Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Movable Border

We all know that national borders can be fluid things, influenced by political events, wars in particular. But the border between Italy and Austria is the only one that I know of that has to be recalculated on a daily basis due to climate change. Yep, it’s true. The border between the two countries is agreed to be determined by a line across the watershed, but because the glaciers are retreating the watershed is moving. This actually became an issue in September of 1991 when Ice Man Ötzi was discovered very, very close to the border, and it was not clear which country actually owned him.

A careful survey revealed that as of the time of the discovery Ötzi was on the Italian side of the border, but only barely: he’s an Italian citizen by 97 meters (318 ft). (But in a masterstroke of international diplomacy, the Italians agreed that the forensic analysis on Ötzi would be done in Innsbruck, Austria.)

Today, the border is tracked by a network of sensors and GPS receivers and is recalculated essentially continuously. If you go upstairs from Ötzi’s body in the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum you can even let a computer draw you your very own map of the border du jour that you can take home as a souvenir. Here is the drawing end of the apparatus (a Google image; photos were not allowed):

border drawerThere is a pile of local topographic maps next to the table. You pick one up, lay it on the table, and as soon as the device senses that it is there it activates the drawing armature and draws that instant’s calculated border on it in a red marker, labeling it with the current date and time (which you can see at lower right).

Remember this the next time you have a property line dispute with your next door neighbor.

 

Advertisements
Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chillin’ with the Ice Man

We awoke this morning to a gloomy, steady rain pelting Merano, but staring balefully and unproductively out the window as we pondered how to plan the day offered us an unexpected reward. Jim, looking down, abruptly observed, “That’s a funny-shaped hedge…it looks like a Jewish star.” Which, indeed, it unquestionably did. I then noticed that the building next door had a carving of the Ten Commandments on the side, and lo and behold we realized that we were next to a synagogue. And not just any synagogue: the only one in Merano.

It is still in use, Merano having a small Jewish community that up until the 1930’s was a large Jewish community. After the war it had a very large flux of Jewish refugees passing through because it was a major waypoint on what was in effect a Jewish Underground Railroad for refugees trying to smuggle themselves to Palestine.

We were admitted to the synagogue by the caretaker, a stout blonde middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette. She let us into the sanctuary, which had three simple but beautiful stained glass windows, and below which to our surprised lived the local Jewish Museum. This was unexpectedly fascinating, a single large room housing a large number of letters, photos, and artifacts from the Holocaust era, as well as some considerably older items. (The oldest of these was a late 15th century Torah scroll. The most unusual was a “secret” miniature Torah, a scroll about the size of a pack of cigarettes and hand-lettered in the tiniest font you have ever seen outside of one of those novelty grains of rice. If you ever find yourself in Merano, you must certainly visit this place.

Moving out of our flat was an exercise in logistical unpleasant both because of the rain and because the guy living in the flat next story was also moving out, as in with movers and a van and all that. Which would not have been too much of a problem except that the elevator was approximately three feet square and the van was parked where we needed our car to be. The whole operation turned into a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle but we made it work.

The good news was that the weather did not seriously impede our plans, which were to return to Balzano to visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to see the famous Ice Man mummy, then continue by car 140 miles south to Modena, where we will spend the night. None of that required sunshine, though as it happened the weather improved greatly in the afternoon.

The museum, and the Ice Man himself, are remarkable and ceratinly among the most interesting museum exhibits we have seen. His name — coined by an Austrian journalist — is “Ötzi” a portmanteau of the word “yeti” (as in the Abominable Snowman) and the Ötz valley where he was discovered in September 1991, buried in the snow at an elevation of about 10,000 ft. And here is what he looks like in his current state:

otzi_tattoos(Photos are not allowed, so thank Google for the image.) Carbon dating reveals that he is 5200 years old. He is kept in a refrigerated vault whose conditions replicate those that have preserved him: 21 deg F temperature (-6 C) at a humidity of 99%. A fine mist of water sprays over him, giving his skin an icy sheen that, irreverently enough, makes him look like he is made of lacquered beef jerky. He lies on a table close to a viewing window, and you get quite a good look at him. The vault has its own backup power supply, and the mummy can, in case of extreme emergency, be removed and transported to a nearby hospital that has its own “cold room” waiting for him. (Doctor: “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for him. We tried CPR to revive him but, well, he fell apart.”)

2_Rekonstruktion (6)_0Ötzi was found with a large number of artifacts that have enabled forensic anthropogists to accurately reconstruct his clothing, weaponry, food, and other aspects of his life. They have also determined that he was killed in a fight, ultimately felled by an arrow to the shoulder. They do not know who killed him or why because – wait for it — the case has gone cold. (Ba-dum bump! <cymbal clash>)

Here is the latest reconstruction of his appearance in life, vaguely resembling The Big Lebowski. (This model, life size in the museum, does not show much of his clothing, which included a coat, cap, and backpack, all of which are on display elsewhere in the exhibit.)

The entire museum was fascinating, and among everything else we learned these two important facts:

  1. Things that Alice has in common with Ötzi: They are both lactose-intolerant.
  2. Things that Rich has in common with Ötzi: We both have blood type O+.

Cool, huh?

We spent two solid hours in the place, by which time the sun had come out and the day turned beautiful. So we had lunch an outdoor cafe, enjoyed our daily infusion of gelato, and hit the road for the 2 1/2 drive to Merano. (By the way, we firmly believe that if you visit Italy and do not have a daily dose of gelato — a different flavor each day, of course — then you are doing it wrong.)

