Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Mediterranean Sojourn Pt 1: From Venice With Love

Where to begin? It was the trip of a lifetime — at least of this life to date. At the culmination of what has been the single most difficult, frustrating, trying, upsetting, stressful, agonizing period in my 60+ years of existence, due to my mom's near-catastrophic decline, I embarked with the lovely Ms. Brugger and friends Terry and Beth on a two-week-long sojourn in the Mediterranean. We had begun planning the trip over a year ago — and paid for most of it — well before the time came to sail. It was only excruciatingly awful timing that my mom's situation came to a head shortly before we were scheduled to leave. Although there is truly no resolution until Mom passes away, the worst of it, at least for now, seems to have passed.

To recount even a few of the highlights of this trip, I'll need to write a series of blogs as time allows. For my own satisfaction, I'd love to make this little travelogue as comprehensive as possible, but I'll bust up the narrative with lots of pictures, which you may appreciate more than the rambling.
Gassing up to go: Beth, Terry, Ms. B., and Old Rodan before our connecting flight at Philadelphia International
October 16, 2019: V-Day
On Tuesday, October 15, our band departed Greensboro, NC, flew first to Philadelphia, PA, and from there to Venice, Italy, where we arrived early on October 16. We had three days in the city before boarding Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas for a cruise from Venice to Zadar, Croatia; to Kotor, Montenegro; to Civitavecchia, Italy (near Rome); to Livorno, Italy (near Pisa and Florence); to Marseilles, France; and finally to Barcelona (Cataluña), Spain. Outbound, our flights, via American Airlines, while not particularly comfortable, went off without any hitches. While most of the gang slept on the overseas flight, my very hard seat prevented much relaxation. For me, the only particular highlight was watching The Right Stuff, which I hadn't seen since its initial release in 1983, on the seatback screen. The flight landed in Venice, as scheduled, on the 16th about 10 AM. From there a few little hitches did crop up. From Marco Polo International Airport, on the mainland, we had to take a water taxi (Alilaguna) to the island — about a forty-five-minute ride. The docks were crowded enough that we couldn't make it onto the first couple of transports, and between their appointed rounds, the boat skippers were going to take their full thirty-minute breaks no matter how long the line of passengers grew. (Long. Very long.) So, from the time we stepped off the jet, a good three hours passed before we set foot on the water taxi dock in Venice proper.
The view from our apartment

But from there... for the most part... Venice proved every bit as historic, beautiful, fascinating, and enchanting as every story, song, or work of art has ever portrayed it. Lodging for our three days was at a lovely VRBO flat on Fondamenta Foscarini along the Rio de S. Margherita. As with most places we ventured into, not only in Venice but Europe in general, the rooms, the furnishings, the elevators, and particularly the bathrooms appear to have been designed for individuals roughly the size of Peter Dinklage. Still, while a little tight, our quarters proved generally comfortable. At least until...

The mosquitoes.

Since the temperature in Venice varied little from our own back home — read unseasonably warm — we mostly kept the windows open. That way, we managed to keep cool and unsweaty. However, since no screens protected these lovely portals, wildlife was free to venture inside. Initially, our primary concern was that the plentiful pigeons might take it to heart to visit us. They did not, but I would much rather have dealt with the birds.

The minuscule buzzing monsters swarmed inside during our sleep that first night. Brugger and I each woke up one great big itch, with nary a drop of blood left in our bodies. (A fair portion of it ended up on the heretofore pristine walls every time we managed to smash one of these savage Italian bloodfuckers.) After that, it was too late to do much about the damage done, but for the rest of our stay, we took a few extra precautions, such as leaving curtains drawn and bathing in DEET.

Now, needless to say, I hadn't been in Venice long before I found my first geocache. I managed to claim 36 during the trip — 20 in Italy, 10 in Spain, and 2 each in Croatia, Montenegro, and France. Most were urban micros, some quite ingenious. I failed to find a couple, but for the most part, the caches turned out to be nicely hidden and not too difficult.

There's no way I'll remember the numerous eating and drinking establishments we visited. There were simply too many. Venice offers a seemingly infinite number of restaurants, cafés, and bars, many tucked away in the tiny, labyrinthine alleys and along the myriad canals. Some of the best places we found by accident, just by venturing down some unknown, shadowy, seemingly little-traveled passage. I've always enjoyed Italian food, though I've rarely actually craved it. It's safe to say Venice (and perhaps Verona) offered the best Italian food I've ever eaten, and now I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get enough of it. Which isn't necessarily the healthiest thing, since oftentimes the only way to burn off even moderate portions of such fare is to exercise at least as much as we did walking around Venice. And that was a lot.

I can only marvel that, prior to GPS technology, people somehow made their ways from place to place in Venice. The streets and alleys create such endless mazes, it's easy to envision becoming lost for quite some time in even a relatively small corner of the city.

