my mirrors. Nothing on the road. I felt back there again. Still nothing. Then I looked down. The bag was hanging off the right side of the bike above the muffler. Somehow it had rolled off the seat, but was still fastened to the bike by its bungees.  I could not reach back with my right hand to get it because that would mean letting go of the throttle. I kept checking it and it seemed to be riding OK. I decided to keep going.

Finally, I was now passing by Coshocton. This is a city that sits in a valley and our house was up in the hills, about twelve miles away. As I turned onto SR 83, the road that would take me home, the engine once again started missing badly. I couldn’t believe that, being this close, I would not complete the mission. I sat and worked that throttle for maybe ten minutes. It never did smooth out entirely, but I finally convinced myself that it had enough power to pull the hills.

People, it was a mighty jerky ride up that winding, twisty road, but at long last I was pulling into my own drive. The engine promptly died. I never heard it run again. Later we would trailer it to a mechanic for repairs and tune-up. Long before that, however, Dianne made me promise to never, ever, ever, ever, EVER do that again. It was not a hard pledge to make. At least, not then.

 


© David Michael Stoner and Oldcapehorner.Wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to D. Michael Stoner and Oldcapehorner.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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On The Road

If you looked at the video from my last post you no doubt observed that traffic is a little heavy at times. But what really adds spice to the Italian driving meatball, is mopeds. Regardless of how many lane shifts there might be in any rotary you will find mopeds winding though rows of vehicles with only centimeters to spare. And, they will come at your from both the left and the right. Once you understand that driving is really just a high-stakes video game, then you are ready for the Italian highways.

Our goal was to pick up the A-11 Autostrada heading out of Florence. Autostradas are like our turnpikes. By some miracle, and by following the somewhat shaky blue dot on Google Maps, we suddenly found ourselves at the Autostrada on-ramp. We got our ticket and off we went! We were pleased to find what turned out to be a very well-maintained modern highway. Even better, most drivers behaved themselves quite nicely. The speed limit was around 60 mph, so everybody kept it at about 70, just like here. Occasionally someone would roar up behind us and then tailgate, but our years on I75 have well prepared us for that kind of stuff.

We decided that, since we would be close, we would visit Pisa and check out the tower. It’s about an hour and a half ride to Pisa and, unfortunately there are several exits into the city. A sign with, say, a picture of a leaning tower at any one of those exits would have been helpful. We realized there was not going to be one when we were about 10 miles north of town. So, we turned around, always fun on a turnpike, and found the exit that seemed most likely to get us there. After a considerable number of missed turns and other mishaps, we eventually found a very small sign with the tower and an arrow.

When you need to make a lot of turns in a very small area, the Google Maps blue dot arrives a little late to the party. So, suddenly, and without explanation, we found ourselves driving straight down the center of a designated tourist pedestrian area with diners on either side looking up from their pasta wondering who the hell had authorized that car to be here. And, with an equal degree of curiosity, we were wondering how to get the hell out.

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This is the street where, minutes before, I found myself to be a hazard to pedestrian navigation.

Finally, when all hope seemed to be lost, Dianne spotted a side street, upon which we quickly turned. Even better, within a block someone pulled out of their parking space and left it for us! Even better than that, our little faux pas went entirely unobserved by local law enforcement!. Still, as I pulled into our little space, I wondered for the second time this morning if renting a car was such a good idea.

So we headed down the street, turned a corner, and there it was!

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Now, I have to admit that my expectations were a little low for this visit. I mean, it is an image that has been around since even my childhood, and I remember when it appeared that a few more millimeters of subsidence would bring it down, the government jumped in and ran some kind of steel shaft through it so it would stay put. I was not all that excited.

But, when you actually see it, well, it is impressive. For one thing, it is immaculately clean, the marble is gorgeous, and the building itself is massive.

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You do have to wonder, steel shafts notwithstanding, how it has survived though the centuries.

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True of everywhere we went in Italy, Pisa was packed with visitors. Here, for example, is some dumbass tourist pretending to hold up the tower.

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Uh, wait a minute. I mean some people were clever enough to create the illusion that they were holding the tower up! Yes, Italy brings out the creative genius in us all!

So, after a pleasant visit in Pisa, which, by the way is very beautiful city worth visiting even if the tower falls over, we headed for the coast. Except, we could not find our way back onto the Autostrada. Instead we took a road similar to our state highways for the trip up north. By taking the state route we accidentally ended up going though this town:

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The marble that Michelangelo turned into masterpieces came from here. In fact, Michelangelo himself came here to select marble.

And to this day, it is still being quarried.

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What a great side trip that turned out to be!

Not long after leaving Carrara we found our way back onto the Autostrada and soon we were in La Spezia heading for the Cinque Terre.

In reviewing my recent posts about Florence I see that I neglected to comment on the very fine shopping available in that city. Jewelry, of course, was abundant, along with clothes, shoes, food, and all the other stuff you would expect. We, sadly, had little room in our luggage to bring back much, so I was often in a quandary about what to bring back for my friends. Fortunately, a little gift shop on the Piazza Michelangelo solved the problem:

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Leaving Florence

I forget exactly how it happened, but many years ago I learned this trick: Extend the fingers of your right hand. Then bend down your index finger so that from above it looks like half your index finger is missing. Then bend the thumb on your left hand and place the back of your thumb joint against the bent index finger of your right hand. Cover the space where they come together with the index finger of your left hand. then slide the bent thumb of your left hand along the middle finger of your right hand. The effect is that it looks like you are pulling off half of the index finger of your right hand.

I was blessed, if that’s the word, to have fingers and thumbs of the same width, so I can play this trick to absolute perfection. I first started by amusing our kids with it. I would, say, be slicing something with a big knife in the kitchen, then I would let out a loud yell. The kids would look up and I’d tell them that I just cut off my finger. Then I would pull half of it off using the above trick. What fun! Over the years I would do this for the benefit of our kids, their cousins, their friends, and, later, our grand kids. Endless hours of entertainment! Often kids who had seen it would ask to see it again the next time they came because they simply couldn’t believe it was possible!. To this day it still gets lots of laughs.

Our hotel in Florence is located across the river from the city center on the edge of a residential area consisting of apartments and mid-size homes. And, while Florence is home to many fine, upscale restaurants we were never sure enough of our schedule to make reservations at any of them. A couple times we made it back to the hotel just in time for their Manager’s Reception, an event like no other. To begin with, wine and beer were free with no limits on quantity. Then, on top of that, they put out tray after tray of tasty snacks.

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The Reception was held in this nice little garden.

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After spending time here the idea of a big dinner was not all that appealing. So we asked at the desk if there were any, say, pizza places or small restaurants nearby. Turns out there were several. We settled on a place called La Piperna.

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This is a classic neighborhood restaurant where everybody knows everybody, but when the occasional tourist stops in, they are greeted by friendly staff with English that is plenty good enough. Dianne got a pizza,

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And I got a pasta dish with, yes, real, genuine anchovies!

img_3205Yummy!

Well, at La Piperna, the tables are fairly close together and the waitress seated us at one near a family of three which included a little girl, probably five of six years old. The girl was a little antsy and from time to time she would get up on her knees and turn around on her chair and look the place over. Unfortunately, about all there was to look as was Dianne and me. Her mother would tell her the Italian equivalent, I suppose, of “Turn around and sit down!”, which she would do, but then soon she would be back up again looking around.

It didn’t take long for her to catch my eye and I would smile at her and she would smile back. Then her mother would tell her to sit down again. We repeated this cycle a few times. Pretty soon she was back up looking at me. I thought to myself, I bet she would enjoy my famous finger trick!

So, up goes my hand, and off goes my finger. Well, that little girls eyes grew as big as saucers and all of a sudden, she starts to cry! Loudly! Now, my eyes are as big as saucers. I won’t say this is the first time I have ever gotten that reaction, but it doesn’t happen often. Thankfully the girl’s father saw the whole thing and understood that this was an attempt at humor and I was not trying to traumatize the kid. So he said something to her which must have been, “It’s only a trick.”

