We’re in Liverpool, home of the Beatles. Later today we have a tour of Beatles sights, but first, I’m seeing what else this city has going for it.
On my own, I visit Liverpool’s two cathedrals, first the Catholic and then the Anglican. The modern Catholic Cathedral looks like a circular spaceship, the altar in the center and chapels lining the outer edge. The Anglican is huge – the largest cathedral in Great Britain – and has a cafe inside. Both were begun around 1900 and both completed in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Each has a different vibe, but I can’t stay long because I don’t want to be late for the walking tour.
The walking tour is free, like the walking tour we took in Dublin. It’s a different company, but the same idea, offer free city tours to sell pub crawls and tours farther afield. However, this company has just started in Liverpool a week or so ago, so there are no other tours yet. In fact, the guide for this tour is the manager of the Liverpool and Dublin tour company, getting to know this area. I feel like I’ve come full circle, ending with a Dublin guy in Liverpool.
The tour is good, though, as we wind our way through the city. Like Dublin, it’s not a stunningly beautiful town, especially today in the blowing rain and 50degree weather. However, the stories are fantastic, like the descriptions of the memorial of the soccer stadium stampede and the “war buddy” memorial. The local paper suggested that in WWII volunteers from the same neighborhood sign up together and guys can fight side by side with their childhood mates. As you might imagine, that was all well and good until they started seeing their friends and neighbors die right in front of them. Today the military deliberately places people together from different parts of the country. It was interesting to chat with the guide and hear his plans to expand the business.
We also learned about the Liverpool Cultural Mascot, the Superlambanana. I don’t know what you call this phenomena – a city adopts an animal or some type of representational figure and places life-size sculptures of this figure, each painted or decorated differently depending on the artist or the location, all over the city. Norfolk has mermaids and I can’t remember the city that has cows. Anyway, Liverpool had a contest and ended up with Superlambanana – a tribute to the imports and exports that have crossed the harbor. Personally, I think it’s weird. A Japanese guy designed it, but the ones around town are decorated by local artists. Still weird.
I grab a bite to eat and head back to the hostel, where our Fab Four Beatles Tour guide will pick us up. We’re ready to go at 2:50pm, but at 3:10pm, no one has come. I ask the hostel staff to call (they made the reservation for me yesterday) and they said someone was on their way. I was really nervous, as we were leaving tomorrow and there was no time to reschedule or find another tour.
Finally, the big black cab of Fab Four rolls up, 20 minutes late. We meet Terry, who is actually the owner of the company, and who is a little peeved at the driver who did not show up. He’s going to make it right with us, though, and oh my goodness, did he ever! First we went to Ringo’s mom’s house (currently condemned), then the Empress Pub at the end of the street, which was on his first album cover. Then down Penny Lane, stopping to take photos (actually Terry commandeered my camera and took most of the photos on the tour) of the barbershop (a barber showing photograhs) and the shelter in the roundabout. During the drive, the appropriate songs are playing in the cab, which adds a lot to the experience.
We move on to the house where Paul McCartney grew up, then Strawberry Field (the s added just for the song – a former orphanage that John used to sneak into – his aunt told him they would hang him if he got caught… nothing to get hung about), then the childhood home of John Lennon. Terry fills us in on everything about their lives that has bled into their music. On to George’s house, and then to the church and meeting hall where John first met Paul. In the church’s graveyard is a headstone for Eleanor Rigby, although when John wrote that song it was years later and he claimed not to have remembered that name from there. He gave us a cd of the BBC interview where John talks about meeting Paul. Fabulous! But before we’re done, he throws in a visit to the hospital where John was born and showed us where they went to school. Wow. I thought I knew my Beatles trivia, but no.
After our return to the hostel, we go to the fancy pub at the Philharmonic next door for dinner. Anna and I get a look at the fancy men’s loo before we enjoy our last dinner out. After dinner, Morgan and I visit, but are mostly too late for an art gallery opening, then come back to the room to pack. We have to leave at 6am tomorrow morning.
However, the day is not done. During my city tour, I saw that there was a Beatles cover band playing at the Cavern Club, the pub where the Fab Four got their start. We leave a bit before 10pm to get down there. The place is packed when the band starts – the energy is high – they really sound like the Beatles! We start sitting, but not for long. After the first set, a bunch of the older folks leave and we get a better view. Admittedly, there are more older folks than younger, but everyone is getting into it. Jon is in filming heaven. After the second set, when even more people drift away and it is more apparent what he is doing, Jon becomes very, very popular. People are dancing right up to the camera and everyone is having a blast. We close the place down at midnight and don’t get back to the room until almost 1am. Yep, it was a Hard Day’s Night! (sorry, I had to say it!)
We’re off to Liverpool today, but since it’s only an hour and a half drive from here and we can’t check in until 2pm, we get to hang out in Conwy for a bit.
The first order of business is breakfast. Alan is there, of course, and his friend Ray. We chat and I enjoy their jocular banter (yes, jocular banter). Ray is President of British International Rescue & Search Dogs and tells us amazing tales of adventure and life-saving. Alan tells stories of his National Champion ski coach days, and before I know it, over an hour is past. Jon, Anna, and Morgan come down and Jon wants to film the guys as part of his documentary. I settle up with Alan and leave them to it. I’ve got a castle to tour!
I can see Castle Conwy from my bedroom window and I would like to learn more about it. Construction began in 1283 as part of King Edward I’s plan of surrounding Wales with “an iron ring of castles” filled with English to subdue the rebellious Welsh population. Beaumaris castle, which we visited yesterday, was the last one built. It was never finished. There are only a few explanatory signs, but I admit that I did get chills standing in the King’s chambers. Even though the place is in ruins, there is still a strong sense of history here.
I hike slowly back up the street to Llys Llwellen, find the kids, load the car, and it’s off to Liverpool (and my last day of driving on the left – hooray!!) Mrs. GPS takes us into town under the Mersey River and I drop luggage and kids at the hostel. We have a nice room (4 lower beds) with a bathroom, and the hostel is centrally located. Leaving the kids to their own devices, I head to the John Lennon International Airport to drop the car off and take the number 86 bus back. I know I’m in the right place when I see the yellow submarine. On the way back to the hostel, I’m checking out things to do. I look up, and there’s Penny Lane. Yep, it’s Liverpool.
I text Morgan and tell him that I’m not stopping back at the hostel but continuing down to the waterfront to catch the last hour of the Liverpool Museum, then, after that closes, the last hour of the Liverpool Tate Modern, right next door. We decide to meet for a nice dinner. Jon and Anna found some pork chops at the store and will be cooking in the hostel’s kitchen.
We make it to the restaurant just in time to get the early-bird menu: 25 pounds for three courses and a half carafe of wine. The food is organic, locally sourced, and there’s not a french fry in sight. Heavenly!
Back at the hostel, we make plans for tomorrow. There is a free 3-hour city tour at 11am, but I’m the only one who is interested in this. I want to take the kids on a Beatle-specific tour, and the hostel recommends the Fab Four Tour – 45pounds for all 4 of us for two hours in a private cab. Can’t beat that! We book that one for 3pm tomorrow, our last full day in Europe.
We have one full day in northern Wales to see all of the sights. What do we do? Woolen mills, botanical gardens, a mine, a national park, walks along the mountain stream, castles? So many choices!
Breakfast was with our host Alan, a former ski coach and fascinating fellow. After a bit, his buddy Ray joins the fray and, after chatting about the various options, there is a plan. To the mountains and end with a castle!
We’re heading to Mount Snowden, the highest point in the British Isles outside Scotland. It’s cloudy today, though, so it’s not clear that we will actually see the mountain. No worries, we go anyway. The drive up through green forest opens up to glacier-sculpted rocky valleys. First stop is the picturesque village of Betws-y-Coed for a short walk along a mountain stream. The smell of the pines and the blooming rhododendrons remind me of the forests in the Oregon coastal mountains. We get some chips to go on the way out.
Next stop is Beddgelert, translated as Gelert’s Grave. Gellert was a dog who belonged to Llywelyn the Great, a Prince of Wales. The story goes, Llywelyn, a new father, returns from hunting to find his infant son’s cradle turned over, the baby missing, and his dog, Gellert, greeting him anxiously. The dog’s mouth is smeared with blood. Llywelyn, jumping to conclusions, believes that the dog killed his son, so he draws his sword and kills the dog. As the dog is dying, Llywelyn hears the cries of his son, who is unharmed and safe under the cradle. Next to the boy is a dead wolf who had attacked the child but was killed by Gellert. Llywelyn is extremely remorseful and buries the dog with great ceremony. From that day forward, Llywelyn never smiled again. Sad story, but the setting is pretty. We continue walking down the stream and turn back after the steam train rumbles by.
Back on the road again, we do a quick drive-by of Caernarfon Castle and continue on to Beaumaris. We’re running a little late, so we only have 45 minutes to explore this 13th century castle, which is a shame, because it is so beautiful. Perfectly proportioned, complete with swans in the moat and a chapel with acoustics that make even my voice sound great.
Back to Conwy, we find Alan’s recommended pub and have an early dinner. Tomorrow, on to our last stop, Liverpool. We don’t have to leave until noon, so we can take it easy.
Today we go to Wales. I’m rather excited, because it’s my first visit there. We have a couple of rooms at a nice bed and breakfast in Conwy, a castle town in the north. My GPS says it will take about 4 hours if we barrel straight through, which means we should allow about 6 hours total. The plan is to leave at 9am so we can get to Conwy before dinner.
At breakfast, I ask the kids, “So, what do you know about Wales?”
Anna says, “Dr. Who!”
I ask, “Dr. Who?” And then she tells me Dr. Who, a BBC television show that features time travel and alien evasion which originally aired in 1963. After a run of 26 years, it went off the air, was a feature-length movie in 1996 and restarted again in 2005 to present. I had no idea. I also find out that there’s a particular city – Cardiff – where the show is set and turns out it is only 20 minutes off the GPS route. We must go there.
In about an hour, we roll into Cardiff. Anna doesn’t know exactly where the place she wants to go is, but she looks it up on my phone and gets directions. We end up at Mermaid Quay, a revitalized waterfront area overlooking Cardiff Bay. We park the car and walk past restaurants and shops to get to the square from the tv show. Unfortunately, there’s something blocking up the square, so we can’t really get the full effect. However, there’s a sign pointing to The Dr. Who Experience. We must check this out.
