Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tuscan Pics

We spent the long weekend in Tuscany with my mom, staying at a farmhouse hotel outside of Siena. Using this as our base, we managed to visit five Tuscan towns and one monastery...and still fit in a lazy evening on the hotel terrace eating meats, cheeses, olives and fruit with prosecco and local wine. A Tuscan idyll indeed. My mom and I are preparing to drive up to Rome, so my time is limited to do a big write-up of our trip, but I wanted to post just a few pictures. These are all from our hotel, Fullino Nero, a beautiful, stone farmhouse. Our apartment had a full kitchen with dining table, living room with pull-out sofa bed and bathroom, plus a bedroom with 2nd bathroom. It worked perfectly for us except for our landlady's consternation with Scully.

Dogs are allowed, and I'd included him on our reservation as a pet. And yet...when we arrived, she informed us the dog would always need to go with us when we left the room so she could come in for the trash and towel switch-out. We'd booked a place in the country that allowed pets specifically so we could leave Scully in his crate to rest (broken foot, remember?).  We explained we had a crate, so there would be no problem with anyone coming in while he was there. She was confused. We set up the crate. She was confused. Then she said he might bark. We said he would not. Then she said the crate might scratch the tile floor. We said it would not. Lots of staring at one another in silence until Nathan finally put Scully's dog blanket underneath the crate. Then she said he might "pee-pee" on the floor (all of this discussion was in Italian). We said he would not. We finally seemed to reach an agreement, and we went off to dinner, but the dog seemed to be an issue the entire time we were there and it left us feeling on edge for the duration. Regardless, the hotel, room, and landscaping were just gorgeous, and it was a wonderful, Tuscan retreat.
View from our apartment window

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Auto Service

We're in Tuscany right now. In anticipation of this trip, we'd reached the drop dead, no kidding, oil must be changed, point in our car. We'd pushed it way too far, mainly out of an "I just can't deal with that on top of all our other stuff" mindset. With yet another road trip fast approaching, we realized we had to deal with this issue. We'd heard before coming here that auto parts are very, very expensive, and anticipating this, we brought oil filters for our Toyota. We had no intention of bringing our Volvo station wagon with us. Since that was an eleventh hour, crisis decision - actually 11:59 decision since we dropped off the Volvo at the port for shipping the same day we flew out of the United States - we have no parts for the car. We reasoned: People in Italy drive cars so what's the big deal. Now I know. How much do you pay for your oil change? Jiffy Lube's $29.95 special. Mmmm-hmmmm. We paid 150euros, or $212.52. Oh how I wish this were an April Fool's post.

We first approached our local, hole in the wall mechanic shop. They smirked at us and quoted about 120euros. Since I would be the one taking the car into the shop, and I don't even know what the oil filter looks like, I had a feeling I would be ripe for a little bit of...well, you get the idea. Now I don't want to cast aspersions on our local mechanic. He's probably a very nice man. But that look in his eyes gave me a little pause. Nathan found a Volvo dealership in the next town over and made an appointment for me. Then proceeded to tell me there was no exact address and co-workers of his had told him this place was extremely difficult to find and down some sort of turn off road. I built in plenty of time, headed off, and soon found myself on the correct road, which is just about the scariest place I've been in this city. As we're in the middle of a yet another trash crisis, this particular alley had an impressive mound that limited driving to one lane, with that one lane taken up with all sorts of people who felt the need to just lounge about the street staring at cars trying to pass by. All in all, I did not think this was the place for me to be driving slowly around...or stopping to ask directions. And then, as tends to happen in this city, I found that the dirt, trash, and grime were just a facade. Upon finding the Volvo dealership, I drove through their security gates, admired the sexy Ferrari on it's window pedestal, parked in a roomy parking lot, and walked into a sparkling clean, white building. Then paid over $200 for an oil change.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mom's Visit

While I have taken my mom to some of the same places we've taken our other guests, like downtown Naples, Herculaneum, and Positano, we've also done some things new to me as well. Such as finally getting Ischia right (see previous post) and finally visiting the Baia Castle, home to an Archaeological Museum. The Baia Castle was a biggie to visit because we can see it from our house. And yet, nine months in this country with no visit to the museum that's almost literally in my backyard.

