Italy’s Hilltops & Coastlines

by Bob Sparrow

Funicular

The dinner I had to rush off to after I posted on Thursday required us to walk about a mile and a half to the base of a funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain, via a nearly 40 degree climb, where sits the quaint little village of Montecatini Alto.  We had another perfect weather day so we could see for miles and miles – no foul weather gear needed here.  Just prior to sunset we walked the perimeter of the village taking in the spectacular views in every directions.  We then settled in at a bar (What a surprise!) on the town square and enjoyed a few cocktails before we moved next door where we had made dinner reservations.  We were seated on the patio on a beautiful evening, and while we were virtually alone at the restaurant at 7:30, when we left around 10:30 the place was packed.  We still haven’t adjusted to the late dining habits of the Italians.  With all the pasta I’d been eating for the last week, I decided to order a steak – it was delicious.

San Gimignano

Thursday morning we were back on the bus at 8:30, headed for the walled medieval town of San Gimignano.  Normally an hour and a half bus ride would not be very interesting, but Sergio did another ‘stand up’ routine about American TV shows, his comment about Murder She Wrote was something like, “If Angela Lansbury invites you to dinner, DON”T GO, someone is going to get murdered and it could be you!” He had us rolling in the aisles!  Before we hit this Tuscan city, we visited a cheese farm where we were given a tour by the owner, met the cows and goats and enjoyed some great cheeses.

Italian gelato

While wandering through town we found the award winning gelato shop that Sergio has directed us to  and got in line.  Great gelato!! We’re back on the bus (or Comedy Central as we now call it) and head back to our hotel to get ready for our ‘Farewell Dinner’ at another hilltop restaurant overlooking the Tuscany valley.  1st course: salami and other meats, 2nd course: bean soup (delicious!), 3rd course: pasta with cream sauce, 4th course: pasta with red sauce, 5th course: beef stew and potatoes, 6th course: desert (not sure what it was or how it tasted, my taste buds had checked out after the serving of the second pasta).  And, of course, the wine flowed freely.  We were all sad to leaving Sergio, but looking forward to the next stop on our own – Cinque Terre.

‘On-Off Boat’

These five towns built on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean are beautiful; we stayed in Monterosso, the largest of the villages and took an ‘on-off boat’ to visit the other four – actually only three as one village doesn’t have a port. It was another perfect weather day, as we strolled through each towns enjoying food, beverage and gelato.  We finished the day with a fabulous dinner, that lasted over three hours, at a seaside restaurant in our ‘home town’ of Monterosso.

Our trip home takes a few twists and turns which I will hopefully account with some of my own photos next time.

 

 

“Sorry, The Tower is Not Leaning Today”

by Bob Sparrow

(I’m still unable to download photos, but I’m using Google Images to come as close as I can)

View from hilltop Tuscan mansion

The dinner I was headed to before I had to sign off on Monday was FABULOUS.  It was at a Tuscany villa high on a hill overlooking the entire valley below.  It was a mansion that is rented out for special events.  The chef came to our outside dining area and showed us how he made the pasta he served us – interesting and delicious!  There was a DJ playing a variety of songs and the night had the potential of being a ‘sing off’ between guests from northern California, (insert photo of So. Call beating No. Cal singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ and our southern California gang singing, ‘I Love L.A.’ – even though we really don’t like LA all that much.  But we all ‘played nicely with others’ as we both did a great job of singing ‘Sweet Caroline’.

