Cruise the Med

New Newport News News: Naples Italy edition

Naples is a filthy town.  It has declined so much since we visited last [2012] that we were shocked.  It has been our experience that things in the Med have gotten better, with increasing prosperity.  Right now, Naples is a good port for getting on a tour bus for Pompeii, which is what most of our shipmates did.  But hanging out in town was discouraging.

Naples looks good from the harbor.

But we had plans, having visited Pompeii, plus seen the Archaeological Museum, where the goodies from Pompeii are housed.  [Everything in situ is a copy].  This was to be the second highlight of our trip for me.  We were bent in seeing 5 Caravaggios in one day.

The city of Naples had parked our ship so far from the terminal buildings, that they provided a free shuttle bus to get us to the hub [and the hubbub]; we easily found the Hop On-Hop Off [HoHo] bus from there.  HoHo busses are all over the world and are a great value for money.  You get earphones that tell you what you’re looking at in the language and volume of your choice.; you get off at the stop you want and re-board at that or any other stop.  They are especially nice when you need a long air-conditioned sit-down, but are not ready to call it a day.  And you get to keep the earphones.

Strange 12th century castle with neo-classic entryway.

“Are you here?” the conductor said loudly to me.
“I’m here!” I responded happily.  I then realized she meant, “Can you hear?”

Our first hop off was at the top of Capodimonte [means top of the hill].  We knew that the St. Gennaro Catacombs had limited tours and might be crowded later.

So we took a scenic [sadly ugly] trip on the HoHo.  We had remembered Naples fondly as a wonderful town.  We had been treated courteously; after the museum, we walked all the way down Capodimonte, taking photos all the way and dropping into a bakery for some truly amazing bread, which we munched for the rest of the walk.  We noticed people were not gregarious with strangers, but not rude.

Notes on the current scene:

  • The buildings are only held up by the torn, glued on handbills.

  • Too much graffiti, and not enough paint on the buildings otherwise.

  • Terrible driving.  Vespas, skidding on the decorative cobblestone streets, follow no known rules of the road.

  • The symbol of Naples [and chief tourist bait] is called the horn.  It is in fact a Priapus, dating from pagan days when the male organ was considered by the Greeks to be protection from evil.  These were then made of red coral and were given to babies as a birth present.  They could teethe on them and be safe from curses!  You can find these in any number of child portraits, for the last 3000 years or so.  But the Neopolitans4 have forgotten the history and now these horns are available in any medium, size or color.  If I’d have found one of coral, I would have bought it for the sheer pagan connection.  But they were all CTC3.

  • Trash and garbage were everywhere and had even washed down into the harbor.  This was especially shocking, since the world’s oceans have been cleaned up to an amazing degree over the years.

So very Naples: trash as planters + graffiti + handbills

However, Naples has many things that can be found nowhere else.

Among the treasures are the catacombs.  Ron and I haven’t visited true catacombs before, only a few funerary cellars in churches.  So we were well past due to go.  The Catacombs of San Gennaro [yes, he’s buried there] are intriguingly inside the hill of Capodimonte.  Since the tours are hourly and limited, we bought our ticket and sat around in a very nice room with drinks, WiFi and shopping.  Right on time, our young guide came to lead us down [down, down] dozens of meandering steps and through charming courtyards, all being re-habbed.

This is one of the reasons I love to travel—the unexpected, the charming, the unlikely, the beautiful, the stunning, all on the way to where you’re going.

The catacombs were opened in the 2nd century AD.  At this time, Christians were still persecuted and had to be careful.  Then, Capodimonte was still out of town and off the beaten path.  But, both to be cautious and because Christian art was new, pagan symbols were used to paint frescoes in the catacombs. So,

The nude male and female gods became Adam and Eve.
Grapes, the symbol of Bacchus, god of wine, came to mean the blood of Christ.
The shepherd of Hermas in pagan terms, became The Good Shepherd, symbol of Christ.
The peacock of Hera was taken to mean rebirth in heaven.

Family tomb with Apostles

The tombs were cut into the soft volcanic tufa, making hallways, chapels, floor burials, columns, all going back many hundreds of feet.  Light was provided by oil lamps placed on tiny jutting shelves left on the walls.  The excavators, who removed all the human remains, found that the floor tombs were like lasagna, layer upon layer, bodies laid on top of each other over the years.  The wall tombs were cut into the hallways, or made into family chapels, often with devotional space, altars and frescoes, with the graves sealed with rock and plaster.  The catacombs struck me as a simple and beautiful statement of faith.  “Here we lie and wait for you, Jesus.”

The Catacombs of San Gennaro

There was one large marble baptismal pool, large enough to lie down in, but round [room for the baptiszer?], from the 2nd century also.  Next to that was a 3rd century chapel, cut from the living rock and quite spacious.  The roughhewn altar had an 18” square window cut into the vertical face, called a “confessional hole” through which a penitent might touch holy relics and pray.

Slowly climbing our decrepit way from the carvern-like, dark and dry catacombs to the street above, windy and humid, was a walk from the early days of Christianity to a shockingly complex world.

But we had to find Caravaggio’s magnificent painting “The Seven Mercies.”

The painting is chronicled wonderfully in a recent non-fiction book [The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting by Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life Today by Terence Ward.]  I bought the book because we were already planning to see the painting, but the story made our quest imperative.

“The Seven Mercies”, seen from a private box high above the chapel

The Pio Monte della Misericordia is an ongoing charitable organization set up in 1601 by seven rich young men.  The chapel was built as their private place of worship, but is now open to the public for a modest fee.  The rooms in the large, court-yarded building above and around the chapel are still in use by members of the organization, as is evidenced by the modern computers on lavish Baroque furniture.  We learned that the catacombs are also maintained by this group, who also run a theater group, orchestra and sports facilities for the under-privileged children of Naples.

