Digging for Dinosaurs (and Answers) - Part 1

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Why do people love dinosaurs? Was it their size? Their teeth? Their sudden extinction? Or was it that, once upon a time, monsters roamed the Earth.

Through a series of fortunate events, I found myself about to fulfill my lifelong dream of digging for dinosaurs. At the time, I worked for Pixar Animation Studios and was a member of their Paleontology Club (all wanna-be Alan Grants). Every year, a small group of Pixarians participated in an ongoing dig at the Waugh Quarry in Wyoming. When invited, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity and was soon driving through pine-covered mountains toward Hill City, South Dakota.

In the late 1800s, Custer's Expedition discovered gold in those same hills. Instantly, thousands of prospectors arrived hoping to strike it rich and swiftly established an unruly population of miscreants. "A town with a church on each end with a mile of Hell in between" is the oft-quoted slogan for the origins of Hill City. Perhaps it was the kind of people who arrived—troublesome treasure-hunters—or that the one-road town had 15 saloons.

Our first stop in town brought us to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a world-renowned center for all things prehistoric, primarily the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils. Within their walls, the Black Hills Institute (BHI) had its own museum which they, unlike others that bought or borrowed exhibits, literally dug up from the dirt themselves. Tyrannosaurus rex. Allosaurs. Pteranodons. Triceratops. Ammonites. Petrified eggs. Gigantic fish. Insects crystalized in amber. Carbon reliefs of plants. An extinct crocodile with jaws large enough to swallow its modern ancestor whole. The museum housed a vibrant carousel of primitive creatures unlike anywhere else I’d seen.

As purple, ink-injected thunderclouds stacked on the horizon, we entered the BHI’s cavernous warehouse where the sixty-five million year old skeleton of a life-sized T-rex leered down at us. Though menacing looking, his name sounded harmless: "Stan." Stan was one of many full-scale models BHI sold to museums and private collectors for over $100,000 to fund their continued research. The actual fossils, too precious and delicate to be used in exhibits, had been expertly duplicated in their laboratory.

What makes Stan unique is that 65% of his bones are intact. That incomplete percentage surprised me, until I learned that only a few bones of a single species are found at one site. The rest of the skeleton is often crushed, strewn apart or lost from eons of geological tumult. But, when bones from the same species are compiled from many different sites, modern paleontologists can create a complete structure of the animal. However, back in paleontology's early days, scientists connected all fossils they found together, creating various strange and nonexistent creatures from disparate species.

The Black Hills Institute had actually unearthed another T-rex, the best ever discovered, at 80% complete. This historic find positioned BHI for critical and financial success, but the fossils became embroiled in the longest legal battle in the history of South Dakota. The T-rex, aptly named, was "Sue."

Even before the valuable bones could be excavated, the ownership came into question. Did the fossils belong to Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered and named the T-rex? Or Maurice Williams, the person who owned the land where it was found? Or the Sioux Tribe, of whom Maurice was a member? Or the underlying rights to the land held by the United States Department of the Interior?

The FBI and National Guard raided the dig site and confiscated everything until the dispute could be resolved. After a protracted legal battle, it was determined that the fossilized T-rex belonged to the land owner who quickly set up an auction. Within minutes, the Field Museum in Chicago had bought Sue for 8.3 million dollars—the most ever paid for dinosaur fossils. These fantastic creatures, though long extinct, are still big business for museums and collectors around the world (both legally and on the black market).

Early the next morning, our caravan of all-wheel drive SUVs rolled past the watchful faces of Mount Rushmore before turning west into the hills. We had been warned of rough-to-terrible roads, tornadoes and venomous snakes ahead—a far cry from the city life we knew in San Francisco. Winding through the Black Hills, we saw ponderosa pines prickling the hilltops. Lakes sunk like God’s blue footsteps. Black and twisted scars marking tornado touch-downs. Eventually, the green pillows of land smoothed to a beige blanket as we crossed into Wyoming.

