A Short Trip to Trani

Although we had planned an extended trip down the east coast of Italy last week, we postponed the journey because of unseasonably cold weather.  Instead, we took a shorter trip to the town of Trani, about 3 1/2 hours south of here, in the province of Puglia.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, has a history quite different than that of the Marche, the region where we are now living.  After the fall of Rome, Puglia came under the influence of the Byzantines.  The Normans began their conquest of southern Italy in Puglia in the 11th C, and ruled much of modern Italy south of Rome from their capital in Palermo for several centuries.  The city’s greatest prosperity came in the 13th C, under the 50-year reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who had inherited southern Italy from his mother (the last of the Sicilian Normans) and much of central Italy from his grandfather (Frederick Barbarossa) — the closest Italy came to being a united country between the fall of ancient Rome and modern times.

Trani’s cathedral, Romanesque but with unusual pointed arches, has a dramatic location right on the sea front.  During the Norman period, the town was an embarkation point for the Crusades, and you can still see ruins of churches run by the Templars and other orders of warrior monks.

DSC03231The city also had a thriving Jewish community.  The Normans, and Frederick II, were religiously tolerant, unusual for Christian leaders of this era, and in the 13th C, the city had four operating synagogues.  Today only one is operational — the Jews were expelled in the 15th C by the Spanish and have only recently returned.  But another former synagogue has been converted into a small museum documenting the history of the local Jewish community.

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After the death of Frederick II, the region was plunged into civil war, and eventually the Spanish took over, ruling the area from Naples until the reunification of Italy in the 19th Century.  Many of the Romanesque churches in Trani have small bell towers that look a lot like those on Spanish missions in California.  Perhaps there is a connection.

Frederick II built a series of fortresses to guard his domain, including one, the Castello Svevo, right next to Trani’s cathedral.   But the most famous fortress was Castel del Monte, built on a commanding hill a few miles away.  Its architecture is very distinction — it’s the shape of an octagon with eight octagonal towers.  Much has been written about the supposed mystic significance of the castle’s octagonal shape, with its interior inscribed triangles — Frederick was known to be interested in astrology.  But nobody really knows why the castle was built as an octagon, any more than future historians will be able to discern the rationale for the 5-sided shape of another famous polyhedron, outside Washington, D.C.

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The castle has recently been restored, after centuries of neglect, and you can now see those few of the magnificent marble columns in the interior that remain.  The rest were poached, over the years, for other building projects.

The day we were there, the castle had gotten a dusting of snow the night before — an event so unexpected this far south that the maintenance staff didn’t even have shovels to clear the stairs.  Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted by the time we left.  They tell me it will get warmer eventually.

We also visited the nearby site of the Battle of Cannae.  In 216 BC, during what was later called the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians under Hannibal (sans elephants) encircled and defeated a much larger Roman force, one of the greatest tactical feats in ancient military history.  For Game of Thrones fans, this battle was the inspiration for the climactic battle between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton near the end of Season 6.

A recently-opened indoor-outdoor museum on the site shows you not just the battle site, but Neolithic pottery, remains of the medieval wall, and a surprisingly large excavation of the Roman town.  Although it doesn’t look like much, Hannibal probably scouted out the Roman positions from the outcropping pictured below.  The Fascists placed a monument on the spot; it too is fading into history.

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On the day of our visit, a middle school from the nearby town of Barletta had been deputized by FAI (the local equivalent of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) to act as guides for the museum.  The kids wore badges identifying each one as a “cicerone”(the wonderful Italian word for an informed guide, after Cicero).  Each of the kids had been assigned one of the points of interest which they then explained to visitors.  One young man, who spoke pretty good English, decided to adopt us for the afternoon and translated each speech for us in turn.  We were blown away by the amount of work these kids had obviously put into this project.  I guess if you’re going to study history, you might as well start with the stuff that’s on your doorstep.

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No summary of a trip to Puglia can be complete without a discussion of the food.  Puglia is one of the provinces where the local food most closely approximates what we now call the “Mediterranean diet” — olive oil, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lots of seafood.  The local cheese, burrata, a kind of cream-enriched mozarella, is particularly delicious.

Trani is not a wealthy place, but to walk into a seafood restaurant is to be presented with an array of fish and shellfish that many far more expensive restaurants in London, Paris and Rome might be envious of.  All of the fish was local, some so particular to this area that they don’t even have English names.  One, called “occhiata,” seems to have been named after its enormous eyes.  I also got to enjoy fresh “ricci” (sea urchin) again, which I had been introduced to on my first trip to this part of Italy, nearly 50 years ago.

We plan to a longer trip to Puglia again next month, or whenever it gets warm.  Maybe we’ll even have some beach pictures!

For your amusement, here are some gargolyes.

 

 

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Venice in the Snow

One of the benefits of living in Italy is that you can visit popular tourist sites off-season.  Venice is one of the most challenging destinations, because it really doesn’t have much of an off-season.  “Go during Quaresima (Lent),” we were told — after Carnevale and before Easter.  Most years, folks said, it was warm enough to sit outside in early March.

 

Not this year.  Not only was it about 20 degrees colder than normal during our visit, it even snowed the first day — a rare event in Venice.   The snow was pretty to look at, but with all the cobblestones and polished marble, walking around was like negotiating an ice-skating rink without skates.  Fortunately, the bridges had handrails.  And the city employed a small army of workers spreading salt on the sidewalks — hard on leather shoes, but better than falling.  The temperature rose a bit after Thursday, although it still wasn’t really warm, and by Sunday all vestiges of the snow were gone.

