Time to leave Venice, for now

Finally, I have to leave Italy. I have really enjoyed this trip, despite some unexpected weather problems in Sicily. Steve and I managed to re -arrange our schedule and creatively solved most of the problems, those that we were in control of, not the beastly weather.
Venice today is windy and cold, a great day to leave. Yesterday, Sunday, I made the decision to have a slow day, not venture too far, enjoy everything and just BE in my favorite city. It was lovely. I headed towards the Guggenheim museum, with a side stop to see the house where Ezra Pound lived,on a little dead end alley. The first cafe I saw that seemed attractive, I stopped and had some tea. It was fine until 4 of the ugly American sort sat down and ordered vodka and orange juice and generally were loud and unpleasant. I proceeded to the Guggenheim and spent most of the afternoon there. The setting cannot be beat, a one story palazzo on the Grand Canal, with a terrace onto the canal and a  garden, cafe and some of the best art of the first half of the 20th century. I took my time, and enjoyed being in the company of Ernst, Dali, Arp, Chagall, Motherwell and, of course a whole room of Jackson Pollack, and so much more. I stayed and had a very unusual pasta, ravioli made with a red turnip in a green sauce of arugula, with pecorino cheese. It was almost too beautiful to eat, the ravioli with red centers, the green sauce….I did eat it and it was delicious. There was an Italian family having Sunday lunch behind me, and I could hear the high voice of the elderly grandmother and the other voices responding to her. What a nice way to spend time together.
I walked around some more, visited the glass store of the Sent sisters who make jewelry as well as glass vases, all with strong architectural lines which I find appealing. I bought an interestng necklace, opaque glass beads, and rubber! Black and white and red. Should be fun to wear, not a serious  looking thing.
My last gelato, at Nico, just down the Zattere. I chose to sit on their deck on the canal and enjoy my ice cream while finishing a creepy book, The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwen, which takes place here in Venice. Better to read outdoors on a nice day than indoors in the rain!
I am sharing a water taxi to the airport with 4 Americans I met the other day here at La Calcina hotel. We are on the same flight to Munich, then go our separate ways, they to New york, me to San Francisco.


Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 6:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Venice, at last

Hi all,
As much as I do like Sicily, and this trip certainly strained that feeling with the relentless bad weather, Venice is still” the Prize” for me.
My flight from Rome was fine, I landed at the new Marco Polo airport and found my way to the public water taxi into Venice. My stop was the last one, and for a few minutes, I was in my own private boat. Wonderful.
I pulled my suitcase to the hotel along the Zattere, a long walking street that follows the Giudecca canal. My room faces both the side canal and has a view of the Giudecca. I unpacked for the first time in 2 weeks and arranged my things around the room. I then set out to explore the Dorsoduro quarter and find some lunch.Every time one goes around a corner here, there is another amazing site on a canal, a campo or the facade of a palace. This place just thrills me. Yes, there are plenty of tourists, even in the farthest corners of the hood, but there are more locals, esp.  university students celebrating each others graduations by pulling pranks on each other in public spaces. People gather to watch and it is just fun to be a part of it all. I met a woman who is a ceramic artist, making her pieces in her studio on the Campo Santa Margherita. It brought back memories of my far off youth, but she is much better than I ever was. She had some amazing red glaze made of selenium, which I thought was really bad to be around….
I also picked up some glue and started what I hope will be a daily collage of my time here. It is fun to have a goal each day, in addition to just seeing what I can see. tomorrow I begin my two days of lots of vaporetto rides and expect to cover a great deal of territory.

