Friday, July 08, 2011

Last Three Days: Lake Bled, Slovenia and Venice

Slovenia Day 3:

With our bags packed yet again, we set off north to Lake Bled, one of the picturesque and popular lakes in the northwest corner of the country. A castle and a church in the middle of the lake: that's all I knew and it sounded perfect.

With our handy GPS, we made it into Lake Bled and the picturesque right there. The mountains all around us, the beautiful castle high above, and the little church island. While tourists were certainly there, it was nothing like you'd expect of a place so beautiful. This seems to be the case in most of Slovenia. A well kept secret.

We found an easy parking spot at the castle entrance and trudged up the cobblestone steps and into the castle. Gorgeous views all around, a great museum with artifacts from hundreds of years, a small printing press, a little chapel, a wine cellar, and two restaurants. Everything you need. We spent longer than we thought roaming the interesting castle, enjoying an espresso and drink half way through. (There's nothing quite like having tea/espresso in a church or castle courtyard, in my opinion).

I was most excited to walk into the wine cellar and see two monks in costume showing people how to bottle, cork, and label wines. For 15 Euro you could do it yourself and take the bottle home. How could I refuse? So I tasted, chose red, bottled, corked, dipped in wax, tied the label, sealed the label. Then, voila! My own souvenir and experience.

After our castle visit, we traveled down to the lake where we shopped a little in the market then hopped a boat to the island. A man rowed our boat of 10 people out to the church island. The breeze was light and the water still. We sat in easy quiet, with a great view of the castle, watching men row their women and families out around the lake. At the island, we had a half hour to see the church, meander, and get back in the boat. There had been religious/sacred monuments on this island for hundreds if not thousands of years. In the church, we rang the bell and made our wishes (Mary is supposed to grant wishes if you ring the bell three times). We came across a newly married couple enjoying a small pre-ceremony reception. Then, a quick roam around the tiny little museum and back into the boat.

As we arrived back on shore, the clouds had rolled in and threatened rain. Soon, it did rain as we tried to find a place for lunch. When the "Thai" sign psyched us out (Thai massage parlor not restaurant), we chose the Park restaurant by the lake where we ate in a sea of purple (walls, table clothes, pillars, etc.). Dad and Margaret partook of the Lake Bled specialties, including the cream cake, and I had my first soy cutlet of the trip! Woohoo! Processed soy product always looks good after a few weeks break!

Then, it was too soon time to leave Slovenia and head back to Venice. Experiencing Slovenia was a bit like experiencing New Zealand. The moment I entered I knew I would want to return again. Such beauty.

Venice: Day 1

After a quick return of the rental car in the morning, we caught the boat to San Marco square. It felt so wonderful to return to Venice, to feel the water breeze, to see the towers and domes beckoning in the distance and growing closer.

Soon, we landed in the throngs of tourists at San Marco. We made our way through the crowds and the warm morning sun, up and over the bridges, and not soon after we arrived at our hotel. On a little canal, the Nicolo Priuli hotel was quaint and lovely. We couldn't see our rooms yet, but we could see the breakfast room and store our luggage. So, that's what we did.

Then, off to the Doge's Palace to collect our tickets for the 11:30am tour of the Secret Itineraries, that takes you behind the scenes and into the old prisons and across the Bridge of Sighs. With an hour to wait, we went in search of some espresso, getting a bit distracted by all the pretty glass in the windows. Eventually, mission accomplished and energy returned bit by bit.

The Doge's Palace tour and the Palace itself offered an onslaught of art and history. The judicial system, prisons and torture, the Venice Republic, Casanova, political intrigue, art, art, art. It was a fabulous onslaught, and I felt more than museum fatigue after the tour. In one large room alone there were easily over 100-125 paintings on the wall. Titian and Tintoretto and so many others. If you ever go to Venice, take the Doge's Palace tour because it will be a highlight.

After the Palace, we found a little side restaurant for dinner, where I ate, yes, spaghetti with tomato sauce, which was very good. Dad and Margaret opted for the seafood dishes, which they devoured in happy moans of food satisfaction. Then, off we went to check into the hotel and take a little breather. Then, we went in search of the Poetessa that Margaret had met a year and a half ago, passing the Fenice Theater, and crossing over bridges and bridges and into campo after campo. It was time for my next feeding pretty soon, and we found a cute little restaurant near the Rialto. I inhaled pizza sans cheese, and Dad and Margaret enjoyed the Italian evening spritz.

We meandered through the streets and back to our hotel, where we popped our prosecco, made a plan for the next day, and enjoyed our first sleep in Venice.

