Attenzione! Silenzio!


The Vatican Museum was mobbed, and I don’t mean just crowded, I mean Extreme Tourism in the number of other human beings moving through room after room of frescoed walls and ceilings and gilded moldings and marbled walls.  As David and I by-passed the thousands (it seemed like that many) of people waiting in line to get in to the museum, having bought tickets ahead of time online (a must for many of the museums we visited in Europe), we were thankful we at least didn’t have to wait.

But being inside, with all those thousands who had already gotten through the line, felt suffocating.  The crowd was so thick it was almost impossible to do anything but move from room to room with the mass, streaming along and then backing up and getting stuck at narrow doorways.  The museum map was the worst I’ve ever seen, so it was difficult to know where you were or how you might exit the mess.


But we wanted to see the Sistene Chapel and the rooms of Raphael frescoes, so we kept moving.  The art was extraordinary, and we especially enjoyed the room of geography, mapping ancient Rome, as we could see the cities we’d visited in Provence.  And the Raphaels and Sistine Chapel were as terrific as we expected.

Except, because the Sistine Chapel is supposedly a sacred space, as determined by the Catholic Church, every five minutes or so, as the hum of thousands of people crammed into a small space would start to rise, a stern male voice would announce, “Attenzione!  Silenzio!”

Really?  The Catholic Church is letting this many people into a “sacred space,” and then expecting them not to be human?  To be totally silent?  For all the reasons I’m sure you can imagine yourself, I found it difficult to be told to be silent by the Vatican, after touring the on some level obscene riches of the Vatican.  Who was silenced to build the wealth of this church? How can they honestly reconcile inviting this many people into a chapel and then expect them not to make any noise?  How much money is the church making off this museum?


On a positive note, the Borghese Galleria was outstanding.  Again, it’s a museum showcasing the riches of the privileged, in this case the Borghese family, which extended its wealth in part because a member of the family became a Pope.  The smaller scope of the museum made it easier to take in, and aren’t all museums, to some degree, showcasing what the rich have collected?  Our advance purchase tickets gave us two hours, strictly timed, in the museum, so there were never too many people.  The Bernini sculptures were astounding, and the frescoes and decorated rooms and Caravaggio paintings were well worth a visit.


And afterwards you can walk in the Borghese Gardens, a wonderful green space in Rome. Tomorrow I’ll be walking in my own garden, not an unwelcome thought.


Umbrian Gardens

Garden in Panicale

Enough of Tuscany?  There’s always Umbria, where I went almost every day last week.  I’ve been continuing my marathon training on this trip (marathon training while traveling in Europe is certainly interesting), and had two 4 mile runs, an 8 and a 12 to do last week. Cetona is on the border between Tuscany and Umbria and running across the valley from the farmhouse where we were staying to Umbria was my best option for a flat route.   I’d walk down the steep, gravel road from the farm, then follow Via del Gore across the flat farm land of grape vines, corn and sunflowers until it ran into the bottom of the Umbrian hills we could see in the distance from the garden of the farmhouse.

Roof Top Garden, Overlooking Umbria

On Friday David and I decided to explore a bit more of Umbria, especially the town we could clearly see as a long smudge of reddish buildings on the ridge directly across the valley from us — Citta della Pieve.  A lovely town of old brick buildings, winding streets and cafes that had at least as many locals as tourists, we found it delightful.  We’d visited some of the more popular Tuscan cities earlier in the week — Montepulciano, Pienza, Sienna — and found plenty to enjoy, but also bus loads of tourists.

As we walked around Citta della Pieve, I looked for gardens created in the stone streets and around the brick buildings.

Garden on a corner in Citta della Prieve

We drove on to Panicale, and again I took note of the many gardens created from potted plants or in tiny pockets of green between or on top of buildings.  I’d been enjoying potted gardens all week as we walked through many ancient hilltop villages, such a contrast from the large gardens and sprawling yard and pastures of the farmhouse where we were staying.

Vertical Wall Garden

The most stunning gardens I saw were at the Monastery de San Francesco, a few kilometers up in the hills behind us at the farmhouse.  Now a rehabilitation center for young men with substance abuse problems, the church and former monastery is beautifully landscaped with cypress trees and hedges of rosemary, flowering pots of plants strung along the side of the road, and large vegetable gardens terraced on the hillside below.  We were given an enthusiastic tour of the church with frescoes that date from the 1400’s by a young Spanish man.  I marveled at it all, especially the peaceful and beautifully created landscape.

