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).

Robata-Yaki

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.

Among the Picenes

We spent the second half of our trip in Le Marche, near Ascoli Piceno. This area takes its name from Picus — the woodpecker. Somewhere in the mists of time a group of hardy souls traversed the Apennines (remarkably rugged mountains) and followed a woodpecker who had perched on their banner.

Today, this area of the Marche is a land of steep mountains, beautiful rolling terrain, and Adriatic beaches — all within a distance of 60 miles. The landscape is dotted with a wealth of immaculate hill towns of distinctly medieval character. This is not a heavily touristed area, and the people who live here are intensely proud of their land and particularly helpful to strangers (at least in our experience). Good wine is made here too!

Ascoli Piceno

We spent 6 days in Ascoli Piceno, a town in the Marche where a friend of ours has a house.  Ascoli is the perfect Italian small city — large enough to have everything you need for urban life, small enough to get around easily.  It’s so nice, in fact that we probably should shut up about it. 

Piazza di Populi

Tolentino

While we were in Ascoli, we visited several Marche towns.  Tolentino featured churches with 14th C frescoes of astonishing quality – and hardly any tourists.  Having a good guidebook is a must here — in one church, the only evidence that there might be something interesting was a hand-lettered sign saying “affreschi” (frescoes) pointing to a side chapel that was pitch black.  Fortunately, smartphones also act as pretty good flashlights (and there was a light switch inside the chapel).

Basilica di San Nicola -- frescoes in the Cappellone showing scenes from the life of Christ (above) and the life of St. Nicholas (below)

Fermo

We also visited Fermo, a quiet little town with few tourists.  Its major attraction is the Duomo, whose interior features a trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) dome.  The Diocesan Museum next door features the chasuble of St. Thomas Becket, one of the oldest pieces of embroidery in Europe.  It is believed to have been made in Moorish Spain in 1116. St. Thomas gave the garment to his friend Presbitero, a fellow student from Bologna University, when Presbitero was made bishop of Fermo, Italy. Presbitero gave it to the city of Fermo, where it was kept in a box for some 700 years (which explains its remarkable condition). The garment was removed from the box, carefully, in the 1920s, when scholars translated the Arabic inscription and date. It’s now in the Fermo Cathedral museum.  It is unknown how Thomas came to possess the garment or what its original intended use was (the hunting theme suggests it was not liturgical).

Chasuble of St. Thomas Becket

DeMelii

We were also able to reconnect with the Italian branch of the DeMelis family.  My grandfather, the second of six boys, came to the US about a century ago.  One of his brothers followed him to America, but the others all made lives in Italy.    A few years ago, one of my cousins located Lucia DeMelis, the daughter of one of my grandfather’s younger brothers.   That visit went well, and Lucia welcomed us as well.  She, along with her three children and 9 grandchildren, live in Pescara, a town on the Adriatic about an hour’s drive from Ascoli.  She doesn’t speak much English, but fortunately her granddaughter Leonora speaks pretty good English. We spent a day driving in the hills around Pescara, visiting the town where my grandfather was born and where he spent his childhood.  We were immediately welcomed as cousins, which I was not expecting, and which touched my heart.

DeMelis family

Orvieto

We spent our last couple of days in Orvieto, a town we like a lot that we hadn’t had the chance to visit during our last trip to Italy in 2012.  Orvieto’s cathedral is one of my favorites — stunning architecture without over-the-top decoration.
The cathedral was originally built to commemorate the “miracle of Bolsena”  — a bishop who found himself having a crisis of faith while celebrating Mass, suddenly realized that the host he was holding was bleeding — an indication of the truth of transubstantiation.  The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament commemorates the miracle, and houses the holy relic.  But in the nature of things, the cathedral today is better known for the other chapel, which includes a depiction of the Last Judgment by Luca Signorelli.  The chapel’s three walls are decorated with Signorelli’s conception of the Last Days, from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse raining down death, to the preaching of the anti-Christ, to the separating of the saved souls from the damned.  Many of the images seem to spring more from the fertile imagination of Signorelli than the literal words of the Bible.  My favorite scene is the Resurrection of the Dead, where the souls of the saved are pushing their way out from the graves where they have been interred. For reasons unclear, some have bodies, and some are just skeletons waiting around for their new ones.  It’s impossible not to think of these guys as the Grateful Dead.

Signorelli’s girlfriend, often used as a model for his paintings of the Madonna or Mary Magdalen, left him while he was working on the chapel. In retaliation, he painted her face on a damned soul being rushed to hell on the back of a grotesque demon.  Never get an artist mad…..

Damned soul being sped to hell on the back of a demon; if you look closely, she has the same face as Mary Magdalen (Signorelli's girlfriend, who left him while he was working on the chapel)

Wandering around town, we stumbled in to the church of San Giovenale, which somehow we had missed on prior visits.  The church featured frescoes from the 13th and 14th C, some of them in a highly-unusual Byzantine style.

13th C fresco of the Visitation, one of the oldest in the church

Italy is full of such discoveries.  I guess that’s why we keep going back.

In the Halls of the Norman Kings

Ted and I just got back from a 3-week trip to Sicily and central Italy.  We consumed vast quantities of pasta, ice cream and various alcoholic beverages.

Oh, you want to know more?

(More pictures available here.)

A Brief Initial Misadventure

We had booked a three-flight itinerary to Sicily (always a risky move) and arrived in Frankfurt only to find that our next two flights, both into and out of Rome, had been cancelled.  Apparently there had been a major fire at Rome’s airport.  No one was hurt, but it took several days for normal flight schedules to return.

With the assistance of an extraordinarily helpful (!) Lufthansa agent and some genius smartphoning by Ted, we put together a substitute itinerary through Milan, booking a flight on EasyJet from Milan to Palermo the following morning.  Vacation saved.  And we got to visit Milan’s wonderful cathedral and sample some risotto as well.

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(Our smartphones saved us more than once on this trip — but very little of it had to do with using it as an actual phone.)

Palermo (and the Other Norman Invasion)

I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting Palermo — “seedy” and “scruffy” are some of the nicer things the guidebooks say about it.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a city with broad streets, palm-shaded parks, and lots of greenery — the place is a virtual clinic of drought-tolerant landscaping.  And despite all the warnings about crime, we didn’t feel remotely threatened while we were there (or anywhere else in Sicily, for that matter).  It was a little weird when the street musicians started playing the theme from The Godfather movie, though.

We went to Palermo to see the mosaics, and they did not disappoint.  But first, a bit of history.

Capella Palatina

The Normans arrived in southern Italy in the early 11th C, and in 1071, the Norman Robert Guiscard (a real person, not an Asimov robot) conquered Sicily, which had been held by Saracens for 250 years.  Unusually for Christian rulers, the Norman kings of Sicily allowed the Greek Orthodox and Arab communities to practice their religion freely.  There was also an unprecedented amount of collaboration among Greek, Arab and Italian artisans.

The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel (in what was the Norman royal palace in Palermo) and in the cathedral of Monreale, about 6 km up the hill, are outstanding example of Norman cultural fusion.  They combine Byzantine mosaics, Arab decorative arts, and Italian figurative art in an extraordinary combination that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  Many of the mosaics (particularly in Monreale, which features many scenes from the Old Testament), had a dynamism that is quite different from the typically static Byzantine style — a style which in some ways prefigured the Renaissance.

Mosaic detail -- God gives Adam Garden of Eden (upper right)

When the last Norman king of Sicily died in 1190 with no offspring, Sicily began a long slow decline, and its unique artistic traditions proved to be a dead end.  The world had to wait another 150 years for Giotto.

Piazza Armerina

The Villa Romana del Casale, just outside this small town in central Sicily, is a late Roman villa featuring mosaics of astonishing quality.  The villa’s large size indicates it was owned by someone really important — the local governor, perhaps even a co-emperor.  The villa was buried by an earthquake in the late 4th C, and later landslides essentially protected it from despoliation until the 1950s, when it was carefully excavated.

We had seen Roman mosaics before, and were familiar with their complex and wonderful geometric designs.  But we were unprepared for the numerous depictions of exotic animals — wild beasts such as lions and leopards as well as somewhat less fearsome ducks and flamingoes.  The depictions of the animals were astonishingly lifelike and showed the artists had some familiarity with the living animals.  A scene depicting wild animals being loaded on boats featured a beast-wrangler struggling with an ostrich.  (This is not the case in medieval and early Renaissance bestiaries, where it is clear that the artists were working from written accounts, rather than from life).  The mosaics even included depictions of tigers — I had no idea such animals were known in ancient Rome.

