A very poorly negotiated, bum deal for Escondido, a very good deal for Maryland based LS&S.

The decision was to be expected, even Councilman Mike Morasco’s change to a yes vote, but I was still left profoundly sad. Not the despair I felt when enough Americans were fooled into voting for the complete AH Trump to elect him, just very down after Wednesday’s Escondido City Council meeting when outsourcing the operation of the Escondido Library was approved.

The tension on the council was obvious during the discussion of the budget adjustment for fiscal year 20167/17 (item 5). Councilwoman Olga Diaz, noting the transfer of $145K “to cover the Reidy Creek Golf Course operating loss” from the $3.3 million budget surplus. I wrote about this course: https://ablueviewescondido.com/2016/04/05/beware-of-developersbearinggifts-of-golfcourses/ . She pointed out that the course lost equivalent amounts every year, and that maybe it was time to consider another use for the area, maybe a park like Kit Carson. City Manager Jeff Epp responded that the city staff was already looking into other options for the course. Morasco said that the flooding of the last winter had definitely affected the profitability of the course. Abed said that they would have to look at every possibility to save money, but they needed to serve all the residents, and couldn’t just target one area. (Well, except for libraries—that’s OK to target, judging from Abed’s actions, not his words.)

City Attorney Michael McGuinness began the discussion about the library outsourcing by giving a brief history of the brief history of this affair (since June of this year.) He avowed that the Library Board of Trustees would still be in charge—busier than they’ve ever been. (Do they get a raise?) He admitted that there were no employment guarantees, but that LS&S had agreed to hire the current employees at their current rates—but, of course, not the same benefits. He had talked to the state about any possibility of employees of the library still being eligible for CalPERS. He had been assured that they would not be, but, just in case, there was a clause in the contract that terminated the agreement if, for some reason, the state deemed that they were still city workers eligible for CalPERS benefits. He then said that LS&S would be required to have measurable performance levels that improved upon the levels of 2016/17.

Diaz had some questions. Why was there a limitation of liability cap of $500,000 “for all claims arising from or related to this Agreement…” She had never seen such a cap before. Epp replied that it was to limit how much the city had to pay if the contract was breached and terminated. Well, for that matter, it limits what LS&S would have to pay the city for damages, should it, by its negligence, result in a loss to the city.

Diaz felt that the lack of clarity in the contract did not make it clear what the definition of “additional work” that LS&S would charge extra for, was. She objected to their ability to subcontract services—outsourcing the outsourcing. Well, that was probably only for things like janitorial services, McGuiness tried to assure her.

She noted that it was not at all clear what the contract meant when it said customer complaints could be referred to the “CITY’—was that the library board of trustees, the city staff, or the city council? Well, Epp replied, that would depend on what sort of complaint it was. (Meaning, he really didn’t have a good answer for Diaz’s question.)

Diaz also objected to the LS&S staff having city email accounts, since they were no longer a part of the city staff. She wondered why the city had to pay for IT services. She especially found it objectionable that there was a $137K cap on the annual amount LS&S would pay for utilities for the library. Utility cost were not something the city could control, and certainly none of the city’s other contracts had such a cap.

She objected to the automatic annual 3% increase in payment to LS&S. Why was there a volunteer coordinator position listed, when the contract specifically budgeted without the use of volunteers?  LS&S would have the legal ability to lower staff salaries. And, even though the contract required the library open for 60 hours a week, there was no guarantee that it would be open seven days a week.

Diaz ended with her observation that taking more time to study and refine this contract would not hurt anyone.

There were over two dozen public speakers against the proposal, and one for it. LS&S didn’t bother to make a presentation to the council—guess they knew they had the contract in the bag.

Elizabeth White pointed out that LS&S’s profit was as much as 33%, yet the amount budgeted for service (not including salaries) was not going to be increased, how on earth could the council think that the quality of service would not decline?

Laura Hunter noted that Jackson County was very unhappy with the service from LS&S, adding that the Escondido’s contract did not have a termination without cause clause as other cities’ contracts with LS&S included.

One speaker had gone to LS&S website to look at the job vacancies advertised and found that they were, for the most part, minimum wage jobs requiring only a High School diploma. The only job advertised for higher pay was for a high-powered sales job—so LS&S can con other cities into signing up.

Chris Nava was disappointed and outraged that the city’s published information had been so one-sided. There had been no inclusion of the Escondido’s Interim Director of Library and community Services, Cynthia Smith’s very well-researched, and very negative report on LS&S. LS&S was known for staffing their libraries with non-degreed staff.

