David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Writers' Week in Ireland, June 2011

Adare (Ath Dara)

Our group: Ann and Frank Little, Marie, us

Gallarus Oratory, 800 AD

South Pole Pub

At Staigue Fort

Our favorite hotel: Cashel Palace Hotel

A favorite site: Brownshill Portal Tomb

Gardens at Powerscourt Manor

We arrived early at Shannon Airport, after a dismal Continental flight with terrible food and freezing temperatures. We picked up the car and got on our way. We headed to Tipperary, but missed the turn and spent a couple of hours on country roads. When we finally arrived, we were disappointed: there really wasn't much to see. But it was a long, long way! We drove on to Adare (Ath Dara) and realized that we had visited this charming town on our first visit. This time we were booked into Dunraven Hotel which turned out to be a real find. It was a lot less expensive than Adare Manor and we found it to be very welcoming. We checked into our large room with a big king-sized bed plus a single bed and a nice sitting area with couch and chairs, large modern bathroom, and a view to the gardens. We had lunch at the Blue Door, housed in a quaint thatched cottage across the road: Caesar salad with bacon, tomatoes, and olives for me and pasta with salmon and smoked salmon for David. We walked around the town and discovered the Trinitarian Abbey, founded in 1230, which is now the Catholic Church; it was destroyed in 1539 under Henry VIII, and then restored in 1811. We walked down to the Maigue River and found the Augustinian Priory, founded in 1315; it is now mostly in ruins but houses a school. Across the river were the ruins of Desmond Castle, thought to have been built before 1226 by the Normans.
We had an early night and a good, long night's sleep. Wednesday morning we enjoyed our first full Irish breakfast, with eggs, bacon, fruit, scones and jam, in the nice breakfast room at the hotel. Then we started off to Listowel where the Writers' Week would take place. We drove into town but didn't immediately find where we were to go. We happened into the John B. Keane Pub, which just happens to be a gathering spot for the Week; there, a couple of American visitors and the publican Billy Keane, son of John B. Keane (a well-known playwright, novelist, and essayist who was born here and sied in 2002), helped us contact Paddy Walsh who would show us our "digs" for the week. We had a quick lunch, stopped at the Listowel Arms to check in with the Writers' Week group, and then met him back at the pub at 3:00 PM. He showed us over to the house, gave us the keys, and insisted on supplying us with milk and other items.

That evening at 6:30 we went to the opening session of the Writers' Week in the Listowel Arms. There were the usual speeches and some entertainment by The Listowel Singers and a televised welcome by the author Colm Toibin, President of the Committee. By the end Marie had arrived and we all went for a bite to eat in the restaurant in the Arms. Her friends Ann and Frank Little and Denis showed up later in the week and we all chipped in for food and drink at the rented place. Marie insisted on paying for the rental herself.

We spent Wednesday through Sunday at the Writers' Week, seeing many interesting, inspiring, informative, and amusing speakers. The highlight of the week for me was an interview with Richard Dawkins in a standing-room-only session in a circus tent. He was so calm and reasonable with the (few) religious people who questioned him. David and Marie had gone back to the house for a nap and never showed up for the session. Other sessions included David Sedaris, Alice Sebold (whom I didn't bother to see), Michael Holroyd (whom I'd never heard of but fell in love with; he's married to Margaret Drabble, lucky her!), John Lynch (who lives in Nice), Kevin Barry and Gerry Stembridge (both very funny), and more.

On Friday night David and I drove over to Ballybunion where Noel Nash was singing. We had discovered Noel in New Orleans in the 1980's and followed him for years but we hadn't seen him in about 15 years. We were a little nervous to see and hear him again, hoping he hadn't lost anything in the intervening years - he hadn't lost a thing. He was wonderful. We had a light supper at the Cliff House Pub in Bally bunion and then stayed to hear him sing and didn't get home until 2 AM!

On Sunday we drove to Ballyheigh to visit more friends of Marie's. WE took a long walk on the beach, watched a bit of the French Open, and just visited with Paedar (pronouced Pother), his wife Althea, Eugene and Marcella. Then back to the Listowel Arms for the final event, a storytelling contest.

On Monday, everyone else left and we took a 2 hour drive through Tralee to the Dingle Peninsula. David had decided that he couldn't drive at all, so it was up to me. I drove very slowly, 20-30 kph under the limit - I'm sure infuriating to all those driving around me but also infuriating to David who thought I was still going too fast ("I thought I was going to die!"). In all, we drove 1440 kilometers. The views on the Dingle Peninsula were beautiful, even on a somewhat dreary day. We drove over the Conor Pass with its very narrow, one lane roads, hampered by the fog. Our first major stop was at the poorly marked Gallarus Oratory, a small stone chapel built without mortar, using corbeling (stones overlapping to finally form an arch) in about 800 AD. There was no entrance fee and there was even a docent to explain the purpose and the building method.

Afterwards we stopped for lunch at the Smerwick Harbour Hotel along the way. We had the ubiquitous vegetable soup and brown bread and then grilled plaice with vegetables. Then we went on to the equally difficult to find Kilmalkedar Church, built in the early 12th century. We were amused by some of the signs along the roads - GO MALL, meaning "slow down", and "Traffic Calming" meaning also to slow down.

Our last stop of the day was at the South Pole Inn, started by Tom Crean who survived three explorations of the Antarctic, the last one on "The Endurance" with Shackleton in 1914-1917. He returned home to Kerry and started this inn with his wife. He died in 1938. We had seen a one-man show by Aidan Dooley who portrayed Crean and the scarcely believeable dangers encountered.

On Tuesday we left the rental house in Listowel and headed to Killarney. There we found a place for lunch, The Caragh. Again vegetable soup and brown bread for me and Brussels pate with Cumberland sauce for David; then roast pork with stuffing, potatoes, and salad for both. Then we found the Victorian House Hotel and checked in for two nights. That evening we just had drinks in the bar and headed to bed.

The next day we were up early for the big Irish breakfast and then off for our day touring the Ring of Kerry. Our first stop was the Ross Castle ruins, right in Killarney. It was built in the 15th century by O'Donoghue Ross clan, and it was one of the last castles to surrender to Cromwell in 1652. Then we headed west to the Ring of Kerry. One of the first charming villages was Glenbeigh, passing by McGillycuddy Reeks, a mountain range meaning "black stacks". We continued on to Cahersiveen where The Barracks stand, an old RIC Barracks burnt down in 1922 but restored.

A major focus for us was to visit several of the Iron Age stone forts, built in about the 9th - 10th century. They were built in rings with small houses enclosed within and perhaps space for animals, as protection for wealthy landowners of the time. We also saw castle ruins.

We drove out to Portmagee, an old fishing village at the westernmost tip of the Ring. There we found the recommended Fisherman's Bar and ordered vegetable soup and brown bread and a plate of brown crab to share, with beer. The crab were out of this world! Then back over high hills to the main part of the Ring with sea views, standing stones along the way, quaint villages. We stopped in Waterville at a craft shop to find something for Julie and Andrea and found a rosy red Irish cardigan for me.

Then on to Staigue Fort, up a very narrow dirt road where it was difficult when we met another car. It's another stone fort, but this one is thought to be from 500 BC or even earlier; it is quite similar to the later ones.

We stopped in Kenmare and found the stone circle there, an unusual egg-shaped "circle" consisting of 15 stones with a large center stone of approximately 7 tons. It is from 2200-500 BC. Then back to Killarney for the evening where we had dessert in our room and hit the sack.

