Sunday, August 02, 2015

The importance of bathroom mirrors

We recently stayed in a house that didn't have a mirror in one of the bathrooms. And, every time I went in there, something just seemed not quite right. I do not often think of myself as vain, but the absence of the mirror was noticeable. There were other mirrors in the house, but, still, I missed the bathroom mirror. So, I got to thinking: "What's so important about a bathroom mirror?" This is what I came up with:

We need a place where we can examine ourselves freely, without the scrutinizing eyes of our sweetie or our children or a friend or a stranger or the world. We need places where we we can be alone with ourselves and just look. This extends far beyond a peek at our physical appearance. Unfortunately, many people I know seem to be uncomfortable with this kind of personal scrutiny, and so it is like they intentionally leave out the mirror in the bathroom, and then things just don't quite seem right. We need to take the time to examine ourselves, to know our flaws and features, to work on the things that need work and accentuate the assets. And, sometimes, we need to do this without the influences of even those who are closest to us, because it is important to know ourselves. Other mirrors have their place, for sure, but the one you will miss the most is the one in that most private of places.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Venice

I must honestly admit I felt pretty "meh" about visiting Venice, especially since I had read that it could be pretty hot and smelly and overcrowded in the summer. I'm so glad we didn't let those negative reviews stop us from going! It was none of those things and turned out to be, by far, our very favorite place we visited in all of Italy! I wish we could have stayed much longer in the charming, labyrinthine city.

We arrived in the afternoon on Thursday, and took the vaporetto (water bus) to our stop near the Rialto Bridge. A quick walk through the market and down a very narrow street brought us to our apartment, which seemed to be at the heart of everything. We settled in and then set out to explore. We loved the little streets, many of which seemed like secrets, and the many shops and cafes scattered throughout the city. We found an interesting book store, with books stacked everywhere, including in wheelbarrows and bathtubs, and even a gondola that sat in the middle of the store. Out back there was a small garden, with a staircase made out of books that led to a viewpoint overlooking a canal. We eventually stopped to eat at a wonderful place, right by one of the canals in a large square near a basilica and a beautiful hospital. And, since our days in Italy were numbered, we stopped for gelato on the way back to our apartment.

Yesterday, we slept in and then lazily made our way to a little sidewalk cafe for coffee and a light breakfast. From there, we tracked down a free music museum that Ruth had read about online. Inside, we found many interesting, beautiful and unique instruments and a room devoted to the process of violin making, while lovely classical music filled our ears. By the time we were finished, it was just about lunch time, so we stopped at a street vendor for several slices of pizza for those in our group who felt the need to eat again. (And those who just wanted to take the opportunity to eat more pizza in Italy). After that, we wandered around some more and eventually found The Doge's Palace and a nice little playground, where we stayed until it was time to head back to our apartment and get ready for dinner. Another ride on the vaporetto got us there fairly quickly, and getting off one stop before we needed to allowed us to take in the bustling shops near the Rialto Bridge. Ruth had been hoping to celebrate her birthday in Venice, but we just couldn't get it to work out. However, we did promise her a belated birthday dinner while in the city, so she chose the place. Osteria alla Staffa was a tiny place, only seating about 20 people, so we had to have a reservation to get in, but it was simply fantastic. The portions were small, though, so a couple of people in our group, who shall remain nameless, felt the need to stop at the pizza stand when we left. And, of course, we ended the evening with our last Italian gelato.

This morning, we got up at the crack of dawn, so we could see the fishmongers and fruit and veggie sellers set up at the market right outside our apartment. The seafood was coming in right off the boats, and some of it, like the crabs, was so fresh that it was trying to run away. The fishmonger kept kept putting this one crab back on the pile, and it kept wandering off. Finally, the man stuck it on the bottom of the pile so that the weight of the other crabs kept it mostly in place. Clay was particularly thrilled by this and laughed and laughed. After taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of the fish market and the adjacent fresh produce market, we popped into a cafe for breakfast. Too soon, we had to pack up our bags and say good-bye to this incredible city and to Italy. This is a place we will definitely try to visit again in the future!

Quintessential Venice

Our apartment was on this tiny street.

A boatload of books

Climbing up for a peek at the canal

A lovely location for dinner

The winged lion is the symbol of Venice,
and our statue lover couldn't pass up the opportunity to pose with it.

