The gift of the unexpected

Call it grit. Call it fortitude. Call it experience, acceptance, resignation — any number of descriptive terms can be applied. The truth is that every one of them is appropriate.

We were witness to the pluck and determination exhibited by Venetians during the recent record-setting rainfall, flooding and tides that washed over the lagoon and gained worldwide attention in late November.

Daily life and commerce was affected, to be sure. But daily life and commerce continued apace. Much seemed normal to a casual observer during a time when conditions were anything but normal.

Planes, trains and buses ran on time, waterbuses ran their scheduled routes, and other boats, including barges filled with building and clean-up materials, plied the canals, supplying goods and services to residents, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most gondolas and their gondoliers seemed at rest, waiting for sun and more forgiving water.

Portable boardwalks were repeatedy set up and subsequently removed along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Christmas lights and decorations were much in evidence, and shoppers toted bags along with umbrellas, testimony that seasonal spirit and daily life intertwined.

Venetians donned their “Wellies” and rain hats and went about their business. Shopkeepers placed heavy mats inside their doors. Tourists snapped up “fluorescent-colored “cellophane boots with no quibbling over the 10 euro price, pulling them on and wearing them with no embarrassment.

Venice has a full-time population of only slightly more than 50,000, but up to 30 million tourists visit annually. We purposely chose an end-of-season cruise, hoping to encounter fewer crowds at every port, especially in Venice. We succeeded, but the city was by no means deserted!

Through it all, there was a pervasive air of unexpected good humor.

Venice was the last planned port of our 12-day cruise itinerary. Until almost the last moment, we were uncertain whether the call in Venice, scheduled as a three-day visit, might be canceled. When the captain announced that the water levels were receding and lower tides were predicted, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Disappointment turned to anticipation, even as we were advised that although St. Mark’s Square had reopened, the renowned basilica would remain closed.

Our arrival in the city was delayed by morning fog, its canal-hugging buildings shrouded in mist as our ship slowly made its way to its designated dock. It made for mystical photo opportunities, ship stewards passing coffee and pastries in the early dawn light to awed passengers pushing against deck rails even as the drizzle turned to pounding rainfall. The panoramic windows of interior lounges were equally crowded. The day dawned grey and chilly, but then a rainbow appeared. We had arrived in Venice.

Getting to the heart of Venice

From the port, the trip to the heart of the city involved a journey on foot to the tram known as the “People Mover,” then a transfer to a waterbus, where we joined other people — commuting businessmen, shopkeepers, local residents, office clerks, laborers, shoppers, students and visitors of many different nationalities — bound for stops accessible only by water.

The journey was instructive. We were surprised at how high the water was, still lapping at building doorways and bridge foundations. We were astounded at the visible watermarks that confirmed how much higher it had been in recent days. We remarked on the efficiency of the still-operating pump systems that continued to drain standing water from lower levels of Venetian buildings. We arrived at San Marco station in light drizzle.

As it turned out, the sun emerged as we made our way to St. Mark’s square. This was my first trip to Venice. I was not prepared for the sensory overload of entering the square. Any description seems quite inadequate. I can only imagine how it must feel when crowded with tourists. I am so happy to have had the chance to see it in its stillness.

I was — I still am — spellbound.

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The Basilica defies description

I don’t know how many photos I snapped. Every place I looked, from ground level to soaring roofs, held a view I wanted to remember. I stood in the center of this vast square and was completely captivated. I still have difficulty comprehending the size of the plaza, the opulence of each building’s architecture, and the magnificence of every vista.

And then, the final wonder of the day: Visitors were being welcomed into St. Mark’s Basilica. I am overwhelmed by my overwhelming emotional reaction. I honored the posted signs that prohibit photographs and videos of the interior, although I was sorely tempted to sneak at least one cell phone shot.

However, although many others did take their shots, I hold only my vivid mind pictures of the mosaics, the glistening gold ceilings, the tapestries and the carvings. I also have a sense of how the musty, damp odor combined with the scent of candle wax to heighten the aura of sacred mystery. I am certain that this incredible structure will once again dry out, continuing to inspire future generations of faithful worshippers and curious visitors.

We wandered along the city’s uneven paving stones for a time, stopping for a late lunch at an inviting restaurant. Then, in the late afternoon, we found our way back to our starting point, boarded a waterbus, and settled in with Venetian commuters for a winding canal journey to Plaza Roma. We transferred once again to the train for a quick ride back to the port and our waiting cruise ship, our floating “hotel.”

My husband and I would disembark the next day. Our plans called for us to pick up a rental car and spend a few days exploring Croatia, before returning to Venice.

The introduction to Venice was not at all what we had expected. It was more than we had hoped.

Surprises in the off-season

The experience was reminiscent of our trip to France in late January and early February of 2018. That year we flew into Paris at a time when the Seine was flooded, and departed two weeks later with snow blanketing the city after a paralyzing blizzard. It was a memorable time, for some of the same reasons.

Paris and Venice. Though distinctly different, both cities boast an abundance of architecture, art, history, culture, food and drink — enough to satisfy the appetite of any traveler. But to experience the cadence of life during imperfect times is an opportunity that not every visitor receives. My husband and I treasure that gift.

Coming posts and photos will chronicle our all-too-short visit to Croatia, as well as the “small-ship experience” aboard Pacific Princess, and our impressions of other ports along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts.

Please join me for the journey.

47 years ago . . .

