Italy: architecture, food and history

For years the Tuscany region in Italy sat at the top of my bucket travel list. Photos, articles, books, movies continued to feed this desire. And when “Under the Tuscan Sun” was released in book form, and then in an incredibly enticing video depiction in movie form, I was hooked. To date, I have only had the pleasure of visiting Italy once, and sadly never made it to the Tuscany region – but I will get there one day!

Happily, my years have been filled with travel that has fulfilled my travel interests and desires, if not always my exact bucket list. This world we live in is full of hidden gems that deserve equal narration in comparison to the major highlight destinations like Paris, Rome, London, Montreal, Dubai and so many more. But there is a reason, many reasons, these major destinations have earned the reputation of becoming must see places.

Several years ago my mother, daughter and I took off on a 14-day European excursion with Trafalgar Tours via train and bus, that took us through many of Europe’s iconic locations. We started in London, and made our way through Brussels, Cologne, Zurich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Monaco, Nice, Lyon and finished up in Paris. A great experience and way to see lots of places in a short amount of time, to help you decide where you might want to go back for longer visits.

Six of those days were spent in Italy. The diversity from northern Italy to southern Italy is as diverse as northern California to southern California. The diversity begins with food: creamier/buttery pasta sauces with some tomatoes in the north, to spicier red pasta sauces in the south. The myriad of the Venice canals sit in stark contrast to the Umbria countryside rolling with ancient grape vines and groves of olive trees, to the free-flowing Mediterranean along the rocky coast of Naples. The inland cities of Milan and Florence exude a higher fashion sense to go with their more formal attitudes, stand in contrast to the more laid back attitudes and lax fashion sense along the Mediterranean cities. The architecturally used colorful natural stones stand strong along with the robust fashion of the north country, in contrast to the earthy subdued limestone and travertine architecture of the south where so many more buildings stand in ruin.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

A spicy red sauce pasta served up in a southern Italian town.

But even these ruins stand as examples of historical architecture that is seen very little anywhere else in the world. Architecture that has stood the test of wars, environmental decay, man’s negligence, lack of funding – but yet they still stand strong and continue to be a major tourism pull. And a highly coveted design style. The rustic elegance that is achieved by not forcing perfection into what nature made, and honed only slightly by man’s manual tools, are looks that are heavily sought after, and hard to replicate.

Our first induction into Italy was Venice. Not a bad way to start! We began encamped at St. Marks Square where we took in the views of the expansive canals jutting out in every direction, with gondolas lined up to take you to one of the 117 islands. Or down one of the narrow inland canals bringing you nose to nose with amazing architecture like the Bridge of Sighs. Creativity reigns in Venice with visionary mask makers and master glass blowers. I display examples of both in my home today.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

The Bridge of Sighs, in the background, spans one of the inland canals in Venice.

Our introduction into Italian cooking was a full-on experience. We took a large gondola over to Burano Island, which is lined with brightly colored pastel houses, to enjoy a seven-course lunch of fresh seafoods, homemade pastas and breads, olives and everything else you think of when craving Italian food. Upon our return to St. Mark’s Square we saw all the outdoor tables in the square had been removed and walking risers installed. Feeling perplexed, we stood with other tourists waiting for the show – the show was high tide that comes in and covers St. Mark’s Square for minimal time and then recedes and life resumes like nothing had ever happened.

Next it was on to Florence. Ah, Florence – land of exquisite leather goods at amazing prices – I think I bought 8 pairs of gloves – red, blue, black, brown, lined, unlined, zippered, unzippered. I stood with mouth agape for eons looking at the colorful architecture of the Duomo (Florence Cathedral) – stones of lush forest greens, soft mint greens, with deep blood reds infused into graying whites make up the structure. Michelangelo’s David, one of the world’s most reproduced and famous statues, stands in all its nude glory in the Accadamia Gallery. And what a treat to watch most every Italian dressed to the nines, going to work, going shopping, stopping for an espresso, heading to lunch or dinner. No occasion was too small or too big to “be seen.”

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

The Duomo in Florence, showcasing the locally mined stone used to build this beautiful cathedral.

No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the iconic city of Rome. We needed two full days to tour structures that make Rome exactly that – iconic:

Colosseum – replete with costumed gladiators standing guard at the gates and more than ready to take a picture with you for a few euros; a structure so massive you stand in awe to think of how it was built, so many centuries ago. Close your eyes and imagine the stands filled with patrons watching gladiators fight or the chariot races – kings and queens on one side, peasants on the other.

