Back to the Nation’s Capital

Somehow it quickly became fall and we found ourselves back in Washington DC.  DC is truly one of my favorite cities despite the current political climate. We’ve made a lot of friends during the times we’ve spent there. We find the city easy to maneuver and our host this time had a parking pass for us which meant we could leave our car parked unless we wanted to travel outside the city. And we were amazed that when we did use the car, it was rarely a challenge to find a parking place near our Airbnb when we returned.  

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Monroe Street, Columbia Heights

There is so much to love about DC.  Walking down the street we constantly hear a variety of languages.  The population is so wonderfully diverse. Because we have a son in the city, we get introduced to new local bars where we feel like we’ve known the bartender forever. As we walked downtown on the weekend before Halloween, we encountered literally hundreds of folks dressed in costumes. DC is fun! While the food is expensive, there’s virtually every kind of cuisine we could imagine. We had a great outdoor lunch with family and also found a new Mexican place as well as a great French bakery for lunch in Columbia Heights this trip. But there are still so many we want to try. Vietnamese…Thai…

Our Airbnb is between 14th and 16th Streets in a really pretty part of the city.  Our host has so many beautiful plants. It’s like entering our own garden. We are a short walk from the bus and with our senior metro cards it costs us less than $2 roundtrip downtown.  Such a deal! 

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Can you find Bob among the flowers?

And we never run out of interesting places to visit.  One place we often return to is the Looking Glass Lounge on Georgia where we often join Patrick and his roommates to compete in their trivia game on Tuesday nights (though I don’t think we add a lot of knowledge to the team). Before the game began we were talking about where we were headed next and what we planned to do during our month in DC. One of Pat’s roommates asked if we had ever been to Decatur House.  Funny, in all of our visits we had never heard of it. It’s located on the corner of Jackson and H, right around the corner from the White House (and right next to the office building where Pat works!) and although we had walked past it on numerous occasions, we were not familiar with it. 

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Decatur House

Later that week we decided to check it out. We were met by a woman who explained there are two guided tours a day and we were in luck, the next  would begin in 10 minutes. And it was free! The docent explained that the house was built in 1818 by Navy hero Stephen Decatur with money he was awarded for his heroics during the War of 1812. Decatur was a visionary in that he saw, even at that early date, the advantages of being close to the White House. Decatur house, built in Federal style and designed by Benjamin LaTrobe, was the site of many elegant events throughout the early years of our country. After Decatur’s death in 1820, the result of a dual, his widow sold the house  to John Gatsby, a noted DC real estate figure who added a building for slave quarters. These quarters are still part of the tour. Gatsby rented out the home to important DC figures including Henry Clay and James Monroe. Later it was sold to General Edward Beal of California whose descendants owned the home until 1956 when Marie Beal left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We found it interesting that there was a move in the early 1960’s to tear down many of the historic buildings surrounding Lafayette Square to make room for office space.  Luckily Jackie Kennedy stepped in and promoted the historic value of the area.

The house is absolutely gorgeous with winding staircases and beautiful woodwork.  The state seal of California is set in the floor of the great dining room (added by General Edward Beal).  In one hallway, the guide pointed out a fake door reflecting the need for symmetry.

I was thrilled when the woman in the bookstore at Decatur House pointed out St. John’s Episcopal Church was just a block down the street. This is the church Jon Meacham mentions in his biography of Andrew Jackson, as the Little Yellow Church, (and it’s still yellow)  the place Jackson often worshipped. St John’s is also known as the Church of the Presidents. The plaque on the church points out that all presidents since Madison have occasionally worshipped there. President Lincoln is said to have been the most frequent presidential worshipper slipping into an obscure back pew for Wednesday evening services.  We were disappointed that the church was not open.

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“The Church of the Presidents”

The National Geographic Museum was another stop on our list. Again, this was a place we had missed on previous trips. It’s not a large facility but definitely worth the trip. Because it’s close to the centennial anniversary of the women’s right to vote, the special exhibit is Women of Change.

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National Geographic Women’s Exhibit

 

There were spectacular pictures, as only National Geographic photographers can provide, along with descriptions of women’s contributions since the beginning of National Geographic in 1888. The general admission for seniors is $12 and that got us into all the exhibits. Before touring the exhibit we watched a 45 minute overview of Women of Change.  Truly a great way to spend an afternoon. We will definitely go back!

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All covers of National Geographic are displayed on a wall in the museum.

The new permanent fossil and dinosaur exhibition had just opened at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum so one Sunday morning we met up with Rockville family to have a look.  Wow!

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Rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

When you can capture the attention of a 9, 7 and 4 year old for nearly two hours you know it’s got to be good. We walked among life size models of the great giants of the earth and were fascinated every step of the way.

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Grandson taking in an exhibit

And people are so friendly. On a lovely warm Saturday afternoon we went to the University of Maryland v Indiana football game.   There’s a new policy in college football that requires women to put their belongings into a clear plastic bag (purchased of course at the stadium) before they can enter.  I was totally confused when after buying one, we put my son’s girlfriend’s purse in the bag and also mine. Security didn’t check what was inside; once it was in the clear plastic bag it was assumed to be okay.  This struck me as very odd. Once inside the stadium, I heard a staff member say, “You can’t wear that in here.” I looked up to find a smiling face who was teasing me about my Indiana University sweatshirt! LOL

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IU v University of Maryland

While it was still warm we took an overnight trip to the Ocean City. 

We had a lovely stroll on the boardwalk and then later went out to a Penguins bar to watch the game and choose from their selection of “Pittsburgh eats.”

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Pens’ menu

We were amazed when the Uber driver asked us if we had seen the flooding. What? It hadn’t rained. The next day when we drove back to DC we were in for quite a surprise.  The winds off the ocean were so strong and the tides so high that several streets were blocked off because of all the water. We’d never experienced flooding without rain. How odd!  How scary. The Chesapeake Bridge is a really pretty one but this time on our way back to DC we were stuck in bridge traffic for over two hours. Not a pleasant experience. 

I’m beginning to feel like a real DC resident.  I sort of have an idea of where places are located in relation to other places but the triangular shape of the district still throws me for a loop every so often. One of my favorite places, that you may remember my mentioning in a previous blog, is Politics and Prose a wonderful bookstore that regularly hosts authors talking about their new books. Gail Collins, author and columnist for the New York Times was scheduled to give a talk about her new book, No Stopping Us Now: A History of Older Women in America.    It’s not as close to our apartment as other places but with the help of the GPS and the Metro apps on my phone we figured out how to get there. Bob, ever accommodating, agreed to go along. We decided we’d have pizza first at the Comet Ping Pong right next door to P&P. So we allowed plenty of time.  We walked about 4 blocks to what we believed was the right bus stop. But when the bus pulled up and I asked if it was headed to Connecticut Ave the driver very politely explained that we needed to cross the street and get the same number bus headed the other direction. After the bus pulled out, a woman who had just stepped off that bus, explained again exactly where we needed to be to get the right bus.  (I told you we encounter the very nicest people!) So we walked across and waited…and waited…and waited. In our experience with DC busses we’ve always found that if we’ve missed a bus, we’d never had to wait more than 10 minutes at the longest for the next one. We continued to wait. Finally after more than forty minutes, the bus pulled up. Once we boarded we understood the problem. It was nearly 5 pm and there were very few people on the bus.  Obviously, we were not on a well-traveled route. We got off several stops later, transferred busses with no hassle or wait and in a short time we arrived right across the street from our destination. The pizza was great; Gail was wonderful. Of course, I bought her book and had it autographed and in far too short a space of time we were on our way back home (via Uber).  

Another reason I feel like a resident is I now have lost count of how many times we’ve been to the Kennedy Center.  During the month we went twice. (Such a luxury!) We first went to see Nat King Cole’s 100th Birthday Celebration. Picture this, the Kennedy Center Hall, Nat King Cole’s music and Dulee Hill, singing and tap dancing and Patti Austin, and BeBe Winans, among others.  As if that wasn’t enough, Nat’s brother, Freddy Cole at age 88, appeared on stage and sang, “This Can’t Be Love.” We were blown away!

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Kennedy Center

Later in the month we returned to see Shear Madness.  Every time we have come to DC in the past few years, we’ve seen that it is playing but we never knew anything about it.  Bob took the time to check it out. It seems this is an improv production. The story takes place in a beauty shop with the outcome determined by the audience of the day.  It was hysterical! The play is performed in the Theatre Arts Performing Lab, a very small venue. During intermission, the players interact with the audience but they always stay in character.  We chatted with one of the “detectives.” When the second act began, the detectives were taking questions from the audience in an attempt to solve the mystery. Bob asked what the detective, whom we had just interacted with, was doing at the time of the murder.  We laughed out loud when he responded, “Bob, I’m shocked that you would suspect me!”  

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View from the porch at the Kennedy Center

One of the most unusual experiences we had was tracking down Rachel Carson’s grave.  Our son, Stephen, had pointed out to us that Ms. Carson, was buried in a Rockville Cemetery, not far from his home.  Rachel Carson, a preeminent scientist and pioneer of the environmentalist movement, was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the same small town in western Pennsylvania where Bob’s family is from.  In fact Bob’s grandmother had been a friend of Rachel’s mother. And although Rachel was older than Bob’s aunts, they knew one another in high school. So we made the trek one sunny afternoon to Parklawn Memorial Park where Ms Carson is buried.  We found the office and I went in and asked if they could direct me to her grave. To my astonishment, neither the receptionist nor the person who she called down to direct me had ever heard of Ms Carson. I tried to explain, but they couldn’t seem to grasp that this was probably the most famous person who is buried in the cemetery.  The woman who was trying to give me directions via a cemetery map finally got frustrated with the process. She said we should just follow her golf cart and she’d get us there. When we got to the general area, we began to walk and read tombstones. Finally we came upon it.

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Rachel Carson grave

She asked me where I was from and I explained Michigan. “Oh,” she responded, she was from Grand Rapids.  Wow! Almost every time when we meet people from Michigan they’re from the Detroit area, not the west side of the state. I explained I was from Big Rapids “Wow!” she explained her brother went to Ferris and was currently in Big Rapids. Once again…small world! She gave me a big hug and we each went on our way. I still think they should promote being the burial place of Rachel Carson.  Could be a great fund raiser on her birthday or Earth Day! 

Entertainment, great food, wonderful people, historic places to visit.  Once again, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in DC and are already planning our next visit.

