View of the EmbarcaderoReal Travel for Real People

A Bag Full of Memories

We were recently treated to an overnight stay at the Vitale Hotel, which is located on Mission Street just a few comfortable steps from the Embarcadero. Its clean, modern look is a stark contrast to the Beaux Arts style of the Ferry Building immediately across the street. As evening approached we were mesmerized by the undulating lights on the Bay Bridge, coupled with the Ferry Building’s clock chimes, which are based on portions of the Westminster Quarters. As an added treat, we enjoyed a specially prepared dinner at Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Building as we watched the scurrying ferry passengers, relaxed tourists, and spectacular views of the bay and the bridge.

It’s amazing how many adventures can be stuffed into such a small bag and literally forgotten over the years. We always think about the photos and videos that we take for granted, but what about the other items that come back with us in our overstuffed bags?

Although our stay was short, we thoroughly enjoyed the visit, and as we checked out of our room I instinctively reached for a bar of soap as a reminder of our pleasant stay, as if we had just left the most exotic hotel half way around the world. Bay at sunrise

Once home and ready to unpack I looked at the bar of soap and was magically brought back to all those adventures from the past. I have dozens of mementos from our travels, and have always placed them in a shopping bag whose contents might to be used at some later date. Reaching in, I discovered a bar of soap from The Plaza Hotel in New York, years before Donald Trump took it over. From the other coast a small bottle of shampoo from the Ritz-Carlton, a tooth brush and some bath salts from the Hotel Bauer Grunwald in Venice, and a shower cap from the Scottsdale Plaza, perfect for the start of baseball season. Next was a sewing kit from Crystal Cruises, a bar of soap from the Ahwannee Hotel in Yosemite, and a miniature bar of soap from Lucca’s Hotel La Luna. The scariest find was a shower cap from the Villa Pambuffetti in Montefalco, Perugia, where suddenly in the middle of the night we were rocked by a massive earthquake that did extensive damage to the surrounding area. Fortunately for us, the 600 year old brick and stone structure held up without so much as pebble falling on our heads. The John Rutledge House Inn in Charleston, South Carolina brought back memories of canopy beds and horse and buggy rides, and finally, some body lotion from the Relais Todini in Todi, which has always been one of our very favorite destinations. The ancient hunting lodge has been converted to a fairly small but exquisite hotel with a wonderful restaurant, pool, and tennis courts overlooking the Umbrian countryside. kitchen at Vitale HotelVitale Hotel on San Francisco’s Embarcadero has great views and stunning interiors

It’s amazing how many adventures can be stuffed into such a small bag and literally forgotten over the years. We always think about the photos and videos that we take for granted, but what about the other items that come back with us in the our overstuffed bags? A shirt, a sweater, some stale cookies, fake jewelry or occasionally items of real value, but maybe in the future we should consider something as simple as a bar of soap to make our travels lighter and our memories sweeter.

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

April 2014

The Innocence of SquawSquaw Valley sgn

In a classic case of security gone wild, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will soon be history and best remembered more for the explosive tooth paste and world-wide terrorist threats than the challenges and victories of those talented young athletes from around the globe. The coverage has been spectacular and certainly to be expected in this electronic world of ours. But how many of us still remember or even know about the 1960 winter Olympics, held only a few hundred miles away at, of all places, Squaw Valley.

Once Squaw was chosen the challenge was to turn the virtually unknown and undeveloped Squaw Valley into a world-renowned resort.”

It was 1956, and as a young man I remember driving to Lake Tahoe and putting up with the endless delays as men and equipment worked fearlessly to expand Highway 80 in order to handle the additional traffic. While drilling rigs bored into the sides of the mountain, brave men packed the chambers with dynamite in order to disrupt the beauty of nature for the sake of mankind. The wait was endless as we sat patiently anticipating the next “boom.” The roadway signs warning us “Do not turn on radios.” Just imagine with today’s i-Phones, cell phones and i-Pads the mayhem in controlling the threat of a premature explosion. Talk about terror!

drilling rigsOnce Squaw was chosen the challenge was to turn the virtually unknown and undeveloped Squaw Valley into a world-renowned resort. The task was accomplished in an unbelievably short length of time for a total cost of 80 million dollars, a far cry from today’s billions spent in recent years by host countries. Without today’s fanfare or chain-cutting, the politicians were able to deliver the project on time and probably under budget, but that was the California of old. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown was governor and should have taken a little more time educating his young son in the ways of governing, but wait a minute, this is about history and not political comment, which shall be left for the more talented columnists appearing on these very same pages.

The amount of planning, design and construction is unfathomable in today’s litigious society, and starting from a clean slate was an advantage and disadvantage at the same time. McKinney Creek Stadium, as well as Blyth Memorial Arena, were built from the ground up, and the latter used as the site of both the opening and closing ceremonies. And who better to chair the Pageantry Committee than Walt Disney himself, who was responsible for both ceremonies.

But even then, as we see today, politics reared its ugly head as the Cold War politics between the United States and Russia wrestled over the participation of China, Taiwan, North Korea and East Germany. Eventually cooler heads prevailed and they allowed entry to athletes from Communist countries. History was made as South Africa competed at the Winter Games for the first time, and West and East Germany competed as a united team under a common flag. Television was certainly not new to the Olympics, but when CBS was asked by the officials if one of the skiers had missed a gate, the era of instant reply was born.

I vaguely remember attending the spectacle and being enthralled by the high jump as skiers soared hundreds of feet in the air. I only wish I had stayed to see the closing festivities, but the treat of driving back on a brand new four lane Highway 80 was too tempting to resist.

Now there’s talk of Squaw Valley being considered once again for the 2026 winter Olympics, but considering today’s endless rules and regulations, it may take that long to rebuild that winter wonderland. Perhaps we can put George Bush in charge of security, Obama in charge of the contestants’ medical center, and Jerry Brown to head up the high-speed rail system to Tahoe. That may make a lot of sense, but am I getting political again?

