Among the countries of the Mediterranean are here included Greece, Italy, Monaco, and France. While France extends to the Atlantic and the English Channel, my visits there have principally been to Provence, which lies on the Med. Our journey begins in Greece, my first landfall in the region.
My first visit to Greece (Hellas) came in 1975, after leaving Saudi Arabia. I flew to Athens from Dhahran on Thursday, November 1, 1975, on a KLM jet, and was happy to leave. The hostess greeted me with a “Gut morgen!” and offered me a Heiniken’s beer, which was gratefully accepted after two weeks in a “dry” country. I had arranged to spend the weekend in Athens before flying on to Rome to meet Betty there when she arrived on Sunday morning. We returned to Athens together on November 2, 1981 from Israel for a weekend before proceeding to Madrid for another seminar.
The Greek language has its own alphabet, whose characters most engineers and scientist use in equations, and so are familiar with them. Here is a listing of the characters and their counterparts:
A, α Alpha A
B, β Beta B
Γ, γ Gamma G
Δ, δ Delta D
E, ε Epsilon E
Z, ζ Zeta Z
H, η Nu N
Θ, θ Theta Th
I, ι Iota I
K, κ Kappa K
Λ, λ Lambda L
Μ, μ Mu M
N, ν Eta E
Ξ, ξ Xi X
O, o Omicron O
Π, π Pi P
P, ρ Rho R
Σ, σ, ς Sigma S
T, τ Tau T
Υ, υ Upsilon U
Φ, φ Phi Ph, F
X, χ Chi Ch
Ψ, ψ Psi Ps
Ω, ω Omega O
Note that they have two characters for O and for E, and also for the K sound (K, Ch). Also, some of their characters which look like Latin characters have different sounds (P sounds like R, H sounds like N, and N sounds like E). Nonetheless, with a little thought, sense can be made of many signs on streets and buildings. For example, I could read the sign on the meter in the taxi: Δραχμα = Drachma, their unit of currency, which is familiar from the Bible.
My first view of Athens was breathtaking! I wasn’t able to see much from the air as we landed, and so it wasn’t till I entered the city in a taxi that I first glimpsed between rows of buildings in a narrow street the Acropolis rising into the sky. What a sight! Hotel Amelia was a small one located downtown across the street from the (ruined) Temple of Zeus. A few columns were left, mostly knocked over and spilled like a stack of fluted checkers. It was amazing to be able to walk through the ancient ruins so freely and easily—no fences nor restrictions.
I soon discovered the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis a few blocks away, and admission was free on Thursdays, so I entered and began my climb. The Acropolis rises almost vertically from the city. It represents the defensible part of the city, and is the counterpart to other Acropoli in Sparta, Corinth, etc. Rising above the streets of the city on a gentle slope on the south side of the monolith are two ancient theaters, semicircular in shape, one larger than the other. Behind these, vertical walls rise hundreds of feet to the summit, which is an essentially flat table, accessible only from the west side, where winding paths approach a gateway and a series of steps. It must have been an absolutely magnificent edifice at one time, judging from the ruins, but enough has been left standing and partially restored to convey the message. High above the steps on the right stands the Temple of Athena Nike (Victory), largely intact, except for the roof.
The familiar Parthenon dominates the summit platform, it too, largely intact, except for the roof. Visitors are not allowed to enter, however, due to the danger of falling stone. It is truly colossal! The rest of the summit platform is empty, although there were once other buildings and monuments there. From the summit, I could see another prominent height across the city, topped by a gleaming white church. I noted its location and planned to find it next day.
Returning from the summit, I explored the western side, where a newer temple stands, and found the Agora, or marketplace, and the Behma, a stone platform where speakers addressed the people on important matters. St. Paul stood there to address the Athenians. On the other side of the Agora, backed up against the wall, stands a long, low museum. Among other artifacts, it contains shards of pottery used by ancient Athenians to cast their votes for the political candidates running for election in the world’s first democracy. The candidates’ initials were scratched on the shards and deposited with the ballot-counters. The initials were in ancient Greek characters, which differ somewhat from the modern characters, being more similar to the Roman alphabet. For example, the Λ is rotated to look more like L, and the Σ is made of only three lines, to look more like S.
Returning past the theaters, I noticed rows of fallen statues carved of white marble, larger than life, with features such as nose and ears broken from their fall. The sheer abundance of ancient art, its destruction, and the casual indifference with which it lay about continued to surprise me.
That evening, before dinner, I found a taberna (tavern) where I ordered an ouzo, the local anise-flavored aperitif. (It is clear and colorless unless mixed with water, which turns it cloudy.) The waiter brought me a small plate of sliced cucumber, olives, and other appetizers as well—it was a delightful place. Later I returned to sip a brandy and watch two old men face off at chess, with quite a crowd gathered around. They must have played each other often, for the first few moves of the game were very rapid, as if they knew exactly what the pattern was—up to a point. But the game would still only take a few minutes before checkmate or stalemate—to the satisfaction or dismay of the crowd—and then they would begin again.
It was quite a walk to find the other prominence that I had seen surmounted by a church. The path upward was a series of switchbacks leading high above the city, and culminating in the Monastery of St. George. It was of course, Greek Orthodox. Later, I entered another Orthodox church, downtown, a small, octagon dome right in the middle of a street. Outside, it was bright white—inside, dark and cool, magnificently decorated with icons of many sizes and subjects. Later, I bought a small replica of an icon of the Virgin, as a memento of the place.
On Saturday afternoon, while wandering around ruins scattered about the city, I began looking for a place to lunch. I found a neighborhood restaurant, which appealed to me, as the customers seemed to be simple folk in traditional dress. Entering, I took an empty table and picked up the menu—it was not much help, being all in Greek. The waiter quickly took me by the arm, saying, “No menu—come wiz me!” I followed him to the kitchen, where he showed me “Greelled feesh, potatoes, peppers–what you like?” I made a selection and was told, “You seet down—I bring.” Soon he appeared with a pitcher of retsina (resin-flavored white wine) and bread (no butter). Eventually came the fish and vegetables, and it was excellent—but most importantly, I was made to feel welcome. Most Greeks speak fair English, because they watch American movies with Greek subtitles.
