Yodeling Vagabond in the Alps – Tour of Mont Blanc

Words and photos by Brian Leibold (Check out Brian’s Rules of the Road on Kindle!)
hiking in the alpsThe valley of Chamonix is set in arguably the most stunning location in Europe, with the great Mont Blanc overlooking it like a wise stern infinitely distinguished grandfather capable of making you feel lucky and inspired or low and humbled, according to his whim.

I arrived on a foggy night, and the clouds obscured the mountains.

There was a refuge called Gite Le Vagabond. This intrigued me, but the price for a cot was unfit for the vagabonds who they purported to attract, so I slept on a bench in a little hut by the train tracks on my ragged blue mat.

In the morning, the fog had cleared, and I woke up to a clear blue sky. Eyes and spirits seemingly magnetically fixed skyward, I embarked on the Tour of Mont Blanc, the TMB for short, a week long 200 kilometer hike beginning in the French Alps and continuing to the Italian and Swiss Alps.

Alps hiking adventuresSolitude if sought in the Alps can always be found, and for me it was always found in the early morning. Every morning I would wake up before six and would usually have about three hours before the rest of the (mostly elderly) hikers would start their day.

In these early hours, I would feel like the lone human viewer of the mountain musical symphony, my companions the chirping birds, the bored cows and their jangling bells, the tranquilly flowing water, the soaring snow-capped peaks, and the enigmatic forests. I would try to discern the age old whisperings of the forests and mountains.

I am inclined to walk fast, and the trees in particular were undesirous of this, I felt. They would silently express their disapproval at my quickness. What would I see walking quickly that I couldn’t see trekking slower?  This is no race, least of all a rat race. Take your time, they seemed to say. They parroted the Ents, the trees of Tolkien, warning me against hastiness.

At one point, I became hopelessly lost in the midst of a ever-thickening forest. Beginning to actually become frightened, I cursed loudly for a few minutes. But the tall trees admonished me for my blasphemous unquiet, and seemed to whisper confidentially to each other,

“Who is this brash young American vagabond who comes into our woods and expects to never get lost?”

Alps Vagabond hikingThey shook their branches at me in the wind. When I quieted down, they welcomed me back saying

“Sit under our branches for a spell and quit your cursing and worrying. You will find the road again.”

Words of Wisdom: In the mountains and the woods, trek slowly, and engage in unhurried reflection. Listen to the Ents, and hasten not back to civilization. Do not give a moment’s thought of the things that burden you in the valleys and back alleys down below.

Thoreau says “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Mark Twain, in his travels in the Alps, wisely writes that “All frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps.”

On the hike, I liked that almost every person that passed would give a friendly greeting. In the French cities, this is unheard of. But in the mountains, it is the norm. Tony Hawks remarks on this in his book A Piano in the Pyrenees when he goes for a hike saying

Alps vagabond hiking“Every person we passed offered a jovial Bonjour! Every single person. It was almost as if the moment they left the speed, noise, and fluster of the town behind and exchanged it for the freedom of the countryside, their manners had changed.”

Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that in the city, the ruck sacked are often looked down upon. What are you doing? Where are you going? Get a job. Take a shower. Button your top button. Buy a lot of stuff you don’t need, and so become normal. Stop making us feel so uncomfortable by your strangeness. There’s nothing wrong with having a job and taking showers and buttoning top buttons. Neither is there anything wrong with not doing those things.

But, in the mountains, we all have the rucksacks and the muddy boots and are alike in that we are choosing (at least for a few days) to voluntarily remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle. We are all trekking vagabonds. So the natural feeling of freedom that comes when we are removed from our burdensome obligations combined with the incredible natural beauty of the Alps allows people the ease to smile at strangers, strangers who are alike in many ways. All greet all with the joy they really feel.

The trek continued. Every day there was a peak above 2000 meters. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying than reaching a peak after an arduous and long climb. The beauty seen below is enhanced by the climb’s difficulty.

John Muir, in his observations of Yosemite says “One must labor for beauty as for bread, here and elsewhere.”

Alps hikingIt is why going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and, more especially, coming back up) is so much more satisfying than simply gazing at its grandness from the visitor center. And it is why the view after hiking to a peak in the Alps rewards the traveler more than the same view when reached with the help of the gondola.

At the top of a mountain, the golden eagle, flying towards the golden sun, provides more joy than he would lower down. You have climbed to where the birds fly high above the cowbells. The wind, though fierce, seems benign and congratulatory, like it is applauding you somehow in all its frantic activity. The green unperishing ageless, yet at the same time youthful, hills with innumerable knotty roughened toughened trees and the tranquil Edelweiss flowers high up in the rocky soil soaked by the sun seem also to congratulate you. You have done well, they say, and you have not been hasty. Now, look out and see what we see, and be calm, as we are. And the snow-capped craggy Teton-esque mountains, inimitably eminent on their natural thrones, appear more inviting that they do imposing, as if they are responsive and open to you now that you have worked so hard climbing higher to meet them. They are still unknowable and silent and all knowing and unviolent, but in your proximity to them, you feel closer to unlocking their brooding mysteries.

