A bit of Baku center city,a quest

Saturday morning, Shabbat for the observant , means going to the synagogue. So, some of the group did that and some of us broke into small groups and headed out to explore the central areas of Baku. I was in search of old or “antiq” jewelry as souvenirs. In Iran and in Turkey I had found places that had odds and ends of old, usually silver-ish traditional style necklaces and earrings. This sort of thing is perfect to bring home- low intrinsic value, small and light. Baku being a very old city gave me hope that there might be a source of interesting stuff. I was ready for the hunt.

Three of us headed out to explore the Old City area, where our hotel is located. It is a hilly part of Baku, but not far from the Caspian Sea. I had asked everyone I encountered about where to look and one after another I got a vague wave of the hand and the comments “in the Old City”, somewhere. There are quite a few small shops selling souvenir craft stuff, ceramics from Turkey, small machine made carpets and shiny fake-looking jewelry items. One guy had some old stuff, but it wasn’t really anything I’d use and his price was way too high ( $150 for one that needed repair). I kept dragging my small band from shop to shop. They were patient and understanding – a quest is important when traveling, it gives you a focus for asking questions and interacting with people.  

As we walked along music started, and we walked a bit faster towards the sound. People were standing on a section of wall dancing with their arms in the air and wide smiles on their faces! Down the slope a bit there were more people dancing to the music, in a long line. It started, and then it ended and everyone left. I have no idea what it meant, but it seemed joyous and that is always good.                

I did manage to find a guy who sold me some silver bangles with interesting inscribed patterns. He said that they were “old” but the lack of signs of wear left me unconvinced. Still, my quest was somewhat resolved,not totally satisfactorily. Oddly enough, it was time for lunch and one of my small band had researched food options in Baku before leaving for the trip and suggested a place not in the Old City but not far away. We encountered another small group and decided to head out to lunch together. The kebab place turned out to have excellent food and we enjoyed ourselves. On the way back to the hotel there was a distraction- a shop selling knock-offs of famous designer clothes and accessories. Some of us were more drawn to this display than others, but somehow we all managed to be entertained by the bright colors.

Back at the hotel, the schedule said that at 3 the group was walking to the Carpet Museum and Modern Art Museum, but when we arrived back at 2, much of the group was assembled in the Atrium listening to a woman who apparently was from the office of the President talking about  religious freedom in Azerbaijan. I ducked out and headed to my room to reconnect with Bill who had been out walking along the Caspian for a few hours. We decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and hang out in the sunlit atrium of the hotel and catch up on writing and reading. After a bit, I felt like some tea and walked over to the small cafe off of the hotel lobby. I asked for two cups of tea and maybe a piece of their version of baklava. The waiter brought it to us ,including a plate of 4 pieces of the nutty delicious cake(that’s how it comes, apparently).  We didn’t mean to, but he brought it and we ate it!

Dinner was at a converted caravansary down the street and then we were going to experience celebrating Purim at the “European” synagogue, a bus ride away. A caravansary was a particular kind of building which was designed to function as  a stable for camels, a hotel for the traveling traders and a kind of hall for trading goods from their caravans.I first saw a caravansary in the south desert area of Iran, out in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. The color of the stone from which it was made was just the same as the desert all around, so it blended in to the surroundings very well.

This caravansary is different , in a city rather than the desert is a very big difference. On a high part of the Old City, and about a quarter mile from the Caspian Sea, I could imagine a string of camels trudging up the cobblestones and under the archway into the courtyard of the caravansary. Our dining room was down in a stone basement with an arched ceiling. A long table was set for our large party of 30+. The evening took a detour due to the celebration of the birthday of one of the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which included a delicious cake and surprise musicians. They had local instruments and also sang. Everyone got involved in dancing to Hava Nagila deep under Baku! With a lot of good energy surging through our group, we descended the hill and boarded our bus for the Purim celebration.

The synagogue is Orthodox, with a central bima, or raised platform for reading from the Torah, and a balcony for the women. Not my cup of tea, but for Purim, women were allowed downstairs, with screens were erected lest men see women dancing and enjoying themselves. We arrived while the Megillah, the story of how Esther saved the Jews of old Persia and defeated the evil advisor to the King,by the name of Haman was still being read. The tradition is that each time the name Haman is read, the assembled crowd boos and bangs on things and tried to drown out his name. And there can be drinking involved.And then, there is loud music and dancing. I hadn’t been to a Purim celebration since my sons were young and it was fun, for a while.

Bill and I retired to the waiting bus and met up with a few others who had decided that enough was enough for that evening. Another day in Baku. Tomorrow we go to meet the “Mountain Jews” in Quba.


Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 4:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Meetings, meetings, meetings and Shabbat dinner

The organizers of this trip have done amazing work, and I give them a tremendous amount of credit. They convinced a number of Azerbanjani government ministries that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was worth their time to meet. We have no real status, no authority and no power and yet, there we were in the conference room of the Minister of Education discussing the Azerbanjani  education system and how it deals with issues of bullying! Everyone was very nice and seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, after telling us about how the country inherited a Soviet style education system which valued a more rote style that they believe is not what is best for their country. They are working to change the system, little by little. They built a great many new schools in the past few years, with the oil money that drives this economy. The downturn in oil prices must be having a big impact on many projects. One question that was raised by our group concerned the role of religious schools in the country. There are a few, but they are totally separate from the public schools. I am getting the impression that here in Azerbaijan, religion really does live separately from government. The information we are getting from different sources seems consistent. This is surely the only majority Muslim country where religion really is not the focus of the country. Very few women wear hijab, we don’t hear the call to prayer and there is alcohol everywhere!