Venice, Day 2

A knock on my door at 8am, and there was dad with a pot of tea. Oh, that's the way to wake up. So, I took my tea and journal and curled back up under the covers. My journal was much neglected on this trip, mostly due to the busy schedule and writing this blog (thanks to the two of you who are reading it :)). So, this morning tea and writing time felt sacred.

Breakfast at our hotel, then out to Murano. We passed by the hospital where Margaret and Carol had spent time in 2009 when Carol broke her arm. I held my breath as we passed it. Then, on to the boat, past the cemetery (on my list for next visit), and into the island of Murano. I have a vague memory of wandering around the island in 1994, but it was cold and shops were closed. This visit, the sun shone, and we walked around, enjoying the Murano glass museum and shops.

The museum, though small and a little light on the goods, gave a great background to how the Murano glass making trade started, its history and expansion, and the varieties of glass and styles over the years. Margaret and I agreed that the old glass from the 1st Century AD was the most interesting. There were many samples of glass trends over the recent five centuries and some unusual modern pieces. I did wish there could have been more. I wanted to be overcome with glass like I was overcome with paintings in the Doge's Palace.

After the museum, we went in search of gifts. Little shops and larger glass makers line the canals. We bobbed in and out, noting where we wanted to return, and what we liked. We ate lunch along the canal with a beautiful breeze, some Italian red wine, pasta, and salad. Are all meals so perfect in Italy? I think so.

As we returned by boat to Venice, Dad worried about his bank card not working, Margaret wanting to get to the Poetessa, and me totally in a daze about what I would do in the afternoon, we landed near San Marco, walking a bit like zombies through the busy streets. Soon, we split up so that Dad and Margaret could enjoy their last afternoon in Venice, and I went in search of something to do. Tour the Fenice? Return to the Guggenheim? Sit in a church somewhere and write? Drink more wine? Take a nap? The options seemed endless.

I started off by going to the exhibit on violins and Vivaldi. You could hear the music coming out of the deconsecrated church, and Margaret had seemed particularly excited that I see this museum when we passed it earlier. So, in I went. The exhibit not only went through the stages of Vivaldi's life and works, but it also documented the history of music in Venice. There were many different instruments on display from the past five hundred years: violins, violas, flutes, oboes, clarinets, mandarins, etc. Of course, Vivaldi's music played overhead the entire time.

I left and meandered the streets, walking in and out of shops, not feeling inspired to buy anything but looking nonetheless. As I neared our hotel, I went on the hunt for entrance into a pretty church near us. I never found the entrance but instead I found a quiet little campo and a cafe. I sat down, opened my journal, and ordered a spritz. A small wedding had just finished in the church, so the group took pictures in the campo. Kids played soccer with each other and against the wall. Families with kids meandered in for afternoon visits with friends. Grandmothers arrived and sat on benches for their afternoon sit. A man read a book under a tree. It was the perfect writing hour.

I made my way back to the hotel to get ready for our last dinner in Venice. The hotel receptionist walked us to the restaurant himself, over a few bridges, down side streets, to a local restaurant where we were surrounded by Italians. Perfecto. Despite the fact that I felt guilty for tagging along on what could have been a romantic private meal with Dad and Margaret, I so enjoyed all that time with them. The Prosecco, the bread, the wine, the pasta, the conversation, the laughter, the sighs of bliss as we took in the reality of it being our last night. After dinner, we made our way to San Marco to Margaret's favorite ice cream shop. We wandered the Campo, listening to the various bands at play, then meandered our way home.

4:45am would come too early as we walked down to the canal and caught our water taxi to the airport. Then, at the airport, we would check in and go through security. Me, in my dimness, and showing how often I bring wine, forgot to pack my wine in my checked baggage. So, even after a last ditch effort to check my second bag, only to find out it would cost me 60 Euro, I made the tough decision. I took the Prosecco from Villa Sandi out of the box. I took my Lake Garda bottle out of the special bag, gently ripped off the label from the waxed seal, and left my wine souvenirs by the garbage can and went back through customs. One always learns lessons while traveling, sometimes lessons that you'd rather not have to learn.

A wonderful, wonderful trip full of friends and family--old and new. A new country. 1,006 photos.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Slovenia: Enchanted

When Thursday morning rolled around, we said our family goodbyes, wishing each other bon voyage and safe travels. We all took separate directions: some home, others to Austria, Rome, Venice and us to Slovenia.

Off to my 26th Country!

Slovenia lies only 2 hours away by car across the curve along the Adriatic Sea. Since Slovenia is in the EU, no passport check was required.

As we made our way to the first stop, Predjama Castle, I looked out in awe at the landscape. Lush forests, perfectly situated villages in valleys with picturesque church spires. We wound our way through the lush forests to the Castle. What a magnificent place!