Mosaic depicting loading wild animals onto boats; note ostrich wrangler in the middle

Most interesting of all was the figurative art — depictions of hunting and fishing scenes that seemed more like medieval tapestries than what we think of as “ancient art.”  A famous mosaic known as the “Bikini Girls” is actually one of the earliest known depictions of female athletes — including one pair playing what appears to be an early version of beach volleyball.

Some of the scenes were also somewhat bawdy — be aware that if you’re flipping through our pictures, some are definitely Not Safe for Work.

Hill Towns

We visited several hill towns of southern Sicily — Ragusa, Modica and Noto.  This part of Sicily was heavily damaged by a major earthquake in 1693, which means much of the architecture dates from the 18th C and later.  I’m not a big fan of Baroque architecture generally, but Sicilian Baroque is more restrained than its mainland equivalents  — there’s more focus on the architectural elements, and less over-the-top decoration.

View of Noto Infiorito from bell tower

In Noto, we were lucky enough to visit during the annual flower festival.  For three days every year, the city devotes an entire street to works of art realized in flowers.  You can think of it as the apotheosis of sidewalk art.  Or as a major civic project like the Tournament of Roses (but without the football game).

Siracusa

Historic Syracuse was Greek for several centuries before the Romans arrived, as the number of Greek ruins around the city attest.

We were lucky enough to see a production of an Ancient Greek play, Iphigenia in Aulis, in the city’s Ancient Greek theater.  There were some concessions to modern tastes (the actors were miked, spotlights were used, and there were cushions on the stone bench seats).   But the minimalist staging was very similar to what we know of ancient productions.  It’s as close as we can probably come to seeing this kind of play in the setting for which it was originally intended – an amazing experience!

Entrance of Clytemnestra and Iphegenia

Food and Wine

The guidebooks are right– the food and wine in Sicily are quite good.  If you’ve spend any time in and around the NYC metro area, the food in Sicily is more similar to what you likely think of as “Italian food”  (tomatoes, garlic, eggplant)  than anywhere else in Italy. That makes sense — most Sicilian immigrants to the US settled in and around New York.  In Piazza Armerina, I was served a dish called “Veal Siciliana” (veal with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and melted Sicilian sheep cheese) which may be the origin of the Italian-American dish “Veal Parmigiana” — with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese being used to imitate the more difficult to obtain native cheese).  Somewhat more unusual are the pasta sauces made with the locally-grown (and justly famous) pistachio nuts.

Fresh fish, which is becoming a luxury item in much of Europe, is readily available in Sicily and relatively reasonably priced.  Sicily has retained the older custom, now more rarely seen in other parts of Italy, of displaying the fish on offer and allowing customers to choose their own.

Fish market

In Siracusa, Ted sampled “couscous trapenese”, a dish of couscous and fish cooked in fish broth, and served with the reduced broth as a sauce.  You can think of it as an inspired cross between Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse,  In Ragusa, we had an unusual dish of spaghetti with sea urchin (ricci) and mustard greens.  The chef said it reminded him of Japanese sea urchin (uni) with wasabi. 

Sicily is one of the few places in Italy which offers a wide variety of desserts and sweets — probably a result of the Arab influence.  We saw people eating brioche with gelato for breakfast, but somehow they are not all 300 pounds.  Haven’t figured that out yet.

Sicily has a long history of winemaking, going back to ancient times.  In recent centuries, Sicilian growers often sold their grapes in bulk to other countries (where it was sometimes sold as “French” wine). But in recent decades, Sicilian winemakers have been selling their own wines, with traditional grapes — grillo, malvasia, nero d’avola, frappato — all quite wonderful, either alone or in combination.

General Thoughts on Travellng in Sicily

Sicily spent 600 years as a Spanish colony, and missed pretty much every important cultural development  in Europe.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — left little trace on the island.  The reunification of Italy under the house of Savoy (regarded as just another bunch of foreigners by the Sicilians) resulted in nearly a century of domination by the Mafia.  The power of the Mafia on the island was broken during an astonishing series of major prosecutions in the 1990s.  The Internet has been embraced — free wifi was readily available, and we found it easier to communicate electronically with folks in Sicily than in many other parts of Italy.  But in many ways, infrastructure — roads, rails, public transportation — still lags well behind the rest of Italy.  English is not as widely spoken here as in other parts of Italy, either.  It’s possible to get around on your own, but patience (and smartphone-enable GPS) help a lot.

Londinium, Eboracum, and Lutetia

We were lucky enough to take a trip to London, northern England and Paris in the fall of 2014.

Note: Due to a camera mishap mid-trip, we lost our photos of England, and have substituted some publicly available photos for that portion of our trip.

London

We spent a few days in London at the beginning of our trip.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the Tower of London installed an art exhibit featuring over 800,000 ceramic red poppies, each commemorating a British or Commonwealth soldier killed during that war. Poppies are apparently the first flowers to appear on a rehabilitating battle field, and are the subject of a famous WWI poem. Viewed from certain angles, the poppies could be seen as a river of blood, a mute reminder of the horrors of war that was more eloquent than the comprehensive, but oddly triumphalist, WWI exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.

tower of london poppies

We also saw a play, King Charles III, a near-future fantasy about the accession of Prince Charles to the English throne. England has a “constitutional” monarchy, although it has no constitution. The powers of the monarch vis-à-vis the Parliament are strictly limited, but there are no comparable limits on the power of Parliament vis-à-vis the people. In the play, Parliament has just passed a bill strictly limiting the freedom of the press, and the fictional Charles decides one of his limited powers is to refuse to sign the bill. Mayhem ensues. We enjoyed the political dimensions of the play – should England have an analogue to the US Supreme Court – and appreciated the numerous Shakespeare references.

We had some wonderful ethnic food in London. We ate creative Peruvian food at Lima, and very good Indian food at Chutney Mary’s (although neither chutney nor Mary were in evidence). Elsewhere in England, we had good breakfasts, and the tea was good.

Cathedral Tour

York

We have a particular interest in medieval cathedrals, but our previous visits to English cathedrals have been somewhat disappointing. Many of England’s medieval cathedrals are relatively lacking in interior decoration. That’s because during England’s civil war in 17th C, Puritans destroyed the stained glass and statuary as relics of “Papism.” Much of the interior decoration in English cathedrals today are the result of 19th C renovations.

York Minster is an exception to this general rule. During the 17th C Civil War, York was attacked by Protestant forces. But in order to prevent a prolonged siege, the city negotiated a surrender of the city in return for an agreement to spare the stained glass. The church’s great East Window is currently in the middle of a multi-year restoration, but several of the restored window panels, or “lights,” are currently being displayed at “eye height.” The windows had a distinctive yellow color that I haven’t seen used much elsewhere.

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Most of the statuary was destroyed, particularly Madonnas. A local guide showed us a rare survival – a Madonna carved into the portal of a chantry door, near York Minster – so well hidden that even standing right underneath it was hard to discern.

The statues of English kings in the cathedral were spared, so at least we have a sample of contemporary sculpture.

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There are plenty of other things to see in York. We were particularly impressed by Jorvik, a museum of the Viking era (Jorvik was the Viking name for the city). The museum included a Disneyesque(in the best sense) recreation of the Viking town as it might have looked in the 10th C – located just about where it actually existed. The best feature of the museum were local archeology students who acted as museum guides, explaining how we can use bits of bones, pottery and other detritus to reconstruct how people lived, what they ate, even how they died – interesting for children of all ages, and a really creative use of an excavation that was really little more than a garbage dump.

We also visited Castle Howard, an aristocratic mansion built in the late 17th C. The interior of the house was somewhat disappointing – apparently, the original owner lost his lucrative court position just before the house was completed, and neither he nor any of his descendants ever really had enough money to maintain the house properly. The façade of the house and the grounds are magnificent, though. The house will be familiar to contemporary audiences as the setting for both versions of Brideshead Revisited (both the recent movie version and the 1980s BBC TV version starring Jeremy Irons).

