Serbia and Croatia

Once through the Iron Gate and back onto the placid waters of the Danube, we soon found ourselves in the former Yugoslavia, the site of Europe’s most recent and bloody war zone.  Like most Americans (and probably most people of other nationalities, as well), we were baffled by what had actually happened here in the latter part of the last century.  We didn’t understand the difference between Serbian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs or why these formerly united countries were fighting each other so bitterly.  Although we can’t say we’re  clear on everything yet, we’re beginning to understand.

This part of the world has been in more or less constant turmoil for centuries, but the 20th century brought its own unique brand of horror to these beleaguered people.  Upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, an unwieldy federation emerged consisting of Serbia (a formerly powerful independent kingdom), the former Habsburg territories of Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, plus Montenegro and Macedonia.  This new nation was first called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, with Belgrade as its capital and the Serb monarch the first head of state.  This arrangement already seemed certain to make the other members of the federal state pretty unhappy with the balance of power.  In 1929, the country was renamed Yugoslavia — the “Land of the South Slavs” — but nothing was changed to redress the imbalance.

World War II served to unite the country in opposition to the Nazis, although Yugoslavia was initially allied with Germany until protests and a political coup in Belgrade made Hitler nervous about where the Yugoslavs’ loyalties actually lay.  The Nazis invaded the country in 1941, and for the next three years a bloody war went on between the Nazi occupiers and partisan fighters led by the communist agitator Josip Broz Tito.  The Red Army liberated Yugoslavia in 1944; but Tito, who had learned his politics at Stalin’s feet and was the Russian leader’s prize pupil, refused to allow his country to join its neighbors to the east and become a Soviet satellite state.  While Yugoslavia remained a communist country, it was independent of the USSR and the other eastern bloc nations, and its people enjoyed a certain measure of freedom of thought, if not of action.  Tito was unbelievably popular, despite being a benevolent dictator, and he received enormous numbers of gifts from heads of state all over the world — so many, in fact, that there is a nine-room museum housing them (those that haven’t been stolen) on the grounds of the House of Flowers.  When he traveled throughout the country, he used his personal train, pulled by an easily recognizable blue engine, one of which is now a museum.  Even all these years after Tito’s death in 1980, delegations from the former Yugoslavia still visit his tomb, observe his birthday, and speak of him fondly.

After Tito died, the presidency rotated among the constituent states, an arrangement which pleased nobody.  When communism began to unravel all over Europe in the late 1980’s, various Yugoslavian states started to agitate for independence.  This is where Slobodan Milosevic enters the picture: as the Communist Party chairman in Serbia, he decided to campaign for the rights of the Serb minorities in the breakaway republics, first Croatia, then Kosovo.  The Serb-dominated People’s Army waged a full-scale war against a number of Croatian cities, in particular Vukovar on the Danube, which was 90 percent destroyed during the conflict that lasted from 1991 to 1995.

War damage in Vukovar

When we visited the town, it had been largely rebuilt, although one brick house near the town center still had pockmarks and bullet holes in its facade from the eight weeks of artillery shelling, siege, and house-to-house fighting that ended with the defeat of the Croat forces by the Serbs.  Later,  UN peacekeepers controlled Vukovar until 1998, when it was returned to Croat hands.

But to be in Belgrade today is to experience a vibrant, exciting city that bears no apparent scars from the wars of the past centuries — except for the bombed-out ruins of the military headquarters in the city center, the result of NATO’s  attempt to force Serbia to end the war in Kosovo.

Ministry of War, Belgrade, after 1999

Belgrade is not a pretty city; it has neither the eclectic charm of Bucharest nor the elegance and grace of Budapest.  But it has a thriving club and restaurant scene and is very hospitable to visitors.  And dominating the skyline is the massive white marble Cathedral of St. Sava, still unfinished but very imposing.  Contributions from all over the world are still pouring in to pay for the construction.

St. Sava Cathedral

The first thing you see when you arrive in Belgrade by water is the massive Kalemegdan fortress, high on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and the Danube Rivers.  This was the site of the Roman settlement of Singidunum during the days of the emperor Trajan, and it has served as a fortress for nearly two thousand years.  In the eighth century AD, the first Slav settlers named the place “White Town,” or “Beograd,” after the white limestone walls of the fort.

Basketball and tennis courts

Now a historical monument, the ruins of the fort consist of Roman, medieval, 18th and 19th century structures, including a dry moat that now houses tennis courts and even a basketball court.  Our very informative and clever guide, Lily, told us that a young girl once took tennis lessons there until her coach finally told her to give up the sport because she had no talent.  Her name is Monica Seles.

The day we visited the fortress, a movie company was making a historical film set in the early 19th century, and we had to dodge cables and walk around huge trailers, while actors in costume waited for their call.

Actor on the set

Belgrade is conducting an anti-graffiti campaign, although you wouldn’t know it from the state of every flat surface in the city, but the 17th century Turkish graffiti carved into the stone walls leading to the gates of the fortress are apparently considered to be art rather than desecration and are allowed to remain.  Incidentally, the problem of graffiti is so widespread everywhere we’ve been, even in small villages you would think might be spared, that we think there’s a fortune to be made if someone could invent a wall coating that repels paint so it can be washed off with plain water.

Belgrade, as the capital not only of Serbia but of Yugoslavia during its existence, is the site of the tomb of Tito.  The place is called the House of Flowers, because Tito was apparently an enthusiatic gardener and even developed a special rose.  Although he was born Roman Catholic, he shunned religion when he became a communist, so he ordered that his own tomb would bear no symbols, neither cross nor red star.  Instead, it is set in the center of a garden inside a sort of cultural museum, with only his name and the dates of his birth and death in gold letters on the top.  So it’s impossible to get a decent photo of the inscription unless you stand on a ladder, or are seven feet tall.

The last king of Serbia, who was sent into exile before World War II, never abdicated.  So when his son, Aleksander, was born in London (as our guide emphasized more than once, in Suite 212 of Claridge’s Hotel)  in 1940, the infant officially became the crown prince.  During the communist period, the prince was not permitted to enter the country, but after the end of the conflict in the 1990’s, Prince Aleksander was invited to return to Serbia.  He and his family rent the first (read “second”) floor of the royal palace and live there when they are in the country.  The rest of the time, they are in the US or London; his three sons all married American wives, so it’s unlikely that there will be a Serbian royal family in residence in the foreseeable future.  But the palace is open to the public — at least, its most interesting rooms — and we enjoyed our tour of what feels like a real home instead of a showplace.

The fairytale kitchen

The entire basement level is what is called the “fairy tale kitchen,” painted with scenes from the Arabian Nights, because when the palace was built in 1922 by the Crown Prince’s grandfather, also named Aleksander, his son Nikolas was only eleven years old and loved stories and make believe.  So the basement with its arched ceilings and ornately painted rooms is a child’s playhouse, illustrated with wonderful pictures.

Arabian Nights illustration

One thing we’ve found in every eastern European country is that the people have a wonderful sense of humor, which they use to deflect the unpleasant aspects of their lives.  For example, when talking about the period of full employment under the communist regime, they say, “We would pretend to work, and they would pretend to pay us.”  And as for the Yugo, the laughable automobile manufactured by Yugoslavia, they say, “It was an extremely economical car that cost almost nothing in gas — it was always in the repair shop.”

