Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 15, 2017

My summer holiday in books

The Trespasser - Tana frenchMaybe it’s something about being smack dab in December, with some of the most depressing and shortest days of the year, but I find myself often thinking back to summer holidays.

As I already wrote in a  post, sometimes my reading experience conflates the books I read on holidays. Even when those novels aren’t that memorable, I tend to remember them longer simply because of my favorable memories about the holidays during which I read them and the spectacular settings in which I cracked open the page.

This was the case again this summer, where I read a lot of books, but only a few worth remembering as well as I do. But on cold days in December, can you really blame me for looking back fondly on that lovely August sun and lazy days in southern France?

Up above you can see the Bidart beach in France’s Pays Basque region where I read Irish author Tana French’s latest, The Trespasser between dips in the (frigid) water – I’m way to used to the gentle Mediterranean. I’m a big Tana French fan, and you can see my earlier reviews for her novels Broken Harbour , The Likeness and Faithful Place. This was definitely the best novel I read during the holiday break, the story solving the murder of a young woman killed in Dublin as she waits for her date to come to her home for a romantic dinner. But despite the author’s ability to transport me to Dublin and into the minds of her characters, this didn’t draw me in the same way that most of French’s novels do.

The Oce PrincessI made the mistake of picking up this novel, The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg, part of  Swedish series. I certainly did something right by reading it in the right atmosphere.

In the photo it’s a cold, wet early morning as one of my sons is taking surf lessons and I’m fighting the wind to read this novel. It definitely was not worth the effort. Paper thin characters, a dull writing style, a romance thread that had me more bored than interested. I understand these novels have  a big following, but they’re certainly not my cup of tea. This was a novel worth forgetting, but I can still picture passages and scenes because they are wrapped up in my holiday memories.

Le Moulin des SourcesWhen in France, do as the French do. I decided to pick up some French novels to work on the language. The beauty of this trick is that, even if the novels are ho-hum at best, I’m still picking up new vocabulary and grammar points and I feel proud of myself for having read them.

The novel shown in the photo to the right is Francoise Bourdon’s Le moulin des Sources. I had it in my backpack and dipped into it as we took seacoast hikes, as I’m doing her as my kids are off exploring this rocky beach on our hike down to Spain. This sweeping novel set in Provence tried to cover too much – too many generations, too many characters, many of whom were barely developed. But still, it was set in a region we were headed after our stay in Pays Basque, and I still picked up new vocabulary and grammar – so still enjoyable despite the ho-hum plot and structure.

Estocade sanglanteSince I read a book about Provence in the Pays basque, it was only fitting that I read a book about the Pays basque in Provence. And what a mess of a book it was!

Estogade sanglante by Jacques Garay was a paint-by-the-numbers-book written to a marketing plan: “Write a book for tourists travelling to the Pays basque region. Plot and characters aren’t important at all, so waste as little time as possible developing either. Just drop in lots of Basque words and have your character consume lots of Basque food and drinks while dropping names of various local clubs and restaurants. Oh, and be sure to throw in lots of bullfighting to make it exotic. That should keep them happy.” Even reading in French couldn’t make this train wreck of a novel worth it. But I’ll still remember it far longer than I should, because I read it during the holidays.

Happy holiday reading!

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 12, 2017

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … in Milan

Milan, ItalyWas great to be back in the Lombard capital of Milan, a city where I used to live, after a (gulp!) almost two decade hiatus.

No idea why it took me so long to return to a city I enjoyed so much, but it was fun to be back for a short weekend, and to wander the city all lit up for Christmas.

In recent years, Rome’s city administration has been rather stingy with the Holiday cheer, so it was great to see Milano all decked out with beautiful Christmas lights.

Milan, ItalyFrom the towering Christmas tree on Piazza del Duomo to the beautiful Galleria bedecked in lights and ribbons, to the glitzy windows of Montenapoleone, it was a sight for sore eyes for someone who doesn’t always want to flee to northern Europe to feel holiday cheer.

Since my visit, the city geared up for Christmas even more this past weekend, receiving a pretty heavy blanketing of snow.

But when I was there the city was preparing for its celebration of its patron Saint – Saint Ambrogio.