Though we were exhausted from our travels on that first day, we had signed up in advance for a tour of the Jewish ghetto and cicchetti bàcari — essentially tapas bars — that evening. We had expected it to be relatively short, with a fair sampling of food and wine. It turned out to be a 2.5-hour informational walking tour with a small sampling of refreshments for good measure. Our guide, a young lady named Lara, offered an engaging presentation, but by the time she finished, physical exhaustion had about taken its toll on our party. It's a wonder some of us didn't collapse long before we ever began the nearly two-mile trek through the labyrinths back to our flat. Truly, the highlight of that evening had come as we made our way to the tour's starting point: as we emerged from an alley so narrow I couldn't stretch my arms out, we beheld a sizable piazza occupied by a host of spectators and a full orchestra playing music from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. What an intense, stirring experience. And so unexpected! Prior to our arrival, we hadn't heard so much as a faint strain of music, and thus we came upon it with no warning. We rather hated to leave this appealing event behind, but since time was running short to make our enagement, we reluctantly did so.

October 17, 2019: Shades of Moonraker
Piazza San Marco
Among the things I most enjoyed about Venice was seeing a plethora of familiar sights from the 007 films From Russia With Love, Moonraker, and Casino Royale. For all its ridiculousness, Moonraker showcased some of Venice's most attractive locations, particularly Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square. Here, I was surprised to find Venini Glass — the shop featured in Moonraker that provides the nefarious Hugo Drax with custom satellite-borne tubes that contain a lethal toxin — located right where it is in the movie: adjacent to the clock tower on the north end of the square, facing the Basilica di San Marco. No doubt the shop's interior is quite different than it is portrayed in the film, but seeing its facade struck me as intriguing, since I had always assumed the establishment was fictitious.

Exploring Piazza San Marco and surrounding environs occupied a fair portion of the day. I did find a few geocaches in the area, which of course made me happier than a Godzilla fan boy in an X-Plus toy store. From there, we wandered north and eastward to a few shops and historical landmarks that Ms. B. wanted to visit. Chief among them were the flooded crypts under the Basilica di San Zaccaria. Beneath this 15th-century architectural marvel are submerged tombs that house the bodies of doges dating back to the church's earliest years. Standing water is always present, but if you don't mind slightly wet feet, you can explore these catacombs, the extent of which depends on the water level at the time. I ventured in at the first level, where the water was only an inch or so deep, but in the same chamber, a foot-deep pool reflected the columns and vaulted ceiling, creating a beautiful, eerie atmosphere.
Submerged tombs beneath the Basilica di San Zaccaria
October 18, 2019: Verona and Vino
Tower of the San Giorgio basilica,
which dates back to the 8th century
Ms. B., ever mindful of the necessity of complementing our explorations of history, architecture, and culture with wine, had booked for us a tour of Coali Winery in the Valpolicella region, about thirty miles northwest of Venice. To get there, we took the fast train from Venice to the city of Verona, where our tour would begin. Once off the train, we hunted down and killed breakfast at a fine little establishment in downtown Verona. Here, we met our tour guide, a young lady named Martina, who possessed an excellent command of English. While all of us usually managed to make ourselves understood by way of our simple, fragmented Italian, it was a relief to be able to converse intelligibly in our native tongue. Best of all, it was only the four of us on the tour. No crowd of muggles to contend with.

Before heading to the winery, Martina drove us far into the hills of the Valpolicella region, to the medieval town of San Giorgio. Here we explored an 8th-century church built atop far older pagan ruins, some of which can be seen in the basilica's candlelit interior, at the base of its stone pillars. We then wandered along the main road of the old town, which is populated primarily by cats. Only a handful of people live there, but the cats... they are everywhere and, in general, relatively friendly. Happily, they all speak our language.
Column built atop a pedestal
originally from a pagan temple
at this location.

The one tragic event that occurred in San Giorgio was my discovering too late that a single cache lurked there — right where we had been walking. The old dullard had been too busy absorbing Martina's fascinating account of the town's history to look at his phone to see if any caches might be hiding nearby. Well, one did, and yes, I missed it. So now I must go back.

At last, we headed to Coali Winery, not far from San Giorgio. As we arrived, an exuberant young woman named Maria came to meet us. The winery belongs to her family, and its main building is actually the family home, where she grew up. Though very small, Coali produces some of the finest wine in the region, and our tastings here provided the proof. From their Valpolicella Classico to the Superiore to the Ripasso to the Amarone, all the wines stood head and shoulders above just about any other that we tasted during our trip. Ms. B. and I picked up a couple of bottles of the Ripasso, and if we'd been able to afford it, we would happily have brought home more, preferably the Amarone.

After this fine experience, Martina drove us back to Verona, which we decided to explore further. We wandered down to the Verona Arena, a colosseum that predates the more famous one in Rome. Though a little smaller, Verona's colosseum is no less impressive and, after all these centuries, is still in use. I suspect event attendees prefer to bring cushions with them, for those stone seats are liable to bruise one's backside.
Old Rodan at Il Balcone di Giuletta,
with a couple of miscreants (Terry and
Beth) having it out up above

We also visited Il Balcone di Giulietta — Juliette's Balcony — reputedly the real-world location of the Capulet house in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliette. While the balcony and courtyard are scenic (and host a nice geocache, which I found), the interior of the place might be considered underwhelming. We paid for a tour, which consisted of four floors of mostly vacant rooms, the most of impressive of which contained Juliette's bed from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film Romeo and Juliette (as an aside, I will confess that I find Andre Kostelanetz's orchestration of Nino Rota's main theme from the film soundtrack one of the most beautiful pieces of music on record).

