Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

I've read and re-read the Vorkosigan saga over the years, but this is the first time, since encountering him in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, that I noticed Lieutenant Jole in Aral Vorkosigan's entourage. I had wondered a bit if Bujold had simply introduced him created out of whole cloth, and was reassured to find he had been there all along.
Note: He appears in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, as well.

Anyway, that has nothing much to do with the plot of The Vor Game, but I found it interesting, at least.

The book begins with the inclusion of a novella detailing Miles' first assignment after completing military training when, instead of being given ship duty he is sent to be a weather technician at Kyril Base, amid a wasteland of frozen tundra. The base is commanded by an Old Army type who turns out in the end to be a homicidal lunatic, and Miles' trainer is a hopeless alcoholic. In the pursuit of his duties, Miles nearly dies when his ground car is submerged in a bog, discovers a body in a drainage ditch, and is arrested for mutiny. And that's just the first 10% of the book.

To keep Miles out of further trouble, Aral and Ilyan decide to keep him on a short leash, and he is assigned to Ilyan's ImpSec. Fat chance!

When Admiral Naismith's Dendarii Mercenaries turn up to enforce a blockage in a nearby solar system, Miles is escorted by some very unimaginative officers to the Hegen Hub, where his assignment is simply to once again assume the persona of the little admiral and to order the fleet out of the area, which is crucial to Barrayaran interests.

This simple mission manages to rapidly go off the rails when Miles is falls afoul of some arms dealers, ends up as indentured labor, and discovers that Emperor Gregor has run away from home, and landed in the Hegen Hub!

The story of how Miles rescues the Emperor, gains and loses and gains command again of the Dendarii, double-talks some psychotic murderers, and foils an invasion attempt by the Cetagandan fleet, is absolutely delightful, in the manner we've already come to love from Bujold and Miles Vorkosigan.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Dragon Conspiracy by Lisa Shearin

SPI operatives and partners, Mac and Ian, attend a pre-auction gala to display the Dragon Diamonds, a set of ill-fated jewels comprising a magical relic originally owned by each of the goblin and elvish races, and five cursed merely "human" stones (think Hope Diamond) with no supernatural powers to speak of other than their bringing ill fortune to their owners, who included the Romanovs of Csarist Russia. At the unveiling of the stones, a statue of three harpies suddenly comes to life and the bird women abscond with the stones, but not before a newbie "gem mage" tries to stop them, and gets himself and Mac knocked senseless in the process.

The being behind the thievery has some diabolical plan to use the stones to kill half of the supernatural population of New York City and to "out" the rest to the human population, so SPI, its dragon chairman, Vivian Sagadraco, and our heroes rush around to try to discover the villain's identity and thwart the plot.

Plenty of good twists and turns, and the addition of a few new characters to the series. This isn't particularly deep reading, but it's just unpredictable enough to be fun.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


Habits of a lifetime - I've never been one who "customizes" his possessions. I buy stock vehicles, don't add cosmetic accessories, don't put stickers all over them, etc. At best, I may add a camper shell to keep the rain off of the bed of the pickup, add trailer brakes, that sort of thing.
So, I was thinking the other day that i ought to put something on my iPad (white white white) to distinguish it from every other iPad out there. I have this Pyramid Brewing sticker sitting in a basket in the kitchen, and I decide I should just put it on the back of my Pad...I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Am I in a rut, or what?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mea Culpa

Once again, I feel I must apologize for the lack of book review posts. The motivation simply hasn't been there. I do have one queued up for Monday, and have finished eight books that I need to finish writing reviews for, so at some point a flood of backlog should appear.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Spycatcher by Matthew Dunn

Somewhere in my readings I ran across a reference and recommendation of this novel, which is former MI6 employee Dunn's first novel. He's followed it with some more, and with any luck at all, his skills will have developed a bit as he continued writing. I found the plot intriguing, the action realistic, but the dialog was a bit too forced, and the hero, a British assassin named Will, just a bit too tortured and conflicted for my liking.

So I came to a point about halfway through the book where I simply didn't care anymore what happened of the characters. It sat on my nightstand for several weeks and soon it will be time to return it to the library. Ah well.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

There's no Toilet Paper by Doug Lansky, ed.

So, I picked this one up thinking it was going to be some funny travel stories, like we all have, and was disappointed to find that it was a series of stories by professional humorists, like Dave Barry, and sarcastic travel writers, like Bill Bryson, and not merely humorous anecdotes regarding travel mishaps and misunderstandings. "Too over the top".

Monday, June 27, 2016

Disrupted by Dan Lyons

This is the story of a middle-aged man who loses his job as an editor of a prestigious print magazine, and takes a new job with a high tech startup, filled with twenty-something hirelings, and run by a megalomaniacal duo of entrepreneurs. Things go just about as one might expect, with a clash of cultures that a man in his 50s will not win, in the long haul. At least he got a semi-amusing book out of the deal.

