Real Travel for Real People

Travel the City and See the World

Santa Croce in FlorenceWith the holiday season upon us I started thinking about all the various locations where we’ve celebrated Christmas and New Year’s, or more importantly, about places where I’ve never been during this special time of the year. Christmas Eve at Santa Croce in Florence was unforgettable as we watched the crowds milling around the church while the priest preached fire and brimstone. New Year’s Eve in Milano was an adventure all of its own as we revelers packed in the main dining room where the exit doors had been chained and padlocked to keep out the uninvited. (Photo Santa Croce, Florence)

The many celebrations with friends and family all have great memories, but how about Christmas at St. Peter’s in Rome, or New Year’s in the Alps? How do the Asians celebrate, or the Irish, the Jewish people and the Muslims? With all the nationalities in this beautiful City of ours one could run ragged trying to figure out all the customs and traditions.

St PetersburgWhile visiting St. Petersburg, we spent a short time in the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood and the architecture was stunning, but in San Francisco one could visit The Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary Boulevard and feel right at home where the mosaics on the walls and ceilings are just as beautiful. (Photo: St. Petersburg)

In Dublin we visited Trinity College, but think about the camaraderie at the Irish Cultural Center where friendship and good cheer are always part of the evening’s bliss. We have St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church in North Beach for the Italians and Asians, and Glide Memorial that caters to all faiths including the Muslims, and are all living testaments to San Francisco’s diversity. Trinity College (Photo below: Trinity College)

While in Hong Kong we visited a couple of Buddhist temples, but in this city one can attend temples from the Potrero district to the outer Sunset. In Malaga Spain we toured the Alhambra Palace, but here one can visit endless, wonderful Spanish restaurants and bistros and enjoy tapas while watching Flamenco dancers as we’re cooled off by house-made beers. If you’re German you can visit St. Matthews Lutheran Church on 16th Street, where a new German language preschool is open to children of all nationalities and religious backgrounds.

The 49 mile drive is one of the most popular tourist attractions, and in a matter of a few hours one can see some of the most unique sites in the entire world. From the blue Pacific to our own pyramid, from Alcatraz to AT&T Park, and the views of the two bridges never cease to amaze. From Golden Gate Park to the crookedest street in the world, anyone can get a glimpse of the world without so much as getting out of their car. We are so blessed to have such beauty in such a relatively small area.

RomeBut aside from all the charm one thing is for sure, you’ll never see me (all of me) celebrating New Year’s in the Castro. With the temperature surly hovering around 40 degrees there is no way that I’m celebrating the evening in the buff freezing my ass off. Those park benches can get mighty cold, even with a towel on which to sit.rome  (Photos: Rome)

Enjoy the city and enjoy the world and to all, my fondest wishes for this holiday season and warmest greetings for the New Year, which I plan to spend fully clothed.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

December 2012

Savoring Savannah

Leaving Charleston, we headed to Savannah by way of Beaufort — a sea town not unlike Carmel except for the flat marshes surrounding it. Along the way we passed by Beaufort Marine Air Base and about 15 miles out of town is Parris Island, the Marine training area where many years ago the Marines had a tragic accident during night training exercises. I mentioned this to a couple of the locals, but either they forgot or chose not to remember.Gasstonian House

Unlike Charleston, Savannah was not burned down during the Civil War, and as a result of its surrender to General Sherman it was spared the fate of so many of the other southern cities, and many of the old mansions still exist today. ”

The Atlantic is just a stone’s throw from the town, and the boats and yachts would make any area proud. We had a pleasant lunch under green colored umbrellas, took in a few of the local sites and headed towards Savannah. A few miles before our final destination we traded South Carolina for Georgia, and after crossing a spectacular stayed-cable suspension bridge, we arrived in Savannah, Georgia. Fortunately for us, the city is laid out in a simple grid and very easy to navigate. There are a total of 22 squares and each has houses, churches and business, all with their own style and personality. Unlike Charleston, Savannah was not burned down during the Civil War, and as a result of its surrender to General Sherman it was spared the fate of so many of the other southern cities, and many of the old mansions still exist today. It was General Sherman who gave Savannah to President Lincoln for a Christmas present. horse and carraige

On our first night we headed for the City Market area, a district of shops and restaurants reborn from produce and fish vending areas of years gone by. The following morning we started at the visitor’s center where a trolley bus took us back to the Market area, abandoned the trolley for a horse and buggy and took the one-hour tour of the downtown and historic area.

Mercer HouseWe enjoyed lunch along the waterfront and then took off on foot to see the sights. The streets along the waterfront area are still paved with old cobblestones used for ballast in the old sailing ships, and are extremely difficult to navigate. We hobbled and cobbled to our first stop, which was the house of Juliette Gordon Low, the woman who started the Girl Scouts.

Each stop had fascinating stories but one interesting thing we saw was a trundle bed that had rope tied around the frame to hold up the mattress. On the side was a wooden handle to tighten the rope. The old saying, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite,” came from there. We learned earlier that the mattresses were made from horsehair or Spanish moss, which has bugs in it. (Not unlike today’s major hotels.)

church steepleIn our travels we saw Henry Ford’s first showroom, the Catholic cathedral of St. John the Baptist and a beautiful show of Andrew Wyeth’s work at the Telfair Museum. At the visitors center we saw, but could not sit on, Forrest Gump’s bench, memorabilia from the past when cotton was king and endless references to books and souvenirs on “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”— a great book, but a lousy movie. (Sorry, Clint). We’ve enjoyed Savannah and all the beautiful, nicely cared for parks and squares, all the churches, museums, old homes and monuments, but somehow Savannah seems to be a little more serious than Charleston.

To celebrate our last night in town, we found, and very much enjoyed, an Italian restaurant called Il Pasticcio. Enough Southern cooking for a while, although the grouper that I ordered was delicious.

We needed to return our car, except that Hertz does not have an office in town so the next stop was the Savannah Airport, about 10 miles out of town. We grabbed a taxi back to our hotel while Miss Brown happily drove us back, all the while telling us about her holdup attempt last year. She’s very fussy about her rides, so I guess it was a compliment to us that we were welcomed in her car. Great city, great lady.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

November 2012

Doing the Charleston

Sunday’s breakfast in the garden was as delightful as the weather was beautiful. The clear skies and warm sun complemented the scones, biscuits and bagels which were served with sherried fruit. Charleston is on a peninsula with the Ashley River on the west and the Cooper River on the east. About three blocks north of where we’re staying is the City Market with four or five blocks of stores, restaurants, and an endless shed of a building housing every conceivable craft and junk store imaginable.

The museum house contains many of the original furnishings, and many valuables and statuary had to be buried before the Union troops burned and plundered the entire plantation. When slavery ended, the plantation owners could no longer afford to keep the properties and many ended up in ruin. ”

We chose to head south towards The Battery, stopping along the way to gaze at the never-ending rows of gracious old homes from the past. The Battery is now a lovely park lined with magnolia trees and waterfront paths, but it still has scores of cannons, mortars and guns used to defend the city during its many conflicts. We could easily see Fort Sumter, which was first fired upon by the Confederate forces, starting the War Between the States.

Heading back north we walked the mile or so to the market, where for $15 apiece we rode on a horse-driven carriage and watched and listened to our driver. As he meandered through many of the same streets we had just walked through, he rattled off dates, names and lore. The history of the area is fascinating and we were told how Charleston had been under bombardment for over 550 days from the Northern troops, more than any other besieged city in history; how the largest earthquake in North America, other than Alaska, had almost wiped out the town; and how Hurricane Hugo destroyed 80% of the trees and many of the buildings in town just a few years ago. There are still markers around town, a good four feet off the pavement, showing the high water mark of the storm. Not surprising, considering the highest point of St. Michael’s steeple is only 11 feet above sea level. Many years ago, a sea wall was built around the town and the area filled in, with most of the city still well below sea level.

By late afternoon we made our way to the Heyward-Washington House, which is one of many mansions open for public tours, most of which are owned and operated by the Charleston Museum or the Preservation Society. The most amazing part is finding out how many of the locals signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

Needing to give our feet a rest, we decided to head for one of the plantations on the following day. There are three within 10 miles of the city, and we chose Middleton Place. We first took the house tour and later the self-guided tour of the gardens, but once again we found out most of the original buildings had been destroyed during the Civil War, rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by fire or earthquake.

The museum house contains many of the original furnishings, and many valuables and statuary had to be buried before the Union troops burned and plundered the entire plantation. When slavery ended, the plantation owners could no longer afford to keep the properties and many ended up in ruin.

Charleston’s harbor is one of the best in the nation, and as a result, was always under siege. It also provided for worldwide trade, and with rice, indigo and cotton farming sustained by slavery, the economy prospered, beautiful homes were built, and children were educated both here and abroad. Unfortunately, by the end of the Civil War, the city was in ruins and there were so few men left, rebuilding took years.

The people have been very nice, the grits so good that we ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner and even the fried green tomatoes were delicious.

So now it’s time to leave the Low Country, as it’s called, and head for Savannah for a new adventure. Hopefully the elevation will be higher; we’re starting to get web feet having been so far below sea level.

By the time I drove the car around the corner from the inn’s parking lot to the front door, Maurice had our luggage on the curb and ready to load. He picked up the bags as if they were packed with feathers instead of the layers of clothing that we thought we needed but have not used. After a few more “Yes Sir” and “Thank you, Sir,” we drove off for Savannah, a two-hour, one hundred mile drive.

Sergio Nibbi gets around. Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

October 2012

A Roman HolidayOstia ampitheater

Watching a movie at the Osio Theater in Monterey is an adventure all of its own. I’ve seen home theaters that have screening rooms larger than a few of the small theaters in this mini multiplex. The movies shown are not the big blockbuster Hollywood barn burners that gross millions on opening day, but where else are you going to find the more avant-garde movies that are seldom seen or heard about? One would think that a new Woody Allen movie would garner a larger room or a bigger audience, but the forty or so of us watching Allen’s latest movie “To Rome with Love” were treated to some of the most beautiful scenes of the eternal city ever filmed. Of course watching Penelope Cruz as a red hot prostitute and award winning Roberto Benigni certainly added to the thrill of the moment, but I must admit that my mind did drift momentarily to our last visit to Rome. Aside from the usual tourist spots like the Coliseum, St. Peter’s, and the Fountain of Trevi, we were treated to a day of sightseeing in Ostia Antica, the harbor city of ancient Rome.

Somehow we were so carried back in time that it was difficult to transcend two thousand years in just moments. Once back in our van and into the modern day traffic, reality definitely took its grip.”

Giberto met us in front of our hotel, and while deftly weaving in and out of Rome’s incredible traffic, pointed out the sites as we headed out of town. A pyramid here, a fountain there, statues on every corner and monuments on every block. How interesting that one can become so oblivious to thousands of years of history. Ostia ruin

It seems like the heat wave that had gripped Rome was enough to keep many visitors from these amazing ruins — we had the entire area to ourselves. As luck would have it, we ran into a lovely women who offered us a one hour tour for a mere 25 Euro, and so for the next 60 minutes she showed us around while describing the shape and use of the original buildings, stopping at the arena to sing a few bars of opera to demonstrate the acoustical perfection of the stage. In fact, there was going to be a major concert there that evening. Ostia pathway

Ostia was originally Rome’s main port and at one time the harbor was expanded to accommodate over 300 ships. It was eventually replaced by a larger port, and unfortunately with the fall of the Roman Empire, it was abandoned and forgotten. What the silting didn’t cover, the trees and overgrowth eventually enveloped. Thankfully, this grand act of nature managed to preserve this treasure, and it was Napoleon who started to excavate and reclaim the city. The restoration has left the area in better condition than Pompeii — after all, it wasn’t covered with molten ash.

ancient toilets OstiaIt truly showed the lifestyle of these brilliant and enterprising people. The kids, especially, enjoyed the communal toilets where everyone sat side by side while talking and pooping. In true Roman fashion, the plumbing was up to date, the pools beautifully done and the saunas heated by under-slab furnaces. The marble counter of what had been the local deli still stands, and the menu on the wall still shows the offerings of the day. Column ruins in Ostia

A panino at the local cafeteria seemed so out of context, and the toilets much too modern, as we broke for lunch. Somehow we were so carried back in time that it was difficult to transcend two thousand years in just moments. Once back in our van and into the modern day traffic, reality definitely took its grip. Perhaps a chariot ride would have been more appropriate, especially with me standing on the front end, whip in hand, white gown flowing in the wind, or is that stuff of which movies are made?

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

September 2012

A Caribbean Paradise

It was a beautiful Tuesday afternoon as we setoff for San Juan, but not before a morning massage from Nathasia, an Italian-speaking young woman who had the warmest hands and the gentlest smile. We were an hour late docking in San Juan, not getting off the ship until 3:30, but still managed to enjoy the city and its people. San Juan has a beautiful red, white and blue flag, not unlike ours, and the people seem to be very polite and anxious to cater to the three monster ships that were tied up at the docks right across from Old Town. It was just another day with another 5,000 people making their way through the narrow streets, fighting for an opportunity to spend some money and run.Rocky coast off Puerto Rico

San Juan has a very French flavor and the old buildings reminded us of New Orleans. The horse-drawn carriages look very appropriate on the cobbled streets, with cars and taxis looking totally out of place. Karen bought a beautifully crafted doll made of starched linen and I settled for a sweatshirt that says Old Town San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The biggest seller seemed to be the booze in the Duty Free shops adjacent to the gangplank. This crowd smokes, drinks, and from the looks of the midnight buffet, also likes to eat. After a stop at McDonalds for a frosty, we headed back to the ship. I took a hot tub on our veranda while looking out at the city lights in front of us, thinking that a nice Cuban cigar and a tall Rum drink would be the perfect props for the moment. Too bad I don’t enjoy either one, so I settled for the thick smell of cigar smoke that traveled on the gentle evening breeze, quietly laughing to myself as I thought of the many happy shoppers and the even happier shopkeepers.

Catalina Island as the name implies is an “island,” period. It might be better described as a look-alike for a South Pacific atoll that our Navy pilots use for strafing and bombing practice. Having survived that fate, the cruise ship industry put the Island to better use as a Fantasy Island for those of us looking for hot sand, warm water, palm trees and endless little shacks full of stale cigars and second hand trinkets.

Wednesday morning we anchored off Catalina Island and tendered to the makeshift dock, no small task I might add, considering the age and size of some of our passengers. The water was flat calm, but not easy for the people to get in and out of a bobbing boat moving three to four feet up and down while being tied off against the floating platform of our ship. Earlier in the morning the crew loaded a couple of small ferry boats with food and supplies for the shore party that our ship hosts.

Looking past the first aid station and the oxygen tank that first greets you, we were treated to a view of endless beach chairs, local girls selling hair braiding, one of our ship’s bands playing calypso music, a bar and large tents covering the hamburgers, hotdogs and Chili beans. Not even the flies have found this place yet. The wooden tables serve their purpose but the benches on the loose sand provide for interesting moments and movements — don’t worry, the medical staff is only a few feet away.

After our picnic lunch we strolled about 50 feet away to the shopping arcade. No Donald Trump development here, just tiny shacks, one after the other, all selling the same items — cigars, bracelets, purses and just plain junk. Using my best negotiating skills, I rather quickly managed to buy a ten-dollar boat for twenty dollars. Seems like everything they sell is twenty dollars until you go to the shack next door. Oh, well, I guess they have to eat too.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

July-Aug 2012

A French Kiss

We arrived in Villefranche Saturday at 11 a.m., giving us a chance to enjoy a leisurely breakfast while our captain battled two other ships for a closer spot to anchor. Our captain bravely fired two shots across their bow, one of scotch and one of bourbon, but the cowards didn’t respond so we declared victory, dropped anchor and made our way to the tenders and floated quietly to shore.