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

March 2014

It Takes a Village

Barrier or no barrier, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge will always be a challenge. Narrow lanes of traffic separate the oncoming cars by mere inches while spectacular views on either side add to the distraction. The potato patch and the Farralones face the setting sun, while red and white boats carry tourists around the bay on the eastern side. As locals, how many times have we stopped at the vista point acting like tourists, and enjoyed the breathtaking views of the San Francisco hills and skyscrapers? Golden Gate Bridge

Down the steep incline, the road becomes a bit more manageable as we head for Sausalito, a relatively quiet maritime village hosting some of the finest boutiques and restaurants in the county of Marin. To the tourist it could be reminiscent of Portofino, Viareggio, Barcelona or dozens of European sea towns, but to the locals its history is long and fascinating. As a youngster I remember seeing the massive ship building yards where Bechtel Corporation's Marinship built a ship a week during the peak of the Second World War. With its six shipways operating 24 hours a day, the more than 20,000 workers rolled the sleepy little town back in time to its 1920's Prohibition days, with its legendary speakeasies and rumrunners. I still vividly remember attending a christening of one of those ships, as some obscure dignitary cracked a bottle of Champaign across the bow of the newly completed ship, which signaled the release of the behemoth as its keel slipped slowly down the ways.

During the war years the Bay Area was a mecca of military activity. shipbuildingA submarine net was stretched across San Francisco Bay, which would be raised and lowered as ships arrived and left. Pittsburgh was a major embarkation point for our troops heading to the war in the Pacific, and temporary housing was being built for all the support personnel working tirelessly for the war effort. Many years later, as a member of the 91st Infantry Reserve, I spent many a weekend at Fort Berry and Fort Cronkite's rifle range sharpening my marksmen's skills in preparation for active duty.

What was once home to ships and shipyards soon became a mecca for houseboats and hippies. Famous and infamous were to be seen in various roles, and the likes of Sterling Hayden, Shel Silverstein and of course, Sally Stanford, drew the comments and the crowds. sunset in Sausolito

When we first got involved in boating our first berth was at Clipper Yacht Harbor in downtown Sausalito, our little 25 footer dwarfed by the mega-yachts surrounding us. Cruising around the area we were treated to years of history for our young family to enjoy. They were too young to understand or appreciate the real history of Sausalito from Native American to Spanish, Mexican and the Europeans. From the iconic William Richardson, to the commercial fishermen and yachting enthusiasts, the area was further expanded once ferry service was opened between San Francisco's Hyde Street pier and downtown Sausalito. With a new bridge being christened in May of 1937, the hustle and bustle was reduced to a trickle as Highway 101 bypassed Sausalito entirely. Although our little boat is now gone and our children have long forgotten this village of their youth we still return to visit and re-visit some of the area's most exciting restaurants and shops. Once our children grew older we did take them to the Valhalla Restaurant, but not bringing up the checkered past of its colorful owner, Sally Stanford. Yes, she was mayor of the city and certainly civic minded and for them that was enough history.

On a recent visit we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Poggio. Another one of our favorites is Scoma's. Perhaps the time has come to abandon that spectacular Golden Gate and grab a scenic ride on one of those red and white boats and revisit and recapture some of those wonderful moments from our earlier years. A stroll along the waterfront, a relaxing lunch along the way and a final stop at Sally Stanford's fountain and, as the inscription says, "Have a Drink on Sally."

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

February 2014

The One That Got Away

With the media blitz surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Cuba keeps coming up, not only with the failed Bay of Pigs debacle but with countless conspiracy theories. The 13 day standoff that came perilously close to triggering Armageddon a half century ago is now history and Cuba is once again open to tourism and welcoming the Yankee dollar. Having strongly considered an invitation to join our friends, Rochelle and Harrison, on an 8 day “Discover Cuba” adventure, our final decision was to pass on this one, which turned out to be a big mistake.

The first stop: the Bocay Rum Factory, where samples were generously provided and fortified them for a visit to the Plaza of the Revolution as they gazed at portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos while hearing about the long and rambling speeches of Fidel Castro.”

After our friends returned we got the opportunity to hear all about their trip and enjoyed countless photos and stories about all the nice people they met, how good the food was and how one exists without a cell phone for a week. The trip left from San Francisco with a direct flight to Miami. An overnight stay and an early morning charter flight got them safely to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

The first stop: the Bocay Rum Factory, where samples were generously provided and fortified them for a visit to the Plaza of the Revolution as they gazed at portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos while hearing about the long and rambling speeches of Fidel Castro. Tourists are allowed to purchase and enjoy the local rum as long as it’s enjoyed while in Cuba, but no taking it back home. That also holds true for Cuban cigars. A walking tour of Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a tour of the Cathedral de la Havana and a Tropicana Cabaret Show topped the day. Their tour guide pointed out that cruise ships no longer visit Cuba, and unlike our country, guns are not allowed, and even the police and military leave their weapons behind before heading home. Interesting fact: each person is allowed only four ounces of coffee per month. No wonder rum is so popular!

The following day started with a walking tour of the Colon Cemetery, named after Christopher Columbus, a tour of the Museum of the Revolution with countless artifacts of the revolution, as well as detailed information about the CIA trained Cuban exiles and rebel forces. The museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace whose interior was designed by Tiffany’s, and speaking of money, the local currency is the Peso Convertible, used mostly by tourists and known as the CUC which is almost equal to the US dollar.

One would not think that health care and education would be a driving force in the area but with Fidel Castro’s insistence the program prospered and many professionals are now sent to other neighboring countries to help in their needs. Following a display of Flamenco dancing at the Lizt Alfonso Dance Studio the group moved on to the National Museum of Fine Arts to view an extensive art collection from painters of the earliest colonizers.

