Perfectly Imperfect Bologna

fullsizeoutput_4906

Reflecting back on our recent visit to Bologna in May, it’s amazing to me what a feast of the senses this city was and that we almost didn’t visit it.  You see when we planned our trip to Italy, we decided to visit Bologna only as a halfway point on our way to reach the picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, the destination that seems to be on everyone’s bucket lists these days. In retrospect, what the Cinque Terre offered in scenic beauty, Bologna offered in dramatic contrasts and incredible history.

The city of Bologna is gritty, yet beautiful; it is emotional, yet festive, and it is inspiring, yet nonchalant. It is like taking a trip back to another century without losing any of the modern conveniences. It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to. And it’s hard to explain why, but I’ll try.

Before we start I have to embarrassedly admit that I didn’t really know much about Bologna except that its name was a famous coldcut I had eaten frequently as a child of the 70s. (Yes, who from New Orleans hasn’t had a bologna sandwich with mayo on Bunny bread?)  A little more research before our trip showed it was a foodie paradise in a country whose incredible food already tops the charts in most people’s hearts. It is located very close to Parma, where the famous Parmesan cheese and Parma hams are produced, and also near Modena, a city famous for its balsamic vinegar.

“It touches your soul like no other city I have ever been to.”

IMG_3779.JPG

When we arrived and got lost trying to find our hotel, my first impression of the city was a little tainted by our lodging being so close to the train station.  Graffiti strewn walls and a few homeless people gave the area a little bit of a shady character, although we never really felt threatened, even late at night walking back to our apartment. Still, I wasn’t thrilled. Look at the street name on the wall below: VIA MALCONTENTI. It was sort of my mood when I arrived.

IMG_2434

However, the closer we walked to the city center, the more we were able to discern an interesting and eclectic montage of buildings of Venetian and Gothic architecture amidst a plethora of cafes and stores selling meats and cheeses.  The churches were rough and mildewed-looking with a hint of fertile green that showed plants surviving in nooks and crannies of the ancient buildings.  But despite the imperfections, the dramatic character was breathtaking in its detail.

img_3773

Modern dress shops with windows filled with chic, colorful Italian fashions sat next to ancient looking churches and walkways with dramatically high porticos. Alleyways were dotted with ancient churches on one side and rustic cafes and food stores touting incredible Italian food on the other.

Bologna was the ancient church of Basilica di San Petronio juxtaposed against a designer men’s fashion store boasting dapper suits with snappy little pocket handkerchiefs.

 

fullsizeoutput_48fc

It had a familiar “laissez le bon temps roulez” character that I recognized immediately from my hometown of New Orleans, but the impression was deeper, much older, and more dramatic.

People seemed very nonchalant and happy as they sat drinking espresso or Pignoletto, a local sparkling wine, with giant boards of proscuitto and cheese with tigelle, the local bread. The smorgasbord looked so good that we had to try it for ourselves.

IMG_2465

And look at the shops that graced the alleyways by our restaurant — full of ham, proscuitto, mortadella and a multitude of cheeses and salamis. What a feast!

fullsizeoutput_4917

IMG_2469

But a certain mystique that I quite couldn’t put my finger on at first permeated the atmosphere of the city.  Maybe it was the giant fountain of Neptune, or “Il Gigante,” that stood defiantly in the square surrounded by Gothic buildings with messages chiseled in ancient Latin.

The imposing statue of the ancient sea god casts a shadowy image at night against the buildings from another century, lending a certain poignancy and the unsettling feeling of “deja vu” or being in another time period.

img_3787

The statue of Neptune is almost 13 feet tall (4 m) and weighs almost 5,000 pounds (2,200 kg) and was built in the late 1500s. In this city of startling contrasts, the fact that the fountain of Neptune, a pagan sea god, was actually commissioned by the early Catholic Church in the 1500s shouldn’t surprise us. But the city was like that. Full of surprises. It was perfect, but not so much.

“It was perfect, but not so much.”

Maybe the mystique of the city came from knowing that the first university was founded in Bologna in 1088. And that the first anatomy theatre sat in the building near the square where pioneering physicians learned the mysteries of the human body. In the dark alleyways at night or as you walked under the shadowy grand porticos that lined the streets you could almost picture a doctor wandering back home thinking of the strange tissues or organs he had just seen inside a dead corpse found in a nearby grave. A little macabre, I know, but our modern medical profession was born with this knowledge.

img_3783

Maybe the mystique of the city came from its two towers, Le Due Torri, defining symbols of Bologna that were built in the early 1100s which stood next to each other, one slightly leaning and the other definitely leaning. They are old and dirty and tipping to the side, but they survive from the 12th century and are over 900 years old. I mean, what would  you look like at 900 years old?