Finally, after being gob-smacked by Caravaggio and enjoying the rest of the art in the building, we were driven into the street by hunger [one of the mercies is feeding the poor.  See Mat. 25:31-46].  We wandered looking for a nice sit-down, but wound up returning to the chapel area to dine in a courtyard bistro.  The waiter had to drag out a table and chairs for us.  We couldn’t read enough Italian to decipher the menu and the English menu was only pizza.  We ordered the Margherita pizza, made in honor of the visit of that Queen in 1889, with the colors of the Italian flag: green [basil], white [mozzarella] and red [tomato sauce].  By the way, the term pizza evolved from the word for flatbread in the Near East = pita.  Amazingly, we got a whole pizza for €5!

We laughed out loud when we realized this little place was named Trattoria Caravaggio.  It is just the sort of place he would have loved.  Especially the tables lined up to seat 20+ young German students on tour.  Since the painter like to work with live models, often street people, those sleek, healthy faces would have wound up as angels in one of his paintings.

Our quest for further Caravaggios was thwarted.  We went to a church where there were supposed to be 2 paintings, but they had been moved to the Capodimonte Museum, where we had read there were 2 more.  We enjoyed a very nice Raphael and a so-so Titian.

Utterly worn out, we were unable to even consider going to the museum.  We returned to the HoHo, which retraced our path through town, and finally to the ship.  But not in despair: we had done a new thing [catacombs] and seen a nearly perfect thing [Seven Mercies] and lived to tell!

N4: 131 Naples Italy edition
1 Cousin Vinny’s: a stop on a bus tour that involves a store, often with a demo of what they make there and a long opportunity to purchase.  Always includes restrooms.
2 Trough: an all –you-can -eat buffet.  Always looks more delicious than it is.
3 CTC is Cheap Tourist  Crap.  It is not necessary inexpensive.  Often to be found in Cousin Vinny stores.  One must sort through and can sometimes find treasures.
4 Neapolis was the original Greek town, now slurred into “Naples”.  It merely means  “New Town “ but Americans retain the name in Neapolitan ice cream.  Can we have some now?
Ocean Wake

New Newport News News: Katakalo Greece edition

I love Greece [Hellas].  There is nowhere in Greece that I have had a bad time.  Well, one taxi driver in Athens who ripped us off, but caveat emptor, I always say.  I also say, “Let the buyer beware.”

If I had a magic wand, I would erase all the goats from Greece and allow the forests to grow as they did in antiquity.  When you read the myths of ancient Greece, the haunted forests stand out, peopled with satyrs, fauns, nereids, dryads and gods of all descriptions.  But no living person remembers the forests that flourished then and I don’t have a wand, magic or otherwise.

Katakalo is the nearest port to Olympia, home of the original Olympics in honor of Zeus.  Ron and I had thoroughly explored both the ruins and the superb museum less than 2 years ago [feel free to refer to the blog <>

So we elected to stay in the tiny town of Katakalo [ka-TAK-a-lo] to recover from our last two countries.  So we stayed onboard until the madding crowd had boarded their trusty vehicles for the trek inland, then we strolled ashore.

The shopping street of Katakalo                 and the harbor

Fending off a gauntlet of folks who really really wanted us to go to Olympia in their vehicles, we shopped our way through the charming main street of town.  Unlike too many touristy places where the stores all carry the same merchandise, Katakalo is really ready for company, from those of modest means to the other extreme.  We were very pleased with our purchases, then walked along to visit the marvelous Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.  One of the shopkeepers told us it was all “rubbish” but wonder is in the eye of the beholder.

"I have an idea that landing in Greece has always been like this.  I remembered how Lycinus, in the Amores of Lucian [ of             Samosata 125-ca180 AD] says that as soon as he stepped ashore on the isalnd of Rhodes "two or three people immediately hurried up, eager to tell me the history for a a small fee.' "  H. V. Morton In the Steps of Paul, c1936.

One of the Greek machines; this one is an automatic theater

The museum occupies about 1000 sq.feet of old stone warehouse; it is the lifework of Mr. Kostas Kotsanas, who builds scale working models of all the machines from the ancient Greeks.  <>  Young people in the museum show how several of the machines work, and then set you free to explore on your own.  It is all done exquisitely and the  fairies that live in my garden want these machines very much.  But then, they are silly folk and wouldn’t begin to know how to work them.

The fairies loved these lamps.  the shade is a wind-blown-inside-out umbrella

It was very very hot and humid and intensely miserable.  I had wanted to take a little street train over to a beach nearby, but was drained of energy, only just making it to a seaside café where beer and cokes appeared.  Chili powder potato chips appeared also and I ate most of them.  The waiter was very offended, saying they were to go with the beer.  He did not bring anymore however, even when I bought another coke.

This is so typically Greek to me.  He fussed at me and I laughed at him.  In flirtatious Italy, more chips would be forthcoming.  But he was half serious, not quite being ready for such a forward woman, with no decorum appropriate for her age.  Ron said his attitude was reflected in his tip.

The cafe was well situated, however.

We got to watch a fishing boat pull in with the catch of the day, including a wonderful small golden ray of some sort, a small octopus and a squid.  I took some photos and the men eyed me with disfavor.  Perhaps my electrons fouled their fish.  Or they were not quite being ready for such a forward woman, with no decorum appropriate for her age.

Note the little yellow ray on top

We watched as our ship conducted lifeboat drills: dropping the boats, maneuvering around some distance away from the ship, but facing her, like so many remoras approaching a shark.

Ever vigilant.

We went aboard, napped and took a Windows 10 class and hung around the bar drinking…..coke.  In fact, I did not have my bi-annual cocktail.  I simply could not get enough fluid in me to risk alcohol.

We rounded the boot of Italy in the late afternoon and we searched in vain for Mt. Aetna, currently erupting at a gurgle and spewing great clouds, which not only make viewing impossible but also caused a refreshing downpour during dinner.  We passed through the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, nearing dusk, but could still make out the whirlpools that used to be Charybdis.  The mighty whirlpool of olden times was tamed considerably by an earthquake in the early 1900s, for which we are grateful.  Witnesses saw this menace turn a first-rate man of war completely around while under full sail in the late 1700s.

