Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Ameri-Scares Ohio: Fear the Grassman! Excerpt #2

My next novel in Elizabeth Massie's Ameri-Scares series is for the state of Ohio. This one is tentatively titled Fear the Grassman! because it's about... you guessed it... the Ohio Grassman, which, according to local legend, is a kind of Bigfoot creature. In this scene, 13-year-old Landon Morris has experienced a terrifying, sleepless night. From the darkness outside his window, he has heard thumping, growling, and a strange, rhythmic rapping. When the sun finally rises, he gets out of bed before his parents, summons his courage, and creeps outside to look for evidence of a nocturnal visitor....

A gust of frigid wind slapped Landon in the face. From the woods at the edge of the yard, swaying tree limbs clacked, clattered, and groaned. To his left, an expansive meadow of dead, brown grass separated his house from the Wickliffes’ place, half a mile distant. In the middle of the meadow, he saw the jagged silhouette of an ancient, teetering barn, which he and Danny sometimes used as a clubhouse. Mom and Dad didn’t like him playing there. They said it was dangerous and might collapse. But that had hardly stopped him from claiming the place as his own. To the right, beyond a wide, withered cornfield, a steep, humpbacked ridge resembled a gigantic, sleeping bear. He didn’t know if it had a name, but he had always called it Bear Mountain. The rising sun’s rays created a golden halo above its “head.”

He drew a deep breath, gathered his nerve, and trudged along the side of the house to his bedroom window. He studied the ground around the window, searching, searching....

And then... there it was.

A footprint.

A big footprint.

Overnight, the ground had frozen as hard as stone. But a few feet from the base of his window, the dead, brittle grass appeared to have been mashed down in roughly the shape of a huge foot.

The impression wasn’t very deep, but when he knelt down and traced its outline with his fingers, he felt certain.

Grassman!

A short distance into the yard, he made out another impression. And another.

He stood up, lifted his foot, and stomped as hard as he could on the frozen ground.

Not even a dent.

Whatever made these had to be heavy. Maybe even as heavy as a car. Still, he knew he could never convince anyone these were actually footprints. Not without some other evidence. These impressions were too vague. Too fantastic for someone who didn’t already believe to believe.

Click-click-clack.

The sound came from far away. Barely audible.

It was nothing. Just tree branches rattling in the wind.

Click-click-click.

Click-click-clack.

CLICK-CLICK-CLACK! CLICK-CLICK-CLACK!

He felt a chill at his collar. All the hairs on the back of his neck had risen to attention. There could be no mistake. Something in the woods was rapping sticks together.

And another something—this one much nearer—was rapping in response.
#

Read Ohio: Fear the Grassman! Excerpt #1 here.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 7: Montserrat and Homeward Bound

October 28, 2019: Montserrat
The name means "Serrated Mountain," and its towering, jagged peaks dominate the skyline from many miles away. Near the top of the mountain, a Benedictine monastery, accessible by narrow road, rail line, or cable car, nestles between the peaks. Sheltered within the monastery,  "La Moreneta"—"The Black Madonna"—serves as the region's patron saint. The figure is so named because, in the early years of the church, its varnished "skin" became stained black from constant exposure to candle and incense smoke. In later years, the statue was painted black with gold trim. Our tour guide, a young Catalan named Pol, related the legend of how, in Christianity's earliest days, a priest discovered the Black Madonna on the mountain and wanted to move it to his church. However, the statue spontaneously became so heavy that no number of men could budge it, and thus they built monastery around the Madonna.

Montserrat may be the most spectacular location I have ever visited. Once on the road out of Barcelona, we could see the silhouettes of the distinctive, jagged peaks against the horizon. As we drew nearer, our tour bus turned onto a long, winding road that grew steeper and steeper as we ascended. From several overlooks, we could see far down into the mist-shrouded valleys and occasionally glimpse the peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains beyond.

Once we arrived at the monastery, we saw sidewalk vendors selling cheese, gift shops, a restaurant, and a little rail station. In the gift shop, one could sample the liquor that the monks at the monastery make. Terry, Beth, and Brugger all sampled it and gave it their stamps of approval. Me, I broke away long enough to go after a geocache hidden along a rocky, winding trail not far from the monastery, and thus I didn't try the drink. No matter; there would be plenty of spirits flowing over the course of the day.
View of the funicular from below, with the cars
just about to pass each other

There is a virtual cache here that I would love to have claimed, as its various stages take you to several of the most striking locations at the monastery. I went to those around the exterior, but to claim the final stage one must visit the interior. As it happens, the Escolania de Montserrat—the Montserrat Boys' Choir—was scheduled to perform, and setting foot inside meant standing in a line of such length as to be prohibitive. So, I didn't get the smiley, but I did see some beautiful sights, such as the Ave Maria path, an atmospheric chamber full of glowing candles.

The Montserrat Funicular is a train that runs on damn near vertical tracks, operated by cables, by which one can ascend to a high mountain path. This trail leads to St. Michael's Cross, which overlooks the valley from a high point on the mountaintop. In the photo at left, you can the two train cars which run on the same track but for the short stretch where they pass each other. I would love to have ridden this thing to the top, but Brugger proclaimed the prospect a great big NO!—at least until it was almost time to leave, at which time she decided, "Well, I guess I could go for that after all." Too late! Anyway, I could happily return to Montserrat and spend more quality time. On this relatively short visit, I felt as though we barely scratched the surface of this spectacular, historic location.