On Saturday evening, I managed to find a Roman Catholic church (Eγλεσικα Κατολικα) among the far more numerous Greek Orthodox churches—it was the church of St. Dionysius, a massive stone edifice not far from my hotel. The only words of the liturgy that I recognized were Kyrie Eleison, Christe Elieson (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy), and Alleluia, Greek words that were always part of the Latin Mass.
Betty and I would return to St. Dionysius’ for Saturday evening Mass six years later. Then on Sunday morning, we climbed the Acropolis while the day was still cool. Descending under a hot noonday sun, we sought the cool shade on the northeast side. There we ambled along, taking a side street leading back down the hill. A short distance down the street, we found a cafe with a courtyard shaded by grape vines. There we had lunch, with the speciality of the house being the stuffed vine leaves—my favorite Greek dish—and it was delicious.
We passed that afternoon on a half-day bus tour to the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Cape Sunion, the south end of the peninsula. The temple was mostly in ruins, but a few massive columns remained standing to reveal the size of the monument. It was such a serene place. The temple mount rose hundreds of feet above a placid Agean Sea, where a few wisps of cloud gently drifted, and one or two ships could be seen in the distance. It must have been from such a place that Penelope had watched for her beloved Odysseus to return across the seas from his remarkable voyage. It seemed like we had reached the ends of the earth. But the feeling did not last, as we boarded the bus, and became mired in the traffic of those returning to the city after a weekend at the seashore.
On my first visit, I took a full-day bus tour is available from Athens to Corinth and Mycenae, and it was excellent! Corinth lies on the Peloponnesus peninsula, reached by crossing the narrow Isthmus of Corinth. To facilitate water traffic, a deeply cut canal severs the isthmus. It is a marvel of construction. Our bus stopped after crossing the bridge, so that we could view this engineering marvel. As we watched, a Naval destroyer was passing through the cut, with its masts below the surface of the rock on either side. The cut had to be around 300-feet deep!
Corinth is another of the ancient city-states, with its own Acropolis. Much less of the ancient works are standing than at Athens, and what is standing appears much older, as indicated by the Ionian capitals on the columns, which are much simpler than the later Corinthian capitals. We visited the ancient Agora, and the Behma where St. Paul addressed the Corinthians. The Corinthians were apparently more corrupt than the Athenians, as he spent more time working among them, and even addressed two epistles to them.
The highlight of the tour was a stop at the ancient city of Mycenae, the capital of King Agamemnon, hero of Homer’s Iliad, circa 1300 B.C. The king’s tomb lies just outside the walled city, in a massive vault of stone covered by a mound of earth. The walls of the city are built of carefully fitted stone blocks, unmortared, but so closely spaced that a thin sheet of paper cannot be slipped between them. The city is roughly circular, with inner walls separating living spaces and public fora. Some of the ruins have been partially restored, so that one may gain an idea of how the people lived in that era—in this respect, it is similar to Masada and to Mesa Verde, other ruined cities which I have visited.
The city seemed to be built on a height of land for defensive purposes, although not near as high as the Acropolis. One can walk all about the walls, and most are intact. One walkway descended down a set of stone stairs into the darkness below—if I had a flashlight, I would have followed the stairs, but not without one! I can remember walking along the edge of the wall on the back side, away from the entrance, and looking way down into a valley, where a ploughman was turning over brown furrows behind a single white horse.
The tour continued past Argos, where we could see the Argolian Acropolis, to Nauphlia, where we dined in a restaurant by the harbor, with hills rising on both sides. Each hill was surmounted by a fort—one Byzantine, the other much later, perhaps 15th-century. After lunch, the tour continued to Epidauros, where a beautiful marble amphitheater had been discovered overgrown with vegetation, and cleared. It was in excellent condition, with thirty or more rows of seats rising in a semicircle from the stage, and a flat stone backdrop behind it. Our host invited us to find seats anywhere in the place—I occupied one in the last row. She then took center stage and struck a match, and we all could hear it—what amazing acoustics! From there, our bus returned to Athens, winding its way along the seacoast, white cliffs dropping into the clear, purple Ionian Sea.
On my second visit, Betty and I took a full-day cruise among the islands near Athens, stopping at Aegina and Hydra (pronounced Heedra). We had time to do a little shopping, and found a wool jacket to bring home for one of the boys. I began to bargain with the vendor, but after some success, he suddenly lost his fluency in English. Still we got a good deal, although it turned out that the zipper was on the left rather than the right side of the jacket.
The stop I remember most came at the end of the day, in Hydra. The ship followed a long narrow approach to the harbor, in which we passed a lighthouse, and later, a windmill perched on a ridge of white rock. The city was also white, from the buildings along the waterfront, to the church and monastery on the hill above, and all the buildings in between—white, with red tile roofs. The water was clear turquoise, with the sunbeams reaching to the depths of the harbor. After strolling about the city and the shops, we took a table in a taberna by the water, relaxing with a glass of ouzo in the afternoon sun. We could have stayed there forever–it was such a simple, clean, beautiful, spot. But the boat whistle eventually called us back to reality, and we had to depart. But not before picking up a bottle of ouzo from a vendor for about a dollar! Betty didn’t like the stuff when we first arrived in Greece, but came to enjoy it before our trip was over.
My first arrival in Italy was from Greece in November of 1975, at Rome, where I met Betty at the airport—we had purchased a package tour. I would return to Rome alone, 20 years later, following my second visit to Milan. And in between, there was an overnight at Cervinia. But that first trip to Rome was the best opportunity, and we made the most of it, touring the Isle of Capri, and then visiting Assisi on our own.
