Saturday, February 14, 2015

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by Margot Justes

It is no secret I love cruising, for one it’s simpler and easier at this stage in my life than packing and unpacking, lugging suitcases from place to place. On the ship I unpack once, granted you only see a little bit, but at least it is a taste, and sometimes a day is enough.

On the third day at sea, the captain announced that tomorrow morning between 4 and 5 in the morning we would be crossing the Strait of Gibraltar,  and the Rock would be visible. I scheduled a wake-up call for 4:00, I didn’t want to miss it a second of this event. Yes, I know it’s just a rock, but what a magnificent one.

The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.
It is largely believed that the Neanderthals considered it home as far back as 125,00- years ago, and as late as possibly 30,000 years ago. The history is significant, but on this trip, I was only going to see the big rock, not the tunnels and passageways, nor the flora and fauna.

I didn’t know what to expect, when you’re in the open sea, it’s pitch black at night, sometimes you see an island, dim lights twinkling in the distance, another cruise ship heading to a port, or a freighter chugging along, but darkness is routine. We were moving toward the Atlantic in November, cruise ships were heading somewhere warm, just like our ship was doing-the final destination was Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

I thought I’d be the only one out on deck, not so, many other souls were up, many were in pajamas, sweat shirts, comfort clothes fit for the occasion. For all of us the first call was to the ever present coffee machines. The crew was up, and along with the coffee a continental breakfast was served while we all awaited the big rock. The anticipation was great.

Even in the dark and the huge gap between the ship and the rock, it was still a monstrous hunk of stone, and even with lights twinkling everywhere, it was an eerie spot.

At five ten, we crossed the straits, and indeed the big pile of rock was there, it is huge even from a great distance. I have a couple of pictures mostly of what looks like a massive dense space surrounded by light.

After the crossing we were on the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Agadir, Morocco-tomorrow’s stop. As the saying goes there was quite a bit of motion from the ocean once we crossed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

Proof of the movement were the bags placed on the landings. Delicately phrased, people call them barf bags for a reason. Usually when the bags come out, I expect some pretty rough seas, and they didn’t disappoint.

It is really strange walking on deck when it’s windy and the seas are rough-it feels as if you either have lead feet or are floating on air. I lasted 20 minutes before I gave up, and actually had to sit down and rest for a few minutes. I was not alone on deck, there were a couple of other souls floating on air, or not, depending on the wind.

For the afternoon, the captain predicted fifteen feet swells, the bags were firmly in place and that included the elevators; otherwise it was life as usual on board ship. They believe in being prepared, and you know it’s serious when the crew couldn’t walk in a straight line-their  sea legs were firmly in place. 

Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Agadir, Morocco by Margot Justes

The port of Agadir was my first visit to North Africa. Our tour included a souk visit, which is a typical market/bazaar, tented and patched with whatever was handy, you could see imagination at work everywhere you turned.

The souk we visited was positively huge, there was no time to stop and shop, our guide was rather persistent that we stay together, and he just marched on, one turn after another in a wondrous maze. I was grateful, I tend to wander off and get lost; they’d probably still be looking for me today, but I was smart enough to stick to the guide like the proverbial glue.

Alley upon alley of curved and narrow paths, most were dirt, others had tile, cracked plaster, still others pieces of bricks, well worn rugs, all uneven, and all led to infinity. It seemed never ending. Anything was for sale from cheese to meat to clothes, massive selections of olives, live poultry and everything in between.

We walked through town for a little bit, visited the top of the hill, or mountain as the guide indicated, where in 1960 at almost midnight a volcanic eruption killed 20,000 people. The place remains untouched, neglected  with few dry plans marking some graveyards. A sad reminder of a horrific loss. Along the path coming down the hill, vendors lined up their good on either side of the street, and once again touristy trinkets were for sale, most were imports from China.

After the somber reminder of the loss of those poor souls, a welcome break called the Fantasia Show was held in a tent and garden, where galloping horses and riders with guns drawn came to a sudden stop and fired into the air, even a snake charmer was thrown in for good measure. There were souvenirs to buy, and one was expected to haggle. Even patient camels were waiting for tourists to ride them-the awkward creatures are actually quite soulful, graceful and limber.