We did scrounge up a decent lunch in the restaurant here. Shortly afterward, we boarded the bus again, this time to head to a nearby vineyard for—you guessed it—more wine and tapas.
Looking down into the valley from the monastery
Something in the mist....
Against this backdrop, the structures look almost like miniatures

We hated to leave Montserrat, but Oller Del Mas winery awaited us at the bottom of the mountain. Here, we enjoyed a substantial tasting along with some delicious tapas made at the vineyard. Of the Spanish wines we sampled during our stay in Cataluña, these rated among the best, although nothing on this trip rivaled the quality of the wine at Coali, which we had visited in Italy's Valpolicella region the previous week.

After our tasting and tour of the winery, we had a brief respite before the tour bus returned to pick us up. About a quarter mile from the winery, a geocache hid down in a small grove, at a stone hut with picnic tables around it. Figuring I could at least give it a cursory search, I rushed to the grove to try my luck, but it was in a target-rich area, and I didn't have time to give the cache a thorough hunt. So, I ended up walking away without a find. Still, that's just all the more reason to return to Montserrat at the earliest opportunity....
View of Montserrat from Oller del Mas Winery
Oller del Mas Winery
Back in Barcelona, rather than go out to a restaurant for dinner, our group visited the huge SuperMercat in Catalunya Square, now bereft of demonstrators. We picked up some assorted edibles—barbecued spare ribs para mi—and a few extra goodies to get us through the final night of our incredible sojourn in the Mediterranean. Come morning, we needed to depart for the airport at an early hour. Thankfully, it didn't appear that any protests would interfere with our journey back home.

October 29, 2019: The Longest Day
The lot of us crammed ourselves into a taxi bound for the airport early on Tuesday morning. Massive mobs at check-in and security appeared foreboding, but we managed to get to our aircraft—a British Airways Airbus 330—with a little time to spare. Our connection was at London's Heathrow, which proved a bloody nasty experience. I can safely say I never want to visit Heathrow again, at least not for a connecting flight. Here in the States, people often complain about Atlanta's Hartsfield International, but having flown in and out of Atlanta countless times in recent years, I can tell you that Hartsfield is a bleeping picnic, even compared to Philadelphia, also very much a no-fun airport. Anyway, once we boarded our aircraft for Philly—a British Airways Boeing 747—we hoped we could soon get ourselves free of Heathrow once and for all.

Well, no. We sat on the ground with both traffic delays and equipment issues for well over an hour—long enough to start cramping up in the uncomfortable seats before we even got airborne. At last, though, we roared into the skies, and on this flight, we had paid in advance for the bottomless bar, of which we took some small advantage. I've flown in a bazillion different aircraft, but this was actually my first flight in a 747, and I kind of enjoyed it. Not that we had luxurious seats or anything, but at least the setting was anything but claustrophobic. The airline served us plenty of food and drink, and it all turned out to be remarkably decent.

For in-flight entertainment, I opted to watch The Mule, the Clint Eastwood film that was running on the Rhapsody while Brugger and I enjoyed our evening in the hot tub. It was kind of neat to watch it on the plane, and while it's not great cinema by any means, I did enjoy it. I followed this up with The Avengers: Endgame, which was kind of okay. So, the two movies ate up a good two-thirds of of the seven-hour flight. Since we were flying into the sun, daylight lasted an extra five hours, which made it the single longest day I have ever lived through.

Fortunately, the 747 made up time in the air, so we touched down in Philly more or less on schedule. We snagged some food and drink at an airport restaurant. Then we boarded a small commuter plane bound for Greensboro. This leg went off without a hitch. Just before midnight, the four of us stepped off the plane onto our home soil.
At Philadelphia International: Not quite the exuberant crowd that had left for Venice from here
the previous week. Note the consolation Bloody Mary; quite different from the winning
Bloody Mary savored before our Europe-bound flight.
So... two weeks and ten-thousand miles later... thus endeth a venture I could scarcely have imagined prior to it actually happening. Thankfully, for the most part during the trip, I was able to leave the crushing stress of the preceding days, weeks, and months behind. Now that I am home, I'm pretty much back in it. And I will be for the foreseeable future. But having written out this chronicle over the past few days, I now have a fair record of the trip of my lifetime. It's a chronicle I want to keep. I just pray that, till the end of my days, I'll be able to remember it without having to refer back to the record.

To friends Terry and Beth, and to Kimberly, I offer all my love and my deepest gratitude for sharing in one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Perhaps when I needed it most.

Bless you.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 2 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 3 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 4 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 5 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 6 here.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 6: Barcelona... What a Riot

Old Rodan at Casa Batlló

October 26, 2019: Farewell to Rhapsody of the Seas
For years, the people of Catalonia—the region in northeastern Spain encompassing Barcelona, the Pyrenees Mountains, Montserrat, Costa Brava, and more—have sought independence from Spain. In recent weeks, massive demonstrations have shaken Barcelona, with hundreds of thousands of protestors in the streets. Most have been relatively peaceful, though violence has broken out on several occasions. The week prior to our group's arrival in Spain, protestors closed down Barcelona's El Prat Airport—from which our flight was scheduled to take us home at the end of this trip. But since Barcelona was our ship's final port of call and reservations had all been made and paid for, there really was nothing for it but to carry on with our trip as planned.

It was with a sense of both sadness and anticipation that we left Rhapsody of the Seas for the last time. For the past week, the ship had been a most comfortable home away from home. As in Venice, we had arranged for our three-day stay in Barcelona at a nice VRBO flat in the city center. We boarded a shuttle to get there and then had a relatively short walk to the property—although hauling all our luggage over cobbled streets took some effort. We arrived about 10:30 AM, though check-in time wasn't till 1:00 PM; fortunately, our host, Pedro, was onsite, and we were able to leave our bags in the apartment.

