[Piazza Mazzini, Como. From our hotel window. Photo is mine]
Beautiful, even on rainy days.
~ ~ Anon.
Part One: Como & Beyond
If you found this post by finding “Como” and are expecting to hear a YouTube video of Perry Como singing “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”, I’m very sorry. You’re at the wrong blog site. (But while I’m at it, I should mention that Perry Como was one of my mother’s favorite crooners.) That is a different story for a different time.
Is it really any wonder that I probably got a B- or perhaps a C+ in my high school English class? I, who read “Of Human Bondage” when I was in eighth grade. I likely thought it was a book about S/M, Boy, was I wrong.
For many years, I read and reread the English Romantic Poets. Percy Shelly, John Keats and Lord Byron. I came to love the opening line of Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”:
My hair is grey, but not with years,
Nor grew it white in a single night,
As men’s have grown from sudden fears:
My limbs are bowed, though not with toil,
But rusted with a vile repose…
For some inexplicable reason, I always thought that the island castle prison of Chillon was located on the shore of Lake Como. How wrong I was. It’s on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. With that misinformation in mind, I had suggested to Mariam that we should go to Lake Como and visit the poetically famous castle. It wasn’t until the reservations were paid and the plans were solidified that I discovered my mistake. But that’s okay. Como is only an hours train ride from Milan and Milan is where we have to catch our train to Paris. So, the two nights in Como were well spent and well worth the excursion. It’s a beautiful town and the lake is picturesque.
A tiny bit of history first: The ancient town was conquered by the usual conquerers of the day–the Romans. It became a colony of Julius Caesar in 196 B.C.E.
Como has excellent examples of Romanesque and Gothic style churches. The hotels and residential buildings are mostly like the photograph that opens the blog. (See Above).
The cuisine is pasta, of course, and a wide variety of seafood. The menu boards in front of the numerous restaurants offer such delicacies as Salmon, Trout, Pike, Bleak (?), Laverello (?), Perch, Chub, and who will forget a plate of Misultitt (?).
The same interests in cheeses apply to many of the Market items: I know a good Cheddar from a Dorset Blue (I shop at Zabar’s sometimes), but Semuda, Zincarlin and Triangle del Laro leave me wondering. I guess that also explains why I got a D- in my Turophile course.
Part Two: Clooney, Madonna, Branson & Stallone
This part is going to be very short. We took a boat excursion to Bellagio (not the one in Vegas). It’s a charming town full of celebs like the ones listed above. I’m sure there are more. The wealth of the villas is a bit beyond our budget.
But Bellagio is stunning:
[One of the first places you see when you get off the ferry at Bellagio. Photo is mine]
[Stairway to more shopping in Bellagio. Someone told me that each stone was hand set. Photo is mine]
[A map in the public dockside area. Photo is mine. The map artist is unknown to me.]
The return trip to Como was nearly two hours because we stopped at more small villages. Ensconced back at Albergo del Duca, our hotel we had a little trouble finding a place to have our final Como dinner. We had chosen a place earlier in the day…but it was now threatening a thunderstorm. And storm it did. The lightning flashes lit up Mariam’s Prosecco.
Part Three: Tragedy On The Lake
But life on Lake Como was not always fun and food. Love abounded and death struck many times. The story of Benito Mussolini’s daughter-in-law is a story of such love and death. Gina Ruberti (d. 1946) married the dictator’s son, Bruno (d. 1941) in a lavish fascist ceremony (is there any other kind?). Bruno was a pilot. He was tragically in a plane crash in 1941. Gina moved to a house in Como.
After the fascist government of Italy began to crumble shortly before the end of WW II, Benito’s days were numbered.
The details of what happened to Gina and her father and his mistress at the war’s end is something I will add as a link for you to read on your own. I encourage you to do so. It’s fascinating.
It’s your birthday. Eighty-two years ago Hibbing’s population grew by one. The one birth when a boy who grew up with a soul and a talent of a Byron, Rimbaud, Shakespeare, hobo, drifter, prankster, patriot, rebel and more, all with the soul of a true poet.
Your songs are sung not for the masses, not for everyone…but only to the one pair of ears that are hearing your words. You wrote for him, for her and for yourself.
