Geraldine Brooks at the Pordenone Book Fair

The last entry of my “authors who are better than me” series ends with Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks. She was visiting the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair and I had a chance to talk to her.

She is, of course, well known for such excellent works as “Caleb’s Crossing” and “Year of Wonder.” Her Pulitzer was for “March,” where she took the character of the absent father from Luisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women.” Brooks follows March as he leaves home to support the cause of the Union in the American Civil War. I guess I don’t have to say much other than Pulitzer.

dsc00793

 

 

 

 

She was here announcing the release of the Italian version of her most recent work, “The Secret Chord.” It tells the story of King David of Israel as told by his long-time advisor and seer, Natan.  One of the things that makes her interpretation so fascinating is she peels away the version of a superman and presents David as a normal person with ambition, greed and many vices.

She said she wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the women in David’s life. Batsheva, for example. “She was a victim, not a seductress. In that time, it is not believable that a woman could refuse the advances of the King.” In fact it was her desire to repaint the story of his wives that drew her to write “The Secret Chord.”

Because the novel I am working on now is Historical Fiction, I was anxious to ask her when she knew it was time to stop doing research and start doing the writing. Her answer makes perfect sense to me as a writer. “Let the story tell you what you need to know. Resist stuffing in extra facts whether the story needs them or not. When you are writing it, you will know what is necessary.”

As I said, it makes perfect sense to me, but actually doing that has been the challenge. Having talked to her about it has given me new energy – and writing it has restarted! Thank you, Geraldine Brooks.

By the way, I think “The Secret Chord” is a terrific novel. Plenty of it is uncomfortable to read, but David was a man, and we all have an idea what that means. Read it.

#PoweredByIndie

Italian Book Fair (Part 3)

Part three of my series about authors I met at the Pordenone, Italy Book Fair is Peter Hoeg.

A 59-year old novelist from Denmark, Hoeg is probably best known for “Smilla’s Sense of Snow. At the Pordenone Book Fair he was introducing his newest work, “The Effect of Susan.” This is a futuristic thriller that centers on the title character’s unique talent to get others to be completely honest and open with her regarding their deepest, darkest secrets.

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

Peter Hoeg at a Press Conference. Before long he had us all on our feet and participating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, we did not talk too much about that book. In fact the most striking characteristic about him  (to me at least) was his deep spirituality. He talked about his morning meditations being one of the most important parts of his day. At one point, he had us standing and shaking hands with each other. He described the handshake as one of the most intimate and important connections between two humans. The act of physically opening the space between two people (in order to shake hands) exposes the heart. He also described how the collection of nerve bundles in the hand sends signals to our brain, which then elicits emotions of trust and generosity.  OK.

We did discuss his writing processes, but everything he said was driven by his spiritual journey. He talked about the beauty of a book is that one lives in it. The writer lives there for three or four years while making the story. The reader lives there for two weeks while reading it. I had never thought of it that way, but then Hoeg’s world view is more spiritual than mine.

He was asked why so many of his lead characters are women. “I think it is important for men to know women very well. By understanding my fictional women, I can be closer to the real ones in my life; my daughters, my mother.”

After the conference, I asked him what was the longest it had ever taken him to finish a book. “The Quiet Girl” was a ten year journey. That journey included destroying 2,000 pages of hand-written manuscript, and then starting over.

Hearing that give me some comfort as I am in year 5 of my second novel now. Will I throw everything out and start over? Not likely. But then I am not in the same place as the fascinating Peter Hoeg.

#PoweredByIndie

 

Italian Book Fair Keeps on Giving

The second installment of my “discussions with writers who are way more accomplished than I am” deals with meeting Colm Toibin.

Born in Ireland in 1955, Toibin is probably best known internationally for “Brooklyn.” This is a gentle tale of a young Irish woman, not overly curious and never scarred by heartbreak. She travels to the United States from post-war Ireland where she will soon experience curiosity, love, tragedy and a host of emotions that make us – and her – completely human.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

The Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy is the biggest event of the year for this small city.

 

Toibin was at the annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy to present his newest work, “Nora Webster.” This one allows us to enter the life of a middle aged widow trying to keep her life on track after the premature death of her husband. Set in southern Ireland in the late 60’s, Coibin sticks with what he knows best – his land, in fact his own home town.