And then you turn a corner and you are in front of a shop selling swank little designer purses.

IMG_2404

And then there was the Basilica di San Petronio that looked half finished or stranger still, like is was created in two different epochs. It had the oddest looking exterior that I’ve ever seen in such a monumental church.

IMG_2379

The bottom half of the church is made of marble and the top portion is made of brick. It is considered the largest brick church in the world and one of the ten largest churches in the world, according to Jacopo Ibello of the Heritage Times.  The main reason for its fractured appearance, according to Ibello, was that the city ran out of money. He also said the city had plans for San Petronio to be the largest church in the world, larger than St. Peter’s in Rome, but these plans were sabotaged by jealous popes in Rome who financed buildings on either side of the church to stymie construction.

But its dual colored facade was a masterpiece in its own glory that contributed to the city’s imperfect perfection.

IMG_3760

Inside the church was another startling find, one of the largest meridians in the world created by astronomer Giovanni Cassini in 1657. The 220-foot (67 m) line cuts through the basilica on an angle, aligned perfectly north-south, and the sun shines down through a hole in the ceiling on the timeline each day (barring cloudy weather) to show the date.  Mike and I went back to the basilica twice in order to catch the dramatic moment when the light hits the line (see photo below). It felt like a miracle as the sun hit the line right at the correct date, May 14; but of course, it was science. The merging of the scientific with the spiritual was just one more thing I found fascinating about the city of Bologna.

The circle of light hits the brass meridian line in the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna at noon each day to show the date. The line was constructed in the church in 1657 by astronomer Giavinni Cassini and is the longest in the world.

But the fact this beautiful basilica that looks half-finished is the cultural center of the city is what I loved about this city of contrasts. It evoked a stirring emotion that was hard to place. A poignancy of feeling of knowing things can be leaning and unfinished and broken and still be beautiful. That the old can sit with the new, and that things didn’t have to match or be totally uniform to be beautiful and well-revered.

After all, the beauty of age, of wisdom, of discovery and of knowledge aren’t always beautiful in the “picture perfect” sense. We can look at the faults, the neglect, the disrepair and remember that life is not always about perfection but the struggle for beauty, for meaning, for timelessness. It’s about the effort that goes into building things that may or may not last, but whose foundations are bigger and stronger than we are. The quest for knowledge that is dirty and messy, but can lead to enlightenment and discoveries.

And then there was this guy….

 

I took this video when we first stumbled upon this talented singer. We wound up finding him the next day singing in the Piazza Maggiore near the Basilica di San Petronio and spent a few hours sitting at an outdoor cafe listening to him.  He brought me to tears several times with his emotional renditions of songs I knew.  The songs he was singing were American or English ones, and he looked Asian, so I don’t know why I was so surprised when he started speaking in rapid fire Italian to the group of people gathered to listen to him. I mean, it was Italy. Why wouldn’t he speak Italian? But he sang in English so perfectly that I just expected him to be an American or an Englishman.

 

fullsizeoutput_4901.jpeg

Like the singer and the metal sculpture by Nicola Zamboni in the photo above, these incongruities were what I loved about Bologna.

It was perfectly imperfect– a masterpiece of combining the best of all ages. It was a mosaic of sorts that picked up all the broken pieces of the centuries and put them together in such a way that they were whole and beautiful.

And it touched my heart.

 

 

Trading Beautiful for Beautiful

IMG_2982

It’s May 12th and we are on our way to Bologna, Italy by car from Croatia. It’s a symphony of red poppies as they are blooming everywhere along the roadside in our new hometown of Pula.  I’ve never seen red poppies blooming outside of photographs, and the landscape doesn’t seem quite real dotted with these red circular flowers growing in the wild.

The barren twisted brown grapevines that we passed just a few weeks ago are now bursting with leaves and reaching for the skies.