The Castle was built into a large cave network almost 600 years ago. It went through various stages of growth but became a major stronghold due to the caves under the castle that led through to the other side of the mountain.

Before venturing into Helm's Deep, I mean Predjama Castle, we ate at a great restaurant with a castle view. Thankfully, English is spoken most places we've encountered, so ordering has been easy. A glass of wine, polenta, potatoes, and salad, then up to the castle. Five flights of stairs up and down, through recreated rooms and marvelous overlooks. Stone and wood perched carefully along the cave. Ferns and moss grow, water drips though, and you smell the earth. No living history, ie people in costumes, but there were models posed, so that appeased me. (See my entries on Hampton Court + Helsingor Castle back in my July 2008 blog about my childlike joy for people in costume...)

We then made our way through various photo shots and made our way back to the car. Next stop: Prestranek. Margaret had visited a horseriding school there back in 2001 , and she wanted to see us again and show us. I was the 13 year old girl who loved horses, so I loved it. While more aged and run down than it was 10 years ago, it still held its charm. A few kids brought their horses to pasture after their ride. Beautiful creatures...

Then, off we went to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We are staying at this cute little hotel in a quiet area north of the center. We checked onto our rooms, and I immediately fell asleep. A few hours later, we drove into the city centre, where finding a parking spot was like being in Wrigleyville. We finally found one and made our way to The Three Bridges.

As we walked, we saw a jazz band at an outdoor cafe, crossed dragon bridge, meandered past busy cafes along the river, all as the sun set and lit up the buildings and sky. Finally, we made it to three bridges, a great convergence of three little bridges in front of the church. A big festival must have happened that day as red streamers were hung all around and a band looked to be packing up.

Such a romantic place to be without my amore. I felt sad and wistful all at once, mingled with a little guilt that I was infringing on the romance for Dad and Margaret. So, if you are looking for romance to surround you, bring your love here to Slovenia. The country just evokes romance at every twist and turn.

We then enjoyed a gorgeous meal along the river. We sampled some wonderful Slovenian red wine, and I enjoyed my risotto with mushrooms (the orange ones, chartrelles or something) and fennel, while dad and margaret each enjoyed different raviolis with local mushrooms. Such a perfect meal by the river with people enjoying the beautiful summer night.

Day 2:

Margaret finally heard back from her friends Mehmed and Monika in Metlika, so we left bright and early to drive to the southwest corner of the country. Another beautiful drive as we passed through village after village worthy of photo adoration. This country is so small that it takes only an hour to get from the center to the edge.

We arrived in Metlika and were once again flooded with hospitality. We had turkish coffee with Mehmed as we waited for Monika. He showed us photos from his daughter and son's weddings. His English is not great, and as our Slovenian + Serbo-Croatian is nonexistant, we were thrilled when Monika came.

After some snacks and morning coffee, off we went to explore Metlika. They took us up to the castle and center, only a short walk from Mehmed's house. The castle had been burned down or partially destroyed 15 times by the Turks, which led to the formation of Slovenia's first fire brigade. The simple museum was a treat. Wonderful video on the area in English and great displays about Slovenian history for over two thousand years. We then drank wine in the castle restaurant/bar. Margaret had loved the ice wine she had 10 years ago, so I joined her in it.

Then, off to lunch at a wonderful local restaurant for another full meal. On my end: red wine, grilled vegetables, mixed salad, fruit in moscato, then a dessert wine from walnuts. Everyone else had meat and cheese, so they were probably even more full. The waiter brought us out the dessert wine on the house, which was lovely but none of us finished.

Then, Mehmed drove us to Monika's plot of land where she has the most delightful plot of land where she has planted an orchard. She also has a tiny one room cottage where I'm sure I could hibernate for a few days and write. We picked ripe cherries from her tree, the sour cherries soft and warm from the sun, melting in our mouths.

Then, it was back to her house for some more turkish coffee and to taste her homemade liquoure from her fruit trees. Sour cherry was my favorite. So more chatting and then time to go.

As we wanted to head to Otocec Castle just to see it, we made our way on the 40 minute or so drive. When we arrived at the castle, we couldn't get anywhere near it. We had stumbled across Rock Otocec, which I can only say looked a lot like the Slovenian version of Lollapalooza. People were parked and tailgating, many were making their way to the castle, music not wafting but pulsing from beyond the castle walls and trees.

So, back in the car after I tried a photo and came back to Ljubljlana for a quiet night at the hotel.