So, we hit the streets, seeking to acclimate ourselves to our new surroundings as well as procure some Catalonian vittles. Happily, a nice virtual cache lurked at a nearby architectural marvel—Casa Batlló, designed by the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi. I claimed the cache and then we found food at a picturesque café called Txapela, just north of Catalunya Square. The fare was mostly tapas, and I had an interesting little taco-type thingummy filled with raw fish. Happily, I enjoy raw fish, although this was so mild, all the flavor came from the goodies wrapped around it. Afterward, we wandered for a while, wondering whether we might see any sign of the Catalonian protests. Initially, we did not, but later, when we bought tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus that takes you on a riding tour around Barcelona, the staff indicated the bus lines would be closed on the following day due to the scheduled demonstrations.
Lunch—held together with a cute little wooden clothespin

After lunch, I snagged a couple of physical caches in Catalunya Square. And at last, we were able to check in at our VRBO: a relatively spacious sixth-floor flat on Carrer d’Aragó, a couple of blocks north of the square. From there, we headed out again to explore, eventually ending up some distance to the south, in the Gothic Quarter at La Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia—a.k.a. Barcelona Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona. One of the first things we saw was a rather creepy, ghostly figure made up in white—actually, a beggar, so I was told. Interestingly, we discovered that, not only could we tour the cathedral's interior, we could take an elevator up to the roof, which offers a spectacular view of the city. As with so many of the cathedrals we saw in Europe, the interior is another architectural masterpiece, a staggering example of gothic excess. We took in the interior views for some time before boarding the tiny, box-like elevator to the roof. It was a shaky, fairly scary ride, both coming and going. If ever a scary ride was worth it, though, this one was. Atop the roof, we had some rickety scaffolding to negotiate, also a little disconcerting, but indeed, we did have a spectacular 360° view of Barcelona. As far as activities in Spain went, this rated among my favorites.
Old Dude and Ms. B. on the rooftop of Barcelona Cathedral. Sagrada Familia is visible in the background.
After some wine at a couple of different bistros, we boarded one of the Hop-On, Hop-Off buses, figuring we'd take a ride around Barcelona and look at the various sights. We did see a host of gorgeous locations, including the mountains that rose to the north, just beyond the city. Unfortunately, as the sun set, the bus parked itself in a location considerably north and west of our neighborhood, evidently to "get back on schedule." This 30-minute delay played hell with certain bladders, and some of us had never been more glad to get back to our neck of the woods. However, as we approached our stop, we saw flashing blue lights and began to hear helicopters circling overhead. Apparently, the roads to Catalunya Square had been closed down as the Saturday night demonstrations were beginning in earnest.

Fortunately, we'd come close enough to our place to just hop off the bus and hoof it. Sure enough, though, mobs of young people had begun parading through the streets wrapped in red and gold Catalonian flags, more and more folks were bolting in all directions, and the police sirens blared nonstop. Still, we figured we'd need some dinner, so we started looking around for places in the direction opposite the demonstrations. We found it at a beautiful rooftop restaurant at a nearby hotel, where I enjoyed some delicious beef medallions with a couple of different sauces. We were about the only folks there at the time, no doubt because it was still relatively early—somewhere in the 8 o'clock hour, and a good many Barcelona restaurants don't even open for dinner until 8:30 or so in the PM. It seemed almost surreal that, just a couple of blocks away from the protests, everything in the city seemed to be carrying on as normal.
Up on the roof
We retired to our apartment—fortunately avoiding the worst of the protests—but it was clear things were turning far more violent than earlier, so rather than go out to get a street view, we opted to remain inside and watch the events on TV. Trash fires blazed in the streets; protestors and police clashed, which resulted in lots of tear gas going off; and the roar of helicopters and wail of sirens provided a constant soundtrack for the evening. Fortunately, by 11:00 PM, the noise began to peter out, as the mostly young demonstrators began heading back home to go to bed. The helicopters continued to hover for some time, but eventually we were able to go to sleep more or less undisturbed.

October 27, 2019: From Sagrada Familia to Los Caracoles
On Sunday morning, Ms. B. and I decided to venture out on our own for a while and visit Sagrada Familia, perhaps architect Antoni Gaudi's most famous work—still unfinished after almost 140 years (it is projected to be completed around 2026). We didn't go inside, but we did wander around the exterior for a bit, and I snagged both a virtual and a physical geocache at the site. Brugger discovered an arts & crafts store near the basilica, so she got to satisfy her addiction as well.

After this little jaunt, Brugger and I wandered back to our apartment, reunited with Terry and Beth, and then went in search of lunch. Today was the big march in Catalunya Square, but this crowd, though massive, was far more peaceful than the previous night's. We managed to find another cozy little outdoor bistro, where Ms. B. killed some delicious grilled shrimp and I tried a dish consisting of mushrooms, goose liver, and egg. I found it pleasing.
Mushrooms, goose liver, and egg for lunch
Old Rodan looks askance at the paparazzi

During the afternoon, we made our way back down to the old Gothic Quarter, south of Catalunya Square. Beth and Kimberly went off hunting wares, while Terry and I plopped down at an outdoor restaurant, where an attractive, kindly waitress who spoke very good English worked hard to convince us to drink wine, wine, and more wine. I can safely say we disappointed her not even a little bit.

