The Cane Corso

To begin my series on dog breeds I’m going to start with a powerful and noble breed with a very rich history: The Cane Corso- Guard Dog, War Dog, Hunter, Companion.

The Cane Corso has its origins in ancient Greece and stems from a now extinct breed called the Molossus (From the Molossis people of Northern Greece): This Molossus group contains breeds such as the: English Mastiff, St. Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Rottweiler, Great Dane, Newfoundland, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, and Bernese Mountain Dog. The original Molossus breed was a shepherd, guard, and war dog. Known for it’s courage, fierceness, and loyalty. The modern name of the breed, “Cane Corso” means guard dog. “Cane” is dog in Italian and “Corso” derives from the Latin word, “Cohors” meaning guardian. The Romans often used them as war dogs and the Conquistadors, including Columbus, brought them as well as prototypes to the Irish wolf hound and Great Dane to the, “New World” and used them to conquer the new lands. The dogs absolutely terrified the natives along with the exotic and foreign horses they brought.

An account from Columbus reads as follows,

“One war dog caused absolute terror, so Columbus in his journal wrote that one dog was worth 10 soldiers against Indians. During the Haiti campaign, opposed by a huge native force, all 20 dogs fought at the Battle of Vega Real in March 1495. Alonso de Ojeda, who had fought with them against the Moors, commanded the dogs. He released the dogs shouting, “Tomalos!” (basically, “Sic ’em!”). An observer said that in one hour, each dog had torn apart at least a hundred natives. The island was taken largely by terror of the dogs. Later Conquistador’s including Ponce de Leon, Balboa, Velasquez, Cortes, De Soto, Toledo, Coronado, and Pizarro all used war dogs.”

A closer appearance to the original breed of ancient times.

While the history of the dog dates back thousands of years ago the modern breed has officially been around for only several decades. It nearly went extinct in the 1960’s and the current breed was derived from a relatively small batch of remaining dogs from Italy in the 1980’s. Though it has changed much since 3000 years ago it is still know for the same characteristics of loyalty, intelligence, trainability, and natural aggression/protectionism- though the general temperament of the dog is known to be calm and stable when not evoked or commanded otherwise. It has a remarkably athletic and muscular frame, smaller in size than the original breed but still quite large. The males stand between, 24-28 inches tall and 99-120lbs (But up to 150+!), while females average between 23-26 inches tall and 88-110lbs. The variation in size is due to intentional breeding for a larger dog. As with livestock it is a common practice to take the largest of a litter and breed it with the largest of another and continuing this process to obtain the desired size of the animal. The life expectancy is common for such size, 10-12 years. And they come in a variety of colors: Black, Fawn, Chestnut Brindle, Grey, Black Brindle, Red.

The Cane Corso is one of my favorite breeds, partly because of it’s rich history and partly because of it’s characteristics, both physical and mental. This dog is not for a novice nor the meek. High energy, strength, time and space (and money) is required to own this breed. Personally, I’m not quite there in meeting these criterias but one day I will be.

A Beautiful Female Cane Corso

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Dogs! Dogs! Dogs!

There are over 350 dog breeds in the world, 195 of which are officially recognized by the American Kennel Club. And as a dog enthusiast I’d like to share some of my favorite breeds with you. But first, let me give you a brief history of the dog, or scientifically knows as Canis Lupus Familiaris or Canines.

The dog, as many know, is a descendant of the wolf. The divergence from the species class of, Canis Lupus (The Wolf) is thought to have occurred between 30,000-40,000 years ago. The oldest remains known are 31,700 years old and were found in Belgium. Dogs were also thought to be the first animal to be domesticated somewhere between 14,000-30,000 years ago in Northern Eurasia. The theory is that dogs may have become accustomed to humans searching for food scraps outside of cave dwellings and other primitive lodgings. And perhaps befriended some of our kinder caveman ancestors who gained their trust through intentionally sharing food.

The dogs ability as a hunter and guard were of great value to the people of those harsh times. The social companionship was an added bonus but not a necessity. Unlike today’s times with the many, “Emotional Support” animals we have.

Dogs and specific dog breeds/breeding became popular due to dog shows in England staring in the mid 1800’s. From there many new dog breeds with specifically intended characteristics began being created. Dogs also have the greatest variety of any species, as stated before with over 350 different kinds of breeds.

To begin my series of dog breeds I’m going to start with a powerful and noble breed with a very rich history: The Cane Corso- Guard Dog, War Dog, Companion.

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Birthday Card Series: Part VI

In October of ’17, around five months after I severally fractured my tailbone and pelvic bone, we traveled to Russia. By October I was able to walk fairly well but not for long periods of time.  As we found out October is not the best time to visit Moscow, St. Petersburg nor the Golden Ring.  The day-time temperatures hovered around 50 degrees and rain was the order of the day.  Then why October for the visit?  Mike had made contact with an ex-pat American wine writer who lived in Moscow who was willing to show us around the Russian wine country  on the Black Sea, some 800 miles south of Moscow.  October fit his schedule.   Stepping off our plane in Anapa (on the Black Sea) that we took from St. Petersburg we were happily surprised. It was sunny and around 75 degrees!  Ah, a great relief from the gray, rainy, cold days of the north.

The ’17 birthday card depicts the Intercession Convent in Suzdal, one of the string of towns (we visited three) northeast of Moscow that form the Golden Ring.  The convent was founded in 1364 and was originally a place of exile for the unwanted wives of tsars.  This string of towns, some of Russia’s oldest,  have been largely untouched by industrialization–think onion-shaped domes, kremlins and gingerbread cottages. These towns formed the core of 9th-16th century eastern Kyivan Rus and were formative to the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church. All things considered the trip was a good one–very eye opening.  The people were friendly (even though our two governments may not be), the cities (particularly St. Petersburg) and sites were very interesting.  Next time: Spring!

In the Spring of ’17 we once again traveled to Spain with a few days in tiny Andorra.