Villafranche is picture post card perfect, and being Saturday the mood was calm and relaxed. Our plans were to take the train to Monaco and then backtrack to Nice. With two other couples, we walked the long block to the train station and then the fun began. Next time we are going to select our friends by the languages they speak. We have English, Spanish and Italian but where’s the guy that speaks French? Trying to buy two one-way, senior discount tickets for the six of us, charged to our Visa and trying to figure on what side of the track we need to be on was fodder for a Laurel and Hardy movie. villefranche walkway

We missed the first train but managed to catch the next one just a few minutes later only to find out that we were in a smoking car. Fortunately, it was only a 15-minute ride to what turned out to be the most beautiful station I have yet to see. The train station in Monaco is about two blocks long, newly build, well lighted, well marked and the only station where you go down instead of up to get out. Just imagine what they could do if they collected income taxes!

vellefranche tramsIn two weeks the Gran Prix hits Monaco and from what we saw, they’re ready for it. We walked out into a jungle of scaffolding, bleachers, tires bolted together to create monster bumpers and steel railing that ran on forever. The only thing missing was the roar of those jet fuel-fired engines propelling sleek, brightly colored cars racing just inches apart around those narrow roadways.

Our exercise for the day took us to the top of the mountain where the castle and cathedral sit. The endless steps finally took us to breathtaking views of the city up high with the recently reclaimed land down below. The last time we were here we they were filling in the ocean, and since then they have built a new city of its own. vellefranche beach

At the top we took a 30-minute elephant train ride that took us through the major sites, including the casino. Off the train and off to lunch, plus a taste of the local gelato to give us strength for the trip back down and our struggles with the ticket agent.

But before that we did visit the cathedral where Princess Grace is buried and took a walk past the castle with its smartly-dressed guards. The old cannons, with the stacks of cannon balls welded together, look so ancient and helpless, their days of glory long gone. We finally got the ticket buying down pat, six fingers for the six tickets and one finger for the one-way ride back. Grabbed the first non-smoking car and we were off to Nice, which was one stop past Villafranche, but during the short hop back we talked ourselves into the fact that we were all too tired to visit Nice, so we jumped off at Villefranche and spent some time exploring the quaint little village that it is.

We’ve gotten good at the business of exchanging money for each country: $20 to $40 dollars is enough for the incidentals; the rest is all done by credit card or use of the good old sawbuck. We’re very proud that our purchases have been limited to a few lapel pins, a doll or two and a ship in a bottle — which should all fit in our suitcases very easily, which incidentally, have to be packed and by our cabin door by tomorrow night. Our cruise seemed more like 12 hours instead of 12 days. Let’s start planning the next one.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

June 2012

Been There, Done That.

Having spent a pinch over three quarters of a century inhabiting this beautiful world of ours, I’ve been blessed to have visited countless interesting and exotic places. There’s the usual like a Caribbean cruise, Hawaiian vacation, lighting a candle in St. Peters in Rome, or watching a muzzled bear wrestling in St. Petersburg. But what about all the other places that I’ve yet to see? Most people would call it a “bucket list” but isn’t it more than that? Golden Gate Bridge from Pacific Heights

With the clock running how many more trips do we have left in us? I’ve yet to go on a safari or see the Great Wall of China. Angkor Wat would be great to visit, and what about the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? I certainly wouldn’t want to go over in a barrel but I would love to see it, never the less. There are so many beautiful places in this country alone. One of my dreams has always been to travel from coast to coast in a motor home. We tried that for a couple of weeks many years ago with three young children and it was great seeing the North West and putting our rented Winnebago on a ferry and floating through the San Juan Islands. The one thing we like to forget, however, was stopping every night to fill the water tank and empting out the holding tank. Cruise ships are so much better.

We constantly get brochures from UC Berkeley, or Abercrombie and Kent, and just last week we received a very classy brochure for an around the world trip by private jet. It even came with its own physician aboard. Eat and drink all you want and there’s someone there in the morning to hold your head.

Looking back, we’ve had the pleasure of traveling with many dear friends, but traveling with just my wife has never been a problem. People ask me all the time if we get tired of each other after three or four weeks together and my answer has always been “no.” Every day is a new adventure and the adventure continues.

I love reading the Sunday travel section in the local papers, and especially in the New York Times, but as enticing as they sound where is one to venture off to these days? We were in Athens last year as the protests were just starting in front of the Parliament Building and they’ve worsened since. An acquaintance was in Egypt a few months ago during the riots that killed 26 people in one day. Mexico is overridden by drug cartels and even the usual cruise stops are suspect. The Middle East is a hotbed of revolt and the only reason to go there is to negotiate for a nuclear weapon.

All in all it sounds like the Bay Area is the place to be at this point in time. The economy is stable, we speak the language, the food is great and our cell phones work. Where in this world can you enjoy the beauty of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the wine country, and San Francisco Bay while watching the setting sun filtered through the glistening cables of the Golden Gate Bridge? And speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge, I just realized that I’ve never walked across the bridge. Does that sound like a lead in? It certainly does — next stop Sausalito from San Francisco, one step at a time. See you on the other side and I’ll buy the drinks at Sally Stanford’s.

April 2012

 

To Krivuha—With LoveJudge Kay Tsenin

Despite my Russian background and my fluent Russian, Russia is not on my list of favorite places to visit. I had been back numerous times, even before my adopted daughter Eva and I became a family. She wanted to go, and I knew we would have to do this to move forward—and the frequent flyer miles were expiring.

We had talked about returning to see the women who had “given her food,” to see what was there. She wanted to knock on the door where she lived. What if her mother came to the door? What if it was someone else? Did she want to see her mother? What would she say to her mother? There were many questions.

Eva and I have been a family for about 4 years. Eva is now 14, earlier this year we decided to bo back to her village in Russia from which she had been taken some 6 years ago. We are both very glad we did."—Judge Kay Tsenin

She wanted me to see the village, but I had my own fears. What if we found her mother? I hoped she wanted to say “good bye” to a village from which she was yanked, by “people in black in a black car.” Sometimes I worried she wanted to brag about what she had become and how much better her life is now. I could tell that she wanted to find her younger brother, taken before she was, and adopted by a Russian family. None of it made me comfortable. But my “cousins” from Moscow would make the 15-hour trip over pot-holed roads to meet us in Pskov, the nearest town to Krivuha. And I would get to see “the team,” two women who held my hand as Eva and I became a family.

The treat at the end, I told myself, was London, and five days in a city I love.

So off we went. We have been a family for over three years. I’m blessed with a 14 year-old daughter, a caring, courageous, extremely confident, loving and great traveling companion. We flew into St. Pete and spent the first 4 days there. I have never enjoyed it so much because I got to see it through her eyes. Russian countryside

Eva is proudly Russian. She marveled that people on the street spoke a language she understood. She thought everyone was friendly and most were. This was not the Russia I had visited alone as an American. This was my daughter’s country and she was reveling in it. St Pete has a limited metro system. When our feet gave out we discovered “Marshrutki.” The word “Marshrut” in Russian means “route.” These vans have prescribed routes but for a few rubles you can get anywhere. Eva ate lots of borscht and pelimeny. Avoiding the “prettied” up tourist areas, we shopped for toys for her schoolmates. On the 5th day we were picked up by our driver. 

We packed the car full of toys, cramming in the hula hoops and basket balls for the four-hour ride to Pskov, through endless miles of fallow fields that once were dairy farms but now are acres of weeds with dark grey dilapidated houses, many leaning heavily to one side. I am still amazed by the vast vacant land that’s used as a garbage dump everywhere along the road. “What do people do here?” I ask the driver. “They drink to oblivion.” It always makes me sad.

Eva reunites with a villager from KrivuhaIn times past there were ladies along the road who put out make-shift benches, selling foraged or grown produce, berries, cucumbers, tree branches for the Russian “banya” (the equivalent to our sauna), and wild mushrooms —chanterelles. But this is early spring and only a few onions and potatoes were for sale. Potatoes, mostly imported from Spain, their steep increase in price —tripled or quadrupled— is the hot topic of conversation. Yet, all this vacant land that had once been farms.

Eva reunites with a villager from Krivuha

Arriving at the ole “Rizh,” the bastion of all American adoptive families staying in Pskov, we were greeted by “the team.” Shortly, the exhausted cousins arrived. We couldn’t find Krivuha on a local map. However, we knew it was between two villages that were on the map, so we began our three-hour journey into the depths of Russia.

Surprisingly, even on roads filled with pot-holes, new gleaming gas stations have appeared, with perfectly good bathrooms, and snack bars selling wonderful piroshky-type Chimburri (meat or chicken-filled pies), a Georgian treat, left over from the days of Stalin. My political cousin lamented the poverty, dilapidation and ruin of Russia, and, of course, the price of potatoes, all explained by graft, bribes and kickbacks. We finally made it to a small white town marker that read “Krivuaha,” after numerous directions from people along the road. Cresting the little hill, Eva cried out “that’s my house”—the only two-story brick building in town.Brick House in Kruvihua

Her jaw dropped when she saw it. We had been warned that it was going to look like a war zone. Undaunted, Eva headed thru the mud and strewn garbage. Before we were even out of the car, she was where the door used to be “This is where the store was! Where is everyone? What happened?” Scrambling to the second floor where she lived, garbage and bricks everywhere, the glass “repurposed,” the building was being dismantled brick-by-brick by anyone who needed bricks or could sell them. Then she cried out gleefully, holding a dirt-covered cup that was once light blue with flowers on the front, “This is my baby cup! My grandmother pasted the flowers on the front.” Among the rubble were pictures—treasures to my daughter. As she collected the raggedy, dust-covered, torn and discarded pictures, we wondered, who were the people in the pictures? Were they her mother, her grandfather? We made up stories about the girl in the white scarf to give them meaning. She carefully collected those rolled up, faded, torn scraps and the cup, remnants from her life before me. Today, they are proudly displayed on a shelf in her room, dirt and all. Lovingly unfurling these pictures, she will discuss who they might have been.

After a thorough search we went in search of answers. Why did everyone leave? Did her mother or grandmother live here? Heading up the hill to some dreary abandoned-looking houses, a barking dog on a chain greeted us as we knocked on the door. Barely cracking the door, a red-eyed woman, holding a cigarette, voice raspy from too many smokes and probably too much alcohol, said “What do you want?” “Do you remember Eva?” No longer reticent, the woman leapt out to hug Eva, tears flowing down her cheeks. “I am Natalia, I dressed you for your first day of school.” Does Eva remember her? No, Eva recognized only one person in the village. 

Natalia tells us the dairy closed and the whole village is dying. She would leave too, but she must care for her husband’s mother. She hadn’t seen Eva’s mother, but knew she lived six hours away on the other side of Pskov. She hadn’t attended the grandmother’s funeral. “Eva has an uncle, she should go see him.” Heading back to the “main” part of town—two muddy streets dissected by a gravel road on which we had traveled for the last 10 miles—we stopped. A man leaning against a car yelled gruffly, “I am her Uncle.” Repulsed, Eva does not want to talk to him. Turning to go, I asked Eva “are you sure you don’t want to talk to him?” “No, he is just like my mother, drunk and smoking,” she said, with an unfamiliar firmness.

As we walked down the muddy, water-filled, rutted road past houses ready to fall down any second, two women come out to us. Being strangers—people don’t come to Krivuha—I introduced Eva. “Do you remember her?” “Of course we do. We used to bring in the cows together, I dressed her for her first day of school (it seems it was a village affair). I used to give her what food I could spare.” The other woman said, “I was the one who called the authorities.” Telling this story today, Eva calls this lady “her angel.” Heading down the road, we meet a man sitting on a village bench (a board on two tree stumps). He called out to his wife “Masha, come see lost have been found.”

She wanted to see her old friend Sasha and finally found his house. The last house on the street, it has a huge pile of freshly-chopped wood in front, chickens, a cow and a huge vegetable garden. A smiling woman, significantly younger than the others we had met, greeted us. The house is big. It is painted and well maintained. Still, it has only three rooms: kitchen, main room and a room where her first husband’s mother lay ill. It is stifling hot inside, and humid. She is cooking potatoes and making cottage cheese. Small TVs are on in every room—there is electricity in the town, and a cell phone tower, though no running water or paved streets. She immediately recognized Eva.

Then came a prize—a picture of Eva and Sasha on their first day of school. Eight boys and Eva, decked out in pink, a bow three times the size of her head on top, a fluffy dress and pink socks, sitting in the front row, smiling that smile I know so well. At six, when Sasha’s mom said he must go to school, the women of the village must have said “what about Eva.” At seven, they dressed her up and sent her, too.

Eva wanted to see Sasha, so we set out for his school where ultimately, thanks to my cousin’s bravado (growing up communist you don’t get anything unless you demand it), we’re in a class with six boys. One boy in the back, jaw gaping, eyes wide open and red-faced said, “I’d recognize her a kilometer away” — it was Sasha.

We returned to Pskov to learn that someone had found word of her brother in closed documents. He doesn’t know he has a sister or that he is adopted. The parents did not want a meeting. Eva was crushed — she desperately wanted to find him. She remembers playing with him and the day he was taken. As a compromise, she decided to write a letter when she returned home, send a picture, and by passing it through several hands, thought it might eventually get to his new parents. That way, someday he might know where to find her.

I hardly remember the trip to London.

It’s been months since our return home and Eva has not written the letter, nor have I mentioned it. Perhaps we will this summer. Eva proudly shows her classmates the pictures of her village. “Eva must have been loved a lot when she was little,” a counselor once confided to me. Now I know she was, by a whole village. Eva found something in the rubble of her past, something the people in the black car yanked out six years ago. It’s intangible, but there is something different about her. 

Judge Kay Tsenin presides in the Superior Court of San Francisco

From time to time we have a guest traveler for our Real Travel feature. We thank Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin for sharing this with us. If you have a special travel experience to share, we invite you to submit it. Our own intrepid traveler, Sergio Nibbi will be back next week.

March 2012

Tiny Bubbles

Two ships, five days at sea and a tad under 2,400 miles to paradise. It was 1960 and Matson Lines had a pair of cruise ships plying the Pacific Ocean to Honolulu every five days. At the midpoint of each cruise the celebrating began with horns blaring, lights flashing and more than an occasional cocktail enjoyed on deck as the two ships passed in the night. The Lurline and the Matsonia were the stars of Matson’s cruise business and were affectionately known as “the white ships,” world class luxury liners at that time but certainly not the behemoths of today’s cruising scene.

It was also 1960 when Karen and I got married and became another honeymooning couple on the Matsonia, the sister ship of the Lurline. Somehow the Lurline’s name had more charm and recognition but our schedule put us on the lesser know sister. Today’s security was nonexistent as was concern for the environment. Guests came aboard, enjoyed the pre-cruise parties, walked all around and most left when the ship’s horn sounded. Most, except for a few that imbibed a bit too much and were eventually escorted back to the terminal after a free ride on the pilot boat once the ship was safely on its way past the Golden Gate as it chased the setting sun.

Aloha TowerBefore the lines were loosened and the ship slowly edged its way towards the bay, the paper streamers were tossed overboard until the ship was draped in a basket weave of multicolored bands eventually landing in the bay waters. Were they biodegradable? Not in those days! (Photo: Aloha Tower)

As landlubbers, cruising was new to us as we discovered the true meaning of “mal de mer” as we made our way past the infamous potato patch on our way to open water. We were soon reminded of our wedding vows just a few days earlier “for better or for worse.”

lunch on the shipThe next day the sun shined brightly as we enjoyed the picnics on deck, the lovely dinners, meeting new people and actually sitting at the captain’s table to celebrate the start of our new life together. Not exactly occupying the owner’s suite, we were relegated to an inside room where our first duty every morning was to call the front desk and find out what the weather was that day. Clear and sunny, as we enjoyed the chaise lounges surrounding the fresh water pool. (Photo: Lunch on the ship)

kids diving for moneyAt exactly 10:00 am on the 5th day, the ship was warmly welcomed as it tied up at the Aloha Tower in downtown Honolulu, but not before watching the young Hawaiian kids diving for coins in the warm waters as we inched our way to the terminal. We were greeted by the obvious Hawaiian music and the complementary flower leis. By 5:00 pm that evening we watched our ship making its way past Waikiki on the way back to the Bay Area. Another crossing, another mid-way celebration. (Photo: Kids diving for money)

On a friend’s recommendation, we stayed at the Reef Hotel on Waikiki where for $16.00 a day we had a top floor, ocean front room with a veranda, and swinging porch chair to enjoy the amazing view. A tour of the island in a rented Fiat convertible gave us a start on our Hawaiian tan. In a few days I encountered another first for me, my first airplane ride. A dear friend and fellow schoolteacher of Karen’s was getting married at her home on Kauai. I still cherish the photo of the Hawaiian Air Lines, two engine prop plane that took me on my maiden voyage.

