Monthly Archives: May 2015

Return to the Castle in Vicenza

Three weeks after our actual stay, here is a short video tour that I made of our rather exceptional B&B outside of Vicenza:

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Zooming Back to Venice, and Homeward Bound

We depart for home tomorrow morning, and today was mostly a travel day itself, as we drove straight from La Spezia back to Venice for an overnight stay in an unremarkable airport hotel. Our only excitement was a traffic jam on the way out of La Spezia, occasioned by a cement truck that crunched a passenger car. There were assorted witnesses, cops, and drivers milling around, calmly discussing the situation in Italian. 

 Ha! Didn’t fool you for a moment, did I? This is Italy! Everyone, including completely uninvolved passers-by, was of course shouting and wildly gesticulating at once, and the wind power from the hand gestures alone could easily have powered a small house. Of course the intersection where this happened was completely gridlocked, requiring me to unlock my Inner Italian Driver and bull my way across, successfully bluffing a puny Fiat who was threatening to collide with me, and giving no quarter to a pregnant woman trying to cross the street. 

 One of those Italian drivers left me an anonymous present late one night as we were parked on the street, in the form of a small sideswipe on the front left of our Peugeot. This nicely compliments the scrape on the front right that I inflicted myself while parking on a street that was about two feet wider than our car, misjudging the distance to the right wall. It is not for nothing that I bought the full collision damage insurance from Avis for this trip, having been to Italy before; the Avis return agent earlier this afternoon looked at the damage, looked at the rental contract, shrugged amiably, and said, “Full insurance. No problem.” And that was that. He probably sees exactly such sideswipes about eight times a day and was not even microscopically perturbed. 

 The drive from La Spezia back to Venice was about 220 miles, all of it at high speed on the Autostrade. We broke for lunch near the city of Bologna, stopping at what was without question the classiest, cleanest, and most welcoming highway service area I have ever seen. It included an extensive market and gift shop, a couple of decent restaurants, and the cleanest and most congenially-furnished restrooms in the history of automobile travel. Pretty impressive. 

 And that has been our trip, and a fine one indeed.  As usual I will put up a webpage with a more extensive collection of trip photos and videos as I get them all organized over the next several weeks. 

 Oh, and in case you’re wondering, our next big journey will be three weeks in Morocco, leaving in late September of this year. Stay tuned…

 

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Pisa and Cinque Terre: Some Photos

I wasn’t able to include any photos in my last two posts, but we have now returned to Venice, staying in a fully-Internetted airport hotel the evening before our return home. So here are the promised photos. (I am also including the links to the posts for context.)

A few days ago I wrote about Pisa and Lerici here: https://richandalice.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/you-want-a-pisa-me/Pisa Lirice-01

The main event, of course, was the tower, which as I remarked at the time is kind of banana-shaped because the historical peculiarities of its construction. You can see from the picture how it kind of curves to the left a bit.

Pisa Lirice-04I also mentioned that the tilt is about 5 degrees, an amount you can see pretty clearly when you view the tower with the Duomo in the background (scaffolded, of course, since scaffolding precedes us wherever we go).

I wrote that it is apparently legally required to have a photo of yourself taken from an angle that makes it appear that you are holding up the tower, thereby giving the square the appearance of a gigantic Tai Chi class. I therefore present herewith a gallery of People Pretending To Hold Up the Leaning Tower:

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Tai Chi collage

Do not be one of these people. Or be one of them. It doesn’t matter; you’ll have plenty of company.

I wrote that after Pisa we stopped in the town of Lerici, at the bottom of the Bay of Poets, where Byron supposedly swam across. Here are a couple of  pictures from there.

