A trip inspired by a photo and a ring

Years ago we visited Florence, Italy – but only for a week. One week is not long enough! When it came time to plan a longer stay, we hoped Beth’s brother, Tom, and his wife, Barbara, would join us.

We had a sentimental attachment to Florence, and it started with this photo. The earliest photo of Beth and Tom’s parents as a couple was taken in Florence, Italy.

Dad bought Mom’s wedding ring from a gold jeweler on the bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. They were married in Florence in 1945.

Beth and Tom’s parents died many years ago, and Tom inherited Mom’s wedding ring. When Tom married Barbara 26 years ago, they used that same gold ring from Florence.

Could we convince Tom and Barbara to join us in Florence? We searched a year in advance for the perfect AirBnB apartment to share, and we found it! Beth wrote an email to Tom and Barbara and invited them to join us. They immediately accepted.

So, a year later, we all headed over to the medieval bridge, Ponte Vecchio, in Florence.

Tom and Barbara posed for the camera on the bridge. Barbara’s ring made it back 73 years later to where it was purchased.

What a lovely moment! We couldn’t believe we were all in Florence together.

We headed from there to see the Boboli Gardens and next door to the Bardini Gardens (pictured in the photo).

During their visit, we planned trips to the major must-see sites in Florence, like the Uffizi.

We also allowed time to just wander to discover what there was to see.

It was a sentimental and sweet journey for all of us that started on a bridge 73 years ago in Florence, Italy.

 

April 2018

 

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Spending a Month on an Island: Corfu

We planned to stay at an apartment, in a small town (population is almost 40,000), on an island (population of 97,000). Does that sound limiting to you?   It did give us pause. Would there be enough to see and do?

We visited the Old Fortress in Corfu straightaway. Now what?

When we stood on the ramparts of the Old Fortress we could see a windmill in the far distance. A few days later we walked down the coast to see it up close.

On our first rainy day we headed for the Museum of Asian Art of Corfu. It seemed a strange location for what turned out to be amazing collection. We spent most of our time looking at two areas of the museum, the collections donated by Gregorios Manos and Jason Deighton-Sarzetakis + Yiannis Sarzetakis. The latter collection had unusual pieces we’d never seen the likes of in any museum.

We categorized “Oriental” rugs in one group but our knowledge was expanded with the stunning display of woven Baluch rugs.

The more we saw icons on Corfu, the more interested we became. We considered purchasing one to hang with the miniature painting of St. Michael we bought in Cuzco, Peru. At one shop the owner advised us to learn something about icons before making a commitment, and she sent us off on a search to see some of the very old works.

An icon in the Church of St. Jason and St. Sosipater.

We’re not sure that we even scratched the surface learning about icons, but we did buy a very small, hand-painted (and affordable) one that will look great next to St. Michael in our future cottage.

One other piece we wanted to buy was at Myrto Zirini Ceramics. When we were at her shop, she highly recommended a tour of Patounis Soap Factory.

The owner gave us a very good introduction to making soap, and, believe us, it was more interesting than you might think.

Our most frequent visits were to the park at Mon Repos. An old chapel on its grounds dates back to the 16th century, but this piece of art was on an exterior church wall built centuries later.

The biggest disappointment, and not just for visitors, has been the long closure of the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. (We can only assume this is due to the financial setback in Greece.)

A challenge for us is finding a suitable place to stay – and that’s especially true for a month-long visit. How lucky we were to have found the perfect place to stay in the Old Town!

We climbed up many, many stairs to get to the AirBnB flat, but once there, were rewarded with the best views of the town and across the water to snowy peaks.

The month flew by too quickly, and, by the end, we realized that there were still places to see and things we’d not yet done. It was hard saying goodbye.

 

 

April 2018

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What is “old” for a traveller?

We are no longer young, and neither, for that matter, is Corfu. Age is a relative thing. Corfu’s Old Town, where we stayed, has both an Old Fortress and a New Fortress.

The origins of the Old Fortress date back to the 6th century while the construction of the New Fortress started in the 16th century.

