Sunday, July 24, 2011


We are on the plane returning from Cap Haitian, Haiti. We spent a week serving the poor of two communities on the outskirts of the city. We traveled with Michael and Mary Lu Hertz, my college friends who have established a mission and a non-profit, Empowering Haitians, to help the people of Bon Aire. It was a week of incredible dissonance, extreme poverty in extremely beautiful surroundings. God was at work through some people who did not even follow Him. I saw my beautiful wife living out her passionate dream to help the less fortunate with her dentistry. It was a powerful and beautiful and trying week.

Empowering Haitians works with local community leaders to determine the needs of the community and provide financing and manpower for betterment projects. Please check out their website, which I'm sure you can find by googling their name. They work in conjunction with a medical mission in another community, which is where Anna worked for four days. The organization has built a church, schools, and houses, and supports a microloan program for local small business. On this trip, we were building light posts for the streets of the community as well as working on a local office building so they have somewhere professional to meet with leaders.

The poverty of Haiti is palpable as soon as one steps off the plane, but its depths are not experienced until one has spent some time in the city. In dissonate fashion, we were upgraded to first class on our flight on a mission trip. I have never been on a plane where the only white people were us. Many people did not use deoderant. A man in the exit row refused to help out or switch seats, and had to be escorted off the plane. Anna asked the flight attendant if that had ever happened before. "Only on this flight. Actually, we are doing pretty well to get out with only a 45 minute delay." Upon arrival in Port-a-Prince, we walked across the smoldering tarmac to an equally steamy warehouse where hundreds of people fought for space to get bags from three large planes on two small belts. Did I mention the deoderant problem? It was a nightmare. We went to another terminal to fly to Cap, and after lengthy delays, arrived, sans two bags. Welcome to the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

The first thing that hits you is the garbage. It is everywhere, piled in the gutters and ditches, three or four feet high on the sidewalk. The second is the roads, or lack thereof. I have been on some godawful roads in Thailand and Iraq, but nothing that compared to this. The "paved" roads were so marked with broken concrete and potholes as to make New Orleans look like Geneva. Some were completely impassable, like Mogadishu in "Blackhawk Down". They would end without warning even in the city, spilling you onto washed out rocks and dirt lined with ruts deep enough to break an axel. And this is the city. In our community up the mountainside, the roads could have been featured in an X-games 4-wheeling competition, and the final tracks up the mountain were only accessible by mopehead. The third thing that gets you is the people. They are dirty and smelly. I know that sounds awful, but hey, soap and deoderant cost money, and they have none. They are wearing cast off old clothes with flip flops so thin you would think going barefoot would be less trouble. I guess that's why many are barefoot. If you wanted to know how old their clothes were, you could carbon date them with the many athletic jerseys I saw featuring Shaq with the Miami Heat or Steve Young with the 49ers. I think that's about ten years ago, but it could be more. I even saw Robert Brooks of the Packers and Mourning on the Heat, which is more like 15 years. Children wear either shirts or shorts, but usually not both, and no shoes. I'm not describing the poor homeless people. This is almost everyone. I saw a few university students dressed well. We met a few rich people. But everyone else is dirt poor.

Then things are out of place, like diamonds in a trash bin. Everywhere that has not been made flithy by humans is gorgeous. Tropical flowers line the road side. Mangoes and bananas hang from the trees. Crystal clear Caribbean water gleams azure. Our first weekend, because our reservation was lost at the primary hotel where the docs and another team of high schoolers were staying, we relaxed at a beach resort with white sand and gentle waves. Nick, the rich owner of the primary hotel, took us on a boat to his private beach where we ate fresh crabs and lobsters cooked on the grill. Because we were spending our own money instead of that raised from donors, it was easier to relax in comfort at the end of the day with a Cuban cigar and a cup of 5 star rum. And all around us, poverty reigned.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Havel, Clinton, and us

Prague is difficult to explain. The splendor is equivalent of paris. The romance didn't quite hit the level of Venice, but it is close. The beer is outstanding. The people are friendly. The streets are cobblestone. The buildings are a menagerie of architectural styles. Maybe it isn't that hard.

We went up the street to Prague castle to get our main tourist attraction out of the way. Even there the city didn't feel as crowded with tourists as others. All in all, even though we were there in peak season, our mostly out of the way venues helped us to feel local in most of Europe. Without San Marco in Venice, I think we would have felt like there were few other tourists. Anyway, the castle is on a hill overlooking the city, which provides for amazing views of the" thousand spires".  We arrived just before noon to witness the changing of the guard, an excellent display of marching and music. Afterwards, as we wandered taking pictures of the palace, we heard the sound of singing. Going to investigate, we happened upon a wedding party. I'm not entirely sure why they were there, but a tourist had stopped to serende the bird with "Ava Maria" in full operatic tenor. Random. Inside the castle we viewed the St. Vitus church, built on top of a church originally built by St. Wenceslas, the good king of Bohemia in the 10th century. Inside were many tombs, including the biggest silver tomb I've ever seen. We viewed a Romanesque chapel, which reminded us how far churches came during the Gothic period. Then on to the palace and its great hall, which was large enough for indoor jousting. They had a stairway large enough for a knight on a horse to pass.  This is also the hall where the term defenstration came into the lexicon, when some nobles threw some Hapsburg administrators out of the window. After that, we grabbed lunch in a palace that brewed their own beer. Pilsner, of course.

