Athens and Porto Rafti Greece

The wind, usually a product of August, had made its way to Athens a couple of months early, according to our kind host at the Airbnb. Despite being a warm wind, it felt good in the hot sun.

After dropping our bags into our room, a short distance away from Parliament Square, we made our way out into the heat to see the ruins. The Presidents band was marching in parade formation. A guard was seen dutifully minding his post and we fortunate enough to see the changing of the guard. We had a ticket to see the various ancient sites around the vast city, though all within walking distance. There are various companies out there offering a day pass. With a handy map, a guide is not needed, unless you want.

Nut vendors had a variety of nuts to sale in wagons on the streets. My favorite was the caramel and sesame covered ones. For a euro a bag I could buy several to nibble on as we made our way around the sites.

Acropolis is perched high upon the hill overlooking the vast city. The walk up is not as strenuous as it appears it would be. A pair of black heels were left at the top; obviously left by a visitor who clearly had not thought the climb to the top through. All of Athens and beyond could be seen. Acropolis seen during the night offers a different perspective than that of the day. One can imagine what it must have been like to have lived during the 5th century B.C., and have walked within the walls of these amazingly preserved buildings perched on Acropolis.

To be closer to the airport for a morning flight, we booked an apartment in Porto Rafti. Our host picked us up at the metro stop prior to the airport. He drove us past the brilliant blue water crashing waves on the white sand beaches, as the trees blew in the summer breeze. Later in the evening we walked down to a suggested restaurant where Greek was the only language on the menu and even the dogs look both ways to cross the busy road.

Corfu Greece

I fell in love with Corfu Greece, before ever sitting foot on the little island, in the Ionian Sea. It is situated along the coast of Albania and mainland Greece, with Italy to the west. The “Durrells in Corfu,” series on Masterpiece Theatre prompted this love. I later learned the James Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only,” was also filmed there. Shows and movies, nearly always open your eyes up to known and unknown destinations. Once landing on Corfu, after a short flight from Rome, we made our way over to pick up the rental car. Usually Europcar allows you to use your own insurance, whether through your insurance company, if they allow it, or a credit card that offers that amenity. So we were at a lost when the representative asked for a 3000 euro deposit. After much discussion from my frustrated travel companion, they finally pointed out if we had used their insurance, we would not need to put down the large deposit. Why didn’t they point this out in the first place?! After all this, we set out to find our rental with Airbnb in a little red car.

After locating our host in the area he mentioned, he hopped in our car to show us where we could park for only 3 euro for twenty four hours. We then walked to our lovely apartment. Our host was kind and helpful. You can find the place on under the name, Sweet Home in Corfu Old town. Our host Alexander left us a map of the island, with ideas of places to see. We made a plan to visit several beaches the next day. The island is easy to explore by car. There are mountain views, olive groves, and vineyards. Be sure to visit Alexander’s store called The Olive Store; easily reached on foot near the apartment.

The food in Greece is exceptionally good, and beyond reasonably priced. Sofrito, and Pastitsada are traditional dishes of Corfu. The kumquat is the fruit of the island. It is sold as a fruit, or in the form of a liquor.

The writer Lawrence Durrell, who called Corfu his home during the 1930’s, gives a colorful account of his time in Corfu, in his book “Prospero’s Cell.’ Gerald Durrell, his brother wrote of his time there in “My Family and Other Animals.” Both gave a basis for the “The Durrell’s in Corfu.” Part of the filming is in the replica of a town from the 1930’s, called Danilla. The site can be toured after contacting the Grecotel Hotel and Resort, as they are the owners of the mock village. We were lucky enough to have a tour of our own there. After arriving to find the place closed, a car pulled up. I asked the man driving about tours. He said they are only on certain days. I told him about the show being the reason I came to Corfu. He offered for us to come in and take a look. We walked through the set, and though I was the only one who had seen the show, and was thrilled to be having this experience, my travel campanions decided this was truly a treat. We sat at the tables, of pretend cafes. We saw the fire pump used in one of the episodes, when Larry and Leslie Durrell decided they wanted to be firefighters. As we left, I told our host he had made my trip special by allowing us to visit.

