THE PLAN:By expressing or feigning an interest in my winter sojourns, you have been included in this, the plan for the 2019 adventure. That’ll teach you. Yes, I’ve apparently been granted the time and the meager wherewithal to have another frugal go at a 3.5 month getaway. At my age (I’ve been doing this since I first retired 20 years ago - you do the math), this year’s trip may be biting off a little more than I can chew, however. Originally, I was on the road by car, van, motor scooter, train, or bus, a few nights here, a couple there, living out of my suitcase, then hitting the pike again. That evolved, as did my method of reporting: first with handwritten essays, then on very-scarce, often-shared, rented computers found in stores, game rooms, laundromats, and people’s living rooms, eventually in huge computer centers where dozens of computers lined the walls, and ultimately to the present day, where a personal iPad is all the equipment needed to file a report through my daughter, the webmaster, onto my travel blog. As reporting evolved, so did my preference for a less-rigorous, winter lifestyle. In recent years, I enjoyed settling in one, foreign, home base, becoming part of the neighborhood, soaking up the language, food, and culture, and taking occasional day trips to spice up my winter existence in some place warmer than Pennsylvania. I think maturation played a role in that evolution and now, in my doddering, senior years, I much prefer that gentler adventure, BUT...
A few years back, probably a decade now, I ran into a travel partner (regular readers will recognize the nickname, Schim, short for Schimmelpfennig) while teaching English to Spanish business executives in Madrid. Schim’s preference is sprinting through life, tourist sites, museums, cities, and countries in an apparent effort to add another notch to his belt or to get it all in before the grim reaper comes for him. He also prefers eating at less-expensive (cheap), food trucks and roadside stands. Somehow this year, in an attempt via email to dissuade him from a joint, two-week dash through all the countries of Southeast Asia, I agreed to lead him on what I have grown to call “A Farewell Tour from Portugal to Sicily.”
The plan is rather simple, though just listing the countries we will visit is exhausting in and of itself: Portugal, Spain, Andorra, France, Italy, San Marino, and Malta. We, or perhaps just I by then, will settle in a home base in Sicily from which I can spend a couple months soaking up the sun, the language, the food, and the culture in the ancient and interesting island off the toe of Italy’s “boot.”
We’ll travel by train, bus, boat (Schim’s never been to Venice), and maybe even by bicycle, if I can’t avoid it, to some very interesting places a few of which I visited previously and made some friends with whom I hope to renew acquaintances. Never staying too long in one place, Schim’s way, we have reservations (Airbnb) for five nights in Cascais, Portugal, five more in Seville, Spain, and after that no reservations at all. If I survive the arduous journey and the company, it should be interesting.
There are folks, thousands, no doubt, by our President’s method of tallying, who enjoy traveling vicariously with me while curled up under a blanket on the sofa watching the snow fall outside their windows. While I pack, unpack, labor up (and down) the stairs to the next train track, these folks love reading about my adventures and misadventures, enjoying the comforts of home. There are others who couldn’t care less. I’ll find them and seek revenge, I swear. Actually, feel no pressure. There will be no quiz and I’ll only know if you read a word if you bring it up. I’ll be too busy remembering the cataplana, the paella, the spaghetti carbonara, the great wines, and the wonderful new people I will meet.
|01/10/19 - Cascais, Portugal
Unfortunately, Schim showed up on schedule at the beautiful, beach-side hotel in Cascais, our meeting point, on schedule six hours later than I arrived. Not normally a problem, but the complete lack of sleep on the TAP flight from Newark, because of the tail end of the three-week bout of flu/cold that I worried would bother others, kept me from it. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep from dozing for a few minutes while seated waiting in the lobby, which later caused the clerks to tease me about the brief nap.
There he was, full of energy and psyched for a lightening stroll through postcard-beautiful Cascais, the city he disdained in our discussions of this year’s itinerary. He marveled at the town’s beauty during the entire stroll. I was completely wiped out, but suffered through the brief stroll to locate the apartment we had rented for five days up what seemed like a mountain at the time, to the much tinier apartment than depicted on Airbnb. We met the landlord after laboring up the hill with the small bags we brought with us and the adventure began.
Outfitted with two large, electric, portable heaters, the apartment was colder than a morgue and had white tile floors that felt carved from blocks of ice. By this morning, after a night at the heaters’ maximum setting and our overnight body heat, the place had warmed to a point that the shower with an on-demand, hot water heater was tolerable and extremely refreshing. After more than 10 hours sleep, my body felt invigorated and the ham and cheese sandwich and fresh coffee at a neighborhood, corner cafe re-energized both of us. We were ready for a serious stroll.
Stroll we did, Schim still marveling at the town’s forgotten beauty and stopping in every tourist-trap, souvenir shop to browse. We strolled to the train station, purchasing five passes for the train to Lisbon for $6.50 with senior discounts. Schim had insisted that he had learned that each ride would cost $12, but I knew better. Suffice it say that he was thrilled. From there it was a stroll across the street to the post office and a visit to the modern shopping center for a few groceries, a drink and a rest. We wandered back to the apartment and decided to update.
Schim has been a bundle of surprises. He lost 38 pounds, exercised three times a day, and became an obsessive organic-food consumer, green-tea drinker, reading all labels, pointing out the dangers of my diet, and focused on healthy dining. He says he will stay with me to Rome which may drive me quickly out of my mind. A murder among transients should be an extremely difficult murder to solve. I need to develop a plan.
Today is our last day in Cascais. We leave at 9:30 tomorrow morning for a seven-hour, bus ride through the Algarve in Portugal to Sevilla, Spain. Though Schim was not enthralled with the idea of revisiting Cascais, I must say that he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. Not much wonder why - the place is picture-postcard beautiful with a unique cuisine that, despite the fanaticism about his new, organic, diet, he thrived upon.
I am just back from lunch while he is on his second walk of the day, dropping postcards at the post office from both of us to grandchildren. He will make the walk an endurance march and I accompanied him this morning, walking on the ocean promenade and joining hundreds of others exercising in the fresh air and beautiful sunshine. The temperature was in the upper 40’s and rose to the mid 50’s during the day today. All five days in Cascais have been bright and sunny with temperatures reaching the low 60’s a couple days. Sweaters and windbreakers have been my clothing of choice, though Schim, the Floridian, has bundled up with shirt, sweater, puffy-quilted vest, windbreaker, gloves, and Humphrey hat, once even flipping the earmuffs down from inside the hat. He stayed warm all right, but we received more than one sideways glance - the old gentleman and his nerdy friend.