We exited the Tyrol driving south, which for ambience purposes meant that we were leaving Austria and returning to Italy. We first passed back through the province of Veneto (where Venice and Vicenza are located), and into Emilia-Romagna, where Modena, Bologna, and Parma are. Indeed, Modena is located more or less midway between those two larger cities and, as a result of borrowing from both of them, is known for being a foodie’s paradise with a large number of gourmet restaurants.

It is striking how quickly one leaves the mountains. As we shot down the Autostrade at 130 kph (80 mph), one moment we were surrounded by the granite cliffs of the Dolomite foothills — with a castle midway up every cliff face, of course — and the next moment we were flying across open plains as far as we could see.

We arrived in Modena, made contact with our landlord, and got into our apartment, a charmingly decorated and richly equipped two bedroom flat, a warm and welcoming place that feels like the polar opposite of our severe and unadorned quarters in Merano.  We are only here for a night, contrinuing on to Lucca tomorrow. We may if we are feeling flush visit the Ferrari factory, but it is rather expensive and none of us are real car buffs.

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Gondola Ride, and Not the Ones in Venice

Balzano-1We walked around in Merano for a bit last night, mostly in an arduous search for an open restaurant, soaking up the odd hybrid Italo-Austrian ambiance. There’s a small pedestrian area near the heart of downtown, reached by walking over a small bridge over a wide but shallow creek. And should you find yourself on that bridge you will see a phenomenon that is gradually becoming the bane of city bridge-maintainers everywhere: padlocks, like the ones you see here. There are hundreds of them, some placed by lovers looking for cheap symbolism, others as some kind of memorial. Some are attached by the dozen to engraved sheets of aluminum, which are themselves then locked to the bridge railings. It is a particular problem in Paris, I have read, where some of the smaller bridges have so many locks that they are becoming a structural risk. Here it is just an oddity.

Balzano-2And speaking of oddities, the next one that we encountered in downtown Merano was some kind of art installation, a cylindrical wedding-cake like structure about 10′-12′ in diameter and a good 8′ high, made entirely out of newspapers. And I don’t mean papier-maché or anything like that: I just mean folded-up whole newspapers. Here’s a closeup. I have no idea what this means. Nor do I know what is going to become of it after a few heavy rainstorms, other than becoming an extraordinarily dense pile of cellulose mush.

This morning dawned clear and bright, despite an ominous weather forecast of mid-day thunderstorms, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather, however temporary, to get a better view of the Dolomites. One of the best places to do this is in the nearby city of Bolzano, only about 15 miles to the southeast, a busy city of 100,000 best known for a large army base and, more interestingly, a “tram” — actually a cable car or gondola — that takes you up over the town and into the lower Tyrolean Alps.

The gondola ascends about 3,000′ starting from Bolzano’s central train station, up to a the small and appropriately-named village of Soprabolzano, i.e. “above Bolzano”. In German — and everything is in German here, about which more shortly — it is Oberbozen. The change in ambience over that 3,000′ ascent is remarkable. As you look back down the cable car path you see the urban center of Bolzano…

Balzano-12…and a few minutes later you are in Soprabolzano, where they could have filmed Heidi:

Balzano-4You can get some of the best views of the Dolomites not from Soprabolzano itself, however, but rather from the nearby village of Collalbo (Kolbenstein if you’re in a Teutonic frame of mind), which you get to by hopping on the cutest little one-car light-rail tram ever built. The tram leaves from Soprabolzano every half hour and pretty much follows the ridge line of the mountain, arriving in Collalbo about 15 minutes later. Along the way, and in Collalbo itself, you get views like these:

Balzano-9

Balzano-10

Balzano-5…which are pretty remarkable considering that we were negotiating busy city traffic about an hour earlier.

Collalbo’s big attraction, aside from the obvious views, is a multitude of hiking trails, in particular one that leads to what they call the “Erdpyramiden” (“Earth Pyramids”), a type of geological formation found throughout the world and which in the US are called “hoodoos”. They are tall pointy formations, some with rocks balanced on top, formed by alternating periods of drought and rain that erode the ground around the rocks and eventually leave them balanced precariously on an array of pointy columns that make the hillside look like some kind of surreal convention of either Ku Klux Klansmen or Spanish Inquisitors. Here’s what the hillside looks like, reachable by a rather hilly half hour hike from the Collalbo tram station:

Balzano-7…and here is a closeup that shows some of the rocks on top:

Balzano-8We admired the geological weirdness for a few minutes, then headed back towards the tram station, pausing to stop for lunch at a hotel restaurant. The weather was still beautiful so we ate outdoors, where Alice increased her Italian vocabulary the hard way: the special of the day was polpetto, which Alice ordered, knowing that since the Italian word for “octopus” is polpo, polpetto clearly means “little octopus”. Octopus is a favorite meal of hers. And unfortunately for her, polpetto actually means “meat loaf”.

We would actually have figured that out if we had looked a little more closely at the menu, since underneath the Italian name it pretty clearly said something like Fleischstück in German, which would have been a giveaway that we were not talking about octopuses. (And yes, the correct plural is “octopuses”. I don’t want any comments demanding “octopi.”)