Baia was a big deal among the Roman emperor crowd. They had parties that would have put 1980s Hollywood bashes to shame. And they partied in villas that once lined the shore, but now provide some supposedly fascinating diving since they're all underwater after years of the earth shifting in this volcanic region. The museum holds some of the things brought up from those villas, but most of the exhibits we saw were treasures found at the Cuma settlement and other artifacts from the Campi Flegrei region. And yet again, I've seen how underutilized these amazing archaeological areas are. While there was a large crowd of schoolkids on a field trip, other than that group, Mom and I were it for visitors. We headed to a different floor than the kids and had the entire museum to ourselves. The exhibits have well done, English translations, they show a variety of ancient life (from a bit of jewelry to statues to funerary urns and beyond), and they even have a cast of an Egyptian wadi (like a grotto in the desert near water) that is home to about 80 pieces of early graffiti (dating to about 4th century BC). Why would that be in a somewhat obscure museum on a small peninsula in Italy? Because the oldest graffiti was done by the freed slave of one of Pozzuoli's wealthy residents, and he apparently discovered, by happenstance, a really awesome trade route between Ceylon and Aden. This was a big deal, and so, his graffiti lives on. So next time you see, carved into a wall, "John + Lara were here, 2gether 4ever" with a big heart around it, don't be so quick to turn up your nose. One day, that might be important.
Roman road sign that means "River ahead"
In other news, we visited Herculaneum (Ercolano), and I took loads more pics of the frescoes so I can begin creating my "Frescoes of Ercolano" album. While I enjoyed seeing Pompeii's frescoes in the Naples Archaeological Museum, there is really nothing like seeing frescoes and mosaics where they belong. Being able to walk on the same mosaic floor or sit in a house and stare at the fresco it's owner commissioned two millenia ago allows us to get a unique window into their lives and stories. We also took a daytrip to Positano, down on the Amalfi Coast. I love Positano in the off season, but it's even better now. We've had limited and expensive food options on our prior trips, but now, charming cafes are open all over the place, and all the shops are going full speed. We'd not left enough time to lounge about on the beach - maybe next week.
Mom on the Amalfi Coast

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ischia Weekend

My mom arrived last week for a two week visit. Her visit, combined with my birthday, meant time to plan another trip. Oddly, I picked as our destination the same place that was the scene of one of my worst days in this country - the island of Ischia and Negombo Spa. That's the place we visited back in March and was a day where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But, I still desperately wanted to go to Negombo when all it's pools were open, and Ischia is really easy to get to from our house. We can hop on one of the Metro lines (called the Cumana out our way), travel for about 10 minutes, get off right at the Pozzuoli port and be on a ferry in 20 minutes. We'd also decided that for this trip, we'd forego the crowded and difficult public buses in favor of taxis. This made all the difference in the world.

Nathan carted Scully and his broken bone off to his sitter's house and we were on Ischia by lunchtime. Ischia is a large, mountainous island, and was actually home to the very earliest Greek settlers - I've written a few times about the Cuma ruins I love so much. That settlement was from a group who came over from their Ischia land. Ferries go into two ports, both fairly near one another, so it's an odd set-up. Last time, we went into the port at the town of Ischia, which wasn't all that intriguing. This time, we docked at Casamicciola, a beautiful town along the coast that looked just like an Italian, coastal town is supposed to look according to movies, tv, and the pictures I've made up in my head from reading lots of books.

