Tag Archives: old buildings


I have to be honest, I’ve never been all that interested in Madrid, or Spain for that matter.  There are so many other places I would have chosen to go first.  Boy, was that a mistake.  Madrid is a unique and beautiful city, full of wonderful people, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. In most big cities, there’s a feeling of crowding, some dirt and grime, and a sense that things are just a little worn.  The opposite is true of Madrid.  It has wide, open streets with trees everywhere.  The buildings are well maintained so nothing feels tired or in need of a face lift.  It’s like a city would be if it was run by the people at Disney.  It’s clean, fresh, vibrant and varied.  And it’s like that block, after block, after block.  We walked all over the city and never found a place where we felt uncomfortable, where things were run-down, or you got the sense you were in a “bad” neighborhood.  It is a truly wonderful city. Another interesting thing is the people of Madrid don’t seem to stay home.  The streets are FULL of them.  And they aren’t rushing around like the people in New York.  They are out enjoying the day, interacting with each other, and spreading good will.  It’s hard not to be happy in Madrid, even if it did rain on us several times. My favorite thing about Madrid is Abby was there!  We finally caught up with her and she looks fantastic.  I have to say, her host family is taking excellent care of her and I can’t thank them enough, especially Cristina.  If you ever see this, Cristina,  muchas, muchas gracias!  And, I want all your recipes, especially for gazpacho! Okay, here’s some of the millions of pictures I took : )


I know, strange picture, but it reminds me of something.  The ground floor of buildings in both Italy and Spain is always 0. So, if you’re looking for street level, punch the 0.  If you want the second floor, that would be 1; the third floor, punch 2, etc.  If there were floors below ground, they were simply -1, -2, etc.


Here begins general pictures of beautiful Madrid.  Unlike other cities, there weren’t any iconic sights that everyone photographs.  Instead, everything was beautiful.


I thought this was interesting.  Most of the highway-like roads in the city are underground, kind of like the Big Dig in Boston, only more so.  This isn’t a picture of a bridge.  This is a glimpse into the underground roadway where it emerges. The part of the picture loaded with plants is ground level and there are buildings, sidewalks, roads, etc. up there.


This may seem like a simple square, but the building on the right dates back to the 15th century and is one of the oldest buildings in the city.  The one in the middle is 16th century, and the one on the right is 17th century. It still amazes me that such old buildings can look so fresh.


A beautiful church near the Prado.


Puerto Del Sol, one of the hearts of the city.  Abby described it as Times Square, and I think she’s right.  It was full of people at all hours of the day and night.  When I took this picture, it was near midnight.


We found her!!!  Our dinner reservation wasn’t until 10, but we ate at the oldest continually running restaurant in the world.  It’s been open for business since about 1720.  The food was good, but nothing too fancy.


A view of a street at midnight.


This made me laugh.  The Ham Museum was actually an everything-ham store.  There were even hams hanging from the ceiling.  I think ham must be the national food of Spain because it was everywhere.  One of the things Spaniards like most is jamon Iberia, or Iberian ham.  It’s a lot like proscuitto, only better.




More random street views.  Beautiful, everywhere.



This is Plaza Mayor, the site of the Spanish Inquisition.  Today, it’s a favorite gathering place for Spaniards.


Umm, Spidey might need a diet.




More random views we found just walking around.  Actually, the bottom picture here is the same as the night one, above, just from a different angle.


One of the joys of Madrid is the churro.  It’s often a breakfast food in Madrid, but more likely it’s where the kids go when the clubs close.  (By the way, clubs in Madrid don’t open until 1 am, and they close around 6 am.)  The churros are often served with chocolate for dipping, or somethings they have a little sugar sprinkled on them.  I didn’t see any with cinnamon sugar, like at Costco.  : )


Mickey better watch it, Bob might want to steal his girl.




More of the beautiful streets.


This is the Institute where Abby has her Spanish classes.


While many people speak English, translations can sometimes be amusing.  Abby said she’s seen several t-shirts around town where schlocky translation made the slogan awkward.  Here, the Gaspacho is described as “could soap.”


I think this is more what paella is supposed to be, but the menu referred to it as a rice dish.  Bob and Abby loved it, even the little tentacles and black-eyed shrimp.



After lunch, we just wandered the city and ended up walking through the equivalent of Central Park.  It’s called Parque De El Retiro.




More of the Parque De El Retiro and the Crystal Palace that’s there.


