Here is a re-cap of our family’s trip to Europe in August 2011:

Leaving on a Jet Plane

August 1, 2011
by joannavdg

Anyone who has been around me for the past couple of months has heard much about our upcoming trip to Europe. We’ll travel first to Amsterdam where we’ll have tea with my 99 year old aunt and then “something a little stronger” with our great friends Jan and Henk.

From there we’ll be off to Norway and attend our son’s wedding. He and Jeanette will be married at a medieval cathedral in Frederikstad… There will be 12 of us on Carlos’ side of the aisle, and my feeling is that we will carry on more than all the Norwegians on the other one!

My friend Dalila, who is from Chicxulub but lives in Vienna will attend the wedding with her son   Christian, a baritone, who will sing during the ceremony. She and I shake our heads and remember Carlos and Cristian as little boys… Twenty years ago, if someone had told us that one of those little tykes would be singing at the other’s wedding in Norway, we’d have never believed it!

After the wedding, Jeanette and Carlos will be off to Ireland on their honeymoon, and Jorge, Maggie, Ricardo and I will be on a plane to Italy… Rome and Florence are our two main destinations.  I can’t wait!

 Having grown up during the 60s, the song “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” has been running through my head… for weeks!  In fact, I have re-written the words to match my circumstances. Although the revised version is more-than-a-little-corny… it’s been fun for me to sing!


All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…                                                                                                                     

They’re sitting by my open door
For a month or more, I’ll be gone bye-bye.
Outside, my friend’s car is braking, 

The trunk is open
And Jorge’s  waiting
He’s not forlorn,
We’re both so eager to fly.

So read this and smile for me,
This trip means so much to me,
You know, I cannot wait to go.
‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane,
Before too long, I’ll be back again,
Today though, I really want to go

In Norway, Jeanette will walk down –
The church aisle, with flowers ‘round.                                                                                                                                            
Carlos’ smile will plainly show
His dreams for a long life with her
Jorge and I will watch as they

Exchange their gold wedding rings.

Now the time has come to leave you,
I’m logging out, unplugging the cord
When  I’m done here, I’ll be on my way.
And in the traveling days to come
I’ll post if I can, and you can be sure
I’ll include pictures of the wedding day

I’m leaving on a jet plane,
In a month, I’ll be back again,
You know, I am thrilled to go.                                                                                                                                                                 

Photos: The plane is from the KLM website and most of the others are from previous trips to Europe. Carlos and Jeanette dancing was taken at their engagement party in Merida last spring

Amsterdam, Amsterdam!

August 4, 2011
by joannavdg

Being bumped off our flight to Amsterdam certainly did not make for an auspicious start to out great European adventure. But yes, that is how it all began… We did finally manage to straighten things out… after a fashion because we agreed to be rebooked (What choice did we have?) And to make  a  l-o-n-g story a bit shorter, we ended up arriving in Amsterdam just as the sun set… the next day!

Tired as we were, we set out on a restorative walk to find a restaurant we all remembered from past trips. Eureka… we did. and after a hearty meal, we slept like sleep deprived babies…

The next morning saw us greeting our friends Henk and Jan who took us to a botanical garden right in the Centrum. The flowers were lovely but I loved the butterflies best!

We made our way from there to the studio of my 99 year old aunt. Gisele can run circles around people decades younger than she is and her stories of a long life, well-lived kept us entertained into the late afternoon.

Henk and Jan rejoined us after our time with our family’s matriarch and we resumed our tour of the highlights of Amsterdam. Although it is not the capital of the Netherlands,it is the country’s largest city. The Dutch are hard working and disciplined but they also have quite an edge! And this coming weekend being the celebration of Gay Pride… the streets were fuller than ever. Great people watching!

Tomorrow we head for Norway… More to come!

Photos: Top photo: Jorge and I … happy, happy in Amsterdam. The second photo was taken the day before, just before we boarded our flight out of Mexico City… then the next, at our hotel in Amsterdam (at 11 pm the next day!) Me with a butterfly and Jorge with a bike… The two of us with Gisele… Her sinature… One of Gisele’s stained glass windows… Houseboats on a canal


The Wedding Song

August 7, 2011
by joannavdg

Carlos and Jeanette are now married… Jorge and I agree that their wedding day was one of the happiest of our lives. It would take pages to describe all the wonderful details… and there’s too much going on to spend that kind of time! But I will share pictures and the lyrics to one of the loveliest wedding songs I know…

The Wedding Song

By: Peter Paul and Mary

He is now to be among you
at the calling of your hearts
Rest assured this troubadour
is acting on His part.
The union of your spirits, here,
has caused Him to remain
for whenever two or more of you
are gathered in His name
there is Love, there is Love.

Well, a man shall leave his mother                                                                                and a woman leave herhome
and they shall travel on to where
the two shall be as one.
As it was in the beginning
is now and til the end
Woman draws her life from man
and gives it back again.
And there is Love, there is Love.

Well then what’s to be the reason
for becoming man and wife?
Is it love that brings you here
or love that brings you life?
And if loving is the answer,
then who’s the giving for?
Do you believe in something
that you’ve never seen before?
Oh there is Love, there is Love.

Oh the marriage of your spirits here
has caused Him to remain
for whenever two or more of you
are gathered in His name
there is Love, there is Love

Pictures: Carlos & Jeanette , Jeanette with her parents . Carlos, Jorge and I ,  Maggie and Ricardo . Jeanette’s spectacular dress…  Jeanette’s sister Lune and her fiance Bord

More pictures of family and guests:                           

by joannavdg

August 8th saw Jorge, Maggie, Ricardo and I saying Good bye to Oslo and Hello “La bella Roma!” But it was not without great poignancy… Leaving Carlos and Jeanette produced more than a few tears and bidding farewell to her family and all the friends who had come to join us for the magical day was also a wretch…

This seems to be the story of our lives, doesn’t it? I am convinced that Heaven must be a big party with all our loved ones in one special place and the joy of seeing one another is not followed by the inevitable sorrow of separation…

But alas… we’re not there, and so must take our happiness as it comes along!

