Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book giveaway! "Murder on the Champ de Mars" by New York Times bestselling author Cara Black


That looks like a good spot to kill someone. But how could I get rid of the body?

Those are the kind of macabre thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain ever since I first heard New York Times bestselling author Cara Black describe how difficult it is to find a place to kill a character in one of her mystery novels set in Paris. It's two years later and I still haven't found the perfect spot for my imaginary crime.

If you would like to delve into Cara Black's gripping series about private investigator Aimée Leduc, I'm hosting a giveaway of Murder on the Champ de Mars. To enter, simply click here and leave a comment on my Facebook page.

Mon Dieu! Parisian P.I. Aimée Leduc, star of Cara Black’s ultra-chic New York Times bestselling series, finally has the clues to solve her own father’s murder—and the truth is sure to scandalize fans!

Paris, June 1999: Aimée Leduc has her work cut out for her--running her detective agency and fighting off sleep-deprivation as she tries to be a good single mother to her new bébé. The last thing she has time for now is to take on a personal investigation for a poor manouche (French Gypsy) boy. But he insists his dying mother has an important secret she needs to tell Aimée, something to do with Aimée's father's unsolved murder a decade ago. How can Aimée say no?

The dying woman's secret is even more dangerous than her son realized. When Aimée arrives at the hospital, the boy's mother has disappeared. She was far too sick to leave on her own—she must have been abducted. What does she know that is so important it is worth killing for? And will Aimée be able to find her before it is too late and the medication keeping her alive runs out?

Set in the seventh arrondissment, the quartier of the Parisian elite, Murder on the Champ de Mars takes readers from the highest seats of power in the Ministries and embassies through the city's private gardens and the homes of France's oldest aristocratic families. Aimée discovers more connections than she thought possible between the clandestine "Gypsy" world and the moneyed ancien régime, ultimately leading her to the truth behind her father's death . . . And it’s a truth that is going to turn her world upside down. -- Soho Press

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Snowy Taormina and spectacular Castelmola: the best views in Sicily!

Mount Etna provides a stunning backdrop to the Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco) in Taormina, Sicily.

I'm a sucker for coastal views. Whether it's the breathtaking sight of the Mediterranean from the medieval village of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast or the rugged stretch of California coastline between San Simeon and Carmel, I can happily sit for hours watching the point where the horizon meets the sea.

Snow! And the Sicilian coastline as seen from Taormina. 

With perfect panoramas of both Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea, it's easy to understand why Taormina has long been Sicily's most famous resort town. Sure, it's touristy and crowded (even in January), but the views are breathtakingly beautiful.

A snowman in a rare performance at the Greek Theatre
(Teatro Greco) in Taormina, Sicily 

From the moment we arrived, Taormina put on a spectacular show. The town's first snowfall in more than 20 years was her opening act. Fluffy white snowflakes drifted slowly to the ground while we wandered the medieval streets looking for a place to eat dinner. By the time we had finished our spaghetti alla Norma, the only pasta dish to be named after an opera, and grilled seafood, the potted orange trees in the garden were covered with a fluffy layer of snow.

Mount Etna provides a stunning backdrop to the Greek Theatre (Teatro Greco) in Taormina, Sicily.

Hoping that the snow would last through the night, Stéphane and I were up early the next morning. Our destination? Taormina's premiere attraction, the ancient Greek amphitheatre built in the 3rd century BC. Suspended 200 meters (656 ft) above sea level, the horseshoe shaped theatre is the most dramatically situated Greek theatre in the world. With Mount Etna taking center stage, the theatre is still used for international music festivals, operas, contemporary concerts and film festivals.

Taormina has attracted a long line of authors, famous personalities, royals and adventurous travelers. During the two years that he lived there, English novelist D.H. Lawrence was inspired to write Lady Chatterly's Lover, one of the most erotic and passionate love stories of the 1920s.

Some skepticism about the menu at Turrisi, the "penis bar"

With its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse, D.H. Lawrence's novel provides the perfect segue to another famous spot near Taormina, the "penis bar" in Castelmola. Not quite sure what to expect when we pushed open the door with its phallic handle, we were surprised to see that Turrisi is a bar like any other. That is if  you're used to penis shaped menus, erotic memorabilia and phallic shaped furniture. Run by the third generation of the same family that opened the bar in 1947, Turrisi started as a post World War II souvenir shop where customers were served local almond wine. Now, it's a regional legend that's listed as a "must-see" in all the guidebooks. Even if you're not tempted by the idea of the penis bar, the 360-degree views from Castelmola are some of the most spectacular in the world. And, no, that isn't an overstatement. I promise!

The view of Naxos Bay and Bella Isola from the apartment we rented in Taormina. New Year's Eve 2014.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Villa Romana del Casale and its captivating fourth century AD Roman mosaics

Room of the Ten Girls with the astonishing "Bikini Girls" mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale

Wouldn't it be incredible to unearth photographs from the fourth century AD imparting little-known details about ancient Roman life? We would learn about the clothes worn for an outdoor banquet, games that children played and revered mythological creatures.