Rome (Roma, La Citta Eterna)
Our tour group from Boston happened to stay at the Boston Hotel in Rome, not far from the Via Veneto, near Villa Borghese—a nice location. We could even walk to the railroad station, which we did, to take the train to Assisi later in the week. Our first morning in the hotel, we went down to breakfast, and at the next table sat my mother’s next-door neighbors! What a coincidence! They knew their way around the city, and invited us to have lunch with them at Alfredo’s, the home of the fettuccine of the same name, which we naturally ordered, accompanied by white wine. That evening we walked to a nearby seafood restaurant, where I had a most unusual dish—octopus boiled in its own ink—the only perfectly black dish I have ever eaten. More Italian white wine, Frascatti, left me feeling very tired, so I stayed with red wines for the remainder of the trip.
Our tour took us to the Vatican, including St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel and Museum. St. Peter’s is immense—the second largest church on earth. Pope Paul V said Mass while we were there, but we could hardly see him for the crowd—I can remember holding my camera overhead in an attempt to get his picture, but it came out blurred. The Sistine chapel was breathtaking, especially Michelangelo’s ceiling and the fresco behind the main altar. The art treasures were also very impressive.
Rome is small enough that most of its attractions can be seen on foot, so we did a lot of walking. One of our favorite spots was Trevi Fountain, only a few blocks away. But it is a very popular site and always crowded; it also is located in a small piazza, and therefore hard to negotiate and even harder to photograph. Another nearby attraction is the Pantheon, a circular temple, with a dome as high as its diameter with an open hole in the center, through which light enters but rain does not. Originally dedicated to all the gods of Rome, it is now a Catholic church, with altars all around its periphery. We visited many other churches as well, including Santa Maria sopra Minerva–a Roman temple to the goddess Minerva converted into a church to Mary. We found all of these churches to appear very weatherbeaten outside, probably from acid rain, but inside, the polished marble in all its colors and grains was magnificent to behold. Outside the church of St. John Lateran, some dirty beggar boys accosted us, looking for handouts. When I resisted their approach, one who was on a crutch, picked it up and ran off.
We could also walk to the Colosseum, which stands half in ruin. Once covered in white marble, now only its brick interior remains, and much of that is gone. But it is still possible to enter the place and envision the battles of the gladiators and the plight of the early Chrisitans being devoured by lions. Near the Colosseum lies the ruins of Hadrian’s baths. They are remarkable for the huge brick arches which remain from the original construction. The ancient Greeks were limited by the column-and-beam method, which required columns to be spaced no farther apart than the length of the stone beams which they were able to lift into position. This is why their largest structures like the Parthenon had so many columns, both exterior and interior. Once the Romans discovered the arch, nothing could stop them. The circular arches of Hadrian’s baths must be over a hundred feet high, and as wide.
We had to take a taxi to visit the catacombs, as they lay outside the city. We were given a personal tour by a priest who spoke English quite well, but didn’t know much about Americans; we seemed to make a favorable impression on him. We passed through tunnel after tunnel of graves, stacked one upon another against the walls, allowing only narrow passageways between. Many of the tombs were set in stone, engraved with simple dedications. What amazed me was the words on the tombs. Considering the persecution, torture, and death endured by these early Christians, the words were all about Peace, Love, Joy, and Forgiveness. There are miles of tunnels, and we could see only a small part, but the message was very profound.
I returned to Rome to give a one-day seminar in May of 1995. My host met me and a colleague from Milan at the airport, and drove us to St. Peter’s, where I was once again amazed at the size of the place, as well as its beauty. After having my picture taken in the Piazza twenty years after it was taken in the same place by Betty, we left the Vatican. Our host dropped us off in Piazza Navona, a long, cobbled rectangle, surrounded by stone buildings. It is somewhat of a center of art, as there are always artists with easels set up, painting scenes of the cafes or of the central fountain. We found an excellent restaurant, and partook of a great meal. We then took a taxi back to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Eurocenter, in an industrial park close to the Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
The next day, Friday, my seminar took place at the hotel. Afterward, my colleague flew back to Milan, and my host and all the attendees went home. The usual let-down then settled in. I was not in a happy state of mind anyway, as I had left home while Betty was recuperating from a gall-bladder operation, and I was concerned about her. Having had a big lunch that day, I was not ready for supper early, so I went for a walk. The industrial park was not a particularly scenic area for walking, and one of the access roads was blocked by construction, which limited me even further. But before I got very far, it began to rain, which sent me back to the hotel, damp and cold. There was nothing in English on TV, nothing worth reading, and I still wasn’t hungry, so I went to bed, hoping for a better tomorrow.
On Saturday morning after breakfast, I boarded a shuttle bus at the hotel which took me downtown, near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. The bus would return at 7 PM to take people back to the hotel. The rain began again, so I hustled up the hundred or more steps to the basilica to get out of it. A very old church, built from the 3rd century, its inside walls are covered with gleaming mosaics. There were a few people inside—some tourists, and others scattered about praying. I took this opportunity to say my Rosary, still in a depressed mood carried over from Friday. I was also thinking about my aunt, Sister Frances, who died May 1st—another funeral I was unable to attend, this time because Betty was in the hospital.
After my Rosary was over, the rain stopped, so I set out to explore the city, and revive memories of twenty years ago. I headed in the general direction of Palatine Hill, but stopping at every church along the way. This Saturday morning in May, there were many weddings in Rome, so some churches I could not enter, and others I was able to enter either before or after the wedding party. One of the churches I remember was that of St. Gregory the Great—my patron—very old, but not very large. Of particular interest was his confessional room off the right side of the altar. There I knelt before the great stone chair—almost like a throne—where the saint sat to hear confessions. He was pope from 604-606.
