Wednesday, December 31, 2008

FLORENCE…Brunelleschi’s Dome

I can’t write of my recent time in Florence without paying homage to the Duomo and the amazing dome designed by Brunelleschi.

This was of special interest for my son. He is an architect and could appreciate all the structural and aesthetic problems that went into the building of the dome. He couldn’t believe that we were actually there ... following in the steps of the builders and of Brunelleschi himself.

I couldn’t believe it for another reason. We were about to take the 463 steps to the top of the Dome and I was now 7 years older than the last time I’d made that difficult climb. Would I make it to the top?

Well, I did, but it was slow going. I stopped many times along the way to peek out of the tiny windows that dotted the walls... giving me a chance to catch my breath and to view Florence from a variety of angles.

The dome consists of two layers, an inner dome spanning the diameter and a parallel outer shell to protect it from the weather and give it a more pleasing external form.

After climbing up to the dome itself we found that we could walk the interior of the cupola and we got a very close look at the “Last Judgement” fresco, among others. Then it was a climb through the shell of the dome and we were outside.

It was a highlight of our trip to Italy to be standing high above the city of Florence on this magnificent day in November. I’m sure that neither of us will ever forget it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

“Vacation From Marriage”

When I was in my impressionable mid-teen years I loved nothing more than going to the movies. One of my favorites was a World War II story set in London. I have tried everything, over the years, to recall the title and finally, with the help of the computer, I was able to do just that.

The film is “Vacation from Marriage” and features Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr. They are a young married couple living in London. The husband, Robert, is a lackluster accountant and his wife, Catherine, is a slovenly housekeeper with a constant cold. They have been married for 5 years and their lives are slowly sinking into nothingness.

With the advent of World War II, Robert is drafted into the Navy. Rather than stay at home Catherine decides to serve also and they spend the next 3 years apart.

I’m sure you can guess what happens. Robert is wounded and falls in love with his nurse and Catherine (who no longer suffers from a cold) has become very attractive and is being pursued by an admirer.

Three years pass before they are reunited at a London restaurant. They are surprised and pleased with the changes that they see in each other. However, it is in both their minds to dissolve the marriage.

The final scene is in their apartment. A bomb has taken out one wall and when Robert enters ...expecting to pick up some of his belongings ...he sees Catherine. She is gazing through the opening in the wall at the devastated city and they talk of the rebuilding of London and what a challenge it will be to bring it back to where it was before the war.

Of course this becomes a metaphor for their own lives and they decide to try to rebuild their life together as well.

OK, so it’s a “Chick-flick”...but it’s a very good one. It was produced and directed by Alexander Korda and written by Clemence Dane, who’s original story won an Academy Award.

(PS: I was disappointed to find that it is not on my Netflix list but I’ll keep trying to find it now that I know the name.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pretty good for a 6 year old !

In my last blog you saw a picture of my son hugging one of the columns of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. He is also the dad of Faye, the sweet little girl that drew this picture.

What is particularly touching about this picture is that my son and his wife have been divorced for almost two years now. I am proud and happy to say that it’s been an amicable arrangement and they all three remain very close, emotionally as well as in proximity.

Both my son and his ex-wife are Type 1 diabetics so we’d been hoping that this would not carry over to Faye. However, just to be safe, they saved 2 ampules of her cord blood stem cells when she was born and have had them stored.

This has proved to be a very good choice. Just a few months ago she was diagnosed as a Juvenile Diabetic and started on insulin. My daughter-in-law did a bunch of research on the internet and came across this article: “New York, NY, June 25, 2007 -- Researchers supported by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation have found that transfusion of stored umbilical cord blood into a small group of newly diagnosed children with type 1 diabetes appears to have delayed the progression of the disease, possibly re-setting the immune system and slowing the destruction of their insulin-producing cells.”

BINGO. This information was enough to start the ball rolling and now Faye is part of a research project being held in Florida. She is one of just 15 children chosen so it is very exciting. It is way too soon to see if this can halt the progression of the disease but there have been positive and hopeful signs.

As you can see by the picture that she drew Faye loves her daddy and cherishes all the times that they are together. To me it proves that love comes in all forms and even those who cannot live together can still work together and change the lives of those around them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


In September my son and I spent two wonderful weeks in Italy. That’s him ... showing his excitement by hugging one of the Pantheon columns. We had 5 days in Rome, split between an 8 day jaunt to Florence. I was amazed at what we could cram in to that short time.

Our hostel in Rome was, once again, a monastery ... adequate but much less posh than where we stayed in Florence. We each had a small room that resembled those in a college dorm. It did have a bed, table, chair and a small sink but the main WC and showers were at the end of a long hall.

This “austerity” didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the slightest ... the 35 Euro a night made up for any inconvenience and we were located near the heart of Trastevere, a picturesque medieval area located on the west bank of the Tiber.

We were just a 10 minute walk from the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel and we actually didn’t have to wait in much of a line for either of them. This was entirely different from my visit there in Sept. of 2001 when it took almost all day to do the same thing.

We found that it was much easier to walk our way around the city than to try to figure out the bus routes. Although it was November the weather cooperated and we were very comfortable.

Among the amazing sites that we visited were the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Borghese Gardens, the baths of Caracalla, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi fountain and many, many churches and museums.

In Rome there were hundreds of acres of ruins that have been preserved and ancient relics and statuary were left where they had fallen many years before. It was wonderful to see that there is a place where a country’s heritage was proudly being kept intact ... even if it meant the loss of valuable city real estate.

