Italy: Advice to the Traveler

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Ligurian Marina



I have just returned from a trip to Italy and a friend will be traveling there soon.  This was my fourth trip to southern Europe in five years.  While I recognize there are many variations from region to region, I offer this advice to someone who is traveling to Italy for the first time.  These are things that I have observed, read, and learned.  While most of my time is Italy has been spent on hiking and photography, I hope this advice will help the casual traveler.






  • How many Euros will you need?  Try to calculate, before you leave, whether or not you would need to spend a large sum of cash.  My husband and I prefer to stay in Bed and Breakfast Inns, and many require us to pay in cash.  If you know that you need several hundred Euros in cash, order it before you leave.  We found the best rate from Wells Fargo.  You order it online; they deliver it to your door.  If you just need a few hundred Euros for incidentals, try getting them from your bank.  They may not have it on hand, but they can order it for you.  AVOID exchanging money at the airport!  On my most recent trip, we rented a car and knew we needed small change for the toll road.  My husband exchanged some money at the airport.  The rate was terrible!  They pile on so many fees.  On that day, the exchange rate for €1 was $1.32.  Once all the service fees were added, it cost us closer to $1.76.
  • In Europe, the use of decimal points and commas in numbers is different.  $1.76 would be written $1,76.
  • When using a credit card, select a card that does not charge foreign transaction fees.  Those fees can add 2 – 3 % to the cost of each transaction, which adds up quickly!  I have an American Express that charges no foreign transaction fees, but it is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard.
  • It is always worth asking the waiter if they accept your credit card when you arrive.  In Greece, time and time again restaurants had “credit cards accepted” signs in their windows, but then would claim that “the machine is broken”.  It happened SOOO OFTEN, that we concluded that they were lying.  They wanted cash.


The road a car must take to exit Montepulciano


  • When renting a car, we always purchase the extra insurance.  I can not imagine a faster way to ruin a vacation than to get into a car accident and have to navigate a foreign insurance claim.   When we returned our rental car, I overheard two other couples saying that they were returning their cars fairly dinged up. They were shrugging their shoulders and hoping everything would be okay.
  • Speaking of cars, mind that speed limit!  If you are caught speeding, Italian police can fine you on the spot!
  • Driving in Italy is not for the faint-hearted.  In Naples, it is “everyman for himself”.  There were lots of traffic lights, but none of them appeared to be working.  My husband finds driving in Italy to be exhilarating!
  • You are not going to believe how tiny some of those roads are!  What we might believe to be a mere pedestrian pathway may actually be a two-lane road.  Well, maybe not “two-lane”, but “two-way”, and you pray and pray that you don’t meet a truck.


  • I took a year of Italian in college, which enables me to decipher most signs.  Many menus will also be written in English, but mind you, it will be British English.  I marvel how many Americans don’t know the British equivalents!  Here a few that are often encountered:  melanzane – aubergine – eggplant, zucchine – courgettes – zucchini, zucca – marrow – squash, patatine – crisps – potato chips
  • I recommend taking an Italian phrase book.
  • If you get lost, ask a German.  They usually speak flawless English, and always seem to know where they are going.