We walked down the hill and caught the tram to Wenceslaus square, on the other side of Old Town. We walked from there, enjoying the buildings and shops. Old town has the winding streets with which we had become accostomed in Europe, but the architecture was no more beautiful than any other. We found an authentic pub where the Czech president had taken Bill Clinton in the 90's. Unfortunately, we were without a local guide, so our experience was likely less smooth than the President's. After wandering around marveling at our localness, we went to the bar to order beers. Before I could complete the sentence, the bartender aburptly told us to sit down. We found a seat, which we were told by the server was reserved, and we scooted in with some accomodating locals. As soon as we settled, two frothy mugs banged down on the table, and the server dropped off a slip of paper with two tick marks on it. We could now settle into the background and watch the Czechs talk, laugh, smoke, and drink.

Soon a new problem arose. We read that the bartender would automatically bring a new beer when one's glass reached one inch from the bottom. That was alright with me, but Anna was pacing herself with the strong Czech lager. We thought he may cut the tourists a break, but were disapproved of that notion when the Japanese couple next to us received new beers, which they tried to wave off to no avail. The only remedy was to cover one's glass with a coaster before the new beer appeared, but the problem came in that final inch.  Anna did not want to waste the ounce, but the margin was narrow to avoid 16 new ounces. The race was on, and, with the server's back turned, Anna downed her final inch in a few quick gulps and slammed down the coaster. Success was hers, and the amused server tabulated our tick marks and took our money.

Back on the street, we stumbled upon an authentic Czech restaurant with an excellent guitar and sax jazz duo. We dined on goulash, both beef and pork (they had nine kinds) and enjoyed the music. After dinner, we wandered across the Charles bridge, marveling its rows of 500 year old statues and enjoying sunset (around 9:30 pm). Leaving the crowds of characature artists and street sellers behind, we headed to our room for a hot tub bath and sleep.

Another World

Perhaps its the relatively long time I've spent in Germany that gave me a feeling of familiar comfort in Austria, but that was about to change. The Czech Republic, and Prague specifically, was a land of mysterious wonder, of beautiful architecture, of a thousand spires. We met friendly, different people speaking a language with the smoothness of French, the gutteral sounds of German, but of structure and script of complete unfamiliarity. And we were immediately reminded that we were no longer in Western Europe.

On our nine hour trip to Prague, we took a car, a train, a fast train, another train, a train, a bus, a train yet again, and a street car. The trip got interesting on our third train, which belonged to Czech railways. The quality of the car was lower than that with which we had grown accustomed. The toilet was dirty, the springs of the seat feeblely and unevenly attempted to prevent us from falling to the floor, and air conditioner was out of the question. The cigarette and sweat stench of the friendly man who joined us in our warm car sent us searching for new seats. The man who checked our tickets oddly had a necktie which did not quite reach his belly, giving him a comical look. On the next train, our supposed final leg, we struck up conversation with a girl around our age in the car. Because of our amiacable relationship, she soon questioned if we knew that this train was not going all the way to Prague. We did not. Concerned for our well-being, she advised us to stick with her, as the train would be stopping due to track maintenance ahead. I can only imagine what our confusion would have been when the train pulled into a station in the middle of no where and everyone got off to board unlabled busses. Explanations from the train staff were forthcoming only in Czech, but our guardian Czech guided us though the confusion. She waited patiently for us when the bus debarked at another small station and led us to our train. Thank you again, where-ever you are. Dejukui, or something like that.

As we rode the streetcar to our hotel in Prague, it became immediately clear that this was a city unlike any we had yet seen. The train station itself was adorned with large stone statues and guilding. Each building represented a different period of European architecture from the 16th to the 20th centuries, the colors, carvings, decorations, and paintings giving the cityscape the look of a birthday cake decorated by a brilliant but schizophrenic chef. Even the sidewalks were pretty, composed of small stones of various shades of grey organized into varying patterns. Rounding each corner revealed a stunning baroque church or an Italian renaissance palace.

Our hotel was a perfect combination of both above experiences: cheap and beautiful. We walked in the door onto a plexi-glass platform through which we viewed the hottub on our first story of our room. The spacial (by European standards) living space was tastefully decorated with original paintings, upolstered chairs and stone-topped antique tables. Our king bed sat on a platform by the window to the courtyard. The hotel was in a historic building on the king's way a few blocks from both the castle and the Charles bridge. All for $100 a night, including breakfast.

After our long trip, we freshened up and headed out to dinner. On the way, we stumbled on a famous Prague oddity, a modern art statue of two men holding their penises, moving them up and down and rotating their hips back and forth while a steady flow came from the tips into a shallow fountain. The nearby restaurant was on the river with a view of the skyline and the Charles bridge. We ordered drinks as we waited for a table, again making the mistake of straying from beer and wine and ending up with a warm cup of gin. Our dinner could have been found on the table of any fashionable cosmopolitan restaurant. Duck summer rolls followed by roast duck leg in wine sauce on beets and grilled sole, head on, with a lemon butter sauce. We were entertained by jazz cruises on the river and the occasional drift of music from the bridge. Thoroughly satisfied and again tired from a long day of travel, we headed home to bed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Spot of Hiking, Then?