Corfu has been influenced by the English, the Venetians and the French, but still holds on to its Greek roots. The Venetian Fortress is worth a visit at the edge of the sea in Corfu Town, also called Kerkyra. At the top you can see a good portion of the Island, including the airport. The Barren Mountains of Albania, just across the water, blend into the sea and sky, giving the image of a watercolor painting. Prince Philip of England was born on Corfu. His home Mon Repos Palace will have to be on the list for my next visit there. We did take a little tour train through Corfu Town for 8 Euro, as the day met dusk. Life on Corfu is peaceful, but there is a nightlife. Partygoers making their way home after dancing in a club that night, could be seen at 4 am the next morning, as we rolled our suitcases across the quiet streets toward the car, for an early flight to Athens.

Rome, Italy

Rome is city to walk and explore each little neighborhood, experiencing what each has to offer. There is so much to see. There is the traditional Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Roman ruins of the Forum, and the colosseum. All of these are a must see. The Vatican is special even if you are not Catholic. The sharply dressed Swiss Guards stand proudly, guarding the grounds. St. Peter’s holds the tomb of Peter, the first Pope, and an Apostle of Jesus. You can attend a short mass in Italian daily, inside the church. There is a schedule on their site for seeing the Pope. The Vatican museum holds many treasures, and you can walk into the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo. For 8 euro you can climb to the top of the dome, then get a fresh croissant on the way back down, in a café on the roof. For 10 euro, you can take the elevator.

Along the Tiber River, during a summer evening, restaurants set up shops to serve their delectable fare. There are carnival like stalls and bars as well. The Forum and colosseum are lit up at night, giving a different perspective. Light shows can be seen on the ruins telling stories of the past.

On the hill above Trastevere, known for its bohemian lifestyle, has one of the best views of the city. The botanical garden sits in the mist of the neighbor, and offers a relaxing stroll away from the crowds, for 8 euro. In Italy dinner is usually eaten late. The piazza’s and alleyways come alive with music, as you sit at one of the outdoor tables at one of the many restaurants.

The day before I left Rome last year, I learned to make a mosaic in a shop near the botanical gardens. The owner of the shop got me started, interjected instructions here and there, in Italian I don’t know. She made me a cup of tea, and brought me back a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich from the store. I met an expat from England, who spends time in the shop, making beautiful mosaics. We had an aperol spritz, in a café afterward, and continued our lovely conversation.

Around the corner from our room in Prati this past summer was Castel Sant’Angelo. It was built for the Emperor Hadrian in 123-139 AD as a mausoleum. It has been used by the popes for various and often times vicarious reasons. It has also been used as a fortress. At the top is yet another great view of Rome, this time with the Vatican in site.

Driving in Rome is exhilarating, yet scary at the same time. When driving it, you quickly realize why it is one of the most dangerous cities to drive. The streets appear to be lacking lanes, signs are ignored, cars are parked in random directions, and the speed at which people drive is well above the limit.

Water fountains with cold drinking water are throughout this city, offering free, fresh and delicious water, to cool you off on a hot summer day.

Rome is one of my favorite cities. Every time I go, I experience something new, and revisit favorites.

Pompeii, and Its Nemesis Mount Vesuvius

The history of Pompeii is in-depth and does not begin with the Romans. It is a history worth exploring. Pompeii is situated next to Naples, just below Mt Vesuvius. The horrific day in 79AD when Vesuvius erupted leaving devastation, ended a prosperous life for many of those who lived there. For hundreds of years, those who bore the destruction were encased in ash over 80 feet deep, according to sources. A particular interesting account of the day is by Pliny the Younger, who lived during that time.

The ruins were unlike other Roman ruins I had seen because of the extent of preservation. Knowing the destruction, knowing people died in the middle of their daily activities, makes it more profound to see them. Did they know this ominous event was going to change or end their life? They were used to earthquakes. They knew the mountain above them was a volcano.

The tour can take you two hours or 6 depending on the routes you take through the UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a place to get some food and drink inside the site. You can see Archeologists at work inside the site.

