Throwback Travel: Snark, Sugar Canes & Sweet Cuban Ladies

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016.

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Monday, March 28, 2016.

Part One.

This morning begins a bit … backwards. Perhaps “odd” is a better word. Or maybe awkward? Just follow me on this one …

So the day before, as we arrived in Santa Clara, we were taken to this historical site. It’s famous (or infamous?) for a train blockage/derailment that’s said to have been pivotal in the Battle of Santa Clara, between fighters under Che Guevara’s command, and General Fulgencio Bautista’s army. But it was, like, a passing visit; we didn’t stay very long, and Santana didn’t give us much of an explanation. I’m guessing the museum/monument was closed.

But we’ve been brought back to the site this morning to take a look around before we head out for Trinidad.

The train cars house the museum, which you have to pay admission to enter. Most people go in; I hang back with Jana and wait.

Outside the museum, Jana and I are talking amongst ourselves, trying to figure out the day’s itinerary. According to the trip info, we’re supposed to be getting a salsa lesson once we reach Trinidad. But Santana hasn’t said much of anything so far; he’s been a bit tight-lipped about the group’s plans.

So when we spot him a little while later, we decide to approach, and Jana asks him about it.

His first words to Jana are, “When you want to say ‘good morning’, you say, ‘buenos dias’. When you want to say ‘good afternoon’, you say, ‘buenos tardes’ … ”

Jana says that’s not what she’s asked, and when she tries to ask a second time – particularly the salsa lesson – he sort of blows her off and says he doesn’t know.

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Um. Okay

We drive a couple of hours out, and along the way, Santana speaks a little bit about colonialism and slavery in Cuba, which only ended in 1886 (much later than other Caribbean islands, like Jamaica, where my family’s from).

This is notably different than some of the historical information I gleaned from Daniel during my walking tour in Havana. And I would given Santana points for helping make my history lesson more well-rounded, except for the weird, condescending, passive-aggressive encounter Jana had with him back in Santa Clara.

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Our next stop is this tower, the path leading to it lined with people hawking souvenir tchotchkes – embroidered fabrics, papier-mâché cars, those topsy-turvy-like dolls (with the white lady on one side, and the black lady on the other), guys trying to sell people grasshoppers woven from grass.

A random chicken struts around nearby. Walking alongside a fellow traveller, Joe (the Aussie travelling with his mom) I joke that it’s the first chicken I’ve encountered so far on my trip that isn’t fried and on my plate.

We climb the tower – but not without a couple of head-bashes on the stairway upwards. But the panoramic views at the top of the countryside are worth the admission.

Ambling down from the tower, we head over to a nearby building, walking through the restaurant inside to the back where – under a gazebo – we’re seated in a circle around this wooden contraption. It’s a press used to squeeze juice out of sugar canes.

For the demonstration, they get several of my male travel-mates to line up along a large wooden log which acts as a handle to get the press working.

In what’s supposed to be a joke, Santana hands me his cell phone – he’s fired up an app that makes the sound of a whip – and says something to the effect of, “Now, you get white people to work for you for once.”

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Yikes aside, the idea behind the press is that the faster my colleagues move, the more juice comes out of the press. And at the end of it, we sample the fruits of their labour – combining the cane juice and some fruit juice – with the option of rum.

On our way back to the bus, we’re temporarily stalled outside of the restaurant, and just as people start to walk towards the bus, I’m stopped by one of those guys wearing the grass-grasshoppers. He affixes a grasshopper to my hat – which he’s woven on the spot – then gives me a grass rose. Then, he’s putting bracelets on my arm – first one, then two. Cost: 5 CUCs.

As I’m resigning myself to pay for what he’s given me (but I didn’t ask for), he slaps ANOTHER THREE bracelets on my arm. “Gifts for your family in America”, he says. Not happy with this, I try to tell him what I could pay for 5 CUCs (while now wearing 10 CUCs of his merch). In the end, he walks away with 9 CUCs and leaves me annoyed.

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On the bus, I explain what’s happened and – with help from a fellow traveller, Sue – am made to realize that he’s just trying to make a living, and I’m actually helping him with that. (Almost three years on, I see that much more clearly.)

As a partial consolation, Jana buys one of my wooden bangles.

Our bus ride continues through the countryside, past large swathes of farmland and palm trees, until we stop at a restaurant overlooking the valley, and hilly ranges as far as the eye can see.

Even though the sun is beating down, the view is breathtaking.

Inside the restaurant, we’re serenaded by a trio, one of whom apparently makes Jana a bit hot under the collar. (I’m having a love affair of my own – with my meal – so I don’t hear about this until later.)

We arrive in Trinidad mid-afternoon … but not before Santana FINALLY tells us that our introductory salsa class will be at 6 p.m. that evening. Jana and I do not say a word.

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Santana takes the group to a “home-base” casa, where the owner contacts several others in the immediate area, and we sort out who’s staying with whom.

Jana and I stay with a woman named Julitza. She barely speaks English, but she’s the sweetest lady we’ve met so far. We also catch glimpses also an older lady at the casa, who we think is Julitza’s mother. She lives in the other half of the house.

Our room’s on the second floor. It’s bright orange, with cream colour-blocked walls, twin beds, a really nice shower and access to the rooftop, which is decked out with a metal porch swing and a view of nearby rooftops. Pret-ty cool.

I think I might like this place already.

Stay tuned for Part Two!


Photos taken are mine. Please do not re-use without permission.

Throwback Travel: Trip to the Centre

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016. 

Sunday, March 27th, 2016.

2016-03-27 12.48.39I meet a few other members of my tour group briefly at breakfast – among them, a mother-son duo from Australia – but don’t really get into deep conversation, because we’re supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. for Santa Clara. And while I can’t speak for the others, I’m not fully functional before 9 a.m., anyhow.

