My Tuscan Holiday

Months before my daughter, who lives in Amsterdam, was to turn 30, I asked her what she’d like to do to mark the milestone. The response was swift and sure. “Go to Italy!”

Months later,  I now find myself using a lovely, rustic villa — Casabianca — located about 20 minutes outside Pisa as the home port from which to explore Tuscany in early June.

Casabianca

I am no stranger to Italy. I have made a couple of  extended trips with my husband, the last occurring in 2019. But, I had never visited Livorno. So, once settled into Casabianca, the first excursion was to the large port town on the Ligurian Sea.

We arrived on Republic Day, a national holiday celebrating the establishment of the Italian republic, so things were rather quiet, but there was a large Norwegian cruise ship docked majestically in the port.

We strolled the streets, admired the old seaside fort, Fortezza Vecchia, and enjoyed a tasty lunch, the best part of which was a wonderful local white wine, at a restaurant called The Barge in the neighborhood of Nuova Venezia.

Canals reminiscent of Venice give the neighborhood its name — Nuova Venezia.

There’s something magical about the Tuscan sun. It bathes everything in a lovely glow and coaxes the most delightful aromas out of flowering flora. But it was also brutally hot for early June.

We braved the heat and were rewarded with a great day touring Pisa where the shopping and food were scrumptious — and the tower is still leaning.

My daughter loves a good bottle of vino, so we sought out a couple of vineyards during our stay. First up was Podere Marcampo located near the Etruscan town of Volterra.

Podere Marcampo is a family farm and vineyard with overnight accommodations.

Enjoyed the wine-tasting experience, but the views were what I liked most about the place. It sits in the heart of Balze, a natural park.

Under the Tuscan sky at Podere Marcampo.

Next up was Fattoria del Teso, a well-established vineyard near Montecarlo.

Fattoria del Teso bottles its wine on site.

The wine tasting excursions in Tuscany are particularly delightful because a tasty charcuterie of local cheeses and select meats are served. The spread at Fattoria del Teso was extremely impressive with three different cheeses and a variety of salami and prosciutto along with bread and some home-grown olive oil.

After recovering from tasting six different wines at Fattoria del Teso, we journeyed to the nearby town of Lucca which I fondly remembered from my first trip to Italy.

Narrow street in Lucca.

Lucca is known for the well-perserved medieval wall that surrounds the old city center. It’s a lovely place to stroll down narrow, cobblestone streets while eating gelato.

During our stay in Tuscany, we also made a day trip to Cinque Terre for some fabulous seafood and sea air.

We chose to stop in at Manarola for the spectacular view and a bit of gelato.

The picture postcard perfection of Manarola.

But we selected Vernazza for lunch.

The tiny harbor in Vernazza.

Today my Tuscan holiday comes to an end. I am enjoying the cool morning air sifting softly in through an open window at Casabianca while marveling at life’s mysterious journey. Three decades ago when my daughter made her entry into this world, I could not have imagined that one day we’d create such memories together under a bright Tuscan sun.

But so it goes. The very best part of my Tuscan holiday was spending time with my baby girl. Ain’t life grand?

A mother-daughter moment.
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Holiday Greetings from Tin Can Gulch

Hard to believe that this year marks the 20th year that I have been writing and sending this holiday missive. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d try my hand at crafting a Gulch-i-fied version of A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka The Night Before Christmas.

But first, did you know that the beloved poem was first published anonymously in New York’s Troy Sentinel newspaper on December 23, 1823? It established our depiction of Santa Claus, the names of all the reindeer (sans Rudolph) and has delighted children of all ages since its initial publication. It is commonly believed that the iconic poem was written by Clement Clark Moore, who certainly took credit for it when he included a version of it in a book of poetry that he published in 1844.

But some historians think that Clement was not the author. Rather, Major Henry Livingston, Jr., a New York farmer who wrote light verse which he published anonymously in regional journals, is believed to have penned the poem and recited it to his children as early as 1807. The analysis by MacDonald P. Jackson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Auckland in New Zealand is quite convincing. I am team Livingston!

Regardless of who wrote it, The Night Before Christmas, is a classic. Hopefully, the spirit of Livingston (or Moore) won’t mind my good-natured retelling of an unexpected visit on Christmas Eve. Here goes!