Monday we waited in the lobby for our hotel guide who would take us on a free hike. Lee bounded in with shorts and a t-shirt on and a smile on his face. He gathered our group and we headed up the mountain behind the hotel. The trail wound up through the village and soon entered intermittent forests and ski slopes. The steep incline coupled with the thin mountain air soon had us panting. The sun warmed the air such that I took off my long sleeves and unzipped the legs from my adventure pants. Beautiful views of the valley, river, and surrounding mountains opened up as we climbed higher. We even saw Maria in a field, no doubt preparing to burst into song. At the top, a restaurant located primarily for skiiers in the winter opened to serve us sausage and beer. Lee took off his shirt to reveal a rock-hard physique that seemed impossible for a 55 year old Malaysian. While refueling, we struck up a conversation with Simon and Carol, an English couple on their first holiday without their kids. Even through we were on opposite ends of our vacationing lives, we struck up friendly conversation. Soon we discovered Carol was a dentist and our friendship was cemented. They invited us to drive up higher in the Alps to hike on Wednesday, and we accepted.  Our return to the hotel was followed by a dip in the pool and a leisurely evening of pizza and Barberani wine. The only footnote: my German failed me when I misread the menu and ended up with mussels, clams, and squid on my pizza.

The next day we woke up early to catch the train to Salzburg. Upon arrival in the city we walked to Mirabell castle to observe the beautiful gardens where Maria sang "Do, Ra, Mi." From there we passed by Mozart's house and crossed the river to the old town. Unfortunately, it seemed that much of Salzburg was destroyed during the war, robbing it of its historical character. The old shopping street remained rich. Large, ornate hanging signs proclaimed each store and the architecture was primarily new classical.  Even the windows harkened to yesteryear, with many arrays of leather suspendered pants and flowery long dress of old design. At the end of the street we found an elevator up the side of the cliff which lined the riverbank and took it to see the view.  We ordered two beers at the restaurant for the modern art museum and gazed out on the hills and spires of the town. We returned to the old town and found a beer garden claiming its opening date in the 17th century. The garden was already 100 years old when Mozart enjoyed a beer there. I tucked in to my first weiner schnitzel, an Austrian favorite, and we waited out a brief rainstorm. We wandered on through the winding streets, passing Mozart's place of birth and the town square. We toured the ornate, rebuilt Cathedral. Tired from our previous day, we stopped again for coffee and a piece of chocolate cake from an old chocolate cafe. We returned to the train by way of a path along the river.  Back in St. Johann, we went in search of a Donner Kabab, which is similar to a Gyro but better. The discovered version was a disappointment, but the hottub again lifted our spirits and we slept soundly. Overall, Salzburg was not our favorite town.

We met Simon and Carol the next morning and jumped in their car for the drive up the mountain. Fortified with Bonine, we were prepared to turn our heads on the windy mountain roads. After entering a national park the road continued nearly straight up, switching back and forth as the rocky mountains rose around us. Snow melt created small rivers which cascaded off the rocks and lept away into space to form waterfalls.  Soon trees gave way to scrub brush and as we topped out over 8000 feet, the brush was replaced by rocky dirt and patches of snow.

As we climbed we passed many bikers peddling their way up the steep slope. At the top we discovered the interest. The Tour of Austria was completing the highest portion of their race today, due to crest the mountain around noon on our road. We found a place to park at a bar at the top, and awaited the bikers. Soon the entourage of police escorts and support vehicles laden with bikes on racks appeared. The bikes soon zinged out of a tunnel before entering the last portion of their steep climb. A handful led the pack substantially, and soon crested the peak. I waited to see the pack, dozens of bikers powering up the hill while jockeying for position in a tight formation. But the real sight came after they crested the hill. The pack spread slightly as bikers reached the top milliseconds apart, but was still entirely too dense for the rocket-like speed it soon obtained. More amazing still, as bikers shot past, they let go of BOTH handlebars to drink water, adjust their glasses, eat power bars, and even put on jackets. These were feats I would not attempt at any speed on a bike, much less fifty miles and hour. We watched the pack carreen much faster than I would drive a car down the curvey road falling from us, but in fact being chased by cars moving the same unsafe velocity. As the stragglers peddled valiantly by, we began a steep hike up to see the view and wait out the emptying of the parking lot. I expressed my hunger, and Simon assured me that if there was one truth about Austria, it was that there was a bar at the top of every accessable peak. As promised, we were soon enjoying Austrian goulash, dumplings, and delicious beer. We hiked back down and jumped in the car to continue our journey to the next mountain.