Roy Garrett presented his analysis of the library budget, which indicated that the “savings” would be much less than $400,000 per year—less than $100,000.

Speakers pointed out that the petition against the library outsourcing had some 4,000 signatures, including people from all political parties. One speaker wondered why the city had approved spending $250K on fish for Dixon lake at their last meeting if the city was so desperate for money.

Breaking the mood a bit, Lara Hardin sang a song about the loss of the East Valley Pkwy. Branch.

Vanessa Valenzuela noted that the council had been sitting on the pension problem for six years, asking if they weren’t a little ashamed for not tackling the problem sooner. The ten-year term of the contract was unacceptable, as a Trump supporter had agreed, when he signed the petition against the outsourcing.

Abed began the Council’s discussion by stating that it was an emotional issue for “all of us.” Abed’s body language indicated his main emotion was irritation that it was taking so long.

Olga questioned the 5% fee that LS&S charged for procuring books for the library. Wasn’t buying books one of the main services they were offering? Why should the city be charged twice for the service? Abed insisted that because LS&S bought in bulk, they would save much more than the 5% they charged.

Morasco was concerned about the ten-year term. Well, McGuinness, explained, if they had limited the term to five-years, then there would be a 4% annual increase in LS&S’s charges rather than a 3% increase. That seemed to satisfy Morasco, but I was sitting in the audience holding up a sign that said “Poor Negotiation”. And was it ever. I doesn’t make any sense. If they can make 3% work for ten years, they can make it work for five years. McGuiness and company, probably with the Mayor’s blessing, bent over backwards for any terms LS&S demanded. Morasco also complained about the cap on utility costs for LS&S, and he too did not think the library staff, that would be solely under LS&S management should have access to the city’s email system.

Councilman Ed Gallo said that he had met with McGuinness, and had been very satisfied by the terms of the contract. The only thing that would change would be who the employees worked for, and that the Library Board of Trustee would still be in charge, and would have more work than ever. Gallo trusted the city’s finance department, and believed that there would indeed be a savings of $400K per year, plus more, since there would be no new library employees that would add to the city’s debt to CalPERS. There could never be such a thing as a perfect contract he insisted. He went into one of his stories, something about how when he first started out in real estate the offer to purchase a property was only one page long—now it was about twenty pages. Ignoring the fact that the complaints about the contract weren’t about its completeness, but lack of protections for the city.

Councilman John Masson said he had a passion for the library, but leaders had to get out in front and provide accountability. He felt confident that in a year from now everyone would be happy with the new situation. He read several clauses from the contract about how LS&S would work with the Board of Trustees, etc., ignoring the vagueness of what the “strategic plan” would encompass or ensure.

Diaz repeated Hunter’s objection to there being no termination without cause clause in the contract. She repeated her story of the one time she was inspired in all her years on the council when Masson proposed a new, better library in Grape Day Park. She told Masson that the city already had all the things he read about in the contract to be provided by LS&S. She did not think she could support a bond issue for a new library, because LS&S would probably use it to convince more communities to outsource and degrade libraries. She pointed out that the city was not the private sector, and could not be run as such. The council was breaking the trust the public had placed on them to provide services. She thanked the hundreds of people who had worked so hard to prevent the outsourcing, especially thanking Roy Garrett for pointing out the role that the library board of trustees was to play under California law. The contract was not ready, it had too many grey areas, too many things wrong with it. The council had not even given the library board of trustees the courtesy of looking into joining the San Diego County Library system, as the board had requested. She reminded her colleagues, that the actuary that had presented his analysis to the council about the CalPERS debt, told them the best thing to do was to pay more than they were required—just like paying off a credit card—and the council had not done that yet. She chided LS&S for doctoring photos taken in the library of empty shelves—by removing the signs on the shelves explaining the library was preparing a new selection. She warned that the quality of employees was bound to be lowered.

Abed thanked the members of the public for coming and participating, insisting he shared the same passion about the library. Using the 2017 Grand Jury report as an excuse to outsource—actually the Grand Jury repost basically concluded that Escondido needed a new library. (Of course, closing the East Valley Pkwy Branch in 2011 didn’t help.) http://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/dam/sdc/grandjury/reports/2016-2017/EscondidoLibraryReport.pdf

Abed defended the $250K fish expense by saying that lots of people liked to fish, the city had to try to cater to all of its citizens, and besides that money was not from the general fund.

