2018 Excursion to Spain

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Randy and I had several goals in mind for this trip. Having made such a great connection while traveling together (with three other friends) on a 2017 trip to Italy, we wanted to celebrate that experience with a sort of “anniversary trip” for just the two of us.

I was ready to re-visit England, but Randy, for his next overseas vacation, was  interested in seeing some of the Moorish cities in Spain, as well as a Neolithic site he’d read about that’s located in the south-central part of the country  Neither of us had been to Barcelona and we both particularly wanted to see it. Plus I had long wanted to visit Peg and Gary, who’ve wintered in Valencia for the past six years, not only because it had been a few years since we’d last visited, but also to discover why they had picked Valencia over all the other places they might have chosen to live when they’re not traveling elsewhere in Europe (where they’ve lived for several decades). Since Valencia isn’t too terribly far from either Barcelona or from Seville, Cordoba, Granada, etc., we decided on a three-week trip to Spain in October.

We divided our trip into three main components: a full week in Barcelona, a total of about a week in Valencia, and a road-trip in a rental car to some Moorish cities southwest of Valencia. Granada (where they keep the Alhambra) was on our original itinerary, but we changed our plans to see it when we learned (while in Valencia) that we’d not be able to book advance admission to the Alhambra until after Christmas.

One of the distinctive and surprising features of this trip for me was the way each destination turned out to be more interesting than the also-interesting place we’d just been.  Barcelona was suitably impressive – especially the Gaudi sites that we focused our time and money touring – but when we arrived in Valencia, I was immediately relieved to be in a smaller city. Ditto Seville and Cordoba.

That said, I am so glad I finally made it to Barcelona. Being there with Randy was a special treat, as it was fun not only to be traveling again with him but because Randy appreciates architecture and design as enthusiastically as I do myself.

Despite my long-time admiration of All Things Art Nouveau, I had somehow managed to spend 70 years with almost zero knowledge of the works of Antoni Gaudi. What a genius! I’d not encountered before anything remotely similar to his work, and am puzzled at why Gaudi has had so few imitators/successors. Each of the half-dozen or so Gaudi-designed buildings we visited was a revelation – and well worth the sometimes steep admission prices.

If you’ve not been to Barcelona, check out the Internet’s excellent exterior and interior photos of the Gaudi structures we toured. (Note: You may need to scroll down a bit to see the images at each of these links, and at the links to photos inserted elsewhere in this blogpost, but it’s worth the trouble!)

A few of the photos Randy took of some of these amazing buildings designed by Gaudi:

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I now understand why so many architecture fans rave about Barcelona. Not only is it where most of Gaudi’s buildings are located, but other Art Nouveau marvels are there as well. That includes the Music Palace that we toured:

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But my favorite non-Gaudi Art Nouveau extravaganza was the recently-restored St. Paul Hospital, a huge complex of amazing structures that took the better part of a day to tour.

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Of course, Barcelona is full of wonderful architecture in other styles and from other eras as well:

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While staying in Barcelona, we booked a day trip to Figueres, the birthplace of Salvadore Dali and where he renovated an old theater to house a museum for his work (and where he is buried). Both the inside and the outside of this building is appropriately bizarre, and it was gratifying to see more of Dali’s art after earlier this year having seen what’s on offer at the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Our guided bus trip to Dali-Land also featured a stop in the only other small town in Spain we got to walk around in, the charming and ancient town of Girona.

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After enjoying a walk through the medieval part of the town…

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…our favorite discovery there was the excellent museum of cinema located there (better, I thought, than a similar museum I’ve seen in Paris).

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After our stimulating and somewhat exhausting week of sightseeing in Barcelona, we took a train along the coast to Valencia where Peg and Gary have been spending each winter for the past six years.

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I quickly came to understand why Peg and Gary prefer to live in Valencia – at least in the winter – rather than, say, in Barcelona or Madrid. Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia’s got all the charm of Barcelona without Barcelona’s (or Madrid’s) bustle, traffic, and sprawl; it has fewer tourists, and, like Barcelona, is located on the country’s Mediterranean coast, so the winter weather is mild and dry most of the time. Like Barcelona, the food markets, the parks, the pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and the cultural activities on offer are exceptional. 

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And although Valencia features zero Gaudi buildings, it’s got plenty of Calatrava architecture to marvel at:

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After re-energizing at Peg’s and Gary’s spacious, comfortable, and conveniently-located rented apartment in Valencia and after Peg and Gary showed us their town, we rented a car and headed further south along the coast in search of presumably quaint fishing villages. Discovering to our chagrin that the coastal towns we’d read about or seen videos of are actually decidedly non-scenic, highrise-infested resort towns, we promptly then headed west.

We devoted approximately half of our week-long road trip to sightseeing in Seville and Cordoba (two days and two nights in each of these towns). Just as Valencia seemed like a scaled-down version of Barcelona, Seville seemed like a smaller version of Valencia, with Cordoba feeling slightly smaller than either of those three metropolises.

As interesting as Seville and Cordoba turned out to be, we found the most congenial and easy to navigate destination was the smallest town we visited, a place I’d never heard of before called Antiquera.