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The city of La Spezia, quite nearby, was a base of operations for the Cinque Terre region. I wrote about Cinque Terre in this post: https://richandalice.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/cinque-terre-is-not-a-fake-mexican-holiday/

It’s a gloriously scenic place, though we had to admit to ourselves that all five photogenic ochre-colored hillside villages seemed pretty indistinguishable from one another, both as viewed from the sea and even when we were walking through them. Here are some shots:

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I also mentioned the peculiar Ligurian Gothic architecture of some of the churches. This one, the church of St. John the Baptist in the town of Monterosso, led me to think that St. John raised zebras as a sideline.

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OK! Now you are caught up on pictures from our travels!

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Cinque Terre is Not a Fake Mexican Holiday

It is, however, an exceptionally scenic part of the Italian coast in the province of Liguria. In fact, it is so scenic that this post is almost pointless without some photos, which I absolutely positively promise I will post later in a separate entry when we return from Internet Limbo.

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), as the name suggests, is an agglomeration of five villages spread out along a narrow section of coast, built up over about a thousand years by farmers who terraced the rocky hillside. Each village presents a dramatic and beautiful mien, especially viewed from the sea: split-level streets filled with ancient Ligurian Gothic churches and tiers of orange, yellow, and red houses clinging to the cliff walls. There are basically three kinds of streets: very level ones that follow the coastline; very steep ones that run up and the hillsides; and very zig-zaggy ones that traverse the cliffs like a ski run. All are paved in stone of one kind or another. There are many, many hiking trails, largely of the level and zig-zaggy varieties, offering spectacular views. One such trail — recently cut off by a rock slide — was about 15 miles long and connected all five towns. There are also many shorter, more level  but no less rewarding hikes for wimps like us, and we followed a few of them to assorted outlooks.

The five villages, running like a string of ochre pearls from southeast to northwest along the coast, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. (I have no idea why I am telling you those particular details other than making me feel very well-traveled as I type them.) All are right down at the water and are easily accessible by short train rides between them, with the exception of Corniglia, which is perched atop a 300 ft rock above its own train station. In other words, if you take the train to Corniglia, your first activity is to climb 400 stone steps up the hillside. We did not visit Corniglia.

What we did do was buy a 10-euro day pass in La Spezia that gave us unlimited access to the local train that connects all five towns as well as the buses within the towns. (The duration of the train rides to the first town — Riomaggiore — and between the towns is little more than about 5 minutes each. ) Knowing that the some of the best vantage points are from the sea, our plan was to take the train from La Spezia to the second town, Manarola, where the ferry port is, then for an additional 9 euros take the boat along the coast to the last town in line (Monterossa) and finally come back stop-by-stop via train. Which is more or less what we actually did, and which I recommend as your itinerary should you make it here.

I used the term “ferry port” to describe our boarding point in Manarola, but the term is a major exaggeration. The  “port” is a level section of rock at the bottom of a flight of stone stairs, separating you from the sea by a 5 ft long chain connecting two waist-level posts. The ferry motors up to you, the crew members push out a wheeled narrow aluminum gang plank onto the rock and disconnect the chain, and you and 300 other people march aboard. Or more accurately “stumble” aboard; as the boat bobs in the sea, the gang plank rises and falls with it. If that all sounds a little precarious, it is: if the sea is even slightly rough, the ferry does not run.

The ferry stops for a few minutes at each town along the way, and the entire run from one end to the other takes only about a half hour. But it does indeed offer wonderful views of the sheer rocky coast and the towns along the way. 

We walked around Monterossa for a while, stopping for lunch, nosing around a few churches, and eating gelato as Biblically mandated. The gelato was particularly welcome because the day had turned hot and sunny and it seemed the right thing to do as we walked parallel to the modestly-populated but inviting sandy beach. We were not too ambitious, Jim and Elaine now having officially caught Alice’s cold (which I also  caught but am now over).  But we managed to see quite a bit.

Here is an epidemiological aside. I have heard that the average person catches something like 3 colds a year, thus  on average one every 17 weeks. By the time we are home, this trip will have been 3 1/2 weeks long, so with two couples we are talking about 14 person-weeks (4 x 3.5) of travel. Since 14 is close to 17 it becomes highly probable that one of the travelers will catch a cold, which in such continuous close quarters makes it pretty much inevitable that the other three will catch it from the first, which is exactly what happened. All of which is a quantitative way of asserting that we were pretty much doomed from the start, virologically speaking.