This brings me back to the whole Austrian-Italian mishigoss. (For non-Jewish readers, that’s Yiddish for “complicated mess”.) Merano, as I mentioned, is very much a bilingual city with the local culture tending towards the Austrian. But Bolzano, despite being slightly further from the Austrian border, takes a big step closer to its Germanic roots. There is little trace of Italy either in the architecture or in the language spoken in the streets: German is clearly more prevalent.

I mentioned last time that this is a consequence of the redrawing of Europe’s borders in the wake of World War I. Italy wanted this particular chunk of the Austro-Hungary Empire, and got it. (They also wanted scenic Dalmatia, spurred on by the ubiquitous ultra-nationalistic Gabriele D’Annunzio, he of the Addams Family mansion. But they didn’t get that, and it is part of Croatia today.)

But it was a near thing. German U-boats had utterly decimated British sea traffic by mid-1915, and, though hard to imagine today, Britain was only about three months away from surrendering when the US finally shed its neutrality and entered the war. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened had the US not done so, e.g. had the Germans not unwisely sunk the Lusitania the year before. Germany and Austria would have won the war in late 1916 instead of losing two years later. And that means that there would have been no onerous Treaty of Versailles, no Weimar Republic…and no rise of Hitler. In other words, World War II would not have happened or, if it did, would have been in a radically different form, e.g., Europe (including Germany) and the US allied against Stalin’s USSR.

It also means that we would have needed to get our passports stamped this week as we moved from Vicenza to Merano, and would have been a lot less confused as to whether we were still in Italy or had somehow wandered into Austria.

We headed back to Merano around 3:30, with a final stop of the day at Trauttmansdorff Castle, known for being the world’s least-pronounceable botanical garden. (It is actually one of the largest and most impressive in Europe.) We had repeated trouble keeping the name straight and eventually fell back on author Kurt Vonnegut, electing to call it Tralfamadore Castle. (If you don’t know what Tralfamadore is, you need to (a) look it up by clicking the link, and (b) reading more Kurt Vonnegut.) Jim sand Elaine toured the grounds, but Alice and I were just too tired and so just waited for them outside: she is still getting over a cold, which she has now generously shared with me.

Tomorrow we are off to our next destination: Modena, home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. Along the way we will visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to call upon Ötzi, the famous 5500-year-old mummified hunter retrieved from a glacier in the Alps several years ago. He is widely known as the “Ice Man”. We, however, refer to him more familiarly as “Frozen Dead Guy”.

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Lake, Lots of Tunnels, and the Italian Suburbs of Austria

The weather was much improved today — though unfortunately it is not expected to last — so we pulled up stakes from Gardone Riviera, en route to Merano in a more optimistic state of mind than when we arrived. Lake Garda was bathed in a watery sunlight as the sun struggled with occasional success to break through the low clouds. Our very temporary landlord, the warm and genial Fabrizio, had suggested that driving up the west side of the lake was the more scenic route, and the choice proved to be a wise one: the road hugged the narrow strip between the lake and the granite cliffs above it, beneath, above, and occasionally through one seaside village after another.  Each offered its shares of bell towers, churches, and homes nestled on to the steep hillsides, enjoying watch over the clear lake. This is a typical view from the road, looking up the hillside:

Garda & Merano-2Where there was a safe pullout off the road  and there were more than a few — we took it, soaking up the view and snapping away like lunatics. Following our instincts, we would occasionally pull off the highway (and I use the term loosely) altogether, finding a parking space and walking around the town at water’s edge.

Garda & Merano-4During one such stroll we encountered this 94 year old lady taking a walk with her grown grandson, or so we assume. She was quite emphatic about her age, repeating it a few times in Italian as she spoke no English, and we were able to puzzle out that she had lived there for a very long time.

One of these random stops found us in the town of Limone, about three-quarters up the west side of the lake, where as it happened it was open-air market day down by the waterside. It was lively with visitors and seemed like a good place to walk around and break for lunch, so we parked in a garage and waded into the market place. Leather goods seemed to be a particular specialty, and the prices were good: Alice bought a bright blue purse and wallet, and I a new and much-needed wallet.

It seemed that aside from ourselves, every tourist in Limone — and there were a lot of them — was German. We had been told about this by Fabrizio but were still taken aback by it; other than the vendors talking among themselves, we hard only German being spoken, and the restaurants by the water all offered their menus in German and Italian. (German would become even more prominent as we approached and entered Merano, but more on that shortly.)

Part of the reason for Limone’s popularity among German tourists is its proximity to the Austrian border and the fact that it offers these views at the northern end of the lake:

Garda & Merano-1

Garda & Merano-3

Garda & Merano-5You can see that that the town, like its brethren along the coast, is essentially sandwiched between the sea and the cliffs, with the foothills of the Dolomites looming in the distance.

The other common view from the highway as we drove up the side of the lake was no view at all, by which I mean the inside of a tunnel. There are a lot of tunnels on the route, all impressive feats of engineering as they are up to nearly a mile in length and are bored through solid granite. There is really no choice in the matter, as the cliffs come nearly right up to the sea and there is no other place to put a road. Even so, it was surprising: we probably passed through 15 tunnels, dark and windy and narrow, with lots of trucks to keep things interesting.

