So Long Sicily… HELLO, MONTENEGRO!!

THANKS GAMBLERS, BELLAS AND LUNARA’S FOR THE BEST SEND OFF OF ALL TIME!!!

Good-Bye Sicily… HELLO MONTENEGRO!!!

I have noticed a pattern when we spend several weeks or even months in one location. I have itchy feet and dare I say, desperation, as the days turn into weeks, then weeks into months. When I think it is time to move on, I have no patience for waiting for the many other factors to fall in line to make that happen. Staying well past our prescribed time last year in Lagos, due to Covid, had me nearly apoplectic. While I wasn’t nearly as unsettled this year as last, I did fall into more “blue” mood than usual, and it lasted longer also.

Certainly, the loss of Whitney (our dear cat of 14 years) played a part. And the multiple 1.5-hour trips back and forth to Siracusa from Marina di Ragusa for the Veterinarian wore on us. But following her death, I was positively unhinged, and for the first time, I wondered if it wasn’t time for us to come home.

SEE YOU IN CROATIA!

Small things, that my usual “optimistic self” ignored, weighed on me. Litter on the side of the road, the neglect for the stray animals, bureaucracy, and my inability to communicate all compounded to overwhelm. I had serious traveler’s fatigue.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved Sicily and we loved the friendships we formed there. Some of our “goodbyes” are more permanent and some were merely “so long, we will see you again soon”. But all the partings involved a further descent into melancholy. But we were on the move again and that brought with us new optimism.

Montenegro and Quarantine flag going up

We had a passage of 1 day to Siracusa to get a Covid test and “stamp out” of Italy. Being there also involved more than 1 trip to our favorite panini shop, Borderi. We had our carpet cleaned which after the illness of 2 cats, was necessary. And we said so long to our agents and friends from Luise Yachting. Then we had another few days while waiting for the right weather for the 2+ day passage here and we were off!

So Long to our friends from Luise and thanks for the amazing dinner you brought us. We will miss you

Thankfully, feeling the gentle roll of the Mediterranean Sea beneath our keel and gazing into the inky blackness of the water under a moonlit night brought me back out of my melancholy and restored me to my normal optimistic equilibrium. In fact, as I sit here in Montenegro looking around at sites that are totally unfamiliar -open restaurants with nary a mask in site, I feel positively giddy with excitement and anticipation with the café’s undiscovered and the ancient buildings, and cobbled stoned streets, here for over 500 years, awaiting our sandals.

A word about the Covid vaccines here so that there is no misunderstanding, – we would gladly get one and will do so the moment we are able. We support the use of masks to contain the spread and we believe the science, not the stories. But I can’t deny that being free to eat out and seeing people enjoying socializing has done more for my mental health than I realized I needed. Walking around outside socially distant without a mask on has been positively liberating. And we have just learned that with a winter berthing contract (which we will be signing on Monday) we can become temporary residents and allowed to get the vaccine. This is hugely great news as we thought we would have to wait until we returned to the states in October.

The fly bridge is back open!!!!

We are docked in the very up-scale yachting capital of Montenegro, Tivat, also known as Porto Montenegro. A large, 450 slip marina project begun in 2006, the large development has evolved into a several buildings long residential and commercial community, complete with Cartier and Rolex shops as well as spas, restaurants, and boutique shops. There are numerous restaurants, bars and café’s and a grocery store planned to open by the time we return this winter. All of this in the glorious Bay of Kotor, also known as “Boka Bay”, itself under the protection of UNESCO. This marina is truly a “full service marina” offering concierge services as well as agents to help with clearing customs formalities, ordering flowers, making reservations or helping with whatever you could dream up. We are very much looking forward to our winter here.

A short drive from here is the charming medieval town of Kotor. Another UNESCO spot due to the 16th and 17th century Venetian fortifications. Kotor was on the endangered list after the earthquake of 1979. Completely restored by UNESCO and removed from the endangered list in 2003, the old town and the beautiful Venetian fortifications have been fully restored to their original splendor.

Covid continues to offer mixed blessings since Kotor is typically overrun with tourists pouring from cruise ships. Ranked 3rd in the med in terms of cruise ship visits, behind Venice and Dubrovnik according to BalkinSite.com, we were only 3 of about a dozen people in the entire old town area. When we were talking to a local woman about the cruise ships, she admonished that we should run, not walk to Dubrovnik now, before cruise ships return. What a gift to see the beautiful city in all its glory sans the smells of pizza and fried food which should be so foreign in this town.

Porto Montenegro Yacht Club

The weather this week has been forecast for rain nearly every day so we are delaying the tours for next week. On the list are Budva, Perast, Our Lady of the Rocks (there are 2 islands which have churches on them – we plan to visit 1.) And most importantly, we want to launch the dingy and do some sightseeing by water. Still a bit chilly here with sweaters and jeans worn all day, it isn’t time for swimming yet. Mostly this week we have all felt like we are on a true vacation. Our first week off from school (and teaching for us), we have been relaxing, reading, eating out and I have been to the spa twice. All except Alec that is…

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY! Jack fixed home made scones all by himself. Thank you Jack! I love you.

When we left Sicily, we could see that the discharge water for the wing engine was looking a bit anemic. As the temperature was good, we decided to press on to Montenegro and take a closer look here. Upon arriving and finding huge crosswinds for docking, the wing engine was pressed into service as it supplies the hydraulic power for the bow and stern thrusters. Fortunately, the wing engine did its job well enough for us to get into our slip but it did begin to overheat. Alec has been taking apart the system bit by bit trying to find the culprit. Finally, he found it and the pictures are below.

This small hole should be the full diameter or the pipe but was completely clogged with calcification

We plan to be in Montenegro 1 more week, then a short cruise to Dubrovnik. Unfortunately that will necessitate another full round of PCR tests but such is life in these Covid times.

GOODBYE

3/2007-4/2021

Goodbye

The crew of the Gratitude lost a very special crew member this week. Whitney, one of 2 cats who have been with us for their entire 14 years of life, passed away yesterday due to a large cancerous mass on her lung.

In an effort to remember through the tears the wonderful gifts that she has given us, we will share a few memories here of our beloved Whitney.

Born in March 2007 to one of the ORC/Key Largo Anglers Club strays, Alec and I adopted Pratt and Whitney from her mother as soon as she was weened.

Pratt and Whitney snuggled together daily. We are praying Pratt can be consoled through his loss as well.

She loved watching Jack grow up!

Looking through the thousands of photos we have taken over the years we were reminded that Pratt and Whitney have born witness to events both large and small in our lives. They have moved into and out of 3 houses, 3 boats and 4 jobs. They have welcomed Jack home from the hospital after his arrival in 2010 and Whitney, knowing I was pregnant (Pratt not so much) could not wait to mother her new baby.

Whitney loved crawling up on Jack even as a baby

Advised to be careful with a new baby in the house, Neither Pratt nor Whitney showed even the slightest signs of jealousy and Whitney loved to lick and groom Jack while he was nursing.

Later as crew members, Whitney sat every watch with me in the night when the rest were sleeping. She sat up with me on my lap and waited until it was time for bed. She never left the side of a sick family-member and stood vigil until we were nursed back to health. She loved laying in the sun, and she desperately loved Jack.

Whitney’s home on my lap all nighttime watches and some daytime also

To say that we have experienced a great loss is an understatement anyone reading this can relate to if they have lost a family member.

Rest in peace dear Whitney.

SICILY, THE FUN!

JACK IN SURF LESSONS!

Sicily, The fun

We are just beginning to wrap up our winter here and after spending 6 months in Marina di Ragusa, we have a few tidbits to share with others planning to visit the area.

Another gorgeous sunset – covid can’t take that away!

First, it must be said that as I write this, we are in still in the grips of Covid and lockdown. Even though parts of the world are beginning to ease restrictions, here in Sicily, we are tightening even as we speak. Entering our second year of this virus, we just clamped down from yellow, to orange and then red just in March/April alone. The sliding scale of restrictions has allowed for temporary freedoms to be restored after a period of safety and low Covid numbers. But soon after “yellow” restrictions – which permits restaurant and café openings as well as movement between commune’s, the numbers spike and lockdown ensues.

Restaurants may be closed but the beach is open

We had a few weeks of “Yellow” in March though, and with it, we hit the ground running. Winter boat jobs and school-work tossed aside and replaced by travel and to experience and enjoy as much of Sicily as we could possibly manage while we were able.