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Jackson Statue in Lafayette Square

 

Summer in North America

Although we haven’t encountered much snow since we’ve retired, it always seems as though summer flies by and this summer has been no exception.  After arriving back in the States in late May we first caught up with our DC family. We had a very short time with them but were thrilled when our son asked if we could drop the three off at their schools in the morning.  First, we took the two girls to their elementary school, and then we were amazed as our three year old grandson directed us to his daycare more than a mile away. Ever the proud grandparents!

After ensuring all were safe in their academic environments, we began our road trip to Michigan with our youngest son who lives in DC and our daughter who flew in from Rome to attend her niece’s high school graduation. DC to Michigan is quite a trek but we sure enjoyed the trip back in time to other roadtrips we had taken when they were just kids.  Seems like yesterday! How could it be possible our oldest granddaughter was getting ready to head to college!

Graduation weekend in Big Rapids passed quickly and we soon found ourselves at breakfast saying “good bye” and “see you soon.”  We then dropped Cary and Patrick off at the Grand Rapids airport to fly back to their respective homes feeling very lucky that we had been able to have even this short time together.

It was now time for us to start on our cross country road trip from Michigan to Seattle where my sister has some health issues and we needed to help out.

Bob and I have made the trek from Michigan to the west coast on many occasions over the past several decades camping in our popup when the kids were little.  This time we chose the route along I90 because we thought there was a lot more to see instead of taking I94 through North Dakota. But even with more sights, we chose this time to only stop at those places that scream, “YOU GOTTA STOP HERE AGAIN!” The first of these was the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  20190606_112422The Corn Palace was built in 1892. Now more than half a million tourists visit it every year. The thing that strikes us as the most amazing is that it’s redecorated with a different theme every year. Because we had been through it twice before we didn’t feel compelled to tour again but we did have to stop and snap a few shots of the outside. 

From the Corn Palace, it was on to the Badlands.  Upon seeing it in 1985, our oldest son, then ten, made the comment that it was like walking on the moon.  It really is different and beautiful in a very unusual way. When we visited Mt St Helens in 2014 we bought a lifetime park pass to the national parks.  So it cost us nothing to take the drive winding through Badlands National Park. What a deal!

Our next stop was Wall Drug.   Wall Drug began in 1931 started by a pharmacist and his wife, a school teacher, who were looking for ways to make their drug store in a lonely place profitable.  It was the signs they posted along the highway advertising “free ice water” that brought them success and put them on the map. I remember my parents talking about Wall Drug and how we had stopped there in 1948 on our way back from the west coast. I feel certain they wouldn’t recognize the Wall Drug of today. We began seeing signs for it hundreds of miles before we actually got there.  Of course we had to buy our own tourist memorabilia proving that we too had actually been there.20190606_153051_HDR

Next on the itinerary was Mount Rushmore National Park.  Again, this is probably the sixth or seventh time we’ve been there but it never fails to take my breath away.  Borghlan’s carvings are amazing. And the flags and archways add to its beauty.

And this time as we were leaving we came upon a view of Washington’s profile we’d never seen before!  

The Crazy Horse Memorial was new for us.  And we were so glad that we made the stop. The monument is not complete but there was so much history to take in.

Crazy Horse was a Lakota leader of the Oglala branch of the Sioux. We arrived just in time to see the Sioux dancers perform.  It was wonderful!

We were surprised as we continued west on I90 that heavy snow was predicted in the mountains just west of Billings. We were looking forward to the mountainous part of the drive but wanted to enjoy the views and not get bogged down in a snowstorm so we decided to stop early and spend the night in Billings.  (Also, a good time to get a hair cut and do the laundry!) The next day the drive lived up to our expectations.

 

Montana is an incredibly wide state, more than 500 miles to cross, but the 80 mph speed limit makes it seem shorter.20190609_093526

We continued across the Gallatin and Bridger Mountains over Bozeman pass and just east of Butte we crossed the Continental Divide. The views of the valleys were just as enjoyable as those of the mountains. 20190609_101853I90 brought us into Seattle through the Cascade Range crossing over Snoqualmie Pass. Even merging into Seattle’s infamous traffic couldn’t diminish the beauty!

My sister’s home is located with a view of Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains right as a backdrop.  The Sound has a constant traffic of fishing boats, freighters, pleasure boats, ferries, and cruise ships.

We even saw a submarine move up the Sound one morning.  (I later learned that each sub is the 4th biggest nuclear power in the world. Perhaps if I’d known that at the time I wouldn’t have been so excited to see it!) IMG_0020

After several weeks in Seattle, we had a reservation for two weeks at an Airbnb in Coquitlam, British Columbia, just outside the city of Vancouver. It was perfect.  20190704_151655_HDR (1)The owners lived upstairs which we always find is a plus. The host greeted us and proceeded to show us the details of the suite, as she called it.  As she was about to leave, she asked us to let her know when we needed to dispose of our garbage. It seems that there are a lot of bears who visit the area.  I suppose it would be more correct to explain that this is a new subdivision that was built in an area where a lot of bears made their home. So the bears take advantage of the new food sources.  She told us how smart they are, how they maneuver locks on sheds, shake car handles to gain entry. There was even a brochure in the apartment, published by the town of Coquitlam, entitled, “Bear Aware!”  

While we were always on the lookout, we never saw a bear. (We were told they were most often seen at daybreak which occurs about 5 am and way before our rising time!) But we did enjoy the location and the ease with which we could get in and out of Vancouver.  We found the traffic of Vancouver far more manageable than had been the case in Seattle.IMG_0060 (1)

We had a couple of favorite stops, the first was Stanley Park. It’s the third largest park in North America and borders on the edge of downtown Vancouver. 

It was about a 40 minute drive from our apartment. Stanley Park is largely surrounded by water with beautiful views everywhere we looked.  The Totem Poles, perhaps my favorite stop in the park, are the most visited tourist site in British Columbia. The first totems date from the 1920’s.

Most of today’s are new ones commissioned by the Park Board. Many of the originals were sent to museums for preservation. Nearby we found the statue of Portuguese Joe, who lived in the 1860’s.  IMG_0114 (1)He was born in Portugal, and then lived in what is now Stanley Park where he was a whaler, fisherman and saloon keeper. The statue, the newest sculpture in the park, marks the connection of Europe and First Nation peoples. It was created by Portugal Joe’s great grandson, Luke Marston.  

We also spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Vancouver Aquarium located in Stanley Park.  This is a major research center for marine life. We got there just in time to see them feeding the otters, which next to Penguins are my favorite animals.  It’s not a large place but very well-maintained if a bit on the pricey side. 

Another afternoon we drove to Queen Elizabeth Park, which is the highest point in Vancouver. 

We had come to the park to spend the afternoon at Bloedel Conservatory.  Again we were provided spectacular views as we walked from the car. The conservatory gardens are filled with exotic, plants, flowers and birds.

While the conservatory isn’t large we spent nearly two hours there fascinated by the birds!

Our host suggested a beautiful drive north up the coast toward Whisler which took us to Shannon Falls.  Again another bear warning.  I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the precautionary signs indicating when a bear was last seen in the area.

Vancouver is a great place for short day trips and after the busy, taxing weeks we had just spent in Seattle,  we had come to Vancouver for a place to read, relax and renew. What a great choice it was!

The northwest is lovely; the scenery beyond belief.  The people wonderful, but I truly feel far more at home on the east coast than the west.  I think it must have to do with what you get used to. Funny time zone differences don’t bother me in Europe, but really have difficulty adjusting to them in the US.  

We decided to drive back east through Canada. The first town we came to was Hope, BC, a small town surrounded by high mountains. But further east was what I was looking forward to! We had never driven the Ice Fields Parkway and it was at the top of my list of “Things I Want to See.” Several websites list it as one of the top drives in the world.  It’s about 9 hours drive east of Vancouver and on the way the Trans Canada Highway took us through 3 national parks: Mt. Revelstoke, Glacier (not to be confused with Glacier National Park, US) and Yoho before arriving in Banff.

The Canadian Rockies are particularly pretty because they are usually snowcapped! Towns along the way are few and far between.  But their populations are surprisingly larger than we anticipated. The Icefields Parkway connects Banff with Jasper. The highway is lined with turquoise lakes, glaciers and spectacular mountain views. (The Columbia Icefield alone has 6 glaciers.)

The weather had turned gray and cooler so we optimistically thought we might see some wildlife, but no luck!  No moose, no bear or no sheep, not one!  We had checked long in advance about staying in Banff but the cheapest room was $350.  So we  decided to drive further east to Calgary which meant saying goodbye to the mountains and entering the plains.  

The Canadian have such descriptive names for their towns.  We stopped in Swift Curren,  to visit the Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame.  (We even saw a sign for Michigan, Saskatchewan!  Who knew?) Then on to Moose Jaw!

Crossing the plains in Canada we saw a lot of yellow rapeseed fields similar to those we had seen in Italy.  We learned that this rapeseed is different and is used in the making of canola oil, a leading product of Canda.

When we came to Brandon, Manitoba, we cut south to North Dakota passing through the International Peace Garden at the border.  The park was established in 1932 and contains a lovely floral clock as well as a peace chapel with chime that straddles the border between the two countries.

Further south in North Dakota, we came to Rugby, North Dakota, which is the geographical center of North America.  We definitely needed to have a picture of that!  IMG_0296

In Grand Forks we wanted to check out the Ralph Engelstad Hockey Arena, the home of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, formerly the Fighting Sioux.  Many have called this facility the Taj Mahal of hockey.

It has granite floors, cherry wood seats with leather upholstery. And six months ago they added a six million dollar scoreboard.  And to cap it off there is a huge statue of Crazy Horse in front of the arena. IMG_0305It appeared to be closed when we got there, but a woman in the pro shop said of course she could give us a brief tour.  What a sight to behold!

About an hour from Grand Forks we came to Fargo. Folks at the hotel where we were staying told us there was an airshow.  And while it had a hefty entry charge, we, along with many others, drove out to the campus of North Dakota State where we had a great view! 