Lyons' style reminds me a bit of Bill Bright, who has written a number of travel diaries. He doesn't seem to have a lot of respect for anyone he encounters, and his cynicism shines through, loud and clear.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nefarious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich

My wife and I listened to this audiobook on our way to the coast last weekend, and it timed out just right around nine hours of driving. I have never read any of the Stephanie Plum mysteries before, but it didn't seem to be a requirement to understand "all that has gone before" in order to enjoy this one. The characters in the book were fun and amusing, especially Plum's sidekick, Lula, an enormous black woman with a very strong personality to match her opinions.

The mystery wasn't all that mysterious, but spun out slowly and with enough twists to keep Plum's character guessing, at least, and the entire story was liberally spiced with a great deal of humor. I might have to check out some more of Evanovich's books.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dog Days?

Are we in the summer publishing doldrums, or what? I've had a difficult time finding anything new by most of my favorite authors for a couple of months now, it seems, so rather than hunt up something new and fresh, I've simply gone back to some of my old favorites, like Lois McMaster Bujold, working my way from Warrior's Apprentice all the way up through Komarr, at this point.

My wife and I also began listening to Skin Game, by Butcher, on audiobook, returning from our recent wedding anniversary trip, but didn't make it past Chapter 25 on our nine hour drive, so I picked up my personal library copy of it late last night and chewed on that for a bit, since my memory of the ending was a little fuzzy.

And this is why I amassed such a humongous library in the first place - you just never know when you'll get the urge to re-read an old favorite.

I do hope, though, that the drought of new books ends soon.

Monday, June 13, 2016


In Italy, take every opportunity to use a free, and CLEAN, restroom possible, even when you don't think you need to. Decent bathroom facilities are few and far between, and can range from squat toilets with no paper available - always carry pocket packs of tissues!, to more American-style fixtures if you're lucky. Carry 1 Euro coins for the pay toilets, which are generally a little better-maintained than any you will find for free. The trains usually have bathrooms available, so it's always wise to use them about ten to fifteen minutes before you arrive at your destination - the stations' restrooms may be "pay" style.

Zip Loc baggies are a wonderful thing to pack. Throw in a couple of quart, gallon, and sandwich sized. If you buy some food item that isn't completely sealed, you can put it in one, you can store a wet washcloth, or other clothing item in the large size, or you can use them to keep snacks for munching on while you're walking around. Also, if you happen to freeze a water bottle so that you have cold water to drink all day long, you can slip it inside a gallon sized bag and keep the condensation from getting other things in your purse or backpack damp. Rubber bands and paper clips take up little room, also, and can be used to re-seal food packages.

While it may prove difficult to get out to the outskirts of places like Rome, Florence or Venice to where the "real" people live and shop, I think the prices are much lower there, if you do get a chance. The markup on goods sold in the "centre storico" is unreal. You have to make at least a token effort to haggle, or you'll miss out on an easy discount, and if you're serious about buying something, you'll probably spend as much time really dickering over the price as you do making your selection, and you still probably won't get anywhere near cost, but we routinely saw discounts of 40% and up when we spent a little time at it, and simply asking, "Can you make me a better price on two?"or "That's too much" will get you a few euros off nearly anything.

While for the most part I found Italy and the Italians charming, friendly and fun, there were a few grumpy grocery checkers, waiters, and salespeople, too. I find the same thing back home some days. I try not to let the bad experiences, like the leather salesman who got angry with me for not buying the perfect jacket, and the gelateria girl whom I believe intentionally short-changed me - we had been at that shop before and listened to an American accusing the other man there of short changing him, then giving up on it when his wife undercut him, so when it happened to me on a later visit, I kinda had to figure it was something they tried there every once in a while, counting on confused tourists not being willing to push things in a foreign country. The street vendors can be a bit pushy, and some of them will try to run a con on you to get money, like the East African who gave us "gifts" because he "loves America", then demanded money for them moments later, but there are just hordes of them out and about, so you have to take it in stride. Again, I see the same thing in U.S. tourist traps, just not in the same sheer numbers, plus it's illegal here for unlicensed vendors to sell and for tourists to buy from them.

For every Grumpy Gus, there seemed to be many an amiable soul who went the extra mile for us, like bringing us shots of homemade limoncello, gratis, after our meal, leading us all the way to the right bus stop several blocks away, comp-ing us some mind-blowingly good sorbet, sending us to amazing wineries, chatting with us about their families, describing the process and materials used in producing their hand-made wares, and many other small kindnesses.

One of the most important things that I feel one should do when traveling is to engage. So many folks are rushing from attraction to attraction, trying to tick the boxes on their bucket list du jour, and missing some of the richest experiences available. Now, to be perfectly fair, it seemed to me at times on this trip that we were rushing around, trying to squeeze in too many must-see things into too short of a time period, but we really did try to slow down and enjoy the pace of life, and to get down to a deeper level of engagement with people here.

