Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Trip

Since so many of you have written saying you would like to hear more about our trip I would like to make my first blog since we got back a review of our trip to Greece and Italy. The next blog will be focusing on psychology stuff.

I’m using the previous mini-mailings as a point of reference so that those of you who didn’t get a chance to read them will be able to get a perspective. These previous comments will be in italics followed by newer details.

As you read this, my wife and I will be spending the day (and night) flying to Athens, Greece via Chicago & Brussels, Belgium. Since I will be away from my computer until March 22 there will no new posts until the end of the month.

It was a long flight with a 2-hour layover in Brussels so we hung out, read, walked around and bought some Belgium chocolates. Total time from San Francisco to Athens was just over 18 hours. We were met at the airport by Sue Horner and driven to our lovely apartment where we fought sleep until the sun went down.

This is our third day in Athens. We are staying at the American College of Greece (ACG) where our friend, Dr. David Horner, is being installed as the latest president. With frequent flyer miles, free room and board, and daily guided tours, we could hardly refuse this invitation. Even though we have visited Athens before, we will be visiting the National Archeological Museum that we missed on our previous trip.

As you can see, this trip was somewhat unexpected. Six months ago we were notified by our friends, David and Sue Horner, that we were among several dozen of their friends invited to join them in the inaugural celebration. We came from many difference places on the planet and were escorted around Athens in sight-seeing buses to see the sights and eat at great Greek restaurants. Since this was an all-expenses paid trip, you can see why it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. When we arrived at our large two bedroom apartment, we checked out the two balconies at either side of the apartment that overlooked Athens. The kitchen had a freshly baked loaf of bread on the counter and two bottles of Greek wine on the table (one red, one white). The refrigerator had bottled water, soft drinks, fruit juices, a plate of cold cuts and a plate of various cheeses. Additionally, we found my favorite, Greek yogurt and honey. Yum! Needless to say we did not leave Athens hungry. The last tour we took before leaving was a visit to the Temple of Poseidon about two hours from Athens. This was the beginning of seeing many astonishing buildings throughout Greece and Italy. And, yes, the National Archeological Museum was a good choice. Very informative about ancient Greece.

One of the fun things we did was to march in the inaugural processional. It was very formal with all the college professors in caps, gowns and colorful hoods walking into the auditorium to the familiar strains of Elgar. The professors were followed by the rest of us guests who had flown to Athens for this occasion. We, too, wore caps, gowns and the hoods that represented the schools we graduated from. About fifty different American schools were represented.

It’s Tuesday, so it must be Sicily. Sharon’s friends from Finland just happened to be finishing up their month’s vacation in Sicily. We are staying in the same B&B and they are touring us around the island which they have been exploring for three weeks.

The one drawback in Greece is the pervasive cigarette smoke inside buildings. With the exception of one restaurant where we were the only people, my lungs became bombarded with a smell that had almost been forgotten in California. By the time we arrived in Sicily, the smoky attack on my nasal passages had caused cold-like symptoms. I found myself extremely tired with a headache and clogged sinuses. I slept the entire first day as Sharon and her friends wandered around the small village near our B&B. It was a chilly and rainy day so I missed nothing but was treated to the food and stories they brought back with them. That was the only rain we had for the rest of the trip — in spite of forecasts that continued to call for rain and sprinkles.

The last day in Sicily was spent driving through the beautiful countryside to the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. These Greek temples are considered one of the most important archeological sites in the world. At one time, there were temples to Hera, Lacinia, Heracles, Zeus, Castor and Pollux, Hephaistos and Asklepius. There was even the temple of Concordia (picture on right) but no one knows who this was specifically dedicated to. Nevertheless, it is the temple most intact because it was converted to a Christian basilica in the sixth century. One of the reasons so many Greek and Roman buildings are in such a state of ruin is because Christian builders "borrowed" the marble from these great structures for their own basilicas and cathedrals.

A plane flight from Palermo, Sicily to Naples, Italy and then on to Rome. Ah, what a city. Sharon and I watched the complete HBO series, "ROME." prior to leaving. What a magnificent miniseries. What great sets. What great acting. Granted it was gory and full of sexuality. Anyone who knows Roman history knows these two experiences were common to the daily life of Romans. Determined to set themselves apart from their surroundings, the early Christians chose the opposite of these two life styles as part of their moral code. Today, we visit the Vatican with all its splendor. Tonight we attend a performance called "Enchanted Opera Arias" at the Chiesa di S. Paolo Entro Le Mura -- a church whose names translates to St. Paul Within the Walls.

After arriving at the Rome airport, we took a taxi to our lodging — a monastery. The room was spacious and overlooked their garden. We also had a nice breakfast available to us every morning. The only downside was the menu never changed. By the fifth day, we were glad it was the last time we would be getting our "free" breakfast.

