ITALY: DIAMANTE, THE CITY OF MURALS

For my final post on Italy, we visit the historic town of Diamante, a small tourist town in the province of Cosenza that dates back thousands of years.  Strategically located between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, it was an important trade point through history.

Today, the town of less than 6,000 people relies on fishing and agriculture as well as their main industry: tourism.  The big tourist event of the year is the Chili Pepper Festival that takes place in early September each year and celebrates the locally-grown pepperoncino.

In addition to the Chili Pepper Festival, Diamante is known as the “City of Murals,” thanks to painter Nanni Razzetti who pitched his “Operazione Murales” idea to the city’s mayor in 1981 and won approval.  That paved the way for established and emerging artists from all over to come to the town and paint murals on the city’s buildings.  Each year, more murals are added, and there now more than 150 of them.  I would have loved spending more time there and seeing them all, but we did discover several of the murals as we walked up and down the charming streets with narrow cobblestone walkways.

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CLEVER!!!  By the way, “Diamante” translates to “Diamond.”

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Our journey home was much like our trip over to Italy, but in reverse. Instead of planes, trains, and automobiles, it began with returning our rental cars, and then taking a train back to Rome.  The next day, we took a flight home.

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Some of our group on the train ride back to Rome.

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Ciao!

ITALY: SCALEA

Located near San Nicola Arcella (where we were staying) and along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast, the resort town of Scalea is a big draw for tourists.  The old part of town on the hill has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but the lower business district dates back to World War II.  As a result, it’s a strange mix.

I didn’t particularly care for the business district, which I found to be quite drab and nondescript.  It didn’t have the charm of Maratea, and the shops weren’t particularly interesting.  Just one block up the hill; however, was another story.  More on that later…

At the far end of the beach, past the lidos, was a nice wading area in between the rocks in the shallow water that was perfect for those who wanted to play or take a dip and cool off.  I opted, instead, to go for a swim along the sandy area of the beach.  It was beautiful!  At about 79 degrees with no current, it was a perfect beach to get in a good open-water swim.

There were also plenty of lidos along the beach of Scalea from which to choose for sunbathing or a beach side lunch.  We followed our swim with a delicious lunch at a lido owned by friends of our friend.

On another day in Scalea, our group split up.  The other gals went shopping, the guys took a drive to check out the view of old Scalea from other vantage points, and I went for a hike in the old town to explore and do photography.

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The old town of Scalea is behind Bruce.  Over his right shoulder are ruins dating back 1,000 years.

I was delighted (and excited!) that just one block up from the business district, the feel of Scalea completely changed as I climbed the hill.  Asphalt and concrete gave way to ancient cobblestones.  I was in my element, and I could feel my somewhat apathetic mood towards Scalea lift as I explored the narrow, winding walkways filled with homes that were built hundreds of years ago.  Everywhere I turned, there was something unique to admire and photograph.

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At the very top of the hill, there were ancient ruins that were just begging to be explored.  I found a very narrow and steep pathway that required careful footing, but I was determined to hike up and take in the spectacular views of the old town and coastline below.

Other than the disappointment and disgust I felt at the sight of graffiti that had been carelessly painted on the ruins, the hike up was well worth the effort.

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Soon, it was time to meet back up at Jeni’s, a restaurant owned by the good friend of our friend we were traveling with who had once lived in Scalea.  Making my way back down the winding walkways, I realized I had put in a pretty good workout and was craving the chocolate gelato I would soon be enjoying.

Jeni makes the best gelato!  She sources the best ingredients, including a high-quality single origin chocolate from Ecuador.  Her gelato was dairy-free, but it still had a very creamy texture.  It was pure heaven!

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That’s Jeni, between me and Bruce.

If you are curious to see more of Scalea, the new James Bond movie is being filmed there.

My final post on Italy will be about Diamante.  Stay tuned!

 

ITALY: THE ANCIENT TOWN OF MARATEA

During our stay in San Nicola Arcella, the seven of us in our group hopped in our two rental cars (we were unable to get a hold of a rental van) and headed up to the old town of Maratea, in the province of Potenza, which is in the Basilicata region of Italy, along the Tyrrhenian coast.