From the Education Ministry we took our bus to the quite new campus of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy University.The campus is on a hill and currently consists of 3 gorgeous buildings, all with “smart” technology as well as echos of some of the more traditional elements of the local architecture. We were escorted and interacted with a smooth and worldly young-ish man who is a vice-chancellor and in charge of the foreign students. The programs include international economics, business and computer science among others. Our guide showed us through a classroom building where the floor of the central atrium space was designed out of different marbles in imitation of a traditional carpet pattern. The library has all of the most up to date technologies and a cafe in the lobby. In the student center building, with fast food and a coffee shop on the ground floor and faculty offices and some meeting rooms upstairs, we had a chance to ask our guide a few more questions. Pointing to the window, he said “that building with the curved side is the Trump Tower, but the letters have all been removed”. He had read the New Yorker article ( seems like everyone here has read it) and agreed that the company Trump was in business with has some shady dealings in it’s background , but he did not believe that there could possibly be any connections with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as described in the article. Me, I figure that the New Yorker has been right about so many things – remember it broke the Abu Ghraib story- that I’ll wait to see if anyone can actually disprove the connection. 

We chatted and chatted some more, then eventually headed for the bus only to encounter the Chancellor of the 2000 student institution, a former long-term Ambassador to the US from Azerbaijan. He seemed quite happy to chat, too. by this time, we are running really late, and there is one more meeting on the agenda. It cannot be moved, so we are delaying lunch again, until after we meet with the State Committee on the work with Religious Institutions. Another conference room, another long table, photographer and this time a video camera. Most of us are pretty burned out on meetings and really need lunch, it’s now around 2:30pm. We finally leave and are waiting on the sidewalk, blocking other pedestrians waiting for the main organizers, Sheryl and Irada and Attia when we learn that they are being interviewed for a local television station! More delays before lunch! Finally we can head back towards our neighborhood and lunch was quick and delicious.

Some down time, but not too much because it’s Friday night and Shabbat services will be held at 6:30 in the hotel, followed by dinner. 

I haven’t been to a Friday night Shabbat service in many many years. While I was raised in a Conservative synagogue, my adult life has been with much more liberal institutions of Judaism, if any. This evening the service was led by our leader Sheryl’s husband, a rabbi in the conservative tradition. There was lots of unfamiliar Hebrew, the Kaddish prayer for the Dead was recited twice ( I don’t understand that at all) and in general it was mostly a frustrating experience. There was a short Amidah, or standing silent prayer, during which I tried to ask myself why I felt so alienated from so much of the tradition I was supposed to be a part of.I didn’t come up with an answer, but I learned later that I was not alone in my feelings. Religion is a complicated aspect of life and so personal. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is trying to bridge the gap between Islam and Judaism through increased understanding and exposure. That is a great idea, but we need to find ways to learn more about each other’s traditions in open and frank discussions. It’s not easy, that much I know just from trying to do the same with other Jews about our religion and the variety of ways there are to be Jewish.I am looking forward to more experiences of shared traditions.

Irada, the Azerbaijan/American woman who is an unpaid, self-motivated booster in the US of all things Azerbaijan from her home in Houston, had invited a few women who she knew here who might be interested in  attending the service and the dinner after upstairs in the hotel. One or two of the 6 women had Jewish backgrounds, the others were Muslim to varying degrees. One woman ended up sitting across from me at dinner and we engaged in a lively conversation covering topics from religion to politics and freedom of the press. By the end of the evening we exchanged cards and as of this afternoon, I think we might be able to meet up before we leave Baku. She is a lawyer/consultant for a large international firm and extremely bright and worldly. I have a feeling that we might become friends, at least via email and Facebook!


Published in: on March 11, 2017 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

From sea to mountains,and back. Partial post

At the moment, technology is defeating me. I wrote this, then went to dinner. After dinner I added another 500 words. WordPress is supposed to auto-save every minute. Apparently this time it didn’t, so when I went to re-look at it all, somehow the last section disappeared. I’m too tired to re-write it now. Maybe tomorrow. Sorry.
After breakfast we got on the bus and headed out of Baku, to the north-west. Our destination was the mountain community of Sheki or Saki, or Seki, various spellings of the same place. We spent the night in a new resort hotel higher up on the same mountain.Our drive led us through new and not so new suburban areas around Baku. As we got farther from the city, the arid landscape was more evident and patches of salt deposits shone white against the light brown earth. Few if any trees grow here, the soil is not fertile. Evidence of attempts to plant trees and the work of irrigating them was visible.

As we went higher in elevation, the surrounding landscape became greener. At a switch-back in the “highway” the bus pulled over so that we could climb down and look out at the panorama of the mountains out ahead of us. It was International Women’s Day, which is celebrated here with gifts of flowers to all the women in one’s life. At breakfast in the hotel every women was handed a bouquet of paper white narcissus, lovely to look at but, in my case, a noxious smell! I guess it is something in my personal chemistry, but I was very pleased to leave then behind!

However, Elchin, our tour manager, had lovely pink roses for all of the women in our group and that I liked very much!

At the spot where our us stopped there were several young men trying to sell flowers, as we saw all through the countryside in our trip today.Even in the restaurant where we stopped for a buffet lunch, the female kitchen staff walked through the dining room holding red roses!

Our next stop was for a bathroom and tea and jam break at a outdoor dining pavilion on a lovely/windy hillside. Outside of hotels, most of the toilets we are encountering are of the squat over the ceramic “hole” in the floor variety. This works just fine for most of us, although some women object vigorously each time there is no option. Leaving home means learning about how others live, including how they handle their bodily needs. It’s always interesting to experience the world as others do, at least for me!

The next time we stopped was to visit one of the few churches of the Udi Christian sect. I’m really not sure exactly what sets them apart from general Christianity but the style of their cross was fascinating and I wish I could figure out the photo to blog issue! It seems to have tulip shapes on the ends but they are actually meant to be crescent moons, reflecting something about their relationship to the moon. Two men met us and answered some questions about their faith and the structure which was rebuilt after the Soviet era where many houses of faith were damaged or destroyed and thousands of believers were killed.

The air was heavy with the smoke from fires burning up the fallen branches and trimmings from the winter. Being a Californian and very aware of air pollution it was really shockingly smoky everywhere we traveled as the practice of burning was prevalent all across the rural areas. Many of us felt our breathing impacted just a bit by the smoke.And the visual impact was also significant as the landscape was blurred by the smoke.