Our Fall ’18 journey was to Cyprus, with a three day side trip to Beirut and the vineyards of the Bekka Valley in Lebanon (Beirut is only a forty minute flight from Cyprus). With its location in the far eastern Mediterranean the island of Cyprus has a slew of occupiers over the centuries.  The Phoenicians were here as were the Crusaders and about seven other “guests”–among them were the Ottomans who had a 300 year hold before Britain took administrative rights to Cyprus in 1878– these rights lasted until 1960 when Cyprus established independence. However, animosity between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots soon surfaced and in 1974  the Turkish government sent troops to Cyprus to put down an Athens encouraged coup d’etat. Since that time the island has been partitioned into the ethnically Greek south Republic of Cyprus and the northern Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey). Passport control and customs are established at the few border crossings that exist. One island, two cultures, two languages, two currencies (Euros, south/ Turkish Lira north).  After 40+ years the island is resolutely divided!
Today the “invaders” are sun-seeking tourists to the beautiful beaches–more visitors in the south than the north.  Brits and Russians lead the pack followed by Middle East folks from Israel and the Arab countries.

The 2018 birthday card is a sketch of the St. Hilarion Castle, a 11th century stronghold–well preserved at that– in North Cyprus that overlooks the Mediterranean and port city of Kyrenia.  The magnificent castles bristles with turrets on its walls built on sheer rock.  While Mike managed to climb the castles stairs and visit a few of the castle’s chapels and other chambers I casually sipped coffee at the entrance’s cafe. He did tell me about the amazing views though.
Our Spring ’18 trip was to the Midwest for a family wedding and visiting with friends and relatives.

In the Spring of ’19 we ventured on a road trip to the far northeastern part of California an area we previously only traveled through to somewhere else.  The sparely populated area is heavily wooded and sprinkled with high elevation lakes, rivers, meandering creeks and volcanic uprisings–truly beautiful and serene.  Smouldering under  this magnificent scenery is the State of Jefferson–a decades old proposal for the rural counties of southern Oregon and northern California to secede from their respective states and  set up their own state –the State of Jefferson.  The argument is that they get no respect from their own state–that they are overtaxed and under served.  Most locals take the State of Jefferson with a grin but there is a cranky and vocal group that see it as a reality. After a few relaxing days in a lake side cabin in Mount Shasta we headed to Eureka via a leisurely drive through the Trinity Alps.  Eureka’s claim to fame is its lumber -shipping harbor.  Which brings us to the ’19 birthday card which depicts the Carson Mansion in Eureka. 

The Mansion was built between 1884-1886 by the lumber magnet William Carson and designed by San Francisco architectural firm of Newsom & Newsom.  This 16,000 square foot, three story house with a 100′ tower is considered one of the best examples of Victorian architecture in the U.S.  The entire complex, including its finely detailed redwood exterior and vast lawn and gardens, are meticulously maintained by the long time current owners, the private Ingomar Club.  No visitors are permitted inside so we had to admire the Mansion from the sidewalk.  We’ll have to join the Club–whoever the Ingomars are.

In the Spring of ’19 we once again traveled to Florida and the Midwest to visit with friends and relatives.

Of course, no traveling for us in 2020 (our arranged Spring cruise to southeast Alaska was cancelled early on). Consequently, Mike’s 2020 birthday card is based on the last trip we took–to Cuba in December 2019–our first  group tour; this one with the education oriented Road Scholar organization. The card shows the Havana Cathedral on the Cathedral Plaza, which was built in the years 1748-1777 –roughly  250 years after the founding of Havana in 1519.  The Jesuits started the construction but did not see its completion since King Carlos III expelled the Jesuits from Cuba in 1767–pity.  The building is constructed from blocks of local coral–a soft building material that has shown some deterioration over the centuries.  However, the Cathedral remains handsome and imposing.  As an aside, the body of Christopher Columbus was displayed here from 1796 to 1898 when it was finally moved to the Seville Cathedral.  In fact his body has seen many “resting places”:  first in Valladolid, Spain, where he died, then to Seville–initially to a monastery there then to the Cathedral–on to the Caribbean: Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic and Havana.  Wow!  This boy traveled far and wide even when he was dead.

Let’s hope that 2021 brings us back to the travel sphere and to a “fresh” birthday card.

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Birthday Card Series: Part V

Our 2013 trip to Israel is recalled by the birthday card that portrays a bird’s-eye-view of the archeological site of  Masada.  Masada, which sits on a 1200′ elevation rock that overlooks the Dead Sea, was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE.  Two centuries later the fortress was captured by a Jewish sect, the Zealots (from which we get the English word), in a revolt against Rome–this was the Jews’ last stand.  After a long siege the Romans took the fortress only to find that all 960 of the sect committed suicide rather than surrender.  Masada represents Israeli patriotism as its proudest–and perhaps at its most foolish.
Certainly the multiplicity of historical and biblical sites–including the Old City of Jerusalem– make Israel an interesting country to visit.  However, the unresolved Palestinian issue seems, to me, to cover the country with an oppressive layer of fog.
No international trip in the Fall of ’13–we traveled, once again, to the Mid-west and East coast to visit with friends and relatives.

The Caucus countries of Armenia and Georgia were the focus of our wine touring trip in the Spring of 2014.    With the aid of local guides we were able to visit some cultural and historical sites as well.  Since Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity (in 301)–Georgia the second  in 337–there are many historic Orthodox churches to visit–we did our best.   This region is known as the, “Cradle of Wine” in that discoveries  found here give evidence  to the origins of  viticulture– dating back around 8000 years  ago.  In both countries today grape growing and wine making are still vital parts of the culture. During the Soviet period Georgia was “appointed” (along with Moldova)  to supply wine for the rest of the  USSR–Armenia’s role was was to be the source of grape-based brandy. 

The ’14 birthday card depicts the Citadel in Tbilisi, which dominates the eastern hills of this vital city.  The Citadel was built by the Persians in 360 and refurbished by the Turks in the 16th century.  From the balcony of our hotel room, located on the northern bank of the Mtkvari River, we had  great views of the Citadel and the  historic Old City–with its array  of Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues, sulfur baths, restaurants  (most with live jazz) and, of course, wine bars.
Fall ’14 was another wine trip–to the Willamette Valley of Oregon and Walla Walla, Washington.  In addition, our daughter and her family flew in from Oakland to meet us in Portland for a fun weekend.

