Travel Journal, Italy – Part One
October 16 – Oct. 22, 2007
For some reason this blog will not let me insert photos for the travel journal, so you’ll have to click here.
It’s about time to get the journal started since it’s already Oct. 28, and with my memory being faulty at times, I’m going to start forgetting the details that I, at least, have found interesting. I’ll start by saying that we timed our flights wrong this year. By leaving in the afternoon, by the time it would have made sense to go to bed as far as the direction the airplane was traveling and according to the flight’s meal times, it would have been 5 pm California time. So instead of a good night’s sleep, which I got last year on the way to Venice, I got no sleep. These overseas travel “days” result in about 24 hours of being awake.
Anyhow, I left on Oct. 16, made it to Milan via San Francisco and Frankfort, and set about trying to find transportation to Lugano. The person at the first desk I asked at implied that there was really no good public transport at that time of day, but they could arrange a private driver. How much? 170 euros. Too much, I said. No, said the lady, it’s a fixed rate. It’s too much for me, I told her, at which time she told me to go out exit 4. I did and five minutes later was on a shuttle to Lugano for 20 euros! The shuttle dropped me off at the train station in Lugano, and a funicular goes from there straight to the Dante, the hotel I have been staying at for the last two, now three, years.
So there I was and William came into town for dinner. It was so good to see him and he looked wonderful in spite of the five stitches on his cheek and his bruised eye from a rugby injury. That actually turned out to be the least of it since after he got his stitches out, he asked me to feel under his left eye and – so eerie – there was no bone there. On the Monday I left he got scans and found out that he had a complex fracture of the orbital bone and cheek bone and it was a miracle his eye was still properly affixed to his socket.
William ended up having surgery on the Thursday after I left and now has 40 stitches to replace the five. His injury was actually quite severe and he is currently without feeling on much of the left side of his face. He had several incisions. But this is about Mark’s and my trip to Italy, not William – it’s just that his injury turned out to be so dramatic! And it has occupied much of our thought.
October 22 – Oct. 24, 2007 VENICE
So, on Monday, Oct. 22, I took the train to Venice. I thought Mark might beat me to the hotel since his plane was supposed to land at 1:30, but no, not only did he not beat me, he didn’t get in until after 8 that evening. It seems that the Italians called a strike at the airports so Mark’s flight couldn’t leave Frankfort on time. The strike only lasted three hours, however, and Mark said it was quite civilized! I waited for him, watched at the vaparetto stop, then waited a while at the Alilaguna stop, stationed myself in the hotel lobby for quite a while, and finally concluded that I had no idea when he would arrive, so I would take a shower. Of course, as soon as I was in the shower, he knocked on the door. Our romantic rendezvous in Venice got off to a tired start.
We were at La Calcina Pensione, billed as John Ruskin’s house. Ruskin is an English writer who we never heard of and it turns out he lived there for about 4 months long ago. But it was a very nice place. As all the European hotels we have been in, the rooms are quite small. It takes some maneuvering to get everything situated. Showers, not tubs, of course. No Kleenex and no washcloths. I’ve learned to bring my own washcloth or bath poof. And there are so many styles of toilet flushers and showers.
But – we were in Venice together. The city is still fantastic. I just love the water. The first morning we went to St. Mark’s Square and took the Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge’s Palace. I did it last year but decided to do it again so I’d be with Mark. And we walked around St. Mark’s Square and I can’t remember what else – we were both quite tired. That led to my sleep, or lack of it, adventure.
I was almost adjusted to the time change, I thought. I woke up the second night, felt rested, and got up. It was totally dark but the room has wooden shutters so no light gets through when they are closed. I looked at my computer and it was 5:30. Hooray! I had finally slept past 4! I wondered why Mark was still asleep but figured it was because he was tired from the time change.
Clue one – totally dark. Clue two – Mark was asleep. I took a shower, got dressed, put on my makeup, dried my hair, and grabbed the computer to go to the lobby until Mark was up. Clue three – when I said good morning to the desk clerk he looked at me like I was deranged. Clue four – why was no one setting up for breakfast? Hmmm. I signed on to the internet and it dawned on me – my computer was still on California time! I didn’t get up at 5:30. I got up at 2:30! No wonder the desk clerk was so confused.
Well, I continued checking my email, and then went upstairs as if I knew completely what I was doing all along. It did lead to a tired day for both Mark and I as by then, Mark was up and wondering what was going on. I tried to go back to sleep.
Over the next couple of days we took several of Rick Steve’s recommended walks, we toured St. Mark’s Basilica during high tide – the water not only floods into St. Mark’s Square, it actually fills the lobby of the basilica! People have to walk on elevated platforms that look like banquet tables. The strangest thing to me about the cathedrals is the reliquaries – all the containers with so-and-so’s finger, or hand, or blood, or some piece of bone. The leg bones of one of the doges are in a rather large reliquary. Anyhow, St. Mark is interred in the basilica, so they say, having been stolen from the Arabs in Egypt, not because the Venetians were religious, but because they needed some credibility with the rest of Europe so they could have some clout as a seafaring power.
We went to San Zaccaria to see the crypt of John the Baptist’s father, and it was a strange display where he appeared to be in a sarcophagus or something. There are two bodies in the chapel and one is Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. The crypt was empty except for water – completely waterlogged. This church also contained a magnificent golden altarpiece.
