I was in the process of finishing Part 2 of my Vietnam adventure last Monday night when The Prime Minister of Italy announced a lockdown on the whole of Italy, to take effect the following morning. The decree not only stopped all travel but also specified that people had to stay at home only leaving their houses, one at a time, to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy, doctor or bank in their own neighbourhood. There were a couple of exclusions including one that permitted travel if you were on your way to your domicile.
I had a flight out of Rome to Reykjavik on Thursday where I was meeting family for a trip around Iceland. I immediately cancelled these flights as well as the trip in Iceland and booked a flight to Toronto leaving on Wednesday. It took me hours on the phone on Tuesday and I also had to pack and prepare to leave the next day. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie fleeing from an apocalypse, wondering why I hadn’t given myself another day to sort things out calmly. By the end of day, it became clear that I had made the right decision as Air Canada announced that the flight I was booked on was going to be the last flight from Italy to Canada. I was so glad that I had gotten a seat on that flight.
At the airport the next morning, I wore a mask as did many other travellers. After getting through security, each traveller was screened for fever before being allowed to go to their gates. The plane was packed and I was more worried about picking up the virus on the plane so I wore my mask throughout the flight except to eat lunch.
I am so relieved to be home in Toronto. I’m in self quarantine for 14 days as there is evidence that people can be carrying virus without showing symptoms. Today is my 5th day back. My sister left me food in my fridge and family and friends have kindly been offering to drop off supplies. I haven’t had time to be bored yet as I was suffering from jet lag the last couple of days as well as getting over the stress of fleeing Rome in a hurry so I’ve been taking it easy. As I write this, Canada has ramped up its containment procedures. I hope that Canada manages to avoid the disaster that Italy is experiencing.
I have plenty of time now to continue with my travel tales and if any of you are in quarantine, you might be glad of another distraction so I will continue with my adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia in my next posts.
Our group, called ‘Sala Uno’ as our co-ordinator manages a gallery in Rome by that name, consisted of ten people including myself. I didn’t know any of them but got to know them soon enough despite my lack of fluency in Italian. Luckily, the co-ordinator was English speaking and the lady I shared a room with also spoke English so I was able to confirm things with them if I was confused. Our Vietnamese guides also only spoke Italian but I had taken my travel guides in English so I was able to read about the places we were in. We stayed in beautiful hotels and ate well with breakfast, lunch and dinner all provided for us in lovely restaurants.
Just to give you an idea of our journey in Vietnam, I’m attaching a map. We flew to Hanoi in North Vietnam where we stayed for two days after which we went by bus to Ha Long Bay near Ha Phong. From there we flew to Da Nang and went by bus to Hoi An which is just south of Da Nang. Then by bus to Hue, a historic town where the Imperial City built Vietnam’s last dynasty stands. From Hue we flew to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it used to be called. Our final leg was a bus to the border with Cambodia from where we took a boat to Phnom Phen.
Vietnam has a complicated history marked by domination by various nations, China, France, Japan and the US. Prior to the second world war, Vietnam was part of French Indochina. After the second world war, communism flourished in the north under Ho Chi Minh who couldn’t secure the south and the country was divided at the 17th parallel just south of Hue. The south was under a Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem who was strongly allied with the US leading to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until 1976 that Vietnam was reunified to become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This was the time when people from south Vietnam fled as refugees, the ‘boat people’. Pol Pot in Cambodia invaded Vietnam in 1976 supported by China and Vietnam retaliated by signing a pact with Russia. All of this resulted in Vietnam in the 1980s becoming impoverished and isolated still suffering from the aftermath of the Vietnam war which in effect was a genocide, and also dealing with mines and the consequences of chemical warfare. It is only in the last 30 years that Vietnam has recovered.
My first visit to Hanoi was in the late 1990s before mass tourism had arrived. It was grey and dull despite the presence of fine French colonial buildings. People were poor and the major form of transport was bicycles and rickshaws. What a transformation has taken place. Apart from the colonial French architecture, the old Vietnamese ‘tube’ houses, so called because they were very narrow at the front but stretched back with a courtyard in the centre, have been restored and renovated, many with added floors above. The streets are filled with cars and motorbikes though bicycles still abound. Although there are lots of upscale shops, restaurants and hotels, people haven’t given up their traditional ways and it’s not uncommon to see families eating together in traditional street restaurants.