Lunch and a taxi ride later, we checked into our hotel, Umberto Al Mare, in the town of Forio, yet another, pretty, coastal village. We'd booked two, seaview rooms, and were pleasantly surprised to find that we'd been assigned two rooms connected by a huge terrace overlooking the water. A perk like that always makes me a little sad that I'm not staying a little longer. Nathan elected to join in the Italian reposso (aka, afternoon nap) while Mom and I headed off to Giardino La Mortella, beautiful gardens at the former home of a famous 20th century, British composer and his Argentinian wife. His wife was responsible for the creation of the gardens, and they are spectacular. There are numerous water features, beautiful plantings and pathways, a cafe for a bit of afternoon tea (Ischia is a popular place among the Germans and the Brits), and one of my favorites, this Orchid House, complete with a giant water lily:

The next day was our spa day at Negombo. Ischia has some spas that are not like American spas. Negombo and Poseidon (another popular spot) are landscaped, pool-ridden places for day-trips. One pays an entry for the day, sets up camp at one of the hundreds of lounge chairs (with umbrella!) scattered about, then visits all the pools, saunas, and beach whenever. Many of the pools are heated with the naturally occurring thermal water, which is also slightly radioactive in some places - we found that out after we were already there. Negombo had pools that look like regular pools, pools that were carved out of the cliffside where we sat on rock ledges, small tunnels sized for a couple of people to sit in a natural sauna, a "Labyrinth" walk with river stones as the bottom for foot massage and one side was really hot water, the other side really cold, pools with strong waterfalls for neck and shoulder massage, and a Turkish bath that was essentially a two room sauna. And a beach. The day was a bit overcast, making it chilly to try to sunbathe and read, so we focused on exploring the thermal waters before heading home on an early boat in order to pick up Gimpy, formerly known as Crazy Dog. What a great birthday weekend!
Our hotel was underneath a beautiful church with a great view.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Visiting A Vet

For some reason, none of my posts have been uploading when scheduled. I wrote the below last week, the day before driving to Rome to pick up my Mom for her two week visit - and thus, never actually checked the blog again to make sure it uploaded. It didn't. So, this is from last week:

Well Crazy Dog has finally broken a bone. It had to happen sooner or later. He started limping a couple of days before I returned from Greece, and I thought he’d just pulled a muscle playing or gotten a sore spot on his toe pad. After a few days, with no improvement in the limp, I headed off to the local vet, with a little bit of trepidation. We’ve visited a vet here before only once, while in a small town down south, and it turned out to be a sore spot that just needed a little cream put on it every day. This seemed more serious, and while waiting in the lobby, I talked with another client who mentioned that his dog had previously torn her ACL, which required surgery. Dogs have ACLs?!! Surgery!

There are a couple of vets here in town who speak English, and while I know I should be taking every opportunity possible to practice my Italian, I’m thinking that ship has sailed – I can barely remember how to order a pizza. And anyway, I’ve never spoken science Italian. I did, however, pretend I spoke Italian with a lady in the waiting room. Her dog was interested in Scully, and she kept pulling him away. I finally said (in Italian) that Scully is friendly, and she spent a long time telling me something about her dog – I think it was that he’s attacked three dogs in the past. Shortly after this, she let her dog come up and sniff all around Scully. So I have not a clue what our conversation actually was about. I also tried to listen in on a conversation between the vet assistant and a man there with his cat. When I reached the point where I thought the vet assistant was telling him his cat should wear clothes, I was quickly sidetracked into an imaginary conversation that was probably much more interesting than their actual conversation. Thankfully, my turn arrived soon to distract me from my distraction.

