Buongiorno, amico! Apparently, I have been given
another year to travel the world, escape the worst of
Pennsylvania’s winter, make new friends, and immerse
myself in another culture. As if the salutation of this
email didn’t give it away completely, I depart Wednesday
on a flight to Rome with a short layover in London.
Waiting for me at Fiumicino airport will be someone
whose name you may recognize: Schim. A friend I met
years ago while teaching English in Spain, Schim has
joined me for a short time on many of my recent
excursions. He has never been to Italy and, as usual, is
insecure in a country where people speak in tongues with
which he is unfamiliar. Schim arrives in Rome from
Orlando at 8:00 a.m. and I arrive at 4:15 p.m. Schim
will wait in the airport until my arrival (I mentioned
that he was insecure, did I not?) and we will taxi from
there to Trastevere, one of the oldest sections of the
city where we will take up residence for a week in an
apartment I have rented over the internet at
homeaway.com. Never having set foot in Rome, Schim’s
first question as we discussed this adventure was, “What
will we do in Rome for a week?” The man must never have
heard of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Trevi
Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Vatican City,
St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, etc., etc.,
etc. Having been to Rome many times and enjoying the
perfect location of Trastevere, I felt comfortable
making that part of the city headquarters for the week,
since it is only a short walk from there to most of
Rome’s attractions. Schim is looking forward to taking
This year, Schim threatens to stay with me for three weeks and I am bracing for the companionship. After the week in Rome, we (really I - he’s clueless) are planning to train to Naples, spend a couple of days in a rental car driving the Amalfi Coast, visiting Pompeii, and the charming seaside city of Positano. From there, it will be back on the train (and ferry) for the ride to Palermo, Sicily, the island’s largest city. A couple of days there, where I have spent only three days in a past trip, and we’ll wind through the island, by bus or train, heading eventually to Siracusa (Syracuse), the ancient city in the south of Sicily. Never having been to Siracusa, but finding it a fascinating, historical place in my research, I am expecting to stay in the town until the end of March. That could change, however, if I find the city uninteresting, too small, or find a more desirable location on my way through the country or the island. If I find the town desirable, I plan to shop for an apartment in Siracusa. Being on foot, location is one of the most important criteria in my selection of an apartment and I want to make myself very familiar with the area before committing.
As is my wont, I will again write a travel blog describing my activities and misadventures. During his three-week stay, Schim will probably also offer a more brief, mostly inaccurate, accounting of our activities, which can be viewed by going to Schim's View.
Many (well, several at least), of you have found it entertaining, for whatever reason, to travel vicariously with me as I wander. You are cordially invited to travel with me once again. Rest assured that no offense will be taken should you find better things to do with your time and be comfortable with the fact that there will be no quiz to follow. Arrivederci.
1/9/15 - Trastevere, Rome, Italy
Today for lunch on our first full day in Roma, we dined outside at a small table on a tiny, side street only a few feet from the famous Pantheon. Rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in 156 BC, the gorgeous, iconic building is currently used as a church and its open roof and impressive dome even awed the unimpressible Schim who took several photos inside. The delicious, paper-thin pizza that he consumed for lunch brought forth more oohs and ahhhs, but he couldn't hide his awe at the ancient building, either.
Yesterday, I landed at the airport 20 minutes late which put Schim in a dither. Had I missed my flight? Was I sitting in London, frantically trying to reach him by text? He had texted to be certain I had arrived in the UK as planned. Had I suffered a heart attack in Heathrow? The man was a nervous wreck after eight hours of waiting and snoozing in the Fiumicino Airport. He grinned like the proverbial Cheshire cat when he caught a glimpse of me rolling my suitcase out the immigration exit. Thank God, I was there to save him from facing Rome all alone.
We caught a taxi, used the directions provided by our landlord of the week, and headed into the center of Rome. The cabbie dropped us at a corner because he couldn't locate the building where our apartment is located and we quickly called the contact who was scheduled to meet us at the apartment. There was a period where we walked up the street pulling our bags when the fear flashed through my travel-weary mind that we might have to find a hotel for the night, but there, at the top of the hill and standing in front of a huge concrete staircase, was Iryna smiling and waving frantically at us as we labored up the hill.
Old human bodies were apparently not designed to fly 600 miles an hour through time zones. I came to this unscientific epiphany between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. last night when I awoke In the tiny Trastevere apartment ready to start my day. My old friend, Schim, was lightly snoring in the sofa bed around the corner while I tried to quietly dissuade my body of the inappropriate timing of the calls of nature it was communicating to me. I retired again to my bed and read emails and my Kindle before dozing off until 7:30 a.m. My jet lag adjustment theory has recently evolved into letting my body have its way. When it says sleep, I sleep. When it says awaken, I awaken, no matter the time of day. Eventually, hopefully in a day or two, my body will adjust to the daylight and straighten itself out. Schim finished his morning ablutions after I did and it was time to explore Trastevere in search of breakfast.
Breakfast was in a small cafe where we met two, young, clothing-design students from Philadelphia who are living and studying in Rome for four months. Afterward, we strolled Trastevere, stopped at a tobacco shop to purchase a week-long pass for Rome's transportation system (bus, tram, and subway-24 euros), and jumped on a jam-packed tram to cross the Tiber River into the busy part of downtown Rome. Until we returned to the apartment for a much-needed, jet-lagged-induced nap, we had walked more than 10,000 steps, according to the app on Schim's phone. No wonder I almost instantly collapsed into a deep sleep when my head hit the pillow. Tonight, we will further explore Trastevere in search of a tiny trattoria for dinner, then see whether the old bodies demand sleep at a decent time of night. Future updates will not be as lengthy (I promise), but I must describe the harrowing flight here before I forget the miserable conditions I endured to reach Schim. A 'piu tardi.
1/11/15 - Trastevere, Rome, Italy
Lest I forget the horrendous flight experience I had on my way to London on British Airways, let me enlighten you. The route through London was the cheapest passage ($833) to Rome that I could find after a couple months of searching, so perhaps I deserved a little less than ideal conditions. But, as I reported to BA on a survey they had the temerity to send me at the conclusion of my ordeal, cattle and horses are given more room when they are shipped. I took my seat in the small, coach section of the plane on the Boeing 767 aircraft that was configured with 2-3-2 seating. I selected a bulkhead seat on the aisle because, on my BA flight to London in September, my knees were against the seat in front of me and crushed when the person in front of me tilted back. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't sit without sprawling on the aisle and it was an uncomfortable flight. Returning home, I was able to move to a bulkhead seat with nobody in front of me which made for a much more comfortable experience, despite the narrow seat.
This time, as I approached the aisle seat in the center configuration, a woman had already occupied the center seat and would be my companion for the flight. As I sat, I noticed that I barely fit into the seat. This seat was even narrower than the one in September, though I had trouble believing that possible. Were the seat one iota narrower, I could not have fit; my hips tightly touched both arm rests. Yes, I'm 5'11" and 240 pounds and yes, I should lose some weight, but who shouldn't in America these days? The young lady next to me, native to Sierra Leone from West Africa, was about 5'1" tall and conservatively estimated by me to be 275 pounds. I honestly do not know how she got into the seat with her hips, perhaps BA supplies Vaseline for early boarding large passengers. She was a nice lady, but the upper half of her torso encroached considerably on my portion of the narrow seat. I didn't complain to her, but for the entire flight I was forced to twist my upper body to the outside edge of my seat. I got up as often as possible during the flight to do some stretching and bending, but arrived in London in desperate need of a chiropractor. I opted for Ibuprofen to reduce the spinal inflammation and, with fear and trepidation boarded the connecting flight to Rome. Again on the aisle seat in a brand new Air Bus 321 (if my memory serves me correctly), configured 3-3, the coach seats were slightly wider and the flight, though a tad rough, was much more comfortable. I promised BA in my survey that I would write the FAA and my congressman (though with Congressman Pitts, I might as well save my ink) demanding that a limit be put on the size of seating in aircraft. It is time for the little guy, the coach passenger, to rise up and make a stand. Join me. Now my only concern: was the nice, but very large lady next to me on the London leg returning from ebola-infected Sierra Leone through Philadelphia? I'll have 21 days to find out.
They got me here safely, however, and for that Schim and I are forever grateful. Speaking of Schim, I believe a disclaimer is in order. In past updates when Schim accompanied me, I may have been a little harsh in my description of him. His significant other finds him charming and debonaire; his grandchildren find him warm and loving. The Elks Club finds him heroic and dependable. Even my brother, when meeting him for the first time last year on our trip to Florida, exclaimed afterward, "He's a nice guy! The way you described him in your blog, I expected a monster!" Perhaps, I have been a little rough on him in the past. This year I will treat him better in my musings. Wait, Nah! It would just go to his head and he wouldn't know how to act. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't travel each year with an unpleasant person or a monster, but Schim is such an easy target and it is such great sport. Be advised that his written treatment of me is not a whole lot better, but on the road we are somewhat simpatico. There, that's as close as I'm going to get to appeasing his ardent admirers who now include my wife and brother. Ciao!
A one-time-around, tour-bus trip to buzz the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Via Veneto, Via del Corso, and the Roman Forum, a week-long pass on Rome's public transportation, a two-hour tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, a quick walk through of St. Peter's Cathedral and Schim is ready to leave Roma. "Been there, done that, let's eat" pretty much describes Schim's take on the city. It was unfortunate that the Trevi Fountain was turned off and covered with scaffolding for a renovation project that will last another year (be advised) and the dash through half of the Piazza Navona was accomplished on a very overcast day, but Schim seems satisfied with his first visit to the eternal city. He was impressed by the Pantheon, respectfully appreciative of Vatican City, simply loved the tram, buses, and train rides we've taken through the city (not a single taxi, except the ride in from the airport), but he was smitten by the food. Rigatoni Carbonara seems to have gotten his most favorite label, but he has been eating pasta, pizza, and simply ravaged an anti-pasti buffet at lunch yesterday. The old fella apparently loves Italian food.
Last evening, when the temperature plunged to 43 degrees by the time we returned to the apartment after our stroll for a light meal and wine before bedtime, Schim dressed for the Arctic. Undershirt, shirt, sweater, jacket, khakis, white sneakers, mittens, AND, are you ready, an ill-fitting, Humphrey hat! With everyone else, including the elderly and infirm, dressed in dark clothing and not one human being among the thousands we passed on the stroll wearing gloves, he stood out as a tourist like he was wearing a neon sign around his neck.
This morning, we took a tram, train, and bus, to and from two, different, train stations to purchase tickets for the next portion of our odyssey. On Thursday morning, the 15th, we will board the train for Pisa to see the tilting tower, but more importantly, to dine at David's, a restaurant owned by David (go figure), a relative by marriage of a friend of mine. David visited my home town this fall and we enjoyed coffee and pastry together with his partner, Giorgio, and our local coffee group at the Italian bakery a half-block from my home. The friends in my coffee group insisted that I visit David's since we enjoyed making their acquaintance so much. Schim sees it as a six-hour, $200 detour, although we have no set itinerary. Actually, he objects only to yank my chain, since he knows we would have to sleep somewhere Thursday night on our way to Sicily. We also purchased tickets from Pisa to Napoli the following morning. Today, after the challenge of getting to the station and purchasing the tickets, we returned to the apartment after lunch (me-Veal Saltimbocca de Roma, Schim-Pizza) to do some laundry. I was unable to get the combination washer/dryer started, but Schim arose from his nap (he had two beers with the pizza) and saved the day by blindly figuring out the complicated, Italian-labeled dials and buttons. I swear, he closed his eyes and hit a button and, presto (Italian terminology), water began to run into the machine. The dial says it will take 12 hours to wash and dry the load. Are you kidding me?? We may have to extend our stay to finish the laundry. More from Napoli. Arrivederci!
1/16/15 - Train between Pisa and Napoli, Italia
Arrivederci, Roma! Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. There's a song title in there somewhere, I guess. Schim and I arose early Thursday, finished packing, and rolled out the door to catch the 10:07 train to Pisa. We had to walk and roll (different than rock and roll) the suitcases about a mile down the hill over cobblestone streets and sidewalks to the nearest taxi stand to catch a cab to the Ostiense Train Station. We were unable to arrange a pick-up at the door by a cab the evening before; apparently they don't do that in Rome and you can't hail a cab from the street, either, so walk and roll we did. The train rolled through the Italian countryside cutting through parts of Tuscany and within eyesight of the azure water of the Tyrrhenian Sea before arriving in Pisa only a couple of minutes behind schedule. Getting heavy suitcases and backpacks on and off the trains is getting a little more difficult as I get older, but Schim and I helped one another lift the heavy bags on-board and into the overhead luggage bags in the compartment where our tickets assigned us. The ride was smooth and relaxing.
In the main salon of the Pisa Station, I recognized Giorgio and David, recent friends I met in the Italian bakery down the street from my house in November. They were waving excitedly when they saw us, two tall, gray-haired, old men, with bags and backpacks looking for a friendly face. And friendly they were, hugs, kisses, and introductions all around (the warm, Italian way). This was their first sighting of the Schimster I had warned them about. They walked us the short distance to our hotel, waited while we checked in and took our bags to the room, and took us on a six-mile walking tour of the streets and alleys of beautiful Pisa, including a long stop at the gorgeous square containing the iconic leaning tower. As nonplussed as he seemed by the sights of Rome, Schim was just that impressed with Pisa, a town I had done a discredit in my memories and description, though my wife and I had only driven there to see the tower and have lunch and never really explored the place a few years back. They took us to lunch at a restaurant owned by two sisters from Puglia, Giorgio's birthplace on the heel of the boot of Italy, ordered examples of delicious cuisine from that region, two carafes of local wine, and insisted on paying the tab. They even had us stop at a chocolate shop owned by a friend on the return trip to the hotel to sample the fantastic hot chocolate and gourmet candies. Schim ate five of the eight chocolates placed on the plate before us and David consumed the other three while Giorgio and I heroically abstained, drinking only the addictive hot chocolate. We retired to our teeny (I mean teeny) hotel room, collapsed exhausted on our beds, and immediately fell into a deep nap. What an afternoon!!
Courtney, my friend Ron's daughter, her Italian husband Thomaso and their four-month-old daughter, Greta, picked us up on the corner near our hotel only a few hours later and took us to David, a restaurant owned by Thomaso's brother, David, and his partner Giorgio, our afternoon guides. It would be difficult to describe the four-course, seafood dinner we were served, other than to say it was the freshest seafood I have ever eaten, served in delicious, colorful, creative presentations. We had two Puglia-styled pastas for lunch and were served three more beautiful, seafood pastas for dinner, followed by a grilled seafood platter with fish, prawns, squid, rare tuna, shrimp, eggplant, peppers, etc., etc. Two bottles of local wine, a light, heavenly, prosecco-infused, lemon dessert, and the meal was complete, with two completely-stuffed, highly-impressed Americans barely able to fit in the car for the ride home. Oh yes, we weren't permitted to pay a penny again! What a generous couple, Giorgio and David. Their hospitality and joy in providing it was the highlight of our trip. David, a fantastic chef, and Giorgio, the front of the restaurant expert waiter whose English improved as the night wore on, are considering moving to the USA to open a new restaurant. I can only hope it is within commuting distance of my hometown. Outstanding!
The train has chugged through Rome and we see a different type of agriculture passing by our windows: sheep, plastic-covered greenhouses, and mesh-covered orchards of what may be lemon trees. It is a little too early in the season for the leaves and fruit to confirm my suspicions about the trees, but a past trip caused memories of many lemons and much lemoncello. An occasional beautiful small town perched on the top of the nearby mountains make the ride an interesting and educational experience. Now, I can only hope that my iPad will save this update so that I can send it when WiFi becomes available. Ciao!
1/18/15 - On the train from Napoli to Palermo, Sicily
A relaxing ride from Pisa to Napoli, followed by a smooth check-in at the three-star Hotel Europa just around the corner from Napoli Centrale, made for a successful journey. The hotel, booked blindly through Expedia on the internet ($31/person/night) turned out to be a home run. In the new section of the old hotel with funky, random, colorful, floor tile throughout and a modern bathroom with full, jacuzzi tub, water jets, a clear, half-glass tub enclosure, and a round, fluorescent-green sink, the room featured twin beds located head-to-head against adjacent walls that stretched 12-feet high facing a stone wall divided with a high, arched window containing a hand-painted mural. Funky, roomy, and almost perfect save for the extremely narrow beds that barely accommodated the two full-bodied Americans. But, after the minuscule room in Pisa that Schim booked through Expedia, the Europa room produced much, seldom-expressed gratitude from my Florida compatriot.
One evening over dinner, we discussed our sensational trip to Pisa and noted that, although I expressed gratitude for the generosity of Giorgio and David, I failed to comment on the sacrifices made by Courtney and Tommy to pack up Greta, find a sitter for son, Liam, drive more than an hour from Florence, where they live, to pick us up on the street corner, transport us to Restaurante David, and join us for the remarkable meal. Not an easy task with two small children, a full-time job, and a busy schedule. We appreciate the sacrifices made on our behalf.
