Ronda, Zahara, and Setenil In A Day

If my son’s number one thing to see in Spain was the Alhambra in Granada, mine was the bridge in Ronda and the white towns of Andalucía. I knew our best opportunity to get there would be from our stay in Seville, so I did some research. The more I read, the more I became overwhelmed with the logistics of it. We could get to Ronda and a couple white towns on a group tour, but we would miss the town we most wanted to see. We could rent a car, but I realized that would be zero fun for the driver, aka me, and we would miss the cultural aspect provided by having a local show us around. So, I splurged and booked a guide/driver for a private tour.

A good tour guide can make all the difference between a positive, enriching experience and a miserable one. We lucked out. Enrique picked us up on time at 9:30, took the locations we wanted to see into account, and planned the day for us. It turned out that he and I had many things in common, and the conversation between the three of us was continual and easy. During our time in the car together, driving to the first town, then to Ronda, then to the second town, and then back to Seville, we discussed professions, politics, religion, climate change, travel, and more. I was so glad I spent the extra money to hire a private guide. One of the most important aspects of travel is the opportunity to learn about life in this different place from someone who lives it. Enrique got us to everything we wanted to see, avoided the traffic that would have ruined a day in a rental car or large bus on a busy tourist Saturday, taught us many things about his life in Spain, and made us interlopers feel welcome. Priceless.

While we had picked two things we wanted to see, we let the expert choose the last destination for us. He chose Zahara de la Sierra, a picture-perfect white town in the hills. In my research, I had seen photos of this town, and it did not disappoint. Perched on a hill with the remains of a fortress above it and a reservoir below it, Zahara is somehow quaint yet impressive. The fortress atop the hill was built in the 13th century by the Moors who held that territory at that time. We discussed hiking up and around it the fort, but decided we wanted to spend more time in our other destinations, so we simply walked the small town, taking photos, and enjoying the beautiful day.

Our next stop was Ronda, which Enrique told us would be busy. He was not wrong. This town (technically a city of 34k people) has surged in popularity since photos of its 18th century bridge, which spans a deep gorge separating the old town from the new town, became widely circulated on the Internet. I often see the bridge pop up in the rotating photos on my Echo Show. There are actually three bridges that span the El Tajo gorge and connect the two sections of the clifftop town. We walked to and over each of the bridges in turn, taking in the scenery before heading into the town. The famous Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) is the most impressive.

Labeled the Most Romantic Town in Spain, there are cute shops, pedestrian streets, and plenty of restaurants. I can’t attest to how romantic is it, but it is definitely popular and busy. Perhaps the most famous attraction in the town, aside from the bridge, is the bullring. Built between 1779-1785, it is the only bullring in Spain constructed entirely of stone (rather than stone and brick) and it offers covered seating. Enrique told us that bullfighting in Spain is highly controversial. Some consider it cruel and would like it discontinued, while others contend that it is part of Spain’s unique cultural heritage and should be continued as a tradition. I understand the arguments on both sides and, because I am not Spanish, I will refrain from offering my opinion in that debate. I will, however, be interested to see what happens with it.

It was lunchtime, so Enrique guided us to a local restaurant that offered many traditional dishes. Joe had a beer and we shared several tapas, the mushroom croquetas being our favorite. Joe and I also tried the fried anchovies stuffed with ham and piquillo peppers. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I generally only like anchovies in small amounts, but these were pretty interesting.

Afterward, we traveled to the spot where the most iconic photos of the Puente Nuevo are taken so we could add ourselves to the long list of people who have been there. We took the requisite selfies because you gotta. It felt incredible to be standing there finally, years after I discovered its existence and decided I had to see it in person. We didn’t linger long because we were excited to get to our next destination and optimize our time there, but now when that famous bridge pops up on my Echo Show I think, Hey…I’ve been there!

Our final destination was Setenil de las Bodegas. Joe’s girlfriend had sent him photos after she visited there earlier this year and he immediately sent them to me, asking if there was any way we could get there. After seeing the photos, I knew I had to make it happen.

Setenil consists of buildings and cave homes built under and among rocks in a narrow, protected river gorge. The hilltop fortress above the town was built by the Moors. During the Reconquista, the Christians came to take the fortress, which proved to be more difficult than they expected. Due to the settlement’s hidden placement under rocks beneath it, the Moors were able to surprise their attackers from different angles and directions as they approached the fortress. The story goes that the Christians battled for fifteen days to take the town, trying seven times and failing before finally figuring out how they were being defeated and eventually triumphing. The name of the town is believed to be derived from the Latin “Septem Nihil,” which refers to the seven lost battles, “seven times no.” If you find yourself in Andalucía, do not miss this town. It’s something else.