That did not exactly calm her down. Then the waitress shows up at their table with a cake. Turns out they were there celebrating the mother’s birthday. Which was now not much of a celebration with the kid wailing away. I was mortified. Thankfully, when the girl saw the cake, my abuse was quickly forgotten. Eventually the mother gave me a half-hearted smile so I was reasonably confident I would not have to call the US embassy to seek shelter. I was, however, glad to settle up and get the hell out of there.

That will probably be my last finger trick on foreign soil.

On our last day in Florence we agreed that if we saw any more art our heads might explode. Instead, we turned our attention to the sciences with a visit to the Galileo Museum. This museum, of course, is dedicated to the man himself, but also contains an extraordinary collection of scientific instruments now centuries old.

At the entrance is a bust of Galileo,

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Clearly, this is no shrinking violet.

While Galileo is credited with a number of inventions and his use of scientific method, he is best remembered for his work in astronomy and his discovery of the phases of Venus and of four of the moons of Jupiter. Where he ran into trouble was with the publication of his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. In this work he offered astronomical and observational support to the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In the course of this presentation he appeared to attack the Pope, who took a very dim view of this theory. He was tried by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and his book was banned. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

In the museum you will find some of his early telescopes

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Then later improvements

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And even later improvements.

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Among other scientific items on display, not having to do with Galileo, are these:

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These models apparently were used to train the physicians of the day. There is another far more graphic set which I’ll keep in the vault.

One of the first things you see when you come into the museum is this incredible machine:

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This is the Armillary Sphere of Antonio Santucci. What you cannot see in this picture is, at the very center is a globe of the Earth. All these gears, when set in motion, replicate the orbit of the planets and the sun around the earth. This was built before elliptical orbits were discovered also. It no longer works.

When Galileo died, he requested to be buried in the cathedral of Santa Croce. However, because he was still considered a heretic, the best he could get was to be stuck off in some side room. By 1737 the Church had to recognize that Galileo was right all along and so, that year he was re-buried in the main cathedral as he had requested and a statue was placed there in his honor. During the re-burial, three fingers and a tooth were removed from the body as relics. Not inappropriately, his middle finger is on display at the museum:

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Now, for eternity, he is able to send one last message to his detractors.

Well, people, we could do on and on about Florence and we only saw a fraction of it in 3 days. But at last, it was time to leave. Which meant, it was also time to get behind the wheel and actually drive in the crazy country.

Our next destination was the Mediterranean coast, which meant that we would have to go through town on this side of the river and pick up their equivalent of an interstate. I will leave you with just a small sampling of what that was like:

The Art of Florence (At Least Some of It)

There is so much fine art in Florence that even if you lived here you probably wouldn’t see it all. And, while there is art in this blog, this is not an art blog. So, while we have hundreds of photos of works by the masters, there is no way to do them justice without spending the next year or so on nothing but art. Since this info is already readily available on the internet, you can easily call up just about every painting and sculpture in the city, if you want. Good luck.

So, what we will do instead is to give you sample of some of the works that, even weeks after returning to the US, continue to leave an impression on us and no doubt always will. You’ve already seen the David and his friends. Now we’ll head down the street to the Ufizzi Gallery, one of the largest in the world.

Once again, we took the advice of Rick Steves and hired a guide. So instead of waiting in this line

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we got right in! Not only that, but she actually slowed us down and explained stuff that we otherwise would have blown on by. Money well spent indeed!

First of all, this place is HUGE. Not as big as the Louvre, but close enough. And, even the ceilings are works of art.

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So we go into one of the first rooms, and here is this lovely couple:

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Allow me to introduce you to Frederico II do Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza.

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It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice that something ab0ut these people is a little odd. Take Frederico, for example:

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Sure, the hat’s a little funny, but mostly it’s hard to ignore that schnoz. Our guide, who seemed to have a little flair for the dramatic in her own right, told us that, in his younger days, Frederico was a valiant soldier. He was leading his troops into battle against some other city state, when he took a blow to the right side of his face that not only removed a good portion of it, but also his right eye as well. In spite of these VERY severe injuries, he found that he could still function and he wanted to go back into battle. Problem was, he couldn’t see anything coming at him from his right. To fix that he called in the company surgeon and had him remove enough of his nose that he could see past it with his left eye. And back into battle he went.

Now that is one fine story, and it appears that it is mostly true. Only the timing is slightly off. Frederico, as it turns out, lost the right side of his face, eye included, in a jousting tournament. Later, contemplating going into battle, and being constantly annoyed by that obstructive proboscis, he brought in the surgeon. As it turns out, he was a very successful warrior and leader and later became the Duke of Urbino

Along the way, he married the beautiful Battista Sforza

Picture credit Wikipedia

Two things you will notice about Battista. First, she has quite the high forehead. Apparently women with high foreheads were considered to be more intelligent and desirable, so it was the custom to pluck away a few rows to boost the perceived IQ.

In addition, she has quite the hairdo and is dressed to the nines with pearls and so on. But the second most striking thing about her is that she is so pale. The reason for this is that, at the time this painting was made, she had already been dead for two years. Sadly, she died at age 25, having just given birth to her seventh child.

Frederico was crushed by her loss. He carried these paintings, bound in an ornate gilded folder,  with him wherever he went. He never remarried and lived out his life as a highly regarded statesman.

Below is a painting that might otherwise be unremarkable compared to the others in this place, except that it is the only known panel painting attributed to Michelangelo. The principle characters are Joseph, Mary and St. John and the  naked people in the background apparently symbolized humanity before the Law as given to Moses.

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Now here’s one you’ve seen before, Sandro Boticelli’s Birth of Venus:

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So the basic story line is goddesses are born in the sea foam. Then the winds blow them ashore

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and the nymphs arise from the ground to welcome them home

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But the real story of this painting and several others is Venus herself.Simonetta Cattaneo was born into a noble family in the Genoa area. When she was fifteen (or maybe sixteen) she married a nobleman named Marco Vespucci. They promptly moved to Florence. It took no time whatsoever for Simonetta Vespucci to catch the eye of every lecherous gentleman in the city. This included the Medici. At the time Lorenzo and his brother, Guiliano Medici, were jointly ruling the city. When Lorenzo was busy with affairs of state,  Guiliano apparently was interested in affairs of another type. In addition, every painter and poet in town were similarly smitten. Maybe none more so than Sandro Botticelli. Here is another of his masterpieces, La Primavera:

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Does the lady in the middle look familiar?

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She shows up in other Botticelli works also as well as the works of other painters. Simonetta Vespucci was the “it” girl of the renaissance. But, at age 22, she contracted tuberculosis and died. It is said that thousands accompanied her coffin to the Church of Ognissanti. There is no evidence that she ever had so much as an affair. Botticelli finished The Birth of Venus nine years later. He requested that when he died, that he be interred at Simonetta’s feet. Thirty-four years later, he was.

So here is another tale told by our guide. This painting is called Baptism of Christ and is attributed to the “workshop” of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was apparently primarily a sculptor, but he maintained a school of promising young artists and when a painting would be commissioned he would have his students do most of the work.

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One of those students was Leonardo di Vinci, who painted the angel on the left. He used a brush with a single hair to paint the hair on the angel.

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The guide said that the envious Verrachio painted the angel on the right and then, in awe of Leonardo, put away his brushes and never painted again. Good story.

OK people, that is just a few of the bazillion paintings in the Ufizzi, but now you know why we won’t be doing more. As the great Rod Stewart once said,”Every Picture Tells a Story”. I would certainly suggest you go on line and see the rest.

Like just about every Italian city, art is everywhere. This is the Palazzo Veccio, home to the Medici Palace. If you look to the far right you will see a statue by the doorway. That is where The David originally stood. An imposter stands there now.

