A What with a What?!

Ever Heard of an Anole and His Dewlap?

I love learning new things when I travel and animals never cease to amaze me. If you have been to tropical places, you may have spotted iguanas, geckos or other types of intriguing lizards. 

Sitting in a garden in Hawaii, I noticed a little lizard running along the wall. I marveled at how their toe pads are equipped with tiny little hooks that allow them to run straight up the wall.

This little guy was only about 12 cm long. It darted along a stone wall on little legs with a long tail and a flicking tongue. Then he stopped so I could get a good look at him. But, what I think is just another little gecko, turns out to be quite something else.

Researching this cool little guy teaches me that this is a lizard but not a gecko at all. It’s a brown, male anole.

A what?

I had never heard of anoles. While geckos and anoles are both lizards, they have evolved in different ways. Anoles didn’t appear on the scene until roughly 150 million years after the gecko. Both have adhesive toe pads that allow them to run straight up walls.

Geckos can live in dry, rocky areas while anoles prefer living among more trees. While they can live near each other, they are competitive. Anoles are active during the day while geckos are more nocturnal.

But the coolest thing I notice about my little anole friend, is his dewlap.

His what?

A dewlap is a flap of skin underneath the lizard’s chin which he can extend and retract. It’s not an air sac, just a flag he waves when staking out his territory or when trying to attract a female. He also waves it to warn off an intruding gecko:



IMG_6224For more details on anoles, click here: http://www.anoleannals.org/2018/03/26/anoles-versus-geckos-the-ultimate-showdown/

MOLOKAI, the island that is ‘Hawaiian By Nature’


“There’s nothing there!” was what we mostly heard when we told people that, after O’ahu we planned on visiting the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i (pronounced ‘mo-lo-KAh-ee’).

That’s why we wanted to go. There was too much there for us on O’ahu, which was wonderful to explore but we had to do so together with a few million other people. Moloka’i is home to 7,000 and is roughly the same size as Salt Spring Island where we live. It just does not offer the same array of coffee shops, artist studios and other attractions.

What Moloka’i does offer is the authentic Hawaii. “It’s where Hawaiians go to get away from it all,” we were told.

IMG_6230The only way to reach the island is by airplane. We flew the mere half hour from Honolulu and landed in what felt like rural Zambia: a tiny, rustic airport, red earth, dusty pick-up trucks, hand-painted signs, even the vegetation felt like Zambia. I half expected to spot some giraffes. But what we saw instead was wind swept waves tumbling onto black rocks, white sand beaches without people and friendly locals.

Geographically it’s an interesting island. You can almost cut it in half: one half is relatively flat, a bit hilly, with dry red soil. The other half is green, tropical jungle valleys with the tallest sea cliffs in the world.

IMG_6242We had booked a condo on the west side, the flat part, of the island, Kepuhi Beach. It turned out to be a former Sheraton resort, sold to a Japanese company and now in decline. Half of the two level six-plexes were sold to individual owners, some of whom rented their unit out as vacation rentals. The other half of the former resort is falling apart. What used to be a restaurant and pub, are now sagging buildings with roof shingles missing and beams rotting away.

But the inhabited half has well maintained lawns, avid bird life, waving palms and a pretty pool. For just over a hundred dollars a night we could not find another place to stay in Hawaii.

You do need a car on Moloka’i but there’s only one small local car rental place and Alamo. The local cars were all gone for March when we tried to book in December. Alamo quoted us $550 for a week. “Try Dana!” was the advise our condo owner gave us. Dana found us a car, no problem. At just over half the cost of Alamo’s. “Your car will be sitting just outside the airport,” he told us, “It will be unlocked with the key under the seat.” That’s when we knew were going to like this island.

There are not many roads on the island and I think we drove them all. Near us is the range town of Manauloa, which looks exactly like an Australian town in the Outback with wide streets and western fronts. It is almost deserted, the general store empty and locked up.

The only town of significance is Kanaukakai. It looks like a western town with saloons front and pick-up trucks. The people are friendly and laid back. 

One morning we went to the Paddler’s Inn where locals gather to play Hawaiian music.We stopped at an organic farm but they didn’t have bananas and their small pineapples were US $6.50 a piece. They were juicy, though. We paid $1.50 for one potato in the resort store. Moloka’i is not for the faint of heart.