Our plan was to catch a 3:30 train out of Monterossa and visit one of the other towns, but we mistakenly boarded an express train, which we hadn’t even known existed and whose conductor roundly berated us since our day passes were not valid. It took us straight back to our starting point in La Spezia.  The trains run quite regularly and so we could at that point simply have boarded a local train and gone back to one of the towns. But everyone was tired, so we took our train schedule confusion as a sign from heaven that we should simply call it a day and relax back at the villa.

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You Want a Pisa Me?

(Our final destination and current venue is the city of La Spezia, adjacent to Cinque Terre. Alas, the wifi in our otherwise beautiful villa is not working, so I am typing this offline and will broadcast when I can. But I may not have the opportunity to transfer my photos, so these posts may be like the good old days of email, text-only journaling. My apologies for being insufficiently multimedia for these final posts.)

We left Lucca yesterday morning, enjoying the sight of a massive running and bicycle race that seems to occupy the entire city outside the central walls. Happily traffic management for the event was good and we did not get tangled up in what could have been a traffic nightmare, and we got our of town with difficulty. Our first stop was Lucca’s better known cousin Pisa, home of the universally familiar Leaning Tower. We parked our car in the surprisingly empty parking lot adjacent to the grand square that is home to the tower, and were immediately accosted by one of the countless African vendors offering tchotchkes at every tourist venues. 

These vendors, by the way, have terrible lives, basically imported like cattle from various African countries; they are crammed in large numbers into small flats and pretty much sent out onto the streets with the day’s inventory of selfie sticks, crappy wooden sculptures, and whatever else is selling this season. We can only assume that this is somehow a better life than what they had back home. In any case, this particular vendor kindly informed us that the lot was free on Sunday, and further offered to watch our car if we would buy a six-pack of Kleenex from him for 2 euros. Seemed like a good deal, so we did.

Pretty much every likely tourist destination in Pisa is contained in the one square that includes a museum, the iconic tower, the cathedral (Duomo), and the associated baptistry — a squat cylinder with an large enormously ornate dome, whose interior is famous for its acoustics.  The Duomo is beautiful, though as you are herded through it, assembly-line style with the rest of the crowd, your opportunity to enjoy it is limited. It is enormous, dominated by endlessly high walls culminating in a glorious reticulated gold ceiling that really looks like it might be a bit of architecture imported from Heaven.

But the big draw, of course, is the tower. And of course it is some kind of universal cultural trope that onsey must be photographed by one’s friends at an angle that makes it look like you are holding up the tower with your hands. We didn’t participate in that particular ritual, but it’s pretty hysterical to watch the enormous number of people who do (and there are a lot of tourists hanging around that square). I entertained myself photographing other people doing this; when viewed from the side, a crowd of tourists engaging in is particular ritual looks like some weird Tai Chi class, everyone standing with knees bent, arms out to the side, palms facing outward. I’ll post some pictures of this if the opportunity arises, but for now you can use your imagination.

The tower leans by about 5 degrees, which is a lot. Construction was started in the mid-12th century and was halted after the first three tiers were built because someone spoke up and said, “Hey, isn’t this thing supposed to be pointing straight up?” Turns out the underlying soil is too sandy and compressible. The structure then sat idle for the better part of a century before construction resumed, this time under the auspices of an architect who rather ambitiously figured that he could correct the error by making the columns longer on the downward side of the tilt and thus angle the upper tiers upward again. The result is that the tower is shaped oddly like a banana.

Now the problem, of course, is that since the center of gravity is offset from the center of the base, the Leaning Banana is not at all stable, and the tilt has increased over the heads. Things reached a crisis point about 25 years ago when the total amount of the tilt reached 4.6 meters (about 15 ft), which is perilously close to the point at which the whole thing would topple over. Which would be a great and irreplaceable cultural tragedy, but man, think what incredible security camera footage that would have made.