As you can see, a number of other statues are there as well.

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And then there is this:

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Now that is one big-ass golden turtle! Now he might look fine in an American city, but here? On the same square where Savanarola and his followers were burned to death for heresy? Let’s just say, he seemed a little out of place. Even Hercules had to look away.

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Well, we’re going to do one more museum, then we must move on to other topics. Our next stop:

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Picture Credit Wikipedia

The Bargello, built in 1255 was once a barracks and a jail. Now it is an outstanding art museum. Let’s take a look:

Talk about tipsy! This is Michelangelo’s Bacchus, an early masterpiece.

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I hate when those crazy satyrs show up.

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If ever the colors in the marble made the piece, this is it.

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But once again, where is the joy in the creator? This Daniele da Volterra‘s bust of Michelangelo.

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Here is Michelangelo’s Brutus. No regrets. He killed a tyrant.

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Then, in very stark contrast to the one we saw earlier, this is Donatello’s David.

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And now Verrocchio’s David:

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You can choose between the three, but before you do, the best one may be in Rome, as you will see.

Here is a work by various artist who contributed from 1387 to 1483.

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Picture Credit Wikipedia

The incredible detail is beyond words to describe.

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Yes, we could on and on, but we will close with one final work by Donatello, Santa Maria Maddalena Penitente. Mary Magdalene, at one time a beautiful harlot, became a follower of Jesus. After the crucifixion she went off to live in a cave as a penitent. Now thirty years later, the toll has been taken, but the prayers continue.

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There is nothing else to say.

The Duomo

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When you walk down the streets of cities in Italy you are often hemmed in by buildings two or three stories high on either side. That, in part, is why it is so easy to get lost. You have no landmarks and no horizon. Imagine your surprise, then, when you come around a corner and find this:

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This is the Florence Cathedral, the centerpiece of which is the Duomo.It takes a while to walk around it. Here are some of the details:

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Pictures do not do this place justice.

Well, as we strolled around we saw that there were several lines formed. As we later learned, some of the lines were to tour the inside of the Cathedral. One line was to climb to the top of the Duomo, a total of 636 steps. I did some quick mental math. Last year, when we were in Costa Rica we climbed down to, and back up from, the falls at La Fortuna, a total, I seemed to recall, of 730 steps (actually it was 550 plus or minus). Some of those steps were barely steps at all and, although it damn near killed us and we took beaucoup breaks, we made it due, in large part, to the patience of our guide. So, I reasoned, certainly I could handle this!

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See that little cupola on top? That’s where you come out.

So, I bought my ticket and stood in the very long line. Dianne declined and said she would prefer to see the inside of the Cathedral. She encouraged me to call her on the cell phone once I got up there so she could be assured I hadn’t had The Big One on the way up.

Well, the line moved right along. They were letting in about 20 people at a time, and this is where things started to go south. Rather than letting me be the last person in the group now entering, the ticket taker decided to make be the first person in the next group which was made up of a bunch of hard-bodied millennials. When the gate opened it was like being in a 5K.

At first, we climbed a few sets of modest stairs that led led us up into the Cathedral. We were moving at a pace that was less than ideal for photos, but here are a couple taken from that level:

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So far, I was holding my own. Then we went into a very narrow entrance. Immediately it was much darker, much cooler, and only single file with not so much as an alcove to tuck your weary carcass into. Oh, and did I mention, it was also much steeper.

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I was good for a while, but it did not take long before I was sucking wind and starting to get a bit wobbly. The prospect of having The Big One was no longer just amusing hyperbole. Then, thankfully, there was a shift in the staircase, no doubt to accommodate the shape of the dome. At the point of the shift was a place to pull off and catch a breather. The rest of my group bounded on by, but they were feeling it too. Our starting pace had slowed dramatically.

Once my heart rate slowed down to a more reasonable 700 beats per minute, I started off again. With each opportunity I stopped. At one point some guy with a gray beard stopped next to me and in broken English asked something to the effect of “What the hell are you doing up here? Man, you’ve got to slow down. That’s the key” I didn’t really need that advice, but I was encouraged, not by what he said, but by the fact that a guy with a gray beard had made it this far.

In time, I made it, but not without a pretty good case of the heebie-jeebies. Here is the entrance and exit:

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After I finally got up there I took a moment to collect myself and was good from that point on.

There isn’t a whole lot of room up there and you have to work around the crowds. Here is the principle route:

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Naturally the first thing I did was take a peek over the edge:

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Then, a much broader vista, starting with the Basilica of Santa Croce:

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The church of San Lorenzo:

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A glimpse of Tuscany:

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The campanile, which you can also climb. You can, I’m not:

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What a beautiful city!

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Well, the trip back down was much better, but by no means easy. Arriving at the ground floor is much like making it into port after a storm on the lake. You don’t actually want to kiss the ground, but you are glad to bounce up and down on it a few times.

Here are some pictures of the inside taken by Dianne:

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What an incredible creation.

The David

We had already decided that our first full day in Florence was going to be Art Day. The two prime stops for this purpose are the Galleria dell Accademia which houses Michaelangelo’s David and the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the great art museums in the world. the Accademia is fairly small and easy to navigate, so we bought tickets online for the morning. The Uffizi, though, is huge, so for that one we arranged a tour for the afternoon.

So, off we went from our hotel to the 23 bus which stops right around the corner and then winds its way through the heart of Florence. After a very scenic ride we were soon deposited in front of the Accademia. After they take your tickets you just follow the arrows, or the crowd, if you prefer. Soon you end up in a large room at the center of which is a plaster reproduction of Giambologns’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Since you’ll see the original in a later post, we’ll move on.

So, you leave this room and enter the Hall of the Captives. You enter at one end and at the other is this guy:

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But not so fast, my friends. As you head for the David you can’t help but notice some other statues, or blocks of marble along the walls. These are the Captives. Michelangelo was once hired to create statues for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Well, it wasn’t long till the Pope became a little strapped for funds. First he reduced the scale of the project, then later he dropped it altogether. Michelangelo went on to work on other projects and these guys were never finished. They were found after his death and eventually made their way back to Florence.

So, we have figures trying to make their way out of the marble, but now forever captive. Let me introduce you!

The Atlas

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The Bearded Slave

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The Young Slave

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The Awakening Slave

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In addition to being eerie, the value of the Captives is to show how Michelangelo worked. Most sculptors, apparently, work from a plaster models and match points on the model to points on the marble. Michelangelo, however, worked free-hand with no model. Somehow he knew where to stop taking out big chunks and what to leave in to make veins, tendons, and so on. The whole process is a mystery to me. So, let’s take a look at a finished product:

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Not only is he perfectly sculpted, he stands fourteen feet tall. You can look at picture after picture of this guy, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

When he was first commissioned by the Vestry Board, the idea was that he would be one of a series of statues hoisted up into niches of the  Florence Cathedral. You may recall the story of how Michelangelo was given a marble block to work with that had been previously rejected by other sculptors as too imperfect. Michelangelo, though, saw the potential. He was only 24 years old when he began the project. Working in seclusion for several years, at long last one January day in 1504 he invited he invited the Vestry board in to see the finished product. You can only imagine how they must have felt when they saw it for the first time.

Immediately they realized that they couldn’t just stick this guy up on a niche. Instead they commissioned a panel, which included Leonardo Di Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangalloand along with 27 other prominent Florentines. Eventually they decided to place it outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. It took 40 men four days to move it from  Michelangelo’s workshop to the new location. There it remained from 1504 to 1893, when somebody finally realized that the weather was doing some real damage. It was then moved to the Accademia.and restored.

Rick Steves says when you look in the eyes of David you see the face of the Renaissance man:

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And there is discussion about his large right hand.

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Talk about fine work! David’s sling is cardboard thin. After the statue was moved to its permanent home, Michelangelo came back and did some finish work on it. One thing he did was to gild the sling. He also added a gilded crown, all of which was lost over time.

