Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Welcome to Steve Bailey's Tourist First. You can use the search function in the upper left corner of this screen to look for particular destinations. You can also simply scroll through the more than 100 postings. Or you can click on one of the terms below to find postings on a variety of topics and destinations.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What I Want in a Hotel Room

This overdone room at an inn in Alberobello, Italy,
featured a bed on a glass floor that appeared to float
over a bed of rocks. The chair in the foreground is
an uncomfortable antique. The tiny room, which
looked like a stage set, had no space for luggage
and little space for people. After one night, we were
able to move to a much larger space, though still
pretty odd -- it was in a trullo, one of Puglia's
iconic conical houses.

Sometimes looks count, and sometimes you just want comfort.  Sometimes photogenic hotel rooms turn out to be supremely unpleasant places to stay. Antiques may conjure feelings of coziness and authenticity, but they can also be uncomfortable to sit on and easily damaged if you put your luggage on top. Rooms in some super-trendy hotels (I'm talking about you, Mama Shelter, in Lyon, France) can feel like afterthoughts, as if the designers had never stayed at a hotel where they had to open a suitcase, recharge a phone, or brush their teeth.

I wrote a short New York Times article on what I want (and don't want) in a hotel room. Click HERE to read the article. 

Avoiding Credit Card Ripoffs Abroad

It's happened to Jane and me, and it has probably happened to you if you used a U.S. Visa or MasterCard credit card in a foreign country.  You give the hotel desk or the store clerk or the restaurant server your card, and when you get the receipt, you notice that the amount of the charge is given in dollars, not euros or whatever is the currency of the country you're in.

The business is supposed to ask your permission before doing this, but it happened twice to us in Thessaloniki, Greece, without our being asked, once at a restaurant and once at a hotel. At the hotel we persevered in getting the dollar charge voided and the having the charge done again in euros. If we had stuck with dollars, we would have paid more -- a needless conversion fee and an unfavorable exchange rate. The hotel said its bank automatically does this.  Now when we're abroad, we make a point of saying up front that we do not want the charge to be in dollars.

The New York Times recently ran an excellent piece explaining dynamic currency conversion. Click HERE for the article.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Califorina: Idyllwild, a Mountain Retreat

The "town monument" is a large piece of chainsaw art on Village Center Drive.
 We were told that wildlife in the area includes mountain lions and bobcats.
The only wildlife we saw were squirrels, chipmunks and loads of birds.

We spent a couple of nights in September 2019 in Idyllwild, a mile-high Riverside County community in the San Jacinto Mountains about two hours northeast of our home in San Diego.  The drive was about half on Interstate 15 and half on twisting, two-lane mountain roads, complete with switchbacks and the risk of falling rocks on the left and sheer drops on the right. The kind of road made for Lambos and Porsches but navigable in an aging Chevrolet.

We stayed at Grand Idyllwild Lodge, which is more a small inn than a grand anything, but still very nice (click HERE for its website).  The only real drawback is that on weekdays it offers only a "continental" breakfast in which the only bread is an airport-quality bagel, along with no dry cereals, little or no fresh fruit, and supermarket yogurts.  Our room had a private deck, which would have been nicer had the chaise lounges had cushions clean enough to sit on. All that aside, it's a lovely building with a nice mountain view set among tall trees full of hummingbirds, blue jays, woodpeckers and more. Aside from the outdoor cushions, everything was spotlessly clean. There's a small gym, massages by appointment, a dry sauna, and a tiny nine-hole putting course. And it's within walking distance of several good restaurants.

We had our Wednesday lunch on our way into town at the Mile High Cafe (click HERE), which offers standard diner fare along with several Asian-fusion dishes. I had a BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado) sandwich; Jane had a salad, both very good. During the afternoon, we stopped in for tastings at Middle Ridge Winery (click HERE), which makes wine from grapes brought in from other parts of California. As with most small wineries, the bottle prices seemed high, but $15 for three nice pours in a tasting was a good deal. All the wines seemed well made and we were happy to have tried them. I particularly liked the red blends. Dinner that night was at the Aroma Cafe (click HERE) where Jane had ribs and I had half a duck, a very generous serving, with a slightly too-orange orange sauce.