Known as the “Pearl of the Tyrrhenian,” Maratea dates back to 15th – 14th century BC (based on archeological findings). That’s old!

It is old towns like Maratea that keep us returning to Europe, time and time again.  There are always so many interesting things to see and photograph, and fun places to explore.

While the rest of the group relaxed in the plaza at a café with their coffee drinks and gelato, Bruce and I hiked up and down and all around, poking in and out of the twisting, narrow walkways.  It was exhilarating!

Here, then, are scenes from the old town of Maratea:

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Hey, Delta Airlines gang, how’s this for “Passport Plum”?

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Or, how about this?  David, your shorts are so well-coordinated!

ITALY: THE COASTLINE OF SAN NICOLA ARCELLA

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When I first stepped out on Villa Crawford’s sundeck and took in the view of San Nicola Arcella’s coastline, all I could say was, “WOW!”  It was absolutely gorgeous.  Sure, I had seen pictures (like the ones below), but it wasn’t until I saw it in person that I could fully appreciate the beauty of the place.

I had hoped our visit in Italy would be part “swimcation” and part vacation; however, as I mentioned in my first post on Italy, the logistics didn’t allow for a daily morning swim.  When I was able to get in a swim, though, it was fabulous!  The water temperature was about 78 degrees—perfect competition temperature, and the water visibility was good.

My plan was to swim around the rocky point to see the Arco Magno rock formation and photograph it with my waterproof camera; however, the currents were too strong to risk it.  Instead, I joined a gal from our group and hiked over to see it.  The views back down to the beach and across the coastline were spectacular!  For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip, and the most beautiful scenery of the area.

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Our hike began by climbing the stairs all the way up to the top, and then back down the other side.  The next two pictures were taken from the stairs.  The orange and white umbrellas are at Lido Nettuno where our group relaxed in the shade.

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Villa Crawford, our home away from home, was located on the hillside at the far end of the beach.  Lido Nettuno is down below.

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That’s Bruce (blue shirt) standing next to David (dark shirt), our friend who lived in the area for four years.

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Darshana snapped this shot when I wasn’t looking!

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If you plan a beach visit in the Calabria region of Italy when the air temperatures are warm, budget 10 Euro for an umbrella and lounge at one of the lidos that line the beachfront.  Each lido has a café in back where you can grab some lunch and enjoy the breeze and views of the beach.  If you choose to patronize a lido with a parking lot, they include free parking as well.

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Our group enjoyed our time at Lido Nettuno and had lunch in their café.  Check out their nifty cell phone charging station:

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The best way to follow up a day at the beach is to enjoy a delicious Italian gelato.  There is no shortage of gelaterias in Italy; they’re everywhere!  We happened to stop at Dolce Vita for a scoop, and the chocolate that I savored was amazing—dark and rich.  Yum!

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Nutella is popular throughout Europe, so most of the gelaterias offer it as a topping on their gelato and waffles.  I chose that option on a scoop of chocolate gelato at another gelateria one evening after dinner, and this is the huge jar they pumped it from:

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The European Nutella is darker and tastier than the Canadian-made Nutella we get in the U.S.A., so I brought a jar back with me to enjoy at home.  I’ll be sad when that’s gone!

 

In my next post, come along with me to the town of Maratea.

ITALY: SAN NICOLA ARCELLA

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San Nicola Arcella, in the province of Cosenza, and the region of Calabria, has a history dating back 1,000 years; so, it was quite photogenic and fun to poke around.  It was small (less than 1,400 residents), so the entire town could be seen on foot.  It was quite hilly, though, so it would not be the easiest to navigate for those who are less mobile.  The cobblestones also would make it difficult for those confined to a wheelchair.

For me, this is just the type of town I love to explore.  I got a good workout in while doing photography and enjoying the visual stimulation.

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There were murals throughout the oldest part of town depicting San Nicola Arcella’s history, which I found to be quite unique and charming.

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At night, the town comes alive with tourists and locals strolling the streets and dining in the cafes.  I especially enjoyed how pretty the old, colorfully-painted buildings looked with the lights shining on them.