I walked to the Colosseum, but did not pay to go all the way in. Also, the Roman Forum was fenced in, and I did not pay to enter there either. Instead, I walked around it, stopping as more churches. One I remembered from before, was the church of Sts. Cosmos and Damian, whose altar is set against a magnificent floor-to-ceiling mosaic. In a side room, it has a creche, showing the whole city of Bethlehem, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who introduced the practice into the church. On the west side of the Palatine, lies the Circus Maximus, an oval track about a half-mile long, where chariot races were once held (as seen in the movie Ben Hur). It is now overgrown with grass and weeds, but I saw a few joggers there that day. At the far end, is the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, one of the very oldest in the city. Across the street, there is an ancient temple of Vesta, quite small, and in good condition.
From there I crossed the Tiber River, in the direction of the Vatican, but having visited there already, I didn’t go that far. Instead, I looked for a restaurant in the Trastevere (across the Tiber). I found a charming little place where I had a lunch of calamari, Italian bread, and white wine—a perfect repast for the occasion, and a needed rest stop after several miles of walking. After lunch, I proceeded up the hill to the church of St. Chrisogone, where a wedding party was just leaving. Then I went back to the river, crossing a different bridge, and stopping at a neglected church—San Bartolomeo, I believe.
Then I continued to the Pantheon, which was full of tourists. From there, I proceeded to Trevi Fountain, and visited the church across the street. At this point, I began checking Mass schedules, hoping to find one coincident with my visit, but none were particularly convenient. Finally, I found a five-o’clock Mass about to begin in a little church inside the courtyard of an old abbey; the church was nearly full, with most people well-dressed. After Mass, I continued with my exploring, headed in the general direction of the place where the bus had left me in the morning. But the skies grew dark, and rain began in earnest, so I flagged a cab and returned to the hotel, again wet and cold. But it had been a good day. After a hot shower and a change of clothes, I ordered an antipasto from room service, with bread and a half-bottle of chianti—just right after a full day of walking about the city. I slept well, and left next morning for the airport to catch my flight to Istanbul.
The Isle of Capri
Our tour in 1975 offered a side trip to either Florence or Capri. I elected Capri as being a more romantic place (after the song of the same name). In retrospect, Florence (Firenza) would have been a better choice for its magnificent displays of architecture and artworks. We rode by bus to Naples (Napoli), where we embarked on a ferry to Capri, arriving mid-morning. The principal attraction on the island is the Blue Grotto, which is advertized as part of the tour. When we arrived, however, the tour guide let us down with the announcement that the tide was too high for access to the Blue Grotto—sorry, but it happens. High tide happens twice a day, and on schedule! Surely they knew beforehand whether the grotto would be accessible, but they don’t tell you until you are already there—otherwise you might not go.
There wasn’t much else to see there. The island is small and hilly, with two natural harbors. We visited the small one (piccolo), where we found an attractive restaurant for lunch. The surroundings were really beautiful, with autumn tinging the leaves of the grape vines golden. There were many large villas, with stone walls and iron gates, and cobblestone streets. We returned to the mainland on a hydrofoil to Sorrento, and the bus stopped for us to have dinner on our way back to Rome. At lunch, Betty and I finished a liter of white wine, and at dinner a liter of red. These Italians certainly drink a lot of wine!
Our trip to Assisi was more eventful. We took off on our own to the train station, bought our round-trip tickets to Assisi, and caught an early train. After several stops, it occurred to me that we might have to change trains to get there. Three nuns sat near us, and I tried to ask them if our train continued to Assisi, or if we needed to change. They didn’t understand any English, and became very flustered, probably realizing that we had to change trains but not knowing how to explain it to us. A nearby businessman overheard our plight and intervened. We had to get off at Foligno, the next stop, and board another train. He helped us just in time!
When we arrived in Assisi, a taxi driver approached and offered to drive us to La Basilica de Santo Francesco. It was not far, but all uphill, so we appreciated the ride. The basilica sits on the crest of a hill. We entered the lower church from the hillside, whereas the main entrance linked the upper level to the hilltop. The lower church was dark, with low ceilings built from Franciscan arches. These arches are not parallel as in most churches, but cross in the center of the nave, apparently an architectural innovation of the 12th or 13th century, tried here for the first time. The walls were covered by frescoes of Giotto, magnificently done and well preserved.
Next, we visited the crypt, the next level down, where St. Francis is buried. His remains are said to be preserved, but the tomb is not open. The crypt is even lower in stature than the lower church, and lacks its artwork and finish. The walls were of rough-cut stone, anchored by wrought iron. The pews were of rough oak, and all the fixtures were also of black iron. It was very impressive in its rugged beauty. The upper church was very lofty, with tall windows flooding the nave with light—a stark contrast to the lower levels. Frescoes between the windows portrayed various events in the life of the saint, in chronological order. While very well done by Gioto and his contemporaries, the colors were noticeably less brilliant than those we had seen below, faded by the centuries of bright sunlight.
The basilica is not quite the highest point in town—that was the location of the citadel, which we did not visit. There was also an ancient Roman temple to Minerva, converted into a church. We also visited the church of St. Clare (Santa Chiara), a contemporary of St. Francis and founder of the second order of Franciscans, the Poor Clares. Her body is on display in a glass coffin before an altar, where sisters take turns in perpetual adoration of the crucifix. Her face is rather taut and dark, but well-preserved for more than 700 years!
We found a hotel where we had lunch, and later in the afternoon, we stopped at a café for a cappuccino. Finally we took a taxi back to the station, and caught our trains back to Rome, without incident. After reaching the hotel, we wondered where to have dinner. Strolling around the block we found a small, dark restaurant serving pizza. We found a table in the corner, where the waiter deposited a pitcher of red wine and took our order. A violinist wandered about serenading the patrons—it was a perfect ending to a very memorable day.
