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.

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

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:


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


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):

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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:

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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:


…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:

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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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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:

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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.


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.


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.


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 myself 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.


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 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.


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.

Abajem IV

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I just returned from spending a week on Florida’s St. George Island with eleven friends I met through an organization called Gay Spirit Visions.

GSV was established in 1990, and in 2002 a half-dozen GSVers decided to rent a house on SGI for a week. Chase Robinson has taken care of reserving a rental house each year, and the house-renting group (whose participants vary each year) eventually doubled its size.  The group has rented a half dozen different houses over the years; this was my fourth consecutive year vacationing with these guys on SGI, all four of them spent at the enormous and luxurious “Abajem.”

Abajem 2

As in previous years, the week consisted of hanging out with each other in various combos, either on the beach or within sight of it. Besides enjoying the camaraderie. the conversations, the shared meals, and the spectacular scenery, a large part of the wonderfulness of the week is enjoying an extended break from our respective routines – as well as, for some of us, a break from the relentless aggravations we normally import into our brains via our Internet connections, our phones, and our voluntary tethers to other mass media.

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Although three of us who went to SGI this year live in various towns in North Carolina, Atlanta is home for the rest of us. That means most of us get to extend our annual visits by carpooling down to and back from SGI, as well as spent time together in Atlanta between visits to the island. Although we share many of the values cherished by most GSV participants, there’s a range of ages among us, most of us are retired from our former full-time jobs, about to retire, or are semi-retired.

This year’s Abijem crew:

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Ralph (right) and Ted  (left, in sumo wrestler garb)




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Cal (with crocheted cap and flower courtesy Jim)

Our time together on the island is deliberately and gloriously unstructured, but our indoor and outdoor lolling about is punctuated not only by almost nonstop banter and hilarious commentary, but by our taking turns preparing evening meals, silently meditating together each morning, exchanging massages, playing card games (well, actually playing multiple rounds of a single card game: Wizards), intermittently working (alone or together) at various crafts, reading, taking naps, watching a DVD or two, eating in small groups at various restaurants, or driving across the bridge into the nearby town of Appalachicola to visit its shops and galleries. Some of us avail ourselves of Abijem’s swimming pool and/or its hot tub, and Chase provides kayaks, kites, and bicycles. Some of us get up every morning to watch the sun rise over the ocean, and this year our visit coincided with a full moon.

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“Mermaid Barbie” was a permanent feature this year in Bradford’s various tablescapes, which included (among other items, and on various days) painted shells, botanical specimens collected from the island, toy submarines, and a pair of lava lamp-like lighting fixtures.


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Mealtime appetizer.



For the second time, Jim (aka Mr. Patience) taught Calvin how to crochet!


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Cal losing yet another round of Wizards. Jim crocheted the Wizard’s Hat.


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This year, hot on the trail of the the strolling sumo wrestlers was…


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Tea time at Abijem, for the humans…

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...and snack time for the birds.


Randall’s photo of some of the seashells we painted with color markers 


Sunrise over the ocean.


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Lighthouse at St. George


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Souvenirs of this year’s visit: samples of our painted shells, a hibiscus flower, and a teddy bear.


As I had with with my three previous trips to SGI with these kindhearted, affectionate, intelligent, and creative guys, I looked forward for many months to our week together this year, and hope there’ll be many more annual rendezvouses there.

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Excursion to Gibbs Gardens

daffodilsentrance sign

Last Sunday I joined four friends for our virgin visit to Gibbs Gardens, located about an hour north of Atlanta near Ball Ground, Georgia.

I’d heard a lot about this place, and despite the fact that it’s located on my route to and from the cabin in Blue Ridge that I spend time in most months, I somehow had never gotten around to visiting.

