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Under the Tuscan Sun

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What do you get when you bring 8 couples who love each other from Camp Aspen to Italy for a little Summer pre-game IMG_0157to BIKE the hills in Tuscany, EAT the freshest pasta, DRINK the local vino and SLEEP in Castles fit for kings and queens? Drum roll please… You get 16 people who love each other EVEN more filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be together in this magical place.  And by fulfilling Duvine’s 4 requisites Bike, Eat, Drink, Sleep,photo we made Andy Levine proud and he certainly went above and beyond to make us proud of Duvine bike adventures.  With a little help from our most magnificent guides, Davide, Marco, and Arien, we were able to dodge just a few bullets like keeping track of Michael who had rocket butt, calamity Al with some clip-out issues and Davitt who needed way more butt butter.  No one on this trip was happier on his ride than smart-ass IMG_0147Scott who ordered his very own electric bike…that not only pissed off slow and steady Nancy but was the envy of all. The riding was truly spectacular with routesIMG_0250 featuring long vistas over fields of wheat, sunflowers, lavender, poppies and dense oak forests.  On one day, we pedaled through the walled Buonconvento on the way to the Abbey of Monte Oliveto where we stopped to see and hear the stories of its unique renaissance fresco cycle.  Then the landscape opened up as we rode along the bare ridges of the Crete Senesi, one of the most photographed roads in the world where photoI stopped to take one of all the herded sheep under one tree!  Awww… then there was the ride through the hills and onto the refined city of Siena.photo  This city is like an open-air museum of Gothic architecture.  We walked to a favorite local lunch through the square of the main piazza where they hold the traditional Palio, a thrilling bareback horse race held twice a year on July 2 and August 16.  Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colors, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. I wish I were there to see this with the thousands of spectators! NOT. Eating in Italy is my absolute favorite and we did plenty of it thanks to our very own photoAmnon who makes sure we have everything on every menu to taste and devour.   As you can see from Joe’s open shirt while devouring thirst quenching watermelon, it was HOT in Italy this week. IMG_0196IMG_0175 Temps were almost in the 90′s so we needed to keep hydrated and no better way to do that then indulging at lunch in Montalcino during our barrel tasting at the winery of our hotel’s top Brunello vintages. What a treat. Interesting tidbit, I noticed while riding through the vineyards that they have rose bushes adorned in the line of grapes…and that’s because if they have a IMG_0256bug…the bug will eat the bushes first before tackling the grapes. So smart.  But even smarter was the Ferragamo family who bought and painstakingly restored the Castiglion del Bosco where we stayed for 3 nights in perfect villa luxury set against the picturesque backdrop of the Val d’Orcia… with a golf course yet.  So we lost the guys for just an afternoon.  But we were busy anyway planning our farewell dinner and (table)dancing at the villa. IMG_0278Actually, our guides turned into chefs and party planners while we were the true guests in paradise sans the hostess gifts! It was our “last supper” and the very last of the celebrations for sherry’s 60th with Joe at the helm.  The experience may be unsurpassable but the friendships are everlasting.  A good time was had by all under the Tuscan sun.  A reunion trip is in order.photo

 

IMG_0101With a population of 306, 211, Pittsburgh is the second largest city in the US state of Pennsylvania and also known as “steel city” with over 300 steel related businesses. Pittsburgh probably conjures up images of football and heart attack-inducing sandwiches as well but in fact the town is quirky, progressive and remarkable gay-friendly as reported in the NY Times just yesterday. So it’s not a coincidence that it’s also known as the hometown of Andy Warhol, a gay icon.   And where he has his very own museum celebrating him as the leading figure in the visual arts movement know as Pop Art.  It was the 20th anniversary gala for the museum and it was a party.IMG_0104  “Andy would have loved this” was the phrase of the evening as his 15 minutes of fame was cut short at age 58.  We were invited because my husband is involved in building a satellite branch of the museum on the lower east side of Manhattan.  In addition to showing Warhol’s art and celebrating his life at the factory, there was a compelling show about Halston, the very talented designer and his friend.  Under the big tent, guests were dressed like art installations IMG_0086IMG_0089while the ushers dressed as flight attendants. IMG_0109 The dancers were pure 80′s disco and the surprise guest performer was none other than GloriaIMG_0094 Gaynor herself singing “I will survive”!  It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.  Dancing til dawn in Pittsburgh!  Who would have thunk it.