Mount Vesuvius, according to research, is 17,000 years old.  It last erupted in 1944.  With a view of the sea, Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast, we ascended as far as we could drive. Then we joined in with other cars parked along the side of the road. There was a man under a tent collecting money for a ticket to ride in a van for the next leg of the journey to the top.  You can walk up the road, but it is not entirely safe.  The van drops you off, you buy a ticket at the kiosk, then a short distance away at a little shop for refreshments and souvenirs,  a lady takes your ticket, then you continue to walk up a gravel walk.  All the while I kept thinking, I am walking up a volcano, that caused enormous, and unforgiving destruction.  Below that destruction of ash and volcanic rock, was a city preserved, giving us insight to life during Roman times. The walk is not for those with heart and lung problems; they warn you of that. At the top you get a glimpse into the crater. Those more daring than me were getting a better view a little further up. I opted for buying a postcard at a little shop, with a stamp of Mount Vesuvius, proving I had made the climb. A cold drink was welcoming on the hot June day. The view below was worth the climb. Later, back in the car, we ate sandwiches I had prepared, with prosciutto and mozzarella,  then we finished off the cannoli’s.  We were on our way to Rome. 

The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast has been on my list of places to visit for many years. This has been especially true after seeing “Under the Tuscan Sun,” by the writer Francis Mayes. Diane lane, playing Francis, falls for the dashing Marcello in the picturesque seaside town of Positano. Who wouldn’t want to go to the seaside town on the side of a cliff? A few hours south of Rome, just outside of Naples, is the town of Vico Equense; situated above the bright blue sea. Our host met us at the train station, so we could follow her to our two bedroom apartment; booked for two nights. Villa Bebe was a short ride up from the center of town. Our host showed us the place, then gave details on how to get back into town, as well as pointing us in the direction of a short cut, on foot, to the little grocery store we passed on the way, without having to get back on the winding road. She showed us a brochure on cruises to Capri, or the towns of Amalfi, and Positano. She even called Palo to make the arrangements for us. She left us all set to be picked up the next morning to be taken to the marina. The next morning our boat operator waited with a cooler filled with water, soda, and prosciutto, with mozzarella, sandwiches. For the next 8 hours we glided across the blue water of the Mediterranean Sea, past the island of Capri, with Mt Vesuvius in view behind us. On the beaches of Amalfi and Positano, sun worshipers took up real estate along the strand of sand, while others rented blue and white umbrellas to shield them from the hot sun. We ate a snack of fresh seafood served in a coned cup with a drizzle of lemon glace. Lemons, the size of small footballs, were arranged on a cart outside of one of the many stores. We of course had to have gelato. The sandwiches brought for us were delicious. Our driver dropped us off in the two towns to explore, and then later patiently waited his turn to pick us up at the dock. Pictures shared will not fully covey just how beautiful the day was. Since we had a kitchen, I offered to cook. With the grocery store being just a short walk from the apartment, we walked down in search of the ingredients for dinner. Finding the ingredients you need for a meal is a great way to experience life like a local. The first night I made Chicken Parmesan, a green salad with homemade white French dressing, and naan bread with garlic butter. Homemade sangria was made with red wine, lemon soda (an ingredient learned in Lisbon), and limoncello to sweeten the concoction just a little more. The next night we had mixed seafood with a white wine butter sauce, served over linguini, a salad and cannoli’s. Food in Europe is amazing, whether bought in a restaurant or made with fresh ingredients from the store. In the evening of our second night, the bells of the small chapel around the corner from Villa Bebe, as well as the ones from the larger church up the hill, chimed as the parishioners walked by carrying candles, paying homage to Jesus, on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Red rose petals had been placed in the shaped of a heart on the pavement, earlier in the evening outside the chapel. A picture of Jesus perched just over the heart, inside an alcove in the wall, had a candle illuminating His face, as He appeared to look down upon the worshipers. A small alter, just inside the open chapel doors, was adorned with candles and more rose petals. The parade of people, to include our host, solemnly walked in silence, with the exception of the ringing bells; some of which disappeared into a home to have a dinner of their own with friends and family, to celebrate the Holy day. Our host gave a kiss to both my cheeks; wishing us a good evening and it was!