Their first sojourn out of Havana brought them to the Vinales Valley, where Pinar del Rio is known for its stunning scenery of flat top mountains, tobacco plantations, caves and rivers. Old cars are always associated with Cuba, and a visit to the Museum of Guanabacoa of Santeria Orishas gave them the opportunity to see an early 1900’s Cadillac. One of the last stops was probably the most interesting as they visited the home of Ernest Hemingway, where he lived for 21 years with his 3rd wife Martha. Still on display is his yacht Pilar, which he used to patrol for Nazis in the Caribbean waters. Last stop was at Morro Castle, built in 1589 to protect the mouth of Havana Harbor.

A farewell dinner and it was time to pack it up and head for home. Are we sorry we missed it? You bet! Would be go next time? In a heartbeat! With all that history and so much to see we’re so thankful that first nuke didn’t get lobbed over the ocean and plunked down in the middle of Biscayne Bay. Grateful indeed, but so sad that one of our greatest presidents had to be taken away from us so suddenly and so sadly. I would love to see Cuba, but for me it will always remain bitter-sweet.

December 2013

The Book of What?

When the second mechanic entered the cockpit it became an “oh, oh” moment, and judging by the size of him it must have been pretty cozy in there, but fortunately the usual excuses didn’t materialize from the cockpit and before long we pushed back and took the long stroll to the end of the runway. We waited patiently in line while the flight crew forewarned us of takeoff delays and chop along the way. Our captain, a middle-aged woman, was very much in charge and with the first bump the seat belt sign came on and her school teacher demeanor said it all. As it turned out it was a relatively smooth flight, the continental breakfast aboard was manageable, and the ride to the hotel routine.Chicago river and bridge

The adventure was certainly worth it and the language was no worse than what you would normally hear at a 49ers game.”

Chicago has always been one of our favorite destinations, and this trip is doubly nice in that we get to attend a surprise 80th birthday party for my cousin and we have the opportunity to visit with our granddaughter, who’s attending her senior year at Marquette University.

After a late lunch and a brief walk around the area we settled for room service while enjoying the river and city views from our 23rd floor panoramic windows of the Trump International. Kristen arrived at noon the following day and the first order of business for the ladies was a quick trip to Nordstrom’s, after all, isn’t that what grandparents are for?

Aside from the Miracle Mile, Chicago has some of the greatest museums of any major city. Next stop was a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, a comfortable walking distance from our hotel. The three floors of exhibits were interspersed with portable stages and musical instruments for a concert later that evening.

Dinner with a few of the cousins gave us a chance to catch up and reminisce about the old days and relive all those fond memories. A little more walking and a little more shopping and it was time to get ready for my cousin Joe’s 80th surprise party, and surprised he was, especially when he saw us out of the crowd of nearly a hundred. I had called him on his actual birthday just a few days earlier and I had the hardest time not saying “so we’ll see you next Saturday.”

One of Joe’s granddaughters had prepared a slide show of Joe, his family and friends, and as it happened I, too, had prepared a slide show that was also shown. So many wonderful old photos and great memories.

As always the evening went by too quickly, and before long it was Sunday afternoon and time to head to the theater to see a play that Karen had wanted to see for the longest time, Book of Mormon. Yes, we had heard about the subject matter and the language, and yes, we did get our daughter’s permission to bring Kristen along, after all she is twenty-one!

The house was packed and the prices ridiculous (actually, when the show comes to San Francisco early next year, the tickets are reputed to be around $750 apiece—we got by cheap). The standing ovation was certainly well deserved and the most amazing part was that they had one more performance that evening. We got tired just watching all the jumping and dancing on stage. The adventure was certainly worth it and the language was no worse than what you would normally hear at a 49ers game.

We so enjoyed our birthday party dinner at the Erie Café that the three of us went back Sunday night for a repeat performance. The special for the evening was a 32- ounce slice of prime rib that we fortunately managed to split. Good food, good wine, and family fun was the mantra for the last four days and how fortunate we are still be able to do this. Fortunate, until we got to the airport to find out that our United flight was delayed by almost four hours, but in return for our patience we were rewarded with the nicest crew and a very smooth flight.

Perhaps all those incantations that we learned from the Book of Morman kicked in and a higher power was looking over our shoulder……..aw, the wonders of travel.

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

November 2013

Just a Walk in the park

Graduating from Dartmouth was an honor, running the equivalent of a marathon a day for 7 days through the Sahara desert was a challenge. Having competed in an Iron Man triathlon and having finished first in his age group was an accomplishment few can claim. The 2.4-mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride followed by a marathon of 26.2 miles must have seemed like a piece of cake for our grandson, Trevor, as he prepared for a week of physical punishment which entailed a week long, 250 kilometer run across the Saharan desert. A 20 pound back pack carried his supplies for this ultra-marathon, in which participants carry their own clothing, medical supplies and most amazingly, all their own food in the form of dehydrated meal packets. Water and nightly shelter was supplied by the clean water charity, Water.org, the sponsor, but certainly no Big Macs along the way!Trevor at graduation

With the usual happenstance of world travel, Trevor's flight to Cairo was relatively easy considering the possibility of missed flights, long security delays, and misplaced hotel reservations. In the lobby of his starkly modern and quite beautiful hotel he had the opportunity to visit with fellow runners from all parts of the world while rethinking his readiness; choice of gear, food for the week and fitness plan, just to name a few. With an afternoon devoted to site-seeing downtown Cairo, where East meets West in a city renowned for its hospitality (how things have changed is so short a time), Trevor used his best Arabic to explore while thinking about the early morning four hour bus ride into the desert.