Milan, ItalyThis is a city-wide festival celebrated on 7 December, and is also famous for the opening of the opera season at the famed La Scala.

This year, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier premiered on Saint Ambrogio. Sadly, the closest I got to that performance was admiring this homage prepared by a Milan cafe. I did see the performance on the national television from the comfort of my home in Rome … but not quite the same as attending a Scala premiere. : )

So grazie to Milano for putting me in the Christmas mood. It was wonderful to be back, and I enjoyed seeing the city all decked out for the holidays!

Milan, Italy

Milan, Italy

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 8, 2017

More books “in the cloud” – Rome

Piu libri nella nuvolaI’ve been seeing ads for this interesting book fair of small and mid-sized publishers, billed as Più libri nella nuvola (More books in the cloud).

This is a play on words for the new modern Convention center designed by architect Alexandre Fuksas in the EUR section of Rome. The structure is called La nuvola (The Cloud).

The event runs 6-10 December, and I am hoping to visit this weekend – both to visit the book fair, and to finally see the new convention center that has been under construction for what seems like decades.

I see there are some segments dedicated to young adult literature – so I’ll pick a time that can interest my sons as well so we can both be happy. If you’re in Rome and love books, I’ll see you this weekend “in the cloud.”

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 5, 2017

Exploring Valletta, Malta in the lead up to its Notte bianca

Valletta, MaltaBack in October, I was on the Mediterranean island of Malta for work. I was staying outside of the capital city of Valletta, Malta, and I was eager to get back to that city I hadn’t visited in some years.

The only time I had free were the hours before my return flight to Rome – and I took advantage of that sunny Saturday to head over to Valletta to explore.

Sadly, I discovered that evening was the annual celebration of the Notte bianca – the name in Italian for its neighbor just across the Mediterranean. It means ‘White Night’ and it is a night where the city comes alive with music, dance performances, theatre, street food and lots of crowds milling around the capital’s charming streets.

Valletta, MaltaHipster in-the-know that I am, my direct flight Valletta-Rome coincided with the start of that evening’s festivities. : )

But that was okay. I still had the perfect day for wandering the city I’ve visited before, and now that I know about the festivities, I’ll definitely be back.

Valletta is an impressive capital. A fortified city constructed by the Knights of Malta to thwart attacks by Ottoman and Saracen invasions, construction on the ‘modern’ city was largely completed by the 1570s.

The small settlement there had earlier fallen to the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, but control was gained once again by the Knights of Malta.

Valletta, MaltaThe Grand Masters requested – and received- help in constructing their great city, including from Pope Pius V, who sent his military architect, Francesco Laperelli, to help design the new city.

Laperelli became the chief designer and would move away from medieval city planning with winding streets, to a grid system of streets and grand palaces – the very look so well preserved for today’s visitors.

It’s a spectacular place to wander, and the stands were setting up for a night of events, music, dancing and food as I sadly took my leave and flew back to Rome just as the festivities were getting off the ground.

However, now I know when Notte bianca is held, and I’m only a short flight away, so I’ll be back for a future edition. Notte bianca or not, you’ll be sure to enjoy your time in beautiful Valletta.

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

A sculpture of a whale made entirely of marine plastic debris, on display for the Our Ocean Conference in Valletta

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | December 1, 2017

Book review: At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the OrchardI enjoy historical fiction and I’ve read of all of Tracy Chevalier’s novels, so I was happy to learn about her latest when it was released. This was my favorite novel since A Girl With A Pearl Earring.

At the Edge of the Orchard is set in the mid 1800s, and follows the difficult lives of American settlers in Ohio. Unlike many romantic depictions of pioneer life, this novel illustrates the harsh reality of survival in inhospitable settings, the death of children to disease, and the struggle to produce enough food to survive the rigid winters.

Like many Americans of the era, James and Sadie Goodenough move out west from Connecticut, hoping to claim a plot of land in order to build new lives for themselves. When their wagon gets stuck in the mud of Ohio’s Black Swamp, they decide to settle there. But the land is inhospitable. Their family grows, but ‘Black Swamp Fever’ – malaria – quickly takes its toll and carries away a child each year. The family ekes out barely enough to survive, and Sadie, already unstable, worsens in an environment where alcohol is the only escape from reality.