The vet found a swollen area which X-rays showed to be a bone fracture. It’s in an area the orthopedic surgeon’s office said would do better healing on its own rather than surgically, so our little Crazy is on bed rest. A dog, on bed rest. And more importantly, our dog – the one who dances to music on his hind legs every day, who must have daily ball chases and/or toy throwing breaks, who considers it the highest form of excitement to defend our lands against the invading Other Kitty, who routinely runs laps around our house throughout the day, even when no one or nothing is chasing him. Stuck in a crate all day, every day, for several days as a pre-cursor to being housebound for weeks, going outside only on a leash to prevent running or jumping: If dogs could imagine a Hell, bed rest would be Scully’s.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Crete Wrap-Up

I had a problem with the last couple of posts not uploading on time, so the timing may seem a little off. I left Crete on Sunday, which meant Nathan and I had a final Saturday to explore the island together. As much as we both wanted another "sit on the beach all day" day, we decided instead to explore some of the interior of the island. We'd read the Amari Valley is a beautiful region, and about three different people had asked me at one point or another if we'd visited a town called Argyroupoli.
Those are oranges filling the pickup truck - this was a great drive!

We began our little tour at the end of a peninsula in the itty-bitty town of Stavros. Parts of the movie
"Zorba the Greek" were filmed here, and the town boasts a pretty square with a concert stage, no less than four tavernas, a church, and a post office:

And that's all, folks. Stavros. But I fell in love with it anyway, to the point of taking a picture of a neglected house just off of the beach that I took to calling "My future home." We loved it so much that after driving a little bit in the Amari Valley (just as beautiful as described) and visiting the pretty towns of Spili and Argyroupoli, we headed back to Stavros for a little beach lounging at the end of the day.

Argyroupoli is a town with loads upon loads of fresh mountain springs pouring out of their ground. The townsfolk have cleverly built several tavernas around these springs, meaning each restaurant has some sort of interesting and beautiful water feature, from sheet waterfalls out of stacked stone structures to waterwheels to large fountains. Not only does it make for a pleasant meal, but the town was quite cool (literally cool, although also cool in the slang sense of the word). I imagine that on a hot summer day, this place would be a little piece of paradise.

Our drive gave me the chance to take more pictures of the tiny churches, with which I fell in love. I want one desperately. I did find out that they are memorials, so I don't want one for it's real purpose - just for playing, like a dollhouse.

In my previous posts, I forgot to mention an extremely important point about Crete. Dessert is free. We made the mistake of ordering dessert after our first few dinners. Then one night, we didn't - and when the server brought our bill, she also brought a dessert and raki (like grappa - a digestivo for after dinner). We thought it was just a nice restaurant. Then it happened again...and again. New friends finally informed us - dessert is free. You don't get to order something specific, but whatever you get will be delicious...and did I mention free. I'm a sucker for a bargain. Here's a Chania photo wrap-up:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time for the Beach

Our second day of the weekend, we elected to drive down the west coast of Crete, along a spectacular “European Rambler Trail.” The road did, indeed, ramble – all around cliffs and mountain villages and along the coastline. After a quick stop off to see an old monastery (that was closed, so we didn’t get to see inside), we arrived at our destination, Elafonisi Beach, one of the prettiest beaches we’ve ever seen. I’ve already mentioned how clear the water is around Crete, but when we topped the rise  and our vista opened up to include Elafonisi, we both had huge, indrawn breaths. White sand, turquoise water, rocks to provide some topography, and something parents must love – a pool of water separated from the ocean and as shallow as toddler pools found at water parks. Elafonisi Beach actually has an island that is sometimes a peninsula. At high tide, visitors have to walk through the ankle deep water to reach the island. We were able to walk across a sand spit, with the gorgeous, clear ocean on our left and the shallow pool on our right. The day was sunny and warm, but very windy. So much so that it was too windy for us to set up our “borrowed,” hotel towels on the sand. But we lucked into a little spot tucked away in between the rocks which allowed shielding from the wind while not impeding our view. We enjoyed it so much that we scrapped all thoughts of any other activities for the day and lounged about for hours – what a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
The "toddler" pool
We especially liked the warning against "unsolicited interference" and wondered who has the authority to allow solicited interference...and who exactly would solicit pollution anyway?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Exploring Chania