GPS sucks. There's no other way I can put it, really. The mapping applications on the local phone my friend loaned me, my own iPhone and iPad, were never really reliable out in the field. If you have wifi access in your hotel or apartment, you can get the maps to pull up, and give you directions to your destination, but out in the maze of streets of Rome and Florence, GPS signal is sketchy, and when you need it the most, it can disappear entirely. I finally learned to get my directions pulled up before I left the house in the morning, write them down "old school" on my pocket notebook, and then when the mapping app went belly-up, I could still get where I wanted to go. Forget e-maps, and buy a Michelin guide. Lesson definitely learned. 

Holy Flying Pizza Pie! Italian motorists, motorcyclists, scooter pilots and bicyclists are absolutely and completely out of their minds!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Wolf Land by Carter Niemeyer

Though it is always a pleasure to read about new and exciting places that I might like to travel to someday, it is even more of a joy for me to read stories set in places I've visited before. Many of the stories that Carter Niemeyer tells in Wolf Land are like that, vignettes from the wild places of  Idaho and Montana that make me exclaim, "Ah, I've been there!" What I haven't done, however, is to track down wolf packs, listen to their mournful calls, or see them playing in the meadows of the Idaho back country. Some day, perhaps.

In Wolfer, we got the story of how Carter came to the task of reintroducing wolves into the lower 48 after they had been driven to extinction - deliberately some years past, but in Wolf Land we can enjoy some thought-provoking tales about the long term effects of the interaction between wolves and men. When wolves stray out of the ranges where they were introduced, they often get into trouble because, as predators, they like to feed on easy targets, such as sheep and cow herds which are often grazed on federal lands, which make up a huge percentage of some of our Western states. When the wolves get out of line, then Carter was often called in to trap them, and either transport them back to where they belong, or sometimes make the decision to kill them, if nothing else worked.

From Yellowstone to the Frank Church Wilderness, through the Sawtooths and the headwaters of the Snake and Salmon rivers, Carter relates the stories of his interactions with one of the most controversial and fascinating animals of our time. The book may not make you change your mind about whether reintroduction was the right thing to do or not, but it will surely make you think a bit differently about the subject, no matter which side you're on.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Reburialists by J. C. Nelson

Got this book as part of a giveaway bundle from Ace Books.

So much fiction these days is just getting to be more of the same thing. In this case, we have a government task force that fights zombies (or reasonable facsimile thereof). The zombie attacks are growing stronger and more frequent, and it becomes apparent that there is some deeper force pushing the attacks, so the Reburialists put their "top men" on the job - a Bond-ish serial womanizer, Brynner Carson, who tends to shoot first and ask questions...well, never, teamed with a female linguist, Grace Roberts, non-combat branch, who is supposed to interpret the diaries of Carson's father to help them deal with the latest threat.

They hate each other at first sight, so of course you can tell exactly where they're going to end up - in bed together, and from that point on the novel seems to be filled with the tritest plot devices from every romantic comedy you've watched on Netflix. At the point where they had both done such horrible things and lied to each other that they obviously could never forgive one another, I gave up and quit giving a hoot how it all ended up.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gemini Cell by Myke Cole

This story is about a special operations warrior whose group is tasked with even more special operations, those dealing with supernatural incursions. When he is attacked in his home and killed, he is brought back to life, possessed by the spirit of a long-dead sorcerer king, and sent out on some really difficult missions, as part of a secret government task force so secret, even the government doesn't know about it.

Brutal, with a tortured hero. I couldn't get into it very far before my attention wandered.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Night Shift by Charlaine Harris

Starting to feel like a theme here in my readings, recently. There is an evil presence in the crossroads at the heart of Midnight, Texas, and it is drawing people to its heart, where they commit suicide, and fuel its escape from captivity. We have some growing sub plots, as well, with our discovery that Midnight is being watched by allies of Olivia's father and enemies at the same time, Fiji's discovery of her maturing witch powers, and Diederick's discovery of the opposite sex.

Lemuel must decipher the ancient account in Etruscan of the binding of a demon to help his friends in Midnight to recreate the bonds holding a powerful being captive, and the denizens of Midnight will have to work together to defeat this evil.

A fun, quick read. I'm not enjoying this series as much as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, but Harris is always entertaining.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thicker than Water by Mike Carey

When an attempted murder victim writes Castor's name on the inside of his windshield in blood, and it turns out that Felix and he were childhood acquaintances, the police are understandably suspicious. And Felix, in his usual bull in a china shop way, goes blundering in to try to find out why the message was left for him.