A perfect lunch


  • When seated at a restaurant, the water will ask you about what kind of water you want every time. The first thing he may say to you upon seating you is, “With gas?” and you may be startled by this inquiry.  He wants to know whether or not you want your water carbonated.  If  you don’t want it carbonated, say “no gas”, or “sensa gas”,  “still”, or “flat”.  Amusing, but you get used to sitting down and immediately saying, “No gas!”
  • Most restaurants will charge you a cover charge (coperto).  I have seen these range from € 1,50 to as much as  € 6, and that is charged per person!  A service charge (from 10 – 18%) may also be charged and included in the bill.  If there is a service charge, you don’t need to tip.  Otherwise, tipping 10% is customary.
  • In many towns, restaurant hours are short.  In Montepulciano, restaurants did not open until 7 or 7:30 PM and only seated until 9:30.  Ask your innkeeper about local hours, because if you are starving, you may want to grab a panini before the snack shops close.
  • A “bar” is not the same thing as it is in America.  A bar is more like a “snack bar”, where you may purchase all sorts of coffee drinks, sandwiches, and train tickets.  They will also serve alcohol, but if you are looking for an aperitif before dinner, look for an enoteca, which is a wine bar.
  • Bibite are soft drinks, and Italians never, ever, ever drink them directly from the can.  They will offer you a glass or a straw.
  • The menu will start with antipasto, which is an appetizer. Primo, the first course, is pasta, soup, or risotto. Secondo, the main course, is meat or fish.  Salad follows the main course and is served before dessert.  However, waiters will recognize that you are American, and will ask if you want your salad “before”.  That is fine.  They do not seem to be the least bothered by serving the salad “before” the main course.  You do not have to order all of the courses!  Any combination is fine!
  • The waiters do not care if you plan to share a dish.  Some will bring two plates and split it for you.  Others may bring one plate and two forks!
  • If you like wine, educate yourself on the local offerings  of the region you are visiting before you arrive.  If you try to sample every wine that the sommelier recommends to you, they will have to cart you home in a wheelbarrow.  One night we had the undivided attention of a waiter for 45 minutes.  He explained everything you ever wanted to know about the wine grapes of Tuscany, and summed it up with the explanation that in Tuscany, wine is the first religion, beef is the second, and Catholicism is third.
  • You will have to ask the waiter to bring you the bill.  He will never bring it to you unless you ask for it, and he will not do anything at all to hurry you on your way.
  • Italian bread is unsalted, so it tastes stale immediately after it is cut.  Skip the bread and save the calories for gelato!
  • Salad is always served with olive oil and vinegar (usually balsamic).  On the airplane I watched a movie which mocked an American couple (from Texas, supposedly) in Provence ordering “fat-free Ranch” for their salad Niçoise.  No one would really do that, would they? (Don’t remember name of movie.  It was forgettable.)
  • Liguria, where Cinque Terre is, is known for its focaccia.  Best focaccia I have ever tasted!
  • Tuscany is the land of wine, beef, and truffles.
  • Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, offers great pizza, seafood, and limoncello.
  • If you drink a lot of coffee in America, you will not find anything like drip coffee, but Italian coffee drinks are worth sampling.  Caffe Americano is a delicious coffee drink.  It is a serving of espresso which you thin with hot water.  It is so smooth, I find that it does not require milk at all.  A serving of coffee in Europe is 4 ounces, not 8 – 12 ounces.



  • Always pack a jacket or sweater! Hot days may still have cool evenings.
  • If you intend to do site-seeing in cities, do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts if you intend to visit any churches.  I have seen women turned away from church doors for bare arms.
  • Weigh your suitcases and pack carefully! Air Dolomiti seems to delight is requiring passengers to repack their luggage right there at the check in line. I think every single person in line was asked to step aside and lighten their carryon.  They wanted to charge me €60 because my carryon bag was overweight.  So all I had to do was unpack my camera so that my bag was the right weight, put my camera in my handbag to carry it through security, then put it back in my carryon before I boarded the plane. Go figure. Made for a nightmarish line at 5 a.m.


Italy really is all those wonderful things you have ever heard.  The climate is terrific, the landscapes are breathtaking, the towns are charming, the food is delicious, and the people are warm-hearted. Lord willing, I will be back!



Comments (1) May 24 2012

Savoring the Art Institute of Chicago

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Landscape with Two Poplars by Kandinsky






How thankful I am for talented artists!  Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago.  I went alone, able to absorb and ponder great works of art.  My viewing was limited only by the museum’s closing hours.  Five and a half hours were not long enough.  Studying pictures of art masterpieces is worthwhile and culturally relevant, but does not substitute for the experience of connecting with them in person.  It is an intimate experience, sort of like finally meeting someone you have always heard about.  “I am so glad to finally meet you; I have heard so much about you.”