Vietnamese food is delicate and delicious, crispy spring rolls filled with minced pork and vegetables, soft rice paper rolls with salad and shrimp, salads of shredded mango and green papaya, pho soup, a broth with noodles, meat, green vegetables and herbs, pork cooked in coconut milk (in the south), steamed banana leaves filled with minced meat and of course, no meal is complete without rice!
The last time I went to Ha Long Bay, the road was poor and it took us half a day to get there. It was just a small fishing village with nobody around and we had to find a boatman to take us around the bay. Now it is a big tourist resort but luckily for us, there weren’t many tourists on account of the Covid-19 scare. Despite that, the bay was filled with boats and I couldn’t stay on deck for too long on account of the fumes. The price of progress!
Hoi An on the bank of the Thu Bon river was also filled with tourists and I can’t even imagine what it must be like in ‘normal’ times. Nevertheless, it is very pretty with beautiful lanterns hanging everywhere and an old quarter which consists of a Japanese part and a Chinese part.
In Hoi An, we saw how silk is made, from the worms feeding on mulberry leaves, to forming cocoons, to the cocoons being spun into silk. A few people in our group rushed off to a tailor and got clothes made leaving the order in the morning and receiving the clothes by the end of day. I wish I had asked them to show me the clothes but I have no doubt that they were beautiful and well made.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was a trip to the countryside outside Hoi An where we saw organic vegetables being cultivated, did a short cooking class to make crispy pancakes which we ate for lunch, and then cycled back to the hotel. Most of the group passed on the cycling except for myself and another lady. It was lovely biking through the countryside past rice fields and little villages. Everywhere was clean and well kept, no garbage lying about and houses well maintained. An interesting aspect of country life is that families who own land, bury their dead on their land in front of the house and next to the vegetable fields. The idea being that the ancestors are still part of the family and can watch over the land.
Another highlight was tasting durian fruit for the first time. We were walking through the market admiring the array of tropical fruits like dragon fruit and lychees when I saw durian. I had read about it and have seen it both in Asia as well as in Toronto many times but had never tasted it, it smells awful. When I came across a stall selling it, I thought ‘It’s now or never’. As luck would have it our guide happened to come by so I got him to buy us a half and get it cut up so we could taste it. It was creamy and delicious though I personally prefer the taste of jackfruit.
Hue was the next stop on our journey but I think I will continue with that adventure in my next post so stay tuned!
When I published my last post about preparing to go to Vietnam and Cambodia, a friend who is also a microbiologist like myself, left a comment saying that I should have titled my post ‘A Microbiologist Goes A-Travelling’. Indeed when I arrived at Bangkok airport and donned my mask, I looked around and could see people touching the front of their masks, pulling them off and on frequently, taking them off and storing them in their bags for further use and so on. I felt like going around giving instructions on proper usage of masks!
By contrast, Vietnam was amazing in their control measures for Coronavirus starting at the airport. There were signs everywhere advising people of the symptoms and what to do.
Every hotel, restaurant and museum had hand sanitizer at the door and museums were giving out free masks at the entrance. There is a culture of using masks because of pollution in Vietnam so its quite normal for people to wear masks in the street.
In Cambodia, there was less overt concern though I heard that people were avoiding large crowds and that public events had been cancelled. There also seemed to be a notion that Coronavirus doesn’t survive well in the heat and temperatures in Cambodia were over 30C.
We made it to the end without anyone getting sick and returned to Bangkok airport for our flight back to Rome. While we were on our trip, the outbreak had exploded in northern Italy and people were more worried about returning to Italy than travelling in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Practically everyone on our flight wore masks at the airport and many kept them on during the flight.
