Archive for the ‘About Obie’ Category

Two Weeks in Italy

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Como and Tuscany, October 2019

I’ve been to Italy more than a half dozen times with family and friends, and it’s always been great.  It’s just a happy place.  How can it not be with the vast trove of art, excellent food, amazing views, great people and astounding architecture.  The last time I was in Tuscany was 2014.  There is a write up about that trip buried about 10 postings back, so I won’t repeat myself with any of the background information.  I will include highlights of the trip chronologically with some favorite photos in between.  I got an iPhone 11 Pro just before I left for the trip and I took thousands of amazing photos.  I cut them down to about a hundred of the ones I felt were either unusual, culturally interesting or just plain beautiful.

I will try to include names of the places we visited in case anyone wants to put a similar trip together.  We did the whole trip by car.  Yes, it takes a bit of getting used to . . . the tolls, narrow roads, and those crazy drivers that pass you going over 150 km/hr.  But it gave us the ability to change our plans on a daily basis if we wanted to spend more or less time in a specific town.  Thank you Google maps and GPS.

This time, including my wife and family members and friends, there were 6 of us on the excursion.  We flew into Milan and drove to the Lake Como area.   After flying all night, it was a bit of a white-knuckle drive into the mountains on VERY narrow streets, many with stone walls on both sides.   We stayed in Bellagio at the hotel Fioroni.  It was a good location just about a mile away from the town center, where the ferries stopped.  About all we could handle the first evening was a stroll and a great meal at an open-air, waterside restaurant.  Now that I think of it more than 75% of our meals were Al Fresco.  We went the second half of October so the crowds were gone, the weather was pleasantly cool and we lucked out with very little rain.

The Como area is at the foothills of the alps which provide an amazing backdrop for the views.  The area has been a favorite vacation spot and retreat since Roman times.   Lake Como is glacial and shaped like an inverted “V”.  It is about 30 miles long, very deep >1300 feet and quite clear with the bottom of the lake >600 feet below sea level.  The deep valley and lake make the climate more temperate than the surrounding area.  Ferries zig-zag across the lake between a number of interesting towns.  We got hop-on hop-off all-day ferry passes, a very convenient way to visit all the towns.  Day two we were able to visit all the towns on the upper half of the lake:  Varenna, Menaggio, Lenno, and Tremezzo where there is a nice museum and gardens at the Villa Carolotta.   Yes, that is a lot of towns for one day, but our day didn’t seem rushed, the ferries are frequent, and the towns are small.

The next day was a travel day with rain all day so we didn’t waste any good weather.   We stayed the next five days in Tuscany at The Villa de Fabbiolle, 34, in Impurneta.  It is on about 50 acres back a one lane road, quiet and restful. Restoration was performed from about 2000 to 2015 by the family who has owned it for a number of generations.  There is a full kitchen, inside/outside sitting rooms, five bedrooms, washer/drier, etc.  The three-foot-wide foundations go back to the 1200’s and the old section of the building dates to the 14th century.  The fireplace, roof, timbers and patio were added in the 1600’s.  The first evening the owners treated us to a great five course dinner.

Of course, Tuscany is known for the tall, cypress trees that come in two types, skinny and not so skinny.  Another symbol of Tuscany is the wild boar.  You can see boar’s heads as decorations in many of the small souvenir and food stores.  We were told that there are more than a million boars in Tuscany.  They hunt them in the winter trying to keep them under control as they are a scourge for the wineries since they like to eat the grapes.

Impurneta is central to some very important hill towns in Tuscany.  That’s why we used it as our base for 5-6 days.  On one side of the central square is the Basilica de Santa Maria, the Sanctuary of Santa Maria. The Basilica dates from 1060.  It was bombed out by the Allies in 1944 during WWII but is nicely restored and worth a visit.

The next morning, we were off early to Siena.  I had visited Siena on my previous trip but it’s a city one doesn’t tire of.  We parked near the sports stadium and took an endless set of escalators up to the old town where there are a number of very nice museums and churches.  I enjoyed eating again at the huge Piazza del Campo Pubblico.  I even spent some time people watching from a second story bistro.   The most impressive Duomo is the Romanesque-Gothic Siena Cathedral di Santa Maria, something not to miss.

We hired a driver for our next day of wine tastings.  Our first stop was the nicely restored hill town of San Gimignano.  The impressive Cathedral, Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, has the Santa Fina Chapel to the right side with frescoes entirely lining the walls.  They depict stories of the old and new testaments and were painted by illustrious artists of the Sienese School of the 14th century, notably Domenico Ghirlandaio.  The chapel also houses a number of relics of Saint (Sera) Fina.  I was amazed all week by the meticulous detailed restorations everywhere you look in every town. 

Our next stop was the family owned and operated Castello Monterinaldi winery.  We had a very nice lunch and tasting followed by a very interesting tour.  The grape harvest was only a week or two before so they were in the fermentation step.  This winery first just de-stems the grapes and puts them into cement fermentation tanks.  The grapes are gently crushed as the must is pumped out and back into the tanks every few days.  They were also experimenting with ceramic fermentation tanks, they called it old school.  Aging is of course in Oak.  