Enrique led us up back roads and seemingly endless stairways to a lookout point from which we could see the fortress, now surrounded by olive trees. It was easy to see how if you approached from one direction you would have no idea what lurked beneath. Joe and I snapped endless photos and, as we walked, I could not stop muttering to no one in particular random phrases like, “Wow. This is crazy. What? Whoa.” We stopped at a small coffee/dessert shop located in a cave under a large section of rock for an afternoon espresso and torrejas (kind of like a Spanish French toast). Our torrejas came served in a white chocolate sauce. Are you kidding me? It was an apt end to our time precious time in Setenil, sitting at a cafe table outdoors, rock overhead, watching people walk by and cars (yes, cars) pass. When we were preparing to head back to Seville, Joe and I snapped a selfie. Joe did what he often does, posing for the photo with a random expression. I adore viewing my photos at the end of a travel day and finding at least one where Joe’s expression makes me laugh. Love that kid.

We arrived back in Seville around 7:30, ten hours after we had begun our journey. We heartily thanked Enrique for the memorable day and headed off to dinner, tired but not yet ready to throw in the towel. We had a couple last things we wanted to do in Seville, so after dinner we walked 20 minutes to find this structure.

Officially named the Metropol Parasol, it is known more casually as Las Setas (the mushrooms). It is one of the largest wooden structures in the world and at night multicolor lights undulate through the grids. It’s such a juxtaposition to the buildings surrounding it, yet somehow it seems to fit in just fine. I’m glad we went to see it lit up at night. I now wish we had gone up to take in the night view from the top (we didn’t realize you could do that), but at least now I have another reason to return.

Exhausted, we walked back to the hotel and collapsed. Fitbit recorded 23,516 steps and 86 floors for me that day. I would do it again tomorrow.

A Day In Seville

Narrow pedestrian street in Seville

The next stop on our whirlwind Spain trip was Seville. We had limited time there, so I had it planned with little room for error. We hopped on a 6:30 a.m. train from Granada and arrived around 9 a.m. After dropping our bags at our hotel, we hit the Starbucks that was on the way to our tour of the cathedral and the Alcázar.

Although I normally eschew American food chains in other countries, one great thing about them is you usually find foods and beverages you can’t get in the US. And we did. In addition to my compulsory oat milk latte, we ordered bocadillos so we didn’t start our day hungry. Bocadillos had quickly become Joe’s favorite new thing. I mean, how do you go wrong with crusty bread, Jamón Iberico, and manchego cheese? You don’t.

We headed to the meeting spot for our tour and prayed we would find our guide among the throng of tourists. We must have looked lost because someone with a tour group list approached us and got us sorted. The Seville Cathedral (Catedral de Sevilla), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Our guide said it is also the third largest cathedral in the world. I thought the Granada Cathedral was impressive, but this was something else. So large and grand, it was impossible to capture it all (or even most of it) in one photo or in one visit. To demonstrate the scale, I had Joe stand next to a pillar.

Feeling small in the big, wide world

Our guide first showed us an impressively large painting called The Vision of St. Anthony, painted in 1656 by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In 1874, some knuckle-headed thieves cut St. Anthony out of the painting and made off with him. They then attempted to sell the canvas to an art gallery in New York. Fortunately, the owner of the gallery recognized it as the missing piece, bought it for $250, and returned it to the Spanish Consulate. If you look at the section of the painting above St. Anthony’s head you can see a line that shows where the cut was made. Funny to think St. Anthony, patron saint of missing items and lost causes, managed to get himself returned. He does good work. Another item of note in the cathedral are the remains of Christopher Columbus. Yes. THE Christopher Columbus. Or, as our guide explained, about 300 grams of him. No one is entirely certain where the rest of the remains are. But at this time, in the Seville Cathedral there are verified remains of Christopher Columbus, a man who traveled more after his death than during his life. There is also an impressive altar, Altar Mayor. The altar features wood-carved depictions of the lives of Jesus and Mary and took 80 years to complete. Hard to tell from the photograph because of the gates protecting the private chapel, but the altar is 66 feet high and 60 feet wide.

After the cathedral tour, we had the opportunity to climb the Giralda Tower. Thirty-five ramps and 16 stairs transport you the top where Seville spills out in front of you. It was definitely worth the trek up. The tower itself was initially built by the Moors as a minaret, but after the Catholics took over they added a Renaissance-style belfry to complete the tower we see today.

Next stop was the Alcázar of Seville, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. Its name means “fortification” and, indeed, you pass through a fortified stone wall to enter the courtyard where the palace sits. The Alcázar appears Moorish, however it was designed and built by Muslim workers but commissioned by a Christian king more than 100 years post Reconquista. In addition to the ornate palace, there are nearly 25,000 acres of gardens to visit. I wish I could say we had time for all that but, alas, we did not. Still, here are some photos.

Trying to fit in as much of Spanish culture and time with actual citizens as possible on this trip, I had booked a guide for a food tour and a flamenco show. Elena is a Seville native with a foodie instinct. A teacher by day, she does these tours in the evening to fund her love of travel. First, she took us to try an aperitif of Spanish vermouth, white wine fortified with spices, herbs, and botanicals and then aged in barrels. So delicious. Joe and I were surprised how much we liked it. After all, it is called vermouth.

