A Weekend in Umbria

We spent a weekend in Umbria, right on the other side of the mountains, visiting the lovely towns of Spoleto and Umbria.

Spoleto, founded as a Latin colony in the 3rd C BC, flourished in Roman times, and became part of the Papal States in the medieval era.

The Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta was begun in the 12th C and was significantly modified in the 17th C.  It is still possible to see the original stone floors and fragments of the original 13th C frescoes.

The cathedral is best known, however, for the magnificent 15th C frescoes by Filippo Lippi depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

Filippo Lippi, although dedicated to the church while still a child, quickly decided he would rather be a painter than a priest.  The monks allowed him to learn to paint, and eventually young Lippi made an independent career as a painter, with the support of the Medici family.  He led a somewhat disreputable life, eventually running off with a nun, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti.  The couple had a son, Filippino, who also grew up to be a painter.  Had Filippo lived a century earlier, or a century later, his story might have ended badly.  But he flourished in the relevantly tolerant atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, where much was forgiven because he painted so well.

The frescoes in Spoleto were Lippi’s last major works – he died when the work was nearly finished, and is buried in the cathedral.  Lippi used Lucrezia’s features for the face of the Virgin, as he often did, and painted himself in the crowd attending Mary at her death – that’s him in the black hat and white cape standing at her feet.  The young boy in white standing in front of Lippi may be Filippino.

The cathedral also includes a rare letter written by St. Francis of Assisi to a fellow monk.

Letter from St. Francis

Following the afternoon in Spoleto, we spent a day and a half in Orvieto, an ancient city which has been populated since Etruscan times.  Orvieto has one of the most famous cathedrals in Italy, with a distinctive white facade and exterior sculptures of great beauty.

The church is most famous today for the San Brizio chapel, which contains frescoes of the Last Judgment.  The work was begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli.

Fra Angelico is responsible for the depictions of the heavenly hosts, painted in typical masterly style.


I have always been more taken, though, with Signorelli’s imaginative contributions, depicting the Last Days as detailed in the Biblical book of Revelation

In one section, he shows us a preaching Antichrist that looks an awful lot like the real one.  Signorelli painted himself and Fra Angelico as two well-dressed gentlemen on the far left of the crowd listening to the false preacher.

One of the most fantastical sections depicts the Resurrection of the Dead, which under the Catholic doctrine of the day was interpreted as literal bodily resurrection.  We see the dead scrambling out of their coffins, some already with bodies, some just skeletons waiting for their bodies to be restored. It’s hard not to think of those skeletons, standing around and chatting while waiting for their tickets to paradise, as the genuinely Grateful Dead.


No Last Judgment cycle would be complete without a depiction of the torments of the damned, and Signorelli does not disappoint.  One poor woman, shown on the back of a demon going straight to hell, seems strangely familiar.  Indeed, her face often appeared in other works by Signorelli as the face of Mary Magdalen (an example of which is included in the museum next door).  This woman was Signorelli’s long-time girlfriend, who apparently got tired of waiting around in Orvieto for the artist to finish his masterwork, and left him.  Signorelli got his revenge, as only a painter for the ages could, by using her features to create a memorable portrait of a damned soul being carried off by a winged demon.

Many visitors to Orvieto come only to see the Cathedral, which is a shame, since Orvieto has many other interesting churches.

The church of San Domenico has a funerary monument by Arnolfo di Cambio, a gifted 13th C Florentine sculptor.  I was particularly taken by the little attendant on the side, carefully closing the drapes on the deceased, conveying a sense of vibrancy and motion unusual in this era.

Like many Dominican churches, this one features a dog carrying a torch.  In theory, this is because St. Dominic, a noted preacher, was sometimes known as “God’s torch.” But this is really a medieval play on words (God’s dogs, in Latin, is “Domini canes”).

We also visited the church of San Giovenale.  Begun in the 11th C, it is one of the oldest churches in Orvieto,  It contains frescoes from the 12th through 15th centuries, allowing you to view four centuries of Italian art history in a single space.

I was particularly intrigued by the late 13th C fresco depicting the conversion of St. Paul.  Many representations of this event focus on St. Paul falling from his horse, as though getting hit on the head is what made Paul see the light.   Here, we see only the heads of Jesus and the Saint, as though they were having a conversation – a conversion by reason, not by a show of force.


San Giovenale’s main altarpiece featured one of those wide-eyed supporters I always refer to as “wacky medievals.” I recently learned that the formal name for these guys is “telamon.” I like my name better.

St. Giovenale

Speaking of wacky, I have no idea what this guy is doing (found in the Duomo museum).


On Sunday afternoon, we had a group lunch organized by a gentleman in Ascoli who runs the Circolo Culinario Cuochi Pasticcioni.  The acronym, CCCP, recalls the name of the USSR in Cyrillic letters.  The group’s symbol is also strangely familiar, although the hammer and sickle have been replaced by a fist holding a fork.  The organizer studied in Russia as a young man and enjoys multilingual puns as much as his wacky medieval ancestors.  These days, he organizes group trips to restaurants, food festivals and other cultural events in central Italy.