After a few days it was back to Honolulu for a few more golden rays of sunshine and then back home. One of the highlights of our trip was watching Don Ho singing “Tiny Bubbles” at the Beachcomber Hotel.

back of the shipAt the time it was not uncommon to cruise over and fly back and so, with another first for both of us; we made our way to the airport, if you could call it that, and boarded a Pan Am Boeing 707 for the five hour ride back to SFO. The jets were fairly new at the time, having replaced the Pan Am Stratocruisers that lumbered across the Pacific in a record setting 10 hours.(Photo: Back of the ship)

In the ensuing years Matson continued its Pacific crossings as Pan Am expanded its international flights. As it happened, we made a return trip in 1969, once again boarding in San Francisco and arriving at exactly 10:00 am at the Aloha Tower. On this second trip we were on the Lurline, but ironically, the old Mariposa had now been renamed “Lurline” so we finally got our wish. The excitement of the trip was still there, but not as exciting as our three children that had enriched our lives in the previous nine years. Matson went out of the cruise business, Pan Am went broke, but thankfully we’re still here to talk about it. Aloha and Mahalo.

February 2012

Carmel:
Beauty and the Beast

No addresses, no street lights, no sidewalks and no mail delivery. Does that sound like a remote village in a third world country or an Occupy encampment? One would never guess that it's these attributes that add to the charm of Carmel by the Sea. The sunsets are stunning, as are the views from the huge blimp overhead as it zooms in on the famous and infamous. The original Bing Crosby clambake, now the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, has drawn huge crowds and has become a mecca for both serious amateurs and comedians alike. Even with the Tiger Woods of a few years ago, who can forget Bill Murray's antics?

Carmel beachFor years, the locals have managed to keep Carmel in the limelight while restricting the size of the homes with a stern Planning Department and strict water management. All the more reasons for the ten million-dollar homes along Scenic Drive that remain mostly empty all year long, their owners scattered all around the state and the world.

Recently, an influx of new restaurants has placed Carmel in direct competition with the Napa Valley and beyond--small restaurants, but big on pleasing the most discrete palates. What was recently a model airplane store is now a restaurant, featuring some of the best pizzas on the peninsula as well as being a great spot for breakfast. La Bicyclette expanded to the corner and instead of recorded sounds of airplane engines revving up, or of military jets in dog fights, one can now hear the sound of sizzling pizzas or the clinking of wine glasses in the intimate dining room.Carmel-Mansion

One of our favorites has been Cantinetta Luca, and now with its expanded Salumeria Luca, the menu has been expanded to include take-out items ideal for a relaxing meal at home or a late night picnic at the beach. Fires on the beach are still allowed in a restricted area of Carmel beach, and what better place to enjoy freshly roasted marshmallows squeezed between graham crackers and melting Hershey bars to create unforgettable S'mores with the Pacific Ocean washing ashore just a few feet away.

For a tourist, walking the streets of Carmel is always a treat with dozens of small stores and art galleries lining the main thoroughfare, Ocean Avenue. The cross streets are conveniently numbered 4th, 5th, 6th, etc., but the tourists still rely on Carmel's finest to help them find the location of their parked car. Now what about finding your best friend's house for a weekend visit? Easy: "west side of Monte Verde, three houses north of Fourth." It's worked for all these years and the locals wouldn't have it any other way.

A painter in CarmelAnd are the tourists easy to spot? Yes, they're the ones wearing white shoes and short pants on a typical July afternoon when the sun hasn't shined in days. As beautiful as Carmel is, the weather during June, July and August is no better than San Francisco's Sunset District. Beautiful in the morning, but once that fog rolls in by mid afternoon it's time for that sweater that got left behind at the hotel.

Carmel has often been referred to as an area "for the newly-wed or nearly dead," and its 4,000-plus citizens want to keep it that way. With the many festivities, shows and wine tasting rooms the area has changed, but it seems always for the better. The elegant Concours d' Elegance brings in some of the most beautiful cars ever crafted, and the Monterey Jazz Festival rocks on for days in mid-September. The Carmel Art Festival and the 4th of July parade always make for great summer fun. The recently remodeled Sunset Center hosts great shows and performers on a regular basis, and when all else fails, you can always enjoy the music from Carmel's jazz station, KRML. Of course, that brings back fond memories of the days when Clint Eastwood was mayor and people would pile into the quaint, shingled City Hall just to see and listen to Clint with his gravelly voice. Carmel sunset

Aside from all its charm and beauty, one can't think about Carmel without hearing those haunting words by Jessica Walter, when she called Dave Garver, the KRML disk jockey played by Clint Eastwood and seductively whispers "play Misty for me" in the movie of the same name. A great movie, a great village and a wonderful place to visit, but if you go during the summer months don't forget your winter gear. We know from experience. We went there on our honeymoon 51 years ago and froze our fannies off!

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

December 2011

 

The Prodigal Son 

The best part of being jet-lagged is that you can stay up all night and work on things that you forgot to do before leaving home and still have the entire day for sightseeing. The problem is that we've been awake all night and then end up sleeping until noon. It's taken us almost a week to settle in with the new time but considering that we have no hard and fast plans, we seem to be okay. Walking around the streets of Lucca is always a treat as we revisit old sites and new stores. Somehow we always seem to end up Via Filungo, aka, Rodeo Drive. No one seems to have the knack for arranging the store windows like the Italians and the fall fashions are in full bloom.Lucca

Early in the week I inquired at the tourist information center as to where I might find records on my ancestors. They directed me to an official looking building just a block away where I happened to meet one of the nicest ladies in all of Lucca. I explained to her what I was looking for, and after a quick search determined that my having been born in Carraia, a small village just outside of Lucca, and the records would be in the province of Capannori. After a quick phone call to an old friend that worked there, she found out that indeed, the records were there and gave me directions to the "Comune di Capannori." We were to ask for Sylvia. What should have been a 15 minute drive turned out to be an hour and a half, but that's another story. (At least we got to see a lot of the surrounding area around Lucca.)

lucca at nightThe following morning we drove to the Comune and as instructed asked for Sylvia. One would think that the Pope had walked in. Without my realizing it she saw the Nibbi logo on my shirt and immediately jumped up from behind her desk, rushed towards me and proclaimed "e arrivato il signore Nibbi!" With that she handed me four perfect 11 by 17 inch copies of the official records, all originally done in beautiful calligraphy and wet stamped proclaiming the documents to be official copies. All she had was my name and my parents name yet was able to find all this information on us as well as my grandmother. My parents' birth certificates also showed their wedding date. My paternal grandfather came from an orphanage and again, she proceeded to give me information on where I might look in Pisa where a large orphanage still exists. Not wanting to sound too greedy, I asked her if she could gather more information on the rest of the family—their records go no further back than 1866. Not a problem, and the best part, no charge. From my iPad I showed her a 10 page section from my family tree and was told to e-mail it to her and she would start on the research as time allowed. She knew that we would be here for another two weeks and if not ready in that time she would either e-mail or mail me the information. What a wonderful woman!

The truth be told, the main reason for coming to Italy this year was to receive a gold medal and certificate from the organization "Lucchesi nel Mondo". I had been notified earlier this year of having been selected for this great honor and so our plans were put in place. The Lucchesi nel Mondo is headquartered in Lucca and has affiliations all over the world. Presently there are about 40,000 Lucchesi living within the walled city of Lucca, about 400,000 in the province of Lucca and another 1.5 million Lucchesi scattered around the world.

The organization selects individuals from around the world that, according to the newspapers and the press around town, "have distinguished themselves abroad." The front page of the Wednesday newspaper said it nicely "I Magnifici 16". ("The Magnificent 16" — now you can say you knew me when!) Of the 16 chosen, only a few were from the United States, one from Chicago, one from Pittsburg and yours truly. The rest were from Brazil, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Belgium, Montreal and Mexico. The ceremony was held this last Saturday, the 10th in the "Casa del Commercio" (The Chamber of Commerce.) As typically Italian, the 10:30 am ceremony started a tad after 11:00 with the various mayors and dignitaries all dressed in full regalia with red, white and green bands over their shoulders and across their chests and military members in full uniform. After the usual speeches and introductions the medal ceremony started as Ilaria Del Bianco, the vice-president of the organization, read a glowing introduction of each "premiati" while Alessandro Pesi, the president of the Lucchesi nel Mondo looked on. Each medal and certificate was presented by the mayor or representative from their home town. I was given my award by Giorgio Ghingaro, the mayor of Capannori.

The room was loaded with reporters, and after a ton of photos and video a lovely reception was held in the lobby followed by a five course, four hour lunch at Lucca's premiere restaurant, Buca di Sant'Antonio. The saddle of rabbit wrapped in lard was followed by a vegetable soup in olive oil, large raviolis ragu, veal scaloppini with porcini mushrooms and finally a delicious semifreddo with hot chocolate sauce and biscotti to dip in the vin santo. The local white and red wines from Monte Carlo make for a very relaxing afternoon. That evening Karen and I barely made it through a light salad for dinner.

I think that I can share with you that on Sunday morning my curiosity got the better of me and so we went to the local news stand, asked the proprietor if there were any stories on the Lucchesi nel Mondo function— three separate newspapers had full page articles with color photos of all the honorees. As I went to pay, the owner congratulated me. How did he know? The following day while having lunch at a local, well known restaurant, Da Giulio, the owner came over to congratulate me once again. This is getting embarrassing! The final straw came when my friend Sylvia called and told me that she had finished all the research on my family tree and the information was ready to be picked up, and by the way, congratulations on your award. At that point I bought a set of dark glasses, a straw hat and a false beard.

Seriously, this has been an amazing experience and I can't express in words the pride and joy that this recognition has brought me. Aside from the medal, all the people that we've met have been so kind and so accommodating. Lucca is loaded with tourists, mostly German and Brits, and the town is jumping with all the celebrations. 150 years of Italy's unification, Puccini's birthday with signs and banners all over and this Tuesday is the feast of Santa Croce. The highlight is a festival of lights called the "Luminaria" where the street lights are turned off and the parade route is illuminated by candles. This is part of what they call "Settembre Lucchese" — Lucca's September.

Wednesday we leave for three days in San Gimigano and some sightseeing in the Tuscan countryside. I would hope that by that time I can remove my disguise and just be myself. Yes, the prodigal son has returned and graciously accepted all the accolades. Now if only I can get some respect from my wife.

Sergio and Karen, Santa Croce Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

November 2011

 

Scotch and Soda

To me Scotch has always been a late night drink; add a splash of soda with crystal clear ice cubes and listen to them gently clinking on the side of the glass. Mix in some soft jazz and finish with a muted trombone wailing in the distance. Dave Guard wrote the lyrics and the Kingston Trio left it for all of us to enjoy: "Scotch and soda, mud in your eye. Baby, do I feel high, oh, me, oh, my. Do I feel high."

Recently a very dear and generous friend gave me a bottle of Bruichladdich scotch, a priceless gift entrusted to my inquisitive taste buds. My immediate reaction was to pop the cork and pour a drink but my curiosity got the better of me; a little research was in order. Start with a 16 year old single malt scotch, age it in discarded oak barrels from Château d'Yquem too old to perform their magic and let your imagination soar. As my fingers did the research on this centuries-old distillery flung out on the edge of the wild Atlantic Ocean, my mind drifted back to 1971, our first visit to London and Wales with our young family. Some close friends from San Rafael had invited us to stay with them for a few weeks while they were exchanging teaching assignments for a year with a British couple. Their new home was in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire.kids in the pasture with cows

After a pleasant train ride from London we met our friends in Stratford upon Avon where we enjoyed an authentic Shakespeare production of the "Merchant of Venice". After a short train ride we arrived in Whaley Bridge, a quaint little town of Disneyland shops and stores. As we settled in, the cows in the back pasture nuzzled up to our children while the chickens in the rear yard pecked at the fertile soil. Driving on the wrong side of the road was a real adventure and a first for all of us. Visiting the village and meeting the locals was a treat, especially meeting Andrew, the "High Class Butcher", as proclaimed on his storefront window. But the biggest treat was listening to our friends with their newly-acquired British accent.

After a few days of home cooking our friends surprised us with a visit to Ruthen Castle, a magical Welsh hotel with medieval roots dating back to the day of Edward l. The biggest surprise for us was that we were going to be the Duke and Duchess for the evening. We all sat down at the old wooden tables with only a knife with which to eat, no forks, no spoons. Before the meal it became my responsibility to say grace for the hungry crowd and I'm sure that my Catholic rendition was not an impairment to the multinational gathering. Fortunately, we still have a photo of the event to enjoy after all these years. On the way home I was allowed to drive the hour plus trip back to the house, yes, driving on the wrong side of the road. A day trip to visit the Greenwich Observatory allowed us to set our watches to the second. photo at the table

After a few more days with our friends we headed back to London for more sightseeing and then to Venice, Milano, Lucca, Pisa and ending in Monaco. Looking back, it was a real adventure going to Europe for six weeks with three young children. As Shakespeare would have said, "All's Well that Ends Well," and so it did. But looking back at our youthful innocence and energy we know that it was a good thing that we did it while we could.

At my age the best I can do is to pop that cork and enjoy the scotch while listening to some smooth jazz and let my mind drift back to the Isle of Islay in Scotland where in 1881 William Harvey and his two younger brothers decided to try their hands at distilling. Yes, it is enjoyable and to all of you, "here's to your good health."

sergio@westsideobserver.com

September 2011

 

Hong Kong

Live It, Love It

The red canvas bag filled with tourist information handed to us as we disembarked, said it all, "Hong Kong, Live It, Love It." We certainly did, and although we were there only three nights, we thoroughly enjoyed it. The service at the Kowloon Shangri-La is superb, as was the view from our 21st floor room overlooking Victoria Harbor and all of Hong Kong. At night all the buildings are lit up as if it were New Years every day. Hong Kong skyline

We had seen enough of the city during our mini tour to feel comfortable going off on our own, and so with map in hand we set out to explore and enjoy. The shops are endless and some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. When you see a guard standing in front of a jewelry store, you know the gems are real and not cubic zirconium. I have never seen diamonds sparkle like that. One of our first stops was at the Peninsula Hotel where we met Henry, the tailor. While Karen picked out the fabric, I stood motionless as they measured every square inch of my body—one arm is longer, one shoulder droops.

The side streets have a cornucopia of shops and mini malls, and on Nathan Road hawkers were in full force trying to sell us custom suits, shirts and watches. Some were extreme pests, but not obnoxious. After a long day of looking, our bodies begged for a massage, and so back to the hotel where we were pampered beyond belief. Hong Kong cityscape

When traveling, everyone has a suggestion and a favorite place, and so a visit to Stanley Market was a must. The concierge suggested taking the city bus just down the street — for a mere $13.20 (HK), about $1.70 (US), we could take the one-hour ride to the end of the line and get there in comfort. I handed her a bunch of money and she counted out the exact change for us, which is a requirement on the bus. And so with camera bag in tow we patiently waited for bus #973. The bus was virtually empty, so we took the two front seats on the second level. Karen sat on one side and I sat on the other. I watched her get tossed from side to side as the bus snaked its way to the top of Hong Kong and then back down. I must say, we did see a lot of the peninsula, but Karen's first words as we got off the bus were, "We're taking a taxi on the way back."

Stanley Market is ideally located just above the beach and stretches for blocks. Restaurants anchor one end, while stalls make up the rest. You name it, they have it. We found a couple of trinkets—other than a gelato at Gino's. Not as good as in Florence, on the other side of the globe.