As you descend, this feeling begins to fade, and as you reach the valley of Chamonix again, you look back up and feel small and unimportant and, well, human. You feel like what you are. But you look with pride back up at the mountains, remembering how you felt and knowing you can feel like that in the future. You feel that thirsting unquenchable desire to rise up high in the sky above the clouds. So, again, you climb.

Illegal pictures in the Cistine Chapel

illegal pictures in the Cistine Chapel

Illegal pictures in the Cistine Chapel

“No pictures, no cameras.” The guards shouted and threatened but everyone ignored them as we all crowded into the Vatican’s Cistine Chapel to see Adam and God making a pinky kiss with their fingers. Michelangelo’s masterpiece…how could we not take pictures? I took a few, but I was more interested in the anarchy of the photo taking…what horribly unruly creatures God hath created…

Doing Rome on the Cheap and on the Fly

Doing Rome on the Cheap and on the Fly

Rome on the CheapAfter visiting Paris in 2 days, Amsterdam in 1 day, Washington DC in a weekend, I’ve now seen Rome in 3 days. And I’ve learned some new lessons about traveling. You can do Rome on the cheap. First, when you take a quick 3-day vacation to see a city, you should have three goals.

1. See as much as you can.

2. Don’t break the bank. Nothing replenishes your stress faster than being broke.

3. Don’t get exhausted. Remember, this is a vacation. You don’t want to be so tired you need to go on another siesta when you get back to work.

Also, you need to have enough money to get home from the airport when you return. Here are some tips to help you enjoy experiencing Rome, Italy no matter how small your wallet or how tight your time frame.

Forego Hostels in Rome:For lodging, you want cleanliness and security so you don’t have to carry and worry about your valuables all throughout the day. You get more than that from La Casa per Ferie Preziossisimo Sangue. Each room (Single, double, triple or quadruple) has its own bathroom, and the card key locks are the electronic sort. The place is run with the attention to detail of a hotel, complete with bed turndown, housekeeping, little shampoos, towels, soap and climate control in each room. There is a continental breakfast in the morning. The nuns are friendly and genuinely interested in why different travelers sojourn to Rome. Their religious spirituality appears to fuel their passion to provide a place of true respite each person’s journey. I have to say, this is one of the nicest hotel experiences I have ever had. The shower (Complete with hot water and great water pressure) was better than mine at home. There is Wifi and a television as well. There is a curfew of 12am, but after walking around Rome all day, you’ll be more than glad to retire here! Prices range from 35 Euros to 52 Euros per night, depending on the “High” or “Low” tourist season.

Food: When it comes to food and drink in Rome, resist the urge to hunt down the “Best (Insert food item here)”. Instead, make Borgo Pio, a side street close to the Vatican Museum, the main stop in your dining experience. Yes, the restaurants are for tourists, but they’re for Italian tourists and a quality 10 Euro authentic Italian meal is easily available until 11pm. The warm air, the Italian cappuccino, the quintessential romantic Italian waiter, yes it’s all worth it!

Transportation: For city-wide travel, don’t waste time learning a new Subway system. Instead, pay E17 for a 2-day See Rome bus tour. The bus runs a circuit around 9 tourist destinations in Rome every 20 minutes, so you don’t have to tire yourself out by walking in the heat. Spend as much time as you want at each general locale with no annoying tour guide to drag you everywhere. Stops include the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, the Coliseum and Rome Termini train station. If you do want a little more information about the places you see, the bus offers headphones and a tour recording in a number of languages. Take pictures from the open-air rooftop seats and enjoy the breeze as you watch pedestrians swelter!

For snacks in the heat, never pay over 2 Euros for gelato, or over 1 Euro for bottled water. Walk 2 blocks from any tourist attraction and the price of both immediately goes down. Or go native, and fill your water bottle up at the freshwater fountains.

Sightseeing for Free: If you don’t want to pay the entry fee, instead of seeing the Coliseum from the inside (a time-consuming 2 hour hike through old ruins to the site), behold its majesty on the outside. You can still touch it, snap pictures of it and walk around the entire edifice. However, you can do it in 45 minutes, and the bus drops you off at the immediate location. No long treks, and plenty of time to enjoy a drink.

Instead of paying to see the Sistine Chapel (Which has pretty much lost its “Sacred” appeal thanks to the throngs of tourists), try St. Peter’s Square at night. The soft glow of lights from the Vatican create a beautiful picture, and in the center of Rome it is safe to let the atmosphere enchant you during an evening walk.