Everywhere we went, people were out enjoying the day.  Of course, this weekend was also Columbus Day.  I never thought about how that day might be celebrated in Madrid, I assumed it was just an American holiday.  But I’d be wrong.  It’s actually a really big deal in Madrid.  There was a huge parade with the King, and everything.  More on that later.





The park was very pretty.


This is the Prado.  We really enjoyed wandering through, but no pictures were allowed.


More of beautiful Madrid.




Now this was interesting.  It’s a vertical garden.  It appears they were replanting the right side, but he left side was well developed.


So many of the streets looked like this.  Wide, open, lots of trees, clean.



This is the parade I mentioned above.  It was in honor of Columbus Day.  We waited for it to start, but decided to move on to the art museum instead.


Apparently, the donuts don’t go over so well in Spain so they focus on the coffee instead.





More of the parade.  These guys were all lined up and ready to start.  I have no idea who they are, but I’m assuming they were police, branches of the military, things like that.  There was lots of chanting, singing, and cheering going on.


Okay, time to talk about the hours people keep in Spain because they’re weird.  First, you have to know the sun didn’t rise until about 8 a.m.  When we left the hotel to catch a tour bus at 7:30, it was still dark outside.  I think that’s why typical things for Spaniards are skewed.  For example, breakfast isn’t until about 9:30, if they eat it at all.  Lunch is from about 2-4 p.m. and its the main meal of the day.  This is also the time they take siesta, if they want to.  Dinner doesn’t start until 9 p.m.

While most stores stay open all day, many other businesses still close from 2-4 p.m.  During that time, everyone actually goes home for lunch.  That means there are several “rush hours” in Spain because people come and go to work two times a day.  The same is true of school.  The kids go from about 10-2, then they return at 4 and get out around 7.

Abby was always amazed at how late the Spaniards stay out.  She said the main squares, like Puerto Del Sol, are swamped at 3 a.m. and there are many families still out enjoying ice cream and strolling around at that hour.  That includes babies in strollers and toddlers on their parents’ shoulders.

In the picture above, we were starving at 1:30 in the afternoon.  We stopped in this place, that had just opened, but it was as deserted as a lunch place that opens at 10:30 a.m. in the US.  It was beginning to pick up business at 2:30 when we left.


McDonalds, anyone?


This is Puerto Del Sol on Columbus Day at about 3 in the afternoon.  Very crowded.


I really didn’t think I’d like Venice as much as I did.  I’m not a water or boat person, but the charm of this city is impossible to resist.  It started life as a group of about 118 islands that were close together.  As people fled the wars on the mainland (barbarians, Visigoths, Genghis Khan, etc.) each new group settled a new island.  The first thing they built was a church and the town square–called a campo which was really a field in the middle of their houses where the livestock hung out and the dead were buried.  Eventually, they started building bridges to hook the islands together, and finally, they built so many buildings on the islands, they began to look like buildings rising out of the water, rather than buildings sitting on small islands. So, that’s how the canal system developed; they were just the natural waterways between the little islands.  In the last 200 years, many have been filled in and more walkways were created.  Today, you can walk from island to island over the more than 400 bridges and on the walkways that surround the city.

I should also note that Venice is very different now than it was even several decades ago.  It is very expensive to live here so its population is decreasing.  It’s gone from about 200,000 in the middle of the last century to about 58,000 today. Every day 40,000 additional people commute to the city for work.  Each year they welcome 25 million visitors.  The city is completely dependent on tourism; there is no longer any industry or other business in the city.  It’s all tourism.  One of the tour guides referred to it as a city-museum, and that about what it is.  Some of the large buildings along the Grand Canal are empty and they are only maintained for appearances.  It’s kind of sad, really.  Even the glass making on Murano and the lace making on Burano are dying art forms.

Okay, enough of that.  What exists in Venice is spectacular and shouldn’t be missed.  Everyone should come here at least once in their lifetime, it is just so interesting.

We arrived at the train station, which is at the end of a 4 mile long bridge that connects Venice with the mainland.  From there, we took a water taxi to our hotel.  It required a trip along the entire length of the Grand Canal and it blew me away.



Here area  couple of pictures I took of the Grand Canal  from the Rialto Bridge.  It was just amazing.


This is the view out the front door of our hotel.


This area along the Canal has the widest sidewalks in front.  In some places, they’re only a couple feet wide!



Some of the scenes between the hotel and St. Mark’s Square.