Anyway, the situation was sufficiently dire that the tower was closed to tourists and an immense, complicated, and expensive engineering effort undertaken to stabilize the underpinnings and remediate some of the tilt. It thus came to pass that a complex arrangement of excavations and counterweights and such was installed, and the tilt successfully reduced to 4 meters (13 ft) and the tower reopened to tourists. (And by the way, now that I think of it, it is apocryphal that Galileo dropped two balls of differing weights off the top to demonstrate the mass-independence of gravity. Though he did do a lot of his other experiments around here.)

It would be cool to climb the tower of course, but two things prevented us: (1) Admission is strictly timed, and our first window of availability was 2 1/2 hours hence, longer than we were willing to wait; and (2) neither our knees nor our our lungs were enthusiastic about ascending a 293-step stone spiral staircase. So we contented ourselves with gawking — it is a wonderfully worthwhile sight, after all — and moved on.

By the time we left, the square had gotten very noticeably more crowded and it is not hard to imagine the place being a total tourist madhouse come summertime; if you are going to visit, this is definitely the right time of year. We returned to the car, the formerly empty parking lot now completely full, tipped our Kleenex vendor another euro (he was indeed right by our car) and headed on our way.

La Spezia sits at the northern crest of the arch-shaped Bay of Poets, so named because Lord Byron supposedly swam across its two-mile width. At the eastern foot of the bay is the seaside resort of Lerici, overseen by an imposing, ominous fortress on a hillside. Mirroring Lerici on the western foot of the bay its sister village of Porto Venere, dominated by its imposing ominous fortress on a hillside. There is a ferry connecting the two.

We spent a couple of hours in Lerici, strolling on the promenade overlooking the beach, along rows of bright pastel houses and stores nestled picturesquely into the cliff wall facing the sea, and through a multitude of vendor stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, food, and beach stuff. The water is green, clear, and cold. There were some lifeguards on a training exercise and a few folks sunbathing on the beach, but no one in the water. (As I said, I’ll post photos when I can, but for now you can use your imagination. It was gorgeous.)

We checked into to our flat in La Spezia at about 4:30, a beautiful apartment with 10′ ceilings occupying a floor of a villa overlooking the city, and surrounded by an elaborate garden. It sits on a very steep, very narrow road that is the source of our principal problem: parking. (I have had my first car problem, scraping the front right fender against a fence while trying to park close enough to the right  allow another car to pass. I’m glad I bought the full insurance.)

Today we are heading to Cinque Terre for some heavy duty scenic views, possibly the last and best of the trip. I’ll be taking a lot of photos which, eventually, you will even get to see…

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Looking at Lucca: Up Against the Wall

Yesterday was something of a lost day as we discovered that May Day – the European equivalent of Labor Day, squared, when pretty much everything is closed – is a really lousy day to drive on the Autostrade. It is not only commerce that grinds to a halt: highway traffic grinds to a halt as well as everyone hits the road for the holiday weekend. That proved to be bad news for us, as we had gotten a late start and basically blew the rest of the day on what ought to have been a two hour drive from Modena to Lucca.

A word about driving in Italy. A couple of our friends reacted in horror at the prospect of our driving in Italy at all, doubly so since we had made clear our intention of using the Autostrade. This is rather overwrought. For one thing, Italian drivers are no more aggressive than Washington DC area drivers. (This is admittedly a weak statement, like declaring that a PCP-crazed honey badger is no more aggressive than a rabid mountain lion. But the point is that we are used to it.) In addition, Italian transportation infrastructure is quite good. The Autostrada is efficient and well-maintained, though it struggles to handle the volume of holiday traffic. Especially since the authorities ramped up electronic enforcement a few years ago, drivers are pretty good about adhering to the 130 kph (80 mph) speed limit. In the cities, streets are often narrow but the lane signage is good and our GPS easily keeps us out of navigational trouble. So driving has really been quite easy. (That said, it helps that I have Alice in the passenger seat as a full-time navigator so that I do not have to divert my attention from the road to the map display.)

