Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 24, 2017

Drink too much coffee when you write? Don’t feel bad…

CoffeeFor those writers who may guzzle a bit more coffee than they should during the writing process – don’t be too hard on yourself.

After all, writers often seem to be a strange bunch and this excellent post in the Writers write blog entitled 58 Famous Writers and their addictions is required reading.

From Byron’s obsession with sex to the authors who required alcohol and drug-filled binges in which to harness their creative muse, those extra cups of java that keep you going are looking better and better.

Happy (addiction-free) writing to all!




Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 21, 2017

An evening stroll in Caserta vecchia

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyI recently traveled down to visit the spectacular Reggia di Caserta, just outside of Naples in Italy’s Campagna region. You can see my earlier post about the splendid gardens that surround the former Bourbon family palace.

Following that visit and before the drive back, we decided to stop off for an evening stroll in Caserta vecchia – Caserta’s old town.

In most of Italy’s towns, the old and new towns are attached, but this isn’t the case in Caserta and Caserta Vecchia.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyIn this case, the ‘new’ town was moved to the plain instead of the strategic location perched on the Tifatini Mountain where the old, medieval center was built.

It should be an easy 10 km drive from Caserta to Caserta Vecchia on a good road (a superstrada).

We managed to get lost and take the curving, windy and potholed donkey route in the dark up to this medieval fortress.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyStill, it was well worth the trip to visit this perfect little medieval town. The first mentions of this town come from 861 A.D., at the time called Casam Irtam in Latin (meaning village located up high), back when it originally belonged to the Longobards.

This mountain perch grew at the time of the Saracen invasions in the plains below, when many would flee to this mountain outpost for safety.

Caserta Vecchia, ItalyIt was during this period that the beautiful cathedral was built – the splendid, medieval Duomo di San Michele Arcangelo. Work on this cathedral began in 1129.

The city’s importance would diminish in later years when the Bourbon family decided to develop ‘modern’ Caserta, where the Reggia was constructed.

Still, this medieval gem is worth a visit during your time in Campagna.

Just be sure to avoid the donkey path on your way up – unless you’re looking to replicate the authentic medieval travel experience…

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 17, 2017

Take pride in what you wrote – because you wrote it

2012_August_words“The stories weren’t brilliant. But I wrote them, I began and ended them.”

-Joy Williams

Love this sentiment from Joy Williams, an American novelist and short story writer I admit I didn’t know when I read this quote.

I like this idea of taking pride in your work – not just your best work, but the whole range of what you write. After all, lots of people say they would like to write, and I have spoken to many who say they always ‘mean to write eventually’  but first they must master the craft, understand the industry, speak to other writers, etc etc.

I’m not discounting this, it is certainly true. But if you want to learn to swim, you can watch as many swim meets as you want, you can talk to those who dominate the sport and their coaches, you can read about the theory and the technique of the sport, but eventually you’ll need to jump in the water, get wet and start kicking and stroking yourself in order to learn.

As a former swim instructor, I can guarantee you’ll be pretty awful and clumsy at first, but there is no other way to learn.

It’s the same with writing. You will never learn, you will never get better if you don’t start writing. And by that, I mean what Joy Williams does: write your stories, begin them, and end them. By doing this once, twice … a gazillion times, you’ll learn and improve.

Maybe they won’t all be brilliant. But you wrote them. They’re yours.

And in my mind, that’s something to be proud of.

Happy writing to all!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 14, 2017

Save time for Orvieto’s Etruscan Museum

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyThere’s so much to see when you’re visiting the medieval Umbrian town of Orvieto, that you may forget to stop by the Fondazione Museo Claudio Faina, but that would be  a mistake.

This museum, which houses both the collection of the Faina Counts and Orvieto’s civic collection, is most impressive for its Etruscan objects – this is after all, one of the regions most associated with Etruscan civilization. But there are also impressive items from Ancient Greece and Rome.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyAnd the noble home with its frescoed rooms in which the collection is held – just across the piazza from Orvieto’s impressive Duomo, and boasting spectacular views onto the Duomo’s 14th century mosaic facade – is worth the price of admission alone.

Conte Claudio Faina (1875-1954) seems to have been an obsessive collector of Etruscan artifacts.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyMany are from nearby Etruscan tombs, but it seems he also had close ties to noble families around Chiusi, Tuscany (I’ve already written about the excellent Chiusi Museum of Etruscan Art in an earlier post), and his collection includes some objects from that region, including their distinctive funerary urns – the so-called canopic urns.

In reading some of the Count’s letters and diaries on display, it was interesting how he acknowledges that his passion for acquiring Etruscan art puts a financial pressure on him and his family, but he can’t control himself when faced with yet another treasure from the past.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyI always enjoy visiting Etruscan collections around Italy, and if you have time when you are in Orvieto, this museum is definitely worth a visit.