Exterior of Monastery de San Francesco

Of all the cities and towns we explored during our week in Tuscany, we didn’t find any place we liked better than Cetona.  It’s charming, authentic, surrounded by a beautiful countryside, and, for me, has some good flat running routes outside of town.


Now we’re in Rome, the hills and gardens of Tuscany and Umbria behind us as we immerse ourselves in three days of frenetic antiquity before heading home on Thursday.



Lunch On Italian Time

Restored Ceiling of a Chapel in Sienna Duomo

On Wednesday Alison and John, the hosts of this farmhouse gathering in Cetona, treated everyone (13 of us at that point) to a celebratory lunch at a restaurant on the Piazza Garibaldi in Cetona.  I’d gone to the restaurant with Alison on Monday morning so she could meet with the chef and plan the menu — we’re celebrating many birthdays, both recent and current, while here, and Wednesday’s lunch was one of very many celebratory eating events.

“We’re here to talk with Nilo about Wednesday’s lunch,” Alison said when we arrived at the restaurant.

“He’ll be back in a few minutes,” the waiter who speaks English told us.

“How many minutes,” I asked, wanting to know if we should come back later, if we should do some shopping, if we should just wait there.  “Five minutes, fifteen, an hour?”

The waiter smiled.  “Italian minutes.  How many?” he shrugged and gestured to the tables outside on the piazza.  “Take your coffee.  He will be here.”

So Alison and I sat with cups of cappuccino and soon John joined us, having walked in to town.  He had an espresso.  Before too long Nilo arrived and we began talking about the menu for lunch, with the waiter serving as translator.  We talked about four courses, antipasto, primo, secondo and dolce (appetizer, first course, main course and dessert), but decided that would be too much food and asked for only the antipasto, primo — which consisted of two pasta dishes we assumed would be split and served together as one — and dolce.  By that point, however, the translator was waiting on other customers, and I suspected Nilo thought we were still having the rabbit and chicken as a secondo.  But I decided not to say anything.  This was Alison and John’s party to plan, we’re all in Italy to relax and eat, why worry about it?

At lunch on Wednesday when the primo came out as two separate dishes — ravioli with tomato sauce and then pici with duck sauce — my suspicion of misunderstandings with Nilo about the menu got firmer.  By then every one was in a jolly mood, as new bottles of wine kept appearing on the table and the pace of service gave us plenty of time to talk about everyone’s various adventures in Tuscany so far and the delicious food being placed in front of us.  After the waiters cleared the pici dishes, Alison announced that next we would be having the apple cake with gelato.  Except the waiters gave everyone forks and knives again.

“I think we’re getting meat,” I said, and sure enough, plates with chicken, rabbit, potatoes and small spinach souffles were set in front of everyone.  Everyone who by then was more than full. We’d already been at the table eating and drinking and talking for hours — Italian hours. Now everyone was laughing.

So we did what we had to do.  We ate some more.  The waiters kindly gave us containers to take home leftovers, along with the apple cake.  But somehow we all found room to eat our gelato at the restaurant.

We finished those leftovers last night.  Good thing there’s a cook coming to the farmhouse tonight to create another delicious meal, and a new round of leftovers.

Here are some photos of what I’ve been doing besides eating.

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In A Garden In Tuscany


As if eight days in Provence wasn’t enough, now we’re at a farmhouse outside of Cetona, a hilltop village in southeastern Tuscany.  There are nine of us here this afternoon with another coming this evening and four more coming tomorrow.  Above is the table under a grape arbor in the garden where the action has been centered — lunch, French wine we brought with us from Provence vs. the Italian wine made here on this farm, snacks, seeing how many devices we can get on the internet at once with the extended wifi router from the house where the owners live and two pocket routers on the table.  Everyone seems mighty happy so far.