Orvieto, Italy

Orvieto is situated on volcanic ground in the providence of Umbria, in Italy, north of Rome. Its history goes back to the Etruscans’, before the Romans. At the top of the town sits a cathedral, Santa Marie Assunta, dating back to the 14th century. Cars are not permitted in town, but you can drive up, then park just outside of the closed streets. If you choose to arrive by train, the town can be reached by a funicular at the bottom. Last year I learned of the mother of a friend who fell in love with this region. She decided, while on vacation here, to come back to America and retire. I visited the town with my friend last year, as we made our way through Italy. As we walked through the medieval streets, I realized just why someone would want to retire to this hill town. This year I had the opportunity to meet this adventurous, lovely lady. Visit the town and see for yourself just how wonderful it is. Little family owned restaurants are scattered throughout, offering good food. Friends sit in the piazza sharing good conversation. Life stands still, when most of the time it seems to move too fast. We all could use a little of life standing still.

Florence Italy

Florence in situated in Tuscany, on the Arno river. Its picturesque scenery is a site you will envision, long after you leave there. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo walked the streets; leaving their influence behind. My favorite place to take in all of the beauty, is above the city to the North; just a short walk up and beyond the Piazzale Michelangelo.  Last summer a summer storm forced us to take shelter at a monastery we were passing on the way back down to town. A monk, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, asked if we needed help.  Without thinking I said, we are seeking shelter from the storm.  He smiled and left us to await for the storm to pass.  As I sat there, I remembered the movie, “A Room With A View,” with Helena Bonham Carter, from 1985. There is a scene where the character George is running in the rain. The view he sees is the exact view we were seeing.   In the piazzale sits a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David. There is another replica by the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Piazza della Signoria. The real statue of David is in Galleria dell’Accademia, protected from the elements outside. In a room close by the statue are casts of various statues. One of the most interesting set of casts are of the family of Napoleon. Medieval art of Christianity adorns the walls of the gallery.

The Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, sits majestically in the heart of old town. The cathedral took 140 years to build; completed in 1436. The dome was the vision of architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In June we had tickets to climb to the top of the dome, through a passageway up 463 steps. Our slotted time was delayed for the funeral of famous Italian film maker, and one time Senator, Franco Zeffireli. His procession walked reverently by us, through the streets of Florence toward the church.  Later in the day, a we climbed cathedral, our legs would get a break halfway up on the narrow ledge, as we looked upon heaven and hell meeting, in the fresco, “The Last Judgment,” encircling the interior of the dome. We continued on to the top for another amazing view of Florence.

There is so much to see in Florence. Museums are plentiful, with something to suit all tastes. The city is an art lovers dream. You can be one with the locals, ordering an espresso in a café, taking a yoga class in a ballet studio, picking up the days food in the market, and enjoying a night at the opera.

Having stayed at Hotel Collodi last year, I knew I wanted to stay there again. Breakfast was included in the stay. Our hosts were kind and helpful. The location was perfect; close to all we wanted to see.

A Ride Around Lucca and A View of Pisa

Having passed by Lucca a couple of times, only stopping for a moment in 2010, I knew I wanted to visit again. The plan this time was to ride bikes on the wall encircling the town, built in the 11th and 12th century. Lucca sits in Tuscany, a region known for its rich history, great wines, and amazing food.

For 8 euro an hour a bike can be rented just outside the wall. It comes with a bell and a map of the old part of town within the walls. The wall is now a place to take a leisurely walk, bike ride, or sit and have a picnic under one of the plentiful trees. The ride should take 25 minutes, but of course we had to stop and take pictures.

Puccini, one of my favorite composers was from Lucca. Puccini is famous for the Operas La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot. I especially love to hear Andrea Bocelli, and Pavarotti sing his music. As I rode the bike I pictured Puccini taking a stroll on the wall to bring him inspiration, or just to clear his head before heading back into work. I plan to one day make it back there to visit inside the walls.

It is a short ride to the town of Pisa. Though we did not tour the city itself, there is much to see. Pisa was also ruled by various groups over the years; the Greeks, Etruscans, Venetians, Romans, Vikings and many more left their mark. Its proximity to the sea made it a good place to occupy for trade, and warfare.

Pisa is known for the leaning bell tower. The leaning is due to the unstable earth below it. There are bands around it to assess any movement in it. Tourists can be seen having their photo taken, looking as if they are holding it up. The climb of leaning tower of Pisa is not for the weak hearted and they warn you of this. The nearly 300 steps to get to the top circle around the tower. The view of the city is spectacular; a nice reward for the climb. There is a cloak room to leave your bags behind, and they insist you do so. A ticket can be bought there, but it is recommended to buy online. They have many time slots to chose from and you should get there early to get in line.

