It’s Raining Figs, Halleluja!

The other day I noticed there were ants crawling all over the sandals in my room.  I went to go smack these annoying little creatures with that very same set of sandals when I saw a sticky, gooey, dark brown blob with tiny seeds smashed all over on the bottom of them.  Think Fig Newtons and remove the little cake coating, and that’s what was on the bottom of my shoes. Have I mentioned it’s fig season here in Croatia?

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Yes, everywhere you go around the city there are reminders and remainders of figs, or smokva as they are called here in Croatia. On the sides of the roads, you see people with baskets picking them. In the market in town, little old ladies are selling them fresh or dried, in preserves or in jellies. Mike and I were sitting at a beachside cafe when a lady came up to us selling cartons of them. Our friends in the tiny town of Kringa were given a huge case of them from a local restaurant owner who was up to his eyeballs in figs.

There are so many trees with figs in my neighborhood that they are literally dropping all over the sidewalks where they sit until they are smashed underfoot by unsuspecting tourists. (Oh, by the way, it is also tourist season.)

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While August is peak fig season in Croatia, it is also peak tourist season (photo by Michael Gelpi).

Every few days our landlord drops off a little bowl of these beautiful little green fruits with the pinkish white interiors. They are different from the ones I am used to from New Orleans, but just as delicious. To date, I have cooked fig jam, had them in salads, eaten them raw and am working on concocting a fig cobbler. Sweet!

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

I have to admit that I had felt a little guilty in the beginning of June when I saw two figs on a branch overhanging a fence and I took them.  Carolyn and I had been on our way back from a grocery trip to Plodine when we saw the two plump figs just waiting to be picked, and I just popped those babies right into my rolling shopping bag while Carolyn looked around to make sure no one was watching us. Seeing all the fig trees as we walked along the roadway back home had made me dream of the day when figs would be available to buy at the market in town.

I’ve honestly never seen so many figs in my life. It’s a figpocalypse.

Looking back, it seems a little ridiculous to worry about as there are so many fig trees Nabisco would be able to stock Fig Newtons in stores for a year with all the figs I’ve seen smashed on the sidewalks and roadways. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration.  But really, be careful what you wish for.

Perfectly Imperfect Bologna

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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?

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