After our aperitif, we went straight into the pork. The Spanish love pork. The black-hoofed hogs that graze on acorns in the Spanish countryside are the reason. The acorns are filled with lovely fats that make their meat like nothing else, melt in your mouth gold, similar to Italian prosciutto but with a more intense flavor. Elena made a point of telling us that these pigs are free range and live great lives, until they become dinner, of course. After eating Jamón Iberico, I began to understand how one would arrive at that justification to ease your ham-eating guilt.

So many different ways to have it prepared, using as much of the animal as possible. All of them are amazing. After our snacks, we headed to a restaurant that prepares serves up Spanish dishes with little modern touches. The food was wonderful and the prices were quite reasonable, so we returned the next night for ensaladilla de Rusa (potato salad with tuna), patatas bravas (potatoes with a red sauce the Spanish call “spicy”), and squid ink spaghetti with scalllops, prawns, and seafood. While we were eating, Elena talked to us about the history of flamenco, the costumes, and the how the performances work. Her father was a student of the different flamenco styles, and he passed his love of the art onto a younger Elena who learned to dance “for the dresses.”

After we were stuffed, we walked to the show. What made it so much more impressive than I expected is that Elena explained that the shows are not choreographed. The music, the vocals, and the dance are all improvised. Clapping by the performers creates a percussive beat. We observed each performer watching the other performers for cues and changes so they could work together to create a cohesive performance. The singers, dancers, and guitarists combine their unique styles of flamenco and somehow manage to finish the performance in sync, despite not being choreographed. At the venue we were at, the performers are changed daily. So it is likely that the five persons on stage have not all performed with each other in that exact combination before, which demonstrates just how improvisational flamenco is. Photos and videos were forbidden during the show, but they did one last short song so we could get the obligatory photo.

The show finished around 9:30 p.m. and, although we had already garnered over 20k steps, we decided to go to the Plaza de España in case we ran out of time for it the following day. Built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 in Maria Luisa Park, the buildings in the plaza form a huge semi-circle and the buildings are accessed by crossing bridges over a moat. It is now is used as a government office building, but you have to see the architecture because it is iconic. We were walking around the plaza and being silly, pretending to fall into the moat and fountains, when we were spied by security personnel. Apparently, we were there past hours. In our defense, the gates were open and nothing suggested we shouldn’t be there until a guard showed up in an electric vehicle and started yelling “Cerrado” at us. Oops. So, I guess the area closes at 10 p.m.

We beat a hasty retreat and returned to explore the hotel. The hotel is music themed with rooms named after famous composers, and it has small salons where musicians can practice. We stopped in at the rooftop patio, which featured a hot tub, a small pool, and a bar. From the roof, we took a pause and our final photos of the day.

The Seville Cathedral lit for the night

Next up, Ronda and the white towns of AndalucÍa.

A Day In Santorini

Santorini. Thira, if you prefer. Even if you don’t know her name, you recognize her from photographs of her whitewashed cave houses intermingled with striking, blue-domed roofs set against the Aegean Sea. She is iconic. Her stunning towns sit on the clifftop precipice of an ancient, sea-filled caldera of a volcano that erupted in 1620 BC. She is a photographer’s dream because it is nearly impossible for her to take a bad picture. I was over the moon when my family agreed to take a cruise to visit a few Greek islands because they have long been on my wish list. And the morning our ship floated into the caldera, my family and I were on deck to take it all in.

Approaching Oia

Our first stop was Oia. The English pronunciation of this village name is Oy-a, but the Greek pronunciation is Ee-a. Either way you say it, nothing can prepare you for what awaits you when you arrive. All the photos you have seen pale by comparison. The white buildings provide a stark contrast to the sea below. The outer streets of Oia village (although it’s hard to call them streets when there are no cars) are lined with restaurants and shops. We found shop after shop with Greek ceramics, clothing, and artwork, along with the requisite touristy shops with more standard souvenirs. The Greeks are open to some respectful bargaining if you want to try it out.

It’s only when you head south, closer to the caldera, that the view opens up to the sea and you gasp. It is everything you thought it would be, but you know your photos won’t adequately portray what you are witnessing.

You traverse narrow, cobblestone pathways, winding up and down past hotels and personal homes, separated from passersby with colorful gates or doors. This is not the place to bring large, wheeled luggage unless you’re sure you will have someone to help you with your bags. Most lodgings possess patios with sea views, and some have shaded trellises or small plunge pools so guests can keep cool. As you stroll by vacationers casually lounging on their sun-soaked patios, you suspect that the lack of privacy is a small price to pay for the privilege of staying here. No one seems to be bothered by the looky-loos. How could you be?

Oia is a selfie paradise. Around every corner is another gorgeous backdrop. Hubby snapped this keeper of me.

Can I stay? Please!

Our next island stop was to a local winery. We sampled a white, a red, and a sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes, along with some Greek mezes. All of this with a view. We quickly purchased a bottle of the sweet wine to carry home. It’s port-adjacent, and that works for us. We also picked up some boxes of baklava and Greek candy to try because it seemed prudent.