Alas, upon arriving at the museum I discovered that the camera I brought to Chicago was a 45 minute train ride away in my hotel.  Sigh.  I did my best to capture a few snapshots with my cell phone before the battery plunged into the red zone.

An exhibit called “Belligerent Encounters:  Graphic Images of War and Revolution, 1500-1945” was powerful and moving.  How seamlessly Otto Dix’s images of World War I horrors and the brutality of the Weimar Republic flowed into Francisco de Goya’s portrayal of Napolean’s war atrocities in Spain.  These artists so powerfully communicated where words fail.  From a series called Der Krieg, Dix captures civilians fleeing an aerial raid.

Lens wirdt mit Bomben belegt

Here we see depicted homes destroyed and cities trampled by soldiers.






This poster depicts the evacuation of civilians from a ship that was attacked by German u-boats.  The child’s face beneath the sailor’s arm seems to glow angelically.

My favorite image came from a collection of prints depicting the aftermath of war and the hardships of soldiers, especially amputees.  This print by Heinrich Hoerle is called The Married Couple, from Krueppel.  Their faces show such sorrow, yet see how gently she holds his hooked arm, and how tenderly his other hooked arm embraces her waist.


The Married Couple, from Krueppel

My experience at the Art Institute of Chicago was not all heavy and introspective.  I enjoyed lighter subjects as well.  The museum has a fantastic collection of modern art.  When I was a child, my family often played a board game called “Masterpiece”.  Even when I was very young, I would always trade my Rembrandt card for a Van Gogh or a Marc Chagall.  I don’t know why.  They make my eyes feel good.   So I was delighted to encounter a large collection of works by modern favorites, such as Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, and these by Georges Braque:


Landscape at L'Estaque


I think I have found a new favorite.  Piet Mondrian is perhaps best known for curious abstract paintings, such as Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Blue, Black, Red, and Gray:

Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray

But look at this terrific landscape!

Farm Near Duivendrecht

The Art Institute of Chicago displays quite a number of very famous paintings.  The gallery with Grant Woods’ American Gothic was quite crowded.  I was content to view it from afar. I suppose there is no painting that has inspired as many parodies, except perhaps The Mona Lisa.

American Gothic

In the same gallery was a painting I had never seen before by Charles Sheeler.  The artist looks down upon a surreal landscape.  Even though his shadow is cast upon the grass, he seems to hover above the wall.  The painting he is composing is not the visible landscape, but instead a monochromatic painting of a cellar.  It makes you ponder.  Or at least, it makes me ponder.

The Artist Looks at Nature

I had to wait  for a crowd to clear so that I could view George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884.  I wanted to take it all in, unhindered.  It was magnificent.

A Sunday on La Grand Jatte, 1884


Seeing a painting in person allowed me not only to stand back for the “big picture”, but also to move in for a closer view.

John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of a lovely, elegant woman.  It seemed life-like.

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth)

I could move in close to marvel at the brushwork, then step back again to appreciate the effect.

Detail of gown

In many ways visiting a museum is like attending a party.  You not only become acquainted with familiar names, but also you get to meet new friends.  Francis Picabia’s painting, Edtaonisl, shows whirling, swirling colors.  The painting was inspired by the artist’s observation of a Catholic priest who was captivated watching dancers rehearsing on the deck of a ship.

Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic)

Thanksgiving, by Doris Lee, is amusing and sentimental.  I can not help but smile.


There are many paintings which I feel can only be appreciated when seen in person.  An example would be Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water

Photographs and prints make this painting appear to be a mere gray blob with an orange spot.  But not in person!  There are flecks of gold light that penetrate the mist, and draw you in to the painting.  For me, it was one of those “WOW” moments.  I had to go back for a second look.