I don’t usually think of North Dakota as a particularly interesting place to visit but we sure enjoyed our drive through the state.  We now were headed to Michigan City, Indiana, just an hour east of Chicago, to a place just a few blocks from the beautiful Lake MIchigan beaches, a place we’ll call home for the next couple of months.img_0001.jpg

 

Things to See and Folks to Meet…

Finally the time came and Rita, my good friend from Pittsburgh, arrived in Antibes.  She had flown from Pittsburgh to London and then into Nice. 20190511_171702As we waited for her plane, we were a bit taken aback by the armed guards we saw in the airport.  I know they’re supposed to make me feel more secure but…

Rita and I had so much on our list of “must do’s” while she was visiting.  But first we just needed to get something to eat and catch up.  One of the first excursions  was to see the Van Gogh Immersion. As you may recall in a previous blog, Bob and I and Cary had enjoyed a Van Gogh Touring Immersion while we were in Lecce.  We had read online that the Atelier des Lumieres in Les Baux de Provence (as well as in Paris) was featuring a similar exhibit. This one was much larger than what we had seen. The website provided a lot of helpful information.  I found that I could purchase timed tickets in advance avoiding standing in a long line when we got there and I also discovered there was a discount for senior citizens. Ah! The advantages of getting old! We set off on Sunday morning for the two and a half hour drive to visit Van Gogh. I was amazed that Rita was able to jump right in to sightseeing even though she had landed about 15 hours earlier and was experiencing a six hour time difference.

The exhibit is in a cave and its entrance is on the side of a mountain making parking very limited.  The fact that we were there on a Sunday afternoon with what seemed like half of France only complicated the situation.  Not finding a place, Bob turned the car around for a second pass. We were stunned when a young park employee stopped us and asked if we were looking for a place to park and then held up traffic as we waited for a car parked almost exactly in front of us to leave.  Talk about serendipitous!  

20190512_133038The exhibit didn’t disappoint.  It was very much like the one we previously viewed but this one was absolutely huge.  Between the Van Gogh loops, we watched a short program entitled “”Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World” based on Japanese prints of the late 1800’s and featuring the art of Kasushika Hokusai’s, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. According to the literature I read, VanGogh was fascinated with Japan.   The entire experience left us feeling like we had stepped into another dimension.

From Les Baux de Provence, it was a short drive to the Pont du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not knowing what to expect we followed our GPS, then followed the signs to parking and started walking and then all of a sudden, WOW.  There it was. 20190512_15274320190512_153005We were looking at an ancient Roman aquaduct, built in the first century! It’s three levels high, built from huge stones, cut so accurately that no mortar was needed in the construction. Rita and I decided we had to walk across.  And although it was a chilly sunny day, I can’t begin to describe how windy it was. I had the distinct impression that had I been carrying an umbrella I would have been picked up in Mary Poppins style. My reading glasses were literally blown off my head! 20190512_153321_HDR

Bob and I had loved Avignon and so we wanted to share it with Rita.  Unfortunately, it had turned considerably colder than it was on our previous visit but was still enjoyable. And it was a good location to spend the night and continue our adventure the next day. Near the top of Rita’s list was Arles. This is where Van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night. And the cafe still stands.  What an emotional experience to stand where Van Gogh stood and painted in 1888.  20190513_130310_HDR

I had read about the Rothschild Gardens on several occasions.  So we set off once again for Cannes, Ahh…way too many Rothschilds!  Unfortunately, I had confused the Rothschild Historic Home in Cannes with the Rothschild Gardens in Nice.  It caused us more than an hour’s detour but well worth the drive. Villa Ephrussi Rothschild, located right on the water on the French Riviera was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. We passed on a tour of the inside of the villa. It was the gardens that we wanted to see.  The views of the sea took our breath away. In front of the villa is a musical fountain and from there you can wander the nine gardens each with a different theme. 

Rita had discovered on ancestry.com that she had relatives living in northern Italy, about an 8 hour drive from Antibes. So having no idea what we would fine, we set off early one morning, stopping to pick up Cary at the Genoa airport. How lucky to have a daughter who is fluent in several languages and willing to meet us and act as our interpreter. From there we drove to Lasino, a tiny village not far from Trento and close to the Austrian border. The drive north into the Dolomites, was a part of Italy we had never seen and the scenery was spectacular and very different from the rest of Italy! 20190516_164201_HDRWhen Rita had booked an Airbnb for us for 3 nights she had mentioned that she wanted to see the area where her relatives had lived and check out the cemeteries.  When our host, Giada, greeted us she showed us the lovely apartment with gorgeous views of the mountains. 20190516_083227She mentioned that there is a woman in the village, Titsiana, who carries the geneology of the families in the area in her head. Would Rita like to meet her? She would arrange it for the next morning.  This was far more than Rita had hoped for.  

We went off in search of a restaurant.  A short walk from our apartment we found a really nifty place to have dinner (connected to a gas station).  And everyone was so friendly. Thank heavens for Cary. Without her Italian skills, we would have had very limited conversations with folks. But when people found out that we were Americans and that Rita had come in search for connections to her family, everyone had something to volunteer.  20190515_211740_HDR

The next morning we walked up to a local bar and over cappucinnos we literally spent hours as Titziana explained relatives and connections.20190516_103953_HDRShe talked about those who had left for South America and who had left for the United States. So many folks left and no one had any idea what had happened to them. And Cary continued, hour after hour, to translate nonstop. When we left the coffee shop, the ladies asked if we’d like to see the women’s museum.  It was a block away and featured the work of the area women during World War II.

There was even a canvas bag from the corn meal that was supplied by the Allies. It’s hard to imagine their lives with all the able men off fighting leaving them to maintain their homes, find a way to feed their families and all the while trying to keep their families safe. This is the stuff we read about in history books.

Later that evening, Giada called and told Rita if she were interested in meeting some of her relatives she’d set it up.  The next morning we walked up to the community center and all of a sudden it dawned on us that the folks who were standing there had all come out to meet their American cousin.  20190517_112952_HDRIt still puts chills through me when I think of it. Cary, ever in gear, continued moving with Rita from one person to the next helping Rita understand who these people were. They then invited us into their town hall and the conversations continued.

Folks had brought pictures and even a family tree. It was hard to take it all in. And then the mayor, who also happened to be one of Rita’s relatives, presented Rita with a book of local history as well as a banner of the city.  20190517_120947_HDR

A smaller group then escorted us up to the local church, with one woman commenting, “Rita, this is the same path your grandmother would have walked.”  20190517_125730

From the church we went to the cemetery.  It’s difficult to understand the cemetery. As I understood it, because of the very limited space, the graves are changed every 25 years. 20190517_130308_HDRIt’s hard for me to imagine going to a graveyard and then returning years later and it’s different. But in any case there were many with familiar names that Rita recognized from her research although I’m sure it will take quite a while to put it all in order. 

And as if that hadn’t been enough, Tiziana invited us to her home where she lives with her sister, Dory, to continue our visit They asked if we’d like a snack and proceeded to serve lunch meats, breads, cheeses and an amazing torte and of course, wine! 20190517_144356 Cary continued to translate. Then we were invited to another cousin’s home. Here more wine was served! And the conversations continued. Finally, about 6 pm, nearly 9 hours after we first had gathered, we said goodbye already anticipating the next time they might see each other. 

It’s amazing how quickly the foreign can become familiar. Three days after first arriving in a small village where Rita thought she would be wandering through cemeteries trying to piece names together,  Rita now left with more than memories. She left not just knowing a lot more of her family but to feel personal connections with so many, many relatives she had not even known existed just a few short days before.  And how lucky we were to be part of the whole celebration! 20190516_102951_HDR

Time had absolutely flown and we were getting ready to leave France.  The three of us flew to London where Rita would spend a day with us before flying home. Bob and I would have another few days.  

We had rented an Airbnb in Belsize Park in the same neighborhood where we had stayed previously because we liked the area, and the bus lines made it an easy trek into London. The apartment was really lovely with high ceilings and leaded glass windows.  Because this was Rita’s first visit we decided the Hop On Hop Off would be a good choice so she could get an overview of the city. Of course, we had to have the traditional pictures at Trafalgar Square. We also enjoyed seeing Buckingham Palace.  The next morning Rita headed to Heathrow for her flight back to Pittsburgh. What a great time we had!

 For our respective birthdays, Bob and I had given each other tickets to see Hamilton. How fun to see it in London!  There was some kind of gathering near Westminster Abbey and our bus seemed to be stopped dead in traffic. So we decided to hoof it.  After stopping to ask directions to the Victoria Theatre (which no one seemed to have heard of) and accessing our GPS, we finally made it.  King Georg is portrayed as such a bumbling fool! At intermission, a man walking into our aisle, leaned over to the woman next to Bob and commented, “At least we still have the queen!” 

Theatre is one of our favorite parts of London so the we decided to check out what other plays we might see. Mamma Mia has been running in London for twenty years. Seemed like a good choice and it was great. I found myself humming the music for days afterwards.20190525_172955_HDR

When I first learned that we were going to be back in London I connected with a friend, Jackie, we had met in Gosport in 2016.  We arranged to meet up for a drink before we headed to the theatre. Jackie is following a book of walks in London.  They sound really interesting.  She told us that while they’re all within the city, they are focused on of off the beaten paths and are usually connected to history.  We are so lucky to met such interesting people in our travels.20190525_132658

It was time to head back to the States.  We started the year in the Dominican Republic and then after a weekend in DC, spent the next month in Italy, and then two months in southern France.  Now we were headed back to DC and then on to Michigan to our oldest granddaughter’s high school graduation. It was going to seem different to understand the dominant language and use the American dollar.  Europe has been wonderful but we are ready to go home to the US for a while! 20190527_083400_HDR

 

 

The French Riviera and Provence

We found there were lots of things to see near Antibes.  Cannes, the home of the famous film festival is only a 30 minute drive.  We intentionally wanted to catch a glimpse of the city a week before the festival so we wouldn’t have to encounter all the mobs.  Again, another lovely promenade along the sea and we definitely had to take pictures of the hotels all ready for the celebrities to arrive. But as I think Rick Steves pointed out there’s not much there except for the film festival. 

 

Since it was a pretty quick trip to Cannes, we drove back via Grasse so we could visit the Jardins de Musee International de la Parfumerie, the perfume gardens.  The gardens were hard to find. We followed the GPS and it led us to a garden shop. We thought maybe the shop was connected to the gardens but when we asked, the clerk had absolutely no idea what we were talking about.  We decided to look around and finally we hit upon it. Although it was still early spring many things were beginning to bloom and we could imagine how lovely (and crowded) it must be in the summer! Plants were well marked with an explanation of what scents they are used for.  And it was helpful that the signs were in both French and English. We waited to visit the perfume factory later during the month, but things got so busy we never were able to check that off our list.