The first camp was situated next to a deep blue cerulean lake, surrounded by a mix of hard and soft sandy terrain which would become such an integral part of his existence for the next week. Following a rehydrated dinner, traditional Bedouin music suddenly broke out as the group clapped in harmony. Moving from tent to tent was an excellent opportunity to guess the competitors' nationalities and origins. By bedtime, the 10 runners in each tent were lined up head to feet in order to conserve space, knowing that with each new camp the smell would become more and more unbearable but in the end no one seemed to care.Trevor at the finish line

"Really being out in the open" took on a new meaning as there was "nothing" out there for endless stretches of terrain. An old caravan road sped things up for about 13 miles, while he was averaging ten minute miles. Not a bad start for the first day, coupled with the encouragement of fellow competitors such as the group of Taiwanese runners carrying a 10 kilo ceramic "prince" the entire distance of the course. The night sky was razor sharp and unobstructed, still lit by the gentle glow of light pollution from Cairo off to the Northwest.

The second day brought an endless supply of soft sand, which reduced his progress to a speed walk. The strangest thing was the complete lack of depth perception, having small features from afar turn into objects that were hundreds of feet tall. The camp was certainly a welcome site, having finished by early afternoon, and allowing time for an early nap as they awaited the day's stragglers.

The next few days provided more of the same, sand, heat, leg cramps and endless power walking. Every day had new challenges but with them came more encouragement that the body could be pushed beyond perceived limitations. In the heat of the day the question always became, "how did I ever get here to such beauty and isolation?" Each day brought insurmountable challenges, but knowing that the end was ever closer and with it the thought of food long forgotten.

With cooler evening temperatures the last 55 miles traversed in the last day left only a mere 2k photo op at the finish line the following morning. With endless thanks to the cheery volunteers, dehydrated meals, and super supportive tent mates, the ordeal was over. The 2,200 calories consumed daily cost Trevor a ten pound weight loss, and the thought of food they were going to consume was replaced by the perceived importance and frequency of actually eating it.

Draped in an American flag, Trevor crossed the finish line, coming in 32nd out of 155 runners that completed the race. Along with this accomplishment he managed to raise close to $15,000 for Water.org. That was 2 years ago, and today, after having completed his college education, Trevor is now spending four months in Tajikistan as a member of Mercy Corps, helping local residents reestablish themselves after 5 years of civil war after gaining independence in 1991 from the USSR.

Trevor is due back by Thanksgiving, and it will certainly be a day of thanksgiving knowing that he's back safe and sound. If this trek is as exciting as the last one I may have to do a repeat of his adventures in the next few issues….stay tuned.

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

October 2013

Graduation Day

It took us less than three hours to travel from Boston to Woodstock, Vermont. We traversed three states in that short time, and with our ever-present I-Phone GPS we found our way to the lovely home that Bob and Meg had rented for the week-long celebration for Trevor’s graduation. With threatening skies, a tent had been set up for the more than 50 graduates that arrived that evening with their party faces well in place. So many nice young people, with the adventures of their new careers awaiting them.Billings Farm and Museum

With two days left to sightsee, we took full advantage of the opportunity and walked the town of Woodstock, visited Simon Pierce, the glass blowing factory and sparkling sales rooms that put Murano and Burano to shame, ate at its gourmet restaurant, and attended an early evening reception at one of Trevor’s classrooms. The following day we visited Billings Farm and Museum, a working dairy farm with displays of all the old farming and dairy tools and equipment that covered two full floors. And with all that fresh milk, we had to try their home made ice-cream on the way out. It was a bit too early for the 3 o’clock milking demonstration so we’ll save that one for next time.

Although it rained every day of our stay, the weatherman blessed us with a beautifully sunny day for Sunday’s graduation. The outdoor ceremony started at 9:30 am with the entrance procession, and ended shortly after 1 pm with the traditional tossing in the air of all the caps followed by cheers of joy and accomplishment. There were 1,019 graduates, preceded by the conferring of over 600 master’s degrees ranging from business, engineering, public health and sciences as well as PhD’s, and 101 young men and women receiving their MD degrees from the school of medicine. There were also seven honorary doctor’s degrees presented, as well as five valedictorians, all of whom had achieved a straight 4.0 grade point average for their four years of study. The commencement address was given by Geoffrey Canada, honored earlier with an honorary doctorate degree. His speech was moving and filled with emotion as he spoke of his work with thousands of underprivileged young kids in New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, having given up a much higher paying job after his graduation from Harvard’s School of Business. It was also a momentous occasion in that the first woman president of Dartmouth, Carol L. Folt, was retiring that day. She was so proud but tearful as she gave her closing remarks to the class of 2013. It seemed like the time flew by with endless photos and videos to record these precious and life altering moments. After the ceremony we gathered at Murphy’s across from the green to toast Trevor on his successful four years at Dartmouth and topped off the celebration with a quick stop at Morano Gelato for a last gelato in honor of his accomplishments. That evening we ate dinner at the house as we enjoyed each other’s company while trading stories of Trevor as a youngster. With two sets of grandparents in attendance the stories were warm and enjoyable but certainly not embarrassing.

One would expect such a nice story to have a perfect ending. We left Hanover at 12 noon on Monday for our three hour drive to Logan Airport leaving enough time to drop off the car and arrive in plenty of time for our 4:30 flight to SFO. As we checked in, the attendant asked us where we were going and then in a rather embarrassed tone said “you have a delay, a rather long delay.” As it turned out, a three hour delay was not all that bad considering all the joy of the last week. So we got home at 2:30 in the morning local time, a small price to pay for yet another smooth flight and an amazing adventure. Congratulations once again to Trevor, to his beautiful family and to old age. It’s so nice to still be around to witness these marvelous moments, I guess old age has its benefits after all……

September 2013

Bittersweet Boston

The last couple of times that we visited Boston were either at the beginning or at the end of a trip through the New England states for the fall colors. This time it’s for another joyous occasion, the graduation from Dartmouth of our oldest grandson, Bob and Meg’s son Trevor. As trivial as it sounds, it seems like yesterday when he was born and now we have three other grandchildren in college. What is it that they say about getting old?
Our early morning Virgin flight was flawless and so far, two and a half hours into it has been “living room sofa perfect.” What tornadoes? With four days planned in Boston I’m sure we’ll get a chance to visit the usual sites while using the Liberty Hotel, which was once the notorious Charles Street prison, as our home base. Sadly, I’m sure that we’ll get the opportunity to see the sites that brought so much sadness to this beautiful city, not unlike visiting the site of the twin towers in New York City after nine eleven.