I unfortunately hold up the group by several minutes because I realize that I’m missing my yellow fleece sweater and have to return to the casa for it. (Way to go, ding-dong.) For this, I thank my trip leader – nicknamed “Santana” – who lets me go back to look for it. (But more about him later.)

First stop of the day is a monument to Che Guevara (in Villa Clara province) and the adjoining mausoleum.

(Blogger’s note: knowing how contentious politics in Cuba are, even today, what I describe below are observations, not editorializing.)

The sun is blazing hot. The statue of Che is enormous, and doesn’t really provide any shade. We’re told its sculptor constructed it with its back to Santa Clara, because Che was Argentinian. Around it are walls with etchings of other revolutionary fighters, including one stone slab etched with Che Guevara’s last letter to Fidel Castro.

The short, squat building next to the statue is the mausoleum – dedicated to Che and some of his fellow fighters, as well as a sort of small museum describing his life. Some parts of the exhibit are translated into English – particularly the items on display – but others are only in Spanish.

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For lunch, we head into Santa Clara to a buffet restaurant called “El Quijote”.

It’s quite good – so much food, and so many sweets (which I try – and don’t quite succeed – to keep to a minimum).

In Santa Clara proper, we get a bit of a walking orientation/historical explanation of the town. Well, sort of. Santana isn’t entirely giving us a full talk.

At our local casas, we’re assigned our rooms, and Jana and I get to bunk together, which is nice.*

2016-03-27 17.11.35Our casa is super-cute … if a wee bit pink.

Like, princess-bubble-gum pink – right down to the shower curtain.

Our host (and his cute little dog) meets us with “welcome” glasses of juice to cool off.

After a couple of hours to ourselves to unwind, it’s dinner time!

But – in what will turn into an underlying theme during this trip – there’s confusion over dinner plans.

Santana wants the group to have dinner together at this one restaurant he’s recommended. But only part of the group agrees to reservations. The other part of the group – which includes Jana, me, and a Belgian couple, Lieven and Anick – want to head to a rooftop bar at a hotel in the town square.

And Santana? Well, he isn’t happy about it.**

I personally find his reaction kind of odd, as I’ve been on other tours where people make their own plans separate from the group without much fuss. But I put it out of my mind, and our quartet heads for the square.

Our plans for drinks, however, are foiled: turns out the hotel bar is closed. A local tries to lure us to this hole-in-the-wall, but we don’t take the bait. We wander instead into a local joint with a balcony that overlooks the square. But there’s not much there – and the locals don’t look at us (mostly the others) terribly fondly.

So we end up at this upper-storey fast-food place, where we chat over mojitos, beer, burgers and sandwiches. The food and conversation are what the four of us all really need on our first real evening of our tour.

Jana and I are back in our casa room at a respectable hour, lulled to sleep by the coolness of our air-conditioned room.

Tomorrow, we head to Trinidad – the town, not the island. (I’m not that rich, guys.)


Photos taken are mine. Please do not re-use without permission. 

* Our pairing up almost didn’t happen. Jana is originally supposed to bunk with another traveller – a Brit named Charlie. But because of the confusion and disorganization at the start of the trip, Charlie’s ended up with her parents … for the duration of the trip.

** Talking amongst ourselves later, we surmise that Santana has an arrangement whereby he brings his tour groups to certain businesses in exchange for some sort of commission. Or maybe they get the commission? I’m not sure.

Throwback Travel: Oh, Havana.

**NOTE to READERS: The following post describes a trip which took place in March, 2016. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but let’s face it – almost three years have passed! So bear with me.


Saturday, March 26th, 2016.

It’s just after 9 a.m., and I’m outside the Hotel Inglaterra.

No, I’m not staying here. I’m here for a day tour.

I arrived the night before, after about 12 hours of air travel (from Toronto to Montreal, then to Havana – by way of Air China, believe it or not).

As the Rolling Stones played to thousands of people, I spent my first 90 minutes on Cuban soil waiting to see a customs officer, languishing in baggage carousel hell¹, followed by a really confusing trip to the currency exchange kiosk², and then getting some “help” getting a taxi into town.³

After checking in with the nice desk staff at the two-star hotel I was staying at, I rode possibly the smallest elevator on earth up a couple of floors to my room – a small box with curtains … But no window. (It DID have air conditioning, though …)

But, back to the present, and the search for my tour guide.

Actually, he finds me. His name’s Daniel, and he walks me over to my group for the day.

We start with a walking tour, across the street from the hotel in Cuba’s Central Park. It’s a fraction of the size of its New York namesake, but – from what Daniel says – apparently just as lively, depending on what time of day you happen to pass through.

Daniel’s super-informative as he guides us from park to park and square to square.

Initially, I don’t really speak to any of the other folks on our tour – mainly because I’m trying to absorb all the facts Daniel is feeding us.

2016-03-26 10.22.42It’s not until we take our first drink/rest stop – atop the rooftop patio of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, one of Ernest Hemingway’s apparent former haunts – that I get to make some small talk with some of the group.

There’s the cute couple from Ireland; a couple from Connecticut; and the trio of Brits who are in town for work related to the Stones concert, and are enjoying a bit of downtime before leaving. It’s always interesting how guarded folks are until you overcome that first hurdle of exchanging pleasantries.

After our break, we continue our walking tour until about 1 p.m., when part of the group leaves, while the remainder of us grab lunch.

2016-03-26 14.49.31Following our meal, our shrunken group piles into two shiny, old-school convertibles, which drive us over to Revolutionary Square, past neighbourhoods like Chinatown (not a typo; also, no real Chinese community here anymore), Miramar and Vedado.

Driving past the Malecon, we end up at La Torre, a restaurant/bar on the 33rd floor of the Edificio Fosca, which offers spectacular views of the city and the water.

