Posts Tagged With: gelato

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

Chillin’ with the Ice Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool, huh?

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

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

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

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

 

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

Knick-Knack Padua

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

scrovegni

We didn’t see this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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