For more photos of Serbia, click here.

For more photos of Croatia, click here.


Aboard the Treasures

Our cabin on Treasures


The M/S Treasures is a purpose-built ship designed exclusively for travel on European rivers.  It was completed in 2011 and put into service in October.  There are many similarities among different companies’ ships so that they pass under bridges along the river, fit into locks side-by-side, and squeeze through narrow river gorges, such as on the Danube, where the width is only 150 feet in one area.

But there are differences, and what differences!  Treasures features floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows in almost all cabins, with one or two French balconies.  There is a spa and fitness center, along with a length-of-ship sun deck.  Interior décor is elegant in everything from lounges to dining rooms to passageways, but the feeling and atmosphere – and dress requirements for passengers – is casual.  Only 118 passengers aboard, with 29 crew.

All excursions are included, and when they say gratuities are inclusive, they mean everything from ship staff to local guides, and no one expects anything more.

The Passthrough Door


An interesting feature of these riverboats is that they are unable, because of available space, to dock one in front of or behind another.  The “dock” of a typical riverside town consists of a pontoon anchored to the shore, and a riverboat docks alongside.  If a second or even third riverboat needs access to the shore, they dock alongside and parallel to the first docked ship.  Here is where the common elements of European riverboats come into play.  All of them have entry and egress at the same place, and at the same level, as all others.  When they are required to dock alongside each other, passengers simply walk across and through the lobby of the first (or second) ship nearest the shore.  One of the accompanying photos shows the doors at the level where all passengers of an adjacent ship can pass through.

The ship is easily walkable, and there is one elevator, between only two of the four decks.  They make it clear that they do not cater to guests with special needs.  The tours are strenuous, with extensive walking and climbing, and there is no accommodation for wheelchairs, either aboard or on tour.  So don’t put these tours off for when you are older, and think you can sit on board and watch Europe flow by.

Passageway on Diamond Deck


Tauck, the tour operator, staffs these cruises with three “Tour Directors” on board, who are extremely knowledgeable about nearly everything connected with the region visited. They accompany each tour and provide supplementary comment to local tour guides, who are assigned to each tour.  Back on board, they provide the cultural and historic background through a series of onboard lectures and presentations, so that one feels as if he has truly been immersed in the visited regions.

And a last word about food and service.  All of the above is enough to make you not care about food and service.  But, not to worry, both are top notch.  Service on five-star cruise ships is expected and taken for granted, and rarely disappoint.  Food, on the other hand, can never be taken for granted on a ship.  European river cruises have a distinct advantage in that they can put in frequently for fresh supplies – especially fresh fish – and Tauck does that, often offering two or three different fish dishes at dinner.  Lunch is primarily buffet, but not the steam table variety.  Today, duck confit was a choice on the buffet table.

So here we are, sailing through all of Europe on three rivers, through 2000 years of ever-changing history, trying to absorb as much as we can in only three weeks.  And doing it in the most extreme comfort.  How lucky can you get?  For more pictures of the riverboat, click here.



The Iron Gate

Below the dam at Iron Gate

This morning after breakfast, our boat approached the great dam on the Danube built in the 1960’s as a joint hydro-electric project by the governments of Yugoslavia and Romania.  Behind the dam lies a sixty-mile-long finger lake submerging what was for centuries one of the most beautiful and treacherous stretches of water in Europe.  The Danube narrows precipitously in the gorge between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains, at times becoming no more than 150 feet wide.  Before the dam was built, the seventy miles of the Iron Gates consisted of rapids, whirlpools, jagged rocks just below the surface of the water, and the constant threat of capsizing.  For centuries, writers told hair-raising tales of their passage through the Iron Gates, and river traffic down the Danube generally stopped  at Veliko Gradiste (the Roman fort of Punicum) and recommenced southeast of the gorge, after a strenuous overland trek across the mountains.  The Roman general Trajan built a road alongside the river to transport his legions and supplies, drilling holes into the rock of the sheer cliffs above the waterline and pounding  poles into the holes to support a cantilevered wooden walkway.  Some of the holes are still visible, although most of them, along with entire villages and many priceless archeological sites, lie submerged beneath the water above the dam.

The first lock

We transited two locks between the lower and the upper Danube, raising our little boat a total of 100 feet.  The second lock was big enough to hold two ships across and three end to end, although we were the only boat headed upstream during our trip.  (We did meet — briefly — two older and larger riverboats heading downstream in the second lock, and all of the passengers on all three boats were out on deck waving at each other.  River cruising in this part of the world isn’t exactly crowded.)

The Danube in the Iron Gate

The scenery sailing through the Iron Gate is truly spectacular, reminding many of us of the Norwegian fjords.  On the Romanian side, near the place where Trajan had a bridge built across the Danube, Europe’s tallest rock sculpture can be seen from the river: King Decebalus, the ruler of Dacia, defeated by Trajan in the second century A.D.  No likeness of Trajan parallels it, though, to commemorate his victory.  At sunset, we saw one of the most beautiful little castles imaginable, set just above the river on the northern bank.  How it escaped being drowned along with the rest of its history we can’t imagine.

King Decebalus

For more photos of the Iron Gate, click here.




Across the Danube from Romania is the fascinating country of Bulgaria, the only country in Europe that has never changed its name over the centuries.  We docked in Ruse, a very large city, and drove immediately to the beautiful village of Arbanassi, where all the streets seem to go up, no matter which way you’re walking.  Two black goats tethered under a tree across from a big al fresco restaurant reminded us that people here live close to the land.

Bulgaria endured five centuries of Turkish occupation during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, and evidence of that period of oppression is still found everywhere.  For example, our first stop was the magnificent 16th-century Church of the Nativity in the heart of Arbanassi, which looks like a simple barn from the outside.  The Turks decreed that the Orthodox Christians of Bulgaria could practice their religion, but that their churches could be no taller than the tallest Turkish soldier on his  horse, with his sword raised.  Being rather ingenious people, the Bulgarians frequently dug out deep chambers just inside the doorways of the churches, so that they would be able to build high-ceilinged sanctuaries.  The church we visited, however, was all on ground level, but every inch of the interior was decorated with frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible and portraits of saints.  The pictures glowed in the dim light, touches of gold leaf picking out the haloes and the jewelry of the figures.  The artists who created these spectacular works were superbly talented, especially in their ability to depict their subjects realistically.

Inside the Church of the Nativity

As a special treat, a four-person choir of professional singers, dressed in historic Orthodox Christian robes, performed several ancient polyphonic songs in the main sanctuary.  The acoustics gave the sound an unearthly beauty and power, and everyone later agreed that it had been a transforming experience.

Arbanassi also boasts the fascinating 15th-century Konstan Calieva House, now a museum showing the daily life of a wealthy merchant family of the period.  The home was protected by iron bars on the windows and a massive oak door on iron hinges, in case of an attack by bandits.  Rich Oriental carpets covered a wooden platform that ran the length of the main room under barred windows, where the family entertained guests with Turkish coffee poured from small brass pitchers.  The bedroom, furnished with another carpet-covered platform, boasted a stucco-faced stove that heated the entire house through vents near the ceiling, a very modern touch in a medieval house.

