Book Review: A Month of Italy – Rediscovering the Art of Vacation

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by author Chris Brady’s publiscist. They were starting a publicity campaign for Chris’s new book A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation and they wanted to buy ad space on Vagobond.  I asked the publicist, Doug, if he would send me over a copy of the book so I could make sure it was something I could feel good about recommending. I also offered to do a review on the condition that it be honest and unbiased.

Rediscovering the Art of VacationAt the time, I was getting ready for a trip of my own to Italy, then to Malta, San Marino, and Spain – so I didn’t have much time to sit and read it, but after going through the book on the fly and finding myself chuckling already – I figured this was just the kind of thing Vagobond readers would want to check out and agreed to the ad. As for me, I planned on giving the book a read while I was traveling in Italy. I told them that I would be more than happy to write a review of the book once I’d finished reading it – in my life though- finding the time to write a review isn’t easy and several months later – here it finally is.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book. From the beginning as Chris tries to trick his wife into taking a month long trip to Italy (only to discover that she is already way ahead of him) and then all the way through as this family man learns what it means to really dive into a country, it’s culture, it’s people, and it’s food – all while navigating the perils of bringing your entire family along for the ride.

And yet, there is much more to this book than the adventures and misadventures of an American family in Italy – instead, this book is about finding the balance in our lives between work and play – it is about the importance of taking the time to really live – and it is filled with powerful messages that every stressed out CEO or entrepreneur needs to read.  The reason? Because life is sometimes meant to be fun and sometimes it is meant to be downright silly.

Brady captures that, in particular with his take-aways and take-homes at the end of each chapter. A Month of Italy: Rediscovering the Art of Vacation offers much more than just family vacation advice though.  For example:

If there were anything I learned from a tourist’s standpoint on this trip, it was that the best touring is done in the spaces in between. Sure Florence and Rome had been great, but much more enjoyable to me were the deserted country roads, the old men playing cards under an umbrella in a little nameless town, the forgotten spaces between the bustle. It was a metaphor for life, I was realizing. We tend to focus on the main goals, the biggest objectives: the crowded spaces. But life is perhaps lived best in the spaces in between.

The thing that most captured me as I read was the sense of how it made me feel good about the life I lead and the choices I’ve made. Chris is a hard working guy – like me. I spend a huge amount of time writing, editing, working on projects, and building a future for my wife, our daughter, and me. The thing is though, I always make sure to take the time to enjoy life too. Chris pointed out at one point that the average working American father spends an average of 37 seconds a day with their kids!!!! What?

Ultimately, this book is about Italy and more. It’s about Tuscany, food, culture, and the misadventures of travel – but, beneath the surface, this book is about the choices we make in our lives. It is about how to be more effective in our work, more loving in our families, and how to enjoy the art of our lives – both on vacation and at home.

At the core of the book is this idea of how American workaholics take one week in Italy and try to see all of it. Even a vacation is a stressed out event as they rush from one sight to the next to the next to the next. The Brady family takes a month and discovers that they have fallen into the same trap – but then, miraculously, they escape it.

While I’m not a fan of the whole traveler vs. tourist debate -which this book certainly delves into, though not as overtly as others, I do think the lessons of this book are worth sharing and worth enjoying. There is certainly something to be said for enlightened tourism  and while I don’t think that those who have traveled a lot are going to learn major lessons about how to travel from this book, I do think that the average working guy who takes his family on a trip now and then (or is planning to) will benefit from reading this. And, as I pointed out above, there are plenty of lessons about balancing work and joy – for those of us who travel for work, this might be of even more importance.

As to the rest – it’s an enjoyable story about traveling in Italy and it offers some funny stories, beautiful descriptions, and some inspiring moments. It’s a very good book and I recommend that you read it.

To find out more about the book, about Chris Brady, and about Italy – head over to A Month of Italy where you can see photos, read more reviews, check out some of the videos, and more or if you just want to grab a copy of the book and start reading, you can get that here.

