December 12, 2010

Italy – Siena (day 2)

Posted in travel at 2:51 pm by jimazing

lionsJeanie and I started our day with a couple of hours of extra sleep.  This was to be a slower day in Siena followed by a bit of excitement on our trip to Rome.  Siena is a medieval Tuscan city, rich with art and history in addition to the beautiful country we saw on our first day.  Like Venice, Siena is a good walking city.  We got around most of the day on foot. Like every city we visited, the structures are truly ancient.  We do not build today with the same sense of time that was used when these buildings were created.  They took hundreds of years to create structures that would last for thousands of years.  It is amazing to look at a wall and be told that it is well over a thousand years old and think of the designers and the workmen who poured their very lives into it.  And see it still standing for me to admire.  And there are hundreds of such buildings all over the place.

Romulus & Remus

I had heard of the legend that Rome was founded by Romulus, who was one of twins raised by wolves.romulus-remus I didn’t know that his twin, Remus, was supposed to have founded Siena.  There were many statues and bas reliefs of the twins like this one both in Siena and Rome. I have a personal connection to this story also.  My paternal great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was one of twins and his name was Romulus. Want to guess his brother’s name?  I can remember visiting my great-grandfather, Romulus.  They tell me that he used to set me on his knee and tell me bear stories (or as he said it, “bar” stories).  His twin brother’s name was of course, Remus (Clinton) Anderson.  Other than that, I do not know anything about him.  If anyone in my family can enlighten me, please do.

Shopping is of course shopping to be had and we did our part for the economy of Siena.  I found a terrific cutting board made of olive wood for myself.  Whilst the ladies were choosing scarves, I noticed my (favorite) niece, Erica had chosen a corner of the store next to some fancy hats to rest her weary legs.  As much as I love to shop for scarves, I felt that I needed a distraction.  The juxtaposition of the fancy hats and the beautiful young model inspired me. I think it surprised her at first, but she soon got into the spirit as I took the opportunity to create this photo series which I shall call, The Many Hats of Erica… If the slideshow doesn’t appear and you are reading in email or Facebook, click this link to see the original

Piazza del Campo

The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo, a large, open quadrangle in the middle of the city.  piazza-del-campoIt’s like a city park with no nature.  No trees, no bushes, no flowers, no grass, no dirt, just a stone “floor” surrounded by stone buildings.  I love a park with lots of nature.  This held a much different kind of beauty for me.  Like so much of historic Italy, the beauty was in an appreciation for the creative expression of people over many centuries.

They hold a horse race in the Piazza twice a year called The Palio.  I can only imagine the throngs of people in the middle of the square as 10 horses race around the perimeter on the stone street.  I’d like to attend once just for the experience.  It was nice  just walking around and enjoying being there.  The photo is Jeanie and me enjoying the Piazza.

The Underground Museum


Franco took us to see the Duomo di Siena (the Cathedral) and we spent most of the rest of our time in the Museo Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova.  This museum goes through a cathedral area and then plunges underground into the catacombs where there are paintings, sculpture & artifacts from the region going back to hundreds of years BC.  Had it been solely up to me, I would have stayed in there for weeks.

Have you ever noticed that the really great stories are always born from tragedy.  They are the kind of story that no one wants to experience first hand.  One of the tragic histories of the middle ages that happened right here was the black plague. A hand written list hung on the wall of the people who died in Siena from the black plague and who were buried right here.  Because the people did not understand how the plague was transmitted, they simply dumped bodies into these catacombs like a mass grave.  Franco showed us this human bone that was there in the museum where excavation appeared to be going on. Sobering!

Adventures in Train Travel

Well, the decision to stay wasn’t mine to make and our time in Siena was over. Franco returned us to the train station and we began our journey to Rome.  Like our trip from Venice, the trip to Rome was in two segments.  The first leg to Chiusi was uneventful.  It was more like a commuter train with lots of stops along the way.  Our train to Rome was more like a “real train” with compartments for privacy (for those willing to pay extra).  At Chiusi, we were a little less confident about getting on the next train.  We weren’t absolutely sure where to wait.  It was a great stress relief for me to have extra margin of time built in to figure all this out.

