transitions

Our plan for the summer took a detour. The original plan was to enjoy the sea for the hot months somewhere in our travels. We thought a month on the sunny Mediterranean island of Crete for July and then a stay in August on the mountainous Atlantic island of Madeira off the coast of Africa would be perfect.

Anyone who, like us, grew up far from the ocean might understand our longing to spend a seaside summer. All we had to do was figure out how to get from Crete to Madeira.

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That’s when detouring to Rome stepped in. The cheapest flights from Crete to Madeira stopped in Rome. Really? Well, in that case…. Why not stop in Rome for a few days? No seaside there, but, you know, break up the long flight? So, we wedged in five days in Rome, between Crete and Madeira.

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Flights from Crete (right) to Rome (center), and 5 days later, on to Madeira (left)

We’ve been to Rome before so (we thought) this should be an easy transition. Maybe not. And the transition to Madeira after Crete should be simple. Maybe not as easy as we thought.

On Crete we lived in a very small studio close to the sea, a great AirBnB find. We easily explored the small town from one end to the other and spent many days at the beach. We enjoyed cooking again – using the many wonderful fruits and vegetables grown on the island. When we did go out to eat, a glass of raki was always offered at the end of the meal.

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CRETE: the Venetian harbor in Chania

In Rome we stayed in a small hotel room in the heart of the city. We navigated traffic on the urban streets, and the city was too large to explore end to end on our daily walks. The hotel served huge breakfasts (too early), and we dined in the evening at trattorias. Fewer vegetables and little fruit were offered. Now we dined on pasta. Limoncello was served at the end of the meal. Who could resist the occasional gelato?

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ROME: the Pantheon

In Madeira we settled into a very large 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom AirBnB, so large we don’t know what to do with so much space. A large balcony looks out to a panoramic view of the harbor and the ocean. The small city, Funchal, clings to the mountainsides, and its verticality will make it impossible for us to fully explore it, while we’re here. That’s ok; it’s beautiful. The grocery store’s most prominent offering is seafood, with stacked piles of dry salt cod rising up by the shelf-full. Vegetable choices are limited, compared to Crete. The after dinner drink is (naturally) Madeira wine.

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MADEIRA: Monte Palace Tropical Gardens in Funchal

Crete, Rome, and Madeira are politically and culturally European, but our experience shows how very different they are. We have enjoyed those differences. That took us by surprise. Who knew? Adjusting to differences and enjoying the differences is what makes travel so interesting. In that sense, upcoming transitions produce anticipation, rather than stress.

 

August 2014

 

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Walking for more than exercise

We walk every day. We like to walk, and walking 10,000 steps or more daily is good for our health, so why not? We always try to find a place offering scenic views, presenting a choice of routes, and promising appealing destinations. Rome is one of those places.

On a quiet, drizzling Sunday morning in Rome, we headed for St Peter’s. We expected to see a crowd lined up in the square, but instead, we looked out over a sea of umbrellas.

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Another day we agreed to wander back streets and window shop on our way to the Pantheon. Time quickly passed as we studied men’s shirts, sunglasses, and leather bags, all beautifully displayed in shop windows. Easily distracted by shop windows, we occasionally missed a turn or two. “No worries.” We stopped, looked at the map, and “recalculated” our course.

Finally the Pantheon appeared before us. What one notices first is its grand scale: columns, doorway, statues, and interior space with no supports.

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The Pantheon, after all these centuries, remains one of the greatest works of architecture and still has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

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On the return walk to our hotel, we decided we weren’t finished with window-shopping when we saw this arcade.

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On several walks, we set out towards Castel Sant’Angelo, first built as the Mausoleum of Hadrian. From the Castel, we would continue over St. Angelo Bridge, a pedestrian crossing over the Tiber River. Lined with sculptures of angels, the bridge provides a wonderful place for photography with backdrops of the Castel and St Peter’s.

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Angel with the superscription” was sculpted by Bernini and his son. The angel on the bridge is a copy of the original, now in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.

On a hot summer day, we walked along the meandering Tiber River on the shaded sidewalk lined by old sycamore trees. We kept our eye out for gulls on the river and photographed an odd flower or two.

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We continued on to the trendy, old Trastevere neighborhood. We had no destination in mind and (happily!) stumbled upon the piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Portions of the church date back to 340 C.E., making it one of the oldest churches in Rome.

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The mosaics on the church front date back to the 12th century.

Our everyday walks around Rome were not “every day” in the sense of “your average,” and, while we got our exercise (10,000 steps or more), we also observed history, architecture, art, nature, and enjoyed some people-watching, too.

 

August 2014

 

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A meal so good we had to return

Usually a great meal is about more than just the food. For years the memory of a meal we had in Rome has stayed fresh in our minds.

We had arrived in Rome late, tired, and hungry. Beth’s cousins, Susie and Tom, were with us. We checked into our rooms quickly and were out the back door of the hotel in minutes in search of a good meal. Look no further! Straight ahead of us – across the narrow alley – was the door to a little neighborhood gathering place, Trattoria Boccon Divino. The place was crowded and cheery. The smells that wafted our way were heavenly. Perfect. We started to go in, but Tom held back.