There are many who would argue that the study of fine art is not a legitimate career; that painting is not a worthwhile pursuit.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  As Stephen Sondheim said in his musical, Sunday in the Park with George, “Give us more to see!”


Comments (0) Oct 05 2011

Mansion on Forsyth

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Mansion on Forsyth

My husband had to work twenty days in a row before getting a day off.  His work days are not like most – up at 4:15 a.m., seldom home before 6:30 p.m.  Add to that countless committee meetings and business meetings and phone calls at all hours of the night.  He was exhausted.  As his day off approached, he declared that he wanted us to go to a nice local hotel so that we could sleep in.  I balked at first.  I felt like that  was unnecessary and extravagant.  However, when the big day finally arrived I was glad that he persisted and I relented.  It was only 6 a.m. on his day off when his phone started ringing, and text messages began chiming their dreaded alert.  He was right; we had to get away.

He made reservations at the Mansion on Forsyth, an elegant hotel in the historic district of Savannah.  It looks out upon Forsyth Park and is an excellent location for strolling the downtown area.

I am not from Savannah.  I have lived here for ten years, but I am free from family connections that might in any way connect me to the traditions and superstitions that make Savannah so unique.  I watched Mansion on Forsyth being constructed.  I was impressed how the new construction perfectly matched the original Victorian mansion, which had once been a funeral home.  Therein lay the challenge.  When the hotel opened, my husband and I were eager to try the restaurant, 700 Drayton.  It was remarkable!  I still remember the baked chevre appetizer.  It was an all-time favorite meal.  I asked around to native Savannahians about 700 Drayton and learned that no one would try it!  Their responses were the same: “I could NEVER eat in the same room where Uncle So-and-so lay dead.”  Well, their loss.

So my husband and I went to stay at the Mansion, knowing already that locals measured it with a hefty amount of superstition.  What did surprise me was that the designers actually seemed to deliberately incorporate a “haunted house” theme throughout the entire hotel.  Here are a few photographs I took with my iPhone.  I did not expect the unusual decorating, otherwise I would have been better equipped.

Mansion on Forsyth bedroom

The rooms are extremely comfortable, although quite unusual.  The colors were muted with splashes of blood red velvet.

Bathroom curtain

The elegant bathroom is separated from the bed by only a curtain.


The light fixtures were creepy-looking candelabras.

The large bedroom mirror was convex, creating a sort-of funhouse quality.

Creepy shadows

Light fixtures were also unique in the unusual shadows they cast.

The entire hotel is decorated in bold and bizarre art work.

This one makes me giggle.










A little creepy.








The lounge looks like it belongs in the game of Clue.

Mrs. Peacock did it with the candlestick in the lounge.


Chandeliers that illuminate the hallways have black crystals!

Black crystal chandeliers

The Grand Bohemian Art Gallery is connected to the hotel and has an impressive collection of artwork.  I was swept away by landscapes by a French artist named Jean Claude Roy.  Many talented local artists sell art there as well:  Rebecca Cope, Tiffani Taylor, Irene Mayo.

J C Roy

J C Roy








For out-of-towners, I highly recommend Mansion on Forsyth for both comfort and elegance.  For the locals, I hope my snapshots provide a peek at a place that few of you dare to tread.  As for me?  I didn’t lose any sleep.






Comments (2) Jul 18 2011

Return from the West

Posted: under Hiking, Photography, Travel, Traveling with children.
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Utah landscape


The lush green trees of Savannah were a welcome, familiar sight to our family as our plane landed at the Savannah airport.  We had returned from our grand tour of the west, and it had been a great success.