I have spent most of the time in Cascais, finally wearing down the flu/cold that knocked me down for so long. Today, I finally feel like the bug must be on its last legs in my system. Schim has been most compassionate with my maladies, sensing when I needed a break on the forced marches, and helping with bags and the normal chores of travel. He even made my bed on a couple of mornings when he was most sympathetic and energetic. We are both still lagging a little. He thinks that he is completely adjusted from jet lag, but still goes to bed late (after 10:00 p.m.) and arises late (8:30 or 9:00 a.m.). Doesn’t sound much different than home, but we are now five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We are both early risers and our circadian rhythms are slowly adjusting to the new locale. I expect we will continue to phase into the new time zone as time passes.
The only disappointing parts of the trip so far have been my inability to make contact with people in the restaurant business who became my good friends during the long winters I previously spent in Cascais. The wonderful Melody Restaurant is closed for renovations until after I leave for Spain and, despite leaving messages on his webpage, I have been unable to contact Joe, the proprietor. Joe hosted me for a Sunday dinner with his entire family the last time I was in town and I looked forward to seeing him again. My friend, Gonzalo Diniz, proprietor of Dom Diniz, made contact by telephone last night and I hope to have dinner with him today. We have visited his restaurant several times during our stay, but his new wife and 8-month-old child seem to take enough of his time that he only makes late (for us) appearances at his restaurant. Here’s hoping I get to renew acquaintances with him tonight.
There is still packing to do and an early start in the morning, since the trip will require a train ride to Lisbon and an Uber trip from the Cais do Sodre train station to the bus hub. Should be pretty hectic around here in the early morning. Will update from Spain where the language should come a little easier. Tchau.
01/16/19 - Sevilla, Spain
Our last day in Cascais and Portugal was an epicurean delight! Breakfast was at a different restaurant, but the fare was the same: coffee and sweet roll for me, ham and cheese sandwich for the Schimster. Lunch was a different matter and watching Schim slog his way through the humongous portion of Portuguese Cocido for two was a spectacle to behold.
We made contact with my friend, restaurateur Gonzalo, the night before and arranged to meet him for a drink and possibly dinner to follow on our final night in town. Schim lectured me all day that we needed to eat a light lunch because of the potential for a larger dinner, possibly a free one, that would give him license to chow down. I took him to the Fishermen’s Association for lunch where a small restaurant serves very fresh fish daily to a few hardy souls, except on Sunday when an army of locals vie for a seat for the Cocido A Portuguesa, a treasured, national dish. Nine euros for one portion, 16 for two. After waiting 15 minutes or so, we were seated at an outdoor table, protected from the weather by a heavy-plastic, patio cover with propane heater to ward off the 60 degree chill in the air. We ordered the Cocido for two and Schim started with a small beer and I with a can of Lipton iced tea, the only one of the trip to date. Then, the boiled meal was served on a platter large enough to feed a dozen homeless folks, none of which, interestingly, have we observed in Portugal. Inexpensive cuts of pork (think pigs feet and knuckles), beef, several types of sausage, carrots, turnips, potatoes, covered with huge cabbage leaves and accompanied by a separate, large bowl of rice and red beans. Schim was aghast, but I swear I detected smoke rising from his utensils as he gorged himself on the tasty, local cuisine. He managed several portions of all the ingredients, almost waxing poetic over the authenticity of the repast. So much for a light lunch, but perhaps we’ll only have a drink with Gonzalo in the evening.
NOT! We did have a drink together at a touristy, local, British pub, owned by a friend of Gonzalo. He then offered to take us to a great seafood restaurant where he was a regular and, of course, a friend of the owner. Gonzalo has maintained his position as a well-known, man-about-town and it did not surprise me that he was greeted by everyone. He escorted us, after a short walk, back to the market we had visited on Saturday, but which was then devoid of the produce stands, tables, and crowds of market day. The restaurant was on the periphery of the market, had modern decor, seafood tanks, though containing only bubbling water at the time, and a huge, iced table full of the freshest of local seafood and fish. Gonzalo selected tiny clams, oysters, and a giant crab that reminded us of Florida’s stone crabs and we were shown to our table. Another drink followed as we awaited the preparation of the seafood while appetizers of a local sheep cheese, crackers, bread, and more were served. Schim seemed to find the appetizers delicious, he still being in a ravenous state.
The seafood was absolutely fantastic! The tiny clams, which I would never have selected, were flavorfully explosive and the sauce in which they were cooked was good enough that Schim (and Gonzalo) wiped the serving plate clean with the second basket of bread that was required to address the hunger of my meal mates. Most noteworthy was the crab, now steamed, the claws surrounding its large body in which a fresh crab dip, perhaps a quart, was colorfully displayed. A third basket of bread was required for Schim and Gonzalo to extract the final portions of the scrumptiously-delicious, sweet dip from the shell. A light meal it was not, but worth every calorie that Schim will bemoan for days. Schim and I split the check, since I couldn’t justify taking advantage of my friend after his cordial hospitality guided us to the restaurant and through the culinary paradise. Schim will probably fast for several days to justify the expense and walk several more miles each day to work off any weight he may have gained.
Tuesday, we were up very early, on the train to Lisbon by 7:00 a.m., joining commuters heading for work as we headed for the bus station. A cab from the train station and we arrived an hour before departure for the bus through the Algarve of southern Portugal, across the international border, and on to Sevilla. On the way, Schim observed the cork-oak trees for which Portugal is famous and we both napped a few times on the seven-hour ride that continued our journey.
The apartment we booked on Airbnb in Sevilla is barely as large as a typical hotel room with separate, tiny shower room, and toilet/wash room entering from the hallway that is attached. Much smaller than the apartment in Cascais, the two, large Americans will, no doubt, bump into each other in passing over the next five days. We can endure, however, as we make the decision as to our next destination city: Madrid, Barcelona? Stay tuned. I promise the next update will be more brief. Adios.