A pit stop before going back sounded prudent, and when I saw Karen turn around and come right back out I knew this was not the Hilton. The little old Chinese attendant read her face and escorted her to the handicap bathroom around the corner. I handed her a handful of coins. From her toothless smile, I could see she was pleased.

On Monday we worked our way back to the Main Cruise Terminal where there are endless shops, one nicer than the other. When the shopping bags got too heavy, we headed back to the hotel for a drop off and then went out again. I have no idea what I'm going to do with three pairs of pajamas, two robes and a shirt that makes me look like Kung Fo, but at five to eight dollars apiece, they were too good to pass up. After a few fittings, Henry had stitched his magic, and after one more stop at the Peninsula Hotel, we headed back with the chore of packing for the last time. My new outfit took top honors in my fold up bag.

The first night in Hong Kong we ate at the hotel's premiere Italian restaurant, Angelini, and at the suggestion of the concierge the next night we ate at a small Italian restaurant called Incontro. It was so enjoyable we ate there again the following night.

Our room package provided us access to the Horizon Club which had a delicious breakfast, lunch snacks and cocktails in the evening. The service and ambiance were beyond description. Giving it all up for our four-hour flight in coach to Tokyo was not easy.

The entire trip has been an amazing and eye-opening adventure. The hotels were luxurious and the service impeccable. All the people we met were courteous, polite and extremely helpful, from the poorest of the areas to the more affluent. Whenever we ate out, everyone was very considerate of Karen's peanut allergies and always made sure she ordered the right food. We never felt unsafe and always moved around freely.

American dollars are readily accepted. The toilets were always available and usually quite clean and well maintained. That's the good news; the bad news is all the poverty that we saw, not only in Cambodia but also in the more affluent areas; there are so many struggling, hard-working people mixed in with the very rich. I'm sure not much will change in the immediate future; the Bentleys will still pick up people at the cruise terminal and the airport and take them to the luxury hotels and spas, the diamonds will continue to sparkle, and the crippled kids will still beg on dirt floors of the market in Sihanoukville.

When we arrived at the Hong Kong airport this morning, we were met at the car by a lovely young couple wearing the red uniform of the Shangri-La Hotel: "Good morning Mr. and Mrs. Nibbi." Without hesitation they placed our luggage on dollies, accompanied us to the check-in-counter and placed our bags on the conveyor belt. We followed them to security as they bid us farewell —we never touched a bag. Now that is service!

So here we are, back in our beautifully appointed All Nippon triple 7, heading back home. The perfectly manicured attendants bow before presenting the next course, and I feel so embarrassed by it all.

Soon we'll be approaching that oh, so, familiar runway 28 left at San Francisco International Airport. Back home again, without so much as needing a band-aid. We left Hong Kong at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and we arrive at 9 a.m. on the same day — all this and an extra day for good behavior.

On the way to the airport, our driver was playing some music and out of my early morning stupor I suddenly heard the gravely voice of Louie Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World." In retrospect really says it all.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

July-August 2011

Napa Valley

Crazy Like a Fox

As a youngster growing up in the Bay Area, I vividly remember people always associating Napa with those of us who were deemed to be a little mentally unstable. "That guy should be in Napa." For years the State Mental Hospital in Napa was better known than the world class wines now enjoyed throughout the world. Now granted, some of the early jug wines didn't garner many awards or bring in ridiculous prices at today's charity auctions, but for a buck and a half you got a gallon of wine that proudly wore the label of "Dago Red."

Uptown TheaterFast forward to just a few years ago and the Napa Valley exploded into the world scene, fueled in part from Silicon Valley's infusion of big bucks and the search for trophy properties. Attorneys, doctors and young nerds now became better versed in "Terroir" than in source code or scalpels and depositions.

The Napa Valley became the weekend choice for those looking for the latest cult wine or a mud bath to soak away the week's aches and pains. With the transformation came some of the best restaurants in the nation, if not the world. Who has not heard of the French Laundry and its two month wait for reservations, or Bistro Jeanty, Redds or Michael Chiarello's new and wildly successful Bottega. All well-known and highly respected but what about poor old Napa? The city was a mere dot on the map that lent its name to the valley beyond and not much else. But through careful planning and gutsy moves the city fathers chose to roll the dice and followed the old adage, "If you build it, they will come." And so they did. With federal help, a massive project was initiated to control the flooding of downtown so familiar to the old timers. No more sand bags, just new and flashy hotels, restaurants and a massive development on the Napa River called, appropriately, River Front. In the last year three major restaurants opened in this new complex: Fish Story, Morimotos and Tyler Florence's Rotisserie and Wine. The sidewalks were no longer being rolled up by 9:00 pm. In most places it's standing room only at the bars and cafes. downtown crowds

So now its Napa's turn to shine and with the new Westin Verasa Hotel and its luxurious La Toque dining room, or the less formal BANK Cafe in the hotel lobby, visitors are treated to a bevy of unique tourist destinations. The new and ultra modern Avia Hotel on 1st. Street is directly across the street from Oenotri and Norman Rose, and for the less sophisticated there's even a Subway next door. The Uptown Theater, a masterpiece of Art Deco, has been newly remodeled and features major performers on a regular basis. Sweetie Pies Bakery is a dessert-lover's dream come true, and who can resist the late-bake baguettes at Model Bakery.

The Napa Valley Opera House has been in existence since the late 1800s and has been home to famed performers like Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson. Across the river is the new Oxbow Public Market, a spin-off of San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace. With over two dozen merchants one can enjoy oysters on the half shell, followed by wood-fired pizzas, cupcakes and delicious cheeses from near and far. Of course a nice glass of wine is never far away and during late spring and summer months, 1st Street is closed to traffic on Thursday nights, where people stroll with a glass of wine in one hand and a huge bar-b-qued turkey leg in the other. Veteran's Park on the river's bank anchors the end of the line. Free music and dancing caps off the evening as the ducks and swans float silently on the outgoing tide.

So no longer is anyone kicking sand in Napa's face. The City is facing an amazing renaissance, and in the last year or so all the premier publications in the country have published major stories, from the New York Times to the San Francisco papers and local travel magazines. The Wine Spectator this month did a 37-page spread, appropriately titled "Napa, A City Reborn."

For those of us who have been enjoying the Napa Valley for all these years the addition of a new Napa is a welcome sight, but for the new tourists and visitors, not having seen the before, will they appreciate the transition? I certainly hope so. Old or new, Chardonnay or Cabernet, its still one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. No need to go to France, Italy or Australia. A short ride over one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and the experience becomes magical. Let's all raise a glass in appreciation. "Salute a Tutti."

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

June 2011

For Whom the Bells Toll

Just like clockwork you can hear their melody every hour on the hour and every fifteen minutes in-between. It may not look like Big Ben or sound like St. Peter’s Basilica on Easter morning, but this modest little chapel nestled amongst San Francisco’s historic fishing fleet provides the sweet sound of its bells for all to hear. Built over 30 years ago, the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel has served as a haven for visitors, locals and most importantly, as a memorial for those lost to the sea. Seamen's Memorial Chapel

The bronze plaques in the foyer, immediately past the entry doors, display the names of those brave souls who never made it back to the safety of land, home and family. Names like Alioto, Balestrieri, Lazio and Caito to name just a few. Herb Caen’s name, one of the greatest supporters of the chapel, is proudly displayed amongst the names of some of the oldest fishing families whose lineage goes back to the old Sicilians who came to this great country of ours in search of a better life, plying their trade, oblivious to the dangers that they faced every day.

The most prominent figure and greatest supporter of this great project is Alessandro Baccari, a well-know historian, educator, author, and consultant to many of today’s modernized fishing enterprises. With Alessandro’s vision the chapel took shape many years ago. Not long ago a campaign was initiated to build a campanile next to the chapel itself. Again, through Baccari’s determination and fund-raising efforts, the tower became a reality. With great pride and anticipation the bronze bell, cast in 1860 and donated by the Port of San Francisco, was rung for the first time as proud onlookers cheered, the workers’ arms covered in goose bumps. Seamens Memorial Chapel Window

A final fund-raising event was successfully held shortly after the completion of the campanile and was attended by all the members of the local fishing community. A board of directors has been set up to manage and maintain this unique landmark.

The chapel itself is open to all faiths and has been home to weddings, ceremonies, celebrations and sadly, funerals for those family members that have given so generously to the lives of every bay area resident.

The chapel is used over 200 days a year and is far more than just a tourist attraction. Located across from Pier 45, it provides peace and solace to those looking for a moment of spirituality away from the crowds that engulf Fisherman’s Wharf on a daily basis.

In addition to the weekly Sunday mass, the chapel is home to the “Blessing of the Fishing Fleet,” a celebration that is held on the first weekend of October. It is locally known as “La Madonna del Lume,” a tradition that has its roots in medieval times and was brought to San Francisco by Mrs. Rosa Tarantino in 1936.

To the more than twelve million tourists that visit the Wharf annually the main attraction will always be the shops, the restaurants, Pier 39, and of course the sea lions. But to those living and working in the area of Fisherman’s Wharf the sound from the Carillion bells, capable of hundreds of different melodies, will always be a reminder of the hard work and dedication of the Italian immigrants of years past, to the many races and nationalities that ply the bay and oceans of today.

Perhaps your next visit should be to the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Chapel to see yet another side of San Francisco, one that will certainly be more rewarding and hold more charm than a pantomime or street artist. Take a minute to listen to the waves breaking on shore, the boats’ masts singing in the wind and imagine life as it was at the turn of the century. So much history, such an amazing place from which to relive it.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

May 2011

Go Giants—"Again"

It was a simple ad, not different than hundreds of others on Craig's list, "For sale, two baseball tickets, Scottsdale Stadium, great seats." Considering the hordes of people in Arizona right now for Spring Training, one would have to be crazy not to consider scalping two great tickets to watch the World Series Champions San Francisco Giants play the Kansas City Royals. Most people would kill for the chance but for me, Timmy or no Timmy, I would rather sit by the pool and enjoy the dry, warm, desert air.Scottsdale Stadium Sign

We left on time, although the security lines at SFO were horrendous. Most people dread "Smart Meters" but I have a "Smart Wife" and before leaving she cleverly signed up for priority check-in which got us in the line with 20 people instead if 200. As in the past this is the weekend that the Giants' owners gather for the yearly meet and greet. Thursday night we started with Mastro's City Hall and if you're in beef country you might as well start with one of the best and if $16 drinks and $50 steaks make you happy then this is Minerva.

Friday evening the Scottsdale Charros hosted their yearly party for the team and team owners along with a house full of guests. This year was extra special in that it was the 50th anniversary of this great service organization and its members looked especially dapper in their white shirts, red and blue ties and blazers. Add the presence of the championship Giants attended by most of their series winning players graciously autographing shiny new baseballs and if that was not enough, we had the "super moon" overhead to make it a once in a lifetime experience.

While working my way aroundFear the Beard the food stations, and grabbing an occasional beer, I had the privilege of meeting Scottsdale's mayor, Jim Lane, and his lovely wife Joanne. Jim was proudly wearing a large lapel button stating, "I love Scottsdale and the Giants." We briefly spoke about the local economy and how well San Francisco is coming out of this nasty recession led by biotech and high-tech. The speeches were short, but long enough to announce that the stadium had broken the previous daily attendance record with over 12,200 people in the stands. At that moment I realized that my tickets had just gone up in value by another 50 bucks.

By Saturday morning it was crunch time, and like a great bottle of wine, which has to be drunk in order to be enjoyed, I surrendered my priceless tickets to the turnstile and became one of the hundreds of cheering, raving fans as we were thrilled from the first pitch to the last out. It turned out to be a perfect day with clear skies and just a slight breeze. The final score: Giants 3, Kansas City 1, with yet another record-setting day in the stands, with a few more attending than the day before.

On Saturday night the team owners, coaches and a select number of guests gather at Don and Charlie's for a ribs and coleslaw eating fest. For a baseball fan this is the pinnacle of the sport with Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry all sharing the same table and yes, all eating the same ribs. Jon Miller, the Giants' announcer, was in top form and always has a favorite story, told with anticipation and charm as only Jon can do. The weatGiants on the fieldher has been Spring Training perfect, and the 85 degree weather a welcome break from the Bay Area rains.

So with Spring Training quickly drawing to a close and opening day just days away we all anxiously await that first pitch that will undoubtedly lead to yet another World Series win. If the Giants manage to bring only half of the energy and enthusiasm that fills the stadium and streets of Scottsdale back to AT&T Park, they are a shoe in to bring home yet another trophy. Now if only I can find a decent ticket to opening day I swear to the baseball gods that I would never, ever, consider scalping it….but on second thought, every man has his price. Giants, 2011 World Series Champions! Yes, you heard it here first.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

April 2011

Santa Catalina catalina

The Sapphire Princess is so huge the Crystal Serenity could easily be mistaken for one of its tenders. Between passengers and crew, the Sapphire is about the size of a modern aircraft carrier whose flight deck has been replaced with countless rows of suites and mini-suites, all with verandas, chaise lounges, tables, chairs, bars and casinos.

"Caribe104" sounds more like an exotic drink to be enjoyed on a wind swept beach of a Caribbean island rather than the marvelous suite that will house us for the next 10 days. Taking up the forward port quarter of the ship, the views rival those seen from the bridge which sits immediately above us. From our bedroom we would have seen that iceberg approaching, pounded on the ceiling, alerting the captain, and instantly changed the course of history. The Titanic would be tied up in Long Beach next to the Queen Mary, Disney would have one more hotel to manage and DiCaprio would have to wait a little longer for that career making movie. catalina casino

Santa Catalina was a first for us and certainly worth the 20 minute wait to board one of the tenders for the short ride to town. I can certainly understand how Wrigley fell in love with the place and built the casino, still a marvel of Art Deco design which was used as a theatre and ballroom at the time. Along with it came the power plants, sewer systems, fresh water reservoirs and hotels as part of the island's development. I imagine at the time it was quite the place, yet now Avalon is a mini Hawaii with all the trappings of a true tourist Mecca.

Unfortunately for us we found out too late that we could rent an electric powered cart by the hour and take a quick tour of the area. We opted for lunch and did our usual hat and pin run. Along the way, Karen was approached by a young woman looking for directions and started the conversation by asking, "Do you speak English?" Considering the currency is still the US dollar and the Capital of California is Sacramento the answer was obvious.

Back on board, we managed a quick nap before getting ready for dinner. Luckily for us, we ended up with Personal Dining which allows us the freedom of eating in any one of five restaurants at any time we choose. Our first night, Saturday, we ate at Sterling's, a chop house where the prime rib was perfectly done, and our half empty bottle of wine was stored for our next night's dinner, regardless of the restaurant.

Sunday it was Vivandi where the osso buco went perfectly with the remaining Zinfandel. A decaf cappuccino and it was off to catch another one of the fabulous shows.

Dressed in our Monday night best, we headed off to meet the captain. Attilio Guerrini greeted all of the near 3,000 passengers with a warm smile and a cold drink. We managed to smile back and then headed for a pay-as-you-go cocktail lounge, leaving the masses behind. Next stop was at Sabatini's where the 17 courses (yes 17) soaked up three hours as we enjoyed the feast.

Our biggest surprise yet greeted us as we returned from dinner. The two chaise lounges we had requested had actually arrived, just in time for tomorrow's sunshine. So now on our veranda we have two chaise lounges, two reclining chairs, a table and four chairs, a side table, and yes, a partridge in a pear tree.

Not wanting to fight the hoards from "Eaters Anonymous," we've been enjoying breakfast in our room. Our stewardess, Noi, is a real sweetheart and has our hours down perfectly. No need for that plastic sign on the door that tells her when to come in and when to stay away.

We enjoyed an afternoon massage before heading back to Vivandi for dinner where Alberto promised me the best table in the house — the power of the greenback never ceases to amaze. Life is good.

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, Porto Cervo, Portofino. After a while they all become a blur. It doesn't seem all that long ago that we were astounded by the mega yachts and spectacular shops on the island of Sardinia.