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 6:26 am  Leave a Comment  


Hi all,
Just a brief note on my way to dinner in one of the most beautiful places in Italy.The ancient part of the city of Siracusa, Ortygia, has so much charm and history that it is like honey to a bear for me. We arrived yesterday afternoon and decided to try our luck with hotels, and ended up at the Grand Hotel, with off season rates the same as the nicer bed and breakfasts, but with an elevator and a roof-top restaurant. It was raining, of course, and we were happy to be somewhere nice, dry and comfortable!
Today, I walked all over the city, revisiting places I had seen before and always seeing new spots. I actually found the ancient mikva, or Jewish ritual bath that was discovered only about 15 years ago when a hotel was being constructed out of an old building in the former,(we are talking before 1492 and the expulsion of Jews from all of Spain, of which Sicily was a part) Jewish quarter. It was way way down, about 3 stories of ancient stone steps to a natural spring and several pools  with stairs down into them. The water was so clear that it was nearly impossible to tell that there was water in them, it looked as if you could just step on down the stairs. The young woman who guided us was lovely and seemed to actually care about the site.
Tomorrow we are heading to Taormina for our last night in Sicily, to see the Greek theater there which I missed on my last trip. Then, our flight to Rome, overnight there, and on to Venice for me. I will be praying that my bag travels with me on both flights, and I suppose your prayers cannot hurt! Steve had managed so well with the replacement clothes he found in Palermo, but I do not want to try it myself!

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 6:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Since Palermo