After a bit of a long drive through increasingly green and hilly countryside,past many small and some large flocks of sheep, we arrived in Sheki so that some of the group could attend late afternoon prayer in one of the city’s mosques. While they prayed I wandered around a bit and took some pictures,including a trio of taxi drivers who loved posing for me. I’d include it here, but I still can’t figure out how to connect the camera and the iPad. Total frustration!

There is a lovely river that flows through the center of town, with bridges crossing it. Very nice place.

Our hotel was not in town but up higher on the mountain, it wants to be a “resort” and maybe it is, in ski season. Although I didn’t see the usual ski lift apparatus or any other sign of that sort.

We went to our room, on the 6th floor, through an elevator lobby large enough for a wedding party and down a hallway so wide 8 people could walk abreast, easily! Who designs these places?

Dinner was up the hill at the related restaurant that is not actually in the hotel. Another feast, but it’s all fine and this time we went around the table introducing ourselves. We were encouraged to talk a bit about why we joined the Sisterhood which was a fascinating listen.

The room was so hot that we had to open the door to the balcony to allow for some cooling-wasteful but what can you do?

After breakfast ( we arrived too early, just moments before they agreed to be open at 8am and confusion reigned in the breakfast room!) we dropped our luggage on the bus and hopped into 3 small vans for the ride to the near-by village of Kish to see the other Armenian Christian church. Getting there was part of the adventure. Heavy rains earlier in the year had washed out the only bridge over the now dry and very wide river that separates Kish from our hotel. So the vans had to negotiate a temporary dirt dam full of potholes and then the very narrow steep cobblestone streets of the village. We got out and wandered into the courtyard of the restored church. It was one of the victims of the Soviet era

Published in: on March 10, 2017 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

A scare re:iPad, then Bologna delivers

Sunday my iPad refused to charge. I looked at the Internet for help, finally arranged a call from Apple for Monday morning. Nope,nothing the nice guy in Dublin could do,I’d have to take it to the nearest Apple Store which happened to be in Bologna, our next destination.

After a longer than  anticipated train ride ( our first train to Padua was late and we missed our connection), we arrived hot and sweaty at our Bologna hotel. The very helpful front desk clerk assured me that the Apple Store was not a long walk at all, and so , after collapsing for an hour , we set off with it in a bag on my shoulder. A very nice, helpful young man at the very familiar looking Apple Store, asked me what I was there for and I told him. We tried to plug it in there, but nothing happened. I was worried. Coming back right at 9am was suggested. In a last ditch effort, the nice Apple guy took a kind of paper clip-like wire device and poked around in the slot where the fire-wire connector goes. I didn’t see any unnatural “stuff” come out, but he offered to plug it in again, have us wait for 10 min. And see if anything different happened.I was doubtful. But it did start charging again! Who knows what was wrong, maybe some “belly-button” type lint got into it, it is 3+ years old (ancient for an apple product).

We stopped and had dinner and plugged the baby in and Voila la- 100% in the morning!!

Our hotel is in a pretty good location,  not exactly right near anything, but kind of near lots of things. This morning we walked down the same busy street, Via Independencia, we walked last night to go to the Apple Store.On both sides of the street the buildings lower floors are a series of arched loggias. Block after block , with shops and cafes all sharing a polished terrazzo sidewalk and enormous columns you can walk for long distances without ever being in the direct sun,nice in the late summer heat here. We did venture out of the shade to explore the center of the city based on the on-line tour of a former Fulbright scholar who lived here a few years ago. She was concerned that there was so little available to guide first-time visitors to Bologna, a city that she had come to love. For about 2 hours we followed her suggestions and saw a lot of the city center’s historic spots.

The main public library, for example, was at one time the stock exchange, then a basketball arena. In the last 20 years, Roman ruins were discovered underneath the building and in excavating them a decision was made to open it up to the public. One can look down through glass tiles in the lobby of the library, and then you can go downstairs and walk just above the ancient stones and tiles on metal walkways! Totally cool!

The huge church which makes one side of the public square, the Basilica di San Petronio.It is really, really big- hard to see just how large from the front. The building was begun in 1390 but still is not quite done! The facade is rough brick above and elegant white and pink marble below.According to legend, the Pope at the time learned about the plans for this really big, really elegant church and stopped it- fearing it would rival Saint Peter’s in Rome. Jealousy is a tyrant! The interior however is finished, my how it is finished! Marbles, frescos, gold leaf, and a pair of the saddest faced lions ever carved are all in there among the 22 chapels. There is also a strange “thing”, a Meridian Line that was installed into the floor as a sundial in 1655. I associated meridian lines with Celtic Mystics in Great Britian ( having encountered a few there), but this served a different purpose. Telling time and apparently it is very precise, for that sort of thing.

We went upstairs into what had been the first consolidated building for the University of Bologna from the 1500’s until 1803. It housed the medical school, hence the Anatomical Theater where cadavers would be dissected on a marble slab in the center of the elegantly wood panel led theater space. Students would listen to the lecturer who sat at a high lectern explaining what was happening. The room has a carving of Neptune on the ceiling and a pair of carved men who appear to have had their skins removed so as to reveal the muscles underneath hold up part of the lectern’s canopy.

The hallways are resplendent with paintings and especially with thousands of coats of arms  and names of students and with dedications to famous teacher/physicians going back hundreds of years.

Bologna feels very different than Vicenza. For one, it is about 3 times the population. Then the architecture is heavier, solid, massive. Although the theme around here is arcades, which make for a lot of similar feeling streetscapes that have space between the storefronts and the streets. The Centro, or city center of Vicenza is really nearly car-free and rather peaceful. Bologna is full of buses, motor scooters, taxis and people ! so much busier than Vicenza. I like it enough for our short visit, but I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to return.