Castle Howard

York has an active theater scene, and we saw two plays while we were there. One was a two-woman play about Nell Gwynn, who ponders her future as her lover Charles II lay dying. Another, the Kite Runner, about modern Afghanistan, is perhaps more familiar from the recent movie version, but it makes for compelling theater. It was a little strange, though, to be watching a play in England written by Afghan-American now living in San Jose, and partly set in San Francisco. Why haven’t there been more American productions of this play?

Durham

We visited Durham Cathedral as a day trip from York. Durham is still a relatively small town, and the cathedral remains a center of local life much as it has been since the Middle Ages. Graduations from the nearby University of Durham, for example, are held in the Cathedral. Most of the stained glass in this Cathedral is modern. We were particularly struck by this delightfully contemporary rendition of the Last Supper. This window was underwritten by the local branch of Marks and Spencer, continuing a tradition of local sponsorship of stained glass that goes back at least as far as Chartres.

Durham

Lincoln

We spent nearly an entire day in Lincoln Cathedral (just as well – it was one of the few rainy days on our trip). In the morning, we took a “floor tour,” covering the magnificent interior, as well as the excellent 19th C stained glass. In the afternoon, we took a “tower tour” which provided access not only to the bell tower, but also the usually inaccessible upper story of the cathedral, including a catwalk that passed right in front of one of the rose windows. In between, we visited the Cathedral Library, which was featuring an early manuscript of the medieval encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, a 13th C English scholar. This work (which I encountered in college) is a delightful compendium of the facts both real and imagined and is the source for many of the wonderful flights of fancy in Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Lincoln

Lincoln was an important center of England’s medieval Jewish community. The “Jew’s House,” which dates to the 12th C and is still standing, speaks to the importance of this community. The position of Jews in medieval England was a difficult one. One of the few occupations permitted to them was money-lending. The Jewish community were considered vassals of the King, and when the King wanted to grant a favor to one of his other vassals, he would often remit their debts (without, of course, reimbursing the Jewish moneylenders). In order to account for what we would call “bad debt risk,” the moneylenders had to then charge relatively high interest rates, making them very unpopular.

In 1255, a group of Lincoln Jews were arrested and executed for the ritual murder of a Christian child. Anti-Semitism continued to run high in England, and the Jewish community was formally expelled from England in 1290, a ban not lifted until the time of Oliver Cromwell. The charges against the Lincoln merchants, now universally acknowledged as fraudulent, are commemorated by a small plaque with an official apology, in English and Hebrew, inside the cathedral.

Paris

We were able to rent an apartment on the top floor of an apartment building on the Rue de Rennes, in the 6th Arrondissment. The top floor, as in many such buildings, was originally a garret, often used for servants’ apartments. That’s one reason why, in a 8-story building, the elevator only went to the 7th floor. The owners converted a series of small rooms into a wonderful apartment, albeit one with curved ceilings and an odd floor plan. We had a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower from the front of the apartment, and Notre Dame from the back. We had a wonderful bakery and an artisanal chocolate shop on our street. And we were only a short walk from Le Grand Epicerie, one of the finest grocery stores in Paris, which made it easy us to cook a couple of dinners at home. Truly special.

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We’ve been to Paris before, so we didn’t try to see everything. We visited the recently re-opened Picasso Museum. The renovation has greatly improved the viewing space, but unfortunately, not the viewing experience. The vast collection has been organized according to some metric that is not apparent to the casual viewer. Maybe we should have rented the audioguide.

On the other hand, the Musée d’Orsay has dramatically improved the viewing experience for their outstanding collection of Impressionist paintings. If you haven’t been in a few years, it’s time to go back. We also visited the Musée Monet Marmottan, which we have always thought was a better way to see a selection of Monet’s Water Lilies painting than the Orangerie, even though the latter was specially designed for them. We visited the Musée Jacquemart-Andre, one of the prettiest museums in Paris, which was featuring a special Perugino exhibit based on their wonderful small collection of Italian Renaissance paintings. Another old favorite was the Musée du Moyen Age (formerly known as the Cluny Museum), where it is now possible to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at close range. We also made some time for the Musée Guimet, which has one of the finest collections of southeast Asian art outside the region (including some painstakingly made replicas from Angkor Wat.)

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We took a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 30 miles outside of Paris. When we first visited here, in 1981, you needed a car. These days, you can get there via Paris’ ever-expanding regional railroad network.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was built by Nicholas Fouquet, an advisor to King Louis XIII who clearly expected to have the same kind of power and influence during the reign of his son, Louis XIV. Le Roi Soleil had other ideas. And Fouquet didn’t count on an aggressive young rival, Colbert, who poisonously suggested to the King that Fouquet was stealing from him – a suggestion that seemed to be confirmed by the magnificent house party Fouquet threw for the King at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Fouquet thought the event was a great success. Little did he know that Louis had already decided to arrest him. As Voltaire later noted, Fouquet went to bed a king, and woke up as nothing. Fouquet spent the remaining 20 years of his life in prison, never seeing Vaux again.

Vaux has had the good fortune to be owned by a succession of rich and careful owners, who maintain the property. Today, it is owned by a private foundation, and employs a staff of 80 to keep the place in good condition. The gardens are particularly notable, and are often used as a stand-in for Versailles in both French and American movies. That only makes sense, since after having Fouquet arrested Louis poached Vaux’s garden designer, LeNotre, to do his own much grander gardens at Versailles.

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With all of this sightseeing, we got very hungry. We dined at a number of the kind of smaller, family-style restaurants that we enjoy so much. We had roast guinea fowl at Willy’s Wine Bar, deer at Au Biche au Bois, fresh foie gras served on a bed of green beans at Hide, perfectly cooked St. Pierre and langoustines at Dessirier, and a spectacular veal roast at Jadis.

Our best experience, though, was a Huitrerie Régis, a small place not far from our apartment. As the name suggests, this place is all about oysters (minimum order, 12 per person). It is tiny (only 6 tables, very close together, with a couple more outside in fine weather). Ordering is easy – you decide which of the 5 or 6 types of oyster on offer you want to sample that day, and then select a bottle of wine from the small but excellent wine list (most stored vertically above the oyster bar). It doesn’t matter what you order – they’ll be the best oysters you’ve had in your life, shucked right in front of you. About midway through the meal, Régis (the owner) showed up, greeted everyone and asked whether we were enjoying our oysters. This partnership of purveyor, preparer, and server, all united in their desire to make sure their customers have an excellent experience, is the essence of what fine French restaurants are all about. And it’s the reason why so many American imitations, which often forget one leg of that triad, are often so sterile.

We’ll be back!

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If It’s Tuesday … (Western Europe)

Our trip in the spring of 2014 grew out of a conference Ted was planning to attend in Amsterdam. Little by little, other cities were added (“I’ve always wanted to see Bruges… Provence is nice in the spring… We can get a cheap flight out of Cologne….”) and pretty soon we found ourselves planning the type of multi-country, move-every-few-days type trip we usually scorn. No matter – we had a great time anyway.

Please find more pictures here.

Begin the Beguine

Bruges is a city almost literally lost in time. A major commercial center in the Middle Ages, it lost much of its importance when its channel to the sea silted up, and its architecture hasn’t changed much since the 16th C. Surrounded by canals, it evaded the carnage of the First World War, some of which took place only 40 km away.

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Bruges and its canals

Today, Bruges’ economy is based mainly on tourism. It is well-organized for welcoming its visitors, without being overwhelmed by them.

In addition to its lovely canals, Bruges is known for its “Flemish Primitive” painters (Memling and Van Eyck), a Madonna by Michelangelo (one of the few Michelangelo statues outside of Italy, and quite a nice one) and chocolate shops, which seemed to comprise about half the commercial establishments. In addition to well-known brands like Godiva and Leonidas, Bruges is home to more individualist chocolate shops offering funky flavors like chili pepper and cannabis. I didn’t inhale.

In Bruges (and also later in Amsterdam) we visited the Begijnhof, once the home of a lay Catholic sisterhood (women who lived as nuns without taking vows).   Whatever their religious motivations, these women sure knew how to pick lovely locations, and these places are an oasis of peace (especially in Amsterdam) in otherwise modern surrounding. These days, the Begijnhof in Bruges is home to real nuns (Benedictine). In Amsterdam, the Beguine community survived in otherwise Protestant Holland until the 1970s; today, the place is a residential community for single women, so maybe things haven’t changed that much.