Gibbs Gardens was established over thirty years ago but was opened to the public only in 2012. The place is huge – 220 acres of a 300-acre estate, with sixteen distinct garden areas, all connected with walking trails. Gibbs features a large variety of plantings and some magnificently designed landscaping. The gardens include:

  • possibly the largest plantings of daffodils in the United States (20 million bulbs spread over 50 acres of rolling hillsides)
  • a 40-acre Japanese garden, the country’s largest
  • the country’s largest collection of water lilies (140 varieties)
  • 32 ponds, fed by springs or running streams crossed by 24 bridges, one of them a replica of Monet’s bridge at Giverny


The miles of walking trails meander through all sorts of plantings, and the self-guided tour includes a walkabout of the exterior of the beautiful – and gorgeously landscaped – manor house where the Gibbs family lives. (Well, when anybody’s home: the 70-something-year-old Gibbs is an avid traveler. That he generously allows visitors to tramp around the patios and porches immediately adjacent to the house must be a bit unnerving when he’s there.)

yet another manor house photo

Here’s a video (from the Gardens’ Facebook page) of what we saw on Sunday:

I wish I could report that wandering through 20 million daffodils was a Wordworthianesque peak experience, but, alas, that aspect of our tour of the gardens Gibbs was, surprisingly, a bit underwhelming. (Will the planned extravaganza of tulips that Gibbs staff has planted be similarly disappointing?) I have no explanation for why the Daffodil ramble was not more exhilarating, but there are plenty of other reasons for putting this garden on your gardens-to-tour list.

If you decide to visit, I highly recommend you arrive as early in the day as you can. This is especially important if you visit on a weekend. Otherwise, you will find yourself forced to park in a remotely located parking lot (quite a few acres of Gibbs’ property are devoted to multiple car-parks) and, once you finally get to the welcome center, you could find yourself waiting in a very long line. Better to arrive early and conserve your energy for all the walking you’ll be doing once you get your ticket.

I also recommend eating lunch at the garden’s outdoor cafe. The sandwiches and drinks are pricey (I spent $12 for a sandwich and a bottle of water), but the food is fresh and the shaded outdoor eating area is a pleasant place to rest after a morning’s worth of walking.

There’s also a gorgeous (if also pricey) gift shop:


Whether or not you decide to visit Gibbs Gardens yourself, you might find this 24-minute North Carolina public television video worth watching. It includes an interview with Gibbs, who explains how the garden came to be. The video also highlights several of the different garden areas on view at Gibbs:

Watching this video after my visit – and reading the best of the articles about the garden that I found on the Internet – made me want to return to see the sections of the garden (such as the fern garden) that I somehow missed seeing last Sunday. I especially want to return in the fall to see the gardens’ 2,000 Japanese maples!

japanese gardens in the fall

japanese maples

Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of photos that garden visitors have posted to Instagram:

For even more photos, Google Images has hundreds of them.

Directions, ticket prices (as seniors we paid $18 plus tax for a single visit; annual passes cost $70), and a list of visiting hours is available at the Gardens’ web site,

Note: All of the photos included in this blogpost I obtained from a variety of sources on ye Internet.

A Second Trip to Ireland


A gaggle of long-time friends who two years ago rented a canal boat and a villa in southern France decided we wanted to do something similar this year in Ireland.

So, mid-September, off we went. For some of us , this was a first trip to Ireland; for others, including me, it was our second trip together there (although my first trip to Ireland, four years ago, was mostly to the southwestern coast). This time Kris, who was on both trips, went over a week earlier than the rest of us so she could attend an annual Matchmaker’s Festival and to do some genealogy research. Kris also skipped the boat rental phase of the trip (week #1) and joined us for the house-renting/day-tripping  part (week #2). Joyce and Walter also opted out of the boat rental week, but they stayed in a town near where the rest of us rented the house.

The Boat Trip

Because Ireland’s canal system hasn’t been spruced up with amenities for tourists to the extent that the canals in England and France have been, we opted for cruising down the Shannon River instead of navigating one of Ireland’s canals.

We decided to pilot the boat ourselves, as we had on our previous boat-renting adventures. The boat we rented for the Shannon was huge – it sleeps eight people, even though there were only six of us aboard. We used the same excellent company we’d rented our boat from in France LeBoat.


The experience of maneuvering this large vessel down a river was very different from merely mooring it anywhere we might want to stop, as we did in the canals of England and France. Also, like all canals, the Shannon has several locks that must be navigated into and out of in addition threading our way under the river’s bridges and parking our gigantic vessel each night into a narrow slot in a crowded marina!



We started our week-long cruise down the Shannon at Carrick-on-Shannon, heading downstream toward Portumna. Although we stopped at several towns along the way, we spent the most time in in Athelone, the largest town in the area and located about mid-way between where we started and our intended destination.


