Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel is always surprising

August 6, 2015

Photos Copyright, 2015, Lee Balgemann

In Chicago you can experience Asian graciousness combined with Midwestern hospitality and lagniappe, a little bit more, at The Peninsula Chicago.  The hotel has a prime location on the Magnificent Mile and offers an extravaganza of amenities, surprises, and a comfortable ambiance that encourages you to be you whatever mood you are in.


You can dress to impress or you can feel at ease in what you wore on the plane because your luggage went on vacation to Kathmandu. Nothing is off limits at the Peninsula except indecency, and it is not a place indecent people gather. If you are a closet odd person, the concierge is discrete and can provide directions to off site venues such as the abandoned Brach’s candy factory, the Leather Archives and Museum, the 95th Street Bridge, Busy Beaver Button Company, and Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds’s.

Peninsula Chicago gown

If you are a tech fan or simply appreciate the convenience, you can have a fabulous time in your room controlling temperature, lighting, and curtains from bedside control panels, one on each side of the bed. For connoisseurs of the bath, marble bathrooms have deep soaking tubs, inset televisions, and Oscar de la Rena toiletries.  Starting at 530 square feet, the guest rooms and suites are elegantly appointed and some of the largest in Chicago. Peninsula pages are one touch of a touch phone away to run errands and walk dogs.

Peninsula Chicago guest room

You can eat like royalty. From classic European fare at Pierrot Gourmet to the Shanghai Terrraces’ acclaimed Chinese choices and The Lobby’s international menu, the Peninsula is one of Chicago’s most refined places to dine. If you are longing for Europe, outdoor dining at Pierrot Gourmet is like dining in Paris without a phrase book and waiters with attitudes. Head for the Shanghai Terrace for Asian Fusion with a view. All three restaurants have won important culinary awards.

Peninsu;a Chicago food

You can eat in your flip flops. “No shoes, no service” is a mandatory policy to keep a restaurant hygienic, but table vases made of reimagined running shoes convey the message: by all means be yourself and enjoy your meal. You can appreciate the artistry of the centerpieces or simply feel good that your hotel takes recycling seriously. Don’t be surprised to find a selection of Asian delicacies served on a skateboard. The Peninsula is redefining “urban chic.”

Peninsula Chicago floral

You can simmer in exotic, soothing fragrances in the hushed and holistic spa.  Treatments are inspired by Ayurvedic and Asian philosophies, ranging from the all-natural Hot Stone Massage with aromatic ESPA oils to spiritually uplifting Ayurvedic massages. The two story wellness center includes a half Olympic size pool and a workout room. Or you can join a party on the Shanghai Terrace.

Peninsula Chicago rooftop

You can expect unexpected smiles. The Peninsula guardian lions flanking the entrance and its mascot Peter Bear are loyal to Chicago teams and wear sport jerseys during playoffs.  Off season, their shirts, hats, and garlands may celebrate a holiday or simply surprise you with a wisp of whimsy. The hotel’s MINI Coopers wear rabbit ears for Easter and spiders on Halloween. For a less conspicuous ride, ask for the house BMW.

Peninsula Chicago mascot

Actor David Boreanaz who plays FBI Special Agent Booth in the TV drama “Bones,” said, “I like to escape to hotels…where the people are great and you are in the lap of luxury. You kind of find yourself wanting to stay once you’re in the door.” The Peninsula is his first example.


Cincinnati, a renaissance town

April 13, 2014


I am torn between touting Cincinnati’s treasures and keeping the city under wraps so I can continue to easily park my car downtown. The spirit of Cincinnati is what I image the spirit of Florence was during the Renaissance: so much happening and most of it creative, innovative and exciting. The streetcar is a work in progress and will add to the city’s charm and convenience.

The eight-story Hotel Cincinnatian, built in 1882 in the French Second Empire style, was a surprise even before I entered. On the street, a London taxi idled. Its name is Maxwell and the driver knows all the best restaurants. When I complimented the hotel doorman on his impressive top hat, he pointed across the street.  Batsakes Hat Shop has been a modest corner store since 1907.  The owner, Gus Miller, has be crafting hats for more than fifty years the old way. He measures heads and uses equipment that would make prized museum pieces: a steam cleaner and re-shaper, wooden blocks to shape hats, and razors in wooden brim cutters. His customers include both Presidents Bush, Pavarotti, Bill Cosby, Red Skeleton, Tony Bennett and other celebrities.

Inside the Cincinnatian, I was surprised to meet Don Pigiovanni, one of the hundred fiberglass pigs scattered around town during Cincinnati’s 2012 Big Pig Gig. The bejeweled porker stands in the elegant lobby near an original walnut and marble staircase. This grand hotel once had 300 rooms and boasted a shared bathroom at the end of each corridor. Renovated in 1987, the hotel has 146 rooms surrounding a sizable atrium with sky lights. The rooms have ample space, fine furnishings and old world charm.