Sicily, the largest island in the Med and 1 of the 20 regions of Italy, is home to an astounding 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While we arrived with the goal of seeing them all, we have thus far managed only 4, though with lockdowns and restrictions of travel between commune’s we consider ourselves lucky to have managed that. Historical evidence of human habitations date back to as early as 12,000 BC but some of the better known residents of this island, and the very reason for the rich artistic and culinary history include the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans (and others). Following the Norman conquest of southern Italy, Sicily was later united as the Kingdom of Two Sicily’s with the Kingdom of Naples. In 1860 during the revolt led by Guiseppe Garibaldi during the Italian Unification, Sicily became part of Italy.

Stop in Taormina on the way to Mt. Etna

Given so much to see and such diversity, we had a hard time deciding what we would do first but since we have a Florida boy who loves snow and skiing, Mt. Etna was the dream spot for Jack.

Possibly at the top of the list for our crew was the impressive Mt. Etna which has been “brewing” and sputtering with increased frequency since the beginning of the year. Not only does this fit nicely into the 4th grade curriculum -we have been learning about earthquakes and volcanoes, we also hoped to go skiing and sledding on Mt. Etna.

With tops of over 10,000’ (3,300 meters) Mt. Etna is a stunning stratovolcano on the east side of Sicily, Italy. Though much larger than the more famous Mt. Vesuvius, Mt. Etna is 2.5 times Vesuvius’ height and the largest mountain in Italy south of the Alps. While we were fortunate to see many eruptions both day and night while we were there, the heat from the near constant activity and our late visit due to lockdown restrictions meant that there was only a tiny bit of sledding snow left and the ski resorts never did open this year.

We did manage a couple days of snow fun!

Still, our accommodation at an agro-turismo spot felt quaint and special to us and allowed me time away from the galley. Breakfast and dinner were prepared daily and with the scents of cooking emanating from the kitchen most days, it felt like we were being cared for by a kindly Italian Nonna. Simple and delicious, Sicilian home-cooking is healthy and plentiful. Due to the rich fertile land of the volcano, wine and agriculture abounds here and the food tastes incredible. Citrus, pistachio and honey are just a few of the culinary hallmarks of the area.

Good times shared with friends!


Having volcanic ash raining down from above is truly a memory for a lifetime.

Second on the list is Agrigento. Founded on a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean azure water and reported to be one of the last cities founded during the Golden age of Ancient Greece and a leading city of Magna Graecia according to Wikipedia, it is reported also to be the largest and most “in tact” collection of Greek Temples outside of Greece. Walking through the remarkable Valley of the Temples, one can almost feel the many lost civilizations who once called this area home.

This is only one small paragraph but it has involved multiple trips to the Noto villages which is the 3rd UNESCO Site on our list of favorites. Though we are “living” in Marina di Ragusa, nothing could be further from the “real” Ragusa, for which the marina was named. The eight towns in the south eastern side of Sicily are as follows: Caltagirone, Militello, Cal di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palozzolo, Ragusa, and Scicli. All of these town suffered severe damage during the earthquake of 1693 and were all rebuilt. What makes these towns so fabulous is the Baroque style of architecture popular in the early 18th century, and the brilliant way in which the towns are laid out on the hillside. The cathedral in Scicli is breathtaking and the ceramic and pottery in Caltagirone is worth several visits. Modica is known for their unique flavor and style of chocolate. Each of these towns is worth it’s own visit.

The ceramic is not only in the shops in Caltagirone!
Caltagerone

Probably the most frequented area of UNESCO acclaim and the place we have visited the most since our arrival is Siracusa, in addition to spending the first 6 weeks here upon arrival in Sicily. Itself a Unesco site, the archeological significant sites in this adorable area (the island of Ortigia actually) cannot be overstated. I could spend 1500 words regaling you with the details of several visits but as I have already covered Siracusa in other posts, I’ll leave it there. But don’t go to Siracusa without going to the amazing Borderi sandwich shop and the one next to it at the market. And go hungry! The market, only open until 1:30 and closed Sundays is a must see on any trip and lunch at Borderi is the icing on the cake!

Another market in Catania

The sites we have yet to cover are: The Villa Romana del Casale, an open air museum only 42 miles from where we are in Marina di Ragusa. This is reported to have the most impressive collection of Roman Mosaics and wall paintings in existence dating back to a 4th century residence. It is not known to whom the residence belonged, but certainly a high -ranking aristocrat is presumed.

The 7 Aeolian Islands of volcanic origination on the North coast of Sicily. Hope to see these islands on our way past to Naples.

And finally, Palermo. Historically significant from the Arab and Norman times, and including 9 religious or civil significant monuments. The moment we go back to “yellow”, look for Instagram shots of this area since it is the highest priority for us at this point. We are not permitted to leave our commune except for approved reasons of which, tourism is not one. But we are ready and when we get the green light, we are there!

If you are a boat person planning a winter in this area, I can’t give it a higher recommendation. Though we certainly missed most of what is classically Sicilian with regard to food and entertainment due to Covid, we have never met a more loving, kind and life- giving group of souls. Even without the food and entertainment, we have LOVED our time here in Marina di Ragusa. As we are wrapping up the winter here, I will be putting together a list of people, businesses, or places that we recommend for visiting yachts to the area. Suffice to say, even in Covid times, this place tops our list of winter destinations. Look for a future post on good to know info for your travels to Sicily. Including a dentist, a vet, an Italian teacher and the best agents in the world!
So that is all for now! Ciao!

This Beautiful man embodies the soul of Sicily. Noticing Jack entranced with his work he grabbed him and gave him an intimate taste of his life!

Anniversaries, Boat Yards and finally Freedom (for a little while)!!! Sicily, Italy

The foo-foo

Last week visiting Caltagirone Happy Anniversary my love!

Anniversaries. They are such wonderful markers of life’s bigger events and one can’t help but take stock upon transiting a milestone. Aboard Gratitude we have 2 such occasions occurring in March. The 18th anniversary of our marriage on the 22nd, and the 3rd anniversary of our purchase of Gratitude N6403. When I consider the past 18 years and reflect on some of the “bigger” events, accomplishments, and storms, I can only be filled with gratitude that I have had my very best friend by my side for all of it. What we have been able to achieve together and what I have been able to achieve because Alec was in my corner cheering me on is nothing short of amazing. To say that the past 18 years could only have happened in the confines of this marriage would be an understatement. And given my overwhelming gratitude for this privileged life we have been able to live, I thank God daily that He has put this beautiful soul in my life. Happy Anniversary my love.

James Knight, Yacht Tech with the new ones of Ocean Pearl

3 years ago, we purchased Ocean Pearl and she was christened Gratitude. In the 3 years we have owned her, we have lived aboard exclusively and called her “home” for 2 ½ years. In that time, she has brought us to 12 countries, 13 islands, over 50 cities and introduced us to countless past civilizations. She has nurtured the souls of the 3 of us, and also, I hope, nurtured the souls of those dear ones who have visited or eaten aboard with us in that time. She has provided shelter from storms both on the water and tied safely to the dock, and she has been a place of refuge to ride out a pandemic, illness, celebration, and life.

Celebrating Serena’s Birthday – The Italian language teacher to all of us!

Gratitude has born witness to the largest amount of growth either of us has ever experienced in the same amount of time, save perhaps the first months of parenthood.

Several years ago, a family member leveled the accusation “you’ve changed” at my husband as if it was an indictment. Upon hearing this, Alec came to me and asked me if I thought it was true. I nearly fell out of my chair, laughing because YES, of course I thought he had changed. But in what world is change bad? Usually change is the result of the work that we do internally and externally. How pitiful would life be if, after a decade, we had not changed? Thinking back over the past 18 years of our shared life together, we have both changed in both small ways and in enormous ones. All of the changes -while not always enjoyable, have resulted in the best possible life together. We have each become more like the “other” and we are bringing up a child together consistent with the highest values of each of us. But looking back, the greatest growth has occurred during the biggest trials. During a serious illness, after the birth of a child, a big move or change of job – all of those have resulted in a huge bump in the growth scale. Similar to those, we look back together over the past 2 years and see remarkable changes in the way we perceive the world and our role in it. Petty things which seemed important to us 5 years ago are completely inconsequential. The day- to- day decisions have changed, the way we eat and the clothes we wear (and more importantly the way we feel about both of those things) have all changed.