The next day we drove to Blarney Castle. We'd been there before and wanted to revisit the gardens; we have yet to kiss the Blarney Stone. The grounds are lovely although a bit hokey with the labeled "Witch's Kitchen" and the like. Then we drove up to Cashel where we had decided we would have lunch. There was a sign in the parking lot to the Guinness Bar in a hotel in town and we opted for that. It was terrific! The hotel was gorgeous and we headed downstairs to the Bar where we ordered Guinness beef stew for DAvid and bangers and mash for me. David of course had Guinness, which apparently was started here.

The hotel was Cashel Palace Hotel, built in 1730 as the bishop's palace, in a red-brick Queen Anne and Early Georgian building. The bishop had an agent, Richart Guinis, who grew hops with which he brewed the first "wine of Ireland". He and his son Arthur went to Dublin where they founded the Guinness Brewery. We loved having lunch here and decided we would have to stay for the night. We checked in - 140 E for night including breakfast - and they upgraded our room. It was gorgeous, with 15 foot ceilings, a fireplace, two floor-to-ceiling windows, a sitting area and huge king-size bed with lovely fabrics and antiques (an armoire, a dresser, dressing table), and a fabulous bathroom with a tub on a marble pedestal and a separate shower, and another window with views of the gardens from the tub. In the garden there are 300 year old mulberry trees. The public rooms are gracious and comfortable with a couple of sitting rooms and a large and elegant dining room.

We walked around the town and viewed The Rock of Cashel, built mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries, which was the seat of the kings of Munster. We didn't go inside - which was probably a mistake, but we were tired. We walked a bit more and then just relaxed in our beautiful room.

The next morning, after a marvelous breakfast, we headed on to Powerscourt. We got a bit lost but it ended up being a blessing as we saw a sign for a dolmen. We turned in and parked and walked into a field where there stood the Brownshill Portal Tomb, an amazing dolmen from about 4000-3000 BC. The major stone is estimated at 150 tons! We're sure it is the biggest one we've seen.

Then on to Powerscourt where we were booked in the Powerscourt Arms, which turned out to be pretty basic. Oh, well. We slept there and had breakfast the next morning. We had plenty of time so drove over to Bray and visited an internet cafe to see if there was anything important.

We had a reservation at the Gordon Ramsay Restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the grounds of Powerscourt. We were still early, so headed to Powerscourt Manor Gardens. We were amazed to find that the house, which was a shell when we were last here, is now filled with a cafe and shops. We visited the gardens but were disappointed to find that the rows of Monkey Puzzle trees is no longer in the area where visitors can go.

Then back to the restaurant for a wonderful meal, starting with a glass of champagne. David had a "log" of chicken livers for starters with apple in several forms - can't even remember what I had; then we both had fish with asparagus. It was excellent but nothing like the Gordon Ramsay Restaurant we went to in London.

After lunch we drove up to Dublin Airport and found our Hilton Hotel - not an upscale Hilton at all. We turned in the car and got back to it. We didn't need any dinner. We had a good night's sleep and then took the shuttle to the airport, had breakfast, and boarded. Home to Evanston.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A River Cruise, Prague to Paris

April in Paris

Porta Nigra


View of the Rhine from Cochem Castle

Hilltop Castle along the way


The Residenz, Wurzburg

St. Vitus Cathedral at the Castle compound, Prague

At the Bar in the Hotel de Pariz, sampling Paris Cake

After a month taken up with selling our condo in Nice and all of its contents, we left Nice for three nights in Prague, a place we'd never visited. We arrived at the Hilton that the tour had booked, an ugly glass building in this city famous for its architecture, and not even located in the city center, but in an industrial park on the outskirts. The view from our window was of KPMG - I thought I was there for a Board Meeting. And breakfast at this hotel was $35 each!

Prague is often compared to Paris and it is a beautiful city. We visited the National Museum on the Old Town Square where there was an Easter Festival going on, with lots of booths selling foodstuffs, decorated eggs, and other items. The famed Astronomical Clock at the Town Hall wasn't working but it was interesting to see. There was even a wedding taking place, with the happy couple carried off in a horse-drawn carriage. We had lunch at a restaurant on the square, with fatty ribs for David and a delicious hot dog for me. Then on to Wenceslas Square where thousands gathered in 1989 to cheer the end of Communism. It's really a long shopping street, not a square. Lining the street are the Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings which Prague is famous for. The Square is named for Good King Wenceslas, who apparently wasn't all that good, wasn't a King, and wasn't called Wenceslas, but Vaclav!

Then we walked back towards our hotel, stopping at the elegant Hotel de Pariz where we sampled the Paris Cake, made from a 100-year old recipe. It has a chocolate base, filled with chocolate mousse and peach slices, and covered with a marzipan coating. One piece would have been more than enough but we struggled through two. Then we managed to take the subway back towards the hotel and finally found our way back. We met one of the people involved with Viking, and we complained about the hotel choice. Oh, well.

The next morning our Viking tour began. We went for a visit to Prague Castle which includes the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, started in 1344. Then we returned to the city and saw, again, the Old Town Square, and visited the Jewish Ghetto area. It is thought that the Jewish community arrived in Prague before the Czechs themselves.

After the tour we headed to U Flecku, a restaurant founded in 1499. It was recommended to us by Velta Lazda. We were seated in a non-smoking room (in the Czech Republic, there is still smoking in restaurants!) and were soon joined by a large lively group of Italians, three Russians at our table, and others. The Italians gave big tips to the accordionist and we all had a great time singing. They came around with aperitifs - David thought they were free but they weren't - and then we ordered. The food wasn't outstanding but we had such a great time there. It's a huge place, seating about 1200 people indoors and out.

Afterwards, we walked back to the center of town and stopped at the beautiful Obecni Dum, the Art Nouveau Concert Hall. We again had afternoon tea and cake. Prague is famous for its cafes and during our three days we tried three of them including Obecni Dum, Hotel de Pariz, and also the Slavia Cafe with its afternoon piano music - we loved the old pianist and he came up and shook our hands during his break since he could tell we really appreciated the music.

After our three days in Prague, we boarded a bus. Our first stop was Nuremburg, 1000 year old city in Bavaria, where we viewed the Imperial Castle which is at least 900 years old. Building of the walls was overseen by a Maltese - and we KNOW how good they are at building walls! We then visited the Nazi Parade Grounds and the Documentation Center, part of a Coliseum which Hitler demanded be built. Nuremburg, of course, is where the war crimes trials were held following WWII.

Then back on the bus to Wurzburg where we had a tour of The Residenz. We had visited the gardens on our earlier visit but I don't think we went inside. The Residenz was home to the prince-bishops who ruled the area. Prince Bishop Friedrich Carl von Schonborn ruled in Wurzburg from 1729 to 1746 and was the primary force behind creating this magnificent palace. Balthasar Neumann was the architect; it was completed in 1744. The Grand Staircase, with frescoes showing the four known continents painted by Tiepolo, has a stunning unsupported vault of 18 x 30 meters. The rest of the palace is equally imposing. We also revisited the gardens with the blooming cherry trees and sparkling fountains.

Finally we boarded our river boat and were shocked to see our cabin. It was tiny. There were two very narrow single beds - I almost fell out of mine one night! Luckily the beds are quite high, offering storage underneath. We had dinner on board that night and found that the wine service, which was included, was very generous. But we would discover that the food was very average and quite disappointing.

We sailed along the Main (pronounced Mine) River, stopping along the way in charming little towns with half-timbered buildings. The day that the rest of the crew went to Heidelberg, we had a picnic on the river. The boat supplied us with some picnic fixings and we purchased wine and a Linzer tart. But we forgot the glasses and ended up drinking right from the bottle!

A major stop was Mainz, which dates from 38 BC when the Romans were here. We visited the Cathedral of St. Martin and St. Stephan (11th - 13th c). Then we viewed a demonstration of printing at the Gutenberg Museum showing the moveable type printing press.