                                    ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the Gulch

                                    Not a critter was stirring – ‘cept possums, ‘coons and such;

                                    No stockings were hung on the wood stove with care,

                                    In hopes that Santa soon would be there;

                                    For the Longino kids, now grown, all crashed in bed;

                                    While those Murdie girls dreamed fondly of wine, colored red;

                                    And John in his boxers, and I in a gown, not galore,

                                    Had just settled down for a long winter’s snore,

                                    When out on the pond there arose such a clamor,

                                    I roused slowly from bed to check more than just grammar.

                                    Away to the landing I took care like a snail,

                                    ‘Cause my eyes without glasses so often do fail.

                                    The moon on the surface of the water did gleam

                                    And sparkle like fairy dust, or so it did seem,

                                    When what to my aged eyes did appear

                                    But a canoe seemingly pulled by eight swimming deer,

                                    With a little, old paddler so lively and quick,

                                    I said aloud to myself, “Could that be St. Nick?”

                                    More rapid than bream those deer they did swim

                                    As the paddler whistled, and yelled in a tone quite grim:

                                    “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!

                                    On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!

                                    To the shore, I say, to the top of the deck!

                                    Best get there soon or I’ll wring your neck!”

                                    As Mark Spitz before Michael Phelps did plunge,

                                    Those deer did approach the shore with a lunge.

                                    To clamber atop the deck boards quite quick,

                                    With a canoe full of nothing but a strange, old hick.

                                    And then in a tinkling, I heard it so clear,

                                    The prancing and pawing of each little deer.

                                    As I descended the stairs to claim a better view,

                                    I knew right then something was askew.

                                    The paddler was dressed in camo of tan

                                    And his height was that of a regular man;

                                    A large burlap sack was flung ‘cross his back,

                                    And he looked like a hunter just opening his pack:

                                    His eyes – they were blood shot. His dimples not much;

                                    And he sucked on a cigarette, his nicotine crutch.

                                    He had a ruddy face, and a beer belly

                                    That moved when he breathed like it was smelly:

                                    He was fat, not plump, a right stout old Joe

                                    And I cringed when I saw him even though

                                    A wave of his hand and a nod of his head

                                    Was meant to assure me I had nothing to dread.

                                    For the man on my dock was not Mr. Claus,

                                    But a neighbor on a mission with no time to pause.

                                    He spoke not a word, but went straight to work

                                    Scattering corn in my woods like a jerk.

                                    ‘Til tunneling his finger up in his nose

                                    And grunting away, back to the canoe he goes.

                                    He sat on his perch, then to the deer gave a shout

                                    And away they scattered, all running about.

                                    But I heard him exclaim, ere he paddled out of sight –  

                                   “Better they eat your poinsettias than mine tonight.”

Ravenous deer (and yes, they’ll nibble on every plant or flower you put in the ground) aside, I cherish my twenty holiday seasons spent at Tin Can Gulch. It has been an oasis of serenity in a world I have often found perplexing, and on occasion, quite troubling.

So, my holiday wish for you and yours this year is the same one I shared a couple of decades ago. May “…your life be filled with the loving joy of family and friends. May you find your own version of Tin Can Gulch. May the peace that surpasses all understanding be with you this Christmas and always.”

Happy Holidays!

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Karlovy Vary: Luxury on a Budget

About 80 miles west of Prague, headed toward the German border, lies the lovely spa town of Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad as the Germans call it.

Founded around 1349, Karlovy Vary is home to about 13 main springs and 300 smaller springs. This year, the city became a World Heritage UNESCO site known as “Great Spa Towns of Europe.”

A lover of thermal springs, I ventured to this spa town with my daughter in search of  rest, relaxation and the therapeutic qualities found in water bubbling up from deep within the Earth’s belly. Karlovy Vary didn’t disappoint.

We enjoyed a visit to the Hotel Imperial Spa and Health Club. It’s luxury on a budget.

Hotel Imperial

Imagine two adults staying in a two-room suite in a five-star hotel for two nights, being fed breakfast and dinner for two days AND each receiving a 50-minute oxygen therapy, a 15-minute mineral bath and a 20-minute massage — all for $311.

In addition to soaking in a spring-fed jacuzzi or swimming in a pool, you can enjoy drinking the warm, therapeutic mineral water right in the hotel.

Megan enjoys the mineral water.

If luxury on a budget isn’t enough to make you interested in visiting, check out the scenery in this quaint, spa town.

The warm water Tepla River canal.
The architecture is stunning.
Church of St. Mary Magdalene

While strolling through the picturesque streets where Beethoven and Goethe once tred, stop by the pavillion in the middle of town to shop and drink the mineral water.