Our roles as parent, teacher, coach, mentor, as well as our roles of spouse, Captain, Mate, partner and chef have changed and sometimes several times. When we left Florida, I was the primary teacher, but Alec jumped in and helped as needed. During our first year with all of the “ups” and “downs” I hit a serious bump in the proverbial teaching road and Alec took over as primary teacher while I managed the admin side of things – deciding what would be taught and how to get it recorded to comply with Florida requirements.

Friday Workout – Physical Fitness with the Bella’s

A few months ago, however, I decided to give it another try, and I am absolutely loving teaching most days. Something that was truly a misery for me a year ago has turned into a favorite activity. Change…
I have tried to figure out exactly what has led to this newfound joy with teaching and I honestly have no idea if it is Jack, me, the material or my frame of mind. More likely it is a combination of all of these things. A friend suggested Kahn Academy for Math and that has been a true “Game changer”. Beyond that, I am really at a loss to explain it. Here are some experiments we have done together in the past month including building a barometer, an anemometer and an arm exhibiting the way muscles work together. We also made a cloud and rain. It has been a ton of fun in the “Gratitude Laboratory”.

So perhaps we should all embrace change in ourselves and in each other with more love and anticipation!

The Technical

Gratitude has just returned from the Pozzallo Boat Yard in Pozzallo, Sicily where she underwent several boat projects which have been on the growing list of maintenance required.

Last year while in Lagos, Portugal, we had considered a trip to the yard (also known as the Spa) but we cancelled it due to the Covid pandemic and needing to live aboard rather than allowed to travel around. After another full summer of cruising, she was ready for some polish.

So, Gratitude was hauled out and got a full scrub and new paint on her bottom and prop. Also polished were the topsides which got a fresh coat of wax.

Also, on the list, this past summer our dryer quit and, anticipating a similar fate for the washer, we decided to replace them both. Based on recommendations from friends aboard other Nordhavn’s, we decided on the Mele ventless dryer and words can’t describe how much I love it. Now, if you are a regular reader you know that I prefer to hang laundry rather than consume the energy necessary to machine dry it but in Sicily we get huge wind-storms called Sirocco with 50 knots of wind blowing Sahara dust for a couple of days at a time. Frankly – there are just times when a machine dryer must be used.

And finally, we replaced our Vacuflush heads with Tecma heads. Though the heads were “working”, they were due for some needed yearly maintenance including changing some 6 seals on each of the 3 heads aboard- a job nobody on board was looking forward to. Additionally, we never loved that on an ocean -going vessel with double or triple redundancy on nearly every system aboard, we had a single point of failure possibility on our heads. Which is to say, should someone accidental flush the wrong thing, not only would their head stop working, the whole boat is down. Now I don’t know you, but if away from land by several days and you can’t flush your head, nor can anyone aboard, – that is the stuff of nightmares for me. So, we changed them- and we are thus far very happy with the result. More importantly, if we have a guest aboard who forgets and flushes the wrong thing, the rest of the heads are operational until a repair can be affected on the broken one.

The cushions on the exterior needed to be replaced so we took care of that while in Sicily and before going to the yard. We are so very pleased with the result, the photos are above and below.

New cushions on the Aft Deck

One of the questions we get frequently from friends back home is about the cost of this little adventure of ours. In fact, I remember in the 5-7 years leading up to our departure fretting non-stop over how much living overseas was going to cost us and would we be able to afford it?

We have spent only a fraction of what staying at home would have cost us. The trip to the boat yard was mostly on par with what similar work would have cost in the US and the quality was at least as good if not better. The cushions were roughly ½ of what they would have cost at home. The dock prices for winter dockage is approximately 40 % of what we would be paying in Florida and the availability in the winter is better here. The summer dockage in the Med is similar to prices in the Northeast in the summer – which is to say – expensive, but throughout most of Europe the cost is much lower, and our overall dockage expenses are much lower than they were for the same periods at home. The cost of groceries, eating out, incidental expenses is much lower ,consistently, though in major cities such as London, Paris, Rome, or heavily touristic cities such as Portofino we have found prices similar to equivalent cities at home ie. Miami, New York, Los Angeles. In the more expensive cities, we have the added benefit of being “home” so we can pick and choose where we wish to spend our tourist dollars. Our transportation expenses are significantly lower given that we sold 2 cars and a truck. In nearly all cities we have been able to rely on very good public transportation. Covid has changed that in Sicily this year but due to a near standstill in tourist traffic, the cost of renting a car has been anywhere from between 30-100 Euro a month, less than the cost of the insurance on our cars at home.

The next most frequent question or concern has been “aren’t you worried that Jack won’t have any socialization?”. Anyone who reads our blog or follows us on Instagram can answer that question. Below we are sharing a classic American meal aboard Gratitude with our Italian friends and they celebrated their “Carnavale” and “Fathers day” with us. In addition, we have daily interaction with other friends and boat schooled families. So, nope, not worried about socialization. He is learning about other cultures and in the process becoming more empathetic and openminded.

We have met countless families living the same life we are, touring the same cities and enjoying the identical experiences, though living in a smaller boat or motor home with more modest means. Just as your hometown has a house for nearly every budget, so too does the vagabond lifestyle. If travelling the world and learning history while walking the cobbled stoned streets walked for hundreds of years appeals to you, please don’t let fear stop you. Get more information! If someone reading this wants specific information on the viability of moving overseas – Private message me and I would be happy to candidly discuss with you some options. I was just forwarded a piece written by an American mother of 2 who decided to move to Mazatlan and then to the Caribbean. She said, and I quote, “We had to leave America to find the American Dream”. This resonated with me so much I got goosebumps. I have included a link to the piece here.

The other boat-school families in our marina S/V Bella and S/V Gambler

https://cnb.cx/38b0QE6

And Finally, Covid Lockdown in Italy: Approximately 3 weeks ago we finalmente got the green light to move from citta to citta – which is to say we moved into the Yellow zone. We hit the ground running and without regard for school or project, we set off to discover some of what we came to Sicily to see! It has been a ton of fun exploring again but as this post is already longer than I would prefer, and because we are again headed to lockdown tomorrow, I will have more time to devote to sharing the past few weeks’ fun travel experiences with you. So, the “TRAVEL POST”, which is a favorite of mine and readers will have to wait until next week but Ill work hard to get it done because the past few weeks of freedom has been a BLAST! If you follow us on Instagram, you can already guess what is coming. Here are a few photos to get you ready! Mt. Etna, the most active volcano in Europe erupting during our visit, Taormina, Agrigento and More!!!

And finally, I wrote a piece which was published in Ocean Navigator’s Ocean Voyager edition called Hiring an Agent. It is informative and useful if you anticipate or think you may need an agent in the future.

Thanks for reading!

Cruising in a Pandemic

Gratitude in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily Photo by Martin Horn Lunara

Live aboard cruising in the midst of a pandemic

When we planned to live overseas in Europe for several years, we had dreamed of long lazy days soaking up the Mediterranean sunshine while dining on several hours long midafternoon meals of pasta, formaggio, bread and gelato. Farthest from our minds were the hours which I have spent in meal prep and serving aboard Gratitude – only catching glimpses of the Italian delicacies normally just outside our gangway in a non-pandemic year.

Living on a boat in a foreign land during a pandemic; while in many ways is preferable to living in a land home, looks a bit different than the life we had imagined While we had hoped to eat our way through Italy, the only Italian food we eat not prepared by my American hands, is take away pizza offered at the corner store. Carefully planned “road trips” remain unchartered by the Gratitude crew during lockdown and educational field trips including an Opera in Sicily, have been supplanted by entertainment discovered in our own salon.

Jack and I making tiramisu during a zoom class with Cookingintuscany

Not deterred by a pesky pandemic, we dig in and work to find experiences that, if not expressly provided for by our host country, at least are enhanced by proximity. Hiking on beautiful paths and logged by other hiking enthusiasts has become a new favorite weekend activity. We love a hiking app called Wikiloc.com which allows us to follow paths left behind by others or to blaze our own trail and upload it. One can choose where to hike, either through some of the fantastic Medieval villages with awe inspiring Gothic architecture, or find a path in nature- through streams, up mountains, or along ancient ruins.