And here we go!  St. Mark’s Square was only a couple minute walk from the hotel.  Our first visit was the afternoon we arrived and it was mobbed with people.  There are cruise ships dropping off thousands of people every day and that day, I swear they were all at St. Mark’s!


This is the view of the Doge’s Palace from the bridge in front.


We’re here!


We got up early the first full day to walk to the meeting point for our tour.  We discovered St. Mark’s Square is deserted in the morning.




Some of the things we saw along the way.  The Grand Canal is the main waterway throughout he city, but it is also riddled with little (and I mean tiny!  I don’t know how boats pass each other in some of them!).  In between he canals are hamster trail-like walkways.  They twist and turn and it is impossible not to get lost.  The guide book says there really isn’t an accurate map of Venice that’s economical enough for tourists.  Just go with the flow!

Also, I thought the “stop mafia” sign was interesting.


We found our way back to the Grand Canal.  The colorful boat in the foreground is a vaporatto–aka: a water bus.




While we were standing here, a boat docked that was loaded with boxes of vegetables.  We watched as the guy on the boat literally threw boxes of tomatoes and lettuce to the guy on the dock without losing even one in the water.


One of the side canals.  This one is pretty good sized.




Here are more of the smaller canals.  They vary greatly in size because they were as big as the space between islands.


This building was finished in the 14th or 15th century and today it is the hospital.


With all the parked boats, I don’t know how another one can pass through.


Here’s a picture showing how the buildings were made.  Wood pilings were driven into the bedrock very close together.  In the absence of oxygen, they didn’t rot.  Instead, they petrified and became a very strong foundation.  On top of the pilings are various waterproof layers and the building sits on top of all that.  I was surprised that they don’t need to be replaced regularly.  They are pretty permanent.


The covered bridge in the distance is the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge that lead from the Doge’s Palace (where a prisoner was sentenced) to the prison.  The bridge gave the condemned their last view of the Venice, thus the nickname, The Bridge of Sighs.


St. Mark’s Square is one of the lowest spots in Venice so it often floods.  Of course, the tides rise and fall daily, but they sometimes overtake the city.  As many as 50 times a year Venice floods.  When this happens, they put these low tables down to make raised walkways for people to pass.  The locals often just wear knee (and sometimes hip) boots when it floods.  The floods usually happen in winter.


We climbed to the balcony of the church to get a good view of St. Mark’s Square.  The crowds were much better today.





These are all views of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.  I didn’t realize that Venice is one of the longest lasting Republics in history.  For hundreds of years (much longer than the US!) Venice was governed by a “congress” of about 2000 noblemen who elected the Doge (i.e. president) from among them.  They had incredible checks and balances in place at all levels of the government and it seems to have worked really well for them.






This is the Rialto Bridge, one of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal.  Did I mention that nothing with wheels is allowed in Venice?  The only exceptions are dolly’s (to move boxes) and a few kid’s toys, roller skates.


Bob : )


Here you can see how narrow some of the side canals can be.  As I said, I don’t know how boats, even skinny ones like the gondolas, could pass each other in such a narrow canal.


No judging!  After weeks of pizza and pasta, a whopper from Burger King sounded like the perfect lunch.  We got a king-sized meal and split it.  It was delicious. Although, the Coke had no ice.  Not sure what that was about.  : )

I do have to tell you about the cheeky pigeon.  We sat in the courtyard outside and we were surrounded by college-aged kids from all over the world.  At one point, a pigeon jumped onto the table next to me and the guy there shoo’ed it away very aggressively.  I think he startled it because it flew straight sideways into an Asian girl who shrieked and caused quite a seen.  I was still chuckling when the pigeon jumped onto our table and grabbed a fry.  It just stood there looking at me with that fry in its beak.  I didn’t want it to assault the poor Asian girl again, so I shoo’ed it gently but it just stood there mocking me.  So I swatted at it thinking it would jump out of the way.  It didn’t!  Instead, I smacked it in the chest and pushed it off the table and onto the floor!  I don’t think it cared at all, it was busy eating my fry.


More of the views from the Grand Canal.  I think this is one of my favorite pictures.




More of the Grand Canal


We also took a tour of the islands of Murano and Burano.  Here’s Bob on the boat out to the islands.



The Murano glass is really beautiful.  In the past, the different techniques were passed from father to son, but they are slowly dying out.  Only a fraction of the glass workshops from the past are still open.