Late this afternoon, we took a short taxi ride to the Modern Art Museum, or MAMBO, which also houses the Museo Morandi. Giorgio Morandi was born here in Bologna and seldom left the place. He lived with  his 2sisters for his entire lifetime, which allowed him to do his work and to be distracted by the demands of ordinary life,like cooking meals or paying bills. By all accounts he was a generally nice man who  just wanted to be left alone most of the time. He did teach etching at the Fine Arts Faculty of the University, and he sold  a lot of work in his lifetime as well. According the the film at the exhibit, his sisters managed all of the money and he had no idea how much he had accumulated. When, in his late 60’s he proposed buying land and building a house n the  country near where he and his sisters had rented in the summers for many years, the architect proposed a house of some distinction, befitting a by then very famous painter.Apparently, Morandi asked for a piece of paper and a pencil and drew a very simple box-like house and told the architect that was what he wanted! Poor frustrated architect !

Seeing dozens of paintings and etchings and quite a few drawings and watercolors gave me a renewed appreciation for the work he produced.Keeping forms and color simple, he communicated through subtle line and shape. Sometimes the forms of the bottles and bowls are cramped together, sometimes spread out. Sometimes the light seems to radiate from the painting, sometimes they are nearly monochrome. Bill was kind of surprised to finally see this work, since I had raved about it. Hmm, was his response. He said that he could understand how, as a painter, I might find it interesting. Bill is a very patient man! We walked back to our hotel from the museum, now with a bit more understanding of Morandi and of Bologna.

Tomorrow we get up early and take a 8:50 train to  Ravenna to see the famous mosaics in a bunch of buildings. I may be too tired to write tomorrow night, or maybe not.

Thursday we again take a train, this time to Florence where we pick up a rental car and head directly out of town to our “agritourismo” not too far from Siena, for 4 nights. Then to Florence and the last 5 days of our trip. Can’t believe we are half way through.

Ciao and comments are welcome!




Published in: on September 13, 2016 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Castles, castles everywhere

No posts for a few days and here’s why. In Venice our internet went out Thursday afternoon and never returned. Friday morning we packed up and climbed over the one bridge between us and the best vaporetto to get us to the train station. Riding in the crowded boat with our luggage next to a young mother with her two kids and lots of tourists, I experienced my usual sadness about leaving my favorite city. There is nowhere like Venezia and a part of my heart responds to it every time I am there just as it did the first time I stepped out of the train station in 1987.

Arriving in Vicenza for the weekend we met up with friends Meike and Davide and their son Jordan. Meike is a young woman I have known since her teen years in San Francisco. Her Mother and I were in a book group together for many years and we all belonged to Or Shalom, the very progressive synagogue in town. She even babysat for Andy and Ben a few times. Meike met Davide while an undergraduate studying at the University of Padua and for them, the relationship has worked out for the long term. Settling in Vicenza, having a baby, buying a house all the life highlights of any young couple, but in Italian. They are hosting us in a delightfully helpful way and we appreciate it immensely.

Our small hotel is in the historic “Centro” of Vicenza,within the old city walls. We are just a block off of the Corso Palladino, the main pedestrian shopping and strolling street. It is busy with local shoppers as well as tourists at all hours of the day. Except for 1:30-4,because most shops close then for the  afternoon.It can be frustrating if your time is limited and you want  to get things done, but that is the way of life here.People don’t seem to want to be in a hurry. At home, everyone seems to be busy as a matter of course. Here, I just  don’t think that “busy” would be the response to the”How  are you?” Question that everyone asks so routinely. “Fine” is more likely.

Saturday Meike took us to see some of the Palladian villas close to Vicenza. The one we did see, “La Rotunda” was amazing ( the other was closed.  For a wedding). Its symmetrical, square shape topped with a huge dome, is a beautiful example of Palladio’s concept of returning to the classic forms in architecture. The interior of the dome as well as the  other ceilings in the building are covered with elaborate decoration, paintings and patterns that somehow seem at odds with the architecture’s simplicity. But maybe that is just my bias for “less is more”modernism. The setting of the house, on a hill surrounded by open fields has been maintained despite so many changes since it was built in about 1566. Still, standing on the terrace in the back of the house, looking  out, one  can easily delete the road passing between two rows of tall trees and see what Andrea Palladiio saw. The house is privately owned and is used by the owners regularly. One living room, furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs and sofas was especially inviting for a nice hour of reading with a breeze coming in the open windows. Alas, it was not offered!

We had lunch  at Meike’s home and got to see how Italians live today. Their place is really large, with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths on 3 levels with a small back garden and a garage. Lunch was a variety of different “flavored” of a kind of filled pasta I had never seen  before. Round, thickly filled pillows about 2″ in diameter filled with ricotta and prunes, one with ricotta and zucchini and one with a tomato flavored pasta and filling. Delicious ! With salad and Parmesan cheese, of course.

We left their house with their car so that we could drive ourselves to Marostica for our evening’s special event, the “Human Chess Game”. Based on a mid 20th century story set in Marostica, the town has produced a week-end long series of performances one time every 2 years since the 1940’s. It is a spectacle that involved about 600  residents of this small town(abut 13,000 population) about 30 minutes from central Vicenza. Arriving just after 6pm, we easily found parking next to the Castle and set off in search of dinner. Our first choice was fully booked ( we didn’t think of reserving ahead) but then another restaurant decided that it could accommodate us in about 30 minutes. We wandered off and looked at the historic, 14 century stone walls and high castle that surmount the hill above the City. Dinner was lovely and we made our way to our seats high in the temporary grandstands erected all around the main plaza of the City. The event begins at 9pm, well into the dark evening. The pageant includes about a dozen mounted horses, some of which take part in the  chess game, some just seem to be atmosphere. There were lots of men throwing long handled colorful flags around, children in scenes of medieval village life and a devil character whose role was amusing, if unclear to me. A monk in a brown habit wandered around with a small donkey as well,again unclear as to his role but definitely picturesque!

