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A glorious day in Venice, on a budget of euro30
Associated Press, Sept. 24, 2008

VENICE, Italy (AP) – For centuries, Venice has captivated travelers with an array of romantic images: gondola rides through glistening canals at sunset, homes painted in vibrant hues of periwinkle and plum.

It’s also known as an expensive city. But you can see the basic sights on a budget. For a little over euro30 (US$40), a friend and I spent a glorious day in Venice sampling food, street scapes and architecture.

There’s no better way to start your day in Venice than with an Illy or Lavazza espresso, which will leave you charged for hours. No one in Europe enjoys their coffee quite like the Italians,who huddle around the barista’s counter and yell “Buon giorno!” to one another while sipping their high-octane espressos.

I tried a frothy cappuccino from Brek Ristorante — an inexpensive Italian chain — on Cannaregio for euro1.10 (US$1.60), and picked up a bag of fresh fruit from nearby vendors as we made our way to Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square.

Skip the pricey gondola ride and hop on the No. 1 waterbus. For around euro6 (US$8.75), the bus-boat (called a vaporetto) takes about 45 minutes to traverse the Grand Canal — the main waterway that winds through Venice. The waterbus offers the same views of the city that the gondola ride does.

We found St. Mark’s Square a bit lonesome since officials passed an ordinance in April banning tourists and locals from feeding the pigeons that used to flock to the piazza by the thousands. (The birds’ filth was blamed for damaging the city’s facades and monuments.) Still, no visit to Venice is complete without a stop here.

Next, we made our way to St. Mark’s Basilica for a free self-guided tour. The marble floor is decorated in beautiful, intricate mosaics. St. Mark the Evangelist is buried underneath the altar. A word to the wise: Many churches in Italy have a dress code and won’t let you in unless you are dressed appropriately. Count on getting stopped if you’re showing too much skin. On a warm day, we saw women wearing tank tops scramble quickly to transform a garbage bag into a shawl to cover their bare shoulders.

From there, we wandered to the Bridge of Sighs, which connects an old prison to Doge’s Palace — the seat of Venice’s government for many centuries. According to legend, criminals traveled over the enclosed bridge on their way to prison. Before arriving at their cells, they would get one last look at Venice in all its beauty before heaving a breathtaking sigh.

It’s not uncommon for Venetian visitors to let out their own sigh of pleasure — over the city’s marvelous food and drink. One of the best things about Venice is its cicchetti bars, where you can get munchies and appetizers alongside a glass of wine for a couple euros. It’s a great way to sample a bit of this and that without spending a fortune. Plus, it’s how the locals do it. Just be advised that many cicchetti bars close in the early evening.

We tried Cantina do Mori, a speakeasy-looking joint west of the Rialto Bridge popular with locals since 1462. Dozens of old brass pots and bottles of wine decorated the walls, and a blackboard behind the counter displayed red and white wines by the glass. We showed up just as the bartender was closing shop, but he still welcomed us with a half-smile and offered wine.The cost? About euro3 (US$4.50) a glass. We closed the door behind us as we left.

We found a handful of similar establishments nearby, including Osteria ai Storti, which has a fun area for mingling outdoors, and Antica Osteria Ruga Rialto, affectionately known as “the Ruga.”

Not wanting to call it a night, we headed toward the Grand Canal. A crowd of young, good-looking Italians were drinking outside in a fairly crowded square near Muro Vino e Cucina, a chic wine bar with a restaurant upstairs. I couldn’t muster the “when in Rome” attitude to try a cocktail infused with Campari and prosecco, but opted for more wine — this time two glasses for under euro4 (US$6). Nearby Venetians mingled and flirted in their trendy Dolce and Gabbana hip-hugging jeans. Around the corner, on a pier next to the Grand Canal, locals sat shoeless, dangling their feet over the edge while taking in the sunset.