This is Burano which is known for its lace. Again, the art of making lace is dying out because it can be made by machine so much faster.  It takes forever to make it by hand and I was staggered at the prices.  A small piece, about 8 inches in diameter, that was suitable for framing, took 7 people 7 months to finish.  They were charging 800 Euro which is roughly $1000.


This reminded me of growing up in South Dakota. It’s the volunteer ambulance, only it’s a boat.


This isn’t a great picture, but it shows something I found fascinating.  When there aren’t enough spots for all the boats to dock, the boats line up and hook themselves together.  To get on and off the furthest boat, you have to walk through all of them.  It was all new to me.


I can’t believe I didn’t take more pictures of the little alleys.  This is a large one.  Some of them require you to turn sideways when someone passes going the opposite direction.


This is one of the campos — or little fields.  There’s one on each island, or at least there used to be.  Some have been replaced with buildings.  There’s a cistern under each one that caught rain water and this is the well where people could draw fresh water out.


Here we are on the observation deck of the church on St. Mark’s Square.  It was a spectacular church, but no pictures were allowed.  The most amazing thing there were the life sized (or maybe slightly larger than life sized) bronze statues of four horses.  Scholars debate their age, some say 200 B.C, some say 200 A.D.  In either case, the statues are about 2000 years old.  They were incredibly beautiful and the details were perfect.


This is inside the Doge’s Palace.  It’s a very large building that was the seat of the government, as well as the home of the doge.  When a new doge was elected, he and his family were obligated to live here, sort of like the President and the White House.  It had some breath-taking rooms.


In some cases, the frames are more incredible than the paintings.  Since this is Venice, frescoes deteriorated within a few years.  So, they either had to make everything out of mosaics, or they had to paint it on canvas.  In these pictures, all the paintings are done with oils on canvas.


Now this is an interesting room.  It’s where the 2000 noblemen met and it’s the largest room in the world that doesn’t have columns to support it.  It’s about the size of half a standard soccer field and it was built in the 1500s.  Also, the painting on the far wall is the largest canvas painting in the world.  It’s about 25 meters wide.


Forget the hotel, this is the Museum California. At least they warned you before you got stuck inside!

Finally, I took many videos going up and down the Grand Canal and I put one of them on Youtube.  It’s only a minute or so and it ends with my favorite view on the Canal.  Enjoy!


Top of the Duomo


Wow, what a trip!  Not only does the top of the Duomo offer an incredible view of Florence, it is also an architectural miracle and we were allowed to climb all over it!

The only way to describe this adventure is with pictures.  But, for perspective, here’s what we did.  Inside the church is a little door that leads to a staircase that climbs straight up.  Up 5 steps, turn, up 3 steps, turn, up 5 steps, turn . . . FOREVER!  It’s about 460 steps to the top; I think that’s the equivalent to a 20 story building.  At some point, the staircase turned into a spiral and when we reached the dome, it got pretty creative.  Keep in mind the stairs were built in about the 1400s when the church was built.

So, here we go!


Here’s the outside of the church.  It has a long part in front and the dome in the back.  Off to the right side in this picture is the tower, which is not attached to the church.   It’s hard to tell that since it is decorated exactly like the church on the outside.

By the way, that little, tiny part sticking up out of the dome — that’s our destination.  It’s called the lantern.


You enter the church through a side door and go through this door.  It’s the one that gives you access to the stairs.


The stairs are narrow and the ceiling is sometimes low.  They highly recommend you skip this if you’re claustrophobic or have a fear of heights.  Very good advice!



The first stop is the balcony, just below the large circular windows.  It gives you a much better view of the ceiling frescoes. Here area a couple of pictures.  The balcony goes all the way around the dome, but only half of it was open.  You had to go around to the other side to pick up the stairs that go up the side of the dome.

To give you an idea, if you look back at the picture of the outside of the church (the one above) you can see one of the round windows at the base of the dome. We were on a balcony just below those windows in the pictures above.


Ha, ha!  I little late for this sign : )  That’s 500 years of graffiti!


Thankfully, we had to stop often on the stairs, especially toward the top.  They pack quite a few people in, so it’s crowded.  Also, at the top, the stairs are shared by those going up and those going down.  Unfortunately, the stairs aren’t big enough to accommodate everyone so you have to find a side niche to stand in while the traffic going the other way passes.  It was quite a shuffle!DSC01407


As you can see, the stairs get tiny in places.  They’re also uneven, steep and they aren’t uniform.  Of course, the lighting is dim, so watch your step!  In the second picture, the one with the person in the red shorts, these stairs take you between the inner dome and the outer dome. You can see how the roof and the floor both curve in the picture.