Since we had been to Venice before, we concentrated on the art in smaller churches, which typically you don’t have time to see on a short visit.  Venice was a prosperous city for several centuries, and each parish wanted to build its own magnificent church, complete with what seemed like foundries full of marble,  and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists.  And what artists they were — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo….  I am particularly fond of one work by Tintoretto which imagines Mary as a young girl, climbing an impossibly steep flight of stairs to an imaginary Temple.

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My personal favorites, though, were the works of Giovanni Bellini.  His special skill was making two-dimensional paintings seem three-dimensional — an effect that’s hard to see even in photographs.  I’m sure he used some tricks to attain this effect — he often put figures in niches with stairs leading up to them, which creates a geometric illusion.  But other painters did that, too, and their paintings are still flat.  I guess that was his particular genius — and one reason why his paintings are considered nearly impossible to forge.

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Also during our trip, we experienced two “acqua alta” (high water) events.  Acqua alta is a tidal event, enhanced by certain wind patterns most prevalent in winter.  It is not primarily a function of the rain, although winter is the city’s rainiest season.

Because it is a tidal event, the high water doesn’t just lap over the embankments the way you think it might.  In Piazza San Marco, which is low-lying and frequently floods, the water seeps up from generally unobserved drainage channels in the middle of the piazza, and the far side, furthest from the Grand Canal, floods first.

The first night, we got caught out on the wrong side of Piazza San Marco coming back from dinner, and since we weren’t wearing hip waders we had to make a big detour to get back to our hotel.  The next evening, we stayed on the right side of the Piazza, but we were able to observe water all the way to the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale.  It was a strange effect, almost as though the city were sinking under the water in slow-motion — which, in a way, it is.

The poor weather did have some compensations.  You could visit popular sites like the cathedral of San Marco and the Accademia without waiting on line.  The stores were all open and uncrowded — Venice has some of the best shopping in Italy, even if like us you’re mostly window-shopping.  Hotels offer deep discounts (although some smaller ones close) and it was easy to get restaurant reservations.  Best of all, people had time to talk to you, which rarely happens in summer.  All things being equal, though, I think we’ll wait for better weather next time.

 

Adapting to Italy

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It hardly seems possible, but we’ve been here nearly 5 months now.  During that time, we’ve managed to:

  • Convert our extended-stay visa into a renewable “permesso di soggiorno”
  • Register as residents of the community, and get a “carta d’identita” (photo ID)
  • Establish a local bank account
  • Buy a (used) car
  • Enroll in the national health care system

Most of these tasks had to be done in a particular order — you needed a permesso before you could register as a resident, and you needed a residency card before you could buy a car or enroll in the national health care system.  They required interacting with the much-maligned Italian bureaucracy (typically referred to as “purgatory on earth,” even by Italians).  We had some frustrations, but for the most part things went much better than we had anticipate.  It helped immeasurably that we were often accompanied by a local resident to do many of these things, which gave us a certain credibility.  Personal relationships count for a lot in Italy.

I was amazed, though, at the amount of paperwork required for even the simplest transactions.  If you want to buy a car in the US, you go to the dealer, pick out your car, haggle a bit, plop down your credit card and drive off the lot.  In Italy, buying a car required three trips.  On the first trip, we identified the car we wanted to buy, which as it turned out was at a different location and had to be delivered. On the second trip, we inspected and test drove the car, and signed a purchase contract.  After the second visit, we paid for the car by wire transfer (they don’t take credit cards, and checks aren’t used here), and purchased insurance.  (Wire transfers have to be done physically at the bank if they’re over €5000, and only in the morning.)  Only then, on the third visit, were we able to take possession of the car.

Getting into the medical care system, on the other hand, was a lot easier than in the US.  Italy allows immigrants with long-term residency permits to buy into the national health system.  Once you’ve paid your money, you go to the appropriate office, select a primary care doctor from a list, and you are enrolled.  We were able to see our primary care doctor within a couple of days.  Arranging specialist consultations takes a bit longer (1-3 months); but we’ve been told that urgent needs can be addressed more quickly.  So far, it’s a success story.

Overall, we’ve been pleased with how easy it has been to adapt here.  As I’ve noted before, people in Ascoli are remarkably welcoming, and are very forgiving of our rudimentary Italian.  In addition to socializing with the tiny expat community here, we’ve made some local friends, who have been very helpful in suggesting things to do.  We consider ourselves very fortunate.

 

In search of Lorenzo

(guest post by Ted)

Yesterday, we saddled up our tiny Clio and drove 70 km north to Recanati, in the province of Macerata.   Recanati is an old and tidy little town of red brick sitting on top of a ridge-line.  When we emerged from the underground car-park into the market square, the political partisans were in full display glad-handing, this being election season.  However, unlike Ascoli where Lega Nord, Forza Italia, CasaPound, and Fratelli d’Italia hold sway, here the partisans carry the red banners of the left.  I suspect that nothing like the Saturnalia-like festival of misrule that was Carnevale in Ascoli takes place here (see Linda’s previous post).

However, we were in Recanati to see the works of Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557), a lesser-known renaissance master who was active in the Marche during the first half of the 16th Century.  Tucked off into a palazzo at one end of town was a very small but marvelous exhibit of Lotto’s painting.