Abed then repeated his misrepresentation that 80 out of 83 governmental bodies had renewed their contracts with LS&S. LS&S only has about 20 such contracts, many, like the contract with Riverside County include many branches which is where the higher number comes from. One of those contracts is with Jackson County Oregon, with 15 branches, and they are far from satisfied with LS&S. So it’s more like 65 happy campers out of 80.

There was some back and forth between the Council and the representative of LS&S, and evidently the city email would not be an issue, however the removal of the cap on utility fees would be something they would have to take back to their board.

Masson moved that the contract be approved with the proviso that McGuinness would try to negotiate on the utility issue. (What a whimpy motion—like Masson was afraid LS&S would not take the deal without this utility cap) His motion passed four to one, with Diaz voting no.

 

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Abed Still on the Horns of the ECCHO Dilemma

There was an unusual Oral Communication at the October 11, 2017, meeting of the Escondido City Council. An Escondido Country Club resident actually spoke in favor of the New Urban West (NUW) proposal for building 392 homes, a clubhouse and other amenities, including permanent open space on 44% of the property. The resident spoke of the present vandalized, graffiti-covered, magnet for transients that the old clubhouse has become. He complained about the $500K the city had spent fighting and losing Schlesinger’s case against the city. He pointed out that although Schlesinger had lost his ballot Proposition H in 2014, those who voted against the measure only represented ten percent of Escondido’s total population. He said he was sure that Councilman John Masson and Mayor Sam Abed would oppose the development because they were in ECCHO’s pocket. He could only hope that Coucilwoman Olga Diaz, and Councilmen Mike Morasco and Ed Gallo would vote for the project.

I think that Abed hopes that too—that Diaz, Morasco, and Gallo will vote for the project. At his October 4, 2017 town-hall meeting, he again assured ECCHO members that he thought that 392 homes was much too dense, and he could not support it. I think that Abed would really like to have it both ways—he’d like to have the project approved, and keep his NUW buddies happy, but he’d also like to not go back on his promise to the ECCHO folks.

The ECCHO folks gave Abed a hard time at that town-hall meeting. Why had the golf course never been zoned as open space? Abed said he hadn’t been around when that zoning was developed. No, Abed wasn’t around when the golf course was developed. Nor was he around when several condo projects around the Escondido Country Club were approved, and the zoning increase mitigated by the open space of the course, as one ECCHO member pointed out. However, Abed was around when the new Escondido General Plan Update was developed, and approved by the voters in 2012. He was a big supporter of the update. The committee that developed the plan had been chaired by David Ferguson, the go-to lawyer for developers in Escondido. There was plenty of opportunity to correct the zoning of the country club at that time, but nobody noticed—not the city staff, not the fifteen member committee, not the Council Members at the time.

One Country Club resident asked “how could this happen?” She added that their rights had been taken away, Schlesinger had robbed them, and they just had to sit back and take it?

Abed must have been getting a little rattled. He stated several times that the country club was privately owned, and that the city could not just tell developers not to submit their plans, the plans had to go the planning process, and when they reached the city council, the council could deny the project. Abed claimed that he would only do what was right for the city, he was not concerned about the developers’ interest. (Which is strange since Abed runs Pacific West Consulting, a business that basically helps developers get their project through the planning process of cities or the county.) Then, Abed stated very clearly that, after all, developments did not produce enough in property taxes to pay for the new infrastructure and services the development required. This is on video—available to play back to Abed every time he exuberates over the benefits of new housing developments.

 

Library Outsourcing, a Breach of the Public’s Trust

 

And so, to the matter of outsourcing the library service. I wrote about Councilwoman Olga Diaz’s exposure of the possibility of outsourcing the library service at the June 14, 2017, council meeting: https://ablueviewescondido.com/2017/06/18/libraries-much-cheaper-than-jails/ .  It was clear then that Mayor Sam Abed and City Manager Jeff Epp wanted to sneak this matter by without much input from the public.

There was a great deal of input from the public. First at a meeting of the Escondido Library Board of Trustees on July 11, 2017. Over 100 people attended the meeting. Escondido Indivisible has a great summary of the meeting, the minutes, and much more: https://www.escondidoindivisible.com/2017/07/24/on-the-issue-escondido-public-library-privatization/  City Manager Jeff Epp briefed the board on the CalPERs system, and stated that the city might be able to save money by having part-time employees and contractors through outsourcing, saving as much as $400,000 a year. Then Library Systems and Services (LS&S) execs Ed Garnett and Dana Braccia made their sales pitch. They assured the board that they would offer every employee a job with the same pay—just no CalPERs benefits. Then some thirty residents including Councilwoman Olga Diaz addressed the Board with their many arguments against this outsourcing.

