Month: March 2015

The Problem with Coming Home

I love to travel.

Coming home is always nice, too.

But when you travel for a few weeks, the mail piles up, telephone calls pile up, and people have a pent up demand for your time.  They actually needed to speak to you, it seems.  Credit card companies don’t understand that  you didn’t get their bill in time to pay it.  The gardener needs to be reminded to cut the lawn.

While I am away if a potential client calls I will return the call from wherever I am.  I always say I am away on a vacation and ask if it is urgent.  If they can wait for my return, I encourage them to do it.

This time, as usual, one of these potential callers said his problem wasn’t urgent but he wanted to get it taken care of now anyway.  In other words, he wanted me to pay the $2 per minute to talk to him on the phone just so he could feel better.

People like that, people who feel they have a right to interfere with my free time without adequate reason, are no longer people I want as clients.  I politely told him if it wasn’t an emergency then maybe he should find someone else to help him.  I could easily help him.  It’s just that I only want to be working with people who have integrity and are not selfish like this person obviously is.

Getting back to the grind is hard.  While you’re doing it you feel like the vacation wasn’t worth it for all the extra effort you need to put forth to catch up.

But catch up you do, usually quicker than you think.  And  you’re ready for your next vacation again!

Last Day in Mallorca

March 18, 2015

The last day of our trip.  We’re in Cal D’Or.  I am still recovering from illness.  Once we got going, we took a stroll in the bright Mediterranean sun to a local beach flanked on both sides by deserted hotels.  We are visiting here too early in the season, obviously.  Walking around here we feel like we have the planet to ourselves, except for the many home repairmen whose tools you can hear off in the distance making the homes and hotels ready for the onslaught of tourists coming next month, I think.

Deserted, deserted, deserted.  That about says it all.  Not much to do.  Feeling ill and not wanting to do much.  But, soon leaving a very beautiful spot and wanting to take advantage of it.

Jackie took advantage of the internet we paid for and which expired at 4 PM.  She caught up with email, Jon Stewart and the New York Times while I rested some more.

We were nearly out of water.  We need it to make tea and brush teeth as the water tastes so bad.  The front desk didn’t have any to sell or give us—which they should, given the need for it.  They said to drive 5 minutes to the grocery store to get it.  Ugh.

Then we decided to take another walk in the opposite direction from the morning.  One block from the hotel we found a fruit store that also sold water!  The hotel should have known about this!  There were also some restaurants open in this area.  One Irish pub showed signs of having had a big St. Patrick’s Day party the night before.

Next we came across the entrance to the marina.  Thousands of beautiful yachts lined the shore. The homes along the shore were a bit older than the ones we’d seen earlier, but still beautiful.  The Mediterranean Sea was kicking up some swells, as the wind picked up.

We looked for a place for Jackie to have a coffee.  We had been told that any bar serves delicious coffee in Spain.  We were a bit limited as there were few open nearby.  We sat down at one.  Jackie had a delicious cup of coffee!  She also ordered a tuna sandwich which was out of this world for 3.50 Euros.  At a bar!  Since the exchange rate with the dollar is almost at par, that is about $3.70.  And it was enough to share.   As we entered the workmen were finishing up a cigarette and beer break and leaving.   We had the place to ourselves.

It’s nice to stumble upon things like this.  But, again, the hotel should have known about this when we asked where we could get a bite to eat, other than saying we had to get in the car and drive somewhere.

We stopped by the front desk to pay our bill.  “What’s down those stairs?” I asked.  That’s the sauna, Jacuzzi and gym, we were told.  Nice to know, now that we’re leaving!  You would think the hotel would have mentioned it earlier.  The gym looked basic but I could have used the sauna!  The bathtub in the room is so narrow it’s not really meant for bathing.  In fact you would have to fill it with the removable shower head.

We decided to head out in the afternoon sun for one last photo session near the fort.  I got some beautiful photos of the white Mediterranean houses on the seaside with the rough tide hitting the craggy rocks below.

