Fuggedaboudit? Not Authentic Italian, Some Poor Execution, But Don’t Fugeddaboudit Just Yet


Morningstar’s New York Pizza
4931 6th Street, Suite 106
Lawrence, KS 66049
Phone: (785) 856-6973
Prices: $$$$
Calzone – $8.00

I was here last Autumn with a friend for a calzone, which was actually pretty well done, so I decided to try it again with my Sicilian-born wife. For a city of nearly 100,000, it is appalling that Lawrence does not have a single decent. authentic Italian restaurant. A Carrabba’s would even be a breath of fresh air, but the tight-knit city “powers that be” seem to be pretty good at discouraging innovation and “chains” in favor of “mom and pop” establishments. Unfortunately, none of the moms and pops seem to have a clue how to run a decent restaurant, Italian or otherwise. Anyway, all that being said, Morningstar’s is not bad.

Garlic Knots – $3
We tried the garlic knots ($3) which came with a side of red sauce. Baked balls of pizza dough infused with garlic apparently, I could barely taste the garlic and the “knots” were not baked long enough, a little too chewy … too bad!
 
Jumbo Combo – $9.75

The prices are decent except for the pizzas which are a bit pricey, so my wife ordered The New Yorker calzone ($7.25) with mozzarella, ricotta & parmigiana cheese, no sauce (she is allergic to tomatoes – some Italian!), with mushrooms added ($.50 extra). She was quite happy with the calzone. The dough was baked to perfection and there were just enough ingredients, so my wife (who has lived in Naples, Italy – the home of the best pizza in the World – most of her life) was actually impressed. Bravo!

 
Meatball

I wanted to try a few different things, so I got the Jumbo Combo ($9.75) which came with chicken parmigiana, eggplant rollatine, stuffed pasta shells, a side of spaghetti, and a meatball. I asked for the baked manicotti instead of the stuffed shells and they were happy to comply. Unfortunately, when my dish arrived I was a bit dismayed to see everything crammed into a casserole dish. The chicken parmigiana was actually cubes of breaded chicken piled on one end of the dish and the manicotti and eggplant rollatine were on the other end, layered one on top of the other. The whole dish was covered with sauce and mozzarella cheese, then baked in the oven. The side of spaghetti was not well drained, so it was a bit too watery. Too bad because the sauce was decent. With no meatball in sight, I asked the server where it was, but she said the dish did not come with one. After informing her that the menu indicated that a meatball did come with the dish, she scurried off and brought me one post haste. In all, the dish was a bit of a mess, but it was actually not that bad. It could have been better presented and would have been much more palatable had the chicken, manicotti, and eggplant been separated on a large plate, but with a name like Morningstar you cannot expect authentic Italian dishes.

Side of Spaghetti
Alas, still no authentic Italian food in Lawrence, but Morningstar’s does a fair job of trying. Their prices are fair and the service is decent, but it looks more like a sports bar than an Italian restaurant. The old world ambience just is not there. As Morningstar’s would say: “fuggedaboudit”, but not just yet. We will likely be back because my wife liked the calzone (as did I on my first visit), so maybe I will try one of their sandwiches next time. I would also offer suggestions for improvement if invited because I will do ANYTHING to help a local business as well as my chances of having a decent Italian restaurant meal without having to drive 4o miles. HOOAH!
 
CombatCritic Gives Morningstar’s New York Pizza 5 Bombs Out Of 10 (2 1/2 Stars) … More Bombs Are Better!

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Title: Fuggedaboudit? Not Authentic Italian, Some Poor Execution, But Don’t Fugeddaboudit Just Yet

Key Words: Morningstar’s New York Pizza, Morningstar, KU, basketball, Lawrence, Kansas, New York, pizza, pasta, calzone, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, restaurant, menu, review, Yelp, TripAdvisor

 

Wild Goose Chase, Then Premature Closing Left This Weary Traveler Unimpressed


United Club
O’Hare International Airport – Concourse F
Chicago, IL 60666
My experiences with United Airlines are hit-and-miss, occasionally brilliant, but more often than not disappointing.
 
After being told by the agent at the United luggage transfer desk in Terminal 5 that my connecting flight would leave from “Terminal 1, Concourse C”, I made the mistake of believing him, finding out once there that it was actually leaving from Terminal 2, Concourse F, a 30-minute walk away. By the time I finally found my gate, I was not a happy camper, so I decided to waste one of my two United Club passes I get each year on their Chicago O’Hare (Concourse F) facility. 
 
With two hours before my departure just a few gates away, I asked the woman at reception what time they closed and was told “10pm, giving me a little less than two hours before I had to board my plane. Tired after nearly 20 hours of travel and 30 minutes of unnecessary walking, I decided to use my last pass and what a mistake that was!
 
What little food there was available (olives, hummus, pita chips, cheese cubes and Skittles) was mostly depleted at 8:15 when I arrived. An hour after I arrived and 45 minutes before their scheduled closing they started putting food and alcohol away as I was told “last call” by the bartender. Seeing little reason to stick around during the commotion and chaos of employees eagerly preparing to flea work, I decided to leave.
 
I asked the women at the front desk why the employees were shutting everything down well before closing time and with several customers still in the club, but was told “they want to go home”. I said, “yes, but you told me they were open until 10pm and it is only 9:15”. One of the women said, “you can make a complaint on the website if you aren’t happy”.
 
The only reason they get two stars is because of the free booze (well drinks, bottled beer, and wine), the place was clean, and the employees relatively friendly (a rarity in Chicago O’Hare).
 
CombatCritic Gives United Club (O’Hare – Concourse F) 3 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!


Read This Review And More On Yelp!

Title: Wild Goose Chase, Then Premature Closing Left This Weary Traveler Unimpressed

Key Words: United Airlines, United, airlines, airline, fly, airplane, United Club, club, Chicago, O’Hare, airport, terminal, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, food, definitive, review, guide

Flying Swiss? Do Not Forget Your Swiss Army Knife!


Swiss Airlines
P O Box 8302 
Zürich, Switzerland
I have enjoyed flights on Swiss in the past, but this was the first time I have flown with them in several years. The online check-in was easy enough and I received a pdf of my boarding pass, but it was not available for download in Passbook unfortunately. I had to take a screenshot of the email on my crappy iPhone to make sure that it would be available come boarding time.
 
Check-in and boarding were easy enough at the Florence (Italy) Airport, but things went downhill quickly after that. We were delayed by an hour because of winds, so they say, and delays at Zurich Airport. Only having about an hour and a half from my original departure time until my connection departed, I scurried through the unfamiliar airport looking for my gate until I found it just as the plane was about to depart.
 
I had similar problems on the way back from Malaga to Zurich with my aircraft being delayed nearly an hour and a half. Fortunately, I had two and a half hours before my next departure this time. By the time I found the gate, they were announcing that the aircraft had been changed because of a maintenance issue and they needed six people to stay behind because the new plane was smaller than the first.
 
After being bumped from my Swiss Air flight to Florence and put up in a hotel far from everything with terrible food, the €10 olive tapenade I bought in Duty Free in Spain was seized during security screening the next morning. The woman in front of me, however, was allowed to keep her Swiss Army Knife (that exceeded maximum length and had 10 blades) and take it in the plane with her. 9/11 terrorists used box cutters to hijack four aircraft, but Zurich Airport security thinks it is OK to take knives onboard while seizing olive spread. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous as we finally took off knowing that anybody or everybody in the plane could be carrying an actual weapon … scary!
 
The positives of my experiences were the friendly staff, the free quiche, wine and chocolates in-flight, the relatively new aircraft, and the €250 I received for voluntarily interrupting my trip on the way home, upgrading their rating from 1 Bomb to 3 …
 
CombatCritic Gives Swiss Air 3 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better









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Title: Flying Swiss? Do Not Forget Your Swiss Army Knife!

 
Key Words: Swiss, Air, Airlines, airline, Zurich, Switzerland, Malaga, airport, plane, knife, security, delay, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, food, definitive, review, guide

100,000+ Visitors … That’s Our Goal!


With 2,867 blog views last month, and growing exponentially daily, we are on-track to have over 100,000+ views in the next year thanks to you!
 
The phenomenal growth and positive karma since my trip to meet His Holiness is a wonderful reminder of the quality, objective, unbiased products we provide, all free of charge, to our readers.
 
We will be expanding the CombatCritic’s TravelValue eZine in the near future, adding city and country guides with tons of information, maps, and links to reviews of local restaurants, hotels, and attractions. 
 
So SUBSCRIBE NOW if you have not already and do not miss another TravelValue review by CombatCritic!
CombatCritic Gives TravelValue eZine 10 Out of 10 Bombs … More Bombs Are Better!

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Title: 100,000+ Visitors … That’s Our Goal!

Key Words: views, view, visitors, Blogger, blog, subscribe, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, restaurant, hotel, destination, review, reviews, Yelp, TripAdvisor

Oh-Boy, A Po’Boy … “Oy Vey!”


Terrebonne Po’Boys
805 Vermont St
Lawrence, KS 66044
Phone: (785) 856-3287
Web: terrebonnepoboys.com: 
Prices: $$$$
 


I had been meaning to try Terrebonne for some time, but I try not to eat fast food and sandwiches that often, just never having gotten around to going there. My Yelp friend Scott T and I decided to get together for lunch, trying the relatively new Taco Stand on 8th Street. However, when we arrived the door was locked and the lights off … they are closed on Mondays! So, we headed over to Terrebonne.

The place is quaint with a chalkboard menu on the wall, a few small 1950’s diner-style tables and chairs inside and more tables outside if you are the type that enjoys Lawrence’s steamy summer days. You order from the counter, pay, and they bring your order to your table. The guy at the counter was not particularly friendly, not rude, but he did not go out of his way to make us feel welcome being my first visit.

The reuben and cheesesteak both sounded good, but being my first time and a NOLA/Cajun/Creole-style establishment, I decided to go with their signature po’boy. I ordered the catfish po’boy ($7) with all the trimmings and Scott got the alligator po’boy and an order of red beans and rice.

About 15 minutes later our order arrived. The bread, about eight inches worth, was fresh, lightly toasted on the outside and soft inside. The catfish breading was not as light and flaky or as spicy as I would expect from a Cajun restaurant, but it was “OK”. There were several small pieces of fish rather than one long fillet, making the sandwich difficult to eat and forcing me to have to put the pieces back in the sandwich as they inevitably fell out over and over again. The fish was decent, but a few pieces were uncharacteristically “fishy” tasting, a taste I try to avoid and one of the main reasons I do not order fish in the Midwest. The lettuce and tomato rounded out the po’boy nicely, but I must admit that I was a bit disappointed overall by the sandwich and its price.

A $7 sandwich should impress and fill you, neither of which occurred on this occasion. By the time you order a sandwich, a side, and a drink, you are looking at a $12-$14 tab, a tad high for lunch at a sandwich place in my opinion.

CombatCritic Gives Terrebonne Po’Boys 5 Out Of 10 Bombs … Bombs Are Good In This Case!


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Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15”

TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” 

Tabelog – “Official Judge (Bronze)

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Tabelog Reviewer CombatCritic

View my food journey on Zomato!
 
Title: Oh-Boy, A Po’Boy … “Oy Vey”

Key Words: Terrebonne Po’Boys, Terrebonne, po’boys, po’boy, po-boy, po, boy, sandwich, Cajun, New Orleans, Lawrence, Kansas, travel, value, restaurant, menu, review, Yelp, TripAdvisor

Mystified By BurgerFi’s Small-Fry Burger


BURGERFI

Hot Dogs, American (Traditional), Burgers
918 Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, KS 66044

Phone: (785) 856-0824
Web: BurgerFi.com
Prices: $$$$

VegiFi Burger – $6.95

Reviews I had read were mixed, but having been out of the country since they opened, I had to give them a shot. Here is the low-down …

Pros
 
1) Clean, inviting atmosphere
 
2) Prices seemed reasonable at first glance
 
3) Service was friendly and efficient 
 
4) Burgers, fries, and onion rings tasted great
 
5) Beer special, $2 for a cup of IPA, was a bargain
 
6) Bathrooms were clean


Cons
 
1) $27, not including $4 for the beer, is not exactly cheap for two burgers, a small order of fries and small onion rings
 
2) My $10 burger was ridiculously small, somewhere between a White Castle “Slider” and a McDonald’s double cheeseburger


If you pay $10 for a burger, you should expect to need both hands to eat it. Mine was a one-hander and, other than Whitey One-Bites, the smallest hamburger I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the two cons overshadow the six pros in this case and, therefore …

My $10 Burger
CombatCritic Gives BurgerFi A Middle Of The Road 5 Out Of 10 Bombs … More Bombs Are Better!
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Yelp - "Elite '14/'15"
TripAdvisor - "Top Contributor" 
Tabelog - "Official Judge (Bronze)
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Tabelog Reviewer CombatCriticView my food journey on Zomato!

MENU
Title: Mystified By BurgerFi’s Small-Fry Burger

Key Words: BURGERFI, burger, fi, hamburger, french, fry, onion, Massachusetts, street, Mass, Lawrence, Kansas, CombatCritic, travel, value, restaurant, menu, review, Yelp, TripAdvisor

Exceptional Northern Italian Cuisine Plus Moderate Prices Equals A "Decent Value"


Lidia’s Italy
101 W 22nd St
Kansas City, MO 64108
Phone number (816) 221-3722
Website: lidias-kc.com
Prices: $$$$

 
We have been going to Lidia’s since we moved to Kansas City in 2008 and have never been disappointed. Whether ordering ala carte from the menu or enjoying their fabulous Sunday brunch, the food is always consistent and delicious although a bit pricey.
 
Antipasti (appetizers) range from $7.50 to $14.00 and include traditional favorites like “frico” (cheese crisp – $12.50), “cozze” (mussels – $12.00), “arancini” (deep fried risotto balls – $12.00), and “pappa al pomodoro” ( a Tuscan tomato and bread soup – $7.50). The frico, for example, is delicious with crispy cheese (usually a higher-fat hard cheeses like Montasio or Asiago) baked in the oven with various decadent ingredients, having originated in the Friuli region of Italy.
 
Insalate (salads) are normally ordered along with the main course (secondo) when dining in Italy and are not “meal size” as you will find in the United States. At Lidia’s they range from $8.00 to $12.50, but I cannot comment on them as I have never ordered one because, other than the Caprese salad – one of my favorites, you should not come to restaurant like Lidia’s unless you plan on focusing on pasta and meat/seafood dishes, which are quite filling.
 
Ranging from $17.00 (canneloni) to $22.00 (pasta trio), the prices for their “primi” (first courses – pastas) are Lidia’s “Best Value”, especially their “pasta trio” which my wife and I have had on numerous occasions. This “all you can eat” medley of three pastas changes daily and includes three different pastas (fettucine, penne, ravioli, etc.), each with its own sauce (butter and sage, amatriciana, and other favorites). Servers come around with a large plate of each, giving you as much or as little as you desire so you can sample all three before deciding on which one (or three) you want more of. You can add a caesar salad and choice of dessert for an additional $13, but I would not waste my money and recommend enjoying as much pasta as you can instead.
 
The meat and seafood (secondi) dishes are not cheap at $21 for the lemon chicken to $49.50 for the bone-in rib eye steak, but if you like a traditional Italian meal with antipasto, primo and secondo, you will not be disappointed … but you will be bursting at the seams! Secondi at Lidia’s, unlike restaurants in Italy, are accompanied by “contorni” (vegetables and potatoes), making a full meal if you prefer meat and potatoes over pasta. My favorite used to be their “involtini di manzo”, rolled beef scallops with pickle, vegetables and mustard (a Northern Italian recipe), accompanied by mashed potatoes, but it has not been on the menu lately.
 
Their wine list is extensive with nothing under $32 for a bottle (the “Value List” has a nice selection of reds and whites) and ranging up to as high as $495 for a bottle of Lange (2005) Gaja if that is your style. We have ordered from the value list every time we have been there and found the wines quite good and somewhat as the name implies, a “decent” value. They also have a full bar with drinks ranging from $9 to $34.
 
We have not been there for Sunday brunch in several years, but it used to be an excellent value at $29.50. Served buffet style, you can help yourself to a nice selection of antipasti and dolci (desserts), ordering a selection from a wide variety on main courses, including the “Pasta Tasting Menu”, frico, porchetta hash, osso buco, and lasagna Bolognese among others.
 
We have never been there for lunch, but looking at the menu it appears to be a decent value with meal selections reduced by $5 or so compared to the dinner menu and with sandwiches in the $12 to $13 range. 
 
Expect to pay a $100 to $125 for dinner for two, including antipasti and either a primo (pasta) or secondo, a bottle of wine from the value list, and a shared dessert (tip and tax included). We cannot afford to spend that kind of money every time we go out to eat, but for special occasions Lidia’s Italy – Kansas City is a decent value with exceptional food, excellent service, and moderate prices.
 

CombatCritic Gives Lidia’s Italy – Kansas City 7 out of 10 Bombs … More Bombs Are Better!

