Archive for September, 2008

September 21st 2008
Cinque Terre

Posted under Italy

Cinque Terre is the stuff of dreams – five colorful villages, each with a unique character, built into a craggy cliffside on the edge of the Ligurian Sea. Cinque Terre has been designated a national park, which includes a protected marine area. Cars and motorcycles are prohibited from the villages – pedestrian traffic is carried between villages via an efficient train system. Add to that miles of cliffside walking trails, nearly vertical terraced rock faces cultivated with vineyards and olive groves, and stretches of pebble beach along the glittering blue Ligurian and you have a little slice of Heaven!

On a gorgeous sunny day, we pulled into the designated parking lot just outside the village of Manarola and wandered down the hill into town. The town spread as much vertically as horizontally; its weathered facades painted in dusty reds, yellows, sea greens and whites with green shutters and striped awnings. Small boats lined the streets; accordion players entertained café patrons at cozy tables with sea views; locals tanned themselves on sun-warmed boulders and swam in tiny coves; and Italian grandmothers leaned out of second story windows, watching it all.

Next, we walked a scenic, one-kilometer trail, called Lovers Lane, between Manarola and the easternmost village of Riomaggiore, browsed around town for a while at the focaccerias and ceramic shops, and snapped countless shots of the photogenic villagescape before hopping a train to the westernmost village of Monterosso. Monterosso has the longest stretch of beach of all five villages and the ocean was beckoning us for a swim. Of the utmost importance, however, was finding Focacceria Enoteca Antonia which reportedly served fifteen kinds of focaccia from scratch. Our stomachs were rumbling and our mouths watering before we reached the doorway just across from the beach. All four varieties of piping hot, generously topped focaccia were unbelievably delicious, making it hard to refrain from stuffing ourselves silly. After that, I felt wholeheartedly that my Cinque Terre experience was complete.

Natalie and I walked down to the beach and tantalized our tootsies in the gentle waves. Unfortunately, our swimsuits were in the car in Manarola and I must admit that I was tempted to strip down to my skivvies and dive in. The water was cool and refreshing and, flashing back to blissful dips in Amalfi, I was overcome with a mad craving for that enlivening shock of the ocean enveloping the whole of my skin. The sensation of freedom and weightlessness that comes with ocean swimming is like an awakening of the spirit. The beach at Monterosso was so delightful that we never made it into town. We just sat on a wall, staring across the Ligurian until it was time to go.

Leaving Cinque Terre was like losing touch with a good friend. You find happiness in other things but every now and then, when your mind stops spinning with the day’s distractions, your friend’s face flashes through your mind and warms you with fond memories. I hope someday to return to Cinque Terre, to wander the colorful streets of Manarola, to swim in the sea at Monterosso, and to explore the villages that we missed this time. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the quiet moments when my mind is free to swim with happy memories of a very special place.


September 21st 2008
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Posted under Italy

Every country has an Eiffel Tower – a sight that simply must be seen, even if it is out of your way. In the States, we have the Statue of Liberty; India has the Taj; Kenya the Serengeti and China the Great Wall. In Italy, you must see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

We set out early from Florence and rolled into Pisa by midmorning. The tour groups were already out in force and we followed an Asian herd from the parking lot to the magnificent Piazza dei Miracoli. Most people don’t know that the Piazza dei Miracoli is one of the loveliest in Europe with a manicured green lawn and two stunning Romanesque buildings in addition to the Leaning Tower: the Baptistry and the Cathedral. The entire picture is simply dazzling.

The Leaning Tower, which was designed as a bell tower for the Cathedral, began to lean even before it was completed. Shifting soil is the most widely suspected cause. In 1998, the ever-increasing lean was halted to 4.1 meters and successfully reinforced.

We made a slow lap around the piazza, snapping the requisite cheesy photos. I recall thinking that the view must be equally magnificent at night but what the Piazza dei Miracoli is missing are the outdoor cafés that surround every other piazza in Italy. The piazza would be a gorgeous venue for a moonlit cocktail but, sadly, there is not a single café in the square, just lines of tacky souvenir carts pushing Pisa shirts, Pisa hats, Pisa calendars, key chains and lamps. So instead of concluding our visit with a deliciously overpriced lunch in view of the Leaning Tower, we stopped off at McDonalds – old faithful – on our way out of town.