IMG_6258The island is most well know for its former Hansen’s disease (leprosy) colony. Kalaupapa Peninsula has an amazing history but is not accessible until the bridge is restored. Until then there is no way to visit the historic site. We did see a beautiful photo and artifact display of it at the Moloka’i Museum and Cultural Site where the Meyer Sugar Mill has been restored and where volunteers give information and show videos of the area. The book Moloka’i by Alan Brennert is a great (fictional) read with the colony as a realistic setting.


Restored Sugar Mill

Because there isn’t much else to do here, we decided to splurge on a ‘Cultural Hike’ in the Halawa Valley. The website is informative and the program sounds attractive so we paid our $60 p.p. and left early in the morning for the hour-and-a-half drive to the far opposite shore of the island.

IMG_6293The road along the ocean is pretty until you get to the dotted line on the map. We were happy to discover that it wasn’t dirt road but it did indicate a one-lane road only. Not only did it get super narrow, it wound like wet spaghetti around rocky cliffs overhanging the ocean. We crawled around blind corners hoping there wouldn’t be another car coming because backing up would have been even worse. Rocks, mud, water and wind blown branches added to a discouraging setting.

But we persevered and made it in one piece to the far end: the Halawa Valley. There we met six other couples brave enough to tackle this hike and our guide, a member of the local indigenous family conducting these programs. Unfortunately he announced that, due to the rain and storm, we were unable to go for a hike. He did offer the cultural part but we decided to perhaps try our luck on another day. 

We crawled back along the narrow road, all the way to town, only to discover we had left our pack at the very far end. There was no way we’d brave that road again so we frantically tried to contact the guide who had no cell phone reception and had no internet in that remote valley. But with the help of very friendly local people we did manage to relay the message and, at night, he actually came to town bringing our pack with him. Relief.

After all that we decided to celebrate with a steak dinner in the Inn. It took a while but we were happy to sit and sip a beer. Then the waitress plonked one plate on the table. And when we asked where the second steak was she said “Oh, really? You each wanted one?” So we shared a steak and a good laugh.


On one trip back to our condo, we passed three young American soldiers. Hitchhiking. We stopped and offered them our back seat, on which we had our stash from the organic farm: one tomato and one pineapple. We drove them to town for hamburgers. We tried to get them to offer us a ride in their helicopter to the leper colony, but no luck.

Our week on Moloka’s has been pleasant and very relaxing, but incredibly windy. Wind and rain prevented us from as much hiking and swimming as we wanted but we did also have blue sky and times when we could go out. But we were happy to have good books with us. IMG_6291



Pearl Harbour: War and Peace

IMG_6156Being in Honolulu and not going to see the historic Pearl Harbour Memorial site is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Before we visited this National Historic Park, we watched this YouTube about World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnQ_6h3VtRo    We found it very beneficial to have seen this before going.

The website of the Memorial Park answers most if not all questions a visitor might have: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/233338

IMG_6177From it we learned the exact location, the opening hours, the fact that you need a ticket but tickets are free and much more. The hardest part is having to get up at 6 AM. Tickets are handed out starting at 7 AM. Tickets are attached to a time slot so you may have to come back later in the day. 

We planned our visit for a Monday morning and were lucky: after standing in line for only 15 minutes, we were handed tickets for the first time slot at 7:30.

First, you visit a theatre to watch a movie, much of it authentic footage which I found very impressive. I mean, who was filming this? Because, let’s face it, this was a surprise attack that no one was expecting. Yet, on both the American side and the Japanese side, there is all this footage that makes for a complete documentary of what was happening. 

IMG_6164Like the war in Holland, the figures of the dead, the heroic deeds, the number of planes and ships involved, are all staggering. Of the number of ships that sank in the tropical, picturesque site of Pearl Harbour, the one that took most lives was the S.S. Arizona. Made of thick steel, it was impossible to rescue the men on board. The ship was left were it sank.

Eventually the National Parks and US Navy erected a plain white, ship-shaped hall width wise over the rusted remains. It’s a sober place to visit where the fact that this was a world war, not just a European tragedy, was really brought home to me. IMG_6171

After visiting the site, by boat, we walked through the museum. Besides the usually models, maps, videos, and artifacts my favorite display here was that of Sadako’s paper cranes where an original of the thousands of cranes that have inspired children to talk about peace, is on display.

US’s involvement in WWII started with the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. It ended on August 6, 1945 when American forces dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when this catastrophic event happened. Then years later she was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer caused by exposure to nuclear radiation. Sadako clung to the Japanese legend that, if you fold 1,000 paper cranes the gods will grant your wishes. She folded many of her cranes using paper medicine wrappers while she was in hospital. After she died in 1955, Sadako’s paper cranes became a symbol for peace. Eventually, students in the US and Japan began sending each other paper cranes with peace messages written on them. One of Sadako’s original cranes is displayed at Pearl Harbour. 