We then stopped at another family owned winery, the Casa Emma Vineyard.  The vineyard was bought in the 70’ss by Fiorella Lepri and named in honor of the previous owner, Emma Bizzarri.  Their methods were similar to what I have seen in California with large stainless-steel equipment for crushing and fermentation.  They were in the process of replanting some of their grape vines.  They remove the vines after about 50 years when the yields fall and then it takes about 5-6 years for the new vines to produce.  They were replanting some fields with Merlot and Cabernet.  As with most wineries they have olive trees and make olive oil as well as wine.

Sangiovese grapes can, of course, be grown anywhere but only Sangiovese grown in Tuscany can be called Chianti.  Chianti or Super Tuscany carries no specific rules. However Chianti Classico Appellation DOCG is covered by rules set up in 1714 and must be 80% Sangiovese grown in Tuscany.  The Classico always has a black rooster on the bottle neck which is the symbol of the whole Chianti area.

We noticed there were as many olive orchards as grape vineyards.  It turns out olives combines well with wine making.  Harvests and processing alternate and we saw them starting to pick olives while the wine was fermenting and aging.  Olives can be pressed immediately for oil but for eating the olives have to be soaked in water for 30-60 days, changing water weekly.  Then soaked in salt water for 30-60 days, changing salt water weekly.  I’m sure there is much more to it than that. 

The next day we drove to the tram that took us to the Frienze train station, within walking distance of the old town.  What can you (not) say about Frienze?….Cathedral de Santa Maria del Fiore, The David, Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Repubblica….the cradle of the Renaissance, and of course, Ponte Vecchio, the medieval bridge over the Arno river, now home to jewelers, and art dealers.  There are so many churches and museums that a week couldn’t do it justice.  The Uffizi was overwhelming to me.  I took so many photos of amazing renaissance paintings and statues that it was numbing.  I started going through the galleries faster and faster just to make it out!!!!  The statues in the Plazzo Vecchio are a treat.   When we got back to the Duomo the sun was setting and the photos of the sunlight on the upper part of the structure were amazing.  The inside was equally remarkable.  We had dinner al fresco facing the front of the Cathedral.

We took a break from our hectic pace by next visiting a small hill town, Fiesole, several miles North of Frienze.  We had a beautiful view of the whole valley and the Domo in the distance.  There is a very nice restored church in the town but the real attraction for me was the Convento San Francesco, the San Francisco Monastery, founded in 1399.  The monastery is a long walk to the top of the hill.  For me the tiny semi-restored rooms that the monks lived and prayed in were most interesting.  The rooms had a small wooden plank bed on the one side and a desk or alter on the other side, and that’s it!  You could just imagine what it was like for them 600 years ago.

Next on our agenda was the town of Assisi, home to Saint Francis and Saint Clare.  It lies in the Umbria region of the province of Perugia.  My best overall description of Assisi is a hill town on steroids.  It’s huge and has seemingly countless Churches and Basilicas.  We drove right into the heart of the old part of the city and since it was off season at the last minute we were able to get rooms at the beautiful Hotel Giotto Assisi, Via Fontebella, built in 1899.  On our first day there we visited about 6 churches; mind boggling.  The most memorable was the 13th century Saint Clare, Basilica de Santa Chiara, with a beautiful pink and white façade.  The Basilica also contains the remains of Saint Clare.

The next day was simply amazing.  First was the Saint Francis Cathedral and Monastery consecrated in 1253.  Its 13th-century frescoes portray the life of St. Francis and are attributed to Giotto and Cimabue.  It’s actually two massive churches one built orthogonally on top of the other.  You don’t realize there is another church above you when you are in the bottom one, The public is not permitted in the massive Monastery.  Monks are everywhere.

We next drove to the nearby town of Santa Maria to see the Church of Devine Marie of the Angels, built in the 16th century.  It is famous for the “church within a church” or the Porziuncola which dates to the 9th century and is the church where St Francis founded the Franciscan movement.  It is actually a tiny church inside the huge Basilica and many priests were inside praying.

My final remembrance of Assisi was the massive Rocca Maggiore which is built at the very highest point of the town.  It is a partially restored, 14th century castle built atop the ruins of a Roman fort.  I can’t imagine building such a structure so long ago at such an inaccessible location.  Somehow, we found a one lane, harrowing road to the top.  You can look down at the many sights of Assisi through the actual narrow “windows” that were used to shoot arrows at anyone foolish enough to attack.

One of the most remarkable happenings was saved for the next to the last day.  My wife wanted to get the birth and marriage certificates of her great grandparents who immigrated to the USA around 1900.  They came from a small mountain town called Berceto which is in the Apennine Mountains in the Emilia-Romagna region.  I have to say I was skeptical of a positive outcome since little preparation had been made.  We arrived on the afternoon of October 31, in heavy, heavy fog earlier than planned.

We found out from the innkeeper where we were staying that the town records building would be closed the next day for All Saints Day.  We hurried over to the municipal building to find a small room surrounded by closets and shelves filled with very old hand-written journals and a man who really knew his job.  After pouring through these hundred-year-old records for about an hour he miraculously produced the birth and marriage records for her great grandparents!   He efficiently typed the information into his computer and produced official records, along with copies from the old records, with the town stamp for all three documents.  The next stop was the church and the actual alter where they were married.  Amazing!!!