There was fire all around the chessboard on the pavement of the plaza to start, and fireworks at the end as well.The chess game was played with people as the chess pieces including 2 train-bearers for each Queen, a wonderful “Castle” boxy wooden structure on wheels for each castle and of course, Knights on real horses for the Knights. The horses did not always want to stand still on their squares and needed to be lead around a few times to calm them down. When it was all over, the lights turned the plaza reddish pink, fireworks shot out from the top of the Castle and then more fireworks spilled over the wall of the Castle like a waterfall, very beautiful. We eventually got out of the  parking lot, after waiting for many busses to fill up and depart first. By the time we got back to our hotel it was nearly 1am.

Look for some pictures on Facebook. I’ll try again to set up the wifi so that I can load photos directly to the blog. But not right now. Davide is coming any minute to show us around the Centro and then take us home for a home-made carbonara pasta using eggs from chickens they keep at his garage!

tomorrow we leave for Bologna.




Published in: on September 11, 2016 at 10:48 am  Comments (1)  

New-ish art and definitely Old Art

We tried to leave the neighborhood early this morning, but I foiled the plan by getting into a fascinating conversation with a craftswoman whose storefront I have been looking into for 5 days. Finally I just said, I want to go in. The ever patient Bill said, “then go” and I went. She , Lauretta, makes beautiful objects using grosgrain ribbon sewn onto linen and cotton textiles. She has bags of all sorts, large and small, and some dresses. These were really lovely, but somehow I feared the space that they would take up and a future of sitting on a shelf with lots of other bags I already own. She also makes jewelry out of glass, resin,wire and even ribbon. I was attracted by some of her necklaces,so we started looking at the different styles and colors. She asked where we were from and we told her San Francisco. Oh, I’m moving to Texas in January! , she volunteered.

It turned out to be a wonderful, I hope, love story. She met a young man when she was 17 and he was 21, on the beach on Lido. He had family in Venice but had grown up in South Africa. They spent a day together, and, as she said, had one kiss.

She was a native of the Venetian Lagoon, with family history in the glass industry going back generations. Eventually, she told us that in her mid-30’s she adopted a daughter from Peru, spending 3 months there in the process. Clearly not a woman fearful of breaking with convention!

He moved eventually to the US and settled in Texas, near Dallas. Last year, his sister moved to Venice to work and somehow met a friend of Lauretta’s. The connection was established and Lauretta and a friend flew to Los Angeles to meet this man, again. Apparently, the spark was still there!  they met again somewhere else( neither Bill nor I can recall the details) and decided to marry after she moves to Texas.

She was so excited, but I thought “oh my, this could be awful! Venice to Texas without ever visiting!” We wished her well and purchased a necklace and some earrings and were on our way.

In order to reach the Palazzo Grassi, directly across the Grand Canal from our vaporetto stop Ca’Rezzonico, there used to be a Traghetto, or public gondola service. For whatever reason, it has been discontinued at that location. In fact Bill discovered by some research, there used to be 30 or so Traghetto locations, now there are 7 ( but since the  one near us is listed, we know it is more likely 6,if that). So, we could either walk over to the Accademia bridge, not so far, but through extremely crowded streets that we fought our way through on Monday to get to the Gugenheim, or take a vaporetto one stop. We chose the boat.

The Palazzo Grassi  is now an exhibition space currently housing a large show of varied work by the late German artist Sigmar Polke.We made our way there eventually, stopping yet again for me to  look in a shop that caught my eye. Honestly, not  that much attracts me here. So much is more kitsch than art or good craft.I did buy some gorgeous earrings, enough said.( the theme of purchases is small , is that obvious?)

Sigmar Polke work varies from small “studies” of color on canvas, to water media “drawings”on notebook pages, to room sized paintings using everything from paint on canvas to resin and wood veneer on polyester that becomes translucent. There were also 2 videos.

The building is spectacular- an 18th century palazzo with intricately decorated ceilings and inlaid marble floors. It fronts onto theGrand Canal and has nice campo next door. It was all great fun.

Our next stop was the Scuola de San Roco, and Il Frari church both on the other side of the Grand Canal.  Back on a vaporretto for one stop,taking us across the wide Grant Canal. So much of the pleasure of Venice is the incredible variety of watercraft one sees. From those hulking cruise ships to a tiny one man kayak, lots of “working boats” delivering goods and people to job sites and water taxis and private motor boats of all sizes, the Grand Canal is never a dull place to be. Even the smaller canals, of which there are hundreds, the water is full of entertainment all day and well into the evenings.

The Scuola de SanRoco is an enormous 3 story structure near the church of the same name. The Scuole Grandi, of which there are 6 are unique to Venice.

From Wikipedia:

The Scuole Grandi (literally “Great Schools”, plural of: Scuola Grande) were confraternity or sodality institutions in Venice, Italy. They were founded as early as the 13th century as charitable and religious organizations for the laity. These institutions had a capital role in the history and development of music. Inside these Scuole were born at the beginning of 16th century the first groups of bowed instrument players named “Violoni”.[1]

It also happened that the commissioned some of the best artists of their time to decorate the interiors. San Roco, begun in 1516, contains many paintings by Tintoretto as well as others of his time, and amazing wood carvings lining the gigantic and incredibly elegant meeting rooms upstairs. The ceiling is covered with paintings made to be seen from below that depict Biblical scenes. The walls are also completely filled with amazing paintings showing mostly the life of Christ. It was humbling to be there, even though I had seen it before. It’s so much to take in that 2 or even 3 visits is not too much.

I Frari is a gothic church, started in the 14thCentury and made of brick, very unusual here, for a church. Again the scale is hard to explain. A person feels very small in the building, very inconsequential , which I suspect was the plan. Huge memorials to artists like Canova  and Tintoretto are on the sides. In a side chapel is a 3 part altarpiece by Bellini which depicts Mary and Jesus as a baby and is one of the most serene images of Mary that I have seen. She looks like a proud Mama, holding her son. a normal,attractive, calm woman. Just lovely.