The Library Board met again on August 8, and heard a presentation against the outsourcing from a Master of Library and Information Science student, Whitney McCoy. Her excellent presentation is also on the Escondido Indivisible website. Again more citizens spoke against outsourcing, and the Library Board voted unanimously to oppose such outsourcing. The Library Board held a special meeting on August 15, 2017, to draft a letter about their decision to the City Council. Their letter summarizes the massive public input:

During the process of considering the possible outsourcing of library services, the Board listened to a presentation from Library Systems & Services (LS&S), received and read 64 letters & emails from community members, and heard 58 community members speak directly to the Board during the last two Trustees meetings, which were attended by over 250 citizens. We also received an 81-page petition with 1,000 signatures, and a separate online petition containing 576 signatures opposing outsourcing EPL. In all communications received from Escondido citizens, one person had been in favor of outsourcing our library while all others were opposed.

The Library Board felt that outsourcing would: 1) cause the loss of talented staff, 2) lose community support for the library and the city, 3) lose local control over library operation, 4) lose a chance to build a new library in Grape Day Park, 5) lose patrons passionate about the library and Escondido, 6) jeopardize the voluntary support of 218 individuals with a total of 29,080 hours of support equal to $701,991 of effort, and 7) lose support of the Friends of the Library and their bookshops annual addition of $75,000 to the library’s funding. (So, if you’ve been keeping track of the finances that’s a possible savings of $400K, versus a possible loss of about $776K.)

I spent several hours watching the August 23, 2017 City Council meeting. The meeting was covered extensively by the press—as you can see be scrolling down the above Escondido Indivisible site—as well as a tape of the meeting.  It was at that meeting that Roy Garrett pointed out that there are two provisions in the California State Code that specify that public libraries are to be managed by the Board of Trustees, and therefore, it is the decision of the Board of Trustees that counts when it comes to outsourcing. If the council approved this outsourcing, the city could be sued. Karen Tatge, president of the city employees’ union, also indicated that such outsourcing could lead to legal litigation. Altogether there were almost ninety public speakers. I counted less than five for outsourcing, one claimed the library was run by communists, and the others I remember, were current or former employees of LS&S.

The press did a good job of covering the response of the city council members, but I have some observations that the press would be reluctant to make. Yes, the press noted that Councilman Ed Gallo (who began the council’s response) said he was tired of listening to “crap” when the audience jeered him. Gallo’s demeanor made it clear during the testimony, and during his remarks that he was antagonistic to majority of the audience. In response to a question of one the speakers asked of the council, he said he had a library card, and had possessed a library card since he was a boy. He then explained that the city outsourced many of its services, including landscaping—so what was the difference between outsourcing landscaping and outsourcing a library? Sigh! Gallo may have a library card, but he doesn’t seemed to have used it much to widen his education. Gallo said he had spoken to two officials in Temecula, whom he respected, and they had nothing but praise for LS&S.

Mayor Sam Abed spoke next. It was obvious that the three hours of testimony had done nothing to change his mind. After all, he had gone to Temecula’s library, run by LS&S and had been very impressed. He had talked to people in the Temecula Library, and they were very pleased with their service. (All of Riverside County Libraries are run by LS&S. It turns out that the City or Temecula pays LS&S $180K extra each year to get all the services it wants.) He said that the city had to figure out a way to pay for the unfunded pension liability, and this would be an important step.

Diaz spoke next, very passionately, at times in tears. She began by suggesting that if Gallo and Abed thought so highly of the opinions of Temecula residents, maybe they should go represent the cititzens there. The audience applauded, and Abed couldn’t stand it, saying something about not wanting anyone to be intimidated. Diaz responded that she was not intimidated by anyone in the audience. The library’s budget, she noted, was less than ½ of one percent of the city’s budget. In her nine, almost ten years on the council, she had only been inspired one time, and that was when Councilman John Masson had proposed building a new library in Grape Day Park. Now this false frugality and misguided purpose would destroy the public trust. Library volunteers and contributors had told the Library Board and the city council that outsourcing would result in the loss of their time and donations. The council needed to listen to the community, ignoring their input would destroy any trust that the council had their best interests at heart. Yes, the city would need to handle the problem of the unfunded pension liability, but why pick on the library? The city had many real estate properties that were sitting idle—sell them. The city would be receiving millions back from the state in redevelopment funds, use that. Close down the Reidy Creek Golf Course that cost the city so much. Why pick on the library first? If the council authorized this privatization, she, she said directly to Masson, did not think she could campaign for a bond for a new library.