On our last day we stopped in Parma and visited the Duomo with its amazing illusionistic fresco of the assumption by Antonio da Correggio.  It is believed to be built on the site of a Basilica from around 600.  The church construction started in 1059, but the structure received heavy damage caused by a powerful earthquake in 1117 and had to be rebuilt.

Back from our trip, we enjoyed the famous dried ham sausages, cheeses, wine and olive oil. It was a wonderful trip that we will always remember.

Well those are the highlights of our trip.  As I mentioned I could only include a small fraction of  the marvelous photos I took during the trip.  I have provided very short captions with the location or name.  It was very hard for me to pick out the most special part of the trip.  Perhaps the Roman ruin at the top of Assisi?  Or the Monk’s tiny living quarters of the Convento San Francesco in Fiesole?  Or obtaining the >100-year-old birth and marriage records?  Or one of the other amazing finds?   That is the mark of a special trip, many favorites. This was about my 8th trip to Italy and all have been great.  Italy is filled with amazing art and architecture, great food and as I always say, happy people.

Ralph Obenauf 4/2020

Galapagos Archipelago Excursion 12/15-22/18

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

I have been enchanted by the Galapagos Islands all my life.  It was high on my bucket list but as you can imagine not an easy check off.  The opportunity came this past December when a group of relatives, friends and extended family, 17 of us in all, signed up for a Celebrity cruise on the Experience.  It was a very small cruise boat, about 38 passengers and 34 crew, and an older boat that is going to be retired later this year and replaced by one that holds about 200 passengers.  

There are no large cruise boats permitted in the islands.  I’m sure this is due to maneuverability and to protect the environment.  I was very glad that we were able to go on this small boat as the experience was more informal and we were able to quickly get to know every one of the crew and passengers, a larger boat would not have the same feel.  Naturalists were with us all the time to answer any questions and make sure no rules were broken.  The experience was so broad and mind boggling that I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts so please forgive my ramblings. 

The Galapagos archipelago is a cluster of about twenty volcanic islands and more than a hundred islets totaling 3000 square miles.  They are just less than 600 miles West of the coast of Ecuador and right on the equator.  They are formed by volcanoes from the Galapagos hotspot, a volcanic plume from the jointure of three tectonic plates.  The oldest islands are more than 4 million years old and are disappearing back into the sea as they “drift” to the East.  The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed.  The archipelago was discovered by the Spanish in 1535 when a ship on its way from Panama to Peru was dragged there by converging ocean currents. 

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries pirates visited the Galapagos followed by whalers who stopped in the Galapagos through the 1800’s and captured over 100,000 of the giant tortoises for food.  In a few areas you can still see the names of the sailors and their ships that they painted on the cliffs many years ago.   

Ecuador declared the Galapagos a protected national park in 1959 and they have been working to restore much of the archipelago to their original condition.  It is a World Heritage Site, a Biological Marine Reserve and a Whale Sanctuary.  Today there are only about 20,000 – 30,000 inhabitants, half of which live on the Island of Santa Cruz.  Most of the islands/islets are uninhabited.  The park is very carefully controlled.  The government is doing a remarkable job of this difficult task protecting the environment of this special place and trying to restore it to its original state where possible.  You cannot visit without a permit and you cannot go on land unless accompanied by a government “naturalist”.  The only (small) docks I saw were on the island of Santa Cruz, so tourists are taken to shore in rigid inflatable boats, Zodiacs.  Imagine walking down stairs on the side of the cruise boat and getting into the Zodiac while it’s rocking in the waves, then repeating it to scramble onto the volcanic rocks. It’s difficult for me to put my experience into words.  Simply, it was far beyond my expectations: very educational, physically demanding, and rewarding…stunning.  Of course, the big draw is the animals.  And not only are they remarkable by their diversity but they have no fear of humans.  You could just touch most of them any time you wanted to, but the rule is that you cannot touch any living thing, any time.  Imagine sitting on a bench or rock within inches of a 500-pound sea lion, or walking right up to a frigate bird, or snorkeling with a penguin.  They have no fear of humans because for eons they have (mostly) not been harmed or touched.  Of course, to discuss all the different animals I saw is well beyond the scope of this posting but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Different islands seemed to have more of a particular animal.  The tortoises were limited to those islands with enough vegetation for them to eat, but certain tortoise species evolved on specific islands with traits adapted to the plants there.  Other islands had lots of iguanas, others had sea lions, penguins, boobys, Nazca boobys, great frigates, cormorants, Darwin’s finches, storm petrels, etc. and lizards everywhere.   

Another thing that struck me was how tough it must be to live there.  There are four ocean currents that converge in the area: The Cromwell, Equatorial, Humboldt, and Panama creating different temperatures and unpredictable tides.  While there are plenty of fish for the sea birds and sea lions, the land is mostly barren volcanic rock except for the larger, older islands.  The islands are a small land mass and therefore mostly arid and are isolated 600 miles out in the Pacific Ocean.  It is easy to see why many of the animals have evolved to fit their environment and many are only native to this strange place.  Some of the most notable of these are the algae eating marine iguanas and the flightless cormorants and let’s not forget the fifteen species of giant tortoises.  The plants and insects seemed to be unique as well: the few flowers are mostly yellow and a few white; of the few insects I saw were an unusual black bumblebee and a colorful striped grasshopper.  