I couldn’t help but compare that with America where our developers don’t seem to be able to resist the impulse to “clean up the cities“ and fill any empty spaces with high-rise apartments.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Déjà vu…30 years later “my” Cedar Waxwings return.

I can hardly believe it. I glanced out my window a few minutes ago and was amazed to see the return of the beautiful Cedar Waxwings. It has been 30 years since I’ve seen them.

What was really of interest to me was that they did the exact same thing as they did then. They flew in together (maybe 10 or 12 of them), settled on my wild grape vines and nibbled away. This lasted perhaps 10 minutes and then they were on their way. It made me wonder if they’ve been returning each year and if I just missed that short and magical window of time when they would appear ??

I posted a blog in 2006 about the first time that a flock came to my house and I will post some of it again now.

In 1978 my elderly mother spent the winter months with us in North Carolina. At age 84 she was still very active and her mind was exceptionally alert. She was also in good physical shape and would take a short walk each day.

She would bring home leaves and berries and anything else that caught her fancy and she would pour over our encyclopedias to identify them. One day she was doing just that in “her” bedroom when I heard a loud cry of astonishment. I went running to see if she was OK and the two of us watched in wonder as more than 20 Cedar Waxwings settled to feed on the berries of a small tree in our backyard.

The tree was just outside her window and we were not more than 10 feet from the birds. We watched in awe as these lovely creatures fed to their heart’s content. I mentioned that I could run and get my camera but Mother put her hand on my arm and said, “Don’t move, they’ll be gone before you get back." and she was right. All of a sudden they perked up, as if they’d heard a silent alarm, and within a minute they were gone.

For a long time I watched to see if “my” Waxwings would return to that little tree. They never did and now my tree, my mother and my Cedar Waxwings are all gone. But, not my memory...that I will savor forever.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Luxury lodging in Florence… Bargain priced !

One peek at the pictures above and you can tell that we really lived it up in our accommodations while in Florence. The price, however, was about one quarter of the going rate for hotel rooms in the area. It was just 50 Euro a night per single room.

As some of you may recall I wrote about staying in Italy’s monasteries when I spent a month there in 2001. A Doctor friend of mine at the hospital where I worked had clued me in on this amazing way to save $$.

He loaned me his copy of “The Guide to Lodging in Italy’s Monasteries”, by Eileen Barish and it set the wheels in motion. On that trip we stayed in 8 different monasteries and each one was an adventure. Some of them were very strict (especially the one in Venice), but they were all exceptionally clean. Most were located in historic buildings in magical places. The views from my window in the room where we stayed in Orvieto were among the most outstanding of our entire trip.

Now back to this recent trip and our lodgings. Since I had been there before I felt comfortable to book for 8 days. We were just a 10 minute bus ride from the center of Florence and actually walked “home” on more than one occasion. We also took many day trips from there to the amazing hill towns that were within a few hours of Florence.

This guesthouse (as the Sister’s call it) is called the Instituto San Giovanni Battista. It is a 15th century Villa that was given to the religious order and they maintain it by hosting tourists and by an Elementary School held on the premises. I would highly recommend it to anyone…no matter the size of your pocketbook!

Another plus was that they actually served MORE than the very hard roll and hot coffee that constituted the breakfasts at the other monasteries. We actually had a choice of coffee or tea, fruit juice, corn flakes, hard roll or croissant and many toppings, including the soft Italian Bel Paese cheese!

If you are lucky enough to plan a visit to Florence and want to be assured of a safe and affordable place to stay…just contact the sister (Suore) at the monastery: by fax 055/6815228-6802394. The mailing address is Via Ripoli, 82, 50126, Florence, Italy.

Monday, December 01, 2008


Paradise is just 15 minutes from Florence and I couldn’t wait to show it to my son on our recent visit to Italy. We’d spent the first few days visiting the Duomo, the Ufizzi art gallery, the Pontevecchio and a variety of churches. To put it mildly we were feeling a bit overwhelmed and needed a respite from other tourists and some open air.

A short ride on the number 7 bus took us from Florence to Fiesole, a magical town perched on the hills north of the city. I had been there before and wasn’t at all surprised to watch the awe spread over my son’s face as we entered the Piazza Mino. It is the town center and the views from all sides are magnificent.

However, it was the steep walk up the Via San Francesco that I wanted to share with him. It leads to the Abbey of San Francesco, begun in 1330 by a group of hermits, and taken over by the Franciscan’s, who expanded it in 1407. You can see by the pictures that it is a simple country monastery and it seemed much easier to picture St. Francis in this setting than in the ornate churches of Florence or Assisi.

Unfortunately the main church was closed to visitors but we could view the frescoes on the atria walls. They depict the duties of the brothers to provide shelter, food, comfort and clothing to the sick, burial to the dead and prayer for all.

We were able to visit the monk’s cells upstairs however and I can’t imagine how they existed through the winter months. Each cell had a stone bench for a bed, a rustic table and candles for light. A window in each cell was open to the elements. We spent a delightful few hours there and on our way back down the steep road we started to pass an outdoor restaurant when a waiter caught my eye. A couple had just vacated his table and I indicated that we’d love to have their table if it was free. He motioned us in and it turned into a highlight of our trip.

We couldn’t have had better seating if we’d reserved months in advance. The food and the service was super and you can see by this picture that the view was outstanding.

It was the perfect respite that we needed mid-way in our two weeks of jam packed Umbrian and Tuscan sights.