San Gimignano

Our plane landed in Florence, Italy, in the late morning. There was a light rain.
The captain announced over the speakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a slight delay. It would appear that the airport did not know we were coming.” Strange to hear for a International airport. I bet
After disembarking, we headed to the airport car rental agency. (I won’t mention them by name, but if you scraped your knee, you might say it hurts.) They accommodated us with a four-door Alfa Romeo, which has a top speed of 260 kph. That’s 160 mph to us, and no, I did not get near this speed, although others on the road appeared to.
Driving in the city of Florence in the numerous “roundabouts” reminded me of the break on a pool table, or the animation of splitting the atom: high-speed random vehicles oblivious to the laws of physics, and never colliding. As in Rome, all the cars were intact, no signs of crashes, which indicated that this was the norm and everyone was used to it.
The famous PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) traveler and author Rick Steves paved our way to Tuscany. Using his invaluable travel guide, we booked our rooms in places he had suggested and went to sites he thought noteworthy. All in all, his recommendations were right on the euro.
We arrived at San Gimignano in the late afternoon. Parking was imposing, as no vehicles are allowed behind the walls in the town proper, unless you are a local and then only for a very short time.
San Gimignano is a small, walled, medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany, in north-central Italy. Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses.
Our hostess, Vanna, picked us up in her vehicle, and dropped us off in front of our hotel (, which I would bet good money (euro) that we, on our own, would never have found. At this point it was a godsend, as I believe my wife had packed her collection of bricks for the trip, and I was growing weak dragging around the luggage.
That evening, with darkness falling, the town seemed like an infinite labyrinth of small streets that led to who knows where. The next day it had shrunk to a normal medieval town, now that we knew the layout.
A small restaurant, Trattoria Chiribiri, was a stone’s throw from our hotel. As the food was splendid, we frequented it for our stay. They tried to serve one customer a 5-kilogram steak, bringing it out uncooked on a platter the size of a 1960 Cadillac’s hubcap for his inspection. Although the steak looked fantastic, it was turned down, as the man had never eaten an entire cow in one meal.
Another special place was Pasticceria Armando e Marcella.
The owner, Marcella Giunti, who has lived in San Gimignano all of her life, was very friendly, and served us breakfast on both days we were there. The coffee, cappuccino, fresh blood orange juice (which was red, but tasted like great orange juice), and panino sandwiches were a great start to our mornings. The shop had almost anything you could want to eat or drink (except full meals) and yes, lots of local wine! The wall was ordained with signed posters of championship ballroom dancing. It turned out to be Marcella’s daughter.
Another place we totally enjoyed was Il Pozzo Oegli Etruschi Restorante in nearby Volterra ( It is a warm, friendly restaurant. The owner had a cute photo poster of a young boy with a soccer ball on the wall. The kind of photo you would get at a mall. It was his adult son, our waiter! We marveled at the change. Kids do grow up too quickly.
We toured the Tuscan countryside, enjoyed the sights, took lots of photos, and enjoyed the food, wine, and especially the hospitality of the locals. We shall return!

City on a Hill

The Greek island of Santorini, in the Aegean Sea, bathed in the June sun, can be described only as “hotter than the hubs of hell itself” in June.
If ever a reason to have a cold beer before noon was needed on vacation, this is the place where it was conceived. I had suggested that others on the tour should soak their underwear and other clothing in hot water before disembarking the ship, as they will soon become that warm and moist in a matter of moments on the isle. I would recommend visiting in earlier spring or fall.
The great attraction of the isle is on the top of the hill, the town of Oia, with its whitewashed buildings and blue painted roofs. It makes for picturesque scenes that grace most of the postcards.
The volcanic island was bigger in days of old, but like most of the volcanoes in the Mediterranean, all good things must come to (a violent) end. This one blew up big time. The entire center was blasted away, and only the rim was left.
The only way to ascend the crater’s rim is by tram or by a guided burrow ride. My wife, Carrie, and I chose the tram; and our daughter, Katie, the burrow, and we met on the top. There is one other alternative: walking. We did not consider this an option as the cobblestone path is covered in burrow dung. If you fell, you might very well slide all the way down the steep incline.
At the top we caught a bus with a driver who was engaged in a game of “how many passengers can I get on this vehicle before it bursts at the seams?”
Survey says: all of them. To say it was a tight squeeze is an understatement. I did help an old man with his groceries get off the bus to prove not all Americans are ugly, just me.
Oia , a city on a hill, was beautiful but expensive. Katie bought a smoothie for 10 euros. I bought a beer for three. Definitely stay away from the smoothies.
On the way back, I actually had a seat on the bus. I introduced myself to a young lady standing next to my seat, and explained that we would soon become well acquainted because of the driver’s erratic and jerky turns. Sure enough, she was soon in my lap after a sharp turn.
While waiting at the bottom of the hill, I found a small store, about the size of a walk-in closet, that sold beer. It is located between the tram and the burrow concession. It was also air conditioned, and sold groceries and souvenirs.
This beer was different from that at the top of the hill: It was ice cold. That may not seem like a big deal here in the States, but really cold beer is very rare in Europe. I vowed to return.