Then we entered the great Rhine River. We stopped at Rudesheim, another charming village. That evening we had dinner with Commander Darrel Smith and his wife Ginger to celebrate his birthday. Afterwards there was folk-dancing in the main lounge.

The next morning we had to be up very early, as we were entering the stretch of the Rhine that is lined with castle after castle. It was pretty chilly at 6 AM but warmed up as we sailed along. WE stopped at Cochem and visited the castle there, with our great guide, Klaus. The castle was built in the 11th century and rebuilt in 1866 and is furnished from that period. Views back to the town were spectacular. Then we walked around the town itself which lies on the Mosel River.

The next day we were on to Bernkastel. The villages get more charming as the days go on. But they do sort of run together. Buses picked us up at our final stop and took us to Trier, the oldest German city founded in 15 BC by the Romans. We visited Constantine Basilica, built by the Romans in about 326 AD - it looks new! The other important site that we visited there is the Porta Nigra, built before 200 AD as one of the four main gates to the city. The blackened color is not original but due to pollution.

Then the buses too us on to Luxembourg where we visited the American cemetery where Patton is buried. Afterwards we were on our own for lunch in the city of Luxembourg. Finally some good food - Salades Nicoises, instead of heavy German food! Then back to the buses for a final ride into Paris where we stayed 2 nights at the Crowne Plaza, a handy location within an easy walk to the city center. David and I went out for supper on the arcaded Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in the city (1600's), with Bev and Ronnie whom we had gotten friendly with on the boat.

The next day Viking Tours took us on a 3 1/2 hour bus tour of the city, hitting all the highlights, including a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral and a stop for photos with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Afterwards, David and I had a nice lunch and walked back to the hotel. The next day we tried to visit the Musee d'Orsay but there was a two-hour wait. Instead, we just walked along the river, had lunch, and returned to the hotel where we got a cab to the Hilton at the airport. We stayed there that night and flew home to Chicago the next morning. What a lucky trip it was, weather-wise, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70's every day. And we met such interesting people, not your average Kansas housewives!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Weeks in Malta

Auberge de Castille
Marsaxlokk waterfront

The local transportation

Ginna at Hagar Qim Temples

We really loved Malta when we were there for one day on a cruise a year ago. This year we decided to stay for two weeks and planned our stay en route from Evanston to Nice, our winter home. The weather was perfect, with only a bit of rain and that fell at night. We stayed in a 2 BR, 2 BA rental right on the Grand Harbor in Birgu (Vittoriosa) across from Valletta. We never tired of the view, watching cruise ships come in each morning and leave each night and all the freighters coming and going.

But we were there for more than a beautiful view. We really wanted to see the ancient archeological finds, structures built as long as 6000 years ago. The first settlers, 5600 BC, were farmers from Sicily. Then, around 4000 BC an unknown group came and started creating temples and burial grounds. We visited Hagar Qim, with its 20 ton megalith, and Mnajdra Temples in their magnificent site overlooking the sea; the Mnajdra are aligned with the solstice. We visited the Tarxien Temples, one of the newer sites, only about 4500 years old. The same day we visited the nearby Hypogeum, probably Malta's most famous site, a three-level underground necropolis where they also held religious rites - there are still ochre spiral decorations on the ceilings. (No photos allowed). It's located in the town of Paola and was discovered as they were building in the city. At the Hypogeum we met a fellow American, Molly Poiset, and she drove us home and we all went to a local place, del Borgo, for wine and a cheese platter. But the oldest temples are on the island of Gozo, Ggantija, so named for the giants who were thought to have built the complex; this is the oldest man-made structure on earth, about 1000 years older than Egyptian pyramids. It's not in great shape but it awe-inspiring to view.

Were we sick of these ancient sites? Not at all and we went to two excellent museums, one in Valletta and one on Gozo to see the artifacts that were recovered from the sites. We were enchanted by the many figures of obese females, mostly without heads, supposed to be fertility goddesses. Also at the museums were artifacts from the Roman, Phoenician, and Medieval times.
In the 1500's, the Knights of St. John were expelled from Rhodes and were given the islands of Malta by the King of Spain. The capital of Malta at that time was the Phoenician-founded city of Mdina but the sea-faring Knights prefered to be by the sea and settled in Birgu, a small village on the Grand Harbor. They built palaces for their Inquisitor, the various "langues" (nationalities) of Knights, a Treasury, and so forth. But in 1565 they were attacked again by their great enemies, Suleyman and the Ottoman Empire; they repulsed this Great Siege and then proceeded to build an even finer city, Valletta, with greater fortifications, across the Grand Harbor. The Grand Master's Palace and all the auberges for the "langues" are magnificent, especially the Auberge de Castille. And the whole city is of a piece - there are no intruding modern buildings. Even the McDonald's is in an old palace. And there is the deceptively plain St. John's Co-Cathedral with its interior Baroque decoration, overseen by Mattia Preti, and which holds the largest Caravaggio produced, "The Beheading of John the Baptist".

One day we went up to Mdina, "The Silent City" and "The Noble City". Here is the original Cathedral of St. Paul; when the Knights built the new cathedral in Valletta, they were made "Co-cathedrals". The Cathedral here is equally impressive with beautiful polychrome inlaid marble tombstones covering the floor. The town is also picturesque, although hardly a "Silent City" with all the tourists who flock here. Outside the walls of Mdina is the Domus Romana, with its mosaic floors, statues, and glass from Roman ruins.

All over Malta are sites that remind us that St. Paul was shipwrecked near here and spent several months on the island. In Valletta there's the Church dedicated to the shipwreck; in Mdina there are catacombs, and the Cathedral dedicated to him. There's St. Paul's Bay, where he came ashore. Paul helped cure the father of the Roman magistrate of a fever and the magistrate and many islanders became Christian. It is still a very Catholic country: the parliament was debating, while we were there, whether to accept divorce or not!

We spent two days on Gozo. We arrived fairly early in the morning, the first day and walked up the steep hill in Mgarr, where the ferry landed, to The Grand Hotel where we booked a room for that night. They kindly let us check in right away and then arranged for the next HOHO bus to pick us up at the door. We rode the bus to Ggantija for our first "hop off"; then we boarded the next bus to Victoria, the capital of the island. We walked around the "Il Borgo" section of the city with its narrow winding passageways. In that area we found the charming restaurant Il Panzier; they weren't sure they could take us on this Sunday but finally did let us in after we promised to order something simple. Everything is cooked to order. From our table we could watch Alessandra and Valentino (husband and much-younger wife) working away. We shared an antipasto misto for a starter: about seven different little bowls of vegetables, each cooked in a different way - cauliflower, peppers, eggplant, beans, and so on. For a main course we each had a pasta, both delicious. For dessert we ordered figs which were served with pistachios, perhaps a bit plain for our tastes. But we loved sitting on the terrace and we loved the family and we arranged to come back the next day for another lunch!

We rode the HOHO around the rest of the island back to Mgarr where we got back to our hotel. We certainly didn't need any dinner that night! It was early to bed and then up early for the huge buffet breakfast that was included in the price - meats, cheeses, salads, eggs, bacon, sausages, cereals, fruits, breads, jams: everything you could think of. Then we took the free bus from the hotel back up to Victoria where we explored the Citadel and the fine archeological museum there and Basilica St. George. Then it was time for our second meal at Il Panzier - we were welcomed back like old friends! Since we'd had such a huge breakfast, we didn't need a huge lunch, so we skipped the entree and just had the main course - an asparagus Napoleon for me and baked scallops for David - and tiramisu for dessert. Again, wonderful! I dread the thought that we might never get there again. Then it was time to take the bus back to Mgarr and get the ferry back to Malta and the bus to Birgu and "home".

