Saturday, November 30, 2019

Black Friday, Red Wine

Black Friday has become one of my favorite days of the year, since I generally avoid as much of humanity as humanly possible and hie myself to some woodland haven in search of geocaches. This day, the only bunch of people I really encountered was traffic on I-40 as I made my way to Salem Lake, just this side of Winston-Salem. There was only one cache at the lake on my target list (Inception - GC89BRW), but a new park & grab hide had come out in Greensboro not long before I headed out the door. I snagged it on my way to Winston.

There's usually a fair crowd on the trails  at Salem Lake, and this Black Friday was no exception. Fortunately, the trails are extensive enough that the crowds are spread out. And the cache lurked a fair distance into the woods from the main trail. Out there, it was nice and secluded. On the trail, quite a few folks came by on horseback. In fact, I saw almost as many horseback riders as bicyclists, which was pretty cool.

Munzees. Sigh. Munzees are sort of an offspring of geocaching, but they don't feature hidden containers. Instead, you go to their coordinates and scan a QR code. Or, as has become more popular, you scan the freaking air to get credit for a virtual Munzee. You just need to be in the correct proximity. These boogers are only gratifying because they are often placed in concentrations sufficient to make for an enjoyable walk. I confess that, since I started geocaching, when I go on a walking outing, I like to have something to hunt. To claim. And Munzees offer that opportunity. Last week, I went out with friend Natalie (a.k.a. Ms. Fishdownthestair) to a nearby shopping area to snag a crapload of Munzees. Quite a few of these little fuckers reside at/around Salem Lake, so yeah, I put in some extra hiking to scan them. Good for me, right? At the end of the outing, I had put in over four miles of trekking around the woods, so that, indeed, proved a good thing.

Pretty far out in the woods, I came across a kind of lean-to shelter, pictured below. I occasionally encounter such constructs when I'm out and about. This one might be especially fortuitous in that I've been trying to come up with images that might fit the Grassman theme for my upcoming Ameri-Scares novel, Ohio: Fear the Grassman! It's apt because "evidence" of the Grassman includes the discovery of such shelters, although sized for Bigfoot. This one wasn't small, as it extends back about twelve feet.
While I went off on my woodland adventures, Brugger had joined friends Beth and Bridget (a.k.a. Suntigres) for their annual "Crunken Dork Day" gathering — which is all about arts & crafts with wine corks (and wine, of course), so named due to the misplacement of syllables while vocalizing in an inebriated state. After my hike, I headed to nearby Kernersville to join up with them and their respective spouses — friends Terry and Gerry (a.k.a. BigG7777). Wine and dinner (chili!) ensued, as did an entertaining round of Cards Against Humanity.

It was pretty late when I got home last night. And I slept in this morning, which I suppose the old brain and body needed. Today, I plan on making substantial progress on the Ameri-Scares front. This, too, is much-needed.
Sights along the trail: a great blue heron, on the watch for enemy submarines
A garland of stones, flowers, and little pumpkins around a tree next to the trail

Thursday, November 28, 2019

T-Minus Turkey Day and Counting


For the first time in over thirty years, I'm not celebrating Thanksgiving Day in the company of my full family, such as it is. Sadly, in all likelihood, my mom has spent her last holiday at home, and my brother is unable to leave his place today. So Kimberly and I are dug in at Casa di Brugger, with enough food and drink in the works to feed the Biblical multitude. (Fortunately, we have a houseful of cats to help us take care of the mass quantities.) I'd have to say I feel a certain melancholy, as this arrangement will likely be permanent; on the other hand, having some much-needed down time with just Ms. B. is just the ticket for today. Since before our trip to Europe, when the world went careening off the rails, life has been a whirlwind of ups and downs, with far too many downs in the mix.

For me, Thanksgiving has always been about sharing time with loved ones. From my youngest days, my mom, dad, brother, and I always had a big Thanksgiving dinner, oftentimes in the company of grandparents, close friends, or both; in later years, with my wife and daughter as well. Over the decades, life changes and mortality have whittled family and those old friends down to a distressingly small number.

That said, it's safe to say I've never been a happier soul than with Kimberly, and at this moment, sharing the world with her is all the joy I can manage.

Typically, Black Friday is a day to avoid as much of humanity as possible by way of geocaching, and continuing that tradition looks to be in tomorrow's cards — as is sharing time with some of our bestest friends later in the day. So, yeah, things in my little corner of the world may be way, way different this year, but I reckon I'll be taking things as they come. It's not as if we have much choice in such matters, really.