This morning we woke up as the ship was anchoring off Puerto Vallarta. Through the hazy we could see the beachfront hotels and the madness on shore about to engulf us. After two days at sea, the idea of land sounded good; after ten minutes on land we were ready to head out to sea. For two dollars each that turned out to be three — but that's another story we were stuffed into what was once a Chevy SUV along with six other gringos. In that three mile ride we got to know each other quite well and quickly figured out who had showered that morning and who had not.

The main reason for going on shore in the first place was to find an internet café so we could send out my first missive. Although the internet café works very well on the ship, the wireless network had been down for the last two days, and not being allowed to upload anything from my laptop to their network, I could not send anything out.

My first question to one of the locals as we got off the tender was, "Is there an internet café close by?" Si, Senor, right in the center of town, only two dollars to get there."

What we found out later is there was a massive internet site right across the street from the tender landing. Oh, well.

We did find that internet café a block from where they dropped us off — next to all the jewelry stores, of course, and was shocked to see the steep prices.

What the heck, got to get this missive out, so twenty minutes later, after struggling with the Mexican version of Windows, we got the job done and went to pay. One dollar? It turned out the prices posted were in pesos.

We were so pleased with our good fortune we stopped in at the McDonalds next door, and for a whopping two dollars we got two "conos" and even got 80 pesos back. Not wanting to push our luck any further, we made a quick stop at the Hard Rock Café for a pin that says, appropriately enough, "Puerto Vallarta, 2004," and headed back to the ship. Somehow we're much too old for all of this.

While waiting for the tender I was tempted to try the $35.00 massage from the parlor next to the Laundromat — according to the young man outside, this place is so good even the ship's captain goes there. Come to think of it, he didn't say which ship. Karen just about yanked my arm out of its socket as she led me back to the tender.

Dinner has worked out very well for us with Personal Dining. Mexican sounded great and appropriate for the day, so we headed for the Santa Fe Restaurant. Exchanging a few pleasantries in Italian with Mario, the head waiter, got us a nice, quiet table and excellent service. Not having to go to the International Dining Room, the Circus Maximus of gastronomy, or should I say "Gastroenterology," has been our biggest treat. In the Coliseum the animals ate the Christians, here they've turned the tables and anything is fair game. Shop till you drop — here it's eat till you pop.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

March 2011

 

Fabulous FlorenceFlorence at Sunset

After checking out of our hotel in Venice we were ready for a luxurious three hour ride on our Eurostar train to Santa Maria Novella in Florence. On the train you feel like you should fasten your seat belt — it looks so much like the inside of an airliner. And the food is fantastic.

Florence, where the Renaissance started and our trip is ending. Where to eat in Florence is always a dilemma because there are so many good restaurants. We opted for Camillo's where we had eaten four years ago with our traveling companions and by chance ended up at what they call the "Family Table." It's either the best or the worst table in the house, located right next to the open kitchen, and although it's the best show in town, it's also as hot as the kitchen, if not hotter. We called and reserved the same table ("prenotare" is the Italian word for "reservation" and it rolls right off my tongue like a local) and yes, just as much fun but even hotter than we had remembered. More cold wine please; grazie.

The following night we ate at Buca Lappi and ordered the bistecca alla Fiorentina, about eight pounds of T-bone beautifully seasoned as only the Florentines can do. And by the way, don't forget the beans. We had beans at every meal: plain, with tuna — a real specialty — and of course always properly laid to rest in inches of the local olive oil, as green as our envy of those who are staying longer in this beautiful city. We were here for such a short time that we didn't even have a gelato, but we did get to San Lorenzo, a flea market of the first order. Are we getting old or sensible or both? We couldn't find an adequate piece of junk to buy, so we settled for some fresh fruit instead.good luck

We joined our friends for breakfast on the verandah of their hotel, the Tornabuoni Beacci, and after a sad farewell we headed back to our apartment where we have been staying for the last two days. What a lovely place and such a great location right next to the Piazza della Republica and just 30 seconds from the porcellino where we can rub the bronzed pig's nose every day for good luck. It's been a great stay in Florence and after an all too short visit we left the treasures of this great city and got on the train and headed for Perugia.

Feedback sergio@westsideobserver.com

February 2011

Don’t take any Wooden Drachmamonastary of Hosios Lukas

Our second Dimitris in as many days picked us up at exactly 10 o’clock at the foot of the gangplank. Mercedes seems to be the car of choice and moments after the formal introductions we took off…..literally! If the car had wings we would have been airborne in minutes. The road to Delphi is a nicely paved two lane, steep, winding road that hugs the mountainside, with a double white line down the center. For all the good it does they could have saved themselves a ton of money and omitted that second white line. Our first stop was at the monastery of Hosios Lukas, a spectacular group of buildings made of rough hewn stone with marvelous detailing. The huge stone buttresses with perfect arches still perform their job after all these hundreds of years.Dome of Hosios Lukas Sunday service had just finished and the black robed priest with his long black beard mingled with the parishioners, all dressed in their Sunday best. The crypt beneath the main church not only supplied the foundation for the church but it is covered with some of the loveliest wall-paintings and mosaics that we have seen so far. Photos: Monastery of Hosios Lukas

Poseidon, Delphi MuseumOn the road to Delphi we passed a couple of small towns, one being Poseidon, the well known god of the sea, and a few villages with buildings hanging on the mountainside. Dimitris dropped us off in front of the main gate to the archeological ruins and would wait for us in front of the museum down the road. DelphiWhat he didn’t tell us is that you need to be a Billy goat to climb around the area. The original buildings were built on the side of the mountain where according to mythology Delphi became the center of the earth after two eagles released by Zeus in opposite directions returned to meet in this one spot. As a builder I would have picked up the eagles and relocated them to the valley below. Photos: Delphi

The steps go on forever and wind around the centuries old columns, stones, temple and ruins. Going up was not so bad but coming down was treacherous. Had it been raining it would have been impossible. We thought that the path from the top would lead to the museum but no such luck. It was all the way back down the hundreds of steps and then a short walk to the ultra modern, beautifully done museum. The displays are outstanding and masterfully displayed. The old temple walls were inscribed with words of wisdom such as “Know Thyself”, “Nothing in Excess” and yes, “Don’t take any Wooden Drachma.” We enjoyed them all and in the process saw the omphalos, the sculptured cone that stood in the exact center of the world, and the famous bronze statue of the Charioteer, one of the most celebrated pieces of ancient art in the world.

Our next choice was lunch in the village of Delphi or back to the ship. We chose the latter where a hot pastrami sandwich became the center of my world.

The sound of the anchor digging deep in the ocean floor woke us out of a sound sleep and through groggy eyes we could see Zakynthos. We also saw the rain that was coming down in sheets. At that point we jumped back into ours and contemplated the day. The worst part was the fact that we had to take the tender into town and didn’t really know if we wanted to watch the handicapped crowd on board slip and slide all over the boarding area. The sun finally shown it’s face and in we jumped, bouncing and splashing all the way to town. The ship’s paper said that there wasn’t much there and that became an understatement. For five Euros apiece we took a 30 minute elephant train around town. The train took off to the prerecorded sound of a steam engine with dogs barking in the background. Where can you laugh for 30 minutes straight for a mere 15 bucks? A short walk around town and it was back to the ship. We will cherish that train ride as long as we live.montevasia

The biggest surprise came the following day. Again, the ship’s paper said very little about Montevasia, also known as “the Gibraltar of the East.” Certainly a huge rock but nowhere near the size of the real one. Again we tendered and wondered if we should turn left or right into town. Left it was and after a walk of almost a mile we entered the old town. The cobblestone streets are narrow and steep but the views spectacular. Rock and stone buildings line the paths with the beautiful church of Elkomenos Christos sitting in the main square, a couple of old cannons still at the ready. The highest peak is over 650 above sea level and although we had gone about half way up we settled for a quick stop and relaxing break. We visited the small cemetery on the way back and decided that of all the places that we have seen so far, a week in this centuries old town would be on our bucket list. The views of the ocean alone would make anyone want to come back. Across the moat and a quick visit to the new town. What a contrast! montevasia

In retrospect, one has to wonder about the all the incredibly hard work that went into building these villages. Find the water, gather the food, work like mules to move rock and stone up the endless steps. Rock upon rock to build shelter, churches, monasteries and McDonalds. Photos: Montevasia

knossisknossisOur erstwhile travel agent (Karen) had made arrangements for a private tour on Crete. The ship docked at Aghios Nikolaos and again we tendered to the pier. George was waiting for us and the four of us squeezed into his economy class sedan for the one hour drive to Herakleion Museum where we visited four to five thousand year old displays of statues, weapons, paintings and jewelry. Next was the castle at Knossos. The structures are being reconstructed and at least here unlike Delphi the site was rather level. At one time 2,000 people lived in the castle and 9,000 outside the area. Earthquakes and fires destroyed the structures but it was rebuilt at various times. The outdoor theater is 4,000 years old and the oldest in the world. George then took us through a small village in the middle of the wine making area and then finally for a typical Greek lunch in a small restaurant where we got to sample many of the items on the menu. I had the rabbit with onions that was a true delight. The others had beef with zucchini, green vegetables and of course a Greek salad loaded with olives and thick, green olive oil. We made the last tender back to the ship before the ship was repositioned to the dock for refueling. The weather was picture perfect and an almost full moon lit up the evening sky. Tomorrow it’s Santorini and hopefully with it another Giants win. Photos: Knossis

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

December 2010

acropolisMy Good Friend George

We’ve often talked about how fortunate we’ve been in not having any serious mishaps in all our travels. We’ve met a lot of wonderful people and for the most part have not been taken advantage of, as far as we know. And then we met George.

We arrived early at our hotel in Athens and as expected our rooms were not ready. The doorman suggested that we go see the changing of the guards across the way, which we did and then decided to go to the new Acropolis Museum. We could have walked but chose to grab a taxi instead and after the ten minute ride we arrived, paid the driver five Euro as he asked, and moved on. Although it was still early in the morning, it had been a long day for us, so we decided to save the Acropolis for the next day and head back to the hotel. We doubled back to where we had been dropped off and hailed another taxi. George was very friendly, asked us where we were from, what plans we had to do some sightseeing and offered suggestions on the best restaurant close to our hotel. He also told us that being Sunday there was a lot of traffic going back to our hotel so he was going to take a different route and show us some interesting things along the way. He drove around for a good 15 minutes, went down the wrong side of a one-way street, argued with a bunch of women in the oncoming car and came to a quick stop at the curb and told us that our hotel was down those stairs. “How much George?” “30 Euro.” “30 What!” “We paid 5 Euro to get here.” George went on to explain that he had taken the scenic route and it was much safer. After much haggling we settled for 15 Euro and George drove off. The stairs that we were shown were steep and had at least 30 to 40 steps. Once we got down and looked around we knew we had been had. I asked at the internet café on the corner where our hotel was, and the girl started talking about the Metro. The area was a bit sleazy, but we never felt in danger. After much waving and whistling we were able to hail a cab. First question, how much? The driver pointed at the meter—what choice did we have, we got in. 15 minutes later we were back at the hotel and not being sure how much the fare was we handed the driver 15 Euro. He looked as us rather strangely, handed us back 10 Euro and started to make change from the other 5 Euros. We looked at him in disbelief and told him to keep the change. At that point we envisioned George laughing all the way to his next unsuspecting tourist, we envisioned George with a hatchet stuck through his forehead.

acropolis close-u[

We mentioned our misadventure to the door-man and he said that if the police are notified they jump on them in minutes. We decided that we were going to photograph every license plate of every taxi that we used from then on. In retrospect it was a cheap lesson and a sad one at that because the rest of the people that we associated with were very nice and very helpful.

Jan decided that we should have a guide to take us through the Acropolis, and through the hotel we were greeted by Laura, a very lovely young woman, who would spend the next three hours with us and show us the Acropolis and the surrounding areas and then take us to lunch at one of the many restaurants in the Plaka. Before leaving the hotel we noticed a cadre of military in full riot gear coming up the block and taking a position in front of the Parliament building. Down the street was a mob of protesters hollering and chanting. Something about the government and their pensions. The doorman suggested not taking a taxi because they would have to go so far out of the way that it would take 25 minutes to get us there. He suggested taking the metro; it would only be a three minute ride. So with our very British looking umbrellas from the hotel (it looked like rain) we headed deep into the bowels of this ancient civilization to ride an ultra modern train to visit one of the most amazing sites that we have ever seen. For a Euro apiece we went deep into the station where we saw some of the best museum pieces that we had seen in the last two weeks, all from the excavation of the tunnel itself.

For the next three hours we walked, we climbed endless stairs and we marveled at the ingenuity of these early Greeks and Romans. The horses could not pull the marble pieces up the hill so they devised a series of pulleys whereby the stone went up as the horses came down. Along the way we stopped to admire the structures and the surroundings. We could see the huge rock from which Paul, the apostle, preached and beyond that was the Agora, (the marketplace). Hence the word agoraphobia, fear of the market place. The size of the Parthenon is immense as is the temple of Athena Nike. On the way up it started to rain as our umbrellas unfurled. Until then we were using them as walking sticks. Karen and Jan took a break while Laura took Ellis and me to the highest lookout where the Greek flag flies. Our 360 degree view was breathtaking.

There was a huge tower crane next to the Parthenon as reconstruction work is in full gear. Laura mentioned that the building was originally built in eight years and no slave labor was ever used. In San Francisco it would take eight years just to get the permit to erect the crane! She pointed out how the columns lean in slightly because a straight column would look out of plum. As tourists we were amazed, as a builder I was astounded.

Coming down is always harder and more trying, than going up. Considering our age, between the four of us we add up to 300 years, we’ve done amazingly well. On the way back we stopped to admire the Theatre of Dionysos, the oldest of the Greek Theaters, the newly reconstructed Odeon of Herod Atticus amphitheater, and of course all the photo ops standing in front of these unbelievable structures. Back down past Paul’s rock, a copy of his epistle sits cast in bronze fastened to the rock, but it was all Greek to me. (I promised myself I would never say that!) Through the Agora, the Stoa of Attalos,, the word store came from there, a few more churches and ruins and it was time for lunch.

The Plaka is a neighborhood of winding streets and endless shops. Fortunately it was also on the way back to the hotel. Laura sat us down at a lovely Greek restaurant, helped us order and then left for home. What a marvelous day it had been for us. Wanting to savor most of the Greek specialties we over ordered and over ate. It was after 3 p.m. and we were planning an early dinner, Karen and I had to get up at 2:30 a.m. for our six o’clock flight out of Athens to Frankfurt. We did some final packing and went to the hotel’s restaurant and cocktail lounge on the top floor where we were dazzled once again by the view of the Acropolis, this time all lit up and glimmering at dusk. A couple of drinks, a light dinner at the restaurant, a few hugs and kisses, Jan and Ellis leave later in the day, and it was off to bed.

At 2:30 both I-Phone alarms went off and moments later my cell phone rang. Who could that be at this ungodly hour? Maybe it was George calling to fess up. It was a friend from home wanting to know if I would be attending a dinner next Monday night. “Richard, I’m in Athens, Greece and its 2:30 in the morning.” He hung up with great words of wisdom, “enjoy the ruins.”

The taxi was waiting for us, it was raining and the sky was aglow with lighting. No one ever said that traveling was easy. So from Athens to Frankfurt, a brief two hour layover and another 11 hours of flying for the privilege of going through three weeks of mail, dirty clothes, endless Visa receipts but most importantly, watching the Giants win the World Series.