Fab In Moab

 

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It was a celebration of life in the land of plenty with a plethora of  beautiful ladies. It was Camp Aspen taking it on the road. Yup, the biggest group ever (17 of us!) but we needed every single one to complete the sacred circle of our shared intentions.  I Image 5haven’t been to Moab for at least 10 years and it was callingImage 4 my name for this special 60th birthday feat. A testament to “if you plan it, they will come” combined with “if you turn 60, they will come even further”! So Thank you Sherry for making the combination so magical and bringing in the next generation…your daughters!  And kudos to Moab for bringing in a wonderful new addition to its surreal red rock landscape…the Sorrel River Ranch on the Colorado River.photo

Image 1  Boasting 2 incredible National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands, Moab is an outdoor enthusiasts paradise with a mere population of 5,000. And we took advantage of it all with our trusting guides at Rim who I’ve known forever and who know the drill. It just seemed to come full circle as they sized up our group perfectly and Image 2Image 1allowed us to proceed on a level we were Imagecomfortable. Mike certainly sized up Nancy with his “helping hand” if you look closely at the picture.  From our magnificent day of mountain biking at Dead Horse point to our hike up to Delicate Arch–Moab’s most famous icon– to our Fisher Tower finale, it was a profound experience for all. For some it was a first for everything, but for everyone it was the perfection of the camaraderie of this close-knit group of ladies who shared so beautifully some of life’s Image 4secrets. And no better place to share other than the BAR was in a powerful Lakota sweat lodge in the middle of Castle Valley on someone’s private land.  Karen, our lodge keeper, told us “she was chosen–it was not her choice” to lead scared lodge ceremonies and she was delighted to indulge us in our quest for clarity.  We sat in the womb of the mother and were blessed in the darkness, the heat, the songs, the truths and unspoken secrets released as we prayed and smoked the peace pipe filled photowith tobacco and herbs representing all our earthly relations. Sounds hokey right?  Well it wasn’t.  It was as authentic as it gets and we all made profound connections as we saluted the 7 directions. Us in the center, new beginnings in the east, the innocent in the south, introspection in the west, wisdom in the north, nurturing below, and all for the empowerment from above.  We prayed for EVERYONE with immense gratitude for all our own blessings.  Life takes us on a journey and these bonding experiences make us live in the moment even if it’s out of our box and appreciate nature in its purest form. We laughed a lot, we cried a little, we drank a lot while we ate a little, we hiked, biked, practiced yoga,IMG_2015photo-1 left sarah at the visitor’s station…oops!, lost nancy’s favorite stuff all over I-70, met creepers at Jeffreys, but most important of all is that we created lasting memories that we can draw upon at anytime and it will bring a smile to our face. I honor you all in this circle of life with Image 3me today and always.

All my relations or Mitakuye Oysasin in Native American

 

San Miguel De Allende

photoimagesTravel and Leisure Magazine just rated this beautiful town 3 hours north of Mexico City (driving fast) as the #1 destination spot in 2014.  I wonder what took me so long to experience such authenticity.  Recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and almost 500 years old with its narrow cobblestone streets (leave your high heels behind), leafy courtyards and fine Colonial and Spanish architectural details, San Miquel has become an enclave full of ex-pats, artists, and entrepreneurs seeking the “good life”.  The most famous building in town is the Parroquia de San Miquel, a muiltispired pink limestone towering over the center square. It is a picture postcard.  photoWe crashed both a funeral and a wedding within a day of each other at this gorgeous church.  And being that the town is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains and the weather is often described as “eternal spring” at 6100 feet above sea level, the sunrises and sunsets are quite dramatic…especially at the new Rosewood (where we stayed) rooftop bar “Luna” where you can see forever.  Rich in Mexican culture, there are many weekend festivals and outdoor markets but don’t miss the local market which sells everything from food, phototextiles, jewelry, masks, clothing, tablecloths… you name it they sell it and everything is VERY colorful. The vibrant art (think Frida Khalo)photo and music scene (guitar players photophotoeverywhere), keeps the town humming.  We were there just in time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Fabrica La Aurora which is an art and design center housed in a former textile factory.  San Miguel’s most buzzed about food scene is the farm to table concept with inventive dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.  Dishes like spicy papaya and octopus salad and quail eggs on mustard butter with arugula puree!  I was looking for chips with salsa and guacamole!  photoHiking and biking the 24 blocks of narrow streets, alleys and paths without any traffic lights can be perilous so we headed for the hills not too far out-of-town with a guide of course to feel the pulse of the trails.  Looking forward to bringing my STAT girls back for a visit.photo