 

We decided to visit the Maeght Foundation Museum of Modern Art in nearby Vency. It’s a small private collection that contains some works by artists including: Miro, Chagall, and Caulder.  It’s located in a picturesque setting with lots of sculpture surrounding the building itself.

 

 

Both Aux en Provence, or Aux as the locals call it, and Avignon were on our list of things to see in Provence. So we decided to make it an overnight trip  It may seem odd that we rent anAirbnb and then leave there for an overnight trip, but traveling full time we find that we it just makes sense to book an overnight or two from our base in order to see things that would require a lot of driving to return to our home.  We decided we’d spend a couple of hours in Aux and then go on to Avignon where we’d spend the night. 

We found Aux difficult to navigate.  We finally found a parking garage thanks once again to Google Maps. And then walked through the city market.

 

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This time the market actually included violins!  20190430_120524Wow! Paul Cezanne was born, educated and died in Aux. He even went to law school here. But decided early on that art, not law, was his chosen profession. We tried to get to his studio and even the cemetery where he is buried but because of road construction and detours we were unable to get to either.  We decided to move on to Avignon.

Avignon, also known by many as “The Other Rome,” has more than four kilometers of walls built in 1355 to surround the city.  20190502_100728_HDR

We had booked a room at the Hotel de la Palais.  It had discounted parking and we thought we had finally, after navigating endlessly through the winding streets of Avignon, found the right parking garage.  The walk to the hotel took about 15 minutes but we were stunned when the clerk told us that indeed we had parked in an Indigo garage, but it wasn’t the one for which we would receive a discount.  Did we want to move? NO! We were happy to have the car parked. Our room had a spectacular view right out onto street.  

I was going to ask where the Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes) was, knowing it was nearby, but thankfully I didn’t because after we walked out the door of the hotel, for some reason I turned around and there it stood!  It was dusk and the lights had just come on and it truly was something to behold! 20190430_210511This was the home for Popes in 1305 when Pope Clement V became concerned for his safety in Rome. He was a guest of the Dominican Monastery. Seven Popes resided there until 1377 when the center of Catholicism returned to Rome but the palace remained under papal control for more than 350 years after that. 

It was a warm night and a good time to walk along the street in front of our hotel that was lined with a carousel, a few historic buildings and open air restaurants.  The following morning we were awakened by the sounds of singing and chants. I looked out our window where we had a great view of the yellow vests once again marching. This time right toward us.  Of course, that made sense, it was May 1. Labor Day in Europe.

 

And again these were peaceful marches. We saw people of every age; some walking with canes, some with their kids; some with their pets. At one point I gave a thumbs up and a woman waved in return! 

Right near the Palais des la Papas was the Little Silver Train.  For nine euros we got a tour throughout Avignon with a guide explaining everything as we passed. 20190513_114851_HDR At one point in a busy downtown area we came to a dead stop. The driver told us to just wait patiently as she left and talked to some locals next to the road.  It seemed there was a car blocking the street. Several men on the side of the road, picked up the car, moved it aside and we were again on our way! Wow! Talk about resourcefulness! 

Not far from the Palace of the Popes we found a pretty little square where the Elgise Saint Pierre is located.  This church dates from the seventh century.  If you look really closely you can see a statue of Bacchus with grapes high atop.  One wonders why he was placed there.20190501_122456_HDR

To me though the highlight of Avignon was the St. Benezet Bridge.  I remember it from childhood singing, “Sur Le Pont Avignon.”  What a disappointment to learn that no one ever danced on the bridge! It still was fun to see! And the ditty stayed in my head long after we had left Avignon.20190501_142709

As we returned to Antibes it began to rain and we felt really lucky to have had such a beautiful weather to do all of our sight seeing. And there was still so much we wanted to see and do.

 

From the Hills and Up the Coast…

Before we left Lecce I received a notification from home that I needed to have a document notarized.  This turned out to be no easy task. It seems in Italy notarization is something really unusual.  Generally only documents involving a transfer of property get notarized and then it’s really expensive; usually a percentage of the sale. After searching high and low, we found that only at the US embassy or consulates would I be able to procure the signature required.  So, Milan, Rome or Naples? Rome seemed to be the obvious choice; it was the easiest to get to; we could see Cary again and we could drive through Tuscany and then over to the Ligurian coast and on to France.

We made the appointment on line luckily finding one slot left for the day we wanted. Even though it meant back tracking over roads we’d already traveled, we long ago realized that driving in the opposite direction on the same roads gives us a very different perspective of an area already traveled.

Service plaza food is very different in Europe; they have a variety of offerings we never find at home. In Italy: fresh squeezed orange juice, varieties of homemade pastas. 20190320_144750 In France, the bakery items were like something out of a magazine. The drive over the mountains was lovely and we truly enjoyed the 6 hour trek back to Rome.

We had never been to the embassy area and because we were early for our appointment we wandered around the neighborhood and stopped and had a cup of coffee before proceeding into the embassy.

 

 

Although heavily guarded, the United States Embassy is truly a beautiful building.  We found once inside it was nondescript but the height of efficiency.  After we walked through security we followed directions to the second floor where we were given a number.  We were then called to a window and explained what we needed.  A bill was given to me for $50 and we proceeded to another window to pay.  Because it’s the US Embassy we could pay with a credit card, Euros or American dollars.  We then had a seat and were called back to the original window where we were met by the US Consul who watched as I signed the paper and then signed his own name and title and added his seal.  The Consul hesitated a moment when I asked if I could get a copy.  He then explained that the US Congress had passed a bill requiring the Embassy to charge $2.00 for copies.  And while that is a high price to pay to copy one sheet of paper, the fact that I wouldn’t have to wander the streets of Rome figuring out where I could make a copy made it indeed seem like two dollars well spent. Overall, this was a very pleasant experience and again it seemed exceedingly efficient. 20190321_133910_HDR

Later that evening we were able to catch up with good friends, who had invited us to dinner at their lovely home just outside Rome.  Although it is just the beginning of spring, their garden was just beginning to burst with bloom and we really enjoyed the few hours we spent with them.20190322_175935_HDR

It was a pretty Saturday when we left Rome and Cary was able to drive with us as far as Chiusi, a lovely little hill town, where we stopped to have lunch.

After dropping Cary at the train,  we drove on to Siena where we would spend the night. I have found it extremely helpful in unfamiliar towns to search Google Maps for parking near our destination. That seems to help us get our bearings when we enter into new congested locations. We found the parking lot in Siena easily enough but trying to figure out how to pay was another story.  The ubiquitous parking machines we’d seen throughout Europe were nowhere to be found. We finally just gave up and walked to our hotel, a few blocks away, passing through an interesting street market along the way. We later found out that the lot was free! That never occurred to us!20190323_173538_HDR

Our plan when I made the reservation in Siena was to use that as a base to go to Florence, a city I really love. But instead we fell in love with Siena and decided to spend our day extra there.   Siena is a town of gorgeous medieval (read 5th – 15th century) buildings. 

 For the energetic, you can climb 400 steps to the top which I’m sure had great views. We passed! The piazza is home of the Palio, a horse race run twice a year. The jockeys ride bareback and although it’s a short race with the horses running just 3 times around the piazza, because of the treacherous turns, I understand it’s not uncommon to see riderless horses finish the race.

From Siena, we continued up the coast to Savona, our last stop in Italy. We continue to be amazed by the size of so many of the cities we encounter which we’ve never heard of. Savona, for instance, has a population of more than 280,000. We arrived just at dusk a lovely time for a walk along the marina.20190325_185153

20190320_133859_HDRThe next morning we crossed into France following the coast lined with more tunnels than we could count.  Bob has the habit of calling out“Tunnnnneeeellll” in the same manner as a soccer coach announces a “Gooaalll!” but when he began to lose his voice because of the limitless number of tunnels, he gave it up! It’s only a couple hours drive from Savona to Antibes. We are staying in the old city which is closed off to cars. Our host had directed us to a parking garage close to our apartment.  He had also arranged for a friend to meet us at the apartment who graciously helped us lug our suitcases up to the second floor. (Americans, read that as third!) It’s a pretty spartan, well-worn abode, with a few details left out of the Airbnb description, but the location is perfect. And there’s a cute little restaurant just below us that’s a great stop for a cappucinno!20190426_135722_HDR Antibes is a good base for us.  It’s close to Provence and day trips. It’s also just a half hour away by train to Nice.  It’s not crowded this time of year and we’re finding many interesting places to walk. Of course, we first had to check out the local market. 20190328_110059_HDR In many ways they’re all very similar but we never tire of the fresh vegetables, spices, cheeses and fresh flowers.

This one was a bit different because it was covered and had a more permanent feel than many we have visited And the windows of the bakeries were filled with unbelievably beautiful pastries.  The meringues had to be six inches long. 20190329_141957_HDR It’s easy to get turned around in the windy old streets of Antibes and we found ourselves at the Ramparts just along the water after we left the market.  The backdrop of the snow-capped mountains in the distance against the blue water with the multimillion dollar yachts in the foreground was like something out of a movie.

I’m sure we’ve been on ferries that were smaller than some of these yachts! Also, along the harbor we love to sit and watch people play boules, a lawn game similar to bocce in Italy.

We took a day trip to Nice.  The Chagall Museum is particularly interesting as the artist helped design the building.  It is a small museum and my favorite part was the huge mosaic glass in the auditorium. 20190405_152322We learned early on in our travels to take advantage of audio guides in an art museum whenever they are available.  They were particularly helpful here as Chagall’s work is highly religious and without the additional explanation I would have found it very difficult to understand.

Later in the month I returned to Nice with my friend Rita and we visited the Matisse Museum.  I had read in other reviews that this museum was disappointing because most of his works are located elsewhere. I’m certainly a novice when it comes to art, but I enjoyed the paintings, drawings and found the details of his life particularly interesting.  Again, the size made it doable in a couple of hours.  We really enjoyed it!20190519_134211

We also enjoyed the walk through Nice’s huge market and then wandered over to the Promenade des Anglais with its great views and the opportunity to just sit and people watch.  It’s amazing the number of different languages people spoke, each with a joyful lilt in their voice.

Of course, since this is France, the food is scrumptuous.  Wherever we go throughout Europe, it seems that everyone takes an afternoon break and enjoys a glass of wine, a stein of beer or the most recent craze, a spritz.  The spritz is a bit on the expensive side costing about the same as two glasses of wine, but it has lots of takers.  It’s a combination of aperol, prosecco and club soda.  And as folks often comment, it does look like a bright orange sunset! 20190407_145619_HDRAnother advantage of being right on the sea is the seafood!  I particularly like the mussels.  And wow!  The portions are huge! Sitting at a table in a busy square just makes everything taste better!