My only real gripe with Italian roads is roundabouts. Generally speaking I have no issues with roundabouts, but Italian road engineers seem to worship them. If you are driving in a city or suburban area you can count on traveling not more than about 500 ft between roundabouts, to the point that it starts to feel like you are on some kind of grand scale go-kart track.

After enduring a series of lengthy backups on the Autostrade – the longest being a good 10 miles, although the word “good” hardly applies – we arrived in Lucca at about 5:00pm and after some casting about eventually located and checked into our flat. Although well-organized and reasonably equipped, it could well serve as some kind of living module on the Space Station, compact to just short of cramped. (The kitchen is by actual measurement 9’ x 4 ½’ in size.) But it’s clean and reasonably comfortable and suits are purposes. Most importantly, it is very close to the heart of Lucca, the old walled city.

We love Italian food – after 2 ½ weeks here, we’d better – but it was impossible to overlook the temptation of an actual Chinese restaurant just down the street from the flat. Called New Hong Kong, it could pass pretty easily as a garden variety Chinese restaurant in any American town. It was perfectly good and a welcome change of pace.

Lucca is not as nearly well known as its famous neighbor Pisa, only 12 miles away. But it is a real gem, an ancient settlement dating back to the Etruscans in about 700 BC. The Romans took it over about 500 years later. Although the city as a whole is home to about 90,000 people, the real attraction is the walled center, a very compact oval-shaped area about 2 ½ miles in circumference. The wall is fully intact in part because of its relatively recent construction; most of it dates from the early 17th century. It’s about 30 feet high and you can stroll atop it around the entire perimeter of the city.

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And if you do take that stroll along the ramparts, as we did, you get a number of nice views back into the town.

Lucca-18It was a drizzly morning, and we entered the city through one of about 8 gates, our entrance portal in this case lined with vendors since today was market day. You can see the archway at the right of the photo.

Lucca-03A lot of the vendor stall were a little rough-and-tumble, the outdoor equivalent of a dollar store, as this image correctly suggests:

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Lucca’s “local boy makes good” story is Giacomo Puccini, the guy who wrote Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. His house is of course a museum. Outside of that, the town — remember, we’re talking about an area roughly one mile by half a mile in size — is crammed with something like 100 churches and a large number of palazzos. We poked our noses into a number of the former and toured around one of the largest and most elaborate of the latter, the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly owned by a German sculpture collector and physician. It is graced by a formal statuary garden (Athena, Hermes, all your favorites) that includes a very large number of lemon trees, every one of which seemed to be bearing fruit today. The guy must have really loved drinking whiskey sours.

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When life hands you a palazzo, grow lemons.

As befitting its age, the streets of old Lucca are narrow with tiled stone surfaces and punctuated by large squares, the latter usually lined by restaurants and shops. The side streets offer tiny grocery stores, wine shops, bakeries, and people on bikes shopping at all of the above.

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Lucca-22We spent most of the day wandering around the city, variously on and off the wall, breaking for lunch (and of course gelato), looking up at bell towers, and making brief forays into churches of varying ages, elaborateness of decor, and general medieval creepiness. (One had the fully dressed mummified body of some saint or other on display. Great for terrifying your children into following the proper spiritual path.)

There is also a small — very small — botanical garden, which we pretty much exhausted in about 25 minutes, thereby closing out our exploration of the city.

Tomorrow we move on to La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre hiking area on the coast. We’ll pass thorough Pisa along the way, so expect a photo of you-know-what in my next post. However, I caution you in advance that there will be no, repeat no, cutesy forced-perspective photos of one or another of us seemingly holding up the leaning tower.  My photography snobbery does extend at least that far.

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