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.


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.


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.


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.