Friday, October 24, 2014

Pearls and Poison by Duffy Brown

Pearls and Poison is another Duffy Brown  mystery filled with all the usual crazy characters. Reagan reminds me a little of a toned down Stephanie Plum with all the Murphy's Law incidents (If anything can go wrong it will). Thrown in to the mix are many southern charm characters and eccentrics. Duffy Brown's books are always a fun read.

From the cover:
With her strong opinions and knack for getting into trouble, Reagan is not an ideal volunteer for her mother's alderman campaign. Plus, she'd rather be running her consignment shop . . . but when her mother's opponent is found poisoned and her mother is pegged as a suspect, Reagan nominates herself as lead murder investigator.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Assisi, Italy - St. Francis Basilica

St. Francis led a simple life and peacefulness surrounds the town of Assisi. Part of the restful feeling could have been because of the mist and drizzling rain which made the town on the mountain top feel cut off from the world. The Basilica of St. Francis is beautiful and is in fact two basilicas, one built on top of the other. Our hotel, Il Castello Hotel, was once a monastery and just a short walk to the basilica.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Still Life by Louise Penny

Still Life is the first book of Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series. (Also a movie starring Nathaniel Parker).  It's easy to see why Louise Penny is the recipient of so many awards, her books are in unique settings, with interesting characters. The story revolves around the death of a much loved Quebec school teacher who was found dead during hunting season. But whether it was simply a hunter shooting at anything that moved or was a premeditated death, Inspector Gamache and his team needed to find out. Inspector Gamache reminded me a little of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and quietly studied the locals at Three Pines. But it wasn't just the death that was perplexing for him, there were so many lives intertwined in the small village that it was difficult to decide which was covering up a death and which was simply a secret that a local wished to keep. I found it a great story with a surprise at the end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dumfries House - Scotland

Dumfries PreviewDumfries House is an 18th century house located south of Glasgow in Scotland and holds an unrivaled collection of Chippendale furniture. But at one time the house was up for sale with its contents on its way to London for auction. That was until Prince Charles stepped in on behalf of one of his charities, The Prince's Trust. He said the trucks were stopped at 1:00 a.m. while on their way to London. Using one of his titles as Duke of Rothesay (a Scottish title) he officially opened different stages of the renovation and shared his vision. The Queen presided over the opening of the complex (see You Tube video below). Dumfries house is now open to the public showing how it would have looked in the 18th century when Lord Dumfries owned the house. But the Prince was not only trying to restore the house to its former glory but to provide employment and work skills to the local towns where unemployment was the highest in Great Britain. There is a cooking school, an artist retreat, and dying arts such as masonry, roof thatching and construction using wattle and daub are taught. The walled garden that is one of the biggest in Scotland, is being renovated and local school children and groups come to learn horticulture. The Prince noted that many children have no idea where vegetables come from and how they are grown.
Dumfries House was shown as part of the Great Estates of Scotland series on PBS


Monday, October 13, 2014

Trafalgar Tours Italian Scene Review - Days 6 and 7 Venice

Day 6 - We arrived in Venice (mainland) in the afternoon and were offered an optional tour of the Canals of Venice (69 euro). As I've been to Venice several times I preferred to wander around the streets, rather than take a tour which included a gondola ride. A few of the group decided to take the small train (people mover) from where the buses park (Tronchetto Island is a man made island shown to the left of the above picture) to the island of Venice (note: first stop is for cruise ships), but unfortunately it was on the far side of the island and away from St. Mark's square. We walked for 30 minutes following the signs for San Marco, then turned and walked back following the signs for Piazzale Roma, returning on the train to meet the Trafalgar coach. The hotel where we stayed that night, Il Burchello, was once a villa converted into a hotel. As with most of the hotels it wasn't near enough to do any additional sightseeing of Venice (17km). One additional feature that the hotel had was a laundry room. Near the hotel (across the river) is a small supermarket and wine shop. Stock up on water here as it's considerably cheaper than in the tourist areas. There is also a pathway along the river for a nice evening walk.

Day 7 - Venice
When we arrived back at Tronchetto Island the following morning, we took a boat cruise to Giudecca Island where we toured a glass factory before going across the lagoon to St. Mark's Square.  There was an optional tour, Majestic Venice (35 euro), but it was so crowded in the square and water had begun to bubble up from the lagoon, flooding part of the square so we decided instead to head to Santa Maria Della Salute crossing the canal by bridge and then taking the gondola/Traghetto back across the canal - 2 euros.
After meeting the group back at St. Marks we selected the optional tour to Burano which included dinner (69 euro). We chose not to join everyone for dinner (I think it was 39 euro without the dinner) and instead wandered around Burano and stopped for pizza at a local pizzeria (I think this was called Devil Take Away Pizza). Burano was well worth the optional cost - Burano is a quaint and peaceful town.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron

Bootleggers_Daughter_mass_paperback.jpgBootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron is the first of the Deborah Knott Mystery series and also the first mystery I have read by Margaret Maron. The writing keeps the reader interested throughout the book. Characters are intriguing and well described and Margaret Maron obviously knows the South and the customs well, having grown up in North Carolina. This was a book club choice and a list of discussion points is available here (there are spoilers so don't read before reading the book). This one is going on my list of favorites for the year.