Our other meals in town were lunch Thursday at Idyllwild Brewpub (click HERE) where I had a double-hopped IPA and a hamburger, and Jane again had a salad. The beer and burger were good, as was a side of charred brussel sprouts, but the salad's lettuce wasn't very good. Dinner was at the somewhat kitschy Gastrognome (click HERE) where the "gnome" refers to garden gnomes, which adorn the 1960s-lodge-style dining room. Again, though, the food was decent, both my trout almondine and Jane's hamburger.  No complaints about the bread pudding that we shared for dessert.

What most visitors do in Idyllwild between bouts of overeating is hike. The main road, State Highway 243, is lined with parking spots for trail heads. We did our hiking on well-marked trails near the Idyllwild Nature Center. We also spent some time driving on side roads wondering why people would build wooden houses in an area where forest fires are a major concern for maybe half the year. On the drive to Idyllwild, we passed several areas that had burned recently.

Apparently, another attraction for many visitors is shopping, particularly for art. Paintings and photographs are sold at restaurants, the Middle Ridge Winery, and at several galleries. There's abstract art, traditional landscapes, rusty yard sculptures, and more. And, of course, a weekend destination like this offers tons of tee-shirts and baseball caps.  The town center is where several small strips of commercial buildings create a critical mass at the convergence of State Highway 243, North Circle Drive, Village Center Drive and Ridgeview Drive, with free parking areas connecting the different mini shopping centers. This area was about a 15-minute walk from our inn.

Here are some photos.
This third-floor deck at Grand Idyllwild Lodge looks east
toward a ridge in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Part of the common space at Grand Idyllwild Lodge.
Our room, "Harmony," is to the left of the red painting.

The main entrance to the lodge is on the second floor.

A signpost near the center of Idyllwild.

North Circle Drive, on the walk between the town
center and our inn.

Motorists have to keep an eye out for Sasquatch or Bigfoot.

Manzanita trees (more like bushes) are everywhere around Idyllwild,
with dead sections turned gray and living sections a distinctive red.

Manzanita berries.

A manzanita tangle of dead and living branches.

Trails at the Idyllwild Nature Center have great signage.

Huge boulders are strewn everywhere in the San Jacinto Mountains. Perhaps this one
got cracked when some ancient god flung it down from the heavens.

The presence of huge old trees seem to indicate that
this forested mountainside hasn't burned in a long time.

I tried to count the rings and got to around 40
before I lost my place.

The Hillside Trail gets narrow when it cuts between boulders.

Natural landscaping.

A log bridge is hardly needed when the creek is dry.

Gnarly is the word that comes to mind here.

I think this is a view to the east. If it is, then Palm Springs is somewhere
in the desert on the far side of these mountains.

The pines most common
here are called Jeffry pines.

This land is my land. This land is your land.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Italy: Venice, Our Last Stop

Gondolas crowd one of Venice's many small canals. We did not see or hear
a singing gondolier, but we did see boats in which passengers were
accompanied by singing guitarists, and in one case an accordion player.
In planning our 2019 seven-week Balkans trip, we chose to go south (Greece) to north (Slovenia and Italy), partly thinking that mid-May might be too cool in the north and that early July might be too warm in the south. It turned out that early July was quite hot in the north with warmer temperatures than on the Greek islands. And we found ourselves sort of at a dead-end in Trieste if we wanted an easy flight back to the U.S.  For a one-stop flight, we'd have to go back to Zagreb or go to the other side of the Adriatic and fly out of Venice. We took a train from Trieste to Venice.

Our only other time in Venice was in November, 1999, when the city was chilly, rainy and, on the day we left, flooded. It was not the sort of transcendental experience that many travelers expect the city to offer. So here was a chance to visit during high season, when the sky would be sunny and the sidewalks dry. Unfortunately, Venice in high season has become infamous for its crowds, masses of elbowing and pushing visitors eager to check off every sight worth seeing (and there are a lot). We were willing to dive into this during a three-night stay.

