Category Archives: Europe

Reading for Rome

What to Read Before You Travel to the Eternal City

There’s such a massive amount of history to take in when you visit Rome, Italy, its helpful to do a little reading—fiction and non-fiction before your trip to get a sense of the place.  

One of my favorite non-fiction books about life in modern Rome is Anthony Doerr’s Four137852._UY500_SS500_ Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Doerr wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See.  But, before that he enjoyed a a year-long fellowship at the American Academy in Rome which he chronicles in this book and his descriptions of life there are wonderful.  You’ll wish he  (and you) could stay longer.

The Colosseum in Rome

Quite different from Doerr’s book, Rome inspired several  authors to write  about women who go astray in the city.  They offer a sense of history along with little tours of Rome’s sites and winding streets.  For example, Daisy Miller by Henry James follows Daisy’s exploits as she scandalizes American society living in Rome in the late 1800s.  You may visit the real-world places she goes with a “dangerous” Italian gentleman ending, fatefully, with their trip to the Colosseum. 

In Tennessee Williams’s novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, the story centers on an thaging actress who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband, the loss of her good looks and a life that is rudderless.  Perhaps a gigolo will make her feel better. Williams spend a great deal of time in Rome and his descriptions of the city shine. 

The Woman of RomeAlberto Moravia’s 1949 novel, is a classic tale of a young woman who becomes a prostitute in the time of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Further back in time, Colleen McCullough, author of the Thorn Birds offers a seven-volume fictional account of early Rome called the Masters of Rome series. It starts with The First Man in Rome.

Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy isn’t necessarily historically accurate but it offers a view of  Michelangelo’s struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel.  Also popular, Dan 64aa55532c468d5597a56545651444341587343Brown’s Angels & Demons,  is a wildly fictional page-turner about a secret society and a time bomb in the Vatican. You can even take an Angels & Demons tour to see the sites mentioned in the book.

A Place to Relax in Tuscany


Italian cities are fascinating places to visit but they’re often crowded and hectic. So, I look for places to relax in the Italian countryside. A great example is Frances’ Lodge Relais, a rustic yet elegant old farm, just outside Sienna.  Hosts Franca and Franco provide great touring tips, luxurious breakfasts in the garden and, sometimes, a picnic dinner of homemade pasta under the olive trees.  Best of all, relaxing “under the Tuscan sun” with wine and a book by their beautiful pool with a view of the Sienna skyline.

This is my entry for this week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge with the topic of Relax.




Eating and Wearing Stinky Cheese in France

At the outdoor market in Honfleur, where I purchased the Livarot cheese. Its scent perfumed me and my car for the rest of the day.

Livarot is one of the oldest types of cheese in France and it smells like it—like its been hanging around gaining strength since the 1600s. A specialty of the Normandy region, Livarot is a soft “washed rind” cheese which means it is typically bathed in a wash of salted water which helps break down the curd from the outside, influencing the texture, aroma and flavor of the entire cheese. The “bath” does absolutely nothing to cure the smell.

It may be an urban legend, but I’ve since read that Livarot is banned on public transportation in France. Its earthy aroma  has been described by some as reminiscent of feces or “barnyard.”  I would never have ordered something with that description, but it first came to me on a cheese plate in a restaurant in Honfleur, in Normandy, a small slice, apparently exposed to the air long enough to diminish its signature odor. And it was great.

Good enough to make me want to purchase some at the market the next morning, in the process of packing up a few goodies for our lunch that day— a little french bread, sausage and a bit of the cider for which the region is also famous, and which smells much better than the cheese.


Melons at the market
Melons at the market

I packed our picnic into my backpack, which stayed locked in our small closed car until lunch time, imparting a zesty Livarot odor to our car, a smell somewhere between stinky feet and a gym bag full of recently used hockey gear.

We were able to eat our picnic in the open air and again the taste of the Livarot seemed wonderfully unrelated to the smell. We couldn’t eat all the cheese, so frugal as I am, I wrapped up the leftover cheese and returned it to my backpack for later consumption.


In his wonderful book French Lessons: Adventures in Knife, Fork and Unknown-3Corkscrew, Peter Mayle devotes a whole chapter to the Livarot cheese fair in the town of Livarot, and in particular, the cheese eating competition. The rules: a time limit of 15 minutes during which contestants must eat their way through two whole cheeses, each weighing about two pounds. “Livarot,” he says, “is not a modest cheese. It announces itself to the nose long before it is anywhere near you mouth, with a piercing, almost astringent aroma.”