Old World, until you enter your futuristic bathroom with heated floors. An eight-foot long walk-in shower has rain showerheads at both ends plus body sprayers that can blast away the most stubborn aches. The deep soaking bubble tub has chromo-therapy lights. Or you can watch the TV suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps some multi-tasking overachievers do both. The toilet is closeted like a Victorian unmentionable. I appreciated the vanity table and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.

Exploring Mainstrasse Village

I was struck with a novel dilemma: abandon myself to the bathtub or drive to Kentucky. My traveling spirit won, and I was soon exploring Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky, just over the river. Covering five blocks, the village is a restored 19th Century German neighborhood.  Shops and restaurants are in renovated houses. There are no “souvenir stores” just shops owned by people sharing their particular interests. An old fashioned candy shop, a cymbal shop, a magic shop, a general store are as unique as the little restaurants serving German, Italian, and Cajun food.

I debated between the English pub and an interesting little place called The Main Bite. Once a narrow shotgun house, the owner lives in the back and serves guests in the parlor. For an appetizer I enjoyed pita with sundried tomato and artichoke dip that was obviously and deliciously homemade. The mac ‘n’ cheese was made with gouda and cheddar and topped with caramelized onions and bacon. All the herbs used by the owner are grown by her.  Once skeptical of the culinary trend of turning kitchen staples into gourmet dishes, I am now a believer.

Goodbye England’s Rose

That afternoon, I had a timed ticket to the award-winning “Diana, a Celebration” exhibit that ends its 11-year global tour in August 2014. It is displayed in Cincinnati’s museum complex, once the busy Union (train) Terminal. The exhibit begins with Diana’s family tree and ancestral portraits followed by photographs of her family and predictably large family jewels. The next room is more personal with artifacts from Diana’s childhood including toys, books, and diaries. Home movies play on the video monitor.

A room is devoted to her engagement and is a fitting prelude to the stunning hall of the wedding. Her wedding dress, train fully extended, is in a glass case. Her intricately designed dress is of such fine silk, it can be lifted with one finger (minus the train). Her wedding shoes have suede soles so she would not slip during the most televised wedding in history. Only two people in the world are authorized to handle this national treasure of a wedding dress. They fly in from London to set up and dismantle the exhibit as it moves around the world.

Another room displays 28 of her designer outfits. Her evolution as a style setter can be seen as she refines her fashion sense through her royal years. She had a brief Jackie phase with the first lady’s iconic pill box hats and then moves on to the style that was uniquely her own. My favorite is an Easter suit displayed with coats for her little sons made with the same fabric. The dress she wore to her last public function is black, foreshadowing her untimely death.

The next room is the most difficult for those who remember the People’s Princess. A video display of her funeral cortege is surrounded with thousands of real rose pedals, now brown and curling. Elton John’s adaptation of “Candle in the Wind” that he sang at her funeral plays softly. The first draft of her brother’s eulogy has his bitter words against the paparazzi crossed out

Cincinnati, known as the Queen City, celebrates the Princess with English teas served at some hotels and also celebrates philanthropic women of the city with a companion gallery “Princesses of the Queen City.”

Hanky Pankys and Hot Dogs

The Rookwood Restaurant is an 1892 repurposed Rookwood Pottery Plant. pottery plant serving locally sourced and locally loved food. You can eat in one of the original kilns that can accommodate a table of ten. Cincinnati is famous for its chili, so I ordered the Rookwood’s version with smoked Anaheim peppers, four types of beans, scallions, white cheddar and the homey touch of goldfish crackers. The chili had an initial burn that I quickly got used to and now expect in future chilies. It is serious chili for people who are serious about chili. Of course, I had to try the Hanky Panky as I had never heard of it. Simply put, it is a satisfying mixture of textures and flavors all in one bite. There are many versions, but mine had Glier’s goetta, emmentaller béchamel, and house giardinera on marble rye. Goetta was another mystery ingredient and goes back to the town’s German roots. It is a crispy-tender, fried sausage patty made from ground pork shoulder combined with steel cut oats and flavored with bay leaves and rosemary. Once peasant fare, it tastes as gourmet as the mac ‘n’ cheese over at The Main Bite.

The next morning, Maxwell and I toodled to The French Crust in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. This authentic little café even gets the accent right. I reluctantly passed up the Croque Monsieur for puff pastry with goetta, poached egg and hollandaise sauce. While it may sound like an adventure in French-German fusion food, it was a delicious breakfast served in a French casserole.

Over the Rhine is an intriguing strolling neighborhood, particularly when I learned that less than 15 years ago it was slum housing scheduled for demolition. The city fathers (and mothers) campaigned to save the neighborhood. It contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States. Eclectic shops include a poster store, a book café, a floral boutique, specialty food markets, antique shops, and Rookwood Pottery. It also has a variety of European and Asian restaurants.