Fortunately, we chose a hotel about as far as possible from the crowds at the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, though it is on the Grand Canal: Hotel Palazzo Barbarigo sur Canal Grande, in the San Toma area, just a few steps from Campo San Toma. It's at a corner where a smaller canal, the Rio di San Polo, meets the Grand Canal. The San Toma square is prominent enough on most maps to make finding the hotel pretty easy, just cross the bridge closest to the church, stay straight and take the second right into Calle Corner, a rather dark and narrow but clean alley that does indeed involve a 90-degree corner and ends at the door to the hotel. Come out into the daylight from Calle Corner, and there are signs pointing you toward the Rialto and to Piazalle Roma (home to the bus station and shuttle buses to airport). Cross the Grand Canal on the Rialto and signs will lead you or you can just follow the crowds to Piazza San Marco. Still, it's easy to get lost and confused in Venice, but eventually a sign will appear pointing you in the right direction. And without getting lost, how would you have found that wine bar, that masquerade shop, that stationery store?

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE.

On the way back to the hotel, we twice went in the other direction and crossed the Grand Canal on the Ponte dell'Accademia. A slightly longer walk but much less crowded. And, back at the hotel, we simply had to duck back into the streets nearby to find drinks and dinner at little places near Campo San Toma. We knew we were at a local place on Via Nomboli when the owners were at one of the other sidewalk tables and passersby kept addressing them by name. Although there was a souvenir shop across the street, most of the people walking by appeared to be headed home from work.

We had two full days to enjoy Venice. We got "avoid the wait" online tickets for St. Mark's Basilica, which we had visited 20 years earlier. On that visit, one simply walked in and walked around and enjoyed the magnificent space, just as one does in most large Italian churches. Here, because of the crowds, visitors now stay between rope lines on the periphery of the church, never getting to experience standing in the middle in front of the altar. Signs warn against taking photos. When I took one photo, a tour guide scolded me, ignoring the fact that the people on his tour were taking photos almost nonstop. He shrugged when this was mentioned.

If the basilica was a disappointment, our other destination wasn't. We happened to be in town during the once-every-two-years La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Art Biennial exhibition. At a mere 20 euros, it's a bargain, presenting more art, more concepts and more ideas than one can possibly absorb. This year the show was titled "May You Live In Interesting Times," and many of the works were indeed interesting. The Biennale takes up two huge spaces on the point of land that extends east from Piazza San Marco. One is called the Arsenale, which centuries ago had a military purpose, and the other is the smaller Central Pavilion in the Giardini.

Inside the Arsenale, unpainted plywood walls divided the space, which felt like several airplane hangars strung together, putting most works in rather intimate spaces that encouraged visitors to move in close. Many countries sponsored exhibitions, usually highlighting one artist and one work, often on themes related to climate change. Much of the other work is probably best described as conceptual, though some were so highly personal that they defy category.

Our arrival in Venice involved a long wait for and then a crowded ride on a water bus because that was the way the directions to our hotel began. Our exit was simpler. We simply took our rolling luggage and followed signs to Piazalle Roma where we caught a shuttle bus to the airport. The alternative, a water taxi from our hotel to the airport, was more than 100 euros.  It turns out that Piazalle Roma is just a few steps from the Santa Luca train station where we arrived. The lesson: Get a very good map of Venice before going so you can see your options. Canal travel is fun, but the backstreets of Venice have their own charms, too, and they're free.

Here are some photos.
A small terrace off the bar at Palazzo Barbarigo offers
a wonderful view of the Grand Canal. The floor below
this, the "ground floor" or "water floor,' had an entrance
for people arriving by boat. Our room, on that lower floor,
had a window looking out at all the boats on the canal.
Not quite the evening rush, but still
a lot of traffic on the Grand Canal.
Gondolas tie up beside a restaurant on one of the
small canals. The motorboat on the right
is a water taxi.

The Ponte dell'Accademia is one of  three bridges over the Grand Canal. It connects the relatively
quiet Dosoduro district with the very crowded San Marco district. The other bridges are Scalzi, which
connects the train station with the Santa Croce district, and the famous Rialto, which connects the
San Polo district with the San Marco district. 

Masks are a big business here. We saw
shops where people could buy a plain
white ceramic mask and paint it however
they liked. One American teenager
turned his into something from
a horror movie.

It's OK, though, because this sidewalk cafe sells
drinks, foods and ice creams. 

The famous Bridge of Sighs connects a building, on the left, where a court condemned
prisoners to die, and the building on the right where the executions were carried out,
usually on the same day.

Basilica di San Marco was begun in the 11th century as the doge's personal chapel. Most of its
celebrated mosaics date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Crowds make it an unpleasant
place to visit, but if you've never seen it, it's a must.

