Italy at Christmas - 2013

January 11th, 2014

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We arrived in Venice on a rather gray Christmas day. However, with all the splendour of Venice, even gray clouds and rain can dampen only your umbrella and little else.

Water, gondolas and domes

 The iconic gondolas still prowl the Grand Canal and all canals in between, capturing tourists for extravagant, but ( I imagine) romantic cruises through the city.  

Extravagant luxury

Large and small, or rather Grand and not so grand, the canals split the city into numerous islands, some of which are indeed sinking ever slowly. They also notice the effects of global sea rise as well, with St. Mark's Square flooding at high tide, during a neap tide, in the winter. 

Grand...

We never did figure out how the residents got into these boats tied up in this manner. Perhaps they crawl out of the window? 

Not so grand

It is hard to imagine something so commonplace as milk delivery in Venice, but yet...

Traffic jams on the canal

After a couple days in Venice, we hopped an evening train to Verona to see what the Romans left us.

 The best preserved colosseum in the world.

The arena was built in AD 30. It now holds operas, rock concerts (Paul McCartney last year) and figure skating.

Still used regularly, 1985 years later!

While Verona has some of the best preserved Roman ruins, including the Ponta Pietro or Stone Bridge, it also holds some quite spectaculr churches from the Middle Ages. Visitors to this Dominican church are greeted by a hunchback graciously holding a fountain of water. 

A begger, similarly burdened, guards the other side of the aisle
 

After a full day and two nights in Verona, we jumped another train for Bologna, which we used as a base of operations for visits to Ferrara and Ravenna.

A Satyr welcomes visitors

Ferrara was the capital of the Duchy of Ferrara-Modena and as such, hosts a large castle in the middle of the city, protected by moats and with a dungeon conveniently located in the basement.

Escaping is harder if you have to crouch down to go though every door.

 Ferrara also had a wonderful street market full of local specialties including Zampone, a pig trotter stuffed with herbs, spices and meat.

I will never know how delicious it is.

Truffles are also quite common in this region. We bought some cheese with truffles to eat with our pork sausage and truffles.

You say Tartufo - I say truffle

After several wonderful days in the capital of Italian food, we went south to Assisi, yet another spectacular hillside town preserved from the mifddle ages. The home of St. Francis of Assisi, the town still boasts Francis' childhood home and the church in which he was entombed in 1226.

The St Francis Basiclica and complex dominate the view - click for larger image.

The town itself is worth the visit even for the most agnostic and irreverent. We found the best food in Italy, although that claim usually goes to Bologna. Having been to both, one immediately after the other, we vote for Assisi.

 
Where the best restaurants shop

Assisi is on a hill dominated by a castle, built in the 13-15 centuries.

The view is worth the trip - click for larger image
 

Safari in Masai Mara

November 30th, 2013

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Google Earth Placemarks


Not even pictures can really capture the African experience. From our first moments in Nairobi, gazing out over the Nairobi Southern Bypass Highway, we were entranced. From the 1800 or so photos I took in three days, I winnowed those down to about 450 which you can find in the gallery. I struggled to narrow the photos to 20 here.


Dust and grit in the African skies

After a night in Nairobi, we were whisked off to the Wilson Domestic Airfield for a short hop on a 6 seater Mombasa Airways flight ...

No need to check in online or worry about boarding passes

... to Olkiombo Airstrip in the Masai Mara region (see the Google Earth Placemarks provided at the top of the page).

No time to waste - we got out on one side and the next group were climbing in on the other side.

One of the Masai guides from the Kicheche Bush Camp , named Livingstone, picked us up from the airstrip in a landrover and took us back to the camp. There are only six tents in this camp so we were assured very exclusive and personal service.

Kobe tent at Kicheche

As this camp is in an eco-conservancy - a privately owned region protected by strict laws - there are no fences surrounding the camp, so all manner of beast, big and small were free to wander through the camp.

Birds are not stoppped by fences anyway...

Giraffes, elephants, and other beasts wandered throughthe camp. At night, we were strictly forbidden to leave our tent without a guide to lead us from our sleeping tent to the dining tent and back.

I imagine this fellow could just step over a fence, if there was one.

Within an hour or so of arriving at the camp, we were fed a lovely 5-course gourmet meal, packed into a landrover and taken off to the savanna for our first safari tour. For a small additional fee, we had our own landrover and driver.

Elephant tusks are bent, broken and battered from knocking down trees.

One of the things that surpised me the most was the proximity of the animals to us and to each other. Because the Masai have never hunted the animals for food, they are quite accepting of humans and are not afraid of us in the least. In fact they more or less ingnore us as insignificant to their lives.

Cheetahs hunt - and are hunted

While there, we heard that a cheetah had been hunted and killed by a lion. The lions did not like the cheetahs moving in on their prey.

Cheetahs might be fast, but lions are still top of  the food chain.

We toured around until sunset, and then enjoyed a traditional (British tradition, that is) sundowner on the plains.

Herds of ungulates of all types roam the grasslands

After returning to camp after dark, we shared a wonderful meal with the other tent dwellers, and were in bed by 10:00. Odd noises and large animals pawing at the tent kept us alert for much of the night. In order to make the most of our time, we were awoken in the dark with coffee and biscuits, and were off on safari at the crack of dawn.

Charged by a baby elephant!

We stopped near a hippo pool for breakfast. I am not sure which was the more memorable of this experience - the sound of the hippos snorting as they rose to the surface, or the smell as about 25 of them pooped out their night's food into the pool, in which they were bathing.

Do not fall into the hippo pool

The hippo pool was in a bend in the river and so provided us with a relatively safe place to have breakfast.

Patrick, our Masai guide, lays out a nice breakfast

The animals wander around in great numbers and so we did not actually drive very far from our camp. Zebras mingled freely with ...

Zebra stripes are like fingerprints - no two alike

... wildebeast, who are a very nervous bunch.

Luckily, no alligators were hiding in the shallows.

On our last day, we did a bush walk. Note the armed guard with us.

Roaming the grasslands like our ancestors did a million years ago.

The whistling Acacia tree sports large, sharp spikes. As a result, elephants, which love to eat these trees, have developed large molars which can grind the spikes into an eatable mash. The trees also have a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant, which live in the large brown bulbs. The holes made by the ants whistle when the wind blows through the trees.

The Common Acacia Tree.

We shall return.

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