But I settled for a good old American hot dog. The Senate bar and grill is tucked into one of the historic homes and is famous for its hot dogs. As Cate Blanchette was in town filming the movie Carol, their hot dog offerings included an off-the-menu Cate selection that looked about as tasteful as a hot dog can look. I ordered the Lindsay Lohan. “It’s a mess because she’s a mess,” the waiter explained.  My beef hot dog was buried under goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, balsamic, and “lots of drama.” Lots of taste as well.

Cincinnati was a city I changed planes in or drove around on my way to Lexington or Columbus. Who knew, the little noticed port city on the Ohio is now a Renaissance town with a great sense of humor.


Goetta Recipe from Alvina Weimhoff Knauer (1859 – 1944)

My great grandmother, Alvina, got this recipe from her mother who emigrated from Germany to Louisville as a child. My cousin still prepares this special dish that I rediscovered in Cincinnati.

¾ pound lean beef, preferably chuck

¾ pound lean pork

Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook together in water until tender

Save juice

Add enough water to make 8 cups

Add 3 cups of steel cut oats to the 8 cups of juice and

Cook until puffs of steam are the only liquid left

Add 1 tablespoon of fresh allspice and 1 teaspoon of pepper

Put wax paper on top so crust does not form


Put in loaf pan to shape

Cut into ¼ inch slices and fry in lard until crispy

Serve with scrambled eggs and buttered toast



An utterly fine farm near Mesa

March 3, 2014

Superstition tractor

My family is rooted in the farms of Ohio County, Kentucky, so I am steeped in folk knowledge. One erudite superstition is that if you lay down right after you eat, you will turn into a cow. Great aunts and uncles that farmed when I was a child were champion Sunday dinner chased with moonshine diners. Every visit, I counted carefully. There was never one less relative snoozing on a porch swing and one more cow in the pasture. Still, why would they make such a big deal out of turning into cows if a truth did not lurk beneath the hyperbole?

Near Mesa, Arizona, I found 1,000 relatives and ancestors contentedly mooing at Superstition Farm. One looked like Aunt Lily Mae with her soft brown eyes and flapping lips. Was that Uncle Cicero Timolean plodding to the water trough? The brown blotches of skin sure looked familiar as did the bovine trod to the source of liquid “refreshment.”

Superstition Farm is a fun place for the young’uns – and their grandparents. Need something to do with the kids? Go to Superstition Farm. Need to get away from the kids? Go to Superstition Farm. Tired of the mall and city folk? Go to Superstition Farm.

The narrated hay ride around the cow enclosures and milking sheds is entertaining and informative. Animal rights activists would not find anything to get agitated about. These cows are treated like the valuable commodity they are. You can feel good about the beef you eat and the milk you drink when you see their balanced diet, clean enclosures, shady areas, and ample room to socialize and meander. Ohio County never looked so good.

In addition to the hay ride, there is a petting zoo, small market of just-picked produce and a milk bar with 12 flavors of milk to choose from. I moved on from orange milk, passed up banana milk, and downed the grape milk. It was as close to moonshine as I was going to get in this county that does not consider white lightening a basic food group.

As for their ice cream, they call it an “udder delight.” Yessiree Bob, I had two scoops

In Chicago’s Greektown, skip the museum and go for the yogurt

June 29, 2013


National Hellenic Museum (495x640)











Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum in Greektown is billed as “ the first and only major museum in the country dedicated to the Greek journey, from ancient times to the modern Greek American experience.”

So, of course, I had to take my grandson as he had just finished Rick Riordon’s novels and knows more about Greek mythology than I do. From Chicago’s Western ‘burgs, the best way to get to Greektown is to drive to the Forest Park el station, park for $3 a day, take the el to UIC/Halsted and walk one block north. We walked one block past the museum to fuel up on gyros. Good food, but the table was dirty, so I’m not mentioning the restaurant. After wiping off the table, we discussed Greek sculpture and Grecian urns over our authentic tasting gyros.

I should have saved my breath and simply booked a trip to Greece. The museum would have been funny if we had not wasted a half day on our Grecian Journey. After paying $10 for me and $8 for the 11-year-old, I was in that exciting discovery mode — and to share it with my grandson? My heart beat faster.

I should have saved my cardio workout for the gym.

Here’s what’s to see at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago: colorful posters about the history of the Olympics; colorful posters about Greek food; and restored photographs from 1880 to 1950 of Greeks in America. I could have sworn I’d seen those Ellis Island photos before. Often. In every exhibit about immigrants and on History Channel.

As for actual artifacts, we viewed a wedding dress circa 1900 and wrestling shorts circa 1930. No Grecian urns. No ancient statues. I asked an attendant if there were any ancient Greek statues in Greektown. He thought the closest was at the Art Institute.

“Should we take a cab, Grandma,” asked my grandson.

