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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

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A tale of two bridges

7 Jun
7 June 2016. There is no question the ancient Romans were talented engineers. The Colosseum in Roma is still standing after almost 2000 years while the courthouse in Salem, Oregon, was condemned after 10 years due to construction problems.
Me at the amazing Pont du Gard. Still standing after 2000 years.

Me at the amazing Pont du Gard. Still standing after 2000 years.

At Avignon there are two famous bridges: The Pont du Gard and the Pont Saint-Bénézet. The Pont du Gard is as old as the Colosseum (1st century A.D.) and still standing, but the Pont Saint-Bénézet (aka Pont d’Avignon), built between 1177 and 1185, was abandoned in the mid 17th century as they could not keep the arches from collapsing when the Rhône River flooded. Today the four surviving arches on the bank of the Rhône are believed to have been built in around 1345 and are all that remain. It is a bridge to nowhere.
The bridge to nowhere, that is the "Pont du Avignon."

The bridge to nowhere, that is the “Pont du Avignon.”

Roman engineering triumphs, but not necessarily the Romans of today. Overall it seems to us that maintenance is not a priority. Italians wait until something is broken to fix it.
We’ve stopped in Antibes and Avignon visiting Nice and Arles while in the vicinity, followed by a few chilly days in Chamonix during which Mont Blanc refused to reveal itself. We navigated through the French train strike with minor inconveniences and we ate our share of baguettes and too much cheese. We had a fabulous pizza in Antibes, of all places, and a terrible one — one of the worst ever — in Chamonix. (I’ll blog about this one shortly at Our Weekly Pizza.)
Following are a few travel photos with captions for those inclined to click through the slideshow.
A presto!

 

 

Return to Monte Mario

13 Apr
13 April 2016. As we looked down on Roma from 450-foot-high Monte Mario, the highest point in town, I contemplated how wonderful it was to be hiking at 10:30 AM on a Tuesday and how lucky we are to be doing so in Roma. Ah, retirement is good!
Thanks to Melissa for this nice picture of Bill, me and Ric at Lo Zodiaco, overlooking Rome from the west.

Thanks to Melissa for this nice picture of Bill, me and Ric at Lo Zodiaco, overlooking Rome from the west.

Today we retraced our route from Thanksgiving 2012, aided once again by the book “Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries That Don’t Go to the Colosseum.”  We were joined by friends and fellow-embassy retirees, Bill and Melissa, who had not yet made this trek. Very few minutes into the hike one completely forgets one is surrounded by a major city. All you hear is birds singing. Climbing past views of St. Peter’s Basilica and ever higher above the quartiere of Prati, after about 45 minutes one emerges at the Bar/Restaurant Lo Zodiaco, a perfect place for refreshment and contemplating the city at your feet.
The Madonna peaks through the trees as we descend Monte Mario.

The Madonna peaks through the trees as we descend Monte Mario.

The second part of the “hike” becomes urban, with some rather intense traffic, then one enters the woods yet again, enjoying views over the soccer stadium, a shiny Madonna high on the hill, and finally the Foro Italico (formerly Mussolini’s Forum) and the Stadio dei Marmi. It is an area of Roma that most visitors don’t see, but it is a treat to explore these pockets of the city a piede (on foot) and work off post-hike lunch before even eating it. 
We ate pizza at a convenient location along the Tevere by the Foro Italico. Our Weekly Pizza would only rate this place at 6-out-of-10 points, but it was convenient and we four enjoyed wrapping up our urban trek with lunch at the very Italian hour of 13:30. Ahhhh, retirement!
Click on any picture below for a better view. 

Night train to Vienna

21 Feb
Does that title conjure up images of The Third Man: Harry Lime and Holly Martins with the lovely Anna prowling about post-WWII Vienna, chasing through dark streets, sewers, and buildings reduced to rubble? The movie paints Vienna as a bleak and dreary place, certainly not the city of Mozart and Schubert.
The Stephanskirche in Vienna is very dark and grim inside and out.

The St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna is very dark and grim inside and out.

We found Vienna to be quite bleak as well. Perhaps it is just the weather, which was rather like Seattle in winter, only colder. Skies were gray on gray, with winds that chill the neck and beg one to wrap the scarf more tightly.  We feasted our eyes on the riches of the Habsburgs in all their excess: The Hofburg Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM for short; marvelous!), and the Schönbrunn Palace. We walked through diverse areas of the old city, marveled at the musical heritage of this one small burg, and ate non-Italian food for days. We did miss our €1.00 espresso shots and accessibly priced Italian wines, but my, the bread and pastries were tasty!
Settling in for a night on the train.