We did two things I hadn’t gotten around to last year. One was the Frari Church where there were two fabulous tombs. One for Titian, the famous Venetian artist of the Renaissance, and the other for the architect Canova. His tomb was especially interesting – it was a huge triangle with a door in it, a huge sculpture of the Winged Lion, the symbol of St. Mark and Venice, crouched and crying. Canova had designed this tomb for Titian, but when Canova died, his students built it for Canova himself. He had, by the time it was built, been buried elsewhere but his heart was secured for his tomb. Various doges also have monuments in this church.
A wooden sculpture of John the Baptist by Donatello is considered one of his masterpieces and it’s the only Donatello left in Venice. There’s a fabulous triptych by Bellini and a luminous painting by Titian.
We did see Titian’s Last Supper at the Frari, which is very unlike Da Vinci’s. In Titian’s, it is a very disorderly, earthy banquet and you don’t really feel the implied solemnity of Da Vinci’s.
A real surprise was the Scuola Grande of San Rocco. This was a large “meeting hall” for the brotherhood of San Rocco whose purpose was giving aide to the sick, especially during the plague. Tintoretto undertook the decoration of the interior and he spent the last 20 years of his life on it. Every inch is painted including the ceiling and it could be called Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel according to Rick Steves. Tintoretto was a Venetian and apparently rarely left his neighborhood. All the “rooms of state” in the Doges’ Palace are decorated non-stop, floor to ceiling and including ceiling, as are many cathedrals, museums, and most of Europe I guess. This room must be as large as a football field. It’s a bit difficult to comprehend.
All these structures are filled with the art of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Donatello, Fra Angelica and other famous artists.
Venice is in a pleasant state of decay, making it very picturesque but not much fun to live in I expect. First floors routinely flood and then everything has to be cleaned up from the salt water. What surprised me was the graffiti – it seemed to be everywhere and it didn’t appear that efforts were being made to eradicate it. Yet just about every other building is under a constant state of restoration, making photography very difficult.
I did laundry in Venice, using the ever-handy bidet, but getting things to dry was an effort. There was so much moisture in the air already, it was drizzly, but in two days we did manage to pack the clothes almost dry.
We had excellent meals in Venice, every one. I had wild boar for the second time, the first being a taste of William’s at a restaurant in Lugano (probably Montagnola actually) called The Grotto. It was quite excellent. And we were able to order coffee or mint tea, in my case, in our hotel every afternoon. It was really quite civilized.
Oct. 25-26, 2007 FLORENCE
So Venice was a success. It’s a hard city to leave, but leave we did, on the train to Firenze – Florence, arriving on Oct. 25. We had reservations at the Loggiato dei Serviti, an old monastery. It was a wonderful building – twisting passageways, high ceilings, and a comfortable room and bath. The bath had a tub – oh joy! But it was so narrow that I’m not sure who could have fit it but certainly not me. Short-lived joy. And there was an awkward step up to the bathroom. Could I remember at night and not kill myself? And this was Mark’s time to do laundry – with the drying problem. And the problem of where to hang things.
The afternoon we got there we walked to the Duomo to get our bearings; it was a short distance from our hotel. I’ve never seen anything quite like it – the best I can say is it’s like a giant gingerbread house run amuck. No dignified grey like Notre Dame or Chartres, but pink, green, decorated a bit like a German ski chalet – and just enormous. Ginormous. Huge. The interesting thing about this duomo was that when it was built, no one knew how to construct a dome as big as the architect wanted. So it was built with a big hole in the ceiling so a dome could be added later when the technology existed! None of the books say what happened in the meantime if it rained, etc. because it took I think almost ten years to construct the dome.
We were tired but forced ourselves to go to dinner and we chose one of Rick’s recommendations. Sometimes Rick chooses places that are a bit hard to find – for example, in Venice, we ate lunch on the Grand Canal near the big outdoor market, but there was no name we could see on the restaurant so we walked back and forth, determined to find it which we eventually did. That restaurant was funny because the waiters downstairs were singing uninhibitedly to American songs from rap to standards. But I digress.
Friday in Firenze was a big day – we had reservations both at the Uffizi and the Accademia. The Uffizi was first, and we walked there only to find the museums on strike! Geez, the Italians and their strikes! The Accademia wasn’t on strike, though, so we walked back across town, right behind our hotel, determined to enter before anything went wrong. Our reservation was for 2, but no one even looked and we got right in at 10:30.
The big attraction at the Accademia is Michelangelo’s David – the real one. What a surprise that was. We’ve all seen so many reproductions of David that it doesn’t seem that exciting to see it for real, but it’s 14 feet tall! The marble seems almost translucent. It’s breathtaking. And there were no crowds so we could look as long as we wanted from all sides. Michelangelo’s sculptures of the so-called prisoners were there also. It’s not known if they are unfinished or if it was intentional that they be partially sculpted, as if imprisoned in their blocks of marble. Either way, they are powerful and it doesn’t seem possible that a mortal could create such works.