In the evening I took another tour, back to the tent lined with red carpets and the same garden. This tour included a traditional dinner in the tent and entertainment in the garden.  I’m sure there were Arabian Knights lurking in a corner somewhere…well I am a romance writer after all.

More of the traditional Arabian Nights riders, guns drawn as they galloped across the lawn, fired their guns, and majestically rode back. Blanks were used but the noise was enough to wake the dead. It was a delightful evening, filled with local customs and traditions.

After the show we had a typical Moroccan dinner of a soup made with chick peas and local spices, a chicken with vegetables slowly cooked in a tagine, and then couscous with roasted vegetables and lamb, and for the finale a huge bowl of fresh fruit. I love couscous and the preparation was outstanding.

A belly dancer provided the after dinner entertainment. By the time I was back on the ship, I really did think about the magic and romance of the Arabian Nights, moonlight and mysterious strangers.

Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Setting the Story by Margot Justes

I write romantic mysteries for a niche market, my stories deal with art, travel, a bit of mayhem and romance. I might preface that with-I love art and I love to travel-and have been fortunate to be able to do so. The old adage write what you know and love is true.  

When I started writing, I knew my novel would be set in Paris. In my youth, I lived there for a year, and have since gone back a few times. It stood to reason that my first romance should be set there.

New architectural structures reflect a modern appeal, but the old is appreciated and treasured. The Louvre now has Pei’s Pyramid at the entrance, a few buildings have been added, but the age old charm, the cobblestones, the meandering streets, the essence and soul are still very much there.

The first time I visited Bath, England, I told myself I must come back, and I did. My second book is set there. My third hotel book, my current WIP is set in magical and mysterious Venice. All three cities are mystical and romantic places. Venice has captured my heart perhaps as no other city-there is a constant pull to go back and see what I have missed.

My heroine is an artist, and through her eyes, I introduce my readers to my favorite artists, allow her to live in exciting places, give her mysteries to solve, and someone to love. The best of all worlds.

For me it is essential to visit the place I write about, get a sense of the culture, the everyday, mundane activities that make up our lives. The magical moment of sitting in a cafe, sipping an espresso, and watching people go by. An image is created that will allow a glimpse of that perfect intimate moment.  A sculpture in a garden described so well that the reader can almost reach out and touch a sinew, that is the wonder of the written word.

Rodin has always set my pulse racing, his work is strong, exuberant, poignant to the point of agony, and sometimes even mischievous. I tried to bring that sense of joy and discovery to my hero in A Hotel in Paris, and hopefully to my readers. I find solace in art, for me it’s therapeutic. You don’t have to be an art scholar to enjoy it, it’s everywhere we turn, it surrounds us, all we have to do is take note.

Imagine tea at the Pump Room in Bath, and that first sip of the heavily scented Earl Grey tea, you take a deep whiff to savor the smell of the bergamot oil, take a bite of that a fresh scone still warm, loaded with clotted cream and strawberry preserves-except that I skip the cream and go directly for the jam, lots of jam. Those are all real memories that will enrich a story.

Visit a restaurant that has been in business since the early 1600s, in Bath and watch out as you step down on the crooked stairs and touch the warped wall, coated with gobs of thick paint as you continue your descent that doesn’t seem to end, and then you gingerly sit down in a rickety old chair and hope you won’t be sitting on the ancient brick floor instead.   

Stand on top of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, look down at the Grand Canal, and the mesmerizing traffic below, boats gliding on water expertly and avoid contact. Sip an espresso in a cafe and listen to a gondolier serenade you from afar.

From the Rodin Museum in Paris, to the Pump Room in Bath, to the dark and narrow canals in Venice, where the water mysteriously shimmers in the moonlit night. It’s all there. Familiarity with a location makes it easier to write about the experience, it makes it come alive.

Even though I write contemporary romance mysteries, I love history and art, and that is what I write about. It goes back to the beginning, write what you know and love. 

Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Blood Art
Hearts & Daggers
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Blood Art and Blatant Self Promotion by Margot Justes

I thought I’d share the first chapter of Blood Art with you.
I loved writing it, and hope you will enjoy reading it.

