Seven Great Venice Hacks



Sure, the real deal with the singing guys in the striped shirts and cute hats is crazy expensive. Like over $100. Don’t bother. When you get down to it, it’s just a boat ride. Plus you do a lot of sliding slo–o–o-wly  under bridges packed with tourists staring at you and snapping pictures like it’s feeding time at the zoo. Instead, look for one of the gondola ferries, called traghetti, that locals use to get across places where there’s no convenient bridge. It’s around $2-$3 and although the ride doesn’t last long there’s time for a quick selfie. And while the operators aren’t quite as snazzy as the private gondola fellows, they DO wear striped shirts. Continue reading “Seven Great Venice Hacks”

Slideshow: Prosecco Country (click photo to start)

Go Prosecco!

TREVISO, Italy — You know prosecco as the fruity Italian bubbly that’s a fun and affordable way to celebrate the holidays as well as a bright accompaniment to a light meal. But this popular sparkling white wine can also be part of your vacation plans. Just like that other famous fizz, Champagne, it hails from a region that welcomes visitors who like to travel glass in hand.

From exploring hillside villages to strolling beside the tranquil canals of the city of Treviso, there’s plenty to do, eat, see and sip in prosecco country. And since this is still a relatively undiscovered spot, prices aren’t at the sky-high pitch of better- known places.

Here are a few things to know before you go.

Click here to read the rest of this story published by the Associated Press.

Best of Florence


FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — The skies were clouding over as I strode briskly across that famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, ready for a productive day checking off Florentine must-sees.

Slight problem: The first museum on my list was open, but the ticket office was closed.

OK, then, on to the Uffizi Gallery. Except this time both ticket office and museum were closed; I had forgotten it was Monday.

A fine rain began to fall as I wandered listlessly past the open arches of the building next door, the statue-studded Loggia dei Lanzi. This wasn’t going at all as planned.

And then it hit me. Wait. This was the Piazza della Signoria, where novelist E.M. Forster‘s adorable Lucy Honeychurchwitnessed a stabbing moments after complaining about the dullness of life in “A Room With a View.” And those had to be THE steps where the brooding George Emerson carried Lucy’s fainting form.

Click here to read more of this story, published by Associated Press.

Amazing Agrigento

Temple of Concord, Agrigento Photo by Michelle Locke

You know what’s not cool? Shuffling past historic stuff in a long line of tourists, the hot breath of the short-fused travelers behind you blowing down your neck as you try to figure out what the heck the crumbly bit of wall/statue/fresco in front of you is supposed to be.

You know what is cool? Strolling around ancient ruins with space to spare, a soft breeze caressing your cheek and setting the wild poppies nodding as you look out to the deep blue sea in the distance and imagine the days when Greek invaders sailed up to these grassy bluffs.

And that, friends, is why I highly recommend a stop in Sicily if you want to get your history on.

Take the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. Founded as a Greek colony in the sixth century B.C., this site has some impressive Doric ruins like the Temple of Juno shown above. And while it’s plenty popular, you don’t have the kind of elbow-jostling, I-hate-humanity-feeling of many tourist attractions.

Agrigento also has a neat backstory in that officials are trying to ramp up their agrotourism game and bring back some of the products that once flourished here including wine and olive oil. I wrote a story about the wine efforts here. The wine, a Nero d’Avola, is quite good and the olive oil, also sold under the Diodoros label, is straight-up awesome.

Old dog, really old olive tree

If you are visiting Sicilian ruins, I highly recommend going in spring or autumn, but especially spring. You may need to take a rain jacket but the crowds are thinner, the weather cooler and the wildflower display simply fantastic.

At the Valley of the Temples archeological park in Agrigento, you can take a guidebook, hire a guide, or just wander around. The park is divided into two by the road. One side is the Area of Zeus, the other is the Field of Temples (Collina dei Templi) which has the most complete remains.