We first saw this portrait of a young man who is ill:

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It’s remarkable to think that this work was completed in 1527; there is such deep psychological insight present as the young man ponders the impermanence of life or perhaps a lost love (note the fallen rose petals).  The painting contains further symbology in that the young man has turned his back on worldly pleasures (hunting horn, lute) in favor of a virtuous, but perhaps passion-less, life (e..g, book, lizard in the light).

Turning the corner, there was something completely different:

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This is not your father’s polittico.  It’s in the late medieval style, but the characterizations and settings are fully Renaissance. Check out the saints in the bottom left.  They’re straight out of central casting for Goodfellows.

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And the painter manages to convey more life and power through the dead body of Jesus than in any other of the images:

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Finally, there was this surprising Annunciazione:

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I don’t know about you, but it looks to me like Mary wants no part of this undertaking.  The presence of the cat is also quite mysterious, and some of the other objects in the painting are interesting.  For example, note the hour-glass and the a prayer shawl (a tallit?) hanging in the background.  In Lotto’s Annunciazione, the angel — a spiritual being — casts a shadow.

That was pretty much it.  Only a few works, but well worth it.

After lunch, we hopped over to the next village, the shrine town of Loreto where there was another exhibit including Lotto’s works.  Sadly, they did not allow photos.  So I’ll conclude with the works of Lotto’s predecessors Luca Signorelli (1445-1523) and Melozzo da Forli (1448-1494) from the Loreto basilica.  The work of the latter is particularly surprising and forward-looking given its three dimensional effects.

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Life is a Carnevale

We’ve just enjoyed our first Carnevale season in Ascoli.  Carnevale is the same holiday that is known as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only here it is celebrated for nearly a week, beginning with a children’s carnival on the preceding Thursday.  We were told by locals that the festival has deep roots here, dating perhaps to Roman times.  It was traditionally a time when common people could vent their frustration at the powerful.

Ascoli is not really set up for parades, so during Carnevale, the town’s two main squares are venues for all the action.  The Piazza del Popolo is decorated with hanging chandeliers, installed on wires by small “cherry-picker” type vehicles.  (The town puts up different, and equally elaborate, decorations for Christmas.  They must have vast sheds where these items are kept during the off-season.)  It’s traditional during Carnevale to throw paper streamers and confetti — there was so much strewn on the marble pavement that it almost looked like snow.

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Carnevale is a time for dressing up, for adults as well as children.  Grown men walk around unselfconsciously in full-length rabbit or tiger suits.  Some of the costumes are really elaborate — one young woman wore an historically accurate 18th C outfit, complete with ruffles and hat.

DSC02952Many of the costumes were merely whimsical.  There were toddlers dressed as Musketeers, complete with tiny beards.  Fred Flintstone made an appearance in his Stone Age vehicle, as did Dorothy Gale and her friends from Oz.

In additional to individual costumes, there were moving floats and little booths set up for skits — an open-air theatrical tradition that must date back to the Middle Ages.  In keeping with the festival’s roots, many of these had a political flavor, although they mostly dealt with local issues, like the complicated new recycling system or the location of the new hospital.  There was an “American dance troupe,” wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots, dancing to the music of the Irish Rovers.  (What could be more American?)

20180211_154156My favorite exhibit, though, was the “synchronized swimming team,” men unjustly denied their chance at Olympic glory by gender discrimination.

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A favorite butt of jokes during this Carnevale was the new recycling system, which requires that folks but out various types of differentiated rifiuiti on each night.  You can imagine that this level of regulation is a hard sell.

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There were also special pastries sold only during Carnevale.  Some of them have strange names, like chestnut ravioli, which are ravioli-shaped pastries filled with chestnut paste.  These days, you can get these pastry “ravioli” with chocolate or cream filling, too.  They were excellent, but like most of the pastries here, a small amount goes a long way.

There was live music most evenings in the Piazza during Carnevale week.  And, while lots of beer and wine was being sold, nobody was obviously drunk.  In Italy, people manage to have a good time without getting blitzed, making them fun for “children of all ages.”

But of course, everyone must have a mask:

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Revolutionary Art

One of the nice things about living in Italy is the ability to take short trips within the country to look at art. The Italian train network provides easy access to all the country’s major cities.  In addition to all the art that’s normally here, Italy gets its fair share of art exhibits on tour from other countries.

Accordingly, we spent a few days recently in Bologna looking at art.  As it happened, there were three separate exhibits of 20th C art going on at once.  Although the art came from different countries and covered somewhat different periods, they spoke to each other in unexpected ways.

The most interesting exhibit covered Russian art of the early 20th C, from just before to just after the 1917 Revolution.  The art was full of the exuberance of new-found freedom and hope for a better future, after the overthrow of the sclerotic dominion of the Czars. You can see this joy particularly in the painting by Marc Chagall, as Russian Jews were now free of the significant restrictions on where they could live and work imposed by the Czars.  Many Russian artists also experimented with abstract forms, as if the definition of art itself was up for review.

Alas, the new hope was not to be – within 15 years, the wild and free art of the revolution had been replaced by leaden depictions of Soviet workers listening intently to Stalin’s speeches.  Stalin might have come to power in the aftermath of a revolution.  But once installed as autocratic leader, Stalin had no use for revolutionary art.  The art of the revolution was hidden away, not seen again in Russia for 50 years, and little seen outside Russia even now, for example the disturbing work of Pavel Filonov seen below.