While waiting for some downward-bound traffic to pass, we got shuttled into a little side area where I saw this room for the people who work up here.  It was tiny.  And God knows where that odd door on the right goes!



Finally!  We made it!  We are standing at the base of the lantern, which is the lynchpin that keeps the dome from collapsing.  In actuality, there are two domes.  The inside one pushes out against the outside dome which keeps it in place.  As I said, it’s an architectural miracle that I don’t completely understand.



Here you can see the rest of the church and the tower beside it.  The rib running down the dome is one of many and they are the weight-bearing part of the dome.

Okay, after cooling off, catching our breath, and soaking up the sights, it was time to head back down.


After climbing down the ladder, we ended up here, in a little room between the inside and outside domes.  We had to go through the tiny door.


Then down this staircase.  We had to climb down one exactly like it and luckily we don’t have to share it with those coming up.  This is the part that follows the curve of the inner dome, so it was quite steep.



On the way down, we got to stop at the upper balcony, the one above the round windows. (The other balcony was below the round windows.)  From here, the frescoes were very close.  The figures were huge, so much bigger than they look from the ground.  You don’t think about how big all the figures have to be painted when you’re standing on the ground.


Here’s a picture from the ground that shows where we were.  See the balconies just below and above the round windows?  We were there!

I tried to video some of the stairs to give you an idea of what it was like.  See what you think!


The Streets of Rome

Palazzo Doria-Pamphilij

Getting lost was the goal today and we managed that within blocks of our hotel. I swear, navigating Rome’s streets, alleys, and even pathways, is like trying to find your way in a rabbit warren.  No rhyme or reason, certainly no grid pattern, and no map to be found that has all the streets labeled.  I thought that was a problem with the maps, but I think it’s because those streets have no signs at all!  But I have to say, getting lost was the best thing that happened to us because we happened upon many really great things.  I think the story is best told in pictures, so here we go!



The Palazzo Doria-Pamphilij wasn’t the first place we found, but it was one of our favorites.  We stumbled off the hot, crowded street, into this beautiful, cool courtyard.  We also needed a bathroom, so buying an entrance ticket was a no-brainer. I think it turned out to be my favorite thing in Rome, so far.


The Palazzo was built by the Doria-Pamphilij family in the 1600s and its been in the family every since.  It’s a huge building and even though part of it is open to the public, the family still lives here.  The room above was the first we entered (after the bathroom : )  The ceiling must be 20 feet, or more, so the room feels enormous.  The walls are completely lined with paintings that were commissioned for this room.  You can get an idea of just how big everything is in this room by looking at the chairs and sofas up against the walls.


This is the only galleria where there are windows on both sides.  Instead of paintings, they lined the walls between the windows with mirrors, so light is reflected everywhere.  The incredible ceilings are well lit and absolutely mind boggling in their beauty.  It was a magical corridor.


This is one of the many galleries.  They are hung with paintings collected by members of the Doria-Pamphilij family for centuries.  Many were purchased directly from the artist or commissioned by family members.  Somewhere in the past, an ancestor found a way to prevent a member of the family from inheriting the art if he/she didn’t agree to keep the collection together.  The current owner says it is both a blessing and a curse because the responsibility for keeping the collection is huge.


I loved this room because its the ballroom.  It is actually two rooms, both covered in beautiful silk wallpaper.  The floor is parquet wood, perfect for dancing.  On the far left side, you can see the little area where the orchestra would have sat.

We saw many other incredible rooms of the Palazzo (which means “palace” in Italian), but taking pictures wasn’t allowed.  Most I’ve included here came from the web.  If you ever get to Rome, you must plan a visit here.  It’s well worth a couple hours of your time.



Next was the Pantheon, or as it’s known today, the Church of Saint Mary of the Martyrs.  It is the best preserved building of Ancient Rome because it was converted to a church during the 2nd century.  If you were curious about where all the bones from the catacombs we visited the other day, many were moved here.  It was thought appropriate at the time because they believed many of the bodies buried in the catacombs were martyrs.


This is the alter inside.  It’s one of the few churches we’ve been in that actually has pews and a posted Mass schedule.


The church is also the burial place of Raphael, yes, THAT Raphael.