The exploration got off to a fast start the first evening in Black Turtle Cove where we must have seen over a hundred Pacific sea turtles, many of them mating.  The next morning was a snorkel off the beach.  I was in the water for about 5 minutes when an adult sea lion came out of nowhere right up to my face to say hello.  I have to say it was unnerving.  A hike on another island went along a path that was well worn by the tortoises.  We were thrilled to see one of the magnificent animals.  But after seeing 50 more on the trail it seemed common place.  And it was their trail, you had to get out of their way.  On another hike it was through bird country: boobys, frigates, owls everywhere right along the trail and in the trees along the sides, sitting on eggs and chicks right on the ground, astounding.  Other hikes were on barren volcanic islands inhabited with countless sea lions, iguanas crabs and lizards.  All living together with no fear of humans. 

I’ll relate one last experience that was for me the most astounding thing I saw. On December 18 off the coast of Isabella Island near Urvina Bay we were cruising in the Zodiac when an orca larger than a bus surfaced about 30 feet in front of the boat.  It had a 300-pound sea turtle in its mouth which it flipped in the air before chomping down.  The birds finished off the bits and pieces.  We got out of the orca’s way and were along a sheer rock wall when steam and smoke shot out near the water line reminding us that this was an active volcanic island.  It was time to go back to the boat.

The boat stopped at about two locations every day.  Following is a brief synopsis of the itinerary:

  • Saturday, 12/15
    • Fly to Baltra, Galapagos from Quito
    • Zodiac ride through Black Turtle Cove, many pacific sea turtles
  • Sunday, 12/16
    • Rabida and Egas Port, Galapagos: snorkel and hike
  • Monday, 12/17
    • Tagus Cove, Isabella and Espinoza Point,
    • Fernandina: Zodiac and Darwin Lake, snorkel, lava field hike, hawks, whale bones
  • Tuesday, 12/18
    • Urvina Bay, Isabella and Vincente Roca Point: zodiac, snorkel, hike, tortoise, orcas
  • Wednesday, 12/19
    • Bartolome Island and Las Bachas, Santa Cruz, Daphne Island circumnavigation
  • Thursday 12/20
    • El Barranco, Genovesa
    • Darwin Bay: boobies, frigates, owls, mockingbirds, Prince Phillips Steps
  • Friday 12/21
    • Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Darwin research center, Tortoises
  • Saturday 12/22
    • Arrive back in Baltra, Galapagos
    • Fly back to Quito

Below are photos with a short caption on each for identification.  I apologize if they are not National Geographic quality…..but they are MINE!

Ralph Obenauf February 8, 2019

Jalapeño Pepper Relish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

One of my favorite restaurants/bars in Saint Petersburg, FL is O’Maddy’s, on the water in Gulf Port.  Just about every time I eat there I get the fish spread appetizer which they serve with a great jalapeño pepper relish.  I decided to try my hand at making my own.  It took a number of trials and modifications but I think I have it down now, see below.   O’Maddy’s relish is not canned or cooked but served fresh.  My recipe is for a preserved relish so the peppers are “cooked” in the preserving process and therefore have a slightly different appearance, but the jalapeño flavor shines through.  It has a kick but is not overpowering.   Of course, the “heat” depends on the batch of peppers you have which can vary greatly.  The relish makes a great topping for dogs, burgers, sandwiches and salads as well as fish.


  • 30 Jalapeño peppers
  • 2 Cups Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 2 Cups Water
  • 2 Cups sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 Teaspoon ground peppercorns
  • 2 Teaspoons ground cumin seed
  • 2 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Start by washing and cutting the stems off the peppers, then slice and remove the seeds.   Put the peppers through a food processer to obtain fine pieces.  Put back in the processer in batches that half fill the processer and puree.

Pour the vinegar, water, sugar, salt and spices into a large pot.  Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste the brine before it gets too hot and adjust the ingredients to your taste.  Add the pureed Jalapeños and return to a boil.  Turn off the heat and allow relish to steep for at least an hour.

Place the canning jars and lids in simmering/boiling water for 5-10 minutes for sterilization then let them cool until ready to fill.  Fill the jars with the jalapeño relish to within 1/4 inch of the top.  I like to leave just a bit of the “broth” on the top.   Put on the lids and screw the tops on just hand tight.  Place the jars in water and bring the water to a simmering boil for ten minutes.  Remove the jars from the boiling water and set on a towel to cool, then tighten the lids.  Make sure you hear a “ping” from each jar assuring a good seal.

Makes about dozen 4oz jars.

RO 11/16

Cuba, Habana: People to People trip, Oct. 2016

Monday, October 31st, 2016

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I’ve wanted to visit Cuba for a long time.  I love the music and the food, and the old repaired/modified cars fascinate me.  I find Cuban people to be smart and industrious.  In short, I wanted to learn more about Cuba’s culture and the country which has been unavailable to people of the US since 1960.  Having lived through the Cuban/US missile crisis, Bay-of-Pigs, etc. I’ve always been intrigued by this island only 90-miles from the US.   With the trade and travel restrictions being relaxed I knew I had to go soon before it changed forever.