Whether you are a cruiser living in a foreign land, of just riding out the “storm” at home waiting for a chance to throw off your own lines, here are some suggestions for ways to embrace and learn about a foreign land or local culture while all of the museums and opera houses are closed, and tours are cancelled.

We are homeschooling our son, so most of what we have discovered was born of the desire to offer enrichment far from the US shores. Lucky for us, we have made friends with other boat-schooling families who have shared their resources and ideas – some of which appear here.

This group is the most fantastic antidote to loneliness in a pandemic! Thank you Bella and Gambler Crews for the best winter ever! Phillipa taking the photo

Which brings me to my first recommendation: Find friends with whom you can chat over a cup of coffee before the solitude slips into loneliness. In addition to making connections with others who are likely feeling similarly, you can share resources that one may not find on their own. Recently our son was out skateboarding and ran into another American. Shocked to hear, not only his own language but also his own accent (lots of British ex-pats here in Italy) he stopped to talk. That short meeting on the side of the road lead the American to stop by Gratitude, which then led to a new friendship. You never know from where a new friendship will bloom.

1) Many world class museums are offering virtual tours including the British Museum, Louvre, Rijksmuseum, and many others. If you are finding yourself in need of another educational resource for yourself of your child, a simple google search will yield a veritable treasure trove of cultural and artistic artifacts from around the world. Many of these works of art are showcased in cooperation with Google Arts and Culture, which allow the images to be shown in great resolution and with the ability to zoom in, right from the comfort of your own home.

2) If you are a fan of the arts, many local ballet companies, as well as opera houses are offering tickets for live streamed events. During the Holiday season, we purchased tickets for a Bocelli concert performed live from the Teatro Regio di Parma opera house in Parma, Italy. While we certainly would have preferred to watch the concert in person, viewing it in the salon of Gratitude was a reasonable substitute. Friends of ours purchased tickets to the Birmingham Ballet performance of the Nutcracker. We don’t really think the holiday has begun until we have watched the Nutcracker, so viewing the performance was just the thing to get the season started. Many shows are being offered via the Royal Opera House and countless other organizations, though with a reduced cast. Still, during these incredibly difficult times, it is not only important to support the arts, but also continue enjoying cultural and personal pursuits which bring so much happiness to our lives – even if offered a bit differently.

3) While we had imagined learning how to cook beautiful Italian meals in local kitchens, our only experience of a local cooking class happened over the summer in Tuscany. Not deterred, the innovative woman who shared her Grandmother’s recipes with us on that trip, continues to share tips and tricks for preparing beautiful Italian meals with simple and “easy to source” ingredients via zoom classes twice a month. For more information on this wonderful Italian cooking class visit cookingintuscany.com.
Italian food not your cup of tea, there are countless cooking classes available through too many sources to count. What better way to spend a pandemic than to learn how to prepare beautiful meals right in your own home?

4) Ready to get traveling? There are several travel companies including http://www.tauck.com who offer free live travel webinars. We have watched expert presentations on Pompei, Mozart and we are looking forward to a presentation on Egypt. All live talks are offered free of charge and are just what those itchy traveling feet of ours need when we just can’t wait to get moving again.

5) Want to make this time tied to the dock matter? Look into your own yacht and cruising associations for lectures on everything from weather to destinations on the itinerary next year. An incredible resource for free classes is: http://www.meted.ucar.edu which include hundreds of courses on everything from weather to radar theory – essentially anything related to geoscience.

6) And finally, while your church may not have a live stream service, most faiths have a church service that is streamed. We are fortunate that our Episcopal church streams live services every Sunday which allows us to attend “mass” with friends from home. In addition to stmarys-stuart.org offering free services online, they also provide various outreach programs including many other uplifting programs which they offer free as part of their community outreach. 4,000 miles away from our home church we were worshipping and celebrating Christmas with friends right from the comfort and safety of our salon here on Gratitude.

And finally a true highlight of our time in Marina Di Ragusa has been our Italian lessons in the home of a bellisima local woman. Married with 2 precious bambini, she teaches Italian to several families in the marina. Last week, to celebrate the beginning of Carnevale and also Valentines day she made chocolate with Jack. Everything is a lesson so we learned the various words associated with the cooking. I hope that learning Italian in the home of a family in Sicily is a memory that Jack keeps dear forever, I know we certainly will. Thank you Serena xo

These are just a few of the programs which have made our time tied to the dock in the midst of a pandemic more enjoyable. While your list will look completely different, there are many programs worthy of your time while you waiting to get cruising again.

YEAR END REVIEW, 2020

Christmas cookies 2020

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Marina di Ragusa and Caltagirone, Sicily

It is December 29th and we have just celebrated our 2nd Christmas aboard Gratitude and living overseas. The end of the year is such a great opportunity to take stock and see where we have been and examine where we wish to go. I think you would have to be a monk living on a mountainside to have remained unaffected by the events of 2020. Certainly, there isn’t a person living in the modern world who can say it had no effect on them, and it is a personal belief of mine that in the way that many reflect on their own lives in terms of major life events, ie “before marriage” or “before children”, we as a world will refer to this as “after Covid”.

Jack dressed for “Church” on Gratitude

While some of the fallout from Covid, speaking purely in personal terms, has resulted in no change whatsoever, such as homeschooling and living together 24/7, some of the changes have even been positive ones such as little crowds in many tourist destinations. I am, without question, becoming a better cook, though that could also be the result of living aboard in a foreign land trying to replicate foods (bagels for example) that Jack is missing. But more than likely it is the pursuit of new and better examples of local food when restaurants all around us are closed.

Jack and I making Tiramisu with friends from home on Zoom

Living on a boat in a foreign land in a pandemic has its advantages but it is not always easy. Immigration challenges coupled with the added bureaucracy of Covid tests and travel restrictions has things more complicated and, let’s face it, eating the local food is a true highlight of travel that we have been missing. This stretch of lock down has resulted in museum closures as well, and even restrictions on travel between villages.

Relationships. I wonder to what extent relationships have changed during Covid. When we left the US, we worried about our friendships and relationships back home and how being away would affect them. We wondered what friendships would develop while we were traveling and if we would be lonely. I think 19 months is long enough to gather the necessary evidence to declare that our dear friendships are as rock solid as they ever were. That is not to say that we aren’t missing friends or that they haven’t evolved into a new version of themselves, but they are solid. Many friends and family had plans in place to visit prior to Covid and those plans were postponed, as were our plans to go back “home,” so, the way that we maintain friendships has changed. We text more, but we still talk. We email photos and we even zoom and facetime. I (Laurie) am taking a live zoom cooking class with my dearest friends back in the US, which has not only created an intentional activity to do together, but I’m also sharing it in our own galley with new friendships made here in Sicily. And finally, we still “attend” church very often with our community back home via live stream.

But I think that a pandemic, or any huge life change for that matter, helps to clearly define friendships vs. acquaintances. In the midst of a pandemic, your friends will always call, always check on you and try to find a way to safely see you. But acquaintances will move silently away from you, remaining friendly yet slowly slipping away. Moving overseas we have seen near and dear friends move heaven and earth to maintain connections with us while we have also witnessed acquaintances slowly lose touch. In our cruising life we have made friends and we have had drinks with acquaintances. That is not to say that if I found myself in the same bar/restaurant with an acquaintance I wouldn’t stop and have a drink with them, just that maybe I wouldn’t change our cruising plans to ensure a rendezvous. Acquaintances are wonderful and super important, but they are not quite the life blood that true friendships are.

Which is why our new friendships, which we have recently developed here in Ragusa, have been so wonderful. Everyone with children who reads this will understand that just because your kids are friends, it doesn’t mean that you will be friends with their parents and vice versa. But it is truly a gift when whole families make a connection. Friendships have so many benefits (especially in a pandemic) but one of the loveliest benefits for a cruising family with an only child is the ability to work through disagreements in a relationship with another child because your child wants to. There are times when we meet someone with whom the connection is simply not worthy of the effort to work through the differences. Times when the values or the interests are not in alignment for whatever reason. In these times, it just becomes not worth the energy to work through the disagreement to arrive at a deeper and more meaningful connection. Especially when it is likely that one or both of you will be moving on and a future rendezvous unlikely. But then you meet someone with whom the values and interests are so closely aligned that minor disagreements are worthy of the effort to work through to a happier resolution. Watching your child making compromises and genuinely caring about the feelings of the other and working compassionately toward solutions to disagreements is a huge gift for a parent worried that their child isn’t getting enough social time with peers.