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The exhibit included a short propaganda film done in the 1930s, illustrating what were said to be the improvements in the life of the poor under Communist rule.  The film included the irresistible image of a well-fed Lenin sitting on a similarly overstuffed chair, stroking a long-haired white cat sitting in his lap.  You knew those movie guys had to get their ideas from somewhere, didn’t you?

A second exhibit, Dadaism and Surrealism, might have been subtitled, “Revolutionary Art in Countries Without Revolutions.”  Dadaism didn’t speak to me — I remain unconvinced that a bicycle wheel on a pedestal is “art.”  But the Surrealists, who used the newly popular theories of Sigmund Freud to experiment with different visual perspectives, were truly fascinating.  I was particularly taken by the Andre Masson’s depiction of Goethe as a  multi-dimensional naturalist, and Rene Magritte’s depiction of castles in the sky which literally turns this dream landscape on its head.

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Masson: Goethe or the metamorphosis of plants

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Magritte: The Castle of the Pyrenees

The third exhibit collected works by three Mexican artists, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, all of whom were famous for depicting post-revolutionary Mexico, sometimes with a jaundiced eye.

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David Alfaro Siqueiros: Christ Destroys the Cross

The exhibit itself has an interesting back story.  It was originally supposed to open in Santiago, Chile, on September 13, 1973.  Two days before the exhibit was to open, Salvador Allende was overthrown.  The new leader of the country, Augusto Pinochet, was another autocrat who had no interest in revolutionary art (particularly when two of them were card-carrying Communists).  The art was packed up and sent back to Mexico.  The “suspended exhibit,” as it became known, finally opened in Chile in 2015, and is now in Bologna on the first stop of a European tour.

Of course, not all revolutionary art in Bologna was created in the 20th C.  The church of St. Paul has an altarpiece believed to be by Francesco Borromini, the king of the trick perspective.

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Borromini Altar

The church of St. James has a chapel with a surprisingly vivid 15th C depiction of the Apocalypse.  The cathedral has a strikingly original visual representation by Giovanni da Modena of the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with unforgettable depictions of the denizens of Dante’s Inferno.  If you’ve seen that Tom Hanks movie, you’ve seen these frescoes.

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Bentivoglio Chapel

Bologna is also home to the tomb of St. Dominic — a Spaniard who spent most of his life in France and for some reason died in Italy.  The Dominican tomb has the obligatory depiction of “God’s dogs” (domini canes to the punny medievals ).  The tomb monument also has a couple of statues executed by a very young Michelangelo, who even then couldn’t resist depicting ethereal angels with lots of musculature.

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Early Michelangelo

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Domini canes

And of course, there was the food….

Christmas in Ascoli Piceno

A lot of you have asked for pictures along with my infrequent updates.  Here are a few photos from the town we are living in now, Ascoli Piceno.

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Piazza del Popolo

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… with Christmas decorations and antique market

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… with schoolkids celebrating St. Cecilia’s Day in song.

The Piazza del Popolo, the “people’s piazza” fittingly has no traffic.  The pavement is in travertine marble, and it is considered one of the prettiest squares in Europe.

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Piazza Arringo, with Cattedrale in the rear … market day

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… with the local Bersaglieri band.

The city’s second main square, the Piazza Arringo, fronts the cathedral of St. Emidio (who guards Ascoli from earthquakes).  The name Arringo either means “herring” or “harangue” depending on who you talk to.  Each of these main squares is used for all sorts of public events, from weekly markets to impromptu music concerts.

Perhaps because the city was Papal territory, it has a number of other churches, some with fascinating architectural details.

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The symbol of the city is the woodpecker (Picus in Latin).  According to legend, a group of Italic tribesman crossed the Apennines (slantwise, no doubt) to escape the Romans, following a woodpecker, and stopped where the woodpecker did.  These days, live woodpeckers are hard to spot, but the symbol appears in various spots around the city.

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As in many Italian towns, Christmas decorations pop up everywhere, sometimes in unexpected places.

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The city sits between two rivers, the Tronto and the Castellano, and a number of bridges cross the town, allowing for some lovely views.  And, of course, the Apennine mountains are not far away.

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Ascoli, looking over the Tronto

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…. with snowy wintertime Apennines in the distance

The city has a jewel box of a theater, which offers musical and theatrical performances.  Here we are waiting for La Boheme.

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Teatro Ventidio Basso

We’re about 45 minutes from the Adriatic here.  Along the coast there are a number of small towns which are quite peaceful in the off-season.

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Cupra Marittima

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Grottamare

One of the nice things about being in Ascoli is the ability to take trips to other parts of Italy without getting on a plane.  Here we are in Montefalco (just over the mountains in Umbria).  The 15th C fresco of St. Jerome taming the lion is by Benozzo Gozzoli.  As you can see, Jerome’s colleagues are not particularly amused.

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Gozzoli fresco of St. Jerome

Where’s Linda?

It’s been two months now since we moved to Italy, and I haven’t written a thing.  Some of you must be wondering if I fell off the face of the earth.

Almost.

About a week after I got here, I broke my wrist falling UP a stone staircase. I missed my footing and fell forward, with my whole body weight falling on top of my right wrist.  A trip to the ER confirmed a fracture.  Unlucky.