Hi All,
Wow, it has been quite an interesting few days here in Sicily. We left Palermo on Wed. morning, and visited the Cathedral and Cloister at Monreal. Just as beautiful as I remembered it, and it also rained ! We managed to enjoy ourselves figuring out the bible scenes despite our poor religious educations, and headed out to the west. The rain increased and driving became difficult, but we continued on. Eventually we reached the Greek temple of Segesta, but since the weather was crummy, the ground muddy and the view of the Temple from the road and parking lot was awfully good, Steve opted to not stop and walk around. I have been there, so it was not a problem for me. We then proceeded to Erice, arriving around 3pm. The town was wet, cold and pretty much deserted except for a small group of Japanese tourists and one older German man whose wife was lost, or who was lost from her. We encountered him several times and felt sorry, but there was not much that  we could do. The view was totally fogged out, it was like looking at fluffy grey cotton balls. So, after a cup of tea and a piece of apple torte, we headed down the mountain to Trapani which was not plagued by fog.
Trapani, like most cities in Italy, has a old center surrounded by a lot of ugly modern stuff. We thought that we might like to stay in the old part of the town, so we headed there. We followed our noses and a little bit of the map, and found our way to the old, really old streets of ancient Trapani. No great old hotels that we could find, but eventually we realized that there was a place listed in the Michelin, and stopped there. As we were walking in, so were a group of soldiers, perhaps 15 men in all, in military uniforms of NATO. Turns out they were pilots assigned temporarily to a base between Trapani and Marsala. About 1\2 of them seemed to be Americans , the rest from other countries of Europe. Interesting to chat a bit with them.
That night  we walked into the old town to a wonderful small restaurant recommended by the hotel desk manager, and had fish based dinner and a local wine. We were quite happy with ourselves.
The next morning was gorgeous, blue skies, perfect temp. We went in search of the fish market along the port at Trapani and found it. I took lots of photos of fish vendors and fish. Some of the men enjoyed having their photo taken and really hammed it up. I enjoyed making the connections with them, as well as seeing the varieties of fish, and the boats used to catch it.
Next we headed down the coast road toward Marsala, looking at the salt ponds, windmills used to pump water out of the ponds to allow the salt to dry, and at all the mounds of salt. We saw a sign for a boat, and took the small road in that direction. We had stumbled onto the access to one of the most amazing historical sites in Sicily, Mozia. It is a small island, 10 min. offshore by boat, which was a Phoenician colony, predating the Greeks. It  had a man made harbor, a necropolis and lots of houses. The island is still undergoing excavation and finds are still being made. There is a really amazing statue of a charioteer from about 400BC that was uncovered in 1979. The place was being visited also by a group of college students on a classics semester in Rome who were touring sites in Sicily for the week. I enjoyed talking with a few of them and with some of the teachers.
We took the boat back and were in Marsala shortly.The surprise was how lovely it is, compared with Trapani. Marsala has a palm lined waterfront, ancient walls and gates, and a great gourmet shop where we bought some snacks, thank heaven,as it turned out.
We had no reservations for the night, since we did not know how far we would get, so we kept looking around in each town we drove through, and the weather kept getting worse. By the time we arrived in Sciacca, one of  the places we thought we might stay, the rain was  worse. After a cup of tea that I insisted on since I was cold and tired, we heading to Agrigento. The rain and wind kept increasing, and the driving got harder and harder. Steve was amazingly calm and we just kept on towards Agrigento, and hoped to find a hotel there since it is such a tourist mecca. Finally we reached the city, and decided to look for a hotel in the older city rather than in the tourist area nearer to the ruins. It was dark by now, and the rain was making it very hard to see signs. We drove around and around and finally concluded that there are no nice hotels up there. Even finding the right road to the Valley of the Temples was hard in the dark and rain.
We knew from the Michelien that there was a Jolly brand hotel there, and decided to go for it, but we could not find it! I recognized a restaurant from my earlier visit, and thought to go in and ask. We needed to turn around to go there, and pulled into a well lit driveway just a bit uphill  to turn around. As soon as we got the car in position to go back out to the street, the metal sliding gate closed on us. We were trapped in the courtyard of a well lit, but empty office building. We rang bells, we shouted, but there was not a soul around. The door had no control to open it from the inside.Eventually I remembered that I had a cell phone, and called the Jolly Hotel, since they were presumably close by and would know where we were and could call the building owners, or the police. After several calls to the hotel, it became clear that they were not able to help. We were wondering if we would spend the night sleeping in the car in the rain!
We remembered then that the Hertz contract listed a number for emergency road service, with a separate number for English! We called and explained our unusual but serious problem to a nice lady named Evelyn. She said that she would contact the Agrigento police and tell them what our problem was, I asked her to call  us back. We waited for about 30 min, wondering if anything would happen since we did not hear from Evelyn. Then a Caribinieri car arrived with lights flashing! We were so happy to see them! A few seconds later, another car arrived with a man who had the key to open the gate and we were free at last! The police escorted us to the Jolly Hotel where we checked in , wet and bedraggled and hungry at about 9:30pm. I decided not to identify myself as the hysterical woman who had been calling them, I chose anonymity.
I do not recommend the Jolly Hotel in Agrigento unless you are a travel group, dinner was mediocre and expensive and the staff surly. The bed was hard, but at least we were not still in the car.
We saw the temples mostly from the road , as it was pouring rain and windy and walking around the site was not appealing. The next step was to get ourselves to either Caltagirone or Piazza Armerina. As we headed up the road, and the weather was  worse and worse and the fog was nearly totally obscuring the road, we chose the nearer city and ended up in Caltagirone. It was raining so hard that the streets were flooding. We got to the museum, and were the only visitors. At one point the power went out and we wondered what to do next? Our need was to be dry for a while more than most anything else. One amazing piece there was a Greek pot from 300 or so BC that showed a potter making a pot on a wheel pushed by a boy. I had no idea such an image exists!
We left the museum and went in search of a particular ceramist shop I had seen in my last visit, Sr. Alessi. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a typical Sicilian restaurent with a great anti pasto self serve bar, great eggplant!
After lunch we blew around the town, and finally found what I was looking for. I bought some plates, large ones and small ones, and felt satisfied, if wet. We looked again for a place to stay, through the dense fog, driving rain  and high winds. As luck would have it, a wonderful hotel exists on the outskirts of Caltagirone, with a friendly staff and few guests. We would have paid almost anything at that point for a nice room and to not have to drive any where else!
This morning the wind had died down as had the rain and we headed to Ragusa, intending to stay the night. We found the old town nearly shut down, between the cold and the rain, and being out of season, it was pretty depressing. A nice lady in  a candy shop suggested Modica, and that is where we are now. After a lovely lunch of unusual pasta with a wild boar sauce and ricotta, we found a new small hotel, just 7 rooms, in an old palazzo. We got the last 2 rooms and I am using their free internet access. For the last few nights, the hotels all had broken computers for the public, so it has been impossible to send email.
I know this is really long, but now you know our adventures, and I have a record for myself  for later.
My fingers are tired, and I want to try out my beautiful bed for a nap before dinner!

