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.

 

Vagobond in Bulgaria – Part 3 – Sofia Statues and Parks

Travel around the world can’t be considered complete without visiting at least one former or current communist nation. I’ve been to a few of them now though many would argue that China is about as communist as the USA. As an anarchist, it strikes me as sad to think of the hope that went into the monuments and art of communism and the tragedy of death and despair that usually emerged from it.

One of the things that struck me as particularly interesting about walking around in Sofia was the huge number of statues which were dedicated to the workers. Now, I’m certainly no communist, in fact, if anything I’m an anarchist- but I’ve always thought that the honoring of the workers who actually produce the value of a society is a good thing. Bulgarian communist statueUnfortunately, the way communism and capitalism both work is that the bosses get the profits and the workers get the shaft. At least in communism the workers get statues to make them feel better. In capitalism the workers get to imagine that they can be bosses someday. Either way it’s an illusion. Still, the statues are wonderful. I love the way they make me feel and can imagine that when the tragedies of communism were rearing their heads, it was the artwork of communism that spoke to the masses and kept them turning the wheel of the ship of state. If the workers of the world could truly unite, we really could have utopia, but unfortunately, the workers are susceptible to the lies of the bosses, so it will never work.

The political slogan Workers of the world, unite! (German: “Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!”, literally “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”), is one of the most famous rallying cries of communism, found in The Communist Manifesto (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. A variation (“Workers of all lands, unite”) is also inscribed on Marx’s tombstone.

Sofia, Bulgaria, ping pong in the park
Give the workers ping pong

This slogan was the USSR State motto appeared in the coat of arms of the Soviet Union, and on 1919 Russian SFSR banknotes (in German, French, Chinese, English, and Arabic). Contemporarily, some socialist and communist parties continue using it. Moreover, it is a common usage in popular culture, often chanted during labour strikes and protests

Sofia communist statuesBut of course, the proletariat usually get screwed as the consumers get screwed. You can’t win with government. When you consider that at the time the Communisit Manifesto was written that neither Marx nor Engels had ever had jobs, it becomes amazing that they could have come up with ideas, but understandable that as a couple of twenty something students that their idealism would outstrip the reality of how government is designed to oppress and can’t be converted into an uplifter.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (or needs) is a slogan popularized by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. The phrase summarizes the principles that, in a communist society, every person should contribute to society to the best of his or her ability and consume from society in proportion to his or her needs. In the Marxist view, such an arrangement will be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist society will produce; the idea is that there will be enough to satisfy everyone’s needs

Sofia bulgaria, eve with appleSofia is filled with parks and open spaces. As I walked around this city, I tried to picture what it must look like in the summer. I imagine it is quite beautiful. In the winter it certainly is. Of course there are more than just statues of the workers. I particularly enjoyed this iron totem pole with religious iconography. Check out the detail of eve with the apple…yes, she looks worth sinning for.

* Borisova gradina. It`s the “lungs” of the city, with the Ariana Lake
* City Garden. It`s the oldest and most central public garden, in existence since 1872.
* Largo.
* Orlov Most. It`s a bridge over the Perlovska River in the centre of Sofia
* Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square.
* Slaveykov Square. It`s an open-air book market.
* Patriarch Evtimiy Square.
* Sofia Zoo, 1 Sreburna Str., . 09:00 to 17:00.
* South Park. A nice park in the south-east part of the city, although a bit to crowded on weekends. Sorry, no Cartman statues yet.

communist consumer statue, Sofia, BulgariaFinally, here is the most disturbing statue from inside a mall in Sofia. I got in trouble for taking pictures here with the security guard. It’s a classic communist worker with a designer shopping bag.

Five Offbeat Destinations in Morocco

Azrou, MoroccoMorocco is one of the most photogenic countries on the planet. From the markets to the sahara there is never a lack of wonders worthy of a photograph. Here are five off-beat destinations that you may not have heard about but are worth your time. Don’t forget your camera.

Azrou. In the Middle Atlas mountains there are vast cedar forests that the Phoenicians used to build ships. The mountain town of Azrou is a picturesque village with a lively market on Tuesdays where the Berber tribes from the surrounding regions converge to sell blankets, rugs, and handicrafts. If you trek into the mountains, you will find Barbary Apes swinging in the cedars.

SefrouSefrou. Sefrou has been eclipsed by it’s neighbour Fez, but the old medina (walled town) of Sefrou is actually older and more manageable than that of Fez. Just 28 kilometres south. Sefrou is great for a day trip. The waterfall just outside of Sefrou is a cool destination on hot summer days.