Our next day was a Sea Day and we needed it

We spent the day

  1. Watching movies on the tiny computer

  2. Drinking in the bar [coke]

  3. Catching up on my daily scrapbook / diary

  4. Sitting on the balcony

  5. Napping

  6. Eating a Gala dinner

Just at sunset, after dinner, we passed Stromboli, a mountain / volcano, which we’d only seen in full dark before, as a light in the great ocean.  This time we were treated to a full view of the village [!!!!!] at the foot of the cinder cone, with little boats setting off from the shore [to fish?].  As we marveled at the ability of people to live on a time bomb, a huge puff of black smoke lifted from the peak.  Ron went on to a performance of live music with BBC footage of “Blue Planet” but I could not tear myself away from Stromboli.  And I was rewarded by bright streams of fire shooting up from the volcano [on the side away from the village]!

Cruise the Med

New Newport News News: Croatia-Albania edition

We set sail from Venice on the Holland America Line Oosterdam, a tiny ship by our standards, of only 781 crew—and about that many passengers.  It caters to an older crowd [like us] and there was no rap music or wild screaming parties.  In fact, there were few young folks at all, and fewer children.  The entertainment tended to be earlier in the evening [8 pm], so I could actually stay awake for it.  Ron greatly enjoyed a small venue called “Lincoln Arts Center” featuring a string quintet; I went for the stage shows.  And I made a discovery; if I ignored the over-amped and over-zealous singers and concentrated on the dancers, I had a marvelous time.

We had no sooner boarded than the captain called for the lifeboat muster.  This was strange to us, as no everyone had boarded yet, by a long shot, but we mustered.  It turned out that our lifeboat was one of the tenders used for shore excursions; we were looking forward to tendering, which will be the closest we can come to taking part in the emergency lowering of the boats.  God willing.

Our cruise was called “Mediterranean Tapestry.”  And so it was.  We added 3 new countries to our list this trip.

Our first port of call was Dubrovnik, Croatia.   We took a bus tour out of town, which included stops in Cavtat and the Konavle Valley, ending in old town Dubrovnik.  Michael, our guide, had an English father and was the easiest to understand of all our guides this trip.

As we left the port, the bus labored up an enormous incline to a cliff overhanging the bay and city.  Dubrovnik had been a rich port rivaling Venice in the 16th century, a trading mecca and hotbed of spies, as it touched on the Ottoman Empire to the East, yet was a free city-state.  It remained Christian and unconquered by the Turks.  From our height, the perfect protected bay spread out beneath us, and the honey-gold walls of the old town fort defied any hostile force coming from land or sea.

We continued along the cliff, occasionally running lesser mortals off the road, although everyone seemed ok with this.  Tourism is the life force of most of the Mediterranean these days, which is not really so very different from the days when exotic goods were brought in from around the world to buy and sell.  People still want to go places and buy things.  We passed “Adrenalin Park” on the downside of the cliff; we could only imagine what kinds of terrifying pastimes they offered.  Equally exciting was the sign for Wild Boar Crossing.

The Cousin Vinny ¹ stop was quite nice; an open air restaurant, with servers in traditional dress, who served us ham, a muenster-like cheese, homemade bread and a glass of local wine.  This type of ham is available all around the Med, and is a kind of meat jerky, salted and dried, but not smoked or cooked.  It is tough and salty, like jerky and served in wafer thin slices.  Italian prosciutto is an example.  The restaurant was built out of an old mill on the Ljuta River, the lifeblood of the Konavle Valley.  The waters ran under the mill wheels ice cold, even on a day in the upper 80s.  I put my feet in and Ron worried about the dying fish downstream.

Ice cold Ljuta River

Konavle means “canals” and the valley is irrigated to great effect.  Grapes are the largest crop, but we saw maize, olives, citrus, figs and vegetables growing, and a profusion of Queen Anne’s Lace and bright yellow wildflowers.  The mountains regularly dump soil onto the valley with the snow melt and the plain is large and fertile.

On we went to Cavtat, which is a charming coastal harbor, full of small yachts and a water polo course netted off from the rest of the harbor.  Children from the yachts were swimming in the shallows and we found a lovely café to sit at, staring into the clear waters at the curious little fish.  Later we learned that water polo is THE sport of Croatia and they regularly win world titles.

Crystal clear waters of Cavtat Harbor, pleasure boats and swimming children and a cat

We made our way back to Dubrovnik by the same eye popping cliff road [adrenalin indeed] and into town.  On the way, Ron said he would like to get something lacy for himself in the old town.  I burst into laughter, picturing a garment of some type, suitably lacy for a gentleman of his standing.

Our day was to finish up in the old town, which was used in Game of Thrones as the set for King’s Landing.  Traffic getting in was miserable, but travelers learn to be patient [well, we did].  We watched a tiny lizard make his way across the smooth stone of one of the city towers—do lizards have adrenalin?

The outer walll of Dubrovnik with lizard

You enter Dubrovnik through a massive drawbridged gate called Pile [pee-lay].  There are only 2 other gates and one was cut in modern times.  The entire town is made of honey-colored limestone and includes steep staircases up to the defensive walls.  They actually charge you to climb what must be 5 storeys to get up there!  These tremendous walls were, of course, why the town was never taken.  The broad streets are beautifully laid out with drainage channels and the diverging alleyways are built on a grid pattern.  Being in the town is like being in a large honeycomb: slippery, breathless with heat, with drones all around you, buzzing into the shops looking for golden treasure, and somewhat stifling.

Stairs to the defensive walls of town .                 Street and buildings all of limestone.

Finding nothing affordable, we trudged our way out of the castle to the fresher air of the busy modern square, where we caught our bus back to the ship.

The next day, we tendered ashore in Sarande [SA-run-duh] Albania, a charming and alarming procedure, which served to underline the fact that Albania is not quite ready for company.  I am actually mystified why the cruise lines go there.  But it will be the making of that country.  They are on a list to join the European Union as soon as they get a functional and fair judicial system.  I cringed inwardly to consider what this must mean to the individual.