The Music Museum

Venice apparently has a long history of violin making.

So much pizza, so little time!

The Doge's Palace

Belated birthday dinner

Some interesting finds at the fish market

The one that nearly got away!

The market was absolutely beautiful,
and this chili tree was stunning!

We were among the first visitors to the fresh market this morning.

We are already looking forward to visiting this city again in the future!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Florence

Our last day in Tuscany was spent in Florence, which we loved! We got to watch some sculptors in action as they created beautiful reliefs, visit a wooden toy store (in the style of Pinocchio), ride an antique carousel in a city square, and learn about Da Vinci and many of his incredible inventions and paintings, at the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum. It was a really wonderful day! (To see more about our time in Tuscany, check out my previous post.)

Sculpture Studio

Max posing as Pinocchio at Bartolucci Toy Store

Piazza Della Republica

Back in the saddle

Il Duomo di Firenze--Florence Cathedral

This invention of Da Vinci's was the precursor to the modern firetruck ladder.

Da Vinci had some pretty explosive ideas.

Gelato in Firenze (Florence)



Tuscany

Here I am playing catch-up again. The Internet of the world can't quite keep up with the Wandering Watts! :) We spent several days in Tuscany, which is absolutely beautiful, with all it's rolling hills, vineyards, hay fields, sunflower fields and olive groves. Our house, outside of Pontassieve, had a nice little backyard, with a killer view, and we spent many happy hours there. On the way there from Rome, we stopped by the Terme di Saturnia, which is a river/waterfall fed by a natural hot spring. Under the waterfall, little pools have formed from the mineral deposits, making a very neat place to hang out. We had lunch at the little snack bar and then continued on to Pisa, where some of us jumped out of the car to snap photos of the leaning tower, while Jeff made the block. It was a pretty hilarious stop! By the time we made it to Pontassieve and met up with our landlord, the supermarket was closed, so we went in search of a seafood and pizza restaurant in Santa Brigida, which our landlord recommended. It was a fun place with delicious food, and we even got to do a drive-by of the local castle.

The following day, we slept in, caught up on laundry and reading, made our grocery run and produced some homemade goodness in the kitchen, including rosemary potatoes, using fresh rosemary from the garden, which thrilled the kids. It was a slow day, but we needed it very much after all the long travel days we had had prior to that. The day after that was a school day for us, and everyone picked right back up where we left off in Naples. We are trying some new things with school this year because of the way we are traveling, and, so far, we are very pleased with the way it is going. I will be trying to post more catch-up posts as the Internet allows.

Terme di Saturnia

Sunflowers as far as the eye can see

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Our Tuscan Home

The view from our backyard

Castle in Santa Brigida

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The last little bit of Africa

We had one night and a full day in Johannesburg, before our flight out of South Africa. My brother-in-law had recommended eating at The Carnivore restaurant, so we decided to give that a try. What a wonderful experience! It is like a Brazilan steakhouse, where they come around with meat on skewers. But instead of just beef, chicken and pork, we also got to try some exoctic game meats like crocodile, kudu, zebra and impala, which we loved. We also had a Lazy Susan on our table, filled with a variety of salads and sauces. Everything was really wonderful, and the atmosphere was very fun!

We spent the next day just hanging out around our guesthouse, which was equipped with a playground, pool table, foosball table and a variety of board games. We needed a slow day like that after all the early mornings and before getting on a very long flight.

Our overnight flight landed us in Cairo, just as the sun was coming up. We knew ahead of time that we were going to have about an 8 hour layover, so we had made arragements for a driver to take us out to the pyramids, just so we could say we had seen them and snap a few photos. That turned into a pretty crazy adventure, but we did get our photos, and we can say we have seen the pyramids and the sphinx. And, based on what I saw of the city on our way over, I would say those things are Cairo's only redeeming features. I don't believe I've ever been in a more disgusting or less attractive city.

So, that brought our time in Africa to a close. We are now back in Italy, looking forward to new adventures. If you missed my last few catch-up posts, you can check them out here, here, and here.

Our Jo'burg house

Some little boys definitely needed to play outside after days in the car.
We loved that we could keep an eye on them from inside the house.

Salads and sauces at The Carnivore

Clay got in on some drumming action

The heart of The Carnivore is this huge cooking station,
where the skewers of meat are roasted over charcoal fires.