I want to give you a gift, Bob. Shall it be boots of Spanish leather or a jingle jangle moment while dancing on the beach? Shall it be a flat chested junkie whore or a prince who keeps watch along the watchtower?
Did you really see an old man with broken teeth stranded without love? Or was it some image in your 115th dream?
It really doesn’t matter in the end, because at the break of dawn, you’ll be gone. But death is not the end. And after one too many mornings the paint will fade and the water moccasin dies. And the masterpiece will be painted.
Happy birthday, my close person friend. Keep singing until your voice turns to dust, but don’t lose that long black coat.
Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
~ ~ G. K. Chesterton
[One of the iconoclastic images in the world. The Colosseum of Rome. What is not so famous is the construction equipment in the foreground. Photo is mine.]
Part One: The City As A Museum
I cannot find a street, a tiny alley, a lane or a shady sidewalk in Rome that will not lead you to yet another street, alley, lane or sidewalk. Modern buildings abut broken columns, capitals and archways that are thousands of years old. What do I need? A history book? A Michelin Guide? A hotel map of the city? A brochure that is titled “Things To Do And See In Rome? An iPad with Google maps?
All five items would help. But it wouldn’t help enough. This is a city that needs to be walked and you would need the time to digest what you are walking near. Your well shod feet will touch the very pavement of rock that sandaled centurions, slaves, craftsmen and beggars walked upon two millennia ago. If history excites you and the proximity to affairs that changed the course of human events, then this city is a feast for you. But it’s an elixir that must be taken in small doses, otherwise your mind will likely explode with the thickness of the past. True, there are other places on this small planet that can have the same effect; Stonehenge, The Great Wall of China, The Pyramids. But for millions of people, Rome connects with us because there are so many commonalties of culture that we, today, share with the ancient Romans. Religion, language and the foundations of democracy to name a few. Films such as “Ben-Hur”, “Spartacus” and “The Gladiator” have become part of our culture.
The incomparable Shakespeare found inspiration in Roman history.
“E tu, Brute?” (‘Julius Caesar’ Act 3 Scene 1.)
I stood near the Colosseum and watched modern-day laborers and masons make necessary repairs in places that seemed twenty stories up. It made me dizzy.
To see a Corinthian column laying its side in the grass, thirty feet below street level makes me marvel at how anyone could possibility put the pieces back together again. The way it was in 200 BC.
So, if history is of little interest to you, Rome would be just another major center of modern day fashion, most likely like it was back in the day.
Part Two: The City Today and Our Time Here
I supposed it’s possible to experience Rome without a thought about religion. But, frankly, I don’t see how you could to that. Rome and Christianity are bound together like fraternal twins. And, what would Rome be without the Vatican City, the smallest city-state in the world. It’s only 400+ acres. I think my grandmother’s farm was just a little bit smaller. There are probably Walmart parking lots somewhere that come close to the size of Vatican City.
It is within these walls that the Popes have shepherded a billion Roman Catholics. Decisions made here affect lives of uncounted souls. The present Pontiff, Francis I is a congenial man from South America. He used to love to dance the Tango with his girlfriend before he was called to the priesthood, then becoming a Cardinal and then, upon the death of John Paul II, was elected to be the next in line to a long chain of men (and not a few woman, but that’s another blog) dating back to St. Peter himself.
I am not a practicing Catholic but I confess it was a thrill of sorts to watch him pass three meters in front of me (in the Popemobile) before he read his messages from the steps in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. He has a gentle and kind face. It is said that he cooks his own meals.
The art inside the Vatican is nothing short of astounding. To get to the Sistine Chapel you have to walk through many galleries of large tapestries, paintings and sculptures that are worth more that the GNP of many countries. I’m not one to judge the Churches vast wealth. You might as well complain about the weather or the setting of the sun.
It is what is it. Change? I’ve read years ago that any progress or modernization of Church policy moves at a glacial pace. I don’t doubt that for a minute.
Away from the Vatican, Rome is chaotic, noisy and seemingly out-of-control. I risked my life crossing a side street. Traffic rules are mostly general guidelines. But the people are friendly and tolerant of non-Italian speakers.