On the bridge in Athelone, with our boat moored with numerous others in the background.


Out boat in Athlone, where we moored it for several days.

For me, the scenic highlight of the river cruise was our post-Athlone stop at the ruins of Clonmacnoise, the site of a large and famous medieval monastery, located directly on the river and far from any visible towns. We spent a leisurely afternoon there wandering around the site, having lunch in the tea shoppe there, and taking photos.






Resuming our course down the Shannon, our self-piloted river cruise was abruptly cut short on our next-to-last day when one of our pilots (it doesn’t matter who – it could’ve been any of us amateurs!), while trying to dock the boat in a town where we wanted to spend the night, broke the boat’s propeller! (Note to self: piloting a huge boat through the unmarked shallows of a flowing river is much trickier than piloting a smaller boat down a uniformly narrow and uniformly deep canal!) The boat company sent a rescue team (aka “Connor”) to tow us to the next town by commandeering another boat piloted by another (and not very happy) group of tourists..


Our propeller-less boat being towed toward the next marina.

We never got to Portumna: instead, we spent the night on our disabled boat in Banagher where our boat had been towed. The following very rainy morning, our rescuers hauled our boat out of the river to replace the propeller, and we bundled ourselves and our considerable collection of (somewhat soggy) luggage into a taxi to be driven back to Athlone. There we picked up our rental cars and headed for the west coast of Ireland for the second week of our trip.

The House Rental and the Road Trips

The house we rented as our road-trip base for week #2 is located at the end of a winding quarter-mile-long driveway off the highway that runs through Ballintubber, a tiny rural village in the countryside of County Mayo, about halfway between Galway and Sligo.



Although the surrounding countryside was suitably pastoral, the house itself is a large, modern, comfortable structure that – especially compared to the place we had rented in Gordes, France two years ago – is decidedly non-quaint. But we certainly enjoyed settling into our spacious accommodations and the convenience of preparing breakfasts and dinners there (vs. doing that on a boat).



Our numerous day trips from Ballintubber were often to destinations along the coast – via the glorious countryside and tiny villages in Connemara.

We also ventured several hours south of Galway, to make our obligatory visit to Ireland’s most visited outdoor spot, the Cliffs of Moher.



Ireland’s Tourist-Promoting Powers That Be have signposted the country’s most scenic network of coastal roads the “Wild Atlantic Way,“and some of us spent a good deal of jaw-dropping time driving through and stopping along those extremely narrow, extremely windy, and extremely scenic roads. Among, them, the “Sky Road” beyond Clifden:



…and the coastal roads of Achill Island:




All of us also spent time – at different times, and some of us more time than others – exploring Westport, the largest town near the rental house.





Most of us made an excursions to the justly-popular tourist spot of Kylemore Abbey.



The trip to Kylemore was particularly gratifying for me because Kylemore’s beautiful grounds include the only formal garden I visited in Ireland


I am also glad to have gotten to Kylemore Abbey because I later skipped an opportunity to tour with my fellow travellers Ballintubber Abbey, located within a few miles of our rental cottage.

Incidentally, the afternoon at Kylemore was the only time I got caught in a rainstorm. Kris took a photo of me pinned behind the door of a completely-mobbed bus stop at the edge of the gardens, where we all fled when the heavens opened:


The Final Days: Dublin

Though some of us were there at slightly different times than the others, all of us spent the final days of our Ireland vacation in Dublin, which now ranks as one of my favorite cities in Europe.

Four of us, including me, stayed at the conveniently-located and excellently-managed (if somewhat overpriced) Kilronan House.


Dublin’s medieval Christ Church Cathedral, where I listened to the choir singing during Sunday mass.

Some Particularly Memorable Ireland Moments

  • The afternoon we explored the town of Cong, including the ruins of its abbey…






  • Driving through the countryside along the lakes on either side of Cong:


  • The hour or so that Randall and I spent gazing out over one of the beaches on Achill Island:


  • Walking around Westport, shopping with Kris – and taking a quick peek inside what’s got to be one of the most congenially-sited public libraries I’ve ever seen:


  • My impromptu visit with a local calligrapher, who happens to live near the house we rented (and who happens to be the sister-in-law of the rental house’s owner).
  • The final day of the house-renting/day-tripping portion of the trip. I spent that morning exploring the mostly-Victorian architecture of the town of Sligo.