Here’s my attempt to show you just how big this building is.  Its either the largest dome, or the second largest, in the world.  It’s an engineering marvel that the Emperor Hadrian was said to have personally designed.  The scale is huge and the opening at the top, known as the oculus, is 9 meters wide and completely open to the elements.  When it rains, it rains in a perfect circle in the church.  Yes, there’s drainage that appears to work well, because it doesn’t seam to be a problem.

The second photo above is actually three separate photos, all hooked together. It was the only way to get everything in one shot.  If you overlap them in your mind, you can get an idea of what the inside of the Pantheon looks like.



This is the fountain outside the Pantheon.  As you can see, it is another Egyptian obelisk.  These obelisks are real.  They were made in Egypt about 1300 B.C. and brought to Rome around the time of Christ.  You can tell that this one was “exorcised” of any demons because a Christian symbol has been added to the top. But up close, you can still easily see the Egyptian markings. I think this one used to be in Helios and was also at Circus Maximus for centuries.

When Christianity rose in Rome, many of the obelisks were removed from the city’s older buildings and put in front of churches. It was sort of an ancient map quest device. It let pilgrims know which buildings were important to visit.


Here we are!  And yes, that’s a horse-drawn carriage behind us.  I can’t even begin to imagine taking a carriage ride through Roman traffic.  It’s completely horrifying.  That’s also the entrance to the Pantheon behind us. We are standing on the steps of the fountain in the pictures above.


This is Piaza Navona.  It has several fountains by Bernini, a very famous sculptor and architect.  It is said that in his lifetime, Bernini created over 3000 sculptures, including the Tevoli Fountain.  He also had something like 11 children, so he was a busy guy.


Another fountain in Piaza Navona.



This is the famous fountain in Piaza Navona.  It represents the four great rivers of the world.



We found a little goofy gladiator fun along the way.  : )


Okay, this one had me in hysterics.  Only in Rome would hot priests make it in a calendar!


We saw signs for McDonalds everywhere.  They always had an arrow and “3 minutes” if you walked that way.  But we could never actually find one.  Well, we discovered why.  The one we stumbled on by accident was just a doorway that lead down steps, like you were walking into a subway.  The McDonalds was way under the building and way back off the street.  It was also enormous — like the size of a high school gym.  There were many walk up counters and I couldn’t see the end of the seating area.


There were also about 20 of these self-order stations.



And what’s up with the menu?  We only get cruddy fried apple pies.  I want what the Romans get!


The Spanish Steps were more involved than I originally thought.  I thought it was a staircase.  No, it’s actually a series of staircases.  At the end of a long day, it about did me in.


So I stopped on one of the landings to take a picture.  My favorite part is the father patiently letting his son wear himself out by climbing and climbing and climbing.  I predict that kid will sleep well tonight!



This is Piaza Del Popolo.  It’s huge and was full of people, but there wasn’t much else here.  Well, except for another obelisk.



Bob meets Barbie!  She invited him to her house.





Apparently not all Italians are known for their pride.


When I took this picture I thought “Italian Westie!” but after chatting with the owners, this is actually a Swiss Westie on vacation.  We got it on good authority that he really hates Rome and is looking forward to going home.

Biltmore Estate

Okay, everything I said about the entrance fees, ignore me.  The Biltmore Estate is worth every penny.  It’s an unbelievable place, and you can see my pictures here.  It took 6 years to build and it was opened in December, 1895.  It was built by George Vanderbilt (the grandson of the railroad tycoon) when he was still a bachelor.  It has 205 rooms and 1.4 million (yes, million!) square feet.  It is the result of a collaboration between the architect, George Vanderbilt, and the landscape architect—who was the first landscape architect.

George decided to marry about 3 years after the house was complete.  Can you imagine coming home from your honeymoon to that house?  Apparently all the people who worked on the estate (there were hundreds, maybe more than a thousand) lined the road leading to the house to cheer when they arrived.

There were only about 30 servants in the house but the estate also had a nursery that sold seeds via mail order, an enormous dairy (100s of cows) and it was a working farm.  So there were many employees and their families that lived on the estate (although, not in the house).

I don’t have pictures of inside the house because I couldn’t take any, but it is mind boggling.  No one knows how much it cost to build, but it had to be millions and millions, even in 1895.  It was a huge boost to the local economy at the time.  Likewise, all the servants were always paid New York wages, which was way more than comparable jobs locally.  Obviously, jobs at Biltmore Estate were prized.