One day we took the bus to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, the town where the Turks arrived during the Great Siege. We'd read that it was a good place to find souvenirs but we didn't really see anything. But it was a great place to have fresh fish along the sea, with the colorfully painted boats, many with a "good luck eye" painted on the bow, bobbing in the harbor. We chose the Cafe de Paris and had lampuka, the local fish that is something like mahi mahi, and King Prawns. The wine came in the smallest glasses ever but we kept ordering - I think each glass was one euro! The sun was shining and we sat under an umbrella and whiled away several hours.

Other days we visited various sites/sights around Valletta and Birgu. We loved the Teatru Manoel, the 3rd oldest theater in Europe, which was built by the Knights and where they played the parts with castrati playing the female roles. We finally got to see the Grand Master's Palace which was closed last year when we were here. We enjoyed the Barracca Gardens with the great views of the Grand Harbor and Birgu opposite. And we enjoyed many wonderful meals, trying the local Gozo cheese, local sausage, bragioli (beef rolls with stuffing which my mother-in-law used to make), lots of fresh fish and many salads, sitting in the sun. We met up with Linda and John Cordina, whom we had met last year in the Piemonte when we were all up there truffle hunting; they own one of the famous restaurants in Valletta, Caffe Cordina, which has been in John's family since 1837. We stopped there several times for afternoon gelato! Another day we took the bus out to the Classic Car Museum near St. Paul's Bay.

Our favorite place was del Borgo, the place in Birgu where we went four times. It was great whether for a full meal or a snack or for dessert. For our last meal we went to De Robertis on the top floor terrace of the Castille Hotel in Valletta with its views of the Grand Harbor. We had a wonderful meal with Maltese antipasto misto and then pasta. We were too full for dessert!

Traveling around Malta is an adventure. Almost all buses leave from the Valletta station, a huge parking lot with over 100 buses, arranged in no apparent order. Each bus, many of which date from the 1950's, is decorated by its driver with family photos, religious symbols and sayings, and so on. The drivers must have the right-of-way since all they do is blast the horn and keep going. Anybody in the way better just get out of the way! And of course they drive on the "wrong" side of the street.

It's a great place to visit and two weeks is plenty to see everything. Longer would be nice to have more time to relax, have picnics, and just enjoy the wonderful weather!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Almost a Week in Lyon, April 2010

Place Bellecour in Lyons looking up towards Notre Dame de Fourviere

Easter dinner at Ostellerie de Vieux Perrouges, sipping some spiced wine

David posing with Paul Bocuse at the Fresque des Lyonnais

The Roman bridge in the Luberon

It was pouring rain early in the morning but had cleared by the time we got on the road at 9 AM. We got up to Grignan, in the Drome department, at noon or so, passing through some lovely towns such as Suze les Rousses. We had lunch at a casual place in the center of town, Le Grenier a Sel - should have had a bit more patience and looked for the place I had listed, Poeme de Grignan which looked really nice. We found our hotel, La Demeure du Chateau, but no one was there! We called them and were told that Bernard, our host, was down in Gigondas shopping for wine and would be back by 5 PM. So off to tour the castle, called the Chateau de Grignan. It is unclear exactly how old the castle is but it was owned by the Grignan family until the 1500's and then taken over by Adhemars who expanded and improved it. Madame de Sevigne, an aristocrat of the court in Paris, traveled to Grignan in the late 1600's to visit her daughter who was married to the Adhemar of that time. She is famous for letters that she wrote to her daughter over a period of 30 years.

After stopping for a drink, we headed back to the hotel and were shown our large room by Bernard. The room included a balcony looking to the southward to snow-capped Mt. Ventoux, the highest mountain in the area. There was also a sitting area for reading, a very modern bathroom, and a very comfortable bed. We had a bottle of wine while watching the sunset and talking about many of the great hotels we've stayed in.

Bernard joined us for breakfast and we had a wonderful conversation in French and English about travel, skiing, hotels, and so on. The breakfast, included in the price of 89 E, was wonderful breads, croissants, jams, cheese, and coffee. Then off to Montelimar and the A7 for the rest of the trip to Lyon. It was 10 deg. by 10 AM. We called Jean-Claude when we arrived and he quickly came over and showed us around Aurelie's apartment - large but not really to our taste but great as an exchange. JC fixed us lunch - a Lyon specialty of quenelles, dumplings which we found quite boring. Then he left for Nice and we took the bus, just a block away, into the main square in town, Place Bellecour, to find the tourist office. We ended up taking the HOHO bus, since it was such a nice day and we weren't sure how long the weather would hold out. This gave us a great overview of the city. The main part is positioned on a peninsula called Presqu'ile (lit. "almost an island"). Across a bridge is the Old Town with Fourviere above. We exited the bus at Fourviere to view Notre Dame de Fourviere, a church built in 1870 to thank the Virgin for protecting Lyon from the Prussians. The architecture is a strange mix with Egyptian symbols; there are four main spires with another off to the side, making the building look like an upside-down elephant! But the mosaics inside are spectacular.

We bought a carnet of bus tickets and then found our way home, stopping to do a bit of food shopping. Couldn't find much in the local shops. The next day was forecast as a rainy day so we headed to the Beaux Artes Museum where we wandered around viewing the very nice collection of impressionists and more. The Museum itself is a beautiful building, on Place des Terreaux where there is also the Hotel de Ville. From the museum we headed to Le Jura, one of the really authentic "bouchons" serving traditional Lyonnais cuisine - mostly offal. I had a terrine de veau to start, a nice serving of two slices served with cornichon pickles and greens; for the main courses, David had a "gateau" of foie de volaille while I had the andouillettes (pigs intestines), both served with potatoes. For dessert we had gateau lyonnais and tarte praline. At the table next to us there was a lovely family, a couple with their 10 year old daughter. They were native Lyonnais, spoke only French, and had been coming to the restaurant for three generations. They assured us that we had chosen well. A sign in the restaurant stated: Une cuisine de qualite ne connait pas le mot presse. I liked that. The family mentioned the grignottes au marc (cherries in French grappa) and we ordered some; they were great.

Then on home, stopping at a horrible Carrefour in the Part-Dieu shopping center; a madhouse!

Sunday was Easter and we'd made a reservation at Ostellerie de Vieux Perouges, a restaurant in a medieval town about 26 K from Lyon. It was forecast as a rainy day but turned out beautiful and not cold at all. We found our way easily to Perouges and parked in the lot outside the town. We took a quick look at the church of Mary Madeleine, built in 1440. Then on to the restaurant for a wonderful lunch. We were seated right in front of the huge fireplace, with a nice fire glowing. Comfortable chairs and beautifully dressed table with waitresses in traditional dress. We started with an aperitif of spiced wine, served from an ancient looking bottle. David started with a salad with foie de volailles with grilled apples while I had the cured salmon. Then we both had the lamb shanks with a 1/2 bottle of Tavel rose. Neither of us touched the potatoes and we even put a lot of the lamb, enough for a meal, in a zip-lock bag; just too much food! There were two desserts and we expected to choose, but instead were each served both! The first was a Gallette de Perouges, a thin sugared pastry, topped with cream served in a huge crock and more sugar. The second dessert was grilled bananas with ice cream and chocolate sauce. Coffee for David with chocolates! We were stuffed. We drove home and tried to find the Parc de la Tete d'Or but it was difficult driving, so headed home instead.

Monday we had expected to take the walking tour of the Old Town but it was fully booked. So we bought a book showing the location of the Traboules, hidden passageways and staircases which were built in the 18th century to facilitate the transport of the silk in rainy weather. We explored many of them and other appealing buildings and sights in the Old Town. At the north end of the Old Town we viewed the charming Eglise St. Paul which was consecrated in 549 AD! Then we crossed over the Saone to see the Fresque des Lyonnais, paintings of famous persons such as Paul Bocuse, Lumiere, Tony Garnier, pictured in the trompe l'oeil windows and balconies of a building along the river. We stopped for a couple of aperos in the sun and then headed home for the leftover lamb slices on bread we bought along the way. A great meal.