After finishing our wine samples and devouring our snacks, we headed to Fira, Oia’s big sister. Oia is the sleepier of the two main cities people visit on the island. While she has her fair share of shops and restaurants, it’s Fira that is known for nightlife. We were only there for the day, so nightlife was not on our radar, but shopping and food were. Fira, like Oia, is comprised of carless walkways meandering up and down in between plentiful shops and restaurants. So many choices and so many stairs! We were grateful it wasn’t raining because those cobbled walkways and stairs would be a slippery nightmare in the wet. Luckily for us, it was a sunny, warm day with not a drop of rain in sight. Welcome to summer in Greece.

We had gotten a recommendation from a local for a specific restaurant and decided to give it a shot. The restaurant was aptly named La Scala (Italian for The Stairs), so we had to go. The restaurant, like the one in this photo, had a lovely patio with a view of the sea. We were early for dinner so we were seated immediately. Our server, a lovely, young Greek woman made our night. Even if the food had been horrible, which is most certainly was not, she would have made our choice worth it.

Once she got us settled with beverages, she came to take our orders. As you can imagine, most Greek dishes sound Greek to us, and Luke was the first victim who had to order. He ordered traditional Greek Moussaka but, unfortunately for him, he pronounced it “MU-sa-ka.” She pretended she didn’t understand what he said, which made him repeat the mispronunciation. She looked at him and said “mu-SA-ka.” Then she gestured for him to repeat it. Terrified, he paused, and then correctly repeated after her, which earned him a kudos from her. When it was Joe’s turn to order, he wisely said, “I’ll have what he’s having.” She had a great laugh over that. All three of my companions ordered the Moussaka, while I tried a Greek pizza that came recommended. Steve and I shared a Santorini salad, which is a decidedly better version of a Greek salad you might find in the US, if you love capers, which we do. When the server came to clear our plates, she looked at Luke and asked if he enjoyed his….she paused to give him the opportunity to pronounce it correctly. He looked at her, laughed, and affirmed he did and left it at that.

When we left La Scala, we headed to the Santorini cable car in Fira for our trip down the cliffside and back to the tender that would return us to our ship.The sun was setting on our day in Santorini. And what a sunset it was as we prepared to say goodbye.

And when we had returned to our ship and decided the day could not become more magical, in the darkness as we sailed away, it did. Who knew Santorini, so beautiful by day, was just as incredible by night.

Life At Sea

Endless sea and sunset

Before I jump into the activities and adventures we did and had in our ports of call, I thought I would clear up the notion of a Sea Day. Until I took my first cruise, the idea of days at sea with nothing to do troubled me. I thought I would be bored. I assumed days floating at sea would be a waste of time and money. Many of my friends who have said they would never take a cruise vacation claim the “wasted days at sea” as their reason. I get it. I felt the same way until I had a day when I had nothing to do, no one to answer to, nowhere to rush off to, and the freedom to do exactly and only what I felt like doing. How many days do adults get like that in their busy lives? Not many.

A day at sea allows you to truly relax. It does not mean you will lack for things to do. Many cruise ships are like floating theme parks with water slides and zip lines and climbing walls. Cruises on Celebrity are aimed more at an adult crowd, though, so their sea day amenities are more about pools, spa treatments, casino time, and fine dining, but the lack of children tearing through the passageways and screaming and splashing at the pool more than make up for that. Cruise directors load the day with potential activities for those who want more and are looking for distraction. There are lectures and art classes, wine tastings and friendly on-board competitions (passenger versus crew pool volleyball and putting tournaments, for example). There are movies and games and ship tours too. At night there are karaoke sing-offs, live music performances, theater shows, comedians, and plenty of opportunities for dancing. If none of that appeals, you can read a book or nap in a deck chair facing the sea or play cards or watch for sea life. We enjoyed searching for dolphin pods and seeing them race and jump and flip alongside the ship. If you get bored at sea, you have no one to blame but yourself.

One activity that costs extra but is well worth the investment is a behind-the-scenes ship tour.Our tour took us through the galleys and into the belly of the ship where food is stored. We learned about how the ship processes recyclables and waste, does epic amounts of laundry, plans their shopping, and stores the food for the journey. On our ship, there were 1500 people employed for food preparation and service alone. We learned about what cruise life is like for those who live on the ship and work in its service. We visited the engine room and learned about what powers the ship and keeps it running smoothly and on time. The final stop on the tour was to the bridge where we learned about what training the captain and officers undertake for their careers, as well as how they bring these huge ships into port. It was fascinating.

When we finished our ship tour, we grabbed some lunch, gawked at the desserts, and then went to a wine tasting with premium wines and cheeses. After that, we sat on deck and enjoyed the view and the peace and each other’s company until it was time to dress for dinner and head to the Raw on 5 restaurant for Joe’s birthday dinner choice….sushi. We topped off our day with some silent disco because why not?

