Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part III – Saints Be Praised

The next morning, we awoke to a threatening sky - an ill omen? Once again over breakfast we made plans for our day. There are two countries which reside inside Italy. Can you recall their names? One is Rome's nearby neighbor of course, almost a suburb, the Vatican. The other is probably better known to the stamp collectors among us, San Marino. With Riccione being relatively close to San Marino, we decided to head that way but not before some drama and renewed heartburn.

I clicked to unlock the door of our rental car and began to organize and rearrange things, finishing by finally loading our suitcases. Not a problem. All packed, we got inside and when I went to start the engine, I couldn't find the key. With the car being our lifeline, all I could imagine in my momentary panic was how long it would take to get another key, especially this being Sunday morning. That would surely be a story to relate. It was almost the equivalent shock you feel when you discover your wallet or purse missing. Then, recalling that I'd unlocked the door only moments before, I knew that although the key was not in the ignition, it had to be nearby. Together we looked around ... on the floor, under the seats, behind the seats, under the car, on the roof, in my pockets ... no success. Next we began to unpack the car hoping to find the key under the very next item we removed. Again no joy. I was getting more nervous by the minute with images of what might be involved to get a replacement key. I fantasized on how I'd have to explain and hopefully get "the daughter" to call EuropCar for us, the long ensuing wait we could expect, possibly even the need to stay another night until Italy returned to a normal workday schedule once again. The only consolation to my imagined scenario was that at least we knew where to eat (Gambero Rosso) and that we could easily get a room (Albergo Astra). I also knew I should have gone to church that morning! There was still time to go and pray to Saint Anthony - the patron saint of lost belongings. Just the thought must have helped for when I checked again, there on the floor carpet between my seat and the parking brake handle lay the errant key. Though I couldn't really distinguish the black key against the black carpet between black vinyl seats, I finally felt it. Whew, our relief was palpable. Thank you St Anthony! After what seemed like a long frantic delay, but really only minutes in duration, we were at long last underway. The key hadn't gotten far after all and neither had we. On to San Marino.

The ride from the coast to San Marino under the brooding clouds of an incontinent sky was all of about 10 km. We were heading West along the San Marino Superhighway toward Mount Titan (Monte Titano), a prominent ridgeline in the Apennine mountain range rising starkly ahead of us. These mountains were in harsh contrast to the flat plane of the coastline. The Republic of San Marino is dominated by rugged terrain. In fact and hard to believe, it has no natural level ground; it is entirely composed of hilly terrain. As we climbed from one country into another, nothing seemed to change - the houses, the architecture - everything about us appeared the same. We were in Italy by another name. This was nothing like the difference we sensed when entering Italy from Germany two days earlier. A simple pennant above the road announced our distinction - without fanfare we had arrived.

The mini-state of San Marino is all of 24 square miles, about a quarter the size of Boston. With an equally diminutive population of just over 30,000, it has the smallest population of all the members of the Council of Europe (note: San Marino is not part of the EU). We were headed for its capital, San Marino City. As the continuation of a monastic community founded in 301AD by a stonecutter of the name Marinus, San Marino is the oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. Tradition has it that its namesake, Marinus, left the island of Dalmatia (then Rab) in present-day Croatia in 257AD looking for work. His destination, as ours had been the day before, was Rimini (read Part II) where he worked as a mason. Roman Emperor Diocletian had issued a decree calling for the reconstruction of Rimini's city walls, which had been destroyed by pirates. This was also during the religious persecutions by this same emperor. Marinus was eventually forced to flee Rimini to nearby Monte Titano following sermons he shared on the Christian faith. Safely atop Monte Titano, a community soon developed around the small church he built that over time became the seed for the sovereign state of San Marino. Since that time and largely due to its inaccessible location, San Marino has managed to survive, prosper and preserve its cherished independence. Even Lady Luck played a hand as for instance when, following the French Revolution, Napoleon pushed through Italy. Emperor Bonaparte promised to guarantee and protect the independence of the Republic but only due to the quirkiest of circumstances - he simply seemed to like and had befriended the head regent (think President) of San Marino. So much for the value of friendship, especially if you have friends in high places! Much later during the Italian unification period, San Marino served as a refuge for many people persecuted because of their support for unification. In grateful recognition of this support, mercurial Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi accepted the wish of San Marino not to be incorporated into the new Italian state. It also helped when during both WWI and WWII that the Republic remained neutral. George Washington's counsel to avoid foreign entanglements and stay out of foreign wars surely seemed to work for lilliputian-like San Marino!

We were following signs displaying a sort of black and white bull's-eye, an indication throughout Italy (and I guess San Marino) of the centro storico (historical center). We continued our ascent all the while following these markers turn by turn as we passing through Borgo Maggiore lying at the foot of Monte Titano. Previously called Mercatale (marketplace), Borgo Maggiore is one of the nine communes of San Marino and remains today faithful to its name as the most important market town in San Marino. In addition to the bull's-eye pointers we soon began to notice signs for a tramway. We could see cable filaments in the distance with an aerial tramway rising above the rooftops. This cable car allows Monte Titano to be scaled to the town of San Marino. This became our new destination adding to the befuddled confusion of our GPS traveling companion, Margaret.

Following our cable car ride to the top, we exited into a scenic park accented with life-size statues among its greenery. The park overlooked an aged though well maintained stadium where at just that moment a troop of youthful scouts, armed with their pennants, was entering for some ceremony. Like scouts ourselves, we had free unstructured time to explore and headed off toward the center of the city. I couldn't help but feel that the tram had transported us to some Tuscan hilltop village. Everything about us reminded me of a Cortona, a San Gimignano or, following a similar tram ride, petite Certaldo Alto. It was a beautiful place to stroll - the rusticated cobblestones ageless, the narrow streets boarded by shops and restaurants inviting and the views from the crenellated walls over the valley below and toward the distant sea something reserved for soaring eagles. It's worth coming here just for the view, but save it for a good day, for the only thing out of joint was the weather. By then the pewter sky, minion to the arbitrary whims of Mother Nature, in naked abandon decided to empty its considerable store on San Marino. With our own umbrellas forgotten in the car, we soon retreated into a cafe to idle over frothy cappuccinos waiting for the right moment to emerge. Growing impatient, we 'awning hopped' further down the street until we eventually gave up on the sport and bought an umbrella!

The inclement weather put a crimp to much we could do in this amusement park of the past. One of our first stops was at the majestic Basilica del Santo located in Piazza Domus Plebis and built in honor of St. Anthony. A mass was underway, which gave me an opportunity to thank St. Anthony for his earlier 'key intervention' and see what he could do about the weather! Before turning back, we walked the cobbles as far as Porta della Fratta on the back battlement of this fortified capital stopping at the first of the three well preserved castles dominating the city, La Rocca o Guaita. Like the other two it is perched on the rim of Monte Titano, but with two defensive walls surrounding an inner tower keep, it is the largest. Our only purchase was of a miniature Degas sculpture entitled "Little Dancer of 14 Years". We had seen one of the 23 existing, life-size Degas bronzes at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris years earlier and had never forgotten its haunting appearance inside a glass case. It was in a window and beckoned to Maria Elena, who had to have it. Actually, at first we bought a smaller one only to return for the larger subject moments later. Speaking of window shopping, the citizens of San Marino must love their guns. Store after store displayed all types of automatic rifles and handguns (see photo album). Let me tell you there were many to choose from. They covered the gamut and included the ubiquitous AK-47 with banana clip and all sorts of other military assault weapons and related paraphernalia. It was hard to imagine these weapons were actually real or anything other than simply gas-powered look-alikes shooting BBs or pellets. Some no doubt were, yet others, may others, were the real mccoy. I wonder how far I'd have gotten, following a return ride down the cable car, with a few bandoliers crisscrossing my chest and assault rifles slung over my shoulders?

The rain couldn't diminish our appetites, however. In fact, what better way to dawdle as we waited out the rain? As we had in Riccione, we window shopped eatery menus and settled on Ristorante Pizzeria Da Pier. Truthfully, they all looked similar but this one was particularly beckoning when it began to rain harder! The Da Pier dished-up everything from pizza for the less famished to ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna and wood-oven roasted meats for the starving. Maria Elena is fond of reminding me "this isn't your last meal" but I knew deep down that all my meals in Italia were limited and therefore numbered. I recall a heaping bowl of home-made ribbon pasta in meat sauce topped with parmigiano cheese while Maria enjoyed her reliable rainy day comfort food, steaming soup. Along with salad and a basket of crusty bread with just a welcomed hint of salt, we made a serious meal of it under a clash of clutter decor that included what else but weaponry ... decorative crossbows, flint-lock pistols and spear-tipped axes. I wouldn't want to shy them on the bill and attempt to make a run for it!