In the afternoon we took the Tram C1 to Parc de la Tete d'Or which is a zoo, a rose garden, a lake, botanical gardens, and more. It was a beautiful afternoon and we explored and then sat on a bench and worked on a crossword puzzle. In the zoo we saw elephants, deer, water buffalo, a giraffe. There were also puppet shows, a couple of Merry-Go-Rounds, and more. A lovely place.

Tuesday we headed up to Fourviere. We took the same bus from near our place to Old Town and then took the funicula up to the top of the hill and walked to the ruins. There's a large amphitheater which still has concerts; it originally held about 11,000 people and now holds about 4,500. Next to it is the smaller and more intimate Odeon where the Romans held musical concerts. We spent an hour or so there and then walked back down to Old Town and found an Italian restaurant to have our last lunch. After lunch we went back to the Lyon Cathedral to watch the animation of the 16th century clock, with the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would be blessed with a child.

Wednesday we were on the road by 8 AM, heading to the Luberon area of the Cotes de Rhone area, just east of Avignon. We had a bit of trouble finding the right roads, but eventually did. The weather had finally caught up with us and it was a gray and threatening day. But we passed through charming LaCoste and went to Bonnieux where we had hoped to eat at Le Fournil. Sadly they were fully booked so we just went to the Brasserie in town which had amazing views over the surrounding valley.

Then we went on to find the St. Julien Bridge, a beautiful three-arched Roman bridge, built 2000 years ago. There was no mortar used in the construction and the bridge was in daily use until 2005! Then on to our hotel, La Ferme de la Huppe (89 E for the least exp room), named for a local crested bird (hoopoe, in english). It's in an old farmhouse and is very charming with heavy beams (a foot in diameter) and lots of nooks and crannies. But it's not a place for people who must have TV as we could find no channels in English. We sat in the bar in the evening and shared a bottle of wine and talked with the owner who is Italian from the Piedmont; her husband does more of the physical work but she and her daughter manage the restaurant. We had a very comfortable night and a good breakfast (although rather expensive at 14 E per person!) and left for home. We were home by 12:30, in time for lunch. Such a pleasant week!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two rainy weeks near Rome, Jan. 2010

Temple of Athena at Paestum
Etruscan tumulus

The Roman Forum in Rome

Proseco at the Hassler Hotel Bar

We left Nice early in the morning of Sunday, Dec. 27, heading towards Rome. We stopped in Lerici, a lovely town, complete with its own castle, on the coast for lunch at the Jolly Bar. The pasta zucca served simply with olive oil and parmesan cheese was wonderful. After Lerici, we ran into a bit of trouble - the roads were closed due to the terrible rains. We had to head east toward Lucca, then took a long local road south to Pontedera to find a road west back to Livorno and then south to Cecina. By then it was dark. We couldn't find a hotel in Cecina - closed for the season or for renovation, so continued south to the little town of La California. Still nothing. We drove on a ways but there was nothing so went back and headed east towards Siena. Stopped in a little town but there was no hotel; stopped at the police station and he mentioned a hotel in La California. We returned there and asked at a couple of places but when we finally found it, it too was closed for the season. Headed south again and immediately south of town we saw a lighted sign (that hadn't been lighted before) for rooms! Down a dirt drive to a big old house: would it be "Psycho"? No, it was a very nice young Italian woman and her mother (or grandmother?) living there. They turned on the heat in our simple room and we headed into town for an evening snack served by a young fellow who "loves Americans". Then back to bed. What a relief!

We were on the road by 8 AM, stopping for breakfast along the way. Arrived in Fregene by 11:30 to find the villa locked. We'd told Picci and Sandro that we would be there before noon, so waited until noon and then called them - they were at the Monday market and would be there soon. They showed us around again (we had seen it in November before our cruise) and showed us how everything worked and they left. We went out for a cafeteria-style (tavola calda) lunch at Luna Rossa, owned by Massimo and Gabe, where we were to eat quite often. Then back to unpack and settle in. It was pretty cold in the villa. Villa sounds quite large but this is not: it's 3 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and 2 bathrooms, but all the rooms are tiny. Fregene, of course, is not high on the list of towns to visit in Italy, but it is a very nice seaside village where Federico Fellini used to have his vacation villa. There are many restaurants along the beach, but most were closed at this time of year. There is a beautiful pine forest, planted at the direction of Pope Clement IX in the 1660's. The forest is surrounded by narrow, crooked streets with grand and not-so-grand villas. A block and a half away is the bus to Rome.

Because of the rainy weather and more in the forecast, we decided to head down to Paestum where we wanted to again visit the wonderful Greek temples. We found a decent hotel in Paestum - I'm pretty sure we were the only guests - and immediately went out to find an open restaurant. It's nice to travel off-season because one avoids the crowds - on the other hand many hotels and restaurants are closed. But we were successful and enjoyed our grilled salmon and a side of grilled vegetables that the Italians do so well. Then on to the site in the light rain. It was worth the trip - the temples are magnificent. And there were more Roman ruins around them than we'd remembered. The Temples date from around the VI century BC; the Romans had taken over around the III century BC. We also visited the excellent museum, which I'm sure we didn't visit the last time. The artifacts that were recovered are wonderful. Then back to the hotel for a glass of wine (which they served with about 8 pieces of marzipan; I'm sure they were leftovers from some wedding held at the hotel).

The drive "home" was in the rain and dark. We headed right up the block to Luna Rossa for lunch again. Later in the afternoon the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day so we headed up the block to the wine bar where we sat outside and enjoyed the weather. Walked to the beach for the sunset.

We had read in the New York Times about a tiny perched village, Calcata, that was "rescued" by artists and artisans, both Italian and foreign, and we were eager to visit it. The town had been condemned in the 1930's and left to crumble until the late 60's and early 70's when the artists arrived to patch it up and open galleries and shops. Our exchangers had recommended a drive around Lake Bracciano, so we combined the two for a day's outing. Calcata was a bit of a disappointment: the setting is spectacular but the shops were nothing special and the one decent restaurant in town was closed for lunch. We drove back to the Lake and headed for Anguillara Sabazia where we chanced on Il Vecchio Salus. No tourist joint, this! Many locals were there, enjoying a New Year's Eve Day meal. David ordered the pasta con vongole (clams) which was spicy and delicious; I had thought to order a pasta also, but saw an antipasta tray go by and changed to that. It was local cured hams, grilled vegetables (eggplant, peppers, zucchini), and several cheeses: mozzarella, "formaggio stagione" (literally cheese of the season but a kind of pecorino), and ricotta fresca "fatto a casa" (made in house) that was delicious. I spread the ricotta on everything! We enjoyed a local white wine with the meal and then were offered a "crema di limoncello", also "fatto a casa", or a grappa. I loved the limoncello. Buon Ano a Tutti!

When we got home we again walked to the beach to see the last beautiful sunset of the year. There was heavy rain later and we decided against going up to the wine bar as we had planned; we stayed home and read and had wine and fruit tart for supper. The next day it rained all day and was very cold. We had more fruit tart for breakfast and spent the day reading, going over maps, and so on.