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What else is there to say?

Most of the rest of the Accademia is a collection of plaster models of other works of art:

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At the other end of the Hall of Captives is this, a bust of Michelangelo:

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This bust was the work of Daniele Ricciarelli, who was a friend and student of the sculptor. Michelangelo lived to the age of 88 and obviously this is in his later years. You will see other works depicting Michelangelo in future posts, always with the same sad expression.

Ricciarell, by the way, became famous in his own right as the painter who covered up the genitals of the figures in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel at the request of one of the more conservative Popes. He painted a tasteful selection of breeches and loin cloths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firenze!

When our train pulled out of Venice we asked ourselves what could possibly compare to this fabulous city? Two hours later we found out.

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The skyline of Florence is dominated to three massive structures:

The Basilica Santa Croce:

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The Duomo:

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And, the the Palazzo Vecchio, former palace of the Medici:

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And, snaking its way through the city is the Arno river:

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Spanning that river, near the heart of Florence is the famous Ponte Vecchio and its many shops:

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Yet another feast for the eyes! Speaking of which, Florence, of course, is also home to some of the greatest art ever created. Later we’ll take a look at some of it.

In addition to all of the above, Florence is also the gateway to the region of Tuscany. So, picture this, as I did many times: You spend a wonderful day looking at art and other stuff. Then, you hop in your car, head off into the Tuscan hills, pull up in front of a beautiful vineyard where you sample fine wines with your sweetie while gazing at the villa-dotted horizon. Well, to make that dream come true one thing in that picture was clearly missing: the car to hop into.

So, for the week we would be in Tuscany we decided to rent a car. Most of the car rental places in Florence are near the train station, which would normally be a good thing. However, comment after comment after comment on Trip Advisor and other places suggested two problems: 1) That area is reputed to be the craziest of all crazy places in a city that you have to be crazy to drive in, and, 2) if you find yourself somehow missing turns (my specialty) and all of a sudden driving the streets of the historic center, your fine will be several times the purchase price of The David.

For those two reasons we decided to rent with Hertz, which has an office on the other side of the Arno, far from the madding crowd. Another important consideration was that our hotel was on the other side of the Arno as well. We called a cab at the train station and soon we were off to meet our rental! It took only a few blocks to realize we had made a good choice. This was a driving experience like no other. Clearly, in Florence (and elsewhere in Italy we later discovered), you want a cab driver who is 1) aggressive and 2) has no fear of death. In no time we pulled up at the Hertz office. With shaky hands I tipped heavily.

Hertz did indeed have our rental. Only one problem. We had requested (no, demanded) a GPS and they didn’t have a car that had one. Well, I was beyond disappointed, but before I could launch into my customary string of profane words, gestures, and deeds, the clerk said, “But wait! I have something better!”  What that turned out to be was a portable WiFi that we could plug into the lighter and then we could navigate with our cell phones. Well, after much discussion, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments,  and considering our bleak options, we decided to go for it. So armed with Google Maps and hand-puppet directions from the Hertz staff we were off for the Hotel David.

Thankfully, this was indeed a quieter part of town, but there was still plenty of traffic. And, as we anticipated from previous experience, street names changed about every other block. That said, only once did we find ourselves driving out into the Tuscan countryside instead of where our hotel was supposed to be. About an hour into what should have been a twenty minute trip we found ourselves to really, truly and actually be on Viale Michelangiolo, the location of our hotel.

Well, said viale winds through a pretty large part of the west bank of the Arno. We made the trip from one end to the other umpteen times in heavy traffic and could not find our hotel. We finally called the place and the clerk was very helpful, spoke excellent English, but could not describe any landmarks in our recent experience. Finally he said he would go out the side of the street and wave! While that was a very heroic gesture, if we were on the wrong end of the viale we couldn’t have seen him if he had grown to the size of Godzilla. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Of course, by the time we saw it I had already driven past, but in no time, we were safely parked in the Hotel David parking lot, where parking is free. I handed the keys to the valet and did not touch them again for three days. Here is what we had been looking for all along. How could we have missed that sign?:

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Arrivederci Venezia

Venice began its existence as a hideout for people following the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Barbarians would come down from the north and those who occupied nearby villages would head out to the islands to escape. Then the barbarians would leave and the islanders would go back to their homes. This went on for a while, then Atilla the Hun shows up. Unlike his lightweight predecessors, Attila was all business. He burned every village and everything else in sight. However, even he didn’t feel like slogging out to the islands.

This time the islanders were fed up. Rather than going back to the mainland and re-building for the umpteenth time, they decided to stay. Only problem was, the islands were mostly marshes and the people quickly got tired of sinking into the mud every time they tried to go someplace. Then, somebody hit on the idea of driving stakes into the muck for people to walk on. Brilliant!

Many of these people were fishermen so they knew that the best, most water resistant boats were made of alder wo0d. Soon they were sending barge after barge across the Adriatic to bring back alder logs. They would then trim them to roughly fifteen feet in length and start driving them in. After they finished this they would build wooden (later stone) platforms on top and build buildings. When one of the large churches was built in the 1600’s it was recorded that it took 1,106,657 wooden stakes and two years and two months of pile driving just to build the base. Along the way, the Venetians managed to wipe out the forests of Croatia and Slovenia.

I am telling this story only because today, much of Venice is still supported by those very same stakes, now hundreds of years old. Apparently, the muck does not allow wood-eating creatures to survive.  Problem is, muck is still muck and little by little Venice is sinking. Not much. Maybe a millimeter per year. But over time it still adds up. Is that the biggest problem Venice faces? Not hardly. What is the biggest problem? Guess.

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Typically Venice floods about a hundred times a year, usually from October through winter. This phenomena is called the acqua alta and is generally more of a nuisance than anything more serious. If you decided to go to Venice then, you might encounter this:

Acqua Alta, St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

Photo from Rick Steves

or this:

Photo from Rick Steves.

It has long been understood that Venice is a city living on borrowed time. But given the current climate it is not hard to imagine that time is running out. I suggest you move this city to the top of your wish list. Now, to change the subject.

After going through my bazillion photos I realized that I had left out of few from Saint Mark’s basilica, actually some details you see in the picture above,

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If you are considering marble counter tops, what better place to look at samples?

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The replica horses:

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I really can’t get enough of this place.

Often we would be late getting back to the hotel and just as often we would fail to make reservations at any restaurant. Fortunately the hotel staff would bail us out by contacting their friends to let us in. This generally led to evening strolls through the neighborhood. There are always people out, though, so safety is not a concern.

Although this street looks a little foreboding, there were lots of people behind us when I took this.

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It led us to this place:

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If you order meat for your pizza, sandwich or salad, they cut it fresh!

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The big thing in Venice is Murano glass, which, not surprisingly, I’d never heard of. Murano is an island near Venice and tourists flock there like pigeons in a peanut factory. While we did not have time to join them, plenty of glass was available in the city proper. Here is the result of Dianne’s very deliberate and well-done shopping,

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Plenty of room for these in the carry-ons!

Earlier I had mentioned the Correr Museum, which is on the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the basilica. Here a few highlights;

This is the Doges library, all the books being leather bound.

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A very fine coin collection. Each Doge, apparently, felt the need to have their reign memorialized on coins. Some obviously preferred gold.

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Later in Venetian history the city became famous for the Masked Ball. Young upper-crust gentlemen would descend on the city each year from other city states with the idea of engaging in a little hanky-panky with young ladies of the area. Some of these ladies apparently were troubled by matters of stature. Well, problem solved!

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And so, people, it was time to say goodbye to Venice. We were trapped like all the other tourists, but we were enchanted as well. We would gladly return. One last look out the room of our hotel,

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before we made a mad dash for the front desk so they could call us a guy to move our now heavier bags across that bridge. Soon he shows up, possibly a member of the WHHS Class of ’56.