Once again, our kudos to Virgin American Airlines, never have we flown so far so smoothly, especially with all the storms across this wonderful country of ours. Not a ripple, not a bump other than the usual bit of turbulence during our final approach. The ride from the airport took barely 20 minutes and within moments we were comfortably settled in our 13th floor room overlooking downtown Boson and a setting sun over the Charles River.

With Monday morning’s rain, we decided to start with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum instead of a get-acquainted walk around the area. Our newly built hotel tower was built on land owned by Massachusetts General Hospital, which is right next door, and with it comes the sirens all day and all night long. We later found out that Mass General was recently voted the best hospital in America. Good to know, just in case we develop calluses from all the walking!

stairs at the Gardner MuseumThe biggest surprise of the Gardner Museum is the old and the new. The main entrance is in a glass and aluminum atrium, which is part of the new and very modern addition by award-winning and world renowned architect Renzo Piano. A glass enclosed corridor leads to the museum building itself, which is patterned after a 15th century Venetian palace, and is almost identical to the Franciscan Monastery Museum that we’ve twice visited in Dubrovnik, which housed the oldest pharmacy in Europe. The enclosed atrium opens to three floors of galleries full of priceless art treasures. The museum is also famous for the 1990 heist of more than 13 pieces of art valued at more than 500 million dollars, while the perpetrators and the location of the art still remain a mystery.

While touring the galleries we had a chance encounter with two lovely young women from Italy. Deborah had just finished her master’s in Italian literature from Boston College, and was now headed to New York with her husband for her PhD to further her studies. Her friend Barbara was visiting for the week and then heading back home. A quick stop at the Café G for a bowl of Boston clam chowder brought another surprise. The handsome young man by the name of Roland Mills, who had also just finished his master’s in opera, spontaneously started singing for the couple in front of us and later with a little coaxing did a beautiful rendition of “La Donna e Mobile” for us. All that for the mere price of a bowl of soup!

St. Charles MarketBy mid-afternoon the skies had cleared and we finally got a chance to walk the length of Charles Street and visit the boutique shops and restaurants. Our dinner that night was at Clink, the hotel’s main dining room where the food was excellent and the service first rate. We had heard so much about the Duck Tours that we just had to give it a try. Our tour left from the Museum of Science which was just a ten minute walk from our hotel, and after a short wait we embarked on our 90 minute land and water tour. Our driver/narrator was straight out of central casting and within minutes we were all “quack, quacking” at his command. Going from city streets down a narrow ramp into the Charles River was a bit strange, but once fully afloat a handful of young kids were given a chance at steering the old landing craft around the water.

interiorWe had a chance to visit Boston University, where our granddaughter Katrina just finished her freshman year, and Boston College, where our grandson Michael Strem will be starting in the fall. On the way back we were dropped off at the beginning of Newbury Street, not far from where the Boston Marathon ended. Somehow we chose not to see the site and settled for the driver’s description; it was too nice a day to spoil it with all those incredibly sad moments. Newbury Street is a shopper’s paradise lined with 19th century brownstones, most of which have been converted to high end shops or restaurants. Continuing along Newbury we found our way to the Boston Public Gardens and Boston Commons, but not before passing some of the most expensive and up-scale stores in the world. It’s touted as one the most expensive streets in the world and we had no reason to doubt that for a moment. In the Public Gardens you can ride around in the swan boats or visit the bronzed ducklings all neatly lined up in a row, almost always surrounded by small children. With just enough time left in the afternoon we grabbed a quick taxi ride to the Museum of Fine Arts and tried to see some of the 450,000 works of art. The museum was beautiful, finding a taxi back to the hotel was a nightmare, but patience prevailed and once settled back in at our hotel we treated ourselves to a cold drink and a casual dinner at Alibi, where the brick cell walls and steal gates are still very much part of the ambiance, and yes, Karen took a picture of me standing behind the bars.

Sergio and Karen

July-August 2013

Habemus Papam

It was a devastating earthquake, 5.6 on the Richter scale, followed by a deadly aftershock approaching 6.0 again on the Richter in which two engineers and two monks were crushed to death by the falling, fresco-lined ceilings of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. More were killed or seriously injured in the adjoining villages. This was in September of 1997, and by the time we visited Assisi in 1999 the restoration was well under way, fueled by a papal edict that all the work be finished for the celebration of the millennium which was just a few months away.

upper basilica St. Francis of Assisi
Upper basilica St. Francis of Assisi

Having started from Milano, with stops in Bergamo, Verona, Venice and Florence, we settled in at the very tired five star Brufani Hotel in Perugia. We spent the following afternoon in Gubbio, where we enjoyed the views of the countryside from Piazza Grande, and then headed for Deruta, an old town about two blocks long and lined with small shops selling hand-painted pottery.

The Porziuncola, St. Francis' original chapel, a work he personally restored from crumbling ruin, is enshrined at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.

Porziuncola at St. Francis of Assisi

The steeple is a later addition.

The following morning we were inundated by a driving rain as we headed for Assisi, but fortunately by the time we arrived the storm had passed and a bright sun was shining over this medieval Umbrian hill town. What we saw in the next few hours were not only the famous frescos from Giotto inside the beautiful churches, but more construction than I have ever seen in any one place — cranes and workers everywhere. And the most interesting thing was the intensity at which the men were working — certainly not in the Italian style. We were told that under normal circumstances the work would have taken years, but the Pope told them that it must be finished for the year 2000. Get it done or else, and boy, was it working. (I wonder if the same crews are still around to help with the new bay bridge and central subway.)