By then the rain had quieted down but the sky remained threatening. Following lunch, we waddled to the tramway once again through the park. More interesting art and somewhat unusual statuary bordered Contrada Omagnano (see photo album) including one I thought artistic, though not at all its intent. After all the formal sculptures along this avenue, there lying in, of all things, a bullet-shaped trash container sprouted the curved handle of a discarded umbrella. It reminded me of the ending scene from that Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street", when a cane leaning in the corner of an empty house gave genuineness to a child's belief in Santa. You can neither demand a miracle nor ever push a saint but I know just then that St. Anthony had finally come through for the sun appeared. The umbrella had be a segno (sign). Saints be praised, we were off in search of Spoletto in the foothills of the Umbrian Apennines under dazzling sunshine, a good omen.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Search for Perfection - Part III”.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part II – Fleeting Plans

It's strange how little events in our lives, decisions or actions we make or fail to make for that matter, however seemingly minor, can result in unexpected life-defining consequences. Each event on its own may be quite unremarkable at the time. Looking forward it is almost impossible to see where life will take us but with hindsight, the impact of earlier choices (or lack thereof) are as easy to spot as a midget on a basketball court. As we look back on life events, followed in turn by events in consequence to a previous event, it is possible to cull-out from our decision string those that molded our lives and brought us essentially to where we are today. It is absolutely true that how we live our days equates to how we live our lives. We are reflections of those life choices and experiences. This is especially the case when we are young, when our lives are basically still in their 'initial condition’ formative years. Case in point …

I had a paper route as a kid. Every afternoon, along with other carriers, I'd pick up my newspapers from the back door of our town's local newspaper office and make the rounds to my 50 or so customers. I worked my way back and forth across the lower part of Main Street. One of my stops was at a sporting goods store run by the basketball coach of the local Italian parochial high school. I was a tall kid and during the season I put it to good use playing basketball at my grammar school. When it came time for me to enter high school, however, I was looking for something different. I guess I'd attended the French parochial school because my mother was French, and moms do have their influence, but by then I wanted to see what public high school would be like. Besides, I also felt there would be greater opportunity there. This was counter to expectations however. My dad, a local sports hero, was Italian and it was expected by everyone, including my stakeholder customer, that I’d attend the Italian parochial high school and play ball there. Would my dad assume my 'paperboy role' and deliver? Thankfully he never did. Looking back, that decision, which had its rough moments, was formative to my life. If I’d gone to the Italian school, who knows where life may have taken me. I might today speak Italian better but I doubt that I’d ever have met Maria Elena. To hear her tell it, with her own set of life's decisions ahead of her, from that very first day of freshman classes when we met, she planned on marrying me! How could I have expected that a decision on where to play ball would determine who I would marry? Since then, our life of transformative events together eventually led to a 1999 trip to Italy and from there to a leap of faith moment that today finds us as property owners in Calitri. Getting to Calitri through Germany this time, though roundabout, was nowhere as convoluted as on our first discovery visit. That decision behind us, Calitri is now knitted into the fabric of our lives. There is a Frost poem about two roads diverging in the woods. Which path we choose makes all the difference - choices do have consequences.

Mare tells me there are few women willing to travel freestyle as we were, relying on standby military flights going who knows where. Firm travel plans like you’d expect on Delta or Alitalia are non-existent. What substitutes for anything approaching a firm itinerary are a series of Plans A, B, C … modified on the fly depending on the situation. Having arrived at Germany’s Ramstein AFB (read Part I), we were into at least Plan B by then. We were close but still not “home” in Calitri, our final destination. On this visit, part of every plan, however fleeting, included taking our time getting to Calitri. We wanted to explore parts of rusticated Italy we’d never before visited. It would be part of our ever deepening excursion into celebrated Italy.

We spent the night at the Air Force Inn on-base but not before venturing into downtown Landstuhl. In the dark of the taxi it seemed a little place, no more than a few streets in the rolling countryside. We'd asked the taxi driver to bring us to a typical, but very good, restaurant in the area and soon he deposited us at the Alt Kundenbeleg restaurant. Oktoberfest was over but we still enjoyed the beer and wiener-schnitzel. Our only real surprise was the bowl of what we thought was a butter concoction. After sampling the mélange we were curious enough to ask the waitress exactly what we had here. We were informed it was lard. After that single misguided sample, we agreed to pass on the rest.

We learned that the next day there was a flight headed for the Italian air base at Aviano, north of Venice. Just what we needed, it was scheduled for an early 0700 departure. We returned to the terminal with time to spare, signed up and were waiting to go when a loudspeaker, announcing its cancellation, decapitated that plan. Now what? An alternative was to take a train to Italy, maybe to Trento or 'fair Verona' before renting a car. The travel agency, just across the street, could help with this option and would open soon. It was about then that while I was getting a cup of coffee, a lucky break came our way. It quickly became Plan D.

The USO is a world-wide institution whose goal is to provide comfort and support to American military personnel. There happened to be USO center in the terminal manned by volunteers who do everything possible to provide a home away from home for our servicemen. I happened to mention to the USO hostess that our flight had evaporated and our desire to somehow get on to Italy. Like a fairy godmother she produced a bus schedule. This particular bus happened to shuttle weekly between the hospital at Ramstein and the hospital in Vicenza, Italy. The magic of it was that it would leave within the hour from right across the street and no tickets were needed! Like an NFL player following a touchdown, I looked up to thank God before sincerely thanking my newfound fairy godmother, surely one of His roaming free agents.

Our luck continued. There was space on the bus for us and a few other likeminded stowaways. We had envisioned something like a school bus. Imagine our pleasant surprise when a full blown tour bus pulled up. It even had a toilet aboard. This made sense for it would be an eleven hour journey through the Austrian Tirol, crossing the Alps via the Brenner Pass, before descending through high Alpine pastures to the Trentino-Alto Adige plains of Italy. It was an amazing ride; the road a ribbon cleaved from the mountains. We were fortunate that our ride was mostly by day for the views were spectacular. All that was lacking was a tour guide on a mike sitting up front to point out the sights such as that amazing six lane 'Europe Bridge' we crossed. The Brenner Pass was far more than the mule track of olden time. It was a major highway and clearly a vital artery of commerce. Though it was early October and the weather just great, nearby peaks there already salted with snow. There were frequent stops - about every two or three hours - mostly to give the contracted driver a chance to relax. A few of these surprisingly were at "McDonalds". The pervasiveness of Yankee capitalism continues to astound me. They featured the "Big Mac" and "Filet of Chicken" sandwiches of course, but there were also offerings called a "Chicago Classic" and a "Miami Grilled Chicken", each for an astounding 7,49€ (about $10.50)! I guess it was expensive towing all that chicken and beef up into those hills. Mare visited the restroom at one stop and insisted I stop in myself and take a picture of the toilet. With a flush, an arm would miraculously extend from the fixture's frame and as the oval toilet seat rotated before you, it would wash and dry the seat for the next patron. German ingenuity indeed! I doubt there was a sign saying so (though in German I'd still have no clue) but I'm sure glad I was standing when I flushed!

We arrived in Vincenza around 10 pm. Our lucky streak continued when travel companions sitting just in front of us offered to take us to nearby Hotel Victoria, conveniently located along their route home. The next morning, as part of our stay, we enjoyed a generous breakfast before taking a taxi ride to the base. We needed to now rent a car for the remainder of our visit. I'm conceited enough to believe I'm actually important but the Europcar agent seemed bored as he went through the motions at a comatose pace. For all I knew, I could have been his thousandth tedious customer but for us it meant independence again. I'd been forced to put off renting something until we were in Italy. It seems that if I'd done so in Germany, I'd have to return it to Germany. This was counter to any plan I could imagine since returning to Germany was not in the cards. And here, all along, I thought it was all one big happy EU family! Now we were free to explore on our terms. By this point it had been three days since we departed Dover. The tough part of the trip was definitely in our rear view mirror as we departed the base for the Adriatic coastline.

We were free-styling now with no reservations or particular destinations before us. Looking over our map at breakfast, we'd decided to head for the seaside resort city of Rimini, the hometown of the famous film director, Frederico Fellini. We had never been there. The human fauna had lessened by this time of year. In fact, we found many of its thousands of hotels, bars and restaurants along the ocean drive already closed for the season. We were about a week or two late but all was not lost. It was quieter and less crowded than the unimaginable nightmare of August's heady Italian migration to the sea. Far more than enough remained open and the weather, on an idyllic binge, made it enjoyable. Our drive continued south through Rimini to the coastal town of Riccione. We made a few passes along one-way (senso unico) streets bordering the sea and finally settled on the Albergo Hotel Astra, not the greatest of hotels but the price was right, it was centrally located and clean. It was family run, which I like to see, with the youngest, "the daughter", relied upon to speak "the English". All told, to the best of my knowledge, in addition to 'the daughter' there was only a grandmother, an aunt, a mother, father and us about. It being off-season, they no longer offered dinner. In mitigating deference, 'the daughter' provided us with some recommended restaurants to choose from and soon we were off exploring Riccione.

We walked a commercial avenue a few streets in and parallel to the water. It was naked of cars, apparently reserved for pedestrians. I like this kind of civic treatment unlike some places void of even a basic sidewalk, instead relinquishing any pulse of humanity to our 300 horsepower chariots. Many shops were open though quiet, void of the hubbub of summer. Closer to the waterfront we began to recognize restaurants on our list. Lulled by the murmur of the nearby surf against the breakwater and the breeze tangled in the rigging of the boats moored in the marina, we decided to dine decadently over a seafood dinner on the peer. Looking at menus posted outside, glancing through windows and sometime going as far as taking a peek inside, we settled on Ristaurante Gambero Rosso (The Red Lobster). Roman, the owner, offers up a bounty fit for Neptune. We began with mussels with bacon and all'aglio (garlic) along with croutons served with sour cream and chive butter - no lard this time! For wine, we tried a strong ruby red "Ronchedone Vino Rosso" (from Ca dei Frati), a blend of lightly acidic marzemino, fruity sangiovese and tiny cabernet grapes. Even though we would enjoy seafood that evening, we still needed our red! Maria Elena enjoyed scallops au gratin with saffron. I chose the recommended sea bass baked in a sea-salt crust accompanied with grilled vegetables - thankfully the crust had been crushed and removed before it arrived. Only a whisper of salt remained. Dolce was a cream-filled torte with complementary Sorrentine limoncello. It got better.