There we hiked in and out of six tunnels on a flat path along a ridge which afforded us amazing views of the highest peak and the longest glacier in Austria. The huge mass of ice looked like a cracked, dirty blanket over the massive valley it had torn through the mountain when, in the last ice age, it was much larger. The noise of rushing, flowing water filled our ears, which likely was caused by the glacier and the numerous small rivers and waterfalls formed by the melting snow from the mountain peak. Uninterested in driving the windy roads after dark, Simon suggested we head home.

The evening brought another trip to the hot tub, of course. After showers, we shared another bottle of Barberani wine with the Brits and ventured out to find dinner. In the shadow of the cathedral we ate more Italian food of a much lower quality than we had enjoyed during the previous week, but the conversation and wine made up for the food. After dinner we swapped emails with our new friends and walked back to the room to pack up for our next leg. Our Austrian trip was action packed, but at the same time relaxing, and we saw stunningly beautiful scenery.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Who Knew an Ice Cave Would Be Cold?

We are now back in the US. I have a large backlog of blogs, and I will release them over a few days, so as not to overwhelm. Back to Austria.

Despite our confirmed reservation at a hotel in the Alps near the largest ice cave in the world, we failed, when packing, to register our possible clothing needs due to the temperature decrease. The evening of our arrival, we went out in town to enjoy the summer festival. I found if I wore all of my clothes in layers, I was warm enough to brave the street, leaving me with one outfit for the entire five days.

A few Austrian beers later, I was nice and toasty. Anna tried an Austrian approach to a Mojito, but was dissapointed to watch the bartender include lime peels and mint stems in his muddle. To counteract the bitterness, he shoveled brown sugar into the beverage until it assumed an odd, brown tint. His failure to include soda, and the impossiblity of the sugar dissolving in large quantity left a grainy, bitter, rummy drink. The moral of the story, when in Austria, stick to beer.

We stopped for dinner at a traditional restaurant with live oompa music and a special of giant hog leg grilled bone in with sauerkraut and bread. Amazing. The festival had four stages and the streets were lined with beer and liquor vendors. Even compared with New Orleans, we were amazed at the ratio of alcohol-to-food stands, skewed heavily in favor of booze. The affect was demonstrated by the groups of trashed fourteen-year-olds stumbling about hugging one another and dancing wildly to the techno music blaring from two of the four stages. We ventured into this middle school area only once, where Anna recognized the song and demonstrated a dance routine she recalled from her middle school days. Impressive.

Even more impressive was the light display. The large church and the buildings surrounding the festival were highlighted with projected images and splashes of color which moved in and out and changed in slow rhythm. The images traced the contours of windows and doors such that the buildings seemed to come alive as they moved. We watched the display and listened to the band playing Austrian reggae. An odd choice, so we moved to the last stage, where the band played crowd favorites in German and English, including Sweet Home Alabama and Summer of '69. About to drop after two days of travel, we headed to bed.

After sleeping very late, we once again donned every item of clothing that we had brought and caught the train to Werfen to see the ice cave. The towns were along the Salz river valley at about 3300 feet. To make the trip to the cave, we rode the train, took a bus, walked a short hike, rode a funicular almost vetically, and took another hike to end up above the tree line at about 6600 feet. Due to the length of our trip and a late bus, we waited at the top for the last guide of the day, chatting with a student from San Francisco named Matt. The guide arrived and passed out small gas lanterns to everyone.  He opened a door in the cave mouth and an icy blast of air struck us at high velocity, exposing the inadequacy of our clothing. Fortunately, we soon began walking up 770 stairs which warmed us against the zero degree celcius temperature. The beginning of the cave was a large, dark, upwardly sloping cavern with a river of ice pouring down the middle. Occasionally frozen waterfalls oozed from side cracks and icy stalagtites protruded from the ceiling. As we climbed higher, the ice surrounded us on all sides.  Soon we were walking through an ice tunnel, stratified layers identifying seasons of thaw and freeze, revealing the oldest ice to be from 5000 years ago. The guide lit magnesium flares to reveal magnificent ice sickle overhangs which resembled frozen sculptures, and I expected around every turn to see Luke hanging from the ceiling reaching for his lightsaber while the ominous footsteps of a yeti approached.

After an hour in the freezer, we were happy to head back to the welcoming spa of our hotel, complete with jacuzzi, steam room, and sauna. We grabbed pizza and pasta at one of the five Italian restaurants in our small town, and headed off to sleep.


We are on the bus from Prague to Nurnberg, almost done with our travel in Europe. There is so much to write about, but I'll keep going in order.

After Siena, we returned to Florance to drop off our rental car and catch the train to Austria.  We bought some grocery store preprepared risotto with squid and marinated veggies for lunch. The drive was uneventful except that our lunch turned out to be spicy olive oil and anchovie-stuffed peppers. We settled into our cheap, clean hotel, which was packed with Americans, and went out into the city. We had to hurry to catch the Duomo before it closed. The church was rather empty, as the masterpieces have been moved to museums, but the sheer size of the dome is absolutely incredible. Growing tired, we stopped to have a glass of wine and cheese in a piazza in the leather district. After this refueling, we hit the trail through the main square, past the David replica, across the Ponte Veccio, and up the hill to Michelanglo square. When we crested the hill, the sun began its colorful journey to the horizon, which would take much longer in these northern lattiudes than we were accustomed. The city of Florance shown in red and orange splendor below us, the Duomo dominating the skyline with its enormous dome. We found a table at the cafe and enjoyed pasta and wine. As the sun concluded its presentation, we walked back to the river, where we came upon the smooth notes of jazz music. We entered an upscale restaurant and took a table to enjoy some limoncello and dessert wine while listening to a talented jazz trio. After a long day, we turned in.