                                                   Chapter 1

Florence, Italy 1503
“I am a vampire, Leonardo.”
“I am well aware of that fact Nikolai, but you have the soul of an artist.”
“I repeat. I am a vampire. And make no mistake—I have no soul.”
As a course for survival, Nikolai lost his soul centuries ago, but there was no reason in belaboring the point. Leonardo da Vinci was entitled to his belief.
Nikolai stood in the middle of the cavernous room and looked around him. Flickering candles cast shadows on the walls. A massive wooden desk was shoved against bare brick, one end piled with old rags coated in deep and rich colors. Leonardo's palette lay on the floor recklessly abandoned, and paint splashes had spilled onto the wooden floor, filling the wide cracks between the boards. A stale oil smell permeated the room; used candles were everywhere, surrounded by mounds of spent wax. A few books were stacked up on the floor against another wall, one on top of the other. An old wooden chair pushed against a corner, stained with crimson paint; the cushion looked like a splash of blood. A tapestry covered the wall where a makeshift straw bed lay on the floor.
“I repeat. You, my dear friend, have the soul of an artist. Vampire or not.”
“I collect art, hence our deep and abiding friendship—all due to your masterful accomplishments. I have no other such talents. At least, other than being eternal, ageless, and have an uncanny ability to amass a fortune at every opportunity. Typical vampire standards; anything I want, when I want, and how I want. Staying alive for eons does allow one to become complacent. Despite the danger, eternal existence does permit certain pleasures. And for me, the building of a sizable art collection is most gratifying, and a venture which I intend to continue through the ages.” The brusque, low voice was mesmerizing in its intensity, and hid any emotion, any visible trace of anguish. He simply stated these facts as if they were nothing, and common.
Nikolai Volkov watched as Leonardo picked up burned out candles and stray brushes he had left everywhere.
“Nikolai, you support artists that are being ignored, ridiculed. You redeem us. You recognize ageless talent. I am egotistical enough to say that in the coming centuries I will survive through my art.”
“Of that I have no doubt. Again, that is why I collect your paintings; your drawings alone are incomparable. I know you will survive. And you will increase my wealth substantially.” Nikolai turned and looked at the various paintings leaning against one of the stone walls. In the corner canvases were stacked in no particular order, and next to them wooden planks.
Leonardo's studio was plain, utilitarian, and filled with finished and unfinished works of art, all of which Nikolai coveted and wanted to own. Possess.
“Yes, I am sure I will survive, but only through my art. You have and will continue to survive through other means. Ones I do not wish to think about.”
“I have paid dearly for my survival.” Nikolai touched his cheek, feeling the ridge of the deep scar on his face. That attack had been particularly brutal. The cut went all the way to the bone, and not allowed to heal. Lucrezia Borgia told him it would mar his stunning beauty and further bind him to her, both physically and emotionally. She was wrong on both counts. He considered the scar his badge of courage and tenacity.
His surreal beauty, as she had once described it, now marred by that one scar. A reminder of torture. A memory not to be forgotten. Vampires do not scar, yet that one single scar on his body remained, as if an omen of things yet to come. Centuries of memories all held within that singular ridged cut on his face that slashed down to his very soul. The one he claimed not to have.
He was tall, over six-foot-three, with hair black as night. His eyes were as blue as sapphires and frigid as the Arctic ice. Nikolai was built hard, like Michelangelo's David, and just as cold.
The lethal combination fostered first and foremost fear from man and demon alike. And admiration, from women. All women. He never lacked for company. Yet, they all left him unsatisfied, and yearning for something he didn’t understand.
“Leonardo, will you paint a portrait for me?” Nikolai spoke quietly, staring at a painting stacked against a wall, his back to Leonardo.
“No. Not me.” Nikolai replied, his bleak smile was more of a grimace that did not reach his eyes. “This will be from memory. My memory.”
“Does she mean something to you? I assume you are speaking of a woman.”
“Yes, I was. And yes, she meant something to me.” He ran his finger along the jagged scar.
“Ah, I see. I gather she was not a pleasant memory.”
“You gather correctly.”
“I will do it for you. Tell me everything you know about her. Every single memory. Every movement. Everything you remember. Give me a perfect description of the mysterious woman. It will be my gift to you.”
“I do not wish to keep the painting.” Nikolai visibly shuddered at the thought. “You may do with it what you will. Burn it in hell for all I care.” His reply was savage.
“I see.” Leonardo replied thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. “Why do you want me to paint it?”
“To exorcise a demon. One among many.”
“Do you wish to discuss it, my friend?”
“No. Just paint the damn thing. You will be well paid.”
“No,” Leonardo replied vehemently, shaking his hand in the air. “There will be no money changing hands. I will paint it. I will not burn it; I will sell it. I do have a payment to demand of you. Once I am done, I expect to hear why I painted it. That is my demand. Do you agree?”
“Yes, damn you. I will agree to your terms. Your absurd demand.”