We were fortunate to be there at the time of a festival celebrating Saint Nicola.  As it so happened, while we were exploring the town on foot, we turned a corner and saw the procession coming our way from the church above and headed for the stage set up in the plaza.  Talkin’ about being at the right place at the right time!

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Our timing was perfect as well for our 7:30 PM dinner reservation at Johnny’s Pizzeria.  After the blessing for Saint Nicola ended at the plaza, the procession continued down the pedestrian street, so we followed along with the crowd.  When we arrived at Johnny’s, it was exactly 7:30 PM!

We hadn’t done any research on restaurants in San Nicola Arcella, but we liked the ambience of Johnny’s (and the great smell of the pizza!) each time we had walked by, and the menu looked enticing, so we gave it a try.  As it turned out, it’s the top-ranked pizza in town (on Trip Advisor), and we enjoyed our pizza and appetizer very much!

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By the time we left the restaurant, the blue and white festival lights were glowing above.  Beautiful!

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Everything about that night in San Nicola Arcella was magical.  Just the two of us, exploring on our own, observing the town’s festival, dining on delicious pizza, and enjoying the nightlife; it was perfect!

Next up:  San Nicola’s beautiful beach and coast.

ITALY: PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES

We have a friend, a Delta flight attendant, who used to live in southern Italy and returns each year to visit friends.  He books the Villa Crawford, in San Nicola Arcella, and then aims to get all of the rooms rented by friends.  When he asked if we wanted to join him and rent one of the five bedrooms, it sounded like a great opportunity to be shown the area by a former local who speaks the language and would be able to show us around.  It sounded like a great adventure!

Even though we live near Atlanta, Delta’s hub and the busiest airport in the world, we knew getting to San Nicola Arcella, in Calabria, Italy would not be easy.  It would require a flight to Rome with an overnight stay near the train station, and then a four-hour train ride the following day to a town where we would be renting two cars for the seven of us.  We would then drive to the villa, which (thankfully!) wasn’t too far away.

A plane, train, and then an automobile.  After our week at the villa, we would be doing the same thing in reverse.

What we didn’t realize last year when we made the commitment was just how much flights to Europe had gone up in price!  A September economy-class flight from Atlanta to Rome was almost $3,700 for the two of us before purchasing travel insurance.  Our Delta friends got to fly free.

In all, between the cost of flight, rental car, trains, and accommodations; the per-day cost of our ten-day trip was quite a bit more than a small-group tour with a highly-recommended company such as Vantage Travel (which we have traveled with and would recommend) or Overseas Adventure Travel (which several of our friends have traveled with extensively).

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If you do go to Rome and need a comfortable accommodation at a reasonable price (for Rome), stay at the Aelius Guest House, conveniently located within walking distance to the train station.  At about 100 Euros per night with continental breakfast, it was a great value.

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The view out our window at the Aelius Guest House, in Rome.

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Another view from our room.

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Upon arrival, we walked around the neighborhood near our guest house, so we could stay awake and get on Rome time.

Villa Crawford, in San Nicola Arcella, was beautiful, reasonably priced, and had breathtaking views.  It was even less expensive than our Rome accommodation and included a fabulous breakfast that we enjoyed each morning out on deck with incredible views.  Andrea, the owner, was also very accommodating and couldn’t have been a nicer guy.

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That’s Bruce waving from the sun deck (below).

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The view from our room

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The most enjoyable thing about staying at Villa Crawford was enjoying the sunsets.  Wow!

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The villa’s location did present some challenges, however, due to the extremely steep road leading in and out of the villa and down to the beach.  Knowing that ahead of time, we agreed to go only if we would not have to do any of the driving.  As it turned out, though, the location also made it difficult for us to be more independent.  My hopes of a daily morning swim in the beautiful Mediterranean Sea below were also logistically not practical.

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Our neighbor’s house down the road from us.  Cool gate!

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A very steep climb back up to Villa Crawford!

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Our first dinner was on the patio at Fa Tu, where we enjoyed delicious pizzas that were reasonably priced at about 8 Euros each (see below).