After my morning in the town, I spent the afternoon gaping at the gorgeous countryside surrounding Sligo, which the tourist authorities have dubbed “Yeats Country.”



I knew very little about Yeats before my trip, and still don’t know much about him, other than realizing in the middle of my trip that he had written one of my favorite poems.)

Highlights of my day in Yeats’s Country:

  • Stumbling upon an exhibit in Sligo’s town hall about Yeats’s life.

The church at the cemetary in Drumcliff where Yeats’s grave is located


Doors to the church in the cemetery where Yeats is buried.


View from Yeats’ gravesite.


View from the edge of the graveyard where Yeats is buried.


  • Driving many, many, many miles down a one-lane, incredibly curvy – and blissfully scenic – country road to a spot on Lough [Lake] Gill where I could get a good look at the tiny island of Innisfree that Yeats once owned and wrote a famous poem about.



The view from the parking lot at the Glencar Waterfall is as bucolic as anyone could wish for:



  • Locating the building in Merrion Square where Oscar Wilde spent his childhood. and finding the statue of Oscar in the park across the street.


  • My long-looked-forward-to visit to the Old Library at Trinity College, where I (after waiting in line for at least an hour) I finally laid eyes on the Book of Kells (which, by the way, was created by monks in Scotland: long story). My encounter with the Book of Kells was for some reason a bit disappointing; more exciting for me was reading the inspiring words of the library’s rare copy of the 1916 Easter Uprising Proclamation. However, spending a half-hour inside the Long Room of the Old Library was the opposite of disappointing. (Although I was shocked to learn that the library’s famous and gorgeous barreled wooden ceiling was part of a 19th-century renovation – the original ceiling was flat and made of plaster!)


  • A final Especially Memorable Trip Moment had nothing to do with any scenery or architectural or cultural or culinary wonder. Instead, it was the moment when I retrieved my much-used down jacket (a Christmas present last year from my friend Harvey) from where I’d inadvertently left it at the Dublin airport’s security checkpoint!

(Confession: Losing valuable objects while traveling abroad is not unusual for me. On a six-month backpacking trip with Harvey to Europe in 1983, I left my passport in the dresser drawer of a hostel in Lisbon – something I didn’t discover until the next day, when we were hundreds of miles away. On a trip to Italy with Larry a decade ago, I left behind in our rental car my camera – and therefore all our photos from our trip. I can’t remember what I left behind on my trip to Mexico three  years ago, but surely I came back to Atlanta minus something. In Italy two years ago, I left behind on a bus my iPhone. And on my way back home last year from a trip to Costa Rica, I left a another jacket Harvey had given me ten years ago and that I had worn almost every day since buying my motor scooter. Although I was lucky in retrieving at the last minute in Dublin the jacket I’d left behind while checking through airport security, what I ended up leaving behind in Ireland – although, fortunately, not until I was able to use it every day on the sometimes-chilly boat trip – was a really nice wool neck-warmer that my thoughtful sister Gayle had given me specifically for this trip.)

Chief Disappointment

Aside from the sad fact that I will apparently never convince the people I otherwise enjoy spending time with to leave behind their electronic devices when travelling in exotic climes, the only major regret I have about my second trip to Ireland is that – apart from a few street musicians and some recordings playing in a few tourist shops (and, rather irritatingly, in the breakfast room of our Dublin hotel) – I heard not a single note of Irish music!

This disappointment is completely my own fault: I was unwilling to schlep out to any of the plentiful Irish pubs at 10pm, when the music in all Irish pubs apparently begins. The one time that I visited a pub at night – visiting, in fact, the world’s oldest pub, Sean’s Bar, in Athlone – I left after a boisterous conversation with a bunch of friendly Germans we’d previously met along the river, but before the musicians began playing and/or singing.I did, however, have the pleasure of hearing plenty of Gaelic spoken in the pubs where we ate lunch along the Western coast.