Tomorrow: north to Lake Bled and maybe a bit further north. Then, to Venice in the late afternoon!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oderzo + The Last Family Reunion

Our last full day of family time on Wednesday was spent in Oderzo, where another branch of the family lives. The main church in the city piazza is where Margaret's grandparents were married in 1892 before coming to the US. So, much family history here.

We arrived at Valentina's house, where we were met by 10 family members. We were welcomed with soft drinks and snacks. The espresso cups were out and ready, but the heat was already close to the 92 high of the day. Seven year old Laura was the gift giver, and she brought around tied stalks of lavendar from their garden and red bags containing candy treats and held together with a ladybug for good luck.

We piled into cars and caravaned down the street to Enrico's wine shop. Guess what we did there? Yes, we tasted Prosecco! Enrico started his wine shop three years ago, and he also works for a winery, so he sells some of their wines. The Prosecco was delicious, and the best weakve had. They had breadsticks, chips, cheese and meat out for everyone's paletes.

Then, the lunch to top all lunches (though we didn't know it at first). We all sit down in the back room and wine and water is brought to the table. Then, lasagna is brought out, and I had great bowties and tomato sauce. As everyone is feeling full and comfortable, the second round comes out. First, salad for me and salads for everyone else to share. Roasted vegetables. Then, plates of meat for everyone; on each plate, five pieces of meat: sausage, chicken, two ribs, and something else. Everyone looked mortified by the amount of meat. So, everyone dug in and tried to get through the wonderful but large portion. My salad was just perfect :)

We then went on a great four hour archaelogical and historical tour of the city. Most of us walked around in a food coma, not helped by the heat. Our guide led us through the Archaelogical museum, explaining very well in English the pre-roman, roman and medieval history of Oderzo. We saw roman artifacts, mosaics, and building materials. He explained the growth of the area and how it evolved. He took us into a restaurant that was built around a significant roman site that was discovered when building the restaurant. He took us through the old roman forum and other builidings that had been excavated. It felt like hearing an adventure story.

As we finished the tour and found ourselves in a history stupor, we were told it was time to head to dinner because there were reservations. Looks of panic ran across everyone's faces ('I can't possibly eat' was the universal thought). We returned to the same restaurant and the same back room. The waiter was waiting with...yes, prosecco.

For over an hour we all cooled off, chatted, and drank prosecco. I couldn't possibly pass up the olive tapande bruschetta. Oh, so delicious (the olive is one of nature's perfect foods). Eventually, everyone ordered pizzas and shared with each other, thus making it slightly less painful. I ate my entire cheeseless vegetable pizza. I convinced myself that I had more room due to missing out on the lunch meat orgy.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was spending time with Laura. She was a little bored of us adults and amused herself by walking circles around the table. Finally, she sat down at the table with me. I had a sudden curiosity to see if Laura knew tic-tac-toe, which she did. We played a few rounds, but then I got bored. So, I tried hangman (while wondering if maybe this was a little macabre), and she knew it. So we hung teddy bears instead of people. Is that worse??? Since she was learning english in school, I did English words for her, and she did Italian words for me. It was absolutely delightful. Then, when it was time for dinner, she moved her seat next to me. Break my heart.

Then, after dessert arrived (glasses of ice cream, lemon + vodka), it was another round of presents: beautiful scarves and a photo of Oderzo). They were so generous to us, and it was humbling to see how much it meant to them that all this family had come over. While I was not blood family, I was treated like it. I would love to host any of them in Chicago and repay their many kindnesses.

The night eventually ended, and it was time for us to say goodbyes and return to the hotel. A wonderful family reunion thanks to Margaret's spectacular planning and the generosity of the Italians.

On to Slovenia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Family Dinners, Treviso, Prosecco, Etc.

