Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Well, it was bound to happen. I mean, we’ve been haunting Rick’s favourite spots for nine months. Today, we finally caught up with him.

We were visiting Ostia Antica today; a recommended visit, I might add. It's an ancient Roman town, similar to Pompeii without the ashes. We had downloaded Rick’s self-guided tour to our Ipod’s and were taking a break at the cafeteria. The children had decided to eat at a separate table, (you try being with the family 24/7 for nine months) when Rhys came running out to our table to say he thought he had spotted Rick Steves. We gave him the book to check the picture but you know, when you’ve been staring at a guy’s face for nine months, you pretty well have it memorized. Or maybe it was the large TV size camera on the table near him.

By now, he’s part of the family; a sort of silent partner. You remember your childhood imaginary friend? Well, today our imaginary friend stepped out of the book and sat in the restaurant eating lunch near us. Being the thoughtful stalkers we are, we waited patiently for him to finish his lunch before mauling him. At least, two of us waited patiently. The other two vibrated excitedly in their seats. I’ll let you imagine who is who.

Tom and I stood up and began to approach from opposite sides of his table. I’m sure THAT wasn’t threatening at all. How DOES one approach a person of note? Surely not as though one was tracking a rabbit. He seemed to understand immediately that we were headed to him for some reason and greeted us quite pleasantly. His camera crew and guide also had friendly, easygoing personalities and as I gushed on about how much we loved his books, yada, yada, yada, he endured it all with grace and good humour. He even posed for a picture with us. I am thinking it might be the cover of our photo album when we get home.

They all smoothly extricated themselves from our fanatical clutches and we went on our way, excited and energized. We went into the museum to finish the self-guided tour and there they all were again! There was not even any eye-rolling when they saw us coming! I’m pretty sure they thought it was simply coincidence. Rick told us he is doing a lot of filming now for more videos. We’ve seen lots and they are wonderful but we are obviously not the only ones who think so or he wouldn’t be making more. One of the camera men asked if we wanted to stand in the room while they filmed. We would be extras in the background to give the shot more authenticity. Our first film debut as a family! Make sure to look for us in the new Rome video coming to shelves soon! We’ll be the ones in the background studying the sculptures with the intensity of four people who want desperately to look at the camera.

Julia recommended Rick list more gelaterias which his guide, Francesca said she had been recommending for years. Personally, I think he doesn’t need anymore. He has Giolitti’s and that has to be the best strawberry ice cream I have ever had in my life. We have been there twice. The first time we all tried a variety of flavours and I tried strawberry. The second time we all had strawberry.

Cactus Attack at the Cinque Terre!

Well, we finally made it to Italy. The drive in from Monaco was amazing. The road is one long tunnel. I felt like a mole, popping my head out and squinting at the glare every few minutes. That must have been some long drive a few years ago before the new highway through the mountains.

We decided to ease out of our new found love of extreme wealth so we went from the French Riviera to the Italian Riviera. We stayed just outside the Cinque Terre in a seaside resort town called Levanto. The weather, the food and the location were a fantastic introduction to Italy.

We spent our first afternoon lazing around one of the cute Cinque Terre towns: Monterosso. We ate on a lovely deck overlooking the ocean. It was a spot recommended by our friend, Rick but we were disappointed when they charged us an extra 8 euros to sit down. That kind of thing just seems in poor taste to me. The wine and food, however, had a very good taste and it was a pleasant way to start our exploration of the town.

Towards the end of the day we lost Rhys. Julia waited on the path overlooking the ocean while Tom and I split up to see if we could find him. We were pretty sure he was engrossed in “lizard spotting”, his exciting new pastime that overrides any awareness of his family’s whereabouts. One would think this child would be the one at greatest risk of violence but no, while our backs were turned Julia suffered a near death experience.

While she was waiting for us she heard a cracking sound from above and when she looked up, she couldn’t see anything. She could, however, see people looking up and pointing at her and so as the crashing sound was getting louder she had the presence of mind to MOVE. A large cactus smashed onto the sidewalk next to her, splattering her legs with cactus juice and sending another piece of itself over the ledge and onto the seawalk path below. By the time we got back the whole thing was over. Julia was white and shaken but not pierced. Funny, Rick didn’t mention cactus attacks in his guide book.

The next day we hiked the Cinque Terre. My favourite part was the views. Tom’s favourite part was eating Foccacia pizza on the breakwater in the Vernazza harbour. Julia’s favourite part was the gelateria. Rhys’s favourite was spotting 52 lizards. The hike was hot and long with lots of hills but it was well worth the effort. We all had a great day.

Another Nice Trip

The drive to Italy was a long one so we decided to stop over on the French Riviera for a few nights in between drives. We especially wanted to play the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” game. We were not disappointed.

We spent our first day in Antibes and Cannes. We took a wonderful walk around the Cap D’Antibes and then drove into Cannes to see if we could spot any movie stars. No star out during the day but we did see them setting up the theatres for the upcoming Film Festival.