After the Accademia we headed for St. Croce because I wanted to see the tombs of all the famous people buried there. We got lost (we eventually became experts at getting lost), found ourselves wandering neighborhoods we wouldn’t have otherwise, and got hungry. We passed a building that looked like a synagogue (it was, a very old one) and then saw Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant! Lunch was at hand. What a surprising little place. The first big surprise was the wall covered with photos of Woody Allen. The owner showed us one of Woody Allen doing dishes at the restaurant! The next big surprise was the food. Heavenly. I had couscous with vegetables and Mark had pumpkin soup and it was just exquisite. We were in food heaven. When we left we saw that the restaurant was in the Michelin guide so that was impressive.
We found St. Croce and had a quick visit. I didn’t want to read anything else about art. We saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Rossini, Dante, Machiavelli and Galileo. Then we zoomed back to the Uffizi to see if the strike was over. It wasn’t. Ok, then, we walked to the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno and crossed it. We thought it would be nice to have tea overlooking the Arno so we went into a restaurant that was very posh as it turned out. They said we could have just tea but wanted to sit us away from the window. We asked to be by the window so they reluctantly agreed.
What a setting! Andrea Bocchelli was singing “Time to Say Goodbye” as we walked in, I had mint tea and we shared a marvelous calzone filled with mascarpone and the most wonderful chocolate, and we could see the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno.
We passed a bike rack full of padlocks and it seems it’s an Italian tradition to go to a particular location in a city, pledge your love forever to your girlfriend, and lock a padlock and throw the key in the river-sea-ocean to seal the pact.
Late in the afternoon we went back to the Duomo because Mark wanted to climb to the top of the dome. He climbed, I shopped. He saw a great view; I bought gifts. For dinner we did something uneventful because we were full and tired – oh, we stopped at a supermarket and bought some food. The markets are quite amazing, like those in France and Venice. A small space is so efficiently organized that there is a large selection of really good food. There is a huge trend toward organic just as there is now in the U.S.
We were leaving on Saturday, but we went back to the Uffizi at 8:30 and got in. It was a bit hard because the door attendant was going to honor our Friday tickets because of the strike, but she wanted us to wait until 10. Nope, we said, we were leaving Florence at 11. So she let us in. We didn’t have time to see everything but what I wanted to see was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. What a gorgeous painting. It is so fine, delicate, translucent, and beautiful. There were a couple of other Botticellis that were amazing. Seeing the transition from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance was interesting.
Rick Steves, by the way, was a graduate in art history and his commentary about the museums – his little tours – work very well. He describes things in easy to understand ways and has a good sense of humor. For example, he describes the style of St. Mark’s Basilica as “early ransack.”
At the Uffizi we saw an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci. What was so interesting was that you could see his planning of the painting and all the background work. We don’t know why he never finished it – did he lose interest or just move on?
A side note – everywhere we have stayed has been hazardous in that there are little steps up and down from things. If you’re not used to it, it’s hard to remember in the middle of the night. Also, people have to be in incredible shape physically because, and this is true especially in the Cinque Terre, you are climbing up and down steps all day. In fact, travel light, because we often have carried our suitcases up four flights of stairs! But don’t skimp on the important things – having my own pillow makes all the difference.
Which brings us to the last of Florence – checking out. As I was carrying my suitcases down the stairs outside the hotel, I missed the first step, falling to my knee. Oops! It was fine throughout Cinque Terre so I thought I had outwitted the vasculitis – but no, it flared up in Siena so I am taking my prednisone.
We took a cab to the Hertz agency and bought all the insurance imaginable per Rick’s instructions, and we were on our way to Cinque Terre.
Oct. 27, 2007 PISA
On the way to Cinque Terre we stopped at Pisa and this began our encounters with the Italian Road System. The roads are well marked and easy to follow if you are Italian, I expect. But here we were thinking, let’s stop at Pisa, and then we were confronted with Pisa Sud, Pisa Nord, Pisa Ouest, etc. How hard could it be to find a leaning tower? Plenty hard as it turned out. But we are persistent and we drove blindly here and there until we tracked it down. It’s quite an amazing sight. You can see where, over the years, corrective measures were taken but they didn’t quite “take.” We didn’t walk up but we walked all around it and admired this bizarre but beautiful tower.
Oct. 27-28, 2007 CINQUE TERRE
Driving out of Florence was surprisingly easy. Pisa was hard. Getting to Cinque Terre was easy. We didn’t even get lost. But the road is oh so high and narrow and twisty. The Cinque Terre are the five hill towns on the Ligurian Sea. They are perched on hillsides and slope down to the ocean. In the past, the only threats they faced were from pirates, so all the townspeople would go into the fortified towers when pirates were coming. The five towns are Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Manorola, Corniglia, and Monterrosa. We stayed in Vernazza.
Our hotel was the Albergo Barbara right on the town square overlooking the ocean. The room was quite spare and on the 4th floor – we rolled our suitcases down a long road to the square and then carried them up to the 4th floor. The towns go up and down the hills so steeply that it wouldn’t be unusual to walk up and down the equivalent of 8 stories all day long. As an email from the hotel said, “Our basic hotel is located on a third and fourth floor in a building without elevator, so a good shape is required.” And good instincts – another quirky little step into the bathroom.