As we approached Merano it became clear that, the political border notwithstanding, we were entering Austria. And indeed, had World War I gone the other way, that’s exactly where we would be. This region is the South Tyrol, 40 miles from the Austrian border; the architecture, the language, and the culture are essentially Bavarian. A-frame roofs with timbers on the outside, a distinct absence of baroque Italianate facades on the buildings, street signs in German and Italian, and wiener-schnitzel on the menus of the restaurants. It’s slightly more Italian than Salzburg, but not by much.

Oh, and the restaurants close up at about 8:30, about two hours earlier than the rest of Italy. We almost missed dinner because our stomach clock time settings were insufficiently Teutonic. We will not make this mistake again tomorrow; we have ways of making you eat.

Anyway, here is a view of the town. If you think it resembles an Alpine ski resort, you are not far off the mark.

Garda & Merano-6Our apartment here is a spacious two bedroom condo on the fifth floor of a building, only about a block from the center of town. The decor and architecture of the place could not differ more dramatically from the other places that we have stayed. Unadorned white walls, right angles everywhere, and not a scowling 16th century portrait in sight. In fact, nothing in sight: there is not a single wall hanging or piece of decoration anywhere other than a couple of very spare-looking narrow Scandinavian-style bookcases in the living room. Gabriele D’Annunzio wouldn’t have lasted five seconds in this place.

There is a hillside promenade that overlooks the town, and, about ten miles from here, a tramway that goes to the nearest mountaintop. Both of those are on our agenda for tomorrow, so with luck I’ll have some pictures to show.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gomez Addams, Call Your Office

It is a chilly and rainy day today here on the shores of Lake Garda, so as I mentioned last time we shelved our more ambitious plans — a boat ride on the lake — in favor of visiting the very nearby Vittoriale di D’Annunzio, the sprawling home of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom I slighted in my last post by calling an eccentric. He was, in fact, an Italian icon in the first third of the 20th century, an accomplished poet, playwright, World War I combat hero, ladies’ man, rabid nationalist, relentless (and spectacularly successful) self-promoter, and batshit loonball of truly epic proportions. If you have ever visited San Simeon, the Hearst Castle in California, then you know how far unlimited wealth and overweening narcissism will take you in the Over-The-Top Real Estate & Decor department, but even with that data point this place forces you to recalibrate your expectations. No photos are allowed at Vittoriale di D’Annunzio , so thanks to  Google Images here is a view of the estate and a few shots of the interior:

xp1110701105720

 

That is a rebuilt Greek amphitheater in the foreground. What the photo does not show — because the estate is so large — is the torpedo boat that he commanded in World War I, which is installed on an adjacent hillside, nor the pet cemetery about the size and of similar appearance as the amphitheater. Inside the house — which we toured — is the biplane that he flew during a propaganda raid against Vienna in the war, in August 1918. (He led a squadron of 9 planes dropping leaflets urging the Austro-Hungarian Empire to surrender, which three months later they did.)

D’Annunzio suffered an eye injury during a plane crash earlier that year that made him averse to bright light.  He was in addition to everything else a raging hypochondriac, and as a result when he built his palatial monument to himself he ensured that it was always dark and gloomy inside. Which is good, because if you were actually to behold the inconceivable mishmash of religious, artistic, and general cultural in unfiltered daylight your eyeballs would melt. Here are a couple of images of the more sedately-decorated rooms:

busto-visita-il-vittorialesulle-orme-di-dannunzio_98176552-1643-11e3-b79b-12be368c60df_display

vittoriale

You stumble through the gloom half expecting Herman Munster to come lurching stiff-legged down the hallway, marveling at the heretofore inconceivable fact that this place makes San Simeon look like it was furnished by Ikea.

You’ve got to give the guy credit for sheer profligacy, though. In one room he has a reference to the Seven Deadly Sins painted above the doorway lintel. The phrase, in Italian, reads “Five Fingers, Five Sins”.  Five? Yeah. Turns out that D’Annunzio refused to recognize “greed” or “lust” as sins and so dropped them from the traditional list. He definitely walked the walk.

We spent a couple of hours touring both the house and the grounds, and by the time we finished the early afternoon mist had turned into a more robust drizzle. We therefore decided to have a late lunch at a trattoria just outside the grounds in the hope that the rain would pass or at least lighten before we had to make the 15-minute walk back to our flat. And that worked, if by “lighten” you mean “strengthen into a steady downpour”. It was a wet walk back to the flat, where we arrived at about 4:00 pm.

At that point we basically called it a day, reading, napping, and generally drying out. We may get ambitious enough to go out to dinner tonight. We leave Garda tomorrow morning, though, and it appears that the weather will improve somewhat so I am hopeful that we will still get our self-promised boat ride on the lake before heading to Merano, our next destination.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

Verona & Garda-1

 

Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

Verona & Garda-2

It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

Verona & Garda-3

Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

Verona & Garda-6

Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

Verona & Garda-5

 

We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

Verona & Garda-7

 

Verona & Garda-8

Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lauding Este

Most of our activity ­thus far has been in cities: Venice, Vicenza, Padua, et al. It has been our plan to see some of the countryside as well, and yesterday seemed like a good day to do it; the weather was overcast, and Alice is still fighting a cold and so was disinclined to do a lot of walking.  So a drive in the country seemed like a fine thing, and we set off to the outer reaches of Vicenza province, to the Euganean Hills.