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September 19th 2008

Posted under Italy

We had barely just arrived in Florence and were already off to the Galleria dell’Accademia (Do not pass “Go”; Do not collect $200) to feast our eyes on David’s aesthetically pleasing, classically small penis. Michelangelo’s David is the world’s most famous sculpture and, as we stood in line for the gallery – full of many priceless works of art – the David was all we could talk about. Once inside, I half-expected a Louvre-like experience where everyone makes a mad dash for the Mona Lisa, passing long halls of brilliant masterpieces at a speedwalker’s pace, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover a reasonable level of restraint among my fellow art lovers. This collective civilized behavior resulted in a relaxed ambience which allowed everyone to enjoy the art-filled rooms leading to the David.

David, standing 5.16 meters tall in pearly white marble, bathed in perfect soft light, muscles tensed, with a mane like Adonis, is a vision of jaw-dropping perfection of the male form. I had seen countless photos of him and still he was more beautiful than I imagined. He is so striking that you cannot take your eyes off him; you can only stare at him in total awe. There were rooms of oil paintings surrounding him but I could not concentrate on them – I kept coming back to David. Soon I gave up on the idea of seeing anything else and took a seat, letting my mind envelope David completely. He was so magnificent that it almost hurt to look at him because you knew that eventually you would have to leave him. I realize that it sounds silly, this instantaneous obsession with an exquisitely carved piece of marble, but it wasn’t just me and it wasn’t just the women who fell in love at first sight. The men were equally smitten with David’s beauty and unabashed in expressing their admiration, which is likely due to his nonthreatening, aesthetically pleasing, classically small penis. In any case, we were all heartbroken when the time came for our inevitable departure and, even as I write this now, I feel the pain of loss and the hope that I will see him again.

After the David, our next days in Florence were packed with beautiful churches, museums and palaces, divided by walks through the beguiling streets of Florence. The Uffizi Gallery, containing the private art collection of Florence’s famous Medici family, exhibited ancient Greek statues, gorgeous iconography, dazzling masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio and an entire room devoted to Botticelli paintings. The Bargello, an art museum housed in a medieval prison, displayed Renaissance sculptures by Donatello, Michelangelo and Luca della Robbia as well as an impressive special exhibition of iconography. We never tire of seeing galleries like these, overflowing with priceless works of art that you read about in books and never imagine standing in front of the real thing.

We attended a decidedly uninspiring Catholic mass at the Duomo, mostly because it happened to be starting when we arrived and because we thought the service would be beautiful. It was the Duomo after all! Disappointingly, there was no music and the sermon was so dry and monotone that we struggled to stay awake. We said our prayers and silently missed our wonderful church in Fort Worth, where our dear Father Michael Stearns delivered moving and memorable sermons that made us eagerly anticipate Sunday services.

The 19th century façade of the Duomo was a stunning work of pink, green and white marble but the interior was surprisingly sparsely decorated save for the magnificent frescoed dome. Most of the cathedrals that have had such ornate faces have had equally ornate interiors, often to the point of overkill. Inside the Duomo, the absence of religious art makes the cavernous interior seem strangely incomplete. We preferred the interior of the Basilica di Santa Croce, which contained the tombs of three famous Florentines: Machiavelli, Galileo and Michelangelo. The tombs were marked by beautifully sculpted and painted monuments.

The best thing about Florence however, besides David, is just being in Florence. The neighborhoods are beautiful to walk through with their colorful weathered buildings and pretty café-lined piazzas. A walk along the Arno River that runs through the city affords some of the best views, especially around the Ponte Vecchio – a picturesque bridge with small jewelry shops lining both sides all the way across. But you haven’t seen Florence until you’ve seen it from Piazzale Michelangelo on one of the many hills that surround the city. Only from an elevated position can you take in the sea of red rooftops punctuated by the Duomo and the dreamy Arno, its small bridges reflecting on the lazy river’s glassy surface. We spent over an hour just looking across the cityscape.

Florence is a magical city, a Romantic city, a city rightly obsessed with its own colorful, artistic history. Florence is a place to get lost and a place to be found. The spirit of Michelangelo lives on in every piazza, on every street corner, and in the heart of every visitor who beholds the David.