Our penultimate stop before the dig site came into view: the quaint, sandstone ringed town of Hulett, known as "The Beginning of the West.” Devils Tower, an impressive backdrop to the small town, protruded over 1,300 feet high behind it. The tower was formed by an intrusion of igneous material, thought to be the remnants of a volcanic plug. It looked like a massive, stone incisor standing defiantly out of the earth's gums. Though the rock is over 40 million years old, the tower has only recently (in the geologic sense of the word) become visible due to erosion. Imagine that: ground-level was once 1,300 feet higher at this location, but erosion has whittled the softer dirt around the tower down to its present level.

The folktale we heard from locals about Devils Tower originated with the Sioux Tribe. They believed that two girls were playing when a pack of bears chased after them. The girls climbed onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit for help. Hearing their plea, Great Spirit pushed the rock (Devils Tower) up through the ground and into the heavens well out of the bears’ reach. The large grooves carved down the tower’s sides are from the bears' attempts to climb. We all wanted to visit, not because it was America’s first National Monument, but because every sunday night they screened a famous science-fiction film that took place there: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

After a general store stop for food and supplies, we drove off-road through fields of sheep, forded a shallow stream, and powered up the winding dirt path to where Waugh Quarry, and the dinosaur bones, were hidden.

Continued in Part 2...


Venice. Gondolas. And Wine.


Venice, Italy.

An enigmatic, sinking city where every doorway opens to a new mystery. Where, instead of streets, watery canals are navigated by an ancient brotherhood of gondoliers. Where you are always lost until you arrive at your destination. "My Friend, Damn Him" tells the true story of three friends searching for an elusive gondolier and the once-in-a-lifetime event of launching a new gondola. After reading this travelogue you will feel like you've tasted all the eclectic food, local drinks and fascinating history that Venice has to offer.

At long last I finally revised the travelogue I wrote called "My Friend, Damn Him" about the time my girlfriend and I met our friend Liam in Venice. He was there researching for his book about gondoliers so we spent several days together uncovering the city's secrets. This short story is packed with photos of places rarely seen in Venice and a walking tour of places off the beaten path. Spare a few minutes and check it out on Amazon. It'll be like taking a trip to Italy... on your Kindle.

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Wake The Devil (Short Story / Fiction)


Note: To listen to the audiobook, please click here.

At night, the church slept. The candles had long since blown out and the doors shut, though a pulsing, bitter wind found its way through every crevice time had made in the old building of stone and wood. The church was protected against the devil, but inside it was still cold as Hell.

Light echoes throughout the cavernous interior followed one after the other as Michel, an altar boy dressed head to toe in a flowing robe still too big for him after all these years, mounted the steps, spiraling his way upwards. An old, rotting door threatened to crumble to dust as the boy shouldered through it onto the balcony, tripped over the frame and cursing under his breath. Michel crossed himself quickly and said a Hail Mary as penance. He stood in awe, staring up at the massive church organ, its pipes of brass ornately decorated with inlaid wood carvings and gold ornaaments depicting angels ascending to Heaven. The instrument was a machine of divine grace that overshadowed the rows of pews below and gave the impression that God himself might be able to hear the music from on high.


The boy plopped down dead-center on the bench, cracking every bone in his hand in preparation as a giddy smile slid across his face. With a slow, steady breath, he lowered his fingers over the keys, hovering just about the ivory pieces. Michel raised his hands briskly and slammed them down onto the keys, ringing out the first chord, expelling dust and a disgruntled pigeon from the pipes. From up there, the sound was deafening as the organ shuddered and shook with the force of air coursing through it, threatening to burst and send the whole church skyward with the angels. Yet Michel paid no mind as he played, long into the night, the organ’s sound filling the empty cathedral with beauty, drowning out the wind, but no one heard it. The last note faded away as the first light of dawn cast stained glass shadows on the floor. And Michel was gone.