Adjacent to our table-for-two by a window overlooking the harbor was another couple. Agusto and Nellie hailed from the grand duchy of Luxembourg. He greeted us with infectious brio and she with an apple-pie smile. Agusto owned a home theater and hifi business in Luxembourg. He had roots in the local area and was revisiting old haunts that included the Gambero Rosso. We were counseled that we had chosen well. If Roman had laid out place cards he couldn't have selected a more engaging couple to sit by us. Hopefully, they enjoyed a similar sentiment along with their meals. Life opens up when you do ... relying on French, Italian and English we conversed about the food, the town, Italy and family. Utter strangers at first, with only the edge of a table in common, I feel we departed more than mere acquaintances. Surprisingly when we interact with others we learn how miniscule the gradations of difference between us really are. In our travels we have learned that people whether across the globe or across the table are very much alike. Thus far our trip had taught us, through short lived bouts of agita basted in stomach acid, that best laid plans come and go, nevertheless, we definitely plan and look forward to someday returning to the near culinary perfection and dynamic panorama we discovered by the seaside of Riccione.

More in Part III.
From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Search for Perfection - Part II”.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tales of a Hitch-Hiker Searching for Perfection
Part I – Getting There

There is a time to write and a time to travel. Yet there are also times when I find myself doing both. Sitting in one place for an extended period gets me itchy to move on and explore again. Thus is my challenge as I write this on the road, ill prepared to resist scratching my itch.

Someone recently said,In a world of legalisms, resistance is futile”. For many of you, at least a portion of this expression will be familiar. The latter half is for me. It springs from the enormously successful and once very popular Star Trek television series, still around today in syndicated reruns. I grew up nursing my imagination watching Star Trek. It was a weekly staple, part of that amalgam of technology and imagination that culminated with the landing of Americans on the moon and a surge in all things scientific and space related. Automation, miniaturization and new-fangled things called computers, all byproducts of the "Space Race", were in vogue. Closely associated not with Captain Kirk but later with his replacement, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his odd assortment of space adventurers, was the admonition “resistance is futile”, which had to do with the ‘Borg’. The Borg was a fictional race of cyborgs (computer enhanced humans – are we far from this today?) who operated with a single-minded hive mentality … to add the biological diversity and technological distinctiveness of other species they encountered to their own, all in pursuit of perfection. They inhabited vast regions of space, controlling expansive planetary systems and fleets of odd cube-shaped starships. They were a veritable "black hole", consuming everything new in their wake. The Borg exhibited no desire for negotiation, only to assimilate, with encounters characterized by matter of fact “resistance is futile” imperatives. As a result, the Borg have become synonymous with any juggernaut against which “resistance is futile”… thus the expression. But I stray too far from my initial point, which is simply to say it was futile of me to resist my desire to return to Italy. Maybe the Borghese, not the Borg, were really in control.

Even after all these trips, I was once again weak and ill equipped to resist searching for and assimilating the undeniable beauty of Italy – experiencing the generosity and friendliness of its people, their resigned and stoic approach to life and the beauty, natural and man-made, of the countryside evident throughout their revered peninsula. Italy called! I had become Borg-like though with the sole, non-surgical cyber enhancement of a notebook computer at my disposal!

Getting to Italy once again would be the challenge. We lacked a starship of any shape, let alone intergalactic speed, to whisk us there. What we did have was a limited budget and willingness to hitch-hike. So once again we were off to Dover, Delaware hoping to catch a ride on a military transport headed that way. When we arrived, surprisingly there were three aircraft advertised on the TV monitors heading for Europe within the next nine hours. What luck! What seemed too good to be true soon evaporated as flights were scratched. One just vanished from the board as if swallowed-up in the Bermuda Triangle while another slipped a few days. Even though there may be flights posted, there is also the question of seat availability. Seating is dependent, among other variables, on the amount and type of cargo onboard so although an aircraft is scheduled to depart, seats at first usually appear as “0T”, shorthand for “zero tentative”. The terminal personnel eventually get a call from operations on the actual seat count and that night the call dashed all hope for a quick departure when the available seating for tag-alongs like ourselves went to “0F”. You hate to see this for it indicates that there are now “zero firm” seats available. Ouch, especially after all those hours of waiting. As we departed the terminal to get some rest, our only remaining hope was for an evening flight the following day to Ramstein, Germany. Close enough.

With hopes renewed, we joined our fellow would-be travelers the next afternoon in the passenger terminal. Spirits were high for the board had changed from “0T” to “73F”! It couldn’t get better than this. Seventy-three seats were more than enough for there weren’t that many of us hoping for seats. It looked like we’d all make it. But we all know how appearances can deceive. Within an hour of the scheduled roll-call, the schedule once again shifted like a linebacker in motion just before the snap. Roll-call slipped by six hours to well past two in the morning. No reason was given; doubtful the airmen managing the facility even knew. Dreaded maintenance was suspected. Not a way to run an airlines, but then again, the USAF isn’t an airlines. As with all fairy-tale stories, eventually good gets the upper hand and vanquishes evil, or in our case, a smooth takeoff overcame the recurring flight delays and we arrived in Germany after an uneventful eight hour flight, a penny to the good. From there, by hook or crook but mostly rental car, we'd make our way south to Italy, then gradually further south to our place in Calitri. It was early October, 2011 and the Borg in me was now free to assimilate!

More in a while, after we unpack back home,
From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lagoon Island of Lace

Knowing full well I am nowhere near the esteemed caliber of a Mr. Samual Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C.* in describing the authenticated accounts of his observations, sometimes misadventures and from time-to-time remarks on the deportment and manners of acquaintances in the social scenery to fellow members of the 'Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club', I nevertheless remain in danger of being anointed a 'piccolo' Pickwickian for my persistent relation, even now, of adventure within travel adventures, as I continue aboard the "Fortuna" to distant shores, this time to the environs of exotic Venice. Whew, wasn't that one long sentence worthy of Dickens himself or at least an editorial rebuke from my readability critic, Maria Elena. Yet I continue ...

We had been to Venice before ... once by train and then again by plane, but never by towering skyscraper! Stories high from the top deck of Costa's cruise ship 'Il Fortuna', we were presented with a slow motion panorama of resplendent Venice stretched out before us. It was as though we were on a moving sidewalk. We slowly made our way down the Canale di San Marco from the sea toward our berth on the western end of the Sestiero Dorsoduro, a Venetian district whose name references the dorso duro (hard back) of its subterranean structure. Stretched out before us lay the city, a carpet of faded walls of earth-tone pastels capped with aged terracotta clay roof-tiles. I doubted that even the Doges of old had ever seen their Venice this way. Oh, they could have gained a lofty advantage from the campanile (bell-tower) in St Mark's Square but this would have been a fixed perch and from personal experience, the clang of those bells can raise havoc with your head. The unfolding scene opened a warehouse of memories.

* General Chairman - Member Pickwick Club, from “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

We turned slightly to port at the triangular tip of land referred to as Punta della Dogana o della Salute (Customs House and Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute) located at the prow-shaped end of Dorsoduro. High above the customs house towered ageless twin bronze Atlases bent beneath the staggering weight of a golden globe representing the Earth. Fortune certainly was with us that day because the elaborate weather vane rising even higher atop this suspended orb is dubbed, like our ship, the 'Fortuna'.

On passing this headland, we had officially entered the wide Giudecca Canel running the length of southern flank of Dorsoduro and known as Fondamenta Zattere (Zattere Anchorage). This long promenade by the water's edge was christened Zattere for the rafts (zattere) moored along these docks long ago. They were used to unload timbers which today underpin Venice. Nowadays, they have been replaced by floating restaurants and an occasional vaporetto (water bus) station. One of the stations, in fact, is named ‘Zattere’ in their memory. In years past we'd stayed in Dorsoduro so it wasn't long before we began to see familiar places. Pointing here and there, we reminisced over places and recollections ... the mirrored wisteria shrouded door with its bank of brass doorbells; where we'd eaten sepia pasta for the first and very last time; the ATM where my sister, after a struggle, got her first Euros; the street where we lived along Rio di San Trovaso, cutting through Dorsudoro to the fabled Grand Canal itself, and the adjacent gondola repair yard at Squero di San Trovaso.

With the gentle pushes and nudges of a tugboat, we soon docked at the Terminal Venezia Passeggeri. This was the end of the line for many of our fellow passengers but not for us since we'd boarded in Bari, giving us a one day reprieve. We had the day in Venice! Since we were somewhat familiar with Venice, our quest on this visit was Burano, an outlying island in the Venetian lagoon. Getting there and back would be the trick.

Once ashore, as expected, we found ourselves in the industrial port section of the city. There was a bus waiting to take us to Piazzale Roma, the main bus terminal, but after sitting onboard the bus a while, we realized how long it was going to take to fill before getting underway. We decided to walk to the bus plaza. A block or two away, we found an automated tram of sorts that quickly brought us there. We had checked our vaporetto map and identified the various route numbers we needed to take in order to get us to distant Burano. You could get there by an expensive water taxi in about 40 minutes. By vaporetto, with the route changes involved and the waiting at each stop, it took us over two hours. Thanks to a helpful soul who pointed out the correct alleyway we needed to follow, we eventually came upon the station for the first leg of the trip. This water bus took us around the island to the Fondamente Nove stop but not before filling to tip-over-full along the way. Fortunately, we had no luggage. At Fond. Nove we jumped ship for a water bus headed to the Colonna stop on the 'glass island' of Murano. We had been to the glass works of Murano once before so we did not linger. To my surprise, the map I was following was out of date and we had to make our way to another Murano terminal in order to continue. With time a consideration, we could not afford to dawdle as we made our way down the Fondamenta dai Vetri and across the Rio dei Vetri canal to reach at the Faro water-bus station. Once arrived at Faro station, it was another case of hurry-up and wait. About 30 minutes in fact, before the next boat, this one to Burano, finally arrived. This final segment of the outbound trip was the longest, taking another 35 minutes. We were earning our rookie legs on this on.