When “new” is 500 years old, then “old” is a hard concept to define. In the U.S., objects are considered antiques when they are older than 100 years. No wonder we’re confused.

This building looked classic – and old – to us. The Governor’s Palace, also called the Palace of St. Michael and St. George, was constructed in 1824. It houses the excellent Asian Art Museum.

Nearby was the Church of Virgin Mary Mandrakina, built in the 18th century.

The large Orthodox Cathedral of Corfu Town, Panagia Spiliotissa (Madonna of the Cave), looks out to the harbor. The church was built in 1577 and now houses the remains of the (headless) empress St. Theodora.

The oldest Christian Church in Corfu, the Church of Sts. Jason and Sosipater, was built in the 11th century. It’s considered the most important Byzantine monument.

We suppose that these buildings were all considered on the “new” side of construction. Now we wanted to see the “old” ruins of Corfu, so we headed just south of Corfu Town where there existed an ancient city in the area of Mon Repos. The archaeological site was termed Paleopolis (meaning “old city”).

The place we were most excited to explore was the Kardaki Temple, which dated back to 510 BCE. It was a Doric Temple dedicated to Apollo, 26 meters long (11 columns) by 12 meters wide (6 columns).

Little remains to visualize how it looked 2,500 years ago.

We noticed a very narrow path into the woods at the edge of the temple. We made our way slowly down the path and came to a low, stone wall.

That’s when we saw the ramp and steps leading down to (we assumed) a beach.

As we walked down the steps we heard splashing water, which we thought was waves on the shore. As it turned out, it was the Kardaki Springs we had read about!

The Kardaki Springs’ water used to flow from a carved lion’s head.

That’s when the story came back to us how the Kardaki Temple had been discovered. In 1822 water no longer flowed from the Kardaki Spring to the nearby town. When the springs were inspected, it was discovered that an unknown ancient temple ruins had collapsed and caused a landslide which resulted in the blockage. It was then that the Temple dedicated to Apollo was discovered and became known as the Kardaki Temple.

In the evening, we researched nearby archaeological sites on our computer and then headed off on our daily walks to pay a visit to these old ruins – watching birds and photographing wildflowers along the way.

One of the last sites we walked to, near the Corfu airport, demonstrated “new” construction incorporating an old foundation. The 11th century church of Panayia Neradziha was built into the 5th century BCE city wall.

In our month-long visit to Corfu, we never quite made it to all the “old” and “new” sites on our list. Still, we left satisfied. We’d seen much more than we ever thought possible.

 

April 2018

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A tradition of 400 years (and we almost missed it)

It started with curiosity about the red steeple we viewed from our bedroom window in Corfu. With a google search we discovered it was the Greek Orthodox Church of St Spyridon. (Who?) Another google search informed us that St Spyridon, an early bishop of the church, lived in Cyprus from 270-348. It’s a long story, but over a thousand years later, when the Turks took over Constantinople in 1453, a monk brought his remains to Corfu.   The remains now reside in the same Church of St Spyridon that we see from our window.

A few days later another google search led us to discover that one of the biggest events of the year in Corfu is the procession to honor St Spyridon held every year on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday.

We didn’t want to miss it, but we misunderstood a shopkeeper and thought the procession was in the evening. Bells rang on Palm Sunday morning, and we heard the bands playing. Late morning, we took off for our daily walk, down steps, and through the narrow pedestrian lanes of Old Town.   In the distance we saw crowds and knew the procession had started without us!

As we watched the procession, Greek Orthodox priests followed the banner….

…and under the gold canopy was a small windowed box carrying the remains of St Spyridon, who died 1,670 years ago. We couldn’t believe that we arrived at the procession just in time.

However, we were totally confused about the connection of St Spyridon to the tradition of this 400 year-old procession. Here’s the story (again found in a google search): The plague came to Corfu in 1629, and people gathered at the Church of St Spyridon to pray to the saint for his protection. When only 60 people died from plague on the island, Corfiots attributed the miracle to the intercession of St Spyridon. He became the patron saint of the island. The next year, a procession was started on Palm Sunday and has continued every year since to honor the saint.

All 18 philharmonic bands from Corfu participated in the procession.