James Goodenough is passionate about his apple orchard, which he tends to lovingly – both from saplings he buys from ‘Johnny Appleseed’, who plays a small but important role in the novel, and from grafts he has transported with him from Connecticut. His youngest son, Robert, seems to share his passion for trees. But the carefully tended apple orchard leads to even greater tensions between husband and wife.

When those tensions explode,  young Robert leaves his family to travel out west, eventually settling in California during the Gold Rush. Following a stint among the miners, Robert returns to his love for trees, collecting seeds of redwoods and sequoias for grand English gardens.

After deftly describing settler life in the Midwest, we follow along on westward expansion and the (pipe) dreams that fueled the settlements on the west coast. This sweeping saga is extremely well researched and enjoyable, with interesting and informative historical and research notes at the end.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | November 28, 2017

Reason #5386 to love Rome: Elena’s Mausoleum at Villa de Sanctis

Elena's Mausoleum, Villa de Sanctis, RomeIf it’s an early Sunday morning in November, I’m bound to be scouring the outskirts of Rome searching for some park I’ve never heard about before so my youngest son can participate in a cross-country race.

This has been our habit over the last six years, and I must say I have discovered an amazing amount of obscure Roman parks boasting impressive monuments in this way.

Even after years of living here, Rome never ceases to amaze me.

Elena's Mausoleum, Villa de Sanctis, RomeOne Sunday morning earlier this month I was bound for the Villa de Sanctis park off the less-than-picturesque Via Casalina. Jut at the entrance of the park looms the Ancient Roman-era Mausoleum of Elena.

The mausoleum was originally intended for Emperor Constantine (most famous for making Christianity the official religion of Ancient Rome), who had it built between 326-330 A.D. It was to have been his mausoleum.

Elena's Mausoleum, Villa de Sanctis, RomeHowever, the Emperor’s mother, Elena, died in 328, and therefore, the structure being built was instead used to bury Constantine’s mother. The splendid sarcophagus in which Elena was buried can be found in the Vatican Museum.

Elena’s Mausolem is considered one of the most important architectural complexes of Paleochristian Rome in the IVth century. The cylinder shape of the structure has a diameter of over 27 meters and an interior of over 20 meters. The original structure would have been more than 25 meters high, but what remains today reaches about 18 meters.

Elena's Mausoleum, Villa de Sanctis, RomeOver subsequent centuries, buildings had been added to the mausoleum, including a medieval rainwater harvesting cistern. A restoration project between 1993-2000 restored the mausoleum to its original structure.

What an impressive “discovery” during the early morning cross-country competition.

Although I was very happy to see my little athlete do so well in his race, I was equally impressed to stumble upon this impressive Ancient Roman monument to Emperor Constantine’s mother.

Yet another reason to love Rome.

Elena's Mausoleum, Villa de Sanctis, Rome

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | November 24, 2017

I met this year’s Goodreads Reading Challenge

Goodreads_2017Perhaps list-making and checking off items on a list is a silly thing, but I can’t help enjoying the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I’m an avid reader anyway and – oddly, perhaps – I’ve always made lists of books I’ve read, so the Goodreads Reading Challenge was a perfect match for me. I love looking back and seeing the books I’ve read for the year. I love the feature that lets me see how many pages I’ve read at year’s end. And I love the one-stop click into book reviews, recommendations, etc.

So I’ve surpassed my goal of 45 novels this year – but my to-be-read pile remains high, so my 2017 reading list is still (blissfully) long. Luckily, there is always 2018!

Happy reading to all.

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | November 21, 2017

Old world elegance in Biarritz, France

Biarritz, FranceThis past summer, a holiday in France’s Pays Basque saw us for the first time  in elegant, seaside Biarritz.

I’ve always been curious to visit this well-heeled watering hole. I have a soft spot for 19th century Grandes Dames, and Biarritz certainly fits the bill.

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of France, along the Atlantic Ocean, this town was most famous as an old whaling port until the late 19th century when seabathing became the fashion. Luckily for this outpost, this coincided with the boom in the railways, and this tiny whaling post developed into an elegant escape for the leisure class.