You can’t take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, but you can take photographs in St. Peter’s Basilica. The church in St. Peter’s Square is filled with breathtaking paintings to rival even – yes, the Sistine Chapel. It is free to enter, and you have to be respectful of the religious setting, but if you arrive at 9am, you miss the crushing crowds.

Rome doesn’t need to break your bank or your back. It will definitely break your heart to leave.

Caravaggio – Bergamo Revisited – Airport Refugees

One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.

Bergamo airportSmall airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.

Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!

A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.

And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –

There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.

Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:

Airport renaissance

Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.

An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.

caravaggio

And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.

 

Bologna, Italy – Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

Bologna Italy Catholic Pilgrimmage

I should begin by making it clear that I’m not a Catholic. I believe in the God that makes it possible for me to worship with all of the people of the world, so when I found out that there was a famous pilgrimage in Bologna, Italy I determined to make the pilgrimmage since I was already in Bologna as a guest of Emilia-Romagna Tourism.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is a destination for pilgrims from all over the world and while I was in Bologna primarily to worship the food and architecture, I decided to make the trek to the magnificent sanctuary which sits atop the Guardia Hill and serves as the most prominent landmark in the beautiful city of Bologna.

Here is a complete list of  Hotels in Bologna, Italy – because even pilgrims need a place to sleep! (Complete and up to date reviews and pricing)

Bologna is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is ‘the people’s umbrella’ which consists of more than 53 kilometers of covered walkways which developed from the medieval habit of extending the first floor of houses out over the sidewalk. The extensions were then supported with wooden beams and stone – and eventually, they became public space within the city. The result is that people in Bologna need not carry an umbrella even in the most violent downpour because they can get just about everywhere without stepping out from under the porticos. While there are many famous portico walks, the longest of them is the trek to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

This amazingly long and uninterrupted portico stretches from Porto Saragozza where you will find the Museum of the Beata Virgine di San Luca. The towers and crenalated porticos which house the museum dates back to the 13th century but had famous design work done on it by the noted 19th century architect Giuseppe Mengoni.

Virgin of Saint LukeFrom Porto Saragozza pilgrims remove their shoes and begin the 3,796 meter (about 2 1/2 miles) climb up the longest uninterrupted portico in the world.  The portico has been in place since 1433 and each year the famous artifact, which is a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and Child, is carried in procession from the Sanctuary, down the hill, and then back up. The porticos were designed by Gian Giacomo Monti and later continued by Carlo Franceso Dotti and others. The section completed by Dotti is perhaps the most amazing in terms of architectural values as it utilizes a huge number of perspectives and vanishing points which enhance the feeling of awe as the pilgrims climb the steepest sections.

While I wasn’t there for the procession, there were still hundreds of pilgrims marching shoeless up the hill and stopping along the way to say prayers, make signs of the cross, and in some cases weep. There were Malaysian nuns, South American groups, American devotees, and Chinese catholics marching and chanting side by side.

The reason is that Byzantine portrait which is said to be the work of the famous evangelist St. Luke, author of the Gospel of St. Luke in the new testament. Interestingly, he is credited as being the first to paint icons of the Virgin and Child. The effigy is the patron saint of Bologna. Upon reaching the top, the Sanctuary opens up in a wonderous display of outdoor Baroque architecture that is both beautiful and adds to the sense of wonder before entering the sanctuary.

I arrived, with the pilgrims just before Mass was to begin. As I said, I’m not Catholic, but when I saw nuns tuning up guitars and felt the hushed electricity of the pilgrims as they began to sit, I decided to stay for Catholic Mass, which was a first for me. I can hardly imagine a more serene or exciting setting and while I didn’t understand the words, I felt the tears of the old Italian couple next to me and afterwards joined the true believers as they wound through the sanctuary to come for a closer look at the Madonna and Child.

The sanctuary itself was also re-designed and enlarged by Dotti and carries a very solemn and profound energy. I found it very interesting to be in Italy, looking at a painting brought from Constantinople (Istanbul) a thousand years before listening to prayers in a language that wasn’t my own after traversing 666 arches (how odd they should use that number) to reach it with hundreds of barefoot pilgrims.

I offered my prayers to God asking that my own wife and child be kept safe while I was away from them and stepped out to enjoy the beautiful walk back down into Bologna – I was fortunate in that on the day of my pilgrimage, the sun was shining brightly.

Bergamo – Italian City of Festivals

Bergamo, Italy is a rich tapestry of trade roads, history, art, and incredible festivals. The city, home to the artist Caravaggio (who not surprisingly is honored in a festival each Autumn) and the furthest outpost of Venice’s once mighty domain sits at the base of the Alps and historically served as a way point for goods from the Adriatic on their way to central Europe, Milan, and thence to Western Europe.

Festivals of BergamoWith it’s mighty symbol of trade, the Sentierone, it’s natural that this city should still function as a trading crossroads for not only Europe but for the world. And, as a bonus – some wonderful festivals come with that.