The Dr. Who Experience is part museum and part interactive adventure. Morgan and I are not fans, but Jon and Anna are extremely excited to be here. This is definitely a thing to do. Anna, wearing her Dr. Who t-shirt, got a nod from the woman taking us through. I learned quite a lot about the series, enjoyed the walk-through adventure (like the beginning of some of the rides at Busch Gardens – a movie screen and various moving parts to involve you in the story of flying in the time machine and encountering and escaping from the bad guys), as well as the museum. I’ve got to watch this when I get caught up back home.
On the way back, it occurred to me that I did not pay the parking in advance (I forget and want to pay when we leave, plus the sign is so small), so we hurry back to be sure we don’t have a parking ticket and then decide to head out of town while the traffic is light. Up the road a bit we find a small village and have a nice pub lunch. Then back on the road, we travel through the small towns of western England and eastern Wales, following Mrs. GPS through an innumerable number of roundabouts. Eventually we find Conwy (you recognize it by the castle!) and the Llys Llewellyn Bed and Breakfast. After a quick check-in, we head out to find some dinner. The pubs have stopped serving food, so we end up at the Indian restaurant. Jon and Anna have meat and chips, Morgan and I have curry and vindaloo. After dinner, Jon and Anna go back to the room while Morgan and I walk the walls of the town, enjoying the sunset.
Tomorrow, we explore Wales.
After a fantastic breakfast of sausages and doughnuts made by Jon and Anna, we head east today to see some ancient stones.
It’s a gorgeous day, and we drive through some very cute towns (too busy driving left and passing bicycles on these narrow roads to even instruct the Navigator to take a photo) toward Stonehenge and Avebury.
On the way, we stop at Wilton House, a 17th century mansion where Pride and Prejudice was filmed. It’s expensive to go in, however, and so we content ourselves with peering though the gate to the fine exterior.
When we get to Stonehenge, there is a traffic jam of busses, cars, and all sorts of people in the street. It’s easily seen right off the road, so we do a drive-by and Anna doesn’t even want to stop and take a picture through the fence. Even when you pay the admission fee, you can’t get close to the stones. We’ve all seen photos of Stonehenge and you know, the actual thing looks just like those photos through the fence. Onward!
Avebury is the Stonehenge that you can touch. A circle of huge stones 16 times the size of Stonehenge and built in 2800 BC, hundreds of years earlier line a 30 foot ditch (henge). There were once 600 stones in this huge circle, including a couple of temples in the middle. In the 14th century, the religiously paranoid locals buried these Pagan stones. In the 18th century some were dug up and used as building material. In modern times, more have been dug up and realigned to their believed original position. It takes about 45 minutes to walk all the way around, pausing to embrace these ancient sentinels and dodge the sheep on the trail.
After a nice lunch in the haunted Red Lion Pub, we head back to Axbridge. At Chedway, there is no internet, so I make my way down to The Lamb, have a nice drink, catch up on email and skype George, plot tomorrow’s route, and have a chat with Ray, the local character and the bartender who lives next door.
Tomorrow we go to Wales.
We are staying in Axbridge, this little town, because it is centrally located to two of the sights Jon and Anna want to see: Childe’s Tomb in Dartmoor to the west and the ancient stones of Stonehenge and Avebury to the east. According to Google Maps, it’s about an hour to an hour and a half ride each way to each destination. It also, as it turns out, is close to the home of my random Words With Friends opponent (and a worthy one she is, too!) Nicky.
Yes, I’m an addict to Words With Friends (Anybody want to play?? Look me up!! I’ll warn you, I’m pretty good – or very lucky!). A couple of months ago, tired of waiting for my current Friends to make a move (love you guys!), I opted to try a game with a random player. I got Nicky. After a bit of chatting, I found out that she lives near Glastonbury, which is near Axbridge. After more chatting (to make sure she wasn’t some, I don’t know, weirdo), I decided to reach out and see if she wanted to get together when I was there. (ref: Julie’s rules of travel) We made a plan to meet on the way home from Dartmoor. How cool is that?
So, I thought that we would go to see this Childe’s Tomb place, then have time to drive to Wells Cathedral for Evensong, then meet Nicky at the local watering hole, The Sheppey. Yeah, we can do that.
However, Childe’s Tomb was not on any map. We get to the edge of Dartmoor, hoping someone can tell us how to find the trail that leads to it. The ladies at the tourist office have never heard of it, but they send us to a place that can help us, about a half-hour drive away through the 356 square mile park. It’s really a nice drive, though (although the roads are a little narrow for my taste) and we stop for ice cream on the edge of the moors. The tourist office near the Dartmoor Prison says that there’s no marked trail leading to this Childe’s Tomb and it’s a couple of miles walk through the wilderness from where you can park.
We stop for a quick lunch, then go out to see if we can find it. We park and it’s just wilderness – weeds, rocks, and sheep – for miles in every direction. I’m not sure where to go to find this tomb, but we head off down a trail. After about 15 minutes, I personally have had enough, but the kids seem to be reveling in the starkness of this place. I readjust my sightseeing schedule and we head off across the moors. We found canals, cows, overprotective live sheep and a couple of dead ones. Ancient stone circles and a line of stones leading to it that I later found out date from the Bronze Age, maybe 3000 BC. Ancient crosses marking some ancient graves and a pile of rocks that made an excellent viewpoint. Over the hill there’s an abandoned farm on a stream. It’s been 4 hours with several miles under our feet and still no Childe’s Tomb. We’ve looped back closer to the car and decide to call it a day. Childe’s Tomb is still out there waiting, but I think in the search we made some even greater discoveries.
It’s almost 8pm when we reach The Sheppey and meet Nicky. She finds us a place to park along the narrow lane and we go in to meet her husband and some of the guys in her theater group. We hit it off right away. Unfortunately, the kids are starving (well, we all are) and the pub is closed for food. Nicky’s husband rustles up some potato chips and bread and olives, with some soda for Jon, juice for Anna, beer for Morgan and cider for me. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture! I was pretty tired by that time, though, we all were, and when it started to get dark, we had to go. Such a shame! Next time (because now I must attend the Glastonbury Festival – the Rolling Stones are performing this year!) I’ll stay longer.
Back to Chedway, the grocery is still open and we can get food. All is well.
Since our train isn’t until noon today, I give the kids the option of sleeping in and leaving at 11am or getting up early and visiting the British Library. The British Library has never been on my list of top ten things to do in London, but hey, it’s just down the street. We can there when it opens and spend about an hour there checking things out before going back to the Mansions, collecting our luggage, and walking the 15 minutes it takes to get to Paddington Station. I’m more than a little surprised when they take me up on the Library excursion and so all bags are packed and ready to go when we leave at 8am.
Who knew a bunch of books and papers could be so exciting? In one room you can find the original Magna Carta and a Gutenberg Bible, sheet music inked by Handel and the lyrics to “Strawberry Fields” handwritten by John Lennon, the wrong words crossed out to make room for the right words. There’s Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks in his backward mirror writing and the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, including Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Persuasion by Jane Austen, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. I can feel the presence of every person who created these works here and it’s magical. Wow. Upstairs there is a glass room housing many more valuable books. I love the juxtaposition of the “readers” sitting in front of it studying their laptops.
A quick taxi back to the apartment, and we grab our bags and roll on down to Paddington Station. A couple of months ago, I bought tickets for this train online – now I just have to transform my booking number into actual tickets. We each get two tickets for the one way journey. One to get from the station to the platform through the turnstile, and the other to show onboard. It takes us a bit to figure out which one is which, but we do, and we’re on the train. At the station, I suggest everyone get a bite to eat and a drink for the ride.
I would love to say I enjoyed the English countryside, but I can’t. Instead, I was using my iPhone (glad to have that data) to figure out what to do in Bath in about an hour. I knew there was a free tour, but when? iPhone says 2pm. How far is it from the car rental and when to they close? Gotta take a taxi. Where do we stow our bags? Youth hostel 3 blocks from train station for 3euros/bag. How long to drive to Axbridge where we are staying? About 1 hour. If we have time to eat, where can we eat gluten-free? Jamie Oliver has a restaurant there!
So when we got to Bath, I was set to go. We had about half an hour to drop our bags, find the tour beginning, and grab Anna a gluten-free snack before enjoying a marvelous walking tour through Bath given by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. Here’s a little bit about what we learned: the Romans were here and took advantage of the thermal waters and microclimate in this valley to create a prosperous town. Fast forward to the 900’s and the area is Anglo-Saxon. Kings are crowned in the Abbey and a wall is built. Fast forward to the 1700’s, a queen gets pregnant here, and Bath is rejuvenated by Georgian architects John Wood Sr. and Jr. Now it is the place to be for London society. The architecture reflects the times – the front of the buildings are lined with Bath Stone – a unique limestone found only in this area, but the rear of the buildings are made with the cheapest materials. Only the facades are important. We see the Bath Crescent homes and walk down the garden path from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Architecturally, at least, very little in this city has changed since Jane was here.
However, Bath is expensive, so we head back to the hostel, grab our bags and taxi out to the National Car Rental (city center – right!) location on the edge of town. This time, we get a small station wagon with a little bit more room. Morgan Navigator fires up the GPS and we’re on our way to Axbridge.
The tiny town of Axbridge is meant to be a respite after busy London and Bath. It has one square, one pub that serves food, one restaurant in a small inn, one grocery store, one pharmacy, one post office, one butcher, one church, and one graveyard. We meet Boss and Janet, the owners of the 18th century 3 bedroom cottage named Chedway (no number, or street address, just Chedway), and they give us instructions, tell us some stories, and leave the key.
We’re starving, so we head over to The Lamb and have a really nice dinner before stopping at the grocery (open til 10pm!) to get some breakfast supplies. Tomorrow we head out to Dartmoor in search of Childe’s Tomb.
Today we have a date with Will. Shakespeare, that is. In his theater, the Globe. The Tempest. At 2pm. And we are no groundlings, nay, we sit in the balcony. For that is the nature of the day.
But first, a little history. One of the best ways to get a feel for London is through it’s past, and there’s no greater concentration of British history than in the Tower of London. A palace, a prison, a repository for jewels and armor, a church and burial ground, so much has happened here in the past thousand years. Much of this is brought to life by the Yeoman Warders, the “Beefeaters”, the kings bodyguard. Only those with 22 unblemished years of British armed forces experience need apply. They tell the stories and lead you through the center of the Tower complex with grisly tales of beheadings and intrigue. But first, a visit to the crown jewels before the line gets too long. Yes, the jewels are impressive – the largest flawless cut diamond in the world is here – The Star of Africa – but it’s not just the big rocks. It’s imagining the rooms, the events, the ceremonies that these objects have participated in. Oh, if only they could talk!