A bald-eagle-headed priest, Renaux, glided down the central aisle calling out orders to the clergy as they made preparations for a coming mass. Everywhere people were cleaning and arranging in complete silence. Renaux glanced at the clock. Almost noon.

“Michel!” the priest shouted straight upwards, his voice easily reaching every corner of the church. “It’s time to clean the organ. You’re already a minute late.”

From the balcony, a familiar crash and curse could be heard. Moments later the organ awoke with a single, booming note vibrating through the pipes, cleaning it of dust and debris. Michel held the haunting note until it rang true before moving on to the next, one after the other up the scale, in a slow procession of powerful tones. The ominous horns, steadily rising in pitch, gave the church an air of foreboding, as if time were running out. As it were, the church had only two days until the burial of a fallen cardinal and the Saint Sulpice Church was given the honor of performing the final mass. Understandably so, Renaux was nervous. The entire congregation was looking to him to perform the sacred duty and he had to make sure everything was perfect. Every day of his career lead him to this moment. Even God would be attending.

As Michel finished cleaning the final pipe, he took pause to crack his knuckles, a mischievous smile appearing on his lips. Shattering the silence of the church, Michel launched into a rousing solo, racing up and down the keys with vigor. At once, all the clergymen froze solid as the hypnotic music echoed off stone and wood.

“Enough! I think the organ is quite clean!” called the priest as he rushed towards the steps, but Michel didn’t stop as he couldn’t hear him. Just as the piece reached its most voluminous, Renaux burst onto the balcony, fighting for breathe, and yanked Michel by the collar off of the bench. The organ shrieked a dischordant surprise. The priest swung his hand sharply across the boy’s face causing a bright red welt.

“No more! I said you may only touch the organ to clean it, not to play this unholy filth! You are to mop every single square inch of this floor even if it takes you all night. And you may never to touch this organ again.”

Tears welled in Michel’s eyes as he disappeared down the stairs.


Thunder shook the thousands of chairs lined up in neat rows as the stone walls held force against the gale outside. A single break in the roof lead drops of rainfall along a suspended beam before depositing them into the basin of holy water below.

The priest is gonna think it’s a miracle, Michel thought, the holy water refilled on its own! Michel spit onto the floor, then quickly mopped it up revealing shining tiles beneath. He tossed the mop into the sloshing bucket and packed it away into the closet. His footsteps the only sound alive as he pushed through the carved doors that arched over the entrance. As the doors slowly swung closed, Michel stopped them with the toe of his shoe, propped it open, and snuck back inside. His eyes wandered up the wall to the towering organ, a black monolith in the darkened church.

Labored breathing, heavy footsteps, hand on the railing. The church’s organist, Bellamy, an obese, bearded gentleman, cursed the architect who thought putting the organ on the top floor was a good idea. Finally atop the last step, Bellamy let out a bellowed sigh.

"Tomorrow, I will go on a diet."

The organist’s stubby hands reached for the handle and twisted, but the door didn't budge. Again he tried to no avail, even using his substantial girth as a battering ram with no results. On the other side of the door, two shoes were wedged in the frame, sealing it shut.

Bellamy careened down the steps with all haste, the pure adrenaline of fear propelling him now as he had already expelled all his energy on the single flight of steps. He headed straight for Renaux who stood near the altar ahead a packed crowd all in attendance for the cardinal’s services.

"Father Renaux!" the organist mustered in as loud a whisper as he dared, but his cry was drowned out by the scratch of thousands of chairs being pushed back in unison as all rose for the start of mass.

Bellamy held his breath, anticipating the first note to fall like the jagged blade of his own guillotine. The young altar boy was sure to decimate his reputation with a performance of such supreme squalor that he would be relegated playing street corners as an organ grinder with a monkey by his side banging a cymbal for tips. He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation.

Yet, the folly never came and the song was played perfectly. Every note in the right order and on time. Bellamy hesitantly cracked an eye, afraid he was just dreaming and would wake up at any moment to a cacophony. A nervous smile awoke on his face, the organist dubiously believing he may have escaped the worst.