The tour concludes, and I taxi back to my hotel, to collect my backpack and find the meeting point for my tour group.

In the hotel lobby, I have a pleasant chat with the young woman at the front desk, who tells me that her last name … is Campbell.

Not even kidding.

Apparently her grandfather was Jamaican – which, given how close both countries are to one another (plus, one of my half-uncles spent part of his childhood here), doesn’t completely surprise me.

Who knows? Maybe we’re distantly related. Even if we’re not, it’s just further proof that Campbells are everywhere.

My next challenge is finding my way from the hotel to the homestay where I’m meeting my tour group. I sit in the hotel lobby, trying to get my bearings before leaving. The map in my travel guide isn’t useful in this case. I try loading the map onto my phone. No dice.

So I approach my fellow Campbell, and ask her if she’s heard of the street I need to get to. She and another hotel staffer (helpful but permanently unsmiling) try to help and are stumped. Mr. Un-smiley steps outside the hotel and asks someone on the street. Turns out it’s roughly a couple blocks west of where I’m staying, near a church.

I’m directionally challenged, so I rarely get from A to B in one go. When I get near the church, I ask a restaurant doorman (with what little Spanish I know), and his directions are super-clear.

When I arrive at the homestay (or casa particulare), some confusion ensues. My name is on the list of trip-goers expected … but I’ve received a welcome note for another group embarking on a sailing trip. The casa owner’s son hoists my backpack onto his back and we walk down the street and around the corner to another casa, where I speak to the trip leader in charge of the sailing trip.

Turns out my group has been re-located and my trip leader’s busy picking up more people from the airport. Also, that second casa is only the home-base/meeting place for my group. So I move again, to a third casa just down the street. This room’s nice, clean … and again, has no windows. It’s not a big deal, but it throws you off at first. The curtains are a little comforting.

I return to casa #2 in the evening, thinking I’d be early. Several people are already there – two couples from Australia and a woman from Germany.

The German is the only person even remotely near my age – and she’s 28. The Australians are in their 50s, maybe early 60s, if I have to guess. From what little I hear, it seems the group is majority Australians, which makes me the lone Canadian (a label I’m used to).

The German traveller, named Jana, and I make small talk and head out to dinner. She’s from Düsseldorf, is a project manager at some sort of digital company and, it turns out, she’s already been in Cuba for a week – first in Veradero (where she says there actually weren’t that many people), and now Havana. From the sounds of it, she’s ready to hit the road and see some other parts of the country.

Over dinner, Jana relays her experience of how she ended up at the Stones concert (word of mouth apparently goes a long way), as well as how she managed to get back to Havana afterwards. (It involves a car with doors that didn’t close, and an engine that only ran if the car didn’t drive in a straight line.)

I’ve only just met her, and I already admire her ambitious spirit and her thirst for travel.

Let’s see what my fellow travellers are like.


Photos in this post are mine. Please do not re-post without permission. 

1 I’m pretty sure our luggage didn’t appear for a good 30-45 minutes. And there were only two carousels, with the tiniest signs, serving hundreds of people.

2 I paced outside for almost 10 minutes trying to figure out what was open, before asking a man (who looked like a tourist operator employee) for help. He talked to someone who worked with security, and was directed to the front of another queue, with a cashier who was clearly over her entire day. She did help me as best she could, though.

3 The kind employee then helped me get a taxi – which meant I had to pay the security guy 40 CUC – and the original guy who helped me 10 CUC – in return for the assistance. (It was 11 p.m. so I wasn’t going to argue with either of them.)

Sculptures Galore!

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Tuesday, October 1.

We’re on the bus by around 8 a.m. to get to Florence, and our first stop of our city tour for the day: the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo‘s David – perhaps the most recognizable sculpture in the world, if not one of them.

I distinctly remember first seeing David in a picture as a kid of seven or eight. Not in an art book. In a sexual education booklet.

(Now, while it’s absolutely not my intention to debase such a renowned work of art, let’s be real: once you’ve seen the most famous junk in the world, it’s almost impossible to unsee.)

Anyhow. I’m an adult now, and I will absolutely appreciate the experience in a completely different way.

We wait in line on the sidewalk beside the gallery – along with one complete stranger who somehow thinks he can sneak his way in with us. Too bad he doesn’t consider the fact we have reservations – and tickets, which Franco announces loud enough for him to get the hint. (Idiot.)

Today’s local guide, Giovanna, starts our tour in the first large room containing various gold-leaf medieval paintings, and the sculpture called The Rape of the Sabine Women (depicting abduction, not sexual violation) by Giambologna (not Michelangelo, as I would have automatically guessed).

We’re then taken into the next hall next door, which is lined on either side by a series of Michelangelo’s sculptures, called the “Unfinished Slaves“.

It’s fascinating seeing these works, and then hearing from our guide how Michelangelo was able to start chipping and carving from whole blocks of marble, working from NOTHING except an idea in his mind (no test runs in plaster, nothing), and even more baffling that – for whatever reason – he would just abandon them. Just … surreal.

The result makes each work appear as if they’re trapped – like ancient Han Solos lodged in marble, instead of carbonite.

Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.

This corridor leads Giovanna and our group towards the main event – David.

Full disclosure: long before setting foot in Italy, I had heard that it would almost impossible to get to see David without reservations way in advance (I took that to mean one would have to make reservations weeks ahead of time).

And, even if you made said reservations, you’d be lucky if you got to spend even five minutes getting a really good look at the sculpture.

So, two things I didn’t expect?

First: Perhaps due to both being part of Giovanna’s tour, and the other people crowded around, our group, all told, gets to spend 10 minutes gazing upwards and walking around the statue. There are even school kids seating on nearby benches, sketching with the utmost concentration.