In a spectacular setting above the Yantra River, only a few miles from Arbanassi, is the beautiful village of  Veliko Turnovo, the medieval capital of Bulgaria.  Houses cling to the steep cliffs on one side of the river, while the other bank is protected by the stone walls of a massive fortress.  In the village itself, we were finally able to satisfy our shopping urges — down a winding cobblestone street were dozens of small shops and artisans’ studios, where we could watch the craftsmen at work. In one, a master coppersmith made bowls and platters and tall pitchers; in another, a young woman wove colorful shawls; in a third, a wood carver fashioned small wooden toys in fanciful shapes.  We  found a small wine shop staffed by a charming young woman, who recommended a particular Bulgarian wine (which we later discovered, to our pleasant surprise when we opened it in our cabin, was excellent).  In a tiny jewelry shop, I bought a handmade silver pendant, decorated with gold and colored enamel, on a steel chain.  The artist herself wrapped my purchase and gave me a little card describing her technique.

Woodworker in his shop

The next day, we visited the small — and, we were told, the poorest — town in Bulgaria, our last stop in that country during the cruise.  Vidin has a beautiful riverside park that runs along the Danube from the center of town to the medieval fortress of Baba Vida, which I

think means “Grandmother of Life.”  We walked into the town and noticed that the cobblestone streets were in serious need of repair and many of the buildings could have done with a little loving attention, but the cafes were busy and the local population looked healthy and well dressed.  We had been told that there was an impressive synagogue, built in the 1880’s and destroyed by five several years ago, that was well worth seeing, so we set out in search of it.  A tourist information center sign over a doorway produced a young man of limited English but good will, who pointed down the street and indicated it would be on the left.  We walked and walked, growing hotter and more tired by the minute, and finally decided that if we hadn’t seen the synagogue by the time we reached a sign where the street curved, we would go back to the boat.

Vidin synagogue

Just as we got to our turn-back point, a gap in the trees opened up, and there it was: a spectacularly beautiful building, now just a shell with a roof, but unmistakably a 19th-century synagogue in a once-prosperous Jewish community.  The windows still displayed their decorative metal tracery, and the interior was supported by metal columns that had withstood the fire.  The fence around the building had a gate, which was standing open, so we went inside.  A group of young people was already there, walking around the upper level and looking with interest at the remains of what must have been the finest building in town.  Gerry said there must be no Jews left in Vidin; even a small Jewish population would never have left their synagogue in such disrepair for so long.  It was very impressive, nonetheless, and a sad reminder of the effects of World War II in eastern Europe.


Speaking of the Jews in this part of the world, we learned a very interesting story about Bulgaria.  In the early years of the war, Hitler sent a dispatch to Czar Boris III, the king of Bulgaria, demanding a certain number of Bulgarian troops for the war effort.  Boris reluctantly agreed, with the proviso that he would send no troops to fight the Russians, since Russia had liberated Bulgaria from the Turks after 500 years of occupation.  Then Hitler sent an order directing that all the Jews of Bulgaria be loaded onto trains and shipped to the camps in the north.  After a sequence of “lost” orders and miscommunication, the Czar and one of the leading Bulgarian politicians arrived at a solution: the infrastructure of the country was in need of repair, so many of the more prominent Jews were sent to work on road and bridge projects.  Boris reported to Hitler that he couldn’t spare any of his Jewish workers, and Hitler backed down.  More important, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church proclaimed that any Bulgarian who assisted the Nazis in the deportation of the Jews would be excommunicated.  As a result, Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were saved from the Holocaust.  Only Denmark, with its 8,000 Jews, can claim to have done the same.

For more photos, click here.

For more photos of Vidin and the synagogue, click here.



Bucharest, the “Little Paris of the Balkans”

To compensate for the weather yesterday, this morning dawned bright and sunny, with the promise of a warm day ahead.  We had the choice of an extended tour of the city of Bucharest or a visit to the Black Sea and the ancient seaside village of Constanta before embarking our riverboat.  Although we’d seen something of the city en route to Bran Castle, we wanted to learn more about the Romanian capital, so we elected the city tour.  (Also, the prospect of a second long day on a bus was less appealing than what we knew would be a walking-intensive day of sightseeing.)

Bucharest is laid out around several large plazas linked by wide avenues in many cases and narrow streets in others.  The architecture of the city is eclectic, to say the least, with a strong French influence tempered by dashes of Italian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern design.  Although Bucharest suffered a good deal of damage during World War II, many of the elegant nineteenth-century buildings survived and have been restored.  Romania is strongly Catholic (of the Orthodox branch), and Eastern Orthodox churches abound in the city, despite 45 years of Communist rule after the war.


The Athenaeum, Bucharest

One of the most beautiful buildings in the city is the Athenaeum, built in 1888 as a concert hall and still in use for that purpose today.  In fact, during our visit, musicians were assembling and warming up onstage for an orchestra rehearsal.  When we walked into the grand foyer on the ground floor, the sight literally took our breath away.  Graceful arches, massive columns, curving marble staircases, gold leaf, glittering crystal chandeliers – the Athenaeum would be the crown jewel in any city in the world.  As Gerry remarked, though, it appears that to meet the requirements of the Romanians with Disabilities Act, there must be stairs so that you don’t have to haul yourself up by a rope.  If there were elevators in any of the buildings we visited, they were well concealed.

Grand Foyer, the Athenaeum


The concert hall is on the first floor (second floor to us Yanks) and is as spectacular in its own way as the foyer.  The semicircular walls behind the seats are painted in a diorama representing the entire history of Romania, from the days of the Romans to the last years of the nineteenth century.  The ceiling of the concert hall is a dome studded with round windows that can be shuttered to keep out the light during performances.  Above and behind the stage are the pipes of an immense organ, gleaming like the folds of a golden curtain.  Red velvet seats and gold leaf touches on carved wood add richness and warmth to this beautiful performance space.

Athenaeum Concert Hall


Romania’s most famous composer and teacher of music was George Enescu, who died in 1955 and is revered throughout the country.  His statue is prominently displayed on the landing of the grand staircase of the Athenaeum, and there are bronze plaques on several buildings in Bucharest marking places associated with his life and career.  One of his best-known students was the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, not a bad way to cement your reputation as a teacher.

Our second stop was at the massive People’s Palace, now the Palace of Parliament.  (We learned long ago that in many countries, the word “palace” is used for any imposing building associated with government and is not restricted to royal residences.)  This monumental atrocity, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, was intended to be the crowning showpiece of the Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.  He had his finger in every aspect of its design and construction, making changes even after something had been built, with the result that the building was only two-thirds finished in 1989, when Ceausescu was deposed, tried, and executed.  It has been almost completed now, with only a vast network of underground tunnels left unfinished.  It contains a thousand rooms, and rumor has it that not even the people who work there have seen all of them.  All the materials used in the building were Romanian, even if that meant the total depletion of the natural resources from which they were taken.  The estimated cost when construction was halted in 1989 was $5 billion; we don’t know what was spent to complete it.  We do know that the income from renting various halls and rooms doesn’t come close to covering the cost of basic maintenance, so the building is falling into disrepair.  Ostentatious, tasteless, and unimaginably extravagant, the building is a monument to the ego of one man, who didn’t care if he bankrupted his country in the process of proclaiming his own importance.