Pasta shops are three to a block. Cannoli is everywhere. Beer mugs the size of a Buick are gripped by men in nearly every street side cafe. The coffee is strong and the pizza toppings are as abundant as a typical produce section of a Whole Foods Market in Manhattan.
Unless you run an official marathon to work and back each day, you will gain a lot of weight in Rome.
But life is to be enjoyed, is it not?
Part Three: My Photo Gallery
My iPhone photo storage cloud must be responsible for all the rain we’ve had on this trip. To make a long post manageable, I’ll simply put a few of my favorite photos below. I hope you enjoy them.
[A typical alley. Intriguing and moderately clean. Taken a few blocks from the Colosseum. Photo is mine.]
[Pope Francis rides by me. At first I thought he pointed at me and said: “You’re the man”, then I realized his eyes were closed. Photo is mine.]
[Near the alter of St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo is mine.]
[In a gallery leading to the Sistine Chapel. Title: “Fortuna restrained by Cupid” by Scoula di Guido Reni. Photo is mine,]
[The Pieta. What more can one say? Arguably one of the most sculptures in the world. Photo is mine. The sculpture is by Michelangelo.]
[This is not in the Vatican but no photo collection of Rome can exclude The Trevi Fountain. This was used in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”. Some trivia: In the film “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954), the legend of the coins was born. If you throw one coin, you will return to Rome, if you throw two coins, you will fall in love with an attractive Italian. If you throw three coins, you will marry the one you met. (There’s no mention of a fourth coin but something tells me it likely involves a divorce lawyer.) Photo is mine.]
Kind of like a modern dating site only using water.
~ ~ ~
I certainly hope you enjoyed this romp through the history and culture of Rome. There are many famous quotes about Rome. My favorite is from a Three Stooges movie.
[A note to my readers: This blog post contains several images of a sexual nature. Not much more than you would see in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.] To my more delicate and pious readers, this leaves you with three choices:
1~Scroll past this post (and miss some interesting content).
2~Shelve your morals, grit your teeth and read on. See, learn and enjoy for a few minutes.
3~Report me to Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis.
[Pompeii, inside the Forum. The cloud-shrouded Mr. Vesuvius lurks in the distance. Photo is mine.]
Part One: Ancient Pompeii
It was August 24, A.D. 79. It may have been late afternoon because there is evidence that the Pompeians were preparing their dinner. But this August day was destined to be like no other for the residents of this resort-of-sorts, close by Herculaneum, and only about seventeen miles from present day Sorrento. Pompeii was the home to 20,000+ residents at that time. Many were wealthy merchants from Naples or Rome. We could think of the city as a sort of Hamptons, or Sag Harbor of its day. Many of the villas were spacious and well-appointed. Large open air markets were common. Fishermen sold their catches of the day. Bakers offered bread. It was a very cosmopolitan city.
Not surprisingly, it supported and allowed the Oldest Occupation In The World. It had a red-light district. (More on that later).
I’m sure more than a few people wandering the streets or walking through the Gymnasium noticed the ominous cloud above Mt. Vesuvius, about six miles to the northwest. The cloud grew to an unusual height. The next twelve hours were filled with tons of pyroclastics, terror and instantaneous death. Historians are unclear about how many people perished that day. What is known is that a great many did survive. There exists a few first hand accounts of the day.
I won’t go into the well-known details of the aftermath except for this brief summary:
The city was buried under twenty feet of ash and cinders, pumice and earth. Pompeii’s very existence began to fade into history. People knew there was a city there, but where was it? Simple excavation equipment didn’t exist. It wasn’t until 1549, when an Italian named Domenico Fontana, digging a water channel through the site found indications of the city. He obviously wasn’t too interested in Archeology because it took another two hundred years before serious excavation began. The year was 1748. A Spanish military engineer with the impressive name of Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre was put in charge of uncovering the entombed metropolis. What he and others discovered was nothing short of one of the most important finds in the Annals of Archeology.
As of 2023, only 2/3’s of the city have been excavated.
So, what was found beneath those twenty feet of volcanic detritus? There were signs of gardens, opulent (for the day) villas, fountains, ovens, storage terra-cotta vases, streets, lanes, Temples to Apollo, Jupiter and Minerva and, of course, brothels, (again, more later). What also caught the eye of a few archaeologists were a large number of empty cavities in the cinder (now turned to stone). Someone had the brilliant idea to pour plaster into these cavities. Here’s where the good stuff comes in.
