Posts Tagged With: world war

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

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

Vaporetto to the Ghetto, and Moving on from Venice

Venice-etal-1We had grand plans for Sunday the 19th involving Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, but we overslept and, though we ended up walking arund the ghetto and visiting the Jewish Museum, we had some time constraints that prevented us from taking the tour of the ghetto’s five synagogues. (Photo taken in the staircase inside the museum.)

Venice’s Jewish ghetto has the dubious distinction of being the original Jewish Ghetto. The Jewish population was isolated in 1516 by order of the Doge (it was either that or leave the city altogether), and they were moved to an undesirable area near the edge of the city at the site of a foundry. The Italian word for “foundry” is geto, pronounced like “jetto”, but later German immigrants pronounced it with a hard G since the German language has no soft G. And so the modern word was born.  It’s a remarkably small space, basically a single square with two narrow streets radiating off it. Two of the synagogues are located on the square and the other three on the side streets.

Although World War II-era Pope Pius XII has come in for considerable criticism for what many see as a laissez faire attitude towards the Nazis, Italy did better than most occupied countries when it came to protecting their Jews. They managed to ship off almost none at all until 1943, when Germany invaded and occupied northern Italy after Mussolini figured out who was actually going to win the war and switched sides. It was in late 1943 that the deportations started: 8000 Jews were shipped off to concentration camps, and eight came back. Even so, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war.

Today, despite the presence of several kosher restaurants, the ghetto is home to approximately zero Jews and — but for the synagogues themselves — is more tourist destination than religious enclave. We toured the museum, and as we were about to leave the square I passed a young (about 30 years old) Hasid — beard, flat hat, black coat, the whole deal — who bade me “shalom“. So I “shalomed” back, and we fell into conversation. He said, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes, and I’m guessing that you are too.” He was Australian, visiting Italy for a month including the recent Passover holiday. So I said, “chag samayach” (“happy holiday” in Hebrew, to my Gentile readers), at which moment I became a marked man. He spent the next several minutes trying to inveigle me into accompanying him to the synagogue to don the tefillin, which are the leather phylacteries worn by orthodox Jews, and it’s all very complicated so just click the damn link on the word “tefillin” to get the full explanation. Suffice it to say that I had not done this since I was 13 years old and was not about to do it now, because (a) I had absolutely no memory of the required prayers; and (b) also had no memory of the appropriate details for winding the leather straps and would in all likelihood have ended up strangling myself. It would not have been a salutary experience for either of us, so I begged off.

Our traveling companions Jim and Elaine arrived from Trieste that afternoon (hence our time constraint); we had flown over with them but they started their sojourn in that city and we were now meeting up again to spend the next 2 1/2 weeks together. Our first joint stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum. The heiress was quite the force in the art world in the 1940’s — a major patron and collector — and amassed a large collection of contemporary art here in Venice. Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollack, all the biggies form that era. Her grave is on the grounds of the museum, rather oddly surrounded by the graves of her 14 “babies”. One is shocked that she had so many children — all of whom died — until a closer reading of the headstone reveals that (a) they all died between the ages of 5 and 14, and (b) they all had names like “Sir Herbert” and “King Kong”, “Peacock”, and “Cappucino”. Dogs. Lhasa apsos, to be exact. Sheesh.

The weather had improved considerably over the chilly rain we had had the previous two days; the day was sunny though the night was still brisk. It seemed like a good opportunity to take the vaporetto around to St. Mark’s Square to watch the crowd and get some night shots, e.g.:

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One of the curiosities of St. Mark’s is the “dueling orchestras”. Several of the restaurants around the square have rather formal looking outdoor quartets playing both classical music and classical-sounding versions of popular tunes from various eras, e.g., Sinatra’s “My Way”. It is a pleasantly anachronistic sight. Here’s one of them:

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We spent yesterday (Monday April 20) on a boat outing to Venice’s two most popular nearby islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass factories and galleries, but to our eyes seems to be largely coasting on its reputation. Virtually every store along its canals is a glass gallery, and they seem to fall into two broad categories: crap made in China, and genuinely beautiful incredibly expensive locally-made pieces.  Many of the latter have signs in front of the store that say “No China” so you ostensibly know that you’re getting the real deal. But since our choice seemed to come down to lousy stuff or stuff we couldn’t afford, we didn’t buy anything.