20190427_142608Public transport here is great and easy to figure out.  In Nice, in addition to the bus system, there’s an efficient tram that gets you to many of the more popular destinations within the city. But as we boarded it to return to the train station, a voice over the speaker told us that this tram was not going further and everyone should get off. It made no sense. No one around us spoke English. Finally a gentleman explained that there was some sort of strike.  Ok, it was about 2 kilometers back to the main station and it would be easy to find our way; we could just follow the tram tracks.  Not far after we set out, we began to hear singing.  Then we figured it out!  This was a yellow vest protest; the marchers are protesting throughout France the inequity of wages.  We were fascinated as we watched the paraders chant, sing, and throw an effigy of French President Macron up in the air.  It was all very peaceful and we never felt anything but safe.

 

As we passed a McDonalds we stopped to watch the procession.  At this point I realized my phone was nearly dead so I asked Bob how much battery he had left.  I watched as he reached in one pocket and then another but no phone.  He had put it in his zipped front jacket pocket but it was definitely not there now.  It finally dawned on us; he had been the victim of a pick pocket! As he began to recall earlier events of the day, he thinks it happened on the short trip we made on the tram when we first arrived.  In any event, it was gone.  What a pain.  On the other hand we were very lucky.  As hard as it is to lose his phone, in his other front jacket pocket, also zipped, was his wallet, with all his identification and credit cards.  That would have been a much bigger hassle.  I immediately cleared the data from his phone and then notified T Mobile that the phone had been stolen and to block any further use. Most of his apps and pictures are synced to his computer which made life a bit easier. And so far, no other repurcussions.  Keeping our fingers crossed.

We thought we had been cautious.  I even turned my daypack around and wore it in front of me on the tram, but it appears we can never anticipate all events. We were determined not to dwell on it.  After notifying our kids that Dad would not have a phone until we returned to the States, we just moved on.

We still had lots to do and see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italy Part II The Heel of Italy

We love staying in our luxurious apartment right in the middle of the old city of Lecce. 20190306_144833Francesco, our landlord, told us about a car park a short walk from the Airbnb and it truly was easy.  We had leased the car for the entire 3 months we were in Europe and we enjoy being able to go exploring whenever we wish. On the other hand, we also like exploring places on foot without having to worry about crazy drivers or finding a place to park.

We entered the Old Town through one of its three main gates, Porta Napoli. The other two are: Porta San Biago and Porta Rudiae. All are equally lovely.

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On one end of the Old City we found the Castle of Charles V.  His titles were mind boggling. He succeeded his grandfather, Maximillan I, as Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 – 1556 and during this time he was also King of Spain and ruled the Spanish Empire while at the same time reining as King of Germany and King of Italy as well as archduke of Austria. He was the grandson of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.  I can’t begin to understand how students of European history manage to keep it all straight! Today the castle acts as a cultural center. There is a legend that says when the Orsini del Balzo family lived in the castle during the 14th century they kept a white bear in the moat. This served as a status symbol and also acted as protection against unwanted visitors!20190310_140657

Not far from the castle, we happened upon Villa Comunale, a beautiful park with fountains and flowers just beginning to bloom. And although it was the middle of March, the day was warm and it was a great place to sit and people watch.

We had been told to see the Basilica and in particular its beautiful facade, but because of the construction, its beauty was hidden behind a covering, but the inside was lovely.20190303_163219  We had two favorite squares in Lecce: one is the The Piazza del Duomo, which houses the Baroque Cathedral whose chimes we enjoyed throughout our stay and I featured in my last blog.  The second is the Piazza Sant’Oronzo named for the patron saint of Lecce who legend says protected the city from the plague in the 1700’s. In fact in the square stands a column that once stood at the end of the Appian Way in Brindisi where its twin still stands.  There are two very different stories about the column. One says that it was the gift of the people of Brindisi thanking Sant Oronzo for protecting them from the plague. The other says that the column lay in ruins for several centuries before the people of Lecce restored it. Hmmm…I think I like the first better. In any event, this column too was being refurbished so it  was hidden behind a covering!

We stood on the Appian Way in Rome, nearly 600 miles away. I find it beyond comprehension to take in the size of the Roman Empire. This was a road that was built under Hadrian’s Rule, the same Hadrian, whose wall we saw on our train trip from Edinburgh to London in 2016. That’s further than the distance from Portland, Maine, to Miami, Florida! And we’re talking second century A.D.

There’s a huge Roman amphitheatre close by the square.  And while it dates to the second century A.D. it wasn’t unearthed until the early 1900’s.  It seats 25,000 while Lecce’s population at the time was only 4,000. How those folks loved to see the competition between the gladiators and the wild animals! I think it also speaks to the importance of Lecce during that time. (The ancient column is located behind the advertising cover in the center of the second photo.)

W20190228_151820_hdrWe love Italian food and there were so many choices, always for a reasonable price.  Our landlord had suggested we try Prendici Gusto 20190301_134226_HDRwhich was just right around the corner. https://www.prendicigustolecce.it/ He said it was a place where locals ate and we could also get take away there.  What a find! I always try to learn a couple of phrases in the local language just to be polite.  So after asking the guy behind the counter, who also appeared to be the proprietor, “Parli Italiano?” and getting the usual, “Un po,” Bob and I began to point and smile and laugh. And when we had selected way too much food, he rang it up and charged us ten euros! Total! We definitely made a point to go back later in our stay. We enjoyed take out because we could pick it up, take it back to our apartment and then eat a bit earlier than the locals.

We had hoped to find some local Piccicata dancing and asked at several places but no luck,  Evidently we weren’t visiting during the right time of year. We also came across a self-serve 24 hour cannibas shop, and a fun little bar, but nothing in the way of local folk music.

Perhaps one of the most interesting events we attended was the Van Gogh Immersion which is touring Europe. We read about it online but were unsure what to expect. We had timed tickets and when we entered the convent where it was housed, we encountered several of his paintings that had been recreated in 3D form. 20190316_164407

Then we entered the area of projections. The room was dark with soft music playing while Van Gogh’s artwork was projected on the walls as well as the ceiling, totally immersing us in the painter’s world. People sat on benches, on the floor, or slowly ambled through.  There was no beginning; no end. It continued endlessly. Absolutely amazing! It was like nothing we had ever experienced. We intend to visit another, perhaps more elaborate Van Gogh immersion in Provence next month.

Lecce served as a great base for exploring the area.  We first took a trip down the Adriatic Coast starting in Otronto, the easternmost point of Italy. The scenery was spectacular. We passed beautiful olive groves, gorgeous yellow fields that Cary later told us was rape seed. 20190304_103542It belongs to the same family as mustard and cabbage. And it’s so very pretty…bright yellow as far as the eye can see. We also passed herds of goats and old stone buildings among the olive groves. The buildings, we learned, allowed in days past, for the farmers to live in their fields during their busiest times of year. 

20190304_132025_HDRThe Adriatic is as blue as the Caribbean and the views as we drove along the coast were stunning.  Around every bend the view seemed to be better than the last. At one point we could look across the sea and see just the faintest hint of the mountains of Albania. We had read that in the summer the coast is so congested you can walk faster than cars move. So we felt really lucky to be there in March.

Leuca, at the tip of the heel, is where the Adriatic meets the Ionian Sea. Although Leuca isn’t far from Lecce, we decided to spend the night there and drive up the the other side of the coast the next day.  I made a reservation at Booking.com because I thought it was a small town and there might be little English spoken. Making the reservation online would help me avoid any confusion. Wrong! Our GPS guided us to our destination which although technically in town, in reality was in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived there was a sign posted on the door, in Italian, of course.  My phone took this moment to not have data. So much for Google translate. There was a number listed. I called the number and a woman answered who again spoke only Italian. I repeated the name of the establishment a couple of times and tried to communicate we were there to spend the night. As I hung up the phone I wasn’t sure what to do but figured we should just stay put. After about 20 minutes of frustration, a car pulled up. 20190305_090653_HDRYay! I asked him if he spoke English. No. He asked me if I spoke French. No. I asked him if he spoke Spanish. No. We both laughed and he indicated I should follow him inside. I did. We made a lot of hand gestures; we wrote numbers on paper. He showed me how much we owed which matched the reservation online. We even got to the point where he gave me directions to a pizza place. Unbelievable how much you can communicate without speaking the same language.  We walked down to the room; pretty spartan. No table to play cards; no side chairs; only the overhead light. But overall an ok place: clean with a great view; reasonable price. Unfortunately, even though he turned the heater on for us, we froze. I don’t think the temperature ever got above 50. We spent the night curled up under the blankets watching an Italian quiz show that had people guessing contestants’ age. Even without speaking Italian we found it hysterical.  When we got up in the morning, we walked over to breakfast only to find an amazing spread of croissants and other breads, jams and jellies, cheese, fresh fruit, meats as well juices and cappuccino. Wow! What a fabulous surprise!

We decided to walk through the downtown before heading out. Leuca is a pretty place located right at the edge of the water.  (We found a hotel right down near the water. Couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t find that place online the night before!) We found ourselves imagining where the two seas met as we could discern where two currents seemed to meet.

20190305_092229We then headed on to Gallipoli.  This is not the Gallipoli of World War I; that one is in Turkey. Instead this city was described as a pretty fishing village. When I hear fishing village I keep thinking of the coast of Nova Scotia. Gallipoli turned out to be a city of more than 30,000. Today it’s divided into two cities: one old and one modern.

The old city is what we wanted to see and to access it we drove across a bridge that dates to the 1500’s. Despite all the congestion, it is very pretty. We found a parking place; and then marked it with our parking app to ensure that we’d find it after following the meandering streets. Lovely place!

About two hours north of Lecce is Alberobello, a UNESCO site, that consists of little houses made of limestone with conical roofs.  These homes are called trullis. When I first read about them I decided we had to visit.  So when Cary came to spend my birthday with us off we went. We even made an Airbnb reservation to spend the night in one.    Some of them date back to the 1400’s when farmers used them as shelters or for storage.

Many of the trullis have little alcoves and fireplaces in them. And although the entire town had the largest concentration of trullis with more than a thousand, we saw them throughout the valley, and I’m thinking the stone buildings we saw on our drive down the Adriatic were very similar. They’re all whitewashed and as we walked among them we half expected little elves to appear.  Some are shops and restaurants as well as dwellings. Today many have modern conveniences. The one we stayed in had an electric stove and a bathroom complete with shower, a flat-screen television, a living room and bedroom. Pasquale, the owner, met us and explained the village as we walked to his trulli.