We walked back to our favorite campo, Santa Margarita and had a drink and some olives while we talked about the day and had a few moments of imagining spending maybe a month here, sometime. I don’t think I’d get bored, and Bill feels the same. It’s a tiny place, really, but so incredibly dense that to get to really know it would take a long time.Despite the tourists, the unique charm of Venice still works for me. Imagine the evening without cars, no noise other than occasional boat motors, dogs barking,kids playing , people talking in their houses that you can here as you walk along home. Peaceful, beautiful, my heart feels good here. Tomorrow is our last day,we have to leave by 11 on Friday morning and head to Vicenza.



Published in: on September 7, 2016 at 9:43 pm  Comments (1)  

A Dorsudoro Kind of Day

A Dorsoduro kind of day

I hate to sound whiny, but I seem to be fighting off some kind of upper respiratory bug that settles into my chest in the evenings. Last night, as tired as I was, I slept poorly, waking several times. Bill got up too, we read for a while and then both of us fell asleep until nearly 10!

Once we got moving, we strode off in the direction of the Peggy Gugenheim Collection which is in the same “neighborhood” as our apartment, but faces the Grand Canal quite near the pointy end of the lower 1/3 of Venice. It was about a 20 min walk, including dodging an awful lot of tourists with cell phones out. It’s a beautiful walk,through narrow calles, under “sottoporteghios” or covered passages and over lots of small bridges.

The museum is entered through a garden which holds lots of sculptures and Peggy’s grave. And the graves of a great many of her pet dogs( all listed with their dates). The cafe has moved since I was there last, 9 years ago, more out of the way, but it still has good food. Service was slow and we were anxious to get going on the art viewing. The Museum space is a mid-sized one-story palazzo where Peggy lived for about 30 years, befriending and collecting the works of many of the major artists of the first half of the 20th Century. She even married one- Max Ernst, for a while. She has a lot of his paintings. Also Picasso, Braque, Leger, Klee,Kandinsky,Brancusi,Dali, de Chirico, Mondrian, Magritte,and lots of others. My favorite room is the Jackson Pollack space. It contains 5 pieces, each from a different period in his rather brief career. It also has a small sofa which allows a visitor to sit and experience the paintings in a more relaxed manner. And the windows look out at the Grand Canal!

We spent a few minutes in each room enjoying the art and looking at the photos of the rooms when Paggy lived there. Her books and African sculpture , her bedroom with a headboard by Alexnder Calder!

Leaving Peggy behind, we set out for the church known as Salute, an enormous white domed structure very near the end of the Dorsoduro peninsula. It happened to be the time of the afternoon Vespers, with live organ music! Nice addition to our visit to the 17th Century structure. It is more subdued than most Venetian churches, no gilding at all! Lots of nice paintings of religious scenes. Beautiful pristine white stone dome above a marble tiled floor in an extraordinary spiraling pattern .

From there, and right next door, is a new “museum”, a private one founded by the guy who owns the holding company that controls many of the luxury brands of clothing and leather goods and shoes that are advertised in places like Vogue. We all read Vogue don’t we? In any case, the guy has assembled an enormous collection of contemporary art and somehow managed to convert what had been the old customs building, the Dogana da Mar,into a first class art exhibition space. The current show, a curated slice of the collection has some work I was very impressed with, but a lot of others that left me pretty cold. Lots of fun to wander through the rooms which very in size and shape much more than in a purpose-built museum.

From there we walked along the pedestrian path looking out at the basin of San Marco, at some amazing yachts, at cruise ships being tugged through the Guidecca canal, and towering over the architecture in any direction. It is such a shame that Venice allows these ships to come so close to the city. They alter the perception of the space, not to mention dumping thousands of visitors into the city at one time, mostly in the San Mark’s Square area. We have avoided that part of Venice so far, but maybe Thursday morning will get ourselves up early and see if we can get into the Basilica di San Marco without waiting in a long line.

Stopping for a glass of Campari and some cheese along the Zattere walkway around 6pm, we rested and planned for our trip tomorrow to the northern Islands of Torcello and Murano and probably Burano, just because it’s there! I’ve been to Torcello and I’m excited about re-visiting the 12th Century mosaic of the Last Judgement along with other beautiful sites.

More tomorrow .




Published in: on September 6, 2016 at 5:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Jewish history and Regatta!

I didn’t sleep well at all last night so this morning was a bit rough. I powered through the day, but now, at 9:40pm, I’m pretty near exhaustion. I’ll do my best to relay our day, in part because it helps me remember. Each day of travel has so many aspects that writing every night is the only way I can keep track. Even here in Venice, on my 6th visit, there is so much to learn and to experience!

We made our way to the Ghetto, the original “Ghetto” from which all others are named. In Venice, the  rather small island where Jews were allowed to live was originally the site of a foundry, or “geto” in the Venetian dialect. Sometime before 1500 there was a small population of Jews living in the area. After the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal starting in 1492 thousands of Jews fled to other areas of Europe and the Middle East. Many settled in Turkey among the Moslems ,some went to England, and some to Venice. Venice was an independent city, there was no “Italy” until the mid 1800’s. Somewhat like San Francisco, Venice has a history of diversity as it’s trading reach was enormous- across the Mediterrean and into Asia as well as Europe. Jews were useful as commercial go-between screens and as bankers since they had developed systems of currency exchange to facilitate the flow of goods from different parts of Europe. In Venice they were allowed to have one of 4 “professions”- pawnbroker, sales of cloth( schmatta), commerce and medicine.

By 1516 the New Ghetto was established in Venice and the population had reached around 4000 people. The space was small, so building owners added extra stories to their apartment buildings. A the top of several of the buildings are the synagogues, 2 Ashkenazi, 2 Sephardic and one Italian. We were allowed to visit 3 of them, the two Ashnenazi and one Sephardic, the “Levantine ” one. The Spanish synagogue was open yesterday for prayers, but not today for tours. It was a hot afternoon and climbing up to the top floor of these really old structures required some stamina. There were fans going in the sanctuarys, but it was hot!