View from the tender to the ship

Our guide was a soft-spoken poet named Leje [e-LEER] Hyrie, sometimes lyrical, often hard to follow.  Sarande is a corruption of a Albanian phrase meaning 40 Saints.  Apparently 40 Christian Roman soldiers were exposed to the elements and martyred for their beliefs.  In the 6th century, a monastery was built and named in their honor.  The old town also has the ruins of a Jewish synagogue, wherein I saw the second only street cat of the whole trip.  Ron claims it was wearing a little yarmulke, but I thought it was a female.

Synagogue cat: yarmulke? prayer shawl?

We walked past the famous pebble beach which featured a large number of large men wearing tiny Speedos.  Quickly looking the other way, we enjoyed the sharply rising hillside, with quaint shops and restaurants and thousands of steps to get to them.

Glad to pile onto our bus, we easily climbed the cliff, quite similar to the one in Croatia and even scarier since the roadway was not as new.  Looking down, we saw amazingly posh resort hotels, with stepped patios reaching out over the water, set with lounge chairs and umbrellas.  This part of Sarande was definitely ready for company.  I wondered if some of this was in place for the old Communist regime bigwigs.

As we rose up above the lavishness, we saw the underpopulated and abandoned farms and homes.  Leje told us that thousands had left after Communism collapsed in 1991, due to the economic disaster it brought.  Though the land and businesses were divided as fairly as possible among those who had been the workers, it was clear that more people were needed to make a go of it.  There were signs of vast olive and citrus groves going fallow due to neglect, but it looked like folks were gradually beginning to get things back under control.  Goats, the bane and blessing of the Med were keeping everything but the trees mowed down.  The goats will eat anything and everything, down to the point where erosion of topsoil has become critical all around the Med.  The goats give milk [cheese] and meat [sometimes] but the environmental cost has been very high.

It is very unfortunate to note that “shiten” means “for sale.”  This is written large on boats and houses and is actually fairly descriptive of some of the properties.

Our bus drove us on to the National Park of Butrint, a World Heritage Site, occupied by Greeks, then Romans, then Byzantines, then Venetians, now tourists.  The ruins are in pretty good shape [read that sentence again and LOL], but I have to complain that the magnificent mosaics are all covered by tarps and sand to preserve them.  Yes, it is essential to preserve them, but if your paying tourist cannot see them, what’s the point?  [It’s like the San Diego Zoo where the animals’ habitats are so perfect, you can’t see the animals.]

The site occupies a circular peninsula that makes it defensible as well as offering great harbors for trade.  Now, trees have been allowed to grow up, which was a blessing on a day of upper 80sF with high humidity.  There were many bay laurels, creating a lovely scent on the air.

We could not really keep up with Leje, let alone hear him well, so we parted company before the group climbed the ramparts.  Clever Ron had seen a small area under the trees when people were selling crafts.  And it turned out that it was indeed handmade stuff; Ron bought his lacy thing from the lady who made them.  It turned out that he wanted a doily.

Well preserved ruins

We made our way back along the path, taking more photos and went along to the restaurant which was the meeting point.

This was extraordinarily lovely, with shady vines trained over the tables and potted flowers all around.  This, of course, gained the unexpected result of bees zooming in whenever food or drink was placed on the table.  Brilliant as I am, I got the idea that if I poured a bit of beer into an ashtray that the bees would go to it and leave us alone.  Not so!  Dozens of bees came over and swarmed the table.  We tipped the young waiter to carry away the ashtray.

On my way back from the facilities, I wandered through the most wonderful terraced garden, wherein everything was a fruit tree or vegetables.  Each terrace was built of native stone; again that honey colored limestone that must comprise the whole of the Balkan peninsula.  To my dismay, I was then stuck on one of the terraces, but before I could go back around, another brave and gallant waiter helped me down.

The terraced garden at Butrint

If I go back to Albania, I will stay in the town, wandering the steep streets and sitting on the pebble beach with the large old men wearing Speedos.

No photos of the Speedos.
Cruise the Med

New Newport News News: Padua edition

Whilst we were staying in Venice, we took a train over to solid ground to visit Padua.  The train tracks and roadway were built by the Austrian Empire when they ruled Venice from the mid -1800s.  Resentment still runs high against the Austrians for filling in canals and building more bridges.

The train / traffic bridge to Venice                                and the train to Padua

But it was mighty convenient for us.  The absolute highlight of this whole trip for ME was the visit to the Chapel of the Scrovegni family, the private chapel painted entirely by Giotto in 1303-05.  I had waited 50 years for this.

Irony upon irony that this priceless work came about because, according to the history given by the introduction to the chapel itself,  Reginaldo Scrovegni was an alleged usurer, called out as such by Dante in his poem “Inferno.”  Reginaldo’s son Enrico, inheriting great wealth and adding to it, felt the need to rescue his father’s soul, a doctrine most believed in at the time.  And, of course, provide a proper place for the family tombs.

Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto

Giotto de Bondone, known like a rock star by his first name, is reckoned as the precursor to the Renaissance rebirth of representational art.  I’m sure many of you would argue that his teacher, Cimabue, taught Giotto everything, but I disagree.  I do like to say “chim-a-BOO-eh.”  I do agree that Giotto burst upon his scene like a comet.  He actually depicted Halley’s comet as the Star of Bethlehem.

We had purchased tickets online for the chapel and had a time to check in.  The train was quite nice and ran on time, despite the absence of Mussolini.  There is a McDonald’s right at the train station, where a coke might be purchased for half the usual cost.

Despite Le Ricche we bought only coke

Since we were plenty early, we had time for a stroll about town and a light lunch.  I had my first of many “Caprese” sandwiches / salads; Caprese is the divine marriage of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil.  There was a lovely drizzly rain and it turned out to be the coolest day of the whole trip.

Padua is a very wet town like Venice, and has fewer canals and bridges, but still quite a few.  It would impress you, if you had not seen Venice first.  It does have cars and Vespas, but since it is not a tourist hot-spot, but a working town, there were only modest crowds.