What took over 300 years to build was being quickly reconstructed in just a matter of months, but unfortunately for us the Upper Church, known as the Basilica Superiore, was still undergoing major repairs and we were only able to visit the lower Church. I’m sure that in 1228, the year that St. Francis was canonized and the work was started, the means and methods were certainly not those being used in the rebuilding.

San Francisco's Porziuncola Noueva
The San Francisco Porziuncola is maintained by the Knights of St. Francis at 624 Vallejo St. Tue-Sun 10am – 6pm

I remember the Lower Church, the Basilica Inferiore, being dark and smelling of burnt candles, but the light was sufficient enough to see the great work of the artists Cimabue and Giotto. Not wanting to curse the darkness any longer, I reached in my pocket for a few coins and lit two candles to add to the eeriness of my surroundings.

Finding our way down the hill we stopped by the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels), which houses the Porziuncola, a place from where the Franciscan movement started. Ironically, we now have a scaled down duplicate of the very same building right here in San Francisco’s North Beach, adjacent to the main church of Saint Francis on Vallejo Street. Certainly worth a visit and much easier that a trip to Assisi.

Now, after all these years, we’ve gone full circle and have a Porziuncola of our own and a new Pope that has taken the name of Francis. Small world indeed.

Sergio Nibbi gets around—the world! Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

June 2013

Déjà Vu

In Florence they call it the “Rinascimento.” We know it as the “Renaissance”, a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chapter in life and in nature. The trees are in bloom; the countryside turns from sound asleep to wide awake. And what better place to see God’s glory than in the Napa Valley where last year’s grapes were picked, the vines pruned and neatly tucked away for a long winter’s rest. But now they are reawakened and coerced into producing yet another award-winning crop where the cycle will repeat itself. From grapes crushed into juice, to fermentation, to the miracle of wine as it silently matures in oak barrels. Soon the vintners will stand proudly, as awards and accolades are bestowed to those fortunate enough to make the pages of the wine magazines, or enjoy private wine tastings in the company of close friends.

We may not be so fortunate as to have the world famous artists, philosophers, poets and architects from Tuscany where the Renaissance began, but we do have the beauty of fog-covered farm land hovering near the majestic Pacific Ocean, growing delicious artichokes served piping hot or brazed over an open fire with freshly-caught salmon.”

In the Salinas Valley the orchards are showing new buds that will soon become delicious figs, almonds, lemons, limes and oranges. The strawberries will regain new sweetness, and the lettuce picked, cleaned and bagged to be shipped around the world. My back aches as I watch the workers in the fields bent over their crops for our enjoyment.

We may not be so fortunate as to have the world famous artists, philosophers, poets and architects from Tuscany where the Renaissance began, but we do have the beauty of fog-covered farm land hovering near the majestic Pacific Ocean, growing delicious artichokes served piping hot or brazed over an open fire with freshly-caught salmon.

As humans, we too reproduce, and as the sun starts to shine brightly once again there also seems to be a new crop of infants. Is it our imagination, or as the saying goes “it must have been a cold winter.” Stroller’s line the sidewalks, while panicked dads escort their older children wearing safety helmets while resting precariously on training wheels as they weave around terrified adults.

We backyard farmers are deep into tilling, fertilizing and planting as the pages of local nurseries advertise the latest crop of heirloom tomatoes, herbs and garden tools. During the Second World War we used to call them “Victory Gardens.” Now we boast of the fact that our produce is organic, and with our own compost for good measure. No need to go to the Farmer’s Markets on the weekend, we have our own crop to share with friends and family. lettuces

And what better place to enjoy the beauty of nature than with friends and family? The old Italians proudly served their homemade wine at every meal, followed by a shot or two of Grappa made from the left-over pomace of the crushed grape. I’ll never forget the meals that my mother cooked for us. No need to call ahead, in just a matter of minutes a feast would appear that always impressed my buddies and eventually the girlfriends. Basil

But before moving on to the dog days of summer, let’s all take a moment to enjoy what nature has so generously provided for all of us. We are all so fortunate to live in such an amazing area that we sometime forget those less fortunate. Enjoy the day and enjoy the season, as my Italian friends say in North Beach, “Buona Primavera.”

Feedback: sergio@westsideobserver.com

May 2013

My Two Best Friends, Leonardo and Napoleon

If cigarettes, cell phones, rich food, good wine, buttery croissants and animated conversation are bad for you, then Paris should be a ghost town. To the contrary, what we saw were trim, well-dressed young women wearing designer jeans, boots and colorful scarfs masterfully draped around their necks. Men wear them like we wear a necktie, loose and casual. Eifel Tower

When sitting at a sidewalk cafe they become part of the scene and when not sitting at a cafe they are determined in their walk and demeanor. I don’t know where they hide the old people but they are few and far between. No need to go to a gym and workout, every moment is a workout. Handicap facilities don’t exist, with hundreds of stairs to and from the Metro. Most toilets are either up a steep, narrow, winding stairway or in the basement. And if you’re a linebacker for the 49ers you’d better go before you leave home because the Toilettes are very narrow.

Bright and early Monday morning we were picked up for a two-day tour of the Loire Valley as we watched the incredible traffic coming into town drenched in the early morning rain. Our first stop was at Chartres, about 50 miles south west of Paris, where we visited the Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres. The beautifully preserved stained glass windows date back almost 800 years, while the church attracts large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth.

After a two hour ride through the French countryside we arrived in Tours, had a crepe lunch and headed for Amboise to visit the Chateau d’Amboise, the massive castle turned chateau whose relatively small chapel, built away from the main building, is the burial site for Leonardo da Vinci, who lived and worked at the Chateau for three years before his death in 1519. On arriving he brought three paintings with him, and yes, one was the Mona Lisa. The chapel is minuscule compared to Napoleon’s burial site at the Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides on the grounds of the old, massive military hospital known as Les Invalides. The chapel is almost as large as San Francisco’s City Hall, and does house Napoleon’s two brothers and his son as well. One would think that a giant of a man like Leonardo would deserve better, but this is one case where size didn’t matter

Next stop, Chateau du Clos Luce, Leonardo’s home, again modest by most standards. On our way out we visited five rooms full of wooden models of most of his incredible inventions. Parachutes, armored tanks, spring-powered carts and water pumps just to name a few. We learned that the models were produced by IBM using materials of that period.