He was quick to tell us that because of the historic nature of the village no changes could be made to the outside. After explaining how everything worked, he told us his mom would bring us breakfast in the morning at whatever time we prefered.  He went on to explain some of the sites and also told us of a couple of great restaurants. It was cold and rainy the day we were there. But that also gave us most of the town to ourselves. We headed first to lunch, learning that in Italy you have a limited time for lunch and then rarely is food served before 7:30. One of the places Pasquale had suggested was just down the hill, according to his directions. So we set off to find it. We walked down the steep hill; we turned where we thought we were supposed to. We came to a construction site but undaunted we continued across the uneven pavement and rubble.  Finally, we found it. We walked into the restaurant, down some very narrow windy steps where we came upon two waiters who gave us very strange looks but graciously took us to a table. As we looked up from the table we saw a main door that opened right on to a busy street. No wonder they looked at us oddly! Fabulous meal! We spent the afternoon exploring the shops and the local museum that explained the town’s history. The next morning Pasquale’s mother delivered an amazing breakfast: scrambled eggs, croissants, homemade jams and jellies and of course, cappacinno.

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We then headed back to Lecce in the beautiful sunshine.  When we got back it was time to pack up, and say good bye to this beautiful section of Italy.  Next we drive back across to Rome and up through Tuscany to the southern coast of France. A special thank you to Davida, Cary’s friend who suggested Lecce; we’d never have found this fabulous spot with you!

 

Italy Part I: Rome and on to Lecce

After a long weekend in DC we were ready to head to Europe. Folks were already talking about school, business and government closings because of the snowstorm headed to the east coast.  We were scheduled to fly out about 8 hours before it started and luckily our flight was on time and the forecasts proved accurate as well.  The trip was uneventful but when we landed in Iceland we couldn’t deboard because of the high winds. Finally, the flight staff said we’d have to walk across the tarmac to the terminal and advised us to be very careful going down the stairway. We felt like we were going to get blown off our feet. I like the Kevlavik airport as it’s manageable and not huge, although I’m never sure what time it is. 20190220_063247We left on US eastern standard time and will arrive in Europe 6 hours later so in Iceland we’re somewhere in between.  Most people have the same bewildering looks on their faces; sort of like being in the twilight zone.  Luckily, the winds were short-lived, and we were soon on board for the second and last leg of our trip.

Rome is fun!  And it’s even more fun because we are lucky enough to have a daughter who calls the city home.  Cary had arranged a luncheon for us to meet some of her colleagues where she works at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. I was overwhelmed by the ease with which this bright energetic group, folks originally from many places around the globe including: France, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Malta, conversed in English. Given that they all live in Italy, that makes them AT LEAST tri-lingual. After lunch we headed to the terrace for a coffee.  I can’t imagine how anyone could ever get used to seeing these views every day!20190222_134734As one person pointed out, on particularly stressful days, it can’t hurt to have a direct line of sight to St. Peters!  Rome, like all of Italy, has amazing food.  In the evening we met up with a friend of Cary’s to have dinner atop the Mecenate Palace Hotel in the Roof Top Garden of the Terrazza Dei Papi Restaurant.  The place had been recommended by one of Cary’s colleagues and the chef himself greeted us, and served us aperitifs on the terrace with spectacular views of the surrounding area.  20190222_192959Then inside he offered suggestions for dinner catering to our every whim.  It was an experience we’ll never forget.

The next morning we picked up our leased Peugeot and started on our way to the heel of Italy. 20190304_125911People often ask how we decide where to travel to next. And truthfully, it’s pretty random. We read something or people we meet along the way give us suggestions.  Last year when we were attending a party to celebrate Cary’s completion of her doctorate, we had a great conversation with her friend Davida.  Davida is from Rome and told us about this beautiful city, Lecce, in the heel of Italy not far from the Adriatic coast. He told us how as he was growing up, he enjoyed many summer vacations in the area.  He referred to Lecce as the “Florence of the south.” After researching it a bit, we realized that we didn’t want to try to negotiate the area during the summer and its bumper to bumper traffic.  We also didn’t think we could afford the summer rental prices. So as we often do, we opted for a month during the shoulder season.

The drive from Rome to Lecce had appeared to be long including travelling over the mountains. I had therefore decided to make reservations at a bed and breakfast in Benevento, which appeared to be about half way. And while it was much closer than we had expected, we suddenly found that we had left the sunny weather in Rome, and now high in the Apennines we were beginning to see snow in the air.

I had opted for a bed and breakfast instead of an Airbnb because we hoped to meet up with some other travelers.  Unfortunately, when Emilio checked us in, he showed us to our lovely room, but there was no lounge and when I inquired about breakfast he told us that everything we needed was right there in the room and that he would also deliver fresh croissants to us in the morning, a really nice touch, but we were disappointed in the isolation. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, we do not travel with a lot in the way of warm clothes so after wandering around the city for a short while, we headed back to the bed and breakfast. And then only ventured out a few hours later to find a place for dinner. And this is Italy, so of course we found a wonderful place!

Sunshine greeted us early the next morning and we headed down to the parking lot a few blocks away where we had parked our car the day before.  Oops…it was a Sunday morning and while we could access the car from the pedestrian walkway, there was no parking attendant and absolutely no way of getting out of the chained parking lot. Hmmm…what to do?  Few locals spoke English; it was a Sunday morning with few people around… then all of a sudden there was a man at my window with a paper, showing me how much we owed. A few minutes later, I got a text from Emilio saying he understood we had a problem getting the car from the lot and inquiring if we needed him to come down and help us.  We have absolutely no idea how he knew we had a problem.  Crazy!

In early afternoon we reached Lecce. Francesco, the man we’re renting from, had arranged for his sister and niece to meet us and help us manage our luggage and get checked into our apartment.  The place is absolutely gorgeous! It was formerly a palace, owned by relatives of Francesco’s wife and has since been subdivided into beautiful modern apartments.  We’ve stayed in some lovely places in our four plus years of traveling, but this is definitely a WOW! The building itself dates from the 1500’s and we are on the top floor with a view of the Duomo of Lecce!  The ceilings must be 20 feet high. Many of the furnishings are antiques including beautiful Persian rugs and a hand painted cabinet that holds a record player. The vestibule alone is large enough to be a bedroom.

The kitchen has high end appliances and there’s a dining room off the kitchen. Then down a few steps to the entryway, living room with fireplace and a cupboard which is so large we can’t imagine how they got it up to the top floor and inside the cupboard is a television monitor.  There are two bedrooms with a bath off the the main bedroom and another full bath off the dining room. There is also a washer and fast wifi. Airbnb you’ve done it again! Absolutely wonderful location, apartment and views. Perfetto! As you can see there are a few steps, but the apartment and its views definitely made them worth the trek!

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, Bob and I love the church bells in Europe.  They chime the time; on Sunday mornings they seem to ring from all corners of the city.  But we’ve never lived in a location where we could actually stand on our terrace and watch as well as listen to them chime.  See what you think…

We dropped our stuff off and went out to get aquainted with the neighborhood. Francesco had conveniently left a list of some of his favorite restaurants and one in particular seemed close by so after exploring a bit we stopped there for dinner.  We had forgotten how late, by American standards, the Italians eat so when we arrived we were told that only part of the menu was available until 8 pm. That was fine. We ordered some wine and sideboard of meats and cheeses. 20190224_185434Holy moly! We could have fed our entire family with that side board. This restaurant, The Double 00, turned out to be our favorite in all of Lecce, and we returned several times during our stay. Great food, great service, reasonable prices and close by our apartment.20190308_212357

We headed back to the apartment, tired after a day of travel but definitely looking forward to exploring the rest of the area. We feel lucky to have found this little piece of Italian heaven!

A few more observations about the Dominican…

There were so many things we enjoyed about the Dominican. I had arranged through a website I found online to take private Spanish lessons.  I couldn’t help but remember how The Lonely Planet had said The Dominican Republic had the worst drivers in the world. They didn’t list them among the most dangerous; they singled them out to be the very worst on the planet.  And I never got used to seeing kids riding on the back of parents’ scooters rarely with a helmet. 20190214_162307_hdrSo I was pleased that I was able to find a tutor who would come to our villa three times a week.  After Nairoby introduced herself, we immediately conversed in Spanish. She asked what topics I might like to concentrate on given our limited time together. I wanted practical Spanish so we focused on food, shopping, travel and general conversation. She was lovely. Each Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for three weeks we sat at our dining room table or on our terrace next to the pool and she helped me grow my Spanish skills. I told her I didn’t want at this point to study verb tenses but rather concentrate on general vocabulary.  So while it’s not pretty I can generally get my point across and usually understand the response, often after asking the person “una vez mas” (one more time).20190212_120837_hdr

Although it wasn’t within walking distance we found a grocery store nearby our villa. We were amazed at the selection they offered. While there are many tourists on the north coast this grocery was also frequented by locals.  There were many American brand names and we thought the prices were reasonable particularly because we were living on an island. There were some surprises also: I had never seen clear vanilla. And right next to the homemade bread we found loaves of Dave’s Killer Bread, one of our favorites we had discovered during visits to Seattle.

The checkers and the baggers were extremely friendly. I was really surprised when our bagger, who was helping us carry the groceries to the car, went directly to our car without my mentioning which one it was. “I remember,” he said in perfect English. And nearly everywhere we went we saw fruit being sold from the backs of trucks. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.20190130_120819_hdr

We even found a dollar store in Cabarete.  The woman, who turned out to be the owner, immediately began speaking in English to us.20190117_134011.jpg Turns out she is a Canadian who moved to the island several years ago. It was great to be able to find small things like a wine bottle opener which we didn’t have at the house. I also found two birthday cards for good friends back in the States.  Little did I know then that there was no postal service. Hmmm…why do they sell cards when there is no way to mail them? I asked Nairoby and she responded that when locals want to send something to someone they just deliver it to them in person. Interesting!