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September 18th 2008

Posted under Italy

After a schizophrenic four days of trying to see everything in Rome, we picked up a car and set out early for Tuscany. Having had difficulty navigating the cities in France, we had asked Natty to buy the Italy software for her Garmin and bring it along. With our frenetic pace in Rome, we had failed to MapQuest the driving directions as a backup and instead put our faith in the Garmin. Big mistake! For whatever reason, it had major difficulty picking up the satellites in Rome and also outside the cities. To complicate matters, our accommodation was located in the countryside about 15 kms outside of Siena on winding, nondescript gravel roads. In short, what should have been a two hour drive took more like five hours, with each of us cursing the Garmin at regular intervals. The saving grace for our frayed nerves was the stunning view of the Tuscan hills in every direction.

We finally reached Castello di Selvole on a gorgeous hilltop vineyard property and were greeted warmly by the receptionist who gave us recommendations, excellent maps and the key to an adorable stone house with magnificent views. The place was so perfect that I squealed at the sight of it. It had a thoughtfully stocked kitchen, a large elevated patio, and a pool. The house had so much warmth and character that we all felt right at home.

With a few hours of daylight remaining, we hopped back into the car and drove to Siena to buy groceries and wine for a sunset dinner on our patio. Enveloped in the patchwork quilt of the vibrant wine country, we sipped our wine, talked quietly over steaming plates of pasta, and let the chaos of the day melt away.

The next morning, we lingered over breakfast on the patio. I had made a colossal error by setting out a bowl of milk for the two vineyard wild cats that had appeared on our doorstep the first night, and now the little bastards were relentless – stalking and hissing at us. We spent the next two days chasing them off with brooms. Our plan was to spend the first half of the day tooling around Siena and the second half wine tasting in Chianti.

Siena flourished in the medieval period, as evidenced by its enduring Gothic architecture and narrow stone streets. Auto traffic has been banished from the town center, making for pleasant pedestrian walkways and a frustrating time for tourists with cars. We managed to find our way into one of the parking garages just inside the medieval city walls and walked uphill into the historic town center – the sloping, bricked Piazza del Campo. Il Campo, as it is also called, is Siena’s social center. The extraordinarily large piazza, surrounded by museums, shops and ubiquitous outdoor cafés, is a pleasant spot for a rest, despite the throngs of tourists (mostly Americans) who pour into it like herds of cattle. Italy is overflowing with tourists and we have encountered more American tourists in Italy than anywhere else in the world.

We had vowed to refrain from Siena’s tempting museums to save our stamina for Florence. However, when we saw the magnificent façade of Siena’s Gothic Cathedral with its intricate designs in white pink and green polychrome marble, we had to go inside. The interior was striking with thick black-and-white striped columns reaching up to the tall vaulted ceilings. Natalie aptly described it as the “Beetlejuice Church”, its stripes resembling old style prison garb and seeming eerily comical. The cathedral’s most notable feature was the marble inlaid floor with a series of historical and Biblical scenes: chilling depictions of religious persecution – beheadings, knights tearing babies from their pleading mothers’ grasps. The cathedral visit was an intensely satisfying experience and well worth the price of admission.

Pleased with our Siena endeavors, we set off for wine tasting, heading toward the tiny town of Radda in Chianti with a full itinerary of wineries that I had hastily mapped in advance. The drive through Tuscany’s rolling golden hills, punctuated with vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees, and old stone villas enchanted us all. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to change, adding the colors of fall to the already gorgeous palate of red, green and gold.

The Chianti region, also called Chiantishire, is divided into two sub regions – Chianti Sienese, and Chianti Florentine. Within the region are pretty little stone towns and surrounding the towns are the wineries. As it was already midafternoon, we chose a handful of wineries solely for their geographical location; we knew nothing about any of them. After our frustrating wine tasting experience in Bordeaux, I sent up a silent prayer that the Tuscan winemakers would be a bit more hospitable than the French. The Big Man delivered.

At our first stop, a winery called Vignavecchia, we had a fabulous tasting with a burly, friendly steward. He poured us a generous selection of whites and reds, all of which we loved. We bought a bottle of his Chianti Classico and went merrily on our way, off to a fantastic start! Chianti Classico is the region’s premium wine. Within the Chianti region, a sub-region has been cut out and designated as Chianti Classico. In order for a wine to be labeled as Chianti Classico, it must be made of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes from within the Chianti Classico sub-region.