Our daughter-in-law, Megan, is entirely responsible for making this happen. She did an amazing job that made the trip exceed all of our expectations.  Megan has been taking Spanish lessons for several years and through her Cuban and travel agency contacts she learned how to navigate the system to get us People-to-People visas. She also secured the lodging and events necessary to uphold the particulars of our visa.  While you can hire translators, Megan was our designated interpreter.  She did a fabulous job of translating and engaging many Cubans to give us an authentic, amazing experience.  It was a stress free experience considering I don’t know any Spanish.  We got to see and do everything we wanted to within the confines of a 1-week visit.

I have to admit that as the date approached I was somewhat apprehensive about the trip.  This was surprising to me as I’m a seasoned traveler having visited many countries.  People told me that they heard about unsavory experiences . . . robberies, panhandlers, prostitutes, bad water, shortages, trouble getting around and trouble communicating.  As it turned out while there are shortages, our entire experience was positive.  People knew we were from the US, but they were friendly and helpful. We were comfortable wherever we went, but we didn’t go anywhere that a smart traveler would avoid.  We mingled with the people of Cuba, visited their landmarks, etc.  For me it was taking a step back to my youth. It was like the 1950’s in Pittsburgh. . .soot spewing from the steel mills, kids enjoying a pick-up ballgame in alleyways, people gathering on their front steps and street corners to converse with their neighbors.  Perhaps because of the nostalgia the trip was beyond my expectations, one of the most interesting experiences of my life.  And incidentally the restrictions on bringing tobacco and rum back to the USA were lifted two days before we left.

We never felt threatened, including by the police and military, who stood around in pairs here and there but were low key.   Images, statues and references to the three main revolutionaries: Fidel Castro, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guavero, and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere but we didn’t see any demonstrations or speeches.  When we asked our driver when the revolution ended he simply replied “It’s still going on”.

building-crumbling-1_img_0283_1024The population of Cuba is about 11 million, and 25% of them live in Habana.  The city is like a faded rose.  You can imagine how beautiful the colonial architecture (in Havana Vieja/Old Town) was back in the early 1900’s.  But many of the facades are broken and falling down.  If you look through a broken window you might see the beautiful building is completely collapsed inside.  I would say that half the buildings are beyond restoration…what a shame!  While once majestic, beautiful architecture like you would find in major cities, the buildings are now dirty and in disrepair. Many structures have been converted for multiple family use.  Clearly they have no means to restore them. See the photos below. None-the-less, we loved walking and driving around and taking it all in.

The Miramar area is where many of the Embassies are. Again, the buildings in this area, while mansion-like, are dirty and in need of repair.  We visited Marina Hemingway, and our driver pointed out the difference between Cuban boats (small and old) and American/Foreigner boats (er, yachts!). We were only able to find a food market to visit at the Marina.  Food markets from our perspective are scarce. The market we visited, while sizable had very little food to sell. Entire rows were populated with the same item, over and over again.

hotel-national-_img_1042_1024The first three days we stayed in a bnb in Centro Havana, on the sixth floor overlooking Malecón (infamous sidewalk in Havana) and directly on the Ocean.  It was operated by two retired sisters.  They were delightful, providing us an amazing breakfast and being most accommodating in every way.  Their home again reminded me of my home in the 1950’s, not fancy but very neat and clean.  The Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where we stayed the last three nights, is iconic.  It’s considered a monument of Habana;  it’s classy, well kept. . . just what you would imagine a top 1950’s hotel to be.  There were a few upgrades since it was built around 1930, but all in keeping with the original building.  Imagine many coats of paint on the woodwork, old style but good quality bathroom fixtures, old but well-kept furnishings, period elevators with brass mailboxes, etc.  It was built to resemble The Breakers in Palm Beach Florida.  There is a beautiful outdoor garden to the rear overlooking the water.  We were told the best hotels in Habana are: Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Hotel Saratoga, Iberostar Parque Central Hotel and Iberostar Miramar.

I didn’t know what to expect concerning the economy.  I’d never been in a communist country before.  Cuba operates on a dual currency basis.  The Cuban Peso (CUP) is for internal use only and is also called Moneda Nacional ($MN).  It cannot be exchanged.  The other currency is a Cuban Convertible Peso, CUC, which is exchangeable.  One CUC is around 26 CUP (MN).  Fun fact, CUPs have portraits and CUCs show buildings which is how you can easily differentiate the currencies.

We were advised to take Euros for exchange because Pounds and Dollars are not wanted…..boy was that good advice……and take enough for your whole trip.  We exchanged for a LOT of CUCs before we left and took a LOT of Euros as well.

The surprise to me was that it is a completely cash-based economy.  Imagine no credit or debit cards, no ATM’s, no checking accounts, no US based cell phone availability.  There were lines more than a block long to get into Western Union or a bank, or the telephone company.  Everybody was hustling.  We were told a cigar roller’s wages were about 22 $MN a month, a teacher 26 $MN and a doctor gets about 36 $MN per month, which is equivalent to $1 to $1.5 USD per month! Of course, the citizens of Cuba enjoy free healthcare, food and housing provided by the government.  People go to special government locations to pick-up their monthly allotment of food.  They supplement this with purchases from farmer’s markets, etc.    In addition to their salary, many Cubans hustle to earn extra money.  People sell water, etc. from the front steps of their homes to tourists, etc.