Saturday, Jan 2, was still grey but promising so we took the 8:40 bus to Rome and the subway to the Villa Borghese. We walked through the park to the Villa Guilia, the museum dedicated to the Etruscan culture. WE spend a couple of hours visiting the museum with its amazing artifacts - luckily half the museum was closed or we could have been there all day! Afterwards we got on Bus #3, the only one nearby and it took us in strange directions; finally got off and on another that took us to Termini, the Rome train station. We walked to Trattoria Monti, which had been recommended by so many, only to find it closed until Jan. 6. But there was a nice looking alternative just across the street so we went there. Very nice, with white linens, pleasant atmosphere. We started with verdure (vegetables - broccoli, spinach, cabbage), this time steamed and served only with olive oil; outstanding! Then roast lamb for David and pasta, fatto a casa, served simply with parmesan and black pepper. Molto buono. Just made the 3:10 bus back to Fregene.

Sunday, Jan. 3: Another decent day, with the sun actually shining! We headed up to Santa Severa to visit the 14th century castle there. The castle was under the control of the Anguillara family from the 15th century. It is under renovation but there was a gentleman who showed us around the grounds and through the collection of fossils and rocks, mined locally. Then, one of the highlights of our trip, on to Cerveteri to see the Banditaccio Necropolis, with tombs dating back as far as the IX century BC. I was expecting a couple of tombs, but instead we found tumuli (conical earth mounds) stretching on for over a mile. The mounds stand on rock bases, often decorated with moldings, and with stone supported entryways. Inside there is a burial chamber, often with stone funeral "beds", and other chambers or nooks for storing household necessities; the tombs are meant to echo their homes. One tomb still has paintings of household items on the columns, showing the tools of everyday life of the Etruscans. The area is very peaceful and is dotted with graceful Umbria pines. This area was a center of Etruscan culture, named Caere (present-day Cerveteri); it's 'golden age' was the 7th-6th centuries BC. These people traded with cultures as far away as Egypt, Phoenicia, and Syria; their ports were by Santa Severa.

Monday, Jan. 4: My dear friend (college roommate) Barbara Myers and her daughter Melissa were to be in Rome for a week; they arrived on Sunday and today we went in to the city to meet up with them. We sat in the bar opposite the Spanish Steps and watched for them; when we spotted them, I raced down and brought them inside, out of the rain (again!) and cold. We enjoyed a few cappucini and by 11:30 the rain had stopped. We went out to find the free walking tour to the Forum and Colisseum, which we all enjoyed. Then lunch. It was getting late so David and I headed to the Metro to catch our bus but we knew we would be too late for the one we wanted. We stopped in at St. John Lateran, one of David's favorite churches in Rome, and then to the Metro. Got out at our station but the next bus had already left - we had the times wrong! Had to wait more then another hour for the next. Home late and tired.

We met up again with Barbara and Melissa on Friday to celebrate Barbara's birthday. This time we took the train into the city and a cab to the Hassler Hotel where we all met in the beautiful, dark wood paneled bar for a glass of prosecco. Very nice. Then on to Trattoria Monti where we had lunch. David and Melissa were very happy with their meals but Barbara and I were not. For a place recommended by Fred Plotkin and in the NYTimes, and even by friends Bruce and Roxanne, we were expecting something excellent. But so many things were deep fried - even my lamb chops, even the artichokes! - that is was disappointing. Even the radicchio flan and the parmesan flan (they are known for their flans) I found to be too rich; nicely flavored but too much of a good thing. I couldn't even finish mine, which is very unusal for me. Dessert of amaretto ice cream with decadent chocolate sauce almost made up for everything else.

David and I drove one day up to Fiano Romano, north of Rome, to search for the Roman ruins at Lucus (meaning 'sacred wood') Feroniae which we finally found. There's a small museum of the recovered artifacts and an overgrown area of the exposed village. There must be dozens if not hundreds of these places around Italy where there isn't enough money to continue to dig and not enough importance to draw a large audience; but there were two people "manning" the museum! Afterwards we drove across the countryside to Morlupo where we found a very nice restaurant Il Campanaccio - a little off-putting as it is right next to a gas station, but inside it is very attractive with nice white linens, beamed ceilings, and walls hung with copper and brass kitchen implements. For an entry David ordered the pasta with peas and sausage; I had the brasaole with bitter greens and parmesan. Then David had the branzini (fish) and I had veal scalloppini with wine, each with a side order of artichoke (carciofi), prepared in a way we'd never seen: we each had one whole one that looked like a sunflower, roasted to a dark brown with crisp outer leaves. Excellent! For dessert we shared a "millefeuille", which turned out to be three flaky biscuits layered with vanilla cream, and drizzled with dark honey. A wonderful meal!

We ended up heading home a day early, on Saturday, Jan. 9. We'd had enough of the cold and rain, David had come down with a cold, and we were tired. Not that the weather was any better in Nice - it was even colder! The drive home was long (8 hours) through at times heavy rains and very dark grey skies. A long day. It's good to be home!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Cruise from Rome to Barcelona, Nov. 2009

The Duomo, Belltower, and Baptistry in Florence
Florence with the Ponte Vecchio

Mount Etna at sunset

Coming in to Valletta

Relaxing in Piazza Umberto I, Capri

We set off from Nice on Nov. 21, taking the bus to the Nice airport for our flights on Swiss Air. It's always a gorgeous flight north, with exceptional views of the snow-covered Alps. Swiss Air, unlike its American counterparts, always offers a bite to eat, free wine, and a delicious piece of Swiss chocolate. We had lunch in the Zurich airport and then another flight to Rome, enjoying the snack served on this flight, complete with the chocolate. Yum. We finally got our luggage (took 40 minutes) and found the shuttle to our hotel in the town of Fiumicino. The hotel was nothing special, but it was inexpensive (a rarity in Italy) and convenient. The town of Fiumicino is fairly ugly, certainly not worth a visit.

The next morning we were picked up by Picci and Sandro, people we are planning an exchange with over New Year's, and they drove us to the fancy seaside village of Fregene so that we could see our "villa". It's small but charming, and decorated beautifully in all blues and white. They showed us favorite places to eat and made other suggestions of things to do. Then they dropped us at the train station in Fregene where we caught the train up to Civitavecchia, where we would board the Azamara Journey. Boarding went well, the easiest boarding procedure ever! We were greeted with a glass of champagne and shown to our cabin where we enjoyed the champagne on the balcony. The bags arrived quickly and we settled in. Then we explored the ship - a great library, nice dining room, and so on. It's exactly the same ship as the Oceania ship we cruised on from Istanbul to Athens two years ago, and we were glad to be back on a smaller ship - it carries 600 passengers.

At 6 PM, Cruise Critic (internet site) had a reception for its members - more champagne and really great hors d'oeuvres. About 30 people showed up, Brits, Canadiens, and Americans mostly. Then on to dinner in the main dining room. Azamara gives the choice of being seated with other people which we greatly enjoyed throughout the two weeks, meeting new and interesting people each night. We had a good dinner of shrimp cocktail; salad; and dessert - I skipped the main course. And to bed.

Monday morning we got the tender to Sorrento and then the hydrofoil to Capri. I'd read all sorts of warnings that the hydorfoil might not be running this late in the year, but there was no problem. On the dock, we got talked into a tour of Capri by Jerry (seemed very "New York" but was born and raised in Naples) - he called us all (about 12) "Jerry's Kids". Mostly hung out with four Canadiens. We drove in a tiny bus up the windy road to Anacapri where we saw the town. We took a chairlift ride to the highest point with beautiful views, but I was panic-stricken! Will NEVER do that sort of thing again. I couldn't look at the views to the sea, but instead just stared at the mountain or closed my eyes. But the views from the top were great. Afterwards we all had lunch in Anacapri, just pizza and wine. Then back down to Capri where we walked through the town to the most famous square, Piazza Umberto I, which Oscar Wilde said was the perfect setting for a musical drama. We walked down to the gardens, again stunning views, and then back for a glass of Campari and orange in the square. We thought Capri was very nice, but really no nicer than Amalfi or Positano. Perhaps a bit over-hyped. We took the fun funicula (with me singing the song, "Funiculi, funicula, joy is everywhere, funiculi, funicula" - it was written about this funicula) to the port where we caught the hydrofoil back to Sorrento and the tender back to the ship. It had been a rather gray day when we started out and pretty chilly on the chairlift, but sitting in the piazza and getting back to the ship was the prettiest part of the day. A soak in the hot tub and dinner (bananas Foster for dessert!) and bed!