I uttered an age-appropriate negative.

On our way back to the el stop, we visited a Greek bakery where I was pleased to find homemade yogurt and honey imported from Greece. Hardly worth a half day and the expense of getting there, but my mood lifted. The day would not be wasted. Forest Park is close to Oak Park, home to the best Greek restaurant I have found in Chicagoland.

In Oak Park, we drove up and down Lake Street looking for the restaurant and checking my iPhone to verify address. It was not only closed, it was abandoned. Not to worry. Petersen’s Ice Cream Parlor in Oak Park never disappoints. Two scoops in a waffle cone redeemed our day.

Echoes of Old Rome in Today’s Eternal City

June 3, 2012

On Rome’s 2765th birthday, I was pondering the source of my discontent. My azalea bush struggled to bloom, a poignant reminder of azaleas frothing down Rome’s Spanish Steps. I got my limoncello from the freezer, raised my glass to Roma, and fired up my computer. The cursor slid to my frequent flier program.

Two weeks later, I celebrated my return to Rome at an outdoor table with a view of the two-thousand-year-old Porta Octavia rising ghostly in the moonlight. This has been my favorite  restaurant for years, both for its ancient roots in the Jewish Ghetto and its cuisine. After soggy bruschetta and pasta carbonara with the consistency of boxed macaroni and cheese, I told the waiter, “No bene!” He looked concerned, but not surprised.

The next morning, I was heartened by Mark Twain’s, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The decline of one restaurant indicated others had risen to take its place. A Roman friend met me for lunch at Taverna Romana, via Madonna dei Monti, 79, a cobblestone street near the Forum. Close to the restaurant, I stopped, sobered by twenty brass plaques, four-inches square, set into the cobblestones. Each plaque is inscribed with the name, birth and death dates, and place of execution of Holocaust victims who had lived in the house.* Lina, age 5, was assassinated in Auschwitz, two months after deportation from her home on this lovely ancient street.

Rome Plaque Lina di Consiglio

I was still thinking of Lina when I entered Taverna Romana. Its rustic décor is typical for an eatery that caters to neighbors, not tourists. For the past two-hundred years, it has been run by the same family. Produce is purchased from local farmers daily, and all dishes are prepared on-site. My friend and I enjoyed bruschetta on crispy toast (finally!) before moving on to gnocchi so light it nearly floated off my fork. The roast veal with mushrooms had a taste so fresh, I thought of spring meadows. When I looked at the desserts, I envisioned a little girl tugging on her mother’s arm as they passed Taverna Romana, begging for a sweet while her mother clutched coins for freshly baked bread.
Based on my friend’s recommendations, I discovered two restaurants rooted in history and worthy of the most discriminating diners. DivinPeccato (Piazza della Rovere 84), is close to Vatican City and overlooks the Tiber. The name, Divine Sin, is swiftly parsed on entering the restaurant. I saw a humble wine bar with a few tables on a linoleum floor. The wine selection and snacks elevated the small sin of enjoying a few glasses of wine to a delicious indulgence. The “divine” portion of the restaurant is upstairs. In the intimate dining room, spotless napery went ignored as I gloried in the view of the Tiber from two windows and the frescoes on the walls and beamed ceiling. In the restaurant’s last incarnation as a Chinese restaurant, the frescoes were boarded over and florescent lights were affixed to the lowered ceiling. The 18thCentury frescos, discovered during restoration, are from the building’s upscale apartment days.Divine Sin

Rome Cheese Plate

For an appetizer, my companion ordered a selection of local cheeses served with fruit jam, nuts, and honey. It looked so good I was sorry I had been tempted by “zucchini milfoil with buffalo bresola and very young cheese with mint pesto.” This delicious smelling stack of food would not make an attractive photograph. However, after one bite, I handed a forkful to my friend and smiled smugly. Young cheese, the waiter explained, is buffalo mozzarella before it forms into balls. A small dish of it was included on my friend’s cheese platter. We decided that buffalo mozzarella balls are a marketing convenience, because the young version is tastier if more problematic to plate.

For pasta, I opted for “rigatoni with Piceno sausage, tomatoes, milky cream and basil” while my companion ordered my appetizer. The sausage, from the Le Marche region of Italy, added a spicy note that enhanced without overpowering the welcome taste of fresh tomato and basil. The waiter recommended a bottle of Pinot Nero Meczan. This food-friendly wine was especially congenial with our selections. Satisfied, but not stuffed, we decided against dessert. We really should have ordered the “eulogy to hot chocolate,” for that is all we speculated about as we walked around Piazza Navona.