If the notion of a sea day or two on a cruise, where your every need is catered to, vexes you, perhaps it’s time to reassess your priorities. Do you not deserve a day where you don’t have to cook, clean, or care for anything or anyone other than yourself? Have you not earned a day or two with no obligations and thoughtfully prepared, delicious meals served with whatever cocktail calls to you? Come on. Live a little. Become reacquainted with yourself. When the sea day is over and you wake the next morning to find yourself in another exotic port of call, rested and ready to explore, you realize this is why you took this vacation. You’ve let yourself go in the best way possible.

The silent disco is a vibe

Ciao, Roma — Hello, Mediterranean

On the morning of June 11th, it was time to say goodbye to Rome. We had a shuttle arranged for 11:30 a.m. to take us to our cruise ship at Civitavecchia Port. Although we wanted to get to Greece, we didn’t really want to leave Rome. We decided to wake up early and soak in as much last minute street wandering as we could before meeting our ride.

Buongiorno, Roma

Very few people are out and about on Roman streets at 7 a.m. on a Saturday is what we discovered when we opened our balcony doors that day. This was not surprising as people were still out getting gelato and socializing on the streets below us at midnight. We packed our bags and took to the quiet streets. First stop had to be to our coffee place and then we were off to Trevi Fountain again.

Alone at the fountain

Although Steve and the boys had all previously taken the opportunity to throw a coin in the fountain to assure their return to Rome, I hadn’t braved the crowds to get close enough to do it yet. So, with coin in hand, we wandered the last hundred feet to the fountain to find it, for the first time, uncrowded. I had Luke snap a quick photo of me in front of it and then I tossed my coin in. Done. This meant I would certainly return, which eased my mind. From there, we took off in a new direction to discover the Spanish Steps.

The Spanish Steps were created to make the travel up the steep hill from the Piazza di Spagna at the bottom to the Piazza Trinití dei Monti at the top easier. The 135 travertine steps are the widest and longest staircase in Europe. They were not busy that morning, save for the people who were having others photograph them in various poses, photos we assumed would be gracing Instagram pages shortly. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the steps, but I figured you can’t go to Rome and not see them. So, we did. None of us posed for a photo on them for our Insta pages, though, deciding instead simply to enjoy the walk up.

While on our mission to extract euros from an ATM, I snapped photos of details in Roman architecture. I enjoy the small details placed on Roman buildings, intricate facades, imposing doorways, ornate door handles, window baskets filled with flowers. We miss these things in the United States, plopping down endless suburban streets filled with identical homes in HOA-approved colors. It’s all so banal. We have no flair.

I had one last thing I wanted to accomplish before we headed to the cruise port. I had, on our first evening in Rome, spotted a standee cutout of my favorite F1 driver. I only recently acquired a favorite F1 driver after watching Drive to Survive on Netflix in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Monaco Grand Prix next May — fingers crossed. I adopted young Charles Leclerc (he hasn’t requested a restraining order for me yet but he may eventually consider it). I decided to cheer for Charles because reminds me of my oldest with his green eyes, stubbly facial hair, and sweet nature, and he is from Monaco, making him Monagasque (a term I recently discovered exists and relish the opportunity to use). Now, like any mother, I get angry when Charles does not finish a race despite his flawless driving because his car fails him. I’ve tried to take this up directly with Scuderia Ferrari, but they won’t answer my calls. Still, I decided to take a selfie with my adopted son Charles because this is likely as close as I will ever get to him, especially once he gets that restraining order.

Steve tries out the infinity veranda

Eventually, we made our way northwest through the Italian countryside to the port in Civitavecchia. We had jumped through hoops to get to this point, having to pass Covid tests, upload vaccine cards, answer health questions, and swear a blood oath that we were not contagious with anything, but we had made it. We passed through the final embarkation procedures without trouble and boarded our home for the next seven nights, the Celebrity Edge. Our first stop after completing the mandatory safety briefing was to our staterooms. We had booked AquaClass rooms, Celebrity’s spa class, a slightly upgraded experience just below the suite class. Our rooms had the new Infinity veranda, which basically means we had a wall of windows at the back of our cabin that lowered halfway and became an in-room veranda.

We unpacked our bags and decided to tour the ship. I took the boys up to the pool deck and they took off on their own explore from there. We all met up at the buffet for a late lunch. After eating and some more exploring, we headed to the Sunset Bar at the back of the ship to claim a table. We wanted to get a good viewing spot for when we set sail. Steve and I grabbed some Aperol Spritzes, Joe got a Stella, and Luke had a Coke, and we waved goodbye to Rome as we headed south along the Italian coast on our way to the Cyclades.

For the finale to our first ship day, we booked a table for something called Le Petit Chef. We were seated at a table for four set with white linens and white charger plates. There was a set meal for dinner and, as soon as our wine was poured, the lights in the restaurant dimmed and a projection appeared on our table. Basically, the projection used the white tableau as a movie screen and on every table in the restaurant a story played out of a young chef who met a girl and fell in love. Together, they cooked for us. As soon as the projected chef finished preparing the food, servers brought plated food to the table and set it down on the chargers and the food became part of the scene. It’s hard to explain, so I am sharing a couple photos of different scenes on our table, along with a short video. Gotta say it was a pretty touching story as the young couple grew from the spring of their lives to the winter of them. Four courses, four seasons of life. I could have done without the reminder of my own place in the fall of my life, but it was a unique experience I am glad to have shared with the people who mean the most to me.