Our trip to China in the Spring of ’15 (to peek into the emerging wine industry and visit cultural sites, as well)  was unique for us in many ways.  It was our first (and only to this date) to East Asia.  It was the only trip we’ve taken in which we didn’t drive ourselves–China doesn’t allow foreign tourists to rent cars–we took flights to all four links of our trip. This was  our first trip with guides throughout  and valuable guides (with drivers)  at that–they picked us up and returned us to airports–helping us through passport control and the other confounding issues of modern travel.–and, of course, relayed important insights to all cultural sites.We flew into Beijing and were taken to a lovely 100 year old hotel that was formerly a three generation town house.  We did the usual tourist stops–including Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.  Then a two hour drive to a section of the Great Wall which is shown on the ’15 birthday card.  This portion of the several thousand mile wall was built around 1500, of stone, to keep out the Manchu invaders (and, perhaps, the Mexicans–if so, it was quite successful in this regard since we saw no Mexicans in China).  We saw another section of the wall –this one earthen–near Yinchuan, a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 550 miles west of Beijing. We stayed here three nights in order to tour nearby wineries.  Next, east to a three day stay in Xian–China’s first capital and the starting point of the Silk Road.  Fascinating walled Old Town with its active Moslem Quarter. A short trip to the most- see Terra Cotta Warriors–the awesome ranks of life-sized pottery figures that were made to guard the tomb of a despotic ruler who unified China over 2,200 years ago.  Amazing!  A flight to Taiyuan and a stay at a nearby winery’s guest house–then on to the Ming Era walled city of Pingyao, with its more than 3,000 historic buildings.  Back to Beijing and home.
Fall ’15: domestic travel only–friends and relatives in the Mid-west and South Florida.

The weather in the Baltics in the Spring of ’16 was gentle and warm–perfect for locals as well as tourists (us) to take in the street activity– the open air markets and  restaurants and bars opening out to the streets.  The three small Baltic counties of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia , with a total population of 7 million, are beautifully wooded with rolling hills in the south–Lithuania and Latvia– that give way to a much flatter Estonia.  We greatly enjoyed the three capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. 
Kate and Tom flew in from Belgium to join us for a weekend in Riga.  We leisurely strolled the city’s parks and took in the vast collection of turn of the 20th century Art Noveau buildings. The ’16 birthday card (one of Mike’s favorites) tries to capture the medieval lower Old Town of Tallinn from  Toompea Hill–a walled-in 13th century “other old town”.  In trying to drive to our hotel in the “real” Old Town Mike missed a turn and we found ourselves in a maze of one-way streets on Toompea Hill.  After much frustration–and to my chagrin–Mike continued down a one way street in the wrong direction, narrowly missing a mob of cruise ship tourists who were walking  up the Hill.  We passed through a gate of the city wall only to encounter wrong-direction one way streets in the Old Town.  We made it though to our comforting boutique hotel–whose origins date back to the 14th century. Beyond the capitals, we traversed the country side in all three countries (due to Mike’s fetish in visiting obscure wineries in regions with inhospitable climate) and found friendly towns and interesting lodging wherever we went.  Two towns in particular spring to mind: Cesis, Latvia–centered around a a castle built in 1207 by the German Knights of the Sword–and the charming university town of Tartu, Estonia–which lies just a few miles west of brooding Russia and all that entails.

In Fall ’16 we went to Chicago to visit relatives and then on to a relaxing stint, off-season, to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where we viewed on our hotel’s bar TV the Cubs winning the World Series.

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Birthday Card Series: Part IV

In the Spring of 2008, we traveled independently via rental car for 2 1/2 weeks in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Czechoslovakia–now the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic–(actually spending only 4 days in the Slovak Republic).  We flew into the exciting capital of Prague–with its beautiful squares in the old town, dominating castle above the Vltava River, vital street life and the Jewish Quarter (Hitler kept it well preserved with the intent of making it into a tourist site–a “Jewish Disneyland”– he killed the populous but left the synagogues in tack).

Off to the provinces to more castles, historic old towns, and for Mike, vineyards and wineries in South Moravia (Bohemia  beer–Moravia wine).  Mike also wanted to visit with an inventive structural engineer and see the elegant pedestrian bridges designed and built by this brilliant man.


One of the old towns that still sticks out from the many was Tabor, which was the center of the 15 century–pre-Luther– Hussite revolt protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church.

The ’08 birthday card is a bit of a lament in that it depicts the solemn, depleted market square in Melnik–a town built on an escapement overlooking the confluence of the two major Czech rivers.

Although I think the Czech Republic came out better economically from the Communist era than others the Soviets left their imprint on.  All over the various countries the Soviets forced many of the locals to move into high rise blocks outside of the town centers thus leaving the centers–particularly the market squares–devoid of activity.  (In the U.S. the “Urban Renewal” movement of the ’60s and ’70s had a similar effect).  Beautiful but melancholy squares.

Fall ’08: New Zealand and Australia.

Castillo de la Calatrava
Castle of Morella-

In the Fall of ’09 we flew into Barcelona–as you know, I love Spain– and immediately took off in our rental to meander the remote and, certainly, off-the-beaten-path of the eastern mountains of Spain.  First stop was the  Alcaniz and the Castillo de la Calatrava, a 12th century, fortified castle containing a large church and, yes, a parador–as you know, I love paradors.  The castle sits high above the village with sweeping views of the olive fields below. Also memorable on this jaunt was the fortified castle of Morella–also built during the long  period in which  Spain attempted to “reconquest” their country from the Moors.   A mile-long wall with ramparts and towers girdles the town and its castle ruins. 

A little more time in Spain and on to France and Collioure, a lovely fishing village  just over the Spanish border– the subject of the ’09 birthday card.  At the turn of the 20th century artists, including Matisse, were drawn to the village and its the brightly colored stucco houses.  A naval academy overlooks the harbor from the hill above.  We had a lovely alfresco dinner on the esplanade.  I had monk fish–actually I had monk fish for the third night in a row–as you now know, I love monk fish.