Once a year, the movie industry descends on Karlovy Vary for its international film festival, one of the oldest in the world and one of Europe’s largest. Megan and I missed the start of the festival by a few days earlier this month during our brief visit, but enjoyed a less crowded, more peaceful retreat.

The grounds at the Hotel Imperial.

If the beautiful Prague is in your travel future, add a couple of days to your trip and schedule a visit to Karlovy Vary. Luxury on a budget never felt — or looked — so good!

Inside looking out at the grand Hotel Imperial.
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Island Hopping

Depending upon how you count them, there are between 1,200 and 6,000 Greek islands. You could spend a lifetime exploring them. In my almost four weeks in Greece, I have managed to visit five, the last being Paros.

On the road to Kolimbithres on Paros.

Each island has had its own distinctive vibe. The largest of the islands, Crete, offers great diversity, both in landscapes and activities. Santorini, a tourist mecca, is rather posh. Milos has a fun beach bum flavor while Naxos is more upscale and family friendly.

Paros, the smallest of the islands I visited, is family friendly, but more aggressive in its approach to tourists than the others. It is the only island on which we were immediately accosted by vendors the moment we exited the ferry. Moving through the gauntlet of vendors gave me flashbacks to Haiti and Jamaica.

Old windmill greets you at the port in Parikia on Paros.

Parikia is distinctive as a port town because of its tree-lined, marble market square — blindingly white in the island sun.

The tiny side streets off the main square were inviting.

I couldn’t let my trip in the Greek Islands pass without riding a scooter. Paros was my last chance, so John and I rented a pair of scooters and after a shaky start, I got the hang of it. We scooted around the island for a few hours taking in the scenery. By the grace of the Greek pantheon, I managed not to get myself killed. No small feat given the road conditions and my own inexperience in driving motorized two wheelers.

Like Milos, Paros has its fair share of beaches.

The bay in Parikia is lined with sandy beaches.

One of the most interesting is at Kolimbithres.

View from the beach at Kolimbithres.

Rock formations create little alcoves in which to enjoy privacy while sunbathing.

While Paros features some small archaeological sites and its share of quaint villages, its main attraction is the sunny sky kissing aqua water. When you get right down to it, that’s the best thing about these islands.

A cloudless blue sky meets the blue hues of the sea to create a magical view.

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Naxos Green

Part of the beauty of the Greek Islands is the stark contrast between the blues of the sea and the earth tones of the islands themselves. Tan landscapes or dark volcanic crags rise from sun-kissed water so blue as to be mystical.

View from the Portara in Naxos.

Missing from this beauty equation is green. There’s not an abundance of it in these environs. While in the Greek Islands, if you find yourself missing the color green, head to Naxos. In addition to long sandy beaches and glorious mountains, it features terraced agriculture and flora- filled valleys.

Olive groves dot the landscape.

Today, Naxos is home to 20,000 inhabitants, but in ancient times, the island sustained 100,000 people. Temples like the one honoring the goddess of grain, Demeter, expressed the peoples’ hope, and need, for good harvests.

Temple of Demeter

With only one full day in Naxos, we opted to take a bus tour that let us take a peek at about half of this large island. I enjoyed traveling through the mountain villages, gazing at the green valleys below and stopping to learn about pottery making and olive pressing.

The sun is a kiln.

Today, after more than three weeks in these lovely islands, we finally found water warm enough to swim in at the beach in the quiet village of Apollonas.

My frisbee-throwing husband.

Simply strolling through the tiny village streets is such a visual treat. The whitewashed buildings are a canopy for many colors — not the least of which is a touch of green.

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Beach Lovers’ Paradise

Milos is best known for the Venus de Milo, the armless statue of Aphrodite now residing in the Louvre, which was discovered here in 1820. Ancient homages to the love goddess aside, Milos is the Greek island to visit if you’re a beach lover. This volcanic island in the Aegean is home to 72 beaches.

At Sarakiniko.

The jewel of the island’s beach repertoire is Sarakiniko, taking its name from Saracen pirates. It takes a short hike to get to the small beach surrounded by limestone walls, but it’s a fascinating trek amid a lunar-like landscape.

Traverse white rock to access the beach below.

Clear, calm water awaits you…

At the beach.

But the real beauty of Sarakiniko is the dramatic land and seacapes that surround it.

Also on the north end of the island, just to the west of Sarakiniko, is Mantrakia, a colorful, little fishing village.

Mantrakia from above.
The sea level view.

There’s a beach tucked away in Mantrakia, called Tourkothalassa, but you have to swim or scramble over rocks to get to it.