We can’t stay long at the Tower, though. Shakespeare calls and we need to get some sustainment before the play. We reunite with Morgan (what did we do before cell phones?) who has been exploring on his own, cross the Tower Bridge and walk along the Embankment toward the theater. We stop for a nice lunch and now we’re ready for the play. I was lucky to find four seats – but not together – two and two, but that’s ok. The boys sit on one side and we girls on the other. Before we enter the theater, we go across the street to Starbucks (!) to get some water and a gluten free brownie to enjoy during the show.
And what a show it is! OK, I confess that this would not be my first choice of theater in London. And I really knew nothing about the play and was a little afraid I’d get lost in the Shakespearian dialect. But boy, was I pleasantly surprised! There are no mics in the open air theater, but we could hear the actors just fine. The story was clear – a humorous tale of magic and forgiveness. It was fun to see the actors mess with the people standing near the stage and how they incorporated the roar of a jet overhead or the two pigeons mating on the roof into the show. These are not second-rate actors, either. Anna recognized an actor from the BBC show Merlin and the male lead played Illirio in season 1 of Game of Thrones. What an amazing experience!
Afterward, in the glow of an excellent show, we walked next door to see some art at the Tate Modern. I leave the kids for a bit to find a room full of my favorite modern, Mark Rothko. Something about his blocks of color really move me. After 15 minutes here, all is right with the world. Hungry, we walk across the pedestrian bridge (the one the death eaters destroyed in the last Harry Potter), past St. Paul’s Cathedral (very expensive to get in) to Covent Garden. Here they have many food stalls and stores and I let the kids free for a bit to find their own dinner and do some last minute London shopping. Morgan wants to walk back to the Mansions, but Anna, Jon, and I hail a taxi and get to the apartment in time to relax a bit and pack for our departure tomorrow.
What a great day! As my friend Will would say, “All’s Well that Ends Well.
Because our flight from Kerry airport, about an hour and a half drive away, is at 930am, we need to leave at 6:15am at the latest. The gas tank is 3/4 full, but I figure I’ll just get gas by the airport. We’re a little late with no time to stop for coffee, and I fly over the roads, still cringing a little bit every time a huge truck comes screaming toward me on the right (because it’s so wrong!)
We pass a gas station about half way there, but I want the tank to be full, so we carry on. When we reach Kerry, however, there is one gas station in town and it doesn’t open until 9am. Gah! I return the car, gas tank still 3/4 full, scrapes on the passenger side of the tires and hubcaps and down the side of the car that I hope aren’t all from me (there were some there when I picked up the car), and minus the luggage cover, which I seemed to have left in the parking spot where I picked up the car in Dublin. But they said don’t worry and took the car back. To this day I have not received any extra billings regarding that rental. Thank you, Hertz!
At the airport, the Ryanair flight is the only thing operating at this time. Ryanair is one of the budget airlines that have sprouted all over Europe in the last 10 years or so. The fare for the one way, 2 hour flight to London is cheap, about $50, plus about $7 for the privilege of booking online (as opposed to $20 if you call). If you have just a small carry on (what US airlines call a “personal item”), don’t need assigned seats ($20), and can print your boarding passes out in advance ($30 per person to print them at check-in), you’re good to go. We choose to pay around $35 for our bags up to 20kg (cheaper for lighter bags), print the boarding passes out in advance, and forego advanced seat assignments. All told, it’s an $87 flight. The other hidden cost is the transportation into the city, as Ryanair flights generally fly into the least convenient airport possible, so we add another $22 to get into town. Still, it beats an 11 hour driving/ferry/driving excursion.
We arrive at Baker Street station and I drop the kids at a cafe while I go fetch the key to the apartment. Once I get it, I grab the kids and we go to our room at The Mansions, which, believe me, sounds fancier than it really is. I am dismayed that my Telestial SIM card (with a British number!), which worked just fine in Germany last December, is not working at all in London. I know this because I am trying to book some standing places at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and can’t get through. So, first order of business, go to Vodaphone and proper SIM cards and a phone for Anna. It’s only about $30 each and includes data for me and Morgan. When that is finished, I collect the kids from our Mansions room in the basement (one small table, a set of double bunk beds, bathroom and kitchen down the hall, but great wi-fi, $120/night – can’t beat the price!) and off we go to Abbey Road.
It takes us about 45 minutes to walk to the site of the Beatles’ recording studio and the famous crosswalk on the Abbey Road album cover. We rename ourselves Paul (Jon), John (Morgan), George (Anna), and Ringo (me), and I try to get them in order so we four can all walk across together, like on the album. They will not be photographed doing this, however, and will not take their shoes off. It’s still cool, though.
It’s Anna’s birthday and we’re riding the London Eye in celebration. We want to do it in the evening to see the lights, but it’s too early in the season for late hours. We get a great sunset, though, and try to pick out landmarks. We’re done and it’s still early, 9pm.
The Book of Rick tells us that we can visit the House of Lords or the House of Commons in the houses of Parliament and watch the goings on until 10pm, so we cross the bridge and check it out. Sure enough, we breeze right in. The House of Commons has quit for the night, but the House of Lords is going strong. We get badges at security and follow the signs through the main hall of what used to be the king’s residence and get to the House of Lords foyer. We sign a paper promising to behave and be quiet, and are escorted to the top gallery to see the proceedings.There are only about eight Lords present, debating a law regarding what to do with prisoners. It’s fascinating – there’s a butler (think Downton Abbey) in tails who brings them glasses of water and guards the doors. They finish at 10pm and file out in a line with a flourish, the guy in front leading with a huge mace. We drop back into the foyer, grab our coats and try to peek into the room at ground level. We’re caught by the head Lord, Lord Tommy McAvoy from Scotland, who asks us if we enjoyed the proceedings. Very much, we said. Well, he said, would you like to walk inside to see where the queen sits at the beginning of every Parliamentary year? YES! How about a visit to the House of Commons, the private dining room, the private terrace on the Thames and the best view of Big Ben ever? Yes, Yes, Yes! We get a private tour of Parliament by the Head Lord complete with stories and photo taking. We can’t believe our luck.
Sometimes the days that don’t start so good end up pretty fine! More London tomorrow.
Today we are at one of the bottom tips of Ireland, the Dingle Peninsula. If you’ve never heard of it, perhaps you’ve heard of it’s more popular neighbor, the Ring of Kerry. We’re at the Dingle Peninsula because it’s just as scenic, a bit shorter drive (only 47km around) and has a nifty little town (Dingle) with good music and a pretty harbor. After being on the road all day yesterday, I am looking forward to a shorter and easier driving day today. We make a plan to take the drive at 11am. In the meantime, I’m visiting the store and printing the Ryanair boarding passes for tomorrow. I charge the kids with buying stuff for lunch.
We’re staying at the Dingle Marina Lodge and I meet Dawn, the owner (again, found through Airbnb) who gives me some ideas of where to get good music and where to eat tonight. Oh, and by the way, she’s going sea kayaking tonight – I should think about joining her and her visiting guests on this excursion. Well, that’s a thought.
Around 11am, we packed the car with provisions for lunch and started around the peninsula. This should be easier driving. Although it’s a two lane road, (albeit wide enough in some places for 1 1/2 cars) most people tour clockwise (the way we’re going). It’s a beautiful drive along the coast, reminiscent of Maui’s Hana Highway with great views around every corner. We drive by and sometimes stop to look at beaches and cemeteries, ancient ring forts, abandoned houses, and the remnants of the strange stone igloos that are found only here. This was where the film Ryan’s Daughter (the first R-rated film I ever saw!) was filmed, as well as Far and Away.
We stop at a few roadside pullovers looking for the perfect picnic spot and Morgan finally finds one – 200 feet below the road. We grab our goodies and scramble down to a small, flat, grassy spot and lay out our picnic. Seagulls fly by to check us out and we can’t hear the cars going by above us. We can see the Blasket Islands on the right and the Ring of Kerry on the left. It’s sunny and warm. There’s a hunk of rock below that’s just calling out to be climbed. What more do you need?
Back on the road, we find a wee traffic jam. Cars are stopped in front of us where the road is cut out of a rocky part of the hill. There’s a motorhome going toward us (the wrong way!!!) and there are just millimeters between the side of that thing and the cliff on one side and the cars on the other. People are getting out of their cars to provide direction. And I have to get through there. Millimeters, and I’m scared. I inch toward the behemoth in the road, terrified that I’m going to scratch this car and really regretting not buying the insurance. Morgan is telling me that I’m almost too close to the rocks on the left, where I can’t really see. I pull in the side view mirror, but I just can’t see this happening. Suddenly, an Irish knight in shining armor appears (actually, it’s a taxi-tour driver) and offers to drive the Micra through this impossible space. I hop out, hoping for the best, and let him do it. I walk behind the car as it inches past and then makes it through. I thank my knight profusely (he said that I could have done it) and continue down the road. There must be a caravan of French motorhomes doing this tour, because there are more behind the stuck one. The road is wider here, so it’s not a problem, but I pity everyone else in that narrow spot I just left.
We continue to the Gallarus Oratory, one of Ireland’s best preserved early Christian churches, built about 1300 years ago. There’s no mortar between the stones, yet it stays dry inside. We chat with the guy who mans the gate and he shares with us the history of the place and how, if you spoke Gaelic, you could really understand the origin of many of the places in the area.
We’re tired, though, and drive back to the apartment. I bought pasta sauce, chicken breasts, and pasta (some gluten free) for dinner, but as I’m walking into town, I think more and more about that sea kayaking. I stop at the sports center and book myself a ticket. On the way back, I see Anna and Morgan and tell them that they are on their own for dinner and I’ll catch up with them around 930pm and we’ll go out to find some music. Morgan wants to go sea kayaking too, but it turns out I took the last spot.
I grab a quick bite of something and cross the street to the marina and meet the gang. Dawn, the lodge owner, has friends in from Dublin and there are some other folks from that area as well. We suit up, unload the kayaks, and after a quick lesson (refresher for me – I’ve kayaked with my friend Michelle on the Poquoson River) we are off. This is the perfect antidote for the crazy, terrifying driving and the extra alertness required when traveling with others. First we find Fungie, Dingle’s bottlenose dolphin who has been living in Dingle Harbor since 1983. He’s quite well known nationally and likes to play with the boats in the harbor. We see Fungie’s Folly, raft manned by a couple who come out every evening to play with the dolphin. Nobody feeds him yet he still sticks around, enjoying the company of anyone who ventures out on the water.