It’s Monday morning and we are off to Pisa, about an hour bus ride away.  We had a local guide, Vincehenzo, and he is a proud Pisan (or whatever you call people from Pisa) who was so well-informed and so articulate – he brought everything to life.  The bell tower (the one that’s leaning), as you might suspect, is still leaning although someone had sprayed a sign on a wall on our way to the tower that read ‘Sorry, the tower is not leaning today’.  It was explained to us that there is current technology that could straighten the tower fairly easily, but it brings in millions of dollars each year to the town of Pisa, so I don’t think we’ll see any straightening of the tower anytime soon.  After taking all the requisite photos of people pushing the tower over, we visited the adjacent church, Santa Maria Cathedral.  I don’t know whether it was the church or whether it was the fact that Vincehenzo was so good, but he made every aspect of the history of this church come alive.  We went into the Baptistry where over 100 people had to remain perfectly silent while a single voice sang out and demonstrated the awesome acoustics in the building.  I can still hear that voice echoing in that chamber.  Once outside the baptistery, Vincehenzo explained the ancient rivalry between the cities of Florence and Pisa – it’s was the L.A. and San Francisco argument all over again.

Cathedral Santa Maria

We got back to the hotel for a brief period of time before we were off to a local farm to make our own pasta dinner.  It was about an hour’s drive and we were greeted with a glass of wine (of course!) and the chef’s staff who immediately put us to work kneading the pasta, chopping the mushrooms, slicing the tomatoes and basically putting our somewhat dubious cooking skills to work.  We also made tiramisu – that was a big mistake as I’ll be making that way too many times when I get home.

Tuesday we are off to Siena, about an hour and a half bus ride from our hotel.  It’s another beautiful walled city, with a unique event that pits district against district and takes place every year.  It is called the Palio di Siena, and it is run twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, where horses run around the Piazza del Compo (city square) where there are some 50,000 people that cram into the area to witness the race that lasts about one minute. What’s really interesting is that it is not unusual that the jockey falls off their horse, but it doesn’t matter if the horse finishes the race with or without the jockey!

Palio di Siena

On our way back from Siena, we stopped at a small, family owned winery and enjoyed several samples of some great wine – both red and white, along with some great charcuterie (that’s meat and cheese and stuff for those non-winers).

Dinner back in our local plaza and crash.

Wednesday is a ‘free day’, so we get to relax and just explore our magnificent base city of Montecatini Terme.  This evening for dinner we’ll be taking a funicular up to Montecatini Alto, a small village that sits on a nearby hilltop – more on that next time.

I’m going to need a vacation from this vacation, but it’s been an amazing experience.

More next Monday.

Under the Tuscany Sun

by Bob Sparrow

Imagine if you will the beautiful countryside of the rolling hills of Tuscany.  The fact is you will have to imagine it as the bandwidth the Hotel Ercolini e Savi is so thin, it could run around in a shower and never get wet, which means I am unable to send photos, but promise to when cyberspace allow.

The trip over was long and uneventful except for the Russian spy on our flight from LAX to Paris (insert photo of Russian spy here); more than likely she was coming back from just playing golf with Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Palos Verdes.  But that’s a blog for another time.

From Paris we flew to Florence where we were met by our tour guide, Sergio (insert picture of Sergio), who is a jolly (meaning he’s a bit over-weight) man with a great attitude and smile.  He knows Italy backwards and forwards (he was born there) and could seriously do stand-up comedy.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, your tour guide either makes or breaks your trip.  I felt so relieved upon meeting Sergio – there was no question he is going to make it great!

Our hotel is in the town of Montecatini Terme in the middle of the Tuscan region and this town is fabulous – not too big, not too small.  Great atmosphere, great restaurants and bars, friendly people.  Travel tip: go there!  That evening (Friday) we had a welcome dinner for all of the people on the tour, which numbered 42, all but two from the U.S..  We were a group of 12, there was a group from northern California of 16; the rest were from various parts of the US with one couple from Wales.  These were the people who we were going to spend the next eight days with so we were anxious to get to know them.  After Sergio explained all the fun and the rules, we enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel and decided to head into the town square for an after-dinner drink.  (insert group photo of sitting in outdoor bar off the square of Montecatini), we eventually found our way back to the hotel, but since there was a bar next door that looked fun, we stopped for ‘just one more’.  We did finally get to our rooms for some much-needed sleep.