For almost three hours, ever single note was played sublimely. Renaux, though still sweating through his robes from stress, began to ease as the services unfolded beautifully. All said and done, the casket was closed and shouldered by the pallbearers who began a steady procession down the aisle to the final organ piece of the ceremony. The organist chuckled giddily to himself as he wiped his brow in relief.

However, halfway through, the organ transitioned to an unexpected song catching the attention of Renaux, Bellamy and the entire clergy who struggled to appear as of nothing was wrong. Renaux caught eyes with the organist and a wave of understanding flooded over him as he realized their livelihoods were now at the mercy of a young altarboy steered with good reason towards revenge. The song, far from the dark symphony of everyone’s fears, was absolutely enchanting, ephemeral and left all who heard it with a deep well of tears behind their eyes. It was unlike anything they had heard before. The parishioners filed out in somber silence as the music filtered through them. Soon, the final notes landed, leaving the priest and organist all alone with the decay of sound.

Muffled rubber stretched as the shoes holding the door locked popped free. Michel’s sock-covered feet appeared first, followed by his dusty, over-sized robe and finally his sheepish face. Renaux and Bellamy stared the boy down, a mixture of awe and anger in their eyes. After a long, tense silence, the organist stepped forward.

"It was... beautiful," Bellamy stammered. "Who composed it?"

Michel merely pointed to himself, a slight smile rising to his lips.

"Bravo," the organist said, then bowed and left in silence. A thousand expressions flitted across the old priest’s face as Michel lowered his head in shame. Renaux put a hand on Michel's shoulder, causing him to look up.

“You may play anytime," Renaux said as a grin, the first the boy had ever seen, crossed his face. Michel returned the smile, and with his hands signed two words:

"Thank you."


Cinque Terre - Perched on the Edge


When you know something is going to end, every moment becomes beautiful.

There is one such place, perched on the edge of the rocks of time, that one day will be swallowed by the sea. Strung along the northwestern shore of Italy, the five villages of Cinque Terre thrive on the mediterranean sun. Fish are pulled from the sparkling water and grapes from its terraced slopes.



Each of the five coastal towns, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare have a distinct flavor but they are all connected by a single footpath designed for travelers, lovers and citizens to pass between. For the lazy or uninspired there is also a train.


The pathway begins at Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, nestled within a valley between two rugged mountains. In an area known for heavy walking, the abundance of seafood, olives, and the pesto and foccacia bread that make the area famous are welcome to the weary.




Riomaggiore's narrow streets and tall buildings appear to slump against each other like two lovers after a long evening of drinking wine. Fitting, as just at the edge of town the Via Dell'Amore, or lovers walk, stretches along the seaside cliffs. Locks are affixed to a fence symbolically linking the loving couples together forever.





Just north comes Manarola with its arm of rocks jutting out into the sea for tanning and fisherfolk alike. The village climbs upward into the inland hills covered with row upon row of grapevines. There are no flat paths in Cinque Terre; you are always going up or going down. It is only when you stop to take in its magnificence that you can relax.


Beyond, 368 steps loom upwards to Corniglia, the most elevated and secluded of all the five villages. The winding, stepped streets curve back on themselves tirelessly making already travel-worn legs burn and keeping tourists away. One moment you'll be turning claustrophobic corners, then the next staring out to a starry night sky above the Ligurian sea from above a hundred foot tall terrace, and finally finding a secret stairwell down to a hidden lagoon. There were only a few shops in Corniglia, a bakery, and a single restaurant owned by a man named Mananan that seemed to be open only when he wanted it to be, never when people were hungry.





Due to recent floods, the pathway to Vernazza was closed when my girlfriend and I visited, but a brief train trip through the mountainside was all it took to reach the next village. Vernazza was perhaps the most beautiful of all with its sheltered lagoon and towering church where wedding bells tolled for the happy newlyweds.