Next, we pulled into a property called Monteraponi down a winding gravel road. We approached to find a cluster of old stone buildings that all looked dark and closed. We poked around for a few moments before heading for the car. I had seen a man and woman lounging on a secluded sunken patio but they didn’t say anything when we’d first passed by and I took the place for a private family property but, as we passed by again, the woman climbed halfway up the stairs and with a funny smile, said “Vino?” “Yes, please!” we replied and she yelled down the stairs to her husband – a middle-aged man relaxing in his wife-beater on a Saturday afternoon – to go get the wine. He slowly made a move while she gestured us toward the cluster of buildings. There were quaint houses that looked like guest cottages and we wandered around the property, taking photos while we waited for the wine to appear. Eventually the husband re-surfaced, carrying a single wine bottle. Aaron and I exchanged suspicious glances. The man handed off the bottle to his wife – a hefty, slightly masculine woman with short dark hair and a kind face – who led us into a small office at the property entrance. Neither of them spoke a word of English which we found both awkward and charmingly authentic.

Inside the office, the woman set out three glasses on a desktop, opened a bottle of wine slowly and poured. It is always a bit nerve-racking at the tiny wineries where you’re the only ones there and the family owners conduct a tasting just for you. You know you’ll end up buying a bottle out of obligation and you pray that it’s halfway decent and not too expensive. We each took a sip and smiles spread across our faces. It was fabulous! We happily bought a bottle and then one more of her more expensive vintage which she offered to open for us to taste but we declined, not wanting her to open another for just one taste. It turned out to be the best bottle in our booty from Chianti – and it was a big booty! In a matter of a few hours, we had filled the back seat of our crappy blue Fiat Punto with wine bottles from four different wineries and were on our way back to our wonderful house at Castello di Selvole. It was a damp, chilly night so we cooked another decadent Italian feast and devoured it with our bottle Monteraponi Chianti Classico Riserva “Il Campitello” D.O.C.G. in the warmth of our cozy kitchen.

Our visit to Siena, our stay in the old stone house in the country, and our wine tasting in Chianti were among the best experiences that Aaron and I have had on our entire trip. We were bowled over by the beauty of Tuscany’s picturesque hills and valleys and by the amazing Chianti wines. Our wine horizons have once again been expanded to include some of the juiciest reds our California Cab-soaked palates have ever tasted. For the gorgeous scenery, the magnificent wine, and the happy, warm, welcoming hospitality of the Chianti winemakers, I say to Tuscany, “Cheers!” It was simply a pleasure!

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September 15th 2008
When In Rome

Posted under Italy

Between servings of pizza, pasta, caprese salad, and gelato, we managed to fit in a respectable number of sights: Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo de’Fiori, Colosseum, Circo Massimo, Villa Borghese, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Time Elevator, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione, and the neighborhood of Trastavere. We started early both mornings and pounded the pavement until dinner. Like Paris, Barcelona and New York, Rome has so much to see and often the less significant stops are the most rewarding. In the interest of preserving my sanity, as we are already in Tuscany now, I will elaborate only on a few sights that especially moved me.

The Pantheon, dating back to AD 120, is ancient Rome’s best-preserved building. The name Pantheon derives from the Greek words pan (all) and theos (god); the original temple was dedicated to the classical Gods but the Pantheon has been a Christian church for most of its nearly 2000 years in existence. (Lonely Planet, Feb 2008)

From the outside, it looks nothing like a church and much like a government building. Only after stepping inside do you begin to appreciate its architectural significance. The Pantheon is topped by the largest stone vault ever built – a perfect semisphere, meaning that the diameter (43.4 meters) of the dome is exactly equal to the height. There are no windows. The only natural light enters through a hole at the top of the dome and through the entrance when the tall bronze doors are open. The interior furnishings and embellishment are muted in comparison to other Christian buildings in Rome and elsewhere, with only a few marble sculptures and sparse iconography. Even the altar is decorated simply. The multi-hued stone and the vastness of the dome speak for the Pantheon’s magnificent beauty.