Next up: A much shorter post covering a quiet day at sea for Joe’s 21st birthday

Touring The Roman Forum, The Colosseum, And The Vatican Museums

Our local coffee spot

For our first, and admittedly only, full day in Rome, I booked us a couple tours so we wouldn’t miss must-see attractions. We all wanted to see the Colosseum and the boys were adamant about going to the Vatican. After grabbing to-go doppio espresso shots and a couple cornetti from a store helmed by the friendliest shop manager ever, we walked towards our tour meeting place near the Roman Forum.

Again, I have to admit that I remember next to nothing from my time studying ancient Rome in college. In my defense, when I studied ancient Rome, it was through the Classics department where I spent my time reading Livy and Virgil in Latin. I wasn’t mapping the Forum Romanum. So I was happy to have an actual Roman tour guide lead us through the ruins, some of which date back to 42 BC. The Forum was a gathering place. It began as a marketplace and over time morphed into much more, serving as central location for public elections, speeches, trials, and religious ceremonies, as well as business dealings. The Forum, the heart and soul of early Rome, expanded in size over time to nearly 5 acres. Walking among the ruins was awe-inspiring. Seeing the Arch of Titus, the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, was pretty cool too. The the view from Palatine Hill was worth the trek up there in the 90+ degree heat.

I think the least notable part of the Forum tour was the Temple of Divus Julius, the final resting place of Julius Caesar. I mean, I don’t know what I expected after 2,000 years, but the dull mound doesn’t exactly rival the Pyramids of Giza. I guess, in the end, it really doesn’t matter how important you are because you will end up a pile of ash just like everyone and everything else. And how many people of Julius Caesar’s importance or notoriety have there been among the multitudes of people since the dawn of upright humanity? Not many. Even the most notable of us today will be forgotten soon enough. It’s a good reminder not to take life too seriously.

After the Forum, we walked to the Colosseum to see what that was all about. Our Italian tour guide was brilliant. She was extremely knowledgable. I was happy that Luke spoke up and answered questions she asked. When she told him he should read SPQR by Mary Beard and he told her he already had, she was visibly impressed. At any rate, stepping foot inside the Colosseum was an experience. You can’t imagine the size and scope of it until you are there. It’s massive. There were elevators underneath the floor, operated by slaves, of course. Pretty cool way to make a wild animal appear on the Colosseum floor back in the day, I bet. The engineering was crazy. The tour guide debunked some of the myths about the gladiators, mainly that they weren’t exactly hardbodied like Russell Crowe in his Oscar-winning film and that many of the gladiator battles were more WWE than battle to the death. It was all about spectacle, and who the hell could tell what was really happening on the floor of the Colosseum from the nose bleed seats without binoculars anyway? The Colosseum was for entertainment and while some of that entertainment meant loss of human and animal life, not every event in the Colosseum was bloodsport.

When our tour of the Colosseum ended, we were starving. We’d not eaten since breakfast, and it was 1:45. We had to be at the next tour location for the Vatican by 2:30. So we high-tailed it to the Metro station, figured that out in a jiffy thanks for our time riding the Tube in London and the Metro in Paris, and made it to the meeting point by 2:15 with enough time to grab some Cokes and a couple bags of chips to hold us over.

Our tour guide for the Vatican may have been the most enthusiastic guide we had in our 11 days of travel. He was what Americans would term a stereotypical Italian, the type from the movies. Animated and over-the-top, full of gestures, and passionate about every last thing. I swear he knew every single item in the expansive Vatican museums, and he would talk ad nauseam about every item we passed by that grabbed his interest. So thorough he was, in fact, that we were all exhausted before we’d even reached the Sistine Chapel. Luke actually nodded off while we listened to him explain the ceiling of the chapel before entering. There are no photos from the Sistine Chapel because none are allowed. I will say that I was deeply moved by the artwork in that room. I will never forget my time there.

If I’m being candid, overall, I was a little bit disgusted by the Vatican museums. The artwork stored there is impressive, but it bothers me that a religious group holds that wealth and keeps it rather than using it to help the poor. I can’t help but think Jesus would agree with me. Just saying. Still, when the tour was over, we bypassed the museum gift shops (figuring they didn’t really need our money) and walked to St. Peter’s Square because it seemed like something that had to be done.

Then it was off to get dinner at another recommended place. We were told Hostaria Romana was a place locals frequent because it’s known for its Italian comfort food. Fried rice balls stuffed with meat, tomato sauce, and cheese, were offered up as complimentary starters. The bread just kept arriving. We had the freshest melon with the leanest prosciutto we’ve ever had. Then we devoured our pasta (even I ate pasta because the flour in Europe is vastly different and doesn’t make me ill) and shared the best tiramisu we have ever eaten. Dining al fresco in Rome. Is there anything better? Judging by our faces in these photos, I think not.