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Title: Exceptional Northern Italian Cuisine Plus Moderate Prices Equals A “Decent Value”

Key Words: Lidia’s Italy, Kansas City, Kansas, city, Lidia’s, Italy, Lidia, Bastianich, crossroads, Missouri, Italian, pasta, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, restaurant, menu, review, Yelp, TripAdvisor

"Fair" Italian Fare in Historic Parkville


Café Italia
160 English Landing Dr
Parkville, MO 64152
Phone: (816) 584-0607
Prices: $$$$
 
With a shortage of non-chain Italian restaurants in the Northland, Cafe Italia in Parkville did not let us down. The atmosphere is sparse, but modern with a touch of elegance as opposed to their old location on North Oak. The menu was missing one of my favorites from the old location, vitello (veal) saltimbocca. We started with wine, Canyon Road Cabernet ($22/bottle) from the limited wine list. Prices by the glass are reasonable, from $6-$7.50/glass.
 
We ordered a stuffed artichoke, while tasty, and hot, was too “cheesy” and drenched in olive oil. It was a bit disappointing, but my standards are very high because I learned an excellent stuffed artichoke recipe form my grandmother who was born in the Irpino region of Italy. We both had the caesar salad which was excellent, the only problem being the very large (but delicious) croutons that had to be eaten by hand because they were too hard to cut into pieces. My wife, a native Italian, had ravioli con funghi, stuffed with chicken, prosciutto, and capocollo in a mushroom sauce. The taste was excellent, but the pasta was too “al dente” (undercooked). Being Italian, my wife is hard to please when it comes to Italian food, but she enjoyed her meal very much. I had the vitello alla parmigiana which was tasty, but a little tough for “milk-fed veal” which was advertised on the menu. The color and texture seemed more like sliced beef to me, but it was tasty and reasonably priced, veal or beef.
 
The size of the portions were overly generous, so we had to pass on dessert. The owners stopped by to talk and one had family from the same area of Sicily where my wife was born, so they were able to speak in Italian about their shared heritage. Overall, we had a nice meal, the service was very good, and we will return soon to see if any of the problems noted above have been taken care of.
 
CombatCritic Gives Cafe Italia 6 out of 10 Bombs … More Bombs Are Better!
 
 
 
 
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Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15”

TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” 

Tabelog – “Official Judge” (Bronze)

Zomato – “Super Foodie”

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Tabelog Reviewer CombatCriticView my food journey on Zomato!





Title: “Fair” Italian Fare in Historic Parkville

 
Key Words: Cafe Italia, cafe, café, Italia, pasta, wine, Parkville, Missouri, MO, Kansas, City, restaurant, Italian, Italy, menu, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, food, definitive, review, Yelp, TripAdvisor

DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of “The Prato You Do Not Expect”


That’s Prato

Phone: +39 328 00 21 009

Web: ThatsPrato.com

Prices: € € € € 

Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano

Across the piazza from Chiesa Santa Maria Novella, a free bus will take from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station to various itineraries in and around Prato, a town between Florence and Pistoia heading toward Lucca and Pisa. You pay only for the entrance to museums (if applicable) and your lunch.

Monastery of St. Nicholas -Courtyard

The Province of Prato has organized these free weekly tours available on ten consecutive Sundays from May to July, taking four routes/itineraries with both Italian and English Guides:

  • CONTEMPORARY ART AND INDUSTRIAL ARCHEOLOGY
  • WHEN THERE WERE THE ETRUSCANS / ETRUSCAN PAST
  • THE NOBLE TRAIL: VILLAS AND CASTLES
  • THE PATH OF PILGRIMS

I emailed That’s Prato, asking for a reservation for the Path of the Pilgrims tour which was quickly accommodated with a reply the following day for the next Sunday. When we arrived at the train station on Sunday morning, the group was in front of McDonald’s next to Track #1 as promised. We gave them our name, waited until everyone arrived, then made our way to the other end of the station where the bus was waiting.

Monastery of St. Nicholas – Fresco

In a modern tour bus with air conditioning and comfortable seats, we were quickly on our way to Prato, a historic city (comune) and one of Italy’s newest provinces (Provincia di Prato), established in 1992 from the Province of Florence. There were about 30 tourists on the bus for The Pilgrim’s Walk tour, mostly Italians and, oddly enough, from the Florence area no less.

“THE PILGRIM’S WALK:

The Prato area has a long history associated with monasteries and holy places as well as Marian devotion, Which dates to the Early Middle Ages. This tour retraces some of the stops made ​​by pilgrims as they journeyed through the Apennines.”

Our first stop was the Dominican Monastery of St. Nicholas (admission € 5) in the city of Prato. Established in the 13th Century, the monastery has beautifully decorated chapels, a pharmacy, dining hall, and many other rooms with fabulous frescoes and antique furniture. One of the resident nuns accompanied us on the tour, providing details of the history and tales of the ancient building.

Small Lake – Montepiano

We then took a route through the city streets and squares of the old town, then up the winding mountain road to the top of the mountain for lunch in Montepiano, a small town in the Bisenzio Valley. After a reasonably priced (€10) two course lunch on the small lake, we hiked up the hill to Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano, a small church also from the 13th Century with a fresco of Saint Christopher which sits on what used to be the main road from Florence to Bologna for hundreds of years.

Fresco of St. Christopher – Santa Maria of Montepiano

We then made our way down the mountain to Vaiano and the Abbey of San Salvatore with its small, but very interesting museum. This quaint complex dates back to the 11th Century and has a serene courtyard with fountain and bell tower, halls with ancient frescoes, and a museum with historic artifacts, the abbey’s original kitchen, a small chapel, and trap door that leads to a 1,000 year-old lavatory. 

Abbey of San Salvatore – Paiano

Our bus driver then took us on the 40-minute ride back to Florence by the appointed hour of 6pm as promised, leaving us at the Santa Maria Novella train station where we had started our journey.

Kitchen (Fireplace) – Abbey of San Salvatore

That’s Prato recently added free tours on eight consecutive Sundays in September and October with the following itineraries:

  • ART AT THE TABLE IN THE RENAISSANCE / ART AND FOOD IN THE RENAISSANCE
  • THE PATH OF PILGRIMS / THE PILGRIM’S WALK
  • THE NOBLE TRAIL: VILLAS AND CASTLES

A trip by train to Arezzo or Siena, for example, will cost you €16 per person for train tickets alone, so for just €15 including lunch and museum entry (both optional), you will not find a better value when visiting Florence in terms of day trips.

You can email thatsprato@po.camcom.it, visit their website: http://thatsprato.com/, or call them at +39 328 00 21 009 to request your spot on the tour.

CombatCritic Gives 9 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better! 


Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15” – And On TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” – And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of “The Prato You Do Not Expect”

Key Words: Prato, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, Santa Maria Novella, Montepiano, Vaiano, abbey, monastery, fresco, church, antique, travel, value, Firenze, Florence, Italy, free

Forget Overpriced Florence Hotels, Rent A "Little Florentine Retreat" For Your Best Value And Comfort


Little Florentine Retreat
Via di Pilastri 36, Firenze, Italia
Web: Airbnb
Prices:  €  € € 

Accommodations: Apartment

Via Pilastri and Chiesa Sant’Ambrogio (Far Right)

We spent two months in Florence, one month in July 2012 and the other this past July (2015), staying in apartments both times. The first apartment was small, but nice in the Santa Croce/Sant’Ambrogio area and the cost a very reasonable $1000 a month or a little over $33 per day. It had a small kitchen and bath, living room, loft (open) bedroom, air conditioning, wireless internet, and a clothes washer.

Living Room

We tried to rent the same apartment this year, but the owner was not cooperative, so we found another place in the same area, our favorite, and are we happy we did!

Main Bedroom

This apartment, just around the corner from the Jewish Temple and down the street from Chiesa and Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, is on the top floor of a historic villa. With no elevator, the 54 steps (no elevator) to the apartment became tedious over the month, particularly with heavy bags and 100 degree temperatures practically every day, so we limited are exits and entries as much as possible. After all, who wants to spend most of the day in an apartment when in one of the most beautiful and culturally abundant cities in the world?

Main Bedroom and Wardrobe


Kitchen

The owner greeted us warmly upon arrival, explaining the intricacies of the small, but very functional two-bedroom apartment. One decent size bedroom with queen size bed and wardrobe and one smaller bedroom with a pullout bed, desk, and chair were all we needed for the two of us and the occasional guest. Entering into the small kitchen-living room area, the bedrooms and bath were readily accessible. The small bathroom has a shower and bidet as well as a skylight providing ample natural light. The bedrooms both have air conditioning, but the kitchen, living room, and bath do not. However, with the bedroom AC units on and doors open, which we used sparingly, the main living area’s temperature was tolerable in the 100 degree heat. The apartment has a TV with limited English language broadcasts, fast (cable optic) wireless internet, a dishwasher and clothes washer. The furniture was modern and functional, and everything necessary to live comfortably (pots, pans, dishes, silverware, toaster, microwave, etc.) was provided.

Entry and Kitchen

The apartment has been renovated inside, but still retains some of the charm of a historic building with exposed wood beams and terra cotta tile roof. The floors were also terra cotta tile. There are windows in each room, medium sized in the main bedroom and living room with views of the pallazzo across the street and a small window with no view in the smaller bedroom. The windows have wooden shutters which can be closed to provide darkness for those who may be sensitive to light when sleeping.

There are two supermarkets (Conad and Carrefour) within a five minute walk as well as shops, restaurants, bars, hardware stores or pretty much anything else you could find elsewhere in Italy. Santa Croce is a ten minute walk, and the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, and the train station are just fifteen to 20 minutes away by foot. The best pizzeria in Florence, Il Pizzaiuolo, is close by, serving delicious Neopolitan-style pizza at fairly reasonable prices. Mercato Sant’Ambrogio (open 7:30am – 2:30 pm Monday thru Saturday) is also a short stroll away where you can buy clothing, shoes, housewares, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, meat, salami, cheese, bread or anything else you might need in the kitchen. They also have a small restaurant where you can get an inexpensive lunch for less than €10 per person. It is much smaller than the touristy Mercato San Lorenzo (a ten minute walk away), but has everything you need, is frequented mostly by locals, and has better prices.

Bathroom


The owner has recently listed the apartment on Airbnb at $106 per night, but if you plan on staying for a length of time, contact the owner to see about getting a reduced rate. As I mentioned earlier, we paid $1100 for the month of July, about 1/3 of the published daily rate, so it is worth a try!

Bedroom 2


At $106 per night, you may find better values in Florence ($75-$80 per night would probably be a more appropriate price), but for the $1100 per month that we paid, this was an exceptional value and I highly recommend it for long-term stays.

 
CombatCritic gives  8 Bombs Out of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!






Read more reviews of Florence restaurants, attractions and day trips as well as ways to save money in CombatCritic’s “Definitive Florence (Italy)” …

Wood Beam and Terra Cotta Celing
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Read Reviews By CombatCritic:
Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15”
TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” – Tabelog – “Official Judge (Bronze)
Zomato – “Super Foodie”
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Tabelog Reviewer CombatCriticView my food journey on Zomato!

Title: Forget Overpriced Florence Hotels, Rent A “Little Florentine Retreat” For Your Best Value And Comfort

Key Words: Florentine, retreat, apartment, hotel, accommodation, Pilastri, Santa Croce, mercato, Sant’Ambrogio, Duomo, restaurant, Airbnb, Italy, Florence, Firenze, travel, value, definitive, review, guide, 

Il Pizzaiuolo: This "Pizza Maker" Does It The Traditional, Neopolitan Way … Delicioso!


Il Pizzaiuolo
Via dei Macci 113R
50122 Florence, Italy
Near Mercato San’Ambrogio
Phone: +39 055 241171
 

I wrote an extensive review in 2012 on Il Pizzaiuolo, so I will not bore you with too many details or flowery prose. Leave it to say that in parts of Italy, Rome and northward, good pizza is hard to come by. Most visitors do not realize that this is authentic pizza napoletana (not “Napolean”, he was the squirt of a French dictator), equaling some of the best pizzerias in Naples (Napoli), the home of pizza and the best in the world.

Just around the corner from the wonderful Mercato Sant’Ambrogio and a five minute walk from Santa Croce, Il Pizzaiuolo has only around 15 tables, so the place is small and hard to find a seat after 8pm. Beside pizza, they have starters, pasta, meat, and fish dishes, but pizza is their specialty. On this visit, one of many in the past, we decided to try their frittura (€8 – fried things), including arancini di riso (rice balls), croquette di patate (potato corquettes), and montanare (fried pizza dough with a little tomato sauce). Their were just two of each (six pieces total) and a disappointment compared to what you would get in a Naples pizzeria for the same price (€8 gets you 25 pieces of the same). They were good, but there should have been more or it should have been much cheaper (€3 to €4).
I had a Neapolitan classic, pizza con salsiccia e friarielli (fior di latte cheese, sausage, and broccoli rabe sauteed in olive oil and garlic – €10) and it was wonderful. My wife’s pizza quattro formaggio (four cheeses – €8) was also excellent with loads of mozzarella, gorgonzola, ricotta, and provola cheese. As is usual in pizza napoletana, the dough was thin and chewy, only crisp enough to hold the toppings without getting soggy and with little splotches of burnt crust from the fiery wood-fired oven. Perfetto!
 

My only complaints, other than the women’s toilet being rather filthy on this visit (my wife told me, I did not see for myself) are the fact that you can only get wine by the glass or bottle, no liters or half-liters and that the prices are a little steep compared to Naples, but those are small discrepancies when you are eating un’oltima pizza napoletana (excellent Neapolitan pizza) in Northern Italy!

CombatCritic Il Pizzaiuolo 8 Out Of 10 Bombs … Bombs Are Good!

 

Read Reviews By CombatCritic:
Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15”
TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” Tabelog – “Official Judge (Bronze)”
Zomato – “Super Foodie”
… And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Tabelog Reviewer CombatCriticView my food journey on Zomato!
Title: Il Pizzaiuolo: This “Pizza Maker” Does It The Traditional, Neopolitan Way … Delicioso!


Key Words: Il Pizzaiuolo, pizzaiuolo, pizza, pizzeria, Naples, napoletana, Neopolitan, Florence, Italy, Firenze, restaurant, ristorante, menu, Sant’Ambrogio, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, review, guide

Reliable, Affordable, Professional Lawrence (Kansas) To Kansas City Airport Shuttle


SDM Transportation 
P.O. Box 3783 
Lawrence,  KS   66046
Email: reservation@sdmtransportationks.com
Web: sdmtransportationks.com
Phone: 785-979-2428
Fax: 785-371-4024

Hours: Hours based on availability, primarily evening, nights, early mornings, weekends, holidays and all day Thursday services.

 
I found SDM Transportation on a University of Kansas (KU) Questions and Answers page when my friend bailed on a promised ride home from the airport a week before my arrival. They had several options available, but arriving late at night (midnight) left me few options except for a dedicated vehicle. The few I contacted wanted $100 to $125 for a midnight ride from Kansas City International Airport to Lawrence, Kansas. Shannon, SDM’s owner and sole driver, came back with a very fair quote of $65. Sold!
 
Shannon was very professional and responsive from the start, quickly confirming availability and pricing, then sending me a reservation confirmation in an email. On the day of my arrival, he even sent me a photo of the vehicle and information about where we would meet, leaving nothing to chance.
 
When I arrived, he was outside the arrivals baggage claim doors as promised, helping me to put my bags in the car even though he is disabled with Cerebral Palsy (his disability does not effect his driving, he is an excellent and very safe driver). Shannon gave me a brief overview of his business to put me at ease and we spent the next 50 minutes chatting as we made our way to Lawrence. He helped me with my bags when we arrived and he even waited until I found my keys and opened the front door before leaving.
 
If you want reliable, friendly, professional, and cost-effective transportation to and from Kansas City Airport and surrounds, then Shannon should be your first choice. The only drawbacks being his schedule and the size of the vehicle. He works full-time at another job and has no other employees, so his availability is limited to Thursdays and nights only. The vehicle, a Hyundai hybrid, is large, new, and comfortable, but it has a rather small trunk and seats four comfortably, making it a challenge to fit more than two riders and a bag or two each in the car. I also recommend that you contact him as early as possible if you want to ensure that he is available.
 
CombatCritic Gives SDM Transportation 9 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!
 
 



Title: Reliable, Affordable, Professional Lawrence (Kansas) To Kansas City Airport Shuttle

Key Words: SDM Transportation, SDM, transportation, Lawrence, Kansas, airport, MCI, Kansas City, international, shuttle, Shannon, McCoy, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, food, definitive, review

* Photos courtesy of SDMTransportationKS.com

Super Value, Nice Variety In A Beach Town With Few Dining Options


Da Franco
Restaurant and Pizzeria
Via Elea 213
84046 Marina, Italy
Phone: +39 0974 972979
Prices: $$$$
 
For a tourist/beach town, Ascea is noticeably lacking in a selection of decent restaurants, particularly on “the Corso” or main street. We went to Pizzeria and Ristorante Da Franco with a friend who lives in Ascea. The restaurant is at the far end of Corso from the town center and they have a reasonable €15 menu del giorno (tourist menu; primo, secondo, contorno, coperto, servizio) for dinner. It is quite big inside, but being a nice evening we sat on the small terrace in front on the street. The service was very attentive and good. 
 