We woke up early on Saturday for our long journey to St. Johann im Pongau (not to be confused with several other Austrian towns of the same name). After a pair of train switches, we found ourselves on the Little Engine That Could, chugging through the Alps along brilliant green rivers through tree-filled valleys surrounded by craggy, snow-capped mountains. Slowly but steadily we gained elevation until the train stopped at our station and we were greeted by crisp mountain air. The chill we felt because of our inappropriate attire soon disapated as our hearts rapidly beat to make up for the lack of oxygen in the air and support our short walk uphill to the town center. Although we had failed to write down the name of our hotel, Anna spied a sign which rang a bell. We soon found ourselves in our beautiful condo, our porch overlooking a green mountain dotted with Austrain houses decorated with wood trim and colorful flower boxes.  Our Alpine vacation had begun.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Life as Tuscan Gentry

Our farmhouse provided by the Barberanis did not have a check out time, so we left late the next day. We continued Anna's manual drive training as we left the, main highway and chose the narrow, hilly route through Tuscany. We passed medieval towns, forts, and churches, all located promenantly on hilltops. Dry grasslands turned to green forests as we entered the Chianti region. Between Florance and Siena, the forested hills of Chianti produce the food and wine that often define Italy in the minds of Americans. We arrived in the early evening to our Castle-turned-b&b.

Castello di Meleto stands atop a hill above the surrounding forest, encircled by vineyards. Its history dates back to the 12th century, and it was enhabited by powerful Florencian lords, who were friends with the DiMedici.  A window through the castle wall lit our room and overlooked the herb garden of rosemary (which grows like a hedge), sage, and basil. Our bathroom was rounded, as it followed the bend of the tower in which it was located.  We explored the grounds and met some Americans who were involved in management and offered to take us on a tour the next day. We headed down to the restaurant and were greeted with an outdoor table for the cool evening. The window into the kitchen allowed a view of the master chef preparing his delicacies. Or in some cases, not so delicate, as with the 3 pound t-bone, a Tuscan tradition, our neighbors split. The menu had many other traditional options, such as the thick tomato and bread soup Anna savored and the pasta with wild boar sauce I enjoyed. The real drama was in the kitchen, however, where the head chef and waitress disagreed over an order. From then on, the soux chefs ran for cover and the other waiter lowered his head like a whipped dog when entering the kitchen as the chef stormed about violently assaulting his culinary creations with flying herbs. We decided that there must be some personal history with the waitress igniting his anger more than was prudent in a kitchen with an open window to the patrons, but our food continued to be excellent, so we simply watched the fireworks. After a bottle of Chianti classico, we made our way unsteadily back up the hill to our four poster bed and collapsed.

The next day, as promised, Tony, a wine expert from Chicago hired to assist the castle winery, toured us around the castle. Beautiful paintings and frescos adorned the walls, discovered in the castle's many cellar tunnels. We entered the tunnels to see vats of wine maturing and bottles from every year of the winery dating back to 1935.  They oldest they would sell was around 1968, and even that was iffy.  After the tour, we sampled six kinds of traditional Chianti wines while Tony instructed us on Italian wine. I spit several times (the pours were liberal) so I would be able to drive to another winery nearby. This was located at an old monestary which had been inhabited by monks from the 12th century until Napoleon kicked them out in the 19th. We sampled more wine, and traveled on to another town, where we walked inside the old city walls and ate more gelato.

For dinner, we returned to our neighborhood of Gaiole and found a table at another nearby castle. We dined in the courtyard under the stars where, for the first time since Venice, all those around us were speaking English. The restaurant was touristy likely because of its prices, but the meal was the fanciest we ate in Italy.  Complementary prosecco preceeded a chef's complement of cheese, basil, and olive oil. This was followed by and vegetable and bread dressing topped with scampi (the aforementioned shirmp/crawfish) and a slice of meat from what seemed to be a layer cake of hare, liver, and proscutto. This amazing course preceeded pasta with wild boar, which was followed by roast duck and delicately seasoned lamb. We finished with Tiramissu, and received some complementary cookies as well. Back in the castle, we fell justifiably into a deep sleep.

That catches me up to Siena, about which I already wrote. Review that if you wish, avid followers, for my next entry will take us to Austria.

In real time, we are preparing for another day in Prague. This city is amazingly beautiful and has fantastic beer. Today we will go to a brewery and complete our last minute shopping.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


There is a large gap to fill between our day in Siena and the feast in Orvieto. I'll start at the end of the parade on Sunday and hit the highlights.