Settling in for a night on the train.

The night train was fun and we would gladly do it again. We had a large private compartment for less than the price of two one-way airline tickets and a night in a hotel plus airport transportation on both ends. The compartment even had a bathroom, although coaxing hot water out of the shower proved to be an impossible task. We slept far better than we expected to and greeted the new day in Austria with breakfast served in our compartment. All-in-all it was a lovely evening and night, affording us the opportunity to hit the streets of Vienna upon arrival.
The Schoenbrunn Palace of 1441 rooms rivals Versailles. It dates to the 16th century when it was, of course, built as a hunting lodge. Inside is 18th century Rococo.

The Schoenbrunn Palace of 1441 rooms rivals Versailles. It dates to the 16th century when it was, of course, built as a hunting lodge. Inside is 18th century Rococo.

The Habsburg wealth and excess gave us pause to consider excesses and royalty. It seemed even more excessive than that which we have seen elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps because Austria is now such a small country it is difficult to reconcile with the once great status of the empire and the family that acquired such wealth.  It is a wonder the Austrian people didn’t do to the Habsburgs what the French did to the Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in the French Revolution. (Nota Bene: Marie-Antoinette was a Habsburg by
The backyard at the Schoenbrunn Palace.

The backyard at the Schoenbrunn Palace.

birth.) Empress Elizabeth, AKA, Sisi, seemed to be worshiped in the eponymously named museum within the Hofburg Palace. While it was fun to see the gowns and elegance of the time, she was a tragic narcissist who had ankle-length hair, a penchant for the finest chocolate Demel could deliver, and despised being married to the Emperor. Not much to admire in my book. 
For more on the riches and sights of Vienna please click on any picture below for a slide show. 
The silver lining to winter city-trips is that sites are not crowded. While weather prohibited sipping coffee in a sunny square, we enjoyed crowd-free touring and waltzed right into the museums and palaces. To be fair, even with 2 ½ days we failed to see all Vienna had to offer. Wish we’d had time for the Klimt Museum at the Belvedere Palace.
Typical wurstel stand in Vienna. YEs, they are much patronized. No, we did not.

Typical wurstel stand in Vienna. Yes, they are much patronized. No, we did not.

The food surprised us. Our dinners were anything but formula Austrian. Fresh fish and creative treatment of vegetables surprised us, although of course one can find schnitzel, too. Wine by the bottle is expensive compared to our beloved Italy, but restaurants offer a remarkable selection of wines by-the-glass at prices that make a bottle seem unnecessary. We are now big fans of Grüner Veltliner, the exceptional Austrian white wine.
The Vienna U-Bahn employs an honor system we’ve not seen before. There are no turnstiles or gates. You are responsible for buying and carrying a validated ticket or pass, and there are spot checks. We sashayed on-and-off a few times, then the last morning on our way to the train station encountered an army of ticket checkers at Schwedenplatz – at least a dozen strong – randomly looking at tickets and passes. The system made transit quite smooth. I wonder if it could be made to work in Rome?
My travel companion of 31 years and a bottle of prosecco to start the trip.

My travel companion of 31 years and a bottle of prosecco to start the trip.

For anyone planning a trip to Vienna, I have three recommendations.
  1. Hotel Stefanie is just past the Danube Canal to the north of the Ringstrasse. Old-world in style, but upgraded for modern travel with powerful showers of never-ending hot water (unlike Base Camp Barton in Rome), WIFI, and an enormous breakfast buffet. The tram to the center runs right by the front door. Off-season we paid €106.00 per night.

    Lovely fish and vegetable dish at El Hans. Delectible and pretty.

    Lovely dorado and bok choy with potatoes at El Hans. Delectable and pretty.

  2. We had incredible meals at El Hans and ef16 both within walking distance of the hotel. Certainly you can get Wienerschnitzel, but why do so when there is freshly grilled octopus, calamari, trout, pumpkin soup, violet mashed potatoes, and figs at every turn? How does Austria manage to do vegetables so much better than Switzerland?
  3. A transit pass for three days was very worthwhile. Although we walked 9-10 km daily, the weather frequently made jumping on the tram a good idea. No need to buy a Vienna Card. As seniors, every museum gave us a discount upon asking (the low end of senior defined as a youthful 61). 
More to come…Salzburg and the Pillerseetal ahead!

 

Things to do in Roma

11 Feb
I am frequently asked for ideas on what to do in Roma. After all, we have people house-and-cat-sitting all the time, often for 2 or 3 weeks. And living here, we certainly have to get beyond the usual suspects.
Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Everyone knows the Colosseum and Vatican, and probably the Galleria Borghese. While these should not be missed, there are many other lesser-known sights to consider. You might also enjoy reading my blog on the subject of off-the-beaten-track ideas.