Entrance to Upper Ruins of Marquis de Sade Chateau
Entrance to Upper Ruins of Marquis de Sade Chateau

The rest of our week in Provence was as wonderful as the beginning.  We continued to embrace the concept of slow travel, and walked to Lacoste on Thursday (and toured the old chateau of the Marquis de Sade, now owned by Pierre Cardin), rather than do the usual tourist tour by driving from one adorable hilltop village to the next.  Finding a good walking route through the peach orchards and vineyards between our rental in Bonnieux and Lacoste wasn’t as easy as we’d thought it would be, but lucky for us we met Frank, a friendly British man who visits his friends in Provence as often as possible.  His favorite thing to do is walk.  We ran in to him going the wrong way on a small road, and he showed us the path up to Lacoste.  He also told us about the Gorges de la Veroncle, another beautiful canyon.  We walked up the canyon on Friday, past caves and ancient mills.

Cave in Gorges de la Veroncle
Cave in Gorges de la Veroncle
Gorges de la Veroncle
Gorges de la Veroncle
Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque
Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque
Interior of Abbaye

We did visit some tourist spots, including the gorgeous Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque, a Cistercian monastery since 1148, and the restaurant made famous by Peter Mayles in his book A Year in Provence, Auberge de la Loube. It was a delightful meal and I can see why someone would want to spend a year in Provence.


Now I get to see how Tuscany stacks up against all the other places I’ve visited on this trip where I could imagine spending a lot more time.


France Sent Magnifique!


Above the Clouds on Mont Ventoux
Above the Clouds on Mont Ventoux

English translation = France smells magnificent.

As soon as I walked into Anny’s yard in Lisores three weeks ago, I noticed the fragrance.  I couldn’t place the smell.  No wonder, I don’t live in France.  Anny’s gardens and house smelled enticing and exotic, smoky and salty and earthy, almost marine which made no sense, being more than 100 kilometers from the coast.  Was it the stream gurgling through a lavoir on her property (a public place in France set aside for washing clothes — I’ve seen many in villages since being at Anny’s house), the vegetation, the gardens, France itself?

The delicious smells of France have followed me to Provence.  Never having been here, but having seen many photographs of the hilltop villages in the Luberon area of Provence, I expected a French version of Tuscany.  It’s more like an Arizona version — high, dry hills and mountains and canyons and the smell of sun-baked cedars and scrub oaks and lavender. Lovely.

Domaine de Coyeux Winery in the Dentelles de Montmirail
Domaine de Coyeux Winery in the Dentelles de Montmirail

We spent Monday doing a Cotes du Rhone wine tour, circling the Dentelles de Montmirail, a small but magnificently scenic range of mountains south of Vaison la Romaine.  Many of the vineyards we visited were tucked up against the slopes of the Dentelles, terraced lines of grape vines as high on the slope as possible until sheer rock faces made any further agricultural encroachment impossible.  We have a plan (drinking and packing with bubble wrap and clothes) to get all the wine that ended up in the trunk of our rental car to Tuscany (we have a flight from Marseilles to Rome on Saturday), and if there’s any left, back to the U.S.

Summit of Mont Ventoux
Summit of Mont Ventoux

Yesterday we left Vaison la Romaine and drove south to Bonnieux, by way of Mont Ventoux, a 6,200 foot mountain that dominates the landscape of Provence, much higher than any of the surrounding mountains.  The summit is all white limestone, giving it a unique color on the typically green horizon.  We saw as many bikers climbing and descending the road over the mountain as cars.  In fact, the summit parking area was closed because a Netherlands film company was shooting a film about biking on Mont Ventoux.  The star (or the man at the center of the cameras’ foci) looked in his 60’s, which was consistent with the bikers we saw chugging up and zipping down the road.  This is not a trip only for the super-fit — there were many older men with substantial bellies popping out of their biking shirts.

Gorges de la Nesque
Gorges de la Nesque

The biggest surprise was the Gorges de la Nesque, a spectacular canyon south of Mont Ventoux, where the River Nesque has cut through the calcareous rock of the Vaucluse plateau.  Today we found another canyon driving over to nearby Buoux to check on a restaurant and a hiking destination for later in the week.  This afternoon we walked through the ridge-top Foret de Cedres (towering cedars planted by a forester in 1860 for lumber), the town forest of Bonnieux, with striking views to the south.  We could see the Mediterrean coast in the distance, and perhaps Italy, waving to Alison and John who we’ll be joining next week in Tuscany.