Earlier this year, we paid homage to an event that changed our world. Shortly after Neil Armstrong proclaimed “The Eagle has landed” 50 years ago, he became the first man to set foot on Earth’s moon. Many of us recalled the awe we felt while watching grainy television pictures as he stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, onto the moon’s surface and into history. It was July 20, 1969. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent about seven hours on the surface.

Today marks the anniversary of another event that is not nearly as well known. NASA’s Apollo 17 Mission landed on the surface of the moon 47 years ago. The date: December 10, 1972.

Mission Commander Eugene Cernan, and fellow scientist-astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, lunar module pilot, claimed their place in history. The mission set a number of records, including the moon visit of longest duration and the most extra-vehicular activity. The pair spent just over 22 hours on three separate excursions across the moon’s surface.

Three days after the landing, Cernan followed Schmitt up the ladder to reboard lunar module Challenger. Shortly after they fired the engine that would return them to moon orbit and reunite them with Pilot Ron Evans aboard the command module America. They returned safely to earth and splashed down in the Pacific on December 19.

Cernan was the “last man on the moon,” and that also became the title of his book. Before leaving the surface he spoke the following words:

“. . .as I take man’s last step from the surface . . . I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

I remember the words. I remember the excitement of those times. The prospect of space travel fueled my dreams for a number of years. The wonder remains.

A pair of special reminders of the Apollo 17 mission have a place of honor on my fireplace hearth. They are bronze castings of actual footprints of the boots that were part of Cernan’s moonwalk “uniform.”

I have other mementos of U.S. space missions, including the patches that represent Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions and a screw from “Liberty Bell 7,” the capsule piloted by Gus Grissom during the second U.S. human space flight in 1961.

I hold vivid memories of witnessing the Cape Canaveral launch of the last flight of Space Shuttle Columbia from Cape Canaveral. If you’re at all interested in space missions, I highly recommend a visit to the Cosmosphere, an impressive museum in Hutchinson, Kansas.

I frequently still look up at the night sky hoping to catch a glimpse of the ISS as it orbits our globe. I also check in occasionally to view NASA’s real-time views of the home planet.

It was in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build the International Space Station (ISS), but construction did not begin until 1998, when development of reusable American shuttles made it feasible. Assembly of the various components spanned 10 years and required 30 missions by various nations to transports the parts.

Moon landings and travel to other planets were the stuff of dreams. But they were not to continue. The NASA program to explore the universe, both close to home and far away, faced serious budget constraints and criticism even then, and priorities shifted to more earthly concerns.

That may change. President Donald Trump has expressed a commitment to send astronauts back to the moon before heading to Mars. And private companies, including SpaceX and others, have made public their plans to transport tourists into orbit and, perhaps, to the moon. NASA is testing an updated spacecraft, the Orion, for possible unmanned moon orbit, in addition to designing a space station for moon orbit.

Perhaps the day will come when space travel truly is as commonplace as an earthly airplane trip. After all, if John Glenn, the first man to actually orbit the earth, could return to space 37 years later at age 77, perhaps nothing is impossible. I like to believe that seemingly impossible dreams have always been a part of our reality.

So much world to see . . .

It’s already December!

My husband and I returned home tired in the late afternoon of Thanksgiving Day this year, after nearly 24 hours of travel spanning thousands of miles, seven time zones, and airports in four separate countries. We left Venice’s Marco Polo Airport in the rain and fog at first light on Thursday, and landed at sprawling DFW Airport at twilight, in thick fog and persistent drizzle.

The sky in Brussels earlier in the day had been clear, and even though the pilot announced it was blustery and cold in Montreal, the snow had stopped by the time we arrived, leaving only a dusting of white on the ground. It caused minimal delay. On this Thanksgiving Day, I was grateful for the instruments that guided our pilots and for the “weather window” that brought us home on time!

We booked the trip with full knowledge that an end-of-season cruise to Mediterranean and Adriatic ports comes with inherent risk of cool and rainy days, but off-season travel also promises smaller crowds and more chance to interact with local people. We like that. An alluring itinerary combined with the appeal of small-ship cruising aboard the 670-passenger Pacific Princess had sealed the deal for us.

It became an adventure we will not soon forget, marked by minimal deck time, grey skies, winds, occasional high seas, fog and intermittent rain. Some excursions were altered or canceled due to unfavorable conditions. None of that dampened our spirits, because the small-ship experience was much better than we had expected. We feel as if we forged life-long friendships in just 12 days!

Following the cruise, we rented a car and set off to explore the Istrian Peninsula and coastal Croatia for a few days. We ate well, drank local wine and beer, were captivated by the history, enthralled by holiday preparations, and charmed by the people we met along the way.

Mark Twain’s line comes to mind:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Our time away was marked by pleasant days and relaxing evenings, good entertainment, friendly faces, fine food, impressive sights and wonderful experiences. We returned home tired but rejuvenated, filled with delight, invigorated by memories of people and good times. We learned a lot, made new friends, and affirmed once again that travel is indeed the antidote to narrow-mindedness.

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After a brief hiatus from writing about my travels, I am once again ready to tell new stories. I hope you’ll join me: We’ll visit Malta, several Italian ports, San Marino — the oldest republic and one of the smallest sovereign nations on earth, Croatia and Slovenia. Finally, I have pictures of Venice, during the aftermath of the worst flooding in 50 years, illuminating the indomitable spirit of the city’s residents.

There is no doubt that travel changes a person, in a good way!