But as impressive as the collection is, I must admit I was most spellbound by the golden light of that perfect January afternoon setting aflame the golden mosaics of the 13th-14th century Duomo.

Orvieto Etruscan Museum, ItalyThe windows look out at the cathedral’s facade and you get a view you couldn’t hope to enjoy as you stand in front of the cathedral craning your neck upwards.

The lucky Faina family gazing out on that architectural masterpiece each day, and you can feel almost as privileged as you admire the details of that beautiful, medieval craftsmanship while exploring the wonders of the Ancient Etruscans.

When in Orvieto, after having climbed its medieval tower for impressive views over the city, be sure to save time for its Etruscan Museum.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 10, 2017

The art and joy of creation

Mario Vargas Llosa“It’s the most exciting moment when you discover life in what you’ve created.”

Mario Vargas Llosa

Thoughtful words from Peruvian/Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa, whose works I’ve long admired. I believe most authors would agree with this sage observation.

After all, many of us spend an inordinate amount of time living ‘in our own heads’ with the stories we have created, and I think most of us would understand that sense of excitement when your story truly does come to life for you, when your characters talk to you and seem to breathe and think and move on their own, acting out in ways you may not have imagined earlier.

What about you, writers? Can you relate to Vargas Llosa’s observation? Can you remember a time when you felt your creation had really come to life and was taking on a shape all its own?

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 7, 2017

Surviving the Atlantis, Bahamas

Atlantis, BahamasIt’s that time of year again – February – when the days are cold and dark and I start to daydream about warm destinations visited in the past.

This year is no different, and I find myself thinking back to the warm, crystal clear waters and soft white beaches of the Bahamas, someplace I traveled to with my family last summer while we were in New York.

Although I do like tropical islands, I’m not a huge fan of resorts – and by experiencing the Atlantis, I learned that I am most definitely NOT a fan of mega-resorts.

Atlantis, BahamasWhile my husband and I would probably rather spend a week chained in a medieval dungeon rather than step foot onto the Atlantis property again, our children (kids are weird, aren’t they?) loved the place and would  go back in a heartbeat.

Supportive mom that I am, I told them that’s great and that once they start earning their own money, they are welcome to return. I’ll be happy for the postcard.

Oh, goodness. Where to begin? I’ll take a constructive take on criticism and lay it out as the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Atlantis, BahamasWhat can I say? It’s the Bahamas and the locale Atlantis chose to deface with its pink towers probably visible from outer space is simply beautiful, crescents of soft, white sand, crystal clear water, soft, gentle waves.

The weather is perfect – never too hot, with fresh island breezes. Before the crowds descend, the place was truly paradise.

My husband and I went out jogging in the mornings, and it seemed we were the only one among the seemingly gazillion guests  the week we were there, so we truly had the beaches to ourselves.

Atlantis, BahamasThe kids loved all the water slides, which is the real reason for being here, so they had lots of fun. I went on the slide that plunged through the shark tank once, but otherwise waiting in endless Disney-like lines didn’t appeal to me.

I did, however, join them in their enthusiasm for the lazy river, which also had some pretty good currents. It was also nice that the Atlantis showed free movies for kids in the late afternoon – a good break from all the swimming and sunshine.

In the end, I managed to spend my days reading and swimming, which is a pretty perfect way to relax.

Atlantis, BahamasThe Bad

Perhaps my husband summed it up perfectly when we stood amidst the crowds going by jostling to stand in line for the restaurants or the casino and he said “I feel like we’re living in a shopping mall.”

I’ve never taken a cruise nor do I ever intend to, but this vacation is the closest I will ever get. Not surprisingly, the cruise ships disembark nearby and let off many of their passengers who get day passes here, so the crowds double in size.

Thank goodness we skipped the whole meal plan thing, because queuing up for hours for breakfast among the throngs would have broken my spirit all together.

Atlantis, BahamasAnd the ‘Caribbean village’ constructed on the edge of the property with additional crowded restaurants and shops reminded me of the artificial nature of Epcot Center. Or maybe the sets on The Truman Show.

You’re forced to pass through the casino (biggest in the Caribbean!, should one care about such things) numerous times per day. One positive aspect, my younger son – who seems to have a special talent for finding money on the ground anywhere we go –  did find a $100 chip on the floor so he was (understandably) thrilled with that discovery, and will probably repeat that story well into his 90s.