As dusk approached, we slowly wandered back to our hotel near Ferrovia to experience Venice at night. With most of the tourists and vendors in for the night and not a car nor Vespa in sight, the only sound was the click-clack of my shoes against the cobblestone streets as I navigated the labyrinth of narrow alleyways.

Warm light emerging from windows illuminated balconies with flowerpots and clotheslines, introducing a more romantic, peaceful side of the city. But the darkness made it difficult to read the rusty signs tacked onto the walls with arrows offering direction through the kaleidoscope of Venice’s streets, bridges and canals. Suddenly a female voice from above yelled, “Signora!” An elderly Italian woman on her balcony pointed in the opposite direction. Turned out a dead end was ahead.

“Grazie!” I yelled gratefully.

Near the hotel, we stopped for a slice of pizza at L’ Angolo Della Pizza on Cannaregio. For euro2.50 (US$3.65), I sat at the counter, and ate a margherita-style slice — with red sauce, white cheese and green basil leaves, the colors of the Italian flag — in honor of my Italian grandfather and Queen Margherita, for whom the pizza is named.

Dessert was a couple of scoops of gelato — dense, richly flavored Italian ice cream. With options like strawberry, tiramisu and coconut, the decision wasn’t easy. For under euro2(US$3), I got a couple scoops of stracciatella — vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings — and hazelnut-flavored Nutella. I wasn’t sure the flavors would go well together, but one taste quickly proved me wrong and had me thinking I couldn’t have picked a better way to say “Ciao!” to Venice.

If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Venice is easily reached from other points in Italy by train or bus. Venice’s Marco Polo Airport also offers direct flights to and from many cities. You take water taxis between Venice and the airport, but a cheaper, though longer option is the Alilaguna waterbus– — which leaves about once every hour from the airport.

GETTING AROUND: Venice is shaped like a fish with canals as the major thoroughfares. Landmarks will help you find your way and your hotel may have a free map. Make sure you get lost at least once. A serendipitous moment is sure to follow.

WEATHER: Bring rubber boots and carry an umbrella as downpours and street flooding is not uncommon. Venice is less busy in the fall than in summer or around Christmas, but November is the city’s wettest month, with fall temperatures in the 10-15 C (50s and 60s F).

Muhammad Ali Center celebrates life of ‘The Greatest’
Associated Press, Oct. 29, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – The relationship between this city and native son Muhammad Ali always comes back to a story of the brash Olympic boxing champ, then known as Cassius Clay, tossing his 1960 gold medal into the Ohio River in disgust over entrenched racism.

But the story may be apocryphal — Ali later told friends he simply misplaced the medal — and as the years passed Louisville and Ali eventually came to appreciate each other.

Now, Ali’s hometown is ready to unveil a lasting tribute, a museum celebrating the life of one of the 20th century’s most recognizable figures.

The Muhammad Ali Center opens Nov. 21, chronicling the life of “The Greatest” inside and outside the ring, emphasizing his peaceful values and vision of global tolerance, and setting the record straight about that infamous gold medal.

“People will be surprised when they visit the Ali center,” said museum spokeswoman Jeanie Kahnke. “Many people only know of Ali as a boxer and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world. What they may not know about him is how he has been a charitable individual for most of his life. That has only grown since he has retired from the ring.”

Ali, now 63 and battling Parkinson’s Disease, is expected to attend a star-studded opening gala Nov. 19, along with celebrities Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, James Taylor and B.B. King. The event is attracting guests from England, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, Jamaica and Barbados.

“There are very few in the world who affect people the way Ali does,” Kahnke said. “We’ve heard from people who are suffering from diseases and young kids who were born 15 years after Ali’s last fight. Ali gives them the strength to achieve their own goals and fight for their own beliefs.”

Ali retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record, 37 knockouts and an Olympic gold medal. By then, the legendary fighting career was only part of his story.

He became the world’s best-known Muslim, took a peaceful stand against the Vietnam War and has worked in his later years as a United Nations peace ambassador, helping raise awareness and money for the world’s poorest nations.