Fortunately, medical care is good here.  ER services (broadly defined to include full treatment of my broken bone) are free here, regardless of insurance status or residency.  After nearly 8 weeks in two different casts, my arm is finally liberated.  My wrist is still stiff, which I understand is completely normal and is being addressed by follow-up physical therapy (the first medical service I am actually paying for, but not very much). I’ve never broken a bone before, and the healing process has been frustratingly slow. I may be young at heart, but my bones know how old I am.  But at least I’m typing with two hands now.

Other than that, things have been going very well here.  We have rented a nice apartment in what was once an 18th C palazzo, subsequently divided into 9 individual apartments.  Most of the other residents own their apartments, and seem to have been here for a while, which means we are living in a small community instead of an impersonal apartment building.  We feel very fortunate.

Setting up phone and Internet service was a lot easier than we thought it would be.  Cell phone services operate by short-term contract here, in amounts that sound cheap but, once you total up all the additional service charges, is not as good a deal as it looks. Internet service is very good.  We even have streaming TV, which gives us access to international Netflix and Amazon offerings.  Just as well, since Italian network TV really isn’t very good.

We even managed to get a bank account, which means we finally have a debit card that will work in European toll machines and automated gas stations.

Food is good everywhere in Italy, but we seem to have stumbled into a hidden food paradise here.  Ascoli is in the heavily agricultural Marche region, and is just across the river from the Abruzzo region, which is even more agricultural.  The local farmer’s market runs 6 days a week, with plenty of green vegetables even as winter approaches.  The vendors also bring whatever other products they happen to have available – eggs, olives and olive oil, dried beans – all at amazingly cheap prices. Most of the meat found in stores is also locally raised.  Farm-to-table never stopped being a reality here.  It’s hyper-local, though — you can get oranges and tomatoes from Sicily at the local supermarket, but if you want asparagus in November, you’re out of luck.

Ascoli itself is a charming town, with two squares, Piazza Arringo (limited vehicle traffic) and Piazza del Popolo (no vehicles) which act as virtual living rooms for the whole community.  There’s always something going on, whether it’s the monthly antiquarian market, an impromptu school concert, or a seasonal ice skating rink.  And it has a surprising amount of cultural activity for a town of 50,000 – chamber music concerts, theater, even opera – which we’re taking full advantage of.

Not that many people speak English here, but they are very accepting of my high-school Italian.  Each of us is doing some online learning, and a bilingual friend comes over once in a while to work on conversation.  The Italian government offers free language instruction for new residents, but we are waiting for Ted to catch up a bit so that we can both be in the same class.

We chose Ascoli in part because you can live here without a car.  Everything you need for daily life is accessible on foot or by public transportation (bus or train).  However, we soon discovered that if you wanted to visit wineries, explore one of the many hill towns in the area, or even cross the mountains into Tuscany or Umbria, it was very helpful to have a car.  We rented one for a month and enjoyed the experience – we will probably seek to buy a car of our own after the New Year.

That’s all for now – I hope it won’t be too long until the next update.

Experimental Journey (Japan)

When Ted and I started planning our third trip to Japan, we decided we wanted to experiment a bit and see some places that were off the beaten track.  To find likely destinations, we scoured a number of guidebooks and brochures for National Geographic tours (somehow we’re on their list, even though we’ve never taken any of their tours). We came up with a list of spots that are well known to Japanese visitors, although they have relatively few American tourists.

Getting to these places was no problem – it is pretty straightforward to make hotel reservations online, and there is a wonderful English language website with detailed information on the entire Japanese rail systems.   We were a little nervous about getting around, since there are not many English speakers outside the major cities and we speak no Japanese.  We are happy to report that things turned out well.  Even in the most remote locations, there was usually someone who could at least understand English.  Smiles, hand gestures, and the surprisingly good Google Translate app helped a lot.

We began our trip in Osaka, which is about 30 minutes by express train from Kansai Airport.  We stayed at the new Marriott Hotel, located on the upper floors of a 57-story building which, somewhat surprisingly, is the tallest building, not only in Osaka, but in all of Japan.

Haruka Tower (our hotel) from Tennoji Park

Haruka Tower (w/ Marriott hotel) from Tennoji Park

Although Osaka was Japan’s political capital for a brief period in the 8th Century, for most of its history it has been the country’s commercial capital.  It’s not a particularly beautiful city, but it has a freewheeling spirit that we quite enjoyed.  And it has some wonderful restaurants.  One night, we ate at a “robatayaki,” an informal restaurant where everyone sits around a large grill and shouts out order to the chef.  There was no English menu, but the chef and several of the other customers quickly took us in hand and showed us how to order (an experience that we would have several more times during the trip).

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Robatayaki

We also had a wonderful dinner at Michelin 3-starred Fujiya 1935, where the chef made outstanding European-style dishes with Japanese products (local fish with chrysanthemum beurre blanc; venison with persimmon) and even offered Japanese-made wine (made from grapes of American origin).  This restaurant has wonderful food and presentation without being overly formal or pretentious.  The chef is descended from the ancient and noble Fujiwara family whose original title was established in the 7th C by the Emperor Tenji.

Since we had already seen Osaka Castle on a prior trip, we visited the city’s other superstar attraction – the Aquarium.  The design of the facility seems to have been based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium – not a bad thing – and it showcased fish and marine mammals from all over the Pacific Rim, from tropical fish to penguins.  Quite enjoyable.