We then drove along the coast to meet Kate, Tom, Jules and 3 year old Louis–our first meeting with Louis, in Grand Motte– a sea side community south of Montpelier.  A wonderful weekend! 

An interesting excursion followed Grand Motte–to four somewhat obscure fortified settlements in the limestone plateau south of Millau.  They were established in the 13th century by the Knights Templar and taken over by the Knights of St. John when the Templars were forced to disband in the early part of the 14th century.

Back to Barcelona–via Andorra–and a flight home.

Our travels in the Spring ’09 were strictly domestic: St. Louis for my college reunion (Mike met me there after his visiting wineries in North Dakota–yes, North Dakota) and to Maui.

The Fall of 2010 brought one of our favorite ventures–this one to Turkey, which exceeded all expectations.  Two things stick out to me about Turkey–the hospitality: sincere, warm and helpful (not the insincere, patronizing “hospitality” tourists often receive) and the layer upon layer of history and culture.  The ’10 birthday card shows a bit of what I mean by layers of history and culture.  The two buildings portrayed on the card are the Blue Mosque (bottom left)–which was built between 1609 and 1616 during the Ottoman period– the Aya Sophia (upper right) which was originally an Eastern Orthodox church (it’s now a mosque) built in the 6th century during the Byzantine empire.

Allow me to mention a few other favorites showing the “layers”.  In northern Anatolia is Hattusa, which was settled around 2500 BC! And was the capital of the Hittite empire.  The 3 1/2 mile surrounding walls of the ruins from this period are impressive as is the still intact temple (one of 70 original temples)  from that era.  Nearby  is Amysari, a lovely river town, which was the capital of the Pontus kings; these kings are memorialized with huge tombs, dating from the 4th century BC, which are carved into the hills overlooking the river.  Multiple Greek/Roman settlements line the Mediterranean and Aegean coast–Side, Assos and Ephesus, to name a few.  The Cappadocia area is in itself an amazing place to roam.  Soft tuffa rock permeates the region giving rise to the 100 plus “faerie chimneys”–some as much as 140′ tall.  In addition churches and homes were caved out of the soft stone.  The underground cities (about 20 still exist)  are beyond belief.  They were used by the early Christians to avoid the raiding Arabs of the time.  These “cities”, unseen from above, reach 150′-250′ below ground with as many as 8 levels; some housed as many as 20,000 people. They include kitchens, bedrooms, wine cellars and vents–and oh so narrow passages.

Spring 2010: Albania, Macedonia (now the Northern Republic of) and Italy.

Brazil in the Fall of 2011 (actually it was Spring in Brazil but…)  We flew into an left the country from Rio de Janeiro where we spent a few days at each end of our trip.  The 2011 birthday card depicts a view from the Corcovado looking out into the bay and Sugar Loaf Mountain.  The statue of Christ the Redeemer, 100′ tall, was erected in 1931 and is the work of a French sculptor (who fashioned the head) and two Brazilian engineers who constructed the rest.  Rio is a big, buzzing city with a stunning setting–the city extends over 15 miles along an alluvial strip between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains.  The “centro” has its share of colonial period historic sites but for many tourists the beaches are the city’s treasures.  On our return to Rio we stayed at a hotel adjacent to Copacabana–beautiful.

The country, of course, is huge–except for Rio, we sawed off only a small piece– in the far southeast.  Our main goal here–actually Mike’s–was to visit Brazil’s prime wine producing region near the city of Bento Gonsalves.  We flew from Rio to Porto Alegre , spent a night there and then drove to the wine area.  While not wine touring with Mike, I relaxed in the luxurious suite of our hotel with its view of the surrounding vineyards. Ah!

From there we drove about 250 miles  through the sparsely populated plains to the site of the ruins of Jesuit missions that date from the early 1600’s.  We ended this leg of the trip by vising the magnificent Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian- Argentine border.  Our hotel was on the Brazilian side within stones throw of the falls.  We dropped the car off and flew to Buenos Aires–in retrospect, not a great idea since it poured our entire stay.  To Rio for three days and home.

Our Spring trip that year was to the mid-west and east coast to see relatives and friends.

Poland was our destination in the Fall of 2012.  Admittedly my pre-conception of the country was colored by WW II and its long period under the Soviet yoke.  I expected grey and grim.  Wow!  What a surprise–the country is anything but.  We saw vitality, independence, spick and span brightly colored buildings and wooded forests –green not grey–in the southern portion of Poland we traveled.

Our travels took us to 5 interesting towns and 3 major cities–Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw (pronounced VROTS waff). These  three cities came out of the war in very different ways.  Warsaw was heavy wracked by the Germans.  The city has been rebuilt but more as a “new world” modern city–wide streets, high rises with a bit of “old world” charm in the restored old town and  parks.  Krakow, perhaps one of Europe’s gems, was not touched by the Nazis at all primarily because Krakow was designated to be the capital city of the Nazi regional government.  Mike’s birthday card of ’12 shows an aerial view of the Wawel Hill and the 16th century former royal palace with its associated buildings.  Krakow has an outstanding central square but Mike found drawing it too difficult. Wroclaw was the German city of Breslau before the war.

Of the 5 towns we stayed, the first is the old trading town of Sandomierz, about 150 mile south of Warsaw, with its medieval and Renaissance buildings still intact. East of Sandomierz is the 16th century model town of Zamosc.  The town has an Italianate feel–wide piazza, grid-plan streets and  is still surrounded by  star-shaped fortification walls. On to Przemysl, on the Ukraine border, with an outlying ring of 19th century forts.  We stayed overnight in a large 17th century castle whose restaurant specializes in game.  Yum.  After Krakow we drove to the highland town of Zapopane in the Tatra Mountains known for skiing, hiking and its timber-built rustic architecture.  On our way back to Warsaw from Wroclaw we found ourselves in need of lodging.  About 5 miles off the exit from the superhighway that connects Berlin to Warsaw we found a hotel, the only one in town, in the none-describe Konin–well, actually “new Konin”–a Soviet era planned town.  On our way back to the highway the next morning we discovered we missed the “real” Konin–a charming village on a small river–and several hotels to choose from.  Next time…

Spring 2012: Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Part V, the final, coming in two weeks.