Chiang Mai

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And then were 6.  How could we possibly be so far from home and not extend the journey for  4 days in Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. Just a mere connection away from Bangkok, we checked into the lap of luxury at the Four Seasons ChiangMai and that’s when we knew then this was not a STAT trip.  This was a 6 star property 20 minutes removed from the city’s land of a million rice fields and covered with its own manicured level rice fields over thousands of acres. photoIt is a world-class operation with impeccable service and we enjoyed every multiple hour Thai treatment at the spa they offered us.  They even have a photoworld-class cooking school but we were too busy having Thai massages.  We ventured off property only a hand full of times to experience some local flavor.photo   One time to hike the famous waterfall “Doi Suthep and Sankampeang” which was stunning…just look at the picture!  Another to shop of course in the local food and night markets where our guidephotophoto emphatically told us that Thai people eat everything from the ground except cars, everything from the sky except planes and everything from the water except submarines!  We even took in an authentic Muay Thai photoBoxing match in the heart of the city with the locals. That was quite an experience watching women kicking each other in the face for fun.  But a most memorable experience was findingphoto Rose’s yoga Studio and taking a 3 hour class. It was heavenly and it certainly lived up to its name since ChiangMai is often referred to as the Rose of the North for its beauty and spirit.  It’s a very peaceful place to visit and take in the friendly disposition of the Thai people saying Sawatdee (hello) at every passing glance. Spirit houses were everywhere in photoChiang Mai as they serve as a shrine to the protective spirit of the place.  I even tried to buy one to bring home but I don’t think it would go over well in front of my house.  I’ll stick with the mezuzah.photo

Burmese Days

photoThe secret is out.  Virtually overnight, Myanmar is on everyone’s hit list.  When Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “this is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”, he wasn’t kidding.  From the moment we 13 lucky ladies landed in Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar, we knew we were in for the trip of a lifetime.  Upon meeting our extraordinary guides Myo and Joso (you know)photo as we affectionately came to call him, we were completely whisked into our own Burmese Days, radically different from George Orwell’s first novel of the same name published 80 years ago.  Long isolated from the outside world, Myanmar has preserved its rich cultural and religious traditions as we were enchanted on a dailyphoto basis by the exotic temples, pagodas and monasteries and by the beautiful Burmese people who are quick to smile even showing off their betel-stained teeth. Unknown  We observed photohundreds of Buddhist monks clad in orange and men wearing sarong-style longyis and women adorning their faces with Thanaka paste to repel the sun and attract young men… while Alison, our court jester, decided to try the later…not sure how successfully.photo

Our Burmese Days were incredibly active. I’m pretty sure George Orwell didn’t take to the hikingphoto and biking trails.  The terrain was absolutely spectacular. Never have I  biked through a valley with 2217 temples of architectural wonder so visually stunning and thousands of years old photoas we did in Bagan.  And hike through villages filled with school children who were thrilled to see us as Marjorie photoproceeded to give them all her grown children’s coveted beanie babies…those photosmiling faces are unforgettable.      Not only was the trip planned around the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon festival, a spectacular 8 day religious fair that takes place every year in November around the full moon, but it was also planned around the country’s donation festival time.  And so according to plan since an essential part of a STAT journey is a philanthropic element, the STAT girls hosted and funded a novitiational ceremony for 7 boys and 3 girls in collaboration with Arcadia travel (our guides).  Invitations were sent out to the entire village for this special…let’s call it… a Buddhist B’nai Mitzvah.  Entering the monkhood is a rite of passage and they study and prepare for this day as my boys did for their Bar Mitzvah.  Big difference though if you know the story of Buddha, you know that he renounced his wealth giving up all worldly goods including his hair to live a simple yet deeply profound life. photo It was quite a sight to witness the shaving of these boys heads. photo All of us dressed in traditional Burmese garb (gifted to us by our guide Joso’s sweet wife Audrey) and placed in front of the procession carrying silver bowls with flowers and the novice’s new robes,photophotophoto we walked around the entire village causing much fanfare and excitement among the crowds.    What a privileged day.  It was even a privilege to support the sweet locals selling their wares especially our friend the “pants man” who proceeded to follow us everywhere even at sunrise as we drifted high above the clouds in our hot air Balloon over Bagan.