We hiked to the other side of town to see the view from the Orvieto wall, and walked to the bottom of a huge 200 foot deep well that the Pope had built in the 13 or 14th century to supply the city with water in the event of a seige. It was wide enough for donkeys to haul the water in and out, and was quite a hike out. Back to the top of the city, we went under the ground in caves dug to supply building material for the city. We walked through an old olive oil press underground, several pigeon rookeries, where they attracted pigeons to eat, and a Eutruscan well that was over 300 feet deep. The well was dug by stone tools or hand and slightly larger than a tiny ancient person. After emerging from the underground, we were very tired. We stopped for a drink to relax before dinner, and order two glasses of wine. With them came some bruchetta, a nice surprise. A few minutes later, they brought us some fried risotto balls. After that, more bruchetta. Who knows how much more free food we would have received, for we were soon full and so tired that we went immediately home to bed.

The next day, we went up to the Barberani winery for a tour. Note I spelled the name incorrectly on previous blogs. Niccolo took us on a tour. He is the head wine maker, while his brother handles the business side. I got the impression that his parents were semi-retired. He was very knowledgeable and humble in his craft. They pick all their grapes by hand and press them in a machine that uses compressed air to be more gentle than metal. The farm is organic, all of whihc combines to produce a wine that is traditional and clean of bad grapes and excess parts of the vine. His philosophy is to involve as many of his employees as possible in the process to get ideas on how to improve the wine and to give them ownership of the process. Very impressive.

We drove over to another small medieval town and had a glass of wine overlooking their ancient bridge stretching across a chasm to an old fort. From their, although the day was stretching into evening, we drove an hour through winding Umbrian mountain roads to reach Spoleto. Spoleto was having an arts festival called "Festival of the Two Worlds" which was previously associated with the festival in Charleston, SC. Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the free shows, and this was the only night for two weeks that there was no ticketed performance. We comforted ourselves with a nearly three hour meal in a restaurant overlooking the city. We were fortunate that a large group of British came in at the same time as us, and the chef offered to do a tasting menu for them, which we piggybacked on. Truffles were back on the menu. We started with antipasta, including 2-year-old aged ham and delicious cheese. The highlight was risotto with a creamy truffle sauce, our next course. The salad included more truffles. The main were a couple of lamb kabobs on top of a piece of grilled steak prepared with olive oil. We finished with an amazing almost flourless chocolate cake. With a longer-than-anticipated meal in our bellies, we began our trek home, well after dark. This was something, considering it doesn't get dark until 9:30. We decided to forego the twisty roads we used to come for the main highway, which was indirect, but easier at night. We arrived back at the farmhouse at 2am and promptly passed out.

I feel I must include some current events, I hope this doesn't confuse the timeline. We just arrived in Prague, and checked into our two story, hottub, king size bed, hotel room next to the castle for $100 a night. Gotta love eastern Europe. We are heading out now for some of their famous beer and less famous meat-filled dinners. We learned from our guide book that an insult to someone's cooking in Czech is to call it, "not fatty." Anna is scared.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jack, Rocky, and the Palio

I have to skip ahead a few days to tell the story of Thursday night. My last blog described the feast in Orvieto. Since then, we have traveled to Tuscany to enjoy wine and castles in Chianti. Our timing was again fortuitous, as the big bi-annual horserace in Siena is Saturday July 2. We went to Siena on Thursday.

Siena is an old medieval city, rival to Florance and the other center of power in Tuscany. It was conquered by Florance before the Renaissance, and therefore maintains its late medieval character. The city is divided into seventeen neighborhoods, or contrade, that still engender fierce loyalty and rivalry. The rivalry is played out during the Palio, when representatives from each contrade ride bareback on a short, narrow track around the Piazza del Campo, the main city square.

Since we were two days away from the Palio, the whole town simmered with barely contained enthusiasm and expectation. We took our room in an old tower and set out to explore. Immediately we came upon a group of young, lubricated rowdies wearing their contrade colors on scarfs and serenading an open window above. Flags bearing the emblem of each contrade, the brave porcupine, the faithful caterpillar, the mighty dragon, (some contrade symbols were more fearsome than others)  adorned every window and lamp post.  As we moved towards the Campo, we noted how many young people were drinking wine and beer on the street, a sight we had not seen outside of street-side bars.  In each neighborhood we passed a gathering point where the men and women were, for lack of a better word, tailgating, usually separtely, about a block apart.  In the huge piazza, people wearing all the colors of the city milled about the makeshift race track, eating gelato and relaxing.

We ventured up steep roads and steps to the Duomo on the city's highest point. After viewing the ornate inlaided marble floors and 11th century frescos in the crypt, we climbed a narrow stone spiral staircase to the top of the wall of the unfinished wing. There the city and surrounding hills and vineyards spread out before us. The bells in one section of town began to ring, and voices drifted up to us on the wind. The voices increased and unified into a fight song. Strong male singing moved unseen through the streets below, reciting a powerful song. The sound moved towards the Campo, and soon a large group emerged into the piazza, their singing increasing as more and more people poured from the side street. At the end of the refrain, they broke into a cheer and clapping rhythem. As they went back into song, bells sounded in another part of the city, and soon a song rose up from new streets, moving towards the piazza. As we watched spellbound, the people of each contrade moved from their parties to gather in the piazza. We went down to join the action, and found the piazza packed with singing men and chanting children.