Rome Spirito di Vino Cellar

From Caesar To Rachael Ray

The next restaurant is Spirito di Vino (via dei Genovesi, 31), in Rome’s Trastevere.  Every building has a story to tell, and what better way to hear a good story than over dishes that have won the Slow Food medallion thanks to the efforts of Chef Eliana Catalani. According to her husband, a gregarious raconteur, this family-owned restaurant has been a synagogue, convent, foundry, residence, and warehouse over the past few centuries. The basement was excavated down to its two-thousand-year-old floor.  Several archeological treasures discovered here are on display in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums.  Now, the basement is a wine cellar with 5,000 to 7,000 bottles ranging from 6 to 800 euros. This is the domain of Francesco, the Catalani’s son, who waits on tables as well as recommends wines.

Rome Spirito di Vino Caesar's Dish

The menu includes a reincarnation of a dish enjoyed by Julius Caesar prepared from the original recipe. This pork shoulder is cooked with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, and spices. Instead of salt, Chef Eliana remains true to the ancient recipe by using an anchovy sauce.  I did not detect a hint of fish, just perfectly seasoned pork that has been pleasing imperial and other discriminating diners for two millennia. Prefaced by homemade chicken liver pate with wild apple jelly and ending with creamy ricotta with honey and cinnamon in a crisp, almond -flour crust, the meal was a timeless delight.

Rome creamy ricotta with honey and cinnamon

Francesco, who recommended a robust il Casolare Rossa from Italy’s San Lorenzo Winery, assured us that Eliana is the only cook allowed in the kitchen and that all dishes and sauces are made on the premises. Produce is organic and the meat free-range. Eliana never uses frozen or precooked ingredients. The secret to her delicious bread is a 250-year-old yeast starter. Unlike Caesar’s cook, she is not concerned about losing her head; however, she is dedicated to maintaining Spirito di Vino’s reputation. No wonder Rachael Ray tweeted that it is her favorite restaurant.

From Bites to Bytes

While Romans preserve ancient culinary traditions, travel guides have leapt into the electronic age.  According to TripAdviser, this year nearly half of U.S. travelers will use travel apps on their mobile and tablet devices.  I met with Flaminia Chapman who has created an app titled “Rome Insiders Guide” for Apple products (iPhone, iPad & iPod touch) available at It also works with Android phones, A resident of Central Rome, Flaminia keeps the app updated and is constantly adding new information and photos. She also offers personalized tours for individuals and small groups and can be contacted

For people with little patience for guided tours but crave in-depth information on art and historic sites, I highly recommend Jane’s Smart Art Guides, available for available for download to iPods and Smartphones ( Her Rome guides include St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, and Sta. Maria del Popolo, an extraordinary, but often over-looked church filled with artistic treasures. I previewed a draft copy of her nearly completed guide to Rome’s Fountains and was pleased that my favorite fountain is also the author’s, Le Tartarughe (Fountain of the Tortoises) in Piazza Mattei. The tortoises, added 70 years after the fountain was unveiled, add a whimsical touch to this playful fountain.  Behind the fountain is a story of love gone terribly wrong that Jane discovered in her research.

The whimsy of the Romans is often overlooked, but there is nothing whimsical about their food. When it is good, it is memorable; and when it is bad, it is time to find another restaurant.

*Created by Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine are set at homes of Nazi victims to trip the memories of passers-by. The memorial project commenced in the 1990s and now includes more than 20,000 stones in Europe. Rome’s first stumblestone was laid in 2010.

Links to Restaurants:


Greece — off the Grid

September 24, 2011

Vacation planning should be completed months before the journey. Thus, my friend Susan and I agreed that we would not complain when our last-minute plans to visit one or more Greek islands went awry. How bad could it be? The entire country is historic. Being in the euro-zone, our credit and ATM cards would open doors to all amenities.

We were locked into the last week of August, because Susan was extending a business trip. I told her it was not auspicious that my frequent flier program had many openings for Athens that week. As far as accommodations, anything remotely affordable was booked for every island we had ever heard of. Forget Santorini, Rhodes, Crete, and any island that merited at least a page in the guide book. Boldly, we selected an island glossed in one paragraph: Ikaria, site of Icarus’s burial. Was the Greek god’s flaming finale a metaphor for our tardy planning? Every hotel and guest house had ample room. Why didn’t anyone else want to go to Ikaria? “They booked early,” we groaned, “and are joining the beautiful people on Santorini.”

Missing in Athens

Susan and I agreed to meet in theAthens’ airport boarding area for our 40-minute flight to Ikaria. With just one flight a day, we were fortunate to obtain the last two tickets. I decided to surprise her and meet her earlier. She must be dawdling, I thought, so I moved from the baggage claim area to a café where I would be sure to see her walking down the concourse. She must be shopping, I thought, so I moved to the departures gate. The plane took off without Susan, and I strained to recall how we were supposed to get from the airport to our hotel. She had said something about a bus.