That may have been the reason why that evening when we checked into our hotel, I noticed that the hotel clerk and other people in the lobby appeared to move away from me or avert their faces. “Madam!”  I realized that I was wearing the Livarot-filled backpack and exuding that aroma wherever I went. Formidable!

Have you ever had a food-related travel incident?  Please tell us.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monuments — The Eiffel Tower Transformed

The Eiffel Tower, with the Waterlogue app.
The Eiffel Tower, with the Waterlogue app.

The Eiffel Tower is one of the most famous monuments in the world, which means it has

The original photo
The original photo

been photographed at every possible angle and every time of day since construction began in 1887. But I’m not so interested in telling you about the Eiffel Tower as I am in letting you know about an an app that that I’ve had great fun playing with, Waterlogue, which turns photos into some pretty cool watercolor painting-like images. It works on any Apple iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that is running iOS version 7 or great. You download a photo, and apply one of Waterlogue’s filters. And, Voila!

As a result, my photo, which is just like those that millions of other tourists have taken, now looks a little different. Give it a try.  There are some serious crafty possibilities.


A Tour of Hemingway Haunts in Paris

La Cupole in Paris
La Cupole in Paris

There are certain aspects of Paris that have always captured my imagination, most of them in some way related to literature.  The French Revolution, for example, fascinates me, a fact I trace back to middle school when I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame DeFarge and her nasty band of peasant rebels all made Paris seem real to me long before I had an opportunity to actually see it. Then, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables added to my panorama of Paris.

From Victor Hugo, fast forward to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when artists and writers swarmed to Paris like bees to honey. If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you have a feel for the era when American expat writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Paris but seem to spend more time carousing than writing. That was about 90 years ago, but you can still see most of the places that Hemingway describes so beautifully in A Moveable Feast.  The book is  a virtual guidebook to the places he found most remarkable when he lived in Paris with is first wife, Hadley in the 1920s (and with subsequent wives later on).

The story goes that, in the 1950s, a trunk full of notes on his first years in Paris turned up at the Ritz Hotel. That gave him the raw material to write A Moveable Feast. So, take a little stop at the Ritz, near the Place Vendôme, especially at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar. During the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Hemingway considered it one of his first duties to “liberate” the Ritz bar and order martinis all around. Here at the Ritz, Hemingway asked Mary Welsh to become his fourth wife. The hotel is closed for renovations but will open this year.  CoCo Chanel lived at the Ritz and one of the rooms in the Imperial Suite re-creates one of Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles.

The apartment where Hemingway and his "Paris Wife," Hadley, were "very poor and very happy."
The apartment where Hemingway and his “Paris Wife,” Hadley, were “very poor and very happy.”

If, like most of us, you lack the Versailles-level budget required to stay at the Ritz, consider staying in the Contrescarpe neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the 1920s. Be sure to pause at 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where he and Hadley lived from 1922 to 1923, “the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor and very happy.”  He describes their apartment:

Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse.”

This apartment is where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, the book that made him famous. Below it is a shop that used to be a bal-musette or dance hall. It appears in The Sun Also Rises as the bal where we first meet Lady Brett. (Rest assured, you don’t have to live like a starving artist in this neighborhood. If you can book far enough ahead, try the Hotel D’Angleterre where Hemingway once stayed.) Wander Place Contrescarpe, a rough old square packed with cafes and apartments that couldn’t have changed since the 1920s. Take a morning stroll through the Marche Mouffetard (prime time is Saturday and Sunday morning), a fantastic market with produce, cheese, wine and just about anything you’ll need for your own feast, a picnic by the Seine or in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.

Strolling among the "bouquinistes" along the Seine in Paris.
Strolling among the bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris.

If you walk downhill from Hemingway’s apartment on Cardinal Lemoine  you’ll come to the Seine where you’ll see the famed expat bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., and across the street, Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, you can follow the steps of Jake and Bill in The Sun Also Rises as they circle the Île St-Louis. The stalls of the  bouquinistes–sellers of antique books, magazines and a bit of tourist trash–line the walk along the river. Hemingway used to stroll here and chat with the booksellers.  “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out.  It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”

He adds, “With the

Hemingway might be surprised to see his book “A Moveable Feast” among the books sold by “bouquinistes” in Paris.

fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with the smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”

You won’t feel lonely in any of the many famous cafes along Boulevard du Montparnasse, either. Okay, they’re pricey and popular with tourists, but worth it if you want to sample jazz age cafe life.  The Closerie des Lilas, for example, at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse  is a lovely cafe where Hemingway wrote and Scott Fitzgerald read him The Great Gatsby. La Coupole, at number 102, is a vast art deco brasserie, brightly painted by Brancusi and Chagall.