Jeanette and I

Here are a few pictures of some of the long-to-be-remembered memories of our time in Norway.     Jorge with Gunnar – Jeanette’s dad

My great friends Christiane and Dalila who came from France and Austria for the wedding, are still as silly as ever!

   Carlos and Maggie’s cousin Pepe came all the way from China and Carlos’ school friend, Zane,  from Canada arrived to take photos of the wedding!                                                                                                                  

Carlos and his UNB professor, Christiane                                         

Jeanette’s mom, Elizabeth and I hit it off so well!   Carlos’ friend Roque with Maggie and Ricardo came from California…

Dalila and her son Christian who sang at the ceremony and reception                                                                                     


Another moving experience in Oslo, was witnessing the not-yet-healed scars of the bombing and mass shooting. The scenes were all too sad… I think that these next pictures depict the pain of this peaceful nation.Yet as the Norwegians are the first to point out… life goes on.

The last picture is of Jorge and me (and our bags!) arriving into Termini, Rome’s HUGE train station… And once we’d settled into our apartment on Via Clementina, we found the corner pizzeria. It’s goinng to be a great ten days!


The “C” Day

August 10, 2011
by joannavdg

Wednesday August 9th was what I’ll always refer to as my “C” day…  I commenced it by coming down with a horrendous cold and cough. Forced to stay pretty close to casa, I did wash the clothes… After a week of traveling, everything in the suitcases was crumpled and crushed, and I felt a great sense of completion at seeing it all crisp and clean once again… Isn’t it curious how the most everyday accomplishments take on Herculean status when one is away from home!                                   

Once the sun had lowered in the sky, I rallied, and we headed off to see the Coliseum, located close by our hotel

The Coliseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater and is certainly the largest ever built during the Roman Empire. It is considered by nearly everyone to be the most iconic monument in the city.

Emperor Vespasian began construction in 72 AD and the colossal building was completed in 80 AD under Titus.                                      

50,000 spectators could be seated in the Coliseum at once. The Romans enjoyed such drama as gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and presentations of plays based on classic mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. Later it was used as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress and a Christian shrine.

It remains partially in ruins because of damage caused by devastating earthquakes and stone-robbers.

After our outing, I had to return to my cough syrup and aspirin… Very little sleep, I’m afraid… but I am feeling much better after today’s foray to the pharmacy. I’ve got a new, more potent cough syrup and am looking forward to a meal at a restaurant we enjoyed on our last trip to Rome …

Even sick, it is pretty hard not to be enchanted by this city!

Photos: Jorge in front of the Coliseum , a cyprus tree , the Coliseum and Constantine arch , Maggie and Ricardo , a couple of pieces of local real estate

by joannavdg

The cold and cough are easing now that I’m taking some high powered Italian drugs – yet, going too far afield is not yet an option. Jorge and I have let Maggie and Ricardo do the long distance sightseeing while we pretty much stay within a kilometer of two of our apartment.  Let me take you on a little pictorial tour of Regione delle Colline – our Roman neighborhood  :

Exiting our place, we can opt to take a little stroll through Piazza degli Zingari…

When we look down the street, what do we see? Ecco! The Coliseum!

We also pass by our church, built in 1502…                                                                           

Street art of every description abounds:


If we turn the other way and head down a few steps to the Piazza de Venezia,  located at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and near the Roman Forum. La Columna de Trajano is immediately visible…                                                                                           

But the piazza is actually dominated by the imposing Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II.

In 2009, during excavations for the Rome C Metro Line ancient remains of what has been identified as Emperor Hadrian’s Athenaeum were unearthed in the middle of the square.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Italy’s declaration as a Republic, so much restoration is taking place in this part of the city.

As we wander back home to our second floor nest on Via Clementina, we pass by “our” grocery store for a few nibbles…

And then, it’s time for la siesta… the Italians are as big on that as Yucatecans are!

Memories of childhood

August 12, 2011
by joannavdg

Hurray! Jorge and I were finally well enough to spend the whole day away from the apartment. It began with a metro ride to the Ottaviano metro station, and then Maggie, Ricardo, Jorge and I followed the signs directing us towards the Vatican.

Many have heard me say, “I was raised more Catholic than the Pope.” … and it’s true.  With my brothers and sisters, I went to Mass daily. In our parochial school we had Catechism every day; there was Confession on Saturdays, as well as Benediction some Sundays. The Way of the Cross was held every Wednesday during Lent, and in May we took flowers to the Virgin Mary and said the Rosary every afternoon. There were many assorted feast days that also required religious observance. Holy Trinity Parish was the center of our family’s life.

As a little girl, this seemed perfectly normal, but as I grew older, I began to feel that my religious upbringing was, perhaps a tad, excessive. Pretty soon after I moved away from home, I stopped attending Mass regularly. But during difficult times of my life, I have sought the solace of my childhood faith. I would like to be a strong believer

but to tell the truth, it is an elusive thing for me.

Yet, arriving at the steps of St. Peters today, I must say I the wonder surfaced. The ceremony and symbolism… the Pieta , St. Peter’s burial place, the main altar, the Swiss Guards. I knelt, I prayed…

I came away feeling grateful for my family and all my blessings.

I am thankful for the solid sense of grounding and belonging that I received as a child.