IMG_1527Sadako’s initiative has led to books, a movie and tens of thousands of children around the world folding paper cranes as a symbol of peace. I bought a paper cranes at the visitors’ centre at Pearl Harbour and found out that all cranes, sold for $1.-, help the Pacific Historic Parks organization to support educational programs. These include Make A Wish projects for children and their families to visit Pearl Harbour. They also provide a virtual tour of the Pearl Harbour National Memorial for school groups across the nation and internationally, who would not be able to travel to Hawaii. 

Hawaiian school children regularly fold cranes at the Pearl Harbour Memorial to demonstrate and interact with visitors from all over the world. Meanwhile, teachers and students in Japan fold origami paper cranes and write a message of peace on the wings. These cranes are sent to Pearl Harbour to be shared with visitors who are


encouraged to take a crane back home and spread the message of peace. To date, the centre has received over 65,000 cranes from Japan.

For more details see:



From Koko Head to the Pipeline: Driving Around O’ahu, Hawaii

oahu_ast_2010013It’s good to have a car on O’ahu. Unless you are staying in one place on the beach with no intention of seeing the rest if the island, a car is the best option to getting around. Public transit is here but not very efficient to get around the island.

IMG_6105First we drove the loop from Waikiki to the south shore. We drove along several beautiful beach parks. Parking was hard to find since we weren’t the only ones exploring the coast. So we passed a few beaches until we found one with empty spots to park. We drove around Koko Head, enjoyed a stroll on Makapuu Beach and dipped our toes in the ocean. Not all beaches in Hawaii are made for swimming so it’s a good idea to check signs. There are dangerous undertows in many locations. We continued north to Bellows, then took Highway 61 back, a loop we could have driven in an hour but enjoyed sauntering along for much of a day.

We returned to Koko Head a few days later to hike the trail in this crater. Yet another ancient volcano, Koko Head is a sheltered bowl with a nice hiking trail in a botanical garden. I learned more about the trail on this great website site:


It described the location, the parking and the trail in detail. We found it to be very accurate and enjoyed walking along the variety of trees and shrubs here, even recognizing trees and blossoms we had seen in Africa. Too bad there are no elephants in the crater – they would have loved the fruit of the sausage trees we saw and the large blossoms we saw them devour in Tanzania.


Diamond Head

IMG_6183The most hilarious thing we saw in the botanical garden was a bride and groom having their wedding pictures taken. No mistake about this being Hawaii: the groom wore a black suit with bowtie and shorts…

I could have bought a t-shirt that would have told the world from now on that “I climbed Diamond Head”. I didn’t buy the shirt but felt good making it to the top of this ancient volcano edge, following in the distant dust of my hiking husband. I was upset that he wasn’t even panting while I hauled myself up the trail that gained nearly 600’ in elevation, has hundreds of steep stairs and a tunnel.


One of many stairs to climb Diamond Head.


And then you have to crawl out of the top ‘bunker type’ part to see the view… But the views of ocean, cities and island were worth it. Especially when I got fresh pineapple juice at the end.








The next time we ventured out, we drove north along the west coast. First it was a matter of getting around the metropolis and away from traffic and high rises. Then we enjoyed the laid back drive north to Waianae and Makaha. In the last town we bought Hawaiian BBQ from a fast food stand to eat on the beach. IMG_6100

Finally, on a third day, we drove the largest loop from Waikiki/Honolulu north on the Kamehameha highway to Haleiwa. The north shore reminded me of California in the 70’s with surf shacks, Volkswagens and hippies on surfboards. The famed Pipeline beach was crowded with surfers but the waves were not nearly as high as I’d imagined. I guess it differs with the wind and the weather.IMG_6099

We continued a pleasant, slow drive along the north side of O’ahu, decided to pass on the church-affiliated Cultural Centre (we watched videos of it and it seemed just a bit too touristy). We did enjoy many white sand beaches with tall palm trees. The volcanic, green slopes coming down to the ocean were spectacular on the east side of island – probably our favourite coast. We are amazed at how small the island really is. It’s easy to see the entire island, given enough time and a car. 



Discovering O’ahu, Hawaii

Kalakaua, Ke’eaumoku, Punahou, Kapi’olana. IMG_5931

Can you tell where we are?