Finally, to really get the swing of the Paris of Hemingway’s era, wander the medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter where you’ll find the great jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette at 5 rue de la Huchette.  Though it wasn’t around during Hemingway’s time, it surely has much of the era’s joie de vivre. In Le Caveau’s ancient vaulted cellar you’ll find a dance floor, a swing band, and people dancing like Mexican jumping beans on a hot skillet. Sit back and watch Parisians enjoy la belle vie or join in the dancing. It’s your own moveable feast. As Hemingway concluded, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”

Vincent Van Gogh in St. Remy, France

At St. Paul de Mausole near St. Remy, France, you can see exactly what Vincent Van Gogh saw and painted.
At St. Paul de Mausole near St. Remy, France, you can see exactly what Vincent Van Gogh saw and painted.

The gnarled olive trees, irises, lavender, and bright sunshine…Entering the Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole  in St. Remy de Provence in southern France you have a feeling that you’ve seen this place before.  That’s because you have.

Van Gogh's room is reproduced at the asylum in St. Remy, France, where he lives and painted over 100 paintings.
Van Gogh’s room is reproduced at the asylum in St. Remy, France, where he lived for a year and painted over 100 paintings.

This is the “maison de sante,” not far from Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh went to rest and recover his mental health in 1889, not long after the famous incident when he cut off his ear.  He stayed here roughly one year and during that time he painted anything and everything in his surroundings–143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings including two of his most famous masterpieces, Irises and The Starry Night. The fabulous thing about visiting St. Paul de Mausole is that photos of the paintings and and information about them appear where they were painted.  So for example, a photo of “Les Oliviers,” which is now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is posted right in front of those olive trees.  You feel a little chill when you see exactly what he saw and how he interpreted it.

The imposed regimen of asylum life gave Van Gogh a bit of stability: “I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life.”

You’ll enjoy your trip more if you read up about Vincent.  Irving Stone’s fiction classic Unknown-3Lust for Life provides a general knowledge of his story.  But scholars continually interpret both his art and the health problems that may have been at the source of his mental illness.  Most recently, Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offers a very readable portrait of Van Gogh and puts forth the idea that rather than committing suicide, Van Gogh was murdered. Traveling with kids?  They’ll want to read  van Gogh and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anhold.Unknown-4

Stepping Into Literary History at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Book lovers from around the world visit the iconic Shakespeare and Company in Paris.

From the outside where bins of books lure visitors to pause and browse on a sunny day, to the golden hued interior where books fill every nook and cranny, Shakespeare and Company positively vibrates with literary history. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said of the famed Paris bookstore, “On a cold windswept street, this was a SONY DSCwarm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”  He could have been describing the store as it is today, in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, (formerly a monastery) across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a place where the most current books and writers mingle with rare old volumes, where the tradition of fostering new writers merges with a heritage that reaches back to 1919 and “The Lost Generation.”

Unknown-2When Hemingway discovered Shakespeare and Company back in the 1920s it was located at 12 Rue l’Odeon. Its owner, Sylvia Beach, both sold books and loaned them out, which was perfect for the impoverished writer who had just moved to Paris with his wife Hadley. (Read their story in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.)  In those days, her shop was the center of modernist literary culture, with writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, and Joyce congregating in the “warm, cheerful place” full innovative ideas. Not surprisingly, one could find all of the books banned in England and America—most notably, Joyce’s Ulysses—readily available in Beach’s shop. After publishers rejected Joyce’s gigantic Ulysses as pornographic, Shakespeare and Company published it.

Housed in a former monastery,  Shakespeare and Company continues the literary spirit of the Lost Generation and encourages modern writers, including its sponsorship of The Paris Literary Prize.
Housed in a former monastery, Shakespeare and Company continues the literary spirit of the Lost Generation and encourages modern writers, including its sponsorship of The Paris Literary Prize.