While most Cubans now have cell phones, the internet remains hard to come by.  In 2008, Raul first permitted Cuban locals to have access to cell phones.  It was only in 2015 that he opened the first public wi-fi spots in 35 locations.  To be granted access, you must buy an internet card that allows for just one hour of connection time.  Most hotels sell access cards where they have hot spots. But you would be walking the streets and come to an intersection with a hundred (younger) people standing and sitting around in the street with their phones…. all on the internet.  They knew where the hot spots were.

thumb_img_1055_1024OMG THE CARS!!!  If you know me, you know I’m an old car fan and I’ve restored several of them.  I was in awe of the way Cubans have kept the old 50’s US cars on the road with little or no access to US parts.  Just look at the photos below. I had seen photos of the Habana cars but before we went I thought there were only a few.  To an old car lover it’s mind boggling.  I would estimate that in the Habana area 30% to 35% of the cars are old US cars mainly from the 50’s.

A lot of them are taxis that the drivers use for their livelihood.  Many are held together with miscellaneous parts and bondo.  But while they wouldn’t be of the same quality as collector cars in the US, some look pretty good from 25 at least feet away.  I would guess that 50% still have the original engine but the others do not.  For example, we drove around all week in a 1956 Chevy Special completely rolled and pleated inside, but with a 5 cylinder 2006 Mercedes diesel engine and a 4 shifter on the column.  How did he do that?  And our driver’s other car was a 1953 Chevy Belair with a Mercedes diesel engine.

OMG THE MUSIC!!!  I’ve always liked Cuban music.  It ranges from salsa to Afro-Cuban jazz.  It seemed like half of the people either sang, played an instrument or both.  See the photos below.  I would spend half the day wandering the streets in Old Town going from bar to bar having a cerveza in each (wine is somewhat limited as it all has to be imported) and listening to the band until they went on intermission.  It reminded me of Nashville.

music-omg-2_img_0737_1024I was surprised to discover a type of guitar I had never seen before.  The Tres is a guitar-like three course chordophone of Cuban origin.  Its sound is a defining characteristic of the Cuban sound.  It has six strings: two strings each tuned (in “C” major) to “E”, “C” and “G” with the two “G” strings tuned an octave apart.  More recently some musicians are tuning the Tres a step higher (in “D” major) to “F”, “D” and “A”.

grocery-national-store_img_0265_1024The food was also special; we ate at some excellent restaurants that a tourist would never find.  While Fidel was in power restaurant signage was prohibited.  Most Cubans never ate out, as their monthly stipends covered their food need.  Today there are some signs, but it’s still not usual.  Instead, we relied on our driver and the sisters to give us good recommendations that weren’t in the US tour books.  We were never disappointed.

cigars-_img_0565_1024CIGARS!!!  While I’m not a smoker, I might now know more about cigars than most cigar smokers.  We toured both a tobacco farm and a cigar factory.  See the photos below.  The rolling factory had 550 workers wrapping for 9 hours a day.  That is a lot of cigars!  They plant the (tiny, tiny seeds) tobacco early in the year when it is drier and it takes about four months for the plants to mature.  Thus there were no plants drying in the barn when we were there.

They strip the middle vein out of each leaf before rolling.  This vein contains 90% of the nicotine and would make the cigar way too strong.  The position of the leaf on the stalk makes the taste stronger or weaker therefore they can make different types of cigars by using different blends of leaves.  It takes about five leaves to make a ½” blunt.  After rolling and putting on an inner wrapper, they press the cigar in a mold for several hours, then put on the outer wrapper, “fermented”, so it is smoother and flexible.  All by hand.  I couldn’t believe how smooth and exact in size they all were since they are all hand made.  When ready to smoke the end is cut off then dipped in honey before lighting.  Some of the commercial cigars are flavored with rum, cinnamon, etc.

donky-cart-img_0912_1024As I mentioned we were on a “People to People” Visa so we could get to know Cubans and they know us.  We took along a lot of candy, NFL caps, baseball cards, pennants, little league shirts with team logos, etc. and handed it all out, mainly to the children playing in the streets and parks.  We got to know three Cubans quite well: the two sisters who ran the bnb and our driver.  Perhaps the most important thing I returned from Cuba with is that several Cubans who we grew to know well told us to “kiss the ground” when we got back to the USA…. I did.

La Yuma, The American,




Places to See:

  • Havana Vieja -  Old Town, great for walking around and listening to bands
  • Viñales- The “Grand Canyon” of Cuba
  • A tobacco farm in Viñales- Where most cigar tobacco plant leaves come from.
  • La Fortaleza- Canon firing ceremony every night at 9p
  • Revolution Square- Where Fidel addressed the people of Cuba
  • The “Forest of Habana”
  • Beach Tropicoco
  • Fusterlandia- a neighborhood modeled after Antonio Gaudi of Barcelona.