Afterward, we found a delicious dinner at an outdoor restaurant — and a few more caches — in the Piazza del Erbe, in Verona's city center. Eventually, we made our way back to the train and Venice. By the time we arrived back at our apartment, the wee hours of the morning were staring us in the face, and we knew we had to get moving early in the morning to get to the port to begin our cruise.

And more of this epic will follow as time permits....
L: a rather mean-looking cherub in the church at San Giorgio; R: Found a boner in Verona, I did.
The Rialto Bridge, seen from our water taxi
Courtyard in San Giorgio
View of Valpolicella from San Giorgio
Piazza del Erbe in Verona

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.

Read Mediterranean Sojourn Part 7 here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Martinsville's Oktoberfest Turns 40

The smiling gentleman under the hat is Mr. Stephen H. Provost, former journalist and author of dozens of books and short stories, which range from historical nonfiction to biographies to straight-up horror fiction. His latest, Martinsville Memories, is a pictorial history of my old hometown, Martinsville, VA (see "Martinsville Memories at Oktoberfest," September 30, 2019), which made its debut at the fest. For the book, I wrote the foreword and provided the author with a few antic-dotes of no small amusement. Today was the day of Martinsville's 40th annual Oktoberfest, and it turned out to be an appropriately big event.

Last night, Ms. Brugger and I headed out from Greensboro, stopped to visit my mom in the nursing home, took care of some necessary Mom-related business, and then satisfied our never-ending craving for dinners at Third Bay Café with dinner at Third Bay Café. Afterward, we shared a couple of glasses of wine at Shindig, a relatively new and very promising bistro in Uptown Martinsville. This morning, about 10:30-ish, we hauled ourselves up to Uptown and met Stephen and his wife Samaire — a noteworthy author herself — at their vendor table on Church Street. I had planned to join them just to co-autograph Stephen's new Martinsville book, but he and Samaire kindly offered me some space to sell and sign a few of my own books.
A large, lovely moth we encountered this morning
on our way to Oktoberfest

For the first time this season, we experienced some honest-to-god autumn weather, with somewhat cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s. This proved heavenly. HEAVENLY, I tell you. Two days ago, the mercury hit 100 degrees in the area, and this, my friends, is nothing less than obscene. Never has that creeping little chill been so welcome. I don't know how the crowd this year compares to past years' Oktoberfests, but I can safely say this was a big one. We had lots of traffic at the table, and everyone moved a fair number of books. I unloaded a good many copies of Blue Devil Island, The Monarchs, West Virginia: Lair of the Mothman, and Michigan: The Dragon of Lake Superior. Both Stephen and Samaire clearly turned tidy profits. Ms. B. worked on some of her superb artwork and also wandered around checking out vendors to see if she could find any respectable shopping bargains. She found them.

I did run into a few old friends and acquaintances at the fest. Myron Smith, producer/director of numerous films made locally in which I've appeared — Young Blood (for which I also wrote the novelization), Invasion of the Killer Cicadas, Alice in Wonderland, and others. Scott Norman, a childhood friend whose grandparents lived next door to us. Baxter Robertson, owner of the aforementioned Third Bay Café. And a remarkable instance of Small World Syndrome ocurred. A nice lady stopped at our table and asked if I had a daughter who lived in New York City. I said I did, and it turned out her daughter and mine were friends. She had just moved to Martinsville quite recently. Who might have thunk that?

And... oh, Lord yes... there were funnel cakes. Big old ugly disks of fried dough, smothered in powdered sugar, which sifts all over everything — clothing, exposed skin, books, passing hippopotamuses, you name it. But they is good. Merciful heavens, they is good!

We all ended the day with our wallets having put on a little extra weight. On our way back to Greensboro, Ms. B. and I stopped for dinner at The Celtic Fringe in Reidsville, which has long been one of our favorite establishments for dining and imbibing. So all this was right and proper, and I must say that, in the midst of some of the most intense stress I've had to deal with in this life, our little jaunt to Martinsville this weekend proved both relaxing and rewarding.

It's gonna be another helluva week coming up. If you wish for me anything, please wish me well.

Addendum: Oktoberfest Photostory at The Martinsville Bulletin is here.
A terrifying trio: Mr. Provost, an Old Fart, and Ms. B.
Did anyone else notice a hippopotamus passing by this morning?
A good crowd taking advantage of the lovely Oktober weather
Scads of people listening to music and heading for funnel cakes
The lovely ladies of Oktober: Kimberly Ann Brugger and Samaire Provost
Ms. B.'s ink & watercolor rendering of a chonky little toad, which she completed
while we sat at our table