Later in the day, we were happily surprised to discover the breadth of significant artwork at the Borghese Museum & Gallery. It is so popular that you must call ahead to reserve a space in one of several two-hour time slots and, once you enter at the appointed time, you can only stay for two hours. The collection was amassed by Cardinal Scipione Borghese and was later purchased by the Italian state. It includes works by Bernini, Raphael, Botticelli, and Caravaggio to name a few. It is on this visit to Rome that Bernini has transitioned in our minds from a name in a book to one of the most gifted sculptors of all time. I can now identify a Bernini sculpture from across the room, standing out among others for the flawless texture of skin and the motion of his subjects. The most breathtaking example of this in the Borghese Gallery is Bernini’s Rape of Persephone (1621-22) in which Pluto discovers the virginal Persephone alone in a clearing and is so taken with her beauty that he grabs her and whisks her away despite her violent protests. Bernini’s sculpture captures the passionate struggle on the young Persephone’s face and her powerlessness against the virile Pluto. Most amazing, however, is how Bernini carved Pluto’s hand clutching Persephone’s supple young thigh, capturing the perfect indent in her thigh as it yields to his grasp. We lingered around the work, smiling as we watched others gasp and point at the same discovery. Two hours was much too little for the number of masterpieces on display here. We rushed by many works at which I would have liked to linger and if the curator’s aim in imposing such time limits is to leave you wanting more, then he has certainly achieved it.

Rome is famous for its dreamy piazzas – open squares tucked into the city, often with a central fountain, coming alive on moonlit evenings. The Trevi Fountain – Rome’s most famous – is the focal point of one such piazza. “The baroque bonanza was designed by Nicola Salvi in 1732 and depicts Neptune’s chariot being led by Tritons with sea horses – one wild, one docile – representing the various moods of the sea.” (Lonely Planet, Feb 2008) The piazza was full of people snapping photos, enjoying cones of gelato, or just staring at the Trevi’s mesmerizing dance in its pool of aquamarine.

But all of the piazzas are better at night when the soft golden light of the streetlamps take over for the sun and the pretty squares are filled with poshly dressed revelers and couples out for a quiet stroll. The fountains are alight and candles flicker from restaurant patios. We chose the Trastavere neighborhood to have a few drinks out one evening and found ourselves in the exact piazza that I’ve just described. We settled down at a table on the edge of the action and watched the goings on over glasses of big, juicy Cabernet.

On the way home that night, our trio got separated. Italian public buses have a decidedly inconvenient system whereby you cannot pay your fare on the bus itself but rather you must buy bus tickets either in the metro station or in the corner tobacco shops, neither of which seems ever to be near the bus stop. We had however, earlier come across one bus with a machine that took coins for tickets. When our bus number pulled up to our stop, Aaron stepped on to see if that particular bus had a similar coin machine since we didn’t have tickets. The bus driver closed the doors behind him and would not let him off the bus even after he explained the situation. We waved to each other through the window as the bus pulled away. Natty and I hopped onto the next bus with our stop on its itinerary. About five minutes later, our bus stopped, far from our final destination, and everyone disembarked, including the driver. We got off with no idea where we were and no map because Aaron had it in his pocket when he was stolen by the first bus. After some initial confusion, we put our heads together and found our way home. Aaron arrived ten minutes after us, having had a similar experience. It had been a long wonderful night with a little adventure for dessert, and we were all happy to be home.

The final stop that I want to mention is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione – a small, nondescript 17th century church near Piazza Barberini. What makes it one of the most fascinating stops on the tourist trail is the crypt which is decorated with the bones of 4,000 departed monks. We knew going in what we were going to see and still our jaws dropped at the sight of it. The crypt consists of five or six small rooms with dirt floors, each with an elaborate and mesmerizing display. Bones are used to make chandeliers, picture frames, flower patterns and a clock, among many other designs. Some of the skeletons are posed intact, dressed in the brown monks’ robes; some of the faces still have traces of flesh which has yet to decompose. The displays are eerily fascinating. Four thousand monks yield a lot of bones! Stacks of hundreds of femurs, tibias and fibulas line the walls in artistic forms. Hip bones become angel wings under smiling skulls. To see a sense of humor in the designs is both shocking and refreshing. In the last room along the hall, the collective epitaph of the monks is written on a small board: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”

When in Rome, eat inordinate amounts of pizza, pasta, and gelato; walk until the bottoms of your feet feel bruised and you are asleep before your head hits the pillow.

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