The next day we drove the three corniche drive to Monaco to hobnob with the really rich. The drive was gorgeous with stunning views. We stopped in a little medieval village called Eze. It was very cute and done up well. However, the costs of items in that village were almost triple what they were elsewhere! We knew then we had arrived at the haunts of the very rich. Imagine having so much money that you don’t look at a price tag and don’t care what you pay. On the one hand it seems tempting. On the other, it seems irresponsible. Off we went to Monaco.

You can see from the picture our position in the Grand Prix. It was a difficult race but the streets were freshly paved. There weren't many Renault entries and even fewer families but we are an adventurous sort. We couldn't find the finish line. The streets all seemed the same with thousands of vehicles all pushing and shoving to be first. Eventually we found a parking spot and opted out of the race.

There were stands being set up along the harbour and the shops along there must hate it because it was quite difficult to walk along there after the race. We toodled about for awhile but the highlight was the Monte Carlo Casino. I mean, you can’t go to Monte Carlo and not gamble at the casino, right? We made the kids wait outside while we went in to gamble. I hear that’s an old Canadian tradition…just kidding. We didn’t go into the back rooms because we were too cheap to pay the 10 euro cover charge. We just sat at the slot machines in front. Tom lost his money and I doubled mine so we walked out a whole euro richer than when we walked in. It could happen to you, too. Really.

However, the real show wasn’t in the casino. It was out in front. There was a constant parade of Bentleys, Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis driving around the circle. I kid you not. These people really do exist and they all go to the same spot: Monte Carlo. The per capita income in Monaco is the highest in Europe. I wonder if that includes the casino?

Basque-ing in Northern Spain

We reached Basque country some time ago but it has been tricky posting blogs without a good internet connection. San Sebastian was the recommended mid-point and we even stayed in Pension Amaiur, the recommended pension. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer spot. The reception there was just wonderful and the whole place was cute and colourful. It was also much better located than we usually are so we were right in the thick of things.

Rick recommended lots of great tapas bars so we thought we’d try a tapas crawl again. Wow, what fun THAT turned out to be! Even with the family age spread, we all had a great time. There were four or five recommended tapas bars but our favourite was the first one: Goya something. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the whole name but it has been a week or so now and my brain is a bit fuzzy. The wine was good that night too as I recall.

The Basques are a unique lot. They have somehow managed to maintain their individuality even through the Franco years. I have to wonder at the tenacity of the people living on the Iberian peninsula. Here they were, ruled by a nasty old dictator for some fifty years or so and not one, but two of their fiercely independent minded local peoples still managed to keep it all together; the Catalonians in Barcelona area and the Basques in the Northeast corner. Interesting they are both on the eastern end.

At any rate, the Basques kind of fired my imagination because their language has been around for almost 7000 years! It is the oldest European language still spoken. Wow. They also were around trading with the people in the British Isles way back when and were known for their excellent seafaring skills. Perhaps they even made it to North America? If they did, they didn’t stay long because there is no evidence of them there.

Another interesting Basque tidbit is that their capital is Guernica. This may not strike you as curious but for those of us who have been Picasso’d to death in the past few months, Guernica stands out. Picasso painted a now famous painting called “Guernica” for the 1937 Expo in Paris. The painting recalled the horror inflicted on the Basques by Hitler and Mussolini. They were trying out a new idea they had for killing people. It was called carpet bombing. They basically flattened the entire city. Odd given the Second World War hadn’t even started but Spain was in the middle of their civil war and Franco was demonstrating his ability to terrify and cripple on his way to becoming top dog. He was buddies with Hitler and Mussolini. They all shared a similar ideology. The strategy of the hour seemed to be to create as much fear as possible in order to get what you wanted. For Franco, it worked well.

This, of course, leads me to another interesting tidbit shared by Rick. Apparently, Franco wanted to get on the Hitler bandwagon after Hitler occupied France. He met with Hitler in a little town called Hendaye, also near Guernica. Fortunately for Spain, Franco was quite full of himself and presented as a boastful, pompous peacock. Hitler dismissed him as a nobody and Spain wasn’t invited to the WWII party. The alternative endings to that little story make me shudder.

We toured many of the delightful little French Basque villages, including Biarritz, a resorty beach town. Rhys and Julia had fun with the waves there but we all agreed with Rick that Saint Jean de Luz was a prettier little spot. Our day on the Spanish side was filled with a visit to the Guggenheim Modern Art Gallery along with a stop at Guernica.

The Guggenheim was a very cool building but after the mind-blowing science fiction architecture at Valencia, it couldn’t quite reach mind-blowing status. My favourite exhibit at the Guggenheim was the “Degenerate Art Collection” ostracized by Hitler. There was something very satisfying and humourous about being able to enjoy this art.

Guernica, you’ll all be pleased to know, is no longer bombed flat. It has been rebuilt. The best part is the Basque people still use the same ritual to elect their figurehead leader that they have used forever. There is a special tree behind the government building in Guernica where the new leader is sworn in. The tree has had to be replaced over time as 7000 years is beyond the life of one tree, but supposedly, the tree today shares the same seed lineage as the original. And how cool is this? The tree miraculously survived the carpet bombing! Survivors gathered under it afterwards. It just kind of makes you want to cheer for them. Go Basques, Go!