When the liquid plaster hardened, the resulting casts were the victims caught in the ash fall, in the physical position they were in at the moment when the hot death came for them. Among these are a dog, a man on his elbows gasping for his last breath he will ever take, a woman protecting her infant and two young women (maidens as described in the literature) embracing and kissing as they died.
The poignancy is heartbreaking.
These are just a few examples of many more that were eventually discovered. Here are a few images to look at, contemplate and weep:
[One of only a few human casts on display at Pompeii. Photo is mine.]
[Two women in an embrace, kissing, dying. Photo: Dreamstime.com]
[A haunting cast of a man taking what is likely his final breath. Photo source: See photo.]
Moving on from the awesome casts…
As the twenty feet of burial ash and cinder were cleaned away, houses began to take shape. The frescoes appeared like a photograph in a darkroom. Many depicted scenes of classical mythology. Some illustrated stories relating how men, having too much wine, would chase the women about.
[Household fresco of dubious nature. Photo is mine,]
I promised you the X-Rated frescoes. The innocent souls may turn away at this point. No one will think unkindly of you.
There were several Red Light Districts in Pompeii. How would a man (or woman) in need of some comfort and attention (for a few denarii) of a warm body for an hour or so locate such a place? If you were a resident, you’d already know. But what about visiting merchants or sailors? The Pompeians made it quite simple.
Look for the Phallus.
[This Phallus indicated to strangers where the action was. Photo: Google search.]
What did the brothels look like? That would depend on the location and reputation. The better the clientele, the better the bed. Shown below is likely a ‘working mans’ room.
This is likely not where the high class of sex workers would ply the trade. Photo is mine.]
[A naughty fresco in a brothel. Photo is mine.]
Another common question is what would the typical prostitute charge for her services. The answer is that the average fee was two asses. Yes, I know that sounds like a joke, but an ass was a bronze coin that made up a certain part of a larger amount. A gold denarii was equal to twenty-five silver denarii which was equal to ten bronze asses. There you have it
Part Two: Our Visit
Our excursion from the Wind Star began in the rain and ended in the rain. Our tender rocked violently in the choppy seas. It took two shuttle busses to get us to the top of the cliff that defines the town of Sorrento. The ride was slow all the way. Once there, we were given little radios to hear the guide. We passed beautiful apartments and plant-filled window boxes.
We walked the streets of this very old town. The visuals were extremely fascinating and worthy of an extended examination…but we had to keep up with the guide (who was a fast walker). My personal opinion? I did not have a particularly pleasant day. The rain fell heavy, the cobblestone streets were slippery, the walk seemed endless because of the maze of streets.
And the crowds. I either had to watch where my foot landed on a slick stone or I had to dodge an umbrella. (I can’t believe I forgot my Gore-Tex). There were simply too many people…and yes, I know I was part of that problem.
But how else can travel be done today?
Here is a small sample of what I had time to photograph:
[A rain slicked cobblestone street. Note the grooves that are parallel to the curbs. These are original chariot ruts. Photo is mine.]
[The Temple of Apollo. Note the black lava altar on the white pedestal in the center. Photo is mine.]
That brings my tale of a visit to a place that has held my fascination since I was a young boy. The memory of the stories I read about Pompeii even held its own after I grew a little older and discovered truly mysterious and incomprehensible beings that I knew would share my lifetime on earth.
[I haven’t spoken Latin since I was an altar boy…About fifty years ago. This statue greets our boat as we entered the Harbor of Messina. Photo is mine.]
After an entire day at sea, we tied up at the dock in the city of Messina. It is our only port-of-call in Sicily. We paid 15 Euros each for a little trolley ride (45 minutes in length) to see the highlights. In the interests of brevity, I will add the rest of the photos (taken from a bumpy Disneyland-like train). Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of the vehicle. Suffice it to say that I felt a bit silly sitting on the bright yellow and red tour mobile. I lost what little dignity I have left when I boarded. This is in no way for a grown man to sightsee. And none of what I’m saying is in any way being disrespectful to this charming and historic city.
