The end of the year report for the Newmans was a mixed bag: part couch potato and part exploring. 2023 was a yin-yang year, starting with leftover fatigue from Covid for us both, plus a broken leg for me. Yes, a broken leg was my most noticeable symptom from Covid. I fainted the first night, before I even knew I was sick. Yikes!
By coincidence, the same day my orthopedist cleared me to travel, we got emails from two favorite photographers and trip leaders, Eddie Soloway and Catherine Karnow. Eager to go, we signed right up. First was a May visit to an agriturismo in Tuscany with Eddie, to which we added several Northern Italian cities, including Verona and Venice. And we began making plans to go to Vietnam and Cambodia with Catherine in October (more about Southeast Asia in Part 2, coming soon). Before taking off for either trip, we met our Southern California family in Palm Springs, to literally warm up.
That’s where this wrap-up story begins. But before I share the fun, I want to add a note about the summer, the time between the trips. Right after we got home from Europe, I developed a terrible dental infection. Instead of getting better with antibiotics and some treatment, it kept getting worse. I finally ended up at UCSF hospital for a week. I mention it at all because there are two bits of advice I want to share. Consider this my public service announcement.
First, if you think you are allergic to penicillin, but have not been formally diagnosed with a penicillin allergy, please get yourself tested. It’s crucial, and might save your life. It turns out I thought I was allergic and was taking a different drug which did nothing. Dangerously, the infection spread to my jaw. Trust me, it was no fun.
Second, if your MDs are not responding to your concerns, go to the ER. Really. It might save your life. My primary care office kept putting me off (it’s a dental problem, they told me). Once at the hospital, I had surgery from an amazing maxillofacial team, was tested for my purported penicillin allergy (negative!), and was put on IV antibiotics for a week. I am forever grateful to my medical team. Meanwhile, David had rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder. Our trusty companion was Netflix, especially watching Phil Rosenthal eat his way around the world on Somebody Feed Phil. If you like food and travel, check it out.
On the road again: Palm Springs
As an LA kid, I used to come to Palm Springs regularly for Christmas vacation. We stayed at a wonderful bungalow motel on Palm Canyon Drive, Casa del Camino. Despite its Spanish name, the property’s unforgettable landmark was a giant red Swedish horse and rider that looked like an escaped ornament from a Nordic giant’s Christmas tree. I never tired of running around and through the horse’s legs. As improbable as it was, that horse, conceived by Swedish artist Axel Linus (who owned the motel with his wife Greta), was my first encounter with site-specific art in the desert.
Now Palm Springs is home to a fabulous modern art museum and Instagram worthy kitsch installations, like “History of Suspended Time” by artist Gonzalo Lebrija …
… or Forever Marilyn by Seward Johnson.
If the mere mention of a scavenger hunt sparks your sense of adventure and you are a sucker for art in the wild, outside the confines of museum walls, then you’ll love Desert X, an ambitious biennial program of site-specific art planted throughout the Coachella Valley.
We were lucky. Our March trip coincided with Desert X 2023. My favorite? “Sleeping Figure,” by Matt Johnson. His piece, a wry comment on globalization and the supply chain economy, turned shipping containers from the Port of Los Angeles into a laconic figure resting against a desert mountain backdrop.
Taking off for Europe: Paris
Having been a laconic figure myself, healing my ankle for several months, I was ready for new adventures. First stop: Paris. We hadn’t been since 2008, and one of our best friends lives there. It was spring, and we were excited to be traveling again.
An exhibit on hairstyles throughout history caught our attention, complete with a visitor turned model.
Seeing our dear friend Josiane after so many years was a treat.
Paris never fails to exert its magic.
We were sad to leave, but the road beckoned.
Val d’Orcia in the heart of Tuscany
Our headquarters for exploring Val d’Orcia, a landscape World Heritage Site, was Il Rigo, a hilltop agricultural villa about five minutes from the medieval hill town of San Quirico d’Orcia and about 20 minutes from Pienza.
Our photo fun for the week was driving around to the other towns …
… getting lost on country roads …
discovering fabulous views …
… and taking pictures on the spectacular property.