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 6:17 am  Leave a Comment  

Travel is complicated, sometimes

Hi all,
We are in Caltagirone, not a planned stop. Our route since Palermo has been plagued by bad weather, with a few moments of absolutely wonderful blue skies. Erice was fogged out, so we stayed only a few hours. Trapani, the next day was gorgeous, and we continued along the coast and had a serendipitous visit to Mozia, a Phonecian settlement. Amazing morning, a boat ride across a lagoon to visit the ruins of a rare nature, encountering a group of American students on a classics semester, then stopping for snacks in lovely Marsala. By the time we reached Sciacca, the weather was changing, and we decided to head for Agrigento, although we knew it would be dark. It rained hard and the trip was long, and we found ouselves locked behind a metal gate when we stopped to turn around in a well lit driveway. We had to call Hertz to call the police to get someone to unlock the gate. All in all , a very complicated day.
Here in Caltigirone, we are  again fogged in .Heavy rain, wind and fog make driving impossible. We found a really nice hotel, and hope to move on tomorrow.

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 5:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Well, at least it makes me smile, but not so much for Steve. His bag disappeared between Rome and Palermo, and he is out today buying himself some new clothes. Poor guy, he is taking it well. Not much that I can do to help him, my clothes just would make him look way to weird for this part of the world. We are not in San Francisco anymore!
Dealing with that, and with the oddly run bed and breakfast that we had booked and then decided not to stay in, took up a lot of the day yesterday. We walked with my two rolling bags to the hotel I had stayed at 3 1/2 years ago, and it looked really good to us. The b and b had no resident manager, the phones did not work, the doorbell rang no one,  and it was just too hard to manage while waiting to see if the lost bag might appear with no one home. So, off we went, down the Corso Victor Emmanuel, to find the Hotel Posta. It was like coming home! We even had dinner at the last restaurant I ate at here, but this time, we  were able to finish the meal. This Steve is not allergic to fish, and did not have to rush back to the hotel to use his emergency allergy medicine! We had a terrific meal, the best so far in Italy, and just might go back tonight!
We walked today for hours, as one does, and saw a lot of the central part of Palermo. There is something about this place that I just love. It is just barely under control, the buildings are dirty, the streets go off in all directions, and the traffic is murderous. Still, it is lively, beautiful in its own way, and makes me smile just to be here. We are near the Piazza San Domenico, which I adore. It has a big church, a central fountain with a huge sculpture in the middle, shops on one side and a major shopping street on another. It is paved, as is much of the city, in huge granite blocks that tilt in various directions and are smooth with generations of wear. At night, it is illuminated and looks majestic. I love the way it tilts just  slightly away from the major street, the Via Roma, and towards the direction of the harbor. The small shops and restaurants are interrupted by the entrances to alleys, some that lead to other small piazzas, some to long streets with shops and markets. It seems like the distillation of what I like here. Majestic, rather over the top architecture and sculpture, up against buildings that havent been cleaned since Napoleon ruled, and iron balconies hanging from nearly every window, often with clothes attached.
We found our way to the Palazzo Real, with the Palatine Chapel,and its famous mosaics. Naturally it is being restored, and only part of it is visible. In exchange for taking lots of money to see the partial chapel, the authorites have decided to include a tour of some rooms of the Palace, which is in fact where the Sicilan parliament meets regularly. It is wonderful to see the 1000+ yr old building in constant use and constant restoration! We had lunch at a  Tunisian restaurant, and enjoyed the change from Italian.
Tomorrow we head towards Monreal, and Erice with a probable stop at Segesta, one of the many Greek temples we will visit. I hope to see some new sights too, and I’m sure I will. Palermo has looked different to me today than it did before, in good and bad ways. I know more about the mafia than I did last time, and keep wondering what its impact is on the poverty and decripitide of much of the city. I doubt that I will ever know. I still love it here.