Honolulu on the island of O’ahu is a big American city of 350,000 people. But, together with surrounding cities like Waikiki, the county is home to close to a million people.  That’s why we would encounter traffic jams and waiting lines if we were to plunge into the sightseeing world of Hawaii. 

We have been from Australia to Zambia, from Easter Island to Kazakhstan but never spent time in Hawaii….

IMG_5937We plan our day trips here carefully because we’re allergic to crowds and touristy attractions. 

As always, these two globetrotting grandparents travel on a budget, avoid crowds and don’t pretend to know a place after just a brief visit. We do, however, want to share the highlights of each place we visit and share what we discovered and how we did it.

We are so lucky to be staying in Manoa Valley, a green and quiet neighborhood flanked by towering, volcanic walls. The lush green rain forest is fed by… well, rain. We are here in February and have had at least a bit of rain, almost every day. But the showers are warm and usually short lived.

Unfortunately many of the hiking trails along those green mountain slopes are closed because they are too muddy or have been washed out.IMG_5948

I’m also starting to think that the effect of cuts of federal funding is becoming more and more noticeable: both national and state park websites are outdated, and trails that were supposed to reopen after construction in 2019 are still closed….

The city, however, serves its public well: as far as I can find out all public swimming pools on Oahu are free. Every day I enjoy a free swim in the Olympic sized Manoa Public Pool, with hot showers to boost.

IMG_6017Being in Hawaii, you really want to hear Hawaiian music and seeing authentic dancing, right? But I wasn’t about to pay well over $100 per person for a tourist luau. These dance performances are put on in many large hotels along the Waikiki waterfront. Yet, I wanted something more… real, local. Searching the online event calendar I discovered that the Mililani Shopping Center, about a half hour drive away, was hosting authentic Hawaiian music and dancing. A shopping center was not the most scenic back drop but the event itself was fabulous. And free.

For two full hours were were treated to hula dancing, music and stories by performers of all ages, and the audience was mostly local families.

IMG_6047Another, less lively, free attraction that we much enjoyed was a stroll through the Chinese Hawaiian Cemetery. There’s also the National Cemetery and the O’ahu Cemetery. These parklike settings offer – besides fascinating graves – interesting statues, towering trees and gorgeous flowers. IMG_5960The pink, yellow and white blossoms of the frangipani trees try very hard to make up for the ugly tree it grows on. With its winter bare branches, the tree itself looks dead. Its flowers, however, are a glorious sight for the eyes and produce the most amazing fragrance. My favorite tree here is the monkeypod tree. These giant umbrellas, given space, can have a diameter of about 30 meters. Their intriguing branch patterns are gorgeous and it proudly shelters a huge area of lawn. 

The other awe-inspiring tree here is the banyan tree. These monsters can be enormous: one of the most famous Oahu banyan trees is the majestic giant at the historic Moana Hotel on Waikiki Beach. Planted in 1904, the tree now reaches 75 feet high and 150 feet across while long, rope like roots dangle down its grey trunk.


Websites: https://www.gohawaii.com/islands/oahu

We used the book ‘Oahu Revealed’ for information: https://www.hawaiirevealed.com/oahu-revealed/



One Trullo, and it Truly is Two Trulli

IMG_5639Have you ever slept in a wind mill? Or in an igloo or a yurt?

Some types of dwellings are specific to only a small region on earth. When we were researching places to visit in Italy, I came across a photo that blew me away: unusually shaped houses with grey stone, domed roofs. They looked impressive and I studied the websites. But the small region where these traditional homes occurred was in south east Italy, and specifically the town of Alberobello, which was not on our itinerary.

Then an excited young woman, Italian but living in England, contacted me and eventually arranged for my book Stepping Stones to be published in Italian. And it would be launched in Bari while I was still in Italy! And Bari is very close to Alberobello! So….

IMG_5602We took the train east, 4 hours, from Naples. Then a bus, an hour, to Alberobello. The first thing we noticed is how clean other cities were after the garbage strewn streets of Naples. Shiny sidewalks, lovely green parks… And Alberobello exceeded all of my expectations. The historic centre of town has more than 1,000 trulli! Yes, it is a touristy place but the little house are truly historic (no pun intended). To the extent that no new trulli are allowed to be build.

IMG_5603Our ‘hotel room’ is a small trulli in one of the areas with just narrow walkways connecting the homes. Some are used as shops, others as pubs or restaurants. But all are restored, authentic dwellings. And some have not yet been restored. The ‘hotel’ has several trulli around town. For breakfast we walk to a lovely restaurant on the town square with an extensive breakfast bar. We can make tea and coffee in our little house. It has been beautifully restored and I’m impressed with the tasteful decorations: simple stone floors, a wooden ladder holds clothes hangers, a simple wooden table. It all suits the environment of original farm workers homes. 