Second: I’ve come to see something that is perhaps a little larger than life-sized (because the memory of the photo from the sex ed book has led me to assume that, well, why would it be any bigger?).

Holy CRAP. It is MASSIVE. Over FIVE. METRES. TALL. (Or 16 feet.) It’s ASTOUNDING.

It’s fantastic, seeing the sculpture – the proportions and sheer detail –  and hearing Giovanna tell us the stories behind David. The story of its creation, in secrecy under a scaffolding, while people questioned Michelangelo’s sanity. The reaction after its completion. The fact an entire wall of the Accademia had to be knocked out when they moved David indoors. The nutbar who – in 1991 – broke part of a toe on David’s left foot (and the efforts to restore it).

By the time we leave for another corridor in the building, I’m convinced that David has either set my personal standard, or utterly ruined me, for classic sculpture. But really, I’m done.

We’re led into a room where plaster busts and other sculptures by other artists are on display – to not only illustrate the sculpting process, but to show the craftsmanship and attention to detail.

2013-10-01 04.14.15Once we’re finished with the Accademia, Giovanna takes us on a little walk to Florence’s main church and baptistry.

The doors of the latter depicts some of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament, displayed in 10 bronze panels.

Past the church and down a handful of streets, we’re in Piazza della Signoria, the main square, situated in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall).

The area is well-populated with statues, including a replica of David (not as large, but – except for the pigeon sitting atop his head – just as good).

2013-10-01 04.33.29There’s another statue nearby, Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

It stands out from a lot of others –  not only because it’s cast in bronze (which I think helps it withstand the elements a bit better? Please set me straight, if I’m wrong), but because we’re told it’s been outfitted with an electric device meant to deter pigeons from perching – or pooping – on it … by shocking them.

Giovanna navigates us through crowds of tourists and school groups until we eventually reach the Piazza Santa Croce, where our tour ends, and we’re deposited back into Franco’s care.

So our cultural education has ended for the day. But our shopping adventures are just about to begin.

Big Lake, Big City

2013-09-29 03.43.56(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 29.

We’ve woken up to intermittent rain – the most since our trip began. It’s also the coldest it’s been so far.

Some of the people on our tour decide to stay indoors today, while the rest of us soldier on as planned.

By the time we reach the town of Como – and our docked tour boat – the rain is steadily coming down. Luckily for us, the boat is covered. with a little overhang at the rear for us avid photographers.

Despite the inclement weather and low cloud cover, the views are still impressive. Our guide, Anna (a Brit who’s married an Italian), tries to point out some of the lakeside villas.

One villa, owned previously by a Russian aristocrat, is back in Russian hands after being purchased by a wannabe oligarch. Another hosted singer John Legend’s wedding to model Chrissy Teigen just a couple of weeks before. One lavender-coloured vacation home is occupied by an Italian singer who fancies herself to be a bit of a big deal.

2013-09-29 03.56.42The place of most interest to my newsie sensibility? The villa owned by Silvio Berlusconi – home of the infamous “bunga bunga” parties.

(It’s the white one in the upper left-hand side of the photo – nestled in the landscape, but not too out of sight to escape our cameras.)

Apparently, we’re told, it wasn’t all that easy for him to score a spot along the lake as one might think.

And waaaay off in the distance, past a tall red crane and nestled amongst the foliage, is George Clooney’s abode – or so says Anna. Too bad he isn’t home. I’m sure some of my tour-mates would be more than happy to drop by and say hi.

2013-09-29 04.34.50The rain finally lets up partway through our boat tour, and completely stops by the time we return to dry (or, more accurately, damp) land.

Anna then leads us around on a brief walking tour of “downtown” Como, highlighting the church, as well as a couple of main streets.

After being let loose, Mom and I walk around for a bit, then we head to the town square to rest our feet and eat our smuggled, handmade sandwiches from that morning’s breakfast buffet.

I decide a gelato would complete this meal nicely, so I tell my mom I’m going to get one from the shop just off the square. Mom warns me not to. Franco, just before we were let loose for free time, told us he’d have a treat for us when we re-assembled in a bit. She thinks it’s going to be gelato.

We’ve already had free gelato once this trip, so I brush off the suggestion and proceed undeterred.

I’m finishing my cone just as we’re walking back in the direction of the gelato shop to meet the others, and am caught red-handed by Franco, who asks me in a scolding tone why I’ve gone and bought gelato, since that is what the treat is.


So, I wasn’t listening. I sheepishly return to the gelateria for my second cone in 30 minutes.

2013-09-29 08.58.42We briefly return to the hotel, then it’s on to the lovely city of Milan.

We unfortunately won’t see Milan in its glory as a fashion capital, as we’ve just missed Milan Fashion Week by mere days. We’ll just have to make do with the other sights the city has to offer.

We’re outside Sforza Castle waiting for our local guide to arrive, when a guy selling scarves approaches me. I tell him I have no Euros (which is absolutely true – I’ve left my wallet on the bus), so he asks if my mother will buy one for me.

She retorts, “Who said I was her mom?” (He responds that we look alike – a discussion/debate I’ll save for another time, for those who actually know me.)

But he doesn’t slink away.

He continues chatting us up, telling us he’s from Gambia, is attending school here in Italy and trying to earn money for tuition, rent, and so on, and not having much luck with going the usual route of applying for jobs, despite knowing four languages.

Do I believe him? I believe there’s truth in what he’s telling me. Which parts are false or embellished, I can’t say for sure.

He wishes us a good trip, and tries his luck with other members from our group.

2013-09-29 09.04.43Eventually our local guide, Marika, arrives and takes us through Sforza Castle (called Castello Sforzesco in Italian).

We start in the castle’s museum, which houses various relics, including pieces of mosaic tiling and old sculpted mouldings.

Using us as interactive “pieces”, she explains the story of the castle (later a citadel) under Italian and Spanish rule.