Back in Rome, the virus seems to be under control compared to the situation in northern Italy and we haven’t seen a huge number of cases. People over the age of 65 have been told to stay at home as much as possible. In general, people are going out less and many gatherings, even small ones have been cancelled. It’s likely just a matter of time before the virus spreads in Rome as well so there is a great deal of concern.
Now that I’ve updated you on the Coronavirus and mask usage, I can talk about the pleasant aspects of the trip so check out my next posts…
In the Fall of last year, I agreed to join two friends from Rome on a group art tour of Vietnam and Cambodia organized by the curator of a gallery here in Rome. It seemed like an interesting trip at the time and though I rarely travel with groups, preferring to organize my own travel schedule, I decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip.
You can imagine my mounting unease over the last couple of weeks with the spread of Coronavirus. Everyday, the newspapers have been reporting increasing numbers of cases and we were hoping that the trip would be cancelled or postponed. However, no such news was forthcoming so the next best thing was to prepare ourselves as best as possible and to arm ourselves with masks, hand sanitizer and so on.
Meanwhile, the Romans have fallen into a state of panic and have cleared out supplies. Few supermarkets stock hand sanitizer and I went to six pharmacies before I found some. Even though masks are of little protection unless someone is coughing and spreading large droplets close to you, I wanted to have a few for use in airports and crowded places. None of any type were to be found. I eventually found some in my local Chinese dollar type store in the handyman section as the N95 mask, which is recommended, is also used by woodworkers and other workers exposed to dust and inhalable particles. I guess few thought to look in this section for masks. So my stash above consists of N95 masks, a few surgical masks (in case I’m the one who is coughing!), hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and foot covers. The latter unrelated to Coronavirus but I hate walking on temple floors with bare feet as one has to remove ones shoes to enter. Foot covers are also useful for when you have to take off your shoes at airports.
Next was the medicines which I would be taking in any case regardless of Corona virus. My doctor did not recommend malaria prophylaxis as we aren’t going to be camping or staying in the countryside. However, dengue and zika virus are of potential concern and there is no prophylaxis for this except to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. Both dengue fever and zika virus are transmitted by the Aedes mosquito which bites during the day. I bought Muskol in Toronto which contains 30% Deet and prevents mosquitos from biting. I found out that Neem oil is also very effective so I tracked down an Indian store here in Rome which had it. Of course there’s the usual array of possible medicines one might need, a course of antibiotics, anti- diarrhoea medications, disinfectant, band aids and so forth. There’s hardly much room in my small case for clothes, with all this precautionary stuff.
We leave on Sunday and will be flying to Hanoi via Bangkok. Then we go on an overnight boat trip on Halong Bay. Following this, we fly to Da Nang from where we visit Hoi An and Hue in central Vietnam. Then a flight to Ho Chi Minh City followed by a trip on a boat up the Mekong river to Phnom Phen. As it turns out an old friend of mine lives in Phnom Phen so it will be nice to see him and his family. Finally, we go to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. All this in only two weeks so there won’t be any time for lazing about which is a shame as we’re staying in very nice hotels. It’s comforting to think though, that should there be more restriction of movement due to Coronavirus spread, it will be no hardship being confined to the hotel.
The unfortunate news is that the friend that I was travelling with has fallen ill and can’t go. Naturally, neither is her husband going. So, now we are 10, none of who I know and the majority of whom only speak Italian. It’s going to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated! I will keep you posted but don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for two weeks as I’m not taking my computer.
For several months last year, there was a space in Piazza San Pietro surrounded by boards. When I returned to Rome, the boards had been removed to reveal a large bronze sculpture depicting people on a boat. The people are of various races wearing clothes of different historical time periods as you can see above. The name of the sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, is not obvious and I didn’t even see it the first time I saw the sculpture. When I did see it, I came home and Googled the name and to my surprise, I found out that he is a Canadian from St. Jacob’s in Ontario.
He has devoted his career to creating sacred sculptures, a famous one being ‘Homeless Jesus’ which shows a man sleeping on a park bench. The one above ‘Angels Unawares’ was inspired by a verse from the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. Angel wings are depicted above the huddled mass of 140 migrants and refugees. Some look apprehensive, some are crying and some are joyful.