Mosaics adorn almost every surface inside the basilica.

Byzantine touches make for an exotic interior.

The horses are gilt-bronze and date to Roman times. They were looted
from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204.

View of St. Mark's Square from the steps
of the basilica.

On the waterfront a few steps from St. Mark's Square, yachts and other
watercraft were tied up. We wondered if they belonged to jet-setters
who had sailed in to see the Biennalle.

This was one of the first works we encountered at the Biennale.
It's called "Double Elvis" and it's by a New York artist named
George Condo (b.1957). 

This photograph in a large group of photos by the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) artist Soham Gupta
(b. 1988), all of them depicting vulnerable people living on the outskirts of Kolkata.

"For in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit" by Shilpa Gupta of Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
deals with the "violence of censorship." The microphones suspended above each
paper are actually low-volume speakers reading the protest messages
that have been impaled. Visitors wandered through the exhibit, reading
and listening as much as they wanted.

One not-so-famous church gives an idea of the glories
behind the stone facades of Venice. This is Church of St.
Pantalon in the Dosoduro district. No crowds, no rope line,
just cool quiet and breathtaking art.
The winged lion, for centuries the symbol of Venetian
maritime power, still soars atop a column where
St. Mark's Square connects with the waterfront.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Italy: Time for Trieste

One of several grand facades on Piazza Unita d'Italia, the gigantic
square at the heart of Trieste.

Our "Balkans" trip was all Balkan -- Greece and countries that once were part of Yugoslavia (Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia) -- until we took a short taxi ride from Piran, Slovenia, to Trieste, Italy. And how could we not visit Trieste since we were already so close?  Trieste is Italy's least-Italian city. Slavic and Central European influences are almost as evident here as Italian, making Trieste Italy's one truly cosmopolitan city. It emerged from World War II as the Free Territory of Trieste and formally became part of Italy in 1955.

The areas of the city that we explored on foot centered around the gigantic Piazza Unita d'Italia, a plaza dominated by grandiose buildings from the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, when the city was part of the Hapsburg empire. A lot of today's sidewalk cafes began in that period as Viennese-style coffeehouses. To the west of the piazza is a more-or-less modern city with a regular street grid punctuated by the Canal Grande.  To the east of the piazza is an older section of narrow, mostly pedestrian streets lined with cafes, restaurants and shops.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Venice, HERE.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta, which is on the piazza and home to the well-regarded Harry's Grill. After dropping our bags at mid-day on a Friday, we set out to explore and have lunch while waiting for our room to be ready. We headed into the newer area and eventually stumbled upon a great lunch at a sidewalk pizza place on Via Rossini beside the Canal Grande. Back at our hotel, we found our room had a great view onto the piazza but had hardly enough space to open two suitcases, so we coughed up a few more euros and moved to a "junior suite," which had a bathroom almost as large as the first room, a sofa, plush chairs and still a great view of the piazza.

That first afternoon, there was a big demonstration outside a government building on the other side of the piazza. We went over and one of the protesters told us that Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, was meeting with Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister. The two, both notorious for anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, were supposedly discussing building a wall between Italy and Slovenia. No, it's not just the United States that has gone mad. Significant parts of Europe are also falling for nationalistic clap-trap, much of it here (as in the U.S.) promoted by Russia, according to various intelligence agencies.

Other than getting to shout "no wall" in Italian (or maybe not; we don't know), highlights in Trieste included the small but fascinating Revoltella Museum and the huge Grotta Gigante, one of the world's largest caves.

The Revoltella Museum (click HERE) is in two parts. One was the palatial home of Pasquale Revoltella (1795-1869), an important businessman and financier in imperial Trieste. He was a major backer of the Suez Canal, which he saw as essential to rebuilding Trieste as a trading center, and he was a major art collector. Upon his death he willed his home and his art to the city, along with money to maintain and expand the collection. That expansion is the museum's second part, an adjacent building containing  modern exhibition space. So a visit here is a bit of a time warp -- you see many works that Revoltella chose himself displayed as he chose to display them, interspersed with his personal mid-19th-century furnishings. Then you pass into the newer part and you might as well be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Even if you aren't interested in art, Revoltella's palace with its fountain and marble stairs is worth the price of admission, which was 7 euros.