The final leg lands you in Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most populous of all the cities in Cinque Terre. Most travelers stayed here as it had access to a long stretch of beach and unrestricted views up and down the Italian coast. There was also ample gelato.



To many, used to the chaos of cars in big cities, Cinque Terre often feels vacant, simple, or out of touch, but nothing could be further from the truth. That is how Cinque Terre has always been and that is how it always will be. After a few days wandering the enchanted villages, that description becomes what you embrace most about Cinque Terre. A shot of espresso versus our "double-venti-soy-chai-tea-latte-with-extra-whip-to-go." A solo voice shining pure above the choir.

Pétanque - Serious Play for Young and Old

If you happen to see a group of serious, old men staring at the ground do not be alarmed: they are just played pétanque.

The name means "feet anchored" and refers to the players who attempt to throw the balls, or boules, as close as possible to a smaller ball known as a cochonnet (piglet), bouchon (cork) or simply le petit (the small one). Whichever boule is closest earns one point in the race to reach thirteen.

Much like lawn bowling in America and bocce in Italy, though the balls are thrown not rolled, the game is played wherever a square patch of packed dirt can be found.

Those who would call it "French Frisbee" would likely find a cochonnet whizzing towards their head; the French are serious about pétanque. There are 375,000 licensed players and various provincial styles of play, not to mention calculated underhand, palm-down tosses to maximum backspin and accuracy.

Just make sure you aren't beaten 13-0 or you'll be buying drinks for the entire winning team. Mettre fanny!

Saint Sulpice - A Church That Tells Time

Certain times of the year there are Parisians in Paris.

Early spring, before hoards of tourists flock to the city for keychain Eiffel Towers and overpriced croque monsieurs, is one of them. The Boulevard Saint Michel flows barely at trickle save for those huddled under colorful awnings sipping steaming coffee to warm themselves from unexpected downpours.

Ducking from café, to bar, to restaurant, I attempted to time the breaks in the rain as I hop-scotched from Boulevard Saint Germain up through the winding corridors of the Latin Quarter and finally to the perfectly manicured greeneries of Les Jardin du Luxembourg. In this weather there certainly weren't any other American tourists milling about and just as few Parisians. The city was deserted; just me and the cold for company. Drain-pipes gurgled a backbeat as raindrops played their melody onto slanted rooftops.

Full of food and drink, my excuses to find a café to avoid the chill were at an end. Luckily, through the hedges of the Luxembourg Gardens, I spied a towering cathedral. Backpack tucked under my jacket to keep it dry from the heavy downpour, I looked very much like a modern day Hunchback of Notre Dame banging on the thick iron doors for sanctuary. I prayed, in the atheist-sense, that the church would be unlocked.

To my surprise, the doors swung open.

Once inside, I was met by an alarming sound: a single note from an unseen organ blaring reverently throughout the stone church's grand interior. The air was filled with a dense, haunting tone. After what felt like an ear-rattling eternity, the next note up the scale was played and then the next, this progression continuing for over an hour. Whether for tuning, scaring away the pigeons or instilling the fear of God in me I never learned for the church was completely empty save for the booming French pipe organ.

Saint Sulpice stands as the second largest church in Paris after Notre Dame and required over one-hundred and fifty years of construction. Most know l'eglise, or church in French, for its two mis-matched towers and elegantly carved columns, but inside it houses two historic marvels: one scientific and the other musical. Saint Sulpice's Great Organ, one of the most lauded symphonic instruments of all time, was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and rises nearly fifty-feet high with over seven-thousand perfectly-pitched pipes. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful organ in all of the world, both in sight and sound. Tuned to exacting measurements, the organ contains five manuals, or keyboards, and has two 32-foot stops offering organists an incredibly wide array of sounds. Upon its completion in 1781, The Great Organ was the most complex man-made device in existence until the advent of the telephone exchange over one hundred years later. 