This particular group lunch was held at Casa Vissani, a Michelin 2-star restaurant located on a country road between Orvieto and Todi.  The food was presented in a somewhat fanciful manner – check out those miniature veal chops – but still tasted like real food.  The room was spectacularly beautiful, and the wines were outstanding. There were only three English speakers in our group of 22, but as it well known and recently documented by scientific research (cites on request) your ability to speak a foreign language improves with your wine consumption – particularly if your listeners have been drinking too.  A good time was had by all.





Reflections on One Year in Italy

We came to Italy one year ago this week.   A few things have not gone as planned — I broke my wrist less than a week after I arrived, and spent the first two months with my arm in a cast.  For the most part, though, things here have been even better than we imagined.

Our apartment is spacious and comfortable.  Our landlady, whose home this was for 35 years, has been especially gracious in helping us deal with the inevitable issues of living in a new country.

We have had an easier time than we expected making friends here.  There is a small English-speaking community — most are American, but there are some Canadian and Irish folks too.  But we have also found it possible to socialize with the people who have lived here most of their lives.   At first, people expressed surprise that we left California to move here — we were kind of a curiosity.  Now they seem to have gotten used to us.

Acquiring facility with the language has also been easier than we imagined.  I had a basic knowledge of Italian grammar based on studying it in high school many years ago.  And I could understand people who spoke to me slowly and clearly.  But I was terrified of speaking, particularly on the telephone, for fear I might make a mistake.  I had to get over that pretty quickly, though, because most people here don’t speak English.  If you want to get things done, particularly with the bureaucracy, you have to learn to communicate in Italian.  Fortunately, people are very accommodating with my fumbling attempts — I’m sure I sound like a second grader, but no one seems to mind.

Ted has made even more progress.  He knew only a few words of Italian when we arrived, but with the aid of private lessons he’s made enough progress that he recently passed the written test for a driver’s license in Italian — not an easy thing here, even for Italians.

The food is also better than we expected.  We seem to have stumbled into something of a food paradise here.   Although much of the terrain in the Marche and nearby Abruzzo is mountainous, a lot of fruits and vegetables are raised in the local valleys.  Green vegetables are available all winter — some winter vegetables, like spinach and chard, are well known to us, while others, like cicoria and agretti, are new.  Food is hyper-local here — you can buy locally raised chicken and lamb in the supermarket, as well as locally made bread, cheese and salumi (the generalized name for cold cuts). The porchetta truck (whole roast pig) rolls in once a week, and they sell roast chickens as well.  You can buy fresh pasta from several local stores.  The local fish market sells a wide variety of Adriatic seafood; San Benedetto del Tronto, about half an hour from here, is a major fish distribution center.  And all of the food, particularly the vegetables, costs much less here than we were paying in California.  The wine is very reasonably priced too although, as with the food, most of it is locally produced.

Ascoli is a city of about 50,000 — about the same size as Palo Alto.  But unlike Palo Alto or many other American suburbs, which are parts of major metropolitan areas, Ascoli is one of the largest towns in what is still a region of small villages and rural farms.  Most of the people who live here, work here, and vice versa.  That means you might run into your real estate agent outside the gommista (tire shop), your pharmacist in the square,  your fish vendor at the bank. And when you see them, you smile and nod and, if there’s time (as there often is) you strike up a small conversation.  That’s been one of the biggest and most unexpected differences between living here and living in the US.  In the US, no one has time to talk to you.  Here, almost every encounter is the opportunity for a small social interaction.  It’s nice.

Cathedral Tour

We recently completed a 12-day tour of England, our first trip outside Italy since we moved here last fall.  We have a particular interest in “Gothic” cathedrals, of which there are many more in England than there are in Italy.  So we combined visits to old friends in Oxford and London with visits to come notable cathedrals.

But First — Ostia Antica

Since it takes about three hours to drive from Ascoli to Rome, we decided to head down the night before our flight to London and spend an afternoon at Ostia Antica, which is close to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

Ostia was ancient Rome’s Mediterranean port.  Since the Tiber basin silted up over the centuries, the ancient site is now several kilomaters from the coast.  However, it is still possible to see the streets of the old city today much as they appeared in the late Imperial era.  Ostia was a working class town, largely populated by mariners, longshoremen and itinerant sailors, which probably explains the large number of taverns.  The town also had an unusual number of public bathing facilities (few of the inhabitants had villas with their own water supply).  You can still see the mosaic floors of many of these bath houses, many with whimsical designs.

There is also a small museum, with high-quality Roman sculptures.


In the Middle Ages, Lincoln was the seat of the largest diocese in England, and was the site of the country’s first French-style Gothic cathedral (probably inspired by its bishop, who was a Frenchman). An older cathedral, in Romanesque style, had been built on the site shortly after the Norman Conquest, but it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in the next century.  The current cathedral was started in 1190, around the same time as Chartres, although the spire was not completed until about 1350.  For about 200 years after that, the cathedral was the tallest building in Europe (and maybe the world) until the spire blew off in a hurricane in the 16th C.  The spire was not replaced.