I went with the menu del giorno and a primo of penne boscaiola (meat, mushrooms, and peas) with scallopina ai funghi (meat scallops in mushroom sauce) as my secondo and patatine (french fries) for a contorno. The boscaiola was creamy, earthy and robust, the scallopine light and savory, and the fries crispy and hot. An excellent meal at just €15.
 
My wife and her friend had pizza which was as good as expected in Southern Italy, particularly anywhere within 100 miles of Naples. The crusts thin, yet sturdy enough to hold the toppings without getting soggy with just the right amount of tomato and other ingredients, not too many and not too few.
 
Da Franco was quite a good value in a beach town with remarkably few options, particularly for those on a budget and is recommended when visiting Ascea.
 
CombatCritic Gives Da Franco 8 Bombs Out Of 10 … Bombs Are Good!
 
 
 
 
Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube


Title: Super Value, Nice Variety In A Beach Town With Few Dining Options

 
Key Words: Da Franco, franco, Ascea, restaurant, ristorante, pizzeria, pizza, menu del giorno, menu, giorno, review, travel, value, Campania, Italy, Italian, pasta, CombatCritic, TravelValue
 

Beautiful Michelin Recommended Restaurant Falls Short Of Expectations


Pensione Bencistá
Guest House And Restaurant
Via Benedetto DA Maiano, 4
50014 Fiesole, Italy
Phone: +39 055 59163
Web: bencista.com
Prices: €€€
This review is on the restaurant only.
Recommended by the Michelin Guide (no Michelin stars) and with rave reviews on TripAdvisor (this was their first review on Yelp), we were eagerly anticipating our 11th Anniversary dinner at Pensione Bencistá’s restaurant. Arriving by bus (€1.20/person each way) from our apartment in Florence, it was a short walk down the road from Bus #7’s stop “Regresso” following the signs.

The pensione is a beautiful 14th Century villa, overlooking the valley and Florence below. The Duomo and other landmarks are clearly evident from the terrace where we were taken and our reserved table awaited us. The tables were a bit too close to one another and the back of a chair from the table next to us made it awkward to sit comfortably. One of the owners finally moved the table when the guests arrived and it became clear that it was not going to work very well for either party. A nice young lady took our order from the fixed-price (€25 per person) menu with just four primi (pasta) selections and three choices of secondi (meat), including the tagliata (sliced steak – €40/kilo with one kilo minimum).

The wine list was reasonable and we ordered a Syrah (€32) from northern Tuscany which was very good. Wine is extra, but water, dessert, service, and coperto are all included in the fixed-price. The Syrah was good, a robust, deep red with hints of berry, complimenting the meal very nicely.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
For our primi (first course), my wife had the penne con zucchini and I had the penne al ragu (meat sauce). They boast about serving only De Cecco pasta on their website which I found a bit odd because De Cecco is good pasta, but it is mass produced, not locally produced or handmade. My wife’s pasta with zucchini was swimming in olive oil, a bit off-putting, but otherwise the dish was fair, nothing special, with small chunks of zucchini, onion, and little else. She had to add grated cheese to the dish to give it flavor, something she almost never does at her mother’s house in Napoli or in restaurants. My ragu was very good, but like my wife’s dish, there was very little pasta and it took little time to consume. Not overly impressive, after all De Cecco is not expensive pasta.

While eating our pasta, the French family next to us received their secondi (main courses), porchetta, which is one of my favorites and not offered to us an as an option by our server. They were also served their contorni individually by the waiter whereas ours would later arrive on our plates from the kitchen. Maybe they were French celebrities we had never heard of, the King of France perhaps? I am joking obviously, but I thought it a bit odd in any case.


When our secondi arrived, there were the potatoes, peperoni (sauteed red bell peppers), and a small portion of melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana) even though I had specified in my reservation that my wife was allergic to tomatoes. We pointed out the faux pas, they apologized, and her plate was removed. My tacchino rollatini arrived shortly thereafter, but we waited and waited, seemingly forever, until her veal sans tomato finally arrived. The owner also asked if we were having the porchetta, but I told him that the server had not given us that option, so he promised to bring a few slices as a courtesy.

The tacchino (turkey breast) was rolled with ham and cheese inside, then lightly pan-fried. It was delicious, but extremely small once again with just one little rolled breast. The potatoes, melanzane, and peppers were all very good as you would expect at any decent restaurant in Italy. The scaloppine was also quite delicious, a reasonable portion, not small, not huge, white and tender as real veal should be. It is just a shame that we could not enjoy our anniversary main courses together.

For dessert we were offered a choice of plum cake, torta di mele (apple pie), or biscotti (hard cookies with almonds) and a small glass of Vin Santo. We shared the torta di mele and biscotti con Vin Santo. The apple pie was simple and tasty, an Italian version slightly similar to American apple pie but drier. The biscotti were good, looking store-bought, and the glass of Vin Santo, a sweet white wine famous in this region, was very small, but big enough to dip the three cookies in as is the tradition. Again, the French family received dessert and something we were not offered by our server, fruit and cheese. Why our server failed to tell us about the additional options for secondi and dolce (dessert) is still a mystery.

For the price, the meal was good and a fair value in Florence where comparable fixed-price meals start in the €30 to €40 range (including wine however). The setting idyllic, a beautiful ancient villa with an incredible view, the experience was better than the meal alone. The food was very average, with very few basic selections and small portions. The service was very friendly and punctual, but the numerous mistakes detracted greatly from our overall experience, particularly being our wedding anniversary.

Recommendations for a better experience:
1)      Handmade pasta or a least a top-quality, local pasta like Pastificio Chelucci for example
2)     Much less olive oil in pasta dishes
3)     Better consistency in the treatment of guests, making sure all options are available to everyone, not a select few
4)     Slightly larger portions
5)     Attention-to-detail. When someone has a food allergy, it is critical that they are not served the food in question

Keep in mind I am comparing this dining experience to establishments with similar formats and prices in Italy, for example, Incontro in Ariano Irpino where the same €25 fixed-price meal has five abundant, delicious courses (choice of meat or fish, two antipasti, primo, secondo, contorni, and dessert – pastas are made in-house), including all the wine/water you require, coffee, limoncello, service, and coperto. When comparing Pensione Bencistá to Hotel Incontro’s superb restaurant (10 Bombs Out Of 10) and other excellent restaurants we have tried around the world, we enjoyed our meal well enough with the result being …
CombatCritic Gives Pensione Bencistá 6 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!
Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15” – And On TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” – And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: Beautiful Michelin Recommended Restaurant Falls Short Of Expectations

Key Words: Michelin, Pensione Bencistá, pensione, Bencistá, Fiesole, Florence, Firenze, Tuscany, Toscana, Italy, restaurant, villa, anniversary, fixed, price, travel, value, Yelp, TripAdvisor, star

The “Value” Leader In Travel … Follow Me To TravelValue!


C.T. Sorrentino, aka CombatCritic, is a world traveler, having visited 41 countries and counting. An amateur chef, he studied for 3 years in Pozzuoli, Italy and is a published author of reviews, editorials, articles, a popular blog, and is the producer of a successful YouTube channel. 

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CombatCritic is Yelp ELITE ’14 and ’15, TripAdvisor “TOP CONTRIBUTOR”, Booking.com “GENIUS” and Foursquare “INSIDER”

Title: The “Value” Leader In Travel … Follow Me To TravelValue!

Key Words: YouTube, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, follow, me, world, destination, restaurant, hotel, review, reviews, menu, food, critic, Italy, India, Europe, Asia, 

A Wonderful Pasta Factory Tour In A Historic Villa Seized By The Nazis During WWII


Pastificio Chelucci
Food Tours, Pasta Factory
Via di Valente, 7
51100 Pistoia, Italy
Phone: +39 0573 42011
Prices: € € € € 
 
 
Hand-crafted pasta since 1912, the owner Giuseppe has been in the family business since 1950, is extremely friendly and informative, and made us feel welcome for our free, private tour.
 
During World War II, the Nazis took over the building, a villa, making it their headquarters in 1942. The family had to walk for two days to Florence while the Germans occupied their home. Once the Nazis fled from Allied Forces in December 1942, they returned home to Pistoia and were the first pastificio (pasta factory) of 36 in the area to resume operations after the war. They are the only remaining pastificio of the original 36 in Pistoia.
 
 
The factory has been automated since 1950, but the pastas are still dried the old fashion way and hand packed. In fact, Giuseppe’s sweet 94-year-old mother Dina still processes and packs the maccheroni by hand from time to time. The same machine from 1950 is still being used today. They have numerous varieties of pasta, including their signature pastas like “Quasimodi”, made with only Tuscan flour from the Pisa area and their secret ingredient, pure local spring water. They recently unveiled a pasta in the shape of Pinocchio characters called “Le Bugie” (“the lies”), the result of a scholarship competition in the local schools.
 
 
The factory employs only six people, but they produce a wide variety of pastas using old family recipes and processes. The small river behind the factory once spun the turbines beneath the building which allowed them to resume operations so quickly after the war. Special drying units maintain constant temperatures between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius (90-95 Fahrenheit), ensuring that the pasta does not break, reducing waste, and resulting in quality products. Pastas take from 24 hours to six days to dry depending on the shape (versus two hours for mass produced brands).
 
 
The bronze pasta forms used to give the pastas their various shapes result in a special consistency not found in mass produced brands (De Cecco, Barilla). Their pastas take much less time to cook (5 minutes versus 12-15 minutes for comparable mass produced pasta) because the pasta from the brass forms allow the boiling water to saturate the pasta instead of cooking it from the outside. The water they are boiled in also has much more starch then that of the mass produced brands, allowing the water to be used to better thicken sauces before serving.
 
The valley in which the villa sits is quiet, green, lush, and much cooler than smoldering Florence, so it was a breath of fresh air, literally, after a month in 100 degree Florence and its wall-to-wall tourists. The temperature and humidity in the protected valley setting creates the perfect environment for making top-quality pastas. Giuseppe is working on adding a small gift shop and cafe, culinary demonstrations, and possibly pasta making and cooking classes in the near future, but in the meantime a tour of their operation is a must if visiting Tuscany (I have also included it in my article: Top 19 FREE THINGS TO DO In And Around Florence) and tell him CombatCritic sent you!
 
CombatCritic Gives Pastaficio Chelucci Tour The Coveted 10 Bombs Out Of 10 … IT’S THE BOMB … More Bombs Are Better!
 
 
 
Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: A Wonderful Pasta Factory Tour In A Historic Villa Seized By The Nazis During WWII
 
Key Words: Pastificio Chelucci, pastificio, Giuseppe, Chelucci, Pistoia, Florence, Firenze, Italy, Toscana, Tuscany, pasta, factory, tour, travel, value, review, guide, Yelp, TripAdvisor

His Holiness And I


By C.T. Sorrentino

“His Holiness”. I first saw him on TV, a documentary, 60 Minutes, I forget exactly where or when, but he impressed me with his infectious laugh, immeasurable joy, and extremely profound yet simple message: interdependence and compassion; love and non-violence; selflessness and integrity; dignity and respect … I was hooked. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had my ear and my admiration from that point forward.

I started listening to His talks, I began reading His books, I visited, His website. I use a capital “H” because this man is the real deal, as close to a God as there is on Earth, plus “His Holiness” is always capitalized, so I capitalize the H here out of respect, but will not do so from this point forward because he is such a humble man that he would likely be embarrassed by it, he would not like it. After all, he often refers to himself as a “simple monk”.

His message made sense to me, enticing me to further explore Buddhism, a religion I was unfamiliar with, having been raised Catholic, only later finding out that it is not really considered a “religion” because there is no “God”, no creator, in Buddhism. Buddha was a man, a prince no less, who lived around 2,600 years ago in India, becoming “enlightened” after 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi tree at the age of 35 in a place now called Bodhgaya. So, back to his message, actually Buddha’s message, referred to as the “dharma” in Buddhism and one of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the devout followers: monks, nuns, bodhisattvas).

IMG_3728

First, “suffering” (or “samsara” in Sanskrit), the subject of the Four Noble Truths, is at the root of human existence in Buddhist philosophy. We all want to be happy, but our ignorance: Our thoughts, our emotions, our desires and our inability to manage them get in the way of attaining happiness.

Second, we should observe our body (equated metaphorically to the Sangha), mind (the Buddha), and speech (the Dharma), inhibiting our propensity to lie, cheat, steal, kill, covet, idle gossip, talk badly about others and so on, by enhancing our ability to focus on the present moment and making positive choices while minimizing or eliminating negative ones.

Third, we should be compassionate, empathic, and care about others more than we care about ourselves, letting go of “me”, “I”, our “self” and in the process doing what we can to eliminate suffering in others and ourselves. This is also referred to as “bodhicitta” and those who dedicate their lives to ultimate compassion with a focus on eliminating suffering in all sentient beings (people, animals, insects, etc.) and attaining Buddhahood are referred to as “bodhisattvas”.

So I started reading books on Buddhism, basic books like Buddhism for Dummies, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, and other introductory texts, in order to learn more about what seemed to be a very complex subject. Then, not wanting to spend another winter in the Midwest, I had an epiphany – why not go to India and learn about Tibetan Buddhism at its source, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj to be specific, from His Holiness himself?

The first place I visited was the Dalai Lama’s website, where I checked his teaching schedule and, lo and behold, he was going to perform a teaching for a group of Koreans at his temple in McLeod Ganj from the 11th through the 13th of November 2014. Then I started checking airfares. I found a fare for $1,100 on United, which seemed like a very fair price considering that tickets to Europe nearly always exceed that, usually by a lot, so I decided to run the idea by my wife. I would leave in late October, go to Dharamsala for two months to study Buddhist philosophy, then meet her in New Delhi during her winter break (she is on the faculty at a large Midwestern university) for three weeks of touring, then south to Kerala for some much needed R&R by the sea.

Arriving in Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj actually, on a bright late-autumn day, the skies were a deep Dodger blue, the snow-topped Himalayas steep and jagged, the surrounding foothills raining pieces of shale and boulders the size of garbage trucks, and the trees surrounding the town a deep forest green, literally. His Holiness’s temple is actually in the hill station town known as McLeod Ganj, several kilometers and a 15 to 30 minute ride by bus, taxi, or car from Dharamsala depending on which road you take, the pot-holed “shortcut” or the longer, but much more comfortable “bus road”.  So if you want to be around his temple, attend his teachings, or volunteer with the Tibetan refugees as I did, you must stay in McLeod Ganj, not Dharamsala.

IMG_3812

I felt totally at home as I entered McLeod Ganj on the first of November, as if I had somehow been there before, maybe in a past life, and my karma, which had been dismal for the past several years (that is another story, maybe an upcoming book), suddenly took a turn for the better as you shall soon find out.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, having quickly unpacked my backpack in my room at the Pink House Hotel, I decided to go for a stroll around town.  No sooner had I reached the long, treacherous staircase leading from the hotel to Jogiwara Road a few hundred feet above did I meet Thupten Pema Lama. Thupten is a small, slender man who always wears a hat of one kind or another.  His English is excellent and I soon found out that he is the now retired director of the Tse Cho Ling Monastery in McLeod Ganj and a former Buddhist monk.  We walked and talked for a while as he was on his way to get his cell phone repaired at a shop up on Temple Road, one of the two main thoroughfares running the length of the “market” area of McLeod Ganj and the road that takes you to the Dalai Lama’s Temple complex about a kilometer downhill. He pointed out his monastery in the valley below, where he still works part-time, from the second floor balcony of the small shopping center we were visiting. The secluded monastery, a three hundred step trek below the main square, is a peaceful respite where monks pray, meditate, and chant and where tourists can stay in a modest room with en suite bath for just 600 rupees (less than $10) per night. Thupten then invited me for tea at his home the next morning “around 10:00 am” and I enthusiastically accepted this kind invitation from a relative stranger.

Thupten’s small, simple apartment sits on the second floor of a building nearly adjacent to the hotel where I was staying, overlooking the river valley below with a view of the front range as well as the peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance. We had Tibetan bread, which quickly became one of my favorites and a staple throughout my stay, and milk tea, a Tibetan tea mixed with hot milk and a little sugar. As we talked, his sister sat with us, a sweet woman who speaks little English and is struggling with health problems as I later found out. Thupten then invited me for lunch. Unable to turn down such a warm and hospitable invitation, we retired to his living room while he bounced back and forth between there and his small kitchen where he busily chopped fresh vegetables and whipped up a tasty soup which I later found out was a Tibetan dish called “thupka” (pronounced “too-pa”). We watched BBC, his favorite, while chatting and eating our thupka with his sister.