The conversation with Toibin was almost exclusively about the craft of writing. To be more specific, Colm Toibin’s craft of writing. During the discussion, he left me with what he considers the three most important points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Show don’t tell,” he said first.  This is something everyone who studies writing hears. But the reality is most of us are not very good at it. Toibin gives a pretty remarkable illustration of it in “Nora Webster,” though. Read it. You won’t find a single overt description of the lead character. No telling us about her “long red hair.” Instead we observe as she combs her hair with slow, deliberate motions, allowing us to see her with our own imagination.

 

Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.  “Ambiguity in relationships between characters adds a rich tension and opens the door for drama to be introduced later in the story,” Toibin explained to us. I could not have said it better, nor could I write it better than he does in both “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster.”

 

 

dsc00799

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here, Toibin is signing my copy of "Brooklyn."

Here, Toibin is signing my copy of “Brooklyn.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, he stated his goal is for a reader to finish his book, put it down and think “I know her.” Having read the two novels mentioned here, I do feel if I met either character, I would know her immediately and be able to have an engaging conversation right away. So, thank you Colm Toibin, for introducing me to such interesting people.

#PoweredByIndie

Annual Italian Book Fair Delivers Again (Part 1)

Last week, the terrific annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy was in full swing. I’ve written about this event in the past, so won’t go into detail other than to mention what makes it really great.

Authors from all over the world are there. They meet the public, present their latest book, answer questions, walk around the charming city, and revel in the culture of reading that is so strong here.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.

The annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy involves the entire city.














 

I have been fortunate enough to get into Press Conferences where authors meet the media. These smaller venues lend themselves to a more animated discussion, which is exactly why I enjoy them.

The first author I met was Scottish-born Irvin Welsh who was presenting “The Blade Artist.” He is best known for his brutal but sometimes funny description of drug addiction, “Trainspotting.” When made into a grim and troubling film, movie-goers met Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle.

“The Blade Artist” reintroduces us to one of the characters from “Trainspotting.” Begby – played by Carlyle in the film – has (sort of) cleaned up his life, changed his identity and moved to the U.S. The death of the son he hardly knew has him return to Edinburgh where old wounds are reopened.

Welsh talked about taking a former character and changing him so completely from his past. “I just wanted to keep up with the character. His trajectory was prison or death, not very interesting for a writer. I felt the possibility for change in Begby was an interesting idea.”

But you can be sure that some of Begby’s old habits will resurface.

Welsh talked about the phenomenon of what he dubbed white male rage. “We see it all over the world and in politics too; white male rage over the democratization and liberalization that has eroded their influence. Begby is the white male rage poster boy.”

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

Irvine Welsh talks with (mostly) Italian media.

 

 

 

Other media folks in the Press Conference were Italian, therefore interested in Brexit. Welsh called it a start, not an end. “It is a debate about who we are in England right now. It is exciting politically but there will be great stress on the society. But in the end, we just can’t have super-national organizations like the International Monetary Fund dictating to democracies. When a group like that protects banks but not states, it is a problem.”

Happily, the discussion went back to writing, or to reading, actually. Welsh said unless we encourage reading in schools, we are shutting the doors on the next generations. He feels doing so will likely increase the stress of white male rage and international disagreements and intolerance across ethnicities.

All in all, Welsh presented himself with an interesting and slightly pessimistic outlook.

Coming up:  Peter Hoeg, Colm Toibin, and Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks.

#PoweredByIndie

Ask A Local: A Night in Cormons, Italy

To celebrate a friend’s birthday, four of us took an overnight trip to the tiny village of Cormons, nestled in Italy’s upper right hand corner just a few hundred meters form the border with Slovenia. I had contacted my friend Elena Orzan (I wrote about her in this eBook) and asked her to help me set up a wine and food visit to remember.

Elena Orzan is an expert on wines from northeast Italy. In this photo, she is sitting on the border of Italy and Slovenia.

Elena Orzan is an expert on wines from northeast Italy. In this photo, she is sitting on the border of Italy and Slovenia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After checking in at the Bed and Breakfast Casa del Riccio (riccio means hedgehog in Italian), Elena picked us up in a bright yellow jeep.  First stop was an old favorite, the cantina of Edi Keber.  Edi’s son Kristian pretty much runs the show here now, and he led us on a tour through his facility before inviting us into his tasting room.

The view from the Edi Keber winery is into Slovenia, and it is spectacular.

The view from the Edi Keber winery is into Slovenia, and it is spectacular.

 

He let us sample three vintages of his white blend called Collio. This is his signature wine, and part of an effort among local producers to brand the wines with the area rather than the grapes they use (think of Chianti or Valpolicella – areas, not grapes). As is always the case with wines from this historic cantina, each was simply marvelous; refreshing, crispy citrus notes with an elegant feel.