Napoli, especially around the main train terminal, was a hectic, much dirtier, seedier place with many African immigrants among the vendors selling what appeared to be knock-off items, including Coach purses and "brand-named" clothing, surrounding the wide expanse of the Piazza Garibaldi where the modern terminal is located. The first evening in town, after splitting two different pizzas in this city where the original was first created, one stuffed with ricotta cheese, the other topped with green chicory and mushrooms, we retired to our room at 5:00 p.m., never to re-emerge until 7:00 a.m. the following morning. You might say the old boys were a bit tuckered-out after a long day of travel.
Yesterday, we started early, boarding a train to Sorrento to search for a tour of the Amalfi coast. Just outside the small terminal in this seaside city closest to Capri, sat three, red buses with Amalfi emblazoned on the LED display board above the windshield. The driver informed us that the tobacco shop sold tickets, so we crossed back to the terminal and purchased tickets at little more than $5.00 round-trip for the hour and a half drive to Amalfi. Not a tour, this bus was the local along the cliffs and precipices making the drive one of the most scenic, terrifying routes in the world. Schim would have skipped Amalfi altogether when I discussed making the trip one day in Roma, but he sat enthralled, snapping snapshot after snapshot of the breath-taking views. Personally, I should have skipped the caffeine-laden cappuccino for breakfast and had a Xanax milkshake, because the ride on the outside lane of the two-lane road that switch-backed along the coast could have included a plunge of a thousand feet or more into the sea below. Ridiculously, I buckled the seat belt that would have been of little help in the tragic, flipping-over-the-short-guard-rail plunge into the rocks and sea that I visualized. Sweaty palms, and the tingle that accompanies all of my high elevation experiences was my companion during the entire trip through Positano and on to Amalfi. A quick lunch and we hopped back on the red, death trap headed back, but this time along the inside lane which helped even through the many narrow, one-lane tunnels along the serpentine goat path. Fortunately, for the return trip Schimster sat behind the driver to watch the navigation, while I sat at the window several rows back with only a mountainside view of the passage.
I had the good fortune to have a lovely 29-year-old, Japanese woman ride next to me. We enjoyed a lively conversation all the way back which kept my attention diverted from the impending tragedy outside. Miki is a cardio-thoracic surgeon in Osaka whose self-taught English was remarkably good. Putting on my best moves, I quickly had her agreeing to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation should the heart-stopping ride cause me cardiac distress. I explained to her where my pocketknife was located should she need to open my chest cavity and, after she demurred because of the lack of a sterile theatre, showed her the small bottle of hand sanitizer I keep in my jacket. We shared many laughs along the way which shortened the trip and shared email contact information. Miki is on a one-year leave of absence from her stressful job, traveling Europe alone. Her amazing confidence took a hit in Milan, however, when her iPad and her very expensive camera were stolen in the hostel where she was staying. The iPad stolen from under her pillow as she slept thinking the electronic device safe. She said meeting us was the best experience she has had in Italy - a huge compliment.
I got a bit wordy again in this update, mostly because I'm riding backwards on the train and it is unnerving to look out the window. Schim always rushes into the compartment, this time vacant except for us, insists the train is going in the opposite direction, and plops his huge form into the forward-sitting seat. It will be nine hours until we reach Palermo with a short, ferry crossing on board the train across the narrow strait that separates Sicily from the "boot" that is the Italian peninsula. Perhaps, I can switch seats when he leaves for the bathroom? Ciao!!
1/21/15 - Siracusa, Sicily, Italy
We spent two nights in Palermo, took two city tours (different routes) the only full day we spent in the city, and that convinced me that I could spend a winter in the largest city in Sicily without a problem. The city impressed me with its cleanliness (as compared to Naples) and I felt quite safe. The city felt too large for me, however, and we both agreed to head for Siracusa the following morning. We spent much of the day in Palermo strolling the markets that lined the narrow streets of the city doing what Schim enjoys most about traveling: window shopping markets in search of samples. We inquired of a stand-holder where we might eat and he pointed two stands down where a small, refrigerated case displayed a few vittles and blocked most of the alley. We ate lunch sitting outside on a plastic table and chairs on a street so narrow we were forced to move our legs to permit scooters and bicycles to pass while we dined. The menu couldn't have been fresher: calamari, octopus tentacles, sardines, broccoli, and artichoke leaves(?). All were coated while we watched in a large bowl of flour and deep-fried by a husband and wife team over a propane fire. The only drink offered was a rose wine served, believe it or not, from a plastic, two-liter, soda bottle into thin, clear-plastic, water glasses at one euro a serving (right in Schim's price range). We both loved the experience and the food!!
Because we opted not to rush to the bus station for the 8:00 a.m. non-stop bus to the ancient city, we were forced to first take a bus to Catania, then catch another bus from a different private company to Siracusa. We traveled along the coast for a short while, then the bus headed inland through agricultural areas with no houses in sight and topography that sometimes reminded me of the western USA. We observed huge orange groves, mandarin groves whose fruit look like tangerines and are made into a cordial that we have tasted, though we have never eaten the orange itself. Sounds like an upcoming project to me. There were also fields of artichokes, cabbage, and greens in the dandelion family that we see in the market but can't identify. We also passed many physical features that looked like the western Badlands, although most of the ride was through verdant terrain. Schim began talking to a woman across the aisle from him and I joined the conversation since I was sitting in front of her on the opposite side of the bus so I could also have a window view. The woman, Silvie, spoke sufficient English to make the conversation interesting and to intrigue Schim who was dying to have someone with whom to communicate in English. Silvie is a PHD candidate in mathematics at the prestigious university in Catania. Whoa, this woman has a lot of smarts! Before the ride was over, she invited us to join her and her PHD advisor, PHD-holding Rosamaria for lunch. We enthusiastically agreed because dining with locals has been among the high points of our travels. Rosamaria, a widow whose husband taught (yep, mathematics) for a spell at the University of Minnesota, where they lived for several years, spoke better English, according to Silvie. Rosamaria was waiting with her car at the terminal when we arrived and drove us to her favorite restaurant in the center of town. Though hesitant, they ordered for us, beginning with a seafood antipasti that featured several species of seafood, cooked like ceviche in lemon juice and flavored with capers, olives, and other local herbs. I especially enjoyed the octopus tentacles, the only appetizer served warm, but all were delicious. Silvie was correct, Rosamaria's English was excellent, but who would doubt a mathematics PHD?
After lunch, the very-welcoming ladies transported us back to the bus terminal where we rushed to catch the bus for Siracusa, leaving in seven minutes. After an hour's ride in a developing rainstorm, we arrived in Siracusa, caught a convenient taxi that dropped us at the door of the hotel in which I had made reservations from Palermo. The only four-star hotel in which we have had lodging, I found a special rate of 49 euros that was a real bargain. Our beds are extra-large twins, there is also a sofa bed on which to sit, a luggage rack large enough for both of our suitcases, a desk, refrigerator, a wardrobe, and a very large, very modern bathroom. Sensational! Only a couple of shortcomings with the room: the tub/shower has no curtain or enclosure, the European style shower head/hose must be aimed carefully or the water will splash onto the floor. Of course, we could always sit in the jacuzzi tub to shower, but neither of us are tub guys, so we stand and spray - wet floor or no. The other shortcoming is that for some strange reason, Schim cannot log onto the WiFi with his computer or his phone. I can do so perfectly, although the service is a little slow. We love the room, however, and the breakfast that is included is fantastic! Schim ate his fill this morning. Oh, did I mention that this hotel is a converted convent, still owned and run by nuns who we see walking the halls, working the front desk during night shift, and providing a religious atmosphere that Schim sorely needs. They tell us there is a chapel in the hotel from which beautiful religious music emanates. Perhaps, I can get Schim to visit there tomorrow.
I have started searching for an apartment here, because I intend to spend the next couple of months roaming the tiny streets of Ortigia, the small island that is part of Siracusa (think Manhattan on a much smaller and considerably older scale). There are many Greek civilization (pre-Roman) archeological sites throughout the city. I have already contacted several apartment owners on VRBO and Airbnb.com and am trying to visit several vacation rentals. I also visited a real estate office and the realtor there said that I could visit an apartment tomorrow that is being vacated today. Today's high temperature was 66 degrees, the warmest of our visit and we caught some rays while we shopped the local market where the fish selections always interest me. Schim was into the samples. Nap time approaches. Ciao.
1/23/15 - Ortigia, Siracusa, Sicily
Times, they are a changing and so is my itinerary. After riding several buses around Ortigia and Siracusa proper yesterday and after a lengthy discussion with Schim, I have decided to abort my plans for a winter in Sicily. I have purchased a ticket on a Sunday flight to Madrid, Spain, and expect to spend the remainder of the winter in Sevilla, one of my favorite cities for a winter retreat. I plan to spend two nights revisiting old haunts in Madrid where the forecast is for highs in the mid-50's with lows below freezing, then take the high-speed train to warmer Andalucia to look for an apartment. My itineraries are nothing if not flexible.
We started the day yesterday with the usual, large buffet breakfast on the first floor of the convent, after greeting several nuns along the way with the omnipresent, "Buongiorno!" We then took a trial run for Schim's Monday departure to Palermo for the first leg of his flight home to Orlando. We made all the bus connections that will get him to the kiosk where he can purchase a ticket for the three-hour ride back to the capital of Sicily. There, he has reservations for the night at the great little hotel where we recently spent two nights. We then took several buses to "sight-see" the city, riding past several ancient, Greek civilization ruins and paralleling the Mediterranean coastline. After returning to Ortigia, Schim made our restaurant selection for consuming lunch. As his wont, he took us through the outdoor market again, past the fish vendors loudly hawking the catches from last night and next to the vegetable purveyors contributing to the cacophony of the scene with their equally-boisterous produce specials. He stopped at a deli-like stand where a man was creating sandwiches on fresh long rolls stuffed with 10 or more ingredients, most of which he skillfully chopped, including salami, ham, lettuce, cabbage, marinated mushrooms, sweet peppers, hot peppers, two or three kinds of cheeses, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and what looked like a bush of dried oregano shaken on the top before the concoction was rolled and covered with the top layer of bread. The man's daughter rolled a plastic-covered barrel in place to serve as a table, poured us each a glass of wine, and we stood and gobbled our sandwich. Schim thought it was the best meal of the trip influenced, I'm certain, by the six-euro-price tag. I found it an awkward, sloppy, uncomfortable way to eat a meal, but to each his own. I got to select the restaurant for a much tastier, more comfortable dinner in the evening.
After lunch while reading emails and preparing for the afternoon nap, I started ruminating about the paucity of restaurants and the absence of activities in Ortigia. How in the world, I wondered aloud, was I going to pass more than two months in such a place. Schim pitched in, agreeing with my take on the situation. We started talking about me returning to Rome, but the conversation quickly shifted to focus on one of our favorite countries in the world, one in which we are both more comfortable with the lifestyle and the language. Schim is now up to 10 words in Spanish and two in Italian, although his full-dozen, foreign vocabulary words have been used daily in Italy with increasing volume when blank stares follow his exhortations. While Schim napped, I searched the internet for flights to Spain, finally booking a Ryan Air seat to Madrid from Catania for only 89 euros. The decision-making, ticketing, and confirmation process took the entire afternoon and we were a couple minutes late for my appointment to view an apartment here in Ortigia. The apartment we saw was a magnificent, thoroughly renovated space in a four-hundred-year-old building, constructed after an earthquake in the 1600's destroyed the town. The price was 30 euros/day (900/month), but was described by the owner's father as being negotiable. With a combo washer/drier, a dishwasher, modern kitchen, two TV sets, a large walk-in shower and a king-sized bed, this was a perfect apartment, but I had already decided that I could not spend the winter living the vacuous life Siracusa required. I need to call the owner today to inform him of my change in plans.
So Sunday Schim will leave for Palermo and I will bus to Catania (an hour away) for my late afternoon flight to Madrid. I am excited about visiting Madrid again and have made reservations in the little hostal (35 euros/day) I use when visiting Spain's capital. I am equally excited about spending time in Sevilla where there are plenty of activities and restaurants that will make for a more active winter. There are two more days to spend with Schim and to dine in the lone, decent restaurant we have located on this beautiful island. Ciao!
For those interested in photos of this year's journey and those curious about the apartment in Rome, here is a link where photos do not include Schim's underwear drying on the backs of chairs and the sofa bed viewed as we never saw it - as a sofa. A nice stay in Roma!
Here is a link to photos of the apartment I will call home for at least the next month in Sevilla and who knows about March? I'll only be a short bus ride away from Cascais, Portugal, and old friends, if I run out of adventures in Sevilla!
01/26/15 - Madrid, Spain
The day began with a tearful good-bye to Schim as he left for the bus that would take him to Palermo (or Paloma - Spanish for pigeon - as he calls it) for three days before his flight back to Orlando. It is tough watching a grown man cry like that after you have spent almost three weeks with him, but I was up for the separation. His sobbing echoed off the marble hallways of the convent during his exit in Ortigia where we spent our last five days together. And, WOW, did we ever underestimate Siracusa after purchasing tickets and booking apartments in other places. On our last evening there, we strolled a different part of the city, although we traveled several times in the electric buses that route their way through the narrow streets of what we thought was the entire city. We had walked up the main street, taking the photo of the beautiful fountain that Schim shared on Facebook, but had never seen a narrow street running parallel only a quarter block away. That street, which we hit on our final stroll to see the Duomo, a Catholic cathedral begun as a Greek temple to the god Apollo in 456 B.C., was full of shops, restaurants, boutiques, and many people. The Duomo is a magnificent structure that utilizes many of the huge Greek columns from the original structure. Here I was, leaving Sicily because there were no activities or open restaurants and we found both of those things on our final stroll. We found at least 10 additional restaurants that were open during the winter. That miscalculation may be the largest in all my years of travel. At least I saw it in time to inform you that Siracusa and especially its old island of Ortigia is worth a trip.
Schim's bus left at 8:00 a.m. but my bus left hourly, I thought, for the shorter run to Catania from which I would be flying aboard Ryan Air on a direct flight to Spain's capitol at 4:45 p.m. When I got to the kiosk that served as the bus terminal, I learned that on Sunday the bus only makes three trips, the next being at 1:00 p.m. Taking public transportation in foreign lands sometimes takes patience and I demonstrated just that as I waited almost four hours on a bench in the warm sunshine awaiting my ride. The wait couldn't crush my enthusiasm for returning to Madrid, a wonderful city with food and a lifestyle I love. Ryan Air almost crushed it, though, when I approached the desk after waiting in a very short line at the airport. The cordial employee informed me that although my bag was under the weight limit described on-line, my bag was too large and would require a 40-euro-fee to be paid at a desk half the length of the airport away. I made the trip, grudgingly paid the fee, but expressed my displeasure enough to make my point and still be permitted on the flight. When I returned to the line, there must have been 100 people ahead of me. Patience shown again, but blood beginning to boil, especially when I saw other suitcases, larger than mine, being loaded on the belt by the same clerk who rejected mine and being charged no additional fee. Breathe, Harry, breathe! I was calm and very cooperative when the security people asked me to remove my computer and Kindle from the backpack and send it through again where they passed a wand over both pieces of equipment to ensure our safety. I am tired of flying; tired of being treated worse than cattle. And tired of being suspected of being a terrorist. Yes, I know it is for my safety, but I have pretty much had it. I'm certain the cattle-like conditions will inhibit my future trips and I'm OK with that. I wonder how long the public will tolerate those conditions? At least Ryan Air treated everyone the same. All seats on board (maybe 150 or so) were economy. No special class of people flying in luxurious conditions while we peons stewed in the hold. Rise up, peons. Rise up!!
Loaded on two huge buses filled to the brim with passengers, we were transported to the plane sitting on the tarmac and raced to climb aboard the plane to get room in the overhead compartment for our carry-on. Carry-on? Some of these people rolled two, medium-sized suitcases (two, free carry-ons per person permitted) across the tarmac and then lugged them up the stairs to the plane to avoid waiting for baggage when we arrived in Madrid. I managed to find room for my small backpack and my windbreaker, but the stewards and stewardess struggled to find room for all luggage carried aboard. Fortunately, we were assigned seats, so I found my seat (5A) along the window and had sufficient room for my derriere and legs. The seats (a 3 - 3 configuration) were as large as the more-reasonable British Air flight I had taken from London to Rome, but not with decent cushioning and no pouch on the back of the seat in front with info or magazines. Nothing to do but look out the window at approaching dusk while the air crew hawked everything from drinks and sandwiches to lottery tickets - no joke! The emergency info was pasted, along with ads, on the rear of the seat ahead. A smooth flight to Madrid with only a few small bumps and a perfect landing 2 hours and 40 minutes later and I was back in Spain. No immigration checks when we arrived, so after grabbing my HUGE bag off the belt, I boarded the express bus (5 euros) to downtown Madrid. A short taxi ride later and I checked into the small hostal near the Opera in a perfect location to see the town. My room is minuscule with a single bed, the smallest bathroom I have ever seen, not even room for a bidet, but it is clean and everything I need. I had a great night's sleep, re-located my favorite restaurant only a couple blocks away, and settled in for four or five days to re-acquaint myself with Rome. Uh, I mean Madrid. Thursday, it's off to Sevilla for the winter (I think). Hasta luego!