IMG_2929

They naturally know the right direction, and as we head off to Italy, I wonder, do we? Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

And it truly is a beautiful sight as we pass through the rugged Croatian countryside on the way to Italy.  You pass through olive orchards full of trees with gnarled branches of sage and silver leaves. The fertile ground that they are planted in is full of white stones covered with the ubiquitous rusty red soil of Istria.

IMG_2991

 

The dirt here seems to be filled with nature’s own Miracle-Gro as the plants here don’t just seem to bloom, they seem to burst forth with colorful flowers and bright green leaves at a rate which I have never seen.

 

Little circular stone houses can be seen from the highway sitting to the side of vineyard and olive groves.fullsizeoutput_48c4 The unique huts, known as “kažuni,” were traditionally used as shelters for farmers and shepherds as they worked the land. The huts gave them respite from the weather as they worked the land.  Their geometric shapes give a semi-primitive and uniform aspect to land, which also has stone walls blocking off farms and tracts of land. Farmers had to clear the rocky land from stones and in doing so built fences and kažuni from the cleared stones.

Why are we leaving one beautiful place for another?

As you drive down the highway throughout the Istrian peninsula in Croatia, you can see medieval villages on hills in the distance with their pointed bell towers and red terra-cotta roofed homes circling the hilly countryside. They all seem to bear a striking resemblance to one another and again, the uniformity gives the landscape a calm, peaceful feel. Historically the villages were built on hills with protective stone walls to keep out invaders, but now they just add to the beauty of this rugged, hilly terrain.

We travel for about an hour or so until we come up to the border crossing for Slovenia, as you have to pass through a small portion of Slovenia to get to Italy from Croatia. Cars are lined up for at least a mile already, and one car has overheated during its wait. Its distraught occupants are all crowded around the hood like surgeons around an operating table.  Their journey has been temporarily halted, like many of ours in life. It’s a minor aggravation that will hopefully push them forward and make them appreciate their journey more once it has resumed.

fullsizeoutput_491d

Onward we travel, through the Italian countryside which provides a contrast to the Croatian one. The trees turn tall and pointy, or short and spherical, the soil changes to a light brown color, and the grassy fields become more manicured. Still you can watch miles and miles of  incredibly beautiful vineyards and olive orchards, although they are on much larger plots of land. In fact, I start to spy more and more tractors, which aren’t a common sight on the Croatian landscape, and more luxurious villas as we move closer to Venice.  It’s trading one type of scenery for another, both of which are lovely in their own way.

green farm
Photo by Roland Dumke on Pexels.com

 

As we journey onward, I reflect back on the beauty of Southern Louisiana with its cypress-kneed swamps, bright fuchsia azaleas and mossy oak trees, and of my friends and family there who are gathering eating spicy crawfish and drinking cold beer that I have traded temporarily for fresh olive oil, whole grilled sea bass, wild asparagus with Istrian wine. Both are delicious and exotic and yet are so different.

IMG_2111

Why do we search for places that are beautiful and different from our own? What is this wanderlust that is so strong in some people’s natures and not others? As I travel onward to Bologna, I only know one thing: The journey is breathtaking, but what I leave behind is equally so.

fullsizeoutput_46e0

And yet… this wanderlust I feel is stronger and it carries me forward like the tide….. I will continue to move with it until I can no longer.

fullsizeoutput_48d3

 

Visiting Roskilde Cathedral: Cold Days, Warm Hearts

fullsizeoutput_3e77

On a frigid, dreary day in Denmark at the end of March, Mike and I bundled up in our warmest coats and set out with our friend Carolyn to visit the Roskilde Cathedral in the city of the same name. Our first and foremost stop had been the Viking Museum nearby, but the cathedral was also a place we had looked forward to visiting. Although we knew the almost 800 year-old medieval cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we didn’t realize just how captivating the place would be until we arrived.

 

IMG_0075
To show just how enormous the medieval Roskilde Cathedral is, look at how tiny Carolyn (with the pink cap) and I are as we walk towards the door.

First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are. Yes, it’s that big. One of the amazing things about this huge building is that more than forty kings and queens of Denmark are buried within the hallowed church grounds.

First of all, the cathedral is a massive building that dwarfs you and immediately makes you feel like the peasant you are.

Even the Viking King Harold Bluetooth (985 A.D.) who introduced Christianity to Denmark and his son Svend Forkbeard, who conquered England, are supposedly buried there. That’s a lot of Danish royalty (or royalty of any nationality for that matter).