Palazzi, museums, events, and exhibits

From April-November 12, 2017, there are once again special events in the Forums, a guided walk through Caesar’s Forum at night, and a multi-media show in the Forum of Augustus. You can find info at Viaggio nei fori. There’s nothing like a lovely outing after dark on a warm summer night. Take a break during the heat and head out after an early dinner for these events. I would do both, if not necessarily on the same night. If you have trouble reserving online, do not hesitate to call. They speak English.
Domus Romane at Palazzo Valentini is not the usual Roman ruin. Everyone we send here says it is one of the best things they did in Roma. Beneath a government building in the center of Roma, just off Piazza Venezia, are the excavated ruins of a Roman palazzo. You walk across a Plexiglas floor to view them, enhanced with a multimedia presentation to illustrate what things looked like 2000 years ago. Only three English tours daily so be sure to reserve online in advance.
Hard-hat tour of Nero's

Hard-hat tour of Nero’s “Golden House,” the Domus Aurea.

Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden Palace. Who can resist? It is legendary, although the goldenness is long gone. The restoration project is ambitious given the size. Visit the website and click on “Opening Hours.” Be aware, it is cold underground and even in summer you’ll need a jacket!
We went to Villa Torlonia a couple of years ago on a sunny February Sunday and enjoyed it very much. Recent guests told us that more has been done and one can even visit Mussolini’s bunker from WWII. The entrance fee to see all of the buildings is a little expensive, IMHO, but worth seeing for architecture buffs. La Casina della Civette is quite unique.  The Mussolini Bunker is priced separately from the main buildings.
Villa Torlonia

La Casina delle Civette at Villa Torlonia, a curious mix of styles.

Galleria Colonna  is only open on Saturday mornings with an English tour at noon. We went early and had a wander around, then took the tour. Lovely private collection in an amazing building. The Colonnas are an ancient Roman family and members still live in the palazzo in private apartments. We have not been to the Princess’ Apartments, but British friends said they were great, so we need to go back.
Palazzo Farnese, the French Embassy to Italy. This is an historic building with Michelangelo’s art and frescoes worth straining your neck to see. English tours only on Wednesday at 17:00 and you must reserve a few weeks in advance for security reasons.
Villa Medici

Niobe suffers from hubris and loses al of her children. Gardens of Villa Medici.

Villa Medici, the French Art Academy in Roma. No reservations required. Just show up at Noon, Tue-Sun. You will see what the gardens of a Renaissance Roman villa night have looked like.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni has special art exhibits that are usually worthwhile. Recently we saw French Impressionists from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Very busy Sundays when Roman families seem to flock to museums. 
Palazzo Braschi Museo di Roma near Piazza Navona is an under-visited, very tranquil museum. Cool on a warm day and certainly a respite from the rain should that occur. Featuring art depicting Roma in days gone by.
The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi was like an Escher painting.

The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi is like an Escher painting.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj in the historic center is also under-appreciated. It is yet another private collection in the old family digs. The collection includes Bernini, Caravaggio, Tiziano, Raffaello, and several Flemish Old Masters. The audio guide is excellent.
The Quirinale, the President’s Palace. Only recently opened for regular tours, thanks to President Sergio Matterella. Previously it was the Papal Palace (pre-Vatican days) and also housed four kings of Italy. Like visiting the White House, but security is less stringent and it’s fancier.
Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Eataly has two locations, a small one in Piazza della Repubblica, and the Mother Ship near Stazione Ostiense. I believe the larger store is worth the trip. Easy to stop on your way home from Ostia Antica (see below) with many choices for lunch. Eataly features Italian-made food products and a few non-food items. It is a showcase for all good things in the Italian food culture. Getting there once you reach Stazione Ostiense is a bit interesting, as I mentioned in my blog. You must persevere!
Looking to leave the crowds behind? Villa Farnesina is hidden away in Trastevere. Commissioned during the Renaissance by Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker, it contains frescoes by Raphael and is lightly attended. 
Churches worth seeing: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, St. Ignazio, San Clemente (the famous layered church), San Giovanni in Laterano, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassede, San Luigi dei Francesi (the seat of the French Catholic Church in Rome) and others too numerous to mention. 
Bernini's elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Bernini’s elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Guided Tours

There are two places we highly recommend guided tours: The Vatican and The Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino.
Walks of Italy  does a special tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s, “The Pristine Sistine.” I highly recommend it. It is not inexpensive, but the groups are small (only 12 people), the guides are educational and entertaining, and you get to the Sistine Chapel before it is a hot mess of people.
For the sites of Ancient Rome, the Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino, a private guide is a great idea. For about €50-55 per hour, you get a personalized experience. Sonia Tavoletta (soniatav@alice.it) and Francesca Caruso (francescainroma@gmail.com) are excellent. They will customize anything you want. If you have four-or-more people in your party, this is less expensive on a per person basis than many organized tours. 