Organizers broke ground on the $75 million, 93,000-square-foot project in 2002. Experts on the Vietnam War, Islam, civil rights and other areas helped create a center related intimately to Ali’s life. Some of the exhibits were reviewed by longtime Ali coach Angelo Dundee and biographers Robert Lipsyte and Thomas Hauser.

“When you think about boxing, you just see the athlete on a stage,” said curator Susan Shaffer Nahmias. “For many years, Ali’s story stopped at the ring. This center shows a picture of Ali through a voice that isn’t a sports writer.”

Numerous exhibits highlight parts of Ali’s life often buried beneath his athletic prowess. One exhibit aims to set the record straight about the story in Ali’s autobiography of him flinging his light heavyweight Olympic gold medal into the river. His since-denied story says he tossed the medal in disgust over continued racism in his hometown after he was refused service in a restaurant and harassed by a group of racist motorcyclists.

Other displays recall the lighting of the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when a trembling Ali hoisted a golden torch as spectators frantically clicked cameras and stood to give him a loud, emotional ovation.

“He held the torch with the world watching and, somehow, his disability enhanced his persona,” said Tom Owen, a Louisville historian and professor. “He continues to have an energetic spirit. You see that man ascending to light the Olympic torch. What city wouldn’t want to embrace a native son like that?”

Longtime friend Howard Bingham, a Life magazine photographer who has shot hundreds of pictures of Ali since the 1960s, said it was one of the champ’s defining moments. “I told him, ‘Ali, this is a time when the world is saying thank you for what you have done and sacrificed, and how you’ve helped people throughout your life,'” Bingham said.

In a hands-on area designed to look like Ali’s training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., visitors can learn how to shadowbox and hit a speed bag. Onlookers can gawk at the Olympic gold medal Ali he received in Atlanta to replace the one from 1960.

There is also hope the center will become a place where world leaders can come, share their viewpoints and cultivate peace. The Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice, based at the University of Louisville, plans to hold seminars at the center to promote peacemaking and conflict resolution.

“We are not a world capital. But I believe they have hope that disputing peoples will come here,” Owen said. “I would love to see Muhammad Ali come back and put his blessing and his encouragement at those tables of reconciliation.”

Ali, who currently lives in Michigan with his wife, Lonnie, has long hinted at moving back to the city where he grew up.

“He is the most recognized figure in the history of this city and when visitors ask about him, I point to the center,” Owen said. “We hope he has a long and continuing life and hopefully, one day, he will come home.”

Post-Olympic Athens slides back into traffic anarchy; experts urge London-style levy
Associated Press, Nov, 24, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Taxi driver Manuel Pircolos is fuming.

At a dead-stop in traffic, he chain smokes, drums his fingers on the dashboard, and sums up life behind the wheel. “It’s crazy! … I smoke too many cigarettes when traffic is bad because I’m stressed,” he said, hopelessly stranded in a downtown shopping district. Dug-up tarmac and double parked vehicles pile on the misery.

Everywhere across the exasperated capital, a post-Olympic reality is sinking in. Athens — despite its brand new highways, overpasses and transport networks hastily built for the Games — remains dreaded by its drivers, who are watching in horror as the city’s streets steadily seize up.

At 38, and a 10-year veteran of navigating Athens’ narrow arteries, Pircolos is convinced that driving from A to B has gotten harder even with all the new infrastructure that was built for the Olympics. “Ten years ago, it used to take four to five minutes to go on one (particular route) … Now it takes 25 to 30.”

Government planners had hoped the Olympics would shake up driving habits in a city of nearly five million people and two million cars. Typically unruly Athenians used public transport more frequently and put up with new traffic control cameras and lanes reserved for games officials.

But tens thousands of residents who skipped the Games for a summer vacation brought gridlock back with them, leaving traffic experts searching for new ideas.