The Ugly

Atlantis, BahamasOnce again, I guess cruse ship aficionados won’t mind this, but this constant ‘paying for access and services’ really annoyed me. If people want to pay extra for a cabana to have their drink coolers and their shade and comfy seats – great. More power to them. But since I was the only person out on early morning jogs, I was surprised to notice why all the pool and beach lounges were already ‘reserved’ with towels first thing in the morning when those who saved them never showed up until the afternoon. I would see the staff out there blocking all the seats with towels. I assume guests pay for personal slaves who block seats for them, even if they won’t be showing up until cocktail hour.

Atlantis, BahamasThe other reason I will never-ever-in-a-million-years return is the customer service. I know it’s a big place. I know you’re looking after football stadium crowds, but there is really no excuse for such poor relations with your clients. We wanted to walk into town one afternoon and the concierge seemed to take it personally that we wouldn’t be getting a taxi. He actually said you ‘couldn’t’ walk into town and could only take a taxi.

Atlantis, BahamasWhen there was an electrical failure with our door, it took an hour and a half to send up a technician. Since we had to wait outside on the floor in the hallway for the technician to come, I went down to reception to ask if they could please speed it up and I was told very rudely there was nothing to do but wait outside. At least I dispatched our kids to the cinema.

When the technician finally showed up after 1 1/2 hours, he was shocked we had been left sitting out in the hall so long, since he had only been informed 10 minutes earlier by reception and would have been free to come and let us in. Hotel Management 101 might be in order.

Atlantis, BahamasIn summary, I learned my lesson. It will be a cold day in hell before I ever step foot on a mega-resort again.

However, when I squinted my eyes and could ignore the crowds swizzling cocktails in plastic cups while emerged in the sea and could obliterate those hideous pink towers, the beach and sea and gentle island breezes were truly paradise.

Next time, I’ll find a smaller, quieter place from which to enjoy them.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | February 3, 2017

Book review: Fractured

Fractured - Catherine McKenzieI greatly enjoyed Fractured, a novel by Catherine McKenzie.

I understand the author prefers to give one-word titles to her novels, but perhaps, if she would consider sub-titles, Ode to city living might be appropriate.

Although the book was a psychological thriller, it was the fear of ever finding myself within such a meddling, invasive suburb with its creepy self-appointed leader and Big Brother Welcome Wagon that kept me on the edge of my seat … and happy to dwell amidst the anonymity of the big city.

At the start of this book, novelist Julie Prentice, her husband and young children have moved across the country to settle in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio and to start a new life after a series of disturbing events. The story unfolds between past and present, through the voices of Julie and her new neighbor, John Dunbar, a recently out-of-work IT expert, with whom she shares morning jogs and a sense of attraction that gets neighborhood tongues wagging.

As readers, we know something serious has happened, and the slow reveal through the perspectives of the two narrators and the alternating time lines is handled well, and keeps this book moving along at a quick pace.

Perhaps too quick a pace. Because there is the thriller element, part of me wanted to see what happened. But the story itself is so well-written and the characters complex enough to merit a slower reading. Interestingly, although the characters are often not ‘likeable’, the dynamics of the relationships drive the story and – in my mind, at least – make the need for connections with those characters irrelevant.

The first novel I read by Catherine McKenzie was an extremely enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading more of her novels.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 31, 2017

Strolling through the splendors of the Reggia di Caserta gardens

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyIt’s been years that I’ve been ‘meaning to get to’ this royal palace an hour and a half’s drive south of Rome, but I only managed during this past Christmas holiday.

Coincidentally, our visit was the day after a big special on this UNESCO World Heritage Site aired on Italian television.

Incidentally, for those of you who don’t feel like driving, the palace is only a few hundred meters from the Caserta train station, so this could be an easy day trip from Rome.

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyThe decision to build the palace was taken by Carlo di Borbone (1716-1788), who ruled this area as part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies – a kingdom that comprised all of modern-day Italy’s mezzogiorno region (the South). One capital was in Palermo and the other in Naples, which is only a few kilometers from Naples.

Work began on the palace – the largest royal residence on the world – in 1752, and would be completed under Carlo’s son.

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyThe palace and its gardens were designed to be grander than those of Versailles, albeit built in a much later era. I’ll cover the palace in a future post, but we most enjoyed our wander in these splendid gardens.

The gardens stretch out over 120 hectares, and you’re bound to do plenty of walking here. The palace architect, Carlo Vanvitelli, designed the complicated system of fountains and cascades that creates a continuous line of water stretching out beyond the palace.

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyThe fountains are filled with statues modeled on classical Antiquity – including Venus and Adonis, Ceres and the Fountain of Diana and Actaeon.

The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon was the favorite of my children, who love the story of Diana the hunter turning Actaeon into a stag after having spied on her and her nymphs as she bathed nude in a pond.