Day Trips

Ostia Antica. In the

Ostia Antica. In the “Piazzale delle Corporazioni” or Square of the Guilds. Mosaics depict services and products.

Ostia Antica is less than an hour away from Roma by local train out of Stazione Ostiense. What the volcano did at Pompeii, time and the river did to Ostia Antica. These are actually well-preserved for Roman ruins, and I find the Rick Steves’ audio guide (MP3 available at his website) and the guide in his book are excellent for self-touring.
Orvieto is a one-hour train ride from Roma Stazione Termini and a fascinating Umbrian hill town. There is a nifty funicular that glides up from the train station to the plateau. Great place to wander, see the Duomo, have lunch, shop a little. Again, I have to turn to Rick Steves and encourage you to consult his guide to make good use of your time. The underground tour is worthwhile!
Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Tivoli is about an hour by train from Stazione Tiburtina and an excellent trip any time of the year. We’ve gone in August for the evening light displays at Villa d’Este, which makes a wonderful one-night trip (see my prior post here). We’ve gone to Villa d’Este in September and April as well, and to Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriano) in May one year. Villa d’Este is easily done by train, but I would suggest having a car to try to go to Villa Adriano. Alternatively, take a bus tour from Roma. (Haven’t done this myself but there are options through many tour companies if you care to research it.) I think Villa Adriano would be best with a guide. It’s vast and a bit confusing.
Formal gardens, Lazio Albano, the Papal Gardens

Formal gardens, Albano Laziale, papal estate.

Castel Gandolfo and the Papal Palace. The Apostolic Palace is where the popes up until Papa Francesco went to relax and escape the heat of Roma. Papa F doesn’t relax and eschews the trappings of papal wealth. Bravo! Thus, one can visit the palace almost any old time. Castel Gandolfo is a lovely little town with good restaurants in addition to the fantastic Papal Palace. It would be hard to combine with my next suggestion because the gardens one visits in the Vatican by Train tour are actually in neighboring Albano Laziale, but if you enlist a taxi and make lunch a quick panino you just might manage to do both in a day. 
The Vatican by Train  is an all-day event. You start with about 90 minutes to tour the Vatican Museums. (It is not enough time for the entire museum so you must pick a facet, a corner, and see what you can. We chose the Pinacoteca, which we had to ourselves for most of an hour.) Then you have a walking tour of the Vatican Gardens, which leads you to the San Pietro train station where you catch your private train to Albano Laziale and a tour of the papal estate there. You ride a train through these gardens as well. An audio guide is provided.
There are many other possibilities: Sperlonga for the beach, Frascati just because (porchetta and local Frascati wine), Tarquinia for the Etruscan museum and tombs (stunning!)…. 

Miscellany

10 Things you can do for Free in Rome from Italy magazine.
Coop Culture is the official ticket site for many Italian sites. Check them before using a consolidator, who will add on fees.  If you are going to the Colosseo without a guided tour, get your skip-the-line tickets from Coop Culture.
The Roma Pass can be worthwhile if you do the Colosseo, et.al., one day and the Galleria Borghese the next, making those your first two entries with the pass. Otherwise, forget it.
Transportation tickets/passes. You can buy tickets for single trips for €1.50 at any edicola (newsstand) or tabaccheria (tobacconist). There are also passes for 24, 48 and 72 hours at €7.00, €12.50, and €18.00 respectively, which are usually available at the edicola or tabaccheria. A 7-day pass is €24.00. Details at ATAC.com. Note that few buses sell tickets on board. Buy before you board and validate or risk a huge fine. 
Transit Trip Planning is available here. If you are traveling with a smartphone, download ProBus, AutoBusRoma, or Moovit. You can research bus routes and get an estimate on when the next bus will arrive.
The books 24 Great Walks of Rome, Rome the Second Time, and 111 Things to Do in Rome are great for inspiration! I found all of them either at Amazon.com or Powells.com.
Movies in English are shown every week. Usually, they are posted on Friday for movies from Saturday through the following Wednesday. Check here for what’s on. Some of the theatres do not sell popcorn or anything else to eat or drink, so eat before you go.
Now you see why they say Roma una vita non basta! (Rome – a lifetime is not enough!)
If you have a favorite place I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment.
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