Our overnight stay was at Le Choiseul, a beautifully appointed, fairly small hotel facing the Loire River and in the shadow of the Chateau d’ Amboise. Somehow spending the night that close to this genius of a man gave me a strange feeling and his presence could strangely be felt. Dinner was also at the hotel in the beautifully-appointed Le 36, where the pate and lobster was as good as our earlier experience was memorable.

The following morning we had three chateaus on the agenda, the first being Chateau de Chenonceau. Once privately owned and built in the 16th century, this huge complex with its moats surrounding it was by far the most memorable of the day. The Gallery, a grand room measuring over 180 feet in length, was being set up for a private party that evening. No, we were not offered an invitation!

Our next stop was at the chateau of Blois, huge but somewhat industrial looking with its four distinct wings around a single courtyard. More stairs, more ramps, more opulence and more rain. By the time we reached Chambord our curiosity was wearing thin, and with the pouring rain we decided on just a quick tour of the outside of the building and gardens. Enough stairs already!

Having spent two days cooped up in a car we were dropped off at our hotel and decided to walk to Notre Dame for some fresh air, where the evening mass was just starting. We sat and enjoyed the beautiful choir and listened intently to the prayers and sermon, unfortunately all in French. We lit a huge candle and headed back.

Our last day in Paris was spent not at a romantic café or on a stroll along the Seine, hand in hand, but rather, on a visit of the sewers of Paris. Not quite Monet’s garden, but actually it was very interesting winding our way deep under the streets of Paris looking at a real working sewer system. Our reward for the day was exiting out the door that gave us a magnificent view of the Eifel Tower, just a few blocks away. Although we had already visited the tower a few days earlier, this time we got up close and personal, standing completely under the huge tower looking at the very top through a light drizzle. Our last two Metro tickets (we had bought a set of 10) were put to good use as we found our way back to our hotel, organized our suitcases and headed out for a late afternoon walk.

As memorable as this trip has been, there is always one moment that somehow stands out. On the way back I passed an older, bearded man sitting on the sidewalk with his cup next to him. Wanting to get rid of what loose change I had in my pocket I reached down, pulled out some coins and placed them in his dish. In his perfect English he looked up, thanked me and gave me a slight tip of his hat. As I started to walk away I heard some loud, almost raucous laughter; he had noticed how little I had left in his plate and it cracked him up.

What a wonderful way to end ten marvelous days in Paris. Last time it took us 27 years to return. Now that we’re back home it’s time to plan the next visit.

Feedback: sergio@westsideobservor.com

April 2013

Bread and Beaujolais

What a shame, what a crying shame! Under threatening skies, the early morning walk to the Musee d’Orsay took less than 30 minutes. With a postcard-sized map from the front desk, we headed down the local streets rather than going to the boulevard along the Seine for a more direct route. Karen is the best navigator in the world, but she still hasn’t gotten her bearings, and so just like an eagle scout I led her to the front door of the museum without a hitch. Our two day museum pass allowed us to go through the member’s entrance and bypass the usually endless lines, and although security was tight we entered without a hitch. After checking our coats we briefly stopped by the information booth and made our way into the main building. The first thing I saw was placards proclaiming in no uncertain words, NO CAMERAS. Usually it might say “no flash” but they were very serious about not having any pictures taken. If ever there was a building that cried out to be photographed, this one was it.

Musee d'OrsayThe d’Orsay was previously a train station that was scheduled to be demolished until it was converted into one of the most modern, beautiful buildings in all of Paris. The building is a piece of art all in itself and competes with the endless displays of world famous paintings and sculptures. From the 5th floor observation deck the entire building is on display, and I must confess that I did sneak a quick photo with my I-phone. The top floor displays some of the world’s most famous impressionist paintings, and for 5 Euros our ears were treated to colorful commentary on each painting and its artist. Our lunch at the Café Campana gave us a taste of the Croc Monsieur at its finest — it was not just a ham and cheese sandwich, it was extra special under the huge clock whose hands no longer move, but the setting was spectacular none the less. Paris Opera House

Paris Opera HouseParis Opera House

Paris Opera House

The overcast turned into showers, and our next stop was a visit to Sainte Chapelle. With our umbrellas neatly tucked away at the hotel, we were considering a taxi when my keen eyes spotted a couple of young men eagerly awaiting unsuspecting tourists to sell them a ride on their bicycle taxis. After a brief negotiation we jumped in, and not a minute too soon; it was raining. The two-story church is famous for its stained glass windows, and although the sun was not shining, we saw some of the most beautiful stained glass ever. The two-page card described each section of glass in the huge main window, and one could only imagine the amount of time and talent that went into each one. The walk back was drizzly but not impossible. Louvre pyramid

The Louvre

The following day we were picked up in the early afternoon for a ride to Monet’s luscious gardens in Giverny to see his world famous Japanese bridge and water lily pond, the subject of so many of his famous paintings now worth millions of dollars each. Sim, our driver, was a professional photographer at one time, and we put him to work as he took endless photos of the two of us on the bridge, around the lily ponds, and in the main garden. The ride back was not bad until we hit the center of town, and then we saw what some of the 30 million yearly visitors look like. Giverney

On Friday morning we put on our brave faces and decided to check out the Metro system. After a few hiccups we found our way to the Opera House and saw what Napoleon was really all about. Forget about the operas, this place is truly amazing all by itself. The marble stairs, railings and balconies are truly stunning. One can only imagine the beauty of opening night. Paris Metro