As of spring 2015, 13.50 euros will get you into both the park and the nearby museum. It’s 10 euros for just the park and the hours are around 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.


Temple of Concord, best-preserved of the temples and a great place to take photos. Ditto the Temple of Juno, which overlooks the vineyards that are growing the Diodoros grapes.

Giardino dell Kolimbetra, an ancient olive and citrus garden with fabulous foliage and a great vibe. A really calming place to stroll through. Observe the various water channels and collection basins, this is an early example of sophisticated irrigation.

Statue of fallen Icarus in front of Temple of Concord, Agrigento

To the side of the Temple of Concord likes a recumbent statue of a fallen Icarus, the work of Polish artist Igor Miteraj who was famous for his works of broken beauty. I spent ages looking at the shuttered, beautiful face of this rebellious boy.



Also worth a look are the reconstructed giants, nearly 24 feet high that once held up the ruined Temple of Zeus. Here’s a picture of a replica giant. In the background is the modern city of Agrigento.




You can visit Agrigento as a day trip from Palermo, driving or taking the train and then a shuttle to the park. Or you can stay at a nearby hotel. I stayed at the Baglio della Luna which had clean, quiet rooms for around $130 (you can upgrade to fancier suites if you are so inclined) a good breakfast served in a delightful dining room with a view and a generally stunning setting with a large and sunny courtyard looking over the hillds.

Temple of Juno, Agrigento

As always, wear comfy shoes and carry a hat and a light jacket if you’re going in the shoulder seasons. Take picnic supplies to sustain you through all that tramping although if you want to push the boat out a little bit you might consider lunching at the Villa Athena which has a terrace overlooking the ruins.

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The Secret Lives of Renaissance Babies

I first became fascinated with ugly Renaissance babies in 2011 when I paid a visit to the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia. I had some time to kill and wandered around looking at all the Madonnas and other ladies with a baby and I was stunned at how … odd the infants looked. They had these adult expressions translated into chubby little features with the result that most of them resembled nothing so much as pint-sized satyrs who’d seen it all, drunk it all, done it all. I’m talking Romper Room Reprobates here.

I’ve since discovered I’m not alone in my obsession with these enfants terribles. There’s an entire Tumblr dedicated to Ugly Renaissance Babies; it’s hilarious; I highly recommend it.

But there’s nothing like a little firsthand experience so finding myself in the Umbrian village of Montefalco recently, I took a quick spin around the small but charming museum housed in a former church and Franciscan monastery. Would they have paintings of babies? I wondered. And would said babies sport just the right creep factor of world weariness on their fleshy little faces?

Yes and yes.

Here are my favorites and the messages I believe they’re conveying across the centuries:









*Bonus points for the bird’s understandably lively look of apprehension.  








*And if it happens again he’s taking away the other half of that lady’s head.



*Yeah, he full-on killed his bird. What of it?


Cheers, maternally.

Pompeii Epiphany

Plaster cast of a Pompeii man overtaken by the lava.
Plaster cast of a Pompeii man overtaken by the lava.

Visiting Pompeii changed my life.

Truly. I was standing outside the remains of a once-gracious Roman villa, surrounded by the frayed trappings of the city famously frozen in time, when it hit me.

“We have got to redo the bathrooms.”

Because, friends, that 2,000-year-old house, the one that had been rocked by earthquake around AD62 and then buried by the effluvium of Mt. Vesuvius in AD79, had a better-looking floor (intricately set black-and-white marble tiles) than our crappy, faux-wood and warped vinyl specimens back home in Berkeley.

Two months later, after parting with the shell and albumen of our nest egg, putting up with a good deal of noise and dust, politely negotiating the ensuing leak in the living room ceiling followed by a bit of Patch-n-Paint action by yours truly, our new bathroom floors are a vision of black-and-white ceramic.

Will Pompeii have the same electrifying effect on you, dear traveler? Who knows. But here are some tips on how to get there, how to get around and what not to miss. And if you want a bit more historical information, here’s a travel story I wrote about my visit with bonus oblique reference to my being floored by the floors.

