A trip to Perugia, Florence and Pisa

As some of you already know, for the past half a dozen years or so, I’ve made an annual trip to Perugia, a lovely little hill town in the middle of the Umbria region of Italy, about two hours north of Rome. The main reason is an amazing journalism conference run by my friends Chris Potter and Arianna Ciccone, a five-day extravaganza that involves more than 600 speakers and a dozen beautiful venues in the old city. Most of the historic center was built in the 13th century, and was constructed on the ruins of an even older city, one of the capitals of the ancient Etruscan empire sometime in the 3rd century BC. And every year, my wife Becky and I take a few days either before or after the conference to visit somewhere in Italy — one year it was Rome, and then Venice, and then Cinque Terre, and then the Amalfi Coast (I put together an interactive travelogue if you want to take a tour of some of the places).

After an amazing week in Perugia, filled with great dinners with old friends and lots of gelato meetings at my “office” (also known as the gelateria near the Brufani Palace), Becky and I took the train to Florence, which is just a couple of hours west of Perugia. We checked into a great little Airbnb apartment right near what everyone refers to as the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers or the Santa Maria del Fiore, and then headed out to visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the premier collections of Italian Renaissance art in the world. It took us over three hours to see everything, and we still missed a lot — paintings by Giotto and Da Vinci, sculptures and busts and statuary everywhere. An amazing (and tiring) experience.

After the museum, we headed back to the Airbnb to relax a little and change, then we set off to meet friends at a local restaurant just across the Arno river, near the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. It was a lovely little trattoria — the Trattoria Cammillo — with excellent pasta and fish, including a local specialty called pasta Bottarga, with dried and salted roe (fish eggs) from bluefin tuna. After dinner, we chatted with the owners for awhile, who told us of the history of the building, which was partially destroyed in World War II, and showed us the water mark about eight feet up on the wall where the floods of 1966 crested (a flood that killed over 100 people and damaged millions of priceless works of art).

The next day, Becky and I took advantage of the cheap local train prices and caught a train to Pisa, which is about an hour west of Florence on the coast, a trip that costs about 8 Euros. We walked for about 45 minutes from the train station to where the famous leaning tower is, part of a complex of museums, cathedrals and other religious buildings that were constructed in the 12th century, when Pisa was a pretty powerful port city. In addition to the tower, there’s the Campo Santo — a massive enclosed cemetery lined with crypts and sarcophagi — and a huge cathedral that is almost as large and impressive as the Duomo in Florence. Over one of the many altars in the church is a see-through sarcophagus containing what is supposedly the body of Saint Rainerius, which some poor bugger had to put together from bits and pieces that had been scattered around the countryside.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had a great time wandering around the cemetery, the cathedral and the nearby museum — which had some marvelous watercolors that someone did of the massive murals on the walls of the Camp Santo, each of which told a religious tale in great depth, but most of which had been lost to time and the elements. There was also a small “Chapel of the Relics of the Saints,” set into the wall, which contained cabinets filled with goblets and reliquaries with bones and fingers and other bits and pieces of saints (allegedly). After a quick espresso, we made our way back along the river Arno to the train station and caught a local shuttle back to Florence.

After we got back to Florence, we spent the afternoon just walking around and then had dinner at a wonderful little restaurant not far from our Airbnb called La Boheme. And what a dinner it was, featuring a dish known as Il Botteca Florentine, or steak Florentine — a giant, two-inch-thick slab of beef with the bone in, weighing around 1.2 kilograms or so. The waitress seemed concerned that I was ordering it for myself, so I said that Becky would be helping, but as it was I ate most of it single-handedly. We then decided that a long walk around Florence was required, so we wandered down towards the river and through the various alleyways, watching people by the carousel in the main square and catching a sextet playing classical music near the site of the outdoor market. Becky and I both rubbed the nose of the boar statue known as La Porcellina, which brings good luck.

The next day, we had planned to head to the Accademia Gallery, where the statue of Michelangelo’s David is located. We had tried to book tickets online in advance, but by the time we got around to it they were sold out for the Tuesday. So we thought we would just see what the line was like, and when we got there it was about two blocks long, and a security guard said he thought it would take at least two hours. I had just finished saying to Becky that I thought we should just bail, when a man and his wife approached us and asked us if we wanted their advance-booking tickets — they didn’t have time to wait and see the museum, they said. Before we could even say thank you or offer to pay them the 24 Euros, they had left, and about 20 minutes later we were in the museum. And what a sight it was.