Across the street is one of the largest department stores in Paris called Galleries Lafayette, whose stained-glass dome and galleries is worthy of museum status. The top floor hosts a series of restaurants, and the self-service was more like Macy’s, but a look at the beauty of the building itself soon dispelled that notion. A ride back on the Metro begged the question, “how come we don’t have the same system in the Bay Area?”Galleries-Lafayette

Saturday we attended a croissant cooking class, and after four hours of mixing and kneading we decided that it’s much easier to go to the local boulangerie and plunk down a couple of Euros than slave in the kitchen all day long. cooking class

The following day we met Jayne Louise, a beautiful young woman who is the daughter of a dear friend of ours, lives in Paris, and has been keeping an eye on us for the last couple of days. Monte Marte was our destination for the day, and after meeting her in front of the Moulin Rouge, we jumped into a waiting elephant train for the 45-minute ride around the district.Moulin Rouge

A stop at the top gave us a glimpse of the thousands that were out for a Sunday stroll, and the crowds in the Basilica of Sacre Coeur were just as bad.

Sacre CoeurBeautiful surroundings, but the crowds were horrendous. After a casual lunch at a sidewalk café, of which there are hundreds, we made our way back to the Metro stop, said our goodbyes to Jayne Louise, headed down to one of the deepest tube stops and headed back to our hotel. After a late lunch and a gelato stop along the way, we decided that what could be more fun than to stop by the deli and pick up a fresh baguette, some pate, cheese and of course a nice bottle of wine and have a picnic in our room.

The next morning, we were picked up at 7:30 am for an overnight stay in the Loire Valley, with a few stops at a couple of chateaus along the way. We’ve seen and done a lot in the last week, and with the last few days left we want to enjoy it all. We’ll miss the crowds and the traffic, but a couple of days in the country sound great right now. I wonder if the ice cream is just as good outside of Paris?

March 2013

Fifty shades of Red, White and Blue

Somehow “27 years” sounds better than “over a quarter of a century ago” but in fact, that’s the last time Karen and I visited Paris. Eiffel Tower

My birthdays always seem to be an occasion to celebrate and my 50th was no exception, except this one happened to be in Lucca where I was born all those many years ago, and what better place to party than in a restaurant appropriately named Ristorante Sergio. My aunt, a nun living in Rome, joined us along with my father and a gathering of 50 or so of the relatives still living in the area. And if one party was not enough, we managed to squeeze in another one at my cousin’s restaurant in Forte dei Marmi, a seaside resort, the following day.

After lunch, with Karen Brown’s book in hand, Karen and I headed off along the Italian Riviera, stopping off at Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo and Portofino. At the time we were members of St. Francis Yacht Club and we had reciprocal rights to all the yacht clubs along the way, and we took full advantage, visiting them all. Yacht Club de Monaco was the highlight of our trip, as they served us with the greatest of pleasure but could hardly wait for us to leave……we were the only two that showed up for dinner that night! Le-Boulanger

Once we crossed into France, we figured that a little Italian would carry us for a day or two but no such luck. We were in France! In the next five days we hit all the major areas, visiting the Pope’s residence in Avignon, stopping off in Chateauneuf du Pape, Beaune, a chance overnight stay at the Hotel Moulin de Mougins, where as guests of the 6-room hotel we were given dinner reservations, bypassing the usual 2-month wait to enjoy Roger Verge’s five star cooking, and finally arriving in Paris on Sunday morning. We had made it safely, and managed to miss the traffic before the midday madness. I whispered a quiet thank you to our faithful Peugeot as I turned over the keys to the hotel clerk, and told him it was his from now on.

So now this trip, here we are on a shiny nePlace de la Concordew Air France 747, its proud red white and blue tail directing us to the city that we so enjoyed all those years ago. With dinner we were treated to a gorgeous sunset on one side of the plane, and on the other side the brightest, roundest, most beautiful full moon ever. We didn’t need to look up; the moon was looking directly at us. I don’t remember if we had a full moon last time in Paris but this one will not be soon forgotten.

As flights go, this one was OK. The food was airline good, the wine better than taking a sleeping pill, and the biggest treat for us was looking out our window as we took off over San Francisco, skirting the coastline as we admired the neatly arranged streets of the Sunset district, Golden Gate Park, the high-rise towers of the financial district and a postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge that even got a comment from the captain, and to top it all off, a flyby over a pristine Lake Tahoe. Paris Police Station

Arriving early, we got the usual, “we need to wait for our gate to clear.” Those few moments of peace were shattered by the simultaneous arrival of a bunch of planes, whose passengers had to go down the long winding corridors, grab a people mover, wait endlessly to get through passport control and work their way out the door. The mid-afternoon traffic was gridlocked as our driver kept looking at his I-Phone, reassuring us that the stoppage was just a few miles ahead and it would be much better momentarily.

street vendorsOur hotel, the Relais Christine, is located on the left bank, is in a great location and very accessible, and for the jet-lagged couple our first dinner was immediately across the street in a very modern and popular restaurant called La Rotisserie den Face, where the sliver-thin home- cured salmon was, as they say, “to die for.” The following morning Francois took us on a four hour private tour of the highlights of Paris, where “traffic” was given a new meaning, and again we covered all the highlights including Napoleon’s tomb (a must see), The Arc De Triomphe, which was huge standing just a few away, the beauty of the Champs Elysees, a photo op in front of the Eiffel tower, a drive through Montmartre, and finally a quick stop at Notre Dame. Another long day for tired feet and tomorrow we plan on doing a museum or two. Fortunately Chez Fernand, also a stone’s throw from our hotel, had some of the tastiest fish with a fennel sauce and the bottle of vin ordinaire was a perfect match. So now it’s off to bed but not before looking out our window for that fabulous full moon. Is it still hovering over the Atlantic or did it follow us here? I’ll check it out…….

February 2013

 

More Real Travel for Real People (2009-2012)