Like many cathedrals in England, Lincoln Cathedral suffered significant damage during the Cromwell era.  Most of the stained glass windows were destroyed.  There are bits and pieces of the original glass in the rose windows, although the original design has been lost.  Most of the windows seen today are 19th C reproductions.  Fortunately, most of the magnificent stonework, the true glory of this cathedral, was not damaged.  The master mason is believed to have depicted himself in one of the sculptures, noted by his mason’s cap and (hard to see in the photo) tiny representations of his masons’ tools behind his ear.

We forget, sometimes, what technological marvels these cathedrals were, given the tools of the day.  Everything, even the nails, had to be made by hand.  Modern visitors can take a “roof tour,” where you can go up in the rafters and see some of the original beams (which today are reinforced, but which are still doing most of the load bearing work).  From the rafters, you can also get a good look at where the “newer” church, started from the altar at the east end, joined the older church portal at the western side.  The two sides don’t quite meet up, and from the upper level you can see the little “jog” they made to make the two parts join.

We also visited Lincoln Castle, just across the courtyard from the Cathedral.  This courtyard was the site of the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, which some historians have called the most important battle on English soil after Hastings.


A few months after King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, he convinced the Pope to annul the agreement, on the grounds that he had signed it under duress.  A few months after that, he was dead, succeeded by his 9-year old son, Henry III.  A number of English barons, who at that time owned property on both sides of the Channel, threatened to switch their allegiance to the king of France.  The regent, William Marshall, had the brilliant idea of offering restoring the Magna Carta, which gave the barons a number of rights vis-a-vis the sovereign, as an inducement to stay with England.

A group of barons nevertheless wanted to switch over their allegiance, and under the command of Prince Louis (later Louis VIII of France) they laid siege to Lincoln Castle.  The attackers held the high ground — the narrow space between the castle and the cathedral, on top of a steep hill (today called, oddly enough, Steep Hill) which they thought no one could fight their way up. Under cover of nightfall, William Marshall and a small armed force sneaked in the back side of the castle on foot.  When the English forces streamed out of the castle the next morning, the surprised besiegers found their “high ground” was a trap.  Forced into close combat at the cathedral door, they eventually retreated down Steep Hill, got back in their boats, and hightailed it back to France, never to return.

Sometimes great moments in history hang by a thread.


King’s College, started by Henry VI in the 15th C, was designed to provide higher education for young men with more promise than money.  The associated Chapel, begun by Henry VI, was  finished a century later by Henry VIII.  The design work — the sculpted coats of arms, the stained-glass windows and, especially, the magnificent fan-vaulting of the ceiling — is stunning.  Even Cromwell couldn’t bring himself to destroy the stained glass here (perhaps because there are more kings depicted here than martyrs and saints.)  The large central wooden screen celebrates the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (see the inscriptions “HR” and “HA”).

King’s College is famous for its “evensong,” a choral service held almost every evening which highlights the church’s awesome acoustics.  The service was in English, but the choral works, quite surprisingly to me, were sung in Latin.

And was that wild flower up in the King’s College tower: Scotch broom; known in medieval times as “plantagenet” (e.g., sprig of broom)?  I couldn’t find anyone to confirm, but I suspect an (unofficial?) horticultural tribute to Henry VI.



Ely, only a short train trip from Cambridge, has a stunning cathedral known more for its size than its ethereal beauty.  Oliver Cromwell grew up in Ely, so he made rather a point of stripping it of its decoration, even decapitating the statues of saints.

The cathedral was restored in the 19th C, but here, instead of reconstructing the medieval decoration, they decorated the ceilings and windows with then-popular pre-Raphaelite designs.  Not everybody, then or now, is happy with this period juxtaposition, but I rather liked it.

Ely also offers a tower tour, which gives a close-up view of some of the 19th C art.  The tower was originally designed for a choir — the monks would climb the narrow staircase and sing from the windows strategically placed around the inside of the tower.  These days, if you get married in the cathedral, you can arrange to have confetti dropped from rafters — but it takes a bit of math to compute how long it will take for the confetti to reach the ground from such a height.


Maybe I was suffering from cathedral overload, but I found this the least architecturally interesting of the three cathedrals we visited, perhaps because its interior had suffered the most damage over the centuries. The cathedral is, of course, of great historical importance.  Totally by accident, we entered the cathedral through the “murderer’s door”- the same door by which Thomas Becket’s assassins entered.  In medieval times, Canterbury was a major pilgrimage site where travelers from distant lands came to seek healing or forgiveness of sins from Saint Thomas.  Henry VIII was having none of that in his unitary monarchy: he was both the church and state.  Thus he despoiled the magnificent shrine dedicated to Becket’s memory.  Today it is memorialized only by candles on the pavement.





A Short Trip to Trani

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

For your amusement, here are some gargolyes.



Revolutionary Art

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

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

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

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


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

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


Masson: Goethe or the metamorphosis of plants


Magritte: The Castle of the Pyrenees

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


David Alfaro Siqueiros: Christ Destroys the Cross

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

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


Borromini Altar

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



Bentivoglio Chapel

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


Early Michelangelo


Domini canes

And of course, there was the food….

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).



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.


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"?


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.


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.


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


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)


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


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


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.


(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).


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.


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


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.


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.


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?


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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!