01/28/15 - Madrid, Spain
Thick, hot chocolate or cafe con leche with churros for breakfast. A great way to start the day! Churros are the curly, extruded, deep-fried, doughnut-like pastries with funnel cake consistency that are a Spanish breakfast tradition and often my breakfast of choice (2 euros with coffee in most cafes). Despite how much I love this city, a big city in which I could easily take up residence, it has been a tough grind for the last couple of days. No, I don't miss the Schimster, rushing through my morning ablutions in the bathroom while he complains about the length of my showers and plays bingo on his computer (yes, I said bingo), or his incessant counts of steps from the pedometer on his phone taken during the day; it is simply an adjustment to spend time by yourself, all alone in a foreign culture. I have a backpack with two great Italian language books, a colorful travel guide for Sicily, but no Spanish dictionary. I speak the language well enough to get by, especially to find the bano, or order a tapa, but when your brain keeps sending "buongiornos" and "scuzis" to your tongue, you struggle. Every time somebody bumps me the "scuzi" jumps out before the "perdon" makes an appearance. It may take a couple more days to make the conversion to Spanish and to come to grips with being alone. I have every confidence that it will happen and I look forward to the challenge of being immersed in the Spanish language again.
This morning as I headed out for breakfast at 9:30, only to find most cafes still closed, I tried to ask the desk clerk where I could mail the postcards I had written to my grandchildren. I asked for the "poste," the Italian word for post office because I drew a blank for the Spanish. It was only as I strolled the Gran Via ten blocks later that "correo" popped into my head. Not to worry, the desk clerk understood and took the cards that will be picked up in the hostal by the mailman. Shockingly, as I strolled a gorgeous, recently-renovated, pedestrian walkway, I walked next to the two men who were my seat mates on the flight from Catania. We had not spoken on the entire flight but I greeted them in Spanish anyway. They responded in Italian and we conversed in Italo-spanese for a short time. They spoke not a word of English, but were impressed with Madrid on this, their first visit. It was like greeting old friends, even though we had never shared a word together. Solo travel is an interesting experience. Had Schim been with me, I would have been listening to him spout English and would never have made the contact with other travelers. They are flying back to Catania, Sicily, this afternoon. I'll bet they have many observations to tell their wives and friends.
I have tried to refrain, somewhat, from describing the meals I (we) have eaten on this excursion, because a couple readers of previous adventures were not fond of the foodie info. It was impossible to avoid in Pisa where David and Giorgio prepared and served such a feast, but I tried elsewhere. Just in case the critics are no longer reading, I know that one has passed away, let me say that my best meals in Italy (not counting David's) were pasta di Nero Sepiae in Siracusa, a spaghetti cooked in the ink of cuttle fish, a creature similar to squid, but with a very hard bottom shell. Its ink is as black as that of squid or octopus and will permanently stain any garment. It's great to eat standing up in black jeans with a black Gore-Tex windbreaker to hide any errant drips. In Rome, the best dish was probably spaghetti carbonara, a dish for which Rome is known and to which Schim took a liking despite the cost. Carbonara is made with egg yolks, lardon (like bacon bits), pecorino cheese, and a few herbs. Last night, here in Madrid, my favorite restaurant was opened after being closed Sunday and Monday. Retaurante Neru is a cider bar where the bartender pours cider from above his head into a glass held below his waist. Whether to aerate the cider or just showmanship, it is entertaining to watch. My favorite appetizer there is the Cabrales queso, a soft blue-cheese produced in Asturia in northwestern Spain and spread on bread by the bartender from a huge, ceramic bowl of the heavenly stuff. It goes great with a small glass of cidra or with wine; I know, I tried both.
Of course, the custom of serving tapas is part of the Spanish lifestyle that I love so much. From around 7:00 to 9:00 in the evening and much of the day also, a complimentary appetizer (tapa) is served with every drink. The drinks are usually small, a glass of wine may be a quarter or a third of a glass of wine served in the USA, but it is always accompanied (in Madrid) with a free snack. I have been told the tradition began with a plate to cover the wine to protect from fruit flies and evolved into a free snack. I can almost hear the Spanish guy at a bar asking the bartender to "put something on the plate" many years ago. Different parts of Spain are noted for different tapas and in some parts, like Sevilla, the tapas are no longer free. Schim hates Sevilla. This morning as I drank a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, I got in a conversation with the waitress about the best tapas in the country. She said, and I agree, that the tapas in San Sebastien of northern Spain are "the best in the world." That part of the conversation was in Spanish (todo el mundo - for you Spanish speakers), but two sentences later I learned that the waitress was Polish, married to a Peruvian psychologist, and spoke four languages, including English. It is a small world these days.
Speaking of a small world and a global economy, there are many Filipinos doing the work in restaurants and hotels in this city, just as there are Mexicans and other immigrants doing similar work in our country. I talked to my Filipina maid this morning, a college graduate with a degree in biology. When she was self-deprecating about her work as a chamber maid, I told her all work was honorable and explained that I didn't do much work at all these days. Within a two block area around my hostal, I have observed Korean, Thai, Italian, German, Indian, and Mexican restaurants, as well as a Japanese Sushi Bar. Certainly, the Spanish are now dining globally. That is a great change from my prior visits here.
It appears that another symptom of solitary travel is to get long winded when a machine like the computer appears to understand English. I apologize. I'll attempt to keep it more succinct forthwith. Hasta luego!
02/02/15 - Sevilla, Spain
I knocked all day Friday at death's door, but nobody answered. I spent the day in bed, which explains the delay in my updates, but awoke around 5:00 a..m. Saturday, wringing wet with fever-driven perspiration. I have never experienced a fever breaking like that and, believe me, it was well received. I felt human again, a little weak perhaps, but ready to haltingly explore my new environment. I had been well enough upon arrival Thursday on the bullet train from Madrid to locate the apartment and do a couple of loads of laundry, but the bug was working on me when I ate a very light dinner at a nearby, diner-like restaurant. I'm delighted nobody was home at death's door, but I can tell you it is no fun to be sick away from home and I even considered knocking a little longer and louder there for a while.
By the time I awoke, the laundry had dried on the laundry rack in the bathroom, so I began the day folding laundry before looking for breakfast. I certainly have found the breakfast hot spot in this neighborhood; in a small place that seats about 30 people, in three visits I have never seen fewer than 50 in the place. Sunday morning, the clientele was a little different, mostly senior women dressed for church and enjoying their time together. Where the men were I can only imagine, home doing laundry or preparing Sunday dinner, I suppose. I'm certain they weren't sleeping in or drinking a short beer at the bar at 10:00 a..m., the most popular time for breakfast around here.
Upon my arrival in the neighborhood, I needed to walk a short, block and a half, since the cabbie had great difficulty finding the place and would have had to drive several blocks to drop me at the door of my one-way street (alley). Before the illness hit, my impressions of my location were not very good. On an alley with graffiti on several of the walls and two scooter repair shops directly across the street, I was more than skeptical. The day of illness followed and better health and morning sunshine gave me a different feel as I scoped the neighborhood. It's working class, one-half block off a busy street which makes it quiet, is less than a block from a grocery store, two different bus stops, and only two short blocks from the breakfast corner. After purchasing a bus pass giving me 14 rides, the most I could buy at the tabacci shop that sells these things, I grabbed a bus that circulated the interior of the city. Interior meaning inside the city walls of the old town and passing the beautiful bridge and buildings built to host a recent world's fair. This half-hour "tour' took me past some familiar haunts of mine from previous visits and gave me a better idea of where the apartment was located. One trip a day as my strength returned, I thought, so I returned to the apartment and rested and read the remainder of the day. The following day, Sunday, I joined the ladies for breakfast, then took bus ride number two in a different direction. This ride took me past Santa Justa train station, not far away, but then circled hundreds of high-rise apartment buildings before returning past the station and entering the old walls of the city. It proceeded to make its final stop (everybody off the driver explained to me when I attempted to stay aboard), so I got off, followed him around the square and re-boarded at his first stop of the next run. That final stop was right in my old neighborhood in the heart of the city and where I had hoped my apartment was located. As it is, it is less than a mile walk, great for the weight loss exercise regimen I have been attempting since Schim hit the pike, and a five-minute ride when I catch the bus at the stop heading in that direction. I just love the location of my apartment!
Speaking of my apartment, I am thrilled with it and am now considering reserving the month of March, too, while it is still available. Please use the link here to see the place before my next update, when I will describe in much too long-winded prose just why I am so ecstatic with the place. Until then...... Hasta luego!!
02/04/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Yesterday was one of those days when, full of vim and vigor, I got a lot accomplished, walked five miles or so, visited former neighborhoods, ate great meals, and felt like it was a day well spent. It is now after noon, I just finished showering and shaving, and I'm still not fully clothed. Furthermore, I don't feel like completing the dressing process and heading out the door to scavenge for lunch. I already skipped breakfast, lounged and read, and finally got up the gumption to begin my morning ablutions. I laboriously plugged in my Kindle for a required charge and that gave me the final motivation to stop reading and jump in the shower. Now, I've run out of gas again. This is so unlike me; I am usually up early, finished the showering and shaving process, and ready to rock and roll before 8:00 a.m. Ah, well, maybe that is what an extended vacation is all about - crash when you feel like crashing and go only when you want.
The shower could be part of the problem. In my last update I told you how much I loved the apartment and the shower is the main reason. I hope you had a chance to check the link on my site to see my new digs. Through Italy and in Madrid, the showers were so tiny that oft times one had to enter sideways with Vaseline smeared on shoulders and hips to make entry. So tiny were they that Schim recounted a true story of a guy who had a landlord measure the width of the shower entry before he would rent an apartment in Europe. Often, the showers could have been made much larger had the designer been willing to sacrifice the bidet, but bidets are a part of the European bathroom culture, probably not used by too many Americans. How did I get myself into this discussion? Anyway, the shower in this apartment is absolutely huge, perhaps 8' x 10'. The Philadelphia Eagles offensive line could shower in it together, though that doesn't present a pretty picture. To top it off, the shower has a stainless steel, shower column with multiple jets and a rain shower head at the top. Plenty of hot water, too. Maybe, I spent too long in the shower this morning and that's what caused my lethargy. Who knows?
I found a new breakfast spot yesterday, with better coffee and a lot of young folks who made it feel like an American coffee shop. Great baked goods, too. For lunch, I ate in a restaurant right behind the Plaza de Toros, not far from my old base of operations in town. I was attracted by the offering of paella, one of Spain's national dishes and a favorite of mine. Usually, it is only served for two, but this was a single serving, made in a smaller pan and complete with a couple rings of calamari, a couple small shrimp, and a prawn. Pieces of chorizo swam in the yellow rice and the presentation was lovely. I'll share a photo soon. For dinner, since I have been eating much seafood, I thought I'd probably go for beef, but only a couple tapas, since I have been trying to eat a larger meal for lunch. That was the plan, but I needed to find the tapas bar, so away I went about 8:00 p.m. These folks eat late. I must have walked a couple more miles down a number of narrow, cobble-stoned streets (think alleys), not knowing where I was, and realizing that I had forgotten to put the card with the address of the apartment in my wallet. My street is not easy to find and the simple solution of asking a cabbie to find it is problematic. It also hurts that the street is only two, short blocks long and is called Calle Virgen de Gracia y Esperanza. No way could I remember that and cabbies never heard of it anyway.
There were many dark alleys, I passed many people who looked like they were returning from work, and quite a few single women, so I never felt the least bit insecure. I also have a pretty good sense of direction, though its acuity is challenged after dark, and when I found this mom and pop, actually, grandma and grandpa tapas bar with several people standing outside drinking very short beers and discussing the day's Wall Street results (or something), I made my way inside. Granddaughter waited on me and I asked for her recommendation. Lo and behold, the place specialized in beef, which should have been apparent from all the bullfighting photos and memorabilia on the walls. I went with her advice and had two great tapas with cuts you might not have selected. First, there was cola de toro and when that didn't quite satisfy, I went with the menudo casero. Bull's tail first, then braised beef intestines in a tangy red sauce. They were served with bread and each tapa filled a saucer-sized dish. They were scrumptious! I took photos to share. I also drank two generously poured glasses of sangria and my bill was an astounding seven (7) euros. Yesterday was a great day! There, I've gone and done it: made myself hungry. Think I'll throw in a load of dark laundry and look for some lunch. Hasta pronto.
02/06/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Unable to get my regular keyboard operating today, I've decided to try to dictate this update and make the necessary corrections along the way. That's better than typing an entire update one letter at a time on the iPad keyboard. I guess I'll have to see if I can dig up the instructions for the keyboard/cover for the iPad and figure out how to reinstall it. In this mode, I cannot punctuate or skip to the next line, so we'll see how it goes. With computers, I guess you never know what's going to break down next. The voice identification system is pretty impressive, I must admit, but stopping to insert punctuation or to skip a line is a bummer.
Today marks a month that I've been away from home; it doesn't seem that long, but time flies when you're having fun. Not so much fun today, however. My sinuses seem to have broken loose and are in a constant state of drip right now. That makes it pretty uncomfortable to leave the apartment, so I've spent most of the day reading, wiping, and blowing. Perhaps, I spent too long sitting outside in the sun watching the Guadalquivir River flow by yesterday. It certainly felt good with the temperature right at 60°. I must've walked 8 miles yesterday; where's Schim when you need him? Mr. Quantify would've been able to tell me the exact number of footsteps I took on his handy-dandy, telephone pedometer. It was a great day for a long walk and it concluded with the discovery of the best restaurant I've been in since I've returned to Sevilla. Not only was the food good, the service was outstanding. I guess it should be; they've had enough time to practice - the restaurant is 360-years-old. I allowed the waiter to guide me and I ended up with a scrumptious salomillo de ternera (filet mignon), served with french fries and steamed mushrooms. He also guided me to a sensational half-bottle of Vina Pomal Rioja, that was simply the best wine I have had in the past year. Unfortunately, he also handed me the largest check (cuenta) of the trip. I'd share the number with you (it would not be out of line in a good restaurant at home), but I'm concerned about Schim's health; he'd have a heart attack if he had to pay that (under $50) tab.
I have two major decisions to make and I considered doing an interactive readership poll like most daily papers are doing these days on subjects just as ludicrous:
1. Should I get my haircut or grow a ponytail until my return?
2. Should I stay or should I go (home, that is)? I need to rent the apartment for the month of March, if I stay, and I need to do that soon before it's rented to somebody else.
I decided against the poll because I thought my wife and family would "stuff the ballot box" and vote to cut my hair and have me stay away. I'll make the decision on my own, thank you. I'll let you know what I decide after the nose stops flowing. Adios.
- Sevilla, Spain
Let us begin with a Monday morning health report: Thanks to the Coricidin HBP decongestant I brought with me in my backpack along with band-aids and other contingency meds, the dripping stopped after one pill on Friday, though I took a second one before bedtime for good measure, and I felt fine all weekend. For those who know that I suffered with some severe plantar fasciitis in one heel for more than a year before departing on this odyssey, you might be interested to know that the heel has caused me no problems on the trip, despite some long days of hiking through Rome, Palermo, Siracusa, Madrid, and here. Schim's phone calculated eight miles of walking some days and I experienced almost no pain. While I had one cortisone shot before departure, I am completely convinced that the orthotics I had made for me by my shoemaker (at 1/3 the cost of the podiatrist) are the reason for good foot health. I have them in both pairs of shoes I wear on alternate days. I can also report that I am in the last hole in my belt and the jeans are feeling loose. I will soon have to use my tiny, Swiss Army knife and do some leather work to drill another hole if I continue to lose weight. Walking is wonderfully beneficial! End of health report.
This morning, I put in a load of dark laundry, including my black jeans. Schim and my friend, Gary, were right about them; I do look slimmer when I wear them. I see the heads of many young chicks snap around when I walk past wearing them. Right! After putting in the laundry, I headed to my breakfast bar/cafe and it was great being recognized. I didn't have to order; the barista put a large glass of decaf con leche in front of me and the other young man put a half order of churros down for me in the madhouse that occurs every morning around 10:00.
Then, I headed for the barber shop I saw nearby when I was looking for dinner the other night. Apparently, they moved the whole shop, because I couldn't find it again. So, I headed for another one I remembered a couple blocks away and it wasn't there, either. I must be losing it, but I continued on and came across another large, beauty shop that advertised men's haircuts on the window. You'll love this: I got a nice haircut, scissors, clippers, and all, for five euros! With tip, I paid $6.75 for the trim and saved $13.25 from what I pay at home. Now, I can afford to stay the winter. I think I'll book the apartment today through March 31.