He wanted to see a menu. Would he be able to find something he liked? Was it affordable? The rest of us tried to reassure him, since we were so hungry and tired, but he wasn’t buying it. The owner approached. No menus in English, he said, just tell me what you like. We did. Tom was still skeptical. The owner turned to Tom. “I will bring you plates, and you will like them, I’m sure. If there is anything you don’t like, we won’t charge you for that dish. Agreed?” Tom agreed.

Many plates came out of the kitchen – warm and soul-satisfying food. We ate happily. Had we ever had a meal this wonderful? One dish was hardly touched but only because we’d all run out of room.

The owner materialized and swept away the almost full plate with a “no charge”. We insisted that it was very good, and we wanted to pay for all the dishes, but he wouldn’t hear of it. No, he would not permit us to pay for the one half-eaten plate of food. The bill was so reasonable and the food so good that, if ever again in Rome, we had to return….

Ten years later, the two of us did return. We strolled into the neighborhood, found the little side street, Via Del Pavone 30, and there was Osteria Del Pavone. It was spruced up, had a new name, but it was definitely the same location.

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One feature was the same. The menu was written in Italian on a board on the wall. A very nice woman, who spoke some English, waited on us, and we discussed the menu. We chose two very simple dishes to share: pasta with tomato sauce and a plate of mixed vegetables. It sounds ridiculously basic, but seemed just right for that night.

A true test for a chef is getting a simple dish to taste heavenly. With basic dishes there is nowhere to “hide”. Ingredients and technique need to be flawless, because anything less than perfect is so easily detected. The chef had done it. Our meal was marvelous, really excellent!   A second great meal in that memorable place justified our return.

We talked to our server after we’d eaten and told her of our visit ten years ago. She said the current owners had come five years ago, and she didn’t know anything about the previous restaurant that had been there, our much-loved Trattoria Boccon Divino.   So, there is no going back (in this case). The trattoria from ten years ago, with the kind owner and terrific chef, is gone. In their place was the wonderful little Osteria Del Pavone. If we come back to Rome, we’ll have to return….

 

August 2014

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“Closed for renovation” opened as a parting gift

A problem arose for us, and you will not be surprised by it, if you are a frequent traveler. We planned our trip on the internet some time in advance. Changes don’t always get documented on the internet and guidebooks, and travelers may find out too late (!) that a restaurant is shuttered, a museum has closed for renovation, or hours for a site have changed.

We had planned a one-month visit to Crete and arranged a side-trip to see the Heraklion Archaeology Museum. When did we discover that the Museum was closed for extensive renovations? We caught up with that news long after our itinerary was set and a hotel room reserved.   Disappointment… resignation…we adjusted our plans and scratched the museum.

When we arrived at our hotel in Heraklion, we mentioned the Archaeology Museum. The hotel receptionist said she read in the newspaper a few days earlier that the Museum had just reopened! What good news! We reverted to our original plan, put the museum back into the schedule.

What a gift! We spent many hours in the museum studying the collection, starting in the first room with the earliest Minoan pieces. As we moved through the collection, the time period moved forward and ended with the Classical Greek and Roman periods, covering a span of 5,500 years  The evolution of materials, techniques, and symbolism over the years became more sophisticated.   We only left the Museum when we had run out of energy to go on.

Sifting through photos afterwards only emphasized something we’d noticed as we went through the galleries: we thought many of the 3,000 to 4,000 year old pieces had a contemporary look.

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Gold jewel from Malia, 1800 BC

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If it hadn’t been for their cracks, these many thousand year old cups look like something we’d see on a store shelf.

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Ceramic mosaic pieces, probably used as inlaid decoration on a piece of furniture. 1700-1600 BC

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Minoan bull’s head

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Clay larnakes, replaced wooden coffins. They were painted by folk artists in prehistoric Crete and reminded us somewhat of other folk art, Pennsylvania Dutch chests.

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Circular shrine model from the late 9th century BC. The goddess, inside with raised arms, is observed by two men and an animal through an opening in the roof.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum had been closed for renovations for over 7 years. As travelers, we know how lucky we were to get to visit so soon after its reopening – a beautiful farewell gift from the island of Crete. Thank you!

 

July 2014

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How to capture the essence of the place in travel photos

We wheeled our suitcases down the street towards the harbor, and all we could think was, “This is a gorgeous place! We can’t wait to start taking photos.”

Other photographers filled the old town snapping iconic views of the Venetian lighthouse and the harbor. Sure, we eventually took photos of all those, too, but wanted to go beyond the standard “postcard” snaps.

As we wandered through Chania, Crete for the month, we discovered our own iconic views. Some themes we used for capturing our photo-story are listed below:

Architectural details – with a splash of color:

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Walkways are narrow, colorfully painted, and flowering vines are everywhere.