I’d like to say I had the best night’s sleep I had in a long time, and I did, but since our watches and phones were still on California time, the alarms never went off and we woke up at 8:25, when we had implicit instructions to be on the bus by 8:30 and DON’T BE LATE!  Not a good start . . . obviously we were late and got a nice round of applause when we entered the bus red-faced!  We were headed for Florence to spend the day and a beautiful day it was, weather-wise and experience-wise.  Prior to getting into the city, we headed to a hilltop site that provided us an extraordinary view of the entire city including the famous Ponte Vecchio (insert photo of city view showing Ponte Vecchio) The highlight, of course, was a trip to see Michelangelo’s David, of which I got a rather unusual photo (insert photo of David’s ass).  We were guided through the city’s churches, civic buildings and various statues and fountains – very interesting.  Back to the hotel, a short nap and a great dinner at a local restaurant just off the plaza in town

While our first full day was Under a Tuscan Sun, Sunday (where we did make it to the bus on time by the way!) started with a heavy rain shower, but quickly gave way to sun, which not-too-quickly gave way to more rain, as we motored to the town of Lucca.  Another great Italian town, this one with a city wall all the way around it (insert photo of city wall) and the rain ceased while we toured the city with a local guide, rented bikes and rode all the way around the city on the wall (insert photo of our unfortunate bike crash – it’s not true what they said about never forgetting how to ride a bike), toured the home/museum of composer, Giacomo Puccini, who wrote the operas, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, and Turandot (from which the song Nessun Dorma comes).  On our way home we passed ‘Devil’s Bridge’ (photo and story later, maybe) stopped at a WWII museum and walked through a real old Nazi bunker – spooky! (photo of spooky Nazi bunker).

The trip has been awesome so far!! (insert photo of how awesome trip is) A Tuscan dinner out tonight somewhere, but I’ll have to write about that next time – hopefully Thursday.

P.S.  In the event my photos never come through, just look this stuff up on Google.

Arrivederci (photo of me saying, “See you later”)

Summer’s Over . . . or Is It?

by Bob Sparrow

With Labor Day coming and going, summer is ‘unofficially’ over; a fact that you don’t have to tell most kids, who have been back in school for several weeks.  But I’m going to try and squeeze in one more ‘summer vacation’ before the season is ‘officially’ over.

This Thursday we’ll be heading to Italy with five other couples from the ‘hood: Mark & Kathy Johnson, Patrick & Pam Michael, Mike & Tanis Nelson, Bob & Jeanne Pacelli and Rob & Stefanie Warren.  Yes, I know I was just in Italy in July, but if you had a chance to go back, wouldn’t you?  And this group knows how to have fun.

Montecatini Terme

The first segment of our trip is a group tour called Spotlight on Tuscany, which lasts for nine days, with the town of Montecatini Terme, in the rolling hills of Tuscany, serving as our base from which we will visit a different area each day.  One day we’ll hit Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, and have a chance to see Michelangelo’s David; I last saw him in 1974 and I’m curious if, now as an older man, he’s still standing naked in the middle of the Academy Gallery.  We’ll also see the walled city of Lucca, which is advertised as Tuscany’s best kept secret, but I have a feeling that it’s not that much of a secret anymore – I’ll let you know.  We’ll have a guided walking tour through the charming town of Siena and then of course we’ll all take the requisite photo of us pushing over the leaning tower of Pisa in that coastal town.

Throughout the tour we’ll be tasting Italian wines, Italian olive oils, more Italian wines, Italian cheeses and some more Italian wines.

Cinque Terre

After our stay in Tuscany we’ll be hopping on a train and heading for the Mediterranean coast to the picturesque towns of Cinque Terre – a destination that has long-been on my travel bucket list.  We’re on our own here, so we’ll be hiking through the five villages, taking water taxis back and forth and probably drinking some Italian wine.

And yes, of course, you’re invited to come along vicariously and be spared the joys of airplane rides and airline rubber chicken.  You’ll also not have to pack any foul-weather gear, as rain is predicted for our first several days in Tuscany.  Trust me, it won’t dampen our spirits!