One of my loyal readers, who says she faithfully reads all updates, claims that she eagerly awaits the annual details that address the medical emergency she insists is present in each of my adventures. She should enjoy today’s update.
I don’t know what it is about Sevilla that brings out the worst of my dental health, but yesterday I endured my second, root canal in this Andalusian capital. A mild toothache became too bothersome to ignore, so Schim and I walked into a dentist/odontologist’s office two, short blocks away from our tiny apartment. The receptionist/hygienist talked to the unseen doctor and they squeezed me in for an immediate exam. Tapping on my teeth identified the problem when I almost leapt from the very-modern chair when the offending, capped molar was hammered. The handsome, fortyish dentist said he needed an X-ray to diagnose the problem, so I moved across the office to the panoramic X-ray machine. Before my excellent American dentist even had similar equipment, I got my first panoramic X-ray during a previous Spanish root canal here in Sevilla many years ago. This city happens to be home to one of the most highly respected dental schools in the country. The doctor showed me the pictures and said that to eliminate my pain he had to open the cap, clean out the infection, excise the root, treat the cavern, then close the hole. He scheduled me for an appointment the next day (yesterday).
I walked into the waiting room and, almost immediately upon sitting in the beautiful room with marble flooring and matching sofas and chairs, an ungodly, loud, jackerhammer-like noise invaded the space. It almost vibrated the furniture and I thought the dentist was treating another patient with the slow, tortuous drilling equipment that I had endured at home as a child many, many years ago. I began to fear that this could be a painful, debilitating procedure. The noise stopped and I was ushered into the treatment room, different than the room in which I was examined the previous day, but containing what appeared to be very modern equipment with running water, a spittle sink, and everything. The doctor entered wearing turquoise scrubs and a surgical mask. He spoke decent, though broken English and with my almost decent Spanish, the communication was pretty comprehensive. As he approached my chair, the loud drilling noise began again! I quickly asked, “Is that another dentist working in the next room?” He pulled his surgical mask down and laughed aloud, “No, they’re renovating another apartment in the building and they’ve been at it for two months! It’s every day at this same time.” Whew! I joined him with a relieved guffaw!
The procedure was no fun, but was absolutely pain free after several stabs with the Novocain needle into my gums and tongue. He asked several times if I felt any pain and I assured him that I felt nothing. It took an hour and a half and three, “bite wing” X-rays along the way to finish the work as he explained that one of my two root canals was unusually narrow and he had difficulty ensuring that the root and infection were completely gone. He worked meticulously, using familiar enough equipment, but my jaw ached from keeping my mouth open so far for so long. No real pain, though. When finished, I asked if I could take a photo of the doctor and the hygienist and they complied willingly. The doctor even used my camera to snap a “selfie” of the three of us which I’ll also post. We shook hands, I paid the hygienist $185 for the day’s procedure and left with a prescription for antibiotics and instructions for the three-day regimen. The panoramic X-ray of the previous day was $62, so the entire procedure cost just less than $250. Wow, I haven’t heard of a root canal costing less than $800 at home and I haven’t had one for a few years.
No pain???? Not so fast, old man!!! As the day wore on and the Novocain wore off, I began to experience severe pain in my jaw, ear, the roof of my mouth, and all my teeth. Whoa, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so adamant with the dentist about no pain pills, fearing an opioid script that would have kept me drowsy for days and made an addict out of me. Surely, the Tylenol I carried would do the trick. NOT!! The $6.00 prescription for antibiotics at the corner Farmacia was not dulling the pain and the Tylenol did no apparent good. I did improve enough after an hour’s nap to accompany Schim for a light dinner of fish and broccoli, but in the middle of the night the pain once again became excruciating. So bad that I took more Tylenol and an early dosage of the antibiotic, but to no avail. I slept only fitfully, but must have dozed near daybreak and awoke at 8:30 to find Schim showered and ready to attack the day. Me? Not so much!
I have sworn off Ibuprofen because of recent studies that relate an increase in strokes and heart attacks among older users, but plenty of the wonderful pills remained in my pill chest. I decided that I would endure the risk in the hopes that the Advil would impact my pain and even lubricate my barking knees. An hour later, over breakfast of toast spread with olive oil and tomato pulp and a delicious cafe con leche, I realized that the magic drug had all but obliterated the pain. Nothing hurt, though I chewed gently on the opposite side of my jaw. Aggressive chewing can wait for another day.
Tonight, Schim and I will be dining with the family of a waitress friend of mine (Elena), her husband, and four, lovely children. We are both looking forward to the experience and I to see the family who adopted this new, American grandfather a few years ago. We have kept in touch via Facebook ever since.
Schim and I bussed to the train station this morning and purchased a ticket on the “bullet train” to the Atocha Station in Madrid for tomorrow around noon. It will be good-bye to beautiful, welcoming, dental Sevilla and on with our journey. Hasta luego!
If there is a way to better spend a final day in Sevilla, I certainly don’t know it. Picked up at our apartment by Nando, the husband of my friend, Elena, and his two children, Fernando (16) and Noelia (13), we were whisked to their beautiful home thirty minutes away. A major welcoming took place with Elena’s two children, Pau (13) and Blanca (11), fully involved in the process; they are a wonderfully blended family. Kisses on both cheeks of the females and handshakes and hugs among the men completed the process. Blanca presented Schim and me with a lovingly-handmade, stick figure she colored and glued out of popsicle sticks. A wonderful touch. We presented flowers, a large bottle of Rioja wine, and a bag of candy (think M&M’s and Twix) for each of the children.
Elena proudly conducted a tour of their townhouse-like abode, pointing out the rooms where the kids paired up in trundle beds that were neat and orderly, although Elena pointed out one pair of pajamas that one of the boys had carelessly left out before the company arrived. On the dining room table, set for all eight of us, sat beautifully-prepared tapas of many sorts. The famous, Spanish tortilla sliced into bite-sized pieces with toothpicks inserted, smoked salmon and cream cheese roll-ups we later learned were home-smoked by Elena. Sliced chorizo and tiny toast, bread and three different pates, small pieces of fruitcake, and, no doubt, several more that elude me as I struggle to remember two nights ago.