My Favorite Travel Adventures of 2011 – Flashback to A Wonderful Year of Travel

2011 was a great year for me in terms of travel, family, and work. While this was yet another year that I didn’t make it home to Hawaii or the USA, it was certainly a busy year. While there were a huge number of experiences to choose from, here are my top ten favorite adventures that came from this incredible year. I’m hoping that the coming year 2021, will be another one to remember.

volos1) Sailing in Greece was the highlight of my year. The food, the boat, the swimming. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

 

 

 

travel in Turkey 2) Camel Wrestling in Selcuk, Turkey was one of those oddities that while not being the coolest thing of the year, was certainly one that will never leave me.

 

 

 

korean ceremony 3) Jingabongs in South Korea are my favorite discovery of 2011. Who knew that Korean bathhouses would be so awesome?

 

 

 

DMZ trip 4) Hitching to the DMZ and seeing North Korea for the first time was one of those adventures that I used to read about and dream of doing.

 

 

 

Paris street 5) Whiskey in Montmarte, Paris. Can there really be much better than carousing with strangers, drinking whiskey in the streets, and finding great hole in the wall jazz bars? Only if you do it in Paris.

 

 

 

6) Sleeper train from Istanbul, Turkey to Sofia, Bulgaria. I love train travel and this trip was the first that I’ve shelled out the dough for a sleeper. Everything about this trip was great – until I decided to leave Bulgaria and go to Serbia.

 

 

Switzerland wildlife
7) Eating horse for lunch in Switzerland. Not all trips have to be long – sometimes just the flavor can make a memory.

 

 

 

istanbul walks 8) Istanbul walks were among my favorite travel moments of 2011. Having the chance to live in Istanbul and simply take huge meandering walks in the many neighborhoods including ferry rides, trams, and more. Yes, I miss Istanbul.

 

 

Rome artwork
9) The angry dudes and sexy nudes of the Vatican Museum in Rome were the top museum highlight of 2011.

 

 

 

adventures in Malaysia 10) Finally, I totally enjoyed the weird adventures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The city was not what I expected at all and well worth a visit.

Rome, Italy – Hostels and Boutique Hotels

As a tourist to one of the most visited cities in the world, it is a bad idea to visit without booking your hotel in advance. In addition, since there is more than a little bit of trickery and thievery in Rome, travel insurance isn’t a bad idea either.

rome boutique hotels

Arguably one of the most historic cities of the world, it has moulded so much of today’s western world culture, tradition and language. You will find this unmatched concentration of history in a city populated with modern Romans that live and work with their unequivocally Roman style. Many of the great achievements of Roman times can be admired in its streets. Who visits Rome will be astonished by its grandeur and style. Discover the Vatican museums, be wondered by the monumental Coliseum, walk along the Piazza Navona, visit the Spanish Steps and enjoy great views of St. Peter’s basilica where is housed one of the greatest artworks of human kind: The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Here are a couple of hotels that I found to be worth the price while I was in Rome and a few to avoid.

Hostels and Budget

Alesandro Palace Hostel – Near Termini Station, pretty good breakfast, free wifi and a helpful staff. Free pizza parties too.

Alessandro Palace Downtown – Free wifi and computer use, great breakfast, fun dinners and parties, great location, funky building.

Avoid Hostel Beautiful and Hotel Beautiful 2
. I got bedbugs here, no wifi, dirty bathrooms, stinky place, scary elevator, filled with creepy people when I visited.

More Rome Hostels

Luxury Hotels
Hotel Charter – This was listed as a 2 star hotel but I found it to be closer to a three star with newly remodeled bathrooms, comfy mattresses, and a very friendly staff. Free wifi, breakfast at the cafe next door was discounted, and nice little perks like delicious candies waiting for you in the room.
Hotel Montreal – 3 star hotel but 4 star treatment. Free breakfast. Be sure to request an inner courtyard room or you will get street noise. Nice place to have a drink at the end of the day.

Favorite Boutique Hotel – Ripa Hotel – Modernist comfortable hotel in the midst of classical architecture. The change between the two is nice and the comfort and service provided here is worth the cost. Four stars +.