Once arrived, following our circuitous journey but now veterans of Venice's shuttle service, someone needed to pinch us as we walked through a waterside park. It was a calm and quiet place to stroll about as we made our way to Via Marcello. It would lead us to what I'd call the main portion of the city along Fondamenta Cavanella and Fondamenta San Mauro. You can't miss it, straight ahead from the dock. This promenade, with its quaint architecture and beckoning shady alleys, reminded me of a stroll along the walkway at Disney World’s Epcot Center, where a large manmade lake meagerly substitutes for Burano’s stunted canal system and a hodgepodge of street-fronts attempt to create a reality to the place.

This, however, was the genuine item. Angled poles extending from the green water up to and beyond the sides of the canals to prevent boats moored there from scraping their sides. There was life behind those storefronts and homes …the domestic look of drying laundry adorned fronts of houses and draped across balconies; shrines to the Madonna were peppered here and there; ‘shower-curtained’ doorways tempted you to peek inside; lofty balconied statues of Jesus with arms outstretched recalled Rio de Janeiro; while boatmen of various specialty busied themselves offloading every manner of sustenance and supply to this island world – everything including the tourists!

Though nowhere as intimate as Venice, Burano is alive with colors. Italians can never be accused of being timid when it comes to decorative color styles - take the interior of our Italian cruise ship for instance. True to form, the Buranese paint their houses in brightness. Everywhere you look, you'll see houses clad in blue, green, lime, pink, rose, mustard, lavender, purple, and yellow to mention a few. One with burnt orange stucco walls, bright blue shutters and a purple primo piano (first floor) might cause paint-makers Sherwin-Williams to turn over in their respective graves! They say that colors link God with humanity. If true, this place is heaven sent. Tradition says this custom may have had its origins in the local practice of painting houses the color schemes of local fishing boats. And if you think nowadays you can just get a ladder and go ahead and paint, think again. Big brother is watching! You must send a request to the government, which responds by notifying you of the authorized colors permitted for that property! Such is the price to live in an historic canvas.

Burano is not Venice. It lacks the jumble of ornate Moorish and baroque marble palace facades we are so accustomed to seeing in the floating city. Instead, Burano is more modest in every respect - even its canals are narrower, somewhat tempting to a long-jumper who might just make it across. The grand architecture of Venice is replaced by the simpler look and mood of a small Italian town with a population on the order of a cruise ship's manifest. Because Burano's houses tend to be small, the island presents a cheerful coziness. What it surrenders in grandeur it recoups in the quaintness of something on the order of a Dickens style movie set, making it for us "the best of times".

Surrounded by the sea, fishing is one traditional occupation; the other being merletto (lace-making), the reason for our visit. Lacemaking began on the island in the 16th century following the import of the technology from Venetian-ruled Cyprus. The industry waned and flowed through the centuries, at times relying on a Scuola di Merletti (school of lacemaking) to help it survive. Today this old school in Galuppi Square is also home to the Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum), one of the few attractions in town.

Yarn knitters stand by their pearl stitches while the counting-cross-stitchers perseverate over hoops of knotted threads, yet it is the minute ‘nano-craft’ and sometime convoluted bobbin controlled designs of lacemaking which truly astounds. Few today continue to make point lace in the traditional manner by needle and thimble protected finger. In fact, it is in limited supply. Today, machines and low cost workers in Hong Kong are replacing the Buranese women of yesteryear. Fewer and fewer are to be found sitting in a chatting circle with pillows resembling hand muffs on their laps working at this craft. You can just imagine how time-consuming and therefore extremely expensive these handmade items are. With fewer women in Burano willing to sacrifice the time or with the necessary skills to make these delicate works of art, less and less lace is actually handmade on Burano. Instead, much to their distress, mourning a life that is vanishing, everyone complains about the imports. We'd seen this movie before on an earlier visit to Murano. There too, "made in China" was ever threatening. Yet the machine-made pieces are themselves beautiful. Tainted only because they are made a lot faster by lower paid workers (which in itself is one big taint), they are nevertheless a complex chore to create and as intricate in design as anything fashioned by hand.

Though we were a little late getting there, we were still traveling in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci who visited in 1481. On that occasion, he purchased a handmade altar-cloth for the Duomo in Milan. It had to have been a bargain compared to today’s prices. Did I mention that prices are stratospheric? Let me reiterate it then ... a large handmade piece such as a tablecloth (somewhat on the order of an altar-cloth I’d say) can run as high as $4,000-5,000! Lesson to take away … better be sure to check on the table manners of whomever you plan to invite over!

Around and around we walked on a lace carousel. If the concept of a carousel’s brass ring existed here, it would certainly be covered, if not fashioned entirely of lace, for lace was everywhere. Lace is king! There were even hats made of lace accompanied by every imaginable accoutrement from lace parasols, pillows, doilies, handkerchiefs to everything imaginable for an infant’s christening. Lady’s lacey couture garments of intricate curly-cue patterns, many in subdued shades (see photo album) as though grafted from the rainbow color pallet of mythical Iris, adorned every storefront. If you hesitated to examine their elegant appearance, a diligent employee, often the owner, would pander for your continued attention while pointing out every detail of their exquisite merchandise and going to lengths to point out that their wares were the genuine thing. Much to my relief, our purchases were limited to a single item, and thankfully, not a table cloth! Infected with sticker shock, Maria Elena hesitated to consider buying anything. We had come this far so I urged her to get something to remember Burano by. She had seen a shawl earlier. Later when she saw the same item again, she bargained with the clerk and got it at a reduced price. Brava! If you ever see her with her purple and green peacock shawl accented with Morano glass beads, you’ll know exactly where it came from.

We walked as far as the Oblique Bell Tower where we sat and mingled with the pigeons before heading back toward the ferry station. We were hard pressed for time with a return trip in the face of a tourist population now wide awake. Conscious of this fact, we had budgeted our limited time. Unfortunately, and I know this will disappoint some of you, we were unable to sample proper Buranese cuisine, other than a horrid panini. As we waited once again for a return vaporetto, a cold Moretti beer somewhat came to its rescue. We should have opted for the fish!

A woman with us aboard the return ferry suggested that it would be just as fast if we walked across Venice's Cannaregio quarter as opposed to circumnavigating it, so once again at Fondamente Nove, we departed the vaporetto to travel cross-country. All the while we attempted to move as straight toward our destination as a crow might fly. Luckily none of the streets or canals had changed, for we still relied on our outdated map to settle on our route. We’d never been in this part of Venice before. Our detour was punctuated with quaint arched bridges so characteristic of Venice. This area's special sites include the Jewish Ghetto (the oldest in Europe) and the Church of Madonna dell'Orto, founded in 1350, but we were ‘flying south’ as it were and had little time to alight anywhere, at least not for long. This district had more of a residential quality to it but as we neared the Ponte Degli bridge (also known as the “Scalzi” or barefoot bridge ) the commercialism of Venice resurfaced. If we had gone straight ahead we would have passed in front of the Santa Lucia rail station and crossing a footbridge arrived once again at the bus plaza. Instead, we decided to cross Ponte Degli, our shoes still on, though careful to not step on the knock-off handbags, watches, sunglasses and other assorted merchandise laid out on blankets and peddled by teams of tenacious young men. We then walked the streets round behind San Simeone Piccolo church to emerge in a park and then a bridge later into the now familiar bus plaza. It was a sight that refreshes and this time, far less energetic and nowhere as perky than when we had started out, we took advantage of the bus provided to return us to the waiting ‘Fortuna’. Mission accomplished!

Burano had been special. I wish we hadn't been so rushed, but the reality of cruise-life gets in the way. Granted two wishes, my second would be to have experienced Burano by night. Burano lacked the whoring commercialism of Santorini and Rhodes where everything seemed for sale, the regimented prissiness of Dubrovnik or the sensuality of nearby Venice. Dickens once wrote, “He went to the church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro ... and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed of any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.” Symbolized not by gondolas and crumbling palaces but by the vibrant splash of colors surrounding you, this picture perfect village, adorned in a sea of lace ... may it always equally remain a statement of elegant, inestimable pleasure.

Taken down and dutifully reported by ....