Things to do:

  • Buena Vista Social Club- a Cuban show that has been playing for 70 years!
  • Tropicana- Famous Cuban Cabaret
  • Revolution Museum (not terribly impressive)
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Cuban)
  • La Finca Vigía – Hemingway’s home in Cuba
  • Partagas cigar Factory


Where to eat:

  • El Gijones – located on Paseo del Prado.
  • Los Dos Hermanos – Named after Fidel and Hemingway.  Only open for lunch.  We had Cuban sandwiches.
  • La Fontana –  We ate the most amazing seafood carpaccio here!  Great food!
  • Paladar Vistamar- A wonderful restaurant in Miramar, in the second story of a Cuban house, directly on the Ocean.  Great food and views!
  • Many tapas restaurants/bars in Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas and on the pedestrian street Obispo, all in Old Town.


My favorite thing to do by far:

Havana Vieja -  Old Town, walk around, listen to bands, and check out the old cars.


See my previous post for even more photos.

Habana, Cuba

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Below are photos selected from the many I took during my visit to Habana, Cuba October 17-23, 2016. I plan on posting my observations and experiences from the trip, but I wanted to get some photos up quickly.

Yes, the photos are very heavy on old cars and music, which is what one would expect for memories of Habana. And yes, these also just happen to be two of my top interests. I’ve included some photos on cigars, the revolution, and the Gaudi-like mosaics in the Fusterlandia area. At the end are miscellaneous shots from all around the area.

I hope that you will enjoy browsing through them as much as I enjoyed taking them. And I’m sure Habana will not look like this for long.

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Architecture / Sights

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RHO 10/16

Mount Massive Climb Nov 3, 1988

Monday, August 1st, 2016


The headline in the November 4, 1988 edition of the Rocky Mountain News read “Was it big medicine or just another snow job?” That year it was the beginning of November and there hadn’t been any significant snow fall yet. So understandably the ski resorts were getting concerned. One resort, Copper Mountain, had employed a medicine man to pray for good (concert) weather in the past so they called on him this time for snow. Marcellus Bear Heart Williams, a Muskogee Indian medicine man from Rio Rancho NM, arrived at the ski resort on the morning of November 3. He chanted, drummed, prayed and smoked his pipe and lo and behold within minutes the snow started falling!!!!! He commented “Perhaps the spirit of an Ute hunter did come by and hit the width of my mouth with a feather.”


Now you might ask:  Why did this matter to me?  Well that morning two of my friends, Richard and Pete (first names only to protect the innocent) and I started hiking Mount Massive (Sawatch Range) which at 14,429 feet is the second highest summit of the Rocky Mountains.  We decided to go because there was no snow and started off with a beautiful blue sky morning.  But when we were well above the tree line the snow started and it just got heavier and heavier until we had to stay within 2-3 feet of each other just to maintain visual contact.



Finally, within 500-1000 feet of the summit (according to Pete’s altimeter) I made an executive decision “Let’s get the $%*! off this mountain!” to turn back.  Thank goodness.  At that point there was no chance of seeing the trail, all we could do was just head downhill and then parallel the tree line until we found a trail.  I remember trudging along for the last stretch, by then at dusk, for over an hour.  None of us said a word and all you could hear were the crunching of our steps in the snow.  It was tense and scary.  But fortunately we did find the right trail head and our car just as it was getting too dark to see anything.  We could have easily gotten lost and been found in the Spring.  Back then there were no GPS devices or cell phones of course.  It was perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to dying and is a reminder to me just how quickly one can go from really good to really bad.

Richard and Obie shortly before we decided to turn back.

Chicken Liver Pate

Friday, May 20th, 2016

Takes less than 30 minutes, makes 2 cups

I have had this recipe typed up for a long time.  I haven’t posted it because it is special to me and I was not sure I wanted to share it…..HA!  Not only is it one of my favorite appetizers, but it dates back to when I was in school and it was given to me by my advisor and his wife.  I know not everyone likes liver and while it’s high in cholesterol, it is also loaded with minerals and protein.  If you like liver this pate is to die for.  Give me a pound of it, crackers, and a football game and I’m all set.  Even if you don’t care for liver you should try this “winner”.


  • 1/2 lb chicken livers
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 2 hard boiled eggs
  • 1/2 cup finely chipped onions
  • 1 tsp chicken fat or butter
  • Salt & pepper


Simmer the livers in broth until done, takes about 8-10 minutes.  Drain but save the broth.  Grind livers and eggs with some broth in a food chopper or blender.

Saute onions in fat or butter until light brown.  Blend all ingredients into a paste, adding broth until desired consistency is reached.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

That’s it!!!

The pate thickens on standing and refrigeration.  Consistency can be adjusted by adding chicken stock for dipping with crackers, or spreading on thin squares of rye or other bread.

RO 6-15

SPEX 60th Anniversary Wines Win Gold and Silver Medals!

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

SPEX 60th Anniversary Wine Awards

SPEX 60th Anniversary Wines Win Gold and Silver Medals!!!

The SPEX 60th anniversary wines were entered in the wine making competition sponsored by “Wine Maker International Magazine”. There were about 50 different categories ranging from various whites to many different reds to sparkling wines. In total there were thousands of entries.