Refreshed after the kayak tour, I cross the street back to the apartment, cook the last chicken breast and have a bit of leftover pasta, then go out with Anna and Morgan in search of some music. The first place is crowded and there’s no music yet, so we venture on. The second place has a guitar player singing American pop tunes, and we move on. The third place has traditional Irish music, but it’s a woman singing a sad, slow song, so we continue. Finally we find the Courthouse Bar and hit the jackpot. It’s packed, has great beer, and the music is fabulous. We stay til midnight when the place closes.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to Ireland and fly to England.
We start the day with a hearty breakfast at Kathryn’s kitchen table. Her freshly homemade scones and jam served with eggs and freshly brewed coffee hit the spot. As we finish packing, Jon takes a few minutes to interview Kathryn for his documentary and then we’re off.
One thing we wanted to see in Ireland were castles, and today’s the day. Kathryn knows Leonie, the owner of Oranmore Castle, and suggests we stop there first. There are a line of 15th century castles up and down the coast, but Leonie’s castle is the only one that’s lived in. Her parents bought the castle in the 1947 and Leonie was raised there. Now she lives with her musician husband and rents the castle out for events and photo shoots in the summer. We know this because when we pulled up (on this holiday Monday) she was putting her sign out saying the castle was closed. However, when she found out we were friends of Kathryn, she welcomed us in for a short look. It’s not every day you meet someone who lives in a castle!
Moving on, we make a quick stop at Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara. It looks like the sister castle to Oranmore, but more commercial. A redeeming factor is the guy upstairs making jewelry from bits of copper and glass crystals. He started making jewelry there in the 1970’s outside on the castle roof. He’s met all kinds of people and his designs are really nice. He showed me how to create some pieces with his blowtorch. I don’t know exactly what the kids did, but I had a great time chatting with this guy!
Back in the Micra, we head south to the Burren. I’m a bit more relaxed about the driving today and only make one mistake pulling into the right lane when it should have been the left. Thank goodness for my navigator! The good news about driving today is that since it’s a holiday, there’s not a lot of traffic. The bad news is that the country roads all seem to have curbs and/or 4 foot high shale walls, often covered with plants. Very nice, but it becomes a problem because in many spots the roads are really only 1 1/2 cars wide, so when another car comes barrelling toward me, I tend to drift left, sometimes scraping the plants and the curb against the side of the car. Morgan says he is terrified (well, I had to provide some thrills since the skydiving was out!) and I tell him not to stick his hands out of the window. And then there are the moving cow road blockages. Yes, it’s fun to drive, I keep telling myself.
The Burren is the largest limestone field eroded by glaciers in Europe. This stark area is extraordinary because nestled in between the limestone rocks, you can find sea fossils, Arctic, Mediterranean, and Alpine plants together in this singular place. Add to that some megalithic tombs and ancient ring forts and it is a fascinating place to spend some time.
After lunch, we continue on to the famed Cliffs of Moher. Standing 702 feet above the sea and stretching for 5 miles, they are dramatic and awe-inspiring. You might have recognized them as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride or the cave of the horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It’s a shame we only have a couple of hours here – we want to walk all the way from one end to the other.
But we want to get to Dingle before dark, so we pack it back in and head south, arriving just in time for a quick bite at the gyro place for dinner. Beautiful!
We are up and at’em early – we have to take the bus to the airport, grab a rental car, and head out to Galway and a skydiving adventure for Morgan and me. It was a rough night. Even though we were on the third floor, some really happy Saturday night partiers were celebrating life extremely loudly outside our window for what seemed like all night. My earplugs helped a bit, but they don’t block out everything. I should have seen this as a warning for the day ahead.
First, at the bus stop (once we found it) we were accosted by a young Irish drunkard who thought it was funny to take Jon’s hat. I asked him nicely to give it back and move along, which he did not like, but he complied.
Upon arrival at the airport, I get the car rental paperwork out of the way and go to the car, where there is no key. Back to the counter I go. We are driving the smallest 4-door car on the planet, appropriately called the Micra. I have to remove the cargo cover to fit all of the bags in. Jon and Anna are wedged in the back, Morgan is my navigator, but he’s sitting in the driver’s seat! Without the wheel? No, in Ireland and England they drive on the opposite side of the road, therefore everything is opposite.
Normally I would consider myself a good driver. I was a little nervous to drive on the other side of the road, but not a lot. I’ve driven all over the place, including Spain, France, and downtown Washington DC. How hard can it be to drive the bucolic country roads in Ireland? Plenty hard, it seems. First, the car is a stick shift. Yes, I drive stick, but I shift with my right hand, not my left. My left hand does not have the sensitivity to find every gear, so that’s a challenge. I’m used to looking up to the right for the rearview mirror, but now it’s up and on the left. I’m used to looking over my right shoulder when backing up, now it’s on my left as well. I drive slowly and whisper to myself to stay left at every junction. Even the roundabouts (of which there are many) go left instead of right. Stress level is high. Thank goodness it’s Sunday morning and the traffic is light.
I don’t have a great map, so we fire up the GPS, which has served me well in every other country in Europe. However, it is taking us off the freeway that we’re supposed to be on. This is a steep learning curve for my inexperienced navigator and left-hand-side driver. Finally, we end up in the middle of nowhere. The GPS wants us to turn into an empty field. I scrape the sidewalls of the passenger side tires on the curb. This makes an ugly sound, but after a cursory look, nothing seems busted. We get back on the wrong freeway and continue until we find a toll booth. Thankfully, the toll-taker has family in Galway and gives us some good directions. We are on the right way in no time. I later found out that the freeway was newer than my GPS’s card. That’s why it couldn’t find it.
However, we are running about an hour late. In this hour, I was going to drop Jon and Anna at our host’s home just outside of Galway and then zip out to the airport for our skydive. I have Morgan text Kathryn, our host, but get no reply. I have Morgan call the skydive people and can’t get through. Well, fortunately the airport is right off the freeway and we cruise in about half an hour before our skydive appointment. However, no one is there. No Skydive Ireland, no sign, heck, the airport isn’t even open. Skydive Ireland is not answering my call. Maybe it’s my British SIM card from home. I find a guy coming out of the flying club and ask to use his phone. Same story. No answer. Must be too cloudy to skydive. After the stress of driving here, I am equally disappointed and relieved. Guess it’s just not meant to be.
Which is good, because now we can go into Galway. I reach Kathryn and she’s ready for us. NOW the GPS is working and we find her house with no trouble.
Kathryn is another great example of an Airbnb.com win. Her house is located in a neighborhood about 10 minutes drive from Galway town along the beach. If we had the time, we could walk along the promenade. We took all three of her upstairs bedrooms (the boys got to have a separate room each) and after introductions and instructions, along with a cup of tea, we were heading into town. Today is Sunday, the middle of a three-day holiday weekend, and the town is bustling. Kathryn recommended a fabulous restaurant for lunch and it did not disappoint. They even had yummy homemade gluten-free desserts.
We walked up the main street toward the market behind the church. On the way, a very tall man with a very fake beard came up to us and asked, “Have you seen the whale?” We said no. He asked from where we be. We be from America, we say. The Americays! Oh, it’s too long a journey for an old man who’s looking for a whale. We wished each other good luck and carried on. I wish I had taken his picture. We did meet some Dread Pirates closer to the market, though, who were happy to pose. Morgan went into the pub just to use the bathroom and chatted with a fellow at the urinal, garnering an invitation to share a pint. In the street, a guy is playing “Wonderwall” on his guitar, an Irish band of kids age 6-11 serenade the crowd with traditional fiddle and drum, a guy in a box with a stuffed dog on top barks at people who leave him some coins, scary fun for the children. So many families, so few tourists, it’s perfect. We walk through the town, down the hill to another church, then back around to our car.
Jon’s ready to go back and do some editing, so we drop him off at the room. Morgan, Anna, and I drive back into town for some music and dinner. As we head to the pub, we notice they’re closing off the street for a block. It’s the silent disco! After dinner, we poke our nose in a pub looking for some non-silent music, but found nothing but strange looks. It’s past 9pm, and the silent disco is just getting going. There are two DJ’s, strobe lights and smoke, and everybody has headphones on and are groovin to the tunes. The headphones cost 10euros and there’s a line down the street to buy them. Last year, 2000 headphones were sold and the street was packed. Too bad we can’t stay.
One more thing before we end the day. Anna wants to “see the sun go down on Galway Bay,” (apparently, it’s a song) and so we drive down the waterfront to find the perfect place. Unfortunately, it is cloudy and we can only imagine the sun going down on Galway Bay, but that seems to be enough.
Tomorrow is a long drive to Dingle through the Burren with a stop at the Cliffs of Moher.
Pictorially, for me, Dublin is just not that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I have spent the last two weeks in colorful Italy, but at least today – an overcast day with gray buildings with green parks and some red doors sprinkled in, it’s not the most gorgeous city I’ve ever been in.
However, it is a place rich with stories. The city has an amazing history told in it’s museums, parks, and most of all, it’s music. And that’s the Dublin that I’m falling in love with.
Today we start at Trinity College. After a good night’s sleep and a continental breakfast at the hostel, we are ready for the 10am student-led tour of Trinity College, chartered in 1592 with a Protestant mandate. In 1793 they allowed Catholics and dissenters to enter (all professors and faculty had to be Protestant until 1893) but they did not have many, because the Catholic Church in Ireland forbade it’s members to attend – and this was only relatively recently reversed in 1970. Heck, women were allowed in 1901. The campus is not ancient, but stately, and most of the 16,000 registered students live off campus.
But the highlight of the College is the library. The largest library in Ireland, it’s a copyright library, which means that there is a copy of every book published in the country here. That’s saying something, considering the plethora of Irish writers: Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde, Swift, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, all Irish. They’re all here, along with the Book of Kells, one of the oldest and certainly the most beautifully extravagantly illustrated Gospels. Hand drawn circa 800AD on calf vellum, it’s named for the Abbey of Kells, where it had been carefully kept before it came to Trinity Library. Today you can only see two of the four volumes, each open to only one page (every day they turn the page, so if you came every day for months at 10euros per visit you can read the entire thing) and it is gorgeous. There’s a nice museum with descriptions of how they made the vellum, how they bound the books, how they did the illustrations (no wite-out back then) and it’s fascinating. After viewing the Book, we ascend the stairs to the Long Hall, which supposedly inspired George Lucas to create the Jedi Library in Star Wars Episode II. A lawsuit was filed, then dropped. You decide. I’m fascinated by the study of dust outlined in one of the displays.