My first trip to Milan came in November, 1985, following a seminar in Norway. The weather was bright and pleasant following the darkness and chill of the north, and I was happy to be there. The seminar lasted two days, with a day before for me to relax, and a day after, Saturday, to do some sightseeing. Our company staff in Milan was anxious to entertain me, and the director of public relations was my host. I was wined and dined every night, and the food and companionship proved to be excellent. Campari is made there, and so we had to have it as an aperitif each day, with soda. I was also introduced to grappa, as an after-dinner drink—I brought home a bottle with me.
I found a little church near the hotel, where I was able to attend Mass each afternoon at 6, after my seminar, and before dinner. I also attended Saturday, as I would be traveling home on Sunday. It was a beautiful old building, dark and quiet, a perfect place for meditation.
Saturday was spent in touring the city, with much time devoted to the fortress, which contains a wealth of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, both art and war machines. He was foremost an engineer. His most famous religious work is the Last Supper, painted on a wall of the refectory of an abbey. A bomb fell there during World War II, destroying the two adjacent walls, but leaving his masterpiece intact. A painting of the Crucifixion on the opposite wall also survived. The Last Supper was being restored when I saw it, one square-inch at a time.
The Church of St. Ambrose (Santo Ambroggio) is an ancient Romanesque building which is probably the oldest church in Milan. It was built by the saint in 379, when he was Bishop of Milan. It was Ambrose who baptized St. Augustine.
The centerpiece of Milan is Il Duomo, the most magnificent work of Gothic architecture in the world, and next in size to St. Peter’s in Rome. Started in 1386, it wasn’t completed till 1897. Leonardo was one of its architects. This huge edifice (it can hold 40,000 people) is so ornately decorated that it seems to float on air. It is adorned with 135 marble spires and 2245 statues. The Duomo is simply the most breathtaking structure I have ever seen, and it is located on a large, open piazza, where all of it can be seen and captured on film. I took an elevator to the top, where I could walk about the roof and among the spires.
When I was packing to return home, I had placed a book on Milan, with a cover showing the Duomo lighted at night, next to the latest issue of National Geographic in my briefcase. The cover of that issue showed a piece of skull found in Africa, supposedly of the oldest human found. And as expected, the issue went on and on about evolution of humans from apes, etc., etc. I reacted strongly to that juxtaposition, denying my having descended from that piece of skull, but recognizing my debt to Leonardo for his art and science and engineering. He left us the Duomo, and the Last Supper—not a piece of bone to guess about! Created in the image of God, he created objects of art to lift our spirits toward God as the Duomo lifts its spires to heaven. Soon afterward, I canceled my subscription to N.G.
In May of 1995, I returned to Milan for another seminar. My original plan was to arrive on Saturday, and spend the weekend in the mountains with Betty, but she had been operated on the previous week, so I arrived alone. That Saturday was a bust, as jet leg really hit me hard. Sunday, I walked all over the city, revisiting the Duomo, St. Ambrose, and other sites I remembered from before. Sister Frances had died on May 1st, and she was in my thoughts as I visited one church after another. On this visit, I was left pretty much on my own, at a hotel near the railroad station. So I found a nearby church for Mass each day, and a park where I would eat lunch. When the seminar was over, I was glad to leave for Rome.
In October of 1989, I had scheduled some tests in a chemical plant in Dole, France, followed by a seminar in Arles. Ibra picked me up at Schipol (Amsterdam’s international airport), and we drove to France. After a few days in the Borgogne (Burgundy) and working in the plant (described elsewhere in this chapter), we drove to Chamonix. After an overnight there, we proceeded through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy. The customs officer at the border asked Ibra a series of questions, to which he failed to respond. After a few minutes, we were waved on. Knowing Ibra had attended college in Milan and could speak Italian, I asked why he hadn’t responded to the officer’s questions. His reply was that a response would have encouraged even more questions!
We drove south past Courmayeur, and then east, into the Valle d’Aosta. The weather began to deteriorate, with lowering clouds and rain beginning. The road was lined with larch trees, glowing yellow in the fading light of day. When I inquired where we were going, “Cervinia,” was the only response I got—Ibra knew the area, having skied there before. We arrived in a nearly empty city after dark—it was off-season, as in Chamonix, so the streets were deserted. We found a motel with some vacancies and checked in. We then walked about town until we found an open restaurant. The pasta was good, and so was the Barolo—in fact, at $8, to me it tasted better than the expensive Voisne-Romanée we drank in Dole, at $33 per bottle. When we got our check, the waiter wouldn’t take either Amex nor Visa, and we had no Lira; fortunately, Ibra had some Eurochecks, which could be written in any European currency.
Next morning when I awoke, the clouds had lifted and I was in store for a surprise. From my window, loomed an enormous white mountain, rising like a tower into a clear blue sky! Ski lifts were scattered about the nearby slope and ridges, but that single peak dominated the skyline like no other I had ever seen. When I asked Ibra its name, he replied, “Cervinio,” as if that explained everything—but it didn’t. He finally revealed that we were looking at the south face of the Matterhorn, which looks entirely different from the north face in Zermatt, Switzerland. Our side was curved, kind of like an orange slice standing on end, whereas the north face was sharp and angular–but it was the same mountain.
We walked toward its base for a mile or two, but at that point, we seemed no closer, and didn’t have time to continue on—we needed to reach Monaco by nightfall. So we retraced our steps to the car. Ibra stopped at a store where he picked up some freshly curdled cottage cheese, some grapes, and a loaf of bread, and we proceeded south. Late in the afternoon, we stopped briefly in the village of Sanremo on the Med, and then followed the coast west toward Monaco.
Monaco is a principality (ruled by a prince) slightly less than a square mile in size, located on the French Riviera, just west of the border with Italy. French is spoken there, and the French currency is used. At the time of our visit, Prince Ranier III was the ruler, and Princess Grace (formerly Grace Kelley, the actress) had recently died in an automobile accident.