Over the weekend, I took a couple of long walks, discovered scads of new restaurants within walking distance, and rode two buses a complete circuit in their circumnavigation of the city. The bus rides passed several parks about which I had forgotten where I can stroll, read, and relax when the weather warms a little. I don't mean to rub it in to those stuck in the white, frozen tundra of Michigan, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania, but the high temperature is forecast to reach 64 degrees today and 65 by the end of the week.
The time has flown by; it is almost time for lunch and I simply have to try the take-out (para llevar), rotisserie chicken place I found while strolling this week-end. Hasta luego!
Big breasts, that's for sure, but expensive. There are some things for which I refuse to pay a premium and big breasts would be one of those. I'm not fond of white meat; I have always been a leg and thigh man. Wait, wait, what are you thinking? I'm talking about the rotisserie chicken here. I'm almost embarrassed by where your brain takes you in these updates. I ate the legs and thighs for lunch the other day after bringing them home from the little, rotisserie chicken shop only a five minute walk from my apartment. I was a little taken aback when they charged me nine euros for the small bird, twice as much as the delicious Costco, rotisserie chickens we buy at home. I warmed half the breast for dinner the following night and that was a tough go. First, as usual, the white meat was as dry as a mouthful of alum, then the lack of company or people to scrutinize made for a boring evening. No more dinners at home for me! Then, thinking of the half breast still languishing in the fridge, it came to me - chicken salad! This morning, on the way back from my cafe and churros breakfast, I stopped at the corner grocery, a good-sized store, and purchased an onion and a small jar of Hellman's mayonnaise. Who knew?? Hellman's is sold in Spain along with a number of local brands. I could only find a few stalks of celery packaged together with 10 cleaned carrots - must be for an Espagnole sauce of some kind and I'm not going to cook anything that complicated while I'm here. So, I passed up the celery for the moment and thought about the grapes I spied across the aisle. I'm thinking paella for lunch, so I don't think I'll make the chicken salad today. I decided to forgo the celery and grapes until I'm ready to make the salad, then I'll walk the half block and buy the freshest ingredients I can. Wow, how can a discussion of chicken and its salad have evolved into this lengthy dissertation?
While your filthy mind is on female anatomy (remember the big breasts?), let me speak for a moment about the female attire I have observed both in Italy and in Spain. Which couturier told women it was fashionable to wear spandex tights as an outer garment?? More in Italy than Spain, but here, too, women seem to have forgotten what the mystique of the feminine figure does to attract the interest of the male of the species. These days the spandex removes the mystique and displays it all, warts included. Now, I personally would not notice such a thing, since I am more interested in what a woman has read lately, how many languages she speaks, and what church she attends. However, when one is sitting at an outdoor cafe table, enjoying a morning cup of coffee, and a walking woman passes two feet away in a black garment so tight that it appears Sherwin-Williams was the designer, one cannot help but notice. I'm embarrassed for them! Why we ever gave women the right to wear pants is beyond me! I imagine that last sentence might start a dialogue of sorts!
I don't want you to believe that I'm a eunuch and don't notice female body parts, so I must confess to having noticed a couple interesting parts on the European women I have scrutinized (for research purposes, of course, for the novel!). First, these women have a lot of hair!! Thick, dark, oft-times curly hair that looks somewhat unmanageable, but very, very attractive. Secondly, many have very attractive hands with well-cared-for nails and that, too, is very sexy. There, I've confessed: first, what have they read; second, how many languages; third, what church; fourth, dark, thick, curly hair; and finally, how nice are their hands. I feel like a lecher after that confession.
Until lunch, which for some reason is when most paella is served, I will spend most of my time praying in the cathedral and reading in the library, continuing the research for which these winter odysseys are intended. Hasta pronto!
02/14/15 - Sevilla, Spain
"Caballero!" That's what they call me at the cafe when they want my order for cafe and churros. They don't know my name at any of the tapas bars I frequent for lunch or dinner, either, so I also get, "Caballero" there. I like being "Caballero;" it sounds dashing, like I just rode up and my horse is tied on the hitching post outside. It has a couple of meanings, according to the Google dictionary to which I referred, and either apply in this case: knight, no doubt white in color, or gentleman, which they must obviously recognize at a glance. I like it! I'm hoping that when I return home, friends and family will continue to accord me the respect I have somehow earned here by referring to me as, "Caballero," especially those reprobates with whom I play golf and the others who share coffee with me in the morning. "Caballero!" It has a ring to it!
I hate to see food wasted and I love it when a plan comes together, so yesterday's lunch was simply perfect. I deboned the remainder of the large-breasted, rotisserie chicken the night before and added it to the chopped celery and white onion I had chopped into the large cereal bowl. I added just the right amount of Hellman's Real Mayonnaise and sprinkled a generous bunch of white grapes on top and gently stirred before placing the concoction in the fridge so the flavors could meld overnight. I know they were melding; I could hear the muffled noises they were making through most of the night. Obviously, I just guessed about how much celery, how much onion, how many grapes, and the amount of mayonnaise, but it turned out perfectly. I thought for sure I would get two lunches out of my creation, but I ate the whole bowl in one sitting. Delicious! Now, when I figure out how to eat the rest of the celery, grapes, and onion and somehow find a use for the rest of the bottle of Hellman's, there will be no food wasted. Somehow, this plan has not quite come together perfectly.
I have been riding a different bus, sometimes buses, each day, seeing different parts of this sprawling city, but I have still not found the shopping mall and nearby dance club where I had a memorable experience a few years back. Perhaps, I should reread my musings from that previous visit to get a few clues. Nah, I'll just keep on riding the local buses and watching people until those familiar buildings come into view. What more do I have to do? For now, this "caballero" will sign off; I have a bus to catch. Luego!
02/17/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Sevilla is a city that endures summer temperatures similar to Phoenix, Arizona, making it too hot for most Spaniards who have passionately communicated that to me. That kind of heat also makes it very difficult to drink red wine, since the wine seems to make a person a lot warmer and initiates the perspiration process. So, these ingenious folks have come up with a summer time drink or two. We all know sangria and I have had my share of that this trip, but most bars require that you get at least a carafe of the stuff and at my favorite restaurant a carafe is 8 euros. I don't blame them; it must be a pain to cut up the fruit and mix the ingredients in smaller portions. There are a couple restaurants where I have become a regular that make a big production of making an exception for me by making me a glass of that great summertime beverage. All bars will make the other red wine summer drink by the glass; called Tinto Verrano (summer red wine), it is made with a slice or two of fruit, ice cubes, a touch of red vermouth, red wine, and a small quantity of either lemon or orange soda. Very similar to sangria, refreshing, and thirst quenching. I must remember that beverage during summer patio parties at home when temperatures force me to think of a cooler beverage.
While I'm on beverages, for the foodies who might be reading, I should mention a delicious tapa I tasted for the first time a couple days ago. I have since tried it two more times to be sure I was as impressed by it as I first thought. They seem to prefer white asparagus here, rather than green, but I'm sure the tapa would be delicious using either. White asparagus mousse is outstanding! Made in a form with blended white asparagus, eggs (whites or yolks, I have no idea), and cream, the mousse is served chilled with small slices of white asparagus on top for garnish and with a too large scoop of unneeded mayonnaise on the side. Did I say delicious? They also make a shrimp mousse, but I haven't gotten beyond the asparagus to taste that, yet. I'll keep you informed.
My study of foreign language continues: I studied two years of Latin in junior high and also "studied" two years of French in high school where I was such a disinterested student I would never put that fact on a resume. During my first year of winter travel, I studied three weeks of immersion Spanish: six hours a day in class with a non-English-speaking teacher while living with a Costa Rican family who also spoke no English. Years have intervened, I have not used the language sufficiently to remain as conversant as I was back then, so yesterday I enrolled in another 10-hour Spanish class here. I will meet a teacher for one on one instruction and conversation for 10 hours over the next two weeks. One on one forces me to focus because there are no others to answer the teacher's questions. I look forward to the challenge; the review and conversation should make my last month in Spain more enjoyable and the class will add some structure to my daily activities. More education can never hurt, although this may be a little painful. Luego.
02/20/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Preterito perfecto!! In my second Spanish class, I'm studying preterito perfecto which is either the pluperfect tense, the past perfect tense, or who knows what? Before the war (the Civil War) when I last studied English tenses, this tense used two verbs: a helping verb and an action verb. Whatever tense this is, this has them too, but, of course, they don't call it that. By the third class, this morning, I was doing better using the tense, but I had to make generous use of the "cheat sheet" she handed me to help me choose the appropriate helping verb which changes radically depending on the pronoun used. Enough of that, I'm as mentally fatigued writing about it as I was during class using the tenses in sentences. Really exhausting work this education stuff and it simply has to be a good exercise for whatever brain remains.
I have had a few interesting tapas since I last reported on my food consumption. Last night, I had rinones al Jerez, pig kidneys made like they make them in the city of Jerez: with a little sherry. They were good, not great, because they tasted much like calves liver and I could never call that great. The night before, I had a half-racion, the next largest-sized serving, after a tapa, of mixed, fried seafood. There were the usual small fishes (methinks anchovies) to eat, head and all, two, small filets, quite a few large pieces of calamari, and three or four, double roe sacks of some kind of fish. I'm not much for fish roe and have never found a caviar that I liked, but these weren't bad at all and I ate them with gusto. Of course, the sangria helped wash them down. They were mild, not salty, and not fishy, so pretty scrumptious. About salt: I have never seen salt shakers on a table or a bar in Sevilla, I have had beef steak that had sea salt sprinkled on top, but I have never seen salt shakers. I asked for salt one time as I remember and was given a salt shaker, but I can't remember what I had that needed salt. I consume far too much salt at home, so I assume I'm doing much better here. Maybe, that's why my belt is in the the new hole I had to drill with my handy-dandy, mini, Swiss Army knife.
Tonight, Friday night, I will make an attempt to relocate the dance club where I had such a good time the last winter I spent in Sevilla. No, I won't dance, but it was certainly fun watching the social interaction and, if things break like they did last time, I'll enjoy being viewed as a sex object by the many, elderly women, many without teeth, who dance (troll) past my seat. Of course, there are a few more years and a few too many more miles on this body, so it will take a pretty desperate and very old woman this time around. I must find and reread that experience from my last visit. It sure did help pass the time. Hasta luego!
02/23/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Wow, that was some weekend!! Usually, weekends here are slow, boring, and somewhat depressing. There are not nearly as many people to watch and with whom to interact, since most of the downtown offices and businesses close, especially on Sunday. This weekend was different, though, I made it a point to get out and make something happen!
Friday, though I had walked a long way after class through the center of the tourist area and a new, extremely busy street on the way back to my apartment, I forced myself to head out to find the shopping center, a landmark, from which I could locate the dance hall (discotheque) where I had so much fun on a prior visit. I had no intention of walking much farther, since my legs were already a little weary, but I emerged from the city bus and walked across the street where I found the lost shopping mall. It was easily recognized because I was so impressed with the ice-skating rink on the main floor of the huge place. I hadn't remembered the three or four floor escalator whose railings were lit by blue neon on my prior visit. How could I have missed this place in prior bus trips up the same street? I rode to the top of the escalator, fought off nose bleed from its elevation, and read the playbills for the two sets of movie theaters on the top floor of the building. Wow, if I run out of things to do, I can always catch a flick.
No escalator down, I found an elevator to preserve my wheels, started looking for a place to catch a bite, and for the lost dance hall. I found a local tapas bar crowded with locals and decided that was the place to eat. I sat outside (at 9:00 p.m. in a shirt, sweater, and windbreaker) at the last empty table, just cleaned from the preceding occupants by the waiter. It was a great place to watch people on the very crowded sidewalk, but the tapas were not up to par. The waiter, however, was super and knew of a discotheque (his terminology) right down the street. After paying my bill I walked down the street looking for the place to watch old folks dance and never found it. It's lost, too! The waiter told me it was only a five minute walk and I must have walked 30 or 45 minutes on pretty desolate streets, something I would be loathe to do at home in a strange city and an unknown neighborhood. I had no problem and never felt insecure, a great comfort, but I ran out of gas. I had even walked by an empty taxi ten minutes prior and ignored it, thinking I would see a place I recognized right around the next corner. It was not to be. I finally found an unknown busy street and hailed a cab that took me home in five or 10 minutes. Interesting evening, though not what I had anticipated. I guess I can forget being a sex object in the dance hall. No big deal, I have become quite accustomed to not being a sex object, beginning with the numbers of younger folks, and some not so young, who rise to offer me their seat on the buses when there are no others. What?? Are they joking? NOT!
Saturday was a routine day, only noteworthy because of the two-hour, phone conversations and telephone holding times with airlines and travel agents to change my flight home from Madrid instead of Rome. That situation will require another update.
Yesterday, with minor inconveniences, was simply awesome. I decided Saturday evening, I think it was immediately after my second sangria, that I would try once more to get to Cadiz to see the Carnival that I had so enjoyed on a previous visit. Previous efforts this year led to the frustrating discovery that there were no affordable hotels or private rooms with bath available during Carnival, so I had given up. I quickly checked on the computer and learned that Sunday would be the last day of the wonderful event. I decided to arise early and catch the first train for the 1.5 hour ride to Cadiz. Unfortunately, the first three trains after I arrived at the train station were full, but I did get a ticket for the 12:05 departure and bought a return ticket to be certain that I could get home.
I didn't figure that there would be much left of the Carnival on the final afternoon, but I was wrong. The final Sunday afternoon of the celebration is the time for choral groups. Groups of whimsically-attired young folks, 15 to 20 strong, spontaneously organizing on the steps of the cathedral, on a street corner, or in front of a friend's restaurant and breaking into passionate song, accompanied by a guitar or two and a drum. Oh, to be able to understand the original lyrics making sport of government, church, television, or society in general, I imagine, that brought the crowds surrounding them to uproarious laughter. It was spectacular and so intimate to be in arm's reach of the performers as they sang harmoniously with colorful gestures in well-rehearsed renditions. I have no idea if the groups are church oriented, clubs like the Mummers in Philadelphia, or simply groups of friends. Most were consuming small glasses of beer or wine and the revelry was contagious. It made the day a real treat! I even saw a huge throng gathered around an Ecuadoran Michael Jackson impersonator who gave the crowd a "Thriller" of a performance and high-fived every audience member who put money in his hat as he circled the crowd. I got a high five me own self for my 50 cent contribution. What a day!! I even had time for a couple servings of the fried fish for which the ocean side city is famous.
Things started slowing down at 4:30 as restaurants began to close until re-opening at 8:00 or later for the dinner hour and I decided to try to return home to Sevilla. Unfortunately, all the trains were full until the 7:40 departure for which I held a ticket. What to do for three hours while I waited, other than consuming vast quantities of sangria? Fortunately, I headed for the small, single story, manufactured building across the parking lot from the train station where a bar was advertised. It turned out to be the bus station and there was a seat on the 6:00 non-stop departure for Seville. The ride was shorter than the train ride and cost a dollar more, but I went for it. Yes, I wasted 13 euros on the unused train ticket (Schim would have been apoplectic)! I got home by the time my train left Cadiz, saved three hours, and crashed exhausted, but delighted, in my friendly apartment. Too tired to troll for dinner, I settled for a delicious bowl of muesli cereal at home and went to bed with fantastic memories of another Cadiz Carnival.
Get out your bucket list!! If you are ever in Europe in February, a great time to visit with few tourists, make every effort to spend three days or so at the Cadiz Carnival. This year, I only saw the final afternoon, but the last time I witnessed all the parades with the floats and their own passionate vocalists. If you come, bring a costume! You can wear the same one every day, but without it you'll stand out like a sore thumb and miss most of the fun! Hasta pronto!
* 02/24/15 - Photos Added (password: harrystravels) *
02/26/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Apparently, there will be a little more adventure the remainder of the winter than I had hoped or expected. I am enjoying having a pleasant base of operations, getting to know my neighborhood, studying and using the language, and immersing myself in the culture of this very interesting city. I expected to take one more train ride when my lease expired on April 1 to Madrid to spend a leisurely week saying goodbye to the capital and enjoying for one last time the different tapas that city has to offer. That is what I expected, then I contacted the airline to arrange the change in my flight to head home from Madrid instead of Rome. I expected them to charge a fee (don't they always?) for any change made to the cheap ticket I purchased online from a travel agency. I was forced to call seven different phone numbers, talked to one off-shore answering service, two airlines (British Air and US Air), several travel agencies each of whom denied having access to changing my ticket, and two agencies who simply hung up, before finding the travel agency (in Los Angeles, no less) who sold me the ticket. The airlines claimed that the agency had frozen the ticket keeping them from making changes. The agency said that the airlines will only permit changes within a country (for a fee), but that airline regulations forbid changes to a different country on my ticket. So, it appears the airlines sell cheap tickets to consolidators who sell them to travel agencies who sell them on the internet, but they have frozen the ticket changes to, I assume, keep you from ever buying cheap tickets from an agency again. It worked for me. Never again. As a matter of fact, the airlines have made it so unpleasant to fly that I may never fly again. RE-REGULATE the airline industry!! Has deregulation made flying more efficient, more comfortable, more flexible, cheaper? NO!! It has made it more profitable!! The companies have merged, making them too large for the government to allow them to fail, like the banks. They installed a fuel supplement for when jet fuel skyrocketed, but they never removed the fee when prices plummeted. Seats have shrunk, they now charge for bags, serve no meals to the peon coach class, and charge for every drink. But, they have reported record profits. RE-REGULATE the airline industry! Rise up, peons!! Those of you in the hold (that's what coach is like): write your congressman, your senator, your President! Demand re-regulation! Meanwhile...