The synagogues all shared a similar format, more typical of Sephardic than of Ashkenazi synagogues. The “Bima” or speaking area was separate from where the Torah’s are kept, the “Ark”. In most Sephardic synagogues the Bima is a raised platform in the middle of the synagogue space. In each of these, it was at one end of the room, opposite the Ark. Ashkenazi synagogues generally have the Ark on the Bima, but not here. As the tour guide pointed out, these synagogues were designed and built by Gentiles,not Jews.  There were no Jewish architects or craftsmen, so local people,more familiar with the construction of Christian churches were hired. And, as people became successful, the congregations wanted to display their status with the most popular styles of stone and wood carving. In all of the synagogues we saw the elaborate decorations are unlike an other Jewish structures in Europe. Gorgeous marbles, gilded wood and silver hanging lamps along with carved wood pews give these places a formal and incredibly elegant feeling.

After the tour we stopped briefly for lunch outside at a simple cafe run by an Egyptian (right across from one of the synagogues!),then we headed for the Grand Canal to find a place to watch the ceremonial passing of the Doge’s barge along with many others. A great many people were in Renaisance era costumes. Others were rowing standing up on long narrow boats. After the formal procession there were to be races in different categories of boats.

We found a spot right at the vaporetto stop, in front of a church which appeared to be abandoned, hard to tell. There is a raised area, perfect for sitting. On my Facebook page I have tried to post photos. The Internet connection here is very slow and I’m still not seeing the pictures.

There was a long long wait before anything happened. And it was hot, in the direct sun. I drank all of the water I had with me, and Bill offered to go and find me some more! Such a gentleman! I was worried that I might miss the beginning of the procession if I left and Bill is faster than I. The event was supposed to start at 4pm, but we weren’t sure which end of the canal was the beginning. Finally at around 4:30 music blared out from somewhere and the magnificent barges carrying th Doge of Venice and his attendants, floated by. These were unlike any watercraft I’ve ever seen! Gilded, carved with fantastic animals( darn this internet, I do have pictures  and I’ll work on adding them as soon as I can). The people were all in Renaissance costumes waving at the crowds of people lining the long Grand Canal. Then there were lots and lots of other boats mostly rowed by groups of people from clubs, all standing up to row!  Many were in costumes of one sort or the other, some period some related to a profession. Some boats were decorated with fishing related stuff,like traps and nets.Others were featuring produce , and some were kind of pirate-like.

It was a great event, and then we had to walk all the way across Venice to our apartment since the vaporetto service was suspended until  about 7:30pm. Thanks to Bills’s excellent navigation, we arrived back on Calle Lunga de San Barnabas in about 45minutes. That included quite a few bridges (up lots of steps and down lots of steps) and my knees are registering serious complaints. Dinner was at a lovely place outside on the near-by Campo San Barnabas, really about 2 flat blocks along a narrow “street”. Watching people pass by is great dinner entertainment.

Tomorrow we may start to visit some of the famous churches in Venice.  They have amazing art as well as general decoration. One day we will visit Murano, the glass island and little Burano( famous historically for lace, now for being lovely) and then to Torcello, one of my favorite places.

And then there is so much to do and only 4 more days!



Published in: on September 4, 2016 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Venice, never a bad place to be

We slept really well last night. It may have had to do with the wooden shutters over the bedroom windows that blocked all the light, and then the jet lag factor. We were slow getting going today, but that was fine with both of us.

Our first project was picking up our vaporetto (water bus) pass. We decided to get a 7 day pass and bought it on-line, only to realize that it is the same price in person at a vending machine. It really doesn’t matter, but it saves a lot if we end up using the boats more than 8 times in 7 days. We may, or not, but it gives me the feeling of freedom to take the boat whenever I feel like it.

On the way to get the passes, we realized that we had left the print-out in the apartment, so Bill, the faster walker, went back to get it while I stayed , sort of, in the last place we stopped. I ended up returning to Campo Santa Margarhita, where there are benches and some shade and where I met two lovely older men. I sat down on the bench next to them, nodding hello. After a little while the man closest to me said that he and his friend were talking about what they liked to eat. He preferred fish and his friend ate only meat. They were both quite tall, 6’or so, and it turned out that they were both basketball players in their youth, for the Milan professional team.

One man, in a white shirt, said good by and headed out of the square,while the other man,in an orange shirt, continued to chat. His friend had to go home to lunch, his wife was expecting him, he said. The man in the orange shirt didn’t mention a wife, so I suspect he was widowed or perhaps divorced. He told me, with great enthusiasm about how he had gotten to know Bill Bradley in Milan. When Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he would come to Milan on weekends to play basketball with the team! This man from Venice played until he was 30 , then became a high school physical education teacher in Venice. He followed Bradley’s political career and knew that he had been a US Senator. He really was lovely to talk with and I may run into him again, I do hope so.

Our next leg of the day’s journey was to find a COOP store and see about buying a SIM card for my phone. I had been told that the offered the best deal. We went to two of them, no luck. Then we stopped at a tobacconist who told us that only the phone companies sell them now. Oh well, we will tackle that later.

We stopped for lunch at a trattoria near San Polo church, sitting outside, drinking lots of cool water. While there were lots of tourists, at least some of them were speaking Italian, so it didn’t feel too familiar! Venice has so so many American tourists, also Russian and everyone else. Still, in some places farther from the Rialto-San Marco area one can feel the sense of life here. Everyone is walking, all the time,everywhere. There is no alternative. You can’t hail a taxi if you don’t feel up to the subway, like in NY. Of course, being San Franciscans, we are aware of the lack of hills! Still there are bridges to climb up and down if you want to go anywhere except a tiny area. I’m amazed at the older folks, carrying their bags of groceries and doing what they have always done- walking.

We took our first vaporetto ride and headed for a nap. Call it jet lag, call it hot weather, I was weary. Lying on the bed, with the window open I dozed to the sounds of a symphony being played at rather high volume from a house across the canal. The occasional boat started up, a gondola or two passed by with laughing tourists , and I heard it all,but nothing was annoying. I drifted sleepily along. Venice is a dreamy place.