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Birthday Card Series: Part III

In 2003 we took two international trips: Portugal and western Spain in the Spring and in September a 2 1/2 week journey to Ireland and Wales.  Ah, Ireland!–Dublin, the prehistoric burial mound of Newgrange, castles and more castles,  beautiful green rolling landscape, dramatic cliffs in the southwest, lively Galway, quaint villages and more.  Sunny and without rain the entire visit–perhaps a record.  A first for us was driving on the left–easily resolved (or else!).  Lodging we found to be a challenge — we made no advance reservations  (which we felt gave us flexibility in our wanderings)  but we had no idea that September in Ireland was a big month for weddings.  With relativity small homes and large extended families these weddings generally take place in hotels where guests put up for a night or two.  In villages and small towns hotels and accommodations are aligned with pubs and their adjoining restaurants–the pecking order being drinks, eats and then beds.

The 2003 birthday card depicts the early 13th century fortified King John’s Castle in Limerick.  The draw to Limerick, a blue collar city in western Ireland, was that my father’s family stems from here.  We decided not to claim the title to the family’s castle since the roof needed repairs and the fact that unpaid back taxes go back to the potato famine.

In the Spring of 2004 we flew to Rome where Kate, Tom and Jules met us for a few days–then off to the south of Italy–Campania, Calabria and the  ferry to Sicily.  Due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sicily has been ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantine, the Arabs, Normans and Spain–all whom have left their imprint on this beautiful island.  An island of interesting coastal villages and cities, a rural hilly interior and, of course, fuming Mount Etna.  The ’04 card tries to capture the Greek theater in Taormina in northeast Sicily.  The theater, still in use, was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BCE and rehabbed by the Romans  five centuries later.  Sitting in the stands affords magnificent views of both the sea and Mount Etna

In the Fall of ’04 we traveled to South America but with only one birthday a year and only one birthday card a year.  Chile, Argentina and Uruguay will have to be another story. 

Spring 2005: We made our first trip, with many to follow, into a former Communist Block Country: Hungary–leisurely driving along the Danube.  We started the river tour in Regensberg, Germany then into Austria and Hungary.  This trip also took us into 3 major and culturally important cities–Munich, Vienna and Budapest.  Mike’s wine touring fetish was also assuaged by our stops in the Wachau region of Austria and the Hungarian wine regions of Eger, Tokaj and Lake Balaton. 

The 2005 birthday card pays homage to the tiny Austrian wine village of Durnstein.  We spent two nights there and lodged in a lovely converted convent right smack on the Danube–talk about atmosphere!  The card shows castle ruins on the hilltop that included a jail where Richard the Lion Heart was held after returning to Europe from the 3rd Crusade.  Apparently a dispute with the Duke of Austria landed him in lockup.

As an aside: it is told that during the communist era Lake Balaton was used as a mutual meeting place for East Germans and their West German relatives–the Iron Curtain had its moth holes–and the Hungarians winked.  

In the Fall of 2005 Mike, by himself, went off to do wine touring in South Africa.

In ’06 we took two international trips– in the Fall England and Scotland and in the Spring Greece–the subject of the ’06 birthday card.

We flew into Athens on a Sunday–no traffic–clearly the best day of the week to drive through a major city.  Even though we were weary due to  little sleep on the flight we still drove off and headed for the Peloponnese Peninsula and the seaside town of Nafplio.  We did make a stop on the way at Ancient Corinth and its outstanding Acropolis.  With Nafplio as our base we were able to visit several nearby ancient sites–the best being Mycene, the 2nd millennium BCE settlement, and the theater at Epidavros.  Of course Mike found several local quality wineries to visit.  Then a beautiful drive along a high mountain road to ancient Olympia on the west coast of the peninsula.    The next day we crossed the Gulf of Corinth over a very long and beautifully designed cable-stayed bridge and into rugged, mountainous and sparely populated Central Greece,   A few days later we came to Meteora (birthday card 2006)–the fantastic grey sandstone rocks, some of which rise up out of the trees as much as 980 feet above the flat valley below.  Perched on the top of these precipitous columns are monasteries.  The first of what were 21 was built in the 10th century–there are now only 6.  Since the monks worked the fields below they had to trek down the multitude of stairs every day and ,worse yet, had to climb up.  Their produce was lifted by pulley systems to their lodges.

On to Northern Greece and Macedonia–the home of Alexander the Great.  Great wines here in the Naoussa –Mike’s favorite Greek reds.    A relaxing stay in the port city of Thessaloníki, an overnight in Delphi and then onto a few days in vital Athens and its sites before our flight home.

After a Fall ’07 trip to the former Eastern Bloc countries of Romania and Bulgaria we found our way to Slovenia and Croatia in the Spring of ’07, with a flight into Venice (and departing from Milan).  We spent some time wandering around the canals of Venice then headed off to Slovenia.  We crossed the Italian-Slovenian border without even a passport check and headed for the wine district–of course, Mike–near Nova Gorica.  Beautiful rolling hills, very low key and extremely friendly folks.  Then a breathtaking drive along the southern tier of the Julian Alps ending up in Lake Bled–the nation’s premier mountain resort.  We found a room in a large hotel that had commanding views of the lake.  Sitting idyllically on a  wooded islet is the lovely church represented in the birthday card of ’07.  We encountered, for the first time on any of our European trips, bus loads of tourists (whom we referred to as “bus people”–not in a pejorative way since we realized that there would be a time when we’d be “them” –not being able to travel independently ourselves).  When we went to breakfast we found a wiped out buffet–yes, the “bus people”–we did manage to get served, however.  A 4 mile walk around the lake set us straight–finding hidden churches and vacation estates (including that of Joseph Tito).  Although we only traveled in the western part of Slovenia we still see the country as a hidden gem.