We have truly enjoyed this holiday, perhaps more than any other in our life, and yet the only people we saw on Christmas day was each other. Italian lockdown rules required that for the 24,25,26 we were not permitted to leave the boat for any reason other than health, safety or work. We have another lockdown coming on Thursday for the New Year and then 1 (hopefully) final lockdown a week after for a religious holiday. Working within these guidelines, we have had a children’s party and gift exchange before the lockdown and several hikes this month, both before and after the lockdown. Technology has permitted us to watch the Birmingham Ballet (England) to perform a paired down but no less beautiful version of the Nutcracker via taped performance. We have watched The Christmas Carol monologue streamed and performed brilliantly, and possibly most importantly, we watched our own church at home “live” at the service we would have attended with dear friends on Christmas Eve. Earlier in the month we watched a live Christmas performance of Bocelli in the Palma Opera house. So, we have had our share of culture albeit from the comfort of our salon.

So yes, this is not exactly the cruising year we had planned but it has been an adventure nonetheless and we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

The Fearless Five!

To briefly recap 2020:

We celebrated the new year Jan 2020 in Lagos, Portugal then watched with the rest of the world as borders began closing along with shops, museums and restaurants.

Permitted to leave in June, 2020, we hit the ground running and cruised to: Gibralter for Jack’s birthday, Cartegena, Spain followed by Ibiza, Mallorca, Menorca (The Balearic Islands), Sardinia, Tunisia, Siracusa, Marina di Ragusa, Sicily resulting in a total of 1,741 miles for 2020 on Gratitude.

With new restrictions going into place together with weather changing in the Med and Immigration woes, we traveled by train, plane, bus and car to Rome, Portofino, Cinque Terre, Florence, Pisa, and Castagneto Carducci.

Since arriving in Marina di Ragusa, we have re-doubled our efforts in school, begun Italian language lessons and taken road trips to several baroque towns. We are arranging to have long term maintenance on Gratitude when she comes out of the water hopefully later in January. Items on the list include bottom paint, wax entire boat, replace Vacuflush heads with Tecma, varnish the rails/table, replace all exterior cushions and replace the washer and dryer. While Gratitude is at the spa, we hope to travel to Mt. Etna and see snow as well as several other towns en route. We are busily making plans for next years’ cruising on the East side of the Med including spending the summer next year traveling to the Lakes and Venice of Italy, then around the top of the Eastern med to Croatia and the Dalmatian coast ending up for the winter in Montenegro.

Before we left the US, we had many friends/family ask “for how long will you be gone?” That question remains with no clear answer in site, but we all feel a bit closer to this life than we do our “old” life. That is to say, – Not anytime soon.

So, with an eye toward a (much) freer 2021, hoping that we can see, in person, old friends, new friends and make firmer connections to the countries we visit through museums and restaurants, glorious restaurants!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Wintering in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily

The Beach at Marina di Ragusa

Sometime in the early to mid-October, we made it back to Siracusa and Gratitude and prepared for the final short leg of our summer cruise – Siracusa-Marina di Ragusa.

Having never been to Marina di Ragusa, we were unsure what would greet us when we arrived but most of our research of other blogs and internet searches indicated that at least two of our primary considerations would be met.

Settling in for a winter, we often try to achieve what we are unable to while moving from marina to marina all summer long. First and foremost, we look for a strong live-aboard community. We want to find a place where we can connect with new and/or old friends. We want to feel a part of the local community, as though we aren’t just passing through but rather actually making friends – impacting others and having our lives impacted. One never knows to what extent – large or small- we will make those connections at the outset. But here we are, nearly 2 months into our winter home here, and I am only now getting around to catching the blog up with our new home.

Within days of our arrival, we made friends with whom we have enjoyed meals, walks in the woods, and short breaks of tea and cake. This beautiful location has provided an ideal backdrop for our winter studies of Italian and just getting caught up on Jack’s 4th grade curriculum in general. We found a lovely Italian teacher who gives all three of us lessons twice per week. In addition to Italian lessons, Jack is taking sailing lessons twice per week and loving it. Through sailing, like many in a new sport, he has made even more friends – some of whom don’t speak English and of course, Jack is only learning Italian. Out of these new friendships a whole new wave of experiences is washing over us. As an only child Jack has had the liberty of having his own way more often than not. Now with new friends he is learning new lessons in getting along, working together, resolving conflict and sharing joys and experiences with other boat kids with whom they share so many things in common. As parents we are all feeling a bit adrift for the first time. So accustomed to living in a small space, all of us together 24/7 – it is weird to look around and find the boat quiet – no Jack in site – off playing with his friends. Laughing with the other boat Moms and Dads we have discovered we are all experiencing this same transition. In this community, the kids can scooter or bike ride or run and play on the rocks together for hours – just was we did when we were kids. It is completely safe, monitored constantly by another 100 or so boats with live- aboards on them. My heart is so full of joy that in the year 2020 my child can find several playmates to play out doors with, none of whom have cell phones or video games and all of whom have similar values and experiences to share.

We celebrated Halloween getting dressed up and the Marina slip holders embraced our children as though they had children of their own walking the pontoons. One lovely American (thank you Susan and Tom) even made home -made caramel apples, while on another pontoon, someone had set out a “bobbing for clementines” game for the children.

We shared our Thanksgiving feast – giving thanks for new friends; old friends -and family who were celebrating 4000 miles away, and in general just feeling profoundly blessed for the circumstances in which we find ourselves this year. 4 different countries were represented at our table this year. While I would have loved to invite several Italian families to join us – particularly our friends from Luise Yachting Agency who have done and continue to do so much for us, and Serena, our Italian teacher and her family, we were reluctant, due to the Covid measures in place. The families who were present were people with whom our children play ever single day and if any of us gets anything, be it a sniffle or worse, we are likely all getting it.

We have continued to cook with cookingintuscany.cc and loving it. Last week Jack and I, together with several friends from home, (Hi Jennifer, Tracy, and Anne) made Pasta Fagioli. Another friend from England just joined the club (hi Emma), and Alec’s cousin from Denmark is planning to join (hi Catharina). Today 2 other friends from the marina are coming to cook in our galley and learn how to make home-made pasta. It is so cool to be learning to make pasta, learning to speak Italian and living in our own home, all at the same time here in Italy. But also wonderful is that even during lockdown and spanning different continents we are able to connect with one another through food, glorious food.

Finally, the other criteria by which we choose a winter home is the availability of groceries and restaurants/café’s a bike ride away.

There are several grocery stores as well as a traditional Italian fruit and veggie market on Tuesdays, and while it isn’t like the typical enormous variety one may find in London or Miami, they are a wonderful example of what one should eat – very little prepackaged or convenience foods, limited crackers, cookies etc. but full of fresh and gorgeous fruits and vegetables grown locally – an delicious selection of cheeses and dairy -but what is made locally – not so much stuff from other countries. So, this brings me to a comment a reader made this past week on the blog:

She said that, and I’m going to quote her here “I found your approach and attitude slightly, yet embarrassingly, quite American.”

Reading an unbiased opinion from someone unknown to you gets you thinking. I doubt she is a regular reader because I have, on several occasions, mentioned our attempts – though not always successful- at trying to see things and enjoy things just as they are, without judgement. But clearly, despite one’s greatest efforts to not judge or compare, I guess we all do that to some extent. This brings to mind a favorite quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt – “Comparison is the thief of joy”. I’m really not sure which item I approached that was off putting or “American” – I’m guessing it was my comments about the cost of a cappuccino and Aperitivo in Portofino. Sometimes I share an observation which I believe may be helpful to cruisers following in our wake, just as I would do in a café talking about my experiences or traveling on a train sharing with other travelers what to expect in a given area. Sometimes I make an observation as a way of showing the ways in which I have grown over the past 19 months. For example, the lack of packaged foods was an early challenge for me to overcome. Learning how to make beans, pancakes, brownies, bagels, and now pasta, among many others was an opportunity to grow. When I talk of these differences it is not to judge them either good or bad – but rather to share how cooks and moms in Italy prepare food and feed their families differently than we do in America. And even when we do find ourselves back in America, I’ll likely continue to make food without any of the pre-packaged and convenience items I used to depend on entirely. Ill likely continue to hang my laundry to dry in the warm sunshine rather than have it consume vast amounts of energy spinning in a dryer. In any case, I appreciate the feedback and opportunity for self- examination.