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Antiquera was also the site of the Neolithic structures (temples, probably) that Randy wanted to check out:

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Spain is approximately the size as Texas, and the distances we traveled between the towns we visited were considerable. Although we certainly managed to see a lot in three weeks time – and did a lot of walking in each town we spent time in, I don’t think we tried to cover too much ground during our three-week vacation.

True, we’d hoped to find more visit-worthy hilltop villages than we managed to find along our route through south-central Spain. In retrospect, it would’ve made more sense – or at least have been cheaper – if we’d used trains instead of renting a car to get to the cities we spent the majority of our time in. On the other hand, if we’d done that, we’d’ve missed two unscheduled scenic drives that ended up being some of the most spectacular hours of our trip.

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In any case, wandering around the steep, narrow, winding streets of Antiquera reminded me of how – is it an age-related thing??? – I am coming to prefer smaller European towns (especially their medieval town centers) over the admittedly more jam-packed-with-touristy-sites national or regional capitals. The bigger places are more difficult to easily navigate (especially on foot!) and there’s always more to see than one could possibly get to unless one lives there.

After our two nights in Antiquera, we headed for Seville, where we also stayed two days and nights. When we finally located our difficult-to-find hotel, we were astounded to discover yet another Calatrava mega-sculpture looming over the hotel’s parking lot: 

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Seville reminded us both of a calmer version of Valencia, and it features a river flowing through the middle of its oldest sections instead of a 15-mile-long linear park that cuts through the middle of Valencia (which replaced a river the Valencians re-routed to prevent the river’s next catastrophic flooding).

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On one of the rare nights in Spain when we were out and about instead of collapsing in a hotel room after a long day of sightseeing and/or driving, we had dinner at a restaurant on the river just as the full moon was rising over the city:

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After puttering around Seville, we headed to Cordoba for two days and nights there. Seeing the restored remains of its Moorish-era mosque was our principal reason for going there, and we were not disappointed. The interior of this huge building is one of the most serene spaces we found ourselves in during the trip. 

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In addition to the Gothic cathedral that the city’s Christians built right in the middle of the mosque after defeating the Moors who had occupied this part of Spain for centuries,

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…the mosque complex also sports a minaret that Randy decided to climb while Cal took a nap along the edge of a fountain in the main courtyard of the mosque. 

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Another highlight of our Cordoba visit were the dozens of courtyards we toured:

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We were also impressed by the bridge across the river in Cordoba (the same river that flows through Seville). The bridge (now used only by pedestrians) was built during the time of Julius Caesar:

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After Cordoba, we returned our rental car to Valencia and spent a couple more days visiting with Peg: Gary had left the city for Amsterdam, to put the boat he and Peg recently bought into storage for the winter; they’ll move into it next spring.

On our next-to-final evening in Valencia, Randy and I traveled to the edge of the city, near the beach area that Peg and Gary had taken us to when we’d been in Valencia the week before. Our destination: a circus Randy had seen an advertisement for.

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The circus was billed as “Apocolypsis: The Circus of Horrors,” and turned out to be a sort of Goth version of Cirque du Soleil. 

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The circus performers (including many of them doing their stunts on roaring motorcycles) all had tattoos, wore elaborate (often elaborately tattered) costumes. Most of the males – and not a few of the females – wielded ropes, whips, and/or chains as part of their performances. There was a delightfully prolonged punk-style Flamenco standoff. Everything was accompanied by loud and relentless electronic music, with frequent intervals of Mohawk-sporting “clowns” yelling at and kibbitzing with the audience (all the ranting, alas, in Spanish). The spectacle was enhanced with impressive lighting effects and stupefying visual projections. It was a circus all right!

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Here’s a selfe of us waiting for the show to start, with Cal definitely uneasy about what’s likely to unfold:

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A very, um, different kind of cultural event (at least for Calvin – Randy’s a longtime fan of all sorts of circus things). It turned out to be definitely worth its 30-Euro ticket price.

What else to mention about our recent adventures in Spain?

Well, besides all the sightseeing we did – and we did do a lot of walking: on some of our excursions, Randy’s pedometer reported that we’d walked seven miles; on another day, nine! –  we also enjoyed a lot of terrific meals.

Having failed on my previous trip to Spain (back in 1983) to figure out how the tapas tradition worked, I was determined to master that this time around, and we had some wonderful tapas lunches and dinners. Eating two tapas meals a day for most of three weeks is a lotta tapas! Randy’s snapshots of a sampling of those delicious meals:

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In addition to the gustatory delights, we happened upon many visual ones that were not on our list of destinations. All of the cities we visited featured multiple murals and street art and graffiti was ubiquitous, some of it very arresting:

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Of course, we toured or peeked inside many an ancient church as we tramped through the cities we visited. Very few of these sanctuaries, however – despite their extravagant (and often Baroque) use of gold leaf and the astounding paintings on their walls and ceiling vaults – were as interesting as the Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Cordoba’s mosque turned out to be.

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As with most European cities, the storefronts and inventive window displays in the Spanish cities we visited offered plenty of free eye candy. Among its other delights, Barcelona is home to what I now consider to be the best paper goods stores I’ve ever drooled over! (One of them was five stories tall.)

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Finally, another memorable thing about this trip was the amazing tile work we saw everywhere we went. I eventually just stopped taking photos, there were so many photo-worthy tile displays. But when it came to my deciding what sorts of souvenirs I wanted to bring home, the things I bought usually ended up being tiles or images of tiles on magnets, coasters, etc. If you’re a fan of tile work, Spain should definitely be part of your travel bucket list!