We did a day trip to Mount Koya, which is a famous temple complex about 30 miles south of Osaka.  Getting there was a trip in itself, requiring train, funicular and bus.  The first temples were built here in the 7th C by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, the man who introduced Buddhism to Japan.  The temple complex was huge – even with half a day, we couldn’t see everything, and we never even got to the famous national cemetery.   It is apparently possible to spend an overnight visit at the temple even as an individual traveler – something to think about for next time.

Konpon Daito (Great Stupa)

Koyasan: The Great Stupa

After Osaka, we spent a few days in Kyoto, which we have visited a few times before but can’t get enough of.  We were particularly happy to return to our home-away-from-home at the Hotel Mume.  Serendipitously, we arrived at the height of the city’s fall foliage season, which attracts visitors from all over Japan.

Eikando pond

Eikando Temple Gardens

In addition to visiting several temples which had impressed us on previous visits, we were also able to take a day trip to the Miho Museum.  The Miho, a private museum located about an hour outside of Kyoto, focuses on “cross-cultural” art from the Asian Silk Road.  Who knew, for example, that there was such a thing as Greco-Persian art?  The museum also features rotating special exhibits, which at the time of our visit featured a 17th C Japanese potter (surprisingly modern) and some outstandingly opulent Mughal jewelry.

Miho museum entrance

Miho Museum

The museum building itself, designed by I.M. Pei, was intended to evoke “Peach Blossom Land”, a mythical city in a traditional Chinese folktale.  We were familiar with this folk tale, as it happens, due to a recent production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a cross-cultural mission of its own.  Cosmic karma!

We had some wonderful food in Kyoto.    One afternoon, we wandered into the Japanese equivalent of a truck stop restaurant, which served ramen noodles in a wondrous homemade pork broth for the astonishing price of $6.  Most of the time, however, the owner of the small hotel where we were staying helped us make restaurant reservations.  We ate at a number of wonderful restaurants, including one featuring freshly-made tofu served 7 different ways (we may never eat store-bought tofu again).

On our last evening, we ate at an upscale izakaya restaurant that served a mixture of kaiseki dishes and sushi, a place so small (only 8 seats) that we would never have gotten in, let alone found, without our hotelier acting as intermediary.  The chef spoke little English, but he had a large encyclopedia of Japanese fish with English translations.  And that’s how we learned that one of the excellent dishes we had just sampled was fugu (pufferfish) – which must be carefully prepared because parts of the fish contain a deadly neurotoxin.  Obviously, we survived.

Sato-san

Chef Sato-san

After Kyoto, we traveled to Miyajima, a small island famous for its 11th C Shinto temple.  At low tide, you can walk in and around the temple’s enormous orange “Torii Gate”; at high tide, the gate seems to be floating in the water.

On Miyajima, we also visited the Daisho-in Temple complex, which is also connected to Kobo Daishi (the monk who founded Mount Koya.  The temples here have an amazingly quirky collection of statues, including a chipmunk dressed as a mendicant friar (a “chip-monk”?) and others sporting Blues-Brothers-style hats and sunglasses.  There were also several renditions of the “Seven Happy Deities,” short guys with droopy hats representing various occupations.  It was easy to imagine them “hi-ho’ing” off to work each morning.

A "chip-monk"?

Chip-monk?

In Miyajima we stayed at a ryokan.  A ryokan is a Japanese inn, often small and family-run, which offers traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast and a traditional Japanese bath.  Although many ryokans offer Western-style beds, this was a more traditional one where you slept on futons (which the hotelier helpfully put out for us each evening and put away for us each morning).  One of the nice things about ryokans is that inside the hotel you can change into a yukata (long robe) which is a surprisingly comfortable way to enjoy a nice dinner.

After Miyajima, we spent several days on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.  In Takamatsu, we visited the Ritsurin-Koen garden, which is famous all over Japan and features both Japanese and Western-style gardens.  When we arrived at the entrance, we were asked if we wanted an English guide.  We thought that meant an English-language brochure, but in fact the “guide” was an older woman, a park volunteer, who spoke surprisingly good English.  We have encountered such guides before in Japan – they are invariably well informed and are true volunteers (they neither ask for nor expect tips).

With our wonderful English-speaking guide

Linda and Ritsurin-Koen Guide

Our guide explained to us many particular features of the Japanese garden which would have been difficult to understand on our own. While Western gardens are often closed systems, Japanese gardens will often incorporate features outside the formal confines of the garden, for example, placing a small lake where it could reflect the greenery on a nearby mountainside – a practice known as “borrowed scenery.”

From Takamatsu, we took a day trip to Tokushima, a middle-sized city on the coast which is famous for various handcrafts, including indigo dying and puppet-making.  Tokushima is most famous within Japan, however, for its annual Awa Odori dance festival.  No one knows exactly how this dance tradition got started, but they’ve been dancing in the streets here for centuries, as evidenced by 18th C woodcuts, and a series of increasingly desperate regulations during the Shogun era, such as  “no dance parties shall last more than three days” and (my favorite) “dancing samurai must leave their swords at home.”

One of the dancers thanked us for coming

With Awa-Odori Dancer

These days, there’s an annual Awa Odori festival in August, which draws over a million visitors – some to watch, some to dance, many to  do both.  It’s the closest thing Japan has to Mardi Gras.  The rest of the year, you can take in an Awa Odori show at the local dance center – audience participation is definitely encouraged.