I felt comforted that I had been to the Vatican.  This photograph of the Pieta is like my faith… pretty fuzzy, nonetheless, I can recognize it is there.

by joannavdg

Where are we going now?

Today Jorge, Ricardo, Maggie and I set off early for the Roman ruins at Ostia Antica. This important Roman settlement dates back to the IVth Century BC. Today it is a park, at the ostium – the mouth of the Tiber River.

Although it was founded as a castrum – a fortress to control access to Rome by sea, Ostia grew to become an important center and the principal port of the Empire.                                                                         

One can wander through the two kilometers of ruins with very little supervision. The Italian government seems to take it as a given that visitors will not trample the ancient mosaic floors or climb on precarious 2,000+ year old buildings. We explored: a graveyard, an amphitheater, a shopping area, private homes, a college, artisan centers, the baths and more. Do you know it was actually a law that all Roman citizens had to bathe? The public baths were provided free of charge to all did not have their own.

We spent more than 3 hours in what we started calling, “Rome’s Chichen Itza.”  Let me tell you, Jorge was in his element! After a delightful lunch at the site’s restaurant, we decided to call it a day… but first stopped to look at the amazing sculptures at the on-site museum. All the marble masterpieces were found at Ostia Antica.                                                              

Actually, we cut our time a little short… and that’s when our next adventure began! We ran for the train back to Rome. To make this complicated part of the story, also short: Jorge and I got through the doors, and Maggie and Ricardo didn’t!

Separated… Yee gads!  Did they pay attention on the way to Ostia? Did they know where to make the connection from the train to the metro? What are parents to do? We decided to wait for them at the end of the line, except we got out one stop too soon! We realized that… after we waited for three trains to go by, and no Ricardo. No Maggie.

“OK Joanna, we’ll go to the next stop and go home; if they aren’t there, we’ll think up ‘Plan B.’ ” The train arrived pronto… I got on, the doors closed and Jorge was still outside! He and I made frantic hand signals for me to wait for him at the next stop.

Three drunken Russian guys thought this was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.       Comb over- er-er hee-ee-ee-re Bubby!” they cried at full volume. Yikes! A young Italian girl held my arm and told me to stay by her side. And a few minutes later, we reached the end of the line… Boris, Igor and Ivan (or whatever their names were) exited and I thanked my little protectoress. She kissed my cheek. This place is seeming more and more like Mérida every day!

Anyway, I waited for Jorge for an hour, and he didn’t show. He had my ticket and the key to the apartment.

(This is an aside for my friend Mary who once lost me in the metro in Buenos Aires… Mary, you’d have been so proud of me… I haven’t lost those travel emergency skills!) I bought a new ticket, found my way through the metro maze and showed up at Via Clementina, shortly behind Jorge and Maggie & Ricardo. All was well that ended well!

So what did I learn? Well, actually not anything I didn’t already know… one must always stick with the pack! No lone gazelle behavior… because those Cossack wolves will pick you off!                                 

Tonight we’ll dine at a new little bistro… we have an unlimited supply in our neighborhood… Life is adventurous and,  so-o-o-o buona in La Bella Italia!

One of the metro trains Jorge was NOT on!

Empty Nesters…

August 14, 2011
by joannavdg

The end of our first week in Rome… we’ve had such amazing experiences! Even the  killer cold (that would have required lots of time off work back home) didn’t stop us from getting out and seeing the sites.

We are now “empty nesters”… Maggie and Ricardo left Rome this morning and will spend the last days of their holiday in Paris with Maggie’s friends Celine and Max.  Maggie and Celine met while both of them were doing a student internship at New Brunswick Community College in St. Andrews, NB Canada.

After the excursion to Ostia Antica on Saturday, and all the excitement of our missed train experiences… a day of rest was definitely in order. I sketched and read; we did a couple of loads of laundry, and slept the afternoon away.

By 6 pm, the sun still held lots of light but the heat had dissipated, and we felt ready  to face the throngs. Ah, perhaps I have not mentioned the crowds? Almost everywhere you go in Rome, your camera’s viewfinder needs to compete with hundreds of others jockeying for the primo photo spot… Hence, I just let a lot of opportunities go by.

The metro is the first contact point. Weekends and weekdays alike… 1000s of Romans ride the trains – everywhere. Transportation in Rome is great. We bought one week passes (good for the metro and almost all buses and trains) for 16 Euros.

The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain both provided lots more interesting         people watching, as well as views of the attractions themselves. Jorge and I threw many pesos into the “virgin waters” … making good wishes for all.

After a long, slow walk along the Via del Corso, we were back in our neighborhood, and ended the day of rest by sharing a bottle of wine, a bucket of mussels, two limoncellos and a tiramisu at a restaurant recommended to us by our good friends Larry and Reg. Thanks for the great suggestion Guys… you never steer us wrong!

Photos: Maggie and Ricardo leaving the nest, The crowds on the Metro, The Spanish Steps (2), Trevi Fountain (2)

The End of the Day                               


August 16, 2011
by joannavdg

“Closed for Holidays”

Italians have long had the reputation of being “passionate”,                     “hot-tempered” – never “wishy-washy.”  They are known to be wonderful cooks and stylish dressers. Their art and architecture are world renowned. I know all these things to be true, and in the past week, I have learned one more fact… Italians take the concept of holidays to the max!

Throughout the entire country, the tradition of “Ferragosto” is in full swing. This is to say that a healthy majority of the businesses, especially the shops, are closed for the month of August. The Italians are on holiday, and the fact that there are 1,000s of tourists running around with Euros burning a hole in their pockets is NOT their concern.