That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Burano”.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rhodes - a crossroad in time and cultures

I Don't Know When or Where exactly it happens, but it does. Somewhere mid-Atlantic, maybe as early as the Outer Banks, you'll notice forks begin to turn. By the time you arrive in Europe, Italy for example, they've completely turned over. The phenomenon is so obvious that if I were to cover your eyes and fly you for a few hours, even in circles for part of them, and then removed the blindfold in some anonymous restaurant, you could easily tell which side of the Atlantic you were on. Apparent though it now seems, of all the trips we've taken, we hadn't noticed this before. It was only while on our Greek isle cruise that I first noted this phenomenon. With eating being such a large part of cruising and with so many Europeans aboard, since after all it was an Italian cruise line, it wasn't long before I began to notice the maneuvers going on in their plates. Forgive me because as you know I'm not the greatest detective, even when the obvious is staring me in the face. For sake of a better name, let's call their technique "Continental" and ours "American" style. Doing the Continental, Europeans hold their forks in one hand and their knives with the other. This is our convention as well but a main difference is that they never seem to put their knives down! Well sometimes they do, but it's only long enough to pick up another utensil, such as a spoon, which they'll then grip throughout their meal. Theirs is truly a two fisted approach! Most apparent and a dead giveaway that you have arrived is how they manipulate their forks with the tines pointed down. I wonder if spy agencies like the CIA or Mossad teach their agents to avoid "out-of-place" forking so as not to give themselves away? In general, it's tines pointed up, American style, while the tines are pointed down, Continental style. When cutting, American etiquette is to hold the fork upside down. Because most forks have a curve, this positions the tines downward into the food and holds it for cutting. We then turn our forks over, pointing the tines up once again, as we bring it to our mouths. Continental style, the "tines down" to "tines pointing up" in the time it takes to reach your mouth just doesn't happen. Tines down is about it, all the time! It's fascinating to also watch how they direct food to their forks and the nonchalant maneuvers they perform to pile a bit more mash and one more pea onto their inverted forks, stabbed into a bite of meat, all the while using their knives in well developed plowing, buttering and flanking techniques. How did it get this way? Well I'm guessing we colonists left the Old World for the Americas well before that French invention of the tined fork was widespread enough for style to develop and transfer with our ancestors across the Atlantic. For better or worse, we each developed our own inimitable and now very characteristic styles. By the time I took notice of this behavior, we'd arrived at the island of Rhodes (again confirming how quick I am on the uptake!). While it was 9 AM inside the ship, it appeared to be 1400 AD in Rhodes. With a seaside panorama including idyllic windmills, brooding fortifications and mysterious mosques just beyond our ship's dining room windows, we were eager to put our breakfast forks and knives down, say "ciao-ciao" to our Argentine and Avignon tablemates and go ashore. The past was waiting for us.

The Greek Island of Rhodes marked our farthest away point since our cruise had departed Bari. From Rhodes, we would be heading back to Italian waters. Rhodes sits only a stone's throw off the coast of Turkey at a crossroads of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa. Its beautiful Mandrake Harbor was built by the ancient Greeks in 408 B.C. It is best known for once hosting one of the legendary seven wonders of the ancient world, the 107 foot high bronze Colossus of Rhodes statue. This statue was completed in 280 BC after twelve years of construction adjacent to the entrance to the seaport. Unfortunately, it lasted for only 56 years before collapsing when its rivets couldn't withstand the forces of an earthquake. As the story goes, though hard to believe, its remains cluttered the ground for over 800 years. When finally removed to be made into coins, it took some 900 camels to cart the debris away! Today, much much smaller statues of a doe and a buck, the modern symbols of Rhodes Town, have the duty of protecting the harbor. One sits to either side of the entrance to the old port atop a slender column. Their representation is just about everywhere, even found underfoot on manhole covers (see photo album). Rhodes' combination of old and new makes it a unique place to visit. With its windmills, mosque minarets and towering castle walls, it borders on a vintage 3D foldout storybook, with something new popping out at you with each page turn. The old city begins by the shore of the port and is surrounded by stone fortress walls. St Catherine's Gate with its twin crenellated turrets leads you directly into the heart of the city, so rich in history. This imposing entrance was built in 1478 by Grand Master Pierre d'Aubusson as part of his efforts to strengthen the fortifications against a much feared Ottoman (think today's Turkey) attack. He must have been clairvoyant because the attack actually occurred two years later. Today Rhodes Town has been transformed from fortress into a vibrant, compact cosmopolitan center of over 50,000 inhabitants. I loved its pillared windows with colonnade arches so reminiscent of Venice, its cafes each with its own flamboyant color pattern of chairs spilling into the streets and the terraced rooftops throughout town. Even the small alleys of this alluring city, some paved with river stones on edge in pebbled mosaic patterns, are appealing.

The Knights Hospitallers captured and established their headquarters on Rhodes when they left Italy after the persecution of the Knights Templar. They used Rhodes as their base of operations from 1309 to 1522 A.D. The most beautiful and interesting part of the old city for me was the related 'Street of Knights', an important street during the medieval phase of the town's history. It stretches from the New Hospital-Archaeological Museum at the bottom of the street to the Palace of the Grand Master at the top. This late Gothic period cobbled street is completely restored and lined by the buildings that these religious warriors once occupied. The street is flanked by 'hostels', many still sporting original marbled coats of arms, shields and heraldic emblems on their curbside walls. These ancient hotels were used by the knights for lodging, separated according to language or nationality. Walking along this historic avenue, I imagined how it may have appeared in the 14th and 15th centuries, vibrant with life and crowded with knights, footmen, horses and hawkers. The Knights of old have long since been replaced by camera toting tourists like ourselves. With its diverse architecture and rich history, stretching from the dawning of civilization to more recent bombardment during WWII, it has survived to become a veritable fairytale amusement park for visitors.

His Name Was Demitrius and he was a full blooded Greek and himself a hawker of sorts. We were in the back streets of Rhodes by this time, very close to the back wall of the old town. We had strayed far and realized it when we came upon sprayed graffiti which read "Freedom in Palistine". Demitrius' shop, or I should say his very young wife's shop, was named "The Greek Connection". It had nothing special to offer, just him. We were passing the place and he was sitting outside in the sun, on the corner, just across from his doorway. Our interchange began when on passing him I offered a "buon giorno". My inflection must have been way off for he was quick to reply "You are not Italian". That's all it took, I was interested. He was a character, the only character in this spontaneous street theater, and I liked him. We sat together, the three of us, and chatted for some time. He claimed to have once been a university sociology teacher until he lost his job. In fact, he was fired over a student's complaint, having struck him, but as he claimed, for cause. He had been insulted and had demanded an apology, which not forthcoming, concluded with a blow. Since then he had dabbled in flipping real estate here and there. He claimed he was a student of physiognomy. Ever heard of that one? I surely hadn't. It's a combination of the Greek word physis, meaning 'nature', and gnomon, meaning 'judge' or 'interpreter'. Figured it out yet? A 'physiognomisist', if that's what they are called, is someone who can assess a person's character or ethnic origin from their outer appearance, especially their facial appearance. The TV series "Lie to Me" revolves around an eccentric, in-your-face doctor with similar abilities who helps the police solve cases. Demitrius could have used a TV gig like that or at least a reality show. He prided himself in his ability to do these interpretations thus explaining why he had correctly challenged my "buon giorno". For a man with a supposed pulse on mankind, he mentioned how he didn't particularly like Russians or Germans and would not engage them when they passed by, following their physiognomic appraisal of course. Maybe it was their "stiff upper lip" outlook toward things but he also found the English seemingly frightened of emotion. We'd covered a lot in a short time. He was at once eccentric, quirky and evidently volatile, but then what would people say of me! He was on the mend at the moment from an injury to his foot, which he displayed to us. It had a nasty deep gash in it, administered by a startled family cat. This would-be Henry Higgins of sorts was sunning his foot at the moment. Being diabetic, it was healing slowly. Apparently physiognomy did not extend to assessing the character, let alone the intentions, of the family cat!

Another Business Person, this one a tall, lean, mustachioed sculptor, also did a brisk trade. His little shop was crowded with attractive busts, figurines and plaques of what else but the pantheon of mythological Greek gods and goddesses. Like the majority of those we talked with, he spoke English very well. Clad in a dusty, full length apron (see photo album), he was quick to tell us about a recent article published in an international journal about him and his studio. We already owned a Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and winemaking, which bedecks a wall in our kitchen and were excited to find a bust of its Greek equivalent, Dionysus. We'd seen others that day but his depiction was far superior to any of the others we'd seen. Luckily Dionysus, though lacking a passport, made it home in one piece and now adorns a wall in my home office to remind me when it is that 'happy hour' for a welcomed fruit-of-the-vine elixir. Corralled as I am by these two godheads, thus far my liquid diet is going just fine - I've already lost two whole days!

All, However, Is Not Rosy in Rhodes. For us it was a day of shopping and pleasurable sightseeing, yet for some Rhodians it is a question of day-to-day survival. We came to realize this shortly after seeing a tee-shirt proclaiming "Same Shit, Different Day" on sale outside a shop. I commented to Maria Elena how the shopkeepers are the ones who should be wearing them. A nearby saleswoman, overhearing me, asked what I meant. She was Belgian and had married a man from Rhodes and now made a living selling T-shirts and souvenirs. I explained what I'd meant ... that their lives must be numbingly the same day after day as one ship after another arrives in Rhodes, disgorges its load of tourists, gathers them up again and soon departs. How easy it must be to become anesthetized to the human traffic passing by each day. On that she related that she had seen a lot and some of it unfortunately had in fact been "shit". She described the hard times the Greek people were experiencing as a consequence of the belt tightening government actions then underway. Her words were a reminder of how a government, big enough to hand out entitlements was, also big enough to someday take them away. Case in point was that although there are but twelve months a year deserving, you would think, of twelve monthly retirement checks, Greece's entitlement state attitude had gone so far as to nonsensically legislate thirteen and later fourteen annual payments! During the "giving times", if twelve distributions were good, thirteen or fourteen had to be even better, especially if subsequently followed by "thank-you" election votes. Along with some corruption involving secret bank accounts, they had legislated themselves into poverty through loose fiscal policies. She said she was fortunate to have her business in a place like Rhodes. The tourist trade, though not as robust as in past years, thankfully still reliably flowed daily past her door. The unfortunate were current retirees who were seeing the government pensions they had been receiving, cut. Here in the US, we are thankfully only talking about government social security modifications for future recipients, not those currently receiving them. Hopefully it will stay that way. She, like many of her compatriots, was no stranger to sadness. She related how some, distraught because they could no longer make ends meet, had committed suicide. Peeling the veneer away had revealed a darker side to life here. I wonder if the next day she had donned one of her own T-shirts in silent protest or maybe even affirmation.