The locals will tell you that the city’s flag colors were chosen because of the dish for which the city is well known. Polenta. Made from stone ground Maize and cooked in copper pots you can find it everywhere. The flag – the golden yellow and the red (to represent wine, of course) – the flag flies above every festival the city hosts.

The festivals are remarkable in their diversity. From the late October Cortopotere Short Film Festival which has been running for 12 years now and brings film makers from all around the world to the nearly decade old Bergamoscienza Festival which has talks, workshops, shows, and round table discussions with Nobel Prize winners.

Bergamo flower festivalThe City of Bergamo International Organ Festival is concerned with the instrument housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and brings some of the greatest organ talent in the world to showcase this amazing instrument. Another festival centered around instruments is the Alfredo Piatti International Cello Festival which offers concerts from well known Cellists for the public.

The International Early Music Festival is another festival dedicated to the Organ – this time with the works of Bach. And of course there is the Bergamo International Jazz Festival.

The Gaetano Donizetti Music Festival of Bergamo takes place at the Donizetti Theatre and is a world renowned Opera festival. The Gianni and Fausto Rdici Trophy is an event that combines music and another great love of Bergamo – skiing!

Festival of Bergamo MusicThe Bergamo International marathon takes place each September and brings runners from around the globe to compete on the incredibly scenic course. The Valgoglio Vertical is a high altitude race through the Alps!

Alta Quota which means high altitude is a trade fair which is all about the mountains – literally. The Fiera Campionaria is a traditional trade fair which goes back more than three decades and brings ever growing numbers of visitors to the city. It’s not to be confused with the Mercantanti in Fiera international food market/trade fair which has been going strong for ten years and allows Bergamask to enjoy food from all over the world. Every continent (except Antarctica) was represented.

Villages, Castles, and Palaces in Celebration is a festival which highlights the many beautiful places in the Bergamo province and offers gastonomic, musical, and visual delights for attendees. Another festival honors the beatification of Pope John XXIII with fireworks, religious icons, music, worship, and more.

On a different note is the Presente Prossimo Festival Dei Narratori Italiani which is an Italian Presenters Festival in the Serio Valley that included writers workshops, a writing conference, and of course, lots of presenting.

Bergamo food and wine festivalThose who love wine will find plenty of wine festivals in Bergamo from the “International Competition Emotions from the World: Merlot and Cabernet Together” to the Polenta Tragna Feast which always has plenty of wine and the traditional Bergamask meal.

And a furniture and furnishing accessories trade fair is held each November as well.

One thing is certain – if you go to Bergamo – you are almost certain to find at least one festival going on and don’t be surprised if you find many!

 

Ferrara, Italy – From Castello Estense to Cappellacci di Zucca

Ferrara, ItalyFerrara, Italy is well off the beaten path of most visitor’s travel plans when they come to Italy – and that contributes to exactly why you should take the time to stop in this charming cobble-stoned Northern Italian town.

More than just having the chance to enjoy a medieval Gothic town including a rather beautiful duomo (cathedral) and plenty of delicious cuisine – the big draw to Ferrara is being able to explore the massive Castello Estense which sits, surrounded by a story book moat with drawbridge, right in the center of this charming little town.

Ferrara owes it’s charms to the architect Biaggio Rosetti and his patron, Ercole d’Este who was forward thinking enough to hire him and ask that he fuse the old and the new into Italy’s first modern town. Ferrara is a UNESCO world heritage city.

For those who are interested in history or famous persons (or who enjoy watching the series The Borgias) the son of Ercole d’Este was Alfonso, the final husband of Lucretzia Borgia. Lucretzia is actually buried in Ferrara.

Castello Estense was built first in 1384 and then later modernized during the reigns of Ercole and Alfonso.  Modernization continued until the 19th century – but because of the size and effectiveness of the initial design, the castle remains a wonderful example of Renaissance architecture with elements of the Gothic and Medeivil.

Within the castle, much is as you would expect, massive kitchens, dungeons, hidden twisted passages – but there are a few gems hidden away.   For example, one doesn’t expect to find an orange grove on the roof of a tower – but here there is one.

Castello d'EstenseThe Ducal Chapel is equally surprising, not for it’s ornamentation, but rather for it’s lack of frescoes and decoration which is easily contrasted with the rich frescoes and ornamentation of the Chamber of Dawn just a bit further.  The surprise here are the massive mirrors which haven’t been added so tourists can see the ceilings easier, they were a part of the original design! In fact, this room (and the two following) were known as The Mirror Suite. Slightly further on the nude Greek figures wrestling on the ceiling are the defining feature of the Hall of Games.