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Fa Tu’s inside dining area.

 

In my next post, I will show you around San Nicola Arcella, a charming town that I really enjoyed exploring on foot.

 

CHATTANOOGA: BLUFF VIEW ARTS DISTRICT & THE NORTH SHORE

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While you are in Chattanooga, make sure to visit the Bluff View Arts District.  Why?  For starters, click on the link and check out the aerial shot, so you can get a feel for the location and views.  There are some nice views from the bluff, so the district was aptly named.  In the lower right corner of the photo in the link, there is a small park with sculptures.  It was really nice strolling around the park, enjoying the sculptures and views.  These are some of the things you may see while you are there:

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For details on the galleries, museum, restaurants, and shops; the website describes it quite well, so have a poke around the site.  I can tell you that when we were there, there was plenty of free parking, and it was a wonderful place to see on foot.

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Hunter Museum of American Arts (also located in the modern building to the left)

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This sculpture by Deborah Butterfield stands in front of the museum.  It looks like driftwood, right?  We thought so and actually had to touch it to believe that it was cast bronze, as was stated in the plaque.  Amazing!

We were also pleased to see that just beyond the Hunter Museum of American Art, we were able to access the beautiful Walnut Street Bridge, one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.  Built in 1891, it has such style and was quite photogenic!  Accessible only to pedestrians (and their dogs!) as well as cyclists, it was a safe and enjoyable way to get in some exercise while taking in the views of downtown Chattanooga and the North Shore while crossing over the Tennessee River.

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A view of Walnut Street Bridge from the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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We took this bridge that crossed over the street to access the Walnut Street Bridge.

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The view from the street bridge of both the modern building of the Hunter Museum and the Walnut Street Bridge.

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After crossing the street bridge, we came across this handsome fella.  High paw!

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A view of the Hunter Museum from the Walnut Street Bridge.  I loved this walkway they built to take pedestrians all the way down to the river!

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Bruce, checking out the view form the Walnut Street Bridge.

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A view of the North Shore from the bridge.

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The city did a fantastic job developing the area where the bridge begins, as you can see in these photos.  It is very pedestrian friendly!

Across the river on the other end of the bridge is the North Shore.  You will get a nice view of Coolidge Park.  Make sure you spend some time checking out the fountain and the Coolidge Park Antique Carousel before you head into town.  I’m willing to bet you have never seen such an interesting variety of animal and reptile species represented on one carousel!  Bring your cameras; it’s a hoot!

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The North Shore has a very hip, cool, and artsy vibe, so allow some time to poke around the shops and grab some lunch at one of the restaurants.  Although I am known in our household as the “Aqua Dog,” we passed on the hot dogs at Good Dog and opted instead for some unusual tacos at Taco Mamacita.  The various taco combinations offered on the menu were so tempting, but we ordered just two different tacos a la carte for a light lunch.  Delicious!

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Want to dance off your lunch or learn a new dance step?  If you don’t mind learning in the middle of the sidewalk as pedestrians pass by, there are instructions on five different dance steps located right in front of the shops and restaurants in the main part of town!

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Our time spent in Chattanooga was so enjoyable that we are planning to return in May when “Nightfall” (described in my previous post) starts up again.  It was a great getaway spot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHATTANOOGA: ALL ABOARD!

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Hearing the name, “Chattanooga,” always puts a smile on my face, because it sounds so funny to me as many Indian names do.  “Chattanooga,” comes from the Creek Indian word for “rock coming to a point.”  This refers to Lookout Mountain, one of the city’s major attractions.  Although we fully intended to take in the views from Lookout Mountain, the haze over the region during our visit kept us from even getting out of our car.  We took a quick drive around, and then headed back down to the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

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The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of Chattanooga is the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the former train station that became a hotel in the 1970’s.  Terminal Station, as the train station was originally called, was a large and modern station for its time.  It became especially famous when Mack Gordon (lyrics) and Harry Warren (music) wrote about it in 1941 in their tune that Glenn Miller recorded, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”  The song describes the journey of a train traveling from New York City along the Eastern Seaboard until its end at Terminal Station.