Then on to a drive along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia stopping at three major port cities: Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. All  three bearing the imprint of past empires: the Roman, Byzantine and Venetian.   These three, very interesting  cities are heavily impacted by  cruise ship tourists.  On our way back to Italy we relaxed for a few days in the fishing village of Rovinj on the  Istria peninsula.

To Milan and home.

More to come.

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Birthday Card Series: Part II

The Fall of 1997 saw us in Europe for 3+ months for Mike’s sabbatical. We flew into Paris then drove north in our leased car. The first 6 weeks we were based in Antwerp, Belgium and, of course, spent much time with Kate (our 1986-7 exchange student from Antwerp), her husband, Tom and the new-born, Jules. From Antwerp we made many forays into northern France (wonderful Gothic cathedrals!), Switzerland and Germany as well as discovering Belgium. The university city of Montpelier in southern France was our base for the month of October. Both the 1997 and 1998 birthday cards reflect upon our southern France travels. The imposing fortified town of Carcassone (’97 card) stems from the Middle Ages and was beautifully restored by the famous architect Viollet le Duc in the 1880s.

 After leaving Montpelier we headed for southern Spain.  1997 was an El Niño year and the unrelenting rain hastened our return to the U.S.  But on our 10 day long drive on our way back to Paris for our return flight we stopped for 2 days–still raining though–in the former fishing village of Dinant in Brittany.  A visit at the nearby extraordinary Mt. St. Michel was obligatory (1998 card).  Built on an isolated rock in the bay the site includes an abbey, several churches and all sorts of chapels plus a village.  The complex is now connected to the mainland by a causeway but for centuries was reached only by wading through the waters at low tide–monks and privacy!

The 1999 card shows the Castell del Papa Luna in the sea side town of Peñiscola, Spain.  The castle was built on a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean by the Templars in the early part of the 14th century and later became the residence of the papal pretender, Pedro de Luna, Cardinal of Aragon.  During the Great Schism he briefly became Pope Benedict XIII but was then deposed.  However, he proclaimed his right to the papacy until his death in 1423.  We happened to Peñiscola after a very interesting 2 week trip encompassing the Pyrenees–first along the Spanish side and then along the French northern (and much greener) foothills.  Then onto the Barcelona airport to pick up Kate, Tom and 2+ year old Jules and the 2 hour drive to Peñiscola.

The Catedral of Santiago de Compostela (card of 2000) we visited several times, 1997 being the last.  Since the 10th century Santiago attracted pilgrims from all over Europe to honor the apostle Saint James (Santiago in Spanish) where, as legend goes James’ body rests.  The legend (one of many) goes that apostle James returned to Judea after trying to convert the Spanish to Christianity but in Judea fell victim to Herod.  His disciples then returned his body to northwest Spain.  Good story and a beautiful cathedral.

In the Spring of 2001 Mike retired from full-time teaching choosing to teach part time and only in the Winter quarter. This option gave us the ability to travel in the less touristy “shoulder” seasons of Fall and Spring–a practice we tried to put into affect most years with 2 international trips.  The 2001 card stems from our visit to Tuscany as part of an extended 3 week trip to northern and central Italy.  We reached the medieval town of San Gimignano and its famous towers via a short day trip from the Chianti region where we were staying.   There are a whole host of stories concerning how the towers came to be.  The most plausible to me is that they were built as drying towers for the precious cloth of this important medieval textile center.  Since horizontal space was limited, due to the densely built town, the textile owners built upward.

The 2002 card features the Hotel-Dieu of Beaune, France.  The hospital was built in the 15th century and cared for the sick until 1971.  Beaune, a small walled town, is the epicenter of the Burgundian wine industry and was our last destination of our 2002 tour of parts of Normandy, Brittany and the wine regions of the Loire Valley (where Kate, Tom and Jules joined us for a weekend) and Burgundy.

We have more episodes to come.

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In 1989 Mike started a tradition –now in its 30th year–of drawing for me birthday cards commemorating our travels. In 1989 Mike took a sabbatical of 3+ months in Spain. While we were based in Madrid we took off on many side trips throughout Spain to reinforce his research and to delve into Spanish history and cultural—and, yes,visit vineyards and wineries.

We returned to Spain many times after and have seen the country radically change. Franco died in 1975, Spain was admitted to the EU in 1986 and Barcelona hosted the Olympics in 1992. These 3 factors have had a tremendous affect in making Spain the modern, democratic society it is today. In 1989 Spain was a virtually cash-only economy–no credits cards–in ’89 international tourism was sparse (except for the Northern European sun-seekers along the Mediterranean coast)–in ’89 the highway system was dominated by 2 lane “highways” that seemed to go through every small village– although EU sponsored limit access highways were in the early stages. Communication for us was difficult since our Spanish on arrival was rudimentary (it got much better quickly) and English or any international second language was hard to come by even in the cosmopolitan city of Madrid. Saying all this we still loved Spain (although we never really got the hang of 10pm dinners).

Now the birthday cards. The ’89 card represents the famous windmills of the area of La Mancha –a stop on our very first trip out of Madrid in our leased car. On this week long trip we covered major parts of Andalusia and southern Portugal. As an aside: in Madrid we housed in a bare-bones pensione with a great location near the historic center of the city within easy walking distance of the Prado Museum to our east and the Plaza Major to our west. When we traveled our landlady, Angela, would have our room (a large bedroom with 2 lounge chairs, and an en suite bathroom with a shower) ready for us on return and didn’t charge us for the lapsed time. She also kept our excess luggage.

The ’90 card shows the Monastery of Montserrat–a pilgrim site in the mountains northwest of Barcelona known for its statute of a Black Madonna. On this side trip from Madrid we stayed in Sitges, a village just south of Barcelona, which at the time was a quiet seaside town. In a more recent visit we barely recognized Sitges since it now “boasts” a long string of 20-30 story condos. Of course, we visited the always intriguing city of Barcelona. At the time Gaudi’s Segrada Familia was anything but a tourist site–that changed with the ’92 Olympics. In ’89 we were 2 of perhaps 20 folks milling about the church, now reservations are required and waiting lines are extensive.

