DUBROVNIK & SPLIT

THE DALMATIAN COAST

 

Dubrovnik was by far the most picturesque stop. The panoramic view from the hilltop was spectacular. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a perfectly preserved Medieval city surrounded by a high stone wall with a drawbridge. It served as a location site for the hugely popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.” The narrow limestone passageways were filled with restaurants, shops and coffee and wine bars. 

We went through the 15th century Pile Gate after crossing the stone drawbridge and visited the Baroque St. Blaise Church built on the site of a 1368 Romanesque church destroyed by an earthquake. We visited the 14th century Franciscan Monastery and cloister . . . a peaceful retreat to sit and reflect after negotiating the crowded walkways. 

We ended our walking tour at the port where we had lunch. It was memorable since there was a piano player playing American songs from the 60’s obviously the music of choice for an influx of American tourists in their 70’s. 

The place was teeming with tourists which made it difficult to truly appreciate the surrounding beauty of Dubrovnik. We went to a jewelry store recommended by our guide to buy jewelry for our daughters . . . a pendant and a bracelet designed with red coral and sterling silver, typical of Croatian jewelry. The craftsmanship was topnotch. The grand total was $200 which we had to pay in Kuna, the local currency since the shopkeeper would not accept Euros or US Dollars.

 The ship also made a stop in Split. Emperor Diocletian built an enormous palace there in 284-305 AD. The bottom level was a system of colossal arched supports with three levels of living space above. It was dark and dank and had been used to house prisoners and to discard garbage into the water, a rather unpleasant place. We also visited an ethnic museum with ceremonial costumes from various periods in Croatian history. Our guide was an older man who was long winded but uninformative. By the end of the tour most of the group had peeled off to parts unknown.

The highlight was visiting the synagogue in Split on our own. We managed to crowd into the small room on the coat tails of a German tour group. One man in the group told me he was from Hamburg. The synagogue member gave an inspiring talk in English on the history of the Jewish community in Split.

The synagogue dated back to 1510, and was one of the oldest in Europe. The original 120 families fled the Inquisition in Spain and settled in Split where they prospered. Jews built the port, the first cement factory, the first refinery, the first electric plant, the first bookstore, etc. Split reaped the benefits from the entrepreneurial spirit of the Jewish community consisting of 260-300 people. During the War the Germans shipped off the Jews to death camps in Germany and Labor camps in Italy. Most of the Jews sent to Italy survived. Today the congregation consists of 100 members. It was an impressive talk.

Afterward we walked down to the harbor and sat in a wine bar to rest our weary bones. We had to spend the balance of 140 Kuna, before leaving Croatia since we couldn’t use it outside the country. We continued our walk back into the walled city and had a delicious gelati for a treat. Claude bought a baseball hat and I bought a Croatian key chain leaving us with 1 Kuna, a worthless piece of currency but a nice memento.

The ship never went into Montenegro. Viking cancelled the port-of-call without warning or explanation. I wonder how often that happens? 

TRAVELING: What Does It Mean?

Green Cay Boardwalk
Morning light at Green Cay

Green Cay

People travel by foot, bike, car, plane, train or bus. Traveling can mean different things to different people, but in a nutshell  it is a means of getting from point A to point B. Some people travel for business. I travel for sheer pleasure. The destination can be nearby or thousands of miles away. Everyone can learn something by traveling simply by observing or listening regardless of the distance.

I live in Delray Beach, Florida and Green Cay,  a 99-acre nature preserve, is  walking distance from my house. Palm Beach County transformed farmland into a wetlands environment encouraging Florida’s resident wildlife to make it their home, and providing a safe stopover for migratory birds. People drive great distances to walk Green Cay’s boardwalk for an up-close experience  . . . I literally walk out my front door.

Yesterday was a  walking traveling day spent at Green Cay. From my perch on the boardwalk I have become familiar with the deep bellowing mating calls of alligators, the screeching calls of the red-shouldered hawks and the calls of other species of birds including Great Blue Herons, Common Moorhens, Green Herons, and White Egrets. Green Cay is a special place to rejuvenate from the stress of daily life. Nature has a way of doing that. It’s good old fashioned therapy and free!