 

 

 

 

 

We loaded a box of bottles into the jeep and Elena took us to lunch at Osteria La Subida. I’ve eaten here many times and always know I will leave well fed. The kitchen does not skip a beat with my being vegetarian, although I will say the meat dishes others at the table were served also looked delicious. The owner, Josko Sirk also makes his own vinegar, growing the indigenous grape Ribolla Gialla specifically to produce it.

The Osteria la Subida has a simple look but serves an outstanding meal.

The Osteria la Subida has a simple look but serves an outstanding meal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next stop was a winery called La Rajade (a local dialect term meaning the sun ray).

Diego Zanin, owner of La Rajade Winery, met us and offered some excellent wines.

Diego Zanin, owner of La Rajade Winery, met us and offered some excellent wines.

 

Owner Diego Zanin met us and walked us into his fields. His grapes had already been harvested, so he talked about the importance of good maintenance of the vines during the winter. He took us next on a walk through his production center and led us into his tasting room. Here we sampled his Pinot Grigio, Ribolla Gialla, and Sauvignon.  We bought bottles of each!

 

 

 

 

 

We then piled ourselves back into the jeep to visit our last winery of the day, called Ronchi Ro. I am not sure how to translate that, but based on our experience it might mean “the nicest place ever.” The owners, Romeo Rossi and his wife Carolina Qualizza called Elena as we were heading there to say they had to leave to take their son to his sporting event. Not to worry, though, the door was open and we could sample whatever we wanted. We did just that, trying his Sauvignon Blanc and his Friulano while sitting on his terrace overlooking his vines. We stopped by the next morning to pick up some bottles and thank him for his hospitality.

Ronchi Ro is both an active winery and a guest house. Yum.

Ronchi Ro is both an active winery and a guest house. Yum.

This was our view while tasting wine. Life is very good indeed.

This was our view while tasting wine. Life is very good indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far, everything was perfect. But we were in for an epic meal at Ristorante Al Giardinetto, right in the center of Cormons. These pictures will give an idea, and each course was matched with an expertly selected wine. Dinner started at 8:00pm and we walked (using the term loosely) out well after midnight. I did not know it at the time, but chef Paolo Zoppolati is so highly regarded in the culinary world he flies to Rome once a week to appear on a national TV show to discuss elegance in dining. Oh yes.

Sautee of raddichio and onions

Sautee of raddichio and onions

Fresh porcini mushrooms with pumpkin seeds and sun dried tomato.

Fresh porcini mushrooms with pumpkin seeds and sun dried tomato.

Carpaccio of watermelon with wafer-thin almonds.

Carpaccio of watermelon with wafer-thin almonds.

Potato gnocchi with walnuts and a zucchini puree.

Potato gnocchi with walnuts and a zucchini puree.

Barley with zucchini, asparagus, and mushrooms.

Barley with zucchini, asparagus, and mushrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some kind of Chocolate Heaven.

Some kind of Chocolate Heaven.

Real espresso.

Real espresso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each of the wineries we visited exports to North America and Europe so ask your local wine shop about them. Even better, if you have a trip to Italy in your plans, you can contact me through my Wine Friends web site or contact Elena Orzan at the Enoteca di Cormons. Either of us would be happy to set you up for a similar fabulous tour.

 

Cin Cin e Buon Appetito!

 

Annual Book Fair in Pordenone, Italy Delivers Again

It’s called “PordenoneLegge” in Italian. It translates to “Pordenone Reads.” Given there were more than 150,000 visitors over the five-day event, there must be many readers here.

From 16-20 September, this small city in Italy’s unexplored northeastern corner hosted the 16th annual Festival of Books With the Authors.  Most literary fairs feature booth after booth of publishers peddling books. There is some of that going on, but PordenoneLegge offers two realities to make this a special event.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

Plenty of books are sold at this terrific festival, but the event is really about meeting the authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, the authors are here. They sit in bars sipping coffee – or perhaps something more interesting. They wander through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pordenone stopping occasionally to admire the architecture or, as was the case this year, they simply marvel at the near-perfect weather.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

Canadian author/actress Ann-Marie MacDonald thrilled the audience by reading the first chapter of her new book in Italian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second special attraction is the city becomes a character in the story that is this book fair. Authors might present a new book in an elegant old palazzo, or seated outside in a picturesque square surrounded by magnificent buildings. After some introductory remarks, they generally stay to answer questions from the public on any topic that comes to mind. This is followed by autograph and photo opportunities.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

Hundreds of readers sit in a nice piazza to listen to an author present his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I took advantage of the proximity of one writer in particular, the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller. I really enjoy talking to people who are smarter than me. Admittedly it is not much of a challenge to find someone who fits that criteria, but Ms. Heller sets a new standard for brain power. For 45 minutes her remarks ranged from the on-going refugee crisis in Europe to the promise of beauty to the need for all of us to learn to think again.