Sale. The ancient pirates of Morocco were based in Sale and caused problems for Europeans for hundreds of years. This was the center for white-slavery and nefarious deeds. Today it is a relaxed seaside city where you can find delicious seafood and uncrowded beaches.

OuarzazateOuarzazate. Morocco is famous for the Sahara and most people miss out on visiting Ouarzazate, also called the Hollywood of Morocco. It was here that films like The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were made. Most recently it has been a location for the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones. There are studio museums and ancient desert fortresses that have been well preserved by the dry desert air.

MarrakechMarrakech. Everyone has heard of Marrakech, but most people go there for the old medina, Jmma el Fna, or the ruins. It’s the new parts of Marrakech you don’t want to miss with red hot world fusion cuisine, great chefs, fabulous nightclubs, and an annual red carpet Film Festival that brings some of the biggest stars from around the world.

Monkeys, waterfalls, pirates, mummies, and movie stars – I’ll bet you had no idea Morocco could offer so much!

Six Hair Raising Caribbean Nature Adventures

Caribbean holidays feature many breathtaking destinations for vacationers to choose from. The crystal clear blue water, white sandy beaches, lush greenery, exotic food and engaging music is a fantastic backdrop against welcoming inhabitants. Below are some of the natural wonders we found to be the most intoxicating.

cc Image courtesy of Frank Peters on Flickr1. Jamaica – Dunn’s River Falls. With its awesome 600 foot waterfall, the stone steps lead into clear, blue waters. The cold water runs over stone steps to the warmer Caribbean waters below. Be careful though – the steps can be very slippery, as we found out after landing on our behinds. Guides may offer visitors interesting historical facts and stories. After we were lucky enough to reach the finish line we were rewarded with a breezy marketplace full of interesting local fare.

2.Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands – The Baths. Not to be confused with the Roman or Japanese type, the mysterious, gargantuan boulders invited us in along the edge of the water. The cavernous structures may either spook some visitors, however. We found a welcome respite in the tidal pools for a swim. Adventure seekers may also snorkel or dive. Best to wear a bathing suit to transition easily from land to sea.

cc image courtesy of Paul-W on Flickr3. Cayman Islands – Stingray City. Unlike the “Survivor” television show that failed in the UK, this adventure featuring relatively docile stingrays is sure to amaze (notice I said, “relatively docile”). If diving is your thing, you are in luck here. Divers can easily conquer the 12 foot plunge into refreshing, crystal blue waters. The less daredevil inclined can visit the shallow, or “kiddie” end of the “pool” at the Stingray City Sandbar.

4. Barbados – Harrison’s Cave. The largest cave of its kind in the region, this limestone monstrosity is at the end of a Disneyland-esque electric train ride. Along the way, we passed all manner of amazing spectacles such as a 40 foot waterfall and many underground streams and pools.

cc image courtesy of Neil Chatfield on Flickr5. La Soufriere, St. Lucia – Volcano. This volcanic island is truly one for the books . A beach holiday in St. Lucia is one thing but the volcano takes it to a whole new level. Visitors either drive their cars or take a tour vehicle as near as they dare. Then they trudge with a guide (if they are smart) through a fault. The over 5 acres of hissing, bubbling crater and sulfur smell is not for the faint of heart, however.

6. Puerto Rico – EL Yunque. I found that this magnificent 28,000 acre rainforest is best visited with an expert tour guide to meander through any one of its 13 hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you may see a green parrot (unlike us), unless they have gone completely extinct. But not to worry. We’re told there are well over 67 other birds to choose from. The plentiful flora, blooms, greens and over 240 tree species are also sure to wow anyone.

Quebec City Revisited – Musee de Civilization

Quebec

Most of my day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.

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.

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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Sydney, Australia – Last Part – Sydney to the Airport

The best part of living in Hawaii is that when your trip is over, it’s time to go home – to Hawaii. Honestly, I miss my family and am ready to be back with them.

I’m super stoked to be going home to Hawaii where my wife and daughter have been silently suffering (and pretending to have a ball with me gone <wink>) because I’ve missed them – but I just want to say, I really love and appreciate Australia. It’s rainy and grey today – there’s not much I want to do in the several hours between hotel checkout (11am) and airport check-in (3pm) but I’ve bought and filled a bag with souvenir gifts and now am sitting in the remarkable library in Sydney’s Green Square, catching up on writing about my trip, organizing photos, and charging all of my devices before I head to the airport.