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This would be a great place to visit in high season.  We stopped by several fancy hotels, all closed.  We also drove to the section of town called Porto Petro.  More gritty and urban.  It appears to be the old part of this area.  Also nothing doing.   I’ve seen a ghost town now.

The way back to Palma tomorrow is shorter through Porto Petro, so we will make this trip in the morning again as we return to the airport for the long trip home.

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Palma

March 17, 2015

The main city of Mallorca is Palma, sometimes called Palma de Mallorca.  We headed out early to explore it.  About 1 hour from where we are staying, we had only done the drive before at night.  It was quite beautiful to see it by day.

Palma is a bustling city of about 300,000 dominated by a cathedral and large marina with room for cruise ships to dock.  It has the feel of a much larger city.  When we arrived it seems a huge ship had recently docked as there were many tourists early in the morning competing with us for sidewalk space.  They seemed to mostly speak German.

I was surprised at how prosperous the city appeared.  We entered a covered “open air” market around 11 AM snack time and saw many of the locals taking their first break of the day.  Many stores were selling the same things we saw in Italy but at much lower prices.  That includes food.  All in all, Spain is a bargain.  The streets are similar to Italy in the old town area except that many Italian cities seemed to have a building code that required all the stones to be the same, whereas in Palma, the narrow streets were cobbled together with different building materials, similar to Perugia in Italy.  I particularly liked  the intricate balconies and the main plaza where we stopped for coffee.

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After we wandered around the city for a while, we tried to find our way by car to the castle on a hill which the tourist information desk gave me information about but could not give me the name of the street to turn on.  We gave up.

We headed to the beach which I was told is 15 kilometers long.  Very beautiful.  Lined with hotels as in Miami, but deserted this time of year because it is still a bit chilly to swim.  There were also many casinos.  I can see where Palma is a very good place to come vacation, a la Miami and Las Vegas wrapped in one.

We headed back to Cala D’Or as my stomach was still not up to snuff.  We stopped nevertheless for lunch, which the Spanish eat around 2-4, at a small town, Felanitx.  The front desk at the hotel had told us that any of the restaurants on the square in Felanitx would serve excellent typical Catalon food.  We were not disappointed.

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In Palma I wanted paella when Jackie stopped early in the morning for some typical Spanish tortilla and coffee.  But it was too early for me to eat.  In Felanitx, paella was the special of the day!  And very delicious.  Jackie ordered wine and got a full bottle brought to the table.  I ordered water and got the liter equivalent of a quart size bottle!  We were able to take home left overs including the water.  Good thing, as the water in Cala D’Or tastes terrible to me.

The hotel information left in the room says it’s safe to drink the water, but I can’t.  It has a strong lime taste.

We have to be at the airport back in Palma at 4:30 AM on Thursday.  With it being an hour away, we thought about moving to a Palma hotel for Wednesday night.  It was so difficult to find our way around Palma, and I was getting more comfortable with the drive from Cala D’Or; so we decided to just get an early start Thursday morning.  It will be a long jet-lagged day anyway.

As night started to fall, I had a relapse of sickness.  I didn’t feel nauseous like before, but I was cold and unenergetic.  I crawled up in bed.  Ugh.

 

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Cala D’Or

March 16, 2015

Woke up to a beautiful day in this Mediterranean paradise.  With hardly anyone around, we have the bay nearly to ourselves.  We reported the problems with the apartment.  Maintenance men were dispatched to fix the issues.

We took our first walk to the beach.  There are many marinas and summer fun activities here.  We had to search for things to do other than relax and recuperate from my sickness and the hectic Italy trip.  Many of the restaurants are closed.

We set out midday to walk to the beach.  We found beautiful Mediterranean homes along the way.  The beach is craggy stone.  There are a few places where there is sand in small coves.  I imagine in season they are full of swimmers and sunbathers.

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We also found a few restaurants open mainly for the many workers keeping the homes up, painting, tending to gardens, fixing alarm systems, making improvements, etc., before the tourists arrive.  They serve typical food cheaply for lunch. They serve what there is in the kitchen.  You don’t get a choice.  As we like to eat like the locals this is a good option to see what typical food is like.