Around and Around We Go

From Bruges, we went to Amsterdam, a place where the canals go in circles. The names of the canals, as the guidebook helpfully noted, are in alphabetical order, so you always know how far from the center you are. Unfortunately, you can’t tell where on the circle you are – it is possible to be two blocks from your destination and have no idea which direction to go. No matter – most Amsterdam residents speak excellent English, and are more than happy to help.

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Rijksmuseum

We stayed at a small hotel in the Museum Quarter, just a few minutes’ walk from each of Amsterdam’s main art museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art. At the recently renovated Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt has pride of place, particularly the painting long known as the Nights Watch (which, since its recent cleaning, apparently was painted in the daytime, albeit indoors) and the painting formally known as the Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, but forever known, to those of us as certain age, as the painting on the box of Dutch Masters cigars. The Van Gogh Museum has an excellent collection of earlier works, painted while the artist was still living in the Netherlands, as well as a skeleton smoking a cigarette that seems amazingly modern. The Stedelijk had an interesting collection with informative captions that kept even those of us not generally fans of modern art interested.

While Ted was at his conference, I visited the Jewish History museum, which was next door to the Portuguese Synagogue.   When it was built, in 1675, it was the largest synagogue in Europe. Jews were welcomed into the newly independent Netherlands. For most of the 17th C, in fact, Jews faced fewer restrictions on the practice of their religion than Catholics did – surely the only time in European history that was the case.

Amsterdam is also reputed to have a tattoo museum. Unfortunately, I was unable to find it – just as well. They apparently have a tattoo studio on the premises – who knows what might have happened?

No We’re Not On a Cruise

After Amsterdam, we went to Cologne. Although we arrived in the city by train, apparently Cologne has been discovered by the river cruise lines, and we saw a number of tour groups of various sizes.

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Cologne Cathedral

Cologne is famous for its cathedral, which is of massive size – as long as its tower is high. It was completed in the 19th C, with support both from the Protestant king of Prussia and the Catholic king of Bavaria – a rare example of religious harmony.

In addition to its cathedral, Cologne has a number of Romanesque churches, and a small museum which offers excellent examples of stained glass and statuary usually hard to see close up. Cologne is also famous for its toilet water, “Eau de Cologne,” called 4711 after the address of the store which first sold it. These days, it is sold in as many outlets as Bruges has chocolate shops.

Easter in Provence

Being secular humanists, we had no idea, when we arranged some months ago to spend a few days in Provence with our friends Ken and Mary Lou, that the weekend we had picked included Easter Sunday. It turned out to be a pleasant coincidence, since their daughter Eva (currently a student in London) and Ken’s mother Betsy, who lives in Canada, were also visiting. We had “Gigot de sept heures” (leg of lamb cooked for 7 hours) a delicious dish which we hope to try out with our cooking group very soon.

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A Camarguista

After this visit, we spent a few days in Arles, and took a day trip to the Camargue, which has a noted bird sanctuary (and seemingly hundreds of flamingoes – thrilling in flight). We visited the town of Aigues-Mortes, once an important embarkation point for French crusaders.  The country of France was much smaller in the Middle Ages than it is today, and Aigues-Mortes was its only outlet to the Meditteranean.

In later years, Aigues-Mortes was an important outpost of the free-thinking Albigensians and later still, not by coincidence, of Protestants. In the 18th C, the tower once used by Crusaders was used to imprison Protestant women who refused to abjure their faith – one of the awful consequences of religious persecution that the founders of our country surely had in mind when they drafted the First Amendment.

On the Road

From Provence, we drove to Spain, stopping first at the Abbaye de Fontfroide, near Narbonne. Fontfroide is also important in the annals of Albigensianism, since it was the murder of a Papal legate, a monk of Fontfroide, by Albigensians, which started the Crusade against them by the institutional Church, which ultimately destroyed them. The monks are gone now, and the former abbey is now a museum, with a very nice garden.

We stayed for a couple of days in Girona, in Catalonia. By another happy coincidence, we arrived on St. Jordi’s day, which is a local public holiday (St. Jordi, or St. George, is the patron saint of Catalonia).   The holiday is an excuse for a massive street fair, in which the traditional gifts are books for men and roses for the ladies. [Insert sexist joke here.]

Rocabolesc

Rocambolesc

That night, we ate at Massana, the second best restaurant in Girona, which, given that the “best” restaurant, Can Roca was recently named the best restaurant in the world, was awfully darned good. The chef combined Spanish ingredients with a Japanese sensibility, producing stunning results.Girona is also the home of an insanely popular ice cream shop, run by Can Roca’s pastry chef, which featured a “panet” – a turnover-like pastry, served warm, with ice cream still cold on the inside. How do they do that?

In addition to some fine Romanesque churches, Girona also features an interesting Jewish history museum – all the more amazing since there essentially hasn’t been a Jewish community in Girona since 1492. It was very well done – one of the visitors signing the guest book noted, “I’m from Israel and even I didn’t know this stuff.”

We also visited an interesting river house done by a local architect named Maso, a contemporary of Gaudi. Although not as revolutionary as Gaudi, Maso used many forward-looking techniques, particularly in the use of ventilation and natural light.

All in all, quite a lot to see in this little town, and well worth a 2-day visit.

More Than a Soccer Team

We had visited Barcelona once before, in 2001, and if anything liked it even more this time.

Casa Battlo, a private home designed by Antoni Gaudi, has recently been opened to the public. To say it was breathtaking is not to do it justice. Gaudi was apparently given a free hand by the owner, and he designed not just the residence but the furniture to go in it. Marks of Gaudi’s genius are everywhere – from the creative use of natural light, to the use of recycled materials (tile and glass) for decoration, to his characteristic “caternary arches” for ventilation. Just stunning.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia is still under construction, but the interior has been enclosed since we were last there and it is now an operational church. Fortunately, we had been told to reserve an entry time online – even on a weekday morning in April, the wait on the “unticketed” line was over an hour.

We have visited a lot of Gothic cathedrals over the years, but this one literally left me speechless. Gaudi, a deeply religious man, spent most of the last 20 years of his life on the cathedral, and it is clearly a place of faith, not power (more Chartres than St. Peter’s). Gaudi clearly intended to bring the Gothic cathedral to the modern age – using modern materials, modern construction techniques, and modern engineering – parabolic arches instead of flying buttresses. He looked to nature for some of his design ideas, long before anyone had heard of fractals. And yet, despite the modernity, this is still recognizably a “Gothic” church, with the characteristic cruciform design, stained glass windows, and soaring walls.  A masterpiece, and the highlight of our trip.

So Near and Yet So Far (Japan)

October 2013

Additional photos can be found here.

Ted and I spent about 10 days in Japan in mid-October. This was our second trip to Japan together (Ted’s third). I can’t really explain why we like Japan so much. But there’s something about the combination of modern Western conveniences and a very different cultural heritage that is irresistible to us.

Since we had already been to Tokyo, we decided to spend more of this trip in the western half of Japan.  We started in Kyoto, where we were fortunate enough to stay in a small (7-room) hotel in the picturesque Gion District. Gion is the center of Kyoto nightlife (bars, restaurants, and discreet geisha tea houses), and there aren’t many hotels there. This wonderful place treated us as though we were members of an extended family. Each morning, we would discuss our touring plans with the staff and they would give us helpful hints about how to get there and what to see. Each evening, after asking what type of food we wanted to eat, they would make us a reservation at a local restaurant, where “Ted-sama” and I, with a reference from the hotel, were greeted as regular customers. The hotel also offered a most unusual breakfast: homemade yogurt with fresh fruit, boiled eggs, pastries – and (surprisingly refreshing) vegetable soup.

Ryoan-ji

In Kyoto, most of the sightseeing involves Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. (The differences between those two religions are not apparent to the casual traveler, and in any event many Japanese practice both.) Our favorites were Ryoan-ji, a Buddhist temple with a rock garden carefully set up so that you can never see all the rocks at the same time, Kodai-ji, where one can can admire the same view as did Nene the long-lived wife of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Shoren-In, a Shinto temple with spectacular flower paintings. Ginkakuji (the “silver” or “moon viewing” temple) was also particularly attractive in the rain.

A Maiko

At the local crafts museum, we were fortunate enough to see an authentic dance performance by a maiko (apprentice geisha). Although the dance forms, music and language were completely unknown to us, the emotional resonance of the highly-disciplined dance, where most of the body was kept still and only the dancer’s arms, hands and fan were in motion, was unexpectedly powerful. It reminded us, in an odd way, of flamenco.