2013-09-29 10.20.47We move on, looking at huge tapestries, and craning our necks to gaze at old ceiling frescoes which (I believe) were once painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

We also get a close look at Michelangelo’s “unfinished Pieta”, standing alone in its own section for display.

Marika tells us this was Michelangelo’s last sculpture, which he stopped working on six days before his death.

The definition is interesting. It’s so very well-defined on the bottom half of the sculpture …

And so roughly carved on its upper half.

It’s almost as if it’s a representation of the artist’s genius literally fading away, as his life did.

Next, it’s off to visit the world-renowned La Scala opera house (actual name: Teatro alla Scala).

2013-09-29 10.44.45Sadly, we’re not allowed to take pictures of the actual concert hall. But please believe me when I say it’s absolutely something else.

Wouldn’t it be something to experience a concert there, in a box seat, just once?

Marika takes us through the theatre’s museum, giving us tidbits about La Scala’s most beloved resident musicians and singers – including Maria Callas, who died the year I was born. (Just imagine if she didn’t fall in love with Aristotle Onassis.)

Our guide walks us over to the city centre, through probably the fanciest (and probably most unaffordable) galleria mall I’ve ever seen, and into the square situated right next to the monstrously massive Duomo.

2013-09-29 11.20.04It’s the largest cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Italy (if I understand correctly), and only one of the biggest (and oldest) churches in Europe.

If the Duomo’s exterior wasn’t intimidating enough, the interior is downright overwhelming.

High vaulted ceilings that seem to go up forever, frescoes and sculpted mouldings too numerous to count … and all this while a mass is underway. (I could have taken pictures, but I didn’t want to spend 2 Euros. Sorry.)

After developing temporary cricks in our necks from looking upwards and gawking (okay, so maybe I’m the one gawking), Mom and I go outside for some (relatively) fresh air before joining our group for the return trip back to the hotel.

Next: the Tuscan region, and the one place I’ve been looking forward to most of all … Florence.

Fair Verona, Lovely Lugano

2013-09-28 04.31.28(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Saturday, September 28.

This morning starts a bit better. All I needed the night before was some interaction with other people, and a couple of alcoholic drinks.

We start today’s itinerary in the town of Verona – backdrop to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Fun fact (which I don’t think I actually knew): Shakespeare never visited Verona. In fact, he’d never set foot in Italy, period. From what’s relayed to us, he essentially got his information about towns and cities in Italy from other people more familiar with the country.

2013-09-28 04.31.47Never mind that, though. The biggest draws – or a couple of them, depending on how vast your knowledge of Verona is – are the balcony and statue of Juliet, visited by many tourists from all over.

Today is no different. The courtyard is crowded with tourists, most of whom are gathered around the statue of Juliet, cameras at the ready.

Franco herds us in a group just behind another group, waiting for our opportunity to take our photos and get out of there.

According to Franco (pictured at left), the superstitious custom is this: If someone is single and poses with the statue of Juliet while cupping her right breast, that person will be married in three months.

Some tourists are groping the statue (one young woman actually does this while sticking out her tongue a la Miley Cyrus), so I don’t know exactly what that means for them. Frankly, I don’t want to find out.

2013-09-28 04.33.24At the opposite end of the small courtyard, not that far away from the statue, next to the souvenir shop, there’s a wall with dozens of padlocks … of love.

It’s very similar to the locks I saw on a couple of bridges in Paris the previous September.

Next to the locks are scraps of love notes, stuck to the wall with gum by teenagers. (Um, ew.)

Franco leads us out of the packed courtyard (through a grafitti-ed archway) through the streets towards Verona’s main square, and past the arena, where classical music aficionados come to town for its annual summer festival.

2013-09-28 05.15.15When he releases us for an hour, Mom and I stroll around a bit before sitting on a bench and just taking in the general neat-and-tidiness of the place. Verona is a very cute town.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. While sitting on that bench, Mom turns to me and tells me she actually likes this place.

Whaaaat?! A place she likes? There may yet be hope.

Our time in Verona is over. It’s back on the road and heading north … over the border … and into the Italian part of Switzerland (and the lakes district).

So different. So BEAUTIFUL.

The water, hills and mountains are – for lack of a better word – breathtaking.

2013-09-28 09.58.54We arrive in the city of Lugano, where we’re taken for a brief walk around, then are let loose to take in the scenery for ourselves.

On this particular day, there’s some sort of street festival happening, so the place seems a bit busy.

Mom and I take a stroll down by the water, passing a life-sized chess game in progress, and into the nearby botannical garden. It’s small, but just as picturesque and peaceful.

2013-09-28 10.04.06Our brief stop in Lugano over, we head back over the border into the town of Varese, where our hotel’s located. It’s nicely spread out; all the rooms are spread out on one level, and the dining room is at mezzanine level.

Tonight’s meal is different, but it’s also a bit of a special occasion: two people on our tour – Selene (here with her husband, from Ireland) and Rex (from San Antonio, touring with his wife and another couple) are celebrating their birthdays. So in addition to getting a little extra something at dinner, they both get a little cake with fruit topping, as the rest of us sing them “Happy Birthday”. It’s quite cute.

After dinner, Mom retires to the room while I join some of the others outside for a little socializing and a couple of drinks. I try to hang on as long as I can before it’s time to turn in.

Tomorrow we’ve got not one, but two excursions on our schedule.

A Little Venetian Vexation

2013-09-27 02.43.59(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Friday, September 27.

Our group starts out for Venice around 7:30 a.m. Another early start.

We pile into a water taxi and head for Giudecca Island, where there’s a glass-blowing factory, as well as a small gondola yard.