With three days left before the weekend and my last day spent with Nathan, I gave up on finding a tour to Knossos and decided against doing it myself on the public bus. That gave me lots of time to continue exploring the Old Quarter of Chania. For a lot of people, two weeks in this Old Quarter would drive them crazy. I have found that each day, when I set out, I find a new alley to explore, a new restaurant I’d never noticed, a new artisan set amongst all the “cheap crap” stores. And if I’m really tired of walking around the same streets over and over again, I park myself in one of the many, outdoor dining restaurants lining the harbor and set with comfy, cushiony wicker furniture – there I can order milkshakes or mountain tea (Crete’s special tea) or wine and read my Kindle to my heart’s content. A warm day, a shining sun bouncing off a sparkling ocean, charming and colorful buildings rimming the harbor, a comfortable chair, a cold beverage, and a good book – what more do I need? For me, that’s a vacation afternoon well spent. I visited Chania’s small, but nice Archeological Museum and enjoyed seeing their artifacts pulled from the local excavation. That’s the one I wrote about last week and put up a picture – the Minoan ruins that are many thousands of years old. The artifacts were incredible – I find it astonishing that this stuff has been found after all those years. I thought these 3500 year old safety pins were quite interesting:

I spend some time in the hotel room each day, labeling photos from the previous day, writing these blog posts, and, I admit it, watching some of my TV shows online. Our room faces the harbor, and at night, we sleep with the balcony door open, with the sound of the crashing waves providing a rhythm to our dreams. I think I’ll miss the sound of the ocean more than anything. That and the twilight view of the Outer Harbor, when there’s still a bit of daylight, but the restaurants and hotels lining the water have turned on their lights.
This picture does little to convey the true beauty and feel of the harbor, but maybe it can give you a tiny glimpse of how captivating this city can be. One reason I  like it so much - does this remind you of my photos of Venice? The Venetians ruled Crete for awhile and are responsible for how this harbor looks.

How I'm spending my last few hours in Greece


One of Crete’s must-see sites is Knossos Palace, the capital of Crete’s Minoan society, and the only settlement not completely devastated by the tsunami following a huge volcanic eruption on Santorini. I did not see Knossos. Last week I focused my time on exploring the city of Chania. Knossos is a three hour bus ride away, and after last week’s disastrous attempt at navigating Crete’s public bus system, I decided to join a tour to Knossos. The tours include transportation, a guide, a stop at a nearby, ancient village, then a trip to nearby Iraklio to the Archaeological Museum, which holds all the good stuff unearthed at Knossos. I kept attempting to join a tour on Monday, but the tour company finally decided on Sunday that the trip would not go. So on Monday, I signed up with a different tour company for a Wednesday tour. And upon my return to the hotel on Tuesday night, found that the tour company had cancelled the trip due to a nationwide strike. I pounded the pavement on Wednesday, looking for another tour company that had a trip going on Thursday or Friday, and every single tour company had cancelled all their trips for this week. Oh well – it’s something to save for another visit, and my Tuesday activity more than made up for losing out on seeing Knossos Palace.