This is yet another example of how Aussies get it right. Beautiful underground library with garden in the center, glassed in, cafe at the entrance, beautiful glass pyramid shaped upper portions, plenty of seating, clean, nice, safe, adult and kids sections separated by just enough to allow all to have fun. Meeting rooms, power ports (USB and plugs) all over the place. Great design, functionality, and use. The kids can check out mini commodore 64s, music kits, and much more. Free wifi – it’s really what a library should be.

Sydney Pro Tip: On the way to the airport, hop off at Green Square, go to the Library and charge up all your devices, do your last minute emails, etc. Or, if you have need to work while you are in Sydney, this is better than a coworking space. 

Yes, I’m going to miss Australia – I know there are problems everywhere but the Aussies seem to have a better handle on how to live than Americans do.

I woke up this morning and drank some free coffee in the pod hotel before taking the tram to Circular Quay and then catching the ferry to Manly Beach. It’s a grey and rainy day again – great for Australia, not so great for travel. The ferry trip was nice but my shoes were still wet from yesterday and they’ve begun to smell to high heaven – and I’m about to get on a flight for ten hours where it’s nice to take the shoes off. I will have to fix this.

There’s really not much that I want to do and now I’ve got a backpack and a bag. I don’t particularly want to sit in the airport for six hours – nor do I feel like walking around with baggage. I suppose I could have paid to leave my bag in a locker – that would have been smart – but too late now. Plus, capsule hotels are  sort of depressing places to hang around – I just wanted to check out.

I spent nearly as much on souvenirs and presents as I spent on all of my Sydney accommodation.

I think all there is to do now is head to the airport, try some of that beautiful sparkling Tazzy wine I didn’t try while in Tasmania, enjoy the free upgrade to a Quantas flight instead of a Jetstar Flight – and get back home to my beautiful family. I’m grateful I had the chance to experience a little bit of Australia. I’d like a lot more – but next time I want to have longer and to have my family with me.

Cheers.

Day Trip from Sydney, Australia – The Blue Mountains on a Rainy Day

cassarowy bird Australia This was the only organized tour I did – and I made sure that it was an active tour so I wouldn’t be trapped in a bus with the cruise ship / baby boomer crowd.

The tour was good – our guide, Gaz was a cool guy and had a good tour with equal parts beauty, history, culture, and message – but the downside (just for the tour, not for Australia) was that it rained all day and the fog obstructed most of the views. Our stop at the wildlife refuge was interesting but wet and most of the animals were huddling away from the rain. There were some nice waterfalls and some great views of cloud filled valleys below us (but obstructed) along with lots of information about aboriginal culture and a lot of wet hiking Lots and lots of steps, muddy trails, and elevation ascent and descent.

It was about 8 miles total with the equivalent of about 65 floors climbed. So, elevation wise it was a better workout than I’ve been getting but not quite as much as I’ve been averaging in terms of distance.

I’m glad it rained – it put out the last of the bush fires – but if you can avoid doing this particular trip in the rain and fog – it’s probably better.

Tasmania – Part 2 – Cradle Mountain, Tasmanian Honey, Beauty Point

Tasmania AustraliaMy initial thought on Tasmania and Australia since I have just a short amount of time here was to walk as much as possible and stick pretty close to where I was staying – my explorations would be as far as walking would carry me.

The only problem with that method was that Launceston isn’t that big of a place and I’d already walked the riverfront, walked the Gorge, explored the museums, gone on a brewery tour, and generally seen what I wanted to see. There were attractions I didn’t hit – like a pretty cool looking amusement park called Penny Royal which seemed like a sort of zipline pirates adventure park, there were wine tours and wine cruises on the river, there were monkeys in enclosures in the park – but none of that really hit me where I wanted. My flight didn’t leave from the Launceston airport until 8pm which meant that I had a full day of exploration and I had to arrange getting to the airport. Just about every tour/experience was in the 80-90 Aussie dollar range. It would cost me $15 to get to the airport.

Tasmania AustraliaI knew I should rent a car – but I’ll be honest, I was terrified of driving on the other side of the car and the other side of the road – but finally, I realized it was the most fun, coolest, most exciting, and least expensive way to spend my day. A full day car rental cost me $74, I bought lunch at a grocery store for $5, and filling up the tank at the end cost me another $30.