And in fact, they are a little cynical about it. In many cases, the plate glass windows  have not been shuttered up… the beautiful clothes, linens, and other things I’d love to cart home are lying there… beyond reach but teasingly visible.

Oh well, we have yet to go to Florence, and I seem to remember a bit more enterprising spirit there amongst the descendents of the Medici.

Actually, I quite admire the concept of Ferragosto. I think it’s healthy that the whole country takes a month off… But as a tourist, I admit that I’m feeling somewhat deprived.

So, the shopping excursion thwarted, Jorge (with a secret smile) and me (with resigned determination to make lemonade out of lemons) strode determinedly away from the padlocked emporiums.

We visited a church (at the top of 70 stairs) called “San Pietro in          Vincoli” – “St. Peter in Chains.” Here we saw a well known Michael Angelo sculpture of Moses. Originally this piece was to be part of a huge mausoleum that would feature 40 statues, but the whims of Pope Paul III changed direction… the project was reduced in size and stature, and the sculptor moved on to create other masterworks.

In this church we also saw a bronze and glass reliquary that houses, what are believed to be, the chains that Herod used to bind St. Peter prior to his execution. They were reportedly brought to Rome by a noblewoman who received them from the hands of the bishop of Jerusalem.

In Rome, one finds many relics. It is easy to be skeptical… How could the Church elders know for sure that a piece of metal was a nail from the True Cross, or a length of manacles was the precise one that tied the wrists and ankles of St. Peter?

I can make no significant comment on this, but I once read a book that presented a new twist on the subject. “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova is a gripping novel about (of all things…) the search for the tomb of Count Dracula. But in the telling of her tale, Vlad the Terrible slips in importance, and the reader is introduced to orders of monks who spent their lives protecting the relics of Christendom. These objects were carefully catalogued and their provenance, officially verified. They held tremendous power because in an age of nearly total illiteracy, they were something the masses could touch and understand. There was an obsession to possess them, and they were jealously guarded.

And there you have it – the eternal question of fact vs. myth. Absolute veracity is impossible to pin down; eventually it all boils down to faith… either you have it, or you don’t.

A Pilgrimage?

August 16, 2011
by joannavdg

This is our last day in Rome, and we are busy packing up for the next leg of our adventure…

I once read a book that claimed every type of travel is a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is usually defined as physical journeying to a place of special religious meaning.  Some also use the word to describe the inner transition from a state of complacency to a state of joy.  But to label visiting with friends, attending a wedding, or sightseeing in a new city as a pilgrimage seemed like an exaggeration … a few weeks ago

But after these past ten days, I am coming around to the idea. Although we arrived in this city of 8 million people with the intention of seeing the sights, enjoying the food and soaking up the continental ambiance, there have most definitely been moments of religious importance. Everywhere you turn there is a holy shrine of some description, and it is very moving to see the reactions of the visitors to these places.  It is mind boggling to observe the huge contingents of Catholic school kids… flocks of nuns in old fashioned habits… and droves of foreign tourists, all wearing the same brightly colored T-shirts. But after a few days, they blended into the scenery.  What will stay in my mind’s eye forever, are the vignettes of quiet devotion.

I saw a young couple, quietly praying while tears streamed from their eyes. Their plump twin babies squirmed in their arms, and obviously they had arrived at the Vatican to give thanks for their double blessing.

I saw an ancient couple, practically holding one another up as they walked the length of the nave at San Giovanni in Laterano, and I wondered if Jorge and I might live so long?

The woman kneeling before an image of the Madonna and Child smiled with her eyes closed. Could she sense her mentally challenged son, gazing at her with the same open beauty that shone from Mary’s face?

I did not imagine that I’d manage to successfully battle with the airline to let us on the flights we’d booked months ago…  Late at night, when my fever dreams became more and more ludicrous, Jorge found a doctor and he and Ricardo tromped the dark streets until they located a 24-hour pharmacy.  Losing one another on the train… deciphering important instructions for using the 220-110 V. converter – in Norwegian… shopping in the local market and then cooking up a storm in our little apartment kitchen. Figuring out how to buy metro tickets, get cell phone credit applied, and how to operate an Italian washing machine… Being away from our home environment and having to resolve all these situations has definitely lifted us out of complacency and brought on feelings of satisfaction.

Travel is definitely good for a person. In fact, I think I could now go so far as to call it, “the inner transition to a state of joy.”  I can’t wait to see what our next two weeks in Florence will hold!

Carta de Firenze

August 19, 2011
by joannavdg

At dinner last night…

When Jorge and I left Florence five years ago, I prayed we would return, and yesterday, my prayers were answered. I am sure that anyone who has been immersed in the heady sensorial excess of this place knows the kind of magic of which I speak.

In this city of the Medici, the light and the richness of color are unique. The warmth of the Tuscan sun and the briny breath of the Arno River have entered my lungs, and triumphed over the last vestiges of that beastly Nordic virus. The music on the wind is eclectic, the art is absolutely everywhere, the flowers are profuse. I feel like a principezza fiorentina!

In an earlier incarnation, the building where our apartment is located was a palazzo. The location on the right bank of the Arno and the imposing architecture could not be more perfect

Our first walk around and through the city took us past many familiar  well –  remembered places, and today, we saw still more. Florence is not a large city but the scope of the beauty is huge.

I hope you enjoy the photos…

by joannavdg

Normally I am very much inclined to not focus on details, but rather to see the greater scope of things… I find if I become too caught up in the small stuff, I lose sight of my main objective.

But every rule has its exceptions, and in Florence, my general tendency has been turned on its head. If I try to take the city, all in at one time, the sensorial overload is absolutely overwhelming… Each attraction in Florence must be tasted in small bites!