Broken Jaw is the alligator who is the ruler at Green Cay Preserve.

At 7:00 a.m. the cloud formations provide vistas that can only be described as glorious. The mirrored reflections in the water are wondrous and  worthy of photographing and documenting, although being there in person is hard to replicate. The trick is to get an early start before the summer heat and humidity wilt enthusiasm. Every day is a learning experience.

Today I saw the elusive Least Bittern flutter out of the underbrush. It was a fleeting moment but an exhilarating one since it is rarely spotted.

 

VENICE: ARTE BIENNALE

Highlights of 2017 Arte Biennale

We went to see Damien Hirst’s exhibit of the Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable at the Arte Biennale in the palatial Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. It was definitely unbelievable. The main sculpture was a naked, headless man at least four stories high which was by far the most monumental sculpture of the Biennale. The “story” you are led to believe or not is that all the treasures were found from a sunken ship under the Indian Ocean many imbedded in coral and covered with barnacles.

There was even a video showing the entire “fake” excavation of the statues and relics. The sculptures represented what was supposedly found onsite including gold, silver and precious gems which were displayed throughout the grand halls of the palazzo. As I walked through the 5000 square feet of exhibits housed in two major palazzos, I realized the entire exhibition was a hoax when I saw two sculptures of Mickey Mouse and Goofy appearing to have been dredged up from the deep. I’ll leave Hirst’s interpretation of what is art up to the observer, but for me it was a downhill trek after the headless, colossal, nude bronze. Hirst and his benefactors must have spent millions in creating this fantastic, Disney-like imitation.  

The Franchetti and Fortuny Palazzos built in the 1400-1500s were used to display the work of forty glass artists entitled Glasstress. Some of the glass art was intriguing but I found  the Gothic Fortuny Palazzo transformed by Mariano Fortuny in the late 19th century and his magnificent collections of paintings and tapestries far more interesting.

Other works of art displayed inside and outside the Biennale venues made Venice especially exciting.

One particular highlight was the New Zealand Pavilion. Lisa Reihana, combined her artistry with video to bring an 1804 French scenic wallpaper seemingly to life.  Using performers within the landscape in a rolling, panoramic depiction of scenes known as Captain Cook’s voyages, we see the story unfold with recordings of singing and Maori instrumentation. It was uniquely different, creative, and mesmerizing to watch.

VENICE & THE ISLANDS

 Murano, Torcello & Burano

On Tuesday we went to Murano, Torcello, and Burano. Our first stop was Murano. While waiting for the museum to open at 10:00 a.m., we visited the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato known for its splendid 12th century Byzantine mosaic floors—the floors were a work of art. The small museum showcased the progression of glass making through the ages in Murano and provided good information and background.

I bought gifts in the glass factory which had a large showroom displaying glass jewelry, vases, and other Murano glass creations. We didn’t take the tour to watch the glass blowing demonstration since we had seen it many times before, but if you haven’t seen it I would recommend it.

We decided to skip Torcello and go to Burano, but we were swayed by a nice Italian woman on the boat who convinced us to have lunch in Torcello. She told us it was too beautiful to skip; she went there frequently to decompress and spend peaceful afternoons away from the hustle and bustle of Venice. As soon as we got off the boat we were struck by the bucolic scenery and greenery in contrast to Venice. People strolled along leisurely unlike the herded crowds of tourists in Venice. We ate at a delightful outdoor restaurant overlooking the canal where I had fegato alla Veneziano and a tasty pasta. The Italian woman on the boat had been right.

Claude decided to go back to the apartment after lunch to rest, but I wanted to visit Burano so I went on my own. It’s a picturesque village with outlandish attached colored houses stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s as though the home owners were competing to see who could paint their house the brightest color. I wandered in and out of shops lining the canal looking for locally made crafts which aren’t always easy to find. 