I did, however, get to go somewhere I’ve longed to go for years, even decades, somewhere that’s in every single photo of Greece, a place that, when I hear the word Greece, this image comes to mind – the island of Santorini! This is the island with those white buildings and blue roofed churches. Who knew you could take a daytrip there on a fast moving jet boat from Crete? Not me. Everything we’d heard was that Santorini is too far and not worth it for a daytrip as the ferries leave out of the same town as the one where Knossos Palace is located – the one that’s a three hour drive away. BUT…tour companies from Crete are now offering a trip on a private boat that leaves from a town only an hour’s drive away. One hour drive and two (and a half or so) hours at high speed (which made for a bumpy ride that many on the boat did not take to – thankfully, as with my trip to Capri a few weeks ago, I was in the front of the boat) put us in Santorini with about six hours to spend before returning to Crete. I went with another military spouse, and what a highlight for both of us!
Town of Oia
Santorini is completely different than I expected. In my mind, Santorini was a small island, with those white buildings comprising a little village that spills right down to the seafront. Not so. Santorini is huge and is essentially the rim of a volcano. Once the boat landed at the very small port, we were taken by bus to the top, where all the villages are – villages in plural. Santorini has two large villages and many smaller ones. Once at the top, we could clearly see how crescent shaped Santorini was once connected to two other islands in view. And smack in the center of the caldera is the island that formed when the volcano erupted about 3500 years ago – the eruption I mentioned earlier that sparked the tsunami that devastated Crete. Furthermore, I learned that this is the most probably site of Atlantis, and that same volcanic eruption buried it. Our guide mentioned it and then the lady I was traveling with confirmed that she’d watched a History Channel program that concluded the same thing. Atlantis! The day just kept getting better.
Island in forefront is in center of caldera
Unbeknownst to us, our ticket price included a tour of the two main towns, Oia and Thira. Two people had told me prior to the trip that Thira was the prettiest and if I had a choice, to spend all my time there. This recommendation turned out to be a great example in support of “see it for yourself.” My friend and I both much preferred Oia. Both towns have the white buildings and cutesy shops for tourists and restaurants overlooking the sea, but Oia is slightly quieter and easier to enjoy. Thira was wonderful as well, but it’s the town everyone heads to, so the alleys were busy and it felt a little rushed – not as calm and peaceful as Oia. Nevertheless, it was as beautiful as I imagined, and probably more so because seeing Santorini was such an unexpected surprise.

Town of Thira

Monday, May 9, 2011

When the Pain is Worth It

Over the weekend, we spent a day hiking the longest gorge in Europe, Samaria Gorge. Now, we are in great pain. Sixteen kilometers (10 miles), most of it over loose stones about half the size of our feet, meaning we used every muscle in our legs in order to keep balance and take each step. The first sign of trouble should have been when we passed the above actual sign very early in the trip. Prior signs would have been the paragraph in our guidebook that says not to try this hike in anything other than real deal hiking boots – I read that tidbit the day after we hiked it, me in my Keen river sandals. Oopsies. We signed up on a coach excursion which provided our transportation and a guide to make sure we all made it out of the gorge. Our guide spent the last 20 minutes of our drive repeating over and over how difficult the hike is and that there is no emergency service, so “if you twist you’re ankle or hurt your knee or anything else, you must complete the hike totally, totally alone.” We were also instructed to watch carefully our “feets,” and if we wish to have a look around, we were to “stop, have a look around, then continue onward while watching [our] feets very, very carefully.” Thomas the Guide is a very, very smart man.

As Nathan and I snickered about these warnings and glanced around our bus of 40 other hikers, most at least 25 years older than us (and also wearing river sandals or tennis shoes), we thought we would sail through this little excursion and spend hours lounging on the beach at the end of the gorge while awaiting all the slow pokes. Much to my chagrin, we finished almost dead last among our group, beating only a near crippled lady who used her walking stick as a cane and leaned on her husband’s arm the entire hike. Yep, those are the only people we beat, and they almost passed us at the end. But, at least we finished. And I’m so glad we did the hike.

The Samaria Gorge is one of the most spectacular hikes either of us has ever done – for me, it even rivaled the Path of the Gods, our hike from about two weeks ago on the Amalfi Coast. We started among a shady forest as we descended into the gorge, then at the bottom, for the first half, we hiked along a flowing stream with lots of little waterfalls and water so clear we could make out every single rock in it. After the stream disappeared, we began hiking in the old riverbed itself. The hiking until then had been on tough ground, but hiking the riverbed was sheer agony coupled with breathtaking beauty. Near the end, we passed through the most famous area of the Samaria Gorge, and one of the most photographed places in all of Crete, the Gates, where the cliffs come together, narrowing to about 9 feet apart. And finally, the end, a gorgeous, clear, sparkling, Libyan Sea.
As we came upon this rest area, Nathan, who knows me very well, took one look at this scene before us and one look at my face, then said, "So this is where the unicorns live."
The blessed end