After I finished my last entry, we were all resting after a busy day in Treviso and gearing up for family dinner number two. Monday night's dinner was to be held at Elena's restaurant in Mirano. Her son Simone and daughter Sara would be helping with the dinner, and who knew what other local family would show up.
Dad drove expertly with his GPS leading the way with her elegant voice. When we turned onto "Via Dante Aligheri", she said, "Via Dante Alleeeeyeri". Oh, grating to the ears!
Elena's restaurant looked familiar as I'd seen it in the skype background when talking to Sara. In person, it was just as quaint as you would hope a family owned restaurant would be, without the chianti jars and red checkered tablecloths. This was quaint but elegantly simple. The building is from 1882, and Elena has been running it for 24 years.
They set a gorgeous long table in their back room, and we yanks spread out so that the Italians could intersperse. We were all handed Prosecco, which I declined until food was in inhaling distance from my face. For about 10 minutes, plates of food were brought out. It just kept coming. Then the wine kept coming. Then the stories were flowing. Then more Italians came. Then the last few Americans arrived from their jaunt from Paris. Then a little lull to feed the newcomers. Then more food and nore wine. Then more Italians. Then more laughter and stories, which nobody could fully understand. Then more prosecco. Then dessert plates. Then grappa.
It was simply lovely and entertaining. I was called to translate a few times, which really made me laugh. This Italian man was trying to tell them he had just retired, that he had worked for 30 years on the train system as an engineer. Or maybe he told me that he never finished school and had always wanted to be an engineer but cleaned trains for 30 years? Regardless, he was lovely and we ended up having a lovely conversation about the two amores in his life, his previous wife who died and his current wife, the sister of Elena.
Then, one of the Italian women asked me how old I was and then it was all over. It became a game of "Guess how old Maureen is" in Italian. When someone would inevitably say 20 or 21, there would be laughter followed by, "She's 36" and "No!" This led to a lovely conversation with some Italian women who wanted to know how I did it, how I had found the fountain of youth. They decided they would all go vegetarian the next day. They really made me laugh, these women. They smiled with their whole faces, laughed with their whole bodies and vocal cords. My face hurt from all the laughter that evening.
The Italians then gave us these wonderful gifts of Venetian masks and olive oil. So sweet and generous. We all posed with our masks and did the rounds of kissing cheeks and thanking them. It took us another hour to leave because there were more photos to be taken, more laughter to enjoy, more wine and toasts to make. Finally, we said out bittersweet good-byes and left. A truly lovely evening.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sunday + Monday: Verona, Scorze, Treviso, Mirano

Sunday was both departure and arrival day. A day for hugs good-bye and double cheek kiss 'nice to meet you' or 'molto lieto.'

Claire was leaving back to Liverpool, and Martina was joining me in Scorze for opening night of the family reunion. We spent the morning packing up and then went for one last walk through town. The streets were full and half the stores were open. We made it to the arena, where some industrious actors were dressed up as Gladiators. For a small fee you could have your photo taken.
After a quick lunch, we said our good-byes. These trips never seem quite long enough, every minute so important. Quiet conversations over breakfast, the long moments over wine and dinner. Will I see them next year, or will it be longer? Juni will change so much even in the next few months.

So. Martina and I arrived in Scorze with Dad and Margaret on the hotel porch to greet us. A quick greeting and check-in, then a clean up before 6pm cocktails and reunion dinner.

Since Sara, one of the Italian cousins, had come to the US last year, there was one Italian I knew. I obviously don't look like the long lost Italian cousin, so there were many rounds of who are you? And 'I'm the daughter of Margaret's husband.' Then pointing to my dad and their 'Oh, si, si si' as they see the resemblance.

Prosecco on the patio followed by dinner. 20 Americans and 30 Italians. Margaret prepared a speech in Italian, and there were toasts and laughter. Then a four course dinner and wine with family stories being told everywhere. As the Italians began to disperse, there were kisses and ciaos and see you in America. A group of us stayed on the porch until 11:30pm finishing drinks and telling more stories.

Then, the joy of skype con mi amore on the hotel porch with the late evening breeze. Perfecto.


A pleasant morning breakfast spread and the last hour with Martina and Juni. A round of pass the baby, which included Juni and Frank, Kate's baby, playing a game of flirt. Good-bye to Martina and Juni, hoping time and finances will cooperate.

Then, 12 of us hopped in cars and made our way to Treviso for a guided tour. I felt all sorts of nostalgia from the tour I took in Oxford in November. In just a short time (2 1/2 hours), you learn so much about history. You are looking up and around instead of in a guidebook.

Treviso's story includes ancient rome, feuding families, powerful bishops, poetic traditions (ala Petrarch and Dante Aligheri), various ruling states, and WWII bombing + rebuilding. Withering frescoes, quaint bridges, bell towers, old buildings crumbling, new buildings incorporating the old arches and architecture.

A simple lunch in a cafe with sandwiches where I had a grilled vegetable sandwich and an espresso. Our weary feet and eyes, our sun-flushed skin, taking a brief respite under the cafe umbrellas.

Now, back at the hotel waiting for departure for family dinner at one of the -talian's restaurants.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Verona Photos

Last Full Day in Verona (but not much in Verona)

We woke up a little more bright and early this morning (for me way to bright and way too early due to my 4am alert state). Off to Lake Garda. A quick little bus and train jaunt and 14 minutes later we are walking toward the gorgeous lake. I wouldn't have put this Lake on my to do list if Martina and Claire hadn't been so keen on it. I'm glad they were.