The bottom line is that when my lease expires, I must return to Rome for my flight home. The only option presented by the agency, despite my histrionics, was that I could buy a one way ticket home from Madrid for $650, the best price they could find. So, I will head back to Rome and I have a week to get there, since I allowed a little flexible time when planning this adventure. Things happen!!
The train fare to Barcelona is 80 euros and I live very close to the train station, so I'll probably head to Catalonia for a day or two. The bullet train can make it to Barcelona in 5.5 hours for 148 euros, but the slow, cheap train will take 11.5 hours. I have the time so I'll see a little more of the country on my way along the coast, rather than the quicker train through Madrid and inland. I found an overnight ferry from Barcelona to Civitavecchia, the port a few miles north of Rome, but reviews from previous passengers don't make the trip sound very pleasant, "people sleeping everywhere like a vessel full of immigrants," and reserved seats available for sleeping are described as very uncomfortable. The fare is only 70 euros and probably not worth a penny more. Hmm, I'll keep looking. I wonder if hitchhiking is illegal in France and Italy? Hasta luego!
02/28/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Oh, man, I love it when a plan comes together! No, not the trip back to Rome; that trip is still in the developmental stage, but there is some interesting progress. No, I'm talking about next week's return to Cascais, Portugal, to visit old haunts from prior winters spent in the lovely ocean-side village near Lisbon. First, I attempted to see if the albergaria (small hotel) where I stayed a couple years ago had made any renovations since my wife and I stayed there. I made reservations there to save $50/night after staying with our family in a much nicer beachfront hotel. Sometimes, it pays not to go the cheap route (are you listening, Schim?). I decided that we should spend our last three days in the much cheaper Albergaria Valbom only to learn that the place had gone to pot. Black mold covered extensive portions of bathroom walls, the very old beds, mattresses, and bedspreads had not been changed (or maybe laundered) since my first visit almost 15 years prior and they were anything but new then. No refund possible because it was prepaid, so we gritted our teeth and endured. The last winter there, I stayed in an apartment two doors down the street and the little albergaria was closed for repairs, I assumed. Nah, the reviews on Trip Advisor were atrocious and despite the fact that they had reopened, I wasn't going to grit my teeth again. I trolled the internet for other options.
Lo and behold, the colorful, gorgeous mansion across the street that I, and visitors accompanying me, had so admired is now a B&B. I quickly made a reservation for the last available single room for three nights at about $50/night, including breakfast and a glass of port in the lounge every evening. Fantastic! The name of the B&B is Pergola House, so Google it or look it up on Trip Advisor for views of the charming mansion. Now, how to get there?
Yesterday, I traveled by city bus to the bus station and inquired about passage to Lisbon. I have taken the bus from Sevilla to Lisbon (5 hours non-stop) before and knew that it was doable, but this time it was a challenge. I couldn't arrive after 10:30 at night, since the B&B desk is only staffed until then and the direct bus would only get me to Lisbon at 9:30 which is too close to call, since I will require a taxi ride to the train station for the 30-minute ride to Cascais. There is another bus, different company, that is less direct, but it requires a 6:30 a.m. departure. This morning, after an evening of pondering - best done accompanied by a little Rioja, I headed back to the bus station and purchased a ticket that requires a layover in Faro along a route I first rode in 2000 on Leonardo, my trusty companion and scooter. It will bring back memories, for sure. I will arrive in Lisbon by 3:30, in plenty of time to check-in at Pergola House.
I also purchased a return trip with the company (different bus station in Lisbon) that runs the direct route. It matters not when I return here because my apartment is waiting, but I get back before 7:30 p.m. and a city bus that will get me home in 10 minutes stops right outside the station. The direct route will take me through the center of the country while the trip to Faro is along the coast, so I will see more of the country. The problem is getting to the station for the 6:30 a.m. departure from here next Thursday morning. I have ridden two buses from nearby stops to the station, but both have such circuitous routes that I would have to catch them by 5:30, whoa! Buses only start running at 6:00, so a taxi will be required. I talked to a group of five cabbies today and they all told me to just call which is easy if you have a cell phone. They say that I can call the night before, but I am a tad skeptical and have no access to a phone. Hmm, methinks I shall ask my favorite waitress, Helena, to call for me the night before. I know she has a telephone, since she showed me her children's pictures on the device. Great, I just planned my way through the only hole in the plan. The Cascais/Lisbon end is easily done, so I do feel great when a plan comes together.
On the bus back from the station this afternoon, I sat next to a young, Polish woman who spoke English. In our conversation, she told me that she arrived here by using a shared-car ride from Malaga available on the internet, because it was much cheaper to fly from Warsaw to Malaga and then get a ride here. Aha, a cheap way to Barcelona and, maybe on to Rome! I am now waiting for a ride to appear on blablacar.es heading to Barcelona at less than half the price of a bus ticket. She wasn't sure that such a long ride was possible, but I'm trying it and I have a month. She was certain I could get a ride to Malaga and then go from there and she was correct. I could have booked a trip to Malaga, more than four hours away, for 12 euros. I will continue to work on possible inexpensive options to travel back to Rome. I refuse to pay a dime to the airlines, though my son forwarded me a page that had prices on a RyanAir flight to Rome from Barcelona for less than 50 euros. Over my dead body!! Buen Fin de Semana!
03/03/15 - Sevilla, Spain
The circle keeps widening, the perimeter of streets and alleys that I walk most days to increase my knowledge of the neighborhood. Last evening, looking for an unexplored restaurant, I discovered another, much-larger, grocery store only a short block more distant than the small one on the corner where I have been shopping. I visited the supermarket this morning and found a much wider variety of merchandise, including the Gillette razor blades (Fusion something) and shampoo for which I had been searching. Actually, I thought I had packed enough Fusion blades for the trip, but am down to one blade and have been stretching the penultimate one beyond its capabilities. The blades seem much cheaper than the same product at home that Gillette prices like they were fine, surgical instruments. Could it be that they price products according to the customers willingness to pay?? If so, I'll be sure to stock up before heading back.
I am getting very comfortable in my apartment and in my neighborhood, which is typical. This is the time of most danger in terms of security. Feeling too comfortable often means letting your guard down with respect to securing valuables like credit cards, passports, and cash. I keep reminding myself, as I'm doing to you (Schim) right now: keep your guard up! I now get waves and greetings from neighborhood restaurateurs, wait staff, and grocery clerks as I walk the streets, but the familiarity is a warning: don't let your guard down! The bulk of my cash, withdrawn from the ATM, is still kept under my pants in the leather wallet that hangs off my belt, along with the unused, back-up credit card and the debit card that I use to obtain cash. Only sufficient cash for the day is in a front pocket accessible to a really good pickpocket, since I am wearing jeans almost every day. The choice is simple: black or blue jeans today? But, always, secure the valuables. My regular wallet with the card I use for most large purchases and my passport are in a zippered, inside pocket in my Gore-tex jacket that I wear almost daily, although yesterday reached 77 degrees and I left the jacket at home. I figure the wallet and passport are safer on my body than even in a hotel room where a maid or a thief with a key can remove it, even from a safe, although most of the hotels in which I stay rarely provide a safe. The hostal in Madrid, however, provided a coin-operated safe which I used to protect my iPad, telephone, and Kindle when I left the room, because I figured that the safe offered more protection than hiding the electronics in the shower, which I did my first night there.
Of course, now that I am getting really comfortable, I'm leaving! In two days, I head for Cascais, Portugal to visit old friends. I'm amazed at how much more stressed I get when I am about to undergo change now that I have grown older (old!). Stressful dreams, some indigestion, and a little apprehension are identifiable. One has to be tough to be old and travel. Actually, one must be pretty tough just to deal with old age! This morning, I finished the last of the laundry to prepare for the trip, even washing my zip-up, fleece sweater that I'll use to layer against the frigid conditions next to the sea in Cascais. Forecast is for the high temps to only reach the mid-60's during my three-day visit. Brrr.
I have enjoyed some interesting tapas since I last discussed food, but I'll leave that for tomorrow's update since I have to go turn the jeans and sweater so the hot lights can more quickly dry the other side of those garments. No outside hanging possible here and no dryer, so one must improvise. During the last such improvisation yesterday, I melted the elastic waist band of one pair of underwear by hanging them too close to the hot bulb. Seems like I've done this before on a previous trip. The memory is also a problem for the elderly. There is danger everywhere!!! Hasta pronto!
03/04/15 - Sevilla, Spain
I confess, I have eaten four meals in the almost six weeks that I've been living in Madrid and Sevilla that would not qualify as Spanish cuisine. I made two visits to Malonga, a great Argentinian restaurant, once when I simply craved a big steak and another time on my birthday to treat myself. I certainly wasn't disappointed with my decision. I guess that I should have warned the non-foodies among you to go find a magazine, read those parts of the Sunday paper you hurriedly skipped through on the Sabbath, turn on the TV, or go for a walk. But, don't read farther; I am preparing to talk about food!
Two days ago for lunch and craving something different, I searched Yelp and located a nearby, small, Italian restaurant just past the rotisserie chicken shop. You remember, the one with the big breasts? I was the only customer for lunch, except for a couple of neighbors who stopped in for coffee or a small beer, but the meal was terrific. I had a small, baby spinach salad with halved, cherry tomatoes, covered with shaved Parmesan cheese, well decorated with stripes of balsamic reduction and a bottle of olive oil to use at my discretion. I haven't been eating many vegetables or salads because you have to go out of your way to get them here, so the salad hit the spot. My Spanish teacher told me that families eat many vegetables at home, but they are not served often in tapas bars. The entree, served in a small, white, deep bowl was a pasta with which I wasn't familiar. Like small sacks tied in a ball and resembling a tiny octopus, the pasta was stuffed with cheese and topped with a creamed pesto that included small pieces of lardon and was lick-the-bowl delicious, but I controlled the urge. Yesterday, while making one of my loops around the neighborhood, I ran into a restaurant with a sign that shouted "Tex-Mex." At 2:30, the start of lunch time here, I headed back there to see if Tex-Mex had really crossed the big pond. I ordered a burrito, chicken was the only choice, and was not disappointed. They produced a reasonable facsimile of a real burrito, at least close enough to eliminate the craving for Mexican that I have been fighting. That's it, that's all the cheating I have done and confession is good for the soul. I feel better now; last night and today, I reverted back to Spanish cuisine.
I have had several different and interesting tapas since becoming hooked on the mousse de asparagos. One notable one was served in a clear coffee cup and had a puree of mashed potatoes and cheese in the bottom third of the cup, then a layer of mild chorizo topped with a soft boiled egg. Served with a fork and specific instructions to "break the yolk and stir gently," it was unexpectedly tasty. My thought at the time was, "Whoa, I could do that again!" At a different tapas bar, I enjoyed a tuna tapa (fun to say three times quickly) composed of two, thin (a quarter to half inch) slices of tuna steak, each about the size of a credit card, topped with caramelized onions and accompanied with an orange sauce (ingredients, no clue) and the requisite balsamic reduction art work. The tuna was grilled on the flat top grill for a very short time on each side which, along with the onions and sauce, created a much different tuna flavor than I have ever enjoyed. Hmm, might have to head back there for lunch today.
After lunch, I will pack my bag, backpack only, and get ready for tomorrow's early morning departure for Portugal. Here's hoping tonight's Phillies game doesn't interfere with an early bedtime. Oh yes, I have purchased a month's worth of MLB's broadcasts of spring training. I wouldn't want to miss that! Hope to update from Cascais. Adios!
03/07/15 - Cascais, Portugal
"Keep your guard up," I wrote in one of my last emails before this trip to Portugal. In almost the blink of an eye the next morning, my guard went down in the back seat of the taxi to the bus station for the early departure to Cascais and the cabbie took full advantage. The ridiculous fare for the cab to the station was nine euros and unnecessary, since there were plenty of buses that could have gotten me to the station on time for 1.40 euros, but who knew that they ran that early? I handed the cabbie a 20 euro note that I had removed from my underpants wallet that morning for use during the trip. He handed me one euro in change and I picked up my backpack, checked the seat of the cab to make sure nothing had fallen from my pockets or the backpack, and got out of the cab, looking for where I could buy a sandwich and a bottle of water to take on board the bus, since I hadn't eaten breakfast. The cabbie pulled away, though I didn't even look because I was focused on breakfast, and my 10 euro change went with him. I didn't notice until I went to pay for the sandwich and water in the bus station cafeteria before heading for the bus loading dock. #$@%^&*&^%$% He got me! Using a technique I had seen, but to which I had never succumbed before, slow change making, he had ripped me off! Me, the travel security expert! He ripped me off! It wasn't the 10 euros ($11.30) that got me, though Schim wouldn't sleep for a month, it was the principle of the thing. I speak about never leaving your guard down and I leave my guard down!! He got me! #$%&*^%! Actually, he would have given me the change had I waited; they always have. I actually got myself by not focusing on the matter at hand. Never leave your guard down, Harry!
My time in Cascais has been fantastic. Lunch or dinner at Melody Restaurant both days and, today, Joe, the owner and chef of Melody has invited me to lunch with him and his family after they finish serving the lunch crowd. That will be as big a treat as the meals they have served me at the restaurant where prices and serving sizes are unbelievable. The first night, I ordered octopus rice and, though it was crossed off the list of specials of the day, Joe heard me order and prepared a huge pot of the delicious stew for me, anyway. I could only eat half. What a treat! With the small pitcher of house red and the 4:00 a.m. start to my day, I was back at the B&B and in bed before 9:30.
The weather has been gorgeous, temps rising to the low 70's both days and expected to continue that way for a few more. I have taken full credit for bringing the warmth from Spain with me. A long walk with a long break to sit in the sun while looking at the fishing boats bobbing in the harbor filled my first day. I returned to the B&B with a stop in my favorite park in the world, a small green space with peacocks, colorful chickens, and pigeons, strolling freely through the well-cared-for gardens that make up the park. A seat by the small pond produced no views of the hundreds of turtles who live there; they must still be in hibernation in the mud on the bottom, but five or six youngsters were feeding a couple ducks and the pigeons were trying to steal the ducks' meal.
Gonzalo, at Dom Diniz, my favorite wine and tapas bar, was very welcoming, too. His wife, Francesca, heard my voice from next door in the addition added since my last visit, and rushed over to say hello. What a great place and warm people! The wine and tapas there were excellent as usual and, with the expansion, Gonzalo has added a more robust menu, including full meals. I had a ceviche appetizer last night which was prepared in a round form and topped with caviar. Scrumptious! That was followed by an entree of duck confit, accompanied by spinach and a blood sausage made with rice. It was simply a first class repast. Gonzalo and Francesca wanted to prepare a feijoada (famous meat stew) for me on Sunday but, though I attempted to extend my visit for a day or two, I will depart early Sunday afternoon. The only other available seating on the direct bus to Sevilla was not until Thursday at 9:30 p.m., and that would have meant traveling in the dark and arrival at 3:00 a.m., so I had to pass on that invitation.
The B&B has been amazing. Beautifully appointed, gorgeous garden, comfortable bed, huge bathroom with every modern convenience and a great tub/shower, port wine offered every evening, and the best breakfast I have ever had in an overnight stay. Pancakes, perfectly scrambled eggs, bacon done just as I like, sausage, a great variety of fresh fruit, cereal, deli meats and cheeses, toast, pastries, and I could go on, but I wouldn't want to make you hungry. Suffice it to say, the three day visit to Cascais has been a tremendous success, despite the bad experience with the cabbie to start the trip. Never let your guard down!! Bom dia!
Hogar dulce hogar in Spanish, but home is always sweet home, even when it's a temporary abode. That is especially true at my age after spending 10 1/2 hours traveling and arriving at my comfortable apartment at 9:30 last evening. Off with the shoes, on with the flops, ahhh, it's great to be back home! I enjoyed immensely the trip to Cascais and greeting old friends, especially lunch on Saturday when Joe invited me to Melody Restaurant to dine with his family. Three of his five sons, his wife, and her cousin were at the sumptuous meal of rabbit, french fries, rice, and lettuce. His fries are cut fresh every day and many, including the French tourists, he says, describe his fries as the best in the world. Typically, I don't eat fries, but that would have been rude, so I partook of a generous portion (and seconds and thirds) of the golden taters. They may be the best in the world! I really shouldn't have mentioned the fries first, because the real star of that meal was the rabbit. Apparently roasted with a touch of garlic, some salt and pepper, and a mountain of caramelized onions, I couldn't get enough of the main course and made a promise to myself that I would attempt to duplicate the dish at home. The only thing that took some getting used to was the dish of lettuce, no dressing, no oil, no vinegar, just lettuce. I now remember being served lettuce like that during my last winter in Cascais, but admit that I would have preferred a touch of blue-cheese, a little oil and vinegar, or a Parmesan-peppercorn dressing. With the great rabbit and fries, though, I wasn't complaining. Sharing a bottle of wine with Joe, but passing on the proffered after dinner shot, it was an experience of a lifetime.