We went to dinner the first night at a highly recommended restaurant halfway up the fortified walls overlooking the ocean. Almost all fish there – what to eat! Started with pasta with pesto as the Cinque Terre gets credit for pesto and focaccia. It was delicious. Prawns – that sounded safe. But oh my, I was served 4 enormous prawns in the shell – with the eyes and all the other parts. Well, I looked at those things for a long time and I’m sure they were delicious but I wasn’t up to the task. We talked to a couple next to us, Connie and Steve Williamson, from Dallas. Connie is a play therapist and Steve a pilot. He was the fifth pilot hired by Southwest Airlines, just out of the Air Force, and retired from Southwest last year. Connie had ordered the prawns also, but Steve helped her out so she ate them. She got the anchovies also – caught there and a specialty of the Cinque Terre. The fish they serve they catch. In fact, they had fishing poles out when we were there.
The next morning we went to the Blue Marlin for breakfast and the internet. The owner is a real character – charming, high energy, singing to the Mozart CD he was playing. The food was ok. Italians aren’t big on breakfast. I had a big surprise when I used the toilette. I hadn’t seen a pit toilet since Morocco! But this one was clean.
The task of the day was hiking the five towns. Rick was a little optimistic on how he rated this one. We started in Vernazza and hiked to the next town, Corniglia. Hiked is right! It was strenuous, steep, poor paths, and probably the hardest of the bunch. In retrospect, we’re glad it was overcast and not hot. On the trail we saw Connie and Steve, who had started at Riomaggiore and were hiking back. They had come from Manorola where they had to climb 400 stairs. I was glad we would be climbing down.
There are cats everywhere in Cinque Terre. On the trail, we found a table with a sign held down by stones that said, “Please feed the cats.” And there were cats around and empty food bowls. This was out in the middle of nowhere. That evening, back in the town square, we saw a man with a backpack going around feeding all the cats. He would put a scoop of food right on the ground wherever there was a cat. They take their cats seriously there.
Anyway, by the time we got to Corniglia we were ready for lunch. And then we walked down the 400 steps and headed to Manarola. That was easier, as was the walk from there to Riomaggiore. We walked through graffiti alley – at least it seemed to be a place where it was allowed. And there were two lovey dovey shaped chairs with locks all over them. We were pretty tired by the time we got there though, so we didn’t follow our plan to take the boat up to Monterrosa and hike back to Vernazza. We just took the train down to Vernazza, Mark napped I think, and I went out to the town square to sit by the water and write postcards.
We met Connie and Steve for dinner and just got some pizzas, Steve bought two bottles of wine from a shop – where they were happy to open it and give him cups, and we had a very fun and satisfying dinner. As we were waiting for the pizzas, we saw that Rick Steves had mentioned this small place. Rick does get around and he is quite the phenomenon. We saw so many people carrying around his guide to Italy!
Cinque Terre was relaxing and amazing but there isn’t anything to do but relax. And it is so remote that you can’t really go anywhere from there. We wished we had been able to stay a third night, but that would have been enough. They said that after the huge All Saints Day holiday, which stretches to four days, it would be dead for the winter. It was already quite cold at night, and winter storms can flood the town square.
Oct. 29 – 30, 2007 CARRARA AND SIENA
We left Cinque Terre after one last walk around the harbor area and some wonderful pastries we bought in a little store and ate outside on a bench. We’re always too early for breakfast and too early for dinner. Our timetables haven’t reset like they did in France. Anyway, we pulled our suitcases up a long, long way, and then Mark walked up about a kilometer to get the car, drove it down, loaded up, and we were off. Carefully, as we observed the “watch out for wild boar” signs. The road is steep, narrow and quite beautiful.
We passed Carrara and drove up to the quarries – the same quarries Michelangelo got his marble from. Sometimes he would spend weeks or longer at Carrara to pick out the exact marble he wanted. We just drove around blindly and found a quarry being worked so we watched for a while. It made sense because we had seen a television show once on marble quarries. It was actually quite thrilling to see the actual area where the marble for David came from.
Now we met our nemesis – the Autostrada. It’s a superhighway with toll booths and you are charged by the time you take to drive a segment, not the distance. Drive fast is the message and we did. We have seen one pickup and one camper type thing but cars are small – I mean little tin cans – but they zip along. There are hardly any exits so if you miss yours or don’t know where it is, you go way out of your way. We just couldn’t figure out where to get off for Siena. We had a huge Michelin book of maps that we brought too. Almost useless but not quite.
So we ended up at Grosseto – way, way out of our way. We were so confused. And we realized we only had directions from the A1 Autostrada to our bed and breakfast. And as they said in their web site, “If you are driving, reaching us is easy if you print the map page from out website. None of our guests have been lost when using our hand-designed map. Without using our map, you’ll get lost immediately.” Somehow we managed to extrapolate from their map and we actually got there.
We were at the Frances Lodge with our hosts Frances and Franco. Franco lived in Florence for 40 years but grew up in the house right next door to the lodge. In fact, he was born in that house. When he and Frances moved back, they remodeled the stables and have a very gorgeous lodge. It’s a working farm outside the city with a wonderful view and they grow olive trees from which they make their own oil; grapes, other vegetables, and Franco grows saffron, which sells for 35,000 euros a kilo. One year, he had no crop and found out the hired help had planted the bulbs upside down.