There just happened to be an International Film Festival taking place in town that day, so we jumped in his car, picking up a stray tourist, a doctor from Australia, along the way, heading up the hill to TIPA (Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts) to watch a couple movies. We also had another complimentary lunch with the director of the film we had just seen, a very well known monk and Rinpoche (reincarnation), on the stage in the TIPA courtyard. From tea to lunch(es) to film festival, we had a splendid day and I had made a new friend for life. I later found out that Thupten is very prominent in town and a leader in the local Tibetan community. My karma was definitely heading in a positive direction and all this on just my first day in McLeod Ganj.

Oddly enough, that very same night, I met another very influential and equally well-known Tibetan monk by the name of Bargdo (pronounced “pack-toe”) while having my first restaurant meal at Nick’s Italian Kitchen.  Sitting at a table for two, I saw a monk walk in and ask a woman sitting by the door if he could join her as all the tables in the restaurant were occupied.  I am not sure why she turned him away, but I quickly caught his eye and beckoned him to join me as I was sitting alone and happy to have some company.  Bargdo has written 14 books and given countless public talks around the world about his experiences while being held in a Chinese prison and tortured by his captors, all for publicly pleading for a “Free Tibet” and announcing his devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Chinese.  For someone who was held captive and tortured for years in a Chinese prison, Bargdo was extremely jovial, even joyful, laughing uncontrollably at his own puns and as friendly as anybody I have ever met, including the Dalai Lama himself.  We ended up talking for a couple of hours and I bought one of his books, which he happily agreed to autograph for me before we went our separate ways. Fortunately, his company was much better than my meal, but the evening was an overall success in my eyes. Still day one and more positive karma!

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I wanted to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings, study Buddhist philosophy, volunteer with the Tibetan refugees, and study yoga during my two months in McLeod Ganj, so on the following Monday I made the two kilometer trek down Jogiwara Road to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, also known as the “Tibetan Library” for short.  As it turned out, they had two Buddhist philosophy courses scheduled each day, Monday through Saturday, one at 9am and another at 11am, taught by two different geshes (a geshe is a Buddhist monk with the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy), each with his own English translator as the geshes taught only in Tibetan. I registered for both courses for the two months I would be in town, paying a grand total of 800 rupees ($13) for both courses and the texts.

I was too late for the 9am class that day, but the 11am class had just started, so the registrar insisted that I attend.  Entering in the middle of the opening prayer was a bit disconcerting, but none of the fifty or so people seemed to take notice and I quickly found a seat. The geshe was enthusiastic in his speech as he described the day’s verses of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in his native Tibetan, so I could not understand a word.  His translator, an American by the name of Julia whom I later came to know quite well, and Geshe obviously had a strong connection, a bond that allowed her to alternate between Tibetan and English all the while bantering back and forth while clarifying key points in the simple yet complex prose being taught. I was hooked … great stuff and positive karma once again!

As I was leaving the class, I overheard a group of people speaking Italian.  Having lived in Italy, being married to an Italian, and of Italian ancestry myself, I speak a reasonable amount of Italian and understand quite a bit more.  One of the group was an older woman with shaved head and dressed in the traditional Buddhist nun’s robes, so I asked her in Italian where she was from.  She told me that she lived in McLeod Ganj, but the rest of the group was from various places in Italy. They were obviously in a hurry to go somewhere, but before they left, the nun invited me to another, more private teaching at a café across from the Dalai Lama’s temple that day at 2pm.  I decided to go and am I glad I did – I was definitely on the karma train!

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The small room above the One Two Café seats 12 people comfortably, many of whom sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor with tiny desks in front of them for taking notes. The more “senior” in attendance, those with bad knees like the Italian nun and I, sat in one of the few plastic chairs lining the wall. Our teacher, Geshe Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche of the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics (IBD), is not only a geshe, but also a “Rinpoche”, the reincarnation of a very high Tibetan lama who reportedly meditated in a cave in the Himalayas for 50 years.  I was later told that Rinpoche is also mentored by His Holiness and was reportedly handpicked by the Dalai Lama to study at the IBD, the monastery inside the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj.

As Rinpoche entered the room, that day and every Monday through Friday following, all in attendance would bow, with the Buddhists, and even some non-Buddhists who did not know any better, prostrating themselves three times at Rinpoche’s feet (a prostration is a sign of respect or reverence for a high lama and/or Rinpoche where the individual bows down to the ground in four distinct movements, sliding their hands in front of them as their forehead touches the ground before returning to a standing position only to repeat the movement for a total of three times). He would always start with warm greetings and a small amount of banter, normally light and jovial, before his opening prayer.  He would then begin his teaching for the day. His translator, Ben, from Jerusalem is a soft-spoken and very kind man. His relationship with Rinpoche is also obviously very special and they work extremely well together. Ben is also familiar enough with both Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy that his translations flow effortlessly and were quite easy to understand.

What a tremendously compassionate and wise man Rinpoche turned out to be as I experienced over the next 6 weeks or so in his presence. Incredibly positive karma was generated and much Buddhist philosophy was assimilated over the 45 hours we spent together in that small room simply adorned only with seven Tsongas, wall hangings with paintings of the Buddhas surrounded by crimson and gold silk fabric, one behind Rinpoche’s low throne-like seat and three adorning each of the two side walls. Rinpoche was scheduled to leave with His Holiness for several days of teachings in Karnataka, India in late December and I was very sad to have to part ways on the last day of his teachings. He had become my teacher, my geshe, my guru, my Rinpoche.

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I had started teaching English conversation shortly after my arrival to Tibetan refugees at LHA Charitable Trust, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), a non-profit in other words, one of several in McLeod Ganj providing free education and services to the many Tibetans who have escaped from their homeland and the oppression of the Chinese government. I taught an hour-long class Monday through Friday at 4:00 pm and had one student that I tutored, a 28-year old Tibetan Buddhist monk named Sonam that I met each night.

Sonam Wangdu is a Buddhist monk, at least six feet, five inches tall, a giant by Tibetan standards, and one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people I have had the honor of meeting in my lifetime. He was arrested in New Delhi, shortly after escaping from Tibet in 2012 at the age of 26, for protesting in front of the Chinese embassy over their immoral occupation of his homeland, Tibet. Sonam was only held for a couple days, short by Chinese standards, and the New Delhi Police told him he was “six feet, seven inches”. He is tall, but I think their measurement was over by an inch or two. That was Sonam’s second incarceration, the first being in Lhasa (Tibet or China depending on who you talk to) where he was arrested by the Chinese for protesting in favor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is persona non grata as far as the Chinese government is concerned. Sonam was lucky, he was only imprisoned and tortured for a week while several of his fellow protestors were shot, some killed, by police for speaking out in favor of the Dalai Lama.

Sonam escaped from Tibet shortly thereafter, trekking across the Himalayas in the middle of winter with three other monks. Crossing near peaks in excess of an altitude of 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus forty degrees Fahrenheit and below, it took Sonam and his companions 30 days to cross into Nepal and reach the Tibetan Welcome Center in the capitol city of Katmandu. They were some of the lucky ones because many of their countrymen and women die of starvation, dehydration, frostbite, freeze to death, or are fallen by Chinese snipers who routinely wait perched atop a ridge for escaping Tibetans to wander by.

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Sonam and I met two days after my arrival, barely able to communicate because of my non-existent Tibetan and the little bit of English he had learned up until then. We continued to meet every night of the week, many times for two to four hours while drinking milk tea, Tibetan herbal tea, or simply hot water, one of Sonam’s favorites along with hot milk. We would also meet one day on the weekend and go for a long walk in the woods or up to the village of Dharamkot, a few kilometers above McLeod Ganj, to talk and spend time together. The other weekend day, normally Saturday, Sonam had reserved for, as he liked to say, “washing my body” where he would hike down to the Bhagsu River, which was very cold in November and December, to wash himself and the few clothes he owned.

Sonam and I became very close and remain close to this day, talking on Skype when possible and texting on WeChat, a favorite among Tibetans in India. He has become like a third son to me and I hope we can meet again very soon, possibly in the United States where he would like to visit one day. Sonam gave me a Tsonga of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the “original” Buddha, formally known Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from Northern India who was enlightened under the Bodhi tree some 2,600 years ago. And he calls me “respected teacher”, a term of endearment that warms my heart every time I hear it.

As I mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give three days of teaching from the 11th through the 13th of November upon request from a group of Koreans. Anybody could attend the teachings as His Holiness’s temple can accommodate two to three thousand people comfortably, so three days prior I took my two passport photos and paid my ten rupees (16 cents US) at the Dalai Lama’s Security Office on Bhagsu Road not far from the town square, receiving my security badge in less than ten minutes. I then walked to the temple to reserve my seat using a piece of paper with my name written on it, affixing it to the cement floor with some borrowed tape at a location where I was told His Holiness would walk past following the teaching each day.

When I arrived on the morning of the first teaching, lo and behold someone was sitting on my reserved spot! Normally, it would not have been a problem and I would have simply sat somewhere else, but there was a full-house and not a square inch of available space anywhere. When I informed the intruder of his error, he stood up and showed me his name on a large mat where he had been sitting, but when I picked-up his mat to reveal my name on the concrete below where his mat had been placed, he had no choice but to move elsewhere. Those are the rules, I did not make them up, I only enforce them!

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The Dalai Lama arrived shortly after the appointed hour of 8:00am, causing much excitement as he circumambulated, clockwise of course, the temple before entering. As he did, he stopped and talked to several people, touching others and giving blessings all along the way. Upon entering the temple, he made jokes with the Koreans seated inside along with some of the monks from his temple before being seated and getting down to business. As he started talking in Tibetan (translations were available in several languages via FM radio – you have to bring your own), dozens of young monks started circulating through the crowd with large baskets of Tibetan bread and huge steel pots filled with steaming milk tea (you have to bring your own cup), handing out the bread and pouring the tea to everyone in attendance. This is a ritual at every teaching in his temple, followed by a short prayer from His Holiness over the bread and tea before everyone begins consuming them. The teaching then begins in earnest and continues for four hours except for a 15-minute “toilet” break about halfway through. These three days of teaching focused on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the same text we were studying in my 11:00 am class at the Tibetan Library, so much of what was said sounded familiar. I will not elaborate on the details of the teachings because it would take up too much time and is too detailed to include in this short story, but it was enlightening, pun intended.

The next two days proceeded much the same as the first, except that on the last day there was a large lunch provided by His Holiness for the Korean’s and anybody else who wanted to partake, including Tibetan bread, rice, a vegetarian curry, and boiled vegetables, standard fare for a large gathering and completely free of charge of course. Another thing that stood out to me was that on the second day there were several young monks navigating their way through the large crowd with stacks of 1000 rupee notes (1000 rupees equals about $16 US), seeking out the Buddhist monks and nuns, giving each of them a 1000 rupee note, not to anyone else, just the monks and nuns. Having vowed to a life of poverty, existing on the simple meals at their monasteries and wearing only the crimson and gold robes of Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun and a simple pair of shoes or sandals, these men and women live on very little, so $16 is a lot of money. A small gesture of compassion by His Holiness to the Sangha, his devoted followers, the Buddhist monks and nuns, but with an enormous impact on those who subsist on less than one dollar a day. Just another example of the compassion of the Dalai Lama

Another teaching, this time for four days in early December, was scheduled short notice after my arrival for a group of Mongolians, so I had the opportunity to attend a total of seven days, nearly 25 hours of teachings with the Dalai Lama during my time in McLeod Ganj. What a blessing and what tremendously positive karma had come my way during my stay!

But wait, that is not the best part of the story! Shortly after I arrived in McLeod Ganj, knowing that the Dalai Lama would be at his residence much of the time, an unusual occurrence with his hectic travel schedule, I decided to request an audience. Why not? The bad news: I received word from Tenzin Taklha, the Dalai Lama’s nephew and personal Secretary, three days after my request telling me that an audience would be impossible due to the Dalai Lama’s strenuous schedule and concerns for his health. The good news: I was invited to a group receiving line on December 8, 2014 where I would have the opportunity to greet His Holiness, receive a blessing, and have a photo taken with him. I was elated!

Thupten Pema Lama told me that these receiving lines were group events where nationalities are grouped together for the greeting, blessing, and photo. Well, that was good enough and just to have the opportunity to be so close to him was blessing enough for me, so I waited for the appointed hour – 8:00am on December 8th.

I arrived early at the temple’s security office that morning where I was checked-in, went through a metal detector, was patted-down (frisked), and had my possessions thoroughly checked. I had brought six mala (Buddhist rosaries) and two khata (ceremonial scarves for blessings) with me to have them blessed by His Holiness. Because nothing can be carried on your person when meeting the Dalai Lama, except a mala or khata, they were aggregated with all of the other’s and my remaining possessions were taken and sealed, all to be returned to me at the end of the visit. I was then told to go to a waiting room at the base of the hill leading to his reception center and living quarters.

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There were probably 75 or so people there that brisk December morning and from what I heard, there were people from Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Tibet, China, and America of course. Nearing the 9:00am hour, we were grouped together in a line by nation and led up the hill toward the reception center. The line wrapped around the semi-circular driveway in front of the reception center with the head of the line under the canopy in front of the building. I was about one-third of the way back, number 25 or so. The Dalai Lama arrived shortly thereafter with his entourage, waving to his guests and smiling and laughing as is his way.

Just as Thupten had told me, the groups from individual nations were instructed to approach him one at a time. I could not tell you where the first groups were from, but there were from 5 to 12 or so people in each group. He would greet them, chat briefly, give them a blessing, and his staff would then take a group photo. The encounters lasted from one to three or four minutes. The group in front of me was from Japan and there were seven of them. I overheard the Dalai Lama telling them in English how wonderful it is that the Japanese are so forgiving toward Americans for having dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II and that forgiveness is a critical part of compassion and Buddhism. Little did His Holiness know that the next person in line was an American and a military veteran at that.

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Oh, I forgot to mention, I was the only American in line that day, so when it was time, I was escorted to meet the Dalai Lama alone – I was the only nationality with just one member present! When I approached him, one of his staff said, “This is Lieutenant Colonel Sorrentino of the United States Air Force”. I then presented the white silk khata to the Dalai Lama between my two outstretched palms, as is the tradition, taking it from me he placed it around my shoulders as I bowed. He then took my hands and we bowed together in greetings. Not letting go of my hands, he asked me, “How long were you in the military?” to which I replied “20 years Your Holiness”. “ Did you serve in combat?” he asked. “Yes Your Holiness, I served in the Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan operations”. “Oh, very good”, he replied. At that point his staff were looking as if it were time to move on, so I took the opportunity to tell him something rather than asking a customary question.

I said, “Your Holiness, I have been fortunate enough to volunteer teaching English conversation to and befriending many Tibetans while here in McLeod Ganj and I have gotten to know your people very well”. I went on, “I have to tell you that I have never met such kind, compassionate, joyful, and wonderful people in my life and if there is ever anything I can do for you or the Tibetan people, please do not hesitate to ask me”. As I was finishing my comment, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy, both for the opportunity to meet this great and very kind man as well as because of the joy that working with my Tibetan students at LHA and my monk Sonam had given me. I have to say that was a bit of sadness as well, knowing what hardships and suffering the Dalai Lama and all Tibetan refugees had experienced while escaping from Tibet in very harsh conditions, leaving friends and family behind to do so.

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His Holiness saw the tears in my eyes and still holding my hands he told me, and I am paraphrasing, about tolerance, interdependence, compassion, and forgiveness.  He said that it is helpful to empathize with and feel compassion toward those who we feel harm us or wish us ill will and that anger and resentment only cause our own suffering. The Dalai Lama added that the ignorant are oblivious to the feelings of others, requiring even more compassion from those with the wisdom to understand their suffering and that those are the reasons Tibetan Buddhists are such compassionate, joyful, and caring people. A few more photos were then taken, I later found out that the photographer had been snapping away the entire five minutes for a total of nine photos, and then it was time for me to let the next group approach. It then dawned on me that the Dalai Lama had not let go of my hands the entire time we were together.

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His Holiness says that our enemies give us the best opportunities to practice compassion and forgiveness.  He has every reason to hate the Chinese for what they have done to him and his people, yet he loves them as much as anyone else, if not more, and holds no animosity.  He believes, like all Tibetan Buddhists, that every creature on earth, insects, animals and humans alike, could have been our mother or father in a previous life, so we must treat every living being with the same love, compassion, dignity, and respect we would afford to our parents. In this way, it is much easier to feel compassion toward our enemies.

I have only a few hundred hours of exposure to Buddhism, having only scratched the surface with much yet to learn and practice. I still find it difficult not to become angry with and intolerant of ignorant people (the Dalai Lama likes to call them “stupid”), but his teachings have allowed me to reexamine my gut reactions and, eventually, soften those reactions with patience, acceptance, understanding, and compassion for all sentient beings, both the good and the bad. That is what I learned in the group and individual encounters between “His Holiness and I”.