View from Italian CastleWhile there is much more, the truth is that exploring this castle needs to be done in leisure and in person for maximum enjoyment. Once you’ve done that, my suggestion is that you head out into Ferrara, hire a bicycle, and then dig into the local culinary specialty cappellacci di zucca which is  a round pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with al burro e salvia – or butter and sage.

One thing is for certain, you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Ferrara, Italy.

 

Travelling in Turkey – More Greek and Roman Ruins than Italy and Greece!

Again, not a lot of time to write, but we are having a wonderful time in Turkey. From cruising the Bosporus to marveling at the Iskander Kebap in Bursa, this trip has been filed with adventures stretching across the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, and soon the Aegean Sea, and of course a bit of the Mediterranean Sea too.

I’ll be writing about all of our adventures when I have some time to put things together and pick the best photos. In the meantime, here is a small piece I’ve put together on this amazing land we are trekking across by ferry, bus, taxi, and more.

turkey is surrounded by 4 seas
Turkey is surrounded by seas and littered with ancient civilizations.

As a guy who loves the ocean, I can hardly imagine a place that offers more variety than Turkey. While very different from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hawaii; Turkey is filled with more Greek and Roman ruins than Greece and Italy and is surrounded by four seas and several straits.

The Black Sea which the Turkish people call Karadeniz borders the northern part of Turkey. It’s an inland sea that takes up more than 420,000 kilometers. Geologists say it was formed when Asia crashed into Europe and opened up the Bosporus Strait and flooded an inland plain. It is about 2200 feet deep in places and is warm in the summer and extremely cold during the winter. It is fed by many rivers and empties into the Bosporus. While no one seems to be certain why it is called the Black Sea some say it is because of the dangers that exist in it and others that it is because of the deep dark waters. It is the youngest sea on earth and is kept saline through inflows from the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
There\’s no shortage of beaches in Turkey

The Sea of Marmara which Turkish people call Denizi is a small inland sea connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorus Strait. The Marmara Sea’s name comes from the Greek work for marble (marmar) and is about 11,000 square kilometers. It is relatively small being only 280 by 80 kilometers at its widest points. It is filled with many islands. To the south the Dardanelles Strait connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
There is plenty to do in the seas of Turkey.

Turkish people call it Ege Denizi, but in English it is known as the Aegean Sea. Legend says that it was named for a famous drowning but whether that was Queen Aegea of the Amazon or Aegeus, the father of Thesius isn’t totally clear. It’s waters however, are very clear and while it is only 214,000 square kilometers and often included as a part of the Mediterainean, it has over 3000 islands within it including Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos. It sits between Turkey and Greece. It’s shores were home to Trojans, Mycenaean, Persians, Minoans, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and many others. You can’t take a step without stepping on ancient stories and history.

Sea of Marmara, Black Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterreanean Sea
It really is as gorgeous as you can imagine in Turkey

And finally, there is the mighty Mediterranean Sea. Bridging the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe and the many countries that exist on it’s shores. It fills the area between The straits of Gibraltar in the West which lead to the Atlantic Ocean and the Suez Canal in the East which connect it to the Red Sea. The Turkish name for the Med is Akdeniz which means White Sea. Mediterranean actually comes closer to meaning Middle Earth in Latin. That explains all the hobbits. Despite the Latin origins of the name, the Romans called it Mare Nostrum- Our Sea.
The Mediterranean is nearly 2.5 million square kilometers. Just about everyone you read about in ancient history class lived on its shores. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Lycians, Arabs, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and all those Europeans during the Renaissance. That’s because it has a massive 46,000 kilometer long coastline that is shared by Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece,Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco.

Lake Como, Italy – A Beautiful Daytrip from Bergamo or Milan

There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.

Lake ComoWhile Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.

Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.

Lake Como SwansTo come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.

 

Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.

Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.

Lake Como gardens and villasComo was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como VillasLake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.

Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.

A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.

If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!

Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have:

Mark Twain who writes about Lake Como extensively in The Innocents Abroad. Ernest Hemingway used the Lake as a setting in A Farewell to Arms when his character Lieutenant Henry talks about taking a vacation to Lake Como. Victor Frankenstein married Elizabeth in the vicinity of Lake Como in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley anLake Como Parkd Fyodor Dostoevsky mentions Lake Como in his novel Notes from Underground.

In addition there is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which has Maria Ruskin escape from New York to Lake Como and The Poems and Fragments of Catallus, In Praise of Como, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed , The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, August Strindberg’s magnum opus play Miss Julie, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, and Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon’s novel Madame Solario. There are certainly many more – and did I mention it’s also Naboo?

One thing for certain. It’s a beautiful and relaxing place and I look forward to returning.

 

Photo Essay: Bird Watching on Italy’s Po River

Seeing flamingos in the wildDuring my time in the Emiliga Romana region a few months ago, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a bird watching tour on the Po River. With more than 350 species of birds having been sighted in the Po River Region, this is a territory that at first glance looks unvaried, but is actually quite surprising richness.