Forty years ago, when Terry was in the Navy, he had visited Barcelona and discovered a restaurant called Los Caracoles, which means "The Snails." He had been quite taken with it at the time, and during our wanderings the day before, we had peeked inside it. Duly impressed that it still existed, we made reservations for this evening. At the appointed hour, reunited with the women, we made our way back to Los Caracoles. By the appearance of the entrance, it seemed a rather unassuming place, with a small bar just inside. But once you enter, you are led through the kitchen, into one of several large dining areas, all beautifully appointed, the walls covered in photographs of celebrities who have dined there. Above our table, we had photos of Jimmy Carter, Robert DeNiro, Robert Mitchum, and... O.J. Simpson. Well, what fun.

I ordered Paella Los Caracoles, which came not with snails but seafood. (There were plenty of snails being served, and though I do enjoy them—I'd had escargot on the ship, as a matter of fact—I didn't order any this go round.) I confess I was a little disappointed in the paella. As with so much of the food I sampled in Barcelona, the flavor was rather bland, and all too uniform, given that it was loaded with mussels, clams, fish, squid, and prawns. I could barely distinguish the flavor of the mussels from the squid from the fish. That's not to say it was bad; it was not bad. But for all those savory ingredients, I might have expected something with a little more zing. Still, the experience was top-notch, and I would love to go back there sometime and actually try their snails.
Inside Los Caracoles
Carnage on the battlefield: remains of the Paella Los Caracoles
Once we departed Los Carocoles, we returned to our apartment, happy, stuffed, and tired. We retired before very late, for we needed to be ready to face our upcoming, final full day in Spain: we'd be heading to Montserrat, just north of Barcelona, one of the most distinctive mountains on Earth (the name, quite aptly, means "Serrated Mountain"). A tour of its famous monastery, a nearby winery, and a geocache or two awaited us.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 2 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 3 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 4 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 5 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 5: Aix-en-Provence and the Meanie of Marseilles

Sunrise at the Port of Marseilles
October 25, 2019: Marseilles Sunrise and My Heart Aix
Through high school and college, I studied French, four years' worth; enough to be proficient, if not quite fluent, with the language. Over the years, I haven't revisited it much, so saying my French is rusty is like saying the French Revolution was but a wee squabble. Still, those half-remembered skills came in handy when our party arrived in France—specifically the Port of Marseilles, right at sunrise on Friday, October 25.

Encore, our gang of four had decided to bypass the more touristy centers and hie ourselves to the picturesque and somewhat less bustling town of Aix-en-Provence, a few miles north of Marseilles. Bright and early, a shuttle bus hauled a fair-sized group from the Rhapsody to the city center and dumped us off. We had only about four hours to do our business, since the shuttle was scheduled to pick us up at 2:00 PM—earlier than we would have liked, but I speculated that this was because the touring company didn't want to risk our bus getting caught in rush-hour traffic and thus return late to the port. Bad business, that would be.

At this point, all of us were feeling the ravenous hunger, so our first order of business was to hunt up some breakfast. We found it at a nice little restaurant along the city's main thoroughfare, and here, I was able to put my linguistic skills to good use. Happily, some crucial grammar and vocabulary came back to me quickly. Our server could speak a wee bit of English, but I was able to communicate in French with reasonable success, mostly using simple sentences, such as "Ou est la toilette, s'il vous plaît?" (Actually, most everyone in our group had learned how to ask directions to the nearest rest room in every language we were to encounter on the trip.) The breakfast—eggs, bacon (not American bacon), and fresh bread—turned out to be delicious indeed. Although I did love the café au laît across the pond, I can't say I didn't still crave our great big steaming mugs of Good Morning America. Sadly, the coffee on the ship, while accessible day in and day out, wasn't very good (think Barney Miller–grade coffee, if you're old enough to remember that great TV comedy).

There might be stunned disbelief should I mention that I set out on my own after a couple of geocaches in Aix, but indeed, that is what I did. And I found them. There were a couple of EarthCaches and Virtuals in reasonable proximity, but here's a thing about so many container-less caches in Europe: they are clearly not geared to the traveler who is keeping company with the non-geocaching set. Rather than direct you to a nice landmark, about which you might answer a handful of questions, take a photo, and claim your smiley, all too many of these things involved going from stage to stage to stage, all requiring considerable time and travel—a thing I would not subject my companions to, since they aren't into the activity the way I am. So I bypassed any number of virtuals and such that I would happily have gone after in the company of other cachers. And that's okay, I reckon. Those caches I did find made me smile real big. The two I found in Aix were challenging without being frustrating, especially the one located near the Hotel de Ville, pictured below.
The Hotel de Ville
Old Rodan after finding the cache at La Place des Quatres Dauphins
While the women sought treasures (not of the geocaching variety), Terry had discovered a lovely little outdoor bistro that served mighty fine wine. I sampled some myself and gave it my stamp of approval. In Aix, we indeed found some very good French wine; here in the states, it's been difficult to locate French vintages of such quality, regardless of price point. Sad for us, it is! Anyway, once reunited, the gang found lunch at a restaurant called Chez Nous (a.k.a. Our House), where, again, my linguistic skills were put to the test. I earned my stripes here, although one of our two servers did speak English better than I spoke French. While, overall, the food was decent, I tried their beef tartare, which would have been all too bland if not for the plentiful herbs and spices it came with. Still, our meal—and especially the wine—hit the spot. Since dining at this fine establishment, the lyrics to Yes's 'Love Will Find a Way" have frequently, spontaneously wormed their way into my brain, although I reckon that's okay, since it's one of my favorite Yes songs.
"Here is my heart waiting for you.
Here is my soul.
I eat at Chez Nous."

At last, our time in Aix drew to a close, so we wandered back to our meeting point to return to the Rhapsody. Although some of the French folks we had encountered did act a bit more stand-offish than those in other places, none had displayed hostility toward us tourist types until we prepared to re-board the ship. As always, we had to go through a security checkpoint, which involved passports and sea passes, removing all items from our pockets, backpacks, etc. While always a little annoying, these were generally painless procedures. At least until France....