There are many restaurants close by to get a bite to eat while you wait for your time. We opted for pizza. It was fabulous!

The Cathedral, according to a guide I overheard, said there were once Roman ruins here. The builders used the ruins in the building of the church. If you look, Roman writing can be seen on the marble that was used. Look for more pictures in the gallery.

The Riviera

France and Italy make up the Riviera along the Mediterranean and Ligurian Seas, with the Maritime Alps and the Apennines mountains in the background. The Riviera was a haven for painters and writers in the early 20th Century. With its temperate weather and beautiful views, its a vacation destination worth pursuing. Bridges and tunnels make up most of the drive. Vineyards, gardens and houses on the side of the mountains and hills defy gravity.

The beaches standout from high above the towns, with all hues of blue making the Riviera earn its name of Cote d’Azur. Though driving is my preferred method of travel through here, the train and bus are also options. Some even enjoy a good hike between towns.

Cinque de Terre, is made up of five hamlets along the coast of Italy, between Genoa and La Spezia. I recommend parking in the garage of the La Spezia Rail station, then taking the train for 4 euro to whichever hamlet you choose to visit. Be sure to hold onto your ticket or a reasonable one will turn into a 40 euro one to get out, as it did me. On several occasions I have stayed in Vernazza. The streets, other than the main thoroughfare, are stairs that ascend to homes and accommodations above. In the evening it is nice to sit outside having a nice dinner at one of the good restaurants, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks and watching the sunset. Most of the tourists have left with the exception of those of us staying for the night. Sweet music fills the air as a couple of musicians serenade happy guests eating and enjoying good company. I have stayed in Rina Rooms twice, and the guesthouse I Limoni di Vernazza most recently. Both are a few minutes away from the train station. The host of I Limoni was very kind to meet us at the station and walk us to our place for the night.

The Riviera will surpass what you dream it will be, no matter what town you visit.

Road Trip to Barcelona and the Fast Train to France

The Highway from Valencia Spain to Barcelona has many sites to see. We stopped in the seaside town of Peniscola, and the Town of Tarragona to see the Roman Ruins.

The city of Barcelona sits with the Pyrenees mountains to the northwest and the Mediterranean Sea to the east in northern Spain. Its influence comes from the Romans who had the first settlement there, as well as the Visigoths, and Muslims.

When I first decided to visit Barcelona in the fall of 2016, I was told the architecture of Gaudi was a must see. Gaudi is considered to be one of the first abstract artists with his oddly shaped structures. One does think of Dr. Seuss when you see his works. A character in one of his books would fit inside fine in one of the buildings. Gaudi died in 1926 when he was struck by a tram. His vision still lives on to this day with the construction of La Sagrada Familia he started in 1852, said to be completed in 2026. The Catholic cathedral is the site of tomb of the artist.

I have had two different experiences with accommodations in Barcelona. In 2016 I stayed at a hostel for $52 for the two night stay. The hostel was in a nice building close to the old part of Barcelona. I stayed in a room for 8, but you could get a private. The hostel had a kitchen where there was freedom to cook if so desired. For a small fee they would do your laundry. This year we stayed in a bed and breakfast, with much of the same look. We had a private room for three with a view, and a terrace. It was a short walk to the metro and all we wanted to see was within walking distance.

The harbor is the port for ships cruising the Mediterranean. Sailboats and yacht’s fill in the slips nearby.

If you are lucky a festival will be happening during your visit. As I walked the narrow streets of old town in 2016, I came upon a parade. Further along the street a group resembling a circus act made a human tower, balancing on one another as they climbed higher and higher with confidence. That night a few of us went out for the music, food, and light shows, with images bouncing off of the old historic buildings. It was a festive atmosphere for friends and families; tourists and locals alike.

After an evening of exploring the city again this year we boarded a fast train to Montpellier France to rent another car. Be sure to leave a little early for your train in Barcelona. There is a security checkpoint and they do check passports. The high speed train ran effortlessly along Spain’s countryside. In just a couple of hours we were at the station in France. It is cheaper to rent a car in each country verses picking up in one and dropping off in another. Shop around for the right fit. There will be more about car rentals in future posts.