Monte Carlo is the capital city of the principality, and constitutes most of its area. It has long been known as the playground for French millionaires, and especially gamblers. We arrived after dark and looked for a place to stay, but we couldn’t find accommodations which were reasonably priced. So we continued to drive west, crossing into France, where we found lodging, actually not far from Monte Carlo. After checking in, we found a restaurant, and shared a bottle of wine with dinner.
After dinner, we looked for access to the shore, and found a path leading between two villas to cliff-side. From there, we went down several flights of steps, and were able to walk along the shore, between rocks and narrow strands of beach, in front of many beautiful estates. We continued for half a mile or so, till we came to a broader beach, with access back to the road. There was a restaurant at the beach, with what appeared to be a wedding party going on at the time. We walked back to our starting point and called it a day.
Next morning, Sunday, we found a church by the yacht basin in Monte Carlo. It was pressed up against a cliff which was higher than its steeple—its setting was just magnificent! The church was beautifully decorated, and well-attended, considering the early hour. After Mass, I joined Ibra across the street at the boat harbor. We had a breakfast of bottled water, bread, and the rest of the grapes from the day before. Above the harbor to the west, stood the royal palace, with a command of the harbor, and the sea beyond. That’s as close as we got to royalty on this trip. After breakfast, we drove on to Nice and Cannes, actually avoiding the coastline, on our way to Arles.
France was one of the last countries I visited on business, largely because of the language problem. English is the language of technology, and is spoken by most engineers in most places I have visited. But the French are very proud of their mother tongue, and are not inclined to accommodate presentations in other languages. Although I took French in high school, and was able to read it fairly well, I could not converse in it. My last seminar in Arles was poorly attended, and then mostly by foreigners from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Perhaps for this reason, France is less like other European nations, retaining its own culture, especially in the countryside.
My first trip to France began as April in Paris, in 1985. I stayed at the Hôtel Splendid Étoile, just off Champs Elysees, with a view of L’Arc de Triomphe from my window. The seminar was short, and a little time was spent visiting the most famous landmarks—Notre Dame, Le Louvre, etc. The most famous exhibits at Le Louvre are da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (behind bullet-proof glass), and Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Ibra was with me, and he knew his way around. But I took him to Ste. Chapelle, a beautiful gothic church not far from Notre Dame, where the Crown of Thorns is retained. Alas, it was not on display then, as the interior of the church was being renovated. Its stained-glass windows are magnificent, with a surface area as great as the walls between them. A bit of etymology is in order here: chapelle is the feminine form of chapeau, which means “hat,” and is interpreted as “cap.” Some scripture scholars claim that the crown of thorns was more in the shape of a cap than a ring, as it customarily appears in paintings and statues. The second meaning of chapelle is “chapel,” or small church, evidently derived after the foundation of Ste. Chapelle.
We took the Metro to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, and someone tried to snatch my wallet while boarding the train, but was unsuccessful.
Betty and I flew to Paris in November of 1989, to see the city for a weekend before taking the train to Arles for a conference. Our hotel was on the Left Bank, within walking distance of Notre Dame and Le Louvre, and therefore very expensive—two hundred dollars a night! We walked everywhere, and often in a cold rain. Department stores were already decorated for Christmas. We went partway up the Eiffel Tower, to see a video about it, but the weather prevented further ascent. It was somewhat satisfying, however, to be able to get around and dine in restaurants without using English—and at times, it was also frustrating, as locals were not inclined to help when words failed. My memories of Paris are not all that fond—the south of France and the villages I found much more appealing.
Cassis is a charming village on the Med, between Marseille and Toulon. I was asked to meet Claude, our General Manager for France, in Nimes on a Monday in October of 1986, and since I was finishing business in Antwerp on Friday, I asked our Paris office to book a place for me to stay on the Med. Les Roches Blanches (The White Rocks) was selected for me in Cassis. So I flew from Brussels to Marseilles and rented a car. The clerk at the rental counter said Cassis was easy to find—keep following the signs to Toulon. What a ride! It was dark, and the road not well marked, with several unexpected turns, and a few strange overpasses that suddenly lifted me above local traffic.
When I arrived in Cassis it was late, with no other cars on the road. I followed my nose toward the center of town, and noted signs on the corners pointing direction to lodgings, including mine. Stopping at every intersection along the dark, winding road, I reached the place, but the gate was closed. I stopped the car outside, and someone opened it for me. There was an old lady at the reception who spoke no English, and couldn’t find my reservation, and my French failed me. But there was a room available, and I was tired.
Next morning, I found myself on a beautiful rocky promontory overlooking the sea. After breakfast on the veranda, I wandered about town to get my bearings. My hotel was a short walk from the center of town, which opened to the beach. The town consisted of a church, some shops and restaurants, a public square with a bocce-ball court, and a boat harbor; vineyards covered the neighboring hillsides—a picture-perfect village. Next, I had to drive back the torturous route to the airport to pick up Betty, arriving from home. We had a very nice Saturday, dining at a restaurant on the beach, and enjoying the moonlight over the Med.
Sunday morning, we attended Mass at the local church, where the parishoners sang beautifully. We had time for a short sightseeing cruise around the area, including a look at Port Miou. Later we drove to Port Miou, and walked along the edge of a cliff above a cut into the shoreline that must have been half-a-mile long. Across the cut was another cliff of the same height—at the tops of the masts of the ships below, and less than a hundred feet across. Each side of the cut was lined with docks where about two hundred sailboats were berthed, side by side.
After doing a little shopping, and buying a bottle of Creme de Cassis, we drove west to Marseilles, along a beautiful high rolling plain above the Med. We arrived mid-afternoon, and with some difficulty, found our way to our accommodations. It was a new hotel, but well-located, so that we had a window overlooking the Vieux-port (the Old Port of Marseilles). The port was jammed with yachts and sailing vessels of all sizes and shapes—this is truly the sailing capital of the world. It took about an hour to walk from our hotel all around the U-shaped port. The scenery kept changing, as there were many shops, artists, etc., selling their wares. We dined at the port that evening.