Of course, this guy found a statue to snuggle up to!

Posing with Nelson Mandela

Taking the pose a step further

Hippo attack

One choice of transportation to go see the pyramids

The only remaining wonder of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The Sphinx, watchdog of the pyramidal tombs


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kruger National Park


On July 18, we arrived at Kruger National Park, which is a stop we've been looking forward to since we started planning the trip, over a year ago. It is a protected game viewing park, roughly the size of Massachusetts. I cannot tell you of all of our adventures in the park, and, even if I tried to share everything in any combination of words and pictures, there is no way I could adequately capture the awesomeness of this place. Driving through Kruger is like driving through a dream: It is a fantastical place, where the landscape is continually changing, and you never know what kind of strange and exotic creature you will encounter next. People who visit talk about seeing or trying to see "The Big Five," which includes elephants, water buffaloes, rhinoceroses, lions, and leopards. Within four hours of entering the park, we had checked three of those--elephant, leopard and water buffalo--off our list. Within 48 hours, we had seen them all. And, by the time we left, on July 23, we had seen them all several times over, which seems to be a pretty rare feat, even for seasoned visitors, so we felt extremely fortunate. But, besides that, we also got to see a wide variety of other African animals and birds, and we absolutely had the best time. We stayed at three different thatch-roofed, self-catering cabins, at camps inside the park, over the course of five nights, and saw approximately two thirds of the entire park, working our way from north to south. Camp gates open at 6:00 a.m. and close at 5:30 p.m., so we were up before dawn every morning and didn't get back until the sun was going down. And, we planned our routes to try to maximize the area we could cover. They were full days, but they were fantastic. It doesn't matter how many giraffes or elephants or zebras you've seen, every time it's the best kind of surprise. There is just something truly special and almost magical about observing wild animals in their natural habitats, with as little interference from humans as possible. It is one of the most amazing places I have ever been! Unfortunately, I can't share all of my pictures, because there are hundreds (maybe thousands!). But, I have picked out a few of the highlights to hopefully give you an idea of what makes Kruger the kind of amazing place that gets into a person's soul. 

The Big Five

Lodging
Mopani Rest Camp, Talamati Bush Camp, Pretoriuskop Rest Camp

Birds
African fish eagle,  Yellow-fronted canary, Tawny Eagle,
Secretarybird, Lilac-breasted roller, Black-bellied Bustard,
Crested Barbet, Natal Fancolin, Collared Sunbird 

Babies
Baboon (or "Baboom," as Clay calls them), Hippo
Rhino, Hyena, Elephant, Giraffe, Zebra, Bush Buck

Flora
Euphorbia Cactus, Impala Lily,
Baobab Tree, Sausage Tree,
Coral Tree,  Lebombo Aloe

Unique Traffic Problems
Wildebeests, Hyena, Impala, Giraffes,
Rhino, Baboons, Zebra, Warthogs,
Elephants, Water Buck, Water Buffaloes, Lion

This is our only family picture from inside the park,
taken while we were having lunch at the Lower Sabie Camp.
If you look closely, you can see hippos between Jeff and Weston.
We had so much fun listening to their hearty "laugh" while we dined.


*You can click on each collage for a larger view of the pictures.


Friday, July 24, 2015

The Panorama Route

[I'm playing catch-up on our time in South Africa, so if you missed how we got from Cape Town to Johannesburg, check out my previous post. ]

We left Pretoria mid-morning on July 17, after a stop to stock up on supplies for the week. From there, we headed south, toward Nelspruit and the start of The Panorama Route, which is a scenic drive, with amazing vistas and interesting places to get out and take in the sights. It winds gloriously through the mountains and pine forests of the area. We took in some truly amazing views, including waterfalls, canyons, rain forests, pine forests, and even some fairly significant (and kind of scary) wildfires, on our way to The Shoe, where we were to stay for the night. It was a lovely day, and we were thankful we built an extra day in to our agenda to make this scenic route possible. 

"Would anyone like to be the king of the world with me?"

Mac Mac Falls

Enjoying a high perch

God's Window

This boy will move mountains!

Hiking through the rain forest

Lisbon Falls

The wildfire looked even more intense with the sunset behind it.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe...

...She had so many children, she didn't know what to do!