We waddled back to our rooms without using Google Maps because we were becoming that familiar with the area around the Arpinelli Relais. Although we were excited to be starting our cruise to Greece the next day, we were already missing Rome. When you book a trip to Rome, you may think you are going there to visit, but what you’re actually doing is inviting it to live rent free in your heart forever. It just happens. É la vita.

When One First Meets Rome

After missing out on sleep completely on the overnight flight from Denver to Munich, I was dying to get to Rome. While a layover in Munich is not a hardship because there are pretzels and Haribo gummi bears to be scarfed down there, Munich is not Rome. And, as I learned when I finally stepped foot in Rome itself, Rome is unparalleled. It reminded me of Paris without the fuss. Something about it being wild and chaotic, ancient and yet modern, made it more accessible somehow. I fell in love almost immediately.

I had rented two rooms at a guest house a stone’s throw from the Fontana di Trevi. When our airport shuttle driver turned from the chaotic main streets onto narrower side streets where the sideview mirrors were nearly clipping pedestrians, I started wondering if I had made a mistake choosing the Arpinelli Relais instead of a larger, more well-known hotel. My fears were unfounded. We were met by a lovely Italian gentleman who helped us move our bags into a small elevator that had to be as old as Rome herself, and then showed us to two well-appointed rooms (one with a charming balcony). There were bottles of Chianti waiting for us there, and then the gentleman sat down at a table long enough for a large Italian family and proceeded to map for us dining and sightseeing recommendations. Italian hospitality at its best and so much more personal than a large hotel. We already felt we belonged. This wasn’t a hotel. It was a home away from home.

With our check in completed and our first bottle of wine emptied, we took off on foot for an explore. First stop was Trevi Fountain, a whole two-tenths of a mile from our lodging. I was surprised at its size and how crowded and popular a location it was. It was a challenge to capture a photo that wasn’t loaded with giddy tourists and lounging Italians. It’s right in the middle of a popular area filled with gelato shops, so it’s no wonder the area is consistently packed.

Knowing we were a two minute walk from this fountain and could easily return, we opted to head to the Pantheon. I didn’t know much about the Pantheon. Honestly, I didn’t know thing one about the Pantheon. I knew only that the Pantheon was not to be confused with the Parthenon in Athens. I was blown away. I had seen photos of the exterior with its columns because our youngest is somewhat obsessed with all things Western Civ and he has spoken to me about the building and even shown me photos discussing its architecture. But holy crap, Batman. People obsess about the Colosseum, but the Pantheon is something else. Originally built in 27 AD by Marcus Agrippa, burnt twice and rebuilt finally in 120 AD by Emperor Hadrian, it is the best preserved ancient Roman monument that survives. The best part about the Pantheon is that there is no cost to enter it. No tickets to be bought. Just walk up, get in line, wander through the epic doors, and have a look around. It’s phenomenal. The dome is 142 feet in diameter, and light inside the building comes through the oculus in the ceiling, which is roughly 24 feet in diameter. It has functioned as a Catholic Church since 609 AD. And did I mention it’s amazing? Photos cannot capture its magnificence.

We gawked at the ancient Roman edifice for a while and then decided it was time to take one of the dinner recommendations passed along by our host. We chose to continue walking our way through the city.

The Italian gentleman at the guest house told us about a couple authentic, Roman restaurants, places where for a fair price you could try local specialties that were excellently prepared. He also told us the restaurant to which we were headed did not take reservations but always had a line before opening at 7 pm. We arrived at Da Enzo al 49 at 6:45 and there was already quite a long queue. It was long enough, in fact, that we debated looking elsewhere. But we had walked thirty minutes to the Trastevere neighborhood for this, so we decided to cross our fingers and wait it out. We were in luck. Once the waiters had busted through the line in front of us, we were given one of the last available tables on a patio adjacent to the restaurant and were quickly greeted by an efficient waitstaff. It was clear this restaurant had a system. We ordered Aperol Spritzes and a couple appetizers, including Carciofi all Giudia (fried artichokes). For dinner, we each ordered pasta dishes. Luke and I opted for the house-made gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. Joe had the Roman classic cacio e pepe and Steve stuck with a carbonara. It was amazing, and as much as we might have enjoyed lingering a bit longer we saw the rest of the line that had been behind us, hungry and waiting for their shot at a table, so we finished up and headed back to our rooms.

Once it was dark, we stepped onto the balcony and noticed the streets below us were still teeming with life. We decided we had enough energy in us for a quick walk to view the Colosseum at night. We were treated to this spectacle.

And with that we called our first day (well, half day) in Rome a wrap and headed back to our comfy beds for a hard-earned rest.

Next up: The Roman Forum, a tour inside the Colosseum, and the Vatican Museums

The Cats of Italy and Greece

My family returned late yesterday afternoon after a glorious 11 days in Italy and Greece. I’m jet lagged, watching a Stanley Cup Final game, and not feeling 100%, but I have a plethora of photos from our travel and thought I would go ahead and share some. So, in this light-and-fluffy post (quite literally light and fluffy), I submit for your viewing pleasure the cats of Italy and Greece. And in the upcoming days, I’ll write about the our travels and the memories we made on this family trip celebrating our youngest’s high school graduation and our oldest’s 21st birthday.

