On to Venice and Padua

I had visions of an empty Venice, like those I had seen during the lockdown. Deserted alleys and waterways. No gondolas on the canals. No lines to enter attractions, such as San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). A dolphin or two frolicking in the Grand Canal.

That was then. Fast forward to early July when I visited. Even though travel restrictions were in place, tourists had returned to Venice. Long, long lines to climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. Gondolas aplenty gliding through the canals. Happy crowds feeding pigeons on the Piazza San Marco.

And, it was hot, much too hot. But, I adore Venice. I was spending a week at Abano Terme, about an hour from the city. (See previous post, “Taking the waters – and the mud”) I could not pass up a visit, especially after a conversation with a staff member at the spa. 

“I love Venice,” she said. “You must visit.” She planned an all-day itinerary for me. “Don’t schedule any treatments on the day you visit Venice. You will need all your energy for Venice.”

More energy than I had. I followed her recommendations, took the train to Venice, then hired a water taxi to take me to the Piazza San Marco, under the Rialto Bridge, past magnificent centuries-old palaces. There was no shortage of boats of all sizes on the Grand Canal. No dolphins in sight. 

Campanile (bell tower) of the San Marco Basilica

I was surprised and disappointed to see the lines, both to enter San Marco and climb the campanile. I decided against both, instead opted for a very expensive cappuccino (11 euro) at one of the many cafes lining the piazza. The pricey cafes had few customers. However, the legendary San Marco pigeons happily soared above, then landed and soaked up attention from tourists who were happy to fed them and pose for photos.

Even though the waiter at the cafe complained of little business, restaurants I passed during my wanderings were not lacking for customers. Gondolas seemed to be in high demand, yet a young gondolier also complained. “It’s very quiet. There are not a lot of people. Normally in July and August, it’s crazy. You can’t walk around here.”

Perhaps I was lucky after all. I could walk without being pushed by throngs. I found a quiet restaurant adjacent to a canal and enjoyed a fascinating lunch. A government building stood on the opposite side of the canal. A police boat arrived. Two scuba divers jumped off and quickly disappeared under water. Looking for underwater explosives? It was intriguing. I also wondered about the wisdom of being immersed in this water which I assumed was dreadfully polluted. Then I noticed fish. I mentioned this to the restaurant proprietor. He threw some bread in the water. More fish appeared. The dolphins have not returned, but, at least for now, fish are thriving.

Police diver on a secret mission?

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Italian government to ban cruise ships from approaching Venice’s lagoon, things could be looking up for those fish, not to mention the foundations of the city.

Cruise ship opponents argue that the massive ships which can transport more than 5,000 passengers each are responsible for waves and pollution that damage the delicate fabric of the city. Work is underway to construct a cruise terminal outside the lagoon. 

The Wall Street Journal quoted Gianluigi Rizo, a porter at the Piazza San Marco, who summed up the sentiments of those whose business depends on tourists. “It’s good that tourists are back, but the real money comes from the cruise ships with the Americans and the well-off Asians. They spend big in a short time, before sailing out.”

View of Venice from the Terrazza Panoramica, a new observation deck a top a multi level. upmarket shopping gallery.

Even with the tourists and the heat, I was happy to return to Venice. I love to meander, discovering intriguing alleys and passageways, off the beaten tourist track, usually getting lost. However, since I had a train to catch this time, I dared not be too adventurous. 

The trek to the station was longer than anticipated. I panicked, walking faster and faster so as not to miss my train. I made it, exhausted and perspiration drenched.

That excursion should have been enough. Perhaps best to stay and relax at the spa.? No, I needed to see Padua, again urged on by my mentor. She raved about the city’s star attractions, the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes by Giotto and the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Scrovegni chapel with Giotto frescoes.

Giotto, an Italian painter of the late Middle Ages, and his team covered the walls of the entire chapel with frescoes illustrating the life of the Virgin and life of Christ. Their work, completed in 1305, is considered a masterpiece of the early Renaissance. It is mind boggling.

St. Anthony’s Basilica with Byzantine-style domes and art treasures was a must for me. St. Anthony played a role in my Catholic upbringing. My mother was a fan of the saint, the patron of lost items. Whenever she or we lost something, “Pray to Saint Anthony,” she urged. Often he came through. 

St. Anthony’s tomb.

The church shelters the saint’s grandiose tomb. Worshippers place hands on the tomb and pray. St. Anthony holy cards are available for free. I gave a donation, took a few, and mailed one of each of my three brothers.

Praying at St. Anthony’s tomb.

I passed up relaxing days and therapeutic treatments at the spa for Venice and Padua. I have no regrets.

Statue of St. Anthony.

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Another monumental church in Padua: Basilica of Saint Giustina

We recently returned to Marseille, one of my favorites. It merits a blog post. And, soon I will off for Adventure Croatia with friend Karen.

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Giotto’s Last Judgment fresco.

Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.