But my heart belongs to the oh so charming Inle Lake,photophotophoto located in the Shan State at 2950 feet above sea level and ringed with mountains and calm crystalline water which supports 64 villages on stilts. Our welcome here was extraordinary as it was all over the country but the experience of the unusual rowing style of the local boatman using one leg while balanced on their sampans was mesmerizing. And just being a passenger on the long out board motor boats through the unique “floating Gardens” was something I will never forget. The untouched beauty is beyond anything I’ve ever seen especially the colorful markets selling ethnic local agricultural produce and handicrafts.photophotophoto

Our 8 day Myanmar adventure was coming to an end as we boarded our flight back to Yangon to spend our last night at the beautiful Governors Mansion.  It seemed like so long ago when our trip began at the most famous site of all, the Shwedagon Golden Pagoda, photophotowhere we were all blessed on the day of our birth. It stands over 300 feet high, covered with 60 tons of gold leaf and topped with a weather vane crowned with 76 carat diamond and encrusted with 3154 gold bells and 79,569 diamonds and other precious stones.  This place of worship and resting place accepts 5000 pilgrims a day and we were 13 of them.photo

Now one week later (still jet lagged) as I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family back home, I am thankful to all my STAT girls (Alison, Gina, Marjorie,Peggy,Natalie,Minnie, Jody,Sonia,Karen,Lisa,Teri, and Monica) for bringing your own special spirit to this magical land of Myanmar and to our guides Myo and Joso (you know) who went above and beyond to make this trip a most memorable one.  I give you all an A.photo

Ciao Bella

The DolomitesEverything is Beautiful and Tastes better in Italy.  Especially in the Fall when the crowds disappear just as the cool temps come in.   Maybe if I were born an Italian, I wouldn’t love the food so much just judging from my dislike of the Jewish cuisine.   For a little over a week, we experienced the country’s diversity like nobody’s business in our rented Mercedes Wagon packed to the gills.  We started in the magnificent jagged Dolomite Mountains, a UNESCO world heritage site, where we were lucky to catch the last weekend before they closed for the season. The Pizzinini family-owned Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano is on my new fav list where the wireless service (when it worked) says it all “life is a mountain not a Beach”. I knew I would love this place. The hotel is attached to 2 star Michelin St. Hubertos featuring grand Chef Norbert IMG_1858IMG_1864who shared his love of cooking with us as well as his passion for local seasonal ingredients.  It was an enormous treat and made our 2 days of hiking worth every calorie.  We were literally in the heart of the Dolomites so very close to both of the well known hikes in the Parco Naturale Fanes region.  One could hike for weeks into CortinaIMG_1032 staying in IMG_1037very comfortable refugios on these well-preserved trails. You could even hike to Venice avoiding the narrow winding driving roads we came into town on.  But we chose to drive and next stop was Lake Garda, the larger but less known, closer and more intimate version of Lake Como minus a George Clooney sighting!  Villa Feltrinelli is a hidden gem perched on the shore of the Lake surrounded by a national park and blessed with mediterranean climate. So Elegant a place that they even fill your toilet nightly with red roses. IMG_1050images-1 Most visitors stroll into the nearby village or curl up by the pool and read a book by local famous former resident DH Laurence but of course we are not most.  We proceeded to use up our only day here getting lost on the picturesque hike up in the mountain towns where the lemons are as big as grapefruits only to get back just in time for our afternoon golf game on an official goat track! IMG_1882 On the road again looking like the Jeffersons with our GPS feeling romantic heading to Verona en route to Venice.   Even though I hear that Juliet’s much-visited balcony has no historical connection to Shakespeare’s characters, it still remains romantic and worth a stop to see even if the cobblestone streets lined with medieval pink-hued buildings and dozens of churches are over run by tourists.  And so it goes, lunch was delicious and our car was still there with all our stuff when we got back minus a ticket. By this time in our journey,  I was looking forward to the sounds of lapping water on the quay and the gondoliers operatic singing and the chug of a vaporetto buzzing by the Grand Canal.  I haven’t been to Venice since my youngest was Bar Mitzvahed in the old Jewish section and I’ve never been to the Bieannale, the once every 2 year Art Extravaganza.  A World’s fair of Art from live performances to off site installations all over town with every country represented but nothing for sale. IMG_1096The private IMG_1066collections are extraordinary especially the Pinault at his very own exquisite Punta della Dogana and his Rudolf Stingels at Palazzo Grassi. We were especially blessed to have had a private tour of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection and their newly acquired Schulhof gallery.    Mega Walking in Venice is essential but walking in the Arsenal and Giardini is exhausting so you need to pace yourself…even if just to sit and enjoy an installation of an outdoor drive-in movie. IMG_0661  There are no staight lines in Venice with streets so narrow with so many bridges to cross. UnknownAnd everyone is carrying a map so don’t bother asking directions.  After 4 days of taking to the streets while staying in 3 different hotels, I feel intimate with Venice especially on our last night in Villa F, a very special place often referred to as “soho of the lagoon” because it was frequented by artists and the bon vivant but more interesting is that it used to house the courtesan’s in the 16th century.  This was a perfect ending to a most excellent Italian adventure.  As long as the Felsons keep saying Yes, we will keep on creating memories together.IMG_1900

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