Trevi Fountain – It was here I finally understood the energy level of our tour guide, Eliana, who speaks 5 languages and herded her 32 charges from multiple countries through 9 countries in 14 days with such fortitude. She grabbed my arm and we ran across the street from the highly ornate marble Trevi fountain to her favorite Italian espresso caffe’. As I began to sip my espresso Eliana giggled and said,”No, slam it like a shot of whisky!” After that boost we took our coin change and she showed me how you stand with your back to the fountain, throw a coin over your left shoulder with your right hand and make a wish.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Tucked in the middle of residential and retail buildings, the Trevi Fountain has not lost its lustre as a tourist draw.

Catacombs – definitely not for the faint of heart (or tall people), but an amazing site to see the size of these ancient people and intellectual engineering of these unending funeral tunnels. We visited the Catacombs of Domatilla, built beyond the only subterranean basilica, are the oldest (2nd century), largest (9 miles of tunnels) and the only catacombs to still hold bones.

The Vatican – this independent state within Rome encapsulates everything that is Italian culture – architecture, art and Catholicism. We spent a full day on the grounds: standing in a 3-hour line to bare witness to Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling murals in the Sistine Chapel; tried to absorb the immensity of St. Peter’s Basilica – the anchor of Vatican City; and finish up with an Italian gelato on the Spanish Steps.

St. Peter's Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

St. Peter’s Basilica bathed in the light from the setting sun.

Our final stop in Italy landed us in Pisa. There are no words or pictures that can truly convey this anomaly of architecture finished in 1372. It defies all logic how this tower not only was built with this much tilt (where were the inspectors?) – because of being built on ground that was softer on one side; but that it never fell over prior to being stabilized in the 20th century. The 4 degrees of lean may not sound like much, but I didn’t step up to the front of the line to check out the view from the top.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa. What else is there to say.

Betwixt and between these amazing cities lay the Tuscan hillsides, with their long cypress lined driveways leading up to magnificent villas just waiting for visitors to come sit on their verandas to relax with a glass of Barolo, nibble on estate grown olives and almonds, while reading a favorite book. Hopefully my next trip to Italy those visions will come to fruition.

(A special thank you for the use of pictures from “A Portrait of Italy” by Dwight V. Gast)

Beverly Hills

Moving from the opulence of Dubai to the opulence of Beverly Hills. No more tag lines need to be added to these two locals. The culture and the landscape may be as different as their locations are apart from each other, but both showcase the kind of lifestyle that money can buy.

Beverly Hills, CA - home to the stars and the wealthy moguls of many of the world's industries

Beverly Hills, CA – home to the stars and the wealthy moguls of many of the world’s industries

I was accompanying my husband to a work conference at the newest hotel in Beverly Hills, The Montage. A beautiful Spanish styled architecture replete with a central courtyard area, and the famed Bouchon Bakery, Bistro and Restaurant lining the courtyard opposite from the main hotel building. We arrived a couple of weeks after the Oscars, where Meryl Streep hosted an after Oscar party at the hotel’s restaurant, Scarpetta and Prince was playing host to friends behind a curtain by the rooftop pool.

A block to the south of the hotel is the famed Rodeo Drive. It is much shorter than I thought it would be, but the street and stores are pristine. Every high-end brand you know and several you have never heard of flank both sides of the streets for about four blocks, inclusive of “Two Rodeo Drive” – a cobblestone street of more stores for walking traffic only. Each store on Rodeo Drive has minimal, but high-end stock allowing plenty of room to move around in this shopper friendly layout. Apparently, if a store is closed during normal business hours, it is likely there is a major star or somebody with major money doing some major shopping.

Van Cleef and Arpels and Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, CA - they go together like peanut butter and jelly

Van Cleef and Arpels and Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, CA – they go together like peanut butter and jelly

Bijou - apparently being tailor to US Presidents pays well, as showcased by Mr. Bijou's matching Bugatti which he parks in front of his store everyday

Bijan – apparently being tailor to US Presidents pays well, as showcased by Mr. Bijan’s matching Bugatti which he parks in front of his store everyday

Anxious to see the stars homes, a group of us took a 2 1/2 hour tour guided tour bus ride through the Hollywood Hills and high-buck neighborhoods. An iron gate lined with stars denoted the entrance to Ringo “Starr‘s” house. A stand of bamboo and other dense shrubbery and trees shrouded the apparent castle owned by Johhny Depp. A moving van sat in a driveway that eventually lead to the home of Ellen DeGeneres. The rooftop of Jennifer Aniston‘s peaked out over the treetops. So it was not so much seeing the ‘star’s’ homes, but seeing the general areas these homes are located.