“Why absurd? She obviously damaged you. I would have to be an idiot not to recognize the symptoms. And I am not an idiot.”
“Yes, I am fully aware that you are not an idiot. You should be terrified of me. Yet you are not. You reason things out. You think. A vampire, even in your century, should horrify you. Yet, I do not.”
“You terrify me, all right. Your power. Your strength. Your ability to kill without thought. Your survival through the centuries. Your knowledge of the past. Yes, you alarm me, my friend.”
“Alarm…that is a milksop statement. Leonardo, look at your own drawings. You see what is to come. What does that say about you? Your work foreshadows the future. It is there, in your drawings.” Nikolai pointed to a canvas leaning against a wall. “You are more than an artist; our long discussions have proven that. You are a genius. A man of re-birth. You, here and now, could be considered demonic. That is how some would interpret your work.”
“I will ignore that. It is safer not to discuss people and their survival methods—it might be misunderstood. Fortunately for me, my work is not well understood. Most everyone sees a painting or a drawing, nothing more. Perhaps they even think I am mad. A simple man cannot interpret what I imagine simply by looking at my work. That is indeed very good for me.” Leonardo sighed. “Now, let us get back to your description of the woman.”
“Have I touched a sensitive spot?” The vampire asked, sarcasm dripped from every word.
“Yes.” Leonardo hissed between his teeth. “Now, give me the damn description.”
“Paint her as you would a beloved portrait. Make her mysterious. Enigmatic. Serene. Perfectly poised to attract attention. Paint her as the central and pivotal person in the scene. In fact blur everything else. Nothing should matter much save her face and hands. Long, beautiful fingers, elegant hands with perfect skin, relaxed. Incapable of hard work. Make her look innocent. Wistful.” Nikolai stopped speaking, and again touched his face along the line of the scar.
“Make the damn demon, the savage beast…saintly. That will be the joke for centuries to come. Paint it dark, yet give her light. A shimmer, so that she almost glows. Make her irresistible. Give her eyes that damn the soul. Eyes that see beyond the present. Is that enough for you?” Nikolai demanded.
“Yes. Do I have leave to choose the color of her hair and eyes?” Leonardo asked quietly, captivated by Nikolai’s mesmerizing voice and the tortured memories he was reliving.
“I do not care what color you choose. Dark is what I desire.”
“It shall be done. You want her to look enigmatic, a mystery through the ages. How is that for conceit? She will survive centuries, whereas I will die.”
“You, my friend, will be reborn every time someone looks at your work. But you already know that. Your art will speak for you for eternity.”
“Let us continue as we have in the past, Nikolai.” Leonardo preferred to ignore rather than acknowledge the reality of his existence. “Your life is eternal. You do not age. Let us leave it at that. Be careful not be recognized, it might endanger you.”
“I am four hundred years old. Through the centuries of battles, corruption, and betrayal, no one pays any attention to whether or not I age. Everyone is consumed with their own survival. I expect that in the future, I shall need to take better care.”
“Take better care, but live. Even if you cannot be killed, live as you have done in the past.” Leonardo spoke softly, as if afraid of being overheard.
“I aim to live better, and I can be killed; one just has to know how. I certainly do not discuss that aspect of my survival. I am alone, removed from my clan. Solitary, my lair and art my only comfort. It has been this way for centuries and, make no mistake, Leonardo—it is a lonely existence. You, my friend are a true master and you bring me a great deal of pleasure. Someday your work will be priceless. Look at your drawings. See the things I see in your work. You behold the future in front of you.”
 “Indeed.” Leonardo dismissed Nikolai's predictions with a wave of his hand. “I may need you again, after I begin the portrait, of course.” Leonardo spoke absentmindedly, stretching his fingers, already thinking about the unusual commission.
“Of course, I am always available to you. How will you explain the mystery woman?” Nikolai's curiosity got the better of him.
“I will not. There will be rumors. A model. A mistress. A wife. A requested portrait by a well to do merchant.  I myself will perpetuate said rumors,” Leonardo replied, a wide smile lining his face.
“Brilliant, Leonardo. As I have said, your work will be priceless.”
“Do you wish to change your mind and purchase the portrait?”
“No.” Nikolai shuddered, turned, and slammed the massive door behind him. He took a deep breath, a normal human reaction one he'd used so frequently that he no longer even thought about it. He walked outside and realized that had his heart been beating, it would have stopped at the mere suggestion that he keep the portrait of his tormentor and captor. Damn the Borgias. All of them.
Nikolai walked to his lair and thought about his life, lost in memories of long ago. He heard a rustle of leaves, a shrill scream, and then silence. His speed was as fast as the wind, and as quiet as death. He reached a man kneeling over the body of a woman. She lay on the ground, unconscious, her face bloody and leg twisted unnaturally, her arms outstretched. The man reached to lift her torn skirt. Nikolai lost all veneer of civility, his fury reflected in his blood-red eyes and extended fangs. He showed no mercy.