Indeed, the agricultural landscapes vary much more than the human eye can see. Birds can profit from this, finding what they need to feed themselves and, in some cases, to breed.

This is one of the best places in the world to watch herons, kites, kestrals, and of course, flamingos. I didn’t have the fancy bird-watching camera that many of the other passengers on the boat had, but I still managed to catch some images that I hope show how nice the day was.

In particular, there was a large group of senior citizens from Belgium who are part of an RV camping club, these folks with tattoos and piercings on wrinkled old arms are exactly the type of old person I hope to someday be.

While it was exciting to see the Peregrine Falcon, a red-footed falcon and the lesser kestrels, the highlight for me was just being on the water and seeing this unique landscape filled with pink flamingos!

In addition, the French speaking tour guide pointed out some fish smuggling camps. An interesting note was that there are always two doors in the smuggler cabins so that when they see the patrols coming they can run out the back and escape in their long fishing boats.

I’m very grateful to Emilia Romagna Tourism for setting up this trip.

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Sheet Music & Toilet Seat Art – 13 of Bologna’s Offbeat Museums

A visit to Bologna, Italy is usually characterized by great food, exploring the wonderful architecture, perhaps doing the Portico walks, checking out the tall towers, and perhaps enjoying music, art, or cinema at Bologna’s many festivals.

Offbeat Art in BolognaHidden in the midst of all of that, are several wonderful offbeat museums that are definitely worth your time.  First of all, near the train station and slightly away from the center is a museum filled with works that just about no one thinks of when they go to Bologna – Modern Art.

The Museum of Art Moderne Bologna or MAMBO is bursting with treasures both inside and outside. The Museum covers Italian Art from World War II to the present.

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna opened in 1975 in the spaces specially designed by artist and architect Leone Pancaldi; it was born in the atmosphere of intellectual fervor that pervaded the city at the beginning of the Sixties. Before GAM’s opening, more than a decade of events, exhibitions and competitions had taken place in hope of its construction, culminating in the opening activities joint under the title “A museum today.”

Inside you’ll find a wide array of rotating exhibits and a wonderful permanent collection that ranges through such an eclectic mix as tribute to New York break dancing videos to Toilet Seat art (which, by the way, the security seems a little uptight about – when I began lifting the lids to see the symbols painted under them, a very upset guard began yelling at me in Italian and then followed me the rest of the way through the museum – my contention is that there was art under the seats, so obviously the artist intended it to be seen!) Due to the close scrutiny, I was unable to take a photo of this wonderful toilet seat display.  Shit!!

Mambo museum in Bologna
A shot of the wonderful Marcel Boadthaers at MAMbo in Bologna, Italy

When I visited there was an immensely interesting  Marcel Broodthaers  temporary exhibit which highlighted his artistic path and how it developed over the course of an extraordinary career that lasted just 12 years, from 1964 to 1976. Titled, Marcel Broodthaers. L’espace de l’écriture, the exhibition was extraordinary.

Another Bologna Museum that I found to be well worth my time was the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca Della Musica (International Museum and Library of Music). While this was a small museum, for music lovers it is a must see.  Tucked away inside the 16th century Palazzo Sanguinetti, this museum was designed to hold the musical objects of the city of Bologna, but quickly grew to become an international library for sheet music! With wonderful murals, a delightful old curator, and plenty of old instruments – you won’t be sorry if you pay a visit.

Offbeat Art in BolognaThe frescoes alone are worth the price of admission as they are meticulously restored 18th century examples of Neo-Classical and Napoleanic art that are unlike just about anything else in the city.

Here is a blurb from the museum’s website:

The first and most important intent was to bring awareness to the greater public of the rich variety of musical heritage that the Comune di Bologna owns and has kept for a long time. Until now, much of this heritage remained confined in warehouses for various reasons – the first and foremost being the lack of adequate space – and was only brought out occasionally for temporary expositions.

The museum’s core musical collections were created by Franciscan Father, Giovanni Battista Martini in the 1700’s who was not only a great scholar and collector but also the teacher of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. In addition to enriching his library day after day, gathering manuscripts and musical works of various kinds, Padre Martini collected portraits of musicians.

Offbeat Art in BolognaFor me, the most fun was to see the instruments: lutes, flutes by Manfredo Settala from 1650, the pochette, various little violin, the ghironde, the serpentoni, the extraordinary series of horns and cornets from the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally, the tiorba, which is in the shape of a khitára.

So, as you can see – Bologna offers much more than just food and architecture. Here are a few more museums you may want to explore while you are in the heart of good living.