But I digress…

Covid measures have been lightened (believe it or not) this week. There is a tier -system- as in many countries in Europe right now. Brilliant, really in that it allows for regions to be treated individually -based on the numbers in a particular citta or commune. Here in Sicily, we were in the Orange zone – restricted from leaving our individual city and all cafes, bars, restaurants and many shops all museums closed. Just last week we went into the Yellow zone which meant many cafes and restaurants opened back up, though they still must close by 1800 to table service and close entirely at 2200. All of Italy will be locking down with more strict measures for the Christmas holiday and day or 2 before and after. It is still uncertain what that means for us exactly. We have continued to enjoy walks and bike rides outside (with a mask) and take away pizza so good it should have its own name.

MAINTENANCE

High on Alec’s list for a winter home is the availability of Marine services. We have found a boat yard to do some need winter maintenance. I would like to have this coincide with some trips further afield (an overnight trip to Palermo comes to mind). But while I view Gratitude’s trips to the boat yard for maintenance more like a spa vacation for the boat, Alec views it like a trip to the hospital and he likes to be there every minute of the day to supervise anyone who has their hands on our precious “magic carpet’.

A few of the items on the “TO-DO” LIST This winter:

Pressure Clean and paint the bottom
Detail entire boat
Replace all heads from Vacuflush to Tecma
Replace washer and dryer (the dryer has been out of service for several months and we are replacing the washer as a preventative measure)
Remove, replace, inspect all Generator exhaust elbows
Replacing all cushions and covers for outside furniture flybridge and aft deck. (The cushions and covers are original from our purchase nearly 3 years ago. The cushions are coming apart inside and it is time for them to be replaced)

The sailmaker who will do the work on the cushions. Note the brilliant way they do this with the seamstress in the floor

There is far more to Marina di Ragusa in particular and Sicily in general than I am able or prepared to dedicate to this blog post. I’m approaching this post strictly from the standpoint of our winter home. Suffice to say, we will be making regular trips once Covid permits, to what we hope will be ALL of the 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the gorgeous Island of Sicily. On those trips we will be checking back in and giving more specific information from a tourist/ traveler standpoint. Stay Tuned!

Stunning Ragusa, a UNESCO world Heritage site

Tuscany – A tour of Italy part 3

A tour of Italy part 3 – TUSCANY

Chicca in the olive trees

Since leaving the US and after traveling to numerous countries, islands and towns, we have loved each stop in its own way, but never felt “at home” in any of them. This is the first time in 19 months we felt immediately as though we could set up housekeeping and feel right at home.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw an Instagram post from my cousin who extolled the virtues of the Tuscany region and “Cooking In Tuscany” in particular. Herself an avid traveler, biker and free spirit, I knew that if she was recommending it, we would love it. I reached out to Chicca Maione, the co-owner and Chef extraordinaire and asked if she would be doing cooking classes over the summer when we hoped to be there. Unfortunately, Covid prevented my friend from the US, who was planning to accompany me, from arriving. Our family immigration issues coupled with rapidly changing weather in the Northern Med all threatened to prevent the meeting. After a bit of prodding from Alec however, knowing how much I enjoy cooking and was looking forward to a class in Tuscany, we decided to take a day from our packed tour of Italy schedule and drive to the cooking class.

Approximately 1 hour from Florence, we rented a car and enjoyed a stunning drive to Castagneto Carducci, just a few km from the Mediterranean coast.

The entire drive was something out of a coffee table book on Tuscany! Gorgeous!

Chicca and Arnaud live in an idealic 18th century farmhouse straight out of a picture book with about 20 olive trees separating them from the closest neighbor. When we first arrived, we were greeting by Freda, one of the house pets who, though a puppy, looked like a fully-grown Lab to us. She is the friendliest creature, and a perfect ambassador for the experience.
Given our rapidly growing kinship, it is a wonder we cooked anything on that first day, and if not for Chicca (pronounced Kee – ka), keeping us focused and on task, we could have just sat and talked the day away.

But we were there to cook so we quickly washed hands and set about making our first and most delicious tasting fettuccine any of us have ever eaten. We also made Gnocchi and the simplest of desserts, a ricotta fluff with fresh figs on top.

In the course of getting to know one another, Chicca told us that “her” Americans who help her with the olive harvest couldn’t make it due to Covid. Harvesting olives and witnessing the creation of the liquid gold we call olive oil has been a bucket list item for Alec for years. Learning that the harvest was to take place in 2 days, it was easy math for 2 retired people to cancel the flights home and add “olive picker” to the resume.

So, we raced back to Florence, crammed in several more sights and museums and raced back to COOKING WITH TUSCANY just in time for the olive harvest. Actually, the harvest got started at 8 and we arrived probably closer to 11 but we worked until sundown that day picking and carefully gathering the olives.

One of the gifts of this experience and a lesson very close to our hearts- is to connect ourselves, and more importantly, Jack, to the food we use to fuel our passions. Spending the day gathering olives from ancient trees, then watching the press, as this prized fruit is turned into nutrient rich, green- grassy, delicious oil, created for all of us, a deep connection and appreciation for this Italian delicacy. So much so, that we have hardly touched butter since arriving in Italy.

Talk about connecting with your food! It tastes better than it looks!

Once, at dinner in Portofino, Jack asked the server for some butter. That request was met with a 5 -minute lecture, from the server, on how healthy olive oil is for the body and how unhealthy butter is. The server eventually brought the butter but who could eat it after that! We had, of course, told Jack the same thing but hearing it from a complete stranger had a monumental effect. He has not really had or asked for butter ever since.

So, picking these gorgeous olives and then tasting and appreciating the fruits of the labor made this a very impactful, and memorable experience. We were compensated with 5 liters of the liquid gold for our efforts – well worth the hours outdoors enjoying the harvest.

Should you find yourself on a trip to Italy, Chicca and Arnaud have the loveliest apartments for rent. Don’t miss an opportunity to stay with Chicca and learn how to cook authentic Italian meals with the recipes from Chicca’s grandmother.

Adapting to the crazy Covid times in which we live, Chicca has begun teaching via Zoom, conducting cooking classes live from her kitchen. Together with friends from the US, Jack and I are continuing the fun and cooking now that we are back on board. There is something so surreal to me about learning to cook authentic meals and learning Italian all while living in Italy. Especially during these Covid times when we all need to be spending more time closer to home and away from crowds. Zoom is so fantastic for allowing these opportunities for enrichment right in the safety and security of our own home. Check out club@cookingintuscany.cc for more information

To find out more about the club or vacations – check out http://www.cookingintuscany.cc

Cooking club or vacations – check it out!!

There is more to this area than olives. The medieval village of Bolgheri, a hamlet of Castagneto Carducci in the province of Livorno is nearby. Touting a museum which explores the world of food and history of the area, foodies can’t miss it. Due to the micro-climate and characteristics of the soil, this area produces some of the most world renown Bordeaux origin wines known as “Super Tuscan” producers. For those who prefer the sea to the mountains, a short 20 minute drive is the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea with a very low key – non touristic vibe.

To be clear, there is truly something for everyone here. Less than a 2 hour drive from Rome, Florence, Siena, and world class food and wine, who could want for anything more?

FLORENCE AND TUSCANY

BOY AM I BEHIND!!!

ICONIC PORTOFINO

I had planned to write about our nearly 3-week road trip through Italy bit by bit, but I expected it to be more timely than this! We have been having so much fun in Marina di Ragusa, Italy getting settled that the past has been harder and harder to write about. Still, it is part of the journal and important so I’m going to get it together now and write a bit about the other fabulous places we visited on the trip. Brevity will dictate that tons will be missed.

PORTOFINO AND CINQUE TERRE

Leaving Rome, we took a 4.5 -hour train ride up the gorgeous Western coast of Italy to Portofino. We had only planned a few days here but extended so that we could take the train back down and explore Cinque Terre. Additionally, we had a day of total wash out – too windy or rainy to do anything at all. In Italy there is a color code system whereby if your town goes “red” you are instructed to stay home – streets closed. While we were in Portofino the color went “red” so we stayed in-doors. Not a bad idea when all of the “cittas” are connected by either train or boat.