Our train pulled into the station and there was a throng of people getting on.  We had assigned seats in car number two, but when the train stopped, we were standing in front of car six.  No problem, we are sure there will be time to get on, but the train lunged just a bit, which confused us all into thinking it was leaving.  All five of us realize (true or not) that we have to get on that train right away.  We’ve seen enough European spy movies to know you can walk between the cars, so we all got on the train with the intention of moving forward through the cars until we got to our seats.

The entranceway of the car where we got on was too small to hold us all at the same time.  Erica was first in line and confused about what was happening (she hasn’t seen enough European spy movies yet).  Cathryn told her to just leave the bag she was normally responsible for and move on to the next car.  This finally gave me room to get on the train.  Erica, Jeanie and Jared all moved forward through the doors into car 5 without any problem.  Then the train began to move and the doors closed between the cars.  No big thing.  The doors between the cars were automated with big buttons to open them like an elevator.  However, unlike an elevator, if you block the door, it doesn’t sense it and and reopen.  It just continues to press against you until you activate the button again; very difficult to do while struggling with bags.

As the train began to move, Cathryn was juggling the bags she was responsible for plus the one she told Erica to leave behind.  I had on a backpack and was handling one of our suitcases which prevented me from helping her.  The doors kept closing on us  as we forced our way into the vestibule between car six and car five.  Finally together through the first door, Cathryn reached for the button to open the door that would let us into car five and it did not respond.  She got a look on her face that said, “No freaking way!” and tried again.  Sure enough, it didn’t even respond.  I think I reached over and hit it too, but the doors did not move.  Fortunately, she and I both seemed to be thinking the same thing… this is going to make a great story.  She sat down on the floor with her bags around her and began to laugh.  Here we were stuck between the cars and our companions were completely out of our sight.  We didn’t know but that they had already found their seats in car two.

Stuck on the trainMeanwhile, the rest of them were just a little ahead of us and waiting for us to catch up.  They began to wonder what happened to us and also what they would tell the conductor when he asked for their tickets, since they were in Cathryn’s bag and none of us spoke Italian. It is easy enough to make yourself understood when you are trying to explain something expected, but this…  Jared came back to check on us and when he saw our predicament, he did what any good storyteller would do.  He got out his camera. This photo is a composite of the photo he took with the photo we took of him. We talked with hand signals and then he walked away.  By this point I was ready to finish this story and begin the next one.  The floor where the two cars met was moving back and forth, which did not feel safe. This potential story was quickly losing its charm.

I noticed a bumpy thing on the door that was large enough to grab, so I pulled on it and the door opened.  Of course it would not stay open without someone holding it.  So, I held it open for Cathryn and then struggled to get my suitcase through while holding it too.  We were finally all in car number five.  Cathryn and I still had not gotten our composure nor did we have good control of our bags.  One of us made a self deprecating reference to those “stupid Americans!” when this large Italian woman comes around the corner where we are laughing at ourselves and trying to regain control.  If looks could kill, the look she gave us would have instantly dropped us both.  Stupid Americans, indeed!

The rest of the trip to our seats was less eventful, but involved a lot of standing in line and speculating whether this train made any stops along the way, or whether we might have to stand for the whole 3 hours.  It stopped.  Some passengers disembarked, and we found our seats.  We retold the story and laughed about it together.  Then we passed another train going the other direction.  The wind from that encounter caused a loud bang on the window right beside me and I thought it was all over.  I wondered aloud whether I might have a change of underwear in my backpack, which of course brought a whole new round of laughter.

When we arrived in Rome, we found that our hotel, the Mecenade Palace  was just a quarter mile from the train station, so we walked to it and checked in.  We had a fine dinner in the hotel restaurant overlooking the Basilica of St Mary Major.  Our waiter, Vito, was soon to become our next Facebook friend from the trip.