As we started to walk to lunch it was drizzling.  We took our laundry inside from the line where it was hanging to dry.  When we hit the restaurant it started to rain hard.  Our meal was a delicious salad with Sangria wine for Jackie and fizzy water for me.  I had what looked like onion rings but were actually squid.  Jackie had empanadas with a tuna and tomato stuffing.  Both were accompanied by French fries.

The restaurant we went to served food from the Spanish province of Murcia.  Based on what we were served, I would conclude their food is mainly fried, not to my liking.  Our lunch was supposed to include dessert, but it didn’t for some reason.  We topped it off our lunch with café con leche which, in Spain, comes out looking exactly like cappuccino in Italy.  The coffee in my opinion is much better in Spain than Italy for some reason.  We have never had a bad cup of java here.  I was happy that I could eat again without being sick.

It was interesting to watch the workers come in during lunch and have a bottle of beer at the bar during their lunch break before returning to their jobs.

As we left the restaurant the only other foreign patrons greeted us.  They are staying at the same hotel as we, 2 doors down, and are equally disappointed in the fact that hardly anything is open.  They feel the hotel should have told us that in advance.  We couldn’t agree more.  They were from south of England, not very friendly, and claimed that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the woman’s cousin.  The man sat a while adding rum to his Coca Cola Light, as we headed out.

We left in a drizzle.  By the time we got back to the apartment the sun was out again.  But it was still chilly outside.  Cala D’Or is a peninsula which, we discovered, has several communities on it.  Our hotel is located in an area in an area named for a local beach, Cala Egos, on the way to Porto Petro. Es Forti is near us.  It’s an old fort ruin we visited on our morning walk.  We decided when the sun came out that we would take the car and visit the main street of Cala D’Or proper.  By the time we got going, it had started to drizzle again.  Our trip didn’t last long as the main street was deserted, just like our section of town.  The local real estate office was open.  If you wanted to own property in Cala D’Or, this would be a good time to buy.  The Spanish economy is in the tank, and there are few lookers at this time of year.  I think you’d have to be a boater to really fit in here.

It’s bad enough when bad weather interferes with your trip.  When you in a place where hardly anything is open to do inside it makes you feel cooped up.  Fortunately, I can enjoy the relaxation time.

We decided to make dinner at the apartment and made a quick stop at the supermarket on the way back for ingredients.  We watched a movie on the Kindle and decided that tomorrow we’ll take the car 1 hour to Palma, the main city where the airport is, to check it out.  We are told that it isn’t seasonal; things will be open.  The forecast is for continued rain, unfortunately.  But we want to make the best of our time here.

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Sick Abroad

March 15, 2105

Unless you NEVER get sick at home, if you travel abroad for an extended period of time, you can count on getting sick.

During our stay in Italy, 3 of the 6 guests (us included) got sick to some extent.  I got sick upon arrival in Mallorca.  It was a devastating digestive issue.  I started throwing up what little I had eaten.   I kept having dry heaves several times afterward.

I have no idea what it was.  It could have been the dinner we got at the Barcelona airport.  I could finally have caught what the others had in Italy.  It could have been something I just got.  Whatever it was, I was so sick I couldn’t blog.

So, as I have always said, you should travel with emergency medical insurance.  Also bring your medicines just in case.

We arrived in Palma de Mallorca airport around 9:30 PM.  By the time we got the car and drove the hour to Cala D’Or, pronounced “Calador” in one word, where we had a timeshare apartment waiting, it was nearly midnight.  We spent the better part of the next several hours trying to find our hotel in the pitch dark.  It was hard because the GPS sent us to the wrong side of town and we had no idea we weren’t even close.  Additionally, the streets have few street signs.  When GPS said to turn on such and such street, it was incomprehensible because it was in Catalan, plus there were few signs anyway.

Around 1:30 we stopped a group of young men, obviously coming from closing down a bar, and asked them where we could find a hotel.  They directed us to Robertson’s which turned out to be a very fancy hotel in town.  It looked like the place you would have a fancy wedding.  After we got in the locked gate, the clerk at the desk told us they had no rooms ready.  He recommended that we to to another hotel.  I had him call to make sure they had rooms.