Getting in the car and driving was akin to the time I went skydiving  or my first bungee jump – a total sense of panic. Within a minute I had made a tight right turn into the oncoming lane – which was mostly empty with a distant police car coming at me – I changed lanes and he gave me a wave. It wasn’t as hard as I had feared, but odd – the oddest part being that the turn signals were where the wipers usually are and vice versa – so every time I signaled, I turned on the wipers.

Tasmanian VagobondI did a lot of driving. I drove to Mole Creek and the Tasmanian devil wildlife sanctuary there – I spent another $30 AUD to meet the devils, scratch a wombat, and feed and get nuzzled by a kangaroo – they are so soft!

Next I went to a honey farm with a glass beehive where the queen died because of the climate change and fires this year. Still, the honey was amazing and the ice cream delicious. I drove the long, treacherous and windy road to Cradle Mountain – and when I got there realized I didn’t really want to go for a hike, so I drove back down. I made my way to Devonport where I sat by the beach and then drove to Beauty Point where I had a little picnic and called my family. Tazzies and Aussies know how to make bread, by the way, the rolls and loafs are crusty and perfect. I had a little cheese, a roll, some Vegemite, and ginger beer.

Tasmania AustraliaAnd that was about all the time I had – I drove back up the Esk River to Launceston and thence to Launceston Airport which has one of the more beautiful and affordable airport restaurants I’ve been in. I had a Wizard Smith’s Beer (James Boag) and a Tasmanian sampler plate with smoked salmon, blue cheese, brie, pickles, and a jelly I can’t remember…

After that I boarded the plane where I was sandwiched between a husband and wife – she likes the window and he likes the aisle – and I was between them as he helped her get Netflix on her tablet etc, but they barely talked to each other and were quite nice.

Cradle Mountain, TasmaniaAfter my day of driving around, I was able to confirm my suspicion that Northern Tasmania (and possibly all of Taz) is the Australian version of Oregon. Great rivers, farms, logging, sheep, cows, farming, mining, great beer, honey, and more. I was just glad that I didn’t see any chainsaw carved statues of Donald Trump during my day.

If I were to compare Launceston to any city it would probably be either to Coos Bay. I’m guessing that Hobart would be more like Astoria or a smaller version of Portland.

Launceston, Tasmania, Australia – Part 1

Launceston, Tasmania, AustraliaJetstar, which is the airline I’ve been using to get around Australia runs these cheap Friday Fare Frenzy sales – you have to be able to match the times they offer for, but my trip to Tasmania only cost me $39 Australian – and I had two nights in a different Pod Inn booked in the town of Launceston. My seat mate on the plane provided me with plenty of recommendations of what to see and do while I was there.

One of the key things he let me know was that everything closes at 3pm in Launceston on a Sunday. After catching a hotel shuttle from the airport, I confirmed this. It felt like a ghost town. The Pod Inn in Launceston was an upgrade from the Space Q pods in Sydney, but I think I will avoid pods in the future none the less – I’ll write about that in my ‘Aussie Pod Review’ though.

In any event, my arrival in Launceston was easy – although there was a Launceston, Tasmania, Australiamoment of panic when just after I filled up my water bottle in the airport, the flight attendants came around weighing bags – I abandoned my water bottle for a bit and came in under the 7 kg after putting on my coat and putting everything heavy into my pockets like chargers licorice, and spare battery.

The weather was cold-ish upon arrival. My walk around the town showed me plenty of empty streets and with the weather grey, a sort of depressing but pretty town with everything closed and no one out of doors. I went back to the pod and went to bed – more than 15 miles walked and feeling a little bit tired.

Launceston, Tasmania, AustraliaThe next day, I woke up to grey and a light rain – I hiked a loop up the streets and through neighborhoods and then to the beautiful Cascade Gorge where I saw my first wild wallaby and a whole bunch of pademelons – and maybe a wombat, but I’m not sure of that one. The sun came out and the day turned glorious. My hike down through the gorge was beautiful. Next a walk along the riverfront and then a trip to the Victoria Art Museum – which was free and very cool. Next a walk through town and a cheap sandwich.

Launceston, Tasmania, AustraliaTrying to figure out what to do with my day, I stopped in the tourist info spot and the very nice hostess suggested I go to the James Boag Brewery Tour. It was a good idea. The tour didn’t start until 3pm so I had some time to kill so I went to the other Queen Victoria museum where I was surprised to find a lot of dinosaur skeletons as well as one of only a few stuffed Tasmanian tigers and a very descriptive display about the loss of the Tasmanian tiger.