It’s been a great adventure, we totally enjoyed Athens, and we’re all that much richer for it. Now if only I could catch up with George, I’d ring his neck.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.comAthens and the Acropolis

November 2010

Shakespeare in Love: Ashland

The old Chinese proverb says that the longest trip starts with a single step. What they didn’t say is that you shouldn’t try to go across the Bay Bridge on the day that the tolls go up an additional dollar. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that bad considering that we had our chops set for one of those salami and cheese sandwiches on a crunchy French roll at Granzela’s Delicatessen in Williams—my favorite, head cheese and cheese, light on the Mayo. We’ve been there before and it didn’t take us long to place the order and start munching. So maybe it was only 11:15 in the morning but it sure tasted great, and the Dryer’s ice-cream that followed should have made us feel guilty but nobody we know saw us so that made it OK to our retired minds. Majestic Hotel

We were headed for Ashland, Oregon for a few days of theater and a little celebrating of July 4th. The ride up was easy enough, the scenery spectacular. The truckers may own Highway 5 but they still left a lot for us to enjoy. The Pines and Firs are a glorious green, Mount Shasta’s still draped with snow that sparkles in the afternoon sun while boaters are waterskiing on the crystal clear water of Shasta Lake. Overhead, a hundred contrails melt through the billowy clouds hiding the full moon that would astound us that evening.

Driving all day and heading for a play that evening is a formula for disaster but we did stay awake and survived “The Royal Family” without so much as a yawn. Our dinner at Omar’s before the show was a real treat and for fifty bucks per couple including cocktails and wine it was not only good but cheap! And we’re going back.

Ashland has grown up and learned to smile since our last visit almost 10 years ago. The old stores are still good and the new ones are a paradise for the ladies. A friend took us to a wine store that has a treasure of Italian wines sprinkled with some delicious local labels making our selection a very difficult process; fortunately for us Lorenzo was quite adept at suggesting and recommending.

An early lunch at Lela’s Bakery and Café primed us for an early dinner at The Peerless Restaurant where we ate “al fresco,” a perfect prelude for the Elizabethan Stage at the Allen Pavilion Theater. “Much Ado About Nothing” was produced in modern garb but unfortunately for me the prose was all Shakespeare. That Prosciutto Wrapped Saddle of Oregon Rabbit that I so enjoyed at dinner kept asking me if I understood any of what was being said. Sadly, my honest answer had to be “Not Much!”

The Allen Pavilion alone is worth the trip to Ashland. Open to the sky, it wraps around a beautiful stage that changes appearance as the evening grows darker. The fireflies compete with the stars that compete with the actors. For good behavior, sitting through the production I was treated to an ice cream cone from BJ’s that made it all worth while.

The following day we attended the matinee at the Angus Bowmer Theater and “The Visit” managed to keep us wide awake even after a very pleasant lunch, a nice Pinot Gris and a three hour production. Great story about revenge, greed and money. Fortunately for me, I did the three plays and now we can go back to dinner at eight, an extra glass of wine and no fear of being cracked in the ribs because I’m dozing off.

Sunday was the Fourth, the parade route was lined with chairs and blankets for the spectators and it was Red, White and Blue all the way. A true American Fourth of July celebration. As I’ve said so many times before “Good Bless America.”

“All’s Well” is the perfect name for the guest house where we stayed for four days and to round it off “As You Like It” sits right next door. So very Shakespeare! The seven-room Inn is a block off Main Street and a comfortable walk to the center of town, no need for wheels.

The best part was that it was just a block away from the parade route and what a parade Ashland put on! I can’t remember the last parade I watched first hand and this one really took the prize.

The parade was rural America at its best, the Fire Department with sirens blaring, the Forest Service with shinny yellow trucks, the Police Department on motorcycles proudly following the Bag Pipers, Miss Ashland waving to the hundreds lining the streets. We didn’t get any of the candy and beads that were being tossed out to the crowd but we did get a bunch of great video. The entire town was buzzing and the city park was jammed with young and old alike. Stands lined the park paths with all sorts of food, drinks and crafts from every trade. We got so tired from watching that it took a couple of beers and a hefty lunch to keep us going. Sunday night the fireworks went off all night long and I imagine it must have been quite interesting watching “Henry the VI” in the outdoor theater with the fireworks going off during the battle scenes on stage.

Don’t know if we’ll be ready to do the 8 hour drive again anytime soon but as far as the shear pleasure of the trip, we’d leave tomorrow. So much to see in this beautiful country of ours, so many nice people, so nice to be home. So until we meet again, as Shakespeare would have said, “Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow.”

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

October 2010

Like the Rock of Gibraltar

Back to the ship, under the Abril Bridge and off to Gibraltar. So what’s the big deal about a big rock sticking out of the ocean? Well, the first thing we saw, aside from the rock, was the most beautiful terminal we have visited so far. Marble floors, paintings on the wall and a scale model of Gibraltar greets the passengers going ashore. Once again, we decided to go it on our own and this time, with Harrison and Rochelle, we ended up with Charlie who has a six passenger mini-van not unlike all the other drivers. Not being able to find two more we worked over Charlie to take the four of us for the same rate. gibraltar

Well, let me tell you, Gibraltar is not just a rock. First of all, the main airport is built on reclaimed land that now joins Gibraltar with Spain. In order to cross over to Spain the road crosses the main runway and when a plane is landing they close the road.

Before leaving the ship in the morning we watched as NATO jets took off across the bow of our ship as part of their training exercises going on at this time. So around the entire island we went, going to the highest point that is also reached by a cable car that climbs the face of the rock. Along the way we stopped to view the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Straits of Gibraltar, Northern Africa and Spain without so much as turning our head. We worked our way to the top, stopping to visit St. Michael’s Cave, a grotto of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites that also has a small auditorium for recitals. Along the very narrow one-way streets are hundreds of caves that the various Armies dug through the years. At the very top, the Barbary apes were waiting to put on their endless show for us mortals. Is that what we really looked like all those many years ago? The apes are fairly small and very playful; they jump on cars, tease people and do what monkeys do best — act like monkeys. Like us, they are in no danger of going hungry. Our driver keeps a bag of dry pasta to feed them; at least on the boat we get it cooked.

Back down for a brief walk around the main shopping street where we found a rather simple looking Catholic church which provided a good place to barter for a couple of candles for our left over pounds. Once aboard we managed another round of cocktail parties, dinner, a fabulous show and off to bed for a few hours of sleep before arriving in Malaga Spain on Thursday morning.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

Sept. 2010

From Russia with Lovecathedral spires

Our first visit to St. Petersburg was in 1990. With Ronald Reagan’s admonition, the Berlin Wall had just come down and at the time St. Petersburg was still known as Leningrad. The city was renamed after the fall of Communism in 1991. We heard how much it had changed, and with three full days there we were about to find out how radical that change really was.

Through a friend of a friend we able to find the name of a tour guide, and after endless internet exchanges the program was in place. Natasha was to meet us at the ship immediately after our arrival, and the 14 of us would pile in her minivan and start exploring.

All went well until 600 people aboard ship tried to leave at the same time. The Dixieland jazz band at the bottom of the gangplank helped pass the time, but the Russian custom’s officials would not budge. It’s their country and they were going to move at their own speed. Without ever cracking a smile the six or seven white uniformed, medal laden officers checked and rechecked our documents. Eventually we were allowed on shore.

After the informal introductions, Natasha and Mikhail, her driver, took full command. She spoke perfect English and headed off to show us her lovely city. We started very simply with a quick tour of the immediate area and with the first stop at a local pier area, we all jumped out anxious to photograph and be photographed. The most amazing part was not the memorial to the sailors lost at sea, but rather the two muzzled, baby bears frolicking around the tourists.

Next stop was the Fortress of Peter and Paul, the oldest building in the city which had been used as a political prison during the rule of the tsars. Within the walls is the Cathedral of Peter and Paul which was the first of the many we were to see. ceiling

After our visit, we managed a quick stop at a very small souvenir shop where a lovely young woman greeted us with a tray full of vodka. Actually, we were more interested in the clean, available toilets.

We were told that you could visit the Hermitage every day for eight hours a day, spend three minutes in front of each exhibit and it would take you over eight years to see it all. We saw it all in three and half hours. The Hermitage consists of five connected buildings, including the Winter Palace. The lines are endless and the exhibits mind numbing. We especially enjoyed the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens as well the countless Impressionists that make the Hermitage one of the largest and most famous museums in the world.

Day two started with a one hour ride to Pushkin to visit Catherine’s Palace, but not before Natasha swung by the local farmers market. This 20,000 square foot building was packed with all sorts of meat products, deli items, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. As we took endless pictures we were offered various items to taste. We passed on most.

With room after room of gold leafed walls, hand carved furnishing, and inlaid floors — and the splendor of the Amber Room — we toured Catherine’s home where she lived and died. It’s no wonder they had a revolution!

The Yusupov Palace allowed us to see where Rasputin was murdered — he was one tough SOB — they poisoned him, shot him and finally dumped him in the river where he froze to death. And if that wasn’t enough, we finished up the day of sightseeing with a canal cruise along the Neva, the main river running through the area where we had astounding views of the city before the heavy rain drove us all down below. steps

Our lovely day was spoiled by the sight of a blazing fire destroying one of the more famous Greek Orthodox Churches. It had been undergoing a major restoration. From the bus, and then from our veranda, we could see the flames shooting hundreds of feet in the air as the local fire departments struggled in vain to control the inferno. Later in the evening, we could see the helicopters carrying water buckets in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames. We learned from Natasha the next day that, although the entire building was destroyed, people were able to rush in and save some of the priceless artifacts and manuscripts. What a tragic shame. We felt so sad and so close to these priceless treasures belonging to the people of this marvelous city.

On the last day, we drove out to Peterhof where Peter the Great decided to build a little summer home that just happened to have over 130 fountains scattered across the palace’s grounds. It took over 20 kilometers of underground piping and numerous reservoirs to supply the water for these naturally working fountains and waterfalls. No pumps, just water from the mountains that eventually spills into the adjoining Gulf of Finland.

After touring the dazzling gardens, we moved inside to tour this immensely luxurious imperial estate. For over an hour we again went from one gold leafed room to the next. Natasha pointed out each room, each painting, each piece of furniture and what each architect did and when. She is an amazing woman, and the facts and figures in her head astounded us all.

The one thing that impressed me the most was how many Italian architects, engineers, painters and craftsmen were involved in these structures. I kept reminding our friendly group that, were it not for the Italians, they would be looking at mud huts and tables made of saw horses. No clothes, cars, buildings, high fashion or good food would exist without us Italians. They listened, but almost threw me off the bus.

The Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilled Blood has over 7,000 square feet of mosaics covering the walls and ceilings, and is one of the most memorial buildings we saw in the three days of touring. By the end of the third day, we were all starting to drag a little, and after our fond good-buys, we all literally headed for the showers. The toilet stories would take up a whole chapter, but it was all very nicely summed up by one of our friends who shall remain nameless: “If I had known this I would have worn Depends”.

The part that was so astounding is that most of the buildings we saw were nearly destroyed by the Germans during World War II. They have since been rebuilt from no more that a skeletal frame to the amazing structures that exist today. The elaborately carved moldings, statues, gold leafing, silk covered wells, inlayed floors, and lighting fixtures have all been meticulously reproduced and restored. Along with the more than 10,000 buildings that were destroyed during the war, more than 1.25 million people died in the fighting and as a result of disease and starvation.

We listened intently as Natasha spoke about the average salaries for a workman —about $500 per month. A high paying job would bring in about $1,000 per month. Apartments rent for $300 to $400 a month. During Communism, the Party built housing for the masses and the resulting apartments are what we would consider slums. The tenants have now been able to purchase their miniscule units for no more than the cost of the paperwork, and they can even buy and rent other units as their finances allow. Inflation is 15% per year, and they don’t even mint coins anymore because they are virtually worthless.

The older people have a tough time with the new systems, but the younger ones have taken capitalism to heart. The streets are filled with beautiful young women in tight jeans and spiked heels and everyone walks because the traffic is Manhattan at its worst. The Metro is reliable and inexpensive.

All in all, it was an unforgettable three days and we all came back with a new feeling for this country and its people. We loved all that we saw and did and it will be with us for a long time to come. I certainly hope that it won’t take us 16 years to return, but considering how tired everyone became, it may take us that long to recover.

July 2010

Mayday! Mayday!

Every day should be Sunday in London. It was so nice being able to walk around Green Park, to Buckingham Palace, cross the streets around the Mall without “looking left” and taking the tube to Leicester Square without the usual mass of humanity. No “Changing of the Guards,” in fact, no guards at all. Even the terrorists took a day off. London Ferris Wheel

Monday was great also because this weekend it’s a bank holiday (May Day) and everything is in slow motion. Most places are closed but the trains are running and so we headed off to Bath bright and early. Nice train and on the minute — so much so that we missed the returning train by about 30 seconds but fortunately they have one every 30 minutes — that’s what I get for stopping for an ice cream but the Rum Raisin cone was worth the wait.

Our dear friends Jan and Ellis are staying in Bath for a couple of days so we let them do the tour guiding. We visited the old Roman baths and what an engineering wonder they are. Not only were the Romans great engineers, they also left behind these great little gadgets you put up to you ear in order to hear all about the amazing work they did: Hot water, cold water, dry heat, wet heat. Too bad the lead pipes they used wiped out the whole empire. They had a ball while it was going on. The lazy ones took only one bath a day and spas were all the rage. Maybe I should find myself a slave to shave my entire body after getting out of the water just as they did.

We did, however, drink the water and suddenly we looked and felt years younger — after the first glass we went skipping down the street just like Dick and Jane. the Ritz

The Abbey church in Bath is a wonder in itself, very light and airy and the ceiling looks like it’s made of Murano lace.

Bath is a beautiful city and much larger than I had expected, certainly worth a few days’ stay next time around. There’s a lot of work going on in the center of town and that’s great, but seeing Fisher Development doing a GAP store in Bath was like a splash of cold water in the face. Do they really need one more store, and in Bath of all places? Are they planning to sell Levi togas there?

London woke up Tuesday morning with a vengeance, like a hungry bear waiting to devour us all. The quiet of the long weekend was shattered by the sound of taxis, jackhammers, flower vendors and cell phones. After our usual $60 breakfast at the hotel buffet, we walked eight or nine blocks to the Halcyon Days store so Karen could add to her collection of porcelain boxes. On our way back to the Green Park tube station, we passed endless store windows that looked like something out of GQ magazine — great if you have a size 4 figure or you want to dress like a prince. the Baths

We took the new Jubilee tube line, which cost 30 billion to build, but worth every penny of it. The engineering and architecture are fitting of a James Bond movie. We went down two, long, steep escalators to the never-ending supply of trains where in just minutes we arrived at the Waterloo Station. All very modern, but somehow we miss the old escalators with the wooden steps.

After a few zigs and zags, we found our way to the new “Eye,” which is British Airlines’ version of a Ferris wheel. No tickets until late in the afternoon, so we sat and watched as 20 or more people stepped in and out of each gondola while the wheel continued to turn. It’s a 30 minute round trip that takes you 400 feet up with spectacular views of the city. Lots of tourists and locals and many teenagers with body piercing — a little bit goes a long way, and a few were absolutely disgusting.

We crossed Westminster Bridge, passed Big Ben, and actually saw the first handicapped bathrooms in days. Title 24 definitely does not exist here. Someday I would love to do a series on the bathrooms of London. They are all very clean, some even have scented hand soap, but you had better be pretty agile to get in and out of most of them. Steep stairs, narrow corridors and tight spaces are the norm. Big Ben

We tried to get into Parliament but they were out to lunch, literally. No disrespect intended. Having looked left, then right we finally made it across the street to Westminster Abbey. Ten pounds allowed us access to 2,000 years of history and we got it in spades. The ceiling in the side chapel is even more beautiful than the church in Bath. Fortunately, they have a large table covered with a mirror so you can look down and see the detail of the ceiling — it keeps us old geezers from looking up too long and falling flat on our asses.

We saw the chair where most of the kings had been crowned and I could not believe my eyes — the back of the chair was full of carved initials. Those kings were really funny guys! After a quick lunch of fish and chips, we found our way to the Cabinet War Rooms where Churchill and his ministers continued governing during the bombing raids. It brought back many memories of the air raids and black-outs that they endured during the war years. Fortunately for us the bombs never made it to Union Street in San Francisco.