We drove around a while looking for this other hotel, without success.  I decided that if I could only spot a taxi on the nearly deserted streets, I would just get it to take us to a hotel.  Then, miraculously, I saw a tax around 2 AM.  I flashed my brights (I didn’t honk as it was very late and we were in a residential area).  The taxi driver stopped.  I don’t think he was actually on duty.  But he led us to a hotel.

The hotel turned out to be the same one we had be looking for–the one that Robertson’s had called ahead to.  But we would never have found it because the front of the hotel faced a park, not the street.  The taxi driver stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere (initially confusing me a bit) and walked us to the front of the hotel.  The taxi driver refused to take any money reflecting what I have found is a typical willingness to help tourists in Spain, contrary to France.  We stayed the night at this hotel, called Inturohotel.  By the time we got to bed it was 3 PM.  I awoke around 4 PM horribly sick.  Good thing we didn’t do what Jackie had suggested—pull over and sleep in the car!

The hotel was fine.  It catered, as does this island, to a large German clientele.  We moved in the morning to our paid-for location on the other side of the peninsula where, again, there are mainly German guests.  All the tourist brochures are available in German as is the TV in the room. There are also Italian, French, Greek, Japanese, and Russian channels.

The part of the Mallorcan island where we are is beautiful!  White washed buildings sparkle in the Mediterranean sun.  The weather gets up to the 60s in the middle of the day and falls to around 40 at night.

We are early.  The season just began.  Our hotel, Ona Cala de Mar (although the sign out front still has the old name, Cala de Mar, a fact which contributed to our inability to find it last night), says we are guests in the first week of the season.  They just opened.  In addition we learned that the property had just been taken over by a new company.  Nothing around the hotel is open.  One of the advantages of this hotel is it has a kitchen with a grocery store on the corner.  But it turns out the grocery store is closed.  So we had to get in the car and drive to another store about 2 miles away.  Not convenient.

Not only are we the first guests of the season but the room had many bugs to be worked out.  Everything looked perfectly new, but 1 of the 2 HVAC’s did not work, so half the apartment was chilly.  They lent us a space heater.  The washing machine—which we had been counting on since we began the trip—leaked all over the kitchen when we used it.   We had to mop up the water.  The hotel replaced the unit.  The lights for the kitchen and the shower did not work, meaning we could use neither at night.  Finally, the expensive internet could only support one device at a time, meaning that we had to alternate between cell phone, kindle, iPad, and tablet.

When the mechanic came to change the washing machine, it still had our dirty clothes half way done in the old machine.  They transferred them to the new machine.  But we lost time and by then the sun we needed to dry them was gone.  So we asked if there is a dryer somewhere.  The workman looked at us as if we were crazy.  We don’t use dryers here!” he explained.  We did our best to dry the laundry in the chilly air under an overcast sky.

We don’t appreciate being the guinea pigs to work out the issues with the apartment.  But since we’re here on an exchange of our timeshare, there’s no money changing hands.  So there’s no free night, refund or other compensation that can be done.  It’s one of the drawbacks of timesharing.

It reaffirms our prior decision to quit RCI and timesharing.  It seems that many distressed properties list with RCI to get guests.  In fact at our place in Italy 100% of the guests there with us came through RCI.  I don’t know how anyone else would find the place otherwise as it is so isolated.

One the bright side, I was feeling better by the time the day drew to a close and got a good night’s sleep.  Looking forward to seeing Mallorca tomorrow with my strength back.

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Orvieto and Wrap up

March 13, 2015

We got a late start at 10 AM. Jackie was having fun talking Spanish with Spanish guest Juan at the hotel.  But we finally got going.

I decided we’d take the back road to Orvieto even though it is right off the superhighway.  The back road took us over rolling hills on curving roads, but the scenery was spectacular.  It was like driving in the Catskills, except smaller hills.  We arrived at 11:30 in Orvieto.  Even though it took a long time, it was worth the scenery, although as the driver on curvy roads, it’s not so easy to take it all in.