Foret des Cedres

And I kept sniffing the air, relishing the odors of a hot, dry and astounding world.

Vineyards and Mountains
Vineyards and Mountains

Living in Provence (For A Week Anyway)

View From Upper Terrace
View From Upper Terrace

In the past when I’ve visited old stone cities in Europe, perched on hilltops, I’ve always imagined what it would be like to live in such ancient buildings, walking every day on streets paved with rocks or bricks, opening unscreened windows to the air with other houses tight up against my own walls.

View From Our Window
View From Our Window

Now I know what it’s like, at least for a few days. David and I are staying in Vaison la Romaine, a small bustling city with a “new town” and an “old town,” both being very old by American standards. First settled in the 2nd century BC, Vaison la Romaine has a history of townspeople moving back and forth from the lower city on the north side of the Ouveze River to the upper side on the south, depending on what war was going on and who needed protection from whom. We’re staying in the medieval upper (as in further up the hill) city where the Count of Toulouse built a castle on a rock above the upper town in the 12th century.

Behind the Gate
Behind the Gate 

The lower town has impressive Roman Ruins, an outstanding Provencal Romanesque style Cathedral and Cloisters and streets busy with cafes and shops. The upper town is a maze of stone buildings (many built with stones from the Roman ruins during a particularly large exodus from the lower city to the upper) and streets with alleys and walkways circling in and out of squares centered around fountains.

Roman Ruins and Ancient Pot
Roman Ruins and Ancient Pot 

We arrived late on Friday night after a long day of train travel and negotiating our rental car out of traffic in Lyon to head south for Provence. The friendly owners of the AirBnB where we’re staying had made us a reservation at Le Bistrot du’O and we ate our delicious dinner (what dinner on this trip hasn’t been delicious?) and fell into bed. Our small flat is a long room with one window on the front facing out on Rue de Fours, the bedroom behind curtains at the back. It’s like sleeping in a cave, which suits me fine. But the owners have made it clear that their three level terrace off the back of their apartment upstairs is ours to use as we wish, and we’ve spent hours under the grape arbor, having lunch, reading, and drinking Cotes du Rhone wines that are impossibly inexpensive here.

Lunch Under the Arbor
Lunch Under the Arbor

Yes, we’re enjoying Provence immensely, spending a few days living in a medieval city, which is as delightful as I’d always imagined it would be.

Welcome to Provence
Welcome to Provence
Through the Ancient Gate
Through the Ancient Gate
Old and New
Old and New
Cathedral From Cloisters
Cathedral From Cloisters

The Waldhaus Balance


Our trip to the Swiss Alps was inspired by my sister Jeanne and her husband John. They’ve been coming here for over 10 years to hike, most years staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in the Engadin Valley.  An independently owned hotel, it’s been operated by the same family for five generations.  It’s comfortable and gracious, without being too luxurious (though it is an incredible luxury to be able to stay here) and the stellar location is matched by the bountiful and delicious food.  We’re so happy we finally got here to spend time with Jeanne and John and understand why it’s a place they come back to again and again.

But there needs to be a balance when staying in a hotel with an enormous breakfast buffet (including plenty of food to take back to your room and pack for your hiking lunch) and a five course dinner every night.  That balance for us is hiking — working off some of the excess eating while relishing the grandeur of the Alps.


Today’s hike was to an alpine lake, a direct 2,000 foot climb up from Maloja to Lunghinsee, then a long walk back along the descending ridge to the Waldhaus.  Much of today’s hike looked like England, with open slopes colored by heather and other wildflowers.  I enjoyed asking the hiking guide Cecile and Uda, a woman from Germany, what the German names were for the many flowers I recognized.

The valley where the movie Heidi was filmed.

So hopefully today’s walk helped worked off some of what I ate for dinner, all delicious.

Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Iberico ham with preserved fig and crisp bread
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Fillet of pike perch with chervil crust, vegetable creams and kohlrabi
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum
Poppy seed parfait and berry compote with rum


I Walked to Italy Today



The sun is setting behind the western wall of mountains in the Engadin Valley, making silver patches on the Silsersee lake, one of four lakes that stretch out along the Inn River as it flows through this area of the Swiss Alps.  Yesterday we hiked up the eastern ridge along the shoulder of Mt. Bernina, the highest peak in this area, getting wonderful views of the Bernina Glacier.  The first 2,000 feet of the trip was in a funicular (a cable tram that goes up steep inclines), then we climbed another 1200 feet and hiked across the open mountains at an elevation of 7,500 feet.  We passed the Segantini hut (a hut used by the Italian landscape painter Segantini) with a cafe terrace serving hot and cold drinks and food.  A chairlift carried us back down after 8 miles of hiking, a fantastically fun way to end a glorious hike.

Segantini Hut

Today we headed south into the Bregaglia Vally, traveling through the town of Maloja at the top of the Engadin, where the elevation drops 2,000 feet.  The buses that shuttle hikers up and down the valleys deftly handle the long series of hairpin turns (and I mean truly hairpin) of the road.  The bus rides into and out of the Bregaglia, like the funicular and chair lift yesterday, were a great way to book end another incredible hike, that included walking through several villages hugging the sides of the narrower Bregaglia Valley, like Soglio, brimming with the charm of old stone houses and narrow cobbled walkways.  In Castasegna, on the Italian border, we walked into Italy and had espresso at a small cafe, enormous mountains surrounding us.

Another View of Bernina
Hiking in Bergaglia
Soglio Flowers
Today’s Hiking Crew

It’s a good thing we’re hiking so much, given how much rich and delicious food we’re eating staying at the Waldhaus Sils, a grand and historic hotel in Sils Marie.  But that’s another whole post, so stay tuned.

View of Bregaglia Valley


Art is Therapy II


Below is what Alain de Botton and John Armstrong had to say, or thought we might learn, from Johannes Vermeer’s painting, The Little Street (1657-16580).  The last paragraph, about the values of the Netherlands, is very true to the modest accommodations to foster happiness that we experienced from the friendly and reasonable people we met in Amsterdam.

I had a small plastic bottle of water in my purse when David and I went in to the Van Gogh museum.  As I went through the security check, the woman checking bags saw my bottle of water.  “You can’t drink that in the museum,” she said.  “Okay,” I replied, happy that she did’t make me get rid of it.  “Well,” she went on, “you can drink it on the stairways, just don’t drink it near the paintings.”  Then when David and I got on the tram to catch our train at the Central Station on Sunday morning, the man collecting fares waved David’s money away.  “It’s only two stops,” he said.

On this wall, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.

This is bad news. The extreme frame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response – and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This painting is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes – and doing these things faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty.

This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. The picture asks you to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to your life.

If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values, it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world’s understanding of happiness – and its message doesn’t just belong in the gallery.


Art is Therapy


David and I had tickets for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and every intention of spending Saturday afternoon exploring its significant collection, particularly of art from the Netherlands.  But it was an unpredictable day, and we ended up not getting to the museum until 4:30, just before it’s 5:00 closing time.  We quickly made our way upstairs so David could see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.  As we went through the main gallery, I noticed posted signs on the walls.

IMG_2656The signs are part of an Art is Therapy exhibit at the museum.  From 25 April, British writers and philosophers Alain de Botton & John Armstrong will be showing in the Rijksmuseum what art can mean to visitors. And not so much from an (art-)historical point of view, but focusing rather on the therapeutic effect that art can have and the big questions in life that art can answer.

Here is what they had to say about the painting above, by Pieter Saenredam, Interior of the Church of St. Odulphus, Assendelft, painted in 1649.

The architects of the building depicted here, and the artist himself, were convinced about a challenging idea: if you want to get close to the important things, you will need a lot of calm, of whiteness, of emptiness, of peace. Serenity, concentration and order aren’t luxuries, they aren’t a superficial concern for a particular style of interior decoration; they are preconditions for a thoughtful, balanced life. The picture sends a slightly stern, but welcome message: you have to flight off distraction, it can ruin your life; you have to prioritize ruthlessly; entertainment is the enemy; simplify, get rid of what you don’t really need, don’t check your email all the time; focus is an achievement. Saenredam didn’t just paint a church, he painted an attitude to life.

A stern but welcome message indeed.