Kyoto is known for its food, and it did not disappoint. Some of the restaurants were amazingly specialized. One restaurant, for example, served only chicken, although it included chicken parts (necks, hearts and gizzards) not usually seen (or identified) in American restaurants. And we had a wonderful lunch in the suburb of Arashiyama, at a restaurant that specialized in tofu. But the traditional Kyoto restaurant follows the kaiseki style, where each course uses a distinct cooking style – raw, fried, grilled, steamed – and focuses on seasonal ingredients. Though we ate a number of such meals in Japan, we never had the same meal – or even the same course – twice. We loved the food, even the stuff we didn’t recognize – although I couldn’t manage to eat the head of the small skewered fish we were served, as suggested. Too roly-poly, I guess.

After Kyoto, we went to Nara, home of the Daibutsu (Big Buddha), which is housed in a building that is believed to be the largest wood structure in the world. The shrine includes a pierced column which, if you can wriggle your way through, is supposed to guarantee a ticket to Paradise. It helps to be 4 years old – although we did see one 20-something Aussie do it, to the amusement of the crowd. The Buddha shrine is situated in an extensive park, home of some very assertive “tame” deer. Nara also has some spectacular gardens.

We stayed in the Nara Hotel, located at the entrance to the park. The hotel was built around the turn of the last century, and was designed to be a “rustic lodge” for city people – something like the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, although with distinctive Japanese architectural elements. One corridor of the hotel has pictures of the dozen or so visits by the Imperial Family – a big deal, since the Japanese royals don’t often appear in public.

After Nara, we took the spectacular Japanese train system to Hiroshima, about 2 hours by shinkansen. Japanese trains are expensive, and the fare system is very complicated. But you can’t beat them for speed and convenience.

Hiroshima was totally rebuilt after the war, and with its tall buildings and broad streets it looks much like an American city. The epicenter of the atomic bomb blast, once a densely-populated residential district, is now a Peace Park, with monuments and a small museum. Though lovely, it’s a pretty spooky place – it’s immediately obvious that you are walking on a mass grave. (In fact, the bones of nearly 80,000 mostly unidentified victims are buried here.) At one end of the park, there is a small stone statue of Jiso (a Buddhist deity) which survived the blast, although you can still see a “shadow” in the pedestal left by the heat. The museum includes replicas of letters sent by successive mayors of Hiroshima protesting nuclear bomb tests. There are letters to the leaders of Britain, France, Russia, China and the US (including Barack Obama), as well as a particularly acerbic one to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.

Hiroshima is particularly known for okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake cooked on a hot griddle in front of you. It’s surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We had the traditional version (pork, cabbage and bean sprouts), although versions with many different flavorings are available.

From Hiroshima, we went to the picturesque island of Miyajima, known for an 11th C Shinto shrine seems to float on the water at high tide. The Torii gate (the seaside entrance to the shrine) is often photographed at sunrise. Unfortunately, both of these effects were muted by the rain (we caught the edge of a late-season typhoon). But we had a good time nevertheless.

At Miyajima, we stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), run by a family in its fourth generation of innkeeping. Our room was set up for sitting during the day, and futons would be brought out for sleeping at night. The room set-up would be magically changed while you were eating meals. The room also had a traditional Japanese cedar bath, designed for full-body soaking. Despite its rustic appearance (complete with a little wooden bucket for pre-washing), the bath was thoroughly modern – you just selected your temperature, and the bath would be filled in 10 minutes. Sleeping on the floor futons, with the sound of a rushing stream and the rain outside, was surprisingly comfortable – at least for one of us.

From Miyajima, we traveled to Kurashiki, a small town whose old section still looks much as it did in the 17th C (although with modern conveniences). Kurashiki is something of an “artist” town, with a number of shops selling high-quality pottery, lacquerware and other traditional Japanese arts. It also is the home of the Ohara Museum , one of the best collections of Western art in Japan. (The art was once the private collection of a Japanese industrialist.)

At Kurashiki, we stayed at a more “upscale” ryokan. Our “room” was really a suite, with separate sleeping, eating and sitting areas and a small garden. Although the room had its own bath, we took advantage of the larger, more elaborate separate bath that is a feature of many ryokans. The staff didn’t speak much English, and we have virtually no Japanese, but they were obviously used to Western travelers — they asked us if we wanted to bathe together (which Japanese couples don’t often do).

After bathing, we were served dinner in our rooms, sitting on tatami mats in our stockinged feet, wearing the full-length bathrobes furnished by the hotel – a most civilized way to eat. Dinner was served course by course. Each course was a tiny work of art. Not only was the food presented attractively, but many of the place settings included fall foliage and other seasonal elements, which are an important part of the Japanese esthetic. And since it was Japan, nobody had any problem with our taking pictures of our meal.

After Kurashiki, we stopped for an afternoon at Himeji, one of the few more-or-less original 17th castles left in Japan (many others, like the one in Osaka, are modern reconstructions). Himeji Castle is undergoing a major, multi-year renovation project , which meant that its famous “White Egret Tower” was shrouded in scaffolding. Given the importance of the castle to the local tourist industry, however, the restoration project included an elevator, which allowed tourists to view the roof at close range – something that won’t actually be possible once the project is done.

At Himeji, we were offered the services of an English-speaking guide. In most other countries, such guides are often expensive. But here, as is often the case in Japan, the guide was a volunteer – a middle-aged businessman who traveled internationally and wanted to improve his English. He was not only very knowledgeable about the castle, but also the details of the restoration project – an “engineering-oriented” tour you don’t usually get from more traditional guides.

At Himeji, we had an unusual local specialty – a rice bowl served with raw egg, which you cracked over the rice (the heat of the rice cooks the egg) and finished with various toppings. The eggs, we were told, were delivered every day from a farm where the chicken were raised listening to Mozart. They were quite wonderful.

We finished the trip in Osaka, traditionally Japan’s second city (although it was recently passed by Yokohama). The Dotonbori, filled with bars and restaurants, is filled with flashing, talking billboards and wild wall ornaments advertising their wares – plastic models of crabs, fugu (puffer fish) or samurai chefs.  It was supposedly the model for the main commercial street of “LA” in Blade Runner, but the effect of the real-life place was irrational exuberance, not dystopia.

Although Osaka is a big city, it has surprising oases of quiet. We visited one shrine which, serendipitously, happened to be a place where local families came to celebrate the children’s birthdays.  Many of the children, boys as well as girls, were dressed in decorative kimonos. There were also  newborn babies wrapped in yards of spectacularly beautiful fabric.

On our last evening, we sampled teppanyaki – beef cooked on a hot griddle right in front of you (although without the theatrical knife work you sometimes find in American Japanese restaurants). The chef offered us “garlic risotto,” which turned out to be Japanese rice, slightly undercooked, tossed on the grill with slivered garlic. It wasn’t like any risotto I’ve had in Italy – but it was surprisingly tasty.

Although we ate well in Osaka, we were embarrassed to discover, too late, that the city has an amazing number of Michelin-starred restaurants. I guess we’ll just have to go back.

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Ireland)

June 2013

When Ted and I told our friends we were planning a trip to Ireland, a common response was “why?”  This was a mystery to me, since Ireland is full of cultural and scenic treasures.  And they speak English.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Dublin is a lovely city which reminded me of the older parts of Boston – Georgian architecture, leafy green parks, a faux-medieval university, and lots of bars.  There’s even a local “duck boat” tour, although the Dublin version provides customers with horned helmets, in tribute to the city’s Viking origins.

We stayed at the Merrion Hotel, one of the nicest places we have ever stayed at – historic 18th C surroundings, with a down-to-earth, incredibly thoughtful staff.  It claims to be the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington (although, we found out later, it is not the only claimant — everyone wants a piece of this illustrious fellow).  The hotel has an impressive collection of art by Irish artists, and on weekends they host an “art tea” with inventive pastries inspired by their collection.

Dublin (and Ireland generally) is a frustrating place to visit for lovers of churches.  The country’s medieval churches were generally taken over by the (Protestant) Church of Ireland after Cromwell, and many had their interiors “redecorated” in the 19th C.  They are nice enough, but lack the spiritual power of the medieval original.  Most of Ireland’s current Catholic churches date from the 19th C , and are not architecturally interesting.