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But, not only did he take all this stuff across the bridge, he took us to a secret entrance to the train station which led directly to the trains! Well worth the 20 euro!

We were sittin; at the railway station, had a ticket for our destination.Florence!

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But this pretty well sums up our feeling about Venice:

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The Rialto Bridge

If you’re in Venice and you long to see the faces of your fellow tourists, well typically all you have to do is turn around,  if there aren’t already several hundred in front of you. But if you want to see even more of them, head for the Rialto bridge.

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(This is not my picture, since apparently it is the one thing in this town I didn’t photograph. Credit goes to Wikimedia)

The bridge in its current form dates to 1591 and was designed, even then, to include shops on either side. They are well occupied to this day. So, ready for a leisurely stroll through the shops? Well, so is most of the civilized world.

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If you can’t find enough shops on the bridge…

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there are plenty more on the other side.

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And, there are more on virtually every side street.

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So, what is it we think we need? How about some hand-made shoes?

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What! You say you don’t have gloves to match the shoes? Mama mia!

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Perhaps some nice baubles to complete the look.

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Going retro?

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Want to enhance the decor?

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Ready to bring the old man in line with your new fashion sense?

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Wait! Don’t have time to dock the gondola for a little shopping? Problem solved!

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Now, let’s pick up  a little something for the maid!

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Well, all this shopping can wear a body out. Time to hit the gelato stand!

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Then, it’s time to hit the sauce!

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Now a quick bite for those on the go!

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And, perhaps, a little dessert!

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One thing about shopping, it should make you happy!

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Next, we will take one last look and Venice, then we’re off to Florence!

 

 

 

 

The Gondolier

Perhaps, when you think of romance, you conjure up a vision of you and your sweetie on a classic gold-trimmed gondola  slowly winding through the narrow canals of Venice, while your gondolier, in his best tenor, passionately, tearfully, renders his best “O Solo Mio”. Well, you must have seen it in a movie, because in the real Venice, things are strictly business.

There are 425 gondolas scattered throughout Venice. Did we count them? No need. Gondoliers are part of a guild (like a union) and the guild only allows 425 licenses. The guild also controls the cost of the trip, although some bargaining is possible. If you want to know the cost, you can, of course, look it up on the internet. Or, you can just ask the gondolier.

As we noted in earlier posts, there were a number of gondolas moored right outside our hotel. But, the Grand Canal is much like an interstate, with lots of cargo traffic and, of course, the vaporettos all over the place. Hardly very romantic.

Since Dianne and I had spent so much time on the Piazza San Marco and since the idea of riding under the Bridge of Sighs actually did seem romantic, we decided to ship out of there. To refresh you memory, here is the layout:

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The red tent in the distance, between the columns, is the headquarters. When you go there you will see many gondoliers, in their striped shirts, standing around shooting the breeze. If you approach them, they will be sure to ignore you. Eventually you will discover that one of them is sitting on a chair. He is the next on call. When you approach him he will be friendlier and will give you the price for his services. If you want about a 20 minute spin around the block, long enough to say you did it and take some selfies, it will cost about 80 euro. If you want to actually wind through the canals for about 45 minutes, then 120 euro would be just right. If you want to go all the way across town to the Grand Canal, an hour plus trip, then figure on 200 plus. By the way, gondoliers don’t sing. If you want to hear “O Solo Mio” the guy who will sing it to you costs an extra 120 euro plus. He’ll ride in the front of the boat.

Having already been warned by Rick Steves, we had budgeted for the middle option. Soon we were on our way!

First the cover comes off…

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Seats are arranged…

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The passengers are seated…

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And we head into the canals.

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I will say one thing about the gondolas: They are absolutely beautiful and actually works of art! Some of them should be in museums.

Well, be began our journey going under the Ponte della Paglia, the main north-south tourist route. Then under the Bridge of Sighs. The gondolier told us if you kiss under the bridge it is supposed to bring good luck. So…

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This is certainly not the only bridge we would find on our journey.

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What we should have expected, and did not, was traffic jams.

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No collisions, but not particularly romantic either.

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Eventually the worst of the traffic cleared and things began to quiet down

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It is truly beautiful going down these canals. It is an incredible city. Our gondolier, who pointed out a few sights along the way, was mostly quiet. All of a sudden he starts speaking in Italian. My first thought was, surely he doesn’t think we understand the language? Turns out he was talking on his cell phone! That’s him in the background.

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Well, the conversation didn’t last long, but it was hardly a magical moment. Then he was back to business. Along the way we passed some beautiful boats:

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This one was docked outside a church.

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Some sights along the way:

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You get a sense that it would not take much to flood the whole town, which does happen from time to time:

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In addition to all the gondolas, we also make room for cargo boats:

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Now, if these pictures didn’t quite take you there, here is a video of the last six minutes of our cruise where things got a little crazy again. There were many quieter moments as well:

Soon we were back to the piazza:

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So, if you are looking for a storybook romantic experience, this is probably not it. The gondola is where the magical Venice and the tourist-trap Venice come to meet.  Is it worth it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. We might start from a different location. Maybe Tripadvisor has some suggestions. But all things considered, there is no better way to see one of the great cities of the world.

Next, we’ll go on a little shopping spree! Well, at least we’ll look in the windows.

 

 

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs

Faced with power struggles inside Venice and threats from invaders outside, you can forgive a Doge for being a little paranoid. Accordingly they were not bashful about disposing of anyone who was, or was rumored to be, interested in taking over.

Originally, the palace dungeons and torture chambers were housed in the basement. But, due to overflow crowds down there a new, connecting building was created to give prisoners more room to stretch, or be stretched, depending on the nature of their crime. To connect the buildings a bridge was built with two lanes of traffic, one inbound and the other outbound. It is not hard to imagine which was more heavily traveled. This is the bridge:

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A close-up:

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This became known as the Bridge of Sighs because prisoners would look out the window at their last breath of fresh air and last glimpse of sunlight, possibly ever, and sigh. Or, so the story goes.

This, minus the gondola, was their view:

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As it so happens, we encountered a young prisoner sighing on that very bridge. Although she was told a thousand times not to mess with politics the message never got through. Now she must pay the price.

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After crossing the bridge, things take a downhill turn:

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Early on, you get the idea that the government plans for you to stay a while:

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Here is our prisoner searching for a cell that meets her requirements for comfort and the proper amenities:

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Yes! Perfect!

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Nicely appointed and lots of companionship for those lonesome hours:

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Fortunately she likes her mattress extra firm! So do her roomies!

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Even better, the cell next door is occupied by a community of artists!

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Let’s see what works they left that have survived the ages:

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Hard to imagine what they must have been thinking about.

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There are a lot of recurring themes, no doubt after hours of artistic discussion.

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At least, if you were a prisoner in Venice, you found comfort knowing you weren’t alone:

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Next, we’ll take you for a ride on one of those gondolas and we’ll see what’s down the canal!

 

 

It Isn’t Easy Bein’ a Doge!

Vienna was a republic, so the Doges (long “o”, soft “g”) were elected, not by the common folk, but by the representatives of the wealthy families of the city. In all there were 117 Doges through the history of Venice, the first being elected in 697 and the last, being advised by Napoleon to take a hike, left in 1797.

So, for 1,100 years there was more or less of a struggle between the Doge and the electorate to wield power. The first one had to serve under the rule of another city. He left and the next guy was elected by people who wanted out from under the thumb of the Byzantines. Well, he was assassinated. For a while after that some other guys filled in. In 742 they elected a guy name Theodato Ipato. He served for 13 years till somebody else, Galla Gaulo, thought he could do a better job. So, with some of his friends, he arranged to have poor Theodato deposed, blinded, and exiled. Galla didn’t last more than a year until another guy, Domenico Monegario, had him deposed, blinded, and exiled. Domenico ruled for 8 years, then the same thing happened to him!.