Tired From Shopping along busy Socrates Street and out-of-the-way places like Demitrius' "Greek Connection" lost among narrow cobbled alleyways, we decide to find a place to relax. It was not difficult, for tucked among the trendy boutiques and designer shops are an excess of eateries. We soon found 'Gaorag' (George?), or to be accurate, he found us, which was after all his job. He hooked us into the "Golden Olypiade Restaurant" and became our waiter there under the trees by an archeological site in the middle of Evdimou Square, where roads and cultures cross paths. We started with ouzo which was soon enough followed by white "moschofilero" (mos-ko-fee-le-ro) Rhodian wine, some fish, and because we enjoyed it so much in Santorini, a heaping of tzatziki with pita bread. To really fit in, we tried very hard to eat with our forks upside down but couldn't do it, at least not consistently. We'd blown our cover I think due to the ouzo or maybe it was the vino! Men in trench coats may have taken notice!

Our Time Up, we pivoted from the streets to back aboard ship. Heading back, we walked along the same shorefront that an assortment of invaders, each in their own time, had stormed in their attempts to besiege this city, some successfully, many not. Mare stopped to walk in the sea and combed the beach for tumbled pieces of colored glass smoothed by the waves and sand. Back aboard "The Fortuna" we rested on deck before dinner as preparations to depart were underway. Below us in the exercise area of a lower deck, the Spanish lyrics of Choo-Choo-Wah were pumping through the speakers as toning cruisers writhed to the beat, pumping their arms, thumbs up of course, in keeping with its catchy lyrics. Relaxing there, enjoying the view of Rhodes one last time over the heads of the exercisers, I thought of two things I failed to do in Rhodes. The first was to try the layered, Greek oven-casserole dish called "moussaka" (moo-sah-KAH). Layers of eggplant slices, cheese, and a meat sauce, are topped with a thick white sauce. It is something akin to Italian lasagna, with eggplant substituted for the pasta and white for a red tomato sauce. My other failure was to experience a true Turkish bath. If the cruise line had offered a land tour featuring a Turkish bath followed by a stop-off for some moussaka, I'd have signed up. To correct these oversights, we'll just have to dream of returning here once again, at once a fortress, world bazaar and, with forks upside down of course, a foodie's paradise.

Our Aquatic Life Afloat was nearing an end with only visits to Dubrovnik and Venice remaining. I didn't want to see our adventure end, but it had to. Looking off toward old Rhodes, sloping up from the water's edge to its far back walls, in the gossamer light of late afternoon, we attempted to retrace the streets and areas we'd traipsed through. We could see there were many more we hadn't explored, and needless to say, countless people we hadn't somehow interacted with or accidently met, for it is not just the place but also its people. There was so much more but no more time. Long anticipated as they usually are, our travels seem to fly by in a blink. We count down to their long awaited arrival and just as quickly, but reluctantly, begin to count up, keeping track of how many days remain - "Just arrived, still lots of time", ... "Gosh it's already Wednesday", ... "Oh no, we go home tomorrow". This lends weight to the notion that there is pleasure in anticipation alone. There is simple enjoyment in imagining and dreaming of what some experience will be like, what may lay ahead or what exposure to something or someone new will bring. Here for instance we had met three; a philosopher, an artisan and a shopkeeper. Though we may never be able to pass by and say "buon giorno" tomorrow or the next day, time and circumstance had allowed our paths to cross, however briefly, and for this we are grateful.

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Rhodes”.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Santorini ... Pompeii of the Aegean

Recently Maria Elena and I witnessed the aftermath of one of the greatest manmade disasters of our time. We were in New York City at One World Trade Center, once the site of the Twin Towers. Some ten years later, like a phoenix rising, the new Freedom Tower reaches for the sky from the footprint of one of the former towers. Starting from a cubic base, its square edges quickly chamfer back, morphing its outward appearance from square into eight, tall, elongated triangles. Like a newborn bird being nurtured in its nest, massive birdlike mothering cranes today relentlessly feed their young steel, concrete and glass. Steadily it grows, its glassy mirror-like feathers transforming the blemish of devastation into a shining example of man’s creativity and determination. Only weeks before, we visited another site of catastrophic disaster, this one at the hands of nature long, long ago …

The day began like any other Ura remembered with a turquoise sea lapping the shore of her island under a cobalt scrim sky. Though still early in the day, she was already hot as she sat in her robe by the shore watching intently as her father cast his net onto the sea from a jetty of rocks. She knew this to be his favorite spot to catch fish. By some intuition though, she sensed things were not the same today. Somehow her world was changing. The ground had shaken occasionally, sometimes violently, for one, two, three, and for lack of knowing a greater number, ‘many’ days now. Though young, she recalled that this had occurred often in the past but not with this much intensity or frequency. Her father had brought news from Thera that the priests in the temple there had offered sacrifices to appease the Mountain Mother Goddess. Yet the shaking and heaving had continued through another night and now a plume of threatening grayish-white smoke belched skyward continually from the mountaintop. Only rain fell from the sky but this rain was like none she had ever seen, nor had anyone in the village, even the old ones. She knew no single word to describe it. They could only noddingly agree that it resembled the white powder left from a fire. Now it was falling on the grain fields that covered the slopes behind them. Had the goddess who ruled over nature not heard their plea? What could it mean? Strangely, up until now, her father's net had been empty. Now as he hauled and tugged at the net, his loincloth shifting to match the movements of his straining legs, she knew he had finally been successful. One look at his used face, however, told her something here was also not right. She saw his expression instantly change to fear as he realized that his haul was a bounty of death. His catch neither struggled to breath nor flapped against the net. All the fish were already dead. Her father turned looking from the net toward Ura and beyond her to the mountain that dominated their island. He had a meaningful look as if trying to tell her something. She saw his eyes widen in disbelief, just for a moment, as his lips attempted to form a word but there wasn’t enough time remaining in their world. Behind her a thunderous cracking sound of cataclysmic force exploded into the air from the summit. It was the sound of the closing of life. Her last conscious image just as she was caught up in the super incendiary blast itself and hurled into oblivion was of her father vanishing from his rocky perch. In seconds, the ground ruptured ejecting tons of earth miles into the atmosphere with a force thousands of times more powerful than an atom bomb. Her world had changed forever.

I have no idea what native Minoans like Ura called their island approximately 3,600 years ago when this imagined human tragedy played itself out at the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. If there was sufficient warning of what was going to happen, there was still little chance of escape for the blast affected the entire Aegean Sea. In doing so, it reshaped Santorini (a reference to St. Irene) into an enormous crater like those on the moon, though too distant for us to appreciate. Distinct from the moon, however, the ensuing crater filled with the sea to create the Santorini we know today. Unlike Ura's, this would be our first conscious image of Santorini as we floated to a halt inside the caldera itself aboard the Costa "Fortuna", just arrived from Katakolon (Olympia).

Today sea joins together what remains of land. Crescents of stark terrain encircle the tranquil waters of this lagoon, once the boiling heart of a volcano. From the ship what strikes you are the incomparable 1000 foot high volcanic cliffs of the caldera which surround you. Its rocky walls are broken in but two places allowing access to the lagoon for ships like ours. Yet even more striking are the towns (Oia and Fira) perched defiantly along the rim of these lofty pediments forged in fire. The majesty of the scene remains this awesome panorama. Looking at this grandeur is humbling. It makes you feel small, bordering on insignificant. Like frothy vanilla ice cream confections with blue-domed sprinkles scattered here and there, they seem to drape over the chocolate colored precipice, threatening to plummet into the sea far below at any moment. They speak in true testament to the creative ingenuity of man. Beyond the rim on the opposite perimeter facing an exterior shore and sea, the terrain, in striking contrast, gradually slopes away. Here can be seen vineyards, even the 6000 foot runway of a local airport connecting Santorini with the world. There are no docking facilities for a large ship like ours. To transit the distance from ship to shore, we relied on hired local shuttles and our own ship’s tenders. Approaching shore at the tiny port of Skala Fira, the unmitigated sheerness of these stark cliffs is amplified even further.

Once again 'feet dry', we discovered there are two primary ways to ascend to Fira, which draped over the lip of the caldera high above us. One was via the modern technology of a funicular, the other in more traditional style atop a donkey. I opted for the zigzag hee-haw assent on donkey-back, but however I tried to assuage her fears, I could not convince Maria Elena to give it a try. Even the near vertical ride in the funicular, dangling on a cable thread, had her nervous enough to question whether our insurance policies were current!

Safely arrived, we discovered a scene appealing to all our senses. We found lively Fira to be a cobweb of whitewashed streets punctuated by an occasional blue dome or blue colored fenced courtyard. White and blue, the colors of the Greek flag, dominated all that man has created here. In addition to the road connecting Fira with Oia, we came across two general pedestrian thoroughfares running parallel along the lip of the volcanic cone. Closer to the inner edge is a street basically dedicated to private residences and boutique hotels with bijou swimming pools intermixed among coffee shops and patio-size restaurants. Occasionally, we'd have to make way for an overtaking donkey and its elderly wizened-faced owner coming up behind us, fast! The other route, higher up, runs through the colorful chaotic heart of a busy commercial district. Here, interspersed among the bustle of tee-shirt shops, souvenir enterprises, restaurants and nighttime hotspots were some finer outlets offering locally crafted products such as handmade linens and works of art. I doubted that the Greek helmets we saw at one stop (see photo album) had seen action with the ‘Three Hundred’ at Thermopiles, but they certainly looked authentic!