Downtown driving restrictions that started in the 1980s — based on whether license plates end with an odd or even number — have been rendered ineffective by an economic boom that allowed Greece to stage Olympic Games that cost about euro11 billion (US$14.6 billion). Two-car families are now so commonplace and vehicles so numerous that the downtown traffic zone is hard to police.

The government, resigned to rising vehicle ownership, is drawing up a “transport charter”which includes tougher penalties, especially for cars parked illegally in bus lanes.

It has also launched a campaign to persuade Greeks to take more public transport with a new flat euro1 (US$1.3) ticket for all transit systems, aimed at cutting commuters’ car use from currently more than 65 percent to 50 percent in three years. A large portion of the Olympic cost went for construction of a so-far little-used tram network, suburban rail line and Athens metro extension.

Transport expert Antony Stathopoulos, a professor at the National Technical University of Athens, says drivers should also pay a higher price for taking their cars to work, and is urging Athens to copy London’s “congestion charge” for city-center access.

Under the British scheme, people entering the downtown London area have to pay a 5 pound (euro7/US$9) fee or pay a fine of 40 pounds (euro57/US$75) for violating the congestion zone. The British system is policed with cameras that record the license plates of offenders.

London’s downtown traffic dropped by 20 percent after three months of the congestion zone. By comparison, the hefty euro83.50 (US$109) fine for entering Athens’ little policed downtown has done little to cut traffic.

“What else is there to regulate traffic?” Stathopoulos told The Associated Press, arguing that a 30 percent drop in circulation would make many traffic jams disappear. “The good thing is that thanks to the Olympics … Athenians now know that their city can become, under the right circumstances, a more livable city,” he said.

Civil engineer Dimitris Tsamboulas said Greeks must be convinced to take public transport. “The issue now is how to convince (Athenians) to change their habits and make the temporary and enforced public transport usage permanent,” Tsamboulas said.

London is a long way off for Pircolos, who has seen high gas prices cut into the euro10(US$13) he makes an hour and doesn’t believe the experts have come up with any helpful ideas. “What money can I make?” he asks, lighting up another cigarette and to another line of red tail lights in front of him. “People always say, ‘I’ll give you two more euros if you hurry,’but what can I do?”

Frozen in time, Bronze Age city in Aegean Sea gets hi-tech protection
Associated Press, Oct. 27, 2004

AKROTIRI, Greece (AP) – After 3,500 years, Akrotiri, an ancient city frozen in time, is finally getting a decent roof over its head.

An ambitious project on the Aegean Sea holiday island of Santorini will shield ruins which were buried and preserved through time by the fallout from a devastating volcano eruption. It will also safeguard excavations that are to continue for generations.

Akrotiri closed to the public this week for the final stage of the euro40 million (US$50 million) venture: a Venetian blind-shaped canopy with side openings to allow natural light and ventilation.

Already four years in the making, the 15,000 square-meter (162,000 square-foot) structure is gradually replacing a rusted metal-scaffold system installed after systematic excavations began at Akrotiri in the late 1960s and are now in a state of near-collapse.

Christos Doumas, heading the excavation, said the new cover combines low-tech environmentally friendly methods of protection with sophisticated design and testing tools.

“This project couldn’t be done without high-powered computers,” Doumas told The Associated Press, explaining that each support, fixed in uneven ground, had to be painstakingly gauged for strength to keep the canopy resistant to earthquakes– a common phenomenon in Greece.

One of the most closely watched excavations in the world, Akrotiri offers a unusually detailed view into the late Bronze Age with four-storey buildings, remains of an advanced plumbing system, and fine art and craftsmanship — vases, bronze vessels, frescos — in very well preserved condition.

Volcanic material that smothered the city spewed out from the massive eruption, which blew out much of the middle of the island in 17th Century B.C., sending ash as far as Greenland.

The blast contributed to Santorini’s picture postcard cliff-faced skyline — used as a backdrop in the 2003 action movie “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” starring Angelina Jolie.