I call her the Meanie of Marseilles. As we stepped into the queue and began unloading our belongings, I noticed this young French woman in the garb of port security giving each incoming passenger the haughtiest, meanest looks I've ever seen, and when a passenger handed over his or her bin of personal items, the Meanie would slam it onto the conveyor and then jerk the next person's belongings right out of their hands. How mean, I thought. I will say that it's a good thing none of the items I was carrying were fragile or I would have absolutely called her on it. Not something you really want to do in a foreign land, I'm pretty sure. Sure, we all have our bad days, and maybe hers had been pretty miserable, but for someone who is supposed to be acting in the public interest, I gotta say, that ain't no way to behave. Take that from this grumpy old American, you meanie. You... you... French person you.

Since this was our last night on board, we had to pack up all our stuff and be ready to leave the ship at the upcoming ass-crack of dawn. All around us, sadness flowed like a dismal river of tears. At dinner, I pulled Charles aside and told him I was sad because it was not my birthday. He gave me no cake to console me, which certainly didn't elevate my spirits. However, for our last night on board, Terry and I hit the casino and played big. I won back a fair portion of what I had lost over the course of the week, but... it was still a net loss. Yet it ended my Casino nights on a high note, and at the end of it all, I walked away inordinately pleased with myself.

Coming up the next morning: our final port of call, Barcelona. We had some reservations about Barcelona, since we planned to spend three days there before heading home, and over the course of our cruise, we'd been hearing all too much about violent demonstrations in the city. Not just in the city, but right where we would be staying: in Catalunya Square.

Literally, right outside our door.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 2 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 3 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 4 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 6 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 4: Return to Italy

The view as I make my way through Tuscania toward Chiesa San Maria Maggiore, seen in the distance
October 23, 2019: Tuscania
Long before we ever set foot on our cruise ship, our gang had heard from numerous sources that, while it might be spectacular and memorable, Rome is also a certified madhouse—an overcrowded, frenetic Mecca for on-the-go tourists. We all preferred something a little more low key for our return to Italy, so rather than visit Rome proper, we opted for a tour of the remote, medieval town of Tuscania and a nearby winery/olive farm that featured substantial tastings of their fare. This proved a wise choice indeed.

The Rhapsody arrived in Civitavecchia early on Wednesday, the 24th. Unlike the lovely port of Kotor, Civitavecchia is largely industrial and anything but scenic. Upon disembarking, we quickly found our tour guide and shuttle bus, settled ourselves for the ride, and off we went. The scenery on the outbound drive wasn't ugly, but neither was it particularly impressive—at least until we drew nearer to our destination. As we passed through the small town of Tarquinia, we once again began to get a sense of the region's long, rich history. Soon afterward, we reached Tuscania, a small, ancient, stone-walled city that boasts a handful of touristy establishments. As we had hoped, it proved far more sedate than most of the locations we had visited so far.

Our guide gave us a quick overview of the town, but for the most part, we were left to our own devices, a fact I particularly appreciated because a couple of geocaches awaited my attention in the city's oldest quarter. I left the rest of our party in the heart of town and set out for the caches—one located at Chiesa San Maria Maggiore, the other at Chiesa San Pietro. While Terry, Beth, and Kimberly had a fine enough time shopping and sightseeing in Tuscania, geocaching may have once again provided me with the richer experience: I got to wander down quiet, essentially deserted streets, taking in the local atmosphere and seeing at close range the beauty of this centuries-old town. The walk turned out to be just over a mile round trip, and the caches were both creative and well-hidden.
The tower of Chiesa San Pietro in the distance—one of my caching destinations in Tuscania
Chiesa San Maria Maggiore
I made a nice little friend!

I rejoined our party just in time to board our bus to head for the olive farm/winery for cicchetti and spirits. We found the fare here delicious, the setting peaceful and scenic. Plus, as with so many places we visited in Europe, there were cats. These felines were quite sociable, and after our light lunch, I made friends with a sweet little kitten who seemed at least as interested in our company as our lunches. Once finished with our vittles and vino, we returned to the Rhapsody, though with plenty of time before sailing again late in the afternoon.

So, rather than while away the rest of the day on the ship, we decided to venture back out and wander around Civitavecchia. This port city offered a few of the usual establishments for eating and drinking, a couple of which we checked out. I did hunt another cache—this one, of all things, commemorating the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. The cache proved tricky, but again, it was nicely done. A favorite moment in Civitavecchia was stumbling upon the entrance to a music hall established in honor of my favorite film music composer, Ennio Morricone, best known, at least in this country, for his Italian western movie scores.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed another fine dinner with our regular group. Charles still refused to bring me extra cake when I informed him it was my birthday. Nancy and Marsha had indeed gone into Rome, which they enjoyed, but confirmed that, yes, it was a bleeping madhouse. Now more than ever we were glad we had avoided that particular onslaught of humanity and appreciated our perhaps less well-known but far more relaxing destinations.

October 24, 2019: Florence and the Uffizi From Hell
Pan and Daphnis by Heliodorus of Rhodes,
in the Uffizi Gallery

If our Tuscania outing had made for a tranquil day on Wednesday, our excursion into Florence on Thursday most certainly did not. The Rhapsody pulled into the port of Livorno, which services both Florence and Pisa, well before we woke up. From Livorno, we rode into Florence by way of the express train from hell. Hell, I say, due to the extreme heat within, a mysterious misery that Italians seem to ubiquitously embrace. Even in temperatures of 70°F, most of the population walked around bundled in jackets and scarves, and the interiors of buildings and public transports virtually always hovered in the near-unbearable range for us hot-blooded Americans. We had one tour planned in Florence: the Uffizi Gallery, which contains works of art by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and many other artists of great historical renown. Unfortunately, this was the one day of the trip that it rained—prodigious amounts, all day long. I don't know how Rome would have compared, but Florence overflowed with muggles, so that getting from place to place turned out to be far more problematic than any of our other destinations. Getting around the Uffizi Gallery proved to be worst of all.