The weather, about a week ahead of torrential rains that soaked much of Northern Italy last May, was dramatic enough to complicate our days and star in our images.
After we left Il Rigo, we were on a classic Americans-in-Italy road trip, except for that monumental storm that kept the navigator’s eyes (mine) glued to the road, which was packed. Despite the rain, Northern Italy hummed with 21st century commerce. We, meanwhile, explored towns that date back millennia but beguiled us with modern fun.
First up, Ravenna on Italy’s east coast, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom and after that the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. Led by a guide who served us more details than we could possibly digest, we saw bits and pieces of leftovers of those dynasties, My favorite was the lovely Mausoleum of Galla Placida, just a block away from our hotel.
Although Firenze (Florence) fiercely claims Dante as its own, the poet lived his final two decades traveling from town to town in Northern Italy, an exile from ferocious Florentine factional politics. In Ravenna he found some peace and was able to finish the last verses of The Divine Comedy. On a trip to Venice, through the marshy wetlands along the coast, he contracted malaria and died in September, 1321.
Hum, you might be thinking. Isn’t Dante’s tomb in Santa Croce in Florence? Yes, an elaborate tomb is there, but not Dante. He is at rest here in this tomb in Ravenna. But first, his allies had to hide his body so the Florentines wouldn’t snatch it. Such intrigue!
Dante’s influence is pervasive. Ravenna’s Dante Alighieri Theater is a 19th century homage to the bard who wrote in the Italian vernacular rather than Latin.
In the town square we met this fellow, being hazed by his friends in honor of his engagement. We never learned what the red paint and crown signify.
At night, we enjoyed warm and cozy meals in Ravenna’s many restaurants.
Walking back to the hotel, we saw Dante in a new light. He is everywhere. Every town we visited has at least one street named for him.
Verona, home to the kitsch Juliet’s balcony (added to this building as tourist bait in the early 20th century), brought other surprises, like the butcher shop that sells horse meat, popular in the area. No, we didn’t try any, though it did appear on restaurant menus.
Originally built by the Romans, Verona offers spectacular views. The photo below was taken from the Roman theater, high above the Adige River.
A wealthy city, Verona had both a theater and an arena. The arena still is used for shows, which means that it is closed to daytime tourism during late spring and summer when it is set up for presentations.
The only way to get in was to buy a ticket. Luckily, our guide told us about a show the next night, Italian favorite, pop singer Al Bano. Our last-minute tickets found us in the nosebleed seats of the packed arena. Apparently the ancient Romans saw no need for handrails or bannisters. There was no ADA then.
In a delightful surprise, Al Bano and his family were staying at our hotel. The next morning, his voice hoarse from the show, he was gracious to well-wishers and casual fans.
Venice captures two more hearts
Venice took hold of my imagination like no other Italian city we visited. On our first morning, the sun warmed us into believing that it was finally spring.
We were overwhelmed with the history and grandeur of Venice.
And seduced with its intimacy and hidden spaces.
We had seen enough churches and museums on earlier parts of the trip, so we wandered the wide fundamentos and tiny mouse-sized alleys.
It was easy to munch on abundant delicacies.
We took a day to explore the adjacent islands of Murano and Burano, where we had a fabulous seafood lunch. The biggest surprise that day was seeing the vibrant colors on Burano, known for its lace making the way Murano is known for blown glass.
We wondered how Venice, a city of 180 islands, works. Fundamental services, from police and ambulance to Amazon deliveries and garbage pickup, are handled by boat. For everything else, you need to walk.
The truth is that Venice is essentially constructed on pilings driven into marshy islets by fisherman and salt farmers seeking safety from marauding tribes. Venice not only survived for more than 1,500 years, but it became the wealthiest nation in the Western world for 500 years from about 1000 to 1500, when the Turks defeated the Venetian navy.
Today, the threat of sea rise and cost of maintaining fading mansions, is driving Venetians to the mainland. The city’s population has declined from 175,000 to about 50,000 in 70 years. There are more tourists in Venice these days than residents.
But Venice still exerts a magic pull. It moves to the rhythm of the sea.
It hides behind closed doors.
It wears an impenetrable mask and hides in plain sight.
There is no other city like it in the world. I will be back.