It appeared from the size of the crowds that most of the townspeople were either in the procession or came out to watch.

The procession passed through many narrow lanes in the old, historic town, before emerging in the large esplanade. We watched as it passed the Palace of St. Michael and St. George.

The end was appropriately at the Church of St Spyridon where participants filed into the church to give thanks.

We had to shake our heads in wonder that we had any doubts about coming to Corfu for a month in “off-season.” The opportunity to have observed the Palm Sunday procession, an enduring tradition of almost 400 years, was a truly memorable travel experience.

One of the last banners returned to the church and that ended the procession for us.

 

 

April 2018

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Off-season turns into the best time to visit

We arrived to a quiet Corfu – ahead of the beach season, ahead of other tourists. Some shuttered shops and restaurants had not yet opened. We knew that would soon change when we saw repairs underway and paint being applied as the days turned warmer. Anticipation was in the air. The first week we spent wandering and observing the narrow lanes of the Old Town, our new neighborhood.

A very thin strip of a park in full bloom diverted our attention from the sea just meters away.

On a good weather day we decided to walk to the British Cemetery and that is when we discovered the glories of Corfu in the spring.

First, we wondered how the British came to have such a high profile in Corfu.   After the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Corfu became a British protectorate. After a rocky relationship that lasted only 50 years, Corfu left Britain and joined the kingdom of Greece. Still, it seemed the British had not entirely left. Tourism from the UK remained high and many Brits have made Corfu their home. Probably the most famous British residents were the Durrell family, the subject of the popular TV series, “The Durrells in Corfu.Lawrence and Gerald Durrell went on to become well-known authors.

The British Cemetery dates back to 1814 and became the Anglican final resting place on Corfu.

Almost all of the gravestones recorded deaths of people under 30 years of age from the 19th century. Still, it was a very peaceful place.

Some flowers had been planted but wildflowers appeared here and there. We read later that 30 species of orchids can be found in the Cemetery.

We planned to return and see how many we could find. Now the search was on. How many wildflowers could we see and photograph on the island? What a delightful prospect!

Another day, with cameras ready, we headed for Mon Repos. As we approached, we walked on a narrow sidewalk by a high stone wall and there, at eye level, we were delighted to see a profusion of wildflowers.

What could be a more perfect place for wildflower photography? We’d never seen a summer asphodel before (asphodelus aestivus). When we researched this plant we discovered its connection with the underworld in Greek mythology.

White ramping-fumitory (fumaria capreolata) was a new one for us and rather difficult to photograph with its soft white edges.

Finally we saw Mon Repos through the trees. The house was built in 1828 on a promontory over the sea.

Mon Repos became a summer residence for the Greek royal family and was the birthplace of Prince Philip, now Duke of Edinburgh, in 1921. The property is now owned by Greece.

Clearly, springtime on Corfu is the perfect time to look for wildflowers and the weather is ideal for long walks. What might be off-season for some turned into the right season for us. On our daily strolls we pulled out our cameras and started a new photo collection – the wildflowers of Corfu. What better souvenir to remember our visit to the island? This was truly an unexpected find.

 

March 2018

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No perfect place for next

Several years ago we started to plot out where to go on this year’s round-the-world trip.   The beginning fell right into place.

We’d spend January and February in Laos and Cambodia. (Photo of Ta Prohm in Siem Reap, Cambodia.)

As for the end of the trip – we were delighted with our plan to spend April and early May in Italy. (Photo of the Pantheon taken during our last trip to Rome.)

Somehow we just couldn’t figure out a good place to go in between. Where to go for the month of March?

It seemed logical to find a destination mid-way between Cambodia and Italy – but that would put us in Afghanistan or Iran. Hmmm….probably not. To keep our airfare relatively low, we didn’t want to stray too far off course.

The search was discouraging as we plotted what the weather in March would be in a number of possible destinations. Not surprisingly, relatively cool and rainy weather was the forecast everywhere we looked. We spent too much time trying to figure this out, and there was no getting away from the fact that we did have to go SOMEWHERE. So, here’s what we finally decided:

We had loved our summer stay a few years before in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete.