Anyway, they have six rooms in different styles and we reserved the Moroccan suite. I thought, well, this’ll be nice, but it really was authentic! Franco has been to Morocco four times and all the furnishings were the real deal. Not much has changed since we were there so long ago. Again, though, as if I hadn’t had enough little steps to trip on, this had a spiral staircase to a loft for sleeping with the bathroom downstairs. Danger lurks everywhere. We had internet access also, as they said, “There is also, at the ridiculous cost of 10 euros for your entire stay here, an Internet point.”
We were tired after our misadventures through Grosseto, so we had a dinner that Franco and Frances offered – salamis, cheeses, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and marinated artichoke hearts. Bread of course. That, with a nice bottle of Chianti Classico in a cozy lounge, was perfect. And Frances explained the four salamis and cheeses. The cheese of the area is the sheep cheese pecorino, and she served us one that was 20 days old, and then one two months old, three months old, and four months old. The newer it is the softer it is. They served their own olives, tomatoes, etc. It was perfect and we went to bed under a Moroccan starlit sky (there was a canopy over the bed from Moroccan woven fabric with sequins). Every detail in this room was perfect.
The next day, using Franco’s sometimes difficult to understand directions, we went to the Due Ponti roundabout, parked our car, and took a bus to the Pispino gate. Siena is a walled medieval city, and walled cities traditionally had four gates, one always pointing to Rome. Siena was an arch-rival to Florence. Those of us of a certain age recognize the name Siena from the crayola color Burnt Sienna, taken from the color of the soil in the area.
So we made it into Il Campo, which Rick says is the best square in Italy. It is beautiful – all red brick, divided into nine sections, sloping down to the city hall. The nine sections are for the council of nine merchants who ruled medieval Siena. The Campo is most famous for the Palio. Siena has 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, and they each have their own church, museum, and they compete with each other. They each have colorful banners, also, but I don’t know how each contrade originally choose their symbols – for example, one symbol is the snail. Anyhow, each year, 10 of the 17 contrade are chosen by rotation and lot, and they have a horse race around Il Campo. The square is packed with up to 15,000 people, happy, waving banners, etc. There are trials for days preceding the Palio that are attended by people from all over. Franco is from the contrade whose symbol is the elephant, and he showed us his huge flag. Each year he watches the Palio from a balcony on Il Campo with his brother. Oh – the Palio is a 90-second race!
Siena was fun to walk around even in the pouring rain. It was a very hard and cold rain. But we had only this day so we persevered and went first to the Duomo. What a wonderful Duomo – my favorite of all I think. It’s white with dark green stripes and was started in 1215. The inside is full of art, including the floors, which have inlaid marble scenes that are covered up from November to March or something like that. We were there on Oct. 30 so were lucky to see them! A funny thing about this Duomo is that high on the nave there are sculptured heads of 172 popes, but it is the same four faces repeated over and over.
The Duomo is full of sculpture and art by Michelangelo, Bernini and others. In fact, there is a chapel inside, the Cappella della Madonna del Voto, which is considered Bernini’s chapel because it is full of his work. How to describe such masterful painting and sculpture? And it was clear how masterful the best were from the two sculptures in the Piccolomini Altar. One by Michelangelo and the other by I’m not sure whom. The difference was stark – Michelangelo’s was alive and full of feeling, the other was nothing. Michelangelo would have done more work in this chapel but he was asked to go to Florence to sculpt David. There is also a powerful statue of John the Baptist by Donatello. It’s just impossible to describe the assault on the senses of all the art everywhere you look – from ceiling to walls to windows to even the outside of these structures. It’s magnificent. Paintings, frescos, sculpture, everything.
There are two wooden poles in the Duomo also – 65 foot high flag poles captured from Florence in a bloody battle sometime in the 1200s in which the Sienese were victors. The Sienese are very proud of these poles still.
We went into the Duomo museum and walked up a very tiny spiral staircase to emerge on the roof with a magnificent view of Siena. It was raining, though, and I regretted all the lost photo opportunities. In fact, on this part of the trip, it was cloudy, misty, rainy, and generally not the weather to produce the scenic photos the region could produce in abundance.
I wanted to go one more place – the Church of San Domenico. I am so fascinated by the relics and reliquaries and all the preserved fingers, bones, etc. In this church, however, they had the head of St. Catherine, the patron saint of Siena. And one of her fingers. We saw both, in addition to a piece of the chain she used to scourge herself.
We had a mediocre lunch in a café on Il Campo, and we knew it would be mediocre, but we went for setting, which was anything but. We watched a parade of umbrellas crossing the square as it poured all during our lunch. We also stopped earlier for some Pan Forte, the specialty of Siena, a fruit cake type of concoction which is outstanding. Italy takes sweets seriously – all the towns have something they consider their specialty.
It was a packed day and we somehow found the bus stop again, which was not easy, and got on the correct bus and found our car, and went to the lodge and asked Franco to send us somewhere local for dinner. After following the same driving directions over and over, and finally asking for help from people who spoke no English, we found Guido’s Restaurant. I began by breaking a wine glass and tripping on a step. Dinner was pretty good – I had the specialty of the region, a thick spaghetti. And dessert – crème brule is their thing but they call is something else.