Though church and science often contend with one another, Saint Sulpice strongly embraced the importance of astronomical measurements and their relation to time. A gnomon, the triangular portion of a sundial which casts a shadow, was commissioned by an 18th century priest to better determine the exact time of equinoxes and, therefore, Easter.

When the sun passes directly overhead at noon during the Summer Solstice, a hole in the ceiling allows light to shine onto a copper oval plate. As the sun rises during the Winter Solstice, its illuminated path traces a brass meridian line inlaid along the floor before climbing a white marble obelisk and settling onto a golden sphere right at noon. In essence, these astronomical markers turned Saint Sulpice into one big clock and calendar.

The church's importance scientifically, astronomically and musically, aside from being a spiritual center of the Rive Gauche, Paris's Left Bank, may have been one of the reasons why it was spared destruction during the French Revolution.

If you'd like to read further about Saint Sulpice, here's a short story I wrote called Wake the Devil about a mischievous altarboy, watched like a hawk by the sin-seeing eyes of an old priest, who schemes ways to play the church organ.

Stone Circles & Haunted Hedgerows

Some places are off the map because they have not yet been discovered. Others because they do not want to be found.

Kenmare. Tucked astride the deepest inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean where river meets bay on the rocky southwestern shores of Ireland hides one of those places. The town, whose population has hardly changed since the 1800s, is comprised of only three streets that form a triangle: Henry Street, Shelbourne Street, and Main Street. "The Little Nest," or An Neidin, as the area is known by the Gaelic tongue, resides within County Kerry clear on the other side of the country from the capital city of Dublin. Often, Kenmare feels even further away in both distance and time.

Water from the frozen sea, from the salmon-thick River Roughty, and endlessly from the sky above makes the lush land grow boundless. Brilliant green foliage covers every postcard-perfect vista. Dense, rocky forests, spotted by picturesque waterfalls, drip with mist and lichen-covered boughs. Tall grasses sprout wildly across the rolling hills. Even inorganic stones, roads and buildings grow thick beards of moss.

There is green and then there is green in Ireland.

The charming town makes you feel never like a tourist, always a neighbor. Original, hand-painted wood and iron signs hang above penny-whistle storefronts, pubs are still named for their original barkeeper (O'Donnahain, Foley's, O'Sullivan's) where the scents and sounds of rich, slow-cooked stews and feverish fiddles arrive with the setting sun, and the local gentry can tell you when the rain will start, stop and what type it will be.

And they are always right.

Kenmare soaks day and night in its surrounding waters so there is never a dry coat, nor a dry glass. Pints are filled just a pinky's-width shy of overflowing to save room for the foam of the locally brewed favorite, Beamish, a nuttier, bolder and even older beer than Guinness. Beamish is found on all the taps, all the lips and even in many of the stews in the triangle with the alcohol-warming hopes of staving off the chill for just a few minutes more.

Following any one of the clear blue streams down the mountainside leads to the long finger of Kenmare Bay where boats flying the green, white and orange never enjoy a gentle moment on the churning tide. Heavy breezes constantly blow from offshore, driving people inside in front of crackling fires to enjoy one of the many nightly live bands that spill out of every pub. This wind, ever-present and ever-biting cold, can be felt every place down by the bay, except for one.

Hedgerows, miles long, weave an interconnected maze along the waterfront, their thickly meshed branches forming a fully enclosed wooden tunnel to keep out the wind, but not the cold. Within the hedgerows lives perpetual twilight as the sun, already putting up the good fight against thick cloud cover, has no strength left to cast shadows. Those brave enough to risk an early morning trek out to these natural wonders will often find them filled with a ghostly, frigid fog that enshrouds the pathway ahead and behind as it passes like a phantom through the leaves. These hedgerows, once barriers against invading armies of forgotten wars, now encounter no more action than a wistful hiker trampling dead leaves beneath her feet.