So, let’s go back in time to take a closer look at what happened in this place. If history bores you, you need to sit up and take notes. This isn’t just another stop among seven days of stops. What occurred here changed the course of history…several times.
How long have people inhabited Messina? You may well ask. Fasten your seatbelt.
The Chalcidians founded a settlement here around 756 BC. Exactly who these people were is something I am at a loss to explain. I’ll google it when I get home. Dorian settlers came next in the 5th century BC from Messina, hence the modern name. You know who (the Romans, of course) arrived in 264 BC. Occupations that followed include the Byzantines, Arabs and the Normans. During the Middle Ages it became a major port city and (Mr. Gatto, you’re gonna love this), it became the most important point of departure for European knights on their way to the Crusades.
Moving on to the darker side of history…The Bubonic Plague came to Europe from here. The story goes: Twelve ships from the Black Sea docked in Messina in October, 1347. When the locals came to the dock to greet the ships, they found most of the sailors were dead. Those still alive were gravely ill (no pun intended) and clutching to what little life they had left. The authorities ordered the ships out of the harbor, but the damage was done. The Black Death killed more than 20,000,000 victims in Europe and England.
Let’s jump ahead to the brighter times centuries later. World War II. Operation Husky began before dawn on July 10, 1943. The Allies, 150,000 troops, 3,000 ships and 4,000 aircraft landed on the southern shore of Sicily and began to push north. Generals Patton and Montgomery were the guys in charge. Messina was heavily bombed. The invasion of Italy had begun and the end of Hitler and the Nazi occupation, and the end of the War in Europe was approaching.
So there it is, my dear readers. I gave you a thimbleful of essential history that we all should know.
Knowledge is Power.
These things we learn from history will help history from repeating itself.
And we all know how true that is…
(Looking over the blog, I noticed that I mentioned The Godfather. Not much to say on this. We didn’t take In The Footsteps of the Godfather excursion. All I can is that many scenes were filmed in and around Messina.)
[The Bell Tower. Photo is mine.]
[A Messina side street. Photo is mine.]
[The Shrine of Cristo Re. Photo is mine.]
[Not a really photo of a side street. But it illustrates the second story balconies, most of which are laden with cascades of flowers. Photo is mine.]
[NOTE: I did the best I could to take photos to illustrate just a tiny portion of the beauty of Messina. To be fair, an abundance of modern apartment buildings interrupt the ancient ruins, churches and other significant points of archetechural note. I should also mention (to avoid certain legal issues) that in the content above, I have liberally quoted, sometimes word for word, from the Port Information Bulletin provided by Windstar Cruises. Finding a cafe with a strong WiFi signal and a great espresso is like trying to find a Studebaker at a Lamborghini Convention. And, a special ‘thank you’ to Mr. Nick Gatto, my teacher in high school who did much to instill in me a love of all things historical. Thank you, sir!
[The closest to Dubrovnik, Croatia that I will get on this journey.]
I’m sitting at a desk in Suite 137 on board the Wind Surf (Wind Star Cruise Lines). The level of the mineral water in a glass next to my mouse pad gently tilts, back and forth, like I am playing with a level against a wall. We’re rocking and rolling. Every few minutes the light in our room darkens. I hoped it was not a light about to go out. Instead, it’s a wave breaking with passion and violence against the portal windows. The sea is rough, very rough. I’ve eyed the little tube of Dramamine (Original Formula) more than once. But I do believe that I’ve “found my sea legs” at last. My stomach and inner ear are another another story. When I get up at night (like every man my age) to pee, I clutch at objects that aren’t there. I bang into walls and feel for handles of doors and sills of any kind. I head for a chair to regain my balance.
But I’m not sea-sick. Really. But many of my readers have already been where I am now and don’t need to be reminded of the vagaries of ocean travel. Enough of my issues. Let’s go back a few days and I’ll will tell you a few stories. I think you’ll love the sarcophagus section a lot. I did.
[A side ‘alley’ off the cobblestone street. A woman writes. In her diary? A letter to her son? Husband? Daughter? She seems content and she has a beautiful quiet little space to do whatever she needs to do. Photo is mine.]