Copyright 2015 – 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved

Title: His Holiness And I

Key Words: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, his, holiness, Dalai, Lama, Dalai Lama, Tenzin, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, McLeod, Ganj, India, Tibet, China, Chinese, LHA, Tibetan, refugees, travel, value

His Holiness and I


By C.T. Sorrentino
“His Holiness”. I first saw him on TV, a documentary, 60 Minutes, I forget exactly where or when, but he impressed me with his infectious laugh, immeasurable joy, and extremely profound yet simple message: interdependence and compassion; love and non-violence; selflessness and integrity; dignity and respect … I was hooked. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had my ear and my admiration from that point forward.
I started listening to His talks, I began reading His books, I visited, His website. I use a capital “H” because this man is the real deal, as close to a God as there is on Earth, plus “His Holiness” is always capitalized, so I capitalize the H here out of respect, but will not do so from this point forward because he is such a humble man that he would likely be embarrassed by it, he would not like it. After all, he often refers to himself as a “simple monk”.
His message made sense to me, enticing me to further explore Buddhism, a religion I was unfamiliar with, having been raised Catholic, only later finding out that it is not really considered a “religion” because there is no “God”, no creator, in Buddhism. Buddha was a man, a prince no less, who lived around 2,600 years ago in India, becoming “enlightened” after 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi tree at the age of 35 in a place now called Bodhgaya. So, back to his message, actually Buddha’s message, referred to as the “dharma” in Buddhism and one of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the devout followers: monks, nuns, bodhisattvas).
First, “suffering” (or “samsara” in Sanskrit), the subject of the Four Noble Truths, is at the root of human existence in Buddhist philosophy. We all want to be happy, but our ignorance: Our thoughts, our emotions, our desires and our inability to manage them get in the way of attaining happiness.
 
Second, we should observe our body (equated metaphorically to the Sangha), mind (the Buddha), and speech (the Dharma), inhibiting our propensity to lie, cheat, steal, kill, covet, idle gossip, talk badly about others and so on, by enhancing our ability to focus on the present moment and making positive choices while minimizing or eliminating negative ones.
Third, we should be compassionate, empathic, and care about others more than we care about ourselves, letting go of “me”, “I”, our “self” and in the process doing what we can to eliminate suffering in others and ourselves. This is also referred to as “bodhicitta” and those who dedicate their lives to ultimate compassion with a focus on eliminating suffering in all sentient beings (people, animals, insects, etc.) and attaining Buddhahood are referred to as “bodhisattvas”.
So I started reading books on Buddhism, basic books like Buddhism for Dummies, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, and other introductory texts, in order to learn more about what seemed to be a very complex subject. Then, not wanting to spend another winter in the Midwest, I had an epiphany – why not go to India and learn about Tibetan Buddhism at its source, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj to be specific, from His Holiness himself?
The first place I visited was the Dalai Lama’s website, where I checked his teaching schedule and, lo and behold, he was going to perform a teaching for a group of Koreans at his temple in McLeod Ganj from the 11th through the 13th of November 2014. Then I started checking airfares. I found a fare for $1,100 on United, which seemed like a very fair price considering that tickets to Europe nearly always exceed that, usually by a lot, so I decided to run the idea by my wife. I would leave in late October, go to Dharamsala for two months to study Buddhist philosophy, then meet her in New Delhi during her winter break (she is on the faculty at a large Midwestern university) for three weeks of touring, then south to Kerala for some much needed R&R by the sea.
Arriving in Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj actually, on a bright late-autumn day, the skies were a deep Dodger blue, the snow-topped Himalayas steep and jagged, the surrounding foothills raining pieces of shale and boulders the size of garbage trucks, and the trees surrounding the town a deep forest green, literally. His Holiness’s temple is actually in the hill station town known as McLeod Ganj, several kilometers and a 15 to 30 minute ride by bus, taxi, or car from Dharamsala depending on which road you take, the pot-holed “shortcut” or the longer, but much more comfortable “bus road”.  So if you want to be around his temple, attend his teachings, or volunteer with the Tibetan refugees as I did, you must stay in McLeod Ganj, not Dharamsala.
I felt totally at home as I entered McLeod Ganj on the first of November, as if I had somehow been there before, maybe in a past life, and my karma, which had been dismal for the past several years (that is another story, maybe an upcoming book), suddenly took a turn for the better as you shall soon find out.
Forty-five minutes after arriving, having quickly unpacked my backpack in my room at the Pink House Hotel, I decided to go for a stroll around town.  No sooner had I reached the long, treacherous staircase leading from the hotel to Jogiwara Road a few hundred feet above did I meet Thupten Pema Lama. Thupten is a small, slender man who always wears a hat of one kind or another.  His English is excellent and I soon found out that he is the now retired director of the Tse Cho Ling Monastery in McLeod Ganj and a former Buddhist monk.  We walked and talked for a while as he was on his way to get his cell phone repaired at a shop up on Temple Road, one of the two main thoroughfares running the length of the “market” area of McLeod Ganj and the road that takes you to the Dalai Lama’s Temple complex about a kilometer downhill. He pointed out his monastery in the valley below, where he still works part-time, from the second floor balcony of the small shopping center we were visiting. The secluded monastery, a three hundred step trek below the main square, is a peaceful respite where monks pray, meditate, and chant and where tourists can stay in a modest room with en suite bath for just 600 rupees (less than $10) per night. Thupten then invited me for tea at his home the next morning “around 10:00 am” and I enthusiastically accepted this kind invitation from a relative stranger.
Thupten’s small, simple apartment sits on the second floor of a building nearly adjacent to the hotel where I was staying, overlooking the river valley below with a view of the front range as well as the peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance. We had Tibetan bread, which quickly became one of my favorites and a staple throughout my stay, and milk tea, a Tibetan tea mixed with hot milk and a little sugar. As we talked, his sister sat with us, a sweet woman who speaks little English and is struggling with health problems as I later found out. Thupten then invited me for lunch. Unable to turn down such a warm and hospitable invitation, we retired to his living room while he bounced back and forth between there and his small kitchen where he busily chopped fresh vegetables and whipped up a tasty soup which I later found out was a Tibetan dish called “thupka” (pronounced “too-pa”). We watched BBC, his favorite, while chatting and eating our thupka with his sister.
There just happened to be an International Film Festival taking place in town that day, so we jumped in his car, picking up a stray tourist, a doctor from Australia, along the way, heading up the hill to TIPA (Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts) to watch a couple movies. We also had another complimentary lunch with the director of the film we had just seen, a very well known monk and Rinpoche (reincarnation), on the stage in the TIPA courtyard. From tea to lunch(es) to film festival, we had a splendid day and I had made a new friend for life. I later found out that Thupten is very prominent in town and a leader in the local Tibetan community. My karma was definitely heading in a positive direction and all this on just my first day in McLeod Ganj.
Oddly enough, that very same night, I met another very influential and equally well-known Tibetan monk by the name of Bargdo (pronounced “pack-toe”) while having my first restaurant meal at Nick’s Italian Kitchen.  Sitting at a table for two, I saw a monk walk in and ask a woman sitting by the door if he could join her as all the tables in the restaurant were occupied.  I am not sure why she turned him away, but I quickly caught his eye and beckoned him to join me as I was sitting alone and happy to have some company.  Bargdo has written 14 books and given countless public talks around the world about his experiences while being held in a Chinese prison and tortured by his captors, all for publicly pleading for a “Free Tibet” and announcing his devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Chinese.  For someone who was held captive and tortured for years in a Chinese prison, Bargdo was extremely jovial, even joyful, laughing uncontrollably at his own puns and as friendly as anybody I have ever met, including the Dalai Lama himself.  We ended up talking for a couple of hours and I bought one of his books, which he happily agreed to autograph for me before we went our separate ways. Fortunately, his company was much better than my meal, but the evening was an overall success in my eyes. Still day one and more positive karma!
I wanted to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings, study Buddhist philosophy, volunteer with the Tibetan refugees, and study yoga during my two months in McLeod Ganj, so on the following Monday I made the two kilometer trek down Jogiwara Road to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, also known as the “Tibetan Library” for short.  As it turned out, they had two Buddhist philosophy courses scheduled each day, Monday through Saturday, one at 9am and another at 11am, taught by two different geshes (a geshe is a Buddhist monk with the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy), each with his own English translator as the geshes taught only in Tibetan. I registered for both courses for the two months I would be in town, paying a grand total of 800 rupees ($13) for both courses and the texts.
I was too late for the 9am class that day, but the 11am class had just started, so the registrar insisted that I attend.  Entering in the middle of the opening prayer was a bit disconcerting, but none of the fifty or so people seemed to take notice and I quickly found a seat. The geshe was enthusiastic in his speech as he described the day’s verses of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in his native Tibetan, so I could not understand a word.  His translator, an American by the name of Julia whom I later came to know quite well, and Geshe obviously had a strong connection, a bond that allowed her to alternate between Tibetan and English all the while bantering back and forth while clarifying key points in the simple yet complex prose being taught. I was hooked … great stuff and positive karma once again!
As I was leaving the class, I overheard a group of people speaking Italian.  Having lived in Italy, being married to an Italian, and of Italian ancestry myself, I speak a reasonable amount of Italian and understand quite a bit more.  One of the group was an older woman with shaved head and dressed in the traditional Buddhist nun’s robes, so I asked her in Italian where she was from.  She told me that she lived in McLeod Ganj, but the rest of the group was from various places in Italy. They were obviously in a hurry to go somewhere, but before they left, the nun invited me to another, more private teaching at a café across from the Dalai Lama’s temple that day at 2pm.  I decided to go and am I glad I did – I was definitely on the karma train.
The small room above the One Two Café seats 12 people comfortably, many of whom sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor with tiny desks in front of them for taking notes. The more “senior” in attendance, those with bad knees like the Italian nun and I, sat in one of the few plastic chairs lining the wall. Our teacher, Geshe Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche of the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics (IBD), is not only a geshe, but also a “Rinpoche”, the reincarnation of a very high Tibetan lama who reportedly meditated in a cave in the Himalayas for 50 years.  I was later told that Rinpoche is also mentored by His Holiness and was reportedly handpicked by the Dalai Lama to study at the IBD, the monastery inside the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj.
As Rinpoche entered the room, that day and every Monday through Friday following, all in attendance would bow, with the Buddhists, and even some non-Buddhists who did not know any better, prostrating themselves three times at Rinpoche’s feet (a prostration is a sign of respect or reverence for a high lama and/or Rinpoche where the individual bows down to the ground in four distinct movements, sliding their hands in front of them as their forehead touches the ground before returning to a standing position only to repeat the movement for a total of three times). He would always start with warm greetings and a small amount of banter, normally light and jovial, before his opening prayer.  He would then begin his teaching for the day. His translator, Ben, from Jerusalem is a soft-spoken and very kind man. His relationship with Rinpoche is also obviously very special and they work extremely well together. Ben is also familiar enough with both Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy that his translations flow effortlessly and were quite easy to understand.
What a tremendously compassionate and wise man Rinpoche turned out to be as I experienced over the next 6 weeks or so in his presence. Incredibly positive karma was generated and much Buddhist philosophy was assimilated over the 45 hours we spent together in that small room simply adorned only with seven Tsongas, wall hangings with paintings of the Buddhas surrounded by crimson and gold silk fabric, one behind Rinpoche’s low throne-like seat and three adorning each of the two side walls. Rinpoche was scheduled to leave with His Holiness for several days of teachings in Karnataka, India in late December and I was very sad to have to part ways on the last day of his teachings. He had become my teacher, my geshe, my guru, my Rinpoche.
I had started teaching English conversation shortly after my arrival to Tibetan refugees at LHA Charitable Trust, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), a non-profit in other words, one of several in McLeod Ganj providing free education and services to the many Tibetans who have escaped from their homeland and the oppression of the Chinese government. I taught an hour-long class Monday through Friday at 4:00 pm and had one student that I tutored, a 28-year old Tibetan Buddhist monk named Sonam that I met each night.
Sonam Wangdu is a Buddhist monk, at least six feet, five inches tall, a giant by Tibetan standards, and one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people I have had the honor of meeting in my lifetime. He was arrested in New Delhi, shortly after escaping from Tibet in 2012 at the age of 26, for protesting in front of the Chinese embassy over their immoral occupation of his homeland, Tibet. Sonam was only held for a couple days, short by Chinese standards, and the New Delhi Police told him he was “six feet, seven inches”. He is tall, but I think their measurement was over by an inch or two. That was Sonam’s second incarceration, the first being in Lhasa (Tibet or China depending on who you talk to) where he was arrested by the Chinese for protesting in favor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is persona non grata as far as the Chinese government is concerned. Sonam was lucky, he was only imprisoned and tortured for a week while several of his fellow protestors were shot, some killed, by police for speaking out in favor of the Dalai Lama.
Sonam escaped from Tibet shortly thereafter, trekking across the Himalayas in the middle of winter with three other monks. Crossing near peaks in excess of an altitude of 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus forty degrees Fahrenheit and below, it took Sonam and his companions 30 days to cross into Nepal and reach the Tibetan Welcome Center in the capitol city of Katmandu. They were some of the lucky ones because many of their countrymen and women die of starvation, dehydration, frostbite, freeze to death, or are fallen by Chinese snipers who routinely wait perched atop a ridge for escaping Tibetans to wander by.
 
Sonam and I met two days after my arrival, barely able to communicate because of my non-existent Tibetan and the little bit of English he had learned up until then. We continued to meet every night of the week, many times for two to four hours while drinking milk tea, Tibetan herbal tea, or simply hot water, one of Sonam’s favorites along with hot milk. We would also meet one day on the weekend and go for a long walk in the woods or up to the village of Dharamkot, a few kilometers above McLeod Ganj, to talk and spend time together. The other weekend day, normally Saturday, Sonam had reserved for, as he liked to say, “washing my body” where he would hike down to the Bhagsu River, which was very cold in November and December, to wash himself and the few clothes he owned.
Sonam and I became very close and remain close to this day, talking on Skype when possible and texting on WeChat, a favorite among Tibetans in India. He has become like a third son to me and I hope we can meet again very soon, possibly in the United States where he would like to visit one day. Sonam gave me a Tsonga of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the “original” Buddha, formally known Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from Northern India who was enlightened under the Bodhi tree some 2,600 years ago. And he calls me “respected teacher”, a term of endearment that warms my heart every time I hear it.
As I mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give three days of teaching from the 11th through the 13thof November upon request from a group of Koreans. Anybody could attend the teachings as His Holiness’s temple can accommodate two to three thousand people comfortably, so three days prior I took my two passport photos and paid my ten rupees (16 cents US) at the Dalai Lama’s Security Office on Bhagsu Road not far from the town square, receiving my security badge in less than ten minutes. I then walked to the temple to reserve my seat using a piece of paper with my name written on it, affixing it to the cement floor with some borrowed tape at a location where I was told His Holiness would walk past following the teaching each day.
When I arrived on the morning of the first teaching, lo and behold someone was sitting on my reserved spot! Normally, it would not have been a problem and I would have simply sat somewhere else, but there was a full-house and not a square inch of available space anywhere. When I informed the intruder of his error, he stood up and showed me his name on a large mat where he had been sitting, but when I picked-up his mat to reveal my name on the concrete below where his mat had been placed, he had no choice but to move elsewhere. Those are the rules, I did not make them up, I only enforce them.
The Dalai Lama arrived shortly after the appointed hour of 8:00am, causing much excitement as he circumambulated, clockwise of course, the temple before entering. As he did, he stopped and talked to several people, touching others and giving blessings all along the way. Upon entering the temple, he made jokes with the Koreans seated inside along with some of the monks from his temple before being seated and getting down to business. As he started talking in Tibetan (translations were available in several languages via FM radio – you have to bring your own), dozens of young monks started circulating through the crowd with large baskets of Tibetan bread and huge steel pots filled with steaming milk tea (you have to bring your own cup), handing out the bread and pouring the tea to everyone in attendance. This is a ritual at every teaching in his temple, followed by a short prayer from His Holiness over the bread and tea before everyone begins consuming them. The teaching then begins in earnest and continues for four hours except for a 15-minute “toilet” break about halfway through. These three days of teaching focused on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the same text we were studying in my 11:00 am class at the Tibetan Library, so much of what was said sounded familiar. I will not elaborate on the details of the teachings because it would take up too much time and is too detailed to include in this short story, but it was enlightening, pun intended.
The next two days proceeded much the same as the first, except that on the last day there was a large lunch provided by His Holiness for the Korean’s and anybody else who wanted to partake, including Tibetan bread, rice, a vegetarian curry, and boiled vegetables, standard fare for a large
gathering and completely free of charge of course. Another thing that stood out to me was that on the second day there were several young monks navigating their way through the large crowd with stacks of 1000 rupee notes (1000 rupees equals about $16 US), seeking out the Buddhist monks and nuns, giving each of them a 1000 rupee note, not to anyone else, just the monks and nuns. Having vowed to a life of poverty, existing on the simple meals at their monasteries and wearing only the crimson and gold robes of Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun and a simple pair of shoes or sandals, these men and women live on very little, so $16 is a lot of money. A small gesture of compassion by His Holiness to the Sangha, his devoted followers, the Buddhist monks and nuns, but with an enormous impact on those who subsist on less than one dollar a day. Just another example of the compassion of the Dalai Lama
Another teaching, this time for four days in early December, was scheduled short notice after my arrival for a group of Mongolians, so I had the opportunity to attend a total of seven days, nearly 25 hours of teachings with the Dalai Lama during my time in McLeod Ganj. What a blessing and what tremendously positive karma had come my way during my stay.
But wait, that is not the best part of the story! Shortly after I arrived in McLeod Ganj, knowing that the Dalai Lama would be at his residence much of the time, an unusual occurrence with his hectic travel schedule, I decided to request an audience. Why not? The bad news: I received word from Tenzin Taklha, the Dalai Lama’s nephew and personal Secretary, three days after my request telling me that an audience would be impossible due to the Dalai Lama’s strenuous schedule and concerns for his health. The good news: I was invited to a group receiving line on December 8, 2014 where I would have the opportunity to greet His Holiness, receive a blessing, and have a photo taken with him. I was elated!
Thupten Pema Lama told me that these receiving lines were group events where nationalities are grouped together for the greeting, blessing, and photo. Well, that was good enough and just to have the opportunity to be so close to him was blessing enough for me, so I waited for the appointed hour – 8:00am on December 8th.
I arrived early at the temple’s security office that morning where I was checked-in, went through a metal detector, was patted-down (frisked), and had my possessions thoroughly checked. I had brought six mala (Buddhist rosaries) and two khata (ceremonial scarves for blessings) with me to have them blessed by His Holiness. Because nothing can be carried on your person when meeting the Dalai Lama, except a mala or khata, they were aggregated with all of the other’s and my remaining possessions were taken and sealed, all to be returned to me at the end of the visit. I was then told to go to a waiting room at the base of the hill leading to his reception center and living quarters.
There were probably 75 or so people there that brisk December morning and from what I heard, there were people from Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Tibet, China, and America of course. Nearing the 9:00am hour, we were grouped together in a line by nation and led up the hill toward the reception center. The line wrapped around the semi-circular driveway in front of the reception center with the head of the line under the canopy in front of the building. I was about one-third of the way back, number 25 or so. The Dalai Lama arrived shortly thereafter with his entourage, waving to his guests and smiling and laughing as is his way.
 