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On the outskirts of Kenmare sits perhaps its most ancient secret: a stone circle. Similar to Stone Henge, the Bronze Age (2,200-500 B.C.) stone circle in Kenmare was constructed with fifteen boulders, each weighing several tons, arranged in a geometrical ellipse that surrounds a singular dolmen. This dolmen, or portal tomb, consists of three stones supporting a fourth flat stone and was often used for rituals or to mark the grave of an important individual. Not only is the positioning of  these stones remarkable due to their immense weight, but also because they are oriented to face astronomical elements during a solar or lunar event, such as a solstice. Even though the stone circle was created thousands of years ago before the advent of modern mathematics, physics, or astronomy, the unknown builders exhibit a remarkable understanding of the progression of the universe. Why exactly the stones are there only the faeries the locals speak of truly know.

Kenmare embodies quintessential Irish charm with a smile on every face and a fire in every hearth. There are even, cliches be damned, rainbows arching over the bay to some unseen pot of gold. Little has changed in Kenmare throughout history and it still remains relatively unknown. For that the locals and visitors are thankful. Kenmare, shrouded in its protective fog, rests safely away from the tug of time.

Forever off the map.


Cicchetti - Venetian Street Food for the Wanderer

Venice must be seen with your feet. Apart from an occasional vaporetto, a water taxi, to a nearby island in the lagoon or a love-cruise on a gondola through the crumbling canals, one must tackle the ancient, enigmatic city on foot.

No cars. No mopeds. No metro.

Like most european cities, Venice was founded before the advent of automobiles but holds the rare honor of remaining without them. Labyrinthine streets and high-arched bridges are navigable by sure-footed humans only, sometimes just leaving room for single file through narrow alleyways. The water-filled canals, Venice's signature attraction, are used almost exclusively by gondoliers singing Volare for love-birds, never for transportation. As such, miles of tangled streets, paved with uneven cobble-stone, twist and turn seemingly at random but must be traversed in order to get anywhere. Streets seem to shift and change daily. You will never find the way to your hotel the same way twice. As you spend time in Venice, something iconic about the city will emerge:

You are always lost until you arrive at your destination. And somehow, you always make it there.

These days, Venice has very few native Venetians left and relies primarily on tourism to survive as the city literally sinks into the lagoon. And only a third of those tourists ever stay more than just for the day. Like the tide, they flow in come morning and flow out again at night. Expensive restaurants and carnivale mask shops are set up to trap tourists all along the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge during their quick day trip through Venice. After your first pass through this area: stay away. Dispose of your indecipherable map and see where the wind leads. The city is filled with secrets and more often than not your path will take you over a far-flung bridge to nowhere leaving you stranded and, legs heavy and brow damp with sweat, looking for relief.

There are three flavors to your salvation: caffeine (cappuccinos), alcohol (spritz, a bitter, local drink made with prosecco and campari) or food (cicchetti). You will come to know and love cicchetti if you spend time in Venice. It is Italy's version of Spanish tapas. For one euro each, you get a thick round of sliced bread topped with just about anything you'd see in a typical dish, but bite-sized, with a wooden toothpick poked through to hold your meal together.

Smoked salmon over soft ricotta. Broiled cod with fresh pesto. Salami on hard cheese. Roasted peppers and onions cook with herbs. Roast beef. Something delicious paired with something else delicious.

Two bites and you keep walking.

In a city where extensive foot travel is mandatory, finding the best cicchetti spots becomes paramount to one's survival. On just about every corner, you will find this street food sold in restaurants, bars, cafes, and even, it sometimes appears, out of the back of a Venetian's home. They are a perfect pick-me-up for the tired traveler, an appetizer before going out, or a simple compliment to a glass of wine. Cicchetti are a simple pleasure, but they will get you through the day (or night).

In one of the last truly mysterious cities of the modern age where a new adventure lies around every crooked corner, save your money on pricey museums and just explore. Pick a direction and wander with the assurance that you will stumble upon something far greater than what you might have been searching for.

And there will always be cicchetti.

This post was originally featured on the travel blog Explore There.