The next in line, no doubt wearing protective eyeware, served without being deposed, but he, too, made a big mistake. When it was time to take his leave, he put his son in his place. Well, one of the big no, no’s of being a Doge is nepotism. The electorate gave the son and his family a one way ticket to Mantua, and made it clear that returning would be a VERY bad idea. Apparently they all died in Mantua.

So, on and on it went for centuries. The Doge would try to get away with something and the Council would say, “No, no, no!”

It is pretty clear, though, that these guys were not shrinking violets. Here are a few portraits.

Around 1150, the current Doge had a palace built in its present location, connected to Saint Mark’s Basilica, which at that time was a private chapel for the Doge. From that point on, the Doges were required to live at the Palace, mostly so the Council could keep an eye on them. At one point, the council required one of its members to be present before the Doge could even open correspondence from a foreign power.

The original palace did not last, so around 1340 the construction of the current palace began. Over time, there were fires and modifications, but the existing palace is close to the original. So, let’s take a look!

Here is the outside:

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The view from above:

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Inside the courtyard, which contains two wells:

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A close-up of the link to St. Mark’s

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Inside the courtyard:

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The floor plan:Doges Palace

OK, let’s say you are, oh, the King of Naples, in town to discuss business with the Doge. Your ship pulls up to the harbor, but you’re lucky if anyone comes to meet you. You get off the ship and arrive at the entrance to the Palace.

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The first thing the Doge liked to do was to make sure you had to climb to meet him. Your journey started here.

Then, once inside, you found this:

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Up we go! To the landing where there is another set of stairs like this one. By the time you get to the Doge, who is on an elevated stage, you are more than just breathless in anticipation!

You observe that the Doge spared no expense on decor:

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One of the things Doges loved to do was to have themselves painted into biblical scenes:

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Why not?

Well, we could go on and on to room after room, but there are two you should definitely see: First, the Room of the Great Council!

Sometimes, if the Doge was planning something really big, like a war, he would convene the Great Council, which consisted of males 25 and over from the proper families. This could be up to 2,000 people. Where are you going to put them? Right here!

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At the far end, where the Doge sat,  you’ll notice a rather large painting:

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The artist Tintoretto was a favorite of the Doges and they were always bugging him to put out more work. Finally, he hired a workshop of apprentices, fine artists in their own right, including three of his children. It was the Tintoretto Workshop, and the man himself, who produced this painting, called Paradise. It is reputed to be the largest painting on canvas in existence. It is the size of a tennis court. Tintoretto was 70 at the time. This was his last major work.

Here are some details:

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Everything builds to Christ crowning the Virgin Mary:

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Over the thousand or so years, Venice played around with different ways to set up government around the Doge. Predictably, the larger the council the more unwieldy it became. At one point somebody came up with the idea of taking the top ten most influential guys and making them a separate council to deal with issues in a hurry. They became the Council of Ten and one thing they did was to decide the guilt or innocence of various alleged offenders. Here is a detail of where they met:

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As you might imagine, some of the cases heard by the council were of a delicate political nature. And, if they decided that some guy was guilty of, say, treason, and a lot of his supporters were out in the hall, it would not do to parade him through the palace. If you look closely at the wood panels you will note, in spite of the glare, that one panel, almost in the center, seems to stand out from the others. That is because it is a secret door which leads directly to the dungeon below. No muss. No fuss.

In our next post we will take you to the dungeon for a nice visit. I will leave you, though, with a small sampling of treasures from the war room where you can take a look at some of the brotherly love displayed on the Medieval battlefield:

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Nice guys!

 

 

 

 

Saint Mark’s Campanile

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The original Campanile (Bell tower) was built in the ninth century. Originally it served more as a lighthouse and a watchtower. From the get-go it had big problems, namely, it kept getting hit by lightning. For that reason it underwent numerous reconstructions.  In 1388 it was virtually destroyed by lightning, in 1417 somebody set it on fire, in 1489 there was another fire that destroyed the wooden spire. Then, to make matters worse, in 1511 there was an earthquake. By 1513 it was rebuilt for the umpteenth time and took the form that you see today, complete with bells. Unfortunately, it was hit by lighting again in 1548, 1565, 1658 and 1745, when, this time, falling bricks killed several people. But it got hit by lighting again in 1761 and 1762. FINALLY, in the year of our independence, 1776, after yet another lightning strike, somebody came up with the bright idea to install a lightning rod!!! Problem solved!

Well, that problem was solved, but that was not the end of troubles for this poor tower. In July 1902 someone strolling along the piazza happened to notice a rather large crack in the tower’s north wall. Officials got everyone out and sealed it off. A few days later, on a bright, sunny morning, the whole damn thing fell over. Fortunately, it fell in the right direction, missing the cathedral and all the other nearby treasures.

To their credit, the town council met the very night of the collapse and ponied up 500,000 lira to build a new one. The new design was made to look exactly like the old one with two hugely important differences: it was properly reinforced from the inside, and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, they put in elevators!!! Hallelujah!!!

So, let’s ride up and take a look around!

Here is where you enter, after standing in a long, but steadily moving line,

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Then up you go! As you might imagine, the view is breathtaking!

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Looking back over the Piazza San Marco:

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Looking over the cathedral and the Doge’s Palace:

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And, along the harbor:

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It is not hard to imagine a harbor full of sailing ships serving what was, then, the most powerful city in the world.

Across the harbor is the island and cathedral of San Giorgio Maggiore, which we did not have time to visit. You can take a vaporetto over there if you want. One thing you will notice as you look at the plaza in front of the cathedral. From time to time flooding could be an issue.

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And, of course, we have the biggest gondola service in the city:

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So, we were up there gawking around at all the sights, when, for some reason, I happened to look up:

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It was only seconds later that this happened:

It was plenty loud, that’s for sure, but not bad enough to, say, drive one to madness. Our ears were ringing long after the bells stopped, though. During all this we expected to see Quasimodo come around the corner.

OK. Back down the tower we go! So here’s the plan: next we will visit the Doge’s Palace. Then we will hop onto one of those gondolas you just saw and go for a spin! OK one last look while were up here:

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What a place!

Piazza San Marco!

In the year 828 a couple of merchants of Venice happened to be in Alexandria, Egypt, which, at that time was under control of the Muslim Saracens. It just so happened that the Apostle Mark had established a Christian Church in Alexandria years before and when the merchants visited that church they came across some monks who were very concerned that Mark’s church might well be attacked and plundered. Their principle concern was that Mark himself was buried there and the monks had no interest in seeing his bones paraded down the street. So, the merchants and the monks hit upon a plan to get Mark out of town. They exhumed him, stuffed another lesser saint into his sarcophagus and, loaded him on the next ship bound for Venice. To make sure he was not discovered they hid his remains under a load of pork and cabbages, which the Muslims would not go near. Sure enough, they quickly passed inspection and off to Venice they went. Numerous miracles are said to have occurred on this voyage, which brought everyone back home safely.

At that time Venice was ruled by “Doges” (DOUGH-jis), or, “Dukes”. When the Doge heard that Saint Mark was in town he immediately ordered the construction of a cathedral right next to his palace. Well, it was a beautiful cathedral no doubt, but unfortunately it burned to the ground some years later and it was assumed that Mark’s remains went up with it.

However, as a new, larger cathedral was being constructed an apparition appeared one night and pointed to one of the pillars left from the old church. Sure enough, upon inspection, it was discovered that Mark himself had been tucked inside the pillar! So, as the new cathedral was completed a much more suitable and secure final resting place was created. Where is it? Nobody is saying. All we know is, he’s somewhere in here:

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The basilica is now part of the complex known as the Piazza San Marco which is the crown jewel of Venice. If you stand at the west end of the Piazza the basilica is at the east end:

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Along the north sides, to your left and right, are the offices of the Procuratie Vecchie, the people who administer the affairs of the Basilica. The tower is the Campanile di San Marco, or, bell tower.