We were quite surprised to find that the ferry we wanted to take to the nearby stopping point only ran a few times a day. We had four hours to wait. So, we scrapped that plan and decided on Bardolino instead. To prepare ourselves for the arduous 45 minute boat ride :), we had to seek sustenance from a 'very Italian' restaurant near the harbor. We ordered and the waiter looked at us and said, 'I don't think that will all fit on the table.' We are three women without fear of food.

Martina's tuna and roasted rosemary potatoes. Claire's ceaser salad and chips (french fries). My beans and onions, roasted vegetables and roasted rosemary potatoes. Bread Basket. Water. It was a delicious meal. Please note: no spaghtetti marinara to be found.

Bardolino proved to be a stunning choice. A few photogenic stops on the ferry ride and we disembarked. We window shopped, Claire and Martina ate gelato, and finally we sat by the lake for at least a good hour. They jumped into the water for a little dip, while Juni and I sat in the shade. She tried to eat leaves. I tried to write and read poetry. Neither of us were very successful.

Then, back to the ferry, back to Peschiera, then back to Verona. Then the hunt for food. 8:30pm. Last night in Verona. Walking up and down streets trying to find an acceptable restaurant. Acceptable: not touristy, Moe friendly, and pizza (for Claire). We were on the edge of giving up, when suddenly, out of the fog (okay, no fog in sight) we stumbled across a cute little restaurant along the river and looking very friendly. We sat down and didn't get up for two hours.

It was a last night in Verona meal made for the gluttonous. When we placed our order, the waiter smiled and said, 'Okay, we need anther table.' He scooted over a second table so that it could hold all our food. Twice in one day. This takes real skill and culinary dedication. Three courses, a bottle of wine, and dessert + dessert wine later, and we left three very satisfied women. A truly decadent and wonderful meal. To top it off, Juni slept the entire evening. Walking home was almost bittersweet.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Verona, Day 3: Church Pinball + Operatic Tragedy

A lazy morning in Verona thanks to good sleep and happy Juni. We finally leave around noon in search of our opera tix and lunch. The crowds around the Arena are thick, perhaps due to the evening or just the awesome imposing nature of the historic building.

We hunt down lunch off the Arena because 2 hours after breakfast it's definitely time for lunch. I had risotto with porcini mushrooms (yeah for no spaghetti marinara), while Martina and Claire dove into gorgonzola and walnut pizza and salad. No afternoon wine today due to leftover headaches from yesterday's one glass indulgence. Margaret's cousin Dave and his wife Marlena joined us, so it was a very merry lunch indeed. We heard their travel adventures and mined them for good stops on our afternoon meander.

Meander we did in a game of church pinball: San Lorenzo, San Anastasia and the Duomo. From the simple Lorenzo to the ornate Anastasia. From the quiet, serene music in Lorenzo to a shock of history (three churches in one) at the Duomo. The pinball of taking cameras out, putting them in, taking shawls off, putting them on.

I've just gone through the day's photos. I really am obsessed with Italian windows and fading frescoes. I could make one of those cheesy posters of 'Italian Windows' like you can find the 'Doors of Ireland' posters everywhere. Why are balconies and shutters and plants so captivating?

It amazes me how nonchalant Italians can be about frescoes indoors and out. Age, time, weather, pollution--all indifferent to the fading paint. I wonder what this city must have looked like with all its facades vivid and fresh, telling stories and histories. There's such texture to these buildings as colors and layers of paint and plaster fade.

We eat sorbet on stone steps and wait for a church to open. We watch as a hearse passes and mourners in smart business attire kiss each other and smile. We hope the rain stays away.

Then, the Opera. We leave Juni with a babysitter and off we go. The arena is crowded at every entrance. We stand in the long line for the cheap seats, make our way up the ancient stone steps, buy our cushions, and find our space. We pack in like sardines, and we try not to kick the butts of the people in front of us or lean longingly back on the knees behind us (oh, too have something to lean on!). We watch all the posh people meander into their reserved seats. Except for the cramping back and fidgety legs for a few hours, our seats really are the best seats in the house. The whole arena lies before us.

We buy wine from the vendor and he pours it into paper pepsi cups. I buy a souvenir libretto. There are no names of performers, no list of the various movements/arias/etc. But a line by line translation is not so bad! We wait for the gong and the opera to begin. The sky is a perfect blue, the breeze crisp but comfortable.

What a spectacular performance from the simple but intricate set design to the setting to the orchestra to the voices. I will post photos, but what a sight. Soon we sit in plitch black, and everything focuses on the stage. At one point, at least 60 people weave on the three different interlinked stages. Through my binoculars I watch as the heroine belts out her last words, falling to the stage in a heap. An unexpectedly moving death, since it took a whole act to happen...

One of those evenings I will always carry with me. Good friends, gorgeous weather, stunning music.