When we ate our fill (Schim ate like an 18-year-old defensive tackle), Elena excused herself to the kitchen to retrieve the rest of the meal. What, there’s more? She emerged and served a plate full of beautiful, cold camarones (shrimp), heads on, and another plate of HUGE, hot prawns, that would have made a meal all by themselves. I ate three of each, but watched in awe as Schim and Pau (13) each devoured seven or eight of the prawns and too many cold shrimp to count. Crustaceans certainly must be on Schim’s diet. We drank most of the wine, the kids Coke, and Schim and Nando each had an after dinner cordial of some sort. A fantastic repast it was, prepared by Elena who spent the two previous days in the kitchen, a fact we learned from Nando on the way home. What hospitality!! I sure hope we get to host this lovely family in our city.
The next morning everything worked according to plan, except that Schim left our computer-charging paraphernalia plugged in at the apartment (we have a backup), and we boarded the AVE train at the station after a short bus ride. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, after reaching speeds just under 150 mph, we emerged from the train in downtown Madrid, only a 10 minute walk from our hotel. Ah, yes, the hotel was booked the day before our arrival by Dorita, Schim’s daughter, who got us the employee rate in a very modern hotel. Thanks, Dorita! We’ll enjoy two nights here, visiting previous neighborhoods and restaurants, then head on another bullet train for Barcelona, where Dorita is already researching hotel choices for us. They’re right, it’s not always what you know that counts. Hasta pronto!
01/22/19 - Barcelona, Spain
After viewing photos of the table set for us by Elena and her daughters, I think I did them a disservice with my prior description of their efforts. I forgot two of the most impressive and labor-intensive dishes prepared for us. First was a mild, tuna “cake” proudly prepared from the recipe of Elena’s mother. It was delicious and only after inquiring as to its ingredients did I learn that tuna was involved. Delicious. One of the biggest splashes of the evening came with the gorgeous, “seafood mousse” that could have served as a centerpiece for the table. Coated completely with a light, salmon-colored mayonnaise and topped with pieces of crabmeat and strips of red, sweet peppers, it was my favorite dish of the evening. Well, perhaps the giant prawns tied on my list of favorite dishes. I feel better having given more time to Elena’s super efforts.
The next day arrived right on schedule, though, and it was finish packing, return the keys to the Airbnb apartment owner living next door, catch the bus to the train station and head for Madrid. We experienced our first light rain of the trip during our first day and evening in the nation’s capitol, but the drizzle didn’t deter us from walking through the Plaza del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, familiar places to both. We stopped for lunch so that Schim could enjoy the locally-popular calamari sandwich that he had been craving. I enjoyed a delicious plate of fried calamari. After a stroll through a market turned upscale-food court that Schim hadn’t visited during his several-month stay in the city while teaching English, we found my favorite Asturian restaurant, El Neru, where I enjoyed the special, blue-cheese spread famous in that part of the country and a small glass of alcoholic cider. Schim had a cana, a small beer, and forced down his slice of what I consider the best blue-cheese spread in the world. Schim could not call it his favorite, not being a blue-cheese kind of guy. That evening, we walked two blocks in the drizzle and dined in another small, wonderful Asturian restaurant where I had a delicious entree: monkfish cooked in cider, their specialty. It was the best fish dish I have been served anywhere. Schim had another bowl of seafood soup.
The following afternoon we boarded another bullet train for the trip across the country to Barcelona, the next stop on this year’s odyssey. Fortunately, the hotel in Madrid, thanks again, Dorita, was only three blocks from the train station. Fortunately, because Madrid was experiencing a taxi strike and, had the hotel been a greater distance away, we would have had a long trek to the station. Unaware of local news because we rarely turn on the TV, we were surprised to find the taxi strike was nation-wide and, we were told at the taxi stand in Barcelona, it also included Uber. Uh, oh! Our hotel, again booked by Dorita at a fantastic rate, was a long distance away. The caballero at the taxi-stand told us the best way to our hotel was by subway and we were in the middle of the afternoon rush hour traffic. Subways, as the name suggests, are below ground! For this old-timer with barking knees, that presented a significant problem, especially since most of the trip to the subterranean trains involved long stairways with only occasional escalators. That meant traversing as many as twenty-five stairs in one fell swoop, backpack, pulled suitcase and all. Luckily, and I rarely compliment the big fellow because his head will swell, the Schimster was as good as his word before the trip and he carried my suitcase or backpack down several of the stairways. My age was really showing as rushing commuters passed me by as I limped down, step by agonizing step and lowering my bag. People have asked why this is a farewell tour and the answer came to light during our descent. Short knee-replacement surgery on both knees, which I’m trying to avoid and the orthopedic surgeon recommended, I’m getting too old for this nomadic form of travel.
The directions we got from both the guy at the taxi stand (a cabbie?) and a police officer in the subway with a giant, heavily-muzzled, Belgian Malinois, drug and terrorist-prevention dog, was to take a blue train one stop, then change to a yellow train to get the exit for our hotel. Unfortunately, both sets of directions and a third along the way, gleaned by the panicked Schimster from a friendly local, told us to exit one stop before we should have. The train was jammed with commuters and we squeezed into a standing position surrounded sardine-like and very vulnerable to pickpockets. Schim inadvertently made us a target by trying to communicate with me too loudly in English. My whispered warning to him was processed and put to use the remainder of the ride as the crowd thinned. A good lesson for both of us. The fact that there are two of us, each to watch the other’s bag and pockets also served as a deterrent.
The walk up the stairs, without escalators, presented the same problem in reverse and I struggled up to the fading daylight. Asking directions along the way, we learned that our Hotel Forum was off in the distance, a 20-minute walk away. Not bad enough, the most direct route was on a bicycle/jogging path made of clay and stone, a tough pull. Endure we did, arriving at this luxurious hotel (Dorita!) in a very new convention-like area with a very modern, large shopping mall and several, famous hotel chains. Needless to say, we were exhausted. A short rest, however, and we ventured across the street and had a light dinner before crashing.