As always I’ll update you as we go along.

Croatia, Slovenia, Venice & Home

by Bob Sparrow

“Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it”      George Bernard Shaw

Dubrovnik from the top of the cable car

I read the above quote with some skepticism – could this ancient city really be more like paradise than say, Bakersfield? But after being totally amazed by Montenegro, I was open to believe anything about this scenic Dalmatian Coast. I became a believer – Dubrovnik is beautiful. We had a tour guide here, but it was not a private tour (as we had become accustom to), rather there were about 18 of us in a ‘Cable Car/Walking Tour’ of the city. It was actually a fairly good walk just to get to the bottom of the cable car, but we managed to get ourselves into a gondola and up to the top of the mountain. The view was spectacular, as we took in the entire walled city of Dubrovnik as well as miles of beautiful coastline both north and south. We took the requisite photos, visited the gift shop and headed back down for a guided tour through the walled city.  After visiting a number of historical sites, we were left on our own to either ‘walk the wall’ or not.  As a group we decided that it was too hot and the wall provided no shade, so each couple went their own way.  The Wall kept calling me – it is the second longest wall in the world (behind China’s), so I decided that I wanted to at least walk a little part of the wall.  I paid 8 Euros and took the steep stairs to the top of the wall.  I decided I’d just walk out to the the part of the wall that was on the coast.  It was spectacular!  I continued around and by the time I was half way around I figured I’d complete the circuit around the entire city.  It was 3.4 miles, which felt like 13.4 on this hot, humid day, but I’m glad I did it . . . although I’m not sure why.  It’s hard to believe that this country just had its ‘War of Independence’ with Serbia in the 90s, yes the 1990s!

Game of Thrones King’s Cove

And yes, this is the location for much of the filming of Game of Thrones.

Dubrovnik, Split and Koper, Slovenia are only a few hours drive apart, but our ship took all night to get between them – I think we took a wrong turn.  In Split we took a golf cart tour of the city and surroundings, finding it to be a hip city with great beaches.  Koper, Slovenia, the home of our first lady, is another smaller, ancient city with old buildings that, at this point, we probably had our fill.

Our next and final stop on the cruise was due west across the Adriatic Sea to Venice.  We had arranged another walking tour of the city, where we had a very knowledgeable guide describing the many aspects of the city as we wound our way through the narrow cobblestone sidewalks.  The tour ended with a gondola ride and afterwards we found a great restaurant and enjoy a true Italian lunch of some of the best pasta we’d ever tasted along with a nice glass of Chianti.

Smile String Quartet

Meanwhile back on the ship: The best entertainment on board , in my opinion, was a group called Smile String Quarteta group of attractive Ukraine women who played violin, viola and cello.

Our travels home provided the longest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced.  We disembarked in Venice at 8:00 a.m. on July 4th and got to LAX at 8:00 p.m. – on paper it looks like 12 hours, but add the time change and it was a 21 hour trip home.  We were surprised that everyone here seemed very excited to see us – we were greeted with a fireworks welcome.

As those who read our blog know, I love travel; seeing new places and understanding how different people live is always interesting and educational, but I have to admit that one of the great aspects of travel for me is gaining an appreciation for our own country – it is always great to get home.

Thanks to Jack & JJ Budd and Chuck & Linda Sager for being great travel companions and making the trip that much more fun.  Thank you to wife, Linda who mostly puts up with my antics.  And thank YOU for coming along, especially thanks to those who made comments to let me know I didn’t leave you behind.

Get rested up as we have another trip planned with another group at the end of the summer – hope you can join us.

 

Malta, Greece & Ohhhh Montenegro

by Bob Sparrow

Malta

Malta – looks interesting . . . it’s not!