But that was before the World War II. The shop closed after the Germans occupied Paris.  Hemingway himself “liberated” the store when he entered Paris with the American troops in 1944, but the store didn’t reopen until the 1950s when George Whitman  a new shop, originally called Le Mistral and later Shakespeare and Company, in its current location and continued Beach’s work. Here, a second generation of writers gathered, everyone from the last modernists—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett—through the first Beats—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman now owns Shakespeare and Company, which has become the world’s most famous bookstore.  It still serves as a haven for penniless writers, who are allowed to sleep among its shelves for free.

I have a feeling that Hemingway would feel at home in the the store today, though he would surely miss the first Sylvia Beach… and they’d want him to buy the books.

The shutters at Shakespeare and Company tell the bookstore’s story.


What to Read Before You Tour the D-Day Beaches in Normandy

Literary Travel Isn’t Just for Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways–a guest post from Scott Smith, Edina, MN.

First things first:  I’m a guy.  I work hard during the week, bleed Maize and Blue sports, track the Wild and Vikes with interest, fire up the grill on weekends and tip back a beer or three in the process.  Give me ESPN, a fishing rod, a deck of cards and some Blanton’s, and I’m happy as a clam.  I’m not a complete Neanderthal – I do enjoy a good novel now and then, and I love to travel – but I’ve assiduously avoided this “lit trip” phenomenon up to now, largely out of fear of getting my man card revoked.

I’m also a huge WWII history buff, particularly with regard to the D-Day invasion and its

"Les Braves," a  nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed here to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.
“Les Braves,” a nine-meter tall stainless steel sculpture by Anilore Ban rises from the sand at Omaha Beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France. It honors all those men who landed there to liberate France. The sculpture has 3 elements: 1) Wings of Hope, 2) Rise, Freedom!, and 3) Wings of Fraternity.

aftermath, and I’ve read just about everything I can muster on the topic.  Among my favorites, I’ve nearly broken the spine on Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day; my copy of Anthony Cave Brown’s A Bodyguard of Lies is lovingly dog-eared; and, Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross holds the current place of honor on the dresser next to my side of the bed.  From my readings, I can name every landing sector in Normandy, the combat units that landed in each, and when.  I know that “Hobart’s Funnies” is not an Australian comedy club and that the Falaise Gap is not a dental imperfection.

Go to Omaha Beach today, as Terri and I did a few weeks ago, and for the uninformed tourist it’s almost impossible to visualize what happened there nearly 70 years ago.  Sure, the ruins of a few German gun emplacements are still there, and a couple of memorials (the one on the beach outside of St. Laurent is particularly striking) remind you of the historical importance of where you stand.  Otherwise, the eyes see a gorgeous stretch of white sand, turquoise water just beyond it, children splashing in the surf, and lush green bluffs overlooking the seashore, like some Impressionist painting.

But I saw, and experienced, something entirely different.  I saw exactly where the 116th

The American Cemetery, Normandy, France
The American Cemetery, Normandy, France

Regiment’s Company A, National Guarders from Bedford, Virginia, came ashore at 6:30 am on D-Day morning – just a couple hundred yards below the gun emplacement at Vierville that’s now a National Guard memorial – and instantly comprehended why that unit suffered over 90 percent casualties in the space of 10 minutes.  I looked on the bluffs and the draws above Omaha and witnessed vicariously the extraordinary leadership of young infantrymen who understood that the original assault plan was doomed and improvised their way to success.  I visualized the beach obstacles, the barbed wire, the shingle – all gone today – and marveled at the bravery of those who swam and crawled ashore that day.  And standing in the American cemetery in the bluffs outside of Colleville, amid row after row of crosses and Stars of David, I saw the selflessness of and the sacrifices made by the “Greatest Generation” in a whole new light.

And so I’m forced to confess.  The umbilical between reading and travel isn’t necessarily reserved for book clubs and gals on getaways – it’s there for us XY types too.  Maybe it’s a jaunt to Key West, to take in a little fishing with Hemingway’s Santiago.  Perhaps it’s that trip to a Wyoming dude ranch with Larry McMurtry in hand.  Or it’s a Dodgers game after reading The Boys of Summer. Your call.  Like I experienced in Normandy, what you read may give special meaning to what you see.  That’s a good thing.  And I promise you won’t lose your man card in the process.

From Terri:  In addition to Scott’s list of books, I’d add Jeff Shaara’s The Steel Wave, about the D-Day Invasion, which is part his World War II trilogy.  It’s a good read, easy to digest.