A very dark tale of old sins and new, as Felix discovers a growing demonic presence, and tries to exorcise it, while hunting down shades from his own past.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Last Dance in Pordenone

There's never a whole lot to talk about regarding travel days. We finished packing up our stuff, walked through a light rain to the train station, figured out which platform to stand on, rode the train, made our connection, and were met by Joe & Mindy in Pordenone. We all headed out to the Paladin winery for an open house, sampled a number of very nice wines, had a lite snack while doing so, and sat through what we thought was going to be an English language tour, but which turned out to be a rah-rah marketing presentation in machine-gunned Italian.

Went to the house for a while to relax and chat, then we all went off to a very trendy new restaurant tucked away in a very unlikely location, called Flame. Fantastic menu, mostly focused on broiled meat, as you might gather from the name. We had a delicious platter of sliced Spanish meats to get us started, then the other three had a roast leg of lamb apiece, and I had a delicious full rack of ribs, indistinguishable from some of the best Texas barbecue I've ever had. Very very nice.

I'm not sure what the wait staff thought about the crazy Americans who actually wanted to chat with them. Our busboy, Alexander, was a child of Russian emigrees, and I got a chance to use my 35 year stale language skills on him; he was kind enough to say that I had a good accent. Sated, we drove home and had a short guitar sing-along before bedtime.

Boboli or Bust

Went to the Mercado at San Lorenzo again, picked up some things we wished we had grabbed the first time around. Got there just as the outdoor booths were getting set up, found what we needed, then bailed before things got crowded.

Went to the Santa Maria Novella church and toured the interior of the basilica, chapels and sacristy. Some amazing artwork, including frescoes from the 1300s which were heavily damaged in the flood of the 1960s, and which they are trying to restore. There is also an astrological "clock" on the floor of the basilica, where a beam of light from one of the stained glass windows illuminates the zodiac sign which is dominant (Gemini was lit for my birthday yesterday), equinoxes and solstices. I rather liked the painting of John the Baptist dowsing Christ - John was wearing a leopard skin outfit just like Tarzan's.

Stopped back at the apartment with our goodies - it's nice to have a place that's centrally located for breaks and to drop off purchases, so you don't have to cart them around town. Had a healthy salad and some meats and cheeses for lunch, then hiked up the hill to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. The Gardens are massive, and a great place to hang out in the heat of the day, as many Italian families seemed to be doing; people sprawled on blankets on the lawns, napping on concrete benches near the ponds, and pushing strollers across the gravel paths.

Our ticket to Boboli also got us in to the Argentum and Costume museums, which were interesting, but overwhelming in the end, filled with beautiful art objects, jewelry, and plunder from the New World. Stopped at a quiet cafe for an aperol spritz and a bowl of munchies, and relaxed for a while. Back to the apartment to get cleaned up before dinner. Had a great pizza at one of the nearby places, Osteria Ristorante Centropoveri, that we stumbled upon, and which turned out to be a very nice place - saw some amazing platters of food go by while we awaited our (probably) final Italian pizza, and the place was jam-packed with mostly locals by the time we departed, line out the door. A stop for pistachio and cinnama gelato and my night was complete.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Il Mercado

Headed off first thing in the morning to the San Lorenzo Market. Blocks and blocks of open air booths filled with leather goods, silk scarves, ties, pashminas, backed up upon the retail stores which have even more stock on hand, should nothing be found which suits your size, style and price range. Ranging from the sublime to the merely whimsical. I asked one booth guy question about what type of leather a particular jacket contained, and was led to "his" store, where a salesman spent nearly a half hour showing me some exquisite antelope leather jackets (they have buffalo and lamb, too), and was quite put out when I didn't buy one, even though the price he finally negotiated with me (I was really saying "no", since I don't need another leather jacket, while he thought it was a haggling tactic) was pretty attractive.

At one corner of the leather market is the indoor meat, produce, cheese, wine, and confection market, where my true buying weakness lies. I did pick up some truffle paste, cheese and one of the endless varieties of salami on sale. The provolone cheese we get in the States is a weak-kneed sister to the fantastically flavorful varieties here. I tried something new, fried pasta. They form pici (like fat spaghetti), ham and cheese into a cube, bread the outside and deep fry it. Can't wait to see that at the county fair; beats the heck outta corn dogs.

From there we wandered back to the apartment for a salad and bit of antipasta, then headed to the Medici Chapel - not so much a chapel as an entire church dedicated to housing the remains of the whole former ruling family of Renaissance Florence. One of the women of the family started a huge collection of saints' relics and reliquaries, and many of them are on display on the main floor. I believe these relics are thought to have healing powers and convey blessings to those who possess them, and the Medicis were certainly a fortunate family; unimaginable wealth. The main basilica is under restoration, and has been for a number of years, but the ceiling there is nearly as marvelous as the Sistine Chapel, and far less crowded, filled with biblical scenes from The Fall to the Crucifixion. There is also a side chapel containing three of Michelangelo's statues; Mary and Child, Dawn and Dusk, Day and Night. A good place to contemplate mortality and immortality.