He grabbed the man, then effortlessly lifted him off the ground and threw him against a tree. He heard a crunch but didn't bother to look back. He reached down and tenderly touched the bruise on the woman's face, her split lip where the man had obviously hit her with his fist. Nikolai's touch healed her. He straightened the leg and massaged it. She would have a few bruises, but nothing that would last more than a few days. He lifted her in his arms and carried her back to Leonardo's.
Leonardo would help the less fortunate, the few strays Nikolai occasionally brought him. He always did.
On his way home, hunger struck. His fangs lengthened, but he would not feed from the vermin he'd destroyed. He'd lure someone else.
Nikolai once again pondered his existence. He'd just destroyed a life and felt no remorse. He knew that if he had not interfered, the woman would have been raped and most likely killed. He felt nothing for the life he so easily extinguished. The bastard deserved it.
Alone, Nikolai had few friends, and he chose not to search for any members of his clan, or any other vampires. He'd had his suspicions about several people he knew, but preferred not to bring any attention to his own existence.
His path to emotional survival and redemption forbid getting involved in battles not of his own choosing. He searched for his salvation and ultimately some meaning to his eternal existence. His senseless killing sprees subsided long ago. Finished. Now he only killed when necessary. To end evil, be it human or otherwise.
Nikolai thought about his captor and tormentor, and as always waited for her to come after him. Addicted to his blood, Lucrezia would move heaven and earth to get him back. She could do nothing else; the addiction was like a disease. He promised himself next time that she would not survive. He learned a great deal through the centuries, including how to outlast and outwait a demon. Patience. He had a great deal of patience for certain things. Eternity will teach you that, if nothing else.
Long ago, Nikolai escaped from his torments. He emerged into putrid air contaminated with lost souls, but he was free. Alone. No longer a captive to be tortured against his will. No longer raped. No longer beaten. No longer slashed and starved. She taught him to kill without thought, whether for revenge or retribution. He did not care; he had killed to gain physical and mental freedom.
The paintings and sculptures he'd gleaned while still a captive brought him salvation. Those pieces he took from her as payment for his suffering. She paid a heavy price for the abuse she gave, and in his mind, she would forever be a living nightmare. Her name was indelible in his memory: Lucrezia Borgia.
He'd called her the demon queen of torment, for indeed she knew how to inflict the utmost pain. The rack became a pleasure in comparison to what else he'd suffered. His limbs were stretched and pulled, his life's blood spilled, and still that wasn't enough for her. She'd turned him to keep him forever young, make him hers to use  as she pleased. Lucrezia became addicted to him, and that was her folly. His doom. Her ultimate mistake.
Once freed from her rule, and on through the ages, he saw redemption in art and the painters and sculptors who made a difference in the art world. The geniuses of the centuries, like Leonardo da Vinci, one among so few.
Nikolai's speed increased. He was eager to reach his home atop a hill, his fortress built with massive stones and rocks that allowed for defense, along with an underground chamber where he could rest in peace, unencumbered by anyone or anything. The fortress was designed so that any room could be kept pitch black—the windows tiny, the glass that was there was thick and crinkly. The curtains were made from heavy brocade that blocked all sunlight and the world outside.
Priceless tapestries hung on the walls, for warmth that he didn't need, and the pleasure that he craved. The absolute joy of holding a canvas, or feeling the texture of a magnificent tapestry, was his salvation in life, offering comfort and contemplation.
Nikolai longed for peace and searched for the one woman who would matter, who would end the unbearable loneliness. In the meantime, he did what he could to make life better for others. He tried to hide the arrogance, the strength, and all the other characteristics, everything that comes with being a vampire. Not ashamed of who and what he was, but age has taught him the old adage that discretion was indeed the better part of valor.
Through the centuries, he added to his already enormous art collection, and added to his own power as a demon.
The instinct of the vampire to survive was always present and a huge part of his survival, but he adapted to humanity. His chosen style of solitude served him well. Over time, he learned not to kill to feed, but allow his victims to survive without ill effects, and without memories of his presence. He no longer destroyed unless threatened, but then he had no mercy, his brutality hidden beneath the veneer of sophistication and age-old wisdom. But the brutality existed when needed.
His countless properties were managed by people he trusted and of whom he took great care. His people were loyal to him beyond question, and from one generation to the next, they stayed and worked with him, providing a sense of family and belonging. A ruthless businessman, he was fair and honest in his dealings with others. Betrayal was not in his vocabulary. No one crossed him; the sheer power that emanated from his presence, his cold, frigid eyes that appeared to look through to the deepest and darkest secrets of an adversary, instilled fear in anyone that he came in contact with.
Through the lonely centuries he'd had a foreshadowing of a looming battle, one he'd personally have to fight.
The when, how, and where wasn't clear as yet, but he knew it was coming.

Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Blood Art
Hearts and Daggers
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Florence, Italy by Margot Justes

Our first stop was in Livorno, Italy, the port city in Tuscany that took me to Florence. It was love at first sight. Even on a cold and rainy day, it was one of the most astounding cities I have ever seen. Florence is said to be the birth place of the Renaissance, and to celebrate our first stop was the Accademia Museum to visit Michelangelo’s David.

To say it is magnificent would be an understatement. It is powerful, the hands are large beyond even the size of the 14 foot sculpture that weighs in at about 6 tons. It radiates power, it was meant to do so; those hands will ultimately destroy Goliath. They are bigger than perceived reality.

The piece is an astounding work of artistry. There is a reason Michelangelo dissected cadavers and spent many hours in the Carrere Marble quarries watching the men work. It’s all there in David’s body, every nuance, every muscle, every vein is defined to perfection.

The face is that of someone older than the young teen David, emanating age and wisdom beyond the teen years, and of course the sheer male beauty. The face appears to be that of a Greek god, the look is wistful. It is pure perfection, right down to the veins in the powerful hand that holds the rock. The one holding the sling is relaxed, since little effort will be needed. The white Carrere marble seems to add strength and purity to the piece.

The day was packed with museum visits, the Church of Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross) and the old medieval bridge Ponte Vecchia crossing the Amo River.  The narrow streets were filled with shops selling anything from cheeses and salamis to leather goods and gold.

Lunch at Piazza della Signorina,  at Il Bargello was a welcome respite for a bit of warmth and away from the continuous rain, the pasta delicious, and the large bottle of Chianti didn’t hurt either. The creamy hazelnut gelato and espresso complimented the end of the meal. The Piazza also has a copy of David.

The rain continued throughout the day and somehow made the city more captivating and magical; the gloomy sky cast murky shadows on the striking and famed multi colored marble buildings as they glistened in the mist. Odd to say, but it was a joyful experience, the place is magical. Florence, once seen is never to be forgotten.

Florence deserves a few days not a few hours, and I have plans to be back and see the rest of this glorious place. In the meantime, I’m happy I was able to see just a little bit.

Margot  Justes
Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite Holiday Recipes by Margot Justes

In many of my baking recipes you will detect an underlying theme-rum-the wonderful aroma of rum adds a festive touch to the baking process, and Myers’s is an excellent dark rum.