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If it seems like we crammed a lot into our three-week vacation, it’s because we did! And even though I did a lot better than I have in the past with pacing myself and not burdening my traveling companion by overdoing it, there were definitely times when this 70-year-old tourist was very much in need of a nap! And, dear reader, I took one whenever I could!

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Road Trip to Virginia

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Randy and I made recently returned from our third out-of-state road trip this year,

Randy wanted to show me his dad’s ancestral haunts near Hot Springs, Virginia, where Randy spent several summers as a child. In addition to visiting a cousin there, Randy also wanted to donate some stuff to the town’s historical society. I wanted Randy to tour Monticello, and to visit my Mercer-era friend Reed Banks who lives nearby, in Charlottesville.

Our visits to Hot Springs included a visit to the Homestead Hotel:

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/; we stayed overnight nearby, at the Warm Springs Inn. We spent our two nights in Charlottesville at Reed’s house.

The landscapes of the valleys along our route between Hot Springs and Charlottesville are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen . . .

Hot Springs Inn view

Monterey Valley scene by Randy

Barn behind public library in Hot Springs

The reunion with my friend Reed in Charlotteville was fantastic. We had memorable conversations on a wide variety of topics as Reed squired us around the university town where Reed and his wife Renita raised their two children (now grown up and living far from Charlottesville).

Charlottesville pedestrian mall

Charolottesville with Randy Cal and Reed

Charlottesville Randy and Cal photo by Reed

In addition to spending a morning taking two of the remarkably informative tours being conducted these days at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, just outside Charlottesville, the three of us spent a lovely afternoon inspecting the gorgeous buildings and numerous gardens at the Charleston campus of the University of Virginia, designed by Jefferson:

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Another colonnade at UVA

UofVA dorm colonnade by Randy

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UVA garden short with Reed

An Unexpected Garden Treat

On our way to Hot Springs and Charlottesville, we visited numerous antique shops and malls, stopping for our first night in a town in southwest Virginia called Wytheville (pronounced with-vill).

Wytheville Pencil Bldg

We spent the night in a suitably funky-but-comfortable 1950s-era motel there . . .

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. . . and ate dinner at a fancy restaurant across the street:

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The restaurant is housed in a ramshackle series of restored log cabins with tons o’ atmosphere and excellent food.

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Wytheville Restaurant 2 atmosphere with Cal

But the most startling thing about the restaurant is its large cottage garden, chock full of wonderful plants and garden sculptures and other whimsical structures. Since we managed to get only a late-evening glimpse of the garden while waiting for our dinner (ditto quick inspections of the restaurant’s two amazingly interesting gift shops!), we decided to come back the following morning to take some photos. Here are some of them (about half of them taken by me, the others by Randy):

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Wytheville Garden Detail 3 with Randy

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Wytheville Garden with Cal and Randy

Our road trip to Virginia, like our previous trips this year to Florida (in May) and to Kentucky (at the end of June), was full of delightful surprises along the way, including some great conversations in the car and plenty of pit-stops at local antique malls. And I’m delighted that our trips to various destinations around the southeast U.S. have been as thoroughly enjoyable as our trip with some friends around Italy last September, when Randy and I got re-acquainted after having first met so many decades ago.

Next up for us before our next overseas trip (this time to Spain): a road trip to Asheville, which may or may not – because of the hefty $60 admission fee – include a visit to the Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore House.

 

 

 

St. George Island 2018

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Every year for the past five, I’ve spent a week in May with eleven other gay guys who rent a house for a week on Florida’s St. George Island.

This year, Randy Taylor (my partner since a trip to Italy with several friends last October) went with me to the beach – his first time there, although he knows most of the people who joined us there, all of whom, like Randy and myself, are veterans of Gay Spirit Visions conferences.

The other newcomer to the beach this year is also named Randy; he traveled all the way from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The rest of us (with the exception of Greg, who moved about a year ago from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida) live in Atlanta or North Carolina.

Before arriving this year, the Atlanta Randy and I spent two days traveling elsewhere in Florida, driving down to Naples to see some property my mom and dad had purchased there decades ago. We spent the night on the way down with a friend of Randy’s (an antique dealer who lives in one of the most unusual houses I’ve ever been in) who lives near Tampa.

This pre-St. George leg of our trip featured a car breakdown incident in the remote and tiny town of Salem, Florida, midway between Naples (near the edge of the Everglades) and our backroads-using route northward to St. George.

Randy photo - car breakdown in Salem, Florida

Fortunately, our tow-truck driver got us to a motel for the night, and after a temporary repair in Perry, Florida, we managed to get the car as far as St. George so the friends who had joined us there could help us drop off the car at a mechanic’s shop on the mainland, and retrieve it later in the week. (My car repair shop here in Atlanta reimbursed me for the cost of the car repair, as I’d taken in the car for servicing shortly before our trip.)