We thought the heat of the afternoon might be a good time to check out the Boboli Gardens, so we trouped to the Altrarno's Pitti Palace and checked the ticket booth for times and prices to enter. Decided we wouldn't get the full experience of the gardens and museums in the time before closing, so we decided to walk a short ways away to the Torrigiani Gardens, a smaller nearby spot of greenery on the map. Oops. After walking the entire circumference of Torrigani, we determined that these were private, available only to the residents of the swanky homes at their south end. We could see over the walls that there was a really cool-looking old palace and tower inside (like the set of a King Arthur movie), so it was a pity we didn't get to see them. 

Along the trek, I visited a couple of hardware stores - there's a foot pedal sink faucet I've seen several times in Italy I really want to locate; it would be just the thing in the kitchen, when you have your hands full and want to turn on the water to wash something. The ferramenti were very much like old time hardware stores in the States, but very limited in space and selection - not exactly Home Depot, yet still very familiar. No sign of faucets. I may have to find a plumbing store. Another fun discovery was a 99 Cent store. Cheapest soda and juices to buy anywhere in the city.

Defeated but not daunted, we returned to the apartment for a glass of wine, then ventured out to a restaurant we'd noted earlier. The Ristorante Lorenzo de'Medici serves a pici pasta dish with a wild boar sauce - I had to try it. We started with Insalata Pomodora (tomato salad) and Spinaci (sauteed spinach) and shared aplate of  Empepata de Cozze (peppered mussels) and Pici Chiante Cinghale (pasta with wild boar) - all was delicious. People-watching on Santa Maria Nuvella square and Ponte alla Carraia bridge, then off home to bed.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Firenze in Flashes

Up nice and early, and hit the pavement by 8 AM. Found our way with only a minor bobble to the Piazza San Marcos, and met up with our guide, Frediana, for our trip to the Galleria de Accademia, where Michelangelo's David resides. We were definitely glad to have booked the skip the lines tour, as the crowd was already getting pretty large at 9 AM. The statue was as magnificent as imagined, and we spent a fair amount of time gazing at him and listening to details of his creation, the techniques involved, political implications of the statue, and that sort of thing.  Looked at some other sculpture while we were inside.

From there we went to the Duomo of St Mary of the Flowers and looked at the vast place of worship, caught a glimpse of the interior of the dome, and saw a unique clock inside, which doesn't operate on a 24 hour basis like most, but instead tracks the hours to sunset, for liturgical purposes. Got to visit the pig at the marketplace, stand in the Piazza del Republica, and enjoy the controversy regarding the giant golden turtle on display there, compared to the replica of David, bronze of Perseus, and other great statues for the public to see.

Our guide left us near the Uffizi for a lunch break, and M and I ducked away from the crowds down a little side street to find a neat little osteria, Osteria Vecchio Vicolo, which served us our second-most delicious pizza so far, a Quattro Staggione style, with prosciutto, artichokes, cheese and black olives, and a bit of frizzante water to wash it down. After about ten minutes, the lunch crowd began to descend, but we were able to make our escape, and wandered in the area for a while on foot.

Our next guide, Catarina, met us at the statue of Galileo Galilei within the U of the Uffizi, and we breezed past the security checkpoints and headed for the top floor of the art museum, which boast the claim of being the first of its kind, open to the public for centuries now - created to show off the Medici art collection. We met a very nice family from Atlanta while we were waiting, and we traded thoughts and tips on our Italian adventures. 

Inside the Uffizi, there are literally thousands of statues from ancient Greece and Rome, recovered during the Renaissance time frame. Didn't think archaeological digs had been going on that long, eh? In addition to the sculpture, there were several hundred years worth of paintings, showing the evolution of art techniques, including the invention of perspective. Botticelli's Venus and Primavera were on display, and the details of those paintings could absorb your attention for hours.

Our guide left us to our own devices after that, and we eventually exited the building and tried to find the San Lorenzo Mercado to do some shopping. Never got to the market, but we did stumble upon Santa Croce, make a river stroll, and so forth. M's feet were killing her, so we spent a bit of rest time back at the apartment in the afternoon; I made a trip to the local market and bought some easy ingredients for dinner - we had minestrone soup and a salad. I discovered a jar of the most tasty giardiniera I've ever had, found some monster "cocktail" onions, stocked up on Schweppe's Limone drink, picked up a fresh "baguette" and a cucumber. I've been dying to try the local artichokes, but didn't see any at this particular market.

After dinner, around sunset, we made a trip out to Gelateria d'Angelo, which is either the name of the owner, or means "of the angels", which may be appropriate, as the gelato was heavenly! Watched the night life on the square at Santa Maria Novella, and saw one of the illegal street vendors take an inordinate amount of time with a little Japanese girl who bought one of his toys, showing her how to operate it properly. The street vendors can get a little pushy sometimes, and it's easy to get irritated with them, but one has to admire their entrepeneurial spirit. 