Morgan’s taking it all in, Anna’s found a nice ring, and Jon is filming. He will be making a documentary of the trip and has a fantastic new camera which makes his subjects look almost better than real life (at least I hope that’s how it works with me!) After the tour and while waiting for the restaurant to open, we stop at a local art gallery. I fall in love with Jimmy Lawlor from Wexford and want to buy Sea Horse, but alas, I do not have the 3300 euros in my wallet today. Guess I’ll just have to enjoy the photo.
A few doors down from the gallery is The Farm, which understands gluten-free, a requirement for Anna’s diet. Jon can’t stay because he’s going to catch the free walking tour again and do some more filming, so Morgan, Anna, and I enjoy a nice lunch. Afterwards, Morgan wants to go on his own and Anna joins me to check out some museums and parks in the city. We meet Morgan again by Oscar Wilde in the park and continue to the history museum, where we see Viking gold and hairy mummies preserved in the peat. More parks, more museums, and we meet Jon and wind our way to Temple Bar and the Porterhouse Pub.
The Porterhouse is a place recommended to me by Dara, and it does not disappoint. We finally find a seat on the third floor and have some dinner (beer tasting for Morgan and I) and enjoy the Irish rock band playing under the balcony one floor below. Earlier today I made reservations for a Traditional Irish Musical Pub Crawl for the group, but Jon is wiped, so we send him on back to the hostel and Morgan, Anna, and I proceed to Gogarty’s Pub.
OK, this is one of the best tours I have ever taken. Two musicians, one playing the fiddle and the other a drum, then a guitar, proceed to teach us about traditional Irish music through stories, songs, and audience participation. They take us to two different pubs (our group of about 50 get an upper room all to ourselves) and we
learn when to clap (only at the end, never with the song – how will you hold your beer then?), to stomp (always), and to whoop (whenever the spirit moves you). We listen, sing along, and toward the end (after much Guinness), individual audience members are invited to sing (loved the version of the son “Cups” from the movie Pitch Perfect by one girl!). It was fabulously fun and was a great introduction to the music we were going to hear for the next few days.
Can’t stay up too late, though. Tomorrow is Driving Day and Skydiving Day. (Yikes!)
Dear Readers, I hope you’re enjoying the blog! This last weekend I had a problem finding some photos that ended up on Morgan’s computer (long story) and so I posted the two entries before this one with pics from the internet. However, I did manage to recover my photos of these places, and so if you took a look at those posts before, take another gander – the prose didn’t really change, but the photos are much better!
I’m up early, bags are packed, but are staying at Dara’s while I rush to the airport to meet Morgan, Jon, and Anna. I’m running a little bit late, but they took the time waiting to hit the cash machine and get some euros. They’re a little disoriented, but excited to be there and ready to rock and roll. One of Julie’s Rules of Travel is that on the day of arrival in Europe after an overnight flight, you must stay awake (whether you slept on the plane or not) until at least 9pm. Since it’s only 9am here, we have an entire day to fill.
Our room is not ready when we arrive at the hostel, so we store the kids’ bags and make a plan to take the free walking tour of the city departing in less than an hour. In that time, I bus back to Dara’s to collect my luggage and drag it back to the hostel. Once back, I catch up with the already departed tour and get a look at the center of Dublin.
Our guide is an engaging Trinity College student and aspiring theater manager. He has great stories and anecdotes about every place we pass: Trinity College, Dublin Castle, various churches, and Dublin City Hall. Did you know that Dublin was ruled by the Vikings for three hundred years until in 1171 Anglo-Norman King Dermott MacMurrough defeated them and eventually drove them out? This free tour is actually an effort to upsell participants into the 12euro pub crawl (discounted for participants!) or the 53euro tour to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher, but we don’t bite. The tour ends in Temple Bar, an area of restaurants, pubs, and stores. The pub we are in is one of the oldest in the neighborhood and there is a musician, drinks, and a special menu for tour participants, not a bad deal. I message Julie (Jon and Anna’s mom) from here to let her know the kids made it safe and sound.
After lunch, we walk back via busy Grafton street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare filled with shoppers, buskers, and people holding signs advertising shops and restaurants off the main drag. There are bands, dancers, sand sculpture, and a harp player. Back to the hostel, we can check in, but just to unpack, because we need to keep moving. A tour of O’Connell street is next on the agenda and we also stop at a store (Penney’s – no JC) so Morgan can buy a belt. They have some adult-sized full-body superman and bunny outfits, and we’re not really sure if they are costumes or pajamas. We’re a little afraid to check them out!
To end the day, we decide to take in a vampire film at the Irish Film Institute. It’s always a tricky proposition sitting in the dark when you want to stay up, but everyone stayed awake and we made it back to the hostel by 9pm. More Dublin tomorrow – the Book of Kells!
Today I begin the second half of my annual May sojourn – I’m flying to Ireland. After a nice breakfast with my Italian family, I get a ride from Nicola to the bus stop where I can catch the cheaper city bus to the airport instead of taking the more expensive airport shuttle from the train station. I’m at Milan Linate airport a bit early; the AerLingus counter won’t be open for check-in for 45 minutes, so I have time for some fresh squeezed orange juice.
I get in line and start chatting with a couple from the US heading home after a two week Italian vacation. They tell me a story of some people they met while renting a car. While these folks were making the endless decisions at the car rental counter (insurance? prepaid gas? upgrade for a fee?) someone had stolen their luggage and valuables right from the rental car office. They spent most of their stay filing police reports, canceling credit cards, and buying clothes and toiletries. (Lesson: you really have to watch your luggage all the time.)
AerLingus is a major airline and the plane is a large plane, so I am expecting to carry on my luggage. However, when I get to the counter, they will have none of that. My luggage must be checked, even though I know for a fact it will fit in the overhead compartment. There’s no arguing, though, and to add insult to injury, I have to pay about $35 for the privilege. I have to go to another counter in another part of the airport, wait for the guy behind the counter to finish his personal phone call, pay there and bring the receipt to show the check-in agent before I can head to the gate. Oh well, the ticket was cheap enough, less than $100 to travel from Milan to Dublin. Through security, on the plane, pulling my favorite blow-up travel pillow, and I’m out til Ireland.
I collect my bag and text my Irish host, Dara, that I’m on my way. I catch the airport bus and follow his excellent directions until I find him in the street in front of his house, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood behind the hospital and just a few blocks from the Guinness factory. He leads me up the narrow stairs to my room and gives me a tour of the house. He’s an English teacher and definitely has the gift of gab. I haven’t gabbed all day, so I’m eager to keep up the conversation, but unfortunately, his mum is sick and he needs to spend time in the hospital. Since I slept through lunch on the plane, I’m starving and he sends me to the local pub, Arthur’s down the street. He gives me the key to the front door, then he’s gone, and soon so am I.
On the way, I pass one of the many churches in Dublin, but the Camino Shell on the sign catches my eye. The sign says you can get your Pilgrim Passport here with a stamp! I’m too hungry to go in right now and check it out… maybe on my way back. Then I walk by the Guinness Factory, another place of pilgrimage. Supposedly there is a tour and it’s not cheap, but you do get samples…
Cod and chips and Guinness (the best ever, it’s sooo much better when it’s fresh!!) and wi-fi. I’m in heaven. I’m catching up on email, doing some writing, and watching as the place fills up, mostly with groups of men coming off the day shift for a pint. Some break into groups of song. It’s quite a show. I move from my spacious table to the bar and have a nice chat with the waitress and the bartender. Here’s what I’m learning: the bars in Ireland are not for drinking, or even eating. No, they are for talking. Everyone is talking to everybody else. The work crowd dissipates and the bar starts to fill with a more well-dressed crowd. A man is trying to chat up a couple of cute girls right next to me. He’s not doing as well as he thinks he is.
I tell the waitress about my plans to go skydiving in Galway in a couple of days. She says that she tried it when she was working in Ocean City, Maryland. She’s doing it again for some kind of charity event in a couple of weeks. She encourages me to go for it and I feel less nervous and a quite excited at the prospect. The bartender used to work in New York City and told tales of a drunk John Belushi and other 1970’s SNL cast members who he used to wait on. I’m having a ball with my new friends. There’s supposed to be music later on, but now I’m tired and want to save my energy for the kids’ arrival tomorrow. So I walk back to Dara’s sweet house. (Mary, it reminds me so much of your 63rd St house! It even smells like it – that’s good, by the way!)
I don’t know if it was going when I got there, but there’s an electric candle on the dresser that keeps changing colors. I must be really tired, because I can’t stop staring at it. It’s still a little early to go to bed, so I fire up the wi-fi on my iPad and catch up on my missed episode of Game of Thrones, so I’ll be able to share impressions with Morgan when he comes tomorrow with Jon and Anna. Goodnight, Ireland, glad to meet ‘ya.
Today I’m in Milan and I’m on my own. After two weeks of intensive sightseeing, I’m taking a down day and just going to see one thing, the Duomo, which is the main cathedral in Milan, and have a nice lunch.
The Duomo is the third largest church in Europe and took six centuries to build. It’s incredibly ornate, with 52 pillars and over 2000 statues on the sides, on the roof, and even on the tops of each pillar. The place can seat 10,000 people, but today is not that busy. There’s a security line to get in and another line inside to purchase the opportunity to take photos inside. No photos are allowed unless you are wearing the 2euro wristband. I’m not here for the photos, though, I’m here just to rest and meditate in this huge space.
http://obika.com/upload/assets/files/IT,32,-1,5187/14259-att.pdf – four different types of mozzarella served with different meat or veggies. Take the elevator to the top of the Rinascente Department Store and the restaurant is on the terrace with a view of the statues on the roof of the Duomo. It’s almost just as fun to watch the other diners as it is to contemplate the statues. One couple in business suits each pull out a tablet and ignore each other, two Italian girls with shopping bags from designer stores draped on their arms are wearing too much makeup. The German girls next to me are frustrated at the service. I just sip my wine, nibble on my mozzarella and artichokes, and smile.
