Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, May 10, 2024

Southern European retrospective

Greetings, loyal readers, I'm back a couple of days earlier than anticipated from a two-and-a-half week's trip to Europe, still a bit jet-lagged but otherwise unscathed.  We visited Italy, Croatia, Greece, France, and Spain, so only got a touch of each place (Italy is the place we got to explore the most thoroughly), but it was still, overall, a wonderful trip.

Flying, not so much.  Unlike certain other trips I can recall, it was mishap-free -- no missed connections or lost luggage, and not so much as a delay -- but flying in general has become a fairly miserable experience.  Witness our flight from Paris back to New York, wherein a passenger in the seat in front of my wife reclined her seat so far that Carol had about six cubic centimeters of space left in front of her.  She couldn't even bend over to get anything from underneath the seat.  It was tempting for her to recline her own seat, but she resisted, not only out of consideration and compassion for the passenger behind her, but for fear of triggering the dreaded Reclining Seat Chain Reaction, which continues like a row of human dominoes until you get to the row in the very back where the seats don't recline, and the last person ends up getting compressed into a vaguely human-shaped splat mark against the rear bulkhead.

But, honestly, these are clearly First World Problems, and we were privileged to get to travel and see some amazing places.  Here are a few high points, and some photos I took of cool spots, in the order we visited them.

First off, Rome.  Oh, my goodness, Rome.  The sense of antiquity there is palpable, almost everywhere you go.  So is the sense that you're taking your life into your own hands when you step into the street.  Roman drivers are flat-out insane.  They use their horns to communicate three things: (1) buongiorno!; (2) get out of the damn way, you idiot tourist; and (3) my car has a horn.  Lane markings are considered merely suggestions.  If you're on a motorcycle, lane markings are considered imaginary.  But we escaped without being run down, and got to see places like Palatine Hill:

Palatine Hill is where Augustus and Livia had their home.  Yes, that Augustus and Livia.  The foundation of their house still exists, in fact, which I find astonishing given that Augustus died in the year 14 C.E.  Then there's the Forum:

And the abso-freakin-lutely huge second-century temple of the emperor Antoninus Pius:

And the Fontana degli Dioscuri:

The last-mentioned is one of many giant statues we saw featuring extremely attractive naked people, which was a popular subject of sculpture back in ancient Rome and a tradition I definitely think we should bring back.

From Rome, our next stop was the lovely city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Here I parted ways with the rest of our group (Carol and I were traveling with four friends) and went on a boat ride through a wetland nature preserve north of the city.  The coastline of Croatia is stunningly beautiful -- one of the prettiest places I saw on the entire trip.

After Croatia, we had a day on the lovely island of Corfu.  Coastal Greece has the clearest water I've ever seen -- unfortunately, it was still a little cool to go for a swim.  The following photo is unretouched -- no filters, nothing.  That's actually the color of the water.

We got to do some tasting of local food and drink -- something that became a bit of a theme on the trip -- and were treated to Greek limoncello (much better than the Italian variety, we were told by the proprietor), various olives and olive oils (with freshly-baked bread), honeys, jams, and marmalades.

After Corfu we were supposed to go to Malta, long a fascination of mine for its role in the Crusades, but the weather turned very windy and the ship was unable to dock.  So, unfortunately, we had a day at sea instead -- Malta will have to wait for another time, I suppose.

The next stop was the island of Sicily, where we got to take a cooking class in the town of Taormina.  Here's a picture from near the restaurant.  That's Mount Etna in the background.

We learned how to make traditional hand-made pasta and pizza and then got to lunch on the results -- accompanied, of course, with large quantities of amazingly good wine.

At the end of the meal, we had a digestif of limoncello, which the proprietors assured us was much better than the Greek variety.