The hills are low, perhaps 2000’ high at the highest, a collection of heavily wooded granite cliffs and old (very old: 35 million years) volcanic cinder cones, crisscrossed by hiking trails and traversed by a tortuous network of scenic if white-knuckled narrow hairpin turns that make driving something of a video game experience. I have been doing all of the driving thus far – Alice is too good a navigator to risk switching roles – and so found myself simultaneously trying to admire the view whilst maintaining laser focus on the next 180o turn in order to avoid driving us straight down one of those scenic, heavily wooded cliff sides.

The vistas are much as you would imagine, wide expanses of farmland (vineyards, of course) punctuated by villages of orange-tiled roofs, each of course with a bell tower. The overcast rendered the scene a little hazy, which added some nice atmospherics (and moderated the temperature), at the cost of making decent photography pretty much impossible.

After descending the sinuous road down the hillside, we stopped at the town of Este, a village really, whose principal attraction is a very large castle in the center of town.

Este-2

Its grounds offer a garden, statuary, and general strolling and meeting places for the local population, including this bicycle club:

Este-4

Notice the purple wisteria on the battlement walls. It is everywhere in the region, festooning stone and stucco walls alike and adding a splash of color to seemingly every structure. And speaking of adding a splash of color, here is Alice:

Este-9

But I am getting slightly ahead of myself by an hour or so. When we first rolled into town we were in need of two things: food and a bathroom. But we apparently arrived shortly after the Zombie Apocalypse. We cruised slowly down the deserted narrow streets, not a person or car in sight, trying to find an open restaurant or business of any sort or, indeed, any reassurance that the Rapture had not been visited upon the region whilst we sinners were up driving in the hills.

As the complaints from our stomachs and bladders grew more insistent, we finally in desperation turned through a metal gate into a small deserted courtyard that promised an open restaurant, only to find ourselves cruelly deceived. A decision was needed. Food was not a problem, as we had bought along an ample supply of cheese, fruit, crackers, and other goodies obtained on a supermarket run a few days ago. As for our bladders, well, I said the courtyard was deserted, so I’ll leave it at that.

It turns out that yesterday was Italy Liberation Day, whose particulars I will have to Google later. (I am in our B&B castle, sans Internet, as I type this.) But it is apparently celebrated by staying indoors. When we first arrived at the castle after eating, the courtyard was pretty sparsely peopled.

Este-1

Things came to life considerably by mid-afternoon, however. We walked around the grounds, climbing the steps up to the parapets to get a commanding view of the town below.

Este-7

Este-6

It didn’t much more than an hour or two to see what there is to see at Este’s castle, and Elaine expressed a desire to do some hiking back up in the hills. She had picked up some brochures and maps identifying some hikes that promised to be both easy and scenic, and so we drove a short 10 miles or so to the Euganean hillside town of Teolo, which is sort of the epicenter for activities in the hills. It is heavily visited and was alive with picnickers, hikers, and bikers (both motor- and not) as we drove up.

(A word about the bicyclists. There are lots of them in the hills, often in groups, sometimes with helmets but frequently without. They all wear spandex, and they all work very, very hard. These roads are steep and twisty with barely a level stretch to be found anywhere, and although I enjoy biking I cannot imagine lasting more than five minutes in this terrain.)

Alice was still suffering from her cold, and Jim was feeling too relaxed to spoil the mood with any physical work, and so Elaine and I set out on the alleged easy, scenic trail, which turned out to be neither. It was in fact steep and occasionally rugged, the ostensible scenic panoramas obscured by the mountain on one side of the trail and the forest on the other. We gave it up as a bad job after 40 minutes or so, then turned around to rejoin our spouses at the trailhead.

We took an actual scenic drive back to Vicenza, Alice navigating us through the hills rather than on the Autostrade, and our last stop of the day was a church courtyard on the hillside overlooking the city that afforded these views:

Vicenza Overlook-1

That’s Palladio’s basilica with the green roof, right in the center of town.

Vicenza Overlook-2

These give a pretty sense of the ambience of Vicenza, just in time for us to leave it. We retreat from our private castle today, and at this moment I hear the clangor of the village church bells just outside our private hillside castle, as every local dog howls in protest. In an hour or two as I type this, we head northwest towards the mountains for two days on the shore of Lake Garda. The weather is looking none too promising but, well, it’s all about the journey.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Knick-Knack Padua

Our original goal for today was the Scrovigne Chapel in Padua, decorated in early 14th-century frescoes by Giotto, that is so well-preserved that the paintings’ original rich colors – cerulean skies, golden-haloed rows of angels – are still intact. What this means in practice is that extraordinary measures must be taken to keep it that way: visitors are allowed in for only 15 minutes at a time, and there is no photography allowed at all. This in turn means that the “tourist throughput”, so to speak, is very low. Reservations must be made in advance for your particular 15-minute window, and this is not an easy process, requiring callback numbers (our phones do not work here) authentication codes, and other elements of a Jason Bourne novel. We did not take care of this while still in the US, and it became a near-impossibility now, as we learned the hard way when we tried to buy tickets at the chapel in real time. Bottom line: we didn’t see it. So here is a Google image for you instead.

scrovegni

We didn’t see this.

Still, Padua is a lively city, home to the University of Padua, one of the Continent’s oldest and most venerated schools, dating from the mid-13th century. (Consider that Harvard, the oldest university in the US, is 400 years younger.) It is what today would be called an urban campus, a skein of ancient and modern buildings integrated into the compact, old portion of the cityscape. It has an array of passageways, courtyards, and alcoves to explore, and wandering randomly – as we were more or less doing, having flamed out on the Scrovigne Chapel – reveals treasures like this variegated marble staircase…

Padua-9

…or this very Italian bar and sundries store, located in a passageway off one of the university courtyards.

