Tuesday, November 22, 2016

#Andiamo16 - Roma

The first time I visited Rome George W Bush had only been in office 5 months.  The Italian currency was still the Lira and September 11 2001 was a unimaginable two short months from then.  Early July 2001 on a Sunday night I tentatively stepped out of my hotel located near the Vatican at my friend's insistence (see my first blog post how this one walk literally changed my life personally and eventually professionally) and participated in the Roman daily evening parade called the pasigeata.  As we strolled through the city finally ending up at the Piazza di Spagna, as corny as it sounds my confidence grew with every step.  Rome stopped being a famous place where I would be lead around by an organized tour group - to an alive city.  Alive with food, cultural and its smiling, laughing joyful people.  Pasigieta literally means 'little walk'.  Escaping their small apartments, simply enjoying life and family.

Spanish Steps at twilight

Sunday November 20, 2016 I arrived in Rome for my sixth visit to this literally 'Eternal City '.  Riding the highway from Rome's Fumicino airport I was pleasantly surprised how many landmarks I recognized and as we approached our Bon Compangi and the Hotel Romanico Palace, how it felt like visiting the 'old neighborhood'.  Winding our way through Borghese Gardens (Rome's 'Central Park') following the 1900 year old Roman built city wall and entering through the main gate to the city - this was as far from rural Michigan as I could get - but still seemed oh so much like home. We dropped off our suitcases and headed to our late afternoon lunch at one of my favorite ristorantes, La Lampada.   The staff had kept the restaurant open just for our group of 12, fresh food served quickly and deliciously to the hungry travelers.  But as much as the old neighborhood eatery looked and tasted the same - I kept looking for my favorite waiter Salvatore.  My halting Italian combined with the staff's halting English explained Salvatore had retired.  The business opened all these years by first Salvatore's parents, then with he and his brother Pietro was now run by Pietro and his children.  His chicly specced oldest son was excited to let me know he was departing for the US next week.  "Nuovo York, baby".  Mindful that in late November the sun sets early in Rome, we headed to the Spanish Steps and found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of tourists.... and Romans indulging in an early evening stroll after their Sunday dinner - the pasigieta.  Nothing reminds you as quickly that you aren't in Kansas anymore than strolling the streets of Rome with a few thousand of her people.

Pantheon Occulus - or hole at the top of the dome
Ponte San Angelo

Rome has many many treasures.  Over 900 churches, 367 are historically important,  ancient times, medieval, renaissance, baroque, etc. etc. etc. you will find a different age around every corner.  This visit to Rome is a quick one.  We'd have to skim the surface of the most important sites and promise to return another time.  Private guides are absolutely worth their weight in gold, they bring their personal knowledge, education, as well as their magic passes that literally whisk you past hundreds of people waiting in line (the VIP treatment). With our two local guide, Alejandra and Francesca,  the last two whirlwind days we visited:   the Renaissance: Vatican City (Vatican museums and St. Peters),  Ponte San Angelo and Piazza Navona, ancient Rome : Pantheon, Colosseum, Forum as well as Baroque Rome: Trevi Fountain  Borghese Park and Villa.  These are all favorites of mine,  places I have seen on each Rome visit.  By seeing these favorites through my first time co - travelers I got to enjoy that first sense of wonder, as well as better understanding of a city by experiencing it with its citizens.  I was literally surprised at every turn.  Like catching up with an old friend over lunch - your shared history is the start, the ways they have changed and grown... the revelation.

Trevi Fountain

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Where History, Culture and Travel collide -- Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic from the footsteps of Columbus to today

Portrait of Columbus in Alcazar de Colon - Santo Domingo
"In fourteen hundred and ninety - two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue". "The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria".  Was I in first grade?  Fourth, fifth?  Sometime in grade school we all learn about how Columbus 'discovered' America and proved the world was round.  (like with most things historical , exaggeration - he landed in the Caribbean on an island he named Hispanola - today home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti).  Words on page in a book.  Things to be committed to memory, regurgitated for a test and then forgotten as new information comes along.  Sadly not only my education but many out there as well.