Since setting sail (actually motor power) from Venice we made for Rovinj, Croatia. I confess that I had scant foreknowledge of the little city. But as the day progressed, the beauty, the history and the architecture came to me at first in morsels, then in a wholeness that was pure joy to experience. It seems that the entire Dalmation Coast is limestone. The ancient buildings are built of limestone, the cliffs are limestone and the narrow streets and alleys are limestone. Because my lower back continues to plague me, walking uphill will likely be my life’s burden. But here it gave me a chance to sit on a step, a bench or a low wall. Sitting and twisting my back I looked closely at the pavement. Limestone has an interesting property that granite and marble lack. It gets polished with the ages. I sit and stare and the smooth almost ice like smoothness and reflect. How many sandaled Centurians from Rome walked, two millennia ago just twenty inches from where my left foot rested? How many fishermen helped to polish these stones? How many barefoot servant girls left their damp footprints on these stones? How many slaves in chains? How many regal and royal feet trod in front of me? How many booted soldiers during the Bosnian Civil War? How many Nike sneakers of neoprene worn by the tens of thousands of tourists?
Yes, how many?
[The cobbles on a street in Rovinj. On the climb to the Cathedral of St. Ephemera. Photo is mine.]
As we ascended the hill to the Cathedral, I stopped to rest. On a partly rusted iron rail fence were several pad locks with messages and names engraved or written with a Sharpie locked to the rail. I took a photo of one. It read: MITCH & SARAH. Only later did I discover that I had my iPhone set on video. So you won’t see the lock.
But I wish Mitch and Sarah the best in life. I hope they’re still in love and still together. Their lock is still intact. Are they? One of life’s little mysteries.
[The hill and the Cathedral of St. Euphemia.]
We entered the church. The silence was welcoming. I’m not a very religious guy, but I put 1 euro in a slot and lit a votive candle. It was for a flame for my family and for my best friend. They know who they are.
Behind the altar was the room I was seeking. It held the large limestone sarcophagus of St. Euphemia. This is truly a holy site for many and her story deserves to be told. Euphemia was a 4th century Christian. The Romans prosecuted these early believers. So what did they do to this unfortunate young woman? They threw her into an arena…where the lions awaited. The mural on the wall depicts what happened. Scattered about the sand were the remains of other Christians. Apparently, their faith wasn’t as pure or true as Euphemia because there she is, petting the bloody-mouthed lions as though they were her pets.
Her remains were inches from my hand. I touched the stone, polished of course, and uttered a prayer of sorts, from a flawed human who harbors a few doubts about anything I may say that would be heard by anyone.
[The Sarcophagus of St. Euphemia. Note the mural on the far wall. If you have a swipe screen, zoom in for the interesting (bloody) details.]
We left the Cathedral and made our way slowly down the cobbled street and back to the shops at the dock. I sat at a cafe in the shade sipping a mineral water. Mariam went off to buy me a bathing suit. I wrote two postcards, one for my son and one for my daughter.
If I had a third, I would have written it to Euphemia. She was probably someone I would like to have had a conversation with. Unfortunately, a mere two thousand years separated us.
We boarded the tender and returned to the ship. Me? A little holier, perhaps.
The surprises that this bustling city had in store for me were not at first apparent. That being said, let’s get one little fact out of the way. This is the location of Kings Landing in Game of Thrones. Inside the palace (more on this in a few moments) is where many interior were filmed. There’s even a GOT museum. No, we didn’t have time to go there. We were on a walking tour and walking tours stop for no man or woman.
This stop is one that we chose to take an excursion. After boarding a small coach (with no bathrooms!), we were off for a half-hour ride to Klis & The Stella Croatica Ethno Village, a small family run farm that produced traditional Dalmatian delicacies, olive oil and bread among other items.
It was in the tasting room that I failed a major test.
[One of the most awesome Olive trees in the world. Photo is mine taken from an display on the wall of the olive farm we visited.]
I thought I knew a thing or two about olive oil. After, I can make it to a Whole Foods on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue.
Was I mistaken. I flunked out with the first sip.
[A botanical poster of an olive plant. There is no need to know anything else about olives than what you see here. Photo is mine taken from a wall display.]