At this point we were in volcano-and-earthquake territory, which long-time readers of Skeptophilia will know is a major fascination of mine.  The 1908 earthquake in Messina, our guide told us, killed eighty thousand people and flattened nearly the entire city; most of the casualties, she said, died within a span of thirty-seven seconds as the ground lurched and buildings collapsed.  The Messina-Taormina fault, which lies just offshore of the east coast of the island, is still very much active, and as you saw, Mount Etna looms over the town of Taormina.  As we were sailing away that evening, we got a light show from the pretty well constantly-erupting island of Stromboli, which has been nicknamed "The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean."

Speaking of volcanoes, we next went to Naples, which sits in the shadow of Vesuvius -- in fact, a magmatic system underlies the entire region, leading to its nickname of the "Campi Flegrei" ("burning fields") about which I've written before.  We visited the ruins of Pompeii, which was an overwhelming enough experience that I'm planning an entire post devoted just to that, so you'll have to wait for photos and commentary.  But here's a photo of the city of Naples taken from the slopes of Vesuvius, just to give you an idea of how many people live in the bullseye.

After Naples we docked in the rather unattractive industrial port town of Livorno, and took a bus into Florence.  Florence, as you undoubtedly know, is famous for its art and architecture, including the Duomo -- the city cathedral -- which is truly incredible.

We also got to see David -- not the David, but a replica that is out in the square near the Accademia Gallery, home of the original.  Even the replica was suitably amazing.

As an amateur sculptor, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of the human figure, and the incredible detail Michelangelo was able to work into the musculature.  That man was a true genius.

It rained just about the entire time we were in Florence, so we went to the Galileo Museum, which is very much worth a visit if you're a science nerd.  The museum has a fine collection of early scientific devices, including this amazing armillary sphere that stands about eight feet tall:

And a hand-cranked glass lathe used for making lenses for telescopes and microscopes:

After Florence, we had a quick stop in coastal France.  This was the place I most felt shortchanged about, time-wise; we only had time to take a quick run in from our port (Cannes) to the charming little village of St. Paul de Vence.  It was still raining, but it's a lovely place, and one I wish I'd been able to spend more time exploring.  I also would have loved to go farther north; my father's family comes from only about two hundred kilometers north of there, up in the high Alps.  Once again -- like Malta -- that'll have to wait for another trip.

After Cannes, we went to the island of Ibiza.  Ibiza is one of two islands in the Balearic Archipelago, east of Spain, that we got to visit.  When a friend found out we were going to Ibiza, he said he'd been there, and that it was famous for sun, swimming, sex, and alcohol, and because of the last-mentioned he didn't remember much about the other three.  But true to form, we did something extremely nerdy instead and went to visit an organic farm, where we got to make our own herbal liqueur (which, amazingly enough, we were able to successfully transport home without the bottles breaking).

I didn't get any good photos of the farm, but here's an evening shot of the Ibiza lighthouse:

After Ibiza we went to another island in the Balearics, Mallorca, and while there we took a taxi up to Bellver Castle (which overlooks the city of Palma) and hiked our way back down, stopping along the way for some truly amazing cappuccino.

We finished up the trip in the city of Barcelona, where we got to visit the Sagrada Familia (again, which will be the subject of another post), and the wild, Dr.-Seussian Park Güell, conceived by the astonishingly creative mind of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí:

From there, it was a quick flight to Paris, a long flight to New York City, a quick flight to Rochester, and a drive back home, where we got in at two AM.  Then had to get up at seven to go pick up the dogs from the kennel.  So I think I'll be fighting the dregs of jet lag for a couple more days.

It was a whirlwind tour but an opportunity to visit some amazing places, have some awesome food and wine (and limoncello, about which I will not be pinned down to rank by any Greek or Italian partisans in the audience).  But it's nice to be home as well, where spring has finally set in and the garden is ready to plant.

So goodbye for now, southern Europe.  With luck, I'll be back someday.



  1. Great pictures and story telling. Heading to Italy in 3 weeks.

  2. As you say sounds like a little bit of a whirlwind but you two did some very interesting activities while there. Really sorry about not getting into Malta as we definitely enjoyed spending time there. As you say, you now know places you still need to travel to. Glad to hear about the trip and will be interested to read you future write-ups on the trip