Statue of Columbus - Plaza Colon - Madrid
Colombus, (my good friend Dr. Gary Scavnicky always reminds me his name was 'Cristobol Colon, the Columbus thing is an English re name) he's still a national hero in Spain.  From the harbor in Barcelona to his plaza in Madrid - he is very much a part of everyday Spanish life. In addition to a huge obelisk at Plaza Colon,  a huge mural in Madrid shows a map of how he departed from Barcelona and all the trials tribulation and down right agony he and his crews faced to end up in modern day Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic.  At the end of Barcelona's busy Las Ramblas pedestrian avenue, before you arrive at the very harbor that Ferdinand and Isabella waved him off from, Colombus sits high upon an obelisk, literally pointing to the new world.  This was no guy on a page in a history book - this was someone who through  wit, determination a little bit of flim flam charm and a lot of bravery - got on the Santa Maria and left that harbor and headed out for places unknown.  I saw where he left - I had to see where he ended up.
Port of  Santo Domingo - Ozama River

To get the whole picture of Santo Domingo took two visits.  The first time was a guided tour with 45 other tourists and the second with only my mom and I and a private guide.  We arrived in Santo Domingo both times exactly like Columbus, following the Ozama river into the city.  However, instead of being greeted by curious and friendly Taino Indians, our welcome was traffic almost as thick as the early morning smog.  This is a hustling and busy capital city - the river Ozama feeding directly into the Caribbean sea.  

Visit one found us following our guide, a 60ish former Dominican Navy Seal turned tourist escort, through the cobble stone streets.We were literally walking in the footsteps of the explorer.  From the banks of the river Ozama through the ancient colonial city we saw how Santo Domingo changed from a Indian settlement to the bustling city it is today. Winding our way through the city we stopped at the 16th century Museo de las Casas Reales (administrative offices of all the Spanish colonies in the Americas) and the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic(national symbol of the Dominican Republic and final resting place of its most honored citizens). But for me personally, it was at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor and the Alcazar de Colon where Columbus’ story went from the pages of a schoolbook to right before my eyes.

Alcazar de Colon - Santo Domingo
Ferdinand and Isabella cross. Santa Maria la Menor, Santo Domingo
The Alcazar de Colon built by Diego Colon, (son of Christoper Columbus) is the oldest viceregal (governor's) residence in all of the Americas. The palace over looks the same Ozama river that Diego’s father first traversed from the Caribbean sea to arrive in the new world.  What I found most impressive about the ‘Casa de Colon’ was that unlike other famous residences where the family’s possessions were lost to looting, sale or simply time and decay, the palace’s furniture was all original to the family.  A medium sized non-descriptive chest in the corner of the dining room, was not only the highlight of the tour for me, but my Dominican Republic visit.  As almost an afterthought as we headed to another room the guide pointed to the chest – “Oh, that chest?  Cristobel Colombo’s from the Santa Maria – he kept his maps in there”.  WHAT????  That chest right there in the corner?  Sailed across the ocean with Columbus?  And since the maps were in there, he probably touched it a hundred times a day. ...and 30 minutes later as we crowded into the cool, dark interior of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor (the first cathedral in the New World), my mind was blown again. " See friends in this chapel?  That wooden cross on the wall?"  I took in the darkly stained crucifix. "On the day of his departure, Ferdinand and Isabella gifted Colon with this cross for a church to be built in the New World".  SERIOUSLY?  While I doubt I&F actually touched the cross, they might have.  And regardless this cross was loaded on the Santa Maria on Columbus' voyage a gift from the King and Queen of Spain.  That, readers is history come to life. 

One of the lakes of Tres Ojos - Mirador Este Park - Santo Domingo
Almost exactly one year later, I visited Santo Domingo for a second time.  The city's past had definitely come alive for me the previous year.   This time rather than have the history of our hemisphere laid out before me, I got to experience Dominican natural history and people just living their lives. Our first stop was the Mirador Este park - to specifically visit the Tres Ojos.  I followed the park guide down 39 steep steps into what seemed to be cave. The guide explained it was actually a centuries old depression created when caves collapsed and filled with water.  The lakes were used from the time of the Taino Indians (the native people inhabiting Hispanola when Columbus arrived) right up to the beginning of the 20th century for bathing and diving. The Tres Ojos (literally 'Three Eyes') are actually underground lakes - with the fourth 'eye' (lake) actually outside the depression but connected to the other three by an under ground river.  The stalagmites and stalactites as well as the walls are an eerie white sulphor which makes the water appear either extremely blue or pure black depending on how much sunlight reaches the lakes.
Mirador Este Park - Santo Domingo


Woman with bananas - Santo Domingo 
After our visit to the park, we continued on to the historical city center - the colonial quarter. My Spanish isn't perfect, but it was good enough to buy some baby gifts for Punta Cana friends who are expecting, pick up some local beer at a grocery store and have an amazing lunch in a 500 year old building's interior courtyard - shaded by a mango tree that was obviouslyolder than that as the courtyard had been built around it.( I have to admit, I do need to continue my Spanish studies   When a young woman walked past me with a rubber basket of bananas on her head, I confidently said "Es possible tocar una pintura de ti".  I thought I said "Is it possible for me to take a photo of you",  but actually said "Is it possible for me to touch you with a painting" - sigh).  The day ended with a quick visit to the Presidential palace and obligatory photos with the Presidential guard.
Presidential Guard - Resident of President, Dominican Republic

It took two very different visits to the Dominican capital to really understand Santo Domingo.  This is true of most places we may vacation. For those who know me well, shopping, eating and chatting are all within my wheelhouse, but the idea that I would willingly go down a bunch of steep, slippery steps in a cave that I later found out was full of fruit bats is probably amusing. However, if I have learned nothing else during my adventures,  while a 'top 10' or 'must see' list is important to understand a place's historical significance... you must take some time to wander, to learn and like Columbus to simply explore.  