City Councilman Mike Morasco spent a good deal of time explaining how a City Manager run city, like Escondido, was governed. He said that several months ago, Masson had suggested to the previous City Manager Graham Mitchell that he look into LS&S, after City Councilman John Masson had heard about them at a League of Cities’ meeting. City Manager Jeff Epp had inherited that task, and had done his job. Morasco then spent a good deal more time complaining about being accused in many emails and other messages of being secretive about the matter. He said that the four men on the council definitely worked independently on the council. They never conspired. He took offense to the suggestion that he would be less than transparent or independent about any city council decision. He accused Diaz of having an activist “the end justifies the means” gene he didn’t have. He inferred that the activism that she had stirred up had interfered with the normal processes of the city. His head, he said, told him that the outsourcing was a great thing to do. His heart told him that it was asking the loyal library staff to swallow a bitter pill. His gut told him that all the controversy would make it difficult to pass a library bond in the future. Of course all of those talking organs of Morasco are really just his brain. And,  if he explored what should be a memory in his brain, he might remember his part in the closing of the East Valley Pkwy. Branch of the Escondido Library, and subsequent leasing to his crony capitalist buddy Dennis Snyder and his white-flight Heritage Charter School. It is that abysmal act that those who sent him all those nasty emails were probably remembering.

Masson said when he did volunteer work for the city, (and he did a lot of volunteer work for the city,) he didn’t do it for the people who were running the city, he did it for the youth and others he was helping, and because it made him feel good. He thought it was insanity to refuse to volunteer just because the management of the library would change. The only reason he wanted to outsource was to make the library better.

Before the vote, Diaz got in one final word. It had been a very poor public process, and it was more about a fairness gene.

As you probably know, the council voted three to two for negotiating a contract with LS&S, Diaz and Morasco voting no.

The arguments presented against LS&S were extensive and convincing. To me, one of the strongest arguments is the fact that LS&S boasts that it saves money by getting rid of items than are low in circulation. That would include classic novels—no more Jane Austen, no more Bronte sisters, goodbye Charles Dickens—and as for Herodotus, why would anyone want to read about ancient history by an ancient Greek? Any organization with such an attitude about saving money has no concept of what a library is about, and has no business running any library. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that fault in LS&S also has no business making any decisions about a library.

A Post-Vacation Rant

I have found it very difficult to write a blog since I returned from vacation. On vacation I could write about beautiful countryside and pleasant, sometimes funny, experiences. Since I’ve been back, I’ve been unable to escape the constant reminders that an ignorant, incompetent, adolescent twit of a Tweeter in Chief is in the White House. An adolescent who trades junior-high barbs with an equally adolescent and unbalanced head of North Korea, bringing our world closer to nuclear destruction than it has been in sixty years.

A Tweeter in Chief whose election was aided by a homicidal dictator, Putin. A dictator whose regime has also aided other efforts to weaken western civilization—Brexit, Marin le Pen’s Front National, Germany’s far right Alternative for Germany, etc. The collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence through social media is becoming clearer every day. (Yes I watch Rachel Maddow, but her research is impeccable.)

A Tweeter in Chief whose supporters continually live up to his comment in January of 2016 that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and his supporters would still support him. In a recent poll 49% of Trump supporters would support him after such an act, only 29% would not, and 26% are confused. http://www.newsweek.com/trump-voters-republicans-overall-actually-dont-care-president-shoots-someone-638462 I think than anyone with a brain who still supports Trump must be confused or living in a fact-free bubble. Such people consider real facts fake news.

Three category 5 hurricanes have devastated Huston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other Caribbean islands. Category 5 hurricanes supposedly have a 1 in 500 chance of occurring in one year. Three in one year, and the year’s not over. While global warming can’t be blamed for the initiation of hurricanes, the increased temperature of the ocean adds to their intensity. After years of drought, wildfires flourish in the west. Yet, 180 Republicans in Congress deny climate change and/or the effect that human activity, burning fossil fuels, has on that change. Billions of dollars in damage from these hurricanes and fires—and the Republicans are concerned that any effort to slow down global warming will be too detrimental to the economy. https://thinkprogress.org/115th-congress-climate-denier-caucus-65fb825b3963/

My own Congressman, a man who has some trouble keeping track of what funds he is allowed to use for his personal expenses, has called for a preemptive strike against North Korea. One would think that a combat veteran would think twice before suggesting a move that could lead to a nuclear explosion that could do more damage than all the bombs in all the wars of the last 20 years combined.