The airport, open a few hours for the daily flight, is a barn with a luggage belt. I could have carried all the luggage from plane to belt in the time it took luggage to arrive for forty passengers. In that time, I ascertained there was no bus. As Susan had the phrase book, I searched for an English speaker. The car rental man found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to the village of Armenistis  for “just” 70 euros. “Sixty,” I sputtered feeling as fleeced as the sheep on the surrounding, barren hills. The setting was Biblical; my mood was not.

Wild ride to the Aegean Sea

After a hundred or so hairpin turns on gravel, mountain roads, I realized that 60 euros was a deal. Every village of four or more houses has a tire repair shop. Approaching Armenistis, the only clue I had to our hotel was a photo on the website. And there it was, Atschas Livadi Beach Hotel. Our room, clean and simple, was forty feet above crashing waves. We had read about the deadly surf, but we were there for wading. It was difficult to leave my balcony view of the turbulent ocean to stroll twenty feet to the restaurant.

The hotel’s terrace restaurant has a similar ocean view. John (pronounced I-o-an-nis) who grew up on the island is prepared to cook to order from 6 a.m. until midnight.  The moussaka was splendid, and I learned to pay 2 euros extra for tzatziki to slather on bread. This is the cucumber sauce used on gyros.  John’s recipes, handed down through the generations, take full advantage of Ikaria’s bounty. He uses produce from his farm, locally made cheese, locally baked bread, and locally slaughtered goat. For 10 euros, I feasted above the salty sea spray. Fortunately, I was too full for dessert, for John does not serve dessert. He offers melon for what he calls a “finish.”

Arrival of an adventuress

In bed, I had a passing thought about Susan, but was too quickly in the arms of Morphes to fret. I woke about 4 a.m. surfing on the sound of waves and feeling more relaxed than I had in years. I woke again at noon and ambled to the terrace for my morning coffee. Susan appeared looking refreshed and unencumbered. A delayed flight out of O’Hare put her in Athens 30 minutes after the plane to Ikaria departed. Being in an island mood, she flew to another obscure island,Samos, had a lovely fish dinner and no problems finding an inexpensive, clean room. She enjoyed a four-hour ferry ride from Samos and caught a bus to the hotel.

She ordered white beans with a spicy tomato and vegetable sauce and laughed about her luggage, somewhere between Chicago, Newark, Munich, Athens, and Ikaria. She had her bathing suit in her backpack and I loaned her a tee-shirt.

We were on the beach by 1 p.m., just a forty steps down from our room. For 5 euros a day, we could rent two beach chairs and a thatched umbrella. A beach bar offered cold drinks and snacks. The weather was perfect for swimming, or in our case, wading, and we did not see a cloud. We were happy that the beautiful people were on Santorini, whose beaches were undoubtedly more crowded and with bodies that would make us feel we should jog instead of eat, read, and yawn.

Back to basics

That evening our conversation drifted regrettably to finances. John told us that the closest town had two ATMs. One was broken and the other was out of money. Therefore, we should go when the bank was open. The hotel does not accept credit cards. For 40 euros a night for both of us, we were not inclined to complain. It was a 20 euro taxi ride to the bank. One way. Susan was short on euros, but I had enough for us both if we adhered to our main objectives: sunbathe, wade, read, eat. We had a little refrigerator in our room, so we decided to dine on the terrace only for morning coffee and our evening meal.

The next day, a kindly taxi driver delivered her suitcase for no charge. We hiked ten minutes to a micro-mini mart for crackers, cheese, olives, yogurt, Nutella, and peaches. Two days later we hiked twenty minutes in the opposite direction to the picturesque village of Armenistis for similar provisions and postcards. We learned that Nutella and yogurt make a fine breakfast, and that there is something delightfully Grecian about eating cheese, olives, and peaches on a beach Homer would have immortalized in verse.

We could have hired a car for 50 euros a day and seen Ikaria’s other attractions: ruins of ancient baths, radioactive mineral springs, a castle, an archeological museum, more idyllic beaches and flat tires. Another option would be to spend a few nights in a remote cottage owned by the hotel. It was just an hour and a half hike, John explained and required a guide. He looked us over. “Make that a three-hour hike.”

We settled for doing what we had come to Ikaria to do: relax. We agreed that we have never relaxed so completely. Perhaps the relaxation factor contributes to the Ikarian’s unusually long life-span. Ikaria is one of the world’s few “blue zones” according to New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner. He discovered that Ikaria has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet – nearly 1 out of 3 Ikarians live to their 90s. They have 20 percent less cancer, 50 percent less heart disease, and almost no dementia.

Ferry to Athens

After six cloudless days and more than ten books crossed off our reading list, our luck ran out on the ferry. Our only option for returning to Athens were deck seats on a six-hour evening sail. While Susan struggled with mal de mer on a cold and windy deck, I passed through the passenger lounge with longing. Carpeting, comfortable seats, a lovely lounge – all for people who planned ahead. Despite the gift shop and other amenities of a hotel, the ferry had no Dramamine. Susan turned greener. We arrived in Athens after midnight and, no, the hotel was not within walking distance as advertised. The taxi line was shorter than we had feared, and we were soon settled in the ancient city with a real tourist agenda.