All in all, a pleasant first whole day in Firenze.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Way Down Upon the Arno River

We took one last short stroll in Rome in the morning, over to the Castello St. Angelo, along the Tiber, where we saw some "crew" rowers working way too hard, stopped at Caffe Nero for a cappucino...then made our way to the bus stop, and headed for Termini Station. I have never seen such a line of taxis in my life, endlessly circling, picking up passengers at the curb, jockeying for position. Crazy. Got to our train in plenty of time, and had a smooth ride at 250 kilometers per hour to Florence.

After a short hike from the Santa Maria Novella train station to Borgo Ognossenti, we were met by Serafino, our host, who took us through the maze to our apartment, which turned out to be even more wonderful than it looked on Airbnb. Our arrival coincided with the massive sinkhole near the Ponte Vecchio, and he sadly informed us that there was no water in this entire half of the city, but that they hoped it would be restored by evening. 

We went for a walk to the Altrarno (other side of the river), and found a little market that sold us a few things for the fridge, but not quite everything on my list. Had lunch at a "self serve" pizzeria, which simply meant that there was no table service, you simply order from a display case at the counter, they heat up your pizza or focaccio sandwich, and you grab and available table. The focaccio sandwiches were a bit dry for American tastes (no may, mustard, lettuce, tomato...), and I discovered why Italians don't like their own beer.

Had a fun time bargaining with a lovely Irish woman named Tyna at a leather goods store and picked up a couple of nice gifts, then walked the length of the Ponte Vecchio gold shops - some incredible work on display there. Ended up in front of the Pitti Palace, then selected an alternate route back to the room from there. The water had come back on by then, so we spent a couple of hours on our "washing day" activities, ending with clothing hanging from all available hooks. Laundry was, of course, accompanied by a fine white wine, some pecorino cheese, and greek olives.

Another quest for a small grocery store to round out our fridge - we prefer to eat a small breakfast in our rooms before we start our daily adventures, and occasionally either another meal, or some home-made antipasti from the phenomenal meats and cheeses here. Wandered down the street to find a place to eat, and had a disappointing meal at a local pizzeria - M's calzone was ok, but my veal cutlet was a joke - in fact I joked it needed some country gravy to salvage the meal. Ah well, it fills the tummy. Back to our retreat on the river for our repose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Il Papa's House

Headed off on foot to the rendezvous at the north entrance to the Vatican Museums, and waited while the rest of the tour group showed up and our lovely guide, Laura, gave us all headsets and pre-instructions, then herded us all across the street and gained us entry into the sovereign nation of The Vatican. No full body search was required, just a pass through the metal detectors.

We visited the contemporary art collection, the candelabra rooms, the map rooms - did you realize that the tradition of putting insets of major cities into maps came about in the 17th century? We're doing it to this day. Looked at about a zillion tapestries, but I got distracted when my phone/camera ran out of memory and I had to delete a bunch of older photos on the fly to make room for the new stuff. Rafael's rooms were very interesting, too, paying tribute to the arts & music, philosophy, mathematics and the law.

Eventually, after a very thorough briefing on what we were about to see, we entered the Sistine Chapel and spent nearly a half hour gazing at the frescos there. The mind boggles. The chapel is still used for sacred masses, so they ask for silence once you are inside, but there are always too many idiots who think the rules, as well as those forbidding photos, don't apply to them, for some reason.  This results in disturbing what "silence" existed with loud announcements of "Silencio!" After leaving the Sistine area, we made our way into the greatest basilica of all, St Peter's. The scale of the place is beyond belief, and the masterpieces of great art contained there could take a lifetime of study.

There's one bit of the Final Judgement scene which Michelango painted in the Sistine where the monster, Minos, welcomes sinners to Hell. It seems that Michelango and one of Pope Justin's henchment didn't get on too well, and so he immortalized the man's likeness in his depiction of the monster, who is also being bitten by a demon in a sensitive body part. Lesson learned - It doesn't really pay over the long haul to tick off an artist. There's a similar anecdote told about one of the sculptures in St. Peter's, which depicts the Church of England, which had been giving the papacy some grief over the years, as a tiny spot on the map, squashed beneath the big toe of one of the Catholic angels. 

After the tour was over, we decided we'd had about enough for one morning, and made our way rapidly back to our apartment for lunch. Decided to return to the Pantheon in daylight, so we could go inside and see the oculus and the artwork. We made a stop at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, too, and looked at some marvelous artwork in a much less crowded venue, including a statue of Christ Bearing the Cross by Michelangelo.

Window-shopped out way back to the apartment, then I made a quick trip to the Carrefour Express for a couple things and prepared some crostini, poured ourselves a glass of red, and relaxed before our evenings's excursions.