While we all enjoyed a carefree week surrounded by the various luxuries and conveniences of Abijem, our spacious rental house:

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Of course, some of us felt compelled to make a few temporary modifications in the house’s decor. For example, the living room mantel and mirror were quickly festooned with strings of lights, and we decided to festoon the gigantic flatscreen television set with a little festive drapery:

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Also, one of the ornamental animal sculptures dotted about the house apparently needed a bit of tweaking:

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This year’s beach trip featured all of the activities I had so enjoyed during previous trips to Abijem. We meditated together every morning, took trips into the nearby fishing towns of Apalachicola and Carrabelle for restaurant lunches and/or shopping, did a bit of reading, took some delicious naps, and engaged in plenty of catching-up conversations, general lollygagging, teasing, and frequent laughter.

We again prepared a week’s worth of memorable dinners for each other:

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Greg’s tablescape for the dining room – slightly modified for each of the dinners we took turns preparing for each other throughout the week.

The group strolls along the beach took place mostly in the evening:

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Although I didn’t get around to joining in on any of the bike rides or the two group massage sessions, I did manage a glorious foray into the waves with Randy one afternoon (ditto the hot tub), and, as in previous years, participated in a series of fiercely competitive rounds of Wizard. Sarong-wearing was popular again this year. Several of us visited (or re-visited) the small but excellent nature center on the mainland near the entrance to the St. George bridge. And Randy and I worked in a short visit with our friends Royce and Martha Hodge, who live on St. George.

The most distinctive difference between this year’s trip and previous ones was the unusual weather we had. Except for the first couple days, it rained at least once a day, although by late afternoon most days, the sun broke through the clouds and you’d never have guessed the island had been besieged by torrents of rainfall.

Some of the cloudscapes Randy took photos of:

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Now for a few photos (most, though not all, taken by me) of my co-conspirators this year:

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Chase (Silva, NC), who’s organized these group trips to St. George for the past 17 (!) years.

Bradford and Greg

Bradford (Raleigh, NC)

Craig

Craig (Atlanta, GA)

Greg's selfie at beach

Greg (St. Petersburg, FL)

John

John (Asheville, NC)

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Ralph (Atlanta, GA)

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Randy M. (Ft. Wayne, IN)

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Randy T. (Atlanta, GA)

Roger

Roger (Asheville, NC)

Ted

Ted (Atlanta, GA)

Tom

Tom (Atlanta, GA)

Randy and I prepared teas for the group on three of our afternoons together:

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The English Tea.

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The Asian Tea.

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The Herbal Tea.

My last photo is of the sunset on our final evening at St. George:

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Photos from previous trips to Abijem are here, here, here, and here.

Another Trip to Italy – Week #1

Italy photos by John 358

Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta: Bill, John,  Randall, and Randy. I spent a third week in Italy on my own.

[The photos here were taken by different people on our trip (including me), and a few of them I found on the Internet. You can see additional photos of the places we visited by clicking on the links embedded in the text.]

For our first week, we rented a villa just outside of Cortona, in Tuscany, using the villa as our base for a number of day trips.

Our Villa Rental!

The Tuscan villa we rented was located just outside the city walls of Cortona, popular with English-speaking tourists ever since the publication (and movie adaptation) of Under the Tuscan Sun, Georgia-born author Frances Mayes’ account of buying and restoring a house in Cortona.

We rented two cars at the Rome airport and hoped to get to the villa by sundown. Didn’t happen. Due to the difficulty of finding the villa (and getting lost in the process more than once, and in the middle of a rainstorm in the pitch black), one of our cars full of Americans finally rendezvoused with the keyholder to the villa at approximately 1 a.m.

Our villa was suitably picturesque – and picturesquely located – and it would’ve been a totally pleasant place to hang out in had we not decided to make as many day trips as most of us did. We did manage to coordinate our various schedules and itineraries so we could all be together to enjoy a meal we had cooked for us at the villa halfway through our stay there.

Villa exterior:

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Villa interiors:

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Our view across the Tuscan landscape from the villa:

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A bonus of our renting a villa in Cortona was the fact that Randy had spent an entire summer there as an undergraduate art student, so he knew his way around the area. I spent the first day after we arrived exploring the town with Randy.

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Italy photos by John 014

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Because we’d decided to rent two cars rather than one, different groups of us were able to make different day trips from Cortona. My own excursions included forays to various other hilltop villages. The scenic drives to and from these places were as swoon-worthy as the villages themselves were. Among the most memorable destinations that week:

Florence!

Randy and I had both been to Florence on previous trips to Italy, so we decided to spend most of our time there this trip looking out over the city from the Piazza Michaelangelo and from the plaza in front of the church above the Piazza.  The church turned out to be closed, but the vast cemetery behind it was a marvel, as were the views of the city across the river.

Here’s Randy on our ascent to the Piazza (which we got to via a wonderful garden with equally spectacular views of the city):

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Here’s the view we came to gaze at:

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After the longest single walk of the entire trip (we had hoped our route would be a shortcut back down to the city – so wrong!), we sought out a multimedia exhibit, in a deconsecrated church near the Ponte Vecchio, about Leonardo da Vinci. The main feature of the exhibit (although not the only one) was an hour-long, dream-like montage set to classical music (with no distracting narration) of da Vinci’s paintings (and some of his drawings) projected, one at a time, on multiple fifty-foot-high screens that surrounded the audience.  Seeing those familiar images so spectacularly enlarged and accompanied by such glorious music was mesmerizing and memorable.

Italy photos by John 337

Montepulciano (Twice!)