An example of this is Il Duomo or as it is officially known:  the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most recognizable symbols of Renaissance architecture. The building and its corresponding bell tower and baptistery are totally covered with marble inlay of multiple hues and adorned with more sculptures than the human mind can absorb.

This cathedral was the third built in Florence. Not to be outdone by the magnificence of the new cathedrals in Pisa and Siena, Il Duomo was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294 to be the largest Roman Catholic church in the world, although the design was later reduced in size.

After Arnolfo died in 1302, work slowed. In 1331, the Arte della Lana (Guild of Wool Merchants) took over responsibility for the construction of the cathedral and in 1334 they appointed Giotto as overseer for the work. His major accomplishment was the campanile, but he died in 1337.

The nave was finished by 1380 and by 1418 only the dome was uncompleted.

In 1418 a competition was held to design a new dome for the cathedral. The two competitors were Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. The latter won the competition with his distinctive octagonal design.

Construction on the dome began in 1420 and was completed in 1436; the cathedral was consecrated in March of that year by Pope Eugenius IV.

It was the first ‘octagonal’ dome in history to be built without a wooden supporting frame.

The cathedral’s facade was demolished in 1587 and left bare until the 19th century. In 1864 a competition was held to design a new facade won by Emilio De Fabris. Work was begun in 1876 and completed in 1887. The huge bronze doors date from 1899 to 1903.

So, as you read, the history alone is difficult to absorb, and what you can see today is the result of seven centuries of artistic effort!


August 20, 2011
by joannavdg

Suspecting that the weekend crowds would be fierce in Florence, we set off this morning for Fiesole.

“The ancestress of Florence” was probably founded in the 9th-8th century BC, and as may be seen from the remains of its ancient walls,  it was an important member of the Etruscan confederacy.

The first recorded mention on the town dates to 283 BC, when the town, then known as Faesulae, was conquered by the Romans.

The stage of many battles over the centuries, it nonetheless remained an independent town for several centuries, well into the early Middle Ages. During some periods, it was no less powerful than Florence in the valley below. Finally, in 1010 and 1025 Fiesole was sacked by the Florentines, and ultimately conquered in 1125. In order to prevent a resurgence of resistance, the leading Fiesole families were obliged to take up their residence in Florence.                                                                                                 

Today, we saw evidence that many of Florence’s most well-heeled citizens have weekend and summer residences in the high hills of Fiesole.

We explored the remains of the Etruscan amphitheater and the Baths, then toured two small but excellent museums. The one on the site of the Etruscan ruins had many examples of the highly stylized sculpture, bronze, pottery and glass. The second housed some fine Renaissance pieces, including  a gallery dedicated to the distinctive Tuscan terra cotta wall ornaments.

I find these exceptionally beautiful. We have come across many shops selling the terra cotta and are trying to find a studio where it is made so that we can understand the process. So, more to come on that topic…

Arriving back to our cozy loft in the early afternoon, w e took a long siesta… It is HOT in Florence, just as hot as Merida in fact but with a bit less humidity.

Once the temperatures had abated, we took a long walk over to the Piazza de Santa Croce. We were in search of a small neighborhood restaurant we enjoyed when we were here five years ago. Like homing pigeons, we zeroed-in, and by the picture of Jorge… you can see that the 5 kilometer hike was well worth it!

Santa Croce

August 21, 2011
by joannavdg

Santa Croce

The Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan temple in the   world, and legend says that the church was founded by St. Francis himself. It is named for the world famous Cimabue cross, created by the Renaissance artist Giotto.

If you have read some of this past month’s posts, you’ll know that arriving at a serene understanding of my adult Catholic faith has been a resurging theme during our European odyssey. I have wanted to attend Mass and finally did so this Sunday at Santa Croce… complete with accompanying thunderous pipe organ music… amazing!

Although I do not speak Italian beyond the level of a two year old, my comprehension of the language is good, and with the aural cues from a fine donna whose clear voice rang out through the entire hour, I was able to follow the missal and all that went on. The Mass was a very poignant experience, and while it did not reconcile all my conflicting emotions, I feel I have moved a step closer to reconciliation.

The construction of the current church, that replaced the older building, was begun on  May 12th, 1294, probably by Arnolfo di Cambio, and paid for by some of the city’s wealthiest families. Consecrated in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV, the building’s design floor plan is an Egyptian or Tau cross (a symbol of St Francis). To the south of the church was a convent, although only a few of the buildings remain.

The current bell tower was built in 1842, replacing an earlier one damaged by lightning.  A Jewish architect Niccolo Matas from Ancona, designed the church’s 19th century neo-Gothic facade, working a prominent Star of David into the composition.

Many famous Florentines, including Michelangelo, Rossini,           Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei  (who was tried by the Inquisition and was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737, 95 years after his death) are buried at Santa Croce. There is also a memorial to Dante but his sarcophagus is empty.  Matas wanted to be buried with his peers but because he was Jewish, he was interred under the porch and not within the walls.

I first became interested in this church while reading a novel, “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga. The intriguing read is set during a time of true-life drama: 1966, when the Arno River flooded much of Florence, including Santa Croce. The water entered the church bringing mud, pollution and heating oil. The damage to buildings and art treasures was severe, taking several decades to repair. The novel’s plot is convoluted and often racy…  it brought the city of the Medici to life for me.

After Mass, Jorge and I again found ourselves headed for the delightful bistro where we had dined the night before. Our delectable choice was a pasta dish with clams and mussels, chilled white wine and salt-free bread to soak up the juices… We rounded off the meal with a chocolate and pear dessert and of course, a shot of limoncelo…  Another delightful day in Paradise!

