Pleasant travel surprises (Part 2)

This item appears on page 19 of the May 2021 issue.

Ron Carlson of Lakeland, Minnesota, asked ITN subscribers to write about pleasant or serendipitous surprises that they had experienced while traveling outside of the US, such as the time he was in Bangkok and was invited by the police chief’s wife to tour an area of opium dens! (This was 64 years ago, and he was touring with a couple of GI friends on leave from Okinawa.)

ITN subscribers submitted numerous stories, and the ones we’re presenting this month fall under the category of being in the right place at the right time.

The year was 1979. I was a college student doing a year’s study in Italy and had met my mom in Vienna, Austria, where we found ourselves on a strangely empty street, free of either car or foot traffic.

We heard sirens and saw a motorcade with police escort approaching. The first limousine that passed flew Soviet flags and had the curtains drawn across the windows. It was followed by another limousine with American flags and the curtains open. Who should be in it but President Jimmy Carter, waving to us and smiling! We were the only ones on the street.

I cherished this strange, serendipitous moment because we were on our way to Hungary to visit family members I had never met who were very unhappily living under Soviet domination. The chance encounter with our president in Vienna made me proud to be an American.

Sue Cuthbertson
Las Vegas, NV



Sheep hogging the road in New Zealand. Photo by Albert Moore

My husband and I were enjoying an independent tour of New Zealand in 1993. Our little rental car took us up and down the mountain roads through lush green farmlands with thousands of sheep.

Our first surprise was a traffic jam of sheep in the road ahead of us. There was no way around them. They filled the road, even spilling over into the woods on either side.

As we slowly got closer, we saw that there was one shepherd and several dogs moving the sheep along. He motioned for us to come through, and we inched our way through the cacophony of bleating sheep, barking dogs and whistles.

When we got near the shepherd, we asked him how many sheep there were. He told us there were about 2,300, and he was moving them 10 kilometers to a new pasture by himself.

Sheepshearing in action. Photo by Emily Moore

The next surprise happened during our stay at a beautiful big farmhouse. The next morning was sheepshearing day! What luck for us.

We were on the scene right after breakfast, cameras at the ready. Hundreds of bleating sheep were crowded into pens. The sheep shearer would grab one and expertly run the electric clippers over its body. Strangely, the sheep didn’t complain. In about two minutes it was over, and the now-naked sheep was sent down a chute.

It was an unexpected bonus to our New Zealand adventures.

Emily Moore
Greenville, IL



Years before cell phones and the internet, we had to improvise in finding new experiences. When I was not familiar with a location, one of my favorite resources was the local postcard rack.

In August 1983, while driving up into the Swiss mountains, we stopped near the top at a tiny mom-and-pop store. My husband and our two sons went to the restroom while I perused the postcards.

All of the cards showed a beautiful, turquoise-blue ice cave. I took one of the cards over to the clerk and, in gestures, asked her, “What is this? Where is this?” She very casually motioned out the back door.

Incredulously, we paid a token fee and walked out the door, down a short path and into a spectacular ice-blue cave carved into the glacier. Imagine how thrilled we were!

• Another August, in 1990, my husband and I were staying in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy, and decided to take a bus into Portofino. While waiting at the bus stop, I did my usual perusal of the postcard rack. Many images showed an underwater Christ figure.

We happened to strike up a conversation with an elderly American lady who was also waiting for the bus. I asked her, “What is this Christ figure, and where is it?” She lit up like a Christmas tree with excitement. “Oh, you must go to the abbey and see it!”

She told us exactly how to do it: take a 5-minute train ride to Camogli, then a boat to San Fruttuoso abbey. We did it the very next day and spent the whole day at the abbey swimming and exploring. We later learned that it was also possible to hike to this jewel.

• My travel friend, Katie, and I rented a small house in Umbria, Italy, in June 2009, near the town of Todi. We did day trips to hilltop villages.

One day was devoted to the hill town of Deruta and its famous pottery. We visited shops large and small, saw artists at work and ended at Grazia Maioliche, the oldest and most prestigious factory.

I had read a Frances Mayes story about a pilgrimage to this small factory to select the pattern of pottery for her Cortona villa. I asked the saleslady helping us which pattern Frances Mayes had chosen, and I liked it too. While I was choosing which plate I would buy (at $100 each, only one plate for me), Katie told the saleslady that we had traveled all the way from Miami to visit this shrine.

The owner, Ubaldo Grazia, who was across the showroom helping an obviously wealthy Italian couple, overheard this and, when he was done, came over to welcome us. He told us that his family had owned this establishment for centuries and now he was the proud owner. He asked if we would we like a tour. Of course!

He took us all through the factory, showing us the artists at work, his office, a private collection of antique Deruta pottery and, finally, a storeroom housing sets of completed pottery waiting to be shipped or delivered.

One set was custom-made for actor Andy Garcia. Another was a custom set made for George Clooney’s villa on Lake Como. Since we had a car, we offered to personally deliver George’s set for him. Ubaldo laughed and politely declined.

How gracious a host Ubaldo was, and how memorable and special this day turned out to be!

Sally Kevers
Roswell, GA



My favorite travel surprise occurred in Florence, Italy, on May 1, 2013.

That morning, I arrived at the train station and checked into my hotel ready to visit the tourist information office and get a start on my 4-day stay in the city. I had forgotten that May 1 is International Workers’ Day. No businesses were open in many European cities, not even the tourist information office in Florence.

Disappointed, I was taking the long way back to my hotel on Via dei Calzaiuoli when, suddenly, I heard music and drums. I looked up and saw a troop of trumpeters marching toward me. What followed was a wonderful Renaissance parade, complete with costumed marchers, bands, drummers, flag throwers and banner bearers.

It was a very solemn procession; few participants were smiling. For at least an hour and a half I watched the whole colorful procession as it proceeded up Via dei Calzaiuoli, taking as many photographs as I could. It was a wonderful surprise on a day when few establishments were open.

On my return to the hotel, I asked the man at the desk what it was all about. He couldn’t be more specific than, “Oh, they do that all the time.” I have since tried to learn what was being celebrated or commemorated but have never found out.

I did learn that a similar parade occurs at the time of Carnevale, usually in February, but I found nothing similar on May 1. If any ITN subscribers know what this may have been or what similar processions are all about, I’d love to hear about it.*

Gladys Sheldon
Oconomowoc, WI

*If you have information for Ms. Sheldon, email it to her c/o ITN at or by mail c/o ITN, 2116 26th St., Sacramento, CA 95818.