While we had purchased a wine opener, we didn’t look for measuring cups.  I was surprised when there were no measuring utensils at all in our villa that was otherwise well-stocked. The water isn’t potable so the guys who managed the villa would routinely ask if we needed another jug of water each day.  We also bought bottled water from the grocery. (The large water jug was room temperature.) One of the bottles I had purchased was 16 ounces so that became my measuring device. I could make rice by using the bottle and guessing at proportions. I got pretty good at estimating ¼ cup, ½ cup and a cup. Eggs, again like in Europe, are not refrigerated.  That still takes some getting used to. We hard boiled some for egg salad and were amazed both by the bright orange color of the yolks and also by the size. When we peeled some you could even see the yolk come through. Very different, but they were very tasty.20190123_145724

There are no libraries in the area where we were, but we were delighted to find individual “bibliotheques” in restaurants and even bars.  Some books in Spanish and others in English.20190130_125147_hdr1

The three men who took care of the villa were delightful.  Tita came each morning checked the pool and vacuumed it. Jujuan came everyday to check out our water and ask if there was anything we needed.  And Osvaldo was the main guy in charge. Their English was pretty much limited to “Good morning,” and “See you Monday,” But we always managed to communicate.  From time to time they brought us fresh coconuts with the top chopped off so we could drink the milk. Other times, they brought us plantains and fresh cherries.

When Jujuan brought us a bunch of key limes. I decided I needed to make a key lime pie. I found condensed milk in the supermarket, and graham crackers for the crust.  Again, it took a bit of figuring to calculate amounts but after Bob found a way to crush the graham crackers into crumbs I went back to my handy water bottle to guess the amounts. It turned out really yummy!  (Note that Bob is using a rum bottle for his rolling pin!) 20190106_160757The owner of our villa was Russian and we learned that our complex was owned by Russians.  Evidently there is a large Russian influx on the coast. I’m not sure what the draw is although I’m sure the weather must be part of it.  I don’t generally think of individual Russians as folks looking for investment property but then again what do I know?

When we first arrived at the villa we were surprised by the cats.  We are not cat fans but they were cute.  IMG_0037 Then they began to yowl! And fight!  We looked over the edge of the hill next to the pool! Oh my! There was a group of 8 or 9. IMG_20190102_171133170_HDRThey seemed to be everywhere! At night we’d hear them cry and they were loud. In the outdoor restaurants, near the pool, in the parks, throughout the complex it was cats! Cats! And more cats! The morning we were to fly back to DC we were up early (or was it late)? Robinson was to pick us up at 5:30 and take us to the airport.  We got up about 4:30 and as I opened the bedroom door to the kitchen/living room I saw a flash of white. I quickly slammed the door and cried out to Bob, “There’s an animal in the house!” As Bob, armed with broom in hand, walked to the front door in an attempt to give the animal a way out, I looked at a loaf of bread on the counter that had been eaten open. As Bob walked through the living room, he glanced at the slider and realized that not only had we not locked the door before going to bed the previous night but that we had left the screen door wide open.  We were lucky we didn’t have a dozen cats in the house. At this point I decided I was definitely ready to leave!

Robinson arrived right on time for our trip to the airport. Delta had sent me a chance to upgrade to business class for a nominal fee.  Having never done this we wanted to try it once. Boy, are we spoiled. A 6 am flight is definitely improved by a mimosa served before even leaving the ground. And cloth napkins? 20190215_084329

After leaving the Dominican, we first landed in DC where we spent 2 days catching up with our youngest son, Patrick, and then went out to Rockville to spend another two days with our son, Stephen and his family. 20190215_143448And then on to Rome where we’d meet up with our daughter. How lucky we are! We missed seeing our oldest son’s family but traveling to Michigan in the middle of February with snow, ice and wind chills far below zero…well, it just didn’t seem like the time to go there.

Adios Dominican Republic! Ciao Italia!20190214_143149

 

 

A Very Special Place…

We recently lost a good friend to cancer, Tuppen Hauschild.  Her family had suggested that in lieu of flowers they hoped people would donate to 3 Mariposas Montessori School (3MM) in Cabarete, one of the poorest communities in the Dominican Republic. Tuppen had visited the school on several occasions and it held a very special place in her heart! As we investigated the school we realized it was only a few miles from where we were headed for January and much of February.

Most people who know me know my two primary passions are kids and reading. I love kids. I absolutely love to read; I love to teach reading.  Decades ago, my first master’s degree was in reading, in large part, because I wanted to be able to teach part-time when my children were young and I thought a reading master’s would allow me to do that. Since that time I’ve had fabulous opportunities to teach literacy skills to kids kindergarten through college as well as teaching teachers best practices in reading and writing instruction. I’ve been so fortunate. So when the chance came to visit another school; well, I was on it!

20190108_101730_hdr-13 Mariposas Montessori School was closed for the holidays when we first arrived. But the director, Sarah Ludwig Ross encouraged us to visit the day the school reopened. Great! Patrick and Cary still had another day here and they really wanted to see the school as well.  Sarah and Cary immediately connected as fellow Michigan State grads. While Sarah guided our tour she also gave us a bit of the history of the school. She told us she had originally been involved in a non-profit here in the Dominican when she decided to start her own school.That was 2009 and they had an initial enrollment of 11 students and 2 volunteers.  

Because of the tropical climate, the school has a lot of outdoor space and most of the area has multiple purposes throughout the day.  The primary classroom is also the lunch room. Wow! What a lunch room. Small tables are set in an open air classroom. And the smells wafting from the kitchen are enticing! 20190206_113733And the behaviors! Children wait patiently with their hands in their laps until everyone is served before starting to eat. They quietly remind each other of simple meal etiquette rules: chew with your mouths closed; don’t put your elbows on the table; ask to be excused! This was unlike any school lunchroom I’ve ever been in.  And trust me! I’ve been in many!

 

The school currently enrolls 46 students ages one through nine. The diversity of the group is amazing: there are 14 Dominican students, as well as 11 Haitian students with the remaining kids coming from a variety of backgrounds. 20190206_113840_hdrSarah blew us out of the water when she told us there are seven languages spoken at the school including: Spanish, Haitian Kreyol, English, French, German, Russian and Italian.  

 

Bob and I knew after our initial visit this was definitely a place we had to return to. And what fun we’ve had reading with the kids.  We’ve read with kids, to kids, and listened to them read to us. And while there are a variety of skill levels, we’ve been amazed by how much English the kids can speak. We’ve also been amazed by the self-directedness they’ve displayed and the way they can share what they’re learning as well as the why!

 

The school isn’t grand by American standards. The library is also the activity room.  But I’ve never visited any school that was more inviting or where kids are more enthusiastic.

 

Students quickly and eagerly made book selections when they came to see me and then curled up next to me eager to share in the story. For many they know what they like and they eagerly grab a book.

It was suggested that I set a timer so that kids would spend a realistic amount of time with me and so that I could read with several students during my visit.  Generally, it was about 20 minutes. I was reading Fox’s Dream by Keizaburo Tejima with two girls, D’Jhounise and Zoe.  It’s a beautiful story about a lonely fox recalling his own childhood while imagining pictures in the icy trees. The word choice is amazing. 20190206_101849 And here I was with two girls, probably about 8, explaining words like glisten, and vixen in their second language or perhaps their third! Suddenly the alarm on my phone went off indicating our time together was over.  When I picked it up, a picture of one of my granddaughters with Santa Claus popped up. Zoe’s eyes about popped out of her head, “YOU KNOW SANTA CLAUS?” I explained that well, I had met him. Immediately she began how much she wanted a bicycle.  “Will you please tell him that I want a bicycle?” And D’Jhounise echoed the request. As they returned to their class they still couldn’t quite believe they had just read with someone who had met Santa.

Like in any other classroom each child has his or her own strengths.  I was particularly impressed when one of the teachers, Patty, was talking with a group of students about how to seek help when the teacher was busy. She was explaining they could ask another student who might be an expert in a subject. For instance, she said, if she needed help with math, she’d seek out Harrison.  If she needed help with compound words, she’d seek out so and so. She went on and elaborated a strength of each student in the group. Talk about a great way to develop self-confidence.

img-20190207-wa0010Until Sarah mentioned it I hadn’t thought about the benefits for the parents and other adults in the community.  For some staff, this is the first job they’ve ever held, the first salary they’ve ever earned. When they had an opportunity to observe a Montessori school in Santo Domingo it was the first time some staff had seen escalators, or gone to a restaurant and had someone wait on them.

 

The care of animals is part of the Montessori curriculum so there are chickens and cats and dogs wandering throughout the grounds. img-20190207-wa0011Sarah explained that the local kids do a great job of helping adults and kids understand chickens as that’s a new thing for many.  She also said that for many local kids who only know dogs and cats as strays, having them as pets is not something they’ve experienced. She said that their presence has helped many kids overcome their fear of the animals to the point that some have even begun to help bathe them.

We have been fortunate to join their sing alongs that occur just before lunch with the children singing in Spanish and in English.  Given the world we live in today, I found their song about peace extraordinarily moving.

 

The school is doing amazing things.  But oh do they need help. Most of their financing comes from individual donors in the United States as well as some grants.  And while I know that many will ask, what do they need? They generally need everything! Those of you who are in, or were in, education know that while it’s great to have people provide gifts to your classrooms, it’s far more helpful to have people donate so you can buy what it is you need most.  The same is true of 3 Mariposas.  Plus, the lack of mail service in this part of the Dominican Republic compounds the problem.   

In April, Amy Dood, a teacher at Beach Elementary in Cedar Springs, Michigan, is visiting Cabarete and she has agreed to collect money to deliver to the school. Cedar folks could give a donation to Amy or mail it to her at: 

Amy Dood, 8720 Pleasant Meadows Dr NE, Rockford, MI 49341

Or if you prefer you can mail a check to: 3 Mariposas Montessori Foundation, 133 N Villamere Drive, Dowagiac MI 49047.

Image result for od hauschild

Any donation you can make, regardless of the amount, will definitely make a difference in the lives of these kids! Tuppen, Bob and I will always be grateful to you for the the special gift you gave us: enriching our lives by introducing us to such wonderful people!

To Michigan, The Dominican Republic, Infinity & Beyond

20190127_124055The middle of December we headed to Michigan to spend Christmas with our oldest son and his family. The drive from Pittsburgh to Big Rapids is about a seven hour trek. (Hold your right hand up, palm facing you and at the base of your ring finger you’ll find Big Rapids.) We know weather this time of year can be “ify.” Luckily we hit a sunny, cold but sunny, day. Each time we return to Big Rapids we’re always noticing things that have changed since we left four full years ago!  What are the new restaurants? Who went out of business? Well, you get the picture. After living there for more than 20 years,we feel very lucky to have family still in Big Rapids. And Kris and Andria’s home is always a great place to visit. They are both amazing cooks, their home is like something out of a magazine and the tenor of the house is always upbeat and relaxed! In addition, they have two great teenagers who are both very musical.