Our guide around the facility gives us a brief overview about gondolas, including cost (one can run in the neighbourhood of about 20,000 – 30,000 Euros), and a brief history lesson (for example, why all gondolas are black, and the fact they used to have “lids”).

2013-09-27 02.53.07We’re led inside into the glass-blowers’ factory, where we’re treated to a demonstration by a maestro. He first crafts a vase with handles, then a horse frozen in mid-gallop. Quite impressive!

We’re then herded into the showroom, where our host explains how colours are added to stemware, why good quality glassware – or at least the ones made here – won’t chip or crack when plopped onto a table (they WILL still break when dropped on the floor – it is glass, after all), and how to find the marks of authenticity and of a maestro’s good work (he will only add his signature to the best work, not to seconds).

It’s not cheap, either. A small gilded cup might run at least 70 Euros, depending; even really nice glass jewellery might run around 120 Euros at the very minimum. I come across some small stud earrings with various patterns embedded within the glass, for about 10 Euros each. I end up getting several pairs, for a small deal (plus a glass bon-bon I don’t have much use for). I’m pleased that I finally make my first purchase of the trip.

We’re put back on the boat and whisked back to Venice, where we’re let loose for free time. And so the challenge of finding things to do – and getting Mom (who just wants to get back to the hotel) to do it – begins.

Sitting on some marble steps just behind St. Mark’s Square, guidebook in lap, I suggest we go visit the Gallerie dell’ Accademie. We get just enough time to figure out our directions on foot, before we’re booted off the steps by a woman in an orange shirt. We can’t sit on the steps. (As we would see later on, it’s a recurring theme in Venice.)

The walk there is … interesting. There will be signs pointing us in the direction of the gallery, and then they’ll disappear along the way. This happens a couple of times, forcing us to stop and re-direct ourselves slightly, but we eventually find it.

IMAG0433The gallery – while large in size like a lot of galleries I’ve been to, is somehow manageable and not completely overwhelming.

There is a LOT of commissioned religious work (as seems to be the norm in a lot of European cities) – portraits, paintings, stained glass, and a handful of sculptures. How many times can the Madonna and Child be painted? You have NO idea.

There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, which Mom opts to sit out.

There are some of his sketches, but a lot of the work on display is by other artists influenced or inspired by him. I do see his sketch of the Vitruvian Man, which is cool.

We exit the museum sometime after 1 p.m., stopping  by a snack place for something to eat. I have a mediocre hamburger; Mom gets a pork sandwich, with no cheese and not much of anything else.

We continue our return trip back to St. Mark’s Square, going off course at first. But we get some help from spray-painted graffiti directing us towards the square, when “official” signs disappear.

2013-09-27 05.13.04We reach the square at around 3 p.m. I suggest to Mom that perhaps we should check out the Doge’s Palace. (It’s also known as the Ducal Palace. No, it’s a real place. And no, this is not the “doge” I mean.)

Perhaps it’s just me, but for the first time this trip, Mom seems to hesitate.

Perhaps she’s just tired, but it all of a sudden I feel as if I am making all of the decisions of what to see and do.

This irritates me a little. We’re supposed to be mother and daughter, travelling as tour companions, not me playing tour guide, picking which direction to walk, or what sites to see, while my mom feebly agrees to go along with whatever I decide.

We approach the Doge’s Palace. First, there’s some hesitation/confusion over where to find information on the hours of operation and ticket pricing. When we find out tickets are 16 Euros a person, Mom balks at the price, then worries about what I’m going to eat for dinner, and how I am going to pay for it, if we do the tour.

Now, I’m fully irked. I need a time-out, and I have nowhere to go.

I’ve been in a foreign country, and haven’t been more than 50 feet away from my mother for the past eight days. Yes, I fully accept that this whole trip – the idea of spending time with my mom – was my idea in the first place.

But perhaps between the lack of proper sleep, my mother’s fretting over money (she wasn’t prepared – and to a lesser extent, neither was I – for the cost of excursions and incidentals on this trip), the sheer number of excursions, Mom’s dietary challenges, as well as her back (which she threw out some 10 days before we left) …

We may have both hit a wall.

2013-09-27 09.22.05The palace once housed the powers that ruled over Venice, where justice could be meted out with severe consequences, as illustrated by the dungeons below the main building.

The frescoes in a number of the rooms are intricate and massive.

But I spend half our visit in the palace feeling angry for dragging my mom around Italy (seemingly against her will), wanting some distance, and getting irritated at aaall the other tour groups clogging up staircases and the various rooms on the tour. I shouldn’t feel this way. But I can’t help it.

We manage to kill enough of the time remaining to cross over the four bridges leading back to our meeting spot just before 4:30.

2013-09-27 09.56.30While waiting, I decide to get an ice cream while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, because it’s absolutely hot. But Mom follows closely behind.

Rationally speaking, she just wants to keep close because she’s in a foreign country and no one she recognizes is around yet.

But part of me – perhaps the overheated, overwhelmed part – can’t help but feel a bit suffocated by the close proximity. I just want a few minutes of space.

The others eventually appear, so there are others to talk to. We board our boats at 5 p.m. While making small talk with the others over how we spent our afternoon, our fellow Canadian traveller Else asks my mom how she’s doing. Mom admits she’s really tired and just wants to go home.

And, there it is.

How do you now enjoy a trip with someone who just wants to go home? And the best parts of our journey haven’t even happened yet.

Back at the hotel, in the silence of our room, Mom eats a banana. I can’t take it, and for the first time since the start of our trip, I pull out my iPod and phone and fiddle with Instagram and Twitter to pass the time, like a very sulky teenager.

Around 7:15ish, Mom asks if I’m going to the pizzeria. Yes, I reply. Do I want her to come with me? Again, I reply yes (sullenly). Off we go, down the road and across the bridge, to the pizzeria.