Some General Reflections

  • The people of Ireland are the country’s most memorable feature. No matter where we were in Ireland, we encountered unusually friendly, cheerful, helpful, sweet people, every single one of them somehow able – no matter how brief or superficial the encounter – to display his/her sardonic sense of humor. (And the men of Ireland – quite a few of them red-headed and blue-eyed – are very handsome; their accents making them even more swoon-worthy. Speaking of Irish men, guess what Randall and I missed by coming to Ireland a week too early:


  • The scenery of Ireland lives up to its reputation. As does its reputation for narrow, curvy (but, hey, very scenic!) roads. Actually, I found Ireland’s though very narrow and very curvey, to be in extraordiarily good repair. We encountered narry a single pothole in hundreds of miles of driving! On the other hand, I don’t think I ever saw, in that week of driving, a completely dry roadway! Although the rain never seems to fall for very long, it rains often: the roads – and most of the grass – seem eternally wet. But then, that’ presumably why so much of Ireland is so dog-gone green!


  • Although the scenery along the Shannon River is beautiful – and eerily deserted, in general I found the scenery along the canals in England and France to be more enchanting and varied.
  • The oddest thing for me about traveling around Ireland, at least via rented boat and via rented car – and regardless of whether one is wandering around rural Ireland or in the coastal areas or floating down the river flowing through Ireland’s interior –   is how seldom you see any Irish people! During our boat trip and during our many drives, I rarely saw anyone out walking along the road, working in their yards, or hanging out on the streets of the smaller towns. Many of the roads we traveled were completely deserted (with the exception of an occasional tour bus roaring into view from around some hidden curve). Yes, there are plenty of pedestrians to be seen in the larger towns (a fourth of the island’s populaton live in Ireland live in Dublin, something very obvious while you’re there), but the rural landscapes are extraordinarily empty spaces, as well as beautiful ones.
  • If you like looking at sheep, Ireland is the place to go!


  • Ditto rainbows. Saw more of those in Ireland in two weeks than I’ve seen in a whole lifetime of living in the United States!


  • If, like I do, you like looking at water – lakes, rivers, ponds, coastlines – Ireland’s got lots of it. Some of my favorite drives were the ones around Ireland’s plentiful lakes. They are all so amazingly unspoiled by development of any kind.
  • The food. Oh my goodness, so delicious! (Only two disappointing meals in our entire two weeks!) The seafood chowders alone are almost worth a trip to Ireland. And then there are the “full Irish breakfasts” we’ll remember.


  • I need to learn more about the history of Ireland. What little I know of it is so very, very sad. Centennial-celebrating reminders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion were ubiquitous during our trip. As with Irish history in general, I know precious little of details about this event – although I’ve long been aware of the prolonged and relentless, indefensibly brutal treatment of Ireland and the Irish by the British.

Ireland is a country I could imagine re-visiting indefinitely. It is small enough to make getting around relatively convenient (either by car or, as Kris found, even by public transport), yet varied enough scenery-wise to make you want to explore every part of this amazing island. I still haven’t set foot in the far northern or far southern areas of Ireland, but look forward to seeing their natural and cultural wonders some day. And Dublin alone deserves multiple visits.

As I’ve done in a few other places abroad where I’ve traveled (Italy, England, Greece, and France), I spent part of this trip fantasizing moving to Ireland. The Irish Tourist Board has thoughtfully provided me with twenty-one reasons for doing that.  Except for the excessive rainfall, these reasons are mighty compelling!

Notes on the photos: They aren’t all mine. Some of them were taken by my fellow travelers: Randall Cumbaa, Royce Hodge, Martha Hodge, Kris Kane, Joyce Purcell, Walter Purcell, Nancy Ward, and Robert Ward. I’ll be eventually be inserting additional photos they took. The hyperlinks to the place names mentioned in this blogpost, as well as the hyperlinks to Sean’s Bar and the Kilronan House, will lead you to images of those places that are posted on the Internet, which is also where I found one of the photos of our boat, the Oscar Wilde statue, Innisfree Island, the Long Room in Trinity College’s Old Library, and (below) the NASA photo and the map of Ireland. The internet is also the source of the images you’ll see if you click on the hyperlinks to the Book of Kells, the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and the Easter Rebellion Proclamation. If you decide to click on only one of the hyperlinks to look at the images, click on the images for “Yeats Country” if you want to get a sense of why I loved visiting this country so much.