Oct. 31 – Nov. 1, 2007 ORVIETO – OR IS IT ASSISI
After two wonderful nights in Siena it was time for the next stop – Orvieto, a hill town in Umbria. Franco plotted a route for us that took us through many of the charming hill towns in Tuscany. First, though, I wanted to buy something back in Siena, so we drove there and drove through the restricted traffic zones so we wouldn’t have to walk and walk. We noticed that even though there are police everywhere, no one questions anything so we drove with impunity and got what we wanted. And set off on our leisurely drive through Tuscany.
First stop – Ascieno, and we stopped for lunch at a bar which turned out to be the big hangout of the locals. We had a panini and we had fun watching everyone come in for his or her midday drink, a panini, or a lunch plate the owner would put together to order. This place had excellent gelato also. And later, reading Rick’s Tuscany guide, he said this was a very non-touristy town and a good place to stop for lunch! Rick is everywhere. We beat him to it by reading the guide afterwards.
We also drove through Chiusure, Buonconvento, and Montalcino, which is famous for Brunello, a wine of the region. We went to an enoteca – wine shop – in the Medieval fort. It was cold and windy but we tasted some very excellent and expensive wines. We didn’t buy any because shipping was too expensive, but we did buy the ossi de morti – dead bones – a type of cookie.
We went through many more towns such as Pienza and Chiusi, and the Tuscan countryside is gorgeous, full of vineyards, farms, cultivated fields, and in our big surprise of the trip, fall colors! The colors were beautiful everywhere we went. We were getting tired and almost ready to do the last stretch to Orvieto, when I checked our schedule (thank goodness) and found out that it was Assisi we should be headed to! What a mistake. Luckily, distances are short in Italy, but we had to go on the cursed Autostrada again and had so much trouble finding the exit. After doubling around and asking, we found that the direction we were trying to go in – to Perugia – only had an exit going one way – the way we weren’t going!
When we passed Lake Trasimeno we knew we were almost at Perugia, which meant the turnoff to Assisi. We went through such long tunnels – Italy has so many of the longest tunnels we’ve seen. We were pretty tired by now but had no choice and had to continue in the dark. We finally got to Assisi, up on a hill, and just started driving in restricted zones to try to find the Hotel Pallota. We just couldn’t. So I went into a shop to ask directions, and was practically embraced by Fabrizie, the owner, who grabbed my hand and led me up the road to show me. He also urged us to come to his shop and said, “Rick Steves. I’m in the book!” Is there a Rick Steves explosion?
So we went to the hotel. The door was locked and there was a note on it with a phone number. Now what. Well, we went back to Fabrizie who showed us where a restaurant associated with the hotel was, and we found Stefano. We pulled our suitcases again up some very steep hills and many steps and entered the 7-room Hotel Pallota. Each of the hotels we’ve had has some little quirks. This one had a shower in the middle of the bathroom – no walls, no curtains, just a drain in the floor! Also, an iron bed that squeaked any time we moved. For a while I was wondering what the noise was and realized it was our own bed! Another adventure in sleeping.
Meanwhile Mark was having another parking adventure in a medieval city. Narrow roads and one way streets – Stefano went with him to find the lot we could park in overnight, and they were gone so long I almost sent out a search party. But when he returned, we started looking for a place for dinner. We saw Fabrizie and went in and I introduced Mark. Well – that’s all it took. Here, he said, try this, made by my family on their farm by Lake Trasimeno. Olive oil, spreads, and on and on. He made us a big tray of samples and they were very good. Fabrizie = salesman. We bought his products, couldn’t find anything else to eat but decided we weren’t hungry anyway. It was Halloween and kids were actually trick-or-treating.
The next morning at breakfast we met a middle school teacher from Toronto who is on sabbatical and making a four-month trip around Europe to visit cathedrals. She was talkative – no surprise for a teacher – and we’ve already had an email from her. She said that Toronto is having a problem with gangs and guns everywhere, which is upsetting because they are known in Canada for not having those problems. She is active in her neighborhood and the police say they are going to nip it in the bud.
We were also comparing problems and she said how bad their national health care system had gotten recently but that is being remedied. The problem- sometimes a three-hour wait in the emergency room. I laughed. Anyhow, we were looking forward to seeing St. Francis’ Cathedral for many reasons. One is that he was a simple man, truly, and seems to be truly saintly. But Shirl, our new friend, said the Cathedral was closed that day because of the big All Saint’s Day holiday and masses were being held all day. At first we were disappointed, but then we went to church.
We experienced the cathedral during a mass and that was the way to see the church. It was a highlight of the trip – to see a building used for it’s purpose, hear the organ and the singing, and look at the walls and ceiling all the while. You could feel the spiritual joy.
Rick Steves says the Basilica of St. Francis is one of the artistic and religious highlights of Europe. I believe it. The frescos are astonishing. Done in the 1300s, the art was so believable, unlike most medieval work. The figures have expression, show human emotion, and there are landscapes, trees, etc. The frescos go top to bottom and are by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, and Pietro Lorenzetti, leading artists of the time. The whole story of St. Francis’ life is told, and while we felt lucky, ultimately, for seeing the basilica in use, this is one I would have liked to study more closely.
There was a big earthquake in Assisi in 1997 and the church was damaged. Frescos fell off the ceiling and later, when a priest and two art historians were inspecting the scene, the three of them were killed by an aftershock. Some restoration has been done but the damage is obvious. We saw St. Francis’ crypt and he had two friends buried there with him. One was Fra Angelica, and I have to find out if that was the artist or just another guy with the same name.
