Twilight Zone: The Accidental Sea

by Bob Sparrow

Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling

You are in a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. A world where your imagination is the only ticket required for passage.  Next stop: The Twilight Zone of Travel.

You’re on a dark, desert highway, cool wind in your hair, warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air.  Up ahead in the distance, you see a shimmering light.  Your head grows heavy and your sight grows dim.  You had to stop . . . but not for the night.

That shimmering light is 50 miles south of Palm Desert in a place that rivals Palm Springs in popularity and draws more visitors than Yosemite.  You are on the desert floor at 223 feet below sea level.

You have arrived at the wonderfully, bazaar Salton Sea.

Salton Sea in the 50s

You are just in time to witness one of boating’s 21 world speed records, as the high salinity makes boats more buoyant and, at more than 200 feet below sea level, barometric pressure improves performance.  Speed boats, water-skiers and fishermen populate this body of water that is larger than Lake Tahoe.  Its shorelines are dotted with beach-front motels, yacht clubs and fancy restaurants.  It is a place that caters to over one million visitors a year, looking to get away and relax in the sun and possibly to invest in what is called the ‘California Riviera’.

You’re at the North Shore Beach & Yacht Club, which just opened the largest marina in southern California, where celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis and Desi Arnaz gather at this Salton Sea beachfront motel.  Your plan is to have some cocktails, a nice dinner and take in a performance by the Beach Boys, who were appearing live that evening.  The only problem . . .

You are 60 years too late!

Shoreline of the Salton Sea today

The North Shore Beach & Yacht Club today

The North Shore Beach & Yacht Club no longer exists.  In fact much of what was built to lure visitors and investors to this area has been ravaged by 120-degree heat, 75 mile per hour winds but mostly by a body of water that was created when the Colorado River breached a dike in 1905, releasing water that became the Salton Sea, an ecological disaster dubbed the ‘Accidental Sea’.

1,000s of dead fish on Salton Sea’s shore

Over the years, due to the heavy alkalinity which causes a lack of oxygen in the water, the sea has become uninhabitable – in fact over 1.7 million fish died in one day . . . yes, in one day.  And if things weren’t bad enough, the Salton Sea sits directly over the San Andreas fault.

Salvation Mountain

If you continued your journey along the east shoreline of the sea, you’ll hit the not-so-bustling town of Niland, population of less than 1,000 – fewer during the summer.  From there, since you’ve already come this far, it’s just a short distance to a must-see attraction – Salvation Mountain.  Constructed by Leonard Knight, who started building the 50 foot mountain in 1984; this masterpiece is resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also includes flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects.

And just when you thought that things couldn’t get any weirder, you continue east on the road another mile or two and find Slab City, ‘the last lawless place in the United States’.  And you ask yourself, can this ‘last lawless place’ really be that unsafe?  Here’s a quote from one of the residence of ‘The Slab’.

Entrance to Slab City

Slab City Library

“There are definitely some murderers in Slab City, but they would be stupid to do anything here. They might have killed people in the past but they surely won’t do it here, they are hiding. So you could say, this is one of the safest places on earth!”

OK, it’s time to get out of the sun and this Twilight Zone episode.  Thanks for joining my virtual tour; can’t wait to actually go there . . . or NOT!

How Terribly Strange to Be 70

by Bob Sparrow

“How terribly strange to be 70”  Old FriendsSimon & Garfunkel

Steve, Terry, Ken, Kent & Ed using ‘aiming fluid’ at Top Golf

We came in the mid-1960s as young men, boys really, to Westminster College, a Christian college that sits at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains on the East Bench of Salt Lake City, for only one reason . . . football. We just wanted to play the game.  While our destination was the same, our paths were quite diverse.  Some came right out of high school, some came after a year or two of junior college, some came from a Division 1 school where they were never going to play and some came because they knew they were never going to play anywhere else.  And while we all came for the game of football, we left with great friendships, great memories and a college degree that positioned us for success later in life.

The ‘we’ is a group of 11 Westminster graduates, all 70-something, who gathered in Las Vegas two weeks ago for an informal reunion put together by my old college roommate and running back on the football team, Ken Poulsen.  You may think that 11 isn’t very many people to gather for a reunion, well, actually only 9 were football players, but that still represented nearly half of our team!  The non-football players, but still successful graduates of Westminster were Dave Chally, who was a fan and a friends to us all, and John Soltis, our ‘spokesman’ who played basketball for Westminster.