Montepulciano was probably my all-around favorite town of all the ones I visited this trip; it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular hillside towns in Tuscany. I liked it so much that I went there twice – once with John and again with Randy.

The sculpture based on a design by Leonardo, outside the city center’s main gate:

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Montepulciano’s clock tower:

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One of the gardens near the fortress at Montepulciano:

Garden at fortress in Montepulciano

The view from Montepulciano:

View from Montepulciano

Pienza

John and I spent part of a day in this little place that a pope who had been born here decided to make over into a model Renaissance town. I liked how compact the town was, although it was a bit too perfect in some respects. But I’d wanted to see it for years, so going there was a treat.

Two Days Exploring the Tuscan Countryside

On another day, after futilely trying to nab a parking space in Sienna, Randy and I left our fellow travelers (in their own car, who had better luck finding parking) and high-tailed it for the countryside south of the city. It took us over an hour to thread our way out of Sienna, as I inadvertently steered our car into the difficult-to-escape labyrinthine bowels of the historic center (where only local traffic is allowed).

Sienna from Internet

After finally exiting the town to explore various scenic routes through the Val d’Orcia, we stopped in (among other places) Buonoconvento (billed as “the most beautiful town in Tuscany”), Quirico d’Orcia, the Abbey of St. Antimo, and the remote fortress town of Radicofani, where Randy (not, like me, afraid of heights), climbed to the top of the fortress tower there.

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Quiero d'Orcia

Italy photos by John 166

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The following day, all of us  piled into one of our two rental cars and  threaded our way along various scenic drives southwest of Cortona, with stops in Montalcino, San Quirico (touring a huge English-style formal garden there, the Horti Leonini), and a semi-remote gigantic modern sculpture garden (Il Giardino di Daniel Spoeri):

Italy photos by John 275

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After spending most of a day in this huge garden and having lunch there, we headed for a brief dip in the hot springs at Saturnia:

Italy photos by John 281

Then followed a mad dash across Italy to the western coast of Tuscany to see an amazing collection of Tarot-themed mosaic sculptures in a garden outside of Grosseto. We got there only fifteen minutes before the garden closed, but the rushed visit was certainly worth the long drive.

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(More images of the sculptures in this garden are here.)

Our Last Day in Cortona

On our final day of being based at the villa, Randy and I visited several sites near Cortona, including a famous church outside the city walls:

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…and an enormous monastery that has hosted St. Francis

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That night those of us who hadn’t spent the day in Florence ate our final meal in Cortona. Early the next morning, our week in Tuscany was over, and we aimed our two rental cars southwest. Our destination: the Amalfi Coast.

Another Trip to Italy – Week #2

AmalfiCoastPhotoPin-2-683x1024Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta: Bill, John, Randall, and Randy. 

Exploring the Amalfi Coast

We began our second week together in Italy in a rented apartment in Ravello, perched on the cliffs above the half-dozen towns along the Amalfi Coast.

The front door of our place in Ravello:

Italy photos by John 452

We arrived in Ravello via the notorious Amalfi Drive, although since we got to the coast after dark, I was blissfully unaware of the vertiginous views from the edge of “the road with 1,000 curves.”

As with our villa in Tuscany, the spacious apartment in Ravello would’ve been a fine place to spend the week without going anywhere, the view of the sea from the patio was so spectacular:

Italy photos by John 388

The views from our patio at sunrise and sunset were particularly mesmerizing:

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The view from my room in Ravello:

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Randall hanging out on the patio:

The view from our apartment compensated for the fact that the town center was at least 500 steps higher up. Highlights of our exploration of Ravello (home for many years of, among other famous writers, Gore Vidal) were tours of two villas and gardens restored by different Englishmen who had settled there in the 1800s. Both of them were stunning, as were the views from their living quarters and their gardens:

Villa Rufolo

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Italy photos by John 405

…and the Villa Cimbone

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Italy photos by John 423

Italy photos by John 436

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Hiking High above the Amalfi Coast

A major highlight of my trip to the Amalfi Coast was the half-day hike I made along a donkey trail dubbed “The Path of the Gods.” I took a bus to a remote village located at one end of the trail, and walked for approximately three-and-a-half hours along the cliff’s edge to another remote village where I left the path and took a bus down to Positano, and then a ferry back to Amalfi, where I took another bus back up the mountains to our base in Ravello.

I encountered only a few other people on the path, and the views were as breathtaking as had been advertised. (Before the trip, I watched a lot of videos, like this one, that others had taken while walking the trail. Here are a few of the views (obtained from Mr. Google) I encountered along the way:

We spent a total of four days and nights exploring the Amalfi area from our perch in Ravello, getting around via foot (lots of stair-climbing!), via buses, and (the most fun), via ferries:

Italy photos by John 457

The only time we used one of our rental cars in Ravello was the day Randy and John made a day trip to Pompeii.

Despite the fact that we’d timed our visit to avoid the height of the tourist season, the number of other tourists I encountered in the steep, narrow alleys of Amalfi’s most popular town, Positano, was rather daunting. On the other hand, it was easy to understand why so many people flock here: it is a stunningly beautiful town.

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Reluctantly leaving the Amalfi Coast – it would take a lot more than four days to see all the coastal towns we’d like to have explored –  Bill, John, and Randall drove to Rome to the apartment we’d rented there, and Randy and I took off for points south,  traveling first to Paestum (a Greek temple site) and then to the cliff town of Matera, before joining the others in Rome.