 

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher, listens to a question during her press conference.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She had particularly harsh remarks about the actions of her native country in handling the influx of desperate people trying to escape tragic circumstances. In her mind, the false reports that came from Hungary fostered fear and hesitation among western nations who ought to receive the refugees with open arms and open hearts.

Her discussion of beauty started with the premise that beauty is the promise of happiness, being experienced in the moment. This was not about physical beauty, rather beauty in life; great music, nature, art, friendship. You get the idea: the good things in our lives. She said beauty does not necessarily deliver happiness – it does not save us.  Being temporary, it offers an opportunity to get closer to happiness for those who are ready to embrace it.

She tied the topics together by urging us to not take what we read or hear for granted. To grow, to do what is right, to move in the direction of happiness, a person must ask questions and take the time to think. Only then will one achieve growth and direction in their life.  Pretty thoughtful stuff.

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don't have to find out!

What would reading a book be without a glass of wine? At PordenoneLegge, you don’t have to find out!

 

 

Three days at the annual Venice Film Festival is not enough.

Truth is I catch this festival pretty much every year. Usually I am there for five or six days, but this time I had to cut it short. However, it was a pretty lucky three days as only one of the five films I saw was one I recommend you miss.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Fans line up early to catch a glimpse of stars on the red carpet.

Before I get to my comments on those movies, there are three new discoveries to mention.

First, (almost) affordable accommodation is becoming more and more common in Venice. You can find decent apartments through many of the on-line services such as Booking.com or Tripadvisor.com. We found ours through Booking. It’s on the island called Giudecca, so it is spared the mass of tourists. The place was called Approdo and it was pretty nice. Good location, easy access to water bus lines, and it was clean. The kitchen was missing a can opener and a cheese grater (in Italy!) but other than that, everything was good.

Second, not far from the apartment we found a ristorante/pizzeria called “da Sandro” (Calle Michelangelo 53/C). Very good, but don’t order their prosecco. Sandro and his wife were very nice and the food quite good.

The pizza at "da Sandro" is very, very good!

The pizza at “da Sandro” is very, very good!

 

Finally, on the island of Lido, where the films are shown, we found a vegetarian restaurant called Bio Sound System. I know, weird name, but it is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant with a real chef in the kitchen. Wide assortment of dishes, three of which we tried, all excellent. Even if you are not vegetarian, this place is worth it.

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

A true vegetarian/vegan restaurant on Lido island. YUM!

 

OK. Now let’s talk about the films. They are listed in the order I saw them.

Sobytie (The Event)

This is a Russian documentary about the failed coup attempt in 1991. The film is all archive footage taken over the course of a week in August of that year. Since there was very little explanation or back story, I was compelled to research the event after watching the film. But the documentary is a terrific testimony to the strength of a unified population and the real power of democracy. It is the kind of movie you’ll find only in art house cinema and it is worth the effort to go find it.

Black Mass

This is the new Johnny Depp film. I was a little disappointed. It ended up being a typical gangster movie: lots of F-bombs, lots of blood splattering against walls and windows, inept cops, psychopath gangsters. This one is different because it is based on a true story — the life of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mob boss in the 1980’s. Johnny Depp is usually terrific, but he’s done this kind of part before and seemed uninspired. Ladies, he put on weight for this movie, cut his hair, messed up his teeth and looks nothing like the Johnny Depp you want. Still, if you like gangster movies go see it.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

A fantastic documentary directed by Amy Berg that tells the story of Janis Joplin’s rise to and fall from fame. Let me put it this way, this was a documentary movie, and after it was done the audience gave the director a ten minute standing ovation. She deserved it. Go see it.

Soory about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

Sorry about the quality of this pic. It is director Amy Berg during a ten-minute standing ovation.

L’attesa (The Wait)

An Italian movie shot in a beautiful villa in Sicily. Painfully slow story, plenty of very nice, artistic camera shots that had nothing to do with the story, many scenes with actresses staring off into the distance with a blank look. Really, not a good movie at all. Do not bother.