Terra Cotta

August 22, 2011
by joannavdg

Among the many mediums found in Florentine art is glazed terra cotta. Since the 15th century, it has been used to fashion portrait busts and wall ornaments, and other decorative items.

When exposed to firing temperatures in excess of 600°C, terra cotta            increases its durability and, although still porous, becomes somewhat waterproof. Terra cotta can be compared to earthenware. Earthenware is composed of sedimentary clays, which contain many organic and mineral impurities. It is these that determine the characteristic color of the clay. The color most commonly associated with terra cotta is a rich red-brown, due to the presence of iron oxide, and when fired in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, produces the distinctive red color. The presence of other minerals, the firing temperature and the atmosphere in the kiln all contribute to the final shade of terracotta, which can range from dark brown to pink, buff, tan, orange or even green.

Sculptors are attracted to terra cotta as a medium because it can be worked with great speed, often resulting in a spontaneity that can be lost in the more laborious processes involved in bronze casting or carving stone. Clay also permits an extraordinarily fine degree of detail.

The most widespread technique for finishing terracotta sculpture has always been polychrome. Color is applied, usually over an initial gesso layer, by the modeler himself or by a specialized painter. Sometimes gilding is added, giving the piece a richly extravagant effect. Terracotta finishes can also simulate precious materials such as bronze, marble or gold. The glazed terracotta technique, first applied to sculpture by Luca della Robbia in the 1440s is still widely imitated up until the present day.

As I walk past the many shops that offer these pieces for sale, I think, “It’s not THAT big… I could carry that plaque / vase / bust …” Jorge reminds me of the other items that will also require hand carrying during the return trip to Mexico – on the train, a couple of taxis, through three BIG airports… and I restrain myself. But the lovely Florentine terra cotta will continue to feature prominently in my dreams…

Silver and Gold

August 24, 2011
by joannavdg

The topic of today’s post was suggested to me by Steve Cotton, whose blog is mexpatriate – in the key of steve. He wondered about the pathways taken by Mexican silver and gold en route to Europe during the colonial period…

In 1492, Spain was ruled by the iron fist of a Catholic Spanish king and queen:  Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragón. When America was discovered, Spain had a highly trained, ambitious army that was anxious for new battles and conquests and the society hungered for wealth and opportunities. The Catholic Church’s power, as well as that of  the royals were unifying strengths in the country.

From the outset, late medieval Castile shaped society and stamped its culture on Latin America. It imposed a   set of values that were the product of Spain’s long Re-conquest of its territories from the Moors, completed in 1492, the same year that Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola. They were Conquistador values, which stressed the role of the warrior in the name of the Church, and assumed the inherent right of European rule over people of unknown culture, and pagan beliefs.

When it was discovered that gold, silver and other precious objects were to be had in the newly conquered territories, there was no compunction whatsoever about taking the bounty. Large land holdings were awarded to the heroes of the Crown and the Church. The Colony established itself quickly, and the military presence focused on keeping other nations out of “New Spain.” The Catholic clergy put their full efforts into evangelizing the entire indigenous population, and the Crown instituted a strong commercial monopoly that reigned supreme for three centuries.

It was said that the sun never set over the Spanish domain – the empire was that vast. The economic activity centered on mining, agriculture and trade, which were, of course, completely controlled by the Spanish monarchs.

The Crown appointed an institution that managed trade and commerce between the new colonies and Europe; it was called, “La Casa de Contratación de Sevilla.” One of the activities was the transport of Mexican silver aboard the Spanish controlled shipping line, whose fleet (called La Nao de China) made an annual round trip voyage from Acapulco to Manila. The principal cargo carried to the Philippines was silver coin. There it was purchased by various nations who stamped the doubloons with their country’s seal and affixed a value. On the return voyage the fleet carried spices, silks and other items that were much esteemed by both the Europeans and the colonials in México.

Gold from México also made its way to Europe through Veracruz and across the Atlantic. Many of the gilded altarpieces and the ornamentation in the fine mansions of Europe used gold from México. The precious metal was also shipped to Europe from Peru. Both were in demand for their high quality.

The influx of Mexican silver often caused inflation in Europe which was devastating for the lower classes. And when the Independence movements throughout Latin American began in the early 1800s, the silver trade was interrupted, provoking a worldwide economic crisis not unlike the modern day recessions caused by fluctuations in the petro industry.

I guess that one could say that, “The more things change… the more they stay the same.


Photo credits: I found the images for this post on Google Images.

  • Image of La Nao de China from:

  • Image of Fernando and Isabela from:

  • Image of map from:

  • Image of coins from:

by joannavdg

Yesterday, Jorge and I (advance tickets in hand) made our way along the Arno River, over Ponte Veccio to the Pitti Palace. This was the home of Cosimo I and his wife Leonore and their numerous children.

Like the Uffizi, the Palazzo Veccio, and La Academia this museum is so full of art, it is absolutely impossible to see it all. We made a great effort, but after five full hours, we were all but comatose.

Unfortunately I have no photos of the museum because it is forbidden to take them (even without flash) but if you like, go to this link for a virtual tour.                                                                         

Adjacent to the palace are the gardens which offer spectacular views of Florence:

After a restorative 4 hour siesta, Jorge and I were back on the streets and found MORE terra cotta that (regrettably) you won’t be seeing in our home. The proprietress of “Migliori” allowed me to take these photos:

Then my eyes landed on THIS beauty… If anyone knows of someone in Mexico who could replicate this ultra-wonderful outdoor stove, please let me know …

We wandered back down the shore of the Arno about 9 pm and heard     music… en español!  There below, right at the river’s edge was a laid back club serving nachos, mojitos, margaritas… the works! We stayed ‘til “Club Salamanca” closed and then weaved back across the river and into bed…                                


August 28, 2011
by joannavdg

The Arno River at Sundown

Sh-sh-sh-sh… don’t wake anybody up!  Our friends Colleen and Lance have arrived in Florence after a grueling two day journey from Merida. Heading for the airport at a quarter to four, last Friday morning… they finally got here at 3 am, this Sunday morning. There is of course, a seven hour time difference, but still… it is a l-o-n-g time on the road (or in the sky or wherever)                                                                                                                                                           

Travel is certainly not what it used to be. I worked for an airline during the 1970s, and believe me, we had to do everything in our power to make our passengers feel comfortable, safe and yes… pampered. (Imagine!)