The disaster also associated the island, known to many Greeks as Thera, with the legend of Atlantis. “Life was cut suddenly … everything was trapped in and frozen, so we have a civilization which was well-packed in pumice and preserved for us,” Doumas said.

No human remains have been found at the site. It was presumed inhabitants fled the prosperous seaport after a series of earthquakes.

But Doumas said he suspects some residents may have returned for repairs and were killed while trying to escape for a second time. He thinks their remains may still be found outside the city.

Akrotiri’s new roof will aid archaeologists hunt for new clues into ancient life.

“Under the roof, which covers only a section of the entire city, we have located 50 buildings and for the last 40 years, we have explored fully three buildings and halfway through another two,” Doumas said.

Architect Nikos Fintikakis, who designed the roof, said it is designed to last 300 years with minimal impact on the environment. Stainless steel louvers have wooden inner paneling and, on the outside, are blanketed with volcanic soil to act as a natural insulator. The sloping canopy sections will be used to collect rain water on an island that is bone dry.

Special glass and arched wooden frames control the amount of sunlight and filter out harmful rays. “The roof will meet the challenge of sustainability,” Fintikakis told the AP, integrating new technology with the “four elements of our lives” — earth, sun, air and water.

Construction of Akrotiri’s new roof is scheduled to end late next year. The project is funded by the European Union and the Greek Ministry of Culture.

Athenians in awe at Dutch artist’s pocket masterpieces
Associated Press, Oct. 19, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Surveillance cameras and security guards kept close watch Tuesday as a private Athens museum showcased dozens of etchings made by Rembrandt, in an exhibition held to mark The Netherlands’ presidency of the European Union.

The 91-piece collection of works by the 17th Century Dutch master — with some of the detailed artwork smaller than a pack of cigarettes — was mounted under protective glass at the downtown Benaki museum where it will be on display for nearly two months.

“The prints are small and subtle … so we wanted to keep the presentation simple,” Maria Diamandi, the exhibition’s coordinator, told The Associated Press. “The presentation is just as important as the etchings themselves.”

Rembrandt’s oil paintings like “The Nightwatch” and “Portrait of a Young Woman” are his best known work. But in his day, the Dutchman was known mainly for his etchings, as reproductions were more affordable.

His work became valuable long after he died in poverty in 1669. “During his lifetime he was not well-known, but in the 19th century people rediscovered him,” Diamandi said. “Time has proven that he’s a great painter.”

The etchings are grouped under portraits — including a self-portrait of the artist with a small beard and floppy beret — Biblical scenes, and Amsterdam landscapes.

A new technique at the time, etching involved covering a copper plate with an acid-resistant coating and using a needle to scrape the design onto the metal.

Acid was then used to highlight the markings — scores of fine outlines in a square inch to produce breathtaking detail.

The artwork is on loan from the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition has already traveled as far as Israel, South Korea and Brazil.

Organizers said the Athens exhibition is insured for approximately euro5 million (US$6.2 million).

“The most expensive etching is valued at about euro1 million (US$1.2 million),” Diamandi said.

Good luck guessing which one it is. Citing security concerns, Diamandi would not reveal which piece carries the hefty price tag. The exhibition, “Rembrandt. Etchings from the Rembrandthuis Museum Amsterdam,” runs through Dec. 12.

Anyone for Murder Ball? Disabled athletes find games to call their own
Associated Press, Sept. 22, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Before hitting the court, American Clifton Chunn boosts his adrenaline with rap music from Eminem and Jay-Z.

Then it’s time for “murder ball” — officially known as wheelchair rugby — a crash-and-grab contest known only to disabled athletes with a dangerous disregard for bruises. It’s one of four sports exclusive to the Paralympics, along with powerlifting, goalball and boccia.

“I’ve broken my finger before, had bloody noses and busted my chin,” Chunn, 26, told The Associated Press. Chunn won gold at the Sydney and Atlanta Paralympics and is hoping to earn his third in Athens. “I don’t believe you should play with fear,” he said.