Since my boat ticket expired at 4:30 and it was after 5:00 I had to buy an additional ticket to get back to Venice. Fortunately I was able to get a seat on the boat. At Forte Novo, which is a central stop to make transfers, I decided to take a boat back to the train station which was a ten minute walk from the apartment instead of walking the whole way home which would have taken at least forty-five minutes. The boat was about to leave so I hopped aboard without buying a ticket. I was grateful no one stopped me to ask for a ticket. I was exhausted after spending the whole day walking. By the time I got to the train station it was already dark and I had to find my way home without Claude, my official “guido.” Venice is difficult to navigate at night particularly in neighborhoods away from the tourist areas. The labyrinth of narrow passageways have few overhead lights and it’s easy to get lost in the dark. After making several wrong turns that ended at a canal, I made it home safe and sound.

VENICE, ITALY

The Magic of Venice

We arrived in Venice via the Viking Sun, one of the newest Viking Ocean cruise ships on a foggy morning in October 2017. Scenes of Venice through the fog reminded me of paintings by Claude Monet.

 

 

 

 

We arranged to rent a condo in the Santa Croce neighborhood through Views on Venice. It’s a website with an expansive inventory of lovely apartments to rent and an easy website to navigate. The apartment was a short walk from the San Stae water taxi station and far enough from the chaos of San Marco Square over run by tourists. One of the reasons we chose the apartment was the proximity to the San Stae station since we knew we would have to roll our suitcases there from the dock. Venice is comprised of a myriad of canals and all commerce and transportation is conducted via the waterways.

When our water taxi got to San Stae, we had to climb over another boat to make it to the platform, not an easy feat with our suitcases in tow. An attractive man with a huge smile was standing on the dock and he reached out to help with our suitcases. It turned out to be our landlord. We walked over a small, steep bridge to the apartment building, a short five minute walk. When we entered the building we were met by an elevator repairman in the process of fixing the sole elevator in the building. Our rental was one floor up considered the first floor by European standards. Welcome to Italy! Mr. Simonetti carried our bags up the stairs to the apartment. What a relief! It was greatly appreciated.

He introduced us to the vagaries of Venice and acquainted us with what we needed to know about operating appliances, where to put the trash, etc. He spent close to an hour speaking without taking a breath. The most interesting part of his “lecture” was discussing the politics of Venice and the movement to curtail large ships from sailing into Venice. He thought Viking had the right idea to build smaller cruise ships for under 1000 passengers. According to him, the biggest problems for Venice were the overwhelming number of day trippers and the huge cruise ships flooding into the Grand Canal. Venetians have been forced out of central Venice due to the overwhelming crowds and high rents.

The apartment was elegant, spacious and dark as I guessed from the pictures. but had two bedrooms and two full bathrooms. The only natural light came from the wall of French doors and full length balcony overlooking a small, picturesque canal. Since the canal was narrow the buildings on the other side block any direct sunlight. The bathroom next to our bedroom was a good size. The shower and sink were large enough, there was a bidet and plenty of storage cabinets for cosmetics and soap.

The garbage boat arrived daily at 9 a.m. below our balcony to collect trash from the adjacent buildings. It was riveting to watch how the operator lifted the bin filled with garbage and dropped it into the compactor. All deliveries are made by boat. We watched in fascination as a delivery boat similar to FedEx dropped a package into the canal. The delivery man picked it up out of the murky water, wiped it off and proceeded on his way.

The consensus on the food was either it was over salted or not seasoned at all. We ate in a charming restaurant near the apartment called “La Zucca” which used to be a vegetarian restaurant. It was packed. My duck was dry and overcooked, obviously not the thing to order in Venice, but vegetarian dishes were well prepared. Seafood is the preferred food  in Venice so duck was a poor choice. We were told we had to finish eating by 9:15 p.m. in preparation for the next seating, but we knew this in advance and they were very polite about it. Our reservation was at 7:30. 