Unfortunately, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, rail traffic decreased and the station was ultimately closed.  Then, in 1972, a group of businessmen bought the station and surrounding property.  They renamed it “Chattanooga Choo Choo” after the Glen Miller song, and they opened up a hotel. 

We didn’t stay at the ‘Choo Choo, because the reviews on Trip Advisor were a mediocre 3-1/2 out of 5.  Anything less than a “4” rating on Trip advisor is an indication to me to give a place a miss for overnight stays.

The ‘Choo Choo, however, did serve as an excellent base for our daily visits to the city during our three-days in town.  Adjacent to the hotel, there is a large covered public parking structure with reasonable parking rates that are less expensive than in the heart of downtown.  In addition, CARTA’s free downtown electric shuttle departed from there, so we ditched our car in the lot each day and hopped on the shuttle for our trips to downtown and the North Shore across the river.  It was a great way to get around, and we were impressed with Chattanooga for offering this green option that keeps a lot of cars off the downtown streets.

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Before heading out on the shuttle, we first had a look around the ‘Choo Choo, so we could get a feel for what Terminal Station must have been like in its glory days.

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Domed ceiling skylight

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Downtown Chattanooga was a nice place to walk around, especially in the Riverfront district where the Tennessee Aquarium is located.  The city did a wonderful job developing the riverfront with plenty of walking and biking paths, public art, and park space.

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This clever brick work was in the Tennessee Aquarium plaza.

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Tennessee Aquarium

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If you visit Chattanooga between early May and late August, try to plan your visit around “Nightfall,” the free downtown concert series that is held in Miller Plaza each Friday, between the first Friday in May and the last Friday in August.  The opening act starts at 7 PM followed by a nationally touring headliner at 8 PM.  It’s kid friendly and pet friendly, so grab your dog’s leash and bring your lawn chairs (unless you get there early enough to snag a provided chair), and spend the evening.  There are food trucks and beer available, or you can bring your own picnic.

We opted instead to have pizza right next door at Community Pie, where they offer New York style, Detroit Style, and Neapolitan style pizzas you can watch them make behind the big glass kitchen window.

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Actually, to be honest, we didn’t even know about the concert series.  We had planned on eating at Community Pie, and the concert was a happy surprise.  When we left the restaurant, we heard a live band warming up, so we wandered over to see what was going on.  Cool!  A free concert!  While we waited for the music to start, we grabbed ourselves front-row seats and people-watched.  I also headed over to the grass area to see the craft booths that were set up for the event.  There was also a motorcycle show in the blocked off street near where the food trucks were parked, so I grabbed my camera and went to explore.

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The entire scene of the well-planned event was just so perfect!  What started as a nice surprise turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend a summer evening.  Watching the people happily listen or dance to the music, seeing the children and dogs having a good time, and observing a wide mix of people peacefully congregated to have fun was just a really pleasant, happy feeling.

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Good on Nightfall and its sponsors for making that happen.  Wrapping up its 32nd season, over the years, Nightfall has brought in a diverse line-up of artists representing many genres of music, and they have developed it into a great series for the entire community.

In my next post, we’ll visit the Bluff View Arts District and the North Shore.

CHATTANOOGA: SONGBIRDS GUITAR MUSEUM

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To celebrate Bruce’s birthday, we hit the road to Chattanooga for a three-day visit.  Located less than three hours away, it was a very doable drive for a short get-away.  The draw?  Songbirds Guitar Museum, located in the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo complex.

As a former drummer, harmonica player, and singer with Anthem, a 1970’s-era San Diego-based rock band, Songbirds pulled on Bruce’s heart strings.  This was the perfect opportunity for Bruce to be in his happy place on his birthday.

As the Songbirds website states, “The Songbirds Guitar Museum not only brings our unparalleled collection of guitars to life through audio accompaniments, but the exhibits also embed these fretted instruments in pop culture vignettes with period-specific items of historical significance and relevance to the development of the guitar.  Guitars are grouped by brand, time frame, and linear progression.  Acoustic, electric, jazz, bass, mandolin, banjo and mandocello models- their stories are here for you.  Songbirds Guitar Museum is historically accurate, educational and fun for both guitar enthusiasts and those new to guitars.”