We did go to one more church in Assisi – San Ruffino, to see the floor panels. During the reconstruction of this church after the earthquake, ruins dating back to Roman and probably pre-Roman times were discovered. So some parts of the floor are covered with glass panels thick enough to walk on but see through. It just looks like a bunch of rubble, so you have to take their word for it and imagine what life was like and so on. There was also a large cistern in the church so if the town was under attack, the people would all gather in the church and the cistern became their emergency water supply.
We headed out of town but drove up to the hermitage first which is where St. Francis preached to the birds. Getting lost again, we drove off up a dirt road until we spotted the place. We got out and stood a while in a very peaceful forest. It was a nice moment. It was also a very cold moment.
We also had some puzzled moments because the car was beeping – we hadn’t heard this sound before. We discovered it after standing in the forest – Stefano had left his cell phone on the car’s seat when he was helping Mark park. So back into the medieval town to return the phone. Mark was now quite experienced at driving in there.
So – finally – off to Orvieto and onto the dreaded roads. This time I insisted we stay off the Autostrada, as I couldn’t stand zooming along with no exits. We found a back road to Orvieto and that yielded another surprise of the trip. We drove through miles and miles of beautiful forest, all the trees changing into their fall clothes, wind, cold – we could see our breath – but so wonderful and so quiet. We passed a little chapel in the middle of nowhere with the door open so we went in. Candles were lit and there were many little papers for people to pick up about St. Genna, so the chapel must be dedicated to her. Every town in Italy has their own patron saint.
We passed one more interesting thing – must have been all the radio and telephone communications of Italy – huge towers with more microwaves and other transmitters and receivers that I have ever seen in one place. It was so foreboding looking, that even as we drove up the dirt road, I felt like the military was going to swoop down on us.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, getting lost only a few times. And we got into Orvieto by late afternoon. The drive through the Umbrian countryside was a high point. The forest especially. And the story of Orvieto will begin with more adventures in driving through restricted zones and parking.
Nov. 1, 2007 ORVIETO
Orvieto is a medieval walled city build on a hill of tufa in the Umbria region. Underground it is littered with caves, passages and Etruscan ruins which we didn’t have time to see. It’s known for wine, ceramics, and the Duomo, according to Rick. As we drove into the town we wondered how we would ever find the Hotel Corso, but we just kept following signs and driving in the restricted zones again and miracle of miracles, we found it! It’s a small hotel in the middle of the city, and after checking in, Mark went out to park the car. He was gone so long this time, I really was worried. When he returned finally, he had parked the car right where he started – right in front of the hotel! He just couldn’t find anywhere else, so the hotel clerk said to just stay there. Great luck. The other good luck was an elevator! We didn’t have to drag our suitcases up stairs.
We set out right away to see the Duomo because we had a long drive ahead of us the next day. The façade of this duomo is astounding – the entire front, constructed in 1330, tells the story of the world in mosaic, stained glass, and sculpture. It goes from creation to the last judgment. Inside it’s black and white striped. The duomo has an interesting story. It goes like this – in 1263, a priest named Peter of Prague, who was a skeptic, passed through the town of Bolsena, near Orvieto. He didn’t think the bread used in communion could really be turned into the body of Christ. But during mass, he blessed the bread and it started to bleed and ran down his arm to a linen cloth called a corporal.
Pope Urban IV was visiting Orvieto, so someone took the cloth there. The pope was amazed and created a new holiday – Corpus Christi, which means body of Christ. Now in possession of this miracle cloth, Orvieto needed a cathedral and a big one. It’s quite impressive but the architect created a false illusion of size by lining up the columns wider at the back and narrower at the front.
One of the chapels inside the church, the Chapel of St. Brizio, is beyond description, but I’ll try anyway. Paying the admission to this Chapel, Mark gave a 50 euro bill to the gatekeeper and expected 40 euros change. But the guy made a big deal of distracting us and telling me no photography, etc. and Mark finally realized the guy had pocketed the change. When we left the chapel, we told him and he gave us the 40 euros. He knew he was caught.
Anyway, to the chapel. Luca Signorelli did all the frescos, and again, it is covered, floor to ceiling including the ceiling. The scenes depict the end of the world, but apparently also comment on the atmosphere in politics and religion in 15th-century Italy. The frescos seemed awfully advanced for the times, depicting human gestures and actions and not just symbols, and apparently Michelangelo studied Signorelli’s nudes carefully and was inspired by them.
The content must have been seen by Bosch and inspired him, because every horror you could imagine was taking place at the end of the world. We studied these as long as we could but after a while your neck gets sore from all the looking up. Anyway, this duomo was astounding inside and out.
It was All Saints Day, November 1, a big holiday in Italy. The narrow lanes of the city were packed with people – and not just tourists. Everyone was enjoying the evening and the holiday with their nightly stroll. And people stroll here – don’t even think about being in a hurry! We strolled along with them, heard live music, and did something I’ve always wanted to – we ate chestnuts roasted on an open fire. For real. And they were good. We were too hungry and tired to wait for restaurants to open at 7:30, so we went into an enoteca and had salamis and cheese for dinner, along with the sweet wine and biscotti for dessert. People dip biscotti into the wine, so I did too, and it was good. We did a little shopping, walked back to the Duomo to see it at night, went to the hotel and went to bed. It was a day packed as usual but quite rewarding.