The first task was finding where to park.  I had been advised to leave the car at the train station alongside the highway and take a funicular up to the top of this hilltop town.  We first approached the train station from the normal side where you would go to get a train.  But we were told that the parking was on the other side of the train tracks.  We finally found where to park. The road to get to the other side of the tracks obviously wasn’t direct. Driving around unfamiliar territory is hard.  Once parked, you take stairs over the train tracks to the same side we started on.

First Jackie had to use the restroom.  She paid an old lady guarding the railroad restroom 50 Euro cents.  Still she reported it wasn’t that clean.  Usually when you pay you expect a clean room.  At least the lady handed her a paper towel after she washed her hands!

I had also been advised to buy a pass from the Orvieto tourist office that covered the funicular and bus as well as admission to several of the sites.  20 Euros sounded high.  But, as it turned out this was absolutely the correct thing to do, as was the advice to park at the train station.  The hotel which was where I was given this advice steered us right!

If we had driven, the walk up to the sights would have exhausted us.  Even from the top of the funicular ride, we needed to go further.  We caught a bus (included in the Orvieto ticket) the rest of the way to the top.  Once we got there we weren’t disappointed!

I think we saw everything important that there was to see in Orvieto.  First Orvieto has the most spectacular church I have seen in Italy.  That’s saying a lot!  It had mosaic murals on a Gothic façade which looked like frescos.  Inside is the San Brizio Chapel with ceilings painted by Signorelli, a contemporary great to Michelangelo.  This work rivals the Sistine Chapel, and is well regarded as Signorelli’s best work.

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We also saw all sorts of Etruscan ruins in several museums we visited.  One of which had a great restroom.  It was free.  We were the only ones in the museum so it was spotless.

We also visited several underground Etruscan sites including a well big enough for horses to descend to and underground rooms used by the Etruscans when they inhabited this land.  The land here is made of volcanic material so it is very malleable and easy to dig into.

We took the tour offered by the tourist office of the city underground.  Very interesting.  The Etruscans worked under their homes.  One thing they did was raise pigeons for food.  You could see real pigeon holes in the walls underground.  Interestingly, the Etruscans were able to figure out how much digging they could do without disturbing their houses above.

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The views from the hilltop of Orvieto were stunning.  You could see fields of olive trees, vineyards, and grasslands.  It was the typical Tuscan landscape we are all familiar with.  The weather was marvelous.  All in all, a beautiful sight, and one of my favorites.

Orvieto has the aspect of a larger city. One tour guide said there are about 20,000 people living there.  It is on the highway to Rome and also on the train line.  It is definitely someplace I would return to.

We took the highway back to the hotel.  Using the automated toll machine, we were given the wrong amount of change.  But there is no one there to complain to!  We racked it up to part of the experience of Italy.  Everything doesn’t work just right.

As we approached the hotel, we stopped at another hotel on the way, Il Colombiao, that looked nice.  I had wanted to stop for coffee, but we left Orvieto at 5 and it was getting dark.  I wanted to avoid driving the dirt road to our hotel in the dark.  So we just stopped to inquire about the price.  That turned out to be quite an experience.

First of all there were no cars outside the hotel.  It looked closed.  As we approached, we saw a man inside in the dark.  We inquired about the rates.  He got his wife who spoke better English.  Finally after figuring a lot of numbers, we were given some rates.  In the US giving someone the room rate would be an easy affair.  Here it took at least 5 minutes, probably longer.

Part of the price for an apartment (with kitchen) was a separate charge for electricity.  There was also a charge for cleaning after we left.  The price for the apartment was about the same as our hotel, $100/night.  The price for the room with half board, like our hotel, was a lot more (I think).  It’s hard to tell exactly as we are staying on a timeshare exchange.

Next we were shown the rooms.  They looked slightly better than the rooms we are staying in, but still not a big improvement.

The hotel owners were disappointed when we said we weren’t saying this night there.  When we said we were asking for our next trip to Italy, they said everything might change by then.  They said Italians do things today for tomorrow.  They don’t plan in advance.  For example, the man said, in front of his wife, he might have a different wife next year, they might not be in business, or many other things might change!  We assured him that we understood that prices would differ.