Malta’s history dates back to around 5900 B.C. – don’t worry we’re not going to start there. Because of its location, in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was a strategic island to have control of and was thus taken over in turn by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Aragoneze, French and British. During World War II the Germans wanted to add their name to the list, but despite the Luftwaffe leveling some of the oldest buildings in the world, they were turned back by Allied forces and now Malta remains as an independent country.

In Malta – just shoot me!

I think the day our ship arrived in Malta’s port city of Valletta, all of the above-mentioned nationalities were represented there, plus tourists from four cruise ships – it was wall-to-wall in this walled city. So a 10-minute walk to the ‘lift’ that took us up the walled city’s façade and a walk down the crowded main street filled with tee shirt and trinket shops was all the Malta we wanted to see. I’ll admit that I felt a bit like a shallow tourist, not really appreciating the history or the present culture of this historic country, but it was crowded and hot. I didn’t even stop to have a local beer!

Katakolon, Greece

Katakolon – yes, that’s it – really!

If you were looking to visit a Greek island and have imagined those stark white building stacked along a pristine coastline over azure waters; or if you were looking to stroll amongst the antiquities of ancient Greece’s structures like the Acropolis or Parthenon, don’t go to Katakolon. Its claim to fame is that it was the location of the very first Olympic games. We did not take the 30-minute drive to the original Olympic site, as we assumed most of the athletes had already gone back home. We did wander the main street of town (there was only one), which was about three short blocks long, and were subjected to old Greek men sitting outside their store like carnival barkers, trying to get us to walk in and buy something. The tour of the town was quick and uneventful, but Jack and I did stay long enough to enjoyed a famous Greek Gyro sandwich and a Mythos beer at a beachside café, which was quite good.  But I’m not checking Greece off my bucket list based on this visit.

A Day at Seas

Here’s what I discovered during our ‘Day at Sea’

  • The Budds and Chuck and I nearly flunked out of our ‘Pasta Cooking Class’

    JJ, Jack, Chuck & I just before we got thrown out

  • I couldn’t concentrate during the Zen ‘doodle art’ class
  • Two-piece bathing suits are not necessarily worn by thin, young women
  • After five days on board, I still had difficulty finding the way back to my room
  • Bingo is boring

Kotor, Montenegro

OK, this is more like it! Just getting to the historic, old city of Kotor was spectacular, as it requires the ship to traverse 17 miles of magnificent bay with high mountains on each side creating the ‘Montenegro fjords’. We docked and were greeted by our guide, Rajan (pronounced Ryan).  We wondered, Is he another Alfonzo or another Cammie? The big smile and warm welcome assuaged our fears immediately. We discovered that one of the keys to being a really good guide is to have been born and raised in the area you are guiding in – Rajan was. He was not only personable with a good sense of humor, but could speak intelligently on any subjects, from the politics of the country to cheese varieties in the farmer’s market.

Above Kotor with our ship behind us in port

Our tour had two parts, first a stroll through the fairly small walled city where Rajan pointed out some of the more interesting/historical sites, as he knew our ship was going to be in port until 11:00 p.m. and thus we had time later to explore the city on our own. The second part of the tour was a visit to the olive-producing region of the country, which was about a 45 minute drive from the port. We hopped in our van and headed up the mountains surrounding Kotor’s cove, providing us some amazing views.

When we arrived at the olive orchard, the owner, whose family had owned the business for over six generations, greeted us with a smile and brought us inside an old olive press room and served us a lunch of cheese, prosciutto, tomatoes, bread and, of course, olive oil, but first, a shot of brandy.  Yes, it’s a custom here and we certainly didn’t want to piss off the locals. We learned all about olive growing, pressing and tasting – we now know what ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ means – to my surprise virgins have nothing to do with it!

We returned to Kotor for a stroll through the city as the lights came up allowing this city to show off yet another side of its beauty. Great city + great guide = great experience!

 Travel tip: Skip Malta and Katakolo and go directly from Sicily to Montenegro . . . and don’t play bingo!