I also got time on Saturday night to bid adios to Gonzalo, but I was still too full from the lunch at Melody to eat. One fluted glass of pea soup was my only dinner that night, but I wasn't worried about fending off starvation. I left the wonderful B&B at 10:00 a.m. and after a short train ride to Lisbon, a two-stop Metro ride to the station, a long 6 1/2 hour touring bus ride, and a city bus ride, I was home. The bus was full of young people, business men, Japanese tourists, what appeared to be college kids heading home after a holiday, a couple of middle aged reprobates, and one old man - yours truly. The lengthy trip, made with only a heavy backpack (toiletries, computer, Kindle, and clothes for three days), has forced me to rethink the upcoming ride back to Rome. The lack of leg room, the interminable hours without moving, lugging heavy bags, and the general lack of comfort has eliminated the bus as a means of transportation to Rome. The thinking now is that, unless I get an internet offer for a shared-car ride, I will take the bullet train to Barcelona, spend a night or two there, then worry about getting to Rome. It's the start of a plan.
This year's trip has been nothing if not a linguistic adventure! A couple weeks of studying Italian at home, followed by more than two weeks of trying to converse in that language, then a flight to Madrid and on to Sevilla, immersed in Spanish without a Spanish dictionary backup made for an interesting January and February, to say the least. But, the moment the bus crossed into Portugal on Thursday, everybody but yours truly was speaking Portuguese. I asked in Spanish for information at the bus station in Faro, directions for taking the Metro in Lisbon, and food in restaurants often during my three day stay in Cascais. My brain could just not get into Portuguese gear. At my fantastic first morning breakfast at the B&B, I arrived early to find only one other resident enjoying the repast and he was sitting at the next table facing me. It became difficult not to speak to the stranger who appeared to be a pleasant, gray-haired chap about my age, so I tried to start up a conversation. He was from Paris and he only spoke FRENCH! What?? My brain completely shut down and I couldn't even recall the French numbers I learned way back in high school to tell him the number of children I have brought into this world after he shared that same information with me (I think). Talk about sensory overload! It is great to be back where people understand decent Spanish. Au revoir!
Sometimes, a plan comes together over a long period of time and other times it happens all at once, in a rush of great breaks and a dose of good luck. Such was the case last evening, as I scanned the internet before the Phillies spring training game came on the radio (no TV, for some reason), looking for potential hotels in Barcelona. I planned to stay in Barcelona for three nights or so on the way to Rome, the adventure courtesy of an airline focused only on the bottom line, instead of customer service. US Air and British Airways, if you promise to hold a grudge, too. Rise up, peons in the hold!
Up pops a hotel on two hotel consolidators, Booking.com and Trip Advisor, that has decent reviews, single room availability in a diminishing supply according to the consolidators, and a cut-rate price, around 170 euros for the three nights, in a very expensive city. I booked it on Booking.com, like I had for the B&B in Cascais, and only left myself with the chore of somehow getting to Barcelona on the 30th of March. Between innings, I started to peruse the train options from Sevilla to Barcelona and found a fare on a slow train (11.5 hrs.) with many stops for 48 euros, but it was a night train and I would see nothing along the way. Aha, there it was! A daytime, bullet train departing at 8:50 a.m. and arriving at the Sants Station in Barcelona at 2:30. The fare, customarily 129 euros, was discounted for some reason, to 89 euros. I'm all over this! Not wanting to ticket over the internet and face the same problems I encountered with the airlines, I decide to stroll the six blocks to the train station in the morning to inquire with a real, live ticket agent.
Great idea! Coffee and a half order of churros later - which I no longer have to order since I'm now a regular - and a post-breakfast stroll to the Santa Justa Train Station this morning, put me quickly in front of an agent with absolutely no queue. I'm certain that it helped conducting the inquiry in Spanish, because when I asked about English he struggled to respond, "a little," the usual answer, but one that obviously made him uncomfortable. I blundered forward in Spanish and he mentioned the ticket sale, but went further, offering me a senior citizen discount card for six euros, good for a year. The 129 euro ticket, which I saw several weeks ago at 148 euros, was discounted for this old-timer down to 72.40 euros. Wow, that was almost as much as a bus ticket to Valencia, little more than halfway to Barcelona. I jumped right on it and now have a ticket in my pocket on the bullet train for the day my lease runs out here in Sevilla.
Now, how will I get from Barcelona to Rome? Having ridden my scooter on that route fifteen years ago, I know the drill and I will get to use my senior citizen discount card again. I'll need to take the train to Hendaye or Perpignon, France, to make a connection on another train to cross France, then study how to get from the Italian border to Rome. Just the logistics of the trip home are exciting - this is why I make these odysseys. It is times like these, however, in the planning process, that I oft-times forget the effort it takes lugging the suitcase laden with three months of clothing, toiletries, and a few souvenirs, along with the backpack full of electronics, peripherals, the heavy Italian language and tourist guides, meds, and a sweater for cold temps. Oh, I'll be beat at the end of each day and it's certainly good that the trip to Portugal is close enough to remind me, but the planning is still exciting.
Had a couple epiphanies yesterday that I will share later this week, but I need to ask a favor. In prior years, the Harry's Travels website had a counter to indicate how many folks were reading these accounts. This year, not. So, it would help to know if you are still with me. Could you please take two seconds and send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org? Just say, "still reading!" I have plenty to do each day here in Spain: coffee and churros, laundry, reading, lunch, tapas, vino tinto and tinto verrano, haircuts (today), language acquisition, and all the research with pretty women. I have no need to continue to create this drivel if there is no audience. So, please take a second or two and make my day. Gracias! Luego.
03/13/15 - Sevilla, Spain
Olive country! This is definitely olive country! In every restaurant the complimentary tapas are sure to include olives. Marinated in many different solutions including straight olive oil, my favorite, I have seen vinegar, orange juice, garlic cloves, onions, herbs of many kinds, and my least favorite in a nearby bar, with orange chunks, orange juice, and occasionally lemons, and what appear to be huge quantities of rosemary or some other pungent herb floating on top of the bowl from which the suspiciously-dark-colored olives are ladled onto your tapas plate. Their sangria also has a funny taste of some kind, so I have crossed them off of my list of places to dine. On the bus to Cadiz and again through the Algarve of Portugal (southern Portugal) I passed through many olive groves and even olive nurseries where young trees were being nurtured. Olive oil is used on breakfast toast and sandwiches, think ham or ham and cheese, like we would use butter or mayonnaise. Some will occasionally use butter and marmalade on breakfast toast, but oil is more commonly drizzled. On the bullet train from Madrid I passed through thousands of acres of olive trees, so there is no question that this is olive country. A word of caution, something I picked up recently on the net: there are only a few providers of olive oil that use unadulterated olive oil exclusively these days. Apparently, it is cheaper to bottle safflower, canola, or some other oil and infuse it with flavor to sell as virgin olive oil. Some of the best known brands, and 70% of those tested, failed tests conducted by the University of California/Davis to determine the purity of the advertised extra-virgin olive oil. The Australian government has also conducted similar tests. Food Renegade.com says that the "mob" in Italy has been heavily involved and many arrested for bootlegging adulterated virgin olive oil. I read years ago that much so-called Italian, extra-virgin, olive oil is grown in Spain and shipped to Italy for bottling or labeling. Google "fake olive oil" and do a little research to have a look for your favorite brand.
Of course, this is orange country, too. The streets and plazas in Sevilla are lined with gorgeous orange trees, heavily laden this time of year with huge, colorful fruit. The oranges on these decorative trees are very large, but bitter and only used for marmalade. Messy, too, you can turn an ankle or lay your bike down by hitting fallen, rotting fruit. Between here and Faro, Portugal, however, I passed large orange groves with two, different species of oranges, no doubt for juice and table use. One of the species is much smaller than the other, I'm guessing tangerines or mandarin oranges, but the trees were both heavily laden with fruit. Through the Algarve and here in Spain, I notice that many homes have a lemon tree or two in their back yards and have observed several large orchards that have an outlining ring of lemon trees surrounding the orange crop. I would imagine that you are agricultured out by this point in your reading.
Speaking of epiphanies (the last update, remember?), my first eye-opener came at the barber shop on Monday when the barber was off and his wife (assistant, secretary, beautician?) told me he would be in on Tuesday and asked if I would like an appointment. I said, "Yes" and she inquired, "How about in the morning," and I agreed. She then asked, looking at his calendar, "How about 12:30?" And, not leaving well enough alone, when I informed her that 12:30 wasn't morning, she told me in her near-perfect English that, "in Spain it is!" And, she was right. That fact seems to be why I have had so much trouble adapting to what appeared to be a strange meal schedule here. Morning isn't our morning at all! After my haircut the next day at 12:30 p.m. in the morning, I went to the grand, new grocery store the next day at 3:00 p.m. to re-provision, only to find the store closed and a sign on the door reading, "Abierto (open) 9:00 to 2:30, then directly underneath that, 5:00 to 9:00. Of course!! The store is open from 9:00 to 2:30 in the morning and from 5:00 to 9:00 in the afternoon. Makes sense now: after 9:00 p.m., it's dinner time! Since the multiple epiphanies, I have had a much easier time dining later in our evening, which is their dinner time and is the reason they keep wishing me, "Buenas tardes," in what was the middle of my night. Hasta mañana.
03/17/15 - Sevilla, Spain
It's not supposed to happen to a happily married man at this stage of life, but Sunday afternoon, it most certainly did! I fell hopelessly and deeply in love! It happened suddenly, at first sight, and almost exactly as described in the pulp romance novels I still see on racks in airport book stores. And, yes, I have called my wife with the news and she seemed to almost expect it. Perhaps, it was my long absence that prepared her for the revelation:
I was sitting outside at a restaurant overlooking a marina off the Guadalquivir River in a little town near the last stop on the city bus line. I was sipping my tinto verrano and had just ordered paella when our eyes met for the first time. Huge brown eyes, dark brown hair pulled back from her face, and the olive, radiant skin of native Sevillanas made my heart catch at first glance. Her eyes met mine for an instant, then returned to lock on mine and a smile formed on her lips, dazzling me as it grew and matched the white of her eyes to send an electric impulse across the crowded space. The world seemed to stop, conversation halted, the light breeze ceased, even the birds stopped singing, surely the river stopped flowing. She could feel it, too, I was sure, because we repeatedly held eye contact for what seemed like minutes at a time. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion after that. I finished my paella and my drink, trying in vain not to stare. I stood to leave the restaurant and as I walked from under the canvas that covered the restaurant's tables, I felt her slim hand enter mine. She was holding my hand!! She told me her name was Blanca and, as I introduced myself, my heart melted. We walked for 10 minutes or so, smiling at each other while gazing into one another's eyes. This was a magic moment! Then, her brothers called and she raced off to enjoy a game of hide and seek with them. Blanca is seven-years-old and the daughter of Elena, my favorite waitress. Elena invited me to enjoy Sunday dinner with her fiance, Fernando, and the four children from their blended union; each has one son and one daughter. Blanca, the youngest, then Pau and Noelia both nine, and Fernando, the eldest at 12. A great, warm, Spanish family who shared their Sunday with me. I was thrilled.
An ardent reader, though he'll be appalled that I called him that, wrote a day or two ago to tell me that he was growing bored with my updates and that I needed, "to spice them up!" This was my attempt, although I am still shooting for a G rating when the film comes out; my grandchildren can read, too, after all.
After dinner and a stroll around the beautiful marina area, Fernando, Elena, and the kids took me to their town center across the street, where we sat for the merienda, a late afternoon period when, apparently, one partakes of coffee or sodas and a large variety of desserts. I declined gracefully, I thought, not wanting to run up the cuenta (check). I was not permitted to pay for anything: the drinks, the paella, the desserts, nada! Schim would have been thrilled!
It was a beautiful, family-oriented plaza with no grass, but a playground and room aplenty for the kids to run with neighborhood friends. It was crowded with families and their dogs. Two couples and their five children, two in strollers, joined us at the table on the plaza and a great discussion ensued for about two hours. The discussion was entertainment for them and, although they attempted to include me at every opportunity, I was mostly listening to the chatter and observing, since none of the six spoke more than a few words of English. Pau, the nine-year-old, knew the most, having learned while in school in Barcelona, where Elena lived during her first marriage. He and Blanca could both count to ten and Pau, as much an extrovert as his mother, could even tell time. He would enthusiastically shout out the time or a question or word in English during the meal and during breaks from hide and seek. Blanca had held my hand right after dinner on the walk and later, at the merienda, she climbed on my lap like an affectionate granddaughter would. I enjoyed every moment she shared with me. Perhaps, she missed her father's parents and her father who still live in Barcelona. She and Pau will travel there for a week over Easter to spend time with their father and his family. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and the time observing the lifestyle of Spanish families. This Sunday was typical, they told me. Spending time together in conversation with friends and no TV, smart phones, or computers for the kids. Everybody outside in the warm sunshine, two youngsters napping in strollers, others running the neighborhood playing outdoor games, while adults engaged in conversation, sharing their ideas about life even more fully. Sounds like something out of the past, but the Spanish lifestyle is exactly that: a slower, richer, more human interaction than the frenetic, electronic, isolated existence many in my homeland now experience. I did fall in love, Blanca, and our age difference will not mean as much when we are older!! Adios!
My retreat from Europe is beginning to take shape. The battle (cultural) has been won; it is time to declare victory and retreat. I hold a train ticket on the bullet train to Barcelona and a three-night reservation in a hotel deemed satisfactory and reasonable by the contributors to Trip Advisor, a source I have found reliable. I have also made reservations in a similar, though much-cheaper hotel for three nights in Nice, France. I will have to make reservations and purchase a ticket (both steps are required) for the 11-hour, train ride to Nice when I arrive in Barcelona. I have ridden this route before and recall that it will make for a long, exhausting day riding the rails. Included is the hour-long conversion the train will undergo to adapt its wheels to the different-width rail in France. Go figure! Internet blogs have verified that it is almost always faster and certainly more comfortable to take the train when traveling through Europe. The route from Barcelona to Nice, however, is an exception. It is definitely faster to drive, but the drop-off fees make that option cost prohibitive. The airfare is very cheap between cities, but time is lost to and from the airports and I have sworn not to give another dime to airline companies on this odyssey. So, the train it is and I will brace for one or two train changes on each leg of the journey along the way. That means, of course, lugging suitcase and backpack off the train, down the stairs, under tracks, and up stairs to re-board the next train. Hopefully, it will not require changes of station. The trip from Nice to Rome will also require at least two train changes. One, when I cross the border into Italy at Ventimiglia (which I have done before) and a second in either Pisa or Milan, depending on the route I choose.
That is a lot of luggage lugging (note the alliteration) for a man of advancing years - but, aren't they advancing for everybody? I have mulled for several days the task before me and worked through several solutions to ease the journey, most too expensive and discarded after pricing. Online, I found a Mail Boxes, Etc. office near Sevilla University and visited there to estimate the cost of shipping my large suitcase with three-months-worth of clothing home and buying a smaller, stewardess-type suitcase to ease the workload lifting bags up and down the train and station stairs. Way too expensive! If the bag weighed the same as it did when I departed the USA, it would cost 200 euros to ship it back. Add the cost of an American Tourister bag, on sale at El Cort Inglese Department Store for 71 more euros and a second mortgage would be required. "Hmm," thought I (actually the process sounded louder than "Hmm,"), much of the cost of shipping is in the weight of the empty suitcase itself and a solution began to take shape. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store for a small re-provisioning and inquired about whether a box might be available. Fortunately, the meat manager was just finishing unloading a carton of eggs and offered me the perfect box, manufactured holes cut in the ends for handles and all. What a break! I have begun loading it this morning with Italian travel guides and dictionaries, souvenirs, and clothing that I won't need for the week-long retreat home. No need to carry all that up and down all those stairs. The suitcase I lug will only have a week's worth of clothing and my toiletry kit. The backpack will only contain the electronics and peripherals. Hopefully, my load will be lightened to eliminate the risk of hernia and back injury which will make my journey a lot more pleasant.