Kimberly had paid premium prices to get "Skip-the-Line" tickets, which we figured would get us past the madding crowd; indeed, we got past one madding crowd, only to be thrust into an even bigger one before we could enter the gallery. But once we did—I swear to Yog-Sothoth—the place was a mob scene. One could barely walk, and the crowd noise rose to galling levels. Museum staff members began shushing people in the various galleries. It was almost embarrassing to be among the tourists wandering around in there. We did see any number of fantastic works of art, but it wasn't long before the atmosphere in the place became so oppressive that we all just wanted out. And that is where we ran into our biggest obstacle: finding a goddamn uscita (exit).

Countless signs labeled uscita directed us down specific corridors. Yet each one led only to another gallery, each a dead-end. Eventually, we asked a museum staff member for assistance. He pointed us in a whole different direction, and at last we were able to find our way down to the first level. Here, on occasion, we could actually see the street—but always through doors labeled "emergency only." So again, we had to thread our way through a seemingly endless maze of corridors, galleries, and stairways. We followed one uscita sign after another, often coming tantalizingly close to the great outdoors, only to be foiled again, again, and again.

At last, when we finally did reach a bona fide exit, a museum staff member demanded our tickets. Apparently, one needs a ticket not only to get into the place but out of it. The problem was, by this point, some of us had apparently tossed them, and I had stuffed mine into one of the pockets of my hiking pants, apparently at such depth I couldn't find the damned thing again. At last, exasperated, the lady instructed us to just move the hell on, so we would be out of her sight. And thus the last vestige of any fondness I might retain for the Uffizi Gallery up and withered away.
Laocoonus and His Sons by Baccio Bandinelli
After this debacle, we headed in the direction of the Duomo at Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Here, I was able to claim a virtual cache, which lifted my spirits a bit. Happily, the rain had let up, so we sought some lunch at a nearby outdoor restaurant—only to have the blasted bottom fall out again as soon as we sat down. Canopies partially covered the tables, but on occasion, rivulets of cold water poured down our backs and prompted us to emote by way of hollering. The food, at least, hit the spot.
Il Duomo at Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

Some places in Italy we hated to leave. Florence was not one of them. To be fair, on the day in question, no less than six cruise ships docked in Livorno had dumped veritable hordes of humans into the region. And the rain certainly complicated matters. Florence surely has plenty of historic treasures to offer; it's just that, for us, circumstances at the time didn't quite gel for optimum enjoyment. I would happily give Florence another chance on some future trip.

Once out of Livorno, we left Italy behind once and for all. I will say, whatever discomforts we sometimes faced, all in all, I found Italy an altogether alluring and agreeable place, and I so want to return someday, particularly to Venice and Verona.

Over the course of the week, we had quite enjoyed our time on the Rhapsody, but now we could see the end of the voyage approaching, which did bring on a sense of melancholy. On this evening, Terry and Beth retired fairly early, so Brugger and I settled ourselves in the ship's Schooner Bar for Prosecco (Brugger) and Campari Spritz (moi). Our regular dinnertime companions Dave and Jane happened to be heading to the bar at the same time, so they joined us and we spent an enjoyable spell exchanging anticdotes of no small amusement. Then, sometime around 11:00 PM, Kimberly and I decided to visit one of the outdoor hot tubs on the upper deck. A wonderful chilly breeze was blowing, and we were all but along up there; a handful of folks had settled in one of the other hot tubs, but we were barely aware of each other's existence. Each evening of the cruise, a movie ran on the upper deck's outdoor movie screen, and tonight, The Mule, starring Clint Eastwood was playing. We didn't pay it that much mind, but it did seem kind of nice, almost like being at a drive-in theater while at sea. I haven't had a more satisfying, relaxing spell since I don't know when. Of all our experiences on our Mediterranean trip, this one stands out as a true highlight.

Our next port of call would be Marseilles, France, although, once again, we decided to bypass that well-known city and visit the smaller, somewhat less touristy town of Aix-en-Provence, a short distance to the north. Aix would yet become another of our favorite stops on the continent.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 2 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 3 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 5 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 6 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 3: From Montenegro to Stromboli

October 21, 2019: The Cats of Montenegro
After our day in Croatia, we didn't know what to expect from Kotor, Montenegro, our next port of call. Given its proximity to the previous stop, we suspected it would be more of something akin to the same.

As it turned out, Montenegro was anything but more of the same. The moment I saw the huge mountains looming high above the ship as it sailed into the bay, I knew a whole different experience awaited us. Here, we had not booked a guided tour; just a water shuttle to take us from the Rhapsody and dump us off on foreign soil. As strangers in an alien place, we figured we would take our chances and hope for the best. At the last minute, friend Terry began feeling puny and decided to remain aboard the ship. I'm not going to categorically state that he might have overindulged at the casino the night before, but neither will I rule out that possibility.