The river Brenta                                                            and an unused canal lock

We went down the wrong lane to get to the chapel, as did most everyone else; signage is not the Italian strong suit.  But we found it, got checked in and waited.  Padua has arrived at a marvelous way to conserve the frescoes and yet let people see them.  You sit and wait in an air-conditioned room, drying out.  Only about 20 people go in at a time.  Sliding glass door keep the sweaty newcomers from mixing with those who are purified.

And then it was our turn.  The chapel is described as a “jewel-box”, but it was much larger than I expected.  It took my breath away.  The cycle of frescoes tells the story of Mary in the topmost tier, including her apocryphal “immaculate conception” and early life.  The frescoes run rather like a comic book, with each scene telling part of the story.  Over the altar is the Annunciation, tying in the mid-level tier of frescoes to tell the story of Jesus.  Interspersed are painted “architectural” details and faux statues representing the Vices and Virtues.  [This technique is called grisaille when an artist uses trompe l’oeil to make the viewer think there is a 3D statue, usually in a painted niche].

We had 15 minutes; I could have stayed for hours, staring at each scene.  It made me cry.  The paintings are so sensitive that YOU WERE THERE when they crucified our Lord; when they laid him in the ground; and when He arose!

In many ways, Giotto’s painting style is like a graphic novel of today.  Architecture is important, though not rendered in perfect perspective; rather it is used to set the scene and buildings are repeated to emphasize events.  For example, the Temple in Jerusalem is repeated almost exactly in several scenes. Faces are steeped in emotion, gripping the viewer.  The color palette is now muted with age and damage, but would have been as vibrant and garish as in modern graphic novels.  The colors are symbolic in both cases, with the symbolism perhaps unrecognized consciously by the viewer, but effective nonetheless.

The Kiss-- Judas' yellow cloak indicates he is a liar

And finally, I saw the perfectly rendered “statue” of Despair, a Vice, reminding me that we are given life and must treasure it despite pain and depression.

Never give up

I bought a beautifully printed book of the paintings; the book I already had was the Jesus cycle, but did not include the Mary story. We toured the museum next door, which included Roman and Medieval artifacts dug out of Paduan tombs, before making our way to the train, the waterbus and some Chinese take-out for dinner.  From the sublime to the ridiculous, as life usually is.
Cruise the Med

New Newport News News: Venice edition

Waterbus from the airport

Venice is simply amazing.  We got a waterbus at the airport and had a grand tour of the many islands of Venice, as we made our way to St. Zaccharia’s square, near where our hotel was located.  Pulling our wheeled suitcases [that are big enough for a moderate sized human], we crossed on 2 arched pedestrian bridges to the tiny alley we needed.

Typical pedestrian bridge

When I say tiny, I mean we could have stretched out our arms and touched the buildings looming on either side.  Following written directions from the hotel, we then turned left into a really tiny alley, which gave onto a tiny alcove, in which were set up several outdoor dining sets and umbrellas.  There were 3 doors, none labeled.  However, the desk clerk saw us and buzzed the door open.  The Ca’ dei Doge [it means “the Doge’s House” NOT the Dog House] has an absolutely charming tiny lobby, with steps leading up to our room; the restaurant led off the lobby, where we had a lavish breakfast each morning.  Our room had a balcony, large French windows leading to it, and a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom.  Pronounce the zz as you would for pizza.

Just another church in Venice

There are no cars in Venice.  There are limestone streets of varying widths, but no logic whatsoever.  Foot traffic is daunting, especially if you walk with a cane.  People are so busy taking selfies everywhere that you can’t use the handrails on the bridges.  The charm is palpable, but so many frantic people!!  Goods are moved through the streets on large hand-carts, fitted with bicycle bells and courteous men saying "coming through" in polite Italian.

We had planned to take a gondola ride, but they are literally bow-to-stern as they go.  There are no little by-ways to escape to—water traffic everywhere.  We used the water busses a lot [expensive], took one tour of the Grand Canal in a water taxi [I had to crawl off the boat as I couldn’t negotiate the bobbing at the dock].  I am so very glad that we went there, but I would never want to go back.

Well, I wouldn’t want to go back and walk anywhere.

In fact, I would go back in a heartbeat.

In our 3 days in Venice, we did 2 major museums: the Academy Galleria [featuring a marvelous array of early Medieval art] and Museo Correr, housed in a palace purpose-built by Napoleon, right on St. Mark’s Square.  The outstanding piece here was a 6-part wood block set, made in 1500, for a bird’s eye view of Venice.  They had one of the original prints as well.  This was so stunning, that Ron and I were the only ones to look at it.  Everyone else walked through the room on their phones.

St. Mark’s Cathedral is enormous and sits next to the Doge’s Palace.  The square is composed of 4 storey buildings, with arched covered sidewalks [like cloisters] framing expensive shops, with Napoleon’s palace and Correr museum above.  You see this in every movie which is set in Venice.

St. Mark’s Square

I had wanted to visit St. Mark’s Cathedral because the actual body of the apostle was there.  He had originally been buried in Egypt, but the Venetians hated him to be in the land of the Muslims, so they stole the body in 828 AD, hiding it in pork so the inspectors would not search their cargo.  But, as we were deciding whether the long wait to get in was worth it, I read in the guidebook that the body had been burned in the fire of 922 AD.  When they rebuilt the church, they miraculously “found” Mark’s ashes.  I snorted at this concept, but Ron said, “All they had to do was sniff around for the smell of pork rinds.”    Still, there were so many people waiting to get in to the Doge’s Palace and St. Marks that we decided it was not worth the wait.  Pork rinds notwithstanding.

Unique chimneys in Venice: since there is low pressure everyday, the chimneys are engineered to draw the smoke anyway.

In addition to museums, we had an agenda of steeple-chasing.  Literally.  There are more churches in Venice that in Newport News!  Many have fine art.  There is no rhyme or reason to what they charge for entry; so we decided based on what we knew was inside.  The Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was arguably the best and a bargain at €3.  “The Assumption [of the Virgin]” by Titian is an enormous and gorgeous work, and the numerous chapels within the basilica were all rich in art.

Massive fish die-off in Venice lagoon!