Thought we would dine by the Tiber somewhere, but we walked a long way without seeing even a panini joint close enough for takeout. We walked the far side of the Tiber until eventually we came to the edge of the Trastevere, and began to smell food. Took the first right down a side street and after a few blocks got a table on the street at Il DuCa, a random selection. I had the Fettucine alla Funghi Porcii and M had the Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci con Crema di Tartufo Nero - a mouthful to say, and a delicious many mouthfuls to eat. Got into a conversation with a nice young German couple, teachers, who were also celebrating their last night in Rome - by eating all of the courses in their proper order from the menu. They preceded us, and they were still valiantly assailing their Secondi when we departed, full satisfied with only our Primi Piatti.

A bit of a long walk home, but it was pleasant under the century old sycamore trees along the Tiber, and we found our way home without incident.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Ave Imperator!

Started off the morning brewing up some truly smooth coffee with the little espresso pots here in the apartment. Lavazza Rossa. A nice little breakfast, and we were off once more, down the Chiesa Nuova bus stop and caught the metrobus down to Piazza Venezia, where we thought we'd take a transfer to get to the Colosseum, but it turned out to be just around the corner when we passed Trajan's column and the monument to the Fatherland.
Went to the Forum entrance, as our dear friend, Rick, recommends, and bought a combo ticket for the Forum, Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. Wandered throught the Forum, trying to use his audio walking tour, but soon grew confused and just read the signs instead. Next stop was the Colosseum, which probably should have been first, given the crowds that had gathered later in the day, but we were still able to skip the ticket-buying line, at least. Once through the metal detectors, we got to roam all over the massive monument. When we'd about had our fill, we headed out, just in time for a thunderstorm to threaten with some rain droplets. I've never seen anyone move as fast as the street vendors running for the Colosseum exits with umbrellas for sale, and never seen a quicker bargain done than when the guy next to me haggled one of them down from 5 euros to 2. I think the vendor was afraid if he didn't close the sale quickly, his competition would get all the good business down below.

Found a nice little place in sight of the Colosseum, Ristoro della Salute, and had a slighly pricey combo meal, but it was worth it for the proximity to the attraction. Our waiter was a really nice guy who surprised us with his best guess gelato flavors for both of us - I think he took my question about whether we had to select flavors or just be surprised and ran with it.

Off to Capitoline Hill after that, and the nice young man at the main entrance let us through, rather than sending us back to the entrance that comes in from the Forum, so we were once again surprised by the kindness of Romans. There are lovely gardens at the top of the hill, and M narrowly avoided getting beaned by a falling orange at one point. Visited the museum for a bit, did a lot of casual strolling, and just absorbed the flavor of the history there. When we came down off our perch, we stopped at a booth and bought bus tickets, and got our water bottles filled at the most interesting vending machine, where you just push a button and choose the size of your bottle (glass, .5 liter 1 liter) and it automatically dispenses the proper amount of water - ice cold - free.

By the time we found the bus stop leaving Piazza Venezia I determined that we were only four stops away from Chiesa Nuova, and there seemed little point to jumping on the bus again for that distance, so we walked back to the apartment, where we had a glass or two of wine, some antipasti, and relaxed for a little bit.

Decided to wander over past the Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain, and found it just as magical and captivating as all of the propaganda would for the jillion tourists clustered in the area, with the same idea. Wanted to smack the idiot kid climbing up on the marble of the fountain with his skateboard, but his parents were paying no mind - idiots are universal. Took a roundabout route back, venturing into the "normal" portion of Rome, where there were real shops rather than tourist kitsch, and got back without any losses.

I prepared a nice supper of farfalle pasta with Amatriciana sauce and vongole (baby clams), accompanied by a simple salad, then we decided to go for passagata down to Castel St. Angelo, enjoyed the Tiber river scenery, and closed things out with a bowl of gelato at Blue Ice.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

All roads...

Up early in the morning, got some breakfast from the buffet, slurped some coffee, and checked out of the hotel. Our friends dropped us off at the Pisa train station, and we had reserved seats all the way to Rome, about a three hour tour, a three hour tour...
Fountain of the Four Rivers

I got the bright idea to get off the train at the San Pietro station, knowing that our apartment was located close to the Vatican, so I figured it would be quicker to get there than going all the way across the city to Termini. The jury is still out on that. Once I pulled up Google Maps on the cell phone, I discovered we were on the opposite side of the Tiber, so it would be best to use the bus, anyway. We tried to catch the bus and pay while getting on board, but as luck would have it, they don't accept cash, so we had to hunt up a Tabbacieri and buy a metro bus pass, then went back to the stop, but we were in the mid-Sunday lull in the bus schedule, and we waited about 45 minutes before a kindly local couple led us to another bus stop and a different bus route that got us to Chiesa Nuova very quickly.