Here is a better view of the Procuratie Vecchie:

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If you stand at the cathedral end and look west you will see this:

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At the far end is the Correr Museum, which we will visit later.

If you are at the cathedral looking south, toward the canals, this is the view:

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To the left is the Doges Palace, still connected to the basilica. There are two columns also, the one on the left being a winged lion, the symbol of Mark and of the city itself.

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So, let’s take a look at Saint Mark’s Basilica. First the outside. The columns at each entrance are of different colored marble. Above are mosaics depicting scenes from Mark’s life and of his rescue from the Muslims:

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Such a huge cathedral and yet the attention to detail is incomprehensible:

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What incredible art! But wait! Let’s take a look inside:

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Yes, people. That is gold! It is gold leaf embedded in the glass chips!

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I could show you every picture in our collection or you could find more on the internet but nothing takes the place of just being there. We have been in many great cathedrals, but this is an absolute mind blower! And yet, there’s more!

Inside the basilica is a museum which mostly features mosaics and other art that was salvaged from the earlier church or otherwise removed for display, like this one:DSCF0075

But, by far, the stars of the show are the Horses of Saint Mark:

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These horses date back to the first or second century and were probably part of some Roman garden. Apparently they were gifted to the Byzantines and for many years were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Well, in 1204, they became part of the loot plundered from that city during the Fourth Crusade. They were brought back to Venice and displayed above the entrance to the basilica where they remained until Napoleon captured Venice in 1797. He removed them by force and had them placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, however, the Emperor of Austria gave the horses back to the Venetians who, once again placed them on basilica. In 1980, people began to notice that pollution was taking its toll on them. They were taken down, restored, and moved inside to protect them. Are they happy?

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Here are the copies:

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Next, we’ll head up the Campanile and take a look around.

 

 

 

Venezia!

Venice is a city like no other! Of course, you already know that. But, to actually be there is also an experience like no other. It was a two and a half hour train ride from Milan (38 euro for the two of us) and to get to the city you have to go over a causeway.

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So, over we go! We arrive at the Santa Lucia station and it’s an easy departure right out the main gate and there, in front of us is the Grand Canal! Across the canal we can actually see our hotel. This is the one town we decided to upgrade our hotel so we could be on the canal. All we had to do is simply cross over the Scalzi Bridge, turn right and we would be there less than a minute. There is only one detail that even Rick Steves left out: here is the Scalzi Bridge:

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Even our light luggage dreaded this one. Almost instantly we were besieged by guys with carts offering to transport our luggage. Now every tour guide we read had one piece of advice in common: Do not allow yourself to be approached by strangers selling stuff and, if you are, ignore them. So, this is what we did. Instead we lugged everything up each of these steps and down the other side. It was awful. And, these guys followed us right up the steps to make matters worse. But we persevered and finally got everything over. So, here is an addendum to any tour book you read. If you are approached by a stranger wanting to carry your bags over the Ponte Scalzi, pay them!

OK, so here is Venice, famously shaped like a fish:

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The train station is at the upper left. Our hotel was across the Grand Canal, the omega shaped ribbon that runs through the city, and, as you can see, most of the streets are water. To get around the city you take a water taxi called a vaperetto, which is this:

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They make routine stops up and down the Grand Canal and out to the nearby islands if you take the right one. They are numbered so you know which one to get on. To go the entire length of the canal takes about an hour if you get on one that makes all the stops. They can be incredibly crowded. Would you like to go for a ride? No problem! This is the part of the journey that takes you under the Rialto Bridge:

This is the way to see Venice! Here are some more sights along the way:

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The real charm of Venice, though, is the side streets:

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So, we took the vaporetto the length of the canal and planned our time here. Then it was back to the hotel. Here is the view out our window:

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As it turns out, there was a gondola station right in front of us! In the next chapter we will go on a gondola ride and visit Piazza San Marco. Plenty to see and do! In the mean time I’ll leave you with a view from the room at night:

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Bellagio

Apparently, among the Italians, there are more than a few jokes about Bellagio and its location on the anatomy of the stick figure some see in the shape of Lake Como.

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Tasteless, no doubt, but now I REALLY wished I’d learned some Italian. I suppose those jokes  were on a par with the ones we used to tell about the old Y-Inn south of Millersburg. Sophomoric at best. But hilarious when you’re about 12 years old.

Well, as charming as Varenna is, there were plenty of people trying to get out.

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And onto one of these:

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The ferry runs to Bellagio about every half-hour to hour, depending on the season and it takes about 10 minutes to get over there. One bonus is the opportunity to see your home town from the water.

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Soon we were all boarded, an in no time we were approaching our destination. Bellagio only has 200 permanent residents and lodging for another 900. Needless to say, tourism is the name of the game.

From our B&B this is the view.

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The town center is to the right with numerous shacks spread out along the shore. Places like this:

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There are three docks and the crew likes to surprise you by keeping secret the one at which they will pick you up when it’s time to go home. But, we soon were making our way toward one of them to get off and see the sights. DSCF9355

When you land you find yourself on the hotel-and-shop-lined main street.

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To the left, where you see the shades, is an endless series of cafe’s and small shops and then much larger shops down the way. This is the high-rent district in a high-rent town. We stopped at one of the cafe’s for coffee, then took an amusing stroll down this street, peering into various windows, as so on. Then we promptly got the hell out. Instead, we decided to follow the riff-raff up the hill.

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And, quite the hill it was! Also shop-lined but slightly less likely to require the mortgaging of your US home to make a purchase. At the top of the hill is another street and, thankfully, even more shops!

DSCF9387As you can see, Dianne observed admirable, almost saintly, restraint!

One thing that was somewhat challenging was that, even though, this street is clearly occupied by pedestrians, the very life-blood of the city, the locals don’t mind seeing a little of that blood spilled so they can move their crappy cars down the boulevard. For example:

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As the street narrows ever further, one thing you learn in a hurry is to twist your piggies parallel to the wall of the shop you are currently pinned up against.

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Well, there are beautiful things in these shops that even I could appreciate. The only reason I have not had to pawn the very computer I’m writing this on is that we could not fit any of this stuff in our luggage and mailing made things even more cost-prohibitive with delivery not promised in ones lifetime. Bummer!

George Clooney’s villa is somewhere around here, a little farther south we were told. But apparently from time to time he will ride his motorcycle up here and putz around. The locals don’t pester him though. They understand the need to have a sanctuary. Especially since the release of the Panama Papers. Besides, just having him around is good for business.

This is as close as we got to his house:

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We got back to Varenna in time to head out for dinner. I’ll give you a brief rundown of our culinary experience in this town.

The first night we walked along the shore and made our way to a very nice open air restaurant by the ferry dock. They were cultivating wisteria on the ceiling, which, by now, I imagine, is much greener.

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They bought a bag of bread sticks. Most of the restaurants we visited across Italy served bread in bags of one form or another, so we bought a bread bag to bring home.

This was my first official meal in Italy, Lake Como perch on risotto. It was quite yummy, but a couple days ago I had the Lake Erie version. No contest.

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The next night we decided on pizza, which is only natural. So, here’s another confession: I love anchovies. I know, I know. Well, since this is the actual home of the anchovy, I thought what better way to enjoy them than in the home of the pizza! Viola!

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You will note that Dianne declined to join me in this adventure and chose a much more sensible alternative. I was surprised to find that my poor little fishies had been subject to the same abuse over here that they were at the hands of King Oscar back home, flattened and salted to death. But they still were quite tasty, so all was well.