We landed on Venetian Sovereignty by boat taxi after landing by plane at the nearby airport. We disembarked about one block from out hotel, a converted monastery located near the train station. Everything is within walking distance, as that is the only mode of transportation besides the boats
Venice was built before the dark ages, in a swamp to discourage local and foreign invaders. The only way to and from there was by water. Early Venetians drove wooden poles below the waterline to support the buildings. Through the centuries the town morphed into what we see today, a city totally intertwined with various sizes of canals. Horses and autos were never allowed on the island. All goods and fuel was transported to the city by water, as it is today. The city became rich trading to nearby city-states, and eventually to far away countries.

After securing lodging for our allotted stay, we walked around in a light rain, more like a mist. Residents and tourists alike donned umbrellas, and took up a swift pace to avoid the weather. We embraced it. The sunlight broke through the foreboding sky onto the multicolored pastel buildings, making the afternoon take on a magical quality. We proceeded to explore the labyrinth of back streets, open markets and hidden restaurants. Once again my geographically challenged family attempted to “guide” us on our way. After numerous course changes, we arrived back at our hotel as the sun was setting. They could get lost on an island, not I.

We found out the next day where all the main tourist attractions (shopping) were, and I vowed to avoid them. Carrie and Katie vowed to spend everything they had. We did find a great restaurant deep into the maze. It featured some of the best street food (pizza like material, covered with meats and cheese) in all of Europe, or at least that street. We enjoyed a light meal and a glass of wine while people watching from the outdoor dining tables. It was a very nice way to pass the time.

The next day while exploring, a hard rain was upon us. This was like walking in a waterfall. We took refuge in the lobby of a hotel along our route, and were welcomed by the staff to say while the monsoon had passed. Katie stood in the doorway and invited everyone within shouting range to join us in the dry lobby. Some took her up on her offer, and the staff never complained. A very hospitable city.

After buying supplies (wine) at a local Co-op, we embarked upon our journey. We boarded the Princess Cruise ship “Behemoth”. A slightly smaller version of  a nuclear aircraft carrier, but not by much. We would spend days finding our way through the bowels of the beast

As we left Venice, the ships giant movie screen and speakers played the opera piece by Sarah Brightman & Andrea Bocelli “Time to say goodbye”. It seemed so perfect as we cruised by Piazza San Marco, far below and filled with people, on such a beautiful day. It had rained earlier that morning, and now the sky was clear except for clouds on the horizon. Venice seemed to glow in the late spring air.
The ships staff had heard the music, probably every time they set sail, and a few stopped to join in the song, even the hand gestures. With such a diverse crew from countries all over the world, it was really quit a sight.

The French Underground

City of Lights? I think not, more likely City of Stairs!
Our maps of Paris and its underground Metro system were lovely but undecipherable – displaying what seemed to be a never-ending labyrinth of road and rail in print so small it could be read only by our daughter, Catherine, whose youthful eyesight remains keen. To even reach the nearest Metro station, we would have to navigate a maze of streets, stairs and platforms – so we kept our plans modest. Venturing away from our hotel on the outskirts of Paris for the first time, we sought only to get to the Eiffel Tower.
Nonetheless, our travels beneath La Ville-Lumiere (City of Lights) began badly. It was only after several false starts that we arrived at the iconic monolith.
It was worth the effort.
The view from the top of the tower – where we toasted the sunset with a glass of Champagne – was splendid. And our successful voyage left us feeling more confident about using the Metro to explore the city further – to the Arc de Triomphe, and later to … somewhere else.
It has been said that the French are extremely rude. Our experiences on the Metro convinced me otherwise. The people I asked for directions were helpful and forgiving of the language barrier. I did find that the further we were from any tourist attraction, the friendlier everyone seemed – including myself. I did witness an older French woman shove herself on the train into a young woman, semi-crushing her, then saying “pardon,” just before sneezing right in her face, and then proceeded a friendly conversation like they had known each other for years. C’est la vie, such is life.
Late at night, the Metro itself becomes a destination. At one station, a vocalist – equipped with her microphone and boom box – sang an old romantic song. At another, two guys with accordions played French music. Everyone except me stared with disdain. I am no fan of accordions – I happen to believe they provide the background music in hell. But too tired to escape after a long day of climbing Paris stairs, I could only laugh.
After we had been using the Metro for a few days, we noticed the detailed – and easy to understand – maps displayed on station walls and inside train cars. Using them we had a much easier time getting around.
Nonetheless, our Metro ride to the Chateau de Versailles (Palace of Versailles) proved challenging. It required three transfers, which turned out to be more than we could handle. What should have been a one-hour trip from our hotel instead took four hours. Along the way we met other groups of lost travelers. We wished them well and continued on our way. Only later did we realize where we went wrong: If you get on a train to Versailles, you might think you will end up at the palace. Wrong. The train to the palace has a totally different name.
One night, just before the Metro was due to close for the evening, we met an American couple.
The man explained that he had been pick-pocketed on their first day in Paris. Someone bumped into him on the train and lifted his wallet – and with it, $700 in cash. They asked us for directions. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help. As they left our train car, unsure of where to go, my wife, Carrie, asked me, “Do you think they will be lost?”
“This is the French Underground,” I replied. “Losses are to be expected.”