We grabbed a bottle of Barberani wine from our room and some meat, cheese, tomato, and bread from a market. We found some steps on a main walking thoroughfare and watched the world go by. The younger men carried bottles of wine and beers, singing and chanting, while the older men and women were dressed to the nines. After dinner, we discovered that splitting a bottle of wine evenly left Anna a bit more lubricated than me, so I needed to catch up. We headed toward the piazza Campo and found a bar with a little action. I spied Southern Comfort on the shelf and requested it with a lime. At first, the guy had no idea what I was talking about, but after some pointing, and no little amusment on his part, he took down the unopened bottle. I'm pretty sure he had never served SoCo before, but he ably splashed it over some rocks and squeezed in a few lemons, limes being unavailable. I downed the "shot" quickly and ordered a red wine, for which he chose an oddly sicky sweet dessert wine. We returned to the Campo where an orchestra formed up to play a free concert. We danced in the square a while and then, needing a seat to relieve our hill-beaten feet, we returned to the bar. As I was unable to drink my wine, and since we wanted a seat on their balcony, I asked the bartender, who was selling just as much coffee and gelato as booze, what he would have. He quickly whipped me up a Jack and coke with a twist of lemon and we took it on the deserted balcony overlooking the piazza. Seats that I imagine go for hundreds for the race were empty to watch the concert. The band struck up the theme song for Rocky and we watched the people passing below. The band moved into "I will follow him" from the movie "sister act" and then reprised Rocky. Thoroughly satisfied, we headed to the hotel. Just outside our door, we heard someone singing and playing the blues on guitar. I ran up to grab a harmonica, but the music stopped before I returned. Undaunted, I played the blues outside the open window. From inside, someone began to snap in time to my rhythem. He/she did not join in except for the snapping, but I played a nice, long solo. No response was given, and feeling content, we went to bed.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Miracle

This blog describes last sunday. It is in order from the Italian vineyard blog.

Sunday was what will most likely be the most interesting and authentic day of our 100 days.  We did better than go to church.  We saw an actual miracle.
Orvieto was built around a huge Duomo.  The Duomo, in turn, was built to house the relic of a miracle which occurred around 1100.  A young priest in the area doubted the miracle of transubstantiation, that is he did not believe the bread actually became the body of Christ.  One Sunday the priest was saying the Mass as usual, when the Lord decided to strengthen his faith.  When the priest broke the bread during Communion, the host bled.  The blood dripped onto the alter cloth, and the priest's faith was strengthened.  He took the blood-stained cloth to the Pope, who declared the miracle authentic.  Because of the importance of this miracle, the Pope declared a feast day, Corpus Domini, which is still celebrated today, on the ninth Sunday after Easter.  This past Sunday happened to be the feast day.

The citizens of Orvieto celebrate the feast by hanging banners of their respective neighborhoods around the town.  The small town is divided into four by the two main cross streets, and banners of the green tree, red x, blue M, and red shield are seen hanging from every window.  Sunday morning, a marching band, legions of drummers, and all the leading citizens gather at the Duomo.  They dress in medeveil costumes and form a long parade.  The parade is led by priests with a cross, and includes men with axes, pikes, swords, crossbows, and other weaponry.  They marched with large tapestries depicting the miracle.  All the civic groups, such as firemen, also march.  Finally come the knights of the miracle (of which Mr. Barbarani was one), the priests, and the miracle itself.  The alter cloth, stained with blood, is encased in glass, mounted on a stand and carried atop a large strecher.  They march all through the narrow streets where locals and people and priests from all over the country have gathered to celebrate the miracle of transubstatiation.  I have never seen so many priests in one place, although most were young.

We watched the whole thing from the piazza by the Duomo.  It was really amazing.  All of the costumes were handmade, down to the leather boots.  They marched for hours in the hot sun.  Mr. Barbarani almost collapsed at the end.  We were in narrow, stone-paved streets of a walled medeveil town, watching an actual medeveil feast celebration.  A great day. 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

floating through life

> That's what we do in Venice. Everywhere we go, there is another canal, another boat ride.  The city twists, turns and envelopes us in its water-born romance.
> We crossed the tourist-crowded street a block from our "Palazzehto" or small palace, buying a bottle of Prosecco on the way, and borded a gondola waiting at the stop. Our gondolier, Luca, meandered down the Grand Canal a short distance before turning up a smaller canal while we sipped our wine from small plastic glasses. Luca took the hint and grabbed a beer from a buddy as we passed a cafe.  He tolds us that his family have been gondoliers for many generations. We floated serenely through the back canals and debarked back at our start point. We finished our wine on a dock watching the sunset, which takes a long time at this latitude.
> Our dinner was excellent and authentic. We dined on mussels and clams, several types of crustaceans somewhere between shrimp and crawfish (if you can imagine that), and cuttlefish cooked in its own ink. I promptly flicked this black concoction all over my shirt, leaving ink spots which may never come out. The next night we enjoyed a favorite resteraunt of our host. Spaghetti and clam sauce was followed by fried calamari, shrimp, and small, whole fish. All together interesting and delicious.
> Friday we met the rest of the tourists at San Marco square and had coffee drinks while listening to an orchestra play "Amore."  We wandered and shopped and enjoyed pannini by a canal while accordian played in the background. We finished the day relaxing on our rooftop terrace.   