Padua-8

Padua-10The university – like many in Europe – saw its share of sacrifice in both World Wars. It lost a number of students in both wars, commemorated in various ways around the campus. One well known example are these brass doors, easily 10’ tall, listing those killed in WWI.

The university was also an epicenter of the local Resistance during WWII, and was given an award recognizing this by the European Union.

It’s not actually fair to say that we were wandering randomly. We were in fact in search of the Palazzo della Ragione, primarily because Elaine had picked up a brochure for it that featured a very large and impressive-looking wooden statute of a stallion. As we headed in search of the elusive statue we came to refer to it as the Trojan Horse, though that is not actually its subject.

The Palazzo della Ragione, as it turns out, is not exactly a single building but rather an array of them defining the perimeter of the oldest part of the city, very possibly the site of the original local Roman forum. Now the square is the site of a yeasty farmer’s market, mostly featuring meats, cheese, and produce. Its crown jewel is the Great Hall, called the Salone, which houses our equine target. While we found the building without too much difficulty, getting inside turned out to be a bigger challenge, until Elaine took the reins (notice my clever horse reference there) and asked one of the merchants, who kindly led us to the correct, not-at-all-secret staircase.

The Salone is an impressive structure, the interior space being a single open cavernous volume, every square foot of wall covered with frescoes, and topped with a so-called shipwright roof, meaning that it is shaped like an inverted ship’s hull. I’m guessing that it’s about 250’ x 100’ in area, nearly a football field in floor area. It was completed in 1219, and looks for all the world like a medieval zeppelin hangar. (That roof, by the way, is a rather fraught piece of architecture. Originally built of wood, of course, it has been variously burnt down in fires and blown off by hurricanes, and then rebuilt, about every 200 years or so.)

The space is so huge that upon entering it is easy to overlook the non-Trojan horse at the far west end. It is quite the stunning beast, a proud-looking (and, um, anatomically correct) stallion perhaps 20’ tall, standing on a platform with one leg raised, sinews visible, and glaring down regally at the viewers.

 

You can see him here, against the backdrop of frescoes on the wall behind.

Padua-2

One of the later additions to the Salone, sating from 1761, is this golden sun on the south wall:

Padua-1

It is hard to estimate its size because it is high up on the vast wall, but I am going to guess “bigger than it looks”, perhaps 6’ across. And what is cool about it is its astronomical functionality. See that bright round dot below the nose? That’s not a photo artifact: it’s a hole in that pierces the wall of the Salone. The Sun sits at the midpoint of the south wall, and at midday on the Equinox the beam of sunlight shining through the hole traces the path of the north-south meridian line that is inlaid in tile on the floor.

Yet another unusual feature of the Salone – and man, it would be great to fly a little drone quadcopter around in it, or at least play Frisbee – is the “Stone of Shame” at the opposite end of the hall from the horse. (In Italian it is called “pietro del vituperio”, literally “stone of vituperation”, which is a phrase that I am going to have to start using more often.) It’s a black stone cylinder, broadening slightly at the top, about 2’ wide and 3 ½’ high, placed there in 1231 and used to punish insolvent debtors. According to the statutes of the time, if you couldn’t make the vig you had to sit on the stone three times wearing only your underwear whilst stating “I renounce my worldly goods.” Then you were banished from the city. If you were foolish enough to return you would have to do it again, only this time people would pour buckets of water on your head. Wait till the credit card companies hear about this.

Padua-3We left the Salone in search of sustenance, which is the Italian word for gelato. That craving satisfied, we continued on to the “Commune” the central square of the modern part of the city. This is a congenial park centered on a fountain lined by a very large number of classical statues and frequented on pleasant days – which yesterday definitely was, sunny and in the 70’s – by many, many people, sitting by the fountain, lazing on the grass, or (as you can see here) practicing their tightrope skills.

Padua-4

Padua-6

We hung around for a while, soaking up the sun and the atmosphere, then headed back to the car, fortifying ourselves for the long (20 minute) trek with another gelato. Indeed, I believe that I have discovered the Zeno’s Paradox of Gelato, as the intervals between gelato stops became progressively smaller as we got closer and closer to the car. If the walk had been much longer, we would not have needed dinner.

I will close with some self-indulgence, in particular with the narcissistic fantasy that you actually care how I am posting these entries at all since I stated a few days ago that our B&B castle does not have wifi. As it happens, there is a restaurant down the street with free wifi that (they graciously informed me) they leave turned on 24 x 7. So every morning I wander down the rode, sit against the outside wall of the restaurant, and blog away in the hope that the cars speeding down the winding, narrow alley do not crush my legs. (About five minutes ago I actually had to stand up and dodge a voracious street-sweeping machine whose girth filled the entire alley.) Anyway, here I am hard at work, in a photo that Elaine took yesterday:

image1

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Vicenza: A Man’s Castle is His Home

Yes! We are staying in a castle! And not some hokey Medieval Times castle with guards in polyester costumes and Fiberglass alligators in the moat. A real castle, in which we are the sole occupants! Here it is:

Basanno Vicenze-3

Not your typical B&B

It has an iron gate, and a narrow spiral marble staircase, and dark scowling portraits on the walls, and all that cool stuff. What it does not, regrettably, is a suit of armor or (more importantly) wifi. The former prevents us from re-enacting old Scooby Doo episodes; the latter is a bit of a hindrance and is the reason that you may be reading this a few days late.