1) The Tapestry Museum in Villa Spada
2) The Leccaro Collection of Modern Art
3) The Herb Museum
4) Missionary Museum of Chinese Art
5) Civic Medieval Museum
6) Museum of Comparative Anatomy
7) The Toy Soldier Museum
8) Resistance Movement Museum
9) Industrial Heritage Museum
10) The Communications Museum
11) The Museum of Bee Keeping

If those thirteen museums aren’t enough for you, there are about fifty more within the center of Bologna and that ought to keep you busy!

 

Northern Italy Sky

Northern Italy Sky

Northern Italy Sky

I’ve been many places but there are few that have the same kind of sky as Northern Italy. There is something truly magnificent and magic about the color and the texture of the sky there. My photo can’t describe it but if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean.

Sophia Loren and the Eels of Comacchio

Comachio EelsLegend has it that at the height off her career, Sophia Loren became fascinated with eels and asked that they be incorporated into one of  her films. The most beautiful woman in the world, the greatest actress of her era – and she was asking to co-star with slimy electric tubes that have the capacity to creep most people out…what in the world was happening here? And what the heck was so special about eels?

Sophia Loren wasn’t the only one to wonder this. Sigmund Freud spent an entire summer slicing eels apart to find their sex organs – he didn’t succeed. In fact, to this day, the sexual life of eels remains a mystery and the place where it takes place, Mexico’s deep Sargasso Sea still holds the mysteries – but one thing is certain – such is the power of the eels urge to reproduce that it drives them from the far points on the globe – places like Iceland, Turkey, and the small Italian town of Comaccio which sits on a lagoon where the Po River meets the Adriatic Sea.

The lifecycle of the eels is, frankly, rather astounding. The females lay a couple of million eggs which hatch into little leaf-like things and then drift across the Atlantic before growing into tiny ‘glass eels’ – these then continue to the place where their genes come from where they grow for several years before heading back across the Atlantic to the big eel orgy at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea.

But there is more to the eel than that – they are one of the few creatures in the world that can effortlessly move from salt water to fresh water, they produce an electric current which they use to hunt their prey, they are fairly long lived with lifespans of up to 85 years but they die after spawning. They are also very tasty and around the world they are said to offer some incredible benefits to those who eat them. For example, drinking wine that has been infused with eel skin is said to cure alcoholism, eating the heads (or any other parts) is said to create massive sexual desire and health, and more.

Comachio EelsBut, back to Sophia Loren. While she didn’t talk about the eels in her memoirs, what we do know is that in 1954 she played a worker in an eel factory in the film La Donna del Fiume – or the Woman of the River. The film was set in Comaccio and shows Sophia at the height of her beauty proudly displaying her armpit hair and a can of pickled eels.

As to Comaccio itself, this beautiful Italian town is worth more than a short visit. The best way to see Comaccio is by bicycle – don’t  be surprised when you find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally wandered into Venice. The city is composed of thirteen different islets which are surrounded by canals, ponds, and the Po River Delta. All the this is connected together by a series of beautiful bike paths, hiking trails, and even a couple of great Italian Gelato shops. Bikes are available from the tourism authority.

Comacchio is one of those wonderful gems that you don’t find much about in the guidebooks, you don’t see a lot of travel writers writing about, and as a result – a holiday in Italy becomes much more affordable, less crowded, and interesting when you go there.

The city is located in the Emilia-Romagna region and is roughly half way between Venice and Bologna. In fact, in it’s history, the city was once a main rival for the salt trade with Venice and has shifted from independent to subject city of Ferrara and Venice both. Today, the salt ponds still exist and the city has a couple of tourist draws – bird watching in the Po River Delta has become a big business and visitors flock there (sorry for the pun) all summer to see flamingos, cormorants, falcons, and more in a beautifully preserved estuary environment.

In addition, you can visit the eel canning factory and museum. While it may not sound all that interesting, in truth, it is and you will find out more about the eels, their migration, their importance to Comacchio, and see the every interesting specialized tools the local population used to farm and harvest them. In addition, you can eat them and drink some very nice local wine here as well. Plus, they have a theater thComachio Eelsat shows the Lady of the River in a constant cycle.

There is much to do in Comacchio – from shipwrecks recovered from the lagoons to the massive nature reserve to strolling through this UNESCO world heritage city center – you won’t get bored. If you do, you can head to some of the nearby beaches, ride horses, or take a boat ride through the canals in a Gondola for much less than you have to pay in Venice.

The eel pickling museum has 12 working fireplaces where from October to December you can eat the eels just the way the locals always have. Heads removed and roasted on spits. Maybe you can figure out the secret of the eels, but one thing for sure, you will find them delicious.

If you want to eat fresh eels in Comacchio, you will have to get them in autumn or winter but the pickled variety are available year round. If you want them to costar with you in a film – La Donna del Fiume is due for a remake – right Hollywood?