People’s Palace, Bucharest


In order to make room for the building, Ceausescu ordered that 28,000 homes be torn down and the hill on which they stood, one of the seven upon which the city was built, be leveled.  The residents of those homes were relocated to concrete-block apartments, where they often lacked water, electricity, and decent sanitation.  They were not permitted to keep their dogs in the apartments, so the animals were abandoned to live on the streets, resulting in today’s 500,000 stray dogs in and around Bucharest.  As well as homes, many historically significant buildings, mostly churches, were demolished; a very few were moved to other locations in the city.

We had a charming young local guide as we toured less than five percent of the palace, which helped to ameliorate the sense of distaste we felt at the waste of precious resources squandered on the building.  She had every relevant statistic at her fingertips and knew to the last ounce what the 185-foot-long gold-embroidered velvet draperies weighed that flanked the windows on a pair of staircases.  She had a quick wit, too, which reminded us that the Romanian people were able to endure life under a Communist regime partly through the subversive use of humor and satire to deflect cruelty and oppression.

These days, the palace houses the Romanian Parliament, which occupies only a small portion of the available space, and most of the vast rooms are empty of everything except carpets on the marble floors.  They are rented for events and conferences, which helps to pay for the upkeep.  The Romanian Olympic gymnast Nadia Comenici held her wedding in one of the largest of these rooms, where Ceausescu had planned to have a giant portrait of himself on one wall and one of his wife on the facing wall.  But then he became jealous of his wife for some reason (apparently she was a terrible woman, with a will of iron) and decided to put his own portrait on one wall and a gigantic mirror on the facing wall instead.  Fortunately, neither of these decisions was implemented.

We covered two kilometers and climbed over 200 steps during our tour of the palace (yet another statistic our guide, Lara, gave us at the end – if she’d done it at the beginning, she might have lost a few of us), so we were ready for lunch.  This time, we were driven to a delightful tavern, Cara Cu Bere, in the heart of the old city, where a phalanx of cheerful young waiters served up a menu of traditional Romanian cuisine.  From the spicy beet soup to the chicken to the epergnes holding pickled fruits, it was a unique dining experience.  If you’ve never tried pickled grapes, well, what can I say?  Like a lot of experiences, I’m glad I did it once, but once was enough.

I can’t leave Romania without saying a little more about Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, who was despised even by her own children.  The dictator habitually made speeches, surrounded by a cadre of the faithful,  from the balcony of one of the ministries, where 300,000 cheering people would gather in the square and the street below.  One fateful day in December 1989, when he appeared on the balcony, he was stunned to hear the 300,000 people shouting for his resignation.  He looked around for his entourage and found himself alone.  Escape by the usual routes was impossible, so he summoned a helicopter to pluck him from the roof of the ministry and fly him to safety.  Unfortunately for him, the helicopter had to land somewhere within the country, and Ceausescu was quickly arrested, together with his wife.  After a hastily-arranged show trial, both were convicted of crimes against the people and were taken from the room to a courtyard, where they were summarily executed.  The trial and the executions were filmed in their entirety and were shown on Romanian television over and over during the following days, so the people would know it was true that the despot was dead.  A video about Ceausescu containing some of this footage was shown to the passengers on the riverboat and was very impressive.

Back on the bus, we headed out of the city for the last time and toward Cernavoda, a town near the mouth of the Danube where our riverboat was (we hoped) docked and waiting for us.  As we crossed the bridge to the other side of the river, we could see two riverboats docked side by side, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of a pier.  Our driver began to maneuver the coach down progressively narrower and less-paved streets in the general direction of the river, until we were slogging through mud and dodging goats and stray dogs.  Our Tauck tour director, a very pleasant and competent woman from Hungary, growing slightly worried, began asking plaintively over the microphone if anyone had seen the ship, and if so, would that person please let the driver know.  Just then, the river appeared before us, and there was Treasures, Tauck’s newest riverboat, launched just last October and still sparkling and new.  The boarding process was mercifully swift, and we were soon settled into our cabin, where all our luggage was awaiting our arrival.

As you may know, the cabins on most riverboats are notoriously small, since the boats themselves are required to be quite narrow and low enough to pass under bridges and through constricted waterways.  So no 1,000-square-foot suites, unless you rent the lounge for the duration of the trip.  On Treasures, all the cabins are 150 square feet, including the closet and the bathroom, except for one deck of larger rooms.  We’d initially booked a standard cabin, but then we realized that this cruise would be just the beginning of our ten weeks in Europe, for which we needed a whole lot more luggage than we would have needed for the cruise alone.  The boat has no facilities for storing luggage, so we would have to keep it all in our cabin.  In addition, the question of closet space occurred to me, since I’m the one who does the packing and unpacking.  Our travel agent checked with clients who made this same cruise on this boat last fall and learned that there was one small closet for the two of them, so I knew I couldn’t even unpack one of our suitcases.  So we bit the bullet and upgraded to one of the larger cabins, for which we are unbelievably thankful.  Three weeks on the river in 150 square feet with your loved one could lead to homicide and suicide, in that order.

The boat (I refuse to call it a ship, although its proper designation is MS Treasures) is absolutely beautiful and immaculately maintained.  Every aspect of its design and decoration has been carefully thought out to maximize the space available and to make the passengers as comfortable as possible.  The interior colors are shades of gold and bronze, with black and brown accents, and the furnishings are scaled to the size of the boat.  Our bed is very comfortable and inviting after a long day of touring, and we have a walk-in closet, a tub and separate shower, and two French balconies that give us a floor-to-ceiling, almost wall-to-wall view of the passing scenery.  I’ll describe the amenities like food and wine next time – or I’ll ask Gerry to do it, since that is his specialty.

And so we sailed for Ruse, Bulgaria, and the beginning of our first riverboat adventure.  For more pictures of our day in Bucharest, click here.

Bucharest and Beyond

 Flying from Sarasota to Bucharest reminds me of the old saying, “You can’t get there from here.”  Well, actually you can, but it’s not easy.  After long layovers in Atlanta and Amsterdam, we arrived in the capital of Romania thirty hours after our flight left Sarasota, jet-lagged and exhausted, for the start of a 24-day Tauck cruise on three of the world’s great rivers: the Danube, the Rhine, and the Main.