The large cathedral overwhelms your senses and immediately makes you feel its timelessness, its history and gives visitors the realization of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. If you are Christian, you definitely feel the presence of God, but even if you are not, I’m sure you will feel a spiritual tug at your heart and soul.

IMG_0051

The church is one of the first Gothic cathedrals in the 12th century to have been built of red brick, as this was a new medium for building whose use eventually spread throughout Europe. Like many older churches it has been reconstructed over several centuries. Different monarchs have added burial chapels and porches as well as other additions, so the building at present reflects the evolution of European architecture over the 800 years it has been in existence.

IMG_0063
The sarcophagus of Queen Margrete I whose remains were transferred to Roskilde in 1413 lies in the Cathedral.

I feel like the Cathedral is so rich in history that there is no way I could do it justice in a blog post, so I just wanted to touch on a few areas of interest through my photos and urge you to read more about it. And by all means visit this place if you are ever near Copenhagen. You will be better for it.

fullsizeoutput_3e8d
One of the sepulchres in the Chapel of Christian I. The chapel was built in the second half of the 1400s.

The Viking Museum was wonderful, but this magnificent place had the three of us dumbstruck. We stayed there over three hours and we probably would have stayed longer if time had permitted. We kept wandering around with our heads turning in circles. I was getting a neck ache with all the looking up and down, and all around.

IMG_0056
Again, look at how small we look in the Christian IV Chapel which houses the coffins of Christian IV and his family.

We also were trying to be careful not to step on all of the holy tombstones on the floors of the church, even though many of them were worn by centuries of church congregants visiting their place of worship. All three of us wanted to give the place the respect it deserved.

What’s also interesting about the cathedral is that it is still a working church which is used on a regular basis. While we were there, we saw a class full of students praying together around the altar.  It was really lovely to see how the grand Gothic church still had a youthful presence.

IMG_9974

The window below is from Trolle’s Chapel, named after a royal vassal, Niels Trolle. It was just one example of the incredible wrought iron grating throughout the church.

fullsizeoutput_3e7c

I have walked through many churches throughout Europe with some being much more ornate, some grander, some less so, but Roskilde Cathedral touched me in a way that some of the fancier ones didn’t. Have you been to a place, whether it be a church or just a field of flowers, that made you feel so small but so peaceful in your heart? That is how I felt in Roskilde Cathedral.

 

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

IMG_1983

Many times when we are traveling we have expectations of what we want to see and do and how to pack the most into the little time we do have. We sometimes deviate, but it’s hard to do if you’ve set an itinerary in stone. Planning is good, but a little spontaneity can give us our most lasting memories. And sometimes these memories are of our shared humanity on the bus of life. 

Take our recent trip to France. It was our last day in France and we were back where we had started in Nice after 11 days of driving through the beautiful cities of Provence. We were ready to stay put and just meander through the streets of Nice, but the clerk at our hotel had recommended a scenic public bus ride to Monaco as one of the most beautiful bus rides you will ever take.

Since Monaco had been a place that I had wanted to visit, but had I felt like it was just too much after all the running around we had been doing throughout the South of France, it was put back on the list. So we laced up our tennis shoes and decided to venture out on the Bus 100 from Nice to Monaco/Menton.

IMG_1988

Round and Round

The night before we went on the bus, I put my planning cap back on and researched a little about this ride. Bus 100 starts at the port in Nice and takes you all the way to the beautiful city of Monaco and the ritzy casino of Monte Carlo and ends in the city of Menton, stopping at many quaint little towns and villages along the way.

IMG_2021

One website I found recommended that you sit on the right side of the bus as you’ll get the best views of the dramatic scenery, and to let a bus pass you by if you see it doesn’t have any seats to offer as the next one will be coming in just 15 minutes and you will then be first in line for your choice of a prime seat. So we had a plan, we’d be prepared to get the most out of this little deviation.

We walked to the bus stop and prepared to get on the bus. There was no line so we tried to board and realized we didn’t have enough change for the ride (a whopping 1.50 Euros per person), but we only had large bills. I walked through the bus as Mike dug for change and realized there was no line because everyone was already on board and there were no seats. We took the advice from the website and hopped off the bus and waited for the next one in 15 minutes. Mike went to go get change, and I waited in the line. We had a plan.

The next bus comes by and we hop on and get our choice of the seats on the scenic “right” side. I am so proud that I did my research and smug that we are going to have a great view.