The first tiny cup we were presented with had a half-teaspoon of cherry liqueur. Different but nice. Then after a brief PowerPoint lecture about the positive and negative traits of olive oil, we were give two tiny cups of 1) An extra virgin oil, and 2) A low quality of oil referred to as ‘lamp oil’. Now this isn’t what you think. There are no petroleum products involved here. The name comes from a low quality of olive oil that has been used for centuries for lamps. This was before the use of lamp oil as we know it today. There were seventeen people from our boat that were in the tasting room. We all sipped, first the one on the right and then on the left. We were asked which one was the extra virgin and which one was not. I was among three people who chose the left sample. Of course, that was the lamp oil.
So what’s my excuse? I had mis-read the PowerPoint illustration about the desirable traits. The little girl in the drawing looked to me like she was gagging. In reality, she was coughing (a totally acceptable reaction to a very good extra virgin oil).
Back on the bus. Back to downtown Split. We removed ourselves from the vehicle and gathered on a broad and busy public (carless) plaza. We were standing outside the wall of the chief Roman, Diocletian. After a short speech by our local guide, We entered an arched gate and found ourselves inside a small town, warren-like in its maze of lanes, streets and plazas. We paused outside a very impressive octagon building. Now, this person really disliked Christianity and was not afraid to order a fair number of that group to be execute in the most gruesome manner. One of his victims was a Bishop (probably St. Dominius). He was beheaded sometime in the 4th century AD. In general, Diocletian was quite unpopular. He died at the ripe old age of seventy, he was buried in a sarcophagus in the octagonal temple. It surprise no-one that after Christianity began to be accepted by the Romans by Constantine, his stone coffin was removed (and vanished into the mists of history) and replaced by the remains of St. Dominus.
What goes around, comes around.
[The Diocletian Palace. The octagonal church is the original tomb of Diocletian. His sarcophagus is missing…never found, forever gone. It is believed that the saint he had beheaded, St. Dominius, rests there today. Photo is mine taken from a public display.]
Inside the Palace/town, I once again stared at the polished limestone pavement. I thought of all the human feet that walk those very stones for two thousand years. What were their lives like? Did they love and laugh like we do? Did they have affairs? Babies? Loving sons and beautiful daughters?
I think they felt cold in the winter and sweat in the summer. I think they were just like us in many ways. Perhaps they worshipped other gods. Perhaps they murdered a best friend. Perhaps they starved during droughts and got fat during the good years.
And I feel they looked up on moonless nights and saw the same stars, the same moon and asked themselves the same questions about death and life.
In those days, like the days of our lives, destinies could go either way.
[NOTE: This blog post was written and published under more duress than usual. The church bells are tolling outside The Square Pub where Mariam and I are sitting…with a strong WiFi signal. Mariam did the proofing. I take full responsibility for any errors, misspellings or other mistakes. I hope you enjoy it!]
[San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. Photo is mine.]
Venice has been said to be the most romantic city in the world. I can think of one famous resident who certainly thought so, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (b. 1725). He should know a thing or two about romance. He claimed to have slept with at least 136 women in the space of thirty-five years. To be fair, this number included aristocrats, prostitutes, courtesans and servants (and a few men). It should be mentioned that his twenty year old daughter was also on the list. Again, to be fair, this seems like a rather small number compared to the claims made by some members of rock bands (I have no data or sources to back up this statement, so don’t quote me).
But this is not about Casanova. This is about my thoughts and feelings regarding this phenomenal city. I am not in any way claiming to be an expert…far from it. I am spending a mere four nights here before an Adriatic cruise. The city has a magnetism that is almost palpable. But, even considering the briefest of visits, I can sense why some people come here and stay. The crime writer Donna Leon visited Venice in 1993 and basically never left. (Nothing new about this sort of thing. I know of people, life-long residents of Manhattan, who would never dream of traveling below 23rd St.).
It’s that kind of place.
I love history and I love architecture so I’m kind of in my own bit of heaven here. The narrow streets (lanes) have window sills of marble that have been polished as smooth as a super-model’s air brushed skin from centuries of walkers and people just sitting and resting. The cobblestone streets are murder on ones rolling luggage. The churches are old and the crenellations are many. You squint into the sun to view a saint or an important Venetian of old.