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A dog in traffic, a pair of sunglasses, a key ring and an injured foot

"Oh my God!  Do you see that dog?  There's no way it is going to make it through all those cars to the other side".  A rainy Paris walk to buy perfume turned into a horrifying scene.  Myself and my fellow dog parent travelers were horrified to see a small brown and white dog dodging cars on a busy Paris side street.  By only what could be described as a miracle he missed every car tire and made it over to our side of the street.  The four of us along with two Parisians walking by, cornered the pup and were just starting to look around for his owner when a frantic woman holding an empty leash came sprinting up to us.  The two French gentlemen took off and the rest of my party wandered into the store.  I, mother of Delilah, who has tried many times to shorten her life here on earth crouched down where the woman was holding the dog and softly crying.  My French is poor at best and when I haltingly tried to speak to her, she responded in English.  I took the leash from her shaking hands and attempted to put it back on his collar.  When I asked if it was right, she shook her head.  I told her, let me hold him, and you put it on and she did.  She then blurted, "His name is Henri - like your British king"  (Getting a good look finally at Henri I could see he was a small and spunky King Charles Spaniel).  I told her my Delilah would be the death of me too and she smiled through her tears.  I sat with her on the wet sidewalk until she stopped shaking and crying.  I said are you okay?  She nodded and I helped her to her feet.  I started to put my hand out to shake and say 'Au Revior' when she grabbed me by the shoulder and kissed each side of my cheek.  She and Henri continued on their way and turned a corner out of sight and out of my life.  But not out of my thoughts, they are with me everyday.

I have very dear friend, who I bonded with over a pair of sunglasses ( you can read about in under 2012 - un hombre y su hotel).  He's been nominated by a prestigious website for excellence in customer service and he has never known a stranger. It's his personal credo 'Nothing is impossible' that makes Joaquin this special person.  I made a private joke only for myself which I will now share with you - sometimes I say WWJD(what would Joaquin do in this situation)  and when I realized whose initial that saying actually belongs too, I thought it fitting. Both believe and practice the Golden Rule - 'Love your neighbor as you would love yourself'. 

"We noticed on the drive into Prague, everything is still painted 'Communist gray' ".  It occurred to me as I struggled to keep up with my petite blonde guide Eva,  she may be my age.  This comment was probably anything but academic to her.  As we walked from  Prague castle through the New Town across the Charles bridge, I finally got up the nerve to inquire about her life in Prague during the time of Communism. The stories I heard of family and friends being encouraged to report on each other.  Of her parents having to explain to her at a very young age, while they would listen to Radio Free Europe, they could never tell anyone about it - arrest would be swift, seemed the stuff of a cold war spy novel.  And finally she spoke of the 'Velvet Revolution' waged right there in Prague.  Of thousands of students, herself included going to the house of the Czech President and shaking their house keys in a deafening jingle - a demand for him to give up the keys to his presidential residence and free the Czech people.

Looking forward to finally picking up my neglected novel, I started to sink in to my beach lounge chair where my mother was waiting for me under a shady palapa.  "There's been an incident" she told me cautiously (I am known for losing my cool during times of medical distress) as she lifted the bottom of her foot to show an ugly red blister open and full of the alabaster Punta Cana sand on the Monday last.  Book returned to beach bag and off we walked (hobbled) to the urgent care located on our resort.  An hour later, with an IV of antibiotics, more to take for the next three days, creams, gauze and surgical tape we were banned for at least the next couple of days from the beach (sand and an open wound a definite no no). Talk changed from medicine to travel and common interests and by the end of the hour visit in addition to all the medicines and first aid items - the doctor had become 'Nadia' and my new friend.