½ cup of butter (1 stick)
1 large can of evaporated milk
2 oz bitter chocolate (I only use Ghirardelli chocolate)
12 oz semi sweet or dark chocolate chips (I use dark chocolate 70% or higher)
2 lbs sugar (4 ½ cups)
12 oz dark chocolate
½ lb marshmallows
1 ½ tbsp Vanilla
1 cup of chopped walnuts (I use 2 cups)
1 cup of raisins (I soak mine in dark rum overnight, and mix the rum and the raisins.

Combine butter, canned milk and sugar, stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, cook to a boil, about 5 minutes.

Turn off heat and add marshmallows, stir until melted, add the 3 types of chocolate, one at a time, stir until each is dissolved. Add vanilla and nuts, raisins with rum and stir.

Line a cookie sheet with saran wrap, extending the edges; pour the fudge into the cookie pan, spread evenly with knife or spatula.

Let dry for 2 days. Invert the fudge unto your counter, remove saran wrap and let dry for another 2 days. Cut into squares and serve.

This recipe makes quite a bit of fudge, I cut it all up and store in a sealed plastic bag, or tin. My family loves the fudge; usually it doesn’t last very long. Makes a great gift too.
Banana-Nut-Rum Bread
½ cup cooking oil
1 cup sugar
2 eggs-beaten
4 or 5 ripe bananas-mashed
2 cups Flour (I use whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup of chocolate chips
1 cup of raisins (I soak mine in rum overnight)

Beat oil and sugar together. Add the beaten eggs and banana pulp and beat well. Add the dry ingredients, milk and vanilla. Mix well and stir in nuts, raisins with rum, and chocolate chips. Pour into greased and floured loaf pan (9 x 5 x 3) I use lasagna pan, cooks more evenly.

Bake in preheated oven at 350 F for about an hour. Cool well before cutting.

Rum Balls
2 1/2 cups Vanilla Wafers
5 1/2 cups ground walnuts
1 cup of honey
1 cup of rum
1 cup or as needed confectioner’s sugar
Mix all ingredients, form into small balls and roll in sugar. I usually let them sit on foil paper for a day or so and then arrange on platter. You may need to sprinkle them with additional powdered sugar.

Poppy Seed Cake
This one takes time, but if you like poppy seeds, you’ll love this coffee cake.
1 cup of milk
1 package of active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 cup of butter (2 sticks)
1/3 cup of sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 1/4 cups of flour
2 tsp vanilla

Scald milk, cool to a warm temp, add yeast and 1 tsp sugar; stir to dissolve yeast. Let stand for about 10 minutes. Yeast should puff up in the milk.
Cream butter, add 1/3 cup of sugar, beat in eggs and salt. Add flour alternating with yeast mixture. Knead on floured surface. Place in greased bowl and cover. Let rise until doubled.
Cut dough in half and roll it out the length of your cookie sheet, spread the poppy seed filling and form into a log, sealing the ends. Put on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  The two rolls should fit on cookie sheet. Repeat with the second batch of dough.

Poppy Seed Filling (double the recipe for the two cakes)
1 can of poppy seed filling (I use Solo)
Rind of 1 lemon
3/4 cup of chopped walnuts
11/2 tsp vanilla
3/4 raisins
Mix all ingredients and spread on rolled out dough.
1 egg slightly beaten and 1 tsp of water; mix egg and water and brush on cakes.
Let the cakes rise for a couple of hours, brush again with egg mixture, and then put in pre-heated oven at 350F and bake for an hour. Cool and enjoy.

Hot Chocolate
This is my version, with extra dark chocolate.
1 8 oz glass of milk, I use skim. (I conserve calories wherever I can...she wrote laughingly)
1 Tablespoon dark unsweetened Ghirardelli cocoa (I like the unsweetened cocoa, the flavor is much stronger)
4 squares Ghirardelli 72% dark or 2 tablespoons Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips

Heat milk and cocoa, make sure cocoa and milk are well blended, use a small wisk if necessary. When the milk is hot take 4 squares or 2 tablespoons of Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips (to taste) put it in and mix until completely melted. You can sprinkle a bit of shaved chocolate on top. Sweeten to taste, or add a few small marshmallows on top.  