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The exhibits cover fretted instrument history from the 1920s to the 1970s, with a heavy focus on collector favorites like custom color models and other rarities from Fender, Gibson and Gretsch.  At any given time, there are over 300 instruments on display.  In all, the museum owns a collection of over 1,700 instruments, and the exhibits rotate on a regular basis.

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The combined value of the collection is worth over $200 million, with the value of individual pieces ranging from $10,000 USD to $1 million.

This incredible American-made collection is owned by the Songbirds Investment Group, a group that includes David Davidson, a partner with We Buy Guitars in New York City.  He worked for years to build the collection and find it a home.

Guitar aficionados consider the collection to be the premier private collection of rare guitars in the world.  Some of the crown jewels of the collection include 34 Gibson Les Paul “Bursts” from 1958 to 1960 (about 2% of all the “Bursts” in existence), around 300 custom color Fenders and 75 custom color Gibson Firebirds, rare early Gibson Flying V and Explorer specimens, a 1941 Martin D-45 and a set of instruments all made on the same day by legendary luthier Lloyd Loar.

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This 1958 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst was displayed in a glass case in the Vault, a highly secured room only accessible while on a guided “All Access Tour.”  This is where the museum’s most valuable guitars are displayed in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment.  This particular model guitar sold for a few hundred dollars when it was new and is now valued in the mid-six figures.  Read more about these vintage guitars here.

The best way to see and enjoy the museum is to spring for a guided “All Access Tour” ($38) that includes the Green Room and Vault.  On the day we visited, there were just two other people on our tour that lasted almost two hours.  (Normally, the tour lasts about 90 minutes; however, our guide was happy to answer all the questions we threw at him!)

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This is the Green Room, only accessible on the guided All Access Tour.  The highly-secured Vault is in the back of the room.

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The Vault had the most elaborate (and expensive!) security I had ever seen outside of a bank.  The most valuable guitars in this room were worth up to one million dollars!  Since only 300 instruments are displayed at any given time in the museum, the remaining 1,400+ instruments are stored somewhere off-site.  The location is a highly guarded secret.

The stories behind the guitars in the Green Room and Vault were fascinating, even for the two of us non-guitar players.

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These are prototypes.

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AMERICAN DUCHESS CRUISE: PITTSBURGH (POST CRUISE) #3

Before we cross the river to take in a ballgame at PNC Park, here are some scenes of downtown Pittsburgh:

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Although we are not Pittsburgh Pirates fans (or St. Louis Cardinals fans, for that matter), we do like the game of baseball and visiting ballparks in other cities.  The Pirates were playing the Cardinals while we were in town, and we thought it would be a perfect way to kill three birds with one stone:  Take in a ballgame, do some photography of the Pittsburgh skyline, and enjoy the sunset.

Professional baseball games have gotten expensive to attend, especially if you have dinner at the ballpark.  We aren’t cheap, but we are frugal when we feel it’s appropriate.  All we wanted to do was get into the ballpark, so good seats weren’t our priority.  Besides, the best seats to enjoy the skyline are in the outfield, in the nosebleed section.  Checking out PNC Park’s orientation, we opted for seats high up in left field for the ideal view of the city.

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To save even more money, we purchased our tickets online at StubHub rather than at the ticket window.  Even with the service charge, we saved a tidy sum of cash.

Rather than eat at the ballpark, we checked out Trip Advisor and found a casual Greek restaurant just across bridge.  The food at Salonika Bar and Grill was good, reasonably priced, and far less expensive than ballpark food.  A gyro sandwich only set us back $7.75 each.  An “artisanal” pretzel at the ballpark is $6.50!  Want a liter of water?  That will cost you $7.25!  Sheesh, we brought our own water in for free.

Before the game started, we enjoyed strolling the concourse and checking out the stadium.  It was a great way to take in the city views!  After the first pitch was tossed, we watched the game—and the sunset—unfold.  What a beautiful evening and a great way to enjoy the city!

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Good night, Pittsburgh, and so long!

Next up:  A short getaway to Chattanooga.