Jame Boag & Son The brewery tour was a sort of typical such thing with mostly boomer age Aussies. We walked through the brewery and then drank a few very nice beers accompanied by some very nice Tasmanian cheeses. After this, I was hungry and not feeling cheap due to the alcohol so I decided I would take myself out for a nice seafood meal. I found a beautiful hipster restaurant called Cataract on Paterson which sounds like a medical problem in American English but in Australian means more of a cascade. I had a Waldorf salad and a whole Australian Snapper in a spicy Asian sauce – which came with another salad that I will eat for breakfast tomorrow. Delicious meal – grand total $63 AUS – which seems pretty reasonable for a nice seafood dinner with a beer (about $43 US)

I was curious about the fish and googled it and found the following – according to wikipedia, it isn’t a member of the snapper family at all. One thing for sure – this was one delicious fish!

Australasian snapper (Pagrus auratus) or silver seabream, is a species of porgie found in coastal waters of Australia.

My friend Gaye had told me there was a casino here and I was surprised to realize I didn’t have much interest. I used to love gambling – but I seem to have lost my taste for it. Just to make sure I popped into a game room and played $5 AUD until I lost it – I just really didn’t have much desire to do it. Which is pretty cool, actually – but surprising that something like that could change.

Launceston, Tasmania, AustraliaLaunceston is a nice place when the sun is shining. Tazzies are a friendly people – although, perhaps like a lot of small American townspeople – they tend to be pretty chatty and seem willing to engage you in conversation until you break it off – no matter where you go – shop, restaurant, on the street, in a cafe. When I left the casino, I happened upon a group of Launceston poets doing an open mic reading. I was at the tail end of it, but it was cool – really gave me an insight into the inner nature of these folks.

Sydney, Australia Part 3

Glebe, Sydney, AustraliaI suppose my travel mantra has become ‘wake early and walk a lot.’ In some cases I’m strolling 16 miles per day – which means that I am seeing a lot that others are missing, not spending a lot, and generally feeling pretty good and seeing attractions, neighborhoods, and sites before most people wake up or get out of the house on their way to work!

Yesterday, my day in Sydney was a travel day, so I didn’t really expect to do or see much – but in Sydney, that’s a lot no matter what you do.

My first walk was across the Sydney Harbor Bridge – so, I left Chinatown and began moving towards the bridge. My wanders the day before had brought me to the other side of the Sydney Opera House and through the Botanical Gardens. Now I went into the neighborhood called ‘The Rocks’ – which is Sydney’s oldest. I wasn’t there to stroll the markets, have a meal, drink coffee, or have a beer though, I was there to walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Sydney, AustraliaA walk up a hill and then three flights of old brick and stone stairs and I was on the causeway.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is a heritage-listed steel through arch bridge across Sydney Harbour that carries rail, vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic between the Sydney central business district (CBD) and the North Shore. The view of the bridge, the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera House is widely regarded as an iconic image of Sydney, and of Australia itself. The bridge is nicknamed “The Coathanger” because of its arch-based design.
It is the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world and the tallest steel arch bridge, measuring 134 m (440 ft) from top to water level.[6] It was also the world’s widest long-span bridge, at 48.8 m (160 ft) wide, until construction of the new Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver was completed in 2012.

The views were magnificent. With my morning exercise done, I set out on my next task – Exploring a bit of The Rocks. There was a weekend street market where I bought licorice from a gentleman who has been making and selling licorice in Sydney for 40 years! Licorice is one of my favorite sweets and I thought Dutch Licorice was my favorite, but his blew the Dutch stuff out of the water. Another win for Australia!

In The Rocks, I browsed the bakeries until I found  the one that appealed to me and bought a sausage roll to go- then I went and sat on the rocks looking at the famed Circlular Quay and enjoyed my budget brekkie. It was nearly time to check out which meant it was nearly time for lunch so I figured getting a small gelato wasn’t going to do any harm – plus, it was starting to get hot.

I got back to my pod just in time to check out. Then I faced a dilemma – should I push the limits of airport check in time and try to see a little more or should I be my usual very early check-in guy. This time I threw caution to the winds – I checked out and grabbed my 7 kilo pack and set off for Circular Quay again. Once there I caught a ferry across Sydney Harbor to Luna Park – which is a magnificent art-deco themed amusement park. Sort of like the pier at Santa Cruz.

I was really pushing it but I caught the ferry back, caught a train to the airport, and actually made it on time. The only thing I missed was my usual sitting in the airport for three hours – which, to be honest, is usually time I enjoy and use well – but in this case, I was happy to have had a nice ferry trip and some site seeing instead.

 

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