Posts Tagged With: castle

Prague Slog

We walked around the city for 8 1/2 hours today, courtesy of our knowledgeable and unstoppable guide Martin, who showed us far more than I can possibly remember. So partly out of exhaustion and a desire to get to bed at a reasonable hour, I’ll let the photos do the talking today with less narrative than usual. Probably.

But first, the required dose of surrealism. You probably think this happy couple on the Charles Bridge has just been married:

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But you’d be wrong. Or more charitably, you’d be about 3/4 right. This couple is participating in a hot new trend in mainland China, in which (1) you and your spouse-to-be travel to a foreign destination with a photographer; (2) rent wedding outfits and have all your romantic wedding photos taken; (3) return to China and make a photo album to show to the family; and then, finally (4) get married in China. It’s kind of a destination pre-wedding without the guests. Or the wedding.  When China takes over the world there are a lot of things that are going to take some getting used to.

In case you’re wondering how I know all this, Martin has on occasion been hired as a photographer or a factotum to help rent the wedding outfits.

Weddings make me think of religion, so now it’s time for a good old fashioned dose of Central European antisemitism, in the form of this delightful statue, also on the Charles Bridge:

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Yes, that’s Hebrew encircling Big JC, and not just any Hebrew: it is the Kaddish, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. How did this come about? Well, the cross — minus the Hebrew — was installed on the bridge in 1659. In 1696, a local wealthy Jewish merchant, one Elias Backoffen, was convicted of dissing Christianity by having been witnessed sporting a blasphemous facial expression. (Yes, really. It was pretty hard for Jews to avoid breaking the law.) He was fined a bunch of money and the local authorities decided to put the money towards humiliating all the Jews in the vicinity — always a popular move — by decorating the crucifix with their most sacred invocation. Classy.

It took a little over 300 years of enlightenment for the city fathers to figure out that in the 21st century the current population of Jews might find this just a wee bit offensive. But by virtue of having been there all this time, the statue had acquired some perceived historical significance, and so in the year 2000 a solution, such as it was, was put in place, in the form of a plaque at the base of the statue that basically says, “Yeah, we know this is offensive, but here’s the background….”

OK, on to the pictures so I can get to bed. First, a monument to Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Next, a baroque garden — complete with white peacock — adjacent to the palace where the Czech Senate meets.

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The garden also includes this weird black melty stuff, which is an art installation called the “Dripwall”.  It is actually a sculpture designed to look like a cave, that has assorted whimsical faces hidden in it.

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Now we move up the hillside in “Castle Town” on the east side of the river, working our way towards the Prague Castle. Our first stop is the Furstenburg Gardens and its sundial, on the hillside just below the Castle.

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And now Prague Castle itself, a looming Gothic melange of architecture from about a half dozen different eras starting in the 10th century, whose centerpiece is St. Vitus Cathedral (makes you wanna dance!). First the enormous, terrifying outside:

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And now the interior of the cathedral. A lot of the stained glass is contemporary, designed in the 20th century:

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The locale affords us a view back towards the town to the east of us.

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Our last stop of the day was the highlight: the Strahov Monastery. It has a truly glorious library that includes a wonderful collection of terrestrial and celestial globes, and the whole place belongs in a Harry Potter movie. We were extremely lucky to be with Martin, who is able to get authorization to go into the library itself, as opposed to viewing it from the doorway. We had to put on soft slippers to avoid damaging the floor, but we had the place to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Here is what we saw!

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Prague 2018-297There’s even a hidden staircase behind a fake bookshelf, so you can sneak around and kill people. Or steal books. Or something.

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The library was the highlight of the day, and it was a very fine day. We’re exhausted. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain, so we will probably visit the National Gallery, which has a big photography exhibit going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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:

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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.

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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

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:

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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.

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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

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