Hotel Regina Baglioni- best five star hotel in Rome. Housed in an Art Deco palazzo on the famous Via Veneto, the elegantly furnished guestrooms and suites offer a stunning fusion of turn of the century glamour and contemporary technology. The hotel’s prime location ensuring most rooms also offer superb views of Via Veneto and the unique Roman cityscape.Mix with the local elite in the exceptional Brunello Lounge & Restaurant.

Worst hotel in Rome: Hotel Galeno. Don’t stay there, but you might want to do what I did and go there to see what an awful hotel is really like. One review said “Like a Gulag but without the friendly staff”

Memory and Travel – Reflections on Bergamo and kindness to strangers


It’s funny how memory works in regards to travel. I was in Bergamo, Italy back in 2009 (and about 10 days ago but only to sleep in the airport but that’s another story) and my memory of it seemed to be perfectly clear. A very small sleepy place where I could walk from the train station to the Nuovo ostello di Bergamo in about 20 minutes. I even remembered a general map of how to get from the lower city to the upper city, where the funicular was, and how to get from the centro to the ostello.

So, last night, arriving at about 8 pm at the train station in Citta Basa – I started walking. I walked up the main boulevard past the grand square building in the area of the Sentierone and the Palace of Justice).I went by the 4 towers that housed The Health Tribunal, the Fair Curators, The Magistrate of Provisions and the Tribunal of Justice
and the famed 540 shops of the Sentierone. I strolled past the modern shops and began thinking to myself that I didn’t remember it being so…modern, so developed, so filled with luxury branded stores.

And as I kept walking for 30 minutes or so, I became less sure of where I was. At the point I remembered finding the stairs to the hostel, I found a hillside leading downward into a neighborhood instead of the ten flights of stairs leading upward that I remembered. Soon, I was in an area of closed shops and fairly modern apartment buildings. This didn’t fit with my memory at all.

I asked a few Italians if they knew where to find the Ostello di Bergamo but they didn’t speak enough English or didn’t know and then, I found a Moroccan kebob shop. They didn’t speak English either and my Italian is zero, but much to their surprise, this lost looking white guy wandered up and greeted them in Darija. My Moroccan Arabic is functional though far from fluent. Once they got over the shock of my speaking Arabic, they were very kind and interested.

They knew where the hostel was and I was far from it. One of them, Hisham, asked his boss if he could leave for a few minutes to get me started in the right direction. We chatted in Darija about family and life in Italy. He’s originally from Agadir and has actually been to Sefrou for some reason. I admit that I’m not always keen on meeting Moroccans in Morocco, but when I meet those who have left or travelled abroad, it is always an extreme pleasure. It’s something about the broadened world view and the shattering of the illusions the media puts in people’s heads. An expansive worldview makes a world of difference. The Prophet Mohammad said something like “Don’t tell me what you’ve read, tell me where you’ve travelled.”

In any event, Hisham and I were lucky to run into his Italian friend, Enzo who was waiting to pick up his girlfriend from work. Enzo speaks English and offered to drive me to the hostel. During this exchange, I was translating Arabic to English and English to Arabic – a good exercise that seemed to work.

So then, Enzo and his girlfriend drove me to the hostel which was miles from where I had ended up. Once at the hostel, I thought I remembered where the pizza place nearby was – but once again – memory failed me, so I ended up eating a frozen microwave dinner. And while I can say that my memories of the hostel being clean, bright and comfortable were right I was disappointed to recall that they require you (or at least me 2x now) to check out each day at 10am, leave your bags in the luggage room, and then check back in in the afternoon. Not ideal by any means- it makes me glad I took a day in Greece to just lounge in my hotel room.

Anyway, I’m excited to get back to Morocco but I have a full day and another night here in Bergamo. I had thought to take the train and get lunch in Switzerland, but the weather may not be cooperating – in any event there is a giant world food festival here as well as a world renowned organ music festival – so it may be best to stay here – besides the trip to Switzerland wouldn’t allow enough time to see the Alps.