Now, being bumped, delayed, shuffled around, and re-routed are par for the course and anyone who embarks on a long trip should be prepared for whatever.  And don’t even think about being compensated for inconvenience.  The days of complementary meals, hotel rooms, and other bribes are long gone.

This summer, our own odyssey on planes, trains, buses, metros, boats and taxis has been far from easy, but… and all inconvenience aside, the four of us feel lucky to be spending the last days of August in such splendid company!

I haven’t blogged the past couple of days because Jorge and I have been doing lots of sightseeing… This building is the original “Academia”, where Micaelangelo learned to sculpt!

We’ve been to the  shops                                                                                                                                                                                                           

And continue rating the restaurants…

We’ve done some cooking too. I made the famous Tuscan bread soup called “Ribollita”…                                                                                                                          

As well, we now know where one can get Italy’s finest tiramisu and seafood pasta dishes…

The Chiantis of the country have been amply consumed, as have the espressos and cappuccinos. We can also give very informed opinion on the nation’s chocolate and gelato.

We’ve been reading too; my current afternoon treat is Amy Tan’s lyrical “Saving Fish From Drowning.”

To get from one place to another, we take long walks, and so that we can enjoy the sensational evenings, we sleep siestas during the heat of the day.

If a picture paints a thousand words…

The Mud Angels

August 29, 2011
by joannavdg

“The Arno River reached this hight on Nov. 4, 1966“

All over Florence, you can see small plaques that mark the level reached by the devastating flood of the Arno River on November 4, 1966.

The River Arno is approximately 240 km long and a part of it runs through Florence. On the fateful day, after a long period of steady rain, engineers feared that the Valdarno Dam would burst, so at 4 am they discharged a mass of water that rushed towards the city at a rate of 37 miles per hour.

The narrow streets within city limits funneled floodwaters, increasing their height and velocity. By 9:45am, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. The powerful waters ruptured central heating oil tanks, and the oil mixed with the water and mud. At its highest, the water reached over 22 feet (6.7 m) in the Santa Croce area.

The flood devastated Florence, economically and culturally. City officials and citizens were totally unprepared for the storm and the widespread destruction it caused. There were virtually no emergency measures in place because Florence is located in an area where the danger of flooding is relatively low.

5,000 families were left homeless by the flood, and 6,000 businesses were forced to close. 101 people lost their lives when approximately 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage swept them away.  It is estimated that between 3 and 4 million books and manuscripts were damaged, as well as 14,000 movable works of art. Among the most famous were: The Cross by Giovanni Cimabue, The Doors of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti and The Magdalene by Donatello

Immediately, individuals and organizations from many countries made their way to Florence to help with the rescue and conservation. International committees were formed and supervised by a central committee in Rome. Additional funding came from various governments and UNESCO and Charity auctions were also organized. In a show of support for the Florentine art community, Pablo Picasso auctioned one of his paintings, Recumbent Woman Reading.

But the hearts of the Florentine people were won by a group of individuals who travelled to Italy completely at their own expense to aid in the restoration. There were fine arts students and aficionados, librarians and lots of “young people with strong backs”. Collectively, these people became known as the Gli Angeli del Fango or the Mud Angels.  They worked under deplorable conditions and without them, even more irreplaceable treasures would have been lost.

The Angels cleaned the city of refuse, mud and oil, and retrieved works of art, books and other materials from flooded rooms; the Mud Angels felt compelled to help: a concern for future generations, a feeling of international unity and a pervasive sense of solidarity.

Yet sadly, even forty years later, a significant amount of restorative work remains to be done in          Florence. Due to a lack of awareness, funding, and manpower, a great number of works of art and books lie in storage, dirty and damaged.

The photos of the mud angels were selected from Google Images files. The one of the marker is mine and the final “angel” … while not one of the mud, was adorable nonetheless…

Arrivederci Roma!

August 31, 2011
tags: , ,
by joannavdg

The view of the Arno River from our balcony

Could the title of my last post from Italy be anything but: Arrivederci  Roma!

We have enjoyed this holiday so much but after a month away, getting home to Mérida is all Jorge and I can think about. The last leg of our journey is getting closer, and we are feeling excited to see our daughter and friends… I can’t wait to swim in my pool and sleep in my own bed.

But I also know that once we have settled back into our routines, memories of this time will often saunter into our hearts and minds.

One of the best things about staying here in Florence has been our apartment. We are located on the right bank of the Arno River; our view is of the old city, perched above swaying cyprus and birch trees. We never tire of watching the water birds and otter feeding on the banks. There’s so much going on all day long, and in the evenings the music carries downwind from the small bars that line the shore.

For the past five days, there has been the excitement of 17 delegations competing for top catch in the “International Pole Fishing Tournament” to be held here over the weekend.  We’ve watched them positioning and practicing across the water  and to think… we’ll miss seeing which country wins!