Paestum

Did you know that one of the best-preserved complexes of Greek temples is in Italy? Besides the impressive remains of these large, remarkable temples themselves, which are surrounded by the foundations of an entire Greek town. Paestrum exudes an awe-inspiring aura, and, as Randy remarked at the time, Paestum is one of the quietest places we’d ever visited, despite the legions of tourists who visit it.

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The site also features an excellent museum of artifacts found at or near the site.  Among the remarkable things on exhibit are paintings found inside the sarcophagi of several excavated Greek tombs, including the unique and exquisite Tomb of the Diver:

Tomb of the Diver

Reluctant to leave Paestum, Randy and I extended our visit there by having lunch at a nearby restaurant before heading northwest, to Matera.

Matera

Easily the most unusual place I saw this trip was the formerly abandoned town of Matera.  Perched on the side of a deep gorge, the town’s structures were carved out of the limestone that forms the cliff-face. Decades ago the Italian government relocated the entire population of the town, although it is slowly being repopulated (largely by artists, it seems), and although a modern city adjoins it.

The bizarreness of the cityscape in the ancient part of town is difficult to describe or to capture in photographs.

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Matera two

Scenes from dozens of movies – some of them based on Biblical tales, but also including the recently-released Wonder Woman – have been filmed here, and both Randy and I definitely felt like we had stumbled onto some other planet.

You can get a better sense of the weirdness of the town by scanning through these images of Matera posted on the Internet. Even better are the various videos on the Internet that showcase the amazing architecture of this town – for example, this one and/or this one.

We stayed in a hotel whose rooms are built to resemble the cave-like dwellings of the town, and we wished we could’ve stayed several days in Matera instead of a single day and night. Especially since, the night we arrived, it was raining so heavily that the steepness of the town’s flooded alleys made it impossible for us to do any exploring until the following morning.

Reluctantly leaving Matera after a walk through two of the historic quarters and a brief amble into the modern town next to them, we headed across the vast midsection of Italy toward Rome to join our fellow travelers who had already arrived there two days earlier.

Rome

John had found an AirBnB for us all to stay in, located in the middle of town. Randy and I slept on the fold-out bed below the loft in this spacious, modern, and conveniently-located apartment:

Italy photos by John 622

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With only two days to spend in Rome, Randy and I chose to re-visit a few of our personal favorite tourist spots instead of venturing into new ones. It was wonderful to see again the Piazza Navona, the Treve Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Borghese Gardens (especially the belvedere overlooking the city), and, of course, the Pantheon.

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I also enjoyed, during our schleps around the city, stopping to take photos of a few of Rome’s remarkable door knockers!

As our two weeks together as a fivesome came to a close, it was a bit difficult to say goodbye to my fellow-travelers. (It was particularly difficult for me to say goodbye to Randy, for reasons that will be made clear in some future blog post.) We parted ways outside our rented apartment, with Bill, John, Randall, and Randy grabbing a cab and heading for the Rome airport and with me striking out on foot toward the railroad station to catch the next train for Trieste, where I would be spending a final week in Italy solo.

Another Trip to Italy – Week #3

trieste main plaza

Beginning in mid-September of 2017 I spent three weeks in Italy – my fourth trip to this apparently irresistible country. My fellow travelers for the trip’s first two weeks were four other gay men who live in Atlanta. 

After my fellow travelers Bill, John, Randall, and Randy returned to the U.S., I stayed on for an additional week, basing myself in Trieste, an Italian town I’d never visited before. I went there initially thinking it would be a convenient base for a day trip to a national park I wanted to visit in Croatia, but I scrapped that plan after discovering the park was a five-hour bus trip each way. Instead, I spent my entire third week in Italy exploring some of the sites in and around Trieste.

Trieste Highlights

The first thing I had to wrap my brain around was how un-Italian Trieste looks and feels. Everything about it – the architecture, the restaurant food, the languages I overheard in the streets and on the buses – made the place I was staying for a week seem more like Vienna than anywhere else in Italy I’d traveled – either during this trip or my previous ones. Not to mention the undeniable fact that Trieste, unlike all other Italian cities I’d enjoyed, seemed so uncharacteristically clean! I’d been warned about this distinctiveness of Trieste – until recent times, Trieste had been a part of Austria – but it was still disorienting to realize on my walks around this city that I was still in Italy.

One entire side of Trieste’s enormous main square/piazza, like Venice’s, faces the Adriatic.  Walking to and from other parts of the city, I crisscrossed this piazza many times, and at different times of day and night, and I never tired of it. And as I’d serendipitously timed my visit to Trieste during the week immediately preceding the town’s most popular annual festival, the city’s main square and seaside boulevard were filled with dozens of festival tents and booths selling everything from delicious varieties of locally-baked focaccia bread to Italian-made shoes and electric bicycles, and the harbor was gradually filling up with hundreds of sailboats anchoring themselves in preparation for the annual regatta.