Next they tried to convince us to stay for dinner.  The dining room was dark.  I don’t know how they could stay in business and offer their a la carte menu (which I reviewed) when they don’t know if they will have guests for dinner.

What I am learning is that part of the Tuscan way of life is simplicity.  Since it is also part of my way of life I am comfortable with that.  The rooms in our hotel and in this one are simple, to say the least.  But I also now understand that Italians live more in the moment than Americans, more akin to Panamanians.  It’s what makes Italy so attractive to so many people who don’t like worrying about the future and like the simple life.  To Italians having good food prepared with fresh ingredients is more important than having to pay a high price for it.  Everything in Italy is expensive, from electricity to gasoline.  Italians just learn to drive smaller cars and turn the electricity off when they don’t absolutely need it.  In this way, they are certainly more ecologically friendly than Americans are.

As our trip to Italy winds down (we leave tomorrow), I’ve learned a lot.

When I first arrived I was surprised at the accommodations being called a “resort.”  But now I understand it from the Italian point of view.  It may be drafty and sparse, but there is a lobby with a warm fire, good food, and nice people.  These are far more important to Italians than nice soap or well- lit rooms.

To them, this is a resort because they cook for you and it’s simple.  There’s nothing to worry about because there is literally nothing to do.  You can ride a horse or get a massage if you want, but no one pressures you to do anything.  If you want to do it, you will, of course, pay a price.  That’s understood here.  Besides, to cover their butts, they’ve made all us guests each pay a “resort” fee to pay for the amenities which none of us, as far as I can tell, used.

It’s all part of the live and let live attitude that has made this trip such a memorable experience, even if not a true resort experience.

In the end this was a truly different and enjoyable trip.  Eating dinner with fellow travelers each evening was actually refreshing as we could share experiences and make new friends.  Forcing people to eat at a certain time with the other guests didn’t seem ideal, but it was actually an integral and important part of the trip, that made this part of the trip memorable and fun.  It was not the resort I expected; it was more like living on a farm for a week with other city slickers.  But it was very enjoyable.

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Firenze

March 12, 2015

Up again at the crack of dawn to catch a 7:30-train to Florence to arrive just before 10 AM.  This time we knew how the system worked.  We quickly got our ticket.  Since we left plenty of time for travel to the train station, we were too early.  Better to be early than late.

Arriving in Florence we quickly oriented ourselves and got going.  Travelling on foot we saw all the starred “best sights” in our tour book in one day, excluding any museums which we skipped.

We added the Florence synagogue which was great to see.  Very beautiful.  For security reasons, no photos are allowed, so I have no keepsakes.  We did buy some postcards.  We were required to check our cell phones and cameras at the security desk and walk through a metal detector.

Posted outside the synagogue gate on the sidewalk in an almost inconspicuous way is a sole Italian military soldier behind a triangular glass door that protrudes ever so slightly onto the sidewalk.

Besides the obviously beautiful churches, piazzas, architecture, and wonderful pastry shops  in Florence, we really enjoyed Ponte Vecchio bridge and a farmers’ and clothing market we stumbled upon.

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After 5 hours of non-stopped walking and touring, we were pooped.  We returned to the train station to sit and wait for our train.

Getting back at the hotel just in time for the 8 PM dinner, we had rabbit on the menu.  It was my least favorite dinner so far.

Afterward the guests (there were now 2 other couples) all talked and I played billiards with Juan.  Tomorrow we set as an easy day.  No alarm.  We shall see how that turns out.

Good day in Florence.  Once again, we were able to cover a great deal of territory in a short time.

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Tuscany Wineries

March 11, 2015

No trip to Tuscany is complete without a wine tour. We booked a tour through the hotel for $150 per person along with another couple staying there.  One of the hotel staff conducted the tour.  It was great, exceeding expectations.

We left at 9:30 and returned shortly before 8 PM, just in time for dinner.