Meanwhile back at the ship: A group of about 100 plastic surgeons were having a conference on this cruise and they brought along their ‘significant others’. Since the significant others looked significantly younger than the surgeons, we played a game trying to figure out if the doctors had performed surgery on their wives or just brought their secretaries to the conference.

 

Southern Italy & Sicily

by Bob Sparrow

(Editor’s note: Beautiful photos would not up-load due to limited bandwidth on board, so just use your imagination)

Positano and Pompeii

We anchored off the city of Sorrento and took a tender to shore where we were met by our guide for the day, affable Alfonzo Sorrentino. From that first smile we knew our day was going to be fun – the guide so makes or breaks the tour and he made it in spades! We hiked the steep road away from the dock to our private, 8-passenger van and wound our way through the town of Sorrento heading for picturesque Positano, which literally hangs off the cliffs on the shores of the Mediterranean. We walked the winding path down to the beach that passed by store after store – it was such an exhausting trip that we had to have a beer when we got to the bottom even though it was only 10:00 a.m. Back in the van, Alfonzo had selected a special stop for us at a ‘lemon factory’, where they made everything lemon, from lemon candy to Italy’s famous liqueur, limoncello. Alfonzo gave me a piece of the lemon rind and told me to eat it – surprisingly it was very sweet! We were then taken to a winery at the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius were we had lunch at the winery restaurant, Cantina Del Vesuvio, which was set in the middle of the vineyard – and what a lunch! First bread and olive oil, then bruschetta, then spaghetti with red sauce and then a lemon cake desert, all while tasting 5 different wine selections.  I think all those things were on my diet.

Due to a landslide next to a tunnel on our way to Pompeii, we got stuck in traffic, which caused about an hour delay in our schedule, but Alfonzo knew we were from southern California, so I’m sure he went that way just trying to make us feel at home. Once at Pompeii we hired a guide who promised to show us the whole place in an hour; which she did! I had no idea how big this city was or how many prostitutes worked there . . . not now, but back in the day prior to Mt. Vesuvius burying the city, along with the prostitutes, in ash and pumice in 79 AD. On our way back to Sorrento, Alfonzo asks if we like Frank Sinatra, we asured him we did, so he turned on his music and we all sang along.  We come to find out that Alfonzo’s other job is as an entertainer, where he sings and plays piano in a night club.  So all the way back to the ship he got us all singing Sinatra and Buble songs. A great time provided by a great guide

Catania, Sicily

With that great experience behind us, we were looking forward to our next day’s tour on the island of Sicily – The Godfather Tour.  But we found out that ife has a way of balancing out things, thus our amazing experience with Alfonzo was balanced out by our not so amazing experience with our next guide, Cammie, a young French woman who told us that she normally worked on her computer in the office of Viatour, but was now being asked to lead our tour. We were open to giving her chance, but her low voice with a bad French/English accent couldn’t be heard over the sound of the air conditioning fan, which the van driver, seemingly another neophyte, couldn’t figure out how to control. When she was talking at all, Cammie was basically reading something about the Godfather on her phone and then passing that information along to us. Otherwise it was a ride in the van with long periods of awkward silence followed by more long period of awkward silence. We walked around the beautiful setting in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean in the town of Slovoca where they filmed the movie The Godfather, had lunch in the town of Toarmia and then she made us an offer we couldn’t refuse when she asked if we wanted to go back to the ship early. 

Travel tip: if you want to revisit The Godfather . . . rent the movie.

Meanwhile back on the boat: We enjoyed the fantastic music of the Smile String Quartet, four beautiful Ukrainian women, who were amazing musicians!

 

Finding La Dolce Vita

by Bob Sparrow

A great lunch in the town square in Santa Marinella, Italy

Whoever said getting there is half the fun was on drugs . . . really good drugs. We left the house at 5:15 a.m. Thursday morning and arrived in Italy early Friday morning, around 7:00 a.m; scientifically speaking, Friday was the longest day of the year (the vernal equinox) and this year we had small airplane seats, a crying baby and an uneatable meal that I describe as ‘faux fowl’ to lengthen the already longest day. All this while you sat in the comfort of your home over the weekend sipping Mai Tais and channel surfing from your couch. Hey, I’m not complaining, I signed up for this, but just wanted to let you know what I go through to make sure you’ll have a good time.