Along with the rest of the world, a few years ago we had watched many islands in Greece take in large numbers of refugees in transit from Syria and other countries. Why not go back to Greece as a thank you?

The weather would not be wonderful, that was understood. The average high in March would be 61 F with 3.5” of rain. Still, we could do what we love to do each day – walk, explore, take photos, read.

We noted that Corfu was not totally closed up in March so decided to look to see if we could find a great place to stay – and we did! (Photo taken from the AirBnB’s bathroom window looking over to the mainland of western Greece and Albania.)

The Old Town of Corfu, where we would be staying, is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, described as “ located in a strategic position at the entrance of the Adriatic Sea, and has its roots in the 8th century BC. The three forts of the town, designed by renowned Venetian engineers, were used for four centuries to defend the maritime trading interests of the Republic of Venice against the Ottoman Empire. In the course of time, the forts were repaired and partly rebuilt several times, more recently under British rule in the 19th century. The mainly neoclassical housing stock of the Old Town is partly from the Venetian period, partly of later construction, notably the 19th century. As a fortified Mediterranean port, Corfu’s urban and port ensemble is notable for its high level of integrity and authenticity.”

Once we had arrived on Corfu we realized it would be a wonderful stay.

The Old Fortress of Corfu

 

 

March 2018

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A hotel nightmare solved in a most unusual way

Traveling non-stop for over 5 years (that’s almost 2,000 nights on the road in hotels and AirBnBs) comes with surprises. We can still be thrilled with the rare, truly great place to stay – as well as annoyed that on occasion we find ourselves staying at a pretty inferior place. The ups and downs of life on the road offer another nightmare story with a happy ending.

Most people think that the better the on-line reviews are for a place to stay, the happier you’ll be. It doesn’t always work that way for us.

Fortunately, we landed at the well-reviewed Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia – one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. Khmer Mansion staff knew our names and made our stay memorable. We were offered a seat at check-in and this is how we were greeted.

But here’s where the story takes a twist – a plunge into regret and despair.

We had planned a long stay of 22 nights in Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Archaeological Sites. The visit was so long we decided to stay in two hotels: Khmer Mansion for our first 10 nights with our friends, Cliff and Ruth; then we would move to a slightly less expensive hotel nearby for our last 12 nights. Both hotels had great reviews at on-line sites, and we assumed the modest price difference was due to the less expensive hotel not having a pool.

Oh, regret washed over us as we climbed the 8 flights of steps to our 4th floor room at the less expensive hotel. When we opened the door to our room, we saw a shabby room with a broken faucet in the bathroom and under-functioning air-conditioner. The next day we were moved to another “deluxe” room that was better – except for all the mosquitoes that welcomed us to that room.

How did we deal with the situation? We walked over to Khmer Mansion and asked if we could come back. They were fully booked the next 4 nights, but they would reserve a room for us to stay our last 7 nights. That left us 4 more nights at the less expensive hotel.

What to do now? It was unlikely we’d be able to break the non-refundable reservation at the less expensive hotel. That would mean paying for both hotels. When we looked online at booking.com to understand our options, we noted that our less expensive hotel had dropped its rate by 50% since we had initially reserved the room. So, now we were paying double the going rate for a very inferior hotel with a nonrefundable reservation.

What happened next seemed quite unbelievable to us. The manager at the less expensive hotel understood our problem and was willing to help. We called booking.com from Cambodia using Skype and directly spoke to an agent, Patricia, who listened to the problem and was sympathetic. She agreed to directly call the hotel manager to see what could be done while she placed us on hold. Five minutes later she returned with a new booking confirmation, allowing us to pay only for the nights we were staying until we moved back to Khmer Mansion.

Initially, the problem seemed to have no solution that we could see. Who would have expected such generosity from the manager of the less expensive hotel? And who would have expected such great service from one of the online travel booking companies? Thanks so much, booking.com!

We walked down the shady path to the entrance of Khmer Mansion….

…and by the bowl of flowers in the lobby.

What we knew we could expect was to be warmly welcomed back to Khmer Mansion Boutique Hotel – and we were!

 

 

March 2018

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