Swim through the opening or scramble over the leftmost rocks to access Tourkothalassa.

Keep heading northwest and you find Firopotamas. It’s a nice little sandy beach, but the picturesque church is what caught my eye.

The tiny beach at Firopotamas.
Every village in Greece, no matter how small, has its own tiny church.

Here on Milos in early June, the water is a tad cool for me. We sought out the Thermal Waters in between Kanava and Achivadolimni, south of Adamantas, in the hope of finding water warm enough in which to swim. No luck. Way too cold to be enjoyable.

But there’s more to Milos than beaches and swimming. Wandering through the narrow streets of Plaka is a series of photo ops.

A side street in Plaka.

Eye-catching images are plentiful.

Gotta light?

And visiting the ruins of a Roman theater is always memorable, particularly one with such an incredible view.

No wonder the Romans built a theater here.

I had hoped to visit a few more beaches during our brief visit to Milos. But I ran out of time long before the island ran out of beaches.

Papikinou beach in Adamantas.
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A Santorini View

No tour of the Greek Islands would be complete without a stop in Santorini — a favorite of tourists everywhere, particularly Americans.

Of all the beautiful islands, why are so many drawn to this one? What is “it” about Santorini?

The food is good, but food is good all over Greece. There are beaches here, but there are larger, better beaches on other islands. The Aegean Sea is a beauteous blue, but it’s the same magical blue elsewhere.

So, what is Santorini’s draw? Why do so many have this small island on their must-see bucket lists?

A view from Oia.

In a word — it’s the views! Stunning views. Spectacular views. All overlooking a giant caldera. And one of the best ways to get your fill of the amazing vistas is to walk along the rim of Santorini from Fira to Oia. It’s just one spectacular view after another along a 6.5 mile trek.

A view from Fira.

My favorite part of the trek was navigating the narrow streets of Firostefani and Imerovigli, two villages between Fira and Oia.

We stopped for drinks in Imerovigli at a tiny, quaint bar that offered refreshing drinks and — you guessed it — unique VIEWS.

The hike out of Imerovigli and onto Oia is barren, volcanic rock, but you still get to enjoy a fabulous VIEW.

John headed toward Oia — the snowy strip on the far left.

If you get tired of hiking up volcanic rock, you can always hitch a ride atop a mule.

Mule taxi.

At the top of the rock, you’ll be met with another amazing VIEW.

The great view that meets you when arriving at Oia is snowy white against a blue sky.

Oia

Mystical blues and white surround you. Perched on a narrow end of the island, the main street in Oia is white marble. Blue domes cap a few of the snow-white buildings, giving tourists like me their money shots.

A marble main street leads to shops, hotels and restaurants in Oia.
Santorini blues.

Views from the water are just as spectacular. Catamaran cruises are very popular and John and I hopped aboard one this morning to capture the scene seaside.

While the view from the water is fantastic, I think it’s the stupendous view from atop Santorini’s craggy cliffs that are the islands drawing card.

Travel the world and you’ll find it’s hard to beat a Santorini view.

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A Blast of Beaches

Island life is a real beach. It’s just one beach after another here on a Crete and each one has its own unique vibe.

The remote and beautiful Balos.

Early in our visit on the northeastern side of the island, John and I drove to Matala, a beach Joni Mitchell made famous in her song, Carey.

The night is a starry dome
And they’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the Matala Moon

It was a cozy beach framed by rocks speckled with caves where Mitchell camped out with hippies back in the day.

Matala by sunlight as opposed to moonlight.

Joni et al have long since gone, but the funky, hippie beach vibe remains. John and I threw a frisbee around, but stayed out of the water. Too cold for those of us used to the warm Atlantic off the coast of Florida.

Getting our frisbee on…

Then, as we were driving to Chania on Sunday, we spotted a nice beach area and pulled off the main road to investigate.

Lygaria Beach

The very small beach, Lygaria is our best guess, appeared to be a nice haven for locals who were pouring in as we were getting out.

I liked the view from the rocks bordering Lygaria.

Today, we decided to go take a gander at a couple of the “best” beaches in Crete — Falassarna and Balos.

Falassarna

Falassarna is a large sandy beach with lots of room for sun bathers and some great variation on the beach umbrella set up.

Beach lounging Cretan style.

The unique characteristic of Falassarna, however, were the waves. Most beaches on Crete don’t have a lot of surf, but Falassarna made waves! Surfers in wet suits ( yes, the water is THAT cold!) paddled about trying to catch a wave large enough to surf.