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It should be called “Floating French Fries”, but it isn’t.

A few of the stores have resident artisans whom you can watch making glass items on the spot. This was fun to watch. What was not so much fun was when I tried to take a picture of said artisan and got yelled at. “No photos!”  Jeez.  Bunch of glass-holes.

There is an interesting  museum on Murano that displays glass items from the full history of glass, from the earliest Mesopotamian pieces of about 1000 BC to hypermodern art installations like the one I photographed here. The museum was certainly the high point of Murano, but in truth it was no better and in some ways less interesting the Corning Glass Museum in upstate New York. In short, if you’re pressed for time in Venice, you can pretty safely leave Murano off your list.

Our next boat stop was the neighboring island of Burano, very small and known primarily — and for very good reason — for its colorful streets and for its lace industry. We didn’t buy any lace but the houses are insanely photogenic. Here are a few photos from various streets and alleys; the last one is the main canal and shops.

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Burano also has its own leaning tower, a bell tower at tilts at about a 5 degree angle, roughly the same as its more famous cousin in Pisa. But it’s hard to get a good close vantage point that allows the tilt to show up in photos; you see it best from far away, aboard the boat.

This was our last day in Venice, and hence our last opportunity for a gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, and yes, it may be overpriced, but c’mon, how jaded do you have to be to go to Venice for the first time and not ride in a gondola? We are experienced travelers, not jaded ones, and so after appropriate due diligence (i.e., reading some web sites to see how much it ought ot cost, how long a typical ride is, etc., we took the plunge (not literally). In case you were wondering, a “standard” ride costs 80 euros and lasts for roughly a half hour. More if you want to go longer, or if you go at night, or if you want the guy — and they are all guys, every one — to sing. The basic package was entirely adequate for our purposes. (And by the way, if you do want to the guy to sing, do not ask for “O Sole Mio”. That’s a Neapolitan song: wrong part of the country.)

Fun facts, courtesy of our gondolier Antonio: there are 500 gondoliers in Venice, all men, and many having come to the career through the family line (Antonio himself claimed to be 5th generation). They all know each other; we saw that in action since we encountered several other gondolas in some of the side canals, and the guys all chatted continuously among themselves. You have to go to Gondolier’s School to get certified. (And you damn well better study; the clearance on some of the tighter turns in the side canals was about an inch.) A gondola is 35′ long, weighs about 1200 lbs, and has six coats of paint. The Rialto Bridge restoration will take two more years. Et cetera. It was quite a lot of fun, and of course very romantic. We were satisfied, as the second of the next two pictures shows.

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And that was the end of our stay in Venice. This morning we picked up our rental car (a brand spanking new Peugeot 5008 that fits us and our luggage perfectly) and set off for Aquileia, about 60 miles to the north, a formerly-great port city during the waning days of the Roman Empire. There is little there now except for a smattering of Roman ruins and, much more impressively, a basilica whose floor is a very old Roman mosaic. Here’s a detail:

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We walked around for a while then struck out for tonight’s lodging, a B&B in the northern foothills, a gorgeous wine region whose hillsides look like, well, exactly what you think they should. I’ll try and get some photos tomorrow. We are staying at a 4-unit lodge built from what appears to be a converted farmhouse overlooking a vineyard. It’s a beautiful place in a rustic hilltop village. In fact, the only thing exciting our cynical instincts is the name of the village, which is San Pietro del Fellete, which we of course call St. Peter of Fellatio. No jokes about “thy rod and they staff”, please.

OK, if I’m writing stuff like that it must be late and I must be exhausted. So I will stop now.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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