In the morning, I asked the desk clerk if I could use the internet for a moment to get some directions, he agreed, and I did a google map search for Orvieto to Sorrento. I got the directions! I was positively euphoric! A day without error was at hand.
Note I missed in the first edition – we stopped for lunch on the way to Orvieto in a small town whose name we don’t know, found something open that didn’t look promising. No one there but the owners and their obnoxious kids. But I got a tuna sandwich that was one of the best meals I’ve had yet. Tuna was fresh, bread excellent, long slab of fresh mozzarella, some egg – quite a sandwich. The food overall is excellent because it is fresh – it’s hard to go wrong with fresh ingredients. But it is heavy on all the salamis and hams, tuna and cheeses, so it’s a tough one if you don’t like those.
Oct. 2 – Oct. 4, 2007 MONTE CASSINO AND SORRENTO
Leaving Orvieto with directions in hand, we promptly got lost. Unbelievable. Euphoria was short-lived. By the time we got on the right track, we had gone out of our way an unbelievable distance because of the lack of exits on that darned autostrada! But we stopped for lunch at one of the eating/gas station places that are frequent on the freeways, and darned if we didn’t have another excellent meal.
We realized that Monte Cassino was on the way to Sorrento and surprisingly, we managed that without problem. We stopped at a little museum of the Battle for Monte Cassino. There wasn’t a lot about the American effort in the museum – mostly Polish and British, and it was in a building that also included a restaurant and a bowling alley. But the exhibits were nicely done.
The abbey is up on a high hill, mountain really. We drove and drove to get there, up switchbacks with steep drops. It was a white-knuckle drive for me. Both of us had trouble imagining how soldiers made that assault and climb. The abbey is completely rebuilt of course, quite large and peaceful. How it was ever constructed in the first place on the top of that mountain is beyond comprehension. Our timing was off, though, because it was closed mid-day and wouldn’t open for about 45 minutes. We couldn’t wait. But we saw what we came for, one of the places Dad was during the war, and we understood a little bit better.
On the way out of town we stopped at a war cemetery for the “inglese.” And that it was – no Americans, of whom 4,000 are buried at a cemetery outside of Florence. We learned that too late to visit it. Probably good, because walking in this beautiful cemetery filled with British, Indians, New Zealanders, Moroccans even, was very emotional, almost more than we could handle. It’s hard to even write about it.
Back on the road to Sorrento, we thought we had caught up to the directions and were surprisingly successful for a long ways. We got past Rome and Naples. At Naples, the road becomes just one city after another, kind of like the San Fernando Valley. Crowded, congested, and since it was the Friday of the All-Saints weekend, full of people going out of town. I think they were all going to Sorrento!
We didn’t know what to expect of Sorrento but it was nothing like we thought. Small streets filled with cars and scooters moving at a snail’s pace – but only because of holiday traffic. The driving is amazing – scooters darting in and out of every conceivable slot, cars shooting out for turns, pedestrians somehow not getting hit – it’s a bit frightening for someone not used to it. Like us. Where was the Hotel Bristol we wondered? We had of course taken a wrong turn, we thought, but it turned out to be the right turn, but there was no street sign, so we did end up on the correct street and we got to the hotel – an eight-story building sticking straight up from the highway (ok, two-lane road) and stuck in a cliff.
There was nowhere to park, naturally, but we squeezed the car in front and went in. My God, we were in a palace! This is one big huge luxury hotel. Our room is enormous and it feels so good to have some space for a change. We have a large, beautiful balcony overlooking the Gulf of Napoli, the city of Napoli twinkling in the distance, and the boats in the harbor down below. And – a bathtub! With bath foam! And elevators! And they parked the car for us!
We ate dinner in the hotel and realized that this was probably where the British come for vacation – the name should have been a clue. Everyone speaks English, the elevator is a lift, and the waiters, sommeliers, and desk clerks are a bit snooty. We were given the menu and there were no prices on it – we’ll know the bad news when we check out. We’re enjoying being here, though, and it’s a window into another world – the resort vacations of the well-to-do. There was a big party going on in the restaurant, which seemed to be a room as big as a cruise ship, and all the people were very well dressed and had name tags on. We were surprised when one of them tapped on his glass and then gave the Kiddush and the blessing over the bread. Food was good but not really Italian, but I must say, it was good to eat a potato again.
The complete personality of Italy changes in the South as far as we can tell. It’s crowded, fashionable, hip, and filled with people. No spacious drives, at least from Napoli to Capri. I’m glad we’re here to see the difference but I don’t think we’ll get to know it well enough. We’re not motivated to see Capri although it is supposed to be a very interesting island.
Anyway, our big mission being here was Pompeii, on the schedule for tomorrow. But I had another mission – dump the dreaded car! I was beginning to hate that car, or at least the driving, so we turned it in at the local Hertz place and will take a bus to Rome. We’ve never had an easier time returning a rental car. The clerk took our paperwork, took our money, and that was that. No inspection of the car, etc. What a relief – out of the automobile! Without it, though, we couldn’t have seen Tuscany and Umbria like we did, nor stop at places like Carrara or Monte Cassino, so renting it was necessary.