While I wait for my take-away order, Mom – seemingly out of the blue – mentions how she’s recently been thinking of her aunt (the last of her father’s surviving siblings, and the youngest, although she would now be about 99, if she’s still alive). She last saw this aunt about seven years ago.

The topic of conversation then veers into family history. This piques my interest, and I’m a little less grumpy then when I entered the restaurant. But not by much.

We return to the hotel, and I eat my pizza in near silence, hoping this irritability will pass.

In Venice …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-26 09.15.23Thursday, September 26.

I did NOT have a good night’s sleep. I hope to make up for it on the bus ride to Venice.

After a shower in possibly the tiniest shower stall in Italy, and then breakfast, our group’s bus is on the road by 8 a.m.

During our lunch break at one of the rest stops, I have a brief chat with a physician’s assistant from Nashville (she’s not on our tour), who’s being dragged around Italy on her own non-stop trip, by her Italian husband (to see his friends and relatives).

A little later, while Mom and I are sitting at a table with Susan (the outreach nurse from Australia), an older Italian lady tries to make conversation with her. I think it’s quite sweet and refreshing, since our contact with folks outside our tour group has been extremely limited.

We arrive on Venice’s outskirts by about 4 p.m. From there, we take private water taxis to St. Mark’s Square, where trip leader Franco leads us on a brief walk around, along side streets to get us oriented.

2013-09-26 10.15.06From there, we’re taken to the small docking area for a 35-minute ride on gondolas through Venice’s canal system. Cheesy? A little bit. But I can see the “romance” factor if you’re with your sweetheart and want to do something that screams “Venice!”

But … I’m with my mom, who’s a bit nervous about the prospect of sitting sideways on a chair that’s been lashed to the inside of a tipsy gondola with rope. At least we have cushions on our seating to help pad out our ride.

The ride itself is pleasant, and – in addition to the boatmen dressed in their striped shirts, bandanas tied around some of their necks – there are musicians on a couple of adjacent gondolas, playing and belting out Italian classics, turning the cheese factor up a notch.

Following our return to dry land, we’re allowed about a half-hour to walk around, get a coffee/tea, or whatever we’d like.

2013-09-26 10.47.05St. Mark’s Square is lovely, but absolutely teeming with obvious-looking tourists like ourselves. You can barely look at, say, a jewellery display without literally smacking someone’s hand by accident.

(And no, grammar soldiers, I’m not using “literally” incorrectly. I actually did accidentally smack some poor Spanish lady’s hand while pointing at something. As you were.)

Franco collects the herd once again, takes us back to San Marco pier, and puts us back onto water taxis. At the other end, the bus drives us to the nearby town of Oriago, where we’re staying. Unlike the hotel in Assisi, the rooms are bigger, and the beds are firmer.

Dinner’s at 8 p.m., with a mimosa to start, followed by lasagne (pasta with bacon for Mom), salad, what I think is veal and potatoes, finished off with some “grandmother cake” (cake with lemon filling, and topped with browned almonds, which I eat), and tea. Mom says it’s the best meal she’s had all trip so far. Another victory!

Tomorrow, we spend another full day in Venice, but with a painfully early start from Oriago.

The Road to Assisi

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-23 04.31.39Wednesday, September 25.

Yet another super-early start to the day …

But for the first time on this trip, our tour group’s getting a bit of a reprieve in the (non-stop) excursion department.

Our driver, Pierluigi, has a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to get us to our next destination – the town of Assisi.

I take advantage of the long ride to catch up on my sleep, as the last couple of nights haven’t been entirely restful.

Our first short stop is at the Cassino war cemetery, the final resting place for many soldiers from the Commonwealth – New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Canadians.

As we enter the grounds, a military ceremony is underway at the far end, so we move along as quietly and respectfully as we can between the rows of gravestones, gazing at inscriptions and taking photos.

2013-09-23 04.49.18Prior to our arrival at the cemetery, Franco told us that a large number of the fallen buried here are Canadians.

Standing on the grounds now, I can see them – rows upon rows – on the right-hand side of the cemetery.

The sheer number of tombstones – compared to the other soldiers from other countries – says volumes about their involvement and the ultimate price they paid.

Some were as young as 19 years old – as far as we know. Some could be younger, as it’s known that some young men lied about their ages to enlist. The visiting is quite sobering, but worth the visit.

Back on the bus, we travel for a couple more hours, passing Rome’s outskirts and going beyond, stopping for lunch at a rest stop near the town of Spoleto.

From there, it’s another two and a half hours before we reach Assisi – home of St. Francis.

2013-09-25 10.01.46As it happens, our group has arrived roughly a week and a half before Pope Francis is due to visit the town and give mass, on St. Francis’ Day (October 4). At the time of our visit, we’re told that Assisi is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people to descend upon the town for the festival.

Seeing the town at a distance from the bus, with the basilica appearing to be perched on the edge of the hill, the thought that we would be soon ascending up there seems a bit daunting.

But upon meeting our local guide for the afternoon, Vania, it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as originally imagined.

For starters, she leads us up two sets up escalators (no, really) towards the “new” gate, on the town’s northeastern side.

Assisi is anything but flat, but it honestly doesn’t seem so bad to navigate. It’s precisely the type of picturesque little town you’re supposed to imagine when you think of Italy, with scenic views of the landscape that don’t seem to end, and architecture that beckons you to take photos.

2013-09-25 10.17.09The streets are lined with shops, including meringues in patisserie windows the size of my face!

Every stairway, nook and cranny visible to the naked eye is image-rich. The two squares through which we’re led have views of the countryside that no picture can really properly capture.

Vania takes us inside St. Francis’ Basilica, where she talks a bit about St. Francis’ life before his decision to dedicate his life to religion, as well as the frescoes on the church walls that depict his life and work.