Our next stop was at the National Gallery where we spent three hours looking at priceless artwork. The thing that impressed me the most was the number of grammar school kids visiting the gallery, all of them in nice shirts, ties and jackets. Many of them were lying on the floor with paper and pencil trying to copy the works of art. There is hope. That evening we headed for the Comedy Theater where we saw “Peggy for You,” a very well done typical British comedy.

After yet another gouging at breakfast on Thursday morning we proceeded to zip up our bags and get mentally prepared for our upcoming Mediterranean cruise. Travel days are always long and tiring, but because of Karen’s meticulous planning everything has moved as smoothly as a German Panzer battalion. Who needs Rommel - we have the best to lead us in battle. Bon Voyage.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

June 2010

 

Oh Dear!

In Italian, cervo means deer. After visiting the shops of Porto Cervo all we could say was “Oh, Dear!” Bright and early we pulled into Porto Cervo, our stop on the island of Sardinia. The tender ride in was bumpier than usual due to all the large yachts crisscrossing between our ship and the open water.

The town, about three blocks long, starts and ends just a few hundred feet from the tender landing. From there it’s one beautiful shop after another, and not the souvenir stand type selling hats and T-shirts. I’m talking about Madison Avenue types like Brioni, Rolex, Ferragamo and Zegna, just to name a few, and no one’s embarrassed with their prices. italy

Yes, this is Aga Khan’s playground, but what about us poor tourists? I guess some were not so poor after all. We saw women with dozens of bags over their shoulders heading back to the ship. I settled for a lapel pin, but skipped the cap.

We took a taxi tour of the area and brought back stories of gorgeous resorts and lovely beaches. The custom now seems to be to quote hotel prices by the person, rather than by the room. I guess it sounds better to quote $500 per person rather than $1,000 per night.

Judging by the number of mega yachts and beautiful women, which seem to go hand in hand, filling those rooms is a slam dunk. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anywhere near enough time to truly enjoy this beautiful island. Better start saving up, because we’re coming back, and it ain’t gonna be cheap.

The popular Italian song says “Come back to Sorrento,” and as we did, so did about half of Europe. Up early again, we thought we would beat the crowds, get to shore, take the high speed ferry to Capri and see the sights before exploring Sorrento later in the day. This was our first time here and we wanted to see it all.

The boat ride was easy enough, and we did manage to snag a good seat out in the open. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Capri looked like Portofino on steroids. People all over the place. So, where was this beautiful, romantic, idyllic island that we had heard so much about? Capri, the Isle of Dreams, was more like a nightmare. porto cervo

Luckily for us, we found a nice taxi driver by the name of Vincenzo who would take us for a two hour tour that, according to him, was going to be the best tour we had ever taken. We didn’t even flinch at his fee -- all we wanted to do was to get out of this sea of humanity.

We sat comfortably in Vincenzo’s convertible taxi with a stretched canvas top, and enjoyed the breeze and the views which were absolutely stunning. The thing that surprised us the most was how rocky and steep the entire area is. Beautiful to see, but someone had to build all of this, and at times, as a builder, I get lost in the details rather than the beauty.

The one main road winds up to Capri and Anicapri, which is the town on the upper part of the island. The driver stopped a few times along the road that literally hangs on the side of the cliffs, to show us the panoramic views. Truly stunning and certainly not for anyone uncomfortable with heights. The road is barely large enough for two vehicles and not an inch more. On a couple of occasions the car’s side mirror had to be bent back so the other car could pass — all skillfully happening over one thousand feet above the glistening Mediterranean below .

Going off the beaten path, Vincenzo showed us homes that were too beautiful for even Architectural Digest. I had never seen anything like it — so much wealth, so much natural beauty. The ride down was just as much fun, and with horns blaring and brakes burning, we hit bottom with a great big sigh of relief. Karen and I split a Margherita pizza as we watched the locals right below us worshiping the sun while sitting on the rocky beaches. Not just pebbles mind you, but three to four inch white rocks. I guess what they didn’t use up in building, landed on the beach. Truly an amazing place, had it not been for the hordes of people trying to destroy three thousand years of history in a single season.

As you might expect, Sorrento was anticlimactic after returning from Capri. It was mid-afternoon and most of the stores were closed. The city is famous for its carved music boxes and lovely inlaid furniture as well as cameos and linens. The last thing I needed was a music box but after taking up 20 minutes of Andrea’s time, I felt obligated to buy something. For an easy 25 Euro, I now have my own music box that very appropriately plays “Come Back to Sorrento.” It’s going to have to play long and hard before we’re lured back. I’d rather be in Sardinia.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com.

May 2010

Running with
the Jackrabbits

The winter rains have finally stopped, surrendering to a victorious sun while new buds and blossoms emerge, bringing with them a brand new spring. Spring time! A new beginning, another chance at life, new crops, new vintages, new tastes. The hostile winter is quickly being replaced by the aroma of grilled hamburgers and plump hot dogs and what better place to enjoy this rebirth than in Arizona, where it’s time once again for spring training, that yearly pilgrimage that starts in March and ends in October with that grandest prize of all, a World Series ring.ballpark in Arizona

Spring break in Scottsdale is not what you would expect to see in the college Mecca of Florida. You’re not likely to find too many bikinis or beer chugging contests to draw the interest of the world media. These visitors graduated many years ago and they all wear straw hats and drive big cars, unless they’re in wheelchairs. The women all wear resort clothing draped with dozens of beads around their necks as if ready to grace the pages of Playboy’s next Mardi Gras issue — show you my what? Style in the stands is more important than love on the beach, but after all, there’s a time and place for everything. Considering the age group around here, it’s probably just as well. Let’s just stick to baseball and early-bird dinners. ballpark Arizona

This is also the weekend where the Giants’ partners gather in Scottsdale to be anointed by the baseball Gods hoping once again to be the best of the best. On Friday night the festivities began with a lavish party hosted by the Charros, a local service group which provides volunteer services at the ballpark, the hospital and many other local causes. The members are as proud as they are handsome in their starched white shirts and crisp blue blazers, ready to welcome you at the door and escort you to the many food stations and refreshment areas. The food stations all have an international flare, but the Italian, Mexican and American venues had a tough time competing with the dessert table heavily laden with various flavors of ice cream, hot sauces and an endless variety of chocolate toppings. The baron of beef ruled, but the hot fudge sundaes won the prize. No one went home hungry or thirsty.

The biggest treat by far for the guests, is the ability to work the room, collecting autographs from all the players, old and new. Orlando Cepeda is always a regular and still fits the name “Baby Bull.” All you need is a handful of baseballs and the autographs are graciously provided. For an autograph hound this is Nirvana, like a 49er prospecting for gold. I managed to grab Barry Zito and Willie McCovey while talking to Rich Aurilia about his cooking talents. He’s as serious about food as he is about assisting in a 6-4-3 double play.

The players walk the room, confident, anxious, ready to start a new season, while the rookies look on, hoping to make the team, sign that big contract and become part of that elite group of in-your-face, front of the sports page athlete who we all take so much for granted.

Another tradition is the Saturday night gathering at Don & Charlie’s where the owners and coaches gather to celebrate the new season and chat about the winning ways of the World Series-bound San Francisco Giants. As in the past Willie Mays and Willie McCovey share the same table and again gladly sign autographs. Outside, customers press their noses against the windows of our room trying to grab a glimpse of these fabulous players — long past their prime, but still heroes in everyone’s mind. Before leaving, Willie Mays always dates and signs the tablecloth. I’m sure that one did not go in the laundry bag that evening.

Following the dinner, Larry Baer introduced the front office staff and the coaches. Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow had a few choice comments, and then it was Jon Miller’s turn with a few tales while poking a little fun at Lon Simmons, who always takes the time to join us all the way from his home in Hawaii.

Although spring training is always a ritual and while baseball is the main event, man can not live on baseball alone and Scottsdale certainly has its share of fine dining establishments. One of our favorites is Maestro’s City Hall where everything is supersized and the cocktails cost $16. Yes, a plain old Manhattan over ice was 16 bucks. I guess ice is expensive in the desert! Another outstanding dinner house is Lon’s in the Hermosa Inn as well as T Cooks at the Royal Palms and Morton’s Steak House, Ruth’s Chris and Veneto where the baccala Manticato is prepared in the true Venetian tradition.

One of our favorite spots for a take out lunch is AJ’s, a beautiful market that would put Harrods’s to shame and whose deli outshines Carnegie’s in New York. Eddie V’s Edgewater Grille is an anomaly in a land of steaks and ribs where the fish is always fresh and beautifully cooked but a trip to Scottsdale can not be complete without a hamburger at Fuddruckers or a mound of ice cream at the Sugar Bowl.

So now opening day is just a few weeks away and hopefully the Giants will have another winning season, but most of all we all look forward to more of those thrilling games of the past — bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, three and two count, everyone standing — waiting for that rookie to hit one over the wall and into the bay. Go Giants!

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com.

April 2010

The Luck of the Irish

With names like Liffey and Poddle, Aston Quay, Bachelor’s Walk and Halfpenny Bridge, one would expect Dublin to be a virtual fairyland, a paradise overgrown with four leaf clover, multi-colored grass and sunny skies, pubs bursting with song, and young kids singing and dancing to melodies written 100 years ago.

My first impression of Dublin was of a very industrial city, crowded, congested, noisy and under construction. Our first day was spent driving to Waterford, a nearly three hour ride each way through mostly two lane, heavily traveled roads. The favorite pastime is playing chicken going three and four abreast down narrow country roads. The signs on the side of the road constantly remind you of the number of fatalities since the first of the year. For all the good it does, they should have spent the money on better roads. The accident we passed on the way back will undoubtedly add one more tick to the overcrowded billboard. St. Mary's Roof and arches

Waterford is a company town that seems to have outgrown the company. We were fortunate enough to get there just in time for the next guided tour of the factory, which proved to be very interesting. We all marched down the carefully marked lanes looking at the various work stations, while staying out of the way of the blowers, carvers and engravers. After a brief photo session along the way, we were cleverly discharged directly into the company store. Now here is a roomful of temptation that only the holiest can resist. We were not so blessed, so with our order form in one hand, and company pencil in the other, we moved from piece to piece. At least we’re in for a grand surprise when the crystal pieces arrive in a couple of months; no one remembered what was bought in the frenzy.

After a quick lunch, again at the company store, we headed for the town of Waterford, a quaint little town gone amuck with a mixture of the old and the new fighting for position. The new shops are trying to replace the old ones, while the old paved streets give way to concrete and asphalt. They should have left it alone. Our one-hour walk around town stretched our legs for the three hour ride that lay ahead. We did stop along the way, however, to admire an old church built in 1225 that still stands, roof gone, walls going, but being rebuilt by the city locals. Two very helpful young men gave us a tour of the remains, never asking for a coin to help in their rebuilding efforts. Dublin-Trinity College

Being that we were staying overnight in Dublin, we felt obligated to do a little pub-crawling, so after a very relaxed dinner aboard ship, we grabbed a taxi for the 15 minute ride back into town. The drivers are so Irish with the great sense of humor that goes with the territory. The six of us, Karen and I, Larry and Kathy and a beautiful couple from southern Italy whom we had met earlier, went from pub to pub, looking for one that would fit our 55 to 75 year old range.

I had read that 50% of the people in Ireland are younger than 30, and by the looks of things, most of them were in the Temple Bar area that night. We did the best we could to keep up, but the Guinness was a bit too bitter for our taste and the smoke too thick. We did shut down the dancing and singing, however, and eventually found our way back to the ship. We all had a ball and agreed that the Irish are great, generous and fun loving — if only we could find some Miller Lite. St. Mary's Buttress

The next day was perfect for strolling through Grafton Street, the main shopping street that starts from Trinity College and ends at St. Stephen’s Green. Our first stop was at the college where we took a walking tour of the campus that eventually placed us at the front door of the Library Building where the Book of Kells is displayed. It must have taken a lot of monks a lot of time to not only write that beautifully illuminated manuscript, but also the thousands of others stored in the Long Room, the longest single library room in the world. Thank God for word processors — no wonder the monks had to invent Champagne and brandy!

The crowds along Grafton St. were staggering, people going every which way, very much in command of their destiny. Our destiny was to try an Irish pub for some great Irish stew, and Dukes was the one recommended by the lady at the flower stand. Delicious food too much smoke.

We toured Stephen’s Green, a lovely park in the center of old town, watching the children feeding the ducks while we admired the colorful gardens encircling the weaving paths with two shopping bags full of “things.” That day, was our 42nd wedding anniversary and the captain was throwing a party for us that night along with 500 other people. 42 years and still talking, what a wonderful way to celebrate our first visit to Ireland.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com.

March 2010

Looking For Santa

New York, New York, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, filled with boundless energy with people always on the go. New York in December sounded like so much fun that we forgot about the unseasonably cold and blustery weather that had been hovering around 35 degrees.

The Ukrainian driver that picked us up at the airport must have been a former fighter pilot in the old country. For a while, we were wishing we were back on United, at least the trunk was clean. He did, however, get us to the hotel without incident and our dinner at Felidia’s that evening was a real treat with the food being as good as what Lidia cooks on channel 9 on Saturday mornings. Radio City Music Hall

An early wake up call got us to the ABC Studios to see the View — not from the top of the Empire State Building — but the TV program. The instructions from the View said to be at the studio around 8:30. We obliged and as our reward we got to stand in line, in the 35 degree weather for almost half an hour. We were finally given a number and proceeded to wait in a security line for what was by far the strictest search I’ve ever gone through. There was no way that anyone was going to terrorize Barbara Walters! Were they afraid that someone would scribble all over Whoopi with their lipstick?

Precisely at 11:00 a.m. the girls walked on to the cheers and applause that had been rehearsed earlier. During commercial breaks they walked around and talked to the audience. Barbara was extremely friendly and after asking people where they were from, looked at us and said “California, what are you doing here in this weather?”

Speaking of celebrities, Karen said that Sette Mezzo was Oprah’s favorite restaurant in New York so why not give it a try? After a quick phone call and with a nice Italian name like “Sergio” we were a shoe-in for 8:00 p.m.. The restaurant holds about 50 people, is very cozy, very friendly, very busy and as we soon found out, after we sat down, only accepts CASH.

Do you know how difficult it is to look cool while panicked at the same time? “Well, looks like we’ll be OK if we go easy on the wine”. When Karen ordered the Dover Sole a few more beads of perspiration formed on my brow. The funniest part was when the waiter asked if we wanted dessert and we responded loudly and in unison, “No Thank You”.

Once the bill arrived I was hesitant to flip it over, but managed a quiet sigh of relief when I saw the total. “Hey, we could have had dessert after all.” As we left the restaurant I noticed that there was an ATM in the Jewish Deli right next door which would have made dinner a little more relaxing, but then we’d have no story to tell.

Our trip to Little Italy the next day was more like “Where did Little Italy go?” About two blocks of Mulberry Street still claim a few Italian Restaurants and the rest has surrendered to China Town. There’s still a couple of T-Shirt shops and fortunately Ferrara’s Bakery, “America’s Oldest Pasticceria” is still very clean and very young.

As soon as we walked into Bravo Gianni we were warmly greeted by Gianni who proceeded to inform us that a very good friend had sent us a nice bottle of wine.

“What would you like?”

My answer was simple, “The most expensive wine you have.” It was not, but it was still very good and it went well with the table full of mixed antipasto. And followed by a special order of home made pasta with a delicious tomato and basil sauce and finally some of the best Dover sole this side of those white cliffs.

The next day we headed for Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas Spectacular. To call it spectacular would be the understatement of the year. Impossible to describe, the Rockettes rocked, the dancers danced and the stage full of Santas brought the season in full swing.

The show started with a video presentation which was viewed with 3D glasses that came with each program. For the next 10 minutes, Santa and his sleigh flew in and around the skyscrapers of Manhattan in full 3D, with each one of us feeling as if we were right behind him, as we tried to reach for the ornaments floating in space.

For the next hour and a half we were royally entertained by the dancers and singers, and as a finale, they did a spectacular nativity scene with live camels, donkeys and sheep as the Wise Men gathered around Mary, Joseph and the newly born baby Jesus.