In nine days our family of eleven visited seven parks, most of us hiked more than seventy miles, and we traveled in our rented passenger van 1650 miles through breath-taking and awe-inspiring landscapes.  It was a trip we had dreamed about for years and years.  It was a trip we had procrastinated for years, too.  There was always a good reason for delaying it, but we felt like this was the year to tackle it.  Even though our youngest children may remember little of the trip, our oldest son is almost twenty.  Already he is making plans and interviewing for internships that will prevent him from returning to our home next year during his summer break. We needed to make this trip a priority before any of our baby birds left the nest.

My "big boy"

My "baby girl"









My husband took care of the logistics.  He made the itinerary, planned the route,  and made reservations.  He felt like every other family vacation was just practice for “the big one”.  He executed his plans flawlessly.

We flew to Las Vegas, rented a fifteen-passenger van, and visited the following parks:

Zion National Park












Bryce National Park










Capital Reef National Park










Arches National Park













Canyonlands National Park










Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park










Grand Canyon National Park






















In order to facilitate hiking with the older children, we brought with us a homeschool graduate to babysit the youngest children a few hours each day.  While it may seem unfair that the little ones missed the morning hikes, they really did not mind.  Remember, my children have been raised without television, so the opportunity to stay in a hotel room and watch cartoons is a BIG DEAL to them.


Hiking with the big kids

Outings with the little ones

Easy hikes together

Enjoying the view









With some variation, our daily schedule followed this routine:

1. Older children, husband, and I rise early for a strenuous hike.  We might be at the trailhead as early as 6 a.m. and hike as far as 12 miles.  The little ones sleep in, eat breakfast at the hotel, and watch cartoons with the babysitter.

2.  We return from our hike around lunch time and eat peanut butter and nutella sandwiches with everyone together.

3.  We load everyone into the car and do a “driving tour” of the park we are currently visiting, or drive on to the next park.  Our driving tours involve getting out at points of interest in each park and taking short hikes with all of the children. Most of these hikes were easy to moderate, with distances between 1 – 3 miles.

4.  We eat supper at a restaurant.  We never eat fast food.  Our supper time is an important time as we review our memories of the day and discuss our plans for the next.

5.  We return to our rooms, just in time to put tired little bodies to bed.

My husband’s plans were well-organized, but not rigid.  We had the flexibility to add to his plan a trip through Monument Valley and a tour of the Hoover Dam.  He referred to numerous guidebooks as he planned our route, but they could not substitute for a trip to the visitor’s center to speak with a park ranger about trail conditions and recommendations.  (Park Rangers are a resource that must not be overlooked! And besides, I think they are among the nicest people on earth.)

The Three Gossips - Arches NP












To say that the rugged landscape is “vast” is an understatement.  It is really hard to describe what we encountered without overusing words such as “awesome”, “amazing”, and “splendid”.  We did take more than 1200 photographs and I hope share some of these with you, that you, too, may marvel at the mighty workings of the Lord.

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.  Psalm 65:8 ESV

Sand Dune Arch

Comments (1) May 31 2011

My Traveling Pharmacy

Posted: under Traveling with children.
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Cast netting in Captiva

Captiva Island is one of my favorite beach vacation destinations.  Getting there, however, is rather complicated.  It lies off of the coast of Ft. Myers, Florida.  You must travel through Ft. Myers, cross a lengthy causeway to Sanibel Island, pay a hefty toll ($6), then travel the entire length of Sanibel Island.  While Sanibel is not a long island, the road is characterized by low, well-enforced speed limits.  Once you reach the end, you cross a little bridge onto Captiva.  We like to stay on the far north side of Captiva, which means traversing that entire island, too.

Here is what happened.  One night while visiting Captiva, one of my sons woke up around 11 p.m. with a high fever and a bad case of croup.  Everyone was well when we left home, so I had packed no medicines.  While I administered the usual remedy of steamy showers to my son, my husband went for fever medicine and expectorant.  It was like that old song “To Grandmother’s House We Go” – over the island, through the toll, across the causeway, in search of a late night drug store.  It seemed like he was gone for two hours!  It was then that I resolved to prepare for our family a “traveling pharmacy”.