We have less stamina than we used to, so by lunchtime, we were usually dragging.  One day, we made it to the Rialto Bridge, one of 4 remaining bridges in the world that have shops all the way across. Ron had the day planned beautifully and chose for us a canal-side café, right at the foot of the bridge, and where we ordered salads and cokes.  Even at €18 for the salad and €4 for each coke, it was flat out worth it! 4

Rialto Bridge

We took many pictures and the waiter took ours, all the while the foaming crowds were breaking like waves over the walkways.  We watched as a man on the cell phone gestured wildly with his free hand to make a point.  We listened as the bells of the churches rang the changes [this means actual human ringers] with no perceptible reason or timing.  We admired the gondolas gliding by, and even the water taxis, making little noise.  We explained to the ducks that we would not share our food.  We were impressed that the notoriously stinky canals have been cleaned up despite rain run-off from the streets and gasoline from all the boats.  And we regretted sleeping with our balcony doors open because, despite the screening, we were eaten alive by mosquitos.

Fortified by our rest, we slogged around for a few more hours, shopping and chasing steeples.  The shopping is of high quality and varied price.  Venice is known for hand-printed paper, glass and Carnival masks.  We bought some of each.

Venice is unique.  It is no wonder that czars and emperors have wanted to create “a Venice” in Amsterdam, Netherlands; in St. Petersburg, Russia; even Venice, CA.  But none of these is really anything like Venice.  The sea sweeps in twice a day to flush out the canals; not a large tidal surge, but enough to clean things.  There are no cars, Vespas or bicycles as there is simply nowhere for them to go.  Real estate is almost as pricey as Monaco so that most who are born in Venice leave to find a better life.  FYI, only 55,000 live there full-time.

But Venice, from its beginnings was a city-state of free men who governed themselves and thrived by capitalism, albeit with a taste for conquest thrown in.  Venice is unique.

If you are planning to travel, here are some lessons we learned:

August is a miserable time to go cruising the Mediterranean.  We had been misled about temperatures in Italy; Ron spent a lot of time online looking at daily temps, but perhaps what he was given were averages or outright lies.  So we packed too many warm clothes, but, since we believe in layering, it only meant that we didn’t wear a lot of what we brought.  Still, we brought home our swimsuits unused, preferring to be in the air conditioning of our cabin.

We flew British Airways to London and on to Venice.  I will never willingly fly the old BA again.  They have crushed the cheap seats down to absurd dimensions.  I laughed out loud when the showed how to put your head on your knees for crash position.  There was simply not enough room from the seat ahead to assume this position.  Fortunately, we didn’t crash.

Geese on creek

The Adventure of the Crocs in Lucas Creek: a Decade in the Making

Once upon a time, I had a new pair of white Crocs.  I was vastly excited by my Crocs, as they were the most comfortable shoe I ever owned; I wore them everywhere.

Me on the deck

One summer day, around 2008, I had a friend visit.  Though she has Parkinson’s, I insisted that I could get her out in the canoe on Lucas Creek, and home safely.  She is a small [but mighty] woman.  I launched flawlessly, and we had a lovely voyage, with sightings of thousands of fiddler crabs, swallows, kingfisher, great blue heron, egrets and a single very bold night-heron.  He played with us by going around each bend in the creek, then peering back to see if we were coming along.

The slapstick began when we came to shore at my house.  She was not capable of climbing the ladder to my dock, nor climbing out of the canoe and scrambling ashore.  I got out and began to haul the canoe up the bank, with her in it.  I was walking on logs and debris I had put along the muddy banks for this purpose [and to halt erosion], gamely inching the boat ashore [alleluia, Michael], when my feet slipped off the log and into the mud.  I am a heavy person and continued to sink to knee depth.  I felt very foolish.

The muck had hold of my beautiful Crocs and would not let go.  I slipped my feet out and tried to pull the Crocs out by the strap; I broke the strap.  Trying to look like a competent person, I left the shoes and hauled the canoe out, got my friend out and we went inside to rest.

Over the years, the Crocs would occasionally rise to the surface of the mud, just enough that I could see them, and mourn all over again, but never enough to grab them.  Finally, this year, I was down in the creek arranging some logs for the above purposes, when I realized that I could actually grab one Croc with a stick and bring it to shore.

Hosed down, the Croc resumed its whiteness.

I suppose I will watch for the other Croc to rise.  I would not hesitate to wear them again, though I had long replaced them with black ones.

Scientifically, it would be fascinating to study how and why there is a convection, or tidal current in the mud of the creek.  Anyone ready to do the research, I’ll be glad to take you out in the canoe.

Going Home

I have recently had an adventure involving my computer and several of my mother’s treasured toys.

My mother was nigh on to a hoarder, with pretty good reason.  Her family moved so often in her young life and she never knew for sure which of her treasures would get left behind, “lost” [sold?] or  simply disappear.  In fact, her worries when {I thought} she was dying was, “What about my things?”  Ref. also “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne.

Her most treasured things were her toys.  She had a Skippy doll, originally made by Effenbee Co., in his original clothing; a doll she named Kathleen, with no identifying marks; and a funny little dog, with jointed arms and legs, dressed in overalls, whose name I can’t remember.  His nose was painted bright red by a nurse at Miss Shirley’s final assisted living home, only days before {she really did} die.  I am sorry to say that the nurse begged me for the dog-boy to remember Miss Shirley by and I just couldn’t decide.

Skippy [Effanbee]                                        Kathleen                                                   Dog-boy

I researched the possible value of these items online, only finding the Effanbee Co., with price lists and information about collecting.  I didn’t want to sell the toys; but I didn’t want to keep them either, as I have plenty of my mother’s things for sentiment.  I fired off a letter to Effenbee.  It came back.  My next thought was to see if FIDM Museum in LA wanted Skippy.

But, more research showed me that Effenbee had been bought out by Tonner Toy Co. and there was a link “contact us.”