One of my extended ambles in Trieste was a self-guided walking tour (with a free audioguide courtesy the town’s tourist office) through the town’s Roman-era sites and its medieval cathedral. The walking tour involved a lot of hill-climbing, so I was glad I could flop into my hotel bed for a post-walk nap – something I did most days I was in Trieste and, due to the fact that I’d already done a lot of walking during my first two weeks in Italy, I really enjoyed these breaks from my tourist adventures, despite the tiny size and spartan appointments of my hotel room:

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Small though it was, my hotel was exceptionally convenient. Located only two blocks from the city’s famous Grand Canal, the hotel was also on the same street as the impressive (and, as so much else in Trieste, its baroque) European Postal and Telegraphy Museum. My visit there was an unexpected treat for someone who still writes letters, who enjoys reading published collections of other people’s letters, and who collected stamps as a kid. The museum’s lobby features a huge and insanely kitschy painting of a flock of cherubs bearing letters, their important errands supervised by the imposing figure of what is presumably the Goddess of Snail Mail!

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Another memorable museum in downtown Trieste I visited was its museum of modern art, which incorporated the former residence – complete with rooms with its original furniture, fountains, paintings, etc. – of a Deco-era magnate whose home the building used to be. “Modern” for this museum means the entire 20th century as well as the 21st, and I found there many remarkable paintings (especially remarkable portraits) and sculptures by artists I’d never heard of before. The views from the museum’s rooftop were spectacular.

A Quick Trip to Venice

I abandoned Trieste for a day to do something I’d wanted to do on a previous trip to Italy many years ago: deliberately losing myself in the labyrinthine alleys that lie behind the most popular (and most expensive) sites of Venice. True, I did revisit (and, due to the crush of tourists, revisited only very briefly) St. Mark’s Cathedral and I also made my way to the lobby – alas, only the lobby – of the place I’d in Venice if I win the lottery: the fabled Hotel Danieli:

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But I spent most of my time in Venice wandering aimlessly, re-tracing my way out of dead-ends and crossing tiny bridges over equally tiny canals.

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Needless to say, I carefully punctuated my reverie-drenched wanderings – and my bouts of mounting fatigue – with repeated ingestions of lemon-flavored gelato. I also treated myself to getting back to the train station via a water-taxi trip down the entire length of the Grand Canal.

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Two major disappointments of my otherwise very satisfying day in Venice:

  • the Sanasavino Library I badly wanted to visit turned out to be accessible only to people visiting in large tour groups,
  • the alarming number of tourists who chose to stare into their cell phones instead of staring at Venice.

Around Trieste

Apart from my day trip to Venice, my three forays out of the city and into the countryside near town were:

  • a sunny day at the beguiling castle and gardens that were once the residence of Austria’s (and later, of all places, Mexico’s) Emperor Maximilian
  • a ferry ride across the bay to an afternoon exploring a charming seaside town of Muggia
  • a somewhat less wonderful day  – because of my momentarily-forgotten fear of heights – in what is advertised as Europe’s largest cave.

Maximilian’s castle is located on the shore a short bus-ride out of town and was well worth a visit, as were the castle’s extensive gardens.

miramare

The palace stables, converted into an art museum, featured, the day I visited, an enthralling exhibit of Art Deco paintings, posters, jewelry, furniture, clothing, books, and other non-architectural artifacts. Part of the charm of the exhibit was the stenciling of numerous walls with quotations from the most famous champions of the period’s style and ideology, displayed in one of my favorite type fonts. A single example:

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My leisurely visit to the castle was made completely pleasant not only by the interesting story of Maximillian and his family, but by the sunny weather and my indulgence in snarfing down three separate cups of gelato from the gelato stand in the castle gardens, and by having lunch at a nearby restaurant with a view of the sea.

My favorite day in Trieste, however, was my final one there, when I decided to stop being a tourist and park myself for a few hours reading a book on one of the benches in the city’s most famous park. My walk to and from this near-perfect urban green space

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via the long pedestrians-only boulevard that connects the modern city center to the park was just as pleasant as my little respite in the park proved to be. Besides the  quiet, tree-lined, cafe-featuring car-free space the boulevard provides, one comes upon things like this facade of a movie theater:

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On my way back to my hotel from my afternoon idyll in the park, I regarded my impulsive decision to eat lunch at a Burger King (instead of another Italian trattoria) as a sign that I was obviously ready to begin my journey home. Having spent a wonder-filled three weeks in one of my favorite countries in Europe, I had had my fill of living out of a suitcase and pounding the pavements.

After a nap-filled day throughout the long train ride from Trieste, I spent my final night in Italy in Rome – although not in the hotel that I had so carefully booked before heading to Trieste the week before. The travel agent who’d booked my room had failed to read the fine print on my reservation, and so had I. After a maddeningly time-consuming hunt for the hotel, I discovered my reservation was valid only for a female guest in a mostly student-patronized hotel that segregated its visitors into gender-separate wings! I arrived too late in the day for the hotel to re-book me in a vacant room designated for a male, so I was forced, late in the day, to find another place to stay. That process involved additional unwelcome schlepping, and by the time I found my new lodgings,  I was too exhausted to venture back out into Rome again. Still, the place I found was nicer and fortunately more convenient to the train station than my original booking.

The next morning after taking the express train from Rome’s enormous central train station to the airport, I spent my last few Euros on yet another gelato before boarding the plane.