You can of course use sugar or sweetened cocoa, but it's the good cocoa and dark chocolate that gives it the added richness. It is a delicious treat, and easy to make. 

I love hot cocoa, and use the Bialetti machine to speed the process up a little. It heats up and froths the milk at the same time. I even use it to froth a large quantity of milk for cappuccinos, and lattes.

These are among my favorite recipes during the holiday season that starts with Halloween and ends with the New Year.

I wish you much joy and peace.

Margot  Justes

Blood Art
A Fire Within
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Hot Crimes Cool Chicks

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Return to Rome by Margot Justes

It was a packed one day in Rome and my first transatlantic cruise,  time just didn’t allow for more. On this cruise we would stop in  Livorno, Italy-Cartagena  and 3 of the 7 Canary Islands in Spain, and Agadir, Morocco in Africa,  the final destination was Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

For the longest time I wanted to see the Borghese Galleries in Rome. Usually you have to book months in advance, but I was lucky. I walked through the beautiful gardens up to the Villa Borghese, and was told they were sold out. I must have really looked dejected, and the woman took pity on me and sent me downstairs to the ticket counter.  She told me sometimes they have returned tickets.

I did as I was told, and they had a couple of extra tickets if I was willing to wait three hours. Waiting was not a problem, first and foremost, the gardens are positively stunning and vast, there is a museum shop on the lower floor, along with a cafeteria that offered excellent coffee, and delicious paninis, I chose ham and cheese and it was yummy. 

The Borghese family arrived in Rome in the late 16th century, and the villa dates back to the early 17th Century.  There are two floors and twenty rooms filled to capacity, the collections is vast, it is one of those places that is so packed you don’t know where to look first, and it is overwhelming. I prefer galleries that aren’t quite so crowded. You will find works of Bernini, Correggio, Raphael, Rubens, Titian and Caravaggio to name just a few masterpieces exhibited.

The amazing collection is not to be missed, the self guided tours lasts 2 hours, and there is an audio option. The tours are staggered, and they only allow 350 visitors per tour; time and number of people are strictly controlled.

I came away inspired by the works of Bernini-he of the fountains of Rome fame-along with the magical fountains, he was a magnificent sculptor. The collection is massive and in reality for me, the two hours were enough.  There is just so much crammed into the available space, and the collection is so massive that I was on overload. I walked back to the hotel in the rain, and that wet breath of fresh air felt good.

I did make the most with my time in Rome. I walked through the Borghese Gardens and Galleries, I saw the finished renovation of the Bernini Fountain below the Spanish Steps, and had a delicious dinner-homemade pasta cooked al dente with porcini mushrooms and Parmesan Reggiano. It was a packed day and by the end I was exhausted, and slept like the proverbial baby.

The next morning the hotel provided a scrumptious buffet breakfast filled with various breads, sweet rolls, cakes, cheeses, hams, eggs and all the espressos and cappuccinos I could drink. My kind of breakfast.

There was an adventure I hadn’t anticipated. The driver picked me up from the hotel and off I went to the Civitavecchia Terminal, the Port of Rome. The driver stopped at the security gate at the terminal and had a lengthy conversation. I should have known something was wrong; the discussion at the security gate and the fact that I couldn’t see the ship should have given me a clue that not all was well. I didn’t even think twice about the rough waters lapping against the wall as we neared the port. I thought maybe we’ll have to be tendered because the ship was docked elsewhere.

The ship was indeed docked elsewhere, in a different location, and in fact in a totally different port in another city altogether. As the driver informed me-the seas were too rough and Civitavecchia is very rocky; the ships already there couldn’t get out, and new arrivals couldn’t get in. My ship was stuck in Naples.

There were buses lined up along the terminal, the passengers and the luggage were loaded on said buses and off we went on a three hour ride to Naples to board our ship.  Celebrity Cruises handled it really well, they provided water and snacks-heaven forbid you should be on a cruise and not have food.

Once we arrived in Naples, the check-in was relatively painless, and we were on our way, the first stop the next day was Livorno, Italy-the port for Pisa and Florence. I had high hopes of finally seeing Michelangelo’s David.

Margot  Justes
A Hotel in Paris
A Hotel in Bath
Blood Art
A Fire Within