Updating every several days makes my recollections longer than I would like, but so be it. If too lengthy for you, I suggest putting down my scribblings and getting back to watching the snow flakes fall outside your living room window. Oh, if you are interested in reading Schim’s recollections of these same events, much more brief and jotted down more regularly, just email me that request and Schim will send you his address on Google Document. Onward to the snowy country of Andorra tomorrow after a quick day of touring Barcelona. Hasta pronto!
01/24/19 - Toulouse, France
Andorra is a small principality, around 70 square miles, the sixth smallest country in Europe and the 16th smallest in the world. It is located in the Pyrenees Mountains, bordered by Spain in the south and France to the north. Created by Charlemagne, governed by both an elected, Catholic official AND the president of France, the tiny principality lived up to its reputation yesterday as a dependable, outstanding ski resort area. It is outstanding, at least, if one measures by the amount of snowfall and the steep mountains through which we made our way by bus.
Why Andorra, you ask, when I am not impressed by any snow with which I have come in contact? Andorra is the 61st country which these old bones have visited; admittedly, my bones were much younger oft-times than the bones which visited Andorra yesterday. I must keep pressing on, gathering notches in my travel belt, lest both my sons carve more notches in theirs. Family bragging rights, I reckon.
We began yesterday with a much smoother trip from our hotel in Barcelona to the train/bus station all the way across the sprawling city despite the taxi strike which continued. The return went much better because we found a much closer Metro entrance and several elevators and escalators in the subway itself which eliminated all but one flight of the stairwells that made the prior trip so painful on my barking knees. What a relief! Especially satisfying because we considered Uber (too busy to respond) and a driver and car contracted by the hotel staff (at 85 euros way too expensive). We negotiated the underground system in the middle of the morning rush hour with just enough speed to make the 10:15 bus departure for Andorra. It cost nothing more than one more trip on the three-day, city transportation pass we purchased on our arrival for 10 euros.
Barcelona was blustery cold with a light drizzle as we boarded the modern, full-sized bus, equipped with TV (for the movie) and WiFi. As we exited the city and began the climb to Andorra’s 3,700 ft. elevation, the sun began to appear through the broken stratus clouds. As we got higher, though, we began to notice patches of snow on the sheltered parts of fields until the views included more and more of the heaven-sent, white stuff. As the climb continued, darker clouds threatened and the snow accumulation became more and more apparent as flakes of falling snow began to gather on the windshield and eventually the side windows of the bus. The highway began as a four-lane expressway, then an exit ramp took
us to the winding, two-lane road that would be our path for what turned out to be six more hours of arduous travel.
By the time we reached the city of Andorra la Vela, the capital of the small principality, a full-fledged snow storm was hammering the city with accumulations of about eight inches when we pulled into the small bus station. The country has no trains or train stations, so bus was the only way to reach #61. A two-hour wait faced us for the bus that would take us to Toulouse, France, the next stop on our journey. It was lunch time when we arrived in Andorra, and there were only a couple of food machines in the station, so we decided to venture out to the nearest restaurant where we were directed by the ticket agents. Not the brightest of ideas, that trip pulling a suitcase and wearing backpacks in the deep snow with heavy snow falling. We failed to negotiate a block and I began to fear a dangerous fall, especially since I had worn sneakers for the trip. We made a U-turn, created more tracks in the deep snow on return, brushed off the snow that had accumulated on our hats, jackets, and suitcases, and settled for a sandwich and drink from the machine.
We boarded a smaller, very new, 20-passenger bus to continue the trip over the Pyrenees to Toulouse. We laughed and took photos when we noticed that our bus had chains on the rear wheels. Neither of us had seen tire chains in years. It is amazing, sometimes, just how naive travelers can be! Thank God for the chains and the expertise of the driver, because as we rose up the mountain to leave Andorra the snow accumulation and the power of the storm increased. We were quickly in a blizzard with snowfall of at least two feet with heavy winds and white out conditions on our trek to the top and down the mountains. Cars with no chains littered the switchback road, awaiting help from the yellow, emergency vehicles that headed up the mountain to assist. Plows were working overtime to keep the road clear, but several were broken-down along the side of the highway. Stopped many times by vehicles stuck in snowbanks, we continued down the road, passing vehicles whenever possible. Our aggressive driver had obviously not been driving in his first blizzard. Slower cars blew their horns at us as we passed them by, snow flying from our chains. We hadn’t reached the bottom when the first of our links failed and the clacking from the chain hitting the fender well began. The driver continued unfazed, then the second link went, creating an even- louder cacophony. My Floridian companion, sitting on the opposite side of the bus, was more frightened than I, especially several times when the white-out eliminated all views through the windshield. For some unknown reason, I was relaxed during the excitement, confident that this wasn’t the driver’s first rodeo, uh, blizzard.
With snow and slush still on the roadway, the driver stopped at a tiny rest stop, removed the chains, we all had a “pee-pee” (driver’s terminology) and we continued on our way to Toulouse. The road cleared almost immediately, morphed into a four-lane expressway and we sped into Toulouse only an hour later than a normal trip. Across from the bus/train station was an Ibis Hotel and we took the “last room” (NOT) for 104 euros. We were too tired after our nine-hour ordeal to shop for hotels; the beds were what we were after and they were great. So was the shower this morning.
This morning, we shopped a car rental to drive across southern France to Nice, but there were very few cars available and they were cost prohibitive. We then attempted to book a train to Nice at 10:48 only to find, as we ticketed, that that train was canceled. We finally secured tickets on the 12:48, which will get us into Nice around 9:00 p.m. after another long day on the rails. We’re game, though, but will probably stay two or three nights in Nice for some rest and recuperation.
I realize this was a long update, but just how many blizzards have I been in? One! Perhaps, just perhaps, the next update will be more brief. Au revoir!
01/26/19 - Nice, France
Nice is Nice!! Probably not an original opening, but it was the best I had at the moment. I almost began with “Clean Clothes!”, but went with the obvious. When leading the nomadic lifestyle, there is nothing as invigorating as getting your laundry done and having a suitcase full of clean garments. At check-in in Nice, I inquired at the front desk about the location of a nearby laundry and was told that the hotel provided that service. When I saw $12.00/shirt, I ignored the rest of the list; I found the price a little extravagant and Schim went absolutely apoplectic; he rinsed out his undergarments and socks that evening, taking all the limited hanging space in the luxurious (thanks again to Dorita) room.