Surf’s up!

Falassarna also sported some slight pink hues. These pinkish tints make tourists flock to another Cretan beach, Elafonisi.

Pink-tinted sand.

Our last beach visit was to Balos. By far the most beautiful beach we saw, Balos is definitely off the beaten path. You pay 1 euro per person to drive 8 km along a rocky, dirt road perched precariously high above the sea, sans guard rails, where only goats and intrepid beach seekers tred.

A friendly goat happy to get some bread.

You park your car for another euro and begin a 2k hike to the beach along a dirt-red trail that doesn’t look like it could possibly end in a spectacular beach.

The trail to Balos.

But it does!

The incomparable Balos.

Blue, cloudless skies that dive into bluer water. This is Crete. A beachgoer’s paradise.

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A Quiet Place

Gouverneto Monastery

The Greek Orthodox Church represents 90 percent of Greece’s population. Unsurprisingly, churches and monasteries proliferate the landscape throughout the country and Crete is no exception.

The structures appear balanced precariously atop steep rocks or nestled in lush valleys amid olive groves. They were often built on ancient temples and shrines in an effort to purge the region of its pagan past.

Today, I went in search of these quiet places here on the Akrotiri Peninsula in northwestern Crete.

Gouverneto Monastery

Gouverneto Monastery, or Our Lady of the Angels, is one of the oldest monasteries in Crete. It was built in 1537.

It sits atop a rocky mountain overlooking the sea.

A monasterial view.

An unmarked trail on the right as you look seaward leads to the Katholiko Monastery, built in the early 1600s, but John and I didn’t make the 30-minute trek down into the Avlaki Gorge to take a look.

On the way to Gouverneto, you pass the Agia Triada Tzangaroli Monastery just 19 km north of Chania. The Agia Triada, or the Holy Trinity, is an active Byzantine monastery built in the 17th century that houses a museum of rare religious works.

Agia Triada Tzangaroli

Serenely quiet, the monastery generates a soothing energy that wraps around you like a comforting hug.

The church sanctuary located within the monastery was unexpectedly spectacular.

The small museum housed within the monastery was interesting, but it was the calming nature of the place that resonated most with me. It was a quiet place in the deepest sense of the word.

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Gorge-ous Crete

In addition to glorious and varied beaches for sun bathers, Crete is a hiker haven. There’s a trek for everyone — from mountaineers to novices.

John and I started our little trek in the Samaria Gorge by driving more than an hour from Chania up into the mountains and through hair-pin turns to the opposite coast to catch a ferry in Hora Sfakion.

It’s a 70-minute ferry ride to get to the approach trail at the base of the gorge in a tiny village called Agia Roumeli which is only accessible by boat.

Agia Roumeli

Blasting Greek music that would make Zorba the Greek proud, the ferry made a stop in the picturesque beach village of Loutro.

Loutro

Another small village only accessible by boat, Loutro looks like a fantastic place to honeymoon or get away from it all for a couple of days.

Remote is the best word to describe Loutro and Agia Roumeli, a tiny village at the bottom of the Samaria Gorge filled with restaurants and hotels catering to tourists.

The ferry port is the happening place in Agia Roumeli.

From the ferry port, it’s a 3km walk to the entrance of the national park containing the gorge. These small chapels dot the landscape throughout Crete.

From the top of the Gorge to the bottom is 12.8km, but because of COVID, the top entrance is closed, forcing everyone to enter the south entrance. The entrance fee for the National Park is 5 euros. From the base, the park is only open for 2.8 km, but it is a stunning climb along a stream cutting through the gorge.

John and I were joined on the 5.8 km hike up into the Samaria Gorge by a lovely young French couple, Thomas of Bordeaux and Caroline of Lille.

It was a very warm day, low 90s, so we stopped to cool off just shy of our turnaround point.

The water was quite cool.

We parted ways with our young friends as they wanted to hop the gate meant to bar hikers from proceeding and continue onward. John and I headed back down to Agia Roumeli for a late lunch and lots of ice-cold fluids.

This was our first excursion on this trip that actually included a number of other tourists and even so, the villages and ferry were virtually empty. Recovery from the plague will take a while.

We boarded the ferry to depart promptly at 5:30 p.m. Hiking 11.6 km on a hot day called for a nap on the ride back to Hora Sfakion where our tiny Peugeot rental sat waiting for us to retrace our mountainous drive back to Chania.

It was a gorge-ous day on Crete.

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