Ireland is, however, rich in medieval monasteries, some dating back to the 6th C.  We visited several of these, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.  They are pretty impressive, even as ruins.

Ireland’s roads are pretty good these days, courtesy of the EU.  Left-side driving turned out not to be much of a problem as we had feared, since there isn’t much traffic.  I found it was actually more difficult as a pedestrian, since on busy sidewalks I was always swerving the “other” way.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious once you leave Dublin is how agricultural the country is.  Ireland is a country that, essentially, missed the Industrial Revolution.  The Ford factory at Cork, and the great shipyards of Belfast, are no more; and the Paint Hall which once housed the Titanic now serves as the throne room of the fictional Kings Landing.

Ireland’s current population (4,000,000) is lower now than it was in 1840, before the Famine (7,000,000) – the only developed Western nation for which that is true.   The country is still losing about 2,000 people a week, although these days emigrants are more likely to go to Australia and New Zealand than the US or Canada.

For the tourist, this means that the countryside still consists of small villages separated by farmland, with little of the urban sprawl you see in other parts of Europe.  You can also sometimes see 20th C gravestones in 1000-year old graveyards.  In most parts of Europe (and even in colonial New England) these old graveyards ran out of space decades if not centuries ago.

It wouldn’t be much of a trip to Ireland without visits to local pubs.   They are surprisingly pleasant – indoor smoking in pubs was eliminated a few years ago.  I’m not generally a beer drinker, but Irish Guinness is surprisingly tasty — tangy and creamy at the same time.  (Unfortunately, the American version, which is pasteurized, is not very good, so you’ll have to travel to Ireland to taste it.)  Irish whisky is also tasty – smoother than Scotch, but not as sweet as American bourbon.

Doolin, on the West Coast, is noted for its traditional music pubs.   At one pub, a 14-year old girl asked if she could sit in with the musicians (a fairly standard request at such pubs).  She was pretty good, and when the musicians asked if she wanted to play another piece, she asked if her sisters (aged 13 and 10) could also join in. They were pretty credible too.  It turned out these girls were from Uganda and had learned this music pretty much on their own.  They had brought their instruments with them on their family trip to Ireland, hoping they would have the opportunity to sit in with real Irish musicians.  Everyone in the pub was moved by this story of Irish music’s international appeal, not the least the musicians themselves.

We took a small tour boat out to the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s scenic landmarks.  We saw dolphins (at the northern edge of their geographic range) and Arctic puffins (at the southern end of theirs).  Global climate change is no joke here, where even a small change in climate could knock the country, at the same latitude as Labrador, off its precarious perch on the edge of the temperate zone.

About the weather, the less said the better.  Summer is supposed to be relatively dry, but there’s a reason the Romans called this place Hibernia – loosely translated as “the place where winter is always coming.” The first four days and (of course) the last day of our trip were sunny and warm.  The rest of the time we had rain, sometimes intermittent, sometimes so heavy it made a mockery of what we had previously referred to as our “rain gear.”  Fortunately, there was always a warm , snug tea shop or pub nearby.  And the coastline was pretty dramatic, even in the rain (fewer pictures, though).

We visited the Dingle Peninsula, one of the few places in Ireland where Irish, not English, is the primary language.  English is universally spoken, so this presents no problem for tourists.  Some of the road signs out here, though, were in Irish only – fortunately, not any place where we wanted to go, because the language is pretty much indecipherable.  (Galway, for example, is Gailimh in Irish.)  Hearing Irish spoken, it becomes immediately obvious that the distinctive lilt of the Irish accent comes from the cadences of the old language.

In Killarney, we visited Muckross House, the center of what had once been an 11,000-acre estate granted to an English nobleman by the first Elizabeth.  (It’s been a national park since the 1930s.)  The house, available for tourist visits, is set up as it would have appeared in the late 19th C. Somewhat startlingly, the tour guides point out that the bells in the servant halls were not labeled because most of the servants were illiterate, and the sinks for washing pots and pans were so low because the scullery maids were usually children.  There’s no Downton Abbey-type nostalgia here – Ireland got rid of its aristocrats and doesn’t want them back.

We visited Kinsale, a charming fishing village along the south coast, noted for its fish restaurants.  The local churchyard had a memorial to the Lusitania, which was torpedoed about 20 miles off the coast.  Our final stop was Cork, the country’s relatively untouristed second-largest city, and the birthplace of both Henry Ford and labor activist Mother Jones.

The phrase “Irish cuisine” is no longer an oxymoron.  Fresh, local foods have become cool again, and Ireland has some great local products – beef and lamb, seafood of all types, cheese,  artisanal yogurt, and butter so good you don’t want to bother with the bread.   But you still have to work a little bit to find a good meal – especially if you like vegetables.

Ireland’s most awesome attraction, though, is its people.  It’s a place where people are not only willing, but eager, to talk to you.   Sitting in a pub, your neighbor would discuss your choice of beverage.  Locals sitting next to you at the theater would ask whether you liked the play.   One guy passing Ted on the street advised him not to wear his sweater tied around his neck, because “only Americans do that.”  Tour guides provided not only information about what you were looking at, but also their views about everything from national politics to local sports.  For people like us, who enjoy understanding how other people live, Ireland was a real find.

 

Four Ladies and a Holy Land (Israel)

May 2013

When my daughter was invited, last year, to speak at a conference in Haifa this month, I realized that, given my current work schedule, I could go with her.   We were joined by my sister-in-law Mary Jo (whose son Jeff is currently living in Jerusalem) and her cousin Carol.  So then we were four.

It was only a short trip (10 days, including a full day of travel on either end) so we didn’t try to cover too much territory.

Some photos of our trip can be found here.

Tel Aviv/Jaffa

We spent a couple of days in Tel Aviv, a modern city that, despite its location, feels like it is in Europe.  I’m not crazy about the Bauhaus architecture that predominates, but the beach is nice and the city seems very livable.  It was also a good place to recover from the 18-hour journey from California.  We spent an afternoon with a friend of Mary Jo’s in Herzlia, a pleasant suburb, and explored this historic port of Jaffa, now beautifully restored.

Jerusalem

If Tel Aviv was still Europe, Jerusalem is definitely someplace else.   Hearing it described as “a city on a hill,” I imagined the rolling hills of San Francisco, not Chavez Ravine.  It’s remarkable that a city with such ancient roots could have been built in such a mountainous site, but it does have access to water.

Jerusalem is the spiritual capital of both Judaism and Christianity, and is an important holy site for Muslims too.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock are all located a few minutes’ walk from each other, and you could potentially visit them all in the same day (we didn’t).

Jerusalem is full of religious pilgrims of all types.  In addition to Christian clergy of all denomination including many in the unfamiliar garb of Eastern rites, there are Hasidic Jews in black coats and variety of hats, Arab Muslim and orthodox Jewish women in headscarves; and the occasional fellow dressed like Jesus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which dates to the 4th C and encompasses the site where Christ was crucified as well the tomb of the Resurrection, is unlike any Christian church I have ever visited.  Ownership of the church is divided among the six oldest Christian sects:  Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.  Each sect jealously guards its particular chapel, and holds its own services – often there are several going on at once.   In the 12th C, Saladin appointed a Muslim family to act as the Church’s official custodian, and unofficial referee; a descendant of the same family retains that position to this day.

The religious pilgrims who come here are unusually enthusiastic – kneeling, knocking their heads on the ground and kissing the edges of the various holy sites located within the church.  Some of the most demonstrative pilgrims were Russians – particularly notable since religious observance was officially banned in that country for some 75 years.  Even if you’re not a believer, you cannot help but be moved by their fervor.

Similarly, at the Western Wall, the sight of believers kissing the Wall or putting small written prayers in it, and walking backwards away from the Wall to avoid turning their backs to it, is spiritually overwhelming.

Visiting the Temple Mount, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, is more austere, since non-Muslims are not allowed to go visit the interiors of these mosques.  The buildings are impressive, however, and the site offers fine views of the Mount of Olives and the surrounding area.

One morning, I took the light rail out to the western edge of the modern city to see the Mark Chagall stained glass windows at Hadassah Hospital.  The 12 windows, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are in a synagogue, so there are no human figures.  However, Chagall’s trademark animals make their appearance, as well as disembodied hands with Spock-like fingers.  (As Star Trek geeks know, Leonard Nimoy, an orthodox Jew, based his “live long and prosper” salute on the praying rabbis of his youth.)  Four of the windows were badly damaged during the 1967 war; Chagall repaired them, incorporating a piece of shrapnel into one of the new windows.