Later during the week, I went to a modern art museum the MAXXI where there was a participation installation by Yoko Ono entitled ‘Add Colour, Refugee Boat’. There were three boats in a small room all painted over with different shades of blue. I believe the room and boats started out white with the blue paint representing the sea. People coming to view the exhibit were given paint and could paint over anything in the room including the floor and walls in whatever way they wanted. We were given dark blue the day I was there but the painting was done in dark blue, pale blue and white so people must have gotten different colours on different days. The write-up said that it was part of a series of works conceived in 1960 shortly after Yoko Ono arrived in the US. The initial effect was quite serene but of course, one immediately thought (or at least I did) of the number of people who have perished crossing the seas.
Seeing the two pieces in the same week reminded me that the refugee situation hasn’t gotten any better. Thousands of people flee their homelands to escape war, famine, drought and persecution. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, numbers forcibly displaced people worldwide at 70.8 million with 25.9 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. There are few countries that willingly welcome them and increasingly more countries that don’t want them to enter regardless of the circumstances. Hopefully works of art like these will give more people pause for thought or better yet, some action however small.
I’ve been back in Rome for just under two weeks now. The weather has been beautiful since I got back with sunshine and blue skies except for an odd day of rain. As in previous years, I can’t resist posting a photo of the mimosa tree in my neighbourhood which is bursting with bright yellow flowers, earlier than usual. Cyclamens are in full bloom and it feels like spring.
This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to re-use as much as possible, to repair whatever I can, and to avoid using plastic. Last week, my resolutions were put to the test. I had a hole in my sock and was about to throw out the pair when I decided to darn the hole instead. The tap in my bathroom was leaking so I looked up a You Tube video and changed the rubber gasket. Unfortunately, this was not the solution and it’s still dripping but at least I learned how to unscrew the tap.
My local vegetable vendors in the market are getting to know me and don’t put my produce in plastic bags anymore. I’ve even started re-using paper bags and I’m sure they think I’m eccentric!
All of this is completely futile of course as the supermarkets use multiple layers of packaging and me re-using my bags isn’t going to make any difference. I recently complained to the manager in the supermarket that I didn’t buy cheese there anymore as it was wrapped in 4 layers of packaging. Her response was “Senora, we can remove the packaging and give it to you in paper”. She then went on to say that it was a regulation in their chain of supermarkets and there was nothing she could do. The government has tried to bring in a law restricting the use of packaging but the producers of packaging complained that it would lead to loss of jobs and so on, thus affecting the economy so the law didn’t go into effect. Clearly, I’m fighting a losing battle but perhaps I can urge you my readers to follow suit and reduce your use.
Chinese New Year is in a few days time. Surprisingly, Via del Babuino which leads up to Piazza del Popolo was decorated with red bunting overhead. A very pretty sight. Perhaps, there will be a Chinese celebration in the Piazza on Saturday. In any case, I hope 2020 is kind to all of you and that the world becomes a better place for all.
As I walked past St. Peter’s Basilica a couple of weeks ago, the Christmas tree lights were turned on, it was a magical moment. There are two giant Christmas trees in Rome, one at St. Peter’s and the other at Piazza Venezia. After a shamefully, spindly tree that the City put up in Piazza Venezia a couple of years ago, Netflix now donates it and they continued this tradition again this year. A fine one it is too. Thankfully, this year, they’ve replaced the digital screen in front of it with a figure of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) which is much more quaint.
Back in Toronto, the temperature has gone from – 15C to +5C within two days and all the snow is melting. I’m not complaining as living in Rome has made me more sensitive to the cold and I have to wear layers of clothing to stay warm. Yesterday, people were enjoying a Christmas market in front of City Hall which was nice to see.
As we approach Christmas day and the groaning tables of food, I wish all of you my readers a Merry Christmas with your loved ones or if you are alone, I hope there are rituals that bring you pleasure.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, the celebrated painter and architect of the Renaissance. He was born in Urbino in the Marche region which is not easily reached from Rome so when I got the opportunity to join an art tour of Urbino, I jumped at the chance. The tour was led by a Professor of Art History, Roberto Mulotto who I happen to know.