Chally & Hall awaiting instructions from Ken

While Ken had planned a number of activities for us – Top Golf, bowling and attending a comedy club show, most of the entertainment came from the recalling of stories and antics from our college days.  Listening to them would make one wonder if or how this group ever made it through college, much less enjoy any success after it, but indeed this was actually a very accomplished group:

Ken ‘Little Poison’ Poulsen – running back; after graduation joined the Marines, was a Bombardier/Navigator in a A-6 jet during the Viet Nam war.  Earned Master Degree in Education and ultimately became Superintendent of Schools in the Sacramento area, now retired with two homes in Arizona, one in the desert, one in the mountains.

Terry ‘TC’ Callahan – tight end; after graduation he was drafted into the Army and became a combat medic seeing lots of action in Viet Nam.  After the service he earned a Masters Degree and worked as a Probation Officer and did background investigations for the Department of Defense. Retired, he now has two homes in Utah, one just south of Salt Lake City, the other in St. George.

John Soltis addressing us at our ‘Awards Banquet’

Joel ‘Herbie’ Hall – running back; joined the Marines after graduation and flew helicopters  (Huey gun ships) in Viet Nam receiving 28 air medals.  He then had a 32-year career with the 3M company.  Now retired in the Atlanta area and has a second home in Jensen Beach, Florida.

(Editors note: I wrote a previous blog on the above three guy after we all met in Vegas in 2017 – here’s the link in case you want to read more.  https://fromabirdeyeview/?p=6648)

John ‘Tiger’ Horan – wide receiver; after graduation became a Navy officer and was a Bombardier/Navigator in an A-6 jet and remained in the Navy retiring after 23 years as a Lieutenant Commander.  John is retired and living in Kanab, Utah and teaching a high school aviation technology class.

Mickey ‘Mick’ McBride – lineman; received Masters Degree in Educational Administration, was a teacher and coach and ultimately retired as high school principal

Steve ‘Hands’ Harmon – wide receiver; Steve transferred to Cal State Hayward where he earned a Ph D in Public Health and now teaches at the University of Utah and works for the Veterans Health Care Administration in Salt Lake City.

Ken, Duffy, Horan & Mick ‘telling lies’

Ed ‘Coop’ Cooper – running back; graduated with a business degree and went on to earn a Masters Degree from the University of Utah.  Ed  worked for Martin Marietta for 38 years, the last 25 has a Regional Sales Manager.  He is now retired in Salt Lake City.

Kent ‘Kicking Lawyer’ Holland – lineman; after graduation became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army, then attended law school at the University of Pacific and continues to practice law in Salt Lake City.

Dave ‘Electric’ Chally – friend & fan; after graduation he worked for NECA (National Electric Contractors Association) in northern California, where he grew up, then moved with the company to Spokane where he became Executive Director for the Pacific Northwest for NECA; he is still working for them in Spokane.

John ‘Duffy’ Soltis – basketball player and orator; graduated with a degree in Sociology, which he didn’t know what to do with so ended up going to law school in San Diego and returned to Utah with his law degree and worked in various positions with the Salk Lake County District Attorney’s office.

A pretty impressive group if you ask me!  And that doesn’t include some Westminster ex-players who didn’t attend the reunion, like:

Parsons at the ‘First Supper’

Craig ‘Doc’ Wilkinson – receiver; graduated with mathematics major and minor in physics and chemistry, joined Army Reserves with the 328th General Hospital Unit, went on to earn medical doctor’s degree from University of Utah and has practiced general and vascular surgery in Salt Lake City for 35 years.

Steve ‘Sugar Bear’ Kazor – lineman; BS degree from Westminster and a Masters Degree from Kansas State.  Coach in the NFL for the  1985 Super Bowl Chicago Bears and continues to work in the NFL in player personnel.

Scott ‘The I’ Iverson – basketball player; served in the Marine Corp prior to coming to Westminster, where he earned a BS degree and then a Masters Degree from BYU.  He taught and coached high school in Utah and Arizona.  He is now retired in Utah

I’m holding my Worst Bowler ‘Stay with Football’ Award’!

But the three nights in Vegas weren’t about accomplishments, it was about hilarious stories and the rekindling of old friendships that could never die.  I came away with pride of being a member of this group and with a big smile on my face thinking of the stories about our days as the fighting Westminster Parsons.

Not so terrible to be in your 70s!

 

 

Polo Anyone?

by Bob Sparrow

  I’ll tell you about my trip to the desert two weekends ago to watch the polo matches, but if you’re not staying where we did, the home of the greatest host and hostess on the planet, Walter & Patty Schwartz, you’re not going to have nearly as good a time as we did.  The ‘we’ is Jack & JJ Budd, Chuck & Linda Sager and Linda & me.  The six of us were invited by the Schwarz’s to stay in their beautiful, magnificently-decorated home in the gate-guarded community of ‘The Polo Club’ in Indio for the weekend, to attend the polo matches on Sunday at the Empire Polo Club.

We arrived Saturday afternoon and were warmly greeted by the Schwartz’s.  Walt is an interesting and engaging guy, who plays straight-man to Patty’s razor-sharp, dead-pan humor; they kept us fed, watered, entertained and in stitches the whole weekend.

We arrived on Saturday at ‘Happy Hour’, although I’m thinking that every hour is happy in this place.  I’m telling you, the Ritz doesn’t have this kind of food and beverage spread; we saw plate-full after plate-full of delicious appetizers everywhere we looked.  Walt was offering us any and every drink possible, while Patty, who is an amazing cook, was preparing the most interesting and tasty meatloaf I’ve ever had.  I took an oath not to say what was in it, truth is I don’t know, but it was delicious.

Getting ready to stomp divots

I know so little about polo that I rushed for a good seat by the pool.  But in fact the matches, on Sunday, were on the magnificent ground where Stage Coach and  the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival takes place each year.

On this day we were going to see two matches, the USPA (United States Polo Association) Amateur Cup Finals and the USPA Presidents Cup Finals.  The festivities started with the Player Parade and Salute with a horse and rider racing around the polo field, which is about 300 yard long and 160 yards wide, streaming an American flag as the Star Spangled Banner was sung by someone with an amazing voice.

Tack Room Tavern

I could bore you with polo positions like Hustler and Pivot or the number of chukkers in a game or why even left-handers have to play right-handed, but I think I’ll bore you with some other little known and less cared about facts.  There are four players on each team and they wear the numbers 1,2,3 and 4 – always!  Did you know that they do not use the end of the ‘mallet’ to hit the ball, as you would in croquet, but rather use the sides of the mallet?   Polo horses are very highly skilled, high-speed Thoroughbreds, whose manes are clipped off and whose tails are braided in order to keep them out of the way of the mallet.  OK, enough, but one of the more interesting parts of a polo match is halftime, when flutes of champagne are provided for all the fans to grab and go out onto the field to stomp divots.  Who won?  Beats me – the red and white team won the first game, the team in the dark jerseys won the second, I think, we left early to get a good seat at the Tack Room Tavern, a great place for food and drink not far from the field.

Ho, Zellweger and Phoenix

Sunday evening was back at the ‘Schwartz Chalet’ for more food and drink and to watch the Academy Awards on their 700 inch TV, at least it seemed that big, although I may have been sitting fairly close.  While I didn’t need a lecture on life from actors Joaquin Phoenix or Renée Zellweger, I think it might have been fun to have gone “drinking until morning” with Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho.

A big THANK YOU to Walt and Patty for a most enjoyable weekend.

Post Script: A few days after returning home, I received an hermetically-sealed envelope from Patty with a note that read, “Laundering fees are yet to be determined” – it was a pair of my underwear.  Not sure where I left them, but our super hostess made sure I got them back . . .  cleaner than I left them!

 

 

Big Island – Photos & Travel Tips

by Bob Sparrow

Six at sunset

As those who have been there know, landing in Kona at Keahole Airport on the Big Island of Hawaii is like what I imagine it would be like landing at Jurassic Park International Airport while the earth was still cooling.  Black lava dominates the landscape all around the airport and you wonder if there is really any civilization down there.  But indeed, there is.

Linda and I were invited, along with Jack & JJ Budd, to Chuck & Linda Sager’s timeshare at the Hilton Grand Waikoloa.  We arrived at the complex’s tiki bar just in time to watch the second half of the 49er-Viking game.  While the outcome pleased this life-long Niner fan; Linda, a Minnesota native and avid Viking fan, was not that happy, but looking forward to a week in Hawaii seemed to assuage the pain of the loss.

Showing rain everyday, except the day we’re leaving!

Typically, the colors of the Big Island are a mix of azure blue skies reflecting a sea-foam green ocean, contrasting with uneven natural black lava outcroppings against a variety of lush verdant golf courses, but this week Mother Nature had another color in mind . . . gray.  The weather for the week showed rain every day.  It’s no secret why Hawaii is so green!

But we were going to have fun anyway, and as usual, the weatherman was wrong, in fact aside from our first round of golf at Kalani Country Club (previously known as the Big Island Country Club) in a light rain, we never really experienced much precipitation.   Even in the rain, Kalani was one of the most simply beautiful courses I’ve played – because it’s ‘out of the way’ in the mountain and it was raining, hardly anyone was on the course so we played as a six-some – a most enjoyable welcome round to the Big Island.

As a ‘travel blogger’ of sorts, I feel an obligation to share some of the things learned on this trip; so following are a few travel tips.

Kona Country Club

1st Travel tip: Golf – If you come to the Big Island to play golf, forget the expensive ‘named’ courses like Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea (we played those and we all got across the ocean on the beautiful 15th hole at Mauna Lani and the 3rd hole, from the tips, at Mauna Kea: Big deal!) and play Kalani and the Kona Country Club (south of Kona) – great lay-outs, ocean and mountain views, less crowded and much less expensive!

2nd Travel tip: Food – Breakfast was mostly in with all of us enjoying Jack’s smoothies, some delicious bagels, some cheese eggs and some Kona coffee – although we did find some delicious banana pancakes at several locations, which I would recommend.  Lunch was usually late after golf at places like the beach at Mauna Kea Hotel which is looking a little tired these days, Tommy Bahamas in Mauna Lani, or at ‘On The Rocks’ in downtown Kona.  We BBQed a couple dinners at our condo and went to Roy’s for a nice dinner, where we met Wayne Newton.  But the best travel tip on food is making sure that you find the Malasadas truck parked along the main highway and stop and get a Portuguese doughnut or 12.  Eat them while they’re hot, they are delicious!

‘On the Rocks’ Kona

Wayne Newton asking to join the Monday Knights

 

 

 

 

 

Hot Malasadas Truck, where Jack & Chuck found a couple of tomatoes

 

 

 

3rd Travel tip: Entertainment – If you like magic and comedy, you will love the Kona Kozy Magic & Comedy Show in the Mauna Lani shopping center, next to Tommy Bahamas.  It’s a small theater, probably no more than 30 seats; we were six of about 12 people in attendance that night.  He is very funny, he does some great magic and gets the audience engaged.  You can have dinner next door at the Pele Wok restaurant like we did and bring your own alcohol to his show – I think we brought in a case of wine.  A very entertaining evening

Final Travel tip: Drink – If you’re planning a trip to the Big Island in the near future and like wine, you should plan on bringing your own, as we depleted the island of most of its supply while we were there.

No trip to Kona is complete without a visit to the spectacularly gigantic Kona Waikoloa Hilton Hotel, which we visited on our last evening there and watched a beautiful sunset – yes, the weather was clearing up just as we were clearing out.

Sunset on our last night at Waikoloa

A special thanks to Chuck Sager, who knows this island like the back of his hand and was able to get us to all the roads less traveled by most tourists.

 

Wine Down to 2020

by Bob Sparrow

(The first part of this blog was accidentally posted last week as I made the first of many errors to come by putting 2019 in place of 2020.  Sorry to those who read the first half, but I encourage you to finish it, you might be surprised at the ending)

South Coast Winery – Temecula

I will drink no more . . . or no less.

I will lose, wait, no I’ll win

I will exercise . . . better judgement about exercising

No, this blog will not be resolutions that will vanish like a dog’s dinner by the end of January or about resolutions at all.  It’s about wine . . . sort of.

In spite of being born and raised just miles from America’s greatest wine region, Napa-Sonoma, I am no oenophile and definitely not a ‘wine snob’, although I will admit to often remarking, “I am too old to drink cheap wine.”  Which is why my trip to the Temecula wine region some 20 years ago was most disappointing – really bad wine.

Temecula Creek Inn

Fast forward to this past New Year’s holiday when a group of neighbors planned a trip to the Temecula wine region.  We would be staying at the Temecula Creek Inn, playing golf there and  . . . wine tasting.  It sounded like fun, except for the wine tasting.  I figured I could bring a couple of bottles of ‘good’ northern California wine and not have to drink the swill from Temecula.

I was not alone in my opinion of Temecula wine; wine experts from all over the world were rating their wines as too sweet, the aromas funky and lacking in complexity and flavors like those found in Napa or even Paso Robles.  In fact, some reviews of the Temecula wines said things like, “flavors that were not all that appealing – they smelled like burning tires or rotting cabbage.”  So the region, which consists of 33,000 acres about 85 miles southeast of Los Angeles, became known for bachelorette limo tasting tours and sub-par wine.

So, if you get invited to go wine tasting in Temecula . . . Go!

Yes, you read that right, go.

Glassy Winged Sharpshooter

Mark my words, as someone who wouldn’t have made the short trip to Temecula to taste wine if they’d sent a limo for me, there has been an amazing turn-around not only in the wine being produced, but in the atmosphere created in the 40+ wineries located there.

How was this dramatic turn-around made?  It’s complicated and includes everything from pH factors to the glassy-winged sharpshooter! The sharpshooter is a bug that was responsible for destroying 40% of the vineyards in the Temecula valley in the 1990s, which made the vintners start all over by solving the pH problem as well as creating proper vine balance and better irrigation practices.  They also planted more Italian, Rhone and Spanish varietals which are better suited to Temecula’s Mediterranean climate.

Balloons over Temecula vineyards

I don’t pretend to know anything about what I just wrote, but I tasted the wine and found my favorites, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Super Tuscany, all very good; Chardonnays and other whites were also very tasty.  It’s not Napa or Paso Robles, but it’s much improved and they’ve done a great job of making the wineries and tasting rooms aesthetically, well, wine country-like .  Additionally, unlike most other wine areas in California, Temecula allows restaurants at its wineries.  The main ‘wine trail’ in Temecula is Rancho California Road where you can find most of the major wineries as well as some beautiful homes in the surrounding hills – it’s really become a pretty classy area.  You can get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of it all via hot air balloons, whose colorful canopies populate the morning Temecula sky.

So the new year for me began with an unexpected pleasant surprise – hopefully a harbinger of things to come for us all this year.

Italy’s Foto Finish

by Bob Sparrow

As I recall the ride back from Italy went something like this: Sunday afternoon, van from Cinque Terre to Florence, dinner at sidewalk cafe, pick up at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning to go to Florence airport, fly from Florence to Paris, because of 6+ hour layover, we arranged for a tour of Paris, drove down the Champs-Elysees, drove by the Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triumph, Notre Dame, the Louvre Museum, stopped for a French pastry then drove back to the airport for flight to LAX, arriving Monday night at 7:30. Time on the ground in Florence, Paris and L.A. all in one day – that was a long day!

I am finally able to download some of my photos, so here’s a few that will punctuate the end of our fabulous journey.

 

Here’s the ‘Dirty Dozen’ enjoying a drink at the beach in Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘moon shot’ of David

Pasta and tiramisu cooking class outside of Pisa

Restaurant high above Monterosso (I think we had wine that night)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rob resting on a bed of rocks – and he wonders why his back hurts

 

 

 

 

 

 

A common sight – the girls ignoring us guys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Alderly Lane’ table

 

 

Patrick taking a small bit of his steak

 

 

 

 

The ‘Ridgeway Road’ table

Linda having 3 quick cocktails

Spooky Nazi bunker in Italy

Hilltop village of Montecatini Alto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach in Cinque Terre

Coming down the funicular at night – a memorable experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Someone forgot to turn the light off on the Eiffel Tower

Doing one of his ‘stand up’ routine on the bus, Sergio turned a very good trip into a GREAT trip!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the sun sets over Tuscany, I’d like the thank our awesome travel partners, Mark & Kathy Johnson, Patrick & Pam Michael, Mike & Tanis Nelson, Bob & Jeanna Pacelli and Rob & Stefanie Warren, for helping to make this a most-memorable trip.

A final sunset in beautiful Tuscany

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.