And view we had. It truly was one of the most breathtaking bus rides I have been on.  Even though the day was overcast, the bus meandered through the mountains and cliffs of the Nice countryside and offered dramatic views of small villages that perched on the sides of the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_1955

We passed small towns like Le Port, Petite Afrique and Pont Saint-Jean. Ah, this is the life, we thought.

All Through the Town

We arrive in Monaco and walk around through the infamous city of Monte Carlo. IMG_1977We see the workers setting up bleachers for the 2018 Grand Prix that will take place in just a few days and fixing up some of the buildings. We decide the Monte Carlo casino might be nice to see even though we are not big gamblers. The beautiful people are walking around dressed up to the nines and the tourists like us are gawking and checking out their designer attire and expensive cars.

 

IMG_1978

Next we walk up the steep stone pathway to the Prince of Monaco’s castle and look down at the city below and marvel that Princess Grace had lived in such a beautiful place with gorgeous exotic gardens that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea.

IMG_2040Then we decide we have had enough of the rich and famous and decide to catch the 100 Bus back to one of the smaller towns we had seen along the bus ride and have a coffee and relax.  It takes a minute to find the bus stop but we find it, hop it and stop in a city called Le Port and start looking around.

An hour or so later, we head back to the bus stop of Le Port. We sit down to wait for the next bus and two teenage French girls walk up and are waiting with us. One has a black T-shirt on that says New York and the other sports another black T-shirt and has earphones in her ears. They are staring at their iPhones and waiting along with us although they don’t acknowledge us.

About 10 minutes later we see a bus in the distance as it winds down the road toward us.  We stand up and get ready to board. Then one of the teenagers gets a look of horror on her face and says, “Oh, Complet!” and falls dramatically back on the bench like only a teenager can do. Mike and I look at each other with question marks in our eyes and see the bus zoom by us with the word “Complet” at the top of the lighted panel.

Oh, it’s full, now I get it. Yikes. It’s about 4 pm and now I’m starting to realize why it’s “complet.” Ouch, maybe we shouldn’t have stayed so long at Le Port, and I’m visualizing us having to take a taxi back to the city as I know the buses stop running at around 8 pm. Both of our phones are almost dead, too. So much for planning.

At 4:30 another bus goes by. Yep, you guessed it, it’s “Complet.” Another 15 minutes goes by.  Another bus in the distance. It looks like it …is…going….to…..stop and it does. Thank God.

Move on Back

The teenagers go in before us and then we are in, but it is standing room only, and it seems pretty “complet” to me. We are literally jammed into one another. Still, I’m thankful the bus stopped, and we are on our way.

It’s funny the things you notice when you are standing up in a crowded bus as compared to sitting down comfortably in a seat. Like, where do I put my hands so I don’t fall when the bus stops short or takes a sharp turn fast like buses are known to do?

I have a choice between holding on to the little plastic handles that hang down, but I’m fairly short and the things are fairly high up, so they don’t give me the support I need to brace myself. But if I hang on to the seat handles below, I feel like I’m invading the person sitting down’s personal space.

I opt for the latter because the man sitting down smiles kindly at me. He’s an elderly gentleman who is so well-dressed and dapper, yet has a look of sadness in his eyes. He has a brown felt top hat sitting on his lap, sports a brown tweed jacket and a cranberry tie, and he looks like he walked straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel and landed in the 21st century. I feel comforted by his presence, so I hold on to the handle by his seat, separate my legs into a yoga warrior pose, and I’m ready to go.

IMG_3512 2

The bus true to form speeds around the curves, but the warrior pose and the seat handle work well, as I move back and forth in time to the rhythms of the bus. And I’m still enjoying the incredible scenery as the clouds have lifted and the cliffs look even more  beautiful. I can do this, I think to myself.

Then the bus comes to a stop at a bus stop in another small town. Wait, aren’t we full? Apparently not. Geez, how many people can this bus hold?

Apparently about 10 more people because that’s how many jam onto the already crowded bus. At this point I get pushed further in right next to a tall young man who lucky for him can reach the plastic handles, but unfortunately for me, because of my diminished height, my head is rather close to his rather fragrant armpit. The teenage girls are sandwiched in front of him, and so I lean over to a lovely French lady who just boarded and fortunately smells very good, like French soap and fresh floral perfume.