The Vatican is a stunning structure. We both had MP3 players that gave us a guided tour of the Vatican. As awe inspiring as this structure is, the visit to the relatively tiny Sistine Chapel was another matter. I was surprised at how big the room was. The famous "God giving the spark of life to Adam" was surrounded by other works of Michelangelo depicting stories from the entire Bible. Even though no flash photography was allowed in the chapel, people were continually doing just that. This kept the blue coats in charge of such matters busy hollering at people about not taking flash pictures. The chapel was jammed with people so the noise level would rise often. These same staff people then had to hush everyone up. It seemed that none of their admonitions had much effect in the long run. Unlike the Louvre in Paris, these staff did not confiscate cameras that were misused.

The evening concert took us outside of ancient Rome. We got there early so walked around, had a bite to eat and sat through a nice concert of operatic arias. The church was fairly small (by cathedral standards, anyway). The four soloists were accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of two violins, a viola, a cello, flute, piano and clarinet.

So what have we done besides visiting the Vatican Museum and listening to arias? Well, the next day we did a walking tour of Old Rome: Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, Trajan’s Column, Capitoline Hill and the Pantheon. On Sunday we visited museums -- the two must see museums are the National Museum and the Borghese. Along the way, we strolled hither and yon and visited the Spanish Steps where I held on to Sharon’s Mastercard. The Spanish Steps is the location of primo tourist shopping.

The weather again was cooperative. We had a little change of plan. Instead of the Borghese Museum, we walked from the Spanish steps to the Pantheon (picture on the right). Again, the pictures simply can’t do justice to actually standing in these amazing buildings. The Pantheon is in excellent shape because it, too, had been used as a Christian church in the 7th century. It is the oldest standing domed building in Rome and is the best preserved building of its age in the world. You can see by the accompanying picture the size of the people against the gigantic building. Standing inside this building is as humbling as looking through a telescope at a galaxy that is over two million light years away.

When we finished at the Pantheon, we walked to the Trevi Fountain. Again, pictures do not capture its allure. Next, we hiked over to the Fountain Navona in the large Piazza Navona. By this time it was getting dark so we caught the bus back to our monastery room.

Several of you have chastised my for the sexist remark about holding "on to Sharon’s Mastercard" at the Spanish Steps. I have been duly humbled and offer my apologies to any of you who were offended by that careless remark.

A sad day today — we leave Roma. However, to ease the pain we will be traveling up north to Modena by train. It’s supposed to be a beautiful trip and lasts about 4 hours. Friends of Sharon’s who used to live in Seattle are now living in Italy and running a tourist agency. We will spend a few days with them before heading back home.

We left Rome on the train and spent two wonderful hours going through and seeing the beauty of Tuscany. We got off at Siena and stayed there for two days and nights. The taxi ride to the hotel was better than any ride at Great America. The driver zoomed through small one-way streets and would turn into what was apparently a road only after we were in it. The hotel, Palazzo Ravizza, was originally the home of a wealthy Italian several hundred years ago. We stayed on the second floor. When we opened the large shutters on our windows we saw a breathtaking view of the valley and hills that looked like it had been painted especially for us. As we took in the scenery, we had to keep remembering we were actually in Tuscany and not looking at a movie. For dinner, we went to a local shop and brought back cheese, bread and a bottle of wine. When we asked the concierge how to get to the patio because we wanted to have our meal outside with the fabulous view, she gave us directions and then sighed, "how romantic." She was right.

After two days, we jumped on another train and headed north to Modena, home of balsamic vinegar and Ferrari cars. Our friends picked us up at the train station and brought us to their house. We wandered through a very old fort while Terri and her daughter had their swimming lesson. The next day we visited a mom and pop balsamic "factory." After that we headed up the cabin our friends share with one of their Italian friends. It was at an elevation of 6000 feet so we were in the snow and chilly but sunny weather. The cabin was old, huge and could sleep twelve people when needed. The next day we were dropped off at the train station for our last train trip to Milan.

So much has happened in these last weeks. We will be going to Milan tomorrow to catch our plane home on Sunday. While there we thought it would be fun to see an opera at the famous La Scala opera house. When we found the ticket price was $250/ person we opted for taking a guided tour instead. We leave Milan Sunday morning and arrive in San Francisco Sunday night around 10pm -- passing through ten time zones.

La Scala is a beautiful opera house. Adjoining it is their museum with pictures and busts of famous composers, artists and musical artifacts. Curiously, we saw an entire section devoted to the German conduct Herbert von Karajan. The exhibit had been running for five months and was scheduled to finish its run two weeks after we left the country. The multi-media exhibit almost felt like a shrine to the famous man. It was inaugurated by his widow.

We finally made it home, with a 7 hour layover in JFK. We landed in San Francisco around 10 pm and passed out in our hotel near the airport. Jet lag woke both of us up around 5 am so we drove home beating the rush hour traffic in San Francisco. No matter how wonderful travel happens to be, the old cliche is still true, "There’s no place like home."