Stars line the iron entrance gate to Ringo Starr's home, Beverly Hills, CA

Stars line the iron entrance gate to Ringo Starr’s home, Beverly Hills, CA

The moving van moving furniture from Ellen DeGenere's old home, up the street to her new home.

The moving van moving furniture from Ellen DeGenere’s old home, up the street to her new home.

The rooftop of Jennifer Aniston's house peaking out over the treetops of the Hollywood Hills

The rooftop of Jennifer Aniston’s house peaking out over the treetops of the Hollywood Hills

The highlight of our tour bus ride was a stop at Greystone Mansion, built by the son of oil magnate, Edward Doheny, Sr. of Wisconsin, back in the late 1920’s. Edward Jr., “Ned”, was shot and killed, at age 36, in a murder suicide by his male secretary who was fired and wanted his job back. Lucy, the widow of Edward Jr., stayed on in the house until 1955 raising their five children. The house was sold a couple of more times, eventually ending up being sold to the city of Beverly Hills for $1.3 million in 1965 and has been used in movie films and shooting of TV and magazine ads ever since – i.e. Batman and Robin, Spiderman, Star Trek 2, the Social Network, The Muppets, National Treasure, the X-Men, the Bodyguard and dozens of other big name movies.

Inner courtyard to Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills, CA

Inner courtyard to Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills, CA – where multiple movies have been filmed

A Ralph Lauren Polo ad being shot on the back patio of Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills, CA

A Ralph Lauren Polo ad being shot on the back patio of Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills, CA

The home sports a red spotlight that was installed during the heyday of the home’s livelihood. This light was directed at the Beverly Hills Police Department so that if there were any emergencies at Greystone the light would be turned on and the police would be alerted to the emergency. It is said this is where the idea of the Bat-Signal came from for the Batman show and movies. The house also had its own fire department to watch over the 432 acre estate.

A red beacon sits atop the chimney, to alert the police department of any emergencies at the Greystone estate.

A red beacon sits atop the chimney, to alert the police department of any emergencies at the Greystone estate.

That evening we are off to be treated to dinner in the Rita Hayworth Room at Sony Studios. We were given a walking tour of the studio grounds where we saw behind the scenes of a sound room where they make they dub in sounds actually made in the room with everyday items to match the exact sound we would think we would hear in the movie – i.e. dropping keys on the counter or footsteps across a cobblestone road. We also saw the inside of the Jeopardy sound stage, although Alex Trebak was nowhere to be found.

A mock-up for a Loews Theater at Sony Studios, where our dinner was held

A mock-up for a Loews Theater at Sony Studios, where our dinner was held

Standing behind a mock-up of a Jeopardy podium. Wish I had really won that amount!

Standing behind a mock-up of a Jeopardy podium. Wish I had really won that amount!

The next morning my husband and I decided to do the touristy thing and walk the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” where all the star’s “stars” are lined up on Hollywood Boulevard for blocks and blocks. The scene was anti-climatic with Hollywood Blvd having become more Hollywood Homeless and bustling with has beens and wannabes, especially in front of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was very evident the heyday of Hollywood Blvd was long gone. Sunset Blvd felt the same way, although it is supposed to still have some great nightlife.

Marilyn Monroe's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA

Marilyn Monroe’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA

Grauman's Chinese Theater, where in it's heyday hosted the 1940 Academy Awards

Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where in it’s heyday hosted the 1940 Academy Awards

For me, Beverly Hills and surrounding Hollywood highlights is a definite must see, but probably will not be placed on my must return to places to visit. If I did return to the area it would in a more relaxed setting of sitting in sidewalk cafes, walking the beaches, eating at some of the world’s hotspots – all in hopes of seeing the elusive star or two.

Check out more photo highlights of Beverly Hills in the Global Gallery link.

Middle East: UAE: Dubai

What would a trip to the Middle East be without stopping in Dubai to see what all the hype is about. Without question Dubai lives up to every expectation I had heard in terms of what opulence money can buy and build. My husband, daughter and I flew Royal Jordanian Airlines from Amman across to the southeast tip of Saudi Arabia where the UAE nation juts out into a point, with the Persian Golf on one side and the Gulf of Oman on the other.