Pecore in Erba (Sheep in the Grass)

Another Italian movie, this one a “mockumentary” that satirizes intolerance, bigotry, and senseless hatred. Many references to Italian popular culture and cameo appearances by Italian celebrities and news people. Funny and moving and poignant. Yes, there is a pretty obvious message but it is delivered in a clever and witty film.

 

 

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

Another successful visit to Venice. Aaahhh

All in all, I consider the last three days a successful, but too short visit to the Film Festival.

Ask A Local: Venice

Well, OK. full disclosure here.

I did not actually stop a random local on a Venetian street and ask where to have a decent meal.  That is exactly what I have done in the other “Ask a Local” blog entries, and will continue to do things that way – it’s just that I go to Venice pretty frequently and have learned to accept the advice of Michela Scibilia.  She is a local author passionate about the search for high quality at a fair price.

While I have not had (yet) the chance to meet her, I have read some of her books. After using them for about 20 years now, I get the feeling she (like me) is unhappy with the theme park atmosphere Venice takes on, particularly during summer months.

When I say theme park atmosphere, I am talking about crappy souvenir stands, the junk in stores that pretends to be Venetian or Italian, but so clearly comes from someplace – let’s just say to the East – and restaurants or osterie or even bars where not a single person working there is Italian, let alone from Venice.

But good quality and fair prices do exist in Venice, and Michela is likely the best source to find that rare combination.

So today, with her book “Venezia Low Cost” in hand, we stopped by two new (to us) places, and had lunch at an old favorite.

First stop was at Vecio Biavarol (Fondamenta dei Tolentini 225). Two glasses of prosecco and four classic Venetian cichetti (fancy bar snacks) set us back only 10.20 euro. I know a place in Venice where a single glass of prosecco costs 10 euro. Outside, the owner’s son (maybe 5 years old) was working with the owner’s father (in his 60’s is my guess) attaching little tables to the railing along the canal.

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

Trattoria Bar Pontini is an old favorite

We then went to lunch at one of our old favorites – Trattoria Bar Pontini (Cannareggio 1268). We’ve probably been here ten or twelve times now. Plates are pretty simple, but always good. They have a terrific wine list, and the service is warm and welcoming and friendly.

This little trattoria is right off what we call the Tourist Death Route – the wide street leading from the train station. It’s always crowded and busy and full of not very good but overpriced restaurants. Both sides of the avenue are lined with way too many sleazy looking guys selling schlocky looking souvenirs.

But do not despair; cross the first bridge (called Ponte Guglie) and turn left. You’ll find it in about 50 meters.

 

 

After lunch we needed a coffee, of course. Right around the corner from Trattoria Pontini is Torrefazione Cannareggio (Cannareggio 1337). It is the last authentic coffee bean roaster in Venice. Yes, almost every bar in the country serves excellent espresso, but for me nothing beats the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans! They have 8 or 10 different blends available, which will rotate occasionally (giving me reason for a return visit!)

 

torrefazione 1

 

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

Torrefazione Cannareggio smells so good!

 

They also sell beans (whole or ground) so you can take this treasure home with you.

 

In fact, I take a treasure home pretty much every time I visit Venice – especially if I ask advice from Michela Scibilia.

Ask a Local: Krakow, Poland

We’d been planning our first trip to Krakow, Poland for months so were quite happy to finally arrive. Our friend Pam, coming in from a different airport, had already been there a few hours. After getting situated in the apartment, she had gone out and done the smart thing every traveler should do: asked a local.

Pam spoke with a 20-something named Ania who suggested we try a few restaurants. The first place, called Pod Aniolami, was billed as traditional Polish cuisine. I have to rate the food as OK. The service was speedy and friendly, and the price was reasonable. We had gone downstairs in the restaurant, into what reminded me of the old wine cellars I see so often at home in Italy. To be honest, it felt a little bit like a dungeon to me and that detracted from the experience, I think.  I’d suggest if you insist on eating here to stay upstairs in the more spacious and better lit dining areas.

The Pod Aniolami restuarant offers good food, but it might be better to eat upstairs

The Pod Aniolami restuarant offers good food, but it might be better to eat upstairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also had a meal at a place called Resto Illuminati. I am trying to think of over-the-top adjectives to describe it: fabulous, fantastic, amazing, awesome, terrific, and wonderful. They don’t really cover it, though. Let me put it this way: I am in my late 50’s, travel professionally, and have dined in thousands of restaurants, from beach-side shacks to multiple-starred luxury digs. Resto Illuminati is without a doubt in the top 20 restaurants I have ever visited. 