We took another day trip to the Iya Valley, one of the most scenically beautiful (and isolated) valleys in all of Japan.  You can get a sense of how remote it was by the fact that trains to one of the few towns in the area ran only once an hour, and many had only a single car.  (By comparison, bullet trains from Kyoto to Tokyo run ever 15-20 minutes, and typically have 16 cars.)  Although the guidebooks cheerfully suggested renting a car, we booked a 5-hour taxi tour, which turned out to be a good decision, given the left-hand-side-of-the-road driving, the paucity of English-language signs, and the fact that in many places the road was only one lane wide.  Although we had been told that the driver would speak only Japanese, in fact they found us a driver with serviceable English.  She had grown up in the area and had many stories to tell.

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Iya Valley w/ Rainbow

Although the Iya Valley has been populated for centuries, remote mountainous areas of Japan like these have been losing population for decades.  In the tiny village of Nagoro, a local artist, who had spent most of her life in Osaka, returned in retirement to her native village to find that the population had shrunk from nearly 300 to less than 30.  In response, she created a series of life-sized mannequins to represent the people who had gone.  This place is sometimes called the “Scarecrow Village,” but in fact the mannequins are incredibly life-like – women gardening in fields that are no longer cultivated, children sitting on benches in schools that are no longer operating, people waiting at the bus stop for busses that no longer run.  It’s a fascinating, but poignant, site.

Nagoro, "Scarecrow Village" -- bus stop

Scarecrow Village Bus Stop

After Takamatsu, we spent a day on the island of Naoshima, a short ferry ride away.  We stayed at Benesse House, an unusual hotel located inside a modern art museum.  Most of the artists were unfamiliar to us, but we did enjoy the outdoor sculpture park.  Just up the hill from our hotel was the Chichu Museum, which includes five Monet “water lily” paintings in a specially designed room with neither furniture nor barriers.  You could view the paintings from a variety of vantage points – close enough to see the brushstrokes, or far enough way that the “impressionist” daubings looked highly detailed.

 

Public art, Miyanoura

Naoshima public art

The Chichu also had an outdoor garden which, I remarked, was designed to evoke Monet’s garden at Giverny.  The guy watering the lawn, overhearing me, said in perfect English,  “Oh – you’ve been to Giverny – what do you think?”  We spent some time discussing the differences between this garden and the one in France.  He told us about how, unlike Monet, whose house was situate on a river, he had to bring the water down from over the nearby mountain to the garden site.  At that point, we realized that the man we were talking to wasn’t just the guy watering the lawn.

We spent the last two days of our trip in ryokans in smaller towns.  The first was in Kurashiki, a middle-sized Japanese city that, unusually, has retained its historic 17th C center. The ryokan is in fact a converted Kura, a merchant’s warehouse.  Like many ryokans, this place offered a very nice communal bath.  The hotel staff, aware of the fact that American couples liked to bathe together (not the typical practice in Japan), offered us an hour all to ourselves.  In this ryokan, dinner was served course-by-course in your room, which was very nice but tested our ability to sit on the floor for long periods.  Breakfast (not served in-room) is an even more complicated affair, involving perhaps a dozen different food items, including fish-heads grilled at table.

Canal and foliage in rain

Kurashiki Bikan District (canal)

For our final night, we went to Tomonoura, a small fishing village with a highly-recommended ryokan.  In this hotel, each room had its own cedar bath on the terrace, with slats cleverly arranged so that you could see out but no one could see in.  Here dinner was served in the restaurant downstairs, which Ted found more comfortable (although you can still eat in your robe).  There isn’t much to do in Tomonoura other than putter around looking at the many temples, which was fine with us.  We wandered into one small place and encountered a caretaker in the garden.  She gave us a leaf, and showed us how to inscribe a wish, in any language, and leave it at the temple – all in all, a fitting end to our trip.

Tomonoura from hillside temple

Tomonoura Village

More photos here.

Florence for the Holidays

We left home on the day after Christmas, and stayed in Florence through January 6, the traditional end of the Italian holiday season.

Traveling in the winter, we avoided the large packaged tour groups and boisterous bands of students that you see in Florence much of the rest of the year. But the city was hardly uncrowded. It was filled with Italian and other European tourists, including many families, which was very festive.

Presepio

A presepio

Holiday decorations were remarkably eclectic. In Florence, as in the US, the best holiday decorations were on the main shopping streets. Christmas trees, born in northern Europe, have been enthusiastically adopted as Christmas decorations here, at least in public spaces; Santa Claus was somewhat less in evidence. Many of the city’s churches had a “presepio,” or Christmas crèche. Many of these nativity scenes included, in addition to the religious figures, depictions of early modern Italian villages, complete with country people in traditional dress working at traditional occupations – a window into a vanished way of life. The city also ran evening “sound and light” show on a number of public buildings, allowing local artists to juxtapose modern art against Renaissance structures.

We rented a lovely apartment in the Piazza Santo Spirito, in the Oltrarno district, around the corner from where we had stayed during our previous visit. We love this part of Florence – it is no more than 15-20 minutes’ walk from most of the city’s attractions, yet somehow it feels like a real neighborhood, with many small markets. The Santo Spirito farmer’s market runs all year, and in Italy you get green vegetables, even in winter. All of this was great for us, since we love to cook our own meals, even while we were on vacation.

Our apartment lacked an espresso machine, so after breakfast we topped off our meal with a cappuccino from the café downstairs. The first day, they greeted us with some surprise – you don’t see many Americans in this neighborhood in the winter. The second day, we got a nod of recognition. By the third day, they were making our cappuccini as soon as we walked in the door. The open-heartedness of small interactions like these is one of the many small pleasures of travelling in Italy.

