Italy

Italy 2015: Collected Photos and Videos

After two months of intermittent photo selection and editing, heavily laden with procrastination, I have compiled our “best of” photos and videos. You can navigate the photos (and the trip itself, in a way), here:

http://www.isaacman.net/italy2015/italy2015.htm

 

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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:

Lucca-01

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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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.

 

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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.

 

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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”.

 

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