 

Italian Witch Hunting in Naples

Witch Hunting in Naples, ItalyLike Salem is to America, the city Naples is home to a rich and mysterious history of magic and witchcraft, or as it is called in Italian, stregheria. It is not at all uncommon for European cities to boast such a past, as the pre-Christian world was ripe with healers and folk magic, but the area around Naples continued their mystical traditions well into the Christian age.

During the late 1800s, an author by the name J.B. Andrews conducted a series of interviews with known Neapolitan strega (witches). He discovered that each witch seemed to specialize in his or her own area, whether it be sea magick, earth magick, herbalism, and even astrology. He was curious as to whether or not they learned their practices from sacred text but discovered that the tradition was entirely oral, “given by mother to the daughter.”
Stregheria is still prevalent in modern day Naples and has been highly influenced Hermetic groups. Of course today, we all have access to the spells and rituals that Old World strega used to practice thanks to a large interest in the occult and a number of volumes that have been printed on modern Paganism. Italian-American author and Salem, Massachusetts resident Raven Grimassi is one of the few writers to focus on Italian witchcraft today.

Italian WitchesIf the mystery of the occult piques your interest, then Naples and its surrounding area is the perfect place to plan your next European escape. Try a trip to Benevento, also called Italy’s “City of Witches,” a mere 50 km northeast of Naples. Here once stood a sacred walnut tree, known as the place where witches would gather on their sabbats to sing and dance. When Saint Barbato converted the Duke to Christianity in 622, the Duke proceeded to have the tree chopped down. Legend says it didn’t take long for the stump to magically begin to grow, restoring the old walnut tree to its previous glory. Even the transcripts from the Italian Witch Trials make mention of it. It is believed that this particular tree still stands near Avellino in Stretto di Barba and that modern day witches secretly meet there.

witches in SicilyNot just concerning stregaheria, but Naples history in general has a lot to do with its relationship to Sicily. With a car rental in Italy, you will easily be able to travel down the coast to Villa San Giovanni and hop a ferry. Sicily was home to the famous Fairy Witch Trials. It is believed that the fairies and elves would make human contacts in Sicily and carry them away to Benevento. The fairies and the women who were involved with them were named the “donas de fuera.” During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were an unknown number of witch trials held in Sicily. Unlike the Salem Witch Trials, the women on trial said nothing of the devil, but instead spoke of the fae and were tried for sorcery. Far less violent than the US trials, most of the sentenced were simply banished, put in prison, and some were even set free.

What is interesting is that all of these events can be traced back or lead back to Naples. Plan your next vacation in Italy and discover the magic for yourself!

Melissa Rae Cohen is a travel writer in love with all things mysterious and magical. Her family immigrated to Ellis Island from Naples during the early 1900s. Today she lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two naughty cats and works as a travel writer for Auto Europe.  

Photo Essay: The Beauty of Doors

There’s something about doors that just make my brain fill with wonder. Like travel, doors always lead to something new and often to something unexpected. Like the story of the Lady or the Tiger or Let’s Make a Deal.
BCN Door
This door in Barcelona seems to lead to a classical place where graffiti monsters rule. Aren’t you curious what lies on the other side?
Bergamo Italy Door
Does this door in Bergamo, Italy actually lead to anywhere? Why is it locked. What’s it hiding? Does it lead to Narnia?
Door to Bordeaux
Is there a French family drinking Bordeaux behind this French door? Can you almost hear the laughter? Oui.
Door in Belgium
This Brussels, Belgium door is altogether more serious. Are there great works of art on the other side or serious EU business going on?
Door in Fez
Couscous perhaps? Maybe a carpet shop? What does your imagination say is behind this door in the Fez Medina?
Cave Door in GrenadaWhat about this door from a cave in San Bernardino above Grenada in Spain. How do the troglodyte gypsies pass their days. Beer, fortune telling, black magic? Or just a card game and some cooking.

Marrakesh Door
Rabbit Hole in Marrakech

Finally this one in the magical city of Marrakesh. Don’t you feel like you are falling in?
Lao Tzu famously said that without opening your door you can see the world and I think that might explain the fascination with travel. We all wonder just what is on the other side of the door and sometimes it’s even more wonderful than we imagine.

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.

 

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