Just as Thupten had told me, the groups from individual nations were instructed to approach him one at a time. I could not tell you where the first groups were from, but there were from 5 to 12 or so people in each group. He would greet them, chat briefly, give them a blessing, and his staff would then take a group photo. The encounters lasted from one to three or four minutes. The group in front of me was from Japan and there were seven of them. I overheard the Dalai Lama telling them in English how wonderful it is that the Japanese are so forgiving toward Americans for having dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II and that forgiveness is a critical part of compassion and Buddhism. Little did His Holiness know that the next person in line was an American and a military veteran at that.
Oh, I forgot to mention, I was the only American in line that day, so when it was time, I was escorted to meet the Dalai Lama alone – I was the only nationality with just one member present! When I approached him, one of his staff said, “This is Lieutenant Colonel Sorrentino of the United States Air Force”. I then presented the white silk khata to the Dalai Lama between my two outstretched palms, as is the tradition. Taking it from me, His Holiness placed it around my shoulders as I bowed. He then took my hands and we bowed together in greetings. Not letting go of my hands, he asked me, “How long were you in the military?” to which I replied “20 years Your Holiness”. “ Did you serve in combat?” he asked. “Yes Your Holiness, I served in the Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan operations”. “Oh, very good”, he replied. At that point his staff were looking as if it were time to move on, so I took the opportunity to tell him something rather than asking a customary question.
I said, “Your Holiness, I have been fortunate enough to volunteer teaching English conversation to and befriending many Tibetans while here in McLeod Ganj and I have gotten to know your people very well”. I went on, “I have to tell you that I have never met such kind, compassionate, joyful, and wonderful people in my life and if there is ever anything I can do for you or the Tibetan people, please do not hesitate to ask me”. As I was finishing my comment, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy, both for the opportunity to meet this great and very kind man as well as because of the joy that working with my Tibetan students at LHA and my monk Sonam had given me. I have to say that there was a bit of sadness as well, knowing what hardships and suffering the Dalai Lama and all Tibetan refugees had experienced while escaping from Tibet in very harsh conditions, leaving friends and family behind to do so.
His Holiness saw the tears in my eyes and still holding my hands he told me, and I am paraphrasing, about tolerance, interdependence, compassion, and forgiveness.  He said that it is helpful to empathize with and feel compassion toward those who we feel harm us or wish us ill will and that anger and resentment only cause our own suffering. The Dalai Lama added that the ignorant are oblivious to the feelings of others, requiring even more compassion from those with the wisdom to understand their suffering and that those are the reasons Tibetan Buddhists are such compassionate, joyful, and caring people. A few more photos were then taken, I later found out that the photographer had been snapping away the entire five minutes for a total of nine photos, and then it was time for me to let the next group approach. It then dawned on me that the Dalai Lama had not let go of my hands the entire time we were together.
His Holiness says that our enemies give us the best opportunities to practice compassion and forgiveness.  He has every reason to hate the Chinese for what they have done to him and his people, yet he loves them as much as anyone else, if not more, and holds no animosity.  He believes, like all Tibetan Buddhists, that every creature on earth, insects, animals and humans alike, could have been our mother or father in a previous life, so we must treat every living being with the same love, compassion, dignity, and respect we would afford to our parents. In this way, it is much easier to feel compassion toward our enemies. 
I have only a few hundred hours of exposure to Buddhism, having only scratched the surface with much yet to learn and practice. I still find it difficult not to become angry with and intolerant of ignorant people (the Dalai Lama likes to call them “stupid”), but his teachings have allowed me to reexamine my gut reactions and, eventually, soften those reactions with patience, acceptance, understanding, and compassion for all sentient beings, both the good and the bad. That is what I learned in the group and individual encounters between “His Holiness and I”.
Copyright 2015 – 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Title: His Holiness And I
Key Words: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, his, holiness, Dalai, Lama, Dalai Lama, Tenzin, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, McLeod, Ganj, India, Tibet, China, Chinese, LHA, Tibetan, refugees, travel, value

DayTripQuip™: Ancient Arezzo … An Antique Aficionado’s Allure


DayTripQuip™: Take the train (Regionale Veloce: 1 hour 10 minutes – €8.10/person each way) from Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence. The train station is in the center of Arezzo and just three blocks from the historical center (centro storico), a Roman amphitheater, ancient churches with famous frescoes, a beautiful cathedral containing the mummy of a pope, and a fabulous piazza. Restaurants, antique stores, and shops abound, providing a quaint respite from the crowds of Florence for a few hours at least.

Piazza Grande
Roman Amphitheater
Chiesa San Francesco
Chiesa San Domenico
Duomo San Donato
Pope Gregory X

Fresco of Maria Maddalena – Piero della Francesca

Piazza Grande – Benigni’s “La Vita e Bella” Was Filmed Here

Title: DayTripQuip™: Ancient Arezzo … An Antique Aficionado’s Allure

Key Words: Arezzo, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, Benigni, La Vita e Bella, vita, bella, film, movie, duomo, cathedral, fresco, church, antique, antiques, travel, value, 

18 FREE THINGS TO DO In Florence, Italy (Firenze) … That’s TravelValue!


There are the “must see” places in Florence like the Uffizi Gallery where you can see famous works of art by Michelangelo, DaVinci, Rembrandt, and many, many more or the Galleria dell’ Accademia where Michelangelo’s “David”, one of the most incredible statues you will see anywhere in the world, is located. But most museums and even the churches charge heavily to enter, so you must purchase a FirenzeCard for €72 (valid for 72 hours, allowing free entry into many of Florence’s museums), choose very wisely, visit during FREE ENTRY DAYS (normally the first Sunday of the month), or visit the many free venues in the city …

1) SANTA MARIA NOVELLA AND PHARMACY

Florence is very rich in churches and most of them are free to enter. These include the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, one of the most beautiful churches in the city which houses works by Giotto, Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. Unfortunately, the church now charges €5 to enter, but a visit to the pharmacy, founded by Dominican friars in 1221, is free. In their gardens they cultivated medicinal herbs that were used to prepare medications, balms and ointments for the small monastery. They follow the same formulas for preparation of spices, liquor, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to this day.

Pharmacy website: www.smnovella.it

2) THE “DUOMO” (THE CATHEDRAL OF FLORENCE”)

Built in the 15th Century, admission is free to Santa Maria del Fiore (the Cathedral or “Duomo”), Italy’s second largest church (after St. Peter’s in Rome) and the third largest in the world (St. Paul’s in London is the other). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is open from 10AM to 5PM Monday through Saturday and 1:30PM to 4:45PM on Sunday. The dome, bell tower, museum, and baptistery all charge to enter or you can buy a consolidated ticket on their website. The Museo dell’Opera is closed until November 2015 for renovations.
The facade and dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is imposing and awe-inspiring, dominating the large piazza in which it stands it is so large that it is impossible to photograph the entire structure without a special lens. Its beautiful marble polychrome facade of greens, pinks, and whites is unlike any other I have seen. The interior is massive and spectacular, my favorite part being the massive dome completed in the 1460s with a fresco of the apostles who appear to be sitting on the edges with their legs dangling over the sides.
This is one of the most impressive structures I have seen anywhere in the world and is a MUST SEE if visiting Italy.

3) BAPTISTERY OF ST. JOHN

Across from the Duomo entrance is the Baptistery of St. John. Until the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here. The octagonal monument is distinguished by its geometric, colored-marble exterior and detailed interior mosaics. Admission is €5, but admiring the famous bronze doors (with replica panels) carved with scenes from the Bible is free.

4) OBLATE CAFETERIA

On the second floor of the famous Oblate Library and not far from the Duomo, their Cafeteria has been open to the public since May 2009 and has already become an important place of the city’s social and cultural life. The interior decoration is modern with every detail chosen carefully, allowing you to spend time at the library in a relaxed, safe and unique atmosphere.

Almost every evening there is a themed musical event with free admission and optional drinks (unless you sit at a table of course).

CLICK HERE for more details.

5) SANTA CROCE NEIGHBORHOOD

Just to the east of the historical center is the Santa Croce Neighborhood. Stop in Piazza Santa Croce, the neighborhood’s lively main square, to admire the facade of the medieval Santa Croce Basilica, the largest Franciscan church in the world. Many famous Italians are entombed inside, including Michelangelo, Galileo, and Marconi, but entrance to the church costs €5 (Open Weekdays: 9.30 am – 5.30 pm). Near the church is the Leather School of Santa Croce, Scuola del Cuoio, where you can see artisans making leather products and a display of leather-working tools.

6) STROZZI PALACE

Strozzi Palace is the perfect example of a Renaissance mansion, appearing like a fortress in the heart of the historic center of Florence. Every Thursday evening from 6PM to 10PM free entry is allowed to the “Strozzina” and its Exhibition of Contemporary Art in the palace’s Center for Contemporary Culture.

More details on www.palazzostrozzi.org

7) FREE WALKING TOURS

These tour are the original walking tours of Florence, they are FREE. Arranged by local professional guides working on a tip-only basis, your generosity will allow them to continue this service.

They offer two daily tours beginning at the Central Railway Station (Santa Maria Novella). You will can choose between the Renaissance Tour (11AM), Medici Family Tour (2PM), or take both.

Find more details here: www.florencefreetour.com

8) PIAZZALE MICHELANGELO

Looking for the perfect photo opp while in Florence? Do not miss this large plaza located at the top of a hill above Piazza Poggi on the south side of the river Arno. The centerpiece of the piazzale is its terrace, the perfect place to spend some time taking in the beautiful city below. You can reach this lookout by bus if you are not up to the climb or, like me, have knees that have seen better days.

View From Piazzale Michelangelo

9) ABBEY OF SAN MINIATO AL MONTE

Follow the main street from Piazzale Michelangelo to the steps of the Abbey San Miniato al Monte, one of the highest points in Florence. Michelozzo’s Cappella del Crocifisso (built in 1448) is the centerpiece of the Romanesque basilica and frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi decorate the crypt behind it. 

Wander the abbey’s cemetery where Carlo Collodi, author of Pinocchio, is buried and stay until sunset when the golden light reflects off the Arno and terra-cotta roofs of the majestic city below. 

Admission is free (open from 7AM to 1PM, 3:30PM to 7PM on weekdays in winter, and 7AM to sunset in summer). Masses are held throughout the day on Sunday and holidays; and the 10AM and 5:30PM masses are performed in Gregorian chant in the crypt, an incredible experience.

10) DANTE’S CHURCH

You must pay to enter Dante’s house down the street, but entry to Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, dating back to 1032 and known primarily as the “Church of Dante”, is free.
It has been said that Dante met his muse, Beatrice, here for the first time and fell in love with her. Beatrice’s family had tombs are there where her father, Folco Portinari, is buried. Many visitors like to think that Beatrice is buried in the church and in front of what tradition has identified as Beatrice’s tomb, you can find a chest full of messages lovers leave to Beatrice asking her to protect their love. Beatrice, however, was married to a member of the Bardi family and was likely buried in the tomb of her husband’s family in the cloister of Santa Croce Church.

Address: Piazza dei Giuochi, 50122 Florence, Italy

11) PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA

Florence’s most famous square, Piazza della Signoria is the heart of the historic center and a free open-air sculpture exhibit. The imposing Loggia dei Lanza, also known as Loggia della Signoria, holds important statues, including those by Cellini, Giambologna and Fedi and a proportionally smaller copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in front of the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio. The piazza has been Florence’s political center since the middle ages and Florence’s town hall, the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, literally towers over the piazza. You’ll also want to admire the beautiful fountain in the square or have a seat in front of or under the Loggia della Lanza to relax or watch the multitude of tourists wander past.

12) LOGGIA DEL MERCATO NUOVO

Not far from the Piazza della Signoria you will find the new market or “Loggia del Porcellino”, the name of the fountain portrayed by a wild boar sculpted in bronze and created in the 7th Century by “Pietro Tacca” (the original is kept in Palazzo Pitti). It would be worth your while to spend some time in the area as there is a tradition of placing a coin in the boars mouth. If it falls out and rolls over the water drain, you then rub its nose to bring good luck. Remember the coin must travel to the other side of the drain for it to work!

At the centre of the loggia you can also see the “scandalous stone” (Pietra dello Scandalo), the place place where debtors would be punished in Renaissance Florence. The punishment consisted of chaining the prisoners and whipping their legs, repeatedly falling down onto their behinds.

13) THE MARKETS OF FLORENCE

A stroll through the local markets does not cost anything unless you indulge yourself, but is an excellent way to enjoy a morning, afternoon, or an entire day. Here is a selection of  Florentine markets:

• SAN LORENZO MARKET: Extends from Piazza S. Lorenzo to Ariento Street around the Basilica of San Lorenzo (in the historic center of Florence). It is the most important market in the city and you will find clothing, leather goods, souvenirs, local food products and much more. It is a great place for a quick, inexpensive lunch to eat there or take withg you for a picnic elsewhere in town. It is open Monday to Friday from 7AM to 2PM and on Saturdays from 7:00 to 17:00 (except from mid-June to September when it is closed on Saturdays).

• SANT’AMBROGIO MARKET: Near Piazza Ghiberti and Piazza Sant’Ambrogio, Mercato Sant’Ambrogio has outdoor spaces where you will find fresh fruit, vegetables, clothing, flowers, shoes and appliance stalls. If you are looking for food, enter the building where you will find meat or fresh fish, pasta, general groceries, cheeses, and bread. If you get hungry, there is also a restaurant inside the market with good, cheap meals. The market is open every day (except Sunday) from 7AM to 2PM.

• MERCATO DELLE PULCI: The ‘flea market’ is located in Piazza dei Ciompi and is open daily from 9AM to 7:30PM. On the last Sunday of the month, the stalls are extended to the surrounding streets where you will find whatever you can imagine, including furniture, paintings, antiques, coins and jewelry. Maybe you will find a treasure among the many antiques!

• MERCATO DELLE CASCINE: Is located in the beautiful Parco delle Cascine (the largest park in Florence). Open every Tuesday from 7AM to 2PM, it is probably the biggest and cheapest market in town where you can buy clothing, shoes, housewares and much more.
• THE CURE MARKET, In Piazza delle Cure, it is open every morning except Sunday and holidays.
• THE FIERUCOLINA: “The Fierucolina” is an organic market that promotes organic farming and biodynamic agriculture with food, wine, and handmade bio-manufactured products. It takes place the third Sunday of each month (except in August) in Piazza Santo Spirito (Oltrarno).

• THE MARKET OF RARE BOOKS: In Loggia del Grano, it is open Thursday to Saturday from 10AM to 6PM.

• THE FLOWER MARKET: Under the porch of Piazza della Repubblica, every Thursday morning from 10 to 19.• THE PIGGY MARKET: Florentine straw objects, handmade embroidery, leather goods, wooden objects, and flowers in Piazza del Mercato Nuovo from 8AM to 7PM every day except Sunday and Monday morning.

• THE STRAW MARKET: Piazza del Mercato Nuovo from 9AM to 6:30PM every day except Sunday and holidays.