The trip began with two nights in Bucharest at the J. W. Marriott Grand Hotel, a beautiful facility in the city center directly across from the gigantic People’s Palace (more about that later).  Our first morning in the city dawned cold and rainy, which seemed to suit the day-long tour we chose: a long bus ride to the mountains of Transylvania and Bran Castle, a fortress used by Vlad the Impaler (better known as Dracula) during his military campaigns in the 15thcentury.  Interestingly, the name “Dracula” has nothing to do with vampires, but just means “Son of the Dragon,” his father having been a member of the medieval Hungarian chivalric Order of the Dragon.  Vlad is seen by Romanians as a sort of Balkan Robin Hood, a brilliant fighter and strategist who fought the Ottoman Empire during its long – and largely successful – attempt to take over the entire region surrounding the Black Sea.  Vlad’s reputation for extreme brutality, even in a brutal period, culminated in his being called “the Impaler” because of his favorite and particularly gruesome method of dealing with his enemies.  To illustrate his creative brand of cruelty, there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a dinner to which he invited several boyars who had adopted the Muslim custom of wearing turbans.  Vlad hated Muslims, having spent his life at war with them,  and demanded that they remove their turbans, knowing that they would refuse.   When they rejected his demand, the servant who stood behind each boyar with food and wine stepped forward with a hammer and nails and firmly attached the turbans to the guests’ heads.

Bran Castle, Transylvania


Bran Castle itself is a beautiful stone fortress, built in the 13th century in the Carpathian Mountains as a defense against invaders who had to use the narrow pass to reach the lowlands.  In the early 20thcentury, the castle was given to Queen Marie of Romania by the people of her country in appreciation for her service, and she used it as a summer retreat for years.  Now a cultural museum and a major tourist attraction, it gives modern visitors a sense of what life must have been like centuries ago (although the furnishings are not from the medieval period).  In one of the small rooms, a table was set for Easter, with beautiful rustic breads and a basket of elaborately decorated eggs.

Romanian Easter Eggs

We climbed winding steps encased in stone walls so narrow we couldn’t imagine how a very large person could keep from getting stuck.  We ducked under low archways to reach rooms with spectacular views through arrow slits across the valleys on either side of the fortress.  The dark oak beams that support the walls and ceilings of the rooms date from the time of the castle’s construction and are still as sturdy as they were 700 years ago.  The central courtyard, with its cobblestones and picturesque well, could have served as the stage set for a Rossini opera.  What was intended for defense has become a charming fairytale castle, making it easy for us to forget its long and bloody history.  Even on a gray and rainy day, and even after an arduous climb from the village of Bran 250 feet up an uneven rocky pathway to the castle steps, it was a memorable experience for us.

Restaurant in Bran, Transylvania


Afterwards, we had our first encounter with what Romanians consider a simple lunch.  We walked from the castle down a narrow street to a restaurant called Popasul Reginei (which I think refers to the Queen of Romania, the Romanian language having evolved from Latin), where four small deer entertained us from their paddock outside the windows.  The tables were set with blue-patterned Bohemian china and wine glasses, and at each place was a large plate of artfully arranged antipasto, which we assumed was our lunch.  Wrong.  The next course was grilled chicken and beef, accompanied by a salad.  And then came dessert and coffee.  The whole meal was liberally laced with Romanian wine and beer, so when we finally (after two-plus hours at the table) waddled out to the waiting bus, we had no trouble sleeping all the way back to the hotel.  If Romanians eat this way at lunchtime, we can’t imagine what their dinners must be like.

By the way, we saw no gypsies during our time in Romania, although they do make up part of the population.  I asked our guide about the origin of gypsies, who are sometimes called Romani, because I’d thought they might have originated in Romania.  On the contrary, other European countries have a much larger concentration of gypsies, and their place of origin is shrouded in mystery.  The word “gypsy” is derived from the word “Egypt,” since at one time gypsies were thought to have come from there.  It seems more likely that they originated further east, perhaps even in Mongolia, but no one knows.

The Romanian countryside is very beautiful, rain or shine, with broad plains planted with wheat and barley and sunflowers, then the rolling foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and finally the mountains themselves, forming a natural barricade between the northern and southern parts of the country.  We had heard of the Balkans, of course, but we must admit that before we planned this trip, we wouldn’t have been able to locate Romania on a map.  We expect to be much better educated about this part of the world by the end of the cruise.  If you’d like to see more pictures of Bran Castle and our visit to Transylvania, click here.

Next installment: Bucharest, the “Little Paris” of the Balkans.


Pluck is off to Australia

We know that many of you have been wondering about what is going on with Pluck, our beautiful black colt who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in 2010.  He ran a couple of lackluster races in 2011 and was found to have fractured two cannon bones, an injury from which he recovered normally.  Then he was entered in a race the day before the Breeders’ Cup in 2011, but that afternoon he developed colic, which is nothing like what babies get: his intestines became twisted, and if they had stayed that way for more than a couple of hours, he might have died.  He was vanned to a veterinary specialist in Lexington, and emergency surgery was performed to unkink his intestines, barely in time to save his life.  He made a good recovery, but it was decided to interrupt his racing career and look into sending him to stud instead.

Two weeks ago, we were informed by our managing partner that the remaining 55% of the horse that our partnership owned had been sold to the Vinery Australia, the stable that bought 45% of Pluck right after he won the Breeders’ Cup.  They love his daddy, More Than Ready, in Australia and are delighted to get our colt as a stallion for their brrodmare stables.  We were sorry to give up our interest in him, but this is the best possible outcome for him.  Our share of his winnings and his sale price has made it possible for us to continue to buy and own race horses, and we will always be grateful to him.  He was our first real purchase (after a one-percent interest in six yearlings that got us into the game), and what a gift he has been!

We thought you’d like to see some of the pictures we’ve collected of Pluck.  Even if he hadn’t been such a great race horse, he would always have been the most beautiful horse we’ve ever seen.  Let’s all wish him a long and happy life.


At the finish line

Pluck in the lead at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf

Pluck at Goldmark Farm early 2010

Salmon Coulibiac Dinner

About once a year, we invite a few friends over to try our brioche-wrapped wild king salmon dish, using a recipe by Rose Levy Beranbaum from her book Rose’s Melting Pot. While she is best known for her book, The Cake Bible, I think her Melting Pot is one of the best cookbooks around. No recipe better exemplifies this than “Russian Rivers Salmon Pie (coulibiac)”. It is not an easy dish to make- and is full of opportunities for disaster – and takes parts of three days to prepare at that. But it elegant and wonderfully flavorful, and visually is beautiful and unusual.

It might help to understand the narrative by going to the gallery link here.

The brioche is prepared two days before service, from bread flour, eggs, and butter. It goes through two rises, with refrigerator time in between, to keep the butter from separating, and firming the dough. It is kept chilled until ready to roll out on the third day.

The salmon is briefly poached in chicken broth and white wine, with sliced mushrooms on top. The poaching broth is poured off and used to make a veloute, along with egg yolks and lemon juice, a roux, and seasonings. After thickening, the veloute with the mushrooms added is placed over the salmon and put in the refrigerator to chill until set, up to a day.

Crepes are made from cornstarch, milk, eggs, and minced dill and parsley. These, too, can be made a day ahead and chilled.

Next, couscous is prepared, adding chopped hard-boiled eggs, and minced dill and parsley.

The day of service, the brioche is rolled out and lined with dill crepes to keep the brioche from getting wet from the salmon mixture. Layers of couscous and salmon-veloute are alternated, followed by a final dill crepe covering, and the brioche is pulled together, trimmed and sealed, decorated with pastry cut-shapes and brushed with an egg glaze.