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Windows, stairways, stone blocks.

 

Animals make a nice addition to a photo:

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Cats and dogs, many stray, are all over Chania and are tolerant of the many visitors to the island.

 

Weather–related details improve the story:

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A different way to photograph the walkway along the sea came when a storm off the coast caused the sea water to spill on to the sidewalk

 

Public art tells its own story:

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We walked out of the old part of town along the sea. No tourists in this area! A statue graced a small park on the bluff looking down to the water.

 

Antiquity adds character:

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Old and crumbling buildings are common through the old town. This was a favorite.

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One of the archaeological sites in Chania.

In the end, our photographs should record our personal experience and trigger our memories of a beautiful month spent on a sunny Greek island. Each photo should be like a short story with its own tale. Yes, take a few of those iconic shots, but we think you might add a few that tell your story and that truly capture the time and place.

 

July 2014

 

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Searching for a great food experience?

Savvy travelers read reviews and seek out the best restaurants wherever they may be in the world. Can we be brave enough to say they might be missing some of the very best tasting experiences out there? So far in our travels around the world, we’d judge the most delicious fruits and vegetables are found in the farm markets on the island of Crete.

Maybe it’s the long and hot sunny days – day after day – that produce those delicious tastes? Summers here bring very little rain and maybe that’s the key. We’ve tried peaches and a few kinds of melon in Crete, and each has been intensely sweet – the effect of dry growing conditions, we think.

We purchased whole melons at the Thursday and Saturday farm markets in Chania, at the large grocery, and purchased cut and wrapped pieces at an outdoor neighborhood market on our lane. No matter. Melons are perfectly ripe at the time of sale and oh-so-tasty. The lovely looking peaches bear scant relation to the fruit by that name we’ve eaten in years past. Crete peaches are – in a word – luscious.

Did we mention the cost for such tasty produce? It embarrasses us to say how little we paid for the bounty we carted home each week from the farm market. It’s even more embarrassing that some of the vendors smiled and whisked us away with a wave meaning “no charge” when we tried to buy a single red pepper or only 2 lemons.

Our first visit to the market put us in a tizzy trying to convert the weight (from kilos into pounds) and the money (euros to dollars). Hmm. We hesitated while Beth did the math calculations. The price was a fraction of what we used to pay back hom – or in Australia, or New Zealand – where we’d just spent six months.

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We brought home several bags from the farm market and our total outlay was €6.60 ($8.80) for all of this.

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The oranges were lovely and we ate them every day. The price of €2 for 10 kilos converts to $2.60 for 22 pounds (which is 12 cents/pound).

We’d never read anything about Crete’s wonderful food – specifically its produce. We’re guessing it’s because most visitors eat all of their meals in the local tavernas and cafes. If so, a great experience is missed when not tasting produce straight from the farm market.

Great food doesn’t always come from a master chef. The taste of a fresh melon or peach on Crete would prove that point.

We were a little taken aback on our walk from the swimming beach when we saw octopus hanging out to dry by the sidewalk.

We were a little taken aback on our walk from the swimming beach when we saw octopus hanging out to dry by the sidewalk.

 

June 2014

 

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Her past is her treasure

Chania has quite a past, and she’s not afraid to show it. Buildings and architectural features from her many past encounters are common in the town. Started in the Neolithic period as a Minoan settlement, Chania (Crete) has been ruled by Greece (in the classical period), Rome, Byzantium, Arabs, Venice, occupied by Germany, and now, Greece.

So, it shouldn’t have surprised us on one of our evening walks in Chania when we came upon a fenced-in archaeological site right in the old city.

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The Kastelli Hill site is being excavated by a Greek-Swedish team. The Minoan settlement dates back to 3000 BC and was mostly destroyed by fire in 1450 BC.

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The findings from Kastelli Hill were moved to the Chania Archaeological Museum, formerly the Venetian Monastery.

We knew we wanted to see the findings from this site, as well as others from the surrounding area.   The museum is conveniently located in the heart of the old town and had a minimal entrance fee. Signage was in Greek and English.

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Minoan pots, 1700 BC – 1100 BC

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Necklaces with beads were found in chamber tombs, 1400 BC – 1200 BC

Bronze helmet from a Corinthian workshop, 7th century BC 

Bronze helmet from a Corinthian workshop, 7th century BC

Found in a chamber tomb, late Minoan, 1300 BC – 1250 BC 

Found in a chamber tomb, late Minoan, 1300 BC – 1250 BC

Minoan seals were made of stone, bone, elephant or hippopotamus tooth. We liked seeing the imprints of each seal in the display. 

Minoan seals were made of stone, bone, elephant or hippopotamus tooth. We liked seeing the imprints of each seal in the display.

For a small but historically important town, the Chania Archaeological Museum provided a view to the long ago past and gave us a deeper appreciation of how it all started.

A painter worked in the quiet courtyard as we left the museum.

A painter worked in the quiet courtyard as we left the museum.

 

July 2014

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