14) THAT’S PRATO … THE PRATO YOU DO NOT EXPECT!

Across the pizza from chiesa Santa Maria Novella, a free bus will take from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station to various itineraries in and around Prato, a town between Florence and Pistoia heading toward Lucca and Pisa. You pay only for the entrance to museums (if applicable) and your lunch.

Available 10 consecutive Sundays from May to July, taking four routes/itineraries with both Italian and English Guides:

  • CONTEMPORARY ART AND INDUSTRIAL ARCHEOLOGY
  • WHEN THERE WERE THE ETRUSCANS / ETRUSCAN PAST
  • THE NOBLE TRAIL: VILLAS AND CASTLES
  • THE PATH OF PILGRIMS

Email thatsprato@po.camcom.it to request a spot or visit their website: http://thatsprato.com/

PHONE: +39 328 00 21 009

15) OLTRARNO – SANTO SPIRITO AND SAN FREDIANO NEIGHBORHOODS

If you want to get away from the crowds, head across the river on Ponte Santa Trinita (west of Ponte Vecchio) or turn right after traversing Ponte Vecchio toward the area known as Oltrarno. Here you will find interesting neighborhoods that see far fewer tourists. It is a pleasant place for a walk where you will see typical Florentine buildings, small stores, artisan workshops, and small neighborhood squares. In Piazza Santa Spirito there is a small morning market and in the Santo Spirito Church, designed by Brunelleschi in the 15th century, you will find a wealth of art work. Santa Maria del Carmine Church has a beautiful Renaissance fresco in Cappella Brancacci (open 10AM–5PM, Sunday 1PM–5PM, closed Tuesdays).

16) CASA GUIDI: ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING HOME.

Just down the street from Palazzo Piti on the Altarno side of the river, Casa Guidi is located on the first floor (second floor to Americans) of a historic palazzo. There is an engraved stone marker above the massive door indicating where she lived and a brass nameplate above the buzzer outside with details about operating hours. There is also a single brass button below the rest that merely says “Elizabeth”.

The apartment consists of just three rooms that you can visit, but they are spectacular and contain furniture of hers and from the period as well as photos, paintings, busts, and other memorabilia. Her husband study is small, but has elaborate frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The dining room is large, but not extremely interesting. The living room, off of which are the bedrooms and kitchen (not open to the public, but apparently you can rent them for lodging). is massive and contains a large library of her works, more artwork, and some beautiful period furniture as well as some of her possessions.

The visit is self-guided and FREE, but you must visit on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday (April to November) between 3PM and 6PM only. Just ring the buzzer for Casa Guidi, though the giant door and a gate, then go up one flight of stairs to her apartment on the left.
Address: Piazza San Felice 8, 50125 Florence, Italy

Phone: +39 055 354457


17) PONTE VECCHIO

Ponte Vecchio, or the “old bridge”, was built in 1345 and was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River. It’s the only surviving bridge from Florence’s medieval days (the others were destroyed during World War II). Following a flood in 1345, the bridge was reconstructed, adding rows of shops to the bridge where many of the city’s butchers were located. More shops were added later and Ponte Vecchio became a place for gold and silver shopping in Renaissance Florence. It is still lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry, a good place for window shopping or people watching …

18) IF YOU ARE LIKE ME, PEOPLE-WATCHING IS “THE BOMB”

The best free activity in Florence may very well be people-watching. While you peruse the jewelry and souvenir shops on Ponte Vecchio (the medieval stone bridge over the Arno River), get off the beaten path and head to Oltrarno, the neighborhood on the far and less touristy side of the Arno. Get lost on the narrow cobblestone streets, wander in and out of artisan workshops, and rub shoulders with locals at the daily morning market (closed the second and third Sundays of the month, when artisan and antique markets are held) in Piazza Santo Spirito.

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: 18 FREE THINGS TO DO In Florence, Italy (Firenze)

Key Words: free, things, to, do, Florence, Firenze, Italy, Italia, Ponte Vecchio, Duomo, piazza, signoria, ponte, vecchio, santa, maria, novella, Oltrarno, market, mercato, walking, baptistery, Santa Croce, travel, Value

Garbage … I Will Never Waste My Money On Apple Products Again


Review: Apple 60W MagSafe Power Adapter (for MacBook and 13‐inch MacBook Pro)

If you like to travel as much as I do, a computer is a necessity in your home away from home and I take mine wherever in the world I go. Having heard wonderful things, propaganda, about Apple products, I took the leap less than two years ago by purchasing a Macbook Pro, then an iPhone 5C. What a mistake!

Just shy of warranty expiration, my Mac’s OS went TANGO UNIFORM (military speak for hard‐broke), causing me to spend countless hours on the phone with support, wiping my hard drive clean, reinstalling the OS, and recovering everything from backup … several times. Then my 6 month old iPhone died while on vacation in Puerto Rico, stranding us in an unfamiliar area while using Google Maps to navigate the island, losing my ability to take vacation photos/video and unable to contact relatives back home over the holidays.

Most recently, my MagSafe power adapter’s (plastic) “L” connector head broke off. After removing it with a pair of pliers, I super‐glued it back on, allowing me to charge my computer for a couple weeks, but now it will not charge at all. Having paid close to $3500 for three Apple products (including my wife’s computer), I would expect better quality, but what should I expect from overpriced products Made in China? I was shocked to see that Apple wants $79 for a replacement MagSafe adapter. Where else would you pay $80 for a power cord other than Apple? Nowhere! Based on the reviews this product has garnered, it is a piece of $80 junk just like the rest of Apple’s products, I can see that my problem is fairly common. I will buy a new adapter from another supplier for just $30 and I will never buy another Apple product again.

CombatCritic Gives Apple, Inc. and their MagSafe 60W Power Adapter A Dismal 1 Bomb Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: Garbage … I Will Never Waste My Money On Apple Products Again

Key Words: Apple, macbook, pro, MagSafe, power, adapter, 60W, MacIntosh, computer, iPhone, 5C, Mac, phone, product, broken, review, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, tech

Clean, Safe, Fair Priced and Unlike Anthony Bourdain … Some Reservations


Hotel Heritage Home

1603/4 Main Bazar, Pahar Ganj

Near RK Ashram Metro Station

New Delhi 110055, India 

Phone: +91-987-352-9223

Prices: $$$$$

New Delhi (Paharganj), India: I found Hotel Heritage Home on TripAdvisor and made my reservation on Booking.com after reading numerous good reviews. The hotel is just a few blocks from the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg Metro station (opposite end from the train station) on Main Bazaar and just around the corner from Café Festa. It was easy to spot because of the good signage in front. It has a clean, open, rustic feel with a long entry through automatic glass doors, a small reception along with a travel office, an elevator and a rooftop restaurant. The area around the station is seedy to say the least, but vibrant, energetic, and colorful although filthy as is the case around much of Delhi.

Arriving at 1:30 AM after a 30-hour journey, I decided to defer to the hotel to pick me up at the airport. My driver spoke little English, but was right where I was told he would be with my name on a sign. The drive took about 25 minutes with little traffic due to the early hour. The trip was quoted at 900 Rupees ($14.65), not unfair by American standards but 500 Rupees more than the “standard” (400 Rupee – $6.50) fare from the airport to Delhi. In fact, when I inquired about my return trip to the airport, I was quoted 400 Rupees, so maybe there was a “late arrival surcharge”, an not totally unreasonable assumption.

I booked a “standard” room (1200 Rupees/night – $19.50), but found out the next say I was upgraded to a “deluxe” (normally 1800 Rupees – $29.25). The room was basic with marble floors, a large king bed, flat screen TV and cable, a small wardrobe, mini-sofa and table, and a bathroom that also serves as a shower due to the lack of a curtain or door. The room was fortunately in the back away from the street with no windows, which is not a bad thing considering I am sensitive to light and noise when I sleep and Main Bazaar is extremely loud due to the crowds below and the incessant honking of horns that Delhi drivers seem to thrive on.

The hotel’s travel office is convenient and helpful, but based on the prices I was quoted you may be better off booking your (train/bus/hotel/sightseeing) reservations online or directly with the provider as travel agents (and most other businesses) in this area are notorious for overcharging tourists. I will defer my opinion until I can compare quoted charges with online/counter prices through the respective purveyors.

Their rooftop restaurant is “relatively” quiet and inviting with plants, three parakeet cages, and local furnishings with several tables sitting below their own canopy for shade from the warm Delhi sun. The waiters speak barely passable English, but are attentive, efficient, and friendly. The menu has few beverage options, including bottled water, coffees (30-35 rupees – 55 – 60 cents), teas, shakes and other local drinks as well as vegetarian breakfasts, appetizers, pastas, sandwiches, and several options from India. There is no Diet Coke or other low calorie soft drinks and the coffee adequate, seemingly instant and likely Nescafe. The offerings are cheap by American standards, but not great. In two visits, I tried the egg and potato breakfast (80 Rupees – $1.30), accompanied by two pieces of toast (butter and jam), and a coffee with milk (35 rupees). It was adequate, but an excellent value. For dinner I went with the butter chicken (170 rupees – $2.75 – normally, one of my favorites) and an order of garlic cheese naan (60 Rupees – $1.00). The butter chicken came in a tomato-based sauce that tasted like sweet spaghetti sauce, not the creamy, savory variety I have come to love in restaurants in the U.S. and England, and the naan was slathered in butter/oil, a bit too much for my taste.

My biggest disappointments were the unexplained airport surcharge mentioned earlier, the horrible and nearly non-existent internet, and the phantom (500 Rupee) SIM card charge for my iPhone. The internet seemed to work OK upon my arrival and I was fortunately able to Skype with my wife and let he know I was alive, but it was “down” the next two days (the manager said it was their service provider’s fault) and accessible the next two, but so slow that my browsers gave up trying to load. Google also locked me out of all my email accounts because they thought someone was trying to hack me from India, but I could not access my ten accounts to resolve the issue due to lack of internet. What fun! When I told the manager that I wanted to get a local SIM card for my phone, he gallantly offered to have a colleague help me out. I was quoted 500 Rupees ($8.15 for a SIM card) and 495 Rupees for 2GB of 3G data. The data is an excellent value compared to American standards, but when I went to the Vodaphone store in Connaught Palace the next day because I could only get 1G data service throughout Delhi, I was told that “SIM cards are free, you should not have been charged for one”. Oh well, live and learn!

There are much cheaper (and more expensive) options available in Delhi, but if you are looking for a reasonably priced hotel, centrally located near the Metro in an area not abundant with clean, modern facilities, then Hotel Heritage Home is a good option, but be careful about add-on services as they are likely highly inflated.

CombatCritic Gives Hotel Heritage Home 6 Bombs Out of 10 

… Would Have Been 8 If Not For the Airport Surcharge, Internet Fiasco, and Extraneous SIM Card Charge .. MORE BOMBS ARE BETTER!

Title: Clean, Safe, Fair Priced and Unlike Anthony Bourdain … Some Reservations

Key Words: Hotel Heritage Home. hotel, heritage, home, New Delhi, new, Delhi, metro, train, Main Bazaar, main, bazaar, budget, travel, value, TravelValue, CombatCritic, TripAdvisor, trip, advisor

Do You Have Tons Of Photos? DO NOT BUY The WD My Cloud 6TB Personal Cloud


Do youwdMyCloud need cloud storage for all of your travel photos? I do! Do you not want to pay the ridiculous monthly or annual fees for years on end for Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or Amazon Cloud?  I know I do not! The best and most cost-effective alternative is a “personal cloud”, a wireless external hard drive (or drives) connected to your home wireless network with tons of storage space (up to several terabytes – TB – 1TB = 1,000 megabytes) that you can access either at home with your computer (or mobile device) or remotely anywhere in the world. 

After my old personal cloud failed, a 4 TB Western Digital (WD) MyBookLiveDuo, I had to find a replacement, so I decided to give WD one more chance only because of the decent price and good reviews on their new My Cloud products. I purchased a WD My Cloud 6TB Personal Cloud Storage device on Amazon for $269.99 plus tax, hoping that it would “connect effortlessly” to my network as advertised.

The WD MyCloud would not connect to my network when it arrived and after spending an additional 3 hours on the phone with tech support, 5 total, they could not help me and told me to return it to Amazon.  The only reason I chose Western Digital again after having two other products that failed, a 1TB MyPassport and a 4TB MyBookLive Duo, was because of the dearth of available products out there and the poor reviews on Seagate products. Never again WD!

CombatCritic Gives WD My Cloud 6TB Personal Cloud Storage 0 Bombs Out Of 10 … Can’t Get Any Lower Than That … And A Spot On CombatCritic’s Wall Of Shame 

Less Than …. 

 

WallOfShame

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title:  Do You Have Tons Of Photos? DO NOT BUY  The WD My Cloud 6TB Personal Cloud Storage Device

Key Words: WD My Cloud 6TB Personal Cloud Storage, WD, My Cloud, 6TB, Personal, Cloud, Storage, NAS, WDBCTL0060HWT-NESN, review, Western Digital, western, digital, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, tech, technology, photo

Come Down From Your Roost For Some (Pricey) Hooch, Breakfast, Or Lunch


The Roost

920 Massachusetts Street

Lawrence, KS 66044

Phone (785) 843-1110

Web 920mass.com

Prices $$$$$

Biscuits and Gravy – $7?

After 36 hours without food and cameras shoved every which way (I’ll spare you the gruesome details), I thought it was time for some carbs and protein … the biscuits and gravy tasted great, although quite pricey at $7 for a full order, the biscuits being rather small with barely enough gravy to cover them completely. UNSAT! 

Kansan – $8

I had the Kansan ($8) with eggs, bacon, home fries and English muffin on my first two visits. It was good, not spectacular, and a fair sized serving, but the bacon was a tad too crispy even for my taste. Being primarily a breakfast joint, they have very few popular or traditional options to choose from (can you say skillets?), so on my most recent (and likely last) visit, I ordered an omelette ($6) with bacon ($1), onion, peppers, and mushrooms (50 cents each for a total of $8.50). When the server asked me what kind of toast I wanted, I asked if they had English muffins and she said that they did. What she failed to tell me was that there was a 50 cent up-charge, a fact I spotted only after the check arrived (see bill below). The 50 cent English muffin dominated the plate, dwarfing the small, yet tasty, omelette and a smattering of bland, unseasoned fried potatoes (see photo – objects are smaller than they actually appear).

The ALL YOU CAN DRINK self-service coffee bar ($2) is the The Roost’s highlight, a superb selection of four premium coffees with your normal choices of additions (half-and-half, skim and soy milk, cinnamon, sugar) available as needed.

Omelette – $8.50 + 50 Cents for an English Muffin

The service is adequate, not bad, not great, with little interaction and a bit of a “high brow” feel. A breakfast place should have a warmer, more inviting, friendlier ambience, especially in a small college town. For example, when I asked to barista to replenish the half-and-half at the coffee bar on our most recent visit, all I received was a scowl as she was poured a complimentary glass of alcohol by a cohort at 11:30 in the morning.

Their prices are quite high on most things, so I have to deduct a couple bombs when it comes to “value”.  For example, $5 should be the maximum price for biscuits and gravy no matter how big the order is or how good they are and if you are going to up-charge customers, they should be told in advance in order to make an informed decision as to whether or not they choose to pay the difference.

Oddly enough, for a place that is only open for breakfast and lunch (7am-3pm), The Roost has a bar and will serve you rather expensive cocktails ($7-$8) or wine ($5), so if you are looking for a mid-day buzz along with your biscuits and gravy, this is the place for you. But based on the high prices, small portions, uninspiring cuisine, and mediocre service, I think I will keep trying to find a decent breakfast place in Lawrence. I have my doubts.

CombatCritic Gives The Roost 4 Out Of 10 Bombs … BOMBS ARE GOOD!

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp And TripAdvisor … And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title:  Come Down From Your Roost For Some (Pricey) Hooch, Breakfast, Or Lunch

Key Words: The Roost, roost, breakfast, lunch, bar, coffee, egg, biscuit, gravy, bacon, omelette, food, menu, Massachusetts, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value

Matador Network Says “42”, TripAdvisor Lists “51” … Which Is It?


CombatCritic’s Travel Map

CombatCritic has been to: United Arab Emirates, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Bahrain, Canada, Switzerland, Serbia and Montenegro, Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Micronesia, France, United Kingdom, Greenland, Greece, Guam, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, India, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Macedonia, Mexico, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Palau, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, San Marino, Tunisia, Turkey, United States, Vatican.
Get your own travel map from Matador Network.

Middle-Eastern Staples … Tahini and Hummus


Tahini

tahini

Tahini can be prepared homemade or purchased at a Middle Eastern grocer in a can. It is called tahini or tahina, depending on the region.

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups sesame seeds
  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil or vegetable oil

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350. Toast sesame seeds for 5-10 minutes, tossing the seeds frequently with a spatula. Do not allow to brown. Cool for 20 minutes.

Pour sesame seeds into food processor and add oil. Blend for 2 minutes. Check for consistency. The goal is a thick, yet pourable texture. Add more oil and blend until desired consistency.