The ’91 drawing is of the Castle of Penafiel, north of Madrid, in the wine area of Ribera del Duero. An actual working winery is dug into the base of the castle’s mountain. Spain has around 2000 castles that were built for village protection during the long-drawn out battle between Christians and Moors during the reconquest of Spain from the 8th century to 1492.

The ’92 card disappeared.

Both the ’93 and ’94 cards commemorate a 3 week summer trip we took in 1993 along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The Royal Palace of Olite (’93), started in the 13th century, guards the walled village of Olite which lies a short distance south of Pamplona. The Palace includes a Parador where we spent 2 nights. The humped-back Romanesque Puente of Reina (’94) was built in the 11th century for pilgrims who were traveling the Camino. The 3 arch bridge sits serenely over the placid water.

The Cordoba card of ’95 card tries to capture the graceful and intricate interior–a field of arched columns– of this truly fantastic and mammoth Great Mosque of Cordoba. The Mosque dates from the 8th century. After the reconquest of Cordoba by the Christians in the 15th century a full-sized cathedral was built within the Mosque but is still dwarfed by the Mosque.

The ’96 birthday card shows the Courtyard of the Lions, one of many beautiful courtyards in the Alhambra of Granada. The complex of buildings was established by the Moors in the 13th century as a fortress–but what a fortress! The architecture combines space, light, water and intricate patterned stucco decoration to form a magical and sensual experience. To many, one of the highlights of Spain. Alhambra and Granada fell to the Christians in 1492 being the last holdout of the Moors in Spain. Unfortunately on our visit in the summer of ’89 we were too late to take in the splendor of the extensive gardens–another time?

While I haven’t quite caught up to 2020 I’m close, more to come!

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Mason, My Friend

As a young man bachelor life can be a bit boring, and on my eternal quest for companionship I made an unlikely find: my aunt and uncles dog, Mason. He’s a friendly and goofy (and a bit wild) Doberman Pinscher. At about 18 months old he’s a beastly 90lb and has energy that you wouldn’t think possible- if you want a workout partner who will push you to your limits, he’s your guy.

A little history on the Doberman breed: Originally created around 1890 by Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann, a German tax collector, as a guard dog to help protect him in his less than popular profession. Mr. Doberman owned a dog pound and had access to many breeds. The exact ratio is unknown but the mix is thought to be something of: Beauceron, German Pinscher, Rottweiler, Weimaraner and German Shepard.

The dog was designed to be athletic and intelligence- both traits clearly exhibited in Mason. Fun fact: Dobermans are often ranked in the top 5 for most intelligent breed, sometimes top 10 depending on the panel. (1. Border Collie, 2. Poodle, 3. German Shepard, 4.Golden Retriever, 5. Doberman, 6. Shetland Sheepdog, 7. Labrador Retriever, 8. Papillion, 9. Rottweiler, 10. Australian Cattle Dog.) -In case you were wondering, remembered Doberman’s are a part mix of: 3. German Shepard & 9. Rottweiler.

The first time I took him for a walk it felt like he took me for a walk! The entire time he was pulling me along, like some hound dog on the trail of a prey. And the first time I took him to Monataño De Oro state park in Los Osos for a hike up Valencia Peak he did the same thing, up and down the mountain! Talk about a workout. I couldn’t help but feel like a Roman legionnaire with his powerful war dog leading the way to battle.

Although I have had many dog companions over the years, (Lobster, Gamba, Coquille, Darlene.) And still to this day my sweet small old Daisy. Mason, like with different human friends, provides a different kind of companionship. His youth, energy and sheer size provide a feeling of excitement and adventure. He’s like your wild friend who wants to go skydiving or jump of a cliff into the ocean. He really does push you to push yourself and his energy is contagious.

Not to mention there’s a certain confidence that comes with having an intimidatingly large and athletic dog. You certainly don’t expect trouble from anyone.

And one of the best parts about Mason, as with all my Botwin dogs, I get the fun and joy of their company with none of the maintenance or responsibility! (Owning a dog is costly and time consuming.)

I hope to be able to take him camping or on a backpacking trip someday. Right now he is still young and a little unruly but as he ages and prepares to go to obedience school I think he will become a wonderful well-trained companion. 

Mason has been another blessing seemingly dropped out of the sky, especially considering these times of the Coronavirus and Social Distancing where isolation is severe and companionship harder to find. He has reminded me once again of why dogs earn the title of, “Man’s best friend.”

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Flashback: Italy 2001- Part II

Wed. Nov. 3-01:


Back to La Spezia– on to Genoa to the port to see the fabulous “sculpture” (giant crane) by Rice. –done for ’92 Columbus Expo.

View of the ancient port of Genoa, in foreground the “Bigo”, panoramic lift designed in 1992 by architect Renzo Piano and structural engineer Peter Rice.

Coffee/lunch nearby– then on to Asti. Found Hotel Alerama 4 star– good — fourth floor with balcony (more of a business hotel but nice & with garage below). Got my hair done! They were good! Walked around the piazza– some wonderful stores. Coffee in a lovely old “bar” (and the back again later after dinner for drinks on their outside patio). Dinner at, “L’Angelo del Beato” about a block from hotel– shared antipasto of 4 elements, and I had a beef stew, Mike had chicken “cockles”.

Cell phone finally came alive! Mike couldn’t get thru to Kate/Tom but was able to call Bronwyn and asked her to email them our hotel email address. His cellphone system said international lines in Belgium not working so that’s why we couldn’t contact Kate.

Thurs. Nov 4-01:

Breakfast at hotel.

Tried Kate’s phone number again at 9:00 a.m. –it rang three times but no answer.

Today our concierge reserved an 11 o’clock appointment for us at a winery–Bersano in Alba–foggy, bit rain but we finally got there. I toured the outside museum with Mike and then to car to read. Into Alba old town for lunch at “Calissina” in a plaza, simple meal inside– the coffee outside. Back to Asti & walked to cathedral & around.

“Francese” restaurant (pizza/Italian) we ended up having dinner. Good. Back to hotel & total frustration trying to reach Kate.