IMG_5617Around the year 1,400 farm workers in this area needed homes. They simply used the lime stone available, stacking them to build small, rectangular huts with domed roofs. I find it amazing to see the rectangle turn into a round dome. The stones are simply piled on top of each other. Only later did they start using whitewash. While the name ‘trulli’ likely comes from the Greek, archeologists suspect that the origin shapes of the dwellings came from Mesopotamia. 


Here are some good websites that tell you more about trulli:

Trulli: https://sites.google.com/site/trulliitaliano/unesco-world-heritage

Alberobello: http://www.costadeitrulli.org/en/region/alberobello-55/

Info on trulli: http://www.italia.it/en/discover-italy/apulia/poi/the-history-of-alberobellos-trulli.html

Unesco site: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/787/

Our hotel: https://www.trulliholiday.com/en/

Trullo symbols: https://trullocicerone.com/2017/06/19/trullo-symbols/


Pompeii: City of the Dead


The city of Pompeii

240 KM south of Rome is the city of Naples. As soon as we step off the train, we realize that this is a whole different world from northern Italy. Naples is chaos: an anthill of houses and streets and people. We’ve been warned about increased crime and plenty of pickpockets. Street vendors swarm everywhere. Garbage is overwhelming, as is dog poop and cigaret smoking….


Eating on the street

We are happy to discover that the hotel we booked here, is a beautiful, modern apartment. On the outside, Palazzo Settembrini is a historic building in a narrow, busy street. Laundry decorates the opposite houses, there are little shops all around. But inside, the building has a modern lobby and an elevator. Our apartment has gorgeous stone flooring, a spacious living room with kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom with crisp white linens. It is also very, very quiet if we keep the windows closed. It’s lovely to have this much space for the price of an ordinary hotel room. The lovely couple that run the place, point out the bakery, the supermarket and nearby restaurants. One night we eat around the corner, on the street. The local food is great and we feel very authentic, sitting under the city wall’s gate while mopeds zoom nonstop by our table…. Another night we try to find one of the classic pizza places. After all, pizza was ‘invented’ in Naples. But a large mob crowds outside, waiting to get in. So we sit down at a pizzeria across the road. How could pizza be any better?


Pizza originated in Naples

Naples might have gorgeous cathedrals and other historic landmarks but after Lucca, Siena, Florence, Rome we’ve seen enough cities for a while. But Napoli is where pizza originated so we can’t wait to try authentic pizza here. Also, an Italian friend recommended porquetta – slow cooked, stuffed pork roast, thinly sliced. And it does taste beautiful. Italian coffee is served very strong in tiny cups. I have to laugh when we ask for a larger coffee and get the same tiny bit, just in a larger cup!


Mount Vesuvius

To us, Naples is the jump off point to visit nearby Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The trains throughout Italy are not bad. They are very reasonably priced and pretty much on schedule. The little train from Naples to Pompeii, however, is a different story. Be warned: reaching Pompeii or nearby Herculanum on your own is not for the faint of heart. We found the special platform at the very end of Napoli Centrale. It’s a small company that runs this train: Circumvesuviana. The signs on the platform did not work. There was no indication whatsoever which train would go to where, or from which platform. Through word of mouth we finally figured out where to wait. A train did not show up for an hour. Apparently they kept getting canceled. When a train finally came, you could not have fitted another body onto the platform. We all squeezed into the, already full, train to the point of suffocating. It was a half hour, with about 20 stops, to get to Pompeii. There are no announcements at all about your next stop. And to make it worse: all signs at stations’ platforms are completely covered in graffiti so that it is impossible to read the name of where you are. Not a pleasant journey! The up-side is that it only cost 2 euros.

IMG_5553Once in Pompeii, it is not clear that all the signs ‘tickets’ are not the official ticket sellers for the site. We were glad we had read lots of information beforehand and walked straight down until we reached the official entrance where we bought 15 euro tickets to enter Pompeii.

One of the best things we had discovered, during our research, is the free audio tours by Rick Steves. We listened to the entire soundtrack prior to going and then played it again, on our phone, while we walked through Pompeii. His information was perfect. It told us where to walk, when to turn off the track, etc. It saved us about 15 euros each for a rented audio tour. Rick Steves’ tours are available throughout Europe, for most cities and sites. The app is free and so are the downloads. Highly recommended!