Dinner was at a wonderful, very Venetian, restaurant about a 5 minute walk from our apartment. My Brooklyn friends,Steve and Julie, recommended it from their May visit here. We loved the food, the atmosphere, the staff, the other diners! There was a bachelorette party outside,on the bridge.  We were seated at the end of a long table and a family of 5 sat next to us. Lovely kids, beautiful and nice parents.

We walked another 10 minutes to the Zattere, the long wide sidewalk that follows the huge Guidecca canal. My goal was the Gelateria Nico, where we ordered a couple of ice cream treats ( affogato for me- decaf espresso over vanilla gelato, heaven!) and something with some fruit and ice cream for Bill. We sat at a small table facing the water and watched the parade of dozens of watercraft passing before us. From a huge cruise ship (totally out of scale with Venice, awful to see) to tugboats, car ferries, vapretti, to speedy bouncy small boats, some taxis some private transport. Nothing better in my experience!

Walking back took just 10 minutes or so over a couple of bridges, along a canal, through a narrow passage to our front door. Lovely first full day in Venice.

My desire to post photos is at odds with the Internet in the apartment. I need to be able to connect to transfer images from the camera to the iPad, and so far it refuses to cooperate. When I can, I will. In the meantime I hope to put some photos on Facebook which I can do easily from the phone. I prefer the images from my camera,so I don’t know how I will resolve this. Stay tuned!



PS. Bill also has a blog on WordPress: Billtravels.wordpress.com. You can follow him,too. We write about different things naturally, so it’s kind of like a stereo experience to read us both!

Published in: on September 4, 2016 at 8:09 am  Comments (1)  

Mysterious archaeology, up high, long drive, Gazientep

Yesterday wasn’t my best day on the trip. My stomach was unhappy with something I ate and let me know starting around 3am. Then we realized that this replacement hotel played the same game with the air conditioning that many of the other hotels in this part of the country play. They turn it off during the night. So, since cross ventilation is simply impossible in a hotel room, one wakes up in a sweat in a room with a blowing sound, but only warm-hot air. We opened the window, which helped a bit, but really…. not a fun night.

With the help of my friend Immodium, I joined the group and we headed to Goebekli Tepe ( Potbelly Hill), an archaeological site just 30 mins from Sanliurfa. It was an overcast day, so the temperature was cool. We had all read a bit about this place, in guidebooks, but seeing it was a complete surprise to me. The discovery of this place in 1995 and publicized only in 2011 has changed the way ancient history is understood, so far. This site consists of, so far, 6 or 7 stone circles with large carved stone monoliths placed equally around each circle. 

Gobelki Tepe- stone circles with monoliths about 10-12 ft tall


figure carving on a stone monolith at Gobekli Tepe

In addition to this figure, there are animals an other figurative imagery. According to previous theories, humans settled down into communities before undertaking huge projects connected to apparent spiritual practices. However, at this site, no evidence has been found of any settlements. This place is evidence of a communal activity- the entire hill is man-made and it’s huge- but without the kind of communal living that everyone has thought must come first. And, the carved symbols on these rocks pre-date Sumerian or any other hieroglyphics by as much as 8,000 years. There are many more rock circles with monoliths still buried. Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated. 

archaeologists work site at Gobelki Tepe

It’s a wonderful place to see, full of mystery and inspiring for the imagination. How did they carve the really large, like 10-15 ft tall , blocks of stone and move them into place? Who did it? Why? and why did they, after about 1000yrs of use, bury the entire complex under a cover of dirt? Over the next decades perhaps some of these questions will be answered. I just loved the place.

Next we drove towards Mt. Nemrut, where on the top of the 7000+ mountain, King Antiochus built a monument to himself consisting of huge seated statues of gods and of himself. After about 2 hours of driving we changed into 2 minibuses and headed up the long and windy road to the start of the trail to the summit of the “tumulus” an area created by Antiochus to serve as his burial mound. My guts were saying “no” and in all honesty, the rest of me wasn’t all that excited about hiking up over uneven rocks at what is for me a high altitude. So, I chose to stay at the small cafe/gift shop/ tea and coffee spot and await the acounts of those who make the strenuous hike. 

I thought I might do some drawing, but it was a hazy day and the landscape was less than sharp. So, I read a bit, had a nice cup of Turkish tea and enjoyed the solitude. A couple from the tour group arrived, having decided to stop and return at the end of the first set of pretty new, wooden stairs. Then another woman appeared, also choosing to avoid the very uneven rocks in the last part of the hike. 

Then a sort of odd-looking man in motorcycle clothes came down from the mountain top and had a cup of coffee at the table next to me. After a while I turned around and started up a conversation. He was German, spoke excellent English, and was riding his bike around Turkey and Iran for 6 weeks, alone. We looked at his map of Turkey and compared where we each had been. His evaluation of a city relied more on traffic than on what was of cultural interest there! He did appreciate some of the same places, but mostly not. He had been around Iran and felt that the people were very friendly and some areas were lovely. Again, traffic was a main concern and so he avoided Teheran entirely- not a bad decision actually.He was a retired astronomer fro the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg and clearly a man who liked his solitude, but enjoyed a conversation now and then. He took off on his bike for his next stop before returning to Germany June 3.

When the rest of the group returned, Kadir and the two bus drivers produced a wonderful picknic lunch for us to enjoy before the trip down the mountain and then the 2 1/2 hours into Gazientep. Bill took some photos with my camera, but unfortuneatly I left it set on the wrong mode and most were very overexposed.Here are a few to give you and idea of what he saw. 

head of a statue on Mt. Nemrut


headless seated figures with heads below, the mound in the background was constructed with small rocks carried up the mountain from the Euphrates River way below


eagle and lion and a man- heads from Mt. Nemrut

We arrived in Gazientep around 7pm and trudged up to our rooms on the modern chain hotel, next-door to a shopping mall. I felt like it was time to readjust to modern civilization, and I do like my creature comforts. 

Tomorrow, Gazientep and it’s famous baklava!


Published in: on May 28, 2015 at 2:49 pm  Comments (1)