As Beth, Ms. B., and Old Dude disembarked, we could feel the aura of ancient age that surrounded the town, which is considerably larger than Zadar. The first thing I encountered was a group of geocachers—Swedish and Canadian, it turned out—gathered around the cache just outside the port. They were apparently from our ship, though as I discovered from the online logs, literally dozens of other cachers, from a couple of different cruise ships, found the same caches I did on that day. Later, as we were leaving, I saw more cachers gathered at the port hide, apparently having a little trouble finding it. I managed to set them straight.

In the town proper, upon getting our bearings, the three of us set out exploring and immediately discovered another world of narrow, labyrinthine streets and alleys, not unlike those in Venice. We saw, atop the high ridge that overlooked the town, the battlements of a sprawling, ancient stone fortress. A strenuous walking trail leads to it, but we didn't undertake that venture. Our regular dinner companions, Nancy and Marsha, evidently did, and they told us that the exertion nearly wiped them out. I did seek and find a couple of geocaches, thus adding a new country to my caching portfolio.

And catses. Catses roamed here in profusion. Kotor is known for its cats, which are essentially feral, although, due to their constant exposure to humans, the ones we encountered were reasonably social. As we came to one of the myriad outdoor bistros in the middle of town, we saw numerous cats lounging about on chairs and under tables. Beth and Brugger found a few shops that piqued their interest (a thing that happened frequently in all our ports of call). For a time, we settled ourselves at a nice outdoor restaurant called Jazz Club Evergreen, which, while Montenegro-esque in atmosphere, paid tribute to American jazz musicians. Cats lounged in profusion here. We availed ourselves to some Montenegrin wine, a varietal called Vranac, which proved excellent—not unlike a slightly tart Cab Sauv with an agreeable touch of mustiness in the finish. Eventually, after negotiating another intricate maze of streets, confusing even with the GPS, we located a nearby restaurant we had previously seen and ordered lunch, doing our best to pronounce the Montenegrin dish names. (Our server gave me a big thumbs-up when I asked whether he could comprehend my questionable vocalizations.) Beth and Brugger ordered pizzas, which were huge and delicious in the extreme. I found myself with a dish that was a variation on Chicken Cordon Bleu, quite tasty, but so huge I couldn't possibly finish it. No worries; there are cats. A couple of very friendly little guys came around and helped me kill what I couldn't eat.
One of our lunch companions
Jazz Club Evergreen
After lunch, we roamed around town a little more (read ladies shopping) before heading back to the port and catching a shuttle back to the ship.

The Rhapsody set sail again late in the afternoon, and after we'd been moving for a while, I ventured up on deck. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not taking my phone with me. I say it was a mistake because if ever there were sights to photograph, this was the place. I didn't want to run back to the room to grab it for fear I'd miss out on the views altogether. The peaks rising on either side of the channel were prodigious, and as we rounded a peninsula, the town of Perast came into view. What a spectacular sight. Perast is a beautiful, seaside village, with the prominent tower of St. Nickola Church standing out above the shore. The sun had fallen beyond the mountains, and the town's lights were just coming on. I could see, a short distance away, a couple of small islands in the bay. These were St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks. This was, for me, a transcendental moment, a view of such beauty that I found myself mesmerized. I believe, at that point, it would have been physically impossible for me to even attempt to break away and run back to my cabin for my camera. So, unfortunately, you are left with no images of the views that had captured me, though the links above may at least give you an idea.
From there, we sailed on into open sea, our next stop being Civitavecchia, the port city for Rome and Pisa. But it was over a day away, and Tuesday, the 22nd, would be our only full day out at sea. But it too would prove itself spectacular.

October 22, 2019: Anyone for Stromboli?
The few days we'd been in Europe had been busy busy, so having a relaxing day at sea made for a welcome change of pace. There was napping, reading, Casino-ing, eating, and a spot of drinking. In Italy, I had discovered what might be considered, for me, an uncharacteristically frou-frou drink: the Campari Spritz. Mind you, in Italy, the Campari Spritz is considered the "masculine" drink, while the milder-flavored Aperol Spritz reputedly appeals more to feminine tastes. Anyway, once I had drunk one of the damned Campari things, it grew on me. So, for most of the rest of the voyage, Campari and a traditional Damned Bloody Mary were my spirits of choice.

Around midday, the Rhapsody rounded the toe of the boot, passing through the narrow channel between Italy and Sicily at Messina. Here lay the legendary realm of Scylla and Charybdis from Homer's The Odyssey. I had expected to find prodigious cliffs here, but they rose only on the Italian side. The Sicilian shore was long, narrow, and very flat. We could, however, clearly see Mt. Etna in the distance, smoking away, partially obscured by clouds.
It's difficult to see, but far back in the haze, that's Mt. Etna in Sicily, oozing a plume of smoke.
The view as we round the tip of Italy's boot
It wasn't long before a distant, lonely, conical mountain rising from the ocean off to starboard caught our eyes. To our surprise, we could see the mountain occasionally belching a column of black smoke. This, I discovered, was Mt. Stromboli, one in a chain of volcanic islands in the sea north of Sicily. We had a view of the peak for over an hour, passing it close enough to see seagulls flying around the shore. To my surprise, there are two villages at the base of the mountain as well as a cruise ship port. Our dinner companion Dave postulated that one must be able to purchase land for a pittance here. After all, who would actually up and think, "Hey, here is a huge volcano spewing smoke. Let's build a village at the bottom!"