Yesterday, I also made reservations for three nights in Rome in Trastevere where Schim and I made a name for ourselves. I'm hoping that I won't be recognized without the Schimster and can spend three days enjoying the Eternal City. Hotel reservations were not easy to come by in Rome and many places I checked on Trip Advisor were full. Planning should always include checking the calendar for holidays and I never thought of Easter in Rome near Vatican City. Prices were high, too, but I attempted to make reservations the night before last while lying in bed before drifting off. I needed my credit card to book the room and was too tired (lazy) to get out of bed to get my wallet, so I waited until the next morning. Amazingly, overnight, the room rate had dropped 24 euros and I was able to book a double room (no singles available) for 109 euros. There were options at a few cheaper hotels, but reviewers on Trip Advisor cautioned about every one of them, including one that included the dreaded description, bed bugs! I avoided hotels with several unsatisfactory reviews and took more expensive lodging. Many rooms in Rome hotels on those dates were over 300 euros, so 109 without insects sounds pretty reasonable. Ciao!
Why reservations in Barcelona, Nice, and Rome, on the way home you may wonder. It's true that I have boasted about traveling with no reservations and even ridiculed Anthony Bourdain, whose "No Reservations" show on the Travel Channel I always enjoyed; it was the show's title I mocked, since he always had reservations in the finest hotels while I traveled with literally no reservations and stayed in the cheapest, mostly-clean hotels I could find. Times, they are a-changing! Schim and I talked one day in Rome, must have been a time we weren't hurling insults at one another and probably on the second glass of Chianti, about the way things have changed since he joined me in Mexico City for the odyssey through Central America to Costa Rica a few years ago. He was remembering a stop in Guatemala at a home that had a sign outside advertising internet access. When we entered, and I must have reported this at the time, it was into a dirt floor living room with hammocks hanging where the family slept and two children playing the earliest of games on the desktop computer. Mother "shooshed" the kids off the computer and, after a wait of what seemed hours with the slow server, we were able to report our progress to the world. The first couple of years I traveled, in the winter of 1999 and 2000, I wrote my updates with pen and paper and had them transcribed later. I distinctly remember being very impressed with an internet center in Madrid in the early years where there must have been 150 new desktop computers available for use at a price. I remember buying a card that entitled me to 20 hours on the computer and every time I entered they recorded the time I entered and the time I logged out. Times, they are a-changing.
Now, Schim and I both carry our own computers, mine an iPad, his a Yugo, and only need to find WiFi (here, amusingly pronounced WeeFee, of course). The beautiful internet center in Madrid, a modern, brightly colored, orange and white facility at the time is now defunct. Everybody carries their own computer center, soon probably on their wrist a la Dick Tracy (remember him?). Just as the equipment has changed so amazingly, and the point of this story, is that the amount of information has also changed dramatically. Whereas in the past, I traveled without reservations, I can now access hotel locations on their map (very important on the road), room availability, photos of rooms, reviews by recent guests, and prices. All in a couple clicks of my finger. I can also view apartments the same way at HomeAway.com, Airbnb.com, and VRBO (vacation rental by owner). There is no need for me to travel and after a tiring day on plane, train, bus, or auto, to go door to door looking for an available room, checking prices, and room conditions while completely exhausted. That's why the reservations in Barcelona, Nice, and Rome! It is a great load off of my mind, heading into the long days ahead on the train, to know that there is a room awaiting where I can rest my gray head. Times, they are a-changing; my apologies to Anthony Bourdain.
"Juevos de chocos," was the answer I got when I asked what the large, white objects were in the tapas case between the octopus salad and the potato salad. Uncooked, they were intriguing since I love cuttlefish, here called chocos. Chocos have an appealing texture and taste fried (chocos fritos) like calamari and also deliciously blanched and served in a red sauce. They are meatier and thicker, but still often shaped in the familiar calamari ring unless the animal is too large, then they are served in strips. Some cuttlefish grow to three-feet long and are very interesting, colorful, intelligent creatures. Google them and watch a clip from National Geographic. I had just finished eating a plate of paella for lunch and wasn't hungry, but I promised to return the next day for lunch when the bartender, a very friendly, often-smiling, bleached blonde, informed me that they were "muy rico" (very rich; delicious) when grilled on the flat-top grill (a la plancha).
Choco eggs, hmm, how bad could they be? I eagerly returned for lunch the next day to explore the new dish. They did not look like eggs when they were served on the plate before me, however. They were about the size of a silver dollar on steroids and as thick as a hand-made, hamburger patty, though not perfectly round. They had what looked like a seam in the center, almost like a caterpillar whose two ends were folded together. Actually, as I ate the first "egg," I noticed that they actually looked like caterpillars. There were six or seven of them on the plate and they tasted sweet and delicious. Delicious, that is, until I noticed that two of them had black tips on one end of the caterpillar. Ever the curious foodie, I excised one of the tips and attempted to eat it. NOT! The tip was a developing ink sack, a viscous mess whose texture was not conducive to keeping in one's mouth more than a second. I deposited it on the side of my plate, excised the other black tip, and started to eat the remaining "eggs" when I realized that these things weren't eggs at all, they were embryos! Perhaps, the bartender couldn't remember the word for embryos or didn't think I would know the word, so she called them eggs. The people in my favorite tapas restaurant that night, however, knew what I was talking about when I told them of my experience. They also used the "muy rico" descriptor when I mentioned choco eggs. Yuck, not wanting to offend anybody in the popular, diner-like restaurant, I got the rest of them down, but have sworn off juevos chocos for the duration.
This rainy week, the first moisture in more than a month, produced lots of time for reading and two holes in my apartment ceiling through which water dripped for two or three days before I discovered the source of the water noise I was hearing. I had Maria, a waitress at my favorite tapas bar (Elena was working days) call my landlord and inform him of the problem last night and I await a visit from a neighbor to examine the problem. My landlord is far away, he said, and will have a neighbor look at it. I did my duty as a tenant and reported the issue so, other than placing a towel on the living room table to catch the drops, I can wash my hands of the problem. And, it's not raining this morning - no more drips, no more problem.
During the on-again, off-again rains this week I finished my first real book of the trip. I have read six or seven novels on my Kindle, but this was the first, paperback book, one which I selected very carefully. Actually, I was on the train between Cascais and Lisbon when I selected "Brazzaville Beach," by British novelist William Boyd. The book really selected me. At the first stop from Cascais, Monti Estoril, a beautiful, brown-haired, twenty-something year-old got on the train and sat in the seat in front of me. She could have sat anywhere, there were plenty of vacant seats, but she chose to sit directly in front of me. Certain it was my animal magnetism that attracted her, I watched as she removed her blue-framed eyeglasses, took the book from her purse, and started to read. Though she attempted to attract my attention on numerous occasions on the short ride to Lisbon, I was intent on seeing the ocean landscape during what would probably be my final trip along the Portuguese coast. We both stood in Cais de Sodre, the station in Lisbon and, disappointed with my rebuff of her best moves, she quickly exited the train. I reached up to remove my backpack from the overhead rack when I noticed that she had left her book on the seat in front of me. I quickly grabbed the book and my backpack and hurried after her. What a clever way to meet me! I thought I would catch her easily and I quickly looked at both of the station exits and during my quick walk through the station to no avail. She was gone. On looking through the book, I noticed a business card used as a bookmark and a pen; she obviously did not intend to leave the book on the train. I had a bus to catch and couldn't track the business card back to its source, so I had a book to read. Quite a different read from the spy and detective novels I had been reading and considerably longer, it took me more than a week to complete the work about scientific chimpanzee observations in Africa and the melange of personal interactions of the female, British scientist from whose perspective the book was written. A good read, I'll leave the book in my apartment for future English-speaking visitors.
I have had several outstanding tapas since I last wrote, but I'll save their descriptions for another day. I have to answer the door; the neighbor has arrived. Hasta pronto.
03/23/15 - Sevilla, Spain
I was pleased to see a recent article in my local paper that the mayor of my hometown appointed a committee to create a feasibility study of an expert's analysis to improve the safety of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, no pun intended, on this subject. I have witnessed fantastic efforts that have accomplished just that goal in Madrid and Sevilla this year. In years past, I have seen similar efforts in other cities, most notably Amsterdam, where bicycles almost outnumber the pedestrians. In Sevilla and in Madrid, I observed recent, major changes to convert major thoroughfares into pedestrian-only shopping districts. These cities also now sport bicycle-only lanes where pedestrians (even stupid or ignorant jaywalkers) appear to always have the right-of-way. I can only imagine that there must be a gigantic penalty for hitting a pedestrian with car, scooter, or bicycle, because I have seen all of them stop on a dime for wayward pedestrians. I imagine that there were many naysayers when these conversions were first discussed, but there is no doubt about their positive effect and the public's ability to adapt to the changes. Both in Amsterdam and Sevilla, it took me a day or two to watch the traffic in both the auto and the bicycle lanes. I almost got wiped out by a speeding bicyclist in Amsterdam in my first hour in the city when I ignored a pedestrian red light, unaware that there was a bicycle green on the lane I was crossing. As I recall, the bicyclists there were not as conscious of pedestrians as they are in Sevilla - no doubt, a larger fine and penalty or better enforcement exists here. I would encourage our mayor to send a representative or two to Sevilla to observe a system that really works. Any volunteers?
I must report the results of my request to inform me if there continues to be an audience for my ramblings. I am pleased that I received more than 20 positive responses. I am certain that thousands more are ashamed of their addiction and are clandestine readers. I will continue to ramble.
I have had several great tapas in recent days. The tuna at Rafael Ruiz (my favorite haunt for tapas) has been fantastic and is prepared simply by sautéing a piece of tuna belly two-thirds the size of a deck of playing cards for a minute or two on a flat-top grill after a quick spray with olive oil. One or two minutes on each side, followed by a dash of sea salt makes a great appetizer. I have described the same tapa served with a generous portion of caramelized onions. Both preparations are terrific! Now, if only I can buy fresh tuna belly at home. I also enjoyed boquerones fritos again the other evening. Fried, fresh anchovies, tasting nothing like the canned anchovies we get at home, these are lightly coated in flour and often served in funnel-shaped newspaper, much like fish and chips in England. Amazingly delicious, heads and all. After the tuna on Saturday night, I also ordered a mejillones (mussels) tapa, OK, it was also after the boquerones. They served me three mussels, perfectly steamed in white wine, and sitting neatly on a small plate. See, three tapas are not a lot of food. The bill for the tapas themselves was under 10 euros. Of course, the three, small glasses of wine and the limoncello digestif ran the bill up to about 13 euros. I need to cut back on the anchovies. Hasta pronto!
03/27/15 - Sevilla, Spain
The penultimate load of laundry has been hung on the electric drying rack, lunch meats for eating on the train are chilling in the refrigerator, 20 pounds of clothing along with a couple of souvenirs are winging their way home via FedEx, a haircut is scheduled for today, good-byes are being said, and mental plans for packing are dancing through my gray matter; it is almost time to leave my Spanish-speaking, winter paradise and begin the long trek home. I look forward to arriving home; I look forward to the many vistas that I will see from the train windows. I look forward to three days each in Barcelona, Nice, and Rome. I do not look forward to the flight home, squashed in the rear hold with no room for my legs. Next, I imagine they will ask the peons to row in order to preserve jet fuel while the bourgeoisie sit in first class and sip champagne. Gosh, I hope I don't sound bitter.
The cost to send the clothing home would have been prohibitive ($150) had I not faced the three days of long train rides to Fiumicino Airport in Rome and risked back injury that could have made the trip unbearable and even more expensive. Each of the legs of the journey involve at least two train changes where lifting a heavy suitcase whilst carrying an equally-weighty backpack would be arduous. This is especially true since Schim is not along to caddy for me. I paid the tab to Mail Boxes, Etc., and should enjoy a much less trying experience on the rails. With a baguette or two along the way, the lomo (Spanish, pork-tenderloin lunch meat) and mortadella (Italian lunch meat produced in Bologna), and a beverage of some sort, I won't need to worry about inflated food prices on-board the bullet train to Barcelona. Oh, no, Schim's frugality is rubbing off!
Tonight marks the beginning of the Semana Santa (Easter) holiday in Spain and in most Latin countries where Catholicism is the dominant faith. Palm Sunday is this Sunday, where a large number of churches do loving processionals through the town carrying ancient religious statuary intricately carved in lifelike detail of Christ and his suffering on the cross. I have seen processions in other Latin countries and am always impressed with the spectacle and the solemn fervor of the participants. For some reason unknown to me, one church will start the ceremonies with a processional tonight, but the majority of churches will wait until Sunday to begin the activities. A glossy book has been distributed in bars and restaurants listing the schedule for the events, so I will attend several. I put an extra, fully-charged, camera battery in my pocket so I can take many photos to share with the interested.
With so few clothes remaining, planning the laundering of what is left so that I can depart with a full wardrobe of clean clothes for the 10 remaining days is something of a logistical nightmare. The small hotels where I will stay will probably not have laundry service and I hate to launder and hang clothes in my hotel room, though it may become necessary for a couple pairs of socks. What will dry if I launder it here on Sunday so that I can wear it on the train first thing Monday morning? Which pair of jeans do I want to wear whilst on the plane during the torturous flight across the Atlantic? Did I send too many shirts home; will three be enough? There appears to be only one solution: Nudity! I can wash the remainder of my dirty laundry on Saturday, put the clothing on the rack all day Sunday to dry, send out for food or buy Chinese to heat in the microwave, and do all this while naked. All clothing will be clean on Monday morning - problem solved! Wait, how will I answer the door for food delivery? Hasta mañana!
You'll be pleased to know that I have generated a creative way to complete the final laundering of my clothes short of the day-long nudity that was sure to cause the sudden demise of the Domino's delivery man when I answered the door. I will begin the laundry process Saturday night before going to bed, putting the few remaining soiled clothes in the washer that takes about 90 minutes to complete its cycle. If I awaken during the night, as has been my wont these last few weeks, I will start the drying process on the rack and hang the jeans on a hanger that should ensure their drying by mid-afternoon. Should there be a wet spot or two on the jeans, I will use the very strong hair dryer provided by the landlord to blow dry the jeans to complete the process. The laundered jeans are the first layer planned for the bottom of my suitcase. I leave first thing on Monday morning, so packing must begin and end on Sunday before the dinner hour and any concomitant intake of wine. Problem solved!
As this will be my last update from Sevilla, I should list some observations about life here for anyone planning to spend a similar amount of time in this very interesting, historic city along the banks of the Guadalquivir River in Andalucia in southern Spain:
1. The people are very friendly, but a little reticent with strangers, unlike the gregarious Irish who immediately bowl you over with kindness and welcoming. Selecting a favorite restaurant or two, practicing their language when ordering, and smiling often will break down any barriers.
2. There is much beautiful architecture, some dating back to the time of Moorish (Muslim) rule that lasted for more than 700 years on the Iberian peninsula. Be sure to take a tour of the city, something I always recommend in a new city, to see things that may interest you in a return visit.
3. If possible, stay longer than a week. It is difficult to get a real feel for a city or country in a short stay. Week-long stays or longer can be done less expensively and more richly in an apartment in a real neighborhood, rather than in the tourist area in a western-style hotel. HomeAway.com, Airbnb.com, and VRBO.com are reliable sites for apartment rentals.
4. Use local transportation. Cheaper than taxis, buses, trains and light rail are the way the locals travel in cities. You will see neighborhoods, rather than tourist attractions, and get a better feel of life in Andalucia.
5. Get accustomed to the dining hours that seem strange. Once I finally accomplished that this year, I understood the lifestyle a lot better and adapted to the later dinner hour, though I always ate at the earliest opening of many restaurants (8:30). Most businesses close between 2:30 and 5:00 p.m., so fill up with gas, purchase food, or get haircuts, before or after those hours. Restaurant kitchens close after 4:00 until 8:30, so don't delay eating lunch.
6. The cuisine is marvelous; chefs specialize in making tapas-sized dishes. I have had mousaka, lasagna, roast duck, salt cod, beef stomach, and a huge variety of other meals in portions small enough to be classified an appetizer at home, but called a tapa here. One or two tapas in an evening is usually all that people require for their evening meal; a larger meal (paella, large steaks, roasts, etc.) is called a plato and served at lunch time (almuerzo), usually accompanied by potatoes of one type or other. Try something new! Not much is lost if you don't enjoy a tapa; they're small and inexpensive. I can honestly say I liked everything new that I tried this year, with one exception - the cuddle fish embryos. If you try those, I recommend you avoid eating the developing ink sacks.
7. When walking, look down! These folks love their dogs, but most owners don't clean up after them. I have seen no stray dogs, but one of the neighbor's dogs leaves a deposit right outside the door of my apartment building on a regular basis in the morning, so I carefully watch my first step on the pavement on my way for cafe and churros. Quite appetizing.
8. Wear your most comfortable shoes. Style means little when nobody knows you in a foreign country, but if your feet hurt with all the walking you will do, it can ruin your vacation.
9. Look both ways when crossing streets and bicycle lanes. Buses and taxis have a special lane that allows them to drive in the wrong direction on what are otherwise one-way streets. Bicycles have their own lanes and traffic signals. Be alert!
I'm tiring of this lecture and you probably are, too. Come on over, even though you won't remember any of my tips or observations. Make your own mistakes; sometimes, that's part of the fun!