When, many weary hours later,  I landed in Atlanta, Randy – who, like my other fellow travelers who had returned to the States the week before – had recovered from his own jet-lag. He generously fetched me from the Atlanta airport – one of most pleasant re-entries ever – and soon thereafter, we resumed our adventure in getting to know each other better – something we are still doing, five months after our splendid trip to Italy.

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A Splendid Labor Day Weekend!

Labor Day Postage Stamp

For many reasons – and for reasons that have varied through the years –  Labor Day has long been my favorite national holiday.

That’s been especially so for the past twelve years, as that’s when the annual Decatur Book Festival takes place.

DBF-Booths

This year’s festival was as delightful as it invariably is, even though – and perhaps even because – I decided to attend fewer events than usual, and even though the main person I had hoped to listen to (Krista Tippit of NPR’s “On Being”) fell ill and had to cancel.

As usual, the authors I got to listen to were extraordinarily articulate, funny, engaging, and refreshingly non-pretentious. Among the authors I got to see and hear this year:

  • Elizabeth Kostova, whose Dracula-centric book The Historian I thoroughly enjoyed reading a few years ago, and who happens to know a mutual friend who lives in Asheville, where Kostova nows lives.
  • Four exceptionally bright and funny panelists explaining the mysteriously enduring popularity of Jane Austen’s novels (all of which I’ve listened to, enthralled, via audiobooks).
  • Editors of two anthologies talking about their collections of letters exchanged between two pair of Civil War soldiers and their wives – something that I would never have guessed would have been so interesting, but was.
  • Dylan Thuras, the sweet, funny, and down-to-earth co-founder of Atlas Obscura, which has recently published a book with that title, each of them showcasing off-the-beaten path attractions around the world – including several in the Atlanta area.
  • A panel of archivists and authors talking about the archives and special collections at Emory University’s Library’s Rose Archives – a panel especially interesting because two of the panelists (and the panel moderator) are African-Americans who’ve used the archives at Emory (and elsewhere), and who had eloquent and inspiring things to say about the importance of archives. And also because one the other panelist I know as a fellow-member of the Georgia LGBTQ Archives Project.
  • Sam Kean, the author of  (among other books) Caesar’s Last Breath, who talked hilariously and clearly about the taken-for-granted gases that make up our atmosphere – and who told an intriguing story about the refrigerator Einstein invented.

Besides enjoying a lot more people-watching than usual in the perfect (vs. the often hot-and-humid) weather during the festival, I also (also unusual for me) bought some books from one of the used-book vendors at the Festival. I am now the excited owner of yet another biography of Virginia Woolf, plus a published collection of photos, drawings, and engravings of Oscar Wilde and his circle. Those in addition to the half-dozen gardening books I picked up at bargain prices at the event that (for me) kicks off every Festival, the Dekalb Public Library’s book sale, held outdoors in front of the library.

A Bonus Day of Bliss

After happily mingling with thousands of strolling booklovers on the closed-off streets of Decatur, Georgia, I don’t usually make any special plans for the Monday holiday after the Festival ends on Sunday evening. This year, however, I decided to join a group of four other men who signed up for a Labor Day hike just over the Georgia border in South Carolina, one of the many hikes sponsored by the Wilderness Network of Georgia.

The spot along the Chatooga River that hike organizer Charles had located as the destination of our half-mile hike was as perfect as the weather turned out to be.

The five of us spent our leisurely afternoon sitting by (or cavorting around in) the river, talking, napping, and snacking next to a campfire we managed to keep going the whole time we were there. (I’ve never built a campfire during the day, or in such mild weather.)

 

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Hike organizer Charles, resting after swimming to the far side of the river.

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Fellow hiker (and former Cub Scout) Kyle, creating the campfire that we enjoyed keeping going throughout our otherwise lazy afternoon.

Our day of lollygagging beside the banks of the unspoiled river was punctuated by several groups of passing kyackers or canoeists floating downstream, a gaggle of geese paddling upstream, repeated visits by two blue butterflies, and the constant background sounds of the nearby rapids.

After putting out our campfire and trudging back up the hill to our cars, we stopped for dinner at a Chinese/Thai restaurant in Clayton, Georgia. We finished our meal there just in time for a glorious sunset and the rising of an almost-full moon.

Among the factors that contributed to the perfection of this third consecutive day of bliss:

  • I am part of the large cohort of middle-class Americans who’ve retired from our careers as paid laborers – with at least some savings to finance those retirements.
  • I am privileged to have acheived a standard of living that’s unmarred by debt or constrained by other major financial worries.
  • Despite my age – I’ll be 70 – 70!!! – next July – my health is good enough to hike down to a remote river – and back uphill again.
  • I live in a country whose governments have set aside, and made accessible to citizens, vast swaths of unspoiled countryside, some of them including freely-flowing, unpolluted rivers!
  • I still have functioning senses that allow me to enjoy the colors, the sounds, the smells, the textures and the other sensual delights that a picnic in the woods along the banks of a beautiful river provides.
  • Waiting for me at the top of the the steepish hiking trail was a nice car whose driver got me to the river and transported me back again to my comfortable home – making it possible for me to spend the afternoon in a place remote from where I live.
  • I’m not coping with trying to survive floods, wildfires, or other horrific natural catastrophes, and my life is not being  disrupted by the cruel antics of any government official.

Three consecutive days of Perfection. I am a lucky, lucky man.