Not far away is Yad Vashem, a place of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust museum on the site is probably the most comprehensive such museum in the world.  It makes two simple points very well:  (1)  the whole world was watching, and did nothing;  and (2)  we’re never going to let that happen again.

Ramallah

We spent an afternoon in Ramallah, in Palestinian territory.  The hardest part about going to Ramallah is getting there.  Ordinary taxis can’t cross the border, but my nephew Jeff, who teaches at Al-Quds University east of Jerusalem, knew of a taxi service whose drivers had the right kind of visas.

As we approached the border, a sign reminded Israelis that they were forbidden to travel to Ramallah without special permission.  This was followed by a second sign which, somewhat oddly, said it was strictly forbidden for Israelis to bring their cars across the border for repairs.  Sure enough, as soon as we crossed, we saw half a dozen auto repair shops, on an otherwise empty stretch of road, obviously doing a brisk business from clients on both sides of the border.

There’s not much to see in Ramallah.  In some ways, what’s most surprising is how normal it is.  There’s a lot of building going on, the shops are busy, and the merchandise is not much different from what you’d see on the Israeli side.  After a while, you begin to notice some oddities.  There are a lot of garbage bags on the street waiting for pickup, indicating suboptimal public garbage service.  There are an inordinate number of taxis – no public transportation.  And, although bathrooms are clean and modern, when you turn on the water in some places, only a tiny trickle comes out.  Water politics are a huge part of the story here, although rarely reported.

Haifa/Akko

After Jerusalem, our party separated.  Tory and I went to Haifa for her conference, while Mary Jo and Carol headed for the Dead Sea and Tiberias.

Although Tory’s conference was notionally located in Haifa, our hotel was actually in nearby Akko – which was just as well for me, since Akko is more historically interesting.

Haifa’s main tourist site is the Baha’i Shrine and Gardens.  The Baha’i, perhaps the world’s first “New Age” religion, split off from Islam in what is now Iran in the 19th C.  They aren’t very popular in most of the Muslim world, which regards them as heretics.  But they have found a comfortable home in Haifa, which has good interfaith relations.  I’m not sure how many Baha’i actually live in Haifa, but Baha’i pilgrims come here from all over the world to visit the Shrine and admire the magnificent hanging gardens, which offer dramatic views of the sea.

Haifa is relatively young, by the standards of the area, but Akko has been continuously occupied for some 4,000 years.  St. Paul was here, and so was Richard the Lionheart.  Napoleon was defeated here, which ended his attempt to conquer Jerusalem.

Akko was an important Crusader site.  After the battle of Hattin, which led to the Crusaders’ loss of Jerusalem, their kingdom was based in Akko, which was then known as Acre.  Some of the Crusader sites have recently been excavated, including a magnificent staircase which was meant to be used by knights mounted on horseback.  The Templars once had a large castle here, of which nothing now remains.  However, you can visit the Templar Tunnels, whose purpose remains obscure – were they designed for clandestine communication, or were they an ingenious engineering project designed to remove silt from the harbor?

Akko also has a nice 18th C mosque, which is open to visitors of all faiths.  From 1948 to 1967, when the Temple Mount was part of Jordan, the Akko mosque was actually the largest mosque in Israel.

I was able to join a conference “field trip” to the Mt. Carmel archeological site, a system of cliff caves where it is believed Homo sapiens and Neanderthals may have lived side-by-side, some 50,000 years ago

Nazareth / Galilee

On our last day, we hired a guide who took us to Nazareth, a little over an hour’s  drive from Akko, and the Sea o Galilee.

Nazareth is far from the tiny village it was in Jesus’ time – today, it is a bustling town of 80,000.  It is a majority Arab town, but it has a large Arab Catholic population.  The Church of the Annunciation, built over the legendary site where Gabriel appeared to Mary, features mosaics of the Madonna in the costumes of Catholic communities all over the world (including a kimono-clad Mary with a tiny samurai baby Jesus).  Since it was Sunday, we caught a little bit of Mass in the local language – Arabic.

At the Sea of Galilee, we visited Capernaum (where Jesus preached, and where the apostles Peter and Andrew lived) and Mount Beatitude (site of the Sermon on the Mount).    At a Greek Orthodox church near Capernaum, we had a picnic lunch at a small pier that jutted out into the water – an uncrowded spot that made it possible to imagine what the place must have looked like in Jesus’ day (although I’m pretty sure there were no bananas or avocados growing there in the 1st Century).

We also visited the site on the Jordan River where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  Religious pilgrims come from all over the world to be baptized in the river.  The gift shop will even rent you white smocks – this is full immersion baptism, including a head-dunking.  Despite the apparent hokiness, it was obvious that the people being baptized regarded it as the high point of their journey.

On the way back, our guide pointed out the Horns of Hattin, the site of the momentous battle in which Saladin defeated the Crusader army in 1187, allowing him to retake Jerusalem.

Food and Drink

I found Israeli food to be quite enjoyable.  It basically followed a Mediterranean pattern (fish, olives, lots of vegetables) with the addition of Middle Eastern favorites (falafel, hummus) and some Eastern European imports (cottage cheese, dill pickles and beets).   Quality standards were high, although I found some of the local combinations (falafel with beets) a little strange.

Israeli wines were surprisingly good too, although it was odd to see names on the wine labels – Galilee, Bethlehem, Golan Heights – that you usually see in other, more political, contexts.

Tel Aviv is reputed to have the best food in Israel, but the best meal we had was at Uri Burri restaurant on the waterfront in Akko. We ate there our first night in Akko, and it was so good we came back for the last night too.  The restaurant prepared the superlative local fish and other local ingredients using techniques of fish cookery from all over the world, with remarkably felicitous results (e.g., fish “cured” in balsamic vinegar and beets tasted remarkably like miso-cured fish, while shrimp “ceviche” was enlivened with local lemons and cilantro).  On our second visit, we met Uri, a rotund fellow with twinkling eyes, merry dimples, and a long white beard – sort of a Levantine Santa Claus.  (On reconsideration, maybe I don’t need the adjective, since the original St. Nicholas, who was born in southern Italy and spent most of his life on the coast of what is now Turkey, was a Man of the Med.)

Sabattical in Italy

September 2012

Ted and I are taking advantage of a sabbatical program offered by his employer. We’re off to Italy for two months, starting tomorrow. We will have sporadic access to e-mail, but don’t expect to be posting much.

More photos of our trip can be found here.

We’ll be hitting big sights and small (Venice, Bolzano, Treviso, Ravenna, Ferrara, Monte Cassino, Paestum, Positano, Florence and Rome) and, except for the north-south transit, staying mostly in rentals (including a month in Florence).

In 1970, the summer I turned 17, I spent 45 days in Italy visiting the extended family of a high school friend. Prior to that trip, I had never been on an airplane, and, except for the Jersey Shore, had barely been out of NYC.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the trip changed the course of my life.  My very first day, I was taken to a church built before Columbus discovered America.  The art, the food, the way of life — I was hooked.

Ted and I took our first trip to Italy together in 1981. We have traveled many other places since then (France, Spain, Portugal and, more recently, Turkey and Japan). But when this opportunity to take a long trip presented itself, it didn’t take us long to decide that Italy would be our destination.Italy has its problems, lord knows. But the Italians seemed to have figured out something about living a satisfying urban life back in the 14th C — we can still learn from that.

Best Laid Plans

We arrived at Frankfurt airport to find ourselves in the middle of a wildcat strike by Lufthansa for which the airline (and us) were totally unprepared. 60% of Lufthansa’s flights were cancelled, but by some miracle ours took off only 3 hours late. We even made our dinner reservation at Corte Sconto, where we dined on a selection of unpronounceable seafood.

We are staying in an apartment in a residential area called Dorsoduro, about 15 minutes walk from St. Mark’s. The area is remarkably quiet – even the bells of the nearby church, which chime merrily all day, go silent at night.

The bridge over the little canal next to our place is so low that water taxi drivers have to duck their heads to get under. They seem to have a lot of practice doing that, not even bothering to stop their cell phone conversations.