From the cover:
Unconventional North Carolina attorney Deborah Knott does the unthinkable when she tosses her hat into the heated race for district judge of old-boy ruled Colleton County. Then suddenly, the young daughter of Janie Whitehead begs her to investigate Janie's unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder. Taking the case, Deborah uncovers dangerous old secrets . . .  and someone determined to derail her future - political or otherwise. But it will take more than sleazy scare tactics to frighten this tough steel magnolia off the scent of down-home deceit . . . even in a town where a cool slug of moonshine made by Deborah's father can go down just as smoothly as a cold case of triple murder.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii was much larger than I had imagined and rather than a small village, it had once been a thriving town closer to the sea than it is now. (After the Mount Vesuvius eruption the debris and volcanic ash extended the coastline). There is still much of the town to uncover. The Italians were great engineers and the streets were laid out in an orderly fashion. The street pavements were bordered with light colored stone that reflected from lamps that pedestrians carried at night. Large stones were placed periodically so that people could cross the road which was often filled with water (they were placed wide enough apart to permit the wagon wheels to pass through). Pipes were revealed to show even at that time, these were used to bring water into the city. Unfortunately they were made of lead and caused many early deaths. There was a spa, swimming pool, courtyard for gladiators to practice in and an arena.
When Pompeii was first uncovered they found imprints of the bodies and filled these with plaster to show how people would have been overcome by the gases.
To add to the eeriness of the deserted town, thunder rumbled in the distance with what I can imagine was not unlike the sound of Vesuvius exploding in AD79.
Mount Vesuvius is an active volcano  and yet people continue to live at the foot of the mountain. With a view of Naples on one side of the road, the other shows miles of shanty towns and homes built illegally at the base of Mount Vesuvius. The Italian government has had little success in stopping residents from building in the danger zone of the volcano.
Courtyard where gladiators practiced. Many were prisoners and resided in cells around the courtyard.

Part of the courtyard reconstructed. 

Streets of Pompeii
Ceiling fresco in the spa area

Part of the spa where there were rooms for hot, cold and tepid water.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Trafalgar Tours Italian Scene Review - Day 5 Bay of Naples - Monte Cassino - Assisi

We left the hotel early in the morning and headed to Pompeii (optional tour 36 euro). Although views of Monte Cassino are shown in the advertising for this trip, you will only see it as the coach drives by. There is no stopping to take pictures and it's far in the distance.
I was surprised how big the town of Pompeii was and due to lack of funds to both uncover additional areas and maintain them, only a third of the town is revealed. We had a very informative guide, Enrico, who showed us what ingenious people the Italians were. The tour was a little rushed because of the impending rain and I would have liked to spend more time in Pompeii.
The skies continued to darken and by the time we reached Assisi there was a misty rain. After checking into our hotel, Il Castello Hotel, which was once a monastery and built inside the city walls we had just a short walk to the basilica. Don't expect fluffy towels, they resemble tea towels. Make sure you tour the city when you arrive, because there is no time the following day.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Trafalgar Tours Italian Scene Review - Day 4 (Sorrento-Bay of Naples)

Day 4 -Rome-Sorrento-Bay of Naples
The drive to Sorrento was beautiful with views of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius  We stopped at an inlaid-wood workshop for a tour then spent an hour or so wandering the lovely lanes in Sorrento (be sure to stop at Primavera for a gelato).

From: Sorrento NA, Italy To: Positano SA, Italy
An optional tour to Positano (40 euro) was worth doing with a drive along the Amalfi Coast and time to wander around the lanes in Positano, a quick dip in the ocean and a drink and bruschetta at a restaurant overlooking the beach. The hotel scheduled was The Grand Moon Valley but we stayed instead at the Hotel Mary on the Sorrento coast. After a swim in the pool, which was very cold, we ate dinner at the hotel and spent the evening sitting on the balcony and watching the buses and cars trying to navigate the sharp bend (some guests had a sea view). Some of the others in the group chose to walk to the small town (Vico Equense) where there are a few small shops. I wish we'd had longer to spend here as it seems a very interesting town with lots of history.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Piazzas and Castles - Rome, Italy

It's difficult to describe my first impression of Rome, but amazing comes to mind. Around every corner, there is evidence of an older Rome. Perhaps a hole in the ground with columns, the remnants of a building where Julius Caesar was murdered, or part of a Roman wall with houses built either side. Because Rome has been built over and over again raising the city level, below the ground they continue to find treasures.