Although we didn’t take a tour, I learned a lot about David from reading the sign next to it (and also from eaves-dropping on other people’s tours). I didn’t know that a different sculptor started the legs of the statue and then either died or lost the commission for some reason, and the block of stone sat outside for more than 25 years, until Michelangelo — who was only 26 at the time — asked if he could complete it. The hands and the head are disproportionately large, which leads some historians to believe it was originally designed to sit high up on the roof of a cathedral, but when it was done it weighed about three tons (it’s 17 feet high) and so they decided not to put it there after all. The toes of the left foot were damaged by a deranged artist with a hammer who attacked them in 1991.

After seeing David and the rest of the paintings and sculptures in the Accademia Gallery (there’s a small musical instrument museum as well), we headed for the train station to pick up our bags — the free tickets for the gallery covered the cost of the bag drop service, so that worked out well. And then it was back on the train to Rome, which took a couple of hours. We had dinner with a friend who lives there and stayed overnight at the same quaint little hotel we have stayed at several times, and then caught our flight back to Canada. Another great trip in Italy, and lots of great memories. Until next time!

Looking to move abroad? Why not buy an ancient village in Spain

In a pattern that has also been seen in a number of other countries, people in Spain have been moving away from small villages in the countryside into larger centres, and as a result many small towns are dying — and being put on the market. In some cases, you can buy a hamlet with half a dozen buildings for less than $100,000. A site called Aldeas Abandonadas specializes in selling both small villages and stately manor houses that have been abandoned. One listing describes a village with nine houses and about 4,000 square metres of land for just 73,000 Euros or about $80,000 US, and another is for an 18th century manor built for a judge, including a former dungeon that has been turned into a guest house, as well as a pool and an attached farm, for 275,000 Euros or about $300,000 US.

For her recent holiday gift guide, Gwyneth Paltrow advertised a village that was for sale on Aldeas Abandonadas for just $172,000. According to Spain’s prime minister, over half of the country’s municipalities have less than 1,000 residents, and many of them continue to shrink because there is nothing to keep young inhabitants interested in staying and the existing population is aging rapidly. In 2014, the mayor of a municipality in the Barcelona region was willing to give away an ancient village of 12 buildings to anyone who would promise to restore them, and a village called O Penso was for sale for about $230,000 — for 100 acres of land, half a dozen houses, two farms and an ancient wood-fired oven bakery.

The most expensive — and weirdest — restaurant in Ukraine

If I ever manage to get to Lviv, Ukraine, I would very much like to visit this restaurant, which is referred to as The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant. It isn’t really, but it might be the most bizarre. According to the description by Atlas Obscura, the only way to get access to the restaurant is to request entry from a man sitting in a cluttered room in what looks like someone’s apartment. In most cases, he will turn you away, saying he doesn’t know what you are talking about. He may do this several times before you gain entry.

If you are persistent, however, he will allow you to enter — at which point you might notice a number of things, including a piano, but also a full-size automobiles hanging from the ceiling, and another parked in the middle of the restaurant. You may be serenaded by musicians, or entertained by actors, while eating your meal. When the bill comes, it could easily be thousands of dollars — but then, all you have to do is ask for “the 90 percent discount” and magically your bill will be several times smaller.

The story of Carmilla, a female vampire who predates Dracula

For some reason, I was unaware until now that there was a vampire novel that predates Dracula by about 25 years — a novel called Carmilla, featuring a female vampire of the same name who ravishes a young woman at a country estate in the 1800s. I found out about it because I read a fascinating interview with Carmen Maria Machado, a short-story writer who provided the introduction for the latest re-issue of the Carmilla story (which was written by an Irish Gothic writer named J. Sheridan LeFanu).

The interview is entitled “A Perfectly Normal Interview with Carmen Maria Machado Where Everything Is Fine,” but it is anything but. It starts out like a normal author interview, wherein Machado is asked about the theory that Carmilla was in fact based on the love letters between a woman named Marcia Maren and her lesbian lover Veronika Hausle, which were released during the former’s trial for “morbid harlotry.” The first clue that things aren’t what they seem comes when you click some of the links to the supposed research on the case, or on the details of the professor who supposedly came up with the theory. They are all 404.

Then, in the second half of the interview, things take a strange turn and just keep on going, and it becomes clear that this is a work of fiction as much as an interview. Here’s a section:

TM: Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill we feel while bathing, when we move against the current of a river. This was soon accompanied by dreams that seemed interminable and were so vague that I could never recollect their scenery and persons. But they left an awful impression and a sense of exhaustion, as if I had passed through a long period of great mental exertion and danger.

It’s a lot of fun, anyway, and really well done. I wish more author interviews were like this! Be sure to click on all of the links.

Massive fire at the legendary Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris, otherwise known as the Notre-Dame cathedral, is one of the most iconic buildings in the world — certainly the Western world. And on Monday, it was on fire. Early reports said that the fire began as a result of renovations that have been taking place at the cathedral, but whatever the cause, by the evening of April 15 virtually the entire building was engulfed in flame. Two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, including the cathedral’s famous spire, and many of the priceless works of art inside the cathedral were threatened. Videos of Parisians singing hymns and chanting as they watched the flames went viral on Twitter and Facebook.