Even though the planet is in its sixth major extinction event, caused by too many people using too much stuff and destroying habitat, and even though San Diego County has more endangered species than any other county in the USA, several General Plan Amendment projects, including the zombie Merriam Mountain (now Newland Sierra) project are making their way through the county’s planning process. These developments will devastate hundreds of acres of natural habitat leading to more extinction. The notion that these developments, with houses that will start in the half-million dollar price range, will add to affordable housing is ludicrous.

And then there’s the Escondido City Council, where Mayor Sam Abed, Councilmen Ed Gallo and John Masson would have you believe that outsourcing the library service for Escondido’s remaining library would be an important step in solving Escondido’s multi-million dollar unfunded pension obligation. But that’s another story, for another blog.

Usually writing (I suspect this qualifies as ranting) eases my angst a bit. Not sure it’s working now—too much idiocy going on.

 

Milan, August 28

We arrived in Milan yesterday from Bellagio. The drive from Zermatt to Bellagio on Friday, was another very scenic route. Bellagio sits at the end of a peninsula that juts into Lake Como from the south. The drive up the east side of the peninsula was somewhat harrowing. The road was very narrow, carved out of the steep mountains bordering the lake, and the Italians drove on it like it was a freeway. We felt safest in the many tunnels, where, at least we wouldn’t be pushed over the edge into the lake. We had rented an apartment in Bellagio, which was up two flights of stairs. I think we’re getting a little too old to lug luggage up two flights, but Roger somehow managed in four trips! We did have a pretty nice view.20170826_084503

We like to take a break from hotels on our trips—nice to make our own breakfasts, and have a little more space.

That night we ate at a restaurant on the very tip of the peninsula, and had excellent meals. Once again I had perch, fried in butter. Lake perch has to be one of the best tasting fish! I also had a green salad with greens that must have been picked about an hour before serving. Reminded me of getting lettuce from the field at my family’s farm in Imperial Valley. Had some hazelnut gelato for dessert, magnificent.

The next day we went for a ferry ride on the lake, across to a town on the east side of the lake, Varenna. We got off the ferry and toured the small town. As we were having some water (Roger) and hot cocoa (me) we decided to look at the ferry schedule to see when the next boat to a town on the west side of the lake, Mennagio, left. We discovered it was in five minutes, and rashly decided to try to race back to the ferry landing to catch it. Roger quickly paid the bill while I guzzled my cocoa, then we walked very fast back to the ferry, just in time to see it leave. As we sat down to try to figure out when the next ferry left, the waiter who had served us our water and cocoa came up with the Italian guide book we had left behind. We had tipped him, but this was certainly very nice of him.

We discovered that the next ferry to the town on the west side of the lake would be in about an hour and a half. However, according to the schedule there was a ferry going back to Bellagio in about 20 minutes, and we thought that would be fine, we would do a little shopping and have lunch in one of the restaurants recommended by our guide book. So, the ferry arrived, and as we were boarding it was announced that it was going to Menaggio. We really enjoyed going on the ferry, the views were terrific, but, after some discussion, we decided we really didn’t want to walk through another small Italian tourist-attraction town. So, we decided we would just stay on that ferry as it went back to Bellagio. When we bought our ferry tickets we were given the impression that the ferries traveled in a triangle between the three towns. As we left Managgio, it quickly became apparent that we were not going back Bellagio, we were going back to Verenna. When we got to Verenna, we asked the ferryman, how we could get to Bellagio. “Next stop,” he said. So we stayed on the ferry, reached Bellagio, had a wonderful lunch, did a little shopping, and went back to our apartment.

Somehow the drive down the peninsula to Milan yesterday wasn’t nearly so nail-bitingly scary as the drive up—knew what to expect I guess, and we were next to the land, not the drop-off into the lake.

I’ve become a fan of the GPS system. It got us to the check-in location for our Milan apartment, where we left our luggage as it was 10:00 am, long before check-in, and it got us to the rental car return, without a false turn.

Yesterday, we went to the Pinacteca de Brera, Milan’s amazing art collection, which would be more amazing if Napoleon hadn’t taken so much Italian art—which is now in the Louvre. It’s pretty easy to get around Milan by the Metro, however, we did take a taxi from the check-in site to our apartment. Just can’t hassle the luggage on the subway like the young backpackers do.