The following morning I inquired again at the desk, carrying my laundry bag on the way to breakfast. Breakfast in the hotel was not included, but served buffet style for just over $25. We passed on that! Different personnel at the front desk were delighted to explain that there was a laundromat around the corner from the hotel. Not what I had in mind, watching my laundry being agitated and dried in the cute little windows of a machine but, after viewing research on the internet about the absence of laundries in this very-upscale city on the Cote d’Azure, I was running out of options. Fortunately, there was a patisserie (bakery) across the street and a coffee shop next to that, so I decided to plug the machines with euros and watch the laundry spin while Schim and I had breakfast. Oops, no machines selling detergent in the place, but Schim had spotted a grocery store around the corner on an early morning walk and I purchased a small box there after securing the assistance of a kind, middle-aged employee who accompanied me to the laundry department.
I loaded a numbered machine, sprinkled some detergent on the clothes, punched number three into the keyboard on the wall, and dropped fewer than five dollars of coins into the slot. Almost magically, the number four machine started agitating my clothes as it filled with water. This was very entertaining since all the machines were front-loading and the action was both colorful and breathtaking. Two or three other machines were also spinning, but there was nobody else in the place. We adjourned across the street to the coffee shop and consumed our breakfast while the machine toiled. I returned to the laundromat while Schim took to the street on another one of his forced marches. After 40 minutes, the machines displayed the time on a screen, the machine stopped and it was drying time. Four, large dryers were all available and I selected number 10 which required no bending to transfer the clean, wet clothes. Back to the computer with the coin slot where only one euro was required to dry my garments for 10 minutes.
I sat waiting for the clothes to dry and Schim to return when a man entered the laundromat with scooter helmet in hand. We exchanged greetings and he inquired if that was my box of detergent on the table. Replying in the affirmative, he pointed to the instructions for machine usage plainly written on the wall in French. When he comprehended that my French was too weak to read the sign, he got an English translation of the instructions on his phone to share with me. Instruction number four clearly said that “NO DETERGENT SHOULD BE USED!” It seems that the washing machines automatically injected detergent as it washed. Wow! This was a new, ultra-modern laundromat. I apologized profusely, my French being that good, at least, and he was most gracious about my ignorance. Turns out, that as your clothing nears completion, he is automatically called to visit his new business to offer assistance. Amazing! Schim showed up, watched me fold or roll my clean clothes and we returned to the hotel. Ahhhhh. Fresh clothes for the next week or 10 days.
We toured the old city and walked through the new part of town to the train station where we purchased tickets for a direct train to Milan, Italy, for Sunday. After a one night stay in Milan, we’ll head to Venice for a three-night visit, before Schim heads home to Orlando. Yes, the big fellow has purchased a ticket and I will travel the length of Italy alone. First stop for me will be San Marino, the tiny republic south of Venice and east of Bologna. It appears that, like Andorra, the only way to San Marino is by bus. The route is through Bologna, so I will attempt to figure out the ticketing and the scheduling to get to the mountainous republic for a one night stay. I have no hotel reservations there, but I have reserved an Airbnb room with private bath in Rome for five days after that. Here’s hoping the plan comes together. Au revoir!
01/29/19 - Venice, Italy
Our last day in Nice provided a beautiful finish to our short stay on the French Riviera. Breakfast at the hotel, so Schim can eat the eggs (scrambled, soft boiled, matters not) he laments every day, almost from dawn until dark. He will very occasionally say, “when in Rome, do what the Romans do,” but where breakfast and eggs are concerned, he hasn’t really gotten the message. The Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italian breakfasts usually consist of a sweet roll (think croissant) and a small cup of coffee or espresso. That doesn’t stop the Floridian from lamenting the absence of eggs and approaching hyperventilation when we can enjoy a hotel buffet which usually includes eggs.
After breakfast, we walked to the bus stop on the famous Promenade d’ Anglais to catch a ride to the Place Garibaldi from whence we could walk to the Port. There we boarded another local bus that would hug the coast and pass through the beautiful, exclusive towns of the Riviera, like Ville France, Monaco, and Menton, among many others. We lunched at a pizza shop in Menton before catching a return train to Nice. A pleasant day with sunshine and temperatures in the mid to upper 50’s, then pack and prepare for another morning departure.
We left the hotel, where one of the French League football teams (Nimes) was also staying, to take the 8:01 train to Milan. We grabbed breakfast at the station - Harry: croissant, Schim: two ham and cheese sandwiches, one for later on the train. This is a diet?? Drat, again no eggs at the Patisserie for the big guy. We passed along much of the route we had bussed the previous day and into the Italian Riviera, before heading inland to Milan. More, snow-covered fields along the way in what appeared to be a three or four-inch coating of the horrible, white stuff.
We exited the snowy, elevated fields into very cold, rainy, dreary Milan. Only an overnight stay planned here to break up the long trip to Venice, we forced ourselves through the drizzle on two, confusing trams to reach Il Duomo, the famous, spectacular cathedral in central Milan. A couple photos, a quick cab ride back to the hotel and our first, great Italian meal (the slice of pizza in France doesn’t count) had us ready for the warmth of our beds. Up early again the following morning, we had to stay for the hotel buffet because of the EGGS. Schim had two kinds, scrambled and soft-boiled. We slogged through the frigid morning weather to Milano Centrale and arrived in Venice around 1:00 p.m. in the middle of more drizzle. We boarded a vaporetto (boat taxi), located our ancient, five-star hotel (thanks again, Dorita) and grabbed a quick nap before dinner. We’re safely in this beautiful city and I hope to update one more time from here before shipping Schim home and heading to San Marino and Rome. Tchau!
Time for a health update:
The pain from the root canal lasted from the time the Novocain wore off until 24-hours later and was pretty severe for part of that time. The pain and ache gradually abated and I have had no problems since then with the dental procedure. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the head cold that I thought was almost over when I took off from Newark for Portugal. My left ear clogged during the descent into Lisbon and remained annoyingly clogged for much of my time in Cascais and Seville. It and the head cold gradually vacated my body and I thought I had beaten the bug that caused it. That is, until yesterday afternoon here in Venice when a relapse occurred and the head cold returned worse than ever. I struggled with coughing, sneezing and runny nose yesterday afternoon and through the night, not even venturing out for dinner.
