Posts Tagged With: palazzo

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

Knick-Knack Padua

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

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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

Venice Day 3: Water from the Sky as Well as in the Canals

As you can tell by the title, today was not a good weather today: cold and rainy, and thus ideal for museum visits. My only requirement: no crucifixions.

It occurs to me that I have been slightly remiss in not showing a photo of the famous Rialto Bridge, right down the street from our flat. This was in part because you really need to be in the middle of the Grand Canal to get a good view of it, a problem that I solved today by positioning myself appropriately on the vaporetto. The other reason is that it happens to be half-covered in scaffolding due to some restoration work. So here is how it looked a few hours ago:

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Alice and I have a long history of visiting world-famous structures that are covered with scaffolding. These include the Parthenon, the Doge Palace, and now the Rialto Bridge. Everyone should be grateful to us for our contributions to preserving our world heritage: as soon as we pick a travel destination, the local authorities somehow get wind of it and say, “Quick! Rich and Alice are coming to visit! Time to start the restoration work!”

Anyway, today’s weather was not at all conducive to walking anywhere, so we bought a 3-day vaporetto pass and picked a few likely indoor attractions that we could easily reach on the water. The first of these was the Palazzo Mocenigo, known for its collection of fabrics, period costumes, and history of perfume-making. It had what were for us the additional virtues of being free (we bought city museum passes yesterday), and having no paintings of saints being hideously martyred.  The presentation was unusual and intriguing, the costumes being displayed on mannequins in slightly surrealistic 18th century settings, e.g.:

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Venice3-6Turns out that until the city started its long decline in the 18th century, Venice was the go-to place for perfumes. A lot of what we might call “perfume technology” was developed there, and it dominated the industry until the city’s cultural and economic influence began to wane and the French pretty much took over. Here’s a 17th century perfume laboratory, as well as a 21st century Alice sampling one of a couple dozen elemental fragrances (jasmine, oak moss, orange blossom, etc.) that they have out for sampling.

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Eye of newt, toe of frog…does that smell good? No? Try adding some lavender.

Our next stop was an unexpected treat, a temporary Leonardo da Vinci exhibit whose existence we were not even aware of until serendipitously seeing an ad for it (in a church, of course) yesterday. The floor space of the church was basically filled with constructions of some of Leonardo’s inventions, reconstructed from the various codices, plus explanations of some of the artistic techniques that he developed and worked with.

Venice3-9Da Vinci was quite the anatomist, as you may realize from his famous sketches of the Vitruvian Man. (The gift shop included a teeshirt of Vitruvian Homer Simpson.) He came by his knowledge via the most direct hands-on experience: dissecting corpses. In fact, among his countless achievements was comparing the hearts of a newly-deceased centenarian with that of a child and both discovering and inferring the significance of the plaque in the coronary arteries. Yep, Leonardo da Vinci discovered arteriosclerosis. The guy was beyond genius; you could make a pretty good case that he was the smartest human being ever to walk the planet.

Our final stop was the Ca’ Rezzonico, the museum of 18th century life in Venice. Or more accurately, the museum of 18th century life of very rich people in Venice. Merchants, tradesmen, the 99%…not so much. This modest abode boasts a 5,000 square foot ballroom, Murano glass chandeliers, and a ceiling fresco commemorating the marriage of one of the Rezzonico boys commissioned for the wedding. Kinda puts to shame the old baby-pictures-of-the-happy-couple-stapled-to-posterboard-on-an-easel, doesn’t it? Anyway, the Rezzonicos were sort of the Mitt Romneys of their day and the house is basically the documentation of their lavish lifestyle. The chandeliers alone (detail in photo below) pretty much set the tone of the place.

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They’ve got lots of these.

There is, however, a fair bit of interesting art including some creepily lifelike miniature Asian statuary, like this guy, about 16″ tall:

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That pretty much sums up the day….relatively modest for us. But before I close I’d like to make what we might call a “meta-blog entry”. Since I’ve started blogging our travels instead of simply emailing my daily journal to friends and family I have made contact with a number of other travel bloggers who have some excellent insights of their own and whose own blogs have provided some interesting sources of information for me. I learned about yesterday’s “17 is bad luck” factoid from http://dreamdiscoveritalia.com/, which is a very nice blog about Italian tourism. And I have become “virtual friends” with the author of the “Are We There Yet?” travel blog: https://awtytravels.wordpress.com/. Fabrizio is an Italian expat living in London who travels extensively and writes lyrical, insightful prose about his various destinations, and includes his very good photos as well. Definitely worth reading.

Off to brave the weather for dinner. We will hope for better weather tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

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

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