Today we toured the Duomo, after waiting in a Disneyland type line, then went to see La Scala walking through what may be the oldest mall in the world, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in 1877. It’s very humid here, and fairly warm, so I came back to the apartment, while Roger toured yet another art museum. Unlike Roger, I tend to get to a saturation point with fine art, especially when it hot and muggy.

Tomorrow we’ll go to the Castello Sforzesco, and other places to be determined.

 

August 24, Zermatt, Switzerland

Today we had lunch with a clear view of the Matterhorn.   Yesterday we took a train up to near the top of the Jungfrau. Switzerland may be the most beautiful country in the world, and it also be may be the most expensive. 20170824_140624 (1)

On our way to Basel last Thursday, we stopped at the Castle du Haut-Koenigsbourg in the Alsace region of France, along with a few thousand other tourists. It’s an interesting place, because, although it is in France, the castle is entirely German. As you probably know, Alsace has been a Germanic province for most of its history. The castle was first built in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufen Duke Frederick II, than in the 13th century ownership was passed to the Hohenstein family until it was taken by Frederick I then was burned down in 1462, rebuilt by the Thiersteins, burned down again in the Thirty Years War. It remained in ruins as until Kaiser Wilhelm II restored it and then some. The views up the hill to the castle were incredible.20170818_134526

We arrived in Basel around 4:30 pm, rush hour, yet it only took us 15 minutes to reach our hotel. We had a nice dinner that evening at an Italian restaurant. The next day we visited the Kunsthaus (art museum) which has an impressive art collection from medieval to the present day. My favorite was Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergere”. We also visited Basel’s Minster (cathedral) which seems very plain compared to French cathedrals of the same vintage, a result of the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.

On Sunday we traveled from Basel to Zurich, which only takes an hour. We had thought to do some touring on the way, but, fortunately, discovered that the Kunsthaus  in Zurich was not going to be open on Monday, so we got to Zurich early enough to see the museum on Sunday. It also had a very impressive, eclectic art collection, with an emphasis on Swiss artists, and a very fine Edvard Munch collection. I was most fascinated by a Van Gogh self-portrait, with his ear bandaged.

On Monday we drove along the northeast side of Zurichsee (lake), further north and east through a beautiful valley surrounded by rugged mountains, along the south side of the Wallensee, then south and then north up to Vaduz in Lichtenstein. There we had an amazing lunch at the Lowen Restaurant. I had wonderful fried (in butter I think) perch on a beautiful green salad, with a wonderful vinaigrette dressing. Roger had the same salad with veal scaloppini on top. We shared a chocolate mousse for dessert. Swiss chocolate is hard to beat. We drove back to Zurich, going around the Zurichsee on the southwest shore. The northeast shore seemed to be much posher than the southwest shore. We had time to walk around the old town, and walk along the Limmat river.

On Tuesday we drove to Bonigan where we stayed at a hotel on the shores of the Brienzsee, one of the lakes that Interlaken is between. We had a great view of the lake from our room’s balcony.20170823_202644 (1)

On Wednesday we took the train up to near the top of the Jungfrau. Well, actually it was two trains. The first train made several stops so hikers could get off. Switzerland is a paradise for hikers.

At the very top of the rail line, there was a building with very touristy stores, including a large watch shop. We went out on the glacier and looked at the view, did not stay long because the temperature was two degrees centigrade. It was an amazing view, not sure it was worth the $380 that the train tickets cost.

Today we went to the Reichenbach falls, and took the funicular up to the place where Sherlock Holmes was temporarily killed along with Moriarty. 20170824_093533

Then we drove to Taush to catch the train to Zermatt. That drive was the most spectacularly scenic drive I’ve ever taken—breathtaking peaks above beautiful green valleys dotted with storybook houses.20170824_094002

Zermatt is a car-free city, so the only way here is by train—from Taush, a 12 minute ride. Our hotel sent an electric, 12-seat van, to collect us.

Tomorrow, on to Bellagio on Lake Cuomo.

 

Wednesday, August 16, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

 

So, after four busy days in England, we took the ferry from Dover to Calais, then south to Boulogne-sur-Mer, a busy coastal town, full of British tourists.

We drove to Oxford from Cambridge, following the direction on our rental-car’s GPS. Not sure it was the fastest route, certainly not the shortest, thought, at the time, we had done better when we depended on maps. We stayed in a hotel in Oxford that Roger had chosen because it is close to the Ashmolen Museum. It was also on Broad Street, in the middle of town. Several of the Universities had graduation ceremonies that weekend, and the place was mobbed. Parking was very difficult to find, and expensive. We had been to the Ashmolean several times when we lived in Essex, but they have expanded it considerable, and have much more if their extensive collection on display. We were able to spend several hours at the museum that afternoon, concentrating on their art exhibit. They have a very unusual J.M.W Turner painting, an architectural depiction of the High Street in Oxford. The picture was painted in 1810, but if you compare it to the same street today, there’s practically no changes—just the façade of one of the buildings.