With more rain came gridlock, and in New York, “Don’t Block the Box” does not exist, which is great for pedestrians. You never have to wait for the light to change — the traffic isn’t moving anyway.

The menu at Babbo’s is quite different, but the pig’s feet Milanese and bolito misto that I ordered was spectacular. The Nebbiolo went very well with our choices and gave us the courage to get on the subway after dinner and find our way back to our hotel. Best $4 per couple we’ve ever spent, and the people who helped us find the entrance to the subway and pick the correct train were as nice as can be.

Heading back to the hotel the following afternoon we saw that the taxi stand was all backed up, and as we waited our turn, a nice young man peddling a Rickshaw asked us if we wanted a ride. Sure, why not? And so we settled in, got covered up by a plastic sheet and off he went, pedaling up Madison Avenue, running red lights, cutting off cars, getting drenched. Within minutes, he got us back to the hotel just in time to snap a few photos of the two of us getting out from behind the plastic covering as the doorman wondered if he really wanted to acknowledge that we were guests of his hotel.

Finding a taxi to Tribeca Grill was easier than expected, and although our table was waiting for us, Robert Di Niro, who is a partner in the restaurant — was not there to greet us. Bummer! Our corner table was perfect as we joined in with the noisy crowd, all enjoying the good food and excellent service knowing that the end was near.

On the way to the airport we took a quick tour of Hoboken. What a treat and the best part is that the 20 minute Ferry ride to New York is free.

So now it’s back home as we prepare for the holidays with our family, thankful that we had the opportunity to visit New York during Christmas and see first hand that “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.”

December 2009

Civita di Bagnoregio

We woke up Tuesday morning to a monster thunderstorm, the kind where you see the lightning through tightly closed eyes. We had planned to visit Orvieto, so after breakfast, we headed out in the rain for another day of sightseeing. I had often heard Rick Steves on his Channel 9 travel show talk about Civita di Bagnoregio, and being so close to Orvieto, we decided to go there first.

The road from Todi to Orvieto is about 15 miles of twists and turns littered, interestingly enough, with shall we say, young women in their business attire showing more than their entrepreneurial spirit. Talk about curb service! After more curves and narrower roads we finally arrived at Bagnoregio, a nice old town, but what’s all the fuss about? Five more kilometers and we reached Civita di Bagnoregio, and what a surprise. Here was a sliver of a town sitting on top of an inverted sugar cone. Not even Disney could have thought this one up.

This town sits on top of a sheer cliff overlooking the valley below. It looked deserted from the bottom so we almost didn’t go up the narrow bridge that leads to the town itself. Half way up the bridge we stopped and reconsidered if we were brave enough to continue. It was like being on a narrow scaffold suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Neither one of us wanted to chicken out first, so we proceeded to the top of the steep, narrow, concrete ramp about two blocks long and reached the entrance to the town. It was so beautiful it was surreal. If God ever wanted a second home, this would be it.

Civita

We walked around and to our surprise found a small shop advertising bruschetta and local wine. Joining the two other people already there, we sat down at one of the four tables and watched as Antonio cooked the homemade bread on the fireplace embers. Karen and I shared bruschetta with cheese, tomatoes and beans and enjoyed a glass of his freshly made wine. We found out that there are 20 people who live in the town, mostly older people whose parents and grandparents had also lived there. A few other people came in, all Americans, and all had Rick Steve’s book in hand. Following warm handshakes and a bunch of photos we reluctantly left Antonio and his daughter, leaving them to take care of the few others in his shop as we continued to walk around town.

An older woman showed us the old horse-driven stone used to crush olives, which was still residing in the dark, damp cave build by the Etruscans in 300 BC. She told us that a major earthquake in 1695 wiped out five sections of the town, leaving only the one that remains today. After leaving the cave we noticed a small enclosure holding a well fed, good natured pig. Before leaving we said good-bye to the local porker knowing that soon he would be satisfying next year’s visitors with more of that delicious prosciutto cooked on those smoldering embers.

We gave up on Orvieto, having been there twice before and knowing that nothing could surpass Civita. Back to the Relais Todini which is also located on top of a hill overlooking the rolling hills of Umbria with Todi at its back. After more porcini accompanied with delicious local wine we headed back to our room needing to pack but knowing that we would rather look out into the darkness speckled with glittering lights, than deal with the mundane. We’ll enjoy our last night in Todi and deal with Lucca in the moring.

November 2009

The Madness of it All

The real horror of war came into full perspective as we approached the seaside village of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Yes, they now have improved facilities, shopping areas and air-conditioned buses, but the horrible memories of the not too distant past are still close at hand. We attended a lecture aboard the ship a few days ago and the speaker pointed out the endless atrocities that these poor people have endured. Millions were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge for no reason and buried in massive, unmarked graves. The most amazing part is that Pol Pot and most of his henchmen never saw the insides of a court house. Pol Pot died of a heart attack at the age of 71.

Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the area, and most likely will remain that way for years to come. As Americans, we tried to help by carpet bombing the landscape into oblivion, now we’re trying with tourist dollars. Neither one seems to have worked so far.

Because of the four hour bus ride to and from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we decided to settle for a 15 minute shuttle bus ride to Sihanoukville. The center of town is not like mid-town Manhattan, but more like a chaotic war zone.

Before the shuttle had a chance to park and open its door, we were inundated by a mass of humanity encircling the bus, pushing and shoving one another. Each person trying to grab our attention in order to sell us trinkets, food or rides on the endless Tuk-Tuk taxis that swarm around like locusts.cambodia boatman

We managed to push and shove our way to the market place across the street,and what happened next only reinforced our greatest fears. The block long metal building, had every stand imaginable, from garments, jewelry, food, fish and live chickens. All neatly arranged in total chaos with scooters running through, people cooking food, others cleaning fish and sadly, beggars all over the place. Young crippled children crawled on the dirt floors as others offered outstretched hands. The smell in the 85 degree heat was nauseating.

We were reluctant to enter in the first place and now all we wanted to do was to find the quickest way out. Karen got choked up and started to cry and I felt like a war correspondent and continued to film. Outside was not much better than inside. As we walked around the surrounding area we saw tables covered with raw fish drying in the sun, covered with flies, venders selling food that you would not give to a condemned man.

Fortunately for us a nice young man pulled up in his Tuk-Tuk and offered to take us for a ride to look at the surrounding beach areas. Reluctant at first we finally decided that anything had to be better than where we were. After negotiating a price for the half hour tour — the average worker earns $40.00 a month — we jumped in, one looking at the other and thinking “If our children ever did this we would never let them out of the house!”

After a lot of honking, and cutting in and out of traffic, we ended up at Serendipity Beach, a sandy area with chase lounges and anchored boats off shore. This was not Waikiki by any stretch of the imagination — -more venders but luckily no beggars. A very sweet young girl came up to Karen and in perfect English tried to sell her a bracelet. “Take the money but keep the bracelet.” It was such a good deal she brought her friend for the same transaction.cambodia taxi

The contrast between the market place and our suite was beyond the realm of comprehension. We will never, ever complain again. Why do so many people have to live in such filth and squalor? We are so spoiled or should I saw “blessed”.

Dinner that evening was at Prime C, the ship’s specialty steak house. My bone-in rib eye was perfectly matched with Michael Chiarello’s 2003 Napa Valley “Gianna” Zinfandel.

We did manage to get a good night’s sleep, considering the nightmare of a day. Today we’re being rewarded with a day at sea and tomorrow we visit Ho Chi Minh City ,formerly know as Saigon. From we’ve read it should be a pleasant experience and believe me we need one.

October 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

Returning to Venice is like meeting an old friend, arms outstretched, a great big hug, a slight brush on the cheek and a warm hello. Venice, where the pigeons outnumber the people and the people are the biggest pigeons of all and where our checkbook is sinking faster than those grand old buildings innocently resting on rotting piles.

Saturday, the 18th, was my birthday and we arose to a beautifully sunny, clear day. After meeting some very dear friends in front of St. Mark's we were picked up by private water taxi and spent the next 3 hours sightseeing along the lagoon, stopping off at Harry's latest cafe for Bellini and delicious pastries.

A brief stop at Burano gave the women a chance to look at some of that beautiful hand made lace and then to Torchello for the celebration. The Cipriani is still owned by the original family and the eight room hotel is a far cry from the luxurious resort of the same name across from St. Marks.

Between birthday cheers and greetings we were treated to baccala and polenta, prosciutto with figs, grilled fish, homemade pasta and local entrées all nicely paired with Bellini, local wines and finally a nice Prosecco to help extinguish the flames from all those birthday candles. Venice PHoto

After an unforgettable lunch, it was back to St.Marks again by private water taxi zipping along at full throttle with the salt spray in our faces as the boat crashed through the wakes of those less fortunate.

In making our dinner plans, we knew that any local restaurant would pale by comparison, so we opted for a picnic in our room. From past visits we knew of a great bread store, a delicatessen that has mortatella about 18 inches around and a wine shop that sells local wines in used plastic water bottles for about $3 a liter. How much fun can we have in one day?

Sunday morning Karen and I got up at 6 a.m., put on our cleanest dirty clothes and went for a long walk through St. Marks and beyond — no people, no pigeons, just empty churches with candles begging to be lit. We carried that glorious sunrise with us to breakfast, cleaned up and traded our rosary beads for a yarmulke and headed for the Jewish Ghetto. There are only 500 Jews left in Venice, 50 still live in the Ghetto. We took a tour, visiting three synagogues, and after a kosher lunch, the two of us headed back. Feeling like traitors we stopped off at Santa Maria della Salute and lit a couple of candles.Venice photo:canal boats

Monday we were disappointed by the early morning showers but then we had never seen Venice in the rain and it was a whole new world. Everyone slows down and it's a sea of umbrellas. The Italians look so slick carrying their umbrellas and we tourists look so dumb in our plastic slickers. The Guggenheim Museum was on our agenda for the morning and so it was for everyone else. It was so fascinating looking at all the beautiful artwork on the inside while admiring the beauty of the Grand Canal on the outside. After a leisurely lunch it was off to visit the cemetery island.

We had always seen the cemetery from afar but had never taken the time to visit it. We were the only ones there and quietly got drenched as we were mesmerized by the fine marble work dating back hundreds of years. No ghosts, no pigeons, just the two of us.
Looking like Mary Poppins, we finally surrendered to our inverted umbrellas and boarded the next vaporetto for St. Marks. After a hot shower and blow-drying our shoes, we were primed for our last night in Venice. Venice: St. Marks Square

We got cleaned up for dinner only to get to our restaurant totally drenched — all the more reason for a nice hearty bottle of wine to dry us off. It rained just as hard on the way back as we were treated to an old Venetian custom: We had always seen the wooden planks and metal sawhorses stored along the sides of buildings before, but had never had the thrill of "walking the plank.” The elevated walkways are not that wide and the one with the biggest umbrella wins. The best part was watching the young kids wading through St. Mark's, ankle deep in water. We settled for a grappa instead.

Tuesday morning we were awakened by the sound of gondoliers singing to their enchanted visitors, most never having seen a gondola short of a weekend trip to Las Vegas. For us it was our last day in Venice before heading for Florence. Certainly sad to leave but never forgetting the indescribable beauty of this magical place. What a wonderful birthday present.

September 2009


There’s A First Time For Everything

If it takes a State House full of crooked politicians and a bunch of home grown gangsters to run a city then San Francisco should take notice and follow suit. It works great in Chicago and as I’ve said many times before Chicago is a beautiful city, clean, well maintained and full of very nice people and where pedestrians always have the right of way. Homelessness does not exist and graffiti is not to be seen. We’re here for a short stay, just long enough for Karen to spend the day with our granddaughter Katie at the American Girl Place. A 10th birthday present that fit in very well with Spring Break.

Our early Monday morning flight was very normal except for the fact that our United 767 must have just come from the factory and unwrapped just before whisking us off. It still had that new car smell and what a surprise as we sat down in our Business Class seats to find out that we were going to ride backwards! A little unnerving at first and a bit strange as we rolled down the runway seeing what we were leaving rather than where we were headed and landing was just as strange. It seems that the layout had every other pair of seats facing backwards. I remember the old San Francisco streetcars that had movable backrests that could be moved back and forth depending on the direction of travel but these were beautiful Recaro seats that made up into full size beds. Considering the smoothness of the flight and the excellent service it was well worth the experience. At least we now have something new to talk about at the next cocktail party. Trump Towers Hotel

We chose to stay at the Drake Hotel, having stayed here a few times before and because of its stellar location right on Michigan Avenue and directly across from the lake. The Miracle Mile is still miraculous and the spring clothes decorating the windows are in full bloom regardless of the near freezing temperatures outside. Still too early for the beautiful flowers in sidewalk planters to be in full regalia but the parks are clean and perfectly manicured.

Chicago is synonymous with good food and our first night was no exception. With many relatives in the food business Karen and I started out with the Erie Café where my cousin EJ greeted us, entertained us and feed us until we raised our hands in surrender. EJ has a restaurant of his own in Skokie, appropriately called EJ’s Place. What a pleasant surprise when he answered the phone at the Erie Cafe and told me he was filling in for his brothers for a couple of nights. Perfect timing for us and a truly enjoyable evening.

Tuesday night we were hosted to an old fashioned Italian dinner at my cousin Ray’s house where his wife Nancy started us out with home made ravioli followed by roast hens, cutlets, fresh spinach and an amazing dessert. North Beach does not even come close. On the way out we made a side trip to visit President Obama’s house but the area is totally barricaded for blocks and is now the Fort Knox of the neighborhood. Great duty for a bunch of Chicago’s finest.

But man can not live on bread alone so Wednesday we took a 2 hour Architectural River Cruise along the Chicago River while we listened to our guide describe every style of architecture, which architect did what, which building was the tallest until the next one came along and finally showed us the site of the new Chicago Spire skyscraper which when completed will tower over 2,000 feet. I wonder how Donald Trump will feel when his new hotel and condo project will no longer be the 2nd tallest in this marvelous city.

The next treat for us was watching Michael and Laura’s 2 beautiful children as Michael and Laura went out on the town celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary. The concierge had recommended Carmine’s, just a few short blocks down from the hotel. “Carmine’s” sounds so New York, so Little Italy, and so Mafioso! Actually it was great! Good food, excellent service and a waiter that had 2 small children of his own and treated Katie and Andrew like they were family.

Chicago is well known for all its museums, aquarium, planetarium and city parks. Having seen most of them in the past we chose to visit Trump’s new International Hotel and Tower located just off Michigan Avenue and bordering on the Chicago River. After seeing a couple of the rooms and spa I had to tip my cap to Mr. Trump—it is spectacular. The hotel has been open for a year and unfortunately we found out too late but it’s definitely our choice for our next visit. Although we were not guests at the hotel we were welcomed to use the spa facilities so first thing this morning (Friday) Karen and I took advantage of the ultramodern facilities and cursed the fact that our one hour massage went by much too quickly.

The short mile back to our hotel was refreshing if you can call freezing weather and artic winds fun. So cold but so much fun working up an appetite and so for our finale we crossed the street from our hotel to Bloomindales where on the 5th floor there is a great little food court with a restaurant called Frankie’s Scaloppini. The risotto with shrimp and vegetables would rival any you would find in Italy and Karen’s pizza was delicious. I should add that Chicago is also well known for its food as we found out again last night while having dinner at Gene and Giorgetti’s. “Gene,” like my uncle Gene, who was my mother’s brother, and while the restaurant is now run by other members of the family it is still one of the best steak houses in Chicago. The bowser bag barely fit in the taxi.

So now we start to pack and get ready for our very early morning flight back to Burlingame that gets us home in time for an early lunch but not before we get together with 14 of the cousins tonight for a Good Friday dinner celebration. Its been a short but wonderful trip and I really don’t care which way we face heading home—I only hope that those beautiful seats do make up into a bed, I’m looking forward to a long winter’s nap heading west.

Sergio Nibbi came to San Francisco in 1940, where the business he and brother Larry operate maintains its headquarters. Contact: sergio@nibbi.com

July/August 2009