We're lucky sometimes, maybe a lot. Like that time outside enchanting Montalcino in Tuscany when we happened to visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo. That morning, we were early enough to chance upon a handful of monks chanting in the dusty, early morning shafts of light streaming into the chapel. It was only Maria Elena, myself, the monks and no doubt God who were present. The stone-fed acoustics and haunting monophonic mantra of Gregorian chant were of heaven. Circumstances were somewhat similar as we walked a back street of Santorini. Like Sant'Antimo, a faint sound, this time of an organ, disturbed the morning silence. It seemed to be coming from a blue-domed church just ahead so we opened the gate and went inside to investigate. In the cool interior, a lone man sat at an organ strangely situated right on the main floor, amongst the parishioners, if there had been any. Apparently he was diligently practicing and gave us no mind as we hesitated to listen. As to what he was mastering, not knowing my Mozart from my Bach, I'm no help. I'll blame my camera too. If its pixel count were only greater, I could tell you its title. Zoom though I try today, its title remains fuzzy. No matter, for in my mind the image of that empty church, the solo organist in among the pews and the gently wafting sound of his composition, remain vivid.

Always in need of good food to ease our way through life, we decided to try a place for lunch recommended by a local shopkeeper. We found rooftop “Parea Tavern” easily, up a flight of stairs and around a corner or two. It was about as authentic as a tourist could expect in the heart of a true tourist trap. Besides a mandatory cloudy-cold glass of licoricy ouzo, we tried the octopus tentacles preceded by that refreshing Greek treat that combines yogurt, cucumber, garlic, sour cream and dill into what is known world-over as Tzatziki. Earlier, while exploring a quiet lane, I was surprised to see what looked like tentacles dangling in a window. They were threaded on a wire like a necklace, interspersed between colorful yellow banana peppers and cherry tomatoes. At first, I thought they were some sort of tchotchke or plastic ornament, like those garlands of Mexican red peppers that light up or those humorous strings of rubber chickens. It didn’t say “do not touch” so when I did, gripping the rubbery shaft of one of the icicle-like "beads" of this necklace, the slimy surface and pungent fishy odor on my hand disclosed the obvious – these were real. I’d have never made it as a spy, or playing safe, even as a detective, even with the added clue that this was a restaurant window after all! Wow, they were like firm little bull-whips! So we ordered octopus! It would join our culinary annals of adventurous dining along with such exotic delicacies as rattlesnake and horsemeat. Contrary to all the evidence, the octopus wasn’t fishy at all but then it didn’t taste like chicken either. Each tentacle approached a foot in length. As you would expect, they were covered on one side with circular suction cups resembling reddish washers, some the size of candy “Lifesavers”. They came with no instructions but after a few mouthfuls, it was obvious that it would be much easier to shave the suction cups off beforehand, instead of maneuvering each in your mouth before picking them out like a fish-bone. Now there's a tip for you. We loved it so much we'll be sure to order it again in maybe a hundred years! In the meantime, we'll stick with calamari.

Santorini is also a place shrouded in time with fact lying somewhere between science and myth. When truth is lost, myth fills in nicely. One popular speculation holds that the Minoan eruption of Santorini was the source of the destruction of legendary Atlantis - Atlantis and Santorini being one and the same. As with Pompeii, volcanic ash covered the entire island including the ancient village of Akrotiri. Excavations of its well preserved ruins reveal that the layout of this city resembles Plato's description, however limited, of the legendary lost city of Atlantis. And here all along I thought Atlantis was in the mid-Atlantic or at least in the Bermuda Triangle! Whether Atlantis or not, a recent documentary film, The Exodus Decoded (click to play), aligns the timeframe of the volcanic destruction of Santorini with the timeline of Exodus. Here it is postulated that this devastating volcanic event can account for all ten biblical plagues that were visited on Egypt at the hand of Moses. I find this a stretch. Fortunately, movie director Cecil B. DeMille had Charlton Heston (Moses) and Yul Brynner (Rameses) stick to the biblical script in his epic remake of "The Ten Commandments".

We never made it to Oia, home to many more of the blue signature domes for which Santorini is known. Limited time and distance made that a tall order since its perch was further along the island’s ridgeline. We understand it is the quieter of the two main towns with more of a quaint Greek atmosphere about it and absent the touristy metropolitan air of Fira. We would save it for a return visit, for we found Santorini worthy of return. It did not have a Trevi Fountain like Rome’s to assure your return with the toss of a coin. You might try but I doubt whether a coin tossed over your shoulder could make it all the way to the sea. For now, we’d just have to imagine what sunset over the caldera must be like - a brilliant disk in a peach-red western sky silently descending into the sea to announce end of day. Far, far removed, another sphere, this one in Times Square, yearly slips from its mast to announce a new year. One site is denoted by an awe inspiring hole filled by the sea, the other near an equally inspiring hole, is filled daily with fervent and resolute construction - both rising from the ashes of apocalyptic devastation, never to be forgotten.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Santorini”.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Greek Odyssey

"Come closer, famous Odysseus, Achaea's pride and glory - moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song." ... Island of the Sirens, The Odyssey

When Amelia put down the telephone at the DiMaio Travel Agency in Calitri, the last piece of the plan, begun months earlier, was completed. All we needed to do was “follow the signs to the parking”. We’d planned a cruise to the Greek islands, Croatia and Italy departing from Bari, located on the Adriatic coast of Italy. This port city sits just about opposite Naples and is about two hours from our home in Calitri, which itself lies about halfway between the two coasts. You can imagine that Greece, an island nation for the most part, offers many places to visit. With so many inviting venues, we were at the mercy of the cruise line gods on exactly where we’d put in, no matter how insistent the 'Sirens' might call to us from shore. So time was spent planning, mostly sorting through options, concentrating on the islands. Like any tour though, you get to visit a place for only a few hours before moving on. The idea being that if you find a place to your liking, make a note of it and return again with sufficient time to fully enjoy it. This particular sampling of the Greek archipelago would see us visit Santorini and Rhodes, following a stop at Katakolon.

We drove to Bari, giving ourselves plenty of time to meet the Costa Cruise Line’s “La Fortuna” enroute to Bari from Venice. Americans were expected to join this particular cruise in Venice, a fact confirmed by the American Costa Cruise agents in the US. If we wanted to catch the ship when it stopped for the day in Bari, we had to work through an Italian travel agency for help with reservations. Venice was just too far north for us and with Bari being so close, we opted for the Italian connection. We knew language would be a challenge, since all the paperwork and email traffic would be in Italian, but being retired, I had the time to work on it, so we dealt with Costa through an agency, from of all places, Monaco.

We departed Calitri with time to spare. I figured on being delayed by getting disoriented at least twice or seriously lost at least once but had not taken into account the Carabinieri police! Of course they wanted to give us a proper send-off so as we were making our way through Bisaccia, on our way toward the East-West autostrada, we were signaled to pull over. This time, along with all the other standard paperwork they require (passport, driver’s license, international driver’s license and auto rental documents), I included my military ID. Why not, it sometimes has the mesmerizing effect of speeding things up, if not terminating them completely. I have a feeling it did just that because only minutes later, another officer, apparently the senior officer, returned everything along with a bon-voyage salute! Maybe I’d been profiled right off their list but there is nothing like professional courtesy at times like this.

We’d had some sunshine on the drive to the coast. However, at the very moment I was unloading our luggage, before driving to the parking garage that Amelia had arranged for us, the skies parted and a deluge ensued, interspersed with growls of thunder. I only hoped this was not a harbinger of weather to follow for at this point in the Spring, it had been unseasonably cool and wet. The ship had arrived. Passengers were disembarking and heading off for adventures in the historic center of Bari. Hopefully, this would not include losing a wallet to some enterprising pickpocket. We checked-in and made our way to the embarkation area. There were not many of us joining the ship in Bari. Nothing like what I imagined Venice had been like the day before. While we waited for the call to board, we purchased a wine package - seven of the beet red kind and six large bottles of water for 99€. It was apparent that everything was à la carte, even water!

With so many nationalities aboard, ranging from French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Japanese, Americans and Russians to name a few, you can imagine how confusion, brought on by language differences, could develop. Even what you’d think were iron-clad symbols didn’t always work. For example, I knew immediately this would be a fun cruise when two elderly women, arm-in-arm, walked into the men’s room in the embarkation building, fortunately, just as I was finishing up. No wonder they still give you instructions on how to fasten/unfasten a seat belt when boarding an aircraft! There is always someone who has no clue, or in this case, had yet to see a urinal. Trying to avoid 'Tower of Babel' confusion, public address announcements attempted to keep everyone informed. They were similar to a verbal "Rosetta Stone" since they repeated the same thing in multiple languages, one following the other. Maybe they did work but they also made for very long harangues, especially the repetitive "let’s all play bingo" ones and the customary lifeboat drill!