The duomo is awe-inspiring and the lunch was lovely, but the best part of Milan is my Home Away from Home. I found Nic and Ale’s apartment through my now favorite accommodations website Airbnb.com. Check out the link and do some travel window-shopping. Airbnb is sort of a cross between my former favorite, VRBO.com and newcomer Couchsurfing.com. VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) still is a good place to find apartments and other types of accommodations with more space and costing less than the price of a hotel room. Once we rented a houseboat in Amsterdam using this site. With VRBO, you usually never meet the owner, you meet a representative of the organization that the owner uses to check people in and out. Couchsurfing, for the uninitiated, is a site where you can find a place to stay with a host (or hosts, depending on how many people are living there) for free in their home, whether on their couch, floor, or in a separate bedroom. When you couchsurf, you are fully expected to interact with your hosts and often they will show you around, which is a great way to tour the town, but privacy and alone-time may be an issue.
When you use Airbnb, you almost always meet the owner of the apartment, or a designated family member. Sometimes they live there and sometimes they do not. Sometimes when they live there they stay there and sometimes they do not. For instance, in Mainz, both hosts lived in the apartments that I rented through Airbnb, but they would vacate the apartment and stay with a friend or be out of town when they rented it, so I had it all to myself. In Rome, we were greeted by the owner’s sister. In Florence, the owners did not live there at all, but used the apartment only for renting to Airbnb customers. In Cinque Terre, we shared the apartment with Beppe, the host’s father.
The beauty of this program is that when you are using Airbnb, you have a local person who can help you with anything that you need, like restaurant recommendations, stores where you can buy this or that, fantastic places to go that are not in the guidebooks. It’s not expected that you necessarily hang out socially, but sometimes there are special offers, like the ride we got to the Frankfurt airport from Mainz in Stefan’s Mercedes, or his offer to show Morgan and Dominic where the best clubs were.
Another really great thing about Airbnb rentals is that most of the time you are in someone’s home with a fully furnished kitchen. When you don’t want to go out to eat, but want to stay in and cook, often you will find your kitchen staples there: coffee, olive oil, salt, pepper. You can go out and buy the main components of a meal without having to buy say, an entire bag of sugar when you just need a few tablespoons. If the host lives there, often they will include breakfast.
One thing about Airbnb you need to know, though, is that you need to be fairly accurate about your arrival time. The hosts usually are not hanging around all day or night to wait for you to show up. You need to keep in close contact with them and be sure to show up when you say you’re going to. It’s pretty easy, though, in these days of texting and cheap phone calls. You do this, as well as leave the place as clean as you found it, to garner a good review. Of course, as you are shopping for accommodations, you can see the reviews for the place (as well as the host) which will help you make a decision. However, the hosts are also making reviews of you. Most hosts will review your profile and check out your reviews before they confirm your reservation. Your good online Airbnb reputation is extremely valuable. Another great thing is that you can make a request and be confirmed for a same day arrival, if necessary.
In Milan, I’m staying in the third bedroom (office?) in Nic and Ale’s three bedroom apartment. They have also converted their living room into a place for Airbnb’ers as well. They have a dedicated bathroom just for guests, but you have to walk through the kitchen to get to it. The cost? $52/night plus $6 fee to Airbnb. Way cheaper than any hotel room. And the details! A set of towels wrapped up in a luxurious ribbon at the foot of the bed, a vase of fresh flowers, and good coffee in the morning. I was exhausted when I got there and was offered tea and cake (they always had tea and cake – what’s not to love about that!) and lots of love from their two little dogs. Just what the doctor ordered!
In the morning, I had more energy to talk to Nic and Ale – they were fascinating! Nic works at the university nearby and Ale is a marketing exec for some Italian cable tv channels. Their teenage daughter is Italian gorgeous (too bad Morgan’s not here!) I tell them about my self-defense program and Ale believes that she could connect me to the right organizations who would sponsor classes to help women live safer lives. Hmmm…. I’d have to improve my Italian, learn what specific issues are most important to cover, and adjust my program to be viable for Italian culture. A couple of days ago, while watching the news on tv, there was a funeral for a woman who was killed by her boyfriend. According to Ale, this was not an isolated incident and there is a great need for women’s self-defense training in Italy.
It’s my last night in Italy, and I’m so happy to have shared it with my new Milano family! Thanks, guys!
Today is a day of goodbyes. Susie is getting on the plane to go back home, and I am heading back to Bergamo, grab the rest of my luggage, and head down to Milan, where I’ll catch a plane to Dublin to meet the kids for the second half of my journey. Arrivederci Venezia, arrivederci Susie, arrivederci Amedeo.
The three of us walk back to the bus that takes us back across the causeway to the car parked next to the train station and drive toward the airport to drop Susie off. Venice airport is not very big, so we can park the car close and go in to make sure she checks in without any problem. Everything’s fine, and after a quick coffee (paid for by Amedeo while we were not paying attention – thank you!), I say goodbye to my best girlfriend travel partner. We both wish that she could continue on with me to Ireland, but I guess that’s for another time.
It’s about a two hour drive back to Bergamo, and Amedeo and I chat along the way, reliving the past few days. Before we get back to his house to get my things, however, there’s one more stop to make. Lunch! But not just lunch, it’s lunch and a castle.
Remember our friend Bartolomeo Colleoni, soldier of the three balls? Well, it turns out that when he finally settled down, he settled down not far from Amedeo’s house. In 1456, he bought Castle Malpaga, originally built in the 1300’s. In 1456 it was in ruins (must have got it for a song!) and proceeded to fix it up and made it the seat of his lordship. The squarish castle, his home, is surrounded by an empty moat, then a yard area, then an outside wall lined on the inside, facing the castle, with small apartments for his soldiers, staff, and animals.
Today, we walk through the outside gate from the road past some workers who seem to be again fixing the place up. They’ve got a lot of work to do, however, because the yard is a mess and the apartments are ramshackle. The castle is holding up pretty well, though. We walk around to the front and I catch a glimpse of a woman in medieval garb leading a group of elementary aged children from the castle over the drawbridge and then through the outside gate. A ghost?
We go over the drawbridge ourselves and enter the castle. It’s not really open for visitors, but Amedeo works his magic and before I know it, I am Signora Giulia, dressed like the lady of the castle (because they had these amazing medieval dresses, adult-sized, available to wear!) and we are exploring the rooms. From the outside, the castle doesn’t look like much, but on the inside the walls are rich with 15th century frescoes, the colors still vibrant. As Signora Giulia, I have to remember to hold up the hem of my gown so I don’t trip going up and down the stairs. Somehow, wearing this silly costume has made it easier to imagine the banquets, the fine furnishings, the lords and ladies as well as the servants and staff that were here before me. It’s one of the most evocative castles I have ever visited and I am fascinated by the details and the stories of these walls. For a while, we are the only ones here and the castle belongs just to us.
Alas, like Cinderella at the ball, Signora Giulia must relinquish the dress (no glass slippers, though!) and cross back over the drawbridge to the real world. Fortunately, the real world has lunch, so it’s a smooth transition. I am the only woman diner in the restaurant across the street, one reason being that we are late, and the other is that the men there are all on their lunch break from work, so you know the food has to be good. And it is. Veal scaloppine, polenta, salad with onion, wine and a yummy dessert, plus a little local moonshine in my coffee made for a fantastic meal.
However, all good things must come to an end and I must move on to Milan. After retrieving my bags from Amedeo’s, it’s time for me to go. My Camino friend really went all out to create some fantastic experiences for us, and I’m afraid my meager thanks are not enough to express what a wonderful time we had and how much we appreciate everything he did. But life goes on, and I’m off. The adventure continues!
The city of Venice is built on 118 islands, and today we’re going to visit three of the most famous. Amedeo has scouted out a tour of the islands for about the same price as just the vaporetto tickets, so we walk to the train station to get the tickets. Turns out the tour leaves from the other side of town near Piazza San Marco, so we hop a vaporetto (water bus) for a tour of the Grand Canal. It’s hard to describe the variety of the buildings (most facades now plain, but handsomely decorated in their time), the watercraft, and the people in this busy place. I’m just going to leave it to the pictures to tell that story.
After a quick coffee break (girls had to pee and a coffee in the shop with a clean bathroom was the same price as the public loo), we boarded our waterbus for the tour. It takes about 45 minutes to get from Piazza San Marco to Murano, home of the Venetian glass makers. We are herded off the boat and into the glassblowing studio. After a quick demonstration, we are led through the gift shop. Since Susie and I bought our Murano glass in Rome (and it’s much more expensive here) we are just looking. The tour guide takes us upstairs for a look at some $10,000 glass figurines and chandeliers. No worries about breakage, they’re insured and can be shipped directly to our home! They’re beautiful, but , um, no. Murano is about a mile long and we walk along the street, window shopping in the many glass stores that line the canal. There’s a church at the end, but wait, there’s no time – have to catch the bus!
The next stop is Burano, home of the lacemakers. We are led into a store where a lonely woman in an apron is hand-making lace among the piles of doilies, table runners, and scarves. It’s too crowded in there for me, so I wait for the group to finish. We walk down the colorful streets and do more window shopping. It’s a beautiful place and I wish I could stay after the crowds leave. Next to our waterbus is another waterbus that has music coming out of it. I ask our crew to sing for us, since our boat has no music player. They decline and laugh.
Last is Torcello, the oldest continuously populated region in Venice, but there aren’t very many people living there now. One low-key hotel, an ancient church and sculptures, vineyards. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet after the hustle-bustle of Venice. It would be nice to stay here and take a nap along the canal under the trees. But the waterbus calls, and after a little more flirting with the crew, we board for our ride home.
Amedeo has the idea that he would like to make pasta con vongole (clams), so upon our return, we search for clams. However, because it is Monday, there are no fresh clams to be found. No fresh seafood of any kind, in fact. The fishermen are off on Sunday, so the fish market is closed on Monday. We search anyway, but to no avail. Susie’s a little tired, so I offer to take Amedeo out for our last Venice dinner to the restaurant from yesterday, which we liked. Walking back to the apartment through the narrow streets, it’s hard not to love the city, even in the dark.
It’s Sunday in Venice. What’s the first thing to do? Go to church, of course! After a bit of breakfast on the apartment terrace, we head out to catch the 10:30am mass at Saint Mark’s Cathedral. We wind our way through the Venetian streets and when we get to the cathedral, we find the service has started. I also find out that my small black fabric backpack is not allowed in, even though some woman with a huge purse went through ahead of us. Fortunately, the church as a bag-check right around the corner and I take out my valuables and leave it with the guy there. Back in line, we are escorted through one end of the transept, around the back of the church, then back to the front on the other side of the transept and are seated in the second row from the front. From here, we can see the altar quite clearly, but that’s not what is catching my eye. It’s the glowing gold ceiling of the domes above. Thousands of gold and brass tiles interspersed with jewels form a mosaic that covers the entire ceiling, telling bible stories and parables. I don’t understand much of the Italian service, but I do understand the magnificence of the scenes above me. Combined with the organ and choir and everyone else in there, it is magical and spiritual.