Travel not only is my profession it is my passion.  I have been very fortunate to see the many wonders of this world, experience cultures other than my own and most importantly meet and know its people. It is the chance meeting of a person I would have never have met that stays with me every day.    Australia, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, Italy, Greece, England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.  These are no longer simply places on a map to me, they are the homes of my friends.  This long winded rambling diatribe is an answer to a question I answer many times a year.  "Why would you travel with the world the way it is?  Terrorism, sickness, political unrest and etc etc etc".  My answer is always the same - because it has changed me. These chance meetings of strangers in a place I would have never been, have made me the person I am today... and I will always be grateful.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Merida White city and Izamal City of Magic

As so many things in life do, our latest adventure began with an off- hand comment.  "I am one of twelve brothers and sisters, we are all living thanks God. I used to work with my father in his restaurant in Merida,".  This comment was made over margaritas after a morning tour of the archaeological site, Tulum in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.  I visited the site with my family and tour guide December 30, 2014.  The speaker was my friend and escort David Celis.  As the rest of my family chatted and gossiped, David and I had been catching up since my last visit in 2012.  The word, "Merida" made my ears perk up.  "You mean the Spanish colonial city", "Si".  "You really grew up there". "Si, met my wife there, got married there".  "I have always wanted to see...".  "...we should go some time and I will show you around".  Friends as I have mentioned before, I know the value of a good guide, especially a local from the area.  So that's how we happened to be on the brand new toll road between Cancun and Merida, almost exactly a year to the day of our conversation, hurtling along in the predawn light to so that we could make the four hour trip, spend some time in Merida and return to our resort in Puerto Morales, Mexico by nightfall.
Pam and David Ceklis Plaza Grande

Merida is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan (the state sharing its name with the peninsula of the same name).  Merida's modern history begins in 1542 with three Spanish conquistadores named Francisco Montejo( father, son and nephew all sharing the same name)  'conquering' the local Mayan tribe (it wasn't much of a conquer. Mayan legend foretold of gods who were white that were larger than men. Spanish conquistadores in their silver armor and horses fit the bill, So the Mayans just handed over all they had). Merida skillfully blends the masculine Spanish style with the bold colors of Mexico,   Lighting from the van, at the city's  Plaza Grande, David knowing our interest in both architecture and history, lead us around the historical square. Merida's nickname Ciudad Blanca(white city) origin today is unknown as the city is a blaze of color.  From the sage green and white Palace de Governale, (the seat of government for the state),  the town hall and the theater (now gallery and retail space) Picheta and  museum Casa de Montejo ,  the old buildings and especially Casa de Montejo did not disappoint.

In its glory days the home of the Montejo family dominated the square, occupying one half of the entire square. As the family dwindled so did its fortunes, and today the museum is only small part of the original home.  The effect remains of stepping of the busy street and side walk into a lovely courtyard where the street sounds magically disappear.  A small salon, dining room and solarium are all that are open to the public. What sets this home apart from other museums, everything is original. From the wallpaper to the furniture and décor, all belonged to family and were used in their every day life,

Casa de Montejo

Crossing the square we ended our visit to the historical center with the oldest building - El Cathedral de San Ilphonse ,  Built in the middle 1500s, you would expect the church to be dark like others of its time period.  We marveled at how bright the interior was.  Made out of local limestone, the interior glowed in the natural colors of white, gray and beige. 

Our Merida visit ended with lunch at a restaurant that featured traditional Yucatan cuisine.  Los Almendros ' menu had many delicacies , we enjoyed Salbutes (fried corn tortillas topped with lettuce, red onion and shredded turkey) Pollo Ticuleno (breaded chicken topped with ham, cheese, peas and tomato sauce on a tortilla) as well as Poc Choc, pork prepared by burying it in the ground in a clay pot, a thousand year old Mayan recipe.

City steps of Izamal
Post lunch we made a quick side trip to Izamal and its Benedictine monastery.  The Mexican government has decreed Izamal to be a 'Magic City', there are 35 cities in Mexico with this distinction and Izamal is one of only two in the Yucatan.  (A 'Magic city" is a small historical town that is located near a major historical site with good road access and a willingness of the population to support the project.)Winding in through its narrow streets , the town suddenly opens up to a large central square.  The most surprising thing is the entire town is painted a mustard gold or as David so aptly described 'ochre'.  The color makes all the natural wood and iron details stand out.  Trimmed in white and crimson red the effect is dazzling and I was just enchanted.  Climbing the many steps to the monastery, the town was laid out before us.  The cathedral itself is currently shrouded in scaffolding as the monstarery needs major structural and aesthetic repairs.  We quickly saw the interior and decided we would need to return to this beautiful pueblo on a future visit.
Izamal's ochre colored buildings

Returning 13 hours after our departure, we saw the last of the Mexican sun on the sand and waves.  As much as I love Mexico's beaches and margaritas its history and culture are so much more.  I am always glad to take at least one day away from sun and fun to find the 'real' Mexico.

Merida archaeological museum - former Colonial home

Merida City Hall

Izamal monastery
Merida Cathedral of Ilphonse

Christmas tree in the Palace of Government