Part of the Roman city wall 

We arrived in Rome a day before our Trafalgar Tour began and spent a day and a half traipsing around back streets, coming across hidden Piazzas (Piazza Navona was a wonderful surprise. You can see pictures on Wordsplash.) Each fountain in Rome is fed by a single aqueduct and the force of water coming from the spouts depends on where they are located. The four rivers fountain in the square (which in fact is oval shaped) was sculpted by Bernini. We stopped at Tre Scalini for a delicious gelato (it costs less if you take it from the restaurant to eat, but there are plenty of benches around the square).
Not far from the Piazza and across the Tiber River was Castel Sant Angelo, a castle built around Hadrian's tomb. Entrance was only 1 euro (a reduction because of European Heritage Day). Great view from the top).
We found it fairly easy to get around Rome using the bus and Metro, although we did get on the right bus one day but going in the wrong direction!
Campo de Fiori, another piazza that we loved, recommended by an Italian and Rome's oldest market (you find out lots of information while standing at the bus stop, the Italians aren't much into lines and queues). This is where the locals go and we found a nice spot at a corner Pizzeria to watch the street cleaners pick up rubbish from the market stalls that had since left. There seemed to be no plan as the street sweeper moved the truck in ever curving lines, missing large chunks of the square and going over some parts repeatedly. I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was near the square's water spigot which locals gravitated to, washing baby bottles, filling up water bottles, washing hands and even feet. Despite this, the water is okay to drink (according to Rick Steves) and I had no adverse affects to filling my water bottle from these water fountains in squares all over Italy. It's wonderfully fresh tasting and cold.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom kept my interest from beginning to end. Written from different points of view, it gives the reader a chance to understand Emmy's family dynamics and a glimpse into their thoughts, dreams and disappointments.

Emmy Nolan is a shy sixteen-year-old girl living a sheltered life in Sacramento when a phone call comes from an aunt she never knew she had. Fifteen years earlier, Emmy’s mom, Kate, had fled her tiny eastern Washington hometown and the fundamentalist church that had condemned her for having a child out of wedlock. With baby Emmy on her hip, Kate had boarded a bus, leaving behind her beloved sister, Beth. Now, Kate cannot say no to Beth’s desperate plea: She needs Emmy to participate in a faith healing ceremony. She believes it is her last chance to have a child.

I was totally engrossed in this book and intrigued by the story of Reuben, a Native American boy who befriends Emmy. I know very little about the lives of American Indians in America today and was surprised at how much animosity there was between the people who lived on the local reservation and the "white" people in the town.

I was surprised also to learn that this is Heather Brittain Bergstrom's first novel. She's an amazing writer.

A big thank you to Mason over at Thoughts in Progress - I received the book as a winning entry for one of her giveaways.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Trafalgar Tours Italian Scene Review - Days 1, 2 and 3

Tour Travel Tips here
The Italian Scene Tour by Trafalgar is a great way to see different regions of Italy and in a short time: Rome, Sorrento, Assisi, Venice, Italian Lakes and Florence. It's a whirlwind tour criss-crossing Italy with stays of mostly one night in the cities visited. Our tour director, Federica was amazing and teamed with a skillful driver (Salvo) they made our tour run smoothly.

Plan to spend 15-20 euros for dinner on the nights that it isn't included (included dinner at the hotels was not impressive anyway) and around 10 euros for lunch. Buffet breakfast is provided every day. If you don't want to pay the service charge at restaurants, take your sandwich or gelato with you to eat on a bench or on the go. Also, hotels are on the outskirts of the towns listed so if you want to do any additional sightseeing, you will have to pay for a taxi or if time allows take a local bus.

Many in depth local tours are optional and an added expense (you'll get a list of these with your travel vouchers).
Another additional expense is the airport transfers. Although these are offered, there are few times that you can take them to and from the airport. If your flight doesn't coincide with these times you will have to pay for a taxi (around 50 euro). As we were in Rome a day earlier, transfers weren't available to us, but we were able to take the Trafalgar transfer returning to the airport (6:30 a.m.).

The hotels we stayed in were pleasant and adequate. Some of the showers took some getting used to and don't expect air conditioning to make the room cold. However, they will make it a little less hot and take some of the humidity out. (It was extremely humid in Rome although locals said it was unusual for September).