Before I can get my bearing and find a new handle to hold on to, the 10 people who just got on the bus start jockeying around the ticket machine trying to get their tickets cards validated. They are all locals who apparently must ride this bus when they get off of work each day.  The bus crowd becomes a living organism with the bus cards being passed back and forth between riders to reach the ticket machine. Everyone helps out and soon all the cards are validated and everyone is all smiles at the team effort. Mission accomplished. And we are on our way.

I notice with amazement that the teenage girls are able to stare at their iPhones and balance in the bus without any problem, and I admire their youthful abilities. I wish I had such good balance, I think, until the bus takes another turn sharply and one of the teenagers falls right into me.

“Pardon,” she says and laughs with embarrassment. “It’s okay,” I say.

A few minutes later the bus takes another turn and it is the French lady falling into me and another more profuse, “Pardon” heads my way.  The elderly gentleman smiles at me but looks a little concerned.

All Day Long

Through all of this, there is one passenger (and her owner) that is unruffled and sleeping without a bit of concern about the passengers packed in like sardines around her.  It’s a little white puppy dozing comfortably in a basket who sits on an elderly lady’s lap. She is the picture of bliss. (Either that or she has motion sickness and is trying to sleep it off.) You can see a hint of the puppy on her owner’s lap in the photo above, next to the elderly gentleman.

The bus comes to another bus stop but we zoom by it.  Our bus now has the “Complet” sign on, and I imagine more teenagers rolling their eyes and plopping onto benches at the bus stop, or people silently cursing the tourists like me who invade their bus each day at rush hour.

We finally make it back to Nice and everyone disembarks.

IMG_3518

I feel like I’ve gotten to know the people here in a much more intimate way than on the journey over where I had a prime seat and the best views.  Maybe traveling isn’t all about the views and the buildings and the scenery. Maybe it’s about total strangers acting together in perfect synchronicity to help each other board a bus. Maybe it’s about the shared humanity and the individual journeys that collide and separate in ways that change us for the better or the worse.

IMG_3521 4.JPG
After a long nap on Bus 100 from Nice to Menton, this little pup is bright eyed and ready to walk the streets of Nice. 

Until we are all “complet.”

A Walk on the Wild (Asparagus) Side

IMG_2111

A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom.  The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.

“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried.  His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well.  They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.

Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.

This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around.  The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.

I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored.  The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own.  Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).

IMG_2113

The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.

Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.

img_0077-1

Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life  by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult.  I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.

Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?

IMG_7545

 

 

The Hours Invite Us to Dream

I have a favorite quote from Maya Angelou that says: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”  I’d like to offer a slight twist to that quote for travelers:

“When locals give you advice about their hometown, believe them. And take it, of course.”

So many times in the last few months we have talked with our Airbnb host, waiter, or hotel receptionist and have visited places that we probably would have skipped or not even known about had we not listened to their recommendations. Those places were truly the ones that most inspired me on our recent quest through the heart of Provence. But first, remember, ask and you shall receive. You have to ask people for their advice in order to receive it.IMG_1408

One of the first recommendations that we received was from our Airbnb host François in Antibes who strongly recommended hiking the trail along Cap d’Antibes and a visit to the medieval walled town of St. Paul de Vence. Both of these destinations were not even on our radar when we planned the trip, and both turned out to be two of the best places we visited on our two week journey.

The Cap d’Antibes hiking trail was an incredible coastal walk along the peninsula among steep limestone cliffs and rocky coves which were bursting with spring blooms and whose yellow-orange stones provided a sharp contrast with the view of the azure water below. The trail also brought you through the exclusive neighborhoods that boast millionaire villas which house the rich and famous.

 

The walk was truly breathtaking and after we finished we sat at a ritzy little cafe on the French Riviera. We were extremely thirsty after the long walk and so we got some expensive water (I mean, it was the Riviera), and then I fell in love with this italian lemon sorbet dessert called Segel, so it was a win, win all around.

We did have one issue though. We got lost at the beginning of the trail and we took about an hour detour until we actually found the hiking trail. That was a little frustrating. Someone told us to turn left when we should have turned right, but I won’t mention any names. Someone also blamed it on Google Maps. Nevertheless, it was a extremely good place to get lost in. And we reached our step-goal that day for sure. C’est la vie.

‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’

The second place Françoise recommended was St. Paul de Vence, which was a picture perfect medieval village perched high up a on a hilltop about 17 km from Antibes. I recently learned that the bell from the tower from the town hall was cast in 1443 and has the inscription, “‘Les heures nous invitent à la rêverie’,”  which means, “The hours invite us to dream.” And dream people have. Artists, writers, poets, actors, and everyday people like you and me have visited and been inspired. I’m already dreaming about how I can go back there.

fullsizeoutput_46e0

Surrounded by ancient stone walls, the incredible scenery of the village and the dreamlike way the light hits the old stone buildings and small alleyways have inspired some of the world’s most famous artists. fullsizeoutput_476aI was not surprised to see the gravesite of Marc Chagall in the small cemetery there and learn that Pablo Picasso and other famous artists and writers have spent time in this magical little village. The village has since become a mecca for artists and is filled with art galleries and an art museum.  While we were walking around we saw several artists including the one in the photo below painting or drawing in the little rustic alleyways.

 

After we left Antibes, we got another recommendation from our sweet French host Eden in Aix-en-Provence who told us we should go to Cassis and the Calanques and then drive along the Route de Crêtes, when we asked her for her favorite places to visit in Aix-en-Provence.  Note: These places were not even in Aix-en-Provence, but she said these were the places where she liked to spend her free time and visited any chance she could.  We really could have skipped Aix-en-Provence altogether and spent all of our time in Cassis and the Calanques because we wound up loving that area so much, but then we would never have met Eden.

She also said in her precious French accent that we picked the perfect time to visit Provence, the shoulder season of March-April (she also recommended September-October) before the tourists descend on the place and when the weather is nicer. There were already many tourists there, but it wasn’t packed like it apparently gets during the summer, so remember that if you plan a trip there.

So what the heck is a “calanque”? It sounds like a noise you make when you drop something. The Calanques are little creeks or inlets that dip into the limestone mountainsides along the area from Marseille to the city of Cassis. They have little azure water coves in them, and you can take a tour of them by water in a boat, which we did, or hike them, which is what I would do if I ever return.  I honestly don’t think the photos we took do them justice, but here are a few of these majestic natural phenomena.

Cassis is a charming little city that sits on the hilly coast between the Calanque National Park and the Route de Crêtes, a fabulous ride along the coast with magical scenery and ochre-colored cliffs that are worth a visit to that area just on their own merits. If you have ever ridden along Big Sur on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 in California, this French route rivals that beautiful drive, which has always been at the top of my lists of scenery that is the most beautiful in the world.

 

And speaking of drives, one of the best bus rides we have ever taken was aboard the Number 100 from Nice to Monaco-Menton which was recommended to us by a hotel receptionist when we asked what his favorite thing was to do in Nice. Again, it took us out of the city of Nice where we were staying, but it offered some truly dramatic views that I’ll never forget. The bus trip itself was so interesting that it will be the subject of a future post called, “The Wheels on the Bus.”

So thank you François, Eden, Jean-Dominique and others who have helped us along our journey throughout Provence. Your favorites have become our favorites, too.

What was the best travel advice that you have been given by a local? And what places in your hometown would you recommend to a traveler that might be off the grid?

fullsizeoutput_47e1

On Being Grateful and the Nature of Traveling

fullsizeoutput_3e33We learn a lot about our true nature when we are traveling, and some of the things we learn about ourselves aren’t so complimentary. Often times when things don’t go as planned or places don’t meet our expectations, we balk, we gripe, we complain. But these are the very experiences that teach us the most about ourselves and the world around us.

Our recent trip to the South of France was no exception, and we had several of these types of experiences. Some turned out great and far exceeded our expectations, while some taught us lessons that will change the way we do things the next time. Many of the things that happened to us were not planned or expected on our recent journey, which overall was a glorious and beautiful trip. But it wasn’t perfect.

For example, upon our arrival to Trieste, Italy, where we had to spend the night before our flight to Nice, we checked into our hotel.  Or tried to. We were tired from an uncomfortably warm bus ride from Pula that had given James, Carolyn and I a mild case of motion sickness. We thought that because we had booked a hotel that it would be easy to check-in. Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

After we walked several grimy streets in the area of Trieste near the bus station, we finally tracked the place down. It was behind giant wooden doors in a large 19th century building that you needed someone to buzz you into. The sign was very small, the door was very large. The place was advertised as a hotel with a shared bathroom and truth be told I chose it because it was the cheapest.