As I type this Ted is making restaurant reservations by telephone. When did Ted learn to speak Italian?

Tomorrow is the historic Regatta. We hope to catch a glimps

Regatta Storico

On Sunday, we watched a parade of historic boats, which was part of the annual Regatta Storico (historic regatta). It’s not really that historic, by Venetian standards — only 116 years old. But it’s a good excuse for a party. We had been warned about the crowds, so we showed up about 2 hours ahead of time and found a shady spot on the steps of the Santa Maria Della Salute church. While we waited for the parade to begin, we watched later arrivals searching for seats and were “entertained” by modestly talented musicians. All in all, the experience was not unlike a Harvard graduation, with better costumes.

The parade began with a replica of the Bucintoro (Golden Boat), which was the ceremonial boat of the Doge.

Regatta Storico - Bucintoro

The parade of historic boats was followed by a series of boat races with different kinds of flat-bottomed boats. The “mascareta” was the boat favored by Venetian courtesans. So of courses this is the women’s race.

Regatta Storico - Mascaretas

Camera Mishap Survived

On Tuesday we had a potentially devastating camera mishap — the lens was corrupted by dust (probably from extended residence in Ted’s pocket). Ted was able to locate a camera store online. We visited in person, and the excellent salesman (who appeared to be the owner of the tiny establishment) sold us an even better camera. What did we ever do without the Tubes?

We paid our respects to the 4 horses of San Marco (now sensibly housed indoors) and had a Bellini at Harry’s Bar – perhaps not worth the 16 euro price, but at least they make it with real peach juice.

In the evening we saw La Traviata at La Fenice, a jewel box of an opera house where the opera was premiered in 1853. The cast was excellent and relatively young.  It’s always good when the woman who is supposed to be dying of consumption isn’t 250 pounds.

Venetian Horses

Another Day, Another Country

We are spending a few days in Bolzano, in a bilingual part of Italy that was part of Austria until after WW I and still seems more like Austria than Italy. The architecture may look Austrian, but the art (and the coffee) are definitely Italian.

They don’t get a lot of tourists here, so you can still take pictures if the 14th Century frescoes, There is just enough Germany here, though, to keep Ted happy.

English is definitely the third language here, so I’m getting to practice my Italian.

Bolzano is also the resting place of Otzi, the Iceman – the prehistoric hiker whose ice-preserved body was found in the mountains not far from here about 20 years ago. You can see his mummified body in a little box – it’s pretty creepy. The associated museum is quite interesting though.
This is a big wine-producing area (Alto Adige) and we’ll be tasting wine tomorrow.

Ted

Food Glorious Food

I haven’t talked much about the food here, but of course we are eating very well.
Some favorites:

  • Cigale del mare – small mollusks from the Venice lagoon; sort of like crayfish, only sweeter. Ted likes to call these “crickets of the sea” (cigale is Italian for cicada).
  • Broiled cuttlefish – better than it sounds.
  • Baccala mantecato – salt cod cooked in milk and served on toast.  Ditto.
  • Risotto buranello – cooked in stock made from tiny fish called “go” from the Venetian lagoon; a specialty of Burano.
  • Canederli  – crepes cut in strips and served in onion broth; Alto Adige’s answer to tortilla soup.
  • Treviso precoce – young (“precocious”) Treviso; not as bitter as the more mature version you usually see in the US.
  • Morlacco cheese – fresh lightly salted cows milk cheese from the Monte Grappa area. The name apparently comes from a community of “Morlacchi” that used to live in the area, but of course that name is not translated. Morlocks?

And of course, porcini season is just beginning.

The other day, in the town of Treviso, we saw what is believed to be the first portrayal of eyeglasses in Western art – 1352. Don’t ask me who made them – maybe Morlocks?

We’ll be on the road, going south, for the next couple of weeks, with uncertain Internet access.  So I’ll probably be posting less often.

Treviso

In the House of Giants

On our last day in the Bolzano area, we visited several local wineries, courtesy of our friend Eric Lecours, whom some of you may know.  Because of the variety of microclimates, they are able to grow a number of different grapes there, many of which are not commonly exported to the US.  One discovery was a bone-dry Gewurtztraminer, which they claim as the original version, named after the local town of Tremeno, Traminer in German.

Now we are staying for a week in a rented house in Monfumo, in the Veneto.

The house is owned by an American, who is apparently very tall and finished the house to her measure.  Everything from the kitchen shelves to the shower curtain is a real stretch for my short arms.

Yesterday we visited Vicenza, which has a lot of buildings by the 16th C architect Palladio.  His buildings influenced many English and early American architects.  This is Vila Rotonda, which is just outside Vicenza, but which might easily be mistaken for the US Supreme Court.

Vicenza

Justinian Time

We spent a couple of days in Ferrara, which was a nice place but severely impacted by an earthquake last spring.  The old city, much of it dating from the last severe earthquake in 1570, is largely built of brick, and many of the most important sites have been closed because of structural damage.  It is not clear when some of them will reopen – it may take years.

Yesterday we stopped for lunch in Comacchio, a small town close to the water, and Ted ate grilled eel, a local specialty.  I chickened out (actually, I ate shrimp).

We are now in Ravenna, a city with an amazing amount of really old stuff, some if it dating back to the 5th century.  Our B&B is 5 minutes’ walk from the famous mosaics of Justinian.

Tomorrow we head south, and we plan to visit the abbey of Monte Cassino on Sunday.

Here’s another photo from S. Appolinare in Classe, about 8 km outside of Ravenna.  When it was built, in the 9th C, this church was on the water.  Now that the harbor has silted up, it’s in the middle of a field.

Small Towns, Big History

We stayed for a couple of nights in Pico, a small town south of Rome which, unbeknownst to us, had been the HQ for the German high command in Italy in 1943 and early 1944.

Pico is not far from Monte Cassino, a 6th C Benedictine abbey which has been destroyed four times – by Lombards, Saracens, earthquake and Allied bombing – and rebuilt every time. Here is Ted in the rebuilt courtyard. As you can see, the scale of the place is huge. We were able to join a guided tour with a group of Benedictine monks from all over the world, and as a result got to see Benedict’s tomb behind the altar in the main church. The guide was happy to point out that, although a shell hit the tomb, it did not explode.

It only took a few hours of bombing to demolish the abbey, but it took 3 months of hard fighting to take the hill. There is a special cemetery for the Polish fighters, who took many casualties, nearby.

Yesterday we tasted wine with Bruno de Concilis. Unlike many Italian winemakers,whose roots go back generations, Bruno’s father was a chicken farmer, and the winemaking operation takes place in the old chicken raising facility. The family was a little startled when Bruno decided to open a winery, but things are OK now that he’s made a success of it. He may visit California next spring.

Today we visited Paestum, the oldest Greek site on the Italian mainland, with three 2500 year old temples in an amazing state of preservation.

Brief trip to the US

Actually, we are in Positano, but there are so many Americans here it seems as though we’ve left the country. I’ve even seen spaghetti and meatballs (not something Italians eat) on the menu.

Snark aside, this is a pretty spectacular place, built into the side of a mountain. People are friendly, and the food is good. I’m glad we came while we still can walk the 300 steps from the port to our hotel (this picture is taken from the staircase, about 1/2 way up). We did, however, pay a porter to take our bags up by minicab.

It’s also hotter here than we expected – nearly 90. Must be that mythical global warming. Ted had to break down and buy a pair of stylish Italian shorts (photo on request).

It’s wonderful here, but it’s like a movie version of Italy.

After leaving Positano, we spent three days in Amalfi, around 15 miles down the coast. Amalfi was a maritime republic in the 11th and 12th century, and has the Moorish-Norman cathedral to prove it. It faded pretty quickly, though, and after that the town, like most of southern Italy, missed every cultural advance since the Renaissance. It successfully reinvented itself as a tourist destination some decades ago, and today it is indeed an enchanted place. Unaccountably, the food was much better in Amalfi than in Positano – too many rich Republicans in P-town, I guess.

We took a day trip by boat to Capri, which has been a high-end resort since Emperor Augustus, no fool, built a summer residence there. Those islands behind us are called the Faragliones (Farallons). I have no idea why.

Yesterday we travelled from Salerno to Florence by high-speed train, which took about 3 hours. (Insert surly commentary about how it is the Italian government can do something we can’t.)

Our apartment in Florence, where we will spend the next month, is awesome – more on that later.