After resting (the coulibiac, not the chef) it is baked for an hour.

The coulibiac is removed from the oven, cooled, sliced, and served with clarified butter. Now do you see why we only make it once a year?


In Lingerie wins the Black-Eyed Susan

After stepping on her own feet and stumbling out of the gate, In Lingerie won the $300,000 Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico on Friday afternoon with a flourish, defeating a field of eight other three-year-old fillies on a sunny day in Baltimore.  We weren’t able to attend, since we’re only a week away from leaving on our long summer trip, but we were well represented in the Winner’s Circle by Phil and Robin and their two older children, Lindsay and Jacob.  This was the grandchildren’s first racing experience, and we’re afraid that they will expect to be in the Winner’s Circle every time they go to the track from now on.  We’ll have to explain that we won’t always have a horse in the race, much less a winner.

The decision by the trainer, Todd Pletcher, and our managing partner, Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners,  to pull In Lingerie out of the Kentucky Oaks and run her on Preakness weekend instead proved to be a wise one.  Our filly was in perfect condition and had been training beautifully for the past weeks, so she was able to show what she could do under the right conditions, running on the dirt for a mile and one-eighth, a longer distance than she’d ever run before.  Her next race might be the Mother Goose at Belmont, a Grade I Stakes race at a mile and one-sixteenth the day before the Belmont Stakes.  In Lingerie is already rated the 11th-best filly her age in the country, and if she continues to perform at this level, she could well be named the 2012 three-year-old filly of the year.  How exciting is that?

Meanwhile, here are some pictures from the Black-Eyed Susan, showing what a strong and determined race our filly ran.  We couldn’t be prouder of her.


Ready to run

In the post parade

Racing with an injured foot

About to take the lead

At the finish line

May Racing Update

The 2012 Derby is history and was fantastic or disappointing, depending upon your connections, or your bets. Cousin Kenny Rosenberg handicapped winner I’ll Have Another, and we reveled in the joy of our partners at TVI, who have ownership in fourth-place finisher Went The Day Well. He closed from a 17th place start to finish driving, and is a legitimate Preakness contender, coming out of the race with only an insignificant ( re: Graham Motion) leg cut.

On the social scene, cousins Maxine and David Rouben, who graciously agreed to host us at their Louisville home for the Oaks, had a great Oaks Day perched in a box at the finish line, well out of the passing rainstorms. Devastated we weren’t there after our “In Lingerie ” was scratched. No word on their handicapping skills.

Rosie Napravnik, a female jockey, won the Oaks for the first time in history (see earlier post about Rosie).

Where we are concerned, since we last reported, Vapour Musing finished third in a maiden race, contending in to the stretch, then appearing to drop the bit — picking it up again the last 1/16th, but falling short of a maiden win.

You know that Sweet Cat finished second to a monster finish by Jazzy Idea on a very soft turf, and State of Play is, at last report,tentatively scheduled to run at Belmont on May 19.




Racing Update

Hello all,

We are just back from a two-week driving trip to visit kids and grandkids in St. Louis and Washington, D.C.  As you know if you read the previous post, our connections decided not to enter In Lingerie in the Kentucky Oaks tomorrow. She is not injured, but Todd Pletcher and our CEO Aron Wellman felt her last work did not warrant an entry in the Oaks, given the level of competition. The fourteen best fillies in the country will be competing in this “Run for the Lilies” the day before the Kentucky Derby.  If our filly isn’t at her best, it wouldn’t be fair to run her against them.

In the meantime, Sweet Cat ran yesterday at Belmont in a non-graded stakes for $85,000, and finished a non-threatening second, four lengths behind the winner, Jazzy Idea, and nearly two lengths ahead of the third place finisher. The speed of the race was an extraordinary 1:10 and change, and Sweet Cat earned $17,000. Still and all, she was widely expected to win, so the race was a disappointment overall.

Further on, our third filly, three-year-old Vapour Musing, goes in a maiden special weight at Pimlico tomorrow in the 10th race, for a $31,000 purse. We don’t believe our connections have much confidence in her, echoed by her morning line fifth choice in a field of nine. BTW, of the six horses we currently own in partnerships, Vapour Musing and Fifth Gear (our new two-year-old acquisition with son Phil, who is just in training and has never raced), all of the others are Stakes winners or Graded Stakes placed. This includes Pluck, winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf; Sweet Cat, third- place finisher in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf; and State of Play, winner of the Grade 2 With Anticipation Stakes — who is recovering from stifle injuries. He is expected to run in the James Murphy Stakes at Pimlico for $100,000 on May 19, if his stifles heal.

And last, but not least, In Lingerie, expected to run in the Kentucky Oaks, was deemed not ready at this time for the level of competition that the Oaks presented, and is instead pointed toward the Black-eyed Susan at Pimlico the day before the Preakness two weeks later, where the level of competition is expected to be less intense — although not to say easy.

Keep posted!  Comments welcome.


In Lingerie isn’t going to the Kentucky Oaks

After a roller-coaster couple of weeks, it was decided today that In Lingerie won’t be running in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday.  Although she has been training well and turning in good times, Todd Pletcher, our trainer, wasn’t entirely pleased with the way she finished this morning’s work.  Following a series of discussions between Todd and our managing partner, Aron Wellman, the best plan for our filly came down to taking her out of the Oaks and entering her in the Blackeyed Susan at Belmont before the Preakness.  They — and we — want her to have the best possible chance, and pitting her against a very strong field when she isn’t at the top of her game would have been unfair to her.  She is very lightly raced, never having run until she was three years old, and will have a better shot at success this spring in a less highly-contested race than the Oaks.

We’re a little disappointed, of course, because the Kentucky Oaks is the premier race for fillies in the country, and having a horse in that race is equivalent to having a Derby horse.  But Gerry and I are in this game for love of the horses and not for the money or prestige it can bring if you’re lucky (and we’ve been incredibly lucky over the past three years).  So whatever is best for our filly is fine with us.

Winning the Bourbonette Stakes

Meanwhile, here she is winning the Bourbonette Stakes last month, looking like the champion she is.  We’ll keep you up to date on her career as she matures and develops.


State of Play finishes a tepid third in the Transylvania

Well, phooey!  Breaking from the number one post position, staying on the rail and out of trouble (as far as we could tell from watching the race on TV), State of Play turned in a rather lackluster performance in Friday’s $100,000 Grade III Transylvania Stakes on the turf at Keeneland.  The winner of the race led from the first few yards out of the gate and really blew everyone else away in the stretch, but our colt stayed with him for most of the race, so we aren’t sure why State of Play ran out of gas.  He finished a non-threatening third, good for $10,000 in purse money.  Everything about this race pointed toward a good result for him: he prefers to run on the grass, and the distance (a mile and one-sixteenth) shouldn’t have posed a problem for him.  Oh, well, as they say, that’s horse racing.  And we’ve been incredibly lucky in our short career as partners in racing syndicates, not to mention the fact that we have a lot of fun in the process.

State of Play 2011

Here’s a good photo of State of Play as a two-year-old, before he started racing.  His sire is War Front, but he looks very much like his granddaddy, Danzig, the leading sire of the late twentieth century.  Our colt is only three now, and he still has plenty of time to prove himself.