During the day we visited several famous wineries in unusual settings, stretching from one in a fort specializing in Brunello wine to one in an old Etruscan tomb and Roman jail.  We passed fields of vineyards, now just old branches waiting for the growing season to begin.  It seemed many country homes had very small personal vineyards attached to them.

The highlight of the day was a cheese factory tour where we learned about Pecorino de Pienza, the cheese from this area that is not available in the US.  The farm we visited is the only one making this cheese that controls the entire process from raising the sheep used for their milk to making the cheese.  Others in the area make the cheese, but they import sheep milk from other farmers.  Our guide, Giuseppe, was the owner of the cheese factory, called Fattoria Pianporcino, an extremely knowledgeable man who wore a US college sweatshirt but swore he did not attend school in the US.  He spoke to us in nearly perfect English about the cheesemaking process and the cheese. He was so good it made us think he was an actor as he fit the part and didn’t pressure us to buy anything, probably knowing that carrying cheese around during vacation is a smelly venture.  Twice during his presentation his mother poked her head in to ask a question in Italian.  Definitely another character out of  common casting and proof that this operation is a family affair.

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The cheesemaking tour ended with a tasting of 8 varieties of cheeses matched with wine and prosciutto.  We didn’t need any lunch after that!  Except for the salad, everything was home grown.  The salad was very good, too.  We added local olive oil and vinegar for dressing.  During our trip, I think this was the only salad we found, and one of the few times we were served vegetables.  Most Italians eat what’s in season.  During winter, there aren’t many vegetables to be had.

We ambled about in old Roman cities with winding streets inside walled hilltops and central plazas with churches, the typical Tuscany town, as we discovered.  We visited Pienza, Montalcino (the fort), and Montepulciano (old jail). All of these had wineries to visit.

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We also visited the Roman hot springs at Bagno Vignoni.

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Tuscany is very hilly.  Leaving the driving to someone else was a pleasure as our tour leader knew where to take us.  It was very efficient.  And the driving itself was difficult, similar to driving through winding mountain roads, only we were on large hills instead.

The Tuscan landscape is definitely unique and beautiful in its way.  And seeing it like we did was definitely a treat.

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Assisi

March 10, 2015

The day started with Jackie nearly falling between the 2 twin beds that form the king bed at the hotel.  The two beds are held together by only a tucked king sheet.

I had promised myself that I would take it easy today after nearly walking my feet off yesterday, but it wasn’t to be.

We decided to take up the offer of another couple of guests at the hotel from Germany who also wanted to go to Assisi where we planned to go.  They had a big enough car to fit all of us.  It was great spending the day with them, but we ended up doing almost as much walking as yesterday.

We left after breakfast around 9:45 headed to Assisi, but the route takes you through Perugia, the capital of the Umbria province where our hotel is located.  Our driver, Juan, had been told to see Perugia so we stopped there on the way.

Perugia has a lovely walled old city at its center at the top of a hill.  I came to realize later that this is typical of cities throughout Italy.  We parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up and through the old city.  We passed many schools in the neighborhood as Italy likes to use its old buildings for schools.  We also passed through a beautiful medieval garden.

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By the time we finished walking the winding streets I thought we’d never find our car again, but Juan had a great sense of direction and got us there without problem.  Going down the hill was as hard as ascending.

Our next stop was Assisi.  It is an old and beautiful city, with a center built in the traditional manner at the top of a hill.  We started our visit to Assisi at the bottom of the hill with a cup of coffee at a shop next to the the beautiful Santa Maria church, our first stop.  Very impressive.  And it was uphill from there, literally and figuratively.

Known as the city of the Pope, Assisi is close enough to Rome for the Pope to visit regularly.  As you would expect, there are many, many churches.  Francis of Assisi started the order of Franciscan monks who were visible throughout the city where they have several monasteries. It is known as a very spiritual place.  If you were a monk, this would be the place to be assigned, for its serenity and beauty if nothing else, but also for its high profile.

During the day we stopped for delicious pizza.

But the most memorable part of the day was how much walking we had to do.  We started by walking all the way to the top of the city where a fort looks down on its many churches.

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Then we visited the churches, each a bit higher than the last.  Finally we descended the hill to the parking lot at the bottom where we left our car.