All 5 villages are very difficult to reach by car due to the steep and unforgiving mountainous terrain. In fact, getting between the 5 fishing villages known as Cinque Terre is only advised by walking or train. We had a glorious hike between Montorosso and Vernazza taking full advantage of not only the beautiful fall weather, but also the lack of tourists during this Covid time and shoulder season. Hiking between these 2 fishing villages involved encountering about 10 people in 3 hours. Unheard of!

The walk itself was enchanting – imagine walking from vineyard to vineyard through the gardens of adorable farm- houses. At one point, and after climbing straight up for nearly 40 minutes, we heard the most delightful sound of an accordion. Nestled in the vineyard, overlooking the breathtaking Ligurian Sea, was this charming Italian man entertaining visitors with his accordion playing music straight out of a Dean Martin, Amore’ reproduction

The entire area is a national park and a UNESCO heritage site. Italy is home to a whopping 55 UNESCO HERITAGE SITES of which 5 are Natural and 50 are Cultural. The Cinque Terre National Park is comprised of steep paths up and down the mountain connecting the 5 fishing villages. Arriving at a village is a bit as I imagine base camp to be at Everest with hikers milling about and outfitters selling back- packs but the weather was gorgeous and the villages exuding charm that was authentic and delightful. One of the surprises we experienced in Italy in general is that regardless of how “touristy” an area, a marvelous meal can be enjoyed wherever one stops. In most areas of the world it is best to get off the beaten path to find a good meal and certainly don’t plan a gourmet experience in the heart of any tourist attraction but not so in Italy. We were too hungry to go looking for an “out of the way spot” so we decided on a restaurant overlooking the water in Vernazza. I had the best bowl of pasta fagioli soup I have ever eaten. The food here seriously makes me wish I had 2 stomachs.

All of these touristy destinations we enjoyed were fantastic – just to be clear – but even with a lack of people we struggle having to pay 7 Euro in Portofino for a Cappuccino and 45 Euro for a little Aperitivo.

THE 45 EURO APERTIVO:-)

Aperitive in Italy is a delightful tradition of finding a piazza and having a little very low alcohol drink with some small snacks before dinner in the early evening. Alec and I don’t drink so we try to find non-alcoholic beer to accompany our snacks. While we have been very fortunate to find NA beer all over Europe – it is less widely available in the touristy areas. I think it can be said that we don’t love the touristy areas. The server in Portofino was bothered that we didn’t want alcohol and he brought us our non-alcoholic drinks very begrudgingly – and then charged us 45 Euro for the experience. All of this at a time when there were fewer than 20 people in the entire piazza and 5 in total at the restaurant. I would hate to see the service that a full town would bring. So, while we loved the beauty of Portofino, it is definitely a box that has been checked for us.

PISA

So, a couple of bus rides and a train ride and we were in Pisa. We just passed through on our way to Florence, but one simply cannot pass it by and miss seeing the iconic tower, yet another of the 55 UNESCO Heritage sites in this lucky country.

Best known for the current 4 degree lean, the bell tower for the cathedral is perhaps equally interesting because of it’s location not co-located with the cathedral itself. Though the tower began the infamous lean during it’s 12th century construction, it was stabilized in 1990 after the tilt reached 5.5 degrees.

Another amazing meal right at the tower and we are off to collect our rental car for the rest of our time in Italy.

HOLDING UP THE TOWER

FLORENCE

Perhaps the best reason to return to a country after a long absence is due to how our perceptions and interests shift as we age. Not my first visit to Florence, I was here perhaps 25 years ago, but the changes in the city were not nearly as marked as the changes in me during that time.

Which is why, it should come as no surprise, my recollections were so cloudy as to be useless. Moreover, my perceptions and reactions were totally different. I recall “liking” the city and appreciating the vast collection of art that calls Florence home, but this visit left me completely bowled over!

Florence, the capital city in the Tuscany region of Italy, is most certainly best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. When we were traveling around, I was so tempted to write about our travels in a time line because having left Siracusa, which enjoyed it’s historical “hey day” in the years Before Christ, and then traveling to Rome where we dined on a feast of the Roman Empire era, to finally arrive in Florence, surrounded as we were by medieval and neo-classical architecture, and history, felt so sharp in contrast. In fact, we loved visiting several other wonderful cities’ whose greatest days were enjoyed in Medieval times. Bolgheri and Siena are 2 such great cities and no trip to the Tuscany region would be complete without stopping there. I loved them both and could write a piece on each alone but brevity dictates that I keep moving – but please, if you are reading this contemplating which towns to visit, don’t miss Siena and Bolgheri.

Siena pictured below

But I digress, Florence…

Another UNESCO heritage site, the Historical city of Florence was also ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had booked an air bnb and typical for my priorities, we were right in the heart of Florence.

Arriving at the front door to the apartment, the locale didn’t quite look like the photos in the booking. Not deterred, we continued in to discover what it most certainly must feel like to sleep in a palace – or a museum. It was extraordinary! Not every experience works so well but we loved our time in Florence in this magical apartment right in the heart of the Renaissance Era.

The front was not at all the palace we walked into – Jack was a bit worried

Home to the Uffizi museum as well as several others including the Galleria dell’ Accademia one can see works displayed by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael and others too numerous to note. These were the 2 museums we made it to on this “way to short” trip to Florence.

As with Rome, one can simply meander into a church and discover priceless master works created during the Renaissance.

Portofino

We booked 2 tours here. Time constrained by flights home, cat sitters, and a last- minute trip to pick olives (saving this for another blog post next week) we crammed what should have been a full 1-2 weeks into 2 days. To be sure, I truly did a terrible dis-service to the kind and wonderful Elvis who showed us around. Dragging Jack to one then another museum on a way too rushed trip of this fantastic city – just wore out our poor 10 year- old world traveler. We did get a terrific “dividend” upon wandering into a room in the Uffizzi museum, Jack, exhausted and desperate to have lunch looked up and exclaimed “WOW! I have always wanted to see Botecelli’s Venus!” “Is that an original?”. Shocked, I glanced down at the plaque on the side to see that in fact, it was Botecellis’ Venus. Not entirely sure if this was knowledge that came from his amazing Montessori education until last year, or our homeschooling efforts last year, we were grateful to see that more is sinking in than falling out.

This city should easily have been planned for a week or more, but I just didn’t remember how magnificent it was. Alec and I would desperately love to return for a much longer stay. As with the other destinations – due to Covid, we only had a handful of visitors competing for space in front of the priceless and breathtaking works of art who call Florence home. Jack spent probably 30 minutes admiring “David” from all angles. It is very heartening to watch one’s child appreciating – truly appreciating- something as magnificent as this. I wonder what we would be missing if not for Jack. So much of what we book, see or plan is to give Jack the opportunity for discovery and education but at the “end of the day” Alec and I know that we are the ones getting the benefit and education. Sometimes when I look back at what I would have booked had we not wanted to show Jack something, I realize that those were the things that were the best and not only for the obvious reason of being able to see it or appreciate it through your child’s eyes but also on its own merit.

So – enough said – my next and final post about our 3 -week trip around Italy will be on Castagneto Carducci. I can’t wait to talk about another great love of mine – FOOD!!!

We will be writing about olives, pasta and olive oil!!!

Chicca, Arnaud, Jack and Alec COOKING IN TUSCANY!!

ROME – it wasn’t build in a day and you won’t see it in one either!!

Rome – It wasn’t built in a day and believe me, it will take more than a day to see it!

St Peters Square the night we arrived

Our Immigration challenges newly resolved, we were ready to move on from Siracusa, Italy. The plan was to take Gratitude North to Genoa, then begin a slow and steady trip south ending in Ragusa, Sicily for the winter. But a survey of the weather combined with our previous research of the Med cruising recommendations indicated, we were going to have far less time to make this trip than we had hoped. Watching 1, then another, system work its way across, we decided it was time to consult the Momondo app for flights.

Since we left the US – and in fact many months (possibly years before that) we have not flown anywhere. Strange since Alec and I rarely went more than a week without getting on a plane in our past lives. Now it has been years since we have gone to an airport and I don’t even recall the last time we have flown anywhere. We sold our cars when we left Florida, and while Alec has driven on only a few occasions since we left, I haven’t driven even 1 mile in the nearly 18 months since our departure. We primarily take trains and busses everywhere and closer to home we prefer bikes or walking. Given the time constraints of traveling at 8 knots we decided it was time to go back to the “old ways” or risk missing most of Italy.