Friday Nov. 5-01:

We left Asti at 10:00 a.m to go to Torino– a beautiful city. Saw a Nervi building (a mineral fair was going on).

Stresa on Lake Maggiore

On to Stresa and the Hotel La Palma in/on Lake Maggiore & it is lovely! Views overlooking the lake and islands (pool closed). Into Milan to pick up Kate & Tom at 8:10 p.m.—and we successfully did!!!! Back to hotel for bar—food, sandwiches, and drinks while Jules slept on the couch beside us. Wonderful time! (Kate gave me coffee and Belgium chocolate!)

Sat. Nov. 6-01:

Met down in dining area for breakfast at 8:45 a.m. Bit overcast but off to the village nonethless– we walk around, coffee on plaza, reservations for dinner. First we ate lunch at a cafe on a side street (bean soup, etc. Tom had boar—excellent)– back to cafe on the lake for coffee. I went to my room, laundry, read, bathed, etc. Dinner at 7:30 on the plaza “Fiorentina”. It was ok. Back to bar at hotel– Jules sleeping.

Sunday Nov. 7-01:

Awaken to rain! No sun (not this morning anyway). Off to 11 o’clock church after breakfast. Continuous and fairly heavy rain all day until around 5:00 p.m. So, in car and off to Verbana (@ 20 miles north of here).

Found a good Italian restaurant, on the water and crowded, had lunch. Back and into lounge for a couple of hours. Mike and I went for a walk. Met at 7 for dinner–up village square, behind church–“Papagallo” and it was excellent (didn’t look so good from outside). Back to La Palma lounge for farewell party–Tom, Jules & Kate off at 4 a.m. Taxi to airport. Tom and Jules leave at 7 for Antwerp and Kate on plane for London (for day’s work) & return to Antwerp about 6:30 that evening. Hugs and good bye kisses~! (We took 2 pictures).

Mon. Nov. 8-01:

Final breakfast at Hotel La Palma (next to Astoria & Grand Regina & Bristol Grand–and Stresa on gorgeous Lake Maggiore again!)

Of to ??? next.


Hill town—Bergamo– parked illegally near top & walked up and on Piazza Vecchio– had coffee and looked at tower/church. Lunch later at a pizza/restaurant and then on to Sirmione on Lake Garda but it was wild with tourists and you had to park and walk across a bridge for the hotels on the tip.

Keep looking– ended up in Bardolino on Lake Garda at the Hotel du Lac & Bellevue– lovely front suite with big balcony overlooking lake, best room we’ve had! Walked to (on a lovely lake side pathway) the village for dinner.

Many restaurants– many well populated with many walkers on the way– we went to a quieter one on several streets away & luckily sat under huge umbrellas because it poured for most of dinner. Charming young waiter and a pregnant waitress! Back to social drinking at the bar.

Tues. Nov. 9-01:

Verona Arena

Decided during a lovely breakfast to stay another night but will have to be moved to the front, to a separate building with a balcony and lake view. Then onto Verona (Verona Roman arena)–Beautiful city–straight to the Roman arena of the 1st century, one of the most well preserved. We stood at the top overlooking the city. Into old town– coffee by herb market and Juliet’s balcony, church and then to the river. Lunch at/on side street (pasta pesto.) also saw elaborate burial sites of a wealthy family. Back to Bardolino & Hotel du Lac & Bellevue. Room up in separate building not as nice as original. Frustration trying to get ahold of a hotel in Alitalia.

Verona Arena

Wed. Nov. 10-01:

Breakfast downstairs at the Hotel Bellevue & off to change ticket to Saturday at travel agent’s (thank God—finally.) and to reserve room for Friday night in Milan.

Then off to see an old church remodeled in the 12c. Drove to Adige Valley (towards Brenner Pass and Austria)–gorgeous mountains. Lunch in Mezzocorona (sort of formal–old woman didn’t want me to go out to terrace). Rotari champagne nearby–very unsual shape– wooden eves of building like vines. Mike toured and tasted. More mountins & castles.


Bolzano (Bozen) for the night at the sub-annex (at least a couple hundred years) Hotel Luna Mondschein (Hotel Luna Mondschein). Walked to the river at 6/6:30 p.m. Saw “Dolomites” and river. Back thru central old town–to church and caught 2nd half of mass. To “Tyrol” Restaurant (disappointing meal) and on to coffee with piano player on the plaza.

Thurs. Nov. 11-01:

Room chilly but not many walkers underneath until 8:00 a.m. Went to a luscious breakfast in the dining room.

Left Bolzano (after short walk at 10:15 a.m. for the Mendale Pass (hiking mt.)–bit windy but excellent mountain views. Coffee at the top by lookout. Next, on to the Tonale Pass–a real ski area –almost closed– had to backtrack to find lunch.

On to Sondrio (after coffee stop at “The Spirtiual Inn” Cafe of the Divine Comedy/Dante! We found the Alberga Della Posta Inn on Garibaldi Square & got a room with a balcony (with flags!) overlooking the square. Walked to one of 2 rivers and had a drink watching the sunset down by the station next to Nervi Street (he died in Rome in 1979 but was born here in 1892).

Dinner at Alberga della Posta–after an antipasti of foie gras that was excellent–lamb for me (surprise)–Inferno wine, excellent– finished with coffee in the bar.

Friday Nov. 12-01:

Breakfast and on to Milano– tunnels almost all the way around Lake Como. Emergency stop beside Como (bathroom) coffee “Bellano”– a lovely small town on the lake.

On to pre-reserved “Hotel Restaurant Cervo” Via di Pinedo, Somona Lombarda Malpensa ( Checked in–lunch a couple blocks down at, “La Quercia” with excellent wine, “Sassella ’97”.

Then to the airport to change tickets for Seattle to San Fransisco– success.

Dinner at Hotel Cervo– Oakland couple (like us) at next table– enjoyable conversation and similar experience with travels in Italy.

Sat. Nov. 13-01:

Breakfast & return car to Terminal II & then on to Terminal I for return flight home to US.

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