The next morning we were on the tender by 9:30 and spent the day in Sorrento. The Duomo is beautiful with the inlaid wood that the area is famous for all around. And where there wasn't inlaid wood, there was inlaid marble. We bought a couple of bracelets and some napkin rings with the inlaid woods in intricate patterns of many types and colors of wood. After walking all over the town, we treated ourselves to Campari and orange in the main square.

There was a beautiful sunset as we sailed away from Sorrento. We ate in the buffet and brought dessert back to the cabin to enjoy with some wine we brought on board. There was MSNBC with Keith Olbermann on the TV! We were amazed.

We were supposed to head next to Taormina, then Malta, then Tunis. But then we would have arrived in Tunis on a religious holiday when they cut the throats of goats and lambs so the cruise ship changed the itinerary. Sadly we would arrive much later in the day so the all-day tour we had arranged was canceled and we had to choose just one of the three things we wanted to see (the Bardo Museum, Carthage, and a pretty town of white and blue cascading down to the sea). We chose the Bardo, famous for its mosaics; we spent about an hour or so there with our guide and the mosaics were wonderful. But then we spend 1 1/2 hours at the souk - we could easily have driving to one of the other sites, but they think we need to get our shopping in. Almost everyone hated this. It would have been better to hire a cab for the day but I wasn't sure if we could do that in Tunisia. The day had started out grey and rainy, but cleared by the time we started our tour.

Tunisia is only 60 miles from Sicily and has 10 million inhabitants with a quarter of them in the capital, Tunis. The southern part of the country is Saharan while the northern part along the sea was part of the "breadbasket of the Roman Empire". The Phoenicians were here in 1000 BC, then Romans, Vandals, Carthaginians. Carthage was founded in the 7th century BC, capitulated in 202 BC, and was totally destroyed in 149 BC by the Romans in the 3rd Punic War. In 44 BC it was REfounded by the Romans! In 698 the Arabs arrived in Tunisia; 1200 was the "Golden Age of Tunis" and the Great Mosque was built. In the 1600's they were under Ottoman Rule; in 1881 the French took over and there are beautiful buildings in the "New City" of Tunis from this time. They gained independence in 1956. It is one of the most liberal Arab states, is fairly stable, and is often a mediator between the Arab States and the West.

The next morning we sailed in to the harbor of Valletta, the capital of Malta, an island which had gained its independence in 1964 and became a state of the EU in 2005. Everyone had told us we must be on deck for this and we were - it's quite a sight, with its high stone walls and beautiful architecture and old buildings. We headed into town on our own, a fairly easy walk from the ship. The town was a bit congested, partly because of a visit by the King of Spain, so there were parades and many people lining the streets. The town itself reminded me a bit of Dubrovnik with its marble paving and beautiful buildings. We went to the cathedral, St. John's Co-Cathedral (so named because there was already a cathedral in Mdina, a town nearby) built in the 1500's. We toured the church and then decided it was time for lunch.

The Caffe Cordina was nearby. We had met the owners when we were in the Piedmont in October and were hoping to see them again. Sadly, Linda was busy with a school meeting, but John was there. This restaurant was started by his family in 1837! It moved to Valletta in 1944; the premises were originally a Treasury Building for the Knights of St. John and later a Grand Hotel. There was much damage to it during WWII. There is a beautiful vaulted ceiling with paintings by Guiseppe Cali depicting the leaders and the eras in Maltese history. We enjoyed our lunch which John insisted was "on the house".

Afterwards we tried to visit the Palace of the Grand Knight but it was closed. When the Knights of St. John were expelled from Rhodes, they came to Malta in 1530. By 1798 they had become dissolute and were expelled by Napoleon. On the outside wall of the palace is a commendation from the British Government, praising the bravery and fortitude of the Maltese during WWII when they indured 154 days of bombing. Instead we headed for the Archeological Museum. There are digs on Malta dating back to 3600 BC and even earlier but we wouldn't have a chance to see them on this visit. But we saw many of the artifacts recovered from them, including captivating pudgy women figures, all beheaded. Later we walked more around the town, admiring its lovely architecture, and then back to the ship. (Someone we met on the ship had hired a cab for the day and had seen all the digs, Rabat, Mdina, and Valletta, all in the day - a much smarter idea. Of course this was very off-season so they didn't need to get the tix for the digs 2 weeks ahead of time).

The day in Malta was Thanksgiving and we had a wonderful turkey dinner (or other choices) on the ship. It was very festive and nice. I'd been surprised that so many Americans would leave home on this holiday but they all seemed very happy to be here!

The next day we arrived near Taormina. We were tendered ashore and took a bus to the city itself. We figured we had been in Taormina 17 years earlier but we really didn't remember much of the town. It's really lovely, perched high above the sea with pleasant piazzas, sweet little churches, interesting shops. But of course the main focus is the Greek/Roman Theater, built in the 3rd century BC by the Greeks and then refurbished by the Romans. It is as beautiful as we remembered. Afterwards we strolled along the main street to Piazza IX Aprile where we had a couple of Campari and oranges and enjoyed the views of the sea far below. I could have sat there for days!

The views of Mt. Etna from the ship and from Taormina were spectacular - we have photos of it at sunrise and sunset and in-between.

When we sailed away from Taormina, our Captain took a northwesterly route and circled Stromboli, a small Italian island with an active volcano. The volcano was black against an ink-blue sky and at the very top the fire was burning like an eternal flame. The Captain turned off the ship's lights for a few moments so that we could really appreciate this magnificent sight.

That night we went to a concert in the theater onboard ship. There was a wonderful pianist playing Chopin, Bach, Listz, and Tchaikovsky. He was excellent and had a great personality and told wonderful stories about the composers, as if he knew them personally. It was the best entertainment we had onboard.

We had a day at sea and then docked at Livorno. We disembarked and took a bus, arranged by the cruise line, to Florence. There was a race in the city, so many streets were blocked off. But we made our way to the Uffizzi, where we picked up the tickets we had arranged for weeks before. We spent a couple of hours there and then had lunch at a restaurant recommended by our guide Trudy on the bus, Ristorante Ponte Vecchio, which was very good. David had the pasta with wild boar and I had the pasta stuffed with pear and cheese which was very rich but delicious. We had a bottle of Vermentino (Tuscan wine) and had chocolate cake (for me) and cheesecake (for David) for dessert. By the time we'd finished there really wasn't much time for anything else - we rushed down to Santa Croce but didn't have time to explore it, then rushed back to the Duomo and the Baptistry where we were to meet the group. No one was there and we were getting worried and decided to try to find the bus on our own - thank heavens, we bumped into Trudy! They were about to leave without us!

The next day we could not anchor by Portofino as scheduled because of very high seas with heavy rains. We had to go on to Genoa where it rained all day and we spent the day reading and relaxing. Our next stop was Monaco. David decided it would be a good idea to take all our purchases to Nice and drop them at home instead of lugging them home on the ship. Other than that, we didn't do much in Monaco where we have been so often. That night we had dinner in one of the specialty restaurants on the ship, Aqualina. We had foie gras to start, salad or soup for the 2nd course; I had lobster tail while David had Osso Buco for our mains; and Grand Marnier Souffles for dessert.

