From Palm Springs to Venice

Reflections on 2023: Part 1
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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 

Palm Springs and Indio 10 Highway signs

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.

Black and white image of wooden horse and rider in front of mid-20th century Palm Springs motel, Casa del Camino

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 …

"History of Suspended Time" by Gonzalo Lebrijz, a vertical car sculpture in a reflecting pool across from the Palm Springs Art Museum

… or Forever Marilyn by Seward Johnson.

Forever Marilyn, a 26-foot tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, by Seward Johnson, in Palm Springs, CA

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.

Desert X 2023 sculpture, Sleeping Figure by Matt Johnson

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.

Tuilerie Gardins in Spring wtih trees with pink blossoms, Paris, France

An exhibit on hairstyles throughout history caught our attention, complete with a visitor turned model.

Scene from “Des cheveux et des poils” exhibit at the Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris, showing a man sitting in a salon hair dryer against a backdrop of images of famous stylists_

Seeing our dear friend Josiane after so many years was a treat.

Three friends, a woman in a red shirt, a woman in a black sweater and a man in a brown t-shirt, at lunch in Paris

Paris  never fails to exert its magic.

A big bubble in front of a typical Parisian building

We were sad to leave, but the road beckoned.

The Musée d'Orsay and the Eiffel Tower at night across the River Seine, Paris

Val d’Orcia in the heart of Tuscany

Val d'Orcia view with yellow flowers in foreground against green hills and mountains in background

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.

Val d'Orcia view with yellow flowers in foreground against green hills and mountains in background

Our photo fun for the week was driving around to the other towns …

Rainy day in Pienza with pink flowers in foreground against yellow walls

… getting lost on country roads …

Cultivated hillsides in Val d'Orcia, Tuscany, with flowers in foregroundCultivated hillsides in Val d'Orcia, Tuscany, with flowers in foreground

discovering fabulous views …

Formal gardens in Pienza with view across Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, Italy

 … and taking pictures on the spectacular property.

Sunset view from Il Rigo agriturismo farm with golden hills and storm in background

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.

Ravenna

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.

Mosaics in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy

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.

Interior, Dante's tomb, Ravenna, Italy

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!

Yellow exterior with columns and flags, Dante Alighieri Theater, Ravenna, Italy

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.

Young man with white shirt, red paint on his face and and red and gold crown, with two pals in the town square, Ravenna, Italy

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.

Restaurant interior with a bowl of occo bucco on the right, red wine glasses and people at other tables against a yellow wall

At night, we enjoyed warm and cozy meals in Ravenna’s many restaurants.

Colorful modern Dante painted on an exterior wall, Ravenna, Italy

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

Juliet's Balcony with loads of tourists in the courtyard, Verona, Italy

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.

Carni Equine, a shop that sells hourse meat, popular in Verona, Italy

Originally built by the Romans, Verona offers spectacular views. The photo below was taken from the Roman theater, high above the Adige River.

View of Verona across 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.

Exterior of the Verona Ampitheather lit at night against a dark sky, Verona, Italy_

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.

The Verona Ampitheather, filled to capacity for an Al Bano show, Verona, Italy

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.

Italian pop star Al Bano greets wellwishers David and Ellen in Verona, Italy

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.

Red and yellow flowers in pots along the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

 We were overwhelmed with the history and grandeur of Venice.

View of St. Mark's Square and Doge's Palace from the lagoon, Venice, Italy

And seduced with its intimacy and hidden spaces.

Gondola front in foreground with the archway of a building across the canal in background, Venice, Italy

We had seen enough churches and museums on earlier parts of the trip, so we wandered the wide fundamentos and tiny mouse-sized alleys.

Narrow alley in Venice, Italy

It was easy to munch on abundant delicacies.

Pastry shop, Venice, Italy

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.

Restaurant Al Gatto Nero (blue) across the canal on Burano, Italy

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.

Green garbage boat, Venice, Italy

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.

Gondola in front of fading mansions, Venice, Italy

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.

Gondolas lined up in tiny canal, Venice, Italy

But Venice still exerts a magic pull. It moves to the rhythm of the sea.

Three gondolas on Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

It hides behind closed doors.

Bronze door knocker, Venice, Italy

It wears an impenetrable mask and hides in plain sight.

Golden masks, Venice, Italy

There is no other city like it in the world. I will be back.

Sunset, Venice, Italy

For more Hidden-inSites about Northern Italy, see Face to Face with the Renaissance in Florence and Wandering Beyond the Renaissance.

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14 Comments

  1. Loved all the photos! So glad I could facilitate this Italy trip for you.

    Reply
    • Thanks Sandy. You and your team at We Make Travel Easy were terrific!

      Reply
  2. Love your narrative and fabulous photos. A mini trip for me this afternoon.

    Reply
    • Roz, so glad you enjoyed your mini-trip this afternoon!

      Reply
  3. Beautiful photos and enticing descriptions make me feel like I’ve taken the trip with you!

    Reply
    • Thanks Carolyn. You would have enjoyed it!

      Reply
      • What a year of highs and lows! But you and David persevered and were rewarded with lovely adventures together.

        Reply
        • Thanks Fredi. Travel and curiosity bring us back to the here and now, which really helps clear the mind.

          Reply
  4. Wonderful ! Let’s phone talk soon… ♥️

    Reply
    • Thanks Susan. I thought of you a lot in Europe, especially when we sought out the Giotto chapel in Padua on our way to Venice. Sadly, the photos don’t do it justice. It was worth the stop on our last day with the car.

      Reply
      • Fabulous photo storytelling, Ellen. My senses came alive with you in Venice and Paris. I was there walking through the alleys! Thank you for teaching through your writing!

        Reply
  5. Betsy, thanks so much. I too got to relive my trip as I wrote. It makes it double the fun.

    Reply
  6. So beautiful, Ellen! I don’t think I’ll forget the photo of Paris and the giant soap bubble. But so many are memorable! Also the one of the manor house grounds at sunrise (or set?) with the rain, so golden.

    Reply
    • Martha, thank you so much for your comment. The backstory of the photo is that it was sunset on the last day of our stay. The photo group had just finished our wrap-up session and we were about to have dinner. Someone noticed the sunset, and three of us leapt up, grabbed our iPhones (our “real” cameras were already packed), and started shooting. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

      Reply

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