I will attempt to update once more from each of the three cities on my way home: Barcelona, Nice, and Rome. That is not a promise. I don't know what will happen in the middle of the battle to get home. But, I'll give it my best shot. Adios.
04/01/15 - Barcelona, Spain
Six hours on a train, no matter its speed, makes for a long day. This train's speed hovered at 300 km/hr (186 mph) for long periods of time, but I arrived safely Monday at the Barcelona Sants station on schedule. While at the station, I took time to purchase a reservation and a ticket for Marseille, France, on Thursday. I wanted a ticket to Nice, but was told, after taking a number to wait in line at the information desk, that I needed to go into another line to purchase a ticket. That required taking another number and waiting about half-an-hour until my number was posted on an electronic board denoting the window where I would be served next, but the time passed quickly, watching people attempt to go to one of the ten windows to purchase a ticket without first obtaining a number from the queue machine. They were rejected, of course, and headed for the machine that inquired whether you wanted a ticket for today or for the future (a different set of windows). I felt sorry for the folks who couldn't read the Spanish directions or who had never been through this drill before, but it is common in train stations, post offices, and other offices where many people ask for service. People's reactions were very entertaining to this weary traveler.
My next journey required two tickets, one to Montpelier, France, and another from there to Marseille. I also learned that I could not ticket in advance for the final leg from Marseille to Nice and that I would have to purchase another ticket in Marseille on a local train to finally get to my French destination. "No problem," the clerk informed me, "you won't need a reservation on the local train." It does mean, however, that I have 48 minutes in Marseille to disembark, find the ticket office and hope there is no line, buy my ticket, and re-board a different train on a track yet to be determined. No, no problem!
With my ticket safely tucked in the jacket pocket where tickets are always kept, I boarded the first taxi in line and inquired about the cost of the ride to the hotel whose name I read from the little notebook on which I had clearly written the names and addresses of the three hotels in which I have reservations in the three cities where I will overnight along the way. There's another tip: always put everything in its special place. When I think of something I need, addresses, ticket, passport, money in reserve, even the spare toothbrush, my mind also always thinks of the place it is located. Makes things much easier to find and you won't look like Schim running around the room always looking for a piece of equipment or his wallet.
The cabbie told me the hotel was a long way and would cost 20 euros because it wasn't located in the centro. This was in response to my admonition that "the hotel was close, right?" The meter said 13 euros and I argued mildly, but he insisted that there was an extra charge for the bags, etc., etc. I paid the 20, but was certain that I was ripped off. I know no way to avoid the overcharging, short of getting a firm quote before boarding, but that is difficult with people and taxis waiting to pull out while you negotiate. The following morning at breakfast in a tiny, narrow bar around the corner (much cheaper than eating in the hotel), the barista/bartender/owner informed me that the ride from the station should only cost six or seven euros. I was definitely ripped off by the 42-year-old cabbie who was warm and friendly during the relatively short ride past the Sagrada Familia Cathedral to my hotel. But, it is a four-star hotel and my single room is tiny, but equipped with a firm, super-twin bed, and has a small, modern bathroom. I felt better after seeing the quality of the tiny room, glad that I hadn't bitten on the 60 euro upgrade that I was offered after booking the room for 170 euros for the three-night stay. You win some and you lose some while on the road; learn and move on!
Like traveling south in the USA and encountering grits for the first time with every breakfast, heading to different regions in Spain presents different foods, different accents, different names for things, and a wonderful, new experience. Cuddle fish here are sepia, not chocos, and beef stomach is callos, not menudo, and the list could go on. I adapted pretty quickly, but had to inquire a few times about what something was or simply order it to find out (a tactic I often employ), but the descriptive answer usually enlightened me as to the differences. By the way, the sepia and callos were delicious. This morning at the little bar around the corner, where two breakfasts have made me a regular, the barista's wife/cook proudly included one morcilla on my plate of bacon and eggs without my asking. I had the eggs yesterday, my first in more than a month, and she inquired if I wanted bacon. When I enthusiastically responded, the barista sliced four or five, very-lean slices off the side of bacon he removed from the refrigerator behind the bar. The bacon was delicious and not cooked crisply (great!), but the blood sausage this morning came as a pleasant surprise. I love blood sausage, but this too recently flowed in some animal and had no rice or other ingredient to thicken it, unless one would call what looked like alfalfa a thickener. It was very metallic, but I ate every piece with vigor, much to the pleasure of the cook. You have to work to become a regular!
I walked my legs off yesterday, a beautiful, sunny day where temps exceeded 70 degrees. The warmth ruined the wardrobe planned for the trip, but I endured by wearing my only short-sleeved shirt for the third or fourth consecutive day. Not to worry, it passed the morning smell test. First, I strolled 10 minutes to the cathedral and the Sagrada Familia appeared more awesome than the first time I saw it. They have cleaned many of the building's spires and are in the process of cleaning the rest. A three-hour wait dissuaded me from entering, but I have seen the nave and the sanctuary several times before and the photos of the outside of the unique, Gaudi, unbelievably-creative design were all I needed to completely enjoy my visit. After snapping photos from all sides of the building, I took the subway, but exited one or two stops prematurely and had to stroll another 30 minutes to reach the Plaza Catalunya at the head of the famous Las Ramblas promenade. I strolled the promenade until my legs and feet squawked too much and stopped to sit, enjoy a bottle of water, and watch the throngs of tourists making the same journey. Two minutes later, I was inside the old market of Las Ramblas, Sant Josep, one of the truly famous and most colorful markets in the world. I took many photos that I will share with Schim who simply loves markets; the beauty and the bright colors inside this one make it very easy to love. I may have time to include a few on this year's blog, too. I continued my walk to the modern harbor when the old body simply ran out of gas. I hailed a cab, read the name and address of the hotel from the business card in my pocket and sat back for the ride to what seemed like paradise - a bed to rest and raise my legs on. You'll be surprised to note that a nap quickly ensued.
Another tip: when you check into a hotel in a strange city, always put the hotel's business card in your pocket so you can find your way back. As much as I have traveled, on Thursday evening, weary from travel, I forgot this tip. After dinner, I got lost in the twisting streets in this neighborhood, worried a little, walked a couple unnecessary miles, but asked enough people to finally get back to my temporary abode. Always put a business card in your pocket at check-in! I'll wager I don't make that same mistake in Nice or Rome.
Early tomorrow, I will arise to catch the 8:25 to Montpelier to begin the nine-hour leg of my odyssey to Provence. Today with a light rain falling, I will rest, plan my visit to a local restaurant for the final paella of the trip, begin the packing that will end when the toiletries are loaded into the bag around 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, and think through the second leg of my journey home. Hasta pronto!
Addendum:No, not an April Fool's trick, just a change in today's plans: when the sun chased the light showers away and the day became picture perfect, I began to think that a trip to Barcelona would not be complete without visiting Park Guell, another of architect Gaudi's famous works and one of my favorites. It was too nice a day to sit inside and rest. After checking at the desk and learning that the park was too far to walk, 45 minutes and up a very steep hill at the end, I caught a cab (10 euros) that dropped me off at the main entrance. I also arranged with the driver, since he appeared trustworthy, for an early morning pick-up tomorrow for a ride to the train station.
I had the same experience at the famous park as at the Sagrada Familia Cathedral: a two hour wait to enter. Easter week is apparently not the best week to visit tourist destinations, since tourists have vacations that interfere with the goals of we professional travelers. Ah, well, I have seen the park several times before and there was enough to photograph near the entrance and exit to remind me of why I love the place. I walked down the steep hill and caught a bus - the wrong bus, but the driver wouldn't sell me a ticket. When he learned where I was headed, he said he would drop me at the next stop and there was no charge because it was too expensive to buy on the bus. He advised that I buy a pass at a tobacco shop where it would be cheaper and take bus number 24. How great was that? As I stood at the rear door waiting to exit, a woman who had heard that exchange said to me, "it's much cheaper to take the Metro and there's a station right down the street!" I thanked her and she said, "I'll take you there." Thinking I could find a Metro station on my own, I thanked her but declined the company. No, she wasn't in the sex trade; she was just a very kind, middle-aged lady. Turned out, I couldn't find the Metro on my own and had to ask a 25-year-old young man directions, even though I was standing across the street from the entrance. I swear they must use camouflage paint on the entrance signs. Kind person number three, the handsome young fellow who turned out to be a chef just back from two years in England and soon headed for Kazakstan or Azerbaijan (I forget which) to cook at some kind of Olympic venue. His English very good, he said, "come on, I'll take you; I'm going on the subway, too." Though he wasn't going on my train or even from the same platform, he took me right to my train, then had to climb back up the stairs to catch another line somewhere in the maze of the busy station. Are Spanish people great or what?
He had given me explicit instructions on where to exit the train to change for the Sagrada Familia, only a 10-minute stroll from the hotel and very near the seafood restaurant where I planned to consume my final paella. You're right, great seafood and a very interesting restaurant, but no paella. I was too far along in the process of selecting my seafood from the market-like, ice table in front of me after waiting in line for 15 minutes (tourists everywhere!) when I learned there was no paella, so I selected three prawns, three langoustines, and half a bag of mussels. Cooked the way you like and delicious, though all were smaller and less meaty than large shrimp or mussels at home. The check that included one Fanta Limon soft drink shocked me at 35 euros and they took only cash, depleting my reserves. I circled the cathedral before getting my bearings and headed back to the hotel. I arrived leg weary, feet aching, completely exhausted. Perhaps, I should have stayed in the room to rest. I napped, then decided to add this addendum to record the kind treatment by the Spanish before departing their country in the morning. I can rest on the train(s). Adios, Spain!
New Photos Added 04/03/15
04/04/15 - Nice, France
Unbelievably impressive! The views from the train between Barcelona and Nice were beautiful; the trains ran right on schedule and for the most part were sleek and well appointed, but that was not what impressed me. The train traveled over a route that I had traveled two times before; once with Leonardo, my scooter, in 2000 on the trip between Bologna, Italy, and the Algarve in Portugal. The second time was the following year returning from Cascais in Portugal, heading back to Germany where my son and his family were living. This was familiar territory to me, but I was overwhelmed, nonetheless, with the sheer distance traveled. This time, much of the trip was at 180 mph, but the distance still seemed overwhelming! What impressed me was that I had actually ridden the route on that little scooter a few years back. People have expressed their disbelief when they hear of the trip, making a big deal of the distance traveled, but I thought nothing of it at the time. After riding the train through most of that route 15 years later, I see why they were impressed. While on the scooter, I guess I was in survival mode, living each day to get to the next destination target. Those rides were, without a doubt, the most exciting adventures I have ever experienced and I would love to do it again. If only I could regain my reflexes of years ago and could be guaranteed that my derriere (notice the French kicking in) would not hurt so badly, I'd have a go!
The scenery on the ride to Barcelona and from there to Nice made the time pass more rapidly than you might expect on such a long trip. There were times when vineyards were visible on both sides of the train for long periods of time and a few farmers worked in their fields. As we approached Perpignan just over the border in France, a town I fondly remembered as quaint and beautiful while on the scooter, we began to see the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance not really that far away. Ocean on one side with palm trees blowing in the brisk wind (mistral) I remember un-lovingly, and the breathtaking snow-covered mountains on the other. The ride was not boring!
The change of trains in Montpelier was problem free with time to enjoy a French, chicken sandwich on a baguette while standing on the platform. With lettuce and tomato, mustard and mayonnaise, and the delicious baguette, the French certainly know how to make lunch. That possibility was the reason I had not purchased lunch to go at the Barcelona station in the morning. Ah, some things work out according to plan.
The change at Marseille was a little more troublesome as the young ticket agent originally informed me in a firm, deprecating tone that she didn't speak English. I was having major problems recalling any French vocabulary from among the Spanish words spilling forth through my lips. After I finally just said the name of the destination city, Nice Ville (according to the signs), with my best French accent, she suddenly warmed, offered a couple of English words, gave me an unrequested senior discount, and wrote the number of the platform on my ticket envelope. She eventually seemed to realize she had been unwelcoming and tried to soften her approach. She was right, though, I should have been speaking French, but with no dictionary and too much Spanish churning in the gray matter, I was doing the best that I could.
The local train car in Marseille was old and dirty, with filthy windows. This leg was the most uncomfortable, since I sat in a seat facing an 83-yr.-old man and his 71-yr.-old wife with an immovable table between us. I sat first in the unoccupied, four-seat space, but the car quickly filled and the couple then sat across from me. He read a paper for most of the 2.5 hour route and she dozed, but there was no room to stretch my legs that were intertwined with his. The views from the window were amazing - cowboy western buttes and mesas on one side and ocean views on the other as we neared Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. As we approached Nice, I helped him remove his suitcases from the overhead rack and he, too, warmed considerably, proudly even speaking several words in English. Then we were here: the famous Cote d'Azur and beautiful Nice. The hotel was a short walk from the station, making tomorrow's exit more efficient, but the hotel was not a 5-star. Not even 3-star, this 2-star was inexpensive, clean, and they gave me a large room with double bed, much more space than in the 4-star in Barcelona, but with a shower that many Americans could not enter. I barely fit, scraping body parts along the way, and I'm not at all certain that I could have fit in January. The walking and Mediterranean diet enabled me to squeeze into the small space, but it was impossible to bend and wash my legs. Nobody can see dirty legs beneath my jeans anyway.
I have always loved Spanish food and I greatly enjoy Italian cuisine, too. Perhaps, that explains my trouble fitting in showers, but three days of dining in France has made me wonderfully aware that in terms of cuisine, the French are operating in a different league than anybody else. The food has been absolutely sensational and I have been eating in local restaurants recommended by my little hotel. I have had Salad Nicoise, Soft rabbit, and Lamb chops, and they were all to die for. This morning and as I write this, I am seated outside in a cafe only 50 feet from my hotel where the ham, cheese, mushroom, and tomato omelette was perfectly prepared. I'd better skip lunch and dinner or I won't fit in the shower before my train ride to Rome tomorrow. The ride will require changes in Ventimiglia and again in Milan, but I am scheduled to arrive in Rome by 6:30 p.m., finally at my last European destination for the year. Then, it will only be a horrendous plane ride across the Atlantic to reach my wife and family whom I am sorely missing. Au revoir!
Sorry about that! Some time has passed since I last updated my blog and most of you have probably given up reading. Schim, however, calls or emails every day reminding me that I have not provided closure to this year's adventure. He apparently has little to do each day other than read my ramblings.
There are several reasons that I have not updated since I was in Nice, France. The obvious one deals with the 11-hour train ride from Nice to Rome with train changes in Ventimiglia and Milan, Italy. That required most of my attention during that arduous day of travel. Another reason for shirking my writing responsibilities was the time spent studying my options for getting from Trastevere in downtown Rome to the airport, a 48-euro taxi ride away. I researched alternate transportation, I swear Schim's frugality is contagious, took a trial trolley run to the train station, and purchased a ticket for eight euros to make the trip. Schim would be so pleased. Illness, however, was the major reason for withholding my final update. On my penultimate day in Nice, I came down with a cold that included a low-grade fever, a nasty, runny nose, and an overall feeling of malaise. I spent that day in my hotel room, thankful that I had walked much of Nice the previous day and visited the flower market and the neighborhood where I had stayed in previous visits to the beautiful, Cote d'Azur city. After a fitful night of sleep, I walked the two blocks to the station and boarded the train that would return me to Rome.
There were beautiful vistas outside the window of the slow train to Ventimiglia and to Milan and plenty more on the bullet train between Milan and Rome, but I was mostly worried about not passing along my cold to other travelers, sneezing and blowing. It was not a pleasant journey. I had some difficulty finding my hotel after being dropped off by the taxi in the Piazza Sidney Sonnino, but on my third lap around the piazza and following the directions of the third person I asked about the location of the address, I found the hotel on the fourth floor of an unmarked building. It was a lovely hotel, perfectly situated in the heart of Trastevere, ideal for reconnoitering the old city. I remained in my room, however, resting and consuming vast quantities of Vitamin C and zinc in the fizzy, God-awful lozenges I purchased in Sevilla. Hoping to overcome the cold symptoms before I flew home, I ventured outside only for meals and to take the trolley to purchase a train ticket to the airport. The meals were excellent, of course, and I bid a fond arriverderci to Rome, boarding what turned out to be a smooth flight home to Philadelphia, almost completely cured of the cold I battled for four days. Whew. It felt fantastic to be home. My wife was a welcome sight outside the arrivals doors at the airport.
I traveled much further than I planned on this year's trip and only realized the great distances covered as I made my way back to Rome by train. I also became aware of the extent of this adventure when I attempted to answer the question, "Where did you go this winter?" when asked by folks who failed to read my blog. The list of major cities I visited reads like a tour of Europe: Rome, Pisa, Naples, Palermo, Siracusa, Madrid, Sevilla, Lisbon, Barcelona, and Nice. It's tiring simply listing all of them. Thanks for traveling with me vicariously. I hope that you are not as exhausted as I am by the adventure. Methinks I shall cut back on winter travel in the future. Arriverderci.