We set off by coach early last Saturday morning to the Marche which is a region of mountains and rolling fields stopping on the way for a long lunch and a tour of the Franciscan convent of Montefeltrino. Urbino is a walled, medieval city on a high sloping hillside and when we got there, our bus stopped outside the walls at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the rest of the way.
It was dark by the time we got to Urbino but the city was beautifully decorated for Christmas and looked very festive. An image of the young Raphael was projected onto the cathedral.
Urbino is dominated by the Palazzo Ducale which was owned by Federico III, the Duke of Montefeltro, in the mid 1400’s. He ruled Urbino for nearly 40 years and being a patron of the arts and a renowned intellectual, he assembled an eclectic court in the Palazzo. The picture below does not do the Palazzo justice as it looms so large over narrow streets that it is impossible to photograph in its entirety. There was a special exhibition on when we visited featuring the artists who had been an influence on Raphael as well as a few pieces by Raphael himself.
The Duke of Montefeltro’s court painter, Giovanni Santi, was Raphaels father and a significant painter in his own right. It was he who taught Raphael to paint at an early age. Since Giovanni Santi was part of the court, he was well off and had a large house with an interior courtyard and several rooms. There was a fresco of the Madonna in the room where Raphael was born reputed to have been among the first of Raphael’s paintings. It is an unusual depiction showing the Virgin reading. In the courtyard, there was the actual grinding stone where the paints were ground and mixed.
Giovanni Santi who studied under Piero della Francesca has several magnificent paintings in the Palazzo as well as in churches nearby. In fact, the reason we had stopped at the Franciscan monastery in Montefeltrino was to see one of his major works in the Capella di Conti Oliva. Painted in 1489 and surrounded by a frame which is a work of art in itself, it features the Madonna with saints on either side and the Count of Montefeltro in armour kneeling at the bottom right. The Madonna is said to resemble the Count’s wife who died at an early age.
Another magnificent fresco was in the Cappella Tiranni in the Church of San Domenico in a small town called Cagli. This was Santi’s last work before he died. The church has been kept open for extended hours to celebrate the anniversary of Raphael’s death so we were lucky to see it as was in the early evening and we were on our way back to Rome at this point.
Giovanni Santi died in 1494, preceded by his wife, Raphael’s mother who died in 1491. Thus Raphael was left an orphan at the age of 11. He continued his training in the workshop of another Umbrian master Pietro Perugino and the new court painter in Urbino, Timoteo Viti, also took him under his wing. Surprisingly, despite his youth, he took charge of his fathers workshop and managed it until news of his talent spread and he became in demand as a painter. In 1508, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Papal rooms at the Vatican at the same time as Michaelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.. His work in Rome is another whole story, too long to go into here. He remained in Rome until he died at the age of 37 and his remains are in the Pantheon at his request. I’m visiting a friend who lives near the Pantheon tomorrow so maybe I will drop by and see his tombstone again.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving so it doesn’t mean too much to me. However, I do enjoy Canadian Thanksgiving as it is in early October when all the vegetables grown over the summer are harvested for the winter so it seems right to be giving thanks for nature’s bounty. This year, I was invited to an American Thanksgiving dinner in Bologna by my friends Lorenza and Gianni who have many American friends. They hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last year and it was a great success so they decided to do it again. This time I was invited as well.
Bologna is a beautiful city with medieval towers in the historic centre, and buildings characterized by porticoes so one is protected from the weather. My friends live in an old palazzo so it’s like stepping back in time when you walk through the gate into the courtyard.
They got a huge turkey, 8 kilos and there were 18 of us in total. Everybody brought a dish or two so we had a lots of food and several desserts including the traditional pumpkin pie , pecan pie, as well as an apple and chocolate pie which was delicious, a combination I’ve never had before.
The next day, Friday, the streets were packed with shoppers. Black Friday has spread to Italy and even the high end shops were advertising sales. The streets were jammed with people rushing about.