The next morning, we climbed to the highest point in the city, to the cathedral of Notre Dame de la Garde. This was a very interesting church, with strange artifacts lining the walls, relics of cures and miraculous rescues that had taken place over the years. The outside of the church was pock-marked from machine-gun bullets, as it was besieged during World War II. That afternoon, we left for Nimes, where we would meet with Claude for dinner.
Our sons David and Tom had visited Nimes on a school trip to France, and told us of the famous Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct crossing the Gard River. We found it on the map, and proceeded to drive in that direction, following the signs. Eventually, we entered a wooded area, and followed signs into a parking lot, where we could see the river, but not the pont. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell which direction to look for it. Seeing some youngsters on the other side of the river, I inquired in my best French, “Qu’est-ce la direccion au Pont du Gard?” A very pleasant young lady answered in a delightful French accent, “On your left!” If you make an effort to speak their language, you will be rewarded.
Le Pont du Gard was a masterpiece of 2nd-century Roman engineering—three tiers of arches supporting a rectangular aqueduct about ten-feet across and four-feet deep, covered by stone slabs about eight-feet long. Only the 900-ft span crossing the river remains, but it stands 160 feet above the water. I scrambled up the hill and climbed to the top, then carefully walked across the river on the stone slabs that covered the aqueduct—there were no guard-rails nor warning signs! Some of the slabs were broken, making the passage somewhat difficult where those were encountered. But it was an amazing piece of history to see.
Leaving the site, we drove to our hotel, where we met Claude. He called a taxi, to give us a brief sightseeing tour around Nimes. It is a beautiful city, with well-preserved ruins from the Roman empire, around a central forum. It also has a coliseum similar to that in Rome, but on a somewhat smaller scale—it remains in excellent condition, and is still used for bullfights. The bullfights of Provence differ from those of Spain, in that the bull is not killed, but lives to fight again. The bulls reportedly become more famous than the matadors.
Arles, La Petite Rome des Gaules
The next day we drove to Arles, another Roman city, on the banks of the Rhône River, not far from the sea. We had been invited to participate in the planning of a conference to be held the following year, at a technical school in Arles. I had met the director of the school earlier at a summer course at MIT, and he wanted me to give a paper and my company to exhibit at the conference. The staff of the school took us to lunch at a country restaurant which had been built from a small church. The stone floor was covered with herbs which gave forth a marvelous fragrance when walked on. This was a delightful introduction to Arles.
The city also has a coliseum (Les Arènes), smaller than at Nimes, and not in as good condition. Some ironwork is seen holding the stones together, and most of the stones are heavily weathered. Yet the arena is used for the bullfights annually. Arles is not a large city, and one may easily walk form the river across the center to the arena. There is also an old Roman forum and a small amphitheater. In the heart of the city is a small square with a Roman temple. The streets are very narrow, and cars cannot penetrate all of them.
The following year, 1987, Ibra and I drove here, and stayed at the oldest hotel in town, Hôtel D’Arlatan, home of a 14th-century count. It was three or four stories high, all stone, built around a small central courtyard. You could see where windows had been removed, and others opened, dating from different periods. It was the kind of place where you might expect to see Cyrano de Bergerac emerge from the evening shadows. The rooms were very comfortable, with high ceilings and thick rugs, and four-poster beds, some with canopies. Breakfast was served in the dining-room on the main floor, opening into the courtyard; orange juice, café, and croissants with marmalade was the standard fare.
The conference center was located in a newer part of town, but not a long walk from the hotel. But to get there, we had to walk under a bridge that crossed the river, a place occupied by dozens of Gypsies and their caravans. They seemed to spend all their time “camping out,” sitting around their fires enjoying each other’s company—their way of life.
We were wined and dined by the conference staff in 1987, and each restaurant was great. At one, in Fontvielle, I believe, the meal ended with a special goat’s cheese of Provence, served as wafers packed in jars of oil—really dry!. As we were leaving that restaurant (dinners in France can take hours), the proprietor insisted that we try his own cordial—I have no idea what it was, but it was excellent! When I returned with Betty for a repeat of the conference two years later, the staff was not as free with expenses, so we dined more modestly, even at homes of the staffers. Apparently, the second conference was not an economic success, and there were no more to follow.
To the south of Arles is a low, marshy area, known as La Camargue, known for its wild horses. Betty and I drove there on a free day, and she took my picture with one of the white horses. We continued to a town by the sea, Ste. Maries-de-la-mare, a summer resort which was empty in November. The wind was sharp, so we stopped in a shop, where I bought a camel-hair cap. The church nearby told the story of how the town was named. In an earlier century, two girls, both named Marie, were in a small boat when a storm came up, threatening to sink them. They prayed to the virgin, and were rescued—they are called les deux Ste. Maries. A shrine inside the church shows them in a small boat, praying.
We lunched on bread and cheese and grapes we had bought, resting on a log at the beach. Afterwards, we continued on to the next town, the walled city of Aigues-Mortes (I never found out what the name meant). There were stairs leading up the walls for anyone wanting a better view. In the center of the city was a beautiful old church of Notre Dame, made of stone and wood; it was a marvelous place to rest and pray. Then we toured a few shops and returned to Arles.
Les Baux is a mountain-top city rising steeply above the plains east of Arles. My host at Arles had taken me there in 1987. After driving up the steep access road, we had to pay a toll, and leave the car at the gate of the city—only service vehicles were allowed within. The city is all of stone, buildings, roads, walls, with only a few trees for shade. There are only two streets, and they end in steps which access the higher plateau of the citadel. Many of the original buildings lie in ruins, as does the citadel and some of the walls. The rest of the buildings are shops, restaurants, and a couple small hotels. A 12th-century church of very simple character stands at the center.