Toulon, west of Nice and east of Marseilles, was our next port. We walked around the city, visiting the lovely opera house where we had attended an opera years ago and the Cathedral Ste. Marie de la Seds. There is a walking tour, following all the many fountains around the city, so we followed that route.

Next we arrived at our last port, Barcelona. Again, the weather wasn't very nice so we spent the last day packing and reading and taking it easy. We had a wonderful dinner the last night, finishing with Baked Alaska. The next morning we walked off the ship at 7 AM with our luggage and took a cab to the airport for our 9:45 flight to Zurich and then home to Nice, arriving on a gorgeous day in mid-afternoon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Weekend in the Piemonte, Italy

Lunch in Alba...

Lunch at Felicin

The Piemonte Countryside, with snow-capped Alps

Our hotel, Castello di Sinio:

We picked up Marie and Anne at about 10 AM on Saturday and headed up to the Piedmont area of Italy. We were extraordinarily lucky in our choice of weekend: after several days of depressing rain, the weather had turned warm (70's) and sunny. We arrived in Alba at 1:30 and quickly looked for a place to eat. We chose Vineria dell'Umberto on Piazza Savone, recommended by Fred Plotkin in his book "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler", always a good guide. After a bit of trouble seating us (an Austrian family came and took two tables without putting their names in), we were seated at a sunny table on the terrace. We ordered a bottle of Nebbiolo which was superb; David and I each had the pasta with sausage, Marie had the pasta with porcini, and Anne had a polpe (squid) salad. For dessert we had the local Martina pears poached in Barolo (there were 3 on the plate but our dear waiter brought another since there were 4 of us); with it we had a bottle of Moscato d'Asti which everyone loved. We had a fun time talking with the two charming Italian girls next to us, Tiziana and her friend from Rome.

The countryside is beautiful, even more than Tuscany. The area is surrounded about 288 degrees by snow-capped mountains with views of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn! But the valley has its own micro-climate which is warmer and sunnier. We had picked the perfect weekend with golden sun shining on the red and gold trees and vines.

We headed to our hotel, the Castello di Sinio, built in the late 1400's for the Marquis Francesquino. It was a little tricky to find but we finally succeeded. We were poorly welcomed by the German manager, Claudia, who sort of threw a half glass of Prosecco at us and showed us to our rooms. The rooms were smallish but with high beamed ceilings and high double beds and nice bathrooms (showers only) and gorgeous bed-linens and lots of pillows. We settled in and agreed to meet in a couple of hours in the lobby for a drink. We had a devil of a time trying to find a restaurant for the next day that could take us - every place was booked! But finally we found one and hoped it would be good.

When we met downstairs we really felt in the way as the staff was very busy serving a formal dinner. Instead, we decided to walk down the hilly roads to a pizzeria in the village - staff looked relieved when we left! How bad could this pizzeria be? We were in for a real treat. The wine list told a lot about the place, with at least 15 Barolos and many other local wines. When Marie pointed to one of the less expensive Barolos and asked, "Is this a good Barolo?", the waitress replied "Tutte Barolo e buono!" The owner/hostess came to decant the wine. We loved the tradition of that. We ordered one pizza - asparagus - and a salad of celery, cheese, and walnuts. It was plenty for all of us. The pizza was among the best I've ever had with a fresh tomato sauce and lots of good Parmagiana on top. For dessert we shared a semi-freddo (sort of ice cream) with chocolate and nuts. Then we climbed back to the hotel and fell into bed.

Sunday morning we met Denise, the hotel owner who completely made up for Claudia, very friendly and informative. The four of us met in the charming breakfast room with its stone walls and red drapery. The buffet was large and inviting but we didn't eat much since we had the reservation for 12:30 so that we would be able to get back for the truffle hunt at 3 PM.

We drove to Monforte d'Alba past colorful vineyards and sweet towns and rolling hills with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The countryside reminded me a bit of the southwest of France, with a castle on every hilltop! We noted the restaurant in Monforte and then continued on to Barolo. There we found an antique VW show and a Sunday market. We roamed the streets, visited the castle and churches, bought olive oil, cheese, and such, and just enjoyed the gorgeous day. Then back to Monforte for lunch at Felicin.

Nino greeted us at the door of the restaurant and told us he really couldn't take us until 1 PM. Oh, dear, what would we do? WE couldn't do justice to such a meal in a hour and a half! We went to the piazza to have an Aperol (aperitif of orange-y liqueur with prosecco and dressed with a slice of orange - very colorful and delicious) and think things through. Well, we would see. We were back at the resto at 1 PM and seated at a lovely table near a window with a view of the hills; nice linens and Concord grapes and a vase of red chilies dressed the table. Nino offered a white wine to start and we drank a couple of glasses of this with the bouche amuse of cured ham and the three (!) appetizers. All the menus included the three, so we could have those and then decide if we wanted both a first and second plate or only one.

The first appetizer was marinated hake served on a pancake made of ceci (garbanzo beans) and topped with a tomato relish. The second was a slice of chicken on a bed of pureed fagioli (beans) topped with an onion jam. The third was vegetables - Brussel sprouts, radicchio, broccoli, and so on - topped with zabaglione and tiny, home-made potato chips. It was impossible to decide which was the most delicious! Each was outstanding.

By then we knew that we would never make it back for the truffle hunt at 3. WE called Denise and told her and she contacted Beppe who was understanding. It would be an insult to our hosts and an insult to this meal if we hurried through it. We would sit and enjoy every bite and every sip.

For the main course the darling wine-steward ("What a charming man and what a great arse!) guided us to a Barbera d'Alba from the Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio Winery, which we decided we would have to find. It was exceptional. Anne had a vegetarian plate with cheese, DAvid had the wild boar, and Marie and I had the "Stinko di Vitello" (Veal shanks) done in Barolo and served on pureed potatoes. Again, everything was delicious. (I'm running out of adjectives).

Then on to the dessert. We decided to order two of the Dolce Misti (mixed desserts) which included panna cotta, a chocolate cake, ice cream on top of another cake with chocolate sauce, and hazelnut ice cream which I thought was the best. David and I each had a glass of a Moscato-like dessert wine and Marie and Anne had their coffee. With the coffee came even more sweets - macaroons and chocolates and white chocolates with nuts and orange peel. When we raved to Nino about how much we had enjoyed the meal, he said, "Oh, you were lucky!"

We checked out the rooms above the restaurant - this would be a very nice place and a very nice town to stay in for the next time. Then we walked around the town and up in to the Old Town that gave wonderful views over the countryside. An idyllic day.

Back to the hotel - no one could even think of eating a bite that night. We were all early to bed. Monday we all met in the breakfast room and did justice to the terrific buffet of scrambled eggs in a pastry cup, a vegetable "flan", French toast, ham and cheese, cereal and lots of fresh cut-up fruits, breads and cakes. With coffee, cappucino, or hot chocolate, this was a feast. We finally checked out and had a long chat with Denise, exclaiming over the wonderful time we had had.

We drove through more charming villages, stopping for an aperitif in Castiglione Falletto on a terrace overlooking the countryside with vines below us and castles in the distance. We finally found the Mascarello Winery - not at all the beautiful place we were expecting, but a very utilitarian place for processing the grapes. And no one was there! We went for lunch at a store-front bar which turned out really fine - no one here does "ordinary"; we had a bottle of Dolcetto with salads for Marie, Anne, and David, and sandwiches for me. Then Massimo brought us desserts, including his own peach/amaretto cake made with his own peaches, his own eggs, his own flour. He was so proud of it and it was delicious. He even called over to the winery to be sure someone was there. Mauro Mascarello told us his wife would be there in a half hour so we waited and tasted and bought.

Then the long, long drive home in the dark, arriving at Nice at about 8 PM. Everyone should have weekends like this. So refreshing.