Reggia di Caserta, ItalyThe sculpture shows the dramatic moment when Actaeon’s hunting dogs are ready to attack and kill him). In this sculpture, poor Actaeon is still half-man, half-stag.

You’ll enjoy wandering this seemingly endless flow of monumental fountains, waterfalls,  pools and endless ‘water games’ found in gardens all over Italy (see my earlier post on the excellent example of this at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli).

Reggia di Caserta gardens, ItalyI must admit to enjoying these spectacles, while simultaneously inwardly wincing about the plight of the poor peasants of the region who would lose their entire water supply when the nobility was in town and wanted to be entertained with their gioccchi d’acqua.

Beyond this area is the extensive English Garden, also designed by palace architect Carlo Vanvitelli alongside a German botanist, Johann Graefer.

Reggia di Caserta gardens, ItalyThe English Garden area is not symmetrical as the classic Italian garden, but is wild, built on hills with lakes, temples and even a pyramid dotting the landscape. This English garden was requested by Maria Carolina of Austria, and contains many exotic plants and trees, helpfully marked for those of us – ahem – who are tree-identity-challenged.

So far away from the giant palace, a visitor would be forgiven for believing he or she was wandering in the wilds of the countryside rather than being in what is essentially an endless back yard. Guess the Bourbons had it easy when they admonished their kids for slumping around the 1000-room palace bored and told them to get out in the backyard to play…

Reggia di Caserta gardens, ItalyThe nice thing about this stunning park is that it appears to serve as a backyard for Caserta residents, too. There is a small annual fee for city residents, and I can’t tell you how many joggers we counted on that day. Admittedly, I was slightly envious myself…

I’ll post another week on our visit to the actual palace, but I can tell all you fellow travel lovers that the garden alone at the Reggia di Caserta makes this worth the trip!

Enjoy your visit strolling (or – why not? – jogging) the splendid grounds of the Reggia di Caserta gardens.

Reggia di Caserta gardens, ItalyReggia di Caserta gardens, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 27, 2017

Book review: Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia

Belgravia - Julian FellowesUnlike Dante’s warning at the entrance to hell, all hope is not lost to ‘ye who enters here.

I am speaking, of course, to those of us who find ourselves adrift now that Downton Abbey has come to an end.

For Downton creator/writer/producer Julian Fellowes has a new historical fiction novel out – Belgravia. Like Downtown Abbey, it’s chock full of interesting – and often devious – characters, who are well-drawn and keep the story moving along nicely.

The initial scenes are set in 1815 Bruxelles, following the British troops quartered there and the lively environment of English expats that surround them prior to the Battle of Waterloo. The story then moves on to 1846 London, following the characters we glimpsed earlier in a London that is changing rapidly, with old, noble families mixing with the burgeoning merchant class.

Fellowes has lots of plot twists and secrets and wonderfully narcissistic characters who keep the story humming along at a rapid pace. As one would imagine, the descriptions, customs and manners of the time are beautifully drawn and allow the reader to feel he or she has been deposited in the London of the mid-nineteenth century.

My only qualm is that it sometimes felt as if I were reading a mix between a novel and a television script. The short scenes and brief insights into multiple characters felt, well, a little Downtonish. I suppose writing about such a broad cast of characters necessitated such a device, but I generally prefer a bit more depth from my novel’s characters than I demand from those in a television series or film.

That being said, I still enjoyed the book enormously. It was a fast-paced, enjoyable read, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for future Fellowes’ novels. Alhough I still miss Downton…

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | January 24, 2017

Spectacular views over medieval Orvieto, Umbria

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalyWhenever I visit towns or cities, I seek out the highest point to enjoy birds’ eye views over it. Strangely, I’d never been to the Umbrian town of Orvieto’s highest point.

So when I found myself exploring this picturesque medieval town earlier this month with my two sons, I set out to remedy this.

My children are as obsessed as I am to visit skyscrapers, cathedral bell towers, medieval towers – what have you – when we travel.

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalySo they were thrilled to climb up the 47-meter, 13th century Torre del Moro (Moro Tower), originally known as the Torre del Papa, when it was constructed in the late thirteenth century.

Since my younger son is  a sprinter, he did what he always does and sprinted on ahead. My older son and I took it at a much more leisurely pace.

Orvieto, Umbria, ItalyIn 1866, the medieval watch tower was converted to a clock tower, and a mechanical clock was set up and bells hoisted to the top. You see all four clock faces as you are climbing up.

The observation deck offers spectacular views of the medieval city, and views to the pretty countryside surrounding it. We had a good time following the winding city streets from above, pointing out the routes we’d taken around the city and the monuments we had already seen, and those we had yet to see.

When you’re next in this picturesque medieval town, don’t miss out on views over Orvieto from its medieval watch tower.

Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

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