Starting in the late 1980s, wheelchair rugby is where bumper cars meet pro football: Gasps and cheers from the crowd at head-on collisions and careening wheelchairs. Players fight to roll over the goal line with the ball. To James Gumbert, assistant U.S. coach, it’s a “high-paced, action-hitting, crowd-involved type of recreational sport.”

Goalball has less contact but plenty of tumble. The sport was created in 1946 for the rehabilitation of blind World War II veterans. Three-member teams take turns rolling a ball fitted with bells toward the opposing goal.

Guided by the jingling, players dive sideways for the ground, using their bodies as barriers.The game lasts 20 minutes, long enough to tire out the toughest competitor. “It might look pretty slow from the outside, but it doesn’t move that way,” said German Paralympian Christiane Moeller. “After a game, I’m pretty exhausted.” Blind since birth, Moeller is studying law at Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, and began playing goalball because she “needed a new challenge.”

At 23, she is the youngest on her team. She said she has build a strong connection with her teammates to provide orientation on the court.

Boccia, another Paralympic-only sport, is played by athletes in wheelchairs with cerebral palsy and other locomotor disabilities. Players toss six balls at a white target ball called the “jack.” The closest shot wins. As with goalball, spectators are encouraged to remain quiet so players can concentrate.

Paralympic powerlifting debuted at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Japan, with women first competing in 2000. Athletes, including participants with cerebral palsy and amputated limbs, bench press weights. Four-time Paralympic medalist Kim Brownfield says winning depends mostly on mental strength.

“Once you get to this level of competition, everyone is even physically, but some people are mentally stronger,” said the 40-year-old polio sufferer from the United States. “It takes a different type of breed to get to that level mentally.”

Flying high with the perfect pilot in paralympic tandem cycling
Associated Press, Sept. 25, 2004

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – The day after Britain’s Ellen Hunter discovered she qualified for the Paralympics, she broke her back in a cycling accident. Doctors told Hunter she would never walk again.

Starting from scratch, Hunter and her visually impaired teammate Aileen McGlynn trained over the winter to re-qualify for the Paralympics tandem cycling event.

Just 15 months later, Hunter, 36, and McGlynn, 31, broke a world record and won a medal for their performance in the 1 kilometer.

“After I broke my back, I became more competitive and realized I wanted to win more than I thought,” Hunter said.

“She’s really come back strong,” McGlynn said of her teammate. Both women received gold medals for their first Paralympic performance.

In Paralympic tandem cycling, an accredited cyclist like Hunter — known as the pilot — rides on the front of the bike while the visually impaired athlete pedals at the rear. Paralympians are judged on the same criteria as Olympic cyclists, but compete in different classes based on disability.

Experienced tandem cyclists say finding the perfect partner is key to performing well. American cyclist Matt King, a visually impaired engineer, says the process is like “finding a prom date – you court them a little bit and then you’re rolling.”

King — already an 11-time national champion and world-record breaker — found pilot Eric Degolier by doing research on the Internet.

Degolier, 30, had goals of his own. He wanted to be part of a team — something he said he couldn’t get from racing solo competitions. King’s “sacrifice and determination” fulfilled Degolier’s expectations.

Cyclists are required to find pilots who perform at similar levels, says Anthony Yorke,chairman of the IPC Cycling Sports Committee.

“We want to make sure the pilot isn’t too good…the blind person should be the focus of the competition,” Yorke said. “The last thing we’d want is Lance Armstrong as a pilot.”

Unlike their Olympic counterparts, Paralympic tandem cyclists do not receive as much financial support from sponsors. High travel costs, rigorous training schedules and equipment maintenance make tandem cycling difficult. “The money we spent to get on the U.S. team came out of our own pockets,” King said.

King and Degolier fundraised to cover costs that were not covered by the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We might have a disability but we’re still athletes,” King says. “And we want nothing more than to be judged that way.”