We were met by our driver at the airport and traveled about 45 minutes up the road to the Hotel Villa Delle Palme, which was featured in the film, Las Dolce Vita. We spent two nights in the hotel that sits on the Mediterranean coast in the town of Santa Marinella. One afternoon we took the train into the port of Civitavecchia just to walk around and get our first taste of Gelato – no one does ice cream like Italy! We returned to enjoy a dinner at a top-ranked restaurant in our hotel. The next day we had a beautiful lunch in the quaint town square, mostly enjoying the people, who were smiling and accommodating, particularly the owner of the restaurant, who regaled us with stories we could hardly understand, but she told them with such enthusiasm that she had us all laughing as we dipped our French bread in their amazing olive oil and sipped our Chianti.

Villa Delle Palme Hotel

By noon the next day (Sunday) we were boarding the Riviera; it is magnificent. We made sure we got in line to sign up for the upgraded drink package (Just letting you know we’ve got our priorities straight).  We thought maybe we’d been black balled as word may have been passed around in the cruise industry that the ship will lose money on us before they hit their first port.  Our first meal is at Red Ginger, an amazing Asian restaurant – the sea bass is out of this world. After dinner we head to a magic show that, quite honestly, was very amateurish, but the drink package made it forgettable.

I’ll check in on Thursday of this week and keep you updated on where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. Yes, it’s a short one this time, but I’m still trying to figure out what day it is and where I am.

Hang in there, it will get better . . . or not.

 

Cruisin’ Around Italy

by Bob Sparrow

Oceania’s Riviera

I’ll be leaving this week to cavort, literally around Italy on Oceania Cruise Line’s Riviera, along with Chuck & Linda Sager, Jack & JJ Budd and wife, Linda . . . and of course you guys, vicariously. We’ll be flying into Rome (You won’t have to endure that part!) a couple of days early and staying at the Hotel Villa Delle Palme which overlooks the Mediterranean and is just a few miles from our port of debarkation, Civitavecchia, where we will start our 11-day cruise.

Before I tell you the ports of call you’ll be visiting, let me give you a short description of our ‘boat’, the Riviera. It has 16 decks with a guest capacity of 1,250, served by a staff of 800. It is elegantly fashioned with interior architecture that features a spectacular spiral staircase (Don’t worry, you can take the elevator).  One of the ship’s specialties is food, and boy do they specialize! Aside from the Grand Dining Room, we will be eating at the Bistro and Jacques, both featuring quintessential French dishes, the Polo Grill, a classic steakhouse, Toscana, featuring traditional Italian cuisine and the popular Red Ginger, featuring contemporary interpretations of Asian classics. These are in addition to the numerous Cafes and Grills spread throughout the ship. Additionally we will be taking a couple of cooking classes offered on board, so I hope you’re hungry. Wow, I just gained four pounds writing about the food! And of course, we’ll be participating in some sort of drink package, so we’ll be needing a whole new wardrobe when we roll home.

Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast

The ship’s first stop is just a short jaunt down the coast to Sorrento on the magnificent Amalfi coast, where we will be taking a side trip to Pompeii, the city that was buried under more than 15 feet of volcanic ash and pumice from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – it’s certainly taken a while to clean up, I guess the city workers have been on strike for a while. It’s just another short voyage to Catania, Sicily, where there has been recent activity of another volcano, Mt. Etna, we’ll try to avoid the falling pumice. It’s then another short trip to the island of Malta, known for . . . being a small island south of Italy. Not sure what kind of trouble we can find there, but we’ll find some I’m sure. We then motor over to Katakolon, Greece, where they held the very first Olympic Games, we don’t have tickets! We will then have a day at sea, where I’m sure I’ll spend most of my time in the gym or doing laps in the pool . . . OK, maybe I’ll just be sitting by the pool lapping up a cold one.