Notre-Dame might be the only cathedral, or building of any kind, to be the main character of a story by a famous author — namely, Victor Hugo, who wrote a book in 1931 called Notre-Dame de Paris, which was published in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Anyone who has seen the innumerable adaptations, including the animated Disney movie of the same name, probably thinks the hunchback is the hero, but Hugo definitely wanted the cathedral to be the main character, and a metaphor for Paris itself. The publicity his book created actually helped turn the church into a global superstar — it sat empty and mostly unused for decades before Napoleon used it for his coronation, and was still mostly unloved when Hugo wrote his book.

Most people assume that the two soaring towers of the cathedral are identical twins, but the north tower is actually slightly larger than the south, probably a result of the fact that the building was constructed piece-meal over several hundred years. That’s one of the interesting facts about the cathedral collected by Mental Floss, including the fact that in 1935, “three tiny relics — an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city’s patron saints) — were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.” The church also houses what is believed to be the Crown of Thorns placed on Christ, as well as a fragment of the original cross.

According to the official list of facts about the cathedral, the roof — which appears to be almost completely gone — consisted of more than 1,300 massive oak beams, representing about 21 hectares of forest.

I’ve been to Paris twice now, but never got a chance to go through Notre-Dame, something that I now regret. When my wife and I visited a couple of years ago, there was a massive line in front of it that looked as though it would take hours, and we didn’t have hours. So we went to the nearby Saint Chapelle cathedral instead, which has incredible stained glass windows that I would highly recommend experiencing if you have the chance. Hopefully Notre-Dame will be restored and we can visit it at some point in the future. In the meantime, here’s something Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay said about why losing buildings like the cathedral hurts so much:

Why do we grieve for ruins destroyed (by ISIS) or for fires like Notre Dame, sometimes seemingly more than for human deaths? In part because we know we only have decades, each of us, but these things MAY last to say ‘We were here and with all the evil we did, we also did this.’

Once There Were Chandeliers in the New York subway

It’s hard to imagine looking at the New York subway today, but at one time taking the subway was a high-class act, and subway stations were designed to be works of art — like the very first station, which opened underneath City Hall in 1904. It was closed to the public in 1945, in part because the curved tracks couldn’t accommodate newer trains, and because riders were mostly using the newer stations with faster trains.

When the city’s first subway station opened in 1904 underneath City Hall in Lower Manhattan, it was a testament to New York’s arrival as a world-class city on par with London, Paris or Rome. The ornate station featured chandeliers, ornamental skylights and soaring archways with zigzagging patterns of terra-cotta tiles.

Source: Failing New York Subway? Not Always — Once There Were Chandeliers – The New York Times

Who knew that you could dance with a canoe?

As a Canadian who loves to canoe and kayak, I should have know that there would be a ballet-style event like the Freestyle Canoe competition, but I had never heard of it before until I came across a video clip of Marc Ornstein competing in 2007 in the mid-west somewhere. Here he is dancing in his canoe (in a tuxedo) to Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red.” Going to have to practice this next time I am at the cottage.

In 1675, King Charles II banned coffeehouses — here’s why

When you’re sitting in your local coffee shop or Starbucks, watching people sip their no-foam skinny lattes and whatnot, it probably doesn’t seem like the kind of place a king would be so upset about that he would ban them, unless maybe he had a hard time finding power outlets or people kept hogging the Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, King Charles II banned coffeehouses in England in 1675. Why? Because as a number of historians have pointed out, in the 17th century coffeehouses were like the ancient equivalent of the Internet, or maybe Reddit. They were filled with intellectuals and merchants gossiping, and that made Chuck nervous, because he figured they might be plotting against him. Here’s what he said in his decree:

Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within the Kingdom, the Dominion of Wales, and the Town of Berwick on Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise by imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) put down and supressed

The true rock ‘n roll genius of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Everyone associates Chuck Berry and other greats with the early years of rock ‘n roll, but there’s another giant of the genre that many people forget, or maybe have never heard of — Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer and songwriter who pioneered a whole range of gospel-influenced rock guitar styles. She was one of the first electric guitarists to use distortion, and her playing in the 1930s, ’40s and 1950s helped influence musicians like Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — and touring with musicians like Muddy Waters influenced a range of British greats like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. Side note: Although she was married three times, Tharpe had a number of romantic relationships with women, and friends said her marriages were designed to disguise her true sexuality in order to protect her career. Here’s a clip of Sister Rosetta singing her hit “Didn’t It Rain” in 1964.