I got in touch with a very lovely soul named Michelle, who co-owns the company.  She was very excited to learn about Skippy; afraid that my siblings would be furious if I gave away; that I would regret giving, rather than selling him.  Very thoughtful and gracious concerns, but I was convinced that my mother would love the idea of Skippy “going home.”  Then after Skippy left, wrapped to the nines in bubbles, Kathleen and the dog-boy insisted that they wanted to go along too, to be with Skippy. Michelle kindly agreed.  More bubbles, one more journey to a new home.

Come to find out Michelle’s mother loved dogs, so dog-boy became a symbol of Michelle’s mother.  Kathleen, with her badly cracked face wears a mob-cap, donated by my American Girl Doll Felicity, and, ironically, I now live near Williamsburg.  And Skippy now supervises things at the Tonner office.  Full circle, indeed.

Come visit, Michelle!

The New Newport News: Johannesburg edition, Sept. 28 2017

Jo’berg, aka Jozi, South Africa, is a raw, edgy town.  Founded by gold-miners, filled with people resentful of their past history, and ready to rumble, it is a prosperous town, but very divided.

We declined the tours offered by Gate1 [to Soweto and the Apartheid Museum] and went off on our own, taking the Hop On / Hop Off bus that we have enjoyed in many a town across Europe.  These buses offer tour commentary in many languages, while it ferries you from tourist place to tourist place.  Our plan was to take the bus to the zoo, then take the full circle tour when we were tired.

But then we missed the zoo stop, and so went on around the Green Route through the upscale, tree-rich neighborhood of Rosebank and thence to Constitution Hill, seat of government offices.  And back to the zoo.

We love zoos.  Stuart, our guide, was disdainful of our plan for this day, but we did not want to wallow in Soweto.  Why, when we followed all that on the news. 

We went on the Cat Walk, past some cramped Victorian era zoo enclosures [now offices—how fitting!].  You can only imagine my thrill when I saw the African Wild Cat, the progenitor species of all domestic cats.  About 1 ½ size of the domestic, with long legs and tawny coat, he stalked his enclosure like…like…a domestic cat.  We also saw a serval [only 1] and a caracal.  Later in the day, we made our way to huge cats—lion, cheetah, and a Siberian Tiger [about 1 ½ times the size of any other tiger I’ve ever seen—and this one was a female!  She apparently loved being watched, as she came over to strut in front of any window where she could see admirers.  At the cheetah enclosure, Ron got 14 hugs from each of a 2nd grade class, all in a line.

Wild cat                                                                    Tiger, tiger burning bright

We saw everything from a tiny Fenec fox to jackals to hyenas.  In the antelope category, we added Sable to our list from the parks.  And Bactrian camel, a new species for me, and a very long way from the Silk Road.

Fenec                                                                         Bactrians

The crocodiles were the most amazing, simply the size of them.  They just look meaner to me than alligators [and both are man-killers!]


Shovel-tailed sloth                                                Boy-legged antelope

The zoo is enormous and begged us to stay, but we were feeble of foot.  So we boarded the bus, changed over to the Red Line and went for a long ride.  We passed the exclusive British boys’ school, suitably perched on a hill overlooking vast playing fields.  We viewed the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where the cult is going strong.  We were flipped off by a fat black chick in the park.  We were impressed with the crowded jitney vans that took folks to work or shop.  The  Mining District streets are punctuated by old equipment painted brightly as “art”;  clever and it gave us machinery types a chance to look it over. 

Gold Reef City theme park and gambling casino are at the very south of the city; there they still do the Gumboot Dance, which I first saw in Washington DC in 1966.  [“Wait-a-minum!” also featured H.M. musical instruments, like a digeridoo.  H.M., said a footnote, means Homemade.  There are actually uTube videos from this show!!].  The dance involves lots of stomping, clapping and jumping about, sort of like “Stomp.”  Other than that, the park looks a lot like Knott’s Berry Farm in CA, with the old mining town theme.

Too feeble to go into the park, we bussed on past.  And regretfully also passed by the Origins Center, with Saan paintings.  We were wise enough to know that the walk over to the museum and back to the bus was simply beyond us.  That’s truly the only disappointment about the trip, to come so far and never seen the ancient rock art of the Saan [aka Bushmen] of the Kalahari Desert.  [Ron says this is TMI, so you've been warned----I saw a film about them in college.  They have the true Paleolithic diet.  The men stick a poison arrow into a large giraffe; follow him for 4  days while he dies; eat the raw liver and tongue; cut as much meat as they can carry back some days to home; where everyone eats themselves into a stupor, and, with bellies distended; they sleep it off.  The women have spent them time digging roots and grubs to survive. Their skin is enormously wrinkled so it can accommodate the boom-and-bust living.]

That evening, we joined the whole group for a Farewell Dinner, featuring a palate cleanser made of cucumber and citrus.  And an “amuse bouche,” a “mouth amusement” of a chicken-based, butternut squash soup, with a hint of curry.  And loads of other yummy stuff.  I listened throughout the meal of the astounding adventures of a Vietnamese lady who saved herself after the fall of Saigon.  I had told her during the trip that I was ashamed of how our government left Viet Nam, but she would hear none of it.  She remains enormously grateful to our troops.

In summary, my thoughts about South Africa:

  • It is a young country, like Virginia, with the same history of colonization, exploitation by the Europeans of the natives and land and uneasy race relations among the races.

  • Cape Town is a delight to visit, very urban, very Indian, but with a looming water crisis, like CA.

  • Jo’berg is struggling to find itself and define itself.  It has a young population, with money to be made; a wise person never goes out at night.  There is a a mixture of every race and culture in the world, drawn by the gold mines. It couple boil over at any minute.

  • Rural people seem happy and content, following tradition, yet change is coming, as more wealth comes into the country, with agribusiness and tourism.

  • The National Parks are worth more than gold.  There is a resource that money cannot buy and people around the world pay millions to see.  South Africa seems to be on top of the poaching problem and the parks are well patrolled and maintained.

  • It is a L-O-N-G trip to get there, but it is truly like nowhere I have ever gone before.  I would go again, but spend more time in the Parks and less time on the road, though the round the country tour is a must for the first visit!  And probably take a sleeping pill for the first leg of the flight.