So, to you and yours, a damned fine Thanksgiving. Eat and drink to your heart's content. Then try to figure out how you're gonna work it all off. I expect tomorrow's geocaching might at least burn off a wee smidgen of stuffing.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Tarheel State and the Outhouse

Today, the Usual Suspects — Diefenbaker (a.k.a. Scott), Fishdownthestair (a.k.a. Natalie), Old Rob (a.k.a. Old Rob), et moi — spent the day on the road between Salisbury, NC, and Statesville, NC, snagging all one hundred caches in the Tarheel State Geoart series, plus a few assorted caches in the vicinity. We finished the day having claimed 110 caches, which is the most I've ever found in one day. Happily, we posted not a single DNF (Did Not Find) log, which is unusual for a run of such magnitude. Almost all the caches were hidden at the bases of signs, in guardrails, on fences, and a few other assorted easily accessible locations along US Highway 70.

The most enjoyable cache of the day was probably one that wasn't part of the series, called "The Outhouse" (GC5X0CR). This one led us to a bunch of old ruins in the woods — a collapsed house, a tobacco barn, and a few teetering outbuildings. We found the cache readily enough, but we did spend a bit of time wandering among the old structures. I love finding places like this. You never know what kind of ghostly thingummies might haunt such ruins. I always enjoy trying to find out.

Midway through the run, we headed back into Salisbury proper and had lunch at Shuckin' Shack Osyter Bar, where our gang had eaten on our last Salisbury outing. Good, good food there. I had a dozen steamed oysters on the half-shell and some hot chicken wings (their "Surf and Turf" combo). Once done, we finished out the run and headed back to Greensboro, arriving just before sundown.

Geoarts aren't my favorite caches, since they mostly involve starting, stopping, grabbing, rinsing, and repeating. But they're certainly fun now and again, and they do help you rack up your geocaching numbers. It's especially fun in good company. I must find some someday.

((Ducking and running. Very fast.))
The Usual Suspects: Old Rodan, Fishdownthestair, Diefenbaker, Old Rob
Diefenbaker looking for the outhouse
A little fixer-upper. Note the natural air conditioning.
Looks like a Nor'easter came through here.

Extending the Dick & Willie

Sure, it's an amusing nickname: "Dick & Willie" refers to the old Danville and Western railway that used to run through Martinsville. The tracks were taken up several years ago, and now the Dick & Willie Rail Trail uses those old rail beds to traverse Martinsville, VA. Since 2008, the trail has run about four and a half miles, from Commonwealth Blvd. at the northwest end to a point just north of Spruce St., east of town. After many months of work, a new, two-and-a-half-mile trail extension leads to the Smith River Sports Complex, at Martinsville's easternmost corner. This puts the trail very close to my old neighborhood, and since I'm at the homeplace frequently, I went out yesterday to properly inaugurate the trail extension with several geocaches.

I put out four yesterday, all on the leg that runs from the end of Country Club Drive (the stories I have from that place!) to the sports complex. One ammo can (Country Club View); a medium-size Tupperware container (Dick & Willie Rocks); a small, camouflaged jar (Dick & Willie: The Hole Thing); and a wee little bison tube (Dameron's Disaster). They're out there, already published at geocaching.com, and all found exactly once so far — by fellow geocacher tbbiker (a.k.a. Todd). I hope these caches, and other new ones yet to come out, will entice lots of geocachers in the area to pay Martinsville a visit.

I did manage to cut my finger pretty good while placing one of the containers. Just call me Captain Klutz.

As a youngster, I spent a fair amount of time back in those woods behind Country Club Drive. In my teens, several friends and I would on occasion go camping there (and possibly drinking things other than water from the Smith River). At one time, a sewer line and utility road went back where the trail now leads. Although one wasn't supposed to, one could, if so minded, drive a car back down into the woods and cross a very narrow, earthen bridge over one of the creeks. When I say narrow, I'm talking a couple of inches clearance on either side. I think it was during my first year of college that friends (whom, for the purposes of this account, I shall call Johannes, Ramon, and Keebler) and I all drove back there to camp out overnight. When we saw that little land bridge, we had our doubts about proceeding any further. But Johannes resolved to drive across that treacherous space in his powder blue Ford Maverick. And he up and did it — successfully. Whew! So I figured that if Johannes could do it in a Maverick, I could do it in my little mustard yellow Toyota Corolla. Well, yes, I did it, with Ramon in the car with me. It was hairy, to be sure. Then it was Keebler's turn. He came roaring down the hill, hit the bridge, and... woops! BOOM! His little green whatever-it-was slid and toppled partway over the edge. What a disaster! Now, he was fine, and I don't think the car suffered too much damage... but it did require a tow truck to pull that vehicle out of there. I sure hate to think of the aftermath for poor Keebler. It couldn't have been pretty.

Anyway, there is now a geocache out there, at that exact location, commemorating the event.

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 Shrewsbury 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.