Pompeii is fascinating and eery. An entire city of 20,000 people with streets and squares and intersections. In your mind’s eye you see the merchants, the women, the scholars. They walk along the sidewalks while chariots rush down the roads, their wheels leaving ruts over the ages. There are busy shops and food places, there’s a pub, a brothel.  A large home from a well-to-do merchant, a poet’s house.


This was a food shop with bowls fitting into the rims.

The public bathhouse had ornately painted ceilings and heated floors. The city had a good water supply system with reservoirs and leaded pipes. They were so advanced! The ceilings had ruts to prevent dripping. 

These people had no idea at all that the mountain near their city was a volcano. They had no way of knowing because Vesuvius had not erupted for 1,200 years. Suddenly, in August of the year 79 it did blow. It completely took everyone by surprise.

IMG_5561The nearby resort town of Herculanum (Ercolano) was covered in lava.

Pompeii was smothered in ash and gasses. 2,000 people died. Both towns were effectively sealed and preserved, to be discovered by archaeologists 

more than a thousand years later… When they found human remains, they poured plaster in the cavities and made perfect moulds of the human bodies in the positions in which they died…. Eery but also fascinating.IMG_5547





Rome wasn’t built in a day…

IMG_5439Rome wasn’t built in one day… and you can’t see it in one day either. We spent a day walking across the city to Borghese Gardens, a huge city park full of families, people strolling, ice cream vendors and crazy bikes. We rented a bike like contraption for two. It was heavy to pedal, then would suddenly speed up and was hard to brake. We almost wiped out but at least we didn’t run over too many pedestrians…. And we had a lovely picnic in the park. 

IMG_5434From there, we walked to the famous Spanish Steps. Lots of people sitting on the steps, rose vendors and a cascading fountain. In my mind’s eye I saw Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. There are certainly enough scooters around, thousands of them. And tiny Fiats. And all sorts of other little cars. Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There gives the best description when he says “You come around any corner in Rome and it looks like you just missed a parking competition for blind people.” That’s exactly how it looks! Cars stick out, parked on crosswalks, cars with literally not one inch between bumpers. We are happy to use public transit here although traffic in Rome is not as bad as I had expected. It’s busy but at least cars stop when you start to cross the road. So far. Many side streets are solidly lined with scooters, almost as many as you see bicycles in Amsterdam. IMG_5485

There’s an astonishing amount of garbage on the streets. Cardboard, bags, bottles all piled up around lamp posts and overflowing garbage containers. Homeless people sleep in doorways steps away from streets lined with Gucci and Prada shops. Street vendors and operators of little shops and restaurants are mostly from Bangladesh. I was shocked to even see homeless people on the streets of Vatican City. IMG_5414

If Kees hadn’t stayed with Dutch people who run a B&B in Umbria, while hiking the Via Francigena, we would have never found out about a Dutch church in Vatican City! We couldn’t believe it. But it turns out that there were some historic connections here. Willibrord, a Dutch priest from the mid 600’s, who was exiled to Ireland, tried to convert the Frisian people from the Northern Netherlands to Christianity. Eventually he was made a Saint. Frisian Christians lived at the Vatican and built their church here, close to the burial place of Saint Peter.

IMG_5451When In Rome… do as the Romans do and so we decided to attend a church service, albeit in Dutch, a unique experience. After the service, we walked outside onto St. Peter Square and listened to Pope Francis deliver his regular Sunday message to the masses. 

When we took the Metro to Vatican City earlier that morning, the platform was absolutely packed. Rows and rows of people lined up. When the train arrived, it was already jam-packed but we all got pushed in until you could not have fit a sheet of paper between people. It was crazy. At Vatican City everyone got out and streamed upstairs to the streets. A huge line-up formed for those wanting to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica for Sunday morning mass. We went to the quiet Dutch church instead and enjoyed listening to a Dutch sermon and psalms. 

IMG_5468Once the Pope started his address, St. Peter Square was packed with a sea of people. I guessed there were thousands, but when I researched the capacity of the square, I found out that the church itself holds 60,000 people and the square can hold 300,000. It wasn’t filled to capacity but it was impressive none the less.