My Turf in Photos

It has been too long since my last post. The lockdown prevented exciting excursions to new places which I like to discover and write about. But, all is looking much brighter. Restaurant dining is back – outdoors and indoors at 50% capacity. All stores, cinemas, gyms etc. are back in operation. Our curfew has been bumped up to 11 pm. It will vanish on June 30.

During many months of “confinement,” we were only permitted to explore and wander within 10 kilometers of our residence. We did. I took photos. Recently we were given liberty to travel within France, as well as nearby Italy with our vaccination certificate. And, soon we will be able to travel within the European Union. Eureka!

Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel in Menton

Following are random photos, mostly of our surroundings. The beauty around helped ease the pain of the lockdown.

Le Jardin Exotique (exotic garden) in Eze.

Market in Bordighera, Italy –our first visit to Italy after lockdown lifted.

More Eze Jardin Exotique, above and below.

First meal post lockdown in Italy: fabulous tuna

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A wee bit of travel on the horizon: a week at a spa (terme) in Abano, Italy. This promises an interesting tale for sure. Don’t miss it. If not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up. Your address is kept private –not shared

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A real Fantasyland? (only in Italy)

toptownOnce upon a time, high in the Italian hills overlooking azure Mediterranean waters, a local gardener decided he would like to become a prince. But, he needed a kingdom – or at least a patch of land to rule. No problem. He did some research and figured a small portion of this mini paradise did not legally belong to Italy. (That is all a bit complicated.) He convinced the local population of his claim and managed to have them vote to give him the title of Prince. That was in 1963, and Giorgio Carbone, His Supreme Highness, ruled the micro nation Seborga until his death in 2009, when Prince Marcello I assumed the throne.

So, all 2,000 citizens of the fairytale-like kingdom have been living happily ever after? More or less, but with some political intrigue to muddy the waters from time to time.

I had never heard of Seborga.  When the American Club of the Riviera sponsored an event in the principality, a gala dinner following festivities for the national holiday, the feast of Saint Bernard, I signed up. And, did some Seborga research.

A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga's national festival.
A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga’s national festival.

Perhaps I exaggerated the part about Giorgio wanting to become prince. Who knows? For details on Seborga history, see Wikipedia.   In brief, from the 10th century, monks ruled the principality. They sold it to the King of Sardinia in 1729, a sale Giorgio and his followers claim was invalid. Italy, they maintained, annexed Seborga “illegitimately and unilaterally.”

The Principality of Seborga (14 square kilometers) calls itself a separate state within Italy’s borders, similar to Vatican City and San Marino.

A demonstration to show how Seborga's currency was made in days gone by.
A demonstration to show how Seborga’s currency was made in days gone by.

Italy ignores these claims and has jurisdiction over the territory.   . Nonetheless Seborga has its own army, flag, royal family and currency. The latter, as well as passport stamps, are popular with tourists.

Prince Marcello, a 38-year-old former professional speedboat racer, is protected by his eight-member, blue-bereted Corpo della Guardia who were on duty for the national day festivities. To the delight of spectators, the Prince and Princess made a ceremonial entrance to the town in a horse-drawn carriage following a parade of costumed locals and guards.

Princess Nina and Prince Marcello
Princess Nina and Prince Marcello

Marcello’s German born wife, Nina, serves as foreign minister of Seborga. The couple were formally received by Queen Elizabeth in 2011. On the world stage, Burkina Faso recognized Seborga as an independent state in 1998. According to one source, some 20 other nations also recognize the tiny nation’s  independence.  The U.S. has an ambassador to Seborga who attended the national festivities.

blog.1That is not enough, says Nicolas Mutte, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a shadowy, possibly French figure whose occupation is unknown.” He posted an online video this spring proclaiming himself “His Serene Highness Nicolas I,” Seborga’s new ruler. Mutte, who says he is a descendent of Napoleon, seeks a split from Italy and accuses Marcello of only promoting tourism and folklore.

Although the Prince, a local real-estate entrepreneur, was elected on promises to fight for independence, secession has taken a back seat as Seborga and its traditions have become a tourist magnet. Marcello does not seem threatened by Mutte. “Seborga is a free and blog.3sovereign principality that has elected me as its prince,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Mutte has no rights over Seborga.”

Even Giorgio had to fend off pretenders to his throne. In 2006, a woman calling herself “Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet” stated that she was the rightful heir to the Seborga throne. Giorgio dismissed her claims, calling her the “internet princess.”

All of this intrigue adds to the fascination of this secluded fairytale sovereignty snuggled aside a long and twisty road above the coastal city of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Throngs of visitors conquered the challenging journey to attend the August festivities. Flags, hundreds of the principality’s blue and white banners, set the scene for a parade, music, seborga+fone 069flag throwing demonstrations, costumes, dancing – and the dinner. ( I only hope Seborgans have better food than the definitely-not-delicious offerings we were served at this repast. At least there was no shortage of wine.)