When it’s over, Susie and I hang out a bit just to enjoy being in the center of the church, and listen while the next choir is warming up. But, for us, church is over and we have other things to do.
Amedeo said he had a surprise for us and led us to the head of the Grand Canal. To the gondolas. And here, he arranged a ride in a gondola poled by a gondolier, across the Grand Canal. Fantastic! Susie and I are beside ourselves and try to sit back and relax in the Venetian splendor. We can’t believe Amedeo did this and thank him profusely. Wow. We wove through the ferries, motorboats, other gondolas, and just about any other type of watercraft you can think of, enjoying the view of the city along the canal. I was torn between wanting to take pictures to remember this amazing experience and just sitting back and enjoying it.
A stroll through the streets and over bridges brought us to the Accedemia Bridge, one of the four that cross the Grand Canal, and right around the corner we found a very busy but not touristy (always a good sign!) restaurant and had some pasta for lunch. Next, time for some art. We stop at the huge Frari church and enjoy Titian’s Assumption, one of the largest altarpieces in Venice, and say a prayer of thanks when we pass the tomb of the artist, also located there.
After a large lunch, we are getting tired, and thinking that a stop at the supermarket is in order to pick up some antipasti ingredients and some wine to enjoy on our marvelous rooftop terrace. Amedeo goes out to check on tomorrow’s plans, in the meantime, Susie and I stretch out with a yoga session on the roof.
In Italy, everything has to be beautiful, and beautiful it is. Not content to just put out some bread, cheese, and olives, Amedeo creates a feast of antipasti and we enjoy it with our favorite Italian drink, prosecco. It’s local, from the vines that we passed through yesterday as we wound down from the Dolomiti. The sun sets.
But the day is not done! We go back into the city and wind again through the streets to enjoy the fabulous Piazza San Marco at night. A band in front of a restaurant at one end of the square draws a crowd, while a band from the other side of the square tries to compete for our ears. I wish I knew how to waltz. We walk down the waterfront, past the Bridge of Sighs, and take a peek into the Hotel Danieli, where I think I stayed on a fam trip as a travel agent 30 years ago. More sighs, then time to go back, crossing the Rialto bridge and seeing the lights reflected in the canal. Goodnight Venice!
We’re up at 5am, having a bit of breakfast made by Amedeo at 530, and out of the house a bit after 6am. It’s light out, and we’re headed northeast toward the Dolomiti. It’s unclear what the weather will be, but the passes are open and the clouds are high.
After driving for about an hour, we head up a huge valley, snow-capped mountains on either side. It’s breathtaking, but Amedeo says we ain’t seen nothing yet! We turn right and head right up the side of one of the mountains, stopping for a quick coffee and strudel. This area used to belong to Austria and you can see it in the churches and houses we pass, as well as the food.
Over the top of the mountain and we continue through Alpine-like verdant green valleys surrounded by the dramatic rock cliffs toward the pass. We take the turn toward the pass and head up a series of s-curves. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by snow-covered trees. We stop at a pristine mountain lake. Since it’s between seasons (and just after a late-in-the-season snow) we have the place to ourselves. It’s beautiful.
We climb higher and higher, at every turn we see a different view of the tops of the various mountain groups. Marmolada, Cristallo, Sella, they weave in and out of the snow-laden clouds. Amedeo is a bit disappointed that it’s so cloudy – there are amazing views on a sunny day – but we are thrilled to be in the clean pine-scented air, chasing the ghosts of these stark mountain peaks. We reach the first pass and walk down to the little store/restaurant/gift shop/base of cable car that takes you to the top. It’s cold, though, so we walk back up the slushy street and move on.
Heading down, and then up again, we reach the second pass and it’s snowing. The temperature outside is minus 2 celsius, or 28 degrees fahrenheit. Leaning against the store/restaurant/gift shop are several bicycles, their riders huddling inside with a warm drink. Bravo to them for making it to the top – it’s all downhill for them now, as it is for us.
More views and more snow accompany the stories that Amedeo is sharing with us about his climbing experiences and some funny stories about how the Italian and Austrian soldiers interacted with each other here on the front line during World War II. Next stop is Cortina, home of the 1956 Winter Olympics, and playground of the rich and famous. Today, though, the rich and famous are absent and much of the town is closed in this off-season. Riders from the Giro d’Italia (the Italian Tour de France) are preparing to start a stage in the race, though, and we find one restaurant open that will serve us lunch. On the way back from the bathroom, I strike up a conversation with the cooks in the kitchen – two from Poland, one from Albania, and one from Italy! An international staff.
Well fed and ready to go, we dodge the racers and drive down the valley, heading to Venice. On the way, we stop to see the Vajont Dam, one of the tallest dams in the world. In October, 1963, a huge landslide from the adjacent mountain tumbled into the dam, creating a 650 foot wave overflowing the dam and destroying everything in the valley below, including several villages and causing 2000 deaths. The memorials to the drowned were moving and it was interesting to hear about the disaster from Amedeo, a civil engineer.
Finally, our last leg through the vineyards gets us to the train station going into Venice. This is the cheapest place to park, since there are no cars allowed in the city. From here, we take a bus across the causeway and are let out near the Venice train statin. Trying to decipher our way through the winding streets, eventually we find the square behind our apartment and meet our host. He leads us down the alley into a courtyard, up one flight of stairs to the outside door, then up three more floors to our apartment. We take a moment to get the intro information of the place, then drop our bags and find some dinner.
We are tired, but so incredibly thankful for Amedeo to drive us all over the mountains. It could not have been a more perfect day. These are places where we would never have gone without a car. The drive, the stories, the stops were all incredible, and we could not have done it without him. Amedeo, whatever you are doing right now, please allow us to say again: thank you, thank you, thank you!
Tomorrow, we explore Venice.
Dear Readers, As some of you know, I am back home in Virginia, busy with getting back into life here and catching up in the Yoga Teacher Training that I’ve started before I left. Somehow, only a week into this trip, I became so busy with planning the next day and trying to go out and enjoy the evenings (my usual time to write) that I had to stop posting. Till now (or rather, the last few posts). However, my mind and spirit are still in Europe, even though my body is not, and I do want to continue the story and I’m going to keep the tense present. I hope you enjoy the rest of the trip!
It’s both a sad day and a happy day in the Cinque Terre. Sad because we’re leaving this wonderful place – even the Cinque Terre seems sad. The warm sun of yesterday has turned into spitting rain and the surf’s up. We have a last, early, breakfast with Beppe, say our goodbyes and catch the first bus down the hill to the train station.
It’s a happy day, though, because Susie and I will be reuniting with our Camino friend, Amedeo. If you have read the saga of my Camino journey in this blog last year, you will remember that I met Amedeo in Spain a couple of days after Uli, my German walking partner, had to leave. It was Amedeo who accompanied me on the climb to Mt. Irago to the Cruz de Ferro, where I left the stone that I had been carrying with me for 350 miles as a symbol of letting go of my spiritual burdens. We walked together and shared our life stories, some invented prehistoric tales, and cocino maragato. He kept me going when I wanted to stop, shared the agony of my broken camera, and celebrated with me in Santiago when I finally made it. Following the travel rule of “it’s always better to stay with someone who lives there,” I contacted him right away when I knew we were coming to his country. He then graciously offered to pick us up in La Spezia, close to our 5T base, and drive us the 2 1/2 hours to his home in Bergamo, just north of Milan. He also agreed to show us his beloved mountains, the Dolomiti, and accompany us to Venice. Fantastic!
So we meet in La Spezia. There are hugs all around and after a quick stop for coffee, we drive north over the pass through the rain. For most of the journey we regaled him with our travel stories of Popes and prosecco, and before we know it, we’re in Bergamo. A fabulous steak lunch precedes a tour of the town.
Bergamo was originally built on a hill at the foothills of the Alps. Originally settled by the Celts, it has always been an important town from ancient Roman times through medieval times and the Renaissance. On top of the hill is the walled medieval old town, the Citta Alta (upper city). Below is the more modern Citta Bassa. The most fun way to get to the top of the hill is to take the funicular – built before there were cars – and enjoy the views of the Citta Bassa and beyond. At the top, we strolled through the medieval streets, visiting the beautiful old squares, the Santa Maria Maggiore church, and the Colleoni Chapel.
I’m intrigued by the story of Bartholomeo Colleoni. He was a condottieri, a mercenary soldier from an important local family in the 1400’s, who was extremely successful at winning battles. He fought for his hometown of Venice, then for Milan, then for Venice, and ended up settling down just outside of Bergamo. Not only a soldier, he was also well known for his charitable works and helping the local villages with agricultural improvements. He wanted to be buried in the Santa Maria Basilica, but wasn’t allowed, so he tore down the church’s sacristy and built this ornate, pre-Renaissance, pink and white marble jewel for his remains. You might say it took balls to tear down the church’s sacristy, and Colleoni had them. Three of them, so they say. His coat of arms (and gate decoration) has sets of three fat commas. They are a play on his name (which in Italian sounds a lot like testicles) and he was proud of them, because they are everywhere!
After a stop at the cafe at the top of the funicular to admire the view, we walked down the hill back to the car. We weren’t really very hungry, but Amedeo stopped at the store for some cake for the evening. Tomorrow the plan is to drive through the Dolomite mountains, ending up in Venice. However, the rainy weather that we drove through to get to Bergamo made for snow in the passes. It was unclear if the passes were even open. Amedeo made some calls and, after some time, determined that we were to go through the mountains after all. BUT we have to leave at 6am, because more snow was forecast for that afternoon. I repack my bags because I’m coming back to Bergamo and call it an early night. Maybe we’ll see some snow tomorrow!
(Note: I am trying a different app for this entry – sometimes the Blogsy app does not always keep the words and photos where I want them. Let me know what you think! Julie)
We have one full day to explore as fully as we can the Cinque Terre and it is my intention to visit each of the five villages, ideally by walking. First order of business is to purchase the pass that allows us to walk the trails in this National Park. The pass also includes train fare between the towns, which we will need since our home town, Corniglia, is in the middle of the five. After a good breakfast and a lunch recommendation from our host, Beppe, we are on our way. And our way is up. Unfortunately, the easy coastal trails are closed, so we must take the high road. This means walking straight up, across the hills through the vineyards, then back down to the village. We did this yesterday afternoon from Corniglia to Vernazza, and it was fun. Today, we have all day to do the rest!