The flight from Catania airport on Sicily took 1.5 hours to Rome. There were temperature checks and mandatory face coverings for the duration. The Airbnb in Rome arranged to have a car meet us upon landing and after another 30 minutes (remember no customs or immigration formalities) we were enjoying our first meal in Rome nearly 3 hours after we left the boat. Easy peasy. The Airbnb in Rome was terrific – a wonderful 3-bedroom apartment in a Piazza with views of St. Peters Basilica. It was surreal for me to stand in St. Peters Square on that first night. I believe everyone must feel this – a near disbelief at finally arriving in a place one has only seen in photos and movies countless times before. I don’t know how I have managed 54 years on the planet without making it to Rome before now. I have been to Italy several times – but I think I was just a bit shy after the stories of crowds. Rome is the 3rd most populated commune in the EU and the most populated in Italy. But here we were… Rome. To be sure, what follows of our account will be in contrast to your own experiences given the Covid world in which we live. But I felt very grateful that this was our experience and that I had waited, inadvertently, for this trip. Every place we visited, every photo we took, I was filled with awe and wonder to finally be here in the Eternal City.

Third on the list of the most visited European cities in 2019 (behind London and Paris) – it truly didn’t disappoint. We had planned to “live” onboard about a 30- minute bus ride away but being right in the heart of it all really worked well for helping us to accomplish so much.

A quick word here about the blog and any recommendations you may read here. We don’t advertise through the blog – ever. We don’t earn 1 penny due to the blog. We don’t solicit or receive discounts in exchange for promotion on the blog. We wrote in an earlier piece about the reasons why we do it but just to clear up any questions quickly before recommending things/people/places – we only write to keep a record for ourselves and our 10 year old son of the adventures we are on and also to pay it forward for the hours we spent reading the blogs of others without whom we may never have taken this leap.

My mother, a travel professional for most of her working life (gee, I wonder where I get my wanderlust), recommended the DK Eyewitness book for Rome before we left. Within days of our departure, I bought the Kindle version. I may never go to a major tourist site without an Eyewitness book loaded onto my phone again. No stranger to travel books, I was surprised at the user- friendly nature of this one and the ability to find an attraction, select the google maps link and obtain directions via rail, walk, car or bus anywhere in the guide. So, guidebook in hand and 5 days booked into Rome for our 2 -week holiday, we were off!

There are a million wonderful travel blogs out there and this is not intended to be that so I won’t get too nitty gritty with the details of the sights that we visited but we really packed in a wonderful trip in those 5 days. It is not unusual for me to over-schedule my family on those occasions when we are committed to seeing so much in a short time – this was just such a time. Still – afraid to overwhelm, I tried to stick to 1 large thing per day and let the rest of the day be spontaneous and free.

We began our week at the Capitoline Hill, the symbolic center of the Roman World. The beautiful steps leading up to the Piazza del Campidoglio were designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century. Had we done nothing more but admire the steps, and the Museums from the outside we would have been satisfied but Jack needed to use the rest room urgently – really urgently – so we paid our admission and thus enjoyed at least 2 hours meandering the halls of the Capitoline Museum. Not at all on our list of things to do today- we 3 enjoyed the immense collection of paintings and sculpture. What a terrific reminder to just relax and enjoy the experience. Only because of a need to use the rest room did we make this wonderful discovery and even though we had planned (roughly and loosely) to do something else during this time, none of us was disappointed. At the center of the Piazza is a statue of Marcus Aurelius. We had to pleasure of discovering the original in gold leaf inside of the museum which was moved inside to minimize the damage to the original. Good thing since legend says that when the last of the gold is lost from the statue, the world will end. Yikes…

I swear the guide told Jack to sit atop a 2000 year old column!!!!!

The major thing we had planned for today was a tour of THE COLOSSEUM. I had booked this through Airbnb and we were so in love with our guide. She is an archeologist and intensely knowledgeable about everything in the area. While some guides leave you with a sense that they know everything, but you have learned nothing, she was a teacher and so delightful. All three of us were transformed and as in love with the colosseum as she was. Her info is:
Maria Rita Bertoncini and she can be reached at http://www.visitostiaantica.org
I don’t often share guide info on the blog – but occasionally we find one who is so good at what she/he does, Im happy to recommend them.

On this tour we visited the Forum, Palantine hill and the 3 arches.

Day 2

Having booked a tour of the Vatican and the museums, we wanted to have an easy quiet morning preceding the exhausting afternoon. The tour was 3 hours and included all of the museums, the map rooms, the Sistine chapel, etc. Believe me when I tell you a WEEK is not enough time to see this nearly insane repository of the worlds most beautiful ancient art. There are room upon room full of ancient sculpture, carpets and stunning art work depicting scenes from the bible adorn nearly every wall and frescos occupy even your own mind after spending the day trying in vain to take it all in. It is nearly an assault on the senses seeing as much art in one place – seriously. Intended to be the finale at the end of the tour, we walked into the Sistine chapel and had our breath taken away by the sheer glory of Michelangelo’s work. There is far more written about it than I could ever do justice to here so I will only close this day by saying do some research before you arrive. We had booked a tour called “Pristine Sistine” by a well known tour operator in Rome. I had done this on the advise of a blog that I had read in which the writer receives compensation for tours booked from the link. I have to insert here that I have no issue whatsoever with the YOUTubers and Bloggers getting compensated for their work- but please, if you are booking on the advice of someone who is getting compensation – do your homework first. We booked a very pricey tour which promised a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel before it opened with a lengthy talk about the intricacies. When it became clear that we were not receiving what I had booked, I was told that our tour was exchanged because due to Covid there were no private groups before opening. Our guide then went on to say that it wasn’t necessary anyway because there were no crowds. Well, he was right and there were no crowds. Typically, 40,000 visitors cram the halls of the Vatican and during our visit, there were never more than about 20 people. Still, the difference in price between what we had booked and what we received was substantial and despite multiple emails and requests for the difference to be compensated, we have received nothing. Also, to make matters worse, this tour guide was the least effective of any tour I have booked in the past year (probably close to 15). Just a little reminder here to do your homework when following the advice of someone who is receiving compensation. If this was not enough extravagance for one day, we then went to St. Peters Basilica where mass was going on. It is breathtaking and frankly there are no words to describe it. In fact, we walked into several churches just in passing and I honestly can hardly imagine all of this remarkable art work around every bend. Frescoes and art work adorning every single church in nearly every Piazza. Remarkable.

The lines – empty – getting into the Vatican

Day 3

Piazza Navona was once the social center of Rome. A Baroque Oval Piazza with 3 fountains, aristocracy once strolled the streets and met friends and neighbors or came for an apertivo (a delightful custom of having a very low alcohol beverage accompanied by some small snacks – chips/peanuts/cheese). The most famous fountain in the piazza at the center is called the Four Rivers. It was designed by Bernini. Usually very crowded, it was raining during our visit so there was really nobody around except restauranters’ begging us to come eat – so we did. At and ate… Wow Can I just say that we have not had a mediocre meal since we arrived in Italy.

Day 4 and 5

We saw the Pope in the pouring rain giving his Sunday blessing and we went to Trevi fountain, built in 1762 by Italian architect Nicola Salvi which looks to me like something out of the lost city of Atlantis. Tradition demands an offering into the fountain which will guarantee a return to the city. We did some research and learned that nearly 1.5 million dollars was collected in 2016 but the good news? That money is used to subsidize a supermarket for the needy so dig down and toss those coins away. We saw and the Pantheon and we went to the Piazza Di Spagna and the Spanish Steps.

Plaza Navona 4 rivers fountain

One final thing on our list of places to visit, AMERICA! We all wanted a little taste of America since it has been over a year since we have been home and there is little chance we will make it back this year due to Covid. We went to the American Embassy in Rome. We had hoped to arrange a bit of a tour but everything was very tightly controlled and secure, even more so due to Covid. We did complete paperwork so that they know we are here.

Given that I’m about 500 words over what I like to write on the blog, I’ll leave it here. Rome is an incredibly city and one which we should never have waited so long to see. When Covid is over, give it a week or even 2 – there is so much more to see and 5 days was simply not enough.

In our next post we will cover Portofino, Cinque Terre and Florence.