The gardens were spectacular.  They were designed by the same man who designed Central Park in NYC.  In addition to the gardens, he made plans to convert the 125,000 acres of the estate into something beautiful.  He recommended creating the small organized park (which is still beautiful today—see the pictures!), farming the river bottom lands, and converting the rest of the tired farmland to forests.  Toward that end, they planted more than 2 million plants and trees on the property.  Ironically, the landscape architect’s vision is only now realized after 100 years of growth in that forest.  It’s all incredibly beautiful.

The Estate was the Vanderbilt’s family home and they entertained extensively until 1915 when George died.  His wife and daughter (who was only 13) continued living in the house, but they moved into a smaller apartment within and closed off most of the rest of the house.  When the daughter married in 1924, she and her husband lived there and entertained, once again.
When the Depression hit, the family wanted to stimulate economic growth in the region, so they opened the first floor of the house to tourists.  That was in 1931.  The last time a family member actually lived in the house was in 1951. Today, George’s great grandson and great granddaughter (who are brother and sister) both live on the estate grounds with their families.  They run the businesses related to the house, including the winery that was started by their father in the 1970s.

It seems we are running out of time before we have to be in Boston.  We were going to drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but after spending some time on it yesterday, we realized that will be a tedious trip.  It may be beautiful, but a narrow, two lane road with a top speed of 45 mph is not the way to cover the next 400 miles.  So, stay tuned to see what we decide to do next!

The Old Forts of St. Augustine

4500 miles traveled so far.

After Cocoa Beach, we stopped in St. Augustine and learned a little about the history of that area.  It claims to be the oldest continually occupied city in the US, dating back about 500 years. I know the Indians that live on Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico dispute that claim since they have continually occupied their city for 1500 years. You can see my post about them here.

Anyway, we explored a couple of very old Spanish forts and had lots of fun meeting people and talking history.  You can see my pictures here.

On Good Friday, we spent the day in the car driving from St. Augustine to Asheville, North Carolina.  It’s a really neat city, I wish we had more time to explore it.  I was really looking forward to visiting the Biltmore Estate—the home of the Vanderbilts— but it’s supposed to pour rain tomorrow and the tickets are $69 a person!  I think that’s the first time an entrance fee has really made me stop and consider whether it was really worth it.  It seems comparable to the Hearst Mansion and they only charge $25.

In any case, stay tuned because we’re venturing into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park tomorrow and I hope to have some good stuff to share with you.  Just in case you’re wondering: no, we don’t plan to stop in Dollywood.  Sorry.  : )

St. Augustine–Photos of Old Forts :)


To get to Fort Matanzas (aka Fort Slaughter), you have to take a short boat ride. I took this from the boat as we approached. We saw several dolphins in the river, by the way.


I thought the corner bastion was quite decorative and interesting.


A view of the river from the gun deck. The fort protected the river that lead to St. Augustine and allowed the residents there to be re-supplied, even when the ocean port was baracaded.


Here we are! It was chilly, only in the low 60s.


A view of the bastion from the gun deck.


Inside the fort. It’s not a very big room. They think only about 10 men would have been posted here.



Bob is climbing the ladder from the bedroom to the roof.  It’s the same ladder that’s in the picture above him.


A view of the top of the bastion from the roof.


Here I am in the doorway of the bastion.


I like these trees in the parking lot.


They look like eyes, or maybe peacock feathers.


This is the Castillo de San Marcos, a much larger fort that protected St. Augustine. Here hundreds of men could have been stationed. It was built in the 1500s by the Spanish to protect Florida which was its colony. Florida wasn’t made a part of the US until the 1820s.



There were many re-creation actors at the Fort.

Below are some pictures from the top of the walls.





I was amazed at how intricate and decorated the cannons were. All of them are elaborately engraved.


A view of the fort from the top of the walls.


It has corner bastions like Fort Matanzas. Here’s Bob in one of them.




Bellingrath Estate

2,250 total miles, so far.

When we left New Orleans this morning it was gray and overcast.  The weatherman said there would be rain.  We hoped to do some exploring despite the forecast.

We found our adventure in Mobile, Alabama.  It was all by accident, really.  As we were leaving the B&B this morning, I consulted the notes I made when my friend Barbara—who was raised in the South—told me all the places we should see.  She recommended the azalea trails in Mobile.  A quick internet search later and we discovered we were right in the middle of the predicted height of the azalea blooming season.  So, off we went.