December 11, 2010

Italy – Siena (day 1)

Posted in travel at 11:48 pm by jimazing

Now that our trip is a couple of weeks in the past, the view from a distance (in both geography and time) makes certain parts of it fade and other stand out.  Our visit to Siena was and still is my favorite part of the trip.  I could have spent the week there and been happy.  Venice was a close second.  I value a long look at a small item over a quick look at a lot of things.  In a way, Siena provided that for me.

francoSiena was different from the other cities in one very important way.  We had a personal guide, Franco Fadda, who came highly recommended to us.  We engaged with Franco to show us his Siena.  Franco has the intimate knowledge that comes only by being a native of Siena and his genuine warmth and gift for communication made for an incredibly rich and wonderful visit. Franco picked us up at the train station and after a quick stop to check in at our hotel, took us out of the city and into a most beautiful countryside.  As we drove in the car, I thought how much it reminded me of the foothills of North Carolina.  Later as we travelled through a river valley, it brought back warm memories of travelling in the Kanawha River Valley when I was a child on the way to visit my grandparents.

Lunch was the La Fontana at The Oil Farm.  If you go to Siena on your own, you won’t find visiting the Oil Farm to be an option.  The only way to get their is to be taken by someone with connections.  Not only is Franco “in the know”, he was clearly good friends with Alberto and Martia, the owners of this farm.  We had fabulous meal.  Seriously, the best I can ever remember. The food was delectable, but the experience was so much more.  Located in the middle of “nowhere” in Tuscany, on this little farm, this older couple grow their own grapes and olives and press their own olive oil (hence the name, The Oil Farm).  In fact, the “dining room” was the pressing room where they pressed the oil that we had for our bread–oh the bread!  If that were not enough, all the food they served was organically grown there on the farm!  Our menu:

  • Appetizers (Antipesti):
    • Grilled bread with pecorino
    • Olives
    • Artichokes
    • Black cabbage
    • Thinly sliced, marinated zuchini
  • First course (Prima piati) –
    • Pasta with pesto and tomatoes–The pasta was hand made that morning!
  • Second course (Secundi piati)
    • Grilled chicken (Smoothly spiced, like I have never tasted)
    • Carduci (celery)
    • Zuchini (yummy, but completely unlike the appetizer)
    • Radichio

We were too full to even think about desert.  Afterward, Franco explained the pressing process and how they didn’t waste any of the olive parts from the pressing.  They dry the pits and burn them for fuel.  To show us, he took us out back, which clearly wasn’t “part of the tour”.  It wasn’t a mess, but it was definitely “lived in”, which made it that much more meaningful to me.  The fact that Alberto didn’t mind our wandering around in his back yard and taking photos of the beautiful views from there made it feel like we were visiting family. In fact, in my memory, it feels like a dream.  When we arrived, it had been pouring rain and by the time we were able to step out in the backyard, the rain had completely stopped.  The grass was deep green and the rocky walls of the house framed the vineyards and olive groves, which stretched over the hills as far as you could see.  The surrealism of it all was punctuated by the peacocks on the roof.


All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Alberto and Martia.  We had two more places to visit and the day was fading much too quickly.  The next stop was the Collemattoni vineyard, where we were treated to a lovely sunset followed by a wine tasting by Franco including:

  • Rosso di Montalcino 2004 and 2005
  • Brunello di Montalcino 2007 and 2008 (07 was my personal favorite)
  • Olive oil (I had never just drunk Olive Oil)
  • and Grappa (which had quite a kick!)

abbyIt was now after dark, and our last stop before dinner was at the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo (St. Antimo Abbey), a Benedictine monastary that was begun in 780 AD.  The building was completed in in 1100 by Charlemagne as a thanks to God for ending the black plague (premature thanks, but thankfulness is always in and for the present).  We arrived just in time to hear some of the singing of Gregorian Chant for Vespers.  Enjoy the recording below.

Chant at the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo

If you cannot see the audio player above, and you are reading this in email or on Facebook, please visit the original post here: so you can hear this recording.

For dinner, Franco took us to Osteria del Gatto.  Again, this is not somewhere the tourists even know about.  It is a hidden gem in Siena.  Marco, the owner (aka Gatto) – loves cats.  This is where I finally got to eat the Ribollita dish that Cathryn has been raving about for years!  The Wikipedia article on ribollita doesn’t do it justice. It was a terrific and tasty dish.