5 Ways to Experience Florence like a True Florentine

Florence, Italy is the birthplace of the Renaissance: with over 70 museums and over 60 churches there is so much to see in a limited about of time and you should see as much as humanly possible. But amidst your museum hopping take some time to live like the locals do and enjoy il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). Take in all the city has to offer with the top five ways to make the most of your time in Florence.

Florence, Italy1.Move Away from the Tourist Traps

When it comes to Italian food and dining options, convenience and location are top priorities for site seers & Florentines know that. Top tourist destinations like the Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria are lined with quick and tasty dining options but they’re often more expensive and less authentic. Wander over a few streets and you’re sure to find a quaint trattoria or osteria that will not only be less crowded but also less expensive.

2.Make it to the Market

The San Lorenzo Market is a must-see for anyone seeking a true Florentine experience. Lined with vendors selling everything from scarves to produce, the market is where you’ll get a true feel for Florentine lifestyle. The market is also a great place to interact with the locals and pick up any souvenir you could possibly imagine.

3.Check out the View from the Top

Winding through the narrow streets it’s often difficult to fully comprehend the beauty of the city that surrounds you. The Boboli Gardens in the Pitti Palace, and the Bardini Gardens have great views of the city but perhaps the best view of all of Florence comes from Piazzale Michelangelo. This small piazza is at the top of a hill and provides a picturesque look of Florence at sunrise and sunset. In the heart of the city, you can climb to the top of the Duomo or the Campanile for another great perspective.

4.Save Room for Gelato
No trip to Florence is complete without indulging in gelato, multiple times a day. When looking for an authentic gelateria, pay attention to the color of the gelato. Flavors should resemble the actual fruit they come from. That means banana should be slightly grayish and pistachio should be a pale green, not florescent.

5.People Watch

A favorite passtime of Italians, people watching is an enjoyable way to not only truly experience Florence but also way to give your feet a break from pounding on the cobblestone streets. Find a bench in a busy piazza and take in all of the families, fashion, and tourists that wander by. Side note: Piazza della Signoria is my favorite place to people watch!

 

Five Free Things To Do In Venice

For anyone heading to Italy, Venice will probably be one of the first destinations that you aim for. A historical maritime trading republic cloaked (literally) in golden opulence, Venice’s “golden age” in the late middle ages and early modern period left it endowed with a unique legacy of neo-classical bronze artwork and architecture. It is this legacy that still continues to astound millions on a yearly basis. 

Unfortunately, this attractive wealth and prestige means that Venice can end up as a very expensive place to visit for the uninformed. However, you don’t necessarily need the bank balance of a Doge to enjoy the city if you know what you are looking for. Here are five of the best Venetian attractions that are absolutely free to visit and explore.

Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia

Venice Italy
One of the lesser known parts of Venice, the historical Jewish ghetto still forms the hub of Orthodox culture in the city. Exclusively home to Venice’s Semitic population between 1516 and 1797, the series of enclosed squares offers an authentic look at the traditional Venice that many feel has been lost in some of the more “touristy” areas. The five synagogues are well worth visiting, and Kosher restaurants abound for those so inclined. Please remain respectful while visiting; the area is still very much an active neighborhood, and the Shabbat (Friday evening and most of Saturday) is almost universally observed.

 

Basilica di San Marco

Although many churches in Venice increasingly charge for entry, the iconic early twelfth century St. Mark’s Basilica remains completely free to visit. The spectacular Italo-Byzantine façade and soaring, elaborate exterior arches mark out the cathedral as one of the finest examples of classic Catholic architecture in existence. Inside and outside, the famous golden mosaics, latticework and painted domes provide visitors with a glimpse into a world of beautiful religious artifacts and artwork. Please keep in mind cultural concerns, in that you must be what the Catholic church considers “dressed respectably” to visit. Bare shoulders or limbs (above the cuff or lower leg) are generally forbidden for religious reasons.

Rialto Bridge

rialto bridge venice
A trip to this iconic building should be added to every traveler’s list of necessities (amongst travel insurance and so on.) The symmetrical white clad stone structure is instantly recognisable, and is considered one of Italy’s finest examples of late renaissance design. Built in 1591 to bridge the districts of San Marco and San Polo, the Ponte di Rialto gives (and contributes to) fantastic views of the heavily trafficked, world famous Grand Canal.

San Giorgio Maggiore

This small, unassuming island lagoon houses some of Venice’s best known landmarks. The seventeenth century church gives the island its name, and the striking marble façade is well worth seeing. It is also worth making time to take a good look at St. Mark’s Campanile. One of the defining symbols of Venice, the bell tower and clock mechanism are available for viewing if you pre-book a guided tour.

La Zecca (The Mint)

venice italy
The historical mint of Venice may not immediately strike you, but it is one of Venice’s best kept secrets. The mint served from the sixteenth century as Venice’s main source of currency, and the elaborate, rich decoration that remains in place is reflective of that former status. Often home to special exhibitions, the building now houses most of the main reading rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

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