Growing up Jewish in the 40’s

Yes, it is true that I found the play Yentel unsatisfactory. The characters were wooden, the dialogue stilted, the scenarios highly improbable. Did the mikvah lady really collect the marital sheet to check for blood? No matter. My argument with the play lay deeper.

I grew up Jewish in Louisville, a midwestern city with clearly Southern traditions, in the 40’s and 50’s. The Jewish community at that time numbered about 10,000 out of a population of about 350,000. There were several shules (synagogues), Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Keneseth Israel, where my parents belonged, considered themselves Orthodox, though by no means would it be considered such today. Perhaps a better appellation might be Southern Orthodox, or as I perceived it later, Conservative.

Nontheless, growing up there, we thought our synagogue was Orthodox. When I was very young, women sat in an upstairs gallery called a mehitzah, apart from the men. That was later liberalized so that the mehitzah became a curtain separating men and women downstairs, about 1950. Sometime later, the mehitzah was reduced to a small portion of the main floor, while everyone else sat together.

Women were never called to the Torah (to read from the scriptures in Hebrew).  Never at that time were women counted in the minyan (the requirement of ten men to pray), 140 years later than the Yentl play, and never were women called to the bimah for aliyas, or honors, such as dressing the Torah or opening the Ark.

I confess that this did not bother me at the time, and I continued to observe as I had been taught — albeit with more and more questions — until my daughter, Marcy, was to be Bat-Mitzvah. Sons Phil and Louis had been Bar-Mitzvah earlier, in traditional ceremonies. As Marcy approached her own Bat-Mitzvah, she asked me why she couldn’t do the traditional prayers on Shabbos morning (Saturday), as her brothers had. I arranged to ask the rabbi, at a meeting with Marcy and me. The rabbi’s answer was, “It isn’t discriminatory. Women just do not have the same religious obligation as men.” That marked the beginning of the end of my observant Judaism. The same dialogue was in the the play Yentl, set 100 years earlier, and struck me to the heart.

This personal anecdote only serves to mark the connection of my story to the traditions of the past several hundred years, in some cases a thousand or more, which continue today in the horrendous conduct of Orthodox Jews persecuting an innocent young girl walking to school in her own neighborhood in Israel, because her sleeves weren’t long enough. Or a Muslim woman scarred with acid because she dared to refuse an arranged marriage. Or a Catholic woman denied communion because she confessed using contraception to her priest.

I am more and more convinced that fundamentalist religion — Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — does more harm to women specifically and humanity in general than any perceived threat of “godlessness” that we hear about from our politicians today.  I continue to believe that reasonable people of faith can be both right and relevant, as long as they don’t infringe upon the beliefs, nonbeliefs, or practices of those who disagree.  In my view, there is no justification for trying to convince people who disagree with you on a religious basis to come to your point of view. And certainly no justification for imposing your own beliefs on them in the name of the law.



Our theatre weekend

One of the main attractions of Sarasota for us has always been its rich and varied array of cultural activities.  The first time we came to the city twenty years ago for a week-long stay, we bought tickets to the current production at Sarasota Opera, wandered through one of the arts and crafts fairs that occur nearly every weekend, and marveled at the number of professional theatre companies supported by a relatively small community.

Since then, the number of local cultural organizations has expanded impressively, and the quality of the performances has improved by the year.  The Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, and Sarasota Ballet are highly professional and well regarded.  The Florida Studio Theatre, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre present a full schedule of plays, and not just during the traditional winter tourist season.  Three very successful community theatres, The Players, the Venice Community Theatre, and the Manatee Players, regularly compete for — and win — national awards.  The Sarasota Music Festival in June attracts aspiring young artists from around the world, as does the Itzak Perlman program for young musicians in January.  Mikhail Baryshnikov partners with a local organization to present an international dance, art, theatre, and music festival each October.

So it’s not difficult for us to look at our calendar and discover that we have tickets to two or three events in a single week, which is what happened this past week: a matinee at the Asolo on Thursday, an orchestra concert on Friday evening, another Asolo matinee on Saturday, and a Florida Studio Theatre Cabaret show on Sunday afternoon.  All four performances were exceptional, but in this post I wanted to focus on the two plays we saw at the Asolo Rep: God of Carnage and Yentl.

God of Carnage was written in French and originally set in a Paris apartment, but it works beautifully in translation and relocated to New York City.  The play won a Tony award during its New York run (no surprises there) and is described as a dark comedy.  Two well-to-do couples arrange to meet at the apartment of one of them to discuss how to deal with the consequences of a playground fight between their eleven-year-old sons.  The play is short, just over an hour long, and is performed without intermission.  During the course of the play, the characters’ civilized veneer begins to fracture and flake away as they reveal more and more about their real agendas, fueled in part by the consumption of a bottle of very good rum.  The antagonisms build, both between the two couples and within each married pair, even while one of the women struggles desperately to hold onto what she views as proper behavior.  But, as one of the characters says, we are all still primitive, amoral creatures at the core, and the “God of Carnage” of the title is Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

Despite the very serious themes at the heart of the play, though, it is very, very funny.  The dialogue is clever and witty, and the physical comedy is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  If you’ve never seen the play and have the chance, give yourself a treat and buy a ticket.

One of the ways Gerry and I decide the merit of a play or a movie is how much we talk about it after we’ve seen it.  Sometimes we’ll leave the theatre saying we didn’t like it much, but we’ll find ourselves returning to it in conversation over the next few days and eventually decide that it was really worth seeing after all because it made us think.  That’s the way we felt about Yentl, which we saw at the Asolo Rep two days after God of Carnage.  Based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the play is not taken from the screenplay of the Barbra Streisand movie, but is a new script with the same roots.  It is centered on a young Jewish woman, Yentl, living in a Polish village in the late-nineteenth century, when Orthodox Judaism viewed the education of women to be contrary to the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud.  Yentl, however, refuses to settle for the life imposed on women in her culture.  She persuades her father to teach her after his (male, of course) students have left for the day, and she proves to be a brilliant scholar.  When her father dies and she has no options for survival other than marriage, she dresses in boys’ clothing, leaves her village, and goes to a yeshiva — a school for young men pursuing religious studies.  Her masquerade is successful, although it has some unintended consequences, and Yentl learns the hard way that being true to herself can be more painful than following the herd.

The production values of the play were excellent, as were the performances.  So we were both a bit perplexed by our not finding the story particularly compelling or most of the characters sympathetic.  This was not, for example, Fiddler on the Roof.  No soft and fuzzy philosophy, no uplifting hit songs (although there was some very interesting, if anachronistic, music).  But after we got home, and after dinner, Gerry said he was having second thoughts about the play.  At the heart of the story were the traditional views about women propounded by all orthodox religions over time, the imposition of rules intended to keep women in their place and to prevent them from exercising power outside the home.  Was it just that men were afraid if women were not tightly constrained, they might usurp men’s authority?  Or did they fear that women might actually question the rules created by men but propounded as God’s laws?  The vehemence with which the men in the play — young as well as old — rail against the educated woman is horrifying.  They call her an abomination, a monstrosity, all this as Yentl, in her men’s clothing, listens in silence.  She is afraid to speak out in defense of women when she is posing as a man, although she was quick to do so before her masquerade.  I see in this an analogy to the outrage expressed openly by millions of Catholic women when the bishops opposed the law requiring employers to offer — and insurers to provide — contraception to those employees who wanted it.  A Catholic woman posing as a man in order to serve as a priest would probably keep as silent as Yentl in her man’s garb.