As much fun as the day was, it was full and we were pooped!  We traveled from Venice to Siena and the rest of the day was packed well into the evening.  Jeanie and I were so tired that we slept right through breakfast the next morning.

Next time, Siena, day two and adventures in train travel to Rome.

December 4, 2010

Italy – Venice

Posted in travel at 5:06 pm by jimazing

This blog post was originally posted on my blog site. In case the audio does not translate well into Facebook or email world, you can click this link to see the original.venice-hotel

As I prepared to write about our trip to Venice this morning, I saw this news story about Venice having extreme  flooding.  We were there just two weeks ago. I am sure thankful we didn’t wait a couple of weeks.  Great timing!

The Bells

We arrived on Nov 20th in Venice and took a Water Taxi to our hotel, Casa Santa Maria Formosa.  The hotel was right on a canal and right around the corner was a bell tower.  The bells ringing is one of my most pleasant memories of the whole trip.  The bells just seemed to start up at random times and go forever.  It may always be like that or maybe it was because we were there on a Sunday.  In any case, I love experiencing the sounds of a place.  These sounds were particularly magical. I made a recording (attached below) that starts with the clip-clop of someone walking on the cobblestone street by our hotel.  About 15 seconds in, the bells take over.  Enjoy.  Venice Bells

About Venice

Even though it rained a lot of our visit, I loved walking around Venice, looking in the shops and seeing the city.  Venice is truly a walking city.  There are no places for cars at all.  I knew that before experiencing it, but I could not picture that in my mind.  Photos cannot capture the experience you get from walking the streets, seeing the buildings and bridges over the canals. Truly experiencing the city connected a lot of dots for me.  Imagine a hundred tiny islands all connected by foot bridges, then build 3-5 story buildings and cobblestone streets to connect them.  Fill every square millimeter of space so that you see no grass, no dirt, no trees.  Oh, and while you are doing this, make sure the buildings are made to last hundreds, no thousands of years!  We truly do not understand the scale of time it took to build these structures.


We walked around from our hotel to St. Mark’s Square the first day. We were tired and really wanted to take a nap, but determined to stay up to force our bodies to acclimate to the new time.  Just outside the square, on the Grand Canal, were the gondoliers with their shiny black gondolas.  Unlike most of the Italian touristy options we experienced later, these guys were not at all pushy.  We stood as a group trying to decide if we wanted to do a gondola ride.

This decision making process reminds me how everyone experiences internal competitions of their own values.  There are things that you and I value and sometimes they clash and we have to decide one over another. Additionally what that these values are differ from person to person and even moment to moment.  (I can argue with myself for hours, days, years about what I really want).  When you add more people to the mix, making a decision can be daunting.  In that moment with the gondola decision, the values I was pitting together were; thriftiness (I am a cheap tightwad at heart), authenticity (I didn’t want to “waste time” doing a stupid tourist novelty.  I wanted to experience the authentic Venice) and respect for others (I was aware that my desires could throw a damper on the desires of others and I didn’t want that).

One of us walked up to a gondolier to find out how much the rides were.  There was a long ride and a short ride. For the five of us to take the long ride was €100 (about $150).  My tightwad value got a huge boost with that tidbit of knowledge.  No way I was going to spend that kind of money for a novelty or cheap tourist attraction. Cathryn, who must have been doing her own calculating and “valuing”, chimed in and said she would pay for it for all of us. So we thanked her for her generosity and got in the boat.  I thought that at the very least, we didn’t have to walk for a while… and we were tired.

gondolaBoy was I wrong about it being just a novelty.  Our gondolier, Claudio, took us up the Grand Canal and through many of the smaller canals throughout the city.  Along the way, we peppered him with questions about himself and the city.  He was the one who explained how thousands of years ago, this was a lagoon with many small islands and that people began building them up and connecting them with bridges.  Jared asked about the oldest buildings and Claudio began talking about Genghis Khan.  He frequently would interrupt himself or us to say, “This building was the home of Mozart,” or Vivaldi or Marco Polo… I have never felt so close to history.  Cathryn, thank you again for your generosity and providing the wonderful gondola experience!