Someone just knocked on the door. A dryer is being delivered. Marcella, Mr. Simonetti’s beautiful wife, said there are dryers in two of their other apartments and she wanted to install one in ours. It really isn’t necessary. We’ve been using a drying rack quite effectively but it will be a luxury having a dryer. Most Italian rentals do not have dryers. When you rent in Italy check the list of amenities. It arrived by boat and was carried up the one flight of stairs.

We made lunch our main meal yesterday. We went to “Remer,” on a recommendation from our landlord. We walked around for an inordinate amount of time trying to find it. It was down a narrow passageway which ended at a canal. We never would have found it if we hadn’t asked at least ten people along the way. The restaurant is built into an old gondolier oar factory dating back to the 1400s. There aren’t any windows so it is lit by candlelight which added a romantic ambience to the interior. The price of our meal was higher than we were accustomed to . . . about 50 Euros a person. In general we paid between 50-60 Euros for two at all other restaurants. Claude and I split a pasta with a white veal sauce which was good. The main courses of monkfish and bream (a mild tasting white fish) were both bland, and the bream was filled with bones making it difficult to enjoy. Black ink pasta is a popular dish in Venice and it’s found on virtually every menu. Maybe it would have been a better choice. We had a chocolate torte for dessert which was the best part of the meal. We arrived at the tail end of lunch time just before 2:30. The chef had already left for his afternoon snooze.

In the evening we went to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The sextet and ballet dancer were in masquerade. There were four violinists, a cello player, a harp player and a ballerina. The performance was in a beautiful Venetian church and we were transported back to the 18th century for an hour-and-a-half. It was delightful! There were many Vivaldi concerts going on throughout Venice during our twelve day stay, probably to attract tourists. We walked back to the apartment in the dark using our trusty flashlights. Flashlights are a must if staying outside the main tourist areas since it’s easy to get lost. The passageways are narrow, winding and dark and many dead end at canals. 

Yesterday we walked to the Jewish Ghetto and entered through the ancient archway that once had a gate locking in the inhabitants. The Ghetto has a fascinating history. In 1516 the Jewish community which was a thriving component of the Venetian economy, opted to be given the right to own property so they could live freely as Jews. The foundry area was given to them known as the “geto” which meant foundry. The Jews who fled Central Europe, Spain and Portugal to escape persecution could not pronounce the word correctly. Over time the word “ghetto” became the accepted pronunciation. It was never intended to have negative connotations until World War II when it became synonymous with segregation.

The Jews were free to work in commerce, finance and established a strong cultural presence in Venetian life. When they left the Ghetto during the day they had to wear yellow caps or badges, except Jewish physicians who wore black hats and were in great demand. The Jews prospered and increased to an estimated 5,000 inhabitants within a century building vertical structures to accommodate their increasing population. They were not permitted to build outside the designated, restricted area they were given so Venetian Jews became known for building the first “skyscrapers” or high-rises up to six stories. The Ghetto became a literary hub and produced the first published female poet, Sara Copio Sullam in the 1600s. At night the gates were closed and the Jews became prisoners with armed guards, but during the day they moved freely throughout the Venetian community.

The Ghetto Novo had five synagogues representing different ethnic Jewish groups in Europe, and a large central square where many community activities took place. Their tranquil existence ended with the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930’s. During 1943 more than 240 Jewish residents were sent to death camps . . . eight survived and returned to Venice. Today there are only 500 Jews left in the Ghetto.

We took a tour of the museum which included several synagogues. Each synagogue was distinctly different in terms of architecture and furnishings depending on the part of Europe the Jews came from. The tour guide gave a brief talk and we wandered through the museum on our own viewing religious relics and other artifacts.

While we were exploring the main square and watching people coming out of a morning service, we met a couple from New England. They plan their vacations around the history of European Jewry visiting all the cities that have/had Jewish populations . . . an interesting concept. 