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Living on an Italian vineyard

I wrote a blog a few days ago on the phone, but we have not been able to get on the internet for a while. I will publish that one when we get on WIFI, but for now, things will be out of order. Also, this keyboard seems to have no apostrophe, so I can not use contractions.  Continuing:

We spent the last three days living in the Agritourismo on the Barbarani vineyards, a guest of our friend Niccolò and his family.  Niccolò was an exchange student with my sister who lived in my bedroom for a couple of weeks 15 or so years ago.  He and his family are amazing hosts and took great care of us.

We left Venice on the bullet train to Florance on Saturday June 25.  We had a few hours to kill before our train left, which led us to wander around Venice and stumble on a large area of what seemed to be public housing.  It was very clean and seemed to have less graphetti that the rest of the city. But I digress.  The train was fast and comfortable, and we sat next to a girl traveling by herself from Guatamala. We did not know there was anyone in Guatamala well off enough to travel around Europe.  I digress again.  In Florance, we picked up our rental car and promptly got lost.  At least we were on the right side of the road.  Amidst flashing lights, a few horns, and lots of tailgating, we found our way to the interstate and headed down to Umbria, the region south of Tuscany.  There we followed Niccolòs directions around a beautful lake along curvy mountain roads to the Agritourismo, a restored Umbrian farmhouse on their winery.  We admired our view of vineyards and the lake, then headed into Orvieto to meet Niccolò for dinner.

Dinner was an Umbrian feast.  Black truffles are in season, which means they find their way into every course of every meal.  Fortunately, we love them.  For those who do not know, like me, truffles are a tuber, like potatoes, and not a fungus, like mushrooms.  They taste like very delicate, mild mushrooms, to me at least.  We started with proscutto (ham, my spelling is awful), cheese, bruscetta with liver, bruscetta with some type of bean and meat paste, bruscetta with marinated pork cheek, bruscetta with lard, honey, and rosemary, and bruscetta with truffle spread.  Sounds weird, but trust me, it was delicious.  Anna followed with vegetable pasta and I enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak with olive oil and truffles.  We enjoyed Barbarani Foresca wine, of course, and finished with tiramissu.  On a side note, we have had tiramissu twice, and both times it was more custardy than cakey.  The lady fingers were small and completely subsumed in the coffee custard.  I like this style more than the kind you get in the US.

Our tour guide just arrived to take us on a tour of the castle and winery where we are staying in Tuscany.  I will continue to fill in the blanks as we have the chance.  For all to know, Anna is feeling better and is learning to drive stick! 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cheap paper napkins

Every resteraunt in Venice uses the same tiny thin squares of what feels like cheap notebook paper for napkins.  This is especially unfortunate for Anna, who is using them to blow her nose quite frequently.  It says something about our world that a cold Jimmy caught in Equador and Anna picked up in SC is now being passed to Italians.  Fortunately, Anna feels better today.

We arrived in Munich at 2am our time, but first thing in the morning for them.  I was well rested from my little airplane bed, but Anna had gotten to enjoy the other first class amenities, since her cold kept her awake. We found the train to the main station with help from the info desk and headed off to Venice. Our trip through the Alps was spectacular, with snow capped peaks and small picturesque towns.  We booted some American college kids out of our seats (sorry sukas) and I napped off and on while Anna read. We ate in the dining car, which I do not recommend.  We arrived in Venice at 6pm.

We stepped out of the train to cool air and salty smells.  We boarded the water bus and headed off on the grand canal to our b&b.  This small, family run hotel on the side canal has an elegant dining room full of lilys and a rooftop view of Venice.  After a very long sleep, we spent today walking around the Jewish Ghetto, the first place to ever be referred to as such. We enjoyed a spritz (wine and campari) in a resteraunt overlooking the large bay surrounding the main city, and we are now back in our room changing for a gondolla ride and dinner. Bellisimo!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On the planeiling

We just got on the plane to Europe. Much to our surprise, we turned left to the front of the plane for our seats and came face to face with a smiling flight attendant offering champagne. He escorted us to our fully reclining seats with individual live tv (hello UVA v USC baseball) and showed us how to operate the massage chair. Life as silver medallion is good today.

We just got off a week at Edisto beach with the Anderson family. Anderson beach weeks, unlike Goldston merit badge vacations, are all about maximum relaxing. Besides a couple of morning runs, we were rarely out of the house before noon. And why would we want to leave, when our nephew Orion was delighting us with his sly smile.  We swam in the ocean and pool with him in his first time in the water.  To add some action, the Watson family was also staying at the beach and invited us to share in the excitment of nine kids seven and under.  They also took us sailing and spearheaded a darn ball tournament (in which anna and I battled for the title).  All in all, it was a great week of sun and fun.  Next stop Munich!