Since Black Friday also only came to Canada a few years ago, I didn’t know how the term had come about so I looked it up. The American Thanksgiving holiday was originally on November 26th but in in 1941, Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. In the 1950s, people began calling in sick the Friday after Thanksgiving to give themselves a 4-day weekend and many businesses started adding that day as another paid holiday. People began to use the day to get a start on their Christmas shopping. In the city of Philadelphia, the police used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the Army-Navy football game held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year. That’s what I came across when I Googled it anyway though there might be other explanations.
I’m glad to say that I didn’t do any shopping but went to visit other points of interest in Bologna. Thank you Lorenza and Gianni for my first celebration of American Thanksgiving and for all the other delicious meals.
Following our stay in Capri, our plan was to spend 3 days in Sorrento using it as a base to visit Amalfi and Positano. My sister likes gardens and I wanted to take her to Ravello where there are two villas with wonderful gardens, the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone. Since this was supposed to be a walking trip we had also planned to do an 8km hike on the edge of the cliff from Agerola near Ravello to Positano. Called the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), the views are said to be spectacular.
We stayed in Sorrento as planned, but between the rain and the random bus schedules our plans for walking along the cliff went downhill so to speak. We did manage to get to Amalfi, Positano and the gardens in Ravello but in the rain, they were far from a pleasure unlike my previous visit there in the spring 2 years ago. We spent most of the time waiting for the bus, or for the rain to stop but when it did stop the views were breathtaking.
Having had enough of the rain, we decided to return to Rome stopping at Herculaneum (Ercolano) for a couple of hours to see the excavation of the roman ruins that had been buried together with Pompeii when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. It was quite a nice day for a change and the train stops fairly close to the ruins so we were going to walk down to them when we saw people selling tickets for a bus to Mt. Vesuvius. We decided on the spur of the moment to take it and climb up to the crater. Ercolano being a small town, the person selling the tickets had a brother who rented out an apt for summer guests. He phoned his brother, arranged for us to have the apt for the night and assured us that we could safely leave our bags in his office until we returned. We were both wearing our hiking clothes as they were too bulky to pack and also had sandwiches to eat on the train to Rome so we were all set for our walk to the top.
The bus wound its way inland and stopped at the base of the mountain which is around 1,300 metres (~4,000 ft) high. There was a muddy and fairly steep path to get to the crater.
On the way up, we could see lava rock and lava mud which had flowed down the mountain after the eruption.
When we got to the top, we could see all the way down to the bottom of the crater. There were parts where there was smoke and vapour pouring out. The eruption in AD 79 was the most violent but there have been about 30 eruptions since, the last serious one in 1944.
We walked as far as we could go but couldn’t get to the side closest to Pompeii as it was closed off. It would have been interesting to see the ruins of Pompeii from this perspective. The earthquake in AD 69 covered Pompeii with ash and it was abandoned until serious and systematic excavations were started in 1738.
Back down in Ercolano, the brother of the man in the ticket office drove us to his rental apartment which was just a convenient 10′ walk from the station and overlooked the ruins of Ercolano which is on the edge of the sea. The eruption in AD 79 did not kill the inhabitants by being buried under ash but by asphyxiation from the heat and sulphur fumes. The town as it was then is well preserved, and we visited it the next day.
Ercolano was smaller than Pompeii in AD 79 but the inhabitants were wealthy and there are many fine houses to be seen. Many are large, double storied with windows at the top, and with marble cladding. Others have ornamental gardens. There are frescoes and mosaics in situ and one can see that many of the houses were homes of the rich.
Unfortunately, it was raining again when we visited the ruins but they were fascinating despite the rain. The Amalfi coast is so much more beautiful in the spring and summer but flooded with tourists. Despite the rain, we were able to stroll about peacefully without having to fight our way through a throng of people so that was an advantage. I still would like to walk on the Sentiero degli Dei but perhaps the way to do it is to check the weather forecast at the end of the tourist season and race over when the weather is still fine and the tourists have left.