 

The ambiance at Resto Illuminati is charming.

The ambiance at Resto Illuminati is charming.

Just a sample of what is on the menu at Resto Illuminati.

Just a sample of what is on the menu at Resto Illuminati.

 

Ambiance was exquisite, service was perfect, the inventive dishes simply extraordinary. All at a fair price, too. We’ll go back to Krakow – that is certain – and will eat here again, probably twice.

A meal at Resto Illuminati is a marvelous experience.

A meal at Resto Illuminati is a marvelous experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent some time sitting in the main square being entertained by street musicians, those creepy guys who are costumed and painted who then just stand there waiting for you to drop coins into a hat, and the steady flow of tourists wandering into the schlocky “Cloth Market.” Ania had said it was mostly cheap souvenirs, and she was right. If you are looking for a shot glass (I always am looking for a shot glass, by the way) or a shirt that says I (heart) Krakow, the cloth market is fine. If you want to buy something nice, shop on one of the streets that radiate out from the main square.

Street Musicians are almost always present in Krakow's main square

Street Musicians are almost always present in Krakow’s main square

Inside the Cloth Market,you'll find plenty of cheap souvenirs.

Inside the Cloth Market,you’ll find plenty of cheap souvenirs.

 

I also met a guy named Damian. He works for an outfit called Free Walking Tour.com. I was a little bit skeptical about a free tour, feeling that you often get exactly what you pay for. But Damian was fabulous. I went with him on the excellent Communist Krakow Tour. It was 4.5 hours long, included rides on public transport, walking through an entire city within Krakow (called Nowa Huta) with its planned streets, organized neighborhoods and massive steel mill. All of this was designed and built shortly after the Soviet Union had occupied Poland. They underestimated the resilience of the Polish people, though and Damian’s description of the slow but relentless rebellion against the Soviets was a real testimony to the strength of the human spirit.

We tried (with a different guide) the Old Town Krakow tour. Skip it. You’ll spend most of your time in that part of the city anyway, and any guidebook or pamphlet from the tourist office will tell you anything you need to know while you shop, eat, visit the castle, stop in a museum, or just soak in the fun vibe that is the city center.

Krakow, with its young population, is a vibrant and exciting place. But with its fascinating history of art and culture, it is a dignified and elegant city too.  As I said, we had been planning our visit for months. Now we are planning our return visit!

Ask a Local: Ljubljana, Slovenia

It was a last minute decision to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia this past weekend. I am fortunate to live only two hours away by car, so have the chance to travel there three or four times each year. Luckily, being so close it doesn’t take a great deal of planning.

Ljubljana is a great place for a couple of reasons. Hotels in the city center are plentiful and cheap.  There is a terrific line-up of interesting museum exhibits, live music, cultural events and more. They have one of the very best fresh food markets I have found in Europe (I’ve lived here more than 20 years so have done some research). A very nice movie theater shows first-run films in original language – we went there this weekend to watch “Whiplash,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Still Alice” all three of which were very good.

Ljubljana's fresh market is one of the best I've found in Europe.

Ljubljana’s fresh market is one of the best I’ve found in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, pretty much everyone here under 40 years old speaks fantastic English, and they love to show off their city.

So when checking in to the Hotel Emonec (highly recommended!), I asked Viva, the twentyish girl at reception if she knew of any restaurants serving good Indian cuisine. Score! Just last November, a restaurant sponsored in part by the glossy UK magazine “Curry Life,” opened for business downtown.

The full name of the place is Curry Life Figovec. The last bit comes from the restaurant that had occupied the space for more than a century. Now, that same space boasts a classy, upscale atmosphere and serves drop dead-blow you away-fantastic curry. If you have a trip to Ljubljana in your plans, run, don’t walk, to Curry Life Figovec ! It is new and excellent and popular, so I recommend a reservation, especially during a weekend. You can call them at+386 1 426 4410.

IMG_1883 IMG_1881 IMG_1879

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since she had given such a good tip with that recommendation, I asked Viva about a café that was right around the corner from where I had parked. She said it was good, so I checked it out the next morning. Le Petit Café has a French bistro feel to it. They serve a nice breakfast (I had a very tasty omelet) and the coffee is excellent – something I treasure. There is also a lunch and dinner menu, so it looks like they are going to see me again later this year!

These two recommendations are an example of why it makes good sense to ask a local!