“I want to see the Acropolis,” Susan said, “but I’d skip it for another day on Livadi Beach.”

Amused at first at her cultural blasphemy, I realized I agreed. After Ikaria,Greece will always be a beach surrounded by mythic cliffs and majestic waves.


June 4, 2011

Murder in Positano

or why I killed my inner accountant


South of Naples, Positano is one big cliff rising from the Bay of Salerno. The town’s one road winds, turns back on itself, loops around churches and villas and trees that have been here since donkeys determined where the road would go. The advent of the automobile gave Positano to the world. Yet, despite metallic din drowning whispery breezes, I have not found a corner of Positano that lacks an avian chorus. Perhaps natural selection increased the volume of birdsong to give visitors the music they did not know they missed until they arrive woozy and white-knuckled from the hairpin road fromNaples, vacation nerves jangling, inner accountant snapping, “You paid a lot for this, and you better get your money’s worth.”

Thanks to a friend of friend, I am not paying for this. The friend once removed rents guest rooms or apartments in his 17th Century villa that clings to the cliff. He had no paying guests scheduled for the time I was there. If I had considered paying for this, my inner accountant would admonish that I had regressed to that irresponsible child blowing her allowance on bubble gum.

The power failed after the housekeeper left for the night and after my host called to say he was delayed inSwitzerland. I was alone somewhere in time, but not in this century. And that’s when I killed my inner accountant without remorse.

Light was fading, radiators were cooling. I rounded up candles, a down comforter, and a bottle of limoncello from an assortment of other interesting liquors, including grappa. I’ve learned to stay away from grappa, but that’s another story, something about serenading a tollbooth on the autostrada. From the salon’s library of books in four languages, I selected a book I have been meaning to read for twenty years. I passed the grand piano with the first sorrow I have felt over giving up piano lessons for gymnastics. Imagine playing Mozart with keys illuminated by the antique candelabra. Imagine playing Mozart looking over an iron balcony at the lights of Positano winking on below. So much for double back flips and tarnished team medals.

Something was missing. Dinner. I could walk uphill to an osteria or downhill to a trattoria, but I was in the Renaissance and truculent about leaving. Using ingredients on hand and cooking by candlelight in an old kitchen modernized with appliances was a hazardous pleasure. I boiled pasta in unsalted water — not a culinary tip, I simply could not find the salt. I sliced garlic, onions, basil from a pot on the kitchen terrace, a tomato and my thumb. The pasta was tasty, although I could not tell if the red stuff I was eating was tomato or blood. However, the dish did not taste unsalted, and that’s where I jumped off that train of thought.

In a brass bed, under two down comforters, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by the light of three candles. The limencello expanded my understanding of Woolfe’s premise, which evaporated by morning leaving me with a personal premise. A room of one’s own in a deserted villa is a decadent delight.

I woke to the hiss of radiator, redundant because my face was warm from sun shining through the terrace’s glass doors. I drifted into the fragrance of sea air and roses and looked down on the bay. Fishing boats and yachts looked like bathtub toys. The cliffs on both sides have mythical grandeur. Is this a scene Homer envisioned when he wrote Ulysses?  On the terrace, generously blooming potted plants and meandering vines thatched a privacy screen. I sat on a wicker chair and felt as if I were sitting in the lap of God. My spirituality is broader than Judeo-Christian, so I took off my nightgown, lay on a lounge chair, and gave my body to Apollo until sweat dripped on terracotta tiles.

A long soak in a deep tub was like one of those optional tour excursions that cost extra. I paid for the bath with an hour that could have been spent exploring Positano. Like the gondola ride inVenice, it was worth it. Green marble tiles, little chandlers flanking the vanity mirror, a warming rod. Toilet and bidet are up three stairs and through an archway. A round window provides a sky view for mundane duties. But in the tub, light was diffuse and so was birdsong and so were my thoughts except for one. Showers are for hotels; in a villa, one bathes. After replenishing hot water for the third time, I realized that it would be considerate to take my host to dinner to compensate for the gas bill.

And where was the mysterious host, caught in a Renaissance of his own? While waiting for pruny skin to smooth, and dithering about what to wear, I heard footsteps, whistling, and a short burst of celebratory piano music. The mystery man had survived the autostrada and was happy to be home. Now that my inner accountant was in rigor mortis, I felt no shame in calculating how many relatives I would have to fleece to make him an offer on his villa.

John Steinbeck wrote, “Positano bites deeply.” He used the wrong verb.  Positano burrows. It takes root in your soul and leafs out in memories too dear to have appraised.