 

Our lunch at the Gam Gam kosher restaurant was perfect. The restaurant was highly recommended by Trip Advisor. We had a tasty Israeli antipasto platter with several Middle Eastern specialties consisting of falafel, eggplant dip, artichokes and hummus before ordering our main dishes. The young waiters were extremely friendly and we enjoyed lunch immensely.

 

There was a Jewish bakery near the main square and we sampled the Venetian-style hamentashen or “Haman’s Ears” cookies filled with either chocolate, jam or almonds. They were delicious and came straight out of the oven!

ATHENS: HIGHLIGHTS

The Acropolis

In October 2017 we stayed at the Amalia Hotel in Athens City Center. It had been chosen for its contemporary decor, buffet breakfast and ideal location. The 6th floor room was stylishly furnished and had a large balcony overlooking the city. There was a view of the Acropolis from the roof top lounge.

We were in Athens for only two nights. The hotel concierge recommended a restaurant walking distance from the hotel but we were unable to find it. A handsome older Greek man with a silvery mane stopped to ask if we needed assistance. He said he would take us to the best Greek restaurant in the area rather than the one recommended by the hotel. He was charming and convincing and he chatted about his sister who lived in the Bronx and whom he visited for a month every summer. We followed him to the Athens Status Suites hotel and took the elevator to a roof top restaurant called the Athens Status Acropolis. We never would have found the restaurant on our own since it was located in a nondescript building which looked more like an apartment building than a hotel. The restaurant was elegant with an inviting bar area and spectacular views of the Acropolis from the wall of windows. Our friendly Greek bid us adieu and left us to enjoy a lovely meal and a magnificent night time view of the Acropolis in lights.

I had a breaded chicken cutlet with a citrus sauce and Claude had chicken stuffed with gruyere and ham. We both had a traditional Greek salad and a delicious complimentary cake soaked in a sweet liquor for dessert.

The Acropolis was walking distance from the hotel through the Plaka area which is a colorful area of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. As we approached the Acropolis we were overwhelmed by throngs of tourists arriving by bus, car and on foot. What mayhem!

The climb to the top consisted of a system of stairs and steep inclines. It wasn’t for the faint of heart especially with the relentless sun and hoards of people. It was surprising to observe the deterioration of the Parthenon and surrounding temples since our last visit in 1979. Major restoration has been underway for the past 40 years with a completion date set for 2020. There were cranes and scaffolding everywhere. Thousands of marble pieces of all shapes and sizes were on the ground being catalogued. It is an enormous undertaking to restore and repair buildings that are 2500 years old. I took as many pictures of the Parthenon and temples as I did of the tourists taking selfies. Ancient Greeks would have been horrified by the crowds and lack of respect for such a revered architectural wonder.

The next day we watched the sun set over the Acropolis from the roof top Amalia Hotel lounge before we decided to return to the same restaurant to enjoy the view while having dinner.

The owner was so happy to see us again that he offered us a bottle of wine gratis. Once again the meal and service were exemplary. We started with an eggplant, cheese and tzatziki appetizer. I had grilled shrimp and Claude had a shrimp risotto. I can’t imagine a more incredible view from a restaurant. After the tedious and torturous day spent at the Acropolis standing in line being jostled by hundreds of tourists, it was sublime to appreciate it quietly from afar.

The following day we walked past the Parliament building through the National Garden across the street from the hotel and went to the Military Museum to learn about Greek military history. The area was upscale compared to our previous walk through the Plaka where there was graffiti and litter everywhere. The boulevard was lined with government buildings, embassies and attractive apartment buildings obviously an area where the wealthier Greeks lived. 

The economic down turn in Athens was evident everywhere in Athens central. There were derelict buildings and graffiti on every flat surface. Many of the shops were closed. The streets were littered with trash. We were told the unemployment rate was 27%. Our guide said that young men unable to find work roamed the streets defacing buildings. They were not prosecuted for their destructive behavior because they were demonstrating their right to free expression. Greece may be the heart of democracy, but this explanation was difficult to process and was a sad commentary on a once great civilization. Greece will have a long journey digging itself out of its economic morass.