It helped that it became a favored destination for Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, meaning that many other well-heeled patrons followed in their path.

Biarritz, FranceBiarritz became even more exclusive during the Belle époque – and billed itself as an upperclass resort. An array of Art Nouveau buildings and sumptuous villas were built. A glittering casino was built in art deco style 1924 and appealed to the wealthy French and international visitors.

Biarritz afficionados included French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, Sissi Empress of Austria-Hungary, King Edward VII and the British royal family and the author Emile Zola.

The sumptuous Hotel du Palais was built on the site of the former Empress Eugénie’s Imperial Palace.

Biarritz, FranceLuckily for today’s visitors, these well-preserved buildings add to the jewel-like atmosphere of this town, and it doesn’t take too much to imagine what it would have been like teeming with horses and carriages and women strolling the seaside promenade in elegant Parisian fashions from Monsieur Worth.

Symbols of the town today include the picturesque lighthouse, the Phare de la Pointe Saint-Martin and the impressive Rocher de la Vierge: the Rock of the Virgin Mary.

This rocky outpost is reached by an iron walkway built by Alexandre Eiffel. The rock is topped by a statue of the Madonna, who is often bathed by the violent waves that crash into shore.

Biarritz, FranceA note of warning – unsuspecting visitors may be soaked, too.

This glittering resort saw a decline after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the lead-up to World War II. But the post-war years led to a new fashion – surfing, introduced by American GIs.

This past summer celebrated 70 years of surfing in Biarritz, and there were wonderful, old photos showing the rise of this new tourism. Surfers flock to this region today alongside beach-goers and tourists.

When you’re in this region, be sure to visit beautiful, ocean-side Biarritz.

Biarritz, France

Biarritz, France

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | November 17, 2017

600 posts!

600In case you are wondering, this is not my age.

Can you tell I have snippy teenagers/pre-teens at home?

But I’m a big fan of marking milestones, so why the heck not? 600 posts up on my blog deserves at least a pat on the back.

I began my blog back in 2012 to post about my passions for writing, reading, travel and everything Italian, and I’m proud that I’ve kept it going all these years and posts later.

It’s been a lot of fun, and a great way to meet like-minded writers and – something that seems lost too often these days – those who are not like-minded but are still fabulous writers and teach me so much about the world through their eyes.

The first 600 posts have been fun – hope I’ll be able to mark the next 600 (blogs, not birthdays…)

Posted by: kimberlysullivan | November 14, 2017

Crunching through the leaves on my mountain bike in Abruzzo

Mountain biking, AbruzzoI’ve written about it before, but it’s always a pleasure for me when I can make a weekend escape out to the mountains in Abruzzo.

With my busy work schedule and my kids’ insane sports programs, this luxury is becoming rarer and rarer.

With my older son off at a tennis tournament in Germany, my husband tied up with work and my younger son – miraculously – free from running commitments, my little sprinter and I headed up for our first weekend in the mountains since the summer.

I’m wise enough to know that 50% of the family is as good as it gets these days …

Mountain biking, AbruzzoMy agenda was to enjoy the beautiful fall foliage. My son’s was to strengthen his quadriceps before a series of cross-country races.

We both got our wishes when we spent most of our weekend out on our mountain bikes, with plenty of trails to call our own. We met a few hikers and plenty of cows on our rides, but otherwise it was pretty quiet and the woods felt as if they were there all for us.

That solitude may have been a tougher thing when we miscalculated new sunset times and had to race back before we couldn’t see a thing.

Mountain biking, AbruzzoIn exchange, we did get to enjoy the sky painted spectacular pinks, purples and blues, before the almost full moon came out. Luckily, the wolves in the area stayed in their cozy dens. : )

What can I say? Life looks pretty good on a crisp, mountain weekend perched atop a mountain bike.

Since I no longer live in that type of climate, every time fall rolls around, I feel I miss the crispness of the air, the sound of the leaves the bike makes as you crunch through them, the glorious colors of autumn foliage. Weekend escapes allow me to get my fix.

Truly an idyllic weekend for Rome dwellers like my son and me. Happy fall weekends to all – wherever you are.

Mountain biking, Abruzzo

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