Yield: 4 cups

Storing Tahini

Tahini should be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly closed container. It will keep for up to 3 months.

Hummus

Ingredients – Recipe makes 5 Cups/40 Servings

2 Cloves Garlic

2 (19 ounce) cans garbanzo beans, half the liquid reserved

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup tahini

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

black pepper and cumin to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

hummus

Directions

  1. In a blender, chop the garlic. Pour garbanzo beans into blender, reserving about a tablespoon for garnish. Put lemon juice, tahini, chopped garlic, and salt in blender. Add salt gradually as the blending occurs. Blend until creamy and well mixed.
  1. To adjust the texture between creamy and more solid, vary the amount of liquid you drain from the can. The more liquid the creamier.
  1. Transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl and store the rest in your freezer. Sprinkle with pepper and pour olive oil over the top. Garnish with a few garbanzo beans.

Serve with baked pita chips or fresh vegetables…ENJOY!

Title: Middle-Eastern Staples … Tahini and Hummus

Key Words: Middle Eastern appetizer tahini tahina dip pita sesame seeds food processor Hummus lemon cloves garlic cumin garbanzo beans garnish lemon juice garlic blend salt pepper olive oil,

REVIEW: IOGEAR High Capacity Portable Battery (GMP6600P)


If you love to travel like I do and hate it when your smartphone dies in the middle of the day, the IOGEAR High Capacity Portable Battery (GMP6600P) is a excellent choice for the price! 

My first day in India, I had traveled 30+hours, gotten 3 hours of sleep, and being in one of the craziest places on Earth (Old Dehli), my iPhone battery was depleted by 3pm. Wonderful! This shithole (Old Dehli) was not the place you, or I in this case, want to be without Google Maps (between TripAdvisor and Google Maps, I would have been

For $40.00, it charges smartphones, tablets, and notebooks on the go and has incredible capacity.

I can recharge my smartphone 4-5 times off one charge! I have not tried to power or charge my notebook computer yet, so I cannot tell you how that works, but for smartphones it is well worth the price.

I have an app for my phone called GolfLogix that gives me GPS data for golf, including ball position, distance to pin, etc. for whatever course I am playing. Before I bought the IOGEAR battery, my battery would die after less than 9 holes and that was using power sparingly. Now i can play a whole round with JUICE to spare…I can even make phone calls on the way home or make a reservation for dinner on Open Table!

Great little battery, it PACKS A POWERFUL PUNCH!

CombatCritic gives the ASIN:B005IY8AZ0 IOGEAR GearPower High Capacity Portable Battery for Smartphones/Tablets/Mobile Devices GMP6600P (Gray) 9 BOMBS OUT OF 10 (BOMBS ARE GOOD!)

Read more travel, restaurant, hotel, destination reviews … AND MORE … on my blog:

http://www.combatcritic.blogspot.com

and on CombatCritic TV:

http://www.YouTube.com/CombatCritic

CombatCritic…OUT!

Title:  REVIEW: IOGEAR High Capacity Portable Battery (GMP6600P)

Key Words: battery, capacity, charge, charger, computer, device, high, Iogear, juice, mobile, netbook, notebook, portable, rechargeable, smartphone, tablet, travel,

TravelValue™, TravelSafe™, ValueTravel™ …. “Follow Me To Travel Value”™


Copyright 2011-2015 – CombatCritic and 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved

Title: TravelValue, TravelSafe, ValueTravel …. “Follow Me To Travel Value”

Key Words: Trademark, Copyright, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, TravelValue, TravelSafe, ValueTravel, Follow Me To TravelValue, CombatCritic, 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC

DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort


Taj Mahal and Agra Fort Day Trip

If you want to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, make a day trip out of it rather than staying overnight in Agra. Agra has few redeeming qualities other than these two extremely impressive landmarks in my opinion and spending even one night should be avoided. Let’s face it … Agra is a pit!

There are bus tours available or you can take a train from the main New Delhi station if on a budget, but I would not recommend the train unless you have confirmed reservations both coming and going. If planning a visit to Varanasi by bus, car, or train, another option is to visit Agra on the way as it lies between New Delhi and India’s holiest city. However, by the time you pay for two or more bus tour tickets, you could hire a private cab to take you to Agra, leaving New Delhi at 9AM, visiting both Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stopping for lunch and some shopping, and returning to New Delhi by 9PM.

                                    Agra Fort Exterior                                       

My wife and I hired a taxi for the day at our hotel near the New Delhi train station, charging us 7,500 rupees ($120.00) for the itinerary described earlier. We left around 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning, a good day to go to as traffic is quite a bit lighter in New Delhi on a Sunday morning. It took us about two-and-a-half hours to get to Agra Fort, including a pit stop, traveling on the toll road, which costs a little more than the toll-free route, but shaved an additional two hours off the journey … each way!

A foggy morning, we decided to visit Agra Fort first to let the clouds burn off a bit before we headed over to the nearby Taj Mahal. We picked up our “complimentary tour guide” who briefed us on safety/security details upon arrival where “hawkers” and “pickpockets” reportedly would be waiting for us when we exited the taxi. The hawkers were no worse than any other tourist attraction in India and pickpockets are not a problem as long as you use a little common sense and pay attention to your surroundings.

Agra Fort is beautiful, impressive, and crowded. Entry was 350 rupees ($5.70 each) and we spent about an hour walking through the grounds, snapping photos, and learning about its history from our guide. We may have very well missed something as we found out later that our guide was cutting corners and not totally truthful in order to move us along so we had time to go shopping at a marble factory he was “touting” (“receiving kickback from”, a common practice among taxi drivers and tour guides throughout India and elsewhere).

The Taj Mahal is open every day except Friday from sunrise to sunset, not “6am to 7pm” as advertised by About Travel’s “India Travel Expert” in her Taj Mahal Travel Guide: What to Know Before You Go. There are three gates, but we entered through the East Gate (described as the “VIP gate” by our guide), paying 750 rupees ($12.15) each for entry, jumping on a tram for the short ride to the entrance. The lines were short both to buy tickets and enter the grounds, so this may very well be the best available option.

Once inside, there is a large courtyard to traverse before entering through the “Royal Gate”, an ornate red sandstone arch where the enormous Taj Mahal looms in the background as you enter. Having seen countless photos and heard numerous stories about the Taj Mahal for many years, I was very interested in visiting, but until I actually saw it in person, I had no idea how impressive it actually is.

The long, narrow reflecting pond is cut in half by a raised terrace where “Princess Diana’s Bench” or “Lady Di’s Chair” is located, the location of a famous photo taken of the princess during a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1992. We were told, as were many other tourists apparently, that the bench closest to the “Royal Gate” (on the opposite side of the terrace from the Taj Mahal) was where the photo was actually taken. But I assumed it was actually the other bench (closest to the tomb and, oddly enough, ignored by most tourists even though it offers a much better photo opportunity) where it was taken, a hunch that was confirmed the next day when I checked the internet for the photo.

There is a small museum (free) on the West side of the grounds halfway between the Royal Gate and Taj Mahal that is well worth a visit. I knew it was there and as our guide tried to steer us toward the tomb I asked if we could visit, but he said “it’s closed for renovations”. I could see that people were entering and leaving the building, so I insisted on going over to check. “Oh, they must be letting a small number of people in, you are very lucky” he exclaimed as we walked up to the doorway. The museum has four small rooms with artifacts from the site and other interesting exhibits, so take 30 minutes and visit.

You can read about the Taj Mahal in many places, so I will not elaborate here. I will say that it is absolutely breathtaking and a MUST SEE in your lifetime, this coming from someone who has traveled to 51 countries and having seen many of the most beautiful and famous attractions in the World. Even though the tour guide lied to me about the museum, normally a deal breaker, he took 4+ hours out of his day to show us around Agra, so I gave him a 500 rupee tip ($8.20 – he probably would have gotten 1,000 rupees if he had not lied), a small price to pay for an experience of a lifetime.

CombatCritic Gives The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort 10 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!

Title: DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Key Words: Agra, New Delhi, new, delhi, Taj Mahal, taj, mahal, fort, taxi, bus, train, travel, tour, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, CombatCritic, value

One Of The Best (Not Tex-Mex) Mexican Restaurants in Lawrence … Not Much To Brag About!


Mi Ranchito
707 W. 23rd Street
Lawrence, Kansas 66046

Phone: (785) 727-2005

www.miranchitokc.com

Prices: $$$$$

 The Infamous “Bar” … My Home Away From Home                     

To be the BEST MEXICAN FOOD IN LAWRENCE the bar must not be set very high as I have yet to have a Mexican meal as good as the worst I have eaten in Texas, where I was a resident for 20 years, and not a single one that resembles Tex-Mex. On that note, let me add my two cents …

The place was nearly full on a Sunday night, a rarity in Lawrence, particularly among Mexican restaurants, and normally a good sign. We were steered into the bar for some reason, asked if we wanted to sit at a “high-top” even though there were booths available in the bar and tables available in the restaurant. Maybe I look like a lush, but I think it was primarily because there was nobody in the bar and the bartender needed something to do. The lush that I am, I ordered the margarita special ($7.99), described as containing “El Jimador” tequila and not bad although the “20 ounces” were more like 13, coming in the standard “cheater” glass that looks big on the outside … well, you know what I mean.

The chips and salsa arrived rather quickly, the chips being far too thin and very likely out of a bag along with a red salsa and an odd looking yellowish-green sauce. The salsa was not bad with obvious hints of fresh cilantro. The other, described by one reviewer as a “lemon avocado” sauce, was strange, unlike anything I have ever had in a Mexican restaurant, but again not bad.

Guacamole and Espinaca “Dips”

We decided on the Espinaca Cheese Dip ($5.99), a blend of hot cheese, white onions, tomatoes and spinach, and the guacamole ($6.99). The guacamole was described as “fresh and buttery avocados, cilantro, jalapeños, onions, lime juice and special spices” on the menu, but I found no evidence of either cilantro or jalapeño (or butter for that matter). I thought the price was a bit steep compared to other places in town, but the serving was large and the guacamole pretty good, not nearly as good as mine however. The “espinaca” (spinach) cheese dip had too little spinach, much less name the dish after it, to mention and seemed to be more like your average chili con queso minus the chili, but it was big and decent. My primary complaint being that the chips were too thin to withstand either “dip”, falling apart when submerged in either and resulting in a basket full of crumbles with very few whole chips.

$7.99 … Really?

Like most Italians my wife dislikes spicy food, especially Mexican (one of my favorites), ordering her standard “cheese quesadilla” … boring! At $7.99, I have to say that this was one of the most pitiful quesadillas I have ever seen and a terrible value. Charging $8 for a (small) flour tortilla, a couple ounces of cheese, a spoonful of sour cream and even less guacamole, and a thimbleful of pico de gallo (which was noticeably missing from the plate even though it is on the menu) should be a crime, highway robbery, but it’s not, so there you go.

As always, on my first visit to a Mexican restaurant, I ordered tacos and enchiladas to see if they could get even the simplest of recipes right, in this case el numero nueve, the #9 combo, with a burrito, taco, and enchilada, “machaca” (shredded beef) all. I have to say that the taco was the best I have had in recent years, having lived in the Midwest since 2008, being large, stuffed with plenty of machaca, deep fried, then topped with lettuce, cheese, and even some diced tomatoes. It would have been nearly perfect if the taco had a couple of thin slices of avocado on it, but we had plenty of guacamole leftover so it was not an issue, although a very good idea. The enchilada and burrito were both equally stuffed with shredded beef, but uninspiring with little to no cheese and smothered seemingly in the same red (enchilada?) sauce. The rice and beans were minimal, sprinkled with kernels of corn oddly enough and two deep-fried masa de maiz (corn meal dough) balls, another novelty … could it be Tex-Mex … not! They were all “OK”, but the taco was the star of the show and likely a staple if we return.

The prices were comparably a bit steep, except for the combinations oddly enough, the service good, and the food decent, maybe even one of the BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANTS IN LAWRENCE, but that is nothing to brag about!

CombatCritic Gives Mi Ranchito (Lawrence) 5 Bombs Out Of 10 … VERY AVERAGE … More Bombs Are Better!

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic, Including Mi Ranchito, On Yelp And TripAdvisor Along With Many Other Reviews And More!


Title: One Of The Best (Not Tex-Mex) Mexican Restaurants in Lawrence … Not Much To Brag About!

Key Words: Mi Ranchito, mi, ranchito, Mexican, restaurant, food, taco, enchilada, burrito, guacamole, Lawrence, Kansas, 23rd, menu, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value

CombatCritic QandA: (McLeod Ganj, H.P, India) Are there places to stay with kitchenettes?


Q:

las habitaciones tienen kitchenette? (Are there places to stay with kitchenettes?)
CLAUDIAGESELL  
villa gesell

A:
 
There are apartments with kitchens/kitchenettes available, but you’re going to have to look once you get there. Stay in a hotel for a day or two and ask locals. You’ll find something fairly quickly at a low price if you like. Gandhi House (below Pink House) has rooms with kitchenettes, but may require a long-term stay (one month or more. Ask the staff at Mountain Lion Cafe, they may know.  Tell them CombatCritic sent you.  Hope this helps!
 

Title:  McLeod Ganj, H.P, India: Are there places to stay with kitchenettes?

Key Words: McLeod Ganj, mcleod, ganj, kitchenette, kitchen, hotel, apartment, dharmasala, dharamshala, India, travel, doubts, concern, question, answer, CombatCritic. TravelValue, travel, value

CombatCritic QandA: McLeod Ganj, India) Solo Female Has Doubts And Questions About Travel


Q:

Hey there,
 
Want to visit Mcloedganj and Dharamshala solo. i have some doubts.
 
1. which place is more appropriate to stay ? Mcleodganj and Dharamshala ?
 
2. Does your hotel provide taxi or cab facility to roam around the city or to go tourist attractions.
 
3. Is it safe to travel alone?
 
4. Any other thing i need to cautious about ?
 
Thanks.
 
Nehadixit, New Delhi, India

A:

Dear Nehadixit,
 
Want to visit Mcloedganj and Dharamshala solo … have no doubts!
 
1. which place is more appropriate to stay ? Mcleodganj and Dharamshala ?
 
Dharamsala has little to offer. McLeod Ganj is where all the action is … the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan people, monasteries, yoga, meditation, NGOs, restaurants, hiking/trekking, clean air, beautiful scenery
 
2. Does your hotel provide taxi or cab facility to roam around the city or to go tourist attractions.
 
You don’t need a cab unless you want to travel outside of town. Everything is within walking distance of McLeod Ganj … Bhagsu Village, St Johns, Dharamkot, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archive, etc … or a short, cheap bus ride away
 
3. Is it safe to travel alone?
 
McLeod Ganj is extremely safe for men and women, being inhabited by Tibetans primarily. Partly because of their Buddhist beliefs, they are very compassionate, peaceful, and kind people.
 
4. Any other thing i need to cautious about ?
 
Not really, but pick a hotel wisely. There are many to choose from, ranging from 200 to 3,000+ rupees per night depending on your tastes. The Tse Chok Ling Monastery sits on a hill overlooking the valley, is extremely peaceful, and a great value at 600 rupees per night. You can read reviews of hotels, restaurants, and attractions on my blog and watch videos orienting you to McLeod Ganj on my YouTube channel, so feel free to contact me for details.
 
Good luck!
 
CombatCritic

Key Words: McLeod Ganj, mcleod, ganj, dharmasala, dharamshala, India, travel, doubts, concern, question, answer, CombatCritic. TravelValue, travel, value

One Tough, Compact, Well-Priced Backpack … “Highly Recommended”


High Sierra Classic Series 59201 Summit 45 Backpack
We bought this backpack on Amazon.com for a 4-month trip to India, knowing that we would frequently be moving from place to place and that the condition of roads and sidewalks would not be conducive to rolling suitcases. 
 
There was plenty of room for 2-3 days worth of clothing, accessories, toiletries, and even a laptop (and cord), having a large inner compartment, three exterior compartments, two mesh exterior sleeves, and numerous velcro loops, buckles, and other devices to attach things to.
 
The material is lightweight, but durable, holding-up well to the demands of multiple trips via train, bus, car, and plane and compact enough to fit into the smallest overhead compartments.  In-fact, we traveled by plane internationally and domestically, carrying-on our backpacks on even the smallest aircraft. The backpack is comfortable to wear with padded shoulder straps, an adjustable chest strap, and a padded waist buckle to keep the pack secure during the most arduous journeys. After four months, the backpack looks nearly as new as the day I bought it and everything functions as advertised.
 
For the price ($54.99), this is one tough, compact, well-made bag and definitely worth every penny. 
 
CombatCritic Gives The High Sierra Classic Series 59201 Summit 45 A Coveted “10 Bombs Out Of 10” … More Bombs Are Better!
 
 
Title: One Tough, Compact, Well-Priced Backpack … Highly Recommended by CombatCritic
 
Key Words: High Sierra, high, sierra, summit, 59201, 45, litre, backpack, nylon, zipper, tough, compact, Amazon, Amazon.com, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value