Seborga, the eponymous capital city of the principality with a mere 337 inhabitants, is one of those ancient hilltop villages of skinny, cobbled streets that climb and descend, past old stone dwellings decorated with flower boxes.   Views of the Med and distant peaks from the town terraces are splendid. A visit to its privately owned gramophone museum is mind boggling.

So, too, is the Seborga story.  Could I overthrow Nina and become Princess Leah (think Star Wars ) ?

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We wore our finest for Seborga.

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Members of the prince’s Corpo della Guardia were happy to pose with guests for photos.

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Celebrating Lemons and Bicycles

menton.9.aFruity floats, gigantic citrus creations, fabulous flowers. The annual Menton Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is an explosion of color, scents, and scenes in honor of the city’s prized small yellow fruit.menton..13

We were enthralled with it all during a visit many years ago, and returned a few weeks ago to survey the scene of dazzling orange and yellow sculptures once again.menton.15a

This Riviera city, the lemon capital of France on the border with Italy, has been celebrating the lemon with festivities every year since 1929. The festival attracts some 230,000 visitors who come to admire 145 tons of citrus fruits which make up the creations and exhibitions.

This year’s theme, the lemon in China, featured a mammoth dragon, a pagoda, a temple, animals and more all made of lemons and oranges.menton.2a

The exhibits are set up along the Jardin Biovès, a long promenade lined with the colossal fruit constructions. An elevated ramp in the middle is especially popular with the camera crowd who line the steps for overall shots of the scene. Stands selling the fruit, citrus liqueurs, soaps, jams and postcards do a brisk business.menton.17a

Menton’s microclimate with more than 300 sunny, temperate days per year is ideal for growing the tangy fruit. There are some 80 varieties of lemons, but it’s the Menton lemon that is prized by chefs for its perfume, distinctly flavored zest and pulp, and high sugar content. While the lemon gets top billing, oranges play a leading role in the gigantic creations.menton.16.a

We had previously visited Menton, my favorite coastal city, in January. See  post, “French Riviera: Magnifico Menton.” The city, which was originally part of Italy, became the property of Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, in 1346. In 1848 it broke away from Monaco, becoming a free city, and in 1860 it became part of France. By the late 19th century it was on the map as a popular tourist spot on the French Riviera.menton.1a

This time instead of staying in Menton, we crossed the border and spent three nights in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Menton, and a lovely town on a coastal bike path. That was our plan – get back on the bikes.SR.5

Husband, formerly known as Bicycle Bob (BB), was an avid cyclist. He seems to have lost interest in pedaling, even though he invested in a snazzy, expensive bicycle a few years ago. His passion has become wine, so I call him VR (Vino Roberto). I miss biking and the great rides we have taken over the years — in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and France.bobbike

Let’s not give in to old age. Let’s get moving again. He agreed and we had a wonderful, easy ride on the bike route from Sanremo to San Lorenzo al Mare, about 18 kilometers, then back to Sanremo and another 4 kilometers in the other direction to Ospedaletti.SR.blog.7.ajpg

Old railroad tracks were converted into the wide coastal trail, used by walkers and roller bladers as well as bicyclists. It meanders through Sanremo then down the coast. No hills. No need to downshift. There are plenty of spots along the route complete with benches where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. And villages (Bussana, Arma di Taggia, Santo Stefano al Mare) for a refreshment stopover.bike

We had a fantastic and bargain lunch at Café Emy by the beach in San Lorenzo al Mare. The insalata frutti di mare (seafood salad) was huge – a meal in itself. My spaghetti frutti di mare was the best I have ever eaten (see photo).spaghetti

A unique aspect to this bike route is tunnels – several. The most famous and longest is the Capo Nero tunnel along the section Sanremo-Ospedaletti, 1.75 kilometers long. It has been converted into a memorial of sorts to Sanremo’s most famous sporting event, the cycling classic Milan-Sanremo. For more than 100 years, the race has been the first important contest of the cycling season. It will take place on March 22 this year.

Every bay of the tunnel is dedicated to a specific year in the history of the race, with some basic facts about that year’s event written on one side, with tidbits SR.blog.9.ajpgand anecdotes on the other, in both Italian and English. I was too busy pedaling to read it all, but did try to catch some phrases to break up the monotony of the dismal tunnel trek.

Total ride: 45 kilometers. It was a success. And, so was the hotel where we stayed. Fabulous. With just four rooms, the Villa Rita can’t really be called a hotel. The house sits just above the beach within walking distance of the town center. Our room had a large terrace and lovely views. I was in heaven, lying in bed, enjoying the sea view from the window while listening to the restful sounds of waves slapping the shore — and contemplating future bike rides.

breakfastVilla Rita: www.villaritasanremo.it

Menton Lemon Festival: www.fete-du-citron.com/ The festival takes place the last two weeks of February.

Ristorante Bar Emy, Via Al Mare 1, San Lorenzo al Mare, Italy, ++ 39 0183-91314SR.1a

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