“Costco” won’t cut it for us anymore… we’ll mourn the fact that we can no longer shop at Florence’s mammoth mercato, nor in the small neighborhood negozio de alimentari.  We have found the most delectable and sometimes mysterious edibles… We easily identified the olive oil, truffles, and porcini mushrooms, but a couple of days ago we figured out that the “pate” we’ve been scarfing down is actually tripe.

We know it’s time to detox from the daily bottle (sometimes plural) of vino and the limoncello every night…   My cholesterol will certainly lower once I stop my daily intake of seafood, rich cheeses and spicy sausage. But oh, it has all tasted so deliizioso!

The confusion between the Italian language and our familiar español will no longer leave me looking aghast at what I THINK I’ve heard. The funniest example being the Florentine word for “cherubs”… it is “putti,” which sure doesn’t mean plump baby angels in our corner of the world!

And the Florentine sense of style! Everything here is chic. The men and women both dress with gauzy, gutsy flair. Their lustrous long hair flows out behind them as they dash through traffic on their Vespas or teensy-weensy Fiats. Even the babies look fashionable in their 60 Euro blue suede shoes… Si, si, si … Italians spend A LOT of money to look as good as they do.

I’ll miss the churches where I’ve felt blessed (“G.R. –  grazia ricevuta” is the term the Italians use to describe having received the grace of God.) The powerful symbolism, gold and centuries of incrementing adornment are a sight to behold.

As is all the art. It is EVERYWHERE in Italy! Sculptures, paintings, terracotta, frescos, architecture… Turn yourself around in a circle and your eyes will take in 360 degrees of beauty.

The sunlight, especially in Tuscany is bright but at the same time, soft… everything glows. Flowers are   profuse – tumbling out of courtyards and artfully designed in stupendous Murano and Venetian vases…

Italy is a country where earthiness and élan co-exist. I love it here… there’s no denying that. And yet, the fusion of Mexico’s pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary Latin America charm is hard to top.

We are sad to leave… we’ll miss Italy. Yet we’re happy to be homeward bound.  Arrivederci  Roma!

¡Hasta pronto Mérida!

Photos: Some are mine, the rest were taken by Colleen Leonard


September 3, 2011
by joannavdg

Our final photo on the balcony of our Florence apartment

When today was just a few minutes old, Jorge and I walked through our front door and he said, “THIS is the BEST hotel!” And I couldn’t have agreed more…

Our trip from Florence to Mérida began at noon on Thursday and as I’ve already said, it finally ended early Saturday. We enjoyed a wonderful holiday, but the travel part was no fun at all. In fact it was a supremely challenging test of our endurance. In the train stations and at the airports, there is absolutely NO customer service. That concept is absolutely gone.

Nonetheless the eleven hour flight from Amsterdam to Mexico City was made as pleasant as possible by the great crew on board our KLM flight number 0685.

I am too tired to write more today but I will leave you with some final photos of our time in Florence…

It’s great to be home!

A last stroll through the streets…

Florence is just so picturesque

A fuzzy picture of us at the little bar down on the bank of the Arno River… we were pretty “fuzzy” too!

Some travellers have a sense of humor. This duck was tied to a suitcase and made everyone smile

I will never forget the fabulous markets of Italy

In Florence, our friends Colleen and Lance were great company

But you’re so right Jorge… there’s no place like HOME!

by joannavdg

It is the middle of the night in Mérida but I’m wide awake, partly because my body is still running on European time and thinks it is 7 hours later than it is. I hope that I’ll soon adjust to the time change and feel recovered from the homeward bound flights.

I am ecstatic to be home. Even if sleep is evading me, my own bed feels so comfortable and the long swim I took     yesterday soothed my travel-weary muscles and joints. Unpacking, finding places for the small Italian treasures I lugged back with me, and washing the wardrobe we wore for a month helped to restore the sense of normalcy I need.

The past four weeks have left me with so much to ponder… maybe I’ll be lucky to ever sleep again!

Many events and occasions made a deep impression. The old world looks as though it is going through major upheaval: shifting borders, a changing economy, religious conflict and cultural clashes. Just as on the American continent, the European nations struggle with immigration, political and economic issues, and a shrinking middle class. We’re all in the midst of the same dilemmas, and the insecurity we experience feels like something that has never happened before. But, these issues have always existed. “Things were ever thus.”

Back in the latter half of the XVI Century, an alliance between the Medici of Florence and their traditional enemies, the French (through marriage) defeated the aspirations of other powerful states. Today, the current Prime Minister of England, leader of the Conservative Party and the head of the Liberal Democrats Party formed a coalition to gain power as they did not have enough votes on their own. Here in Mexico, the right wing PAN and the leftist PRD want to join forces against the centralist PRI! “There’s not much new under the sun.”

Communication though, is the one variable that I believe has altered our lives significantly. With the Internet, social networks and surveillance everywhere, what happens in one place can instantly affect the lives of others who are thousands of miles away. Violence seems to be provoked by this phenomenon. The rioting in the United Kingdom got the restless stirring in other parts of Europe. The criminal bombing of a casino in Monterrey has been followed by a bank hold-up in Merida.

We watch events unfold before our very eyes, we shake our heads, and that’s it. ¡Que barbaridad! Impunity reigns and we stand by. Is our complacency the culprit?  Although lasting change has never been achieved in the world, the ambitions of governments and multinational power brokers need to be kept at bay… swatted back if you will. Much in the way we need to chop back the ever-encroaching vegetation in tropical Merida.

Going away held up a mirror, and helped me to see that our country’s ills are shared by others throughout the world. If we’re all in the same boat, it seems that we should try to paddle in the same direction!

And that’s it… Sorry that the text and pictures aren’t too well placed… but I continue to have my techie challenges. At least the information is all in one spot! If you have any questions or comments about  section, please contact me at :

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