2013-09-25 10.41.12

(Another historic tidbit/sidebar: we’ve arrived the day before the 16th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Assisi [1997]; it damaged part of the basilica’s portals, apparently shattering it into some 200,000 pieces. A fair bit of one of them – I believe near the church entrance – has been re-assembled by experts through a painstaking method much like a jigsaw puzzle.)

From the sanctuary, we’re then taken down to the basilica’s lower level, where St. Francis’ tomb is kept. The structure is dramatically different – the lower ceilings, the design. It’s (obviously) from an older time, and so the atmosphere feels slightly more eerie, but also more sombre and reverent. Both clergy and average folks alike are there in the small, ancient chapel, praying. It feels a bit strange (even a tad disrespectful) to be shuffling about as a tour group, while this otherwise most sacred of acts is going on.

2013-09-25 11.50.46The tour ends, and we’re let loose for about 45 minutes.

There’s not as much to look at in the southwestern section of town. I opt to take a look in a couple of nearby shops, purchasing a sticky almond pastry from one of them. (The pastry is nowhere as sweet as I think it’s going to be – just very nutty.)

Finally, we’re rounded up and taken to the hotel – a tiny, 40-room establishment. The rooms and bathrooms are just as compact.

Following a lovely dinner, it’s once again to bed, and it will be early to rise. We have a full day of driving ahead for the next stop.

A Day on the Coast

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-22 04.12.59Tuesday, September 24.

Today’s a long day, but a good one.

Our first stop: the town of Sorrento – which also happens to be our trip leader Franco’s hometown.

I didn’t know this before we arrived, but Sorrento’s known for its intricate wood inlay designs, which can be found on everything from tables to music boxes. So – of course – the first place we visit in town is a wood inlay factory.

There’s a presentation by the man who runs the factory, followed by a “stop” in the adjoining gift shop to admire and – naturally – an attempt to entice us into buying something. (Nice try, wood-inlay man.)

Leaving the shop, we walk into town for a mini-tour of the shopping district. We pass numerous shops selling leather purses (this catches my eye), sample sweet almond candies, and even are treated to some gelato, courtesy of Franco (see photo of my selection, below).

2013-09-22 04.27.53But herein lies a test. For you see, my dear, sweet mother – who chose Italy as our travel destination – is lactose-intolerant (and gets a bit of heartburn when she eats tomato sauce). Yet here we are, lined up inside a shop that’s said to serve the best gelato in Sorrento. Fifty-six flavours’ worth.

We’ve already had a disappointing food experience the evening we arrived in Rome, and my mom hasn’t been completely impressed with her food options thus far. So I’m nervous.

But it turns out I don’t have to be. With Franco’s help, she finds a milk-free melon flavoured treat … and she likes it.

(Yay! A small success!)

We also make small talk with some of our fellow travellers, including a couple named Dallas and Randy, who hail from Winnipeg. As we find out, Randy is (1) quite funny and (2) an avid eater of gelato. He and my mom seem to get along almost immediately.

Around 11:45, we’re let loose. Some people set off on an excursion to a mozzarella farm outside Sorrento. Because of my mom’s lactose issues, we opt instead to browse a few of the shops in town, then take a local bus tour which lasts 35 minutes (cost: 6 Euros), following that up with lunch.

We find a little sit-down place where I chow down on pizza, while Mom has to improvise with some boiled potatoes seasoned with olive oil and onion (which she claims she likes).

After lunch, we elect to rest a spell on a bench somewhere. The only one I can find is under some trees that line one of the main medians in the town centre. Of course, it happens to be across from some not-so-young Italian men loafing about, smoking and such.

In the span of about 10 minutes, the gaggle of Italian dude-bros grows to almost a dozen, standing almost in the road, sitting next to us, just loitering. Mind you, they don’t bother us, but I grow tired of the impromptu sausage party pretty quickly.

We return to our group’s meeting spot by the wood inlay factory, where we board mini-buses for the afternoon drive down the Amalfi Coast, where we will stop in the village of Positano.

2013-09-22 09.18.29The journey down the coast is narrow, and a bit steep. Having done a similar stretch on my trip to Morocco several years ago, I’m not unnerved. For my mom – between the narrow roadway down, various cars and scooters zipping in and out, and huge trucks expertly navigating the terrain – it’s a bit daunting.

But the view leading into Positano is simply spectacular. In some ways, it sort of reminds me of Croatia.

The stop in Positano is lovely. But truthfully, there’s not a lot to do for the short time we’re here. Our local guide, Stefano, is nice, but he doesn’t say a whole lot about the town.

2013-09-22 10.03.28He leads us on foot, from our drop-off point at the top of the village down to the beach. It’s lovely, but the sun is high, so it’s quite hot … and there’s not a whole lot to do.

Our sightseeing done, we leave town and arrive back in the town of Castellmare di Stabia (where we’re staying) sometime after 6 p.m.

Dinner is spent with two nice American couples, Judy and Charles from Florida (they’re just lovely!) and a woman named Rosemary and her husband (whose name eludes me). We dine on spaghetti carbonara, followed by chicken and vegetables, with a flan for dessert. Mom gets spaghetti minus the tomato sauce, along with a special omelette with vegetables. (Other than the portion size – which she says is huge – I think she does okay.)

The hotel offers post-dinner tea upstairs, but tonight it seems a lot of people are too pooped to go. Mom and I do end up sitting and chatting with three Australians – a couple, Kerry and Keith (I forget where they’re from), and a lady named Susan, who’s from Darwin. She’s an outreach ENT nurse working to get care and treatment to those in far-flung Aborigine communities. (Listening to her talk about the language, cultural and geographic challenges, as well as her program being under constant threat of dwindling government funding, is unreal.)

The night winds down, and Mom and I head back to our room.

Tomorrow, we’re off to our next stop: the town of Assisi.