Schim has been most compassionate, even buying Vick’s cough drops for me at a pharmacy while out for dinner and his afternoon forced march. I would love to have a video of that purchase, since he takes no interest in learning even the most basic Italian phrases. Despite Schim’s vocal lack of interest in the trip, we did get in a vaporetto ride to Murano, the island known for glassblowing, yesterday morning and enjoyed a fine lunch at a trattoria there. It was after that the head cold made its relapse known and I could hardly wait to return to the hotel.
This morning, I accompanied Schim to breakfast and on a trial run (walk) to the train station whose location Schim discovered on yesterday’s march. We had taken a vaporetto from there to the hotel when we arrived the other day. It took twenty minutes of steady walking, including traversing four canal bridges to reach the place where Schim and I will part company in the morning. He heads to Milan for a flight home and I through Bologna and Rimini to San Marino. Hopefully, my health will improve enough to make that walk to the station with baggage in the morning.
I think Schim has really enjoyed the trip, especially his first trip to Venice, but I think he’s ready to go home. I imagine part of that eagerness is because he has had to play nursemaid to me for part of the trip. He’s done a good job of that. I do feel bad that I haven’t felt up to par for a large portion of the trip. I recommend that anyone with arthritic knees visit Venice before the pain gets too severe. I had forgotten how many canal bridges one must cross while visiting the city. Here’s hoping for better health tomorrow as I begin the solo portion of my journey. I’m really looking forward to five days of Rest & Recuperation in Rome. What better place could there be than the “Eternal City” to regain one’s health? Tchau.
Why no updates? Where is Harry? Is he still alive? It has been a while since I updated, light years, actually, from my typical stream of words. I just checked my last update and it’s been a full week since I sat down at this keyboard. I only wish that during that vacuum I was enjoying wild parties and a social life keeping me too busy to compose an update. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. In my last update that I just re-read, I hoped that my health would improve as the solo portion of my journey began. Just the opposite occurred, sad to say. The walk to the train station in Venice over four bridges, a stroll in the park when healthy, was exhausting enough that I didn’t recover by the time I reached Rimini, doorstep to San Marino.
I struggled across the street from the train station to a tiny Albergó, like a tiny hostal with private rooms and baths. Taking a room and feeling worse by the minute, I decided to board the bus immediately to San Marino. It, fortunately, stopped right outside the door of the Albergo and I wasn’t feeling that I would be stronger in the morning. Not an enjoyable ride in my condition, with more round-a-bouts than I have ever seen in a city. So many that traffic was restricted by them, instead of made smoother. The swaying of the tour bus around the circles certainly did nothing to improve my condition or the views from the window. But, 45 minutes later, we arrived inside the limits of San Marino, the fifth smallest country in the world and #62 on my list. No exploration of the city was attempted, there being about four inches of snow on the ground and the return bus departing in 20 minutes. I took a few photos of the beautiful, surrounding, snow-covered mountains/hills, walked around the parking lot watching workers chisel ice and snow from the sidewalks, and boarded the return bus to Rimini.
Seven blocks of reconnoitering yielded only an empty Chinese restaurant as a potential dinner stop. I ate some fried rice, drank some green tea, and returned to my room where my deterioration continued. If only I could make it to Rome, where a five-night Airbnb reservation awaited and where I could recover. NOT! By the time I crawled or, more accurately, fell into bed (the bed was six inches off the floor), I had developed the stiffest neck I have ever experienced. More than stiff, this neck was painfully locked into place. Getting into and out of that bed for the next five nights was an excruciating experience and I spent most of those five days right there, in the sub-marinal sack. The pain was agonizing no matter which way I moved. It is now six days later and the pain in my neck is finally at the level of a severe stiff neck. Welcome to Rome!
I visited a clinic here, was examined for meningitis by a beautiful, young doctor, and cleared of that frightening possibility. I was given prescriptions for muscle relaxants, pain (super Tylenol), an antibiotic (the deep, stubborn, head cold/flu compounding my recovery), and drops for the conjunctivitis I had no idea I needed. Sure, my eye has been a little red in the morning, but conjunctivitis? How much for the doctor’s visit? “In Italy medical care is free,” the doctor told me in her extremely-limited English. Off I went, seeking farmacias to fill my prescriptions over rough, cobblestone streets bouncing my neck painfully with each stride. 49 euros of medications later, I retired to my room to seek relief from the drugs. Suffice it to say, and Cheryl, my reader who thrills at my medical escapades be damned, I am not having my favorite winter vacation.
On the train from Rimini, after being cornered by a conductor-Nazi for getting on the wrong train (same destination, same departure time, same track) and forced to pay a $16 up-charge for the mistake, I decided that I could be this miserable at home, snow and all. I decided to pull the plug on the remainder of the planned trip and return home. Unfortunately, there is no way that I could make the trip to the airport, board the plane, and ride ten hours in my condition. I have holed up in a tiny, plush hotel until the neck loosens up enough to take a few air-pocket bumps in the sky. Who knows how long that will take? Know that I have only seen in passing, a Roman ruin or building of note out the taxi window. Furthermore, I have no interest in seeing any more of this great city. Sleep and eat, sleep and eat, repeat until recovered. I hope that makes you happy, Cheryl.
They’re everywhere, everywhere!! Kids, I mean. I was 19 years of age before my first foreign adventure and that was courtesy of the US Army on a 19-day cruise aboard a troop transport with 5,000 other close, personal friends dressed in fatigues. My family was so poor that we didn’t have a family vehicle until I was in my early teens, so there wasn’t a whole lot of foreign travel in my family’s history, although my brother, sister, and I never realized we were poor. There was always food on the table from the family’s store, so how were we to know? Today, there are kids (young people - they all look like kids to me) everywhere! Traveling the world before they’re dry behind the ears. My grandchildren are world travelers and to list the countries in which they’ve lived or visited would approach my life’s list of countries visited.