In the interest of fairness, I must admit that I have a longstanding antipathy to all forms of organized religion.  But my antagonism toward religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism, at least, has a strong basis in fact.  I see Yentl as a woman starving for knowledge, and the food she craves is kept locked up for the use of men who may or may not even want it.  That, and not her love of learning, is the abomination.


Vapour Musing’s return to racing doesn’t go well

Entered in a confidence-building maiden race at Pimlico this past Saturday, Vapour Musing failed to get the memo. She finished a lackluster mid-pack, never threatening, while going off the favorite at 5-2.

While future plans are uncertain, TVI’s CEO Barry Irwin is known for quickly pulling the plug ( that is, selling the horse) on non-performers. We’ll keep you posted.

Sweet Cat is back!

Winning at Gulfstream

Sweet Cat blazed to victory Friday over five furlongs on the turf, clocking a blistering 55-second time to come out on top of a ten-filly field at Gufstream Park.  Her win was especially gratifying after her disappointing showing in February at the same race track, which made the trainer and the managing partner of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners (the ownership syndicate we’re part of) wonder if our filly had lost interest in racing.  That clearly isn’t the case, as she proved yesterday.  Her next race hasn’t been decided upon yet, but it might be a graded stakes race at Keeneland on the synthetic track.  Or she might run in a stakes race on the grass instead.  We’re very proud of her and thrilled that she is back in the game as a three-year-old.

Laurie adds 2 year old colt FIFTH GEAR to Smith/Shaikun stable

Today, Team Valor International offered 2 year-old colt Fifth Gear, a son of Derby winner Animal Kingdom’s sire Leroidesanimaux, for syndication. Sold out in two hours, we snatched up 5% of his shares, largely using our contest winnings of $5,000 from last year’s “Guess the Winnings” competition, sponsored by TVI. We came within $6,000 of predicting the total purse winnings for the syndicate, which won over $3,000,000  for 2011.

The colt, who has a late March birthdate and just turned an “actual” two (all horses born in the US turn a year older on January 1, regardless of actual birthdate), is bred for both dirt and grass. Presently in Ocala, he will be trained at Fair Hill, Maryland by Graham Motion, and may be running as early as this summer.

This marks the third colt we are involved with, including State of Play actively campaigning and Pluck, likely to retire to stud this year. We also have three fillies, all three-year olds, all actively racing.


For more details about Fifth Gear, link here.


Laurie and Gerry

Three horses scheduled to race for us in coming two weeks



We will have horses entered in three races in the next eleven days.

Leading off on Friday, March 30, Sweet Cat will run in an allowance race at Gulfstream.


She will be going five furlongs on the grass for $49,000.( See right). She will be trying to get back on track after a listless run in her last outing, still unexplained. She will leave from post position 3 with 12 entered. This is the 9th race and should be televised on TVG. Of interest is that my cousin Kenny has a horse entered in the same race – Peggy Joyce – and neither of us was aware until the entries were posted.

Vapour Musing

Then, on Saturday, the 31st, Vapour Musing (left) is entered in a maiden race at Pimlico, in Maryland. She will go a mile and one sixteenth on turf for a $32,000 purse. She was injured most of last year and has only run once, as a two-year old. So we don’t know what to expect from her, as green as she is.

Finally, State of Play, who is coming off a Stakes win at Gulfstream last outing, is entered in the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland on April 6. This will be run at a mile and a sixteenth on turf as well, for $100,000; $62,000 to the winner.

State of Play winning the With Anticipation Stakes

The stable has decided that his future is on the grass rather than dirt or polytrack, and therefore he is not under consideration on the Triple Crown trail.(See State of Play right). Nonetheless, there are plenty of big distance races on turf, so stay tuned. This race will probably be televised nationally on one of the major networks.

Hargis boys visit; take Sarasota by storm

Hunter and Nathan Hargis, along with their mom Marcy, paid grandparents Gerry and Lolly a spring break visit last weekend.  Sarasota rolled out its very best weather for the occasion, with bright sunshine, cool breezes, and warm temperatures.  We spent one full (very full) day at Busch Gardens, our favorite theme park just up the road in Tampa.  We can attest to the fact that the Cheetah Hunt, the park’s newest roller coaster, is as exciting as it looks in the advertising — three minutes of non-stop high-speed loops, twists, turns, climbs, and plummets.  At age nine, the boys weren’t tall enough to ride SheikRa, the most extreme of the coasters in the park; but we’re pretty sure the next time they visit we’ll really be in for it.  Just visualize a ninety-degree drop from 300 feet above the ground, feet dangling in midair, followed by an endless series of loops and rolls and one breathless rush through a pool of water.  We all enjoyed the wildlife safari experience, where we became very good friends with a pair of romaine-loving giraffes and saw the park’s resident rhinos, wildebeest, impalas, kudus, zebras, elephants, and other African creatures in their free-roaming habitat.

The next day we went on a two-hour cruise in Sarasota Bay aboard LeBarge, a big tour boat with four big palm trees growing in pots on the upper deck.  An onboard marine biologist served as our guide, and we saw several of the bay’s bottlenosed dolphins fishing for their lunch, as well as three manatees swimming over beds of seagrass near shore. We preceded this with a visit to the Saturday Market, just outside our door, where  Gerry bought shrimp and fish, while Nathan and Hunter scoped out the ubiquitous dogs and the market pastries, opting in the end for Pastries as Art offerings, just around the corner on Main. (Good choice!). Coming home, they spotted Mattison’s City Grille, an open air dining spot, and it was decided that Saturday night’s dinner choice was made, especially after Nathan learned that there was dancing with a live band every night. Also, there was an Arts and Crafts Fair along two blocks of Main, which the boys perused after the boat excursion, buying custom visors  and foam coasters, while Marcy and Laurie were unable to resist a Tennessee vendor’s ingenious grill cleaning tool.

Back at our condo, late Saturday afternoon, we spent an hour or so at the pool, but cut it a little short to watch our horse, In Lingerie, run in the Bourbonette Oaks Stakes on NBC ( see previous post). Much cheering and screaming ensued as In Lingerie coasted to a 6 length win that probably sends her to the Kentucky Oaks, the filly equavalent of the Kentucky Derby. Look for posts related to the Oaks, which we will attend if possible.

The dudes finished off their visit with dinner at Mattison’s City Grille Saturday night, a downtown outdoor venue with a band, dancing area, bar, and many, many tables for dining. After our dinner, Nathan proceeded to the dance floor, where he wowed the assembled crowd and danced the night away, carefully monitored by his mother. His grandparents faded back home with Hunter, who finished off his visit with a killer poker game with Lolly.

For more photos of the visit link here.

Ask Hunter who won the poker game.

Gerry and Lolly