I took a backpack, the kind with wheels, and filled it with new containers of the kinds of medicines my family uses when sick.  You know what medicines your family prefers; it may resemble ours.  I also threw in a variety pack of bandages and some new toothbrushes (someone inevitably loses, forgets, or drops his in the toilet. I’m not kidding.)  I store this bag in the medicine closet and add it to our pile of suitcases whenever we travel.

This bag is NOT for our toiletries.  Each child is still expected to pack up hairbrushes, toothbrushes, medicines, contact lens fluid, whatever, that they normally use on a daily basis.

This bag is NOT a first aid kit.  I try to keep first aid supplies in a kit in each car at all times.

I do NOT store this bag in the car.  High car temperatures could damage medicines, and I don’t want bored children rifling though or tampering with my supplies.

I do NOT store prescription medicines in this bag.

I keep these supplies fresh and “in date” by using this bag as the “go to” source when we run out of medicines in our medicine closet.  For example, if we are out of ibuprofen, I get a new bottle out of the “traveling pharmacy” bag, and add “ibuprofen” to my grocery list.  I will replace the ibuprofen from the bag with the newest bottle.  Because these are medicines that my family actually uses, and because we are a large family (and always passing around things), we do not have a problem with items expiring.

This “traveling pharmacy” has saved us hassles on countless trips.  If someone develops diarrhea, I reach for the loperamide (Imodium).  Hives? I reach for diphenhydramine (Benadryl).  A persistent and productive cough? Guaifenesin and dextromethorphan (Robitussin DM).  It helps us get back to the business at hand, which is having fun and building memories.

Fun in Action

Fun and games till the sharks arrive


Catch of the day

Bowmans Beach on Sanibel

Comments (0) May 03 2011

Poppies in Provence

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Poppy fields near Ochre Quarry

The older I get the more I realize that is it unusual for a day to unfold the way you expect.  It doesn’t matter how many lists you make, appointments you schedule, tasks you delegate.  The expecatations you had when you awoke will likely be confounded.  This can be a great temptation for anger, self-pity, or  frustration. But sometimes the unexpected can bring amazing experiences – and I am not just talking about opportunities for practicing patience or other forms of character development.  Sometimes the unexpected leads to adventure.

On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband and I traveled to Provence, France. Because we had our ten-week-old daughter, our ninth child, in tow, we chose to spend our week exploring the countryside hiking, with her in a backpack.   On a fine, sunny day we set out to explore the ochre quarries near Roussillon.  Our guide book, which had proved trustworthy thus far, seemed suddenly vague.  At a junction we were to take the right path, which descends steeply, follows a ridge, passes through woods, till we can look down into the quarries.  We could not find this junction.  At last we found a path, which descended gently.  We followed a ridge and there we saw one of the most spectacular sights my eyes have seen-  acres and acres of wheat fields covered in poppies!  “Breathtaking” is an understatement!  We walked on, expecting at any time to enter woods that would lead us back to our quarry.  At long last, we knew we were lost.  Well, not really lost, but diverted.  Time for a picnic!  We pulled from our packs hunks of fig bread and olive bread, and a sampler pack of locally made tapenades.  There is no food quite so delicious as food eaten when you are truly hungry!  We traced our path back uphill.   We searched hard for our path.  We had to decide where it ought to be.  It was little more than a goat path, well obscured by brush.  But it did descend sharply, along a ridge, through the woods, to the quarries.


view of the ochre quarry


Red ochre

Checking the guidebook

Ultimately we walked many miles out of our way.  Many.   Like maybe five.  However I would not trade that experience for a perfect hike.  I find myself often reflecting on that hike.  I comfort myself on days when the unexpected happens, which is almost every day, with the memory that sometimes the unexpected can lead to something wonderful, like a field of poppies.


A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.  NKJV Proverbs 16:9

Comments (4) May 01 2011