We couldn’t believe it when Andria told us that if we came the week before Christmas we could attend three of their band performances.  Talk about good timing! It was a great holiday. It was fun to watch everyone open their Christmas surprises, then enjoy a scrumptious dinner, catch up with good friends, play some euchre and just enjoy each other’s company. Of course the time passed far too quickly just like it always seems to do.

We flew to DC the day after Christmas.  Cary, coming in from Rome, would meet us at the airport. We’d get an Uber to the hotel and meet up with Patrick for dinner.img_20181226_142215187_hdr We’d make the “big switch” with Patrick. He’d bring us our warm weather suitcase we had stored at his house and we’d trade him for the colder climate wardrobe we’d been traveling with. Then in February when we return to DC we’d switch back. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this wasn’t our best planning packing wise but we hopefully had found a solution. It’s always fun connecting with the kids at airports, whether we’re meeting their planes or they’re meeting ours. This one was no exception.  As we came through security there stood Cary with a big smile on her face. This was the beginning of another adventure.

Thursday morning, Cary, Bob and I headed to National Airport on our way to Sosua in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, Cary was on a different initial flight than we were but we’d meet up in Miami and then go on to the Dominican together. img_20181227_194212752  A little less than three hours to Miami and then another two hours to Puerto Plata. Not bad! We rented a 3 bedroom villa with pool in Sosua Ocean Village, about a half hour drive from the airport. Patrick would meet up with us the next day at the villa. Our host, Ruslan, had suggested his driver, Robinson, meet us and bring us to the villa. That worked out great; just outside security, Robinson had a sign with my name on it, and introduced himself. We were impressed that he also spoke English!  

The first thing that struck us was the weather.  It feels so good to be out of the cold. It’s not hot; it’s not cold; it’s perfect.  Ruslan had left the villa front door unlocked so that left us with a good feeling about the security of the area. Even though it was late we had to check everything out…particularly the terrace and pool. (Okay, you found me out; I took these pictures later!)

Wow!  First thing the next morning, the local car agency we had rented through delivered our car. Hmmm…the one we had reserved wasn’t available so instead they gave us a Porsche SUV. Our “over the top” enthusiasm quickly diminished when we realized that this Porsche was filled with dents, and torn seat covers. Besides, how would we ever maneuver this  beast on these crowded narrow roads. But whatever…we’d manage. The tank was almost on empty so on our way to the grocery we stopped and filled it. Holy Moly! Almost a hundred dollars! So we had a lot of mixed feelings when the agency called the next morning and told us that our car had been returned and they’d drop it off shortly. It turned out to be a KIA sedan, the year we couldn’t figure out, but given that it had a zillion miles on it, it wasn’t anything close to new and the driver’s door stuck. We weren’t sure this was an improvement over the Porsche or not! Lesson learned:  Stick with car rental agencies we know! OK Motors must have felt our pain though because the KIA was delivered with a full tank of gas!

Ruslan stopped over about noon to meet us and answer any questions we had. He walked us through the necessities and showed us how the wifi and the stove worked, where to take the trash, etc. He also explained that Osvaldo and his wife, Lali, would be available every day to provide anything we needed.  Also, the pool would be cleaned daily by a different gentleman and there was Juan who would garden and just generally be available for us. We would obviously be well taken care of. When Robinson dropped off Patrick late that night we were ready to start celebrating New Years!

Cabarete is a town of about 14,000 just a few miles east of us. We were thrilled to find a parking lot just a few steps from the beach. 100 pesos ($ 2.00) until 6 pm. In an area with wall to wall traffic what a find!  We had no pesos yet but surprisingly the attendant took Bob’s $10 and gave him back $8 American!

As we walked down the shop-lined block to the beach we were astounded to see kite after kite of all colors flying over the beach.

The beach is absolutely gorgeous. For $ 10 we got 4 chairs and an umbrella. Bar after bar line the beach offering beers ($3.50) to the more expensive pina colada ($6). There is a continuous parade of beach vendors offering massages, carvings, fresh fruit, shrimp, hats…well, it’s quite the market place.

We had read about the Sunset Grill…Fodor’s says this is the place to see the best sunsets on the northern coast.  So we decided to try it out after our day at the beach. We absolutely fell in love with it so much so that we returned on the kids’ last night here.

Our villa is technically listed as part of the Sosua Ocean View Resort. img_20190102_143648636_hdrWe enter through a security gate and security guards abound. But I wouldn’t consider it a resort, at least not by American standards.  And we’re fine with that! There are three nice restaurants. We’re in the tropics so they’re open air and two of them have amazing views of the ocean. The third one is a craft brewery.  All have good food that is reasonable priced. Also, all have wait staff that speak English. Probably our favorite was Al Porto.  Great view, great prices and great food!

Ruslan had told us Maria Restaurant, which is a second restaurant located within our community, was going to have a special celebration for New Years.

Dinner, served outdoors right on the ocean, live music, fireworks. It sounded like fun! And we weren’t disappointed.

We celebrated with people all speaking different languages but all having the common goal of wishing in a New Year and  with it all our hopes and dreams for a great future! A variety of appetizers were offered and choices for the main dishes were either mahi mahi papillote and coconut or skirt steak in goat cheese sauce. Plus a complimentary bottle of wine or the local rum! And of course, champagne at the bewitching hour! Definitely an evening to remember!

The Dominican truly is an island of spectacular beaches.  Folks had told us that in addition to Cabarete Beach, Sosua Beach located just west of our community, was also a gorgeous beach and that it was located in a lagoon making it quieter for swimming.  So we decided to check it out. Like so many places we go there is the ubiquitous chaos of cars. We weren’t sure exactly where we were headed but when we got close it became clear with locals ushering us to parking places.  We chose the first we came to, just at the top of a street that fronted lots of shops and led directly to the beach.

This time the cost was 150 pesos (or $3.00). Again as we approached the beach, we were greeted by a young man who provided us with 4 lounge chairs and two umbrellas for $16.  But this guy was smart; “No, he said, “Don’t pay me until you leave.” This way he could make more money by supplying us with drinks or food. And of course there were the omnipresent vendors again offering all sorts of goods from food to souvenirs. This beach was definitely lovely but as we entered the water there was a hard surface beneath the shallow sand.

I’m not sure if it was rock or concrete but it was different. We all decided that while it was a great experience we preferred the beach at Cabarete.

We had read about Las Terrenas, a beach town on the northeast peninsula.  It’s a town of many expats with a lot of French and Italian influence. Google maps said it was about 165 kilometers from our villa (or about 100 miles). We decided we’d rent an Airbnb so we’d have time to see some sites while we were there.  Good thing! It turned out to take us nearly 4 hours to make the trek. After we had been on the road a short time we realized that the car had virtually no shocks. The road conditions were sketchy. Sometimes they were filled with potholes; sometimes they had nonexistent shoulders. Going through small towns we found cars parked on both sides of the very narrow street and then often a vehicle would just stop and make a delivery and traffic would back up behind it.  Then out on the main road again we’d sometimes get behind a slow moving truck and found it disconcerting when impatient drivers behind us would whiz by just as we were approaching a hill or curve. And then of course, the scooters are everywhere. Often the scooter has the driver, the passenger and a small child or baby. We’ve seen them carrying firewood, furniture.  And if that’s not enough, we even saw a driver who had one leg, had his crutch attached to one side of his scooter and a refrigerator on the back!

It’s crazy! Cary did a yeoman’s job behind the wheel! And in spite of all the craziness, the views were amazing! We passed rice fields (I had no idea they grew rice in the Dominican!) drove close to the ocean with trees forming a canopy above. (Too bad Cary wasn’t able to see much!)

Terrenas was founded in 1946 when Trujillo forced the people living in that rural area to move into town.  At that time they were isolated from the rest of the Dominican. A great road has since been built from Santa Domingo to Terrenas. We connected with this toll road about 45 minutes from our destination. It was such a great change! The collection kiosk was unlike anything we’d ever encountered!  It reminded me of a cashier from a bank in the wild west! The toll was 250 pesos but we had nothing less than 1000 so we got lots and lots of change! But boy was the toll worth it!

As we got closer to Terrenas the road took us up and down a gorgeous mountain terrain. And we held our breath as our 4 cylinder KIA chugged along and  I found myself hoping the brakes were in better condition than the rest of the car.20190105_131437

Once we finally got to Terrenas we found scooters, cars and pedestrians mobbing the streets and virtually no place to park. So we continued to make our way to the far end of a beach road until we came to our Airbnb.  It turned out to be lovely!

We were directly across from the water. And this time the beach was thick white sand. We spent the evening playing cards in a beach pub until they closed. I think this might have been everyone’s favorite beach.  What a tough job it is…comparing beaches!

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The drive back the next day didn’t seem quite so long or quite so harrowing.  Perhaps it’s because we knew what to expect. When we got back we decided to go to dinner at Al Porto. They have a Saturday Craft Beer Fest with all you can eat Seafood Buffet and unlimited beer.  How could we go wrong. There was lots of dancing and an outgoing guest came around to the tables and invited people onto the dance floor. Even some of the wait staff joined in on the fun. Dancing obviously crosses language barriers!

Suddenly it was time for Cary and Patrick to fly home. When they first arrived we were ecstatic they could both visit for nearly two weeks. How had that time passed so quickly?  We hadn’t seen Puerto Plata yet, the city about 45 minutes west of us where many cruise boats dock. Luckily the kids’ flight back to the States didn’t leave until late afternoon so that gave us time to visit the town.  Puerto Plata has a population of more than 100,000 so it took some time to get our bearings. We finally found the Malecon. It reminded us of the Malecon in Havana. We looked it up and found that malecon is a word used primarily in Latin American countries for an esplanade along a waterfront. Ok, now it made sense!20190109_120948We even came upon a parking place on our own with no charge. As we began to walk, what we thought was a police officer directed us to a “touristy” area with shops and an historical square. He also added that it was safe. Turns out that Puerto Plata has guides whose only job is to provide support for tourists; they speak English as well as Spanish. It’s like a walking tourist information kiosk.  What a great idea.

We had a great lunch at a street restaurant right on the Malecon and then took the kids to meet their plane. We were sad to see them go but felt fortunate that we had had an amazing two weeks together.  Bob and I still have more than another month here. So glad we’re not going to back to face winter!