Bay of Kotor

We will then be heading up the Adriatic Sea with our first stop being Kotor, Montenegro, a picturesque city tucked behind a series of fjords. Like many of the cities we have seen and will be seeing, it is filled with lots of ancient cathedrals and other old stuff.  We will continue up the Adriatic to the country of Croatia, where we’ll visit Dubrovnik and Split, then to Koper, Slovenia and finally into Venice, where we will have two days to check out the canals, St. Mark’s Square and the millions of tourists.

Then, you of course will be spared the long and winding road home, while I must endure delayed flights, transfers, uncomfortable seats, airline food and a heavyset, chatty neighbor telling me all about her trip through Italy. What I don’t do for you guys!

That’s the plan; I’ll give you the real scoop as it happens, or at least a few days after it happens, depending on Internet availability. Hope you enjoy the trip.  Arrivederci.

Surfin’ Safari

by Bob Sparrow

Sandra Dee

As a native Californian, I was of course attracted to surfing at an early age. I think it was in 1959 when the first Gidget movie came out – OK, so maybe I wasn’t attracted to surfing as much as I was  attracted to Sandra Dee! I figured if MoonDoggie could get a girl like that by surfing, sign me up. But I was raised in a rural dairy community in northern California where surf is rarely up on the surrounding farms and ranches.  I will say that the iconic 1964 movie, Endless Summer, had some appeal to me as someone who’d been going to school for most of my life – I thought I was starring in the movie, Endless School. Even a move to southern California, or as my northern friends say, ‘the dark side’, didn’t get me interested in surfing, but I did feel closer to Sandra Dee.

Why then am I writing about surfing? Two reasons: 1) it’s only about a 20 minute drive from my house to surfing mecca, Huntington Beach or as it’s know to board riders, ‘Surf City’,  where the National Surfing Championships are held every summer, but more importantly (to me) it’s the home of my favorite restaurant – Duke’s!  2) I thought I would start an educational series on various museums in southern California; although after this trip to the ‘International Surfing Museum’, it may be a series of one, and not very educational at that.

Mid-bite at Duke’s

It was an unusual rainy May morning when I started my safari to Surf City, but those are the kind of days that keep people away from the beach, so I was happy for a little precipitation as I headed to the coast.  Before I hit the museum it was a must to get a burger and beer at Duke’s, which I enjoyed as I watched the surfers and volleyball players warming up for summer. The ‘International Surfing Museum’ is just a short walk from Duke’s down palm-tree-lined Main Street, which is bar & grill after bar & grill after bar & grill, with a Hawaiian-vibe. It wasn’t very crowded on this midday Thursday, but guaranteed it’s wall-to-wall during summer.

The museum is not large; in fact the space was an old doctor’s office and I’m guessing the doctor didn’t have a very large practice. The door was open, so I walked in and was greeted by Judy, the docent, who told me the museum was closed. I had just walked through the open door, saw the lights on and brochures out on a table and said, “It doesn’t look like you’re closed”. She said, ‘Well, we’re open, it’s just that we don’t have an exhibit up now” as she motioned to the adjacent vacant space. She encouraged me to take a look around and check out the surfing posters, the surf boards in the rafters and . . . the surfing posters. She gave me a quick history of surfing, starting with Duke Kahanamoku and continued to regale me with the upcoming surfing events of the summer. I feigned interest for as long as I could and then told her I wanted to get a photo of the Guinness record, largest surfboard in the world, which held 66 people and is hanging on the outside of the building next to their parking lot. It’s gnarly!

I drove home still relishing my burger and beer from Duke’s and having assuaged my guilt of living so close to the ocean and never hanging ten, or even one. But, hey Dude, it was still a bitchin’ day.