Today and yesterday, I had breakfast with a young couple, and their adorable, one-year-old son. Yesterday in the afternoon, the little guy ran/wobbled across the small lobby into my waiting arms and I lifted him with the experience of a veteran grandfather. He could sense the love and he shared it in kind. His father is on a three-month student program in Belgium out of Utah State University and his lovely wife, who once resided in Peru, is sharing all his cultural experiences. A lovely couple and a son who is traveling at one year of age. Exchange programs, college breaks, mission projects, study abroad, wealthy parents eager for a little peace around the house - all reasons that the world has become the playground of the young. Almost all have seemed respectful and courteous in any encounter I have had with them. Almost makes one proud to have been a parent, grandparent, and educator.
My health continues to improve, but only slightly each day. I continue to take four of the five meds prescribed for me by the free clinic’s doctor, only stopping the magna Tylenol that I cannot discern having any effect on my much-reduced pain. Today, I will taxi across Rome for my second massage. The first provided such relief that I can’t pass up the second. I also had to make a 20-euro deposit to arrange the appointment, so I’ll “git ‘er done.” I have been able to manage a four or five-block walk around this block, where the pictures just posted have been taken, but I still get exhausted quickly. I have booked an inexpensive, direct flight (Norwegian Air Shuttle) from Rome to Newark, a ten-hour flight, for next Saturday. I don’t arrive until 9:30 p.m., so my wife will drive there early, book a hotel room, and wait for me to shuttle to meet her. We’ll then make the last leg of the journey home next Sunday. FEBRUARY! Home! SNOW! Something went wrong this winter, but it will be great to get back!
02/12/19 - Roma, Italia
I was quite busy the last few days for a guy who was so near death just a few days ago. For sure I felt near death, actually I spent a few moments encouraging the grim reaper to take me home when my neck was so stiff that I couldn’t move and every attempt to get in or out of bed was met with excruciating pain. Past that now, I have been able to take three or four hour trips, see some sights that held little interest for me a few days ago, and relax the rest of the day seeking full recovery before my flight home.
Saturday, feeling stronger than I had in days, I decided to walk to the Piazza Navona near where Dario was waiting to deliver my second massage. Asking distances in Europe is an exercise in gross underestimation. The very helpful desk clerk assured me it was only a mile to Piazza Navona, carefully drawing the route on a map of the city. Walking slowly and stopping for lunch on the way, I arrived in the piazza with the famous fountain after only 3.1 miles of effort. There are times when I wish that Schim had NOT installed the walking counter on my phone and this was one of them. I waited an hour for my appointment while in the Piazza, watching people while perched on a cold, marble bench with no back, then headed for Dario’s spa an hour early. Fortunately, Dario took me right away, delivered another great, though frequently painful, deep massage, and I was on my way back to the hotel. Being observant on the way there, I noticed the numbers on the buses that passed the major street near my hotel. Finding a stop with that number, I boarded a bus only to learn that I needed a ticket; the drivers took no cash. I found a kiosk right around the corner and purchased a three-day transportation pass for $18, caught the next bus, and I was safely home. Ahhhh.
Sunday, for a mid-day dinner, I headed to a familiar restaurant in Trastevere where Schim and I had dined on great spaghetti carbonara during our last visit to town. The restaurant was familiar, but I had only a faint mental picture of where it was located in Trastevere, the oldest section of Rome. After missing the stop I wanted, I decided to stay on the bus and get off on the return trip. An hour later, after a tour of neighborhoods never before seen by tourists and full of condos, apartment buildings, and sycamore-lined streets, I disembarked where I wanted and walked straight to the restaurant. Almost a miracle. Getting my money’s worth on that transportation ticket! Schim must be so proud. Great carbonara and I squeezed onto the bus (barely), with my back squashed against the front door, preventing it from opening or closing at every stop until one person squeezed through the crowd and disembarked. The bus got me home, tired, but proud of my day’s adventure.
Monday, exercising a deep-rooted memory of a show Anthony Bourdain did from the coast of Rome where once the city flourished as a major port, now almost completely ceding that role to Civitavecchia, a little farther north on the coast, I got directions from the front desk and headed to Ostia for lunch. A metro ride, a change of trains, and an hour later, I exited the station at Ostia Lido, a town with little to recommend it, although it appeared it may now have a role as a summer beach destination. Just beating a thunderstorm to the main square and ducking into the only restaurant I saw with people inside, I enjoyed the finest fried anchovies that I have ever tasted while waiting for the fried calamari that the folks at the desk had recommended as famous from that town. The appetizer of anchovies was so good that I wished I had never ordered the calamari. I ate too many anchovies to finish the calamari, so I carried a box home to share with the folks at the front desk. They were well received.
I got carried away there, describing activities I was unable to accomplish just a few days back, but they covered the past three days. I’ll be a little more Schim-like (frugal, frugal) in any additional updates. Ciao!
The weather in Rome has been very cooperative for my limited sightseeing. Two, all-day rains greeted me when I could work my way to the window with my stiff neck, but I didn’t and couldn’t do any sightseeing on those days anyway. As I recovered, the weather improved and there has only been one thunderstorm, Italian lightning and all, whose few, large drops had me ducking into a restaurant and briefly pulling the emergency rain hat out of my pocket. Otherwise, daytime temperatures have risen to between 55 and 62 degrees Fahrenheit with bright sunshine. Not Baja warm, but quite tolerable, even though morning lows have occasionally dropped into the high 30’s. With breakfast included at this delightful, small hotel and lounging over a second cup of cappuccino or cafe latte part of my morning routine, it is almost 11:00 a.m. and much warmer until I peek outside. By mid-afternoon, the temperature has warmed enough that one of my clothing layers has to be discarded until dinner time.
Since today is Thursday and my flight back to Newark on late Saturday afternoon, this will be my final update for 2019. I will probably send the last few pictures tomorrow; I know that you’ve seen enough of the Trevi Fountain, but one photo of that spectacular work of art didn’t seem to do it justice. My bad!
This year’s adventure was not as upbeat as I hope many were in the past, but feeling poorly in a foreign land had a lot to do with the tenor of my scribblings. Sorry about that. I hope that, as the snow flew and the wind blew, some of my words were interesting enough to help you survive the winter and prepare for spring. I’m certainly ready for that and I am not looking forward to winter’s remaining blasts of cold air and snow. I’m planning to add a few layers to survive. Thanks for joining me. Ciao!