The second most memorable thing was St. Francis’ tomb which was as elaborate as I have ever seen a tomb to be, and quite inspiring.  The entire city was enchanting. All its quarry stone matched.  The cobblestoned streets are dotted with hotels and shops with gorgeous vistas.  The narrow streets seem to meander whichever way.  Around every corner there is a staircase to another level.  The city is definitely not friendly if you have mobility issues.  Still I saw people in wheelchairs being pushed by caretakers.

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As we left Assisi heading back to the hotel for an 8 PM dinner we got all turned around and lost after we passed through Perugia.  We ended up arriving at 9 PM, exhausted and very hungry.  We called ahead to have them wait, which they did, but the delicious meal included a veal that was a little overcooked, probably as a result of our delay.

Are vacations supposed to be this tiring?

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Roma

March 9, 2015

We awakened by cell phone alarm at 4:45 AM determined to catch the 6:30 train to Rome.  The hotel packed our breakfast and gave it to us the night before.  When we left the lobby was locked.

I didn’t feel good about driving the dirt road out of the hotel in the pitch dark of morning, but we did it.  It usually takes about ½ hour to get to Fabro (actually Fabro Scalo), the nearest town, where the train station is located.  Each of the old cities has a new city nearby.  The old city is built on a hill.  The new city is at the base of the hill.  Scalo means new, for the new city.

We arrived by 6 AM at the train station in time to figure out the complicated system of buying a ticket by machine.  We were warned that the clerk would not be on duty that early.

The system initially would not work.  Then we figured out that it wouldn’t accept my credit card but would accept my debit card, and we got the job done.

Next you have to “validate” the ticket you buy.  It took us a few minutes to figure out how to do that at a separate machine.

There were 2 Americans who had moved to this area waiting for the train.   One of them overheard us speaking and introduced herself.  While we were talking to her at the train station about health care in Italy, she turned to another waiting passenger and asked a question in Italian.  Turns out the other waiting passenger was also American.

She ended up sitting next to us on the train.  We chatted about life as an ex-pat in Tuscany as we took the 1½ hour ride in to Rome.  Apparently, taxes are very high in Italy, as are utilities, which explains why Italians are so careful about not using mush electricity and why they drive mainly very small cars.  She looked for a fixer upper old house when she moved to Tuscany and ended up spending more than a ready to move in house would have cost after she completed all her rehab.

Once we got to Rome our intention was to get a hop-on hop-off bus to quickly orientate to the Rome sights.  What happened, though, is we were approached at the train depot by a salesman for these buses who represented all of the companies doing this service.  There are about 6.  He helped us choose a company and took us to their office to pay.  Then he took us to the bus stop a few blocks away.

After a few stops for the Coliseum and Roman Forum, as well as other notable buildings, and we were at the Vatican.  It was about 9:30 in the morning.  We decided to see what we could at the Vatican.  There we were again approached by tour operators whose promise is to cut to the front of the lines in seeing the Vatican.  We booked a 2 hour tour which lasted 4 hours once all was said and done.  We were able to see the Vatican quite well.

Here is a photo of Rome from the window of the Vatican.

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And, of course, we saw the famous Swiss Guard change at the Vatican.

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From there we did a lot of walking.  There are 7 hills in Rome.  I think we walked up and down at least 3 of them.  By the end of the day my legs and feet hurt.  We walked to the Piazza Navona, Pantheon (fascinating), the Spanish steps via Italy’s main shopping street and through side streets, stopping along the way for gelato and coffee.  We were warned that the Trevi Fountain was under renovation, so we didn’t go there.

The Pantheon was amazing.

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We caught the 5:12 train back getting home in time to wash up for dinner at 8, after, again, driving the dirt road into the hotel for the second time today in the dark.

It was an exhausting but wonderful day.  Around every corner in Rome is a beautiful, very old building.  I know Rome can’t be seen in 1 day, but that’s all we had this trip.  I think we managed to see many of the top tourist picks in Rome nevertheless.  Although it was sort of an athletic marathon and very tiring.

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