Friend Terry and I figured that, well, as long as the mountain is venting, that's a pretty good sign. If it stops venting, it might be time to worry a little. I shouldn't much want to be nearby should that thing decide to blow its stack.
Mt. Stromboli, seen in the distance as we approach
Mt Stromboli at closer range, now puffing a bit of smoke.
The islands of Salina and Ripari, seen in the distance from near Mt. Stromboli
For our next day's plan, we had decided to forego the splendors (read madhouse crowds) of Rome and instead visit a more sedate location: the ancient village of Tuscania and one of the nearby wineries, about a forty-five minute drive from Civitavecchia. Terry had recuperated from feeling puny and was all ready to tackle some fine wine once again. You may find that tale in my next installment, coming up later.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 2 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 4 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 5 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 6 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 2: Bon Voyage

October 19, 2019: Con te Partiro
Leaving Venice hit me in the heart in ways I never expected. I fell in love with Venice, truly and deeply.

On the morning of October 19, our gang of four made its way to the port on the west end of the city. Here we boarded our cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas. Once checked in, we grabbed some lunch, explored the ship, and—just prior to sailing—headed up to the main deck with some refreshing, delicious, overpriced drinks. The ship weighed anchor just before sunset. Once under way, we got to view Venice in all its glory as we slowly passed by, to the strains of "Con te Partiro (Time to Say Goodbye),a magnificent duet by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. It's a song I've adored since I first heard it, back in 1998 at friend/author David Niall Wilson's place. I eventually picked up the Bocelli CD for my mom because I knew she would love the music. She did. And the song, "Con te Partiro" (which actually means "With You, I Will Leave") came to be, for her, the definitive reminder of my dad, who passed away in 2001. It was there on deck that I remembered her loving the song for that reason, and now, combined with a new, deep, personal context, my emotions simply broke. I almost could not stop crying.

Those last views of Venice rolling past at twilight have been burned indelibly in my heart and mind.
The Centrum aboard Rhapsody of the Seas

I had been on one cruise before, many years ago, with my ex-wife. We went to the western Caribbean on the Carnival Pride, a considerably larger ship than Rhapsody of the Seas. Still, aboard the Rhapsody, our cabin was comfortable, if tight in the way of all cruise ships; the service over the course of the cruise impeccable; the activities entertaining. That first evening, at dinner, we met a lovely English couple named Dave and Jane; we would soon also be sharing our table with a very sweet American lady named Nancy and her niece, a young woman named Marsha whose wit and humor never failed to amuse us. Over the course of the week, our regular dinner companions would prove enjoyable company, as would our servers: a friendly but perpetually somber Croatian gentleman named Hrvoje and his ever-jovial assistant Charles.

On that first evening, for some reason, the restaurant staff had the impression it was my birthday. Just after dinner, an army of servers came charging at me, one carrying a big old piece of chocolate mousse cake, the lot of them singing "Happy Birthday" at the top of their lungs. Quelle surprise! I tried to tell them that, no, it was not my birthday, but they assured me it most certainly was, for they had been thusly informed. Therefore, I had to eat the cake. Well, okay. I ate it, however reluctantly, and it was really good. Later, Charles came round to tell me there had been a mistake. From then on, every evening at dinner, at least until the last one, I pulled Charles aside and told him it was my birthday. I never got any extra cake, though.

While I consider myself a loyal friend to most, I cannot help but assess individuals as objectively as possible. And it is with such objectivity I must divulge to you that, on occasion, friend Terry can be an altogether corrupting influence. Terry has been known to play Blackjack in the ship's casino, and on this trip, he sometimes exerted his wicked influence on me to do this same. He would say, "Mark, I am going to the casino." See what I mean? Now, I am not an avid or accomplished gambler, though I do enjoy a good game of cards now and again. So, over the next few days, I lost—thankfully—a relatively small amount of cash. (Happily, I made up for a fair portion of it on our final night at sea. Whew.) I don't know for sure how well Terry made out over the long haul, but I wouldn't be surprised if he corrupted a few other unsuspecting souls in that casino as well. Should you encounter friend Terry, you have been warned.

October 20, 2019: On to Zadar
An entertaining little Croatian bistro

Our ship's first port of call was Zadar, Croatia, where we arrived early on Sunday morning. Zadar is an old, fairly small city, scenic enough, though not as striking as some of the locations we would eventually visit. Prior to our trip, Ms. B. and I had practiced, as much as possible, common phrases, sentences, and vocabulary in Italian, French, and Spanish. However, Croatian (and Montenegrin) were not much in our repertoire. Actually, not at all. Happily, since the port is regularly full of tourists, the staff at most of the establishments we visited spoke intelligible English. Reading the language, however—which is written in Cyrillic—was right out.

Our first activity was a tour of the town, which lasted perhaps an hour and a half. The highlight was seeing some ancient Roman ruins. The tour was nice enough, but—as it turned out over the course of the trip—we most enjoyed being dumped out on our own to make our ways as best we could. Following the tour, we sought sought food, drink, and geocaches (well, only one of us for the latter). We did find an exceptional gelato shop, which is saying something, since we discovered what must be the best gelato on Earth in Venice and Verona. And the capuccino couldn't have been better.

Our stay in Zadar wasn't that long, and by mid-afternoon, we were making our way back to the ship. I think most of us recovered from our several days of being on the go-go-go by way of napping. In the evening, our gang ended up in the Karaoke lounge, where we all went to town. (I'm certain I recollect that NO drinking was involved. You believe me, right?) I performed REM's "Losing My Religion"; Kim performed Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" (superbly, I must mention); and Beth, Kim, and I all joined Terry on stage to sing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline." The latter brought the house down, though I suspect this might be due to Terry's corrupting influence. Our concerted attempts to persuade Kim to do some Bon Jovi... mais alas!... failed miserably.

Coming up later: Montenegro
Ancient church in Zadar
L: Ancient Roman Medusa sculpture in Zadar; R: Caravaggio Medusa painting in Florence

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 1 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 3 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 4 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 5 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 6 here.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.