We walked back across one of the bridge over the River Tiber, to piazza Navona with its ornate fountains and palace. We followed narrow alleys, past the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain, our favourite although it was packed with people. Obviously everyone in Rome – locals and visitors alike – enjoyed the warm sunshine and strolled along the streets, sipping coffee and enjoying gelato. IMG_5531

The most bizarre experience came when we were practically back at our hotel near the train station. A little car stopped, the window lowered and the driver hollered at me, waving a map. I cautiously approached. A nice, older gentleman asked if we could tell him how to get to the train station. We told him and even gave him our map. Then he reached down and produced a gift. “Here,” he said, “for you because you helped me.” Turned out he was with Ferrari F1 racing team and this was the VIP gift bag for the Grand Prix with some very nice and valuable gifts, including a Max Verstappen watch worth over a thousand euros…. As our son said, “Most people get mugged, you guys get gifts on the streets of Rome.”

Frisian Church, Vatican: https://www.friezenkerk.nl

Rome Tourism: https://www.romeinformation.it/en/

Vatican City: https://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/do

We stayed here: http://www.hotelenricaroma.com/?lang=it

We really enjoyed eating here: https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/la-grotta-romana/407303


Rome-ing Around

IMG_5301All roads lead to Rome… and so does the Via Francigena. We traveled the last bit by train since we did not feel like hiking through suburbs and industrial areas.

We found a quaint ‘hotel’ – the large room is a bit bare, like a hostel but  with a private bathroom. It’s in a historic building that was likely an apartment building until it was converted to hotel rooms. There’s a lush green court yard, a wrought iron gate, even breakfast of coffee and a croissant. And we’re less than a 10 minute walk from Roma Termini, the main train station. Once we arrived by train, we simply walked here and settled in.
With an old fashioned paper map, we find our way around to all the main attractions of Rome. The very first thing we want to see is the Colosseum. It’s late afternoon and the sky is grey. But we walk for a few kilometers and suddenly, there it is – the famous curved walls on which the Vancouver Public Library is based. We walked all the way around it to see it from all angles as well as to the Roman Forum. We try to take the Metro back but the machines are out of change, or the printer doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel like helping the hordes of tourists lined up for tickets. In the end, we walk all the way back while the skies burst open. The first rain we’ve had on this trip.

We are constantly aware of pickpockets since we keep getting warned about them. On our one rainy night, we walked huddled under one umbrella, when suddenly I felt a hand in between us. I slapped the hand and a young man jumped away behind us. Somehow he tried to get into Kees’ pocket right in between us. To no avail but it brought home the message again. We leave all valuables in the hotel and carry only a bare minimum. 

IMG_5328The next day is blue sky again and this time the Metro ticket machines work fine. In fact, there was a country wide transportation strike announced. We were told it might be hard to take the Metro. But, instead, we find an almost deserted station and mostly empty trains that rush us to our destination: Vatican City.

There we follow the tall stone wall (boy, Romans liked to build walls in the olden days) and follow it until we find an opening: the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This time we have booked an online tour, directly with the Vatican City people which was much cheaper than via tour operators. We walk through the museum exhibits, which are mostly things collected by popes and the church. 

Through court yards, past statues and fountains, we go through the papal apartments. Impressive halls ornately painted. Michelangelo lived here while he worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ultimately we make it to the Chapel. It’s very different in reality, at least from the way I pictured it. The Chapel itself is a rectangular stone building. From the outside, you’d never guess it was special. We approach via  endless corridors and rooms with paintings, carvings, collections and fabulous, gigantic tapestries from the Middle Ages woven in Belgium.


The Sistine chapel is a colourful sequence of painted stories. I try to imagine Michelangelo working here on his scaffolding, day after day. He felt that he was a sculpture, not a painter and tried to decline the job. But the pope insisted in hiring him to paint this ceiling. I like how our guide explained how he learned about proportions as he went, changing figures that are too small, too detailed to larger figures in the next scene. It really looks like the very first graphic novel – the stories unfold in wordless pictures. What really floors me is that he put himself in the picture as an empty skin in The Last Judgement. Did he have a sense of humour or was he a morbid thinker?

After the Chapel we walk through the Papal Corridor where the cardinals walk as they go into conclave when a new pope is selected. We hear the story of the white and black smoke – traditionally produced with leaves but now with a moveable, mechanical chimney. Even the Vatican adapts to time.