The New Newport News: Blyde [blay-duh] edition, Sept. 27, 2017

Just when you think the rest of the tour will be anticlimactic, we spent a day on the bus, with one amazement after another.

As I mentioned before, the weather in the highlands of South Africa is fickle; the mountains catch any moisture coming along and are covered in fog in a heartbeat.  Such was God’s Window, as we passed.  But when God closes a window, He opens a door.

We passed tree plantations—pine for paper and eucalyptus for fencing and building.  We went through alpine tunnels, which are open on one side, rather than cut through solid rock.  It gives a feeling of driving through a covered bridge.  We learned a little Afrikaans:

  • Graskop, meaning “grassy head”.  What we would call High Plains.

  • Pannekoek = pancake.  Sounds quite similar.

  • Rondavel, meaning round hut, is pronounced ron-DA-vel.

We had 2 natural wonder stops: Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the Blyde River Canyon.

Bourke found gold in his lucky potholes, washed down from the mountains of Johannesburg [we reached Jo’berg next day]. 

Bourke's Luck Potholes

The Blyde River Canyon is third in the world’s grandest canyons and you have likely seen its photo at some time.  It is 16 miles long and 2400 feet straight down.  The part we saw was the place where the Trier [meaning sad] River joins the Blyde [meaning happy] in a huge bend.  Apparently some folks happily survived the Blyde River, and someone else named the sad river to contrast.  Naturally no one thought to ask the locals what the names of these rivers were.  [One thing that John Smith did when he explored Virginia].

Blyde River Canyon                                                      3 Rondavels  

We were driving through the territory of the great Zulu wars, when Britain controlled South Africa, though the Afrikaaners never really recognized that fact.  “Shaka Zulu” and “Rourke’s Drift” are fact-based films about this time.  And looking at the land here, you understand why it was worth all the bloodshed.  It is rich grazing and/or farm land, well watered from the mountains and open to the sun, with no freezing.  Nowdays, it is filled with massive agribusiness of macadamia trees, banana groves, corn and wheat.


We passed through Lydenburg, where chromium is mined and smelted.  The ingots then go into the stainless steel manufacturing.  Lyden means “suffering,” but we weren’t told if it was named that before or after the mines opened.

Climbing again to 6300 feet, we stopped in Dullstroom for lunch.  There were several very nice restaurants and we choose a British-themed one.  My salad had warm fried cheese [haloumi], with cold artichokes, raw cukes [marrows], cooked butternut squash, carrot shavings, raw tiny tomatoes and roasted peppers, over lettuce shreds.  And getting back on the bus, we bought a pound of macadamia nuts.

Haloumi and roast veg. salad--mmmmmm

We passed an ore train, narrow gauge, with mysterious 3’ cairns along the track.  No one on the bus had a guess for these.

And on a long leg into Johannesburg, aka Jo’burg.  We must have slept through this because I have no notes in my book until the outskirts, where we learned that ¼ of the South African population lives in a 12 ½ mile radius around the Jo’burg province of Gauteng.

Fire and Ice hotel.  Game of Thrones, anyone?

The New Newport News: Kruger edition, Sept. 26, 2017

Some days are more perfect that you ever expect.  We had a clue what to expect, since we had traveled Hluhluwe, but there is nowhere on earth like Kruger National Park.

It dawned on us.

Kruger is the second oldest national park in the world; Yellowstone is first.  So that’s the company it keeps.  Shades of John Muir, the park was begun by 3 Scots stationed in South Africa.  And, as it is patrolled by armed game wardens, there is a very low poaching rate.

The guidebook to the park is written for self-touring in your own car.  The first page states that you must declare your firearms at the gate, followed by a warning that malaria is endemic in the park.  Can you imagine such a publication in the USA, where no risk is acceptable? 

We got another pre-dawn start from Hazyview [after an after dark check-in the night before], but we have found that Gate1 really knows how to run a tour to avoid crowds and get the best stuff done!  We entered the Numbi Gate, down the Voortrekker Rd, past Jock of the Bushveld, up the Malelane-Skukuza Rd. and, after lunch and shopping at Skukuza, we exited the Phabeni Gate by way of the Doispane Rd.  I only put all this in to make myself sound like I know something.  These are the paved roads and we spent a lot of time bumping over dirt roads and skidding off corners in the middle of who-knows-land.  But the point being, that we tooled around perhaps ¼ of the park in a day, from dawn to supper-time.  I’m not going to write much; here are some photos.

The Big 5
We saw a leopard, the most elusive of the Big 5, but could not get a photo.



"White" Rhino

4 of the Ugly 5

Crocodile and hippopotami

Hyena--It's been a hard day's night


Impala.  The have an "M" on their rump for McDonalds = fast food


Cape buffalo



Fishing eagle                              Burchell's starling

Blacksmith lapwing  [who names birds, anyway?]       I call this one Carol's stilted crestwart

Our driver Sanky was a master at his craft, we discovered.  So at the beginning of the day, we’re goggling over elephants and Sanky says, “If you see something you want to photograph, let me know.”

Sanky and his "mother", a term of respect

At one point he speeds up leaving a dust cloud behind; we’re all point to elephants and giraffe but he pays us no mind!  An elephant takes offense at our speed and charges!  Sanky pays no mind!  We’re beginning to think Sanky has lost his ever-loving mind, when he get us to a pod of vehicles overlooking a cheetah mom and 3 cubs!  We caught a photo as the mom slinked off.

2 cheetah babies: “MOM!!  What’s up, mom!?!?”

Thus we found out that all the drivers of the safari-jeeps were in constant contact via radio; if one saw one of the Big 5, they all went haring over to the site for the sight [so to speak].
And that was enough for one day.  At a rough count we got 350 photos that day, most of them stunning.  We bussed back to Hazyview for a rest and supper.  A number of folks went out to an elepahnt ranch; another group went back to Kruger for a ride in the dark.  Both got drowned in a cloudburst.  It was dramatic even at the hotel, where even the frogs came in out of the rain!
A clever frog in the bar at Hazyview, where the wifi is