After several attempts to find a way to get into the place, we finally called the owner.  He wasn’t there, but could be there at 8 p.m. There is no one at the hotel? we wondered. It was 5:00 p.m. We were carrying backpacks and we were tired, so we finally got him to agree to be there at 6:30.  Then we get another phone call, his assistant would be there at 6:30. Okay, so we showed up then.

We waited at the giant wooden door and waited. Finally around 7 p.m. a woman walks up, fumbles with some ancient skeleton keys and lets us in. The place has an elevator from the early 1900s and it’s actually pretty cool.

111F3624-A4EE-443C-AF51-D80275DA0775.jpeg
James and Carolyn in the oldest elevator in Trieste.

She says it’s the oldest in the city.  It’s a nice elevator but only holds two people, so some of us walk up the four floors on the beautiful old staircase and some of us take the elevator. My poor pack mule husband who was carrying both our backpacks up got to ride it up.

A stench hits us when the lady opens the door to the “hotel.” It’s some serious cigarette smoke, and we hear some men loudly talking in the first bedrooms near the entrance. I hold my breath as we go by their rooms. You can hear our footsteps on the old wooden floors. The building seems ancient and reminds me of an old school dormitory or better yet, a convent.  Wooden floors, artificial flower arrangements from another decade or so and old wooden furniture with dusty doilies, like the kind your elderly grandmother had.

“We’re staying at some old Italian grandma’s house,” James says.

The assistant shows us where the shared bathrooms are on the way in, and we see a lady sitting by the receptionist desk.  A receptionist? Where was she when we were waiting by the giant door? Apparently, we just had to buzz her, and she would have let us in. We thought we did. We’re perplexed. Why didn’t the owner just tell us that? We walk down the long wooden halls with our footsteps echoing down the corridor. I feel like I’m in the movie, “The Shining,” waiting for the ghostly twin girls to appear at the end of the hallway, but here we are. We are at the door of our room. There are three single cot-like beds in the double room Mike and I booked. We can just push two of them together, the lady tells us. So we do.

There are also two small disposable plastic cups on a small table, about the size of the type you use to rinse your mouth in, and we are informed we can get water down the hall in the bathroom. No sink or faucets in the bedroom, or mirrors, for that matter. Do vampires live here? I’m silently shrieking inside, we have to drink water from the bathroom faucet where people use the restroom?  This was not worth the $30 dollars I saved. I’ll just have to be thirsty.

Meanwhile Carolyn and James are shown to their room which is like an old dorm room and a quarter of the size of ours with only two single beds. We tell Carolyn she can come sleep in our room if she feels too claustrophobic. We have the extra bed. She doesn’t but should have because she said she was up the entire night because every time she turned over her bed squeaked loudly and she could hear every move in the hotel as well.  Mike and I sleep pretty well thanks to the down comforters with covers that were super soft, but I was a little thirsty. We had to be up at 4 a.m. to be at the bus station for 5 a.m. in order to catch our flight from Venice to Nice.

So what is the moral of the story. We survived. The place wasn’t filthy, just ancient. The bed covers were amazing. We could have been stuck out on the street somewhere in the cold. And yes, I broke down in the morning and drank some of the water out of the old bathroom faucet. I mean, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, what was the difference?fullsizeoutput_15c3

Looking back I realize I’m more than just a little spoiled about creature comforts.  I don’t know if it’s my age or our culture that says everything has to be exactly how we want it to be. We think we can’t inhale cigarette smoke and we think we shouldn’t drink water from a bathroom faucet. But everything can’t be clean and washed and pressed in life. Life is not always perfectly comfortable, especially when you are traveling. You are going to come in contact with bad smells and uncomfortable conditions if you are truly taking a journey. I’m sure there are many younger people who are used to traveling in hostels or in third world countries where things like this are normal and part of the experience. If I had booked a hostel, I guess I would have expected more discomforts. But there is that stubborn word, “expected.”  Often times in life, that is the problem. Things don’t meet our expectations. But are they enough? Are our needs met? And I look back more than a little ashamed that I was so unappreciative of the beginning of what was to be a beautiful adventure. My next posts will show the more glamorous side of the journey, but for now, I’ll be more grateful for what I am given, even water from a public bathroom faucet.

fullsizeoutput_45ca

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”