In St. Mark’s Piazza, the sun is trapped by the Basilica of San Marco, and three buildings of precise Corinthian columns (maybe the other buildings had other orders, but I was seeking shade and a glass of Aqua Frizzante) so the other side of the piazza will have to wait for another visit). Besides, Mariam and I had a nice table near the ristorante that had a small band. I had to listen to the entire soundtrack of TheSound of Music. As we left, they played Funiculi Funicula, the only Italian piece I could identify.
Of course we took a short gondola ride. Once we were away from the lagoon, we passed through quiet narrow waterways, brushing against other boats. If you are camera-ready, you would get a fine shot of an even narrower canal. We passed under low bridges and along walls crusted with barnacles, kelp and other unmentionable green things growing and marking the usual water level.
[One of the many delights seen from our gondola. This photo is mine. It was edited with several iPhone filters to enhance the melancholy nature of many of the hidden gems.]
[The famous (some would say infamous) Bridge of Sighs. It connects the Courts (Left) with the old prison (Right). Hence the ‘Sighs’ moniker. I know I would more than sigh if I was led in chains across this bridge. Photo is mine.]
Soon we were sipping cool liquids in the great piazza once more. Music was in the air. The sun was dipping west and we began our walk back to our hotel, The Hotel La Fenice et des Artistes.
But we weren’t really done yet. We stopped at a charming, cozy and very small shop where Mariam bought a hat.
She wore it back to our rooms. For a short while she was my Audrey Hepburn of the afternoon.
[Greg (R) and myself on some forgotten peak in the Keene Valley Region of the Adirondacks. NY. Date: 1970’s. Photo is mine.]
It’s coming up on a year now since you left me on the trail. You needed to climb one more mountain…at the time, I didn’t want another summit, but you had other thoughts.
“One more,” you said.
“Okay, but I need a rest. I like this little spot. There’s a brook over there where I can drink the cool, clear ‘whiskey’ of the Highlands. You go on, buddy. I’ll catch up to you later. I won’t be that long,” I said.
I waited. I repacked my rucksack and set off to follow you, but a late afternoon fog rolled in making my progress difficult. I went back to the place where we parted.
You never came back. Why? I know now the why, but I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you never said: “See you later, pal.”
Maybe you knew something about the path ahead that I didn’t.
~ ~ ~
I have a few things to tell you. Several years ago you and your beloved Patti took a trip to the land of your ancestors, Italy. Well, finally, Mariam and I are here. At the moment we are ensconced in Venice. It’s a glorious morning. We’ll be heading to St. Mark’s Piazza soon. I heard the 8:00 am bells toll a short time ago. Pigeons fly about outside our window.
You may be interested in knowing this: Several months ago, Mariam and I visited your grave at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Patti has done a superb job at choosing a beautiful stone for you. We left three flowers there. One for you, one for Patti and one from Mariam and myself. And it was the kind of day you would have loved. A fresh spring breeze of cool valley air blew across the fields and through the cemetery. Thankfully for us the snow was gone. Not something you’d like, since you always claimed you loved snow…the more the better.
Your beloved Yankees are in last place right now, but you probably already know that.
~ ~ ~
I would have loved taking you to Ireland where my father’s side of the family originated from. I could have shown you some rather unique pubs. But it can’t happen now.
Patti tells me that your favorite place in Italy was Capri. So I guess that’s the best that can be hoped for. I’m not a very religious guy but it gives me a certain comfort to think (dream) that someday you will meet me at a taverna in Capri for a cold Birra Moretti or two.
Then we will fly like the angels we are to Dublin and tap two pints of Guinness together (to our health). Then we’ll cross the ‘hapenny’ bridge and do it again.
Then we will fly like the angels we are to an undiscovered place with undiscovered trails and unclimbed peaks and we will watch the next several zillion sunsets, telling each other things true and untrue.
Just like we used to do…back in the day.
Does it take a ‘man’ to tell another man how much he is loved? You’ve been many things to me, Greg, over the years. A friend seems too thin a word to use here. I’m not alone in saying that I miss you very much. I wish we could sit and talk…just talk…once again.