I’m proud to announce that our wines won two awards:

SPEX 2013 Chilean Merlot won a gold medal, the highest award, in the Merlot Category

SPEX 2013 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon won a silver medal in the highly competitive Cabernet Sauvignon Category

Obie’s Wines: 2002 – 2014

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Obies Wines: 2002 - 2014

# Wine Grapes Blend Vintage Year Origin # Gallons Comments
47 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 70%-30% 2013 Chile 60 SPEX Wine
46 Cabernet Sauvignon --- 2014 California 60  
45 Nebbiola-Barbara-P Sirah 50%-40%-10% 2014 California 60 Barolo
44 Malbec --- 2013 Argentinia 50  
43 Cabernet Sauvignon --- 2013 Chile 60 SPEX 60th anniversary
42 Merlot --- 2013 Chile 53 SPEX 60th anniversary
41 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 50%-25%-25% 2013 California 60 Super Tuscany
40 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 33%-33%-33% 2013 California 60 Trivino
39 Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah 70%-30% 2012 California 53  
38 Grenache-Cabernet-P Syrah --- 2012 California 60 Chateanueuf-du-Pape, Splits
37 Cabernet Sauvignon --- 2012 California 60 Lanza Vinyards
36 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 60%-40% 2012 California 60  
35 Cabernet-Merlot-Syrah 60%-20%-20% 2012 Chile 60  
34 Grenache-Cabernet-P Syrah --- 2011 California 60 Chateanueuf-du-Pape
33 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 33%-33%-33% 2011 California 60 Trivino
32 Cabernet-Merlot-Cab Franc --- 2011 California 60  
31 Cabernet-Cab Franc-Syrah 50%-25%-25% 2011 Chile 60  
30 Cabernet-Merlot-Cab Franc-Malbec --- 2010 California 60 Splits
29 Amarone --- 2010 Italy 60 Juice
28 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 80%-10%-10% 2010 California 60 Trivino
27 Cabernet-Cab Franc 70%-30% 2010 California 60  
26 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Carmeniere 60%-10%-30% 2010 California 60  
25 Tempranillo-Cabernet-Merlot 60%-25%-15% 2009 California 60 Won Bronze medal
24 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 50%-25%-25% 2009 California 60 Super Tuscany - Won Gold medal
23 Cabernet-Merlot-Cab Franc 55%-35%-10% 2009 California 60 Bordeaux Blend
22 Grenache-Cabernet-P Syrah-Alicante --- 2009 California 60 Chateanueuf-du-Pape
21 Cabnernet-Syrah 70%-30% 2009 Chile 60 Won Bronze medal
20 Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet 50%-25%-25% 2008 California 60 Super Tuscany
19 Cabernet-Merlot-Sangiovese 33%-33%-33% 2008 California 60 Trivino
18 Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec 70%-30% 2008 California 60  
17 Zinfindel, Old Vine --- 2007 California 60  
16 Grenache, Cab-Mer-Cab Franc-Malbec --- 2007 California 60 Chateanueuf-du-Pape
15 Cabernet-Merlot-Cab Franc 33%-33%-33% 2007 California 60 Sanatra Blend
14 Merlot --- 2006 Chile 60  
13 Zinfindel --- 2006 California 60  
12 Nebbiolo-Barbera-Petite Sirah 50%-40%-10% 2006 California 60 Barolo
11 Cabernet-Malbec 70%-30% 2006 Chile 60  
10 Ruby Cabnernet --- 2005 California 53  
9 Chardonay --- 2005 California 53 From Juice
8 Cabnernet-Syrah 70%-30% 2005 California 60  
7 Cabernet-Carmenere 70%-30% 2005 Chile 53  
6 Chardonay --- 2004 California 53  
5 Zinfandel --- 2004 California 60  
4 Cabernet-Malbec 70%-30% 2004 Chile 53  
3 Cabernet-Merlot 70%-30% 2003 California 60  
2 Grenache, Cab-Mer-Cab Franc-Malbec --- 2003 California 60 Chateanueuf-du-Pape
1 Zinfandel --- 2002 California 60  

Fig Jam and Preserves

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Packaged Fig Jam

Packaged Fig Jam

I have a fairly large fig tree in by back yard in Florida. I don’t know much about figs and I’ve had trouble getting precise information about pruning, harvesting, etc. When I have waited for the figs to turn brown they get very soft, so I have just been eating them fresh (yum!!!) as they turn tan. My niece who went to cooking school in Paris took one look at the tree and pronounced them white figs……I guess they are not supposed to turn dark when they are ripe and turn to mush if you wait too long.

Anyway about a 50-100 figs a day were ripening so I decided to make a batch of fig jam. It’s easy, quick and preserves the fruit. Use the jam on ice cream, cookies, and it’s especially good with cheese or on baked brie.


  • 2½ pounds of white figs
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ cup water (white port can be substituted for all or part of the water)


  • De-stem the figs and cut into ½ inch pieces
  • Add the figs, sugar and water into a large sauce pan
  • Warm slowly, about 15 minutes, until the sugar is dissolved
  • Add the lemon juice and bring to a low boil
  • Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is soft and the liquid runs off the spoon in thick, heavy drops, takes 30-45 minutes

Prepare the figs for jarring

Prepare the figs for jarring

Spoon the jam into ¼ pint jars leaving ¼–½ inch of space at the top and screw the lid on tight. The jam will keep in a refrigerator for about 3 months. For longer storage submerge the jars in boiling water for ten minutes. Remove the jars and set on a towel to cool making sure you hear a “ping” from each jar assuring a good seal.