So I sign off with an espresso buzz still going at 4am, 14 hours after dosage. Tomorrow, Lake Garda.

Chicago to Verona: Late But Thankfully No Blizzard

Well, only a seven hour delay followed by a torndao warning and another delay. Arrived 8 hours late in wonderful sunny Rome. An easy train trip to Roma Termini, where seven years ago, Rana, Diane, Kristin and I bought tickets to visit Pompeii. We got free tix to the ruins and wandered the remains and murals (most with large phallis)

Today, I am sweating in the train line, waiting to buy my ticket to Verona. The clock ticking down until departure, running with 10 minutes to spare. Then, a three hour train journey. Soon, we are out of Rome and into countryside, fields of sunflowers, mountains covered in green, and a gorgeous blue sky.

The ease of having my phone turned on, so messages reach me from Claire and Martina and Federica, the woman from whom we rent the apartment. Claire has arrived. Martina and little Juni are on their way. It's a comfort to know that these little pieces fall together. I can relax on the train and daydream and enjoy the fields, not worrying about meeting up.
My heart hurts a little as we pass through Florence. I can't believe that I chose to skip Firenze on this trip. I can picture the places where I've taken my favorite photos: the church at Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, the Duomo. The store where I bought expensive Florentine paper.

This trip is all about the Veneto, an area of the country I first saw in 1994 over the New Year. Venice was wet and cold and half shut down. We stayed at the hostel, ate cheaply, wandered the bridges, visited the Guggenheim (phenomenal), and ate mediocre Chinese. This trip I will explore further and wider, venturing out into the countryside and other cities.

First stop: Verona.

'Romeo + Juliet' is packed in my bag, and I am ready for this somewhat haphazard writing retreat with Claire and Martina. Nothing is planned but the opera on Friday night. Espresso and vino and writing and long conversations. Yes! The rest is a pleasant mystery.

I arrive to Claire, Martina and baby Juni waiting for me. We drop by the apartment to relieve me of bags. Then, next door to the Pizzeria where Martina and Claire have coffee and dessert, while I inhale spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. The red wine a tonic after the long journey.

Verona: Tragic Love & Such

June 23

After a nice long sleep, we awaken with cups of tea and breakfast. Our landlady, Federica, shows up to collect our cash and give us a little introduction to Verona. She sees me and says she expected a 60 year old woman. Does that mean my super organized emails make her think of a travel veteran as in old, or just anally organized, aka old and set in her ways?

We head out into the city, weaving amongst ruins and shoppers. The main street we take is throbbing with people, but it's not until we're on top of an unmoving crowd that we realize we've arrived at Juliet's house. The walls are covered with graffiti. There's even a wall of gum stuck to it, serving as more romantic graffiti. People buy locks and write their names, then attach them to the gates, as to signify the permanence of their relationship, or their hope in its longevity.

We join the crowds that one by one walk up to Juliet and take a photo with her, holding her right breast for good luck. Some old men are very shy to touch her, others take a good solid hold. There is a plaque that says a copy of the statue is in Chicago, and suddenly I know exactly where it is. During my first photography class, I took a photo of her in Grant Park. Little did I know a decade later I would be here.

We meander into the Piazza Erbe and find a restaurant where we enjoy some wine (which we will regret later due to the heat) and I have my spaghetti with marinara sauce (which I've had twice now already). We then buy some fresh delicious fruit from the street vendor and begin to make our way to the Giardino Giusti, in desperate search for a spot of grass and a good nap.

When we arrive at the Giardino Giusti, they are formal gardens full of structured hedges and old statues and fountains, even a labyrinth. No spot of grass to be had. A few stone benches, but that appears to be it. We climb and push the stroller to the tippy+top, and there, finally, is a bench, a large spot of grass, and a gorgeous view of Verona. We remove sandals, let our feet and legs sink into the cool grass. Juni plays as we read, write, close our eyes to the end of the day sun.

After two hours, we meander back home, stopping at the local grocery store for the essentials: bread, olives, cheese (well not essential for me, lol), prosecco, and some wine rings. We snack, nap a little, then head out for dinner. We return to a restaurant we saw in the afternoon, a popular spot in the Piazza dei Signori, or Dante's square. Wine and spaghetti with tomato sauce (still delicious), followed by the evening walk with thousands of other people. Gelato for Claire, then home in the quiet 11pm hour.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Post Flight Purchase Pre-Trip Waiting Period

In four months, almost to the day, I will leave for Italy. Three weeks ago I bought my ticket, trying not to choke when I remembered that I'd once bought a round trip flight to South Africa for that amount.