No set of photos can possibly do this place justice, so I have shot a brief walk-through video which I will try to post to YouTube later in the trip. But for the moment here is a shot of a corner of the living room.

Basanno Vicenze-5

No suit of armor, but a 17th century flat screen TV

At the top behind the chandelier you have a glimpse of the exposed beams, which are elaborately painted. What you cannot see in this photo is the flat-screen TV, which seems a little anachronistically out of place. It gets about 100 channels, all in Italian. I suppose it would have a little more period-appropriate verisimilitude if it only showed 17th-century cable TV stations (“Monarchy Central”, and “The Anti-Semitism Channel”, the latter being timelessly popular).

Basanno Vicenze-4We do not actually know the age or history of this place; the owner never told us any of that. What the owner did tell us – and I am not making this up — is that every night upon retiring we are to close, bolt, and bar, with owner-supplied wooden 2 x 4s, a set of iron shutters on each of the doors that look out onto the extensive grounds. (You can see them in the picture above.) Why must we do this? We don’t know. Werewolves, perhaps. But when someone tells you to do something like that, it seems wise to do it.

Our initial view of the place triggered a classic “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” moment. As the iron gates swung open and we drove onto the grounds we all simultaneously started our respective gender-stereotype paroxysms. This actually happened:

ALICE and ELAINE: “Oooooh! Romantic!” “Scottish lairds!” “Does it have a ballroom?” “Women dancing in big puffy dresses and enormous wigs!”

RICH and JIM:  “You rannnnng?” “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-gor’!” “Uncle Fester!” “’What knockers!’ ‘Thank you, doctor.’” “What hump?”

And remember: we’re the enlightened ones.

Basanno Vicenze-6Since the serfs were off duty, the logical thing to do was to go into town and check out the walled city in the daylight. Vicenze is the birthplace of Andrea Palladio, a famed neoclassical architect of the mid-16th century. His style heavily influences the region, and the countryside is dotted with Palladian-style villas and palazzos, some designed by the master himself. (He designed the covered bridge in Basanno that I mentioned last time.) A number of his buildings are in or near the center of town, most notably a gigantic basilica with a copper roof, a rotunda on a hilltop outside of town, and a Greek-style performance venue called the Olympic Theater.

The latter was most impressive, the stage set being a masterpiece of trompe l’oeuil that makes it seem like the stage is a 100-yard deep classical Greek village.

We admired the theater for a while and generally walked our feet off, eventually spending a half hour or so in a nearby park whose most notable characteristics were an idyllic Greek rotunda on a tiny island in a lake, and about ten thousand rabbits.

Basanno Vicenze-8Yes, rabbits. You know how you sometimes go to a park with a lake and are surrounded by ducks and Canada geese? In this park you are surrounded by bunny rabbits. They were everywhere, all sizes and colors, loping around in their hoppy fashion, sleeping, munching on the vegetation, and generally doing what rabbits do. (They were lots of young ones, so yes, they were clearly doing that too.) It was an utterly charming sight, and as the sun lowered and the shadows grew long, more and more of them emerged from the vegetation to forage. By the time we ambled back to our car, they were absolutely everywhere, and if you are of a sufficiently dark state of mind it would not be hard to imagine ominous warnings about not staying in the park after dark. Nosirree, you do not want to be alone with the Vicenze Killer Rabbits in the dark. When the police find your body the next morning there won’t be anything left but your gnawed bones and adorable bits of fur.

We left the park in search of dinner, determined not to repeat our restaurant debacle of the previous night. But all of the restaurants in the old city seemed to be either run-of-the-mill sandwich places or exorbitant gourmet restaurants with things like sheep navels on the menu. So we retreated back to our castle, stopping and dining en route at a very pleasant restaurant barely 200 yards from our very own iron gate. Said restaurant also has wifi and an easygoing staff, wo if I am lucky I may be able to post these most recent entries without having to wait the few days till we reach our next destination.

Our goal today is the ancient university town of Padua. Alice has come down with a cold so we are probably not going to be too ambitious.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Under the Not-Altogether-Tuscan Sun

…Which is to say, that though we are not technically in Tuscany (yet; we are still in the region called Veneto), the “look and feel” of this part of Italy comports quite perfectly with your mental image of sun-drenched hillside vineyards and rustic farmhouses. (Please note that, as in Greece and similar Mediterranean tourist destinations, “sun-drenched” is the officially-approved adjective and must be used at least once every three days in all missives back home. I have now fulfilled my quota.)