China Town

Later we found ourselves at the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal where we found lots of street vendors and trinket shops so we named it, China Town.  italian-chinatownDinner was a small restaurant near our hotel where our waiter was a German transplant to Venice named Elvis.  Throughout the trip, we met a few remarkably warm and engaging people.  Elvis was the first to make that list.  He didn’t mind sharing his story and listening to ours.  And of course, he goes down in history for recommending Erica’s meal that night, Pizza with French Fries on top. Another that we met in Venice was our hotel concierge, Mike, who was a transplant from the Philippines.  Mike was full of great information about the city, where to go and what to do. He answered many questions about what it is like to live there.  I called him our concierge, but he was much more than that.  He toted all of our luggage up two flights of very steep stairs, fixed our breakfast every morning.  He not only ensured that we had a water taxi arranged to take us to our train on Monday, he made us coffee and then rushed us out the door to ensure we didn’t miss it.  Thanks for everything Mike… and thanks for friending on Facebook.

Leaving Venice

The water taxi experience is unique.  These boats are not small, but they have to navigate the narrow canals and get around the gondolas and other boats too.  I really appreciated the expertise of these pilots.  They made it look easy.

I’ll end this with the connection at the Train station.  We arrived way earlier than we needed to, which was fine by me.  I have a high value for stress free segues.  Early arrivals allow time to figure things out, which in turn lowers the stress.  We left the hotel before they served breakfast, so we went to the restaurant in the train station.  I walked up to the bakery counter and told the lady what I wanted.  She explained that I had to pay first at another counter, then bring my ticket back to her to get my food.  It was very inefficient, but at least they weren’t busy, so everything went smoothly.  (This was not the last time we’d experience this setup). I left Jared in the restaurant and walked back to Jeanie and our luggage.  It seems that his experience was not so pleasant.  He ordered and paid for food and then was told that he didn’t pay for what he wanted.  He argued with them until they finally gave him his food.  I only noticed the inefficiency.  Jared got to live it!  Fortunately, we caught our train without a problem.  Next stop, my favorite destination on the trip, Siena.


A view from the Rialto Bridge Sunday night

December 3, 2010

Italy – Preparations

Posted in travel at 12:47 am by jimazing

italy-mapMy sister-in-law, Cathryn calls me a few weeks ago and says she’s thinking of going to Italy for Thanksgiving and would Jeanie and I like to come too.  She probably would have called Jeanie, but since she had worked the night before, she was sleeping.  I said, it sounded like fun and that we would talk it over.  I told her that there might be a problem if Jeanie didn’t have her passport.  Later that day, when Jeanie woke up, I told her that her sister had a wild idea for Thanksgiving.  She guessed Vegas.  When I told her Italy, she was in!  I asked her about the passport and she reminded me that she had one.  She needed it when we went on our cruise.  So, she sent a text message to her sister to let her know that I told her about the plans.  It simply said, “I have a passport.” I think Cathryn’s reply was something like “Giddie Up!”

Over the next few days, we checked the logistics of my taking a week off from work and next thing you know, we were making plans… real plans… reservations!  It was really happening!

Cathryn has been to Italy several times, and she has a real talent for organizing & arranging things like this.  So we basically let her put the whole thing together (& she did an awesome job).  The plan was start in Venice, then train to Siena, then another train Rome with a possibility of a day trip to Pompeii.  And that’s just what we did.

goodbyesWhen we started the planning, we were pretty sure that Danae & Molly would have already moved from Charleston to Washington State and we needed a distraction.  Mark was transferred to WA by the Navy and Danae and Molly were waiting for the house to sell before joining him.  But the house took longer to close than anticipated and they were still there when we left for Venice.  Actually Mark left that same morning to drive across the country with their dogs. Danae and Molly took us to the airport, where we embraced and said our goodbyes.  The two of them would be flying across the country to WA a week later, the day before we returned to the states.

At Cathryn’s suggestion, we took sleeping pills on the plane so we could get some rest.  The night before us was going to start much too early and be way too short.  We were traveling to a magical place where the sun rises six hours before it is supposed to.