Now I am in the post flight purchase pre-trip waiting period. The trip is not next week, it's not next year. Four. Months. Rationally, I know it will come faster than I expect. From experience, I know that no matter how much I prepare and organize myself, the last two days will be whirlwinds of to-do lists and job tasks and laundry and packing.

Now, in the waiting period, it's just itchy fingers and restless feet.

I checked out three books on Venice and the Veneto. I've flipped through them, reading some history, some tourist site to-dos. It seems too early to make my checklist, my filtered approximation of what I can squeeze in without running around like a hell-bent tourist.

It's cold here in Chicago, though the snow drifts from the blizzard have all but melted. I'm looking at my sun dresses that hang in my closet-six months of dust lining the shoulders. I fight the impulse to take them down one at a time, to roll them carefully without wrinkles, to pick out sandles and earrings, scarves and necklaces. I resist this preemptive pack, but I succumb to the daydream.

I wander Verona with my camera bag and my journal. My skin warms to the Italian sun, though it is coated with hat and sunscreen. I can taste the morning espresso, the dark nut in it. I feel my feet moving along the cobbled streets, dust accumulating in my toes and insteps. I smell the heat of the early summer, the way it ages from dawn to dusk.

I cannot daydream about the surprises, the way a trip brings you detours and vignettes. How could I know that my last trip would involve a 25 hour bus trip, that it would make me giddy and stressed and alive and tired all at once? I ache for my next trip to start, for the surprises, for writing moments and photographs, for the coming-home feeling.

I've never been to Verona, but I know it will feel new and intoxicating. I can only hope that it will also feel like a retreat, a respite, a friend, a truth, a love.

By the time I board the plane, I will have washed and worn my sundresses and sandals around Chicago. The garden will be in bloom, the winter itch long gone. Four Months. A small slip of time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

One of these days...

Here in 2011, I find myself musing on the romantic complications that have transpired over the past 15 years of travel. When I first began daydreaming about international travel as a teenager, this part of traveling didn't even occur to me. Back in my 20's, I used the phrase "Geographically Challenged" to describe these experiences. Now in my 30's, I'm growing tired of them.

A hazard of being a traveler is that one is drawn to travelers. You are both open minded. You both love the world. You both have a sense of adventure. You both enjoy being challenged by new experiences. You both love the comfort of certain familiar countries, "second homes" in a way. The possibility is high that one or both of you may at some point go on a trip and you will be separated by long gaps of time and distance. Email and Skype make it easier, but it's not quite the same as dating someone in person. Some of these experiences caused great sadness, some still make a good story.

Something about traveling has always made me gutsier than when I'm on my home turf. I flirt more, I relax more, I don't worry too much about the what ifs when I know I'm just having fun on a trip and nothing more. Yet, the problem, is that I'm always on the lookout for that something more.

There was the man I met in England. An American who lived in the same house as me. He lived in Milwaukee, and I remember well when he said that Milwaukee and Chicago were too far apart for us to start a relationship. How this makes me laugh now! A two hour train/bus trip seems like nothing compared to the other distances I've encountered.

There was the man I met online who went to the South Pole two weeks after I met him and started dating him. This was the greatest geographical distance by far! A short-lived but fun flirtation.

There was the man I traveled to Hungary to see. The man who when I finally told him how I felt, said he'd love it if we could have a "modern relationship": we would get together when we were in the same country. I left him in Hungary, not seeing him for 12 years. When I ran into him on the streets of Chicago, we eventually would start a relationship, breaking up because I didn't want to be as rooted as he wanted, wasn't as sure I wanted to give up everything to bear his children.

There was the blind date in England arranged by a Swedish friend I met in South Africa (how's that for geography!). We had one lovely date stomping around Windsor and the countryside. Ten years later we met again and danced the night away at our friend's wedding in Sweden.

There was the man in South Africa for whom I always felt a "what if." So I went to explore the "what if," reminding myself how wonderful a man he was, and how much he wasn't the man for me. No regrets. Two lovely weekends in wine country, many good conversations. Two good people. Not a good match.

Then, this past year, an Argentinian who took me quite by surprise. A whirlwind few dates before I went to England and Sweden, then one date, then he went to Argentina, then one date, then he went off to Rotterdam.

So, here I am. 36 and feeling quite grateful and yet exhausted because of another geographical challenge gone awry. Perhaps one of these days I will meet a man with travel adventures behind him and before him, a man who will be rooted somewhere I want to be, and the timing will be right, and geography will not be a challenge.

Our passports will be stamped on the same trip. We will make plans. We will take trips on our own or with friends, only to come back to the other's arms at the airport. We will want to hear each other's stories, see all the photos. The world will be our playground, the canvas upon which we enjoy our life.

One of these days.