Jumped off the bus, planned our walking route with Google Maps, and promptly got disgustingly lost. As I later determined, the GPS was not keeping up with the pace of our walking, and we walked right past the apartment about 3 minutes into our journey, and spent another hour or so trying to figure out why the GPS was suddenly sending us in circles. Eventually, I got to a place where the route became simple, and we made our way to meet our airbnb host, Paolo, to check in. 
Piazza Navona

Fait accompli, we went out and down the street a bit for a pizza and beer for  belated lunch, where M got into a conversation with a fellow trombone player from Holland, and our Italian waiter confessed his preference for Belgian beer, then back to the apartment for a quick shower and short nap, then a longer excursion to the grocery store for some essential items, since we have a nice little kitchen here. After the groceries were put away, we went for a walk to the Piazza Navona and the Four Rivers fountain, the Pantheon, the church of St. Agnes, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and a couple miscellaneous churches, then wandered back to our room, fixed a light dinner, and went to our well-earned rest.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Unsupervised in Italy

Hopped on the train Saturday morning bound for Cinque Terre. A couple of hours and transfers later, we jumped off at Monterossa, northernmost of the "five lands". Wandered around the city for a while, grabbed a focaccia sandwich and granita at one of the little shops and enjoyed the view of the sea over lunch. Headed down to the main part of town and peeled off my shoes and pants legs and waded in the Mediterranean for a bit. Some window shopping for a little bit, and eventually made our way back to the train and went on to the middle little town by the sea, Corniglia.

Corniglia is at the top of a long flight of nearly 400 steps, so it's a bit of a challenge to get to. We made the climb successfully, and had a nice fresh lemonade made of the local fresh squeezed fruit, found some more phenomenal views, and after a short time, made our way down the hill to the train once more, and took another hop south.

Next stop was Riomaggore, the southernmost village. Wandered all over the place here, and discovered what I like to call "Hard Beach", where people sunned themselves on a shore of rather large round rocks, watched cliff divers splash into the sea, found a cute little hidden piazza, and sampled the local delicacy, anchovies - wrapped around olives on a skewer, and deep-fried in a paper cup with a squeeze of lemon - eaten whole - crunchy!

The whole area was a bit of a tourist zoo, and the trains grew steadily more crowded so eventually we exercised our discretion and got out of town a bit earlier than we'd originally planned, not wanting to miss our conections back to Lucca. Made it back to the city around half past eight, had some crostini and lasagna al ragu, delicate and delicious, at a table on the street at Osteria Dos Nenos, followed by a custard-like cheesecake. Then we strolled out to the front gates and met Joe and Mindy for a ride back to our hotel. They had just finished dinner with some of their old friends from Pisa, so the timing was perfect.

Packed out bags in preparation for the journey to Rome, and went to bed fairly early.

Last Tango in Tuscany

We headed down to Pisa in the morning after breakfast. Those of you who know me well will not find it surprising that we hit Mercatopoli, a thrift store at which I felt right at home, and picked up a couple of interesting items to bring home.

Onwards to the city of Pisa, and purchase tickets to climb the tower. Joe and Mindy waited down below, and held our bags, since security was tight and no purses, backpacks or guns were allowed on the stairway. The security police were highly visible, and serious about things, but still willing to have children photographed in front of the military vehicles parked in the shado of the tower. Full auto weapons at the ready.

The view from the top was marvelous, and a cool breeze was blowing. A very pleasant experience. This was definitely the most touristy place we've been so far. It should be good prep for Rome.

Leaving the scrum, we headed north once more to a small winery recommended by our friend Michael, Enza di Carmigniana, in the hills on the road called the Strada di Vino, near Montecarlo. The owner of the winery, Elena, gave us a short tour of the facilities, and history of her family, who have been making wine in the same location since 1386 - Elena is the first female to run the winery, her only brother did not want anything to do with the family business.

We then enjoyed an intimate private tasting of three whites, a rose, two reds and two special "dolce" wines, each paired with the food which complements it well, from fresh tomatos out of the garden to the sausage made from white pigs at a nearby farm, to aged pecorino cheese with honey. Absolutely incredible, and every one of them delicious.

We purchased quite a bit, and Elena gifted us with a bottle of red blend on our way out, as well. She also called the nearby visitors bureau and made arrangements for us to meet a young lady there for a private tour of the old theatre in town, so we drove up to the castle in Montecarlo and met Mariella, a charming girl who let us in to the building and gave us the history of its use, disuse, restoration and all the rest. We wandered about the town for a bit, chatting with the nonas, enjoying a cone of gelato, and enoying the spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside.

Back to the hotel for a while, enjoyed a bottle of wine by the pool in the sunshine, then drove down to Lucca where we once again enjoyed the company and cuisine of our friends Michael and Anita. Anita prepared a variation on traditional Polish pirogi for us (she comes from Poland), and chatted with us about the history of her mother's recipe, which she has altered to take advantage of the finer ingredients available in modern Italy. A short stroll in Lucca town, then back to our rooms to slumber peacefully.