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 5:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Rome, 2007

The usual long long flight was actually not too
bad.Luftansa is a notch up from United. In the
Frankfurt boarding lounge waiting for the delayed
connecting flight to Rome, I struck up a conversation
with a woman who turned out to be a prof. of Spanish
history at UWis, Madison. Small world. We chatted and
exchanged info, and I will look her up next time I’m there.
Rome is big,of course, but so neighborhoody, more than
I had realzed on my earlier visit. We are staying in
the Prati area, near the Vatican. In fact, the wall of
the Vatican is just across the street from the hotel.
Made it easy to get in line Sat. morning to see the
Vatican Museums. Wow, I know that I was here before,
but this was a really different visit. We started in
the painting gallery, with a breathtaking collection
of medieval altarpieces and related art.The collection
went up to about the 16th century, with the later
stuff more typical of what you see in so many
churches,ie, angels, Christs, Marys, etc. all in
diaphonous clothes, all looking rapturous. The really
really old art has such honesty and directness, and if
the truth be told, from my perspective, a quirkiness
that I just love. Figures with faces that reflect the
poverty of their lives, the odd Christ baby with the
face of a middle aged man. I just love that stuff.
Then we went into the Vatican proper, and started the
long march toward the Sistine Chapel, the Holy Grail
for Vatican visitors. For me, the way was as good as
the end point. The hallways were so amazing, with
painted ceilings and walls and with so many sculptures
that you can’t really look at any one for long. The
crowd is moving along,and you have to sort of drop out
of the flow to stop and look at individual objects.
Most people seem to be single minded in their quest
for the Sistine ceiling. One section of that hall that
both of us esp. liked was the map area. It was lined
with 17th century maps of different parts of Italy,
with towns noted, and some town plans shown. It was
fun to try and figure out the places that we knew, and
challenging because the names are in Latin rather than
in Italian. Also interesing, since we are headed there
tomorrow, Sicily was not included in the maps, except
for the far north east corner. It was controlled then
by either France or Spain, I am not sure which.
We saw the amazing Rafael painting of the School of
Athens. so great! my previous experience of it in
slides and other reproductions was no match at all for
the reality. It is also one of the very few pieces of
art that are not about Christian history. The figures
are really active and thought provoking. Makes me
wonder how it was viewed at the time, in the 1500s? I
could imagine Rafael wandering back and forth to check
on Michangelos progress while Rafael was working on a
different set of rooms.Finally we made it to the end,
to the Sistine Chapel and its ceiling. It is brightly
colored, vivid in both color and figural movement and
shapes. Michaelangelo did amazing men, but, in
fairness, his women are awful. Just men with these
little grapefruit shaped balls stuck on their chests.
Oh well, he did so much and did it all so well, I can
grant him one small fault. What this trip to the
Vatican pointed out to me was what an incredible
genius Michaelangelo was- The ceiling, the Pieta in
St.Peters, the dome of St.Peters, the city plan for
part of Rome, what was there the man could not do? I
want to learn more about him when I get back. The
Agony and the Ecstasy was not enough information I now
We found a terrific restaurant for a long dinner, and
so were late for our reservation at the Alexanderplats
jazz club where we sat right in front of the stage. We
had backless stools about 18 inches from the end of
the guest sax players instrument! The headliner was a
guy named Steve Grossman, from NY. The rest of the
group was a mix of Italians and a drummer who was
African, but spoke with an American accent. It was a
classic European jazz club, or at least my image of
what one is like. It is downstairs, underground, with
a bar and several small rooms. The place was totally
packed, a fire marshall would have had a heart attack!
It got pretty hot too, and the music certainly
contributed to that. Terrific, straight ahead jazz
that really kept swinging for long sets. We arrived at
10:45, and they were already started for a 10:30 start
time. The first break wasn’t until about 12:15. We
stayed until 12:45, when I just had to leave.Even
though the band was still going strong, my eyelids
were trying hard to close. We had been up since 7am,
walking all through the Vatican and were just
exhausted. It was a great day.
Today, Sunday, we took it a bit easier. We started out
with a subway ride to a basilica in the south of Rome,
then spent several hours walking from the Pizz. Espana
to the Pizz. Navona, back to the Pizz. Popolo, to see
some more Caravaggios. I ran out of steam then and
caught a taxi back to the hotel at about 5:30, Steve
walked all the way back. He has more energy than I
do, but I am trying to keep up with him, it might do
me some good. Tomorrow morning we fly to Palermo to
start our investigation of Sicily. More to come.

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment