Cycling Costa Brava Slowly

A recent week long vacation north of Barcelona found us cycling the byways and bike paths of Catalonia, Spain.  While some might consider a cycling vacation a bit too strenuous to be considered  a “slow” vacation, to my mind, cycling is a wonderful way to leisurely experience and savor a little slice of Spain.  In the Costa Brava region of Catalonia stark coastlines where mountains meet the sea, green fields as far as the eye can see, vineyards, medieval villages, tapas bars, wonderful coffee, and fish so fresh it fairly jumped off the platter, all joined forces to making this a wonderful week and a memorable vacation.

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View from our townhouse

Our holiday booked with Cycle Catalan helped us with the legwork and made the technical parts of vacation planning simple. While they offer a variety of packages and trips, the one we opted for called “Cycle and Chill” included a week-long rental of a well outfitted, modern townhouse in Calonge, a medieval village just three kilometers from the coast.  The three-bedroom townhouse, had not only a private pool, full kitchen, and comfortable living and dining room, but also came with a bird’s eye view of the ancient castle and church spires that chimed the quarter hour, reminding us to enjoy every moment of our precious time in this part of the world.

"Our" living room for the week

“Our” living room for the week

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My bike resting (along with me) on a bike path in Catalonia

Alan, the friendly owner and proprietor of Cycle Catalan picked us up at the nearest train station, about an hour north of Girona, at the prearranged time.  Bringing us directly to our home for the week, he showed us  the 18 speed bikes outfitted and ready for us with side packs, front packs, and a computer.He then gave us a complete briefing including maps and detailed instructions of recommended bike tours for the days of our stay.  Alan was available for consultation over the course of the week, and provided drop off and pick up on several days, allowing us to go farther afield without worrying about a grueling return trip.  He served as excellent backup when we got a flat tire one day in the middle of nowhere.  Within 30 minutes, a replacement bike had us on our way and we carried on grateful that the day had been saved.

The cycling itself was glorious.  Well-signed bike paths crisscross Catalonia, and the days we spent biking allowed us a close up look at the land, the people, visiting out of the way places, secluded beaches, and quaint coffee shops and restaurants. The terrain is relatively flat making for easy cycling, and the bikes provided were excellent.

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The medieval city of Pals

A favorite day took us to the heart of the medieval villages that abound in this region.Beginning in the remarkably well preserved village of Pals, picturesquely set on a hillside, we explored the winding alleyways lined with stone houses, shops and restaurants. During the summer Pals is overrun with tourists, but on a late November morning, with the sun shining in a perfectly clear blue sky, we were the only ones about, and we were warmly welcomed in the one shop that was open displaying local ceramic ware alongside tourist souvenirs.

Leaving modern transportation behind and cycling from village to village allowed us to shed the cares of stress-filled lives, and to be present in the moment soaking up the atmosphere of an age gone by in villages that fire the imagination.Taking to the road, we pedaled our bikes through the countryside to Saint Feliu de Boadoa, another tiny village with a typical medieval square adjacent to the church, several ancient houses and working farms.  A stop for a cup of coffee at Can Joan hit the spot, and Joan, the owner himself, served us excellent coffee with a smile. Full meals are available there as well and from the look of the crowds on Sunday afternoon, the food must be excellent.

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Olive orchards at Can Solivera

Our penultimate stop for the day was Can Solivera, an olive plantation where the owners Hans and Daida, originally from Holland, set up shop in 1977, and since then have planted thousands of olive trees, producing exceptional extra virgin olive oil made from Arbequina olives.  Tasting the four different varieties of oil on offer, we quickly agreed on the one we liked best, and packed our purchase in my bright red saddlebag, continuing on our way to Peretallada, our final destination for the day. This charming town boasts a castle from the eleventh century, a moat, and city walls.  Walking through arched passages and alleyways transports you back to an earlier, simpler age.  Nevertheless, we were more than happy to see Alan at the appointed time and place for our ride home in 21st century transportation.

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Stormy seas at Calonge St. Anthony

Even when it rains, Costa Brava does not disappoint.  On the one truly stormy day we had, we cycled the three kilometers to the coast, and took a walk along the rugged coastline, enjoying the turbulent grey seas.  When the heavens threatened to open up once again, we took shelter in a seaside café, ordered coffee, and enjoyed our books until the rain let up.

35-kilometer bike rides might not be your idea of vacation, we found the flexibility suited us well, and enjoyed the simplicity of staying in one place and getting around on two wheels.  We were able to plan our days to our liking, deciding where to go, how far to ride, and how much chilling we wanted to do.  The wind whistling in our ears, as our legs churned the pedals, soaking up the sun, the scenery, and the sights, it just doesn’t get much better than this!

Stuck in the Mud: Really Slow Travel

There we were, a combined 153 years between the two of us, in a white 2007 Mazda, spinning our wheels, not proverbially, but actually.  We were thoroughly and completely stuck in the mud, not just any mud, but thick, brown, oozing, sticky mud. Now, if you have to be stuck in the mud (and that indeed is a philosophical question of epic proportions, which we will leave for discussion to a later date) choose a sunny day, world-class scenery and a good friend.  I did.

To round out a lovely visit with my dear friend A., we decided to drive among the fishponds to see what birds we might spot, and to enjoy the flowering bounty of spring.  After remarking on the lush green valley, thanks to abundant rainfall, and spotting many birds, we decided to make a detour into a fishpond to see if we could find the black stork, an apparently rare variety of stork that had recently been spotted in the vicinity.  After slipping and sliding cautiously on the narrow ring road, we were utterly marooned in the Bet Shean Valley, the Gilboa Mountains climbing off to the West, and the even taller Gilad Mountains soaring off to the East. Right next to us, thousands upon thousands of birds were circling overhead, swooping down and occasionally coming to rest a stone’s throw away at the edge of the fishpond.  There were enormous birds of all sorts- pelicans, seagulls, kingfishers, and yes, the black stork too!

By the side of the fishpond-the Gilboa Mountains off in the distance

By the side of the fishpond-the Gilboa Mountains off in the distance

 

To my mind, slow travel focuses on savoring the experience, the people, the culture of new places and foreign countries, in contrast to ticking off sites one has to see. Writing  a blog about slow travel for the last few years, I thought I had understood just what slow travel meant. Being stuck in the mud puts a very different spin on that concept.  Just how slow is slow?

When you are stuck, as we were, and all you can do is wait for someone to come and pull you out, you have time to look around, savor the view, laugh with your friend, and enjoy the sun.  There is absolutely nothing, nothing we could do to extricate ourselves, except for what we had already done, which was to phone for help.  Enjoying the minutes as they slowly ticked away, my 93 year old friend A. assured me that this was not the first time this had happened to her, and she has always gotten out.  Thus far. I decided not to worry.  Why worry? With a sparkle in her eye, she told me that she had actually arranged for this to happen so that she will remain unforgettable.  Dare I say she has succeeded?

The first truck arrives to extricate us but is unable to make it up the slippery slope, so he calls for reinforcements in the shape of my friend’s son riding shotgun on a tractor.  After failing to find a place to connect my car to the tractor from the front, the tractor lumberingly turns around and makes the long and muddy approach from the back. The tractor is slipping and sliding in the mud and I wonder whether he will get close enough.  My friend’s son takes over the driver seat as I gratefully buckle myself into the back.  Getting pulled out along the narrow, muddy path, with the fish pond plunging down to the left, and an equally deep gully on the right, I screwed my eyes shut and prayed. I could feel the car slithering over the mud, and the seconds tick by.  We are holding our collective breaths.  Ten more seconds and we are home free.

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Our Saviours

 

A few minutes later as we drive to the garage to spray down the car and do a damage assessment, we fast-forward into real time, and the pull of everyday events.  There are things to do, commitments to keep, and people to meet.  Gone are those few magical moments when there was nothing we could do so all we did was wait, look at the birds, the scenery and each other. Gone but not forgotten.

So Close Yet So Far:  Scuba Diving (Slowly) in Aqaba

After a whirlwind month filled with transatlantic travel, family visits, and a trip to New York City, it is time to reconnect with the kids, with nature, with myself and scuba diving down south seems to fit the bill.  Since diving in the Sinai is tricky these days due to an unstable political situation, and the Great Barrier Reef is half way around the world, we settle on a three-day diving safari to Aqaba, Jordan, a three hour drive from home, that hosts some pretty terrific Red Sea diving.

Our uneventful drive south through the predawn darkness is subdued, each one of us wrapped in thought. Will I remember how to put on my gear?  Will I have enough oxygen?  How cold is the water?  Who will be our dive instructor and what will he be like? How long will it take to cross the border?  What did I forget to pack? How are we doing on time? The road seems endless as my mind meanders.

Arriving at the border and parking the car in the empty lot, I feel my stomach clench, and my heart beat faster.   We have done this before, yet each time I cross the border into a neighboring country that was once at war with us, I sense that we are leaving the safety of home  and are crossing into the unknown. Aside from a wary peace treaty and a border, we have much in common with our Jordanian neighbors to the East.  We share scenery, climate, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea, to name just a few. When it snows in Jerusalem, it snows in Amman as well. However, in the day to day, Jordan is far removed from our consciousness in the day to day, and Jordanians remain a mystery.  The cold peace we partake in has endured for decades, and while I don’t feel that Jordanians are “the enemy,” I am not entirely sure they are friends.  Pulling my suitcase on wheels from the Israeli side to the Jordanian side, a mere ten meters away, we are greeted by a uniformed guard who smiles and wishes us, “salaam alyekum,” peace be on to you. The driver is waiting to help us through Jordanian passport control, and it looks like it is going to be a good day.

By 9:30, we are drinking instant coffee at the Sea Star dive club, located in Tala Bay, just south of the city and across the narrow bay from Eilat. We struggle into our black wetsuits, and are fitted out with first rate equipment, briefed and ready for our first dive by 10:30.  The sky is deep azure, not a cloud in the sky, but the brisk winds feel cool, actually downright cold.  Entering the water slowly, weighted down by my full tank, and 11 kg weight belt, my heart is hammering.  Is it the exertion or the anticipation? I spit into my mask to prevent fogging, and rinse it before placing it over my head.  The instructor, Taher, a compact, wiry man of about 40, gives us the thumbs down signal to descend, and within seconds, the splendor of the underwater world unfolds in front of us.  I clasp my hands in front of my body (you don’t swim with your arms when diving ) and stretch out my yellow, flippered feet to start a slow, relaxing, flutter kick.

Me - 21 meters below

Me – 21 meters below

Diving is at once familiar and exciting.   In my rational brain, I know that there is an entire universe just below the sparkling surface of the water.  Yet, each time I descend with a tank on my back and become part of the world below, it is as refreshingly surprising as the first dive.  We slowly circle the soft beige corals that undulate in the currents, watching the the tiny bright blue fish with spots of yellow, swim in and around, looking for tasty morsels.  I watch as Taher approaches the coral, and it immediately contracts, moving into defense mode against unknown predators, as the fish swim quickly away.

We spot an enormous green sea turtle close by,at least a meter and a half long  lumbering along with open mouth, waiting for a delectable feast that is unwittingly swimming its way.  The turtle echoes something prehistoric, and reminds me of a picture from a dinosaur book I used to read my son long ago.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Our slow circuit continues as we make our way along the coral reef, allowing a close-up look at the coral abundance, shades of pink, blue, purple, beige, green, each one shaped differently from its neighbor.  Like snowflakes, I think, all alike but each one unique.  We eagerly seek out the more unusual varieties of fish spotting the gloriously colored clown fish proudly displaying its fluorescent blues and oranges and the patrician striped black and white fish, sporting a splash of yellow for contrast.  We are careful to give wide birth to the lionfish, stonefish, and sea porcupines, so as not to arouse their poisonous venom.    A large pink coral is home to at least fifteen full sized lionfish, peeking menacingly out of the crevices.

Coral Reef - Aqaba

Coral Reef – Aqaba

The slight danger merely heightens the experience, similar, I think to myself later in the day, to walking through the streets of Aqaba. Feeling like a tourist in a foreign country, there is that heightened sense of excitement, again. As Israelis, we usually need to take an airplane in order to arrive in “hutz la’aretz,” that place that engenders feeling of being far from home. Here I am, a mere three hour drive from home, yet the sensation of being abroad is palpable.  The language is familiar, the smells recognizable, as we walk through the market in a very matter of fact sort of way, belying the feeling of being in this country, so close, yet so far away.

As we return to the sea the next day, and re-discover an entire universe below the surface, I am struck by how we live in parallel worlds most of our lives, focused on ourselves and little else.  In my daily routine I rarely think about Jordan or Jordanians, nor about the universe waiting right under the surface of the sea.  My family, my career, my health, and various and sundry details like how much milk is in the fridge, and did anybody fold the laundry occupy my thoughts.  Travel, and slow travel in particular, allows that delicious peek into these parallel universes, blowing wide open the opportunity to both learn about others and perhaps more importantly, look at our own lives from a distance.

In contrast to that heightened sense of perspective, while diving, each of us is ensconced in a mask, breathing through a regulator, disconnected from the world.  Underwater, my focus narrows to the screen of my mask, and the dial connected to my oxygen tank. The only way to communicate is by sign, and every few minutes the guide signs the OK sign, questioningly, as we pick up our hands in response, forming the O with thumb and forefinger.    Aside from these periodic breaks,  I am alone with my breath, hearing each inhale whoosh through the regulator, and each exhale, bubble out into the deep blue.  I am present, deeply and fully present.    My eyes scan the watery scenery as it unfolds, marveling at the greatness of God and his world, the colors, the shapes, the flora and fauna in all their glory.  The slower I move, the more I can see, appreciate, and marvel. Under water, all sense of getting somewhere and accomplishing something disappear.  I simply am.  Certainly, this is slow travel at its best.

The Fabulous Four - The Kids and Me

The Fabulous Four – The Kids and Me

Slovenia, Slowly


Our recent trip to Slovenia was the essence of Slow Travel.  After spending a quick overnight in the city of Graz, and visiting the infamous synagogue that had been dynamited on Kristallnacht, and rebuilt and dedicated on November 11, 2000, 62 years after Kristallnact, we made a beeline for Lake Bled where we spent six glorious days.  That was followed by three more days at a Slovenian spa in Rimske Toplice, but more on that later.

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Graz Synagogue

Lake Bled, an hour’s drive from the capitol of Lublijana, is a shimmering blue gem, with surfaces that are so still, they reflect the lush trees surrounding the lake.  We had originally anticipated renting an apartment with a panoramic view of the lake for six nights.  Little did we realize that the apartment was situated directly above the road ringing the lake, and aside from the view we would be treated to cars, buses and motorbikes switching gears right under our panoramic window.

Lake Bled

Lake Bled

We quickly bailed out, and luckily our landlady manages another property about 3 kilometers outside of Bled, with the perfect apartment just waiting for us.  This one bedroom newly constructed apartment sported a balcony looking out over a peaceful meadow, with the sounds of a running river not far below.  It was situated at the end of a tiny village Bodesce, and about a five minute drive from Bled.  Amazing what five minutes will bring you!  Peace, quiet, tranquillity.  Everything we were looking for in this Slow Vacation!

View from "our" porch

View from “our” porch

Once our suitcases were unpacked and the refrigerator filled, we were ready to set out.  First stop was a bike trip in the countryside.  We rented bikes in Bled and set out on the recommended 35 km route, on empty country roads that included rolling hills, small villages, and outstandingly peaceful scenery.  We stopped at a small restaurant for a drink and conversation with some local school kids that were gearing up for summer vacation.  The cycling trip ended abruptly when Mike’s gears froze on a fairly lonely stretch of the road.  Fortunately, Slovenian people are outgoing and ready to help.  Within ten minutes a man driving a van appeared out of nowhere, loaded our bikes into his van and took a 30 minute detour from his ride home to get us back to the bike store in Bled.  Talk about serendipity!

Mike on the bicycle

Mike on the bicycle

Our saviour

Our saviour

The next day we set off for a road trip to the Julian Alps.  Alps might be a misnomer, for these mountains rise up only 2800 meters at Mount Triglav, but the scenery is outstanding and the ride was beautiful.  We stopped several times to snap photos, and  enjoy the views.

Julian Alps

Julian Alps

Mount Triglav

Mount Triglav

We made our way down to the Socha Valley, and enjoyed crossing over the Socha River, sometimes called the Emerald River ( you will see why) on rather shaky suspension bridges.

Socha River

Socha River

Me on the shaky bridge

Me on the shaky bridge

From there we crossed into Italy making our way home via an excellent cup of coffee (finally!) and an Italian supermarket.  Those Italians know a thing or two about food that the Slovenians could learn.IMG_3565

Sunday brought us to Lake Bohinj, a thirty minute drive away from our apartment.  We once again rented bikes, and this time set out on a 25 km bike ride to the lake through thankfully flat countryside.

Me on the bike

Me on the bike

We took a break from biking to take a cable car ride up to Mt. Vogel, a ski resort, enjoying a beer and the beautiful views at the top of the mountain.

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

Monday we sadly bid goodbye to our apartment with the wonderful porch and headed towards Lublijana and on to the Rimske Toplice Spa, but more on that in the next post.

So why, you might ask, is this “slow travel”?

“It sure sounds like you were running around alot,” you say.

In fact, we did move around a bit, but we didn’t do more than one site each day.  We never rushed.  We started out each morning after waking up without an alarm clock, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, sometimes learning or reading for awhile, and only then packing up to go out.  We came back each evening and enjoyed preparing and eating dinner, watching movies on TV and reading.  We never felt that we had to “accomplish”, “get to”, or do anything in particular.  We took our time, and decided day by day, hour by hour, what was next.  For me, this is the essence of slow travel.

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One Last View of the Julian Alps

 

 

 

 

Graceful Greece

 

Can a four day adventure to Greece be considered slow travel?  The answer is a resounding yes if you are lucky enough to stay at the Costa Navarino about one hour south of Calamata, in the southwest Pelleponnese, the southernmost peninsula off the Greek mainland, and four hours south of Athens.  This area is world renowned for its olive trees, olives (hence Calamata olives) and extra virgin olive oil.  In fact the bus trip to the hotel introduced us to the lush foliage, the rolling hills of olive orchards and grape vines, and beautiful wild flowers.

Olive Orchard -Messina

Olive Orchard -Messina

Arriving at our hotel we were thrilled to see the view from our porch door, allowing us to hear the crashing of the waves on the shore night and day, and enjoy the spectacular views, the windsurfers and the birds.

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To better understand what I am talking about have a look at the video below:

We just couldn’t soak up enough of the porch and the natural beauty surrounding us, thus we decided not to sign up for the variety of bus tours offered under the auspices of the medical conference we were part of, and opted to enjoy a few “slow trips” on our own, making sure we had plenty of time to explore at our own pace and return to our room to enjoy “our”
view.

The first trip we took was to the town of Pylos, about a thirty minute bus ride from the hotel.  Pylos is an ancient town, built on the side of a mountain, and highly reminiscent of the Amalfi coast that we recently had visited.

Pylos

Pylos

While walking around the streets of Pylos, enjoying the fine weather, the friendly people, and the beautiful sites, we chanced on an elderly woman who threw us a greeting.

Throwing us a Flower

Throwing us a Flower

We climbed up to the newer fortress, from the 16th century and learned about the troubled history of the Greeks, particularly as they fought off the Turks.

Castle at Pylos

Castle at Pylos

Aside from the nineteenth century cannons and cannon balls that flew here, we enjoyed the expansive vistas and beautiful views.

cannons and cannon balls

cannons and cannon balls

Top of the Castle

Top of the Castle

View from the Castle

View from the Castle

Our second outing consisted of a 20 km bike ride to the Voidakillia Beach famed to be the most beautiful beach in Greece.  It is shaped like the Greek letter Omega, and because of the natural breakers, the water is very calm, albeit still quite cold.

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Voidakillia Beach

The bike ride also took us around the Gialova Lagoon, which is a beautiful nature reserve.

Panorama View of Bay

Panorama View of Gialova Lagoon

If you look carefully at the picture you can actually see Mike on his bicycle on the far right.

This adventure was just four days long, yet undoubtedly it was a slice of slow travel.  While we didn’t meet many Greek people, and the only word we learned in Greek was thank you – “ef̱charistó̱”, we enjoyed the scenery, the feta cheese and olives, the relaxation, the sun, the wind, the beach and most especially the crashing waves of the Ionian Sea.

 

Spring in Southern Italy

Southern Italy was our destination as we set out with our dear friends and not a small amount of trepidation as to whether we would still be good  friends by week’s end (I am happy to report that we are).We landed in Rome, rented a brand new BWM (10 km on the odomoter) and after stuffing our bags into the almost big enough trunk, our adventure began.

The Four of Us

The Four of Us

Seasoned slow travelers that we are, we prepared our friends for the notion that we would not see everything there was to see, nor even a fraction of what is to be found in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve, but that what we would see, we would savor and enjoy.Deciding between Pompeii and Herculaneum was our first joint decision, but since our friends had made all the land arrangements and left the touring to us, Heruculaneum it was. The rain clouds parted as we parked at the edge of town at the “scavi” (Italian for excavation).

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Herculaneum

This major site goes largely unnoticed compared to it’s much more famous sister, Pompeii, and as far as I am concerned that was all to our advantage as another tenet of slow travel is to avoid crowds.    The day we visited there were a few tourists there and thus we were able to leisurely explore the site, without being trampled by the  hordes.  We picked up a local tour guide who showed us the highlights of the site and went into great detail about the differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum.  When Mt. Vesuvius blew it’s lid on the Ninth of Av in the year 79 (a mere nine years after the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem) it first covered Pompeii in thick ash, and only a day later, when the wind changed sent hot mud streaming down the mountain to cover the much closer Herculaneum.  Herculaneum, the summer watering grounds of Roman upper crust society,  was thus preserved down to the furniture and wall frescos, and of course the grisly remains of human skeletons were found too.  The site is quite remarkable and we enjoyed our introduction to ancient Roman culture with its emphasis on joys of the flesh and not too much worry about the world to come.

After driving through Sorrento, up the winding mountain road to our villa in the town of Saint Agate, we were happy to settle in, unpack, and run out to the local fruit and vegetable market for garnet red raddiccio, mushrooms and espresso coffee.  Enjoying the wine and cheese we brought with us from Israel and the local olives, as our food cooked, it seemed like an auspicious first day, and a wonderful start.

Day two dawned partly cloudy to the aroma of fresh espresso.  After a hearty breakfast we set out for the Amalfi Coast renowned for its breathtaking scenery, with cliffs meeting the sea at precipitous angles, and little villages virtually hanging off the sheer side of the mountains.  We weren’t disappointed and caught some beautiful views.

Amalfi Coast and Positano

Amalfi Coast

Positano

Positano

As you might imagine, the roads are sinuous and winding and provided some not insignificant challenges to our wonderful driver, Mike . Sometimes it is the better part of valour to just sit and wait like when we met the bus below on a road wide enough for one.

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.We spent some time in the town of Amalfi, wandering the streets and alleyways and visiting an interesting paper museum.

Town of Amalfi
Town of Amalfi

The next day we set out for the island of Capri, a short boatride from Sorrento. While waiting for the boat we enjoyed exploring Sorrento, a quaint seaside town, with many reminders of it’s glorious past.  Some of those reminders are the archways in buildings.  Others, like the local “men’s club” below, are truly fantasti remains of ancient glory.  There were actually men playing cards in the corner!

Sorrento Men's Club
Sorrento Men’s Club

Capri, the playground of the rich and famous is a charming seaside island.  We took a cable car ride up the tallest mountain, and wandered around soaking up the views and atmosphere, deciding that it was worth a one time visit, but we didn’t have to return.

On the way to Capri
On the way to Capri
Cable Car over Capri
Cable Car over Capri

Friday was spent packing up, grocery shopping, moving on to Naples and getting ready for Shabbat.  Little did we know what was in store for us.  When we stepped into our apartment in Naples we found ourselves in a palace.  The view on to the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius was world class.  The antiques and furnishings were museum class, the chandeliers would be the envy of any housewife in Boro Park.  We baked challah and cooked wonderful food, enjoying the bounty of the Italians both the sea and the land.

"our" view of Vesuvius
“our” view of Vesuvius

“Our” Palace in Naples

Shabbat was spent like most of our shabbatot: davening, eating, sleeping, walking.  We went to the only active synagogue in Naples, a twenty minute walk from our place.  Total membership: 100.  Not too impressive, and not overly friendly.  My overriding impression is that it is a struggle to be Jewish in Naples, and it is remarkable that the synagogue even exists.  Saturday night we went for a walk in search of a kosher pizza that wasn’t to be.  Walking on the seaside promenade where the four lane boulevard was closed for pedestrian traffic was clearly what most  Napolitans were doing. It felt like the whole city of 3 million was out at 10 PM walking the streets- grandparents, youngsters and even little babies. The boulevard is lined with restaurants, all offering pizza, as Naples is the birthplace of that most wonderful of foods.

Sunday morning we met Roberto Modiano, our local Jewish tourguide.  He packed an amazing amount of sites into the five hours we were with him.  We started out on an unremarkable Napolitan street.  Little did we expect to see the thousands of skeletons that greeted us as we entered the caves that were actually the leftover stone quarries.  The earth under Naples is called “tuffo” and this is the yellow building stone that is used in this area.  Naples sits on more than 150 kilometers of tunnels and caves, with very few of them opened to the public.  We were luck to see two.  The first was the dumping grounds of Naples during the black plague in the 1500s and the more recent malaria plague in the 1800s.  Tens of  thousands of corpses were dumped here.  As time passed, local people would “adopt” a skull, and build a box for it.  They would come to visit the skull, and bring offerings, asking for intercession in the heavens above; requests might be for health, marriage, or children.  When the miracle was wrought, the happy supplicant would show his thanks by preparing a plaque, or building a nicer box for the skull.  This practice went on until the 1950s when it was outlawed and the cave was closed.  After a massive cleanup effort, the caves were reopened only a couple of years ago.

Thousands of Skulls
Thousands of Skulls
Adopted Skulls
Adopted Skulls

After touring more subterranean sites, seeing ancient Greek and Roman ruins, as well as palaces, we also saw the remnant of the Jewish Quarter, noted only by a small street sign.  There are virtually no remainders of Jewish presence in Naples, and in fact the Jews were here for only a very short time after the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They came back in the 1800s, but the community was always quite small.

Subterranean Naples
Subterranean Naples

Before leaving Naples we stopped at it’s most famous coffee shop for world class coffee served by barristas who are proud of what they do.

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Making Coffee is an Honorable Profession

Sunday afternoon we loaded up our trusty BMW and headed off to Rome.  We stopped on the way for breathtaking views from the top of  Monte Cassino.

Mounte Cassino
Mounte Cassino

Arriving in Rome in the evening we were most disappointed with our “kosher” B & B, Cesar’s Palace, so we decided to cut our losses, and stay there only one night, rather than two.  We salvaged the night by driving down to the Jewish Ghetto and eating in Ba’Ghetto, an authentic Italian dairy restaurant.  We finally got our pizza.

On our one day in Rome we did a walking tour  of downtown Rome, guided by the tireless Rick Steve, revisiting favourite piazzas and fountains, the Pantheon, and enjoy the world’s best coffee at Café D’Oro right near the Pantheon.  We grabbed a cab to the Vatican Museums where with the help of audio guides saw highlights of this most amazing of museums.  The Sistine Chapel was the final stop of this visit, and once again the irreverent Rick Steve guided us through it, this time on a downloaded audio (highly recommended).  Seeing the famous panel of God creating man is slightly underwhelming, but the overall effect of the Chapel, and the richness.

Roman Fountain
Roman Fountain
Roman Market - Campo Fiori
Roman Market – Campo Fiori
We ended our wonderful trip with a celebration dinner, this time at the meaty BaGhetto.  All in all a wonderful trip.  Fortunately I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain so I know that I will be back soon.
Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

Throwing a Coin in Trevi Fountain

Slow Cruising

One could technically argue that cruising is anything but slow.  Port hopping, frenzied excursions, tourist hordes would seem to weigh in on the side of the frenzied tourist.  On the other hand the mammoth cruise boats do not got faster than 22 knots an hour allowing for a leisurely place in moving around the scenic Caribbean. This fall Mike and I were initiated into the delights of cruising and found it slow cruising indeed.  We were two of the lucky 1700 guests who boarded the Holland America Line “Zuiderdam” in Fort Lauderdale on a sun dappled afternoon in late October.  We chose our maiden voyage without much forethought or research, finding the date and length appropriate and the destinations exotic sounding and far enough from home to make it sound like a real vacation.

The Zuiderdal - "Our" Ship

The Zuiderdam – “Our” Ship

Upon boarding  ship we found our stateroom with king size bed, sofa, coffee table, desk and chair, very comfortable, and our veranda looking out to sea, outstanding.  The fruit bowl and ice bucket were full and remained magically filled our entire stay.  We began to explore the ten decks of the ship and all of its offerings almost immediately, since our bags had not yet been delivered and we were both hungry and curious.

Ah yes- hungry…that was the last time we were hungry while aboard ship.  We found to our delight an open buffet serving approximately 23 hours a day (we never did check to see if they were open at 2 AM), with an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and drinks.  Later research opened up new vistas to us with kosher ice cream and baked goods as well as bagels and lox.

After filling our bellies we moved on to the spa where we quickly signed up for the “thermal suite” allowing us entrance to the thalasso-therapy pool, wet and dry saunas and heated ceramic chairs overlooking panoramic windows to the sea. You can be certain that we did not miss even one daily visit to the spa which was open daily from 7 AM to 10 PM, allowing us even a quick visit on Saturday night.  Down the hall from the spa was the remarkably spacious gym.  It was situation right at the front of the boat on the ninth deck with large windows facing the sea. We both enjoyed daily workouts and exercise classes, starting off each day with time in the gym.

Many people have asked us, “Didn’t you get bored?” and the answer is a resounding no.  Remember that slow travel allows one time for contemplation and reflection, naps, and long talks, reading and writing on our veranda, and listening to music as we watched the sun setting over the Caribbean.  Neither of us was bored for a minute.  When we wanted to partake, there were activities galore: cooking classes, trivia, ping pong tournaments, daily movies in a full-fledged movie theatre, shows and more.

Mike and the Towel Animal

Mike and the Towel Animal

Our Indonesian room stewards, Fadley  and Singam, pampered us and took care of us so well that I begged them to come home with us.  They smiled.  Every night they would leave a different “towel animal” on our freshly made bed along with two chocolates.  Mike loved the animals so much he took private lessons with Fadley.  The wait staff in the main dining room were also extremely solicitous and helped us navigate kosher eating with no difficulties at all.  We had chosen open eating so some days we dined alone, and others we chose to sit at larger tables enjoying the company of our fellow travelers.

In between the days at sea we stopped at six ports in our twelve days.  Each port provided a different opportunity to sample the richness of life around the Caribbean Sea.  Our first stop was at an island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay, owned by Holland America. There we soaked up the sun, swam and snorkeled.  I was lucky enough to see a barracuda and other colorful fish.  It was a lovely day at the beach, sun, turquoise sparkling water, white sandy beaches, with palm trees weighted down with coconuts.  A picture of paradise.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Our second stop was in Aruba where we joined an excursion from ship to sail and snorkel a famous wreck called the Antilles.  The excursion was fun, and afterwards we joined a couple we met and explored Aruba by dark (no pics). We quizzed the tour guide/driver so thoroughly asking him endless questions about life in Aruba that I am sure he had no idea what hit him and he is still recuperating till this very day. I think our enthusiasm to find out about Aruba expressed the limitations of cruising in that you have very little time to meet the local folks and get a feel for life in each country.  If you take that as a given, then you can be happy cruising.

Our third stop in Curacao gave us the opportunity to spend a full day scuba diving, with a prearranged local dive club.  We were most fortunate that the dive master took us up the island to the tip, allowing us a chance to see much of Curacao before reaching one of the best dive sites on the island.  We were not disappointed.  Both Curacao and Aruba boast beautiful beaches and a lively tourist trade, but they are quite poor, and the contrast between fancy tourist hotels and local housing is quite stark.

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Curacao country side inlet

After a day at sea to rest (fortunately for us it was Shabbat), we set out early Sunday morning to explore Cartegena, Columbia, a picturesque walled city replete with colonial history including many building where, “Sir Frances Drake slept here.”  We set off on our own, taking a cab from the port to the old city, where we were convinced by a local guide, Manuel, to hire him to show us around.  He convinced us by telling us that he was actually learning to be a tour guide and he wanted to practice.  He told us that we could pay him whatever we wanted.  Thinking it over, Manuel may have a good thing going with that story, but he gave us a great tour and we saw far more than we would have rambling around on our own.

Cartegena Coastline

Cartegena Coastline

Old City - Cartegena

Old City – Cartegena

Monday 6 AM found us outside onthe fourth deck with hundreds of other passengers vying for the first site of the Panama Canal.  After a short while we found better vantage points on the tenth deck that provided both air conditioned comfort and chairs to sit in as we watched our progress through the Canal.  Was it interesting? Mildly.  We both have seen canals before, and this is really no different than the Erie Canal or the one I saw as a child on the St. Lawrence Seaway.  The history of the Canal is quite interesting, and its importance in world shipping and world affairs is great. Many folks set off for excursions so that they could say that they had touched the Atlantic and Pacific in one day.  We chose to stay on board, and limited ourselves to enjoying the local supermarket at our stop in Colon, which apparently is one of the high points in this rather sad looking city in Panama.  Interestingly enough, there was a shelf full of kosher products, many of them from Israel there.  On the checkout line we met some of the staff of the boat, one of them a young guitarist in a jazz band. After talking to him we decided to check out his band, and found another nice music venue on the boat featuring swing and jazz music nightly.  Up until that time we had spent many evenings listening to a singer playing acoustic guitar to accompany himself in singing songs of the 60s and 70s.  Just our cup of tea (or glass of wine, should I say?).

Blue or Grey Heron, Costa Rica

Blue or Grey Heron, Costa Rica

Our final port stop was in lush, green Costa Rica, a country with no army, the highest standard of living in Central America and an unbelievable array of wildlife.  We joined a few other people from our cruise and hired a minibus and tour guide to take us to the Torkegena Canal where we took a boat ride and saw exotic birds, iguanas, sloths, monkeys and lush vegetation.

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Sloth Close Up, Costa Rica

Rounding out the trip were two more magical days at sea, enjoying the slow and easy pace and the feeling of being far, far away. The blue waters all around, sunrises and sunsets, the slight movement of the ship that lulled us to sleep, the sunny afternoons sitting on the porch, all these are snapshots of a great time on a slow cruise.

Sunrise over the Caribbean

Sunrise over the Caribbean

On Vertigo in Venice

For those of you who have been following this blog, you know what a wonderful trip we had to Venice.  What may not be apparent in the reports thus far is the vertigo that attacked me the first night after arrival.

A Local Art Gallery Hosting a Show - Vertigo!

A Local Art Gallery Hosting a Show – Vertigo!

Vertigo is an interesting phenomenon- at least from my perspective a few months hence.  While you are experiencing vertigo your world tilts crazily, spinning out of control, often causing a sense of nausea and always accompanied by a feeling of disorientation.  The vertigo that attacked me, first time ever, made its presence known in the middle of our first night in Venice. As I groped my way to the bathroom that first morning, holding on to the walls for a sense of stability I was sure that our vacation had gone up in smoke.

In retrospect, Venice is a most interesting city in which to experience vertigo.  In fact, I believe, all first time visitors experience a certain amount of disorientation that comes with finding canals instead of streets, and waterbuses instead of motorized vehicles with wheels.  My vertigo was just a stronger case in point.

 Having vertigo in Venice actually contributed to our goal of slow travel.  We decided to avoid indoor buildings, museum and churches in those first few days, since that would encourage me to move my head in ways that were likely to bring on the horrible spinning sensations.  That means that the classic tourist sites of: the Basilica of San Marco and the Doge’s palace were on the “No” list.  That meant that we were free to spend our first few days in the glorious outdoors, enjoying the islands that dot the Venice harbor, and sport interesting houses and even more interesting crafts.  Lace making, for example.  Have you ever spent anytime considering the soon to be lost art of lace making?  The island of Burano, a 45 minute boat ride away from the main island of Venice not only sports the only lace museum in the world, but samples of intricate lace.  Just stopping to consider how much time and craft go in to this lost art is mind boggling, and humbling.

Burano Lace

Burano Lace

Our slow outdoor travels included long boat rides on vaporettas.  On the waterbus the fact that I was feeling unsteady was absolutely normal.  The boat was rocking .  Everybody was feeling unsteady. So was I.   We saw the sunrise and sunset over our lagoon, watching from either our apartment window, or from yet another vaporetto.  Vertigo also meant that I had to hang on to Mike tightly, so we walked through Venice arm in arm for a week.  Very cuddly.  While vertigo is not recommended it certainly did not ruin our vacation, and in many ways enhanced it.

Sunset Over the Lagoon

Sunset Over the Lagoon

Slow Venice

Venice is the ideal location for the weekend traveler.  Upon arrival in Marco Polo airport one already is immersed in Venice when alighting the vaporetto (waterbus)  that brings you, if you are lucky, to the doorstop of your hotel.  If you are less than lucky, you may spend several long minutes dragging your suitcase up and down pedestrian bridges that span the hundreds of canals that make up Venice.  Most people who come to Venice seem to come for a day or two, or at the most three.  It is usually wedged into an itinerary that may include the Quick Italy vacation (Rome, Florence, Milan, the Lakes in one week or less) or just a Northern version, focusing on Florence and the Dolomites.

Venice Canal

Venice Canal

Using All Our Senses

It was therefore, an unusual stroke of good luck that had us book our vacation to Venice for nine days and eight nights, suiting my emerging philosophy of “Slow Travel.”  This allows one to savor the unique flavor that is Venice, to walk the canals, see the changing lights reflecting on the water that is everywhere, visit one or two museums or churches in a day, and then spend time letting the sights settle in and percolate, before running off to the next site.  It is such a refreshing change from our daily rush, where we try to pack in more than is humanly possible in the shortest time known to man.  It allows all of our senses to absorb Venice, the smells of water and decaying buildings (not always pleasant), the light on the water, the sea breeze on our faces, and the bite of Venetian espresso on our palates.lagoon

Our days begin in Venice looking over the lagoon and marveling at the water traffic that wakens the city before daybreak, when the sky is just beginning to lighten in the east.  Boats of different sizes and shapes constitute the flotilla that brings produce, food, building materials, and all sorts of strangely shaped packages from the mainland to water locked Venice.  It boggles the mind to consider that every item available for sale in Venice has been transported here by water. Human beings are also transported by water to and from Venice, and it is not a rarity to see an ambulance boat or a waterborne funeral hearse with a mound of flowers on the casket.

Ambulance Boat

Ambulance Boat

The morning continues with a leisurely cup of coffee in the local café, one of the few places with free internet I have found.  The café is located right next to the waterbus stop, and serves as the coffee stop for the locals on their way to and from work.  Interestingly, they all take their coffee standing at the bar.  I learned the hard way that it is half the price to drink coffee standing as compared to sitting.  Of course, in order to use internet, one has to sit, and pay the price.

Part of the Slow Venice experience is renting an apartment in an out of the way neighborhood.  Our apartment was advertised as “magical stay overlooking the lagoon”.  The apartment, in a fairly typical ancient Venetian building is located on the first floor of a three story building.  The huge wooden doors that form the entry way need to be given a hard push of the hip in order to enter with a key into a pitch black hallway, that smells rather rank and dank, as do so many Venetian buildings, close as they are to the water.  One flight up, and another push of the hip brings us into our small apartment that, for lack of a better word, has character.  There is a small living dining room with a window overlooking the lagoon, a teeny but adequate kitchen, and a larger bedroom with a decent bed, and very little closet space.  Neither of us mind living out of our suitcases for the duration.  The only real downside of the apartment is the bright streetlights right outside our bedroom window, and the lack of shutters or Venetian blinds.  Wouldn’t you think they would have Venetian blinds in Venice??  Fortunately, the eye mask I brought for the airplane travel is serving me well.

Tourist Tips:

Spa Hopping in Budapest – Round 1

Budapest_General-view-of-Royal-Palace

Arriving in the capitol of Hungary on a December morning, the grey, overcast skies and cold air greet you, and remind you that you are no longer in the mid-east but deep in the heart of Europe.  Any thoughts of sunshine, green lawns or trees, or flowers fade away.  The days are short, and darkness sets in at mid-afternoon.   It is no wonder then that thermal baths have taken front and center stage in Budapest’s long history.

 Apparently, the Romans who first built the city of Budapest, decided on this spot because of the thermal waters that are found all over the region.  Remnants of the Roman baths are hard to come by, but the city itself boasts 24 thermal spas that are open to the public.

Spa animals that we are, we set ourselves a goal of visiting one spa per day.  But which one to go to?  Ah, so many choices. How big? How historic? How many baths?  Rick Steve’s Budapest was a big help. We decided to take advantage of the coed policy on Sunday (all other days are single sex) at the Rudas Spa on the Buda side of the city. As you may know, the city of Buda pest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest with the Danube river running north/south through the city.  Our hotel is in Pest, as are most hotels, so we need to cross over the Danube on the Chain Bridge in the drizzle that accompanied us since arrival.  Having bought earlier in the day a 72 hour public transportation pass (3800 forints, allowing you to get on and off all modes of public transport – bus, train, tram) we decided to cut our walk short and hop a bus that seemed to be going in the right direction.  It was, but when we realized that we had arrived at our stop, we couldn’t figure out how to egress the bus, and overshot our stop by quite a bit.  After boarding a tram in the reverse direction, we eventually arrived at our destination, only to be met by a severe looking hostess who tried to convince us to purchase a combination ticket for the swimming pool and the baths so that we could enter immediately.  We were only interested at that point in the day (5 PM) in the baths, which entailed a 30 minute wait for a free changing “cabin”.  After paying (3200 forint each) we received plastic watches that allow entry into the spa, and into one’s personal cabin.  While waiting, we chatted with the folks on line and had a Hungarian draft beer (550 forint for a half litre – about $2!).

Finally we were allowed entry into the changing area,  whereupon, we realized that the two of us were assigned to one very small changing cabin more like a telephone booth.  Very small.  With the two of us in there neither of us could easily move without elbowing or kneeing the other.  We debated taking turns waiting outside, but decided to do it the Hungarian way, and so we did.  After mastering the art of changing in the cabin, we made our way to the spa, but not before checking to make sure that we had in fact understood that two people changed at once in these teeny, tiny cabins.  They did.

Rudas Spa

Rudas Spa

We made our way to the room containing the thermal spa on flip flops we had luckily remembered to bring and with our “borrowed” hotel towels that we had full intention to return.  (Renting a towel is an added expense).  The room that greeted us was Moorish in design, originally built in the 15th century,  with subdued lighting and a mist rising from the octagonal central pool in the middle of the room that was surrounded by four smaller pools in each corner of the room.  The central pool was 38 degrees Celsius, while the smaller ones ranged from a cool 28 C to a scalding 42C.  We gingerly made our way from pool to pool, eventually finding our comfort level matched in the 38 degree pool in the middle under a domed roof.  Looking around there were people of all ages, mostly couples, mostly speaking Hungarian, with perhaps a slight advantage for the under thirty crowd.  There was only one child in the entire complex.  After spending about 30 minutes moving from pool to pool we were ready for the plunge into the 10C freezing cold pool.  At least some of us were.  I was only able to make it in up to my knees, but there were several people fully immersed for several minutes.  Back to the warm pool for another set, until we were ready to rest in the quiet room on lounge beds.  Resting after thermal baths is both imperative, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of thermal bathing.  There is something about the chemicals in the water that afford one a natural “high” if you take the time to notice it.  Lying on the lounge bed, a lassitude takes over, and I float somewhere between imagination and sleep, savoring this feeling of deep and total relaxation.

After a quick, public shower, we return to our changing cabin, this time adopting our style of changing one at a time, bundling up to face the cold Budapest evening, where the misty drizzle of the afternoon has now turned into a bonafide rainfall.  Nothing that a hearty vegetable soup, and plate of Hungarian goulash won’t chase away.