On our last night we consulted TripAdvisor to locate the number one restaurant in Varenna. We settled for #2, Al Prato, since  it was right across from the gate of our B&B.  As the tour books will tell you, Italians like the dinner experience go start late and go well into the night. To make that happen, you begin with the antipasti, (which never once in our time in Italy, included the antipasto salad we know so well in the US), then the primi piatti, or first course, then the secondi piatti, the second course, then dessert. Well, that is a boat load of food. Mostly we picked two or three of the options. So here was Al Prato:

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I know, I know. Now people, you would normally never get me near an octopus except in an aquarium, but I read SO many comments from people who thought it was the best thing ever! And, believe me, I could easily have gotten more adventurous in this country where routine options include horse meat and brains. Smoked octopus was as far down that road as I was willing to go. And, it was pretty darn good. Dianne didn’t care for it at all. She favored the meat sampler, which we shared:

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I had a beef dish, which was excellent.IMG_3065

Dianne went for the chicken, which she also liked very much.IMG_3064

Then we shared our first, but by no means last, tiramisu. IMG_3066

By the time dinner was over the sun had set which made a walk along the lake the perfect way to work off a billion calories.

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Varenna was the perfect first stop for us. Relaxing, but interesting at the same time. When we left, it was a sad goodbye. Well, as sad as you can be when you know what’s coming next.

 

 

Lake Como! Varenna!

So, we have found our seats on the huge Airbus 380 and, miraculously, the third (aisle) seat remains unoccupied. Soon a flight attendant stands near us waiting to direct people to their seats. No one else comes, so she starts up a conversation with Dianne. It is the usual, “Where are you from?”

“Ohio”

She seems interested. “What part of Ohio?”

“Findlay, south of Toledo”

She seems even more interested. “Really? My grandmother lives in Rossford! Have you heard of it?”

“Our daughter and her family live in Rossford!”

Well, from that point on we had new friend on the flight crew. Her name is Jessica and she lived for many years in Texas. With her new job at Emirates she has moved to Dubai. But, she misses her family, so we said we would be happy to take a note to her grandma. She said she had a better idea. In a while she came back with one of those red hats the flight attendants wear and put it on Dianne. It was a perfect fit! Then she invited us up to the crew quarters for a photo op. We took many.

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She had a Polaroid and soon she had mounted the picture into a card holder and dated it for her grandma, who is 96 years old. We promised to hand deliver it in about a month when we got back.

Last Thursday, we made good on our promise. Jessica’s grandma is the classic sweet, old lady. She has lived in her house in Rossford for 80 years!

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She was very glad to get the picture.

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, it was a wonderful flight to Milan. Malpensa Airport, however, is not in Milan. It is 30 miles away. Our travels in Italy were to begin at Milan Central Station. In order to get the the Central Station, you take a train called the Malpensa Express. And, it is possible to buy tickets on line for that train. We were supposed to arrive in Milan at 12:15, local time. Our train to Varenna was to leave at 2:20 pm. This seemed like plenty of time, so I booked the Malpensa Express for the 12:45 run, which seemed like more than enough time to cover 30 miles. When I booked the train, though, I found that the Express is not really an express at all. It is a commuter train with a number of stops. The entire run takes about 50 minutes and only leaves at hour intervals. So, if we missed the 12:45, we could jump on the next train, but it would be a miracle if we caught the Varenna train.

As it happened, however,  our plane arrived early. It was a quick process to get our luggage,  go through Passport Control, find the train and get on board. When we arrived at Milan Central Station we found that the Express stopped at a track some distance from the others, so we engaged in an orderly sprint to get to the main tracks.

Here is one thing VERY cool about Milan Central Station. They have an app! One thing we learned from our previous travels in Europe is, just because you buy a ticket to Varenna, doesn’t mean you will see Varenna on the Board that shows arrivals and departures. What you will see instead is the name of the last stop that train makes. In our case, the last stop was Tirano. That is good to know, but actually, since we had our tickets already all we really needed was the train number. So, you look on the board, find your train number and wait for the track to be assigned. When it is, off you go! But, on the app not only do you get the train number, is you click on a little track icon it will show you every stop that train makes on its way to Tirano. Believe me, that adds considerably to the peace of mind of the guy who buys the tickets!

In no time at all we were on the regional train to Varenna! I should point out, that on none of the regional trains (operated by Trennord) did anyone ever so much as look at our tickets. On the high speed trains, they always did.

If you talk to someone who has been to Italy, most of them will talk about Lake Como with that far-away look of dreamers. They loved the place! So, this seemed like the perfect location to unwind and get used to the time difference. The village of Varenna was recommended by Rick Steves and when he does tours, they go there. I don’t remember exactly how we settled on the B&B “…Il Giardino Sul Lago”, but the reviews on TripAdvisor made it sound like just the place we were looking for, even if the name doesn’t exactly work the magic. The manager is Julie and when I told her what time our train would arrive, she said she would meet us at the station. Which is a good thing, because here is the entrance to the B&B:

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 See the sign? Well, there isn’t any. But here is the room:
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Down the hallway is he boudoir, to the left is the very spacious bath. The place was spotlessly clean, but the best was outside:
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It didn’t take long to settle in.
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Our room was to the right of the last palm tree.
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The Alps were just a short distance away.
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The village of Menaggio is directly across the lake. The other side of the mountains is Switzerland. DSCF9339
This B&B was originally owned by the Pirelli family of tire fame. One of the Pirelli’s to whom it was handed down, apparently got religion and decided to give it to the Catholic Church. The Church, however, had all the properties it could handle already, so they, in turn, decided to sell it. No rich buyers, it seems, came forward, so it was sold in sections. Julie, our excellent host, at the time was living with her husband elsewhere in Italy. Her husband heard about the sale and pressured her into agreeing to sell their current home and buying part of this one. Then he ran off with some floozy, leaving Julie to manage this place. Fortunately their piece included the basement, which she turned into a B&B. And that brings us to today.
Julie is very outgoing and extremely funny. She is British by birth and still maintains a distinct British accent. She joined us on the patio from time to time and was very helpful explaining the ways of the area.
After shaking off most of the cobwebs in our brains, we decided to go for a walk and check the place out. From our room there is a gradual climb which takes you to the public square, Piazza San GiorgioDSCF9225
The centerpiece of the piazza is the Church of San Giorgio, but, as you enter you pass by an even older church, the San Giorgio Battista (Saint John the Baptist).
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This church dates back to the eleventh century. Records show that it was extended in 1151.
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The frescos on the walls date back to the 14th century the one below is a couple hundred years younger. DSCF9222
After stopping in here, we decided to stroll along the lake shore. The main street out of town was decorated with pennants to celebrate a bicycle race that had been held the day before. DSCF9226
Soon we were in the country
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Below is the beautiful Villa Monastero, now a convention center. Each year a physics conference is held here. Years ago, Enrico Fermi was the presenter.
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Another shack we passed along the way.DSCF9236
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In time we found our way back to the piazza and decided to stop in at the main church, San Giorgino:
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This church was consecrated in 1313, which was a year that spelled trouble for all of Europe, the beginning the the Little Ice Age. The result was steady rains and a four year famine. But the worst was yet to come. Thirty-four years later was the beginning of the Black Death. Before it was over, 35 million people, a third of the population of Europe, would be gone. Just to give you some historical perspective.
Today, however, it is simply a beautiful little church. So, we went in to rest our bones and noticed there were others doing much the same. Before long a lady came up to us and handed us a small piece of paper which announced, in Italian, of course, that there was going to be a concert by the organist Ennio Cominetti, who apparently was in Varenna as part of a circuit tour of organists sponsored by the region of Lombardy, which includes our town. Sure enough, in about 5 minutes a guy comes in, sits down at the organ and starts playing. Want to hear some of it?
After the concert we thought it would be a good idea to buy a bottle of wine to take back to the room. Across the the church was this little market,
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I opened the door to go in, though, and found that it would only open part way. Why?
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This lady parks herself behind the door! It appears she has no other function. We came back to the store a few hours later and she was still there! Maybe this is an Italian version of Eldercare.
This is a store where every square inch is occupied by something. Generally, something yummy!
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If one of Varenna’s citizens wants to actually go shopping in a supermarket, they have to take the ferry over to Menaggio.
Well, that’s enough for now. Next we will visit Bellagio.