IMG_5371The hallways eventually connect and we approach St. Peter’s Cathedral. Our guide explains how Peter was one of the first Christians, shortly after the life of Christ. He was killed on the spot which is now the center of the square where an obelisk marks the spot. Once Christianity caught on in Rome, an alter, and then a church was built on the site. St. Peter’s Cathedral is now the largest church in the world. And it is large! Its capacity is 60,000 people! The pillars inside are immense. The marble statues are amazing, especially The Pieta, carved in 1449 by Michelangelo of Florence. IMG_5378

After roaming through the church, we climb down and exit via the grotto where many popes have been buried over the ages. St. Peter’s Cathedral an impressive, special place to visit with an almost palpable history.IMG_5389

The Sights of Siena

IMG_5273After hiking nearly 100 KM on the Via Francigena, and when my toes turned to fall colours, I stayed in Siena while Kees continued hiking.

The historic center of Siena, or centro storico as it is called in Italian, is very walkable. I love roaming the narrow streets with its thick stone walls of houses that are hundreds of years old. Much of the ancient city wall remains in tact, with gateways into the city, like the glorious Porto Romano. Although in a few places the city fathers have, in their wisdom, decided to destroy the wall to make room for modern day traffic.

Busses run frequently and pretty much on schedule to and from the old center. For 1.50 you can travel quite far. At the Piazza Indipendenza you can simply phone a taxi and it shows up in minutes to take you to your destination. We bought sim cards from a company called Wind, to use our phones in Italy. Reasonable rates, unlimited texting and we can  even use it throughout Europe. It’s been a lifesaver to use the data with maps as we roam the city or countryside without wifi access. What did we do before cell phones and Ipads? Get lost, I guess…

IMG_5193Of course, Siena is famous for its Il Campo piazza. Its unique oval shape slopes down to the Palazza Pubblico. Its Torre del Mangia can be seen from across the countryside. I enjoyed walking around and across Il Campo, despite the many tourist contortionists trying to take selfies. Why would you want yourself obstructing the glorious medieval buildings in your photos? 

IMG_5192The most fascinating story about Il Campo is that this is the site of a bizarre, annual horse race. It’s a historic event (of course) in which all neighborhoods of the city wholeheartedly participate. All year, events lead up to this 90 second race. Watch the Rick Steeves’ video below for a good synopsis. When you walk around the empty square, it’s hard to imagine 50,000 people cramped into the center while horses race around the outside.

When I got hungry, I simply picked one of the many wrought iron tables and chairs outside shops. I had pasta quattro formaggi, 4 cheese pasta, for 4.50 euros.

My favourite discovery in Siena was the Fortezza Medicea, an ancient fortress now a jazz school and event center. Perched on top of the ancient wall was an entire elementary school. No road, just a school with a fenced play yard. The walls of the fortress were a great (free) place to stroll and offered a tremendous view of the old city, the towers and, of course, Il Duomo. IMG_5189

The Piazza Duomo is perhaps the most recognized landmark of the city. Every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Florence, this one is perhaps even more decorative. In fact, when I went inside I thought “this is not a church, it’s a piece of jewelry.” Seldom have I seen such an ornate building. Every wall, every corner, every pillar, every piece inside it, is a work of art. Donatell, Leonardo, Bernini – they all worked here and their masterpieces still show off their talents.

Sculptures, wood carvings, marble statues, paintings, wall hangings…. It is overwhelming. For a mere 8 euros you can wander on your own and gaze at all the medieval fanciness around you, as long as you like. IMG_5231

When you are outside, you notice a gigantic rough brick wall. Just a wall by itself. It impressive to know that the cathedral was supposed to be that much bigger. But then the plague hit the city and the expansion never happened. 

Inside the cathedral, the floors are perhaps the most mind blowing feature. I took photos but the best ones are on the Opera Duomo website where you have a view from the top. The floors should really be hanging on the walls – they are intricate, inlaid marble mosaics depicting biblical scenes. IMG_5238

Suddenly, to the left, is a small room. It is the Piccolomini Library (I love that name because ‘picollo’ means ‘little’ in Italian so ‘piccolomini’ must be really small! It was a family name). Its walls intricately painted, this has been called the world’s most beautiful library. It was built, some 500 years ago, for a pope and to house his collection of manuscripts. Most of the works on display are music scores, painted in gild and curls.IMG_5255

Outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, you can have an espresso and wander down to the Piazza Mercado, once a lovely, covered market place but now simply a parking lot. But one wall has a brilliant cascade of purple bougainvillea, worth the walk there.

Before I sauntered back down the 2 KM to my AirBnB cottage, I bought furlined socks. It’s nippy in Siena in October!

Siena: http://www.terresiena.it/en/info/tourist-information-offices

Wind SIM card: https://www.wind.it/privati/

Horse Race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_clMjoa9d1s

Il Duomo: https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/what-to-do/porta-del-cielo-tour.html

Il Duomo: https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/