El Conquistador Golf Resort Puerto Rico

I wouldn’t have guessed that golfing on a tropical island could be so much like Western Pennsylvania … uh, well, except for the weather. It’s sunny and warm here! In March!! And there’s no Yuengling on tap in the clubhouse bar to go with your hot dog at the turn. In other words, trade offs.

I had a great time today launching drives up and down the fairways of the El Conquistador Golf Resort, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a Waldorf Astoria property, and I’ll bet the rooms were among the best designs of 1985. The service has been excellent, and white shag carpet would not be out of place in the spacious rooms. Still, when the views are this great (my room on the hillside next to the incline (funicular) overlooks the marina and water park!), who cares if the wood furniture is finished in pickled pine?

Fortunately for me, the course is moderate in length, a rarity in resort courses these days. That isn’t to say it isn’t challenging. The three experienced golfers in my foursome had almost as much trouble reading the greens as I did. Perhaps the giant lizards that watched us putt some holes might have whispered their advice. All that sun and breeze wore me out!

Cinque Terre

Vernazza is one of the five seaside towns that make up Cinque Terre, an Italian resort area and national park with hiking trails on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. October can be a difficult month in Cinque Terre. Last year, a torrential rainfall cause a mudslide that buried Monterosso and Vernazza in six feet of mud and water. This year, the weather was just right: mid-70′s to mid-80′s and sunny everyday. I didn’t get to hike as much as I might have liked; some of the trails were still buried under mud. Still, I swam in the Mediterranean and dined on the cliffside, sipping local wine and eating sardines fished that morning from the sea.

Eating Pizza in Pisa

Like every tourist, I had to stop in Pisa for a few minutes on my way from Florence to Cinque Terre. It was the most touristy place on the trip, probably because it is so close to the port where cruise ships deliver passengers for daily land excursions. Still, the tower is amazing. The signs told me that the tower leaned even more a decade ago, when the Italian authorities had to reinforce the foundation to prevent it from collapsing. The best part was watching the tourists, all lined up along the park adjacent to the tower, all taking the same photograph: appearing to be holding up with tower with their hands.

Umbrian Wine Discovery: Sagrantino

How could I tour Italy without touring a winery? My friends at Borgo Torale arranged a Sunday morning tasting at Arnaldo Caprai Winery in Montefalco, Umbria. Caprai is famous for his development of the Sagrantino grape, an ancient variety that had been all but lost by the mid-1970′s. Like so many vintners, Caprai made his fortune in another industry (textiles) before devoting his life to viniculture. Now his son runs the winery, and they served a wonderful while (Grecchetto) as well as several bottles of Sagrantino. I brought back a case of 2007 Collepiano, and wouldn’t you know, I found the state store selling the 2005 vintage!

Siena

The church in Siena is among the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, rivaling the somewhat larger churches of Florence. The exterior architecture is very similar to Florence, and one of the most interesting features was the library, with a muraled ceiling that was brilliant and colorful. The all-inclusive ticket to the church, baptistry, tombs and museum was a good deal, and all of the sites were fascinating. We got so wrapped up in the art and artifacts that we missed the lunch hour and had to grab a mid-afternoon snack on the run, since Italian restaurants close from 3 to 7 pm.

Florence

Driving into Florence was possibly the most difficult part of my trip to Italy. For some unknown reason, iPhone maps made me circle around the city to park at the train station. A traffic jam caused an hours’ delay, and I had timed tickets to the Uffizi Gallery. Fortunately, I made it just in time, but didn’t have much time to see all of the sights that I wanted to.

One of the highlights of Florence was climbing to the top of the Duomo. The mural on the interior of the dome was one of my favorites. In the bottom layer of the mural, it depicted humans on earth struggling with the demons of war and disease. Just above the humans, angels were deciding the fates of the humans, admitting them to heaven above or consigning them to hell. Above the angels, in heaven, the royalty and war heroes peacefully observed the struggles below them. I was surprised that the climb did not end when we reached the base of the mural, but continued upward until we were finally standing outdoors on top of the Duomo. I can’t say that I’m afraid of heights, but this climb actually made me a bit nervous. What an amazing view!

Borgo Torale

When my travel agent told me that I’d be staying at an “agriturismo,” I expected primitive conditions. Borgo Torale, a 300 year old olive farm near Passignano sul Trasimeno, on the border between Umbria and Tuscany, was not at all primitive. My accommodations included two bedrooms, a nice large bathroom, laundry, modern equipped kitchen,¬†woodburning fireplace, and a balcony overlooking the limestone gravel courtyard, near the outdoor pool. Located in an olive grove on a hillside within view of Lake Trasimeno, I could not imagine a better place to stay. Each morning, my friends and I would cook a breakfast from the local foods we found in the nearby town’s shops, drive to one of the many Tuscan villages within an hour’s drive (Cortona, Montepulciano, Florence, Siena, Abruzzo) and return each evening after sunset to a peaceful Italian oasis. I ate fresh water fish and house made pasta at a wonderful local restaurant (Il Pescatore) and explored the ancient castle in downtown Passignano.

Jibbigo iPhone app – Fluent in Europe

Before traveling abroad, it occurs to me that I should get a Rosetta Stone app and learn the language of the country where I’m visiting, so that I won’t seem like a xenophobic rube. Yet, I don’t find the time.

Luckily, the iPhone provides a solution: the Jibbigo app. Jibbigo offers several versions of its language translation app, which includes French, German, Spanish and several other languages. Even without WiFi or GSM service, Jibbigo can translate any English phrase that you type or speak into the foreign language, with written and spoken results. Yes, you heard it right: you can speak English to Jibbigo while your iPhone is in airplane mode with WiFi off, and it will repeat the phrase back to you in German.

Not every language is available on Jibbigo. For instance, there is no Czech version of the app, but if it becomes popular, I’ll bet they continue to crank out new languages. Try it!

My First Golf Game(s)

This weekend, I shot my first two rounds of golf! I shot a 119 at 3 Lakes Golf Club on Saturday and a 124 at Pheasant Run Golf Club on Sunday. Sunday was a bit chilly and overcast, but Sunday was a bright sunny day in the low 80′s. My scores, however, were not in the 80′s:

 

 

 

 

 

Wait, when did I start golfing?

It all started this winter, when my trainer Danny Butera opened his new fitness center in Robinson Township (BRN Fitness in Chiodo’s Plaza on Steubenville Pike). Danny introduced me to a PGA instructor, Jon Barefoot, who is a pro at Chartiers Country Club. I have always wanted to learn! I booked some lessons with Jon and asked family and friends for a set of clubs to practice with. My stepfather passed away last year and left a beautiful set of Titleist irons with all the accessories, so I made a short trip to Michigan to pick them up (during a snow storm!). Rudy was a terrific golfer, so I thought the clubs would be too “advanced” for me, but Jon told me they were just right. For several weeks we met at the Robert Morris University golf dome on Neville Island.

The weatherman predicted an unseasonably warm weekend, esp. Sunday, so I knew it was time to put my instruction to the test. I booked a round on GolfLink for Saturday morning, thinking that it might be hard to reserve a tee time on Sunday. I golfed with a law student who will be clerking for a federal judge this summer. His score was better than mine, and he was very patient for my first time on the golf course. We completed 18 holes in 5 hours, which didn’t seem too slow for other golfers. I had so much fun, I had to reserve another round for Sunday at a more challenging course. I have a little bit of sunburn on my nose. I think I’m hooked!