Tour Day 1 -  Travel Day
We chose to arrive a day early in Rome and what should have been a travel day was our first day in Rome. The Ergife Palace Hotel allowed us to check in as soon as we arrived (8:30 a.m.)  We headed to the bus stop and found our way into the city. I would highly recommend doing this and making the most of your time in Rome.
As with most of the hotels on this tour the Ergife is not close to the city center (over 8km). Coming from the hotel, we turned right at Via Aurelia and walked until we came across the McDonald's sign which is close to the Metro (about 20 minutes). We found public transport relatively easy. The Metro is a good place to get tickets for both bus and subway. (You will need to take 3 or 4 escalators down to get to the ticket machines). The 46 bus (bus stop on Via di Boccea) takes you to Piazza Venezia (make sure you take the bus going in the right direction). We walked around the Piazza Navona (a few stops before Piazza Venezia) then followed side streets to Castel Sant Angelo before taking the No. 46 back (bus stop on the opposite side of the river to the Castel) (count the number of stops before you get on the bus so that you know where to get off). Most Italians can communicate a little in English so learn a few phrases (Dov'รจ means where is) and along with hand signals and a notepad to write down numbers or places, you can get along fine. We found everyone we spoke to in Rome really helpful.

Tour Day 2 - Rome
We weren't scheduled to meet with the tour group until 5:00 as most people were still arriving so we set off early to see the sights of Rome. This time we took the  Metro to the Spanish Steps,  walked up them to the Borghese Gardens (the largest park in Rome) and then took a taxi (10 eruo) to the Pantheon. From there we walked to Piazza Venezia, where the monument to Victor Emmanuel is the backdrop and sometimes called the wedding cake by locals. We also walked the steps to the right of the monument where, at the top, you can view old Rome. After returning to the hotel we joined the welcome meeting with the tour director and our group before heading to a local restaurant (optional experience 47 euro). Although expensive, there was a night time bus tour of Rome and the meal (delicious) was accompanied by opera singers wandering around the subterranean restaurant which was supposedly built on the site of Roman baths. It was a great way to meet and get to know people from the group. Note: Wine included.

I found this video on You Tube. It wasn't the night we were there (they asked a priest to sit in the barber chair the night we were at Le Terme Del Colosseo).

 Day 3 - Rome Sightseeing
We chose to take the optional Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums (76 euro) which I found very disappointing and not worth the cost (the tickets to the Vatican and Chapel showed 16 euro on the ticket). Not that the sights were not amazing, but it was so crowded it was difficult to appreciate the beauty. There were so many groups, it was difficult to hear the guide (even with ear phones) and it was very claustrophobic. After leaving the chapel, the tour headed to St. Peter's Basilica, but with the crowds and the humidity I didn't spend much time in there as I felt a little unwell after the pandemonium in the Sistine Chapel.  Included in the optional was a tour of the Colosseum which was much more informative. If I had the chance to do it again I would visit St. Peter's which is free and just view the Colosseum from the outside while the others were taking the optional tour. In the evening there was another optional tour of Rome with a stroll around Piazza Navona and Piazza Venezia (33 euro). We chose instead to go (by taxi) to the Campo di Fiori, a popular haunt of Romans, where we ate delicious spaghetti and pizza and watched the comings and goings of locals in the square.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

George Clooney Wedding

We were in Venice the day before George Clooney's Wedding, and although we didn't see him, I found out later he was staying in  a hotel on Giudecca Island where we went for a tour of a glass factory. The following day the tour we were on took us to Lake Como (Bellagio). Apparently, he has persuaded the local government to fine anyone coming near his lake home by either road or boat and tours are no longer allowed to take tourists past his house in Laglio. (Local swimmers are also banned from swimming less than 100 meters near his house).

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Train

If you've read The Monuments Men or seen the film, then you may be aware that Rose Valland played a big part in preserving art and artifacts in Paris. A 1964 film, The Train, staring Burt Lancaster, was based on Ms. Valland's book, Resistence at the Museum covering the theft of many national treasures which were on board a train heading for Germany. I found a copy of The Train DVD at the library.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

The Monuments Men book by Robert Edsel (recently released as The Monuments Men Movie) was an interesting look into not only how The Monuments Men preserved and cataloged works of art, but the war itself and its twists and turns across Europe. Often fighting with their own forces to limit destruction of artifacts and precious historical buildings, the men were also trying to recover stolen works of art being hidden by the Nazis or shipped to Germany (The Greatest Theft in History). Degenerate works that Hitler hated are still being uncovered. There were many people who helped them with their cause. Rose Vallant spied on the Germans during their time in occupied France and was instrumental in uncovering thousands of works of art.

My thoughts:
The book was full of facts and stories about the WWII, but was easy to read and not dull by any means. The dedication of the Monuments Men (the story follows eight men, but there were over 300 men and women) was impressive. Their efforts, without any clear authority and some with lower ranks, saved many a cultural treasure from destruction or theft. The death and destruction throughout Europe was immense and so many landmarks were not saved although the Monastery at Monte Cassino has since been restored. 

This would make a great book club read. You can find more about the Greatest Theft in History here.