Anyway, our particular farmhouse was a lovely two-story structure with two bedrooms and a comfortable modern kitchen and living room area, accessible by a tortuous narrow (and unlit) road, and situated on a you-know-what-drenched hillside full of vineyards adjacent to a stereotypically charming village. And here are the pictures to prove it:

Asolo Basanno-1

Asolo Basanno-2

Asolo Basanno-3

Asolo Basanno-4

This was essentially an overnight way station en route to our next “real” destination, which were the towns of Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. (Pay attention to the “del Grappa” part of the name; it’ll become important later.) Both are medieval towns – they’re all medieval towns around here – of about 50,000 people. Asolo is known primarily for having been the site of a gruesome World War I battle. It is all steep cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, like this:

Asolo Basanno-5

Asolo Basanno-6

I should mention that while I was taking the picture of the bicycle I was observed with great interest, and then engaged, by an elderly local gentlemen, spectacularly drunk and straight out of Central Casting with the largest, most mottled cauliflower nose I have ever seen, about one-third the size of an actual cauliflower. He commented at cheerful length in heavily slurred and fully incomprehensible Italian, nearly incapacitating first me and then Alice with breath that, were an open flame to have passed nearby, would have incinerated us all.

The town is dominated by a tall bell tower and by a castle built as a sort of a consolation prize to house the reluctant bride of a local nobleman.  You can enter the grounds and ramparts of the castle (via a steep cobblestone path, of course) to get an excellent view of the town and surrounding hills, including of course the bell tower, as you can see.

Asolo Basanno-8

We spent the morning and early afternoon in Asolo before moving on to Bassano del Grappo, which in overall appearance is pretty similar, right down to the alleys:

Asolo Basanno-9

Bassano, however, has two claims to fame, one being this attractive covered bridge that was built in 1569, repeatedly destroyed by fire, and rebuilt most recently about 50 years ago.

Asolo Basanno-10

We walked across the bridge, of course. But the part of its history of which Bassano is most proud – and probably makes the most money off of – is the “del Grappa” part, which is to say that Bassano, in particular via the efforts of the highly venerated Poli family, is for practical purposes the birthplace of grappa. Grappa, if you are not familiar with it, is the highly potent, multiple-distilled product of, essentially, the dregs of the winemaking process. It is cheap, flavorful, and highly toxic to carbon-based life forms. Some people love it. Some people are crazy.

Basanno Vicenze-2

Do not drink.

 

Now, needless to say, the city fathers of Bassano would like to encourage you to consume their home-grown claim to fame, and so the Poli Grappa Museum gives you the opportunity to do so responsibly, if somewhat surrealistically. The museum displays a variety of archaic distillery apparatuses, tangled collections of flasks and retorts that would be right at home in any mad scientist’s lab. The culmination of the self-guided tour (immediately prior to the gift shop, of course) is a sampling gallery. But they are smart enough not to let you actually drink the stuff, which would be catastrophic. No, they let you smell it.

Huh? You enter a room lined with what appears to be about 20 coffee urns, each representing a flavor of grappa. You push a button on the counter in front of the “urn”, and it blasts a mist of some kind of synthesized ersatz grappa with exactly the correct smell and (sort of) taste into your face. See Alice imbibing the aerosol below:

Basanno Vicenze-1

The world’s only olfactory hangover

 

At that point, if you’re anything like me, you react exactly as you would to a real swig of grappa, which is to say your olfactory system seizes up as your entire body briefly convulses.  Jim managed to give himself a zinger of a headache by performing this exercise once too often. This may be the single most bizarre interactive display I have ever experienced. It was a fitting end to our brief stay in Basanno. You have been warned.

We continued on to our destination of the next four days: Vicenza, about an hour’s drive further. Vicenza is a somewhat larger town of about 100,000, somewhat spread out with actual suburbs but enjoying an old walled city in the center, the nexus of its cultural heritage. Our plan is to use it as a base of operation for the next four days, visiting some of the surrounding towns like Padua and Verona. Our B&B – a quite spectacular one that I will describe at length in my next post – is located on a hillside outside of town. We arrived around 7:00 PM, settled in for an hour or two, then struck out to find some dinner.

We had passed a couple of reasonable-looking trattorias not far from the B&B, but decided that we would take the opportunity to find something a little more interesting in the downtown area, near the walled city. This turned out to be an impressively poor plan, as the narrow, poorly-lit streets were nearly deserted and most of the restaurants closed. We wandered and wandered, the hour grew later and later, and we got more and more lost, finally giving up altogether and deciding to return from whence we came and settle for one of the local trattorias after all. This proved to be far easier said than done, because:

  • The streets were not only narrow, dark, and deserted, but there was virtually no signage;
  • Our GPS was blissfully unaware of things like pedestrian streets where traffic was not allowed;
  • Our GPS does not speak Italian and thus mangled the often-lengthy street names as though they were being read by a female version of George W. Bush; and
  • The narrow streets often caused the GPS to lose lock and thus become as confused as we ourselves were.

The upshot was that we followed an essentially random trajectory through the seamiest, Fellini-esque back alleys of nighttime Vicenza. Our GPS gamely struggled to keep up, occasionally emerging from its electronic ataxia (“Recalculating route!”) to attempt to tell us in Bizarro Italian that in 100 feet we should turn left at Viata Santo Ciccianizolo Aleghieri Cruce del Roseannadanna, as we all went “Wha….?” and cruised past the intersection, which didn’t have a street sign to check and was one-way the wrong way anyway.

By 10:30 PM, primarily through Alice’s heroic navigation efforts,we somehow stumbled back into our original B&B neighborhood and walked sheepishly into the very first trattoria we had seen hours before, which was thankfully still open, and where (I am happy to say) we had an excellent and very inexpensive meal. Which just goes to show…something, I guess.

Tomorrow: a description of our jaw-dropping lodgings, and our first full day in Vicenza. (The walled city by daylight!)

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.