Dubai sits on the Persian Golf side. We arrived in a deep haze and it stayed that way for the two days we spent there. The moisture in the air was measurable. Standing still for five minutes, waiting for a taxi service, found us literally dripping wet. The famed shopping malls made up for the heat and humidity outdoors by cranking up the air-conditioning indoors. And of course you have the option of doing some indoor skiing to really get cooled off.

Opulence is defined by the words: lavish, ample, luxury, richness, magnificence. I would use the same words to describe Dubai. Our journey started out at our stay at the Atlantis Resort – Dubai, which sits at the top of the man-made Palm (shaped) Island, inclusive of one of the world’s largest water parks. The resort was fairly empty as it was low season (too hot), but the water park was doing a booming business.

The Atlantis Resort - Dubai

The Atlantis Resort – Dubai

Water slides at the water park at the Atlantis Resort - Dubai

Water slides at the water park at the Atlantis Resort – Dubai

Our trip into the heart of Dubai showcased a desert blooming with high-rise after high-rise, inclusive of the World’s Tallest Building – the Burj Khalifa. We were able to take an express elevator up to the observation deck on the 124th floor, allowing us to only look up at the remaining 40 stories above us – private residences that go for as much as $50 million. For one afraid of heights I was amazed at how smooth the ride up was and how secure I felt being 124 floors up in the air – looking down on high-rises that most cities would claim as their highest with 100 stories.

Burj Khalifa standing tall in the distance

Burj Khalifa standing tall in the distance

Looking up from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa

Looking up from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa

Looking down on other skyscrapers from the 124th story of the Burj Khalifa

Looking down on other skyscrapers from the 124th story of the Burj Khalifa

Within walking distance of the Burj Khalifa, even in this weather, was The Dubai Mall that houses the aforementioned indoor ski hill. What a sight to see: a chair lift transporting skiers up to the top of the two runs along either side of the lift; a mini luge track; sledding runs; inflated rolling balls you get inside of to go down the rimmed sled runs.

Ski Dubai in The Dubai Mall

Ski Dubai in The Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall boasts the rights to being the only other place in the world to host locations of regionally favorite hotspots like: Ben’s Cookies (London); Magnolia Bakery (NYC); Tim Horton’s (Canada); Caribou Coffee (midwest). The mall is filled with women clad in full burqa’s – mainly black. But when I looked closely at them, it was hard to miss the bling on their fingers, the Louis Vuitton purses on one arm and a Dolce’ & Gabbana shopping bags on the other. My daughter and I wondered where they get to wear such high-end clothing if not out in public. We guessed they must be allowed to wear them around the house, or have dress-up parties with women from their expansive families.

The Magnolia Bakery in The Dubai Mall, based out of NYC

The Magnolia Bakery in The Dubai Mall, based out of NYC

As we exited the mall we came upon the most graphic sight of Dubai’s opulence. The valet parking circle was lined with brand new Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris….all sitting there, unattended, many with windows wide open. UAE has some of lowest crime rates in the world as the locals stick mainly to themselves and crimes or met with fairly sever punishments, like being thrown in jail for a month any for public signs of affection – such as kissing.

A brand new Royals Royce left sitting with the windows open in the Valet Parking lane of The Dubai Mall

A brand new Royals Royce left sitting with the windows open in the Valet Parking lane of The Dubai Mall

Amazing mindset, when you look around at a nation that is probably the leader in forward movement on architecture; building amazing from a desolate desert by incorporating engineering marvels not seen anywhere else in the world. The sail shaped building, Burj Al Arab, that sits out in the harbor of Dubai and the islands in the shape of the world are more examples of these feats. The haze was so bad during out visit in Dubai that I couldn’t even get a clear picture of this amazing hotel. But if you google the name, there are amazing pictures on the web of this unique architectural feat.

There is no lack of opulence in their hotels, touting the world’s only seven-star hotel, the aforementioned, Burj Al Arab, with room sizes starting at 1,800 sf inclusive of your own personal butler. Or the multitude of Michelin star connected restaurants all trying to outdo each other in the food experience, decor and views. Dubai is a city that mixes the opulence and fun of Miami, Disney World and Las Vegas all rolled into one, and then some. Is it a city I will make efforts to visit on a regular basis – no. But is it a city worth seeing at least once – yes. It may not rank up there with the seven “Wonder’s of the Worlds” – but it is certainly right at the top of that next tier.

Be sure to check out more great pictures from Dubai in the Global Gallery.