This walk is like a mini-Camino, but with a daypack instead of the full pack we used in Spain. The scenery was gorgeous, it was a good workout and a great meditation, and we saw mostly non-locals along the way (even a few with walking sticks!). Our first leg was 6 miles and took us about two and a half hours, all told. The photo above is where we started and in the one below you can see our first destination in the lower right hand corner. Cinque Terre wine (white, especially) is some of the best we’ve had, and it was a joy walking through the vineyards among the workers and the vines.
We also passed through olive trees with their colorful nets tied around their trunks. In November, they handpick the olives they can reach, but spread these nets out to catch the olives shaken down from the top by machine.
We drop down the thirteen hundred steps to the colorful village of Manarola. We think about continuing up the other side of the hill, but wind down through the village to the train station instead. The trail is closed from Manarola to the next town, Riomaggiore, but it’s a short distance and we hop the train and are there in 5 minutes. We climb through the center of Riomaggiore and around to the church, which has a spectacular view of the sea. Just over the hill, you can see the station where we will take the train to Vernazza, back toward and past where we started in Corniglia.
We’re getting hungry now and are getting ready for a rest. Our host Beppe suggested that we go to Gianni’s (pronounced Johnny’s) on the Vernazza harbor and drop his name for some good service. Sure enough, when we got there and said we were sent by Beppe di Corniglia (no last name required) they went out of their way to seat us at the best harborfront table, shooing some other tourists away who wanted to sit there. We asked for “un buen pranzo” and got 5 different types of anchovies, gnocchi with pesto, octopus, dessert, and limoncello to seal the deal. The food was scrumptious, the wine delicious, and we had the best view of the little harbor, the fishermen, and the never-ending stream of tourists parading by.
Happily full of food and drink, we walk down along the rocks, take our shoes off, and dangle our tired feet in the cool water. There is just no other place I would rather be in the world right now. We look back at the colorful town buildings.
But we’re not done yet. There’s one more town to visit, and it’s only a ninety minute walk away. The day would not be complete if we missed this last town. However, we’re extremely relaxed and a little drunk still from the heady combination of lunch, wine, sun, and water. It’s hard to get going. I make a deal with Susie that we just climb halfway up the hill to get the quintessential view of Vernazza. After a false start, we head up. When we reach the viewpoint, it seems like a waste to turn back, so we keep going.
It’s hard going, but totally worth it. The trail narrows as it starts to descend, and we get stuck behind a slow group of Germans. There’s a man selling limoncello right off the trail, but we’re afraid that if we stop, we will not be able to continue down and finish our quest. People who have traveled with me know that there will be one major and serious walk on every trip and
they are bold enough to call this nice walk “the death march.” Looks like this is it for this trip! We’re so happy to get into Monterosso and have a drink while we wait to catch the train back to Corniglia. We are tired, but happy.
We hobble back to Beppe’s house, but I can’t make a call here, so I walk back to the little town square. When I’m finished, I notice the sign that points through the town the other way to the church and a viewpoint. I walk the narrow street to the end of the point and find the most perfect sunset spot. I run back to Beppe’s, get Susie, and after a stop for some gelato, enjoy the moonrise on the left over Riomaggiore and the sunset over Monterosso. A spectacular way to end a truly memorable Camino day.
I'm so excited for this day – I've been waiting for it for 30 years. I was in my early 20's working as a travel agent in the Seattle area when I attended a seminar given by local Europe expert, 25-year old Rick Steves, who had written his first book, Europe Through the Back Door. One of his “back door” destinations was the Cinque Terre, a set of 5 small towns located along the Mediterranean, south of Genoa, but north of Rome. The picture he painted was idyllic – classic Italian hill towns perched over the sea, painted in pastels instead of the rich ochres of Tuscany. Tourists can't drive into them – the only way to visit them is to take the train that runs along the coast or walk the trail that winds through the vineyards between them (and you all know how much I love walking trails). Sounded like a place I would love, and this afternoon I'll be there!
But first, we have to get there. We have a reservation on a train from Florence to La Spezia, the largest town next to the 5T (shorthand – Cinque means five, Terre means lands). Then we take the small train that stops at each of the villages – it's just a 20 minute ride. Unfortunately, when we arrive at the Florence train station and look at the big board of departures, it says that our train is cancelled due to fires. We scramble to find an agent, who gives me a new schedule of three trains and a bus to get to Corniglia. The first train is ready to depart, so off we go.
We're not the only ones whose schedules are messed up, though, and by the time we board the train, we are left with standing room only. We meet Americans, Brazilians, and Germans and share stories. First stop, everyone gets off and goes to look for the bus. As we wait outside, someone from the station comes out and tells us that there is in fact a train that will take us to Pisa instead of the bus. We pile in again, standing with a group of new friends, pile out at Pisa, then find our train to La Spezia. We wish we could stop for a bit to see the famous leaning tower, but the Cinque Terre calls, and we are late. This time we get a seat, and watch as the scenery speeds by. As we pass by Carrara, we can see the mountains and marble quarries in the distance and the big chunks of marble stored in lots just before and just past the train station.
Finally, we board our fourth train of the day and arrive in Corniglia. The train is packed with hikers who have been walking all day and they spill out of the train and up the stairs where the bus is waiting to take us to the town at the top of the hill. We could drag our bags up 382 steps, but we wait for the third bus to take us up, a little miffed that none of the hikers took pity on our tired, trained-out bodies to let us board.
From the bus stop, up the hill, up more stairs, we find Beppe's house, where we will stay the next two nights. Beppe is in his 70's, a retired railroad engineer, and is happy to see us, but doesn't speak a word of English. He proudly shows us to one of the two rooms he remodeled on the first floor of his house (he lives above and we have breakfast in his kitchen) and we settle in. Right below our room is a fabulous foccia store and we take our bread with olives up to the courtyard of the church in front of our room and enjoy the view with the local cats.
It's 4pm, we've had lunch, and, after sitting all day, we're ready to walk. It's only an hour and a half to the next town, Vernazza, so we start up the hill, enjoying the ever-changing views of our little village and the Mediterranean below. I get a bit ahead of Susie and about halfway there meet a guy who lives right on the trail. He offers two rooms in his house for a reasonable price, and the view is spectacular. I wish I could stay there, but I need to catch Susie, who's gone ahead now, and move on.
We arrive at the most wonderful bar (ok, everywhere is the most wonderful bar when you've walked an hour and a half up and down the mountains) and stop for some 5T white wine. It's amazingly good and we float from lawn chairs to tables to find just the right view of Vernazza below.
Eventually, and much happier but fairly tired, we descend into Vernazza and catch the train back to Corniglia. The foccacia lady sends us to a local restaurant with great food and a view to match. By the time we're done, we've made friends with everyone who works there and I've got an offer for some advanced Italian (language!!) lessons. I decline, gracefully, and we head back to Beppe's.
You know when you have dreamed of a place and when you finally get there, it doesn't measure up? Well, that is NOT the case here. Dreams really can come true!
Today, we visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the greatest art collections on the planet, and the Accedemia, home to Michelangelo's David, the Renaissance masterpiece that defines the age. Where Rome was about history, Florence is about art and beauty. And this beauty is not just in the museums, but is found everywhere, and in everyone.
In fact, everyone is more beautiful in Italy.
Here's the logic: I know I am more beautiful in Italy, therefore, everyone is more beautiful in Italy. How is it possible to be more beautiful in one place compared to another?
Let me explain. First, the country provides a great frame for a pretty picture. It's sunny here. The rich colors and architecture of the buildings against the blue sea against the varying greens of the trees create the perfect backdrop for anything set against it. When the surroundings are beautiful, it's hard not to be in tune with that.
Second, it's not just the scenery, but the details are beautiful. The way a table is laid, the placement of vegetables in a market stall, the flowers everywhere. It's how the tomatoes are arranged with the mozzarella and basil, the crispness of the cotton shirts, the memorable photo on a simple museum ticket.
Third, you will find some of the greatest, most beautiful art in the world here: David – perfection in sculpture and painters likeTitian, Della Robbia, and so many others. It's not just a coincidence that some of the world's greatest collections are here. The collectors certainly had an eye for beautiful things. And how do you not feel beautiful when in the presence of these?
Last, it's the people. People look at you here. They look and they smile. Not in a creepy, stalking kind of way, but in a “hey, I notice your beauty” kind of way. In my self-defense classes, I teach that when walking down the street, it's a good idea to look people in the eye. This is one country where my glance is met and returned, often with a smile. I'm not just some faceless person in the crowd, I am present, I am noticed, I am beautiful.
Not only am I beautiful here, but I am clever as well! I am hugely enjoying the patience of just about everybody that I meet to let me try to speak Italian and to correct me (kindly) as I stumble through. I've been studying Italian with Rosetta Stone since l got back from Camino last summer and can put together a few words, but sometimes get the verb conjugations wrong. I love being able to speak the little bit of Italian that I can muster and I am so appreciative of the Italians whom I've met who will allow me to do so. It's nice to be rewarded for all of that study!
I experience the complete opposite of this phenomena in France, and sometimes Spain. I'll start to speak in French, and they will finish my sentence in exasperated English. Or, they'll look at me funny, I'll repeat it again, and then they give me another funky look and say, “oh, you mean (whatever I said)”, repeating it as if I said it wrong, but it sounds just how I said it. Perhaps it's meant to be helpful, but it comes across as condescending.
Unfortunately, I was explaining this whole language thing to Susie while on the bus today and, only too late, noticed that there was a French couple sitting in the seats right in front of us. Arrgh! Fortunately, they got off before telling me how I insulted them and their country! I'm hoping they didn't hear me.
After visiting the museums and lunch (don't ever order papa di pomodoro – it sounds nice, but it's just bread soaked in tomato liquid, oh, and never put cheese on it!!) we took the bus up the hill to the medieval church of San Miniato to hear the Gregorian chants that are offered before sunset. The echoes of the seven long-robed monks played among the columns of the crypt. Beautiful!
Outside, the sun was setting and we had a glorious view of Florence on the Arno. One more stop at the Gelato Fest and we were back to the apartment, packing up for our trip to the Cinque Terre tomorrow.
And feeling beautiful!