Find the cat

We started taking photos of cats (and some dogs) on this trip when we came across the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in central Rome. I had no idea such a thing existed or we would have made a point of finding our way to it rather than just stumbling across it. The sanctuary, which has been in existence since cats moved into the excavated area of Torre Argentina in 1929, relies on donations to stay afloat. Approximately 125 cats a year are adopted into loving families through the efforts of the sanctuary every year. If you want to support their mission, you can do so here. I took this photo of a lone cat resting on a wall in the ruins. I was pretty proud of my effort. A couple days later, Joe showed me this.

Hope he has at least one of those nine lives left

I mean, seriously? Santorini is pure magic. Joe’s composition here was on point. Of course, his brother would tell you he gets at least partial credit for spotting the cat in the first place. We found so many cats to photograph in Greece, both of feral and the family varieties. Without our dogs to provide our daily dose of furry love, we substituted the cats we met along our journey.

Shade seeker in Rhodes on a hot, sunny day

When we arrived in Rhodes, the cat competition took off. It seemed we couldn’t turn a corner without finding another feral cat that needed to be captured by our iPhones.

Although Rhodes was fertile ground for our cat photos, we hit the jackpot when we arrived in Mykonos Town. So, so many cute cats in one of the most photogenic locations of our vacation. Joe and I disputed who took the better photo of this cat. I will grant that Joe’s composition is better, but I like my photo’s focus on the cat rather than its place in the environment because ginger kitty pops on that whitewashed step when he is the focus.

But we weren’t finished battling it out yet. The photo opportunities kept coming.

This next cat, though, he took the cake. Well, actually, he nearly took my phone. While I was trying to photograph him through the slats on a porch railing, he reached out and stuck his claws into my phone case. I went ahead and pressed the shutter button for him since he lacks opposable thumbs, and we ended up with this green-eyed kitty selfie (and some damage to my phone case). That is the price of art.

The eyes have it

So many cats, so little time in Greece. Anyone who knows me well, though, knows I am a dog person first and foremost. I can’t publish this post without giving a little love and attention to a canine furball. So I shall leave you with this fluffy pooch hitching a ride on a scooter. Man’s best friend indeed.

Wide Awake In Economy

I love travel. I love seeing new places and experiencing new ways of living on this planet. But being on a flight for 10 hours is not my favorite.

Wide awake at 40k feet somewhere over the Labrador Sea

As I’ve documented several times in several ways here before, I am not a great sleeper. I want to be. I really do. I just can’t seem to make it work for me. And in an already cramped economy seat after the person in front of me has fully reclined their seat so their head is in my lap and I can smell their shampoo, my ability to sleep disappears completely. Still, in a desperate attempt to break tradition and at last fall asleep on a flight, I drank my red wine, took some melatonin, and donned my Airpods Max noise canceling headphones. Rather than feeling sleepy, though, I find myself air drumming along the beat in my ears. No bueno, but at least I am burning calories.

I am halfway into this flight from Denver to Munich en route to Rome and I am suddenly aware of what a pampered house pet I am. I keep telling myself I can survive another 5 hours, but my tush is debating the veracity of my forced assertion. And there is only so much time you can spend wandering the aisles in the dark, tripping over outstretched limbs and fallen faux pillows before you begin to look like an anxious toddler or a junkie struggling through rehab.

Perhaps now would be a good time for a haiku:

Too broke for business

Packed in coach like a sardine

Sleep, please find me soon!


The siren song of Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, and pizza will pull me through tomorrow’s exhaustion, and then perhaps tomorrow night I shall at last get some rest. Until then, I shall daydream about sleep. That counts, right?

The Best Laid Plans

Hopefully all of this will look better in the rearview

You know what is really awesome? When you are just an hour into your horrific, five-hour drive through lower Wyoming and your son (the one you are heading to pick up) texts to tell you a friend whom he sat next to at dinner the previous evening just tested positive for Covid. This normally wouldn’t be a huge problem, but the next three weeks are big for us. There are two birthdays, scuba lessons, graduation, a graduation party at our home, and then a trip to Rome to board a cruise. We would really prefer to remain Covid-free. We kind of need to.

But, sadly, viruses do not give a flying fig about your plans. They’re jerks that way. So, Joe is going to be wearing a mask at home and eating and drinking and sleeping separately (even in the car on the ride home) until he gets through 10 days symptom free and with zero positive test results. Because a car is such a small, enclosed space, I might decide to wear a mask in the car even though Joe is wearing his, just in case the seal on his mask is not entirely optimal.

It’s possible Joe is fine. He was vaccinated twice and boosted last November. He had Covid in 2020. The same is true for all four of us. I know we are being a bit overcautious, but we are committed to doing everything within our circle of control to ensure Luke gets to attend his graduation in person. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

Stupid virus.