Having spent a month in Florence in 2012, we had already seen most of the “major-league” attractions.  But that didn’t stop us from seeing many of them again. With art of this quality, every time you see it, you notice something new.

There seems to have been a rule change since the last time we were in Italy, and you are now allowed to take photographs inside museums almost everywhere. (Maybe they have finally figured out that digital photography doesn’t harm the art. Or maybe, since everyone has a cell phone now, they just gave up.)

So you may notice that our pictures include a lot of art this time.

A particularly affecting moment for me was in the Uffizi, in what I always think of as the “Niobe” room (not its official name). According to the Greek myth, Niobe, the mother of

Niobe and her (last) daughter

Niobe and her Daughter

14 children, was heard to boast that she had more children than Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana. The gods were not amused and killed her children one by one. After 13 of her children had been killed, Niobe begged the gods to spare her last child. But the Greeks didn’t do Hollywood endings. This room has been closed for many years now, after it was severely damaged by a bomb in the early 1990s. In fact, it was the first time I had been in this room since my very first visit to the museum, in 1970. Sometimes it blows me away that I have been going to Italy for nearly half a century now.

During this trip, we also had a chance to visit the so-called “Vasari corridor.” The corridor was a private passageway built for Cosimo de Medici, which allowed him to travel from the city’s administrative offices in the Palazzo Vecchio to his home in the Palazzo Pitti across

the river without ever going down to the street. The walls are decorated with pictures of the Medici family, as well as self-portraits of a number of artists, from the 14th century Gaddi family to Carl Larson and Marc Chagall. The Corridor also offers a unique perspective from the “second-story” of the Ponte Vecchio.

We also visited a special traveling art exhibit, Divina Bellezza, which included a lot of 19th and 20th C art (new to us) and some unusual religious-themed paintings by Van Gogh and Chagall.

New high-speed trains have reduced the travel time from Florence to Rome from 2 – 2 ½ hours each way to 80 minutes, making a day trip possible. A bit maxed out on 14th and 15th C art, we decided to binge on Bernini and Caravaggio. This is possible to do, with some planning; Rome is a huge city, but most of the historic sites (except, perhaps, the Vatican) are easily reachable by foot from the train station.

Bernini: Ecstasy of Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa in Ecstasy

Santa Teresa onlookers

And her onlookers

We saw Bernini’a Santa Teresa in Ecstasy, perhaps one of the most emotionally evocative sculptures of a woman ever created. The saint is supposed to be ecstatic over her mystical union with God; many observers have made the connection with a more earthly form of union. At the Church of Santa Maria del Populo, we saw two works by Caravaggio – the Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul.

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)

Bernini: Apollo and Daphne (1622-25)

The Villla Borghese is the real mother lode, though. Cardinal Scipione Borghese was one of Caravaggio’s most important patrons, and the museum has an incredible 6 Caravaggios, including an evocative Bacchus and a wonderful depiction of baby Jesus learning to walk (criticized at the time because mother and child looked too much like real people – which is of course what makes it so interesting today). The museum also contains two of Bernini’s most incredible works – Poseidon and Proserpine (where you can see the indentations made by Poseidon’s fingers on Proserpine’s tender thigh), and Apollo and Daphne (where you can see the nymph literally changing into a tree – creating a sense of movement in marble statue that is truly magical).

On our last full day in Florence, we were lucky enough to see the Cavalcata dei Magi, or the parade of the Three Kings. January 6, or the Feast of the Three Kings, was the traditional gift-giving day in Italy, and it is still a public holiday. In this parade, the King’s costumes, and those of their principal retainers were based on those shown in a well-known fresco by Gozzoli, which lives in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The parade also included dozens of others dressed up in every variety of medieval and Renaissance garb – archers and falconers (with real birds), Crusaders and pikemen, villagers and nobles; even Jon Snow was represented. A number of participants played traditional instruments, or performed traditional flag-throwing routines. It was quite a happening. The costumes were amazingly well done, especially since most of them seem to have been made by hand (I’ve never seen a costume shop in Italy).

We spent the last day and a half in Milan, a working city that has some incredible art as well as some of the best seafood in Italy (Milan is not that close to the water, but it’s where all the money is). We saw Leonardo’s Last Supper, which after a spectacular restoration is now almost visible as a pale reflection of its original self. Leonardo used an experimental technique for this fresco which worked out poorly – it was starting to noticeably deteriorate only a few decades after it was painted, and only modern techniques were able to prevent it from disappearing completely.

DaVinci Cenacolo: The Apostles' feet were lost beyond hope of restoration.

DaVinci Cenacolo: The Apostles’ feet were lost beyond hope of restoration.

At the suggestion of our hotel, we visited a museum 19th and 20th C Italian art. After spending so much time with Renaissance art, the inspiration for this more contemporary art was easy to see.

Milan also has one of the only Gothic cathedrals in Italy, and one of the only churches anywhere where you can walk on the roof – even for those prone to vertigo, a remarkable experience.

Winter travel is not for everyone. We were pretty lucky with the weather – although Italy in December is cooler and rainier than northern California, there was no heavy rain, and no snow. The advantages are that it’s easier to do things on the fly – we were able to book a reservation at the Villa Borghese which frequently sells out weeks ahead in the summer, only three days in advance. So give it a try!

More photos here.