YOU MUST TAKE THE C TRAIN … Pompeii is midway between Sorrento and Naples, the two most likely spots you’ll be staying. You hop on the Circumvesuviana train and a ride of 30 minutes or so will get you to the Pompei Scavi stop which is next to a main entrance. (Ancient Pompeii has two “i’s”; modern Pompei has one, in case you’re wondering.) Admission is 11 euros; for 20 euros you can get a three-day pass to Pompeii and four other excavation sites, the best known being the nearby seaside town of Herculaneum. Hours are 8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.from April through October. Closed Christmas, New Year’s and — you may not be expecting this — May 1.

GUIDE GUIDE: Listen, if you absolutely loathe the idea of traipsing around behind a guide holding up a bandanna on a stick, I understand. But be aware that Pompeii is not very well-signed and is quite large, 163 acres, so you may find yourself wandering in circles or staring at a semi-ruined building for ages trying to figure out if this is THE brothel or just a place where friendly folks may have occasionally done the no-pants dance. If you’re going the guide route, you can book before you go; here’s a link to some options. You can pick up a tour at the gate, but ask how many are in the group and if it’s strictly in English or bilingual before you join. An OK compromise is to go with a really good guide book and/or rent one of the audio tour setups at the gate, they’re around 5 euros. Beware unauthorized guides floating around the site. You can tell the real deal by their prominently displayed license from the Region Campania.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR: Heels, flip flops, shoes that are in any way uncomfortable. Just break down and pull out your ugly hikers. You’ll thank yourself after you walk up the umpteenth cobblestone alley. Think layers, including a shower-proof one in winter. In summer, light, white, long-sleeved tops and a big hat. I’m telling you, you don’t go to Pompeii to look stylish. Good news is with that many tourists in one spot you have to work pretty hard at being worst-dressed.

SUSTENANCE: In ancient times, Pompeii had a tavern on just about every corner. Modern Pompeii, not so much. There’s one Autogrill cafeteria near the Forum. Panini are OK and they sell alcohol, blessed, blessed alcohol. I asked for my Italian sightseeing fuel-of-choice, Aperol spritz. They didn’t have that but the barman, seeing I was clearly one of the needy, gave me some other type bitters-soda drink and it was AWESOME. So, practice your needy face.

DON’T MISS: To be honest, the amphitheatre and arena didn’t do that much for me. But here are some of my top spots in no particular order.

The Forum – majestic, pillar-lined area where most business was conducted

Villa of Mysteries – famous for its frisky frescoes including a guy right out of a Viagra-gone-wrong scenario

Lupanare (brothel) – more racy pix, this time serving as a kind of menu advertising what was once on offer

Stabian Baths: Quite well preserved with interesting wall carvings and a place to imagine the daily lives of 2,000 years past.

Bakery: Wood-burning oven, stones to grind wheat, get this place licensed and it could beat the pants off the Autogrill.

THE LITTLE THINGS: Along with the floors, I liked the marks in the roadway left by the steel wheels of chariots and the big crossing stones at corners to keep Romans from getting their sandals wet. Actually, it turns out the Romans were as keen as I am on plumbing, although a bit more industrious about it and had a pretty nifty water system. Here’s some more from the official site on that.

BUT WHAT ABOUT DEAD PEOPLE? WILL I SEE DEAD PEOPLE?: I have a confession to make here. Growing up and reading dramatic accounts of how Pompeii was preserved in ash at the moment of its extinction I somehow had the idea that the corpses were strewn all over town doing whatever they were doing in the final moments. In fact, most of the artifacts and remains have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which is worth a visit. There are a few corpses — actually plaster casts made from the hollows in the ash left by the decomposed bodies — left on the site and most of them can be found in a glass case in the Garden of the Fugitives. All these years later they are a powerful and sobering sight.

 Related posts: Pompeii Gallery