That evening we had a nice dinner at a French restaurant. The crowds had disappeared. On Sunday morning we went back to the museum, and spent some time viewing their extensive collection of ancient art and relics, then had lunch at the museum’s new rooftop restaurant. Then we drove to Tetbury in the Cotswolds. I had forgotten just how lovely the Cotswolds are. All of England reminds me of my childhood story books—green fields, gently rolling hills, picture-perfect villages, but the Cotswolds are especially nice. Most of the homes are built of golden Cotswold stone that mellows with age.  I began to like the GPS more and more, as I didn’t have to constantly look at a map to navigate, but could enjoy the scenery.

Our old neighbors had moved to a home near Tetbury from Hidden Meadows two years ago. They took us on a tour of the area, including a spot where you could see all the way to the Bristol Channel, and the Severn River. We went to dinner with them at their favorite restaurant, and had an amazing dinner, and wonderful visit.

The next day was arranged as my special treat. We went on a tour of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) and had high tea in what had been the coach house afterward.  We then had a pleasant drive to Chichester to a hotel a block from the estuary. That evening we had dinner at a pub right beside the estuary, and were able to sit outside on the pub’s deck and watch the seabirds and boats.

Yesterday we drove from Chichester to Margate, stopping at Petworth House, now owned by the National Trust. It used to be the home of the Earls of Northumberland. One of their descendants, George Wyndham, the Third Earl of Egremont who gathered a large collection of art, including works by his friend J.M.W. Turner. One of the rooms is decorated by amazing carved wood paneling made by Grinling Gibbons. Wyndham was also able to collect many authentic Greek and Roman sculptures which are also on display.

Our Hotel in Margate was right on the beach front where J. M. W. Turner stayed with his mistress. Turner liked Margate because the water was usually calm, and he could study the light on the sea. If you notice a sort-of Turner motif to our vacation, you are spot on, as the Brits would say. Roger has become a great fan of Turner’s. What I liked best about Margate was seeing the sun start to set over the mouth of the Thames. You can just barely make out the new windmills on the Essex shore. It seemed strange to see the sun set over the water on the East Coast of England. That evening we had the best Indian meal I’ve ever had. Amazing.

This morning we got up early to be sure to reach Dover before our 11:10 am ferry to Calais.  We arrived at the rental car return by 9:30 am. The rental car folks were nice enough to drive us to the ferry terminal with our luggage, and we were at the terminal by 9:40 am. Turned out that (like our train tickets from London to Cambridge) our tickets were good for any ferry that day, and we were able to catch the 10:15 am ferry. The white cliffs of Dover really are a stand-out landmark, that we could see most of the way across the channel. We were in Calais in about an hour. We had been pleased that we were going to get an early start on our day in France. However, it turned out the rental car company at the ferry terminal was closed for lunch when we got there at 1:20 pm, (you lose an hour going into the next time zone.) It would not open until 2:00 pm, so we had lunch at the terminal—actually not too bad.

Our new rental car has GPS too, so I was able to enjoy the scenery as we drove south. We ate dinner at the restaurant in our hotel—wonderful French cuisine!

Thursday, August 17

Last night’s hotel had a very good restaurant, but did not have a secure internet access, so did not post this blog. Today we travelled west to our hotel the Hostellerie du Chateau des Monthairons near Verdon. We stopped on the way (well—a little out of the way) at the Chateau de Compiegne. This is a palace that was first royal hunting lodge and rebuilt by Louis XV, restored by Napoleon, and more recently by the French government. The furnishings have been lovingly restored and re-upholstered, so it really appears much as it did when the Empress Marie Louise was in residence. If you want to see some pictures go to http://en.palaisdecompiegne.fr/one-palace-three-museums/royal-and-imperial-palace .

On our way from the Chateau de Compiegne to our hotel, we got into a traffic jam, caused by the moving of three huge vanes for a wind turbine. Cross traffic was stopped at several round-abouts, while the trailers carrying the behemoths maneuvered them through. After what seemed like hours (probably only 20 minutes) we were able to pass on a dual carriageway portion of the road.

Tonight we had another amazing meal at our hotel.  Tomorrow, on to Basel, Switzerland.