The Grotta Gigante involved a 40-minute ride on a city bus, which we caught at Piazza Oberdan, about 15 blocks from our hotel. The cave (click HERE), which opened to the public in 1908, is mostly one large chamber with a total volume of 365,000 cubic meters, a length of 167 meters, a width of 76 meters and a floor-to-ceiling height of 98 meters (more than the length of an American football field). It is so tall that pendulums suspended from the top move ever so slightly near the floor when there is significant seismic activity almost anywhere in the world. Entry is only with a bilingual guide, who takes visitors on an 850-meter path, descending 100 meters underground (and then, there's the climb to get out!) at a constant temperature of 11 Celsius (52 Fahrenheit) year-round.

Trieste isn't a foodie destination like Bologna or even Naples, but it has a lot to offer. We happened upon a decent outdoor Greek place beside a construction site in the older part of town. We had pizza twice in Trieste, each time as good or better than we had last year during three months in southern Italy. One well-hidden Tuscan place is worth recommending: Enoteca L'Etrusco (click HERE). One of its Tuscan specialities is rabbit, which I had. L'Etrusco is on a pedestrian street called Via dei Capitelli. We were there during one of Europe's heat waves, and our orders were taken in the dining room, which was quite warm. The personable host persuaded us to move to a cooler, shaded outdoor table, even though it was threatening to rain. We were all set up outside, enjoying our drinks under a patio umbrella, when it started to rain. The host led us back to our original table now that the rain had cooled things down and the dining room was comfortable. If it's a choice between air conditioning and really good customer care, I'll take the later.

One unexpected treat in Trieste was stumbling upon a "late shopping" block party. Apparently, merchants stay open late, hire a band and serve food to encourage late-night shopping. We heard the brass band play "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys, "Drop That Bass" and a couple of other tunes that I couldn't put names to. This was in the newer part of town and we were walking back to the piazza after being turned away at a restaurant because our hotel had screwed up our dinner reservation. We ended up getting a sidewalk table at a big Chinese place on the harbor. Since we love Chinese food, this was a happy ending.

Here are some photos.
Those cameras are pointed at Matteo Salvini, Italy's
interior minister, who was the subject of a large
protest demonstration the day we arrived. We caught
only the slightest glimpse of him. 

Another view of the media scrum around Salvini.

Protesters wait for Salvini to emerge during a meeting with Hungary's Victor Orban.

The view from our room at the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta. At left, police
provide security for a meeting between  Matteo Salvini and Victor Orban. This
was after the protest. To the right is a large sidewalk restaurant.

The Church of Saint Antonio Nuovo sits at the eastern end
of the Canal Grande. 

These lollipop-like trees are hollies that are kept
trimmed. We saw them in several parts of the city,
including this square well away from the touristic center.

I'm not sure what this sign is trying to say. Come back and shop in Trieste?
Abandon your Trumpian and Brexiting ways and come back into
the world of rational thought? 

The ruins of a Roman-era theater are a few blocks
from the central piazza.

Pasquale Revoltella's palace-like home
is part of the Revoltella Museum.

Too much is never enough. That might have been Revoltella's decorating mantra.

 "The Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez," 1864, by Pietro Magni
 (1817-1877), an allegory that shows Europe, left, holding in her right hand
the Red Sea and in her left hand the Mediterranean. Revoltella was
an important backer of the Suez Canal, which he thought would
benefit Trieste. This is a work that he commissioned.

A ceiling in Revoltella's home.

This storeroom at the Revoltella Museum is open to visitors.

"Emancipation of the Black Men," 1873, by
Francesco Pezzicar (1831-1890), a Trieste

Another work by a Trieste artist, this one is "The Kiss,"
1931, by Ruggero Roman (1877-1965). 

A view of the harbor from the roof of the Revoltella Museum.

A table for two on a pier at the harbor.

Mid-afternoon finds city streets quiet,
though there are a lot of people at the
sidewalk restaurant in the distance.

Most of Trieste's buildings date to the late 19th century and the
waning years of the Hapsburg empire.

That crane is on the waterfront. 

A brass band pauses between numbers at a late-shopping block party. 

No words needed for these warning
and informational signs about Grotta Gigante.

Stairways with strong railings make descent into
the cave a breeze.

Those are two tubes, each of which holds a pendulum that swings ever
so slightly in response to seismic activity even on other continents.