Unique for their narrative style, vivid colors and range of subject matter, the Unesco-listed Roman floor mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale also give a rare glimpse into the daily life of the man most scholars believe to be the former owner of the sumptuous villa, Marcus Aurelius Maximianus, Rome's co-emperor during the reign of Diocletian (AD 286-305).

A small portion of the 59 meter long "Great Hunt" mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale

These extraordinarily vivid mosaics, probably produced by North African artisans, cover 37,600 square feet (about 3,500 sq m) in 40 different scenes. The most majestic mosaic,  "The Great Hunt", is a continuous 200 foot (59 m) flowing carpet of stone depicting the hunt and capture of wild animals for use in gladiatorial games in Rome's Colosseum. Staggering in its detail, the mosaic portrays panthers, antelopes, ostriches, tigers and a wild boar. A group of men are seen tugging at an elephant as the beast reluctantly boards a small sailing vessel.

The "Bikini Girls" mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale

If, like me, you've always thought that the bikini originated in the 20th century, prepare to be surprised by the Room of the Ten Girls. The Villa's most famous mosaic shows young woman playing ball (the origin of beach volleyball, perhaps?), lifting miniature dumbells and running. Astonished by the clarity of their bellybuttons, light-colored hair and scanty attire, I found myself returning to the mosaic again and again. These weren't demure women. They were athletes preparing for intense competition.

The Villa Romana del Casale is located near the town of Piazza Armerina on the island of Sicily, Italy.

Mosaic depicting the Greek legend of Arion, a famous poet of Corinth, at the Villa Romana del Casale
The mythological figures of Cupid and Psyche at the Villa Romana del Casale

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Agrigento and the ancient Valley of the Temples

The magnificent Temple of Concordia in the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily

Looking back on our vacation in Sicily, I wish that we would have allocated more time for Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. But, in all honesty, I feel the same way about the other towns that we visited. Ten short days just wasn't long enough to see all the treasures of this Mediterranean island.

After climbing the white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks) in the morning and fortifying ourselves with savory Sicilian pasta for lunch, we arrived at the Valley of the Temples around 4:00 pm. The timing turned out to be perfect because most of the other visitors had already left for the day.

Called "the most beautiful city of mortals" by Pindar in 470 BC, the ruins of the ancient town of Akragas are best viewed in solitude. That's when the past overshadows the present.

The ancient Temple of Concordia in the foreground with modern buildings in the background.

Even though the mortals who inhabited the town are long gone, there's something comforting in the knowledge that the temples they built on a ridge to serve as beacons for returning sailors remain. It's incredible to think that the largely intact Temple of Concord, the model for Unesco's logo, was constructed in 430 BC. What, if anything, will be left of modern civilization more than 2,000 years from now?

A gnarled 800 year old olive tree in the Valley of the Temples. Agrigento, Sicily.

The Temple of Concord, Temple of Hera and Temple of Hercules, which are the three best-preserved temples, are in the Eastern part of the 13 sq km archaeological park.

If you spend the night in Agrigento, which in ancient times was the fourth largest city in the world, make sure that your accommodation is in the old town on the hill, not in the ugly modern part below. Our B&B, Le Casette di Lu, was conveniently located right off the via Atenea. And, the breakfast was the best that we had in Sicily.

The Temple of Concord, one of the best-preserved Greek temples in existence
The Temple of Concord in the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi (Stair of the Turks) and traveling with adult-aged children in Sicily

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi

"My one goal for this vacation," I told Stéphane looking him squarely in the eyes to ensure that I had his full attention, "is that we're all still talking with each other by the end of it. If that means we miss seeing some of the sights in Sicily, so be it."

People approach vacations with different expectations. Over the years, I've come to realize that Stephane views them as a time to bond, to spend each and every waking moment together. That's fine when it's just the two of us, but I wasn't sure how our 27 year old daughter and 24 year old son would cope with intensive daily doses of Mom and Dad. Even though we have spent holidays together and traveled in various familial combinations, it had been seven years since the four of us had embarked on an extended vacation together. We're all strong-minded people accustomed to traveling the world on our own. How would we manage, I wondered?

Stéphane and Sara sharing a moment on the beach

"Has mom talked with you yet?" I overheard Philippe ask Sara while we were still in Paris. In an attempt to avert any problems, I had taken each of them aside to explain that they were free to explore and have their meals whenever they wished. The only set times that they had to be with us was when we traveled from one town to another.

Much to Stéphane's delight, the "kids" were enthusiastic about all of his plans. The only dissenter was me. When he informed us that we would have to depart from Marsala early in the morning to have enough time to visit the white cliffs before going to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, I asked if it was necessary to cram so much into one day. Couldn't we simply omit the Scala dei Turchi, the "Stair of the Turks" on the southern coast of Sicily from our itinerary?  

Philippe playing around during one of my attempts at an artsy photo

I've got to admit that I'm happy that I was unanimously overruled. Resembling the White Cliffs of Dover, the Scala dei Turchi is a spectacular formation of marl accessible by layered stairs that shouldn't be missed. And, best of all, we're all still talking to each other!

The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi
The white cliffs of La Scala dei Turchi