November 2, 2010


 SPQR is the immortal cipher appearing all over Rome, even on sewer lids. It stands for the Latin Senatus Populusque Romanus: the Senate and People of Rome, and sometimes it means Sono poco questi Romani: they are pigs, these Romans.

 Most of the pigs I’ve met in Rome are German, which is why the Roman poco I encountered stands out like SPQR on a new sewer cap. He was a waiter at a restaurant (the one by the old well) on Borgo Pio, a street lined with outdoor tables and overflowing with tourists. Any restaurant on Borgo Pio looks popular for it is the most convenient street for refueling after visiting the Sistine Chapel. The poco waiter ignored me relentlessly. Water took 15 minutes, a menu took 30. He deigned to take my order about a week later and served the pasta carbonara after curing the bacon. He dawdled so long over the check, I left a 20 Euro bill and no tip on the table. His squeals of outrage followed me to Piazza Navona.

There, annoyance evaporated. Where in the world is an expanse like Piazza Navona? Three fountains, an obelisk, benches and artists, Romans and tourists, all surrounded by Renaissance palazzos, the white napery of outdoor restaurants, a toy store, and an ATM. Piazza Navona invites one to stroll, maybe several times around, while pondering the weight of history and the lightness of being – of being in Rome. Two thousand years of history at my feet and a freshly made gelato in hand.

 Well now, how could I be annoyed by one Roman poco? Particularly when Pasquino, just a few steps from the piazza, was standing by to display my protest. The weathered torso may be more than two thousand years old, but he still takes complaints. My post-it note about the poco on Borgo Pio may have lasted no longer than the next breeze, but as Marcus Tullius Cicero said in the 1st Century B.C. “History is the witness that testifies to the passage of time. It illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

And my tiny bite of history provides guidance to SPQR and its visitors to stay clear of the poco on Borgo Pio and eat at La Vittoria’s instead.


May 5, 2010


Tiramisu was invented in the early 1970s in Treviso, Italy, a little Venice with canals and art. I ate it at the restaurant that invented it, Antico Ristorante Beccherie, and wanted to lick my plate. Getting the recipe was a googling chore, but I prevailed. I found it. I made it. I survived. Now, I am waiting for my family to taste it.

Tiramisu means pick-me-up – and I’ll have to pick my family off the floor when they realize I cooked instead of picking up a carry out. So here it is – European measurements translated into American.

Tiramisu Originale

12 servings

(for 6 servings, use one pie dish and half the ingredients)

12 egg yokes

2 ¼ cups granulated sugar

2 lbs mascarpone cheese

48 lady fingers

4 cups strong espresso

½ cup cocoa powder (unsweetened)

Brew espresso and pour in shallow bowl to cool

Whip egg yokes with sugar until stiff

Fold mascarpone cheese into beaten eggs and sugar to make the filling

Dip 24 lady fingers into the espresso, but do not soak them

Arrange lady fingers in two 8 or 9 inch pie dishes

Spread half the filling over the ladyfingers

Arrange another layer of lady fingers dipped in espresso on top of the filling

Spread the remaining filling over the lady fingers

Sprinkle with cocoa powder

Serve chilled


May 1, 2010



Word found in  a blog for people who love travel and art. Jane McIntosh produces audio guides to Europe’s art treasures that are as detailed as a postgraduate course, and her blog is peppered with fascinating information that does not make the guidebooks. She has a particular fondness for Italy and is preparing an audio guide to Rome’s fountains.

In restauro is Italian for “under restoration,” a disappointing notice when re-visiting old loves or making a pilgrimage to a work of art discovered in a book or recommended by a friend. Michelangelo’s Moses was in restauro so long, I thought the statue’s plastic drapes would outlive me. When I finally saw the blinding behemoth of polished marble I had to admit it was worth the wait.

Livia’s house on Palatine Hill has been in restauro for so long, I wouldn’t believe in it if not for my travel companion Joan who saw it twenty years ago and has been trying to get into it ever since. Every trip to Palatine Hill includes a snarly snapshot of the in restauro sign on Livia’s house. Rome news articles give conflicting reports on the availability of Livia’s house to the common tourist. Before my next trip to Rome, I’ll email Jane. If she doesn’t know, who would?

I’ve never met Jane, but I’ve liked her ever since a minutely detailed visit to the Vatican using her guide Yesterday, when I read about her visit to Fontana dei Tartarughe (Turtles Fountain) in Piazza Mattei (which was in lavoro – being cleaned) I knew my season of en restauro had passed. To hell wilth peeling off the layers of desire that distance me from being the grandmother of my expectations – the one who stays home and is always available.

I want more of the grit of travel and the grime of Rome. I want to enjoy a riso gelato beside the turtle fountain one more time, knowing it will not be my last splash in my favorite fountain.  (My ritual includes washing my gelato sticky hands and face in the fountain.) Jane did for me what I would allow only a trusted friend to do. Between the lines, she admonished, “It’s spring. You should be in Rome.”

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