We found Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile and it was incredible. The pictures are here.  I loved the story behind the place as much as the gardens themselves.  It all started in 1917 when Mr. Bellingrath, the local Coca Cola bottler/distributor, was feeling under the weather and went to see his doctor. The doc diagnosed a classic case of over-working and advised his patient to buy a run-down fishing camp and “learn to play.”  Mr. Bellingrath took his doctor’s advice and over the next 30 years he and his wife built the Bellingrath Estate.

It grew from an initial 3 acres to more than 900, but only about 65 acres are cultivated into formal gardens.  The Bellingraths were inspired during a trip to Europe where they saw the grand estates and formal gardens there.  They came home, hired a landscape architect, and the rest is history.

Mrs. B was also quite an antique collector.  Her collections filled and overflowed her house in town so she built a 10,000 square foot house at their retreat.  It is an incredibly beautiful house, full of elegant rooms and priceless antiques.  It was the height of Mobile society to be invited for dinner at the Bellingrath’s home.  When they built the house, electricity didn’t extend that far out of town but they wired the house for it anyway.  In the years before the electric lines reached them, they ran the lights with generators.
We also learned something about the history of Coca Cola.  It was originally invented by a doctor as a tonic to help those addicted to morphine break the habit.  That lead me and Bob to wonder how much cocaine Coke used to have in it.  The answer: no one knows exactly, but it was only trace amounts.  In any case, after 1929, the recipe was changed and it had none.

I also thought it was interesting that the Coca Cola distributor could make millions of dollars selling soda between 1906 and his death in 1945.

Finally, I like puzzles of beautiful landscapes. I sometimes wonder where such gorgeous pictures were taken. I swear I’ve seen puzzles of these gardens.

New Orleans–Day 2

Today we walked the French Quarter.  I’ve never been to New Orleans so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Generally, it’s an old city.  It’s history goes back 300 years, and more. So many of the buildings are VERY old and they are all crowded together with  narrow streets in between.  Of course, the French Quarter is known for the fancy wrought iron work on many of the buildings.

We walked along Royal Street which was filled with antique dealers.  We also strolled through the French Market and visited the Cathedral.  We stopped to listen to lots of good musicians playing on the streets.  I put a short video here. We ate beignets at Cafe Du Monde and split a shrimp po’ boy for lunch.  Delicious!

My favorite part of the day was the tour we took that showed how Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.  We saw the levees and where several of the major breaches were.  We couldn’t see them all because there were more than 50.  We saw the 9th Ward and other places that were hit very hard.  Some of those houses haven’t been touched since the day Katrina hit.  We even saw several with holes in the roof where people had been trapped in their attics and were rescued.  Of those houses that have been restored, many of them have been raised on stilts, some by as much as 20 feet!

After Katrina, the Coast Guard (and later, many others) went around in boats and checked each house for people who needed help.  When a house was checked, they painted a big X just above the water line.  The four quadrants of the X were each used for specific information—what kind of search was done, whether the natural gas was still turned on, how many bodies were found, the date of the search, the identity of the searchers, and many other details.  In the 9 years since the hurricane, people have taken different attitudes toward their X’s.  Some erased them as soon as possible but other have preserved them as sort of a badge of honor.  Where they still exist, they indicate how high the water got because they were painted just above the waterline. In other places, especially businesses, they preserved the water line around the building in various ways when they rebuilt.  Whenever you see a building with a line around it, that’s the waterline.  Pictures of all these things are here.

Some facts we learned were amazing.  For example, after Katrina, there were thousands of abandoned cars all over the city.  It took the mayor more than a year to find a contractor to remove them.  Can you imagine what it must have been like to have those flooded cars rotting on the streets for so long?

In the end, Katrina forced an older city to modernize.  Many of those very old buildings had to be renovated from the studs out.  We’re told it has vastly improved the appearance of the city. Another interesting thing is the school district.  Apparently it was pretty corrupt and had an abysmal record.  Katrina washed it completely away.  Now all the previous public schools are charter schools and the level of education is much better.  Some of the schools we saw that had to be rebuilt were beautiful.
Tons of construction is still going on.  Most of the big projects we saw were new fire stations, police stations, community centers and schools.  There are still many buildings that need to be redone, but they are the minority.

Please take a look at the photo gallery for more. I put a lot more details of our trip there.