I was so enchanted by the place, that I booked a room for Betty and I to stay at one of the hotels after my work was finished in Arles. The accommodations were disappointing—the room was small and rather dingy, but the view was spectacular. We had a small stone balcony which was right at the top of the wall! That evening we had a delightful dinner, and walked about the ruins of the citadel. I bought a barrouche at one of the shops—it is a glazed jug hung from a rope, used to carry drinking water and tied to the saddle of a horse.
We spent the next day driving about the area, stopping at St. Remy, the scene of more Roman ruins, along with an arch and a monument still intact. We took a lunch and headed down a path into the woods, looking for a good place to picnic. But we kept seeing Danger! signs, with some wording about D’Arc. The only D’Arc I knew about was Jeanne (Joan of Arc), the famous maid of Orleans. I finally figured out that we were approaching an archery range, so we moved on. That evening, we drove on to the Marseilles airport, where we stayed overnight before leaving next day for home.
In the fall of 1985, Betty and I flew to Lyon, where we were picked up by the local representatives from my company and driven to Poligny, a couple hours north. I was to conduct some tests in a Solvay chemical plant near Dole. Before checking into our hotel, we stopped for an elaborate lunch (meals are the top priority for the French) which featured vin jaune, literally “yellow wine,” a speciality of the region—it was quite good, especially served with chicken. Then we continued on to our accommodations, a hotel perched on a cliff, overlooking a bend in the road, above the tiled roof of a church in the village below. The place was very nice— quiet and remote, and the food was excellent.
While I was off at the plant, Betty walked along the country roads, and discovered a symphony of cow bells on a back road behind the hotel. Poligny itself was a simple country village with a few shops, surrounded by farmland—not much to do there. One evening I had to work late, and our company agent, Henri, took Betty to dinner—I didn’t much like the idea, and neither did she, but it worked out alright. However, our plant tests were disappointing, so we would have to go back to the drawing board.
My experience working in the plant was interesting. The engineer I worked with spoke a little English, and I spoke a little French, so we tried to converse in each other’s language, often unsuccessfully, but we learned some. The employees were served beer and wine beverages at lunch in the cafeteria—that would never happen here.
After three or four days, we had done as much as we could, and Henri drove us back to Lyon, stopping at Annecy for lunch—it is a famous ski resort in the French Alps, where the pope had visited only shortly before. We stayed all night in a hotel at the Lyon airport, returning home the next day.
I made two more visits to the same plant in 1987, trying new control systems, with more success. Ibra drove me there, and we stayed at a motel in Dole, an old but inauspicious city in Burgogne. The countryside was beautiful. Our motel was run by a slight woman who always wore black, and she ran a tight ship. She tended bar and supervised the dining room as well. One afternoon after work, she took our orders in the bar. I ordered beer, to which she responded emphatically, “Bière!” The French have an uncompromising love for their language!
While in the area, Ibra and I had stayed overnight in a little wine-making village called Voisny-Romanée. Our accommodations were in a manor-house that had become a bed-and-breakfast. But the village itself seemed quite poor. I went to Mass at the local church on Sunday, and rubbed shoulders with the peasant class who worked in the vineyards—there was not much money in this village. On the last day of our stay in Dole, we took some of the people from the Solvay plant to lunch, and Ibra thought we should order a couple of bottles of wine labeled Voisny-Romanée—it was among the most expensive burgundies, around $35 per bottle.
On another trip to Dole, we stayed overnight in an 18th-century manor house on the Saône River—very plush surroundings, including a canopy bed. This after driving from Strasbourg, where we had breakfast in a sidewalk cafe across from the Notre Dame Cathedral.
After leaving Dole on our last visit, we drove to Chamonix, a famous ski resort in the valley next to Mont Blanc—Ibra had skied there before, and knew the area. It was off-season (October), however, so we had to search for accommodations. We stayed at the Hôtel de la Vallée Blanche, situated along a glacial stream, with a beautiful view of Mont Blanc, were the weather clear. We dined that evening on a delicious fondue.
Next morning (Saturday), we wanted to walk in the mountains, but we woke to a steady drizzle with nothing to see. Ibra suggested we take a cable-car anyway, and we did, up Mont Brevent, on the opposite side of the valley from Mont Blanc, getting off at the 2000 meter mark (over 6000 ft.). When we alighted from the station, the rain was beginning to change to snow, very light at first, which encouraged us to walk, as we were no longer getting wet. We followed a trail winding upward to a point where a steeper trail rose, labeled Les Escalade (the staircase). We continued up the staircase higher and higher, through grassland and broken rock—we were now well above tree-line. It was a delightful hike, although neither of us was properly clothed for a winter hike, wearing light windbreakers and sneakers. As we climbed higher, there was more and more snow on the ground, but the scene drew us on.
Eventually, we passed through a wall of rock which opened into a vast snowfield of unknown depth. Wanting to go on, we still hesitated, concerned that the trail ahead was not tracked nor marked. At this point, a snow squall hit us, and the valley below disappeared from sight. Actually, the entire trail had been very poorly marked, but it would have been a simple matter to retrace our footprints in the snow—except that now, our footprints were rapidly filling with fresh snow. So we reluctantly decided to reverse our tracks, descending in the direction we had come. Before we reached the cable-car station, the squall stopped, and we could again see the valley below.
We returned to our hotel, wet but satisfied that we had hiked in Les Alpes. We cleaned up, checked out, and had a hot lunch and a bottle of wine. Our lunch consisted of Fruit de mer (shrimp, scallops, etc.) grilled by ourselves at our table on a pierre chaud (hot stone)—a real treat. We departed Chamonix in the early afternoon, driving toward the Mont Blanc tunnel and Italy.