Once aboard, like any inquisitive passenger, we explored the ship to get our bearings. The bigger of the two dining rooms, "The Michelangelo", was aft. The smaller "Raffaello" dining room was amidship, while a massive theater, complete with a revolving stage for those evening performances, sat far forward. Lounges, cafeterias and a casino connected everything together. Navigating fore and aft we were fine but the twelve or so levels, some with tricky access between decks, made for something on the order of a hunt for the 'Golden Fleece' every time we needed to get somewhere. We cared least about our room. We only planned to use it to dress in and of course, sleep. The one thing visibly lacking, which we've enjoyed on other cruises, was a promenade deck. You would think Italians, especially on this, a premier Italian cruise line, accustomed as they are to an evening passeggiata (stroll), would insist on one! But maybe these were big city Italians who had given up on the passeggiata tradition long ago. Oh, there was a deck with a planked floor but it dead-ended at the front and back of the ship, preventing you from "promenading" with your lady around the entire ship. It also lacked the customary lounge chairs with blankets (it was still cool) we had come to enjoy on past cruises. What there was of this deck had lifeboats suspended above the railings. Here in static suspension, they only served to obstruct the view. I guess this benchmark of former sailing days has gone the way of the Dodo, apparently replaced by expensive rooms with balconies in accordance with a survival of the richest philosophy.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. As promised, we found our seating time and dining room assignment in our cabin. Something, however, had apparently gone wrong in the translation of our earlier request because we'd been given the early dinner session in the smaller of the dining rooms. We'd have to see about that, so off we went to the maitre-d' for help. The other specific request I'd made was that we wanted to sit at a table with Italians. This seemingly boggled their minds. We were looking for cultural immersion, even at dinner! Was I being too pushy? How else could we expect to meet any Italians and practice the language since they tended to travel in large close-knit family groups? We only hoped we had not been assigned a table for two or to a totally "American" table. Well we had. Seems the early dinner in the "Raffaello" had the American contingent herded together around large tables. We had to get out of this. Huffing an "allora", followed by several others (something equivalent to our "um"), to express his confusion over why we'd want to do that, the dining room manager told us to come to the later seating in the "Raffaello" and sit at a temporary table, just for that night. "But you are Americans!" was all he seemed to be able to say. Our out-of-the-ordinary request was apparently too much to handle on the spot. We'd find our new assignment in our cabin the next day. Fair enough. That night we shared a table with an Italian couple. Luciano was a criminal lawyer and his wife, Gabriella, looked like a double for actress, Helen Mirren. I almost asked for her autograph! Somewhere after the "Frittelle di Gamberetti" (Shrimp Pancakes) but before the "Anatra laccata al Miele" (Duck Breast lacquered with honey) we broke the ice and began to communicate.

The next morning, we were up early to watch our arrival at the small fishing village of Katakolon. A mostly overcast sky with random patches of bright sunlit water surrounded our ship as we watched man ashore lash the tie-down lines as we nudged alongside the peer. Katakolon is the gateway by sea to Olympia. The town's center had a souvenir shop main street atmosphere overlooking the Ionian Sea. To avoid any misstep or Cyclops encounter along the way, we had decided to take a tour of Olympia offered by the cruise line. We were headed about 50 minutes inland and thought it best to experience Olympia with an expert guide. We waited in one of the lounges for our call to board the bus. With various tours departing every 15-20 minutes, it seemed the PA rang out continuously until we realized it was our turn to go ashore when the English version came around. It was on the tour bus that we met our guide, Diana. She was a full-figured gal dressed in a black wrap-around jacket, shoestring-tied in front, over a light blue cowl-necked jersey and a brown ankle-length skirt. The fashion police seemed to be on vacation too. A pink purse hung from her shoulder and she carried a purple umbrella large enough to insure she was shaded, and for us, insuring we'd always be able to spot her. We loved listening to her voice. I swear it was right out of that comic movie classic, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. It was reminiscent of the rhythmical, inflective voice of Greek-American actor Michael Constantine in his role as the proud to be of Greek heritage, Windex bottle-toting, Gus Portokalos. He'd say, "Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek". I loved Gus in that role and I loved our guide's Greek accented English with words stretched out in an exaggerated Gus-like fashion. She'd follow each sentence with a questioning "um?" much like the ubiquitous Canadian expression "ay?" tacked on to the end of just about every assertion, turning it into a question.

One of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity, Olympia is the birth-place of the Olympic Games, held then as today, every four years. The ancient Greeks flocked there for more than a millennium (776 BC- 393 AD) to celebrate the sacred games until Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the games then considered reminiscent of paganism. Olympia is also known for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus that once stood inside the temple dedicated to him. In fact, the first games honored Zeus, the father of the gods. The statue was sculpted by Pheidias but more importantly it was later named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Diana took us down what was once the main street of this city, then a complex of temples, athlete houses, treasuries and public buildings. Of course, nothing but ruins remain today with much of the destruction due to earthquakes. The devastation was particularly evident by the Temple of Zeus where sections of its columns, once supporting this colossal building, lie about like pieces from a giant game of checkers. To get a better photo of this debris field, I climbed on top of one of the column pieces. I thought I'd stepped on an alarm, for almost immediately a whistle sounded and a plain clothes security person appeared to shoo me off the stone I'd mounted. I bet he had a brother with the Carabinieri! Though not roped off in any way and with no objection whatsoever to sitting on these broken column pieces, I'd somehow exceeded some ordinance. Needless to say, I got a lot of attention but never got the shot!

Our guide related an interesting story about one of the 293 games that took place there. Back then, women were not only not allowed to participate but could not even attend the games. If caught, they were punished with the terrible death of being dropped from a nearby cliff. However, such a horrific demise did not deter one mother from attending, whose son was competing in a field event in the stadium. While athletes competed in the nude, judges were clothed so this resourceful mother disguised herself as one of the judges. When her son did win, her cheering gave away her true identity and she was arrested. Their conundrum was that she was from a famous Olympian athletic family. Her father had been a champion, her husband a champion and now that honor had fallen to her son. How could this daughter, wife and now mother of champions be put to death? Being politically correct, even for that day and age, they sidestepped the issue entirely, changed procedures and made it a requirement that judges also attend in the nude! With four years between events, who would remember the turn about? It has a ring about it similar to our four year cycle of presidential elections!

One of the many other interesting tidbits had to do with word origin. Initially, the games consisted of a single event, a sprint along the length of the "stade" at Olympia. The starting line, where I lightheartedly readied myself for a mock race, is still there, in fact (see photo album). The length of Olympia's stade, therefore, became somewhat of a standard measure of distance, equaling approximately 200 meters. The Romans later picked up this unit of measure, though theirs was slightly shorter. Today, it is the origin of the word "stadium", from the tiered infrastructure surrounding a Roman track, a stadium in length.

As expected, we made the customary stop at a souvenir shop on our return. Personally, we got off course and made our first stop a few doors away at a café-like restaurant for an ice laden glass of ouzo, an anise-flavored Greek aperitif, much like Italian Sambuca. We'd come ashore, much like ancient mariners, not for water or some honey flavored mead, but to slowly sip licorice flavored ouzo, so symbolic of Greek culture. How could we visit Greece without sampling this cloudy (clear until you add ice) white nectar? They must have known the Italian cruise ship had arrived. It was Wednesday after all, and the “Fortuna” was expected to make its call. To entice any Italians there was even a buffet sign offering "meatballs with spaghetti" for 8.30€ or about $12 American (see photo album). We skipped the pasta! Though I guess it is considered poor form to drink ouzo "dry hammer" (drinking alcohol without eating), we were, after all, transients - tourists never to be seen again. We could, for a day, live vicariously. Following this taste that refreshes, reminiscent of a mouthful of “Good & Plenty” candy from our youthful days, we made our way to the gift shop. There I succumbed to what is called a "blue eye" and a string of "komboloi" worry beads, resembling prayer beads! My blue eye talisman consists of concentric blue and white circles on a wedge of glass. It is believed to have the power to turn away harm or ward off the curse of the evil eye by bending the malicious gaze back to the originator. Fans of the beads claim that flipping them creates a rush of adrenaline, followed by a soothing, calm sensation. Today, as I sit here clicking away at my keyboard, fresh from times of superstition, I'm well prepared to ward off evil and flip away my anxiety and nervous tension!

Back aboard the "Fortuna", we found our new dining arrangements. So far, everything had changed to our liking. With only a table number to go by, though, we were curious as to what we'd find when we arrived. How large would our table be? Some went as high as eight to a table. And would they be Italian? There were six of us in total - two Italian couples and ourselves, two Italian want-to-be's. To our surprise, the lawyer and his wife from the night before had also been assigned this table. Our 'Helen Mirren' had complained about the cool air in the Raffaello blowing on her from an overhead vent. For some reason, Italians seem always afraid of drafts. The other delightful couple, Maurizio and Rina, whom we got to know much better, were from the Veneto region. They had also been relocated, but exactly why, I can't recall. He was some type of police criminal investigator for the court system and she was a nurse. We appeared to be a table of self-inflicted, misfit transplants! Thinking about it though, we had gone from the Carabinieri, to a criminal prosecutor and had now added a crime investigator. What could it mean ... had I really committed some crime by stepping up on that chunk of sacred column? My twitch rate began to accelerate and it wasn't from the wine. Doubts came crowding in. Had I offended the gods or the head man himself, Zeus? I thought about it a while. When we got back to our cabin, I definitely needed to break out the blue eye and the beads. Thinking about what I was up against, I think what I really needed were extra strength blue eyed worry beads!

From the Rogue Tourist, Paolo

P.S. Our journey, far from epic, was for but 42 days, a handful of these on a Greek sea. It took Odysseus ten adventurous years to find his way home from Troy over these same waters with an Olympic challenge thrown in along the way for good measure. ... "Look here, friends, we ought to ask the stranger if he competes in something. ... At this, Alkinoos' tall son advanced to the center ground, and there addressed Odysseus: "Friend, Excellency, come join our competition, if you are practiced, as you seem to be. ... Enter our games, then; ease your heart of trouble. … He (Odysseus) leapt out, cloaked as he was, and picked a discus, a rounded stone, more ponderous than those already used by the Phaiakian throwers, and, whirling, let it fly from his great hand with a low hum. The crowd went flat on the ground - all those oar-pulling, seafaring Phaiakians - under the rushing noise. The spinning disk soared out, light as a bird, beyond all others. ... From "The Odyssey" by Homer

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Greek Odyssey".